Last week: 11-5 

We’re getting to the point in the season where teams that have been eliminated from the postseason race become more volatile. Will they continue to fight hard or will they ease off the throttle? It’s a tough thing to predict, especially for teams with perceived lame-duck coaches or an interim staff already.  

Thursday Night

Los Angeles Chargers at Las Vegas Raiders (-3.5): The Raiders should be favored here, but understand they’re suffering from the injury bug. Four defensive starters have already been ruled out and a fifth is questionable. The Chargers defense is capable of lighting up the Raiders D when it’s at full strength. I expect this to be close and don’t be surprised if the Chargers win outright.  

Raiders 31, Chargers 30

Saturday Games

Buffalo Bills at Denver Broncos (+6.5): The Josh Allen-for-MVP chants are growing, and deservedly so. He’s the engine behind the well-oiled machine that is the Bills, and his visible improvement at, well, pretty much every facet of throwing the football is striking. He won’t let his team let down against a Broncos team that somehow still mas a mathematical opening to a playoff berth. That dies at home on Saturday.  

Bills 24, Broncos 14

Carolina Panthers at Green Bay Packers (-8.5): Green Bay playing at home with playoff seeding still very much on the line is a bad matchup for the Panthers. Carolina has lost 7 of 8 and their scoring defense ranks 26th in that timeframe--and that includes shutting out Detroit, the one win in the streak. Cue Van Halen’s “Light Up the Sky”, or the Thousand Foot Krutch song of the same name if you prefer…

Packers 39, Panthers 21

Sunday Games

Kansas City Chiefs at New Orleans Saints (+3.5): The best matchup of the weekend is a doozy, a potential Super Bowl preview. The Chiefs are quite clearly the team to beat in the AFC, while the Saints have as good of a claim as anyone to that title in the NFC.

What clouds this forecast is the uncertain status of Saints QB Drew Brees. He’s possible to return after missing four games. And while the Saints have valiantly gone 3-1 in his absence, they’re not outscoring the Chiefs with Taysom Hill at the controls. Don’t interpret that as a shot at the Saints defense, either. New Orleans has been quite stingy and it’s not a fluke.  

The manner in which the Chiefs won last week, pulling well away from the Dolphins despite Patrick Mahomes having a bad day, is incredibly impressive. They’re more than just a sexy offense. Having insurance against when Mahomes plays like he’s actually Jake From State Farm is a very healthy resource to fall back upon for Kansas City. They will almost certainly need it to beat the Saints. 

Chiefs 30, Saints 27

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons (+5.5): Trap game for Tampa Bay, and a great opportunity for the Falcons to help out interim head coach Raheem Morris as he seeks the job full-time. Atlanta will have to do better in the red zone, an area where they struggle on both sides of the ball. The Buccaneers are effective and efficient on both offense and defense inside the 20s, and I think that carries them to a narrow victory. The spread seems like a lot of points for the high-variance Bucs. 

Buccaneers 32, Falcons 28

Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings (-3.5): This is quietly an elimination game. Both teams are 6-7, one game back of the final Wild Card berth in the NFC. The loser here falls another game back and loses out on some valuable tiebreaker qualifications, like a conference win and point differential. Chicago’s defense looked like they finally got it right against the Texans, and that should give the Bears some hope in Minnesota. 

It’s hard to have much confidence in the Vikings, who have struggled mightily with inferior opponents lately and got blasted by a resurgent Buccaneers team last week. The Bears have had the recipe for shutting down Dalvin Cook, too. Without him going off, it’s hard to see the Vikings offense working well. Yes indeed, I just talked myself into taking the Bears! 

Bears 27, Vikings 23

San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys (+2.5): This game got kicked out of the primetime slot, much to the chagrin of Cowboys fans everywhere. Too bad. Nobody wants to see what’s left of the 49ers battling the NFC’s worst team. Having said that, I like Dallas here to rise up and look impressive against the skeleton crew 49ers, who have been rendered homeless by the pandemic restrictions in their region.  

Cowboys 25, 49ers 17

Detroit Lions at Tennessee Titans (-9.5): The Lions fought hard in the close loss to the Packers last Sunday, but the effort was a costly one. Matthew Stafford suffered a nasty rib injury while center Frank Ragnow broke his throat. Amazingly enough, they both could play here, though I wouldn’t count on Stafford. Even if they do, the dismal Detroit defense can’t stop Derrick Henry or A.J. Brown or Corey Davis. Look for all three to top 100 yards from scrimmage. 

