Just when you think you’ve seen every wacky turn of events that can decide an NFL game—see blocked field goal attempts, Cleveland vs. Baltimore—along comes the Miracle in Motown late on a Thursday night in Detroit, with Aaron Rodgers and Richard Rodgers playing catch from 60-plus yards as the dazed Lions stand around and watch.
So Week 13 has begun in roughly the same “What just happened?” fashion as Week 12 ended (and don’t forget Denver’s walk-off overtime win against New England on Sunday night), which makes you want to tune in to see what’s next to unfold—unless you’re a Lions or Browns fan, that is. They’ve endured enough late-game disaster this season.
While there are plenty of matchups with playoff-race implications this week, there are only two games that pit a pair of winning teams: Seattle at Minnesota, and Indianapolis at Pittsburgh. No matter. In a league that features seven 6–5 teams and six more at 5–6, everything still feels up for grabs as December arrives. Kind of like that ridiculous Rodgers-to-Rodger Hail Mary pass Thursday night in Detroit.
Now on to this week’s picks.....
• Last week: 11–5; Season: 112–64 (.636).
• Best pick in Week 12: Tie, Denver 24, New England 20 (Actual score: Denver 30, New England 24, OT); Kansas City 27, Buffalo 17 (Actual score: Kansas City 30, Buffalo 22).
• Worst pick in Week 12: Jacksonville 29, San Diego 13 (Actual score: Chargers 31–25).
Just when their season looked all but lost, the Texans defense has put it together in a major way over the past month or so, sparking the team’s run to playoff contention. They are the hot team in this matchup, and that should carry plenty of weight, but I still can’t pick them to win this one. After a mostly underachieving season, it feels like Buffalo’s defense is due for a dominant game. The Bills’ endless dance with mediocrity continues, as they inch back to .500 and stay on the fringes of wild-card contention.
The Vikings have reason to feel good about themselves with six wins in seven weeks, but the lack of a statement-game victory has become a bit glaring. Beating the resurgent Seahawks, who are 4–1 after a 2–4 start and back in position to make the NFC playoff field, would qualify in our book. Seattle hasn’t been much of a road team this year, with three losses and wins only against also-rans like the 49ers and Cowboys. The Vikings won their first four home games, but then were embarrassed by Green Bay two weeks ago. With a tough challenge looming ahead on the road in Arizona in Week 14, Minnesota needs to grind out another win and prove that it's in it for the long haul this season.
Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase interviewed for the 49ers head coaching job last offseason, but didn’t get the gig, reportedly because he wasn’t willing to employ Jim Tomsula as his defensive coordinator. When Tomsula got the head coaching job, he tried to hire Gase as his OC, but was repeatedly spurned. Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio interviewed for the 49ers head coaching job last offseason, but didn’t get the gig, probably because he had the stench of Jim Harbaugh on him, having served as Harbaugh’s ultra-successful DC the past four years in San Francisco. The Bears have gotten better and better as this season has unfolded, while the 49ers have resembled the train wreck we all saw coming. How’s all this working out for you, Jed York?
I can’t decide which of these stats best illustrates the exit-less maze the Browns have been trapped in at quarterback since their NFL re-emergence in 1999:
• With Austin Davis starting against the Bengals, this is the fourth year in a row Cleveland has used at least three quarterbacks.
• According to ESPN, Davis will be the 15th different quarterback to start for the Browns against the Bengals in the 26 games Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis has played against Cleveland since he was hired in 2003.
• Davis will be Cleveland’s 24th starting quarterback since its expansion season of 1999. To absolutely no one’s surprise, that’s an NFL high for that span.
Will the misery index ever fall in Cleveland? And where’s Kelly Holcomb when you really need him?
Dolphins interim coach Dan Campbell canned offensive coordinator Bill Lazor the other day, and if that strikes you as pretty late in the season to be making that kind of dramatic change, don’t forget Miami finishes with four home games in the last last five weeks. Campbell had to do something bold to have any shot of getting the full-time job, or avoiding a series of friends and family-only gatherings at Sun Life Stadium. But I don’t know why anyone would spend their Sunday afternoon watching these two 4–7’s collide.
The Giants might be 5–6 and the Jets 6–5, but it’s Tom Coughlin’s team that seems considerably closer to realizing its goal of reaching the playoffs, given the Giants only have to finish atop the woeful NFC East. Both clubs defy easy description and have maddening tendencies, but I sense the Giants’ desperation will drive them to one of their better performances of the season. Eli Manning is right: jobs are on the line these next five weeks.
