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The Pittsburgh Steelers are living on the edge in the NFL. Ben Roethlisberger and gang hope to right the ship this weekend against rival Cincinnati in a pivotal AFC North battle to keep their postseason hopes alive.
Saturday, December 22 8:30 PM ET – TV: ESPN
Atlanta Falcons 12-2 @ Detroit Lions 4-10
Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons can clinch home field advantage throughout the NFC Playoffs with a win in the motor city this weekend. Last week’s thumping over the defending champs was a clear-cut statement made by the Falcons as top dogs of the conference. The Lions season has headed into footballs hell. But even as bad as Detroit’s been, this could be a trap game for Atlanta because of Detroit’s ability to rack up points on offense with Calvin Johnson, who creates an extreme amount of attention on the back end of opposing defenses. The problem is no one else is making noise on the Detroit’s offense. The Falcons have a solid defense that creates pressure and is fairly sound in their coverage schemes. I can’t see the Lions offense finding many holes in the Falcons defense. Reason being, Thomas DeCoud, William Moore, Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel are a much better secondary than the football world thinks. Pick: Falcons 34, Lions 24.
Sunday, December 23
1:00 PM ET
New Orleans Saints 6-8 @ Dallas Cowboys 8-6 – TV: FOX
The style of runner you have at running back dictates the passing game. Since DeMarco Murray has returned to the starting lineup, the Dallas passing game has opened up and quarterback Tony Romo has been nearly perfect in Dallas’ three-game winning streak. With Murray present, Romo has a completion percentage of 72.7, averaging 10.5-yards per pass attempt with six touchdowns and no interceptions on play-action passes with Murray in the lineup. Without Murray, Romo’s completion percentage on play-action is only 63.2 and his yards per attempt are at a slim 3.9. Bottom line is Murray threatens opposing defenses, spell running back Felix Jones doesn’t. The offense is able to do much more when Murray’s on the field. Murray has also scored in all three games since his return. If you go back to the Cowboys win at Cincinnati, that big first down run on third and five to set up the game winning kick is something that Felix Jones wouldn’t do. Get it? Dallas is a much better team with DeMarco Murray, a runner that can pick up tough yardage, break free into the open field and catch when no one is open down field. Having a complete runner makes life so much easier for any quarterback. Pick: Cowboys 38, Saints 31.
Tennessee Titans 5-9 @ Green Bay Packers 10-4 – TV: CBS
Now that Green Bay has locked up the NFC North for the second consecutive season, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy and his squad has bigger plans for the final two weeks of the regular season. “We want the bye week, make no bones about it,” McCarthy said. “It’s important to have a healthy football team, and if you have an opportunity to achieve the bye week, that’s what we’re working for. I’m making it clear right now. We’re going to play all the way through.” The 49ers are ahead of Green Bay at 10-3-1 being the closest team for the Packers to catch for at least a two seed in the NFC Playoff picture. A win will move them closer as they’ll watch San Francisco and Seattle battle in the late game. Look for Green Bay’s defense to focus on stopping Titans dangerous running back Chris Johnson and challenge their receivers at the line of scrimmage. Mainly, Tennessee’s quarterback Jake Locker will get a great taste of what it feels like being a road quarterback at Lambeau Field. It’s a harsh environment kid when you’re the visitor. It really is. Pick: Packers 34, Titans 16.
Indianapolis Colts 9-5 @ Kansas City Chiefs 2-12 – TV: CBS
We got a good glimpse of Andrew Luck in his college days. The outlook for him at the pro level was already at an expected to be one of the best in the game down the road. What amazes me about him is the simple fact of the matter of him playing like a well-polished All-Pro quarterback in his rookie season. We’re talking about a rookie quarterback who’s filling the shoes of a future Hall of Famer and turning a team around that only won two games the previous season that can clinch a Playoff spot with a win or a Pittsburgh loss this weekend. That speaks super high volume across the board. Pick: Colts 27, Chiefs 17.
