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*Team listed in BOLD is my pick to win the game
Pittsburgh (@ Cleveland) – The Steelers have dug themselves into a huge hole having lost to the Ravens in Week 16. They are once again in a must-win situation this week on the road in Cleveland, but they will need help in order to sneak their way into the playoffs. Ben Roethlisberger had his worst game of the season last week, throwing two costly interceptions and was held to just 215 yards. Antonio Brown was limited to just 61 yards but I expect that he as well as Martavis Bryant will have big games against Cleveland just as they did in their first meeting this year in which they combined for 317 receiving yards and three touchdowns. DeAngelo Williams was one of the few bright spots offensively last week, totaling 100 yards and two touchdowns on the ground as well as catching six balls for 53 yards. He should see 20 carries in this game, with the bulk of that coming in the 2nd half with the Steelers up double-digits and trying to run out the clock. As for Cleveland, it is reported that Johnny Manziel was drinking on Christmas Eve so there is the possibility that Mike Pettine decides to bench Manziel this week. Manziel gives them the best chance to beat the Steelers, although it’s a long shot no matter if it’s Manziel or Austin Davis starting at quarterback. I expect Mike Tomlin will have his team prepared this week and the offense will come out firing on all cylinders right away. The Steelers should have control of this game from start to finish and I wouldn’t be surprised if this game ends up as a blowout.
Cincinnati (vs. Baltimore) – The Bengals had a chance to clinch a first round bye in the playoffs on Monday against the Broncos, but they let the opportunity slip out of their hands. Holding a 14-3 lead heading into the half, the Bengals’ offense sputtered in the 2nd half and was only able to muster a field goal in the 4th quarter. The Bengals ended up losing the game in overtime and fell to the 3rd overall seed, but they still have a shot at taking over the 2nd seed with a win and a Broncos loss. Cincinnati will make sure to close out the Ravens as opposed to squandering the game away so that they give themselves a shot at that first round bye. Baltimore on the other hand will try to play spoiler for a second week in a row. They are coming off a shocking win against the Steelers that pushed Pittsburgh out of the playoffs for the moment. John Harbaugh won’t allow his team to roll over this week, and they will continue to play hard for one final week, but I don’t believe they will have enough to beat the Bengals on the road in Cincinnati. The Ravens have allowed an average of 121 rushing yards per game over their last four games, so I expect the Bengals will feature Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard in a run-heavy attack to start the game. The Ravens have done a pretty decent job defending against the pass the last few weeks and as long as A.J. Green is healthy, he should have his way against Baltimore’s secondary. Just don’t expect another 10 catch, 227 yard, 2 touchdown game like he did back in Week 3 against the Ravens because he had Andy Dalton as his starting quarterback. Cincinnati’s defense will play a major role this week and I expect them to shut down the Ravens offensive attack. Ryan Mallett will get the start for a second straight week after having a very successful debut for Baltimore. The Bengals’ pass rush will make Mallett uncomfortable in the pocket resulting in him turning the ball over which is something he has been prone to do this season with the Texans. This won’t be a cakewalk for Cincinnati, but after facing one of the most dominant defenses in the league last week, they should have a much easier time moving the football and putting up points against the Ravens in front of their home crowd, giving them a chance at that first round bye.
New England (@ Miami) – The Patriots have locked in a bye in the first round of the playoffs but still have some work to do in order to secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs. They had an opportunity to lock up home field advantage last weekend against the Jets, but they blew it when Matthew Slater opted to kick off in overtime instead of electing to receive. The Jets ended up marching down the field on the opening possession and handed the Pats just their third loss of the season. The Patriots will head to Miami and should be able to handle the Dolphins with ease just as they did back in Week 8. In that game, Brady picked apart the weak Dolphins’ secondary for 356 yards and four touchdowns on their way to a 36-7 romping. I expect Bill Belichick to attack that secondary right out of the gate and put this game away before the start of the 4th quarter. Miami has been absolutely abysmal since their last meeting with New England and have only won two out of their last nine games, averaging less than 16 points per game. The team seems to have folded and given up on the season, so I expect them to fold one last time this week. New England should easily improve to 13-3 on the year and shouldn’t have any trouble locking up home field advantage.
Carolina (vs. Tampa Bay) – The Carolina Panthers’ quest for an undefeated season was ended last week in Atlanta at the hands of the Falcons. Not only did they suffer their first loss of the season, but they also failed to lock up home field advantage throughout the playoffs. As it stands, instead of being able to rest some of their players, they will have to go out there this week against the Buccaneers and make sure that they beat Tampa Bay in front of their home crowd in order to lock up that #1 seed. Cam Newton was expected to put up huge numbers against the Falcons in Week 16, but instead, Carolina struggled offensively as Cam Newton only completed 17 of his 30 passes for 142 yards. They key for this game will be Josh Norman because he will need to shutdown Mike Evans, just as he did back in Week 4. Vincent Jackson had a big game with 10 catches, but he has been placed on injured reserve, leaving the Panthers’ defense to focus on stopping Evans as well as Doug Martin and the Bucs’ running game. Carolina will make sure to end the regular season with a win and some momentum heading into the playoffs.
