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Your Week 17 NFL Matchup Guide: Let the Final Battle for the Playoffs Begin

This Sunday presents the wildest Week 17 we’ve had in quite some time, as 11 teams could make or miss the postseason depending on this week’s results. Here’s how it could shake out.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

2020 is over. Gone. Kaput. The problems of last year remain, but for a moment, we can find some weightlessness. Sunday will be a good day to mark the new year, as it might feature one of the best slates of NFL football in a long time.

This is the last week of the regular season, and it will be chaos. Last season, there were two playoff spots still up for grabs entering the final week. This year, there are seven. Eleven teams could make or miss the postseason depending on how Sunday goes. That includes the Dolphins, Browns, Ravens, Colts, Titans, Rams, Bears, Cardinals, Giants, Cowboys, and Washington.

And that isn’t one of those lists in which half the teams have a 3 percent chance of sneaking into the postseason. All of those teams could make the playoffs depending on the outcome of just one or two games. Best of all, all 32 teams will play on Sunday, and 11 of the 16 games will have some impact on the playoff field. This will be a legendary Week 17—and the biggest game of all involves a story line that has been brewing for 18 years.

Game of the Week

Early Slate Games

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3) @ Cleveland Browns (10-5)

*Win-and-in scenario

Time: 1 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Opening point spread: Browns -4
Over/under: 41

The Cleveland Browns will make the playoffs if they win this game. Let me repeat that. The Cleveland Browns will make the playoffs if they win this game. The magnitude of that statement has been diluted some by the Odell Beckham Jr. hype, the Baker Mayfield Progressive commercials and Cleveland’s up-and-down performance during the past two seasons. But don’t let that distract from the fact that three years after going 0-16, the Browns could clinch their first playoff appearance in 18 years.

Cleveland blew its chance to clinch last week against the Jets, largely because the Browns’ entire receiving corps was ruled out of the game due to COVID-19 protocols. But that sets up Sunday’s win-and-in scenario against the Steelers as the biggest Browns game of the past 20 years.

It is only fitting that this game is against the Steelers. Pittsburgh is the monster that visits Cleveland in its nightmares (like Pennywise, but with a better color scheme). The Steelers have whooped the Browns so consistently in the past 20 years (going 35-5-1) that Cleveland fired six consecutive head coaches after losing to Pittsburgh (Hue Jackson, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinski, and Mike Pettine). The Steelers don’t just own real estate in the heads of Browns fans. They’ve burrowed into the cerebellum, like a brain-eating amoeba or a Post Malone song. Now Pittsburgh stands between the Browns and the playoffs. That is enough drama for one game. But on top of all that weight, there is also the fact that Mason Rudolph will once again be playing against Myles Garrett.

The Steelers are benching their starters for this game because they’ve already locked up a playoff spot, and the team hasn’t had a bye since Week 4. That means backup quarterback Mason Rudolph will be under center. The last time Rudolph started against the Browns was in November 2019. It was an infamous disaster. With just 15 seconds left in a 21-7 Browns win, Cleveland defensive end Myles Garrett went to sack Rudolph, but Rudolph had already gotten rid of the ball on a screen pass. The two struggled on the ground, and as they got up, Garrett ripped Rudolph’s helmet off his head. Rudolph got in Garrett’s face, and Garrett swung Rudolph’s helmet at the QB’s unprotected head. The fight ignited a brawl.

Garrett was suspended for the rest of the season, and Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey was suspended two games. Garrett later told ESPN’s Mina Kimes that the fight began because Rudolph called him “a stupid n-word.” Rudolph has emphatically denied using a slur.

Garrett was reinstated for this season and is having the best year of his career, though he has been slowed after missing two weeks with COVID-19. The Browns have multiple players on the COVID-19 list who may not be able to play in this game, including safeties Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo.

But turning to backups is no excuse when the Steelers are resting their starters. The Browns have been the butt of our jokes for almost 20 years. On Sunday, they can finally shut everyone up.

