NFL Picks Week 17: Betting Predictions for Every Football Game

Barbara BrunoContributor IIDecember 29, 2011

NFL Picks Week 17: Betting Predictions for Every Football Game

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    NFL Picks Record Through Week 16

     

    Straight Up: 164-75 

    (68.6 percent correct) 

     

    Against the Spread: 138-101

    (57.7 percent correct)

     

    Over/Under: 122-117 

    (51.04 percent correct—oh well, can’t win them all.) 

    Viewing alert! There are no Thursday Night Football or Monday Night Football games this week, so arrange your schedules accordingly. Further, there are only three late Sunday games; everything else starts at 1 p.m. ET.

    In anticipation of the playoff hunt, here’s a refresher on the most ridiculous of rules, courtesy of nfl.com:

    NFL Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2: When [an offensive] player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his arm starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body. Also, if the player has tucked the ball into his body and then loses possession, it is a fumble.

    On a cultural side note: What is the deal with the Santa Claus cheerleaders? I am missing the connection between Christmas and red velour pole dancers.

    The “best” undoubtedly were the St. Nicholas bikinis in Dallas, Houston, St. Louis and Indy. The Texans even combined cleavage and navels with big hair—the triumvirate of taste.

    Meanwhile, in Tampa Bay, the Bucs apparently can’t take the field without a dominatrix version of the sexy Santa, complete with high-topped black leather boots.

    I can’t wait for the New Year’s baby diapers.

    Warm up your remotes, Tivos and thumbs—here comes the last week of football!

Washington Redskins at Philadelphia Eagles: Early Sunday Football Games

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    Straight Up: Washington

    Against the Spread: Washington +9.5 

    Over/Under: Under 47 (partly cloudy and 50)

    This is a contingent pick. It’s contingent upon the presence of RB Roy Helu on the field for the Washington offense. I knew the ‘Skins would struggle without Helu last weekend, but that was ridiculous! If he cannot play, you must switch to Philadelphia.

    Coaching certainly isn’t going to win this game for Washington. Mike Shanahan actually went on record as being surprised that rebuilding was a slow process:

    "A lot longer than I first anticipated. We had less depth than I thought. We were a little bit older at a few different positions.”

    Way to go, Shanny—blame it on the team. Classy. Honestly, it sounds like he’s never coached before. Looks that way, too, sometimes.

    There are three keys here:

    1) Can the Redskins offensive line keep Rex Grossman on his feet for at least 40 legitimate passing opportunities?

    2) Can the Redskins secondary pick off Michael Vick at least once? Remember that they are without their best safety in LaRon Landry.

    3) Can the Redskins run the ball? Philly has only given up 94 yards per game on the ground for the last three weekends.

    I put the pressure on the Redskins when it comes to these matchups because nobody thinks Washington has a prayer in this game. Well, they did go to New York and beat the Giants two weeks ago. So, a Redskins victory is possible.

    Offensively, the stats over the past month surprisingly favor the ‘Skins. Washington has run for almost 40 yards more every week than Philly, thrown for the same amount of passing yards and scored almost as many points.

    But the Eagles defense has risen up to be a fearsome group, allowing only 12 points over the last month. And yet, the Philly fans still want to fire defensive coordinator Juan Castillo.

    I will never understand the Philadelphia sports fanatic. I know that sports are an emotional proposition (and this pick is my emotional devotion to the Redskins), but it’s usually wise to pepper in just a little logic.

    For instance, the Eagles fired PK David Akers after a stellar 12-year career. The current Philadelphia PK is Alex Henery. He has made 22 FGs this season out of 25 attempts. Not bad.

    Akers landed in San Francisco and just made the Pro Bowl. David also made the Pro Bowl as an Eagle in 2010 and 2009. This made him expendable, why, exactly?

    Akers has made 42-of-49 kicks in 2011. His success percentage is 85.7 and the long is 55 yards. And he just became the NFL record-holder for the most FGs scored in a single season. Other than that, yeah, he was all washed up.

Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers

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    Straight Up: Green Bay

    Against the Spread: Green Bay +3.5 

    Over/Under: Under 46.5 (scattered snow showers)

    This will be a game of philosophy. The Vegas bettors clearly think that the Packers will rest their starters and may lose to the younger Lions. And they may be right.

    Neither team has anything to play for in terms of playoff standings. Green Bay is the No. 1 seed and Detroit will almost certainly be the No. 5 team.

    (If Detroit loses and Atlanta wins we’ll probably get into one of the “strength of victory” situations that make my head spin.)

    However, this week is another one of those seemingly annual situations that the NFL hates. Does the playoff-clinched team play the bench, reducing the last contest of the year to a virtual exhibition game?

    This year it could be even worse than that. Not only do both teams have a motivation to not sustain injuries, they will probably be facing each other again either next week or the week after in the playoffs.

    So, neither coach has any desire to give away any offensive or defensive strategy. Great. So, we’ll see players we haven’t seen since August running vanilla schemes that bored us in August.

    Ah, but what about the other side of this philosophical coin?

    In 2009, the Colts (once again) rested all of their starters because they were headed to the playoffs. They never properly regained their clock-like precision and lost to the Saints in the Super Bowl. The Saints almost backed into the postseason after some late losses and played all out in their Week 17 game.

    In 2007, the wild-card-bound Giants decided to actually try and beat the Patriots in Week 17. They lost that night, but barely. A play here or there and they could have won and ruined the Pats' perfect season a couple of weeks sooner. I firmly believe that their terrific showing in that game gave them the confidence to beat New England in the big one.

    In 2011, Lovie Smith did not play full-throttle against the Packers in Week 17. The teams met again a few weeks later in the NFC Championship—and Chicago lost. (Yes, I know they lost their QB in the game, but I’m not sure they would have won anyway. They looked “off” from the snap.)

