This is it, the final week of the regular season. The longest season in the history of the NFL is premiering its final chapter before the postseason begins next week.
Three of the four teams in the division still have something to play for, while Seattle is surprisingly the odd team out as they have been eliminated from the playoffs. Seattle’s opponent has already clinched a playoff spot, so the best the Seahawks can do now is pull Arizona down another notch and force them to miss out on winning the division.
The Rams have more than just pride or spite to play for. While they have locked up their own playoff spot, they have the chance to not only win the division, but they can also claim the #2 seed, which would grant them a home playoff game against any opponent other than Green Bay. Even the Super Bowl will be in LA next month.
The Rams have another item they are fighting for as they host the 49ers this weekend, with a chance to knock their rivals out of the playoffs. San Francisco can make the playoffs with a win over LA on Sunday. If San Francisco loses, they will need the Saints to lose to Atlanta in order to get in. If San Francisco loses and the Saints win, the Saints would claim the seventh and final spot in the NFC playoffs.
With so much to play for and just one game left for each team, let’s preview and provide a final prediction for the regular season finales.
Los Angeles Rams vs. San Francisco 49ers Sunday 1:25 pm – FOX (out of region)
The 49ers embarrassed the Rams in front of a national audience on Monday Night Football the last time these teams met. However, that game was played in Santa Clara, and QB Jimmy Garoppolo was playing for the 49ers. Garoppolo sat out last Sunday with a thumb injury, and there is no decision made yet if he will be available to play the Rams this time around. The 49ers’ offense is simply not as smooth with rookie Trey Lance, but an injured Garoppolo might not be better than a healthy Lance.
Either QB will have an uphill battle against this Rams defense, but Jimmy has the most upside and is a master at hitting receivers in space. Lance is getting there, but his timing with the talented receivers on the roster isn’t there yet. Against the Houston Texans – who are one of the worst defenses in the league – Lance put up decent numbers, but he will likely need to put up double those stats against the Rams to stay competitive. If the 49ers make the playoffs, they are going to have to travel to the #3 seed, which right now would be Tampa Bay or Dallas. I don’t like the odds of Lance beating either of those teams, but Jimmy might have a shot.
For the Rams, the way forward is simple. If they take care of business on Sunday, they will win the division and claim the NFC #2 seed. Like last year, that doesn’t get them a bye week, but they at least get to host any playoff game they are in unless they play Green Bay; even the Super Bowl would be in LA. Rams’ QB Matt Stafford has had an up and down season, and no one really knows what to expect from him on a given week. Some weeks Stafford looks like the best QB in the league; other times, he seems like he forgot which team he plays for. His connection with WR Cooper Kupp is simply unfair, but he doesn’t get the ball to his other talented receivers nearly enough. When teams manage to take Kupp away with extra coverage, Stafford doesn’t consistently punish them with one of his other targets against soft or solo coverage. Stafford’s connection with Odell Beckham Jr is improving, and Van Jefferson is becoming one of the best deep threats in the game, but neither has consistently given defenses trouble.
RB Cam Akers could make an unexpected return this week, although next week seems more likely. With a very capable Sony Michel available, the Rams aren’t going to risk injuring their RB of the future. Still, a healthy Akers could prove to be a disaster for their opponents and further open up a potent Rams offense.
The Rams have a star-studded cast of players on defense ready to slow the best offenses out there. This version of the Rams defense isn’t top of the league, but they are very, very good. The Rams seem to let their opponent pick their poison and are not as effective at delivering the kill shots this year. If the Rams jump out to a big lead, they are very tough to catch. If the game is close, they sometimes lack the big plays on either side to bury their opponent. If the Rams are serious about establishing themselves as an elite team contending for a championship, they need to make a statement this Sunday. In the words of Bill Yoast – run it up, McVay, leave no doubt.
Prediction – Rams dominate 49ers in 38-10 rout.
Arizona Cardinals vs Seattle Seahawks Sunday 1:25pm – FOX (in region)
The Cardinals proved last week they are still a team to be concerned with, beating Dallas on the road and handing the key to unlock the #1 seed to Green Bay. The Packers followed up with a dominant win over a short-handed Minnesota team and claimed the top seed. That leaves the two seed up for grabs, and there is just one week of football left to decide who gets it.
