Predicting Every Sunday Night Football Game in 2012

James Reagan@@James__ReaganCorrespondent IIAugust 2, 2012

Predicting Every Sunday Night Football Game in 2012

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    The 2012 NFL season will mark the seventh consecutive season that NBC has had the rights to Sunday Night Football. And with all apologies to rival ESPN's Monday Night Football and little brother NFL Network's Thursday Night Football, Sunday Night Football is where it's at.

    2012's schedule promises to be another great one. NBC will likely make another run for the top-rated prime-time program of the year. Even with their struggles in other areas, NBC has clearly done something right with their football coverage.

    With the preseason right around the corner, here's a brief look at the 19 scheduled Sunday Night Football games. Although flex scheduling comes in effect Week 11, I will predict the current games that are on the initial schedule. However, I will add a Week 17 game based on teams that I predict to be in the playoff hunt.

Week 1 Season Opener: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants

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    After two appearances in Sunday Night Football last season, the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants are good choices to open the season. The Giants will officially unravel their championship banner and then kick off the 2012 season with a matchup against one of their most hated rivals.

    The Cowboys have to feel completely embarrassed with their two showings against the Giants in 2011. First there was the 37-34 barnburner that featured an awful drop by Miles Austin and a blocked field goal by Jason Pierre-Paul. Then came the NFC East title game where the Giants easily shredded the Cowboys secondary en route to a 31-14 victory.

    Both teams have a dangerous passing game and a somewhat suspect pass defense. The difference is that the Giants adjusted and fixed their defense right before their Super Bowl run. The Cowboys, meanwhile, are hoping that offseason acquisitions Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne will work out.

    The last few years it's been unbelievably easy picking the winner in these opening games as the home teams have gone 8-0 since they moved these games to include Super Bowl champions. Remember that number, because it ends this season.

    This game is all about motivation. The Cowboys have absolutely no reason to be lacking in motivation as they saw the Giants eliminate them from the playoffs and then raise the Lombardi trophy a month later. The Giants, meanwhile, tend to play great with their backs against the wall and when they're favored, well quite frankly they can be lazy and fall flat on their faces.

    Now I think these teams are nearly equal in talent so that would suggest a close game. However, we didn't get that in Week 17 and we won't get it this season. The Cowboys will use their motivation to run the Giants out of the building and ruin the start of their season.

    Dallas Cowboys: 35  New York Giants: 17

Week 1: Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos

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    Playoff rematches are great choices for Sunday Night Football as they provide motivation regardless of the team's records at the time. The Pittsburgh Steelers know all about that after getting Tebowed by the Denver Broncos in overtime.

    It was a stunning upset as the Steelers were huge favorites to win the Wild Card Game. They almost did too as Ben Roethlisberger brought the team back from a two-touchdown deficit. All the momentum was going the Steelers' way entering overtime and had Tim Tebow not thrown that pass to Demaryius Thomas, it's very easy to imagine the Steelers winning.

    Although everyone's lasting memory of the 2011 Steelers defense is Thomas running past all of them, that is simply not an accurate memory. The Steelers defense was the top overall unit last season and they are good every year. It's improbable that they will allow those kind of plays much in 2012.

    A key Steelers question is how the running game responds to Rashard Mendenhall's injury. New offensive coordinator Todd Haley loved to run the ball while he coached Kansas City, so he should bring that mentality to Pittsburgh, although it's uncertain who the main running back will be.

    For now I think it'll be Isaac Redman who gets the carries. He'll gash the Broncos' 22nd-ranked rush defense from last season, sort of like how and Tebow and company gashed opponents in 2011. Tebow is gone, though, and Peyton Manning will struggle in his return, throwing one touchdown and one pick.

    The Steelers will get playoff revenge against the Broncos. All the Broncos fans who thought Manning will magically fix all their problems will leave the game uncertain of what to expect from their team.

    Pittsburgh Steelers: 25  Denver Broncos: 14

Week 2: Detroit Lions at San Francisco 49ers

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    It's surprising that the most scrutinized postgame handshake in NFL history does not include Bill Belichick

    No, instead that honor goes to this gem between Jim Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz. There have been so many words spoken about who is right and who is wrong in this postgame meltdown. Because of this, prepare to hear the handshake mentioned 4,900 times in the week before the game.

