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Week 15 power rankings

TomBrady Getty Images

1. New England Patriots (last week No. 2; 11-3):  Tom Brady wants to play “forever,” which roughly equates to the amount of time it takes him to complete a 17-yard run.

2. Seattle Seahawks (No. 3; 10-4):  J.J. Watt may be the MVP, and Bobby Wagner may be the defensive player of the year.

3. Denver Broncos (No. 4; 11-3):  Peyton Manning throwing a block is roughly as hard to watch as Peyton Manning throwing up.

4. Arizona Cardinals (No. 5; 11-3):  As the saying goes, when you have two quarterbacks, you have none; for the Cardinals, when you have no quarterbacks, you have two.

5. Green Bay Packers (No. 1; 10-4):  Aaron Rodgers was a little too relaxed in Buffalo.

6. Dallas Cowboys (No. 7; 10-4):  They could be the No. 1 seed and they could miss the playoffs.  If DeMarco Murray misses Sunday’s game, take the under.

7. Indianapolis Colts (No. 8; 10-4):  Squarely on the second tier behind Denver and New England, the Colts won’t be viewed as a real contender until they can beat one of those two teams in the postseason.

8. Detroit Lions (No. 9; 10-4):  Everyone keeps waiting for the old Lions to show up.  Maybe they won’t.

9. Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 10; 9-5):  Good news, the final two games are at home, where they beat the Ravens and Colts.  Bad news, the final two games are at home, where they lost to the Bucs and the Saints.

10. Philadelphia Eagles (No. 6; 9-5):  Demoralized after a pair of home losses, the Eagles are still only a pair of road wins and a Cowboys stumble away from winning the division.

11. Cincinnati Bengals (No. 11; 9-4-1):  Maybe Marvin Lewis should make offensive comments about the upcoming opponent’s quarterback more often.

12. Baltimore Ravens (No. 12; 9-5):  Like 2012, they’re finding the gas pedal in December.

13. Kansas City Chiefs (No. 15; 8-6):  Great turnaround against Oakland, but it could be too late.

14. Buffalo Bills (No. 17; 8-6):  They may not make the playoffs, but that signature win over the Packers could save Doug Marrone’s job.

15. San Diego Chargers (No. 13; 8-6):  0-2 at home against the Patriots and Broncos shows that the Chargers simply can’t compete with the big boys.

16. New Orleans Saints (No. 23; 6-8):  The team that can’t win at home suddenly can’t be beaten away from it.

17. Houston Texans (No. 14; 7-7):  Maybe J.J. Watt should play quarterback; he can’t be much worse than Thad Lewis or Case Keenum.

18. St. Louis Rams (No. 16; 6-8):  Bruce Arians has shown Jeff Fisher how to properly throw shade.

19. Carolina Panthers (No. 22; 5-8-1):  When the Panthers host the Browns, the guy who was in a car wreck will be facing the guy who is in a train wreck.

20. Miami Dolphins (No. 18; 7-7):  Joe Philbin is on to Minnesota.  And folks in Miami are saying, “Don’t come back.”

21. San Francisco 49ers (No. 20; 7-7):  After having the last three seasons fall apart in the key moments of a critical postseason game, having it end in December could be a welcome relief.

22. Minnesota Vikings (No. 19; 6-8):  The team’s 2014 experience can be summarized by the experience birds will be having at the team’s new glass-walled stadium.

23. Cleveland Browns (No. 21; 7-7):  Johnny Goose Egg?

24. New York Giants (No. 25; 5-9):  It looks like Tom Coughlin may get a chance to miss the playoffs in six of seven seasons.

25. Atlanta Falcons (No. 24; 5-9):  The only good news for the Falcons is that the looming coaching vacancy could be the most attractive job in the upcoming hiring cycle.

26. Chicago Bears (No. 26; 5-9):  Thirty years after this team was on the brink of its best season ever, it feels like the Bears could be just one year away from its worst.

27. New York Jets (No. 32; 3-11):  Percy Harvin won’t take a pay cut to return.  He should want a pay raise to stay in the middle of this mess.

28. Oakland Raiders (No. 27; 2-12):  Maybe Derek Carr’s potential will balance out the general dysfunction and crappy stadium in the coaching search.

29. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 28; 2-12):  There’s reason for hope in 2015.  Especially if this year’s hopelessness results in the first overall pick in the draft.

30. Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 29; 2-12):  They remain competitive.  At some point, they need to win games.

31. Washington (No. 31; 3-11):  Coach Jay Gruden actually seemed to be relieved that they lost by only 11 to the Giants.

32. Tennessee Titans (No. 30; 2-12):  The Titans have become the Jaguars without the swimming pools.

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Week 16 playoff scenarios

Marshawn Lynch AP

Four teams have already clinched playoff berths, and in Week 16 eight more teams have the ability to clinch. Here’s how the playoff scenarios look for Week 16:

AFC

CLINCHED: New England – AFC East, Denver – AFC West, Indianapolis – AFC South

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (at New York Jets)

New England clinches home-field advantage throughout AFC playoffs with a win and a Denver loss.

New England clinches a first-round bye with a win or losses by the Colts, Bengals, Steelers and Ravens.

DENVER BRONCOS (at Cincinnati)

Denver clinches a first-round bye with a win.

CINCINNATI BENGALS (vs. Denver)

Cincinnati clinches the AFC North with a win, a Pittsburgh loss and a Baltimore loss.

Cincinnati clinches a playoff spot with a win or losses by the Chiefs, Chargers and Bills.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS (vs. Kansas City)

Pittsburgh clinches a playoff spot with a win.

BALTIMORE RAVENS (at Houston)

Baltimore clinches a playoff spot with a win and losses by the Steelers and Bengals, or losses by the Chiefs and Chargers.

NFC

CLINCHED: Arizona – playoff spot

ARIZONA CARDINALS (vs. Seattle)

Arizona clinches NFC West and home-field advantage throughout NFC playoffs with a win.

DETROIT LIONS (at Chicago)

Detroit clinches NFC North with a win and a Packers loss.

Detroit clinches a first-round bye with a win, a Packers loss and a Cowboys loss.

Detroit clinches a playoff spot with a win or an Eagles loss.

DALLAS COWBOYS (vs. Indianapolis)

Dallas clinches NFC East with a win and an Eagles loss.

Dallas clinches a playoff spot with a win and losses by the Packers and Lions.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (at Arizona)

Seattle clinches a playoff spot with a win and a loss by either the Eagles, the Lions or the Packers. Seattle also clinches a playoff spot if the Eagles lose and the Cowboys win.

GREEN BAY PACKERS (at Tampa Bay)

Green Bay clinches a playoff spot with a win and either an Eagles loss or a Cowboys win. If the Eagles lose and the Cowboys win, Green Bay clinches a playoff spot even with a loss.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (vs. Atlanta)

New Orleans clinches the NFC South with a win and a Panthers loss.

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NFC playoff picture: Can Saints finish the deal?

Drew Brees AP

By knocking off the listless Bears in Chicago on Monday night, the Saints regained control of the NFC South.

In fact, the South race could be over Sunday afternoon. If the Saints defeat the Falcons in New Orleans, and if the Panthers lose to the Browns in Charlotte, the Saints will win the division.

On the other hand, a Saints loss Sunday, coupled with a Panthers victory, would eliminate New Orleans, leaving the Week 17 Carolina-Atlanta winner the South champion. (In this case, a Falcons-Panthers tie would give Carolina the South title, per the NFL’s playoff scenario database.)

Here is the NFC’s playoff seeding through Week 15. (For a longer look at how the No. 1 seed can be won, check out Mike Florio’s feature on the matter.) League standings and tiebreakers were referenced:

THE BIG SIX

1. Arizona Cardinals (11-3, .786). NFC West leader. Has clinched playoff spot. Would clinch NFC West and No. 1 overall seed with victory Sunday vs. Seattle.

2. Detroit Lions (10-4, .714). NFC North leader. Holds tiebreaker over Green Bay on basis of head-to-head win. Seeded ahead of Dallas on basis of better NFC record (8-2 vs. 7-4). Can win NFC North with victory at Green Bay in Week 17.

3. Dallas Cowboys (10-4, .714). NFC East leader. Can win NFC East with victory vs. Indianapolis on Sunday and a Philadelphia loss at Washington on Saturday.

