Dec 31, 2023; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Jarrett Stidham (4) attempts a pass in the first quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Broncos, Jarrett Stidham visit old friends in Vegas

The Las Vegas Raiders can extend their winning streak against the visiting Denver Broncos to eight games when they meet on Sunday afternoon.

The Broncos (8-8) last defeated the Raiders (7-9) in the regular-season finale on Dec. 29, 2019.

Las Vegas beat Denver 17-16 in the season opener on Sept. 10. Since then, major changes have altered each team. Among those impacted by the in-season overhaul were both starting quarterbacks in Week 1.

Jimmy Garoppolo took the field for the Raiders in the season opener, but injuries and ineffectiveness opened the door for rookie Aidan O’Connell to get a shot when head coach Josh McDaniels was fired. The Raiders have gone 4-4 over the past eight games.

Russell Wilson started the first 15 games for Denver, but the Broncos decided to bench Wilson for Jarrett Stidham in a contract-related squabble similar to the drama that unfolded involving Derek Carr at the end of last season. At that time, Stidham was with the Raiders and was pushed into a starting role for the final two games of the regular season.

“I have a certain job to do, certain thing to do on each and every play. Ultimately we’ve got to go out and win. So that’s what I’m focused on doing and it’s my job to help those other 10 guys on offense, move the ball and score points,” Stidham said.

Stidham completed 20 of 32 passes for 224 yards and a touchdown in a 16-9 win against the visiting Los Angeles Chargers last Sunday, though the Broncos were officially eliminated from playoff contention.

“These are important snaps and games for him,” Broncos coach Sean Payton said. “That’s the case with every player, right? We’re constantly evaluating how they play, and then it would definitely carry over to how we feel about next year relative to their role.”

Payton said the Broncos wouldn’t change their plans for Week 18 based on being eliminated from the playoffs. He’s particularly keen to remind players of the losing streak against the Raiders.

“Do we approach (Sunday’s game) differently? Absolutely not,” Payton said. “We do everything in our power to win this game. It’s that important. From who is playing quarterback to who is starting at the offensive line to who is starting on defense. It’s that simple.”

For the Raiders, not only is the season finale an ongoing audition for O’Connell, but also for interim coach Antonio Pierce, who took over after McDaniels was fired on Nov. 1.

Las Vegas won its first two games under Pierce, but has gone 2-4 since, most recently losing to the Indianapolis Colts 23-20 last Sunday.

“You can’t point fingers at players,” Pierce said. “Obviously we’ve got to do a better job as coaches. It’s a focus thing: false starts, offside, that’s the Raiders beating themselves. That’s something that for seven games, we hadn’t done. But it came up (against the Colts) and it bit us.”

Pierce said the key is staying patient and ignoring the outside opinions.

“Stay true to yourself, don’t change because of people’s opinion of you,” he said. “Go with your gut.”

O’Connell said it’s important that the Raiders focus on the task at hand and not what happened last week or what’s to come in the offseason.

“You can’t rely on momentum from week to week,” he said. “You can’t look ahead, and you can’t look back. Every play, every series, and every game has enough of its own and you’ve got to lock in.”

Las Vegas running back Josh Jacobs, the leading rusher in the NFL last season with 1,653 yards in 17 games, will be a game-time decision because of a quad injury, Pierce said. He has been limited to 805 rushing yards through 13 games this season.

Raiders defensive end Maxx Crosby (knee) was limited Wednesday. A former teammate of Stidham, Crosby has a sack in eight consecutive games against the Broncos.

“I can’t speak highly enough of this guy,” Stidham said. “Being with him every day for a year, seeing how he works. The most impressive thing is I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a player play that hard for that long every single time he’s out on the field. He’s going to bring it; we’re going to have to be ready.”

Broncos right tackle Mike McGlinchey (ribs) was limited and wide receiver Cortland Sutton remained in concussion protocol Wednesday.

–Field Level Media

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith and head coach Pete Carroll (background) can crash the playoffs with a win and some help from the Chicago Bears. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Big Bears fans, Seahawks stalk playoff spot in Arizona

For the second year in a row, the Seattle Seahawks enter the final week of the regular season needing a win and a big assist.

A loss last week left the Seahawks in the same predicament they were in at this time last season: They need a victory over a division opponent and a Green Bay Packers loss to make the NFL playoffs.

Things worked out for the Seahawks last season, but can they go 2-for-2?

“I never imagined we’d be in this situation again, but here we are,” Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith said heading into Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals in Glendale, Ariz.

The Seahawks (8-8) controlled their playoff fate until last week but surrendered that advantage by giving up 202 yards on the ground in a 30-23 loss to visiting Pittsburgh.

“There’s one game to go. We’ve been here before,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “We’ve got to go to Arizona and go play really well and get a win and see where that leaves us.”

Last season, the Seahawks needed a victory in Week 18 against the visiting Los Angeles Rams and for Detroit to win at Green Bay in the Sunday night game that added to the season-ending drama.

This time Seattle will need to win on the road while rooting for the Packers to lose again at home, this time to Chicago. There will be some scoreboard watching with the games kicking off at 4:25 p.m. ET.

But Seattle can’t afford to take Arizona lightly, especially after the Cardinals rallied from a 15-point deficit to shock the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday.

“(This) week is not going to be an easy game. We’ve got to go out there in their place and make it happen,” Smith said. “We’re the type of team that’s going to always bounce back. We’ve got the right leadership. We’ve got the right coaches, right players, and we’re going to make it happen. We’re going to find a way to make it happen.”