Miami Dolphins (10-5) @ Buffalo Bills (12-3)

*Win-and-in scenario

Time: 1 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Opening point spread: Bills -4.5
Over/under: 43.5

The Browns making the playoffs would be the most significant outcome from Week 17, but the Dolphins making the playoffs would be a close second. A year ago, Miami was widely accused of tanking. Now the team is on the verge of making the playoffs and has outsourced its tanking to the Houston Texans, who are gifting the Dolphins a top-five pick in the draft.

If the Dolphins win this game, they are in the playoffs. Even if they lose, they could get in if Baltimore loses to Cincinnati, or if Cleveland loses to Pittsburgh, or if the Colts lose to Jacksonville. In other words, four games have to go the wrong way for them to miss the postseason. But Miami doesn’t have to rely on any other team if they win, and Buffalo may not be as tough an opponent on Sunday as the team appears on paper.

The Bills have clinched the AFC East, and a win would guarantee them the no. 2 seed. Yet it is unclear how valuable that is with the NFL’s new playoff format, in which only the no. 1 seeds get first-round byes. The Steelers are resting their starters because they have had their schedule jerked around by the NFL for months. But the Bills are on a roll right now and may want to close the season on a high note.

Baltimore Ravens (10-5) @ Cincinnati Bengals (4-10-1)

*Win-and-in scenario

Time: 1 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Opening point spread: Ravens -12.5
Over/under: 44.5

The Ravens are in the playoffs if they win this game. It would be a shame if they lost, because they are finally playing the type of football we saw from them last season. Yet the Bengals look far feistier than this point spread would suggest. Cincinnati beat the Steelers by 10 points two weeks ago and then won a shoot-out against Houston. This divisional game might not be as easy for Baltimore as it looks.

Dallas Cowboys (6-9) @ New York Giants (5-10)

Time: 1 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Opening point spread: Giants -3.5
Over/under: 46.5

If Washington loses to the Eagles on Sunday, then the winner of this game wins the NFC East. Woof. If Washington beats the Eagles, the Football Team wins the division and this game falls into the dustbin of history. But Washington plays Philadelphia on Sunday Night Football, while this game is at 1 p.m. ET, so this contest will have a playoff atmosphere. Even so, the atmosphere surrounding the NFC East is more sulfur than oxygen.

The Cowboys offense looked good against Philly’s ravaged secondary last week, and overall, Dallas seems like the best of the three NFC East teams that are still alive. The Cowboys defense is bad, but the Giants probably won’t be able to exploit that. Giants quarterback Daniel Jones will likely play despite ankle and hamstring injuries that make him much slower and unable to escape pass rushers. Jones told reporters he “intends to play from the pocket until I’m healthy.” Considering he has perhaps the worst pocket awareness in the NFL, that is not encouraging to hear.

Atlanta Falcons (4-11) @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-5)

Time: 1 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Opening point spread: Bucs -7.5
Over/under: 50

The Bucs have clinched a playoff spot but cannot climb higher than the no. 5 seed. Still, if they win this game, they will play the winner of the NFC East in the first round of the playoffs. It’s not technically a first-round bye, but it’s close enough.

Minnesota Vikings (6-9) @ Detroit Lions (5-10)

Time: 1 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Opening point spread: Vikings -3.5
Over/under: 53

This may be the last game of Matthew Stafford’s Lions career. Detroit is staring into the void of another rebuild, and Stafford may not be part of it. In his 12-year career in Detroit, he moved the Lions from pathetic to merely mediocre. That alone makes him a legend.

New York Jets (2-13) @ New England Patriots (6-9)

Time: 1 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Opening point spread: Patriots -10 (now Patriots -3)
Over/under: 43 (now 39.5)

Neither of these teams deserve our time or energy, but a couple of their players do. Cam Newton was benched last week in a loss to Buffalo. He was extremely frustrated in his postgame press conference and said he was disappointed in his season considering what he has sacrificed—namely, not seeing his children for the past three months. We will see whether he plays in this game. Newton is a free agent after this season and his future is uncertain.

