Don’t let the NFL’s PR and media machine fool you. Although there were strong outings from Tom Brady, Alex Smith, Michael Vick and Peyton Manning last weekend, Week 14 may have been the worst all-around display of NFL quarterbacking in recent history.
Mark Sanchez, Matt Hasselbeck, Chad Henne, Kyle Orton and Carson Palmer all had career-worst outings, while guys named Jimmy Clausen, Brodie Croyle and Matt Flynn stunk it up elsewhere. The Vikings fans who couldn’t attend Monday night’s loss in Detroit were probably better off, as both Tarvaris Jackson and Joe Webb made fans of the purple long for the purple-handed Brett Favre.
Hopefully, Week 15 will provide us with some better performances from the league’s signal callers. It couldn’t get much worse.
My picks? Let’s dig into the Week 15 Cheat Sheet.
Week 14 Record: 9-7
Overall 2010 Record: 119-90
Sunday 1 p.m. ET:
Buffalo at Miami: In what has to be one of the oddest statistical anomalies of the 2010 season, the Dolphins are a miserable 1-5 at home this year, but an astounding 6-1 on the road. They’re like your buddy who strikes out every night at the local bar, but is a Don Juan anytime he visits a friend in another city. Sunday’s 10-6 win in New York was anything but pretty, and Chad Henne’s five pass completions fell two shy of the franchise low of three, set and matched in the championship season of 1973. Buffalo’s played some tough football this season, but I like the Dolphins pass rush — led by NFL sack leader and two-time CFL Defensive Player of the Year Cameron Wake — to get to Ryan Fitzpatrick early and often, leading the Fish to a rare home victory.
The Pick: Dolphins 20, Bills 13
Cleveland at Cincinnati: The Bengals, who’ve had some pretty bad seasons in their history, can set a team record for consecutive losses on Sunday. Though the injury-ridden defense kept Pittsburgh’s offense out of the end zone, Carson Palmer threw three interceptions, with two being returned for scores in the 23-7 loss. Terrell Owens has been pretty well behaved this season, but just three games away from another offseason scouring the Earth as a VH1 reality star and a free agent, T.O. finally voiced his displeasure in the Cincinnati play-calling on Sunday, telling reporters, “I'm just going with the plays that are called. I don't call 'em, I just run 'em. Sometimes I feel like I'm just out there running. I got some looks early, but after that, nothing." The NFL Draft can’t come soon enough for Bengals fans.
Detroit at Tampa Bay: Injuries are mounting for the 8-5 Baby Bucs, as they lost two more defensive starters on Sunday with third overall pick Gerald McCoy going down for the year with a torn bicep and Quincy Black breaking his arm in the second half. Tampa’s now lost six starters in the past three weeks to injuries — McCoy, Black, guard Davin Joseph, safety Cody Grimm, center Jeff Faine and cornerback Aqib Talib. The crazy thing about this squad? Someone always seems to step up when the opportunity knocks. A win Sunday puts the Bucs — the league’s third worst team last year — at 9-5 with two weeks left to go. In the crowded NFC, I’d say the playoffs are unlikely. But at this point, who am I to question these kids?
The Pick: Buccaneers 23, Lions 20 (OT)
Houston at Tennessee: Monday night’s overtime loss to Baltimore could serve as the perfect microcosm of the Gary Kubiak era in Houston. The Texans dug themselves into a huge hole out of the gate, then looked like the best team in the league for a flash, only to come up just short in the end. The Texans will miss the playoffs for the ninth straight season, keeping their dubious title as the league’s only franchise to never make the postseason alive for another year. For the second straight season, meanwhile, the Titans have lost six straight games. Whereas the other two teams in the AFC South are squaring off with the world on the line this weekend, this one is nothing more than Johnson-Finnegan II. They should fly Michael Buffer in to do the intros.
The Pick: Texans 34, Titans 20
Philadelphia at New York Giants: Though the Eagles continue to win, Michael Vick is taking beatings on a weekly basis. In Sunday’s win at Dallas, the MVP candidate was sacked only twice, but was hit hard nearly a dozen times by Cowboys defenders and banged his thumb on the helmet of a Dallas pass rusher. The Giants are coming off a weird travel weekend that showed them the finest airports the Midwest has to offer and just six days rest. Tony Romo, Shaun Hill and Tarvaris Jackson haven’t been able to escape the New York pass rush. Can Vick? Perhaps, but I like Big Blue to defend their home turf at New Meadowlands Stadium and take control of the NFC East lead.
