Game of the week
The line: Packers by 2½
The story: This one is all about the playoffs and which team wants to get there more. The Giants were a lock until last weekend when their defense collapsed and their punter went brain dead. The Packers were a lock until they lost 13 players for the season, including six starters, and Aaron Rodgers suffered another concussion. Now the struggle is on between two playoff-worthy candidates for what, in all likelihood, is one postseason spot.
I know, New Orleans could go belly-up down the stretch, but I don't expect it. What I do expect is that the winner of this game winds up as one of the two NFC wild cards because it will hold the head-to-head tiebreaker, which means ... yep, this is basically a playoff audition.
The Giants have the Redskins left after this weekend. The Packers have the Bears. One difference: The Packers are home; the Giants are not. So the heat is on both these clubs, and wouldn't you know it? Rodgers, who missed the last game and a half with a concussion, is practicing again. That means he plays, and that means trouble for a Giants team just shredded by Philadelphia.
Of course, Rodgers isn't Michael Vick. So the Giants catch a break there. But he isn't Matt Flynn, either, and Flynn came this close to beating New England. Rodgers is a one-man operation, with the Packers trying to get by without a running game. The Giants have one, but they also have a quarterback who is prone to interceptions and a club that commits a spate of turnovers.
The Packers are careening, losing three of their past four, but all those losses were on the road. Furthermore, Rodgers is 9-1 in his past 10 starts at Lambeau Field. That doesn't bode well for New York or its coach, but I've seen Tom Coughlin in this position before, and he's at his best when he absolutely, positively must win.
Something to consider: In its past seven games, Green Bay has given up an average of 10.7 points per start, including the 31 that New England put on the Pack last weekend.
Three games I'd like to see
The line: Bears by 2½
The story: I can't believe the Bears. Their last three road opponents threw third-string quarterbacks at them, and as if that weren't enough, Minnesota subtracted star running back Adrian Peterson. So it figures that Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez would have shoulder problems now, with a report saying he has torn cartilage. And of course, he does. He's supposed to play the Bears, even if it is in Chicago.
|Devin Hester's return ability could lead the Jets to punt away from him. (US Presswire)|
I'm not sure if Chicago is more lucky than good, but I am sure it had better win its final two games to gain a first-round bye. The reason: Philadelphia will win its final two at home, and one Bears loss puts the Eagles in as the No. 2 team. But it's not just the Bears who had better get serious here. The Jets have been flopping all over themselves lately, with another distraction ("Agony of De-Feet" one tabloid screamed) sidetracking them this week.
But let's concentrate on what's happening on the field. And what's happening is this: The Jets are a good road team, losing only one of seven starts. The Bears are not a good home team. In fact, they're 4-3 at Soldier Field. OK, so they beat the Eagles there, and that's good. But they also lost to the Seahawks there, and that is not.
Now along come the Jets with a "Ground and Pound" game that looks more like "Stale and Frail," with the club rushing for 193 yards its past two starts. That's why Generation Rex turned more and more to Sanchez, and that's OK if he's not making mistakes. But until last weekend, he was -- with one touchdown and five interceptions his previous three starts -- and keep that in mind if you're called, Mark Brunell.
I mention turnovers because they should decide what happens here. I wouldn't trust Jay Cutler as far as I could throw a manhole cover, but he has cut down on turnovers the second half of the season. That corresponds to the club's 6-1 record the past seven games, and draw your own conclusions. The Jets can cover Chicago's receivers. They can stop Matt Forte, too.
What this comes down to is which defense forces takeaways and which offense can cash them in. If it comes down to special teams, sorry, I'm with the Bears. They have Robbie Gould. The Jets have Nick Folk. They have Devin Hester. The Jets have Brad Smith (he's good, but he's no Hester). Oh, yeah, the Jets may also have Brunell at quarterback.
Something to consider: Ryan insists he won't punt to Hester, but if he does, keep this in mind: Jets punter Steve Weatherford leads the league with 24 forced fair catches and is second in punts inside the 20 with 35.
The line: Rams by 2½
The story: San Francisco coach Mike Singletary wouldn't tell us who would play quarterback Sunday, though he did reveal Thursday it would be Troy Smith. What Singletary forgot while he played this charade is that IT REALLY DOESN'T MATTER. He rotates quarterbacks like most people change socks, and when you can't make up your mind between two quarterbacks to start, it means you have none.
So why is this game meaningful? Well, listen up: At 5-9, the 49ers are only a game out of first in the NFC West. All season long Singletary has told us he plans to make the playoffs, and we scoffed. But that's because we looked at how good his team was, which it wasn't, and envisioned, oh, say, 8-8 winning the division.
Sorry, wrong again. I'm now convinced 7-9 can do it, which means the 49ers are driving to the playoffs with Alex ... no, Troy ... no, Alex ... no, Troy Smith. All I know is that the 49ers are 5-4 over their past nine games, and tell me who in this division is better? I'm waiting. San Francisco is young, talented and promising, but we've been saying that for too long. This team is one of the season's great underachievers, and if it doesn't make the playoffs -- I don't care what the record -- Singletary can start working on his next career.
