Thursday, December 12, 2013

NFL Week 15 Picks: The Sprint Season

Bob, Meet Circus. Circus, Bob
One year ago, around this time, it was clear what was going to happen in the NFL. Houston and Atlanta were going to meet in the Super Bowl for an epic struggle between two franchises that have never won anything. The Texans had just slapped down the Colts, and watched the Niners batter the Patroits around on SNF; their way to the top was fairly clear. The Falcons shut out the Giants and had home dome advantage, along with an offense that didn't look like it could be stopped. Both teams could beat you in a number of ways, had been the most consistent clubs in their respective conferences, and just needed to keep their composure to take that last step of Very Good to Great.

Or, well, not. Since both clubs took the pipe in the playoffs, and won't be going back this year.

Because the NFL is no longer a league of seasons, or growing trends, or long-term patterns; now, it's a league of months. The longest winning streak in pro football right now is held by a team that lost back to back home games to its division rivals while scoring 10 points. Those division rivals now have a combined won-loss record of 12-14, and the better of the two clubs has a defense that is so bad, two teams this year have played an entire game against them without being forced to punt.

And it's not just my possibly fake, but wildly entertaining, local laundry that makes me think sprint is everything. Pittsburgh is a toe and a weak first month, most of which can be shrugged off to just two injuries (C and RB) from maybe being the best team in their division, rather than on the outside looking in. New England has so many escapes and referee benefit moments, they are actually in contention for a #1 seed, despite looking like a replica to every one and done playoff team that's ever lived. San Francisco spent much of the year stumbling around and looking like the prototype SB loser who doesn't make the playoffs the next year... but now that they've gotten back WR Michael Crabtree to go with WR Anquan Boldin and TE Vernon Davis, QB Colin Kaepernick looks like the 2012 guy again, and maybe it's all coming up Niners. And so on, and so on.

So maybe the Seahawks and Broncos have peaked too soon, like the Falcons and Texans last year. And maybe trying to draw your picks from anything more than four weeks in the past is passe, and the reason why, with each succeeding year, the NFL feels more coin flippy. But that's no fun, especially when I've had back to back winning weeks, and still have delusions of saving the year with a hot December.

So with that moment of epic confidence... on to the picks!

* * * * *

SAN DIEGO (+10) at Denver

Just too many points to give up in a Terrible Night for Football game, especially with the Broncos not having WR Wes Welker, and trying to manage the workload on RB1 Knowshon Moreno. The Chargers have finally believed their own eyes and the numbers to ride RB Ryan Mathews instead of Inspirational Story Danny Woodhead, which combined with the comeback season of QB Philip Rivers, has made them the very best third place team in football. Third place doesn't get you much, but maybe a cover.

Broncos 34, Chargers 27

Washington at ATLANTA (+7)

You've probably already heard how DC has become the soap opera of the league, which has to be quite a relief to Atlanta, who now seem safe and sane by comparison. I kind of love how fantasy honks are sneaking new QB Kirk Cousins up in their rankings, because relatively cold guys throwing to terrible skill players behind a bad line are always great plays. On the road, in a dome. If you want the QB with the great match-up here, it's Matt Ryan that you want.

Falcons 38, Washington 24

CHICAGO (NL) at Cleveland

Bears QB Josh McNown really needs a fake name and a doctored birth certificate something awful, because if he had either of these things, he might be able to keep this gig. Last week's dismantling of the Cowboys in prime time gives the team an outside shot at the playoffs, despite the front seven on defense being made of balsa wood. This week seems like Letdown City, since the road team after MNF is always at risk, but Cleveland doesn't run the ball well enough to capitalize, and WR Josh Gordon can't keep doing his Don Hutson impersonation forever. (Look him up. Played for the Packers.)

Bears 27, Browns 20

Houston at INDIANAPOLIS (-5.5)

The Texans trot out new coach Wade Philips and young QB Case Keenum in a road dome game against a clear pretender club, but if there's ever been a better head coach to ensure a high draft pick than Wade, I haven't seen him. Indy's got a decent game in them, honest, particularly against Keenum. He isn't, um, very good, especially on the road with a month of tape.

Colts 30, Texans 20

New England at MIAMI (-2)

I know, I know... my record in Patriot picks this year is as laughable as their won-loss record and talent level, and it's a given that Coach Belichick is just going to invent something untoward to get his team past the loss of TE Rob Gronkowski. But, well, WRs Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola aren't making anyone miss, everyone on the roster drops the ball, eventually someone will figure out to cover the RB in the passing game, and the Pats usually struggle in a warm-weather December game. Eventually, a terrible start has to translate into a terrible loss.

Dolphins 27, Patriots 20

PHILADELPHIA (-4.5) at Minnesota

Can my laundry handle prosperity and being a clear favorite on the road? I don't see why not, especially when faced with the less than daunting prospect of a 3-10-1 Vikings team without RB Adrian Peterson. Plus, they'll be starting QB Matt Cassel, but to be honest, I would have written the same thing if they had been playing Christian Ponder. Look for QB Nick Foles to have the big numbers this week, because the Vikings are going to stack the box to stop RB LeSean McCoy after last week's film. Choose your own death. Oh, and that narrative of how the Eagles are a terrible defensive team that you can exploit? Really not true any more, especially when you consider that they hold teams to under 21 points despite the offense playing at a crazy pace.

