As the calendar year turns, another NFL regular season will come to a close.
In a season like no other complete with controversy, uncertainty, and unusualness amid the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the road to Super Bowl LV has been more challenging than ever.
As the final slate of the 2020 NFL season is set to kickoff this weekend between division rivals, the push for the playoffs is in full force.
For some teams, Week 17 will determine their fate for a chance at professional football glory, while for others, it presents a harsh reality - a failed mission with hope for brighter days ahead.
*TB clinches NFC’s 5th seed with win
Tampa Bay is coming off of an absolutely dominant performance against Detroit in Week 16, as Tom Brady finished with 4 TDs on 348 yards in the first half alone before viewing the rest of the game from the bench in a 47-7 blowout win.
In his time on the field, Brady managed to spread the wealth amongst the team’s deep receiving core, with Rob Gronkowski, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown each scoring at least once. Later, Gronkowski and Evans would manage to find the endzone again.
Carrying their performance into this week, head coach Bruce Arians indicated to SiriusXM NFL Radio that his team will not be resting any of its starters, at least entering the game, in hopes of locking up the NFC’s 5th seed in the playoffs after surpassing Los Angeles (NFC). Rookie RB Ronald Jones III is also expected to make his return off of the Reserve/COVID-19 list in time for kickoff as well.
The last time these two met came recently in Week 15, in which Atlanta ironically blew another lead against Brady-led team as the Buccaneers rallied from a 17-point deficit in an eventful 2nd half to win, 31-27.
For Falcons fans, blown leads have been a familiar sight in 2020 – another season filled with countless heartbreaking performances.
In fact, Atlanta has allowed their opponents to stage comebacks in all 10 of the team’s losses. The latest being just last week when they gave up a 14-10 lead late in the 4th quarter to the AFC’s top-ranked Kansas City Chiefs.
To add insult to injury (no pun intended), star WR position, Julio Jones, will miss his 4th-consecutive game, and the franchise’s all-time leader at the position could quite possibly see his days with the team limited this offseason.
PREDICTION: Buccaneers, 28-20
*PIT clinches AFC’s #2 seed with win + MIA win vs. BUF
**CLE clinches playoff berth with win; or JAX win vs. IND; or HOU win vs. TEN + MIA win/tie vs. BUF + BAL win/tie vs. CIN; or CLE tie vs. PIT + CIN win vs. BAL; or CLE tie vs. PIT + BUF win vs. MIA; or CLE tie vs. PIT + HOU win vs. TEN; or CLE tie vs. PIT + IND vs. JAX tie; or CLE tie vs. PIT + TEN tie vs. HOU + BAL win vs. CIN + MIA win vs. BUF
Let’s face it – Cleveland’s route to the playoffs might have many different scenarios, but the most simple way to punch their ticket to the Wild Card round for the first time since 2002 is via a win on Sunday against Pittsburgh.
The week began with the Browns initially closing their practice facility on Wednesday after a coach and a member of the team’s practice squad tested positive for COVID-19, however, regular practice activities would resume later in the day. More cases have continued to appear on a daily basis as well.
Separately, positive coronavirus cases have also found their way onto the Pittsburgh roster, with CB Joe Haden and TE Eric Ebron now placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Both will be unavailable for the game as a result, and their chances to compete in next week’s contest remain undetermined.
Rest assured, Sunday’s game will apparently not be affected as a result of the micro-outbreaks.
Even with an impressive 2nd-half comeback victory against Indianapolis last week, early offensive struggles in getting the ball downfield continue to be worrisome in the Steel City. At the head of the offense, Ben Roethlisberger and his receivers have accounted for the most dropped passes in the league this season at 29.
And although the Steelers’ 38-7 Week 6 trouncing over the Browns still holds up as another tally in the win column, the AFC North titleholders have played like an entirely different team unlike the one from their first meeting.
Most notably, the Steelers will look for a certain backup QB to produce this time around.
Head Coach Mike Tomlin revealed earlier this week that backup QB Mason Rudolph will make his first start since 2019 in place of Roethlisberger, who will rest alongside DT Cameron Heyward, OLB T.J. Watt, C Maurkice Pouncey, and K Chris Boswell.
