NFL Week 17 Cheat Sheet: Panthers can still finish messy 2014 right

The Carolina Panthers are on the cusp of making history, and not the type you necessarily set out to make in July when you discuss your season goals on the first day of training camp. At 6-8-1, the defending NFC South champions are one win away from becoming the first team since the 1970 Cincinnati Bengals to have a six-game losing streak in the same season they won their division. 

So, history. Yes. Sorta. At the very least, they’ll be in some very good company. 

Let’s go back to that 1970 Bengals team, because there’s a lot to chew on there. That was the first year after the AFL-NFL merger, and the Bengals, in just their third year of existence, were one of the more promising young teams in the league. Their expected starting quarterback was Greg Cook, a local product out of the University of Cincinnati who was the No. 5 overall pick in the ’69 Draft, and had won the AFL Rookie of the Year the previous season. Cook was everything, both in Cincinnati and as a quarterback. He was 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, and could throw the deep ball both accurately and beautifully.

Cook hurt his shoulder during that rookie year, missed a few games and eventually returned to the lineup to finish the ’69 campaign. Whether it was misdiagnosed or the medical technology just wasn’t there yet, more severe injuries were discovered when he underwent surgery after the season. He was all sorts of banged up. 

Cook didn’t make it back to the field for that 1970 season, the next one or the season after that. He played in one game in 1973, but the comeback wasn’t meant to be. His shoulder was busted. Cook retired in 1974 at the age of 27. That was it for Greg Cook, the NFL’s truest and possibly most tragic version of a "One Year Wonder." He passed away in 2012.

Now, let’s go back to the 1970 Bengals. Think about the impact that must have had on the team. Quarterback has a big rookie season, you’ve finally got "the guy" and in training camp, you learn that he won’t be back … maybe ever.

Could you blame the Bengals for winning their first game and then losing their next six? That’s just what they did. But then an offensive mastermind showed his genius. The Bengals’ offensive coordinator was some guy named Bill Walsh. The quarterback who filled in for Cook was a little-known sixth-round pick out of BYU named Virgil Carter, who didn’t have the arm or size of his predecessor, but could hit the short-range pass with high frequency.

Walsh, almost on the fly, built a new offense, based on intermediary and precise passing routes, specifically geared to Carter’s skill set. It was dubbed "The West Coast Offense" and the Bengals started rattling off victories, and ultimately won the division with an 8-6 record. Football history was made, and away we go. 

I love the 1970 Bengals because they responded. Quarterback goes down, lose six straight, reinvent the offense, lean on a sixth-round pick and an outside-the-box game plan, and find a way to win.

Enter the 2014 Carolina Panthers, who have had their share of adversities, both major and minor, to overcome this year. This past offseason, the team parted ways with its top four wide receivers from a season ago, including Steve Smith, the face of the franchise for more than a decade. They lost Greg Hardy, arguably the NFL’s top pass rusher, to a season-long suspension after he played in just one game. Their starting quarterback broke his ribs and had surgery on his ankle before the start of the regular season, only to get in a freak car accident and break bones in his back prior to Week 15. Add in injuries across the offensive line, bad blowout losses to the Steelers, Ravens and Eagles, and the loss of RB DeAngelo Williams, and you have the story of a team that has battled obstacles all season long.

NFL POWER RANKINGS

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula won’t be mistaken for Walsh anytime soon, but the offense has completely transformed over the past four weeks. With the season hanging by a thread, Shula turned to running back Jonathan Stewart to carry the load. Stewart’s 417 rushing yards are the most of any running back in the NFL over the past four weeks, and Carolina’s won three of four.

The 2014 Carolina Panthers have had a roller coaster of a season. The fact that this group could even be playing January football is remarkable.

Only one other team has overcome a six-game losing streak and made the playoffs.  Win in Atlanta on Sunday and the Panthers are right up there with the 1970 Bengals.

WEEK 17 CHEAT SHEET TRIVIA QUESTION OF THE WEEK

The Arizona Cardinals are just the second Super Bowl host team to make the playoffs since 2000. Who was the other?

