The NFL’s scheduling department should take a bow.
While not every game Sunday has postseason implications — Houston vs. Indianapolis, anyone??? Yeah, me neither — there are nine teams still to be seeded entering Week 17. That means a good modicum of competitive football, as well as gamesmanship and unusual cheerleading for matchup purposes.
Rams coach Sean McVay admitted Monday he will rest starters against the 49ers because mitigating injury risk is more important than going all-out to secure the NFC’s No. 3 seed. Jacksonville is already locked into the AFC’s No. 3 seed, but the Jaguars must decide whether featuring backups for the same purpose is in their best interest. A loss to the Titans greatly increases the chances of what can be considered a more favorable first-round rematch against a Tennessee squad that has lost three straight games.
NFL PLAYOFF PICTURE:
All these questions will be answered soon enough. We do know the seven clubs that already have made the playoffs and potential foes looming. Here are the most and least favorable matchups for each of them on the path to Super Bowl 52.
Philadelphia Eagles (13-2)
Best matchup: Carolina Panthers — Cam Newton is the most sacked quarterback (33) among NFC teams that have qualified for the playoffs. Philadelphia’s ability to get pressure on Newton with its Wide-Nine pass rush could lead to the type of low-scoring affair the Eagles may be forced into with Nick Foles replacing the injured Carson Wentz (knee) at quarterback.
Worst matchup: New Orleans Saints — The Saints aren’t exactly a cold-weather juggernaut, but Drew Brees has shown the ability to effectively lead New Orleans outside of the climate-controlled Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Taking it one step further, Brees is the best quarterback currently in the NFC playoff picture.
Minnesota Vikings (12-3)
Best matchup: Los Angeles Rams — A 24-7 road loss to the Vikings in Week 11 marked LA’s lowest scoring total of 2017. Minnesota has remained just as stingy defensively in winning 10 of its past 11 games.
Worst matchup: Carolina Panthers — The Panthers are the only team to have beaten the Vikings since Oct. 1, posting a 31-24 home win in Week 14. Because of that loss, Minnesota doesn’t have the luxury of resting its starters in Week 17. That’s because a home loss to Chicago on Sunday combined with a Panthers road win over Atlanta and a Saints loss to the Bucs would give Carolina the NFC’s No. 2 seed and send the Vikings into the playoffs without a bye. But even if the Panthers must travel to Minnesota, Vikings quarterback Case Keenum must play better than he did in his two-interception outing against Carolina three weeks ago.
WEEK 17 NFL PICKS:
Los Angeles Rams (11-4)
Best matchup: Seattle Seahawks — The Seahawks’ defense regrouped in last Sunday’s upset of Dallas after being stomped the previous week at home by the Rams. The offense is a different story altogether. NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate Aaron Donald and his Rams cohorts would salivate for another shot at Russell Wilson after sacking the QB seven times and allowing just 149 total yards.
Worst matchup: Philadelphia Eagles — Cold-weather games are something new for Rams quarterback Jared Goff, who also has no previous playoff experience. The Eagles also beat the Rams in Week 14 with Foles leading the game-winning drive after Wentz was hurt.
New Orleans Saints (11-4)
Best matchup: Atlanta Falcons — The Saints put Atlanta on the brink of postseason elimination with last Sunday’s 23-13 home win over the Falcons. The same outcome in a rematch at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome likely would be because Atlanta’s defense has struggled on the road against New Orleans during Dan Quinn’s three-year tenure as head coach.
Worst matchup: Minnesota Vikings — The Saints and Vikings both are drastically different teams than they were when Minnesota won the season-opener between the two. But this fact remains: No NFC defense is as well-heeled to handle the Saints’ prolific offense as Minnesota’s top-ranked unit.
Carolina Panthers (11-4)
Best matchup: Los Angeles Rams — The improvement of Carolina’s offensive line under the venerable John Matsko is one of the NFL’s most understated developments in 2017. The unit has a legitimate chance at keeping the Rams’ strong defensive front at bay. There also are worse weather scenarios than a potential January game in Los Angeles.
Worst matchup: New Orleans Saints — The Panthers already have lost twice to the Saints this season and have given up 65 points in the process. To put that in perspective, Carolina has surrendered an average of 18.5 points in its other 13 games.
New England Patriots (12-3)
Best matchup: Buffalo Bills — Don’t blame the Patriots for hoping the Bills overcome the odds, reach the playoffs for the first time since 1999 and then get on a postseason run. New England has stampeded Buffalo by a 60-19 margin in two lopsided victories this year, and nothing indicates a third meeting would unfold any differently.
Worst matchup: Baltimore Ravens — Although they’ve lost three straight to New England, the Ravens have a history of strong showings against the Patriots and are the last team to win a playoff game in Foxboro, back during the 2012 season. And unlike opponents with younger rosters, Baltimore has key veterans like Joe Flacco, Eric Weddle and Terrell Suggs who are nonplussed by the Patriots mystique that has given New England a psychological advantage through the years.
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3)
Best matchup: Tennessee Titans — Based upon Tennessee’s three straight losses in December, every playoff team should want to face the Titans in the postseason. Tennessee’s performance in a 40-17 road loss to Pittsburgh in Week 11 doesn’t provide much confidence that the Titans could win a rematch.
Worst matchup: New England Patriots — The Steelers blew their best opportunity to claim the AFC’s No. 1 seed with a game-ending meltdown in a Week 15 home loss to the Patriots. Pittsburgh has now lost five straight to New England, including three games in Foxboro by a 119-69 margin. And let’s not expect newly signed Pats linebacker James Harrison to be reticent in sharing any Steelers secrets from his 13-plus seasons with the club, either.
Jacksonville Jaguars (10-5)
Best matchup: Los Angeles Chargers — It isn’t just Jacksonville having defeated LA in Week 10, marking only the second loss suffered by the Chargers in their past seven outings. LA ranks 32nd in run defense with a 132.9-yard average, which plays right into the hands of a Jaguars offense expected to lean heavily on Leonard Fournette in the postseason.
Worst matchup: New England Patriots — There’s reason to believe Jacksonville’s fierce pass rush could affect Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. But history isn’t kind to warm-weather teams forced to face New England in the cold. Opponents that play their home games in non-wintry climates (outdoors or domes) are 2-28 in December and January games in Foxboro since Gillette Stadium opened in 2002.
Kansas City Chiefs (9-6)
Best matchup: New England Patriots — OK, maybe it’s not the best, but this showdown wouldn’t be as daunting for the Chiefs as it would be for other teams. While the Patriots are much improved from their stunning Week 1 loss to the Chiefs, Kansas City would unquestionably enter Gillette Stadium with confidence. Cold weather also wouldn’t play as much of a factor as it would with a team from a warm-weather climate like Jacksonville.
Worst matchup: Pittsburgh Steelers — Andy Reid has struggled trying to figure out Pittsburgh’s defense since he became Kansas City’s head coach in 2013. The Chiefs are 1-4 against Pittsburgh since then (including playoffs) and have scored an average of just 15.6 points.