The extra playoff spot introduced this year sparks intrigue for NFL Week 17.
One more team qualifies from each conference, more teams contend and a slew of meaningful games arrive, dwarfing past season finales. New Jersey online sportsbook gamblers, and the operators, enjoy a bulging wagering plate.
Football Five observes some playoff quagmires, bizarre circumstances and high-pressure games.
Evaluating the NFC East
The division will be decided in prime time Sunday night when the last-place and eliminated Philadelphia Eagles host the first-place Washington Football Team.
The line has swung from Philadelphia -1 to Washington -1.5 as of Wednesday. More movements are expected as bettors weigh personnel decisions and seek a wagering edge.
Under normal conditions, a team with its season at stake against a last-place opponent would be considerably favored.
But this isn’t normal.
Washington has done its part to be overlooked. It played the last two weeks — home losses to the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers — waiting for something bad to happen.
And an avalanche of bad things did, especially last week.
Against Carolina, bad break number one was an incomplete pass by Washington quarterback Dwayne Haskins that was ruled a fumble with the game scoreless.
Then came a muffed punt return, kicked into the end zone for a Carolina touchdown.
This was followed by a fourth-and-goal conversion barely made by Carolina to hike the score to 13-0. And then came a Haskins pick, enabling the Panthers to take a 20-0 lead.
Washington put forth perhaps the most timid effort ever from a team trying to clinch a division title.
Along with that, Haskins was caught in a strip club without a mask the previous week. The team had no choice but play him when he should have been benched.
But on Monday, Washington decided it had had enough. It released Haskins, who had been its captain one week earlier. That may lift the bad karma surrounding this team.
Alex Smith will likely start for Washington. If not, backup Taylor Heinicke was more effective than Haskins against Carolina.
The team’s entire season could rest on someone who was a backup in the XFL during the spring. And that may not be too bad if he can make quick decisions with the ball.
Washington, which has forgotten how to score, now meets an Eagles team that turned an 11-point lead into a 20-point loss against the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday. Philadelphia’s defense was particularly woeful at the end of the first half, enabling Dallas to score a go-ahead touchdown with seconds remaining before intermission.
Dallas never looked back, and the Eagles’ post-season hopes vanished.
Rams-Cardinals hopes ‘backed up’
It could be the ultimate battle of second-string quarterbacks.
In a worst-case situation for both the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams, a regular-season finale to determine their playoff fates could feature CFL quarterback Chris Streveler and AAF product John Wolford.
Neither Streveler of the Cardinals nor Wolford of the Rams has attempted an NFL pass. Bettors have a dilemma here. Whom do you trust? The normal answer is the running game, but both defenses will be primed to take it away. Wolford is mobile, which may play a factor.
The betting line was delayed until late Monday before going up with the Rams as a slight favorite.
This game will come down to which team loses rather than who wins. Going in, the loss of Kyler Murray for the Cardinals looms larger than Jared Goff’s departure for the Rams, as Murray’s running ability is a big part of the Arizona offense. The coaching staff is hopeful about Murray returning, but few have shared the optimism.
This heartbreaking scenario also shows what has saved the Cowboys’ season, for the moment. Andy Dalton, a former starting quarterback with the Cincinnati Bengals, was signed in the offseason as insurance for Dak Prescott. And Prescott’s season-ending injury activated the policy.
Dalton, who struggled initially, has led the Cowboys back from a 3-9 hole to be 6-9. The Cowboys would claim the NFC East by beating the New York Giants and having the Eagles beat Washington.
What is one element separating the top teams from the field? The contenders have been able to stay with one quarterback. Think Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs, Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills, Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks and Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, among others.
Those teams have assembled a strong enough offensive line to keep their quarterbacks from taking big shots.
Pittsburgh Steelers-Cleveland Browns: Just read the lines
Bettors will tell you everything about whether the Steelers expect to rest their regulars for the season finale in Cleveland.
The Browns, in must-win mode, were picked by a solid touchdown early in the week for this win-and-you-are-in matchup. They rarely beat the Steelers and lost to them 38-7 early this season. The line suggests the Steelers won’t play Roethlisberger and several other big players.
But the Steelers, probably locked into the No. 3 playoff seed behind the Buffalo Bills, have been mum on the subject. They weigh the value of trying to steal the No. 2 seed from the Buffalo Bills by going all out or resting key personnel.
If the Steelers start their main players, that line will shrink substantially. Some Steelers backers took them now and hope the regulars play, gaining an instant deal. The Steelers have one of the league’s worst rushing attacks, and their offense just awoke from slumber, fueling the argument of trying to build offensive momentum for the playoffs.
The Steelers and Bills would presumably meet in a second-round game, in Buffalo. The value of trying to vault over the Bills would be obtaining a home-field edge in that game. Pittsburgh would have to defeat Cleveland and Buffalo would have to lose to the Miami Dolphins at home for that to happen.
And right now, the Bills look unstoppable. If the Steelers think the Bills are going to beat the Dolphins, they will rest big players. And is a home field without fans a big deal this year? Decisions, decisions.
The NFL’s new playoff format makes this type of thinking unprecedented. In previous years, with two teams collecting first-round byes, Pittsburgh and Buffalo would be all in, no questions asked, for the finale.
But with Kansas City locking up the lone AFC bye, whether teams go all out in Week 17 is individual choice.
The Browns are a team that struggles to get over the top. Cleveland needed just one more play to put away the Baltimore Ravens three weeks ago and could not get it. That puts them behind the Ravens in a tie-break situation here.
They also lost the majority of their receiving corps, including Jarvis Landry and Rashard Higgins, due to COVID-19 testing. Some irresponsibility there cost the Browns dearly. The lack of receivers was prominent in Sunday’s setback to the lowly New York Jets.
Who is this team? Sunday will go a long way to providing the answer.
Note new times for Packers, Saints
The NFL has moved back the Week 17 kickoff times of Packers at the Chicago Bears and the New Orleans Saints at the Panthers to 4:25 EST to match the Seahawks at the San Francisco 49ers.
If Green Bay and New Orleans win, the Seahawks are the NFC’s No. 3 seed regardless of their result vs. the 49ers. Wanting to keep the suspense intact and the Seattle game meaningful to its viewers, the league is putting all three games on at the same time.
Seattle could steal the No. 1 seed if it ended up in a tie with the Packers.
Does this pattern look familiar? It should.
The NFL did the same thing in Week 16. It moved the Washington-Carolina game back to 4:25, coinciding with the Eagles-Cowboys encounter.
A Washington victory would have secured the NFC East and made the Cowboys-Eagles utterly meaningless. For the NFL, meaningless games cost viewers and money. For the sportsbooks, a meaningless contest derails betting interest.
So, this was a good move by the league. Combine it with the Rams-Cardinals, and the NFL has a good afternoon window to match the early games.
Throughout the league, this is the most meaningful Week 17 in several years.