Thursday, December 4, 2008

NFL Week 14: It's December - The Games Get Hot as the Weather Turns Cold

NFL Trivia: Which state hosts more NFL teams, New York or Maryland?

Well guess what? It's the Free State! New York has only the Buffalo Bills who will be playing a home game in Toronto this weekend. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Ravens host the Washington Redskins whose stadium, FedEx Field is just inside the Washington Beltway in Landover, Maryland.

Are you ready for some serious football? It's December now. This is where it gets really fun.

From Thanksgiving forward, it’s time to look at what teams are in the playoff hunt and what lies in store for the rest of the pack. First, let’s look at the playoff picture and see which teams look locked in and who the contenders are for the remaining spots.

In the AFC, Tennessee is in. They also look like a pretty good shot at home field advantage through out as their nearest contender, Pittsburgh, is two games back. The other team that looks locked in right now would be the fourth seed, Denver, as the first place team in the AFC West with San Diego three games behind them. Denver is the weakest team of all the contenders. Most likely, wild card contenders with worse records will go home.

Pittsburgh leads the AFC North with Baltimore one game behind them. Both teams have tough games ahead. Pittsburgh while Baltimore hosts Washington this week. Baltimore has a decent chance to pull even with Pittsburgh leading to the showdown the following week when Pittsburgh visits Baltimore. From there, Baltimore visits Dallas and then hosts Jacksonville. Pittsburgh visits Tennessee and raps up the season hosting Cleveland. Factoring out their heads up competition, Baltimore has the slightly easier schedule. One team wins the division; the other team is likely headed to the playoffs but….

The New York Jets lead the East by one game over New England and Miami both at 7-5. These teams are currently one game behind Baltimore and Indianapolis for Wild Card seedings. New England travels to Seattle then Seattle, weak teams but travel to the Pacific coast. New England then hosts Arizona then finally visits Buffalo. Meanwhile, Miami travels to Buffalo, hosts San Francisco then Kansas City, and then finishes at the New York Jets. The AFC East contenders have softer schedules than their North contenders with New England poised to run the table.

Finally, Indy looks like the team most assuredly locked in as a Wild Card. They host Cincinnati then get the next best thing to a bye hosting Detroit, then visit Jacksonville before finishing the year hosting Tennessee who will likely have everything they need wrapped up by then.

Baltimore or Pittsburgh win the East or control their destiny for a Wild Card. Indianapolis controls its destiny. Miami or New England is a game back of the New York Jets, but either way, they must overtake their division leader or a wild card contender to get in.

The NFC picture is much more wide open. The Arizona Cardinals are a lock to win the West albeit with a 7-5 record. The Giants are in good shape at 11-1, 3 games up on Dallas to win the East. Beyond that, everything else is up for grabs. The NFC North has Minnesota ahead by one game over Green Bay at 7-5. The South has Tampa Bay leading the division with tie-breakers sharing a 9-3 mark with Carolina.

The Wild Cards then would be Carolina at 9-3 then Dallas at 8-4 then Atlanta at 8-4 the first team out. Washington stands at 7-5, good enough for first place in the North or West, but two games out in the Wild Card chase. It’s too soon to slam the door on Philadelphia at 6-5-1, Chicago at 6-6 and New Orleans at 6-6.

Carolina at 9-3 is set for the #1 Wild Card seed. They host Tampa this week. The loser of this game could be tied with Dallas. Carolina then hosts Denver, visits the Giants, then travels to New Orleans to finish the year. Tampa Bay visits Atlanta, hosts San Diego, then hosts Oakland. Clearly, the Bucs have the easier schedule.

Dallas has the second best Wild Card seeding, but they visit Pittsburgh, host the New York Giants then Baltimore before travelling to Philadelphia. These are among the toughest defenses in the game while Dallas shows a mediocre defense against them. Dallas is no lock regardless of how well they have improved since Romo’s pinky healed.

Of the remaining more likely contenders, Washington and Atlanta, clearly Washington has the easier schedule once they get past Baltimore Sunday night, visiting Cincinnati, hosting Philadelphia, then visiting San Francisco.

