The Falcons were eliminated from playoff contention with two weeks to play. Presumably their fans have gotten over that and moved on with their lives. But now NFL Week 17 is here, and the anxiety that’s been under the surface for much of the NFL season must be confronted.
Five weeks from now, the Saints and the Patriots could play in the Super Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
That would be the hated rivals from New Orleans vs. the team that denied the Falcons their first Super Bowl victory. Or, if you prefer, the team that was there when the Falcons stupidly gave it away and it just had to be the Pats, didn’t it?
The nightmarish Saints vs. Pats Super Bowl is very much possible. The Saints already clinched the NFC’s No. 1 seed. The Patriots will earn the top AFC seed if they beat the Jets and both the Chargers (at Denver) and Chiefs (vs. Oakland) lose. All that probably won’t happen, but the Patriots are likely to earn a bye.
Then everything will play out in New England’s favor, including Kansas City’s yearly choke job, and the Saints won’t lose a playoff game in their dome. We’ll get a week of Saints fans partying in our city and the Pats pretending they overcame adversity because they lost five games. This all will happen because everything is bad.
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At least Weekend Predictions has a chance to finish with a good year. A 6-4-1 mark against the spread in last week’s NFL games was dragged down by a 3-5 record in bowl games, including one last miss on Georgia Tech. I’m 7-8 ATS in bowl games through Wednesday.
In the College Football Playoff semifinals, I picked Notre Dame (plus-11 1/2) and Alabama (minus-14). I took Florida (plus-7 1/2) in the Peach Bowl and Georgia (minus-11 1/2) in the Sugar Bowl.
Falcons (plus-1 1/2) at Buccaneers
The Falcons showed at Carolina that they are still motivated despite their postseason fate being sealed. I say that not to praise the Falcons — professionals should not get extra credit for being professionals — but to eliminate malaise as a factor for them. The Falcons are likely to show up Sunday, which might be enough to take care of the dysfunctional Bucs.
It’s a mess in Tampa Bay. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson reportedly already is looking for the exits, Dirk Koetter likely is coaching his last game there, and last weekend a Cowboys player openly mocked purported franchise quarterback Jameis Winston during the game. The Bucs don’t have enough good players to deal with the Falcons or any good reason to play above their heads, so I’m taking the Falcons to win straight up.
Panthers (plus-7) at Saints
The big question for the Saints is whether Drew Brees will play enough snaps to extend one of his arbitrary records. It may seem foolhardy to play Brees when the Saints can’t improve their playoff positioning, but also don’t want him to one day regret not going for nine consecutive 4,000-yard seasons when he had the chance. The Panthers will start rookie Kyle Allen at QB after Taylor Heinicke hurt his elbow against the Falcons, but they play enough defense to cover against Saints second-stringers.
Other NFL games of interest
Eagles (minus-6 1/2) at Washington
The Falcons are the NFL’s most disappointing team this season. The Eagles can make a strong case for that title if they miss the playoffs the season after winning the Super Bowl. That happens if the Eagles lose this game or if they win it and the Vikings beat the Bears. But Philadelphia covers, leaving the Falcons alone as What Coulda Been champions.
Bengals (plus-14 1/2) at Steelers
The Steelers are another contender for Most Disappointing. To make the playoffs they need to beat the Bengals (no problem) and hope the Ravens lose at home to Cleveland (iffy). Some Pittsburgh fans are calling for coach Mike Tomlin to be fired because in their view, he’s wasted talent with poor game management. Sounds familiar. I’ll take the Bengals with the points.
Bears (plus 4 1/2) at Vikings
The Vikings are in if they win. The headline at the Star Tribune website reads: “Vikings signed Kirk Cousins to win big games like” this one. Sounds ominous for the Vikings because when Cousins was in this situation with Washington, he threw a game-losing interception. Then again, Christian Ponder won a game for the Vikings in this spot, so why not Cousins? There’s a chance the Bears will stop going all out during this game if the Rams are blowing out San Francisco, so I’ll take Minnesota and give the points.
Raiders (plus-13 1/2) at Chiefs
The Chiefs appear to be the best hope to stop the Patriots. Raiders cover, but the Chiefs win and earns the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed. That seems reassuring for their chances of derailing New England, but really, it’s still scary because the Chiefs went one-and-done at home in the past two postseasons.
Jets (minus-13 1/2) at Patriots
There’s a chance the Patriots could end up not earning a playoff bye. But every scenario includes a loss to the Jets, so they aren’t worth discussing. The Pats cover and then rest up before beginning their inevitable march to Atlanta.
49ers (plus-10) at Rams
The Rams need to win this so as not to allow the Bears an opening to take the No. 2 seed. Star running back Todd Gurley is banged up, but his backup, C.J. Anderson, went for 167 yards and a touchdown during a rout of the Cardinals last weekend. I’ll back the Rams and give the points.
Jaguars (plus-6 1/2) at Texans
On paper the Texans are a marginal playoff team, yet they’ve somehow won their division and will play host to a playoff game if they beat the Jags. Wait, I know how: there are two legitimate AFC teams, and Houston’s schedule doesn’t include either one. Texans cover.
Cowboys (minus-6) at Giants
The Cowboys might be even less impressive than the Texans, yet they’ve won six of their past seven games, including a victory over the Saints. The Cowboys are locked into the NFC’s No. 4 seed, but Jerry Jones said they intend to go “all-out” against the Giants. “We don’t want to go into the playoffs with dangling participles,” he said, the owner of the Cowboys franchise.
Against the spread: 9-9-1 (126-104-6 season)