Predictions: 2015 NFL Season Division Winners

As everyone who pays any attention to football knows, and many who don’t probably know as well, another NFL football season is upon us.

At the same time, federal judge after judge in NFLPA actions continues to rule that despite extremely wide latitude under the CBA, commissioner Roger Goodell continues to violate it by “arbitrary” actions and decisions that represent an “abuse of discretion.”

Federal Judge David Doty, in a statement dripping with sarcasm, even wondered aloud in Federal Court recently: “I’m not sure the Commissioner understands there is a CBA.

Some, in process, have likened Goodell’s actions to overzealous politicians who believe “national security” allows or even demands they take those actions they support, U.S. Constitution, and government rules of process and inviolate rights be damned.

While far more trivial, Roger Goodell’s pattern of response for “conduct detrimental” to the league is similar. However, many of the 32 NFL owners apparently don’t view a commissioner who, federal judges continue to rule. acts in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner – dispensing his “own brand of industrial justice,” as New York Federal Judge Richard Berman most recently said in the “DeflateGate” matter – as somewhat detrimental to the integrity of the league.

But enough of that. Let’s turn to far better controversy; one that will be resolved by regular season end, and that we get to watch unfold each Sunday in the process – beginning with tomorrow, the first Sunday of the regular 2015 NFL season, and the day some consider the main opening day to the season.

So, here are your division winners for each of the 8 NFL divisions, as well as second, third and last teams for each division. Wild card contenders for each conference are then also listed, in predicted order of success – with the first two teams on each list the projected wild card winners.(Though done in comparison to a very questionable earlier Harvard Study, and for purposes of fairness thus didn’t take into account pre season action or injuries in its actual percentage ratings, these three pieces assess some of the key variables affecting each of the 32 NFL teams’ chances.)

American Football Conference (AFC)
East

  1. Buffalo Bills
  2. New England Patriots
  3. Miami Dolphins
  4. New York Jets

North

  1. Cincinnati Bengals
  2. Pittsburgh Steelers
  3. Baltimore Ravens
  4. Cleveland Browns

South

  1. Indianapolis Colts
  2. Houston Texans
  3. Tennessee Titans
  4. Jacksonville Jaguars

West

  1. Kansas City Chiefs
  2. Denver Broncos
  3. San Diego Charger
  4. Oakland Raiders

AFC Wild Cards
1. New England Patriots. 2. Houston Texans. 3. Denver Broncos. 4. Miami Dolphins. 5. Pittsburgh Steelers.

*Notes: The Patriots are also likely to take the AFC East, and the Broncos and Texans could easily be fllip flopped. QB Peyton Manning carries teams, and even at 39, with what might be a good defense, Denver could be a great team again and even beat out the Chiefs for the division. Miami and Pittsburgh could also both obviously move up, or win their respective divisions, as the East, North, and West should be particularly interesting this season. Regarding prior poor teams, Oakland might greatly improve, while Tennessee could show significant, if not as much improvement as well. The Jets are expected to improve as well, and might help make that NFC East a tough division this year.

It also feels a little uncomfortable to completely leave out a team that has more playoff wins than any other in the NFL since their QB and head coach joined them in 2008, and who last year was solidly beating the ultimate Super Bowl champion Patriots in the Conference Semi Finals before losing a very close game at the end on a rare Joe Flacco playoff interception.

But some teams have to be left out. And just as other teams could do better than expected from last season and before, some could do worse. Needless to say, the Ravens and Bengals could also be flip flopped here. And if that happens and the Ravens do get into the playoffs – as they’ve proven before (and much like the Giants, who they also happened to defeat back in their first Super Bowl appearance in January, 2001), anything can happen.

Championship game: Colts v Chiefs

National Football Conference (NFC)
East

  1. Dallas Cowboys
  2. Philadelphia Eagles
  3. New York Giants
  4. Washington Redskins

North

  1. Detroit Lions
  2. Green Bay Packers
  3. MInnesota Vikings
  4. Chicago Bears

South

  1. Carolina Panthers
  2. New Orleans Saints
  3. Atlanta Falcons
  4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

West

  1. St. Louis Rams
  2. Seattle Seahawks
  3. Arizona Cardinals
  4. San Francisco 49ers

NFC Wild Cards
1. Philadelphia Eagles. 2. Seattle Seahawks. 3. Green Bay Packers. 4. Minnesota Vikings. 5. Arizona Cardinals.

*Notes: Minnesota and Green Bay, in even more of a surprise, could flip flop, and the Giants could also make it into the playoffs as a wild card. Big improvement would be needed in the South to send a wild card (although the NFC South had a particularly hard schedule last year, and has an easier one this go round); but the Saints are a possibility if some of the other teams don’t improve as projected here.

The Falcons could always also rebound back in their stead or even in place of the Panthers, who to take the division again do need to play as a cohesive team from day one, and with possibly the key piece from his otherwise weak offense missing, QB Can Newton needs to play at a fairly high consistent level.

