With two weeks left in the regular season, 24 of the 32 NFL teams still have a mathematical chance of getting into the playoffs. In the NFC, four teams—the 49ers, Eagles, Lions, and Cowboys—have clinched a spot, leaving three spots up for grabs. In the AFC, only the Ravens and Dolphins have punched their playoff tickets. How will the playoff picture look after Week 17? On to the picks!
Lines are from FanDuel as of Thursday morning. Stats are from TruMedia and Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.
Week 16 record: 9-7
Season record: 115-117-8
New York Jets at Cleveland Browns (-7.5)
I generally don’t like to pile on when Jets fans get dunked on. They’ve been through enough. But the events of the past week were objectively funny. A New York Post report surfaced Sunday morning that said coach Robert Saleh and GM Joe Douglas would be back in 2024. Then the Jets nearly blew a 20-0 lead at home against the Commanders before rallying for a 30-28 win.
Joe Flacco started four games for the Jets last year and looked cooked. But now he is in Cleveland with a good offensive line and a good offensive schemer in Kevin Stefanski, and Flacco is playing like a man with nothing to lose. His average pass with the Browns has traveled 9.7 air yards—second in the NFL to only Will Levis!
The smart play here is probably to take the points. The over/under is only 34.5, and Flacco will turn the ball over. But I just don’t want to spend my Thursday night counting on Trevor Siemian against the best defense in the NFL.
The pick: Browns (-7.5)
Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys (-6)
Congrats to Lions fans. Thirty years in between division titles is no joke. I remember questioning the supporting cast around Jared Goff coming into the season, but it turns out they have playmakers all over the offense. Last week against the Vikings, it was running back Jahmyr Gibbs and wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown. In previous weeks, it was tight end Sam LaPorta or running back David Montgomery. And it’s all schemed up beautifully by offensive coordinator Ben Johnson. They are just a lot to deal with—specifically when Goff gets to play indoors.
As for the Cowboys, I don’t think last week’s loss to the Dolphins was disastrous. Dak Prescott did a terrific job on the final drive of getting them the lead back, but the defense couldn’t hold it. I have some concerns about this offensive line if left tackle Tyron Smith is still out (he didn’t practice Wednesday), and their run defense is vulnerable. But overall, this is still one of the best teams in the NFC.
I think Prescott has a monster game here against a shaky Lions defense, but Detroit’s plenty capable of competing in a shootout. I think the Lions keep it close.
The pick: Lions (+6)
Miami Dolphins at Baltimore Ravens (-3.5)
On Extra Point Taken this week, I made the case that no other team can win in as many different ways as the Ravens. They are the only team that ranks in the top five in offensive, defensive, and special teams DVOA.
The Ravens’ superpower: They can win every type of game.— Sheil Kapadia (@SheilKapadia) December 27, 2023
Lamar Jackson healthy. Smart coordinators on both sides of the ball. Path to the 1-seed. This feels like their time. Can’t waste this opportunity.@ringer @ringernfl @BenjaminSolak pic.twitter.com/MHUySwbLBs
These teams are currently the top two seeds in the AFC. As things stand now, the Ravens have a 77 percent chance to earn the bye, while the Dolphins are at 22 percent, according to The New York Times playoff model. But if the Dolphins win, they’ll be the favorites for the top seed with around a 60 percent chance going into Week 18.
This game features fun matchups on both sides of the ball. We get MVP favorite Lamar Jackson against a Dolphins defense that is one of the NFL’s most-improved units. We also get Miami’s high-powered offense against a Ravens defense that just took it to the 49ers.
Like the Ravens, the Dolphins have now evolved into a team that can win in different ways. I’ll be surprised if this isn’t a competitive game. Give me the points.
The pick: Dolphins (+3.5)
New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills (-13.5)
I’m sensing a lot of recency bias with this Patriots team. Have they been more competitive in the second half of the season? Sure. But let’s not overdo it. Overall, we’re talking about a 4-11 team that is 28th in DVOA and 28th in point differential. If you believe the upcoming draft has just two elite quarterback prospects, last week’s Patriots win over the Broncos could prove to be a killer. They’d have the fourth pick if the season ended today.
