This is it! The final installment of a column that has served to both review the action that just unfolded and look ahead to what we can do with that information. After this article, however, there is no “looking ahead.” What follows Week 17 is the conclusion of the regular season and, in the process, the end of our weekly assessments.
There’s good news, of course. What we learned in Week 17 may be the last useful piece of information we can gather from a team until the playoffs begin. Some will sit their starters. Others will be playing meaningless football.
We have the tools to properly act on whatever happens from here.
The Colts Couldn’t Get it Done
Many of us watch sports for the storylines. The drama. The Indianapolis Colts reminded us of exactly how that can unfold the events of Week 17.
The Colts learned early that quarterback Carson Wentz was likely to miss the game against the Raiders, where a win would clinch a playoff berth for the team. Days later, Wentz was reinstated and then cleared to participate.
Story’s over, right? The end.
The Colts — who were reinstalled as large favorites following the news that their quarterback would play — lost outright to the Raiders and put themselves in position to fall out of the postseason picture yet again.
What a journey it has been for Indianapolis. It fought back from a 1-4 start to eventual sit three games over .500 with control of its own destiny. The loss wasn’t necessarily damaging to the team’s playoff chances, but it absolutely crushed the momentum.
This is what makes the Colts’ loss so important. We have learned that they are vulnerable, that they will need to make strides if they want to have a deep playoff run, but that they haven’t been knocked out. That’s important because, as Indianapolis travels to Jacksonville next week — and likely pummels the Jaguars en route to punching a playoff ticket — we should be wise to not forget what happened in Week 17.
The Arizona Cardinals Snap Their Losing Streak
I specifically made it a point to highlight the Cardinals in last week’s article because of how the team would be viewed entering a critical Week 17 matchup with the Cowboys — the same Cowboys that dismantled Washington on national television. It was important to see how far the needle would move over this two-week span, especially if the Cardinals won.
The Cardinals won. Now let’s see how far the needle has moved.
In fairness, we can’t see yet. But we can project ahead. Arizona will host Seattle after already clinching a playoff berth. There is probably little that can be taken from that game as well. Instead, we should use Week 17’s clutch win as an argument that will ultimately be made in the Cardinals’ favor.
When Arizona is assigned its postseason opponent, the game against Dallas is what many will cite to try to determine the outcome. Don’t fall into the same trap. The Cowboys were perfect candidates for regression, while the Cardinals were primed for a rebound. Arizona proved something on Sunday, but it was as circumstantial as it was impressive. The Cardinals still have some flaws, and they failed to score at least 26 points for the fourth consecutive week — their season average entering the game was 26.3 points-per-game.
The Cincinnati Bengals Win the AFC North
They did it! For as tough as the AFC North is on a regular basis, the Bengals not only clinched the title, but did so with a week to spare. What made it even more impressive is that Cincinnati won the division thanks to a thrilling road victory against the Chiefs. It was, at the risk of exaggeration, one of the best performances in a clutch spot by a team in the regular season in quite some time.
Therein lies the value in what the Bengals just did. They had previously failed in important games so often that it had become a trend. That argument no longer holds water. Cincinnati cannot be doubted.
The Bengals will probably not be ignored as a playoff sleeper, largely due to the play of quarterback Joe Burrow and rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. Now, Cincinnati even has the storyline in its favor where it can win a big game.
Which also means that the Bengals will carry a premium for the foreseeable future.
Where do the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Go Now?
The purpose of this column is to “learn something” from the games we just watched, but there are so many moving parts to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Week 17 win that it’s not likely we take one piece of information from it. Regardless, here are the top candidates:
- Wide Receiver Antonio Brown is no longer with the team
- Tom Brady leads another game-winning comeback
- Tampa Bay inexplicably struggled on the road in what-has-become a concerning trend
The reality is that, while the first two bullet points are incredibly interesting — and the loss of Brown is not something that should be understated — the biggest actual takeaway is that road games have been a relative problem for the Buccaneers. At home, Tampa Bay is 6-1 and has scored at least 30 points all-but-once — in the lone loss. On the road, the Buccaneers are much less dominant, with a record of 5-3 and scoring an average of 27.1 points-per-game.
The division-winning Buccaneers will host a playoff game — and play at home against the Panthers next week — so they may not travel for awhile. If it happens, don’t let the other storylines detract from this sneaky trend.
The Saints and Raiders Win to Cling to Playoff Hopes
New Orleans and Las Vegas took care of business in their respective games, and they are now just outside of the playoff picture with some hope in Week 18. That’s all that many teams could want at this point of the year: the opportunity to play an important game and find a way into the postseason.
There is, however, an obvious and unavoidable story that we will hear constantly over the course of the next week: picking teams that need to win.
When it comes to picking games against the spread, don’t forget that the oddsmakers build in what others are expecting, and “must-win” games are not the same as “will-win” games. Don’t fall for the trap. Make sure there is a better foundation to a pick involving either team before settling on a side.
Mario Mergola is a featured writer at FantasyPros and BettingPros, as well as the creator and content editor of Sporfolio. For more from Mario, check out his archive and follow him @MarioMergola. He has also been one of the industry leaders in NFL against-the-spread picks over the last 7 years.