Bye weeks are finally over, which means a return to a full 16-game week. Every team has six games left, and roughly 17 teams are in serious contention for the 12 playoff spots.
The stuffing’s about to hit the fan, and several key games in Week 12 (especially in the NFC) should help sort things out better for what has been a wild season.
We get our annual three helpings of the NFL on Thursday, headlined by the AFC East clash on NBC between the Patriots and Jets.
The home-field advantage on Thursday is real, and home teams are 7-3 this season (32-15 on NFL Network in prime time since 2006).
Since we have had the three-game format (2006): Detroit has lost every year. Dallas is 5-1, and the home team in prime time is 5-1.
How about this year’s games?
Texans over Lions
Detroit has lost eight straight games on Thanksgiving, but check the recent strength of schedule: it is a ridiculous 75-15 (.833) since 2007. This is the fourth time in five years they will play the team with the best record in the league on Thanksgiving; the sixth year in a row they play a team ranked top three in scoring differential.
Talk about terrible luck with scheduling.
While Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson may be licking their chops to play a defense that allowed 236 yards to the never-deadly combo of Chad Henne and Justin Blackmon, it has not been anything like 2011 for these two players.
This would also be easily the biggest win of Stafford’s career based on quality of opponent and the national exposure of the game.
With unfamiliar opponents, we may see some offensive fireworks early on, but I expect Matt Schaub to lead another deadly offensive attack after coming off one of the best games of his career on Sunday.
Houston will want to show Sunday was an aberration and that they are still the best team in the AFC, so this is a good platform to do so.
Cowboys over Redskins
It is a classic NFC East rivalry with a new wrinkle. Namely, Robert Griffin III’s first start in the series.
Griffin is coming off a game with a “perfect” 158.3 passer rating (14-of-15 for 200 yards and four touchdowns), but do not be fooled by the passing numbers. Philadelphia’s defense could not have made it much easier on Griffin, who will find things much tougher in Dallas.
While the stadium is beautiful, it has not created much of an advantage for the Cowboys. They are just 15-13 (.536) in Cowboys Stadium since opening in 2009. Last week, the Browns almost won there before a big comeback led by Romo, who has gone three straight games without an interception.
Romo has played his two worst games of the season (Bears, Giants) at home. He threw nine interceptions, but those were against ball-hawking defenses. The Redskins have a very poor pass defense Romo should be able to exploit. Last season, he led two comeback wins over the Redskins.
Of the three games on Thursday, this one has the best chance of being close late, which actually should favor Dallas. Washington has allowed a league-worst 25 game-winning drives since 2007, which include five to the Cowboys and four to 2012 opponents.
Dallas may not be great at home overall, but they are 12-4 in this building against teams without a winning record. Sometimes lost in all the hype for Griffin is that Washington is just a 4-6 team with a highlight win coming against Minnesota in Week 6.
Going with Mr. November on Thanksgiving again.
Patriots over Jets
This is possibly New York’s season on the line. A huge upset win and they could get on a roll as the rest of their five games are all winnable. But getting this one would give them the confidence needed to go on such a run.
Of course, the Jets are anything but a consistent team, never winning two straight this year. That can be characterized by Mark Sanchez’s very erratic quarterback play, which ranges from simply awful to okay this season.
One of his best games did come in New England when the Jets forced the Patriots to overtime in a 29-26 loss.
But you never know what to expect when these teams play. The Jets went from a 45-3 defeat in New England to 2010 to a stunning playoff upset a month later. No one expected overtime earlier this season.
On a short week, they do have home field, they know the Patriots well, and it might be a great game.
No Rob Gronkowski for New England will be interesting to watch, as the tight end is such a huge part of their offense, and has been an absolute terror for the Jets in particular. Gronkowski had two touchdowns in each of the last two meetings.
But even without Gronkowski, the Patriots still have three or four receivers better than the Jets’ best weapon, so they will have to counter with some takeaways or very long possessions.
