With 20 of the NFL’s 32 teams either above .500 or at least tied for first place in their division as December gets underway, the regular season’s final month has plenty of potential for surprises and unexpected plot twists. Playoff scenario time almost always throws us a curveball or two, like San Diego’s late-season run from 5-7 to 9-7 and a wild-card berth a year ago.
But there’s also this: The league could feature seven repeat division champions this season, and that’s almost unheard of in today’s ever-changing NFL. In the AFC, New England, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Denver all look like very solid bets to win their divisions once again, with the Patriots working on six AFC East crowns in a row and the Broncos about to earn their fourth consecutive AFC West title.
In the NFC, Philadelphia and Green Bay are well-positioned to repeat, and that sound you hear out west is the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks making a charge to overtake Arizona and reclaim their hold on first place in the NFC West. Seattle is a game back with four to play, but it has gained momentum and confidence these past two weeks with convincing wins over the Cardinals and 49ers. Only in the lowly NFC South, which has been in a league of its own all season, will there likely not be a repeat champion, thanks to Carolina’s demise. But if the Saints take that division, another repeat playoff qualifier will be added to the field.
So while it might be a December to remember, January might end up looking pretty familiar. The only 2013 playoff team that almost certainly won’t be making it back this time are the Panthers. Remarkably enough, the other 11 are all at least still in the hunt, and have a shot to do it again. That in and of itself is a December surprise.
• Last week: 10-6; Season: 130-61 (.681).
• Best pick in Week 13: (Tie) Detroit 31, Chicago 20 (Actual score: Lions 34-17); Denver 27, Kansas City 20 (Actual score: Broncos 29-16).
• Worst pick in Week 13: Dallas 27, Philadelphia 24 (Actual score: Eagles 33-10).
Below are my Week 14 picks. And here’s my pick for Thursday night’s game between Dallas and Chicago.
The Bengals will have to run the table to get to 12 wins, thereby increasing their win total for the fourth consecutive year (9-7 in 2011, 10-6 in '12, 11-5 in '13). That would be a pretty neat trick, but let’s not forget it’s not supposed to be just about making the playoffs in Cincinnati this year -- It’s about making some noise after getting there. If the Bengals go one-and-done for the fourth straight postseason, is head coach Marvin Lewis on the hot seat, or will owner Mike Brown reward him for the once-unfathomable feat of getting Cincinnati to the playoffs four years running? I can see both sides of it, but at some point status quo can get you fired in the NFL. Just ask Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin about that, especially if the Steelers slump their way to 8-8 and out of the playoffs for the third consecutive year.
Well that didn’t take long. It’s been less than a full season and rookie head coach Jay Gruden reportedly is ready to give Washington owner Daniel Snyder a him-or-me ultimatum if ownership intends to bring quarterback Robert Griffin III back in 2015. My first reaction upon hearing that news was this: Somewhere right now Mike Shanahan is smiling ear-to-ear and buying a round of drinks for the house. Because only one who has lived through the clown-filled circus that is Washington’s NFL franchise these past 15 years under Snyder can fully appreciate the current level of dysfunction that pervades in D.C. As if on cue, the Rams visit this week. Of course it is. How’s that blockbuster deal with St. Louis looking about now, Dan?
If you think this showdown between the 3-9 Giants (losers of seven in a row) and 2-10 Titans (losers of six in a row) lacks appeal, just wait until Week 16, when the NFL saw fit to give us a Thursday night primetime matchup of Tennessee at Jacksonville. I can't wait to see the next-day TV ratings for that one. The once-proud Giants couldn’t possibly lose back-to-back road games to the Jaguars and Titans, could they? Oh, yes they could. And it says right here they will. Not that it’s what Tom Coughlin’s blood pressure needs about now.
If the Saints are the Saints that I saw in the final three quarters against Pittsburgh last week, they should rather easily beat the Panthers, Bears, Falcons and Bucs to close the season and earn the NFC South title with a respectable 9-7 mark that will render all the doom-and-gloom talk about a 6-10 NFC South champion moot. But we haven’t been able to figure out what we’re going to get from New Orleans all season, so who knows? Just winning a home game -- believe it not -- would be a huge step forward for Sean Payton’s Jekyll-and-Hyde-like team.
That was quite the Throwback Monday night for the Jets, but they’re going to wear out Matt Snell and Emerson Boozer if they keep running the ball that much every week. Sorry, Jets fans. It's probably not very nice of me to bring up the Namath era about now. Look on the bright side, Gang Green owns one more Super Bowl trophy than the Vikings do, and both franchises are halfway through their sixth decade of existence. That’s all I got for you.
If the Dolphins intend to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008 -- when they lost at home to the Ravens in the first round -- they’d better beat visiting Baltimore this time. This is the crucial game that sets up the rest of Miami’s season, and gives it a much-needed head-to-head tiebreaker over its fellow 7-5 hopeful. Baltimore is certainly resilient enough to pull the upset, but with no Haloti Ngata (suspended for four games) and both receiver Torrey Smith and running back Justin Forsett nursing knee injuries this week, it’s a difficult weekend for the Ravens to be at considerably less than full strength.
