NFL 2018 - Gameweek 17
NFL 2018 – Week 17
Hopefully, we’ve all made it through another festive season unscathed so far, for there is still much football to be consumed... Week 16’s Game of the Week wasn’t quite the nail-biter we’d expected, with the Chargers seeing their high-voltage offense sputter against the Ravens on Saturday night, but there were still some crackers to be had elsewhere if you managed to tear yourself away from the last minute shopping for a while. The Saints and Steelers served up a feast in Sunday prime-time, before New Orleans clinched the number one seed in the NFC with a three-point victory. Defeat for the Steelers, and Baltimore’s win in LA, reversed their positions and moved Pittsburgh out of the playoff picture entirely heading into Week 17, with the black-and-gold needing results to go their way if they are to see the post-season.
The reigning Super Bowl champions are also relying on a little help to prolong their defense of the Lombardi Trophy, despite causing Houston a few problems last weekend. The Eagles ran out 32-30 winners over the Texans to cast a little uncertainty over the visitors’ role in the playoffs, but still have to hope that Minnesota slip up on Sunday. The Vikings came from behind to see off Detroit last time, but face a tougher task against Chicago this time around, with the Bears still chasing a bye through week one of the post-season. With the Saints locked up at number one, Chicago’s rival for the second seed is the Rams, who eased past Arizona and into a final week match-up with the similarly soft 49ers, so it’s game on in the NFC, where Dallas last week secured East division honours and the Seahawks look set to claim the first wildcard spot. On the red side of the league, New England cemented a tenth straight AFC East crown, but have yet to secure their almost traditional bye week rest. With either Kansas City or the Chargers set to fill the number one seed, depending on their results this weekend, the Patriots continue to vie with Houston for second spot. New England host the Jets – who took Green Bay to overtime last Sunday – while Houston faces a mercurial Jacksonville side. Meanwhile, whoever misses out in the AFC West battle will be relegated to wild-card status despite likely having a better record than any other division winner…
Game of the Week – Indianapolis Colts @ Tennessee Titans
Amongst the other games worth watching last weekend was Indianapolis’ comeback win against the Giants. Having shut out Dallas the previous week, Indy appeared on course for a surprise defeat at home, only to rally behind the arm of Andrew Luck and keep themselves in a playoff race few expected them to be a part of as they sank to 1-5 through six weeks of the season. Now they face a winner-takes-all divisional clash with Tennessee with post-season inclusion on the line – a game the NFL has sensibly decided to flex into its Sunday Night Football slot. Both teams sit one game behind the Texans, at 9-6, and moved ahead of Pittsburgh in the pecking order when the Steelers lost in NOLA. Houston has already clinched at least a wildcard berth regardless of what happens in Nashville this weekend, but this remains the only game other than the Bears-Vikings clash where both combatants have something other than pride on the line.
Victory over the Redskins in Week 2 was Indy’s only success through the first month-and-a-half of the season, but they have been on a tear ever since, dropping only one more game – a low-key 0-6 reverse to Jacksonville – in the nine that followed. Amongst that run was a 38-10 success over this weekend’s opponent, whose own form has been patchy, with wins and losses coming in blocks prior to the four-game upward streak that brings them to Sunday’s showdown.
Players to watch?
Some, if definitely not all, of Indianapolis’ recent woes could be attributed to the absence of quarterback Andrew Luck, whose shoulder injury cost him all of the 2017 campaign and cast doubt over the chances of him returning to his previous elite level. Those concerns lingered into the start of the 2018 season, but both man and team have moved past them with great alacrity. The Colts much-maligned offensive line has been stiffened to the point where Luck was barely touched through the middle of the campaign, let alone sacked, and the QB’s receiving corps has continued to flourish, not just with TY Hilton making spectacular plays, but also through the acquisition of former Lions TE Eric Ebron, who has come into his own in partnership with Luck. Running back continues to be a weak link for the team but, as Dallas discovered, there is still flair at the position, with Marlon Mack the current favourite. On the other side of the ball, Indy appears to have unearthed a gem in rookie linebacker Darius Leonard, whose Pro Bowl snub not only underlined the spurious nature of selections, but will continue to serve as motivation for the South Carolina State product. Recent draftees Malik Hooker and Pierre Desir patrol the defensive backfield, while veteran end Jabaal Sheard remains amongst the best at his position on a defensive line that also boasts Denico Autry, Tyquan Lewis and Estonian Margus Hunt. The Colts’ special teams unit also deserves a mention, if only for the fact that kicker Adam Vinatieri remains elite after twelve years in the league and Super Bowl wins with both Indy and New England. Now 45, the greying veteran is gradually resetting the record books.
