I apologize for the lackadaisical nature in which I made my pics last week. I have been in Northern Ireland all week for work, and spent much of last week catching up on work-related items and packing. This week, however, I’m back and ready to roll. I’m looking forward to another exciting week of NFL games as the playoff pictures starts to become a bit more clear.
(Home teams in CAPS. All lines per Sportsbook.com as of 7:15 am PST on Thursday, December 5th.)
Denver (-10.5) over OAKLAND
I’m not usually keen on picking road teams that are giving double-digit points, but check out these one-game stats related to the past five weeks of the Raiders’ season:
Player A: 18/30, 247 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Player B: 21/33, 341 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT
Player C: 20/27, 219 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT
Player D: 16/30, 210 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT
Player E: 25/36, 364 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT
The stats above reflect the output achieved by opposing QBs against the Raiders’ defense during their 5-game losing streak. Player A is skinny Josh Freeman (Week 9), Player B is Joe Flacco (Week 10), Player C is Drew Brees (Week 11), Player D is Andy Dalton (Week 12), and Player E is Brandon Weeden (Week 13). Brandon Weeden?!? If that guy can put up 364 yards against the Raiders, imagine what Peyton Manning is going to do to them.
The Broncos are riding a 7-game winning streak that could very well extend into the playoffs, considering their last four games are all winnable (at Oakland, at Baltimore, vs Cleveland, and vs Kansas City). Since they’ll be battling Houston and New England for playoff seeding, they’ll be fighting until the end.
Atlanta (-3.5) over CAROLINA
Earlier this week, Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy boasted that Carolina (with a record of 3-9 following a loss to the lowly Chiefs) is a ‘better team’ than the Falcons (11-1). Maybe it’s because they played a close game back in Week 4, where the Falcons escaped on a field goal as time expired, but come on. I understand why guys make these ‘we’re better than them’-type claims. They’re trying to pump themselves up or pump of their teammates, or whatever. Still, I think there needs to be an unwritten rule about when it is acceptable / unacceptable to make this claim.
For example, you’re a 9-3 team that has suffered some early defeats due to turnovers which caused your team to give up large leads early in games, which proved to be insurmountable. As the season as gone on, however, you’ve righted the ship, have ripped off 7 straight wins and have an MVP front-runner as your QB (read: Denver Broncos). Maybe you lost to an 11-1 team (Atlanta) on the road by less than a touchdown (Week 2) in a game where said MVP front-runner threw three (!) interceptions in the first half which made it hard to contend for a win without a wild come-back (which nearly happened). In this instance, I think it would be acceptable for a playoff from the Broncos to make the claim that they were better than the Falcons. I’m not saying it’s true or untrue, I’m just saying it would be acceptable.
Conversely, when you’re a 3-9 team coming off a loss to what many considered the worst team in the NFL, and you’ve had several games this season where you lost because you couldn’t finish late, it would be considered unacceptable to make such a claim. Good teams find ways to win close games, something the Falcons have proven week after week they are able to do, and something the Panthers have yet to prove they are capable of.
I’m sick of picking against the Falcons and having them barely win and barely cover. I’m going to give them some respect this week. After all, the Panthers did just lose to the Chiefs.
CLEVELAND (-6.5) over Kansas City
What happened in Kansas City last week was tragic, and it was great to see the Chiefs players and coaches able to pull together and come up with an emotional win in front of their home crowd. I think they’ll ultimately come back to reality this week and struggle to stop a Browns team that suddenly is rushing the ball well and looking to build momentum heading into next season.
BUFFALO (-3) over St. Louis
St. Louis is undefeated against teams named the San Francisco 49ers. They are a combined 4-6 against the rest of the NFL. I think the Rams might be a year away from really making a run at a possible wild card spot. I just don’t see them having their way with the Bills in western New York. In December. I like the duo of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller to get a lot of touches and make some noise.
JACKSONVILLE (+3) over New York Jets
I’m still not ready to jump off the Jacksonville Jaguars train just yet. I think they’ve played much better since Chad Henne took over at QB, although his first post-Movember game left something to be desired. Still, the Jets needed a late QB switch to Greg McElroy to help salvage a 7-6 victory against the free-falling Arizona Cardinals. While McElroy’s future in the NFL remains to be seen, he is already garnering comparisons to future Hall of Fame QBs. Could this be the end of the Mark Sanchez era (and for that matter, Rex Ryan era) in New York and the start of McElroy mania? We’ll see what transpires over the coming weeks.
