The NFL season has reached the homestretch. The month of December is when the playoff picture finally starts to clear up, and we pundits can begin to prognosticate those twelve teams left standing after 17 weeks of regular-season play. This week, the biggest battles may be on Sunday and Monday nights, where two AFC divisions could be decided in huge rivalry games. The Ravens and Steelers are deadlocked at 8-3 going into a Sunday night brawl, while the Jets and Pats head for a showdown in Foxboro. The winners will have the fast track to their division titles, and the top two seeds/byes in the AFC playoffs. Should tell us a lot about these teams. Last week: 9 wins – 7 losses. Season record: 91-80-5.
Houston Texans at Philadelphia Eagles (-8): No reason to panic in the City of Brotherly Love. The Eagles are 7-4, tied atop the NFC East with the New York Giants. But of those four losses, only one of them came with Michael Vick playing a full sixty minutes as QB, last week in a 31-26 defeat to a surprisingly good Chicago team. I lost on the Eagles last week, but that had more to do with undervaluing Chicago than overrating Philly. Houston played well last week, but to be fair, Tennessee started Rusty Smith as their QB. Needless to say, Houston’s passing defense, ranking at 31st in the NFL, will get a much stiffer test with Michael Vick jump-starting an Eagles offense, averaging nearly 400 yards of total offense, good enough for 2nd in the NFL. Vick shines in primetime just like he did at Washington on Monday night a couple weeks back, and the Eagles win big.
New Orleans Saints (-6.5) at Cincinnati Bengals: Betting against the Bungles is quickly becoming a weekly tradition for me. And why not? The Bengals are 3-8 against the spread on the season, and every week they look more and more like the worst team in the NFL. As for the Saints, they escaped on Thanksgiving Day thanks to a timely Dallas fumble. And now, they have 10 days of rest before an absolute beatdown of the Bengals.
Chicago Bears (-4.5) at Detroit Lions: Comparing this line to the previous New Orleans-Cincy game, why is Chicago only favored by two points? Chicago is 8-3, as is New Orleans, and Detroit is 2-9, same record as the Bengals. Granted, Detroit has done very well for a 2-9 team, going 7-4 against the spread. But I’m going to stop drinking the hater-ade against Chicago. This team is a legitimate threat in the NFC, and to prove so, they need to win on the road. So far they are 4-1 on the road this year, so I think that trend continues on Sunday.
San Francisco 49ers (+9.5) at Green Bay Packers: Since starting 0-5, the San Francisco 49ers have improved to 4-7, winning four of their last six games. A lot of that has to do with a change at QB, with former Heisman winner Troy Smith taking over after poor results from opening day starter Alex Smith. Even with star RB Frank Gore out with a season-ending injury, the Niners’ running game got going with Brian Westbrook rushing for 136 yards last Monday. That ground game is going to be essential to keeping this game close, and not forcing Troy Smith to push the envelope against a very good Packers team.
Jacksonville Jaguars (+3) at Tennessee Titans: It’s time to start believing in the Jags, who dropped to 6-5 last week but were very competitive against a good New York Giants team. The Titans are moving in the opposite direction, getting blanked 20-0 against a Houston Texans team that allows 26.8 points per game. Relying on third-string QB Rusty Smith had a lot to do with that terrible offensive performance, and that might happen again if veteran Kerry Collins doesn’t return from a calf injury this week. The Titans are optimistic that Collins will play, but I still think Jacksonville is undervalued as a legitimate threat in the AFC South.
Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs (-8.5): Revenge is best served cold. Well, it’s going to be a chilly 35 degrees in Kansas City on Sunday, when the Chiefs look to hand the Broncos some payback after a 49-29 defeat in Week 10. The Chiefs continue to lead the AFC West despite the surging Chargers’ good play. A lot of that has to do with the play of QB Matt Cassell, who has thrown 12 TDs and only one interception in his last four games. I’m not high on the Broncos and their one-dimensional offense, considering they are 30th in the NFL in rushing offense, averaging only 79 yards per game. The Chiefs, meanwhile, lead the league with 174 rushing yards per game.
Cleveland Browns at Miami Dolphins (-4.5): The Cleveland Browns were showing promise midway through this season, beating New Orleans and New England. However, ever since a crushing overtime loss to the New York Jets and an injury to rookie QB Colt McCoy, the Browns haven’t exactly played well. The Browns did get a one-point win last week, thanks to a late missed FG by Carolina kicker John Kasay. Miami is coming off an impressive defensive performance at Oakland, holding the Raiders to only 16 rushing yards. The Dolphins will need to continue their great defensive play against Browns RB Peyton Hillis who is having a breakout season, with over 900 rushing yards already this season.
