Game of the Week
The line: Ravens by 6½
The story: The AFC North is at stake, and not because Pittsburgh has a shot at the title; but because it doesn't. The Steelers are three games behind Baltimore with five to play, which means this one is all about the Ravens. They can clinch a second straight division championship with a victory and a Cincinnati loss in San Diego, and, while the Bengals aren't expected to lose the Steelers are.
First of all, there's that sticky matter of Ben Roethlisberger. The Pittsburgh quarterback won't play ... so hasta la vista, baby. Second, the Steelers lost to these guys two weeks ago ... in Pittsburgh. Third, and most important, the Ravens are where they want to be, which is home. They have won their past 15 there and are 23-1 over their past 24 starts at M&T Bank Stadium.
The last time they lost in Baltimore? Glad you asked. It was to Pittsburgh in 2010, but the Steelers had Roethlisberger then. They have Charlie Batch now, and you saw what happened last weekend. They committed eight turnovers en route to a loss in Cleveland.
The Steelers will try to win this as they tried to win two weeks ago, hammering the Ravens' front seven with their rushing attack, with Jonathan Dwyer at the head of the pack. They averaged five yards a carry that evening, with their only touchdown on a Byron Leftwich scramble, and relying on Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall is safer than relying on Batch.
Of course, they always rely on the league's top-ranked defense, too, but it may not be enough vs. these Ravens. Baltimore is on a tear, averaging 27.2 points in its past four victories, including 55 against the Raiders. But the Ravens managed only 13 vs. Pittsburgh and have 29 in their past two games including last week's 16-13 overtime defeat of San Diego.
So they could be vulnerable. Of course, they're probably not, mostly because they're home, where Joe Flacco is 32-5 and where in his previous three against Pittsburgh he has five TD passes and no interceptions.
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The back story: Since returning from their bye, the Ravens not only haven't lost in four games; they are allowing an NFL-low 14.5 points per start, surrendering just four touchdowns. They also haven't allowed a red-zone TD in 10 series by opponents inside the 20 in those games.
Three games I'd like to see
The line: Bears by 3½
The story: Basically, this one comes down to Jay Cutler's pass protection. If the Bears can keep opponents off him as successfully as they did last weekend vs. Minnesota, it's over. Bears win. If they can't ... if they resemble the conga line of matadors who waved Aldon Smith and the 49ers to Jason Campbell two weeks earlier ... Chicago's in trouble.
Notice I didn't say they lose.
That's because Seattle wins road games about as often as Cutler isn't hit. The Seahawks are 1-5 away from home this year and 6-16 the past three seasons under Pete Carroll. They're a tough out at home -- in fact, they're practically unbeatable -- but they're dreadful on the road, where last week they allowed Miami to score on its final three series to score a come-from-behind victory.
So where is there hope? Well, here ... and I mean Chicago. Seattle has scored victories over the Bears in its past two regular-season trips there, one in 2010 and the other last season. So it's a big game for both teams. Seattle has designs on a wild-card playoff spot, while Chicago is trying to hold off Green Bay until the two meet Dec. 16.
The Seahawks' strength is a defense that ranks fifth overall and running back Marshawn Lynch, while Cutler, the Bears' defense and the Bears' special teams make them a dead-bolt cinch to make the playoffs. But Chicago must keep pass rushers like Bruce Irvin off Cutler, and if that happens I have no doubt he does to Seattle what Ryan Tannehill did last weekend -- find holes in the secondary at just the right time.
One way to slow the pass rush is to run the ball effectively, and Chicago's chances improved this week with the return of Matt Forte to practice. But it's not just getting Forte going that's crucial to the Bears; it's getting Cutler going in the first period, something that happens too infrequently. You don't want to play from behind against Seattle's defense.
The back story: Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson led the NFL with a 128.6 passer rating in November. He had a rating of at least 125 or better in all three November starts, the first rookie ever to do that in three straight starts.
The line: Lions by 4½
The story: The Colts look they're going to the playoffs; the Lions look like they aren't. So this one's easy to pick, right?
Not so fast. Detroit has something to prove, with the Lions determined to affect the playoffs ... even if they don't make them. That means they could serve as a speed bump for Indianapolis, which is 2-3 on the road and looking for two more wins anywhere to guarantee a winning season and maybe a playoff berth.
