nfl week 17: four things to keep an eye on
By Tayyib Abu
Only two weeks of the NFL regular season remain. Two ferocious weeks are left on the slate, and no quarter shall be given for those teams vying for playoff positions. Despite the Cocid chaos, the show is carrying on, and we are nearly at the gateway to the playoff crucible.
The new year provides only one resolution for all 32 teams; find a way to win. Everyone is in the same position, and Week 17 promises to deliver more drama, controversy, and action, all tinged with heavy hearts.
Here are four things to watch in Week 17 of the NFL season…
Can The Cardinals Arrest The Slide?
The once flying Arizona Cardinals are in free-fall. They’ve lost three straight and are currently the fifth seed in the NFC. The first NFL game of the new year won’t offer Arizona any respite as the league pits them against the red-hot Dallas Cowboys. It isn’t far-fetched to suggest that Week 17 is the biggest in the careers of Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray. After losing to a Covid-hit Colts squad, and a tigerish, if ultimately toothless, Lions side, the test gets more challenging for the Cardinals. It is a must-win.
A sputtering offense is a primary driver behind Arizona’s late-season struggles. In three of their last four defeats, the Cards scored 10, 12, and 16 points. They broke the 20-point barrier in the Monday Night loss to the Rams. These numbers are ugly; they look worse compared to the early-season scoreboards. In their 7-0 winning streak, Arizona scored more than 30 points in six games. Kingsbury’s side was burying teams under a cavalcade of high-octane offense.
That is no longer the case, and every element of the Cardinals’ offense is flatlining. Kyler Murray’s QBR over the last three games is 30.9. That would place him 30th, below Davis Mills. That number coincides with the absence of wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Center Rodney Hudson has also missed time, and that’s impacted the Cards’ rushing attack. With those two options removed, Kliff Kingsbury hasn’t managed to keep the offense afloat. Concerningly, Kyler Murray looks nervous and hesitant when presented with a scramble.
Now Arizona must solve its problems while diagnosing the best defense in the NFL. The Dallas Cowboys destroyed Washington last Sunday, and it looks like America’s Team is peaking at the right time. Football Outsiders ranks the Cowboys’ defense as the best in the NFL. Coordinator Dan Quinn is re-establishing himself as a bonafide head coaching candidate. Quinn is leading the Cowboys’ defense to new heights after the unit bottomed out in 2020.
Central to Dallas’ success is linebacker Micah Parsons. Parsons’ vast skillset and versatility allow Quinn to create and confuse offenses with various formations and shifts. The Penn State alum is the runaway favorite for Rookie of The Year honors. Parsons can dominate the second-level in run-defense; he can apply pressure to the quarterback and match tight-ends in pass coverage. Quinn, famous for his time in Seattle as the Legion of Boom’s coordinator, now has arguably the most talented player he’s ever worked alongside.
Add Trevon Diggs, Damontae Kazee, and the return of Randy Gregory. The Cowboys may sport the most talented defense in the NFL. It is a massive examination for Arizona. AT&T Stadium will be raucous, and their defense will be eager to cut loose. Kingsbury and Murray must have the answers. Arizona needs to be mentally ready and prepared game-plan-wise. Arizona’s go-to offensive principle is tempo. The Cards like to speed up and get the defense off-balance when in doubt. Historically, it hasn’t worked for Arizona. It forces playcalling to become awfully vanilla and predictable.
An athletic Dallas defense won’t need four quarters to figure out the Arizona plan if the Cards attempt to speed things up. The Rams are starting to edge away, and the Niners are coming up on the rails; the last thing Arizona needed was a visit to the home of a rampant defense. Three years into the Kingsbury-Murray project, this is the biggest game of their tenure. Fans won’t tolerate another late-season collapse, and they won’t accept losing ground to their fierce rivals in the NFC West. The Cardinals need to find a way to arrest the slide.
A Familiar Face Stands In Miami's Way
Out of nowhere, the Miami Dolphins have hauled themselves into contention in the AFC. A dismal start has ceded the way to a seven-game win streak. Brian Flores’ side has never quit, and they are now reaping the rewards. Week 17 forces Miami to confront a former friend. Ryan Tannehill and the Tennessee Titans welcome the Dolphins to Nashville for a vital game.
The Dolphins currently sit in the last playoff position in the AFC. The Chargers, Ravens, and Raiders are all furiously trying to chase them down. Miami’s streak has placed them right in the AFC Wildcard race, and they need to keep winning if they are to punch a playoff ticket. The ‘Fins travel to Nashville off the back of defeating the Ian Book-led New Orleans Saints. All wins are valued in the NFL, but Flores will want his team to turn the page quickly and focus on Tennessee.
The Titans scratched and clawed their way to a victory last Thursday night. Tennessee didn’t play all that well; however, they dug a result out in proper Mike Vrabel form when they needed one. Tennessee currently occupies the second seed, although they have yet to clinch the AFC South. Tennessee probably needs to split their final two games to win the division. However, the Miami defense presents a tough challenge for Tannehill.
