By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) It’s hard to believe, but we’ve reached the end of the line for the 2011 NFL regular season. Week 17 features a scramble for the final AFC Wild-Card berth, some soon-to-be crowned NFC East and AFC West champs, and game two of Caleb Hanie-free Bears football. Here’s my take on how the final week will shake out with my predictions, my juggernaut game of the week, and my juggernot lame of the weak.
(Home team in all CAPS)
Juggernaut Game of the Week
GIANTS 24, Cowboys 20 – 7:20 PM
The winner of the final game of the 2011 regular season earns the final NFC Playoff spot and the NFC East title, which is certainly the scenario the NFL’s scheduling department envisioned. The Giants host the Cowboys in what should be an epic NFC East slug-fest. Losers of three of their last four games, the Cowboys are slumping at the wrong time. An injury to the throwing hand of quarterback Tony Romo has added injury to insult, and while Romo is expected to play, the injury will certainly affect his production, as well as the play-calling. The Giants can flat out get after the quarterback, so how many hits will Romo be able to withstand? The Giants have only won two of their last seven games, but three of those losses came at the hands of the NFC North/South/West Champions. Despite all of the injuries and inconsistencies the Giants have endured this season, the one constant has been the play of quarterback Eli Manning. I like Eli to lead the Giants to an NFC East title and playoff berth on Sunday night.
Juggernot Lame of the Weak
Colts 17, JAGUARS 13 – Noon
Dan Orlovsky vs. Blaine Gabbert, that’s a quarterback match-up that will certainly not put butts in seats. I’m calling it right now: there will be more total punting yards than fans still in attendance for the final five minutes of this game. When you combine the futility of these two teams, the output is stunningly bad. In the 30 combined games they’ve played, there’s a grand total of six wins, their combined 454 points are less than the Packers, Saints, and Patriots respectively, they rank 31st and 32nd in first downs, and 30th and 32nd in total offense. Process all that, and then realize that people will willingly pay money to watch this game. Not discounting the high probability of a tie, I like the Colts to pick up their first and only road win of the season, and remove themselves from the certain mess they’d face with the top overall pick.
Bears 24, VIKINGS 17 – Noon
You might be a Bears fan if you start thinking about the draft when the regular season is still being played. Wouldn’t it be nice if Josh McCown and Kahlil Bell were starting this weekend because the Bears were resting starters Jay Cutler and Matt Forte for their first-round playoff game against the winner of the NFC East? Oh, to dream. Harsh reality has taken Bears fans from being cautiously optimistic at 7-3 to bottomed-out at 7-8, hoping like heck to salvage a .500 season against the lowly Vikings. I have a vivid memory from my childhood, when I was down in the dumps after a Bears loss, and my dad gave me some sage advice about Chicago sports, which was “aim low.” I took that to heart, so I can’t say that I’m surprised by this season from the Bears, in fact, I picked them to be a 9-7 team fighting for a wild-card berth in my preseason preview. No Adrian Peterson, no Caleb Hanie, no bitter weather to deal with, and you have an ugly Bears win.
Panthers 27, SAINTS 24 – Noon
Will the Saints play this game to win, or will they rest their starters? That’s the $5,087 question. The 49ers own the conference tiebreaker advantage over the Saints, so even if both teams win, the 49ers will earn the first-round bye. That said, I see the Saints doing a little scoreboard watching during the game – where they’ll see the 49ers dismantling the Rams – and playing their starters for around a quarter to keep them sharp, then it will be Chase Daniel time. Yikes. On the other side of the ball, you have a young and hungry Panthers team seeking their first three-game win streak since the end of the 2009 season. The future is bright for Ron Rivera’s crew, who solved the greatest riddle in professional sports last April when they selected Cam Newton. Newton has exceeded all realistic expectations, and every move henceforth must be geared towards maximizing Newton’s talents. I like the Panthers to pick up their seventh victory of the season this Sunday against a Saints team who have their sights on the Lombardi trophy.
DOLPHINS 24, Jets 23 – Noon
Shortly after the 2010 season ended, the rotund Red Ryan predicted a Super Bowl victory for his New York Jets in 2011. Entering Week 17 of the 2011 season, the Jets aren’t even a lock to make the playoffs at all, so once again, Ryan has proven to be full of empty promises and empty calories. In addition to winning this game against the Dolphins, the Jets need: a loss from the Bengals, a Titans loss, and either a Broncos or Raiders loss. Oddly enough, all of those scenarios working out to their advantage seem very possible, but I’m not sure if the Jets will win the game at hand. The Dolphins have clearly evolved this season, and much of their success is due to the progress quarterback Matt Moore has made as a starter. Over his past eight games, Moore has thrown eight touchdowns, three interceptions, and has compiled a 104 quarterback rating. Combine Moore’s contributions, with those of Reggie Bush and Brandon Marshall – who became the first simultaneous 1,000-yard rusher and receiver in Dolphins history – and the Dolphins are a well-rounded team. I like the Dolphins to shut down a very mediocre Mark Sanchez and send the Jets packing.