    I’m not really a Bill Belichick fan because of the cheating history. But, I wholeheartedly admire his “keep your foot on their throat” coaching style. He’s not one of the top coaches in NFL history because he doesn’t have a killer instinct.

    So, we won’t learn a darned thing about the playoff picture in Green Bay. But we’ll learn quite a bit about the team philosophies.

    Since we don’t know how many starters will play or how long they will play, or what the game plans will be—any previous statistics are meaningless.

    I am picking the Packers because I think that Aaron Rodgers will want to one-up Drew Brees after Monday night’s record-breaking show in New Orleans. I think he’ll play until he has at least 300 yards.

    If you hear that he is even considering coming out after a half, change this pick to be the Lions. Because I cannot imagine a situation in which fighting head coach Jim Schwartz would take his foot of the gas.

    His team is younger. They need the practice. They sure as heck need the discipline. They need to find out if they can run the ball in the cold on grass.

    And they could use the confidence boost of beating the world champs.

Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals

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    Straight Up: Baltimore 

    Against the Spread: Baltimore -1.5

    Over/Under: Under 38 (raining and a high of 50. Yuck.)

    If you live under a rock and missed WR Jerome Simpson’s vault into the end zone last week—look it up immediately.

    There are huge AFC playoff implications in this game. Baltimore is fighting for the No. 2 seed, a week off and home-field advantage. The Bengals want to hang on to a playoff berth.

    Kudos to rookies A.J. Green and Andy Dalton. Green is a starter in the Pro Bowl and Dalton is a first alternate. The future looks good in Cincy.

    Now, can you fans please start showing up? It’s disgraceful that you have the most exciting young passing/receiving duo in the NFL and your team had to offer “twofers” for you to come to this game. I’d say “shame on you,” except that I have to admit the weather is a bit of a deterrent. But it’s warm by Ohio standards so get out your slickers and hit the stadium!

    Offensively, the Ravens rallied after a couple of bad weeks. Ray Rice put up another 133 yards from scrimmage and QB Joe Flacco completed 11-of-24 for two TDs.

    Cincinnati has a solid defense and they will be keying on Rice. Based on all evidence, I would suggest that Marvin Lewis not expect linebackers to cover Rice. It never works.

    The Ravens offense has this one last tune-up opportunity to raise themselves to a playoff level. Right now they are not competitive with Pittsburgh and New England.

    Home field would matter a lot to this team. They won all of their home games in 2011 and all of the statistics are much higher in Maryland.

    Don’t forget that strong slot man, Anquan Boldin, may very well not play again. Flacco found TE Ed Dickson a few times last week and he needs to work that connection going forward.

    The legendary Ravens defense is nearing the end of the line. They have to finish strong, because they are going to need to start retiring.

    Going into this game, Baltimore is giving up 19.3 points over the last month, while the Bengals are only surrendering 16.3 points each week. That’ll give you pause.

    The rain shouldn’t have much effect on the outcome; both teams are rush-heavy. For the past three weeks, the Ravens have run for 132 yards and the Bengals have rushed for 125.

    Don’t leave the room on kicks. Raven Billy Cundiff is questionable with a calf injury. Shayne Graham would be his replacement. Neither one of them is going to make anyone forget Matt Stover. Plus their main kick returner is now on IR. I’m expecting Lardarius Webb to fill in.

    Meanwhile, Bengals PK Mike Nugent is having a very iffy year. Cleveland's Josh Cribbs finally broke a return for a TD last weekend against this special teams unit. Nevertheless, Baltimore needs to pay attention—in all phases of the game.

    The Ravens have embarrassed themselves several times in 2011 by playing poorly on the road and playing poorly against “inferior” teams. That has to stop now.

New York Jets at Miami Dolphins

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    Straight Up: New York 

    Against the Spread: New York +1.5

    Over/Under:  Under 41 (partly cloudy and in the high 70s. That will be a bit toasty for the Jets by the time you add degrees on the field itself. However, it is also possibly going to rain.)

    The Jets must win in Miami and hope that Cincy, Tennessee and Denver or Oakland all lose. That is a lot of luck.

    But none of it matters if they can’t beat the Dolphins on their home field. Based on the Miami performance in the first half of last week’s contest with New England, that isn’t going to be easy.

    I don’t know what to think about Matt Moore these days. He has shown sparks in his time in the NFL, first with Carolina and now in relief of former starter Chad Henne. Saturday he completed 17-of-33 passes for 294 yards and three touchdowns. Three.

    Yes, he does have Brandon Marshall to throw to. Marshall caught seven balls for 156 yards and one of those touchdowns. The Miami WR also earned a well-deserved trip to Hawaii. 

    Yes, he has a Reggie Bush that is having the most productive year of his career as an every-down running back (over 1,000 yards). Bush toted the rock for a balanced 22 carries and 113 yards.

    But you can’t take away Moore’s production. Since taking over he has completed almost 60 percent of his passes for over 7.5 yard per attempt, 15 touchdowns and seven INTs. And that includes the first couple of rocky games.

    Good for him; I hope that he has a starting job in 2012.

    Unfortunately for all of the above, LT Jake Long tore his bicep muscle and will not be out there blocking for them.

    Fourth-year Arkansas guard Nate Garner will move over to protect Moore’s blind side. Yikes.

    Defensively, the Dolphins pressured Tom Brady throughout the first half, but could not keep it up for the entire game.

    Mark Sanchez is having a confidence-rattling season and pressure will probably be extremely effective against him. He was sacked five times last weekend. Hmmm.

    Rex Ryan publicly praised his young QB this week, but he needs to stay out of the kid’s head.

    Brian Schottenheimer has been struggling to balance Ryan’s obsession with the “ground and pound” versus the need to be more creative with play-calling in the AFC East. Particularly since they have been let down by the defense in 2011.

    Clearly Rex never thought that his offense would be playing from behind and clearly he didn’t have a plan.

    Mark Sanchez had to throw the ball almost 60 times last Sunday. That is ridiculous. Of course some of them were intercepted!

