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Week 17 NFL Cheat Sheet
Before the playoffs last season, I wrote a column listing all 12 playoff teams and played the process-of-elimination game based on media hype. I didn’t want the team with the most momentum, the best December or the most media members on its crowded bandwagon. I wanted the team that was being the most disrespected, with the least amount of media support and the least amount of know-it-all football pundits picking it to win it all.
So, with a ton of bluster and confidence, I said the Saints — fresh off a December in which they lost three of their final four games, two of which were played in the Superdome — would win the Super Bowl.
The Vikings had Favre, that Jared Allen-led pass rush and all the big nationally televised wins down the stretch. The Cowboys had the December monkeys off their backs and a first-round home game in JerryWorld, the Patriots had a healthy Brady and the Randy Moss factor and the Colts had the league’s MVP. The Saints? Despite a 13-0 start and the best record in the NFC, they had the Rodney Dangerfield thing going: no respect, no respect at all.
Who’s this year’s Dangerfield squad?
Coming off Monday night’s win in Atlanta, the Saints are suddenly back in vogue and everybody’s hot pick out of the NFC. The Colts, Steelers, Patriots and Eagles — with their star quarterbacks and strong Decembers — are going to be a lot of talking heads’ January picks. The Bears, Chiefs and Falcons — three teams that haven’t won playoff games in a few years — should be a few courageous folks’ surprise choices. The Packers and Jets, meanwhile — despite early December swoons — should get some love, too. As for the NFC West champions — whoever that may be — I view them like I do the Backstreet Boys, “Godfather III” and the Seahawks era of Jerry Rice’s career: I refuse to believe they really exist.
Who’s that leave us with?
My preseason pick out of the AFC, of course — the Baltimore Ravens. With Sunday’s win over Cleveland, Joe Flacco became the third starting quarterback since 1970 to lead his team to the NFL postseason in each of his first three seasons, joining Bernie Kosar (1985 to ’87) and Dan Marino (1983 to ’86). Coach John Harbaugh, meanwhile, became the fourth NFL head coach since 1990 to lead his team to the playoffs in each of his first three years, joining Bill Cowher, Dennis Green and Barry Switzer.
The Ravens, though doing without any love whatsoever from the national media, have quietly rattled off three straight wins and victories in five of their past six games.
Willis McGahee and Ed Reed appear to be healthier this December than ever before, Ray Rice seems to have woken up from his season-long slump and the defense — after a pair of games in which it struggled in the second half — finally put the clamps on a running back, shutting down Peyton Hillis last week. When asked about Hillis rushing for 144 yards against the Ravens earlier this year, Ray Lewis sternly told the media: "A blind cat will find a meal every once in a while."
The Ravens are never short on swagger, but toss in a national media that's all but dismissing them from the Super Bowl conversation, and I like their chances even more.
To get to Dallas, the Ravens are more than likely going to have to travel to Indy and get a win against the Colts — a team they haven’t beaten since 2001 — and then travel to Pittsburgh, a place where they’ve never won in the postseason.
Call me crazy, but I like their chances.
I may be the only one, but I’m on board the Ravens Super Bowl bandwagon. Who’s with me?
Good. Just the way I like it.
As for this week’s NFL Cheat Sheet, let’s dig in.
