It's the final week of the NFL season. Heading into the final 16 games of the season, there are three AFC teams that have clinched playoff spots (Denver, New England, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Kansas City) with several teams fighting for the final playoff spot. In the NFC, only three teams have clinched (Seattle, Carolina, San Francisco) and everybody will be trying to win for positioning or getting into the playoffs. The only team in the league that will be able to rest their starters because they're locked in their spot are the Chiefs. Everybody else needs to play their best and get wins.
What I like about the last week of the year is that everybody is playing a divisional opponent. The NFL changed the format of the schedule a few years ago in order to put divisional games in the last week because that way they could have more meaningful games to end the year. Considering the Packers/Bears and Eagles/Cowboys games are for divisional titles I'd say that schedule strategy worked.
There are a lot of playoff scenarios to get to, so I'll mention them for every game where it applies. Some of it is pretty confusing, especially those teams fighting for the 6th spot in the AFC, but I'll do my best to make sense of it all for you. Let's get to it.
Last week straight up: 10-6. Season: 153-86-1 (.640)
That's a solid record for me. Last year I made it up to hitting just under 70% of the games straight up. I won't get there this time, but nothing wrong with that record. My picks against the spread were pretty brutal most of the year. I can admit that. That's why I stopped betting on games after about five weeks!
All game times are in the Eastern time zone.
Carolina (11-4) at Atlanta (4-11) 1:00 pm
The Panthers need the win to lock in the two seed for that first round bye. If they win and the Seahawks lose then they could even become the top seed. I give the Falcons credit for playing hard to end the year. They've underachieved obviously, but they haven't quit. This game will be closer than most people think, but I think the Panthers defense is too good for me not to take them with a lot on the line. Offensively they're inconsistent at times. Defensively they are great. Also, much respect to Tony Gonzalez, who is playing in his final game this week. Best tight end ever. I can remember watching him on Cal's basketball team with Jason Kidd. Long time ago! Congrats on an awesome career. Panthers 23-17
Houston (2-13) at Tennessee (6-9) 1:00 pm
Houston is locked in as the worst team in the league. They've already fired their coach and have begun their coaching search. I think the Titans will fire their coach Mike Munchak after the year because he hasn't been able to get them into the playoffs. I'll go with Tennessee to win this game that doesn't really matter. Titans 24-14
Cleveland (4-11) at Pittsburgh (7-8) 1:00 pm
Even though they started the year 0-4, the Steelers have a chance to make the playoffs in they win this game while the Ravens, Dolphins and Chargers lose their games. Is it likely? Not really, but they have a chance. Since they have something to play for and the Browns really don't have a lot going for them I'll take the Steelers. They should be able to grind out the victory. Steelers 23-13
Washington (3-12) at N.Y. Giants (6-9) 1:00 pm
These teams are awful, but as I've said all year I have no problem with the Redskins being so bad because my Rams get their first pick, which is #2 overall right now. Obviously Mike Shanahan will be gone as Washington's coach. Since they're falling apart more, I'll reluctantly pick the Giants, who may not have Tom Coughlin back as the coach next year. I'm sure he doesn't want to go out this way, but it may be time for him to call it a career. Giants 27-23
Baltimore (8-7) at Cincinnati (10-5) 1:00 pm
It's meaningful for both. The Bengals have won the AFC North and are the #3 seed right now. If they win this game and the Pats lose they move up to #2, which gives them a first round bye. The Ravens have to win to get in the playoffs (they would need the Chargers or Dolphins to also lose) although they could get in if the Chargers, Dolphins and Steelers lose. Confused? Me too. I've also been confused by the Ravens play this year because they've been so inconsistent. After winning four in a row, they lost 41-7 at home to the Patriots last week. I don't believe in them especially in Cincinnati against a tough Bengals team. Give me Dalton, Green, Bernard and company to end the year on a high note at home. Bengals 31-20
Jacksonville (4-11) at Indianapolis (10-5) 1:00 pm
The Colts are in the playoffs as AFC South division winners and could move up from #4 if they win while teams ahead of them lose. Indy's a weird team to figure out because they have wins against elite opponents like the Seahawks, Broncos, Niners and Chiefs, but are they really a top team? I don't know. The defense has played well the last two weeks giving up only 10 points, so if that continues they are a team to look out for. The Jags put up a good fight in the second half of the year. No new coach for them since Gus Bradley was hired this season. They'll need some help on offense in the offseason; that's for sure. I'm going with the Colts at home to send them into the playoffs with some momentum. Colts 27-13
