Game of the week
The line: Titans by 1½
The story: This is all about home-field advantage, with the edge going to Pittsburgh. The Steelers have the momentum Tennessee has lost, and the Titans don't have Albert Haynesworth or Kyle Vanden Bosch.
It's hard not to like the Steelers here or anywhere. They play rough, tough, aggressive defense -- ranking second against the run and first vs. the pass. They don't allow a lot of points -- they rank first there, too. They're on a five-game roll. They have a Super Bowl quarterback and a passel of solid receivers. And they have the best defensive coordinator this side of Robert Gates.
In short, they have everything but an offensive line.
And that's why I see them winning. Tennessee could complicate things if it had Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch to harass Ben Roethlisberger, but they don't. That could give Big Ben the protection he has been missing this season. If that happens, the Titans are in trouble. When Roethlisberger stood in there against a three-man rush last weekend, he sliced, diced and spliced the Ravens on a last-gasp, 92-yard scoring drive.
Now he faces an opponent that couldn't stop Houston's pass attack. Granted, there is no Andre Johnson in the lineup, but there is Hines Ward. And Santonio Holmes. And Nate Washington. And Heath Miller. Together, they should put enough points on the board to keep the Steelers home for January.
One other thing that is a factor here: What does Tennessee do best on offense? Run. I don't care if it's Chris Johnson or LenDale White, the Titans can control the ball and wear out opponents by running them to death. Only nobody runs on the Steelers. In fact, nobody does much of anything against them. They haven't given up 300 total yards to an opponent this season, and look for that streak to continue here.
The problem is that if Johnson or White is ineffective, the burden shifts to quarterback Kerry Collins. He's designed to be the caretaker of the offense, not a playmaker. You saw what happened a week ago when he had to make plays. Nothing. Just another reason Tennessee could be in trouble.
Something to consider: Beware Tennessee's Jacob Ford. He has sacks in his past three games and six of his past seven, which ties him with the Giants' Justin Tuck. Only eight players anywhere have more sacks than Ford the past seven games.
Three games I'd like to see
The line: Cowboys by 5½
|Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed's playmaking sparks the Ravens' defense. (US Presswire)|
Prediction: It's too close to call, though you have to believe the odds favor the Cowboys. First of all, they're home. And home is where Tony Romo is at his best. Since returning to the lineup he's 4-1, including 3-0 at Texas Stadium. Furthermore, he has eight touchdown passes and only one interception at home since returning and 17 TD passes, with four interceptions, there all season.
Significant? You bet. On the road he's an even seven-and-seven.
So we established that Romo is critical to the Cowboys' success, and that's not exactly a surprise. But I make the point because of a couple of things: 1) He has a sore lower back, and 2) the Ravens are in town. They punish quarterbacks, and they could ruin the Cowboys' season if they punish this quarterback.
Plus, let's say Romo plays despite a nagging ache. That might affect his play, and Baltimore is one club designed to take advantage of opponents' weaknesses. The Ravens thrive on creating turnovers, and here's a suggestion: Stay away from Ed Reed. The Ravens safety has two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble, one sack and one touchdown the past two weeks.
So we know Dallas will have trouble solving a tough, tough defense. The same goes for Baltimore, which lacks the playmaker to back off the Cowboys. Dallas will stack the box against the Ravens' running game, daring rookie quarterback Joe Flacco to beat them. He couldn't do it against Pittsburgh, and he'll struggle against the Cowboys.
Rewind the videotape of those eight sacks of Eli Manning, fellas. Dallas brings pressure with its front four, which allows the Cowboys to drop seven into coverage. Only here it won't have to; here it can attack the pocket and not worry about anyone but Mark Clayton getting deep. Bottom line: One team has a quarterback I know can make plays, and it's not the Ravens. Go with Dallas.
Something to consider: The Ravens have won four of their past five on the road, with Flacco throwing eight touchdown passes and two interceptions for a 102.7 passer rating.
The line: Vikings by 3½
|The Vikes' Tarvaris Jackson has responded to his second chance as starter. (US Presswire)|
I say that because I have no conviction Dallas can win its final two. If the Cowboys falter against Baltimore or Philadelphia, then the Falcons join the wild-card party. So we know it's big for Atlanta. But it's big for Minnesota, too, which must keep winning to stay ahead of Chicago.
