Saturday, December 30, 2017

NFL Week 17 Primer (With Picks): It All Comes Down to This (For Now)

The fate of Tennessee, and our yearly pick'em challenge, could rest on the arm (and legs) of Titans QB Marcus Mariota.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Normally, this is the place where Jeremy would wax poetic about how close he and I are in our annual pick'em challenge (this is Joe, btw). Heck, he'd probably even give you playoff/bye/homefield clinching scenarios for everybody before we got into the picks.

But Jeremy is on the road, so I'm gonna give you the short version:

We've done our pick'em challenge for five years now, and I always win. It's always close, but I always win. This whole season I was winning, until Jeremy jumped back in front by a single game last week, but have no fear, I will win again. I'm 4-0 headed for 5-0, my friends.

Jeremy will then point out that I keep winning by such a small margin that it is statistically insignificant, and that neither of us is good enough to pick games for a living, but so what? I'm gonna win. Calling my shot.

(Jeremy's Note: If you notice the records at the bottom of this page, we enter Week 17 at a tie, despite the fact that I, Jeremy, hold a one-game lead on "disagreements." That's because through a fluke of lines moving, we ended up disagreeing on New England's Week 5 win over Tampa Bay - Jeremy took the Bucs at +5.5, but then after Gronk was ruled out later in the day, Joe took the Patriots at -4, and the final margin saw the Patriots win by 5. So, we're technically tied, but also technically, I technically hold a one game lead.)

Anyways, about that whole playoff thing- Here's a lightning round.

New England locks up the top seed in the AFC with a win over the Jets, but Pittsburgh can still claim that spot with a win and Patriots loss. The Steelers aren't really banking on that though, as it looks like they will rest Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and several other key players against the Browns Sunday.

The other two AFC division winners, Jacksonville in the South and Kansas City in the West, are locked into the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds, respectively. Each will host a playoff game on Wild Card weekend, but they don't yet know their opponents, since four teams are still battling it out for two Wild Card spots.

It's a "win and you're in" scenario for both Baltimore (hosting Cincinnati) and Tennessee (hosting Jacksonville), which would seem elementary with the Bengals playing for nothing, and Jacksonville likely to rest some players before the playoffs begin.

However, these are divisional games, and the Bengals showed some life in a win against Detroit last week, so let's keep ourselves open to possibilities. If one of these teams loses, that would open the door for the Los Angeles Chargers (hosting Oakland) and the Buffalo Bills (at Miami). Those scenarios get incredibly screwy, due to tie-breakers, so check out this graphic from NFL Research to see when each of those respective squads would get in.
In the NFC, Philadelphia has already locked down the No. 1 seed and homefield advantage, but Minnesota can clinch a bye with a win at home against Chicago, or even with a loss, assuming three different games don't go against them (the Vikes can't have Carolina beat Atlanta, Tampa Bay beat New Orleans and San Francisco beat the Rams…).

As for a few of those teams, New Orleans can lock up the NFC South crown, and (most likely) the No. 3 seed with a win over the Bucs. But, if the Saints lose, that would open the door for Carolina to win the division, assuming the Panthers take care of business against Atlanta. If the Panthers win, and Tampa Bay tops New Orleans, while San Francisco beats LA, and Minnesota loses to Chicago... Then the Panthers would be the No. 2 seed. Yep, that's what we call a longshot.

Either way, the team that does not win the South, will be locked into the No. 5 seed as the conference's top Wild Card team. The final Wild Card spot is still up for grabs, but Atlanta can snatch it with a win over Carolina, or a Seattle loss to Arizona. If, however, Atlanta loses and Seattle wins, the Seahawks would be the No. 6 seed in the NFC.

Got all that? Good, now let's get to this week's picks.

[One last note - we made our picks late Thursday night/early Friday morning, but didn't get around to writing this post until Saturday evening. For that reason, some of the lines we used may now be out of date. Only a few lines changed more than a half-point, and none moved enough that would have caused us to re-consider the picks below, so just keep that in mind]

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

DETROIT (-6.5) over Green Bay

For once, Green Bay has absolutely nothing to play for, and some roster moves show it. After placing Aaron Rodgers back on IR, they followed that up this week with Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, Jahri Evans, and Aaron Jones. All of them will sit this weekend, which means Detroit has an easy win, likely.

