Breakdowns

NFL Week 17 Matchups to Watch

Here are five Week 17 matchups we’ve got our eyes on:

Since only one team per conference gets a bye this year and the Chiefs are the AFC’s top seed, Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward are all sitting this one out. Even against a division rival fighting for a playoff spot, this makes sense for Pittsburgh.

While Watt leads the NFL with 15 sacks, he’s actually third on the Steelers in hurries – an example of how teams are focusing their pass protection on stopping him. With Watt not playing Sunday, we’ll look to see if a player like rookie inside linebacker Alex Highsmith can make an impact.

For the Browns, a win here clinches their first playoff berth since 2002. The biggest matchup for Cleveland might be their young players vs. a franchise history of stumbling at key moments. After their shocking loss to the Jets last week, one of the keys to keeping that negative history out of their heads will be the leadership of rookie head coach Kevin Stefanski.

Inside the numbers: The Browns’ passing offense ranks fifth in the NFL and faces the best defense in the league in EPA allowed per pass in the Steelers… Mason Rudolph, starting for Pittsburgh, ranked 37th in EPA per pass last season among 42 QBs with over 100 pass attempts.

The Packers still need a win to clinch a first-round playoff bye, so expect their starters to play. For the Bears, who need a win here just to make the postseason, the key will be putting pressure on Aaron Rodgers without blitzing. Chicago has to get there with its front four. They paid Robert Quinn, who hasn’t worked out for them, but he and Khalil Mack need to make a difference Sunday so that the back seven can focus on coverage. Rodgers thrives when teams blitz – his 14.8 average depth of target when under pressure is most in the NFL.

While Chicago rightfully focuses on stopping Rodgers, it will be interesting to see the development of rookie RB A.J. Dillon, who doubled his career rushing total with 124 yards last week against Tennessee.

For the Bears, QB Mitch Trubisky looks to continue his resurgence. In addition to the playoff implications, Trubisky’s performance Sunday could complicate the Bears’ offseason plans. The Bears offense has scored 30 or more points in four straight games for the first time since 1965 – but those games have come against four of the bottom six teams in EPA allowed per play.

Inside the numbers: The Bears have a top 10 defense in EPA allowed, but only rank 15th against the pass… In their first game this season, Trubisky completed just 56.5% of his passes; in the four weeks since, he hasn’t been below 68%.

Dallas has finally found its rhythm on offense, with Andy Dalton getting comfortable with his weapons. Outside of James Bradberry, the Giants have really struggled in the secondary. On paper, that matchup really favors the Cowboys.

On the other side of the ball, the Giants have been so inconsistent on offense. They’ve really struggled at times. It will be interesting to see how Daniel Jones fares after a few poor starts. This is an important game for the second-year QB. The Giants should be able to move the ball because Dallas has been so susceptible on defense – they scored 34 in the Week 5 loss to Dallas. The Cowboys rank 28th in EPA allowed per rush, while the Giants offense ranks 18th in EPA per rush. Still, the Giants have had some games in which the rushing attack hasn’t shown up at all, so that will be a key factor here. The Cowboys give up an average of 161 rushing yards per game, worst mark in the NFL, and the Giants are 5-2 when rushing for 130 yards or more.

Inside the numbers: Of the 13 teams that have allowed a completion rate over 70% this season, the Giants have done so on the third-shortest passes, indicating opponents have consistently been able to attack check-downs and underneath routes.

With Jared Goff out for the Rams and Kyler Murray playing but possibly limited with a leg injury, the big matchup in this game is between head coaches Kliff Kingsbury and Sean McVay. What can these two offensive-minded coaches do with their best players out or limited? There will be some focus on the running game and we could see some trick plays.

The Rams will be without Goff and Cooper Kupp, and RB Cam Akers is questionable as well. So the question is where they will get their offense from. And even if Murray plays – the Cardinals’ QB said he’s ready to go – will he be as effective as he usually is running the football?

The strength-on-strength matchup for this game is the Rams rush defense, second in the league in EPA allowed per rush, against the fourth-ranked Cardinals rushing offense. Arizona has yet to win a game this season with less than 100 yards rushing, while the Rams are only giving up 78.7 rushing yards per game.

Inside the numbers: The Cardinals rank 23rd in run defense, with opposing coaches primarily attacking them with inside and outside zone concepts (52% of runs), but notably also going to power (13% of runs, fourth-most in NFL) and trap (3% of runs, second-most) concepts. With Akers questionable, Darrell Henderson out and John Wofford making his NFL starting debut at QB, the Rams will rely on Malcolm Brown to make an impact in the running game.

The big story is at QB for Washington. In a win-and-in game, will Alex Smith make it back or will they be going with the ultimate journeyman in Taylor Heinicke?

On the other side, we continue to get a look at rookie QB Jalen Hurts and how he looks running the Eagles offense. Between Hurts and RB Miles Sanders, we are looking at the future for the Eagles.

Hurts has faced weaker defenses the last two weeks, but it’s not as if Washington will be his first big challenge; Hurts has already shown in his game against New Orleans that he can stand up to a top-tier defense.

Inside the numbers: Sanders rushed for a career-best 122 yards in the first meeting vs. Philly; he needs 133 yards Sunday to become the team’s first 1,000-yard rusher since LeSean McCoy in 2014… Washington has a top eight rushing attack by EPA and faces the 14th-ranked Eagles rush defense. Antonio Gibson is fourth among rookie RBs with 720 rushing yards.

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