The problem for the Vikings is that they don't have defensive tackle Pat Williams to stop Michael Turner, and they do have Tarvaris Jackson to stop themselves. It all depends, of course, on which Jackson shows up. His past two games have been outstanding, with Jackson throwing five touchdown passes and no interceptions. But no one is certain what to expect other than a lot of handoffs to Adrian Peterson.
It's hard not to like Atlanta here given the urgency of the Falcons' situation and that they've been reasonably successful (3-4) on the road. Plus, if you're choosing between Jackson and Matt Ryan to make a big play, I know whom I'm taking ... in a heartbeat.
So the Vikings are hot, winning six of their past seven and their past five at home. Most of that was with Gus Frerotte. That makes me nervous.
Something to consider: Ryan is 6-2 in domes, with a passer rating of 100.3.
The line: Giants by 2½
|The Panthers like to run to keep heat of Jake Delhomme. (US Presswire)|
Maybe it's because they defied the odds when they won the Super Bowl. Maybe it's because it's Tom Coughlin in a must-win game. Maybe just because I think they're better than Carolina.
I'm not sure which it is, but I am sure this will be tight.
The key here is keeping the Panthers off Eli Manning, and you do that with an effective rushing game. That's why having Jacobs back -- if, in fact, he's ready -- is crucial. The Giants aren't the same without him, with opponents teeing off on Manning and a passing attack crippled by the loss of Plaxico Burress.
We've dissected that subject over and over, so there's no need to revisit it. With opponents stacking the box, the Giants are forced to get creative on offense to keep their rushing attack going. But there is nothing creative about Jacobs. He runs over tacklers. Again. And again. And again. So give him the ball and point him toward the nearest Panther.
Carolina is similar to the Giants in a lot of ways except one: I don't trust Jake Delhomme as much as I do Eli. Delhomme has three touchdown passes and seven interceptions in road games, which is dreadful, but four of those interceptions occurred in one game and three in another. Plus, he's 3-3 on the road, so that should give Carolina fans hope.
DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart determine how far Carolina goes here. If they can puncture the Giants' defense as Tashard Choice and Brian Westbrook did the past two weeks, the Panthers won't have to rely on Delhomme. And that's just how Carolina wants it.
Something to consider: Carolina has gained 400 or more yards a team-record five times this season, including the past two games.
Why Mondays shouldn't get you down
The line: Bears by 4½
|The Bears might have an ace up their sleeve with Robbie Gould. (US Presswire)|
I think you get the idea. The only blowout during this stretch was a 51-29 rout in New Orleans, but that was in the Superdome. The conditions here -- with Monday's high expected to be 14 degrees -- will be nothing close. Plus, there is this: The one win during the Packers' collapse? Yep, it was against Chicago, a 37-3 laugher.
So the Packers not only should stay close here; they could break their fall. Chicago can still win the NFC North, so this game means everything to the Bears. They must catch Minnesota in the division, and that could happen with a Vikings loss and a Bears win this weekend.
Nothing comes easily for Chicago, but the Bears have won five of their past six at home. Essentially, this will come down to which team runs better and which commits fewer mistakes. Chicago ranks 20th in rushing; Green Bay 21st. Chicago has 24 turnovers; Green Bay has 18. Chicago has 29 takeaways; the Packers 24. See what I mean? This one is a photo finish, but I keep seeing a Robbie Gould field goal making the difference.
Something to consider: Only one of the Bears' seven homes games has been decided by more than seven points. That was a 23-10 defeat of Jacksonville. Otherwise, their contests go down to the wire, separated by an average of 5.6 points per start.
Upsets of the week
Normally, I struggle looking for an upset, but this week there are two that I love. The problem was I couldn't make up my mind which made more sense. So I figured, what the heck, it's the season of giving and all that. Why not give you two for the price of one? I mean, anything worth doing is worth overdoing, right?
