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Ten Observations from Week 17 in the NFL

1. Adrian Peterson is this year’s MVP.
It wouldn’t be a travesty if Peyton Manning were to claim this year’s MVP award. It wouldn’t be a crime, an injustice, or a mockery for the NFL. Having said that, Adrian Peterson is so clearly this year’s most valuable player that it’s almost not even worth discussing. The Vikings went 3-13 last year and owned the third overall pick in the draft (later traded to Cleveland for the fourth overall selection, which was used on outstanding left tackle Matt Kalil). Nobody expected them to finish third in a competitive NFC North, nevertheless winning 10 games and clinching a playoff spot. And with all due respect to Minnesota’s offensive line and underrated defense, without Peterson accomplishing what he did this season, the Vikings may not have won half of the games they did. Opponents put together game plans solely to stop Peterson and often dared second-year quarterback Christian Ponder to beat them, which he rarely did. Yet Peterson did the extraordinary by amassing 1,598 yards over the final 10 games, a number still good enough to lead the league in rushing this season. He finished with a 6.03 yards per carry average, totaled over 100 yards rushing in nine of his final 10 games, and rushed for over 200 yards on two separate occasions. Had there been one more minute left in Sunday’s contest versus the Packers, there is a good chance Peterson would have broke Eric Dickerson’s single-game rushing record as well. All this despite suffering an injury at the end of last season that usually takes players two full seasons to recover from. Consider this as well: Peterson rushed a career-high 34 times in the Vikings’ 37-34 win over the Packers, who oh-by-the-way needed a win to clinch a first-round bye next week. Most running backs wear down throughout an entire season – “All Day” seemingly got stronger. He’s a remarkable player who just put the finishing touches on one of the most remarkable seasons in NFL history. If that doesn’t net him the most prestigious individual award in football, what will?

2. Peyton Manning is deserving of Comeback Player of the Year.
Without Adrian Peterson having a season for the ages, the Vikings would have likely missed the playoffs. Without Peyton Manning, the Broncos may have still been good enough to beat the toilet water in the AFC West thanks to their stout defense. Granted, Denver wouldn’t have clinched the No. 1 seed without Manning but you get the point. Those are just a few reasons why Peterson should be considered the most valuable player in the NFL this season. (The other reasons are detailed above.) But at this time last year, people wondered whether or not Manning would, or better yet, should retire after not taking a single snap in 2011. And all he’s done this year is put together one of the finest seasons of his illustrious career. He finished the regular season with 4,659 yards passing, 37 touchdowns, a 68.6 completion percentage and a 105.8 QB rating, which were all Denver Broncos records. His three-touchdown performance against Kansas City on Sunday was also the 73rd of Manning’s career and gave him yet another NFL record. As mentioned in “Observation No. 1,” it wouldn’t be a farce if Manning were named MVP. But considering his road back to the gridiron was paved with multiple neck/back surgeries, an entire season spent on the sidelines, and a change of cities, Manning’s “comeback” was more impressive than Peterson’s. Either way, both players should be properly recognized for their impressive feats this season.

3. The Texans’ collapse is nearly complete.
On December 2 the Texans were 11-1 having just beaten the Titans to earn their sixth-straight victory. At that moment it seamed unimaginable that Houston wouldn’t have home field advantage throughout the postseason. But the Texans, losers of three of their last four games following their 28-16 defeat in Indianapolis on Sunday, have completely collapsed. Injuries on defense have turned a once top-5 unit into one susceptible of big plays. (See Andrew Luck’s 70-yard touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton as proof.) But there are no excuses as to why Houston’s offense has become punchless over the past month. At the root of the issue is quarterback Matt Schaub, who threw two ugly interceptions to Indy cornerback Vontae Davis on Sunday. Despite completing a high-percentage of throws, Schaub was ineffective for the second straight week and for the third time in his last four games. Remember, Schaub doesn’t have a postseason start under his belt. It would have been nice for the Texans if their playoff-inexperienced quarterback could have built a little momentum heading into next week. Instead, the Texans enter the postseason as one of the coldest teams in the field of 12. And while the Bengals are the least imposing team in this year’s playoffs, their underrated defense is certainly good enough to hold Houston’s struggling offense in check. The Texans now have less than a week to figure out how they’ve gone from Super Bowl favorites to title pretenders.

