NFL Picks Week 15: Bleacher Report's Expert Consensus Picks

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystDecember 16, 2015

NFL Picks Week 15: Bleacher Report's Expert Consensus Picks

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    Brian Blanco/Associated Press

    Madness. Mayhem. Medics. Mack.

    All played a big part in Week 14 in the NFL.

    The first and last were large and in charge in Denver, where Khalil Mack's five (yes, five) sacks powered the Oakland Raiders to an upset of the Denver Broncos.

    The middle two took up residence during a chippy game in the Queen City, where the Cincinnati Bengals lost not only a game to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but also quarterback Andy Dalton to a potentially season-ending thumb injury.

    Add it all up, and the playoff picture is even cloudier than before. Games are becoming that much more difficult to predict.

    Any given Sunday, and all that.

    Still, with the postseason push in full swing, that won't stop the National Lead Writers and NFL Analysts here at Bleacher Report from trying to break down how Week 15 will unfold, beginning with a thrilling duel in the Gateway City.

Roll Call/Standings

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    It's starting to look like this just might be the Year of the Freeman.

    For much of the 2015 season, NFL National Lead Writer Mike Freeman has been either in the overall lead among our writers or just off the pace. Once again, in Week 14, Freeman tied for the top spot, widening his overall lead with 10 correct selections.

    Oh, and our panel managed to once again be unanimously wrong. OK, twice. The entire panel picked the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to defeat the New Orleans Saints and the Detroit Lions to down the St. Louis Rams.

    Gary Davenport: NFL Analyst 9-7 (125-83)

    Mike Freeman: NFL National Lead Writer 10-6 (129-79)

    Brad Gagnon: NFL Analyst 10-6 (123-85)

    Matt Miller: NFL National Lead Writer 9-7 (127-81)

    Ty Schalter: NFL National Lead Writer 10-6 (114-94)

    Brent Sobleski: NFL Analyst 9-7 (123-85)

    Mike Tanier: NFL National Lead Writer 7-9 (117-91)

    Sean Tomlinson: NFL Analyst 9-7 (122-86)

     

    Consensus: 8-8 (126-82)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7) at St. Louis Rams (5-8)

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The Pick: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-1)

    Every time it looks like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers just might be ready to throw their hat in the NFC playoff race, they stumble. They get to .500 and then lose a game they should probably win.

    Such was the case in Week 14, when the Buccaneers fell 24-17 to a New Orleans Saints team taking defensive deficiency to the next level.

    The loss featured more than a bit of squabbling on the Tampa sideline, but as ESPN.com's Rick Brown reported, Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith didn't especially mind:

    Defensive line coach Joe Cullen was seen in a confrontation with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Mike Evans argued with an official after an offensive pass interference call and later got a personal foul after ripping a helmet off. Even head coach Lovie Smith, who is mainly even-tempered on the sideline, was in the face of his defense after the club fell behind 14-0.

    These events happen on NFL sidelines every week but are rarely seen on the Tampa Bay sideline. Smith said he liked the fire and that no one should be happy with their performance after a loss.

    "I'm always gauging the mood, but it's not a bad thing to be upset after (Sunday)," Smith said Monday. "If you can find somebody who wasn't upset, then we have a problem." ...

    ... "I have no issues with what happened on our sideline or how everyone reacted to that performance yesterday," Smith said. "That was disappointment. Sometimes in disappointment, emotions come out a little bit. I have no issue with it at all. I really like it."

    With one exception, the panel believes the Buccaneers will take out those frustrations on the St. Louis Rams on Thursday night.

    Rams: Captain Upset (Schalter)

    Buccaneers: Davenport, Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson

New York Jets (8-5) at Dallas Cowboys (4-9)

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    The Pick: New York Jets (8-0)

    It's that time of year again. With the college football regular season over, the NFL is spreading its talons across the rest of the weekend by offering a Saturday night tilt between the Jets and Cowboys.

    For the Cowboys, it's just a matter of playing out the string in what's been a wildly disappointing season.

