The NFL gives us a rare treat this week: a pair of very interesting pre-holiday primetime appetizers Thursday and Saturday night.
These games kick off the most wonderful time of the year for football fans: three straight weeks of nothing but college bowl games and playoff-worthy pro football battles. It began Thursday, Dec. 17 with Indy-Jacksonville and runs right through Thursday, Jan. 7 with Texas-Alabama fighting for the national title.
Then it's just one day off (Friday, Jan. 8) before the NFL playoffs get underway. That's pretty damn good.
In fact, it reminds us of a little song crazy old Uncle Andy used to sing to us each December before the NFL stretch run and bowl season. "It's the hap-happiest season of all" he'd croon, as the family gathered around the traditional Christmas bowl of Buffalo wings.
He'd then tell us scary ghost stories. Which makes us wonder: what kind of town rummy of an uncle tells the kids scary ghost stories at Christmas, anyway?
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After a dreadful Week 13, we returned to our winning ways last week – an amazing 11th week in 14 opportunities this year in which we were better than .500 ATS.
We went 12-4 straight up last week and 9-7 ATS. For the year, we're 142-65 (.686) straight up and an impressive 117-90 (.565) ATS. We were also 3-1 straight up and ATS last week picking outright victories by our beloved road dogs, a CHFF specialty.
If memory serves, we've never had a losing season ATS. And barring a colossal meltdown over the final three weeks, we certainly won't have one this year, either.
Indianapolis (-6.5) at Jacksonville
The Colts certainly dominate the series, with a 13-4 all-time record against the Jaguars, but the wins have rarely come easy.
In fact, Indy boasts just two real blowout wins, beating Jacksonville 29-7 in 2007 and 43-14 way back in 2000, just the second meeting ever between the two teams. And, of course, the Colts eked out a 14-12 home over the Jags back in Week 1.
Plus, with the AFC's No. 1 seed already wrapped up, remarkably, with three games to play, Indy starts playing the most dangerous game: the "when-to-sit-the-starters?" musical chair dance.
Colts coach Jim Caldwell has put up a brave face about playing his starters, and it's WAY too early to take your foot off the gas pedal. That strategy usually does not work well. But there are already reports out of Indy that guys like rookie back-up QB Curtis Painter (yes, Indy does have a back-up QB) will see an increasing amount of playing time, perhaps starting tonight (and by increasing amount of playing time, we mean any playing time).
The Jaguars meanwhile, have no choice: they must win to stay alive in the tight AFC wildcard race.
The Colts are certainly the superior team. But even without the various considerations listed above, it would be tough to pick them to win big on the road against the Jaguars.
Indianapolis 24, Jacksonville 21
Dallas at New Orleans (-6.5)
The Saints, unlike the Colts, have not yet wrapped up the No. 1 seed in their conference. In fact, they still need some combination of two wins/one win and a Minnesota loss/or two Minnesota losses, before they can put a shiny red bow around the NFC.
The good news is that the Saints face the biggest December softies since Aunt Mabel's giant Christmas puff cakes: the Phillips-Romo Cowboys.
Yes, the Saints have eked out a pair of close wins in recent weeks. But skipping through our Quality Stats, we see little reason for the Saints to fear the Cowgirls.
Dallas, with the No. 2 running game in football
(4.94 YPA) will have some success against a Saints D that struggles to stop the run (4.47 YPA, 24th
). But not enough success to overcome the best all-around team in football – a team that still has something to play for.
New Orleans 27, Dallas 20
Chicago at Baltimore (-9.5)
The classic story of a team that made a big off-season free-agent mistake and that now regrets it much like we regret sleeping with all the oversized girls that we did in high school and college, playing out the string late in the season and going on the road to face a team in a snowbound arena fighting for its playoff life with a second-year coach and quarterback tandem that's underwhelmed the fans this year much like we underwhelmed all those oversized but willing girls.
You know, that tired old yarn.
The bottom line from our perspective is that the Ravens rule the two key battles. According to our Passer Rating Differential
indicator, they're slightly above average passing the ball and slightly above average stopping the pass. The Bears are slightly below average in both categories.
And for you "establish the run" traditionalists, Baltimore wins here, too: The Ravens boast the No. 4 Offensive Hogs
and stand at No. 5 running the ball (4.59 YPA) vs. a Bears field the No. 28 Defensive Hogs
and sit at No. 20 stopping the run (4.39 YPA).
Baltimore 30, Chicago 16
New England (-6.5) at Buffalo
Leave it to famously dour New Englanders to go into a depression after a 20-10 December win to maintain your lead in the division title race.
