2012 NFL Picks wrap up this week with a few nail-biters and several awkward, cringe-worthy matchups. Those benighted football followers in San Diego, Kansas City, Oakland, Buffalo and the Jets half of New York can either start their personal NFL Draft guides or take to the road. Get thee to the nearest sports bar to catch the NFC desperation games as the Bears, Vikings, Giants, Cowboys and Washington vie for the last two NFC playoff berths. AFC fans, keep score as Houston, Denver and New England jockey for home field advantage.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta has the best record in the NFL and yet, once again, the Falcons failed to keep the pressure on an opponent and the Detroit Lions rallied in the second half last Saturday. How, exactly, this happened against a team with one WR and an extremely average running game is perplexing.
With nothing to gain, Atlanta coach Mike Smith may choose to rest starters this Sunday. Dirty Birds fans hope not: this team needs to keep gaining momentum, confidence and a killer instinct. Hopefully, owner Arthur Blank will remind all concerned that there are paying home-field customers in those stands. The team is healthy (in a relative, January-NFL kind of way) and going into a first-round bye week on a loss would be less than ideal.
Just one month ago, the Bucs came within a point of upsetting Atlanta. Tampa Bay has lost every game since. They are overdue for a win and should have an advantage against what will likely be at least some Falcons second-stringers. The brightest ray of hope is outstanding rookie rusher Doug Martin versus a Falcons run D giving up almost 124 yards per weekend over the last month. If QB Josh Freeman can manage to get the ball to star WR Vincent Jackson on anything approaching a consistent basis, the Bucs have a chance. However, over the past three games, the Bucs have scored 17 fewer points than Atlanta and have allowed almost 15 more points by opponents. That's not very promising.
Prediction: Atlanta by a touchdown. More if they play starters throughout.
Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints. Drew Brees broke Johnny Unitas' record but didn't make the Pro Bowl. Whatever. His team has averaged almost 500 yards per game for the last three Sundays. Amazingly, almost 136 of those have been on the ground.
Lost in the Cam Newton hype is the fact that this oft-injured Panthers defense is giving away only 11 points in recent weeks. The Saints are averaging 34 points on offense. Both teams run the ball well and allow less than 81 ground yards to opponents. Something's got to give.
The Saints defense cannot possibly keep Newton contained all afternoon, but the same goes for the Panthers against Brees. The Super Dome holds the tiebreaker.
Prediction: Saints by three.
Caveat: New Orleans RB Pierre Thomas has an undisclosed injury. If he cannot play, the Panthers should beat the spread.
New York Jets at Buffalo Bills. No 106 men in the National Football League are more looking forward to the offseason than those on the Jets and Bills rosters. However, since the league would probably frown on the "Let's not and say we did" agenda, play they will.
While Jets fans didn't deserve this 2012 QB debacle, the team's owner and management certainly did. It's difficult to imagine how the position could have been handled more poorly. In Week 16, new starting QB Greg McElroy was sacked 11 times and completed 14 passes. Rex Ryan had probably planned to give the kid another shot--but now he has a mysterious injury. Does Ryan now go back to the thoroughly demoralized Mark Sanchez or consider playing the thoroughly angry Tim Tebow? Awesome choices all. Not that it matters, since offensive coordinator Tony Sparano will relentlessly feed the ball to RBs Shonn Greene and Bilal Powell. Since the Bills defense has given up more than 176 rushing yards per game on the last three Sundays, this is actually a good plan.
The highest point total for either team in December? Buffalo scored 18 on December 2nd. Against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Based on the fact that the Bills D is allowing almost 30 points by the other team over the past three games, even the McElroy/Sanchez/Tebow monster should be able to score enough to win.
Prediction: New York Jets by one.
Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals. If the Ravens team that stomped down the reigning Super Bowl Champion Giants in Week 16 arrives in Cincy -- the Bengals will enter the postseason with a loss. New offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell righted the scoring ship and the purple birds offense played better than they have since September. Baltimore passed for 17-of-25 first downs, converted 11-of-18 third downs and rolled up 533 total yards for 33 points. QB Joe Flacco put up Pro Bowler numbers: 25-of-36 for 309 yards with two scores, zero interceptions, zero sacks and a huge 8.6 yards per pass. RB Ray Rice and rookie rusher Bernard Pierce combined for 230 yards on 38 carries.
