Week 15 NFL Pick Against the Spread

Update: Season record to date…..let’s see, carry the 1, divide by the hypotenuse, multiply by the square root of the cube… Wait, no, I just found it. Each week in all its laborious glory: Right down to the “who’s gonna play tough” guesswork more relevant than who’s going to stop which player – since stopping x or y guy on the field sounds great, but is present every game for all players as a team.

That is, two things matter in picking games: Which team is better at the moment and where the game is being played. And who is more likely to play hard.

Most of the stuff we hear about who will win because this or that team can “run the ball well” or something similar, sounds great; but doesn’t matter.

If team A, for example, struggling with the pass and relying on the run, andnow facing team B who is “guess what,” good at stopping the run (an analysis I just heard on an excellent flagship football show offered as rationale for why team A would lose), that means team B is weaker at stopping the pass. Which against a struggling passing team who can use the weak pass defense help so they can introduce balance back to their offensive attack, may be even more relevant than the fact their opponents are good at stopping the run.

Or it may not be. And if team B is also stronger at stopping the pass, it simply means team B has a good defense. Which means Team A’s defense catches a break. Or it team B also has a good offense, it means team B simply has a better football team, which is the real reason team A is more likely to lose. Etc., etc.

In contrast to analysis that makes it sound otherwise, it’s extremely hard to pick out in advance which team will play well against another team apart from a) how good they are, and b) how hard they are going to play. And the best way to determine this is history (and even then that’s often because one team tends to play hard, or “charged up” against another one), or on rare occasion a particular talent by one team that offsets a talent by the other that most other teams can’t seem to stop; but trying to figure this out in advance often gets confused with simply focusing in one area of the game and not realizing it is offset by other areas. And that if it’s not offset by other areas, it usually simply means that one team is better than the other one, which is why they are more likely to win.

Thus a lot of analysis we hear about which team is going to win that doesn’t focus on who is actually better, and who is likely to play better in that particular game, sounds great, but isn’t otherwise of as much value as it sounds. That’s why many picks you read even by experts at the country’s leading sports sites, against the spread at least, (or straight up for otherwise very close games) are about the same as a coin flip. Or worse.

That said, the picks here ain’t much better:  Season history to date: Week 14: 4-4. Week 13: 4-4 Week 12: 4-3.  Week 11: 4-2-1. Week 10: 3-3. Week 9 3-3. “Debacle week” 8: 3-5.  Week 7: 2-1 Season record to date: 27-25-1, not counting the 1-0 record this week so far.(28-25 -1, or 29-25-1 including last Thursday, with outside verification that the Browns at +6 were a “pick em” possible upset pick at the Bengals back in week 10, but I didn’t get to this column in time. I ranted about it as if I had 40,000 dollars on the game, 5 million weekly readers, and was in a heads up season long gentleman’s wager with the far funnier Bill Simmons (nice picks column here by Simmons, for example) for post season bragging rights, rather than – well – really no real reason at all.)

Though, we are here sporting a perfect record so far with (sparingly offered) upset picks.

That should change this week however – can’t keep hitting on every one. Plus this week has two outright upset pick calls. And really, they are both close games rather than strong favorites to pull an upset. (Though given the teams involved, as you’ll see below, that doesn’t necessarily mean the games should be close if the upset team loses; but in the case of one at least it should.)

Cardinals (+6) at Rams, Thursday Night Football

This is simple. Over the past several weeks, and notwithstanding a close loss at San Diego 3 weeks ago, the St. Louise Rams have been close to the best team in football. The cardinals have overachieved. And Drew Stanton is not even close to Carson Palmer at quarterback. (Update: Stanton got hurt, and Ryan Lindley – who will likely start next week and probably the week after that for the Cardinals, before Stanton, with the same type of MCL sprain that sidelined Larry Fitzgerald for two games a little earlier in the season, can return for the playoffs – is not even close to Drew Stanton at quarterback. Though when not throwing passes that traveled closer to opponents than his own teammates, he otherwise showed good judgment and quick decision making.)

