-- ESPN senior writer Mike Sando asks league insiders to pick winners in selected games each week. Three evaluators joined the panel for Week 17. This week's selected games: Panthers-Falcons, Cardinals-Seahawks, Jaguars-Titans, Raiders-Chargers and Saints-Buccaneers.
Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons
Sunday: 4:25 p.m. ET, Fox | Point spread: ATL by 4 | PickCenter
Two of three insiders are taking Carolina to win on the road against the defending NFC champions, a result that would eliminate the Falcons from the playoffs while clearing a path for Seattle to qualify as the sixth seed. Carolina has an outside shot at the NFC's second seed and could win the division. The Panthers won the first game between the teams 20-17.
"The Carolina linebacker corps with [Luke] Kuechly and Thomas Davis matches up against those Atlanta backs better than most people's linebacker corps, so now the only way Atlanta capitalizes is to get Julio [Jones] involved," one of the insiders said. "They have not done a great job keeping Julio involved. As soon as people double Julio, they go away from him. That is the biggest deal, and then Julius Peppers is still playing well."
The Falcons have lost at home to Minnesota, Miami and Buffalo this season. They do own home victories over Green Bay and New Orleans.
"The key in this game is the ability of Atlanta to have their run-pass with their boots and play-action off their running game," the insider picking the Falcons said. "They have to have that to keep Carolina's defense honest, because Carolina blitzes so much. They love to send their nickels off the edge."
Under new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, the Panthers have sent a defensive back as a pass-rusher 85 times, the NFL's third-highest total behind Cleveland (91) and the Giants (87). Unlike the Browns and Giants, who allowed nine touchdowns with two interceptions and 10 sacks (82.6 Total QBR) on those plays, Carolina has dominated when rushing a defensive back. The Panthers have allowed one scoring pass with three interceptions and 12 sacks (23.7 QBR) in those situations.
"Carolina wins the biggest game of Week 17, which impacts five different playoff seeds," the third insider said. "The Panthers have the stronger defense in terms of run defense, sacks, takeaways, etc."
The insider picking the Falcons thought Atlanta's best shot at winning was to follow the blueprint Tampa Bay laid out last week, minus the fumbles and minus the kickoff return allowed for a touchdown.
"If you are able to shut down Carolina's running game, which Tampa was able to do, and then force Cam [Newton] to beat you from the pocket, you are going to be in the game," this insider said. "Offensively, Carolina is really struggling on the perimeter as far as getting open. [Greg] Olsen is not the same guy right now. [Devin] Funchess has been battling a shoulder injury. Everything kind of runs through [Christian] McCaffrey and Cam."
Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks
Sunday: 4:25 p.m. ET, Fox | Point spread: SEA by 10 | PickCenter
Seattle must win for any shot at the playoffs. Arizona must win to avoid posting back-to-back losing records in what could be its final run under coach Bruce Arians. All three insiders took Seattle, with none attempting to overthink the outcome.
"Seattle wins at home against the Cardinals' third quarterback," one of the insiders said, noting that Drew Stanton's passer rating is beneath 70.
Stanton is the only Cardinals quarterback with a winning record as a starter over the past two seasons, having gone 3-1 with seven touchdowns, three interceptions and only five sacks in his four starts. His passer rating (76.0), Total QBR (37.5), completion rate (50.4) and yards per attempt (5.8) suggest the 3-1 record is the outlier. Arizona's opponents have scored 31 points in Stanton's three victories as a starter.
The Cardinals rank fifth in ESPN's defensive efficiency metric this season, one spot ahead of Seattle. That Arizona defense should like its chances against a Seahawks offense coming off a 136-yard performance at Dallas last week.
The game could come down to which team's quarterback can best capitalize on the opportunities its defense provides. With Jimmy Graham and Doug Baldwin forcing opponents to essentially pick their poison, Seattle leads the NFL in red zone efficiency (83.3 percent) over its past four games. The Cardinals are 31st at 28.6 percent.