N.Y. Jets (7-8) at Miami (8-7) 1:00 pm
When they played on December 1, the Dolphins won 23-3. They had 453 total yards while the Jets had just 177 yards and forced the Jets into three turnovers too. It was an ass kicking. Now they're at home with a season on the line. If the Dolphins win, plus a Ravens loss or Chargers win (two things that I think will happen) then the Dolphins get into the playoffs. With their season on the line and QB Ryan Tannehill playing very well, I like Miami to win this game and earn that 6th playoff spot. I think the Jets could fire head coach Rex Ryan, but I don't know if he deserves it. That team overachieved. He's a great defensive coach that gets the most out of his players. Four months ago, Jets fans would have been happy with 7-9. I'm going Dolphins here. Dolphins 24-10
Detroit (7-8) at Minnesota (4-10-1) 1:00 pm
The Lions are in freefall mode after starting the year at 6-3 and looking like a shoe-in for the playoffs. Back to back home losses have cost them a chance at the playoffs. Head coach Jim Schwartz is likely going to be fired. Calvin Johnson may not play because of a bad knee. Looks like Adrian Peterson is out for the Vikes too. I'm going with the Vikings, who are fighting for head coach Leslie Frazier to keep his job. I don't think a win will save him, though. Vikings 27-23
Green Bay (7-7-1) at Chicago (8-7) 4:25 pm
This is one of the biggest games of the week because the winner becomes the NFC North champions and earns a home playoff game next weekend. The loser goes home. The big news is that Packers QB Aaron Rodgers is back for the first time since he broke his collarbone on November 4th. They were 5-2 in the seven games he completed and won just twice without him. Packers fans everywhere are smiling because of his return. They might have star WR Randall Cobb back too, so that's another plus for the men in green. The Bears defense is pretty bad especially against the run.
I really like the Bears offense a lot. The way they spread the ball around with Cutler finding Marshall and Jeffrey down the field along with Forte running the ball, they're a tough team to defend. The Bears are actually tied for 3rd overall in points scored with 417 on the year (27.8 PPG). Do the Packers have the kind of defense that can keep them under 30? I'm not that sure about it.
I'm leaning towards the Packers because I think they're the more complete team. If Rodgers was healthy all year they'd probably have ten wins by this point. He's a difference maker. I think if you're the Packers you should lean heavily on rookie RB Eddie Lacy (who should play despite an ankle injury) because you don't know how sharp Rodgers is going to be. Rodgers is arguably the best QB in the game, though, so if he's in there I think he'll be ready. The true test will be when he gets hit a couple of times. Will he be scared to get hit some more because of the injury, or will he bounce back quickly? That's what we don't know. I believe in Rodgers, so I'll roll with him, but it's far from any kind of lock. It should be an entertaining game that is close from start to finish. Packers 31-27
Buffalo (6-9) at New England (11-4) 4:25 pm
The Pats are currently the #2 seed in the AFC. They need a win to hold onto that and if the Broncos lose then the Pats would move up to become the #1 seed. Since the Bills have to start their awful backup Thad Lewis again I really don't like their chances. The Patriots will head into the playoffs with a lot of momentum because if they win this they will have five wins in their last six games heading into the playoffs. Look for Tom Brady and company to take care of business. Patriots 27-17
Tampa Bay (4-11) at New Orleans (10-5) 4:25 pm
What happened to New Orleans? They were sitting there at 9-2 looking like one of the best teams in the league and then they lost three of their last four. All of those were road games. Now they're playing their final game at home with a playoff berth on the line. Win and they're in. Lose and they miss the playoffs if the Cardinals beat the Niners. I think they'll win big. Why? Home field. They're 7-0 at home. The Bucs are 1-6 on the road. Sometimes we overanalyze too much. In this case it's important to look at those numbers staring right at us. Saints win...big. Saints 37-20
Denver (12-3) at Oakland (4-11) 4:25 pm
It's pretty simple for the Broncos. Win and you lock up the top seed in the AFC for home field advantage throughout the playoffs. If they lose this game and the Pats win then the Broncos fall down to the #2 seed. I expect the Broncos to jump out to an early lead, go up by 20 or so by the third and then rest their starters in the final quarter. Look for Peyton Manning to add to his record 51 TD passes with three more in this game against a Raiders team that continues to disappoint year after year. Broncos 34-17
San Francisco (11-4) at Arizona (10-5) 4:25 pm
The Niners have clinched the playoffs and are likely going to miss out on a home game unless the Rams win in Seattle. They could drop down to the 6th seed if they lose this game and the Saints win their game. The Cardinals will go into this one with a shot at the playoffs if the Saints lose their game to the Bucs, which is playing at the same time.
