You know what? I have no idea what’s gonna happen this week. Too many teams with little or nothing to play for. Too many teams with a huge interest (named Reggie Bush) in losing their games (not that I believe any NFL team would ever intentionally tank a game). Too many coaches who have no reason to play to win swearing they’re gonna play to win. My advice: place no bets. Save that dough for the playoffs. They’re only a week away, and it’ll be much more fun to have the extra stake there anyhow. But for what it’s worth, here’s what I think might possibly happen this week. Unless it doesn’t.
Denver (+10) at San Diego
The Chargers, who were eliminated from playoff contention last week in a loss to Kansas City, get a chance to return the favor. By beating Denver, San Diego would create a situation in which Kansas City’s best finish is in a three-way tie with the Chargers and Steelers, and Pittsburgh comes out of that scenario with the second AFC wild card spot. Look for the Chargers to crank it up against the Broncos’ second team and end the Chiefs’ hopes by halftime. San Diego wins by two touchdowns or more.
NY Giants (-9) at Oakland
So the deal is we’re all supposed to believe that just maybe Kerry Collins will step up in order to do some damage to the Giants, who hurt his pride when they let him go two seasons ago. Right. That’s gonna happen. Kerry needs to be let go again this off season, along with that bum of a head coach Norv Turner. The Giants, meanwhile, can clinch the NFC East title with a win. That real motivation, plus Tiki Barber, make it a long evening for the Raiders. I’m taking the Giants and giving the points.
Arizona (+6.5) at Indianapolis
Yes, I’m aware that the Cardinals are downright awful and probably shouldn’t be able to beat the Colts backups (Indianapolis has announced they’ll be treating this “like a pre-season game,” which means starters out after the first quarter), but how hard do you think even the backups will be playing? I don’t buy the whole win one for Coach Dungy bit either. They’ll save that effort and that emotion for a game that means something — the one they play two weeks from now. And the Cardinals, well, as Tom Petty put it, even the losers keep a little bit of pride. I’m taking Arizona in the “upset.”
Baltimore (-3) at Cleveland
Two days ago, when I wrote my initial blurb about this game, I said that while both teams were eliminated from playoff contention, the game at least pitted two teams that were headed in the right direction. Now, with reports that the Browns will fire GM Phil Savage, I’m not so sure. Savage, who’s had only a year at the helm, is known as one of the best evaluators of talent in the league, and I’d been one of those folks who thought maybe he and Romeo Crennel could turn out to be like Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli. We’ll never know about that now. I do know, on the other hand, that Baltimore, after looking awful in the beginning part of the season, has won four of its last six and have the potential to close the season with a three-game winning streak. With Kyle Boller starting to come on, Jamal Lewis starting to round back into form and an off-season ahead of them to get healthy and improve through free agency and the draft, Baltimore clearly has the potential to be dangerous next year. Here? In this game. The Ravens, a slightly better team right now, should pull off a win by about a touchdown.
Buffalo (-1) at NY Jets
Ah, yes, the two teams that were supposed to challenge the Patriots for dominance of the AFC East this season meet with only position near the top of the 2006 draft on the line. Maybe next year, injury and ineptitude won’t bite one of these teams on the ass. This week, I’m looking for Mike Mularkey to end his run as coach of the Bills with a win over the hapless, banged up New Jersey squad. Yes, by more than a point.
Carolina (-4) at Atlanta
The big question here is can Atlanta, now eliminated from the playoffs, play spoiler, opening the door for Dallas to steal the last NFC playoff spot away from Carolina? The answer is, no. No, they can’t. The Falcons have been unable to beat good teams all season, and they’re not gonna start doing it here in week 17. I’m taking the Panthers (one last time — I won’t be picking them next week) and giving the points.
Chicago (+3.5) at Minnesota
The conventional wisdom is that the Bears have to come to play this meaningless game, because they’re starting a quarterback, Rex Grossman, who’s had so little time on the field this season. Fair enough. But what about on defense, which is where the Bears have excelled all season? Do the Bears need to prove anything there? No. And I don’t expect them to play like they do. So I kind of expect the home team to send Mike Tice, who all but announced that he was done as head coach following the loss to Baltimore last week, out with a win. Vikings by three.