I like the Jags at home, in large part because I think Chad Henne is better than any QB on the Jets’ roster.
WASHINGTON (-3) over Baltimore
Watching RGIII bring the Redskins back against the Giants and win on Monday night showed me something that I had yet to see about the young rookie. We all know he is capable of flashy plays and has the tendency to make ridiculous plays look easy. Yet, it was his calmness and poise under pressure that really impressed me. A fumble by Alfred Morris in the red zone could have frustrated a lot of young QBs and gotten them off their game. RGIII calmly took the field and engineered what proved to be the game-winning drive mid-way through the fourth quarter. When you have such an athletically gifted player taking his time and making smart decisions, it sends a warning to the rest of the NFL in a hurry.
The Ravens have struggled as of late, winning three-point games at Pittsburgh and at San Diego, and losing by three at home to Pittsburgh last week. The Redskins are on a roll, winning three straight to even their record at 6-6, knowing they’ll need to likely win out (or go 3-1 at the very worst) to secure a playoff spot. The Redskins are at home, they’re more desperate, and they have RGIII.
INDIANAPOLIS (-5) over Tennessee
I’ve raved about Andrew Luck for weeks now. This guy is made of ice. Sure, he makes his rookie mistakes and throws a decent amount of interceptions, but he never counts himself out and never counts the team out. The way he led the Colts back from a 13-point deficit with less than three and a half minutes to play was magnificent and showed maturity beyond that of a rookie. It was his fifth game-winning comeback of the year.
Don’t look now, but the Colts are 8-4 and in the driver’s seat for an AFC wild card spot. They trail the Texans by a seemingly insurmountable three games in the AFC South, but the Colts play the Texans twice in the final four weeks of the season. In addition, the Texans play at New England on Monday, which could very well be the Texans second loss of the season. With a little help from the Pats, the Colts could control their own destiny in the AFC South after this weekend.
I love the Colts at home giving less than a touchdown.
MINNESOTA (+3) over Chicago
If you would have just shown me the highlights of Adrian Peterson from last week’s game in Green Bay, I would have certainly predicted a win for the Vikings. AP has been video game-like this season, less than a year removed from a torn ACL that led many to believe he would miss up to half of this season. Instead, he’s threatening to hit 2000 yards rushing for the year and proving once again why he might be the greatest running back to ever play in the NFL.
Due to a couple costly red zone turnovers, however, the Vikings now sit at 6-6 and are faced with a must win at home against 8-4 Chicago.
The Bears have lost three of their last four, with the lone win coming against this Vikings team, so they will be facing a familiar foe against which they have recently tasted victory. If the Vikings fans and players can’t get up for this game, they can’t get up for any game. This is Minnesota’s playoff game. Their ‘do or die’ moment. And they get it at home, against a division rival.
SAN FRANCISCO (-10) over Miami
I’m still not sold on Colin Kaepernick, especially after last week’s mental breakdown that likely cost the 49ers the game. Maybe the guy just struggles against the Rams. Either way, the Niners return home to Candlestick this week to take on the reeling Dolphins. I expect Jim Harbaugh to put the ball in Frank Gore’s hands early and often and try to pound the ball on the ground in order to help keep Kaepernick from making too many mistakes.
On the defensive side of the ball, I see the 49ers defense frustrating rookie QB Ryan Tannehill with a number of sacks, 3rd-and-long situations, and a costly turnover or two.
NEW YORK GIANTS (-4.5) over New Orleans
The Giants do this every year, don’t they. Play well in the beginning, create a bit of hype, then lose focus / fail to close out some close games, right up to the point where we start to doubt them. Then, starting in December, they go on a tear to barely sneak into the playoffs, upset a team in the second round that has been touted for all or part of the year as ‘the best team in the NFL.’ By the time they show up in the Super Bowl, we’re left wondering how we let them dupe us again. Well, not this year. Not this team.
The Giants sit at 7-5 with a brutal last month of their schedule, where they play the upstart Saints at home, then travel to Atlanta and Baltimore, before finally wrapping up at home against division foe Philadelphia. I’m still not going to be fooled. Either that, or I don’t want to be heartbroken and caught off guard when the Giants show up in January and knock my team out of the playoffs.
