The haves are beginning to separate from the have nots, with playoff berths up for grabs and positioning for home field advantage in full swing. There are a number of teams hanging onto playoff hopes, with a loss probably ending their chances. As far as my picks go, I'm trying to recover from consecutive weeks at or below .500. There are a number of close games this week, so my chances of improving aren't very good. But all I can do is keep plugging away as the regular season winds down.
Overall: 133 - 77 - 1
Indianapolis (8 - 4) 21 @ Cincinnati (8 - 4) 24: Both of these teams have a two game lead in their division, but one of them has to lose Sunday. The Colts have played pretty well away from home this season, but the Bengals are 5 - 0 at home. This one probably comes down to how well the Colts can move the ball against the Bengals defense, which plays well against both the run and pass. If the Colts can defend against the Bengals offense, which is decent, but not great by NFL standards, then they have a chance to win a close one. I like Cincinnati's balance, which should be enough to get the win at home.
Atlanta (3 - 9) 20 @ Green Bay (5 - 6 - 1) 23 : Packers QB Aaron Rodgers will not play against the Falcons, making this a tough pick. Green Bay is 0 - 4 - 1 since he went down, including an embarrassing 40 - 10 loss at Detroit on Thanksgiving. They've had ten days to lick their wounds and get ready for Atlanta, who went into Buffalo last week and won. These teams are a combined 1 - 8 - 1 in their last five games, with neither one really looking very good in the process. The Falcons are a dome team and the weather will be brutally cold at Lambeau Field. In addition, Atlanta doesn't run or defend the run very well, two critical elements in a cold weather game. I'm tempted to go with Atlanta, but the weather has me staying with the home team.
Cleveland (4 - 8) 17 @ New England (9 - 3) 28: Tom Brady just keeps rolling along, no matter what personnel he's forced to play with. Injuries, suspensions and trades don't seem to bother the future Hall of Famer, as he just finds ways to utilize the players he has on the field. The Browns appeared to be poised to make a playoff run a few weeks ago, but that's no longer a possibility. The Patriots are still in the mix for the top seed in the AFC. This one shouldn't be all that close.
Oakland (4 - 8) 19 @ New York Jets (5 - 7) 20: Inexplicably, Jets coach Rex Ryan is staying with Geno Smith at QB this week. There really isn't an adjective strong enough to explain, by NFL standards, how bad this guy is playing. In a league whose rules are designed to result in good QB performances, Smith hasn't thrown a TD pass in his last five games with six interceptions in the last three. Really? I would think there's probably a season ticket holder sitting in MetLife Stadium that could do better than that. The Jets could start Matt Simms, who has shown flashes of brilliance, and would probably have a great chance of beating the Raiders. By starting Smith, it makes this a very difficult pick. At home, in bad weather, I'll stick with the Jets, thinking that by some point in the second quarter we'll see Simms in the game.
Detroit (7 - 5) 24 @ Philadelphia (7 - 5) 31: This battle of division leaders has a lot more significance for the Eagles than for the Lions. Philly is trying to stay even with the Cowboys and has won four in a row after scoring only ten points in consecutive games at the end of October. The Lions lead the Bears by a game and own the tiebreaker over Chicago by virtue of two wins over their NFC North rivals. Detroit has been inconsistent this season, while the Eagles seem to be buying into the system of first year head coach Chip Kelly. Eagle QB Nick Foles is accurate and just mobile enough to be effective with all of the other weapons around him. Even though Philadelphia is only 2 - 4 at home, I think they'll get it done this week.
Miami (6 - 6) 21 @ Pittsburgh (5 - 7) 27: Both of these teams are still in the playoff picture in the AFC, as there are six teams battling for one spot. They're still mathematically in contention in their divisions, but the chances of that are slim. A Miami win over the Steelers would all but eliminate Pittsburgh. The Steelers had a chance to beat Baltimore last week to help their chances, but lost 22 - 20. Coach Mike Tomlin lost even more, getting fined by the league for $100,000 for interfering with a play. It looked like something out of "Friday Night Lights". Come on, Mike, really? Anyway, about the game, the Dolphins have rebounded nicely after all of the controversy surrounding Richie Incognito and the disruption on the offensive line. But the Steelers have also come back after an awful start. In this December weather in Pittsburgh, I have to like the Steelers to run the ball and play good enough defense to win.
Buffalo (4 - 8) 20 @ Tampa Bay (3 - 9) 28: At least the Bills get couple of days in the warm weather, or at least warmer than what they have at home. The Buccaneers have won three of their last four and the game before that was an overtime loss at Seattle. Buffalo is going in the wrong direction, so I look for the Bucs defense to pretty much shut them down in Tampa.