4. RGIII, AP and the Hawks – the bottom of the NFC is dangerous.
Try as they did, the Cowboys didn’t have much of an answer for Robert Griffin III on Sunday night. As he’s done to opponents all season, RGIII forced Dallas’ defense to play back on its heels, which in turn made Alfred Morris more effective. The Packers also had a hell of a time trying to corral Adrian Peterson, whom they’ll see again in less than a week. The Seahawks, meanwhile, have won five straight games and are arguably the hottest team in the NFC…as the fifth seed. Granted, the media always tries to over hype the lower seeds in the playoffs. That’s probably because we spend an entire season pointing out flaws in the higher-ranked seeds (it’s human nature). But in the case of the Skins, Vikes and Hawks, there’s no downplaying how dangerous they are on any given Sunday. Granted, either the Redskins or Seahawks will be finished next weekend because they play each other in the first round, but would anyone be surprised if any one of these teams wind up in the NFC title game? Thanks to all six teams winning at least 10 games this season, the NFC playoff field is highly intriguing this year.

5. Romo once again saves his worst performance for last.
Heading into Sunday night’s NFC East title tilt between the Redskins and Cowboys, no quarterback in the league was hotter than Tony Romo. In his previous eight games he had thrown 17 touchdown passes to just three interceptions and thanks to plenty of help from Dez Bryant, was practically willing Dallas to a division crown and a playoff berth. But in typical Romo fashion, he saved his worst performance for the biggest moment of the season. He did toss two touchdown passes, which included a crucial 10-yard completion to Kevin Ogletree midway through the fourth quarter to cut the Redskins’ lead down to three with a 2-point conversion. But he also threw three brutal interceptions, the final one coming late in the fourth quarter after the Dallas defense gave its offense a chance to at least tie the game following a punt. Romo wanted to dump the ball off to his running back in the flats and was instead intercepted by linebacker Rob Jackson, who read the play perfectly. It was one of those all-too-familiar moments for Romo, who never saw Jackson retreat to the flats as he lobbed the pass to the sidelines. And thanks to a brutal roughing the passer penalty on Washington’s next drive, the Skins were able to put the game away with a touchdown under two minutes to play. The 32-year-old Romo has once again left Jerry Jones in an unenviable situation. He once again posted great numbers while throwing for over 4,600 yards but the Cowboys will once again be at home for the playoffs. The question is, does Jones still believe he can win a Super Bowl with Romo under center? When his team absolutely had to have a win, Romo didn’t deliver. Again.

6. The Bears have nobody to blame but themselves.
Chicago fans will undoubtedly blame Green Bay’s inability to beat Minnesota as the reason why their beloved Bears missed the playoffs despite finishing with a 10-6 record this season. And technically, they’re right. With Chicago’s season hanging in the balance, the Packers never led in Minnesota and turned in their worst defensive performance in over a month. But from Weeks 11 through 16, Chicago only won one game over a six-game stretch. They also lost three in a row to start the month of December and couldn’t produce against playoff qualifiers Houston, San Francisco, Seattle, Minnesota and Green Bay. It’s a shame that a 10-win team missed the postseason but the Bears did themselves in by leaving their fate in another team’s hands (specifically their most hated rivals.)

7. Falcons’ Smith still can’t gauge risk vs. reward.
Falcons head coach Mike Smith is conservative by nature. He’s been criticized for playing not-to-lose, especially in the postseason where he’s 0-3 over the past four seasons. And yet, when he does decide to gamble, it comes at the most inopportune times. Take Week 13 of last year for example. His decision to go for it on 4th-and-1 in overtime cost his team a potential victory versus the Saints. He also went for it on fourth down on multiple occasions during the Falcons’ embarrassing 24-2 loss to the Giants in the wild card round, none of which were successful. Fast forward to Sunday when, in a meaningless game, he played his starters in a lackluster loss to the Bucs. The decision could prove to be costly too, as Dunta Robinson (concussion) and John Abraham (ankle) left the game with injuries. Abraham is the bigger concern, as he had to be helped off the field by trainers. Why, with nothing to gain, would Smith risk injury to one of his starters? What was he and the Falcons hoping to prove by going through the motions versus a Tampa Bay team looking to end the season on a high note? If anything, it planted the seed of doubt in a team that had built up some momentum the past two weeks. If Abraham’s injury proves to be serious, then Smith should be questioned for why he can’t manage simple risk versus reward.

