By Jeff Risdon/RealGM
Last Week: 11-5, pushing the season forecast to 139-69
Cincinnati Bengals (12) at Philadelphia Eagles (28): Here’s an easy way to take some money from an overconfident blowhard coworker. Ask him if he can name the team whose defense that leads the NFL in yards per play allowed and yards per game over the last five games. Give him three choices to get it, and if he misses he gets to dab away your sweat as you run 5 miles on the elliptical machine at the gym. Or your own personal servitude fantasy, if you wish. Anyways, the odds are very good that he won’t come up with the correct answer and you can revel in humiliating the office nemesis.
That answer is the Cincinnati Bengals. Led by Geno Atkins, a viable Defensive Player of the Year candidate, the Bengals are the only team to allow less than four yards per play over the last five weeks, when the league average is 5.5. They won four of those games, including smoking the Giants 31-13 and keeping Eli Manning from throwing a TD. The loss came last week in the emotional meat grinder that the Cowboys somehow navigated.
Now they face the Eagles, who surprised the fading Bucs thanks to late heroics by Nick Foles. The rookie QB is learning on the job, but he has shown plus arm strength and good confidence in it, and the Eagles wideouts like it too. The Eagles are dangerous, and their recent youth movement has breathed life into the team. The Bengals are always so difficult to trust. They’re the better team and have so much to play for, but this is not as confident of a pick as it appears. Still, the Bucs being awful was just as responsible for Philly’s win last week as Foles and the youth movement on defense. Bengals 30, Eagles 21
San Francisco 49ers (3) at New England Patriots (1): This game is already being mercilessly hyped by a certain 4-letter network as a potential Super Bowl preview. For once, they might not be overhyping an event; this is a matchup between two excellent teams built to win in January.
The key matchup to me is how well the San Francisco offense handles the New England defense. The Patriots have been a different team since picking up Aqib Talib, who has brought the added dimension of being a “moveable” corner. They used him on Monday night to shadow and chase Andre Johnson all over the field in isolated coverage. Bill Belichick almost never does that with his corners, but Talib has the talent to pull it off. This allows Devin McCourty to settle in at safety, where he adds range and coverage acumen to a position that had neither. These are the types of midseason tweaks that produce championships, bringing a fresh dimension and energy boost to an already good team.
Of course the Niners have one of those tweaks themselves in Colin Kaepernick, and the change of quarterback impacts how defenses must approach the Niners. Remember the read-option touchdown run against the Dolphins that Kaepernick ripped off last week? The judicious use of wrinkles like that give defensive players fits, and the read-option is a perfect weapon to deploy against man coverage like the Pats are now using with Talib. I think it gives the Niners a real chance to win.
But the game is in New England, and the Patriots simply do not lose in Foxboro in December. It hasn’t happened in 10 years. As much as I like and respect this Niners team, Tom Brady is not losing at home in December to a guy making his 5th career start. They just annihilated a very similar defense, albeit one with inferior corners, in the Houston Texans, which means they don’t have to drastically alter game preparations for the week or lose momentum. Patriots 27, 49ers 20
Indianapolis Colts (11) at Houston Texans (4): It’s a comparison that no one with more than four active brain cells would ever make, but there is a commonality between what Andrew Luck is doing with the Colts this year and what Tim Tebow did with the Broncos last year. Like Tebow, Luck ranks near the bottom in completion percentage; the only regular starter who is worse than Luck’s 54.9% is Josh Freeman. Like Tebow, Luck is tied for the league in lost fumbles by a quarterback. Luck is also tied for the league lead in interceptions, which is something that Tebow actually does well in avoiding. Both like to throw on the run and will not hesitate to tuck it and barrel for extra yards, but that also leads to taking way too many sacks. Both throw the ball with more accuracy and confidence down the field rather than short routes. Both prove exceptional at rallying their teams from desperate situations, leading several late comebacks with all sorts of dramatic flair and magically improved personal play.
