Well chaps, we had a rough one last week, by our standards anyway. If you've been following my rare-err advice you're now in rare air as far as NFL prognostication goes, and even by struggling to an 11-5 mark, we're still 34-12 since these picks started going public about a month ago.
This upcoming slate of games poses a serious threat to all predictors, as it boasts a number of tough calls. Follow me, if you will, as we explore who will win, and occasionally, why!
Cleveland has lost roughly one billion of its last 35 games against Pittsburgh, and there's nothing to indicate that this one will be any different. No team in the AFC has been playing as well as Pittsburgh has since their second loss to Baltimore. Ben Roethlisberger has completely changed the Steelers' offensive identity; no longer are they going to run it between the tackles 45 times and grind you to death. Now they use the running game as a fall back when they get tired of throwing it deep to Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown.
Cleveland has been one big mess for the past two months and the guy who was recently considered the QBotF is now hearing boos on the regular. I would say that the loss of every single running back on the roster as well as the dearth of truly good receivers has done more to contribute to Colt McCoy's woes than any lack of talent has, but the fact remains that the Browns are exactly what we thought they'd be at the beginning of the season. Unfortunately for them, so are the Steelers. THE PICK: STEELERS
The Panthers are the most exciting bad team I've seen in a long while. Clouded by the immense pleasure I take in watching them play, I initially tabbed them to win this one. Honestly, it's not difficult to see an offense that boasts an elite (yeah, I said it) receiver in Steve Smith, two dynamic runners in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and a legitimate dual-threat superstar in the making in Cam Newton holding serve at home against a team that has been offensively challenged of late. Not hard to see it, until you remember that the Panthers have to play defense too.
Carolina's defense is terrible. Like, terrible to the point that I wonder if they just decide to allow more points each game in order to test their offense's abilities, like raising a high-jumping bar. The Falcons, while not scoring as prolifically as last year's 13-3 version, are more than capable of doing most whatever they please on Sunday. Michael Turner is gonna eat big, and as much as I love Captain Munnerlyn's name, his game (or anyone else's in that secondary)can't stay up with Roddy White. Tony Gonzalez over the middle and consistent offensive line play will keep Matt Ryan happy and comfortable. I think Atlanta's defense keeps Carolina around 20 points, and will pull away in the 4th. THE PICK: FALCONS
Vegas has Cincy giving Houston 3.5, showing that the sharps are either big believers in Andy Dalton in spite of his team's recent 1-3 stretch and the fact that they'll be facing the #1 defense in the NFL, or they're really down on TJ Yates. Frankly, i don't see it happening. Not that I think Yates is great, but his team just beat Atlanta and I think that the Falcons are better than the Bengals in nearly every facet of the game.
Andre Johnson is a game-time decision, but even if he doesn't go, the Texans boast the rare combination of having the best O-Line and the best defense in the league. Add Arian Foster to the mix and you've got the sturdiest fortress a young quarterback could possibly hope for. That combination of hard, kick you in the teeth and take your money attributes makes it difficult for me to see them losing to many teams. I know Cincinnati is at home in this one, and I love AJ Green's game, but I don't see them defending their turf. THE PICK: TEXANS
At this point, if Adrian Peterson were healthy or the game was in Detroit, I'd probably take the Vikings. As it stands, however, the game is in Motown, where the Lions are significantly better, and Minnesota plays the worst Cover-2 defense I've ever seen. I expect Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford to be dotting the fantasy leaderboards after this one. Toby Gerhart isn't going to gouge the Lions defense, even though they're Ndamukong-less.
While I'm at it, let me take a moment to say that I really don't like Jim Schwartz. Everyone was on his nuts when the team was 5-0, and even I was buying in to Detroit's turnaround. Then he went all hyper-douche after the San Francisco game and made lame, duck-lipped excuses about it later. Dude totally loses his composure after a big game and we're supposed to be surprised that his players can't go 10 minutes without getting a personal foul? Leadership starts at the top, right?
The Lions have enough talent to win consistently, and this will be one of them, but man do I like this team a lot less than I did a month ago (except Johnson and Nate Burleson -- love those guys). THE PICK: LIONS
The Titans have been playing a wonderful stretch of football recently and have become viable contenders for a playoff spot. If the weather is bad, they've got a real shot at this one. Unfortunately for their post-season aspirations, Drew Brees is playing sadistically good football and that offense is as clean and aerodynamic as a Ferrari. While the defense that helped them get to the Super Bowl two years ago has deteriorated, they have the 35 points per game security blanket that Brees, Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram, etc etc provide. THE PICK: SAINTS
If the Ravens lose this one, they're stuck with the letdown label for good.
The Jets are so annoying. What sucks is that their finishing schedule looks like a bakery and they may run the table without ever playing truly great football. Mark Sanchez and Co will be good enough to beat the Chiefs at home, mostly because Kansas City's only real offensive threat, Dwayne Bowe, is likely to be neutralized by Darrelle Revis. Also by the fact that his quarterback is Tyler Palko. THE PICK: JETS
This is the hardest game for me to pick. There's no doubt in my mind that the Eagles are more talented than the Dolphins, but that hasn't mattered much at all this season. Meanwhile, Miami is arguably the best 4-8 team that's ever existed (who would ever have that argument?), and actually sports the 12th best point-differential in the league. On paper, it shouldn't be a contest, at least based on what we thought at the beginning of the season. Philly's best offensive players are Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, and Jeremy Maclin. Miami's are Matt Moore, Reggie Bush, Brandon Marshall and Anthony Fasano. Defensively, the Eagles put Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Jason Babin up against Cameron Wake, Karlos Dansby, and hell, I don't know, who else plays defense for the Dolphins?
