NFL WEEK 17: It feels a bit unnatural to call Week 17 the penultimate week of the season after so many years of it being the finale, and the decision to add an extra regular season game was not well received in all quarters, most notably among sportswriters who secretly despise the sports they cover and among the segment of the NFL fan base who these folks have brainwashed into thinking that more of the sport they love is somehow a bad thing because it diminishes the quality of the product… or something.

I’m not quite sure why 17 is the magic number all of the sudden, the point at which watchability and player safety supposedly diminish and “oversaturation” allegedly kicks in, but I do know that in my 40 years on this planet I’ve yet to hear a single NFL fan complain about the season being too long. Count me in the “more football is good” camp– the last couple weeks of the season are always uneven and unpredictable due to wildly disparate situations in terms of motivation, injuries, player development, playoff seeding and the like, but it’s still football and we still get some fun games. And if you’re someone who tries to turn your knowledge and predictive ability into supplementary income, what’s not to like about another week of opportunity?

This week’s slate features a few yawners like Bears vs. Giants and some laughable mismatches like Patriots vs. Jaguars and Bucs vs. Jets, but there’s some gold in there too, like Kansas City’s visit to Cincinnati for a game with major playoff implications, Lamar Jackson’s return in a must-win spot for the Ravens against the visiting Rams, and the Monday nighter in Pittsburgh, where Ben Roethlisberger may be making his final start at Heinz Field in a high-stakes playoff elimination game against the hated Browns. And though unexpected COVID-related absences are still an annoyance, there finally appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel on that front after the NFL revised its rules for COVID-positive players this week, cutting the mandatory quarantine time in half and allowing players who test positive to return without testing again so long as they are asymptomatic. Let’s hope these changes ensure that we don’t have playoff games or a Super Bowl featuring replacement players.

Here are my thoughts on this Week 17 slate… ended up with four favorites for the first time all season:

Las Vegas Raiders @ Indianapolis Colts (IND -7, 44.5)

Recommendation: Indianapolis -7 at 1.91

Kansas City appears to have climbed to the top of the scrap heap in the jumbled AFC, but don’t sleep on Indianapolis– the Colts have now won 6 of 7 games and have been doing it in impressive fashion, both in terms of margin of victory (15.6 ppg) and quality of competition, as the last two wins have come against Super Bowl hopefuls New England and Arizona. Opposing defenses have simply been unable to stop Jonathan Taylor, who leads the NFL in rushing and is averaging an astounding 5.5 yards per carry despite the whole stadium knowing he’s getting the ball 25 times. This has moved QB Carson Wentz into the type of support role he is well-suited for, and Wentz has some underrated perimeter weapons at his disposal, most notably second-year wideout Michael Pittman Jr. The bruising Indy offense should be able to wear down a Raiders defensive front that has struggled against run-heavy teams, and Vegas QB Derek Carr will have a difficult time moving the ball on a Colts defense that has surrendered just 10.3 ppg over the team’s last six victories. The Colts have it rolling right now, and there’s still room aboard the bandwagon– I suggest hopping on this week.

Miami Dolphins @ Tennessee Titans (TEN -3.5, 39.5)

Recommendation: Tennessee -3.5 at 1.98

The Dolphins have had an extraordinary season– after a Week 1 victory they lost 7 straight games, a streak that included several blowouts and a loss to the lowly Jaguars. At that point, there were whispers about a Deshaun Watson trade and Tua Tagovailoa’s future as an NFL starter appeared to be in serious jeopardy. Since then, the Fins have reeled off 7 straight wins, becoming the only team in NFL history to have both a winning streak and a losing streak of at least 7 games in the same season, and they’re currently on track for a Wild Card playoff berth. They’ve done it mostly with an attacking, opportunistic defense and a conservative, dink-and-dunk offense that is designed to limit risk and get the ball out of Tua’s hands quickly. Coach Brian Flores deserves all the credit he’s getting for engineering the turnaround, but I’m telling you right now: this Miami team is fraudulent. They are not a good team. The recent run has primarily been a function of scheduling– they’ve had just about the easiest run of games an NFL team could hope to have. Of the recent seven wins, six have come against the Texans, Giants, Panthers, Jets (twice), and a Saints team that had 20 players on the COVID list and brought in a rookie quarterback off the street. Yes, the defense has improved, but the Tua-led offense is still utterly non-threatening, and this week they’ll be facing a Tennessee defense that is playing its best football of the season, having allowed fewer than 20 points in three consecutive games. Ryan Tannehill looks like a different player with go-to receiver A.J. Brown back on the field, and I expect him to have a big day against his former team in what should be a comfortable Tennessee victory.

Atlanta Falcons @ Buffalo Bills (BUF -14, 44.5)

Recommendation: Buffalo -14 at 1.89

Laying a double-digit number in the NFL is always annoying because you know that even if the game is a blowout you’ll probably have a garbage-time sweat, with your team’s backups playing prevent defense and the offense just trying to run out the clock. That said, backing the superior team in an obvious mismatch is an easy call in the right situation, and this one here– the suddenly-surging Bills hosting the Falcons on a sub-freezing day in Buffalo– feels ripe for the picking. Atlanta is a team that beats bad teams and loses to good ones, often in blowout fashion. Yes, the Falcons have won 7 games, but the combined record of the teams they’ve beaten is 32-72-1, while 6 of their 8 losses have come by double-digits. The Bills, meanwhile, have posted an average margin of victory of 23.5 points in their four home wins this season, and they’re sure to be confident and locked-in after a potentially season-saving win over New England last week. Look for the Josh Allen-led offense to hang a big number on an Atlanta defense that ranks 29th in the league in points allowed, and for the Bills to win this one going away.

Carolina Panthers @ New Orleans Saints (NO -6.5, 38)

Recommendation: New Orleans -6.5 at 1.91

It’s tough to find a team that hasn’t been affected by COVID outbreaks over the course of the season, but I’d venture to say that perhaps no team has been as decimated by COVID-related absences as the Saints were last week, when they were forced to de-activate 20 players prior to a critical Monday night showdown with Miami, including both their first and second-string quarterbacks. After a 20-3 loss in which the offense could hardly muster a first down, the Saints are now in do-or-die mode, needing to win their final two regular season games to have a shot at the playoffs. On the positive side, at least they’ll be getting the bulk of their missing players back, including starting QB Taysom Hill, and the schedule is friendly, beginning with a home game on Sunday against the flailing Panthers. The wave of optimism that briefly accompanied Cam Newton’s return to Carolina quickly subsided, and now the franchise is left with an ugly situation: Newton has been benched after going 0-5 as the starter, and so the team is turning back to poor Sam Darnold, whose disintegrating confidence has left him with an “I’d rather be anywhere else” look on his face every Sunday. The New Orleans defense has been fierce up front, leading the NFL in yards per rush allowed (3.7) and ranking 10th in QB sacks (36), so it’s difficult to imagine the Darold-led Carolina offense having any real success in this game. Despite the Saints’ own struggles on offense, I still think they’re a good bet to win this one by a touchdown or more.