SATURDAY (wait what?)
Atlanta Falcons at Detroit Lions
Frankly, I think the only real shot the Lions had of winning this game was Green Bay losing last week, which would mean that the Falcons had clinched HFA throughout the playoffs and could, consequently, rest some key players for a majority of this game. Unfortunately for Karl Welzein and the rest of the Lions fans aching for an extravagant fifth win, the Pack took care of their business, meaning Atlanta can clinch with a win in this one and will be coming as full bore as they did last week when they napalmed the defending Super Bowl champs 34-0.
THE PICK: FALCONS
New Orleans at Dallas Cowboys
Logical reasoning would dictate, at least as far as I can tell, that our ideas of teams clears up as the season goes along. Usually, by the time a team has played 14 games, we have a pretty decent awareness of their strengths and weaknesses, allowing us to make easier decisions on which team will win.
Unfortunately, the end of the season also brings disparate outlooks with regards to the playoff picture, which simultaneously muddies the analytical waters and leaves us guessing at what a particular team's strategy/outlook/motivation is. Teams that have clinched a specific playoff spot may rest some starters in the second half, or they may try to keep continuity and momentum by playing their studs the same as they normally do. Conversely, teams that are eliminated from playoff contention may start or sit their best guys for completely different reasons. If it's a team with a lame-duck head coach or front office (hi San Diego), they may play more of their young guys and backups to give whoever the new regime is a better idea of what some of the more unknown quantities on the roster are. Then again, that struggling team may have a coach that is fighting for his job and, while it may not seem like a huge deal to us as fans, the difference between five wins and seven wins can be the difference in whether those coaches have gainful employment next season.
In this case, both teams have had really impressive victories and some really stink losses. Dallas is currently a lost-tiebreaker away from both a playoff spot and a divisional lead, while the Saints are all but eliminated from the postseason. This game is a tough one to decipher, and Vegas is only favoring the home team by three points, indicating that they view these teams as equally talented should they play on a neutral field.
I'm gonna go with the hosts on principle, especially considering that they're the ones still clawing for a chance to play january football.
THE PICK: COWBOYS
Tennessee Titans at Green Bay Packers
I mean, c'mon.
THE PICK: PACKERS
Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs
The Colts are not, as I've said before, nearly as good as their record but holy cow you guys the Chiefs just got shut out by the Raiders and spent the whole game stubbornly refusing to utilize their best playmakers for the 33rd time this season even though like I said they were getting housed by the freaking Oakland Raiders I mean the Raiders aren't even an NFL football team as much as they are a loosely organized band of misguided juggalos.
The Chiefs are just so, so bad and the freaking Colts, in the bottom fifth of the NFL in DVOA, are about to be a ten win team headed into the season finale. The AFC, man...
THE PICK: COLTS
Buffalo Bills at Miami Dolphins
The Bills have fallen apart this season the same way they've fallen apart nearly every season since 1999 and December has once again become "talent evaluation season". Well, I can evaluate that they're not very talented at defending fake punts this season, amirite guys?
Meanwhile, Miami is suuuper average and, lucky for them, that's good enough to beat the Bills at home.
THE PICK: DOLPHINS
San Diego Chargers at New York Jets
Everything about this game is so awful. Burn in a dumpster fire, SportsCenter.
I'm deferring to the ol' standby: Bad teams? Home team.
THE PICK: JETS
Washington Redskins at Philadelphia Eagles
Last week, I picked the Redskins to win on the assumption that Robert Griffin III would play. As we all know, he didn't and just before kickoff, one of our readers (GriffinNW) asked if I'd stick with the 'Skins with RGIII sidelined. I said yes, and did so because I'm officially a believer in Alfred Morris or, more accurately, the way they utilize Alfred Morris in that offense (#1 in rushing). Mike Shanahan (and, by extension, his son Kyle) has restored my faith in him as an offensive mind and their ability to have rookie backup Kirk Cousins prepared to perform the way he did only reinforces me rediscovered confidence in them.
The Washington defense has been playing pretty well of late, too. Since their three-game losing streak came to a halt back in mid-November, they've won five consecutive games and have held opponents to ~20 PPG -- an impressive improvement considering that no opponents had scored less than 21 against them in their first nine games.
Philly, on the other hand, is reeling. I really like Andy Reid and I think he's one of the better head coaches in my lifetime, but this eason has gotten away from him. You could say that the Eagles will benefit from the return of their two biggest stars (Michael Vick and LeSean McCoy), but Vick is listed as the third-stringer for this one and McCoy will be splitting carries with Bryce Brown and Dion Lewis, presumably.
For the first time all season, I'm taking the Redskins seriously as a contender, and also as Seattle's most likely first-round playoff opponent.
