Week 17: Critical for play-off hopefuls and placings
Labelling Week 16 of the 2023-24 National Football League (NFL) regular season as intense would be an understatement, and after a bruising weekend of football, the league is only two teams closer to knowing who will be playing in the postseason — adding only the Miami Dolphins and Detroit Lions to those who already clinched a play-off berth.
Two weeks remain in the NFL regular season and only six teams have clinched berths in the play-offs — two in the American Football Conference (AFC) and four in the National Football Conference (NFC) — which leaves eight remaining spots, with 18 teams in contention, after Week 16 losses eliminated the Los Angeles Chargers and New York Giants from any possible postseason appearance.
An emphatic, statement-win on Monday Night Football by the Baltimore Ravens over the San Francisco 49ers elevated them to a league-leading 12-3 record and shuffled them closer to a division crown, an AFC first seed, and a first-round bye. The Dolphins, after staving off the charge of the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday, are the only team that can catch the Ravens in the AFC, meaning Baltimore will enter the postseason no worse than the second seed.
Coincidentally, the Dolphins (11-4) host the Ravens (12-3) on New Year’s Eve for a crucial showdown. These teams have met 18 times (including two postseason games), with Baltimore winning 10 games and Miami winning eight — including the last two meetings. If the Ravens win, they clinch the division, the bye and home-field advantage, but finishing second in this contest has the possibility of setting up an attractive consolation prize, playing whichever team finishes seventh in the AFC.
The Ravens are on a five-game win streak — last losing to the Cleveland Browns — and the Dolphins are 4-1 over the same stretch of games; however, Baltimore has overcome more significant challengers and Miami’s game is showing signs of regression from their blistering start of the season. Understandably, JustBet offers the visiting Ravens as favourites entering the weekend and the bookmakers should have it right, but a physical bout is expected so make it a date this Sunday afternoon.
Elsewhere in the AFC, the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs are struggling to find momentum and fighting to hold onto their lead in the AFC West, after an embarrassing 14-20 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders on Christmas Day — the Raiders managed only 48 passing yards in total and didn’t score any offensive touchdowns in the win. However, the Chiefs need just one win in their final two games to book their play-off ticket, and while they appear to be a shadow of themselves, the possibility is not unsurmountable. They welcome the Cincinnati Bengals this Sunday and, with starting quarterback (QB) Joe Burrow out for the season, it is expected that the needed win will come sooner rather than later.
Interestingly, following Week 16 losses by the Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans, the AFC South still carries the most uncertainty of all divisions, with all three teams tied at 8-7. The Jaguars hold tiebreakers over the Colts and Texans, with remaining games against the Carolina Panthers and Tennessee Titans, respectively, but the uncertainty of QB Trevor Lawrence’s status leaves Jacksonville very susceptible, especially to the charge of the Colts.
In the NFC, there are now three teams tied with 11-4 records (San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles and Detroit Lions), three more tied at 8-7 (Tampa Buccaneers, Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Rams), and the Dallas Cowboys sandwiched between those at 10-5. Furthermore, there are four teams at 7-8 with very feasible paths to the play-offs.
San Francisco continues to lead the conference, and hold tiebreakers over Philadelphia and Detroit, even after Baltimore played Grinch and nabbed five interceptions in the win on December 25, giving them a leg up for the first-round bye. The 49ers have games against the Washington Commanders this Sunday and the Rams next week, which should make their play-off placing atop the NFC automatic, however, this is the NFL and even teams eliminated from the postseason are playing for pride, but at least the 49ers control their own destiny.
The Eagles, having survived a late push by the Giants last Sunday afternoon, are basically going through the motions to finish the season, but are worryingly looking less confident over their last few games. Thankfully for them the woeful Arizona Cardinals are visiting this Sunday, followed by a visit to the Giants next week, which should see them easily strolling into the play-offs, albeit less convincingly.
The NFC’s blockbuster this weekend has the rising Lions (11-4) visiting the retreating Cowboys (10-5) tomorrow (Saturday) night for a game that will go a long way in shaping the play-off picture in the Conference. The Cowboys are 7-0 at home this season (15-0 dating back to last season), while the Lions are 6-2 on the road and playing for Motown pride — especially since the city’s basketball team (Detroit Pistons) set the record this week for the longest single-season losing streak in the National Basketball Association (NBA).
The Lions have 11 wins for the first time in nine seasons and are one win away from tying the franchise record for most victories in a single season. They last made the play-offs in 2016, but with their 30-24 victory over the Minnesota Vikings last Sunday, they have not only secured a play-off berth, but they have also won their first division title since 1993. Detroit will be a top-3 seed in the NFC play-offs and host at least one game at Ford Field when the postseason opens in mid-January, but they can potentially get to the top of the conference if the 49ers slip up. If that is their ambition, a win over Dallas tomorrow is essential.
This rivalry has a long history, having been played 30 times (including three postseason games), with Dallas winning 18 games, including the last five. The Lions will vividly remember Week 7 of last season, when Micah Parsons recorded six tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in a 6-24 loss to the Cowboys and will be looking to settle the score this time round. JustBet offers the Cowboys as strong favourites because they are hard to beat at AT&T Stadium, but these Lions are a different breed and are hungry for success….. Are you ready for some football?
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