"Do or die" is an ugly cliché, and it does not fit most NFL teams with their backs to the postseason wall in Week 16. The truth is closer to "do, or get stuck doing the same thing again next year." The Cowboys have been trapped in December doldrums for years, and the Lions are threatening to join them. The Bengals found the 2011 season so nice that they have now played it thrice. Andy Reid is turning the Chiefs into the 2001-04 Eagles, while Chip Kelly is in danger of turning into Reid if he cannot beat the Bears. The Cardinals rarely repeat success, and that's a bad thing: Just when they finally clawed out of their latest rut, they dived straight into a deeper one.
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Cardinals at Seahawks
4:05 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Seahawks by 10 ½
The Cardinals have enjoyed just 28 winning seasons in their 93-year history. We're using the term "winning season" 100 percent literally, so going 5-4 in strike-shortened 1982 and 6-5-1 in 1949 count as success stories, as does going 6-2-2 in the 1920 American Professional Football Association against the Detroit Heralds and the Rock Island Independents. No matter how generous your interpretation, successful seasons are rare for the Cardinals, which is why it's cruel to see them guaranteed a winning record yet still longshots for the postseason.
What's worse, even two more wins, against two of the seven best teams in the NFL, won't necessarily get them into the playoffs because an early loss to the Saints caused numerous wild card tiebreaker issues. With a little fiddling of the ESPN Playoff Machine dials, it's possible to create an Ultimate Nightmare Scenario that leaves the Cardinals out of the playoffs while flooding the postseason with the least-deserving available applicants:
Nightmare Scenario Part I: The Cardinals storm through their final two games against the Seahawks and 49ers by a combined 84-6 score. Carson Palmer begins hovering six inches above the ground and glowing. Larry Fitzgerald recovers so quickly from his concussion that he causes an anti-concussion, a wave of non-force that cures all headaches within a 200 mile radius. The Cardinals finish 11-5, the hottest team in the NFL.
Nightmare Scenario Part II: The Panthers and 49ers both win this week, as do the Cowboys and Eagles. The Lions, Dolphins and Ravens all lose, as do the Broncos and Chiefs.
Nightmare Scenario Part III: The Saints win and Panthers lose in Week 17 to finish 11-5. The 49ers lose to the Cardinals, as stated earlier, so they finish 11-5. The Packers, Bears, Cowboys and Eagles all see the futility of winning their awful, awful divisions and play to a pair of ties. In the AFC, the Broncos and Patriots noodle around and lose, while the Colts win, Chargers win, Ravens lose and Dolphins lose.
Scenario complete: The Cardinals are one of eight teams tied for the second-best record in the NFL at 11-5, with the Seahawks at 12-4. They are the only one of those 11-5 teams not in the postseason. The Eagles win the NFC East at 9-6-1, the Packers the North at 8-6-2. The No. 1 seed in the AFC is the Colts, a team that lost 40-11 to the Cardinals. The Chargers, a team that lost early-season games to the Texans, Raiders and Titans, are in the playoffs. The Cardinals are not.
If this unlikely nightmare scenario plays out, it may be karmic payback for 2008, when the Cardinals spent December losing 47-7 games before catching fire as a nine-win playoff team and nearly winning the Super Bowl. If you win the NFC West at its worst, you have to be ready to come in third place when it's at its best.
The Cardinals should accept fate, enjoy what they accomplished this year and prepare to engineer back-to-back winning seasons, something they have done just five times since World War II. It will be tough: The Cardinals have developed a great deal of young talent but are still heavily dependent on older veterans like Palmer, John Abraham and the now-over-30 Fitzgerald. If any franchise deserved a break during a charmed/cursed season, it's the Cardinals, but they may have used that break up five years ago.
Prediction: Seahawks 27, Cardinals 20
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Patriots at Ravens
4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Ravens by 2 ½
Let's save everyone some Christmastime energy and hassle and shorten this game:
Set the clock to the two-minute warning. Give Tom Brady the ball at the 20-yard line and tell him he is trailing by four points. If he fails to drive the length of the field and score a touchdown, the Ravens win.
