© Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
The race for the NFL playoffs is heating up with just two weeks remaining in the regular season. Playoff spots come at a premium now. Those in the hunt will find themselves fighting it out over the next two games to claim one of those all-important wild-card spots.
Five spots have now been claimed in the AFC, leaving just two available for those battling it out on the edges. The Chargers clinched a spot in the playoffs with their win over the Indianapolis Colts on Monday night. They join the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs, who have won their respective divisions, and the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens, to be playing for the Lombardi Trophy.
Over in the NFC side of the NFL, four spots have been secured. The three remaining spots will have to be split between the underwhelming NFC South winner and two other teams still in the hunt.
There are plenty of playoff implications in Week 17. It starts with the Thursday night game as the Titans host the Cowboys. The AFC East rivalry between the Miami Dolphins and the New England Patriots is among the other games having a direct impact. There is also the Bucs' division scrap with the Carolina Panthers. With the Packers' stunning late-season surge for a playoff placement, their next obstacle comes in the form of the Minnesota Vikings, who tore Rodgers and co. apart in Week 1.
Whatever the results, it is sure to be exciting. The NFL is where it's at.
© JAMIE GERMANO/USA TODAY Sports
Buffalo Bills @ Cincinnati Bengals
- Spread: Buffalo Bills -1, Cincinnati Bengals +1
- Total: Over/Under 49.5
- Money line: Buffalo Bills -120, Cincinnati Bengals +100
While several teams scratch and claw their way to a late arrival to the post-season party, there is still everything to play for at the top of those who already have a ticket. The Cincinnati Bengals will play host to the Buffalo Bills on Monday Night Football in what is almost guaranteed to be an instant classic between two of the AFC's best competitors.
The Bills currently hold the number one seed and the accompanying benefit of a bye in the wild-card round of the playoffs. However, that position still needs to be signed, sealed and delivered. With two games left to play, Buffalo has a head-to-head advantage over the Kansas City Chiefs, setting those two teams apart in the rankings. Cincinnati is just one game back, and if they beat the Bills, the Bengals will level the two sides' records and leapfrog Josh Allen and co. This is all while opening the door for the Kansas City Chiefs to claim the number one seed should they beat the Broncos this weekend. Should the Bills slip up against the Bengals, Buffalo will suddenly find themselves with the third seed and looking at the possibility of playing on the road in the divisional round.
Buffalo came out slow against the Chicago Bears this past weekend, jostling with them in the first half of the game. They eventually pulled away and sealed the AFC East division for the third season in a row as a result.
It was not Josh Allen's best game throwing the football. He still contributed two passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown while committing two turnovers. The Bills' ground game found its legs and helped them over the line, with Allen, Devin Singletary, and James Cook all finding the end zone. The two running backs combined for over 200 rushing yards.
The Bills can find a lot of positives in their run game as we head toward post-season football. James Cook has developed well and improved week after week in both the pass and run game. With two healthy young running backs at their disposal, Buffalo will be well-supported on the ground when it matters the most.
As for the Bengals, we're now looking at a team that's won seven games in a row, refusing to lose since Week 8 back in October. They're a very good football team that can find a way to win a game with any element of their roster.
Their offense is fantastic, and even when playing badly, Joe Burrow can throw for 300 yards and two touchdowns. They just have too many weapons. Teams are so focused on defending Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins that other players like Trenton Irwin end up open. This is evidenced by the wideout catching two touchdowns last Sunday.
I fear for the rhythm of Josh Allen and the offense. If their run game is stunted, such as the Bengals were able to do to the Patriots this past weekend, it could be a long day for Buffalo. In order to win, the Bills need to win at the line of scrimmage. If they can do that, they can hold their position at the top of the AFC playoff picture. The game is going to be extremely close and will likely come down to the last possession. I'll take the Bills to win, but it's not going to come easy by any means. Their secondary needs to play its absolute best game in coverage, and the defensive line needs to find a way to disrupt Joe Burrow's rhythm.
© Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports
Miami Dolphins @ New England Patriots
- Spread: Miami Dolphins +2.5, New England Patriots -2.5
- Total: Over/Under 42
- Money line: Miami Dolphins +125, New England Patriots -145
The Miami Dolphins slump has gone from bad to worse. Their poor form on the road and three-game losing streak continued on Christmas Day as they hosted the Green Bay Packers. Miami was explosive in the first half, with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa going 9/12 for 229 and a touchdown as the Dolphins led 20-13 at the interval. However, Miami fell flat in the second half, and Tua ended the game poorly with three interceptions on consecutive drives.
As was later discovered, it appears Tua may have suffered yet another nasty hit to the head late in the first half, with his head hitting the turf extremely hard. The Dolphins quarterback is now in concussion protocol yet again. Many in the media are praying that Sunday's game marks the last time he plays again this season due to the many head injuries he has endured this season alone.
In all likely scenarios, with the season on the line, the Dolphins will field Teddy Bridgewater against the New England Patriots this coming Sunday. Tua will need to clear the league's concussion protocol to return. Even then, there would be legitimate question marks about the wisdom of putting him out there again at any point during the rest of this season.
