As November concludes with Week 12, five of the league’s eight division races seem fairly well decided, with the Patriots, Bengals, Broncos, Panthers and Cardinals all comfortably ahead and in position to return to the playoffs this season. If the Steelers and Colts both make postseason trips, five of the six AFC berths will go to teams that were 2014 playoff qualifiers. That would leave only one slot for a newcomer like Kansas City or perhaps Houston, with 2014 No. 6 seed Baltimore not making the cut this year.
In the NFC, we could still have the Panthers, Packers, Cardinals and Seahawks all as repeat playoff clubs, with only the Lions and Cowboys unlikely to return to the dance. What little drama there will be should take place in the NFC East, where New York and Washington are vying for the crown, and the NFC North, which features Minnesota and Green Bay locked in a tight division race.
Thanksgiving’s tripleheader started us off with a pair of routs in Detroit and Dallas, plus a stunning upset in Green Bay. But now Week 12 continues, with a fair amount of games that carry playoff implications, and the intriguing New England at Denver showdown on Sunday night. Can Brock beat Brady? On to this week’s picks...
• Last week: 9–5; Season: 101–59 (.631).
• Best pick in Week 11: Tie, Detroit 24, Oakland 19 (Actual score: Lions 18–13); Baltimore 23, St. Louis 20 (Actual score: Ravens 16–13).
• Worst pick in Week 11: Philadelphia 20, Tampa Bay 17 (Actual score: Bucs 45–17).
We started thinking the Falcons were a lock for the playoffs once they logged that 5–0 start, but that lock has been picked, with Atlanta dropping four of five and incapable of even protecting a two-touchdown lead at home against the Matt Hasselbeck-led Colts last week. At the moment, the Falcons are in the No. 6 slot, but on the ropes. Atlanta desperately needs this game against a Vikings team that finds itself back in first place in the NFC North by a half game, courtesy of the Packers’ upset loss at home to the Bears. The Falcons have just two more home games remaining, and they’re in Weeks 16 and 17. In order to make those games meaningful, they’re going to have to handle Minnesota and then navigate a three-game road trip that suddenly looks daunting: at Tampa Bay, Carolina and Jacksonville. The Vikings need a rebound after last week’s letdown against Green Bay, and they’ll get the job done in the Georgia Dome.
The Bengals’ narrow loss at Arizona was painful, because that late Domata Peko penalty was such a self-inflicted wound. But Cincinnati’s fourth-quarter comeback against the Cardinals helped wipe away the stench of that ugly home loss to Houston six days prior, and Marvin Lewis’s club will get back on a winning track against a Rams team that has descended into a very familiar midseason swoon. St. Louis, once 4–3, is 4–6 and knows its way home from here. Even if that home is eventually located in the greater Los Angeles area.
For the longest time this season, it didn’t look like there would be any big games for Houston in 2015, but three wins in a row has changed the whole landscape for the Texans, who are currently in the AFC’s No. 7 spot, just out of the money. Don’t take the Texans’ 5–5 record too lightly, because there are only four teams with winning records in the AFC, and just nine in the entire NFL. This season, a .500 mark through 10 games means you’re relevant. Houston’s defense has really started to dominate opponents, and Brian Hoyer and the Texans’ offense have been doing enough to win lately. The Saints’ defense is now being coordinated by Dennis Allen, not Rob Ryan, and maybe that will help tighten things up a bit. But not nearly enough. Houston will still be moving the chains.
Jameis Winston and Matt Hasselbeck will have something of a generational divide to bridge when they make their post-game quarterback chit-chat. Winston was born in 1994, making him all of five years old when Hasselbeck entered the NFL in 1999. But here they are, leading their teams in a surprisingly significant game between 5–5 teams that both have legitimate playoff hopes. The Bucs can beat anybody playing like they did last week in Philadelphia, but the Colts have won two in a row and are proving to be a resilient bunch in this up-and-down season in Indy.
