Tanking is rare in the NFL. Few teams commit to a season-long tank-job — save the Indianapolis Colts’ ‘Suck for Luck’ bid in recent years — because fans and, more importantly, the players, don’t really buy into the process. That makes sense, not just because of win bonuses, but because losing is a horrible feeling. Just ask the players and fans of the Cleveland Browns.
But, with the NFC’s first seed decided and the second spot all but sewed up for Minnesota, there’s a school of thought rowing in behind finishing as the fourth seed in that conference, even if that means having to win two games on the road after Wildcard weekend to reach the Super Bowl.
The New Orleans Saints face a really tricky situation. If they beat the Bucs in their NFC South match-up, they are guaranteed to win the division by virtue of their head-to-head record with the Carolina Panthers. The win could also be enough to give them the number three seed and likely face the Vikings in the NFC’s Divisional round.
However, a loss could give them the fourth seed and the chance to play the Eagles in the Divisional round. Philly have looked shaky in edging the New York Giants and Oakland Raiders in back-to-back games with Nick Foles at quarterback and they might be far easier opposition for a team in the second round of the playoffs.
The complication for New Orleans is that a loss, coupled with a Panthers win, would see them drop to the fifth seed and playing away on Wildcard weekend, while even if both they and the Panthers lose, the Rams may well lose to the 49ers anyway, keeping them in the three seed.
The lesson, I suppose, is to take a leaf from Ric Flair’s book and to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. Sure Philly are a much more enticing prospect than the Vikings at the moment but, if you’re going to lift the Vince Lombardi trophy on the first weekend in February, you’re probably going to have to beat at least one of Minnesota and New England anyway so you might as well get it over with.
Carolina Panthers @ Atlanta Falcons – Sunday, 9.25pm
You can’t ask for any more as an NFL team if you’re the Carolina Panthers. Win, and they not only give themselves a real chance of winning the NFC South — though, as we said, they’ll need the Saints to lose — but they can also go a long way towards denying another divisional rival a playoff berth by knocking off the defending NFC champions.
There’s even a small chance that a win — coupled with losses for the Saints and Vikings — could see them land the number two seed.
The Panthers were three-point home underdogs when these two met in week nine but Ron Rivera’s side still emerged victorious in a tightly-fought game that showed up the Falcons’ struggles on offense this season as they only managed 17 points in that game. However, that game — plus last week’s loss to New Orleans — are the only two divisional encounters the Falcons have lost in their last 10 attempts so Carolina can’t take victory for granted.
Though Carolina barely beat the Bucs last weekend, and have struggled themselves on offense at times this season, they’re a healthy 9-6 against the spread — good enough for fifth in the NFL — and are traditionally excellent at this time of year winning 20 of their last 25 December games. And, as regular readers of this column this season will know, I’m no fan of Steve Sarkisian’s offense while Matt Ryan has also slipped back to the mean after his MVP calibre season last year.
For those reasons, and the Falcons’ poor home record this season (4-3), I’m very comfortable taking Carolina (+4) in this game. I’d probably have taken anything under 42 in this game, so 45 seems particularly generous which means I’ll definitely be on the under.
Arizona Cardinals @ Seattle Seahawks – Sunday, 9.25pm
Since 2013, when Bruce Arians took over as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, the Seattle Seahawks have the second-best home record in the NFL, winning 69.3% of games at CenturyLink Field. However, the Cardinals have won in three of their four visits to Seattle under Arians’ watch and the Seahawks have lost three of their last four on home turf this season anyway so the idea of the Clink as a fortress is slowly dissipating.
That all adds some extra spice to Sunday’s game which sees the Seahawks needing a win — and a Falcons loss — to ensure they don’t miss out on the postseason for the first time since 2011.
If Seattle are to make the playoffs, they can thank Russell Wilson who — with a 61.3% completion rate for 3,762 yards, 32 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions — is almost single-handedly dragging them into the Wildcard round.
It certainly won’t be because of their once-vaunted defense that has been devastated by injury this season. Giving up 20.4 points and 327.5 yards per game — both 13th in the NFL — this is not the Seattle team we have been used to seeing under Pete Carroll but some might say that it’s all the more impressive that they are in the playoff hunt considering the absence of Richard Sherman and company on that side of the football.
The Cardinals have very little to play for other than reaching eight wins or better for the fifth time in seven seasons but, every time you watch Arizona play, it’s a sad reminder of what might have been for Larry Fitzgerald’s career.
Seattle have been a mixed bag against the spread this season — 6-8-1 — and, given their poor record at home in general of late and hosting the Cardinals in particular, I’m going to have to take the 9.5 points on offer for Arizona, even if I think Seahawks will win the game. Even at 38.5, I’d edge towards the under in this one but it’s probably a market I’ll stay away from personally.
Jacksonville Jaguars @ Tennessee Titans – Sunday, 9.25pm
The Jags have a home playoff game guaranteed on Wildcard weekend, but head coach Doug Marrone won’t rest players for this week’s game in Tennessee, even though they can’t do anything to better this postseason position. But while the game might not matter for the Jaguars, it could have huge implications for other AFC playoff hopefuls which is why the visitors are ‘all in’ on victory.
The Titans can clinch a playoff berth with a win, but the Chargers and Bills need them to draw or lose in order for either to have a chance of playing football in January.
However, while losing might be a risky option for the Saints in the NFC, if the Jags were to fall to Tennessee, it’s likely they’d be playing them again next week in the Wildcard round. Considering that the Titans have lost three on the spin — looking like one of the worst teams in the league in the process — that might be no bad thing for Jacksonville and would certainly be better than the alternative of the Chargers, Bills or Ravens.
That said, last week’s loss to the 49ers — even taking into consideration Jimmy Garoppolo is clearly the greatest quarterback to ever play the game and the lovechild of Tom Brady and Johnny Unitas — served as a reminder of the limitations of this Jacksonville team. They may have one of the league’s best defenses — for my money the best — but they still have Blake Bortles at quarterback and, in any game in which they fall two scores behind, he becomes a massive liability.
The betting world doesn’t believe Maronne when he says his team is ‘all in’ for this game as the Titans are three-point favourites.
I’m really struggling with taking a position on this one as form is pointing in one direction (Jags) while the arguments above are pulling me in the other (Titans). I’m going with the home side and I’ll also take the over (41.5), especially if some of the starters on Jacksonville’s defense either sit out or don’t play at 100% with the postseason in mind.
Steve’s Week 17 Selections:
- Panthers +4
- Under 45 Panthers @ Falcons
- Cardinals +9.5
- Under 38.5 Cardinals @ Seahawks
- Titans on the MoneyLine
- Over 41.5 Jags @ Titans