PATRIOTS 31, Bills 20 – Noon
In Boston, all eyes and Rontgen radiation are focused on the left shoulder of Tom Brady, which was separated last week against the Dolphins. With a win this Sunday, the Patriots can ensure the road to the AFC title runs through Foxboro, which makes Brady’s status for Sunday even more intriguing to follow. Given how awful the Bills pass defense has been this season, if Brady is healthy enough to play, there’s a strong possibility that he will break the passing yardage record set this past Monday night by Drew Brees. Way back in Week 3, the Bills mounted a furious comeback to beat the Patriots 34-31 and sent the hyperbolic media outfit on the eastern seaboard into warp speed. Talk of a “double-digit win season”, the Bills being a “factor again in the AFC East”, and having “sole possession of first place” dominated headlines; meanwhile, I yawned and told everyone not to believe the hype. Fourteen weeks later, the Bills are 6-9, a factor for another top-15 draft pick, and in sole possession of third place in the AFC East. With Brady expected to go, I like the Pats to lock up the No. 1 seed in the AFC with a win over the Bills.
49ers 23, RAMS 6 – Noon
Just how bad are the Rams? Let’s count the ways. The Rams have scored 166 points, have 249 first downs, have converted a league low 27.7% of their third downs, and have two wins. For comparison’s sake, the Packers scored 173 points through the first five games of the season, the Saints have 257 passing first downs, only one other team in the NFL converts less than 31% of their third downs, and they’re vying for the top-overall selection for the second time in the past three years. Seeing that they’re playing a San Francisco team that is still competing for a first-round bye, and the other two-win team (Indy) will most likely pick up their third win of the season in Jacksonville, it’s firing squad time in St. Louis. Two years removed from a $78M contract with $50M guaranteed for Sam Bradford, the Rams will have some serious decisions to make when the draft rolls around. Bradford is still owed $24M, so I think they may be stuck with that deal. If they’re smart, they will draft and trade the rights to Andrew Luck, then use the bevy of picks they acquire to fill the crater-sized holes on their roster.
TEXANS 23, Titans 20 – Noon
The Titans, clinging onto very slim playoff hopes, head to Houston to battle the reeling Texans. In addition to winning this game against the Texans, a lot needs to happen for the Titans to reach the postseason: a Ravens win, a Jets win coupled with Oakland or Denver losses, or a Jets loss coupled with Oakland or Denver wins. Confused yet? Good. The Texans have lost two-straight games, and rookie signal caller TJ Yates hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass for three weeks. The Texans have locked up the No. 3 seed in the AFC and cannot improve or worsen their position. However, seeing that they’re preparing to host their first playoff game in franchise history, you can safely assume they want to right the ship. A few reinforcements may arrive this weekend for the Texans, in the form of wide receiver Andre Johnson and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. I like the Texans to run over the Titans and squash their playoff hopes in the process.
EAGLES 27, Redskins 20 – Noon
It’s the “failed formula” bowl, as the Eagles host the Redskins. The early Dan Snyder-era Redskins and this year’s Eagles have provided cautionary tales to their NFL brethren, and the message is free-agency spending sprees assure you nothing. Well, nothing, except a ton of expectations that you’ll most likely not live up to. The Redskins seem to have acknowledged the errors of their ways, as they held onto all of their draft picks this past April and actually traded down to acquire more picks. However, this is akin to an overweight person who has gorged on fatty foods and sugars for years, getting a gym membership and expecting to be ready for beach season. It just doesn’t work that way. On the other sideline, the Eagles added a half-dozen players with Pro Bowl resumes – mostly on defense – and promoted a former offensive line coach to defensive coordinator in an abbreviated offseason. Anyone who thought this would be an immediate success – cough, Vince Young, cough – is simply misguided. I digress, I like the Eagles to win the failed formula bowl and salvage a sliver of dignity by ending the season at .500.
Lions 27, PACKERS 23 – Noon
Having locked up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Packers have little incentive to play their starters in this game. The offense surely got the bad taste left in their mouths by the Chiefs, and carved up the Bears for five passing touchdowns (a new career high for NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers). On the other hand, the paper champion Lions have something to play for – the No. 5 seed in the NFC – so they can take their chances in Dallas or New York, and avoid a trip to New Orleans in the first-round of the playoffs. Even though Matt Flynn isn’t a stiff back-up quarterback, he’s no Rodgers, and the scoreboard will reflect that in Lambeau.
FALCONS 27, Buccaneers 17 – 3:15 PM
The Falcons will certainly be watching the scoreboard of the Lions-Packers game, as if the Lions win, there’s nothing the Falcons can do to improve their playoff position. The Falcons spent the majority of this week complaining about the Saints letting Drew Brees go for the single-season passing yardage record late in the game, saying “they won’t forget it”. Well, those make for great sound-bytes and headlines, but here’s a novel concept, stop them from doing it! Last time I checked, you have defensive players and coaches who get paid to stop people from moving the ball and scoring, so you have nobody to be upset with but yourselves. I found the Falcons complaints to be unfounded and weak, much like their defense. This weekend, they face the brutal Bucs, who have lost nine-straight games. What a colossal failure this season has been for Tampa Bay. A turnover-prone offense, an undisciplined defense, and a complete regression from quarterback Josh Freeman (whom I’ve called a bum all season long). The Falcons will make it 10-straight losses for the Bucs, and prompt a series of pink slips in Tampa.
