College Football Picks for Week Eight

Game of the Week:  #5 Notre Dame (6-0) at #2 Florida State (6-0)
Florida State is a nine-point home favorite as they face their toughest test yet, a top five opponent in Notre Dame.  A dark cloud hangs over Seminoles QB Jameis Winston, both for the upcoming student code of conduct hearing regarding the 2012 sexual assault case, and a potential scandal brewing over autographs.  On the field, however, Winston still has not lost as Florida State’s starter, winning 20 straight.  His Notre Dame counterpart, Everett Golson, is 16-1, with the only loss coming to Alabama in the 2012 BCS Championship Game.  Notre Dame has only beaten one team with a winning record, with their 17-14 win over Stanford.  Florida State hasn’t played an exceptionally tough schedule either, but they are one of four teams in the nation with multiple wins over the current top 25.  Since 1999, Notre Dame is 1-16 against top five teams, and have lost seven in a row by 13 or more.  While they should keep this game within that 13-point window, their history and their easy schedule, in addition to the fact this is their first road game, doesn’t suggest they find a way to pull the upset.
Florida State 24, Notre Dame 17.

Big Game Guarantee:  #14 Kansas State (4-1) at #11 Oklahoma (5-1)
Oklahoma is a seven-point home favorite as they host Kansas State, coming off of their 31-26 win in the Red River Rivalry over Texas.  The Sooners only loss was a 37-33 defeat at TCU, and they were able to beat West Virginia on the road, although this is their first conference home game, and their first since their win over Tennessee.  Kansas State’s only loss was a 20-14 home loss to Auburn, meaning both of these teams are undefeated against teams not in the top 12, but the Wildcats haven’t been tested otherwise, although they were impressive last week in a 45-13 win over Texas Tech.  K-State was able to beat Oklahoma the last time these two teams played in Norman, but the Sooners should have the home field advantage here, and they are the better team as well, as evidenced by being ranked three spots higher in the AP Poll and six spots higher in my power rankings.
Oklahoma 38, Kansas State 27.

Another Big Game Guarantee:  #15 Oklahoma State (5-1) at #12 TCU (4-1)
A week after blowing a 58-37 fourth quarter lead in a loss at Baylor, TCU returns home to face a top 15 opponent in Oklahoma State, and the Horned Frogs are favored by 10.  TCU’s defense certainly has question marks, after allowing 61 to Baylor, but the team will surely play like they have something to prove after the blown lead, even with the impressive win over Oklahoma the week before.  Oklahoma State’s only loss all season was to Florida State in the season opener, and they were fairly impressive in a 37-31 loss to the then-top ranked Seminoles, and while they have won all their games since, they haven’t played an overwhelming schedule, with their best win over Texas Tech.  TCU has played the tougher schedule, and has looked better doing it, and has the home field advantage as well.  This is both a “revenge game”, after Oklahoma State won a year ago, as well as the game after a heartbreaking loss, so TCU is going to be very tough to beat.
TCU 41 ,Oklahoma State 31.

Another Big Game Guarantee:  #23 Stanford (4-2) at #17 Arizona State (4-1)
Arizona State is coming off a bye week after an improbable, last second win over USC on a hail mary pass, and is ranked higher than their opponent, the Stanford Cardinal, but the Sun Devils are four-point home underdogs.  Stanford is coming off of a 34-17 win over a solid Washington State team, and their only losses this year are to ranked opponents Notre Dame and USC.  The Cardinal have only allowed 10.0 points per game, which leads the nation, and while their offense isn’t their strength, as they rank 89th in points scored, they have scored enough points to win in their victories and stay competitive in their defeats.  The Sun Devils’ win over USC came off a blowout loss to UCLA the week before, and the games against the Bruins and Trojans are the only tough games they’ve had so far.  Last year, Stanford beat Arizona State twice, including a 38-14 win in the Pac-12 Championship Game.  Expect the trend to continue.
Stanford 24, Arizona State 20.

Closer Than the Experts Think:  #21 Texas A&M (5-2) at #7 Alabama (5-1)
The Crimson Tide are 13-point home favorites against Texas A&M in a rematch of a series that, despite only seven all-time meetings, has become one of the more underrated rivalries in college football.  In 2012, Johnny Manziel had his “Heisman moment” in a 29-24 A&M win in Tuscaloosa, and in the rematch last year in College Station, billed in the weeks before as the “Game of the Century”, Alabama won 49-42.  The home team has lost the last three meetings, with Alabama’s 1985 win being the last by a home team, and some believe that trend will continue, as the Tide are coming off of a closer than expected, 14-13 win against Arkansas, the week after a 23-17 loss to Ole Miss.  However, Texas A&M has lost back-to-back games to Mississippi State and Ole Miss, with both teams seeming to have figured out the Aggies high-powered offensive attack.  While some (including me) have questioned Alabama’s defense, the defense was fine in last week’s game, with the offense struggling to put points on the board.  Alabama’s defense will stop the Aggies just enough, stopping A&M similar to how the Bulldogs and Rebels have done it, and Blake Sims and Amari Cooper will make just enough plays to survive.
Alabama 31, Texas A&M 28.

