By Don Banks | December 21, 2017 2 pm PT
There’s nothing like fresh story lines in the NFL playoffs and we’re in for a boatload of them next month. Of the eight teams that currently own at least 10 wins and have either clinched or are in great shape to make the postseason, only two of them — New England and Pittsburgh — reached double digits in wins last season.
Three last-place teams from 2016 are either in the playoffs or almost certainly headed there: Jacksonville, Philadelphia and Carolina. The same goes for three third-place finishers from a year ago: Minnesota, New Orleans and the L.A. Rams, with Buffalo still having a shot to become the fourth.
That’s a lot of turnover in the playoffs, and that means expectations went unmet in many NFL locales. Of the 10 teams that won at least 10 games last season, six of them aren’t currently in possession of postseason-qualifying seeds: Dallas, the Giants, Green Bay and Seattle in the NFC, and Miami and Oakland in the AFC. Of that group, only the Cowboys or Seahawks could still win 10 (but not both, since they play this week).
As we arrive at the penultimate week of the NFL’s regular season, the schedule isn’t the greatest, certainly not the equal of Week 15’s. But we do have some matchups to be thankful for, including another Falcons-Saints skirmish in the NFC South, and that Seattle at Dallas elimination game late Sunday afternoon.
Personally, I’m also pleased the NFL schedule-makers gave us Miami at Kansas City on Christmas Eve day. That game will occur one day shy of the 46th anniversary of one of the greatest games in NFL history: Dolphins at Chiefs in the 1971 AFC Divisional playoffs, a double-overtime classic won by Miami on Christmas Day, still the longest game in league history at 82 minutes and 40 seconds of spell-binding action. As a kid growing up a Dolphins fan in St. Petersburg, Fla., I can remember that riveting game like it was yesterday.
* Last week’s picks: 14-2 (.875); Season: 35-13 (.729).
Indianapolis at Baltimore — When the Colts play back in Baltimore, I always think they should ride in a Mayflower moving truck from the hotel to the stadium. To, you know, reverse the bad karma of how they left under the cover of night in late March 1984. The Ravens, who left Cleveland, will supply enough revenge by themselves I suppose. Baltimore (8-6) needs this game to move back into playoff position, and the Colts are a dreadful 3-11. Winner: Baltimore.
Minnesota at Green Bay — The Packers made the rational move in shutting down QB Aaron Rodgers for the rest of the season. You don’t play No. 12 at less than 100 percent in games that don’t really matter. Let’s hear it for Green Bay, which ended its streak of playoff berths at eight years in a row, leaving only New England (nine) atop that particular mountain. The Vikings will benefit from Rodgers’ absence, chalking up their 12th win and protecting their first-round bye position. Winner: Minnesota.
Atlanta at New Orleans — Why isn’t this game on Saturday night, or Monday night? It seems wasted early on Sunday afternoon. The winner clinches a playoff berth, and the Saints will be in command of the NFC South if they protect their home turf. The Falcons barely beat New Orleans in Atlanta two weeks ago. But the Saints will prevail a bit more comfortably in their home dome. Winner New Orleans.
Buffalo at New England — The Patriots and Eagles currently hold the top seeds in their respective conferences, and both have home games in Weeks 16-17. And you know what that means. If they take care of business, New England and Philadelphia won’t have to leave home until they pack for Minneapolis and their Super Bowl showdown on Feb. 4. That’s a long time between flights in a football season, and both teams would love that travel itinerary. Winner: New England.
L.A. Rams at Tennessee — Can the Titans stop the bleeding or will they take it all the way down to Week 17 at home against Jacksonville before they finally face a win-or-go-home scenario? I don’t see Tennessee’s defense slowing down the powerful Rams offense too much, and I sure don’t see that so-so Titans offense matching points with Los Angeles. The Titans are in real trouble, and only a weak, weak AFC might save them. Winner: Los Angeles.
Tampa Bay at Carolina — The off-field distraction level in Charlotte is high, thanks to team owner Jerry Richardson, but the Panthers won’t be seriously tested or lose focus against the Bucs. If Tampa Bay couldn’t handle the Falcons at home Monday night, it’s not going into Carolina and shaking up the three-team NFC South race. Winner: Carolina.
Cleveland at Chicago — Remarkably, the Bears are 0-7 under John Fox when they’re favored. And they’re favored against the winless Browns. But I’m not picking Cleveland to win. I tried that two weeks ago when the Browns played Green Bay, and you know the rest of the story. The Browns are the Browns for good reason. Winner: Chicago.
Miami at Kansas City — The Chiefs play their third consecutive home game, having impressively handled the Raiders and Chargers the past two weeks and put themselves into position to defend their AFC West title for the first time ever. One more win clinches the division, and while the Dolphins could put up a fight, Arrowhead Stadium will again give Kansas City its winning edge. Winner: Kansas City.
Detroit at Cincinnati — The Lions have to have this gimme of a game to have any shot of catching No. 6-seeded Atlanta in the NFC wild-card chase. Detroit’s an unpredictable team, but the Bengals are basically mailing it in at this point, while waiting for Marvin Lewis to end his 15-year coaching run in Cincinnati. Winner: Detroit.
L.A. Chargers at N.Y. Jets — Philip Rivers folded in a big-game setting again last week, and the Chargers essentially wasted all the hard work they had done in winning seven out of 10 games after that brutal 0-4 start. I’ll take Los Angeles, but I wouldn’t be shocked if the Chargers came out flat and the plucky Jets beat them. Even with Bryce Petty at quarterback. Winner: Los Angeles.
Denver at Washington — This is no Super Bowl matchup and Doug Williams is not coming into the game to rally Washington from a 10-point deficit to a 32-point win, like he did almost 30 years ago in San Diego. There’s little to play for in the case of either team, but Kirk Cousins isn’t the type of quarterback to approach it that way. Winner: Washington.
Jacksonville at San Francisco — I’m tempted to pick the upset because with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback the 49ers actually believe they’re a very good team. But the Jaguars really are a quality team and they’re playing with some supreme confidence of their own these days. It’ll be close, but Jacksonville will make the plays that decide the outcome. Winner: Jacksonville.
Seattle at Dallas — At 8-4, I thought the Seahawks were getting ready to rise up and make some noise as an NFC playoff qualifier. But after losses to the Jaguars and Rams the past two weeks, Seattle looks like a team that knows its glory days are in the past. The Cowboys are still alive, and with RB Ezekiel Elliott back from suspension, they’ll have plenty of juice to put away the fading Seahawks. Winner: Dallas.
N.Y. Giants at Arizona — Perhaps the Giants should try to turn the clock back 10 years and pretend they’re the 2007 team that shocked the football world by upsetting the 18-0 Patriots in this same University of Phoenix Stadium. But when you’re 2-12, nothing works. Winner: Arizona.
Pittsburgh at Houston — The Steelers should be poised to take out their frustration from last week’s near miss against New England. And besides that, Pittsburgh needs to keep winning to secure a first-round bye and line up a rematch against those hated Patriots. The injury-depleted Texans won’t stand in their way. Winner: Pittsburgh.
Oakland at Philadelphia — Both teams could have their fate sealed before this game kicks off, thus changing the intensity level. The Raiders could be eliminated by then, and the Eagles could have the No. 1 seed in the NFC salted away come Monday night. But even so, Philly is the much better team, and should find a way to vanquish a sloppy and underachieving Oakland club that can’t end the season soon enough. Winner: Philadelphia.