    For the Jets, however, there's much more at stake. If the season ended today, the Jets would be a playoff team, but with the 8-5 Pittsburgh Steelers nipping at their heels, there's no margin for error for Gang Green.

    Believe it or not, as ESPN.com's Rich Cimini pointed out, the Jets could win out and miss the postseason:

    The Jets, Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers -- all 8-5 -- are the prime contenders for the two wild-card spots. If they all win out, the Jets will be the odd team out based on a three-way tiebreaker with the Chiefs and Steelers.

    It's a quirky situation because, as of this moment, the Jets hold the No. 6 seed. In theory, they could lose ground even if they continue to win. Why? Because they'd lose out to the Chiefs based on conference record and they'd lose out to the Steelers based on record against common opponents.

    The Jets are 6-4 in the conference, while the Chiefs are 7-2. The Steelers are 5-4.

    No pressure, New York.

    Jets: Davenport, Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson

    Cowboys: If they had any sense, they'd tank in hopes of attaining the highest possible draft pick. Luckily, they have Matt Cassel, so they may not even have to try to tank.

Carolina Panthers (13-0) at New York Giants (6-7)

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    MIKE MCCARN/Associated Press

    The Pick: Carolina Panthers (6-2)

    The Carolina Panthers are three wins this side of becoming only the second team in NFL history to post a 16-0 regular season. Win No. 13 came in as emphatic a fashion as possible, in the form of a 38-0 pasting of the floundering Atlanta Faceplants.

    Falcons, whatever.

    The Panthers drew some heat in the media this week after gathering for a group "Dab" photo before the Atlanta game ended, but head coach Ron Rivera told Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer he isn't going to tell his players to stop having fun:

    As long as our guys aren’t doing anything malicious or hurting anybody, I’m not going to worry about those things. One thing I did tell these guys, 'Keep your personality. Keep true to who you are.' ... If we’re disappointing some people, I apologize for that. But this is who we are and this is how we’re going to do our thing.

    This week's trip to the Big Apple may well represent the biggest obstacle standing between the Panthers and that perfect season. After all, the New York Giants have something of a reputation for slaying Goliath.

    Just ask the last team to post a 16-0 regular season (the 2007 New England Patriots). Or the 1998 Denver Broncos, who traveled to New York 13-0 and left 13-1.

    Of course, the 2015 Giants also have a reputation for bad pass defense (32nd in the NFL at 308.4 yards allowed per game) and blown fourth-quarter leads.

    The former could be a big problem Sunday. The latter, they probably won't have to worry about.

    Panthers: Davenport, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson

    Giants: Freeman, Gagnon

Chicago Bears (5-8) at Minnesota Vikings (8-5)

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    The Pick: Minnesota Vikings (8-0)

    Twice in the last month, the Minnesota Vikings have had a chance to make a statement—to show that they are legitimate contenders in the NFC.

    And in a home loss to the Green Bay Packers and a road loss to the Arizona Cardinals, twice the Vikings have failed.

    That loss last week to Arizona was Minnesota's third in four games, but as ESPN.com's Ben Goessling detailed, the Purple People Eaters are still well-positioned to be playing football in January:

    The Vikings (8-5) will enter Week 15 as one of only five NFC teams with fewer than seven losses. No matter what happens around the conference in Weeks 15 and 16, they can clinch a playoff spot by winning back-to-back home games against the Chicago Bears and New York Giants. And while they'd be marching into a thicket of tiebreaking procedures if they win only one of their final three, they'd still have a good chance to reach the playoffs, considering the teams chasing them for a wild-card spot are all 6-7 or worse. Essentially, if the Vikings get to nine wins, one of the teams chasing them would have to win out just to be tied with them. And if they get to 10 wins, they're in no matter what.

    They're also in control of their own chances to win the NFC North, despite the Green Bay Packers pulling ahead of them in the division with a victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. If the Vikings win their final three games -- including a victory over the Packers at Lambeau Field in Week 17 -- they would at worst be tied with Green Bay at 11-5 and would win the division by virtue of a better division record (5-1 to 3-3). Even if the Vikings lost to the Bears on Sunday, they'd have a chance to win the division title as long as they're within a game of the Packers by the time the two teams meet.

