By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Here’s my take on how the NFL’s Week 15 will shake out with my predictions, my juggernaut game of the week, and my “juggernot lame of the weak”:
(Home team in all CAPS)
Juggernaut Game of the Week
49ERS 17, Steelers 16 – Monday Night 7:30 PM
It’s only taken 15 weeks to get the second Monday Night game worth watching. Two 10-win teams who figure to be major factors in their respective conference playoffs square off, as the Steelers head west to face the 49ers. Thanks to the fleet feet of wide receiver Antonio Brown, the Steelers narrowly escaped defeat last Thursday against the Browns and kept pace with the Ravens, Texans, and Patriots. The Steelers suffered a few notable casualties in last week’s game, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and linebacker James Harrison. Roethlisberger fell victim to a gruesome looking ankle injury after getting rolled up in a mass of men. X-rays came back negative, allowing him to return to the game and hobble around just enough to down an awful Browns team. Harrison, on the other hand, is suspended this week for yet another helmet-to-helmet hit, this time the victim was Browns quarterback Colt McCoy. The 49ers red zone woes continued in last week’s loss to the Cardinals. They made six trips to the red zone, netting one touchdown and four field goals. If the 49ers want to be considered elite in the NFC, that trend needs to change. I’m torn on the winner of this game, but I’m assuming Roethlisberger won’t play, and since nobody runs on the 49ers, Charlie Batch won’t get it done.
Juggernot Lame of the Weak
CARDINALS 17, Browns 13 – 3:15 PM
Seeking their fourth straight win, the surging Cardinals host the awful Browns. Perhaps losing starting quarterback Kevin Kolb on the third play of the game was exactly what the Cardinals needed, as back-up John Skelton stepped in to post the best passer rating of his career, and do something Kolb has struggled to do all year: feed the ball to beastly wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s 149-yard effort last week pushed him over the 1,000-yard mark for the sixth time in his eight-year career. The Browns put up a surprisingly strong effort last weekend against the Steelers, pushing them to the brink, only to have a rare lapse in pass coverage late in the game. Not much has gone right for the Browns this season, and quarterback Colt McCoy is at the center of Cleveland’s offensive woes. Purported quarterback “guru” general manager Mike Holmgren targeted McCoy as the franchise quarterback, and I think he’d like a do-over on that decision. I didn’t like McCoy as an NFL prospect due to his limited size, weak arm, and accuracy issues. Every opportunity I get to see McCoy play, my opinion further sours. I like the Cardinals to pick up head coach Ken Wisenhunt’s 43rd victory, tying him for the club record.
Cowboys 27, BUCCANEERS 13 – Saturday 7:20 PM
The reeling Cowboys take a trip to the sunshine state for a tilt against the terrible Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Back-to-back heartbreaking losses for the Cowboys make this a must-win game. When Cowboys rookie kicker Dan Bailey lined up for his second chance at a game-tying field goal last Sunday against division rival New York, you just knew he was going to miss it. In successive weeks, the game has come down to a pigskin propelled by Bailey’s right foot, and in successive weeks, Bailey has made the first attempt only to have it nullified by a timeout, and missed the follow-up. Luckily for the Cowboys, this game shouldn’t have to come down to a last-second field goal, as the Cowboys are better than Tampa in every aspect of football.
BEARS 16, Seahawks 13 – Noon
My stomach still turns when I think about last week’s game. I reflexively change the channel every time a “highlight” from the game is played, and shudder every time I hear or see the name Tebow. Any way you slice it, the Bears got Tebowed last week. Yes, a simple kneel down from Marion Barber would’ve changed the collective mood of Chicagoans this week, but he didn’t and the Bears are in the midst of a three-game skid. The Bears welcome the Seahawks to town for the Solider Field finale. Jay Cutler was the ultimate deodorant this season, masking the foul odors emanating from the Bears offense. From a porous offensive line, to third-rate receivers, Cutler’s immense talent and athleticism overcame it all. Any chance of Cutler returning this season is predicated on a win this weekend. The Seahawks are playing some serious defense this season, especially against the run, so look for a lot of eight-man fronts to challenge Caleb Hanie to beat them. Even though I think Hanie won’t beat them, the Seahawks aren’t a good football team. The Bears defense has been stellar over the past three games and I expect another championship-caliber performance from them this weekend. I like the Bears to pull out a win and keep their slim playoff hopes on life support for another week.
