Game of the Week
The line: Jets by 3½
The story: One New York tabloid proclaims this all about "Gagging Rights," with the loser sentenced to a week of obituaries and a winter of wondering what went wrong. I would say that just about nails it.
The Giants are reeling, dropping five of their past six, while the Jetsare coming off a lopsided loss in Philadelphia. Neither is all that impressive, but both filled local papers with white-hot quotes this week -- with Jets coach Rex Ryan directing the chorus.
Shocking, I know, but Ryan declared his team the better club, said it has been for the past three years and told the local media that if the Jets don't make the playoffs, you can put it on him. Giants coach Tom Coughlin, meanwhile, has tried to stay out of the line of fire, saying "talk is cheap," but talk is what this week was all about.
The Giants' Victor Cruz said Big Blue will go after cornerback Darrelle Revis. Revis responded by saying he doesn't "even know who this guy is," while teammate Plaxico Burress said he hopes to put up three or four TDs. The Giants' Brandon Jacobs insists New York still belongs to the Giants. The Jets' Santonio Holmes said the only thing that belongs to the Giants are big holes in their defense that he and his teammates will exploit.
I think you get the idea. We're about to witness three hours of civil war, with the Giants desperate to avoid the second-half collapse of 2009 and the Jets hoping to recreate their 2009 stretch run.
But a lot has changed since then. Neither team runs as well, with the Giants last in league rankings and the Jets 21st. The Jets' defense isn't as good, ranked seventh overall, and the Giants' defense isn't good, period. It ranks 28th overall and 29th vs. the pass. That means it could come down to the quarterbacks, and, given the choice, you have to like Eli Manning. He leads the league in fourth-quarter passing and is playing some of the best football of his career.
He's also coming off a three-interception game vs. Washington. The Giants don't always play well in back-to-back games, but Manning seldom has successive stinkers. Over the past two seasons, he has six games with three or more interceptions and, in the five games that followed, has eight touchdown passes, two interceptions and a 4-1 record -- all of which bodes well for this game.
But the Jets are resilient, and quarterback Mark Sanchez is best when there's a sense of urgency, which there is now. The key for Sanchez and the Jets is getting their "Ground and Pound" offense moving forward. If that happens, it makes Sanchez's job of throwing off play-action easier and slows down the Giants' pass rush. And that pass rush is critical to the Giants' chances because their secondary isn't nearly as tight as the Jets'. There are holes everywhere, and if Sanchez has time, Holmes is right: the Jets will exploit them.
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Something to consider: Manning has 20 career game-winning drives where he rallied from the Giants from a fourth-quarter tie or deficit -- including six this season.
Three games I'd like to see
The line: Lions by 2½
The story: The Lions are this close to a wild-card spot, and they would like nothing better than to clinch one here rather than having to do it next week ... in Green Bay. The problem is that San Diego is in the midst of its annual Christmas drive, winning three straight and looking like the club it was supposed to be the previous three months. But injuries and a raft of turnovers crippled the Bolts and have put them in a position where making the playoffs is a long shot.
Still, they're not out of anything, and one thing we've learned about the Chargers is they can ... and will ... find ways to sneak into the playoffs. Remember 2008? They were 4-8 at one point, yet reached the playoffs when Denver went into the fetal position. Since the return of Malcom Floyd, the Chargers have been terrific -- outscoring opponents 109-38 and producing three consecutive games with 30 or more points.
They had one in the previous 10 games.
Make this a track meet, but give the edge to San Diego. I know, Detroit produced a memorable come-from-behind defeat of Oakland last week, but the Lions have been little more than ordinary the past two months, winning four of nine starts. Yes, they have an edge because they're home, but it's not much of one. They're 4-3 at Ford Field. The Lions' advantage has more to do with San Diego being on the road, where they're 2-4 and where quarterback Philip Rivers committed some of his most memorable mistakes.
But Rivers has been near perfect lately, with no interceptions in his past four starts and a passer rating of 132.2 in his past three. Running back Ryan Mathews is hot, running for 453 yards in the past four games, while Vincent Jackson, Antonio Gates and Floyd have five TDs in their past three. Oh, yeah, their offensive line has been better with the addition of left tackle Jared Gaither, too. Rivers has been sacked twice in three games.
