The NFL switched their scheduling format a few years ago to ensure that EVERY Week 17 game was a divisional contest. Their goal was to get the bottom feeders to play hard.
The thought process was very clear. Even bad teams amp up their energy with a chance to play spoiler against a hated divisional rival. Their goal was to get the bottom feeders to play hard.
Look no further than the Baltimore Ravens last week in their outright upset as 11 point underdogs against their arch-rivals from Pittsburgh. The Atlanta Falcons fit the bill as well from Week 16, playing inspired football to knock off previously unbeaten Carolina. St Louis, too, brought their ‘A’ game in a ‘meaningless’ game for them against an NFC South rival, knocking off the Seahawks as double digit underdogs in Seattle.
There were only seven divisional games last week. This week, there are 16 such games. And while ten of the twelve playoff spots have already been clinched, and an 11th spot (Houston’s) a 99.9% probability, these teams are still fighting for playoff positioning and bye weeks.
But when it comes to the concept of Week 17 spoilers, the two teams fighting for the one spot that hasn’t been clinched stand out. The New York Jets are in the playoffs if they win, but they’ve got to get through Rex Ryan’s Buffalo Bills in Buffalo to get there. And after losing at Baltimore last week, the Steelers need a Jets loss and a win over Cleveland to reach the postseason.
Can the Bills and Browns bring enough to the table to knock off their playoff contending foes? Let’s start with Buffalo. The Bills notched a much needed win over hapless Dallas last Sunday, but once again it wasn’t pretty. Buffalo converted only one of their four red zone chances into touchdowns. They turned the ball over twice, a recurring problem. They committed penalties in bunches, still leading the NFL in both penalties called against them and penalty yards given up. They didn’t record a single sack against an inexperienced QB making his first career start.
Buffalo’s ten point win over a Cowboys team with Kellen Moore at QB was good enough to cover the pointspread, but it certainly wasn’t confidence inspiring. Yes, Tyrod Taylor ranks #5 in the NFL in passer rating and #5 in yards per pass attempt. He’s only thrown six interceptions all year. Sammy Watkins is a truly dangerous downfield weapon, capable of making huge plays on ‘just chuck it up there’ kind of throws.
Despite RB injuries, Karlos Williams and Mike Gillislee have shouldered the load effectively. It’s the Bills mediocre defense and propensity for making key mistakes that have hurt them more than any other factor this season. of course, that defense was in control for most of their Thursday Night matchup in November, where a fumble return touchdown provided the eventual margin of victory for Buffalo. If the Bills are going to play spoiler this week, they’ll need a similarly inspired defensive effort.
The Bills have the capacity to beat the Jets – they’ve done it once already this year and New York is coming off a huge, emotional OT win over New England. Cleveland’s capacity to beat the Steelers – even if they bring their ‘A’ game – isn’t quite as clear for our NFL picks.
Yes, the Browns fought hard in KC last week, making things interesting down the stretch after rallying from behind. But this Cleveland squad hasn’t put up much of a fight against the Steelers for the last decade or so. Pittsburgh is 19-3 SU against the Browns in the last 22 meetings between the two teams, including a 30-9 wipeout last month in Pittsburgh.
But from a point spread perspective, Cleveland hasn’t been wiped out; 5-4 ATS in the nine meetings since the start of the 2011 campaign. Johnny Manziel threw for a career high 372 yards in the loss to Pittsburgh last month, taking advantage of Pittsburgh’s suspect secondary again and again. That leaves the potential for a backdoor cover here even if the Steelers control the flow. In fact, I’d rather have the two spoilers (Buffalo and Cleveland) in my pocket at kickoff than to bet the two ‘must win’ favorites in these inflated point spread ranges on the NFL odds board.