After a miraculous comeback from a career-threatening injury, veteran quarterback Alex Smith helped revive the Washington Football Team’s season. Now the team’s playoff hopes could hinge on his ability to make a second comeback this week.
Smith’s inspirational story deserves the stage for game No. 256 — the NFL regular-season finale Sunday night — but can he return from a calf injury when Washington visits Philadelphia facing an all-or-nothing scenario for the NFC East title? If this were a movie, you would want to bet on him.
A division that has resembled a horror flick is at least coming down to a dramatic finish. Washington (6-9) would be in the playoffs with a win, and only the Eagles (4-10-1) are eliminated, but they can play the spoiler role. The Cowboys (6-9) square dance with the Giants (5-10) in an early Sunday kickoff, with the winner taking the division if Washington loses.
“It’s unreal,” DraftKings sportsbook director John Avello said. “We talked about this a long time ago that seven wins would probably win the NFC East, and six might still win it.”
The NFL expanded the playoffs to 14 teams this season, and seven of the spots are up for grabs heading into a wild Week 17. This is what the league wants — instead of several meaningless games, a majority of the matchups in the final week feature high stakes.
“I would say 75% of the games have relevance,” said Vinny Magliulo, a Las Vegas bookmaker and VSiN oddsmaker. “The good thing is the NFL recognized a few years ago it had to change the schedule in Week 17. I remember the days when once the early games kicked off, every game in the afternoon was off the (betting) board. The teams in contention are playing at the same time now, and it impacts the bettors and the bookmakers. If the games are not meaningful, it’s a crapshoot.”
There are seven games in the early time slot Sunday and only two (Jets-Patriots and Vikings-Lions) are meaningless in the playoff races. Of the eight afternoon games, only two (Chargers-Chiefs and Raiders-Broncos) are irrelevant to the postseason. The game involving Las Vegas (7-8) has meaning for those who bet the Raiders’ season win total of 7.5.
The Cowboys-Giants game might not ultimately determine the division winner, but suspense will hang in the air until the Washington result caps the night. Dallas has won three in a row while totaling 108 points, and the Giants have lost three in a row while scoring a total of 26 points.
Andy Dalton passed for 377 yards and three touchdowns Sunday as Dallas dominated the Eagles 37-17. Dalton was considered the top backup quarterback in the league when the season started, and the Cowboys’ investment has paid off. In Week 5, after Dak Prescott went down with a broken ankle, Dalton relieved and rescued the Cowboys in a 37-34 comeback victory over the Giants.
As for this week’s rematch, the Cowboys-Giants line opened pick-’em at the Westgate SuperBook before early money pushed the line to Dallas -2.5 and -3.
“The Cowboys have been playing better,” Avello said, “so there’s no reason for the Giants to be favored.”
DraftKings opened Philadelphia -1.5 against Washington, which is desperate to get Smith back on the field. In Sunday’s loss to Carolina, Washington coach Ron Rivera benched Dwayne Haskins, who threw two interceptions, in favor of Taylor Heinicke. Rivera, who released Haskins on Monday, said he’s “optimistic” about Smith’s chances to start against Philadelphia. Rivera’s comment triggered a flip of favorites to Washington -1.5.
In August, Circa Sports posted Washington at 25-1 odds to win the NFC East. Smith entered the year No. 3 on the depth chart. In November 2018, he suffered a broken right leg and needed 17 surgeries to return to action. When Smith beat Cincinnati on Nov. 22 to earn his first win in more than two years, Washington was 3-7.
“I would likely take Washington at pick-’em or better if Alex Smith plays and assuming he’s healthy enough to function,” said Scott Kellen, a professional handicapper and VSiN analyst. “But if Smith doesn’t play, all bets are off.”
The Rams are another team in the playoff hunt facing quarterback questions. Jared Goff finished a loss at Seattle with a dislocated right thumb and will miss the win-and-you’re-in finale against the Cardinals. The Rams will start John Wolford, who has not attempted a pass in the NFL.
The Rams, who need to win or get a loss by Chicago against Green Bay to clinch a playoff spot, opened as 5-point home favorites against the Cardinals. After the Goff news, the line was adjusted to Rams -1.
The Bears’ season has been a roller coaster, from 5-1 to 5-7 to 8-7, but they can clinch an unlikely playoff berth by extending their winning streak to four and upsetting the Packers, who are 5.5-point favorites and have their own incentives to win in Chicago.
Green Bay is playing for the No. 1 seed in the NFC, and Aaron Rodgers has another opportunity to make his case for league MVP. Rodgers passed for four touchdowns in the snow Sunday in a 40-14 victory over the Titans, but the Packers still must fend off the Saints and Seahawks for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
It’s unfortunate the NFC playoff field could include the Bears and a six-win team, while an 11-win team could be excluded in the AFC. It’s a game of musical chairs in the AFC, where five teams — Baltimore, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Miami and Tennessee — sit at 10-5 and one will go home for the offseason.
The Titans, 7.5-point favorites at Houston, can clinch the AFC South by beating the Texans or getting help via an unlikely loss by the Colts, who are 14-point home favorites over Jacksonville. Indianapolis also could get in with a win and a loss by the Browns, Dolphins or Ravens. Miami is a small underdog at Buffalo, which is trying to hold on to the No. 2 seed, and Baltimore is a double-digit favorite against Cincinnati.
The Browns are 7.5-point home favorites over the Steelers, who clinched the AFC North, and the line is inflated because of Cleveland’s greater sense of urgency. With little to gain, aside from extending the Browns’ 18-year playoff drought, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin might opt to rest quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and other starters while settling for the No. 3 seed. In the expanded playoff field, only the top seed in each conference gets a bye for the first week of the postseason.
It would not be Week 17 without at least one oddball line, and here it is: Chargers -3.5 at Chiefs. With the AFC’s top seed locked up, Kansas City coach Andy Reid said Monday he will sit several starters, yet he did not specify if quarterback Patrick Mahomes will play at all. The Chiefs (14-1) are 0-6-1 ATS while winning their last seven games, and Rodgers has overtaken Mahomes as the MVP favorite.
“Mahomes keeps winning games,” Avello said, “but the Chiefs have been playing with fire for a while now.”
The Chiefs have appeared bored, and that’s not changing this week.
In the past, Week 17 often resembled the preseason with so many meaningless games. That’s changing for the better — and the bettors — this season.