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For 16 weeks, NFL bettors try to parse through a wealth of information and advanced metrics – from DVOA and net yards per play to trends and records against the spread. Then, for one magical week, all of that is thrown out the window in favor of the most abstract factor of all: motivation.
Now, I’m not suggesting you should bet blindly on motivation in Week 17. But if you are saying that, we’re here to help. Here’s a list of every game on the schedule and what to know about all 32 teams’ motivations entering the final week of the regular season.
Dolphins at Bills (-3), 1 p.m. ET
After the Chiefs‘ win on Sunday, the Bills are no longer in the running for the No. 1 seed, though they’d clinch the No. 2 seed with a win or a Steelers loss. Does it even matter? Outside of playing at home in a potential rematch with Pittsburgh, the difference is negligible, especially with how muddled the bottom of the AFC playoff standings will be entering the week.
Meanwhile, the Dolphins would secure a playoff spot with a win, though they could sneak in with a loss, too. Who will finish the game at quarterback for either squad? There’s a lot of uncertainty here, but Miami’s playoff quest takes precedent.
Ravens (-11.5) at Bengals, 1 p.m.
Three years ago, the Ravens were in this exact scenario: Beat the Bengals in Week 17 and clinch a playoff spot. Instead, Tyler Boyd scored on a 49-yard strike with 44 seconds left to bounce Baltimore from the playoff hunt.
Don’t think for a second that John Harbaugh and the remaining Ravens from that team have forgotten about that loss. With one win, Baltimore can help redeem that letdown spot and earn a crack at avenging its playoff ousting last year. Meanwhile, the Bengals are playing for the right to … fall further in the draft and select a worse offensive lineman. Enough said.
Steelers at Browns (TBD), 1 p.m.
It’s hard to know what to expect from the Steelers, who could still earn the No. 2 seed but may have little interest in doing so. Pittsburgh has gone the entire season without a true bye week after COVID-19 outbreaks within the Titans and Ravens forced major adjustments to its schedule.
If Pittsburgh does roll over in Week 17, the Browns will happily take advantage, as a win this week would secure one of the final spots in the playoffs.
Vikings (-6.5) at Lions, 1 p.m.
This is one of four games with zero playoff implications for the teams involved, leading to speculation that both sides will rest key starters Sunday. While the Lions have plenty to lose in draft positioning with a win, Darrell Bevell is essentially auditioning for a head coaching job in 2021 and would benefit from a win in one of his five games at the helm.
Jets at Patriots (-3.5), 1 p.m.
The Patriots have seemingly been playing without any motivation for three weeks now, but we officially saw what a down-and-out New England group looks like in its blowout loss Monday – the first time this team had played since being eliminated from the playoffs.
Nobody understands why the Jets are winning, but they’ve done so for two straight weeks and look like a rejuvenated group since firing defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. New York hasn’t beaten its bitter rival in its last nine tries dating back to 2015. This one is personal.
Cowboys (-3) at Giants, 1 p.m.
These two teams’ goals are perfectly aligned, as the winner will be in a position to claim the NFC East pending Sunday night’s result between Washington and Philadelphia. The only difference: If the Giants lose, they get the No. 3 pick in the draft, while the Cowboys have likely played themselves out of the top 10.
Joe Judge knows his job is safe after showing some fight – literally – in Year 1. A top-three pick wouldn’t be such a bad consolation, would it?
Falcons at Buccaneers (-6.5), 1 p.m.
This one is easy. The Buccaneers can clinch the No. 5 seed – and a date with the NFC East winner – with a victory Sunday. The Falcons can play themselves out of the top five of the draft. Tom Brady won’t mess this up.
Saints (-6.5) at Panthers, 4:25 p.m.
Matt Rhule has done a masterful job getting the most out of the Panthers‘ roster in his first year as head coach, even as injuries hindered his offense throughout the season. Still, a win on Sunday means so much more for the Saints, who still have an outside shot at the No. 1 seed and could at least clinch a top-two spot.
