The Home-Stretch is Here!

Alright, we’re in the homestretch…3 weeks to go and TONS of teams need miracles, solid wins, losses from other teams, miracles, (to keep losing), to rest players, an easier schedule, to not be pushed so hard, to find their offense, to find their defense, to find both, to stop vicious cycles, to show us what they’re made of, to pray for some good luck, to get back some injured players, to fight for a better playoff seeding, to get a home game in the playoffs, to fight for home field throughout the playoffs, and in some cases…just stop sucking.

I know that’s a lot to ask for, but with 3 games left on everyone’s schedule we have a lot to talk about and I’ve definitely learned some lessons this season (and before the season is over…man I’m a fast learner!) I had a pretty bad week last week and I am in serious need of some redemption.  (Although I’m still 133-71.)

Plus, I’ve made a decision. Come playoff time I’m going to start picking games AND picking the spread. Why in the playoffs you ask? Well, in the playoffs, it’s do or die. There’s no moral victories, there’s no running up the score. As soon as you think you have the game in hand you shut down and get ready for next week. Period. No coach in his right mind is going to keep Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or Drew Brees on the field so they can win a playoff game 52-0 when they were already going to win it 38-0. There’s no chance. That also means that the spread is KEY in the direction that many of those games go in. If you’ve got a team that is a 6 point underdog… in the playoffs…they take that as an insult. “How in the hell can you give them 6 points over us when we both GOT HERE?” (Since that IS the whole point of the regular season anyways. [Unless you’re the Browns, Lions Bucs or Rams…in which case the whole point of the regular season is getting the highest draft pick possible.]) If the line comes out for a playoff game featuring the Saints or the Colts and they DON’T cover…then you know something’s going on. Picking the spread between two good teams is easy…and it’s probably pretty true. So keep your eyes open when we hit playoff time because I can’t wait to get into all the speculation the spread brings to a game preview.

Ok…since there’s so much to get to…let’s do this!

Indy @ Jacksonville: Thursday Night

Ok, this one’s crucial in terms of the Colts unbeaten status and the Jags desired playoff status. They’re at 7-6 and tied with Baltimore, Miami, and the Jets for the 2nd wildcard spot in the conference. I’m not going to get into the specifics of the tiebreakers because I think most coaches in the NFL don’t understand all of the rules, but suffice it to say that Jacksonville NEEDS this win desperately. Why? Jacksonville gets to finish with Cleveland. That’s good for them because they have the Patriots the week before that and the Colts right now. If they can somehow break the Colts’ streak and then catch the Patriots off-guard all they have to do is wait for the Ravens, Jets, and Dolphins to stumble. Will that be difficult? Yes, because the Jags have the hardest closing schedule of any of the aforementioned playoff contenders.

On to the Colts… Do I think they can keep this up? Yes. Am I rooting for an undefeated Super Bowl between the Saints and Colts? Yes. Do I think this is a “trap” game for the Colts? Yes. If they have Jacksonville (in Jacksonville) and Jacksonville NEEDS a win and the Colts are very close to resting people because they have home field throughout the playoffs locked up then yeah, you might get some “looking ahead” coming from the Colts. No matter how good a leader Peyton Manning is there’s no accounting for letdowns on the team. Receivers drop balls all the time, people miss blocking assignments, people miss tackles, and return guys get tackled behind the 10 yard line and Peyton can’t fix all of that.

So that brings up the question: How influential IS Peyton Manning on this franchise? Well, I think that in the end he will go down as the greatest Colt of all time (yes, better than Johnny Unitas) and when he’s done this franchise will hit a MAJOR slump while they search for a suitable replacement (not Jim Sorgi, although I do like him.) Sooooo, since I’m saying that Peyton Manning will go down in lore as the greatest Colt then it stands to reason that he can have an affect on the whole team, right? Yes. In short, Peyton can go to anyone on this team and say “Get it together or die!” and the response from that player will be “You got it, man!” or “Yes Sir!” Do you really think Jim Caldwell is in control of this team? Nope, Peyton Manning is. Jim Caldwell is enjoying something I’d like to call the “George Seifert Effect”. George Seifert inherited one of the greatest teams of all time from Bill Walsh and won a Super Bowl with that team. Then he hit a dry patch until Steve Young became the Hall of Famer that he is. Jim Caldwell will do the same thing. He’ll win a title (at some point) with Peyton, hit a dry patch, replace Peyton with another Hall of Famer and win another title. You just wait and see. The “Seifert Effect” is… in effect!

