Sunday, December 19, 2010

Week 15 Pigskin Predictions

Thursday Night Game
CHARGERS 31, niners 10 (written Thursday prior to game)
Last week San Francisco (5-8) picked apart Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (intercepting him four times) en route to a 40-21 thrashing of its top division foe. This week the 49ers will not be as fortunate. On-again, off-again quarterback Alex Smith will contend with San Diego (7-6) and its No. 1-rated defense; and the results will not be pretty. Phillip Rivers (the AFC’s top-rated QB, 101.3) will light up the Niners secondary tonight, connecting with 2009 Pro Bowl WR Vincent Jackson and six-time Pro Bowl TE Antonio Gates for scores, in leading the Chargers to a 21-point victory. The win will be San Diego’s fifth in its past six games, lifting them within ½-game of 8-5 Kansas City for the AFC West division lead. The loss will drop San Francisco to 5-9 but not eliminate them from playoff contention in the lousy NFC West – where it appears very likely that a 7-9 team will win the division and become the first sub-.500 team to make the playoffs.

RESULT: CHARGERS 34, niners 7
I was fairly on target with my prediction for this game. Chargers won big, defeating the 49ers by 27 points. I had the Chargers winning big with my score only six points off. Gates didn’t play, which, combined with WR Macolm Floyd not playing -- both due to injuries -- opened the door for Jackson to look like the primary weapon he was last season. Jackson, who sat out several weeks this season due to contract disputes, caught 5 passes for 116 yards and a career-best 3 TDs. Rivers connected with his brawny, 6-foot-5-inch target (Jackson) for a 58-yard touchdown just over two minutes into the game, igniting the Chargers early on. From there, the San Diego defense took over with a big defensive stand on its goal line (denying a 4th-down rushing effort from Niners RB Anthony Dixon) and it was easy sailing from then on. The Bolts mounted a 34-0 lead before a late TD from San Francisco RB Brian Westbrook prevented his team from being shut out ... Given the game’s outcome, both teams will have their eyes on Sunday’s Chiefs/Rams game. Kansas City (8-5) has a half-game lead on San Diego (8-6) in the AFC West, while St. Louis (6-7) holds a 1.5 game lead on San Francisco (5-9) in the historically awful NFC West. Despite the loss, the 49ers still own a 3-1 division record, that combined with two very winnable divisional games on its remaining schedule (at St. Louis and home against 4-9 Arizona) make it very possible for crummy Niners to become team with a losing record to make the playoffs.

browns 20, BENGALS 17
The bottom two AFC North teams square off in Cincinnati today as the Bengals play host to the Browns at Paul Brown Stadium. Kind of strange, huh, the visiting team having a name virtually resembling the home team’s stadium name. Anyway, moving on, in a week with so many tantalizing match-ups, this game will hardly be an appetizer. Following up its 10-win playoff season last year, the 2010 Bengals are 2-11 and currently have a 10-game losing streak. Maybe there’s something to the unflattering “Team Obliterator” nickname WR Terrell Owens has been dubbed with at times. Sure, Owens does have team highs in catches (72) and receiving yards (983) and TDs (9) for the Bengals, but he’s previously been known to cause dissension in the NFL locker rooms and he is also the one noteworthy roster change on the team’s roster since last season. Perhaps Cincy’s dumbfounded downfall this season has nothing to do with Owens, but this year’s Bengals just reek of defeatism. Cleveland is not a team of much excitement either, but the Browns do have an emerging running back (Peyton Hillis) and have posted a couple huge wins this season (at New Orleans, vs. New England). Cleveland (5-8) wins this lackluster game at Paul Brown by three.

BOYS 38, redskins 10
It’s hard to predict a game between two NFC East divisional rivals to be such a blowout, but this is just how I feel. While both teams have matching 5-8 records, Dallas has elevated its game markedly over its past five games while Washington has severely spiraled downward. Dallas hit the lowest of lows when the team was blown out 45-7 on a nationally televised Monday night game in Green Bay. However, the following week the same Cowboys team turned things around in shocking the Giants (who, at the time, had won five straight games and were considered the hottest team in the league) 33-20 in New York. Counting that win and moving forward, Dallas has won three of its past five games, averaging 32 points per game with its only losses being 3-point defeats to Michael Vick’s 9-4 Eagles and Drew Brees’ 10-3 Saints. Today, facing Washington -- a team that’s lost five of six and has benched its $78 million quarterback (Donovan McNabb) in favor of Rex Grossman -- at home, expect Dallas to mop its Jerry World floor with the Redskins. The Cowboys offense will roll up 450-500 yards and 38 points in crushing the Grossman-led Skins by 28.