I know the Rams are 3–0 in the NFC West because Jeff Fisher reminded us this week. But those three wins came in Weeks 1, 4 and 8, and represented the portion of the season when St. Louis looked intent on contending for the playoffs. Those days are over. Now the Rams are just trying to stay out of last place. But if it meant finding an answer at quarterback in next year’s first round, I might be all for last place, if you know what I mean. Tank job, anyone?
Between Matt Ryan, Rex Ryan, Ryan Tannehill and Ryan Mallett, it has been a tough year to have Ryan as a name in the NFL. I guess Ryan Fitzpatrick has done fairly well, but he always does fairly well, and then moves on to another team. Fixing Matt Ryan’s faltering game is the topic du jour in Atlanta, but nobody seems to know exactly how to go about it. Ryan lost to the Bucs at home five weeks ago, so I’m not real optimistic that this is the week he rediscovers his winning touch. The Bucs and Falcons will both be 6–6 by the end of Sunday’s game, but it’ll be like ships heading in opposite directions.
Is it really fair to subject fans to two Jaguars–Titans games in 18 days? At least they won’t be wearing those “color rush” uniforms again. It’s impossible to have these perennial losers blend in to the scenery wearing those things. It’s time Tennessee snaps its league-worst 11-game home losing streak, which is just three shy of the league record held by the 1988–89 Cowboys and the 2008–10 Rams. The Titans haven’t won at home since Week 6 of last year, when they beat Jacksonville 16–14. So there’s symmetry at work here in this pick. Marcus Mariota finally enjoys a W in Nashville.
More than any other defeat, it was a Week 12 loss at Oakland that kept the 9–7 Chiefs out of the playoffs last year, and you can’t help but wonder if it could happen again. Kansas City has won five straight, without committing a turnover in that span, but the Chiefs came out of last week’s home win against Buffalo dealing with a lot of injuries. The Raiders are only 2–3 at home this season, but they’re dangerous, as their 5–3 record in the AFC attests.
I was shocked when I saw that Chargers rookie running back Melvin Gordon had 170 touches this season without scoring a touchdown, a league-high in that dubious department. I thought Gordon would be one of the most impressive rookies in the league this season, but apparently I was misinformed. But Gordon ran hard and ran well in San Diego’s upset win at Jacksonville last week, and I predict his end zone drought is about to end. Not that it will make the difference in this game, which is in line to become Denver’s 10th win of the season, and third in a row with Brock Osweiler starting at quarterback/season-saver.
The Saints played the Panthers incredibly tough in Charlotte in Week 3, even with Luke McCown subbing for the injured Drew Brees. So of course New Orleans at home could spell the end of Carolina’s perfect season. But I have a hard time visualizing the Saints having their way with that stout Panthers defense, and Carolina’s offense is going to score its share of points against the shoddy New Orleans D. The Panthers have only had three 12-win seasons in their 21-year history, but they’re going to tie that franchise high with a month left to play in 2015.
Catching the Patriots short-handed is fortuitous. Catching them after a loss is never a case of good timing. Even without Rob Gronkowski, New England has enough firepower to handle an Eagles team that has laid down on defense the past two weeks, giving up 45 points to both the Bucs and Lions. Philadelphia quarterback Sam Bradford sounds like he’s ready to get back in the lineup, and I’m guessing Mark Sanchez secretly wants no part of a reunion with his old AFC East rival.
The 6–5 Steelers fully understand the precariousness of their situation. With games at Cincinnati (9–2) and home against Denver (9–2) on tap in the coming two weeks, they can’t afford to lose this one to an up-and-down Colts team that is starting its 40-year-old backup quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck. Indy’s 4–0 record when Hasselbeck starts is impressive, but he hasn’t faced anyone with Pittsburgh’s firepower, and the Colts well remember the 51-point explosion the Steelers managed against them last season at Heinz Field. Wild to think about, but 10 years ago this season, Hasselbeck and Ben Roethlisberger were the Super Bowl quarterbacks.
Washington’s five consecutive wins at home is the only reliably successful metric either one of these teams have produced this season, so why not trust it? The Cowboys are technically still alive in the NFC East race, it just doesn’t feel that way after all the drama Jerry’s team has been through. Dallas still has both of its games remaining against first-place Washington, so even if the Cowboys can’t win the division, they can have a say in who does.