It’s only fitting that Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers was cleared to play for Sunday’s winner-take-all battle in the NFC North at Chicago. It was the Bears who originally broke Rodgers’ collarbone all the way back in Week 9 and #12 hasn’t been seen from since.
The comeback brings everything full circle. And in a year where the State Farm commercials featuring Rodgers show him being harangued by Bears’ fans, the timing of the quarterback’s return becomes even more ironic.
Green Bay-Chicago is one of two win-or-go-home games that highlight the NFL Week 17 schedule. The Packers-Bears set the table in the late afternoon for the prime-time fare that will be Philadelphia-Dallas in the NFC East. Injuries at the quarterback position have dominated headlines in that game as well, with Tony Romo only given a small percentage chance of being under center for the Cowboys thanks to a back injury.
TheSportsNotebook will review NFL Week 17 as we have each week leading up to this. We’ll break down the day by the TV schedule, and look at the moneylines for each game—the odds of each team winning outright, as expressed in $100 betting increments. And as I’ve done all year I’ll make a woefully flawed pick. My moneyline record after 16 weeks is (-2900), so we need a dramatic surge to the finish.
Green Bay (-165) Chicago (+145) (4:25 PM ET, Fox): Even with Rodgers healthy and the Packers a road favorite, injuries still loom over them. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews is out after re-injuring his thumb, and Eddie Lacy hasn’t practice all week after an ankle injury towards the end of last week’s loss to Pittsburgh.
Chicago’s own injury problem is that starting quarterback Jay Cutler is healthy. Josh McCown was decidedly superior in his own starts when Cutler was out, and the Bears were nothing short of a disgrace last Sunday night in Philadelphia when Chicago could have clinched the NFC North. Whether the Bears lose this game remains to be seen, but we can surely say this—they deserve to.
I’m not ready to assume that Rodgers is just going to be magically be sharp, but I am ready to assume that Lacy will play and I don’t believe Chicago can tackle him. This is a soft Bears team and while the Packer defense has more than their share of flaws, they’re at least getting some takeaways in recent weeks. That’s why I’m picking Green Bay to clinch the NFC North.
Philadelphia (-250) Dallas (+210) (8:30 PM ET, NBC): Kyle Orton is the man we’re assuming will quarterback Dallas on Sunday night, as the Cowboys try to avoid losing a winner-take-all game in prime-time for the third consecutive year, each one to a different rival in the NFC East.
There’s no reason, short of homefield advantage, to pick the Cowboys. The defense is terrible, the Philadelphia offense is clicking, with LeSean McCoy dominating on the ground and Nick Foles playing with smooth efficiency in the passing game. The Eagles have respectable pass rushers on the outside in linebackers Trent Cole and Connor Barwin.
It’s going to take an exceptional football game from the Dallas defense, namely defensive end Demarcus Ware. And this at a time when Cowboy Nation has just been hoping for mediocre, never mind exceptional.
But…this is just shaping up a little too easy for Philadelphia and winning a game like this on the road is never easy. Orton stepped into a starting job in Kansas City at the end of 2011 and he beat then-undefeated Green Bay in December and went on the road to beat Denver at the height of Tebow-Mania when the Broncos were trying to clinch the division. The stage won’t frighten Orton.
I’m going to take a flyer on an upset and say that this is how Romo manages to get bad press in this season—that his team’s biggest win comes with a backup quarterback.
LATE AFTERNOON ON CBS
Both CBS & Fox have doubleheaders for the regular season finales. CBS will focus its 4:25 PM ET telecasts on the fight for the #1 seed in the AFC. Denver can lock it up with a win. New England stands in waiting and the Patriots aren’t yet home free for the 2-spot and a first-round bye. Each team goes in the late window, with the Broncos going to most of the country.
Denver (-580) Oakland (+435): Terrelle Pryor is going to start at quarterback for Oakland and his agent is griping that head coach Dennis Allen wants Pryor to fail. I’m going to take that as a subtle hint that Pryor and the Raiders aren’t entirely focused. Denver sews up the #1 seed for the second straight year.