    The other flaw in the “ground and pound” is that the team doesn’t possess a “pounder.” Regular readers know that I am not a Shonn Greene fan. At all.

    Greene almost convinced me that he had turned the corner a few weeks ago. But no. Still the same old average RB. This could be LaDainian Tomlinson’s last game—at least as a Jet. You’d better use him on third downs and as a receiver. Otherwise, it doesn’t really matter what Sanchez does.

    But when No. 6 does have to pass, how about more targets for 6’20” WR Plaxico Burress? (Yes that is an exaggeration. Slightly.) No. 17 may be older, but he can still reach over almost anyone else on the field and he certainly hasn’t forgotten how to catch a ball.

    I’d be anticipating a few more receptions for TE Josh Baker. The rookie came in out of nowhere last week—and caught a TD pass. Way to go, kid.

    Finally, the Jets have got to at least try to throw deep. Miami’s D is too good to allow them all to crowd the box.

    Then there’s that whole red-zone-challenged thing. The Jets had more yards, more first downs and more time of possession than the Giants last week. Last time I checked, they lost the game.

    Defensively, this is simply not as effective a group as they have been the last two seasons. I don’t even register the D-line when watching a game and the secondary has been good, but not great, as a group.

    Linebacker David Harris played his heart out last Sunday in an attempt to replace injured safety Jim Leonard. Not the same, though.

    Why has the Jets' 2011 Season been so disappointing?

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints

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    Straight Up: New Orleans 

    Against the Spread: New Orleans -7.5

    Over/Under: Over 55 (I don’t think the Panthers will get more than 21 points, but the thin Carolina D might get steamrolled by Team Brees.)

    For someone who thought the Panthers were doomed when they selected Cam Newton, I have darn near become one of his adolescent groupies. (Have you seen that, by the way? Girls 12 to 15 screaming for Cam? It’s really cute.)

    I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen an athlete like him. He’s Randall Cunningham with the physical bulk and toughness of Tim Tebow. The only thing that ever stopped Cunningham from reaching the HOF was that he kept breaking those skinny legs. I don’t think No. 1 is going to have that problem. I hope not.

    In a sport that is big-time entertainment, Newton is a one-man band of highlights. The only star-power competition comes from the offenses of the Saints and Packers.

    In Week 15, Newton completed 12-of-17 passes for 171 yards and two TDs and rushed six times for 65 yards and a touchdown. He now holds the rookie passing record and the rushing touchdown record. The team is scoring 33 points this month. That’s per game.

    The numbers don’t begin to cover the barely contained explosion that is Newton on any given snap.

    Add his TEs, WRs and two excellent RBs, and this team in on the rise.

    If their defense hadn’t kept dropping like flies, they might have been contenders this year.

    I have to credit head coach Ron Rivera with the marked improvement of this mix-and-match defensive squad. Even though the Tampa Bay Bucs had a major meltdown this season, they have some offensive weapons and the Panthers D shut them down early.

    I doubt that they will have the same success against Drew Brees and the Saints' offensive juggernaut.

    We often say “Joe and Company” when referring to a group. But to say “Brees and Company” is almost a literal statement. There are so many offensive players that touch the ball in any game that Monday Night Football completely abandoned their usual 11-man intro format.

    Instead, when introducing the Saints offense, they grouped them by position!

    They introduced all three active running backs. Then they introduced all of the many WRs and TEs who usually catch the ball in any given game.

    I have never seen that before.

    The Atlanta Falcons had the most success of anyone so far in limiting New Orleans’ scoring ability by fielding the hardest-hitting secondary I have seen in quite a while. And they only got one “defenseless receiver” penalty. Too bad they forgot to play all four quarters.

    They could not stop No. 9 from breaking the all-time single-season passing record. Dan Marino’s record stood for 27 years, but Brees now holds the first and third spots on that list.

    Not bad for a guy everyone said was too short to play the game; who supposedly didn’t have a big enough arm; who got pushed out of San Diego as a free agent with a significant shoulder injury. And to whom did he throw the record-setting pass? The 5’5” Darren Sproles. Uh-huh.

    As for the Saints defense, Jonathan Vilma is in the Ray Lewis league when it comes to game-planning middle linebackers. I hope that you got to watch his chess match with Matt Ryan on Monday night. Despite the score, it was pretty much a draw in level of play until the third quarter when Vilma and his compatriots took over the game.

    The Saints D has been a bit too soft for my taste this season, but here in December they are regaining their ferocity. And that is bad news for Cam Newton.

    We’ll see how much the rookie signal-caller has learned when he has to go against safety Roman Harper and CB Jabari Greer. And that’s just two of the DBs lurking out there. You might want to look out for Michael Jenkins, who scored a defensive TD last week.

    In a year the Panthers might be able to compete. But, unless New Orleans loses their focus, the Saints should win another one at home without too much difficulty.

    I doubt that they’ll have focus problems because, if they win and the 49ers lose, the Saints move up to the second seed and get a week off and a home playoff game.

    With the considerable Superdome advantage, that matters.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons

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    Straight Up: Atlanta

    Against the Spread: Atlanta -11.5

    Over/Under: Over 46.5

    The Falcons DBs got more hard hits with fewer penalties on the Saints receivers than I’ve seen in the league this year, when every hard hit seems to draw a flag. That is impressive coaching. The DBs coach is named Alvin Reynolds and he has spent 27 years coaching secondaries. The Atlanta unit has improved every year under his tutelage.

    Unfortunately, their aggressive D couldn’t keep up with the Saints for four quarters while the New Orleans defense seemed to get stronger as the night wore on and basically strangled a very talented Falcons O.

    I strongly suggest that the Falcons offense commit to yardage from running backs Michael Turner and Jason Snelling. I know that the team got behind early and they had to pass, but Matt Ryan threw the ball over 50 times on Monday. That is not going to cut it in the playoffs.

