How profound is the hype machine that is Johnny Football? Originally there were a handful of markets that always broadcast the local team, and the rest of the nation getting a game between the NFC’s best team and an AFC playoff hopeful. Eastern New York, western New England, DC and Virginia would receive the Giants-Washington game; the Carolinas and central Florida would show the Bucs-Panthers; Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and western Pennsylvania would air the Bengals-Browns; and the rest of the country was all set to see the Green Bay Packers travel to Buffalo to play the Bills.
Then Cleveland head coach Mike Pettine announced that Johnny Manziel would replace Brian Hoyer as the starting quarterback for the Browns, creating headline news despite their being a team that has not won a playoff game since Bill Belichick was there twenty years ago.
What happened next was that FOX, who as fate would have it happened to have the all-AFC Browns-Bengals game as part of this year’s network cross-flex procedure decided that Manziel and the 7-6 Browns could be marketed to draw more viewers than Aaron Rodgers and the 10-3 Packers – a team that is averaging over 40 points per game during their current five game winning streak. Now nearly ever FOX affiliate south of a line from Ohio to California will broadcast the game between Cincinnati and Cleveland. About the only markets that will now receive the Packers game are northern border states from Oregon to Wisconsin, plus the five affiliates in western New York.
That’s a whole lot of hype for a 22nd pick of the draft, a player whom I have serious doubts will ever have any sustained success in the NFL.
FOX has the doubleheader again this week, and the end result is that even though the Pats-Dolphins is the best early game on CBS, it will receive very little distribution outside of those two team’s markets. The only other areas that will be broadcasting the Patriots games are Raleigh, Tallahassee, Oklahoma, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii. This will be one of seven games on Sunday between two teams with winning records, so there are plenty of interesting matchups with playoff implications at stake this weekend.
Oakland Raiders (2-11) at Kansas City Chiefs (7-6) ★★
Early game on CBS
Announcing crew: Spero Dedes, Solomon Wilcots, Chris Fischer
Broadcast on 13 stations in Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and northern California
The Chiefs are mired in a three-game losing streak, which began when KC was upset at Oakland for the Raiders first win of the year. Prior to that Kansas City was just a game behind Denver, winners of five in a row after defeating Seattle. This is eerily reminiscent of last year’s swoon, when the Chiefs started out 9-0 before limping into the playoffs with five losses in their last seven games before allowing 45 points and blowing a 28-point lead to the Colts in the wild card round. The Raiders have won two of their last three games, but they don’t know how to handle success: Oakland has not won consecutive games since October of 2012. The Raiders are scoring just 11 points per game on the road, and have lost nine straight away games. Jamaal Charles will be back from his ankle injury for KC, while Derek (11 picks, three fumbles) Carr – who is getting zero help from Oakland’s lackluster running game – should be good for a couple of turnovers against a desperate KC team seeking revenge at home against a long-time division rival.
Pick • Chiefs 27, Raiders 13
Jacksonville Jaguars (2-11) at Baltimore Ravens (8-5) ★★
Early game on CBS
Announcing crew: Tom McCarthy, Adam Archuleta, Allie LaForce
Broadcast on six stations in DC, Maryland, Orlando, Gainesville and Jacksonville
Here is another game between a team on the bubble for a playoff spot in the AFC East playing at home against a club on the road that is in the mix for the number one overall draft pick next spring. The Ravens are the biggest NFL favorite this week, up to as high as 14 point in some venues. Jacksonville has struggled offensively – they’re dead last in the NFL at 15.3 points per game – and are now without leading rusher Denard Robinson for the rest of the season due to a foot injury. On the other side of the ball you have Baltimore’s Justin Forsett (5.6 yards per carry) facing a run defense that is allowing a 28th-ranked 133 yards per game. The Jags have had some success with their pass rush (third in sacks with 38) and turned two turnovers in to touchdowns in their win against the Giants, but if the Ravens are smart they won’t count on Joe Flacco to throw the ball. Torrey Smith (knee) is doubtful and receivers may have trouble with their routes on a turf that will be chewed up after the Army-Navy game is played on the same field the previous day.