I think the Cards are a scary team especially on defense. It's a shame that they might miss out on the playoffs with an impressive 11-5 record. That doesn't happen very often. I think they will make things difficult on a Niners team that has won five games in a row. Like we saw with Seattle last week, though, the Cards know how to deal with their divisional opponents. I'm leery of the Cardinals offense because if you can get in Carson Palmer's face he'll turn it over whether it's a fumble or a pick. With the Niners having such an instinctive defense I can see them forcing some turnovers. I like their offense a lot with Crabtree back in the mix because it opens up everything else for the others. I wouldn't be shocked if the Cards won of course, but I'll go with the Niners because I believe they're peaking at the right time. They'll be a very scary wild card team. Niners 20-17
Kansas City (11-4) at San Diego (8-7) 4:25 pm
The Chiefs are the 5th seed in the AFC. They can't move up or down from that. It's expected that they will play their starters for a series or two and then the backups will take over. Rest your key guys for the meaningless game. It's what they should do. I don't have the Chargers making the playoffs because of the Miami win. By the time this game starts they should know if they can make it or not. Either way, I expect a dominant Chargers win here. Chargers 33-14
St. Louis (7-8) at Seattle (11-3) 4:25 pm
I'm proud of my Rams finishing off the season well. I expected 7 or 8 wins at the start of the year, but once Bradford went down I thought they might finish with about five. I'm glad I was wrong because it has me really excited about the future. Regarding the present, I think they're going to have a tough time this week against a motivated Seahawks team that lost at home to the Cards last week. Throw in the fact that the Seahawks need to win this game to secure the coveted first seed in the NFC for home field advantage throughout the playoffs and it's a tough spot for the Rams. I think the Seahawks defense will shut down the run and make the Rams beat them with the pass, which is unlikely. The Rams defense (led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Robert Quinn) might keep them in it early, but I think the Seahawks are too good to drop this game. Seahawks 24-14
Philadelphia (9-6) at Dallas (8-7) 8:30 pm
The winner of this games wins the NFC East. The loser goes home. It's a playoff game one week before the actual playoffs begin. The big news going into this game is that Cowboys QB Tony Romo is out for the rest of the year with a back injury that required surgery. Even if he was playing I would have picked the Eagles.
The Eagles have won 6 of their last 7 thanks to one of the best offenses in the NFL along with defense that is improving especially against the run (12th). What does Dallas have going for them? I'm not sure. The defense is 31st against the pass and 27th against the run. They're starting Kyle Orton at QB. He has NFL experience, but he hasn't played much of the last three years he's been with Dallas. Give me the Eagles with their QB Nick Foles, who is playing as well as any QB in the second half of the year, RB LeSean McCoy (the rushing champ this season) and a cast of characters that has the all important momentum heading into a game with their season on the line. Eagles 31-24
Here's how my playoff picture looks based on my picks above.
1. Den, 2. NE, 3. Cin, 4. Ind, 5. KC, 6. Mia
1. Sea, 2. Car, 3. Phi, 4. GB, 5. SF, 6. NO
That's all for me this week. I will be back next week for some playoff predictions as well as my picks in the first round of the playoffs. Enjoy the games and good luck to you.