If Brady scores but leaves any time on the clock, give the Ravens the ball at midfield with three seconds left. Don't bother making them drive to midfield; they have proven often enough that they can do it, but no one wants to watch Joe Flacco hobble around on a sprained knee but somehow complete a 30-yard strike after misfiring for three-and-a-half quarters. Just send Justin Tucker out for a 67-yard field goal. If he makes it, the game is tied, and both teams repeat the process. It is still better than watching the Ravens and Patriots for 58 minutes. This is not last year's playoffs, folks: The Patriots are a chore to watch until the final seconds, and the Ravens are ugly by even their own pug-in-the-mud standards.
Now, if Brady scores the touchdown as a direct result of a pass interference penalty that gives him the ball at the one-yard line, then Tucker's 67-yarder is reduced to a 52-yarder as the result of an assumed "illegal push" on his first attempt. If, after seven overtimes, the game is still tied, the Dancing With The Stars judges will officiate a contest between Patriots "I demand a flag" gestures and Ravens "goofy celebration of a Tucker field goal" celebrations.
Using this system, a three-and-a-half hour game can be completed in a brisk 210 minutes. And we can use the same system if and when (sigh) these teams meet again in the first round of the playoffs.
Prediction: Patriots 23, Ravens 20
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Saints at Panthers
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Panthers by 3
The most significant home games in Carolina Panthers history:
- Jan. 3, 2004: The Panthers beat the Cowboys on the road to the Super Bowl.
- Jan. 5, 1997: The Panthers, a second-year expansion team, beat the late-era Aikman-Emmitt-Irvin Cowboys in the playoffs.
- Dec. 8, 2008: Panthers beat Buccaneers on Monday Night Football to improve their record to 10-3 en route to playoffs.
- Jan. 10, 2009: Panthers lose to Cardinals in playoffs in the memorable Jake Delhomme Turnover Meltdown.
- Dec. 22, 2013: Panthers host the Saints in a bid to win the NFC South and add another home playoff game to this list.
There may be another regular-season game or two missing from the list above, but maybe not. While some of the late Delhomme-era games offered postseason opportunities, this one also confers legitimacy, something those other teams had in overabundance. The Panthers' loss in New Orleans two weeks ago prompting some very loud "same old Panthers" mumbles, and neither a Saints road-slip in St. Louis nor a TCB effort by the Panthers against the Jets could silence the doubters. The Panthers may be better than the Saints, but they need a Sunday win to prove that they are more worthy, to their doubters if not themselves.
The Saints aren't exactly behaving like an experienced champing bathing in playoff mojo. They benched left tackle Charles Brown in favor of rookie Terron Armstead after their line got capsized by the Rams last week, then waived kicker Garrett Hartley in favor of Shayne Graham. Armstead played at Arkansas Pine-Bluff, so he may find Greg Hardy to be a slight step up from his familiar level of competition. Graham is on his eighth team in five seasons as a kicker-for-hire for confused and desperate playoff hopefuls. The Saints are certainly confused, and if they really need breakfast beignets and crowd noise to beat quality opponents, they have a reason to feel a little desperate.
Prediction: Panthers 24, Saints 21
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Cowboys at Redskins
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Cowboys by 2 ½
Dez Bryant leaves the field in tearful rage. Jerry Jones spits votes of semi-confidence in Jason Garrett through his teeth. Garrett and his assistants point fingers after abandoning a highly successful running game while leading in the fourth quarter. The defense remains on pace to break the wrong kinds of records. Tony Romo inspires professional journalists to argue with teenage message-board trolls and barstool philosophers about the nature of interception responsibility. The Cowboys can still make the playoffs, but strictly as comic-relief fodder to be trampled by some NFC wild-card super-team like the 49ers.
Is this the best time to be a Cowboys hater, ever? I was born and raised a Cowboys hater (I'm reformed, swear to Staubach) so I can speak to this.
