Bye-bye, bye weeks and hello official start to the playoff push. Okay, with seven weeks left in the season, maybe it's too early to call it the playoff push, but many of these games could be the games that decide who's in and who's out two months from now. The AFC west and all sorts of matchups with wild card implications are on the docket. Last week saw just about everything. The game of the year, players trying not to score touchdowns, the Rams challenging the Saints and a punter with a perfect QB rating. What's in store this week? Glad you asked.
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ThursdayMiami vs. Carolina
Panthers and Wildcats. Both teams come into this game at 4-5, but the Panthers have won four-of-six including last week's victory over Atlanta. Jake Delhomme hasn't thrown a pick in three weeks, so Carolina fans will hope he hasn't been saving them for the Thursday night game like Jay Cutler did last week. The Dolphins' wildcat has an injured paw as its top back and trigger man, Ronnie Brown, is out for the year. The majority of the extra carries will go to Ricky Williams, and probably a few to new number two, Lex Hilliard. Look for Pat White to see extra action out of the single-wing formation, but the Panthers win this one at home.
New Orleans vs. Tampa
Trailing by eight games with only seven to play, the Bucaneers are mathematically eliminated from the NFC South race. If only the Bucs had pulled it out last week against Miami or the Saints had tripped up against the Rams this game would still have playoff implications, if only a technicality. Sigh. The Saints are without two starting cornerbacks but signed former prow-bowler Chris McCalister on Tuesday and that should be enough to keep up with Bucs rookie QB, Josh Freman. Should be a return to form for the Saints and a blow out win in central Florida.
San Francisco vs. Green Bay
The Packers are one of four teams tied for the NFC wild card lead at 5-4 and the Niners are one of three teams tied at 4-5, only a game behind. Both teams' defenses looked good last week and held their opponents to under ten points apiece. San Fran's offense didn't look as good as Green Bay's, but Frank Gore has been solid when healthy and Coach Mike Singletary has found a way to get the most out of TE super-athlete Vernon Davis. The Niners haven't won at Lambeau since 1990, and don't look for Aaron Rodgers to throw five interceptions against the Pack a la Jay Cutler in week 10. Green Bay wins.
Washington vs. Dallas
A couple weeks ago, this rivalry matchup looked like a sure-fire landslide. Dallas once looked hot and the Skins were so bad, Dan Snyder publicly admitted his embarrassment. But, we can't live in the past, now can we? The Cowboys looked out of sorts in Green Bay and Washington stunned the Broncos, but unless the Redskins have more trick plays and get another touchdown from punter Hunter Smith, it's probably still going to be a victory for the Cowboys.
Atlanta vs. New York Giants
With both teams at 5-4, this game could wind up being the deciding factor when NFC wild cards are dealt out. The Giants have lost four in a row, but are coming off a bye week and are starting to get their defense healthy. Another bonus for the Giants is that Michael Turner is looking very questionable for Sunday's game with a high ankle sprain. Turner rushed for 111 yards on just nine carries last week in Charlotte before being hurt. The road team has won the last 12 times these two teams have matched up, but that trend won't make it to 13. Giants at home.
Cleveland vs. Detroit
Two towns that have been hit hard recently facing off in a game that means little more than pride. How bad has it been in these rust-belt cities? Cleveland's coach and quarterback both genuinely want LeBron James to join the team right now to save the season and Detroit's former stadium, which was constructed for over $55 million dollars, was just sold for less than 600,000 dollars. It's a heck of an investment for the buyers, but not a good sign for the town. No one wins in this game.
Buffalo vs. Jacksonville
Bill Belicheck wasn't the only coach to make a gutsy call last week. Jack Del Rio of Jacksonville intentionally kept his team out of the end zone while trailing by one late in the fourth. Unlike, Bill, however, Jack's move led to a win. It's a good thing too, as it keeps the Jaguars in the wild card mix at 5-4, just one game out. The Bills' big news is that Dick Jauron is out and coordinator Perry Fewell is planning to get the team to "play like hell." Hey, the Bills looked good week one vs. New England, why not turn things around with the new guy? (Plus I need Marshawn Lynch to step up and replace Ronnie Brown on my fantasy team). Bills take some air of the Jaguars' tires.
Pittsburgh vs. Kansas City
Steelers get rebound from a tough loss against Cincinnati and probably score a few touchdowns, unlike last week. Kansas City beat Oakland last week, but that's not saying much. The Chiefs haven't won back-to-back games since weeks six and seven of 2007. That streak will continue.
