I suppose before we get to indulge in the football feast that awaits on Thanksgiving weekend -- and it’s a bountiful supply of headline matchups -- it’s best to go light in Week 12 and just nibble on the few appetizing games from which we have to choose. There’s not even one game this weekend that pits 2013 playoff teams, and only three that feature two clubs with winning records this season: Detroit at New England, Arizona at Seattle and Miami at Denver.
And even those games lost a little luster thanks to Week 11, when the Lions, Seahawks and Broncos all went down to defeat on the road, raising question marks about the staying power of all three as the season’s backstretch approaches.
Next week, of course, starts in a big way with three games on Thanksgiving, with Philadelphia at Dallas being a battle for NFC East supremacy and Seattle at San Francisco being this season’s first renewal of that NFC West blood feud. We also get New England at Green Bay, Denver at Kansas City and San Diego at Baltimore to look forward to in a blockbuster Week 13.
But first, a rather understated Week 12 has arrived. It’s not the pigskin pig-out that’s on the way. But good things come to those who wait. Or so they say.
• Last week: 9-5; Season: 108-52 (.675).
• Best pick in Week 11: San Francisco 26, N.Y. Giants 20 (Actual score: San Francisco 16-10).
• Worst pick in Week 11: Tie: Denver 30, St. Louis 16 (Actual score: St. Louis 22-7); Cleveland 27, Houston 14 (Actual score: Houston 23-7).
Below are my Week 12 picks. And here’s my pick for Thursday night’s game between Kansas City and Oakland.
It kind of feels like the positives of the Browns beating the Steelers at home and the Bengals on the road have been neatly off-set by Cleveland losing at Jacksonville and to Houston at home. If the Browns only seem to play their best when they’re going against quality opponents, that makes it difficult to see them getting out of the Georgia Dome with a much-needed victory. Even with Josh Gordon back in the lineup, Cleveland will find Atlanta tough to beat at home. The Falcons are a 4-6 first-place marvel in that perfect storm of an NFC South, but given a legitimate shot at the playoffs after a six-week winless stretch that spanned from late September to early November, they’re playing with house money at this point.
The trip to Green Bay wasn’t a totally lost cause for the Eagles. At least it helped them identify which NFC team they should most hope to avoid in the playoffs. Philadelphia’s only three losses this season are at San Francisco, at Arizona and at the Packers, three teams that are a combined 22-8. But the Eagles were at least competitive with the 49ers and Cardinals, a case they can’t make coming out of that 53-20 drubbing at Lambeau Field. But this week it’s back home and back to playing an inferior opponent. The Eagles at 5-0 at Lincoln Financial Field this season, but haven’t beaten a visiting team with a winning record yet. That trend continues this week against the lowly Titans.
Consider this: In 2000, the Patriots finished 5-11, while Detroit went 9-7. New England hasn’t had a losing season since, and a victory on Sunday can clinch its NFL-best 14th consecutive winning record mark, putting the Men of Belichick just six years away from tying the Cowboys’ league-record 20-year run of winning from 1966 to '85. The Lions have had just one season over .500 since '00 -- a 10-6 record and one-and-done playoff run in '11. One more win for Detroit and the Lions have secured just their second non-losing season in the past 14 years. Alas, I like New England’s chances this week to keep its streak alive, more so than Detroit reaching some unfamiliar ground. But that accomplishment will come, Lions fans. Home games against Chicago, Tampa Bay and Minnesota are just ahead.
Aaron Rodgers hasn’t just surged to the lead in the league MVP race on the strength of Green Bay’s 6-1 run, he’s playing the quarterback position at a historically high level over the course of his past seven games. In that span, Rodgers is at 9.72 yards per pass attempt, a yard higher than any other quarterback in the NFL, and his passer rating is 132.2, which would demolish his one-season league record of 122.5 set in 2011. Green Bay has scored a league-high 276 points in those seven games, which is the most prolific seven-game stretch in Packers history. And here’s my favorite Green Bay stat so far this season: Mike McCarthy’s 7-3 club is the only team in the league with more offensive touchdowns (36) than punts (32). I really don’t see the Vikings improved defense being able to send those trends in the opposite direction in the first outdoors Packers-Vikings game in Minnesota in 33 years.
Remember when the Jaguars used to give the Colts fits, beating them four out of five times from 2010 to '12? Those days are pretty well over now that Andrew Luck is on the scene. Indy has won four straight against Jacksonville, dating from the teams’ second meeting in '12 on. And they were butt-kickings, too. Every game has been decided by at least 17 points, with an average margin of 24.5 points. Look for that number to grow, because the Colts should be in the mood to make the Jaguars pay after getting throttled by 22 points at home against New England last week. With Oakland’s victory over Kansas City on Thursday night, the one-win Jags are right back in the race for the No. 1 pick next spring.
The Bengals lose at home to the Browns in Week 10. The Browns lose at home to Houston in Week 11. So that means the Texans beat at home the Bengals in Week 12, right? If only picking NFL games were that linear. Cincinnati is one of the toughest teams in the league to consistently read, but the Bengals should be on a high after going to New Orleans and pushing the Saints around last week. And Andy Dalton owes the Texans a little something, after Houston knocked the Bengals out of the postseason in back-to-back years (2012-13), thereby getting the whole Dalton can’t-win-in-the-playoffs mantra started.
