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Thursday, June 29 2017

NFL Predictions 2014: Week 17

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The best I can say is that at least I am not limping towards the finish line. I would not say I am sprinting either. The final two weeks can be brutal to predict, and last week I went 10-6 picking winners (156-83-1 overall) and while this will not be one of my better seasons in that area I can live with the results. I went 10-6 against the spread (125-115 overall) and that makes me nervous heading into a pile of games where I have no idea which teams will care. I was 9-7 on the/over under (135-104-1) and all told now stand +41 against the guys in the desert. This week is in a way my favorite to predict because I generally throw out all the data, stats and logic. There is little reason to use it given the fact that some teams either really care (trying to make playoffs) really do not care (out of the playoffs) could care less (resting starters for playoffs) or are pretending to care when they do not (playing for draft position). I care, of this I am sure.

Detroit (11-4) @ Green Bay (11-4): Home field advantage can in some cases be overrated. In this case, not so much. The Lions have all kinds of trouble outdoors, especially in cold weather. They got a warmup, pardon the pun, last week in Chicago beating a hapless Bears team 20-14 a day after a choke by Philadelphia put them in the playoffs. Including a win over Atlanta in London they are now 4-3 on the road, but in that one they fell behind 21-0 at half against a team that was at the time really struggling. They lost the only away games they played against contenders (Arizona, New England) and the third was in Carolina who could win the NFC South. Perhaps the biggest issue for them is scoring outside of their dome. An average of 15.0 with a high of 22 is not likely to cut it here. True, they beat the Packers 19-7 at home, but that was a long time ago. In that first meeting they lost the turnover battle 3-1 yet still controlled the game and held the ball for 38:13.

Again, the factor here is Lambeau Field where Green Bay has not lost to these guys in a generation (1991). They have spent the last two weeks on the road, losing to a vicious pass rush in Buffalo and smothering Tampa Bay. On this field they are 7-0 including a win over New England and scoring outputs of 42, 38, 55, 53 and 43 points. True, this is a ferocious defense they are facing. However, even the best defenses tend to falter a little in enemy territory. Aaron Rodgers has an iffy calf and his mobility could be limited. This is a concern. Both teams desperately want to win this game and take the NFC North, avoiding a tough path to the Super Bowl on the road. Dominic Raiola was not thinking about this when he got himself suspended for his antics last week. If the Lions had any chance to run the ball, it probably died with him out of the lineup. Reggie Bush is not a feared player in this setup. Matthew Stafford seems like the kind of guy who can ball out in a game of this magnitude, but I know Rodgers is up to the task and he has a much better supporting cast. It is not a rout, and I see the punters playing a big part in the outcome. Field position and field goals decide it as much as the quarterbacks: Green Bay 23, Detroit 17 (DET +8/under 48)

Jacksonville (3-12) @ Houston (8-7): The Texans know what the Jaguars are feeling in a game like this. Just last year they were in position to land the first pick in the draft and wound up with it when all was said and done. Granted, Jacksonville is looking at the third pick. However, as it stands there are two marquee quarterbacks expected to fall in those two slots so they probably feel just fine landing third again as they try rebuilding their roster. Houston knows how fast a turnaround can take place. They are still alive for what would be one of the most unlikely wild card finishes I can recall. If they get in with Case Keenum as their starting quarterback it will immediately be made into a Disney movie, or at least it should be. He directed a huge 25-13 win over Baltimore last week after being signed from off the St. Louis practice squad.

The last time these teams hooked up it was a typical struggle between teams in the same division with Houston leading 17-13 at Jacksonville into the fourth quarter before the scored the game's only points in the final frame for a two-touchdown win. In the rematch, they get a team feeling at least a little bit confident off a win on TNF over Tennessee. Jacksonville is also well rested and completely loose considering they have nothing on the line. Teams like this can be really dangerous. I feel as if rookie quarterback Blake Bortles would love to officially put another team out of the playoffs as the icing on his first campaign. Unfortunately I have serious doubts of their ability to score on the road where just once have they topped 17 points. J.J. Watt is making his case for the MVP he quite frankly richly deserves and I anticipate him going off. Arian Foster has to be at his best carrying the football to keep the pressure off Keenum, but the Texans should be able to score just fine. Building a lead is the best way to make another team quit. I do not see a huge fight from the visitors once they get behind, so this should turn into a comfortable win even if the Texans ultimately fall short (spoiler alert) of their playoff bid: Houston 28, Jacksonville 16 (HOU -9.5/over 40)