The Pick: Giants 21, Eagles 17
New Orleans at Baltimore: Shh…Don’t tell anyone, but the Saints are quietly starting to look a little bit like the Super Bowl squad that took the NFL by storm last year. Without any recent nationally televised games and with little media fanfare, the Saints have almost eerily silently won six straight games and have scored 30 points or more in their last five. The Ravens defense looked gassed in the second half of Monday night’s game in Houston and will only have a few days to prepare for Sean Payton’s offensive juggernaut. New Orleans will likely have to go on the road in the playoffs; Sunday will be good practice playing outdoors in frigid temps. The Saints and Ravens were my preseason Super Bowl picks. Though I’d love to see a Ravens running back learn how to pick up a safety blitz one of these weeks, I do think both teams could still be players come late January.
The Pick: Saints 27, Ravens 19
Arizona at Carolina: You’ve waited all season for it, and now it’s finally here. Yes, folks, it’s an early Christmas gift — John Skelton takes on Jimmy Clausen for the first time in their careers! Talk about coal in your stocking. In truth, I can’t hate on the Cardinals this week, as they proved me wrong and won by 30 points over Denver last weekend after I picked against them. Derek Anderson, Max Hall and Skelton all won their first starts of their Cardinals careers this season. Going with new guys under center seems to work. Maybe Richard Bartel should get the nod, instead of “Red” Skelton? Or maybe kicker Jay Feely — fresh off a 22-point effort — should get the nod. I like Carolina to notch a win, here, which will of course, only frustrate Panthers fans who’ve been carving Andrew Luck’s initials and hearts into tree stumps for weeks.
The Pick: Panthers 20, Cardinals 13
Jacksonville at Indianapolis: To say there’s a lot riding on this one would be the understatement of the year. The Jaguars haven’t won a division title or hosted a playoff game since 1999, while the Colts haven’t missed the playoffs since 2001. If the Jags find a way to win on Sunday, they need to win only one of their last two games against Washington and Houston to clinch the division title. If the Colts win, though, they would win the division title by beating Oakland and Tennessee in their final two games. The Jags have rushed for over 200 yards in three straight games, but I can’t pick against Peyton Manning at home in a must-have game in December. Give me the Colts in a shootout.
The Pick: Colts 38, Jaguars 29
Kansas City at St. Louis: With Sunday’s 31-0 loss in San Diego, Chiefs quarterback Brodie Croyle’s career record as an NFL starter sunk to 0-10. It wasn’t all the former ‘Bama gunslinger’s fault, though. Third down haunted the Chiefs, as Kansas City went 0-for-11 on third-down conversions. The NFC West will be won in the final two weeks of the season, when St. Louis plays both the 49ers and Seahawks in Weeks 16 and 17, but I like the Rams to take down their in-state rivals at home in this one. And that’s with Cassell, Croyle or lefty Tyler Palko under center for the Chiefs. Sam Bradford locks up his NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign with a stellar performance vs. Kansas City.
The Pick: Rams 27, Chiefs 21
Washington at Dallas: With Sunday night’s 30-27 loss to Philly, Dallas ensured its first losing season since going 6-10 under Bill Parcells in 2004. But hey, at least Tashard Choice got a pretty sweet autograph, right? Meanwhile, in Washington, things couldn’t get any stranger. Long before he re-injured his ribs while being tackled by E.J. Biggers on the botched game-tying extra point attempt vs. Tampa Bay on Sunday, Redskins kicker Graham Gano missed field goal tries of 24 and 34 yards. He reportedly drove to Redskins Park late Sunday night to watch the game tape of his gaffes in solitude. If you don’t hear that story and immediately have visions of Rocky Balboa taking this late night ride in “Rocky IV”, well, then you need to spend New Year’s Eve reciting each movie word for word, while watching Encore’s annual “Rocky” marathon. Please tell me I’m not the only one who does that every year.
The Pick: Cowboys 21, Redskins 13
4 p.m. ET games:
Atlanta at Seattle: The Seahawks defense allowed Alex Smith to throw for 255 yards and three touchdowns on Sunday, as he finished with a 130.9 passer rating in his first game in over a month. What’s red hot Matt Ryan going to do against this unit? It could get ugly early for the Qwest Field fans. Seattle has lost five of its last seven games by an average of more than 23 points a contest. Look for another blowout on Sunday.