Pick • Ravens 24, Jaguars 13
Jaguars +13½ (one unit)
Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5) at Atlanta Falcons (5-8) ★★★
Early game on CBS
Announcing crew: Greg Gumbel, Trent Green, Evan Washburn
Broadcast on 44 stations in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, eastern Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana
After years of inefficiency Pittsburgh has finally rediscovered their running game. Le’Veon Bell became just the second player in NFL history to exceed 200 yards in three straight games; he is averaging 5.1 yards per carry and now has 1,924 yards from scrimmage with three games still left to play in the season. Bell’s productivity has led to very effective play-action passing from Ben Roethlisberger, who passed for 350 yards and three touchdowns last week. Big Ben and Bell should have a field day against a soft Atlanta defense that is allowing a league-worst 411 yards per game, 8.2 yards per pass and 6.2 yards per play. Julio Jones is listed as questionable, but after not making a single practice this week I doubt he will play; that won’t help the Falcons once they fall behind.
Pick • Steelers 28, Falcons 21
Steelers -2½ (one unit)
under 56 (one unit)
Houston Texans (7-6) at Indianapolis Colts (9-4) ★★★★
Early game on CBS
Announcing crew: Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon, Lauren Gardner
Broadcast on 35 stations in Indiana, Illinois, Louisville, eastern Missouri, Arkansas and Texas
Houston has quietly remained in the playoff hunt, but for post-season aspirations to remain alive the Texans will need to do something they have never done in their twelve attempts: win in Indianapolis. When the Texans look back at this season the focus may be on this game because it happened late in the year, but the real culprits will be a week three loss to the Giants and an overtime loss to the Cowboys. Houston’s winning record is a bit of a facade; the Texans are 5-1 against losing teams but they are only 2-5 against clubs with winning records. The Colts clinch the AFC South with a victory, but their propensity to turn the ball over (a 3rd-worst 26 giveaways) combined with Houston’s ability to force turnovers (an NFL-best 29 takeaways) gives the Texans a very realistic chance to come away with an upset.
Pick • Colts 28, Texans 24
Cincinnati Bengals (8-4-1) at Cleveland Browns (7-6) ★★★★
Early game on FOX
Announcing crew: Kevin Burkhardt, John Lynch, Pam Oliver
Broadcast on 105 stations in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Tennessee, West Palm Beach, northern Florida, Georgia (except Atlanta), Alabama, Mississippi (except Biloxi), Louisiana (except Baton Rouge and New Orleans), Arkansas, St. Louis, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, California and Hawaii
Although Cincy does not have much game film on the new Cleveland quarterback, they will know that they will need to have a plan to limit his ability to use his athleticism when the pocket breaks down or receivers are covered. The Bengals are 4-2 on the road, and will be motivated to avenge a 24-3 loss to the Browns five weeks ago. That was the game when Andy Dalton was an abysmal 10-33 for 86 yards with three picks, but since then the Cleveland defense has given up 23 or more points in every game – and only one of those four opponents looks like they will be in the playoffs. The Browns are allowing 4.4 yards per rush and rank 26th in run defense at 130 yards per game. Jeremy Hill (4.8 yards per carry) and a now-healthy Giovani Bernard could very well end up being the real story, even if Johnny Football will monopolize the headlines.
Pick • Bengals 23, Browns 20
Bengals +1½ (two units)
Miami Dolphins (7-6) at New England Patriots (10-3) ★★★★★
Early game on CBS
Announcing crew: Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, Jenny Dell
Broadcast on 62 stations in New England, eastern New York, Miami, West Palm, Fort Myers, Tallahassee, Raleigh, Michigan, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii
It’s a hat and t-shirt game for New England; when was the last time the Patriots lost one of those? The Miami run defense has regressed over the season, while the Pats run D has drastically improved; both of those were major factors in the Dolphins week one victory over the Patriots. Miami gave up 183 yards on the ground in last week’s home loss to Baltimore – and that was the best game their run D has had in three weeks. Expect to see the Patriots pound the rock in a similar fashion as they did in their 42-20 week 11 victory at Indianapolis. Once the Patriots take the lead Miami will be forced to throw the ball, and that favors the Patriots. The combination of Miami’s shoddy offensive line (34 sacks allowed), Ryan Tannehill’s tendency to hold the ball too long, and superior coverage by the New England secondary should result in the Patriots turning a close game into a rout in the second half.