The announcement comes following Rudolph’s on-field debacle with Browns’ DE Myles Garrett last season that resulted in more than $700,000 worth of fines and numerous suspensions.
While Tomlin emphasized that the event is in the “rearview mirror,” there is certainly reason to believe that the bad blood will still carry into a significant rematch.
For Rudolph and DPOY candidate Myles Garrett, Sunday’s game presents a unique opportunity to seek revenge in the most effective way possible – either with the Steelers eliminating the Browns from playoff contention entirely, or the Browns clinching a playoff berth.
PREDICTION: Browns, 28-13
*DAL clinches NFC East division title with win + PHI win/tie vs. WAS, or DAL tie + PHI win vs. WAS
**NYG clinches NFC East division title with win + PHI win vs. WAS
In any other year, this game would be considered as irrelevant and unimportant, but in 2020, the 6-9 Dallas Cowboys and 5-10 New York Giants each still have a chance at reaching the postseason via the NFC East division title.
Should New York manage to make the postseason, they’d be the worst team since the new structure was developed in 2002, whereas either Dallas or Washington would join the 2010 Seattle Seahawks as the worst in that timespan at 7-9.
In recent weeks, QB Andy Dalton and the Cowboys have put together a late-season surge to climb back into the divisional conversation, but the Giants will need to snap a 3-game losing streak while winning their first game against Dallas since 2016.
PREDICTION: Giants, 27-24
If you haven’t heard by now, there will be no playoff magic this season in New England, something that has become a rarity in the Bill Belichick era – missing the playoffs for just the 3rd time and the first since 2008.
While injuries to CB Stephon Gillmore and WR Julian Edelman had affected the team as a whole, Cam Newton’s efforts under center have primarily accounted for the team’s offensive struggles.
On the other hand, who would’ve ever thought we’d see the Jets win a game, let alone two this year?
Finally taking the weight off their shoulders, the Jets somehow find themselves on a two-game winning streak, defeating two difficult playoff contenders in Los Angeles and Cleveland, but losing the 1st-overall pick in the NFL Draft in the process.
Additionally, the Jets are reportedly moving on from head coach Adam Gase following their Week 17 game. Gase’s record 9-22 record with the team over 2 seasons was the worst since Rich Kotite’s 4-28 tenure from 1995-96.
PREDICTION: Patriots, 20-17
Sunday could mark the end of the Matthew Stafford era in the Motor City.
Despite still being signed through 2022, the team can opt out of Stafford’s contract this offseason – a move that many other teams are monitoring.
After spending all 11 years of his career with the Lions, the franchise’s all-time passing leader has endured countless abysmal performances time and time again, just as this season turned out.
To top things all off, the former first-overall selection in the 2009 NFL Draft will hit the field this week after recently dealing with an ankle injury that sidelined him for the majority of their game against Tampa Bay.
Meanwhile in Minnesota, all longshot playoff chances were shattered at the hands of Alvin Kamara on Christmas Day last week.
2020 Pro Bowl RB Dalvin Cook will also sit out the team’s final game of the season following the recent passing of his father.
PREDICTION: Vikings, 35-24
*BAL clinches playoff berth with win, or PIT win vs. CLE, or JAX win vs. IND, or BAL vs. CIN tie + BUF win vs. MIA, or BAL vs. CIN tie + HOU win vs. TEN, or BAL vs. CIN tie + PIT vs. CLE tie, or BAL vs. CIN tie + JAX vs. IND tie
Another complicated, yet simple road to the playoffs rests at the doorstep of the Baltimore Ravens. With a win Sunday, the Ravens can clinch their third-consecutive appearance in the playoffs after falling to Tennessee last season.
Currently holding onto the AFC’s #6 seed with the head-to-head advantage in the standings over Cleveland, the Ravens enter Sunday on a 4-game win streak as the team’s offense seems to be peaking at just the right time
Rookie J.K. Dobbins has finally established himself as the clear-cut starting RB moving forward, recording the most consecutive games with a TD by a rookie in Ravens history.
Cincinnati will have WRs Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins in the lineup for the season finale while rolling with either Ryan Finley or Brandon Allen at QB.
And although falling short of the playoffs once again, they have the chance to play a late-season spoiler against their fierce rivals.
