Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry December in the NFL, as 16 games take place between Thursday and next Monday night. The AFC North and East Division crowns could be sewed up in our premiere picks of the week.
GAMES OF THE WEEK:
Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens (both 8-3)- SUNDAY @ 8:20PM EST at M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore (NBC)
New York Jets at New England Patriots (both 9-2)- MONDAY @ 8:30PM EST at Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass. (ESPN)
Both of these games will determine the outcome of their respective divisions, as tiebreakers will determine the outcome not only in the Division races, but the Wildcard races as well. Baltimore beat Pittsburgh in Week 4, 17-14, while the Jets had a big second half in a 28-14 win over New England in Week 2. Wins by both the Ravens and Jets would put them in the drivers seats of their divisions, and pretty much, but certainly wrap up the division races (because of head-to-head sweeps). The Steelers and Patriots both have shots to win these games, because both teams are led by outstanding offensive players such as Hines Ward and Tom Brady. The Ravens have replaced the Cleveland Clowns as Pittsburgh's primary rivals, as each defense brings on the pain(t), and two years ago, both teams were in the AFC Championship game. Sunday and Monday night will both be great nights for football.
THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL:
Houston Texans (5-6) at Philadelphia Eagles (7-4)- THURSDAY @ 8:20PM EST at Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia (NFL Network)
The Texans, one year removed from their first-ever winning season (and almost playoff appearance) are moving backward, despite blanking the former Houston Oilers on Sunday, where Texans WR Andre Johnson and Titans CB Cortland Finnigan were both ejected for a fourth quarter brawl and fined $ 25,000 each. Michael Vick gets back on track after being blown away in the Windy City by beating his former backup, Matt Schaub in the battle of the ex-Atlanta Falcons quarterbacks.
Pick: Philadelphia 28-13
SUNDAY AFTERNOON EARLY GAMES:
New Orleans Saints (8-3) at Cincinnati Bengals (2-9)- 1PM EST at Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati (Fox)
Trivia questions: Cincinnati's only home win during their murky 2-14 2002 season was against what team? (1)
What team won Super Bowl XLIV last year? (2)
What team invented and perfected the paper bag masks? (3)
Which team failed to have a winning season in its first 20 seasons, and took almost 35 years to win its first playoff game?
Answers to all four question: The New Orleans Saints
The last time the Saints were in Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals were 1-13, and in danger of going 0-8 at home for the first time ever. The Bengals beat the Saints 20-13 to avoid that feat. The NFC South is the one of two NFC divisions in which Marvin Lewis has a losing record against, at 3-4 (NFC West is the other at 3-5), as the Bengals lost heartbreakers to Tampa Bay and Atlanta this year (and in 2006). The Saints last beat the Bengals in 1993, when the Bengals started 0-10. Marvin Lewis does well at home against NFC teams, at 11-3-1. Could this be the game in which the Bengals get off the schneid? No. Here's why: the Bengals don't have Drew Brees at Quarterback. The Bengals secondary is now a M*A*S*H unit, and Bob Bratkowski has overstayed his welcome as offensive coordinator. Both of these teams are playing after a 10-day layover from their first ever Thanksgiving Day games (Saints escaped 30-27 in Dallas after jumping out to a 17-0 1st quarter lead, Bengals lost 26-10 to NY Jets, having not won in New York since 1981, and giving up two plays to Brad "Bengal Slayer" Smith). Special Teams, Defense, and Turnovers will be all key points in who wins this game, as the Saints kicking unit has been spotty at best. The Bengals waived former Overrated State kicker Aaron Pettrey and replaced him with Clint Stitzer, who hasn't been in an NFL game, pretty much at all.
This time a year ago, the Bengals already wrapped up their AFC North schedule by going 6-0, and were in the drivers seat at 8-3. This year, the Bengals have lost eight straight after a promising 2-1 start, and have lost direction, both in coaching, and by the players themselves. Here is one thing: I don't think the Bengals will go 2-14 or get the # 1 pick (Carolina will get it). The Bengals will probably finish 3-13 or 4-12 (in 2008 at 1-11-1, the Bengals won their last three, and in 1999, at 1-10, the Bengals won three of their last five to finish 4-12, and in 2007, at 4-9, they finished a respectable 7-9), and still get a top five pick. The Saints will win in Cincinnati for the first time since 1990, as Drew Brees will have a field day against the second most inconsistent team in the NFL. Only 32 more days until the Bengals fire their entire coaching staff...and hire a Bill Cowher or a Jim Tressel, and hopefully a General Manager who can bring the Vince Lombardi Trophy to Ohio (because the only football title Cleveland will see will be Saturday night in Canton as Sports Corner predicts that Lakewood St. Ed's will pummel Huber Heights Wayne in the Division I State High School Football Championship).
Pick: New Orleans 30-13
Jacksonville Jaguars (6-5) at Tennessee Titans (5-6)- 1PM EST at LP Field, Nashville (CBS)
The Jags get back on track as they beat the QB-less Titans.
Pick: Jacksonville 33-3
Chicago Bears (8-3) at Detroit Lions (2-9)- 1PM EST at Ford Field, Detroit (Fox)
Lovie Smith exceeded expectations this year as da Bears are in sole possession of first place in the NFC North.
Pick: Chicago 37-17
Buffalo Bills (2-9) at Minnesota Vikings (4-7)- 1PM EST at Mall of America Field, Minneapolis (CBS) (UPSET PICK OF THE WEEK)
The Bills showed grit and tenacity in losses to Chicago, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City (all playoff contenders), and topped weakerthans Detroit and Cincinnati. Look for Ryan Fitzpatrick and Steve Johnson to have big days in the Twin Cities.