Eagles 34, Vikings 20

SEATTLE (-7) at NY Giants

Bad timing for the Giants to catch the Seahawks, who will be looking to re-establish their aura as the clear #1 seed against a team that struggles to avoid turnovers against plus secondaries, and to keep the QB upright against speed rushers. In other words, defenses that play like Seattle. Assuming the Seahawks overcome the 10am PST start time, the defense might outscore the Giants in this game. (Oh, and QB Russell Wilson is going to get him some numbers in this game, too. The Giants are really bad against mobile QBs.)

Seahawks 34, Giants 13

San Francisco at TAMPA (+5)

Bit of a trap game for the Niners, who travel a very long way to face a Bucs team that would be in contention if they just started playing in September, rather than November. I still think the visitors win, but unless they break off some big gains in the rushing game, I'm not seeing the cover.

Niners 24, Bucs 20

Buffalo at JACKSONVILLE (+1)

Break up the Jaguars! The best team in the AFC South in the second half of 2013 will keep it going against a Bills team that thought they had an explosive rushing game with RB CJ Spiller, but he's been outproduced by Fossil Fred Jackson. Worse yet, rookie QB EJ Manuel hasn't been able to elevate his wideouts, and the Jags are going to rush the passer well at home. And if you are going to this game, you really may need to re-examine your life choices.

Jags 23, Bills 17

KANSAS CITY (-4.5) at Oakland

Give Andy Reid this: he can eat a cookie. Last week in DC, the Chiefs scored every which way in an early and often beatdown of that sorry bunch of losers, and while the Raiders have more heart in them than that, it's still not exactly raining dedication in the East Bay. Had the Chiefs simply scheduled all of their cupcake games in a row this year, they might have wound up the #1 seed after all.

Chiefs 34, Raiders 20

NY Jets at CAROLINA (-11)

I'd like the Jets to cover a big number here... if only (a) the Panthers weren't coming off an embarrassing road loss, and (b) the Jets weren't coming off an exhilarating home win. Teams with questionable coaching do not handle success well. Especially when their QB is a turnover machine on the road.

Panthers 30, Jets 17

GREEN BAY (+7) at Dallas

I don't get this line at all. Isn't Dallas coming off a short week where they got their heads handed to them? Isn't MLB Sean Lee out for the rest of the season, destroying any hope for this defense? I'd like this number even with Matt Flynn under center. (Also, I think they gave Scott Tolzien too quick of a hook.) Even if the Pack has to count on Flynn to get them moving, the Dallas secondary is that accommodating. And if I get Aaron Rodgers back later in the week, this game is a pick'em. The only thing I don't like about this one is that RB Eddie Lacy is banged up, and that QB Tony Romo usually saves his fades for later in the season than this.

Packers 31, Cowboys 30

ARIZONA (-3) at Tennessee

I'll take the better team from the better conference, and hope that the turnover-prone QBs cancel each other out. Arizona still has a shot at a playoff spot, and as that might mean a return trip to Philadelphia for Vengeance, I kind of expect them to get it. And then for WR Larry Fitzgerald to grow to 20 feet tall and murder us all. It's what he does. Also, um, the Arizona defense is going to play all kinds of havoc with the Titans OL.

Cardinals 26, Titans 17

NEW ORLEANS (-6) at St. Louis

Which Saints team shows up -- the home juggernaut or the road milk babies? Well, St. Louis is a lot easier to take than Seattle, and as it's really not a football town and just a long drive up the Mississippi for Saints Fan, expect a pretty even mix. Also, for the Saints defense to take advantage of banged up Ram RBs and the giving nature that is QB Kellen Clemens to get an early lead, and pad it.

Saints 31, Rams 20

CINCINNATI (-3) at Pittsburgh

The end times for the Steelers, who almost pulled off a miracle last week, but will finally go boots up against the younger, deeper and better Bengals. If only Cincy had a coach, they would have gotten this done years ago.

Bengals 27, Steelers 20

BALTIMORE (+6) at Detroit

Oh, those defending Super Bowl champion Ravens. Currently loitering in the sixth spot in the AFC, they are just a streaky month away from a very winnable road game (Indy?), and all of those Dear God, We Have To Give Joe Flacco Credit media runs that just hurt the eyebrow muscles. By talent, Detroit should win by double digits, and just might... but man alive, is this Lions team prone to giving you outs, either with fumbles or penalties or coaching rockhead moments. I'm seeing a dogfight all night long, and in games like that, give me the team with the pedigree and the points. Besides, don't you want to see the NFC North go to Week 17 with three teams in the mix?

Ravens 27, Lions 26

Last week: 9-7

Season: 92-100-8

Career: 460-472-37

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