Each season in the NFL is full of surprises, as teams rise and fall to defy predictions made in August. One of the best stories was authored by coach Todd Haley, who worked a quick turnaround in Kansas City.
A year after winning four games and sitting in the AFC West basement, the Chiefs (10-5) are division champions.
This is a rare final week of the season, with several games holding playoff significance. The Chiefs can lock up the AFC’s No. 3 seed with a win over the Oakland Raiders today.
For years, it has been noted that Arrowhead Stadium might be the toughest venue in the league for visiting teams, especially when Kansas City is a relevant team. After upsetting the San Diego Chargers in Week 1, the Chiefs rolled to a 7-0 record on their home field.
"What can’t be taken lightly is the formidable coaching staff Haley put in place and how quickly it meshed with the solid core of young talent," said Brian Blessing, a handicapper and host of Sportsbook Radio on ESPN in Las Vegas. "The Kansas City organization was so bad for so long that eventually its perennial high draft status had to reap rewards.
"Haley deserves credit for taking a step back and delegating duties to top-shelf coordinators Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis."
Matt Cassel, flourishing in Weis’ offense, has passed for 3,001 yards and 27 touchdowns with just five interceptions.
The Raiders have played with passion most of the season, but this game is rather meaningless to them. With a win, Oakland would finish 8-8 and earn the dubious honor of going unbeaten in its division and missing the playoffs, a feat never accomplished in the modern era.
"The Chiefs handled the mounting pressure of trying to hold off the Chargers," said Blessing, who recommends a play on Kansas City, which is favored by 3 to 3½ points. "Haley will want to keep the Arrowhead mystique rolling into the playoffs and avoid New England until the AFC Championship Game by earning the No. 3 seed."
Blessing breaks down the rest of today’s Week 17 schedule:
■ Miami at New England (-5): It has been another routine season of outstanding football from the Patriots. The Dolphins, 1-7 at home and 6-1 on the road, have been inconsistent from the start. I don’t know why people are so surprised the Dolphins have fared well on the road and floundered at home. Miami is a rotten sports city. Most visiting teams have solid support from their fans in South Florida, while the Dolphins get to stare at a multitude of empty orange seats. It’s not in New England coach Bill Belichick’s DNA to rest players, and he’ll want to enter the postseason on a roll. Lay the points with the Patriots.
■ Tennessee at Indianapolis (-9½): The Colts are back, and for once Peyton Manning has to play in Week 17. Watching the Titans the past several weeks, can anyone explain why they think having Kerry Collins throw 40 times is a better option than getting Chris Johnson 30 touches? If the Titans wise up and get the ball in their speed back’s hands, they might hang around for a while, which makes over the total (48) seem like the safest play.
■ Jacksonville at Houston (-3): The Jaguars must be kicking themselves for squandering a huge opportunity in the AFC North. Jacksonville is not dead yet, but it needs to win today and hope the Colts falter against Tennessee. This could be coach Gary Kubiak’s last dance with the Texans, who have found a variety of ways to cough up games in the fourth quarter. The first time these teams met, the Jaguars won on a 50-yard prayer as time expired. The total is 46, and look for a shootout.
■ Pittsburgh (-5½) at Cleveland: The Steelers have not been pasting teams, but they have continually found ways to win close games. The Browns have been competitive and would love nothing more than to be a stone in their rival’s shoe to wrap up the season. Neither offense is flashy, so the best option might be to look under 37½.
■ Cincinnati at Baltimore (-9½): The Ravens can leapfrog from the fifth seed in the AFC to No. 2 with a win over Cincinnati and a Pittsburgh loss. The Bengals might not be such an easy mark, as they played with intensity last week to wipe out the Chargers. Quarterback Carson Palmer has looked better lately, not having to deal with headache-inducing wide receivers Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco. These teams have a history of playing tight games, so take the points.
■ Minnesota at Detroit (-3½): The Lions slowly but surely are laying the foundation for a decent future. The Vikings have played with passion for interim coach Leslie Frazier. The Vikings, who had to deal with countless distractions this season, should be fired up after knocking off Philadelphia on Tuesday. The underdog looks attractive.
■ New York Giants (-4) at Washington: This could turn into the "Turnover Bowl," as Eli Manning and Rex Grossman are more than capable of throwing multiple interceptions. Giants running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs treat the ball as if it were a greased pig. The game means something to the Giants, so I’ll give them a slight nod to cover.
■ Chicago at Green Bay (-9½): With their playoff existence on the line last week, the Packers blew out the Giants. Aaron Rodgers has had another strong season, posting an NFC-high 101.9 passer rating to go with 27 touchdowns. The Bears are likely to rest key players, so Green Bay should roll.
■ Dallas at Philadelphia (-3): Without quarterback Jon Kitna, it seems highly unlikely the Cowboys will be piling up points. The Eagles are locked into the No. 3 seed in the NFC, so Michael Vick will call signals from the sideline. Kevin Kolb still has plenty to prove, so go with Philadelphia to cover the shrinking number.
■ Buffalo at New York Jets (-2): The Bills are a quirky bunch that gropes with division foes at home but plays with fire on the road. Last year in New York, Mark Sanchez was picked off five times by the Bills, who recorded a 16-13 overtime win. The Bills have a score to settle after a 38-14 humiliation in Week 4. Buffalo coach Chan Gailey deserves credit for the way his team has continued to play hard. One more decent effort can be anticipated, so take the Bills.
■ Carolina at Atlanta (-14): The Falcons, stung by a rare home loss at the hands of the Saints on Monday, don’t want to enter the postseason on a downer and will look to torch the Panthers. This is an ugly game, but it’s Atlanta or pass.
■ Tampa Bay at New Orleans (-7): The Buccaneers let several wins slip through their fingers and have to hope for myriad combinations to sneak into the playoffs. The Saints boat-raced the Bucs 31-6 in the first meeting. The Saints will be scoreboard watching and, if they see Atlanta pulling away from Carolina, might decide to rest some players. A backdoor cover is possible. The best option might be a play on New Orleans in the first half.
■ St. Louis (-3) at Seattle: The winner takes all in the NFC West. These teams are a punch line, but I’m sure both would have signed up for this scenario at the outset of the season. The Seahawks have fallen apart at the seams. It’s a simple formula for the Rams in this spot. They have to protect the football and let running back Steven Jackson take the reins and run them into the playoffs. Seattle generally is a tough place to play, but St. Louis earns the slight nod.
■ Arizona at San Francisco (-6): Mike Singletary paid for the 49ers’ shortcomings with his coaching job. San Francisco dominated the first meeting, 27-6. The 49ers still have weapons, and the Cardinals have been scoring lately. Over the total (38½) could be the play in a glorified scrimmage.
■ San Diego (-3½) at Denver: The same scenario could be on display in Denver, where the Chargers have nothing left to play for and the Broncos are evaluating rookie quarterback Tim Tebow. Philip Rivers will be slinging it around, and the game probably won’t have much intensity. Look for a lot of points to be scored, so go over 47.
Compiled by Review-Journal sports writer Matt Youmans.