It’s Week 17! The REAL season is about to begin.
I’m refraining from calling this a “prediction” piece this season. Predictions indicate one firmly believes something will happen and isn’t afraid to stand behind that judgment. In the NFL, nothing is certain except Roger Goodell’s poor judgment. That said, I’ll offer some form of prognostication, even if it’s lighthearted and not entirely backed up by evidence, but I really have no interest in how “correct” I’ll be.
As usual, these picks are for fun and should in no way be used for actual wagering purposes. That is, unless you want to make a ton of money in a legal forum, because we know more stuff and things about football than you do or something.
On to the games!
Cleveland Browns (6-9) @ Cincinnati Bengals (1-14)
Sunday, December 29, 1:00 pm, Fox
Enthusiasm is surely building in Cincinnati for the NFL offseason, if only to end the prolonged malaise of one of the worst single-season performances since…the Browns in 2017. Come the opening of training camps in 2020, the Bengals should look very different, as they’re expected to have new personnel at several key positions, particularly on offense. That will make little difference Sunday for QB Andy Dalton in his likely last start in the Queen City, where he leaves with several local passing records, but, like his predecessors, no title (Dalton’s been a good, loyal soldier during his tenure, which is probably more than owner Mike Brown ever deserved). Expect to see a lot of RB Joe Mixon in his season closer; Mixon’s been the Bengals’ best player this season, so he deserves the chance to finish it on a strong note.
The Browns, who will likely win this game with little effort, will most likely finish at 7-9, matching their 2018 record. While that season ended awash in optimism, this one ends in disappointment at the franchise’s lack of progress and direction, and with genuine questions about the wisdom of entrusting a talented roster to a first-year, public relations-challenged head coach whose combative attitude has directly conflicted with his on-field scheming and results. Whether Freddie Kitchens survives to coach another season in Cleveland has been debated since midseason, with observers correctly noting a lack of front office continuity as a major contributor to the Browns’ struggles, yet acknowledging his obvious coaching flaws and situational shortcomings. Regardless, he’ll look rather smart Sunday against the Bengals, who will offer little resistance to NFL-leading rusher Nick Chubb and the WR duo of Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.
Browns 28, Bengals 13
Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7) @ Baltimore Ravens (13-2)
Sunday, December 29, 4:25 pm, CBS
Drama be hanged. Given their NFL-best record, recent injuries and having locked down a first-round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Ravens have prudently decided to bench several meaningful veterans for this game, placing numerous – and attainable – offensive records out of reach and setting the stage for what will most likely be a lesser installment of this once-heralded rivalry. Ravens backup QB Robert Griffin III will start ahead of rookie Trace McSorley; look for a lot of high-percentage passing plays and grinding runs. Ravens RB Gus Edwards should see most of the carries, aided by scatback Justice Hill on third downs. Contrary to what the Ravens have displayed this season, this will be a plodding game plan reminiscent of the Joe Flacco era.
The Steelers still have plenty to play for but may not have the personnel available to do much, even against a “resting” Ravens team. Starting C Maurkice Pouncey has been ruled out of this game. QB Mason Rudolph has been placed on the Injured Reserve list for the season, leaving the Steelers with turnover-prone backup QB Devlin “Duck” Hodges, whose recent trend of throwing many interceptions must be curtailed if the Steelers foster hopes of winning this game. Starting RB James Conner has struggled physically all season; he hasn’t been benched (yet), but his effectiveness remains in doubt, and backup Jaylen Samuels will most likely handle the bulk of the carries for Pittsburgh. As has become routine, the Steelers will try to establish field position with their special trams and defense, and will hope for a semblance of offense to do just enough to win.
Steelers 17, Ravens 24
Eat, drink, watch. Enjoy!