Detroit coach Jim Schwartz this week talked about quarterback Matthew Stafford's mechanics and how satisfied he is with them, but it's not Stafford's mechanics holding this team back -- heck, the guy has a shot at 5,000 yards again; it's the Lions' inability to do much of anything in the first and third quarters, with the slow starters outscored 92-68. In fact, they score almost as many points in the fourth quarter (128) as they do the first three periods (136).
So that's a problem.
So is forcing turnovers. The Lions have only 12 takeaways, and that better change if they're going to stop Andrew Luck and an opponent that seems driven by something beyond a rookie quarterback and interim head coach. Since starting 5-0 last year, Detroit is 9-14, and that has more to do with a defense that can't make key stops and an offense that can't run effectively.
Nevertheless, the Lions still have Calvin Johnson, and I guarantee the Colts don't stop him because nobody has lately. That means there will be more pressure on Luck to perform, with the emphasis on pressure. The guy has been sacked 26 times, including four last week, and harassed countless other times. If Indianapolis can't hold off Cliff Avril and Ndamukong Suh, it could be a long afternoon.
The back story: The Colts' average time of possession (31 minutes, 50 seconds) is fifth highest in the NFL and their best since 1997, when they averaged 32:56.
The line: Broncos by 7½
The story: The betting line for this game moved up this week, despite Tampa Bay's recent run of success, and there's a reason: Peyton Manning. The guy is unconscious at home, with 13 touchdowns and one interception. Of course, there's also this: Tampa Bay has the league's worst pass defense.
Put the two together, and you have oddsmakers predicting a relatively easy victory for Denver, the team's seventh in a row, and an AFC West championship for the Broncos.
And that might happen. But I would be careful. Tampa Bay hasn't been blown away by anyone this season, with the Bucs never more than seven points behind an opponent. In fact, the average margin of their losses is 4.6 points, with Tampa Bay falling one point short to Atlanta last week.
But there's more: The Bucs are 3-2 on the road, winning their past three there, including an impressive 35-17 blowout in Minnesota.
Tampa can run and it can pass. What it can't do is play pass defense, and that's why the spread is so high here. Basically, oddsmakers believe the Bucs will have trouble covering -- and I don't just mean the 7½ points. But Tampa Bay still believes it's in the middle of the playoff picture, and it is. But it has road games with Denver, New Orleans and Atlanta, which means getting there will be a climb -- unless, of course, the Bucs pull the upset here, and good luck. The Broncos haven't lost at home since Houston beat them 31-25 the third week of the season.
The back story: Since Week 6, the Bucs lead the NFC with an average of 32.6 points per game. During that streak quarterback Josh Freeman has 16 touchdowns, three interceptions and a passer rating of 104.1.
Monday night lights
The line: Giants by 2½
|Robert Griffin III and the Redskins can't afford to lose Monday night. (AP)|
I know, they would still have a month to make a run. But another loss puts them at 5-7, which not only would sink them 3½ games behind the division-leading Giants (who would hold the tiebreaker by virtue of two defeats of Washington); it would mean they would have to win all four of their remaining games to have a shot at a wild card. Anyone know the last time the Redskins won four straight? Try 2008, when Jim Zorn was the head coach and Jason Campbell was the quarterback.
Of course, Robert Griffin III is a substantial improvement over Campbell and gives the Redskins a shot in virtually any game. The guy has been marvelous, with four touchdown passes in each of his past two starts, and he nearly beat the Giants by himself earlier this season.
But that's the point. He didn't, and, for whatever reason, the Giants under Tom Coughlin are better on the road in recent years than they are at home. Plus, they're coming off of one of their best performances of the season, a resounding defeat of Green Bay.
If the Giants play like that again, nobody will beat them. They rushed the passer. They ran the ball. Their secondary was outstanding. They committed no turnovers. And Eli Manning looked like a Super Bowl MVP again. That formula has been good enough to make them 5-0 vs. Green Bay, San Francisco and Atlanta the past 11 months, and if it's there again there's no way Washington wins.
Nevertheless, the Redskins are desperate, and, as I always say, desperate teams at home are dangerous teams -- and RG3 makes them especially dangerous. The Giants know what they're up against because they saw him before, and what they saw is an exceptional playmaker who can take over a contest with his arm, his legs or both.