And, just before the just below the surface potential of the St. Louis Rams (for two seasons now) finally exploded, they went into Arizona in week 10 and were leading 14-10 early in the 4th quarter (against a Carson Palmer led team), before they fell apart (right after, ironically, Palmer tore his ACL).

Since then they’ve beaten the Denver Broncos 22-7 – holding them scoreless in the second half in the process – lost 24-27 at the San Diego Chargers, beaten the Oakland Raiders 52-0, and beaten the Washington Redskins in Washington, 24-0. (The team that traded away half of its draft to this same Rams team back in 2012, so they could draft a quarterback who is now benched.)

But the Cardinals, who still have to face the Seattle Seahawks and who have seen their once dominant division lead fall to a slim one game lead (and they’ve already lost to the Seahawks once), won’t go down without a fight.

The edge to win the game goes to the team who is better right now, and who is playing for something as important to this team as making the playoffs:  The pride of running the table and showing they not only belong in what is still the toughest overall division in football, but that they might be able to soon take it.

Six points, however, is too many against a desperate team that will battle, in a likely lower scoring game between two defensive oriented clubs, in what shapes up to be one of the most interesting games of the season – and will remain so after the fact no matter how it turns out.

Very close, because right now the St. Louis Rams are probably the favorite to win the NFC West next year, and probably the entire NFC, but,

Pick: Cardinals

As always, the remainder of games picked against the spread will be added prior to late Sunday Game Day morning.

Update: Well, that time is now once again upon us.  But also notice how Thursday Night’s Pick went from “this is simple,” to “very close” by the end of the discussion.  It was simple. And, in hindsight, given the Cardinals outright 12-6 win, better if the “very close” was left off, which kind of lamefied my pick. (I’ll check with Webster’s D later to make sure they’ve finally included “lamefied,” as a verb. If not I’ll suggest it.)

Column/post/prattling is still to come on that strong Rams Cardinals contest, which from a pure NFL and football rather than “marquee” perspective, was an excellent one entering the game. And for some who like real defense –  and not just aerial shows up and down the field with less strategy – trickier scores, and defensive balance, was an excellent game as well.

There was also a series of two remarkable strategy decisions in a row in the game by the Cardinals, which will get a separate column/post/prattle fest, since they go to some of the key structural mechanics of the game being overlooked in routine “strategic” game decision situations, and that serve as excellent examples of each.

But that’s later to come. In the meantime, the Rams are, and will remain, next year’s dark horse pick. Watch out for them. And if they pick up some strong receiver and offensive line help, double watch out for them.

Also – though it seems “about as unlikely as if a multi million year level of change to the concentration of the same long lived greenhouse molecules responsible for keeping our earth from being a lifeless frozen ball of ice and rock hurtling to space somehow wouldn’t change earth’s climate” – if they happen to surreptitiously swap places with the New Orleans Saints, and thus clandestinely plant themselves into the thick of the AFC South instead of the current best division in football, triple watch out for them.

Unauthorized division swapping unfortunately is of course a tad bit unprecedented, and highly taboo by the basic rules.  (Though trading division places for draft picks might make for some interesting machinations, as teams foolishly give up draft picks in order to move into “easier” divisions, only to then see those divisions quickly turn strong.) Plus, the guys who makes the NFL schedule, along with the rest of us – and certainly the other teams – would probably need to find out about it at some point.

So okay, let’s face it: The Rams will still be in a division with the always under rated Arizona Cardinals, the San Francisco 49ers (who will come back tough next year if Harbaugh remains) and the Legions of Boom up in Seattle, who seem to have gotten their boom on recently, and are not a team anybody wants to play right now. (Although Arizona plays them in week 16, just like last year. And, guess who – St. Louis – hits them up in Seattle to close out the season. In a game that might really wind up mattering for Seattle, both for the division title and a first round bye, or an extra game and wild card trip on the road or, pending, possibly even making the playoffs at all.)

But once again, right now, entering next year with the return of Sam Bradford and a young, hungry, improving team under a decent head coach, watch out for the Rams next year.

