As great as the playoffs are, the results have become predictable in recent seasons. No Super Bowl participant has had to win a playoff game on the road since the 2012 season, when the Ravens beat the Broncos and Patriots in consecutive weeks before defeating the 49ers in the Super Bowl. In fact, that Baltimore team is the last to make the Super Bowl after playing on wild-card weekend. The point is that the top teams have gotten much better at taking advantage of having a bye and home-field advantage. This bodes well for the Saints, who have clinched the no. 1 seed in the NFC. There’s plenty more that needs to be sorted out in Week 17. Sunday’s results will finalize playoff seeding, get some coaches fired, and decide the fate of some draft picks. It will be entertaining as hell. Here are the matchups to watch:
Indianapolis Colts vs. Tennessee Titans
The NFL has done a good job cultivating drama for Week 17 by moving games with playoff implications to the 4:25 p.m. ET time slot or to the night game. This is done, in part, to replicate the last-day-of-the-season drama found in MLB and European soccer leagues. Past win-and-in games include the Packers beating the Bears in 2013 to clinch the NFC North and the Redskins beating the Cowboys in 2012 to clinch the NFC East. The Colts and Titans aren’t exactly juggernauts, but there’s a reason their matchup was flexed to Sunday night: It’s really cool to see a winner-take-all game, even if it might involve Blaine Gabbert.
Mike Wells of ESPN had a good piece about Andrew Luck’s history against the Titans. Luck injured his shoulder against Tennessee in 2015, forcing him to miss 26 of the next 45 games. He’s healthy now, but his Titans counterpart is not. Marcus Mariota left last week’s game with an injury, and his status for Sunday is unknown. He was replaced by Gabbert, who posted a 123 QB rating in relief duty as the Titans beat Washington to keep their playoff hopes alive. His performance was so shocking that Redskins safety D.J. Swearinger publicly blasted his defensive coordinator’s play-calling, leading to his release. So, yeah, not much is expected of Gabbert. As for Mariota’s injury history, this is a worrying trend:
Bad things tend to happen to Marcus Mariota around Week 16:— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) December 22, 2018
2015: Did not play (injured week before)
2016: Injured ankle in 3rd quarter (missed rest of season)
2017: Lost third straight game
2018: Injured elbow in 2nd quarter pic.twitter.com/vUiESXRbf1
A lot can happen in the AFC in Week 17. My colleague Riley McAtee played around with ESPN’s Playoff Machine and found this … well, I don’t know what to call it. This situation:
current favorite playoff scenario pic.twitter.com/ZTIeGp9jO4— Riley McAtee (@Riley_McAtee) December 25, 2018
Or, to put the chaos more clearly:
How up in the air is the AFC?— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) December 25, 2018
*Chiefs, Chargers, Patriots, Texans all have a shot at #1 seed.
*Ravens can still be #2 seed
*Chiefs can still be #5 seed
*There’s a scenario in which Chiefs play at Patriots on Wild Card Weekend
So much is still in play. The Titans getting the bye? Sure. The Colts blowing out the Titans and going on a big playoff run with a rejuvenated Andrew Luck? Why not? A Blaine Gabbert redemption season? I’ll allow it.
Philadelphia Eagles vs. Washington Redskins
I’ve noticed an argument emerge since Nick Foles took over for Carson Wentz. I won’t call it a straw-man argument or a hot take. It’s more of a pre-take, arguing a position that is not even being debated. It’s that Wentz is definitely better than Foles. This, of course, is obvious. Wentz was an MVP candidate in 2017 and played well this year before he injured his back. Foles flailed in his September starts but has led the Eagles to two wins in December since replacing Wentz. Crucially, Foles will cost $20 million against the cap next year, so he’ll be far more expensive than Wentz’s $8.4 million cap hit. It’s clear who Philadelphia’s no. 1 quarterback is when both players are healthy.
Foles leading the Eagles to the postseason is a low-probability event; FiveThirtyEight gives them a 28 percent chance of making the playoffs. If he does manage to get them in and win two or more games, then he will reinforce his status as a football god. Instead of worrying about who starts next year for Philadelphia (it will be Wentz), we should enjoy another year of a wacky, fun playoff push by Foles. Plus, look at these deep passes:
#Eagles - Throws with 40+ air yards— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) December 23, 2018
Nick Foles - 11 TD, 4 INT
Carson Wentz - 2 TD, 7 INT
Cleveland Browns vs. Baltimore Ravens
If you had told me in the summer that these would be the two hottest teams in the AFC North heading into Week 17, I would have had some follow-up questions. The Ravens face a simple win-and-in scenario, but they’ll have to beat a Browns team that has won five of their last six games. Baker Mayfield might have played himself into the second spot behind Patrick Mahomes II on the list of the best young NFL quarterbacks. Check out this breakdown:
.@Browns @bakermayfield just keeps on ripping this league apart. How confident must you be to make these throws? Merry Christmas Cleveland! You got the greatest gift of all. A real NFL QB. REJOICE. #BaldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/vP42erfcDJ— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) December 24, 2018
The question is whether Mayfield can handle a Baltimore defense that just wrecked a Chargers offense that seemed unwreckable.
One of this week’s more surprising stories is Peter King’s report that John Harbaugh has a “real chance” of not signing his extension in Baltimore in order to play out the final year on his contract. It remains to be seen how that situation will affect the Ravens this offseason. Browns interim head coach Gregg Williams, who along with Mayfield has turned the Browns around, also has an uncertain future.
But Sunday isn’t about the coaches, it’s about two rookie quarterbacks who are fun as hell. Lamar Jackson is probably going to take Baltimore to the playoffs. Mayfield will probably join him next year. My guess is that a nice quarterback rivalry will be born.
Chicago Bears vs. Minnesota Vikings
The Bears have a slight chance — 7 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight — of getting a bye, which would occur if they beat the Vikings and if the Rams lose to the Niners. So it makes sense that Chicago will have an eye on the Rams result and might be cautious with their starters’ playing time:
Matt Nagy says the Bears will have to be "smart" against the Vikings - as in, if the Rams are blowing out the 49ers at halftime, if that means potentially pulling starters for the second half of the Vikings game.— JJ Stankevitz (@JJStankevitz) December 24, 2018
If the Bears see that the Rams are on their way to a win and pull their starters, that would lead to a much easier path for the Vikings, who face a win-and-in scenario. If the Rams do clinch the bye, then the Bears will face either the Vikings or the Eagles in the wild-card game. There’s an argument that the Vikings might be easier to handle than this strange, mystical Eagles team that can’t seem to lose. It’s one of the strangest scenarios I can remember for a team in Week 17. It might be the weirdest thing on Sunday — and remember, this is a day with a Titans-Colts play-in game, a hot Browns team threatening to keep a good Ravens team out of the playoffs, and Jason Garrett having already clinched a playoff spot. It’s a really weird day.