4. New Orleans Saints (6-8, .429). NFC South leader.

5. Seattle Seahawks (10-4, .714). Wild card No. 1. Seeded ahead of Green Bay on basis of head-to-head win. Can earn head-to-head tiebreaker over Cardinals with victory Sunday in Arizona.

6. Green Bay Packers (10-4, .714). Wild card No. 2.

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN

Philadelphia Eagles (9-5, .643). Can win NFC East by winning last two games and by Cowboys losing one of their final two.

OTHER NFC SOUTH CONTENDERS

Carolina Panthers (5-8-1, .393).

Atlanta Falcons (5-9, .357).

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NFL morning after: Bucs should quit the quest for a quarterback

joshmccown AP

With Sunday’s loss, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dropped to 2-12 and remained in the lead for the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft. If the Bucs lose the next two games, we’ll spend months speculating about whether they’ll choose quarterback Marcus Mariota or quarterback Jameis Winston.

Here’s my advice to the Buccaneers: Draft neither.

Instead, the Bucs should try something truly radical to turn their franchise around: Give up on the whole idea of a franchise quarterback altogether. While the 31 other teams value quarterbacks above all else, Tampa Bay should do something completely different and make quarterback their last priority, while building a great defense and a good running game.

First, Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith should make a firm commitment to building a team with a great defense (something he’s done before in Chicago) and making the offense revolve around the running game, not the passing game. Smith should hire an offensive coordinator from a college with a run-heavy offense like Georgia Tech, which is the No. 12 team in the country this year using an offense in which the quarterback runs more often than he passes. The Bucs should aim to run the ball 50 or so times a game.

That hasn’t often happened in the NFL, but the Jets tried that strategy on a Monday night this season against the Dolphins, and it actually worked fairly well — by the Jets’ standards. They ran 49 times for 277 yards and would have beaten the Dolphins had Nick Folk not missed two field goals. If a terrible team like the Jets can find some success employing a run-heavy offense only after realizing that their quarterback situation is a disaster, think what some smarter team could do if it built a roster specifically tailored to that approach.

Such a commitment to running the ball would liberate the Bucs from having to go through the growing pains of a rookie quarterback, or having to spend a fortune on a starter in free agency. Instead, the Bucs should sign run-first quarterbacks like Terrelle Pryor, Vince Young or Tim Tebow, all of whom can be had for the league minimum salary. The Bucs have two good wide receivers in Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, but they should be traded for draft picks who can help build the defense. The wide receivers who remain in Tampa Bay should be good downfield blockers who can be had for the league minimum. Even at running back the Buccaneers shouldn’t spend a lot of money because they’ll be running these guys into the ground. Go for depth at running back instead of one expensive star.

The only spot on offense where the Buccaneers should spend a lot of money is on the line, but even there they shouldn’t spend a fortune. They don’t have to out-bid other teams for great pass-blocking left tackles, they just need five above-average run blockers.

With all the savings on offense, the Buccaneers would have more cap space available for defense than any other team in the league. That means they can sign good free agents who fit in Smith’s system to add to an already talented defense that includes Gerald McCoy, Jacquies Smith, Lavonte David and Alterraun Verner. The Bucs could also add a bounty of picks by trading the first overall pick next year to a team that wants Mariota or Winston, as well as trading Evans and Jackson. They could use all of those picks on bolstering the defense. They should be able to build the best defense in the NFL because they’re devoting more resources to defense than any other team in the NFL.

Do this right and the Buccaneers will have the No. 1 defense in the NFL, to go with an offense that has an unconventional approach that NFL defenses aren’t accustomed to playing against, and aren’t built to stop. This could work.

Maybe you think the NFL is a quarterback-driven league and a team is doomed to failure if it writes off the quarterback position. But I say there are a limited number of great quarterbacks, and the teams that are really doomed to failure are the teams that devote the draft picks or cap space to a quarterback they hope will be great who turns out to be something less than great.

I hesitate to use the term “Moneyball” in the NFL because revenue sharing and a salary cap makes football fundamentally different from baseball. But there’s something to be said for looking at what everyone else values (building a great passing game) and trying to do the opposite. That’s what the Buccaneers should do. Smith is the right coach to lead a team to a Super Bowl with a great defense and a mediocre offense. He’s done it before in Chicago. But when Smith was the coach in Chicago, the Bears were trying to build a conventional NFL offense, they just didn’t do a very good job of it. In Tampa Bay, the Bucs should make a specific point of saving resources by building an unconventional NFL offense, and reaping the benefits on defense.