    Honestly I think both coaches are just simply very competitive. The game was a close one between two upstart teams that both ended up in the playoffs. The San Francisco 49ers won the game and had the better season last year so they will likely be favored. 

    The Detroit Lions were a good team last year, though, and they came very close to beating the 9ers. The Lions will need improved defense to take the next step as well as one of their running backs to finally stay healthy. If Jahvid Best or Mikel Leshoure can stay healthy, the chances of Detroit having a consistent running game are that much greater.

    The 49ers' elite defense will present problems for the Lions. However, an improved Lions defense from the offseason will ensure a 49ers offense that was at times very vanilla last season. 

    The Lions will prevail in this defensive struggle as surprising as it sounds. Their win will show a dangerous team, finally able to win games by any means necessary. Meanwhile, every NFL fan will glue their eyes to the TV for the most anticipated postgame handshake ever.

    Detroit Lion: 13  San Francisco 49ers: 7

Week 3: New Enlgand Patriots at Baltimore Ravens

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    Week 3 sees a matchup between two consistent AFC powerhouses. The Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots have been playoff regulars over the last 10 years and as such have become hated rivals.

    Surprisingly though, the Patriots are the only franchise the Ravens haven't beat in the regular season. There have been close games, particularly the regular season games in 2009 and 2010 which the Pats won by less than a touchdown. Playoffs are a different story, though, as each team has defeated the other once.

    Tom Brady is a man used to having an important role on his team. And in this game, Brady's performance will be a very key factor as lately he has struggled against the Ravens. Even in this past AFC Championship, Brady was mediocre with only 239 passing yards and two interceptions.

    The injury of Terrell Suggs will hurt the Ravens and Brady will be sure to exploit it. With offseason acquisitions Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney and Donte' Stallworth being added to an already dangerous offense, the Ravens will have difficulty stopping every receiver. 

    Meanwhile the other quarterback, Joe Flacco, is not yet at Brady's level in terms of elite quarterbacks. He will try to keep up but will struggle to do so against a Patriots defense that is improved from last season. This will result in a Ravens loss as they drop to 0-7 against their hated rivals in regular-season play.

    New England Patriots: 34  Baltimore Ravens: 24

Week 4: New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles

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    New York Giants versus Philadelphia Eagles is a rivalry that is made for prime time. Here you have two teams that hate each other and that are constantly contending for the playoffs. They've also had many classic games over the years with a close regular-season series that the Giants lead, 83-75-2.

    Last year the Giants surprised the Eagles in Week 3 by beating them 29-16 in a game that contributed to the latter's awful 1-4 start. Then in Week 11 Vince Young had his only good start on the Eagles and upset the Giants with a late touchdown that ended the game at 17-10.

    The Giants' pass rush will be a major influence on the game. With the way that Michael Vick plays, they know that if he's hit enough, he can play poorly or even get knocked out of the game. And Eagles fans everywhere know that Mike Kafka staring at the Giants front seven does not end well for Philly.

    Like the Dallas Cowboys from Week 1, the Eagles have to feel sick from witnessing the Giants' Super Bowl run. With their 8-8 finish, the Eagles were one game away from an NFC East title and preventing the G-Men from making the playoffs entirely. A lot like in 2010 where both teams finished 10-6 and the Eagles got the tiebreakers that gave them the NFC East title, while the Giants missed the playoffs.

    This game should be one of the highlights of the Sunday Night Football calendar with offenses clicking on both sides. Vick and Eli Manning will duel each other to the end and it will come down to a field goal. No longer a wide-eyed rookie, Alex Henery will make the kick and the Giants will suddenly be 0-2 in NFC East play.

    Philadelphia Eagles: 34  New York Giants: 31

Week 5: San Diego Chargers at New Orleans Saints

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    Finally our first interconference matchup for Sunday Night Football in 2012. This one features two teams with strong offenses that frequently put up tons of points. Philip Rivers will be attempting to outduel the recently signed Drew Brees, not Chase Daniels or Patrick Ramsey or any other mediocre backup. Who Dat Nation should be very, very grateful about that.

