The Magnificent Seven!
Ring! Ring! Week 11, my friends
Time for those Game Riffs again
Hot matchups in your face
Take you back to that awesome place!
There are seven excellent teams in the NFL right now, but the Broncos, Chiefs, Niners, Panthers, Patriots, Saints and Seahawks have barely played each other, or anyone else. This week, we finally get to see six of these seven samurai clash -- in showdowns that have everything except Yul Brynner! -- and if we've already broken the three-reference-per-sentence barrier, you know this week is good, before we even get to the Dysfunctional Power Rankings and Flinch Bowl. What do we have for entertainment? 'Phins hugging Dungy on the pavement! Time for Game Riffs to do their thing.
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Chiefs at Broncos
The combined Broncos-Chiefs winning percentage is 94.4 percent. That's the highest combined winning percentage of any late-season matchup (as opposed to two 2-0 teams meeting in September) since 1969, when the 10-1 Vikings met the 11-0 Rams (95.4 percent) at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Dec. 7.
The Vikings' 20-13 win that day was not terribly memorable. Joe Kapp threw for just 73 yards. Dave Osborn and Bill Brown rushed for a touchdown each, with Fred Cox kicking two short field goals to give the Vikings a 20-6 lead. Roman Gabriel threw a late touchdown to make the game close. It was the kind of grueling game you would expect when all the stars were defensive linemen: Deacon Jones and the aging remnants of the Fearsome Foursome for the Rams, Carl Eller and the Purple People Eaters on the Vikings side.
But the Vikings and Rams were destined to meet again in the playoffs. This time, the game was in Minnesota, which made a huge difference back when the Rams played in sunny L.A. and the Vikings played atop a glacier in Bloomington. Gabriel threw two touchdowns to give the Rams a lead, but two Osborn touchdown plunges kept the Vikings within six, and Kapp leapt over the goal line to take a 21-20 lead in the fourth quarter. Eller tackled Gabriel in the end zone for a 23-20 final.
This was all an elaborate excuse to show the Joe Kapp highlight reel again. Don't blink: his game-winning touchdown occurs about 12 seconds in. Stick around to learn just how many rotational axes a football really has.
In modern times, the Vikings regular-season victory would have resulted in home-field advantage; in fact, divisions simply rotated back then, so the Vikings earned home field by the luck of the draw. Home-field advantage is the main thing the Chiefs and Broncos are playing for on Sunday. Both teams will make the playoffs no matter what. The Broncos want opponents dealing with cold weather and altitude. The Chiefs want them dealing with cold weather and deafening noise. Neither team wants to be stuck with an extra game, but someone is going to have to play one, even if they are the second best team in the AFC, or NFL.
Incidentally, those 1969 Vikings went on to lose Super Bowl IV. Their opponent: the Kansas City Chiefs. That's the rest of the story! (Here's a detailed x-and-o breakdown.)
Prediction: Broncos 26, Chiefs 13
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Patriots at Panthers
Pre-written rough drafts of articles titled "The Panthers Have Arrived" are idling on hard drives around the country. Both ESPN and NFL Network have prepared graphics which read: "Panthers: Super Bowl Contenders?" and highlight montages of Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly, to broadcast while roundtables of experts weigh in on Newton's eliteness and elititude. The armada of coverage launches on Tuesday if the Panthers beat the Patriots on Monday night. Otherwise, it sits in dry dock until the Panthers travel to New Orleans on Dec. 8.
The Panthers bandwagon -- or flotilla, to extend the metaphor -- has been slow to sail for several reasons. The Panthers hadn't beaten any contenders before the Niners game. After they beat the Niners 10-9 last week, the Patriots loomed like a storm cloud on the horizon, so there was no need to take a risk by supporting a team with pronounced heartbreaker tendencies.
But Game Riffs has been a staunch Panthers supporter since the preseason, so let's deflate the "haven't played anyone" argument in two ways.