texans 34, TITANS 17
Another game featuring a pair of 5-8 teams takes place today in Tennessee. The visiting Houston Texans and host Titans both began their respective seasons with promise, however, both teams have sputtered miserably since then. Houston has lost six of its past seven games, while Tennessee has dropped six straight. Despite the similarity in recent drudgery, the Texans have been the more competitive team of the two. This past Monday, Houston impressively rallied a 28-7 deficit to push 9-4 Baltimore into overtime. The week before that the Texans had a had a fourth quarter lead against 9-4 Eagles at Philadelphia. The Texans lost both these games, but the feeling their quick-strike offense provides gives this team hope. Tennessee, meanwhile, has been mired on both sides of the ball for the majority of its past six games. Houston’s Achilles’ Heel is easily its defense (with NFL ranks of 28th overall and dead last against the pass), however, that said, the Texans still managed to blank Tennessee 20-zip three weeks ago in Houston. At home this time, I’m expecting Tennessee to show a little more fight today, but ultimately the Texans’ offensive weapons (QB Matt Shaub, RB Arian Foster and WR Andre Johnson, in particular) will be too much to handle as Houston wins by 14.

jags 31, COLTS 27
This game is one to salivate over. The Indianapolis Colts, one of the NFL’s most winningest teams throughout QB Peyton Manning’s 13-year tenure there, face the preseason playoff afterthought Jacksonville Jaguars. The year began with the defending AFC champion Colts as the prohibitive favorites to win its South division, while Jacksonville was thought to be a sub-.500 team near the bottom of the same division. Instead, the Colts (7-6) have struggled this season, while the Jaguars have an 8-5 record, pulled an upset win over the Colts at home earlier this season and enter today’s game at Indianapolis having won four of its last five games. On top of that the Jags also possess perhaps thee hottest weapon in football right now: RB Maurice Jones Drew. The fifth-year back out of UCLA has rushed for 100-plus yards in six straight games. Jones-Drew’s wrecking ball resembling body (5 feet, 7 inches, 208 pounds) has been plowing through NFL defenses in amassing 768 yards over the six-game span including a career-high 186 yards Dec. 5 at Tennessee and a game-winning 30-yard scamper last week against Oakland. That said, Indy has some favorable components heading into tomorrow as well. The Colts ended a three-game slide last week with at 30-28 win at Tennessee, Manning ended a dreadful run of interception-laden games with a pick-free, 319-yard, 2-TD effort in that win and Manning will get back one of his top receiving weapons today as WR Austin Collie (concussion) is expected to play for the first time since Nov. 21. It’ll be a fun match-up with to watch, as the game has enormous playoff implications and Indy’s Lucas Oil Stadium will be filled with tons of screaming Colts’ fans. While Indy is a five-point favorite for this game, I’m going with the visiting Jags in this game, pulling off a shocking, respect-building win. The Colts (and their 29th-ranked rush defense) won’t be able to hold down Jones-Drew as Jacksonville clinches its first division crown in 11 years.

RAMS 23, chiefs 20
Today at St. Louis’ Edward Jones Dome a pair of teams with a combined 5-27 records last season will meet with each team in playoff contention. The 1-15 2009 St. Louis Rams have become a 6-7 team thus far this season, while the 4-12 2009 Kansas City Chiefs transformed into an 8-5 division-leading team in 2010. With KC having a record that’s two wins better than the Rams, as well as a more challenging schedule, one might think the Chiefs would be marginal favorites in this game. However, with KC missing the quarterback who’s engineered the team’s turnaround this season, Matt Cassel, the host Rams are favored by a field goal. After needing an emergency appendectomy 10 days ago, Cassel missed last week’s game (a 31-0 loss at San Diego) and it appears very iffy if he’ll play tomorrow. That’s unfortunate for the Chiefs as Cassel has been a key part of the team’s success this year (throwing for 2,503 yards and 23 TDs with a career-best 98.4 QB rating). Also, KC’s back-up QB -- Brodie Croyle -- has yet to win an NFL game as a starter (0-10). If Cassel proves to be healthy and plays tomorrow the match-up may be favorable for the Chiefs, however I’m going with St. Louis regardless of whether Cassel plays or not. Rookie QB Sam Bradford delights his team’s home crowd as he and All-Pro RB Steven Jackson lead the Rams to victory.