    Brees will also be facing his former team for only the second time. The last New Orleans Saints-San Diego Chargers matchup was an entertaining 37-32 shootout that took place overseas in London. The Saints won that game, though ultimately the Chargers had the far better season as they made it all the way to the divisional round of the playoffs.

    Both teams seem to have more pressure than normal going into the 2012 season. Despite their Super Bowl title in 2009, the Saints are trying to prove they can survive an entire season without head coach Sean Payton and they can overcome their defensive suspensions from Bountygate. The Chargers are trying to prove that Norv Turner and Philip Rivers are the right choices at head coach and quarterback, respectively.

    Now the Super Dome is a tough place to play. New Orleans usually has one of the best home-field advantages in the league as they went 8-0 last season. It would seem they would have a pretty big advantage over San Diego.

    However, if you really think about Bountygate, all those sanctions against one team has to hurt. This is sort of unprecedented in the NFL and it may not be an exaggeration to think that the Saints will be a shell of themselves in 2012. With all three NFC South rivals potentially on the rise, New Orleans could be significantly worse next season, maybe even under .500 level of bad.

    San Diego will win this one as their defense stops Brees and his many weapons. Their offense, meanwhile, shreds New Orleans defense with a standout performance from Robert Meachem against his former team.

    San Diego Chargers: 38  New Orleans Saints: 17

Week 6: Green Bay Packers at Houston Texans

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    When the Green Bay Packers travel to Reliant Stadium to face the Houston Texans, there's going to be some differences from the last time they played. This was back in 2008 where the Texans pulled out a narrow victory over the Packers in Lambeau Field by a score of 24-21.

    Both players pictured above will not be present as Ryan Grant is still a free agent and Mario Williams has joined the Buffalo Bills. Both teams are very different with the Texans finally a Super Bowl contender instead of the middling 8-8 team from 2008. The Packers are set at quarterback with Aaron Rodgers and are a far cry from the 6-10 team of four years ago.

    This could even be a potential Super Bowl preview with both the Texans and Packers expected to win their respective divisions in 2012. The Texans actually have better balance with an elite defense and a punishing running game to go with one of the best wide receivers in the game. The Packers are more one-dimensional, although that dimension is pretty great with Rodgers playing like the best quarterback in the NFL as he makes all his receivers look good.

    If we've learned anything in today's NFL, it's that elite passing games trump all. I'm not sure the Texans have that with precious little depth behind Andre Johnson. A shootout often goes to the team with the most firepower and that is clearly the Packers for now.

    The Texans' new-look defense will take a bit of a step back as they allow over 30 points. However, Matt Schaub will keep the Texans in the game with his arm and fans will be treated to a high-scoring game. The Packers will prevail, though, thanks to a late touchdown pass from Rodgers.

    Green Bay Packers: 34  Houston Texans: 33

Week 7: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals

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    The rivalry between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers is an intense one that has often been underrated by the national media. Partly because the Steelers accomplishments massively dwarf those of the Bengals. After all we're comparing a team with six Super Bowl titles to a team that hasn't won a playoff game in over 20 years.

    Yet things could be about to change. The Bengals surprised everyone last year by finishing with a 9-7 record and getting into the playoffs. They were expected to be awful as the team was too young and they were coming off a dreadful 4-12 season the year before.

    Instead the defense improved, while rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green made an impact on offense. The Bengals did have some help from the schedule-makers as they played a last-place schedule against a lot of bad teams. When they did face good teams, they often lost as they went 0-7 against playoff teams. 

    Can the Bengals take a step forward and beat good teams in 2012? This may sound crazy, but I think the answer is yes. For once the Bengals seem to have the both the talent and the work ethic needed to consistently contend for the AFC North title. 

    This can only hurt the Steelers team as they will now have a second team to worry about in the AFC North. Steelers-Bengals will have playoff implications as both teams will go in fighting for first in the division.

    Call this game the Bengals' declaration that they are for real. So for real that they can beat up Pittsburgh while at home. The Bengals defense shuts down the Steelers offense and Cincinnati takes first in the AFC North as the season nears its halfway point. 