The worst time to be a Cowboys hater was the late 1970s, because hating the Cowboys forced you to also hate not just force-fed, media-manipulated glamor but war veterans, foxy cheerleaders, forward-thinking business practices and the very notion of success. That's one reason why a generation of Eagles fans grew up to be irrational lunatics.
The 1988-89 seasons were a fine time for Cowboys bashers, with the team going 3-13, then 1-15. In retrospect, however, making fun of them was like making fun of the screwy kid who kept connecting his telephone to his Commodore 64 and swore it was going to grow into a culture-changing activity. "Ha-ha, you drafted Troy Aikman and he had a bad rookie year! And you traded Herschel Walker, your best player, for … my, that's a lot of draft picks. Silly Cowboys, with your Emmitt Smith. And Russell Maryland. And Michael Irvin. And … oh bother, what's happening???" It was the best of times and the worst of times, for the Cowboys and their briefly scoffing foes.
The best time for Cowboys bashing may have been the Dave Campo era: 5-11 every year like clockwork, with Aikman-Emmitt-Irvin replaced one-by-one with increasingly desperate Quincy Carter/Troy Hambrick/Rocket Ismael types. That era was much like this one, with Jerry Jones surviving off the fumes of Jimmy Johnson's brilliance the way he now milks Bill Parcells leftovers. Those teams were slightly worse than these teams, which ironically made Cowboys bashing less fun: You cannot have a simpering, blundering December collapse when Chad Hutchinson rendered the team unwatchable in November.
So this may be a golden age for Cowboys Basher nation, and heaven knows that one the NFL's greatest rivalries isn't what it used to be. Redskins Bashers, as this article shows, have had it so easy for the last 13 years that they are probably exhausted.
Prediction: Cowboys 37, Redskins 27
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Giants at Lions
4:05 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Lions by 9 ½
Calvin Johnson defended his quarterback, Tony Romo, after Monday night's three-interception performance in a loss to Justin Tucker. "You can't lay all the blame on him," Johnson said. "It's all us, it's everybody. Balls get tips and Romo had a bunch of crazy stuff like that happen, whether it be receivers falling or a defensive end tips the ball or something like that. Tony's playing good. None of this was on Tony. It's on us as a team."
Lions coach Jim Schwartz also defended his quarterback, even though some in Detroit want Romo benched after throwing nine picks in his last four games. "Tony's our quarterback. He's going to remain our quarterback and he's going to play well for us," Schwartz said. "Anytime a quarterback struggles, I think the first thing you look at is it's all about the team. And we haven't played well enough around him at other times."
The quotes you just read are real. The names were changed to protect the innocent. When the Lions close ranks around Matthew Stafford, they sound like the Cowboys rushing to the aid of Romo, or at least how the Cowboys would sound rushing to the aid of Romo if they weren't deflecting blame or rushing to the locker room for a soothing thumb-suck. The Lions want to be many things, but they definitely do not want to be the December Cowboys, leaving their playoff dreams in the winter snow to be eaten by squirrels like a rotting pumpkin.
The fourth character in the Lions morality play, Ndamukong Suh, defended Schwartz's performance in a mid-week interview. No doubt Stafford stumped for Suh at some point during all the rank-closing. The Lions have become a contortionist routine in which Suh, Stafford, Megatron and Schwartz support each other's body weight while chairs are kicked out from under them. Do it just right, and everyone remains standing. Do it poorly, and the collapse is painful.
Three of the Lions' big four may keep this routine up indefinitely. The "Tease Triplets" of Suh, Stafford and Johnson have a combined cap number around $50 million for 2014. Restructuring will be tricky because the Lions have already creatively accounted their best players a few times. With around 40 percent of their cap space locked up in three guys, the Lions will have a hard time getting better. Sound familiar? It's the classic Cowboys problem: all the money locked up in a handful of superstars, the organization not creative or diligent to develop a low-priced, high-quality supporting cast.
The Lions must break the cycle now, not just to save Schwartz's job, but to prevent the cycle from repeating indefinitely until Stafford really becomes Romo, doomed to spend December revisiting endless ghosts of Christmas past. If the Lions cannot find some good explanations for their problems in the next two games, they will spend the next five years searching.
