Here we go. Three teams can come out of this weekend having clinched their divisions. Two of them almost certainly will, and the third’s got as good a chance of wrapping up the AFC North tonight as they do of having to wait until next week. Even with this lingering cold I’ve got, I smell playoffs. It’s getting exciting. And there’s still a month of great regular season action for me to be wrong about. Here’s how things probably won’t happen this week.
Baltimore (+3) at Cincinnati
There are, to my mind, exactly three factors that make this game even remotely difficult to call. The first is that it’s being played on a Thursday night. This is a new situation for the league and for the teams and it’s hard to know how the players and coaches will respond. I’ve heard both Brian Billick and Marvin Lewis on Sirius NFL Radio this week discussing the difficulties of preparing for an important divisional game in what ultimately measures out to a three-day week. Neither coach is happy about it. And neither seems to have any real idea how it’s going to affect his team. My guess is that the situation favors the more seasoned and more disciplined squad (which is to say the Ravens), but who the hell knows? Second is the location of the game. In a divisional game, unless it’s a complete mismatch, home field can mean a ton. And third is the fact that the Bengals have their backs up against the wall. A Cincinnati loss here not only would end the division race in Baltimore’s favor (the Ravens would have a four-game lead with only four games to play and would own the tie breaker), but would leave the Bengals needing to win out in order to secure a wildcard spot (no one with fewer than 10 wins is gonna make the playoffs in the AFC). That’s not a situation you want to be in when you’ve got back-to-back trips to Indianapolis and Denver ahead of you. So you can rest assured Cincy’s gonna be playing with everything its got. Question is, will that be enough. My gut says, no. To begin with, claims to the contrary notwithstanding (you know you’re gonna have to back that shit up now, right T.J.?), the Ravens are simply the better team in this tilt. Cincinnati has been more effective on offense, yes, but only to the tune of 44 yards and two and a half points per game. On the other side of the ball, however, you’ve got a Baltimore D that ranks second best in the league, allowing just 265 yards and 13.4 points per game, and a Cincinnati D that ranks second worst in the league, allowing 362 yards and 21.2 points per game. That’s an enormous difference. And it’s hard to imagine Cincinnati’s D getting better in a game when the unit is likely to spend a significant amount of time on the field. I’m guessing the newly resurgent Jamal Lewis is gonna run wild in the second half. Then factor in the issue of giveaway/takeaway ratio. Cincinnati is an impressive +8 in that area, but Baltimore leads the league with a +15. And it starts to look like the Bengals can’t possibly keep up. But the thing is, maybe they can. Maybe playing at home on a short week in a game they absolutely, without question, must win will be enough to lift the Bengals over the Ravens and keep their season alive for another couple of weeks. I don’t see it. I see a Ravens win. But I won’t be surprised if I’m wrong.
Arizona (+6.5) at St. Louis
As the game clock ticks down to :00 and the Dennis Green employment clock ticks down to four weeks, the Joe Thomas “Oh, shit clock will tick down to five months. St. Louis by a field goal.
Atlanta (+1.5) at Washington
You know, I’m not gonna argue that Michael Vick isn’t part of the problem, but maybe if one of those Atlanta wideouts occasionally, you know, caught a fucking pass, there wouldn’t be as much of a problem to assess. I could try to break this game down, but I’ve got better things to do with my time than figure out which of these teams sucks less. I’m gonna guess that since Atlanta’s gotta get off the schneid sometime and since it’s now possible to break down tape on Jason Campbell, the Falcons are gonna find a way to win here. But I’m almost certainly wrong about that.
Detroit (+13.5) at New England
To paraphrase Darryl Rogers, what does a CEO/GM have to do to get fired around here? Apparently, whatever it is, we’ve yet to see it. I find that kinda shocking, you know? Because Rogers did get fired. Midway through his fourth season, when the team was 18-40 (.310) under him. Likewise, the team dumped Steve Mariucci 11 games into last season, his third as head coach. The Lions were 15-28 (.348) under Mariucci. But as this season wears on, and the Lions continue to lose week in and week out, you’d think it might start to dawn on the Ford family that the team is 23-68 (.253) since Matt Millen came in to run the front office in 2001. Add to that the fact that last week a team led by a guy who couldn’t win to save his life when he was with Detroit came in and embarrassed the Lions in front of a national audience and it should be impossible for the Fords to miss that Millen is their biggest blunder since the Edsel (and if they don’t take care of the problem soon, the situation’s gonna blow up like a Pinto). Chances are, an ass-kicking in Foxborough won’t be the straw that breaks this insane camel’s back, which is to say that if Millen survives until Sunday, he’s probably got another week in him. Patriots by 17.
