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Week 14 picks: Can Steelers keep Bengals from wrapping up AFC North?

With five playoff slots genuinely up for grabs outside of the runaway division winners, Week 14 should help clarify matters to some degree, with Steelers-Bengals, Bills-Eagles and Patriots-Texans deserving of our full attention.

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).

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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).

And here was my pick for the Vikings-Cardinals Thursday night game.

• Play FanDuel risk-free this week. Win cash on your first entry or you get refunded! New users only.

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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.

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MAYS: Robinson’s rise and more storylines to watch in Week 14

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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.

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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.

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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?

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Wilson's dominance in pocket crucial to Seahawks' offensive resurgence

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.

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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.

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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.

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