While the results of the next-to-last week of games in the 2014 NFL regular season will have a very large impact on the playoff picture, there are not as many compelling matchups as there were in the previous three weeks of games. Sunday afternoon’s slate of games is rather uninspiring, with only two contests consisting of a pair of teams with winning records.
The Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961 was legislation that exempted professional sports leagues from antitrust laws so they could sell telecasting rights to networks as a whole, rather than on team-by-team basis. One irritating aspect of that law for sports fans is a clause that prohibits any other game from being televised when the local team is playing a home game. So for example, when the 2-12 Bucs host Green Bay on Sunday at 1:00, there can be no other game televised within 75 miles of Tampa during that time slot – effectively blacking out all other games unless the Sunday Ticket is purchased. One other clause in the Sports Broadcasting Act prohibits pro football from televising games (a) between the hours of 6 pm Friday and 12 am Sunday, and (b) beginning on the second Friday in September and ending on the second Saturday in December. This weekend being the third Saturday of December means the NFL has a green light to schedule two games on Saturday. Two teams needing victories to keep their playoff hopes alive are on the road Saturday: Philly takes on division rival Washington in a late afternoon game, and then San Diego travels to San Francisco to face the 49ers.
Philadelphia Eagles (9-5) at Washington Redskins (3-11) ★★★
4:30 pm ET on NFLN
Announcing crew: Kevin Harlan and Rich Gannon with Stacey Dales
Philadelphia was looking very good two weeks ago, but a pair of home losses has left them on the outside looking in for a playoff spot. After having to play (and lose to) Seattle and Dallas, the competition gets a bit easier for Philly this week, even if it means playing on the road rather than at home. The Eagles have won their last three games versus Washington, but as is often the case with division rivalry games, the scores have been close. The line opened at 8½ and increased to 9 before people saw the value in Washington and the points, causing the number to drop back down. I was able to catch it at 8½ earlier this week, but even at 7½ the number is too high. Washington is the home team, and usually keeps it close against Philly. The Eagles should get back on track with a win and then root for the Colts to beat Dallas, but take the home underdog plus the points here.
Pick • Eagles 28, Skins 24
Skins +7½ (one unit)
San Diego Chargers (8-6) at San Francisco 49ers (7-7) ★★★★
8:25 pm ET on CBS
Announcing crew: Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, Jenny Dell
Similar to the early Saturday game, we have the better team that is fighting for a playoff spot going on the road, playing an under achieving team waiting for the season to be over. And just like Philly, San Diego is coming off two home losses against strong competition; the Chargers lost to the Patriots 23-14 two weeks ago and to Denver 22-10 last week. The spread started out with the Niners favored by 2½, went as high as 3 early in the week, and as low as a pick’em late in the week. Colin Kaepernick has been erratic all season due to poor post-snap reads, resulting in San Francisco failing to score more than 17 points in each of the last five games. The 49ers have dropped three in a row – a horrible loss to Oakland sandwiched between two losses to Seattle – and have to deal with the distractions of wondering who will be gone after the season ends, as well as Ray McDonald being released as the front office flip flopped on a guilty until proven innocent stance once the team fell to 7-7. I’ll go with the Chargers by a field goal with the 49er defense keeping this a low scoring game.
Pick • Chargers 20, 49ers 17
Chargers +1½ (one unit)
under 41 (one unit)
New England Patriots (11-3) at New York Jets (3-11) ★★★★★
Early game on CBS
Announcing crew: Spero Dedes, Solomon Wilcots, Otis Livingston
Broadcast on 15 stations in New England, New York, West Palm Beach and Fort Myers
After the Jets lost by winning last week – the victory probably keeps them from having an opportunity to draft Oregon QB Marcus Mariota – and now Rex Ryan will most assuredly be coaching his last home game for the Jets. The players love Ryan and will give it everything they have for Ryan, but with the exception of a very good defensive line Gang Green’s units range from mediocre to just plain awful. Rex has the same problem his father Buddy did – a complete and utter lack of understanding of an NFL offense. Ryan has churned through one offensive coordinator after another, hiring bad fits for his roster and not stepping aside and letting them run the offense as they saw fit. The Jets pass the ball about as often as NFL teams did 80 years ago, and the end result has been both predictable and historic. The Jets are on pace to become the first team since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to rush for over 2,300 yards, hold opponents to under 1,500 rushing yards, and still manage to have a losing record. 26 teams have had those rushing stats, and all but three of them made the playoffs. The only way that happens is if your head coach either has no concept of what an offense needs to do in today’s NFL, or is so stubborn that he would rather try to prove himself right than win.