- No one has played anyone. The only teams Magnificent Seven teams can make statement wins against are other Magnificent Seven teams. And the Patriots, Panthers, Broncos, Chiefs, Niners Saints, and Seahawks have not played each other much this year, thanks in part to a scheduling oddity that backloaded the Chiefs-Broncos and Saints-Panthers meetings. (That's what makes Week 11 so special). Here's the Magnificent Seven head-to-head results so far, arranged as if they were their own conference:
Seahawks, 2-0 (beat Panthers and Niners)
Patriots, 1-0 (beat Saints, game decided in last second)
Panthers, 1-1 (beat Niners, lost to Seahawks, both games close)
Broncos, 0-0 (three Mag-7 games in next four weeks)
Saints, 0-1 (lost to Patriots)
Niners, 0-2 (lost to Panthers, blown out by Seahawks)
All of these teams have a few Cupcake Wars wins on their resumes. The Panthers' schedule to date actually ranks 18th in difficulty according to Football Outsiders, slightly harder than the Patriots (20th) and harder than any of the NFC or AFC West teams. The Panthers' future schedule is tougher, but as of now, their road has not been easier than any other contender's, and it's been harder than a few.
- The Panthers have obliterated the bad teams they played. They beat the Giants 38-0, the Vikings 32-10, the Rams 35-15, the Buccaneers 31-13, and the Falcons 34-10. The old adage about great teams winning close games is false. Great teams win blowouts against second-rate opponents, then strive to go a little over .500 in close games against other great opponents, which is just what the Panthers are doing.
In other words, the Panthers have already arrived. If they played in a major market, or if we had not already exhausted the "Rise and Fall of Cam Newton" narrative over the course of about 25 games, you would be hearing much more about them. The Panthers are both underrated and underexposed right now.
Don't worry, though, the overcompensation begins on Tuesday.
Prediction: Panthers 22, Patriots 17
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4:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Saints by 3
Since his 412-yard, three-touchdown performance on opening day, Colin Kaepernick has completed just 97 of 181 passes for 1,263 yards, six touchdowns, and six interceptions. His completion percentage since the opener is 53.6; he's averaged just less than seven yards per attempt and completed just 12.1 passes per game. He's also been sacked on 9.5% of pass attempts since the opener, his sack totals (21 overall) kept deceivingly low by his low numbers of pass attempts.
For the full season, Kaepernick is 71-of-116 for 1,094 yards and six touchdowns when throwing to Anquan Boldin or Vernon Davis, 53-of-104 for 581 yards throwing to everyone else. This is a problem, folks. It's a Kaepernick problem, a Jim Harbaugh problem, a coordinator Greg Roman problem, and an-every-receiver-but-Boldin-and-Davis problem. As the Panthers and Seahawks losses demonstrate, it's not a problem the 49ers can compensate for when facing better opponents.
Michael Crabtree's return will help, but if the Niners rush Crabtree back this week (they are talking about it), it could be a huge mistake. Lose him for the season to a re-aggravated injury, and they can pencil in a one-and-done playoff performance. Mario Manningham's return helped a little last week, but part of the problem is Kaepernick (who has been slow to pull the trigger or demonstrate trust in any of his ancillary targets) and Harbaugh-Roman (who have been happy to abandon the pass, even though their quarterback still has some on-the-job development to do). Even when Crabtree returns, it is going to take a week or two for everyone to iron out the bad habits and reestablish timing.
Maybe the 49ers just need to face the Cowboys, whose defense can restore any quarterback's confidence. Fresh off their 629-yard, 49-point performance against the Cowboys, the Saints only have one glaring weakness: slumping kicker Garrett Hartley. Round up the usual suspects! Neil Rackers, Shayne Graham and Derek Dimke all tried out this week after Morten Andersen dumped his cell phone in a urinal. None were signed, but the Itinerant Kickers Three loaded back into their El Camino and drove to Green Bay, taking time at some I-55 rest stops to practice their passing. (If one of those names is not like the others to you: Dimke kicked at Illinois and has been on three rosters in two seasons. He does most of the driving.)
