I'm heading out of town later this afternoon to spend a few weeks in California, so all I have time for is a quick 'picks column'. I'll check in from a bar or hotel during the game. The Steelers better win tonight. I'll just leave it at that. Join me and other fans during the game for what we hope will be the week that snaps the four game losing streak by Pittsburgh. If so, they'll then have 10 days to rest up before hosting the Packers in Week 15 in what very well may be a 'must-win' game for both teams. I say that assuming Pittsburgh wins, and as you'll read below, that Green Bay loses at Chicago.
Pittsburgh Steelers (6-6) @ Cleveland Browns (1-11)
- My oh my. If the Steelers were to drop their fifth straight to the one-win Cleveland Browns, I'm not sure what I or the rest of Steeler Nation would do. It could happen. It's a rivalry game on the road. I don't think it will though. Pittsburgh keeps their playoff chances alive and heads in to a mini BYE week before hosting Green Bay 10 days from now.
- Tampa Bay accomplished somoething truly remarkable last Sunday - 8 trips inside the Carolina red zone. How many points? Just 14? 13? 10? Nope. 6 points on 8 trips inside the 20. Oh my. I am hoping Buccaneers look more like the team that was challenging solid opponents earlier in the middle of the year than the team that has played very poorly lately. We'll see. Kellon Clemens gets the start in the place of the injured Mark Sanchez. Frankly though, I'm not quite sure if that's a good thing or bad thing for Jets fans. In an interview on ESPN Radio in New York earlier in the week, Ryan basically said that he didn't think the Jets could make the playoffs without Sanchez, so I guess I'll take his word for it. I'll take Tampa Bay in a semi-stunner.
- If this were in Carolina rather than at Foxboro, I'd be very inclined to take the Panthers. In fact, New England's road woes this year make me non-believers in their chances to make it out of the AFC playoffs and earn a trip to the Super Bowl. Back to Carolina and this game...The Panthers are just 2-4 on the road and will probably get lit up by the Patriots. The Panthers defense is incredibly banged up for starters. And this isn't New England's first rodeo either. They need to win this weekend. I think the Patriots will do just that.
- The game Cincinnati truly makes believers out of the football loving public. I like the Bengals definitely to cover the +7, but I also like their chances to win outright and retain their grasp on the #2 seed in the AFC. As I mentioned earlier in the week, I'd like to spend a bit more time elaborating on why I like Cincinnati's chances to really make some noise in the playoffs. If they win this weekend, I'm 100% convinced they're a legit threat to win it all. We'll see. Part of the reason I like them here though is I think we'll see Minnesota slide a bit back further towards the pack this next month. They're a very good team. Just not great if you ask me.
- Uhhh. Who knows? Who cares? I guess I want Buffalo to win if only because I'd prefer to see their interim coach get a chance at retaining his job rather than being booted for some mediocre retread. I think I like Kansas City here though, if only because they were so bad last weekend that their fiery coach, Todd Haley, was probably on their asses all week reminding them of how much of a joke they are when not playing at maximum intensity and focus. Matt Cassel's also flirting with losing his job for the rest of the season, so I'd expect him to be better as well. I'll take Kansas City.
- Classic matchup of strength vs. strength. All Miami does is run the ball. All Jacksonville does (rather, the only thing they do very well) is stop the run. This game screams 'stay away from me' in terms of betting, but we're just doing this for kicks, so no turning and running for me. I like Miami to really convolute things in the AFC Wild Card picture with a hard fought win over the Jaguars. I do think though that if Jacksonville can get through this game that they may just be able to nab a critical road win against either NE or IND to complete their improbable run to the playoffs. Their fans have to be excited about this one.
- I tip my cap to Denver for getting things back on track this past two games. The Broncos were in danger of totally imploding following four straight losses. But to their credit, they rebounded with a huge win over the Giants on Thanksgiving, then dusted the Chiefs at Arrowhead last week to improve to 8-4 and remain just one back of San Diego in the AFC West. Am I convinced they're much better than the team I lambasted on multipe occasions in the middle of the year? No, no I'm not. I do think they're good enough to handle the Raiders and Chiefs at home to get to 10 wins, but I don't think they have the firepower to beat Indianapolis this weekend, or to win at Philadelphia two weeks from now. Will 10 wins get them in? Probably, but perhaps not if the Steelers get their act together. Anyway, the Colts will be shutting it down soon as they do each time they've clinched everything they can with a few weeks to go in the regular season. It's a week too early to begin coasting though, so I look for the Colts to play as well as they have all year on Sunday.