"Until I exit stage right," Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said, "it seems like he's going to be a fixture in my dreams and nightmares. ... He is one of the best dual threats in the game today."
It's important not to forget about the damage Griffin -- and Washington -- can inflict with the running game. The Redskins ran all over Big Blue when they met last month, gaining 248 yards on the ground, with rookie running back Alfred Morris responsible for 120 of them. In four games since, the Giants have surrendered an average of 92.3 yards.
The back story: Manning has won four of his past five on Monday nights and in his only Monday appearance against Washington he had three touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 144.4.
Crummy game of the week
The line: Jets by 4½
The story: There are a lot of bad games out there this week, and this is just one of them. I don't know this is the worst matchup of the weekend -- there's always Carolina vs. Kansas City and Philadelphia vs. anybody -- but look what's going on here: Arizona hasn't won a game in two months, and the Jets have become everybody's favorite punch line.
While Arizona tries to figure out who starts next at quarterback after running out of pass protectors and passers following a 4-0 start, it's also time to figure out who bows out in New York after the season.
Most agree that coach Rex Ryan probably saves his job -- unless, of course, the Jets send in the clowns, as they did last week. That was a disgrace played out on national TV, and owner Woody Johnson won't tolerate more. As one guy told me, one thing rich guys don't like is to have people laughing at them. I think he's right. But how does that make him different than anyone else? Answer: It doesn't.
Anyway, speculation moves on to general manager Mike Tannenbaum and offensive coordinator Tony Sparano. Let's just say the Jets need to do something, anything, quickly to improve their security. So we move to a game that features two bad teams going nowhere, with Arizona due to win sooner or later, and the Jets determined to demonstrate they're not as bad as they appear.
The back story: The Cardinals' pass defense has held opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 74.3, second only to Chicago (65.1).
Upset of the week
The line: Raiders by 1½
The story: I know what you're thinking: This is an upset? Well, yeah, the Raiders are favored, and the Browns haven't won a road game all season. They've been close, but they're 0-5, and let's admit it, one of the league's bottom feeders. Of course, so is Oakland.
If I had guts, I might make St. Louis the choice here because the Rams are tough at home, the 49ers aren't particularly good indoors and St. Louis tied the 49ers less than a month ago ... in San Francisco, no less, where the Rams should've won in overtime.
I said if.
Kansas City is another possibility because ... well, because the Chiefs can't lose all their games at home, can they? Then I see Brady Quinn at quarterback, and that ends the conversation. So I'm taking the easy way out and opting for a team that's improving against an opponent that hemorrhages points, has surrendered 221 yards or more rushing in two of its past four games and is so bad it can't sell out its own stadium.
The back story: Cleveland hasn't allowed an opponent to rush for more than 63 yards the past two weeks, the first time since 1989 the Browns have allowed 65 or fewer yards in back-to-back games. Before their bye, the Browns had allowed an average of 132.2 yards rushing per start, putting them at 27th in the league. Since the bye, they are yielding an average of 56.0 yards, best in the NFL.
Five guys I'd like to be
1. Buffalo DE Mario Williams: He had a season-best three sacks last week and has 8½ for the season. Jacksonville's pass protection leaks like a sieve. Consider this a good matchup for Williams and a bad one for quarterback Chad Henne.
2. Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers: In eight career starts vs. the Vikings he has 19 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. He has also won his past four against them.
3. San Francisco WR Michael Crabtree: He aims for his sixth straight game vs. St. Louis with a touchdown catch.
4. St. Louis QB Sam Bradford: He has completed 71.2 percent of his passes for four touchdowns and no interceptions in his three starts against San Francisco and is 3-0-1 in his past four division games.
5. N.Y. Giants RB Ahmad Bradshaw: He has seven rushing touchdowns in his past six games vs. Washington and aims for his fourth straight against the Redskins with at least one TD.
Five best matchups
1. St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher vs. San Francisco DE Justin Smith: For the second time this season an opposing coach is talking up Smith's grabbing, and this time it's Fisher. Like New York Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, Fisher said Smith "does a really good job" of grabbing on run plays. Asked if he was implying that Smith operates outside the rulebook, Fisher said, "I'm not implying. I'm just stating facts."