In fact, Patriots fans are so distraught this week that the cops just talked one suicidal New Englander off of a bridge. Seriously, we can't make this stuff up
We talked this week in Boston
about all the reasons Patriots fans have for confidence. Statistically, New England has put up Super Bowl-challenger numbers in many areas. They've simply failed to make plays in critical moments all year. Fix a few mental problems, and this team can still make some noise.
The Bills, meanwhile, have had one of the most disastrous home slates in years: the only encouraging game at Ralph Wilson this year was a turnover-friendly 31-14 win over the 7-6 Dolphins.
We like the Patriots to earn their 12 consecutive win over Buffalo and win their sixth game of the year against a team that's currently below .500.
New England 24, Buffalo 14
Arizona (-10.5) at Detroit
Kurt Warner vs. the Worst Pass Defense ever?
Hey, we know he had a bad game last week, but everybody chews up Detroit's pass defense: they're threatening this year to break a whole series of records, including the highest pass-completion percentage against them and the worst Defensive Passer Rating in history
. The marks for failure in those two categories are currently held by the, you guessed it, 2007 and 2008 Lions, respectively.
It's a brutal match up that could quickly get much uglier than we anticipate.
Arizona 30, Detroit 13
Cleveland at Kansas City (-1.5)
The NFL has given us some real gems this year: Redskins-Rams in Week 2, Browns-Bills in Week 5, Rams-Lions in Week 8, Panthers-Bucs in Week 13 ... you get the picture.
The amazing thing is that these teams actually won five games between the two of them this year. Consider ourselves shocked. Hell, consider ourselves at home. Consider ourselves one of the family.
Kansas City 5, Cleveland 2
Atlanta at N.Y. Jets (-5.5)
The Jets lead the league this year in fewest TD passes allowed
(seven), a remarkably low number in this day and age. The Falcons lead the league this year in unfulfilled expectations.
Atlanta is actually one of the worst teams in the NFL passing the ball this year – its 79.6 Offensive Passer Rating marks a tough sophomore season for our boy Matt Ryan.
To top it off, Atlanta fields some of the worst Defensive Hogs
in the NFL (30th) and a merely average run defense (4.27 YPA, 18th). The Jets have been able to overcome their rookie quarterback and salvage a decent season thanks to a solid ground game (4.64 YPA, fourth
) and those great DBs.
All of it adds up to a bad series of match-ups for the Falcons.
N.Y. Jets 23, Atlanta 20
San Francisco at Philadelphia (-8.5)
We called for the 49ers to make the playoffs in our preseason picks. Sure, it was a risky pick. But, at 6-7, they still do have an outside shot, especially given the famous December swoons of Dallas, a team burdened by the Curse of Flutie
, not to mention a tough remaining slate: vs. New Orleans, at Washington, vs. Philly. An
So, until further notice, the 49ers are fighting for their playoff lives.
But crossing the country is not kind to any team in the NFL, least of all San Francisco: 1-10 against East Coast teams since 2004.
The Eagles, meanwhile, boast a four-game win streak, they're playing at home, they have a chance to wrap up the division this week and they have a very explosive team: only the Saints and Vikings have scored more points this year than Philly (28.6 PPG)
The Eagles are also No. 2 in our critical Defensive Hog Index
, which will allow them to negate San Fran's best offensive weapon: an above-average ground game (4.44 YPA, 11th).
Philadelphia 30, San Francisco 20
Green Bay at Pittsburgh (-1.5)
We've been kicking it all year finding road dogs to win outright, and this is one of the easier outcomes of the year, according to our Quality Stats.
We respect Pittsburgh's status as the defending champs, and we realize that Green Bay is still a shaky-pick team with big stats but not much gravitas.
Green Bay 26, Pittsburgh 20
Houston (-9.5) at St. Louis
Houston, despite its 6-7 record, still has a pretty decent offense, especially in the passing game: tied with the AFC East-leading Patriots for No. 4 in Passing Yards Per Attempt
, behind only Super Bowl favorites New Orleans, San Diego and Indy.
They got beat up somebody on their desperate quest for the first winning season in franchise history, right?
Other than that, the Rams play some pretty solid defense.
Houston 30, St. Louis 17
Miami at Tennessee (-2.5)
The Titans are 6-1 since Vince Young took over at quarterback. They were 0-6 with Old Warhorse Kerry Collins at the helm, for those of you keeping score at home.
The lone loss, meanwhile, was to Indy. But losing to Indy in the regular season
is like saying you lost to a CHFF Troll in a game of 1970s porn trivia. You can't fault anybody for falling short in that battle.
Right now, though, the Titans are in the midst of the quarterbacking waiting game, trying to determine if Young is ready to play on Sunday. It's no small question, as the team's vastly different results with different QBs can attest.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts, however, can't play the wait-and-see game.
