NFL Week 16: Mike Tanier's Previews and Score Predictions

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 26, 2015

NFL Week 16: Mike Tanier's Previews and Score Predictions

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

     In this week's Game Previews:

    * All questions about when to rest starters for the playoffs are answered forever.

    * The mystery of Jeff Fisher's job security is revealed.

    * The Chiefs earn comparisons to the Vince Lombardi Packers and Bill Parcells Giants.  

    * The Jets sing "That Rare Old Mountain Dew."

    * The Vikings try to keep Adrian Peterson healthy, but not too healthy.

    ...and much more, including major pre-playoff showdowns between the Packers and Cardinals and the Bengals and Broncos.

    These Game Previews are presented in the order you are supposed to read them. All times Eastern. Merry Christmas!

Green Bay Packers (10-4) at Arizona Cardinals (12-2), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Tyrann Mathieu is the quintessential Bruce Arians-era Cardinals player. He entered the NFL draft as an ultra-talent with no obvious position on the field and a bad reputation off of it. He lingered through two rounds of the draft because of his height, collegiate suspensions, mediocre workout numbers and all the other usual suspicions.

    Who knows what would have become of Mathieu if he had ended up with the typical franchise?

    He might have become a glorified return man. You can picture some mediocre coach proclaiming he would find ways to use Mathieu's unique abilities with the ball in his hands and then limiting him to dime defense and some dreadful Wildcat package. Mathieu could be an undisciplined penalty machine (if either Ryan twin had laid hands on him) or a resident malcontent (hello, Chip Kelly).

    But the Cardinals saw a pint-size missile of a starting free safety and slot defender, just as they later saw a mini middle linebacker in Deone Bucannon and still-viable offensive starters in Carson Palmer and Chris Johnson. The Cardinals see recycling and re-purposing opportunities where other franchises just see trash.

    As for the character worries, well, Mathieu was dating then-defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' daughter, so the Cardinals knew what was really up. Mathieu grew into an unconventional impact defender for the NFL's most unconventionally assembled contender.

    Mathieu, now sidelined for the year with a knee injury, will be missed. There are few other defenders in the NFL who slide so easily from slot corner duties to blitz responsibilities to a more traditional safety role. Mathieu's talents are one of the primary things that make the Cardinals Cardinal-like.

    Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic outlined a complex plan for replacing Mathieu in various packages, but when you have to substitute for each situation, you make it easier for the offense to exploit mismatches. And even the replacement plan requires the return of safety Rashad Johnson (ankle sprain), who didn't play Sunday.

    The Packers received good injury news. Andrew Quarless (MCL) was reactivated this week after three months on the injured reserve. Quarless gives the Packers offensive versatility just as the Cardinals are losing defensive versatility.

    Quarless is a more experienced receiver and a far better blocker than Richard Rodgers. The Packers can now deploy two-tight end sets and threaten the Cardinals with the run or pass. Quarless can protect Aaron Rodgers while Richard Rodgers works the slot, or vice versa. The two tight ends can start in a full house package, then motion to the slots, changing a power-running formation to a spread-passing formation. You get the idea.

    The Quarless-Mathieu tilt will be enough to turn this game in the Packers' favor. In the event of a playoff rematch, things may turn out differently. The Cardinals are masters of adjustment, after all. This is just a tough time of year to make major adjustments.

    Prediction: Packers 26, Cardinals 24

Washington Redskins (7-7) at Philadelphia Eagles (6-8), Saturday, 8:25 p.m.

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    Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

    The Redskins deserve this opportunity to control their own fate, finish the season by proving themselves against their top two divisional rivals, silence the doubters and earn a playoff berth.

    They earned this chance by persevering through an injury plague in the secondary, a tight end crisis behind Jordan Reed that limited their offensive flexibility and Kirk Cousins' early-season bimonthly interception sprees.

    They still don't have a reliable running game or anyone at linebacker or safety who should really be starting for a playoff team, and they would be an afterthought if they played in the AFC East or the NFC West. But the Redskins kept their fingers off the panic button and won just about every game they were capable of winning.

    Their reward will be probably be a first-round beating at the hands of the Seahawks or Vikings, but even that could be helpful: Before Washington goes over the moon for Cousins, it should get a good look at him in a playoff setting against a well-coached defense.