Cincinnati (10-4-1) @ Pittsburgh (10-5): There are implications for the winner of this game based on the action earlier in the day, but I assure you neither team cares or will be scoreboard watching. By the time this SNF showdown kicks off I expect this to be a battle for the No. 3 seed that comes along with winning the AFC North. The loser is assured of a wild card, but as with the NFC North battle earlier in the day both teams really want this win to avoid having to travel next week. Are the Steelers are pretty good team? They are on a 7-2 run down the stretch, stubbing their toes twice against losing teams (Jets, Saints) in close games and blowing these Bengals out 42-21 in their building thanks to a great fourth quarter. Cincinnati is also on a 7-2 roll, but their losses, including the one I just mentioned, were both by 21 points. All of their losses this year are of the blowout variety, but last week's gritty 37-28 win over Denver might have revealed them to be in playoff condition. Unfortunately it was on MNF, putting them on a short week having to travel. Their road scoring average is 19.0 points, but they are 5-2. The Steelers are 5-2 at Heinz Field including last week's physical 20-12 win over Kansas City who was fighting for their playoff lives.

The first meeting was just three weeks ago, but teams always find a way to adjust. Most of that comes on defense considering the teams accounted for a total of 951 yards. The quarterbacks both played well, finishing north of 300 passing yards without any interceptions. Andy Dalton has been sick this week and might be feeling it this Sunday Night if A.J. Green is not completely healthy which I expect to be the case. Rookie rusher Jeremy Hill has been great this season, but their offense is not the same without Green being at his best. On the other hand, even if they just handled Peyton Manning less than a week ago, I have to say the arsenal Ben Roethlisberger brings to the table might actually be better at this point because of stud back Le'Veon Bell. Both teams are going to be a little burned out after a long season. Pittsburgh has the benefit of hanging out at home for the week and playing a day earlier. Their quarterback is clutch and I think their defense is rounding into a bit of playoff form. They will get this one: Pittsburgh 24, Cincinnati 20 (PIT -3/under 48.5) 

Indianapolis (10-5) @ Tennessee (2-13): We got a preview of how the Colts look in a game they do not care about on the road last week when they were clocked 42-7 in Dallas. That was against a good team with a reason to win. Here they face a bad team with a reason to lose. The Titans have a chance at the first overall pick in the draft if Tampa Bay beats New Orleans, but at the very least they can lock up the second choice by losing. This is a big deal with what looks like a draft comprised of two potential franchise quarterbacks and they are definitely in the market. All of this being said, this is not going to be a repeat of the first meeting won 41-17 by Indianapolis who racked up 498 total yards in the rout and held the ball a ridiculous 42:21.

It is hard enough to pick games when I do know who is starting at quarterback. In this one, Andrew Luck figures to sit out or play very little considering the team is locked as the No. 4 seed in the AFC playoffs regardless of the final week of results around the league. Injured wide receiver T.Y. Hilton might suit up just to see a series or two, but I doubt he is going to play much more than that. Instead we are likely to see veteran Matt Hasselbeck directing the offense against Charlie Whitehurst, assuming rookie Zach Mettenberger is not a surprise start. If nothing else, Hasselbeck has experience playing here having suited up as the home quarterback of the Titans for the entire 2011 season and half of 2012. It is not so much revenge as pride for him. His career as a starter is over, but he gets one more chance to prove he still has what it takes to register a win.

