It’s almost gotten to the point where I’m “playing out the string”, to drudge up the dreading saying. 10 games under means I need almost every week to be a stellar one the rest of the way. That starts with a Thanksgiving weekend full of monster games, perhaps none bigger than Packers-Lions to open the Turkey Day slate. The Harbaugh Bowl and Super Bowl XXXIX Pats-Eagles rematch are big, but Sunday’s gem could be Arizona-St. Louis. After all, their first meeting featured back-to-back safeties and an overtime punt return for a touchdown. What will they have in store for us this time around? And now, enjoy the analysis and your holiday festivities.
Last week: 5-7-2
Green Bay (-6.5) at Detroit
Analysis: Usually on Thanksgiving, the schedule-makers are scrambling just to put a good team on display in Detroit. What they’ve normally gotten is a slaughter of the poor Lions on Turkey Day. But this year promises to be different. Not only is Green Bay-Detroit an old-fashioned divisional game, it’s one of the marquee games of the year and undoubtedly the Lions’ biggest game since Barry Sanders was in uniform. At 10-0, the Packers’ quest for perfection is a legitimate one, but the Lions are proving they too are for real in 2011. Aaron Rodgers’ last loss came Dec. 10 of last season in Detroit, a 7-3 snoozer, but Rodgers did not finish the game after suffering a concussion. The Lions match up well with Detroit despite not having a strong running game – although Kevin Smith posted over 200 yards from scrimmage after being signed off the street last week – as they can pressure Aaron Rodgers, and Calvin Johnson could have a big game against a Packers defense that has given up its fair share of big plays this year. It’s quite possible the pressure could be too much for the young Lions, but gut instinct says they will be fired up more than anything to win on Thanksgiving for the first time since 2003 (also against the Packers). For the record, in 1962, the Packers also entered a Thanksgiving Day game with the Lions 10-0 and lost before rallying to win the championship. Just saying… The pick: Lions.
Miami at Dallas (-7)
Analysis: This one looked ugly on the schedule a few weeks ago, but now both teams enter this one riding three-game winning streaks. Dallas has begun to turn the tide and now is tied atop the NFC East with the Giants, and have a real opportunity to create some distance as the Giants’ schedule is treacherous. Miami will not roll over for the Boys, as proven by their winning ways the last three weeks in which they have outscored foes 86-20. The Boys lost last year on Thanksgiving to the Saints, their first Turkey Day defeat since 2005 against Denver. They have actually struggled against AFC teams on Thanksgiving of late, going just 2-3 in their last five AFC matchups. These teams have met three times on Thanksgiving in the last 18 years. Miami rolled Dallas, 40-21, in 2003, after the Cowboys had smoked the Dolphins, 20-0, in 1999. And who can forget the Leon Lett game in 1993, won by Miami, 16-14? This one may not be a classic like that one, but the Dolphins are playing loose and relaxed and should put up a good fight here. The pick: Dolphins.
San Francisco at Baltimore (-3)
Analysis: The Harbaugh Bowl might shape up to be a classic after all. Yet who could have predicted it would be the 9-1 49ers playing the 7-3 Ravens on Thanksgiving night? In an NFL-first, brothers Jim and John Harbaugh will match wits as the 49ers bring a perfect road record (4-0) into Baltimore against a Ravens team with an unblemished home mark (5-0). The Harbaugh parents will not be in attendance due to conflicting emotions, as one Harbaugh is guaranteed to lose. Alex Smith is the likely X-factor here, as he has been mostly a game-manager this year but will have to be much more than that to succeed against the Ravens defense. San Francisco’s D has been a turnover machine as they lead the NFL in that category and needs Frank Gore to have a big game to pull off a win, but the Ravens simply don’t suffer letdowns at home, and have proven this year to be dangerous when playing good teams. Baltimore is 24-5 at home under John Harbaugh, and San Francisco might run out of luck on its fifth consecutive road game played in the Eastern time zone. The pick: Ravens.
Arizona at St. Louis (-3)
Analysis: In a game few will likely tune in to, this is actually a rematch of a pretty exciting game from Week 9. Patrick Peterson became just the second player to return a punt for a touchdown in overtime, canceling out an impressive feat by the Rams of recording safeties on back-to-back plays in the third quarter. Arizona won that won by a score of 19-13 and has not lost in St. Louis since 2004, which is the last time the Rams made the playoffs. It’s been pretty painful to watch the Rams, as they are averaging just 12 points a game and have scored more than 16 just once. But the Cardinals are not far off, and may be out of steam in the finale of a three-game road trip. The pick: Rams.