NFL Game of the Week:  San Francisco 49ers (4-2) at Denver Broncos (4-1)
The Broncos are a seven-point home favorite in a game that could have been played in last year’s Super Bowl, had the Seahawks not held on to win the NFC Championship over San Francisco.  The big storyline of this game is the possibility of history, as Broncos QB Peyton Manning can break the all-time NFL record for passing touchdowns in a career.  Manning needs two scores to tie and three to beat the Brett Favre record, and while that would be a near guarantee for a game’s work against some defenses in the league, it is not certain the record will come against a defense as good as the 49ers.  The two QBs in this game have very differing styles, with Manning being the prototypical pocket passer, and Kaepernick making his living as a dual-threat playmaker who can throw on the move or run for a big gain when necessary.  At the end of the day, all Manning is really focused on is beating the 49ers and not the Favre record, and while I think the Broncos will win, the record chase will have to wait one more week, as Manning will throw two touchdowns to tie the mark.
Broncos 24, 49ers 20.

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NFL Picks for Championship Sunday

Sunday is one of the biggest sports days of the year.  While it is naturally overshadowed by Super Bowl Sunday, it is nearly as important, as it sets up the matchup for the biggest single game of the year in the American sports world (and probably the 2nd biggest worldwide this year, since it is a World Cup year).  And it would be hard to even Hollywood to generate a better pair of matchups for this year’s conference championships than what we have after last week’s Divisional Round action.  I don’t remember having this many storylines in the AFC and NFC Championships in the years I’ve been watching the NFL.

AFC Championship:  New England Patriots (13-4) at Denver Broncos (14-3)
The Broncos are 5-point home favorites in the 15th all-time matchup between future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Tom Brady (NE) and Peyton Manning (DEN).  Brady has won 10 of the previous 14.  However, in many of those matchups, Brady had better pieces around him than Manning did, back in the days of the Patriots-Colts rivalry (that rivalry still exists, but in a different form).  I think now it is Manning who has the better team around him, although one could beg to differ with the fact that Brady has won both meetings since Manning joined the Broncos.  This is the 4th playoff meeting between the pair, and while Brady is 2-1 in those meetings, the home team has won each matchup.  Brady and Manning split their 2 AFC Championships against each other, with the Patriots winning in 2004 and the Colts winning in 2007 (that’s the 2003 and 2006 seasons, by the way).  In addition to the Manning-Brady matchup is Manning’s rivalry with Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who Manning called this week the “greatest of all time”.  Manning as 6-11 against Belichick’s teams, which is just a .353 winning percentage.  Manning only has a worse win percentage against 1 other coach, Dave Wannstedt (former Bears/Dolphins coach), who he was 2-5 against (.286).  Brady is playing in his first road playoff game since the last AFC Championship against Manning in 2007, which was in Indianapolis.  In his career in the playoffs, Brady is 12-3 at home, and 3-2 on the road.  It is always impressive to have a road playoff record, but this isn’t impressive:  in those 5 games, Brady has thrown 6 touchdowns and 6 interceptions.  The combined age of Brady and Manning is 74 years and 3+ months, making this the oldest quarterback matchup in a conference championship game.  There are a few more big storylines in this game besides the quarterback battle.  Bill Belichick (NE) and John Fox (DEN) coached against each other in Super Bowl XXXVIII, when Fox was coaching the Panthers, and the Patriots won 32-29.  Fox is 1-6 overall against Belichick, which is a cause for concern in Denver.  Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was the Broncos’ last head coach, going 11-17 in a stint that didn’t even last 2 full seasons.  Broncos WR Wes Welker is in his first year in Denver after leaving the Patriots, who he played for from 2007-2012.  While his stats are down in Denver in receptions and targets, he has scored more touchdowns in a Broncos uniform than he did (in an average season) in a Patriots uniform.  The Patriots are playing in their 3rd straight AFC Championship game, although this is the first of the 3 that isn’t against the Baltimore Ravens (although if the cards fall right, they could still end up playing a coach named Harbaugh in the playoffs).  These two teams met back in Week 12 in an epic, 34-31, overtime win for the Patriots.  The Broncos led 24-0 at halftime before the Patriots came back to send the game into overtime, when a special teams blunder by the Broncos led to a fumble and gave the Patriots and easy field goal to win.  The Broncos can use that big lead as motivation and proof they can win this game, even though that was the worst statistical game of Manning’s historic season.  Broncos TE Julius Thomas, who has 12 TD catches on the year, did not play in that game.  In addition, the Broncos were 7-1 at home in the regular season and beat the Chargers at home last week in the Divisional Round, while the Patriots are just 4-4 on the road.  This should be a great game, but I think the Broncos will find a way to win at home and return to their first Super Bowl in 15 years, back when John Elway was still under center.  9 of the 13 NFL analysts on ESPN.com agree.  This is a very even matchup, but I’ll stick with my original Super Bowl pick since I haven’t been convinced of anything otherwise.  Tom Brady will fall short in his effort to become the first QB to appear in 6 Super Bowls.
Broncos 35, Patriots 31.