Meanwhile, when has there been a year that the ugly have looked so ugly. Sure, last year had the Ravens not crumbled the Dolphins were headed for a zero win season, but this year, Detroit should seal the deal as they face Minnesota, Indianapolis, New Orleans, and Green Bay. Being from Detroit, do they become part of the proposed Detroit bailout?

Matt Millen’s gone, but there is no sign of who will step forward to make the most futile franchise in professional sports competitive. Meanwhile, Cincinnati, Oakland, Kansas City, and St. Louis have all invented new ways of losing ugly. Yes, Seattle is in that crowd with just two wins, but somehow given their rapid fall, we can at least call them a team that’s just having a bad season. The other teams have deep seated problems that will not respond to any quick fix geniuses. Is there another Bill Parcells out there?

Oakland at San Diego (9 1/2)
What a nightmare 2008 has turned out to be for the San Diego Chargers. Most saw them as the top team in the Division and possibly better when the season started, but between a couple key injuries and general inconsistent play, the Bolts have been a disgrace this year. Surely, they are taking on the character of the Norv Turner teams in Washington and Oakland that made many question his replacing Marty Schotenhemier in the first place for not being able to win "the big one." Though the team enjoyed some success and won an important playoff game for Norv Turner, they have completely disassembled in 2008. Still, given Denver's inconsistency and miserable defense, they still have a long shot at the division title.

Meanwhile, what is there left for Oakland to lose? They have two things goin for them. Kansas City, in their own division, is equally pathetic, and at least the Raiders stand proud compared to the Detroit Lions.

The Bolts better win this one. Even laid-back Southern California fans could turn vicious if their Chargers keep losing contests they should win.

Jacksonville at Chicago (-6 ½)
The Bears are unpredictable but still are in the hunt for winning their division. They should have the edge over Jacksonville, a team that has fallen so miserably in 2008.

Minnesota (-9) at Detroit
Are you kidding? The bets should be on how many empty seats there are at Ford Field.

Houston at Green Bay (-6)
The Packers need this win to continue any hope of January play.

Cincinnati at Indianapolis (-13 ½)
The Bengals stink but with a forecast high of 27 in Indy for Sunday, it’s too cold to open the roof. Payton Manning should hit his targets like shooting fish in a barrel.

Atlanta at New Orleans (-3)
Atlanta is a young inexperienced team that is playing well with rookie Quarterback, Matt Ryan, continuing to play well. New Orleans can be dominant one week and absolutely hopeless the next. There is no rhyme or reason to which New Orleans team will show up, but when Atlanta met New Orleans earlier, they won by two touchdowns. What’s changed since then? Home field advantage doesn’t spot the host 14 points.

Philadelphia at New York Giants (-7)
Everything looks like a good win for the Giants with or without the Plaxico Burress, but the Giants should be on notice, Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid are playing for their future for every game that remains this year. However, the real question for Philadelphia isn’t as much as what their quarterback can do as whether their defense can stop the Giants’ running game.

Cleveland at Tennessee (-14)
Here’s another goof-ball game. Cleveland might have a couple more wins to keep them out of the toilet bowl contention, but what a mess! Nothing makes a sports organization look worse than a lot of finger pointing by key figures. Such is life in Cleveland. Tennessee just needs to avoid mistakes and should win this game handily by at least two touchdowns.

Miami at Buffalo (-1) at the Rogers Center (“Skydome”), Toronto, Ontario
You’d be crazy to bet on Buffalo anymore this season. They got off to a brilliant start, but since then have lost ugly when most expected to do well. Here’s Miami travelling deep into the cold northland, but what’s this? They’ll be playing in doors in Toronto? The Rogers Center big shots have decreed the roof shall be closed. Given a forecast for a high temperature of 26 degrees, yes American Fahrenheit degrees and snow showers, that makes sense, unless you’re a Buffalo football fan. Snow and frigid temperatures are part of Buffalo football lore and living hell for opponents in December. So much for that.

Is this the shape of things to come for Buffalo? Owner, Ralph Wilson, is 90 years old, then what? The stadium bearing his name is obsolete lacking all the expected goodies other teams have gained over the last decade. Could the Bills be headed for the big bucks over Niagara Falls or possibly fill the NFL’s lust for a team in Los Angeles?

For all the joy the NFL gets from playing football in Canada and England, what’s this mean to the regular hometown fans?