So let’s do some picks. Buckle up, this week’s are strong: (So I say now. Check back Monday.)

Raiders (+10) at Chiefs

This game is a bit lopsided from a spread perspective. If you follow football, do you really need the analysis here?  When a team is getting 1o points (even in today’s explosive score oriented NFL) and stands a legitimate chance of winning the game, there’s no decision to be made.

If you don’t think the lowly 2-11 Raiders have a legitimate chance to defeat even their now desperate for a win to stay alive, and playing at home, and hated, division rivals, you haven’t been playing close attention to football. (But don’t laugh too hard if the Raiders lose 28-13. Nothing is locked in gold in football except the idea that the Jaguars are awful and should be banished to the CFL, or get themselves yet another new GM (once again Shahid Kahn, I volunteer), or that the Titans didn’t have to be absolutely miserable this season (losing by at least 14 points in an astounding 8 out of their 11 losses so far this season) to prove an idea I suggested months ago in heavily questioning their offseason firing (though “questioning” is a nice word), of then head coach Mike Munchak.)

In week 12 Oakland wins their very first game of the season -against these very same Chiefs, 24-20.

They promptly go the following week and lose, 52-0.  And, lose to our very own dark horse Super Bowl contender for next season, the St. Louis Rams. (Here’s an interesting analysis of that next game, before the fact.)

Then, they apparently try a little harder the following week (last week) and pull off another big upset, against the San Francisco 49ers, 24-13. (24 seems to be their number in those rare instances they win games this season.)

So, now another post big win let down for the currently “over achieving” two win team? Or is it possible that the Raiders have learned their lesson.

Probably not. But being as this is the Chiefs, and the team that Oakland would probably rather beat than any team in the NFL – let alone sweep – for this game, they may have learned it.

And again, 10 is a lot of points for this much potential emotion, with a team that has shown it can beat the Chiefs, and- even if the Chiefs do need a division win badly to keep their season alive – that are playing a little better themselves.

It would be cool, but probably less likely that the Raiders sweep. But between their chances of winning the game outright, and their larger chances of at least playing with some serious spark to try and give their season some meaning by showing they can dominate at least one of the good teams in the division, 10 is still too large a number for this game even with some additional bad injury news for the somewhat depleted Raiders squad.

Pick: Raiders

Bengals (-1) at Browns

As Joey Lawrence used to so accurately say on the hip 90s sitcom “Blossom”: Whoa!

Johnny Football, the guy who stood in front of a more elderly crowd in cute leotards and led them through some dandy exercises before being woken up by an appropriately much older (and hence wiser) NFL player, the guy who captured the country’s sports heart with his swashbuckling style as a devil may care quarterback at Texas A&M who just won baby, gets his first start in the NFL. (While he also appropriately laughed off another set of silly (okay, stupid) comments by the Bengals head coach.) (Manziel incidentally was also the 837th pick of the 2014 Major League Baseball draft. Which put him, let’s see… again, carry the 1, divide by pie…. um, infinity spots ahead of me in that particular major league baseball draft.)

Last week, in foolishly picking the Bengals as 3 point favorites against Pittsburgh, this blog boldly stated:

The Bengals are simply a better football team. The question to be answered here is whether they have as much heart as Pittsburgh traditionally shows. Because Pittsburgh, more likely than not, will show it here.

Outscored 25-0 in the fourth quarter en route to their 42-21 home loss to Pittsburgh (whom they meet again in Pittsburgh to close out the season in week 17), that question was probably answered.

Now, embarrassed, and if the Bengals lose again this weekend with the Steelers able to vault ahead with a win at Atlanta (as can Baltimore with a win at Jacksonville, where they are 14 point favorites), will they show heart this game?

Maybe, maybe not. But given that they’re going against a still largely untested rookie making his first NFL start, on paper at least are still the better team, and have the strong revenge factor in a key playoff implication divisional game on their side, they’re the call to make here.

But still, how can you not root for Johnny JamBoogie?

I’ll be rooting for him and his semi underdog Browns to make this the wrong pick.