Much like Tebow and his Broncos last year, the reason the Colts have to come back so often is because Luck digs the hole for them with lousy play early in games. The only QB with a worse QB rating in the 2nd and 3rd quarters is John Skelton, whom the Cardinals are desperate to replace. Indy’s offense does little right between their first drive and the middle of the fourth quarter. Then the opponent gets a lead and eases off on the coverage, and Luck goes to work. Those 8-yard passes that bounce three yards away from Dwayne Allen in the 2nd quarter are suddenly placed right on the hands in full stride. The early underthrown corner to LaVon Brazill that gets picked off morphs into a picture-perfect TD throw over the corner and before the safety arrives. You go from wondering how such a heralded #1 overall pick could play so poorly to seeing why he was almost universally regarded as the best QB prospect since Peyton Manning. His aesthetics go from awkward (though nowhere near Tebow-land) to amazing, his footwork, release, and weight transfer nothing less than perfect.
The trick for the Colts is to balance Luck’s play. All the comeback drama is fantastic, but it’s not sustainable. Ask Matt Stafford and the Lions, who did it six times last year but just have gone the other direction this year. That’s why the Broncos sold high on Tebow, and why the Bears moved on from Rex Grossman back when he was authoring late magic necessitated by stinking early. Luck has a great opportunity to start strong and play a complete 60 minutes against the Texans, who are reeling after getting humiliated by the Patriots on national television and who are struggling with injuries to the back part of the defense. Luck’s outstanding mobility will serve him well, and the Texans have proven they cannot handle passing attacks that have both slot and downfield weapons like the Colts do with Reggie Wayne and TY Hilton. It’s going to take a lot of points, because Houston is going to move the ball quite well on the Indy defense. Those around the team say Arian Foster has never been more serious about his practice focus, and the offensive line is determined to atone for their beatdown at the hands of Vince Wilfork. The Colts, alas, do not have a Vince Wilfork, and their inability to stop the versatile Texans attack is the difference in the game. Luck will rally the Colts, but it falls short in his hometown as the Texans wrap up the AFC South. Texans 38, Colts 33
New York Giants (5) at Atlanta Falcons (6): This matchup features one of those crazy historical streaks that always seem too outrageous to be real. The Giants have not lost to the Falcons in Atlanta since 1978. They don’t play all that often, but it’s almost inconceivable that as the home team the Falcons haven’t beaten the Giants since Jimmy Carter was President and almost none of the combatants in this game were born yet.
I never know which way to go with these things. As a student of history, I am programmed to respect the streak and all the tradition and imperative that it brings. Yet I am also cynical enough to believe that this sort of historical anomaly is destined to end. This is the best Falcons team since the ’98 Super Bowl team, which happened to beat the Giants in New York. I feel like the Falcons got their bad game out of the way, just as these Giants periodically cough up the inexplicable hairball. I’m going to turn away from the 34 years of historical precedent and go with the bold new future. Atlanta 34, New York 30
Green Bay Packers (2) at Chicago Bears (16): A few weeks ago this game sure looked promising. Bears fans were even pointing to it as the chance to wrap up the NFC North and homefield advantage. Then injuries happened to Brian Urlacher, Charles Tillman, Jay Cutler, and various other Bears and the 7-1 start has bottomed into 8-5 and desperate.
Green Bay is surging to the top of the NFC despite a rash of key injuries of its own. This is where their experience and winning culture is so important. No Clay Matthews or 1st round pick Nick Perry, which has painfully equaled no pass rush at all, no problem. Both starting tackles gone, resulting in a line shuffling that has kept Aaron Rodgers the most sacked QB, no problem. Greg Jennings, Charles Woodson, Cedric Benson, Jordy Nelson all in and out of the lineup, no problem. The Packers are so used to the adversity that it doesn’t faze them. Next man up; get the job done. It’s truly a remarkable coaching job by Mike McCarthy and his staff of bringing along the youngsters and getting the team to believe they can win no matter who is in the lineup or who they are playing.