    It's simple. Take care of business the next three weeks, and the Vikings will win the division.

    And where the first of those challenges are concerned, our experts expect the Vikes to answer the call.

    Bears: Of course, there is the matter of our penchant for being unanimously wrong.

    Vikings: Davenport, Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson

Atlanta Falcons (6-7) at Jacksonville Jaguars (5-8)

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    STEPHEN B. MORTON/Associated Press

    The Pick: Jacksonville Jaguars (5-3)

    The Atlanta Falcons were 5-0 this season.

    For reals.

    Since that hot start, though, it's been disaster meets catastrophe meets apocalypse, culminating in last week's 38-0 thrashing at the hands of the Carolina Panthers.

    Meanwhile, the Jaguars were doing some thrashing of their own, dropping 51 points on the Indianapolis Colts in one of the franchise's most impressive outings in, well, ever.

    And according to Bleacher Report's Evan Reier, there's a word floating around Florida's Gulf Coast that hasn't been heard in a good long while: playoffs.

    The three games remaining are all winnable, and if the Jaguars want a realistic chance at the playoffs and the division title, they have to win out. They can't rely on the Colts or the Texans to drop games. Their hope rests on winning.

    That would've seemed like an unlikely possibility before last Sunday, but the Jaguars showed a new side of themselves in their second-half rally. We've seen the team have spurts of dominance, but more often than not, the second half is the weaker of the two periods.

    But that wasn't the case on Sunday, and that's a legitimate reason to think they may have overcome some issues. They've looked close to making the leap all season, but each glimmer of hope has been met with disappointment.

    In Week 6, this prediction would have looked like absolute lunacy.

    And if it holds true, the Falcons will have found whatever comes after the apocalypse.

    Falcons: Davenport, Miller, Tanier

    Jaguars: Freeman, Gagnon, Schalter, Tanier, Tomlinson

Houston Texans (6-7) at Indianapolis Colts (6-7)

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    George Bridges/Associated Press

    The Pick: Indianapolis Colts (4-4) ***COIN FLIP***

    On Sunday, the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts will meet with first place in the AFC South on the line.

    And neither team has any earthly clue who their starting quarterback will be.

    It appears at this point that the Texans will have to turn to T.J. Yates after starter Brian Hoyer suffered his second concussion of the season in last week's loss to the New England Patriots. Yates, who won a playoff game for the team back in 2011, told Deepi Sidhu of the team's website he's ready:

    I am just going to prepare like I do every single week and just get ready to play if that needs to be. ...

    ... Going up there before, played there before, started there, it’s not a new territory that I have never been, but so many things are going to be different. The situation is still kind of the same for what’s on the line. We have to go up there and win, that’s the number one goal, that’s the only thing that matters right now.

    The Colts have quarterback issues of their own. Andrew Luck is still on the shelf, and backup Matt Hasselbeck was forced out of last week's blowout loss to Jacksonville twice with hand and rib injuries.

    However, head coach Chuck Pagano told Mike Wells of ESPN.com the 40-year-old Hasselbeck should be ready for Sunday's must-win affair: "Yeah, I'm hopeful. He's banged up, like a lot of the guys. He's a warrior. He came back in that game after taking a few good licks. Matt is a tough guy and great competitor. I fully anticipate him being available for us."

    Oh, and Houston's J.J. Watt, the best player on either team, was clearly limited by his broken hand in last week's loss.

    In a game that's high on stakes but low on talent, it's no wonder the voters are split right down the middle, with the Magic Quarter of Saskatoon giving the Colts the nod.

    Texans: Davenport, Schalter, Sobleski, Tomlinson

    Colts: Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Tanier

Tennessee Titans (3-10) at New England Patriots (11-2)

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    The Pick: New England Patriots (8-0)

    Another week, another offensive injury for the New England Patriots.

    Running back LeGarrette Blount, who was a key contributor during New England's Super Bowl run last year, will miss the rest of the year after injuring his hip in last week's win over the Houston Texans, per ESPN.com's Mike Reiss.

