Maybe more coaches should take John Harbaugh’s approach to the NFL preseason.
In August, when Matt Nagy and the Bears were clowning around, Harbaugh was getting serious with the Ravens. At the end of December, Chicago is under .500 and erased from the playoff picture while Baltimore boasts the league’s best record at 13-2.
Some hate it and others love it, but everyone agrees Week 17 is a unique handicapping challenge. There are games that mean nothing to both teams, one game (49ers-Seahawks) that means everything to both teams, and other games that mean something to one team but nothing to the other. Follow that?Handicapping the final week of the regular season is sometimes a flashback to the preseason, when backup quarterbacks and motivational factors matter more than analytics and stylistic matchups.
The Pittsburgh-Baltimore game on Sunday has a preseason feel to it. The Steelers are clearly motivated to reach the playoffs and the Ravens have few reasons to play with a purpose, yet Harbaugh will be coaching to win because that’s the only way he knows how to coach.
Harbaugh made the expected move Monday by announcing quarterback Lamar Jackson and several other Baltimore starters will sit. The AFC’s top seed is secured and Jackson will be MVP, so Harbaugh’s decision was easy. The favorite flipped from Ravens -1 to Steelers -2 after the news. Pittsburgh needs the win and help to make the playoffs.
Still, the Steelers have been anemic on offense, scoring 10 points in each of the past two games with Devlin “Duck” Hodges as the starting quarterback. Mason Rudolph, who was responsible for Pittsburgh’s only touchdown pass in a Week 16 loss to the Jets, is out with a shoulder injury. Hodges’ backup is Paxton Lynch. The Steelers are without running back James Conner because of a quad injury.
Robert Griffin III will start for the Ravens and is better than any quarterback Pittsburgh will put on the field, so the line move is probably an overreaction.
The preseason angle is a positive for interested Baltimore bettors because Harbaugh has a 17-game win streak in the preseason. Around 80 players are available for most preseason games and only 46 are active for regular-season games, so it’s not as if the Ravens will be playing garbage backups who will fall down and surrender. It’s still a rivalry game and Harbaugh said he’s coaching to win, as he always does.
I’ll play the Ravens as home ‘dogs, and here are four more guesses for Week 17:
* BENGALS (plus-3) over Browns:
It seems preposterous, but Cleveland could bring back Freddie Kitchens, who’s obviously in way over his head as a head coach. The Browns are a traveling circus. While the diva wide receivers throw sideline tantrums, quarterback Baker Mayfield appears mature by comparison. This humbling season should be beneficial for Mayfield, who has 19 touchdown passes with 18 interceptions. Odell Beckham Jr. has just three TD receptions. It’s reasonable to wonder if the Browns’ stars have mentally checked out. Andy Dalton and the Bengals do care about this game, which could be Dalton’s finale in Cincinnati. The Bengals clinched the No. 1 draft pick with a loss at Miami last week, when Dalton completed 33 of 56 passes for 396 yards and four touchdowns without an interception. Tyler Boyd had nine receptions for 128 yards and two scores. The Browns are 1-3 SU/ATS in December, narrowly covering as 7-point favorites in a 27-19 victory over the Bengals on Dec. 8. Motivation is a major factor, and this should mean more to the home ‘dog.
* Redskins (plus-12.5) over COWBOYS:
After blowing an opportunity to clinch the NFC East in Philadelphia, the Cowboys could experience an emotional hangover this week. It’s hard to imagine Jason Garrett’s team will show up breathing fire. Last week was the time for that, but Dallas’ overrated offense produced just three field goals and so-called No. 1 wideout Amari Cooper was on the sideline for the game’s most important fourth-down pass play. The Cowboys need the game and still have a shot to win the division if the Eagles lose in New York, but the Cowboys were in a must-win spot last week, too. The Redskins can play loose with nothing to lose. Interim coach Bill Callahan has made Washington more competitive down the stretch. The Redskins are 2-3 SU in their past five games and were within one score in the final minute of all three losses. This might not be a play with rookie Dwayne Haskins at quarterback, but he’s out and veteran Case Keenum gives the double-digit underdog a better chance to cover. With Washington’s defense a mess, I will also play this over the total of 45.5.
* GIANTS (plus-4) over Eagles:
The fickle Carson Wentz critics have been quieted during the Eagles’ three-game win streak. Wentz completed at least 30 passes in each of the three games and totaled six touchdowns with no interceptions despite working with a depleted receiver group that is now missing tight end Zach Ertz. Philadelphia barely survived against the Giants, Redskins and Cowboys. When these teams met three weeks ago, Eli Manning threatened to pull off the upset before fading in the fourth quarter. The Giants will look different in the rematch with Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley aiming to finish strong. Jones passed for 352 yards and five touchdowns and Barkley carried 22 times for 189 yards in a Week 16 win at Washington. While the Eagles are banged up, the Giants are getting healthy and in good form. It will be no surprise if Philadelphia is in another life-or-death situation to win the game and the division in the final minutes, so can Wentz close the deal?
* Raiders (plus-3.5) over BRONCOS:
Jon Gruden’s roller-coaster ride is ending with the Raiders (7-8) playing a meaningful game in Week 17. After a four-game losing streak, Oakland completed a season sweep of Philip Rivers and the Chargers to rise from the dead. According to ESPN’s FPI, the Raiders’ playoff chances were 0.4% going into Sunday of Week 16 and have improved to 12.0%. Oakland needs to win at Denver and get help — wins by the Colts, Ravens and Texans — to steal the AFC’s sixth seed. Derek Carr completed 26 of 30 passes against the Chargers. Carr ranks second in the league in completion percentage (71.1) and has 20 touchdowns with eight interceptions. A win in the finale would strengthen his case to be Gruden’s quarterback in 2020 in Las Vegas. The Broncos are evaluating Drew Lock as a potential franchise QB, and there’s no chance that first-year coach Vic Fangio will mail it in this week. But all things considered, the point-spread value appears to be with the underdog getting more than a field goal.
Last week: 4-1 against the spread