Even without QB Joe Burrow, who suffered a season-ending ACL tear in Week 11, the Bengals have managed to string together back-to-back wins against Pittsburgh and Houston.
Veteran WR A.J. Green could also potentially wind up in a different uniform next season. Green, a 7-time Pro Bowl selection, has experienced many underwhelming seasons and notable injuries over his 10-year career with the Bengals, ultimately leading to a franchise tag designation prior to this season. Now, he will hit the free agency market this offseason should a new deal be left unmet.
PREDICTION: Ravens, 27-13
*MIA clinches playoff berth win; or CIN win vs. BAL; or PIT win vs. CLE; or JAX win vs. IND; or MIA vs. BUF tie + BAL vs. CIN tie; or MIA vs. BUF tie + PIT vs. CLE tie; or MIA vs. BUF tie + JAX vs. IND tie; or MIA vs. BUF tie + HOU win vs. TEN
**BUF clinches AFC’s #2 seed with win
For once, an AFC East game with major playoff implications that does NOT involve the New England Patriots will take place in Orchard Park, NY when the Buffalo Bills host the Miami Dolphins.
In Miami’s win last week against Las Vegas, starting rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa struggled through the air in more than 3 quarters of play.
Enter- Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The 16-year veteran QB led the Dolphins on a game-winning drive with just 19 seconds remaining – somehow completing an immaculate pass to WR Mack Hollins while having his facemask tugged in the opposite direction. The play alone set up a deciding field goal that kept the Dolphins' playoff hopes alive.
However, with Fitzpatrick’s name now appearing on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, Tagovailoa will get the start again, hoping to prove his worth as the future of the team.
The Buffalo Bills could quite possibly be the hottest team in football aside from the AFC’s #1-seeded Kansas City.
Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs have formed an excellent QB-WR duo that has taken the league by storm. Diggs, leading the league in both receptions (120) and receiving yards (1459), has easily surpassed Eric Moulds’s single-season franchise record for receiving yards (1,368) originally set in 1998.
With WR Cole Beasley’s leg injury resulting in a week-to-week designation, the Bills’ WR corps will get a boost with John Brown’s long-awaited return off of the Reserve/COVID-19 list.
Reportedly, Josh Allen and other “key” starters will play on Sunday to seal the AFC’s #2 spot.
PREDICTION: Bills, 28-16
*SEA clinches NFC’s #1 seed with win + CHI win vs. GB + CAR win/tie vs. NO
After a Week 13 upset loss to the Giants, Seattle has been able to regroup and finish the season as the NFC West division champions, still with a slim chance at claiming the NFC’s #1 seed with a win and some additional help. Therefore, it is likely that the team will not rest any of its starters.
Russell Wilson may have begun the season as a top-contender for the league’s MVP award, but most of those talks have vanished with a lack of productivity at times. Nonetheless, the team will continue to pose a major threat to any opponent they face in the playoffs.
San Francisco’s season filled with plenty of impactful injuries will end in disappointment following Sunday’s game, missing the playoffs after last season’s Super Bowl appearance.
PREDICTION: Seahawks, 21-16
*ARI clinches playoff berth with win; or ARI vs. LAR tie + GB win vs. CHI
**LAR clinches playoff berth with win/tie; or GB win/tie vs. CHI
Perhaps, in the most intriguing game in the Week 16 slate of action will feature two teams from the NFC West on the borderline of the playoffs. Simply put for each, this game is do or die – a win is necessary to clinch a spot for next weekend.
Wolford, who last played for the Arizona Hotshots in the now-defunct Alliance of American Football (AAF), is set to make his first career NFL start.
Previous belief suggested that the Cardinals would be playing without QB Kyler Murray, but he is now expected to make the start in a must-win scenario.
