A week in which most teams have little or nothing to play for creates more uncertainty than usual. For example, the Dallas Cowboys enter their Week 17 matchup against the New York Giants with the NFC East in hand, making them the fourth seed in the conference no matter what happens Sunday. As a result, Big Blue opened as seven-point favorites, just the third time this year the Giants are favored in a game.
That makes New York a solid upset candidate if Dallas Coach Jason Garrett rests his starters for the majority of the game. If not, the 5-10 Giants might not have the talent to overcome the Cowboys in the regular season finale.
Getting seven or more points during the last week of the season is no guarantee of success: Teams in this situation are surprisingly 11-13 ATS over the past five seasons, including 2018. That means we could expect half of this week’s teams favored by seven or more points — the Chiefs (-13.5), Saints (-7.5), Patriots (-13.5), Eagles (-7), Packers (-8), Steelers (-14.5), Seahawks (-13.5) and Rams (-10) — to not cover Sunday.
7 percent chance to win NFC
The Seahawks, winners in five of their past six games, play their regular season finale against the 3-12 Arizona Cardinals and are heading into the postseason on a high note. After adjusting their performance for strength of schedule, they are the 10th-best team in the NFL, per Football Outsiders, and their quarterback, Russell Wilson, is one of the league’s most valuable, per ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating (68.7, eighth).
What makes Wilson stand out is his ability to turn lemons into lemonade. Per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, only MVP candidate Drew Brees has outperformed his expected completion rate by a higher margin than Wilson has, and Wilson does it without the benefit of targets such as Pro Bowl wide receiver Michael Thomas and dual-threat running back Alvin Kamara.
Wilson has made the most of his chemistry with wideout Tyler Lockett: Those two have combined for a perfect 158.3 passer rating (899 yards, nine touchdowns and zero interceptions), the highest rating among receivers seeing at least 25 percent of their team’s targets. Doug Baldwin (115.5 passer rating, 21st) and David Moore (111.6, tied for 24th) have also been productive.
Overall, Seattle’s passing offense has produced a 112.7 passer rating. Since 2002, six teams have entered the playoffs with a passer rating of 112 or better; three made a Super Bowl appearance that season.
24 percent chance to make the playoffs
You may not remember this, but as recently as Week 11, the Steelers looked like a lock to make the playoffs. Losing four of five contests since then has Pittsburgh more likely to miss the playoffs (76 percent) than qualify for a fifth straight season.
It’s hard to fault quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the slide: From Weeks 12 to 16, he has completed 70 percent of his passes for 1,640 yards, 10 touchdowns and five interceptions, and he is the third-most valuable passer in 2018 per ESPN. The offensive line has stood tall, too. It allowed a rusher to be stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage just 16 percent of the time (sixth best) and Roethlisberger to be sacked on less than 5 percent of his dropbacks (fourth best) after adjusting for down, distance and opponent.
Instead, blame a defense that is ranked 17th per Football Outsiders, driven in large part by a below-average pass-coverage unit that allowed a 96.7 passer rating (22nd best) through the first 16 weeks and a robust 103.2 passer rating since Week 12. (The league average is 93.2.)
Chicago Bears, Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings
Win the NFC
The favorites to win the NFC, the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams, don’t offer much in terms of value at 5 to 4 and 9 to 4. However, the Bears (5 to 1), Seahawks (14 to 1) and Vikings (20 to 1), should Minnesota qualify for the postseason, offer intriguing odds.
Since 2002, 23 of the past 31 Super Bowl participants had a passer rating differential among the top five in the league, including 11 of the past 16 winners. This year, Chicago (plus-23.4, first), Minnesota (plus-17.8, third) and Seattle (plus-17.1, fourth) all qualify.
The Bears are the obvious standout here, and their defense is one of the best we have seen since 2002, when the league expanded to 32 teams. Chicago is allowing 9.5 fewer points per game than expected after accounting for the down, distance and field position of each play, the ninth-best mark over the past 17 seasons, per TruMedia.
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