Spending the last two months losing had to wear out Tennessee I would think. They built a lead last week in Jacksonville on TNF only to get outscored 21-3 to close the game. The Titans have scored just 31 total points over their last three games and even a backup offense for the Colts can match that scoring. I see an ugly game that looks like an exhibition. For me the defenses come out with the most intensity because they generally do not rest. Indianapolis does want to generate some momentum, but they play next week and also want to keep their players healthy. Even if draft position is at risk, Tennessee is a professional football team and they are going to show up. Flip a coin really, and I will take the team with something to lose to do just that: Indianapolis 20, Tennessee 17 (TEN +7/under 47) 

Cleveland (7-8) @ Baltimore (9-6): Boy have the Ravens screwed things up. They had a playoff berth in their hands going to Houston against a team led by a practice squad quarterback, and lost 25-13. Now, instead of needing just a win against a third-string quarterback here, they need a win and help from the Chiefs who are starting a backup quarterback. This, my friends, is why the NFL desperately wants to protect the guys who throw the football, by the way. At any rate, Connor Shaw becomes the second rookie to start for the Browns this season and it comes with infinitely less fanfare than when Johnny Manziel tried to lead this team to a playoff run two weeks ago. He gets a team with a horrific secondary. In the first meeting, Brian Hoyer was 19-of-25 for 290 yards in Baltimore's 23-21 win on a last-second field goal. At that point Justin Forsett had not really broken out, but in the rematch he looks to cap off one of the most unexpected seasons ever for a running back.

What do I make of Joe Flacco this season? He has, in most games, done an excellent job protecting the football. Last week's 3 interception performance was an outlier to be sure. He had consecutive games with 2 interceptions in October. Those three games produced 7 of his season's 12 turnovers total. He has taken just 18 sacks and lost zero fumbles. Still, I would pin both losses to Cincinnati on him and that is the difference in winning the AFC North and sitting out the playoffs. I am counting on him to finish strong and hope the result in Kansas City goes their way. Cleveland will want to put up a fight here because their instinct is to wreck a team's playoff dreams while finishing strong and avoiding a losing season. However, they have not finished strong having lost five out of their past six. Baltimore is 5-2 at home and my instinct says they find a way to close this out even if it will not result in a playoff bid. The last minute suspension of wide receiver Josh Gordon only cements this pick, but I am leaving the score alone: Baltimore 28, Cleveland 13 (BAL -7/under 42.5)

Buffalo (8-7) @ New England (12-3): Christmas came early for the Patriots as they watched the Broncos gift them the No. 1 seed by losing on MNF, rendering this game meaningless for them. Even better, the Bills choked in Oakland and eliminated themselves from wild card consideration so they could care less about this game other than trying to secure a winning record. Tom Brady figures to start against a team he is now 23-2 against including a 37-22 road win two months ago. A 3-0 turnover edge helped them secure the victory despite having no running game to speak of. With Marcell Dareus out for the rematch, I expect the results to be very different just as they were when he exited against the Raiders last week. Teams resting starters tend to lean on the running game and overwhelm their opponent. Jimmy Garoppolo can direct the offense in what might amount to a scrimmage by the final gun, but I feel as though the Patriots want to finish 8-0 here at home so Brady might play the entire first half.

For Buffalo, a 3-4 road team this season with two of those victories coming in Detroit's Ford Field, I see them in complete letdown mode. How do you recover from losing against a 2-12 team when your playoff life was on the line, and do so while returning from a cross-country plane ride? I do not see them getting up for this game. Veteran quarterback Kyle Orton is certainly capable of putting up yards, as he did while throwing for 299 the first time around, but is always prone to the sacks/turnovers that will undo him in the end. At least this time Brady will not have to worry about the press calling for his head when the kid takes his spot in what amounts to mop up duty: New England 23, Buffalo 20 (BUF +10.5/under 51.5) 

NY Jets (3-12) @ Miami (8-7): Do not tell these teams this is a meaningless game to close out the schedule. Rivals never play games without meaning. The Jets have already likely screwed themselves out of position to draft a difference-making quarterback according to the draftniks, and surely figure to go all-out in what figures to be head coach Rex Ryan's final game at the helm. Ironically, it was poor quarterback play that plagued his tenure with the team and after his departure they figure to still be seeking a franchise signal-caller when the 2015 draft is in the books. The Dolphins have already said head coach Joe Philbin will return after another disappointing season without a playoff berth. At the start of this month they still had hope, and beat the Jets in New Jersey 16-13 on MNF with a 10-0 fourth quarter. New York put everything they had into the game and eventually ran out of gas.