THE PICK: REDSKINS
Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers
This may be the toughest game of the week for me to pick. As it stands, it looks exceedingly likely that exactly one of these two teams will make the postseason. The Bengals have a one-game advantage over the Steelers for the final playoff spot, meaning that they can clinch a berth with a win since no teams below Pittsburgh have a chance at surpassing either squad.
Nevertheless, I think the Steelers can win this game and not just because they're at home. Despite having their last game Roethlisberger'd away by Big Ben in overtime, they're talented and healthy enough to make a lot of noise the rest of the way. A win gives them the chance to earn their way into the dance and their defense is just a different animal with a healthy Troy Polamalu. I'm okay with admitting that the Bengals are finally better than the Steelers, but I'm going to need to see them prove that on Sunday before I put it in ink. Going home squad here.
THE PICK: STEELERS
St Louis Rams at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Can't figure out either of these teams. One thing I can say about them with some certainty is that they're both too inconsistent to put any real faith in. I'm not ready to go BT?HT because I don't think either of these teams are bad, per say, and it's hard to put stock in a home team that just lost 41-0 to a 5-8 team. By the same token, I felt pretty good about the Rams last week and they got sliced up by the one dimensional Vikings.
To be honest, I think there's a stronger foundation/formula in St Louis than there is in Tampa but more top end talent on the Bucs than the Rams. I do think Tampa is capable of making the necessary adjustments after their humiliating loss (I mean, if the Cardinals can bounce back to destroy a mediocre team after the shellacking they took in Seattle, then surely Tampa Bay can, right?) and I have a hard time putting much faith in Sam Bradford on the road.
I'll say this much, I won't feel bad if I'm wrong on this one.
Fun Fact: The Rams have played five games against the NFC West, which may very well be the best division in football this year, and haven't lost a single one. Against the rest of the NFL, however? 2-7. This league is weird.
THE PICK: BUCCANEERS
Oakland Raiders at Carolina Panthers
Cam is going HAM, guys. Over the last five games he's piled up a little over 1,300 passing yards, nearly 300 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns, and 0(!) turnovers. He's now the 2nd-highest scoring QB on the year in most fantasy football formats and while I never use fantasy as any basis for making picks are you gonna tell me that the Raiders have anything on either side of the ball to give you any hope that they'll not get disemboweled at his hands in his stadium, or do anything to counter him?* The Raiders couldn't even muster a single touchdown against the Chiefs and the Chiefs aren't even real.
*Run on sentence, bitches.
THE PICK: PANTHERS
New England Patriots at Jacksonville Jaguars
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick just got beat at home in December for the first time since before the Mayan calender existed and there is no QB/HC duo I fear more after a loss than the combo in Foxboro. Their ability to make adjustments and their unwillingness to take their foot off the gas even after they've successfully slaughtered an inferior opponent is downright vicious. And the Jags suck.
This one is going to get really ugly, methinks.
THE PICK: PATRIOTS
Minnesota Vikings at Houston Texans
I keep waiting for the Viking to go away, but Adrian Peterson keeps refusing to let them. You guys ever watch the original "Conan: The Barbarian"? In it, young Conan is abducted by a marauding tribe and chained to a giant threshing machine with all of his fellow captives. These poor souls were literally worked to death, whipped to drive the giant spokes of this thresher forward until they collapse and die of fatigue. Spoiler alert: every one of them dies because duh.
Everyone except Conan, because instead of dying like every other mortal around him, he turns the endless repetition into a daily training regimen, ultimately hulking up enough to drive the entire mammoth thresher by himself despite the fact that it once took an entire town to move it. Do you guys see where I'm going with this?
Peterson is on the verge of breaking the all-time single-season rushing record despite opposing defenses knowing that he's going to get the ball all the time. What he's doing this year is one of the most impressive individual efforts I've ever seen as a football fan. I mean, there aren't even any other weapons on that offense.
I think AP gets his yards, especially given the fragile shell of a linebacking crew that the Texans offer, but Houston has some incredible talent as well. We all know about the resurgent Andre Johnson and the so-good-it's-almost-boring Arian Foster, but their O-line is still great and JJ Watt is literally having the highest-rated individual season ever by a defensive player, according to Pro Football Focus.
I love All Day, but the Texans are an awesome collective and they're definitely equipped to win this game at home.
THE PICK: TEXANS
Cleveland Browns at Denver Broncos
Do the Broncos ever lose anymore? It's unreal how quickly Peyton Manning made his new team just as predictably consistent and good as his old team used to be. Just incredible. And since the Browns are still, ya know, the Browns, this is a pretty easy one to choose.
THE PICK: BRONCOS
Chicago Bears at Arizona Cardinals
As crazy as this would've sounded a month ago, Lovie Smith may be coaching for his job in this one. The Bears' tumble has taken them from atop one of the better divisions in the league to having their faces pressed up against the outer window of the NFC playoff picture. They're certainly good enough to beat the Cardinals (who isn't?) but it remains to be seen if they can pull everything together.