The Cardinals (4-12) have gone 3-4 since starting quarterback Kyler Murray returned from surgery on his anterior cruciate ligament. In the 35-31 win over the reigning NFC champion Eagles last week, Murray completed 25 of 31 passes for 232 yards and a season-high three touchdowns.

Running back James Conner played a starring role, including the game-winning TD, which could be cause for concern after the Seahawks were demolished by Pittsburgh’s previously stagnant ground attack.

“The guys, they played well,” Murray said. “We executed and we did our thing and, you know, it’s good. It’s good to feel that. Obviously, with everything that’s happened, a lot of disappointment this year, a lot of tough losses, but trying to finish the season off the right way.”

First-year Cardinals coach Jonathan Gannon boomed with pride in his team finishing strong.

“I know our record isn’t what we want it to be, and that falls on me, but they have confidence,” Gannon said. “They never waver. And what I’m really pleased about is the way they practice that effort. They stay together. They focus. Attention to detail. A lot of teams just pack it in right now. That’s not our guys in there. So that’s just a tribute to the character in the locker room.”

Cardinals starting left tackle D.J. Humphries won’t play this week. He suffered a torn ACL in his left knee last week and was placed on injured reserve. Defensive lineman Dante Stills (knee), linebacker Dennis Gardeck (knee) and cornerback Garrett Williams (ankle) are also in danger of sitting out Sunday.

The Seahawks have their own injury concerns on the offensive line. Starting center Evan Brown (concussion) and right tackle Abraham Lucas (knee) missed practice, as did backup tackle Jason Peters (foot).

Running back Kenneth Walker III (shoulder) also sat out, but Carroll seemed optimistic the Seahawks’ leading rusher would play Sunday. Also missing practice were nose tackle Jarran Reed, defensive end Mario Edwards and linebacker Nick Bellore, all with knee injuries.

–Field Level Media

Atlanta Falcons running back Bijan Robinson (7) catches a touchdown pass against the New Orleans Saints in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Saints, Falcons fight for playoff footing, root against Buccaneers

For a chance at the playoffs, the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints need a win Sunday.

But a victory in their NFC South showdown in New Orleans won’t be enough.

Either team would also need the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to lose at Carolina in order to win the division. The Saints (8-8) could claim a wild card if they and the Bucs win and Green Bay and Seattle both lose, but the Falcons (7-9) can only get in by winning the division.

Innumerable variables are in play with a whopping 20 of the NFL’s 32 teams still alive entering Week 18.

“None of that other stuff matters if we don’t take care of business against Atlanta,” Saints head coach Dennis Allen said. “We’ve got to keep the main thing the main thing. There’s not going to be a lot of scoreboard watching. We have enough to deal with in Atlanta and what they’re doing.”

New Orleans kept its playoff hopes alive and prevented the Bucs from clinching the division title when it won at Tampa, 23-13, last Sunday. The Falcons, who lost at Chicago, 37-17 in Week 17, defeated the Saints 24-15 on Nov. 26 in Atlanta.

Atlanta, which ranks eighth in the NFL in rushing (130.1 yards per game), had the most rushing yards by a New Orleans opponent (228) in the first meeting. The Falcons’ 41 attempts were the most by a Saints opponent this season and their average (5.6) was the second highest.

“We understand the type of game it’s going to be,” Allen said. “We know how they want the game to be played. They do a really good job in the running game. We have to do a better job of stopping the run.”

The Falcons were effective when they ran the ball against the Bears last week (5.6 yards per carry), but they finished with just 24 rushes because Chicago took the lead for good midway through the first quarter and possessed the ball for more than 37 minutes, forcing the Falcons into comeback mode.

Head coach Arthur Smith said he has confidence that his team will bounce back from its most lopsided loss of the season.

“The way these guys play and prepare has been consistent all year,” Smith said. “Every game these guys have shown up ready to roll and we’ve had our chances. They’re a resilient group.”

Before the loss to the Bears, Atlanta’s previous six losses were one-score games. The first meeting with the Falcons was one of just two Saints losses that have been by more than one score.

“We’ve lost some close games and most games are close in this league,” Smith said. “Anytime we play New Orleans, it’s a big deal. Certainly, this game has a lot on the line. I know some of it is out of our control, but that’s our own doing.

“We have life. However crazy it played out, that is what the situation is.”

Falcons quarterback Taylor Heinicke (ankle) was limited in practice Wednesday. Center Drew Dalman (ankle) was the only starter who sat out practice due to injury.

Four Saints starters — running back Alvin Kamara (ankle), tight end Juwan Johnson (chest), defensive tackle Khalen Saunders (concussion) and tackle Landon Young (knee) — missed practice.

–Field Level Media

Nov 23, 2023; Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons (11) and defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. (56) and Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell (14) in action during the game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Commanders at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Cowboys aim to seal NFC East title vs. Commanders

Eliminated from playoff contention, the Washington Commanders can still deliver a parting gift to an NFC East rival.

Mired in a seven-game losing streak, the Commanders (4-12) welcome the Cowboys (11-5) for the regular-season finale on Sunday, knowing a Washington win could erase Dallas from the top of the division standings and open the passing lane for the Philadelphia Eagles to crash into first.

If the Cowboys win, Dallas would be the NFC East champion and the No. 2 seed in the conference. The Cowboys would head home for a wild-card playoff game at AT&T Stadium, where they are 8-0 this season.

“I like where we’re at,” Dallas coach Mike McCarthy said. “Obviously we would’ve liked to have won them all this past month, but I think clearly the adversity and the type of games we’ve been in will serve us well moving forward. I think being healthy is the most important statistic going into the playoffs.”

