With multiple games in Week 17 having little to no impact on the shape of the playoffs, it will be good to get back to football that matters. Welcome to the 2017 NFL playoffs.
For 20 teams, 12 months of planning came to an official end, for most in a disappointing fashion. For teams like the Broncos, Panthers, Cardinals and Bengals, it’s been four months of high expectations, followed by countless poor performances and ultimately a premature ending. For others, like the Buccaneers and Titans, sure their seasons ended a little earlier than they’d have liked (especially considering their strong positions in early December), but the future looks bright for franchises that held the 1st and 2nd overall picks in the 2015 Draft.
However the real story is now looking forward to a January chock-full of playoff football. There is also clearly a disparate difference in the strength between the NFC and AFC playoff fields.
In the National Football Conference, the Cowboys have been the benchmark since October, but the challengers are lining up thick and fast. The Falcons have the league’s best offense and playing hot at the right time, Green Bay threatened to turn around their woes and have done so in spectacular fashion, winning six straight. The Seahawks have been extremely inconsistent throughout, and based on current form will struggle to take the title, but are still extremely dangerous as a week-to-week proposition. And then there’s New York’s Giants.
The Giants are perhaps the NFL’s biggest unknown with the biggest giant killing streak ability (excuse the pun). 2016’s Giants are so far the only team to beat the Cowboys (twice) this season (I’m not including the Eagles’ Week 17 loss). They’ve beaten the Patriots twice in Super Bowls over the past decade, including an upset of the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl 42. Their defense might just be the best of those that remain. Eli Manning hasn’t been particularly effective this year, but Odell Beckham surely is, and the running game has improved in leaps and bounds.
Furthermore, in their two victorious Super Bowl runs in 2008 and 2012, both times the Giants travelled to the cold of Lambeau Field and emerged with W’s. Can they make it three from three?
With their loss on Sunday Night to division rivals, Green Bay, Detroit now face an incredibly tough task in Seattle. The Seahawks haven’t been the juggernaut seen from 2013-2015 this season, they’ve been a curious bundle of inconsistency, particularly on the offensive line and now a defense that’s clearly missing the brilliant Earl Thomas.
In the second half of the season Matt Stafford’s numbers dropped off significantly, as the running game faltered and the offensive line struggled. Stafford has the pieces on offense to stretch the capabilities of the Seahawks’ secondary, with guys like Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Eric Ebron and Zach Zenner more than capable offensive playmakers. Perhaps the best sign of optimism for the Lions is their strong showing in Week 4 against Seattle last season. Despite a 13-10 loss on the scoreboard, the Lions only fell one yard short of taking the lead inside the last two minutes, before a Calvin Johnson fumble out of the back of the endzone ended their challenge. Thus, hope remains for the Detroit Lions.
In the American Football Conference, it’s the Patriots as the clear favorite with only the Steelers and Chiefs in any real position to challenge them. The lack of quality of depth in the AFC playoff’s by comparison is obvious. For the Dolphins and Raiders, they’ve been hamstrung by late season injuries to their quarterbacks. The Raiders in particular were in a position to challenge for a Wildcard bye until Carr’s injury in Week 16.
The Dolphins travel to the ‘Steel City’, for a showdown against a franchise oozing with playoff experience in Pittsburgh. The Dolphins defeated the Steelers earlier in the season down in Florida, but when you have Matt Moore starting as quarterback, in the middle of January, away from Miami. Well you’d have to be an extreme optimist to foresee any positive result here for Miami. Look for the brilliant Le’Veon Bell to set the tone early and often in this one. Steelers by plenty.
The second AFC matchup is even less inspiring. The Houston Texans are not an exciting football team. Nor are they a particularly good one. The Oakland Raiders on the other hand, were the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of absolute excitement, until Week 16 that is. Now we’re faced with one of the most uninspiring playoff clashes since the Panthers and Ryan Lindley met in 2015. Ugh. Making the game even less relevant is the likely destination for the ‘games’ winner; Foxboro, Massachusetts. Neither team has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning there. And even if the Dolphins pull the upset in Pittsburgh, well Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas, is hardly a better opportunity for the Texans or Raiders to advance to the AFC Championship game.