But, after their embarrassment at home to the Steelers last week to put Pittsburgh back into the race, if this Bengals team can’t even up the series against the Browns after getting demolished by them on national TV at home in week 10 (in my best pick on this blog that never officially got made), then Marvin Lewis, with his 0-5 playoff record, should walk out of the stadium and go join the Jaguars in Canada. (Or London, once Roger Goodell gets his way. Though if I was Jacksonville’s GM I wouldn’t let Lewis within 100 miles of the franchise,  unless it was as defensive coordinator, and with a standing gag order to desist from making medicinal related commentary on concussions, and other wildly inane statements that wholly miss the point of what was done wrong and incorrectly assumed with respect to concussions in the past.)

Pick: Bengals – Marvin’s team

Make this the wrong pick Johnny Boogie and a Browns team that repeatedly shows heart, and sweep those Tigers.

49ers (+9) at Seahawks

At some point this San Francisco team has to tailspin. And it looks like while earlier in the year they kept it somewhat together despite a bunch of injuries and rumors about head coach Jim Harbaugh leaving (which have only increased), that tailspin may now be happening. Particularly if the players are resigned to losing their head coach, and know they may be playing under new leadership (or even for a different team) next year.

And the Seahawks, who have gotten over their early post Super Bowl Championship slump (though the return of defensive superstars Kam Chancellor and in particular linebacker Bobby Wagner has certainly helped), would probably like little more than to pummel the 49ers once again; just as they did Thanksgiving evening just two weeks ago down in the Santa Clara area. (The 49ers new “home” digs.)

But this is the 49ers, and Harbaugh’s 4th season as a head coach in the league. He has taken them to the NFC championship game every one of this first three seasons. (And he didn’t take over all that great of a team, either.)

When he says all they really have left to play for at this point is “pride,” it may still mean something with this bunch.  And there’s little more prideful than being able to show that while they may be down and out, they can still go into Seattle and avenge their NFC championship game loss from last season and show they still got that swagger, and in effect declare, “come on 2015, bring it on, whoever leads our charge.”

They just may not have the ability to do it right now. And Seattle knows they’re going against a wounded team with a lot of pride, who have a fierce rivalry with them and who have won an awful lot of games over the last few seasons, with a chance at some serious season redemption. And so the Seahawks, who have lately been showing it anyway, likely won’t lose focus.

But given the rivalry and the potential for enormous passion on the part of the 49ers, which can make any game close – and the 49ers are by no means a bad team, yet are coming off a loss to the Oakland Raiders of all teams – this is a San Francisco call all the way.

Sure they could get pummeled, as Seattle likes to do to San Francisco, and has done to San Francisco a few times now up in Seattle recently when San Francisco was a lot better team even. But for this game, don’t necessarily bet on it.

Pick: 49ers

Broncos (-5) at Chargers

Yeah, Denver Broncos, Bla bla bla bla…

And Peyton Manning, who has suddenly been playing subpar (but the Broncos keep on winning) could at any moment turn into superman with a football (again); but this game is one of the better match-ups of the season, regardless.

And despite many claims to the contrary, when the Chargers played Denver back in late October (though a bit more injury riddled than at the moment, albeit they are still down to their 4th center, having lost a remarkable 3 total successive starting centers to season ending injuries), and lost 35-21, the Chargers actually did get outplayed.

But, while it doesn’t matter too too much where the game is being played when these two teams meet, this is December; it is in San Diego; the Chargers need the game badly, the Broncos don’t (as much, though it’s true they do need it, and they don’t want to have to go up to New England to advance); the Chargers, despite that earlier season loss, know how to battle Denver in general; and, most importantly, “this is Philip Rivers time”: That is, late November and December – with a shot at a playoff berth with wins – is where this quarterback has shone like no one else in the league apart from someone named Tom Brady.

It doesn’t mean he will again, or that the better team here – Denver – won’t win. But this is more likely the Chargers game for the taking. Upset pick; Chargers win outright.

