Taking a spin around the NFL to get you ready for Week 17:
The big questions
Who will clinch playoff berths?
There are good spots still available -- or at least enough to make the last weekend interesting. OK, mildly interesting. A handful of teams can make it quite simple just by winning.
Atlanta can make the NFC picture real easy by beating Carolina at home, where the Falcons are only 4-3 this season. But ... if the Falcons lose, then Seattle can earn a berth by beating the Arizona Cardinals at home. Like the Falcons, the Seahawks haven’t been as great at home -- they’re 4-3.
Regardless of which team earns that sixth playoff spot, the NFC will have five new teams in the postseason. Atlanta and Seattle are the only possible repeaters.
In the AFC, there’s a little more intrigue. But then again, that won’t be the case if the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans take care of business. If both those teams win? They clinch a playoff spot. But if the Ravens lose at home to Cincinnati, Buffalo can earn a bid with a win at Miami.
And then there’s the Los Angeles Chargers. They need both Buffalo and Tennessee to lose and then they must beat the Oakland Raiders. If that happens, then Los Angeles will have two playoff teams. That’s a scenario few thought possible before the season.
Is this Eli Manning’s last game with the Giants?
At some point the New York Giants must move on from Manning; after all, he turns 37 this Wednesday. Before coach Ben McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese were fired, it appeared that time would come after this season. The Giants have done a terrible job building their offensive roster, notably on the line and in the run game. They also were hit hard by injuries at receiver and having Odell Beckham Jr. available for only four games killed them.
Still, with a new coach and GM for 2018 there could a desire to start fresh all around. Manning might want a fresh start as well. However, the money makes this difficult. If he’s cut, Manning would count for $12.4 million in dead cap space (unless designated post-June 1, in which that would be split over two years). He also has a no-trade clause. That’s why he might return in 2018. But with possibly the second overall pick in the draft, the Giants are in great position to draft his successor. They can’t pass on an opportunity to set themselves up at the game’s most important position for perhaps the next decade or longer.
The Eagles have everything they need for a long playoff run, but they need Foles to find some level of consistency as Carson Wentz’s replacement at quarterback. Foles’ first two starts have been uneven and nothing shows that more than his third-down passing.
In his first start versus the Giants, Foles completed 6 of 10 passes on third down as the Eagles finished the game converting 46.2 percent of their third downs. But against Oakland last week, Foles completed just 1 of 11 passes on third down -- and it didn't go for a first down. It takes a lot of work to miss that many throws.
In two games with Foles, the Eagles have averaged 5.26 yards per pass attempt -- that’s 2.28 yards fewer than what they had done in the first 13 games. Even the running game is off under Foles as the Eagles have averaged 3.88 yards per carry the past two weeks compared to 4.57 in the first 13.
One bit of good news: Perhaps Foles and the Eagles can build momentum against Dallas’ defense this Sunday. The Cowboys rank 18th in yards per carry allowed and 30th in third-down conversions.
It’s funny to say a team with only two losses could use a boost entering the postseason, but that’s what the Eagles could use from Foles.
By the numbers
4,089: Passing yards by New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. He’ll finish with his fewest passing yards since the 2009 season when he threw for 4,388 yards. If he doesn’t surpass that total, it would represent his fewest yards thrown since joining New Orleans in 2006. The Saints need to beat Tampa Bay to clinch the NFC South, so there will be chances for Brees to have a big game. He threw for 263 yards in a win over the Bucs earlier this season.
881: Difference in total yards from scrimmage for Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley compared to his 2016 total. Gurley, who won’t play in the season finale, will finish with 2,093 yards from scrimmage in his first season with coach Sean McVay. The amazing thing is that it’s not as if Gurley received a lot more touches. In fact, he had only 22 more touches than a year ago.
20: Consecutive road losses by Cleveland, which tries to avoid becoming the second 0-16 team in NFL history. The problem: The Browns play at Pittsburgh, where they’ve lost 13 in a row. The Steelers are 16-2 against Cleveland at home since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999. The problem for the Browns, besides everything, will be trying to stop running back Le’Veon Bell, who needs 54 more yards from scrimmage to post his second straight 2,000-yard season.