Prediction: Lions 27, Giants 14
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Vikings at Bengals
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Bengals by 7
Bad news, Bengals:
- The Vikings have not quit like some other sad-sack teams. Quite the opposite: They are 2-1-1, with one last-second loss in the sleet, against playoff hopefuls in the last month. Their goal is to make the win-loss records of the postseason also-rans as ugly as possible, and perhaps lay some groundwork for their own 2014 season along the way.
- Adrian Peterson practiced this week and should play. If his carries are limited, whoever that kid wearing the Chuck Foreman throwback jersey was last week should be able to pick up the slack.
- With Peterson out and Foreman's grand-nephew forced to start last week the Vikings said, "to heck with it, let's attempt some forward passes!" They then remembered that they spent cash and draft picks on Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson. The Vikings are not a great passing team, but they no longer have some Steve Sax mental block about throwing, so the play-action bomb is now a real possibility.
- You have three sacks in your last three games. Your supposedly dominant front four turned out to be Geno Atkins and the Geno Scouts. Brandon Thompson appears to be slowly figuring things out in Atkins' place, but it's not a good sign when the Steelers hold you to one sack.
- Andy Dalton overthrows all 15-20-yard passes and underthrows all 25-50-yard passes. Opponents are figuring out that all non-screen routes must break precisely at 22.5 yards.
- With Kevin Huber out, Shawn Powell is your punter. This is bad news for both of us, Bengals: You get a sportswriter/punter, and I have to cover basketball until Powell returns. Look for my first article, "Blake Griffin is Funny Looking," to appear in place of a thoughtful examination of the Seahawks defense next week.
- OK, the Shawn Powell the Bengals signed is the kid the Bills released after punting some line drives directly at ace returner Travis Benjamin a few weeks ago, not Sports on Earth NBA writer Shaun Powell. A slight improvement.
Last bit of bad news, Bengals: You have clearly, definitively plateaued as a one-and-done playoff team who cannot quite pull away from your division rivals, nor climb above the conference powerhouses. And you lack any glaring weakness that can be easily improved, so getting better won't be easy. For now, just concentrate on beating the Vikings. Leave the big questions for mid-January.
Prediction: Bengals 22, Vikings 20
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Dolphins at Bills
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Dolphins by 2 ½
The Dolphins face two straight novice quarterbacks to close the season, but as Armando Salguero pointed out in the Miami Herald, that may not make their road to the playoffs as smooth as it seems. The Dolphins lost to Mike Glennon and emergency Bills starter Thad Lewis (making yet another appearance Sunday) this year, while beating Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck and Phillip Rivers and splitting with Tom Brady. The system isn't perfect -- the Dolphins lost to Drew Brees but beat Brandon Weeden -- but it's enough to keep Dolphins fans from making non-refundable deposits on playoff party plans.
Because the Dolphins' offensive line is its biggest weakness, a better way to sort opponents than by quarterback reputations is by pass rush. Using Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate as a guide, the Dolphins have lost to the first (Saints), fourth (Bills), and eighth-ranked (Ravens) pass rushes in the NFL. They have beaten the 32nd (Falcons), 27th (Steelers) and 21st (Jets), plus an awful Chargers pass defense with sack numbers inflated by meetings with the Jaguars and Raiders … and Dolphins. The system is not perfect -- the Browns have a pretty nasty pass rush, but the Dolphins beat them -- but it is less imperfect than the quarterback comparisons. The Dolphins can beat a "top-10" quarterback, but they are in big trouble against a top-10 pass rush.
Using the pass-rush system as a guide, the Dolphins will lose to the Bills but beat the Jets. That may be enough to get them to the playoffs, where quarterbacks and defensive lines are usually pretty good at the same time.
Prediction: Bills 24, Dolphins 16
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Bears at Eagles
8:30 p.m. Sunday, NBC
Line: Eagles by 3
Chip Kelly must exorcise some demons of the late Andy Reid era in his quest to lead the Eagles back to the playoffs. He flunked his first exorcism last week: The inexplicable December loss to an injury-crippled, playoff-eliminated Vikings team. Just as Joe Webb switched from wide receiver to quarterback to beat the Eagles in 2010, Matt Asiata scored three touchdowns in relief of Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart in last week's loss.