Thus, against the spread, naturally,

Pick: Chargers 

Packers (-5) at Bills 

Yes, the Packers could be facing the Patriots (or someone else) in the Super Bowl later this season. (Or it could just as easily if perhaps not more easily be the Seahawks – with the Lions, Cowboys, Eagles, and the always under respected Arizona Cardinals with decent enough shots to also unseat them.)

But the Bills, by sacking Aaron Rodgers more times than the Packers recently improving offensive line would prefer, and smacking the ball away a few times in the process, send the ‘Pack packing, and pull off the surprise upset.  Even if their normal December “cold Buffalo weather “advantage might be somewhat nullified by a team seemingly from the Midwest’s version of Alaska – aka, Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Pick: Bills

Dolphins (+7.5) at Patriots

Yes, the Patriots actually held the Chargers to negative yards rushing in the second half in their win last week in San Diego.

Yes the Patriots have dominated this division this entire millennium, and are on a roll right now to boot.

And yes the Dolphins haven’t dominated anything but the occasional autumn sport news headlines down in South Florida. And are rolling themselves, but off of a resounding 28-13 home loss to the Ravens last week in a game they needed to win.

But Miami probably isn’t done speaking yet this season. And have beaten the Patriots 2 out of the last 3 times the two teams have met. (Though both wins were at home.  And they were swept by the Patriots the season before – 2012, and lost by 10 up in New England last season, and 28-0 the season before to close out the year.)

The points are also a little iffy this game, since it’s really a question of whether Miami comes into New England with its ears pinned back – then watch out, it’s anybody’s game. If not, there’s a pretty strong chance the Patriots win this by well more than touchdown.

Balancing that out, this is a decent number of points, even against a Patriots team hitting its stride, and whose defense is really coming together, against a divisional rival team capable of beating them and who probably wants to, badly.

It’s a tough pick, because under Joe Philbin the Dolphins haven’t really ever taken that full step to the next level. And just when it looked like they may have slipped in under the radar to become a strong team this year, they lost at the end in Detroit in week 10, and have slipped back into a just barely on the outside looking in team, once again – needing that win at home last week against the Ravens, a team that under head coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco, has repeatedly beaten the Dolphins.

This might be one of the weaker picks of the week (though by accident it would look genius if the Dolphins pull off the upset).  The reason behind it is the idea that Miami will go in and give it their all and then some, and make it a tough game all around. If that call is wrong – and we’ll know soon enough -well, then, this pick is a pretty bad one:

Pick: Dolphins

Catch you on the flip side, as we sift through the wreckage after the fact of this week’s picks. (Whoever “you are,” as right now the only verified devotedly regular reader of this blog is my neighbor’s cat “Frenchie,” who somehow has learned to read in English, and taken a penchant – very surprising for a cat – toward watching football of all things, ever since Dish TV cancelled his favorite mice marathon racing channel.)

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This piece originally consisted of only the pick for Thursday Night’s game to start off the week (pick: Cardinals, +6), and has been updated and expanded to include all of the key picks for week 15 and more, and moved here.

Week 14 NFL Picks, Against the Spread

History to date: A bit long, but a nice recap of all the weeks records prior to last week (as well as last week’s abominable picks) and some keys on assessing football games, is reviewed here.

There was no pick for the Thursday night game this week. In last weeks picks, recap, and assessment of Thanksgiving Thursday’s plate of three excellent games just linked to, this blog said the following about this past Thursday night Cowboys at Bears match-up:

Now the Bears face Dallas (next week), so they’re perhaps finally ready to let it all hang out, or their claims they “haven’t given up” are probably tepid. I have no pick on that game. I’m always wrong on the Bears. But hey, this is a blog, and if forced, until they do show that passion that should have come last week, here’s the pick for next week: Dallas.  (Though do recall that Dallas typically falls apart in late November and December, so this ought to be a good one.)

Two problems existed. One is too much faith in even repeatedly passionless teams to pull it together, get jazzed and play hard when it would seem teams would.  With the Bears this is a bad mistake to make, since one would have made that mistake about 5 or 6 big games in a row with them now, in games against good teams. And I think I’ve made it the majority of those times.