Seattle beat the Stanton-led Cardinals 22-16 in Week 16. Carson Palmer was the starter when Arizona won its past two games at Seattle by 39-32 and 34-31 scores.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Tennessee Titans
Sunday: 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS | Point spread: TEN by 3 | PickCenter
The Jaguars are the AFC's third seed no matter what. The Titans must win or get help for a shot at a wild-card berth. Two of the three insiders picked the Jaguars after hearing Jacksonville planned to play its starters.
"I do think Jacksonville, because they lost last week, they will be extra focused this week and do enough to win," one of the insiders said. " Marcus Mariota hasn't been productive. There is something going on with that offense that does not vibe well. DeMarco Murray hurt his knee. The problem is, Jacksonville is in a mindset where they can't go into the playoffs losing two games in a row."
The second insider picking Jacksonville thought the Jaguars wanted a victory in part to avoid facing Tennessee in the wild-card round, noting that the Titans handed the Jaguars their worst defeat of the season back in Week 2 (37-16).
"It'll be interesting to see Mariota play against the Jags' defense, which will be all fired up with the loss and how they played against San Francisco last week," the insider picking Tennessee said. "The core numbers say Jacksonville is every bit as good as its record and has actually underperformed record-wise. That is the Blake Bortles factor. But on the other side, Mariota has been playing more like Blake Bortles this year. I think Tennessee finds a way using the same formula as last time, which is with their running game."
The Titans rushed for 179 yards in the Week 2 meeting between the teams, led by Derrick Henry with 92. Mariota was unspectacular (51.1 QBR). Bortles threw two picks.
"San Francisco had success [against Jacksonville] with [Jimmy] Garoppolo being just money picking them apart," the insider picking Tennessee said. "Can Mariota do that? I don't know. But I do have Tennessee having success in the run game. I think Tennessee is going to be leading the game and it will come down to Bortles having a chance to lead them down the field at the end. Can he do it? I am going to say no."
New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Sunday: 4:25 p.m. ET, Fox | Point spread: NO by 7 | PickCenter
The Saints will win the NFC South with a victory. Not everyone was convinced they would. One of the two insiders picking New Orleans thought the Buccaneers were an intriguing upset pick.
"This is a tough one," this insider said. "I'm going with New Orleans, but part of me believes that Tampa is going to win this game. I really feel like Jameis [Winston] had one of his better games last week numbers-wise, even though he had those fumbles. I really feel like those guys can come out and produce against New Orleans."
It didn't happen when Tampa Bay visited New Orleans in Week 9. An injured Winston gave way to Ryan Fitzpatrick in that game, while Drew Brees completed 81.5 percent of his passes and the Saints rushed for 151 yards during a 30-10 victory.
"The Saints will win," another insider said. "They are trying like hell to have a home playoff game by winning the division."
The insider picking Tampa Bay admitted the Buccaneers were far from a safe bet. The Buccaneers have played 10 games this season in which they were tied or trailing by no more than one score in the fourth quarter with at least two minutes remaining. They are 2-8 in those games. Shaky quarterback play, a bad running back situation and a weak pass rush have made it tough for Tampa Bay to close out opponents.
"One key against the Saints is winning on early downs," this insider said. "They are just an average third-down team, and a lot of that seems to be because Brees is playing conservative in those situations, knowing they will eventually score points, so why force it? I'll take Tampa on the thinking that they will not go 0-6 in the division this year with so many one-score games going against them."
Oakland Raiders at Los Angeles Chargers
Sunday: 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS | Point spread: LAC by 8 | PickCenter
All three insiders picked the Chargers for obvious reasons. They thought Los Angeles' outside pass-rushers would overwhelm the Raiders' struggling edge protectors, and they questioned whether quarterback? Derek Carr could play well enough to win.
"I just feel like watching Derek Carr try to throw the ball last week, it looks like total dysfunction and chaos," said an insider who went 5-0 with his Week 16 picks. "Tackle-wise, they struggled on the edges, and with L.A.'s rushers, they are going to have some chances."