Indianapolis (-7.5) at Tennessee
What happens here. Duhhh, I don’t know Tennessee. You know, I could see the Titan falling behind by 21 early again this week. And I could see one of these teams putting up 24 points in the last 10 minutes. What I can’t see is that team being the Titans again. I’d take Indy if I had to give twice the points.
Kansas City (-5) at Cleveland
Larry Johnson is good for a little more than 140 all-purpose yards a game. He averages 4.3 yards per carry on the ground. And he’s been in the end zone 15 times this season, 13 of them rushing. The Cleveland Browns run defense ranks 25th in the league. It gives up nearly 134 yards a game and 4.5 per carry. (Which, as I’ve pointed out before, is one of the things that can tend to happen when you insist on running a 3-4 defense with 4-3 personnel.) The Browns have only given up nine rushing touchdowns this season, which isn’t good, but isn’t terrible, so they’ve got that going for them, which … well, it really isn’t all that nice, because they’ve allowed 13 passing scores. So, you know, maybe Larry racks up a ton of yards but doesn’t score. Or maybe he catches a touchdown. Or maybe Larry just gets the Chiefs close to the goal line and someone like Tony Gonzalez does the bulk of the scoring. One way or another, things don’t look at all promising for Cleveland (or for Romeo Crennel’s job security). So, yeah, I’ll give the five points.
Minnesota (+9) at Chicago
Jeez, remember when the Vikings were 4-2, playing well and looking like they might sneak into the playoffs? They sure went tits up in a giant hurry, didn’t they? Bears win by 14 and cement the division title.
NY Jets (-1.5) at Green Bay
You know, for a while there on Monday night I really thought Green Bay had that game won And, hell, maybe if it hadn’t been for that absurd roughing the passer call, the Pack would have pulled out the win after all. If they’d won in Seattle, I’m sure I’d be picking them here. But they didn’t. So I’m not. I think the Jets come out on top by three or four in a high-scoring game. Sure do hope I’m wrong, though (about the Jets winning, that is).
San Diego (-6) at Buffalo
The Chargers are probably the best team in the league right now, but they’re not perfect. They have some issues in their secondary and I have this sense that J.P. Losman is gonna be able to exploit those issues and limit the amount of time Buffalo’s shaky defense has to spend contending with San Diego’s dangerous offense. It won’t be enough, of course. In the end, the Chargers still have the best player in the league on their side, and that should be more than enough to let them get the job done. Still, I’m gonna stop short of giving the six points. The Chargers might cover, but they might not and I think there’s a strong enough argument for not that I’m only expecting San Diego to win by four or five.
San Francisco (+7) at New Orleans
The Niners are suddenly playing some pretty decent football. Not good enough to hang with the Saints in New Orleans or anything, but good enough for San Francisco fans to feel hopeful about the future. And when was the last time you could say that? Saints by 10.
Dallas (-3.5) at NY Giants
God help Tony Romo if Mathias Kiwanuka draws a bead on him at any point during this game, because there are some mistakes you don’t take even the slightest chance of repeating. That, unfortunately, may be the only thing the Giants have going for them heading into this game, because contrary to King Douchebag’s declaration a couple weeks back, the Cowboys are clearly headed in exactly the right direction while the Giants are falling apart more and more by the minute. (This week’s blowup features Michael Strahan and Plaxico Burress, though apparently no one’s supposed to ask or comment about it.. Here’s the deal: New York has to win this game — has to, pure and simple — if it’s gonna have any hope of salvaging its season. But my guess is that Dallas, which comes in on 10 days rest, is gonna tough it out and end both the Giants’ 2006 run, but Tom Coughlin’s tenure as New York’s head coach. Dallas by four.
Houston (+3) at Oakland
Hey, guess what. “Coach” Shell finally figured out that his old pal Tommy Flapjacks is no longer qualified to run an NFL offense. Congratulations, Art. You now officially know as much about Walsh and your team as every football fan in America did 11 games ago. You know what else? Though I agree that it was time (well past time, frankly) to make a change, I’m not entirely sure the new guy is the answer to the Raiders’ offensive woes. To begin with, Shoop was 24-24 as OC of the Chicago Bears under Dick Jauron. That’s not exactly lighting it up. And there’s a reason Shoop’s been working as an assistant and not as a coordinator over the past two seasons. (You’ll also notice he apparently wasn’t one of the guys Jauron called when he landed the head coaching gig in Buffalo). Still, anything’s gotta be an improvement over the French toast offense (that’s the one where your quarterback drops seven steps, feels the heat and tosses the ball to a butterfingered receiver — and everyone ends up with egg on his face). So let’s see where it leads. This is probably as good a weekend as the Raiders will get to try out some new offensive tactics. Houston’s defense hasn’t been stopping much of anything, so unless the Raiders remain as effective at stopping themselves under Shoop as they did under Walsh, they’ll probably have at least moderate success moving the ball. More important, Houston’s offense, which has hardly been tearing up the league will face an Oakland D that overall isn’t as good as its reputation (it looks terrific in comparison to the Raiders offense, but it’s really just on the plus side of average), but it quite good at stopping the pass, which is the better part of the Texans O. It’s conceivable that the Raiders could win this game on D. And that’s just what I expect them to do, though certainly not by much. I think this one’s a push with the points.
