Seems like just yesterday we were watching the Ravens & Broncos get set to play the kickoff game on the first Thursday in September. Now, we are closer to the first the first Sunday in February, when Super Bowl XLVIII will be played under outdoor winter skies.
With only the final quarter of the season to be played, 29 teams remain in contention for a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII. Of those 29 teams, 20 are either in or within one game of a playoff spot. Five more teams are within two games of a postseason berth. Six teams, Denver, Indianapolis, Kansas City and New England in the AFC; Carolina and New Orleans in the NFC, have a chance to join the Seahawks, who clinched with a convincing win over the Saints Monday night.
First, let us look back at Thursday’s contest, which ended up being the final nail in the coffin of a certain head coaches tenure.
Chad Henne threw two touchdown passes, Jordan Todman scored on some trickery, and the Jaguars held on to beat the Houston Texans 27-20 on Thursday night. The Jaguars (4-9) won their third straight — their fourth victory in five games since a bye — and continued to show signs of progress under first-year coach Gus Bradley. They have the longest winning streak in the AFC.
The Houston Texans dropped their 11th in a row and while many thought the Jags would outright own the No.1 pick in May’s NFL Draft, the Texans leave Jacksonville with that distinction. The loss cost Gary Kubiak his job on Friday and aside from the losing, it’s easy to see why. The Texans continued to turn the ball over and commit penalties.
Houston was flagged 14 times for a team-record 177 yards — many of them extending drives. Much maligned Texans QB Matt Schaub completed 17 of 29 passes for 198 yards, with a touchdown and an interception, 154 of those yards went to WR Andre Johnson.
Oakland Raiders @ NY Jets:
Jets HC Rex Ryan said this week he has faith in starting rookie QB Geno Smith. He may be the only one at this point in the season. Smith has not thrown a touchdown pass in five straight games and leads the NFL with 19 interceptions, including six during the current three-game losing streak. He’s completed a woeful 39.2 percent of his attempts in the last four, with no more than nine completions in any of them. The Raiders are not a very good team but they are better than the Jets. Raiders by four in the eastern time zone.
Atlanta Falcons @ Green Bay Packers:
If you had told me in late August that hanging Christmas lights would be a better way to spend a productive Sunday than watching the Falcons and Packers, I would have you committed. With that said, The Falcons rush defense is 30th in the NFL while the Packers own the league’s eighth best rushing attack. The Pack will always miss Aaron Rodgers but they will not need him with GB’s offense riding the back of Eddie Lacey through a bad Atlanta defense on the tundra in December. Packers by five. G.B 28 Atlanta 23.
Buffalo Bills @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
Rookie QB Mike Glennon has given the Bucs an opportunity to progress instead of possibly starting over at QB. EJ Manuel has not been all that bad either. The Bills (4-8), who are 1-4 on the road, committed 2 costly turnovers on their final two possessions of Sunday’s 34-31 overtime loss to Atlanta in Toronto, all but guaranteeing their NFL-worst 14th straight season without a postseason appearance. Facing Carolina, the Bucs finished with 206 yards of offense, their fewest since gaining 166 in a loss at Dallas on Sept. 23, 2012. Strangely, this could be one of the more entertaining games of the day but I like the Bucs at home by a field goal. Tampa Bay 27 Buffalo 24.
NY Giants @ San Diego Chargers:
Philip Rivers & Eli Manning will always be linked in NFL history. Rivers was selected fourth overall, by New York in the 2004 draft, three spots after the Chargers took Manning with the top pick. The two were traded for each other no long after on draft day after Manning said he didn’t want to play in San Diego, and he’s gone on to win a pair of Super Bowls with the Giants. Manning is 0-2 vs. S.D. having lost to Drew Brees the first time. Rivers got the best of Manning in the last meeting, throwing his third touchdown pass with 21 seconds remaining to give the Chargers a 21-20 road win Nov. 8, 2009. Look for the Chargers to move to 6-0 all-time vs. NY and 3-0 vs. the John Elway of the 04’ draft. Chargers by four in a high scoring affair at QUALCOMM. S.D 41 NY Giants 37.