Just end the year early for these two.

New York Jets (+15) over NEW ENGLAND

So, this is the biggest line of the season, and I'm not about to lay this many points with the Patriots likely to take their foot off the gas. This sort of sounds like the Patriots getting out to an early 21-3 lead and then benching Brady and a few other key players after halftime.

The Jets find flukey ways to keep things close in Foxboro, but I'm betting on Brady and Co. slamming the door early to lock up homefield advantage.

Washington (-3) over NEW YORK GIANTS

Let's take a minute to talk about the career turnaround that Kirk Cousins has had. Over his first three seasons, he made 14 appearances, starting nine games. Washington went 2-7 in those nine starts, and overall, Cousins threw 18 touchdowns to 19 interceptions and had a passer rating of 77.5. Over the last three years, however, he's started every game, put up a record above .500, made the playoffs once, and has 16-game averages of 4432 yards, 28 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, with a passer rating of 99. I didn't do the math to find out what kind of game it would take for Cousins to get that number north of 100, but it feels like it's possible. Props to Kirk Cousins. At this point, I think he's a franchise quarterback. He's only 29, within a year of the same age as Russell Wilson, Matt Stafford, Andy Dalton, Sam Bradford, Case Keenum, Cam Newton, and Tyrod Taylor (roughly a quarter of the league's quarterbacks), and I think I'd take Cousins over anyone on that list besides the two guys that have played in Super Bowls.

Betting against the Giants this year has rarely been foolish.

INDIANAPOLIS (-5.5) over Houston

I think this game wins the unofficial title of the worst matchup of the season. I pray that this game features no touchdowns so NFL Red Zone has no reason to cut to this game, ever, for any reason.

Houston, and whichever poor sap they put under center, might be the current worst team in football. Indy has been through some stuff this year, but yikes.

Chicago (+11.5) over MINNESOTA

I've been digging Chicago as a value underdog for most of the season, and Minnesota doesn't really have much to gain - they can still pick up the No. 2 seed even with a loss (provided that Carolina also loses or New Orleans wins - those are the perks of head-to-head wins over the Rams and Saints).

Chicago has been plucky all year, so I like the Bears to hang within 10 in a game Minnesota doesn't REALLY need to win.

Dallas (-3) over PHILADELPHIA

I can't think of any reason that Philadelphia would take this game seriously, and I'm sure Dallas wants to end the season on a high note after all the nonsense that they had to deal with all year.

The Eagles just want to avoid further injury, and Dallas wants to go into the offseason with something to feel decent about. A steady dose of Zeke and the Cowboys should be able to run away from Philly's JVs.

Buffalo (-2.5) over MIAMI

JC: As much as I like Marcus Mariota, he's regressed this year, and I really hope I don't have to watch the Titans in the playoffs (although it would be nice to bet against them), so I'm openly rooting for Buffalo here. At the very least, they're a competent football team that had the misfortune of playing the Patriots twice and starting Nathan Peterman for a game (in fairness, that one was their own fault - there's still no defensible argument for that one).

The Bills still have an outside shot at the playoffs...

New Orleans (-5.5) over TAMPA BAY

The Saints can't jump up to the No. 2 seed, but they could drop to the No. 5 and have to go on the road in Round 1. They can avoid that by taking care of business against a bad Tampa Bay team.

The Saints need a win here to lock up the division, so I expect this running game to come up big in Tampa.

SEATTLE (-9) over Arizona

Seattle can make the playoffs, but they'll need help. They hold no relevant tiebreakers, which means Atlanta has to lose (or tie) for them to have any chance. Luckily, both games are 4:25 kickoffs, so we won't have any situations where Atlanta wins early and then Seattle, with nothing to play for, sends out the JV team to ruin everyone's teaser with Seattle and (other team here).

JP: With Bruce Arians' future up in the air and Seattle's back against the wall, you have to think this is a Seahawks blowout. Right???