As for the Bills, I really don’t know what to think. They needed a field goal with 28 seconds left to get past a Chargers team that lost 63-21 to the Raiders the previous week. Can the Bills win the Super Bowl? Yes. Can they lose to any team in the NFL? Also yes.
The Bills just blew the Cowboys out a couple of weeks ago, but I still don’t trust them with a number this big against a Patriots team that already beat them earlier this season.
The pick: Patriots (+13.5)
Atlanta Falcons at Chicago Bears (-3)
Here’s how we can tell that the Bears are operating like a professional, competitive football team. They put up 420 yards of offense and won by double digits last week against the Cardinals, and it didn’t even seem like that big of a deal. Chicago is 4-2 in its past six games, and the two losses were by a combined eight points. Seriously impressive turnaround for a team that was a laughingstock a month into the season.
The Falcons, meanwhile, pretty much controlled their game against the Colts from start to finish last week, notching a 29-10 victory to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. Neither of these teams should be trusted, but the unit I like the best here is Chicago’s defense, and the Bears are probably the flat-out better team right now.
The pick: Bears (-3)
Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans (-4.5)
As of this writing, it’s unclear whether Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud will return for this one. He missed the previous two games with a concussion and was a limited participant in Wednesday’s practice. If the Texans win their final two games (they play at Indianapolis in Week 18), they will be in the playoffs, but they’re a banged-up group right now.
Tennessee’s rookie QB, Will Levis, meanwhile, was a full participant in practice on Wednesday and looks like he has a good chance of returning here. The Titans should’ve had no business playing the Seahawks tough last week, and even though they lost, it was another example of Mike Vrabel being able to do more with less. I think Tennessee keeps this one close.
The pick: Titans (+4.5)
Las Vegas Raiders at Indianapolis Colts (-3.5)
One of my favorite broadcast moments of the season came during the Raiders’ win over the Chiefs on Christmas Day. CBS sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson noted that Antonio Pierce’s message to his team was about playing with hatred, violence, and pain. That is a man overcome with the holiday spirit!
"HATRED VIOLENCE AND PAIN"— The 33rd Team (@The33rdTeamFB) December 25, 2023
Antonio Pierce's message to the Raiders ☠️pic.twitter.com/7cLdONvmk3
In all seriousness, Pierce and defensive coordinator Patrick Graham are doing an incredible job with that Raiders defense. They are all the way up to eighth in defensive DVOA. Look at the talent they’re working with. They have no business being that good, but they’ve been playing at a high level for weeks now.
Even after last week’s loss to the Falcons, the Colts still have about a 55 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to The New York Times’ simulator. Indianapolis has overachieved this season, but I don’t think there’s a big gap between these two teams. I’ll take the points.
The pick: Raiders (+3.5)
Los Angeles Rams at New York Giants (+5.5)
This is our rat line of the week, right? The Rams are playing legitimately good football. They have won five of six, and their only loss during that span was in overtime to the Ravens. They’ve got the 49ers in Week 18 and are fighting for their playoff lives. The Giants, meanwhile, simply stink. They are 32nd in DVOA and are starting Tyrod Taylor instead of Tommy DeVito here.
I have two options for this pick:
- Don’t overthink it. The Rams offense is cooking. They have a veteran quarterback. Take them to cover. If something fluky happens with turnovers or on special teams or with injuries or whatever, live with it.
- Don’t be a square. No one’s betting the Giants here. If you think everyone’s going to be on one side, you take the other side. The Rams are a sucker bet. Don’t be a sucker!
What I really wish I could do is bet against myself getting this pick right. Anyway, congrats to the Giants, and sorry to the Rams.
The pick: Rams (-5.5)
San Francisco 49ers at Washington Commanders (-12.5)
Based on DVOA, we have a matchup here between the NFL’s best offense (the 49ers) and the second-worst defense (the Commanders). I didn’t find the 49ers’ loss to the Ravens last week all that alarming. Their offense was still picking up big chunks early in the game, and turnovers killed them. Then they dealt with offensive line injuries, and Brock Purdy got a little rattled. I think San Francisco is the best team in the NFC.