The Vikings loss awoke another slumbering Reid fiend: Passlor, the Abandoner of Running Games. LeSean McCoy rushed just eight times in a game that only got out-of-hand late; Nick Foles outgained him on the ground, which should only happen if Foles is wearing Acme Rocket Skates. Kelly has had a great season in Philly and Reid has had a great season in Kansas City, but everyone loses if Kelly becomes Reid.
The most terrifying demon standing between the Eagles and the playoffs is the Bears. The Bears beat the Eagles in both 2010 and 2011, halting mini-winning streaks each time. The Eagles are 1-4 against the Bears since the fall of Andy's Camelot in 2004, with the Bears acting as reality checkers for a team that habitually hovered in the playoff picture throughout their slow decline.
So the trends are discouraging. Lance Briggs may return to rescue the Bears defense, so McCoy cannot count on 150 yards, even if Kelly remembers him. Jay Cutler has thrown seven touchdowns and one interception in three career games against the Eagles. The weather forecast promises a dark and stormy (though unseasonably warm) night, which portends doom in Philadelphia. This is a very different Eagles team -- and a slightly different Bears team -- than we are used to. To win the NFC East, the Eagles must prove just how different they are.
Prediction: Bears 28, Eagles 21
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Broncos at Texans
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Broncos by 10 ½
The Broncos need to score just 27 points per game over the next two games to break the single-season points record set by the 2007 Patriots. The way the Texans offense is playing, they can get halfway there just on safeties, and the rest of the way on Welcome Back Matt Schaub pick-sixes
The Broncos must average 43.5 points per game over the next two games, however, to break the single season points per game record set by the 1950 Los Angeles Rams. That's right, you Brady Manning whippersnappers: Norm Van Brocklin, Crazy Legs Hirsch, Tom Fears and Dick Hoerner put your up-tempo shenanigans to shame with a series of 70-27 and 65-24 wins back when Truman was in the White House. And if Van Brocklin were alive today, the Dutchman would cuss you out for suggesting that the Broncos are better than the 1950 Rams, once he was done cussing about every major societal change of the last 30 years except Duck Dynasty.
True to the form of most teams that set major offensive records, the Rams lost the 1950 championship game to the Cleveland Browns. Offensive records are for losers! (Luckily Van Brocklin is not alive to hear you say that.)
Matt Prater is also just seven extra points away from the all-time record set by Stephen Gostkowski (74) in 2007. Neither Prater nor Gostkowski has gotten the ink he deserves for the accomplishment. Until now. That last sentence was all the ink they deserve for the accomplishment.
Prediction: Broncos 40, Texans 20
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Colts at Chiefs
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Chiefs by 7
According to Football Outsiders, Jamaal Charles' eight-catch, 195-yard, four-touchdown effort last week was the best receiving performance by a running back in the last 20 years. As it was an eight-catch, 195-yard, four-touchdown performance, we probably did not need the awesome computing power of the Football Outsiders mainframe to tell us this, but it's helpful to verify these things.
With Charles' big game, his Westbrookification is complete, and Andy Reid's plan to recreate the 2001-2003 Eagles in Kansas City is taking shape. With Dwayne Bowe catching three passes per game, the Chiefs receiving corps is looking early millennial Reidian, and the wild-and-wooly defense has an updated Jim Johnson vibe. Charles plays the parts of both Brian Westbrook and Duce Staley. Alex Smith runs, sprays passes, avoids interceptions and deflects criticism like the young Donovan McNabb. Doug Pederson does whatever Doug Pederson did. The Chiefs will lose playoff games for a few years, then sign Dez Bryant in an all-or-nothing effort to climb over the top, and the cosmic Circle of Reid will collapse and renew itself again.