Pick • Patriots 34, Dolphins 17
Patriots -7½ (one unit)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-11) at Carolina Panthers (4-8-1) ★
Early game on FOX
Announcing crew: Dick Stockton, Brady Quinn, Kristina Pink
Broadcast on 20 stations in North Carolina, South Carolina, Savannah, Augusta, central Florida, Biloxi, Baton Rouge and New Orleans
With Cam Newton sidelined, Derek Anderson gets his first start since week one, when the Panthers won 20-14 in Tampa. Carolina’s much maligned defense has shown some life recently, allowing only 10 points to the Saints and 19 to Atlanta in recent games. The Bucs keep finding creative ways to blow late leads; now the question is whether or not they will find a way to blow a chance to have the number one overall draft pick. Tampa Bay DT Gerald McCoy stated in a radio interview this week that the team needs to play ‘Bucs ball’; wouldn’t they be better off if they scrapped that idea and instead played ‘Patriots ball’ or ‘Packers ball’ or ‘Seahawks ball’? Strange as it sounds, the four-win Panthers could be in first place Tuesday morning with a victory here.
Pick • Panthers 23, Bucs 20
Washington Redskins (3-10) at New York Giants (4-9) ★
Early game on FOX
Announcing crew: Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa
Broadcast on 18 stations in Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, eastern New York, Scranton, Virginia, DC and Salisbury MD
How bad are these two teams? Consider this: when was the last time Fox failed to hype a game between two NFC East clubs? The dysfunctional Skins have a quarterback controversy under a rookie head coach, and have lost five in a row after being shut out by a team with a losing record last week. Their best chance at ending that skid is to hand the ball to Alfred Morris and take advantage of a New York defense that is last in the league against the run, giving up 4.9 yards per carry. Key for the Giants is for Eli Manning and Odell Beckham to exploit a Washington defense that allows an NFL-worst 8.2 yards per pass attempt; their pass defense has given up 28 touchdowns while intercepting just five passes.
Pick • Giants 27, Skins 21
Green Bay Packers (10-3) at Buffalo Bills (7-6) ★★★★★
Early game on FOX
Announcing crew: Justin Kutcher, David Diehl, Laura Okmin
Broadcast on 61 stations in western New York, Miami, Michigan, South Bend, Fort Wayne, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Alaska and Chico CA
Buffalo fans are probably convinced the NFL schedule makers are out to get them. Three of their four final games are against the Broncos, Packers and Patriots, and they finish with only one home game in December. The Buffalo defense, which ranks 4th with 18.5 points per game allowed, did hold the Broncos to 24 points last week in Denver. The problem for the Bills is that they are scoring 21.6 points per game, and they are not built to play catch up; that will likely be the case as Green Bay is averaging 40 points over the last five games.
Pick • Packers 31, Bills 24
Minnesota Vikings (6-7) at Detroit Lions (9-4) ★★★
Late game on FOX
Announcing crew: Chris Myers, Ronde Barber, Jennifer Hale
Broadcast on 30 stations in Louisville, Toledo, South Bend, Michigan, Chicago, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska
Despite forcing only 17 turnovers this season, the Minnesota defense has made strides and is allowing only 21.6 points per game. They limited Green Bay to 24 points in a three-point loss three weeks ago, and will need a similar effort to beat Detroit. Since losing to the Patriots the Lions have scored 34 points in back-to-back games, which has coincided with Calvin Johnson returning to full health from his ankle and elbow injuries. The Lions defense tends to dominate offenses like Minnesota’s. Detroit is allowing a league-best 3.0 yards per carry and 63 rushing yards per game, and the Vikings can’t run the ball the way they could when Adrian Peterson was available. The Lions may not sack Teddy Bridgewater eight times or get him to throw three picks like they did in the 17-3 week 6 victory, but they should be able to do enough to create a sweep of the season series.
Pick • Lions 23, Vikings 16
New York Jets (2-11) at Tennessee Titans (2-11) ★
Late game on CBS
Announcing crew: Andrew Catalon, Steve Beuerlein, Steve Tasker
Broadcast on nine stations in Tennessee, New York City, Huntsville and Bowling Green
Yeesh… this matchup makes the Giants-Washington or Tampa Bay-Carolina games appear appealing in comparison. Rex Ryan loves to run the ball, which is understandable when Geno Smith – who threw a pick-six on his very first pass last week – is your quarterback. That should be effective against a Tennessee defense that ranks last in the league with 142 rushing yards allowed per game. That in turn should give the Jets a win when, in typical Jets fashion, they need it the least – and take them out of the running for Oregon’s Heisman Trophy winning QB Marcus Mariota.
