By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Week 14 kicks off the final quarter of the NFL season, so it’s put up or shut up time for several NFL teams. Technically, 29 teams are still alive in the playoff hunt, but that number will come down drastically after this week. A potential AFC Championship preview in Foxboro headlines the Week 14 action. Here’s my take on how this weekend will play out.
(Home team in all CAPS)
REDSKINS 23, Ravens 21 – Noon
Through twelve games, Redskins rookie sensation Robert Griffin III broke the single-season record for rushing yards by a rookie quarterback (714), eclipsing the mark set last year by Carolina’s Cam Newton. A running quarterback can break the back of a defense, but those yards come at a price. Griffin takes far too many hellacious hits outside of the pocket, which add up over time. This weekend, the Redskins will pound away against a physical Ravens defense that struggles to stop the run with another rookie, running back Alfred Morris. I foresee a late season slide in Baltimore, starting this week in Landover.
BROWNS 20, Chiefs 17 – Noon
It’s the who wants a better draft pick bowl in Cleveland, as the Chiefs battle the Browns. Jokes aside, the Browns aren’t nearly as bad as their record indicates. Several of their losses can be directly attributed to boneheaded coaching decisions by Pat Shurmur, who should find his way to the unemployment line at season’s end. Despite poor coaching and limited talent, the Browns are on a two-game win streak and will extend it this weekend against the craptastic Chiefs.
STEELERS 24, Chargers 17 – Noon
What a nice bounce-back win for old man Charlie Batch last week in Baltimore, snapping the Ravens’ 15-game home winning streak in the process. Just a week prior, the Steelers looked listless, carelessly turning the ball over eight times in a loss to the Browns. It looks like Ben Roethlisberger will return this weekend, but do they really need to rush him back against the awful Chargers? I think not. Given the Ravens’ underachieving ways, the battle for the AFC North and potential wild card spot is going to be fun to watch. With or without Roethlisberger, the Steelers should have no problem shutting down San Diego.
COLTS 27, Titans 20 – Noon
Not even the biggest homer Colts fan expected an eight win season, yet here they are. What impresses me most about the accelerated ascension of quarterback Andrew Luck is his ability to engineer drives late in games. Luck plays with the poise of a seasoned veteran, which bodes well for his future, as his physical talents are off-the-charts. The Titans are a mess. Head coach Mike Munchak tried to appease the masses by firing offensive coordinator Chris Palmer prior to last week’s game, and the “new” offense responded with 10 points. The Titans are winless in their division, have a below average offense, and a bottom of the barrel defense. It’s time for Munchak to go as well.
Jets 20, JAGUARS 17 – Noon
“Man, I can’t wait to watch the Jets-Jaguars game this weekend,” said nobody. Honestly, other than football satirists, who wants to spend their afternoon watching this game? Deeply disturbed, tortured football souls, that’s who. I found it more than coincidental that the week Tim Tebow was inactive was the week that Rex Ryan went to a backup quarterback (Greg McElroy), as Mark Sanchez has certainly had other bench-worthy performances this season. Sanchez is back at the helm against Jacksonville, facing a Jaguars team that is barely competitive. I’ll take the Jets by default.
VIKINGS 23, Bears 20 – Noon
After last weekend’s defensive collapse against the Seahawks, real estate at the ledges of Chicago skyscrapers is at a premium. The preseason fear of an aging defense reared its ugly head, as the Seahawks not only out-schemed the Bears coaches, but their players looked spry, while the Bears looked slow. This weekend, the Bears will be without Brian Urlacher. Granted, Urlacher hasn’t been the player we’ve grown accustomed to, as the short-area quickness, the ability to man in vertical seam, and speed to pursue run plays to the sideline are gone. But with Adrian Peterson on the docket, the Bears will miss him. I expect the Vikings to feed Adrian Peterson the ball en route to a win that will send the masses into a frenzy, inflaming the torches of the “Fire Lovie” mob.
Falcons 27, PANTHERS 23 – Noon
Hopefully by now, everyone realizes why I’ve discounted the Falcons record all season. Keep 11-1 all you want, this team is not winning a Super Bowl, and may be (yet again) a one-and-done in the playoffs. The Falcons can’t gain crucial yards on the ground in short-yardage, and their pass rush isn’t consistent enough to be considered a legitimate contender. That said, they’re still a better team than the Panthers, who just dropped a game to the staggered Chiefs.