Geno Smith is trying to prove he can be the starting quarterback for New York going forward, but it is doubtful he is going to show enough in this game to change anyone's mind. He lacks anything close to a playmaker at the other end of his passes, especially if Percy Harvin sits this one out. Amazingly, the offense has paved the way for the "Chris" brothers to 1,435 yards on 320 carries, but for just 7 touchdowns. Scoring has been a problem for this team all season with the team scoring more than 20 points just four times. On the plus side their defense has limited the opposition to no more than 17 points in three of their past four games and last week they played like a contender losing 17-16 to rival New England. Can they find the energy to repeat that kind of effort on the road? I kind of doubt it. The Dolphins are an erratic team, and only 4-3 at home. Five times they have scored 33-plus points this season and six times they have failed to score more than 16 points. Still, I trust their quarterback a lot more, especially in a situation like this where the pressure is off. Speaking of off I think the defenses rest in this one: Miami 27, NY Jets 20 (MIA -4.5/over 41.5) 

Carolina (6-8-1) @ Atlanta (6-9): After all the disaster scenarios, barring a tie in this game the winner of the NFC South will have 7 wins and not totally embarrass the NFL I suppose. The Panthers enter the game having been outscored by 66 points on the season, which is pretty bad. The Falcons come in at 1-9 outside of this pathetic division, which bodes well for them to advance to the playoffs, but not so much when it comes to winning a game once they get there. I always say that winning at home and within the division gets you to the playoffs. Of all the teams that have already clinched spots, only one has more than 2 losses at home (Dallas, 4-4) and none have more than 2 losses inside their division. Atlanta is 3-3 in their building, having lost a "home" game played in London against Detroit. By the numbers, I like their chances.

The first meeting was very tight with a battle of field goals in the first half putting Atlanta up 6-3. They extended the lead to 16-3, but two touchdowns gave Carolina the lead until the Panthers kicked another field goal to win 19-17. It was the first of three road wins within the division that has put the Falcons in position to steal the South after a horrific 2-6 start. When I look at their last eight games, even including blowing a 21-0 lead across the pond, they have actually looked like a playoff team. They beat Arizona, threw a scare into Green Bay with a road comeback in primetime, played Pittsburgh tough and just blew New Orleans out of their building with the chips down. Carolina has not played as well over as long a period of time. They had lost six straight before winning their last three, and during the same period of time I just outlined they have lost by 18, 24 and 18 points with all of those teams out of the playoffs. Scraping past Tampa Bay and Cleveland by a combined 8 points at home over the past two weeks is supposed to impress me? Cam Newton is a phony. There, I said it. I could care less if he survived a car accident. The Panthers might come in here and run the ball to prove me wrong, but I will take Matt Ryan in this building and not look back. I feel as if this is their destiny based on what I saw from them last week: Atlanta 27, Carolina 20 (ATL -2.5/under 48)

Chicago (5-10) @ Minnesota (6-9): At one point the Bears were 3-3 having won in San Francisco and Atlanta, but since that time things have completely fallen apart for them. Last week they benched quarterback Jay Cutler and were competitive against playoff bound Detroit, losing 20-14. Jimmy Clausen's concussion means Cutler is right back into the fire for what many are speculating is his final game in a Bears uniform. Of course, those people are guessing. They said his benching was to make sure he was not injured in advance of a trade to Tennessee. Obviously this is not true or he would be sitting this game out as well. I think the real problem for this team of late, losing their last four, is playing teams that are better than they are. They had two with Detroit, Dallas and a New Orleans team with a quarterback capable of ripping their defense. They are 5-2 against teams with a losing record, so think about that before dismissing them in this game.