Indianapolis vs. Baltimore
The Colts head to Baltimore riding an 18-game regular-season winning streak and coming off a memorable come-from-behind victory against New England. The Ravens played the Browns, so no one is expected to remember anything that happened in their game. What did happen was the Ravens D holding the Browns to just 99 passing yards, but Brady Quinn is no Peyton Manning and Mohammed Massaquoi is not a Reggie Wayne, and may not even be a Pierre Garcon for that matter. Baltimore will be without linebacker Terrell Suggs who suffered a knee injury on Monday night on a Brady Quinn chop-block. Joe Flacco has been inconsistent of late and the Ravens have a new kicker, Billy Cundiff. Indy has beaten the Ravens five straight times and Ray Lewis and Ed Reed will keep things close, Indy will make it six straight.
Seattle vs. Minnesota
At 8-1, the Vikings are one of the best teams in the league, but they looked sloppy and committed 13 penalties last week against the Lions. Adrian Peterson, whose 917 rushing yards are second most in the NFL, fumbled twice and looks to have a better showing at home against Seattle. The Seahawks are three games out in the west and have lost both games against the Cardinals, so their playoff hopes are basically for a wild card only, but at 3-6 they're two games back in that race. T.J. Houshmandzadeh has been coming on strong and even predicted the Seahawks "won't lose another game." While confidence and enthusiasm are to be admired, it's a bit unlikely. Vikings right the ship.
Arizona vs. St. Louis
Kurt Warner returns to St. Louis again where he has fared well in his career. The former Rams MVP and super bowl winner leads a high-powered offense against a St. Louis defense that ranks 28th overall. The Rams looked like an actual professional team last week at home against New Orleans, shockingly winning the turnover battle (3-1) and the yardage total (434-420), but once again this opponent should be too much anyway. It's usually good to take the Cardinals in St. Louis, on the diamond and the gridiron.
New York Jets vs. New England
Rex Ryan was moved to tears this week when meeting with his team. You don't get that kind of emotion out of Bill Belicheck, who will likely go for it on 4th-and-2 again this week if given the opportunity. When these teams met in week the Jets defense just plain dominated the Pats offense. Lately, though that defense has become less dominant and the Pats offense seems to be as good as ever. New England has a two-game lead on the New York in the east. Come Sunday evening it will be a three-game lead.
San Diego vs. Denver
After week six when Denver went into San Diego and won the Broncos had a three-and-a-half game lead. Just three-and-a-half weeks later and the lead is gone. The Broncos have dropped three in a row since their week seven bye week and the Chargers have streaked to four in a row. The Broncos shocking loss to the Redskins last week can be put partly on the fact that starting QB Kyle Orton missed the second half with an injury, but it doesn't excuse the defense's inability to stop a Washington offense that has been pretty lousy this season and relies on a punter to score TDs. The Chargers rely on Philip Rivers, LaDanian Tomlinson and host of other players who are paid to put the ball in the end zone, not kick it near the goal line. Chargers continue their surge.
Cincinnati vs. Oakland
Cincinnati should destroy the Raiders. The Bengals' defense has been outstanding and held a powerful Pittsburgh offense without a touchdown last week. Does anyone thing JaMarcus Russell can do something Ben Roethlisberger could not? Everyone should look forward to whatever celebration Chad Ochocinco has in store. Bengals. Big.
Philadelphia vs. Chicago
This is another game that could determine the NFC wild card as the Eagles are 5-4 and the Bears 4-5. Brian Westbrook is out again for Philly, which has lost two straight. Of course the injury isn't good news, but LeSean McCoy has been capable in Westbrook's stead and should do just fine. Chicago is wondering what on Earth is going on with its QB, Jay Cutler, who leads the league in interceptions with 17, five of which came last week. Cutler threw 18 total last season. Cutler needs to be better as the Bears' running game ranks 30th in the league and the Eagles' rank ninth in rush defense. Philly gets the much needed win.
Tennessee vs. Houston
The Titans have gone from dreadful to dreaded in the last three weeks. Some will say it's been Vince Young, and others will say it's been Bud Adams's intimidating middle fingers, but it's more likely the defense getting healthier and the eye-popping play of Chris Johnson, who leads the NFL in rushing yards and ran for 197 of them against the Texans in week two. Meanwhile, Houston has issues at running back with Steve Slaton struggling to protect the ball and Ryan Moats showing flashes of brilliance but no consistency. Things are getting awkward, but at least Matt Schaub continues to have little problem throwing the ball all over the park. The question in the game may be if it's Chris Johnson or Houston wideout Andre Johnson has the bigger day. Andre has a giant day: Houston wins at home on Monday.