Friday, November 22, 2013

NFL Week 12 Primer - The Home Stretch

Tom Brady and Peyton Manning square off yet again this week.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

By the time Week 12 rolls around, the playoff picture usually becomes clearer. Not this year. The 2013 NFL playoff picture (or is it the 2014 NFL playoff picture because the playoffs will occur in 2014? This crap always confuses me - it's really the biggest upside baseball has, that the season is contained within one year) is murky and only getting murkier. 

Somehow, in Week 12, there are only two teams in each conference that seem 100% safe in reaching the playoffs - the 9-1 Broncos and 9-1 Chiefs in the AFC, and the 10-1 Seahawks and 9-2 Saints in the NFC. You'd think that the first-place Patriots in the AFC East would have separated from the pack by now, but if they lose to Denver Sunday night, and the Jets pick up a road win over the struggling Ravens (not out of the question), the Jets would suddenly be just a game back of the Patriots. The 7-3 Colts atop the AFC South have to travel to play the suddenly-frisky Cardinals on the road, and still have road games against Cincinnati and Kansas City.

And don't even get me started on the AFC Wild Card. One of the NFC West teams will grab the 5th seed (and will probably be 13-3 or 14-2 in the process). The other? Really, just roll a die. The Jets and Dolphins "lead" the way at 5-5, and then after that it's like Oprah's favorite things.

The Steelers are 4-6! The Ravens are 4-6! The Browns are 4-6! The Titans are 4-6! The Chargers are 4-6! The Raiders are 4-6! EVERYBODY IS FOUR AND SIIIIIIXXXXX!!!!

The only teams that are really, truly out of postseason contention are Houston and Jacksonville (and, technically, Houston isn't even mathematically eliminated yet). It's Week 12.

Meanwhile, the NFC is just as cluttered. The Seahawks are safe. The Saints are safe at 9-2. The 49ers looked safe two weeks ago but now are tied with (gulp) the Cardinals. The Panthers look like world-beaters with six straight wins, but if they get swept by New Orleans, 11-5 might not guarantee a playoff spot with four teams only one game behind them right now.

There are seven teams with either five or six wins in the NFC - Philadelphia, Dallas, Detroit, Chicago, Green Bay, San Francisco, Arizona. Only three of them (MAYBE four if Carolina stumbles) will make the playoffs. Two of those spots will be the NFC East and NFC North champions. So if we assume Carolina takes one of the Wild Card spots (or New Orleans if Carolina sweeps them), that leaves five teams, currently all within a game of each other, fighting for ONE playoff spot. Not quite as bad as the AFC, where EIGHT teams within a game of each other are fighting for one spot, but the point remains, the race for the No. 6 seed in each conference is an absolute mess right now.

Game(s) of The Week:

Indianapolis @ Arizona (4:05 p.m. Sunday, CBS)

The Cardinals have won three straight. Yes, they've been against Atlanta, Houston, and Jacksonville, but they're still wins. And don't forget that this is the last team to have beaten Carolina, and they did it rather convincingly. Arizona is 4-1 at home, and Indianapolis is a surprising 4-1 on the road. This will be a better game than people assume.

Dallas @ New York Giants (4:25 p.m. Sunday, FOX)

NFC East games always seem to take on slightly higher importance, doubly so when the Giants have won four straight and a win over Dallas would vault them into second place in the NFC East and make them legitimate division contenders. And this is the same team we were referring to as "Jacksonville North" as recently as Halloween.

Denver @ New England (8:30 p.m. Sunday, NBC)

Clearly the game of the week, and through a luck of scheduling, the second year in a row that New England has played this game at home. The Patriots offense has looked better of late, but so has the Denver defense, allowing 213 yards or fewer passing in each of their last four games.

Here Are The Picks We Agree On (Home Teams in CAPS):

New Orleans (-9) over ATLANTA

We aren't very good at Thursday night games.

Jacksonville (+10) over HOUSTON

JC: Houston shouldn't be giving double-digits against anyone. They've lost eight games in a row. Eight. And they're giving 10 points.

JP: Yeah, given the recent play of these two teams, I wouldn't feel bad taking Jacksonville +5 or 6.

Minnesota (+5) over GREEN BAY

JC: Green Bay has lost three straight games and none of them have been particularly close. Aaron Rodgers is out. Randall Cobb, Jermichael Finley, and Bryan Bulaga are on injured reserve. Sam Shields and Casey Hayward are both questionable. Minnesota is bad, but with all their injuries, Green Bay is effectively just as bad.

JP: Any team getting points against this beaten up Packers squad is worth the pick, and only Minnesota's ineptitude at QB makes me a little nervous.

KANSAS CITY (-5.5) over San Diego

JC: I'm not quite sure how losing to Denver on the road caused Kansas City to lose so much value. This line should be at least a touchdown.

JP: The Chiefs at home and in need of a bounce back almost guarantees they'll win this game, but I have no idea what to make of the Chargers, so who knows if it'll be close. Still, I'll take the known commodity here.