IND – 42 JAC – 20

Dallas @ New Orleans: Saturday Night

Dallas took a bad loss to the Chargers and let the Eagles jump out in front of them in the NFC East. I could say that I’m surprised, but like I’ve said for a few weeks now, I’m just waiting for the Cowboys to stab me in the back. Well, since I didn’t get too close to Dallas to begin with they couldn’t actually reach ME to stab me in the back, but they’re taking pretty big swipes at their fans right now. A couple weeks ago everyone on the planet had written off the rest of the NFC East and crowned the Cowboys a contender. Now, they look like they’ll have to take a wildcard berth and play someone they don’t want in the first round of the playoffs (like the Cardinals.) This game with New Orleans doesn’t help because, unlike the Colts, the Saints HAVE to keep winning or they lose home field in the playoffs because the Vikings keep winning. As long as the Vikes keep winning the fire is squarely under the Saints’ rear end…if you know what I mean.

The Saints haven’t looked stellar in the past couple weeks and I have to wonder out loud if the season is starting to get to them. It’s hard to go undefeated and it’s even harder to be the new kids on the block AND have the hottest offense in the league AND be in the harder conference. I said a few weeks ago that Drew Brees looked like Kenny Stabler from “way back when”. Now, he’s starting to look a little worn down. I don’t know if he’s or he just gets that way at the end of the season (like, he gets more serious so the “happy go lucky” look fades away.) I’m not sure, but I know that if he plans on continuing to win he needs to pep it up a little bit. The good news is that they close with Tampa and Carolina. If they can’t win those games I don’t know what to say to that. If they can’t beat the Cowboys I don’t know what to say either. Demarcus Ware is hurt, the Cowboys are in a slide and Wade Phillips is their coach. Do I need to say more? (Oh, and Tony Romo’s December QB rating is something like 12.)

NO – 45 DAL – 21

Cleveland @ Kansas City: Sunday

Alright, I wrote off the Browns last week and they beat the Steelers. I wrote off the Chiefs and they lost. (I guess I learned my lesson.) This game is still crap vs. crap, but I have to be honest in my assessment of how bad these teams are.

Todd Haley in KC is a good coach and he has players on his team. Granted, Matt Cassel won’t be the world-beater they were looking for, but he IS serviceable and that should be enough if they get good pieces around him. They cut Larry Johnson loose because he had character issues and that was a good move because it kept him from infecting their locker room more and it made the fans happy. The Chefs have a couple wins this season and each one was earned rightfully.

Cleveland is looking for a “Football Czar” because their franchise is a total wreck. I could go back over my column from yesterday, but I don’t think it’s worth it. They have 3 players and a bunch of garbage. In essence, they need to start all over. There are TONS of players who would work in Cleveland if they would just return to their AFC Central roots and build a team that looks like the teams of old.

Now, the reason I missed on the Pittsburgh/Cleveland pick last week was because I didn’t realize that the Steelers’ malaise was THAT bad. I also didn’t realize that 3 good players on a team would constitute a win against the defending Super Bowl Champs. However, that doesn’t mean that they can just on winning games ad nauseum. The Chefs are a better team at their core and that means that the Browns already had their 1-time out of 10. Now it’s time for the other 9 times to catch up with them.

KC – 17 CLE – 9 (Phil Dawson rocks!)

Atlanta @ Jets

The Falcons have already GRAVELY endangered their shot at a 2 winning season in a row (something they’ve never had…it’s one of the weirdest stats in sports.) They’re 6-7 with 3 games to go and the only way they can have a winning season is to win out (too bad they aren’t the Titans, right?)

Matt Ryan has turf toe (which ended Jack Lambert’s career, and we KNOW how tough he was), Michael Turner has too many miles on him, Brian Finneran’s career is over, and the defense is a sieve. It’s bad down here in Atlanta.

The Jets, conversely, are in the playoff hunt in the AFC at 7-6. They are in that gigantic traffic jam of teams at 7-6, but they end here with the Falcons, Bengals and Colts. They DESPERATELY need this win if they want to get into the playoffs. Honestly, how many of us think they can beat the Bengals or the Colts? Anyone? Nobody? Just what I thought. So, they need this game MORE than the Falcons because the Falcons are out of the playoffs, snakebitten and not ready for that second consecutive winning season. The Jets have had consecutive winning seasons, won a Super bowl, have a healthier team (not healthy, just healthier) and a stronger coach. (Oh, and Braylon Edwards roaming around in the Falcons’ gosh-awful Secondary.) Need I say more?

Sorry Atlantans, but you’re going to have to wait til 2011 to see if the Falcons can put back-to-back winning seasons together.