Packers (-5.5) at Bears, 4:25 p.m.
This one is tricky. The Packers need to win on Sunday to guarantee the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs, which is crucial against teams like the Saints and Seahawks, who feature such drastic home-road splits. Aaron Rodgers is also locked in a tight race for potentially his third MVP award, which would tie him for second-most in NFL history.
Are those rewards more significant than what’s at stake for the Bears, who would clinch a spot in the playoffs with a win? You’d have to think that a postseason berth trumps all, but I’m not convinced the players in Chicago want to give upper management any reasons to retain Matt Nagy. I’m also not going to bet against Rodgers with history on the line.
Jaguars at Colts (-14.5), 4:25 p.m.
If you need any hints as to the motivation here, just look at this point spread, which would be the fourth-highest all year if it holds until kickoff. Three of those previous games featured the Jets; the other featured Kendall Hinton.
This matchup isn’t nearly as lopsided as those four, but the Colts need to win to keep their playoff hopes alive, while the Jaguars are already locked into the NFL’s worst record. Gardner Minshew and Mike Glennon might be auditioning for their next job elsewhere, but their teammates have already packed their bags.
Titans (-7.5) at Texans, 4:25 p.m.
The beauty of this game is that the Texans have absolutely nothing to play for in either direction. They’ve long been eliminated from the playoffs, but the ghost of Bill O’Brien has plucked a potential top-five pick away from this franchise, leaving Romeo Crennel in a pretty meaningless Week 17 spot.
As much as J.J. Watt wants to complain about his teammates’ efforts, they simply can’t compete with the motivations for the Titans, who could clinch the AFC South with a win or miss the playoffs with a loss.
Chargers at Chiefs (TBD), 4:25 p.m.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid has already hinted at sitting key starters – including Patrick Mahomes – after his team clinched the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye with last week’s win over the Falcons. The Chargers‘ playoff hopes are dead, but Justin Herbert‘s record-setting rookie year is not, and Anthony Lynn is still coaching for his job amid a three-game winning streak.
Raiders (-2) at Broncos, 4:25 p.m.
A year ago, the Broncos eliminated the Raiders from playoff contention in Week 17, capping off an encouraging five-game stretch from then-rookie Drew Lock. Twelve months later, Lock might be playing for his job against a Las Vegas team that has already seen its postseason dreams evaporate.
Cardinals at Rams (TBD), 4:25 p.m.
This game has arguably the greatest stakes of any Week 17 matchup, as both the Cardinals and Rams need a win to guarantee a playoff spot. Yet both sides could be without their starting quarterbacks Sunday.
Los Angeles could still lose and make the playoffs, so we’ll give the edge to Arizona. If Kyler Murray can’t take the field, though, it’ll be hard to put stock in either side.
Seahawks (-4.5) at 49ers, 4:25 p.m.
Rivalries always seem to bring out a little extra, but that might be the only thing keeping the 49ers‘ attention against the Seahawks, who clinched the NFC West a week ago. Neither side enters this one with much to play for, though Seattle can at least talk itself into a slim chance at earning the No. 1 seed with a win. That should be enough to play its starters.
Washington (-1) at Eagles, 8:20 p.m.
After everything this season has brought us, it’s only fitting that Game 256 would pit two enigmatic NFC East teams in a matchup that will ultimately decide the division. It’s almost hard to believe that Washington isn’t favored by more, though I guess that’s what happens when one quarterback is injured and another received a midseason pink slip just days after a spot start.
Still, as much as Jalen Hurts may want to keep the good vibes rolling, this game simply means so much more to Washington, which could snap its five-year postseason drought with a win on Sunday. If you were ever to bet on a game for motivation alone, this would be the one.
(Odds source: theScore Bet)
C Jackson Cowart is a betting writer for theScore. He’s an award-winning journalist with stops at The Charlotte Observer, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The Times Herald-Record, and BetChicago. He’s also a proud graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, and his love of sweet tea is rivaled only by that of a juicy prop bet. Find him on Twitter @CJacksonCowart.