8. Vick’s football career reaches a new low.
Michael Vick has been adamant that he’s still a starter but he’ll be fortunate that some team even views him as a capable backup heading into 2013. All you need to know about Vick’s performance on Sunday versus the Giants was that he was pulled in favor of Trent Edwards for the final drive of the game. Over the past two seasons he’s gone 10-13 as a starter while throwing 33 interceptions to go with his 32 touchdowns. He also hasn’t played a full season since 2006 and his threat to run has been neutralized by his inability to take a hit. He may still fancy himself as a starter but even quarterback-hungry teams like the Cardinals, Chiefs and Jaguars will be weary of handing the reigns to a 33-year-old quarterback who is turnover prone, has never been an accurate passer and who can’t stay healthy. Considering many believed he would revolutionize the quarterback position when he came into the league in 2001, Vick may go down as one of the most overrated players in NFL history.

9. Fisher’s first season in St. Louis can only be described as a success.
Success can be defined in different ways. Some people probably read the title of this observation and scoffed. Some believe that because the Colts and Vikings surprised by making the postseason, the Rams should have pulled off the same feat. If only life were that black and white. What could posses someone to have such lofty expectations following a 2-14 season and a complete turnover of the roster is beyond me. It wasn’t logical that they would make the postseason this year. Hell, it wasn’t logical that they could win 8 games, at least not to those outside of St. Louis that weren’t mentally and/or monetarily invested in the team. But thanks in large part to Jeff Fisher, 2012 was a success. Free agency was a success. The draft was a success. Winning 80-percent of their games against a tough division was a mark of success, as was learning how to win on the road. Having said that, does Sam Bradford need to make longer strides in his development? That’s not even an argument – of course he does. But he also deserves an opportunity to compete in a stable environment. Quarterbacks that are forced to learn three different offenses under shoddy tutelage is a recipe for failure. There are some people that have already convinced themselves that he’s nothing more than a marginal quarterback capable of only being a Brad Johnson-type game manager. And that’s fine – we all don’t need to agree. But here are the facts: He threw for a career-high 3,702 yards and 21 touchdowns while managing to start every game of the season (a feat he couldn’t accomplish in 2011). Those are signs of improvement. It might not be the improvement that many had hoped, but the bottom line is that he’s a better quarterback now than he was in 2010. More importantly, the Rams are a better team than they were two years ago when they walked out of CenturyLink Field. Only this time nobody should have false hope about the direction the franchise is headed in.

10. Quick-Hits…
The pass that Andrew Luck made when he looked off the safety and hit T.Y. Hilton perfectly in stride for a 70-yard touchdown was one of the prettiest throws by any quarterback this season. He’s a special player and NFL fans are more enriched by the fact that he and the Colts are in the playoffs…Speaking of which, would anyone be surprised if Indianapolis beat Baltimore next week? The Ravens aren’t exactly sprinting into the postseason…Peyton Manning continued to make his case for NFL MVP by throwing another three touchdown passes on Sunday, but did you see the catches that Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker made? The catch by Thomas was one of the best of the year…Don’t be surprised if the Panthers make the postseason next year. They finished 2012 as one of the hottest teams in the leageu and scored at least 30 points in three of their final four games…2012 turned out to be a lost season for the Saints but it doesn’t take away what Drew Brees accomplished. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for over 5,000 yards in back-to-back seasons and with Sean Payton back in the fold next year, the Saints will remain explosive…It’s funny, the NFC South was viewed as one of the best divisions in football at the start of the year. By midseason it was viewed as a joke but all four of the division’s inhabitants could be playoff contenders next year…If I’m Jets owner Woody Johnson I’m keeping Rex Ryan in place for his defense and finding both a new quarterback and a new GM for 2013…Credit the Lions for playing with pride. That’s more than anyone can say about the Eagles…The Steelers’ season turned out to be a major disappointment but for the 12th time in 13 years they avoided having a losing season. That’s sustained success right there…Congratulations to the Chiefs for notching the No. 1 overall pick in next April’s draft. It was well earned…Terrelle Pryor is hardly the answer at quarterback for the Oakland Raiders but if nothing else, he gave them something to think about with his two-touchdown performance on Sunday…One of the broadcasters made a good point following the Seahawks’ hard-fought 20-13 win over the Rams on Sunday. After steamrolling opponents the past couple of months, it’ll serve Seattle well to have fought through a little adversity…If Michael Crabtree plays as well as in the playoffs as he did on Sunday then the Niners aren’t going to miss Mario Manningham…RGIII vs. Russell Wilson? Can’t wait.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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Quick-Hit Reactions from Week 17 in the NFL