The second was a little too little faith in the Cowboys’ December abilities.

But in hindsight, the game materializes nicely, once the “is this the game the Bears finally rear up and play like a team and not a bunch of energy less piddlers” question was (once again), emphatically answered:

Dallas has been good this season.  They got embarrassed at home by the Eagles Thanksgiving day. With that loss their backs are against the wall. Past season tendencies are not a full indication of future performance. And they’ve played well on the road this season.

Meanwhile, putting idealistic guesswork on the Bear’s motivation aside, a callous examination of the Bears’ games indicates a decent team that has listlessly spiraled into a fairly bad one, while others are playing strong.

Hence, a team that is good, good on the road, with a very good quarterback – who unlike the week before had his normal full week to rest his ailing back – in a very important game for them, in front of a national TV audience, coming off of an embarrassing home loss in front of a national (thanksgiving afternoon no less) audience, against a fairly bad, and worsening, team, is likely going to win, and win strong.

Nice analysis, huh.  Be a lot nicer if saw it and provided it before the game.

As always, the following picks are only for the purposes of raising massive funds in Las Vegas in order to buy copious amounts of food for the homeless in Fort Lauderdale and numerous other cities, and then be able to afford a bevy of lawyers for a defense when the police – charged with enforcing an inane law against feeding homeless people in public in order to – get this – reduce homelessness (“Charlie, no one’s feeding me, I think I’ll buy my house back now!”) – arrest you for helping the neediest of the needy.

Ravens (+3) at Dolphins

It’s going to be a little warm in Miami for this game. That is what it does in Miami: Stays warm. And sometimes during the colder months visiting teams have a harder time with this, as during colder months the blood thickens and the body accommodates to colder temperatures.

Teams have gotten pretty good at adjusting for this though, with wet air blowing sideline fans, etc. But the Ravens will still likely be the team in dark, sunlight absorbing jerseys, and the forecast is for mostly sunny.

And while in the world of climate change “debate” an increase in absorbed or even captured and re radiated energy can be dismissed via belief under the grand complexity of long term global impact, in the more simplistic world of incoming solar radiation upon a colored surface, or, shirt, we don’t debate it any more.

Going back over several years it would seem Baltimore is the better team. But this is now. And this is a heck of a football game, in terms of the AFC, and by this point in the season it will say a lot about who has a chance. While Baltimore still has a shot for their division (provided they win this game), the loser of this game will probably be out unless they run the table. And unless the game is closely played, the loser probably isn’t strong playoff caliber anyway.

The Dolphins got slightly outplayed in a 3 point win at the Jets last week that was misleading – as once in a while the Jets play like a strong playoff team. The rest of the time they play like a team with almost no wins. Which is pretty much what they are.

The Ravens were at home last week. And as six point favorites (in a game that this blog, despite a bunch of bad picks against the spread last week, specifically called the upset on), they lost late by a point to the Chargers. But they probably slightly outplayed San Diego in the game.

Then again, Baltimore also tends to be a fairly strong home team, and not a very strong road team. And whether they “slightly outplayed” the Chargers or not: it wasn’t by much, and they didn’t win, at home.

Going with the Raven’s history, and perhaps not giving enough credit to the Dolphins’ recent overall performances (it’s hard to see Baltimore going into Denver in week 12 and only losing by 3 in a game they led a good portion of the way, as the Dolphins for instance did in week 12), the call this week, perhaps questionably, is:

Pick: Ravens, but it’s close. If there’s any pick here you just want to skip, or ignore my take completely on it (apart from maybe all of them), this might be the one.

Steelers (+3) at Bengals

It took a while before the Bengals could finally beat the Steelers in a game that mattered. And if they don’t win this, it’s right back to the old ways.

But the Bengals are the better team. And either this is their moment to peak, or they might as well pack it in once again as a pretty good, but just can’t quite get it done, team. (Though if they do win this game they still have the playoffs to not get it done, as they now have five out of five times, going 0-5 so far in the playoffs under head coach Marvin Lewis: the second longest tenured head coach in the NFL, after some random guy no one’s ever heard of – and who certainly has never won anything – who coaches some team out of Boston.)