Bengals 24, RAMS 16 – Noon
The Bengals find themselves on the outside looking in to the AFC Playoffs and need a win this weekend in St. Louis to stay alive. Cincinnati’s recent skid has more to do with their opponents than anything. Over the past five weeks, they’ve played Pittsburgh twice, the Ravens, and most recently the Texans. With the exception of their last game against Pittsburgh, every game was decided by seven points or less. Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton has had a rough few weeks, but his running game hasn’t done much to help him out. This week, they face the NFL’s worst run defense, so look for Cedric Benson to get back on track, and help the Bengals keep their playoff hopes alive.
Dolphins 20, BILLS 17 – Noon
The Dolphins travel to Buffalo to battle for the AFC East basement, loser wins. Despite their recent resurgence, the Dolphins were unable to save Tony Sporano’s job. Sporano compiled a 29-32 career regular season record and one post season appearance, a 2008 Wild-Card loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Assistant head coach Todd Bowles takes over head coaching duties on an interim basis. Their counterpart this weekend is hoping some home cooking snaps their six-game skid. Six weeks ago, the Jets sent the Bills into this tailspin, exposing the Bills soft receivers and porous offensive line. Losing running back Fred Jackson two weeks poured salt on the wound, this weekend the Dolphins will put the final nail in the 2011 Buffalo Bills’ coffin.
Titans 17, COLTS 13 – Noon
Clinging on to slim playoff hopes, the Titans travel to Indianapolis to clash with the Colts. If the Titans want to make their first playoff appearance since 2008, they need to win out, so a match-up against the worst team in football could be the catalyst they need. However, history isn’t on their side, as they’ve dropped seven of their last eight in Indy, obviously, with Peyton Manning calling the shots for the Colts. No Manning this weekend, and possibly no Matt Hasselbeck for the Titans, which would force rookie Jake Locker to make his first NFL start. Locker played well in relief duty last weekend against the Saints, but in order to make his first start successful, he will need contributions from running back Chris Johnson. Locker or Hasselbeck, I like the Titans over the Colts.
GIANTS 27, Redskins 20 – Noon
The Giants host division rival Washington in a crucial NFC East match-up. Fresh off a road win against the Cowboys, the Giants are riding high and need a win this weekend to hold the top spot in the division. Even though the Giants have been an up-and-down team in 2011, one constant has been the play of quarterback Eli Manning. Manning has been sensational, showing poise in the pocket, has cut down his interceptions, and is on pace to throw for a staggering 5,052 yards. The Redskins downed the Giants in the season opener 28-14, led by Rex Grossman’s 305 yard and two touchdown performance. While Grossman has played well since being re-inserted as the starting quarterback, the Giants defensive line will control the line of scrimmage and dominate a pedestrian Redskins offense.
Saints 31, VIKINGS 20 – Noon
Winners of five straight, the Saints make a trip Minnesota seeking a victory over the Vikings. With the Bears loss last weekend, the Saints clinched a playoff berth, but they have their sights on the number two seed in the NFL and a first-round bye, currently, they trail the 49ers, who have a better conference record. Saints quarterback will have a chance to extend some impressive streaks this weekend against the Vikings abysmal pass defense. Brees has now thrown a touchdown in 40 straight games, and has thrown for at least 20 completions in 33 straight games. The Vikings gave the paper champion Lions everything they wanted and then some last weekend, taking them to the wire, only to lose on a questionable last play of the game. This week, they may get superstar running back Adrian Peterson back, which will provide a needed boost to the offense. However, the Saints are in a different class than the Vikings and will pick up their sixth straight win on Sunday.
TEXANS 23, Panthers 20 – Noon
Two rookie signal callers square off in Houston, as former UNC Tarheel and current Houston Texan TJ Yates host Cam Newton and the Panthers. TJ Yates was fantastic in his first NFL road start, throwing for 300 yards and two touchdowns, dampening the Bengals playoff hopes in the process. This week, the Texans should deploy a more run-heavy game plan against a soft Carolina run defense that has surrendered 15 rushing touchdowns. One thing is for certain, Yates has made himself a whole lot of money with this run of success. Seeing how shallow the quarterback talent pool is in the NFL, you can safely assume Yates will sign a huge deal to become another team’s starter once his rookie deal expires. It’s been a season full of records for the other rookie signal caller, Cam Newton. Newton now owns the rookie rushing touchdown record, broke Peyton Manning’s first-game passing yardage record, and for a brief moment held the NFL record for most passing yardage over the first two games of a season, until Tom Brady broke it later that day. Either way, Newton has been spectacular this season, completely living up to and exceeding the expectations of a top-overall draft pick. Even so, the Texans are a far more complete football team and will maintain their number one seed in the AFC.