By comparison, the Vikings are 6-2 versus losing teams, but they did fall 21-13 in the first meting. I expect a far different result here. The Bears are now without Brandon Marshall and the offense that put up 468 total yards in that game is vastly different without him. They held the ball 38:38 in that one, allowing the Vikings to run just 46 plays. The visitors were without any sort of running game in that one, and while Matt Asiata is a plodder I do expect him to at least get a few carries here to occasionally make life easier for rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Minnesota's offense has certainly picked it up of late, scoring 30-plus points in three of their past four games. Chicago's defense stopped a string of allowing 30-plus in three straight last week, but how much energy do they have on the road in the last game of the season playing for a lame duck head coach? Cutler probably shows up big in this one just to stick it in the face of his critics. However, I still like the home team playing in their temporary home: Minnesota 31, Chicago 27 (CHI +7/over 43.5)  

San Diego (9-6) @ Kansas City (8-7): It has been a wild season for the Chargers. At 5-1 they were being called elite. Then came a meeting with these Chiefs on their home field. They lost 23-20 to start a three-game slide, leaving them 5-4 entering their bye week and forgotten in a competitive AFC. Three straight wins put them in the conversation to win the AFC West again, but losses at home to New England and Denver dashed those dreams. It looked like a third straight loss would again be in the cards on Saturday night when they fell behind 28-7, but a huge comeback in San Francisco for a 38-35 OT win has put them in position to earn a wild card here. The Chiefs lost control of their destiny by losing in Pittsburgh last week and now need two other teams to lose if they want to win a wild card spot. They also need to do it with Chase Daniel at quarterback. I am curious how many people will call him Chase Daniels while talking about this game. My guess is a lot.

Getting back to that first meeting, they were pretty good. Kansas City held the ball for 39:00 and put up 365 total yards so even though they won at the gun on a field goal it was an earned win to be sure. They limited Philip RIvers to 205 yards passing. This time around I find it hard to believe they can hold him down as much because their offense is unlikely to move the ball as effectively as they did the first time around. More possessions will equal more opportunities to do damage. He is without Keenan Allen in the rematch, but still has Antonio Gates needing 53 yards to reach 10,000 for his incredible career. Plus, he just makes plays when it matters most. The Chiefs will not go down easy in their stadium. I expect their defense to show up and keep them in this game. Their running game is also going to be a factor, but at some point Daniel needs to make a play. This team is on the brink of going a full season without a touchdown to a wide receiver and that makes it a lot easier on a defense. I like the visitors because of Rivers, and they did get an extra day of rest which helps: San Diego 24, Kansas City 21 (SD +3.5/over 40)

Philadelphia (9-6) @ NY Giants (6-9): Three weeks ago this looked like a complete mismatch to end the season. The Eagles were 9-3 and the Giants were 3-9. My how things have changed. Now Philadelphia has choked their way out of the playoffs thanks to a 27-24 loss in Washington last Saturday. New York has won three straight games by double digits, perhaps setting up some momentum for next year. Still, let us not forget they are 1-7 against teams with a winning record with the lone victory coming in week 3 over Houston who had not yet gotten their wings. The Eagles are now 6-2 against teams with a losing record, including a 27-0 thumping of the Giants back in October. That was a long time ago, and Nick Foles was their quarterback then. Now it is Mark Sanchez returning to New Jersey and the crowd should be in full throat for him. Another big change is the emergence of rookie wide receiver Odell Beckham, who was targeted just 4 times in that meeting. He might be thrown to the first four plays from scrimmage this time.

These final week, meaningless games are so hard to measure. New York has a veteran coach with two Super Bowl rings and a quarterback who helped him get that jewelry. I feel confident they would want to win this game even if it was not against a bitter rival. Philadelphia has a much less experienced, younger head coach who has never had to motivate his team for a game with no meaning because last year in his first season with the team they won the division. Are his guys going to be up for this after losing three straight? At the end of the season players are worn out and football is a physical game. Do they want to make that block, put their body in harm's way or run a little bit faster to tackle someone? We are going to find out. I believe in momentum here. The visitors are deflated while the home team is invigorated. Sanchez has no happy return: NY Giants 27, Philadelphia 22 (NYG -2.5/under 53)

Dallas (11-4) @ Washington (4-11): Why are the Cowboys messing around with this game? Tony Romo has been knocked out of the past two games he played against the Redskins. The last time around he actually made it back into the game, but Washington still won 20-17. There is no prize for going 8-0 on the road, but the way they are talking you would think there is. Their hopes of earning a bye are based on things that no one believes are going to happen, so to risk their fragile quarterback seems very foolish to me. Beyond that, overworked running back DeMarco Murray played through a hand injury last week and could use a week of rest in advance of an anticipated first-round playoff game. If Arizona is their opponent, as expected, they need their offensive stars at full strength. All of this being said, regardless of who starts the game I find it hard to believe either of these guys finish it.