NFC Championship:  San Francisco 49ers (14-4) at Seattle Seahawks (14-3)
The Seahawks are 3-point home favorites at home, although I question that spread due to the Seahawks strong home-field advantage.  They are 16-1 since the start of the 2012 season, including a playoff win last week to improve their all-time home playoff record of 8-2, which includes a current 6-game winning streak dating back to 2004.  To the contrary, however, the 49ers come in as maybe the hottest team in the NFL, having won 8 straight, including road playoff games in Green Bay and Carolina, and including those playoff wins they are now 8-2 on the road this year.  This is the 49ers 3rd straight trip to the NFC Championship, and they are 1-1 in the first 2, with the win coming last year on the road in Atlanta.  While the AFC Championship is the oldest combined QB matchup in a conference championship, 26-year-old Colin Kaepernick (SF) meets 25-year-old Russell Wilson (SEA) in the NFC.  While Kaepernick has technically been in the league a year longer than Wilson, both players are in their 2nd season as an NFL starting QB.  Kaepernick has been playing extremely well, while Wilson has hit a small slump, at least statistically, in recent weeks.  However, Wilson continues to lead the Seahawks to wins, which is all that matters in the playoffs.  Another key matchup on the field is between running backs Frank Gore (SF) and Marshawn Lynch (SEA), both league veterans who are more than capable of being game breakers.  The key matchup off the field, as far as a storyline goes, is between coaches Jim Harbaugh (SF) and Pete Carroll (SEA).  The rivalry between the two goes back to their college coaching days, when Harbaugh was at Stanford and Carroll was at USC.  It was, in fact, Harbaugh’s Stanford team, early in his tenure there, that pulled one of the biggest upsets in college football history in 2007 when they beat USC, 24-23, after being a 41-point underdog (it is the biggest upset, according to the spread, but that’s another discussion for another day).  Harbaugh won 2 out of their 3 collegiate meetings, and 4 out of 6 since he came to the 49ers a year after Carroll became the Seahawks coach.  In those 6 meetings, however, while the 49ers are 4-2, the Seahawks have outscored the 49ers by 28.  Then again, the 49ers have more yards and more rushing yards, although they’ve also committed more turnovers.  This is the 5th meeting of divisional opponents in a conference championship game since 1990, and the divisional matchup means we have 2 regular season meetings to look at.  The teams met in Seattle in Week 2, and the Seahawks absolutely dominated, winning 29-3.  However, that game was over 4 months ago, and these teams have changed a lot since then.  The most recent meeting was in Week 14, and saw the 49ers win 19-17.  The 49ers outplayed the Seahawks statistically, but it took a Phil Dawson field goal with :26 left to give the 49ers the slim victory.  That game, although it was in San Francisco, is a much better measuring stick for what to expect in this game on Sunday, and I expect this one to also be close and close to the same scoring range.  The Seahawks will be without WR Percy Harvin, who has a concussion, but he missed a large portion of the regular season, so Seattle is somewhat used to playing without him.  This may be the biggest rivalry in the NFL right now, and if you thought last week’s 49ers game against the Panthers was chippy, just wait to see what happens when these two teams occupy opposite sidelines in a game of this magnitude.  This is a very difficult pick to make, as both teams are playing so well, and both teams are wholly deserving of playing in Super Bowl XLVIII.  But only one team can win in the playoffs, and 8 of the 13 experts on ESPN.com have picked the Seahawks.  With the Seahawks, my Super Bowl pick at Week 8 and at the beginning of the playoffs, playing at home in front of the “12th man”, I pick them to advance to their first Super Bowl in 8 years.
Seahawks 20, 49ers 17.

NFL Picks for the Divisional Round

New Orleans Saints (12-5) at Seattle Seahawks (13-3)
The Saints meet the Seahawks in a rematch of a couple of memorable games, at least for the Seahawks.  One was a Wild Card matchup in 2011 in which the Seahawks were big underdogs at home, but won 41-36, in a game remembered for Marshawn Lynch’s long touchdown run in which he broke over 10 tackles on the way to the end zone.  The other was a 34-7 blowout for the Seahawks in Seattle on December 2.  That memory is still fresh in a lot of minds leading up to this game.  This is easily the best Seahawks team since the one that appeared in Super Bowl XL, and even though their 14-game home winning streak was snapped 3 weeks ago, they are still extremely tough to beat at home.  In addition, the Saints are, even with last week’s win road win in Philadelphia, they are still 4-5 on the road this year.  Even that road win against the Eagles won’t change my mind, as there’s a big difference in playing the Eagles and playing the Seahawks, no matter the location, and with the game in Seattle, I don’t hardly give the Saints a chance.  Out of 13 NFL experts on ESPN.com, only 1 picked the Saints to win this game, the spread favors the Seahawks by 8.
Seahawks 34, Saints 26.