Week 16 Record: 11-5
Overall 2010 Record: 139-103
Sunday, 1 p.m. ET games
Buffalo at New York Jets: Before we get into the Jets’ porous rush defense, that questionable fake punt Sunday and the status of Mark Sanchez’s shoulder — let’s once again acknowledge that Rex Ryan filmed his wife slowly removing her socks in a car, muttered things about her pretty feet and the videos were posted online. ESPN’s Adam Schefter described the videos as “quirky.” Interesting choice of words out of Schefter, as I would have used “creepy,” “bizarre” and “unsettling.” But, hey, to each his own! The 2010 Jets! OK, now, on to the football. Whether Sanchez plays or doesn’t, Gang Green should win on Sunday. If the Jets get the Chiefs and former Jets workhorse Thomas Jones in the playoffs, though, they’re going to need to stop the run far better than they have the past two weeks. The Pick: Jets 20, Bills 17
Miami at New England: Say what you want about the Panthers, Cowboys, Vikings, Broncos, Texans and Bengals — I’d say there was no greater disappointment in the NFL than the Dolphins this year. The 2010 ’Phins have the worst home record in the league, and with Sunday’s head-scratching home loss to the Lions became the first team in NFL history to finish a season with more than four road wins than home wins. Amazingly, with a win over Brian Hoyer and the second-string Patriots on Sunday — they’ll finish the year 7-1 on the road; 1-7 at home. They’re your buddy from college who came back anytime he visited a friend at another school with some crazy story, but never met a single woman on campus — great on the road, horrible at home. In what very well might be Tony Sparano’s last game as head coach of the Dolphins, give me the Dolphins over the Patriots reserves in the perfect ending to an imperfect Dolphins season. The Pick: Dolphins 31, Patriots 21
Pittsburgh at Cleveland: With a win on Sunday in Cleveland, the Steelers will become AFC North champs and get a bye into the second week of the playoffs as the conference's No. 2 seed. A loss, and they very easily could be playing next Saturday on just six days’ rest at Indianapolis. I’ll go with the history on this one. The Steelers have not blown a division lead in the final month of the season over the past 20 years and just once since the NFL merger in 1970, a period in which they've won 19 division titles. Look for a big day out of Mr. Mendenhall. The Pick: Steelers 31, Browns 3
Oakland at Kansas City: Though the Chiefs’ rushing attack gets the bulk of the headlines out of Kansas City, the passing game has been nothing to sneeze at, either. Dwayne Bowe is having an All-Pro season. The NFL’s leader in touchdown receptions, Bowe has 1,094 receiving yards, the ninth-best season in franchise history. Matt Cassel connected on 13 of his first 15 passes Sunday against the Titans, and eight different Chiefs caught balls. The Chiefs should finish the regular season undefeated at home with a win over the hated Raiders on Sunday. Everyone’s going to pick the Jets at Kansas City next week, but, man, I like Todd Haley’s boys in Arrowhead. The Pick: Chiefs 27, Raiders 16
Cincinnati at Baltimore: Well, what do you know? With Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens out of the lineup nursing injuries, Carson Palmer woke up out of his two-year-long funk and actually looked like the Carson Palmer of old against the Chargers on Sunday. Palmer was 16 of 21 for 269 yards and four touchdowns. When asked if this was the most comfortable his quarterback has looked in a while, coach Marvin Lewis said, "He had a lot of traffic to direct, and he was able to sort through that and make the best of it. He moved away from pressure a couple times and was able to throw the ball, and that was good." Palmer connected on his first 10 passes of the upset win and never looked back. Maybe he has some good football left in that arm, after all. Something to consider, for certain, come April when Andrew Luck, Ryan Mallet, Cam Newton and Jake Locker all could be linked to the Bengals as first-round possibilities. The Pick: Ravens 27, Bengals 16
Carolina at Atlanta: If I’m a Falcons fan, I’m a little worried about the struggles of the rushing offense in Monday night’s loss to New Orleans. Michael Turner, who ran for 114 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries in Atlanta's overtime win at New Orleans on Sept. 26, managed only 48 yards on 17 attempts on Monday night. He also fumbled at the Saints' 1-yard line. Subtract Turner's 27-yard run, and he had just 21 yards on his other 16 rushes. The Saints defense posed for a picture on the Falcons logo at midfield after the game. A picture can say 1,000 words. In this case, it said just four: “We’re still the champs.” Look for Turner, Jason Snelling and the offensive line to get back on track and close out the regular season right on Sunday. But are the Falcons Super Bowl contenders? I can’t say I feel as confident about that as I did last week. The Pick: Falcons 34, Panthers 13