Championship game: Cowboys v Eagles

Super Bowl: Cowboys v Colts

It’s too easy to just predict the best teams from last year plus obvious offseason additions, and every year there are some surprises that wind up completely changing expectations from what they were earlier in the season. This set of predictions tries to capture at least some of that.

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Probabilities of Making the Playoffs for All 32 NFL Teams

Below is a list of each of the 32 NFL team’s chances of making the playoffs before opening day Sunday.

The number in parenthesis is the percentage chance of that team making the playoffs based on this iffy but popular Harvard Sports study. The first number is the chance given here, broken down over three successive pieces assessing each team’s chances.

Note that this isn’t a ranking of the relative strength of each team. Each conference is a little different, and some divisions are much harder than others or have tougher or easier schedules this year. And all of these factors also play into each team’s actual chances of making it into the playoffs.

  1. Green Bay Packers: 80% (93%)
  2. Seattle Seahawks: 75% (99%, originally 95%)
  3. Indianapolis Colts: 70% (57%)
  4. New England Patriots: 64% (60%)
  5. Detroit Lions: 60% (57%)
  6. Denver Broncos: 55% (57%)
  7. Buffalo Bills: 55% (39%)
  8. Kansas City Chiefs: 52% (61%)
  9. Philadelphia Eagles: 50% (41%)
  10. Houston Texans: 50% (50%)
  11. Dallas Cowboys: 45% (27%)
  12. Miami Dolphins: 45% (74%, originally 77%) 
  13. Cincinnati Bengals: 42% (33%)
  14. Atlanta Falcons: 42% (55%)
  15. New Orleans Saints: 40% (48%)
  16. Pittsburgh Steelers: 38% (45%)
  17. San Diego Chargers: 38% (27%)
  18. New York Giants: 38% (48%)
  19. New York Jets: 38% (51%)
  20. Arizona Cardinals: 36% (30%)
  21. Baltimore Ravens: 36% (24% originally 9%)
  22. Carolina Panthers: 36% (22%)
  23. St. Louis Rams: 35% (10%)
  24. Chicago Bears: 28% (25%)
  25. Cleveland Browns: 26% (25%)
  26. Minnesota Vikings: 24% (12%)
  27. San Francisco 49ers: 20% (9%)
  28. Washington Redskins: 19% (22%)
  29. Tennessee Titans: 12% (2%)
  30. Oakland Raiders: 10% (.03%)
  31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 10% (2%)
  32. Jacksonville Jaguars: 8% (3%)

Final Notes: Based on preseason action; some of the more key injuries; and last evening’s season opening Thursday Night game where the Steelers looked better than expected despite missing some key players (one of whom, their all pro and near all world Center Maurkice Pouncey, is on the IR designated to return list), a few of the numbers may be off a little bit. Some examples:

-The Patriots might actually be lower than 64%, and they’re only even anywhere that high because they were very good last year (if with a few key different players). And they somehow keep doing it. (Probably because, in the next scandal to be alleged or made up, they surreptitiously put slip n slide clear “banana peel” fun rub underneath opponents’ cleats before each game.)

-The Steelers may be higher than 38%, although it’s hard to assess how much of that game last night – which was closer than the ongoing and late score indicated – was the Steelers’ doing, and how much was the Patriots’ doing.
But 38% is also low regardless for a team that at least all but perenially contends, and often contends strongly; and that has an extremely good (and very long underrated, although the last few seasons that seems to be changing) quarterback in general and clutch situations.

-The Jets could be higher than 38%, but that’s still just on paper – nothing much in the preseason really showed it. (They may also be lower than 38%, as it’s still a pretty high number for a team with a new head coach, no real quarterback yet, and one that hasn’t really been a solid contender for a while.)

-The Eagles may be higher than 50%, but they have a big if in Sam Bradford, who is a natural at quarterback, finally staying healthy.

-Both the Eagles, and Cowboys, are possible Super Bowl picks. Ignoring the Harrvard study’s rather iffy 27% number, as we are all their numbers, this may seem to suggest a higher than 45% chance of making the playoffs.
But for the Cowboys it may not:
The division may be tough. (Even the Giants could contend and run it at the end, as they already have twice with the still together Eli M and HC Tom Coughlin tandem.)
And the Cowbys are a little bit of an unpredictable team, apart from the fact that their record seems to usually be pedestrian despite the fact they seem to be a better team than their usually pedestrian record suggests.
They could easily fall to that pedestrian record again, or, particularly if Tony Romo’s late game play improvement (of late) is in fact the new Romo, just as easily solidly make the playoffs; and if they do, there is no reason to think they’re not, or won’t be, the best team in the NFC.
They were probably extremely close to it last season.