Indianapolis Colts (12-5) at New England Patriots (12-4)
The Patriots are a touchdown favorite at home in a matchup of perhaps the two most successful franchises of the last 15 years.  The Colts have appeared in the playoffs for 12 of the last 15 years, while the Patriots have appeared in 11 of the last 15 postseasons.  This is the 4th time these teams have met in the playoffs, with the Patriots having won 2 out of 3.  All of those matchups were between 2004 and 2007, and featured the Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning rivalry.  Now it’s Brady vs. Andrew Luck, and in their only previous meeting, in November 2012, New England won 59-24.  However, the Colts have come a long way since then.  Some people have remarked how the Patriots were guaranteed to win because it’s “Tom Brady in the playoffs,”  but those people are forgetting that the Patriots haven’t won a Super Bowl in 9 years (although they do have 2 AFC titles since).  The Colts are riding a ton of momentum after coming back from being down 38-10 to the Chiefs to win 45-44.  And this Colts team, and Andrew Luck in particular, will likely be among the NFL’s elite for the next decade.  The future starts now.  While this would be an upset, many people acknowledge this may be the most even matchup, as 5 ESPN analysts out of 13 picked the Colts in this game, and only 4 picked the other 3 underdogs combined.
Colts 31, Patriots 27.

San Francisco 49ers (13-4) at Carolina Panthers (12-4)
Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton were roommates at the 2011 NFL Combine, and now in their 3rd season in the league, they meet for the right to go to the NFC Championship Game.  The Panthers are in the playoffs for the first time in 5 seasons, and their crowd will be hungry to erase the memory of their 33-13 loss to the Cardinals in January 2009.  It has, in fact, been 8 years since the Panthers won a playoff game.  However, the Panthers are 2-point home underdogs because of who they are playing.  The 49ers are the defending NFC champions, and are trying to reach the NFC Championship Game for the 3rd straight year.  They are coming off a road win a week ago in frigid Green Bay, and are gunning for another in Charlotte.  I mentioned the relationship between Kaepernick and Newton; Kaepernick has playoff experience from last year’s run, while this is Newton’s first ever playoff start.  The Panthers are 7-1 at home, with the only loss coming to the top-seeded Seahawks, although the 49ers are 7-2 on the road (counting last week’s win).  The 49ers are undefeated since a Week 11 loss to the Saints, and are undefeated since the return of Michael Crabtree, who had been out injured.  The week before the Saints loss, however, they lost to the Panthers at home, 10-9.  If they want to beat the Panthers now, it will have to come on the road.  While this game has the closest spread, only 2 experts on ESPN are calling for the upset.  I beg to differ, based on the fact the Panthers have beaten this 49ers team in San Francisco, and the fact this Panthers team seems primed and ready to make some noise.  One thing is almost certain:  this matchup between the 2nd and 3rd ranked defenses in the NFL should produce a low-scoring defensive struggle.
Panthers 13, 49ers 10.

San Diego Chargers (10-7) at Denver Broncos (13-3) (-9)
In the largest spread of the weekend, the Broncos are 9-point home favorites.  However, I have reason to believe this could be the most competitive game of the 4.  First of all, 6 seeds have won 6 out of their last 8 games against 1 seeds in the playoffs, a stat that would favor the Chargers.  Also favoring the Chargers is the fact they won, 27-20, in Denver on December 12, exactly one month before this playoff contest.  In their other meeting back on November 10, however, the Broncos won in San Diego, 28-20.  Not only did they split the two games, but the combined scores are 48 for the Broncos and 47 for the Chargers.  I’d say that’s pretty even.  And while the Broncos are 13-3, they are 1-3 against the remaining AFC playoff teams, and was sacked as many times in those 4 games as he was in the other 12 games of the season.  All that being said, in my midseason report, I picked the Broncos to win the AFC, and at the start of the playoffs, although I didn’t write a post making official Super Bowl picks, when friends asked me my pick I said I would stick with the Broncos (and the Seahawks in the NFC), because I hadn’t seen enough out of any other team to change my mind.  So, I’ll continue to stick with it, at least for one more week, even though the Chargers have won 5 straight and are very hard to pick against.  While the Broncos did lose to the Chargers a month ago at home, they are still 7-1 in Denver.  And besides, how wise would it be for me to pick against one of the greatest quarterbacks the game has ever seen?  Interestingly, only 1 of the aforementioned 13 panelists on ESPN picked the Chargers; I certainly think the Chargers should get more respect, and I almost picked them myself.
Broncos 31, Chargers 28.

NFL Picks for Wild Card Weekend

The best time of year, at least in football, started with bowl games over the last 2 weeks.  Now it continues with the NFL Playoffs.  While some may brush off the Wild Card matchups as irrelevant, since the top 2 in each conference don’t play until next week, the last 3 Super Bowl champions have played on Wild Card weekend, meaning that the 4 teams who advance to next week’s divisional round may have a good shot to win it all.

Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) at Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
The Colts are a 2-point home favorite after winning the AFC South, and as the 4 seed host the Chiefs, who are the 5 seed after falling short of the AFC West title.  The Chiefs are 0-7 in the playoffs since their last playoff win in January 1994, including 3 losses to the Colts.  They started this season at 9-0, but have lost 5 of the last 7, although each of those 5 losses was to a playoff team (then again, one of those losses, this past Sunday against the Chargers, was a bit controversial after a referee no-call).  The Colts have a playoff losing streak of their own, but it is only 3 games, and only dates back to their last Super Bowl trip in 2010.  The Colts are 1 of 3 teams since 2003 with 3 wins over 12-win teams.  Out of the first 2, the 2011 Ravens reached the AFC Championship, and the 2003 Patriots beat the Panthers in the Super Bowl.  These teams are pretty statistically even, but a head-to-head matchup just 2 weeks ago shows otherwise.  The Colts won 23-7, in Kansas City.  This time the Colts have a home-field advantage to help them even more.
Colts 28, Chiefs 13.