    If Mike Smith can get his offense clicking, I expect him to want a very decisive win going into the postseason. That’s why I’m picking the Falcons. Do not go over two TDs on the spread and if Smith decides to sit any starters, change to Tampa Bay.

    This game should restore a bit of Ryan’s confidence since the Tampa Bay defense is a mixture of bench-warmers and the walking wounded.

    Oh, and Ronde Barber—who is one of my all-time favorite DBs (right up there with Darrell Green as far as I’m concerned) but who is closing in on being 100 in football years. 

    Raheem Morris is fighting for his job, whether he admits it or not and whether it’s fair or not. For the record, I agree with him that you don’t go from the most impressive rising young coach to a moron who should be fired in one season.

    But the Bucs ownership is completely unpredictable, so I wouldn’t put it past them at all.

    The same can be said of QB Josh Freeman, who did not suddenly become a first-round draft bust. Let’s get a grip here, Floridians.

    It’s hard to play QB when your wide receivers have decided to take the season off and all but one of your running backs are on IR.

    I proclaim myself someone who “thinks way too much about football.” But even I had to look up the names of those TB WRs. I could remember Mike Williams, who is in a terrible slump—and then I went blank.

    Oh yeah, Arrelious Benn and Sammie Stroughter. They are acceptable B-level guys. And they are both hurt.

    That leaves return man Michael Spurlock, Desmond Briscoe and Preston Parker. They've combined for a 2011 grand total of 827 yards and seven TDs. Hmmm.

    No wonder RB LeGarrette Blount only has five TDs; the entire football planet knows that he’s getting the ball.

    Let’s just let the Bucs go off and recover, shall we?

San Francisco 49ers at St. Louis Rams

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    Straight Up: San Francisco 

    Against the Spread: St. Louis +11.5

    Over/Under: Under 36.5

    If the Niners win this game they seal the second seed in the NFC playoff tournament. That brings a week off and home-field advantage against the New Orleans Saints, who do not play nearly as well on grass as they do in their dome.

    So this game matters—a lot. I mean, if you were Alex Smith wouldn’t you want to slow down the Saints secondary by any possible means? Yeah.

    The 49ers will be without Braylon Edwards—not just this week, but forever now that they have waived the talented but inconsistent WR. That was a waste of money.

    Fortunately for San Francisco, they are playing the snakebitten Rams, with Kellen Clemens at QB.

    I don’t know what Clemens was doing a month ago, but it was not playing NFL quarterback. To give him fair credit, Clemens did not play badly last week. All things considered.

    Last week, the Rams defenders evidently did not feel it necessary to play NFL-level football either. It was ugly. These guys are positively bipolar! One week they put on a nice stand and the next week, Rashard Mendenhall is making them look like a weak high school team.

    I know that Mendenhall is a good runner, but that Steelers offensive line is hardly noteworthy without Maurkice Pouncey at center. Come on. That alone should stamp the “done” label on Steve Spagnuolo’s head coaching tenure.

    You can’t blame anybody but the injury gods for the offensive woes. Next year, Sam Bradford and WR Brandon Lloyd will probably start a “beautiful friendship,” but Bradford needs to get healthy first.

    Dear readers: Yes, I am going to give one last affectionate plug to Rams RB Steven Jackson. Over 1,000 yards. Again. He is averaging 4.4 yards per carry and has five TDs—in an offense where your grandmother could tell you he was going to get the ball. Tell me I can’t love this guy!

    Now that I have that out of my system, the key to this game will be the Rams D. If they can play better against Pro Bowler Frank Gore than they played against Mendenhall, then St. Louis has a chance.

    It’s not as if the 49ers are an offensive machine. Smith was 14-of-26 last week for 179 yards and Gore carried 23 times for 843 yards and a TD. Well, it’s balanced.

    And WR Michael Crabtree is finally starting to be the playmaker he was expected to be, given his draft status. TE Vernon Davis continues to be clutch.

    Don’t forget, the Rams beat New Orleans in the Edward Jones Dome. It was a long time ago and the Saints were apparently under the influence of something at the time. Yes, the whole team.

    But anything is possible.

    Given their need to protect that bye week and home-field advantage, the Niners will definitely be trying. Let’s see if Steven J. can be the second guy to score a rushing TD on them in 2011. But don’t bet on it.

Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots

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    Straight Up: New England 

    Against the Spread:  Buffalo +12.5 

    Over/Under: Under 51 (40s and cloudy, which would be a break for the less-polished Bills, except that now it is supposed to rain. If it’s clear, switch to the over.)

    After the game last Saturday, Bill Belichick said in his postgame presser, “We didn't do anything very well.” Perhaps someone should point out to Mr. B that New England won the game.

    But we do know what he means. ESPN’s Chris Berman summed it up beautifully when he wondered whether the Patriots gameplan had been, “Hello. Take a lead; I’ll be with you in a moment.”

    We spend a lot of praise on WR Wes Welker and those two enormous pass-catching TEs. They deserve it; they’re all devastating weapons—as long as Tom Brady can get them the ball.

    I like rookie rusher Stevan Ridley. I think he has potential. He’s averaging five yards per run. For a Patriot running back, that’s practically Peyton-esque (Walter, that is). But it’s not threatening anyone for the NFL rushing title.

    WR Deion Branch is certainly sure-handed and seems to have a mind meld with Brady. But a speedster he is not.

    Brady remains the only thing standing between this team and mediocrity. Once again, his passing carried the offense: 27-of-48 for 304 yards and one passing TD.

    And the only thing standing between Brady and the Bills pass-rushers is an older and injured offensive line.

    Last week both tackles Matt Light and Sebastian Vollmer and LG Logan Mankins ended up out of the game with injuries. Rookie Nate Solder moved to LT and rookie Marcus Cannon and Donald Thomas came off the bench. And everyone else moved around. Or so it seemed.

