Key games abound as NFL teams head for the stretch

If you are a NFL fan, this should be a week worth watching t throughout the league as a number of key games with playoff implications dot the schedule. Big games abound from coast to coast as teams begin making their final push for the playoffs as the conclusion of the regular season nears.

Before we take a look at the key games t his Saturday and Sunday, let’s review last week’s results. A 7-3 week brought the season record to a very respectable 98-39 (71 percent) and with three weeks still to go, I’m planning on improving on those numbers.

Miami at San Francisco: This should be a good game from a standpoint of contrasting styles.
The Dolphins like to let their defense set the tone, while the 49ers like to throw the ball all over the field and put up gaudy numbers. Miami has shown a penchant for making comebacks this year as evidenced by their 21 – 10 win over Denver two weeks ago. The Fish trailed 10-0 entering the fourth quarter, but scored 21 points in a little over four minutes to pull out yet another victory when defeat appeared imminent. San Francisco has been one of the surprise teams of the year and all they do is get better each week. Two weeks ago their defense pitched a shutout over the hapless Bills as the offense produced 35 points thanks to the running of Garrison Hearst and the pinpoint passing of Jeff Garcia. Look for the 49ers to establish Hearst again this week as they try to wear down the hard charging Dolphins defense. But don’t expect the Dolphins to go quietly. They are locked in a tight battle in the AFC East and each game is key down the stretch. My pick, San Francisco 26, Miami 20

Arizona at NY Giants: One of the NFL’s Saturday specials features the surprising Cardinals against the slumping Giants. Arizona received a huge confidence boost two weeks ago when they won at Oaldand, 34-31, in overtime. They aren’t scared to play on the road, but New York has not been kind to them over the years. The Giants know they need every win down the stretch to snag a Wild Card berth, but with an offense that is predictable and turnover prone, don’t be surprised if the Cards pull off another stunning road win this week. If Jake Plummer and David Boston are on as they have been most of the season, the New York secondary is going to be in for a long day. Look for the Cardinals to bottle up New York’s running game, which will force Kerry Collins to become the focal point of the offense. That’s not good news for Giants fans. My pick, Arizona 23, NY Giants 17

Philadelphia at Washington: Another key NFC East game as the Eagles take a one-game division lead into the nation’s capitol to take on a Washington team which soundly defeated them 13-3 on Nov. 25. A win by the Eagles would give them a decent cushion heading down the stretch and considering that probably only one team from the NEC East is going to make the playoffs, this game is huge for the Eagles. Philly has not lost a road game this year, so they won’t be intimidated by the ‘Skins’ home crowd and it appears Philly QB Donovan McNabb is starting to get hot. Washington will need to get running back Stephen Davis going against a tough Eagle defense if they hope to win this one because quarterback Tony Banks can’t be counted on in big games. If you saw his performance against the Cowboys (a 20-14 Dallas win!) two weeks ago, you know what I’m talking about. My pick, Philadelphia 16, Washington 10

Dallas at Seattle: The Cowboys made their season two weeks ago by upsetting the Redksins. Quincy Carter actually threw a decent looking pass and Emmitt Smith looked like the Emmit of old rushing for 102 yards and his first touchdown of the season. This week the Pokes travel to Seattle, where the weather is usually nasty this time of year. That does not bode well for the Cowboys. Look for the Seahawks, who are alive in the AEC playoff hunt, to give the ball to second-year back Shaun Alexander a lot this Sunday as they wear down the Dallas front seven as well as to take pressure off quarterback Matt Hasselback. Dallas does not play well against teams it faces every blue moon, so don’t be surprised if this one turns into a route. My pick, Seattle 30, Dallas 13

