Last Week: 9-7. The final two weeks are much like the first two weeks, crapshoots where I?m happy to break .500. This week is no exception to that rule. All games are on Sunday, a nod to the college bowl season. Normally, I do previews of the bowl games, but quite honestly I haven?t had the time to focus on the bowls much this year. I?ve been immersed in studying individual college players much more than teams themselves. I do like Ohio State to beat Arkansas and Oklahoma to pummel UConn, and I like Virginia Tech and Texas A&M to pull upsets. Oakland at Kansas City: The Chiefs have already clinched the AFC West courtesy of the best one-year turnaround in team history. It?s a byproduct of one of the best drafts in team history, which netted safety Eric Berry (a Pro Bowl snub), slot WR/RS Dexter McCluster (electrifying when healthy), TE Tony Moeaki (solid starter), CB Javier Arenas (promising nickel back), and safety Kendrick Lewis (emerging #3 safety). Guard Jon Asamoah is the top interior reserve, and they?ve gotten contributions from undrafted rookies as well. What that tells me is they are ahead of schedule. And teams that are ahead of schedule often stumble once a sense of accomplishment is achieved. I know this veteran coaching staff will try its best to avoid that, but I just get the sense that the Chiefs are going to use this game as a mental break before a tough playoff game next week. Aside from that, the Raiders are a formidable opponent trying to make NFL history as the first time to sweep an entire division and not make the playoffs. They are probably playing for coaching jobs as well, and the young talent on this team is very aware that Tom Cable has had a lot to do with the marked improvement this year. I like the Raiders in a minor upset, 17-14. Tampa Bay at New Orleans: The Buccaneers need to win and have both the Giants and Green Bay lose. I happen to think none of the three will come to fruition. The bookmakers certainly don?t think Tampa Bay will take care of its own business; the spreads are all over the place, but range between 7 and 9.5 points favoring the Saints. The touchdown margin sounds about right, as the Bucs are good enough to stay close but don?t have the firepower to knock off the confident, focused Saints. New Orleans 27, Tampa Bay 20. Miami at New England: New England has nothing to play for, though in similar situations in the past they?ve still gone full bore for the win. I suspect the incentive of beating a division rival with a strong defense is more than enough for Team Hoodie. What I?m more interested in here is if Miami can continue its amazing reversal of home/road fortune. Last week?s loss to Detroit left the Dolphins with a 1-7 home record, yet a win here will make them 7-1 on the road. According to the good folks at Yahoo Sports, no team has ever been six games better on the road than at home. It must be maddening for Tony Sparano that his team plays so well on the road but collapses at home. I know it frustrates ownership, which is why a coaching change could very well be in the offing. A win here would certainly help Sparano?s case, but the quickly-improving New England secondary is a big problem for their uncreative, mistake-prone offense. Patriots 23, Dolphins 16. Minnesota at Detroit: I like what I saw from Joe Webb in the Vikings? Tuesday night stunner, but he got a lot of help from a passive Philly front and the best game the Minnesota offensive line has played all year. Michael Vick having an uncharacteristic off night didn?t hurt either. Detroit?s defensive line is still playing exceptional football, but one of the big keys to the Lions? 3-game win streak has been the play of their linebackers. Where Philly got nothing from the second level, Detroit presents some issues for the types of plays that Webb thrived at: shallow drags, scrambles, throwbacks. Detroit also sees this as a very important game for building towards the future. A win here means a tie with Minnesota for 3rd place, not an insignificant accomplishment for a team that has finished dead last in the NFC North in five of the last seven years. Shedding the stigma of being a last-place team will go a long way with Jim Schwartz and what he is trying to build in Detroit. I?ll take the Lions to finish strong. Detroit 24, Minnesota 20. Carolina at Atlanta: Time for a new home win streak to begin. Time for Panthers coach John Fox to bid farewell to his team. Time for Carolina to be on the clock with the #1 pick, which means time for Panthers fans to cross their fingers that Andrew Luck declares for the draft. Time for Atlanta to lock up the #1 seed in the NFC. Falcons 27, Panthers 9. Pittsburgh at Cleveland: It appears Troy Polamalu will not play, which means the Pittsburgh defense goes from indomitable to just decent. That gives the Browns a fighting chance. Alas, that fight is likely to come up short. Because the Steelers still have a lot at stake--win and they could get the 2 seed, lose and they could fall to #6--I expect the Pittsburgh offense to come out firing. Cleveland?s defense gives up too many big plays, and it?s games like these where Big Ben really demonstrates his value. Cleveland rocks, but Pittsburgh rolls 33-13. Buffalo at New York Jets: Pretend for a minute you are Jets coach Rex Ryan. Put down the foot lotion and the chicken wings and concentrate on the larger picture of what to do with this game. If you lose, you ensure the #6 seed. That almost certainly means a trip to Kansas City to play the playoff-virgin Chiefs. Win that and travel to New England, a team you?ve