We're going to assume that the Titans are fully equipped for battle and that the Young and the NFL's No. 1 ground game (5.33 YPA
) can amount enough offense to overcame a team that's slightly above average stopping the run (4.09 YPA, No. 13
) and perfectly average stopping the pass (No. 16 in Defensive Passer Rating
Tennessee 24, Miami 20
Oakland at Denver (-12.5)
The Raiders suck in many ways. But the worst phase of their game has been the passing offense: 31st with an average of 4.56 YPA
The passing attack had shown some signs of life with Bruce Gradkowski at the helm – but he's out and Charlie Frye (not JaMarcus Russell) is in.
All we can say is this: it's never good when the big quarterback controversy in town is "Who's going to replace Gradkowski this week, Russell or Frye?" It's not exactly Brady-Bledsoe or even Flutie-Johnson, for that matter.
Oakland's fledgling 1930s-style passing attack now goes up against one of the best pass defenses in the league: Denver quietly ranks No. 7 in Defensive Passer Rating.
We expect a defensive score to lift the Broncos to a big win.
Denver 21, Oakland 7
Cincinnati at San Diego (-6.5)
The Bengals were a very good road team earlier in the year, with wins over the Packers, Ravens and Steelers.
Something's fallen apart over the past month, with losses at Oakland (yup, at Oakland) and last week's 30-10 disaster at Minnesota.
Cincy's biggest problem has been putting up points: 20.3 PPG overall and just 16.4 PPG in their five outings against Quality Opponents
The Chargers, meanwhile, are on a tear: eight straight wins and a 5-2 mark this year against Quality Teams
. Only Indy has more Quality Wins (six). They also have a guy in the midst of a colossal season at QB: Philip Rivers averages 8.8 YPA with a 103.7 passer rating – over the past two seasons combined, nobody has been more effectively moving the ball down the field by the pass (8.4 YPA and 105.5 rating in 2008.
His performance, and the lack of offensive punch in Cincy, is enough to lift the electric Chargers at home.
San Diego 24, Cincinnati 17
Tampa Bay at Seattle (-6.5)
We can't devote enough emotional energy this year to analyze this game. It's barely ahead of Kansas City-Cleveland (above) to spark interest – but far enough ahead for us to not invoke the safety-expectation rule: in a really bad game, we expect a big safety to prove the difference (as noted above and elsewhere this year
Seattle has been fairly good at home, and sometimes dominant: 28-0 over St. Louis, 41-0 over Jacksonville (a very good win in retrospect) and 32-20 over Detroit.
We're going with a lot of big wins this week ... it's been the year for big wins ... and we'll count on the Seahawks to beat up a bad team.
Seattle 26, Tampa Bay 16
Minnesota (-7.5) at Carolina
Believe it or not, this is a fairly decent match-up for the Panthers, who will play without Jake Delhomme ... not exactly a bad problem to have considering his performance this year.
Offensively, Carolina runs the ball as well as anyone in football (4.85 YPA, third), though Jonathan Stewart is battling an injury. Defensively, Minnesota is merely mediocre stopping the run (4.06 YPA), despite the team's otherwise impressive front.
The Favrkings have passed the ball tremendously well this year behind the Rasputin of the Gridiron, BrettFavre: the team's Offensive Passer Rating of 106.3 is second only to New Orleans' performance (112.1). However, his game has wobbled in December, with two of his worst efforts of the year (three INTS total, 79.4 and 73.2 ratings). Percy Harvin, meanwhile, has missed practices this week and is listed as questionable. So, too, is the team's leading receiver, Sidney Rice.
The Panthers, meanwhile, boast one of the best pass defenses in the NFL (73.1, fifth).
It all adds up to a tougher than expected battle in Sunday primetime. So stay awake for this one.
Minnesota 23, Carolina 20
N.Y. Giants (-2.5) at Washington
One of the most curious stories in the NFL is the decline and fall of the once-proud Giants defense: 25th in Defensive Passer Rating
, 21st at forcing Negative Pass Plays and 28th in scoring D (25.4 PPG).
The team's best defensive outing in the past two months has been a 21-20 home loss to San Diego.
We'd blame the departure of Steve Spagnuolo but, in case you haven't heard, his defense hasn't exactly set the world on fire in St. Louis, either (see above).
The Redskins, meanwhile, have played well on offense in recent weeks (though they have few wins to show for it) and have played their best ball of the year in recent weeks: beating the Broncos by 10, going toe to toe with the Cowboys and Eagles on the road and the unbeaten Saints at home, and then smoking the Raiders in Oakland.
The Redskins also force a lot of mistakes on defense (No. 5 in Negative Pass Plays), which will be a factor Monday night.
The Giants need to win to stay alive. But they'll fall short in our upset pick of the week.
Washington 23, N.Y. Giants 20