Penultimate is a super cool word, so it's only right that being next to last is often better than being the last. So it only makes sense that, like "Granite State" was the far superior hour of television than "Felina," the penultimate week of the 2013 NFL season will likely be better than the last.
Heading into Week 16, only four teams have clinched a postseason berth. Although logic and assumptions based on historical performance do give us a pretty good idea of what to expect, any number of possibilities remain.
After Sunday, though, it's likely that a majority of our playoff teams are cemented, with only a couple loose ends left to tie up. There are enough matchups with playoff connotations that, in theory, 11 of the 12 squads could be decided. Either the NFC North or the NFC East will have to determine a winner in Week 17.
It should all make for a fun, all-day viewing experience. Then again, let's not act like we'd turn away from the screen even if the NFL made us watch a never-ending loop of Houston-Jacksonville. This is NFL Sunday, dammit, and I need an excuse to ignore my family.
With that in mind, let's take a look at a few of the biggest games on the penultimate slate while offering selections for every contest against the spread. Because I am not 12.
Games of the Week
New Orleans Saints vs. Carolina Panthers (-3)
What do we make of the Saints' 31-13 evisceration of Carolina in Week 14? New Orleans is undefeated at home this season; was this merely a case of the Superdome overwhelming the up-and-coming Panthers, or are the Saints so wildly better than Cam Newton and Co. that a second beatdown is preordained on Sunday?
A victory for New Orleans locks up the NFC South. The two teams come in with matching 10-4 records, but the Saints would lock up the division and a first-round bye thanks to taking the head-to-head tiebreaker. Having already lost to Seattle, Sean Payton would very likely have the opportunity to rest his starters in Week 17 with the win.
There are more than a few reasons to think that clinching effort will be more difficult than the first victory. Despite the embarrassing loss, the Panthers had success in a couple key offensive areas that they could exploit on Sunday.
First and foremost, this should be a big afternoon for the run. Whether it's with the read-option or on the plain, old-fashioned handoff, if Newton throws 30 times, something has gone horribly wrong. The Panthers carved New Orleans for nearly six yards per run, taking advantage of Rob Ryan's aggressive schemes to find consistent space.
Those carries should be there again, as Ryan's best path to resistance involves pressuring Newton into poor reads. The Saints sent Cammy Cam to the turf seven times in Week 14, including five sacks. Junior Galette was a menace on the outside with three sacks, and Carolina's inability to protect the quarterback has been a bugaboo (Pro Football Focus subscription required) all season.
But the Panthers should be able to keep this game in the 20s, mostly because their defense is far better than they showed at the Superdome. Drew Brees threw four touchdowns, two apiece to Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham, as the Carolina pass rush proved unable to disrupt the pass. Fantastic as Brees is, though, I don't see a repeat coming.
The Panthers are just better, frankly, than what they showed. They're third in defensive DVOA and actually do better at stopping secondary receivers—of whom Brees loves finding—than WR1-heavy units. It's always a risk to believe in the younger team, but Carolina looks ready for the moment.
Score: Panthers 24, Saints 20
Arizona Cardinals vs. Seattle Seahawks (-10.5)
This whole the Seahawks being unstoppable at home thing is starting to get awkward. We're approaching the two-year calendar anniversary since Pete Carroll's bunch lost at CenturyLink Field. It's not quite the Miami Dolphins winning 27 consecutive homes games from 1971-1974, but considering how quickly things change in the modern era, the Seahawks' run is deserving of its plaudits.
So good are they at home that they're a 10.5-point favorite over arguably the nation's most underrated team. No matter how much we want to remember this team as the laughable group that once started Max Hall, John Skelton and a never-ending stream of other horrible quarterbacks, the Cardinals are pretty darned good.
After starting the season 3-4, Arizona has reeled off six wins in seven games and is the only wild-card monkey wrench left to dispatch. The Cardinals aren't a massive regression candidate, either. They're a fine 4-2 in one-possession games, and their plus-51 point differential is the sign of a pretty darn good team. Arizona ranks second in defensive DVOA, Carson Palmer isn't totally horrible (assuming he plays) and Andre Ellington is primed for a breakout.
You know. Assuming the Cardinals would ever use him. Even Carroll sees the improvement since Seattle's 34-22 victory in Week 7.
