nfl week 17: four things to keep an eye on

By Tayyib Abu

New Year’s Day marks Week 17 of the NFL calendar. To steal a line from Scott Hanson, it is now the witching hour of the regular season. Here are four things to keep an eye on as teams jockey for playoff positions:

The NFC South Is On The Line

Jacob Kupferman / Associated Press

After 16 weeks of chaos, the NFC South’s fate will become clearer once the clock hits zero at Raymond James Stadium. The division-leading Tampa Bay Buccaneers host Steve Wilks’ supercharged Carolina Panthers in a big game. If the Bucs win, they will win the division. If the Panthers triumph, they will control their fate in Week 18. The Panthers defeated Tampa earlier this season, and their tough defense made life very difficult for Tom Brady. That 21-3 defeat felt like the nadir for the Bucs, as Carolina’s front seven mauled Tampa’s offensive line. For the season, the Panthers are 6th overall in run-stop win rate. They are an outstanding unit against the run. In the reverse fixture, Carolina contained Tampa to 46 rushing yards. That left Brady exposed in a dropback passing game, and the Panthers’ pass rush hounded the 45-year-old all game long. Carolina’s recipe for success is simple; stop the run, and win on 3rd and long. 

The Bucs’ recipe for success is one of the more bizarre formulas in the NFL. Tampa’s offense meanders aimlessly until there are four minutes left, and then they morph into the 2014-15 Patriots. Brady’s QBR from last week was 34.3. He did not play well, but the Bucs still find ways to put opponents away. However, Carolina’s defense will once again challenge Brady and Tampa’s offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich. The Panthers are probably the more confident team, but Brady always finds a way. One way or another, the NFC South’s sorry saga comes to an end today.

The Giants Are On The Brink

Win, and in. These three words mean so much to a team at this point in the season. The New York Giants are in the win-and-in scenario today against the lowly Indianapolis Colts. The Colts are in disarray. They are starting their third quarterback of the season and have lost five straight games. For Brian Daboll’s side, things could not have fallen better. Per Football Outsiders, the Colts are 32nd in total DVOA. Indianapolis has won just two road games this season, and in their last two away trips, they have conceded a total of 93 points.

Conversely, the Giants boast a winning record at home, and the outdoor conditions at MetLife Stadium will challenge Nick Foles and the beleaguered Colts’ offense. Offensively, Indianapolis crumbled against the Chargers on Monday Night Football. Nick Foles was sacked seven times, and you know Wink Martindale will dial up his trademark blitzes to pressure Foles. It is only the fifth time the Giants are favored this season, but with good reason. Big Blue is one clean, complementary football game away from a playoff berth. Beat a bad team, and they are in the playoffs.

Scoreboard-Watching Time In The NFC North

A standing-room-only crowd at Ford Field will have two eyes glued to the field and their ears glued to happenings elsewhere. Likewise, for the thousands of patrons that file into Lambeau Field. The Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers are alive in the NFC Wildcard race, but both need help from others. With the Giants in control of the 6th seed, it is now a four-way fight for the final NFC playoff spot. The Lions welcome the three-win Chicago Bears, while the Packers host the Minnesota Vikings. 

Detroit got a taste of its own smash-mouth medicine last Saturday as the Panthers ran all over the Lions’ defense. A similar test lies today as the Bears sport a dynamic rushing attack. For the season, Chicago is 9th in rush-EPA. The Lions have consistently struggled against dual-threat quarterbacks this season, and Fields possesses the talent to wreck Detroit’s defense. For all that the Lions are favored, Dan Campbell’s team knows they cannot play softly again. A defeat will end Detroit’s playoff hopes. 

And the same goes for the Packers. Matt LaFleur’s team stole a win on Christmas Day courtesy of Tua Tagovailoa’s concussion-induced meltdown. Like Detroit, Green Bay has played erratically on defense all season long. The Vikings torched Green Bay in Week 1, and the extraordinary Justin Jefferson played a big part in that game. As always in an NFC North matchup, both sides have engaged in verbal exchanges this week, and there is always a needle between these northern rivals. But the Packers cannot allow Jefferson to run wild again, or it will end their season. It promises to be a nervy afternoon across the Great Lakes Region.

Game Of The Season

Heavyweight boxing fights often get labeled with a nickname; The Thriller in Manilla, David vs. Goliath, and plenty of others have highlighted the sports landscape. The Monday Night Football game between the surging Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills is the Rumble in the Jungle. The Bengals are riding a seven-game win streak; the Bills are on a six-game streak. Both Joe Burrow and Josh Allen are in the MVP conversation, and both teams still have plenty of work to do to finalize playoff destinies. The Bengals cannot afford a defeat with the dogged Baltimore Ravens chasing them down. As for the Bills, a victory will almost guarantee the number-one seed in the AFC.

These teams are both ranked in the top ten in total DVOA. They are 3rd and 4th in offensive EPA per play and are the two in-form teams in the AFC. X-Factor players feature on both teams, offensively and defensively. Can Burrow’s shotgun-heavy 3×1 passing game dissect Buffalo’s secondary? Or will Buffalo’s secondary clamp Cincinnati? Can Allen and Buffalo marry a mistake-free passing game with an inside zone running game to quell the Bengals? This feels like a premier heavyweight fight. Forget the New Year’s Eve fireworks, Cincinnati, Ohio, is where the real fireworks will be.



Tayyib is an avid NFL fan and, as a follower of the detroit lions, is a permanent resident in the honolulu blue heartbreak hotel. writing football articles since 2019, tayyib loves everything about the sport except that wins are not a qb stat. follow him on twitter @TayyibABU1