Without trying to sound superstitious, some NFL favorites should tread softly, lest the upset demons bring them foul luck in Week 13. Those of us with pride on the line in the office pool must remember NFL picking rule No. 1: when in doubt, go with the underdog.
For those curious readers investigating my record, I currently stand atop the pool in my corner of the world with a 70.5 percent success rate on straight wins and 58 percent accuracy when points are included in the equation.
Thursday Night Football
New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons. QB Matt Ryan has not lost a game in the Georgia Dome since October 9th 2011*. Despite a 10-1 record, it's hard to feel completely confident with these Dirty Birds. The high-percentage passing game seems to suit Ryan and new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan inarguably has his squad playing its toughest D in recent memory. The Falcons keep winning, usually behind some fourth-quarter heroics by MVP-candidate No. 2.
Except against the Saints, who come to town after a nasty defeat in their own dome last weekend. Atlanta has the more complete team (top 10 in both offensive and defensive points) and should win. However, fans ignore Drew Brees at their peril. Particularly since the Falcons secondary will probably be without at least one of their star DBs. Dunta Robinson has a head injury after yet another helmet-to-helmet hit (I'm sure you're shocked) and Asante Samuel will probably miss this one.+
The key will be the improved but still weak Saints defense against Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Michael Turner... you get the picture.
Prediction: Atlanta by a field goal
Sunday Early Games
Indianapolis Colts at Detroit Lions. Moving on to ROY candidate Andrew Luck. Frankly, unless the ferocious Lions pass rush can rattle No. 12 (something that has yet to happen), the Colts will at the very least keep it close. Forget the Luck statistical bonanza -- the most shocking number in the nation's heartland is that Indy has gained almost 115 yards/game on the ground over the last three weeks. If that continues, Luck might just lead this team to the post season -- hair or no hair.
However, since Matthew Stafford can apparently throw a TD pass from his own end zone, the Colts D-line needs to use that speed to harass him early and often. Unfortunately for the Motor City, rusher Mikel Leshoure was still not practicing as of Wednesday with an ankle injury. WR Titus Young continues to be the Dez Bryant of the north when it comes to erratic behavior, so the Indy secondary must focus on -- you know who.
Former Lion and current Colt backup QB Drew Stanton was quoted by ESPN this week, "I don't know if there is a ball that's technically uncatchable for Calvin (Johnson)."
Prediction: Colts by a Field Goal
Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans. Houston QB Matt Schaub is, as usual, having a quietly superlative season with his 19 TDs, nine interceptions, almost 65% completion percentage and 94.4 rating. Las Vegas seems to think that Houston will win big on the road -- and they should, if measuring by overall talent.
However, the Titans have swung so wildly in 2012, anything is possible. This is a team that lost by five to Jacksonville -- and beat Pittsburgh by three in October. They outscored Detroit 44-41 -- and couldn't manage more than seven points versus the Vikings. Anyone who is positive that Houston will win this game is dealing in hype. Nevertheless, insisting on starting Jake Locker at quarterback isn't helping the Tennessee cause as the sophomore continues putting up rookie numbers: 32-of-61 in his last two starts.
Prediction: Texans by a touchdown
Jacksonville Jaguars at Buffalo Bills. The Jaguars defense is allowing over 410 yards per game. Even the Bills should be able to score against that. Bills runner C.J. Spiller is doing his part on the offense, now if only someone other than Stevie Johnson could catch a pass.
Just as Alex Smith's injury may have derailed his comeback in San Francisco, Blaine Gabbert's already anemic career has taken a big hit with the excellent play of former Dolphins starter, Chad Henne. Henne found both speedy Cecil Shorts and heretofore missing No. 1 draft pick Justin Blackmon for scores.
It is expected to be cold and rainy in Buffalo on Sunday so the game could rest on the rushers, which gives the advantage to Buffalo with both Spiller and Fred Jackson to carry the rock. Without Maurice Jones-Drew, the Jags will be at a disadvantage -- no disrespect intended to backup rusher Rashad Jennings.
Prediction: Bills by three
New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins. Nothing reveals elite QB status like a TD/INT ratio. Tom Brady is currently 24/3 for 2012. Not that anyone has underestimated No. 12 in the past decade, but that fraction is an attention-grabber.
