We have reached the conclusion of the regular season in the NFL, but don’t be too sad; the playoffs are coming. First, though, divisions must be decided in Week 17.
The AFC North, NFC North, and NFC South will all crown champions this Sunday, so of course, there will be no shortage of bold predictions in those all-important games.
Last week, we bounced back in a major way, correctly choosing Pittsburgh over Kansas City, a rout in the desert, and Dallas upending Indianapolis to take the NFC East title.
That was then. This is now. Here’s our final five bold predictions column for the NFL regular season:
San Diego Chargers @ Kansas City Chiefs
San Diego refuses to give up on the playoffs, and thanks to losses by Baltimore and Kansas City in Week 16, the Bolts are in the best position to capture the No. 6 seed in the AFC. Caveat: the Chargers must take care of business this week.
Philip Rivers has been struggling of late because of injury, and even looked out of sync early against the 49ers. However, Rivers battled through the pain, completing 33 passes for 356 yards and four touchdowns to spark the historical comeback victory in overtime last Saturday. San Diego has won four of its last six games, with the two losses to New England and Denver both at Qualcomm Stadium.
At the same time, though, what have the Chiefs done lately?
Since that famous five-game win streak which concluded with a 24-20 win against Seattle, Kansas City has lost four of its last five games. The only win during that stretch came at home against the Raiders. Midway through the season Jamaal Charles was a bonafide MVP candidate, but since has dropped out of the race, and not surprisingly his team has slipped out of contention. But because they get a chance to play their AFC West rival in the finale, they have a 12.5 percent chance of sneaking into the playoffs.
Friday, news broke that Alex Smith will be out for this game due to a lacerated spleen, meaning Chase Daniel gets his second career start in a big-time situation Sunday. Last year, Daniels completed 21-of-30 passes for 200 yards and a touchdown in a last-minute overtime loss to the Chargers in 2013, which clinched a trip to the playoffs for the Bolts.
Bold prediction: Like many of these AFC Wild Card hopefuls, San Diego has been impossible to get a gauge on this season. The Chargers are 4-3 on the road and have to play at Arrowhead, where Kansas City is 5-2 and has played its best football this season. Because of how unpredictable the Chargers, Chiefs, Ravens, and Texans have all played this season, I’m actually going to pick against my heart. The Chargers are the superior team, but they fail to play up their ability far too often. Daniel played well in limited time last year and nearly beat these Chargers then, so the perfect bookend to this tale would be Daniel leading the Chiefs to an upset win this time, forcing the always intriguing “if X wins and X loses plus a tie” sort of scenario to play out and the Chargers to whiff on their chances of getting into the postseason.
Carolina Panthers @ Atlanta Falcons
Remember when Matt Ryan and the Falcons were nearly impossible to beat in the Georgia Dome? I think it’ll take one of those kinds of performances for the Falcons to overwhelm Carolina, capture the NFC South title, and punch their ticket to the postseason.
In his career, Ryan is 39-14 playing on his home field. Four of those losses have come this season. On the other end of the spectrum, the Panthers are an unimpressive 2-4-1 on the road, which bodes well for Ryan’s chances of improving his career mark.
Atlanta defeated Carolina, 19-17, back in Week 11. However, the Panthers have since won three of four games, including a 41-10 beatdown of the Saints in New Orleans, which sparked the team’s march toward an NFC South crown, and a 17-3 defeat of Cleveland in Week 16 which coincided with the return of Cam Newton.
Carolina has been a better team since its bye, largely because of its defense, which has held its opponents to under 259 yards of offense per game. In the 11 games prior, the Panthers had allowed 374.0 yards per game, including 346 to the Falcons on Nov. 16.
The Falcons will be short Steven Jackson Sunday as the veteran back deals with a quadriceps injury, ESPN reported. In his place, expect Jacquizz Rodgers and rookie Devonta Freeman to get more touches. Last week, Freeman totaled 84 yards between five carries and three catches. Plus Julio Jones will be another week healthier.
Bold prediction: Much like the AFC Wild Card hopefuls, every team from the NFC South has been difficult to read. That’s because they’re all below .500! Still, one team has to win the division and will go to the playoffs. While Atlanta was atrocious early on in the season, the team has much more formidable in the second half. Mike Smith is still on the hot seat, but it appears his players are fighting for his job. On the contrary, the Panthers have beaten up on non-contenders, including a team quarterbacked by Johnny Manziel a week ago. Ryan is a much better quarterback, especially at home. This game may feature 50 combined points, but expect Atlanta to edge their division rival and sneak into the playoffs with a 7-9 record and host a first-round playoff game.
Detroit Lions @ Green Bay Packers
It’s been quite a while since Detroit and Green Bay squared off, and the Lions got the best of their NFC North rival at Ford Field. Since then, though, the Lions underwent a cold streak but have recently snapped back into shape and look to be the contender their record indicates.
After dropping back-to-back games against Arizona and New England in Weeks 11 and 12, the Lions have ripped off four consecutive wins. However, it could be a mirage, as those wins have come against the Bucs, Vikings, and Bears (twice). Yeah, those teams are a combined 19-32.