beaten and feel more confident against than anyone has a right to have. Now picture winning this game and getting the #5 seed. That means a trip to Indy, where the playoff-tested Colts are quickly righting their ship. Win that and it?s a trip to either Pittsburgh, a team you would like to see much less than New England, or Baltimore, a team that humiliated you earlier this year and is perfectly constructed to kill you. Rex Ryan might be a lot of things, but stupid is not one of them. I think he lives and breathes to beat the Patriots, but unless he loses this game he probably won?t get any shot at doing that in the playoffs. You might think that?s crazy, but I think that?s exactly what Rex is thinking right now. He knows his team can play crappy down the stretch and still flip the switch for the playoffs; they did that last year. Even if you don?t buy my premise here, you?re crazier than someone who likes to watch foot fetish videos while eating chicken wings if you think the Jets are a lock to win this one. Bills 23, Jets 16. Cincinnati at Baltimore: Three weeks ago I laid out a great argument for the woeful Bengals to upset the Steelers, as downtrodden Bengals teams have historically risen up at the end of seasons and notched some impressive wins. Turns out I was a week premature on Cincy. The upset here will not be easy. Baltimore still has a chance to win the AFC North and the #2 seed, and their aged defense would love nothing more than a week off to get rested for a playoff payoff. Joe Flacco is in a nice groove right now, and the Bengals have been vulnerable all year to power running teams like the Ravens. Yet Carson Palmer looked fantastic in lighting up the Chargers #1 ranked defense a week ago. Be very wary of this one, and look upon the 9.5 points as both an opportunity and a gift from Vegas. Ravens 20, Bengals 17. Jacksonville at Houston: David Garrard is out. Mike Sims-Walker is highly doubtful. Mo Jones-Drew is doubtful. Mike Thomas is questionable. At a time when the Jaguars need offensive firepower the most, the starting QB, the Pro Bowl RB, and the top two wideouts could all miss the game. That?s the bad news. The good news is that it?s the Houston Texans defense on the other side of the field. That defense just gave up over 300 yards passing to a rookie QB that even his fiercest defenders would admit needs years of work in throwing the football. That defense has allowed the 3rd-highest opposing QB rating for a season in NFL history--and last year?s Texans were 5th on that list. That defense threatens the worst pass defense in NFL history, a mark it will attain if Trent Edwards can put up 372 yards. That defense which features one of the most precipitous drop-offs of a reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, as Brian Cushing has gone from impact stud to juiced-out mediocrity. Not to go on and on about the Texans, but this game is probably going to save Gary Kubiak?s job, even though I think he?s probably safer than most think anyways. All year he has made ponderous play calling decisions, like the constant shelving of Arian Foster in the second halves of games when he?s been great early. Like failing to prepare the team for battle so badly that they have the worst 1st quarter scoring differential of any team in any quarter this year. Like standing in quiet dumbfounded angst every single time Matt Schaub holds the ball too long before either fumbling when sacked or throwing an INT to a safety he never looked off nor saw. Like failing to assert more control over the defense when my 5-year old son understands the principle that if your DBs can?t cover, you have to try and pressure the QB more. These Texans represent one of the most poorly coached organizations in the league in all facets of coaching: game prep, player development, in-game adjustments, handling pressure. By bringing Gary Kubiak back, even with an entirely new defensive staff (the Wade Philips rumors are fabrications, FYI), owner Bob McNair is dooming this team to another season of underwhelming mediocrity, of close but no cigar, of striking zero fear in opponents. That?s a huge mistake and it saddens me as a new Houstonian that every single person in this giant city can see that except the good-hearted, genuinely caring owner. Jaguars 23, Texans 20, perhaps in overtime. Arizona at San Francisco: Mike Singletary deserved to be fired more than perhaps any coach I can recall since Rich Kotite. It?s a shame too, because in my limited interactions with Iron Mike, I found him to be a charming, engaging, interesting man. He?s just a terrible football coach, an assertion I reached from several text exchanges I?ve had with some of his Niners players, who weren?t shy about pointing out his complete lack of coaching Xs and Os or teaching technique and proper execution. The vibe I?m getting now from San Francisco is that they want to show that this team is worth keeping intact and can win the division next year with a ?real? coach and maybe a new QB. Alex Smith will start, his last shot at proving to his teammates that he can lead them. The leadership door is wide open and waiting for him to run through. Your move, Mr. Smith?Niners 29, Cardinals 20. San Diego at Denver: I like what I saw from Tim Tebow over the last couple of weeks, but this is a real test here. The Chargers might be out of it, but there is a lot of pride on that defense. They would love nothing more than to send a message to a division rival that their hotshot young QB can?t handle the San Diego defense. I?ll say this though: if the Broncos play