Jacoby Brissett will start his first game for the Commanders here as they look to stop a six-game losing streak. Of course, the best thing for the franchise long-term is probably to extend that to an eight-game losing streak. If the season ended today, Washington would have the third pick, and they’ve got the 49ers and Cowboys to close out the season. Sneaking into the top two in the draft would really be ideal for a team that needs a franchise quarterback.
I could see Brissett having a nice game here, but the Commanders should be so outmanned defensively. It feels like 40-plus points and 500-plus yards of offense are in play here for the Niners.
The pick: 49ers (-12.5)
Carolina Panthers at Jacksonville Jaguars (-6.5)
You are forgiven if you weren’t paying attention to the Panthers last week, but Bryce Young was legitimately good against the Packers. Seriously! I swear! And it wasn’t just that he was facing a bad Joe Barry–coached defense, although that always helps. Young was confident and accurate; he worked the middle of the field and attempted difficult throws. If you were someone who liked Young coming out of college (raises hand), that was such an encouraging performance. Now let’s see if he can build on it.
As for the Jaguars, I made the case on Extra Point Taken that they might be my most disappointing team this season. That might sound wild, considering the Jaguars are still in first place in the AFC South, but I really expected more from this group. They have personnel issues, but I thought the combination of Doug Pederson and Trevor Lawrence would be enough to overcome those weaknesses. That hasn’t happened. Jacksonville’s offense is all the way down to 15th in DVOA.
As of this writing, it’s unclear whether Lawrence, who is dealing with a shoulder injury, will play. But regardless, I’m done trusting this Jaguars team.
The pick: Panthers (+6.5)
Arizona Cardinals at Philadelphia Eagles (-10.5)
What a Christmas weekend for Eagles fans. Their team won, the Cowboys lost, the 49ers lost, and yet they still felt miserable. I get it! The vibes on this team have just felt off for weeks now, and beating up on bad competition like the Giants is not going to change that.
There was a good piece this week by Tim McManus and Josh Weinfuss on ESPN.com about Jonathan Gannon’s awkward exit from the Eagles last offseason. One big takeaway from their reporting: The Eagles really feel like they would have had Vic Fangio as their defensive coordinator had Gannon been more transparent about taking the Cardinals job after the Super Bowl. Instead, they hired Sean Desai, and Desai has now effectively been replaced by Matt Patricia. Not a great outcome!
The good news for the Eagles here is that they are relatively healthy, and against inferior opponents, they’re going to have a significant talent advantage. The Cardinals, meanwhile, own the NFL’s second-worst record at 3-12, and Gannon’s defense is the worst in the NFL.
I don’t feel good about trusting the Eagles, but I think they’re going to light up the scoreboard in this one.
The pick: Eagles (-10.5)
New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-2.5)
Here’s Baker Mayfield’s combined stat line from his past two games: 48-for-63 (76.2 percent) for 664 yards (10.5 YPA), six touchdowns, and no interceptions. I thought if the Bucs were competitive this year, it’d be because of their defense, but the offense has absolutely held its own. The Bucs have won four games in a row and are in the driver’s seat to win the NFC South title.
At 7-8, the Saints aren’t out of it yet, but they need to beat the Bucs and the Falcons and then get some help to make the playoffs. I suppose the most likely scenario is chaos and this thing coming down to Week 18, but I’ve been impressed with the Bucs the past couple of weeks. I think they take care of business here and lock up a playoff spot.
The pick: Bucs (-2.5)
Pittsburgh Steelers at Seattle Seahawks (-3.5)
Here we go. Mike Tomlin needs to go 1-1 down the stretch to make it 17 straight seasons without a losing record. I know most Steelers fans are tired of that nugget, but I love it. The Steelers stomped the Bengals in Week 16 to improve to 8-7. They have just a 13 percent chance of making the playoffs, but if they can somehow win their last two (including a game at Baltimore in Week 18), that percentage will jump all the way up to 92 percent.