Pick • Patriots 31, Jets 13
Minnesota Vikings (6-8) at Miami Dolphins (7-7) ★★★★
Early game on FOX
Announcing crew: Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa
Broadcast on 15 stations in south Florida, Louisville, Iowa, Minnesota, western New York, North Dakota and South Dakota
Two weeks ago Miami was the top AFC wild card team, but now there are nine teams ahead of them in the conference. Since dominating San Diego in week 9 the Fins have stumbled, losing four out of six games. Ryan Tannehill has been sacked 38 times, and Minnesota does a very good job of applying pressure with their pass rush. The Vikings have won four of their last seven games, and their last four losses have been by one score or less against mostly good teams. The future looks bright for Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer and rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who was 31-of-41 for 315 yards with a touchdown against Detroit’s top-ranked pass defense last week. The Vikings are surging while Miami is faltering, with plenty of talk that Joe Philbin is Dead Man Walking as head coach for Miami. These are two teams headed in opposite directions, and the apathetic south Florida crowd gives the Dolphins no home field advantage; it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Vikings win this game.
Pick • Dolphins 23, Vikings 20
Vikings +6½ (one unit)
Green Bay Packers at Tampa Bay Bucs ★★
Early game on FOX
Announcing crew: Chris Myers, Ronde Barber, Jennifer Hale
Broadcast on 20 stations in Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Florida, Alaska, Cincinnati, Lexington KY, Wichita, Colorado Springs and – as always is the case for Green Bay games – in Aaron Rodger’s home town of Chico CA
This is one of two week 16 games where the road team is favored by double digits. Normally I would side with the home dog plus the points, but consider the bounce back factor. When a good team not only loses, but hears all week from the media over reacting and doubting their abilities, that club is fueled with additional motivation to perform well in the next game. Naysayers have done a quick 180; a week ago Green Bay was being crowned as the best team in the NFL, but after their loss to Buffalo dropped the Pack’s road record to 3-4 the skeptics have suddenly declared the Packers to be pretenders rather than contenders. The Bucs are in the wrong place at the wrong time, though another home loss (they are 0-7 at RayJay) will help them secure the number one overall pick in the 2015 draft.
Pick • Packers 35, Bucs 17
Detroit Lions (10-4) at Chicago Bears (5-9) ★★★
Early game on FOX
Announcing crew: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews
Broadcast on 48 stations in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, West Virginia, Maryland, Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, Washington, Alaska, Oakland, Reno, Buffalo and Philadelphia
The season of discontent in Chicago slowly marches on, one step closer to the end of the Marc Trestman era – and perhaps the end of Jay Cutler in the windy city as well. The only thing that might keep this close is Detroit looking past Chicago, and thinking about next week’s game at Green Bay. A win Sunday (or a loss by Philadelphia at Washington on Saturday) clinches a playoff spot for the Lions. The Bears have played poorly in all three phases of the game, and only seem to make plays when it is the 4th quarter and the game is out of reach. That type of play may help pad individual stats, but it won’t help a team win any games. Smokin’ Jay Cutler has been benched as Chicago, who has been defeated by at least 13 points in each of their last six losses, gives Jimmy Claussen an extended tryout over the final two games of the season.
Pick • Lions 27, Bears 13
Lions -8½ (one unit)
Atlanta Falcons (5-9) at New Orleans Saints (6-8) ★★★★
Early game on FOX
Announcing crew: Kevin Burkhardt, John Lynch, Pam Oliver
Broadcast on 94 stations in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, southern Texas, Tulsa, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Idaho, Las Vegas, California, southern Oregon and Hawaii
This may be the most interesting game in the history of the NFL between two teams with losing records this late in the season. The two clubs both have dismal defenses and potent offenses, led by prolific passing attacks. Something’s got to give as Atlanta has lost 11 straight as a road underdog while the Saints have astonishingly lost four straight home games. Mike Smith is another head coach of the NFL’s hot seat, as he probably needs to win the final two games to keep his job. That hinges on the availability of Julio Jones. The wide receiver is dealing with a hip injury and will probably be a game-time decision. Jones was a last-minute scratch last week and has not practiced at all in two weeks. In the last two games Jones played he has 448 receiving yards and Atlanta scored 66 points; he was sorely missed in the Falcons 27-20 loss to Pittsburgh last week. The Falcons are giving up 26.4 points (28th) and 411 yards (32nd) per game, while the Saints in the same boat with 26.7 points (29th) and 390 yards (31st) allowed per game, so expect plenty of scoring in this game.