That's a long way of saying that Detroit better be careful here. It took San Diego three months, but it appears the Chargers finally found themselves ... and that's not good for anyone in their path.
Something to consider: Detroit has won four games after trailing by 13 or more points, an NFL record.
The line: 49ers by 2½
The story: If San Francisco is to gain a first-round bye, this is the game it must win. The 49ers will finish with St. Louis, and does the term "slam dunk" ring a bell? Not here it doesn't, because this one might be harder to win than you think.
First of all, the Seahawks pushed San Francisco in the season opener, losing only when they forgot not to kick to Ted Ginn Jr. But Ginn won't be available for this game. He's hurt. Linebacker Patrick Willis might not be available, either. He's hurt, too.
Seattle, meanwhile, is hot, winning five of its past six and playing its best football in two years under Pete Carroll. The club is winning with a defense that ranks eighth in yards allowed, sixth in points allowed and hasn't surrendered more than 17 points in any of its past five victories.
With a victory, Seattle would clinch its first non-losing season in four years, but that's not all. Carroll could keep his Stanford nemesis, Jim Harbaugh, from winning a first-round bye, and don't think that hasn't been mentioned this week.
Basically, this one comes down to which running back -- Marshawn Lynch or Frank Gore -- you trust more, and which defense forces the fatal turnover. Lynch is having his best season as a pro, scoring touchdowns in his past 10 games, while Gore has set franchise records for the two best days rushing (212 and 207 yards) vs. the Seahawks.
But it's defenses that dictate what happens to them. The 49ers allow the fewest points (13.2) per start, while the Seahawks' defense is tied for with the 49ers for second in interceptions (21). Seattle will have trouble scoring, but San Francisco could have trouble with the home crowd. Seattle's recent run is bound to bring out the 12th Man, and there is no tougher place to hear your quarterback when the Seahawks are rolling.
Something to consider: The 49ers lead the NFL with a +25 takeaway-to-turnover ratio. They have the most takeaways (35) and the fewest turnovers (10).
The line: Cowboys by 2½
The story: Dallas owner Jerry Jones admitted this week he's "scared" of the Eagles, and he should be. They finally resemble the team they were cranked up to be, and tell me they and the San Diego Chargers didn't chart the same course to this season. Both suffered through injuries, mistakes, defensive breakdowns and failed expectations to get here ... and now that they finally made it, they're causing trouble.
Like San Diego, the Eagles hold out hope they can reach the playoffs, but to get there, they must beat Dallas. That's possible. They destroyed the Cowboys earlier this season, and they're a much better team now. In their past two games, in fact, the Eagles outscored their opponents 71-29, producing a whopping 7.2 yards per snap vs. the New York Jets.
Philadelphia can beat you with LeSean McCoy or with the pass, and it's the pass that has been a problem for the Dallas defense. In short, its secondary isn't very good. If the Cowboys don't get to the quarterback, the quarterback gets to his receivers. The Cowboys rank 19th in pass defense and were gassed in Philadelphia when the Eagles held the ball for 42:09.
But things are different now, because Dallas is in first in the NFC East and near the finish line. If the Cowboys win here and the Giants lose, they're in. That would be good for Dallas. What would not is to have next weekend's season finale vs. the Giants mean something, which means the Cowboys will be rooting for the Jets on Saturday.
Of course, they must win, too, and to do that, they have to protect Tony Romo. One way of accomplishing that is to establish a running game with Felix Jones -- if, that is, Jones plays. Another is to double-team Jason Babin and have a back, tight end ... someone, anyone, chip Trent Cole.
The Eagles’ pass rush is as relentless as it is ferocious, and their defensive backs are playing better -- although cornerback Asante Samuel will miss this one because of a sore hamstring. They're a team that still believes it can make it to the playoffs – though logic says it probably won’t -- and that makes Philadelphia dangerous.
Something to consider: In his past three games, (including the playoffs) vs. Philadelphia at home, Romo is 3-0, with seven touchdowns and two interceptions.
A Christmas story
The line: Packers by 13½
The game: Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews says the Packers want to close out Chicago, and I can see why: Win here, and the Packers gain home-field advantage, which means they can rest their starters for the season finale vs. Detroit. In essence, that would mean two weeks off for starters, and tell me that's not incentive to bury the Bears.