The Cowboys aren’t entirely healthy entering the game with guard Tyler Smith (foot) and nose tackle Johnathan Hankins (knee/ankle) nursing injuries. Hankins could play after missing the past three games, McCarthy said.

One player the Commanders aren’t likely itching to see this week is CeeDee Lamb. The Dallas wide receiver leads the NFL with 122 catches and is second with 1,651 receiving yards, establishing single-season franchise records in each category. Lamb had only four receptions for 53 yards and a TD in the Cowboys’ first matchup with Washington this season.

“He’s really just getting going and I can tell you as long as I’m here, he’ll probably stack these records and each and every year, to be honest with you,” said Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott, the NFL leader in TD passes with 32.

The Cowboys’ 45-10 blowout of the Commanders in November led to the firing of Washington defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.

Explosive plays have contributed to Washington’s undoing. No team has allowed more 20-yard pass plays, and the Commanders have only two interceptions in the past 10 games.

The Commanders rank last in total defense (385.8 yards per game), 31st in pass defense (259.3 yards per game) and aren’t built for comebacks with an NFL-worst minus-12 turnover margin.

Any traction Washington gains on the defensive side of the ball depends on the availability of interior force Jonathan Allen (knee), but he didn’t practice Wednesday. The two starting cornerbacks are ailing as well, as Kendall Fuller (knee) sat out the Wednesday practice while Benjamin St-Juste (concussion) was limited.

Dallas lost on the road to the Commanders 26-6 in the Week 18 game a year ago in Sam Howell’s first career start. The Washington quarterback went 28 of 44 for 300 yards and an interception in the Thanksgiving Day defeat at Dallas.

On Wednesday, Howell was named Washington’s starter over Jacoby Brissett. Howell started in Week 17 after Brissett was a pulled off the stage and made inactive on the roster pregame due to a hamstring injury. Brissett was limited in Wednesday’s practice.

The game could be curtains for Commanders head coach Ron Rivera, who expected he could be on the chopping block under new ownership with greater expectations for a Washington franchise that last won a playoff game following the 2005 season.

“There’s nothing you can do about what’s going to happen beyond Sunday, so the focus should be on Sunday,” Rivera said.

While the QB pecking order for Week 18 was up to Rivera, new hires for the president or general manager jobs could make their own decisions on the direction at quarterback for 2024. The Commanders enter the season finale in position to draft at No. 2 overall in April.

“Well, I’d like to think we’re in a better place,” Rivera said Tuesday when asked if the franchise is better off than when he was hired Jan. 1, 2020. “Probably a fairer way to say it. I most certainly do appreciate my time here, and we’ll see what happens. And again, we’ll focus on what’s coming first on Sunday, and that’s getting ready for Dallas.”

–Field Level Media

Dec 31, 2023; Baltimore, Maryland, USA;  Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) throws from the pocket during the first half against the Miami Dolphins at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Steelers fighting for playoff spot, face top-seeded Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens have locked up the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff bracket, so why play their starters in Week 18?

Coach John Harbaugh and company are pondering that question ahead of Saturday’s season finale against the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers, whose own playoff dreams will be on the line.

The Ravens (13-3) thrashed the Miami Dolphins 56-19 last Sunday for their sixth straight victory, clinching the AFC North and a first-round playoff bye in the process. Lamar Jackson threw more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions (three) as public support grew for the quarterback to win his second NFL Most Valuable Player award.

Harbaugh said Monday that the Ravens had yet to decide how much — if at all — to play Jackson and other starters in the regular-season finale. The coach said they’d know by Wednesday and would not “keep it a secret.”

One possible factor at play is the age-old “rest vs. rust” debate. When the Ravens secured a first-round bye in 2019, they held out starters against Pittsburgh in the regular-season finale, but after a long gulf between games, they came out flat in a divisional-round loss to Tennessee.

In Harbaugh’s view, there’s no comparison worth drawing.

“I remember the experience and the choices we made (in 2019), but the decisions we made, we made for certain reasons,” Harbaugh said. “We thought they were the right decisions. What impacted how in terms of us not playing our best football that day, it’s really hard to say what the cause and effect was.”

The Steelers (9-7) surely would love to face Baltimore’s backups in Week 18. After staying in the AFC wild-card hunt with Sunday’s 30-23 win at Seattle, they have five paths to earn a playoff berth.

Three of the scenarios require Pittsburgh to win while getting help elsewhere in the conference. Pittsburgh could also get in with a tie, a Jacksonville loss and the Houston-Indianapolis game not ending in a tie. If the Steelers lose, but Jacksonville loses, Denver beats Las Vegas and Houston and Indianapolis don’t tie, Pittsburgh would sneak in, too.

The Steelers will continue to place their hopes on the shoulders of Mason Rudolph, their third starting quarterback this season. In two starts, both Pittsburgh wins, Rudolph has completed 68.6 percent of his passes for 564 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Kenny Pickett was inactive against Seattle while recovering from an ankle injury, but he is now healthy and will be Rudolph’s backup Sunday. Pickett refuted a rumor that he refused to dress against Seattle if the starting job wasn’t returned to him.

“One man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity,” Pickett said Tuesday. “Mason played well when he got in there. I have a ton of respect for Mason and everything that he’s done and what our team has been doing. My job now that I’m back healthy is to be the backup.”

“There’s never been an awkward air. Those guys are dear friends and always professional,” Rudolph said of his fellow quarterbacks.