I don’t see the Browns making the AFC playoffs no matter who starts at quarterback, but for the record, when a franchise asks its fans to endure a 20-year span with just one postseason appearance (and a one-and-done at that), and then finds itself at 7-5 and in contention as December dawns, I absolutely would be inclined to stick with the quarterback who has a 10-5 career record as Cleveland’s starter. Of the 20 arms Cleveland has tried, Brian Hoyer is the only Browns starting quarterback with a winning record from 1999 on, so playing the rookie Johnny Manziel down the stretch run with an eye on finding out more about him for 2015 wouldn’t be an idea I’d endorse if I were a victory-starved Cleveland fan. Not that all the debate will really matter this week, because I don’t think Bernie Kosar in his prime would beat the Andrew Luck-led Colts.
Someone in Detroit ought to guard the switch that the Lions flipped in the second quarter of their Thanksgiving Day blowout win over Chicago and make sure it stays on for the remainder of the season. The Bucs have been throwing some scares into their opponents, but their self-defeating ways always catch up to them in the end. Big receiver Calvin Johnson, meet big receiver Mike Evans. May the best big receiver win.
No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney’s season ended this week when the Texans finally relented and placed him on IR with the knee injury he initially suffered in Week 1. No. 3 pick Blake Bortles has had precious few highlights, but he and the Jaguars are hoping to end the season on an upswing after last week’s big comeback victory against the Giants. It’s a reminder that we talk ourselves blue in the face for months about what the NFL draft holds, and who’s going to do what, and then every year stuff happens that we never remotely saw coming. But it’ll be rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat next spring. You can count on that. We never learn.
I don’t know how I overlooked this, but Kyle Orton’s homecoming to Denver isn’t getting much buzz this week. Remember when he found himself pitted against the phenomena known as Tim Tebow in the 2011 preseason, easily winning the starting quarterback job but losing the battle for the hearts and minds of Broncos fans? Orton looked sloppy in an intrasquad scrimmage that summer, and the fans let him know it, prompting one memorably brilliant headline of the episode: "Orton hears a boo." Orton left Denver that November, and eventually Tebow made his exit, too. And now, in the minds of most Broncos fans, they probably think they went straight from the Elway era to the Manning era. But believe it or not, there were about 13 years or so in between. I looked it up.
Good for the always blunt-talking, straight-shooting Bruce Arians, reminding his own star player to back up that trash talking with some actual shut-down corner play next time. Let’s hope Patrick Peterson got the message, because he sure didn’t walk the talk last week against Falcons receiver Julio Jones in that dispiriting loss at Atlanta. Peterson should have kept his mouth shut until this week, because everybody knows the Chiefs don’t have any game-breaking receiving threats. The next touchdown a Kansas City wide receiver scores this season will be the first touchdown a Kansas City wide receiver scores this season.
I wrote about this glamor game back in April, when the NFL regular-season schedule was released, and it still holds up nicely:
For sheer entertainment value in that strength versus strength sort of way that we love about football, Week 14's Seattle at Philadelphia matchup deserves it share of hype. The chess match of the Eagles' fast-break offense pitting its most creative game plan against the depth and resiliency of Seattle's superlative defense could make for game of the year stuff. Both head coaches (Chip Kelly and Pete Carroll) have a considerable amount of pride in their respective expertise on offense and defense, and won't take this challenge lightly in any way.
We’re not getting the matchup of third-year quarterbacks who were drafted in 2012’s third round that we thought we expected -- Russell Wilson versus Nick Foles -- but the Mark Sanchez-Carroll USC reunion, not to mention the enormous playoff positioning implications, more than make up for that. The game could be a classic, but Philly’s 6-0 record at home gives it the slightest of edges.
Not much to chew on with this cross-bay matchup. Just the fact the head coach for one team might be traded this offseason to the other team, if rumors and reports citing unnamed sources are your coin of the realm. The last days of Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco actually prompted this witty question from a local columnist at a 49ers news conference this week: "Can you confirm which of the two teams you’ll be coaching Sunday?" That one made me laugh out loud, but I’m guessing Harbaugh probably didn’t find it quite as humorous. Or at least he wouldn’t give anyone the satisfaction of knowing he did. All I know is the 49ers had better win this one against the 1-11 Raiders, or who knows what the daughter of general manager Trent Baalke, or team owner Jed York, might tweet after the game?
The Patriots stayed in the San Diego area this week, and to make them feel right at home like in Foxboro, the weather gods even deemed to send a little rain their way on Wednesday at the University of San Diego. But it still beats spending early December in New England, especially after freezing your tail off on Sunday in a loss at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field. The Patriots haven’t lost two in a row all season, and this is no time to start a streak now. The Chargers will give them a game, but the Patriots usually find a way to hang in there until San Diego makes the crucial mistake (think Marlon McCree in that Patriots-Chargers divisional playoff game in early 2007).
Monday, Dec. 8
Not that it’s an unpredictable league or anything, but the Falcons won four games all of last season and wound up tying Tampa Bay for the cellar in the NFC South. It took them 13 weeks, but the Falcons have finally exceeded their 2013 win total with five victories, which is some how good enough for a first-place tie with New Orleans this year. Come to think of it, the Packers also topped their 2013 win total of eight in Week 13, with that huge statement-game victory over the Patriots. But Green Bay at 9-3 is alone in first place in the NFC North, just as the Pack was at the end of last season at a middling 8-7-1. So Green Bay pretty much has this thing figured out coming and going, best I can tell.