Should that happen? Look at the spread, people. Chicago is out of gas and limping to the finish line. You have to feel for the Bears. They might've had the best chance to beat Green Bay in the playoffs had Jay Cutler and Matt Forte not bowed out with injuries.
Trust me, the Packers know that. Chicago couldn't dispose of them in last season's finale, and Green Bay returned to beat the Bears in the conference championship game. You don't want to risk keeping them around, then having Cutler and Forte return in the playoffs. Better to put them away when you can -- and we'll all be surprised if that doesn't happen.
Josh McCown will make his first start for Chicago, and it's about time. It's his first start in four seasons. Look for Green Bay to pressure the pocket, force McCown into turnovers and win going away. Yeah, I know, the Packers are the league's 31st-ranked pass defense; they also lead the league with 27 interceptions.
No, the Packers don't have an undefeated season to play for ... not any more ... but they have plenty of incentive to win.
Something to consider: This marks the fourth time these two have met in the 2011 calendar year, only the sixth time in league history two teams played four or more times in one year. The Packers won the past three. If they win, the Packers become only the second team (the 1994 Raiders were the first, vs. Denver) to beat an opponent four times in one calendar year.
Monday night lights
The line: Saints by 6½
|Drew Brees hasn't lost at home this season, where he'll likely break Dan Marino's mark for passing yards on Monday night. (US Presswire)|
Already, there's talk that Brees might squeeze the Aaron Rodgers for league MVP, but he must finish with a flourish. But that might be difficult considering that always-tough Atlanta should have Brent Grimes and Kelvin Hayden returning to its secondary and John Abraham in Brees' grill.
Still, nothing seems to faze Brees. In 11 starts vs. Atlanta, he's 9-2 with a passer rating of 100. He has also won his past six on Monday Night Football, producing a passer rating of 124.1.
I don't foresee Atlanta stopping Brees, but it can minimize damage by controlling the ball, forcing field goals and not going for it on fourth-and-1 at its 29-yard line. History tells you the game should be close. History also tells you the Saints don't lose at home.
Something to consider: Each of the past three games between these two has been decided by three points.
Crummy game of the week
The line: Steelers by 14½
The story: To win the AFC North, the Steelers must not lose the next two weeks ... and they won't. They play two of the league's worst clubs, with Cleveland after this one, and the Steelers feel secure enough about their chances that there are reports they're considering sitting Ben Roethlisberger until the playoffs.
I would, too.
Look, they can win without him here, and they can win without him next week. With Sam Bradford still bothered by a sore ankle and A.J. Feeley sidelined by a fractured thumb, it looks as if Kellen Clemens will make his second start with the Rams, and a Kurt Warner Waiting to Happen he is not.
But nothing's happening with the Rams' offense this season. In fact, the club is on schedule to score fewer than 200 points for only the second time since World War II. The Rams have 15 touchdowns this season, and if that total doesn't change -- and they play Pittsburgh and San Francisco the last two weeks -- it becomes the second-lowest total in franchise history.
Congratulations, guys. You earned it.
Something to consider: The Steelers have won their past three regular-season games played on Saturday, including a 41-0 defeat of Cleveland in 2005, their previous Saturday matinee.
Upset of the week
Philadelphia (+2½) over Dallas
The story: The Eagles buried the Cowboys once before. They're stronger now. They can't afford another loss. They're 4-2 on the road. Their offense is rolling. They have the NFC's leading rusher. They're relentless pass rushers. What about this is so hard to understand?
When Jerry Jones says he's "scared" of the Eagles, he speaks for most everyone in the NFC. Nobody wants this team in the playoffs. Not now. What you see is the team Philadelphia could've been, and, yeah, that's frightening. If the Eagles stay away from turnovers, they can bury Dallas again.
Five guys I'd like to be
1. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco: He's 7-0 vs. Cleveland, with eight TDs and three interceptions.
2. Denver quarterback Tim Tebow: He's 5-0 on the road, with eight TD passes and no interceptions.
3. Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford: He's 3-0 vs. the AFC this season, with 11 TDs and one interception.
4. Dallas linebacker DeMarcus Ware: He has seven sacks in his past two starts vs. Philadelphia and aims for his third consecutive game with three or more sacks each.
5. New England quarterback Tom Brady: He aims for his 11th consecutive victory at home vs. the AFC East, as well as his seventh consecutive game with a passer rating of 100 or better.