It almost doesn't seem fair that rookie Ryan Tannehill has to compete with the Master. Well, he'd better compete with something, because his offense has averaged less than 14 points/game over the past three weekends. Let's not forget that the Dolphins won Sunday courtesy of a terrible "roughing the passer" penalty and a defense that held Marshawn Lynch to 46 rushing yards.
That same defense has held opposing QBs to under 165 passing yards per game in the last three outings. That is the Dolphins only hope this weekend. That and the 77-degree forecast, which will result in very warm conditions on the field. Maybe New England will be paralyzed with thermal shock. Right.
Prediction: The Patriots will win by a touchdown.
Carolina Panthers at Kansas City Chiefs. The Broncos weren't thrilled about going up against the Chiefs when the KC squad was 9-1. Ron Rivera is undoubtedly even less enthused about the upcoming match in Arrowhead against the now 10-1 hometown team. Brady Quinn is now leading the offense, but you'd only know that if you read his name on the jersey. The results are depressingly similar to the Matt Cassel regime. On Sunday, Quinn went 13-of-25 for 126 yards, 0 scores, an interception and two sacks.
Conversely, Cam Newton is the new Prime Time. This outstanding athlete was on full display Monday night, at one point launching a touchdown leap from the t-yard line. Okay, not quite. Let's just say that the "Superman" moniker looked appropriate as he completed 18-of-28 for 306 yards and two TD passes, along with two rushing scores. If only his achievements were not the sole highlights for a Panthers unit that will probably welcome a new coach in 2013. With all the injuries over the past two seasons, that hardly seems fair. They have nine players on I-R (most of them starters and stars like center Ryan Kalil); it's amazing that they can win any games. If the Chiefs can manage to shut down Newton --there's not much left. Come on--had you ever heard of WR Gary Barnidge before Monday night?
Prediction: Panthers win by three.
Arizona Cardinals at New York Jets. Well, this is a pitiful matchup of sad-sack teams. You know things are bad when none of your starting QBs has completed over 59% of their passes. And that's just the Cardinals. The best of this mediocre bunch is Kevin Kolb, who is questionable after having "several" ribs separate from his sternum. He and Big Ben should form a rehab group and stay off the gridiron for another week.
The Jets QB woes are every bit as dismal and neither team can block for anyone.
The Cardinals D has been a valiant bunch, ranking 11th in the NFL. The Jet should be better than their 26th standing. These two teams have given up an average of 29 points per game over the last three weeks.
Prediction: Going on the premise that someone has to win, the Jets will prevail because Mark Sanchez is better than Ryan Lindley, John Skelton and Kevin Kolb combined. New York wins by six.
San Francisco 49ers at St. Louis Rams. Just in case you've spent the week in an NFL-free zone, Jim Harbaugh has named Colin Kaepernick as his starting QB in San Francisco. Who did Alex Smith tick off in a previous life? He has completed over 70 percent of his passes this season, with an average of eight yards per pass and 13 touchdowns to five interceptions. Yeah, that'll get you benched every time.
Lost in the QB hype and the generally stellar play of the resurrected 49ers is the fact that the Rams had their best game of the year last Sunday. Steven Jackson got rolling for 139 yards, Chris Givens emerged as a receiving star and rookie Janoris Jenkins (whom most teams avoided in the draft due to character concerns) became the first rookie since 1960 to return two interceptions for touchdowns. Let's not spoil it by mentioning that this was against the Arizona Cardinals.
While it would be shocking were the Niners to lose, Mr. Jenkins will attempt to spoil Mr. Kaepernick's afternoon -- and might succeed. Further, the loss of changeup rusher Kendall Hunter will have a larger impact that some might think after he labored in the shadow of the super-consistent rushing machine known as Frank Gore.
Predictions: San Francisco has a letdown game -- and still wins by a touchdown.
Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers. The Vikings really wish that Green Bay hadn't been embarrassed on national television this past weekend. Aaron Rodgers plays so prettily when he's angry. If only he played defense, too.
The good news for Minnesota is that both TE Kyle Rudolph and excellent rookie safety Harrison Smith are cleared to play after recovering from concussions and Adrian Peterson's shoulder will probably not prevent him from trying to carry the team -- again. The bad news is that offensive weapon Percy Harvin is not healing well from an ankle injury and was seen limping badly in practice on Wednesday.
