NFL Week 14: NFC Showdowns Ahead Sunday

NFL Week 14 Sunday’s slate is expected to be marked by some inclimate weather in the East and Midwest, but that won’t affect the two showcase games of the day. There’s big divisional battles on hand in the NFC as teams continue their push for home playoff games and first round byes, and no game is bigger than the one down in the Bayou on prime-time

New Orleans fell hard to Seattle this past Monday and the Saints’ hopes for the #1 seed in the NFC realistically ended. Now it’s about winning the NFC South and at least securing the 2-spot and a first-round bye. Clinging to a one-game lead over the surging Carolina Panthers, New Orleans plays the first of two big games against their rival on Sunday night (8:30 PM ET, NBC)

Run defense is the weakness of the New Orleans D, but  did that reasonably well in Seattle. The problem was, Russell Wilson went off for a big night. You have to expect that coordinator Rob Ryan will again look to stop the run and force Cam Newton to try and beat him.

A few weeks ago, Newton met one of his young career’s big tests when he played well on prime-time against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. He’ll likely have to do it again in an even bigger game.

Drew Brees and this Saints’ offense are just entirely different at home. Most offenses would be when you compare playing indoors, as opposed to the rain they dealt with in Seattle. But with New Orleans’ reliance on Brees spreading the field and the lack of a consistent running game, the difference is more pronounced with the Saints.

My confidence in New Orleans as a Super Bowl pick was badly shaken on Monday, but my confidence in their ability to get it done on their home field is not. Asking Newton to win a shootout with Brees in this environment is too much, and as good as Carolina’s defense is, I think New Orleans can put 31 points on the board playing inside. That should be enough to win a good game.

New Orleans is a (-160) favorite on the moneyline, the betting odds for an outright win, as expressed in $100 betting increments. If you want to take Carolina, you can get (+135).

Seattle-San Francisco (4:25 PM ET, Fox): You can warm up for Carolina-New Orleans with the big Seahawks-49ers game out west, with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman on hand to call the game in the late afternoon window. The stakes aren’t as high in this game–Seattle has a three-game lead in the NFC West and a two-game lead, plus tiebreakers in the race for the #1 seed. But San Francisco needs to keep winning to make the playoffs, and the 49ers have to re-establish they can beat Seattle.

Seattle has won the last two meetings between these teams in blowout fashion. They were both up in Seattle, so this game is a chance for San Francisco to establish that they too can control their homefield.

I like the way the 49ers have been coming on in recent weeks. They’ve ran the ball well all year, and now Michael Crabtree is back to help the receiving corps. The excuses for Colin Kaepernick have to stop on Sunday–he’s got good ground support, a high-caliber tight end in Vernon Davis and the Crabtree-Anquan Boldin combo is good enough at receiver. Not to mention a defense that’s playing at a high level and takes some pressure off the quarterback.

San Francisco is a (-140) favorite, with Seattle at (+120). While the chance to take the best team in football and get underdog odds is tempting, I have to go with Frisco. If they don’t win this game, you can cross them off the list of Super Bowl contenders, and I don’t think we’re quite at that point yet.

Two other games will be seen by large chunks of the country..

Detroit (+120) Philadelphia (-140) (1 PM ET, Fox)
Tennessee (+450) Denver (-600) (4:25 PM ET, CBS)

The Lions-Eagles game is one part of an NFC East-NFC North Challenge week that will complete on Monday night with Cowboys-Bears. Detroit is only 7-5, but have emerged as the clear favorite in the North in spite of their inconsistencies. Philadelphia is also 7-5 and playing better football, but they have little margin for error, due to a tough tiebreaker situation with Dallas.

I’m not ready to pick the Lions to go on the road, not after they committed four turnovers in their Thanksgiving Day win over Green Bay, and with Nick Foles playing mistake-free football for Philadelphia. Even if Detroit slows down LeSean McCoy–which they probably will–the Eagle defense can get some turnovers while Foles won’t return the favor.