That sort of perseverance will pay off at Chicago. Jay Cutler will play but he nearly got decapitated last week and has to be questioning his trust in both his offensive line and his receivers, who let him down several times in the tough loss to Minnesota. But the big advantage is gained with Urlacher being out. Without him patrolling the middle, the resurgent Packers running game will continue to find success and Aaron Rodgers will find a lot more space to attack the zones in the passing game. Green Bay cements the NFC North once again, while shoving a giant fruitcake of disappointment down the Bears’ throats and ruin their playoff chances. Packers 32, Bears 23
Denver Broncos (7) at Baltimore Ravens (9): For all the glorification of the Broncos, they really need a signature win over a good team. Their losses are to Houston, Atlanta, and New England, the three teams in the league with better records than they have. Denver hasn’t played a team that currently has a winning record since the Bengals in Week 8. The reeling Ravens probably aren’t the greatest litmus test, but it’s still the best validation challenge to the Broncos in a long time. Baltimore is not an easy place to win, and the Broncos have never beaten the Ravens in whatever they’re calling the home stadium these days (I can’t keep track!).
If Denver is going to win, it will take a MVP-like effort from Von Miller, who is certainly worthy of consideration. With the Ravens offense in transition--they fired OC Cam Cameron this week--the Broncos defense must come out and present Joe Flacco and new OC Jim Caldwell with the same doubt he had in Cameron. Caldwell knows Peyton Manning very well from coaching him in Indianapolis, and he knows how to trust in his quarterback to play up-tempo and make adjustments on the fly. I think Joe Flacco will thrive with the initial bounce of being unyoked from Cameron’s deliberate, ponderous play calling and style. The Broncos have the ability to counter the bounce, but it will take a standout performance from Miller & friends. If the game was in Denver, I would pick the Broncos, but it’s in Baltimore and the Ravens desperately need a big win themselves. Ray Rice rises to the occasion. Ravens 20, Broncos 17
Pittsburgh Steelers (17) at Dallas Cowboys (15): For the first time I can recall, Steelers faithful are showing uneasiness and a lack of confidence in Mike Tomlin. Getting bombarded at home by a bad Chargers team will do that to you. Rashard Mendenhall had the gall to just not show up for the game when he was declared inactive. That’s a show of selfish defiance that is unthinkable to the Steelers culture. Beat writers and fans are taking shots at Tomlin’s play calling and defensive schematics, sticking with coverages that clearly weren’t working and looking predictable on offense. It’s a low point in a trying season, and Pittsburgh is staring at sitting out the playoffs without wins in their next two games.
Dallas won’t be easy. The Cowboys kept their own playoff light flickering with an impressive comeback win in Cincinnati, led by a truly outstanding performance by Tony Romo. Their deep passing attack is trouble for Pittsburgh’s secondary, which will be without corners Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen. DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer are poised for big days against the Steelers and their ever-changing offensive line, which will feature the debut of 1st round pick David Decastro. The Cowboys are very good on 3rd down on both sides of the ball, matching the Steelers’ strength in those situations. That gives them enough opportunities to outwill and outlast the visitors. Look for a big game from Romo and the emotions of last weekend to carry over in their first home game since the loss of Jerry Brown. Dallas 27, Pittsburgh 20
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (19) at New Orleans Saints (24): Can someone please tell Drew Brees to shut up already? His unending and irrational vitriol toward Roger Goodell over the Bountygate situation is both unhealthy and annoying. Brees is celebrating Paul Tagliabue’s vacating the player penalties almost as much as he celebrated the Super Bowl win a few years back, as if he personally has been vindicated. Never mind that the former commissioner went out of his way to state that the players were in fact guilty of carrying out orders from above, and that the evidence overwhelmingly suggested the suspensions of Sean Payton and other coaches was merited.
