The NFL schedule is designed to ensure that the end of the season showcases meaningful divisional rivalries, which is why this weekend and next are loaded with so many of the league’s fiercest matchups: Baltimore vs. Pittsburgh, Denver vs. Kansas City, the Browns vs. near-historic futility, etc. Games like that spark a great deal of excitement, but also leave legacies on the line.
Because football doesn’t feature a WAR-style stat to measure overall effectiveness the way other sports do, wins and losses wind up mattering a little too much to NFL media, fans, and even personnel. As such, for certain players and coaches, this closing two-game run will determine the perception of their season — and for some, their careers. Here are the five with the most on the line, perception-wise, entering the season’s final stretch:
Texans Coach Bill O’Brien
Poor O’Brien finds himself giving interviews about not quitting on Brock Osweiler, whom he pulled from the game last week. Osweiler, of course, was famously so upset about being benched in Denver that he decided to leave town as soon as possible. And the Broncos benched him for one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time; the Texans just benched him for Tom Savage, who is decidedly not one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Will Brock ever recover?
If Savage plays well and helps the Texans secure the AFC South, O’Brien will look smart. If Savage plays poorly and the Texans miss the playoffs, O’Brien will look like a guy who, despite his reputation as a quarterbacks guru, hasn’t helped a lot of quarterbacks.
Broncos QB Trevor Siemian
There was a “shouting match” between the Broncos offense and defense last week. The reason is obvious: The Broncos defense is obviously playoff caliber, while the offense has scored 13 points total in the past two weeks. Because of that offensive ineptitude, Denver is in jeopardy of missing the playoffs.
The Broncos continue to support Siemian, but no matter what they say, the next two weeks are crucial for determining his future in the league. If he leads an offensive resurgence, he’ll look like the perfect low-cost option for a team that wants to rely on defense. If he keeps coming up short, Denver may find itself in the Tony Romo trade market. Rookie Paxton Lynch hasn’t shown enough to earn the starting role next year, meaning the door could be wide open for an older, elite passer to pair with this defense. Hey, it worked with Peyton Manning.
Bucs QB Jameis Winston
The football world judges quarterbacks shallowly: If a passer isn’t obviously awful or obviously elite, the public perception of his abilities will largely stem from wins and losses. Winston spent the first half of the season carrying an 82 rating, struggling with turnovers, and looking like a pretty average young QB. While he hasn’t exactly morphed into Aaron Rodgers, he’s improved considerably in the second half. Yet rightly or wrongly (it’s wrongly), most pundits will label his season a success only if he leads his team to the playoffs. Such is the burden of being an inconsistent young quarterback in today’s NFL.
Browns Coach Hue Jackson
He’s repeatedly insisted that the Browns will find a way to win a game. That’s not a particularly high mountain to climb, but, uh, his Browns have yet to climb it.
Packers QB Aaron Rodgers
At Thanksgiving, the Packers were 4–6, and Rodgers looked like he was headed toward the worst season of his career. Since then, the Packers have won four in a row and he’s been perhaps the best quarterback in the NFL, throwing seven touchdowns and zero interceptions and posting a 115 rating while emerging as a dark-horse MVP candidate. The Packers likely have to win out against the Vikings and Lions to make the playoffs, and if they do, Rodgers will have a real shot at the award, especially after last week’s heroics against the Bears. More importantly, he’ll have a real shot at the Super Bowl.
No player has more on the line than Rodgers as the season concludes. If the Packers slip up, Rodgers’s early season struggles will again become the headline, leading to fresh questions this offseason — after all, while a 100 quarterback rating would look good for pretty much everyone else on the planet, it would rank as just Rodgers’s seventh-best in his nine seasons as a starter. Expectations suck. If they get in, though, the Packers will be well-positioned to make some noise, and Rodgers’s season will draw hype as one of the best rebounds in recent memory.
And now, on to the picks. (Home team in CAPS.)