Pick • Jets 17, Titans 13
under 42½ (four units)
Denver Broncos (10-3) at San Diego Chargers (8-5) ★★★★★
Late game on CBS
Announcing crew: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson
Broadcast on 45 stations in Tampa, Charlotte, Norfolk, Buffalo, Rochester, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, New Mexico, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, southern California and Alaska
Denver seeks to win their 11th straight road division game and claim their fourth straight AFC West title, while the Chargers look to rebound from their loss to the Patriots and keep their playoff hopes alive. The Broncos beat San Diego 35-21 in Denver in week 6, and need to keep winning to have any chance of securing home field over the Patriots in the post-season. San Diego currently is the six seed in the AFC, but a loss coupled with a Baltimore win over the Jaguars would put them a game behind the Ravens. Last year the Chargers were 6-7 and upset the Broncos in a must-win game. San Diego went three and out in five of their final nine drives last week; that needs to improve against Denver. San Diego receivers Keenan Allen, Malcom Floyd and Eddie Royal should have a better game than they did last week against Darrelle Revis and company, when they combined for just seven receptions for 84 yards, but the game mostly hinges on the Chargers stopping Denver’s running game. C.J. Anderson ran for 335 yards in weeks 12 and 13, but Buffalo was able to contain him to 58 yards rushing on 2.8 yards per carry last week.
Pick • Broncos 27, Chargers 24
San Francisco 49ers (7-6) at Seattle Seahawks (9-4) ★★★★
Late game on FOX
Announcing crew: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews
Broadcast on 173 stations; everywhere except Nashville, Louisville, Toledo, South Bend, Michigan, Chicago, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska
In week 13 these two teams met, and the line was just one point. Two weeks later the same two clubs meet, and for the first time in seven years the matchup has a double digit spread. Normally that would mean a season-ending injury to a key player, but in this case it is the harsh reality of San Fran’s ineptitude. The Niners have scored just one touchdown in two weeks, and looked lethargic in a losing to the Raiders, a team that entered that game with a 1-11 record. Usually a team responds positively following a humiliating loss, but I don’t see this Niners team coming away with a win in Seattle; I see a team that has packed it in and shut it down. The Seahawks should win, but the double digit spread is an overreaction to last week’s loss to Oakland.
Pick • Seahawks 24, Niners 17
Dallas Cowboys (9-4) at Philadelphia Eagles (9-4) ★★★★★
Sunday night game on NBC
Announcing crew: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michelle Tafoya
Another great Sunday night matchup, with the winner taking control of the NFC East and the number three seed in the NFC, while the loser could end up missing the playoffs entirely. In the first meeting this year LeSean McCoy ran for 159 yards and the Eagles won 33-10 in Dallas. Philly would prefer to run the ball again, and not have to rely on Mark Sanchez. That should not be a problem against the Cowboys, who are giving up 4.4 yards per carry and have allowed an average of 30 points per game over the last three weeks. The Eagles did not look good in their loss to the Seahawks last week, but the Seattle defense does that to a lot of teams. The Dallas defense does not belong in the same conversation as Seattle’s; Philly should be able to rebound and spark discussion of another December swoon by the Cowboys.
Pick • Eagles 31, Cowboys 24
Eagles -3 (one unit)
New Orleans Saints (5-8) at Chicago Bears (5-8) ★★★
Monday night game on ESPN
Announcing crew: Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters
Even though this is a game between dysfunctional, under achieving five-win teams, it should be entertaining and worth watching. Chicago’s defense is bad; the Bears rank last in scoring, 30th in passing and 29th in total yards. The Bears just don’t have quite enough firepower on their offense to overcome that, especially now that Brandon Marshall is done for the year. Even though the New Orleans defense is just as bad as Chicago’s, they should be able to take advantage of the Bears’ carelessness with the ball. Chicago has turned the ball over 25 times (6th worst in the NFL), with Jay Cutler leading the way with a league-high 21 turnovers. The Saints still have something to play for; Chicago is just trying to finish the season without an injury.
Pick • Saints 28, Bears 24
Two-Game Parlay (one unit)
Jets-Titans under 42½
Bengals +1½ at Browns
Two-Team Teaser (two units)
Jets-Titans under 48½
Bengals +7½ at Browns
Three-Team Teaser (two units)
Jets-Titans under 51½
Bengals +10½ at Browns
Jaguars +22½ at Ravens
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