"They're just cleaner, sharper, better at everything," Carroll said, per the Seahawks' official website. "Their run defense is the best in the league. [Quarterback] Carson [Palmer] is really hitting it. They've really come together. You can see how efficient he's been in the last couple of months."
So why, then, does this feel like a blowout in the making? I'll tell you why—because it's Seattle. The Seahawks are the most complete team in football. Russell Wilson would be an MVP candidate if Peyton Manning wasn't lapping everyone, they're the league's best defense by a mile and even the special teams is a plus.
At home, Seattle is all those things on—nah, not going there. Only two teams all season long have gotten within two touchdowns of the Seahawks at home: Tennessee and Tampa Bay (do with that what you will).
I don't expect Arizona to be the third, even if the Cards are better than you'd expect.
Score: Seahawks 34, Cardinals 17
New England Patriots vs. Baltimore Ravens (-2.5)
This would be a fun rematch of last season's AFC Championship Game if the teams weren't so depressing.
Despite being able to clinch the AFC East and a likely first-round playoff bye on Sunday, it's hard to view the Patriots as a Super Bowl contender. The losses of Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo have irrevocably hurt what was an improved defense, and Rob Gronkowski's latest injury looks like it will only hamstring the New England offense.
Tom Brady needed 55 passes to throw for 364 yards. Brady has been under seven yards per completion in six of the Patriots' seven games without Gronkowski this season. Last week's dink-and-dunk offense run amok came after a run where Brady threw 12 touchdowns in a five-game span, never dipping below 6.88 yards per completion in a game.
While that's a strange cut-off point, it's indicative of New England's utter inability to strike down the field without Gronkowski. Without either of their two building-block tight ends, opposing teams can throw linebackers on Michael Hoomanawanui and smile like a Cheshire cat when it all works out.
The Ravens haven't had the same injury luck. They're just kind of a depressing team to watch. The highest-paid player in NFL history—otherwise known as Joe Flacco—has gone from Super Bowl hero to season-long goat. Flacco has already eclipsed his career-high interception total by five (17), and his 76.5 quarterback rating is also heading toward a worst.
Like Brady, Flacco just doesn't have any weapons. Torrey Smith has been very good, but he's still best as a secondary receiver and big-play threat. With Dennis Pitta missing much of the campaign, Anquan Boldin in the Bay Area and Ray Rice decomposing before our eyes, watching the Ravens offense has become about as entertaining as hearing your accountant explain deductible qualifications.
This game has two teams atop the marquee that sell themselves. The game itself will probably be a disappointment for anyone who likes high-scoring affairs. That said, the Pats and Ravens have such similarities in their offensive shortcomings, it's not hard to see this coming down to one possession. Baltimore's run-blocking has been so putrid that it's probably not going to be able to take advantage of Wilfork's absence. New England, despite the best efforts of Brady, won't move the needle consistently against a solid Baltimore unit.
So, who wins? Well, I for one will never count out Touchdown Tom.
Score: Patriots 23, Ravens 20
|Miami Dolphins||Buffalo Bills||MIA -2.5||Dolphins|
|New Orleans Saints||Carolina Panthers||CAR -3||Panthers|
|Dallas Cowboys||Washington Redskins||DAL -3||Redskins|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||St. Louis Rams||STL -5||Rams|
|Chicago Bears||Philadelphia Eagles||PHI -3||Bears|
|Cleveland Browns||N.Y. Jets||NYJ -2.5||Browns|
|Indianapolis Colts||Kansas City Chiefs||KC -6.5||Colts|
|Minnesota Vikings||Cincinnati Bengals||CIN -7.5||Bengals|
|Denver Broncos||Houston Texans||DEN -10.5||Broncos|
|Tennessee Titans||Jacksonville Jaguars||TEN -5||Jaguars|
|Arizona Cardinals||Seattle Seahawks||SEA -10.5||Seahawks|
|N.Y. Giants||Detroit Lions||DET -9||Giants|
|Oakland Raiders||San Diego Chargers||SD -10||Raiders|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||Green Bay Packers||N/A||Packers (win)|
|New England Patriots||Baltimore Ravens||BAL -2.5||Patriots|
|Atlanta Falcons||San Francisco 49ers||SF -13||49ers|
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