With just two weeks left in the NFL regular season, more than half of the teams are fighting for position in the playoffs.
At the same time, the disparity between top and bottom teams has widened, and a look across Sunday's schedule yields three double-digit point spreads.
The Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers are each favored to win by 10 points or more, but it's unlikely all three will succeed at that. On the other hand, it's just as unlikely that all three underdogs will surprise and either win or stay close.
With 65 prediction articles in the books and a record of 40-18 with seven ties, I'll put two underdogs and a favorite to the test and hope to hit the bull's-eye on two of them.
Read on for the reasons why.
Oakland Raiders (+10) vs. San Diego Chargers
If you have to count the number of turnovers committed on two hands, you know it was a sloppy game. That's the reality the Oakland Raiders faced after last week's 56-31 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, which featured five interceptions and two lost fumbles.
Here's the good news: It's unlikely to happen again this week.
The Raiders will head down to San Diego for a division rivalry and a rematch against a team they beat earlier this season in Oakland. While the San Diego Chargers are barely alive for the playoffs, the Raiders will be looking to make up for their embarrassment last weekend.
History is on their side for a few reasons.
Not only are the Raiders 7-0 against the spread as an underdog in this series, but NFL teams tend to play noticeably better the week following a game featuring seven or more turnovers.
It happened just twice last season, but look no further than the Arizona Cardinals for an example. After a 58-0 loss at Seattle where they turned the ball over eight times, the Cardinals surprised everyone the following week and knocked off the Detroit Lions as a six-point underdog.
But the difference between Arizona's 58-0 loss and the Raiders' 56-31 loss is simply the score. At least the Raiders scored 31 points. They could have quit when the score was 35-10 late in the second quarter, but instead, the team showed some fight and desire by scoring three consecutive touchdowns to cut the lead to 35-31 before the Chiefs pulled away.
Despite the final score, the Raiders still outgained the Chiefs by 77 yards.
Matt McGloin threw five interceptions, but the youngster will be eager to get back on track against San Diego and make a case for the starting quarterback job next season.
Even though the Chargers are still alive for a playoff game, this is a division rivalry. And in such a situation, as always, expect the team that isn't alive to play hard.
However, if the Miami Dolphins win versus the Buffalo Bills earlier in the day, Philip Rivers will be playing for pride and making plans to spend January with his six children instead of a road trip in the playoffs.
Through all of this, look for the Raiders offense to cut down on the turnovers and for the defense to settle down after allowing 30 or more points in each of its last three games.
Take Oakland plus the points
Arizona Cardinals vs. Seattle Seahawks (-10)
The Cardinals had a chance to make up for their 58-0 loss at Seattle last season when the NFL scheduled a Thursday night home game between the two teams this season.
They blew it.
Managing only 230 yards of offense, the Cardinals were pushed and shoved around the field in a 34-22 loss back in October.
Eight games later, the Seahawks can wrap up home-field advantage with a win over Arizona once again.
Considering their performance in the last two games against the Seahawks, the Cardinals don't match up well against them. Having lost by double-digits to the two best teams they played besides the Seahawks (the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers), perhaps they don't match up well with any of the NFL's best.
Defensively, the Cardinals are ranked seventh in total yardage, but the Seahawks are No. 1. Having to fly across the country for a 1 p.m. ET game in the East and shutting out Eli Manning and the New York Giants, the unit proved it is no fluke. This came on a day that featured record scoring, as NFL teams combined for 763 points to break the previous one-day record, according to Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times.
Not for the Giants, though.
“There was just no phase of any aspect of what we were doing that wasn’t on it. The pressure was great, the run defense was there, the coverage was excellent, and the playmaking was there, too,’’ head coach Pete Carroll said, via Condotta. "Our tackling is the best it’s been."
Considering the Seahawks' 14-game home winning streak, combined with the defense hitting its best, the Cardinals and Carson Palmer, who suffered a low-grade ankle sprain against the Tennessee Titans, may be in for a long day.
Palmer (21 TDs, 17 INTs) has one of the best receivers in the league in Larry Fitzgerald, but one must wonder how effective the star will be after suffering a concussion against Tennessee. Regardless, Russell Wilson (24 TDs, 8 INTs) has played better and more consistently. And unlike Palmer, he can run with the ball.
It's a lot of points to be favored by against a winning team. But if the Seahawks can go into Arizona, overcome the Cardinals' desire to avenge last season's 58-0 loss and win by double-digit points on national television, then expect them to do the same in front of their loud fans in their home stadium.
Take Seattle minus the points
Denver Broncos vs. Houston Texans (+10.5)
They are just 2-12 on the season, but don't say the competitiveness isn't there. Prior to last week's 25-3 loss versus the Indianapolis Colts, the Houston Texans had lost each of their last seven games by an average of just over four points. This weekend, they can help salvage a miserable season with an upset of the AFC's top team.
Matt Schaub will regain the starting quarterback controls after a tumultuous season that included being benched, booed and cheered—at the wrong times—in front of the home crowd.
If it weren't bad enough that some Houston fans cheered when Schaub went down with an injury in the St. Louis Rams game, they picked up where they left off and started booing when he replaced Case Keenum a month later.
One would have thought it was a road game for the Texans when they had to use a silent count on offense because fans started booing so loudly when Schaub entered the game versus Oakland. Except it was their own crowd.
All those negative boos can be replaced with positive cheers if Schaub leads his team to a victory—or at least a strong performance—against the Broncos. He'll have the fourth-ranked defense to help him out.
The Broncos lead the league in offense, but they have been beatable lately, with three losses in their last eight games. They have failed to win any of their last five road games by double-digit points.
Denver is also coming off its first home loss of the season, in which the Chargers employed a clock-control strategy, played keepaway from Peyton Manning and held the ball for nearly 40 minutes.
From a coaching standpoint, the NFL is a copycat league, and hopefully Wade Phillips was taking notes.
It's a tall task, but redemption, pride and satisfaction will all be on the line this weekend for the Texans.
They are riddled with injury, most notably to Arian Foster and Ben Tate, but Matt Schaub has something to prove. If some of the younger players can step up and the team can pull off the upset, they will send themselves, their fans and the entire sports community of Houston home with an early Christmas present and a positive feeling for the holidays.
Even if they come up short, expect the Broncos to get Houston's best shot.
Take Houston plus the points