The Seahawks have needed last-minute game-winning drives in each of their past two to keep their playoff hopes alive. But even if they lose here and win in Week 18 at Arizona, the Seahawks still have a 67 percent chance of getting in.
I don’t trust either team here. It’s been a while since the Seahawks have had a convincing win. Since their bye in Week 5, the Seahawks are 5-6 and have one win by more than four points. This one screams weird, disjointed game with a wild ending. I’ll take the points.
The pick: Steelers (+3.5)
Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs (-7)
The Chiefs have played 109 games with Patrick Mahomes as their starter. Among that sample, last week’s performance against the Raiders ranked dead last in expected points added (EPA) per drive. I don’t think this team has it. The pass catchers aren’t good enough. The offensive tackles aren’t good enough. Mahomes has no reason to trust the pieces around him. And if the offensive coaches had answers, we’d have seen them by now.
I’m burying the Chiefs. If they had answers on offense, we would have seen them by now.— Sheil Kapadia (@SheilKapadia) December 27, 2023
Don’t want to hear about how Patrick Mahomes needs to play more in structure. He gave them time to figure it out, and they sabotaged his season.
From EPT! @ringernfl @BenjaminSolak pic.twitter.com/GHoH71sLml
As for the Bengals, they’re coming off of a rough one against Pittsburgh. I give them credit for not folding after Joe Burrow went down, but between the defensive struggles and the injuries on offense, they always faced an uphill climb to sneak into the postseason.
I could see a competitive game here, but I think the Chiefs will do enough late in the game for the cover.
The pick: Chiefs (-7)
Los Angeles Chargers at Denver Broncos (-3.5)
It took 16 weeks, but things finally got messy in Denver. The Broncos are benching Russell Wilson and starting Jarrett Stidham. Why now? The Broncos’ chances of making the playoffs have plummeted (6 percent, per the Times’ simulator). If Wilson were to suffer an injury in the final two games, and that injury prevented him from passing a physical in March, the Broncos would be on the hook for an additional $37 million of guaranteed money, given how his contract is structured. Barring a massive surprise, the Broncos will take their medicine this offseason, release Wilson, and take on the biggest dead cap hit in NFL history.
Will Wilson find a starting job somewhere next season? I think so, but I don’t say that with great confidence. He will turn 36 next season, struggles to operate in structure, and isn’t nearly the same athlete he used to be. Having said that, there’s no denying that Wilson has played much better this year than last year. He’s 20th in success rate and 21st in EPA per pass play. He’s also unlikely to command a big contract. For teams in search of average quarterback play, he could be an option on a one-year flier.
As for this game, maybe Stidham gives the Broncos offense a little boost?
The pick: Broncos (-3.5)
Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings (-2)
I have a new favorite story of the year. Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander was not named a team captain last week for Green Bay’s game at Carolina, but he’s from Charlotte and decided to go out for the coin toss anyway. He made the call and almost messed up by saying the Packers wanted to start on defense rather than that the team wanted to defer to the second half. If I were an NFL head coach, I personally would reward such hilarious behavior, but the Packers suspended Alexander for this game against Minnesota (although, to be fair to Matt LaFleur, it sounds like the suspension was not only about the coin toss incident).
Jaire Alexander wasn’t announced by the Packers as a game captain, but he went out for the coin toss anyway. And called it. And won it. And almost messed it up.— Matt Schneidman (@mattschneidman) December 24, 2023
Sounds like he just did it on his own.
“It’s only suiting. I don’t think coach knew I was from Charlotte.” pic.twitter.com/EVahq6QoOJ
It’s been a bizarre season for the Packers. On one hand, they are all the way up to fourth in passing DVOA. That is a huge win, considering this is Jordan Love’s first season as a starter. On the other, Joe Barry’s defense is a complete disaster, and that could very well cost the Packers a playoff spot.
There’s definitely a scenario here in which Justin Jefferson goes off for 200 receiving yards, and Brian Flores’s defense puts Love in a blender, but I’m used to getting burned by this Packers team on a weekly basis. I’m not about to stop now.
The pick: Packers (+2)