Prediction: Saints 24, 49ers 21
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Chargers at Dolphins
A priest, a rabbi, and Tony Dungy walk into the Dolphins locker room. "Top o' the morning to you, my son. Is there anything you would like to confess?" the priest asks to Richie Incognito. "I'm going to rip off your nose and puke down your sinuses, you shamrock-slurping Leprechaun lover!" Incognito replies. "Ha, ha! Just taking things too far again. Let's be pals."
"Oy vey," says the rabbi. "Come Jonathan, let's march right into Stephen Ross' office and straighten this meshugana out." But Jonathan Martin's agent replies: "My client will not speak to anyone until the NFL investigation is complete and made public, so every armchair psychologist in America can psychoanalyze the text messages of offensive linemen. Also, I must warn the author of this joke that lazy ethnic stereotyping can contribute to a hostile work environment."
Then Tony Dungy says: "Come, my brethren, let us assemble a task force. It shall consist of ex-Dolphins players, coaches and individuals of great respect and faith. Bring me two of each kind of busybody, and we shall assemble them in conference rooms made of gopher wood."
Upon hearing this, the Dolphins hung their heads. They knew that the only thing worse than ignoring or abetting a major workplace conflict is overreacting and turning it into a federal case, with investigators and counselors swooping into every corner and powerful people using it as an excuse to grandstand. The Dolphins collectively curled into the fetal position, allowed the Buccaneers to kick them around and stopped blocking altogether.
Eventually, the Dolphins came to terms with their new reality and prepared to become competitive again. Just as the priest, rabbi and Tony Dungy were about to leave, a limo pulled up outside team headquarters. "Am I late?" Dr. Phil asked.
Prediction: Chargers 27, Dolphins 21
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Jets at Bills
The Jets tried to lose the bye week.
According to unconfirmed (probably made-up) reports out of Florsham Park, Jets practice squad players wore helmets Scotch-taped with index cards reading "Bye." The Jets then played a simulated four-quarter game against the practice squad, losing 49-0 so they could keep their good-week, bad-week streak alive. "Oopsie!" Geno Smith shouted after throwing a pick-6 into the belly of reserve linebacker Danny Lansanah.
The Jets went so far as to simulate an emotionally charged postgame press conference. "I did not telegraph that pass!" Smith shouted defiantly at a 64-year old female catering staffer, wearing a nametag that read: HI, my name is Manish Mehta. "We have been bad enough to actually lose the bye week in the past," Rex Ryan said. "But this is the first time we lost on purpose. It was a great opportunity to get all of the nonsense out of our system, so we can go out and beat the Bills."
It was a valiant effort, but the Jets actually won the bye week. Fellow wild-card hopefuls like the Chargers, Titans and Dolphins all lost. The Titans also lost their quarterback; the Dolphins, their dignity. Meanwhile, EJ Manuel showed that he is just an inexperienced rookie, just 81 passes removed from the kid the Jets sacked eight times in a 27-20 Week 3 win.
Does the bye-week win mean the Jets are going to lose, to keep their on-and-off pattern alive? Does a week off count as a loss to the gods of repetition? It's most likely that the pattern was a fluke, that the Jets' rookie quarterback is better than the Bills' rookie at this stage in their development, and that the rested Jets are in better shape than the worn-out Bills.
Incidentally, the Jets weren't the only team trying to keep a streak going during their week off. The Chiefs spent their bye week playing nobody.
Prediction: Jets 21, Bills 17
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Falcons at Buccaneers
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
5. New York Jets. They have gone two full months without incident. Yeah, and Uncle Carmine once went two months without drinking. Remember how he looked when you had to help drag him out from under the boardwalk behind Trump Plaza? Let's wait and see, before we take the Jets completely off the list.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger does not want a trade. He just wants everyone he deals with on a daily basis to be replaced.
3. Dallas Cowboys. Last time we saw a millionaire so obviously regretting all of his purchases and life choices, he dropped a snow globe and keeled over dead.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They are as shocked to rank second as you are to see them ranked second. Greg Schiano promises to try harder.