Buffalo Bills (+5.5) at Minnesota Vikings: This may seem weird, considering the Bills are 2-9, those two wins are against fellow 2-9 teams Detroit and Cincy, and I wrote them off as a 0-16 disaster, but the Bills are really good value every week now. In their last six games, the Bills are 4-1-1 against the spread, including three overtime losses to three potential playoff teams. Last week, the Bills lost another heartbreaker in OT, as WR Stevie Johnson dropped a touchdown pass that would have won the game. Still, the Bills hung tough with a Pittsburgh squad that could be a top-two seed in the AFC playoffs. I’m gonna keep playing the Bills until they prove me wrong.
Washington Redskins at New York Giants (-7): Ever since two blowout victories midway through the season, the Giants have struggled, losing two of three and going 0-3 against the spread. Those two huge wins convinced me that Big Blue was for real, and I’m still riding this ship even if it continues to sink. The G-men need to win to keep up with the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East division race, so maybe they will rise to the occasion and defeat the Redskins easily.
Oakland Raiders at San Diego Chargers (-13): The calendar has finally switched over to the month of December, and no one is happier about that than the San Diego Chargers. Under coach Norv Turner, the Chargers have flourished at the end of the season, winning 18 straight games in December. Somebody should tell Turner to trick his guys that September and October are also the last month of the year. Maybe get a Christmas tree for the locker room year round. Or fake snow around Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. Anyway, Chargers should roll with no problem.
Dallas Cowboys (+5.5) at Indianapolis Colts: Are injuries finally catching up to the Colts? Peyton Manning has been far from perfect, and it seems like this team needs him to play great every week. In the Lone Star State, things are looking much better than the first couple months of the season. The Cowboys are 2-1 under interim coach Jason Garrett, and 3-0 against the spread in that time. If the ‘boys keep playing this well, owner Jerry Jones might be forced to keep Garrett at head coach, even if he most likely wants a big name coach. Too bad, I would have liked to see Bill “the Jaw” Cowher in Dallas.
St. Louis Rams (-3.5) at Arizona Cardinals: After reaffirming my man-crush on Rams rookie QB Sam Bradford last week, Bradford proved my feelings are for good reason. The #1 pick from last year’s draft threw 3 TDs without being picked off in a 36-33 win at Denver. Now, in his last six games, Bradford has thrown just one INT while finding the endzone 11 times through the air. Compare that to Arizona’s QBs who have thrown a combined 14 interceptions so far this year. That’s been a large part of their six-game losing streak.
Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks (-5): This may win the award for worst game this Sunday. On one side, you have the Panthers with a NFL-worst 1-10 record. On the another, we have a team fighting for a division title. Unfortunately for us, it’s the NFC West, so the Seattle Seahawks aren’t much better despite their playoff aspirations. A 5-6 record doesn’t quite convey how bad the Seahawks have been in their 1-4 slide in the last five weeks. The Seahawks have given up an average of 33.6 points in those last five games. Even with all that, how can I pick Carolina? Seattle can’t possibly be worse than the Panthers, right?
Atlanta Falcons (-3) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Falcons keep on winning close games, pulling out a last-minute victory for the second time in three weeks. This time, it came at the expense of the Green Bay Packers as the Falcons hit a field goal with 9 seconds left to win 20-17. The Bucs keep proving that they are a good team, but not a great team. They may boast a 7-4 record, but none of those seven wins have come against a team with a winning record. The Bucs are the league’s youngest team, so maybe they can afford to wait another year, but they won’t be playing in January if they can’t beat other playoff teams.
Pittsburgh Steelers (+3) at Baltimore Ravens: I really don’t have a good feeling about this one. As a Ravens fan, I can tell you I’m scared of Pittsburgh. I will admit it. If any fan out there tells you otherwise, they are either lying or completely deluded. Want to know Big Ben’s record as a starter against the Ravens? 7-2. In Joe Flacco’s early career, he’s struggled against the Steel Curtain, compiling a 2-4 record, but those two wins came with Big Ben out with an injury or suspension. Steelers should win a brutal slugfest.
New York Jets at New England Patriots (-3.5): The New York Jets finally won a game kind of convincingly, after three straight nail-biters in overtime victories over Detroit and Cleveland, and a last-minute game-winning drive versus Houston. This game should also be close so it comes down to how you interpret those previous games. There are two schools of thought about teams who consistently win close games. First, you may believe that a team learns from those games and will keep thriving in those situations because of experience and confidence. Me? I believe that lucky breaks even out over the course of a season. You can’t keep on flipping heads. Eventually, it’s going to be tails. Those breaks go against the Jets in this one, and New England takes back the top spot in the AFC.