CHEAT SHEET JERSEY OF THE WEEK

Prior to his seven-catch, 77-yard performance last Saturday night, I wasn’t too familiar with San Diego Chargers wideout Dontrelle Inman. If you’re a real Inman fan — and who isn’t? — you should buy his Toronto Argonauts jersey. If you like him now, here’s his Chargers one.

And now, on to the picks.

Week 16 Results: 11-5

SUNDAY

Carolina at Atlanta: The NFC South has taken its fair share of lumps, but what other division has gifted us with a  "Win and In" Week 17 game? I love the heart and toughness we saw in both Julio Jones and Cam Newton last week, playing through bad injuries to help give their teams wins. Atlanta can score points when it has to, but can it stop the run? That problem’s been plaguing Mike Nolan’s defense all season long, and with Jonathan Stewart and Newton having their way with Cleveland on Sunday, I just can see the Falcons defense being on the field way too long in this one. Carolina’s 2014 season isn’t quite storybook, but it’s been something, all right. Nineteen days removed from spending an evening in a hospital bed with broken bones in his back, I’ve got Cam Newton returning home to the city he grew up in and winning a second consecutive division title. It isn’t pretty, but what with this team has been?

The Pick: Panthers 24, Falcons 20

Cleveland at Baltimore: It looks like Connor Shaw or Tyler Thigpen will be the Browns’ quarterback Sunday in Baltimore. Laugh all you want about that one, but Shaw played as well as Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel in the preseason, and the Ravens just lost to a Case Keenum-led Texans team in the biggest game of their year. Baltimore blew it in Weeks 16 and 17 a year ago and very well could do the same in this one. If this game were in Cleveland, all bets would be off. But I can’t pick against the Ravens at home.

The Pick: Ravens 24, Browns 16

Dallas at Washington: If I’m Dallas, I’m letting DeMarco Murray rest, I’m making sure Brandon Weeden sees plenty of time, and I’m keeping an eye on the snap count for Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. If I’m Washington, I’m doing everything I can to finish the season on a high note. Dallas is pretty much locked into the No. 3 seed. Though others disagree with the strategy, I’d play this one safe. Washington can have a reason for optimism heading into 2015.

The Pick: Redskins 24, Cowboys 14

Gallery: Looking back on Will Smith's football career

Indianapolis at Tennessee: Whereas I’d advise the Cowboys to take the gas off the pedal, I might do just the opposite with the Colts. It’s one thing to take Week 17 off, it’s another to get absolutely obliterated in Week 16, and then take another week off before the playoffs. The Colts need a win to erase any doubts and enter the postseason on a high note. The loss in Dallas was one thing, but the team didn’t exactly look like world beaters against the Tom Savage-led Texans, either. I hate to be so negative, but Indianapolis’10 wins are a bit suspect, too, as they have beaten only one team currently slated for the playoffs (Cincinnati). Go in, blow out the Titans and then play some postseason football feeling good.

The Pick: Colts 41, Titans 13

Jacksonville at Houston: Tough to get excited for this one, but I’m curious to see how Blake Bortles finishes the season. The first-year Jags quarterback’s playing hurt and coming off a gutsy win over the Titans on national television. As for Houston, there’s still a small possibility it can make the playoffs. With that glimmer of hope serving as motivation, I’d expect the Texans to rally around QB Case Keenum once again for their ninth win of the season. Not bad for a team with a first-year coach, four different quarterbacks, and without the services of the first overall pick in May’s Draft.

The Pick: Texans 23, Jaguars 16

San Diego at Kansas City: As the central article for my Week 13 Cheat Sheet, I described a scenario in which Philip Rivers would beat the Patriots, the Broncos, the 49ers, and the Chiefs en route to a Chargers playoff berth and a "Hey, I know I’m not named Tom, Aaron, or J.J., but I deserve some MVP votes, too, damn it" plea. Rivers dropped those first two and my point quickly was made moot. But somehow, some way, the Chargers are a victory in Arrowhead away from not only finishing the season strong, but also making the playoffs. What Rivers did on Saturday night at the 49ers already has been forgotten, but it really shouldn’t be. Down 21 points early on the road, bouncing back from three interceptions and playing while clearly hurt, Rivers had one of the better games of his career, and did so when his team needed him most. Rivers will find a way, like he almost always does.