    Redskins teams of the recent past would be knee-deep in drama right now, with questions surrounding the coaching staff, controversies bubbling up every week, a looming quarterback conundrum and a nagging sense that the latest, greatest savior of the franchise actually set the team back to Stage 1. Kind of like the Eagles.

    The Eagles deserve everything they get in the last two weeks of the season, too.

    Prediction: Redskins 27, Eagles 17

New England Patriots (12-2) at New York Jets (9-5), Sunday, 1 p.m.

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    Theo Wargo/Getty Images

    The Game Previews team, in cooperation with The Pogues and the Magnetic Refrigerator Poetry Society of America, proudly presents an all-new holiday spectacular (NSFW lyrics): "Fairytale of the New York Jets."

    All lyrics adapted from beat reports about the Jets this week:

    "It's Patriots week

    The Jets are practicing

    In a light rain

    With...'Christmas in Hollis'

    Blasting from the sideline speakers." —Rich Cimini, ESPN.com

    "But things are different now...

    This is still a Giants town...

    But right now the Jets are the ones

    With stability..." —Brian Costello, New York Post

    (Then the jiggy Irish music picks up...)

    "We have more than enough talent

    We have great chemistry...

    It is coming together for us

    Everybody is playing a part

    A lot of guys who are not household names

    Are stepping up and making plays." —Calvin Pace, via Manish Mehta, New York Daily News

    The boys from the NYPD choir are singing "Galway Bay"

    And the Jets are still alive on Christmas Day!

    "Somebody has to be the team

    That comes out on top

    Why can't it be us?

    Why shouldn't it be us?" —Erin Henderson, via Cimini

    "We're learning how to finish

    In two games ... how to finish

    From the ones we failed with

    [In] the middle of the season." —Todd Bowles, via Darryl Slater, NJ.com

    The boys from the NYPD choir are still singing "Galway Bay"

    And the Jets are still alive on Christmas Day!

    (Then the music slows again...)

    "All I can worry about is us

    I can't control what Pittsburgh or Denver does

    We just have to get ready...

    To win our last two games." —Bowles, via J.P. Pelzman, the Record

    "Why can't we be the big dogs?" —Henderson, via Cimini

    "If the football gods

    Deem that we are worthy

    And somehow we win these last two games

    Maybe we will..." —Bowles, via Cimini

    And the boys from the NYPD choir are still singing "Galway Bay"

    Because the Jets are still alive on Christmas Day!

    Prediction: Patriots 27, Jets 21

Carolina Panthers (14-0) at Atlanta Falcons (7-7), Sunday, 1 p.m.

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    It's that time of year again: Time to have the annual debate about resting starters.

    There's no debate.

    If the game is meaningful, do not rest starters.

    If playoff seedings are sewn up, rest everyone possible.

    The goal of the NFL regular season is to achieve home-field advantage throughout the playoffs while incurring the minimum number of injuries. Once the first part of that objective is achieved (or becomes unattainable), the second part of the objective becomes critical.

    Striving for an undefeated season sounds great on midday television. Rest your starters and win the Super Bowl, and no one will care that you finished "only" 15-1. Get your quarterback injured in Week 17 chasing a meaningless milestone, and you will be a cautionary tale our children will tell their grandchildren.

    Yes, the Patriots risked it all for an undefeated season in 2007 with no consequences. There are things you can do when you are wearing one of your Super Bowl rings on a pinkie, and there are things you should do when you haven't cemented your legacy.

    Teams and players do not get "rusty" when they have two or three weeks off. Those campfire stories you hear about the 1996 Broncos (they rested their starters and lost to the Jaguars in the playoffs!) or some other team that "clinched too soon" are A) almost 20 years old and B) products of the fact that "rust" is a hoary old explanation trotted out whenever a team with a bye loses in the first round of the playoffs.

    Just so we're clear: Players who are resting don't lie on a couch eating pizza and binge-watching The Walking Dead. They attend meetings and walk-throughs, lift, run some drills and so on. I only write this because many talk-radio callers sound convinced that "resting the starters" means Cam Newton drives home after the game, lives in a hip-hop video for two weeks and doesn't speak to coaches and teammates again until an hour before kickoff in the divisional playoff round.

    In summary, the Panthers need this win. They will play their starters and get this win. And then they should swaddle Newton and other key starters in blankets for two weeks.