San Francisco (-4) over LOS ANGELES RAMS

It's so nice to be a Patriots fan. If Brady retires in a few years and the Patriots start to suck, we can just go jump on the bandwagon of the other jarringly handsome quarterback that we used to have and plays for the team that was Brady's favorite growing up. There's so much symmetry. It's beautiful.

JP: Jimmy G going against the Rams' backups? Count me in!

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

JC: PITTSBURGH (-7) over Cleveland

So, the Steelers technically haven't ruled out any of their usual starters. It's mostly been rumors. They're listed as "Questionable - Rest" on the injury report. If they definitely weren't going to play them, why even bother with the "Questionable" tag? It smells a little bit like "they'll play the first drive and then sit," which, honestly, could be enough to cover a touchdown spread against the Browns. 

JP: Cleveland (+7) over PITTSBURGH

I wouldn't say my "pick against Pittsburgh" strategy has "worked," but I'll keep going down with the ship. Plus, if the Steelers essentially rest all their stars, Cleveland could keep this thing close, and maybe even win its first game of the year… Maybe.

JC: Cincinnati (+9) over BALTIMORE

Baltimore is playing a game of consequence against a bad team, which sounds swell until you remember that these are games that the Ravens have choked in recent years. Joe Flacco has been BAD this season. His closest comparison, production- and efficiency-wise, is either Jay Cutler or Jacoby Brissett. I like the Baltimore defense, but not enough to cover a spread this large single-handedly

BALTIMORE (-9) over Cincinnati 

Cincy showed some life last week, but the Ravens simply have too much on the line to not play well against their division rivals.

JC: Kansas City (+3.5) over DENVER

I'm going with the Chiefs if only because I need Kareem Hunt to show up if I want to have any chance of winning my fantasy league.

JP: DENVER (-3.5) over Kansas City

The Chiefs know they've got the No. 4 seed and will host a playoff game next week, while Denver is simply playing for pride. Somehow, that Bronco defense hasn't quit yet, and if Kansas City goes vanilla, or rests anybody on offense, I doubt they'll be able to do much.

JC: ATLANTA (-4) over Carolina

This is a tough one - Carolina has a playoff spot locked up, and are playing for an outside shot at the No. 2 seed (but it's a long shot). Atlanta, meanwhile, has a win-and-in game at home. On the "More To Play For" Meter, that seems like a clear advantage for Atlanta. They'll probably be ready to pull all the rabbits out of the hat if they need to, so I like them at home.

JP: Carolina (+4) over ATLANTA

Both teams have a ton on the line, so I'll just grab the points.

JC: Jacksonville (+3) over TENNESSEE

The Titans are super banged up on offense, I just don't buy them being able to get much rhythm against this Jacksonville defense, regardless of who they're resting. Besides, with Jacksonville locked into the No. 3 seed, isn't it to their benefit to knock their division rival off the No. 6 line to end up against Buffalo or the Chargers, who haven't played them twice already this year?

JP: TENNESSEE (-3) over Jacksonville

Jacksonville's the better team, but the Jags have only momentum to play for, while Tennessee is fighting for its playoff life at home.

JC: LOS ANGELES CHARGERS (-8.5) over Oakland 

Look, Oakland is just bad. There isn't any other word to describe them. They're a bad football team. The Chargers are playing for the playoffs (maybe), and after a bad start to the season, they're 8-3 over their last 11 games (8-4 if you extend one further to a very close loss to the Eagles, who were only the juggernaut of the league who blew out pretty much everyone else). I think the Chargers have enough going for them that they put this one down. 

JP: Oakland (+8.5) over LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

Boy, I am not loving Oakland's offense right now, but this just feels like a game the Chargers blow, doesn't it?

Jeremy's Record:
Last Week: 9-5-2
Season: 119-108-13
Last Week's Disagreements: 3-1-1
Season's Disagreements: 35-34-2

Joe's Record:
Last Week: 7-7-2
Season: 119-108-13
Last Week's Disagreements: 1-3-1
Season's Disagreements: 34-35-2

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