Game of the Week
The line: Ravens by 2½
The story: Baltimore needs this game to win the AFC North. Cincinnati needs this game to make the playoffs. Big? You bet. It's so big the Bengals have a sellout, only their second of the season. OK, so owner Mike Brown helped. Whatever it takes, and it took a buy one, get one free deal. PBS will be rockin', and it's about time.
The last time these two played, Cincinnati refused to go away, losing a score when Jermaine Gresham's touchdown catch was overruled -- another in a long line of questionable decisions this season by NFL officials. Still, the Bengals were close at the end, missing when a desperation pass by Andy Dalton fell incomplete.
So they lost by seven. But they did it without star receiver A.J. Green.
Green is back for this one, and Ravens fans should be worried ... and not because of him or Dalton but because this game is in Cincinnati. The Ravens are 3-4 on the road, with some of their worst performances (Jacksonville? San Diego?) there. For whatever reason, their defense has trouble making sacks, takeaways and stops away from home, and that better change Sunday.
Otherwise, they're looking at a wild card.
One of the keys for Baltimore is jumping to the lead, then holding it by running Ray Rice. I have a lot more faith in Rice than I do Joe Flacco. Flacco looks good one week; not so good the next, and if I'm Baltimore I don't take chances -- especially with right guard Marshal Yanda's status uncertain. I go with what I know, and what I know is that Ray Rice is good for a league-best 124.6 yards from scrimmage per game.
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So give him the ball.
Something to consider: The Bengals have won five of their past six home games against Baltimore.
Three games I'd like to see
The line: Jaguars by 4½
The story: Normally, this would qualify for Crummy Game of the Week, but not this week. Not with Andrew Luck at stake. The Colts have the inside track, but to get Luck they must lose. Normally, that wouldn't seem difficult, except the Colts lately have been playing fast and loose with their Luck.
They had the first pick of the draft all but locked up when, suddenly and inexplicably, they ran off two straight victories. Another, coupled with a St. Louis loss, means they're out of Luck and No. 1 goes to the Rams.
All of which makes this game worth seeing. I mean, if you're Jacksonville you don't want to see Luck go to a division rival, right? So what do you do? Beat these guys and finish 5-11 or try hard, fall short and be glad you don't have to face Peyton Manning and/or Andrew Luck the next 10 years?
Look, I understand nobody tries to tank. But there's a dilemma here for both teams, which is why I find it fascinating. If Indianapolis wins, it finishes 3-13 instead of 2-14. So what? It blows its chance to draft Luck. But if it loses it solidifies the game's most important position for the next 10-15 years. I know what I would do if I were Indianapolis, and what I would do is start Curtis Painter and rest my starters.
For next year.
Something to consider: A Jacksonville win would mark the first season sweep of Indianapolis by an AFC South opponent since Tennessee in 2002.
The line: Broncos by 3½
The story: So the Denver Broncos start Tim Tebow, waive Kyle Orton and live happily ever after, right? Not so fast. The Broncos are one win from clinching the AFC West, but Orton and the Kansas City Chiefs stand in the way. That might not seem like a big deal, but, apparently, you don't know Kyle Orton. The guy is determined to have the last laugh, and he could.
Kansas City knocked off Green Bay two weeks ago. It should have knocked off Oakland last week. Its defense is playing well, holding four of its past five opponents to 16 or fewer points. And Orton is an improvement on Tyler Palko, who bowed to Denver seven weeks ago 17-10.
The key for the Chiefs ... and Denver for that matter ... is how Kansas City defends Tebow and Denver's top-ranked rushing attack. When these two first met the Broncos put up 244 yards running and were so effective that Tebow didn't need to throw. He tried eight passes. He completed two, one for a 56-yard touchdown.
People tell me defenses are wise to Tebow now, but I'll believe it when I see it. The trouble Denver has had is not with running the ball; it's keeping the ball. The Broncos have seven turnovers the past two weeks, and, sorry, when you're playing the game as the Broncos do you absolutely, positively cannot abide turnovers.
This is not a quick-strike offense. It's not designed to go end-to-end in four or five plays. What it is designed to do is wear opponents down, then finish them off with fourth-quarter drives. It has happened before. It could happen again. The key is not committing the turnovers that finished Denver the past two weeks ... and, of course, frazzling Orton.
Something to consider: The Broncos' Elvis Dumervil has at least a half a sack in eight straight games, the longest streak of his career.