Every Sunday throughout the 2011 NFL season I’ll compile quick-hit reactions from the day that was in football. I vow to always overreact, side with sensationalism over rationalism, and draw conclusions based on small sample sizes instead of cold, hard facts. It’s the only way I know how to write…

Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow loses the ball while tackled by Kansas City Chiefs safety Kendrick Lewis during the second quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 1, 2012 in Denver. Denver still makes the playoffs despite losing to Kansas City 7-3. UPI/Gary C. Caskey

- Good luck, Broncos. You may have backed into the playoffs because the Raiders just happened to catch the Chargers on one of San Diego’s good days, but don’t make any travel plans for New England or Baltimore. You’re not going to win with a quarterback who can‘t even complete 10 passes in the biggest game of the year. I thought the Tim Tebow storyline was pretty fun for a while but at the end of the day it’s just bad football. The Steelers are severely banged up and their offense is in a major funk, but they only need about 10 points to beat the Broncos next week in the Wild Card round. If Denver somehow finds a way to pull off the upset then I’ll eat as much crow as Broncos fans want to dish out. But with a division title and a playoff berth on the line, Denver managed just one field goal at home against a Kansas City team that had nothing to play for. Thus, I don’t think I’ll have the taste of crow on my lips any time soon.

- Has any team lost three starting quarterbacks to injuries in one season and still host a playoff game? That must be some kind of record. Some kind of cruel, horrific record for a Houston Texans team that must feel like its cursed. The Texans finally make the playoffs and they have to start Jake Delhomme at quarterback because their fifth-round rookie T.J. Yates, who was subbing for the injured Matt Leinart, who was subbing for the injured Matt Schaub, separated his shoulder in the final game of the season. At this point all Houston can do is laugh because really, what else could go wrong? I mean, they’re about to start Jake freaking Delhomme in a playoff game and the guy was signed off the streets about an hour ago. How unfortunate for a Houston franchise that has been waiting a very long time for this moment.

- I was prepared to rip the Bengals after backing into the playoffs and for going 0-4 against the Ravens and Steelers this season. But what does Cincinnati have to be ashamed of? Nobody thought the Bengals would win five games this year, let alone nine and qualify for the playoffs in a tough conference (with a rookie second-round pick starting at quarterback, no less). And seeing as how the Texans will start Jake Delhomme at quarterback next week, the Bengals could advance to the Divisional Round! There’s no sense ripping a team that has a very good chance of winding up among the final eight this season.

- When Eli Manning takes care of the football, the Giants usually win. It’s as simple as that. The G-Men were 4-0 this season when Eli didn’t turn the ball over at all and 5-2 when he “only” turned the ball over once. They were 0-5 when he had multiple turnovers in one game. Granted, I imagine that if I did the same study on all the quarterbacks in the league, I’d probably get similar results. Turnovers are a huge part of the game whether it’s a quarterback, running back or receiver coughing the ball up. But when Eli turns the ball over it seems to have a trickle-down effect that hurts the entire New York team.

- Tony Romo comes up short again in a playoff-type situation. Who would have saw that coming?

- The Lions really blew it today. All they had to do was beat Green Bay’s backups and they would have clinched the fifth seed in the NFC. Instead, their defense couldn’t stop Matt Flynn from doing whatever he wanted and now the Lions will have to play in New Orleans next weekend instead of traveling to New York or Dallas. Granted, if they want to advance to the Super Bowl then they’d have to play beat the Saints or Packers at some point anyway. But it would have been nice to let the Falcons try and deal with the Saints right out of the gates instead. Furthermore, even if Detroit does upset New Orleans next week, the Lions haven’t beaten the Packers in Green Bay since 1991. How much confidence do they have heading into the playoffs knowing that they couldn’t even beat the Packers’ JV squad? (Of course, with ultra-sick Calvin Johnson lining up at wide receiver, I still wouldn’t count the Lions out against anyone.)

