Here we are. One final weekend of regular season action. One game to define how each team ends their regular season. One game to dictate the outcome of specific division and playoff races. The ultimate in what the NFL can offer us in terms of regular season drama. Each game representing a division rivalry. The stakes higher than at any point in the season prior to Week 17.
Who will come away with the NFC North title in an all black and blue division matchup between the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers? What one-on-one duels will dictate the outcome of this game?
Can the Oakland Raiders overcome the loss of MVP candidate Derek Carr in a game they must win to grab a top-two seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs? What matchups between the Raiders and now-eliminated Denver Broncos will define this game?
On that note, we check in on the top-10 matchups for Week 17 of the NFL season.
1. Amari Cooper vs Aqib Talib
With Derek Carr now sidelined due to a broken fibula, the Raiders’ receivers will need to step up big time to help new starter Matt McGloin. That starts with this pivotal Week 17 matchup against the division-rival Denver Broncos. A win here for Oakland would clinch the team a top-two seed a first-round bye in the playoffs. That’s huge, especially with the team’s MVP sidelined six-to-eight weeks.
It starts with No. 1 receiver Amari Cooper, who has shown signs of struggles recently. Over the course of the past five games, the sophomore pass catcher has caught just 16-of-30 targets and is averaging a lowly 42 receiving yards per game. That must change in Week 17.
Unfortunately for the Raiders, they’re taking on a Broncos team that’s yielded the fewest passing yards in the NFL. More than that, Denver is giving up an absurdly low 61.1 rating to quarterbacks when they target receivers this season.
If that doesn’t change, the Raiders will likely find themselves relegated to the No. 5 seed and a road wild card game. That wouldn’t be an ideal scenario with McGloin under center.
2. David Bakhtiari vs Ziggy Ansah
One of the keys to the Green Bay Packers’ recent string of success has been the under-the-radar play of Bakhtiari at left tackle. Not only does Pro Football Focus grade him out as one of the top-five offensive tackles in the NFL this season, he’s led a surprisingly good offensive line in 2016.
For as much as Aaron Rodgers has been asked to pass the ball this season, he’s only been sacked 34 times in 15 games. That equates to a low 5.6 percent sack rate. Though, Rodgers himself has gone down four times in each of the past two games. This has come against two solid pass rushes in the form of the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings.
In order for Green Bay to fend off the Detroit Lions and win the NFC North on Sunday night, this must change. And in reality, it starts with Bakhtiari’s matchup against the ultra-talented Ziggy Ansah. The former top-five pick went the first 10 games of the season without a sack, a clear representation he wasn’t at 100 percent after recording 14.5 sacks last year.
Though, Ansah seems to be rounding into form here. He’s put up a sack in each of the past two games. Now seemingly 100 percent healthy after missing three games earlier in the season to an ankle injury, Ansah needs to continue performing at a high level. That’s only magnified due to the questionable status of Pro Bowl caliber corner Darius Slay in his potential matchup against Jordy Nelson.
3. Jay Ajayi vs Patriots run defense
Most rush yards in a game this year:
236 Le'Veon Bell vs Bills
214 Jay Ajayi vs Bills
206 Jay Ajayi vs Bills
204 Jay Ajayi vs Steelers
— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) December 24, 2016
Beating a Buffalo Bills defense with 10 men on the field is much different than going up against the playoff-bound New England Patriots. That’s the first thing we must note. Secondly, both of these teams — while having already clinched playoff spots — are playing for something here.
New England has not yet guaranteed itself the top seed. That will come in the form of either a win over Miami or an Oakland Raiders loss to Denver. For their part, the Dolphins can actually move up to the fifth seed in the playoffs, ultimately leading to a potential home game down the road. So while a lot is settled, some isn’t.
It’s in this that Sunday’s game won’t be two playoff teams simply looking to remain healthy. They can position themselves much better with a win here. It’s also in this that Ajayi’s performance is important.