Normally, I wouldn't like the 49ers here, but I saw the Rams last weekend and they weren't good. Correction: They stunk. Plus, quarterback Sam Bradford hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in three weeks. So this is on Steven Jackson and the Rams defense, and tell me that's enough to stop the 49ers. Remember, San Francisco is 1-1 indoors and nearly beat Atlanta in the Georgia Dome.
Something to consider: The last time these two met, Troy Smith started and the 49ers won in overtime. But look a little closer: The 49ers won in spite of themselves. They were 0 for 11 on third-down conversions.
The line: Colts by 3½
The story: Indianapolis is back where it should be, atop the AFC South. But you'd better be careful, guys. This is a dangerous, dangerous game. In fact, it looks more like a trap than a game, with Oakland setting the bait for the unsuspecting Colts.
|Darren McFadden leads the way for the Raiders' second-ranked rushing attack. (US Presswire)|
I know, the Colts looked decent against Jacksonville last week. But that was then. This is now. And now I wouldn't want to play Oakland. The Raiders obliterated San Diego three weeks ago. Then they just lost out to Tampa Bay and buried Denver. They're not all that good, but they're not all that bad, either. And they have the all-important Mo, as in momentum.
The good news for Indianapolis is that Peyton Manning seems to have steadied himself, with four touchdowns, no interceptions and two division wins the past two weeks. But Manning will be under siege here. The Raiders attack the pocket so effectively they're tied for third in sacks. Plus, Manning just lost another receiver, with Austin Collie bowing out.
There are reports that running back Joseph Addai might return to the lineup, and Addai himself said he expects to play. But I'll believe it when I see it. In the meantime, Manning must carry the Colts, which is what he has done all season and most of his career.
The Raiders, meanwhile, are playing their best football at just the right time and haven't given up on the playoffs. You heard me: playoffs. Plus, they're 5-2 at home, with quarterback Jason Campbell a perfect 4-0 there and this game is sold out. What a long, strange trip it's been.
Something to consider: On the road this season, Manning has completed 68 percent of his attempts and thrown for 17 touchdowns, six interceptions and a passer rating of 100.0.
Monday night lights
The line: Falcons by 2½
The story: Had New Orleans beaten Baltimore last weekend, this would have been for a division title. Now it's more a measure of what separates these two clubs. We know Atlanta is playoff worthy. Heck, we know Atlanta is one of the best two teams out there. But the Saints? I'm not sure. They could be the second- or third-best team in the NFC, but I would like to see what happens here.
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Here's why: When you play the Falcons in Atlanta, you're not just playing one of the best teams in the NFL; you're playing their building, too. These guys just don't lose in the Georgia Dome, and the envelope please: In his career, Matt Ryan is 19-1 in the Georgia Dome, surviving close calls this season against San Francisco, Baltimore and Tampa Bay. But that's my point: He always survives. So do his teammates.
They not only are good. They are complete. They have the franchise quarterback, the franchise running back, the franchise wide receiver and a solid defense. Plus, they've been able to avoid injuries. New Orleans is healthy again, but it just lost a heartbreaker in Baltimore and was beaten by Atlanta earlier this season at the Superdome.
The Saints have all sorts of weapons to roll out, but they're in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Falcons want to close out the division and gain home-field advantage, and they can do both here. I know, they'll clinch the No. 1 seed anyway next weekend against Carolina, but it would sure be nice to do it on national TV against the defending Super Bowl champions -- and don't think that message hasn't been passed on.
Something to consider: Drew Brees has won his past four Monday night games, completing 75.8 percent of his passes and throwing for 13 touchdowns and one interception. Oh, yeah, his passer rating? Try 141.5.
Crummy game of the week
The line: Texans by 3½
The story: The Texans have lost seven of their past eight and eight of their past 10, and consider that abysmal. But now meet Denver. The Broncos have not only dropped nine of their past 10, they lost their head coach, video director and any semblance of self-respect. Heck, they probably sacrificed some fans along the way, too, what with a 45-point beatdown by Oakland, Spygate II and Josh McDaniels sabotaging the franchise.
I feel your pain, Denver. But at least interim coach Eric Studesville is doing something about it. He will start Tim Tebow a second week, and if there's a reason to watch here, it's Tebow. The Broncos thought enough of him -- OK, McDaniels thought enough of him -- to make him a first-round pick. So let's see what he has to offer.
I know, Houston can light it up with passes galore, but the Texans are one of the feel-bad stories of the year. So much promise, so little to show for it. I don't know if coach Gary Kubiak is in trouble, but I know he should be. This team has gone south faster than the Confederates at Antietam, and the natives are restless. Kubiak desperately needs to stop the bleeding. This is his chance.
Something to consider: The Broncos' rushing attack has jumped 2.0 yards per carry since Week 10, the biggest leap in the NFL.
Upset of the week
Let's get right to the point: The Raiders are physical; Indianapolis is not. The Raiders can run; Indianapolis has trouble stopping the run. The Raiders are 5-2 at home; Indianapolis is 3-4 on the road. The Raiders' Jason Campbell is 4-0 at home; Peyton Manning is ... OK, I think you get the idea. Almost everything tilts toward the home team, and the home team is Oakland.