- Good for the Ravens. This is a Baltimore squad that has looked like a completely different team on the road this year than at home, but it went into hostile territory today and took care of business. Now that they have home field advantage for at least one playoff game, you have to like the Ravens’ chances of making a Super Bowl run. The AFC is incredibly flawed this year and New England’s defense is Charmin Extra Soft. Thanks to the incredible Ray Rice, the Ravens have as good as shot as the Patriots of playing for a NFL title.

- How f’n good are the Packers that they can score 45 points with Flynn as their starting quarterback and several of their starters resting on both sides of the ball? If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a hundred times: Ted Thompson has done one hell of a job building the best depth in football.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Matt Flynn (2nd L) passes against the Detroit Lions during the second half of their NFL football game in Green Bay, Wisconsin January 1, 2012. REUTERS/Darren Hauck (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- Speaking of Matt Flynn, I’m torn. I wouldn’t blame a quarterback-needy team for trying to acquire him next offseason after what he did today against the Lions, but how much of his success is because of Green Bay’s offense? Everyone looks good driving a Cadillac, know what I mean?

- Should the Patriots be concerned that they’ve spotted opponents double-digit leads in each of their last two games before rallying in the second half? Considering how explosive Tom Brady and the New England offense has looked, I guess not. But if they spot Baltimore a 21-0 lead in the playoffs then the Pats may have some issues staging more comebacks.

- It seems like nobody has mentioned his name among the head coaches that could be fired on “Black Monday” (at least from a national perspective), but what about Chan Gailey? What has he done in Buffalo that merits him keeping his job? That team took a 21-0 lead today in Foxboro and then stood back and admired its work as the Patriots scored the next 49 points. Why should Buffalo be convinced that Gailey is the right man for the job after the way the Bills crashed and burned this season?

- Even though the Steelers have morphed into a passing team over the past couple of years, losing Rashard Mendenhall (knee) for the playoffs would be a crushing blow. They’ll likely get past the punchless Broncos in the Wild Card round, but Mendenhall allows Pittsburgh to stay balanced offensively and gives defensive coordinators something else to think about when game planning to stop the Steelers. With Mendenhall out for at least one week and Ben Roethlisberger hobbled, there’s no doubt the defending AFC champions are limping into the postseason.

- ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reports that the Rams will fire GM Billy Devaney and head coach Steve Spagnuolo this week, as well they should. St. Louis was absolutely decimated by injuries and it didn’t help that Sam Bradford had little time to learn Josh McDaniels’ offense during the lockout-shortened offseason. But Devaney had a horrible draft and failed to build roster depth, while Spagnuolo made questionable in-game decisions week after week. It’s rumored that Spags will wind up in Philadelphia next season as the Eagles’ defensive coordinator, which makes a ton of sense. As of right now it’s clear he isn’t ready to be a head coach in this league.

- The 49ers have had a hell of a season but even their most diehard fans have to admit that there’s something a little off about this San Francisco tea. Maybe it’s because they clinched early and they’ve just been waiting for the postseason to start but this doesn’t seem like the same dominant squad that it was about a month ago. Granted, the Niners did beat the Steelers handily in Week 15, but Pittsburgh is in the midst of a major offensive funk and Ben Roethlisberger played hurt in that game. I’m not suggesting that the Niners won’t reach the NFC Championship Game but compared to the Saints and Packers, this feels like a very beatable San Francisco team.

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones runs in for a touchdown in the first half of their NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Atlanta, Georgia January 1, 2012. REUTERS/Tami Chappell (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- It’s too bad the Falcons are so intimidated by good competition (they’re 1-4 against playoff teams this year), because they certainly have the weapons on both sides of the ball to make a serious postseason run. Matt Ryan has looked very sharp in the second half of the season, Julio Jones has emerged as a dangerous playmaker the past five weeks and Sean Weatherspoon, John Abraham, Brent Grimes and William Moore are playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. The Falcons clearly aren’t better than New Orleans or Green Bay, but when the offense is firing on all cylinders and the defense plays like the relentless, confident unit that it did today against Tampa Bay, then Atlanta could certainly give the Saints and/or Packers a game. But I know what will happen in the playoffs: The coaching staff will play things conservatively, the players will all wait for the next guy to make a play, and the Falcons will once again be left searching for answers for why they came up short. (See the New Orleans game last Monday night as an example.) It’s frustrating really, because if the Falcons really turned things loose then they could be that dangerous Wild Card team that Green Bay was a year ago. (Or at least a poor man’s version of Green Bay.)

