Two more weeks left in the NFL season and the playoff races are on everyone’s minds. But I got a serious problem with the playoff system as it is set up right now. 12 teams make it. No problem there. 4 teams get byes. That’s cool by me. Every division winner gets an automatic berth. Definitely okay even if the NFC West winner is 7-9. But division winners are guaranteed a home game, even if their record is worse than the wildcard opponent? I don’t understand that one. Right now, if the standings were to hold up in the NFC, the 7-9 NFC West team (whether it be the Seahawks, Rams or Niners) will host a defending champs Saints team that will have at least 10 wins, maybe 12. That’s just ridiculous. Give homefield advantage based on record, not based on arbitrary divisions. That’s all I want for next Christmas. Last week: 7 wins – 9 losses. Season record: 114-105-5.
Carolina Panthers (+14) at Pittsburgh Steelers: Very interesting dynamic brewing in Carolina as their dreadful season draws to an end soon. The Panthers are well on their way to having the worst record in football, and thereby receiving the #1 draft pick, where they would presumably take Stanford junior QB Andrew Luck (if he declares himself eligible). So the Panthers have to keep losing to secure the top pick, but Carolina rookie QB Jimmy Clausen is in a position where he is essentially playing to keep his job. Carolina is terrible, but 14 points seems like a lot to lay for a Steelers team coming off a short week after a brutal game against the Jets, and a cold December night in Heinz Field should limit scoring in general.
Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals (+7): In a matchup of what should have been, two division champs from last year come into Saturday night’s Christmas showdown with only nine combined wins. The Cowboys can blame Tony Romo’s broken clavicle and the poor coaching of Wade Phillips (now replaced by Jason Garrett), but the real reason this team didn’t repeat as NFC East champions: defense. Dallas has been pitiful on the defensive side of the ball, allowing 28.3 points per game, good enough for second-worst in the NFL. Arizona isn’t much better at 26.4 points allowed per game, but doesn’t seven points seem a lot to lay for a Cowboys team that has allowed 30 points or more eight times this season including the last four weeks? I think so. Gimme the points and the Cards.
New England Patriots (-7.5) at Buffalo Bills: Does anyone remember the last time the Bills beat the Pats? These divisional “rivals” (quotes because it’s tough to call this a rivalry, it’s so lopsided) face each other twice a year, yet the Bills haven’t managed to eek out a victory since September of 2003. The Pats’ 14 straight wins over Buffalo is the longest active streak of any team against a single opponent. Look for number 15 to come rather easy.
New York Jets at Chicago Bears (-2.5): The Bears continued to impress with a 40-14 victory in snowy Minneapolis, and they locked up the NFC North title in the process. Problem is that they need to keep winning to secure a bye and an extra week of rest for the playoffs. With a 10-4 record and a head-to-head victory over Philadelphia, the Bears sit in the driver’s seat for the 2nd seed behind Atlanta, but the Eagles are breathing down their backs. Chicago won’t let up on the gas pedal quite yet. I like them to beat the Jets.
Baltimore Ravens (-3.5) at Cleveland Browns: I’m gonna give up picking Ravens games pretty soon. Anytime I decide to be a homer, Baltimore lets me down (see Buffalo or first Cleveland game). Then I lose a little faith, the Ravens pick it back up again (see games vs. New Orleans or Miami). If I were superstitious, I would pick against Baltimore and hope they keep proving me wrong like last week. But I actually try to get these picks right (I know you probably don’t believe me), so I’m going with the Ravens. You better not let me down boys!
Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs (-5): The Chiefs can practically taste the playoffs now. After a huge win against the cross-state rival Rams, the Chiefs come back home to Kansas City where they host the Titans. KC holds a one-game lead over San Diego in the AFC West, with home games against Tennessee and Oakland in their final two weeks. Arrowhead Stadium has always been kind to the Chiefs, and their 6-0 record at home proves it. The Chiefs continue their surprising run on Sunday.
San Francisco 49ers at St. Louis Rams (-2): I refuse to give up on the Rams. St. Louis will win this division. But the fact that the 5-9 Niners still have a legitimate shot to win the NFC West shows you just how pathetic this division has become. Whoever wins this game will most likely earn the right to get blown out by New Orleans in the first round of the NFC playoffs. Congratulations…I guess.
