Paul Higham previews the final week of the regular season including an almighty showdown in Seattle that will shape the entire play-off picture.
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So here it is, the final week of the NFL regular season – the final chance for play-off spots to be clinched, first week byes to be secured and home field advantage still to play for.
Only two places in the post-season cavalry charge towards the Super Bowl remain, with the Tennessee Titans and Philadelphia Eagles currently in the two spaces and just needing final day wins to cement their places. If they don’t it all gets a bit complicated…
Let’s start with the big game of Week 17 and the blockbuster NFC West showdown in Seattle, where games between these two are always full-blooded affairs but with so much on the line this one could well produce another seismic event that has been seen in the past at CenturyLink Field.
As if the divisional title wasn’t enough reward, there’s a first round play-off bye and possible top seed up for grabs – certainly for San Francisco who can bag the NFC’s top spot with a win, meaning they’ll enjoy home field advantage throughout the play-offs.
After Seattle suffered a shock loss against Arizona last week, they’d need defeats elsewhere for Green Bay and New Orleans to get first or second seed, but a loss for either the Seahawks or 49ers means a huge drop-off into a wildcard spot and road games throughout the play-offs – that’s some punishment for one defeat!
It means even more desperation in what essentially is a play-off game a week early, and it’s the Niners who are favoured to prevail in one of the most hostile away environments in the league. Seattle’s injury problems, especially at running back, are a big part of those odds being what they are.
San Francisco have been largely excellent all season, when they’ve needed a win they’ve usually got one, and Seattle are hurting badly with injuries – once again it’ll all be down to Russell Wilson but without his left tackle Duane Browne he’ll be left vulnerable to Nick Bosa, who is a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.
On the flip side, the 49ers offence has come up big in recent weeks, with Jimmy Garoppolo growing in stature to compliment their effective and varied run game. It’s the toughest road test around, but one the Niners can come through to seal top spot.
Best bet: Niners -3.5 at Evens
The Packers can’t afford to take their foot off the gas just yet with top spot in the NFC still well within their reach (should the 49ers lose) although they may not have to go full-throttle for the full 60 minutes against the limping Lions who have lost eight in a row.
The game’s in Detroit but Ford Field could become Cheesehead central with Lions fans hardly lining up to see their woeful outfit get soundly beaten by rivals Green Bay as the Packers go marching into the play-offs.
QB Aaron Rodgers has been joined by fellow Aaron, running back Jones, in a more balanced Green Bay attack, while in their four-game winning streak their defence has really stepped up – allowing just 11.8 points a game and a league-best seven interceptions.
One worry would be Green Bay getting ahead and easing down to a victory not big enough to cover but with that vital play-off bye on the line, they’ll have to get at least two touchdowns ahead before they even start to take it easy on poor old Detroit.
Best bet: Packers -12 at Evens
There’ll be no AFC top seed for the Patriots this season but they’ll still be desperate to secure that all-important first-round bye, and they couldn’t really have a better game to do it than against the lowly Dolphins.
Miami let Andy Dalton pass for just under 400 yards last week so imagine what Tom Brady can do to them this week. The only limit on his production and the margin of a New England win is how big they go up early on, as they’ll soon look to ease down once they get the game done and dusted.
Brady is 15-1 against these divisional rivals at home, and after doing all the hard work against Buffalo last week, this will be a lot smoother ride to yet another top-two finish for the always-there Patriots.
Best bet: Patriots -13.5 at 4/6
Maybe there’s a case for complacency for the Eagles who, after dominating the Cowboys last week, can make it into the play-offs with a win over the Giants in the Big Apple. New York, though, have been improving and with no pressure they can throw the ball around with reckless abandon – that makes them dangerous.
Saying this, Philadelphia know what is on the line, Carson Wentz knows what’s on the line and there is enough experience in the squad that still has plenty of Super Bowl winners in it to think they won’t fall at the final hurdle.
Big Blue have won a couple, yes, but that was against two of the handful of teams actually worse than them this season. Philly’s defence can rise to the occasion again and that control will soon wear down a team with nothing to play for.
The Eagles should win cosily enough.
Best bet: Eagles -4.5pts at 21/20
Sunday, December 29, 2019
Odds correct as of 11.23pm GMT 27/12/19