Kansas City (9 - 3) 23 @ Washington (3 - 9) 20: The Redskins have been eliminated from playoff contention and the Chiefs enter the weekend on a three game losing streak, two of those to division rival Denver, making it difficult to see them contending for the AFC West title. Kansas City went 8 - 0 to start the season against a weak schedule, but they probably have enough on the defensive side of the ball to disrupt an inept Redskin squad. The 'Skins will be playing for pride and in some cases, their jobs. Coach Mike Shanahan has not been effective and this will be the third time in his four seasons that his team failed to make the playoffs. Bye, Bye, Mike.
Minnesota (3 - 9) 17 @ Baltimore (6 - 6) 21: Somehow, the Ravens are still in the playoff picture and the Vikings are not. If Joe Flacco can somehow find his form from last season, Baltimore thinks they can catch fire like they did last season. Actually, Flacco just has to be good, not great, because of the way the Raven defense is playing. I look for more of the same this week and for Baltimore to win a close one. Of course, for the Ravens, they're all close, because the offense just isn't clicking.
Tennessee (5 - 7) 24 @ Denver (10 - 2) 34: A month ago, the Titans find themselves at 4 - 4, in the playoff hunt and hosting winless Jacksonville. No problem, right? With two games coming up against a struggling Indianapolis team, they controlled their own destiny in the AFC South. Guess what? They turn it over four times against the Jags in a loss, then fail to beat the Colts in two tries, and now face a must win game at Denver. Not much chance in this one, as the Broncos have more than enough to take down the Titans at home.
St. Louis (5 - 7) 24 @ Arizona (7 - 5) 27: The Rams got knocked around pretty well in San Francisco, while the Cardinals lost a close one to Philadelphia on the road to snap a four game winning streak. St. Louis is a tough team that plays a very physical brand of football. Arizona has weapons on offense and probably has a little bit of an edge at home. I'll take them in a tight one.
New York Giants (5 - 7) 27 @ San Diego Chargers (5 - 7) 24: After starting the season 0 - 6, the Giants have won five of their last six games, but mostly against inferior competition with the exception of their win over the Eagles. San Diego has been up and down much of the season, but mostly down the last month, as they've dropped four of their last five. Neither team has been eliminated from the playoffs, but they can't afford a loss in this one. It's hard to figure how the Chargers can lose to Washington, score sixteen in a loss to Miami and then beat Kansas City by scoring 41. Really? How do you figure this team? I've been going with the home teams this week, but I like the Giants to continue their late season resurgence.
Seattle (11 - 1) 30 @ San Francisco (8 - 4) 27: Earlier in the season, everyone thought this game would be for the NFC West title, but Seattle has already wrapped that up. Now, the 'Niners are trying to stay in the playoff hunt. They are in the sixth and final spot, but a loss could change all of that with the Cardinals and Eagles right on their heels. Even though the Seahawks aren't the same team on the road, they're still 5 - 1 away from home. I just don't think San Francisco is playing at the same level they did a year ago and Pete Carroll has his Seattle team hitting on all cylinders. I'll take the visitors to cause some real concern for San Francisco's season.
Carolina (9 - 3) 27 @ New Orleans (9 - 3) 30: This is a terrific game for Sunday night. The winner takes the lead in the NFC West, but they play again in two weeks in Charlotte. The schedule probably favors the Panthers, as they host the Giants and travel to Atlanta in their other two games. The Saints have to travel to St. Louis next week then close out the season at the Superdome against resurgent Tampa Bay. After getting totally dismantled last week in Seattle, the Saints will be looking to return home to make amends. The Panthers have won eight in a row, including wins over San Francisco and New England. As much as I like what Carolina has done, New Orleans is close to unbeatable at home, so I'll need to stay with them this week. When they play in Charlotte, it should be an entirely different matter.
Dallas (7 - 5) 23 @ Chicago (6 - 6) 24: Can the Cowboys put some games together in December to win the NFC East over the Eagles? If they are, then it's going to have to start in a frigid Soldier Field against the inconsistent Bears, losers of three of their last four, the last one in overtime to the Vikings. Dallas has won three of four, but the loss was a blowout at New Orleans. Although Chicago's defense is weak against the run, that's not a real big part of the Dallas offense, as they're averaging only 85 yards a game on the ground. I'm going to pick Chicago in this one, primarily because Dallas has yet to demonstrate the ability to put three wins in a row in the books, especially not on the road in lousy weather.