    And yet, as Judy Battista of NFL.com opined, as it always is in Beantown, the more things change, the more they stay the same:

    But the Patriots have made a dynasty, in part, out of managing to hang in there even when the detritus is flying all around them. They dodge the really sharp pieces spinning their way. So while the AFC playoff order was reshaped around them on Sunday -- the Cincinnati Bengals suffered a particularly brutal blow with a loss and a fracture in Andy Dalton's throwing hand, and Denver couldn't overcome its suddenly somnolent offense -- the Patriots beat the Houston Texans, 27-6, with scorching play from their defensive front to right the order of their universe. With the win, and the losses by the Bengals and Broncos, the Patriots are back in the top seed spot in the AFC, a critical development for them not just because they are virtually unbeatable in the playoffs in Foxborough, but because they will need the first-round bye to allow their ever-lengthening injury list to heal.

    They clinched a playoff spot for the 12th time in the last 13 years and so the rest of the AFC is brutally familiar with what is expected to come next. What once seemed so fragile now seems very nearly assured. Another relentless Patriots march through January in frigid Foxborough, another realization that the best team in the AFC is the same as it ever was.

    The Titans are toast. Dark toast. The kind of toast when you turn the dial all the way to the right and then set a brick on top of the toaster.

    Titans: Find me one sober human being who would take Tennessee straight up in this game. I dare you.

    Patriots: Davenport, Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson

Buffalo Bills (6-7) at Washington Redskins (6-7)

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    Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

    The Pick: Buffalo Bills (5-3)

    It's been a while since the Buffalo Bills made the playoffs.

    Tickets cost a nickel. Fans rode to games in horse-driven buggies. Helmets were made from dinosaur bones.

    OK, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but after they fell to the Philadelphia Eagles last week, it looks like another year of watching the postseason on TV in Western New York. And as Mike Rodak of ESPN.com reports, that's going to leave a certain head coach (Rex Ryan) with more than a little egg on his face:

    Ryan's quote: "I'm not going to let our fans down. I am not going to do that. I know it's been 15 years since the Bills made the playoffs. Well, get ready, man, we're going. We are going."

    The reality: The Bills almost certainly will miss the playoffs. Linebacker Nigel Bradham said Tuesday that it's important for the Bills "pretty much just to finish up what we started. Not quitting, pretty much being able to just go out there and finish. Finish the season with a winning record, and get ready for next year." Inherent in that statement is the realization that the playoffs are out of reach.

    So why do five of our voters expect the Bills to play spoiler this week against a Washington Redskins team that's 5-2 at home in 2015?

    Because this is the NFL in 2015. Nothing makes sense anymore.

    Bills: Freeman, Schalter, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson

    Redskins: Davenport, Gagnon, Miller

Kansas City Chiefs (8-5) at Baltimore Ravens (4-9)

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    The Pick: Kansas City Chiefs (8-0)

    There isn't a hotter team in the NFL than the Kansas City Chiefs, who have peeled off seven straight wins to climb into the thick of the AFC playoff chase.

    In fact, after Denver's stunning loss to Oakland a week ago, a division title isn't out of the question for the 8-5 Chiefs.

    A division title that ESPN.com's Adam Teicher thinks the Chiefs should want no part of:

    The Chiefs would be better off where they are now, holding the AFC’s first wild-card spot and the conference’s fifth overall seed, than winning the AFC West and being the No. 3 seed. The latter scenario would give them a home game in the opening round of the playoffs, but the Chiefs haven’t been strong this season at Arrowhead Stadium, where they have losses to the Broncos and Chicago Bears and almost coughed one up on Sunday to the lowly San Diego Chargers. Their first-round opponent in that game would probably be either the Broncos, the Pittsburgh Steelers or the New York Jets.

    By being a wild card and getting the fifth seed, the Chiefs would open the playoffs on the road. But their opponent would be the winner of the AFC South, whether that’s the Texans, Colts or Jaguars. The Chiefs won in Houston in September as they started their regular season.

