As the season progresses, we continue to see significant separation between teams. Some teams have surprised by winning games they were “supposed to lose,” but I firmly believe that many teams are simply not who we think they are (New England). It’s beginning to come together. My early post-season picks in the AFC were Pittsburgh, Baltimore, San Diego, New England, New York and Indianapolis. Since then, the Jets have lost to the Saints and Dolphins. The Steelers and Ravens have lost to the Bengals. The Broncos have beaten the Patriots and are favored to beat the Chargers. Only Indianapolis remains unscathed. In the NFC, my playoff picks look a bit better: the Giants, Saints, Eagles, Vikings and Falcons have done nothing to disappoint. The 49ers, however, without Frank Gore have suffered two tough losses: at Minnesota, and at home to the Falcons.
Let’s get to the picks:
St. Louis Rams at Jacksonville Jaguars. Two weeks ago, I wrote that I didn’t like the “Del Rio’s” and picked them to lose to the Titans at home. The Jags went out and thrashed the Titans 37-17. Last week in Seattle, they looked like the team I don’t like. They lost 41-0. This team is still a mess. They’ll probably finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs again. The Rams, though, simply don’t have enough weapons to pull this one out. All the Jaguars need to do is commit to stopping the run and rely on Rashean Mathis to shut down Donny Avery. It won’t get much easier than this. Jacksonville 38, St. Louis 13.
Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Both of these teams are troubled. The Bucs, though, are as bad on defense as they’ve been ince 1995 – the year before Tony Dungy arrived. The Bucs will move the ball and score against the Panthers. The question is can they do what most other teams have done — force Jake Delhomme to turn the ball over? If the Bucs can win the turnover battle and stop the Panthers from running the ball, they’ll win. The Panthers running game, when they actually decide to run (16 carries vs. Dallas), is supposed to be a strength of the team. They’ve only managed to top 100 yards once this season (144 yds. vs. the Falcons). At least the Bucs have had some success on the ground vs. Dallas and the Redskins. After two tough road losses at Washington and Philadelphia, I like the Bucs to rally at home. Tampa Bay 17, Carolina 16.
Baltimore Ravens at Minnesota Vikings. The Matt Birk/Chester Taylor Revenge Bowl is going to be a physical contest.
I know that the Ravens defense has a history of imposing its will, but after watching the Vikings offensive line this season, I prefer the Vikings. The weakest aspect of the Vikings line is the center — but as you move to the edges, they get better and better. I think Favre will be well protected in this game. I don’t know if Adrian Peterson will run for 100 yards like Cedric Benson did last week. I don’t think it matters. If AP and Chester Taylor can get 27 carries, that should be enough to do it. Percy Harvin is banged up, but the Vikings still have some weapons. I’m not sold on Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense. Just because the media sings your praises doesn’t mean you’ve arrived. Minnesota 28, Baltimore 20.
Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers. I don’t hate the Lions – in fact, I knew they would compete against the Steelers last week. (I wonder how that game turns out with a healthy Calvin Johnson.) I just think they’re in over their heads. Daunte Culpepper has a great deal of experience playing in Lambeau Field. He looks as good as he’s looked in several years. If he’s teamed with Kevin Smith and Calvin and Bryant Johnson (no relation), the Lions have some nice offensive options. Even with all of that, they don’t have the firepower to counteract Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings and company. Green Bay 33, Detroit 21.
Houston Texans at Cincinnati Bengals. This is a game that I’d love to see. Last week Andre Johnson emerged from the desert with the best statistical day of any receiver on the field, but the Texans lost. The Texans are simply not going to be able to slow down Cedric Benson. The health of Carson Palmer is forcing teams to play the Bengals straight up. That’s tough to do because Chad is healthy and they have several options on offense. The Bengals are going to win this game — the only question for me is whether Houston can make this a classic shootout. This is the game to do it. The Bengals are at home following two big wins over the Steelers and Ravens. They’re not used to this heady feeling. Expect the defense to be less sharp that usual. All guns blazin’. This will be a homecoming for Kevin Walter (a 7th round draft pick of the Giants who began his playing career in Cincinnati). Cincinnati 48, Houston 42.
Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers. Welcome back, Troy! Pittsburgh 31, Cleveland 0.
