Saturday, January 2, 2016

NFL Week 17 Primer (With Picks): The Long And Winding Road

Teddy Bridgewater's Vikings and Aaron Rodger's Packers will close out the regular season at Lambeau Field with the NFC North title on the line.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Well, it's been fun.

Week 16 kicked our collective ass. It was by far our worst week of the year, which followed what was Joe's best week (12-2-2 in Week 15 - Jeremy's best week was a 13-2-1 Week 1 that he's been riding ever since). Luckily, we both currently sit more than 16 games above .500, so even a catastrophic winless end to the season would leave us better than a coinflip for the year, so we're excited about that.

It's been a weird year.

There are 32 teams in the league, but only 12 are rated as above average by Pro Football Reference. It means there are a lot of really, really good teams, a lot of bad teams, and a few really, really bad teams, but no "slightly-above-average" teams. The middle class in the NFL largely disappeared this year. It's populated by St. Louis, Buffalo, Oakland, and, well, that's about it.

There's just an enormous gap between the top six AFC teams (New England, Denver, Cincinnati, Kansas City, New York, Pittsburgh) and everyone else, just like there's an enormous gap between the top five in the NFC (Carolina, Arizona, Green Bay, Seattle, Minnesota) and everyone else. It drops straight from "teams with a semi-realistic chance or better to at least reach their conference championship game" to "outright garbage who doesn't belong in the playoffs, even a little bit."

It's a little bizarre.

The six NFC Playoff teams have already been decided. But the seedings have not. Let's run through them now (I'm not going to get into what happens if two teams tie this week - I refuse to do it):

CAROLINA: Clinches the No. 1 seed with a win or Arizona loss. They've already clinched at least the No. 2 seed.

ARIZONA: Clinches the No. 1 seed with a win and a Carolina loss. They've already clinched at least the No. 2 seed

GREEN BAY: Clinches the No. 3 seed with a win. They've already clinched at least the No. 5 seed.

WASHINGTON: Locked into the No. 4 seed

SEATTLE: Clinches the No. 5 seed with a win and a Green Bay win.

MINNESOTA: Clinches the No. 3 seed with a win, Clinches the No. 5 seed with a Seattle loss.

The AFC is murkier, as you will see:

NEW ENGLAND: Clinches the No. 1 seed with a win or Denver loss. They've already clinched at least the No. 2 seed.

DENVER: Clinches the No. 1 seed with a win and a New England loss. Clinches the No. 2 seed with a win and a New England win. Clinches the No. 3 seed with a loss, a Cincinnati win, and a Kansas City loss. Clinches the No. 5 seed with a loss, a Kansas City win, and a New York Jets loss. Clinches the No. 6 seed with a loss, a Kansas City win, and a New York Jets win.

CINCINNATI: Clinches the No. 2 seed with a win and a Denver loss. They've already clinched at least the No. 3 seed.

KANSAS CITY: Clinches the No. 3 seed with a win and a Denver loss. Clinches the No. 5 seed with a win and a Denver win. Clinches the No. 6 seed with a loss and a New York Jets win.

NEW YORK JETS: Clinches the No. 6 seed with a win or Pittsburgh loss and a Kansas City win. Clinches the No. 5 seed with a win and a Kansas City loss.

PITTSBURGH: Clinches the No. 6 seed with a win and a New York Jets loss.

INDIANAPOLIS: Clinches the No. 4 seed with a win, a Houston loss, and wins by Atlanta, Baltimore, Buffalo, Denver, Miami, Oakland, and Pittsburgh (which would trigger an Indianapolis tie-breaker in strength of schedule).

HOUSTON: Clinches the No. 4 seed with a win or Indianapolis loss.

You get all that? Okay, good.

Game(s) of The Week:

New York Jets at Buffalo (1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS)

The Rex Ryan Bowl! Don't you think Rex Ryan wants to spoil a playoff spot for the Jets? I certainly do.

Seattle at Arizona (4:25 p.m. Sunday, FOX)

Seattle has a chance to sorta-kinda play spoiler (preventing Arizona from clinching the No. 1 seed), and the NFL smartly scheduled kickoff for both Arizona and Carolina at 4:25, so Arizona will be forced to play their starters. And Seattle has something to play for, as they need to get to 10-6 to give themselves a chance at the No. 5 seed. I'm sure they'd much rather play Washington in Round 1 than Green Bay.