New Orleans Saints (11-5) at Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
The Eagles are 3-point home favorites coming off a big road win in Dallas for the NFC East division title, leading into a rematch of a 27-24 Saints win in the 2007 NFC Divisional round.  The Eagles claimed the 3 seed with that division title, and will host the Saints, who captured the 6 seed with their win over the Buccaneers on Sunday.  This game is certainly meaningful, since it is a Wild Card playoff game, but it is even more meaningful in suburban Austin, TX, at Westlake High School.  Drew Brees of the Saints and Nick Foles of the Eagles, both starting QBs in this game, went to the school.  Since there is a 10-year age difference, they actually didn’t ever meet each other until both had made it to the big leagues, but this high school connection has football fans everywhere intrigued.  According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this is actually the 2nd time a playoff matchup has included QBs from the same high school, after Terry Bradshaw of the Steelers and Joe Ferguson of the Bills both graduated from Woodlawn High School in Shreveport, LA, before meeting in the 1974 AFC Divisional Round.  As for these 2 teams (it is a team sport, after all), the Eagles have won 7 out of 8 on their way to the division title, including 4 straight at home.  The high-powered offensive attack that first year coach Chip Kelly brought from the University of Oregon is working in the pros, as the Eagles are ranked 1st in the league in rushing and 9th in passing.  Foles didn’t start the year as the starting QB, but has stepped in nicely, throwing 27 TDs and only 2 interceptions on the year, and tying the NFL record with 7 TDs in a single game on November 3.  In addition to the passing attack, the Eagles have the league’s leading rusher in LeSean McCoy.  The Saints were undefeated at home this year, but that doesn’t mean anything this weekend in Philadelphia.  The fact they are 3-5 away from the Superdome, and have lost 3 in a row on the road and 4 out of 5, certainly does mean something.  Not only are their win-loss numbers alarming, but so are the differences in Brees’ numbers.  Out of his 39 TD passes, 27 are at home, with only 12 on the road.  Out of 12 interceptions, only 3 were at home, while the other 9 were on the road.  This game will also be in cold weather, with a high around 40 and a forecast for rain, which should benefit the Eagles even more.
Eagles 34, Saints 24.

San Diego Chargers (9-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)
The Bengals are 7-point home favorites in this game between the 3 and 6 seeds in the AFC.  The Bengals, as the higher seed, are hosting the Chargers, and the fact that the Bengals have this game at home is huge for their chances.  First of all, they are undefeated at home and just 3-5 on the road so far this season.  They will also have a very hungry fan base behind them, as they haven’t won a playoff game since 1991, losing 5 straight.  Perhaps it’s a good thing they aren’t playing the Houston Texans, as they are the team that eliminated the Bengals the last 2 seasons.  Cincinnati has won 5 out of 6, and the 2 losses right before that streak were both in overtime.  They have a 4-0 regular season record against the 12 playoff teams, including a 17-10 win over these Chargers on December 1, in San Diego.  However, this isn’t the same Chargers team as even the one that lost that game just 5 weeks ago.  After a first half that included losses to the Texans, Titans, Raiders, and Redskins, their stretch run that included a 5-1 stretch included 2 wins over the Chiefs and 1 over the Broncos.  They also had earlier wins over the Colts and Eagles.  With both teams coming in on such hot streaks, this should be one of the best-played games of the weekend, and one team may play well but not be rewarded with a win.  Weather in the mid-30s with a chance of a rain/snow mix should favor the Bengals, and if matchup history means anything, the Bengals have won 3 straight in the series, and won their only playoff meeting, 27-7, in the 1982 AFC Championship.|
Bengals 24, Chargers 20.