    Teicher has a point, but the Chiefs are going to be hard-pressed to lose to a Ravens team that might be starting Vinnie the nacho vendor at quarterback in Week 15.

    Chiefs: Davenport, Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson

    Ravens: OK, so it might be Jimmy the parking lot valet under center. Whatever.

Cleveland Browns (3-10) at Seattle Seahawks (8-5)

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    The Pick: Seattle Seahawks (you have to ask?)

    The champs are back, baby!

    With back-to-back blowout wins over the Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens, the Seattle Seahawks are in the midst of one of their patented late-season reigns of terror. Russell Wilson is playing out of his mind. The Legion of Boom looks like, well, the Legion of Boom.

    And per Sheil Kapadia of ESPN.com, it's getting easier and easier to imagine Seattle playing in a third consecutive Super Bowl:

    The Seahawks control their destiny as it pertains to holding on to the No. 5 seed. Why is that important? Because it almost certainly means a first-round meeting against whichever team wins the NFC East and a game that Seattle would almost certainly be favored in. Advancing past the divisional round would likely require winning at Carolina or Arizona. The Seahawks held a lead on the Panthers with 35 seconds left before blowing it. And they also were ahead of the Cardinals at one point in the fourth quarter. Coming out of the conference without a first-round bye is difficult, but the Seahawks have made a habit of staying in every game. Remember, this is a team that has held a lead or been within one score in the fourth quarter in an NFL-record 83 consecutive games. The way they're playing right now, potentially winning three games on the road seems like a realistic possibility.

    There isn't a playoff team in the NFC that wants any part of Seattle in a one-and-done scenario. And the Cleveland Browns are neither in the NFC nor a playoff team.

    Three straight blowouts, anyone?

    Seahawks: Davenport, Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson

Green Bay Packers (9-4) at Oakland Raiders (6-7)

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    The Pick: Green Bay Packers (8-0)

    Much has been made of Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy's decision to take back play-calling duties prior to last week's blowout win over the Dallas Cowboys. In the opinion of Andy Benoit of the MMQB, there's good reason for that:

    [T]he concept was what’s important. McCarthy was “building offense”—calling plays that worked off previous plays and that set up future plays. It’s what good offenses do and, frankly, it wasn’t common enough under Clements, where the Packers seemed to run one isolated play after another.

    McCarthy did all this without drifting away from Green Bay’s West Coast spread foundation. Frustrating as it has been to watch Packers receivers struggle out of widened 2 x 2 and 3 x 1 sets, those sets are still the fulcrum of Green Bay’s slant- and seam-based passing attack. And the spacing from those formations still propagates a lot of Rodgers’s sandlot playmaking.

    This season, the Packers have been entirely too dependent on that playmaking. What success they were having seemed to come only after Rodgers extended the play. Everything was happening out of structure. Rodgers is great out of structure, but no quarterback can be consistent this way. McCarthy understands the value of a sandlot quarterback, but more importantly, he understands that the less the Packers rely on Rodgers’ sandlot mode, the more valuable it becomes. Sandlot will always be a part of Rodgers’ game; for Green Bay’s offense to evolve, it must be no more than a significant branch on Rodgers’ tree, not the tree’s trunk.

    Make no mistake. The Raiders are an improved team, but they aren't in Green Bay's weight class just yet. However, the Packers have struggled with consistency this season, and West Coast trips can be tricky.

    This isn't to say Oakland will pull the upset, but don't be surprised if this game is closer than many think.

    Packers: Davenport, Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson

    Raiders: Khalil Mack is an animal. That is all.

Denver Broncos (10-3) at Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5)

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    The Pick: Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3)

    If the Seattle Seahawks are the team in the NFC no one wants to play in the first round of the playoffs, then the Pittsburgh Steelers are their AFC counterpart.

    Which is interesting, because if the season ended today, the Steelers wouldn't be in the playoffs.

    However, it may not stay that way for long. As ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler wrote, the Steelers have a tendency to get hot right around the time It's a Wonderful Life is played on TV 874 times:

    This is when the Steelers get hot, with nine straight wins in the month dating back to 2013. ...

