How do you bet week 17 of the NFL season? One theory is to concentrate solely on games that are meaningful for both teams. This week that means your selection is limited.
Carolina at Atlanta is a winner take all battle for the division championship, a fourth seed in the NFC playoffs, and a home game next week—even though neither team will have a winning record when the day is done. Detroit at Green Bay is slightly different; both teams are in the playoffs, but the winner wins the NFC North, and likely gets a bye week next week (as well as a shot of the top seed, and two home games, if Seattle loses at home to St. Louis). The loser gets into the playoffs as the sixth-seeded wildcard in all probability, and most likely a road game in Dallas.
San Diego travel to Kansas City knowing a win gives them the wild card and sixth seed in the AFC, while KC have to win and hope two other teams (Baltimore and Houston) lose. And finally, the 256th and last game of the regular season will be our Sunday Night matchup on Channel Four, with Cincinnati at Pittsburgh. Again, both teams are already in the playoffs; the winner will get the division title (and could get the two seed if Denver lose) while the loser will be locked into the fifth seeded wild card spot.
In other games, one team might have a playoff shot at stake (Baltimore and Houston) or even just keeping or getting a higher seed (Arizona, Denver). Otherwise, there is just pride to play for; coaches' jobs, next year's contracts, or even the kind of rah-rah stuff that's supposed to be old hat for the pros. But remember, American football is a difficult game to play at half-speed; you go through the motions and someone goes through you. Which also reminds us that some teams will be especially keen to protect their most valuable and/or brittle players once the action starts. Which makes it hard to predict what will happen. Indy used to always rest Peyton Manning in week 17, then often had a bye week, and came out rusty in the second round of the playoffs. Like this column, momentum means everything...
BEST BET: BALTIMORE (-8.5 at 1.88) vs Cleveland: The Ravens have something to play for, and the Browns will likely start undrafted rookie Connor Shaw, who's been on their practice squad all season, at QB. It's possible Brian Hoyer, who hasn't practiced all week with an injured shoulder, comes back, or Tyler Thigpen, signed off the street Tuesday after Rex Grossman turned them down, gets the start, but Shaw, who was excellent at South Carolina, a kind of quieter version of Johnny Football, ought to play. Mike Pettine may know his old team inside out, but it'll be mostly out for the Browns.
VALUE BET: Denver (-14 at 2.00) vs Oakland: It's a huge spread, but the Broncos need to put some offense together for the first time in weeks, and they could use the bye week a win gets them to help them prepare. The worry here is that they build a lead and then John Fox gets foxy and sits Peyton Manning down, meaning covering the spread is in the passing arm of Brock Osweiler. Seattle is giving St Louis 13 points but getting 2.04; but the Ram defense is better than Oakland's and the Seahawk offense isn't a run-up-the-score kind of machine, so I'd avoid.
OUTSIDE BET: INDIANAPOLIS (-7.5 at 2.08) vs Tennessee. If Matt Hasselbeck is at QB for the Colts do not under any circumstances place this bet. Actually, anything more than TD win ought to be achieveable for the Colts regardless of who's under center. San Diego (+3 at 2.00) at Kansas City might be worth a shot too; I've picked the Chiefs but it will be close.
ONE TO AVOID: How about week 17?