2: Quarterbacks who could end up leading their team in rushing this season. Seattle’s Russell Wilson will do so and Carolina’s Cam Newton might join him; Newton leads Jonathan Stewart by 15 yards rushing entering the season finale. Newton was the last quarterback to lead his team in rushing (2012). There have been three other quarterbacks who led their teams in rushing -- Philadelphia’s Donovan McNabb and Randall Cunningham and Chicago’s Bobby Douglass. But there have never been two in the same season.
What we’ll be talking about after Week 17 on Monday
Can anyone beat New England?
New England will complete a 13-win season by beating the New York Jets this Sunday, thereby gaining home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Which means the Patriots will enter as strong favorites to reach the Super Bowl and defend their championship.
It’s not as if 13 wins means the Patriots are a slam-dunk champion. They’re 3-2 in the Super Bowl in seasons in which they’ve won 13 games. They lost once in the divisional round.
But the Patriots have a likely MVP winner in quarterback Tom Brady, who shows no signs of decline at age 40. He leads the NFL in passing yards, and if he finishes that way, he’ll be the oldest player ever to do so.
You could make strong cases for Wilson and Gurley for MVP. If Wentz hadn’t been hurt, he would merit heavy consideration.
Still, that award doesn’t matter to the playoff race. And it’s hard to imagine anyone in the AFC other than Pittsburgh beating the Patriots. And the NFC is full of mystery -- it’s a stronger conference, but does it have a team that can beat New England? The top seed in the NFC, Philadelphia, must try to reach the Super Bowl without its best offensive player in Wentz. New Orleans has a good shot, thanks to a more balanced roster, and the Saints can run the ball. What will the Rams do? How dangerous is Carolina? The NFC should produce a terrific postseason.
But even after it does, everyone will still be wondering: Can anyone beat New England?
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan’s history versus the Panthers bodes well for the Falcons’ playoff chances. In four of the past seven meetings, Ryan has posted a Total QBR of 74.6 or better. Of course, one of those times where he did not was in a 20-17 loss on Nov. 5 (in which he threw for 313 yards and two touchdowns).
And in the past four games versus Carolina, Ryan has thrown a combined nine touchdown passes to two interceptions. In other words, he’s been good versus the Panthers. That will continue as they try to clinch a playoff spot at home.
It’s actually a really good matchup as both quarterbacks have stood out in these meetings. In their first 13 meetings against one another, both have accounted for 24 touchdowns. Cam Newton has thrown for 2,726 yards and 17 touchdowns and rushed for another 662 yards and seven scores. Ryan has thrown 23 touchdown passes and scored once rushing.
But if the Falcons are to complete their bounce-back recovery from the Super Bowl loss, Ryan will have to excel.
Dez Bryant’s future
For whatever reason, Bryant hasn’t been as productive and certainly can’t be mentioned among the NFL's top receivers anymore. Whether that stems from his own decline or a lack of chemistry with quarterback Dak Prescott -- or an injury Bryant now says bothered him this season (for which he never appeared on an injury report). Regardless, the production hasn’t been there.
He caught 50 passes in 13 games last season and enters the finale with 66. He could still finish with more than 70 catches and 900 yards.
But here’s the tricky part: Bryant’s contract. He has a base salary of $12.5 million and a cap hit of $16.5 million. So it’s not as if Dallas can just cut him and move on without much penalty. Even with a post-June 1 release, he’d count $4 million of dead cap space in 2018 and ’19. He said earlier this week he wouldn’t take a pay cut. It’s clear that Bryant hasn’t been the same receiver the past couple of years. He’s never been a guy who blows past corners, relying on physical skills more than speed.
Look at his catches for 20 or more yards: In the past three years, he has caught a combined 21 in 37 games. From 2012 to 2014, he had 55 such catches in 48 games.
It’s going to be an interesting offseason for Bryant and the Cowboys.