    In their usual and unhelpful way, the Patriots have given us no hint as to which of the offensive linemen will play in Week 17. Mankins, Vollmer and Light could be on the bench, in the game or in between. Thanks for the info, Bill.

    Whoever suits up, they are the key to the game. In the past two weeks, Brady has opted for three QB sneaks into the end zone. This cannot possibly be the optimum play choice for your franchise QB who is making $20 million a year and holding your team together.

    As usual, if you can pressure Brady, you can beat the Pats. Just ask the Giants.

    Essentially, the Pats have become the Colts, with a weaker secondary. For years, Indy’s team was Peyton Manning’s passing—no running game, no running defense. They had a good pass rush and a decent secondary.

    Manning never had the defense that Brady enjoyed in his early successes (Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, Vince Wilfork, Asante Samuel, etc.).

    Now Brady sees what it's like to have to outscore opponents every week. He’s doing an admirable job so far, averaging 34 points over the last three weekends.

    New England needs home-field advantage throughout the playoffs to mask their considerable weaknesses. So the Patriots need to win this game.

    Advice to the Buffalo Bills: Try some trick plays. Belichick’s team is a machine. They don’t respond well to the totally unexpected. Particularly on an already-weak defense.

    Then run the ball. Both teams are surrendering 179 yards per game in the last month. Here is the chance for C.J. Spiller to show me that he can string two 100-yard games together.

    Incidentally, I am not just picking on Spiller. It is common knowledge that he is chronically underperforming. Rookie Marcell Dareus wore a mic on Saturday and was heard several times on NFL Films saying about Spiller's good day, "He's earning that big check." And he's a rookie.

    Ryan Fitzpatrick had a decent outing against a purportedly good Denver defense last week. Well, you certainly couldn’t prove it by that game. No. 14 completed 15-of-27 for 196 yards and zero interceptions.

    The other thing that led to last week’s win was that the Bills cornerbacks remembered that they had started the season as an opportunistic bunch. I realize that picking off Brady is a bit more challenging than picking off Tim Tebow. But you could try.

    Take a page out of the Dolphins’ book. Play hard like you have nothing to lose. You don’t.

Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars

9 of 16

    Straight Up: Indianapolis 

    Against the Spread: Indianapolis +4.5 

    Over/Under: Over 37.5  (partly cloudy and 70s)

    This game has serious implications. Unfortunately for fans of these teams, the implications concern the 2012 draft order. Ugh.

    Let’s hear it for the Colts! The defense has battled all season and truly rallied a couple of weeks ago. Reggie Wayne summed up the wins from the last two weeks after the game on the NFL Network, “The defense played great and the offense just kept chopping wood.”

    That they did, with five FG attempts and four successful kicks. Until the last 1:55 in the fourth quarter. Are you kidding me?

    Dan Orlovsky was going to run the (less than) two-minute offense with no timeouts? And he did.

    Both Orlovsky and Wayne joked that all Reggie ever says to Dan is, “throw left.” This mantra apparently stuck as the Indy QB threw it left and Wayne came up with a fantastic leaping TD catch.

    He’s not as big or as young as Calvin Johnson. But he is as clutch and, given a halfway-decent throw, as unstoppable.

    I am happy for Orlovsky. The guy is about to become the father of male triplets. It’s a good thing he is playing well enough to probably have a job in 2012.

    In fact, he is playing so well that I was forced to do a little research. Admit it, all you knew about Dan was that he was the bonehead who ran out of the back of his own end zone in Detroit a few years ago. Me, too.

    Orlovsky was the starting QB for the University of Connecticut Huskies as they went from Division I-AA to Division I independent, to the Big East. That’s pretty impressive. Then he got drafted by the Lions.

    I for one am happy that this game-winning drive capped off by a great TD is an image that can replace that whole safety debacle. Good for him.

    Indy’s passer finished the night with 23-of-41 for 244 and a TD. Wayne accounted for 106 of those yards. (Pierre Garcon had another 50; Joseph Addai ran for 50.)

    How about RB Donald Brown? I loved this kid coming out of college but he frustrated me with sparks here and there and no consistency.

    Of course, the fact that the team doesn’t use a FB when Manning is under center may have something to do with that. Brown contributed another 48 yards last week after breaking an 80-yarder in Week 15.

    The Colts defense kept plugging away and rattled Houston’s T.J. Yates throughout, shutting down the vaunted Texans rushing attack in the last quarter.

    I have to mention that a handful of Houston penalties kept that final Colts drive alive—forever.

    For Jacksonville, it’s a good thing that Maurice Jones-Drew (voted to another well-deserved Pro Bowl and in contention for the rushing title) started his career at an early age. At this rate, he’s getting old quickly.

    The RB contributed another 24 carries for 103 yards and a TD in Week 16. No surprise there.

    What was surprising was Blaine Gabbert commanding a fairly effective drive in the fourth quarter.

    ESPN’s Paul Kuharsky summed up the JAX QB situation: “Blaine Gabbert has had a poor rookie season during which he’s not played well on a team that hasn’t protected him consistently enough and which has horrible receivers.”  

    Well that’s a depressing way to put it. But accurate. However, despite averaging only 162 passing yards over the past three weeks, the Jaguars have managed to put up 24 points per game. Too bad the defense has given up 26.

    Indy’s D has rallied this month and led the way to their two victories by allowing fewer than 18 points per week.

    Assume that Jones-Drew will carry the offense for Jacksonville since:

    1) He is their only Pro Bowl offensive player.

    2) The Colts still don’t stop the run worth squat.

    Assume that Indy pass-rushers Robert Mathis and Pro Bowler Dwight Freeney will make Gabbert’s last game of his rookie season a painful experience.

    Assume that Orlovsky will pass more and get at least one TD. If the Colts can run the ball at all, they should win. Otherwise, it could go either way.

Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans

10 of 16

    Straight Up: Tennessee 

    Against the Spread: Tennessee -2.5 

    Over/Under: Under 40.5 (60s and a few showers) 

    Houston needs to pull it together after losing in Indianapolis—again. They have never won in Indy. If they make it to the Super Bowl, do you think that will be a problem?

