Week 17 in the NFL is stacked with marquee matchups as the playoff picture comes into focus; this article will cover the Chiefs at the Bengals, the Dolphins at the Titans, the Vikings at the Packers, and the Broncos at the Chargers, while Part Two of The Professor’s NFL Games of the Week will cover the Rams at the Ravens, the Cardinals at the Cowboys, the Eagles at the Football Team, and the Browns at the Steelers. All spreads and totals are provided by DraftKings.
Kansas City Chiefs at Cincinnati Bengals (KC -5, Total 50)
There have been several games during this NFL season where great quarterback play a week ahead of a marquee matchup teed a game up nicely, but Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow throwing for 525 yards and four touchdowns in a pivotal AFC North matchup in the morning slate before Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs blew the doors off the Steelers in the afternoon slate matches any of them. Mahomes remains the AFC’s premier quarterback based on the combination of his talent and accomplishments, but Burrow’s latest performance was another reminder that several young quarterbacks in this conference, including Burrow, Josh Allen (Bills), and Justin Herbert (Chargers) can beat any opponent in the NFL when they play to their respective ceilings.
Burrow faces a markedly more difficult challenge this week; unlike the Ravens, who have unraveled on defense amidst a rash of injuries, the Chiefs are peaking at the right time under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Cincinnati’s cast of weapons is deep enough that Burrow should be able to target defenders other than Kansas City’s talented trio of safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerbacks L’Jarius Sneed and Charvarius Ward, but Burrow may not be afforded much time in the pocket against Chris Jones and the rest of the Kansas City front. If that is the case, running back Joe Mixon’s ability to create yards-after-catch as an outlet from the backfield could be a significant factor in this game.
The matchup on the other side of the ball will offer an idea of whether the Bengals will be a factor in the NFL Playoffs, as well as whether the offseason focus will be on improving the offensive line or the defense. Both groups need upgrades, but if Mahomes and the Chiefs, who could have tight end Travis Kelce back from the COVID list, light up the Bengals, the franchise might be further from Super Bowl contention than Burrow’s recent play suggests.
It will be interesting to see whether Cincinnati moves Trey Hendrickson from the right defensive end spot to the left to get him away from Chiefs left tackle Orlando Brown Jr.; Hendrickson has primarily occupied that spot as a Bengal but moved around the defensive front when he was with the Saints before signing with Cincinnati this offseason. The right tackle position has been the weak link on the Kansas City offense throughout the NFL season, so the Bengals may want to get Hendrickson, their best defensive lineman, opportunities on that side as they attempt to keep Mahomes in check. Kansas City is the more complete team, but as Burrow demonstrated in his performance last week, the Chiefs need to bring their A-game to ensure they will hold on to the top seed in the AFC coming out of this week.
Miami Dolphins at Tennessee Titans (TEN -3, Total 41)
Titans receiver A.J. Brown’s impact in his return from injury coupled with 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s interceptions to offer Tennessee fans a reprieve from their recent skid, but it could be a different story this week against a Dolphins defense that has allowed ten or fewer points in five of their last seven games. Miami’s streak has come against a generally unimpressive group of offenses, but with cornerback Xavien Howard available to keep Brown in check, the Titans are closer to the position they were in before Brown’s return when a lack of viable weapons around quarterback Ryan Tannehill caused the offense to stall out.
The good news for Titans fans is that their defensive line has a massive advantage over Miami’s talent-deficient offensive line. Defensive tackle Jeffrey Simmons has emerged as one of the NFL’s premier interior players, and Denico Autry, Harold Landry, and Bud Dupree are all contributing to the pass rush around him. Throw in the Titans’ secondary taking a massive step forward from 2020 and Zach Cunningham making his presence felt after the Texans surprisingly cut the talented linebacker, and you have a defense with playmakers at all three levels.
If the NFL Playoffs began this week, this would be the AFC’s 2 vs. 7 Wild Card matchup, and as this projects to be a defensive struggle, fans may hope that the playoff bracket shakes out a different pairing by the time the season ends. Miami picked up a win against the Saints on the strength of a pick-six, but they only managed one offensive touchdown and the run game produced a mere 89 yards on 30 carries.