Tampa Bay at New Orleans: Even without a 2010 postseason berth, Tampa Bay has been the NFC’s feel-good story of the year. The Baby Bucs are not only the second-youngest team in the league, but they very well could be the most banged up, too. And yet, they keep on winning. With the loss of wide receiver Arrelious Benn to a season-ending injury on Sunday, the Bucs have lost eight starters to injured reserve this season, including four members of their 2010 draft class: Benn, Gerald McCoy, Brian Price and Cody Grimm. The Saints should win this one on Sunday, but not without a fight from the Baby Bucs — a team that undoubtedly will be everybody’s hot sleeper pick next August. That is, of course, if there’s football being played in 2011. The Pick: Saints 27, Buccaneers 17
Minnesota at Detroit: Speaking of way-too-obvious 2011 sleeper picks, somebody break up the Lions! With Sunday’s comeback win over the Dolphins in Miami, Detroit has won three consecutive games against teams that had .500-or-better records and two against teams that still had playoff hopes. After a 26-game road losing skid, they’ve won two in a row away from home. They’re doing all this without Matt Stafford under center. It’s tough not seeing the Lions finish up the year with a fourth straight win and a victory over hated Minnesota — playing on just four days’ rest — on Sunday. The Pick: Lions 29, Vikings 13
4:15 p.m. ET games
Arizona at San Francisco: Before Saturday's one-catch performance, Larry Fitzgerald had caught at least two passes in 97 consecutive games. He last was shut out in a game in 2004, his rookie season. Fitzgerald hasn't had quite the season Cardinals fans (or fantasy football owners) had hoped for, but neither have the rest of the Cardinals. Saturday's win was a rare bright spot in an otherwise bleak season in the desert. As for the Niners? I’m still not sure why Ted Ginn Jr. shoved a towel in Troy Smith’s face during the fight with Mike Singletary on the sideline. Wouldn't that only get him more riled up? The 49ers will lose on Sunday, then watch the Seahawks and Rams play for the playoff berth that should have been theirs all along. The Pick: Cardinals 20, 49ers 6
San Diego at Denver: Is it too early to politely request an apology from Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr. for their critical assessments of Tim Tebow leading up to April’s draft? Sure, his release is still a bit awkward, and, yes, he’s struggled with some snaps under center, but, all told, Tebow has had as strong a first two NFL starts as any rookie quarterback in recent memory. His 308-yards-passing, two-TD performance in Sunday’s dramatic comeback win brought back memories of, dare I even say it, a certain Broncos quarterback from the ’80s and ’90s. There will be some tempting rookie quarterbacks available with Denver’s top-five pick in the draft, but I think the Broncos look elsewhere. Cornerback might be the position, actually, as Sunday could end up being free-agent-to-be Champ Bailey’s last game in Broncos blue. Give me the red-hot rookie in an overtime thriller over Philip Rivers — a guy who last weekend lost his first December road game since taking over as San Diego’s starting QB in 2006. The Pick: Broncos 31, Chargers 28 (OT)
Dallas at Philadelphia: Remember when all those members of the media said the Eagles were crazy for trading Donovan McNabb to a division opponent over Easter weekend? Remember when they said Andy Reid botched the Kolb-Vick situation back in September? Remember when I picked the Eagles to finish in fourth place of the NFC East before the season? Well, yeah, we all make mistakes. And maybe we should just let Andy Reid be. This season will mark the Eagles' ninth playoff appearance in Reid's 12 years. They've been to the NFC championship five times and to the Super Bowl once, losing to the New England Patriots in 2004.This year is also their eighth double-digit-win season under Reid. As for those who felt McNabb should retire in Eagles green, there’s still a chance. If he’s cut by Washington, I’m sure Philly would be open to considering him as a second- or third-string option next year. The Pick: Eagles 23, Cowboys 9
Chicago at Green Bay: Green Bay rolled up 515 total yards and forced six turnovers — both season highs — against the Giants on Sunday, and Aaron Rodgers threw for 404 yards and a career-high-tying four touchdowns. With a 6-1 record at Lambeau this season, look for Green Bay to avenge its early season loss to the Bears and end the regular season on a high note. I’m still not crazy about the Packers’ rushing offense, but the way Rodgers played on Sunday, they might not need one come January. The Pick: Packers 27, Bears 16
Tennessee at Indianapolis: A loss to the Titans on Sunday, coupled with a win by the Jaguars over Houston, and the Colts could be staying home for the playoffs for the first time since 2001. For as much as Jeff Fisher would love ending this disastrous 2010 campaign by knocking off the hated Colts, it ain’t happening. Peyton Manning wins these games. It’s what he does. And how about Dominic Rhodes? The onetime Colts workhorse from the early 2000s emerged out of a semi-retired abyss last weekend to gobble up 98 rushing yards against the Raiders. The next thing you’ll tell me is that Enrique Iglesias is pumping out chart-topping pop hits. Get out of here. The Pick: Colts 34, Titans 21