Buffalo at New York Jets (-9)
Analysis: It’s been a nightmare stretch for the Bills, as Buffalo is on a three-game losing streak that began with a blowout home loss to the Jets. During this awful stretch, the Bills have been outscored 106-26, and have been outscored 103-32 in their last three meetings with the Jets, all losses of course. So why does it feel like giving away nine points for the Jets is like giving away 30 points? Maybe because the Jets and their anemic offense are falling apart at the seams. Having Tim Tebow drive 95 yards on you for the winning score is quite demoralizing, perhaps even more so than having the hated Patriots wipe the floor with you by 21 points on Sunday night on your own turf. So while the Bills are virtually toast at this point, I refuse to give Gang Green a two-score advantage in this matchup of fast-fading 5-5 teams. The pick: Bills.
Carolina (-3) at Indianapolis
Analysis: This may legitimately be the Colts’ best chance to crack the win column, and I want to pick them so badly yet have constantly been burned by the Peyton-less Wonders. Carolina continues its painful year-long script: Play well, maybe even get a lead, and find a way to lose. They do not want to be Indy’s first victim, and while the Colts should put up quite a fight with trips to New England at Baltimore looming, it would be hard to imagine them scoring enough points to pull out a victory. Maybe they get to one of their three division opponents at year’s end, but I’ve given up on picking them, even when taking the points. The pick: Panthers.
Cleveland at Cincinnati (-7.5)
Analysis: The Bengals surprised the then-upstart Browns in Week 1, and few knew that would translate into a successful season for rookie Andy Dalton and Co. Cincinnati hung tough with both Pittsburgh and Baltimore albeit in losing causes the last two weeks, and now need to sit on a Browns team that simply can’t score points if they hope to truly be contenders. The Bengals could be feeling some heat with a visit to Pittsburgh looming, and I’m always wary of that extra half-point for a young team that doesn’t exactly light it up on offense either. The Browns, as bad as they can be, could have just enough to make a game of this. The pick: Browns.
Houston (-6.5) at Jacksonville
Analysis: Call me crazy, but I don’t think the Texans will suffer all that much of a drop-off with Matt Leinart at quarterback. Not because I have that much faith in Leinart, but just because Schaub is still not an elite passer and Houston is more of a running team anyway. The Jags gave them a game four weeks ago, and could do the same this time around, but need to focus on stopping Arian Foster. The Texans should pull out a win, but it will be close. The pick: Jaguars.
Minnesota at Atlanta (-9.5)
Analysis: The Falcons are 6-4 and in position to make another run at the playoffs, but have yet to look all that impressive. This could be just the spot against a Vikings team that simply looks lost, even though Christian Ponder has occasionally shown some flashes of brilliance. In the finale of a three-game homestand, the Falcons need to beat the lowly Vikes to keep up with New Orleans, as the trail the Saints by one game in the NFC South. But with some tough games remaining on their schedule, this could be a bit of a trap spot against a team with nothing to play for. Minnesota could hang around long enough to make this one interesting, even though a win is asking a lot. The pick: Vikings.
Tampa Bay at Tennessee (-3.5)
Analysis: Matt Hasselbeck’s elbow injury may not be serious enough to keep him out in this game of survival. The Bucs and Titans have actually played a couple of very good games, with two of the last three meetings being decided on a last-second field goal. The Bucs’ season is slipping away fast and the question is whether they can slow down Chris Johnson. At times they made some plays against Green Bay, but alas they are a far cry from what people expected them to be after going 10-6 last season. The Titans need this one, but it could be another nail-biter in this series. The pick: Buccaneers.
Chicago at Oakland (-4.5)
Analysis: Weren’t some fans clamoring for more Caleb Hanie after his inspired relief effort in the 2010 NFC Championship Game? Well, be careful what you wish for, Bears faithful. Jay Cutler broke his thumb last week against San Diego, meaning it’s Hanie’s job to lose the rest of the way. On the flip side, Carson Palmer finally looks like he’s starting to adjust to life in the Silver and Black for the 6-4, AFC West-leading Raiders. Oakland has not been over .500 this late in the season since the last time they made the playoffs in 2002. They struggled at times, partly due to their own undoing, in Sunday’s 27-21 win at Minnesota. But the Bears’ 5-game winning streak is in serious jeopardy, because Cutler was finally garnering some steam and winning over fans after his inauspicious departure from last year’s title game with a knee injury. Hanie’s first career start and a long West Coast trip for the Bears may be too much to overcome here. The pick: Raiders.