It's a name-value blowout, but the 'Phins actually play extremely well together, at least they have for the past five weeks in which they were a field goal away from going undefeated over that stretch. This is the starkest example yet of me having to decide between my preconceived notions and what I actually see on the field. I gotta go with Miami. I freaking hate picking Eagles games. THE PICK: DOLPHINS
New England Patriots at Washington Redskins
If these teams were measured by organizational functionality, this game would be #1 vs #32. Daniel Snyder's managing style is the photo-negative of Robert Kraft's and that will be made very evident on Sunday. Tom Brady will continue his flawless play of late and Rob Gronkowski will keep being the gigantic Polish version of a Tecmo Super Bowl player. The Redskins will continue being the Redskins. THE PICK: PATRIOTS
This promises to be the least watchable game of the week. The Jaguars have a habit of being involved in those, which is a shame for Maurice Jones-Drew, who is truly awesome. Meanwhile, the rails have absolutely come off of the Buccaneers train. They are an ugly mess, and with LeGarrette Blount's involvement in a recent movie-style beatdown and Trevor Pryce being sent home in the middle of the last game like a naughty second-grader, there are no signs of it getting any better for them. Raheem Morris is on the verge of becoming the new Marvin Lewis: great guy, good coach, victim of an unruly roster. I say it every week, but choosing between bad teams is much harder than choosing between good teams. THE PICK: JAGUARS
If John Elway is willing to build a team around Denver's current style of play, which happens to suit John Fox's mindset a lot better than people think, the Broncos can win 10 games every year that Tim Tebow is their quarterback. We want it to fail, because we've all completely bought in to the modern NFL that demands elite pocket-presence from a QB to win. That will hold true, but Denver has a legitimate chance to be the exception to this rule and adjusting to a read-option offense is much harder for a defense than most people will admit.
It's hard to lose when you have the ball for 40 minutes a game. Also hard to lose when your opponent has Caleb Hanie throwing to Dane Sanzenbacher and handing off to Marion Barber. Denver's schedule keeps aligning perfectly. Get ready for a Mile High playoff game come January. THE PICK: BRONCOS
San Francisco 49ers at Arizona Cardinals
How many points do you think the Niners are laying in this one? 7? 10? 12? Try 3.5. This game may end up being really close. Arizona looked much better against Dallas than they're getting credit for, mostly because every media outlet reminds us that Cowboys opponents never win games, they're only the beneficiaries of Cowboys losses. The Cardinals aren't good, but they're a lot more similar to the Seahawks than we'd like to believe.
I'm choosing San Francisco, but I won't be surprised if the Cards pull this one off. THE PICK: 49ERS
I'm not sure what to say about this game. The Chargers are the AFC's Eagles, and while I'd pick Miami to beat them, I can't say the same about a Fred Jackson-less Bills team. Take San Diego, and take the points too (-6.5). Philip Rivers is much better than his numbers show and the Bills secondary can't guard a Roomba, much less the type of receivers Rivers will be throwing to. THE PICK: CHARGERS
Have you ever heard two people arguing over something that you feel strongly about? You know it's none of your business so you stay out of it, but as one side continues to make points you disagree with, and the guy you do agree with is inadequately countering them, you eventually butt in and give a piece of your mind. We've all been there. We don't want to play that game, but we get goaded into it by circumstance.
That's what the Packers do to their opponents. You go into the game thinking, let's establish the run, keep Aaron Rodgers and Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson off the field, control the clock, keep it close, and make plays at the end. We can beat them if we do that. Then you look up at the scoreboard and it's 14-0 Green Bay halfway through the first quarter and you're drawn into a pass-heavy approach you so earnestly tried to avoid. That's when Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson and the rest get them hungry eyes and start padding their stats off of your desperation. It will take a team of surpassing discipline to avoid the same fate as every other Packers opponent. The Raiders, while talented, are about the least disciplined team in any sport. Sunday will be the day they kiss any realistic shot at the AFC West goodbye. THE PICK: PACKERS
Dallas' defense will do enough to win this game, but ti doesn't mean it will be a good overall performance by the unit. I think the winning team is going to have to score 30+ and I think it stays close all the way through. Both offenses are going to accrue a lot of yardage over the course of this game, but the Cowboys are capable of coming up with a stop where the Giants aren't. New York's best chance at winning is jumping out to a quick lead and turning their impressive front four loose. If Dallas can run the ball and pass off of play-action, the Giants are toast.
By the way, is there anyone here who loves Victor Cruz as much as I do? THE PICK: COWBOYS
Football Outsiders has the Seahawks playoff chances at 5.5%, up from 0.8% last week. Look for those odds to double after this one. THE PICK: SEAHAWKS