However, before choosing to skip this game, one should notice that the Bengals have held opponents to less than 15 points for the last three contests. They have given up only 62 rushing yards per game over that period. Watch them versus Rice and Pierce.
If that matchup balances out, the pressure will fall directly onto Andy Dalton to prevail over Ed Reed and company in the Ravens secondary. Good luck with that.
Prediction: Ravens by three.
Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions. After I recapped Detroit WR Calvin Johnson's many accomplishments for my guests last Sunday, one was heard to exclaim, "Is he the whole team?" Pretty much. The Lions have piled up almost 415 offensive yards on average this season and yet have managed only 16 points per game over the past three weeks. Defensively, Ndamukong Suh may give opponents nightmares, but the unit has allowed an average of 32 points per game over that same span. Do the math and it doesn't total "Roar."
Da'Bears mature defense may not appear as dominating, but they have only surrendered 18.3 points per game recently. Brian Urlacher has been seen jogging, but did not practice as of Wednesday. Offensively, RB Matt Forte re-aggravated his injured ankle in Week 16, but intends to suit up. Jay Cutler (can someone please get this man a wardrobe consultant?) has made Brandon Marshall the most prolific WR in Chicago history--but can he occasionally throw the ball to someone else? Of course that would require some pass protection. Never mind.
The key matchup in this must-win scenario for the Bears will be CB Charles Tillman versus Detroit's Megatron. Erase the fluid grace of Deion Sanders versus Jerry Rice from your mind. These aren't Arabians; these are war horses. The ground might tremble. Megatron Johnson will attain his 2,000 receiving yards, but the Bears defense should ensure those are the only yards gained.
Prediction: Bears by five, unless Matt Forte cannot play.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Tennessee Titans. Fans wondered why Titans owner Bud Adams courted Peyton Manning so ardently last spring. Jake Locker's dismal 2012 performance has answered that question. With Matt Hasselbeck nearing retirement, it has become glaringly obvious that Locker cannot be the future of this franchise. One would think that after pushing Steve McNair out of town, firing a coach who refused to play Vince Young and drafting a QB with a less than 54 percent college completion rate, Mr. Adams would have retired to the owner's box. Instead, he benched an accurate veteran with off-the-chart leadership skills and turned to a young man who has thrown ten TD passes -- and 11 INTs. RB Chris Johnson has redeemed himself somewhat with over 1.300 all-purpose yards in a season when everyone on the opposing defense knows that he is offensive Plans A-C.
Meanwhile, Jacksonville almost beat New England last weekend. Yeah, it was practically a lapse of consciousness on the Patriots side, but the Jaguars must feel encouraged. Faced with a similar dearth of talent at the signal-caller slot, Jacksonville can't even rely on its star rusher and has achieved a paltry 9.7 points per game in the last three weeks. Worse, they have been giving up almost 150 yards each week on the ground. See above on Chris Johnson.
Prediction: Titans by three.
Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts. That this game even bears discussion is a testament to team character, coaching virtuosity and a rather amazing rookie QB. The Texans were heralded as The Greatest Show on Turf meets the '85 Chicago Bears. As with the Atlanta Falcons, suspicions remain that they have a tendency to be, well, soft.
Houston should stomp all over the exuberant but green Colts and yet they are favored by less than two field goals. This may be a reflection of the almost 22 points that the Colts have scored per game in the last three weeks measured against under 17 points for Houston. Seventeen points? What kind of offensive juggernaut is that? Defensively, the Colts are giving up almost 100 more yards per game than the Texans, but almost six fewer points. Hint: it's the points that matter.
Mix in the emotional high of a head coach returned from fighting leukemia and Indy might seem a good bet in Week 17. However, just when all signs point to an Indy victory, strength of schedule rears its head. The Colts are a heart-warming story on many levels--but they have played a group of less-than-stellar teams. Also, Houston beat them by 12 points two weeks ago.
Prediction: Texans by four. Houston fans hope it will be by much, much more or their second playoff run will be as short as the first.
Playoff note: If Indy can knock off Houston, the Denver Broncos have a shot at the No. 1 playoff slot and home-field advantage. Ironic, yes?
Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings. Adrian Peterson needs 208 rushing yards for the single-season record. The Packers defense has allowed an average of 99 ground yards over the last three games. That could be a problem for AP. In fact, this overlooked Green Bay unit is giving up less than 14 points per game recently.