1. Miami Dolphins. We are tough guys. If you cannot handle our tough-guy ways, you cannot hang with us. Oh, no, someone is asking tough questions that threaten our insular treehouse worldview! Let's all stop blocking and tackling now.
There is a difference between a dysfunctional team and a bad team. The Falcons are now officially bad, but Thomas Dimitroff is minimizing the dysfunction by standing behind head coach Mike Smith. It's a wise move -- Smith did not suddenly become stupid in February -- but is Dimitroff as certain that his boss is standing behind him? Game Riffs loves the Dandy Highwayman, but Dimitroff's last five drafts have produced a small handful of useful starters and one superstar, Julio Jones, who cost a ransom of picks to acquire. Free agency, since Tony Gonzalez's arrival, has been a big-name, veteran rummage sale, yielding diminishing returns.
The Falcons need a considerable roster overhaul next offseason. If they don't get a good one, Arthur Blank will start looking at Dimitroff, Dimitroff will look at Smith, and that's where the dysfunction starts.
Prediction: Falcons 23, Buccaneers 13
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Lions at Steelers
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Lions by 2½
The Lions upcoming schedule looks pretty light: no members of the Magnificent Seven, broken down Vikings and Buccaneers teams, the Packers warming up John Kuhn to throw some passes. Peter King wrote on Monday that the schedule "looks like it was drawn up by the ghost of Bobby Layne," but since the ghost of Bobby Layne is supposed to be haunting the Lions, that's exactly backward. "It was made by the ghost of Dutch Clark," Layne confirmed via séance. "I had them traveling to the Brazilian rainforest to face the Seahawks and Broncos four times in six weeks."
Football Outsiders ranks the Lions future schedule as the eighth easiest in the NFL; among playoff hopefuls, the Cowboys, Jets, and Titans have easier rides. Then again, the Football Outsiders database does not make major adjustments for Scott Tolzien-like substances, so the Lions schedule is probably easier than the numbers show.
With the Packers and Bears torn apart by injuries, the Lions are not facing a trap game, but two trap months. The only team better suited for tossing a gift-wrapped playoff opportunity into the garbage disposal is the Cowboys, and they are already in the process of doing so. The Lions will spend the next seven weeks battling themselves. That's the toughest schedule anyone could devise for them. Maybe Layne really is up to something.
Prediction: Lions 24, Steelers 20
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Packers at Giants
4:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Giants by 5
Back before they won the Super Bowl, the Packers often used a full-house backfield. Those were the days when fullbacks John Kuhn and Korey Hall would line up in front of Ryan Grant or Brandon Jackson, when linebacker/fullback Spencer Havner was on the roster and had an offensive role, when B.J. Raji would play a Fridge role in a goalline T-formation straight from the 1950s.
Those plays got buried in the back of Mike McCarthy's playbook. As Aaron Rodgers grew into the NFL's best pure passer, McCarthy shed most of the fullbacks and many of the running backs, opting for a spread attack where Randall Cobb was far more likely to line up in the backfield than some all-purpose H-back. Last week, McCarthy had to dig through his table of contents when Seneca Wallace gave way to Scott Tolzien. Some of the power tactics returned, but McCarthy had only so many ways to give the ball to Eddie Lacy, and the Eagles shut the Packers down easily in the second half.
With Wallace on IR and Tolzien the starter for the foreseeable future, McCarthy must empty his file cabinet and rediscover all of those full house wrinkles. Kuhn is still around (last week, he was practically the quarterback), and tight ends Ryan Taylor and Brandon Bostick can pretend to be fullbacks. Raji would be thrilled to play a few snaps of offense. Hammer the Giants with Lacy and James Starks, and James Jones or Jordy Nelson can win some one-on-one matchups down the field. Tolzien showed he has a live arm in the Eagles game, so a few big plays are possible.
Tune in next week, when Matt Flynn replaces Tolzien, and we recommend that the Packers start punting on third downs.