    Prediction: Panthers 33, Falcons 21

New York Giants (6-8) at Minnesota Vikings (9-5), Sunday, 8:30 p.m.

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Vikings headquarters, midweek.

    Mike Zimmer: We need to find just the right doctor to treat Adrian Peterson's sprained ankle.

    Norv Turner: No problem. The Mayo Clinic is right down the street.

    Zimmer: No, we don't want the Mayo Clinic.

    Turner: Then let me call Dr. James Andrews.

    Zimmer: No, Andrews is too good.

    Turner: What?

    Zimmer: Your offense plays better when Peterson is limited, Norv. Teddy Bridgewater looks more comfortable. It's not always 2nd-and-9 because the defense knows Peterson is getting the ball on first down. Even you get more creative. If Andrews fixes the ankle up in a jiffy, Peterson will go right back to insisting on 25 carries.

    Turner: OK, we'll get a bad doctor then. Why not Zoidberg?

    Zimmer: That won't work either. We need Peterson. We have to get this just right. Peterson must be healthy enough to contribute but banged-up enough to accept stints on the bench. We need a special kind of doctor.

    Dr. Phil McGraw: Hello, Coach.

    Zimmer: Why, it's television's Dr. Phil! But you are a psychologist, not an orthopedist.

    McGraw: That's right, Coach. The Vikings' problems are inherently psychological in nature. Peterson hasn't come to terms with the fact that, slow as they may be, the effects of aging are starting to affect him. Norv, you are in a codependency with Peterson, relying on him as a crutch that stunts the team's offensive development. And Mike, you have not fully embraced your role as a leader willing to challenge a superstar of Peterson's status.

    Zimmer: Wow. You are right, Doc! We'll get Peterson fully healthy!

    Turner: Then we will incorporate him into balanced game plans instead of tying ourselves in knots to make him happy!

    Zimmer: And I will make sure he understands and accepts his new role, even if he isn't thrilled with his carry totals.

    McGraw: Sounds great, fellas. Now if you will excuse me, I am off to help Tom Coughlin ensure that Odell Beckham Jr. comes back from suspension motivated, but not too motivated.

    Prediction: Vikings 27, Giants 24

St. Louis Rams (6-8) at Seattle Seahawks (9-5), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    In the owners' luxury box suites, CenturyLink Field, Seattle.

    Paul Allen: Hey, Stan, I just wanted to come say hello and...um, I don't think you are allowed to build a giant bonfire in the middle of a luxury box.

    Stan Kroenke: Oh don't mind me, Paul. I am just burning precious resources. Hand me that suitcase full of $100 bills, please.

    Allen: Why on earth would anyone burn precious resources?

    Kroenke: It's fun! We're bazillionaires; it's what we do! Now, wad up that original copy of the Magna Carta for kindling.

    Allen: Um, sure. So...I hear you are sticking with Jeff Fisher as your head coach.

    Kroenke: I love Fisher. He's like an incinerator with a mustache. Give him 11 first- or second-round draft picks in four years, and you might as well have thrown a match into a pile of dry leaves. Poof! Four years of time and talent turned to ash! Now bundle that copy of Action Comics No. 1 with Shakespeare's First Folio and douse them with a little butane.

    Allen: Gee, Stan. Maybe I'm just a stereotypical Pacific Northwest dot-com kind of tycoon, but maybe you should be more conservation-oriented.

    Kroenke: Oh, go hug a rain forest, Paul. The Rams have plans for 2016. First, we're going to talk ourselves into Case Keenum at quarterback. We'll spend that extra draft pick the Eagles gave us in the Sam Bradford trade on another defensive tackle who will play about six snaps per game. Then we'll run Todd Gurley 30 times per game into a stacked defense. The kid will be limping before his contract is even up! Think this fire is hot enough to melt transitional fossils yet?

    Allen: I think you are being foolish. Pete Carroll won the Super Bowl for us in his fourth year as head coach. All Fisher can do is hover around .500 and play late-season spoiler. The Rams actually looked better than us in the season opener, and we've had more serious injuries since then than you have. Don't you think a decent coach should have seized that opportunity instead of marching his team straight backward for two months?

    Kroenke: Yeah, seized it and tossed it on the hibachi. Now hand me that heavy box.

    Allen: What's in it?

