Last week was the final week of byes, meaning that we’ll see every team in action from here on out. And this week, we have four games with potential playoff implications on the docket.
It starts in Chicago, with the game that most of the country will see early on Fox, as the Bears welcome the Vikings into town. To say that the NFC North is tight is an understatement. I expected the race to be competitive, but it’s currently the only division in the league with three teams over .500. The Packers and Bears are currently at the top with 7-3 records and the Vikings are a game behind at 6-4.
Minnesota would be on the outside due to tiebreakers if the season ended today and this is one that they can’t afford to drop. For their remaining six games, they go Chicago, Green Bay, Chicago, before heading to St. Louis and Houston, and end the season at home against Green Bay again – it doesn’t get much tougher than that. In fact, all three of the North’s best play four of their final six games against divisional rivals. We’ll be seeing a lot of these teams on national TV in the coming weeks.
Those who won’t see Minnesota-Chicago will get Atlanta-Tampa Bay, another big divisional tilt. Atlanta (9-1) has a hold on the top spot in the NFC by a game and a half, while Tampa Bay is in the final spot at 6-4. Both are coming off of less-than stellar performances against two of the league’s worst teams; Tampa Bay came back from eight points down late in the fourth to beat Carolina in overtime, while the Falcons had to overcome five Matt Ryan interceptions to hold off the Cardinals.
The third matchup has NFC South implications as well, with New Orleans hosting San Francisco in the late game. The 49ers (7-2-1) are second in the NFC and on the path to another NFC West title, while 5-5 New Orleans sits a game behind Tampa Bay in the NFC South. The Saints looked dead on arrival to begin the season, but have rebounded nicely to find themselves on the cusp of contention. Their schedule doesn’t give them any favors, with their next four coming against teams with winning records. Like Minnesota and Tampa Bay, they have to win today.
The final big game is tonight’s Giants-Packers matchup at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands. Both hold the third and fourth playoff spots in the NFC and currently lead their divisions. As mentioned, the Packers are in a dogfight atop the NFC North. The Giants were given a little cushion in the NFC East with the Cowboys loss on Thanksgiving, but now they have both Dallas and Washington gunning for the top. I’d say that the Giants need this one worse however, with three away games against Washington, Atlanta, and Baltimore still to come.
By my count, there are still 23 teams in legitimate playoff contention. Which means there are nine teams who can begin playing for next season – Kansas City (1-9), Jacksonville (1-9), Carolina (2-8), Cleveland (2-8), Oakland (3-7), Philadelphia (3-7), St. Louis (3-6-1), Detroit (4-7), and the New York Jets (4-7). And with the postseason benchmark at 6-4 (and rising), we’ll be able to add more teams to this list next week.
Now let’s pick. Last week’s early slate had a ton of games go down to the wire, but I came out of it with just one loss. Add that to the awful Bears pick I made (seriously, why did I trust in Jason Campbell?), and I went 12-2 to bring my overall record to 104-56.
Houston over Detroit
Thanksgiving Day begins with two of the best NFL receivers in Andre and Calvin Johnson. After an uncharacteristically poor day on the ground and on defense for the Texans last week, getting Arian Foster going should be the first priority.
If he can gash the Lions’ below average run defense early, Schaub could ride the play-action pass on his way to another big game.
Dallas over Washington
Robert Griffin III gets his first taste of the Cowboys-Redskins rivalry in a pretty huge spot – both teams desperately need this win to stay within range of the Giants in the division. I look forward to see how well DeMarcus Ware and the Cowboys defense can rattle the young quarterback and force bad throws. On offense, if the Dallas O-line can keep Romo upright, he should be able to exploit the Washington secondary.
New England over New York Jets
Since losing Darrelle Revis for the season, the Jets’ secondary has stepped up in his absence. Antonio Cromartie and rookie Kyle Wilson are fresh off of a good performance against a tricky Rams passing game. New York will need a repeat of that this week and then some, if they’re to knock off Brady. I don’t see it in them.
Chicago over Minnesota
This is one of my two favorite games of the week, and it wasn’t an easy pick. Chicago was eviscerated on both sides of the ball in San Francisco, but the 49ers had a quarterback capable of making undisciplined teams pay for their mistakes. And judging by his recent games, does that describe Christian Ponder?