The Pick: Chargers 27, Chiefs 23

New York Jets at Miami Dolphins: Of course the Dolphins found a way to win by blocking a punt for a safety in the final seconds of Sunday’s game. Why wouldn’t they? This is the same team that beat the Bengals on a sack-called-safety in overtime last season. Joe Philbin’s gotten a vote of confidence from ownership, which makes me think Dolphins ownership knows something about Jim Harbaugh’s future that the NFL insiders might not. Why say Philbin’s safe when Harbaugh’s still a possibility? Miami wins, Philbin’s good for another year, and the speculation on Rex Ryan’s future — TV job or coaching somewhere else — begins the second the clock hits zero.

The Pick: Dolphins 20, Jets 10

Chicago at Minnesota: There’s something to be said for kicker Robbie Gould’s words earlier this week. Gould, regardless of his position, has been a Chicago Bears leader through good times and bad. He told former teammate Pat Mannelly the following on Mannelly’s radio show Monday: "It’s not like anybody has really played fantastic or great. I mean, we’re 5-10 now. So … Jay (Cutler) is not the problem. Jay is not the issue. It’s just unfortunate. This is, honestly, it’s not the Bear way. I mean, this whole season is not the Bear way. Pointing fingers, things getting out of the locker room — that’s not the Chicago Bear way. I think, for me, being around the organization for, now, 10 years, seeing guys like Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs, who most likely have walked through the tunnel for the last time, it’s tough because we weren’t taught this way under Lovie (Smith, former head coach). We weren’t taught to do these sort of things and we always stayed together as close-knit as we possibly could."

The bulk of my colleagues in the media did flips when Cutler was benched last week (as if he had it coming or something), but from a football standpoint, I still don’t see the sense of the move. Now that Jimmy Clausen is out with a concussion, Cutler will start on Sunday, but that ship has sailed.

The Pick: Vikings 30, Bears 17

Buffalo at New England: Tough loss for the Bills last week in Oakland, proving once again just how odd the NFL can be on a weekly basis. The very same team that’s good enough to beat the Packers in Week 15 can lose to the Raiders in Week 16. That’s how it goes, unfortunately. The Patriots have nothing to play for in terms of playoff seeding, and we could see a bit of backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo. I still like them to get the job done and finish the season unbeaten at home.  If you’re looking for a laugh, I gladly will link to this visual from DB Devin McCourty’s Instagram account, which I found funnier than Rob Gronkowski cuddling with a kitten:

The Pick: Patriots 20, Bills 16

Philadelphia at New York Giants: Mark Sanchez makes his return to the Meadowlands. The Odell Beckham Jr. Show continues for one more week and I have it ending with the Giants’ fourth straight win. In his past eight games, Beckham, who’s now affectionately being referred to as "ODB" on Twitter (hello, Wu-Tang fans), has 1,014 yards and eight touchdowns, making him the only rookie in NFL history with 1,000-plus receiving yards and eight touchdown catches in an eight-game span. In a year loaded with talented offensive rookies, Beckham may be a unanimous NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year selection.

The Pick: Giants 34, Eagles 20

New Orleans at Tampa Bay: I’ll be working the sidelines and am curious to see how the Saints come out for what’s got to feel like a complete letdown after last week’s loss to the Falcons. As for Tampa Bay, the team might be better suited long-term with a loss, but there are several players fighting for 2015 roster spots who’ll be getting significant action. In the NFL, there is only a limited amount of opportunities to put together good game film. There’s no "tanking" when 46 guys are trying to provide for their families, regardless of the quarterback situation. In Week 17 games like this, with one team that didn’t fulfill expectations and the another that’s just incredibly young, I tend to side with the latter. Bucs win.