Pittsburgh star T.J. Watt is tied for the league lead with 17 sacks. He recorded two sacks and recovered a fumble when the host Steelers defeated the Ravens 17-10 in October.

Pittsburgh has won six of its past seven games against Baltimore dating back to the 2020 season — all seven decided by seven points or fewer.

Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (knee) and linebacker Elandon Roberts (pectoral) did not participate in Pittsburgh’s walkthrough Tuesday. Running back Najee Harris (knee) — who had season highs of 27 carries, 122 yards and two touchdowns against Seattle — was limited along with guard Isaac Seumalo (shoulder), defensive tackle Cameron Heyward (groin) and safety Trenton Thompson (neck). Pickett was a full participant.

Baltimore’s estimated injury report listed leading receiver Zay Flowers (calf), linebacker Malik Harrison (groin), cornerback Marlon Humphrey (calf) and cornerback Daryl Worley (shoulder/ankle) as non-participants. Star safety Kyle Hamilton (knee) and linebacker Patrick Queen (shoulder) were among seven Ravens listed as limited.

–Field Level Media

Texas's Quinn Ewers (3) holds up the WWE Big 12 Championship belt next to The Undertaker following the Big 12 Football Championship game between the Oklahoma State University Cowboys and the Texas Longhorns at the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023.

Sugar Bowl: Preview, Prop Pick and Prediction

The Sugar Bowl featuring Washington and Texas promises to provide a showcase for a pair of frisky offenses.

The winner is certain to cause headaches for its opponent in the College Football Playoff national title game a week later.

We have a couple of bright ideas when it comes to betting strategy for this semifinal matchup.

SUGAR BOWL
No. 2 Washington Huskies vs. No. 3 Texas Longhorns

Date, time: Jan. 1, 8:45 p.m. ET.
Site: Caesars Superdome, New Orleans.
Line: Texas -4.5; total 62.5 (FanDuel).

The way the Texas Longhorns are scoring creates the belief that the Washington Huskies will have to create turnovers and consistently flip field position.

Coach Steve Sarkisian has the Texas offense humming. The Longhorns have run up 106 points in the past two games.

Quarterback Quinn Ewers, who engineered the Longhorns’ road upset of Alabama Sept. 9 by throwing for 349 yards, has put up 3,161 yards despite missing two games this season. He’s NFL prospect good, and is eager for a national spotlight game to sling it against Washington.

The Huskies have allowed 20 or more points in nine of their past 10 games and must find answers if they hope to play in the CFP title game.

HUSKIES BIG HOPE
The answer to the matchup issues is to keep pace with the Longhorns’ potent offense, and Heisman finalist Michael Penix Jr. showed he’s up to virtually any task.

His NFL-bound top target, Rome Odunze, can beat anyone at the college level and must provide a couple of splash plays.

The wild card in the Washington offensive deck is running back Dillon Johnson, who looked like Texas legend Earl Campbell at times over the past five games as he averaged more than 135 yards on the ground.

The added dose of Washington optimism comes from converting red-zone opportunities into touchdowns. Texas, which is far north of 100 among FBS schools in that metric, must be better.

The Washington offense is No. 19 in the country with a TD conversion rate of more than 70%.

COACHING
Sarkisian is an offensive whiz, but Washington’s Kalen DeBoer deserves the great deal of respect he’s earned. He was, after all, voted the 2023 Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year.

He pulled the trigger on a risky 4th-and-1 from his team’s 29-yard line in the Apple Cup against Washington State – when tied at 21 with 1:07 remaining in the fourth quarter.

The play call worked. Odunze’s designed run picked up 23 yards and led to a game-winning field goal. The unbeaten season was intact.

Sarkisian, who was Alabama’s offensive coordinator in 2019 and the CFP title season of 2020, keyed the Texas resurgence. His experience in employing a game plan with a full month to prepare allows Texas a narrow edge.

THE LINE SWING
Texas opened as a 3.5-point favorite and has been bet up a point. The total of 62.5 reflects the talent of two of the nation’s top 20 offenses, but these defenses can be a challenge.

The likely focus on establishing a running game to move the clock would adversely affect the chances of this game going over.

Washington is in a familiar spot facing a favored, nationally ranked power. But the Huskies, driven as big underdogs, did turn back the favored Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 title matchup.

This time, we believe the oddsmakers and public are on the right side of the point spread.

Just to be sure … we’re going to hedge the ‘Horns and play with the total, too.

THE BET
Ewers and Sarkisian prove too much for Penix Jr. and DeBoer, but even carrying a double-digit lead late in the Sugar Bowl isn’t enough to feel comfortable against the quick-strike Huskies comeback potential.

No one needs a nasty backdoor cover on New Year’s Day, so we’ll use Texas on the moneyline and parlay it with the idea that the clock will move too fast for these teams to hit an inflated over.

Two-leg parlay: Texas moneyline (-188) parlayed to the under 72.5 (-310) for a plus-money Sugar Bowl wager (+102, FanDuel).

–Field Level Media

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) looks to wide receiver Tyreek Hill (10) during the 2022 matchup with the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Week 17 NFL Capsules

SATURDAY
Detroit Lions (11-4) at Dallas Cowboys (10-5): Cowboys TE Jason Witten’s former backup in Dallas has turned out to be a fine football coach. Dan Campbell and the Lions clinched the NFC North last week by beating the Vikings and draw Minnesota again next week hoping to be in position to capture the lone NFC playoff bye. The Cowboys are alive for the NFC East title and already clinched a playoff spot. But Dallas isn’t feeling great of late with back-to-back losses on the road to the Bills and Dolphins. The Cowboys return home Saturday night where they are 7-0 this season and have scored at least 30 points in all seven. Stops could be hard to come by. Both teams are in the top six in the NFL in total offense and passing.

