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Week Sixteen Picks

December 22nd, 2004

Another bitch of a week for picking in the NFL. Bad teams playing bad teams (sometimes, in the NFC, in games with actual playoff implications). Good teams playing good teams (sometimes with playoff implications). Division rivals going head to head. And in a couple of cases, really good teams with nothing on the line traveling to play mostly bad teams with something on the line — which is to say we’ll have hungry starters going up against squads made up of guys who are two and three on their teams’ depth charts. Do you have some formula for sizing up that shit? Because I know I don’t.

Here’s what I think is gonna happen (and a warning that chances are I’m wrong about all of it):

Green Bay (+3) at Minnesota
Anyone out there interested in winning the fucking NFC North? I mean, I know the title doesn’t mean anything, since it’s pretty clear that there isn’t a team in the conference that can expect to get by both Atlanta and Philadelphia (T.O. or no T.O.), but, shit, you’d think some team would want to at least be able to call itself the division champ. This Christmas Eve meeting between two 8-6 teams will decide it (unless, you know, it ends in a tie). And so I guess you’ve gotta like the carpet team at home on the carpet. Take the Vikes straight up and, what the hell, give the points. What’s the difference?

Oakland (+8) at Kansas City
Should we expect another shootout in Kansas City? It all Depends on which Kerry Collins shows up, really. We all know the Chiefs are gonna put up some major points against the drunken stumblebums the Raiders are trying to pass off as professional DBs. The question is, will the Raiders have similar success against the Chiefs’ 32nd-ranked pass D? And the answer has everything to do with whether the Raiders starting quarterback is the guy who completed 21 of 37 passes for 371 yards and a five touchdowns, with only one interception, in week 15 vs. Tennessee, or the guy who went 14 for 28 for 166 yards with no touchdowns and a pick a week earlier at Atlanta. The Raiders don’t run the ball well either way. And without Priest Holmes, neither do the Chiefs. Defensive stats are of little help here. In terms of passing yards allowed per game, Atlanta falls between Tennessee and Kansas City in the bottom half of the rankings. But I took a look at passing TDs allowed, and the Chiefs (28) look a lot more like the Titans (25) than the Falcons (16), so I’m going with Oakland to hold Kansas City’s margin of victory to a touchdown or less.

Denver (-4) at Tennessee
Denver, which has been in collapse for some time now, isn’t quite out of the AFC playoff picture yet, which is the primary reason they’re giving four points here. But the Broncos, even at 8-6, have shown they don’t have the heart to win games. Indeed, they can’t even seem to find it in them to finish drives. Over their last two games, the Broncos have posted 817 yards but have scored only 37 points (though they did win one of those games, week fourteen at home against Miami). The Titans, meanwhile, have been playing their asses off — and losing. Tennessee (4-10) has 1069 yards and 73 points in their last two games, though they lost both. Denver has a better pass D than either of the Titans’ last two opponents — Kansas City and Oakland, the league’s worst and fourth-worst, respectively, in that category — but I still expect Tennessee to be able to put up some points, much as the Chiefs did against Denver last week. And while the Broncos offense should be much better than the Raiders and almost on par with the Chiefs, that hasn’t been the case of late. So, me, I see an upset in the making here. Take the Titans to win it outright.

Atlanta (+3.5) at New Orleans
How can the Saints, a team that seems determined to play beneath its abilities and find ways to lose games, be favored to beat the playoffs-bound Falcons? Easy. Atlanta coach Jim Mora, whose team has a lock on the conference two seed (and a week one playoff bye) and can’t do any better than that, has all but officially announced that a number of starters will be spending most of Sunday afternoon on the sidelines. The Falcons are required by the league to field a competitive team, but with Michael Vick nursing a sprained shoulder, it’d be hard to question a decision to hold him out. And with other starters ailing, Mora will certainly find a way to get the better part of his team out of the game by halftime at the latest. So you don’t bet on this game no matter what, because anything can happen. But if you’ve gotta make a pick, take the home team to win it. And if you have to pick against the spread, well, take the Falcons to at least make it look like they tried by keeping the difference to a field goal.

Baltimore (+5) at Pittsburgh
Baltimore played Indianapolis tough on the road last week. And Pittsburgh came within one bad bit of officiating to losing to the less-than-inspiring Giants. So the hope among New England Patriots players and their fans is that Baltimore, which is fighting for its playoff life, will be able to pull off the upset at Pittsburgh. That’s far from out of the question. Both teams have outstanding defenses, ranked first (Pittsburgh) and sixth (Baltimore) in the league. And Baltimore is only giving up 31 yards and half a point more per game than Pittsburgh. Plus, while rankings would make the team’s offensive differences appear to be huge (Pittsburgh’s O is ranked 19th, Baltimore’s 30) the Steelers are only scoring three more points per game than the Ravens. If the Ravens play as inspired a game and the Steelers play as uninspired a game as they did last week, Baltimore will pull off the upset. But playing for home-field advantage through the playoffs can be mighty inspirational. I see Pittsburgh pulling out a two-point victory in a nail-biter. I sure do hope I’m wrong. Go Ravens!

Chicago (+5.5) at Detroit
I’m thinking with the 32nd-ranked offense in a 32-team league in town, the Lions can probably afford to miss an extra point or two this time around. Take Detroit and give the points.

Houston (+7) at Jacksonville
A week ago, I thought Jacksonville’s playoff hopes were about to go out the window with a cold-weather game in Green Bay looming. I was wrong. And with the Broncos melting down and the Ravens appearing to be headed for a loss at Pittsburgh, the Jags have an opportunity here to make it a two-way race with Buffalo for the AFC six seed. I think they’ll make a statement here with a big win over the division rival Texans. Take the Jaguars and give the points.