There is a very high possibility that these teams will meet in the playoffs, and a low possibility that this game will impact home-field advantages. Therefore, while both teams still need a win to improve overall seeding/keep AFC West title hopes alive, there will be strong motivation for each team to not show the other team much of the playbook. The Colts haven't shown much playbook in weeks, so that won't be much of a problem. Reid may also play things close to the vest, but I know where the Colts can get some Chiefs offensive insights for just five bucks.
Prediction: Chiefs 23, Colts 17
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Buccaneers at Rams
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Rams by 5
Some teams vie for playoff berths. Others battle for one of the top slots in the NFL draft. The Rams and Buccaneers are vying for the coveted Fashionable Pick to Make the Playoffs in 2014 Award.
Each team boasts an impressive array of defensive superstars we've been telling you all year that you don't hear enough about (Robert Quinn, Lavonte David) and young skill position players "ready to take the next step" (too many to mention, but the Buccaneers may have to innovate the five-headed backfield when everyone is healthy next season, while the Rams adopt the six-receiver spread with Zac Stacy in the backfield). The Bucs have a medium-grade quarterback prospect who will look better when a new coaching staff installs schemes that mere mortals can execute. The Rams will probably bring Sam Bradford back next year. The "jury is still out" on Bradford, mainly because no one outside of Missouri has watched two consecutive Rams games since 2004.
Both teams are stuck playing in brutal divisions whose top contenders won't be fading anytime soon. Maybe we should ignore this game and give the Fashionable Pick to Make the Playoffs in 2014 Award to the Vikings.
Prediction: Rams 22, Buccaneers 20
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Browns at Jets
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Jets by 2 ½
The Browns traded the right to draft Mark Sanchez fifth overall in the 2009 NFL draft to the Jets for their own first- and second-round picks, plus Abram Elam, Kenyon Coleman and Brett Ratliff. The Browns traded the Jets' old first-round pick to the Buccaneers to move down two slots so the Bucs could draft Josh Freeman, then traded down two more slots so the Eagles could select Jeremy Maclin. Finally, the Browns drafted Alex Mack. The Browns selected defensive end David Veikune in the second round. Their extra picks for the first-round slide became Coye Francies and James Davis. While they had the Bucs on speed dial, the Browns traded Kellen Winslow for the right to draft Mohamed Massaquoi.
The 2013 Games Played totals for all of the players mentioned in that series of blockbuster trades just four years ago:
Yes, we are cheating a little with Maclin and some other injured guys, but Maclin has nothing to do with this particular Game Riff, except to show how a smart guy like Andy Reid can walk past a trash dump and pick out an Indian Motorcycle frame without breaking stride. (If Joe Banner was the guy who called that shot, Browns fans can keep their hopes alive, but Banner was not the guy who usually selected Eagles receivers.) The chart above could be used to point out the folly of draft day over-analysis or just marvel at joint Jets-Browns ineptitude. Instead, we are going to use it to congratulate Alex Mack for breaking the Curse of the 2009 Nightmare Draft Trade! Mack's prize is another season starting for the Browns. He is not allowed to envy the guys in the chart with all the zeroes.
Prediction: Jets 19, Browns 16
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Titans at Jaguars
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Titans by 5 ½
If a tree falls in Nashville, and it doesn't land on a country singer, it does not make a sound. Coach firings also happen quietly: Mike Munchak has two games left to impress new boss Tommy Smith, and while his opponents are the highly-beatable Jaguars and Texans, the Titans somehow managed to lose to both teams earlier in the year. "They're division games. We don't care for these teams very much," Munchak said. "They've added to our misery this year. It's going to mean a lot to us for a lot of reasons." Munchak was also pretty candid about admitting that his professional future is one of those reasons.
The Titans' remarkable, inexplicable 0-4 record in the dreary AFC South -- which has cost them a playoff opportunity, if not Munchak his job -- is one of the most fascinating NFL pratfalls south of Detroit. It would be worth examining if anyone had the stomach to watch a series of Texans-Jaguars games. Smith is reportedly agonizing over his new personnel responsibilities. It is not hard to tell why.