Christian Ponder will be relieved that Green Bay DBs Sam Shields and Charles Woodson are out for Sunday, while LB Clay Matthews and DT Ryan Pickett are questionable. The Vikings secondary will not be so fortunate as Greg Jennings returns to the Packer fold as Rodgers' favorite WR.
As long as Peterson can continue to be the main feature of a rushing attack averaging almost 185 yards per game over the last three Sundays, Minnesota has a shot.
Prediction: Green Bay by six
Seattle Seahawks at Chicago Bears. Seattle not only gave up 17 fourth-quarter points to a rookie-led Miami team in Week12, they may also have lost two of their starting defensive backs to suspensions for Adderall use. Thus far, no player has successfully avoided a suspension levied for this prescription drug. DBs Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman will probably be able to play this weekend while they are under appeal.
Against the Jay Cutler/Brandon Marshall combination it may not matter. As good as the Seahawks corners are, Marshall is having one of those magical seasons in which he seemingly catches anything thrown his way.
What may matter is that Chicago has two defensive stars (LB Lance Briggs and DB Charles Tillman) and two offensive stars (RB Matt Forte and WR Devin Hester) listed as questionable due to injuries suffered in last week's win.
Given all factors, the key to the game will be whether or not Chicago's excellent (but elderly) line and linebackers can stop Marshawn Lynch.
Prediction: Da Bears at home by six
Sunday Late Games
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Denver Broncos. The way the Buccaneers have been surging in the past month, Denver is probably grateful that this game is at Mile High. (Don't even try to tell me that it's supposed to be called Sports Authority Field. Please.)
John Fox and Jack Del Rio should take note of the way that Atlanta shut down Tampa Bay's rushing phenom Doug Martin; they held the ROY candidate to 50 yards on 21 carries. And the kid still scored twice on those 50 yards. Considering their labored performance against the Chiefs rushers, Denver's run D could use a few pointers.
Note to Peyton Manning: Buccaneer Ronde Barber brought down his fourth interception of the season in Week 12. The ageless wonder now has 47 notches in that particular belt. Might want to throw towards someone else in the secondary. Anyone else.
Denver may have merely eked out a victory last Sunday, but No. 18 has folks pondering whether he deserves Comeback Player of the Year--or his fifth MVP. Quality problems.
Young WR Demaryius Thomas is growing before our eyes as he works under the Sheriff. Always talented, the young man's newfound focus and precision resulted in a breathtaking TD reception last week. Honorable mention here to Broncos rusher Knowshon Moreno, who had been such a profound disappointment that he was laboring on the practice squad. Apparently, the NFL now has Moreno's complete attention and he made the most of his start in relief of injured Willis McGahee. He rushed, he passed, he blocked. In a Wednesday NFL Network interview, Moreno noted the need to be "really into your playbook" when playing with Peyton Manning because, "You've got to work at his speed... If you're not working at his speed -- you're not going to see the field." You think?
Prediction: Without Bucs DB Eric Wright, Peyton should light it up -- Broncos by 10.
Cincinnati Bengals at San Diego Chargers. In a case of momentum dictating odds, the Bengals are favored by almost three on the road. The Ravens may have put the final nail in Norv Turner's coffin last Sunday, but the Chargers have a very solid roster (in spite of A.J. Smith's best efforts to drain every bit of talent out of Southern California).
The stat that makes one take this seriously is Andy Dalton's 23 scores versus only 11 interceptions. Of course it does help when A. J. Green is on the other end of passes and rookie Mohamed Sanu starts to mesh obvious talent with some NFL experience.
On the other hand, San Diego's defense is just a bit stronger than that of the Silver and Black. To put it politely.
Prediction: The Chargers right the ship for at least this week and win by a field goal.
Cleveland Browns at Oakland Raiders. Oddly, the Browns played less well in their win against Pittsburgh than they have played in several close losses both this season and last year. However, rusher Trent Richardson had a successful outing against a still-terrifying Steelers D (85 yards and a score on 29 carries). If he can play this consistently by the Bay it might not matter whether it's Colt McCoy or Brandon Weeden under center. Thanks in part to Richardson's efforts, Cleveland held the ball for almost 34 minutes on Sunday. Otherwise, credit the defense with the forced fumbles and interceptions that led to the Browns' third 2012 victory for Mike Holmgren's last game in the saddle. The Walrus may be leaving in ignominy, but he appears to have finally put together a core of talent to be enjoyed by successor Joe Banner.