New England has just seven giveaways, which ranks No. 1 in the league. They also have 27 takeaways. Tom Brady has barely been touched in recent weeks, and the Jets are not a great pass-rushing team anyway.
Hard to see the Jets pull this one out, but crazier things have happened in this rivalry.
By the way, after pulling out an overtime win in Miami in Week 3, the Jets came back in Week 8 with a home game and the Dolphins crushed them, 30-9. Will history repeat itself in Week 12 with the Patriots blowing out the Jets after Week 7’s close win?
Things have not been very close for the Patriots ever since.
49ers at Saints: Can Kaepernick keep it up?
Jim Harbaugh cannot be thankful for the tough position he was put in after Colin Kaepernick’s incredible first career start on Monday night in a win over Chicago.
On the road against a hot team with a great quarterback and offense, do you go with the guy who beat them in the playoffs with a ridiculous performance last season, or your young, healthy, flashy new guy?
But one thing is for sure, Kaepernick will be playing a defense far worse than the one he expertly picked apart in his first start. This is about as close as it gets from playing the best defense to playing the worst defense, which means high expectations on Kaepernick.
The Saints are 5-1 after their 0-4 start. Drew Brees has picked up his game, they are at home, and while the defense is still getting gashed, they have picked up their situational play in the red zone, key stops and getting some takeaways.
New Orleans has allowed at least 400 yards of offense in all 10 games this season. That is the worst streak in NFL history for one season.
The single-season record is 11 games (non-consecutive) by the 2011 Packers and 2009 Chiefs, so they will likely break that mark for futility as well.
San Francisco is going to move the ball in this game, because that’s what everyone does on this defense. The 49ers had 407 yards of offense in their playoff win over the Saints, who have allowed 400-plus yards in 12 straight games when you include the postseason.
The question is will Kaepernick still have the same red-zone success, or execute on third down to match Brees, who has done very well in his career against the 49ers (5-1 record, 16 TD, 4 INT, 103.8 passer rating).
Having already knocked off the 8-0 Falcons, this would be another huge step forward in the playoff push for the Saints as they continue to dig out of the hole. A loss would mean 5-6, and potentially a season-ender.
But I think what we saw on Monday was legit from Kaepernick, and am going to believe in Harbaugh and pick the better team, the 49ers, to win this game.
Steelers at Browns: Cleveland’s Super Bowl
Put the Steelers (6-4) on upset alert this week.
Without Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu and Antonio Brown, this is a vulnerable team, and the Browns are very competitive. Their -45 point differential is the 14th best by a team 2-8 or worse since 1940.
The top team on that list (2005 Packers) lost at home to a Pittsburgh team starting Charlie Batch, who was just 9-of-16 passing for 65 yards and an interception. Troy Polamalu returned a Brett Favre fumble for a touchdown in a 20-10 win.
That was a team capable of winning the Super Bowl, which they did. The 2012 Steelers have a few too many injuries and holes to be a lock to win this game.
Cleveland’s problem is their lack of finishing games; hence their 1-6 record at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities with Brandon Weeden directing the offense.
Cleveland will be sure to treat this one as their Super Bowl, just because it is Pittsburgh. Batch should provide some more consistency to the offense than an ailing Byron Leftwich, but do not expect a big stat line.
This one has fourth-quarter drama written all over it. Pittsburgh’s pass rush will not get to Weeden, so he must make accurate throws and these receivers have to come up with plays to pull out the upset.
Pittsburgh is 23-4 (.852) against Cleveland since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999, but the ingredients are here this week for one of the more competitive games between the two rivals.
Cleveland wants this one, but Pittsburgh desperately needs it to make the playoffs.
For the record, my season picks stand at 105-54-1 (.659).
Colts over Bills – Andrew Luck plays much better at home than on the road, as do the rest of the Colts. Buffalo has allowed a league-worst 181 points on the road (30th in points per game at 30.2). Reggie Wayne is the first receiver since 1960 to have at least 70 receiving yards in every game (through 10 games). I like the Colts to put last week behind them and come away with a seventh win.