Buffalo Bills 5-9 @ Miami Dolphins 6-8 – TV: CBS
Miami’s chances of reaching the postseason are slim. They need to handle their business this week, but will have to pull off an upset the following week at New England. They also need Cincinnati to lose their final two games, Pittsburgh to lose to Cleveland and the Jets to lose once. If all of that happens, the Dolphins would end up tied with the Bengals and Steelers and make the playoffs by virtue of a tiebreaker. As far as the matchup for Miami’s offense goes going up against a putrid Bills defense, look for offensive coordinator Mike Sherman to call running back Reggie Bush’s number on early downs to establish an effective running game to keep quarterback Ryan Tannehill out of third and long situations. Pick: Dolphins 26, Bills 19.
San Diego Chargers 5-9 @ N.Y. Jets 6-8 – TV: CBS
With all fingers pointed towards Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow, let me really look into this messy situation and play the role of Jets investigator. Let’s see, general manager Mike Tannenbaum brings along Tony Sparano to coordinate the offense. Sparano then whispers sweet words into Tannenbaum’s ear to bring over Tebow. Why? Sparano saw a player like Tebow that could bring back the wild-cat offense to use him in the redzone and in short yardage situations. Tannenbaum, Sparano and head coach Rex Ryan all agree to pursue the “Tebow Factor” without realizing the team needed help at receiver and a pass rusher on defense. And how on earth can Tannenbaum not think about the distractions glooming beforehand on bringing Tebow along? What a waste of time. They never used Tebow the way Saparano wanted him to be used. In a quarterback driven league, you build the offense around the quarterback, not bring a big name along that can’t throw the football as good as your starter. At least Sparano had a plan, but when the head coach and general manager have the final word, how can Sparano get a piece of the action? America, you decide who’s at fault here. Pick: Chargers 24, N.Y. Jets 17.
Washington Redskins 8-6 @ Philadelphia Eagles 4-10 – TV: FOX
Robert Griffin III (knee) is expected to be back under center against an Eagles defense that gives up huge plays every week. The only negative thing that can possibly happen for Washington in this game is if RGIII has a setback and re-injures the knee to put his status in jeopardy for the final game against the Dallas Cowboys. That game could very well be for the division title. It’s no secret with RGIII back, Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will get back to the basics running the triple threat pistol offense, something the Eagles defense won’t be able to stop all afternoon. Pick: Redskins 31, Eagles 17.
Cincinnati Bengals 8-6 @ Pittsburgh Steelers 7-7 – TV: CBS
In my opinion, it’s very vital to have a quarterback that can elude the rush and improvise when going up against a talented defense that provides lots pressure. Say what you want to say about Ben Roethlisberger’s costly interception last week in their loss to Dallas, he played phenomenal, making big improvising throws against a talented pass rush. I think he continues to do that this week against another talented group of pass rushers. That’ll be the big difference in this game. Roethlisberger’s ability to extend plays better than Cincinnati’s quarterback Andy Dalton. Pick: Steelers 27, Bengals 20.
St. Louis Rams 6-7-1 @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6-8 – TV: FOX
I feel good about the outlook of both Tampa’s and St. Louis’ future. They both have a tough demanding head coach that preaches their team to play inspired football. They both will be teams I’ll have on my radar come training camp in 2013. Jeff Fisher will find a solid running back in the near future, but Greg Schiano already has one with rookie Doug Martin who I think will be able to gash a Rams defense that is putrid at stopping the run. Pick: Buccaneers 20, Rams 17.
Oakland Raiders 4-10 @ Carolina Panthers 5-9 – TV: CBS
The big reason for Carolina’s success offensively has been the play of quarterback Cam Newton. Over the last four weeks, Newton has the highest passer rating 113.1 to go along with 9-touchdown passes and 0-interceptions. I don’t expect anything to change for the worse for Newton and the Panthers offense going up against a dismal Raiders defense. Pick: Panthers 31, Raiders 17.
