Week 14 picks: Can Steelers keep Bengals from wrapping up AFC North?
Though they haven’t all clinched yet, let’s go ahead and give all five teams that have reached double digits in wins the playoff berths they will eventually own. That takes care of Carolina and Arizona in the NFC, and Cincinnati, Denver and New England in the AFC. All five of those clubs made the postseason last season and will do so again this year.
Then there are two playoffs spots that will go to the NFC East and AFC South champions, no matter how unsightly their records wind up. That’s seven playoff spots that are essentially locked in to some degree, even if we don’t know the exact identity of those division winners (put me down for the Eagles and Colts).
That leaves five playoff slots up for grabs, and Week 14 should help clarify matters to some degree, with matchups like Steelers-Bengals, Bills-Eagles and Patriots-Texans deserving of our full attention. And let’s not forget the Atlanta at Carolina game, where the Panthers will continue their quest for a perfect season and the NFC’s home-field advantage in the playoffs.
The Falcons are just one of the teams feeling a sense of desperation in Week 14, joining the likes of the Bills, Giants, Texans and Cowboys. One more loss for any of them and the math may not be in their favor at any point the rest of the way.
Now on to this week’s picks...
• Last week: 10–6; Season: 122–70 (.635).
• Best pick in Week 13: Green Bay 27, Detroit 23 (Actual score: Packers 27–23).
• Worst pick in Week 13: Minnesota 23, Seattle 20 (Actual score: Seahawks 38–7).
Last year, through 13 weeks of the regular season, the Falcons were a five-win team, at 5–7, but they were still tied for first place in the anemic NFC South with New Orleans. Atlanta is slightly better this season, at 6–6, but it doesn’t feel that way, thanks to losses in six of the past seven games after that 5–0 start. Last year through 13 weeks of the regular season, the Panthers were 3-8-1 and seemingly going nowhere. But they haven’t lost a regular-season game since, going 4–0 down the stretch last December and 12–0 so far this year. That’s not the 16–0 that will earn you a spot in the NFL record books, but on Sunday, Atlanta and Carolina will continue racing in opposite directions.
The Bears are an ugly 1–5 at home this season and let one get away last week in overtime against visiting San Francisco and Blaine Gabbert. Washington is an ugly 0–5 on the road this season and couldn’t close the deal against visiting Dallas and Matt Cassel on Monday night. One of those season-long trends cannot continue, and I like Jay Cutler’s team to get more accomplished than Jay Gruden’s team in this battle of 5–7 NFC strivers.
Weird season in the usually tightly bunched AFC North, which last year featured three playoff teams all clumped within one game of each other. This season the Bengals hold a commanding three-game lead over the Steelers with four weeks left, and then Baltimore is a distant three games behind Pittsburgh. Cincinnati would love to win this game, sweep the Steelers this season, clinch the division and maintain its grip on the AFC’s No. 1 seed. But Pittsburgh is currently in the AFC’s No. 7 slot in the playoff chase and needs to win with a challenging home game against Denver looming in Week 15. By the slightest of margins, score one for desperation.
Give it up for Blaine Gabbert, the former Jaguars quarterback/punching bag who has managed to match the number of wins produced by Colin Kaepernick despite starting half as many games. Gabbert is 2–2 following Kaepernick’s 2–6 half-season of work. The bar of expectation for Gabbert was set ridiculously low, but he seems to have won the confidence and support of his teammates, and that’s at least one positive to take from this lost season in San Francisco. Can Johnny Manziel manage to do the same over the course of this final four weeks in Cleveland?
Speaking of quarterbacks who have proven to be resilient in the face of early career mocking, the Ravens might give Jimmy Clausen the start—or at least some playing time—if the injured Matt Schaub can’t go. Who among us thought Clausen would ever start for three NFL teams, but such is the reality if he opens up this game at M&T Bank Stadium. Clausen actually already faced Seattle once this season, and it didn’t go so well. In Week 3 at CenturyLink Field, he and the Bears went down quietly 26–0. Clausen completed just nine passes for 63 yards, and the results won’t be drastically different on Sunday. This is no time to be catching the Seahawks, who have the looks of another dominant December about them.