Kansas City Chiefs at Washington Redskins. Everyone has an opinion on what is wrong with the Redskins. I believe DeAngelo Hall may know best. He doesn’t think the team has the right personnel. They certainly don’t have the right leadership, ownership, or fellowship. DeAngelo says their on the verge of panic. Go Chiefs!!! Washington 10, Kansas City 3.
Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks. If either of these teams can take this season series, it’s going to do a great deal to help their post-season chances. San Francisco has already beaten both of these teams. The road to the playoffs has to go through a division title. Arizona’s schedule is about to get very ugly (at NYG, at Chi). These teams play again in 3 weeks. This game is going to tightly contested – and if we’re lucky, it will be as well played as the second half of the Jets-Dolphins game last Monday night. Seattle’s feeling themselves. 41-0 over the Jags!! Cards are better, but home cooking is fine. Seattle 27, Arizona 26.
Philadelphia Eagles at Oakland Raiders. No comment. Philadelphia 100, Oakland 0.
Buffalo Bills at New York Jets. You suddenly have trouble with run defense and you’re facing a team with Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson that is wholly incapable of passing the ball. Sounds like a recipe for disaster. It’s not — really. Lynch is good, and this IS a rivalry game but Buffalo is just not ready for prime time. I doubt that Owens or Evans will have much success vs. Darrelle Revis. Chad Henne found some things against this defense, but it was all predicated on the success of the ground game. The Bills are trying something that is counter-intuitive. They are a bad weather team running a good weather offense — heading into winter. Running the no-huddle in Buffalo is akin to invading Russia wearing swimming trunks and flip flops. Bad weather teams don’t need gimmicks. They need power. I’m taking the Sanchise. New York 38, Buffalo 15.
Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots. This game had all the marquee appeal of a conference championship game at the beginning of the season. The Titans were 13-3 last season and throttled the eventual Super Bowl champion. The Patriots are a perennial favorite. Things have changed. The Titans are terrible and operating under the delusion that this season can have meaning with Kerry Collins at the helm. I said in Week 3 that Collins was about to get exposed. It hasn’t been pretty since then. Tennessee may not want to go with Vince Young, but he makes that team much tougher offensively. Chris Johnson demonstrated a disappointing lack of lane discipline last week. He wanted to pop every run to the outside — it wasn’t there. LenDale White has yet to get untracked – despite his rededication and weight loss. And, if you’ve watched Kyle Vanden Bosch this season, you KNOW he’s not the guy who played with Haynesworth. He’s been manhandled all season long. KVB’s underperformance is combined with a youthful secondary — enter Randy Moss. Goodnite sweet Titan. New England 35, Tennessee 17.
Chicago Bears at Atlanta Falcons. This is going to be a GREAT game. Atlanta won a close one last season in the Georgia Dome. It is not a common occurrence for these teams to play one another. The second year in the rivalry should cause this to heat up. The Falcons offense is for real. They’ve proven they can score on the road — outdoors. They haven’t proven they can stop the run. A few weeks back I said that the loss of Peria Jerry (rookie DT from Mississippi) would be big. Last week, the Niners were without Gore. Running was not their, ahem, “forte.” Such is not the case with the Bears. Chicago 23, Atlanta 21.
Denver Broncos at San Diego Chargers. I’m still not a believer in the Broncos – but I am a believer in the Chargers. I believe they’re a team at war with themselves (or at least with their GM). This team is no longer that supremely talented bunch capable of sending 12 players to a Pro Bowl. They simply don’t have that type of talent. On paper, the Chargers should be able to exploit a series of mismatches in the Denver secondary. The Chargers have 3 enormous wide outs, Antonio Gates and the very physical Chris Chambers…and they still cannot get it done. Denver 24, San Diego 21.
GAME OF THE WEEK.
New York Giants at New Orleans Saints. The last time the Saints played a team from New York, I was conflicted about picking a winner. I eventually decided the Saints had enough to win. The decisive factor was that a rookie QB was starting on the road against a tough team (Exhibit B: Miami 31, Jets 27). Eli ain’t no rookie. The Giants are a well-oiled machine. They win this game. By the way, I suspect that Saints WR Lance Moore is going to break out this week. New York Giants 37, New Orleans Saints 31.