Matching them, the Vikings are allowing exactly 14 points. They'll have a challenge trying to contain Aaron Rodgers and company, who have gotten it in gear at just the right time with almost 35 points per weekend against Tennessee, Chicago and Detroit.
The media attention will focus on Rodgers' passing brilliance and Peterson's violent running, but the Vikings defenders hold one key on Sunday. Although ranked 20th in the league against the pass, Minnesota held Green Bay to 23 points in December. The other critical matchup will be sophomore QB Christian Ponder's performance against some fine Packers DBs. Watch for his success rate in passes to TE Kyle Rudolph.
Prediction: Packers by three.
Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots. After a near meltdown in northern Florida, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick probably have their team's total attention. Miami should be worried. Frankly, unless Reggie Bush personally holds the ball for 40 minutes and rushes for 200 yards, the Dolphins don't have much of a shot against a bunch of angry New Englanders in the snow. Bush may have a ring from the Saints, but his tenure in Miami has proven that he can be the featured back he has always proclaimed himself. In two years of more than 200 carries and 1,000 yards (which he will have attained by Sunday night), Bush is far more durable and productive than anticipated.
Dolphins coach Joe Philbin has a lot of grit beneath that high school science teacher façade. The defense has held opponents to less than two touchdowns for the last three Sundays. This team will play with character and pride, but it won't be enough.
Prediction: Patriots by two touchdowns.
Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants. Rookie QB Nick Foles broke his throwing hand -- and played the remaining two quarters anyway. Ew. Now we'll have to watch Michael Vick play one last time in an Eagles uniform. Ew.
The Giants must win in order to have a prayer of squeaking into the playoffs. There are potentially game-killing injuries at every level on both sides of the ball, from O-line to WR and from Justin Tuck's shoulder to Kenny Phillips' knee.
The Giants defense must stop super-RB LeSean McCoy or Vick will find Jeremy Maclin deep and steal one. Offensively, Eli Manning has to do it alone since everyone else is hurt. Ho-hum -- another day at the Elite QB office.
Prediction: Giants by three. It will be closer than originally thought with Vick and McCoy in the game.
Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers. The Cleveland Browns have signed QB Josh Johnson because both Brandon Weeden and Colt McCoy have shoulder injuries. Both starting safeties are on I-R and their most savvy veteran CB has a concussion. Did I mention that the Browns star rookie rusher has a bad ankle sprain and is questionable?
Were it not for all of those injuries, this game would be close. From the second week in December to date, the Browns have averaged 21 points per game. The Steelers? 19.3. The Browns and Steelers both allowed approximately 25 points by opposing teams.
Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin will play to win, especially at home. The Rooney family would never allow their fans to witness a mere audition session -- particularly against a divisional opponent.
Prediction: Steelers by seven.
Statistic alert: Cleveland is 6-1-1 against the spread in their last eight games within the AFC North.
Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos. The Broncos should win this game without too much strain, but don't tell Peyton Manning. No 18 has won 12 games in a season for the ninth time and has just ripped off a series of 10 consecutive wins in his first year as a Bronco. Oh, and he made the Pro Bowl. He doesn't seem to care and will spend every minute that John Fox lets him stay on the field trying to improve his offense. The KC defense is thrilled.
The only test in this game will be whether or not the Denver defense (featuring its own Pro Bowlers in Von Miller, Elvis Dummervil and Champ Bailey) can stop extraordinary Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles. Channeling his inner Barry Sanders, Charles will go well over 1,500 rushing yards and has averaged 5.4 yards per carry on a team with Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn at QB and, by extension, no passing attack.
The Broncos will be expecting him. Going into the playoffs, a championship-caliber defense must stop the run. You're on, guys.
Prediction: Broncos by 17.
Oakland Raiders at San Diego Chargers. If it weren't for the Niners, California would have fallen off the football continent. The Raiders and Chargers need to limp into the offseason and see if they can pull themselves out of the quagmire created by their collective ineptitude. In the meantime, they will have to take the field on Sunday. In spite of an injury list in double digits, the Chargers should win against a truly sad Raiders squad that won't even have Carson Palmer under center. Coach Dennis Allen has yet to announce whether Matt Leinart or Terrelle Pryor will start at QB. Does it matter? Only if you want to see whether or not Pryor will ever be a pro-level QB.
At least San Diego has Philip Rivers and TE Antonio Gates. That should be enough to outscore the Raiders Darren McFadden, who has 650 rushing yards and three total TDs on the year. No. 20 is rapidly turning into one of those sad stories of a player who couldn't live up to his potential due to chronic injury. And that's a cautionary tale for Chargers rusher Ryan Mathews.