The Pick: Buccaneers 23, Saints 17

Detroit at Green Bay: This is the rare Week 17 game in which the winner could be the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, while the loser will be the No. 6 seed. The Packers are 7-0 at home and have won their games at Lambeau Field by an average of 20.7 points. The Lions have lost 22 straight in Green Bay (including one that made Matt Flynn a lot of money). Detroit’s already beaten Green Bay this season and has the type of front four that gives the Packers trouble (see Buffalo, Seattle). But I’m not picking against Green Bay. I’ve seen the Packers beat too many good teams at home to think they’ll lay an egg.

The Pick: Packers 28, Lions 20

NFL WAGs

Oakland at Denver: If the Broncos go up big early, this could be a Brock Osweiler second-half special. If it is, here are some fun facts about the Broncos’ backup QB that you need to know. Despite being close to 6-foot-6 at the time, Osweiler ran for 700 yards during his senior year of high school. He became the first true freshman to start at quarterback for Arizona State since Jake Plummer did it in 1993. He was selected 28 picks before Russell Wilson. Bottom line, I think Peyton takes care of business and locks up that No. 2 seed.

The Pick: Broncos 27, Raiders 17

Arizona at San Francisco: The Cardinals were expected to start rookie QB Logan Thomas on Sunday, with the hopes of Drew Stanton getting the nod the following week in either Carolina or Atlanta. But on Thursday, reports surfaced that Ryan Lindley would start instead. Regardless, this is assuredly Jim Harbaugh’s last game as 49ers coach, and his guys will be up for it.

The Pick: 49ers 27, Cardinals 13

St. Louis at Seattle: Home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs is on the line. The Seahawks aren’t losing this one. Seattle’s fans got on me for picking them to lose to Ryan Lindley last week, and rightfully so. I’m not sure anyone’s going into their building and winning in January.

SUPER BOWL BUSTS

The Pick: Seahawks 31, Rams 6

Cincinnati at Pittsburgh: And the AFC North will come down to this. The Steelers are playing better football than the Bengals, and I’m looking at what’s ahead with a win here: a playoff game at home, a chance to avoid Andrew Luck in his building, and the opportunity to force the Bengals into another tough wild-card matchup. I think Pittsburgh, with that home crowd in a frenzy, will take care of business. Guy to watch? Wide receiver Antonio Brown. That’s secondary, of course, to what I believe will be the biggest and best game of the week. 

The Pick: Steelers 30, Bengals 24

IF ALL THOSE PICKS ARE CORRECT, YOUR 2014 PLAYOFF MATCHUPS ARE AS FOLLOWS:

AFC seeds

1. New England

2. Denver

(6) San Diego at (3) Pittsburgh

(5) Cincinnati at (4) Indianapolis

 NFC seeds

1. Seattle

2. Green Bay

(6) Detroit at (3) Dallas

(5) Arizona at (4) Carolina

READER EMAIL OF THE WEEK

Peter,

STUBBLE TROUBLE

I assume you fenced in high school. You seem like that kind of guy. Was Jeff Cumberland’s fencing touchdown dance your favorite of the year?

Henry,

Gainesville, Florida

Henry,

I went to a public school in Central Jersey. Do you think we had fencing as a sport? Come on. And though I appreciated Cumberland’s enthusiasm, my favorite dance this year has been "The Whip". Odell Beckham Jr.’s done it. Dez Bryant’s done it. Jeremy Hill’s done it. And Cam Newton kinda sorta did it on Sunday when he scored. Four NFL writers — Jeff Darlington, Jonathan Jones, Joseph Person and myself — were Googling to find out the name of the dance after Cam’s score. It wasn’t any of our hippest moments.

WEEK 17 CHEAT SHEET TRIVIA ANSWER OF THE WEEK

The 2000 Tampa Bay Buccaneers made the playoffs that season, but lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC wild-card round. Three weeks later, the city of Tampa Bay hosted the Super Bowl, a Baltimore Ravens victory over the New York Giants.