SUNDAY
Miami Dolphins (11-4) at Baltimore Ravens (12-3): Baltimore would claim the conference’s top seed with a victory in a clash of a Miami offense that leads the NFL in scoring at 30.9 points per game and total offense at 411.5 yards per game against a Ravens defense that allows a league-low 16.3 points per outing. Baltimore’s arrow is pointing up after a Christmas night win over a team many view as the team to beat the NFC, the 49ers. Miami coach Mike McDaniel is a former San Francisco assistant in his second season of running a similar system with the Dolphins. The rout of the 49ers was the Ravens’ seventh victory by 14 or more points this season. Miami beat the Ravens in the past two meetings. Lamar Jackson is back in MVP form. The 2019 MVP has passed for 3,357 yards, 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions while also rushing for 786 yards and five scores this season.

New England Patriots (4-11) at Buffalo Bills (9-6): Speculation about the future of Bill Belichick is rampang as these AFC East rivals square off in New York. Bills head coach Sean McDermott tries to avoid that narrative by steering Buffalo back to the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season. It’s not yet a cinch. Winners in four of their past five games, the Bills are still very much in the thick of the playoff race but can secure a postseason berth as early as Sunday. The Bills have 14 clinching scenarios, all requiring a win or tie. Buffalo would then need help from at least two other teams in each scenario. But one of New England’s four wins this season was Oct. 22 against the Bills. The Patriots have won two of their past three games following a five-game losing streak.

Atlanta Falcons (7-8) at Chicago Bears (6-9): Falcons owner Arthur Blank offered no guarantees on the job status of coach Arthur Smith this month, stating he wants to see how it plays out, referring to the final games of the regular season. Atlanta needs two wins and a lot of help to sneak into the playoffs and stands No. 9 in playoff seeding — with the top seven teams getting in — entering Week 17. Playoff probability measures the Falcons’ chances to reach the postseason at 10 percent. Smith said you’d have to live in “Perth, Australia” not to be aware of all the postseason chatter. A win over the Colts last week kept the postseason conversation alive. The Bears have won three of the past four games and had the fourth in their grasp at Cleveland, a sign Chicago could be rounding into form at this late juncture. Will it be enough for head coach Matt Eberflus and QB Justin Fields to stay in 2024? Both say they’re focused on beating the Falcons and nothing else.

Tennessee Titans (5-10) at Houston Texans (8-7): Rookie quarterbacks returning to health is the top storyline in the AFC South showdown with Houston holding onto hope for a playoff bid in C.J. Stroud’s debut season. The Texans are in a three-way tie with Jacksonville and Indianapolis in the division but are currently eighth in conference seeding, on the outside looking in at the postseason picture. However, should Houston defeat the Titans and Colts over its final two games, it will secure its first playoff berth since the 2019 campaign. The Titans have been eliminated from postseason contention, but they are anxious to get additional looks at Will Levis, who is 3-5 as a starter and was lost to an ankle injury in a 19-16 overtime loss to the Texans two weeks ago. Levis, who did not play last week in a setback against the Seahawks, has passed for 1,792 yards and eight touchdowns against four interceptions in his eight starts.

Las Vegas Raiders (7-8) at Indianapolis Colts (8-7): Interim head coach Antonio Pierce is assembling an impressive resume tape for the full-time position with the Raiders as they head to Indianapolis with a plan to slow down RB Jonathan Taylor. Taylor has three consecutive 100-plus-yard outings against the Raiders and neither team can afford another loss in a tightly packed field of teams chasing the final playoff spots in the AFC. The Raiders are 4-3 under Pierce and upset the Chiefs on Christmas Day. Colts QB Gardner Minshew is on high alert after Las Vegas scored a pair of defensive touchdowns in each of the past two weeks. The Colts entered the week in the final wild-card spot in the AFC despite tumbling 29-10 last week in Atlanta. WR Michael Pittman (concussion, shoulder) is expected back from a one-game absence.

Carolina Panthers (2-13) at Jacksonville Jaguars (8-7): It wasn’t all that long ago that the Jaguars were coming off of a 3-14 season in 2021 and looking for a new head coach. Enter Doug Pederson, with Jacksonville going 9-8 in 2022 to crash the playoffs last January. Jacksonville can inch closer to a repeat appearance, but QB questions have dominated December due to a string of injuries to starter Trevor Lawrence. The Jaguars try to snap a four-game losing streak Sunday and might be breaking in C.J. Beathard in place of Lawrence, who has overcome knee and head injuries to return ahead of schedule and is now fighting a shoulder issue. A Carolina loss would guarantee the Panthers the NFL’s worst record and temporarily the rights to the No. 1 pick in the 2024 draft. But that prized selection is headed to Chicago to complete the trade that brought the franchise rookie quarterback Bryce Young in April. Carolina is in full rebuilding mode and with no head coach in place to oversee the U-turn. Carolina knocked off Atlanta two weeks ago and nearly pulled an upset of Green Bay last week before losing 33-30 on a last-minute field goal.