San Francisco 49ers (12-4) at Green Bay Packers (8-7-1)
The Packers are a 3-point underdogs at home against the defending NFC Champions, the 49ers, in a rematch of a meeting in the NFC Divisional Round last year which the 49ers won 45-31 at Candlestick.  The Niners are, in fact, the highest-finishing team from last years playoffs in this year’s tournament, since the Ravens, who won last year’s Super Bowl, missed the playoffs with their loss to the Bengals on Sunday.  For what it’s worth, the 49ers beat the Packers 34-28 in Week 1, although it’s really not worth much since that was back on September 8, almost 4 months ago.  The 49ers, in fact, followed up that win with consecutive losses, even though they were to the Seahawks and Colts, a pair of division champions, before going 11-2 the rest of the way, including a 6 game winning streak to end the regular season.  One negative about the 49ers is they are 2-4 against this year’s playoff teams, with both of the wins coming at home.  They are 6-2 on the road, which is a pretty good mark, especially considering the 2 losses are at Seattle and New Orleans, 2 of the toughest places in the league to play as a visitor.  Then again, Green Bay is a tough atmosphere as well, particularly in the playoffs, as the Packers are 16-4 all-time in Lambeau Field playoff games.  While the Packers are 8-7-1 on the year, they are 6-3 with Aaron Rodgers under center, as he missed 7 games with a broken collarbone, and during that time they were 2-4-1.  While the Packers are 0-3 against playoff participants, 2 of the losses were on the road and the 1 at home was during Rodgers’ injury sabbatical.  It is Rodgers who is responsible for the Packers even being here, after his 48-yard TD pass to Randall Cobb on 4th and 8 in the final minute last week against the Bears in the de facto NFC North title game.  A final advantage the home-standing Packers have will be the weather, like the other 2 outdoor playoff games that also happen to be in the northern part of the country.  Unlike the games in Philadelphia and Cincinnati, this game will see temperatures below zero, with Sunday’s high forecast as -3, with wind chills of -20 to -30, and there is also a chance of snow.  Green Bay leads the series 6-3 since 2001, and has won 4 out of 6 playoff meetings
Packers 21, 49ers 14.

NFL Picks for Week 17

The new NFL logo went into use at the 2008 draft.

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Week 17 in the National Football League is here, and very little is settled in the playoff race.  Up to 13 games out of the 16 scheduled for Sunday will have playoff implications in some way, whether it is on seeding, divisional titles, wild cards, first round byes, or all of the above.  I’ve narrowed that list from 13 down to the 5 biggest games from Sunday, all of which (except one) have playoff implications for both teams.

Game of the Week:  Green Bay Packers (7-7-1) at Chicago Bears (8-7)
The Bears are 3-point home underdogs in this game for the NFC North division title.  Why?  Aaron Rodgers.  Early in the week, the Bears were favored by 3, but then the Packers announced QB Aaron Rodgers would return to action after a 7-week layoff with a broken left collarbone.  The former MVP of both the NFL regular season and the Super Bowl returns for another big game, a spot he tends to thrive in.  On the other sideline, Bears QB Jay Cutler is 1-8 in his career against the Packers, and has horrific numbers in recent games against them.  The Bears are playing another good offense this week, just 7 days after allowing 54 points against the Eagles (in a game I picked them to win!).  The Packers won’t score that much, but Aaron Rodgers will let the Bears’ defense know he’s back.  By the way, the Packers are trying to become just the 2nd division winner since 1970 with no Pro-Bowlers (although that could change due to injuries and Super Bowl players dropping out of the Pro Bowl)
Packers 38, Bears 24.

Big Game Guarantee:  Philadelphia Eagles (9-6) at Dallas Cowboys (8-7)
The Eagles are 7-point road favorites in another win-or-go-home divisional game, this one being in the NFC East.  I had already decided after watching the Eagles beat the Bears 54-11 on Sunday night that I would pick them against the Cowboys, who seemingly have made it a perennial habit to play these Week 17 elimination games (only winning 1 in recent memory, in 2009).  Then the news broke Monday (and was confirmed on Friday) that Cowboys QB Tony Romo had a season-ending back injury.  While Kyle Orton is a more than worthy backup (69 career starts), it’s tough to ask someone to step into an elimination situation for their first significant playing time of the year.  Recent teams in such a situation in Week 17 elimination games or playoff games are 1-3.  The Eagles have won 6 out of 7, and are 5-2 on the road, although the Cowboys are 5-2 at home, and are attempting for their first sweep of division games since 1998 (they are 5-0 so far against the NFC East).  The Cowboys defense has really been struggling ever since, ironically, the last time they played the Eagles, and the Eagles offense is firing on all cylinders, led by breakout QB Nick Foles.
Eagles 45, Cowboys 21.

Another Big Game Guarantee:  San Francisco 49ers (11-4) at Arizona Cardinals (10-5)
The Cardinals are 1-point favorites in a game they must have to stay alive for an NFC Wild Card berth in the playoffs.  They need the Saints, who will be playing their game simultaneously, to lose to the Buccaneers for this game to be a potential playoff clincher, although I wouldn’t hold my breath that the Bucs will beat the Saints.  This is a tough Cardinal team at home, at 7-1, and they are the first team in 2 years to go into Seattle and leave with a win.  Then again, the 49ers are 5-2 on the road, with their only losses to the Seahawks and Saints, and they beat the Cardinals 32-20 in Week 6.  The 49ers have clinched a playoff berth, but still have an outside chance at the division title, and even more of an outside chance at being the NFC’s top seed.  Both teams “need” this game to accomplish one of their goals, but the Cardinals need it more, and will have the crowd behind them (although I don’t think it will matter, in the end).
Cardinals 24, 49ers 20.