Meanwhile, down on the field, Buffalo looks like a team that’s doing the second half fade. Miami should prevail.

Kansas City at Denver (-9)
Denver should win this game. How many games have there been like that when they’ve fallen. Nevertheless, can Denver please do something to prove they are worth being their division leader and not accepting first place by default with San Diego turning into a Norv Turner flop and then having Kansas City and Oakland at the bottom?

New York Jets (-4) at San Francisco
It’s time for the Jets to start showing themselves as a real post season contender by methodically eliminating opponents like San Francisco. The Jets are a good team, but sloppy mistakes kill them. This would be a good opportunity to work on cleaning up some of those problems in a game they should dominate.

St. Louis at Arizona (-14)
Finally the Cardinals get a chance to celebrate winning a division, a feat that they have never realized since moving to the Valley of the Sun. How ironic they could clinch their bid against St. Louis, their former host city. Thankfully for St. Louis fans, they have a Super Bowl title courtesy of the Rams so their former teams’ success will be of little consequence.

Dallas at Pittsburgh (-3)
Dallas has been getting some of their swagger back since Romo’s dinky digit got better, but who have they faced, particularly on defense, like the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers are not 100% on offense to be sure, but when have the Cowboys faced a defense like Pittsburgh other than the New York Giants? Besides that, the Redskins are the only really tough team they’ve faced since Jessica’s squeeze is back throwing the pigskin to the breeze. Pittsburgh needs this game to show they are in the driver’s seat in the AFC North.

New England (-4 ½) at Seattle
What a waste of jet fuel to send the Patriots to the opposite end of I-90 to slaughter the Seahawks.

Washington at Baltimore (-5 ½)
Well, here’s the game Baltimore football fans have been waiting for since the Mayflower vans yanked the Colts loot from Owings Mills and viola, when the next football season approached, what kind of NFL merchandise was on display at all the stores, the Redskins! While Washington learned to embrace the Orioles when the Senators left town, the attitude up the Parkway has a different attitude. Only a few of us embraced the Redskins enjoying the glory days of the Joe Gibbs Redskins with the hogs, fun bunch, Riggo, and three Super Bowl trophies. Much was made of Jack Kent Cooke’s efforts to block a expansion franchise coming to Baltimore, and what did the Orioles do when the major league baseball went through two rounds of expansion.

Let’s get real. They might be the Washington Redskins, but they are the number two NFL team playing in Maryland. Anyone who has been to FedEx Field knows the Ravens Nest beats the Redskins wigwam any day.

This should be all about the football. The Ravens are defending a playoff seed while the Redskins are fighting to get in. The NFL and NBC recognized this as a monumental game worthy of the primetime nationwide time slot. The whole country will be watching the pride of the Mid-Atlantic do battle with each other.

If the Ravens play up to what they have proven themselves capable of doing, Santana Moss, Clinton Portis, and Jason Campbell will head back down the Parkway going back home feeling pretty small. With Shawn Springs, Portis, and London Fletcher all questionable for Sunday’s fight, the Ravens are looking strong with Derrick Mason a little iffy for the game.

It’s time for Baltimore fans to stop pissing and moaning about the lack of respect they get in the national press. Who cares about Chris Berman’s opinions anyway? Want to bet he’ll pick the Redskins as one of his Swami selections tomorrow. The Ravens winning will mark the beginning of the Flacco/Harbaugh era regardless of what happens for the rest of the season. The Ravens will secure a winning season with a win Sunday night. No one expected that at the beginning of the season.

How’s this for irony, the Redskins home field, FedEx field is three miles closer to the Ravens practice facility in Owings Mills than to their own camp in Ashburn, VA while the Ravens home, M&T Bank Stadium sixteen miles closer to FedEx Field. Danny’s world is a vast territory. It will be a long bus ride home, regardless.

Tampa Bay at Carolina (-3)
Here’s a game with high stakes, first place and the drivers seat in the NFC South. Carolina has proven almost unbeatable in their Charlotte home. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay under John Gruden leads the division without nearly as much attention as Carolina in the media. EPSN lucked out to have such a fine matchup with clear implications for their Monday night matchup.
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Put another log on the fire. It's December. It's NFL football. Life is good!

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