Denver (vs. San Diego) – San Diego has lost three out of their last four games but one positive takeaway is the fact that they have played well and their opponents had to really fight for those wins. The defense, which had been its’ Achilles heel, has only allowed an average of 15 points per game over the last month and have also only allowed an average of 283.5 total yards per game over that stretch. In fact, their pass defense was one of the worst in the league but has since improved tremendously and has only allowed an average of 175 passing yards per game over the last four games. That means the Broncos are going to need to pound the ball on the ground and establish their running game early with Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson. If the Broncos struggle to run the ball against the Chargers like they did in the last meeting, this will end up being a much tougher game than it should be. The one player on offense that needs to emerge and step up is Emmanuel Sanders. If Chargers cornerback Jason Verrett is able to suit up on Sunday, I expect he will be covering Demaryius Thomas and will try to make him a non-factor in this game. If Verrett is unable to play, which is very possible, that should open things up offensively for the Broncos which will allow them to move the ball at will. But the Broncos’ defense is what in all likelihood will win this game for Denver. The front seven is going to put a lot of pressure on Phillip Rivers which will make his day long and miserable. Danny Woodhead will be the primary ball carrier, but he will have trouble finding anywhere to run. San Diego may be able to keep this game close for the first 45 minutes, but Denver will ultimately break the game open due to their defense creating turnovers at just the right time.
Houston (vs. Jacksonville) – The Houston Texans’ road to the playoffs is simple; they win and they’re in. Houston manhandled the Titans last weekend but have a much tougher opponent in the Jacksonville Jaguars this week. The Texans and Jaguars played one another in Jacksonville in Week 6 and Houston pulled out a thrilling victory, 31-20. Blake Bortles had a hand in that Texans’ win by making some poor decisions and getting picked off three times in that game. Bortles continues to go through growing pains and has thrown an interception in all but four games this season. Bortles is capable of leading this Jaguars team on extended drives, resulting in touchdowns, but I’m expecting him to once again make critical mistakes early on this game which will force the Jags to play from behind. As for Houston, Brandon Weeden helped lead the Texans to a win against the Titans in Week 16. He played well enough to beat Tennessee, but it was the defense that should be given the most credit. Bill O’Brien is hopeful that Brian Hoyer will return to the field this week and if he does, that will be a huge boost to their offense. He’ll need to get reps in during the week to get on the same page with DeAndre Hopkins who burned the Jags defense for 10 catches, two touchdowns and 148 yards in Week 6. But due to the fact that it’s not a given that Hoyer plays this week, I have to list the Texans as a Risky Play for now. If it’s announced prior to locking in your Survivor Pool pick this week that Hoyer will in fact get the start, I’d feel a lot more comfortable recommending them this week in this must-win situation that they are in.
Minnesota (@ Green Bay) – The Vikings will travel to Lambeau Field on Sunday to play the Packers to decide which one of these two teams wins the NFC North Division title and gets to host a home playoff game. The Packers’ issues offensively have been well documented, but the last time they needed to get out of a funk was back in Week 11 against none other than the Minnesota Vikings. The Packers weren’t flawless by any means in that game, but they were good enough to end the Vikings’ six-game winning streak. Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cobb and James Jones did just enough in that game to put together two touchdown drives in the 2nd half to pull away for a 30-13 victory in Minnesota. Can Green Bay do the same this week? I think they can, but I’ve also thought that Green Bay would finally figure things out offensively over the last eight weeks. Granted, other than Adrian Peterson, Minnesota can’t be trusted on the offensive side of the football either. But I think A.P. can shoulder the load and carry the Vikings offensively in this game, whereas the defense is capable of shutting down the Packers’ passing game. Minnesota’s defense will need to focus on stopping the run which is something they have struggled with all season, but have improved on over their last three games having allowed an average of 94 rushing yards per game. What this comes down to is the fact that the Packers can’t be trusted on offense and can’t stop the run on defense which should bode well for A.P. and the Minnesota Vikings this week.