Los Angeles Rams (8-7) at New York Giants (5-10): Don’t look now but few teams can boast a better second half than the Rams, who nearly upset the Baltimore Ravens and have otherwise won five of the past six to shove their way into the playoff picture. That’s not the case for the Giants, who are undergoing another QB change with Tyrod Taylor set to take the starting role from rookie Tommy DeVito. The Rams climbed out of a 3-6 hole and could clinch a playoff spot in Week 17 with a win and a Seattle loss to Pittsburgh. A more indirect route is a Rams win and a tie in the game between the Vikings and Packers. Those scenarios looked unthinkable when the Rams fell 20-3 to the Green Bay Packers in Week 9 when QB Matthew Stafford was out with a thumb injury. A well-placed bye week came next, followed by Stafford’s high-level play starting in a Week 11 victory over the Seahawks. Over the past six games, he has completed 65.1 percent of his passes for 1,578 yards, 15 touchdowns and two interceptions.

Arizona Cardinals (3-12) at Philadelphia Eagles (11-4): The health of Kyler Murray could be a factor after he missed consecutive practices midweek with an illness, but the Cardinals are optimistic he’ll take the field at Philly. It’s a reunion for the team’s head coaches. At this time last season, Jonathan Gannon was the defensive coordinator for a Philadelphia team that was stumbling ahead of a run to the Super Bowl. Gannon returns as Arizona’s head coach to face a team whose current Super Bowl dreams have diminished this month. The Eagles returned to the win column with an up-and-down, 33-25 victory over the Giants on Monday, but didn’t exactly return to Super Bowl form — two turnovers, nine penalties and a shaky finish after grabbing a 20-3 halftime lead. The Eagles did snap a three-game losing streak and moved a game ahead of the Cowboys in the NFC East. They still have a shot at the No. 1 seed in the NFC and a first-round playoff bye with two more wins and some help.

New Orleans Saints (7-8) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-7): Is there a true contender in the NFC South? The Bucs believe it’s them. Tampa Bay has gotten hot at the right time and has won four games in a row, and it can lock down the top spot in the NFC South with a win. Tampa Bay won its first two games but slid to 4-7 after losing seven of nine before the current winning streak began. The Buccaneers have averaged 28.5 points per game during the winning streak after scoring at least 28 points just once in their first 11 contests. They gained a season-high 452 yards in a Dec. 17 victory at Green Bay and had their fifth-highest total (335 yards) last week against Jacksonville. Tampa Bay holds the tiebreaker against New Orleans and Atlanta, who are tied for second in the division at 7-8. The Buccaneers handed the Saints their most lopsided loss of the season — 26-9 — back in Week 4 in New Orleans.

San Francisco 49ers (11-4) at Washington Commanders (4-11): It might take the entire offseason for the Commanders to figure out what’s next in Washington, which limps into Sunday’s home game with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback amid a six-game losing streak. The playoff-bound 49ers have two games to figure out their direction, including their regular-season finale against the Rams. Wins in both matchups will give San Francisco the top seed in the NFC and a bye into the divisional round of the playoffs. The Niners can also clinch the top seed with a win Sunday, along with a Cowboys win over the Lions on Saturday and a Cardinals win over the Eagles on Sunday. But the 49ers are coming off the kind of jolting, humbling loss at home (33-19 to the Ravens on Monday night), that can leave even a confident team questioning its fitness for the postseason. Brissett has been sharp in relief the last two weeks, completing 18 of 23 passes for 224 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7) at Seattle Seahawks (8-7): The Seahawks are clinging to the final NFC playoff spot as they host a Steelers squad that cannot afford a loss as one of five 8-7 AFC teams fighting to get in. Mason Rudolph will start under center for Pittsburgh after throwing for 290 yards and two scores against Cincinnati last week, his first win as a starter since 2019. Kenny Pickett (ankle) has been out since Dec. 3 but was back on the practice field this week for the Steelers, who follow the trip to the Pacific Northwest with a Week 18 showdown against top-seeded Baltimore. Seattle is coming off consecutive 20-17 wins against the Eagles and Titans, which followed a four-game losing streak. Geno Smith returned after missing two games with a groin injury to throw for 227 yards and two TDs against Tennessee, including the game-winner to Colby Parkinson with 57 seconds remaining.

Los Angeles Chargers (5-10) at Denver Broncos (7-8): No team still alive in the AFC playoff picture has odds as dim as Denver’s entering Week 17. Sean Payton turned to Jarrett Stidham and away from Russell Wilson in a must-win scenario against the Chargers. “We’re desperately trying to win,” Payton said on Wednesday. There’s a lot more to it, most of it tied to guaranteed money on Wilson’s contract, based on multiple insider reports. Wilson hasn’t played poorly this season, but the Broncos have lost three of four after a five-game winning streak shoved Denver into the playoff picture. They enter the week No. 12 in the AFC playoff field that will ultimately include just seven teams. The Chargers already have been eliminated and are in the market for a new braintrust for 2024. Stidham started the final two games for the Raiders last season, replacing Derek Carr, who was released and went on to sign with the Saints in the offseason. In his first start as Carr’s replacement late last season, Stidham had 365 passing yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions in a narrow defeat to the 49ers.

Cincinnati Bengals (8-7) at Kansas City Chiefs (9-6): With losses in three of their last four games, the Chiefs aim to regain their composure. Kansas City can clinch a playoff berth and its eighth straight AFC West title with either a win or tie Sunday. The Chiefs also can punch both tickets with a Las Vegas loss or tie against Indianapolis and a Denver loss or tie against the Chargers. Kansas City didn’t do itself any favors with Monday’s 20-14 setback to the Raiders. Patrick Mahomes threw for 235 yards and a touchdown. However, his interception was returned 33 yards for a touchdown by Jack Jones to stake Las Vegas to a 17-7 lead in the second quarter. Frustration was evident as star tight end Travis Kelce threw his helmet on the sideline. Mahomes insists the emotion shows commitment, not controversy. Mahomes has matched his five touchdowns with five interceptions in his last four games. The status of WR Ja’Marr Chase looms large for Cincinnati. Chase sat out last week’s 34-11 setback to the Steelers. That snapped a three-game winning streak for the Bengals, who reside in 10th place in the AFC as one of five 8-7 teams in the conference.