On the other side of things, Robert Griffin III just helped the Redskins register a season-wrecking win over the Eagles. He did not put up eye-popping numbers, but sometimes a quarterback needs to simply avoid mistakes and let the other players around him make the plays. His presence on the field surely helped Darrel Young push in two touchdowns from a yard out because even if he will never be physically the same threat he once was teams have it in the back of their minds. Griffin is fighting for his future in the league and might finally understand that building his brand is less important than working his rear end off to become a better football player. Head coach Jay Gruden appears to be out of danger, and it seems crazy for a guy in his first year on the job but that is the nature of the NFL. All of this adds up to Washington really wanting this win over a bitter rival. They can hang their hats on a season sweep. Dallas has bigger fish to fry in the playoffs. Their goal is to finish this game healthy. They do, in a loss: Washington 21, Dallas 20 (WAS +7/under 49.5) 

New Orleans (6-9) @ Tampa Bay (2-13): All the Saints had to do last week was beat the Falcons at home and an entire season of frustration would have been erased with a victory here to clinch the NFC South. Instead, they were thumped 30-14 thanks in large part to an awful call on a clear touchdown pass that was ruled a fumble. Either way, they had their chance and blew it. All year it seemed as though this team would wake up and get hot. Instead their defense was too much of an anchor for an offense that clearly lost a level on the explosiveness scale. Six times they have posted 28-plus points, including big wins over Green Bay and Pittsburgh that led us to believe they could contend. Five times, however, they failed to score more than 20, resulting in four of their losses. Only three teams failed to score 23-plus points on them this year, and no the Bucs were not one of them.

In the first meeting, New Orleans outlasted Tampa Bay 37-31 in OT after trailing by 11 with ten minutes to play. The game kind of epitomized their season as they had a huge edge in yardage (511 to 314) but lost the turnover battle 3-1 to put themselves in danger. Even 15 penalties by the Bucs for 113 yards was not enough to help them put away a bad team. Tampa Bay is trying to avoid a winless home campaign, but are they really? Losing this game leaves them with the first pick in the draft, a selection that many people believe they would use on Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Marcus Mariota to fill a gaping hole on their roster. They thought veteran Josh McCown could operate the offense and get the ball to big receivers Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans. It seemed like a good plan, but he has been awful. The offense has scored more than 17 points just once in their last ten games, and of course won when they did (27-7 at Washington). At this point, as much as I respect head coach Lovie Smith I find it hard to imagine him directing a win and costing his franchise the top choice. These guys know the stakes and I could care less what he says to the media. The Saints seem to have figured out how to score outdoors, putting up 28, 35 and 31 in their last three games outside of a dome. I like them to take this in a snoozer: New Orleans 27, Tampa Bay 17 (NO -3.5/under 47)

St. Louis (6-9) @ Seattle (11-4): What in the world happened to the Rams on defense last week? After going three games looking unbeatable, holding teams to a combined 12 points and no touchdowns they were torched by the Giants 37-27 with rookie sensation Odell Beckham going off as he has against everyone of late. Their momentum has halted in a big way and now they go to a stadium where wins are rare. The Seahawks need one more victory to secure home field throughout the NFC playoffs, so they are motivated. There is not a scenario to make this game meaningless for them before kickoff, which means I expect them to go all out. Left tackle Russell Okung might play and help the offensive line get as healthy as it has been in a while. Coupled with the momentum they have been building of late I see a runaway train in motion here.