    Well, they aren’t going to make it to the Super Bowl at this rate. Indy’s defense ate T.J. Yates for lunch on Thursday night.

    Nobody can beat Colts rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis on that turf. It’s scary. (Well, not if you are a Colts fan.)

    Analysts are calling for the rookie QB to be benched in favor of either Jake Delhomme or Jeff Garcia. I don’t know. I love both older QBs, but Yates completed 13-of-16 for 132 yards. Those are the same numbers that Ben Roethlisberger put up in his rookie year.

    The problem is that the Steelers planned to play Roethlisberger as a raw rookie. They had Jerome Bettis and the Steel Curtain to compensate.

    Texans RBs Arian Foster and Ben Tate are pretty awesome rushers in their own right, but Gary Kubiak did not build the Houston offense to run the Pittsburgh offensive system. He built it to run basically the Shanahan/Elway model.

    Don’t forget that Kubiak was Elway’s backup forever and then Denver’s offensive coordinator. Yeah. So he wants to pass the football.

    The injuries to former starting Pro Bowl QB Matt Schaub and starting All-Decade WR Andre Johnson have crippled his entire offensive philosophy.

    WRs Jacoby Jones and Kevin Walter are good and TE Joel Dreessen has done his very best Jason Witten impression as a safety valve. But, it is not the same thing.

    Even with the most improved defense in the NFL. Wade Phillips is a world-class defensive coordinator. Is there an Assistant Coach of the Year award? He should get it. Why does he keep wanting to be a head coach? A fish may want to be a pony, but it’s going to suffocate if it tries.

    Texans defender Connor Barwin is my nominee for the “Next Man Up” award this season. If Mario Williams weren’t such a superstar, no one would even remember that Barwin wasn’t the starter.

    He and youngster J.J. Watt and the rest of the defensive front played extremely well Thursday. Some of those fourth-quarter penalties last Thursday were extremely suspect.

    If there is a defensive weakness, it has to be some members of the secondary. But that is a relative weakness given the tremendous strength of the front seven. I’d throw at Glover Quin. But that’s just me and nobody is going to let me throw anything anywhere anytime soon.

    I’m sure that Titans QB Matt Hasselbeck is perfectly capable of picking the best receiving target. He is a vastly underrated passer and leader, and will be on a mission to bring his team into the playoffs.

    Injuries and RB Chris Johnson’s horrendous season have made this year in Nashville not what Hasselbeck had in mind. He has to win and get into the playoffs or his career as a starter is over.

    I don’t think he can do that without a 100-yard performance by the aforementioned Johnson. In theory, I don’t mind paying a player as a reward for past performance—in part. But his holdout in a lockout year followed by a season that could only be forgiven by an undisclosed injury is simply not sitting well with anyone.

    Johnson forfeits a $300,000 bonus if he doesn’t hit 1,000 rushing yards. I’d say that is the least he can do for a completely unproductive year.

    Johnson needs to be a hero this week to make fans forget his preseason intractability and during-season phone-in.

    The O-line must protect Hasselbeck against that good Houston pass rush. If they don’t, head coach Mike Munchak might end No. 8’s career even sooner. And that would be a shame.

Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings

11 of 16

    Straight Up: Chicago 

    Against the Spread: Chicago -.5 

    Over/Under: Over 39.5

    Kahlil Bell used to play for the Minnesota Viking. Now he plays for Chicago. You see where this is going, right?

     "Nobody likes to sit there and say they feel good about the team that let them go," Bell said.

    They obviously felt I wasn't adequate enough to be a part of their organization, which is in my mind a blessing because I love it here in Chicago and I love being with the Bears. At the same time, hopefully I can make some plays and show (the Vikings) otherwise.

    Bell contributed 121 yards on 23 carries in Week 16, so don’t be surprised if this motivated runner isn’t in attack-mode all afternoon. He’ll be helped by a Vikings D giving up 124.7 rushing yards per game in the past three weeks.

    I’m sure that Josh McCown will be under center for Chicago. In a nothing-to-lose game, I hope that offensive coordinator Mike Martz does open it up. Why not?

    Vikings pass-rusher Jared Allen will probably get a sack or two no matter what the offensive plan is.

    Of course there is that whole “no pass receivers in Chicago” problem. McCown is without question an upgrade over Caleb Hanie, but only Earl Bennett and Devin Hester have any probability of coming down with the football.

    Hester’s major danger remains as a return specialist. Do I really need to tell the Vikings not to kick to him?

    Da Bears defense is undoubtedly frustrated at the debacle that 2011 has become, so I’m sure that they will be doing their level best to win this week. This is a very good D. Three of them are going to Hawaii. Congratulations to Lance Briggs. I hope that his Pro Bowl trip will help to ease his bitterness over a less-than-cordial contract situation.

    Amazingly, QB Christian Ponder has been cleared to play after his concussion and is probably going to start. Okay.

    Wonder how many snaps he’ll get with no O-line (which just got worse now that guard Steve Hutchinson is on IR) before coach Leslie Frazier decides to put in versatile Joe Webb. Webb was responsible for three TDs in Week 16. Hmmm.

    Without star RB Adrian Peterson, it will be backup sophomore player Toby Gerhart toting the rock. Gerhart is averaging about four yards per carry.

    That would be fine if there were someone other than Percy Harvin around to catch the ball. I haven’t seen enough games to figure out why Ponder hasn’t thrown more often to excellent TE Visanthe Shiancoe, who only has 36 receptions. And a bunch of those came from Donovan McNabb. He might want to look for the big target more often.

    Defensively, the only bright spot other than Jared Allen is rookie safety Mistral Raymond, who played a great game against Washington last week. A "mistral" is a fierce wind that blows seasonally through France. Maybe they're on to something here.