The other player of note is someone who has already been ruled out: Frank Gore. Gore will miss this game as he recovers from a lung contusion. It is just his third missed game in the past 10 years. He currently has exactly 16,000 rushing yards in 16 NFL seasons, and the only players with more career rushing yards are Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton. As ESPN’s Field Yates tweeted this week, “Not bad for a guy who tore his ACL twice in college.”

Late Slate Games

Green Bay Packers (12-3) @ Chicago Bears (8-7)

*Win-and-in scenario

Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Opening point spread: Packers -5.5
Over/under: 48.5

If the Bears win, they’ll make the playoffs. If the Bears lose, they can still make the playoffs, as long as the Cardinals lose to the Rams. It’s a remarkable feat for a Chicago team that had a six-game losing streak in the middle of the season.

Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky is a free agent after this year, and after he was benched midseason, it seemed like his time in Chicago may have been over. But beating Aaron Rodgers to make the playoffs could convince the Bears to give Trubisky a contract extension. Chicago’s season is on the line this week, but next season’s quarterback situation might be, too.

Green Bay has something to play for as well. If the Packers win, they would get the NFC’s no. 1 seed. If they lose, they could still get the no. 1 seed if the 49ers beat the Seahawks. Not only would a win guarantee the Packers a first-round bye, but an impressive win may secure Rodgers the MVP award. He and Patrick Mahomes are the only real candidates this season, and Mahomes is not playing this week. This game is the last time voters will see Rodgers before casting their ballots. It’s not fair that the MVP vote is so political, but nothing about politics in Wisconsin is fair.


Arizona Cardinals (8-7) @ Los Angeles Rams (9-6)

*Win-and-in scenario

Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Opening point spread: Rams -4.5
Over/under: 42.5

The Cardinals make the playoffs if they win. They miss the playoffs if they lose. The Rams make the playoffs if they win. But they can still make the postseason if they lose and the Packers beat the Bears.

But forget the playoffs for a second and instead focus on how this game is a colossal waste of Tony Romo. This is the best Week 17 we’re getting in years and we’re making Romo announce a contest in which one of the starting quarterbacks is John Wolford? Yes, the Rams will start Wolford in this game after starter Jared Goff broke his thumb last week. Wolford’s biggest career accomplishment thus far is beating out Kendall Hinton—the Denver receiver turned emergency quarterback—for the starting QB job at Wake Forest. Wolford looks like Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite before he got old.

NFL: DEC 06 Rams at Cardinals Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

But quarterback isn’t even L.A.’s only concern. Receiver Cooper Kupp is on the COVID-19 list and may not play. Running backs Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson are both dealing with high ankle sprains, leaving Malcolm Brown with the main rushing duties. The Rams are in bad shape, but Arizona isn’t doing so hot either.

Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray will play this week after suffering a leg injury at the end of Saturday’s loss to the 49ers. It’s great Murray is healthy, but it’s also a bit of a bummer that we won’t get to see his backup, former Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Chris Streveler. This is a photo of Streveler at the Blue Bombers’ Grey Cup parade last year.

Colin Fast/Twitter

Legend. I would refinance my mortgage to bet that dude would beat some Brooks Brothers Wake Forest guy named “John Wolford.” Instead, we’ll just get more of Murray being held back by Kliff Kingsbury.

Seattle Seahawks (11-4) @ San Francisco 49ers (6-9)

Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Opening point spread: Seahawks -6.5
Over/under: 46.5

Seattle gets the no. 1 seed if they win this game and the Packers lose to Chicago and the Saints lose to the Panthers. Unlikely. But playing for a chance at the no. 1 seed is better than being the 49ers, who are playing to end this season and their walking nightmare.

New Orleans Saints (11-4) @ Carolina Panthers (5-10)

Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Opening point spread: Saints -6.5
Over/under: 50.5

The Saints get the no. 1 seed if they win and the Packers lose and the Seahawks win. There’s a lot of convoluted tiebreakers that go into that logic. Don’t think about it too much. Just know that these two teams will be competing. Panthers head coach Matt Rhule believes in #grit and has said that winning in December is a skill.