NYJ – 24 ATL – 10

Miami @ Tennessee

Miami is in the traffic jam at 7-6 with the Jets and they also desperately need this win to stay in it. Since that traffic jam is all fighting for one playoff spot (since I think the Broncos can hold on to the other wildcard berth) then the Dolphins are playing for their lives every week. Tennessee is right behind the pack at 6-7. Now, I know I counted out the Falcons at 6-7 in the NFC, but the NFC is much stronger then the AFC so it stands to reason that some teams in the “traffic jam” could falter and if the Titans keep winning they could somehow sneak into the playoffs.

The Titans get to close with Miami, San Diego (a.k.a. – the team I don’t trust) and the Seahawks. Are you telling me they can’t win all of those games and some of these other teams won’t slip up? I’ll bet you anything that the Titans are going 9-7 and that somehow they can squeak into the playoffs. In order for them to do that they need to refer to the beginning of my column where they will need to pray and get a miracle, but they can do it.

I see no reason why the Titans would stop winning now. Granted, the Dolphins are good, Tony Sparano is good and Chad Henne is coming on strong, but would you bet against the Titans right now? I wouldn’t. In much the same way that I stopped picking the Skins I will NOT pick against the Titans until I can’t pick them anymore. It would be foolhardy to assume that they will lose when they’ve been playing as well as they have AND they have a shot at the playoffs. This one should be called the “Vince Young Factor”. If a team puts in a prized QB halfway through the season and starts winning the “Vince Young Factor” comes into play and you have no business picking against that team or that Quarterback. Period.

TEN – 30 MIA – 24

Houston @ St. Louis

In accordance with my plan for the Rams to fix their franchise I need to make clear that I will NOT waiver. They need to keep losing and get the 1st pick in April locked up so they can find the right QB and replace Mark Bulger. They already have a prized Lineman and now they need new blood getting the ball every offensive snap. Houston is a good little team that cannot make the playoffs, but they will certainly die trying. Just because they rely too much on Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson it doesn’t mean they suck…it only means they’re 1-dimensional. I can live with that. I think they know they can’t make the playoffs like this, but maybe, just maybe, if they tweak their offense a little they might have something going into next year. Plus, losing right now doesn’t segue very well INTO next year. Teams like this need momentum to take into next season where they can say “Look how strong we finished…let’s pick up where we left off.” The Rams have no need for momentum because they’re about to have to pull a Cleveland and blow the stadium and start from scratch. Good luck Rams….Good luck…

HOU – 35 STL – 3

Arizona @ Detroit

I know Arizona laid a MAJOR egg against the 49ers (and I spent a lot of time talking about it) but they have GOT to get it together against the Lions. First, it’s undignified to lose to Detroit as it is…even if you’re Cleveland, but it’s another thing to lose to Detroit when you have a good thing going, you just appeared in the Super Bowl, and other teams should be afraid of you. As always, I have the Gunther Cunningham Rule which does not allow me to pick the Lions, but I wouldn’t anyways. The Cardinals have Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald…that should be enough to get through this one. However, they close with St. Louis (a probable blowout) and Green Bay. That Green Bay game is going to be for playoff positioning because the Packers and Cards are both looking for SOMETHING to hold on to. Now, the Cards will win their division and get a home game out of that, but the Packers will be PRAYING that they can get a better seed out of a win against them, so the Cards need to be on their A-Game every week until the end of the season. The best way to do that is to get the kinks out against a really bad Detroit team. Somehow, I think they can manage…

ARI – 48 DET – 3

San Francisco @ Philly

Folks can tell me all day long how they think the 49ers are coming on strong, but I’m REALLY hesitant to brand them “up and comers” after the ups and down they’ve had this season. I’ve heard people say that Alex Smith looks 10,000 times better than he did earlier in his career, but I’m not buying it yet. I have expectations, but I’m not buying that all of the juice in the Bay Area should come from the offense. Frank Gore isn’t 100% and Michael Crabtree signed yesterday…how can I TRULY trust the offense? I can’t.

The defense, however, is VERY good and capable of big things. If they prep right for Michael Vick and keep Donovan CONTAINED then they won’t have a problem with the Eagles. If the 49ers give up one big play I think they’re just not mentally ready to recover from that. It’s a shame, but it’s true. Just let me enjoy the fact that we have the slimmest of chances, but I don’t see how this can work out well. I know I screwed up and picked against them with Arizona, but how will they pull off a miracle like that twice in a row? Yeah, I don’t know either.

PHI – 21 SF – 14

New England @ Buffalo

Here’s the deal…I don’t think the Bills can really DO anything with the Patriots, but let’s just talk a minute about how fractured the Patriots are.