Minnesota at Green Bay (8:30 p.m. Sunday, NBC)

Pretty simple. Winner takes the NFC North and the No. 3 seed that goes with it. Wins by Green Bay and Seattle could create an awkward scenario where the Packers and Vikings end up playing two weeks in a row for the second time in four years (the same exact thing happened in 2012).

Here Are The Picks We Agree On (Home Teams In CAPS)

New England (-10) over MIAMI

JC: The Patriots have been quite cautious with injuries over the last month or so, but I expect them to try to get everyone they can back in the fold in order to be ready for the playoffs. Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Devin McCourty, Josh Kline, Rob Ninkovich, and Patrick Chung are all listed as questionable, but will all need to be in sync two weeks from now in the divisional round. If they suit up for a few dozen snaps each, the Patriots should be able to handle a disappointing Miami team.

JP: New England would still like to lock up the No. 1 seed, and at least feel good about itself heading into the postseason. The Dolphins have been mentally done for weeks, and it would be pretty odd for them to put up a fight now.

New Orleans (+5.5) over ATLANTA

JC: Atlanta beats Carolina and all of a sudden they're back to being legit? I don't buy it. Let's not forget that this is the same Atlanta team that lost six games in a row and had several close shaves prior to that. The Saints are healthier, they have a more consistent offense, and they shouldn't be getting more than a field goal in this game.

JP: All that, plus I like the idea of Drew Brees having a big game before an offseason where the Saints will ask him - the greatest player in their franchise's otherwise crummy history - to take a pay cut.

Baltimore (+9.5) over CINCINNATI

JC: Has Cincinnati done anything in the last three weeks that suggests they should be favored by 10 points against anybody? Baltimore is the best bad team out there - they've hung with just about everybody this year, and Ryan Mallet appeared somewhat competent last week. Until Cincinnati can muster more than 300 yards of offense without Andy Dalton, I'm happy to bet against them.

JP: I have crazy mixed feelings about this one, and I think that half-point is what's causing me to take the Ravens, who played the role of spoiler against Pittsburgh last week, and would love to cost another divisional opponent playoff positioning. 

Pittsburgh (-10) over CLEVELAND

JC: Pittsburgh needs a win for a chance to make the playoffs, Cleveland needs a loss for a chance at the No. 1 pick. It's really a match made in heaven.

JP: The Steelers will likely put it all together and blow out Cleveland, because that's what Pittsburgh does, but it's probably a week too late for their playoff hopes.

Jacksonville (+6.5) over HOUSTON

JC: Look, you guys - Jacksonville really isn't THAT bad. When their offense gets going, they *really* get going. And it's not like Houston exactly lights up the scoreboard. Brian Hoyer is back, but is he really that much of an upgrade? I vote no.

JP: The Jags are a really fun (sorta) bad team, and their receivers have pretty much salvaged all my fantasy seasons. For that reason alone, I'll take Jacksonville to at least keep it close with the underwhelming (probable) future AFC South champions.

Tennessee (+6) over INDIANAPOLIS

JC: It was tough to find a line on this game, kind of like how it's tough for Indianapolis to find a healthy quarterback. True story - they signed Josh Freeman this week. That's enough for me to swing towards Tennessee.

JP: Man have there been a lot of quarterback injuries this year. Indy needs a win to (barely) stay alive, but I just can't give a touchdown when the Colts' starting quarterback (and backup Ryan Lindley) only has a week to learn the offense.

Washington (+4) over DALLAS

JC: I don't understand this line at all. Are people expecting Washington to just sit everyone because they're already locked into the No. 4 seed? I'm not sure I can remember a team ever doing that. I could understand a team locked into the No. 1 seed not wanting anyone to get injured, but if you're a crappy division winner, why even bother? Wouldn't you want to keep the rhythm going, anyway? And even if Washington is planning on playing Robert Griffin or Colt McCoy, those guys are both respectably professional quarterbacks who have experienced some level of success in the NFL. And furthermore, they're playing the Cowboys, who have averaged a whopping 13.1 points over their last seven games.

JP: The whole "Washington has nothing to play for" thought process I would take more seriously if this were a veteran and playoff tested team. Washington is neither, and I'd expect it to try and keep up a head of steam heading into the postseason. Plus, it would probably be nice to end the year beating up on a rival.

NEW YORK GIANTS (-3) over Philadelphia

JC: Philadelphia has burned me for the last time.