    Cincinnati Bengals: 25  Pittsburgh Steelers: 10

Week 8: New Orleans Saints at Denver Broncos

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    NBC loves them some Peyton Manning. Actually so does every TV network apparently, as Manning is scheduled to lead his Denver Broncos to five prime-time games, which ties seven other teams for the most scheduled prime-time appearances this season.

    The Broncos' second Sunday night game is against the New Orleans Saints. As the third interconference matchup in four weeks, this game features two 2011 playoff teams that are expected to contend in 2012. Another major storyline is the quarterback factor as Manning will be lining up for the first time against Drew Brees since he lost to him in Super Bowl XXXXIV.

    That 31-17 game was full of explosive offense as both the Indianapolis Colts and the Saints had double-digit leads. Although the Saints figure to continue having an explosive offense in 2012, I'm not sold on the Broncos. Simply by addition, Manning makes any offense better, but none of the Broncos' four running backs have established himself as a consistent threat while the receivers are still mostly young and inexperienced. 

    So although people often think high-scoring shootout when hearing Brees versus Manning, that's not going to be the case. Add in some cold October weather at Mile High Stadium and both quarterbacks will struggle slightly. After all, both Brees and Manning have spent the majority of their careers playing in either domes or warm weather cities.

    The Saints will finally have interim coach Joe Vitt back from his suspension, but with the rough start they're off to, it might not make a difference. The defense will still be a mess and as good as Brees is, he can't do everything by himself. Manning, meanwhile, will do just enough to win this low-scoring defensive battle.

    Denver Broncos: 17  New Orleans Saints: 6  

Week 9: Dallas Cowboys at Atlanta Falcons

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    Like so many of 2011's playoff teams, the Atlanta Falcons had a suspect defense. Although they ranked sixth against the run, they were 20th against the pass after giving up 236.6 passing yards a game. 

    Their inability to defend the pass was demonstrated in the brutal 24-2 Wild Card loss to the New York Giants. In that game, the Falcons gave up 277 passing yards with Eli Manning throwing three touchdowns against them. It was a horribly embarrassing playoff loss for a Falcons team that experts had thought could make some noise in the playoffs.

    Now that Matt Ryan is 0-3 in the playoffs, he and his teammates are starting to feel some of the pressure that the Dallas Cowboys have felt for years now. The Boys have won only one playoff game since 2000 so their drought is arguably worse than the Falcons. Either way, if neither of these teams win a playoff game this season, their fans will be extremely frustrated and I think changes will be made.

    Thankfully, though, this is a regular-season game since both the Cowboys and Falcons tend to play pretty well before the postseason begins. However, the Falcons are a very daunting team to face in the Georgia Dome as they went 6-2 there last season. The Cowboys won't be getting much help either as they will be playing at home against the Giants before this game and then on the road against the Philadelphia Eagles after this game.

    You know how every season there is at least one prime-time game that is a total blowout? Believe it or not, this is that 2012 game. By halftime the Falcons will have wrapped this one up and the Cowboys will be calling for Jason Garrett's firing as their team enters a deep downward spiral.

    Atlanta Falcons: 44  Dallas Cowboys: 13

Week 10: Houston Texans at Chicago Bears

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    Soldier Field can be one of the coldest fields to play at in the entire NFL. Therefore I don't think it's going out on a limb to say that this November evening will be a very cold one.

    I also don't think it's too bold to say that both the Chicago Bears and the Houston Texans know how to play great defense. New defensive coordinator Wade Philips made a significant impact in his first season as the Texans finished with the second-best defense in the entire NFL, allowing 285.7 yards a game. Though the Bears were ranked 17th in yards allowed per game, their defense was very opportunistic as they finished sixth in the league with 22 interceptions. 

    The 2012 season should see both those defenses continue to be among the more stingy ones in the NFL. So this game will likely come down to which offensive unit can break the opposition's defense first.

    The Bears had a productive offseason acquiring Alshon Jeffrey and Brandon Marshall as targets for the passing game. They also made some adjustments to the offensive line, crossing their fingers that they can finally prevent Jay Cutler from taking so many hits.

    Add in a two-headed running game with Matt Forte and Michael Bush and it's obvious that the Bears offense has tremendous upside. Yet I like the proven track record of the Texans offense to prevail here. A healthy Andre Johnson is better than any receiver on the Bears, and there are few running backs in this league that compare to Arian Foster.