PREDICTION: Cardinals, 23-10
*IND clinches AFC South division title with win + HOU win/tie vs. TEN; or JAX vs. IND tie + HOU win vs. TEN
*IND clinches playoff berth with win + CIN win/tie vs. BAL; or IND win vs. JAX + PIT win/tie vs. CLE; or IND win vs. JAX + BUF win/tie vs. MIA; or IND tie vs JAX + CIN win vs. BAL; or IND tie vs JAX + PIT win vs. CLE; or IND tie vs JAX + BUF win vs. MIA
PREDICTION: Colts, 23-16
*TEN clinches AFC South division title with win; or JAX win vs. IND; or TEN vs. HOU tie + JAX vs. IND tie
*TEN clinches playoff berth with CIN win vs. BAL; or BUF win vs. MIA; or TEN vs. HOU tie + PIT win vs. CLE; or TEN vs. HOU tie + MIA vs. BUF tie; or TEN vs. HOU tie + BAL vs. CIN tie
PREDICTION: Titans, 31-28
PREDICTION: Raiders, 21-17
*KC has clinched AFC’s #1 seed
Throughout a season compact with uncertainty, one thing has remained constant as of late – who can stop Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs?
After barely sneaking out of Week 16 with a victory over the Atlanta Falcons on a missed field goal in the final seconds, the Chiefs secured the AFC’s top record entering the playoffs and an accompanying first-round bye.
Presumably, the team will rest most of its starters alongside Patrick Mahomes.
Los Angeles and ROY candidate QB Justin Herbert will want to close out their 6-9 campaign on a high note before the long offseason ahead.
PREDICTION: Chargers, 24-17
*GB clinches NFC’s #1 seed with win
**CHI clinches playoff berth with win; or LAR win vs. ARI; or GB vs. CHI tie + ARI vs. LAR tie
Without question, Green Bay seems like the team to beat in the NFC, defeating Tennessee last week in elite fashion, 40-14. Aaron Rodgers connected with Davante Adams for 3 TDs and 142 yards as the snow poured down on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.
In the 202nd installment of their annual rivalry with Chicago, the Packers will need a win to secure the top seed in the conference – last doing so in 2011.
PREDICTION: Packers, 31-17
*NO clinches NFC #1 seed with win, CHI win vs. GB, & SEA win @SF
Alvin Kamara’s historic performance on Christmas Day against Minnesota was undoubtedly the most electrifying individual performances professional football has seen in recent memory.
One week removed from tying an NFL record with 6 rushing TDs as the first player to do so since Gale Sayers in 1965, Kamara finds himself on the Reserve/COVID-19 list for the Saints – a move that puts his status for the Wild Card Round in jeopardy.
Now, here’s where it gets complicated.
Should the Saints play next Sunday as either the NFC’s #2 or #3 seed, Kamara will be eligible to return – clearing the league’s 10-day quarantine protocol while barring any developed symptoms. Michael Thomas, who has been plagued throughout the entire season by an ankle injury suffered in Week 1, will miss his 9th game, but is likely to return for the playoffs.
The only way to avoid the situation in its entirety is by attaining a first round bye as the top seed in the conference with a win in Week 17 while relying on Chicago to beat current-#1 Green Bay, and Seattle to beat San Francisco. In this complex event, the Saints, Packers, and Seahawks would all finish tied atop the NFC at 12-4. Therefore, it would allow the Seahawks to move to 2nd, nullifying the Packers’ Week 3 head-to-head victory over the Saints, and allowing Drew Brees and company to achieve the extra week of rest by holding the best in-conference record of the bunch.
With a win, the Saints would become the first NFC South team in history to sweep all of their divisional opponents. Teddy Bridgewater and the Panthers will aim to prevent the feat from happening, as they fell just short in their Week 7 matchup.
PREDICTION: Panthers, 34-27
*WAS clinches NFC East division title with win; or WAS vs. PHI tie + NYG win/tie vs. DAL
Questions regarding Eagles’ QB Carson Wentz’s future with the team have arisen throughout the course of the season. Wentz, who threw a league-worst 15 interceptions in 2020, surrendered his starting role to rookie Jalen Hurts in Week 13. Hurts has impressed for the most part ever since.
He’ll now square-off against DROY candidate DE Chase Young and a Washington team that can officially clinch a playoff spot for the first time since 2015 with a win.
Washington QB Alex Smith’s return to the field earlier this season was one of the most inspiring comeback stories in recent professional sports history. He now will return from a less-serious calf injury sustained in Week 13 to help the Football Team in their season finale.
PREDICTION: Football Team, 24-16