Playoff Picture Comes Into Focus
Teams Needing Wins Continue to Flop
Last week I noted that teams needing wins to seal playoff spots or seedings lost games late in the season that affected their lots. Last week I expected teams in those situations to finally put some wins together. Last week, many of them failed again. Buffalo is the least offender. The Bills were on the road playing the Browns, who had just as much at stake. Someone had to win; someone had to lose.
But the Cowboys? They could have put a stranglehold on the NFC's No. 1 seed, and they lost at home to the last place team in the division. Not that Philadelphia is a bad team, and division rivals are always tough to beat, but a 12-1 home team has to beat a 5-8 visiting team. Tony Romo looked Bledsoe-like, having another poor performance in another big game, and now he's hurt his thumb.
Pittsburgh could have all but sealed up the AFC North, but the Steelers lost at home to Jacksonville. Sure, the Jags are an excellent team they had a lot riding on the game, too, but you have to win big games at home late in the season. And though Pittsburgh beat St. Louis on Thursday -- finally a win on the road -- it was a very costly win, as starting running back Willie Parker was lost for the rest of the year with a broken leg.
Like Dallas, the New York football Giants also found a way to lose at home to a division opponent (Washington). A win would have all but sealed the No. 5 seed, but now they could still miss the playoffs altogether, while the Redskins are still alive. OK, so maybe a few teams came through when they needed to. But the point is: "Better" teams lost games they should have won.
Finally, another division winner, Seattle, is still playing for seeding. A road loss to 5-8 Carolina, who had been 1-5 at home, dropped the Seahawks from No. 3 to No. 4 behind Tampa Bay, who admittedly had a gimme at home against Atlanta. That, of course, should have no impact on Seattle's ability to win elsewhere.
In the AFC, New England, Indy and San Diego are in as division winners. Either Pittsburgh or Cleveland will win the other division, and the other team has the inside track on the Wild Card. Cleveland is at Cincinnati. Jacksonville needs a home win over Oakland to seal the other Wild Card. Tennessee is the only other team with an outside shot.
In the NFC, Dallas, Green Bay, Tampa Bay and Seattle won their divisions with seeding still to be determined. The Giants would have to lose out to miss the playoffs (at Buffalo this week and home against New England next), and the Vikings (hosting Washington and at Buffalo) are inches from locking up the other Wild Card. New Orleans and Washington still have legit shots if New Jersey or Minnesota falter, and Carolina is an unimaginable long shot.
Here are the picks:
Sunday, Dec. 23
New York Giants (9-5) at Buffalo Bills (7-7), 1 p.m.
How much does playing "the spoiler" really mean to a team? Buffalo is expecting the same weather we are. The Bills are probably the best non-playoff team in the league, and if not for all those early-season injuries, this game would be huge. New Jersey needs a win with no further injuries. Expect a lot of running. And a safety.
Prediction: Giants, 20-19.
Green Bay Packers (12-2) at Chicago Bears (5-9), 1 p.m.
After Dallas's debacle last week, a game between division rivals with Chicago playing at home should warrant pause. But it doesn't. Then again, it's going to be colder (mid-20s) and windier (around 30 mph) than in the northeast. Chicago upset Green Bay in Week 5, 27-20.
Prediction: Packers, 24-10.
Cleveland Browns (9-5) at Cincinnati Bengals (5-9), 1 p.m.
More cold and windy weather. That's bad news for Cleveland, who still has a shot at the AFC North title. Two of the league's most porous defenses -- Cleveland allows 25.4 points per game, Cincy allows 24.7 -- and two teams that would rather pass than run. Cleveland won the Week 2 matchup, 51-45. With Rudi Johnson out for Cincinnati, give Cleveland, Jamal Lewis and Phil Dawson the edge. (By the way, NFL Network discussed which quarterback -- Carson Palmer or Derek Anderson -- would lead their team in a shootout. I guess they don't have a staff meteorologist.)
Prediction: Browns, 16-13.
Kansas City Chiefs (4-10) at Detroit Lions (6-8), 1 p.m.
