Week 17 in the NFL is stacked with marquee matchups as the playoff picture comes into focus; the first article in The Professor’s Games of the Week covered the Chiefs at the Bengals, the Dolphins at the Titans, the Vikings at the Packers, and the Broncos at the Chargers, while this article 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.
Los Angeles Rams at Baltimore Ravens (LAR -3.5, Total 46.5)
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford is coming off a rough performance against the Vikings that saw him throw three interceptions, including two inside the Rams’ ten-yard line, but Los Angeles got the win despite that to clinch a playoff berth. Now Stafford has an opportunity to redeem himself against a Ravens defense that is down to practice squad players in the secondary, which is one reason they allowed Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow to throw for 525 yards last week.
Baltimore’s accumulation of injuries passed the breaking point weeks ago, and while the Ravens should have talented backup quarterback Tyler Huntley back from the COVID list and could get starter Lamar Jackson back from an ankle injury, it is difficult to imagine this team making a late-season playoff push. Jackson had a pronounced limp in his return to practice, so Huntley may be the superior option, but while Huntley showed he can play at a high level against Green Bay two weeks ago, he could face significantly more pressure from a Rams defensive front that features Aaron Donald, Leonard Floyd, and Von Miller.
The Ravens offense will get at least one quality quarterback back, but the defense will not get similar reinforcements, which sets Stafford up for a big game as he attempts to lead the Rams to an NFC West title in his first season in the division. Stafford has made the type of jaw-dropping throws that made him such a coveted target on the trade market this offseason, but outside of a win over the Cardinals, Stafford has not played particularly consistent football during this NFL season, and that would be a problem if it continues in a stacked NFC playoff field.
Stafford does not necessarily have to build momentum to play at an MVP level when the NFL playoffs kick off, but it would give Rams fans more confidence to see Stafford play to his ceiling against the Ravens and 49ers over the next two weeks. Baltimore has lost their last four games, and since a Thursday Night loss to the Dolphins, the only teams the Ravens have beaten are the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns; barring another turnover-heavy performance from Stafford, it is difficult to imagine Baltimore sticking with Rams in this one.
Arizona Cardinals at Dallas Cowboys (DAL -5.5, Total 52)
The Cardinals and Cowboys were in the same boat a week ago as teams that had produced elite offensive performances early in the NFL season before dropping off, but Dallas shook that label off in notable fashion in a blowout win against the Football Team last week, while the Cardinals continued their recent skid with a loss to a Colts team that was missing several key contributors.
Quarterback Dak Prescott’s rebound was a welcome sight for Cowboys fans, but while Dallas needs their quarterback to play at a high level to advance in the NFL playoffs, the story of this team continues to be the defense. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has put this group of exceptionally explosive athletes in a position to play with an attack mentality, and it has produced dominant results from is rookie linebacker Micah Parsons, who is arguably the best defender in the NFL, cornerback Trevon Diggs, and edge rusher Randy Gregory, who has paid off owner Jerry Jones’ patience by performing at an elite level this season.
Second-year defensive tackle Neville Gallimore has shown flashes of his overwhelming strength since returning from injury, and defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, who toiled through several seasons where the Dallas defense was among the NFL’s worst, remains one of the league’s better linemen. As a group, they have a strong case as the best unit in the NFL, a welcome development for Quinn after some tough years in Atlanta.
Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray could silence his doubters in an emphatic fashion if he finds his early-season form against this defense, but the Cardinals offense is not the same without lead receiver DeAndre Hopkins, which could mean that Arizona continues their slide. It would go a long way if Cardinals edge rusher Chandler Jones could get to Prescott early and force a turnover to create momentum; Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith has returned to practice and may be ready for this game, which would create some must-see matchups between Jones and Smith, who are as physically gifted as any linemen in the NFL. The look-ahead line on this game was Dallas -3, but the weekend’s results led to a notable shift, and Dallas is now favored by 5.5 as they attempt to stay on Green Bay’s heels for the number one seed in the NFC. Murray is a talented player, but even with his acceleration, it will be difficult to outrun Parsons and company.
Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Football Team (PHI -3.5, Total 45)
Washington is technically still in the NFC playoff race, but after a four-game winning streak that got the team back to .500 at 6-6, the Football Team has looked as bad as any football team in the NFL while losing their last three games.
Were it not for Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott throwing a late pick-six three weeks ago and Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert dropping a ball that bounced off his foot for an early interception two weeks ago, Washington would have lost their last three games by an even larger margin than the 59-point deficit they posted. The Football Team’s defense allowed the Eagles to run for 5.8 yards per carry and 238 rushing yards in their last matchup, including 7.3 yards per carry to Miles Sanders, and given how Washington played against Dallas last week, it is hard to expect them to rebound this week. If the Eagles play a clean game on offense, the Football Team could be facing a second consecutive blowout loss.
As the Football Team implodes, the Eagles are working toward a playoff berth and an interesting offseason. Philadelphia has feasted on an advantageous schedule in their run to the NFL Playoffs, but it appears increasingly likely that they will get in, a notable feat for a team with a second-year quarterback and three first-round picks in the upcoming NFL Draft. The popular question is whether Jalen Hurts has solidified himself as the franchise quarterback, but while Hurts probably isn’t at that point, he has continued to improve each season since he debuted at Alabama, and it would be foolish to assume he won’t make additional strides during the upcoming NFL offseason given his track record.
Hurts needs to develop more consistency as a passer, but there are enough flashes of him making big-time throws down the field to suggest he could give NFL defenses fits as a dual-threat quarterback for years to come. Given where he is in his development, Hurts would need to have a spectacular end to the season, including a deep playoff run, to cement himself as the team’s long-term quarterback, but a strong performance against Washington this week would take him one step closer to having definitively answered that question a year from now.
Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers (CLE -3.5, Total 41)
The Browns are favored against the Steelers this week in a game that Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has announced is set to be his final game at Heinz Field. Odds aside, given the moment and the fact that Roethlisberger is 25-2-1 in the regular season against Cleveland, it is hard not to like the Steelers to once again rebound from a brutal showing with a last-gasp game.
Roethlisberger has been a shell of himself over the past two seasons, but as former Lakers star Kobe Bryant (RIP) showed in his 60-point career finale, Hall of Fame-caliber athletes occasionally can summon their old form for a short burst as they near the end; with Browns defensive end Myles Garrett notably affected by a groin injury, Cleveland’s defense struggled to rush the passer against Green Bay last week, which could give Roethlisberger the time he needs to find his talented receiver tandem of Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool.
It also helps Pittsburgh’s cause that the Browns plan to start Baker Mayfield at quarterback this week despite his atrocious performance against Green Bay last week. The four interceptions get the headlines, but it is arguably more concerning that Mayfield was habitually off-target on his passes in the short areas of the field. There were times against Green Bay where it felt like every short pass Mayfield threw was to the wrong side of the receiver’s body, which is a massive concern given that Mayfield’s timing and ball placement are supposed to be the strengths of his game.
Injuries have impacted him, but that is another reason for concern; Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady won a Super Bowl on a knee that needed surgery last season, and NFL history is full of stories such as former Packers quarterback Brett Favre playing quality football with a broken thumb on his throwing hand. Franchise quarterbacks are expected to play at an above-average level even when dealing with the inevitable injuries that NFL players will face; it’s part of the job description.
Mayfield was selected with the first pick in the draft, and the Browns need to see it out with him, but it is hard to have faith in him this week based on how he has played this season. Cleveland ran for 8.8 yards per carry and 228 yards against the Packers last week, but even with that production on the ground, Mayfield found a way to sink his team with turnovers and missed opportunities. If Mayfield can’t get things resolved in the next two weeks, it will make for a tense offseason in Cleveland. The Steelers are certain to be in the quarterback market; if Mayfield turns in another performance anything like what happened in Green Bay last week, Browns fans will be calling for their team to join them.
This article previewed four prominent NFL matchups for the coming week and talked about how to bet them. 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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