Kansas City Chiefs @ Washington Redskins:
Kansas City is the first team in NFL history to win its first nine games then lose three in a row. However, it leads the AFC wild-card race and can secure its first playoff berth since 2010 with a win at struggling Washington (3-9) and a loss or tie by Miami or Baltimore on Sunday. The Redskins have lost four in a row and show no signs of being able to put together 60 meaningful minutes of football anytime soon. Washington blew a 14-0 lead at home and lost 24-17 loss to the New York Giants on Sunday. Though the officials’ incorrect movement of the down marker on the Redskins’ final drive led the team to believe it had a first down when instead it was third, Pierre Garcon had the ball stripped after a reception two plays later that would have given them the actual first down but instead sealed the loss. When it rains, it pours, and today it will be snowing in D.C—look for KC to rebound and handle the skins with ease. Chiefs 27 Redskins 14
Tennessee Titans @ Denver Broncos:
Four weeks after open-heart surgery, Coach John Fox will be back on the sideline when the Broncos host the Tennessee Titans with a chance to clinch a playoff spot. The Broncos (10-2) welcome their coach back after a critical victory last week, 35-28 over Kansas City that gave them a one-game lead over the second-place Chiefs in the AFC West. Tennessee could provide a test as it has the seventh-best pass defense in the NFL at 212.6 yards allowed per game. The Titans have recorded 31 sacks, and they will face a Denver team that’s allowed 15 to tie Detroit for the fewest in the league. The Titans could provide a test but they won’t, take Denver by at least 10 at home with Fox back. Denver 38 Tennessee 17
Minnesota Vikings @ Baltimore Ravens:
The Ravens welcome back TE Dennis Pitta today, as the Vikings visit the 6-6 Super Bowl Champs. The Ravens sixth ranked rushing defense will need to stop Adrian Peterson, who has endured a trying season both on and off the field, but leads the NFL with 1,208 rushing yards and has 357 in the last two games. The Vikings hope to turn things around the road, where they are 0-5-1, while the Ravens, who are in control of their playoff fate, will be looking for a season-high third straight victory. At home with Joe Flacco at QB and under head coach John Harbaugh (since 2008), the Ravens are 8-4 in December home games. Look for a ninth today as Flacco exploits a bad Vikings pass defense in the snow and cold. Ravens 27 Vikings 10.
Cleveland Browns @ New England Patriots:
New England (9-3) has a three-game lead on Miami in the East and will wrap up the division with a victory Sunday along with a loss or tie by the Dolphins in Pittsburgh. The Patriots trail Denver by one game for the best record in the conference but own the tiebreaker thanks to their 34-31 overtime win over the Broncos on Nov. 24. The Pats will look to put the 4th ranked Browns defense away early, as Cleveland has fallen behind by a 64-30 margin in the first half and allowed a total of 100 points during its three-game losing streak. The last six opponents have averaged 18.5 first-half points. The Patriots should win easily at home today. Pats 34 Browns 13
Detroit Lions @ Philadelphia Eagles:
Eagles QB Nick Foles continues his historic TD with no INT’s thrown stretch. The second-year quarterback is 5-1 as a starter this season, and he’s thrown all but three of the Eagles’ passes over the four-game winning streak after the team had been regularly shuffling at the position. His season passer rating of 125.2 is tops in the NFL. Foles is one away from tying Peyton Manning’s record of 20 TD passes to start a season without an interception, which was set this season. He has already set an Eagles’ record for most passes without an interception (233), snapping teammate Michael Vick’s previous mark of 224 set in 2010. The Lions can get after the passer & overcame two more interceptions by Matt Stafford last week, giving him 10 in five games. Detroit has committed 17 turnovers during that stretch while forcing just four, though they have three wins in that span and all have been against playoff contenders. They have a one-game division lead on Chicago, which hosts Dallas on Monday night, and own the tiebreaker over the Bears. I like the Eagles to win three straight at home in a single season for the first time since 2010. In bad weather, Philly 24 Detroit 20
Miami Dolphins @ Pittsburgh Steelers:
Steelers HC Mike Tomlin will feel a lot lighter today, at least in his wallet, as his team hosts the Miami Dolphins today. Tomlin was fined $100,000 for his interference with Ravens KR Jacoby Jones, as he sprinted for a potential TD. Tomlin’s positioning forced Jones back into the middle of the field eventually leading to him being tackled. The Steelers have won five straight meetings with the Dolphins dating to a loss at Miami on Sept. 20, 1998. They have not lost to them at home since Sept. 30, 1990, winning three in a row. Former Steelers WR Mike Wallace returns to Heinz Field today and the Dolphins are hoping he can help them end those streaks by continuing his recent success, while eventually helping them to their first playoff berth since 2008. Wallace has 12 catches for 209 yards and two touchdowns over the last two games after grabbing just one through the first 10. However, the only line in the NFL that may be worse than the Steelers is the Dolphins. Look for H.O.F D-Coordinator Dick LeBeau to take advantage with a “Blitzburgh” like approach of Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill. The Miami QB has been sacked an NFL high 45-times. I like Pittsburgh in an ugly game. Steelers 26 Dolphins 20
St. Louis Rams @ Arizona Cardinals:
Under Jeff Fisher, the Rams are 3-0 against the Arizona Cardinals. St. Louis trailed Arizona by 11 in season opener before rallying with two fourth-quarter TDs to win. In that game, St. Louis DE Robert Quinn had three sacks, two forced fumbles and four QB hits vs. Arizona against then-LT Levi Brown, who later was traded to Pittsburgh. Quinn leads NFC and is second in NFL with 13 sacks. He leads the NFL with six forced fumbles. After no turnovers in their previous two games, Arizona committed three against the Eagles. Carson Palmer has thrown nine interceptions in Arizona’s five losses, six in its seven wins. Three came in the Cardinals’ win over Carolina. Arizona WR Michael Floyd has 193, 104 and 99 yards receiving in his last three games while Larry Fitzgerald’s nine TD catches rank behind 12 for Detroit’s Calvin Johnson and 10 for Denver’s Demaryius Thomas. Fitzgerald’s 15 TD catches against St. Louis are most by any active player against any team. At home, the Cardinals should end Fisher’s success against them. I like the Cards to pull away late and win by a TD. Cards 27 Rams 20
Indianapolis Colts @ Cincinnatti Bengals:
The Colts can clinch the AFC South title with a win or Titans loss at Denver later Sunday. It would be Colts’ 14th division title in history and first since 2010. The Bengals could close in on AFC North title with win. They lead Baltimore by two games with four to play. They finish regular season by hosting the Ravens. The Colts are Bengals’ closest AFC opponent, only 110 miles away — closer than Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The Bengals are 5-0 at home for first time since 1988, when they won all eight regular-season home games and two playoff games on way to second Super Bowl appearance and loss to San Francisco. Andy Dalton has thrown for 3,144 yards, joining Peyton Manning as only players in NFL history to throw for 3,000 yards in each of first three seasons. WR A.J. Green has topped 1,000 yards for third straight season. This is a game that will, at least now, raise great concerns for the loser— in this case– and in my opinion, the Colts. Take the Bengals in a close one at the wire at home on a snowy day in Cincy. Bengals 24 Colts 23
Seattle Seahawks @ San Francisco 49ers; (Fanspeak.com game of the week)
Looking for an eighth straight victory, the Seahawks can clinch the NFC West and a first-round bye while trying to avoid a fifth consecutive road defeat to the 49ers. Seattle has held the 49ers to 520 total yards while outscoring them 71-16 in the last two meetings, but both came within the deafening confines of Century Link Field. The Seahawks, on the other hand, have been outscored 109-54 during their four-game skid at Candlestick Park. Something is going to give tonight. While the 49ers can use that home success as a confidence-builder, avenging the last two losses in the series will not be their major means of motivation. After outscoring Washington and St. Louis 50-19 in its last two games, San Francisco has a one-game lead for the NFC’s final wild-card spot. The Niners are long shots to win the division even with a win over the Seahawks but a win will provide them with confidence against their rivals should they meet in the playoffs. Another big Seattle win could lead to a slide for the Niners. With that said, I expect the Seahawks to win but not by much. I like the Hawks to win a hard fought game that will come down to the last possession. Seattle 31 San Francisco 28