Bridgewater has looked shaky leading the Dolphins' offense but has shown glimpses of being capable of leading the offense. The challenge on Sunday for the Dolphins will be stopping one of the league's most impressive pass rushes and defense in the New England Patriots. Bill Belichick will ensure they go after the quarterback from minute one and wreak havoc in the backfield.
This is not a good matchup for Miami. Recent weeks have shown that the Dolphins struggle when the quarterback doesn't have time to hit those medium routes that have carved defenses open all season. The short game, by way of screens, slant routes, quick outs, and crossers, is not of the same standard and looks clunky when called upon. Plus, the Dolphins abandon the run game too quickly even when it's working, which is something head coach Mike McDaniel has received criticism for in recent weeks.
All of that said, this New England Patriots team hasn't exactly moved the ball freely as an offense this season. Even though Mac Jones's stat line was better last week, one of his touchdowns and over 50 yards of his 240-yard total came on a Hail Mary. A Hail Mary play that just happened, ironically enough, to bounce into the hands of Jakobi Meyers at the goal line.
I said last week that if the Patriots wanted to win that game, they needed to win their battle at the line of scrimmage against a Bengal defensive line that was very good at stuffing inside runs. They failed to do that entirely, and the Cincinnati defensive line's performance was a key factor in them eventually winning the game.
Rhamondre Stevenson came into Sunday's game against Cincinnati fresh off of a 19-carry game in which he gashed the Raiders' defense for 172 rushing yards and a touchdown. He averaged 9.1 yards per carry and looked Derrick Henry-like during that performance, but the Bengals stuffed him for just 30 rushing yards and a woeful 2.3 yards per carry. This saw the Patriots abandon any kind of heavy workload for Stevenson, resulting in just 13 carries.
The Patriots' defense is the main reason they're still in contention for a playoff spot. This game might line up favorably for them with the Dolphins' injury concerns at quarterback, and the lack of rhythm Teddy Bridgewater will have with timing and his receivers.
Bridgewater is capable of a few successful drives, but he has proven inconsistent so far while wearing a Dolphins jersey. The Dolphins are on a four-game losing streak and, as a result, especially with Tua's condition, have seen their playoff chances become dismal. They now need to win their last two games to remain in control of their own destiny, and I think they might forego that up in Foxborough this weekend. I'll take the Patriots' Moneyline, and if Teddy Bridgewater plays at quarterback, the under on total points too.
© Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Minnesota Vikings @ Green Bay Packers
- Spread: Minnesota Vikings +3, Green Bay Packers -3
- Total: Over/Under 47
- Money line: Minnesota Vikings +160, Green Bay Packers -180
The Green Bay Packers seemed almost certainly down and out three weeks ago with a clunky offense and a 4-8 record to match. However, Aaron Rodgers and co. have surged and are riding a three-game win streak against Chicago, the LA Rams, and most recently, the Miami Dolphins to give themselves a real shot at a late post-season entry.
Green Bay still has multiple teams ahead of them who would claim the remaining playoff positions with wins. If the Packers win out, the Commanders lose one of their two remaining games, or the Giants lose both of theirs, we will suddenly find Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in a post-season game they had no business getting into just a few weeks ago.
The Packers face two NFC North rivals in their final two games. As luck would have it, both games are in Green Bay. They have the Vikings this Sunday afternoon before rounding out the regular season with a match-up against the Detroit Lions, who are also scrambling for a playoff position.
Of course, the first hurdle comes from Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings, who torched the Packers in the season's opening game. Justin Jefferson had 184 yards and two touchdowns in the game as the Packers suffered a 23-7 defeat to open the 2022 campaign. They will be looking for revenge this weekend, but the question is whether or not the Packers can contain Justin Jefferson this time around.
Since that game, Green Bay has stepped up its pass defense and is now the third-best team in the league in terms of passing yards allowed per game. That status was questioned in the first half against Miami, with Tua and the Dolphins' pass game silencing any pass defense the Packers might have had. Still, it all turned around in the second half with three takeaways by Green Bay's secondary.
The Vikings still have it all to play for at the other end of the playoff rankings, just one game behind the Philadelphia Eagles and their number-one seed. Minnesota has the Chicago Bears in Week 18, and a win against Green Bay would apply a little bit of pressure on the Eagles with a threat to take that all-important seed away from them. However, all the Eagles have to do is win one of their remaining games.
While the Vikings' offense has been explosive all year, and Justin Jefferson is a thoroughly deserving MVP candidate, their defense has yet to match the same prowess throughout the season. That said, they've been better in recent weeks and have started to force more turnovers, but Aaron Rodgers and his young wide receiver core are also far improved.
I'm looking at a potentially very explosive game with some long hauls and a lot of points. Christian Watson came out of nowhere and immediately turned into an elite threat for Rodgers to throw to. Meanwhile, Justin Jefferson is just doing sensational things on every drive of every game. These defenses might cause a turnover or two, but the combined yardage total for the two teams could be massive this weekend. This will be a fun game, and I think the Packers have a chance, especially given the home-field advantage and weather conditions factored in. My pick is a Packers win which will keep the chaotic late surge for the playoffs alive.
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