- The Jets’ season ends as Mark Sanchez throws three interceptions – what a shock. For the past two seasons, the Jets’ defense and running game has compensated for Sanchez’s horrendous play, and he fooled people into thinking he was better than what he was because he played well in the postseason in front of a national audience. But now he doesn’t have the playoffs to redeem himself, so maybe the Jets will seriously consider other quarterback options this offseason. They would be foolish not to.

- Great effort by your team over the past three months, Raheem Morris. Job well done.

- Jared Allen is worth the price of admission for Minnesota Vikings fans. Whether the Vikings are 3-13 or 13-3, dude never lets up.

- The Indianapolis Colts are now on the clock. Let the 24/7 Andrew Luck discussion begin.

Fade Material: 2011 NFL Week 17 Predictions

A trainer works on the hands of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Kyle Orton (8) after he was injured during the second quarter against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on December 4, 2011 in Chicago. Orton only played one snap before being injured. UPI/Brian Kersey

This is it: Week 17. This is for all the marbles. Everything is on the line. My back is against the wall. Time to put up or shut up. It’s now or never. One last time for glory.

Have I hit on most of the clichéd sports phrases yet? No? Well post your favorite phrase in the comments section and have it mentioned the next time I do my predictions!

After my 3-1 effort in Week 16 (the Panthers, Vikings and Eagles all covered while the Chargers laid an egg in Detroit), my record this season is now 30-31-2 against the spread. As I noted last Sunday, my goal is to finish above .500 and save what’s left of my dignity, which means I need to go 4-0 or 3-1 this week in order to accomplish the feat. That’s no hill for a climber…

Jets @ Dolphins, 1:00PM ET
Stick a fork in the Jets – they’re done. Their defense and running game hasn’t been as good this season as they’ve been the previous two years under Rex Ryan, which means Mark Sanchez’s awfulness isn’t been covered up. The Dolphins proved last week in New England that they still have plenty of fight left in them, even though they’re head coach-less and are looking at a major offseason overhaul. With their season slipping away in the fourth quarter, Sanchez puts a bow on things by throwing one last pick-six as Ryan looks dumbfounded at the scoreboard.
THE PICK: DOLPHINS –3

Chiefs @ Broncos, 4:15PM ET
I have a hunch that things will end very poorly for the Denver Broncos this season. It’s almost like they’ve spent all of their Tebow bucks just getting to this point (i.e. knocking on the door of a division title and a playoff berth) and now that they’re out of loot, they have no money to pay back the creditors. Romeo Crennel is auditioning for another NFL head coaching job, so you know Kansas City’s underrated defense will be prepared to play tomorrow. And would you look at who the Chiefs quarterback is this week, why it’s none other than Kyle Orton! The man who was benched for Tebow and then jettisoned out of town when the youngster started winning. I envision Orton running off the field at Sports Authority Dick’s Sporting Goods UnderArmor Field at Mile High tomorrow with a big, goofy grin on his face as the Denver crowd weeps in the background.
THE PICK: CHIEFS +3.5

Lions @ Packers, 1:00PM ET
This one is tricky because Green Bay essentially has nothing to play for after already wrapping up the No. 1 seed in the NFC last week. Aaron Rodgers and the rest of the Packers’ starters will only see a few series, if they even play at all. That means Matt Flynn will have a turn to drive the Cadillac for a week, and there’s no telling how Mike McCarthy will call this game. Will he keep things basic and vanilla or will he toss in a couple of trick plays for craps and grins? Either way, the Lions haven’t won at Lambeau since 1991 so I look at that line and something just doesn’t sit right with me. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that Detroit will win easily and head to either New York or Dallas next week, but I just can’t pull the trigger on Lions –3.5. (Even with Flynn and the boys playing the majority of the game for Green Bay.)
THE PICK: PACKERS +3.5

Bucs @ Falcons, 4:15PM ET
If the Lions beat the Packers at 1:00PM ET then the Falcons essentially can rest their starters in preparation for next week because they’d be guaranteed the sixth seed in the NFC. But if Detroit loses than Atlanta can improve its playoff positioning and avoid possibly going to New Orleans again next weekend. But even if the Lions win, the Falcons still have something to prove to themselves following their horrendous effort last Monday night versus the Saints. If you read the local papers, the Atlanta players have said to a man that they want a rematch with New Orleans but the seed of doubt has been planted following their 45-16 loss. They need a strong showing this weekend against a hapless Buccaneers team that quit weeks ago before they head into the playoffs. Thus, whether Matt Ryan and the rest of the Falcons starters play a half or the full game, they need a strong effort tomorrow.
THE PICK: FALCONS –11

Check out the most current NFL Betting Lines.