If the Cardinals win and get help from San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Carolina (you guessed it, the opponents of LA, Dallas, and Tampa Bay), they could be the # 2 seed, but it’s extremely unlikely they get that much help. If LA wins, there is no conversation on the #2 seed; it’s theirs. At that point, Arizona is automatically given the #5 seed since the division winners get the top four seeds. It’s most likely the current standings stay as-is. But if this season has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected.
Seattle has been beating up bad opponents lately but has struggled against any team with a pulse in the second half of the season. Seattle is currently 6-10, with the chance to get a seventh win and, in turn, give the Jets a worse pick in return (Seattle traded their pick to New York in exchange for safety Jamal Adams), and drag down Arizona in the process. If that’s not the same as a Super Bowl, I get it. But spite can be fun, too, especially when that’s all you have left to play for.
With their battle against Seattle and the LA-SF game going on at the same time on Sunday, Arizona has to play the Seahawks as their season depends on it. A win coupled with an LA loss means Arizona wins the division and gets at least the #4 seed. They would host their first playoff game at the minimum, and then it depends on how the other seeding shakes out if they will climb any higher. Arizona may climb higher, but if they can win the division, they can’t fall any lower than #4. The good news is that even if Arizona loses, the worst-case scenario for them is to fall to #5, so they actually have a lot to gain if they win and minimal to lose if they lose. They would also force Seattle to hand a better pick over to the Jets, and again spite can be fun.
This is the last time you’ll see the Seahawks on tv this season, as their road ends here. It wasn’t always fun, but it was usually entertaining, even if you didn’t like the result at least ten times. Next week FOX will be airing playoff games between teams more closely matched, and their audiences will likely appreciate it. Seattle fans will usually tune in for Seattle games, but this year it’s been tough to watch even if you were rooting for the only team in the northwest. I expect Seattle to give this game a lot of effort, but they will be the same team you’ve seen all year; they didn’t make any blockbuster trades recently. Russell Wilson will get some big plays, Darrell Taylor will continue to show why the team was so high on him the last year and change, and you might even see Kyler Murray get picked off, as we know he is a bit of a gambler.
Wilson has never thrown for fewer than 3000 yards in a season during his career, and although he missed three weeks earlier this season, he is just 125 yards away from getting to 3000 yards for the 10th consecutive season. Wilson has posted at least 149 yards in all 13 games he has appeared in this season, so it’s almost 100% certain that he’s going to get to 3K.
Other than getting Wilson his yards, Seattle will keep the game close in the first half before second half struggles result in their 11th loss as their season comes to an uncharacteristic early close. For those that have been avoiding team news, this is just the third time (2011, 2017, 2021) the team will miss the playoffs since Pete Carroll was hired in 2010, and while it’s also the third losing season under Carroll (2010, 2011, 2021), it’s just the first losing season for Russell Wilson since he was drafted in 2012. With ten losses, they eclipsed the nine losses the team recorded in back-to-back seasons in 2010-11, and their 4th place finish is the worst under Carroll. Before that, their lowest placement in the division was 3rd in 2011.
One can only hope Carroll and Wilson get back on track next season. This season looked more like the one season Jim Mora was paid to be in charge than anything under Carroll previously. We don’t need any more Jim Mora seasons in Seattle – one was enough, twice is disgusting, three times might be cause for a mutiny.
Prediction – Arizona wins a close one, 24-20.
Other than the two games going on in the division, there are three other games taking place this week that could be shaping the NFC playoff picture:
Philadelphia vs. Dallas Saturday 5:15 pm FOX (in region) – Dallas has already won the NFC East, but they could move up in playoff seeding with a win and some help from San Francisco and Seattle. Philadelphia is already in the playoffs as a wild card, but they could throw a wrench into the plans of other teams with a win.
Tampa Bay vs. Carolina Sunday 1:25 pm FOX (out of region) – Tampa Bay won the NFC South, but with a win and some help from their friends, they could climb into the #2 seed. If they lose, they could fall to the #4 seed as Dallas has a superior conference record. Already out of the playoffs, Carolina can only prevent Tampa Bay from getting a higher seed by beating them.
Atlanta vs. New Orleans Sunday 1:25 pm FOX (out of region) – If New Orleans beats Atlanta and LA beats San Francisco, the Saints are in the playoffs, and the 49ers are out. If both teams win or lose, the 49ers are in, and the Saints are out as San Francisco has an extra win. Atlanta is already eliminated. The best they can do is eliminate the Saints from the postseason by beating them.