The Bengals are simply a better football team. The question to be answered here is whether they have as much heart as Pittsburgh traditionally shows. Because Pittsburgh, more likely than not, will show it here.

Pick: Bengals 

Panthers (+10) at Saints

A few weeks ago, the Panthers hosted the Saints, and despite playing well in the first half, fell solidly behind by halftime. Then when they needed to atone in the second half, they did so by playing worse.

Carolina has shown itself to not necessarily be the type of team that will rise up with passion in key games where it is really needed. (Or perhaps they play too tight, and too worried about losing. Or both. See links below.) And on some level they may have half packed it in for this season already.

Whereas New Orleans is playing pretty well again, and is hard to beat at home. But Carolina still has a game left against the Falcons, who “lead” the division along with the Saints at 5-7, one and a half games ahead of the Panthers.

The Panthers have also not beaten, nor in most cases even come very close to beating, a good team this season, with the exception of a 24-7 win at home against Detroit in week 2. (At a time when they sill had linebacker Greg Hardy, a key cog in that defense.) And a tie, in a wacky week 6 game against the Bengals, at a time when the Bengals were not playing all that great. (And which took a Bengals miss of a short 36 yard field goal at the end of overtime for the Panthers to pull out the tie.)

They’re just not very good.

And after turtling up just a little bit at the end and losing in a battle for the division lead to Atlanta, the Panthers had a bye to get all nice and rested, and then came out and lost 31-13 to Minnesota. Minnesota.

Not that Minnesota’s not good, but other than a few fluke seasons here and there, the last time the Vikings were otherwise a strong team, they were purple people eaters. (And even if the Vikings two blocked punts for scores in that game are removed – though failing to block well enough and giving up blocked punts are part of football – they still lose 17-13. Plus they would have gotten the ball two extra times, because after each blocked punt and score by the Vikings, the Panthers get the ball back.)

Sometimes however, even if not as much this season, the Panthers play tough in hard games.

They just don’t seem to be showing much capacity to do so this year. And aside from the still underrated loss of Hardy (on the NFL’s exempt list, practicing some rap while hoping badly to beat the rap against him on appeal from an initial trial with no jury, when the now delayed case finally goes to a jury trial after the NFL season), and the seemingly overly tense and mechanical play of quarterback Cam Newton, this team may have made some poor offseason moves, and they’ve lost a few key players to injury.

Nevertheless, this is a division game. It’s not a near foregone conclusion that the Saints win. They’ve battled the Saints tough before when they’ve been a worse team than the Saints; and the Saints, playing well right now, have been up and down this season.

Though they don’t show anywhere near championship caliber energy – one of the many things that distinguishes the Panthers from the Seahawks, who they keep losing late leads and close games at home to – this is a chance at some redemption against these Saints for the big cats from Charlotte; and a shot, long shot though it may be with a team that is not very good, at pulling something out this season.

This game could be all over the place, and it’s not a great call given the Panthers’ lackluster play and the Saints home record and general focus. But this is the Panthers’ game, or it’s their season. They do have the capacity to play well, and despite losses, their defense still has the capacity to hold the Saints in check.

Keep in mind that if the Panthers do somehow win, it would be the fourth consecutive home loss for the Saints. Who, until this season (two weeks ago, specifically) had never lost three home games in a row under head coach Sean Payton, now in his 9th NFL season. (Though one of those seasons Payton was required to sit out for some Bountygate hanky panky, for which NFL Roger Commissioner was later scolded, and Payton somewhat exonerated).

Still, here’s to the big cat underdogs to show some divisional spark:

Pick: Panthers

Buccaneers (+10) at Lions

The Bucs are at the bottom of the NFC South, where the two division leaders are at 5-7, and the third place team, the aforesaid Panthers, have 3 wins and 1 tie.