2011 NFL Week 17 Primer

Baltimore Ravens’ Terrell Suggs has his helmet taken off by Cincinnati Bengals’ Andrew Whitworth during the fourth quarter at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore on January 2, 2011. UPI/Kevin Dietsch

MARQUE MATCHUP: It’s the final week – pick one.
Some will argue that the Cowboys-Giants Sunday night matchup is the biggest game of the week, but it’s no bigger than Ravens-Bengals. While Dallas-New York will finally settle the NFC East race, Baltimore needs a victory to win the AFC North and secure the No. 2 seed in the AFC, while Cincinnati needs to beat the Ravens just to clinch a playoff berth. There is no shortage of important games on the schedule this week, including Kansas City-Denver and San Diego-Oakland. (If the Broncos beat the Chiefs they’ll win the AFC West, or if they lose and the Raiders beat the Chargers, then Oakland will win the division.) In fact, out of the 16 games on the Week 17 schedule, only five contests have absolutely no barring on the playoff races in either conference. It figures to be a wild Sunday in the NFL, with postseason implications galore.

THE POTENTIAL (NOTEWORTHY) UPSET: Packers over Lions
Some of you may be thinking, “This wouldn’t be an upset, you clown.” But the Packers have nothing to play for and thus, will likely rest their starters this weekend. Considering they’re a 3.5-point home underdog, technically this would be considered an upset, so shove it. Wait…what?…You’d have to go back to December 15, 1991, for the last time the Lions won at Lambeau Field. That’s a massive drought; an even bigger drought than the Lions’ 11-year span of not making the postseason. Granted, the rest of Green Bay’s starters played that night but Matt Flynn nearly willed the Packers to a victory last season at New England when Aaron Rodgers was sidelined with a concussion. With nothing to play for, Mike McCarthy may let it all hang loose against a Detroit team that must win in order to secure the fifth seed in the NFC (and therefore avoid playing at New Orleans in the first round of the playoffs). It’s almost a foregone conclusion that Detroit will win this Sunday versus Green Bay’s backups, but in case you haven’t been paying attention: Green Bay’s backups are pretty freaking good, too. We’ll see if the ghosts of Lambeau Field haunt the Lions one more time this Sunday.

THE GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY: DENVER BRONCOS
The Broncos have one mission and one mission only: Beat Kansas City at home on Sunday and win the AFC West. That’s it. That’s all they have to do. They don’t have to win and then hope for another team to lose like the Raiders, Titans and Jets do. All they have to do is take care of their own business at home against a 6-9 Chiefs team and they’ll be headed to the playoffs. That said, this is the same Chiefs that knocked off the defending (and undefeated) Packers a few weeks ago in Kansas City. Romeo Crennel is likely auditioning for a head-coaching job so he’ll have his defense ready to shut down Tim Tebow on Sunday, and let’s not forget that the discarded Kyle Orton is now Kansas City’s starting quarterback. This game is a writer’s dream because there are plenty of storylines to choose from. Still, Denver is the better overall team and has a chance to wrap up the division while clinching what was an improbable playoff berth at the start of the season. All those goofy horse heads have to do is win.

PUT UP OR SHUT UP: CINCINNATI BENGALS
The Broncos, Cowboys and Giants are all candidates for the “Put up or shut up” section this week, but if I’m only choosing one team then it’s the Cincinnati Bengals. Look, the Bengals have had a tremendous season. Nobody expected them to win more than five games this year, let alone nine and have a chance to clinch a playoff berth with a win in the final game of the season. Thus, this year is already a success in most people’s eyes. But they’re here, so they might as well finish the job and storm into the playoffs with a head full of steam instead of backing in because other teams (i.e. the Raiders, Titans and Jets) lost. Cincinnati obviously still has a lot to prove but if it can beat Baltimore at home this Sunday, it’ll give the Bengals confidence that they can win next week in Houston. If they get drubbed, then their season is likely over or they’ll back into the playoffs having lost to Pittsburgh (twice), Baltimore (twice) and Houston during the regular season. So strap ‘em up Bengals, and prove to the NFL that you’re one of the six best teams in the AFC.