    Otherwise I think they’re all in the infirmary.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns

12 of 16

    Straight Up: Pittsburgh 

    Against the Spread: Pittsburgh -6.5

    Over/Under: Under 38 (I'd go as low as 36 for this game; it's going to rain.)

    I expect to see Charlie Batch under center for the Steelers. I know that Mike Tomlin wants Ben Roethlisberger to play and he is listed as probable. If he does go out there, Tomlin would be crazy to keep him in for more than a quarter. Let’s face it: The Browns are not exactly a huge threat.

    Nevertheless, Pittsburgh does need to win this game just in case Baltimore loses at Cincy and that AFC North title falls to them. So, the Steelers will be paying attention and trying.

    And that is bad news for the mess that is the Cleveland Browns. ESPN’s Colin Cowherd has a phrase that sums this up: “a dumpster fire.” Yeah.

    Often lost in the smoke is the fact that the Cleveland Browns have an excellent pass defense, even without safety T.J. Ward.

    Last week Batch completed 68.2 percent of his passes for almost 10 yards per attempt. Those numbers might go down a bit in Cleveland, but he’ll keep the passing game legitimate enough to clear some running lanes.

    And Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman are fully capable of taking advantage of running lanes. The Browns are not strong on rush D. Advantage Pittsburgh.

    One area of concern might be the presence or absence of All-Pro Center Maurkice Pouncey. I would play Doug Legursky and not even bother with Pouncey. But Legursky is doubtful with his own injury.

    I wonder who will be on the Steelers O-line? Legursky is the starting left guard. He was playing center because Pouncey was hurt. He was also the backup at right guard. Oh dear.

    I know that Tomlin is not thrilled with rookie RT Marcus Gilbert and had benched the kid for being “less than professional in preparation.” I love Tomlin. No ambiguity there.

    Then there’s Trai Essex, who filled in for Legursky, who was filing in for Pouncey. Essex was signed in September and had just worked his way into starting at left guard. Good for him.

    Bottom line: If Pouncey can play, they will play him and Essex and veteran Jonathan Scott will try to fill in elsewhere. I’m thinking that Gilbert probably put in a bit more work this week and will be back in the lineup.

    Then there is the yards- and points-challenged Browns offense. Before the fans get all carried away with Seneca Wallace as the savior at Cleveland QB, allow me to point out that his QB rating is only five points above Colt McCoy's, and his average yards per pass and TD percentage stats are the same as McCoy’s.

    The relative recent success in Cleveland’s passing game is much more attributable to the return of power runner Peyton Hillis, who should be featured prominently on Sunday.

    If nothing else, Cleveland will want to build up his trade value. Yes, I’m afraid that I am that cynical when it comes to the Browns’ team management.

    No matter what the Browns do, Pittsburgh defenders will be ready and I can’t see the Steelers not finishing business this weekend as they try to get healthy for the playoffs.

Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos: Late Sunday Football Games

13 of 16

    Straight Up: Denver

    Against the Spread: Denver -3.5 (do not, under any circumstances, go higher) 

    Over/Under: Under 37 (cloudy and in the 30s)

    Now, this is undoubtedly a more interesting matchup than it was at the top of the season, huh? I’m sure that there are more factors in this game than Kyle Orton versus Tim Tebow and the team that fired him, but you couldn’t prove it by the media coverage.

    Fine, let’s talk about it:

    Tim Tebow’s performance in Buffalo was not as dreadful as advertised.

    1) Don’t forget that one of those pick-sixes was a fluke, Willis McGahee scored a Denver TD that was called back and the Broncos scored a TD in the return game that was called back. Those factors alone would have made the final score 28-33 instead of 14-40.

    2) The Broncos had more total first downs than the Bills in the loss.

    3) The Denver defense played surprisingly poorly and one of their leaders (safety Brian Dawkins) is doubtful for this week.

    Kyle Orton has a shot.

    1) He doesn’t know his teammates' names yet and he threw for 300 yards and a TD last week.

    2) Orton and star WR Dwayne Bowe already have a chemistry and the QB even completed passes to Chiefs whose names nobody knew (Terrance Hopper?).

    3) Interim head coach Romeo Crennel went and found RB Thomas Jones on the shelf and brought him back into the offensive game plan with the result that he and Jackie Battle are combining for the first decent balance this offense has seen all year.

    I don’t think this game is going to be Tebow versus Orton. It’s going to be Orton versus a usually good Denver secondary that has let down the side in the past couple of weeks.

    Not to mention Jones and Battle versus a Broncos rushing defense that has been dreadful recently—153.3 yards per game allowed over three weeks!

    And it’s going to be Tebow and Willis McGahee against a KC D that is only giving away 110 rushing yards in the past three weeks.

    Don’t forget about the kicking game. KC’s Ryan Succop had a rough game against Richard Seymour and Oakland, while Bronco Matt Prater is the true hero of this year’s Broncos with all of those clutch kicks. That could make a big difference this week.

    Denver needs the game more. But Kansas City is playing to keep a coach they like and maybe to make their new QB look good. I hope Orton is a good guy. It will help him on Sunday.

Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals

14 of 16

    Straight Up: Seattle 

    Against the Spread: Seattle +3

    Over/Under: Over 40.5 (sunny and mid-70s—the Seahawks won’t know how to act)

    I’d like to begin by pointing out that only one running back has scored a touchdown against the 49ers defense this entire season. And that running back was Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch.

    The Arizona Cardinals have given away 125 rushing yards per game in the past three weeks. And that will be one key to this battle.

    The other will be how successfully John Skelton can pass against those excellent Seahawks DBs and LBs. I hope he does well; I think he should be the next Cardinals starter. He has led the Cards to 28.3 points on average since coming back as the starter.

    Conversely, the Seahawks have gifted opponents with over 141 rushing yards each week of the holiday season. That would be wonderful for Arizona if RB Beanie Wells could stay healthy for more than a quarter of football.