St. Louis (@ San Francisco) – San Francisco’s nightmare season continued in Week 16, losing to Detroit by the score of 32-17. The defense couldn’t stop Calvin Johnson and other than their first and third drives on offense to open the game, the 49ers’ offense was dreadful. But then again, that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone at this point in the season. The Rams’ offense isn’t much better, but they have a running back in Todd Gurley that they can hand the ball off to at least 20 times a game. Jeff Fisher will continue to limit Case Keenum to 25 passes or less while handing the ball off to Gurley 20-25 times on Sunday with the hopes that Gurley can replicated his 133 yard, one touchdown game he had against San Francisco in Week 8. The Rams’ defense will also clamp down on the 49ers and should dominate the 49ers’ poor offensive line. This will not be a high-scoring game, but as long as the Rams’ defense can give their offense good field position, the Rams’ offense should be able to score enough points to pull out one last win on the road this season.
Kansas City (vs. Oakland) – Kansas City won their 9th straight game against the Browns last weekend, but the game was a lot closer than they would have liked. This was the second time in three weeks that the Chiefs failed to put away an inferior team, and that has me a little concerned. Despite being shorthanded on defense, the Chiefs continued to play well and keep the game from slipping away. The offense on the other hand was forced to punt five times and had to settle for a field goal on one drive while their lone touchdown was set up from great field position which was set up by their defense forcing the Browns to punt from right in front of their own end zone. Although Kansas City still has a shot at winning their division if they win and the Broncos lose to the Chargers, I don’t think this game against the Raiders is going to come very easy to them. The Chiefs were fortunate that Derek Carr imploded and threw three interceptions in the 4th quarter the last time these two teams met. Carr has struggled a bit over the last three weeks but he is determined to end the season on a high note and get the Raiders back to .500 for the first time since 2011. Although I don’t think that will happen, I do believe that Alex Smith will manage the game and that the defense will hold the Raiders to 17 points or less. But due to the fact that the Chiefs have shown over the last three weeks that they can play down to their opponent, that makes them a very risky play in the final week of Survivor Pools.
Detroit (@ Chicago) – The Detroit Lions have won two games in a row and five out of their last seven games. If they didn’t lose to the Packers on a last second Hail Mary, they could possibly be looking at an outside shot of making the playoffs. But they’ve had a lot of what-ifs this season. The Lions started the season 0-7 but have turned their season around and have been playing much better on both sides of the football. Matthew Stafford has thrown 14 touchdowns and just one interception over the last five weeks and the defense has held opposing quarterbacks to just 202 passing yards per game over the last six games. Chicago on the other hand has had problems stopping the run, allowing their opponents to rush for 99 yards or more and average 133 rushing yards per game over the last six games. That means Detroit will need to continue running the ball effectively which they have done over their last six games, averaging 111 rushing yards per game and rushing for at least 101 yards in five of the six games. Although Mathew Stafford is only 2-4 in his career at Soldier Field, he has gone on to win two straight games on the road in Chicago and has helped lead Detroit to five straight wins over the Bears. Additionally, the Bears have placed Alshon Jeffery on injured reserve, which makes the Lions an even more enticing Survivor Pool pick this week.
NY Jets (@ Buffalo) – The Jets took care of business against New England and received some help from the Ravens on Sunday to help push them into that 6th and final seed of the playoffs. The Jets are officially in the playoffs if they win their final game of the season up in Buffalo. But trust me, there isn’t anything that Rex Ryan would love more than playing playoff spoiler to his former team. The last time these two teams played each other, Rex Ryan dialed up the defense and kept quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick uncomfortable all game as he only completed 15 of his 34 passes and threw two interceptions on the day. You can expect the same exact type of pressure from the Bills’ defense this week. The Jets will also do the same defensively and should replicate the four-sack game they had against Tyrod Taylor earlier in the year. Sammy Watkins has been a huge playmaker for the Bills over the last month and has made plays of at least 37 yards in each of his last five games. His touchdown streak ended at four games last week and if the Jets have Darrell Revis shadow Watkins in this game, he should be able to keep him out of the end zone for a second straight week. It’s ultimately going to come down to Ryan Fitzpatrick withstanding the blitzes and getting the ball out of his hands quickly enough and into the arms of his trusted receivers. Also, look for Bilal Powell to be a major contributor in this game as I believe the Jets will find a way to get revenge on Rex Ryan and find their way into the playoffs.
Dallas (vs. Washington) – Washington locked up the 4th seed in the NFC with their win against the Eagles on Saturday night which means they may only play their starters for a portion of the game, if at all. They can’t risk losing Kirk Cousins, Jordan Reed or DeSean Jackson to injury in a game that doesn’t have any playoff implications. If Jay Gruden decides to rest most of his key starters, Dallas will have an opportunity to grab their 5th win of the season. I expect that the Cowboys will still send their starters out there in this game, although Dez Bryant has been placed on injured reserve. The Cowboys’ defense will keep the team in the game against Washington’s first team offense, but will shut down Colt McCoy and Washington’s second team offense. If you are desperate, I’d recommend taking the Cowboys in this game, but due to the fact that we don’t know exactly how much the starters will play, I’d want to stay far away from this game.