Would it work? Maybe, maybe not. But the Bucs have tried and failed to build a team the conventional way with quarterbacks like Josh Freeman, Mike Glennon and Josh McCown. It’s time to try something different.

Here are my other thoughts:

The best play of the day didn’t count. Colts receiver Donte Moncrief had a sensational touchdown catch on Sunday against the Texans, diving to snare a deflected ball out of the air on a pass on which he wasn’t even the intended receiver. It was a phenomenal play by Moncrief. Unfortunately, Colts offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo was holding Texans defensive end J.J. Watt on the play, so the whole thing got called back on a penalty. Still a great play by Moncrief.

Watt is the NFL’s best player. Speaking of Watt, he remains the best player in the NFL. Although the Texans lost to the Colts on Sunday, Watt was the best player on the field. He had five solo tackles, two sacks, one pass defensed, two quarterback hits and forced that holding penalty that negated a Colts touchdown. There’s no way a defensive lineman on a .500 team will win the MVP award, but he’s the best player in football.

Aaron Rodgers is human after all. Rodgers had an ugly stat line against a good Bills Defense on Sunday, completing just 17 of 42 passes for 185 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions, for a passer rating of 34.3 — the lowest passer rating for any game in his career. Rodgers may still win the league MVP, and the Packers remain the favorites to win the NFC North, but Sunday’s loss makes it tougher for the Packers to earn home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, and gives hopes to other teams that Rodgers can be stopped.

Johnny Football was terrible. The Browns gave Johnny Manziel his first career start on Sunday, and he did not rise to the occasion. Manziel completed 10 of 18 passes for 80 yards, with no touchdowns, two interceptions, three sacks for a loss of 26 yards, and a passer rating of 27.3. I think the Browns did the right thing by giving Manziel the start over Brian Hoyer, but that loss showed that Manziel has a long way to go, and the Browns have a long way to go.

Tom Brady can run! Who knew that Brady still has wheels? Well, he’s not exactly Russell Wilson, but he showed on Sunday that he can still move on occasion. On a third-and-11, Brady dropped back, didn’t see anyone open and decided to take off running. He picked up 17 yards and was feeling so exhilarated that instead of sliding he lowered his shoulder, took a hit and got up yelling and screaming. That was Brady’s longest run since 2007, the year before he suffered a torn ACL.

When you’ve got a quarterback like Brady, you don’t want him running very often. But there aren’t many quarterbacks like Brady. The teams that don’t have a quarterback like Brady would be better trying something different. C’mon, Tampa Bay. Do it.

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AFC playoff picture: Patriots, Broncos, Colts all clinch divisions

bradybelichick AP

Three of the four AFC divisions were clinched on Sunday afternoon, as the Patriots, Broncos and Colts all defeated their closest rivals and wrapped up the East, West and South.

But there’s still plenty to be sorted out as those three teams play for playoff seeding and the rest of the conference plays for playoff berths over the last two weeks of the season.

Here’s how the AFC playoff picture looks with two games to go:

1. New England Patriots (11-3)
Clinched the AFC East and will clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with two more wins.

2. Denver Broncos (11-3)
Clinched the AFC West and will clinch a first-round bye with one more win.

3. Indianapolis Colts (10-4)
Clinched the AFC South. Probably won’t earn a first-round bye as the Patriots and Broncos both own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Colts.

4. Cincinnati Bengals (9-4-1)
The Bengals lead the AFC North but close with a tough schedule, against the Broncos next Monday and then at Pittsburgh in Week 17.

5. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5)
Own the tiebreaker over the Ravens based on a better record in the AFC North.

6. Baltimore Ravens (9-5)
Will make the playoffs with two more wins, against the Texans and Browns.

Outside looking in:
7. Kansas City Chiefs (8-6)
Own the head-to-head tiebreakers over both the Chargers and the Bills.