JP: The "interim coach bump" could give Philly an edge, but this will probably be the Giants winning to save Tom Coughlin's job.

Tampa Bay (+10.5) over CAROLINA

JC: Don't look now but Carolina is only 1-3 against the spread over the last month. The lines might be catching up with them. I don't think they'll mess around enough to lose the game outright, but that half-point is scaring me a little bit.

JP: Ditto. That half-point made the decision for me.

KANSAS CITY (-6.5) over Oakland

JC: Kansas City has won nine games in a row and mathematically can win the AFC West. I feel like not enough people are talking about this. THIS TEAM STARTED 1-5. WHAT IS GOING ON?

JP: The Chiefs will be scary heading into the playoffs, and I'd expect them to smash Oakland in the hopes that Denver slips up. 

DENVER (-8.5) over San Diego

JC: 2015 marks the second time that Phil Rivers has thrown for over 4,500 yards without a single receiver breaking the 1000-yard mark. There's a 100 percent chance that 30 years from now he'll be remembered as the most underrated quarterback of his era.

True story: he has a higher career passer rating than Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner, and Joe Montana, and he's less than a point behind Drew Brees and Tom Brady. Just food for thought. That being said, the team around him sucks and Denver should take care of business here.

JP: The Broncos NEED this win because this team, particularly this defense, is built to win at home. They're also built to play with a lead, which is something I think they'll do for all of Sunday's game.

Seattle (+6.5) over ARIZONA

JC: Both teams have something tangible to play for, but Seattle's is more realistic (Green Bay is way more likely to beat Minnesota than Tampa Bay is to beat Carolina), and Seattle is still a really, really good team. This line should be closer to a field goal than to a touchdown.

JP: I think these might be the two scariest teams in the NFC right now, even with last week's Seattle letdown considered. I'll take the points and the Seahawks to bounce back.

St. Louis (-3.5) over SAN FRANCISCO

JC: The Rams' defense has been cooking of late, and they've won three straight. They're going up against a team that has averaged just 275 yards of offense over their last nine games. But sure, firing Jim Harbaugh was the right move.

JP: Remember when Jim Tomsula, in an effort to be the anti-Harbaugh, allowed the Niners players to set the training camp schedule, and gave them breaks every 30 minutes during meetings to check their phones? That was kinda funny.

He ain't no Jim Harbaugh, that's for sure.

GREEN BAY (-3) over Minnesota

JC: If you look at Aaron Rodgers' numbers this year, this has been, by far, the worst season of his career. And yet, it's also statistically better than every year of Joe Flacco's career. And Eli Manning's career, except one. And Andy Dalton's career, excluding this season. That's how good Aaron Rodgers is. Green Bay has had a disappointing offensive season, but their defense has stepped up, and they deserve the NFC North crown.

JP: The Packers aren't losing the division to an inferior team at Lambeau... I don't think.

Here are the Games We Disagree On (Home Team Still in CAPS)

JC: BUFFALO (+3) over New York Jets

I'll cop to it - I'm just rooting for this to happen so that the Jets miss the playoffs and the Steelers make it. I just think the Steelers are the better team and deserve to compete for a Super Bowl. The Jets have the worst strength of schedule in the league. Their only win over a team with a winning record was over a banged-up Patriots team in overtime. Plus, I love the idea of Rex Ryan spoiling their playoff hopes. This will just be a fun game.

JP: New York Jets (-3) over BUFFALO

As a Steelers fan, I would love for you to be right, but I just don't see it happening. The Jets aren't a juggernaut, but they run the ball well, play great defense, and have a pair of outside receivers that can beat single coverage. In the beaten and battered AFC, that's good enough for a playoff berth, and I don't see them letting their foot off the gas after an emotional win over New England last week.

JC: CHICAGO (Pick'em) over Detroit

I pick Chicago.

JP: Detroit (Pick'em) over CHICAGO

I don't.

I feel like I should disagree with you more to make this last week of our battle more interesting, but we seem to be of one mind this week. Of course, we mostly were last week and that didn't work out.

Oh well, I guess I'll pay extra attention to this Detroit-Chicago game, only for these purposes.

Jeremy's Record:
Last Week: 5-11
Season: 125-108-7
Last Week's Disagreements: 2-2
Season's Disagreements: 31-32-2

Joe's Record:
Last Week: 5-11
Season: 126-107-7
Last Week's Disagreements: 2-2
Season's Disagreements: 32-21-2

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