Tennessee Titans (10-5) @ Houston Texans (4-11)

*Win-and-in scenario

Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Opening point spread: Titans -4.5 (now Titans -7.5)
Over/under: 56

If the Titans win this game, they’ll win the AFC South. Even if they lose, they can still win the division if the Colts lose to Jacksonville. And even if the Titans lose and the Colts win, Tennessee would miss the playoffs only if Baltimore and Miami also win. But the postseason would not feel right without Derrick Henry, so hopefully the Titans can handle their business and beat this sloppy Texans team. Houston has lost three of its past four games by fumbling on the final drive.

Jacksonville Jaguars (1-14) @ Indianapolis Colts (10-5)

*Win-and-some-help-and-in scenario

Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Opening point spread: Colts -12.5
Over/under: 48.5

To make the playoffs, the Colts need a win and one of the following:

  • Tennessee loses to Houston.
  • Cleveland loses to Pittsburgh.
  • Miami loses to Buffalo.
  • Baltimore loses to Cincinnati.

The first half of that scenario shouldn’t be too difficult. The Jaguars have already clinched the first pick in the draft, and coach Doug Marrone may be on his way out the door. If the Colts don’t win, though, this could be the last game in Indy for Philip Rivers—and potentially the last game of his career. “It did cross my mind,” Rivers said on Wednesday. “If things don’t go the way you want this weekend, it could be ... I guess it’s healthy to have that thought because we’re not guaranteed anything going forward.”

Las Vegas Raiders (7-8) @ Denver Broncos (5-10)

Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Opening point spread: Broncos -3 (now Raiders -2.5)
Over/under: 50.5

This game has no impact on the playoff race. But losing would further wound the Raiders’ pride. Since Jon Gruden signed his 10-year, $100 million contract in January 2018, he has 18 wins and 29 losses. The Raiders’ .383 winning percentage in the past three years is worse than the Dolphins’.

Los Angeles Chargers (6-9) @ Kansas City Chiefs (14-1)

Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Opening point spread: Chiefs -3 (now Chargers -3.5)
Over/under: 45

The Chiefs have clinched the AFC’s no. 1 seed and are expected to bench their starters, making this one of the few games this weekend that are completely irrelevant to the playoff race. One thing of note: Travis Kelce has already broken the record for single-season receiving yards by a tight end. He had an outside shot to be the first tight end to lead the entire NFL in receiving yards (he ranks second to Stefon Diggs), but he won’t get that chance without playing in this game.

Sunday Night Football

Washington Football Team (6-9) @ Philadelphia Eagles (4-10-1)

*Win-and-in scenario

Time: 8:20 p.m. ET
Channel: NBC
Opening point spread: Eagles -4 (Now Washington -2)
Over/under: 42.5

It feels wrong to call this a win-and-in game. That title lumps these teams in with real playoff-caliber teams. But still, this game determines a postseason spot. If Washington wins, they’ll win the division. If they lose, the winner of Cowboys-Giants will be the NFC East champion. Regardless, the team that wins this division will be just the third division winner ever to have a losing record, after the Seahawks in 2010 and the Panthers in 2014.

Washington’s quarterback situation for this game is, uh, complicated. The team released quarterback Dwayne Haskins on Monday. Quarterback Alex Smith is dealing with a calf strain, but it’s not a normal calf strain. Smith’s right calf was partially removed as part of a muscle transplant to help heal the broken right leg he suffered two years ago. But Smith is still expected to start. His backup will be Taylor Heinicke, who has been on the team for a month but played surprisingly well in place of Haskins last week. Star receiver Terry McLaurin is also likely to miss this game with a high ankle sprain.

Smith will go up against the Eagles, whose defense got shredded last week against the Cowboys after defensive tackle Fletcher Cox left the game. The Eagles have already been eliminated from playoff contention, but hopelessness has never stopped Philadelphia from trying to make other people miserable.

This is how the 2020 regular season ends. The Washington Football Team is barely able to field a football team. And yet as messed up as it is to watch a 6-9 Washington team claw to make the playoffs, it is oddly inspiring. After everything Alex Smith went through, he could end the season by clinching a postseason spot just a few days into 2021. In a season clouded by darkness, it could end with an unexpected ray of light.