BUCS 27, Eagles 20 – Noon
The Bucs need a win to keep their decreasing playoff hopes alive, lucky for them the Eagles are next on the docket. The Bucs were rolling, winning four straight before they ran into the Falcons – losing by a point – and the red-hot Broncos. Playing playoff caliber teams tight, but coming up short, shows the Bucs are simply a good, not a great team. Until they beat a quality opponent – they play the Falcons again in Week 17 – they won’t be taken seriously. At the end of the season, the Bucs will most likely fall short, but this is a team to keep an eye on in the off-season. This weekend, they’ll find little resistance against an Eagles team that’s just counting down the weeks until the season ends, and their head coach’s impending doom.
Rams 20, BILLS 17 – Noon
What is it about the Rams and the 49ers? It’s confusing to see a team play a legitimate Super Bowl contender so well, and drop games to the likes of the Dolphins and Jets. That’s a sign of youth and inexperience, but is also promising that they play a division rival so well. The Rams passing offense is not up to speed, but they can run the ball. Buffalo really struggles to defend the run, so I like the Rams on the road.
Cowboys 31, BENGALS 27 – Noon
Huge game for two teams in the hunt for a Wild Card berth, and an outside chance at division titles, as Dallas travels to Cincinnati. The Bengals are a streaky team. After an early season four-game slide, they’re on a four-game winning streak. Usually known best for their explosive passing game, lately it’s been the Bengals defense leading the charge. The Bengals have allowed a touchdown or less in four straight games, a streak that will surely come to an end this weekend against an explosive Cowboys offense that’s averaging 32 points per game over the past four weeks. This is really a pick-em game, and I’m giving a slight edge to the Cowboys on the road.
49ERS 24, Dolphins 17 – 3:05 PM
Ever since quarterback Alex Smith has been cleared to play again, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh has come under fire for his handling of the quarterback situation. It’s rare for an “established” player at any position to lose his starting job to injury, let alone the most difficult position to play in all of professional sports. Colin Kaepernick orchestrated two 30+ point performances, before making a crucial blunder late in the game last week. Kaepernick stopped the clock on a run, which allowed the Rams to save a timeout for their last drive of regulation, on which they kicked a field goal to send the game into overtime. Alex Smith wouldn’t have made an error like that, so let the excessive second guessing commence. This weekend, the 49ers will rebound against an overachieving Dolphins team.
GIANTS 30, Saints 27 – 3:25 PM
Two recent Super Bowl winners square off, when the Saints go on the road to face the Giants. Both of these teams had forgettable performances last week. Saints quarterback Drew Brees’ streak of consecutive games with a touchdown (54) came to a screeching halt in a five interception meltdown against the Falcons. The Giants were steamrolled by a set of Redskins rookies, and must have a better performance this weekend against a Saints team that effectively runs the ball when they want to. I still maintain the Giants are the best team in football, and expect them to play like it on Sunday.
SEAHAWKS 24, Cardinals 13 – 3:25 PM
Russell Wilson is the real deal. Wilson was impressive last week against the Bears, orchestrating a 97-yard drive to take the lead at the end of regulation, then marched another 80 yards for the game winner in overtime. Wilson was cool, calm, and collected down the stretch, making players miss with his elusiveness in the open-field as a runner, and throwing accurate mid-range passes on time and on target. This weekend, the Seahawks will do terrible things to one of the worst teams in football, and improve their Wild Card position.
PACKERS 31, Lions 24 – 7:30 PM
Considering the amount of lost starts to key contributors this season (and that Seattle “loss”), the Packers are a deadly team to watch down the stretch. Their depth was also tested a few seasons ago, but they got healthy at the right time and rolled their way to a Super Bowl. I wouldn’t be surprised if that very scenario happens again this season. Yes, their offensive line stinks. But so did their offensive line in 2010, so there’s precedence for Aaron Rodgers to rise above the shoddy protection he gets from time to time. The Lions? I’m still laughing at their collapse last week. They became the first team since 1983 to lose three home games when leading with two minutes left. Oh, Lions, never stop being so Liony.
PATRIOTS 34, Texans 24 – Monday Night 7:40 PM
Week 14 wraps up in style, with a potential AFC Championship preview in New England, as the Texans take on the Patriots. I feel safe saying at least one of these two teams will play in the AFC Championship, I have a feeling the Broncos may be the other last team standing. The way the Texans have played defense over the past few weeks gives me great pause about their ceiling. Unlike the Falcons, I do believe in the Texans, and their record, but a lot of that faith was predicated on their defense playing well. The Patriots score at will, and I have a hunch they’re going to light up the scoreboard on Monday night in a statement game.
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.