Cincinnati (+7) at Kansas City
Chiefs president Carl Peterson is once again calling for the playoffs to be expanded from 12 to 14 teams. That’s not all that surprising considering the fact that Peterson’s team has a habit of just missing the post-season. The cure, of course, is not to water down the playoffs, but to find a way to win more games during the regular season. I mean, sure it’s kind of a shame that teams can go 10-6 and miss the playoffs. But it’s more of a shame that we very nearly had a team with a losing record make the playoffs in the NFC last season. Adding two teams and heading toward an NBA-style system where it’s almost a shock not to get into the playoffs would create more problems than it would solve. One of the great things about the NFL is the fact that the regular season games all matter. I think it’s best left that way, even if it does mean good teams like San Diego and Kansas City end up sitting come the first weekend in January. So what does any of this have to do with this game? Well, not a whole lot except that by the time kickoff rolls around, the Chiefs will have been eliminated from playoff contention (by virtue of San Diego’s victory over the Broncos’ second team on Saturday afternoon — see my pick on that game above) so the Chiefs will have little to play for other than to make Peterson’s point about how more teams belong in the post-season. That, the desire to finish strong and (maybe) end Dick Vermeil’s coaching career with a win, and the fact that Cincinnati won’t be playing to win (OK, Marvin Lewis says they will play to win, but he also says he’ll probably pull starters at halftime — which isn’t at all the same as playing to win) adds up to a Kansas City victory. Will it be by seven or more? I dunno. Maybe. But probably not.
Detroit (+14) at Pittsburgh
The Steelers very likely will have nothing to play for by the time this game kicks off, having clinched the AFC six seed with San Diego’s win on Saturday afternoon. So what will they do? Will they play hard to try to stay hot, or tone it down in an attempt to stay healthy. Either way, they beat the miserable Lions, it’s just a matter of by how many points. Don’t bet this game. But I’m expecting the Pittsburgh backups to be on the field by halftime, so I’m taking Detroit to cover.
Miami (+6) at New England
The Pats would be better off resting starters and possibly losing this game. A win gets you nothing but a tougher matchup in week 17 (Pittsburgh instead of Jacksonville), and exposes your guys to injury since Miami will be playing to end its season on a strong note and with a winning record. My gut says the Patriots have their backups in by the start of the second half, but I’m not sure that’ll quite get the Fins a win. I’m taking the Pats (hesitantly) straight up, but the Dolphins with the points.
New Orleans (+14) at Tampa Bay
It’s official: New Orleans will be losing home games in Louisiana next season. What a tribute to the loyal fans in that hurricane ravaged state. The good news is, if Houston manages to top San Francisco this week, the Saints very well may be losing games next season with Matt Leinart under center. Wow. Does it get any better than that? The Bucs wrap up the NFC South with an easy win over the Ain’ts here. Go ahead and give the points. Cadillac will probably outscore New Orleans by that much on his own.
Houston (-2) at San Francisco
The game no longer known as the Reggie Bowl. Sure, if the Texans can manage a loss here, they win the rights to Reggie Bush. But Houston coach Dom Capers is gonna be unemployed by the time the 2006 draft rolls around (probably by the time the first weekend of the playoffs roll around) and no doubt couldn’t begin to care about whether the Texans get Bush. It serves Dom’s hopes of landing a coordinator post of college coaching job somewhere to go out with a win. And that’s what I expect the Texans to do given San Fran’s continuing struggles and ongoing injury problems. And what’s weird is, since a Texans win probably gives the number one draft pick to New Orleans, a team that already has a big investment in a talented running back, it probably makes Matt Leinart the #1 pick (unless someone wants to trade up to get Bush, which is a distinct possibility.) Oh, yeah, the Texans will cover here.
Tennessee (+3) at Jacksonville
Given the way the Jags have been playing of late, I’d probably be picking Tennessee to pull off the upset here even if Jacksonville had something to play for. But they don’t. The Jags are the AFC five seed whether they win or lose. And whether Byron Leftwich gets out on the field for a bit of a workout before the post-season begins shouldn’t make much of a difference. (If there were anything on the line, Leftwich, who’s rushing back from a broken leg to try to lead his team in the playoffs — an admirable attempt — wouldn’t even be a consideration for this game.) Tennessee ends its season with a win.
Seattle (+3) at Green Bay
Can the Packers beat the Seattle backups? Sure, why not? They’ve gotta beat somebody. Unless they want a shot at Reggie Bush badly enough to tank this game. Can’t imagine it goes down that way. I’m taking the Pack and giving the points.
Washington (-7) at Philadelphia
The Redskins win and they get to play another week (and probably just that). That, and the fact that the Eagles probably couldn’t beat Houston at this point, is about all you need to know here. Yes, the Redskins are gonna cover. And then some.
St. Louis (+12.5) at Dallas
Unless Carolina manages to totally fall apart in Atlanta (and I don’t see that happening), Dallas will have been eliminated from playoff contention by the time this game kicks off on Sunday night. I still can’t see the Cowboys losing to a team as awful as the St. Louis Rams. Or beating the Rams by less than two touchdowns, for that matter.