Brees’ quixotic sideshow with Bountygate has resulted in a terrible decline in his own play. His completion percentage is down from 71 to 61, his interception total is tied for the league lead, and the team has uncharacteristically struggled to attack deep. Maybe now Brees will feel liberated from the terrible weight he’s taken upon himself to burden and we’ll see the magnificent Brees of the last four years. This is a great week to do it, as the Bucs have the worst pass defense in the league. No team allows more yards per attempt, and Tampa ranks 29th in sack percentage, a number that is trending in the wrong direction. I think Brees and the Saints take out their frustration on the badly fading Buccaneers and their own struggling QB, Josh Freeman. New Orleans 37, Tampa Bay 28
Washington Redskins (10) at Cleveland Browns (18): Robert Griffin III's cloudy status really makes this a difficult forecast. He suffered a Grade 1 lateral cruciate ligament in his knee on what looked like a horrific hit last week. The Browns defense is good enough to win even if he plays, but it would require TJ Ward and the rest of the secondary to be on top of their games all day long. I do think the Skins can win with Kirk Cousins as long as they run the ball well with Alfred Morris and mix in lots of play action, something the Browns have had issues with all year.
It sounds like Griffin is going to play, and I think that’s a mistake. I think Washington has a great chance to send a message to their young quarterback that they don’t need him to be Superman to win games, and that they can rally around each other and have his back. I also think it’s too much of a long-term risk if Griffin gets hurt. He’s clearly not going to be at 100% and this Browns defense is not to be trifled with. I like the narrative of Kirk Cousins rising to the challenge and shining in his moment, the sort of storybook episode that every surprise playoff team gets. That seems awfully improbable against this young, quickly improving Cleveland team. Their defense is very good at mixing coverages and attacking the football, and that’s trouble for any rookie QB, let alone one making his first start on the road in place of the potential Rookie of the Year.
This will be a conditional forecast; if RG3 starts the Skins win 29-24, but if Cousins plays more than half the game the Browns eke out a 22-20 win.
Jacksonville Jaguars (31) at Miami Dolphins (22): As I’m writing this, I’m watching the 12/12/12 concert. I was mercifully able to tune out Roger Waters, whose music is just awful for those of us who never get stoned. Next came Bon Jovi, and it took me back to the first time I saw them in concert. It was 1987 on one of the last dates of their “Slippery When Wet” tour, at Buckeye Lake outside of Columbus. Jon’s voice was shot, Alec John Such kept breaking strings on his bass, and everyone was tired and annoyed from the two-plus hours it took between when opening act Cinderella (who were awesome!) finished and Bon Jovi finally took the stage. This was one of my first concerts and the first one where I left disappointed. Most people who were sober and kept their tops on felt the same way.
I figured Bon Jovi would just sort of go away because of that. But they rallied strong with “New Jersey” and kept building and expanding their audience. Now they’re the only hair metal band that can still play venues larger than 500 seats, and their new music is widely well-received. I have to tip my hat to Bon Jovi for morphing from the heights of the hair band era to still being relevant and popular some 25 years later. That takes talent, perseverance, and good, timeless songs. They sounded great on this night.