as spirited as they have the last two weeks and continue to react to Tebow the way teenage girls react to Justin Bieber, with that unbridled enthusiasm and refreshing ?we?re having fun? vigor, I?m sold on Tebow. I?m in the checkout lane already, and even if Denver loses I?m not heading to the return aisle just yet. Chargers 20, Broncos 17. Chicago at Green Bay: As frequent readers have probably noticed, I have a nasty propensity to overthink things. This game is a good example. I initially wrote a lengthy piece here extolling the virtues of Chicago?s relatively vanilla defense being the perfect foil for Green Bay?s spicy passing offense. I can also spew out lengthy paragraphs on how the desperate Packers can dominate a Bears team that has nothing to play for. But the Bears would love nothing more than to crap on Green Bay?s playoff dreams, so that washes out. None of that gave me any inkling as to who will win this game. A quick perusal at the betting lines sure did, however. This game opened with the Packers as five-point favorites. It?s now between 10 and 11.5, depending on the sports book. The professionals quite obviously and quite strongly believe the Bears will be in lay-down mode. If I were a gambling man, I?d challenge that assertion, but only to cover and not win outright. Green Bay makes the playoffs with a 32-24 win. New York Giants at Washington: I am fascinated to see if the Giants can recover from their recent swoon. They are certainly the more talented team here even without Hakeem Nicks, out with a broken toe. They certainly have more to play for, as they can still win their way into the playoffs with a Green Bay loss. But they are certainly capable of stinking up the joint in a turnover-plagued mess of ineptitude. Eli Manning is in a funk that strongly resembles, well, Rex Grossman in Chicago. Rex Grossman in Washington has largely avoided the gaffes that got him run out of Chicago. You can look at that in one of two ways; either he?s a new and improved player, or Bad Rex is overdue for an appearance. I lean towards the latter. I set the over/under for turnovers in this game at 7.5. The Giants prevail in an ugly affair, 26-20. Dallas at Philadelphia: Two years ago, this game had all kinds of hype, and the Eagles blew out a mistake-plagued Tony Romo & Co., keeping Dallas out of the playoffs despite being the preseason NFC favorite at many a sports book. One year ago, this game had all kinds of hype, and the Cowboys pile-drove the Eagles in a game that set the stage for Dallas ending their prolonged playoff victory drought the following week, two contests that greased Donovan McNabb?s skid out of Philly. This year the game essentially means very little. Philly blew any chance for the #2 seed Tuesday night; Dallas is one of six teams at 5-10, so other than resolving some draft order issues the game means nothing. Having Jon Kitna start really renders it pointless for Dallas. After his strong relief performance, I felt that Stephen McGee deserved a starting nod, if for no other reason than to ascertain if that one game was an anomaly or really a sign that he can handle a bigger role down the road. Most Cowboys fans I?ve interacted with feel the same way, and it has tempered their excitement over Jason Garrett. Of course I believe that the Eagles will now be in full ?rest the starters? mode, which might have resulted in a false positive for McGee, who has a very similar skill set to Joe Webb, the author of that Tuesday night stunner. I like the Cowboys to try harder, and the five Pro Bowlers prove they have more than enough talent to win their 6th game. Dallas 27, Philadelphia 20. Tennessee at Indianapolis: Indy finds itself in the very odd position of having to actually win their final game. Luckily they draw the Titans, who have beaten nobody except the Texans in the last two months and have shown the pulse of a passed out meth addict in doing so. Very quietly the Colts have been piecing together a competent rushing attack, which makes the play action more effective and helps keep their defense fresher. One of the reasons for Tennessee?s decline has been the inferior play of their offensive line, and they?ll have their hands full with Dwight Freeney. Kerry Collins has shown his advanced age, and he plays like a QB that doesn?t trust his wideouts. This could be your last chance to view a whole lot of current Titans in their current uniforms. Colts 31, Titans 16. St. Louis at Seattle: The regular season ends with a winner-takes-all brouhaha in the NFC West. The winner here not only gets the division title, but will be the #4 seed and could conceivably host a team that has three more victories. I?ll freely admit to rooting hard for the Rams here; at 7-8 they would at least make .500 with a win and even though I scoff at the notion that a division winner that doesn?t have a .500 record doesn?t deserve the playoff berth, I really hope it?s forever a moot point. Seattle has been dreadful lately, and they?re forced to start Charlie Whitehurst because Matt Hasselbeck threw his back out scoring an easy touchdown. The Seattle OL has no answer for Chris Long or James Hall, the Rams ends that are both quietly having very nice seasons. The Seattle defense offers little threat to Rodger Saffold and the quietly solid Rams OL. Really, I don?t see the Seahawks with much of a chance here. In this strange season that could spell imminent doom for the Rams, but I have enough faith in Coach Spagnuolo to weather the Seattle storm. Rams win the NFC West, 21-13.
Risdon's Football Meteorology For Week 17