On the eve of Week 17, what could be one of the NFL’s biggest stories of 2018 was breaking. Jack Del Rio appears to be on the way out as coach of the Oakland Raiders.
The headline news is his reported replacement — Jon Gruden. Of course, Gruden has been linked to countless job openings in the past five years, and all of those reports were smoke and no fire. This situation has a different smell. With the Raiders down and out of playoff contention, it’s obvious team owner Mark Davis is up to something.
Davis dismissed the “rumor” as expected. But the odds are turning in favor of Gruden ditching the ESPN broadcast booth and returning to coaching, and the odds are suddenly against Del Rio surviving.
The Raiders, among the Super Bowl favorites entering this season, have slipped to 6-9 going into Sunday’s finale against the Chargers in Los Angeles. Del Rio could be shown the door as soon as Monday.
The last Sunday of the regular season is always handicapping chaos with starters resting, playoff scenarios to consider and coaching changes imminent. This has a last-day-of-school feel to it, with all hell about to break loose.
Del Rio and three other coaches — Chicago’s John Fox, Detroit’s Jim Caldwell and Indianapolis’ Chuck Pagano — appear to be facing the firing squad. Arizona’s Bruce Arians is reportedly considering retirement, and Marvin Lewis is walking away after never winning a playoff game in Cincinnati. And there could be more coaching casualties.
In February, after guiding the Raiders to 12 wins and their first playoff appearance in 14 years, Del Rio signed a four-year contract extension. The pat on the back that came with it might be replaced by a kick in the ass. The danger in creating high expectations is falling way short. Del Rio has fired his offensive and defensive coordinators since the end of last season, and quarterback Derek Carr has regressed. Blame it on Del Rio.
Davis is unafraid to make bold moves. He plans to take the Raiders to Las Vegas in 2020, and maybe Gruden will be coming along for the ride.
It’s pure speculation how Del Rio’s job insecurity could impact the Raiders-Chargers game. The team in silver and black remains the most popular team in L.A., but the favored Chargers (8-7) need a win to bolt into the playoff picture.
All chaos considered, and after briefly considering a play on the winless Cleveland Browns, here are five guesses for Week 17 (home team in CAPS):
* Panthers (plus-4) over FALCONS: Carolina can win the NFC South, although that’s probably not going to happen. The Panthers are in the playoffs and Cam Newton is on a roll heading into a wide-open NFC postseason. Carolina is 3-1 in December with Newton passing for 722 yards and seven touchdowns. What he’s doing on the ground is at least as important because the Panthers are more dangerous when Newton is running. In the past four games, Newton has rushed for 52, 58, 70 and 51 yards. Carolina ranks No. 7 in the NFL in total defense, and linebacker Luke Kuechly is healthy as the quarterback on that side of the ball. The Panthers are winning the close calls — 4-0 in games decided by exactly 3 points — including a 20-17 victory over the Falcons on Nov. 5. Atlanta still shows few signs of being a serious contender. The phony Falcons (9-6, 6-9 against the spread) have averaged just 16.5 points in four December games while Matt Ryan continues to slump. Ryan has 19 touchdown passes, after throwing for 38 last year. This is a win-and-in situation for Atlanta, but Newton is in better recent form than Ryan and more signs point to the Panthers.
* COLTS (-5) over Texans: Jacksonville is king of the landfill known as the AFC South. Houston and Indianapolis have turned into trash without their star quarterbacks. The Texans, 1-8 straight up and 3-6 ATS in their past nine games, limp in without wideout DeAndre Hopkins, who was their lone remaining big-play threat. Pagano is no genius, but his players like him, and that should be enough for the fired-up Colts to send him out with a solid win.
* Cowboys (-3) over EAGLES: Despite getting outplayed by the Raiders for a majority of Monday’s game, Philadelphia clinched the NFC’s No. 1 seed. Eagles coach Doug Pederson plans to play quarterback Nick Foles for about one quarter before sending in backup Nate Sudfeld to mop up. The incentive for Dallas (8-7) is a winning season. The Cowboys will sit a few starters, including left tackle Tyron Smith, but most of their stars will play. Ezekiel Elliott needs 120 rushing yards to reach 1,000 for the season, if he cares about that, and there’s no excuse for Dallas not to win a game that is meaningless to Philadelphia.
* Cardinals (plus-9) over SEAHAWKS: The loss of running back David Johnson in Week 1 wrecked Arizona’s season, and more injuries followed. The Cardinals (7-8) still can finish .500 in what is likely Arians’ last game as coach. Seattle has scored more than 24 points only once in its past eight games. Pete Carroll’s defense is short-handed and his locker room is in disarray. This game means more to the Seahawks, who still can sneak into the playoffs, but asking a weak offensive team to win by double digits is asking a lot.
* Chiefs (plus-4½) over BRONCOS: Patrick Mahomes gets his first start as Kansas City’s quarterback of the future, but he will break the huddle without two big-play weapons (Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce) and against Denver’s top defense. Kareem Hunt is likely to play, because he needs 14 yards to become the NFL’s rushing leader, but he might not play for long. This is a strange situation to handicap, but it’s tough to lay points with the Broncos when Paxton Lynch is the quarterback opposing Mahomes.
Last week: 3-2 against the spread