Prediction: Packers 22, Giants 20
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Redskins at Eagles
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Eagles by 3½
Chip Kelly refused to name Nick Foles the Eagles starter for Sunday, though he made numerous avuncular remarks indicating that Foles would be the starter. Why won't Kelly commit? Here is a breakdown of his thought process.
Reasons To Name Foles the Starter
Sixteen touchdowns and zero interceptions.
He's the best Eagles quarterback right now and only viable "quarterback of the future" on the roster. (Sorry, Matt Barkley, but that was ugly.)
If he goes into a slump and fails utterly, the Eagles can draft a quarterback and start over without splurging on a new contract. If he's benched, he could evolve into some mythic hero with a huge price tag and unreal expectations (see Brian Hoyer, Browns).
Common freakin' sense.
My God, why are we even discussing this?
Reasons Not To Name Foles the Starter
Maybe Michael Vick has some quality that he has not revealed in the last decade.
Stating the obvious gets you kicked out of the Lateral Logical Genius Guru Club. It's like passing up the guacamole/chia seed/lingonberry energy drink and ordering a Sprite.
The Philly media is fun to nettle. Admit it, guys: You are fun to nettle.
In other news, the Eagles signed former Jets and Bills slash player Brad Smith, probably to return kicks, possibly to confuse the not-at-all confusing quarterback situation. Just what the Redskins need: one more return man to worry about.
Prediction: Eagles 31, Redskins 24
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Cardinals at Jaguars
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Cardinals 7
Cardinals backup running back Andre Ellington is averaging 7.2 yards per carry and has caught 24 passes for 216 yards and a touchdown this year. The rookie from Clemson gained 23 yards on a draw play and made two important late-game catches against the Texans last week. When Rashard Mendenhall was injured for the Falcons game, Ellington rushed for 154 yards and a touchdown.
Cardinals fans are wondering when Bruce Arians will replace Mendenhall (who trudges along at 3.1 yards per carry) with Ellington, but Arians has gone all Chip Kelly on them, refusing to reveal exactly when the clearly superior player is officially named the starter. In fairness to Arians, the smallish Ellington will always need a complementary power back, whether it's Mendenhall or Stepfan Taylor (who carried 12 times against the Falcons). Also, Arians has been creative about getting Ellington involved, using him as a slot receiver and Wildcat quarterback in a Patrick Peterson package (a wacky idea, but still an idea).
In other words, Arians is proceeding carefully with his dynamic change-up back, but he is proceeding. Contrast Ellington with Denard Robinson in Jacksonville. The Jaguars spent the summer raving about the ways they would use the former Michigan superstar quarterback, and they spent their bye threatening to give Robinson gobs of touches. With nothing to lose and nothing else working, the Jaguars were in position to make Robinson a T-formation pivot-option quarterback if they felt like it.
Robinson played four snaps against the Titans, carrying four times for two yards. He fumbled once, and Gus Bradley gave him the Mike Tomlin treatment, burying him up to his neck next to an anthill until the fourth quarter. All of Robinson's runs were handoffs from a single-back, two tight-end alignment: no Wildcats, screen passes, or even spread formations to create running room. If you want a converted quarterback to fail as a running back, there may be no better way to do it than to always give him the ball when he enters the game, always use the same formation, plunge him straight off tackle, and treat a fumble like a felony.
So have patience, Cardinals fans: Arians may be dawdling, but he is not in denial.
Prediction: Cardinals 27, Jaguars 10
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Raiders at Texans
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Texans by 7
The Texans released Ed Reed this week, a prudent move for a franchise whose priorities shifted from "find veteran piece to Super Bowl puzzle" to "prepare for painful rebuilding period" in about six regrettable weeks. Sadly, Reed's absence leaves us without a Reed-versus-Charles Woodson storyline. Reed and Woodson's combined career accomplishments: 117 interceptions, 26 career touchdowns, 17 Pro Bowl selections, eight All Pro selections, two Defensive Player of the Year awards, two Super Bowl rings. Both Reed and Woodson made the Pro Football Hall of Fame All-2000's team.