    So the Texans will win a low-scoring, but very close game here. Should be a beauty for anyone who loves cold-weather, defensive football with a few offensive fireworks.

    Houston Texans: 17  Chicago Bears: 14

Week 11: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers

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    When the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens meet, the only sure thing is there will be pain. Usually lots of it and usually it's bad enough that people leave the field. The hatred between the Ravens and the Steelers ensures that no matter what the score is, the players will leave it all on the field and hit the opposition as hard as they can. 

    This year Ravens-Steelers will happen twice in three weeks, meaning many bodies will fall to the ground. My guess is the genius that scheduled things this way is a Cincinnati Bengals fan. Because they have got to love seeing their two most-hated division rivals beat each other up.

    Last year was an odd one in the Ravens-Steelers rivalry, as the Ravens took control of the rivalry. Well the first game was a total domination as the Ravens destroyed the Steelers, 35-7, at M&T Bank Stadium. Not surprisingly, the Steelers regrouped from that loss and the game at Heinz Field would end up determining the AFC North champion.

    A late Steelers touchdown had seemingly ended the narrative the way it always seems to end, with the Steelers narrowly winning. Then Joe Flacco had one of his best drives ever as a pro and he threw the go-ahead touchdown to Torrey Smith with eight seconds left. This gave the Ravens the AFC North title and the bye while the Steelers ended up losing in the Wild Card Round to the Denver Broncos.

    When looking at this rivalry, it's just too close for me to see another sweep. Though the Steelers lead the rivalry, 21-14, the teams are basically equal right now. Which means in theory this should be another great game that has major AFC implications.

    I hate to put the blame on the schedule-makers but seriously, Ravens-Steelers twice in three weeks? That is a major disservice to both teams, and I think both will suffer from it. Though I think the teams will split the series, here the Steelers will win by double digits for the first time since the 2008 AFC Championship. 

    Pittsburgh Steelers: 25  Baltimore Ravens: 14 

Week 12 Thanksgiving Game: New England Patriots at New York Jets

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    This year will mark the first time ever that NBC hosts an NFL game on Thanksgiving night. For several years now, it's been a Thanksgiving tradition that two teams would face off on Thursday night for a game broadcast on NFL Network. However, part of the NFL's new TV agreement will allow NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving evening game every season until 2022. 

    The inaugural NBC Thanksgiving game will feature an intense AFC East rivalry between the New England Patriots and the New York Jets. Although last year the Patriots swept the Jets, the two teams have been fairly evenly matched ever since Rex Ryan started coaching the Jets. 

    Entering 2012, it's clear that there are differences between the two teams. The Jets' strength is their defense with no intimidating wide receivers and two greatly maligned quarterbacks trying to win the starting job. The Pats have the opposite problem with an unstoppable offense and a defense that often lets the opposition stay in the game.

    The Jets can use their Pro Bowl cornerback Darelle Revis to take out Wes Welker or Brandon Lloyd in this game. That won't really matter, though, as Tom Brady can look to Rob Gronkowski down the field or Aaron Hernandez coming out of the backfield. There's also a stable of running backs that could cause problems if the Jets sell out to stop the pass.

    I actually like the Patriots' moves on defense this offseason. Pass-rusher Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower were excellent picks in the first round of this year's draft. You also have to love the inspired play of players like Jerod Mayo and Sterling Moore down the stretch in 2011.

    If the Pats fix their defense, they become an absolutely terrifying team. I'm going to say this is what happens, and on Thanksgiving night, the Patriots will send a message to the rest of the NFL. They will rout the Jets and cement themselves firmly in the discussion for Super Bowl favorites.

    New England Patriots: 41  New York Jets: 17

Week 12: Green Bay Packers at New York Giants

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    The last two Super Bowl champions meet in the New Meadowlands with a rivalry that is starting to become special. After all, both teams took turns eliminating each other over the last two seasons. 

    First there was the Green Bay Packers destruction of the New York Giants in Week 16 of the 2010 season that ultimately gave the Packers the final wild-card spot. The Pack got hot and won the Super Bowl while the Giants stayed home. A year later the joke's on the Packers as the Giants easily beat them in the divisional round of the playoffs, giving them only their second loss of the 2011 season.