    Kroenke: The respect and admiration of an entire Midwestern city, one with a proud history of fierce support for its sports teams. You can't put a price tag on the precious resource, Internet Boy. But you can put a whole bag of Match Light on it. Whee! Burn, baby, burn!

    Allen: Have fun, Stan. I am going to go enjoy my jubilant fans, effective head coach and successful franchise.

    Prediction: Seahawks 31, Rams 9

Cleveland Browns (3-11) at Kansas City Chiefs (9-5), Sunday, 1 p.m.

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    Chiefs defenders have intercepted 20 passes this season. Alex Smith, meanwhile, has been intercepted just four times.

    No other team in NFL history has intercepted 20 or more passes while surrendering just four interceptions through 14 games. Increase the interception total to five, however, and you get the following list of teams:

    • 2011 San Francisco 49ers (21 interceptions, five interceptions allowed, 11-3 through 14 games). Say, who was this team's quarterback again? Oh yeah, Alex Smith! These 49ers were one year away from a Super Bowl appearance. They were also a quarterback change away, but let's not get into all of that.
    • 2010 New England Patriots (21 interceptions, five interceptions allowed, 12-2). These Patriots were also one year away from a Super Bowl appearance.
    • 1990 New York Giants (20 interceptions, five interceptions allowed, 11-3). This was the Bill Parcells team that won the Wide Right Super Bowl against the Bills. Chiefs fans can take heart in the fact that these Giants, like the current Chiefs, had incredibly unimpressive on-paper offensive talent. Stephen Baker ("The Touchdown Maker," who scored four touchdowns that year) would feel right at home with a locker next to Albert Wilson.
    • 1966 Green Bay Packers (28 interceptions, five interceptions allowed, 12-2). A classic Vince Lombardi team. Trounced the Chiefs in Super Bowl I. Are we coming full circle?
    • 1960 Cleveland Browns (31 interceptions, five interceptions allowed, 8-3-1). A Jim Brown-led team from the pre-Super Bowl era of 12-game seasons. These Browns don't have much in common with any modern team, though Alex Smith is rather Milt Plum-like.

    Any list that produces two Super Bowl winners and two teams one year away from the Super Bowl is worth paying attention to, even if you think the Chiefs are more of the one-year-away type.

    Smith has a proven history of avoiding interceptions, as did Andy Reid's last quarterback of choice. (Smith and Donovan McNabb are tied for the fifth-best interception rate in history.) The Chiefs secondary and system are built to generate interceptions, just as Reid's classic Eagles defenses were. And history shows that producing interceptions on defense and avoiding them on offense can result in a trip to the Super Bowl, even when a team's other statistics aren't all that impressive.

    Prediction: Chiefs 24, Browns 13

Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5) at Baltimore Ravens (4-10), Sunday, 1 p.m.

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    George Gojkovich/Getty Images

    There have been 173 professional football games with a 23-20 final score since the dawn of human history. Five of them have been Steelers-Ravens games since 2008.

    A 23-20 final score is the fourth-most common result in NFL-AFL-AAFC history, behind 20-17, 27-24 and 17-14. (Here's the full list. It's strangely fascinating.)

    The first 23-20 game on record was a Giants victory over the Chicago Cardinals in 1953. That game is most noteworthy because Frank Gifford and Pat Summerall combined to kick three field goals in it. The most recent 23-20 result was the Eagles' victory over the Bills two weeks ago. There have been eight 23-20 playoff finals in pro football history and three 23-20 conference title games, including a Patriots win over the Ravens at the end of the 2011 season.

    The Ravens seem unlikely to mount even a 23-20 loss this week. The Steelers are chugging into the playoffs like a freight train. The Ravens are having serious conversations about starting Ryan Mallett at quarterback and now give meaningful offensive snaps to people named Konrad Reuland and Kaelin Clay. This should be a blowout.

    Yet the mysterious Kabbalah of 23-20 beckons. The Week 4 Ravens-Steelers game had no business ending with a 23-20 Ravens overtime win: Michael Vick was the Steelers quarterback, the Ravens offense (still healthy at the time) was ineffective for the entire first half and the Steelers kept missing field goals and blowing opportunities to salt the game away in the fourth quarter. They were powerless against the mystical 23-20 numerology.

    Scoff at the might of 23-20 at your own peril. But the Game Previews staff knows the difference between trend, coincidence and powerful cosmic force. The Steelers are too good, and have too much on the line, to be lulled into such a close game by their down-and-out archrival. Look for the Steelers to break free of the tyranny of 23-20 and prove once and for all just how much distance they have put between themselves and the lowly Ravens.