Denver at Oakland: The last time the Broncos faced the Raiders, they lost 59-14 in their own building. It was the nadir of the Josh McDaniels era in Denver. The talk radio stations are talking Tebow, Tebow, Tebow this week, but it looks like Kyle Orton and his sore ribs will get the nod, despite Orton having his worst game as a Bronco with only 19 completions and a season-high three interceptions last week. The Raiders had a 10-point lead on Jacksonville on the road last week, but fell in heartbreaking fashion. They’ll rebound and win on Sunday, but having already swept the Chargers and the Chiefs in a possible tailspin, it’s hard not to wonder “What could have been?”
The Pick: Raiders 30, Broncos 17
New York Jets at Pittsburgh: When you’re at your office holiday party this week, sneakily stick your knee out when an unsuspecting colleague walks by, causing them to drop violently to the ground. When said co-worker is writhing in pain on the floor, hover over them and shout “You’ve been Alosi’d!” You’ll be the star of your office party! You’ll also probably have a meeting with Human Resources and an exit interview at 9 a.m. the next day. The Steelers offense is struggling of late, but they look like the ’99 Rams compared to the Jets this month. Big Ben and Co. will handle reeling Gang Green with ease on Sunday.
The Pick: Steelers 27, Jets 10
Green Bay at New England: How good have the Pats been over the past five weeks? Since losing to Cleveland on Nov. 7, the Patriots have won five consecutive games without committing a single turnover. Not one. In those five wins, Tom Brady’s been incredibly efficient, completing more than 67 percent of his passes in each outing. Michael Vick’s "redemption" story certainly is an interesting one, Matt Ryan's on fire, and Maurice Jones-Drew is quietly putting together a career year, but Brady’s your 2010 MVP. That should be unanimous. The Packers need this one badly, but New England’s too locked in. On national TV, Brady won’t disappoint.
The Pick: Patriots 30, Packers 20
Bears at Vikings: A year after coming a pass short of the Super Bowl, the Vikings were eliminated from the NFC playoff race with Week 14’s loss to the Giants. Favre’s likely done for the year, Percy Harvin’s still battling migraines, Steve Hutchinson’s thumb is a mess and Ray Edwards’ ankle is in bad shape. Jared Allen, a media favorite, was targeted continuously and run over by Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw throughout Monday night’s loss. It’s been a forgettable season for Minnesota, to say the least. The Bears will improve to 9-4 with a win over this shell of a Vikings team on Monday night, regardless of where the game is played.
The Pick: Bears 27, Vikings 9
Cheat Sheet Trivia Question of the Week: If Texans running back Arian Foster finishes the season as the NFL’s leading rusher, he’ll be just the second undrafted player since the advent of the common draft in 1967 to lead the NFL in rushing. Who was the other undrafted player to win the league’s rushing title?
Reader E-mail of the Week:
As a Vikings fan, I must say that the roof imploded on our season long before last weekend. Not a huge college football fan, but I know I'd rather have a young kid to groom than re-sign T-Jack for another go-around. Who are the top five quarterback prospects coming out of college?
Andrew, Edina, Minn.
This year's NFL draft should have a nice young crop of gunslingers. On top of the senior prospects, I think you'll see a lot of juniors because of the NFL's looming labor issues — coming out early and taking a stab at their pro careers. The Vikings will likely be in the 8-20 range in the first round, meaning that they should be able to land one of these guys, if they, indeed, go with a quarterback.
Here's my early top 5 QB prospects:
1. Andrew Luck, junior, Stanford: The last time a junior quarterback was this highly hyped, his name was Manning. And he returned for his senior year. 2. Ryan Mallett, junior, Arkansas: A 6-foot-7 beast with a rocket arm, he's shown he can win big games in 2010. Could be a top-five pick, if a team really wants a franchise quarterback. 3. Jake Locker, senior, Washington: Everyone's down on Locker following a less than impressive senior season, but he's still got all the physical tools that will make the pro scouts drool. 4. Cameron Newton, junior, Auburn: A wild card, Newton excelled in Gus Malzahn's spread offense. In doing so, though, he showed a better-than-expected arm and incredible awareness. If Tim Tebow went in the first round, where would Newton go? 5. Pat Devlin, senior, Delaware: Ah, Flacco Part II? Not quite. Devlin, a Penn State transfer, doesn't have the arm Flacco had, but he does have a good grasp for the game. An accurate quarterback with nice physicaly tools, he could hear his name announced on one of the draft's first two days.
Cheat Sheet Trivia Answer of the Week: Priest Holmes — undrafted out of Texas in 1997 — led the league in rushing in 2001 with 1,555 yards for Kansas City.