I just can't in good conscience choose Arizona to win this game, even though they're at home. I just can't. Chicago's defense is still very good and the Cardinals offense is still very bad (don't let their win over Detroit fool you, all those points were either scored or gift-wrapped by the D).
I hate to choose a struggling team with a petulant quarterback on the road, but I just gotta this time.
THE PICK: BEARS
New York Giants at Baltimore Ravens
Dafuq just happened, Coughlin? 41-0? Even after their beatdown at the hands of the Falcons last week, I still consider the Giants to be better than their 8-6 record and am willing to chalk that game up as a ridiculous outlier if they can bounce back this week. Meanwhile, I don't think the Ravens are as good as their 9-5 record, but they are at home and they have had time to get their new Cam Cameron-less offense together.
If the Ravens can pull their collective head out of Joe Flacco's overthrowing ass and get back to living off of Ray Rice, they should be able to beat a mercurial Giants team. I'm going to put my faith in their ability to do that, even though Vegas is taking New York here. Just know that if this game were in NY or on a neutral field, I'd be taking Eli Manning and Co.
THE PICK: RAVENS
San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks
Football Outsiders has been down for most of the week so I can't confirm that these are the top two teams in terms of DVOA in the NFL but I'm here to tell you that this Sunday Night game will feature the two best teams in the NFL right now. I'm also going to say that if this game was being played on a neutral field, I'm probably picking the NIners, but this game isn't being played on a neutral field, it's being played in the most difficult home stadium in professional sports for opposing teams to win in.
It's currently 1:30am and I'm sitting at a crossroads. In one direction is the long, detailed, rational breakdown of this game (but that would be an entire lengthy article unto itself) and in the other is the simple belief that the combo of the way that Seattle is playing and their unmatched home field advantage is enough to beat any team in the NFL (but you guys deserve better than that.
Do you, though?) In between these two paths is overgrown bramble and it is through that that I choose to go for the purposes of this post.
In many ways, these teams are very similar. Both feature young dual-threat quarterbacks rapidly coming into their own and operating out of collegiate-esque offenses (the Pistol for SF, the read-option for SEA). Both feature seasoned running backs more eager to run over you than around you. Both have receiving corps that don't scare anyone on their own but who have grown into their system and whose QBs and coaches have become very adept at picking their spots with them. Both offensive lines can flat out maul you in the running game and do more than passable jobs in pass protection.
Both defensive lines feature stout interior linemen and speedy pass-rushing specialists on the ends. Both teams employ linebackers that get to the ball swiftly without vacating their assignments and both teams boast magnetic secondaries that give opposing passers little to know room for mistakes.
As it stands right now, I give the 49ers advantages in the following categories:
O-line: #1 in the league, by a lot, according to Football Outsiders, and that assessment will get no argument from me.
Front Seven: Also the best in the league, in my opinion. Aldon Smith is already what we all hope Bruce Irvin can become someday and Justin Smith is as relentless and vicious as any two-dimensional defensive end in the league. Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman are the scariest pair of linebackers I can remember watching (yes, I think even better than Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs a couple of years ago). Those two not only get to the ball when they're supposed to, they get to the ball when they're not supposed to, often times fighting their way through blockers to get to ballcarriers quicker than any realistic expectation could warrant.
I give Seattle the edge in these:
Quarterback: Russell Wilson has played just about the best football of literally any QB in the league over the last two months and has the highest QBR in the entire NFL since Week 11, which is when Colin Kaepernick took over as the starter. Kaepernick, to his credit, has been great and suits that offense much better than Alex Smith ever did, but what Russell is doing right now defies belief. Insanely apropos decision-making accompanied by gorgeous throwing and remarkably efficient running. So efficient, in fact, that he never even got tackled on any of his runs last week.
Secondary: I say this with the assumption that Richard Sherman will play (even though his appeal is being heard Friday, there's a strong chance that a decision won't come until early next week). Brandon Browner, obviously, is out with his own suspension but the combination of Jeremy Lane, Byron Maxwell, and Walter Thurmond sure have looked capable of holding their own in his/their stead. Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are still the best safety duo in the league, but it will be interesting to see if they get pulled up close to the line of scrimmage should Frank Gore start gashing them like he did earlier this year. If that's the case, then Seattle may be susceptible to the deep ball, something that Kaepernick is scarily adept at.
The other areas -- receiver, running back, special teams, etc -- are more of a toss up, but I'm putting my money on the team that enjoys the best HFA in the NFL and has the QB that's playing at an unparalleled level.
I could talk about this game for 2,000 more words, but I'm at 3,000 already and it's time to wrap it up.
THE PICK: SEAHAWKS
*SONS GREETINGS, YOU GUYS
Jacson's 2012 Record: 149-74-1 (.668)
Vegas' 2012 Record: 140-81-3 (.633)