Titans 37, Lions 9

Add 14 to the Lions score if Stafford plays

Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts (-7.5): It’s a great week to have T.Y. Hilton on your fantasy team in the playoffs. He always lights up the Texans, even Texans teams with much better secondaries than this one. In 17 career meetings with Houston, Hilton has 93 receptions for 1647 yards and 11 touchdowns. Those are Hall of Fame numbers if he even comes close to them when he plays other teams, but alas he really only has great production against the Texans, Titans, Browns and (oddly) Patriots. Look for Hilton to have another huge game against what might be the worst Texans team he’s ever faced.  

Colts 33, Texans 24

New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins (-2.5): Before you bury the Patriots here, a factoid: Since 2000, Bill Belichick has lost just five times to a rookie QB. The last one to do it was Geno Smith (!?!) in 2013, along with Ben Roethlisberger, Colt McCoy, Russell Wilson and Mark Sanchez. Belichick also sports a very healthy history against former proteges as coaches, as Brian Flores of the Dolphins is. Will Tua Tagovailoa break the string?  

Narrator: He will

New England’s offense is devoid of weapons and has a shaky Cam Netwon pulling the trigger. Miami’s offense is still emerging but their defense is good enough to handle whatever Belichick throws at Flores.

Dolphins 20, Patriots 16

Seattle Seahawks at Washington Football Team (+5.5): Washington has won four in a row thanks to more consistent, less erratic QB play from Alex Smith. But Smith’s status for this game is in doubt. Aside from that, I’m simply skeptical of any NFC East team being able to win five games in a row this year. Seattle had its “get-right” game against the Jets last week and I don’t see them being overconfident on the road against a mighty good defensive front. 

Seahawks 23, Football Team 17

Jacksonville Jaguars at Baltimore Ravens (+13.5): The Ravens finally catch a break. A normally scheduled home game against an opponent that hasn’t tasted victory since Week 1 is exactly what the doctor ordered for Baltimore. They’ll pick up the prescription and won’t get the unintended cramping side effects.  

Ravens 34, Jaguars 12

New York Jets at Los Angeles Rams (-16.5): Is it a coincidence that I’m writing this with the Slipknot song “Psychosocial” playing in the background? I think not. That tremendous track is from the album “All Hope is Gone”. That’s the Jets season in a nutshell. Maybe listen to Slipknot instead of watching the Dead Memories that will come from this game…

Rams 37, Jets 6

Philadelphia Eagles at Arizona Cardinals (-6.5): Bird fight! And if you carry out the animal mascots here into battle, you’ll get a good idea of why Arizona will beat Philadelphia. 

An eagle would destroy a single cardinal in the wild. But in football, the cardinals can combine their forces and become mightier than a solitary eagle. Once the big bird starts to bleed a little from all the pecks, there’s just no way for it to win the war. Sure, it might take out a handful of the bright red birds, but it will eventually succumb to the strength of the swarm. 

My 6th-grade daughter may or may not have contributed to this breakdown…

Cardinals 34, Eagles 17 

Cleveland Browns at New York Giants (+4.5): This game got a whole lot more interesting with the unfortunate development of Giants offensive coach Jason Garrett coming down with COVID-19. That means Freddie Kitchens takes over running the Giants offense. Yeah, that Freddie Kitchens. If there was any worry about the Browns overlooking New York, you can bet that went away with the chance to show up their old head coach. It’s not animosity towards Kitchens, a likable guy, but rather a celebration of now being coached by the well-prepared, subdued, focused Kevin Stefanski. No one would ever associate those qualities with Kitchens, and the Browns don’t miss it one bit. 

Browns 30, Giants 20

Monday Night

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals (+12.5): As much as the native Clevelander in me enjoys watching the Bengals get thoroughly declawed by the Steelers--make no mistake, that’s going to happen here--I have devoted Monday night to Christmas shopping. I’ll look for a competent head coach and maybe a couple of offensive linemen for the Bengals. Pittsburgh needs no gifts beyond what the schedule-makers did for them here in bequeathing them the AFC North title with the too-easy win. 

Steelers 28, Bengals 8