    ... What's the secret? It's not like the Steelers love the cold. Many of them spend time in Miami in the offseason. Most prefer long sleeves over the bare-armed uniform look.

    To savor the good weather while still available, let’s illustrate the Steelers’ heat checks through weather formats.

    In the nine December wins, the Steelers have scored at least 30 points in three of them.

    They've averaged 31.3 points per game during that span, including 38 against the Packers two years ago, 42 versus the Bengals last year and 45 on the Colts two weeks ago.

    This week provides a stiff test. Yes, Denver quarterback Brock Osweiler came back to Earth against the Raiders last week, but the Denver defense is as good as any in football.

    If Pittsburgh gets this win (as many expect), then the AFC South "champ" is going to get even more nervous. After all, the Colts (the presumed favorite) have already been shellacked by both the Steelers and Jets this year.

    Broncos: Davenport, Tanier, Tomlinson

    Steelers: Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski

Miami Dolphins (5-8) at San Diego Chargers (3-10)

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    Alan Diaz/Associated Press

    The Pick: San Diego Chargers (5-3)

    When the 2015 season began, the Miami Dolphins and San Diego Chargers had all sorts of hope. The Dolphins had just signed defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to the richest contract for a defender in NFL history. The Chargers had one of the NFL's top quarterbacks in veteran Philip Rivers.

    Then games started counting, and everything went to hell. The Dolphins underperformed. Suh decided his teammates just aren't good enough to play with him. The Chargers, meanwhile, got hurt. All of them.

    However, despite their records, as Eric Williams of ESPN.com reports, Sunday's game is a big one. It could be the Chargers' last in San Diego.

    Sunday’s final home game of the 2015 season, against the Miami Dolphins, could be the team’s last in San Diego with Chargers Chairman Dean Spanos focused on relocating the team to Los Angeles. ...

    ... Chargers head coach Mike McCoy said his team will be focused on getting a win against the Dolphins on Sunday, and the situation will not be a distraction.

    "As players and coaches we have jobs to do," McCoy said. "And that’s to go out and win the football game this week, and that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to prepare all week long and go kick off, and do what we’ve got to do to win the football game. That’s all we can control, and everything else is out of our hands."

    Even if the Chargers don't bolt (get it?) for L.A., this could easily be the San Diego curtain call for longtime Chargers like tight end Antonio Gates and safety Eric Weddle.

    And that emotion is going to get the Bolts past the Fins in a game with implications galore—if galore meant none whatsoever.

    Dolphins: Freeman, Tanier, Tomlinson

    Chargers: Davenport, Gagnon, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski

Cincinnati Bengals (10-3) at San Francisco 49ers (4-9)

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    Tom Uhlman/Associated Press

    The Pick: Cincinnati Bengals (7-1)

    The sky is falling in Cincinnati. Just ask Nancy Armour of USA Today:

    With the AFC North title within their grasp and home-field advantage for the playoffs not far behind, the Bengals lost Andy Dalton to a fractured thumb Sunday. In one play, the Bengals’ fortunes – those of the entire AFC, really – turned upside down.

    The Bengals are still all but assured of making the playoffs. They need only two more wins or a win and a Steelers loss to clinch the division, and two of their final three games are against the lowly 49ers and Ravens.

    But the game in Denver in two weeks now looms even larger after the 33-20 loss to Pittsburgh Sunday. Even with the Broncos’ surprising loss to the Raiders on Sunday, the Bengals having home-field advantage and a first-round bye are not the givens they were just a few days ago.

    And if the Bengals wind up facing, say, the streaking Kansas City Chiefs in the wild-card game while missing Dalton, well, all bets are off.

    Now, maybe that won't be the case. Maybe AJ McCarron, who won approximately 917 games at the University of Alabama, will pull a Tom Brady and come from nowhere to lead the Bengals to a Super Bowl win.

    Or maybe a Bengals team that hasn't won a playoff game in over two decades will be one-and-done in the playoffs for a fifth straight year.