Jacksonville (+1.5) at Miami
So you know that rule of thumb whereby in an evenly matched game you take the team that need to win more? How do you put that to work here? I mean, sure, Jacksonville, at 6-5, is fighting for its life, trying to hold onto its chances of making the playoffs in a crowded middle of the AFC pack. It has to win this game to keep up with Cincinnati and the Jets, not to mention to hold out hope of catching one of those strong 7-4 squads from the AFC West. But I think the Dolphins, winners of four straight, truly believe they have a chance of sneaking into the tournament. And at 5-6, they have to know that whatever chance that is disappears the moment they drop one more game. So you tell me who needs this game most. Exactly. OK, then, so you go with the hot team, right? The home team? Yeah, you do. Except it just doesn’t sit right with me. Jacksonville may have fallen apart at Buffalo last week, and Miami is coming in with 10 days rest, but, me, I can’t get past the fact that the Jags are simply a better team than the Fins in every aspect of the game. Plus, Miami’s gonna have to go without Ronnie Brown. So I’m going with Jacksonville (perhaps just this one last time). And I’ll probably be wrong, but so it goes.
Tampa Bay (+7.5) at Pittsburgh
Here’s what galls me about this game: There’s simply no way in hell the Pittsburgh Steelers should be giving more than a touchdown to anyone in any stadium. They’re a 4-7 team, for fuck’s sake. They turn the ball over more often than any team in the league. Yet, somehow, maybe it’s because they’re the defending champs (for whatever little that’s worth at this stage in the season) or maybe (as I suspect) it’s just because they’re the Steelers, everyone continues to believe they’re “better than their record.” Nonsense. And, hey, look, I’m not here to be a Buccaneers booster. Not by any stretch. The Bucs are a lousy team, and unquestionably as bad as their 3-8 record. Their offense can’t score worth a damn. And they turn the ball over way too much. But the Tampa offense may not need to score to keep the Bucs in this game. Ronde Barber may be able to take care of that. I still don’t see Tampa Bay pulling off an upset here, mind you. I just see it the game being a lot closer than the spread. But I’ll certainly be rooting for an upset, because maybe then everyone would stop believing the Steelers are better than they really are.
Seattle (+3) at Denver
So, listen, if you’ve got some way of figuring this game out, do me a favor and let me know what the hell it is. Because I haven’t a clue. I mean, OK, it’s in Denver, so common sense says you pick the Broncos. And the Seahawks found it difficult to stop the Packers Monday night, and the Broncos are better than the Packers, so common sense says you take the Broncos. Trouble is, I don’t know what the hell the Broncos are gonna look like with Jay Cutler under center . I mean, obviously, Mike Shanahan, one of the best coaches in the league, knows what he’s doing. He knows his team is in a playoff race. And if he’s making this change, he has to believe the rookie can get the job done. That’s all well and good. But Cutler’s still a rookie and he’s still likely to make some rookie mistakes along the way. And that’s likely to bite the Broncos in the ass in a game against a Seattle team that’s newly healthy and playing to earn a bye week in the playoffs. So you go ahead and tell me what the hell I’m supposed to make of this game. You can’t, right? Perfect. I’m right back where I started: on my own and totally clueless. So what can I do? I’m gonna trust Mike Shanahan to know his quarterback. I’m gonna trust the Denver defense to force Seattle to make some mistakes. I’m gonna hope like hell Shaun Alexander doesn’t manage another 200-yard effort. And I’m gonna hedge my bets by taking Denver to win, but Seattle to cover. How about that?
Carolina (-3) at Philadelphia
Like every week this season, you’ve got to try to figure out whether the good Panthers or the awful Panthers are gonna show up for this game. Only this week, it’s just a matter of knowing whether you give the three points and feel great about it or give the three and bit your nails over it. I’m gonna choose to believe the thing that keeps me from losing sleep. Because, really, what’s the difference?