The line: Saints by 6½
|Calvin Johnson and the Lions are playing like they want to win. (US Presswire)|
Dan Orlovsky was accurate. Calvin Johnson was sensational. Kevin Smith ran hard. In fact, the entire team played hard. OK, so they lost. Nobody's getting bailouts in Detroit these days, least of all these guys. So the Lions have to earn a win, and I say they get it for three reasons: 1) New Orleans is out of the playoff picture, so the Saints are emotionally dead; 2) the Saints are 1-6 on the road, with their lone victory over Kansas City; and 3) the Lions are just due. No, overdue.
They must know what the score is: They're not going to win next weekend in Green Bay, but they can here. Simple as that.
When Rod Marinelli told his guys they wouldn't want to look at the team picture years from now, knowing they made the Hall of Shame, he seemed to have struck a nerve. Ever since then, the Lions resemble a pro football team -- which is more than I can say of that clown show on Thanksgiving Day.
Detroit, this is your chance. Take advantage of it.
Something to consider: The Lions better hope this one comes down to special teams. They have one of the best units out there, with their coverage teams forcing a league-high five turnovers and kicker Jason Hanson 8-for-8 on field goals of 50 or more yards.
The line: Jets by 4½
|Mike Holmgren's final game in Seattle comes vs. his old QB. (US Presswire)|
Brett Favre doesn't look so good now. In fact, he couldn't make a play when it mattered against Buffalo. So why does he make one here? Because the Seahawks have the league's worst pass defense? I don't think so. Denver is 27th and the 49ers 25th, and he couldn't make things happen there.
Then there's that whole issue of the Jets on the West Coast. They're 0-3, and don't ask me why. Don't ask Eric Mangini, either. He doesn't know. But they lost to San Francisco, San Diego and, believe it or not, Oakland. So I don't see why that should change.
But this is why I like the Seahawks the most: Because it is Mike Holmgren's last home game in Seattle. The guy has done so much for the Seahawks -- and pro football -- and I don't see how his team, albeit an underachieving one, doesn't reward him with a parting gift.
The crowd will be in it. His players should be in it. Heck, how does Holmgren not get into the emotions of it, too? He will. And the Jets will be out of it.
Something to consider: The Jets can expect it to be loud for Holmgren's send-off, which means they can expect a rash of false starts. Since 2005 opponents have taken 77 false-start penalties at Qwest Field, an average of 2.48 a game, tops in the NFL.
Crummy game of the week
The line: Browns by 2½
|If Ryan Fitzpatrick uses his head, the Bengals have an edge. (US Presswire)|
Maybe that's a reason to tune in. I can't think of another. Cincinnati has 36 points in its past four games, and while that's awful it's an improvement on Cleveland. The Browns have 31.
Cleveland is on its third quarterback; Cincinnati on its second. If I'm looking for an edge, I'll always go with the guy from Harvard. Expect Ryan Fitzpatrick to put that degree to work and figure out a way to win for the Bengals. So Cincinnati hasn't won a road game this year. It hasn't played in Cleveland.
Until now. The Browns are coming off a short week. They seem as disorganized off the field as they are on it. And they can't find the end zone without a divining rod.
Something to consider: The Browns are tied for the league lead with 22 interceptions and have at least two in eight games, their most since 2001 when they had two or more in 10 games. The team's 22 interceptions are the team's second-highest total since returning to the NFL in 1999.
Games within the games
Brett Favre vs. Mike Holmgren. It's the Hall of Fame QB vs. the Hall of Fame coach. Student vs. mentor. Friend vs. friend. There is so much between these two, dating back to the 1990s when they took Green Bay to two Super Bowls, and it seems appropriate that it's Favre who closes the door on Holmgren's career in Seattle -- with the Jets his last opponent at Qwest Field. "I just think there's a tremendous irony about the whole thing," said Holmgren. "You know I'm emotional. Hopefully, I'll do a decent job calling plays and stuff in the game, and then after that there's going to be some emotions."
|Dallas would like to extend Texas Stadium's life into the playoffs. (US Presswire)|
Arizona vs. the East Coast. The Cardinals have as much luck winning in the east as the Jets do winning in the west. They're 0-4 there, including blowouts by Philadelphia and the New York Jets. Coach Ken Whisenhunt must prove his team can travel and be trusted somewhere other than Glendale, but I don't see how it happens -- especially with the forecast calling for snow.