The Chargers are an injury-riddled mess, and you have to think Mike McCoy’s three-year run as coach could be in its final stages. Since winning 18 of his first 30 games in San Diego, including the playoffs, McCoy is 3–11 over the course of the past 14. The Jaguars have no memory of what constitutes a blowout victory, but this one should at least be by a comfortable margin as the playoff race intensifies in Jacksonville.
The good folks of Kansas City thought the Royals’ World Series win was all the excitement they were going to get this fall, but now the Chiefs have sprung back to life with four consecutive wins to seize the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoff race. The Chiefs aren’t just winning, they’re rolling over opponents to the tune of 130–39 in those four games. The Bills will put up a decent fight, but look for quarterback Tyrod Taylor to be under heavy pressure all day, with Kansas City’s turnover-happy defense taking advantage of some Buffalo miscues. The Chiefs will climb back over .500 for the first time since starting the season 1–0 and strengthen their grip on the title of “Dangerous team that no one wants to meet in the playoffs.”
The Dolphins fired their coach the last time they lost to the Jets, that being in Week 4 in London. Miami’s interim head coach Dan Campbell got the job and ran with it for a little while, but now his Dolphins are roughly as inconsistent and underachieving as they were under Joe Philbin. New York, meanwhile, has learned that Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t a miracle worker at quarterback. He’s just not cut out for a full 16-game NFL regular season and will inevitably have his struggles at some point. Neither of these teams is going anywhere in the AFC playoff race, but I’ll take the Jets to stop the bleeding and get a much-needed win for rookie coach Todd Bowles.
It’s Thanksgiving weekend, and the Titans still haven’t treated their fans to a victory at home this season (0–5). That streak ends here. Tennessee played well enough to win at Jacksonville, while the Raiders remain in full-blown free-fall. Marcus Mariota will out-play Derek Carr in a battle of two promising young quarterbacks with West Coast pedigrees.
The Cowboys and Eagles essentially eliminated themselves on Thanksgiving, so New York and Washington are suddenly the last two teams standing in the NFC East. Jay Gruden’s club is 4–1 at home this season and hasn’t lost at FedEx Field since Week 1, to Miami. But the Giants should move the ball consistently against Washington’s defense, and New York knows grinding out a win this week will be the key to its division title chances.
The Cardinals were 40 points better than the 49ers in Glendale in Week 3, and I can’t see the outcome changing dramatically just because the scene will shift to Santa Clara with Blaine Gabbert at quarterback for San Francisco. Bruce Arians will tell his Cardinals to look around and soak up the atmosphere, because the legitimate goal in Arizona this season is to finish up right back in this same stadium come early February.
Go figure the Seahawks at home this season. A shutout against Jimmy Clausen and the Bears. That bizarro ending against Detroit. The fourth-quarter meltdown against Carolina. And then came the huge loss to the Cardinals and last week’s easy win over the 49ers. The Steelers pose a stern challenge, and I could see Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh passing game having a productive day against the Seattle secondary. But the Seahawks have to have this game to stay in the NFC wild-card race, and they’ll ride Thomas Rawls and their running game to a narrow win.
Advantage Patriots when it comes to Bill Belichick’s track record of succeeding when his team is facing a young and lightly experienced quarterback like Denver’s Brock Osweiler. But I still think the Broncos have a pretty decent shot at the upset, because their defense could frustrate Tom Brady, especially when his receiving weapons have been so decimated by injuries. Denver can’t expect Osweiler to play turnover-free ball once again this week, but if the Broncos’ defense can force two or three Patriots turnovers, the perfect season will be over for New England.
Joe Flacco has been so good for so long in Baltimore that we almost forget what a train wreck the Ravens used to be at quarterback. Where are you now, Kyle Boller? Tony Banks? Chris Redman? Elvis Grbac? The nation will be treated to the return of Matt Schaub Monday night in Cleveland, and now we don’t even have Johnny Manziel in the Browns’ lineup to keep things interesting. Tune in to see if the Browns can earn their third win, or the Ravens their fourth. That’s the most compelling storyline we can muster up.