Buffalo (+320) New England (-400): The Patriots will know by the time they take the field if the first-round bye is at stake, pending how Cincinnati does in the early games. By rights, the Pats should easily beat Buffalo at home, but I’m not ready to sleep on the Bills.
They’ve won two straight, including shutting out playoff hopeful Miami last week. Buffalo is playing to get to 7-9, something that would be a nice first year for head coach Doug Marrone. From a matchup standpoint, they have the #5 pass defense in the NFL and New England without Rob Gronkowski has struggled to get receivers open for Tom Brady.
So does “not ready to sleep on the Bills” equate to picking them to win? Not quite, but I think this one is going to be good.
NATIONAL GAMES IN THE EARLY WINDOW
Both of these games will be seen by large parts of the country…
Baltimore (+205) Cincinnati (-245) (1 PM ET, CBS): The Ravens need to win this game and then have either Miami or San Diego lose. Both Baltimore and Cincinnati have good defenses and quarterbacks who throw interceptions. Andy Dalton has shown a greater capacity for explosiveness this season, while Joe Flacco has a demonstrated ability to play big in tough moments like this.
It’s big for Cincinnati, as they angle for playoff seeding, but it’s monumental for Baltimore. I don’t know if the defending champs will make it back to the postseason, but I’ll pick the Ravens to have at least one more big performance.
Carolina (-265) Atlanta (+220) (1 PM ET, Fox): I’ve praised Atlanta throughout the stretch drive for their competitive integrity in refusing to quit amidst a lost season that has them at 4-11 after being one play from the Super Bowl a year ago. Even playing at home, I wonder if last Monday night in San Francisco might have finally drained the Falcons of competitive juice.
San Francisco was the team that had denied Atlanta the Super Bowl and surely there was some revenge motivation, as the Falcons nearly pulled the upset. Now they’re on a short week and playing a team looking to wrap up the NFC South, the #2 seed and keep its hopes alive for the top spot in the NFC bracket.
And finally there’s this—as much as they fight, Atlanta just isn’t good defensively, they have problems on the offensive line, they’re without Julio Jones and Matt Ryan is just stuck in a rut of throwing critical interceptions. It’s the problem of all season, it did them in on Monday and it will do them in against Carolina.
SIX MORE GAMES WITH PLAYOFF IMPLICATIONS
NY Jets (+195) Miami (-230): The Dolphins have the best chance of the four contenders for the AFC’s final playoff spot, including Baltimore, San Diego and Pittsburgh. None control their destiny, but unlike Baltimore, Miami has a manageable home game.
The Dolphins, presuming they take care of business, would just need either a Ravens loss or a Chargers win (the rationale here being that with all three teams at 8-7, Miami wins a three-way tie, they win a two-way tie with San Diego and lose a two-way tie with Baltimore).
But should we presume the Dolphins will take care of business. They spit the bit last week in Buffalo, losing 19-0, while the Jets got a good running game and ran over Cleveland. I’m not expecting Miami to play well, but given the ability of Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon to pressure the passer, I’m guessing they force New York quarterback Geno Smith into 2-3 interceptions and win ugly.
Kansas City (+340) San Diego (-430): Kansas City is locked into the #5 seed, which explains why they’re such a substantial road underdog at San Diego. The Chargers need a win, and both Miami and Baltimore to lose to snag the #6 seed.
I’d like to say I think they’ll get it, but Kansas City has shown no inclination to rest their starters (though Tamba Hali’s sore knee may end up in him sitting down). There may be a little revenge, as the Chargers won in Kansas City earlier this season, and after looking bad in a home loss to Indianapolis last week, Andy Reid might want his Chiefs to focus and play well going into next week’s first-round games.
When you combine all of that with the big moneyline risk there is going with the favorite, and it points me to picking the Chiefs.