Green Bay Packers (7-8) at Minnesota Vikings (7-8): Longtime division rivals look to remain in the playoff chase Sunday night in a wildcard elimination game of sorts. The Vikings would boost their playoff chances to 49 percent with a win this weekend, according to playoff probability metrics. A loss? The playoff chances for the Vikings plummet to 4 percent. They’ll enter with another QB change (rookie Jaren Hall will start) as the Packers try to resolve a wobbly defense on the fly. Green Bay’s playoff chances are 55 percent with a win — but only 1 percent with a loss. Packers quarterback Jordan Love said players are embracing the stakes of the primetime clash. “We all know what’s in front of us, and we know what we’re capable of,” Love said. “We’re just going to go finish this thing off.” The Packers are coming off a 33-30 road win against the Carolina Panthers in Week 16 courtesy of a last-second field goal. Love threw for two touchdowns and ran for another one in the victory, and Aaron Jones rushed for 127 yards.

–Field Level Media

Tennessee Titans quarterback Will Levis (8) dives just short of a first down with Houston Texans defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (98) tripping him up during their game at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn., Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023.

Texans, Titans hope to see rookie quarterbacks back in action

Although the team motivations are completely different, both the host Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans are hopeful that their respective rookie quarterbacks will return from injury on Sunday.

Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud was a limited participant in practice on Wednesday, a step in a positive direction after he missed the previous two games with a concussion suffered in Week 14 against the New York Jets. Stroud led the league in passing with 3,631 yards before being sidelined, and his 98.7 passer rating was fifth in the NFL while his 279.3 passing yards per game ranked third.

Texans coach DeMeco Ryans said Stroud is in the fourth phase of the league’s concussion protocol and needs to clear one more hurdle before he can return to the field as the Texans prepare to host the Titans.

“It’s encouraging to have C.J. back out at practice,” Ryans said. “It was encouraging to see him. I think it just lifts everybody’s spirits to see him back doing well and still progressing in the right direction. So, happy about that.”

The Texans (8-7) are in a three-way tie with Jacksonville and Indianapolis atop the AFC South yet are currently eighth in conference seeding, on the outside looking in at the postseason picture. However, should Houston defeat the Titans and Colts over its final two games, it will secure its first playoff berth since the 2019 campaign.

The Titans have been eliminated from postseason contention, but they are anxious to get additional looks at Will Levis, who is 3-5 as a starter and was lost to an ankle injury in a 19-16 overtime loss to the Texans two weeks ago. Levis, who did not play last week in a setback against the Seattle Seahawks, has passed for 1,792 yards and eight touchdowns against four interceptions in his eight starts.

“We’ll see how this week goes, and I’m taking it day-by-day. I’m continuing to just prepare as if I was playing,” said Levis, who was a full participant in practice on Wednesday. “Keeping the same mindset regardless of the situation. … I’m continuing to work with the (trainers) to get me ready as soon as possible.”

Levis expressed an understandable level of anxiousness to get back on the field. While his rookie season is capped at two more starts at best, the momentum he generated as a starter offered a measure of promise for a franchise seeking a new direction this coming offseason.

“I just want to play ball,” Levis said. “I just want to go out there and win games and leave this season with a good taste in our mouth. We’ve had some tough losses. … There’s an opportunity to put a new version of us on tape against that same (Texans) defense, (and that’s) going to be exciting.”

Everyone practiced for the Titans on Wednesday, although 12 players were limited, including cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting (hip) and Caleb Farley (back).

Defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins (ankle) and Maliek Collins (hip) and guard Shaq Mason (calf) were among those who didn’t practice for Houston on Wednesday.

–Field Level Media

Dec 25, 2023; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (87) dives for the sideline against Las Vegas Raiders cornerback Nate Hobbs (39) during the first half at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Emotional Chiefs still have goals within reach as Bengals up next

The Kansas City Chiefs recently have shown signs of losing their cool while falling short on the scoreboard.

With losses in three of their last four games, the Chiefs (9-6) aim to regain their composure on Sunday afternoon when they host the Cincinnati Bengals (8-7).

For all of its recent troubles, however, Kansas City can clinch a playoff berth and its eighth straight AFC West title with either a win or tie Sunday. The Chiefs also can punch both tickets with a Las Vegas Raiders’ loss or tie against the Indianapolis Colts and a Denver Broncos loss or tie against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday.

Kansas City didn’t do itself any favors with Monday’s 20-14 setback to the Raiders. Patrick Mahomes threw for 235 yards and a touchdown. However, his interception was returned 33 yards for a touchdown by Jack Jones to stake Las Vegas to a 17-7 lead in the second quarter.

Frustration was evident as star tight end Travis Kelce threw his helmet on the sideline. Mahomes, however, told reporters Wednesday that visible displays like that also show a level of commitment and desire.

“People see frustration and they think it causes controversy,” Mahomes said. “I see it as a way of showing that people care. They care about their profession, they care about trying to do whatever they can to win games.

“When I see stuff like that happen, obviously, we want to be in a positive light and everything like that, but I see someone that cares about the game and someone that wants to be better and not better for themselves but for the team.”