Cortland Finnegan vs. Hines Ward. This is the first meeting between two guys who are outstanding at their jobs and can tough it out with anyone. Ward, one of the game's best blockers at his position, broke linebacker Keith Rivers' jaw earlier this season. Finnegan had a pair of personal foul penalties in last week's lost to Houston -- including a helmet-to-helmet hit on the quarterback. Safety patrols, you're on alert.
Isaac Bruce/Mike Martz return to St. Louis. Normally, those are boos reigning down on the home team in St. Louis. Not this weekend. Isaac Bruce returns to town for the first time since joining the 49ers, and Martz is back to dissect the team that let him go. "It will be different," said Bruce. It will if St. Louis wins.
Five guys I'd like to be this weekend
|Donovan McNabb has the Eagles on a roll going into Washington. (US Presswire)|
Houston coach Gary Kubiak. His Texans are on a franchise-best four-game winning streak and now draw Oakland as an opponent. Can you say high-five? Plus, the Texans have won their past three against the Raiders.
Denver coach Mike Shanahan. All he needs is a victory or a San Diego loss to clinch the AFC West, and look whom he draws Sunday: Buffalo, a club that has lost its past five to Denver and seven of its past eight this season.
Anybody from New England. Since 2003 the Patriots are 22-2 at home in December, including 10 straight victories. Now they play Arizona, an opponent that is 0-4 on the East Coast. Let the party begin.
Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward. In his past three games at Tennessee (including the playoffs) he has 24 catches for 349 yards and four touchdowns.
Just a hunch
|Derrick Brooks and the Bucs are poised to end the Chargers' Tampa run. (US Presswire)|
Here's why: First, the Chargers aren't a good road team. They're 2-5, with their only wins coming after fourth-quarter comebacks pulled them past Oakland and Kansas City. Second, Tampa Bay doesn't lose at home. The Bucs are 6-0, including defeats of two division leaders.
Now, I know what you're thinking: The Chargers are desperate and maybe, just maybe, riding the emotions of last week's last-minute defeat of Kansas City. OK, let's say you're right.
But Tampa Bay is desperate, too. The Bucs are in the middle of a wild-card race in the NFC and can't afford another loss. With San Diego and Oakland left on the home schedule, I don't think they have to worry.
|Matt Cassel's Pats can join the host of teams with 10-plus victories. (US Presswire)|
Five clubs have won 10 or more games this season, and this weekend eight more will seek to join the club -- including Baltimore and Dallas, with the two playing each other Saturday night.
There are 17 teams that could finish the season with 10 or more wins and, if that sounds like a lot, it is. It would be the most in league history.
The seasons with the most double-digits win ever are 2003 and 2005 with 13 and 1986, 1991 and 2000 with 12.
What is the best game of Week 16?
Packers at Bears
Bengals at Browns
Ravens at Cowboys
Falcons at Vikings
Panthers at Giants
Steelers at Titans
Total Votes: 31,592
• Dallas (Sat.): AM showers; high of 72.
• Cleveland: High winds; snow showers; high of 37.
• Detroit: Dome.
• Kansas City: High winds; partly cloudy, high of 16.
• Foxborough: High winds; wintry mix; high of 40.
• St. Louis: Dome.
• Tampa: Few showers, high of 77.
• Nashville: High winds, partly cloudy, high of 38.
• Denver: Sunny, high of 27.
• Oakland: Few showers, high of 51.
• Seattle: Snow, high of 36.
• Minneapolis: Dome.
• Washington, D.C.: Rain, high of 43.
• East Rutherford, N.J.: High winds, wintry mix, high of 42.
Where we will be
• Pete will be in Nashville to pass my regards to Emmylou Harris.
• I'll be at Giants Stadium to join Tom Coughlin in pregame jumping jacks.
• Mike Freeman will be in Foxborough to see how the Cards like it as snowmen.
• Gregg Doyel will be in Dallas to mediate the Terrell Owens-Jason Witten feud, then move on to Chicago to tell us What Ditka Would Do.