Statistically, the Raiders are scoring 11 fewer points than San Diego, but giving up ten less on defense. The Chargers get the nod based on actually having an NFL quarterback, but this could be a more evenly matched contest than most think. Please heaven, there won't be overtime.
Prediction: Chargers by 10.
Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers. The quarterback situation in Arizona is so grim that Brian Hoyer will be starting for the Cardinals in Week 17. Hoyer was aced out of the Patriots backup job by second-year QB Ryan Mallett and has been "at liberty" for most of 2012. Well that's a ringing endorsement. The best fans could hope for would be a Matt Cassel-like outing that is nevertheless a vast improvement over recent events. Ouch. If this game were not in San Francisco the stands would be empty except for loyal Larry Fitzgerald followers.
Niners QB Colin Kaepernick's life won't be any easier this week as he faces the frustrated and talented Cardinals defense. TE Vernon Davis is questionable after the head injury suffered in prime time and WR Mario Manningham is done for the year. That leaves Randy Moss and Michael Crabtree as targets against a dominant Arizona secondary. Yikes. If the Cardinals defense can shut down Frank Gore, force four turnovers and obtain points from all four, Arizona may have a glimmer of hope. However, Gore and rookie LaMichael James won't cooperate with this plan.
Defensively, newly minted Pro Bowl D-lineman Justin Smith is still questionable. San Francisco probably won't need him this week and may elect to let him recover. The formerly ferocious Niners D has allowed almost 30 points over the past three games. Fortunately, the Cardinals haven't managed more than 17.
Prediction: 49ers by 10.
St. Louis Rams at Seattle Seahawks. Somewhat lost in the 49ers/Seahawks battle for the NFC West are the St. Louis Rams--a steadily improving team that tied and beat the Niners while conquering the Seahawks in Week 4. Well, that was before Seattle rookie QB Russell Wilson had his sea legs. Behind the rookie dynamo, the 'Hawks are scoring an average of 50 points here at season's end. The Rams D is completely respectable, but stopping Wilson and Marshawn Lynch on their home turf is a lot to ask.
Rams QB Sam Bradford will have to turn in a championship performance with his emerging WRing trio (Brandon Gibson, Brian Quick and Chris Givens) in order to keep pace with Seattle's probable scoring spree.
Keep an eye out for Rams rookie PK Greg Zeurlien, the biggest thing to hit place kicking since Sebastian Janikowski. He has made seven field goals of more than 40 yards and seven from beyond the 50. Let's see how he does in the rain.
Unless Russell Wilson throws three INTs to Rams DB Cortland Finnegan, who then turns them all into six points -- Seattle wins.
Warning to Russell Wilson: Rams rookie DB Janoris Jenkins has four pick-sixes on the year. If that kid can keep it together off the field he will be great.
Prediction: Seahawks by thirteen.
Dallas Cowboys at Washington. The pressure on the Cowboys to "win the big one" could be crushing. Washington fans are just happy to have a quarterback, a future and what amounts to a home playoff game. Washington's veteran players won't be sharing that carefree attitude, but the wave of good spirits could carry the team to a win.
Injuries will play a vital role on Sunday night as the 'Boys D has struggled without some of their stars. DeMarcus Ware is questionable; his absence would be an enormous advantage and a relief to Robert Griffin III's family. Griffin was obviously hampered by his sore knee in Week 16 and may still not be fully mobile.
Tony Romo must feel like Atlas this week and can only pray that his recent magical connection with WR Dez Bryant continues. A Miles Austin sighting or two wouldn't hurt either. However, Washington LB London Fletcher is telling his teammates to focus on No. 82. Jason Witten, who just broke the receiving record for TEs and will be Romo's BFF until he retires.
Despite the star QB storylines, this game will hinge on two young rushers. When Dallas' DeMarco Murray carries the ball successfully, the Cowboys win. Washington's rookie rusher Alfred Morris has 302 runs coming into Week 17. He is averaging 4.7 yards per carry, has scored ten touchdowns and gained 71 first downs. The defenses are allowing 110 and 111 rushing yards respectively. Whichever RB can break free will carry his team to victory and the NFC East crown.
Prediction: Washington by six.
* statistics courtesy of nfl.com, usatoda.com, espn.com
+ injury information via cbssports.com