- If the Texans hadn't blown so many games recently and still had legitimate playoff aspirations, I'd take them here in a heartbeat. However, I wonder if they feel sorry for themselves and allow their slide to continue against a Seahawks team that has been atrocious away from home in recent years. Hmm. Gary Kubiak's job is squarely on the line. He may very well be safe if he can get the Texans to 8 or 9 wins. But a home loss to a lowly Seattle team probably ends his tenure there. Hmmmm. I'll take Houston to do what they do - win just enough unimportant games each year to keep their record at or near .500. For what it's worth though, I would never touch this game unless I was including Seattle on the money line in some sort of longshot parlay.
- Here's my second stunner of the week. I like Chicago to win this one at home over the surging Packers. Tricky spot for the Packers as they get ready for their rivals on a short week following their important win on Monday Night over the visiting Ravens. If I'm correct, that may not be such a good thing for us Steelers fans, as they'd then need to rebound with a big game the following week at Heinz Field.
- Just what the doctor ordered for the Ravens coming off their potentially (and frankly, most likely) crippling loss on Monday to the Packers - the Lions are coming to town. I'll tell you what though, Baltimore better have a nice week of preparation this week and not just assume they've got an off week coming up. I think viewers should be able to determine in the first quarter what's going to transpire - if the Ravens come out angry, it could get ugly. But if they look complacent and disinterested to start the game, they may just find themselves in a dogfight against a team with not an iota of pressure on them. I suppose for now I must take Baltimore to win but if I were a betting man, I'd probably feel better about a position on the Lions covering 13-14 points than I would on Baltimore, a team that hasn't scored more than 20 points since Week 8!
- The Falcons can't win this one with Chris Redman, nor can they win this one with Matt Ryan playing on turf toe. New Orleans remains vulnerable against the run, but no Michael Turner on Sunday means they keep the streak alive and march on towards a perfect 16-0 regular season.
- I think the Redskins rally around their fallen workhorse Clinton Portis, who was placed on IR earlier this week, and finally close out a game after weeks of hanging tough and not having much to show for it. Are the Raiders able to handle any sort of prosperity and stay grounded from one week to the next? Hmm. I don't think so. I like Washington to bring Oakland back down to reality.
- Test #1 of the new Vince Young era in Nashville. Do he and the rest of the Titans continue to compete with the same swagger and carefree but competitive demeanor that they did during their 5 game winning streak? Or does Young feel he's not accomplished what he and the rest of the Titans set out to do when they were 0-6 - that being winning out and sneaking in to the playoffs. There's less to play for now. How will they respond? I'll take Tennessee to avoid the emotional letdown.
- Running short on time here, but I'll say this - we'll learn something about both these teams on Sunday. Are the Cowboys any different than they've been in recent years? San Diego has won 7 in a row, but they've been sloppy at times during the winning streak. Not sure how I feel about this one just yet, but I think I actually like Dallas to win just because San Diego remains a bit vulnerable against the run, and Dallas certainly has the horses to wear on a rush defense if Jason Garret's calling an intelligent game plan. Disclaimer though - I'd never bet on Dallas here for a multitude of reasons. We very well could see the Cowboys unravel in this next four weeks. After hosting SD, they play @ NO, @ WAS, then vs. Philadelphia. This home tilt against San Diego could be one of their one or two final wins of the 2009 regular season.
- Is it just me, or is NFC East football just not that intriguing? I know it's a competitive division, but I just don't much care for the actual product those four teams put out on the field each week. Anyway, I like New York to win and totally logjam the division heading in to the final three weeks of the season.
- Cardinals, for sure. Lookout for the Red Birds come January. Like Cincinnati, I really like how they're flying under the radar and going about their business. The NFL and whichever network is airing the Super Bowl would hate it, but I wouldn't at all be surprised if there's an Arizona vs. Cincinnati SB matchup in early February. By no means am I 'predicting' that just yet, but I feel quite strongly about both teams and their ability to beat anybody come January.