Pick: Buffalo 24-22
Denver Broncos (3-8) at Kansas City Chiefs (7-4)- 1PM EST at Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City (CBS)
Broncos owner Pat Bowlen insists that Josh McDaniels will not be fired. That's also what Jerry Jones and Zigi Wilf said about Wade Phillips and Brad Childress, respectively, and look where Phillips and Childress are right now.
Pick: Kansas City 23-21
San Francisco 49ers (4-7) at Green Bay Packers (7-4)- 1PM EST at Lambeau Field, Green Bay, WI (Fox)
The 49ers are still in it, because the NFC West is such a poor division. But the Niners will have to contend in the West without rusher Frank Gore, out for the year with a hip injury in Monday Night's win in Arizona.
Pick: Green Bay 38-3
Cleveland Browns (4-7) at Miami Dolphins (6-5)- 1PM EST at Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, FL (CBS)
Wildcat vs. Wildcat. Peyton Hillis vs. Ricky Williams. I give the Clowns the edge, despite the fact that Michigan man Chad Henne is back as Miami's QB after a 33-17 win in Oakland last week.
Pick: Cleveland 29-24
Washington Redskins (5-6) at New York Giants (7-4)- 1PM EST at New Meadowlands Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ (Fox)
It's not like Carson Palmer (or another fledling QB on the ropes) will be wearing maroon and gold next year as the Redskins will realize that signing a long-term deal for Donovan McNabb was a huge mistake.
Pick: NY Giants 31-14
SUNDAY LATE GAMES:
Oakland Raiders (5-6) at San Diego Chargers (6-5)- 4:05PM EST at QualComm Stadium, San Diego (CBS)
The last time these two met, San Diego's not-so-Super Special Teams reared its ugly head as Oakland jumped out to a 12-0 lead, courtesy of two blocked punts- one for a safety, and the other recovered for a touchdown, as San Diego's 13-game winning streak against Oakland was snapped in a 35-23 Raiders win. Can Oakland make it two in a row?
Pick: San Diego 27-9
Dallas Cowboys (3-8) at Indianapolis Colts (6-5)- 4:15PM EST at Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis (Fox)
When the NFL made the season schedule almost eight months ago, this had more clout and meaning. Now, not so much, although this is the only time for Fox's # 1 football analyst team (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, and Pam Oliver) to go to Indy (and Peyton Manning) this season (the Colts hosted Manning Bowl II on Sunday Night Football in Week 2). The Colts, for the first time since 2002, will win less than 12 regular season games, after a sloppy 36-14 loss to San Diego. This could be a good game for the Cowboys to ride Peyton Manning. Giddy-up, Jason Garrett!
Pick: Dallas 24-14 (UPSET PICK OF THE WEEK)
St. Louis Rams (5-6) at Arizona Cardinals (3-8)- 4:15PM EST at University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, AZ (Fox)
The Browns should have kept Derek Anderson (1), and (2) Arizona's offense has been severely damaged by Kurt Warner's retirement.
Pick: St. Louis 27-13
Carolina Panthers (1-10) at Seattle Seahawks (5-6)- 4:15PM EST at Qwest Field, Seattle (Fox)
Don't worry, Panthers fans. You're still in the drivers seat for the # 1 overall NFL pick.
Pick: Seattle 16-13
Atlanta Falcons (9-2) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-4)- 4:15PM EST at Raymond James Stadium, Tampa (Fox)
Separation Sunday in the NFC South? Tampa Bay needs a win to stay in the playoff race (stupid sucky NFC West stealing a spot for a <.500 team), and Atlanta wants to remain the NFC's best team.
Pick: Atlanta 27-17
SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL:
Pittsburgh Steelers (8-3) at Baltimore Ravens (8-3)- 8:20PM EST at M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore (NBC)
Pick: Baltimore 20-17
MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL:
New York Jets (9-2) at New England Patriots (9-2)- 8:30PM EST at Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, MA (ESPN)
Pick: New England 24-19
LAST WEEK'S PICKS:
1) New England (9-2)- could drop with a loss on Monday night
T-2) Atlanta (9-2)- NFC's best team
T-2) NY Jets (9-2)- could be # 1 again with a win on Monday night
4) Chicago (8-3)- could move up
5) Baltimore (8-3)- could move up with a win on Sunday night
6) NY Giants (7-4)- controls destiny in NFC East
7) Green Bay (7-4)- controls destiny in playoff race
T-8) Pittsburgh (8-3)- I still hate the Steelers
T-8) Philadelphia (7-4)- Fly, Eagles Fly!
T-31) Carolina (1-10)- John Fox is done (put Carolina in the oven at 400 degrees)
T-31) Cincinnati (2-9)- Why does Bob Bratkowski still have his job?
30) Detroit (2-9)- With Matthew Stafford healthy soon, Detroit can improve
29) Buffalo (2-9)- In games close, but not close enough
Wade Phillips and Brad Childress were both fired already, who will be next on the NFL Chopping Block?
- John Fox (Carolina)
- Marvin Lewis (Cincinnati)
- Josh McDaniels (Denver)
- Mike Singletary (San Francisco)
Will the 2011 NFL Season happen at all? On Saturday, the NFL Players Union told players to "start saving their pay." If an agreement between the Players Union is not reached by March 3, then a lockout will commence on March 4.