Carolina (-4.5) over MIAMI

JC: In a way, this will be another statement game for Carolina. After winning close games against San Francisco and New England, they should be able to go into Miami and win big, like they did in previous weeks against teams like Atlanta, Tampa Bay, St. Louis, and Minnesota. Miami is better than those four teams, but anything less than a double-digit win will be (at least) a slight disappointment.

JP: The Panthers are rolling, but this could end up being the opposite of what you said: They just don't get up emotionally for a game against Miami in what could be a sleepy stadium. Still, it's hard to take the Dolphins getting less than a touchdown against a sudden Super Bowl contender.

Pittsburgh (+1) over CLEVELAND

JC: Pittsburgh has won two straight and four of their last six. Cleveland has lost four of their last five. Why is Cleveland favored here?

JP: Not sure, but as a Steelers fan, why am I so nervous about this?

Chicago (+1) over ST. LOUIS

JC: The Long Bowl! Chris Long and Kyle Long face off for the first time, and Howie Long is taking his first Sunday off from Fox's studio show for the first time in 20 years to watch his sons. Chris is better than Kyle, but the Bears are better than the Rams.

JP: Damn, I was really hoping to take the Rams and the points and feel all smart about it, but the freaking Bears are getting points?!?! Either way, taking the points and not over thinking this one.

Indianapolis (+2.5) over ARIZONA

JC: As mentioned above, Indianapolis is actually a pretty great road team this year (which seems weird to say for a dome team). Arizona has won three straight, but they've been over terrible teams. Before their recent win streak, they lost back-to-back games against San Francisco and Seattle, both by double-digits, and Indianapolis has beaten both of those teams.

JP: The Colts and Cardinals are both enigmas, but this is when Luck and Indy really need to get going. My thought is they blow out the Cardinals, favorites be damned, and make a statement that they're back for the home stretch. 

NEW YORK GIANTS (-2.5) over Dallas

JC: It would be the most Dallas thing ever to lose to the Giants here, wouldn't it?

JP: It would be, and both these teams are so damn streaky, that I can't see it happening any other way right now.

NEW ENGLAND (+3) over Denver

JC: New England actually looked pretty good on Monday night. They lost because Cam Newton put on a scrambling clinic on a few third downs to extend drives - I wouldn't expect Peyton Manning to follow suit. And after starting the season with a few road bumps, the Patriots offense has improved substantially. Not including the last drive of the game, Tom Brady was 25-for-29 passing and was hitting a variety of targets. Denver is still the better team, but getting points at home is tough to pass up.

JP: Agree on the Patriots defense, and the health of the Denver offense (Manning's ankle, Welker's brain) is still concerning. Plus, the Bronco offense has sucked all year. Whoever wins or loses, I have to believe this is going to be a close game, so I'll take the Pats at home with the points.

San Francisco (-6.5) over WASHINGTON

JC: San Francisco has had two tough weeks but this should get them back on track. Washington hasn't been able to slow anyone down all season, so this should be a nice bounce-back week after the 49ers offense has sputtered to almost a complete stop - under 200 yards in each of their last two games. In fact, the 49ers have topped 200 yards passing just twice all season, and they rank dead last in the NFL in total passing offense (although they're in the middle of the pack in yards per attempt and passer rating). But against a Washington defense that surrenders 6.1 yards per play, the 49ers should have an easy win.

JP: Yeah, that Skins D is terrible. 

Here Are The Picks We Don't (Home Teams Still in CAPS)

JC: DETROIT (-8.5) over Tampa Bay

Tampa has looked good over the last two weeks (and even three, I suppose, if you want to include their overtime loss to Seattle in Week 9), but they're going on the road against a Detroit team that needs a win to keep pace in the NFC and has had a few offensive explosions in recent weeks.

JP: Tampa Bay (+8.5) over DETROIT

I agree that Detroit will come out on top here, but I think it's by a touchdown or less. Tampa's pass defense has been solid lately, so I think they'll at least be able to contain Megatron and keep it close.

JC: New York Jets (+3.5) over BALTIMORE

The Jets have alternated wins and losses for the entire season. They're coming off a loss, so a win is guaranteed here. Science.

JP: BALTIMORE (-3.5) over New York Jets

I, in know way, feel good about this pick, but I just think the Ravens need this one more, and they're at home. Not much else to feel good about with either of these teams right now.

JC: OAKLAND (+1) over Tennessee

Don't ask me to explain the Raiders. I can't. But I'll take them in what basically amounts to a pick'em at home.

JP: Tennessee (-1) over OAKLAND

Don't look now, but both these teams are viewing this as a MUST WIN game for the playoffs... That's scary, because neither is that good, but I think it would be the most Raider-y thing of all time for them to drop this winnable game at home.

Jeremy's Record:
This Week: 0-1
Last Week: 7-6-2
Season: 74-80-9
Last Week's Disagreements: 2-1
Season's Disagreements: 24-21-2
Teases: 5-5

Joe's Record:
This Week: 0-1
Last Week: 6-7-2
Season: 71-83-9

Last Week's Disagreements: 1-2
Season's Disagreements: 21-24-2


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