    Oddly enough, both of these games weren't close. That wasn't the case though in the 2011 regular season where the Giants gave the then-undefeated Packers a serious scare and only lost to them 38-35. This is likely the kind of game that football fans will be hoping for late in the 2012 season.

    At this point of the season, it's hard to foresee what exactly the landscape of the NFL will look like. The playoff hunt will have officially begun and every game will have added significance. The Packers and Giants know all about this, so it'll be fascinating to see how these recent Super Bowl champions approach another playoff run.

    For now I feel that the Packers will be the better team entering this game. After all, they were 15-1 last season, very close to going undefeated and being one of the best NFL teams of all time. They've still got to be furious about their missed opportunity in the 2011 playoffs and I think they will do their absolute best to give the Giants hell this year.

    Although the Giants fight back valiantly, they're just not quite on the level of the Packers. It'll be a high-scoring game with tons of offensive highlights, but ultimately the Packers will prevail.

    Green Bay Packers: 41  New York Giants: 31

Week 13: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys

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    The NFC East is always a division that gets lots of love on prime time. This is the third and final scheduled NFC East rivalry game on Sunday Night Football. However, if the NFC East title is as close as I'm thinking as it'll be, don't be surprised to see a winner-take-all showdown on NBC in Week 17.

    In 2012 the Philadelphia Eagles are eating humble pie, thanks to their dream team's mediocre 8-8 season. So their plan should be to just practice quietly and not draw attention to themselves. Yet Michael Vick may not have got the memo as he's making comments about the Eagles being good enough to become a dynasty, according to

    The Dallas Cowboys are no strangers to bold offseason comments. Jerry Jones is publicly vowing that the Cowboys will beat the Giants in Cowboys Stadium, even though the G-Men are 3-0 there (h/t Tim MacMahon,

    Really these teams are made to hate each other and this is a big reason why Eagles-Cowboys is one of the premier rivalries in the NFL. Last year was the rare season where this rivalry was irrelevant, as the Eagles swept the Cowboys by a combined score of 54-14.

    I can't see that happening again in 2012. With this game happening on the first Sunday in December, both the Cowboys and Eagles will desperately be fighting for a playoff berth. Although they've struggled in recent Decembers, the Cowboys will win this round in another classic game in this already classic rivalry.

    Dallas Cowboys: 18  Philadelphia Eagles: 13

Week 14: Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers

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    While the Green Bay Packers have undoubtedly been one of the best franchises of the past decade, the Detroit Lions have clearly been one of the worst. For 10 straight years the Lions failed to make the playoffs, reaching rock bottom with an 0-16 season in 2008.

    Well the Lions are terrible no more, as they grabbed a playoff berth in 2011. Their offense is now one of the most explosive ones in the league with Calvin Johnson and Matt Stafford rising up to the level of NFL superstars. The young team has now improved their record for three straight seasons and one more season of similar improvement will likely see the Lions host a playoff game. 

    The major obstacle in the way of that happening is the Packers. The Packers have owned the Lions recently as they have gone 12-2 against them since 2005. This includes an outright period of domination over the last four years with Aaron Rodgers 7-1 against them as a starter, most of those games being ugly blowouts.

    The Thanksgiving matchup between the Lions and Packers was a little closer, as the Packers edged the Lions 27-15. The Week 17 matchup was a lot closer as both teams played backups for the meaningless regular-season finale, which the Packers won 45-41.

    The Lions are clearly gaining on the Packers and 2012 could be the year they catch them. Since both teams have explosive offense, it could come down to who plays better defense. Though the Packers were ranked 32st in pass defense, they still led the league with 31 interceptions, and I really think Mike McCarthy will stress better defensive play this season.

    The Packers improved defensive play will make this game a little lower scoring than previous Lions-Packers games. Still it'll be close, as the Lions will fall just barely short of the Packers, losing by only a touchdown.

    Green Bay Packers: 25  Detroit Lions: 17

Week 15: San Francisco 49ers at New England Patriots

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    If these two teams are doing good, this Sunday night game will be billed as a Super Bowl preview. Considering how close they were to meeting in the Super Bowl last season, it's likely both teams will be deep in the playoff hunt here in mid-December.