NY Giants (+6) at Cincinnati
Giants rookie quarterback Eli Manning looked like he’d started to get a feel for NFL football last week against Pittsburgh. Eli turned in a respectable outing against the Steelers, who have the best defense in the league. And that allowed running back Tiki Barber to have his first decent outing in weeks. This time around, the Giants face a team with a defense ranked 19th overall and 26th against the run. If Eli really has figured things out, you can expect him to have a good day. Tiki should excel either way. And if the Giants D, which is ranked14th but is severely banged up and falling in the rankings, can keep the Bengals from posting more than three touchdowns, they’ll pull off the upset. I’m willing to take my chances. I’m taking New York to win it straight up.

San Diego (+7) at Indianapolis
This is certainly the difference between the three and four seed in the AFC and, depending on whether what happened in Miami Monday night was a fluke or a sign of things to come, could put the winner in contention for the conference two seed. The hopeful news for San Diego here is that they’ve got the league’s 11th-ranked defense, giving up only 318 yards per game. The not-so-hopeful news for the Chargers is that they’re giving three quarters of those yards in the air, which ain’t a good sign when you’re heading indoors to play the Colts. Indy quarterback Peyton Manning certainly breaks Dan Marino’s single-season touchdown record this week (Manning needs two passing touchdowns to top Marino’s 48) and the Colts win it by four or five points.

Buffalo (-11.5) at San Francisco
Running back Willis McGahee’s absence (he has a knee injury and is expected to miss this game) may take some of the explosiveness out of the Bills offense, but it won’t slow them down enough to keep San Francisco in this game. I like the Bills to win it by 10.

New England(-2) at NY Jets
The Pats had better recover quickly from their Monday night disaster in Miami, because, two-point underdogs or not, the Jets are a damned good football team, one the Patriots barely beat in Foxborough week seven (though the outcome of that game was never in doubt, the final was nonetheless 13-7). If Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is able to shake off his poor performance in the Miami game, or better yet, use that poor performance to motivate himself, the Pats should be able to pull out a victory and sew up a playoff bye week and a home game. New England running back Corey Dillon, who had 115 yards against the Jets in Foxborough, matches up slightly better against the Jets’ seventh-ranked run D than New York RB Curtis Martin, who had only 70 yards in that last game, does against the Pats’ run defense, which is ranked fifth. And in a game like this, unless someone throws four picks, the running game is what will make the difference. I like the Pats to bounce back and win it. And I think you can go ahead and give the two points.

Arizona (+7) at Seattle
Man, would I love to see Arizona win this game. If they could, it would ensure that the NFC West will be won by a team with a .500 record at best. And there’s some perverse part of me that would love to see that happen. What I expect, though, is for the hot-and-cold Seahawks to run hot this week, topping the Cards by exactly a touchdown.

Carolina (+3) at Tampa Bay
This is one of the toughest games of the week to call. These teams are division rivals. They don’t like each other one little bit. And they always play each other tough. The Panthers won their week 12 match in Carolina 21-14, but only because Martin Gramatica kept missing field goal attempts. The Bucs’ fourth-ranked defense should be able to stop Carolina’s offense. And if running back Michael Pittman can hold on to the ball pick up some yards on the ground as well as through the air this time (Pittman had just 29 yards rushing last time out, fumbling twice, but he caught eight passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns), the Bucs should be able to squeeze out a victory. Whether that’ll happen is anyone’s guess, but, as usual in games like this, I’m taking the home team. I guess I’ll give the points, too.

Washington (-3) at Dallas
Cowboys coach Bill Parcells is planning to start washed-up never-was Vinny Testaverde at quarterback again this week rather than giving young Drew Henson, who is supposed to be the club’s future, some valuable playing time. Why? Because even at a dismal 5-9 the Cowboys have an outside chance of making the playoffs as a wildcard team (sad, sad, sad NFC) and Parcells doesn’t wanna send his team the message that he’s given up on the season. What a complete fucking tool. Take Washington and give the points.

Cleveland (+7) at Miami
The only reason to even consider taking the Browns to cover in this meeting of 3-11 teams is the fact that the Dolphins could be headed for a letdown game in the wake of their huge Monday night upset over the Patriots. The Fins are playing better football under Jim Bates than they’d been playing this season with Dave Wannstedt as coach. The Browns, meanwhile, have been giving up crazy points on a weekly basis — they surrendered 58 to Cincinnati in week 12, 42 to New England in week 13, 37 to Buffalo in week 14, and 21 to San Diego in week 5 — and have scored next to nothing since that bizarre pointfest with Cincy (15, 7 and 0 in weeks 13, 14 and 15). So it’s fair to expect a blowout — if the Dolphins can stop celebrating their spoiler turn long enough to focus on the game before them. I think they can, so I’m taking Miami and expecting them to win by double the spread.

Philadelphia (+3) at St. Louis
The backward spread here isn’t really a reflection of the fact that the Eagles have lost wide receiver Terrell Owens for the balance of the regular season (and most, or all, of the playoffs). It’s a reflection of the expectation that Philly’s healthy starters will be on the bench. Like guaranteed NFC two seed Atlanta, the top-seeded Eagles, who will be at home through the NFC playoffs, have no incentive to try to win this game, and every incentive to let their banged up starters get some rest. Should make for some exciting Monday Night Football, eh? Well, you know what’s crazy? I don’t think the Rams starters can beat the Eagles second team. So I’m gonna go ahead and take Philly straight up. But I caution you against betting on this game. There’s simply no telling what’s gonna happen in a game like this.

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