The real test for the Lions is they now have to travel to Lambeau Field to take on the Packers, who are 7-0 in their own building with a 20-point average margin of victory. The No. 2 seed vs. the No. 6 seed is at stake in this, which of course is the difference between a home playoff game and a bye vs. a road trip on Wild Card weekend.
Detroit has transformed into a defense-first team, one that ranks fifth in defense DVOA and first against the pass. If that defense can travel to Lambeau and beat Green Bay, that proves their 11-4 record is no fluke at all. However, the team is 1-3 against current division leaders.
Green Bay needs this win to assure itself of a home playoff game, not to mention it seems unlikely MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers will post seven points again, as he did in the 19-7 loss in Week 3. The Pack have turned their season around since that game, winning 10 of the ensuing 12 contests.
Bold prediction: It’s very ironic that after years of criticizing the Lions for being nothing more than an offense-driven team, we’re now doing the same because it’s the same story but about defense. Matthew Stafford has not been the prolific passer we’ve become accustomed to, and this offense lacks the firepower Calvin Johnson used to provide. Buffalo’s defense was able to stymie Rodgers in Week 15, and Detroit’s works in a similar fashion and perhaps can replicate that performance. The issue is Rodgers will be at home still playing for a lot. Many suggested Rodgers’ effort vs. Buffalo cost him his MVP title, but his bounce-back performance Week 17 to capture a division title solidifies it. Rodgers throws four touchdowns on Detroit’s tough defense.
Arizona Cardinals @ San Francisco 49ers
This game is equally as important as the Rams-Seahawks being played at CenturyLink Field in the Pacific Northwest, but there are way too many intriguing storylines as Arizona travels to the Bay Area to try and salvage its seed for the playoffs.
The Cardinals have held a firm grasp on the NFC’s top seed for the majority of their season. The team started off 9-1, but since Carson Palmer was knocked out of the game Week 10 in St. Louis, the team is merely 3-3. Down to its third and possibly fourth-string quarterbacks, the Cardinals are looking for a little luck.
With Arizona’s second loss to Seattle last weekend, the Seahawks and Cardinals both own a share of first place in the NFC West, with Seattle obviously holding the tiebreaker. A win vs. the Rams gives the defending champs the No. 1 seed in the conference, again, while the Cardinals have a 75 percent chance of finishing as the No. 5 seed, meaning they’re destined to play Wild Card Weekend.
Logan Thomas was expected to get the start for Arizona, but coach Bruce Arians has since reverted back to Plan C and will go forward with Ryan Lindley, which still doesn’t bode well for the Cards’ chances. Last week, Lindley went 18-of-44 with an interception and a 14.8 quarterback rating in the team’s 35-6 loss to Seattle.
Meanwhile, San Francisco is playing for nothing. All signs indicate Jim Harbaugh is on his way out the door, and perhaps Colin Kaepernick could follow. The 49ers lost to the Drew Stanton-led Cardinals, 23-14, back in September.
Bold prediction: Many people have changed their minds on Kaepernick after a subpar season in San Francisco, but I’m sure Arians would do anything to have a quarterback of that caliber at this point in the year. Kaep and Co. might just be auditioning for a new head coach, and that’s enough to motivate a talented team playing at home to spoil a division rivals’ season. Expect Harbaugh to end his time in San Francisco with a bang, ironically helping their arch-rival Seattle to another NFC West crown while defeating Arizona by three touchdowns.
Cincinnati Bengals @ Pittsburgh Steelers
The AFC North is on the line, as it the Nos. 3, 6, and possibly two seeds in the conference when the Bengals and Steelers battle it out for a second time in a four-week span.
The Bengals’ defense has been playing better of late, evident by the four-interception game Monday night against Peyton Manning. Cincy has won two in a row and five of its last six games. The passing game has not fared too well, but it’s been picked up by rookie Jeremy Hill, who eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing in the win over Denver.
The Steelers defense, on the other hand, is struggling, and last week allowed Alex Smith to put up 300 yards through the air last week, albeit it in a loss. The secondary in particular has been a cause for concern, and is down to 31st in the NFL in pass defense DVOA. In their meeting earlier this month, Andy Dalton was able to put up 300 yards passing and two touchdowns.
Those deficiencies, however, have been masked by Pittsburgh’s prolific offense. In the previous meeting, the team dropped a 42-spot on the Bengals thanks to 185 yards on the ground from Le’Veon Bell, a 350-yard passing day for Big Ben and 100-plus-yard receiving efforts by both Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant. The question is whether Cincinnati’s defense can slow down the Steelers’ dynamic offense like it did against Denver just a week earlier.
Bold prediction: There is just no way I can justifiably put my faith in Dalton over Ben Roethlisberger, and as much as I believe in the Steelers’ offense I am equally nervous about their ability to get a defensive stop when need be. Pittsburgh proved to be the superior team when the teams last met not too long ago. Both of these teams are heading to the playoffs regardless of the outcome in this game. Because of that, I lean toward the Bengals escaping Heinz Field with a win. Somehow, someway, Dalton takes advantage of this Pittsburgh defense and the Bengals hold strong in their second meeting with their AFC North rival. Dalton’s 300 yards passing is enough for the Bengals to capture another division title.