    Prediction: Steelers 24, Ravens 20

Indianapolis Colts (6-8) at Miami Dolphins (5-9), Sunday, 1 p.m.

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    Andrew Luck is still not ready to return to the field, and Chuck Pagano joked early in the week with reporters that Matt Hasselbeck is "beat up from the feet up."

    Hahahahahaha. It's funny because Pagano keeps pushing an obviously injured, over-the-hill 40-year-old onto the field behind a terrible offensive line in a doomed effort to save his job.

    The Colts (unlike the Texans) cannot find ways to squeeze wins out of third-string quarterbacks and aren't that keen on trying, so Hasselbeck has to keep fighting like a Spartan soldier until he is carried home on his shield. Funny.

    Remember Trent Green's final three seasons? After many years as a playoff-caliber quarterback, Green began suffering gruesome hits just about every time he took the field. He finally hung up his spikes and headed for the broadcast booth while he could still walk under his own power. At least Green spread out the calamities over multiple weeks and years. Hasselbeck has lived Green's last three seasons in two weeks.

    Oh well, it cannot get any worse. Wait, the Colts face Ndamukong Suh and a head coach who preaches old-school tough-guy nonsense this week. The only thing the Colts have going for them is the fact that the Dolphins appear to have tuned out Dan Campbell and everything else for the year. But all it takes is one sack attempt to prove a point...

    Never have we been more eager to see Charlie Whitehurst play quarterback.

    Prediction: Dolphins 23, Colts 16

Jacksonville Jaguars (5-9) at New Orleans Saints (5-9), Sunday, 4:05 p.m.

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Only six teams in history have allowed more yards than the Saints (5,789) after 14 games. One of those teams is this year's Giants, who have a terrible defense but not a comically inept one.

    There's a difference: Giants defenders are too slow to get to the ball; Saints defenders overrun the ball by 10 yards, crash into each other, then commit a penalty after finally making a tackle.

    The other five teams are the 2012 Saints, 2013 Cowboys, 1981 Colts, 2011 Patriots and 1983 Packers.

    Yes, two of these defenses (2012 Saints and 2015 Giants) were coached by Steve Spagnuolo. The 2013 Cowboys, like the 2015 Saints, suffered lingering Rob Ryan after-effects. Yet Spags and Ryan will keep getting coordinator jobs in the NFL until the sun is a lump of charcoal. Meritocracy is a pipe dream, folks.

    The 2011 Patriots are an anomaly, as you might suspect. They won lots of 38-24 and 35-21 games, giving up gobs of garbage-time yards. The 2011 Patriots intercepted 23 passes and did lots of other things to keep opponents in the rear-view mirror; they were like a fast-break basketball team that focused on steals instead of half-court defense.

    The 1983 Packers, coached by Bart Starr, also played fast-break football, though they weren't that great at it and finished 8-8, with a bunch of 48-47 and 47-41 final scores.

    The 1981 Colts were probably the worst defense in NFL history when you adjust for changes in offensive levels and the fact that owner Robert Irsay (Jim's father) had a habit of staggering into the locker room and randomly firing people or onto the field to call plays. Here's an in-depth story about that team.

    The Saints defense is certainly worse than its 2012 counterpart (which gets a Bountygate mulligan, among other things). It is worse than the 2013 Cowboys defense in most statistical categories. It's hard to truly compare it with defenses of the 1980s, but two more games like Monday night's and it can absolutely lay legitimate claim to the Worst Defense Ever mantle.

    That's a long way of saying take the over.

    Prediction: Saints 47, Jaguars 41

Chicago Bears (5-9) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-8), Sunday, 1 p.m.

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    Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

    The Buccaneers have something the Bears dearly want. No, not Lovie Smith; there's no going back there. Not Jameis Winston, either, though it would be fun to replace Jay Cutler with someone trying hard to not become the next Jay Cutler.

    The Buccaneers have clarity.

    Even a casual fan can outline the Buccaneers' offseason agenda. 1) Continue Winston's development. 2) Use the gobs of available cap space to extend Doug Martin's contract. 3) Upgrade the heck out of the secondary through the draft and/or free agency. 4) Sprinkle in some depth at wide receiver. 5) Try to talk Lovie into trying something new on offense by assuring him that Deuteronomy does not forbid the pistol formation.