Jacksonville at Cleveland: The Browns came crashing down to earth two weeks ago when the Titans marched into town and left with a 31-15 victory. If the Browns don’t watch out, the same could happen this Sunday when the Jaguars come calling. Jacksonville has allowed leads to slip away late in four of their last five games and they are ready to take their frustrations out on somebody. Who better than a team that is entertaining thoughts of making the playoffs.
Quarterback Mark Brunell looked decent in the Jags’ 28-21 loss to the Packers two weeks ago and if he’s on, the Jags must might pull this one out, but then again, they will be facing a Cleveland team that is in a must win situation. It will be interesting to see how quarterback Tim Couch reacts. My pick, Cleveland 20, Jacksonville 17

Tampa Bay at Chicago: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are suddenly back in the playoff hunt and a win against the Bears, who are at the top of the NFC Central would go a long way towards putting them squarely in the Wild Card hunt in the NFC. The Bucs escaped Cincinnati with an overtime win two weeks ago after their emotional win at St. Louis the week before. Quarterback Brad Johnson appears to be playing his best football and with Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn providing an inside and outside run presence, the Bucs are a team to watch. But the Bears have been tough all year, especially at home. They have had the uncanny ability to come up with the key play when they’ve needed it the most. This one will be a big test to see how far the Bears have really come this year. You can bet their fans will be juiced for this one and playing in Chicago in December is a lot different than playing in the warm confines of Florida. Remember, the Bucs are not a team that performs well in cold weather. My pick, Chicago 17, Tampa Bay 12

Minnesota at Detroit: This could be the Lions’ best shot (until their season finale against Dallas) to pick up their first win of the season. Minnesota has proven it can lose to anybody (Carolina) anywhere (zero road wins). The Vikings are out of the playoff hunt and quarterback Daunte Cullpepper has an ailing knee. It’s that time of the year for evaluating young players, so this is a very winnable game for the Lions. Detroit will start Mike McMahon at quarterback, a talented youngster who is mobile. You can bet he wants to impress the Detroit brass down the stretch so that the job is his next year. This could turn into a high scoring affair as Randy Moss has picked things up in recent weeks and looks like the All-Pro he is. Expect McMahon to attack a weak Vikings defense as the Lions (you read it here first) pick up their first victory of the season. My pick, Detroit 35, Minnesota 34

Green Bay at Tennessee: This is a game the Packers cannot take lightly. Tennessee has played better in recent weeks and quarterback Steve McNair has looked sharp throwing the football. Even though Eddie George has had a sub par season, the Titans can still be a dangerous team, just ask the Browns. GB quarterback Brett Favre has to be licking his chops in anticipation of facing a depleted Tennessee secondary and with Ahman Green in tow, the Packers also have a strong running game to turn to should Favre falter. Don’t expect the Packers to have a let down in this one, even though they are coming off an emotional game against the Bears. They have enough veterans who know how to win at this time of the season. My pick, Green Bay 31, Tennessee 23

Pittsburgh at Baltimore: What a thriller this one should be on Sunday night on ESPN. All that’s at stake is first place in the AFC Central. This will be a defensive dominated football game. Neither team wants to let its offense make mistakes that could cost it the victory, so expect both teams to run the football a lot to loosen up the defenses so the passing game will be there when it’s needed. A key in this one will be the health of Steeler running back Jerome Bettis. He has been nursing a sore groin and bad hip and if is not able to go, the Ravens will get a huge break. Baltimore has been tough to beat at home and with a charged up crowd, expect the defense to be at the top of its game. My pick, Baltimore 17, Pittsburgh 13

St. Louis at New Orleans: Another great matchup as the Rams and Saints meet for the final time this year under the lights of Monday Night Football. The Saints overcame a huge deficit at St. Louis earlier this year and have won three of the last four meetings between the two teams. Look for quarterback Aaron Brooks to attack the Rams’ secondary, while St. Louis QB Kurt Warner will call on the multi-talented Marshall Faulk to carry the load for the Rams. Faulk is a threat running and receiving and when he’s on, the Rams are out of this world on offense. This should be another thriller. The Saints know they can come back against the Rams, so no lead is safe. This would be a good time for the St. Louis defense to put forth its best effort, because you know the Saints defense will be breathing fire and bringing pressure all night long. My pick, New Orleans 33, St. Louis 31