Patriots hope Cinderella season continues against Dolphins

‘Tis the week before Christmas and all through the league, thoughts of playoff spots are dancing through team’s heads. Especially in Boston, where the New England Patriots have shocked fans and media members by being smack dab in the middle of the hunt for the AEC East title.

This was the same Patriots team that finished well under .500 a year ago and started this year by losing All-Pro quarterback Drew Bledso in week four. But the season turned around when Tom Brady took control of the team and has produced eight wins in 10 tries and this week, the Pats entertain division leader Miami in a game that will go a long way towards determining who wins the division.

Before we take a look at that game and the other key matchups on this holiday weekend schedule, let’s review last week’s record. A stellar 7-1 mark brought the season record to 105-40, (a season-best 75 percent).

Now let’s take a look at this week’s schedule, which will include three Saturday contests.

Miami at New England: Week 15 of the NFL season kicks off in Foxboro where the Dolphins take on the Patriots in perhaps the “key” game of the weekend. The Pats have proven to folks in the last few weeks that they are for real. They overcame a 14-0 deficit at New York to upend the Jets and two weeks ago they followed former Houston Cougar Antowain Smith’s two rushing touchdowns to a victory over the Browns. This team has been getting it done with solid defensive play and an opportunistic defense, and don’t expect them to let up this week when longtime rival Miami comes calling. The Dolphins put together their best game of the season two weeks ago when they drubbed Indianapolis 41-6. Quarterback Jay Fielder has done a good job this year and the emergence of rookie wide receiver Chris Chambers has given him the deep threat he did not have earlier this year. Weather could play a huge factor in this one at the boys of South Florida must play a game in late December in a cold climate. Expect a tight defensive struggle, with Brady making the play late to win it for the Pats. My pick, New England 19, Miami 13

Philadelphia at San Francisco: Another division leader hits the road to take on another surprise team in the second game of Saturday’s triple header. The Eagles (as of Dec. 22) are undefeated on the road this year and getting out of the cold confines of Philadelphia might be just what the doctor ordered for Andy Reid’s team. The Eagles have been up and down this year, but they appear to be peaking at the right time. With a healthy Duce Staley back at running back, a load of pressure has been taken off quarterback Donovan McNabb. Look for McNabb to attack the young 49ers secondary and use his elusiveness to make plays. The 49ers need to bounce back after the bruising they took at St. Louis two weeks ago. Although they are one of the most improved teams in the NFL this year, they still aren’t up to par with the league’s top teams and the Eagles are one of the better units in the NFC this year. This could turn into a high-scoring affair, so expect plenty of fireworks in this one. The 49ers need this one, so expect a big day from quarterback Jeff Garcia and wide receiver Terrell Owens. My pick, San Francisco 26, Philadelphia 24

Tennessee at Oakland: This game will conclude the action on Saturday and it might turn into another shootout as the Titans visit the Raiders on Saturday night in front of Al, Dan and Dennis. The Titans have had a tough year and a win over a playoff contender could do wonders for their psyche, but don’t expect the Raiders to feel sorry for them. Oakland needs to win as many games as possible down the stretch to secure at least one home playoff game. The Raiders’ run defense has been spotty at best recently, so expect Eddie George to try to get untracked for the first time this year. With George ailing this year, the Titans have let quarterback Steve McNair open things up via the airwaves and he has put up some impressive numbers. Look for more of the same this Saturday. Also look for Oakland QB Rich Gannon to attack the porous and injury-riddled Tennessee secondary. If Todd Bouman (Todd who?) can throw for 348 yards and four touchdowns against Tennessee, imagine what Gannon, Tim Brown and Jerry Rice will do! My pick, Oakland 34, Tennessee 28

Cleveland at Green Bay: Years ago, this was one of the better rivalries in the old NFL, but that was way back when, prior to the original Browns moving to Baltimore. Still, this should be an interesting game as the upstart Browns pay a visit to the division-leading Packers. Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre has had an MVP-like season and he’ll need another solid performance as the Pack closes in on the NFC Central crown. This is not a game the Packers should look past because the young Browns do have talent and have won on the road this year. Look for Favre to use the pass to soften up the tough Cleveland run defense. My pick, Green Bay 26, Cleveland 14

Seattle at NY Giants: So much for the Giants repeating as NFC champs this year, or making the playoffs for that matter. Dallas badly damaged New York’s playoff chances with a 20-13 win two weeks ago, which means the Giants might be going through the motions when the Seahawks come calling this weekend. One can only hope (as if you couldn’t tell, I’m not a big Giants fan). Seattle has the talent to beat the Giants, but a lot will depend on how well Matt Hasselback, the first year starter, performs at quarterback. Hasselback has shown flashes of brilliance at times and at others he’s looked like the backup he has been his entire career. Look for the Giants to apply plenty of pressure to force him into mistakes. If Shaun Alexander can find some running room, that will take a lot of pressure off the young QB. The Giants will try to get Tiki Barber untracked against a suspect Seattle run defense. Even though the Giants have nothing to play for, expect them to play hard on Sunday. My pick, New York 20, Seattle 16

Chicago at Washington: Expect a tight defensive game when they two meet on Sunday. Neither team’s offense is much to write about, but both teams have pretty decent defenses. Add to the fact that both teams need a win here to remain in the playoff chase and you have the chance for a game that should be competitive and one that goes down to the wire. The Bears’ offense has sputtered recently (averaging only 11 points in its last three games), while the Redskins defense hasn’t gotten untracked all year long. Look for each team to turn to their running games to make the big play and since the ‘Skins have the more experienced back in Stephen Davis, look for him to make the play that turns this one into a Washington victory. My pick, Washington 13, Chicago 10

Dallas at Arizona: Things are starting to look up for the Cowboys. They’ve played well in December (something they did not do a year ago) and rookie quarterback Quincy Carter is starting to appear comfortable under center. While he won’t make people forget Troy Aikman anytime soon, he has made some plays in recent weeks that have made the difference between victory and defeat. But the Cowboys will be playing an Arizona team that has a glimmer of playoff hopes left and over the last four years, the Pokes have found it tough to win in the dessert. Still, with a defense that is playing the run tough, the Cowboys have a good chance of knocking off the Cards this Sunday. The key will be how well they contain quarterback Jake Plummer. Plummer is dangerous when left to roam and he’s been known to give the Cowboys fits over the years, especially late in games. This could turn into another high-scoring affair that should be fun to watch. My pick, Arizona 31, Dallas 27

Tampa Bay at New Orleans: A key encounter for both teams’ playoff hopes. This game pits two of the better defenses in the league, so don’t expect a lot of offensive firepower, although the Saints passing game has put up some impressive numbers lately. After a so-so start, the Bucs are starting to put things together as a team, as are the Saints. Neither team can afford many more losses down the stretch considering neither is in position to win its division. Both teams will have to take the Wild Card route, and this game might be played at playoff level with that in mind. I like the Saints at home because of quarterback Aaron Brooks and his two deep threats, Joe Horn and Willie Jackson. It also doesn’t hurt to have a back like Ricky Williams around to take pressure off of the passing game. My pick, New Orleans 23, Tampa Bay 17.