The second-year back has put up over 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns this season. He’s also averaging a tremendous five yards per touch. The interesting dynamic is that Ajayi’s first action of the season after being a healthy scratch in Week 1 came against these Patriots. He tallied just 14 yards on five attempts.
That’s pretty much been par for the course for running backs taking on a surprisingly good Pats defense this season. All said, New England ranks third in the NFL against the run at under 90 yards per game. In fact, prior to the Jets putting up 111 yards in garbage time this past weekend, New England had yielded a grand total of 200 rushing yards in its past four games.
With Matt Moore set to get the start under center for Miami, it’s going to be incredibly important for the team’s running game to do something of substance. If not, there’s very little reason to believe Moore will outduel Tom Brady in a high-scoring affair.
4. Redskins tight ends vs Landon Collins
Dealing with a shoulder injury, Jordan Reed simply hasn’t been himself recently. Over the past two games, he’s tallied just two receptions for 16 yards. To put that into perspective, the talented tight end averaged nearly seven receptions and 70 yards in his first nine games.
Picking up the slack when Reed has been injured this season, Vernon Davis has had a quietly good first year back home in D.C. He’s tallied 42 receptions for 534 yards while putting up a solid 75 percent catch rate. Though, he too, has struggled recently. Davis has just six catches for 37 yards over the past three games.
All this will have to change Sunday against the New York Giants if Washington wants to earn itself a wild card spot in the NFC. Simply put, Kirk Cousins performs at a much higher clip when he has his tight ends working well through the air. That’ll be magnified even further with Janoris Jenkins potentially set to return to the field for New York after missing last week’s game.
It won’t be an easy task against a dominating second-year safety in Landon Collins, who has put up 117 tackles, five interceptions and 13 passes defended this season. Depending on how the Giants’ corners perform on the outside, they could easily bait Cousins into forcing the ball to his two tight ends between the seams. If so, a ball-hawking Collins will be there ready to pounce.
5. Donald Stephenson vs Khalil Mack
The last time these two teams met, Mack went for two sacks and a half dozen quarterback pressures of Trevor Siemian. It represented Mack’s second consecutive multi-sack game and put the Broncos on notice big time. In the end, Oakland came out on top by the score of 30-20 after forcing two turnovers off Siemian. Needless to say, Mack played a huge role in that.
With Denver eliminated from playoff contention, all it wants to do here is ruin the Raiders’ parade. That means ending Oakland’s division-title aspirations. It won’t happen unless Stephenson and the rest of Denver’s offensive line performs better than we saw the last time these two teams met up.
Unfortunately, the Broncos will have to send a ton of help to Stephenson’s side. He’s graded out as Pro Football Focuses’s second-worst offensive tackle this season.
He’s also coming off a Week 15 performance that saw him penalized an absurd five times and allow multiple quarterback pressures against his former Kansas City Chiefs squad. That must change, no matter who is under center for the Broncos in Week 17.
6. Drew Brees vs Falcons pass defense
The one area where Atlanta has struggled this season has been against the pass. It heads into Week 17 ranked in the bottom seven in yards allowed through the air and is yielding a 93.2 quarterback rating. These struggles have been magnified since Pro Bowl corner Desmond Trufant went down with a season-ending injury back in Week 9.
Now, in order for the Falcons to grab the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs, it needs this aspect of the defense to step up big time. It comes against a quarterback in Drew Brees that has put up nearly 700 yards and four touchdowns over the past two games.
That’s where Robert Alford and Jalen Collins come into play. Can they step up in Trufant’s stead to stop the likes of Brandin Cooks and Michael Thomas in the passing game. If not, Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ offense will have to win in a shootout. That’s not an ideal scenario against a team that’s just playing out the string.
7. Marcus Cannon vs Cam Wake
Miami’s only real shot of holding back the force that is Tom Brady is at the line. If it can somehow put pressure on the Patriots’ quarterback, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Dolphins make a major statement heading into the playoffs.