Chiefs coach Andy Reid didn’t appreciate Kelce’s outburst on Sunday, going so far as to prevent him from re-entering the game.

“The game of football is an emotional game, so that’s expected,” Reid said Wednesday. “You see those things happen. We’ve just got to make sure we generate it in the right direction and we go that way and fix the problems.”

Mahomes has thrown for five touchdowns and five interceptions in his last four games after tossing 21 and nine, respectively, over his previous 11. The two-time NFL MVP completed 29 of 43 passes for 326 yards and two touchdowns — including one to Kelce — in Kansas City’s 23-20 win over Cincinnati in last season’s AFC Championship Game on Jan. 29.

Chiefs running back Isiah Pacheco (concussion, shoulder) joined wideout Kadarius Toney (hip), tackle Donovan Smith (neck) and cornerbacks L’Jarius Sneed (calf) and Jaylen Watson (illness) in failing to participate in practice on Wednesday.

Cincinnati star wideout Ja’Marr Chase (shoulder) officially did not practice on Wednesday. However, he was spotted working on the side with trainers while the remainder of the team went through drills.

“Just see how the week progresses with him,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said of Chase, who leads the team in catches (93), receiving yards (1,156) and receiving touchdowns (seven).

Chase sat out last Saturday’s 34-11 setback to the Pittsburgh Steelers. That decision snapped a three-game winning streak for the Bengals, who reside in 10th place in the AFC as one of five teams in the conference with an 8-7 record.

Tee Higgins reeled in his third touchdown pass in his last two games while rolling up a season-high 140 receiving yards last Saturday. He also found the end zone in last season’s AFC Championship Game.

Cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt returned to practice Wednesday after a stint on injured reserve due to an ailing ankle.

“You know the offense, you know the quarterback (Mahomes is one of the) best in the league and wants to take shots downfield,” Taylor-Britt said, per the Cincinnati Enquirer. “That is one thing we can’t do, we got to just prevent that. I plan to come in and just lead you know, like I said not do too much just add my juice, you know, bringing the defensive energy, you know, let us all come together in one and play on defense.”

The Chiefs boast the NFL’s fourth-ranked passing offense (253.5) and ninth-ranked total offense (355.4 yards per game). The Bengals, in turn, yield the league’s second-most total yards per game (383.4) and fifth-most passing yards (256.1)

–Field Level Media

Dec 24, 2023; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Seattle Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith (7) celebrates as he leaves the field after a win against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Steelers, Seahawks clash as both pursue playoff spots

For the third week in a row, the Seattle Seahawks don’t know which opposing quarterback they will face.

That hasn’t hampered the Seahawks thus far, as they posted back-to-back 20-17 victories to regain control of their own playoff fate.

When the Seahawks (8-7) host the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7) on Sunday, they might face starter Kenny Pickett or longtime backup Mason Rudolph.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Rudolph will “have the ball” to begin the week and will start if Pickett’s surgically repaired right ankle isn’t sufficiently healed.

Rudolph threw for 290 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-11 victory against visiting Cincinnati last weekend that snapped a three-game losing streak and kept the Steelers’ playoff hopes alive.

It was Rudolph’s first victory as a starter since 2019.

“I love to play,” Rudolph said. “But that’s out of my hands. I’ll find out the marching orders as we go.”

Said Tomlin: “I thought he did a really good job of being comfortable being himself, communicating with people regardless of the moments. I thought that showed the confidence that he has in himself, and I also thought that he remained aggressive throughout.”

Pickett hasn’t played since Dec. 3 against Arizona. He was limited in practice Wednesday along with safety Trenton Thompson (neck). The Steelers will be without linebacker Elandon Roberts (pectoral muscle), while safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (knee), running back Najee Harris (knee) and offensive guard Isaac Seumalo (shoulder) also missed practice.

The Steelers will need victories at Seattle and Baltimore (12-3), along with help from other teams, to make the AFC playoffs.

For the Seahawks, backup Drew Lock rallied the team past visiting Philadelphia and ailing Eagles starter Jalen Hurts on Dec. 18 to snap a four-game skid. Seattle traveled to Tennessee last Sunday as starter Geno Smith (groin) returned from a two-game absence to beat the Titans and their backup Ryan Tannehill.

Both Seattle victories came on last-minute touchdowns.

“I’m thinking just like last week,” Smith said of his mindset on the Seahawks’ final drive against the Titans. “Drew did a great job last week, and we had a chance to match it this week. As I’m going out there, I’m not thinking about anything else besides the situation.”

The victory, combined with Minnesota’s loss, moved the Seahawks into the final NFC wild-card spot.

“We’ll find out what happens if we’re fortunate enough to make the playoffs, how we play against whomever we play and we’ll see what the heck happens,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said on his weekly radio show.

The Seahawks might be without linebacker Jordyn Brooks (ankle), who aggravated an injury he first suffered in Week 14. He was one of 10 players to miss practice Wednesday, a list that also includes running back Kenneth Walker III (shoulder, illness), wide receiver Dee Eskridge (ribs), offensive tackle Jason Peters (foot), tight end Noah Fant (knee), defensive ends Mario Edwards (knee) and Dre’Mont Jones (shoulder) and linebacker Nick Bellore (knee).

Safety Jamal Adams (knee) and cornerback Devon Witherspoon (hip) both returned to practice on a limited basis after missing multiple weeks and could be ready to go. Also limited were wide receivers Jaxon Smith-Njigba (knee) and Jake Bobo (knee) and offensive guards Anthony Bradford (elbow) and Damien Lewis (neck).

–Field Level Media