Did anybody see all the drops Randy Moss had this past weekend? Let me give you a little background. Randy was late to a meeting this week and he got sent home along with 3 other guys. This was the beginning of the end for Randy. He saw an opportunity to shut down and he did. He started doing his “whiny pouting” thing again and it transferred into his performance on Sunday. He dropped balls that I could have caught (granted, I’m pretty quick and have good hands, but I’m not Randy Moss either.) He wasn’t even trying. Watch the film and tell me he even “cared” to try to catch any of those balls. (Oh, and when I say I could have caught those passes I DO mean that I could have run that route, gotten in front of the defender AND caught the ball…something Randy didn’t do.) He quit. Period. Will everyone stop trying to defend him already? He quit on the Vikings and they shipped him to Oakland and then he quit on the Raiders and that’s why the Patriots even have him to begin with…because he’s a quitter. If he wasn’t a quitter he’d probably still be in Minnesota, but he isn’t because he’s (you guessed it) a quitter.

How long will this last? I say until the end of the season. We’ve already got Tom Brady throwing the F-bomb at Bill Belichick and Adaleus Thomas running his mouth about being sent home so it isn’t much of a stretch to assume that Randy will continue to quit until the end of the season…is it? How wrong would I be to say that Randy gets traded this offseason because he’s quitting right now? I don’t think that’s a stretch either. You can’t tell me that this team is crumbling…because it is. Fortunately for them, they’re the Patriots, Bill Belichick is still their coach and they still have gobs and gobs of talent. That’s enough to beat the Bills, but beware Bostonites…this ship is about to run aground…and soon.

NE – 24 BUF – 14

Chicago @ Baltimore

Chicago has such a hard road to hoe just to GET THROUGH the rest of the season, and they’re just going to get pummeled in the NFC North by the Packers and Vikings. Jay Cutler is looking like “The Biggest Loser” (not the good kind) and he’s only got a “Coach on the hot seat” and a young receiver (Johnny Knox” to show for his year in Chicago.

He was a good “get” when the Bears traded Kyle Orton (a busted Heisman finalist) to the Broncos in a trade that looked like the Pau Gasol for Kwame Brown trade. I mean, Kyle Orton was the flaming pile of crap and Jay Cutler was the Knight in Shining Armor. Yeah, we got that one wrong! How do you get a flaming pile of crap that looks like a white knight on a white horse in shining silver armor? (I mean, how do you not smell it? How did I not smell it? I don’t get it…I said Cutler was a baby and all that, but I was content to hang on to the fact that he’s a Pro-Bowler. *slapping my forehead* Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!)

Baltimore NEEDS this game to get away from the Steelers and get out of the “jam” in the AFC for the final wildcard slot. I don’t see how the Bears can win this one and I can’t see how the Ravens will lose this one. It’s a double-whammy for Lovie Smith (who is close to getting fired anyways.)

BAL – 31 CHI – 10

Join me after the jump and I’ll pick the rest of this weekend’s games…

Oakland @ Denver

Another thing I learned is to not write-off the Raiders without first seeing who’s starting at Quarterback. When Bruce Gradkowski is in this team has a chance. (I didn’t say they’ll win (so don’t get it twisted) but I did say they have a chance.) BruGrad has made Jamarcus Russell into the most expensive backup in history (and we thought Billy Volek wanted a lot of money a few years ago) and now he’s showing that the way to go in the Raider Nation is with a Quarterback that you wouldn’t pick first to play on your team. Anybody remember Rich Gannon from their Super Bowl run? When my Dad told me Rich Gannon was starting for the Raiders I was like “Rich Gannon? You mean the career backup?” Yep, that guy. Well, BruGrad was unwanted in Tampa of all places so he ended up in Oakland and look at him now…pretty good eats for a dude with no pedigree who got cut by a pathetic team.  (This week BruGrad is out, but he proves my point.  Even with Charlie Frye in there the Raiders have a better chance to win than with Russell.)

Denver is sitting pretty in the 1st wildcard spot in the AFC and I don’t think they’ll mess it up. Even though they’re only one game ahead of the “jam” for the second wildcard spot they’ve shown that they can play well enough to lock up a playoff spot. They have a good QB, a pretty good running game and a very nice defense. Are they stellar? No. Are they going to win a playoff game? Probably not. But will they make it look interesting? Yes. The Raiders just can’t hang. As much as I want them to be better now is not the time. If they take their wins from this season and use that momentum to start next season they might have something, but something isn’t here yet.

DEN – 24 OAK – 17

Cincinnati @ San Diego

Ok, this is a battle of two teams that I want to like. A battle of two teams who SHOULD do well but I’m afraid to pick. I don’t trust the Chargers at all (I know, the Norv Turner thing) and I’m afraid that any minute the Bengals will become, well, the Bengals.