Minnesota (+7) over GREEN BAY
The last time these teams met, on September 18, Sam Bradford played so well that it started his journey toward midseason MVP buzz. Now? The Vikings have lost seven of nine, the offensive line is decimated by injuries, potential savior Adrian Peterson failed to save anything when he returned from injury last week, and Mike Zimmer just ripped one of the Vikings’ most talented defenders, Anthony Barr, for his tendency to “coast.” The Bradford trade, which briefly looked like it worked for both sides, now looks like this year’s version of the RG3 draft-slot trade, which ultimately didn’t help anyone. Other than that, though, everything is going well for Minnesota.
The Packers have slid into the Vikings’ trendy Super Bowl–contender spot over the past few weeks. In addition to Rodgers playing his best football of the year, the Packers are getting huge contributions from Ty Montgomery, a converted receiver who is apparently a good running back. The defense is still giving up too many yards, including 449 to the freaking Bears last week, but has made up for it with 12 turnovers in the past four weeks. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who had two picks last week, has five interceptions in the season’s second half. The Packers will win this one, but the Vikings defense will avoid coasting and at least keep it close.
Atlanta (-3) over CAROLINA
Julio Jones has missed two games with a toe injury, and during that time he apparently discovered that he would be a great coach to some of the “knuckleheads” in the league. Jones would be a top-20 coach right now (tell me he wouldn’t improve the Jaguars in the final two games, especially as player-coach) but he’s back practicing, and even if he’s not coaching, he should find a way to contribute against a team he burned for 300 yards in the last meeting. The Panthers have retooled their secondary since then, but if Julio is healthy come game time, it won’t matter.
Speaking of superstar health, Luke Kuechly had to brush off questions about potential retirement this week, saying he hopes he can play in the team’s final two games. This is a lost season for Carolina, so there’s no reason for Kuechly to trot out there and risk his long-term health, but that won’t stop people from badgering him with questions about his return.
Whether or not Kuechly plays, and whether or not Jones serves as player or coach, Atlanta will win this one big.
NEW ENGLAND (-17) over NY Jets
Bill Belichick revealed this week that he (a) “love[s] caroling” and (b) once picked up the tab for former safety Brandon Meriweather at the Pro Bowl after former Patriot Matt Light baited Meriweather into asking the coach as a prank.
This is not a prank: Belichick “thinks” the Jets’ quarterbacks are good. Belichick, who loves to butter up opponents, outdid himself this week:
No one — not Todd Bowles, not Ryan Fitzpatrick, not Bryce Petty — believes any of that, but that’s Belichick for you. And here are the Jets for you: They’re going with Petty here even though he has three touchdowns and six picks on the season and hasn’t climbed above a 75.5 quarterback rating in any of the four games in which he’s thrown double-digit passes. Clearly, the Jets are in a giving mood this holiday season:
Washington (-3) at CHICAGO
A noted Redskins power player weighed in on the Kirk Cousins extension talk this week: “I’ve seen enough. Let’s do it.” Unfortunately for Cousins, it was Matthew McConaughey, who doesn’t have any personnel power in Washington (I don’t think). The Cousins extension is one of the most perplexing topics in football right now. He’s a good starter, and any “starter” is comically expensive. (Hi, Brock!) The only way Cousins fails to land a huge deal is if he looks awful against the Bears and Giants to close the season and people start asking questions about his already-scrutinized level of consistency. But who am I kidding? He’s a starter and he’s breathing. Pay the man!
There’s no debating that Cousins is worth a lot more than Matt Barkley, whose three-interception performance last week may have taken him out of “guys teams talk themselves into giving big contracts to” consideration. The Bears have to be despondent after suffering such a bad loss to the rival Packers in Week 15, and the Redskins will be able to run against the league’s 23rd-ranked rush defense. The Bears have given up 100 yards on the ground in five straight weeks, including 226 yards to the Pack. Get ready, Fat Rob!
BUFFALO (-4) over Miami
A funny bit in the Miami Herald this week detailed how assistant coaches persuaded Adam Gase to retain longtime backup Matt Moore by telling “Gase that Moore is a winner — an actual fact given his winning won-loss record in career starts.” Moore was 13–12 as a starter at the time, and he won last week to improve to 14–12, so this technically remains the most facty of all facts. But Moore is not the quarterback a playoff hopeful should be starting, and now he has to go on the road against a Bills team that’s better than its record indicates. Look at Shady McCoy’s insane efficiency:
Like Dan Wetzel, I think that Rex Ryan is a much better coach than we give him credit for, and think it’s sad that he’ll likely be fired at season’s end and never given another chance to be a head coach. Winning this one at home will be a nice going-away present.