The Titans, meanwhile, are enjoying a successful first season under former Patriot linebacker Mike Vrabel, and have a chance to return to the playoffs for a second straight season. A lot, however, could ride on the fitness of first choice quarterback Marcus Mariota, who has been in and out of the line-up with a nagging arm injury that again threatens to sideline him this weekend. If Mariota is absent, journeyman Blaine Gabbert will again be asked to lead. Tennessee’s recent surge has been headed by running back Derrick Henry, who went off against both Jacksonville and the Giants to move to the head of the backfield queue, although he continues to share snaps with former Patriot Dion Lewis. Out wide, Corey Davis has emerged as a go-to after struggling with injuries in his first season, while Tajae Sharpe and Taywan Taylor also garner their fair share of targets. Tight end, however, has been less productive since the devastating leg injury that befell veteran favourite Delanie Walker, with Luke Stocker and Anthony Firkser charged with picking up the slack.
The Titan D is also missing key elements, with both end Jurrell Casey and safety Jonathan Cyprien on injured reserve, but still boasts former Eagle Bennie Logan anchoring the line and veteran Wesley Woodyard mentoring rookies Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry at linebacker. The backfield, meanwhile, still appears stacked in Cyprien’s absence, with Kevin Byard another to rightly feel snubbed by the Pro Bowl. His performances lead a group that also contains the mercurial Kenny Vaccaro, erstwhile Patriots’ Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler and second-year corner Adoree Jackson. Jackson continues to feature on special teams, where punter Brett Kern is going to the all-star game in Orlando and Ryan Succop – a former Mr Irrelevant in the Draft – remains amongst the league’s more dependable kickers.
Best of the rest?
Week 17 in the NFL has become division rivalry central, with all 32 teams facing someone from within their own four-team section in a bid to make matches more relevant as the playoffs loom. Of course, the plan can’t work out every season and there are few other games this week with the magnitude of the Colts-Titans clash in having post-season meaning for both teams. The other match-up of note this Sunday is Chicago’s visit to Minnesota, with the Bears still hoping to wrap up a bye through the first week of playoff action, and the Vikings clinging onto the possibility of a wildcard spot, at the expense of the reigning champion Eagles. Both sides need to win to have a shot at achieving those goals, with Chicago also praying for an upset in the Rams-49ers game. Both teams have evolved a more balanced offense of late, but neither sparkles and this could be a game determined by defense.
The Bears and Vikings take the middle slot in Sunday’s viewing, sandwiched between two AFC South clashes as the Jaguars and Texans do battle first up. Whilst Jacksonville’s season took a dive around the time they were being thrashed – against the odds – by Dallas, Houston remains very much alive, with a playoff spot sewn up and an outside shot at a bye. While that goal requires a little help from the Jets, who would have to beat New England, the Texans still need to do their bit against a Jaguars side that still possesses a useful D. Will this be another stage on which Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins can shine, or will it be left to JJ Watt and Jadeveon Clowney to see Houston take off? With no Thursday, Saturday or Monday games in the final week of the regular season, television viewers go from feast to famine, but there are a few other match-ups to keep an eye on with access to the NFL’s own feed. The Patriots-Jets clash might have upset potential, as could Panthers-Saints, as both the favoured teams already have their divisions wrapped up. Carolina only narrowly lost to its NFC South rival two weeks ago and needs to break a seven-game losing streak. The Cowboys visit to New York has little riding on it but pride and ego, which is often enough to light the blue touchpaper, while the Bengals and Steelers need no second bidding to go at it. With Pittsburgh needed to win, and the division title still available based on results elsewhere, there is still something worth fighting over… It is the same story in the AFC West, but with the added impetus of the number one seed being up for grabs as the Chiefs host Oakland and the Chargers travel to the rarefied air of Denver. Win and you get a week off; lose and you’re probably facing a tricky wildcard hurdle...
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