Boasting 11.5 sacks on the season, Wake has been a force himself. Though, it’s important to note that Cannon absolutely dominated him when these two teams met up back in Week 2. With help from others along the offensive line, Cannon held Wake without a single tackle or a quarterback pressure in the 31-24 Patriots win.
As we mentioned above, this game is important for seeding. That’s when individual matchups come into play the most. And in reality, this is one of the better one-on-one duels set to take place in South Beach Sunday afternoon.
8. Ezekiel Elliott vs Eagles run defense
This is big in that Elliott could break two records should he play the entirety of the game Sunday. He needs 178 yards to topple Eric Dickerson’s rookie rushing record. That’s a long shot, especially considering Elliott put up just 12 attempts in Monday’s win over the Detroit Lions.
Though, here’s a dude that’s averaging an absurd 5.1 yards per carry while touching the ball an average of 23.6 times per game. That’s almost unheard of in today’s NFL.
A less likely record to go down Sunday is the Cowboys’ single-season rushing mark of 1,845 yards, set by DeMarco Murray back in 2014. Elliott would have to put up 215 yards to break that record.
Either way, this is most definitely an interesting backstory to an otherwise meaningless division game. It also comes against an Eagles squad that Elliott torched for 148 total yards back in Week 8. It will surely be interesting to see if the Cowboys give him an opportunity at these records. If what Jerry Jones had to say recently holds some merit, that might just happen.
“We’ll see how it goes,” Jones said Tuesday. “He certainly will play and will play a lot, but you can never tell. He might find a good running situation up there and he may approach that record.”
One thing is clear here. Elliott is the odds-on favorite to win the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award and is a dark-horse candidate for league MVP. A strong finish to an otherwise dazzling season could vault him in an upwards trajectory as it relates to that that award.
9. Odell Beckham Jr. vs Josh Norman
Did you honestly believe we’d forget about this matchup? Give us more credit than that.
With the Redskins’ playoff hopes on the line, we can expect this one to be full of intensity and drama. We know very well the history between these two new division rivals. We also know OBJ put up seven receptions for 121 yards in the first meeting between these two teams. Overall, he’s caught 13 passes for nearly 200 yards in his past two games against Norman.
Outside of the obvious drama we promise to see unfold come Sunday, it’s now officially time for Norman to prove his worth to the Redskins. The high-priced Pro Bowler must shut Beckham Jr. down in order for the Redskins to get out of dodge with a win and guarantee themselves a playoff spot.
The backstory here is even more interesting. Will Ben McAdoo play his starters in an attempt to ruin the Redskins’ playoff hopes? After all, the Giants are locked in to the No. 5 seed in the NFC and don’t really have much to play for in the first place.
10. Jordy Nelson vs Lions secondary
With Pro Bowl alternate Darius Slay out due to a hamstring injury last week, Detroit allowed Cowboys receivers to catch 13-of-15 passes for 176 yards. That obviously played a role in Detroit’s blowout 42-21 loss. With Slay likely to be a game-time decision Sunday night, we’re not too sure what to make if this matchup.
If he’s unable to go, Nelson will eat an undermanned Lions secondary alive. Heck, he put up six catches for 101 yards and two scores in Green Bay’s Week 3 win over the Lions. That was with Slay on the field.
We’re also not too sure how healthy Slay will be should he attempt to play here. That will likely force the Lions’ safeties to help over the top. With a lackluster pair of cover guys back there, this should be of utmost concern for Jim Caldwell and Co.
Detroit’s facing a rather difficult test come Sunday night. It’s lost two consecutive games. The Packers have won five in a row. The division title and a potential playoff spot is on the line. Heck, the team could go from a top-two seed to completely out of the playoffs based on the results of Sunday’s games. It’s in this that a suspect Lions secondary must come up big.