San Diego (-5.5) over CLEVELAND
This week, a great story in the Detroit Free-Press revealed how members of the winless 2008 Detroit Lions are bummed that the Browns appear likely to go through with this. It also shed some light on what a rough go these current Browns players are having. With a Week 17 matchup against the Steelers looming, Sunday is essentially Cleveland’s last chance to win.
As though the reality of an 0–16 season weren’t bad enough, the Browns now have an out-of-left-field controversy involving former Brown Brian Hartline throwing bombs at Terrelle Pryor. “Is he my No. 1[receiver]? God, I hope not,” Hartline said. “Because let’s put it this way: For me, I want a guy day in and day out I know what I’m getting. You don’t know what you’re going to get.” The good news for gamblers and the Chargers: You do know what you’re going to get with the Browns — a loss and a complete failure to cover.
Tennessee (-5) over JACKSONVILLE
Gus Bradley, one of the worst coaches in NFL history, was not even granted the dignity of being fired in private. He, along with the rest of the world, knew he was fired before he had to board the team plane for the flight back from Houston. Defensive lineman Sen’Derrick Marks put it succinctly: “Yeah, that sucked.” It also sort of sucked for Doug Marrone, the presumed coach-in-waiting during this entire doomed season, who now gets only two games to prove himself worthy of the permanent job. Even worse, in order to gain control of the Jaguars … he has to coach the Jaguars.
Marrone immediately held an invitation-only meeting with certain players, leading multiple uninvited players to tell the Times-Union that they had to “speculate if it was a sign that their future isn’t with the team.” Let me help: It was. Anyway, there’s going to be a whole lot of awkwardness in Jacksonville, and this week the Jags have to play a good team led by another former Jacksonville coach. It’s gonna get ugly. Or, as Marks would say: It’s gonna suck.
Indianapolis (+4) over OAKLAND
A potential no. 1 seed is playing a team with a great quarterback and a real playoff chance. So of course, everyone is talking about the punters. With Pat McAfee and Marquette King set to duel, a small debate has emerged over who brought swag to the punter position:
McAfee also took shots at the NFL’s official Twitter account for suggesting that King should have made the Pro Bowl over him:
As intriguing as this punter showdown is, I’m slightly more interested in watching Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin go against the Colts offensive line. The Indy line can make any pass-rush duo look like Mack and Irvin, so it’s almost scary to imagine what the genuine articles will be able to pull off here. Mack’s eight-game sack streak came to an end last week, but Irvin picked up the slack by recording two. Both pass rushers are hot, which means McAfee is going to need to put on a show to give the Colts a chance. They’ll keep this close, but a strip sack or another turnover will win it for Oakland. The only question is which pass rusher will cause it.
SEATTLE (-8) over Arizona
In the NFL, a “distraction” is anything out of the ordinary that coaches or media dislike. That’s an odd idea, but if it’s real, then the Seahawks are facing an uphill battle with Richard Sherman. The cornerback started feuding with coaches over their decision to throw the ball from the goal line, then later said that he was going to ruin a reporter’s career and pull his credentials over some pointed questions. Sherman apologized to the reporter but not to the coaches, saying: “I think sometimes things need to happen like that.” The comments to the reporter became so widely discussed that Russell Wilson, who tells many lame jokes, told a lame joke about pulling reporters’ credentials, which is a weirdly good sign that the Seahawks are back to being themselves: Sherman is getting heated and Wilson is telling dad jokes.
Of course, none of this actually matters, because the Cardinals are going to be distracted by something more damaging: being bad.
LOS ANGELES (-4) over San Francisco
Please do not watch this game.