Pick • Saints 35, Falcons 31
Kansas City Chiefs (8-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5) ★★★★
Early game on CBS
Announcing crew: Greg Gumbel, Trent Green, Evan Washburn
Broadcast on 148 stations in western New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, North Carolina, northern Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois (except Chicago), Wisconsin, and everywhere west of the Mississippi with the exception of Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas
A huge game for both teams, this may turn out to be the best game of the week. Pittsburgh could clinch a playoff spot with a win while Kansas City could be out of the playoff race with a loss. The Steelers are coming off a pair of impressive road wins and Le’Veon Bell has been very impressive, with 2,043 yards from scrimmage a ten touchdowns on the season. Pittsburgh’s defense (24.2 ppg, 20th; 356 ypg, 19th) has been inconsistent though. That gives the Chiefs – who still have yet to get a touchdown pass thrown to a wide receiver – some hope for a victory. KC has a strong defense, allowing a 4th-best 18.1 points per game – but they don’t force enough turnovers (a league-low 10). As well as Pittsburgh’s offense has played at home, where they average 35 points per game, I think KC’s defense will keep this a close, relatively low scoring game.
Pick • Steelers 24, Chiefs 23
Cleveland Browns (7-7) at Carolina Panthers (5-8-1) ★★★
Early game on CBS
Announcing crew: Tom McCarthy, Adam Archuleta
Broadcast on 26 stations in Louisiana (except Shreveport and New Orleans), Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Ohio and Fort Wayne
Last week the Browns were embarrassed at home, losing 30-0 to cross-state division rival Cincinnati. Cleveland was just plain bad in all phases of the game and has now lost four out of five games to effectively end their playoff hopes. Carolina on the other hand has won two in a row and is in the middle of a battle for playoff spot; the Panthers have now wen ten of their last 15 home games. The Browns can’t stop the run (4.5 yards per carry, 138 yards per game) and that’s exactly what Carolina likes to do. Cleveland is not much of a road team either, losing 20 of their last 25 games away from home; I just can’t picture the Browns winning this game.
Baltimore Ravens at Houston Texans ★★★
4:30 pm ET on NFLN
Announcing crew: Andrew Catalon, Steve Beuerlein, Steve Tasker
Broadcast on 27 stations in Texas, Arkansas, Maryland, DC, Harrisburg, Knoxville and Shreveport
Bill O’Brien has done a nice job with Houston this year, as the Texans could still sneak into the playoffs with a pair of wins plus some help. The problem is that Ryan Mallett and Ryan Fitzpatrick both on IR, Houston is down to their 4th-string quarterback with Tom Savage out due to a knee injury. That leaves Case Keenum, who completed only 54% of his passes while going 0-8 as a starter last year as the next man up. Baltimore fans must be overjoyed at their team’s playoff chances as that means the Ravens defense will face two quarterbacks that have yet to win an NFL game (Keenum and Johnny Manziel) to finish the season. The result is the public laying enough money on Baltimore to make them a bigger road favorite than they have been all year – and nearly twice as much of a favorite even when they were at Tampa Bay. Both teams are allowing less than 20 points per game; I think many are overlooking how well Houston’s defense has played and focused solely on the quarterback situation. That’s an overreaction that makes me thing the Texans will keep it close enough to cover the spread – as long as Keenum doesn’t create too many scores for Baltimore with turnovers.
Pick • Ravens 20, Texans 17
New York Giants at St. Louis Rams ★★
Late game on FOX
Announcing crew: Thom Brennaman, David Diehl, Laura Okmin
Broadcast on 37 stations in Florida, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas
Two teams that are out of it make for the second worst game of the week – though no matchup comes close to being as bad as Thursday’s debacle between Jacksonville and Tennessee. The Rams opened as 4½ point favorites but that shot up to as high as 7 before settling at 6 or 6½, depending where you shop. The Giants have yet to beat a good team while the Rams have shown flashes of brilliance, beating Seattle, San Francisco and Denver. Eli Manning and Odell Beckham have had a couple of good games the last two weeks, but that was against Tennessee and Washington. The St. Louis pass rush should have no problem with New York’s subpar offensive line, and with Rashad Jennings out the Giants have no run game to slow down that pressure on Eli. MLB Jameel McClain (knee) is out, and the Giants are allowing an NFL-worst 4.9 yards per game. The Rams have given up just 12 points in the last three games combined, and only six offensive touchdowns over the last seven games; their defense should be strong enough to give St. Louis another victory.