Kansas City has lost seven straight. Detroit has lost six in a row. "Get over it," right, Worm -- I mean, Herm? This may be the long elusive tie game. It may make the Pittsburgh-Miami game look like a score-fest. Or it could be a real barnburner. No one knows, few care. Ten wins is out of the question, but Detroit could still finish .500. Does Edwards's job depend on this game?
Prediction: Lions, 27-21.
Houston Texans (7-7) at Indianapolis Colts (12-2), 1 p.m.
Houston lost at home to Indy in Week 3, 30-24.
Prediction: Colts, 34-17.
Oakland Raiders (4-10) at Jacksonville Jaguars (10-4), 1 p.m.
Jacksonville punches a playoff ticket.
Prediction: Jaguars, 28-10.
Philadelphia Eagles (6-8) at New Orleans Saints (7-7), 1 p.m.
New Orleans won their big game last week. Of course, it was "only" Arizona. Like Baltimore against New England and Indianapolis, Philadelphia really geared up for Dallas, but will probably suffer a letdown this week.
Prediction: Saints, 24-17.
Atlanta Falcons (3-11) at Arizona Cardinals (6-8), 4:05 p.m.
Arizona is building on something. Atlanta, already collapse, is decaying.
Prediction: Cardinals, 27-7.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5) at San Francisco 49ers (4-10), 4:05 p.m.
New England's first-round draft pick is now solidly No. 5. San Francisco travels to Cleveland next week. As for this game, it still means something to Tampa Bay. But with the most likely Wild Card opponents being the Giants (currently fifth seed) and the Vikings (currently sixth), would you rather be the third seed or the fourth? The answer: You want to be playing well entering the playoffs.
Prediction: Buccaneers, 21-14.
New York Jets (3-11) at Tennessee Titans (8-6), 4:15 p.m.
Tennessee needs a win, especially if Cleveland falters in the early game. New Jersey played the only game they care about last week, and they're battling St. Louis and Atlanta for the No. 2 pick. Given their running game, wouldn't they love Darren McFadden? Of course, that would mean throwing the game, which essentially would be cheating. Not that they'd have to try hard.
Prediction: Titans, 31-9.
Miami Dolphins (1-13) at New England Patriots (14-0), 4:15 p.m.
Please see separately posted game preview.
Prediction: Thanks for reading Pats Pulpit.
Baltimore Ravens (4-10) at Seattle Seahawks (9-5), 4:15 p.m.
Seattle is in the same boat as Tampa Bay, playing for seeding. Currently Seattle gets New Jersey. But can they possibly lose this game without raising eyebrows?
Prediction: Seahawks, 24-0.
Washington Redskins (7-7) at Minnesota Vikings (8-6), 8:15 p.m.
If Minnesota wins their sixth straight, they're basically in and Washington is out. If Washington wins, the NFC Wild Card picture muddies up a bit. Washington quarterback Todd Collins was 8 of 25 against the Giants last week. They won by running, but Minnesota owns the best rushing defense in the league by almost 10 yards. Of course, that's in large part due to having the worst passing defense in the league. When the NFL moved this game to 8:15, I thought they were crazy, but it just may be the game of the week.
Prediction: Vikings, 28-17.
Monday, Dec. 24
Denver Broncos (6-8) at San Diego Chargers (9-5), 8:30 p.m.
San Diego brings a four-game winning streak (Baltimore, K.C., Tennessee, Detroit) and a shot at the No. 3 seed into this one. Seeding could be the difference between facing likely fifth-seed Jacksonville instead of Cleveland, Pittsburgh or Tennessee in the first round. Denver may want to play spoiler, but it's more likely Mike Shanahan will look at players for next year, since he'll probably get one more year to turn it around. San Diego destroyed Denver, 41-3, in Week 5
Prediction: Chargers, 28-10.
Open Date: None.
Last week: 10 - 6 (62.5 percent).
Season: 145 - 79 (64.7 percent).
Last season: 132-92 (58.9 percent).