The line: Giants by 3½
The story: This one's pretty simple. The winner walks away with the NFC East. The loser goes home and takes the first tee time next Tuesday with him. The NFL considered this game so big it flexed it to Sunday night, but the Baltimore-Cincinnati game has at least as much drama ... if not more. Plus, you could have two playoff teams emerge there. Here it's one.
|Jason Pierre-Paul had a big hand in the Giants' Week 14 victory over the Cowboys in Texas. (Getty Images)|
That's another way of saying that anything is possible with these guys.
There's a maddening lack of consistency with them, which, of course, makes them the perfect adversary for Dallas. The Cowboys lose games they shouldn't, too, with Tony Romo self-destructing, the defense blowing fourth-quarter leads or the head coach icing his own kicker with a timeout.
Romo is hurt this time around, nursing a sore right hand that forced him out of last weekend's loss to Philadelphia, but I wouldn't read too much into that. He practiced this week and he played with broken ribs earlier this season.
The problem for Dallas is that there's no DeMarco Murray, and he was the difference maker when the Cowboys were rolling. Now he's gone, Felix Jones is in, and, sorry, but he's no DeMarco Murray. Plus, he has a sore hamstring, though it won't stop him from playing.
So the Cowboys have issues like the Giants have issues. But things are looking up for Big Blue. Defensive end Osi Umenyiora is a possibility after missing the past month because of an ankle injury, and wide receiver Mario Manningham was practicing after missing a month because of a knee injury. Neither played vs. the Jets.
The Cowboys' problems, though, go beyond Umenyiora and Manningham. They couldn't stop Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks the first time these two met, and, yes, Cruz has a sore hamstring too. But he ran this week and declared himself "ready" for Sunday.
I don't know if the Cowboys' secondary can cover the Giants' receivers, but I do know it can be effective if the Dallas pass rush -- i.e., DeMarcus Ware -- pressures Eli Manning. If not, it's over. The Cowboys couldn't handle Jason Pierre-Paul the first time around, and I don't like their chances here. I don't like Romo's chances playing with a swollen hand, either. Most of all, I don't like the Cowboys' chances when owner Jerry Jones is on the sidelines advising his head coach.
Something to consider: Of the past 27 games between these two, 16 have been decided by a touchdown or less, 11 by four or fewer points and three in overtime.
Crummy game of the week
The line: Falcons by 14½
The story: The Bucs have lost their past nine, including blowouts by Jacksonville and Carolina. Atlanta is 25-6 at home under Mike Smith, 5-2 this year. Moreover, the Falcons no longer need this game to make the playoffs. So what do think is going to happen?
Uh-huh, bombs away.
Raheem Morris said he deserves to be retained as the Bucs' head coach, citing his record last year when he was a Coach of the Year candidate. This just in, Raheem: It's 2011. The Bucs don't only stink; they're one of the worst teams anywhere now, surrendering 31 or more points in six of their past seven starts and tied for the league lead in turnovers.
Something to consider: Atlanta's Matt Ryan is 5-1 vs. Tampa Bay, with eight touchdowns and no interceptions in his past three.
Upset of the week
The line: Cards by 3½
The story: This one not only is for second place in the NFC West; it's for a .500 season, and given what these clubs endured this season, yes, that's a big deal.
It looks as if the Cards start John Skelton again, and the Seahawks try to ride Marshawn Lynch to the upset. I say they do it, not just because of Lynch but because their defense is playing superb football.
The Cards' defense is improved, too, but Seattle has too much for Skelton to pull another fourth-quarter comeback. Unlike Cincinnati's Cedric Benson, Lynch won't try to fumble away the game this time.
Moreover, the Seahawks are vastly improved on the road, where they had trouble winning much of anything a year ago. They have won three there, including upsets of the Giants and Bears. No, they're still not a great road team, but they're better ... and better than Arizona here.
Something to consider: The Cardinals trailed in the second halves of all seven wins this season and overcame fourth-quarter deficits in six of them.
Five guys I'd like to be
1. Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson: He has seven interceptions, including three returned for touchdowns, in his past seven games vs. Detroit.
2. New England quarterback Tom Brady: He's 17-2 vs. Buffalo, with 43 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
3. Philadelphia wide receiver DeSean Jackson: He has five touchdowns vs. Washington, averaging 63 yards per score.
4. San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith: He's 5-1 against St. Louis and had a career-best 142.3 passer rating the last time these two met.
5. Oakland quarterback Carson Palmer: In four career starts vs. San Diego he has a completion percentage of 71.5, 11 touchdown passes, two interceptions and a passer rating of 129.5.
Five best matchups
1. Kansas City QB Kyle Orton vs. Denver QB Tim Tebow: Orton was benched in favor of Tebow. Then he was released when Tebow took the Broncos to the top of the division. So it figures Orton has something to prove ... especially if he can keep Denver from moving on to the playoffs. Only he doesn't see it that way. "The only guys I'm trying to prove something to are my teammates," said Orton. Yeah, sure.
2. Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh vs. the Green Bay Packers: The last time these two met, Suh stomped on offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith and was suspended two games. Now he's back, and the Packers should be worried. They don't need unnecessary injuries entering the playoffs. "There's no hard feelings," said Suh. "The incident is over and done with." Easy for him to say. He was doing the stomping.
3. N.Y. Giants running back Brandon Jacobs vs. Dallas fans: It was Jacobs who last week said something about Rex Ryan's "big, fat mouth." Well, look who's talking now. Jacobs on Thursday called Dallas fans "loud and obnoxious," apparently confusing them with Ryan. "Their fans are the ones who have me feeling the way I feel," said an excited Jacobs. "That's just my issue." Not anymore it's not.
4. Cleveland vs. Public Enemy No. 1, aka Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison: Harrison was suspended for hammering Colt McCoy so hard he knocked him out for the season. He's also the guy who sidelined Josh Cribbs a year ago with a concussion. Something about the Browns and James Harrison doesn't mix, but Cleveland promises no revenge -- at least that's what the Browns are saying. "The optimal goal," said wide receiver Greg Little, "is to win the game, not try to take a cheap shot on guys."
5. Miami wide receiver Brandon Marshall vs. New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis: Marshall this week said officials protect the All-Pro cornerback, referring to Revis' 100-yard interception return earlier this year when Revis made contact with Marshall but was not flagged. "I think they gave him 'the Jordan Rule,'" Marshall said. "You get a little too close to Michael Jordan they're going to call the foul. It works that way in football."
Five quotes to remember
1. "I know our fans hate the Cowboys as much as I do." -- N.Y. Giants defensive end Justin Tuck.
2. "I have no intentions of playing in the Pro Bowl. I plan on being in practice with my teammates ... getting ready for the Super Bowl." -- Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs.
3. "There's no way we're looking to replace Mark Sanchez." -- Jets coach Rex Ryan.
4. "If we play a complete game from beginning to end we'll pitch a shutout." -- Giants linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka
5. "We don't care about it. That's their problem. We've got our own problems." -- Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis on Cincinnati's sellout.
Five things that may only interest me
1. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez has a league-low two passes for 40 or more yards this year.
2. The NFC went 33-31 vs. the AFC in 2011, the first time since 1995 that the NFC won the interconference series.
3. For the 16th straight season five or more teams that didn't make the playoffs the year before will qualify. This year's winners are San Francisco, Houston, Oakland/Denver, Detroit and Dallas/N.Y. Giants.
4. With a defeat of Baltimore, Cincinnati's Andy Dalton will become only the fifth rookie starting quarterback to win 10 or more games, with Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan the most recent (2008).
5. With one week to go, Minnesota's Jared Allen (18½), Philadelphia's Jason Babin (18) and Dallas' DeMarcus Ware (18) are within two sacks of 20. If two of them make it they become the first pair in NFL history to reach 20 or more in the same season.
Numbers that may mean something
3-0: John Fox vs. Kansas City
8-14: Tony Romo's record in December/January
11: Consecutive games with a Marshawn Lynch TD
13: Aaron Rodgers games with passer rating of 100 or better
23-28: Dallas' record in regular-season finales
31: Jacksonville players on injured reserve, including 10 defensive backs
44.15: NFL's average points per game
52-15: New England vs. the AFC East under Bill Belichick
515: Green Bay Packers points, a league high and franchise record
• Green Bay, Wis.: Snow, wind, high of 32
• Houston: Few showers, high of 68 (retractable roof)
• Jacksonville, Fla.: Partly cloudy, high of 76
• Miami: Sunny, high of 79
• Minneapolis: Dome
• Foxborough, Mass.: Partly cloudy, high of 47
• New Orleans: Dome
• Philadelphia: Mostly sunny, high of 54
• St. Louis: Dome
• Glendale, Ariz.: Sunny, high of 76 (retractable roof)
• Atlanta: Dome
• Cincinnati: Showers, wind, high of 48
• Cleveland: Showers, wind, high of 43
• Denver: Sunny, high of 40
• Oakland, Calif.: Mostly sunny, high of 65
• East Rutherford, N.J.: Partly cloudy, high of 51
Where we will be
• I'll be at MetLife Stadium to prowl the sidelines with Jerry Jones.
• Pete Prisco will be in Miami to see if it comes to pass for Mark Sanchez and the Jets.
• Mike Freeman will be in Denver to review The Fantastic Mr. Fox.
• Gregg Doyel will be in Cincinnati to thank Mike Brown for the free seat.