Still, the Bucs, even under former head coach Greg Schiano, were a team that on several occasions went into the stadiums of much better teams, and battled close or won outright. (In fact, late in quarterback Russell Wilson’s second season last year, the otherwise lagging Bucs were almost the first team to beat him in Seattle since he entered the league, losing in overtime.)

And while former Bears head coach Lovie Smith might have been a little overrated, and proclamations of how good the Bucs were going to be this season (seemingly long forgotten, like sand beach castles down by the edge of an incoming tide, washed over and gone from memory) greatly inaccurate, they have shown a few signs of playing some good teams tough, and might finally be improving.

No upset picks this week. But this would be the type of game – though in a tough battle for the division or a wild card, Detroit can’t really afford it – where an unexpected upset could happen. A 10 point (or more) loss looks very plausible. But so does a close game.

Pick: Buccaneers

Seahawks (+1.5) at Eagles

Two birds going at it. This is the game of games. And Philadelphia, who has played well enough to be the standard 3 point home favorite here, doesn’t get much respect.

Still, the Seahawks, after what they did at the end of 2012 (blowing nearly everybody out of the water and then barely missing out on advancing to the AFC championship game), last year (a near dominant Super Bowl run and win) and the fact they are playing well of late, are a tough team to pick against right now.

If they are still for real, they have to win this game. While the Eagles, conceivably, do not.

No pick, it’s just a great game, and one that will tell a lot. And one in which the suddenly vulnerable Arizona Cardinals, who are just a game up on Seattle at this point but have already lost to them once, and who are playing the Chiefs at home and aren’t even 3 point favorites themselves, no doubt have a rooting interest in as well.

And which leads us into a game which, back to common practice, will yield a pick.

Chiefs (-1) at Cardinals

Perhaps the curtain is being pulled back on the Cardinals, who didn’t build as much as other teams in the offseason, and have suffered some key injuries. And who now have Drew Stanton at quarterback –  who throughout his career as a backup, and now in place of, is so far no Carson Palmer, by a long shot.

And the Chiefs are in a tough division, and a good team.

But don’t count these birds out yet.  They’ll give it all they’ve got, and should be a favorite to win the game.

Pick: Cardinals 

Patriots (-4) at Chargers, Sunday Night Football

Are the otherwise red hot Patriots, who once again seem to be one of the two or three best teams in the league right now, really going to lose twice in a row?

Maybe.

Straight up, this might be a Patriots pick. But the Chargers have the home field advantage. And while it doesn’t mean too much for current performance, compared to their other games, the Chargers simply have a near phenomenal record under quarterback Philip Rivers in December. (Albeit not as good as the Patriots record in December under Tom Brady.)

The Chargers are also a little handicapped though. They were down to their 4th string center, having lost a remarkable three centers to season ending injuries this year, and then their 4th center, Chris Watt, was injured in the close win at Baltimore in week 13.

This is not good. Also not good: Their starting right tackle, DJ Fluker, was drafted 11 overall last year. And he may be better than the 1st and 2nd overall picks in that draft, both also offensive tackles. Yet Fluker suffered a concussion this week. In practice.

If it was really a concussion, it is hard to see how he could sensibly play. But he was back at practice on Friday, as was Watt, who may play. (Although center number 5, Trevor Robinson, signed off the Bengals practice squad in week 7, seemed to do all-right against the Ravens last week.) Defensive tackle Corey Liuget, who leads the Chargers in tackles for a loss (14), may also not play.

But 4 points is still relevant in a what could easily a close game, or even a Chargers win.

Pick: Chargers

Falcons (+13) at Packers, Monday Night Football

Sure, the Packers have been blowing nearly everyone out of the water at Green Bay, including some teams better than the Falcons.

But give Atlanta some credit here.  They may not be any good any more, but they are a tough football team under head coach Mike Smith, and less apt to completely fall apart in games.

True, they could not fall apart and still lose by 27 to the Packers up in Green Bay. But it’s time for these ridiculously lopsided games up there in Wisconsin to stop. At least that’s what the Falcons are thinking, right?

Or maybe the team from George is instead thinking. “It’s cold up here, when do we get to go home.”

Pick: Falcons