Meanwhile, the Bengals defense so battered Carson Palmer last weekend that it's going to take him an hour just to warm up for this contest. He surely must wish he hadn't bothered to return to Cincy after going 19-of-34 with four sacks and a pick. That's an "ouch" on every level. Unless RB Darren McFadden returns to health and the field, it's not going to get much better.
The Oakland defense has allowed 169 points in four losses. No comment.
Prediction: The Browns are the better team. Really. As long as Weeden can play, Cleveland will win by at least three.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens. It's far too convenient to blame Charlie Batch for the Steelers loss to Cleveland on Sunday. Yes, the venerable one was picked off three times--by an excellent Browns secondary. But how about the five (yes, the number that is greater than four) fumbles from an entire fleet of Steelers running backs? The injuries to O-lineman Mike Adams and LB Lamarr Woodley should worry Black and Gold faithful far more than how Batch and new/old WR Plaxico Burress played. Did I mention the nine penalties?
New daddy Ben Roethlisberger has an outside chance of playing in this game (along with Troy Polamalu). Jonathan Dwyer has been named the new starting RB.
Meanwhile, the Harbor City team has been laboring under an avalanche of offensive criticism, despite being 9-2. The reality, sports fans, is that Baltimore has scored an average of 28 points per game over the past month. Even maligned Joe Flacco has a 60 percent completion rate (at 7.3 yards per pass) and twice as many scores as picks. So let's lighten up a bit, people.
Prediction: Ben won't make it and the Ravens win by six with plenty of black and blue to go around.
Sunday Night Football
Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys. The latest Philly scapegoat is defensive end Jason Babin -- who was cut and is now a Jaguar. Yeah, that's going to fix everything.
The only ray of light in Eagles-land these days is the emergence of QB Nick Foles. The team is such a mess and the controversy so swirling that this kid is being allowed to work out the rookie kinks almost under the radar. Michael who?
The situation is truly approaching grim proportions. Over the past three weeks the Eagles offense has managed only 17 points while the defense has surrendered 33. That's 33 points on average in each game. Oh dear. That Babin guy must really have been awful.
American fans have evidently forgotten how angry they are with Tony Romo and Jason Garrett: the 'Boys are favored by more than 10 points as of Wednesday afternoon. Romo may need Witness Protection should Dallas blow it against the woeful 'iggles.
The key to this game has nothing to do with the 'Boys quarterback: both Dallas rushers are currently questionable. Unless either Felix Jones or DeMarco Murray can come up with at least 75 rushing yards, Dallas could struggle. Promise.
Prediction: Cowboys win by a touchdown.
Monday Night Football
New York Giants at Washington. New York's second rusher, Andre Brown, is out for the rest of the year. The Giants have signed former Washington RB Ryan Torain to back up Ahmad Bradshaw, whose foot gives him so much trouble that he never practices.
Just to prove that stats aren't everything: Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning's QB rating is 84.3. Rookie Robert Griffin III's is 104.6. Since no one understands that number anyway, this information (while a fun piece of trivia) is useless in predicting the game.
However, the fact that the walking wounded Washington defense has given up less than 20 points per game in the past three weeks just might matter to Eli and company.
It's time for Big Blue to start their annual march to the playoffs, while Washington is trying to believe that they can squeak into a January game. New York absolutely should win this game -- but Washington is far more desperate. And even if you are a Dallas Cowboys fan, you have to tune in to watch every snap that Robert Griffin III plays from now until he retires. On Thanksgiving Day, this rookie completed 19-of-27 passes for 304 yards (11.3 per attempt), threw four touchdown passes and rushed for another almost 30 yards. Don't you love football?
Prediction: Home underdog Washington by two points
*Statistics from pro-football-reference.com, usatoday.com, espn.com, nfl.com, NFL Gameday Final (NFL Network) and NBC's Sunday Night Football.
+Injury information from the NFL Network, usatoday.com and cbbsports.com
In-depth game analysis available on barbaras-football-buzz.com beginning Thursday afternoon.
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