Cincinnati over Oakland
The reason that I hesitated to call Calvin or Andre the outright best wideout in the game is because I believe he’s in Cincinnati. A.J. Green now has a touchdown catch in nine straight games and I’d bet the house that he scores for a tenth straight time this weekend. That Raiders secondary is nothing to write home about.
Pittsburgh over Cleveland
The Browns are staying in games until the very end and may be due for a victory. Pittsburgh is without Ben Roethlisberger for another week and also lost Byron Leftwich against Baltimore. His replacement is Charlie Batch, who is still hanging around the league 15 years into his career. I give Batch an advantage because he’s been with the team for so long. Someone will also need to step up in the backfield, but Pittsburgh will eke out a win.
Indianapolis over Buffalo
As Andrew Luck tries to recover from last week’s mediocre game, he’ll look to solve the Buffalo Bills defense. Luckily for him, there aren’t any legitimate threats to look off pre-snap aside from Jairus Byrd and Mario Williams. Luck bounces back from his three-interception outing and gets back to Rookie of the Year business.
Denver over Kansas City
With the Chiefs sitting at 1-9, their only hope may be to put the game on Jamaal Charles’s shoulders and ride their front seven. If and when that fails, Manning and the Broncos will coast to another victory.
Seattle over Miami
Since Reggie Bush’s hot start to the season was extinguished, the Dolphins have crashed back to Earth. Tannehill has shown improvement since the first week, but can’t do it alone. Seattle is bringing one of the league’s best defenses and a good rookie QB of their own to Miami. Russell Wilson has shown that he’s capable of doing it on his own, but the Seahawks could probably rely on Marshawn Lynch and their defense to make enough big plays to win.
Tampa Bay over Atlanta
This one will likely come down to the wideouts of Atlanta vs. Tampa Bay’s secondary. With the Falcons’ ground game having an off year, they’ve relied heavily on Matt Ryan hitting his receivers to get to 9-1. I’m banking on Ronde Barber and company to hold Atlanta in the end and for Josh Freeman and Vincent Jackson to connect for a touchdown or two on offense. Did I mention Doug Martin? Because he’s pretty good too.
Tennessee over Jacksonville
Chad Henne and the Jaguars went into Houston last week and put up 37 points against one of the league’s better defenses. With his performance and Blaine Gabbert’s injury, Henne may have the starting role for the rest of the season. But much of Jacksonville’s success can be attributed to poor play by Houston’s secondary. I don’t expect a repeat against the Titans.
Baltimore over San Diego
Remember when Baltimore would be crippled by the losses of two of their defensive leaders? Apparently, neither do they. After geting rocked by the Texans the following week, they’ve come out of their bye and won three straight. San Diego is the toughest opponent they’ve faced since the Houston loss and the Ravens will need a mistake-free game from Joe Flacco and a big day from Ray Rice to make it four straight.
New Orleans over San Francisco
This one could really go either way. Colin Kaepernick definitely impressed last week against the Bears defense, but I don’t see him putting on an encore in New Orleans. The Saints defense is actually starting to defend now, Drew Brees is still dead-on, and a running back seems to step up every week. New Orleans for the surprise win.
Arizona over St. Louis
Another tough pick. Arizona’s defense is great and will likely give Sam Bradford fits, but who starts at quarterback for the Cardinals? John Skelton? Kevin Kolb? Ryan Lindley? Someone else I’ve never heard of? I don’t want to go with Arizona, but I don’t think I have a choice.
Green Bay over New York Giants
Both teams play all three phases of the game well, but I’m giving the edge to Green Bay. They’ve won five straight, and though they haven’t overwhelmed teams, they still do just enough to get the W. New York is coming off of a Week 10 hosing by Cincinnati and will probably do just enough to sneak into the playoffs on the last week of the season again anyways.
Carolina over Philadelphia
The mantra for the Carolina Panthers this season has been simple. Play good teams close, make mistakes during crunch time and lose. But when facing a so-so team, go out and take care of things. With no Michael Vick and LeSean McCoy, it’s hard for even me to go against the Panthers.
Record (Week): 8-8
Record (Season): 112-64