Pick • Rams 24, Giants 13
Rams -6 (one unit)
under 43½ (one unit)
Buffalo Bills (8-6) at Oakland Raiders (2-12) ★★
Late game on CBS
Announcing crew: Brian Anderson, Chris Simms
Broadcast on 14 stations in New York and northern California
The Oakland Raiders were the last NFL team to win a game this year, but they are quietly going for their third straight home win Sunday against Buffalo. This could be a classic trap game for the Bills, coming after a victory over Green Bay and preceding next week’s game at New England. Buffalo has won three of their last four games to propel them from a 5-5 team considered to be done to one that believes they can make the playoffs. The Buffalo defense has received plenty of hype in the media after limiting both Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers to zero touchdowns and two interceptions each. Don’t expect much scoring in this game; Buffalo has kept the point total under in six straight games and in twelve of their fourteen games this season.
Pick • Bills 20, Raiders 13
Bills -6 (one unit)
under 41 (two units)
Indianapolis Colts (10-4) at Dallas Cowboys (10-4) ★★★★★
Late game on CBS
Announcing crew: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson
Broadcast everywhere except New York, northern California and St. Louis
This will be the primary afternoon game and deservedly so. The big question is whether or not DeMarco Murray will play, and if he does then how effective will he be playing with a broken left hand. The NFL’s leading rusher has touched the ball on over 45% of Dallas’ possessions this year, so if he can’t go then it could alter Jason Garrett’s game plan dramatically. However, as we saw when the Patriots beat the Colts, Indy’s defensive line is vulnerable to being pushed around by a physical offensive line and ground game. Garrett would be wise to learn from that game film and let the Dallas line open up holes for backups Lance Dunbar and Joseph Randle, who have performed well when at running back when given the opportunity. This should be a good game that could easily go either way.
Pick • Cowboys 35, Colts 34
Seattle Seahawks (11-3) at Arizona Cardinals (10-4) ★★★★
Sunday night game on NBC
Announcing crew: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michelle Tafoya
A few weeks ago this looked like a must-see game, but with Arizona down to their third-string quarterback it has lost a bit of its luster. The result is that Seattle is favored by more than a touchdown even though they are on the road against a team with a better record, and something to play for. The Cardinals have clinched a playoff spot but need a win here to secure a bye and home field advantage. Seattle has dominated on defense in recent weeks, and with Carson Palmer and drew Stanton sidelined Arizona turns to Ryan Lindley at quarterback. In seven NFL games Lindley has no touchdowns and seven picks; I just don’t see how the Cardinals are going to generate any offense. Arizona has won all year with smoke and mirrors, but the number of injuries they have had to overcome has reached a tipping point.
Pick • Seahawks 23, Cardinals 10
Seahawks -7½ (three units)
Denver Broncos (11-3) at Cincinnati Bengals (9-4-1) ★★★★★
Monday night game on ESPN
Announcing crew: Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters
For a change we get a really good Monday night matchup as two division leaders meet in a game that will shape the AFC playoff picture. The Bengals are winless in eight games against Peyton Manning, but the Denver quarterback has not looked sharp recently. Cincinnati has a strong enough defense (20.6 points per game, 9th in the NFL) to limit the Broncos, and their running game is effective enough to keep the Denver offense on the sidelines. Jeremy Hill is averaging 5.0 yards per carry and has rushed for 877 yards and eight touchdowns, despite not taking over as the starter until week 11. Giovanni Bernard provides a perfect compliment in the running game as a quicker, shiftier back to Hill’s powerful running style; the end result is a rushing attack has amassed 145 yards per game and six touchdowns since week 12. But are the Bengals ready for primetime? In their two night games this year Cincy is 0-2, losing by a combined total of 67-20.
Pick • Broncos 27, Bengals 24
Thursday night: Jacksonville Jaguars 21, Tennessee Titans 13 ★
Jacksonville gets their third win on the season, which means the Jags once again will have a lousy year but won’t get the number one overall pick in the draft. 2015 will mark the eighth straight year the Jags will have played their way into a top-ten draft pick, and it could be the fourth consecutive time with a top-five selection. In their twenty years of existence the Jaguars have had a draft slot outside of the top ten just seven times; after next spring’s draft the Jags will have had twice as many top-ten positions (14) as slots outside the top ten (7).
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