By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Fifteen weeks in the books, yet only four playoff tickets – Seattle, Denver, Kansas City, and Indianapolis – have been punched. With two weeks remaining, 19 teams are left in contention for a Super Bowl run.
Here’s my take on how this weekend’s action plays out.
Game of the Week: PANTHERS 31, Saints 27 – Noon
Just two weeks ago, the Saints pasted the Panthers in New Orleans. However, the Saints stumbled in St. Louis, while the Panthers beat the Jets, setting up a pivotal rematch. If the Saints win, they clinch the NFC South and a first-round bye. If the Panthers win, they secure a playoff berth. The Saints are a different team outside of the dome, so without the benefit of crowd noise to aid the defense and turf that provides an ideal surface for quick cuts on offense, I anticipate the Panthers defensive front controlling the line of scrimmage for the win.
Dolphins 27, BILLS 23 – Noon
Considering the gray cloud that’s hovered over the Dolphins this season, they’ve persevered and are positioned for a playoff berth. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is the primary factor for Miami’s resurgence. In his last three games, Tannehill has eight touchdowns, two interceptions, a 103 rating, and has twice thrown game-winning touchdowns. Look for more of the same against a vulnerable Bills secondary, as the Dolphins win their third straight in Buffalo.
Cowboys 34, REDSKINS 31 – Noon
Oh Cowboys, never stop doing whatever it is that makes you the perennial underachievers you are. In typical Cowboys fashion, they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Jerry’s boys squandered a 23-point lead, hitting the trifecta of terrible play calling, late game interceptions, and historically bad defense. This week, they play an NFC East foe that’s surprisingly in worse shape than they are. Jason Garrett’s coaching for his job, while Mike Shanahan’s checked out. Give me the Cowboys in a shootout.
RAMS 23, Bucs 20 – Noon
Set for yet another playoff-less winter, the Rams and Bucs are already making offseason plans. For the Bucs, their biggest decisions will be about the future of their head coach, and given their draft position, determining if Mike Glennon is their quarterback of the future or not. Armed with the Redskins first-round pick, the Rams are positioned to take a big step next season, but will Sam Bradford lead the charge? These topics are far more interesting than anything that will happen on the field. Rams by a field goal.
Cleveland 24, JETS 20 – Noon
It takes a special kind of devotion to tune in to this game. The Browns are more talented than their record suggests, but they don’t know how to finish games. After bolstering their defensive front this past offseason, finding a quarterback has to be their primary focus this offseason. Wide receiver Josh Gordon’s talents aren’t being fully utilized by Jason Campbell, which makes it tantalizing to think about his true ceiling. The Browns defense will force the turnover-prone Geno Smith into some bad decisions and pick up a win.
CHIEFS 31, Colts 23 – Noon
The Colts have already locked up the AFC South, while the Chiefs are still in the hunt for a possible division crown. Even though it was against the Raiders, the Chiefs 56 point outburst was impressive. The Chiefs still strike me as a one-and-done in the playoffs, but the AFC is wide open. With a flimsy offensive line, no running game, and a leaky defense, the Colts will fall flat in the playoffs. Look for the Chiefs defensive line to camp out in the Colts backfield all game long en route to victory.
BENGALS 34, Vikings 27 – Noon
In 2013, the Bengals are undefeated at home, while the Vikings are winless on the road. Will both of these streaks stay alive? I believe they will. The Bengals’ loss to the Steelers last week was their first in a month. The Vikings have looked better with Matt Cassel under center, but their secondary will give way to the Bengals passing game.
Broncos 41, TEXANS 17 – Noon
Prior to the season, this game had the appearance of a potential playoff matchup. Fifteen weeks in, and it’s a worst-versus-first matchup. The Broncos have piled up points and yards at a record-setting pace, while the Texans season came undone early on. Lovie Smith has already interviewed for their head coaching job, so this team is clearly checked out. Peyton Manning will be on the sidelines wearing a baseball hat by halftime.
Titans 31, JAGUARS 27 – Noon
Can good things happen when bad teams play? Well, if you’re one of the 13 people that tune in to this game, you’ll find out. The Jaguars can’t stop the pass, and the Titans can’t stop the run, so this could be a shootout. The Jaguars have won four of their past five games, but they don’t generate enough pressure on the quarterback, which will be their undoing against the Titans.
SEAHAWKS 31, Cardinals 24 – 3:05 PM
In fourteen home starts, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has never lost, and his 23 wins in his first two seasons are the most in the Super Bowl era. The Seahawks have won the last two meetings in this series by a combined score of 92-22. Quarterback Carson Palmer has led the Cardinals to six victories in their last seven games, posting a 100+ rating in five of them. However, he’s still turnover prone, which won’t work out well against an opportunistic Seahawks secondary.
LIONS 27, Giants 17 – 3:05 PM
Did you by chance miss the reaction from the Lions sideline as Justin Tucker’s 61-yard field goal snuck over the crossbar by the slimmest of margins? Oh you did? Here you go. Priceless, isn’t it? I make no bones about my distaste for Jim Schwartz and the program he runs in Detroit. This team is far too talented to underachieve the way they do, and their sloppy and undisciplined play is a direct reflection of their head coach. This week, they face a team who is somehow sloppier than they are, and will belittle the Giants.
CHARGERS 34, Raiders 24 – 3:25 PM
The Chargers pulled of a stunner last week, taking down the Broncos in Denver. While the odds are stacked against them, the Chargers are still mathematically alive in the playoff hunt. In his career, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is 11-4 against the Raiders and has a 28-6 record in the month of December. Raiders rookie Matt McGloin has been careless with the ball in his last few stars, turning the ball over eight times. I like the Chargers to carve up the Raiders secondary at home.
Steelers 27, PACKERS 24 – 3:25 PM
Considering the tumult the Packers have endured since losing starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers, it’s incredible to think they’re still in a position to make the playoffs. Without Rodgers under center this Sunday, the Packers will have their hands full against a Steelers team that’s playing excellent football on offense. The Steelers have won four out of their last six, during which quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has posted a 95+ rating five times. Make it five out of seven as the Steelers put the Packers playoff hopes on the ropes.
Patriots 31, RAVENS 26 – 3:25 PM
Huge AFC matchup in Baltimore, with two teams alive in the playoff hunt. The Patriots are trying to clinch the division and a first round bye, while the Ravens need a win to stay in the hunt to defend their title. The Patriots standard of excellence is staggering. They’ve won 10+ games in 11 straight seasons, and quarterback Tom Brady has led them to an NFL-record 10 division titles. These teams always play tight games, but I like Brady to notch his 18th win in his last 20 December games.
EAGLES 38, Bears 34 – 7:30 PM
It will be defense-optional in Philly, as the Bears and Eagles battle. Both of these teams remain in control of their playoff destiny. However, given the fact they’re playing the Sunday night game, the outcomes of the Cowboys, Lions, and Packers games may render this game meaningless. Regardless, both coaches claim they’ll play their starters either way. The Bears will have their way against the Eagles secondary, but Shady McCoy will run circles around the Bears atrocious run defense.
49ERS 34, Falcons 20 – Monday Night 7:40 PM
Just eleven months ago, these teams played for the right to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. My how times have changed. Injuries and miscalculations along the offensive line and defense doomed the Falcons. The 49ers have dealt with their fair share of injuries as well, but the depth of their roster carried them through. This will be the final regular-season matchup in Candlestick Park, which has hosted Monday Night football more than any other venue, and the 49ers will go out in style against the lowly Falcons.
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