    Regardless, the Bengals should be able to get past a bad 49ers team Sunday. After that? Pray that Mr. Miyagi does thumbs in addition to legs.

    Bengals: Davenport, Gagnon, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson

    49ers: Freeman

Arizona Cardinals (11-2) at Philadelphia Eagles (6-7)

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The Pick: Arizona Cardinals (8-0)

    The Carolina Panthers have generated a ton of headlines over the past several weeks, and rightly so. The team is 13-0. There is a very real chance they will go undefeated in the regular season. And they just annihilated the Atlanta Falcons, 38-0.

    And yet, in the opinion of one writer at Bleacher Report, the Panthers may not even be the best team in the NFC:

    No, the NFC's most complete team was playing Thursday night. And in downing the Minnesota Vikings 23-20, the Arizona Cardinals showed they are that team.

    If these two teams meet in the NFC title game—even if that game is in Carolina—my money is on a repeat of 2008, when a lower-seeded Arizona team bumped off the home-favorite Panthers. I trust the Arizona defense more than the Carolina passing game. Trust the Cardinals' ability to weather storms after a brutal second-half schedule.

    They don't have the NFC's best record. And they aren't getting the most press in the conference, either.

    But Thursday night the Arizona Cardinals showed yet again that they are a well-rounded team without a glaring weakness. They are the NFC's most complete football team.

    In fact, they might just be the most complete team in the whole league.

    I stand by what I wrote, too. The Cardinals have Patrick Peterson to neutralize Ted Ginn. Tyrann Mathieu to neutralize Greg Olsen. Deone Bucannon to "spy" Cam Newton. They can match up with the Panthers offense better than Carolina's defense against the Redbirds' potent (and deep) passing game.

    Of course, if the Cardinals falter on an East Coast swing (as they did earlier this year in Pittsburgh), I'm going to look like an idiot.

    Again.

    Cardinals: Davenport, Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson

    Eagles: Wouldn't be that shocked if they won. Wouldn't be shocked if they lost by 35. That's the 2015 Eagles in a nutshell.

Detroit Lions (4-9) at New Orleans Saints (5-8)

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    The Pick: New Orleans Saints (6-2)

    Once upon a time, this would have been a fine capper to a week of NFL action. Two of the game's best signal-callers pitching the pigskin all over the place. Shootout city.

    Instead, it's a matchup between two disappointing teams playing out the string with quarterbacks facing uncertain futures.

    Not that long ago, Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press suggested what was once unthinkable—that the Lions might want to consider cutting bait on Matthew Stafford:

    The primary issue going forward with an undetermined new Detroit Lions management team is an accurate assessment of Matthew Stafford’s true value to the future of this franchise.

    Is it better having a talented, though still highly erratic, quarterback with too many more significant personnel holes surrounding him? Or it is better using that quarterback as a potentially highly coveted off-season trading chip to amass the extra high draft picks the new management team will require to more rapidly stockpile the empty talent shelf?

    There have also been suggestions (from ESPN's Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter) that a Saints team looking at a rebuild could accelerate the process by cutting the franchise's best player ever:

    New Orleans now is projected to be $7.8 million over next year's cap -- and that doesn't include money the team will have to spend to re-sign its restricted free agents and draft class. By the time that gets done, New Orleans could be about $15 million over the cap, and the money has to come from somewhere. The most likely spot is Brees, which sets up a sensitive decision that will dictate the direction of this franchise in the short and long term. New Orleans either can restructure Brees' contract, creating cap space and keeping its quarterback but suffering further cap ramifications in the future -- or it can move on from him, which would free up $20 million in needed cap space.

    Will either happen? No. Teams don't dump franchise quarterbacks. But it just goes to show you that nothing is forever in the NFL.

    Just ask Peyton Manning.

    The panel likes the Saints at home against a Lions team that just lost to the anemic Rams, but Stafford could be set for a huge day against a horrible Saints defense.

    At least we may still get that shootout.

    Lions: Davenport, Schalter, Tomlinson

    Saints: Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Sobleski, Tanier