CINCINNATI (-3) over Dallas
The loser of this game is likely out of its conference’s respective playoff race. If history has taught us anything about the Dallas Cowboys, it’s that December is the time of year where they start to make mistakes and cost themselves football games. The Bengals are on a four-game win streak and are playing at home with a chance to keep their playoff hopes alive.
PITTSBURGH (No Line) over San Diego
In the last two weeks, Charles D’Donte Batch has won my made-up award for greatest middle name of all time, as well as an actual football game as the starting QB for the Pittsburgh Steelers (over a rival, no less). This weekend, however, Batch will be watching from the sidelines as Ben Roethlisberger returns to the starting lineup. I expect the Steelers to continue their push to the playoffs by defeating the Chargers behind the arm of Big Ben.
TAMPA BAY (-9) over Philadelphia
In a way, I really do feel bad for Andy Reid and Michael Vick. I assume they both love the game of football, and for different reasons. Michael Vick is able to use his status as a professional athlete to try to redeem himself in the eyes of the public after his involvement in dog-fighting years ago. Had he been just an average guy, he may never have had the chance to try to restore his image the way he has. And Reid, just months after his son was found dead of a drug overdose, he must find some solace in the game that has been such a big part of his life, as well as the lives of his family.
With all that said, it’s just not the Eagles’ year. They’ve suffered injuries (as well as the aforementioned personal tragedy), lost close games, and appear to be headed towards a top-five draft pick. Andy Reid’s time in Philly appears to be almost over, and Vick’s could be as well. I sincerely hope they both land on their feet somewhere. I’m always a fan of people redeeming themselves with second (or maybe third) chances.
The Bucs are (a somewhat disappointing) 6-6, but they’re still right in the thick of the playoff race. They have a home game against an inferior team that is without its starting QB and all-pro RB. I think Tampa Bay will run away with this one.
Arizona (+10) over SEATTLE
Seattle has done well to win three of its last four games, including the rabbit-out-of-a-hat trick it pulled off last week in Soldier Field. Rookie QB Russell Wilson, while not putting up gaudy numbers, is proving himself to be a clutch player that doesn’t lose his cool under pressure or when faced with adversity.
Arizona has now lost eight in a row after starting out 4-0. Still, they’ve managed to stay competitive in a number of those games, which, along with Seattle’s ground-and-pound style of play, makes it hard for me to predict a blowout here. Even in the event of a late 31-14 late fourth quarter lead, for example, the Cards will be just one TD away from a push.
GREEN BAY (-6.5) over Detroit
I think the wheels are about to fall off in Detroit. In three consecutive weeks (all at home), the Lions have blown late leads to lose close games. The Packers haven’t looked pretty lately, but they’ve been battling injuries and finding ways to win, which is what teams need to do at this time of year to make the playoffs. The Pack may not look pretty once again, with Jordy Nelson expected to miss the game due to a hamstring injury. Number one receiver Greg Jennings, who has played sparingly this season due to injuries of his own (unofficially due to making Old Spice commercials), makes his return from abdominal surgery in hopes of trying to get back on track before the playoffs. We’ll have to wait and see if he can put the team on his back and make another run at a Super Bowl.
I expect a relatively close game throughout, but ultimately I think Green Bay pulls away late, due in large part to its home-field advantage and an opportunistic defense.
NEW ENGLAND (-3.5) over Houston
Remember when New England was 3-3 following three losses (Arizona at home, at Baltimore, at Seattle) in games where they either held a late lead or had a chance to win on a last-second field goal? Six straight wins later, they are one of two AFC teams (Denver) to have clinched their division and a home playoff game. This is where the 2nd part of the Pats’ season starts. The part where they jockey for playoff seeding and try to play more than just one home playoff game.
In a game that very well could be a preview of the AFC title game, New England hosts a Houston Texans team that has found ways to win in recent weeks without actually looking all that impressive. Houston is a dome team that uses its great defense to rattle opposing QBs and force them into making costly mistakes. On Monday, however, they’ll be playing in Boston where the forecast calls for a 60% chance of rain and temperatures are expected to drop into the mid to low-40s. In addition, they’ll be playing against an elite quarterback in Tom Brady.
Last week: 7-9-0