Tampa Bay (+3) over NEW ORLEANS
Put away your charts, math guys, because Winston doesn’t care much for playoff scenarios: “I love math. But I don’t trust the percentages and the probabilities,” Winston said. “I trust our heart. This team’s heart and what we need to do to find a way to get in here.”
“Heart” is not a playoff tiebreaker, but the Bucs still have a chance of actually, mathematically getting in. Standing in the way: the Saints, who after two disastrous games recovered to score 48 points and gain 488 yards last week against Arizona. Drew Brees, a Pro Bowl snub, will probably have to be similarly heroic to win here, which is going to be tough. After a nightmarish start to the season in which they gave up 300 yards four times in the first eight games, the Bucs have settled down and avoided allowing a 300-yard passer since Week 9. Here’s betting that continues.
HOUSTON (even) over Cincinnati
Here’s your present on Christmas Eve night: Tom Savage against Andy Dalton! As Cincy’s website notes, Marvin Lewis has allowed 50 total points to the five previous quarterbacks he’s faced in their debut as starters. Brock Berlin was one of them, but so was Joe Flacco.
When it comes to anticipating Savage’s future, I’m leaning more toward Berlin. Savage is probably not good, but at the very least, he showed in Week 15 that he’s capable of making throws Osweiler hasn’t come close to in weeks.
Against a Bengals team that has managed road wins against only the Jets and Browns, that will be enough. At least Lewis has the four-penalties-in-four-plays thing under control:
Baltimore (+5) over PITTSBURGH
Steelers safety Mike Mitchell has a level-headed view on the Steelers-Ravens rivalry: “I don’t know, man. It’s kind of like growing up in the Cold War and you just don’t like Russia.” I’m not totally clear on who is whom in that scenario. But Mitchell is doing his own thing here, and I respect it.
The Steelers are hot, and their success over the last few weeks has them well positioned to make a run in the playoffs:
But you know what? The Ravens are pretty good, too. Their defense can keep them in it, and they likely won’t have a repeat of what John Harbaugh called the “all-time worst call” last week: a pass that led to a Joe Flacco fourth-quarter interception. Actually, well, they might. But that defense! Ravens cover, Steelers win. (America won and covered in the Cold War.)
Denver (+3.5) over KANSAS CITY
Andy Reid is — wait for it — getting criticized for his play-calling! Travis Kelce, when asked what changed in the second half of the Chiefs’ 19–17 loss to the Titans last week, said: “Other than play-calling, I couldn’t really tell you.” Other than play-calling! Reid has a great team, and the defense has been making big plays late in games all season, but issues remain. A particularly puzzling one: Reid didn’t give Tyreek Hill any more touches after his 68-yard touchdown last week. Reid is one of the best coaches of his generation, but if he’s overthinking (or underthinking!) late-game strategy, it will limit how far this potentially special Chiefs team can go.
Speaking of limited, guess what? The barely above-average Siemian isn’t the only reason that the offense can’t get anything going: The Broncos have totaled 76 combined rushing yards in the last two weeks, and that aforementioned heated argument (between Russell Okung and Aqib Talib) after last week’s loss to the Patriots is really surprising for only one reason: that more defenders weren’t mad.
The Broncos still have Von Miller, a great defense, and the ability to keep the Chiefs’ conservative offense at bay, but given all of their other limitations, I’m not particularly encouraged about the state of the franchise right now. The Broncos will keep this close, but lose.
Detroit (+7) over DALLAS
In the mic’d-up clip of his touchdown and ensuing Salvation Army bucket jump, Zeke Elliott calls the move “classic,” and it really was:
Elliott had 159 yards last week and averaged nearly 7 yards per carry. He’s running exceptionally well. But his 310 rushing attempts lead the league by 42. At some point, the Cowboys will realize that they need to preserve him for the playoffs, and a Week 16 game against Detroit’s 11th-ranked rushing defense may be the time to dial it back. Regardless, the Lions are much better than last week’s nightmare against the Giants suggested. They’ll keep Elliott under 120 yards (a minor miracle!), while Matthew Stafford will find a way to exploit the league’s 28th-ranked pass defense. Dallas will win, but Detroit will keep it tight until the final possession.
Last week: 9–6–1