NFL WEEK 17: The NFL will ring in the new year with a terrific Week 17 slate that features several games with significant playoff implications. The most intriguing matchup is probably Monday night’s Bills/Bengals showdown in Cincinnati, a game that will weigh heavily in the race for the AFC’s top seed, which is especially important now that the top-seeded teams in each conference are the only ones to receive first-round postseason byes.

We don’t have to wait until Monday to see intense late-season football, however, as Sunday is littered with quasi-playoff games featuring teams fighting for their postseason lives. And there are other games as well, some of which present a unique opportunity from a betting perspective– this is the time of year when a few teams who are out of playoff contention make calculated decisions to bench certain players and play a certain way in order to secure the highest possible selection in next year’s NFL Draft. Oddsmakers know this, of course, and the lines are set accordingly, but there’s enough guesswork involved to open up clear windows of opportunity for those who are paying attention.

Yes, it’s a glorious time of year because we get the best of both worlds– exciting, pressure-packed football that feeds our appetite as a fan, and a few softballs thrown out there for us to knock out of the park and make a little extra holiday cash. Here’s what I’ve got for first Sunday of 2023:

Miami Dolphins @ New England Patriots (MIA -2.5, 40.5)

Recommendation: Miami +2.5 at 1.92; Miami moneyline (to win) at 2.26

Winning in Gillette Stadium in January is no easy task, and the Dolphins will be attempting to do so with a backup quarterback now that Tua Tagovailoa is sidelined indefinitely after suffering yet another concussion in last week’s loss to Green Bay. But that backup is the veteran Teddy Bridgewater, who has thrown for nearly 15,000 yards in his career and started two games earlier this season in relief of Tua, putting up 329 yards and a pair of TDs against Minnesota in his last game action (Week 6). If he’s not the best backup in the league he’s certainly one of them, and never in his career has he had a pair of receivers like Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle at his disposal.

Bridgewater will be facing a battered Patriots secondary that will be without, at a minimum, 3 of its top 5 cornerbacks (that number could increase if Jalen Mills or Jonathan Jones, who are both listed as questionable, are ruled out). The weather is expected to be surprisingly decent in Foxboro on Sunday, dry with temps in the mid-50s, and with the Pats attempting to cover Hill and Waddle with a mixture of backups and practice squad players, we can expect some fireworks from the Miami offense. Mac Jones and the New England offense put up a mere 7 points against this Miami defense back in Week 1, and they’ve been maddeningly inconsistent as the Pats have dropped 4 of their past 5 games to put their season on the brink. The Dolphins could clinch a playoff spot with a win here– I think they get it.

Carolina Panthers @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (TB -3.5, 40)

Recommendation: Carolina +3.5 at 1.91

The Bucs are a deeply flawed team but Tom Brady is still magical, and there he was in Arizona last week, helping to erase a double-digit 4th-quarter deficit and then completing all six of his passes in overtime to secure a much-needed 19-16 win over the struggling Cardinals. Brady came through with similar late-game heroics in wins against the Saints in Week 13 and the Rams in Week 9, helping Tampa cling to a 1-game lead in the NFC South. And… that’s about the only positive thing you could say about these Buccaneers right now. Aside from some late-game Brady magic, they’ve been playing putrid football for the better part of three months, getting blown out by good teams and squeaking by the bad ones. The offense has topped 21 points just once in the team’s last seven games– and that was in a 34-23 loss to Cincinnati. The defense isn’t as stout up front as it has been in recent years, and the Carolina rushing attack gashed these Bucs back in Week 7 to the tune of 173 yards in a 21-3 Panthers win.

While the Bucs have been struggling to squeak out wins and stay afloat, the Panthers have been playing their best football of the season, winning 4 of 6 to move within a game of the division lead. It’s a tough, blue-collar team that is playing hard for interim coach Steve Wilks, and they now control their own playoff destiny– win these last two and they’re in– a scenario which was almost unthinkable a couple of months ago. These are teams headed in the opposite direction, but it’s still Brady vs. Sam Darnold, so if the game is tight in the 4th quarter, the Bucs have a clear edge. That said, 3 of Tampa’s last 4 wins have come by 3 points or fewer, and the line is 3.5 here. Carolina feels like the right side.

San Francisco 49ers @ Las Vegas Raiders (SF -9.5, 42.5)

Recommendation: San Francisco -9.5 at 1.91

This isn’t complicated. The Raiders are 6-9, their season is basically over, and they essentially waived the white flag this week when they announced that starting QB Derek Carr was being benched and would stay away from the team after a “mutual agreement”. That means they’ll be going with Jarrett Stidham on Sunday, a 4th-round pick back in 2019 who will be making his first career NFL start.

Now, let’s do some critical thinking here… is Stidham a diamond in the rough who has been tearing it up in practice all season, forcing Josh McDaniels to give him a shot these next couple of weeks? Or has ownership decided that they’re done with Derek Carr and would rather pick 4-5 spots higher in April’s draft than chance a meaningless win in Week 17 or 18? Well, let’s consider the situation they’re putting Stidham in: this week’s opponent, San Francisco, has won 8 straight games. The Niners have the NFL’s top-ranked defense, surrendering just 290 yards and 15.3 points per game. They have registered 41 sacks and are allowing a mere 3.3 yards per rush. If this isn’t throwing a young QB to the wolves, I don’t know what that would look like. The only thing the Raiders have going for them here is the fact that the 49ers are starting an inexperienced QB themselves, rookie Brock Purdy, but considering the Niners have averaged better than 31 points per game in Purdy’s four starts, I’m not sure his presence has been much of a hindrance. He’ll be facing a Vegas defense that has allowed more yards than all but three teams in the AFC. This one won’t be close.

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