The Dolphins have caught several breaks on their current winning streak, and the fact that Titans running back Derrick Henry isn’t available fits that storyline. If 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo had not suffered the thumb injury that reportedly factored into some of his turnovers against Tennessee, the Titans might have come into this matchup 1-4 in their last five games; the 10-5 record says otherwise, but Miami is facing a very beatable Tennessee team as they attempt to push their winning streak to eight games.
Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers (GB -6.5, Total 47)
The Vikings picked up a hard-fought 38-35 victory the first time these teams faced off, but the matchup moves to Green Bay now, and Minnesota has hit some obstacles in the personnel department since that game. Defensive end Everson Griffen, who was a lynchpin after fellow end Danielle Hunter went down for the season, is on the team’s reserve list, and cornerback Bashaud Breeland was cut after a dispute with a coach. Breeland had not played particularly well during this NFL season, but his departure made an already thin position group even weaker.
These setbacks on defense have coincided with a notable dip in quarterback Kirk Cousins’ play, a poor combination for head coach Mike Zimmer’s team. Cousins led the NFL in touchdown-to-interception ratio midway through the season, a shocking development to anyone who watched Cousins in his turnover-heavy early years in the NFL, but he has come crashing back to earth with four interceptions in his last three games, a number that Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield matched in a single game against a ball-hawking Packers secondary last week. The last time these teams played, Packers safety Darnell Savage had one interception taken off the board for a roughing the passer call and another overturned when the review showed he did not maintain the catch to the ground; Savage should be looking to get one back this week.
If Cousins does turn the ball over, the Vikings could be in trouble, because Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has taken over the NFL lead with a 33:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and two of those interceptions came in Week One, so it would be wishful thinking for the Vikings to count on turnovers in this matchup.
Zimmer has a history of scheming up difficult defenses for Rodgers and the Green Bay offense in this matchup, and Vikings safety Harrison Smith tends to play at a high level when these teams meet, but it will likely be on Minnesota’s offense to keep pace in this game. The Vikings certainly have the talent to do that, particularly against a Packers defense that has struggled in the past month, but the interior of Minnesota’s offensive line could struggle to slow down Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark if Rodgers and the offense force Minnesota into a pass-heavy shootout. Neither defense is likely to shut down the opposition, and if it comes down to turnovers, Clark’s ability to get pressure on Cousins could be a significant factor.
Denver Broncos at Los Angeles Chargers (LAC -5, Total 45)
Most NFL observers expected the Chargers to enter this game at 9-6, fresh off a win over the lowly Texans with a chance to solidify their playoff position, but Houston running back Rex Burkhead ran all over the Chargers’ inept run defense on their way to the upset, leaving the Broncos and Chargers both clinging to slim playoff hopes ahead of this matchup.
Denver’s running back tandem of Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams had a miserable day along with the rest of the Denver offense in their loss to the Raiders last week, but the duo has generally been effective throughout the NFL season and has a great chance to bounce back against the Chargers. The bigger question is whether the Broncos can get even a mediocre performance at quarterback from Teddy Bridgewater, who missed last week’s game, or Drew Lock, who threw for 153 yards in Bridgewater’s absence.
It’s an indictment on both quarterbacks that they have failed to produce notable numbers with a deep cast of pass-catchers at the running back, tight end, and wide receiver positions; some Broncos fans will point to the scheme, but at some point, it is on the guy with the ball in his hands to have an aggressive mindset and make plays on the field.
The Broncos won’t get quarterback help this week, so Denver could once again be forced to rely on Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert’s mistakes to stay in this game. Herbert threw for 303 yards the last time these teams met, but the two interceptions he threw to Broncos rookie cornerback Patrick Surtain, one of which was returned for a touchdown, played a prominent role in the Los Angeles loss.
For the Chargers to rally and salvage a playoff berth, they need Herbert to step up and play to the top of his ceiling against the Broncos and Raiders in the next two weeks; running back Austin Ekeler is a heck of a player and backup Justin Jackson is coming off a strong performance, but this offense ultimately runs through Herbert, and if he is not on point, the Chargers’ defense is unlikely to bail him out.
This article previewed four prominent NFL matchups for the coming week. For more content from The Professor, including the rest of his game previews and his fantasy content, check out The Professor on BeerLife Sports!
Steven Clinton, better known as "The Professor", is a former D-1 Quality Control Assistant (Northwestern, Toledo) who holds a B.A. in Economics and M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University. He maintains an end-to-end NFL game projection model and is a film junkie who breaks down the tape of every NFL game.
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