bills 20, FINS 17
Upset Special: An AFC East contest of mild interest takes place this afternoon as the Bills visit the Dolphins in south Florida. Miami (who’s favored by 5.5 points in this game) is technically alive in the AFC playoff chase. Buffalo has competed admirably at times this season, but is saddled with a 3-10 record. Both teams won last week -- Buffalo defeated Cleveland 13-6 at home and Miami won 10-6 against the Jets in New York -- but neither has looked all that impressive in recent weeks. The only interesting factor is that the Dolphins will be playing in front of its home fans with a chance to improve its playoff probability. I’m just not seeing it happen. Despite a winning record (7-6), this team just seems to lack charisma or charm. Miami probably should have lost last week (the result was largely due to the Jets playing miserably) and will lose this week. Buffalo WR Stevie Jackson has had a strong year (66 receptions, 874 yards and 9 TDs) but struggled in his team’s last two games (7 recs, 78 yds combined). I’m looking for Johnson to re-ignite tomorrow and help lead his Bills past the mediocre Fins by three.

eagles 27, GIANTS 24 in OT
Game of the Week: Despite his team’s 27-17 home win against the Giants four weeks back, Eagles QB Michael Vick wasn’t very happy with his performance. Today he’ll face the Giants in New York in a mammoth battle of two 9-4 NFC East division-leading rivals. Philadelphia, under Vick’s resurgent mastery, has become the NFC’s top offense (402.8 yards per game), while New York is the conference’s stingiest defense (309.3 yards allowed per game). Moreover, the Giants have been producing the proverbial Championship-winning blend of a great defense and running games over the last two weeks. Over its week 13 and 14 wins over Washington and Minnesota, New York has allowed only 10 points while its rushing duo of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw have combined for a whopping 419 yards rushing with 6 TDs. Perhaps even more impressive is the dangerous duo’s combined 7.2 yards-per-carry average. The only dimmer of the Giants’ offensive glow has been QB Eli Manning and his league-leading 19 interceptions. Manning’s errors haven’t hurt him much yet -- with his team winning eight of its past ten games -- but the Giants will fall this afternoon at home. It will be a vicious, tightly fought battle with Jacobs and Bradshaw having their share of success, but Vick’s high-flying Eagles offense will trump New York’s defense in overtime as Philadelphia completes its season sweep of the Giants with a three-point win.

bucs 23, LIONS 13
If Drew Stanton looks as bad as he did last week the Lions will have no hope in defeating the Buccaneers today in Tampa Bay. The Bucs (8-5) are fortunate to get the 3-10 Lions at home and at the right time. Were it Matthew Stafford or Shaun Hill at the helm for Detroit, I’d be very tempted to pick the Lions. But it will most likely be Stanton at QB, thus I’m choosing Tampa to win by 10. After struggling to a 3-13 record last season, a victory this afternoon would elevate Tampa’s 2010 record to 9-5 and keep the team’s surprising playoff hopes alive. Think about this: Tampa’s final two games are a home game next week against Seattle and the season finale at New Orleans. The Seahawks (6-7) have been one of the league’s most miserable teams over the past four weeks, and the Saints -- while a far superior team to Tampa -- may have clinched a playoff seed that could not be improved with a win in week 17. So, it’s actually not too far fetched for the Bucs to finish with an 11-5 record -- a miraculous 8-game improvement from last season -- and in strong position for an NFC wildcard bid.

cards 16, PANTHERS 13
Wow, this is a bad game. There’s no two ways about it. 1-12 Carolina hosts the 4-9 Cardinals who are worse than their record indicates. Last week Arizona defeated Denver by a deceivingly lopsided 43-13 score. Some credit is certainly deserved when you win by that many points, but many of the points were late in the game after a miserable Broncos effort became even worse. As for the Panthers, they were blown out at home by Atlanta for its seventh straight loss. The Cards won’t be as fortunate today as they were last week when kicker Jay Feely scored the team’s first 22 points. However, with Arizona’s touchdown-challenged offense, Feely could very likely kick 3 FGs and account for the majority of his team’s points as the Cards defeat a Carolina team destined to finish its season with 15 losses.

saints 27, RAVENS 21
Drew Brees and the red-hot Saints (10-3) march into Baltimore today on a six-game winning streak. The Ravens, meanwhile, are 9-4 but looked very vulnerable this past Monday when they allowed 15 points in the game’s final six minutes to allow 5-8 Houston to tie the score and force overtime. Baltimore did win that game -- as Ravens cornerback Josh Wilson came up with a clutch interception return touchdown for the game-winner -- but faces a stiffer challenge this week. New Orleans appears to be the hottest team in the league outside of New England. Since suffering a shocking 30-17 loss to Cleveland on its home turf, the Saints have won six straight games by an average 11 points per contest. After struggling through his team’s 4-3 start, Saints QB Brees appears to have regained his 2009 league MVP form. Aside from Brees, the defending Super Bowl champions have a healthy Pierre Thomas ready to join emerging RB Chris Ivory to further strengthen the team’s already strong offense. While the Ravens have been getting strong play from QB Joe Flacco and still have a solid defense, I’m expecting the Saints to defeat Baltimore by six and extend its win streak to seven. The victory sets up the Saints for an epic NFC South divisional battle in the Georgia Dome next Monday night against the 11-2 Falcons.