    The Cards passing D has been decent recently, holding opponents to 164 passing yards on average in the past three weeks.

    Just when I was starting to mellow about Seattle QB Tarvaris Jackson, he goes and dodges out of bounds on a rush at the 1-yard line. Hello? Your team is virtually impotent in the red zone and you can’t hit someone and try to get that last yard? Next.

    I’m going with Seattle only because they scored 38 points against the Chicago defense a couple of weeks ago. I’m a bit shocked about that, but they did it. So I have to pick them.

    Arizona’s Pro Bowl return specialist and cornerback, Patrick Peterson should not play in this meaningless game. He hurt his Achilles last week. The news is that he will be fine and doesn’t require surgery. So why won’t they commit to saying that he won’t play? There’s something fishy going on there that I hope does not bode ill for this very promising young player’s future.

San Diego Chargers at Oakland Raiders

15 of 16

    Straight Up: San Diego 

    Against the Spread: San Diego +2.5 

    Over/Under: Under 49.5 (cloudy and 60s)

    Let’s see—half of 50 points is 25 points. Divided by three points per FG, that means that Sebastian Janikowski has to kick eight FGs to get this game to 50 points.

    Of course, I’m being facetious. But the Raiders offense does need to start scoring seven points in the red zone more frequently.

    With a backup rusher (I know Michael Bush has been good, but he’s not LeSean McCoy) and an injured receiving corps, Carson Palmer has done a remarkable job.

    But they are not operating on all cylinders and if the Chargers defense shows up this week, San Diego should win.

    The injury lists swear that both RBs Darren McFadden and Taiwan Jones should play for the Silver and Black on Sunday. I don’t believe it.

    Both teams are so twitchy that I wouldn’t put a dime on this game if it were the last football game of all time.

    The Chargers dominate the Raiders in almost every statistical category over the past three weeks. They have outscored Oakland by eight points per game, run for 16 more yards, given up 20 fewer rushing yards and 50 fewer passing yards.

    The only area in which Oakland “wins” is passing yardage. Palmer has completed passes for an average of 13 more yards than the Chargers each week in the past month. Vertical-threat Al would be proud.

    I hope that Palmer has a good day. He should be their starting QB next year. He has made all of the WRs better. Darrius Heyward-Bey is finally starting to look like a professional WR, Denarius Moore has shown some promise and Jacoby Ford would love to catch passes from Palmer when he returns from injury.

    Carson threw for 308 yards last week, completing 16-of-26 passes with an average of over nine yards per attempt.

    I’d say that the Raiders need to reduce all of those penalties, but you know I’d just be spitting into the wind. Do you think it’s something in the water? I mean, it’s been this way in Oakland for, like, 50 years!

    If the Chargers remembers that they are playing a game, they should win. I’ve said that twice now. I wish I were more convinced.

Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants: Sunday Night Football

16 of 16

    Straight Up: New York 

    Against the Spread: New York -2.5 

    Over/Under: Over 46 (partly cloudy and cold, but not brutal)

    Injury update: Tony Room is back at practice for the Cowboys and pass-rusher Osi Umenyiora has returned to the huddle for New York. Dallas RB Felix Jones is not on the injury report, but his was a hamstring injury—so you never know.

    Without Romo under center, I can’t really comment on the Cowboys offense versus the Eagles last week.

    But the defense has no such excuse. Michael Vick completed 18-of-22 passes for 293 yards and two TDs. And this was in a game where star RB LeSean McCoy went out with an ankle injury!

    I do not pretend to understand all of the intricacies of Rob Ryan’s defense. But when all of the analysts keep saying that the players are out of position and not executing the scheme, I have to believe them.

    I know it’s the first year in this system and I know there was virtually no training camp. But, guys, it’s Week 17! Think you might have caught on by now?

    Are they mentally challenged? Probably not. Then why haven’t they developed enough discipline to get the job done? A couple of players have suggested that the Dallas defenders are not communicating while on the field. Are they mute?

    It looks to me like either a coaching problem or an owner-interference problem. Do players hate Rob Ryan? I don’t know. They reportedly liked Wade Phillips and they played with the same lack of discipline last year.

    Is it that Jason Garrett doesn’t come down on the defense because he’s too busy calling the offense? Maybe.

    Is it that everyone knows the only opinion that counts is that of Jerry Jones and he hasn’t fully endorsed Ryan?

    I don’t know, but it’s not professional, whatever it is. Unless this is the wrong group of players. See, that would be a problem.

    Jerry Jones is the general manager and he picked these players. And most of them are very talented so they aren’t going anywhere. Uh-oh.

    Eli Manning is no Michael Vick, but he’s playing very well and was just voted to the Pro Bowl. He won’t have WR Mario Manningham on the field and possibly not TE Jake Ballard either. But hopefully, Hakeem Nicks’ hamstring will be playable and there is always the wonderful Victor Cruz.

    Cruz is a living example of why you should watch preseason football. I can’t stand it that all of these professional NFL analysts keep talking about how Cruz “came out of nowhere.”

    No he didn’t. In August of 2010, this same Victor Cruz was in the midst of a positively dazzling preseason. He caught everything that was within four feet of his body and he outran everyone.

    And then he broke his leg. I wrote in August of 2010:

    Off-season injuries…have adversely impacted the timing between Manning and the guys—but it all started clicking again towards the end of the pre-season.  And how about Victor Cruz?  I sure hope that his success continues, since players like that are good for football.

    You think maybe the guys on television might remember him? I’m just saying.

    The winner of this game (and the winner of the NFC East) will probably be decided by how well Romo can play with an almost-broken hand. I like Romo. I hope for his sake that he plays well.

    But you know that the Giants D-line will be on a mission to completely mess up Tony’s day. They can do it if they decide to.

    It will be a test of wills between Big Blue’s D-line and the ‘Boys O-line. Period.

    Don't miss it guys. It's the last chance to see all 32 in action. Go, team!