How the darts landed
Oh the drama in here is so thick you could cut it with a feather! Three weeks left in the regular season and me needing to make up 10 more games to climb to .500 against the spread. My chances? If I was that smart (or lucky) I’d be having a better season against the spread. Gained back two games with a solid effort last week, including an Upset of the Week bull’s-eye on Vikings over Bears, another outright upset hit with Cowboys over Bengals, and a pair of ’dogs -with-points in Rams and Eagles. Time is short, though. Must locate gas pedal. [Thursday pick: Bengals (-31/2) over Eagles, 27-23].
JAGUARS (2-11) at DOLPHINS (5-8)
It’s Chad Henne Week in South Florida! I know that qualifies as desperately manufactured excitement, but when the Dolphins — with negligible playoff hopes hanging by a gossamer thread — are hosting the awful Jaguars, you take anything you can find. So in the absence of a game that matters we have the subtext of Henne vs. Ryan Tannehill in a symbolic verdict on Miami’s QB direction. Henne said he wants to show he belongs with the Jags, “not prove anything to Miami.” Tannehill needs to shake off some rookie torpor and start trending up again. A loss here would mark a season nadir for the Dolphins. Jax is that bad (especially with Maurice Jones-Drew out) and Henne has reverted to mediocrity the past two games after a brief, aberrant flare of apparent quality. Woe will be the Dolphins if they cannot beat this opponent with something approaching comfort or ease.
49ERS (9-3-1) at PATRIOTS (10-3)
A handful of tasty games pulse on the NFL Week 15 menu, but Patriots-Niners — as likely a Super Bowl preview as any — made it easy on the Game of the Week committee. Talk about a made-for-prime-time matchup! It’s the No. 1 defense (49ers, 14.2 points allowed) vs. the No.1 offense (Pats, 36.3 scored). Patriots already have clinched the AFC East, and San Fran can sew up a playoff pass with a win here. New England is coming off a short week after playing Monday but the Pats have only won 20 consecutive games at home in December. Is that even legal? I like Niners to keep this one close, but consider that NE’s three losses are by a combined four points and appreciate that the Pats are the best team going right now. And pretty clearly so.
“AAAWWWK!” belts the Upset Bird. “Ravens rarely a home ’dog. Rarely a home ’daaawwwk!” The betting line reminds us that Joe Public swoons at the cleats of Peyton Manning, who can do no wrong — especially when The Master played Thursday so has had extra prep time. Denver already has clinched the playoffs; Ravens clinch division title with a win. Flacco’s offense should get a goose from the coordinator change with Cam Cameron dumped in favor of Jim Caldwell, Peyton’s old boss in Indy. “True that on the OC change,” notes U-Bird. “Less Cam Cameron is almost always a good thing. Less Cam Cameraawwk!”
CHIEFS (2-11) at RAIDERS (3-10)
You know how bringing a piñata to a kids’ party is can’t-miss? So is bringing a 5-21 combined record to the Dog of the Week meeting. These teams were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs during the Clinton administration. An upset here would hardly be an upset at all considering KC has won eight of its past nine trips to Oaktown. But Raiders won first meeting, 26-16, and I like ’em again despite being at home.
Atlanta has clinched playoff spot. NYG is headed there but needs the win more to stay in solid shape. Matt Ryan is 32-4 at home and 6-0 this season so a venue pick really tempts here, but Giants are the better team right now. Also recalling Biggies’ 24-2 swamping of Falcons in last year’s playoffs. Closer this time, but same result.
Both teams are still playoff-contending but needing help, so this is tantamount to an elimination game. I get the point spread. Rams are (relatively) hot, and Vikes are 1-5 away. Still, Christian Ponder is on a 7-1 run in domed stadiums, and Adrian Peterson (1,107 rushing yards his past seven games) is about as hot as you can get without simply bursting into flames.
Pack has won five in a row over Grizzlies including 23-10 in September. That allows Gee Bees to clinch division title with a win here, while Chitown also needs a win to maintain its own playoff path. Bears are fighting a 1-4 skid, and Packers are looking to get two very big injured players back in receiver Jordy Nelson and defensive hub Clay Matthews. That tips the pick.
Game stayed off the bet boards into Thursday because of Robert Griffin III’s questionable status, though it seemed increasingly likely RG3 (sprained knee) would be good to go. Both teams coming off nice wins, and both teams hot. Skins sit seventh for six playoff spots and really need this. Earthtones alive only in a technical sense. Pick assumes Griffin is pitching.
Good teams usually bounce back from rare spankings, and Texans got spanked pretty good (dare say embarrassed) by Pats on Monday night, so expect a big home rebound. But I like hot Nags to keep it inside a big bet number, even though J.J. Watt could be feasting upon Andrew Luck considering three-fifths of Luck’s O-line is banged up. With a win, HOU clinches division and Indy a playoff spot.
Both teams are still mathematically alive in the playoff hunt, an indictment of math if ever there was one. Saints rallied to beat Bucs in first meeting 35-28. Josh Freeman (110.5 rating in past four vs. NO) will keep Tampa close, but Cajuns are the safe play at home against an opponent that has flushed its once-realistic postseason shot with three losses in a row.
Meet your Dog of The Week runner-up, with both teams eliminated from playoff contention thanks to five losses in a row by Detroit and a barely fathomable nine in a row by Arizona. Cards fell 58-0 last week, third-worst shutout loss in NFL since 1950. Good news? They can’t be that bad again. Bad News? Their QB play is horrific, and their secondary is no match for Detroit’s air game.
Cam Newton has been hot the past three games but too late for eliminated Carolina. San Diego somehow is still alive, but only by the same screwy math that has Miami and Buffalo still alive, too. Yet both teams are coming off very impressive wins (Cats over Falcons; Bolts over Steelers) and could make for an entertaining game. Make it a straight venue call.
What did poor Canada do to deserve an annual Bills game? Seattle is playoff-headed but would be imperiled by a loss here, while Buffs are technically still alive but I think would require several other teams to all suddenly go out of business or be kidnapped. Marshawn Lynch faces his ex-team for first time. Seabirds won 58-0 last week and will have a letdown to keep this close.
Here’s a marquee matchup in that these clubs have combined for 16 Super Bowl appearances and 11 titles. But their 2012 versions both are fighting on the edge of playoff contention largely because they are a combined minus-23 on turnovers. I’m nervous Dez Bryant is very iffy, and nervous that Dallas is 0-6 against the spread at home — nervous because I like the ’Boys and Tony Romo against a depleted Pitt secondary.
And the big week ends with a crashing bore of a Monday night snoozer! Tennessee is eliminated from playoff contention while the Planes by winning here still would have an outside shot given their friendly closing schedule. Chris Johnson has hit quicksand the past three games (53-175), and Tenners don’t have much else, so Rex Ryan, alas, leaves the field smiling. And I leave the week rolling dice with a fifth outright upset call.