Sunday Late Games
falcons 30, HAWKS 17
Seattle, especially Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck, desperately awaits the return of its top wideout, Mike Williams. Reunited with his former collegiate coach, Pete Carroll -- Williams’ coach at USC -- the former 1st round, 10th overall draft pick was having a career-reviving season. Through 10 games Williams had already hauled in a career-high 52 catches (nearly double his previous season-high, 29, accomplished in 2005 with Detroit) before an ankle injury has held him inactive in Seattle’s last three games. Not surprisingly, the Seahawks are 1-2 in those three contests with the only win against 1-12 Carolina. Well, Hasselbeck should have a healthy Williams available for tomorrow’s home game against Atlanta. The problem is that Atlanta (11-2) is a far superior to Seattle whether the Seahawks are at full strength or not. Hasselbeck and Williams may keep things interesting for awhile, but the Falcons will fly away with the win by game’s end. Atlanta wins this one by 13.

RAIDERS 23, broncos 10
Last season, Denver was beginning a fresh start with a youthful coach they felt very promising about. Josh McDaniels managed the Broncos to a 6-0 start last season, but scandals, questionable transactions and several losses led to McDaniels being dismissed a couple weeks ago. The team was already 3-9 entering its road game against then 3-9 Arizona last week when Denver may have hit its lowest of lows -- a 43-13 loss to a team ranking 31st in overall offense, 30th in overall defense and down to its third-string quarterback. At 6-7, Oakland has faint playoff hopes and the Raiders will manage to keep those hopes alive by defeating the bumbling Broncos by 13.

STEEL 24, jets 9
Remember the Jets who went to the AFC Championship last January and began this season 9-2? Well, these past couple weeks the team has produced two absolutely pitiful performances that may have put its previously airtight playoff hopes in jeopardy. At 9-4, New York heads to Pittsburgh today to play the 10-3 Steelers. Luckily for New York, Pittsburgh will be without its stellar All-Pro safety -- Troy Polamalu -- as well as the team’s top tight end (Heath Miller). However, the Steelers still have a strong defense, as well a a tougher-than-nails quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, leading the team’s offense. I just don’t see the Jets turning their troubles around tomorrow as Pittsburgh pounds them by 15.

PATS 31, pack 13
No Aaron Rodgers. No contest. Green Bay’s star QB will sit out tonight’s game in New England after suffering a concussion last Sunday. Hence, this game will be near impossible for the Packers to win. The Pack defense might keep them close for a little while, but Patriots QB Tom Brady will continue his hot streak and lead New England’s to a 21-point win. The victory will clinch the AFC East for the Patriots, as well as extend its winning streak to six. The Green Bay loss will drop the team to 8-6 and in serious jeopardy of making the playoffs. If Rodgers played, the Pack might have a glimpse of a chance, but back-up QB Matt Flynn will not be able to succeed against a mighty New England club that has been steamrolling its opponents as of late.

bears 20, VIKES 17 in OT
TCF Bank Stadium will be the host site for tomorrow’s Bears versus Vikings game as Minnesota plays its first outdoor home game since Dec. 20, 1981 -- exactly 29 years ago. The Vikings will be using the Minnesota Gophers’ stadium due a snowstorm that caved in its Metrodome home. As for tomorrow’s match-up, each team will enter the contest following miserable losses. Chicago (9-4) lost at home 35-7 to New England, while Minnesota (5-8) lost 21-3 to the New York Giants. The Bears’ poor performance came on a snowy field, which may benefit the Vikings as there’s a good chance for snow tomorrow night as well. However, Chicago needs this game badly to secure its playoff hopes and Minnesota will be starting Joe Webb, the team’s third-string quarterback. Webb’s speed and versatility could be exciting to watch, and I’m predicting for Minnesota to fight hard and push this game into overtime. However, Webb’s underdog Vikings will not be able to prevail in the end. Bears QB Jay Cutler will lead his team down the frigid TCF Bank turf and Chicago survives this game on a Robbie Gould field goal.

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