Washington at Seattle (-3.5)
Analysis: It’s hard to believe that with all their recent failures, the Redskins are riding their first six-game losing streak since 1998. Not surprisingly Norv Turner was the head coach then, but Mike Shanahan is not used to this. The Skins are an absolute mess, and they have a long way to travel to try and get it right. The Seahawks have won two straight and aren’t playoff contenders at 4-6, but have shown they are not pushovers either. Beleaguered Skins fans likely won’t be upset at the prospect of more losses, because it might allow them to get a top-rated quarterback in next year’s Draft. The pick: Seahawks.
Denver at San Diego (-6)
Analysis: Tebow Mania has indeed swept over the Mile High City. Unconventionally, the world’s most celebrated southpaw has led the Broncos to four wins in five starts, none more thrilling than last Thursday’s 17-13 win over the Jets in which he led the team 95 yards for the winning score. At 5-5 the Broncos are in the hunt in the AFC West, while the 4-6 Chargers are on life support. San Diego won 29-24 in Denver in Week 5 but nearly let the game slip away when Tebow came off the bench to spark the Broncos. If the Chargers are to win this one and break their first five-game losing skid since 2003, it will take every ounce of strength just to pull out a squeaker. The pick: Broncos.
New England (-3) at Philadelphia
Analysis: Another week, another team with a losing record starting its backup quarterback for the Patriots. This time it’s Vince Young and the desperate Eagles, who may also be without DeSean Jackson, fresh off Sunday night’s season-saving win at the Meadowlands against the Giants. But after a rare two-game losing streak, New England has homefield advantage well within its sights with a cakewalk of a remaining schedule that does not feature a single team with a winning record and just two teams starting the same quarterback it used (or planned to use) on opening day. (Let’s take a wait-and-see approach on Rex Grossman, however.) At any rate, the Eagles are still alive with a win, but the Patriots usually turn a loss (or in this case losses) into a winning tear, and Philadelphia figures to be a victim in what’s been a sorry, underachieving season. LeSean McCoy gives the Birds hope, but ultimately Young figures to make a critical mistake or two, likely in the red zone, that will allow Tom Terrific to send the Eagles to the same fate they suffered in Super Bowl XXXIX. The pick: Patriots.
Pittsburgh (-10.5) at Kansas City
Analysis: So much for Todd Haley using his father’s 1989 Steelers team as inspiration. A few weeks ago things looked promising after an 0-3, but the trainwreck that has become the Chiefs’ season took an ugly turn Monday night and may take an even uglier one Sunday night. Tyler Palko will face his hometown team in his first career home start, a Steelers team well-rested off its bye and charging towards the playoffs yet again. Pittsburgh lost its last visit to Arrowhead, 27-24 in overtime in 2009, so will be determined to get revenge against the lowly Chiefs. With Rashard Mendenhall starting to find his 2010 form, Kansas City could be on the wrong end of yet another blowout. Even if they play an inspired game on defense, they simply will not be able to score points against Pittsburgh’s defense to hang in. The pick: Steelers.
New York Giants at New Orleans (-7)
Analysis: Eli Manning returns home to New Orleans, but the Saints won’t be rolling out the red carpet for him. The Giants are following the usual script – start 6-2 and then collapse. Losing to the Eagles at home last Sunday night was a killer with a brutal schedule ahead of them. The Packers follow next Sunday, so a four-game losing streak is a real possibility. The Saints have bounced back nicely after being shocked by the Rams, beating division rivals Tampa Bay and Atlanta and had a bye week to rest up. The Giants’ last two visits to the Superdome have been far from memorable, although Joe Horn would beg to differ. In 2003, Horn executed his now-infamous cell-phone call after a touchdown in a 45-7 rout, and the Saints also blasted the G-Men in 2009, 48-27. Don’t expect New Orleans to score in the 40’s against New York’s defense, though, as the Giants can pressure Drew Brees and should keep this one close as they should be feeling a real sense of urgency at this point in the season. The pick: Giants.
Upset of the Week: BUCCANEERS over TITANS. These two teams desperately need a win to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive, but maybe Albert Haynesworth has something in store for his old team. Chris Johnson and LeGarrette Blount could put on quite a show, but Tennessee may be running out of steam and perhaps another loss or two will get the Titans to give Jake Locker a serious look to know what they have going forward into 2012.