Cleveland (+255) Pittsburgh (-310): The Steelers need outside linebacker Jason Wordlis healthy from an abdomen injury, as they try and pressure Cleveland quarterback Jason Campbell and prevent him from hooking up with Josh Gordon. The Browns seem to have a lost a lot of their competitiveness in recent weeks and I’m picking Pittsburgh. The Steelers need the Grand Slam Parlay of a win, plus losses by San Diego, Miami and Baltimore to make the playoffs at 8-8.
Tampa Bay (+490) New Orleans (-675): Tampa Bay, like Cleveland, seems to have lost some of their underdog fire in recent weeks. In both cases, the decline began right around the point when I started picking them. To the dismay of Saints fans, I’m reversing course today.
New Orleans has played itself into a must-win spot at home. A loss puts them in danger of missing the playoffs, while they also have a chance at the division title and 2-seed if Carolina loses. We know how different the Saints and Drew Brees are at home and with Tampa Bay fading again, the favorite is worth the price.
San Francisco (-120) Arizona (+100): Both teams need help in games that will go on in the same late afternoon window that this one kicks off in. The Cardinals need the Saints to lose in order to have a chance at the playoffs. The 49ers are in the postseason, but need the Seahawks to lose to win the NFC West. And if Carolina and Seattle both lose, the Niners can move up to the #1 seed.
Arizona is the best team in football over the second half of the season and Bruce Arians is making his case to catch Andy Reid for Coach of the Year. The Cardinals are the best in the NFL at stopping the run. Colin Kaepernick has stepped up admirably in games where the Niners have needed his arm recently, but on the road against this defense won’t be one of them. Arizona wins it.
St. Louis (+420) Seattle (-550): The odds of Seattle losing a second straight home game to a division opponent are pretty long (well, they’re -550 to be exact). They played well defensively in last week’s loss to Arizona and I expect the Seahawks D to force Kellen Clemens into mistakes and to make Zac Stacy’s life miserable.
The bigger-picture question will be how the Seattle offense bounces back from its awful showing against a defense that can bring it with the front four. I’m sure Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch & Co. don’t want to close with two straight subpar games, leading into a week off and having to open the postseason without having played a good offensive game in a month.
FOUR MEANINGLESS GAMES
Jacksonville (+410) Indianapolis (-520): I suppose this game isn’t literally meaningless. Indianapolis can move from the 4-seed to the 3-seed if Cincinnati were to lose. But in either case that means no first-round bye, while still opening the playoffs at home. The bracket has no obviously advantageous position to be and the 3 and 4 seeds have met in a conference championship game just twice in league history (1987 and 2006).
Now that I’ve thoroughly debunked the game, I still expect the Colts to make that hefty moneyline worthwhile on their home field.
Houston (+235) Tennessee (-285): The Titans took care of Jacksonville last week behind balanced running from Chris Johnson and Shonn Greene, so I guess I’ll trust them to do it again at home as a solid favorite. A win gets them to 7-9 which becomes a good case for Mike Munchak keeping his job in a year where Jake Locker was hurt most of the way.
Detroit (+115) Minnesota (-135): Yes, the Lions have really sunk this low. Not only are they out of the playoffs, but they’re underdogs at Minnesota. Detroit’s Thanksgiving Day thrashing of Green Bay seems like ages ago. I took a chance on the Vikings at Cincinnati last week, getting carried away with what Minnesota might do on the road. Now that they’re back at home, I’ll take the Vikes to put the Jim Schwartz Era out of its misery.
Washington (+155) NY Giants (-180): At the start of the season these were the teams I picked to finish 10-6, a scenario that would have likely turned this into the flexed Sunday Night Game. Instead, it’s flexed into this last spot on TheSportsNotebook’s list of games to review. Regular readers know I’m a ‘Skins fan and have put up with my rants all year. I’m consoled by this fact—my belated Christmas gift probably comes by late afternoon when Mike Shanahan gets fired. No prediction here.