2011 NFL Week 17 Odds & Point Spreads

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo makes a long completion to wide receiver Laurent Robinson to setup a touchdown by wide receiver Miles Austin against the New York Giants in the second half of their NFL football game in Arlington, Texas December 11, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Stone (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Four Spreads of Note:

Ravens –2 vs. Bengals, 4:15PM ET
While Cowboys and Giants fans will say otherwise, this might be the marquee matchup of the week. The Ravens need a win to secure a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game, while the Bengals need a victory to clinch a postseason berth, period. The first time these two teams met, Baltimore beat the Bengals 31-24 as a 7-point home favorite. Thus, it’s interesting that oddsmakers would only set the spread for this game at 2 when they have to figure that people will hop on the Ravens again (especially when they don’t even have to lay a field goal). That said, Baltimore has been a completely different team on the road than at home this season, so maybe oddsmakers are setting a trap expecting a Cincinnati upset. We’ll find out soon enough.

Cowboys +3 @ Giants, 8:20PM ET
This is an absolute coin flip. The Giants already beat the Cowboys in Dallas a few weeks ago so clearly they won’t be intimidated by their NFC East rivals come Sunday night. That said, the Giants might be the worst home team in the league, so you can’t assume anything when it comes to either of these two teams. But I developed a theory a couple of months ago when it came to NFC East teams. Without looking at the actual facts, I felt as though NFC East teams were pure gold as an underdog and pure garbage as a favorite. After compiling the numbers for this article, it would appear as though my theory holds some water. As a favorite, NFC East teams are 10-22-2 against the spread this season. As an underdog, they’re 16-10, which includes Washington’s 6-6 record as a dog. Now, does this mean I expect Tony Romo and the Cowboys to roll into East Rutherford on Sunday night and beat the Giants? No. But if you’re hell bent on putting some action on this game, maybe those numbers will help paint a clearer picture.

Chiefs @ Broncos –3; Chargers @ Raiders –3
I’ll lump these games together since my thoughts basically apply to both of them. I’m shocked oddsmakers didn’t make the Broncos and Raiders 3.5-point home favorites instead of 3-point faves, and therefore made bettors choose whether or not to take or lay the hook. Then again, maybe sports books feel as though they’ll get more two-way action if they keep the spread at a field goal. Either way, it might be wise to lay off these games entirely. The NFL didn’t do bettors any favors by setting the time for both games at 4:15PM ET. If Denver wins, Oakland is eliminated in the AFC West so it would have made that Raiders-Chargers game easier to bet (at least in theory). But since both games will played at the same time, bettors will be forced to decide whether or not to bet teams in Kansas City and San Diego, which have nothing to play for besides pride. Again, I’d lay off.

Lions –3.5 @ Packers, 1:00PM ET
This game might be the most interesting on the board when you consider the factors at play. The Packers have nothing to play for after securing home field advantage throughout the playoffs last Sunday, but the Lions haven’t won in Green Bay since Brett Favre was wearing Falcon red. Detroit needs a win because if it doesn’t and Atlanta beats Tampa Bay, then the Lions would have to play the No. 3 seed in the NFC next week, which would likely be the Saints. A trip to Dallas or New York seems like a more pleasurable experience right now than a flight to New Orleans so again, the Lions need to beat the Packers on Sunday. But even though this game means much more to Detroit than Green Bay, there’s something unsettling about laying 3.5 points with the Lions at Lambeau.

2011 NFL Week 17 Odds:

Redskins +8.5 (46)
Eagles –8.5

Buccaneers +12 (47)
Falcons –12

49ers –10.5 (35.5)
Rams +10.5

Bears PK (40.5)
Vikings PK

Lions –3.5 (46)
Packers +3.5

Cowboys +3 (46.5)
Giants –3

Panthers +8.5 (54.5)
Saints –8.5

Titans –3 (39.5)
Texans +3

Ravens –2 (37.5)
Bengals +2

Steelers
Browns

Colts +3.5 (37)
Jaguars –3.5

Jets +2 (41)
Dolphins –2

Bills +11 (51)
Patriots –11

Chargers +3 (49)
Raiders –3

Chiefs +3 (37)
Broncos –3

Seahawks +3 (40.5)
Cardinals –3

Check out the most current NFL Betting Lines.

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