Of course, making the All 2000's team is soooo three years ago, which is why Reed is on the waiver wire and Woodson is playing out the string for a defense so bad that a quarterback can throw seven touchdown passes against it and not get named his team's starter. So Reed and Woodson are stars of the past. With Terrelle Pryor day-to-day, would you rather read about Case Keenum and Matt McGloin? Did not think so. Let's talk about legendary defenders instead.
Prediction: Raiders 22, Texans 20 with Pryor; Texans 24, Raiders 10 without
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Ravens at Bears
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Bears by 3
Ravens-Bears without Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Jay Cutler, and (now) Peanut Tillman? It's like Thanksgiving dinner at militant vegan Aunt Penelope's house! Josh McCown is the tofu turkey. The Bears defense, with all of its Jon Bostic/Khaseem Greene/Isaiah Frey substitutions, is the lentil-and-tempeh stuffing, seasoned with Brussels sprouts, pomegranate cider, and topsoil. The Ravens defense is squash-and-sweet potato soup, because that actually doesn't sound half bad. Sneaking downstairs with a sausage-and-meatloaf pizza to watch the Lions game is not permitted.
The Ravens have the advantage because their veteran defenders left months ago; replacements like Daryl Smith are now very comfortable in their roles and playing well. Joe Flacco is also still around: a traditional casserole dish of stuffed shells amidst a table of unfamiliar, unappetizing choices.
What? You don't serve stuffed shells at Thanksgiving? (Sigh) Medigan'.
Prediction: Ravens 20, Bears 19
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Browns at Bengals
Marvin Lewis talks a lot about flinching. When the Bengals beat the Patriots a few weeks ago, Lewis praised his team for avoiding an involuntary muscle response. "To our guys' credit, they didn't flinch," he said. After catching six passes in the Lions win, A.J. Green quoted Lewis on the key to winning close games: "Coach Lewis, he always taught us don't flinch, and we didn't flinch."
After the Dolphins loss, Lewis applied concerns about Geno Atkins' injury and offensive inconsistency to the central nervous system. "We can't let our guys flinch." Lewis should change his mantra to: "Flinching is bad, but running 11 yards backward in overtime is worse."
In Cleveland, Rob Chudzinski is proud of the nearly-.500 empire he has forged. "I feel good about how we're building a culture and an identity here," he said. "That doesn't happen overnight." Way to go, coach. In the past, the Browns were a losing team that dithered over journeyman quarterbacks and dreamed of a future when two first-round picks would jumpstart a new era. And look at them now!
Chud also praised the perseverance of his team through multiple quarterbacks and frustrating losses. "They haven't flinched," he said.
In other words, get ready for The Flinch Bowl. This is what happens when you face the Steelers and Ravens defenses twice per year for too long.
Prediction: Bengals 26, Browns 17
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Vikings at Seahawks
4:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Seahawks by 12
The tedious Vikings quarterback juggling -- no one knows which banged-up scrambling super-squirter is starting this week, and no one cares -- got Game Riffs thinking about Tarvaris Jackson. Jackson was the original Josh Christian Cassponderman. The Vikings spent a second-round pick on Jackson, and he ran fast and tried hard, scattering throws but winning some games by climbing on Adrian Peterson's shoulders and shouting, "Whee!"
Jackson was never very good, he was always banged up, and the Vikings were never satisfied with him. There was always some middle-aged Plan B quarterback on hand, from Brad Johnson to Kelly Holcomb to Gus Frerotte. When the ultimate middle-aged quarterback arrived with grey stubble and Lee jeans, Jackson became Plan B to Brett Favre, then fell completely out of the Vikings plans.
Jackson is now Russell Wilson's backup. The Vikings probably would love to have him, but he is not going anywhere. The Vikings probably would love to have Favre, but he isn't going anywhere, either. Perhaps Kelly Holcomb is available.
Prediction: Seahawks 28, Vikings 13