The Dolphins’ defense is tough, and they are well prepared from front to back. Upfront, Miami is adept at creating pressure. They lead the league in generating pressures on non-blitzing plays. Moreover, Flores won’t hesitate to send blitzing defenders. Miami is one of the league leaders in blitz rate. Therefore it is not surprising that they lead the league in QB hits and sacks.
Tennessee’s offensive line is porous, and they’ve only gotten worse in pass-protection since Derrick Henry went down. The Titans’ o-line ranks 29th, and they’ve allowed 45 sacks through 16 weeks. That bodes well for the Dolphins. An individual matchup to watch is Xavien Howard vs. AJ Brown. Brown dominated against the 49ers, and he’ll relish a battle against Howard.
On the other side of the ball, Tennesee’s pass rush is good enough to get home and attack Tua Tagovailoa. Tennessee can stop the run and force Tagovailoa to stay in the pocket.
This game has all the hallmarks of a tough, attritional defensive battle. That mentally may suit the Titans, but the schematics suit the Dolphins. It feels like a one-score game, and a little bit of magic could decide the game. The Titans will clinch the division with a win; the Dolphins could strengthen their playoff position with a win. It is all to play for in Nashville.
Two Young Quarterback's Ready To Step Up
History will forever link Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert. The sophomore quarterbacks entered the NFL via the 2020 draft, and they’ve enjoyed their careers so far. Week 17 is a critical week for both of these players.
Burrow and his home-state Cincinnati Bengals welcome an in-form Kansas City Chiefs team to the jungle. Kansas City swatted aside the Steelers last week, which gave them another AFC West divisional title. The Bengals had another fabulous week as the Steelers, Browns, and Ravens lost. Cincinnati is now staring down a potential AFC North title, and they could take a massive step towards the title if they knock off Kansas City.
It won’t be easy; after a sluggish start, the Chiefs defense is back to 2019 levels of performance. They aren’t elite, but they compete and are well-drilled by veteran coordinator Steve Spagnuola. The former Giants defensive guru likened Burrow to a young Tom Brady early in the week, and rest assured that Spagnuola will have a plan in place just as he did all those years ago in Arizona.
Burrow torched an injury-hit, Covid-hit Baltimore defense last week. It will be more demanding but not impossible for Burrow to cause Kansas City problems. The Bengals’ pass-catching corps is arguably the best in the AFC. Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd are phenomenal players, and they are coming up against a middle-of-the-pack pass defense. It is a massive chance for Burrow and the Bengals to announce themselves, it won’t be easy, and Kansas City will get after Cincy’s defense. Nevertheless, if Burrow can deliver a win here, the Bengals may genuinely believe in their home-grown saviour.
As for Justin Herbert, it feels like deja vu. The former Oregon man is playing his heart out right now. Sadly the snakebitten Chargers are once again experiencing more heartbreak and unfathomable performances. After pushing the Chiefs all the way two Thursday’s ago, the Chargers laid an egg as they went down to the Davis Mills-inspired Houston Texans. Herbert played exceptionally well, and the Chargers still lost.
LA welcomes a Broncos side going nowhere in 2021. The merry-go-round at quarterback hasn’t helped Vic Fangio, and he will almost certainly lose his job. If Herbert plays another big-time game, the Chargers should win and keep themselves in the mix for a wildcard spot in Week 18.
Good Things Don't Last Forever
It feels strange previewing a Seattle Seahawks game in December that has nothing riding on it. Over the last decade, the ‘Hawks have cemented themselves as a resident power in the NFC. 2021 hasn’t gone to plan, and they welcome the Detroit Lions to the Pacific North West knowing that the end of an era is nigh. It could be the last time the 12s get to see Russell Wilson take the field. It could also be the last time they see Pete Carroll patrol the sidelines. It is almost impossible to think both men return to Seattle for another run in 2022.
The same is almost guaranteed regarding Ben Roethlisberger’s status. Retirement has long been on the cards for the veteran signal-caller. He has played like a shadow of himself since returning from a season-ending injury in 2019. Unless things really go haywire, Monday night against the Browns will be the last time Roethlisberger trots out onto Heinz Field.
And lastly, when you watch a game today, make a note of who the commentators are. With the proliferation of TV coverage, it feels like any and every former NFL player is in a studio or commentary box on any given Sunday. This week, the NFL world lost the great John Madden. Depending on your age, you either knew him as a coach, commentator, or video game man.
To me, he was the voice of Monday Night Football in the early 2000s. Madden left an impression on the entire NFL world. His inimitable style of commentary and booming voice made every game feel like a massive deal. You couldn’t help but gravitate towards the screen when Madden was on commentary.
And lastly, the NFL world also mourns the loss of another 70’s stalwart. Dan Reeves was a vital cog in building the Tom Landry-led Dallas Cowboys machine. Good things don’t last forever, and the good times seem to end far too quickly in the NFL.
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