    Whatever the records, the San Francisco 49ers face a daunting task going into Gillette Stadium and beating the New England Patriots there. The Patriots have literally lost there only once in the regular season the last three years. That loss was a narrow 24-20 loss to the Patriots' kryptonite, the New York Giants.

    For the 49ers to beat the Patriots, they will likely need to run the ball and control the clock. Even though the 49ers defense is one of the few that could slow the Patriots down, it's still going to be very hard with all of the Pats offensive weapons. The Patriots offense will cause the 49ers defense to bend, although they will do their best not to break.

    The 49ers' run game will look a little different in 2012. Frank Gore used to be the workhorse of the offense, now he's joined by LaMichael James, Brandon Jacobs and Kendall Hunter. Between these four rushers, Gore and James will stand atop the depth chart and they will get significant carries as they attempt to gash the Patriots defense and milk the clock down. 

    Let's not forget the other juicy storyline in this game. Randy Moss is making his return to Gillette Stadium and he could very well be the determining factor as to who wins this game. A motivated Moss can beat nearly any defense, but an unmotivated Moss will make no impact whatsoever.

    Moss has to be motivated to beat the Patriots after the way they traded him off in 2010. Between him, Gore and James, the 49ers will move the ball at ease against the Patriots defense. This will surprise some people, but I'm putting down the 49ers to hand the Patriots their worst home loss in four years.

    San Francisco 49ers: 34  New England Patriots: 17

Week 16: San Diego Chargers at New York Jets

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    This Week 16 matchup between the New York Jets and the San Diego Chargers could potentially have playoff implications. However, I think that both the Jets and the Chargers will be eliminated from their division races at this point. I also think that only one of these teams will still be alive in the wild-card race in Week 16. 

    The Jets ended 2011 on a seriously disturbing skid and I think it will carry over to this year. Rushing Tim Tebow on and off the field will only disrupt offensive rhythm. And with very few offensive weapons to work with, both Tebow and Mark Sanchez are being put in positions where it will be easy to fail.

    The Chargers, on the other hand, will be alive in December as they are in most seasons. This will leave their fans on the edge of the seat wondering in what spectacular way Norv Turner will have a coaching mishap for the Chargers and gut their hearts out again. 

    Well, the Jets will represent a trap game as they will be significantly worse record-wise than the Chargers. Of course come playoff time, the Chargers are capable of losing to almost everyone. So when the Jets defense sacks Philip Rivers and intercepts him twice, Chargers fans will begin freaking out.

    Though the Jets will capitalize on those turnovers, they will attempt to give away the game. This will leave a frantic fourth quarter where the Chargers finally come storming back. The Jets will get the win though, with a last-minute field goal, pushing the Chargers to the brink of missing the playoffs for the third year in a row.

    New York Jets: 24  San Diego Chargers: 21 

Week 17: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons

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    Here's my extra pick for the game that I think will end both the Sunday Night Football and the NFL season in 2012. While not one that many experts think will be meaningful, the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will have a lot to play for in Week 17. This, in fact, will be the game that determines the NFC South champion and who gets the NFC's fourth seed.

    The Falcons will have done their best to take advantage of the Saints' down-season thanks to Bountygate. With Tony Gonzalez playing lights out for his swan song season and Matt Ryan playing like he usually does in the regular season, the Falcons will have clinched their fifth consecutive winning season regardless of the result of this game. 

    The Bucs, meanwhile, will have quickly bought into the new culture demanded by rookie head coach Greg Schiano. Taking advantage of their last-place schedule, the Buccaneers will have clinched a winning record and will be one win away from their first playoff appearance since 2007. 

    With the game being in the Georgia Dome, the Falcons will enjoy their home-field advantage for this NFC South championship. Matty Ice will maintain his cool composure for this game as he attempts to outplay Bucs quarterback, the good but not great Josh Freeman.

    Ultimately the difference between quarterbacks will cost the Buccaneers. Viewers who were hoping for an epic battle between two evenly matched teams will be sorely disappointed. Although the circumstances will be drastically different from last year's regular-season finale, the Falcons will route the Buccaneers again and move on to claim their third consecutive playoff berth. 

    Atlanta Falcons: 23  Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 3