Thirteen of the 15 games this week have playoff implications. I could handicap every one of them for you, but let's be sporting about this. How could I keep a straight face and pad the record with puppies? Flash! Dr. Z picks Dallas over New Orleans, Indy over Cleveland.
Sure, this is the year of upsets, and who would have figured on Philadelphia and Chicago knocking off playoff contenders New England and Detroit, respectively, and convincingly, too? But let's keep this in perspective. We'll start with the more gripping games and see where that leads.
Jacksonville (13-1) at Tennessee (11-3) looked good on paper a few weeks ago, and the records certainly are fancy, but both teams have already clinched postseason spots, and now they're competing for playoff position. Coaches stress the importance of playing for home-field advantage in the playoffs, but that's never as powerful a motivating force as the old urgency formula: If you win it, you're in it. The Titans would love to beat the Jaguars a second time, but Tennessee's not stupid. The Titans know a division title is a long shot, hinging on Cincinnati's knocking off the Jaguars in Jacksonville on Jan. 2. So a little of the edge is off this one. For the Jaguars, who now have the swift legs of Fred Taylor to carry them, it's a revenge kind of thing. Call it a Jacksonville victory in a low-scoring affair.
Kansas City (9-5) at Seattle (8-6) is my favorite game on the schedule. The Seahawks are reeling after four straight defeats. But if they beat the Chiefs, they'll have a leg up on the division title because of their sweep of K.C. The Chiefs play far worse on the road than they do in that Arrowhead madhouse. Look what happened to the poor Steelers last Saturday. They came with a neat little game plan and moved the ball smartly, but after they fell behind and the crowd noise kicked in and the false-start penalties (six of them, plus one delay of game) started mounting, catch-up was almost impossible. The Chiefs can proudly point to the 30 false starts and six delays that opponents have been flagged for in their house, and it was inspiring to see coach Gunther Cunningham on the sideline last Saturday, exhorting the crowd to keep up the volume.
Surprisingly enough, the Chiefs have fared pretty well in the Kingdome, winning three in a row before losing last year. Denver hammered what looks like a worn-down Seattle defense for 260 yards on the ground, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out that K.C. will try to do the same. So why do I like the Seahawks? Call it a hunch.
The Buccaneers are also bleeding after the Raiders whipped them 45-0 on Sunday. Shaun King came down off the clouds, but the biggest embarrassment was the defense, so expect it to be stoked for Green Bay at home. Yes, I like the Bucs.
The Jets, who are going nowhere, will pull off a road upset over playoff hopeful Miami. The Dolphins seem to be tiring. Plus, they can't run the ball. Washington's league-leading rusher, Stephen Davis, is out with a sprained left ankle, which means Brad Johnson will throw for close to 400 yards in a Redskins win in San Francisco.
The Lions stay in the thick of the NFC Central race with a win over the Broncos. The Cardinals have enough defense to get by the Falcons in Atlanta, but the Vikings, hoping for easy pickings in New York, will get upset by the Giants. The Patriots have beaten Buffalo four straight times in Foxboro, but they won't make it five. The Bills win it on the ground. The Panthers, with the NFL's hottest quarterback in Steve Beuerlein, run up the score on the Steelers, and the Raiders, a team given to breathtaking highs and lows, struggle but squeeze one out in San Diego.