With rookie receiver Mike Evans carrying the team on his back, you could see Tampa Bay winning in Chicago, just like the Bucs did at Pittsburgh and at Washington this season. But even with the motivation of Lovie Smith and Josh McCown’s return to Chicago as a backdrop, the Bears offense should be able to get the job done against a Tampa Bay defense that has been nowhere near as good as we expected this season.
I hate picking against the ultra-resilient Cardinals this season, because they rise to whatever challenge is before them. And we know they can handle a trip to CenturyLink Field, because they were the only team to win there last year. But if the defending Super Bowl champs are going to shake off their almost season-long hangover and find their way back to the playoffs, they have to have this game. The Cardinals would love to win it, but the Seahawks must win it. Seattle’s next four games are at San Francisco, at Philadelphia, home against San Francisco and at Arizona. If Seattle enters that stretch at 6-5, it won’t survive.
Everybody puts too much meaning in the schedule when it comes out every spring, but you’d have to say the Rams' schedule is as tough as it looked to be, with this being their eighth consecutive game against a 2013 playoff team. St. Louis is 3-4 in that span, with wins over Seattle, San Francisco and Denver, and it gave Philadelphia and Arizona pretty good battles before losing. But I’m picking the Chargers to prevail because Mike McCoy’s team has to have this game if it's to stay relevant in the AFC wild-card race. Speaking of a run of games against '13 playoff clubs, San Diego, starting next week, ends the regular season thusly: at Baltimore, New England, Denver, at San Francisco, at Kansas City. Yikes. That’s why this week is must-win time for the Chargers.
The Raiders did the Broncos a huge solid with their Thursday night upset of the visiting Chiefs (7-4), thereby earning 7-3 Denver a little breathing room in the AFC West standings. I expect Peyton Manning and Co. to take full advantage of it despite looking quite underwhelming the past three weeks. When the always-intense and focused No. 18 starts talking about having a greater sense of urgency, the message is not lost on his Broncos teammates. I expect Denver to have its edge back at home after playing three consecutive road games. As for Miami, after winning four out of five and five out of seven, all arrows seem to be pointing up. But wouldn’t it be just like the Dolphins to experience a letdown in an obvious statement-game setting, giving their fans reason to not believe once again?
For a week at least, Jim Harbaugh and his 49ers can take a welcomed backseat to Washington and Jay Gruden when it comes to being the NFL epicenter of locker room intrigue and controversy, both real and imagined. We’ve seen so many seasons of recent vintage swirl down the drain in Washington, and this one is following suit in spectacular fashion amid all the drama that surrounds where Robert Griffin III and Gruden stand in their shaky relationship. San Francisco still hasn’t established much of a homefield advantage at its Field of Jeans, where the 49ers are a so-so 2-2 thus far, but they’ve got more than enough firepower to put away Washington, with three more home games coming in the season’s final five weeks.
This game should tell us everything we need to know about where Dallas is headed this season. If the Cowboys come out rested and ready to roll against a Giants team they beat 31-21 just five weeks ago, they will be hard-pressed, at 8-4, to miss the playoffs for the fifth time in a row. But if the Giants rise up and snap their five-game losing streak, beating their division rivals at home, it could be the start of another devastating and demoralizing close to the season in Dallas. With the Cowboys after this one facing the Eagles on a short week, then at Chicago, at Philadelphia, home against Indianapolis in the coming four games, it’s fork-in-the-road time for Jason Garrett’s club. Dallas had best take advantage of the bye week break and put the Giants out of their misery, because it doesn’t get any easier from here on out.
Monday, Nov. 24
If the Bills had to lose a home game this week due to the many complications created by the massive snowfall totals in some parts of the Buffalo area, at least the NFL had the decency to move their game against the Jets to Detroit on Monday night. Buffalo enjoyed perhaps the high point of its season in Week 5 at Ford Field, when the visiting Bills rallied for 11 fourth-quarter points to defeat the Lions 17-14 in Kyle Orton’s first start after taking over for benched quarterback EJ Manuel. So Motown, the longtime home of former Bills owner Ralph Wilson and family, has already been a source of good karma for Buffalo in 2014 and might be again. And to think of it another way, of all NFL teams, the Bills are familiar with the idea of playing one game a year at a domed stadium that’s not in their home market. The organization puts its lackluster Toronto series on hold this year, but events beyond anyone’s control just conspired to replace it with a Detroit "home" game this season.
The good news is the Ravens get to revisit the scene of their ultimate triumph for the first time since beating San Francisco at the Superdome in Super Bowl 47 in February 2013. The bad news is the Saints have won 14 consecutive prime-time home games, including the playoffs, by an average of almost three touchdowns per game. There’s little about this season in New Orleans that has made sense, but the Saints at home at night has been one of the NFL’s few stone-cold locks in recent years, so I’m giving them one more shot to justify my faith in them this year. New Orleans has dropped two in a row at the Superdome, but hasn’t lost three straight home games since '01. On the other hand, the only team Drew Brees has yet to beat in his 14-year NFL career is Baltimore, against which he’s 0-3.