    The Buccaneers have a promising nucleus: Winston, Mike Evans, Lavonte David, Gerald McCoy, Kwon Alexander and a few others. Martin is their only top-priority free agent. They have the cap space to splurge, though they are not really splurgers. The Buccaneers are two or three roster moves from 10 or 11 wins next year.

    The Bears have lots of expensive veterans to sort through, starting with their quarterback. They have some solid young players scattered around the roster (Alshon Jeffery, Kyle Fuller, Eddie Goldman; Kevin White rehabbing for next year), but calling them a nucleus is a stretch. The Bears spent much of this year relying on Cutler, Matt Forte, Martellus Bennett, Antrel Rolle, Lamarr Houston and other players either too old or expensive to be long-term solutions. This wasn't a wasted year—John Fox's staff did some nitty-gritty rebuilding work—but there is no clear path toward the future.

    The Bears might beat the Buccaneers on Sunday. It's the Sundays in 2016 and beyond that they need to worry about.

    Prediction: Bears 22, Buccaneers 17

Dallas Cowboys (4-10) at Buffalo Bills (6-8), Sunday, 1 p.m.

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    Matt Dunham/Associated Press

    Let's check the Bills' motivation levels...

    • Playoff implications? Nope.
    • Any disgruntled ex-Cowboys on the Bills roster who can be named honorary captains by Rex Ryan? Nope.
    • Any Cowboys player making remarks that the Bills could twist into perceiving as "disrespectful?" Anyone? Dez? Greg? Nope.
    • Will public chirping by Mario Williams (doesn't like the system), Corey Graham (doesn't like hearing Williams publicly discuss his dislike for the system) and Preston Brown (just wants the calls to come in from the sideline on time) force the Bills to reexamine themselves and play with pride? Any Jets fan can tell you the answer is nope.
    • Will winning this game hurt the Patriots' playoff chances or embarrass Bill Belichick in some way? Nope.

    Verdict: The Bills will barely get out of the backyard hammock for this one.

    But the Cowboys plan to start Elf on the Shelf Kellen Moore at quarterback. So what happens when a guy who looks like a middle school flag football quarterback faces a team with all the motivation and togetherness of the guys from The Big Lebowski?

    Verdict: The real winners are the fans who stay home.

    Prediction: Bills 19, Cowboys 13

Houston Texans (7-7) at Tennessee Titans (3-11), Sunday, 1 p.m.

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Here's an update on the AFC South Round Robin of Sadness, a three-team tourney to determine which AFC South team is least worthy of a well-thought-out game preview:

    • The Titans and Jaguars each have one win and two losses. The Titans could have clinched the title of the AFC South's saddest team in Week 13 but avoided a loss to the Jaguars in a 42-39 Shootout of Pointlessness.
    • The Texans, who are also competing for the title of Saddest Playoff Team in Professional Sports, have won two round-robin games but could still pull into a three-way tie for last place with the Titans and Jaguars with back-to-back season-ending losses.
    • The Colts are totally getting in on this action next year.

    Marcus Mariota has been shelved for the rest of the season with an MCL sprain that would probably not keep Ben Roethlisberger away from his Tuesday night bowling league.

    The decision to let Mariota heal while Zach Mettenberger acts as a stunt double has met the approval of the Titans' rumored future management team of (not exactly as CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora reported): Jon Bon Jovi, owner; Bill Polian, general manager; Peyton Manning, director of pro personnel; Chip Kelly, head coach; and Donald Trump, Jeff Foxworthy, George Dickel and Lady Antebellum, silent partners.

    Either Brian Hoyer or Brandon Weeden will start for the Texans at quarterback. Houston: Where yesterday's Cleveland Browns problems are today's solutions!

    Prediction: Texans 20, Titans 10

San Francisco 49ers (4-10) at Detroit Lions (5-9), Sunday, 1 p.m.

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    Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

    Calvin Johnson reached the 1,000-yard plateau for the sixth consecutive year on Monday night. He has precisely 1,000 yards on 72 receptions this year.

    Wait...how? This entire Lions season has been an exercise in not getting him the ball. He's like the anti-Adrian Peterson. Even against the Saints, who were honoring all their catch a screen and the first 20 yards are free coupons Monday night, Johnson only caught one measly pass, not counting an onside kick at the end of the game.

