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NFL picks: Despite slow Thanksgiving, playoff intrigue abounds in Week 13

The NFL almost always gives us the unexpected, even when we’d rather not be surprised. But Week 13 isn’t done, and there may still be an instant classic or two to come on Sunday or Monday night. Check that, probably not on Monday night. That’s Dolphins at Jets.

Well, this year's Thanksgiving Day tripleheader wasn’t as much fun as we expected. The Lions, Eagles and Seahawks won by an average of almost 19 points. The Bears were the only losing team that even held the lead at any point, and they were outscored 31-3 over the course of the game’s final three quarters. But the turkey was still good.

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It goes to show you the NFL almost always gives us the unexpected, even when we’d rather not be surprised. But Week 13 isn’t done, and there may still be an instant classic or two to come on Sunday or Monday night. Check that, probably not on Monday night. That’s Dolphins at Jets.

Sunday’s glamor matchup of Patriots at Packers is not only a possible Super Bowl preview, it’s a Super Bowl rematch, too. The 1996 season gave us that pairing in Super Bowl XXXI, with Green Bay and Brett Favre winning a ring and Bill Parcells leaving New England amid a cloud of controversy. That made way for Pete Carroll in Foxboro, who eventually was succeeded by Bill Belichick, so if nothing else, Robert Kraft knows how to pick head coaches. But I digress.

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Sunday night’s game has promise as well: The Broncos travel to Kansas City in a battle for first place in the AFC West. What would a week in the NFL be like without seeing if Peyton Manning can add to his own litany of league records? And like the Tom Brady-Aaron Rodgers duel earlier in the day, great quarterbacking usually creates great games and compelling theater. Thursday just happened to be the exception. Let's hope Sunday comes through to save the day.

• Last week: 12-3; Season: 120-55 (.686).
• Best pick in Week 12: Chicago 27, Tampa Bay 17 (Actual score: Bears 21-13).
Worst pick in Week 12: New Orleans 33, Baltimore 23 (Actual score: Ravens 34-27).

And here were my picks for the three games on Thanksgiving: Bears at Lions, Eagles at Cowboys and Seahawks at 49ers.


Since a 34-30 Browns win in the first round of the 1989-90 playoffs, these two Rust Belt teams have met with winning records after Thanksgiving just once, a snowy affair in December 2007 in which Cleveland came away with an 8-0 victory. The tortured fans in Cleveland and Buffalo don’t have any Super Bowl trophies to taunt each other with, but Browns backers can claim a more recent playoff berth than Bills partisans: 2002 for Cleveland and 1999 for Buffalo. Alas, there is one constant these franchises have in common: If the AFC playoffs started today, both would be on the outside looking in. Still, progress has been made on the opposing shores of Lake Erie.

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Colt McCoy to start against the Colts, huh? Maybe something just clicked for Jay Gruden with that little bit of wordplay. Whatever the case, it seems very short-sighted of Washington’s first-year coach to give up on Griffin as his No. 1 quarterback before the 2014 regular season is even over. With his club going nowhere in the NFC playoff chase, wouldn’t it have been wiser to at least give RGIII every opportunity to get some semblance of confidence back before it’s decision time in D.C.? Maybe the head-to-head showdown with his 2012 classmate, Andrew Luck, would have brought out the best of Griffin. Now we’ll never know.

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Maybe some day these two AFC South also-rans will get their long-term quarterback situations settled and truly challenge Indianapolis for division supremacy. But the Titans and Texans have both been chasing the Peyton Manning/Andrew Luck-led Colts for what seems like forever.

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The Chargers currently have something the Ravens want, namely the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoff bracket. Baltimore is sitting seventh, just outside the postseason party, and that makes this one of the most pivotal games of the weekend. The Ravens haven’t lost at home since opening day against Cincinnati, and if they can get past San Diego this week and win at Miami next week, Baltimore’s one-year playoff drought will in all likelihood come to an end.