Detroit Lions (+3.5) at Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins are definitely my pick for most confusing team this year. 1-6 at home? But 6-1 on the road? Are you serious? Since this game will be played in Miami (despite their players petitioning to play in Detroit…okay, I made that up), the Lions seem to be the smart pick. Plus, Detroit isn’t half bad after all. Wins over the two Bays, Green and Tampa, in successive weeks has me believing in these Lions again.
Washington Redskins (+7) at Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jags’ star RB Maurice Jones-Drew may miss this game with nagging knee injuries, and if MJD can’t go, Jacksonville’s playoff chances are doomed. They missed out on an opportunity to seal the deal last week in Indy, and now the Jags need to win out and get help from a Colts’ loss. Obviously it’s a must-win, but I don’t believe Jacksonville has what it takes to grab the AFC South title away from Peyton Manning.
San Diego Chargers (-8) at Cincinnati Bengals: Cincy burned me last week by getting a win (finally) over the Browns to snap their 10-game losing streak. But I have made it a weekly tradition to hate on/trash/pick against the Bungles all year, and I’m riding a hot Chargers team that has outscored their opponents 65-7 in their last two games. San Diego is in a must-win situation, needing to win out and for Kansas City to lose once in the next two weeks. Chargers get their end of the bargain done in convincing fashion.
Houston Texans at Denver Broncos (+3): Uh oh. I don’t have anything planned for this paragraph. I’m not watching this game. Neither should you. Unless you are Tim Tebow’s parents. The rookie QB out of the University of Florida is making his first NFL start, and I predict a win, giving something for Gator fans to cheer about. And God knows they need it after a pretty forgettable 7-5 season in Gainesville.
Indianapolis Colts (-2.5) at Oakland Raiders: This pick comes down to a simple question. Do you believe that Peyton Manning will find a way to win this game and the AFC South, or will the Colts’ spotty run defense get exposed against the Raiders’ rushing attack? How ‘bout both. The Colts won’t shut out Oakland’s run offense, but come on. Peyton Manning is winning this game. He needs it, so he’ll make it happen.
New York Giants (+3) at Green Bay Packers: A lot has been made of the Giants’ collapse in the fourth quarter against Michael Vick and the Eagles. Blowing a 31-10 lead in the final eight minutes is a terrible sign. But leading 31-10 over a very good Philly team is an encouraging sign. Let’s not forget that the Giants were dominating the Eagles for the first 52 minutes of that game. This is a team still very much in the hunt for the final playoff spot in the NFC Wildcard. One of the teams they are competing with is Green Bay, who gets their star QB Aaron Rodgers back from an injury. In a close game, I’m taking the points and the Giants.
Seattle Seahawks (+6.5) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Doesn’t seven points seem like a lot to win by for a team that just lost to the Detroit Lions at home? Were the Bucs ever any good? They still haven’t won a game against an opponent over .500, and now they finally lost to a mediocre team. Their playoff hopes are nearly gone. Meanwhile, Seattle is very much alive in the NFC West, despite its very average 6-8 record. Tampa beats bad teams, but that doesn’t mean win in blowouts. I’ll take the points.
Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles (-14): In the NFL, these huge spreads are just impossible to guess. I’m pretty confident that the Eagles will win on Sunday night. I know that unproven and untested rookie QB Joe Webb will likely start for Minnesota. I know the Eagles have a top-two MVP candidate in Michael Vick. But you just never know in the NFL if this is going to be a 10 point game or a 17 point game. I guessed wrong with Carolina on Thursday night. I hope I’m guessing right this time around.
New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons (-2.5): I’m really excited for this game as the defending champion Saints take on the top contender in the NFC, their division rival Atlanta Falcons. And even though this game seems pretty tough to call, I never hesitated on this pick. In a fairly even matchup, home teams should be favored by 3 points. I think Atlanta’s 12-2 record, including a win over New Orleans in the Superdome, and perfect 6-0 record at home should have earned them respect. Yet this line is -2.5, meaning people value the Saints slightly higher. I don’t buy it. I know the Saints are defending champs and all, but the Falcons are here to stay, and it’s nearly impossible to beat them in the Georgia Dome. I see a lot of value with Atlanta at home as small favorites.