2. Washington CB DeAngelo Hall vs. NY Giants QB Eli Manning: It was Manning who last month beat cornerback Josh Wilson and safety Madieu Williams with a 77-yard touchdown strike to Victor Cruz, and it was Hall who came to their rescue, saying it didn't "take a rocket scientist" to make that throw -- a charge he reiterated this week when he said, "I could've made that throw." Maybe. But he didn't. He and his teammates surrendered a game-winning touchdown with 1:13 left, and the Giants aren't going to worry about what Hall says now. "It didn't take a rocket scientist to throw it or for me to catch it," said Cruz, "but it was something that was done. It wasn't something that was given to us." Amen.
3. Chicago OL Gabe Carimi vs. the learning curve: Carimi used to be the Bears' right tackle. Now he's the Bears' right guard, thanks to a sprained knee that sidelined Chris Spencer. Carimi played there last week vs. Minnesota, his first trial at the position since ... well, since two days of practice at the 2011 Senior Bowl. Now he starts there against a relentless Seattle defense, and consider that a warning, Jay Cutler.
4. Carolina Panthers vs. the coin toss: The Panthers are 0 for 12 this season, including a toss in overtime, so coach Ron Rivera and the Panthers are running a poll on Facebook to ask fans which to choose, heads or tails. Hey, whatever works. Next thing you know they'll be asking for help calling plays, too.
5. Arizona S Kerry Rhodes vs. NY Jets coach Rex Ryan: It was Ryan who shredded Rhodes in his book, Play Like You Mean It, calling him "a selfish-ass guy." OK, fine. So Rhodes has a chance to return the compliment this weekend when the Cards meet the Jets ... only he won't, clamming up when asked for a response this week. "I'm not going to go that route," he told reporters. "He has stuff he has to worry about with that team, and I have stuff I have to worry about here."
Five things that may only interest me
1. The Chiefs have not won a home game this season and are 3-13 in their past 16 games at Arrowhead Stadium.
2. Since the current 12-team playoff format was introduced in 1990, 15 teams that had losing records after 11 games reached the playoffs, including two that reached the conference championship game.
3. New England has 11 straight victories in December, a streak that began with a defeat of Carolina on Dec. 13, 2009. With a victory Sunday, the Patriots become the fourth team in league history to win 12 straight games in December. San Diego holds the record, with 18 December wins from 2006-09.
4. Calvin Johnson has at least 125 yards receiving in each of his past four games, one short of the NFL record.
5. The Ravens won their past 12 games within the AFC North, tying Indianapolis (2004-06) for the longest division winning streak since NFL realignment in 2002. Since John Harbaugh took over in 2008, the Ravens are 21-7 within the AFC North, the third-best record for a team vs. its division (only New England and Green Bay are better).
Numbers to remember
4: Consecutive Reggie Bush games in December where he has run for 100 yards
4-1: Miami's record when Ryan Tannehill has a passer rating of 90 or better
5-0: Jets' record vs. Arizona dating back to 1978
9-3: Carson Palmer's career record vs. Cleveland
12: Aldon Smith sacks in his past five games
12: Frank Gore rushing TDs in his past 11 games vs. St. Louis
14-1: Matt Schaub's record in his past 15 starts
44: Average number of points New England has scored in its past four games in Miami
95: Games decided by eight or fewer points, the most in league history through 11 starts
146.2: Robert Griffin III's passer rating in his past two starts
• Buffalo: Showers, high of 55
• Chicago: Cloudy, high of 59
• Detroit: Dome
• Green Bay, Wis.: Cloudy, high of 47
• Kansas City, Mo.: Mostly cloudy, high of 69
• Miami: Scattered showers, high of 77
• East Rutherford, N.J.: Cloudy, high of 57
• St. Louis: Dome
• Nashville, Tenn.: Partly cloudy, high of 74
• Denver: Partly cloudy, high of 64
• Baltimore: Mostly cloudy, high of 62
• Oakland, Calif.: Heavy rain, wind, high of 59
• San Diego: Few showers, high of 63
• Arlington, Texas: Mostly cloudy, high of 77 (retractable roof)
Where we will be
• I'll be in Baltimore to view the Miracle on 34th Street, also known as the best block for Christmas outside of M&T Bank Stadium.
• Mike Freeman will be in Denver to ask Peyton Manning for his autograph. Then again, maybe he should ask Kansas City's Jamaal Charles.