We’re running faster — arms pumping, chest heaving, legs a pistoning blur — but the finish line keeps seeming farther and farther away. That is the feeling when one has made up ground gradually but remains nine games under .500 against the spread with a mere two weeks to play. Still possible? Sure. I’d take my odds over the Dolphins’ playoff chances. But likely? Let’s change the subject. Hit a pair of outright upsets last week with Vikings and Cowboys winning; also had Niners with points over Pats. But too many teams (Ravens, Giants, Lions, Chargers) let us down with shameful efforts. I smite them. Coal in their stockings!
BILLS (5-9) at DOLPHINS (6-8)
A serpentining conga line of dominoes all must fall for Miami to still make the playoffs, starting this week with the Dolphins winning here and with Cincinnati losing at Pittsburgh. I like Miami’s chances — in this game if not for the postseason. The Bills defense has turned abysmal. It has gotten so embarrassing that guys named Bill have filed a class-action suit to demand Buffalo change its nickname. The Buffs are the first team since 1986 to allow 45-plus points four times in a season. Miami somehow lost to this squad 19-14 in November, but Bison haven’t swept the season series since 2007. Why start now? This is Bills’ eighth consecutive losing season and 12th year in a row watching the playoffs from the couch. By that I mean this game — like last week’s vs. Jacksonville — is a soft home date no self-respecting Dolphins team would dare lose. The club is calling this home finale “Fan Appreciation Day.” Hmm. Given the anticipated one-third empty stadium, I wonder if the club means that sarcastically or with irony?
BENGALS (8-6) at STEELERS (7-7)
Plenty of other high-stakes games this week (Giants Ravens, 49ers-Seahawks), but the GOTW committee was smitten by the winner-take-all feel of this AFC North battle. A Bengals win clinches a playoff spot and eliminates the Steelers (and Dolphins) from contention. A Steelers win muddies the whole thing and leaves it for next week to decide. A real statement game for Cincy, which can never seem to get over that Steelers/Ravens division hump. See this one closer than the line — Steelers’ injuries in secondary worry me — but give us the more-desperate home team to win its sixth in a row in this series.
GIANTS (8-6) at RAVENS (9-5)
“AAAWWWK!” carols the Upset Bird, tipsy from rum-laden holiday egg nog. “Baltimaawwk!” This easily could have been the Game of the Week as well, with the defending champion Giants needing this win to keep playoff hopes alive and the Ravens clinching the AFC North title with a win after backing into the playoffs despite three consecutive losses. Both teams laid down like drunk elves last week, and I don’t trust either. But Biggies haven’t been a strong road team, and I just can’t see Crows dropping third in a row at home. “Was about to say something, but lost my train of thought,” adds U-Bird. “Was distracted by the reference to drunk elves. Merry Christmaaawwwk!”
PATRIOTS (10-4) at JAGUARS (2-12)
Longtime readers know the Dog panel prefers two bad teams for its awful matchup of the week but occasionally puts a saddle on expected lopsidedness, as here. New England will be bound to regather momentum and be in no mood for mercy after last week’s loss to the Niners. Pats are still fighting (uphill) for a first-round bye and are 6-0 vs. teams with losing records, while Jags are 0-6 vs. teams with winning marks.
NFL Week 16 kicks off with this lone Saturday game, and Atlanta must beware a letdown after that impressive shutout of Giants. Falcons clinch NFC home-field throughout playoffs by winning, and playing spoiler is all reeling Detroit has left.
Dallas controls its path to division title by winning its last two games and cannot afford to lose here. Saints are all but eliminated and an oh-so-dangerous spoiler here. I’m concerned Dallas is 0-5 against the spread as a home fave, but N’Awlins hasn’t been a strong road squad.
Titans have won past three meetings with Green Bay. “Really?” Yes really. Now ignore that completely. Gee Bees are a strong team with something to play for, still trying to work into a first-round bye. And Aaron Rodgers tends to eat AFC teams alive. Just cannot see Tenners staying close.
Indy clinches a playoff spot with a win here or a loss by Pittsburgh. Colts shouldn’t count on the latter. Andrew Luck needs only 73 passing yards to break Cam Newton’s season rookie record. The poor, pitiful Chiefs have forgotten they were once a feared home team and also fogotten where the end zone is or how to get there.
A meeting of major disappointments immersed in turmoil, and one of only two games (Raiders-Panthers) in which both teams are officially out of playoff contention. Desperate Jets benched Mark Sanchez in favor of a first career start for Greg McElroy, while Bolts are about to get Norv Turner fired. SD not much on road but Planes off a short week. Give me Philip Rivers here. Upset!
Washington beat Philly 31-6 in November, and Robert Griffin III had a near-perfect four-TD game. Now RG3 (likely) returns from injury in what figures to be Andy Reid’s final home game as Birds coach. Hot Skins can clinch playoffs with a win if three others games all fall right.
It is technically possible for St. Louis to still make the playoffs, in much the same way it is technically possible a bundle containing $1 million could fall from a plane and land in your backyard. Bucs have stunk lately but have the run defense to limit Steven Jackson, so make it a venue pick.
Cam Newton has a 109.8 passer rating with 10 TDs and zero picks in his past five games. There is a phrase for that. It is, “Saving Ron Rivera’s job.” Oakland tends to wither on the road, but that bet-number just feels too fat. Carson Palmer can put up enough to keep it close.
Quietly, a Game of the Week nominee. Texans clinch AFC home-field throughout with a win. Vikings need a win even more, with their hold on the NFC’s sixth and final playoff seed tenuous indeed. Adrian Peterson gives Minny a chance in every game and keeps this close, but Vikes are 2-5 on road and Houstons puts up a whole team against Purples’ one-man show.
Denver has won a league-best nine in a row, still guns hard for a first-round bye and gets it with win here if New England loses. Can’t give Clevers much of a shot. Earthtones are only 1-5 away from the Dawg Pound, and Peyton Manning has a 109 passer rating at Mile High.
Chitown, once 7-1 and sailing, now needs to close out with two more wins and get help elsewhere for a playoff spot. Two strong D’s lead the NFL in interceptions (Zona 22, Bears 21), so, how ’bout fewest turnovers wins? Give me Jay Cutler and something to play for over Ryan Lindley and nothing but next year.
No Monday game this week so here’s the equivalent, and it’s worthy of the prime-time stage. San Fran is playoff-clinched but takes the West by winning here. Seattle clinches playoff spot with a win or with three other results all falling right. Niners have won four in a row in the series including 13-6 in October, but give me a very good home team (6-0) and that “12th-man” advantage.