Five best matchups
1. N.Y. Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz vs. N.Y. Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis: Cruz called out Revis this week, saying the Giants were going to throw at him, and Revis responded by saying he didn't know who Cruz was. One of these guys is lying. Maybe both.
2. N.Y. Giants coach Tom Coughlin vs. N.Y. Jets coach Rex Ryan: These two are polar opposites, and that was evident this week when Ryan wouldn't stop talking, and Coughlin wouldn't start -- telling reporters that "talk is cheap." Yeah, well, they didn't get the memo in Florham Park. One thing they do have in common: Each is desperate for a victory.
3. N.Y. Jets wide receiver Plaxico Burress vs. the past: Burress is the guy who caught the Giants' game-winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl XLII. He's also the guy who turned his back on the Giants to sign with Generation Rex. Now he promises to go Grinch and ruin Christmas for his former teammates. "Somebody's going to wake up with a bittersweet Christmas," he said, "and it's not going to be me."
4. San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh vs. Seattle's Pete Carroll. Don't tell me Carroll doesn't remember what happened when Harbaugh and Stanford poured it on Carroll's USC team, provoking the now-famous "What's your deal?" exchange afterward. The 49ers' deal is gaining a first-round bye, and Carroll would like nothing better than to crash the party.
5. Green Bay receivers vs. dropped passes: The Packers dropped five last week, with another three that were borderline. Tight end Jermichael Finley had three of those drops and another that was flubbed, and that’s not like him or the Packers. "It’s not me," said Finley. "It’s a thing of football. I have to work a little harder and start going back to the basics and keeping two eyes on the ball and look it in."
Five quotes to remember
1. "I don't care about Tom Coughlin or anybody else" -- Jets' coach Rex Ryan on the Giants.
2. "I think it's baloney" -- Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers on Kansas City's win being a blueprint for success vs. the Packers.
3. "Because it is the Eagles and, after the butt-kicking they gave us in Philadelphia, I'm scared" -- Dallas owner Jerry Jones on his next game.
4. "I'm not all motivated just to be a head coach because, hey, that's going to happen" -- Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan on his future.
5. "Oh, I heard them. They were deserved." -- Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on getting booed after last week's loss to Miami.
Five things that might interest only me
1. With two games left, 22 of the league's 32 teams remain in contention for the playoffs. Currently, seven of the eight divisions are led by teams that did not win their divisions in 2010. If that holds, it would mark the biggest one-year change since realignment in 2002.
2. With a fourth-quarter touchdown Saturday, the Giants' Eli Manning sets an NFL record. He'll have 15 fourth-quarter TDs this season, breaking the previous record of 14 shared by him, brother Peyton (2002) and the Colts' John Unitas (1959).
3. With a victory Saturday, the New England Patriots run their streak of wins in December to 10, which would put them in the top five for the longest December win streaks. San Diego holds the record with 18.
4. The Packers average 40.2 points per game at Lambeau Field. The club record is 38.00 points per game, set in 1942.
Numbers that might mean something
6: Number of consecutive AFC West road wins for Oakland
7: Straight games where the Chargers scored on opening drives
10: Ed Reed interceptions vs. Cleveland, his most vs. any opponent
17-1: Green Bay at home over the past 18 starts
19: Number of different players who scored this year for Green Bay
23-2: Philip Rivers in December
105.4: Average yards receiving per game for Wes Welker
341.2: Average yards passing per game for Drew Brees
• Baltimore: Sunny, high of 49
• Orchard Park, N.Y.: A.M. snow showers, high of 34
• Charlotte, N.C.: Mostly sunny, high of 58
• Cincinnati: Sunny, high of 45
• Kansas City: Sunny, high of 48
• Foxborough, Mass.: Partly cloudy, high of 36
• East Rutherford, N.J.: Partly cloudy, high of 42
• Pittsburgh: Sunny, high of 40
• Nashville, Tenn.: Mostly sunny, high of 49
• Landover, Md.: Partly cloudy, high of 48
• Detroit: Dome
• Arlington, Texas: A.M. showers, high of 47
• Seattle: Showers, high of 47
Where we will be
• I'll be at MetLife Stadium to gauge just how low the price of talk has fallen.
• Pete Prisco will be in New Orleans Monday night to boogie with Tom Benson.