Tis the week before Christmas, and all through the land, visions of playoff berths are swirling in many an NFL players head!
Yes, the Jolly Fat Man is about to deliver his goods on Christmas Day, but NFL players and coaches know what they want this year: a playoff berth.
This is also a great weekend for NFL fans, as eight games on the docket have playoff implications, which should make your holiday viewing all the more enjoyable.
Before we take a look at this weeks pivotal schedule, I want to wish each and everyone one of you a joyous and happy holiday season and want thank you for allowing me to write this weekly column. I hope I have provided you with some insight into the game, and a chuckle or two this season (OK, some may say my picks have been a joke, but lets remember, it is THAT time of year, so be nice!). Last weeks 4-4 record brought the season record to 96-61 (63 percent) and with time running out on the season, its time to make a big finish.
Baltimore at Pittsburgh: The Ravens will probably enter this game having already wrapped up the AFC North title (they played the hapless Browns last Sunday needing one game to win the division), but Baltimore can still earn a first-round bye by winning out, coupled with an Indianapolis loss. These two teams despise one another, so expect a heated affair on Christmas Eve. The Ravens brutalized quarterback Ben Rothlisberger in their first meeting, which resulted in a 27-0 Ravens win, so look for the Steelers to be in payback mood this time around. Pittsburgh is its best football of the season and would like nothing more than to send the Ravens packing with a loss. My pick, Pittsburgh 23, Baltimore 21
Cincinnati at Denver: Two teams heading in the opposite direction go at it in Denver as the surging Bengals take on the plummeting Broncos in a game that is crucial to both teams playoff chances. Cincinnati is finally healthy and that has resulted in a late-season run to a Wild Card berth. Quarterback Carson Palmer once again looks confident under center and has guided his team to four straight wins heading into last Mondays showdown at Indianapolis. Denver, on the other hand, has dropped four straight and appears destined to be watching the playoffs from home this year. Look for more big plays from Palmer and for running back Rudi Johnson to continue to chew up big chunks of yardage. Rookie quarterback Jay Cutler is improving, but a finally healthy Cinci defense may be too much for him to handle this week. My pick, Cincinnati 27, Denver 24
Indianapolis at Houston: There are now three certainties in life: death, taxes and the Colts winning against the Texans. Houston has never defeated Indianapolis in its five year existence and dont expect that streak to end on Sunday in Reliant Stadium. The Colts need this game and will not look past even the Texans. Indy has struggled the last few weeks, but look for Peyton Manning and Co. to fire on all cylinders as they wrap up the AFC South with a relative easy win over the Texans. This could very well be David Carrs swansong in Houston. Its time for a change of scenery. My pick, Indianapolis 31, Houston 13
New England at Jacksonville: The suddenly surging Jaguars host the Patriots in a key game for both teams. The Jags running game continues to gain steam and wear down foes as they make a late-season run for a Wild Card berth, while the Pats have found that things arent as easy as they used to be when they were dominating the league a couple of years ago. NE quarterback Tom Brady looked confused two weeks ago in his teams 21-0 loss at Miami, but look for him to bounce back this week as he starts leaning on his tight ends to make plays in the passing game. Brady will need to establish the pass because the Jags are tough to run against. When Jacksonville has the ball, the Pats will get a steady dose of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew. Those two ran wild against the Colts two weeks ago as each rushed in excess of 100 yards in their 44-17 route of Indy. This should be a tight game, with the edge going to Brady and his big-game experience. My pick, New England 23, Jacksonville 20
Tennessee at Buffalo: Guess that Vince Young kid CAN play a bit, right Texans front office? I still cant get over that one! VY takes his magic to Orchard Park as the Titans look to continue their second-half run against a Buffalo team that has also been playing well down the stretch. The Bills dampened the Jets playoff chances two weeks ago with a 31-13 win at the Meadowlands as running back Willis McGahee ran over and through the New York defense. This should be a fun game to watch at both teams have opened up their offense in the second half of the season. Look for Young to turn more heads as he takes his act to upstate New York as the Titans look to close the year with a .500 record. My pick, Tennessee 27, Buffalo 25
Carolina at Atlanta: This is a big game for both teams as each clings on to their post-season lives. The Panthers are perhaps the biggest underachieving team this year. They entered the year with Super Bowl aspirations, but due to lackluster play at quarterback and on defense, they are in danger of not even earning a Wild Card spot. The Falcons, on the other hand, have righted the ship and are back in the playoff hunt. A year ago, Carolina rode into Atlanta and left with a convincing win in the final week of the season to qualify for the playoffs. Look for the tables to be turned this time around as Michael Vick uses his arms and legs to keep the Falcons alive in the Wild Card hunt. My pick, Atlanta 26, Carolina 21
New Orleans at New York Giants: Its apparent the Saints are no fluke, as evidenced by their 42-17 win at Dallas two weeks ago. They face another stern road test this week when they visit a Giants team whose playoff chances are on life support. New York received a boost with its 27-13 win at Carolina two weeks ago to end their four-game losing skid. There should be plenty of offense in this one as Saints QB Drew Brees continues his assault on the single-season passing mark set by Dan Marino in 1984. It also helps that Reggie Bush is making big plays, giving Brees one more weapon with which to work. Look for Bush to have a big game playing in the media center of the world. New York quarterback Eli Manning looks like hes playing better as well and would like nothing more than to defeat his hometown team (Eli grew up in New Orleans and his father and mother still reside there). Expect plenty of points in this one, but it says here the Saints magical season continues as they make one more play than the Giants do to pull this one out. My pick, New Orleans 33, New York 31
San Diego at Seattle: A good intra division showdown as LaDanian Tomlinson and mates travel to Starbucks Land to take on a Seattle team that has been up and down this year. The Seahawks suffered an embarrassing 27-21 loss at Arizona two weeks ago and want to start getting in playoff mode, so expect head coach Mike Holmgren to have them ready to play. They need to give Shaun Alexander plenty of work since he has missed so much time with a broken foot, but going up against San Diegos stout front seven wont be a walk in the park. Look for more of Tomlinson as he tries to put the season-season touchdown record out of reach. Its conceivable that LT could have 30-plus touchdowns before the season is through. Thats amazing when you think about it. Even though the Chargers have already won the AFC West, they need to win out to secure home field advantage for the AFC playoffs. Seattle has also secured its division, but could earn a first-round bye is New Orleans slips down the stretch. Look for a competitive contest here, with Tomlinson being the difference maker for San Diego. My pick, San Diego 30, Seattle 28
Philadelphia at Dallas: Two weeks ago, the Cowboys had things in hand, and then came the Saints debacle. Now, they must come through with a win over the Eagles to wrap up the NFC East title and hold off a Philadelphia team that has gained confidence since its come-from-behind win over Carolina two weeks ago. One thing is for certain: If the Dallas defense does not play better than it has in the last three weeks, it wont matter how the season ends because their stay in the playoffs will be short lived. On offense, the Cowboys need to continue to pound the football to give quarterback Tony Romo the space and time he needs to set up the passing game. Romo has looked like the undrafted free agent he was coming out of college in recent weeks, rather than the next Tom Brady. Defensively, Dallas must get a pass rush against the elusive Jeff Garcia, who has found new life since taking over for Donovan McNabb. The Cowboys also need to contain Bryan Westbrook if they hope to deliver a big present to their fans on Christmas afternoon. It says here they will. My pick, Dallas 26, Philadelphia 20