Ravens 20, BENGALS 17 – 3:15 PM
This is Week 17’s silver medalist for game of the week, as there are some serious playoff ramifications in this game. The Ravens visit the Bengals, in an AFC North clash featuring two of the NFL’s best defenses. With a win, the Ravens can secure at least one home playoff game – they were a flawless 8-0 at home this year – and could potentially lock up the top overall seed in the AFC if the Patriots lose to the Bills. By virtue of sweeping the Steelers this year, the Ravens hold the tiebreaker, so this is a huge game for John Harbaugh’s team, who are seeking their first AFC North title since 2006. The 2011 Bengals exceeded all realistic expectations and have created quite a buzz in the Queen City. Led by rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and rookie wide receiver AJ Green, the future is very bright for the Bengals. Don’t forget the Bengals have two first round picks next April, thanks to the Carson Palmer trade, so this team is definitely on the up-swing. Do you think general manager Mike Brown wore a mask while that deal was consummated? Good grief. As much as I’m buying the future of the Bengals, I think the Ravens defense will step up and lead them to victory. Just think Ravens fans, you’re only two weeks away from Joe Flacco breaking your heart in the playoffs.
Steelers 24, BROWNS 10 – 3:15 PM
The Steelers get their third bye-week of the season, when they visit Cleveland. The last time these two teams clashed, there were some quarterback casualties, namely an ankle-mangled Ben Roethlisberger and a concussed Colt McCoy. With slim hopes of the No. 2 AFC playoff seed, the Steelers are going to force Roethlisberger into action, which I cannot agree with at all. Think about it, at worst, the Steelers will end up with the No. 5 seed and play an away game against the awful winner of the AFC West (Oakland or Denver), so why risk further injury to Roethlisberger, who if he re-injures his ankle, will leave you with no chance at all in the playoffs? Alas, I don’t run the Steelers and my advice means nothing to them. Perhaps they think they can just have Roethlisberger just hand the ball off all game to win, but even so, why couldn’t Charlie Batch do that? He did it just fine in last week’s bye game against the Rams. Batch or B-Ro, the Browns are awful, and stand no chance on Sunday.
Chiefs 16, BRONCOS 20 – 3:15 PM
While it may be very mediocre football on the field, this game has the most intriguing storyline of all Week 17 action. Jettisoned Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton gets a chance to lead his new Kansas City teammates to victory against Touchdown Tebus and send the Broncos packing in 2011. Surely, Broncos general manager John Elway knew there was a chance that his (honorable) decision to release Kyle Orton could come back to haunt him, as at the time of the release, their division rival Chiefs quarterback situation had devolved to something named Tyler Palko. Orton was scooped up by the Chiefs, Palko went on to play as poorly as one can in the NFL, Orton took the polish off the Packers perfect season bid, and now has a chance to put the final nail in the Broncos coffin. I love the Chiefs secondary, but they are very soft against the run. Seeing that running the football is the only thing the Broncos do well, I have a feeling they’re going to ground and pound their way to victory on Sunday. Part of me hopes the Broncos make the playoffs, just so we can watch them get absolutely waxed by the Steelers (or Ravens) in the first round of the playoffs, but the other part of me gags at the thought of the media coverage leading up to that game. Get your barf bags ready.
Chargers 24, RAIDERS 23 – 3:15 PM
It’s hard to believe the awful Raiders still have a chance to win the AFC West, but they do. More than anything, this is an indictment of the division, which has taken the torch from the NFC West, and established itself as the armpit of the NFL. This weekend, the Raiders get a visit from the Chargers, who hope to avoid their first losing season since 2003. If the Raiders win and the Chiefs knock off the Broncos, the Raiders will win their first AFC West title since 2002. Even if the Broncos win, the Raiders could back into the playoffs provided they win, the Ravens win, and either the Jets or Titans win. That’s admittedly complicated to follow, so I’ll spare any drama and let people know the Raiders won’t win on Sunday so this will all be moot.
Seahawks 21, CARDINALS 20 – 3:15 PM
Hats off to Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch, who pulled the double-dip last week against the 49ers. Lynch became the first running back in 2011 to punch the goal line against San Fran, and the first running back in 37 games to break the century mark. Obviously, those are amazing stats for the 49ers defense, which makes Lynch’s accomplishments that much more noteworthy. This weekend, the Seahawks head south to battle John Skelton and the Cardinals. Obviously, I don’t need to pound on Kevin Kolb anymore, as my criticism was justified and the Cardinals have moved on from Kolb. What a bust. I love the Seahawks defense, especially their secondary, which may become the model for NFL defenses. Armed with tall, physical corners, a linebacker-like strong safety, and a true center fielder at free safety, the Seahawks have the personnel to neutralize Larry Fitzgerald this weekend in the desert.
Season Record: 160-80