Jacksonville at Houston: I can’t wait to see the title of NFL Films’ 2010 Houston Texans video yearbook. My top five choices: “Highly Toxic,” “Combustible,” “The Great Collapse,” “Almost . . . Again” and “First-Half Champions.” Throw some Sam Spence music in there, and you’ve got a film for the ages. As they’ve done all season, the Texans fell apart late Sunday in Denver, blowing a 17-0 halftime lead and a 23-10 fourth-quarter advantage. The good news for Texans fans? The season’s almost over. The other good news? Next year, DeMeco Ryans will be back in the lineup. It’s worth noting — the Texans were 4-2 when Ryans suffered his season-ending Achilles’ injury. The Pick: Jaguars 19, Texans 10
New York Giants at Washington: As if Sunday’s 45-17 loss in Green Bay wasn’t enough for Giants fans living on the East Coast, most were buried under a blizzard for the next two days, too. For the Big Blue faithful still fuming from the fourth-quarter collapse against the Eagles in Week 15 and the six-turnover embarrassment in Lambeau, at least you’re not that gentleman whose car was destroyed by New York City’s sanitation workers trying to clear the roads on Monday. This season has been a lot like a crushed Ford Explorer, though, for New York. Unfortunately, a win on Sunday won’t ease the pain of wondering what could have been had Matt Dodge punted the ball out of bounds two Sundays ago. The Pick: Giants 27, Redskins 13
St. Louis at Seattle: Who’s Faith Hill’s agent? She must have a clause in her contract stipulating that her voice can’t be associated with Sunday night games like this, no? I mean, it’s a national travesty to have her voice — the voice of a nation, really — played over a montage of Charlie Whitehurst and Brandon Gibson highlights. It’s certainly ironic that in an NFL season that’s been as wide open as ever, the only game of real significance in Week 17 is this one. I can hear the NBC promo now — “Winner goes to the playoffs! Loser goes to the draft, where they’ll have a top-15 pick!” OK, enough with the jokes. Let’s get real. The Seahawks stink and the Rams just aren’t quite as stinky. Give me St. Louis in this one. Karma works in funny ways, and the way Pete Carroll bolted from USC just months before the team was put on probation, I can’t see him rewarded with a postseason game when his former players have all been prohibited from participating in one. The Pick: Rams 21, Seahawks 6
Cheat Sheet Trivia Question of the Week
Last Sunday, Reggie Wayne became the seventh player in NFL history to record at least three seasons of 100 or more receptions. Jerry Rice (four), Marvin Harrison (four) and Herman Moore (three) are retired. Can you name the three other active players who’ve accomplished the feat?
Reader E-mail of the Week
My friends and I were having an argument while watching Sunday’s games and would love for you to weigh in on our debate. If you’re dating a new girl — say, two to three months max — and she has a family gathering on a Sunday and asks you to attend, are you required/obligated to show up? — Richard, Dunwoody, Ga.
That’s obviously a loaded question.
As I imagine, one of your friends broke your crew’s regularly scheduled Sunday afternoon plans of watching the games somewhere — either at one of your houses or a neighborhood sports bar — to attend a new girlfriend’s niece’s 3-year-old birthday party or to have brunch with her folks instead. This set you and your other friends into a collective uproar, as your buddy helplessly texted you with half-hearted apologies and inquired about score updates for the entirety of the afternoon.
Richard, this situation has plagued American bachelors from the start of time. I have a feeling that, in 1776, soldiers in the Continental Army had their balls busted for tending to their wives, girlfriends and mistresses instead of drinking at local watering holes between battles. The truth is, every relationship is unique, every Sunday is different and if your friend missed last week’s games to attend a new girlfriend’s sister’s baby shower, he’s obviously into her. So, let him breathe. And give him those score updates.
That said, if he is a Jaguars, Chiefs, Jets, Giants, Packers, Colts or Packers fan — teams with playoff hopes on the line last Sunday — I’d have some serious questions about the nature of his fanhood. I’m sorry, but no 6-year-old’s gymnastics party in suburbia is worth missing a potential postseason play-in game.
And if he pulls the same stunt with a new girl next season? Well, then why are you watching games with this fellow on Sundays, anyway? See what I did, Richard? I turned the tables back on you! Take a long look into the mirror, my friend. A long look.
Cheat Sheet Trivia Answer of the Week: In addition to Wayne, Brandon Marshall (three), Wes Welker (three) and Andre Johnson (three) have had three different 100-reception seasons.
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