Upset of the Week:  Baltimore Ravens (8-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (10-5)
The Bengals are a touchdown favorite at home, in a game with large playoff implications.  The Bengals still have a shot at a first round bye, needing a win and some help.  The Ravens still have a shot to make the playoffs, needing a win and some help.  Therefore, this should be a good game, since both teams have a lot to play for.  The Bengals are 7-0 at home this year, very quietly establishing themselves with one of the league’s biggest home-field advantages.  The Ravens are 2-5 on the road, which is certainly problematic for coach John Harbaugh, although they picked up a big road win 2 weeks ago in Detroit and beat the Dolphins in Miami in a game that may come in handy as a playoff tie-breaker.  They have also won 4 out of 5 and 5 out of 7 since their 3-6 start.  Like last year’s team on their run to the Super Bowl title, they will find a way to win one they really need.
Ravens 23, Bengals 21.

Closer Than The Experts Think:  Kansas City Chiefs (11-4) at San Diego Chargers (8-7)
This game is the exception out of these 5 games, because it doesn’t have any playoff implications for the Chiefs.  No matter what happens in any game on Sunday, they will be the 5th seed in the AFC.  The Chargers do have a lot to play for…maybe.  They need a win and losses by both the Dolphins and Ravens to clinch the AFC’s 6th and final seed.  Since the Dolphins and Ravens both play at 1:00 ET and this game is at 4:25 ET, the Chargers will know if their dreams are still alive or not.  If my upset pick above is correct, this game will actually be meaningless for both teams.  Either way, I think Pro Bowl QB Philip Rivers will lead his team to victory, but by a margin closer than the spread which favors the Chargers by 9, but only because the game may only be meaningful for them and not the Chiefs, who may or may not rest some of their players.  In Week 12, the Chargers beat the Chiefs in Kansas City, 41-38.

By the way, I just looked at my projections for how everyone would finish that I published in my “NFL Midseason Report”.  For laughs, it had the Redskins at 8-8, the Texans and Falcons at 7-9, and the Dolphins at 6-10.  Other than a handful of teams, however, I feel like my projections were fairly accurate, and there is a real possibility of me getting all 6 AFC teams correct, and almost in the right order.

NFL Picks for Week 16

The new NFL logo went into use at the 2008 draft.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Game of the Week:  New Orleans Saints (10-4) at Carolina Panthers (10-4)
The Panthers are 3-point favorites at home in a battle that will likely be for the NFC South division title.  All the winner will have to do will be to win again next week, and both teams play opponents in Week 17 that are currently 4-10.  The Saints are coming off an embarrassing road loss against the Rams a week ago, and have lost 3 out of their last 4 road contests.  The Panthers have only lost once at home all year, and that was back in Week 1 against the 12-2 Seattle Seahawks.  That game may have been the Panthers best showing defensively, allowing just 12 points against Russell Wilson and company.  The Panthers have additionally won 9 out of 10 overall, although the one loss was a blowout to these Saints two weeks ago in New Orleans.  But the Saints aren’t the same team on the road as they are in the Superdome, and the Panthers should want ultimate payback, as winning would let them control their destiny to win the division and get a playoff bye.
Panthers 28, Saints 24.

Big Game Guarantee:  New England Patriots (10-4) at Baltimore Ravens (8-6)
The Ravens are 2-point home favorites, which means the oddsmakers see these teams as pretty even.  The Patriots are in good position heading towards the playoffs, although they haven’t clinched their division just yet, and are battling the Broncos, Bengals, and Chiefs to see who will get a playoff bye.  Those 4 losses, however, have come in their last 5 road games, and they will head into a tough environment this week in Baltimore.  The Ravens have won 4 straight, and have only lost once at home all year, to the Packers back when they still had Aaron Rodgers.  That loss was also part of a 3-5 start for the defending Super Bowl champions.  Since, they are 5-1, including an 18-16 win over Detroit, without scoring a touchdown in a defensive battle on Monday night.  Count on a close game, as the Ravens have played 9 games decided by 3 points or less, and the Patriots have played 9 games decided by 4 points or less.
Ravens 23, Patriots 20.

Another Big Game Guarantee:  Atlanta Falcons (4-10) at San Francisco 49ers (10-4)
The 49ers are favored by 14 in their final regular season game at Candlestick Park.  It will likely be the final game, as it is unlikely the 49ers will be able to host a playoff game, based on where they currently sit in the standings.  The game itself is almost an afterthought, as the Falcons, who were preseason playoff contenders, have struggled to a 4-10 record, and have not beaten a team with a winning record all season.  The 49ers have won 4 straight, including a win over the NFC-leading Seahawks two weeks ago, coming into this Monday Night Football contest.  The magnitude of this game is not as much in the game itself as it is in the farewell of one of the game’s great venues, based on both its unique design and its unequaled history.
49ers 30, Falcons 17.

Upset of the Week:  Pittsburgh Steelers (6-8) at Green Bay Packers (7-6-1)
Green Bay hosts this pivotal matchup that will affect the playoff race in both the AFC and the NFC, and is favored by 2.  The Packers, however, will play their 7th straight game without QB Aaron Rodgers, and are 1-4-1 in the first 6 games without him.  That hurts even more when considering the fact Rodgers is 2-0 with 687 yards, 6 TD, and no interceptions in his career against Pittsburgh, including his MVP performance in Super Bowl XLV.  The Steelers seemed to come alive last week against Cincinnati, upsetting the division-leading Bengals by 10 to keep their slim playoff chances alive.  While the Steelers need a lot of help to make the playoffs, the first thing that needs to happen is for them to win their final 2 games.  The Packers are in a similar situation, leaving this as almost an elimination game in the playoff pursuit.  The difference in these two teams is that one has their elite quarterback and the other does not.
Steelers 24, Packers 20.