Denver is the biggest favorite of the week, and even though CBS is only showing one game, they’ll go head-to-head with Fox’s Seattle-San Francisco game in the late TV window. Even with that hefty moneyline, the Broncos are worth the risk.

The big showdowns might be in the NFC, but the AFC also has two key games between contenders…

Indianapolis (+220) Cincinnati (-265)
Miami (+145) Pittsburgh (-170)

I know the Colts have been inconsistent, but why are they this big of an underdog at Cincinnati? It’s not like the Bengals are a ruthlessly efficient machine. Indy can lock up the AFC South with a win or a Tennessee loss. While the Colts can surely wait until the late afternoon and watch the Titans lose, I like Andrew Luck to lead another big late drive and help them nail it down with a road win. A team that’s already won in San Francisco can win in Cincinnati.

Miami is 6-6 and tied with Baltimore for the last playoff spot, with Pittsburgh chasing at 5-7. The Steelers’ position in the tiebreakers stands to be pretty good if they win their three remaining games against AFC opponents. I like Pittsburgh to get it done on their homefield.

Two AFC powers have to hold serve against bad teams…

Kansas City (-160) Washington (+135)
Cleveland (+405) New England (-525)

This is a very dangerous spot for Kansas City. They’ve lost three in a row, but for right now that can be excused by saying two were against Denver and the other a sandwich spot stuck in between. But if the Chiefs, knowing they need to stop the bleeding, can’t beat the Redskins? Then we could be talking meltdown. And in the injuries keep piling up for Andy Reid, with tight end Anthony Fasano out, and the offensive line joining the defense in getting beat up.

I’ll pass on picking this game, since I’m a partisan Washington fan who doesn’t pick against my team and is also tired of losing. I will say that moneyline is very respectful to the Redskins given that they’re a 3-9 team playing a 9-3 one and have played two straight poor games on prime-time. There’s no rational reason to pick against New England, even at that stiff price.

Four more games look rather ugly, but one team has playoff implications in play…

Minnesota (+215) Baltimore (-260)
Atlanta (+160) Green Bay (-185)
St. Louis (+210) Arizona (-250)
Oakland (+135) NY Jets (-160)

I’m done with the Jets. After they seemed to be coming together for a possible playoff run, they now seem to be coming together to ensure Rex Ryan is fired. Oakland is at least competing and even on the road, at least I get some odds with picking them. I also have to go with Baltimore over Minnesota. The Ravens have way too much at stake on their home field to let this one slip away, especially with a coming schedule that has Detroit, New England and Cincinnati awaiting.

Aaron Rodgers will miss another game for Green Bay. If the Packers can survive this game without him, and if Detroit loses in Philadelphia, than the path for Green Bay is suddenly looking realistic. Just get Rodgers back, win your final three games and hope the Lions lose once more. And how hard can it be to beat Atlanta at home, even with Matt Flynn at quarterback?

That’s what we said about the Packers-Vikings game a couple weeks ago though, and it ended in a tie. There’s no way I’m laying anything significant on the moneyline to pick Green Bay and this qualifies. I’ll just play it safe and grab the Falcons, who can at least still throw the ball well.

Arizona took a tough loss in Philly last week, but the Cardinals are still 7-5 and have a real shot at playing San Francisco in Week 17 for the final NFC playoff spot. The defense is playing exceptionally well, Carson Palmer is getting the job done, and I’d be very surprised if they let this game slip away at home.

And the two games that only a mother of the players could love…

Buffalo (+120) Tampa Bay (-140)
NY Giants (+160) San Diego (-185)

The Bills-Bucs features the two coaches out of the Big East, Doug Marrone from Syracuse and Greg Schiano from Rutgers, each known for bringing some of their college exuberance to the NFL. I’ll take Tampa Bay to win there. And I really don’t know what to think of Giants-Chargers, so I’ll again play it safe and pick New York–no point in risking more than (-100) on a game like that.

Season-Long Moneyline Record: (-2100)