Packers 31, CHIEFS 13 – Noon
The Packers pursuit of perfection continues as they travel to Kansas City to try and scalp the Chiefs. I called a perfect season for the Packers in Week 4, and nine games later, they’re right where I expected them to be. It’s clear that Packers head coach Mike McCarthy wants to enter the playoffs with a perfect record and run the table on his way to a repeat. However, seeing star receiver Greg Jennings carted off the field last week against Oakland must certainly play into McCarthy’s thoughts. Sure, the Packers withstood a litany of injuries en route to the Super Bowl last season, but it was more of a case of who didn’t get hurt – namely league MVP Aaron Rodgers – than who did get hurt. Kyle Orton is expected to make his first start in Kansas City for interim head coach Romeo Crennel. Orton will be a boost to the differently abled Chiefs offense; however, it won’t be enough. This game is akin to the Globetrotters playing the Washington Generals. Note to former 1972 Dolphin and lifetime dope Mercury Morris, the Packers are not only in your town, they’re on your block, moved in next door, and are about to leave a flaming bag on your doorstep, be sure you stomp it out with your feet, and extinguish it with that champagne you’ll never need again.
Lions 24, RAIDERS 20 – 3:05 PM
The Suh-spension era is over for Detroit, who take their show on the road to Oakland for a rumble with the Raiders. The paper champion Lions were taken to the wire last weekend at home against the Vikings, and benefitted from a missed facemask call on DeAndre Levy. Levy clearly grabbed and turned the facemask of Vikings quarterback Joe Webb on the last play of the game, which would’ve given the Vikings another chance to win the game from the six-inch line. To be fair, calls are missed all the time, but this one was hard to understand considering it involved a quarterback – a position overly protected by NFL officials – who was carrying the ball on the play. As it stands, the Lions are in the playoffs for the moment, and have a chance to strengthen their position this week against an awful Oakland outfit. The Raiders have lost two straight by a margin of 80-30 and are now looking up at Touchdown Tebus and the Broncos in the AFC West standings. The Lions will light up a suspect Raiders secondary and notch their ninth win of the season.
Jets 24, EAGLES 23 – 3:15 PM
The Jets travel to Philadelphia to play the “Disappointment” bowl, as certainly both of these teams anticipated better seasons in 2011. Oddly enough, at 5-8 the Eagles are still alive in the NFC East race, trailing both the Giants and Cowboys by two games. However, a loss this Sunday against the Jets and the Eagles’ 2011 season will be a wrap. Playoffs or not, Eagles running back LeSean McCoy has had an All-Pro season, and can carve a spot in Eagles history with two more touchdowns. The Jets are alive and well in the AFC playoff hunt, thanks to three straight wins over bums like the Chiefs, Redskins, and Bills. This will be a very competitive and exciting game, and I’m giving the nod to the team with more to play for. I like the Jets to pick up their first win in franchise history against the Eagles.
Patriots 24, BRONCOS 17 – 3:15 PM
If trite clichés and excessive verbal gushing from announcers makes you queasy, have your barf bags handy for this game. Golden boy Tom Brady leads the Patriots west against Touchdown Tebus and the Broncos. Please, Mr. Brady, for the love of Tebow, do NFL fans a favor and put an end to this madness already. Enough is enough. I hope people out there realize that despite “winning” last week against the Bears – who were playing without their two best offensive players – that the outcome of the game had more to do with mind-numbing mental lapses in crucial situations than anything else. Dare I tell the truth and say that the Bears lost this game more than the Broncos won it? Anyway, onto the teams at hand. At 10-3, the Patriots are in the hunt for the top overall seed in the AFC, and a conference win in Denver – a place they’ve notoriously struggled at – is crucial. I have no doubt that the Patriots will be able to score points on the Broncos, but I do have doubts about their defense’s ability to stop a bruising Broncos rushing attack. However, I think this is the week the Broncos get exposed for what they really are, a mediocre football team in an awful division.
Ravens 24, CHARGERS 20 – 7:20 PM
Looking to keep pace with the Patriots, Steelers, and Texans, the Ravens take a trip across the country to face the Chargers. The Ravens already dominant defense may line up with Ray Lewis for the first time since Week 10. Many expected a drop-off in Lewis’s absence, but the Ravens have won four straight games, allowing only 26 points over their last three games. The Ravens other stars have elevated their level of play over this stretch, specifically outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and running back Ray Rice. Suggs continues to terrorize opposing quarterbacks, piling up seven sacks and four forced fumbles in his past three games, while Rice has averaged 148 total yards and a touchdown in his past four games. On the other side of the ball, the Chargers offense has gotten healthy and is starting to click at the right time. The Chargers have outscored their opponents 75-24 in the past two weeks, and will need every point they can muster this weekend. While I have a little bit of pause about picking a team traveling to the west coast, this is a night game, and the Ravens are simply a better team.
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.