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The Tom Coughlin Bowl, anyone? Some younger fans might forget Coughlin went a very impressive 72-64 over eight years as the coach of the expansion Jaguars, leading them to the playoffs in four consecutive seasons from 1996-99. In reality, the Coughlin era spoiled Jacksonville fans with an early winner, and the Jaguars have never remotely reached and sustained those heights in the 12 seasons since Coughlin left town.


I honestly don’t know how Lovie Smith keeps talking about the Bucs' playoff chances with a straight face. At 2-9, without a home win or a division win to their credit, Smith’s Bucs are the most absurd playoff contender in the history of playoff contention. But that’s the travesty the NFC South has wrought this season. The Bengals, fresh off road wins at New Orleans and Houston, should make it three in a row away from Paul Brown Stadium and push Tampa Bay a little closer to being put out of its misery.

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The Rams and Raiders both used to play in Los Angeles and once were neighbors in that market. Both left SoCal after the 1994 season, and now perhaps both are eyeing a return to L.A. That backdrop will likely have nothing to do with the outcome of this game, which the Rams should rule. If St. Louis can beat the likes of Seattle, San Francisco and Denver, it should be able to handle an Oakland club that’s still winless on the road in five tries this season.

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Good luck to those brave football bettors trying to make money off the Saints and Steelers this season. If you can figure out these two teams and what makes them tick, you deserve to hit the jackpot. The Steelers have lost to Tampa Bay at home and to the Jets on the road. The Saints finally got past their road issues with a win at Carolina in Week 9, then promptly dropped a mind-boggling three games in a row at home. But while the Steelers are 7-4, they’re not in a better position to make the playoffs than the 4-7 Saints, who are at least tied with Atlanta for first place in the bedraggled AFC South. Pittsburgh trails Cincinnati by a half-game in the AFC North and needs to take care of business to stay close to the pack.

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The return to the great outdoors on game day hasn’t been a resounding success in Minnesota so far, with the Vikings 2-3 at their temporary home of TCF Bank Stadium on the campus of the University of Minnesota. But with the Panthers and Jets coming to the Twin Cities in the next two weeks, the Vikings at least have a chance to fight in their own weight class. The three teams to beat Minnesota at home this season all have at least eight wins: New England, Detroit and Green Bay. Look for the Vikings' improved defense to frustrate Cam Newton and then do the same against Geno Smith and the Jets next week.

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With Seattle starting to put the pressure on the first-place Cardinals, this is a big game for Bruce Arians’ team. Arizona has only lost two games in a row once in Arians' 27-game coaching tenure in the desert, and that came in Weeks 6-7 of 2013. If you just keep it close against the Falcons, Atlanta will find a way to beat itself. And somebody really ought to take the game-day clock management decisions out of Mike Smith’s hands for his own sake. It’s clearly not his strong suit.

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By far the toughest game of the weekend to predict, the Patriots and Packers are both playing with supreme confidence thanks to the MVP-level seasons being turned in by Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. The Lambeau Field factor should be Green Bay’s game-deciding advantage, but the Patriots are playing as if they’re on the mission over the past two months, and it appears they have forgotten how to lose. This game will turn on the takeaway column, and I see New England coming up with one more big defensive moment than the Packers can muster.

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Since Peyton Manning first pulled on Broncos orange in 2012, Denver has owned the Chiefs, going 5-0 against them and winning by an average of more than 13 points per game. So while Kansas City is usually tough to beat in Arrowhead and hasn’t lost there since Week 1 against Tennessee, I’ll take Manning and the Denver offense to find enough different ways to score in a win that will damage but not end the Chiefs' AFC playoff hopes. Kansas City’s shot at the AFC West title, however, will be lost at this point.

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With a potential playoff berth on the line at home in Week 17 last season, the Dolphins couldn’t beat the Jets, a result that helped give Rex Ryan one more season in green and white. Miami is a better team this season, and while the crushing loss at Denver might have drained the Dolphins of some of their momentum, they won’t let this punchless Jets team stand in their way of trying to mount a playoff run this year.