Romilly Evans assesses a troika of live televised match-ups in the final playoff-defining weekend of the league's regular season...
"With Pittsburgh pumping up the volume for a raucous house party, this should prove a slow, steady kill."
San Diego Chargers @ Kansas City Chiefs
Start-time: Sunday, 18:00
TV: Live on SS2
After one of the tightest and most open regular seasons in living memory, it's slightly surprising that there aren't more play-off places up for grabs on the concluding weekend. True, a plethora of seeding issues remain on each side of the AFC-NFC dividing line. But after a Sunday past of more unexpected presents from those teams in postseason contention, only two berths remain to be decided.
This Week 17 opener in the AFC West is among the chosen few with survival implications. The San Diego Chargers control their destiny: win and they're in. Having rallied for one of the greatest comebacks in NFL annals (21 points down against a decent if divided team in San Francisco), they will certainly fancy their chances of repeating their road heroics again against Kansas City.
Nevertheless, this is not a team without its problems. They gave up over 350 yards to a Niners rush and their team talisman, Philip Rivers, is playing through to pain of sore ribs and a bulging disc. Add to those concerns the fact that the Bolts' two main offensive attractions (RB Ryan Mathews and WR Keenan Allen) are doubtful or diminished starters with persistent injuries.
As a result, it's no surprise to see the Chiefs chalked up as jollies in Kansas, where homeground Arrowhead ranks among the more intimidating arenas in the league. The Chiefs certainly have the D to slow Rivers and his merry men. In fact, they're the only defensive unit that hasn't allowed the opponents' scoreboard to ramp into the thirties all year.
However, The Chiefs have their own injuries to key players (just ask the ill-starred Eric Berry, or the banged-up Jamaal Charles) and offensively Alex Reid looks out of options. The Chiefs haven't thrown a TD to a wide receiver all season.
So while Kansas still have a sniff of making the play-offs themselves, their sense of belief is fading fast. Baltimore are long odds-on to deny them a lifeline. Miracle man Rivers, though, is keeping the dream alive for the Bolts. And once they're in play-off country, it's an open range where any outfit can roam free.
Back San Diego Chargers (+2.5) to win on the Match Points Spread @ 2.35/4 or better
Back San Diego Chargers to win on the First Half Points Moneyline @ 2.111/10 or better
Back A. Gates to be First / Anytime Touchdown Scorer @ 11.010/1 or better
Carolina Panthers @ Atlanta Falcons
Start-time: Sunday, 21:25
TV: Live on SS2
The same open-minded comment even applies to those locked in the bargain basement battle of the NFC South. Seven Ws wins you the title, but both the Carolina Panthers and the Atlanta Falcons could yet make a dent in the play-offs if they prevail in this second live match. That's because a homefield tie against the riderless (or, more accurately, quarterbackless) Arizona Cardinals beckons as an ensuing reward in Wildcard Weekend.
Not that they need any added incentive in this dogfight of a divisional duel. After snapping a five-game losing streak, the Falcons have got their collective act together a bit and the home comforts of the Georgia Dome make them ready favourites in my book. Matt Ryan is the default saviour in Atlanta but Devonta Freeman (stepping up at running back for the sidelined Steve Jackson) is the real find of recent outings.
Matty Ice, though, has rediscovered his throwing composure, having been afforded some more time in the pocket by his progressive offensive line. Wideout Julio Jones remains the top-notch dependable in a side of lower-rung expendables (he almost single-handedly kept Atlanta in it against the Super Bowl-contending Packers) so his treatment-table timeout (hip) from Tuesday practice does represent a worrying imponderable.
Still, those doubts pale into insignificance when aligned against the unknowns (both physical and attitudinal) in Carolina. QB Cam Newton, just a week or so removed from a savage car accident, embodies such uncertainties. Newton is playing without pain-killers and footballing cares, having walked away unscathed from the pile-up with a second lease of life. Still, while he maintains that his mind is no longer concerned with signal-calling, that didn't prevent him from putting up one of his best performances in many months against Cleveland (200+ yards, two TDs - one passing, one rushing).
When all's said and done, though, the Carolina D is not what it was and the team which has found its focus of late is assuredly the Falcons. Expect them to prove too strong.
Back Atlanta Falcons (-4) to win on the Match Points Spread @ 2.111/10 or better
Back Atlanta Falcons to win on the First Half Moneyline @ 1.625/8 or better
Cincinnati Bengals @ Pittsburgh Steelers
Start-time: Monday, 01:30
TV: Live on C4
Both these teams have secured their postseason place. Their position, on the other hand, is to be decided by this winner-takes-it-all AFC North clincher. In short, at fortress Heinz Field, I fancy the Pittsburgh Steelers seriously for this. They continue to improve on defense while maintaining their offensive cohesion and dismantled Cincinnati just a few weeks ago when they were the visitors. Why can the Bengals turn the tide now?
'Nuff said? Well, I should probably unpack that a bit. Since that reversal, the Bengals have gone through the gears to lock down their fourth consecutive play-off spot with two impressive triumphs. Despite that recent success, though, they are yet to win a play-off game under Andy Dalton, which makes victory so important. Either a depleted wildcard squad awaits them, or a long road trip to formidable Indianapolis.
Consequently, with neither team lacking for motivation here, this should be a shootout defined by a straight analysis of the match-ups. Dalton's Denver win demonstrated that he can deliver in national primetime, but Big Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown have combined to prove they can keep pace with any offense. They even outpaced the aforementioned Colts. Further, Cincy's star wideout AJ Green damaged his arm last week and although he hasn't yet been benched in practice, Green could move like a trooper who's lost some of his super.
Their respective run-games are similarly attritional, but Bell's variety gives the Steelers more edge. And while you would probably give the Bengals a tentative nod on D, their impressive line has looked more opportunistic (code for lucky) than assured.
So with Pittsburgh pumping up the volume for a raucous house party, this should prove a slow, steady kill.
Back Pittsburgh Steelers (-3.5) to win on the Match Points Spread @ 2.01/1 or better
Back Pittsburgh Steelers to win on the Match Moneyline @ 1.558/15 or better
Back Over 25.5 Pittsburgh Steelers Total Points @ 1.9110/11 or better
Back Pittsburgh Steelers Touchdown to be First Scoring Play 3.7511/4 or better