Another Upset of the Week:  Chicago Bears (8-6) at Philadelphia Eagles (8-6)
The Eagles are 3-point home favorites in this week’s edition of Sunday Night Football, in a game between two teams both trying to win their respective divisions and make the playoffs in their first season under a new head coach.  The Bears, under coach Mark Trestman,  come into the game having won back-to-back games for just the second time all year, and just got QB Jay Cutler back from injury last week against Cleveland.  They control the NFC North, for now, and can clinch with 2 wins these final 2 weeks of the season (they could actually clinch Sunday, but need to win and have some help from the Steelers and the Giants, who play the Packers and Lions).  The Eagles are in a similar position, with this game and one against the Cowboys next week remaining in their quest to make the playoffs under Chip Kelly.  They are coming off an unexpected loss to the Vikings last week, and this game actually won’t mean a thing if the Cowboys beat the Redskins in the afternoon (because whether the Eagles win or lose, the game with Dallas next week would still be for the division title).  The Bears come in on more of a positive note, and in all likelihood will have more riding on this game.
Bears 37, Eagles 28.

Bonus: NFL Picks For Week 11

I was going to include a couple of prominent NFL games at the end of my college football picks for this week, as I’ve done a couple of times for some of the bigger NFL games throughout the year.  However, I ran out of time to write the extra material for these games.  Therefore, here are my picks for the 3 big NFL games of the weekend.

The new NFL logo went into use at the 2008 draft.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kansas City Chiefs (9-0) at Denver Broncos (8-1).  The Broncos are probably the NFL’s best team, and are favored by 8 at home.  The Chiefs, after a 2-14 record a year ago, are the last undefeated team in the league.  While that fact is absolutely remarkable, considering where the Chiefs were at this time last year, the Chiefs have not beaten a team who currently has a winning record.  The best record of a team they have beaten is 5-5, shared by the Cowboys and Eagles.  In addition, 4 of their 9 games were decided by single digits, with 2 more being decided by exactly 10.  The Broncos have the best offense in the NFL, and are on pace to have one of the best in history, on the strength of 353.4 passing yards per game.  Peyton Manning is having one of his best seasons, even at age 37.  The Broncos have pulled off big win after big win, and have only played 2 close games, against the Cowboys and Chargers, in addition to their loss to the Colts.  The key matchup will be between that Broncos passing attack I mentioned and the Chiefs secondary, which ranks 6th in the NFL.  This is the game of the year, at least so far, in the NFL, and one of the best home crowds in the NFL will be in it, for sure.  Broncos 38, Chiefs 28.

New England Patriots (7-2) at Carolina Panthers (6-3).  The Panthers, playing their first Monday Night Football home game since 2008, are 2 point favorites.  Carolina is coming off of a big road win against the defending NFC Champions, the San Francisco 49ers, and sit a game back of the Saints in the NFC South.  They also hold the first NFC Wild Card spot, and would be the NFC’s 5th seed if the playoffs started today.  That’s not bad for a team that hasn’t had a winning record in 5 years.  The Patriots, on the other hand, haven’t had a losing record in 13 years, and that streak is likely to continue this year, as they sit at 7-2, with a comfortable lead in the AFC East.  They are coming off a bye, and in the game before the bye scored the most points ever scored against the Steelers, and also gained the most yards ever gained against them.  While the Patriots are known for their Tom Brady-led offense, the Panthers are very quietly posting a solid year defensively, ranking 2nd in rushing defense, and 5th in passing defense.  New England will be traveling into a fan base that is hungry, and will likely make some noise for the biggest Panthers home game since the 2008-09 NFL Playoffs.  Panthers 24, Patriots 20.

San Francisco 49ers (6-3) at New Orleans Saints (7-2).  The Saints, who are undefeated at home, are hosting this matchup of NFC playoff contenders, and is favored by 4.  The 49ers opened the year with an impressive win over the Green Bay Packers, before consecutive losses to the Seahawks and Colts.  After that, they won 5 straight games, a streak that ended last week with a 10-9 loss to the Panthers at home.  While the 49ers record isn’t bad, if you take out the Packers win the best team they’ve beaten is the Cardinals.  The Saints began the year 5-0, but are 2-2 in their last 4 games.  Last week, however, they defeated the Dallas Cowboys convincingly, 49-17, in a game in which they had an astounding 40 first downs.  This will be a game of matchups.  The Saints passing offense and the 49ers secondary are both among the best in the league.  The 49ers rushing offense is clearly their strength, as they rank 4th in rushing and 32nd (last) in passing, and will be facing a Saints rushing defense that ranks 23rd in the league.  While I think the 49ers will have a lot of yards on the ground in the contest, I expect the Saints home-field advantage to continue, as Drew Brees continues to excel.  Saints 35, 49ers 30.