    Johnson caught six passes for 166 yards in a Week 6 shootout against the Bears, but all we remember from that game is Golden Tate's mystery touchdown. Johnson went 8-93-3 against the Eagles on Thanksgiving; unless you are a Lions fan, you turned that turkey off to eat blowout...er, turned that blowout off to eat turkey. And in the middle of the season, Johnson had a string of five- or six-catch, 80-some-yard, zero-touchdown games: not good enough for the highlight montage, not bad enough to spark Dez Bryant-style "What's the problem?" storylines.

    Maybe Johnson will catch one screen pass and lose three yards to drop below 1,000 on Sunday. That would make things interesting.

    The remainder of this slide was prepared with the care and intensity that the 49ers use to assemble their weekly game plans:

    There's a football game Sunday. The Lions will probably win, or some junk. Like, whatever. Oh, the paragraph is nearly over; let me make it look good by throwing out a vocabulary word that's just short of meaningful. Perspicacious. There, that showed poise.

    Eh, there is some space left. Better fill it with something that looks like a game preview. The 49ers are 30th in third-down conversion rate. Hey, it's better than last! (The Rams are last.) They are developing, like, a core of budding contributors who just haven't started budding. 

    Still here? The Bengals-Broncos slide is next. That's a big game, so there are probably insights and jokes and stuff. No need to keep reading through the fourth quarter of this slide. It has met the minimum requirements for classification as a game preview and can now crawl into a corner and collapse. Just like the San Francisco 49ers.

    Prediction: Lions 24, 49ers 13

Cincinnati Bengals (11-3) at Denver Broncos (10-4), Monday, 8:30 p.m.

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    Criticizing a popular backup quarterback is like criticizing a friend's new romantic partner. It's a thankless task, because no one wants to listen to common sense in the first blush of love, whether after a kiss or a 24-14 win. But true friends do what they have to do.

    AJ McCarron's 71.4 percent completion rate and turnover-free game in his first start make it appear that he is playing well if you are searching for reasons to believe that he is playing well.

    A closer look at the game tape shows a quarterback with a slow trigger who spent the second half absorbing sacks that let the lowly 49ers remain in the game. Blitz McCarron and you will get to him. He doesn't check down comfortably or slide in the pocket to help his protectors. The Bengals, typically daring on offense, used everything short of a nine-linemen formation to protect McCarron.

    Brock Osweiler has moved past the romantic bubble stage of his relationship, but Broncos fans are still overly infatuated with the younger, fitter alternative to their former flame. Osweiler has greater command of the game than McCarron right now, but opponents have caught up to his limitations. Osweiler wants to play fake, suck the linebackers toward the line of scrimmage and fire fastballs between the numbers in the hole between the linebackers and the deep safeties. When the Broncos running game isn't clicking, opposing linebackers stay at home, and Osweiler has trouble throwing into constricted windows. If defensive backs adjust to Osweiler's rhythm, they can jump routes and break up pass plays.

    Both quarterbacks can counter-adapt and grow. But the developmental deadlines are a little bit tight. This is essentially a playoff game for the Broncos. The Bengals have only slightly more cushion, but if they cannot secure a first-round bye (or, heaven forbid, if they get relegated to wild-card status), they will almost certainly need McCarron to get them through the first round of the playoffs. If they cannot get the win they need Monday night, it won't be available to them later. And of course, both teams are facing deep, outstanding defenses.

    The quarterback who proves to be more than a brief fling will prevail.

    Osweiler has several advantages. First, he has been in both the NFL and the starting lineup longer. Second, he plays in a Gary Kubiak system with built-in training wheels. The Bengals had to scale back their "Pandora's box" offense for McCarron, while Kubiak is just doing what he always does. Finally, Osweiler is simply more physically gifted: An extra mile per hour of velocity or the ability to rumble for a few yards on a sneak or scramble could make a difference in what is sure to be a defensive battle.

    Neither Osweiler nor McCarron looks ready to lead a team with even a great defense and a plethora of offensive weapons deep into the playoffs. McCarron may not have to if the Bengals survive until Andy Dalton's return. Osweiler must make the most of this opportunity to make life as difficult as possible for the rest of the AFC challengers.

    Prediction: Broncos 24, Bengals 19

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