Week 17 is the most dangerous of the NFL season for bettors, because you never quite know which teams are going to show up. There are games that mean nothing in terms of play-offs, where players may or may not be playing to save their coaches' jobs or audition for next season (either with their team or another one, if they're approaching free-agency). There will be teams who have locked their play-off position up (like the Bengals) and may feel compelled to rest players with niggling injuries, or avoid putting their stars at risk unnecessarily. And there will be other teams, with a bye week clinched, who think that taking this week off as well may be valuable or may be foolish. There are some teams who will think playing for a better seeding - and home-field advantage - is worth the risk, and some who would rather save players or game plans for the next week. And then, luckily for us, especially on the Channel 4 Sunday Night game, there is the odd game with everything to play for, which is Dallas at Washington. The winner wins the NFC Eastern Division, the loser is out (Dallas) or needs (Washington) three other teams to lose to get a wild card play-off berth. I wouldn't call this one a sure thing either way.
Sure thing: New Orleans (-5) v Carolina at 1.97
I have the feeling that the 7-8 Saints have a point to prove to their fans, after a season that began with the bounty-gate scandal, and has seen them surrender more yardage to their opponents than almost anyone in league history. Drew Brees and his receivers have been effective in wins over Tampa and Dallas in the last two weeks, and they don't mind surrendering yards when they are in the lead. The Panthers, if they were playing their running game from last year, might be favourites, but as long as they try to run their whole attack through Cam Newton, they will be dependent on big plays from him.
Value bet: Vikings (+3.5) v Packers at 1.81
At home and running the ball behind Adrian Peterson, the Vikes may have a good chance to control the clock and keep this game close. They will need a big play from a receiver, or their defense, or special teams to win it, unless AP decides to break off more than one long TD run, but they ought to be able to keep it close.
Outsider: Lions (+3) v Bears at 1.85
The Bears are in a must-win situation, but are missing Matt Forte and Brian Urlacher. They face the frustrating Lions, who have no passing game except throwing to Calvin Johnson, who, despite that handicap, has managed to break Jerry Rice's single-season receiving record. Yes, the Lions throw more than just about any team in NFL History, and yes, they are usually chasing teams with big leads, but considering he's always double-teamed, that's some accomplishment. The Bears have had trouble with good teams, but have been able to beat bad ones all season, and I think there's a chance that string might run out this week.
One to avoid: Redskins v Cowboys (+3.5)
If you really think the Cowboys are a superior team, then by all means take them, and if you've watched Tony Romo's late heroics the past few weeks you might think a field goal is enough to make this one attractive. But the relatively simplicity of the Skins' attack, and the explosiveness of Robert Griffin III, their rookie quarterback, make them dangerous should they get a lead early.