At the end of the day they’re about the same team and I can’t sit here and argue with my distrust of Norv Turner. Let’s call it a day and say that I have the “Norv Turner Rule” where I don’t pick teams coached by Norv Turner unless the team Norv is facing is pathetic. I’ll just leave it at that.

CIN – 31    SD – 30 (The one point spread accounts for bad decisions made by Norv Turner…not by the Bengals.)

Tampa @ Seattle

Ok, here’s another one that I find easy but I won’t just mail it in because I’ve learned my lesson. Tampa has Josh Freeman at QB and he’s currently the only rookie QB starting this year from the highly touted draft class we just had. He could be a nice and serviceable QB in Tampa (that’s what Brad Johnson was when they won the Super Bowl you know) and he could last a really long time…if he doesn’t die first.

Matt Hasselbeck is on his last leg, but he does have some weapons and Walter Jones on the O-Line. Let’s say Freeman puts in a good show and Hasselbeck is off (or gets breathed on the wrong way by a Tampa defender) then the Bucs MIGHT have a shot. However, I don’t think the Bucs defense can get to Hasselbeck because they’re still trying to live on the “Tampa 2” and all of that stuff that left with Monte Kiffin when he left for Knoxville. Because of their refusal to change defenses like they should have I have to pick against Tampa even though I think the better QB for the game might end up being Josh Freeman.

SEA – 17 TB – 14

Green Bay @ Pittsburgh

The Packers are fighting for playoff positioning and the Steelers threw their season away with a horrible loss to the Browns. Troy Polamalu is out. Big Ben is banged up. The running game is stodgy at best. Hines Ward has a beef with Big Ben that we can’t define. The Steelers are having a classic “bad year for a good team” and will no doubt rebound next year. Right now…they just aren’t that good. I put so much stock in them going to the playoffs with the Bengals and the Ravens that I totally looked past the fact that they were on a skid that they couldn’t stop. I had no idea they would keep losing and losing and losing for no apparent reason other than they are having a “bad year for a good team”. That’s all the explanation I’ve got.

Aaron Rodgers can look so good when he wants to and he’s brought this team to the playoffs on his back. Ryan Grant blowing through holes in opposing D-Lines is becoming a norm on highlight packages all over the place and Donald Driver is 57 and STILL a dynamic receiver in the NFL. (Did I mention they have this nasty/old-school defense that looks like it came out of 1966?) That defense alone is enough to stop a very down and slow Steeler offense. When Pittsburgh can’t run the ball they can’t do anything. It’s a shame, but everyone has a bad year and I guess this is Pittsburgh’s until they have another one in about 2018.

GB – 27 PIT – 9

Minnesota @ Carolina

Here’s the deal. Minnesota is a REALLY good team that features monsters all over the place (Brett Favre, Percy Harvin, AP, #17, and Jared Allen) and they have no place to go but on the opponent’s side to kill them. It’s like the Vikings are compressed air just waiting to explode all over someone. Every week we think they’ll just lie dormant and then they throttle someone with a burst of energy that we can hardly fathom.

Carolina has 1 good player…Julius Peppers. There are other nice ones like DeAngelo Williams and Steve Smith (not Jake Delhomme), but there is only 1 GOOD player and that is a Defensive Lineman. With no offense and the Vikings defense opposing them how do the Panthers expect to score? I have no idea either.

Besides, Minnesota has to keep winning to make sure they keep the heat on the Saints. Do you think that’s motivation enough? I do. (And for all the people who think Brett Favre is going to start doing “Brett Favre stuff” think again. He hasn’t really done anything this year. The best player on the field is AP and Brett Favre is kicking back and sipping a cocktail…he’ll be fine.)

MIN – 38 CAR – 12

Giants @ Washington

Alright, once again we’ve run into a game where I cannot justify picking the weaker team. However, I’ve learned to not just write people off without first giving them their due. Washington has a really rich D-Lineman (Haynesworth) with no partner, a young QB who’s changed offenses and coordinators more than I change socks, and a “cracker jack” offense as I have heard many former players call it. Plus, I said I wasn’t picking the Redskins under any circumstances and I can’t rightfully change my mind. How nuts would I be to pick a team with the traits I just described against a team fighting for a playoff spot with a Super Bowl Champion Quarterback and good pieces all over the field? I would basically have no right to pick against the Giants and I won’t. I said I wouldn’t pick the Skins and they have given me no reason to. Getting further in-depth will only put you to sleep (or make you hungry for Cracker Jacks.)

NYG – 27 WAS – 6

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