Because the Jaguars didn’t even exist back when I saw Bon Jovi for the first time, when Dan Marino was the Dolphins QB and everyone wanted Don Shula’s jawline, the Dolphins are the pick. Yeah, that’s right; I’m picking the game based on a Bon Jovi concert from 1987. Dolphins 23, Jaguars 17
Minnesota Vikings (13) at St. Louis Rams (14): I’ll keep this one simple. The Vikings are 6-1 at home but 1-5 on the road. The Rams are 4-3 at home, but two of those wins are against San Francisco and Seattle, eminently better teams that Minnesota. Christian Ponder has broken the 200 yard mark in passing just once in the last five games and has a QB rating of 41.2 in his last three trips outside Minnesota. I know Adrian Peterson is amazing, but his 32 carries for 142 yards and 2 TDs isn’t going to be enough here. Rams 23, Vikings 17
Seattle Seahawks (8) vs. Buffalo Bills (23) at Toronto: Our Canadian friends get a treat with Seattle coming to town. They’re one of the most balanced teams in the league and play with an entertaining panache, led by Russell Wilson, a quarterback who could easily star in the CFL as well. Too bad this is a Bills home game and the setting is staged to build the fan base for the home team. Seahawks 28, Bills 20
Carolina Panthers (27) at San Diego Chargers (21): Both these teams come off improbable wins last week. The trick here is ascertaining which team is more likely to have their unexpected strong play carry over. That team is the Panthers. I think San Diego’s win over Pittsburgh was more a case of the Steelers not showing up, whereas the Panthers win over Atlanta was more about how well Carolina played.
Cam Newton appears to have regained some of his rookie mojo, and their defense is well-suited to snuff out the Chargers. Carolina 26, San Diego 24
Detroit Lions (25) at Arizona Cardinals (29): Lions nation is much divided on what they want to happen here. Those who want a dramatic overhaul this offseason are openly rooting for the Lions to lose to the completely hapless, offensively offensive Cardinals. The thinking is that the loss will be so embarrassing that the Ford family will have no choice but to axe Jim Schwartz and his entire staff. There is probably some credibility to that line of thought, particularly if the Lions once again blow a lead by appearing helpless on defense and playing offense for only half the game as they have far too many times this season.
Then there is the camp who wants to end the season strong to rebuild confidence and get some positive momentum for next season. This is a game the Lions should (should!) dominate; the Cardinals interior offensive line is a sick joke, and soft tossing Lions #3 QB Kellen Moore would represent an upgrade over whomever Ken Whisenhunt settles on at quarterback. The Lions are very good at playing playoff-caliber football for at least half of every game, and the Cardinals just cannot match that. A spanking along the lines of Seattle’s 58-0 romp would soothe a lot of what burns about this incredibly frustrating Lions season. That’s the kind of positive bounce the Lions can use to finish the season on a high note. Look for Detroit’s defense to force at least four turnovers and score a touchdown of their own. Lions 33, Cardinals 13
Kansas City Chiefs (32) at Oakland Raiders (30): For draftniks only. And for those draftniks, try and find one position group for either team that doesn’t need help on either team. Good luck with that. Raiders 37, Chiefs 28
New York Jets (20) at Tennessee Titans (26): Last week, Braylon Edwards was a Seattle Seahawk. As a Seahawk he ripped the Jets, publicly calling their management “idiots”. Most NFL pundits found this a case of the pot calling the kettle black and laughed it off. Seattle had little use for Edwards, who had just eight catches on the season and didn’t fit with their positive, competitive-rich culture.
Guess who claimed Edwards…that’s right, the idiots running the Jets. In a move that simultaneously validates Edwards’ proclamation and demonstrates just how bad they are at wide receiver, the Jets didn’t even wait for Edwards to clear waivers so they could sign him for less money. They claimed him, and early indications are that he will see significant action against the Titans. Sadly, I think the idiots just might have made a move so idiotic that it actually works.
The Jets are so bad at wide receiver that Santonio Holmes hasn’t played since Week 4 and he’s still third on the team in receiving yards. With rookie Stephen Hill out with a knee injury, the Jets wideouts after Jeremy Kerley (who nearly gave the game away last week with his fumble) were going to be Chaz Schilens and Clyde Gates, who have less than 100 yards combined in the last month. Edwards has legit chemistry with Mark Sanchez, which is why he called the Jets front office idiots for their subterfuge of The Sanchize. It’s the sort of “so crazy it works” move that epitomizes the Jets’ improbable march towards a Wild Card berth. A win here and the Jets are very much alive, particularly if the Steelers lose at Dallas. In this strangest of NFL seasons ever, why the hell not? Jets 20, Titans 16