Atlanta (vs. New Orleans) – Atlanta spoiled Carolina’s undefeated season on Sunday and even gave themselves hope for a few hours that they could still clinch a playoff berth. But that hope has sailed and the Falcons and Saints play one another for the second and final time this year. In their first meeting, New Orleans handed the Falcons their first loss of the season in Week 6. Both teams were able to move the ball against one another, but it was the three fumbles that cost the Falcons the game. Julio Jones has been more productive over the last two games, totaling 306 yards and two touchdowns on 18 catches. Jones will have a chance to duplicate the type of production that Allen Robinson had last week against the Saints in which he totaled 151 yards and one touchdown on six receptions. The Saints have played much better offensively, averaging 31 points over their last four games and Brandin Cooks has also stepped up his game averaging 123.5 receiving yards over the last two contests. I expect that Brees will continue to look his way to build on their chemistry as Brees hopes to return next season. There are rumblings that Brees and Sean Payton will not be back next year, but Brees is hoping otherwise and if he can show the organization that there is at least one last good run in him, the two could return next season. But the issue for this particular game is the fact that the Saints’ defense will not be able to contain Devonta Freeman or Julio Jones, resulting in a high-scoring game. I expect Dan Quinn to finish his first season with a winning record and on a two-game winning streak.
NY Giants (vs. Philadelphia) – A game that doesn’t mean anything with one coach already fired (Chip Kelly) and one on the hot seat (Tom Coughlin) is a recipe for disaster. We saw what an Odell Beckham-less Giants team looks like last week, and it wasn’t pretty. Lucky for the Giants, they get their one playmaker back this week. The Eagles will game plan around Beckham just as they did in Week 6, holding him to just 61 yards on seven catches, but I think that Beckham will be in line for a bigger game this week and will end up with a couple big plays that could lead to one or two touchdowns. As for the Eagles, Sam Bradford is going to air it out 35-40 times, but with Chip Kelly gone, I believe DeMarco Murray could see an increase in touches this week, as I’m sure that’s what ownership will want to see. I do believe the Eagles will not have much trouble moving the ball against the Giants’ defense and Bradford should pick apart their secondary. I believe this will be a high-scoring game, but that the Giants will send Tom Coughlin off with one final win in his Giants career.
Tennessee (@ Indianapolis) – It’s been a very rocky season for the Colts and they have another obstacle to overcome with the loss of their 2nd and 3rd string quarterbacks. Andrew Luck has been ruled out for Week 17, which means the Colts may have to turn to Stephen Morris. If Morris is named the starter you can expect that the Colts will be handing the ball off to Frank Gore early and often. The issues this poses for Indianapolis is the fact that Tennessee’s defense has done a pretty decent job against the run, allowing just 3.9 yards per carry. That means that the Titans’ defense is going to load the box and force Morris to beat them with his arm. But Tennessee’s defense hasn’t been very good of late and has allowed an average of 34 points per game over their last four games. Additionally, they have the #1 overall pick on the line and if they win, they could potentially lose that first pick. I’m not saying the Titans are going to hand the Colts the win, but with the #1 overall pick on the line I’m not sure that the Titans can be trusted to give it their best effort, even against a Colts team that will most likely start Stephen Morris at quarterback.
Arizona (vs. Seattle) – This game could be a potential playoff preview and both team’s playoff seeding could potentially be affected by the outcome of this game. Arizona still has an outside chance at the #1 overall seed in the NFC if they beat Seattle and Carolina loses to Tampa Bay. There are a lot of different scenarios still in play for Seattle so I believe both teams will be playing to win this game this week. Arizona is currently riding a nine-game winning streak and is coming off another impressive win against the Packers. Despite losing Tyrann Mathieu for the year, the Cardinals’ defense held the Packers to just eight points on the day. Keeping the score low might be more complicated this week as Doug Baldwin will look to repeat his seven catch, 134 yard performance against the Cardinals seven weeks ago. Baldwin has also scored 11 touchdowns in the last five weeks so if the Cardinals can end that scoring streak, they should have be able to pull out one last regular season win because they should be able to shut down the rest of Seattle’s offense.
Week 17 Survivor Pool Rankings:
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
2. Cincinnati Bengals
3. New England Patriots
4. Carolina Panthers
5. Denver Broncos
6. Houston Texans
7. Minnesota Vikings
8. St. Louis Rams
9. Kansas City Chiefs
10. Detroit Lions
11. NY Jets
12. Dallas Cowboys
13. Atlanta Falcons
14. NY Giants
15. Tennessee Titans
16. Arizona Cardinals