Carolina Panthers @ New Orleans Saints (Upset special)
The Carolina Panthers will try to become the second team in the NFL to win nine straight games this season. If they can, they will hand the New Orleans Saints their first home loss of 2013. The winner of this game will take over sole possession of first place in the NFC South. This matchup of the two 9-3 teams in the South is the first of two in a three-week span. The Saints have not lost consecutive games in a single regular season under Coach Sean Payton since 2009, but they did not look good losing 34-7 at Seattle on Monday. The Panthers have won four straight on the road and were the last team to beat New Orleans at the Superdome, 44-38 on Dec. 20. The Saints have outscored opponents 199-95 during their six home victories this year. The Panthers second ranked defense will need to play its best to beat the Saints tonight but the Seahawks laid a nice blueprint last week on how to shut down Drew Brees and company. Brees’ 147 passing yards was his lowest total in a complete game since throwing for 132 on Dec. 24, 2006 against the New York Giants.
Brees has cracked 300 yards in each of the six home games this season, with 19 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. His 122.2 home passer rating is second in the league to that of Aaron Rodgers. New Orleans is averaging 33.2 points at home, trailing only Denver and Dallas. Carolina’s Cam Newton went 18 of 29 for 263 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions against the Bucs LW. He ran for another, but has to limit turnovers after throwing four in his previous seven games. The team has turned the ball over seven times in the last eight games and is one of five teams with a plus-10 turnover margin or better.
Carolina is getting healthy at the right time of the year. The Panthers will have top pass rusher Charles Johnson back after he missed the last two games with a sprained knee. The defensive end leads the team with 8 1/2 sacks and had two in the clubs’ last meeting.
Running back DeAngelo Williams will also return after missing the Tampa Bay game with a bruised quadriceps, and linebacker Chase Blackburn will play after missing three games with a foot injury. I’ll take defense over offense this time of the year and while it won’t be easy– and Cam Newton will have to play his best, I like Carolina in an upset. I like the quick and stout Panthers D to limit Brees enough to win a high scoring affair. Panthers 37 Saints 35
Dallas Cowboys @ Chicago Bears:
It is no secret that Tony Romo and the Cowboys struggle in December. However, in their quest for the NFC East crown, the visiting Cowboys will go for a season-high third straight win Monday night against the slumping Bears, who will be without Jay Cutler yet again. Dallas pulled out a 24-21 road win over the New York Giants in Week 12 & stormed back to beat Oakland 31-24 on Thanksgiving Day. Cutler has missed the last three games with a high left ankle sprain for Chicago. Josh McCown has played well in his absence, however, throwing for 923 yards, five touchdowns and one interception for a 103.8 quarterback rating in his last three games. He had 355 yards against the Vikings, finding Alshon Jeffery 12 times for a team-record 249 yards and two scores. The Bears’ passing game could be in for another big performance against the Cowboys, who are surrendering an average of 294.9 yards through the air to rank 31st in the NFL but the Cowboys DeMarco Murray, who scored three TD’s in his last game could have an even better contest on the ground vs. “Da Bears” worst ranked rushing attack. Look for Dallas to rely on its rushing attack in the “windy city” so that Romo does not have to force plays against a Bears that can score touchdowns. Remember North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith and his four corner offense in college basketball. Before the shot clock era, teams played keep away to either reduce exposure of their weaknesses or simply just slowed the game down. Look for Dallas to do the same with their rushing attack, not allowing McCown many opportunities against the Dallas secondary & in doing so, getting a hard fought road win. Dallas 20 Chicago 13
Full Disclosure: I was 10-6 last week & MUCH thanks to Stats LLC and ESPN stats and Info for use of their research.