Prediction: Titans 23, Jaguars 14
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Raiders at Chargers
4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Chargers by 10
Marcel Reece outran the entire Jets secondary for a 63-yard touchdown two weeks ago. He caught a 45-yard pass against the Chiefs last week, and he also threw a 22-yard pass on a nifty fake punt. Reece will probably be the Raiders' only Pro Bowl representative this year (thank heavens for fullbacks) and is the only player on the Raiders offense who is truly fun to watch. Now that we have seen him throw, it is clear that Reece is the player we all thought Terrelle Pryor would be, and if Dennis Allen decided to start him as a read-option quarterback for the final two weeks, it would be no more crazy and counterproductive than what Allen is currently doing.
Prediction: Chargers 33, Raiders 21
* * *
Falcons at 49ers
8:30 p.m. Monday, ESPN
Line: 49ers by 12 ½
The 49ers' signature play is the 17-play drive. Think of it like a coral reef: Just as billions of tiny organisms behave as one macro-organism through a variety of symbiotic aquatic relationships, a series of three-yard Frank Gore runs and six-yard Colin Kaepernick passes in the fourth quarter coalesce into one 87-yard mega-play that spans 10-and-a-half minutes. When Bruce Miller got injured, he sank to the bottom of the depth chart so the other 49ers fullbacks and H-backs could attach themselves to his calcifying remains and thrive off the expended nutrients.
The 49ers executed a 17-play, 87-yard, extended-jam mega-play to take a 10-point lead against the Buccaneers, who were knocked so senseless that they then fumbled a kickoff end-around. The 49er's mega-play conquered the Seahawks two weeks ago and drove the Cardinals out of a game earlier in the year. Shockingly, the 49ers average just 5.34 plays per offensive drive, 28th in the league, which means that they conserve energy for their mega-drives by executing some drives which last only one-fourth of a play.
The Falcons defense is a threat to the 49ers' mega-drive, not because it can stop the 49ers, but because any team that executes 17-plays against the Falcons in San Francisco is likely to end up in Napa.
Prediction: 49ers 32, Falcons 20
* * *
Steelers at Packers
4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: There are no bookies in Mr. Rodgers' Neighborhood.
A conversation between you and your doctor.
YOUR DOCTOR: It's strep throat. Stay at home and rest for two days.
YOU: Sure thing, doc.
YOUR DOCTOR: Don't just say "sure thing." I mean it. I know darn well that you are going to leave here, go straight to the mall to finish shopping, fall asleep in front of Jimmy Fallon, and go to work tomorrow morning, sucking Sucrets until your mouth is numb.
YOU: What's the big deal, doc? Strep gets better. I am really busy at work. If we don't make our end-of-year quota, heads will roll. And I am the key to the whole operation.
YOUR DOCTOR: Everyone's important, and everyone's busy. Long-term health risks are hard to weigh against short-term gains, but look at this from a risk-benefit standpoint. Stay home for two days, and you ensure that you are working at peak capacity for 2014. You don't necessarily risk your company quota; your temp has started to figure things out, and others around the office can step up. But if you go into work, you risk infecting coworkers, lengthening your own illness and actually jeopardizing your goals by operating at less-than-peak capacity.
YOU: Wow, it's a lot like the Aaron Rodgers situation. He can't infect the other Packers with collarbone injuries of course, but he could throw the team's 2014 plans into turmoil if he exacerbates his injury. But I bet my company doctor is not like you or Packers doctor Pat McKenzie: If he sees me, he will tell me to drink an extra cup of tea while working through the night.
YOUR DOCTOR: That's a shame. But McKenzie is doing the right thing by making a medical decision that is as unpopular with his patient as it is with football fans. All medical professionals need to be firm about the importance of rest and recovery time. Our recuperation instructions are as important as our other diagnoses and prescriptions, but people think they are unimportant "suggestions" for some reason. Now go home and go to bed!
YOU: Sure thing, doc! If it's good enough for Aaron Rodgers, it's good enough for me!
And with that, off you drive to the mall with a mouthful of Sucrets.
Prediction: Steelers 24, Packers 21