Matt Hasselbeck finally started acting his age in the blowout loss at Pittsburgh last Sunday night, and a second consecutive road game is no easy assignment for the 40-year-old backup quarterback. Blake Bortles and the Jaguars’ passing game will do its part, and then it’ll be a matter of whether the defense will do enough to contain the Colts’ playmakers for Jacksonville to earn its first win over Indianapolis since 2012.
Hard to remember now, but the Chargers were 8–4 at this point last season and seemed bound for their second straight trip to the playoffs under coach Mike McCoy. But they’ve gone a disastrous 4–12 since that point and now seem bound for Los Angeles, with McCoy quite possibly headed for the unemployment line. The Chiefs should roll to their seventh consecutive win and continue their improbable rise from 1–5 to the playoffs.
The Jets used to be called the Titans back in the early AFL days. The Titans used to be called the Oilers until 1999. Tennessee finally logged a home win last week (against Jacksonville), but New York should be on a high at home after last week’s uplifting comeback win over the can’t-quite-finish-the-job Giants. The Jets have possession of the AFC’s No. 6 seed and just have to stay one step ahead of the Steelers to make Todd Bowles’s first season on the job an undeniable success.
As much as LeSean McCoy wants this one for revenge on Chip Kelly, both teams should have ample motivation with just a check of the standings. I remember covering the Dallas at Philadelphia game in October 2006 that featured Terrell Owens returning to the scene of the crime after ruining the Eagles’ 2005 season. That day turned out well for the home team, with Philadelphia cruising to a 38–24 win and Owens catching an uneventful three passes for 45 yards. It’ll be roughly the same story Sunday, at least in terms of a vindicating Eagles victory.
Let’s see how the Lions respond to that gut-wrenching loss at home against Green Bay two Thursdays ago, a defeat that had to fester for 10 long days as Aaron Rodgers’s mind-boggling Hail Mary heave played on an endless loop in their minds. There’s little reason other than draft order to care about this showdown of 4–8 also-rans, but with five consecutive dispiriting losses, the Rams seemingly have already packed it in and are simply awaiting their fate in the relocation game come January.
The sight of the Bucs climbing over the .500 mark in December is going to stoke legitimate anticipation for 2016 in Tampa Bay. Not that Lovie Smith’s improving squad doesn’t have plenty to still play for this season. It does. But after that dismal 1–3 and 2–4 start to this year, everything from Nov. 1 on has been arrow-pointing-up material for Tampa Bay. In New Orleans, the arrow is pointing out the door, as in the house-cleaning that may ensue at season’s end.
Could this be the last Oakland-Denver game ever in a series that dates to the AFL’s first season in 1960? There was that 13-season hiatus in Los Angeles from 1982 to ’94 for the Raiders, and the AFC West rivalry didn’t suffer. But if San Diego and Oakland both wind up in L.A., the thought is that one of them will be moving to the NFC West. The Broncos can’t take anyone lightly at this point, but with that stout defense and a steady Brock Osweiler making just enough plays, Denver will maintain possession of an AFC first-round bye.
The Packers were gifted that win in Detroit in Week 13, and now they have to make sure they’re worthy of such good fortune and use that victory as a springboard to yet another division title. This is not the same Cowboys team that visited Lambeau Field last January and gave Green Bay all it wanted in the NFC divisional round. With Minnesota losing narrowly Thursday night in Arizona, the Packers can open up a one-game lead over the Vikings in the NFC North, with the head-to-head tiebreaker to Green Bay’s advantage as well.
Can’t remember the last time the Patriots lost three games in a row? There’s a good reason for that. It was forever ago. In the first half of the 2002 season, New England actually dropped four straight, and that was the only season that a healthy Tom Brady has missed the playoffs since he became the club’s starter early in 2001. Little will come easily for the injury-depleted Patriots against a Houston defense that has thrived in its home environment of late, but New England will gut out its 11th win and jump back into position for a first-round bye when Cincinnati falls at home to Pittsburgh.
Consecutive losses to the Patriots, Washington and the Jets have put the Giants on the brink of collapse, but that’s usually when New York does its best work. Tom Coughlin’s job status is again a front-burner issue, but there’s still time to bend this season’s narrative in the Giants’ favor. It starts with this trip to South Florida and getting a win that keeps New York locked in a tie with the Eagles atop the lowly NFC East. The Dolphins have their own hot-seat-candidate coach to play for in Dan Campbell, but this time the former Giants tight end and his team won’t be able to land a damaging blow to New York’s tenuous playoff hopes.