Broncos over Chiefs – Lock of the week. Of course, last week’s lock was nearly a disaster with Houston, but come on. Peyton Manning against Brady Quinn and the worst team in the league? In Indianapolis (1998-2010), Manning was 96-20 (.828) against teams without a winning record. Four of the losses were in his rookie season. Romeo Crennel may have some past success against Manning’s style of offense, but what is Quinn going to do against Von Miller and the Denver defense? These are not your 2004 Chiefs.
Falcons over Buccaneers – This should be a great game with a lot of scoring. Atlanta has looked shaky the last two weeks, but Matt Ryan should bounce back well as Tampa Bay’s pass defense has been porous all season. Four of Josh Freeman’s failed comeback attempts have come against the Falcons, a team he holds a 1-5 record and 70.7 passer rating against.
Bengals over Raiders – It would be so “Bungles” of the Bengals to lose at home to Carson Palmer and Oakland, but Andy Dalton and A.J. Green (touchdown reception in nine straight games) should have a huge day. Palmer will have a huge day too, but only if you are into things like hollow passing yards and garbage-time touchdowns.
Seahawks over Dolphins – Long trip and early start for Seattle, but if their young defense shows up ready to play, it is going to be very tough for Ryan Tannehill to generate points. The Miami offense has 13 points in the last 10 quarters, and that has been against three of the worst defenses in football. Both of these offenses have been very unpredictable this season in terms of their production. I just give the edge to Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch leading their team to more points than Miami with Tannehill and Reggie Bush.
Titans over Jaguars – Was last week a fluke for Chad Henne and Justin Blackmon? We will see now that Blaine Gabbert is done for the season. I still like Tennessee to have a more balanced offense with Chris Johnson getting back on track in what could be a high-scoring game in the first meeting between the two AFC South rivals this season.
Bears over Vikings – This is a big game in the NFC, and after Monday night’s embarrassing loss in San Francisco, expect the Chicago defense to get back on track. While Adrian Peterson may still have another big day, it is hard to see Christian Ponder getting the job done against the Bears, who desperately need Jay Cutler back at quarterback.
Ravens over Chargers – I am willing to put Baltimore on upset alert. They lost 34-14 in San Diego last season, though the Chargers do not look capable of that effort right now. It is hard to trust Joe Flacco on the road, but it is even harder to trust Philip Rivers in any stadium right now. San Diego still does not have a quality win this season, with half of their total coming against the Chiefs. Baltimore should find more offense than they did in Pittsburgh (six points).
Rams over Cardinals – Ryan Lindley is expected to make his first start for the Cardinals. St. Louis already won in St. Louis, 17-3, earlier this season, and I like the way they have been playing better than the Cardinals. Lindley is a real wild card, though one thing we can expect from an Arizona quarterback: he is going to get sacked several times. A loss would put Arizona in last place in the NFC West after starting 4-0.
Packers over Giants – Tough game to pick here. Packers have been hot in terms of record, but much closer to “lukewarm” the last three games when you watch them play. Giants have been in one of their usual slumps, but had the bye week to try to get right. I still trust Eli Manning more than Aaron Rodgers with the game on the line, and we know the Packers always make a game of it every single week. Just not sold the Giants have enough going on both sides of the ball to get this win. Rodgers is outplaying Manning, and the Green Bay defense is starting to rack up takeaways again. Either way, just hoping for a good prime time game in a season full of duds.
Eagles over Panthers – Even Mike Tirico knows this game is terrible. ESPN was hoping for a battle of the overrated quarterbacks (Michael Vick and Cam Newton), but that’s unlikely to happen. Instead they get teams with a combined five wins and Nick Foles. You could flip a coin here, but let’s just go with the home team ending some of Andy Reid’s misery on this six-game losing streak. Then again, Carolina continues to lose close games while the Eagles have lost by at least 13 points the last four weeks.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.