The Rams are a decent 3-4 away from home, but this is a different animal. They are heading into a hostile environment led by a journeyman quarterback and not exactly elite supporting talent on offense. Their defense is definitely top flight, but eventually on the last day of the season these guys figure to fold up tent similar to what they wound up doing on their home field last week against a far less talented opponent. Seattle is peaking there is no question about it. Their last five opponents have totaled 33 points and 14 of those were scored on them in Philadelphia. Speaking of which, one of the three touchdowns they gave up came on a very short field against the Eagles. This defense is definitely playing like the Super Bowl version. In the last meeting St. Louis pulled every trick in the book and stole a 28-26 win. Now they probably wish they had lost that one because it would have meant facing backups in this one. Instead they get this: Seattle 31, St. Louis 6 (SEA -10/under 41.5) 

Arizona (11-4) @ San Francisco (7-8): It is not often a team with a losing record gets favored by a touchdown against a playoff-bound team with 11 wins, but here we are. Even with four straight losses, the 49ers have plenty of talent and definitely enough pride to want to avoid closing out their first season at Levi's Stadium with a fifth loss and ending the year at 7-9 after spending the past three campaigns in the NFC Championship Game. These teams were both swept by Seattle over the last five weeks, but Arizona's 9-1 start left them in position to absorb the losses. The only other teams to beat them this season were Denver and Atlanta, both on the road. It has been three months since the first meeting. At the time it was somewhat surprising to see the Cards win 23-14 behind Drew Stanton. Now they would love to have Stanton at quarterback. Instead it looks like Ryan Lindley will go although anything is possible. This might truly be a scoreboard watching situation for them. If the Seahawks lose they have a shot at a bye week. Otherwise, they are going to be playing next week on the road and not very interested in exerting a whole lot of energy here.

For San Francisco, I suppose this is their time to show up for head coach Jim Harbaugh who is expected to leave at season's end. It might also be the final game for running back Frank Gore, a guy with near Hall of Fame numbers in his career. The team, and Gore, played last week against San Diego like they had turned back the clock. Well, for a while anyway. Their 28-7 lead evaporated into a 38-35 OT loss. Now they have a second chance to end the season on a high note of sorts. Getting swept by Arizona is not something they want to feel as a disappointing year comes to a close. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick got back to running the ball last week, busting a 90-yard touchdown and I expect him to try some of that this week. More than anything, I do not see the Cardinals going all out for this win. It should still be close because the defenses are both good. The 49ers have a ton of players out, notably at linebacker, but given what they are facing I do not expect them to struggle like they did against the Chargers last week. Instead, they grind out an ugly win: San Francisco 17, Arizona 13 (AZ +6.5/under 37)

Oakland (3-12) @ Denver (11-4): Remember when the Raiders seemed like a lock for the first overall pick and everyone thought they would finish 0-16? Those days are long gone. Three straight home wins took care of that, but they alternated with road losses by a combined 83-13 so traveling is still a major issue for this team as they look to avoid an 0-8 road mark. It is going to be difficult. The first meeting with the Broncos resulted in a 41-17 loss. On the positive side, they were in the game for the most part of the first half before Peyton Manning did what he does to lesser opponents and has for well over a decade. Amazingly, after Manning struggled in Cincinnati on MNF and Denver lost 37-28 it seems like everyone is ready to bury him along with this team's chances at repeating as AFC champions. Never mind the four straight wins that preceded it.

Anyway, the Broncos have to win this game because of their failure in primetime. It might not matter because the Steelers could beat the Bengals on SNF to ensure a bye week for them, but obviously they do not have a crystal ball to see that. If they win here, the week off is theirs for sure and I believe they go all out to get it. At 7-0 in this stadium I like their chances, it is just a matter of how much they win by. Rookie Derek Carr probably relishes the opportunity to match up with Manning, but will probably only do so a few more times. He threw the ball 47 times in the first meeting and if he puts it up at least 37 times here he will go over 600 for the season. In his two rematches thus far he again lost both games, but I think his confidence has grown. This is a game the Broncos need to win. They could care less if it is a blowout and while I worry about how much the Raiders can score I like their chances to keep it close this time: Denver 31, Oakland 21 (OAK +14.5/over 47.5)

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NFL Predictions 2014: Week 17
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