-It’s hard to assess the Ravens.
But 36% still feels low for this team and their General Manager Ozzie Newsome’s now fairly consistent longer term record – even putting aside the study’s originally near ludicrous 9% for the team that has more playoff wins than any team in the NFL since 2008, when the still in place QB Flacco HC Harbaugh combo signed on.
Yet every team can’t make the playoffs.And even good teams have down years. It’s just hard to say who in advance.
But if the Ravens make the playoffs yet again, it’s time to start giving a LOT of credit – I mean even more – to those guys. (That is, putting aside their rag tag handling of the Ray Rice fiasco last year when they fully had his back – maybe too much even for a beloved and charitable teammate with a then fiance now wife victim nearly pleading for their continued support of said teammate – then when a repeatedly looped video of a totally drunken Rice and his fiance surfaced essentially showing all the facts we knew, dropped him like a hot potato and made it seem as if the video was some major revelation. Thereby pinning the already arbitrary and capricious NFL commissioner into a bit of a corner. Which commissioner then in turn acted even more arbitrarily and capriciously once again by not even simply applying the new 6 game suspension rules under the new tougher policy under claim the video provided specific detail about the type of punch thrown, and thus “relevant new” info. (If it wasn’t sufficient for that, it certainly wasn’t sufficient for a random indefinite suspension in discord with the initial punishment, and in complete and total discord with the new tougher domestic policy, particularly under all the circumstances.)

-I would probably give the Chiefs a higher chance of making the playoffs than offered above, they’re likely to be very strongly in the mix.

-The Vikings could be one of the surprise teams, even a possible contender in the playoffs. And though they present a large range – from lagging to a possible playoff team to even a solid playoff team – 24% is probably low. They’re also a good dark horse team pick to surpise and take the division, or battle for it and squeak in a wild card.

-The Rams are still probably too low at 35%. They could very well wind up battling it out with the Seahawks, or Seahawks and Cardinals with one of the two runner ups making a wild card.

-I previously said the Bills will make the playoffs this season for the first time since 1999. But the 55% number represents not my hunches and predictions, but the best assessment of their actual chances, all things considered.
And 55% already puts the Bills chances very high in a tough AFC, given their prior records and fact they have an unproven quarterback who’s never started a regular season game and was a late round pick in 2011; and as their now third string quarterback have a guy who was a big reach at number 16 in the 2013 draft (this includes the fact they probably still could have gotten him had they traded back, and possibly even if they had traded back quite a ways), but has shown potential. (Although if it was me, and first time starter Tyrod Taylor falters, I’d bring in that former No. 16 pick EJ Manuel next to see what he could do, and not long time solid backup occasional spot starter Matt Cassel. Even more so considering Manuel would be playing without first round draft pick expectations for the first time, )

-The Browns could be higher than 26%, and they showed this potential for a while last year under now second year head coach Mike Pettine.
But backup, potentially still not ready (even if ever) QB Johnny Manziel is a complete wild card.
And bizarrely, the Browns let go of their only starting quarterback of the astounding 22 they’ve had so far (not counting week 1 this year) since coming back into the league in 1999, in order to pick up a 36 year old career backup for the same money that Brian Hoyer is now getting paid in Houston.
And they did so even after Tampa Bay failed with the same experiment last year.

-Though we all have it wired in that the Packers always seem to win the division, their real chances are probably lower than 80%, perhaps significantly so. Losing receiver Jordy Nelson hurts them. And there is a good chance the Vikings are competitive this year and the Lions stay strong, making the division much closer. Also, one never knows about the Bears under new head coach John Fox, who leaves a decent enough track record behind him. And QB Jay Cutler might even suddenly play well again.

-I want to put the Panthers higher than 36%; they were the best team in the NFC South at the end of last season, and they shouldn’t fall off this year, and their QB might even improve.
But the division isn’t likely to be quite so weak this year, and losing their really only proven wide receiver in Kelvin Benjamin, who was a huge part of their offense last year even as a rookie, then having number 41 spot draft pick WR Devin Funchess (who they traded up to get) be held up most of training camp and preseason from injury, hurts them.

Much more information and analysis is found in the three separate, longer pieces assessing each team’s chances in comparison with the Harvard study. And many of the numbers are conservative, as they are trying to replicate the most reasonable probabilities, not what could happen. Hence why the Vikings are still pretty low, although they could easily surprise. Ditto with a few other teams, including, again, the Rams, who could easily turn out to be a scary good team later this year; even with potential offensive line issues and a still probably lagging wide receiver corps, and a possibly slightly overrated quarterback in Nick Foles after trading the “The Natural” (but often hurt) Sam Bradford to Foles’ old team in exchange for him (and his much lower salary),plus a draft pick.

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.)

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.

A Wild Finish to the NFC West Playoff Race Last Season Came within 4 points, of an 11-5 team not Making the Playoffs for the First Time in NFL History

Note, a quick rundown of a fascinating end of season playoff race in the NFC West was originally part of a preamble to some interesting week 7 NFL picks. It arose from the fact that the Dallas Cowboys, widely expected to lose, defeated (and frustrated) the home field Seahawks in week 6, and looked like the better team in the process. And the fact that remarkably  Continue reading