New England Patriots 10-4 @ Jacksonville Jaguars 2-12 – TV: CBS
Its super bowl week in fantasy football, and if you have Tom Brady as your starting quarterback, he can very well be the main reason why you win some $$$ in money leagues. There’s just nothing possible the Jaguars defense can do in this matchup to slow down a high powered Patriots offense who threatened a top rated 49ers defense after trailing 31-3, a game they ended up evening up the score, even though they ended up on the losing side of things. Pick: Patriots 37, Jaguars 13.
Minnesota Vikings 8-6 @ Houston Texans 12-2 – TV: FOX
Texans head coach Gary Kubiak knows his team has a tough challenge on defense trying to stop the unstoppable Adrian Peterson who’s on a quest to break the all-time single season rushing record. “Nobody probably has ever done it better than he’s doing it in this stretch,” said Kubiak. Peterson is coming off a season high 212-yards on 24-carries in a 36-22 win at St. Louis last Sunday. The star running back has rushed for 100-yards in eight consecutive games, averaging 164.1-yards per game during that stretch. Clearly, Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will crowd the box to try to close running lanes Peterson can exploit. You can’t blame me or anyone else for praising Peterson, but the Texans have a top tier running back of their own with Arian Foster, a star receiver like Andre Johnson and a dominant pass rusher like J.J Watt. I can add a few more for you. The Texans have the better all-around team in this matchup that I expect to win a game that’ll clinch home field advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs. Pick: Texans 30, Vikings 20.
4:05 PM ET
Cleveland Browns 5-9 @ Denver Broncos 11-3 – TV: CBS
Rookie running back Trent Richardson needs to have an effective solid game against a stingy Broncos defense that stuffs the run. 50-yards from him won’t cut the cheese for the Browns offense. He needs to make big plays if Brandon Weeden is going to have any hope of the passing game opening up. Ultimately, I don’t think Weeden will have many opportunities for high-percentage passing downs to avoid Denver’s pass rush, and after seeing what a backup quarterback did to their secondary last week, Peyton Manning should do the same, if not, more damage to them. Pick: Broncos 31, Browns 16.
4:25 PM ET
Chicago Bears 8-6 @ Arizona Cardinals 5-9 –TV: FOX
Although the Cardinals offense has been horrific, the defense sports one of the more physical groups in the business that can get after the quarterback. The Bears offensive line continues to make life a living nightmare for quarterback Jay Cutler in the pocket, as he continues to take big shots every week. That’s the bad news for Lovie Smith’s team. The good news is their defensive line should be able to provide pressure and stop the run against a team that has the worst offensive line in football. They’ll win the turnover battle and at some point Cutler will connect big with Brandon Marshall to deliver the knockout blow. Pick: Bears 20, Cardinals 10.
N.Y. Giants 8-6 @ Baltimore Ravens 9-5 – TV: FOX
I’m still a believer in these Giants, and it’s not only because of what they’ve done in the past down the stretch. I believe in good coaching staffs that can right the ship and formulate a game plan to correct mistakes that took place the following week. Baltimore’s pass defense is a mess and Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride smells blood in the ocean like a Great White Shark in these cases. Nobody on the defensive line is creating enough pressure upfront for Baltimore with Terrell Suggs (biceps) not at 100%. Offensively, the Ravens need to get back to the basics of feeding the football to running back Ray Rice using him as a receiver in check down plays, screens and option routes. Outside of all the skilled players both teams posses on offense, I like the team that has more talent on the defensive line to step up in a much needed win late in the fourth quarter. Pick: N.Y. Giants 23, Ravens 20.
Sunday Night Football in America 8:20 PM ET – TV: NBC
San Francisco 49ers 10-3-1 @ Seattle Seahawks 9-5
What I like most about San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick at quarterback is the simple fact of him making the 49ers offense an offense that will take shots down field. I’m not ignoring the fact of what Seattle’s offense has done over the past two weeks and the play of Russell Wilson, but the 49ers offense is now capable of making big plays in the passing game. Mainly, when you get a matchup like this that’ll be the ultimate battle in the trenches, the team that has the better offensive line usually comes out on top. This is more than a game, this is a fight. Pick: 49ers 19, Seahawks 16.