Normally, I would never take anyone but the Colts and Manning down the stretch, but there is nothing normal about this season in Indianapolis. It suffered so many injuries that there's already an Indianapolis Hope pilot for TV in the works for next spring, and enough is enough. I don't think Manning determines what happens here; I think Darren McFadden and Michael Bush do.
Which is another way of saying that I like the Raiders to run the ball, move the chains and keep Manning off the field. In short, I like the Raiders to pull the upset.
Five guys I'd like to be
1. New England QB Tom Brady: He's 16-1 vs. Buffalo, with 36 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
2. Baltimore QB Joe Flacco: He's 5-0 vs. Cleveland, completing 68.2 percent of his passes.
3. Kansas City QB Matt Cassel: He's home, where the Chiefs are 6-0 and where he has 10 touchdown passes and one interception.
4. St. Louis RB Steven Jackson: He has four 100-yard rushing games vs. San Francisco.
5. San Diego QB Philip Rivers: He's 10-0 on the road in December, with 19 touchdown passes, five interceptions and a passer rating of 99.3. He's also 2-0 vs. Cincinnati.
Five best mano-a-manos
1. Baltimore LB Ray Lewis vs. Cleveland RB Peyton Hillis: The last time these two met, Hillis ran all over the Ravens, producing 144 yards rushing and a touchdown. Lewis guaranteed, "It won't happen again." It might not. But how about guaranteeing a win, Ray?
2. Cincinnati WR Chad Ochocinco vs. Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis: Lewis earlier this week described his star receiver as "mopey," and what's the big deal? He is. He mopes when they lose, and he's marvelous when they win. The Bengals are 3-11, so follow the bread crumbs.
3. Atlanta WR Roddy White vs. common sense: The Falcons' top pass receiver is one of the best in the business ... but not one of the smartest. As proof, he tweeted naughty things this week about New Orleans, basically saying Atlanta was going to "make sure" the Saints didn't win much of anything. Great. Look for White to appear next on the New Orleans bulletin board. Forget it. He's already there.
4. Washington QB Donovan McNabb vs. Washington coach Mike Shanahan: This is the story that keeps on giving. Each day it's another installment of He-Said-He-Said, with Shanahan this week telling McNabb he would welcome him back next season ... as a backup. Are you kidding me? What starting quarterback wants to hear that? The Redskins have two of their defensive players go after each other in the weight room, yet they still can't manage to knock McNabb-Shanahan off the front page. The more I watch this club operate, the more I understand why Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs resigned.
5. Detroit defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham vs. Miami RB Ricky Williams: Cunningham warned Williams against crack-back blocks on his defensive backs, saying if he tried it, "I'm coming on the field." Now this I've got to see.
Five things that may interest only me
1. Philadelphia has 13 victories in its past 14 games in December.
2. The Falcons' Matt Ryan is 32-12 as a starter. With a defeat of New Orleans, he can tie Dan Marino for the most victories by a quarterback in his first three seasons since the 1970 merger.
3. The Patriots haven't had a turnover in their past six games, the best streak in NFL history, and Tom Brady hasn't thrown an interception in his past 292 attempts. Brady will set a league record if he doesn't throw one in his next 17, breaking Bernie Kosar's mark of 308 set in 1990-91.
4. Twenty-seven kickers this season have made field goals of 50 or more yards, one short of the 2008 league record.
5. Baltimore's defense has allowed only 24 third-quarter points this season, the lowest in the NFL. It also has gone 23 straight games without permitting an opposing touchdown, the best third-quarter streak in modern-day (since 1933) NFL history.
Numbers to crunch
4: 300-yard games this season for Jon Kitna
7: Straight games where Tom Brady has thrown at least two touchdown passes
7: Houston scoring drives of 90-99 yards
12: San Diego TD passes of 20 or more yards, best in the NFL
15: Consecutive home wins for Matt Ryan
104: Chris Johnson's per-game rushing average in December
423: Yards needed for Oakland to set a franchise record for single-season rushing
2-7: Oakland in non-division games
• Buffalo: Snow showers, high of 20
• Chicago: Snow showers, high of 27
• Cleveland: Snow showers, high of 25
• Jacksonville, Fla.: Cloudy, windy, high of 49
• Kansas City, Mo.: Partly cloudy, high of 29
• Miami: Scattered thunderstorms, windy, high of 68
• Philadelphia: Snow showers, high of 34
• St. Louis: Dome
• Tampa, Fla.: Mostly cloudy, windy, high of 55
• Denver: Sunny, high of 55
• Oakland: Showers, high of 55
• Green Bay, Wis.: Snow showers, high of 25
• Cincinnati: Snow showers, high of 28
Where we will be
• Pete Prisco will be in Jacksonville on Sunday because that's where he lives. Then, he turns around Monday and flies to Atlanta because he can't get enough of the Falcons.
• I'll be in Chicago to pass out frozen shamrocks to the winner of the Jets-Bears game.
• Gregg Doyel will be in Cincinnati to mope around with his buddy, Chad.