8. San Diego Chargers (8-6)
Own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Bills.

9. Buffalo Bills (8-6)
The Bills have taken a step forward this season but will probably fall short of the playoffs.

10. Houston Texans (7-7)
Own the conference record tiebreaker over the Dolphins and Browns

11. Miami Dolphins (7-7)
Own the conference record tiebreaker over the Browns.

12. Cleveland Browns (7-7)
Seven wins represents an improvement in Cleveland, but not enough to get to the playoffs.

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NFC playoff picture: Arizona remains in top spot

Bruce Arians, Ryan Lindley AP

By holding off St. Louis Thursday night, the Cardinals held on to the No. 1 seed in the NFC. They also moved onto the doorstep of a playoff berth, which could be clinched Sunday.

Here’s how the NFC’s playoff contenders stack up entering the rest of the Week 15 card. Clinching scenarios are included, and the NFL’s standings and tiebreaking rules were referenced:

THE BIG SIX

1. Arizona Cardinals (11-3, .786). NFC West leader.

Can clinch a playoff berth if:

a) Cowboys-Eagles does not end in a tie . . .

OR

b) the Lions lose to the Vikings and the Cardinals notch the strength of victory tiebreaker over the Packers . . .

OR

c) the Lions lose to the Vikings and the Packers defeat or tie the Bills.

2. Green Bay Packers (10-3, .769). NFC North leader.

Can clinch a playoff berth with a win over the Bills and a Cowboys loss to the Eagles and the Packers notching the strength of victory tiebreaker over Dallas. 

3. Philadelphia Eagles (9-4, .692). NFC East leader. 

4. Atlanta Falcons (5-8, .385). NFC South leader. NFC South’s top-seeded team on basis of head-to-head win vs. New Orleans.

5. Seattle Seahawks (9-4, .692). Wild card No. 1. Seeded ahead of Detroit on basis of better record in common games.

6. Detroit Lions (9-4, .692). Wild card No. 2. Seeded ahead of Dallas on basis of better NFC record (7-2 vs. 6-4).

JUST MISSING

7. Dallas Cowboys (9-4, .692).

8. San Francisco 49ers (7-6, .538).

OTHER NFC SOUTH CONTENDERS

11. New Orleans Saints (5-8, .385).

13. Carolina Panthers (4-8-1, .346).

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PFT’s Week 15 picks

Romo AP

With three weeks left, MDS now has to make up four games.  With only one disagreement this week, it won’t be easy for him to do it.

That’s a shame.

Last week, I swept our two disagreements (thanks, Steelers and Seahawks) en route to a 12-4 mark.  MDS went 10-6.

For the year, I’m now at 137-71 (65.8 percent).  MDS comes in at 133-75 (63.9 percent).

For all picks in this weekend’s games, keep scrolling.

Cardinals at Rams

MDS’s take: The Rams’ defense is playing great football lately, with two straight shutouts. Granted, Oakland and Washington aren’t exactly the NFL’s hottest offenses, but I don’t care who you’re playing — it’s hard to hold other teams scoreless for eight straight quarters in today’s NFL. The Cardinals’ offense has struggled with Drew Stanton at the helm, and I think they’ll continue to struggle in St. Louis.

MDS’s pick: Rams 17, Cardinals 10.

Florio’s take:  The Rams have pitched a pair of shutouts.  The Cardinals are hoping not to get shut out of the playoffs.  I used to the captain of the Arizona bandwagon.  I’ve now bought stock in the once and future L.A. Rams.

Florio’s pick:  Rams 20, Cardinals 17.

MDS’s take: If Julio Jones is healthy enough to play, he’ll have a big game against the Steelers’ bad secondary. But the Steelers’ offense is rolling right now, and the Falcons’ defense is a mess. I like Pittsburgh to win a high-scoring game.

MDS’s pick: Steelers 38, Falcons 28.

Florio’s take:  The last three times these teams have played, the games have gone to overtime.  Once, it was a tie.  Once, the Falcons won.  Once, the Steelers won.  This one also will be tied.  At the opening kickoff.  After that, a Steelers team that won by 21 in Cincinnati will finally start to show real consistency with the playoffs looming.

Florio’s pick:  Steelers 27, Falcons 20.

Jaguars at Ravens

MDS’s take: The Ravens just need to win out to make the playoffs. Facing the Jaguars is a good way to start. Baltimore will roll in this one.

MDS’s pick: Ravens 33, Jaguars 16.

Florio’s take:  The Ravens have finally begun finding their way out of the weeds.  The Jags have gotten comfortable snoozing in them.

Florio’s pick:  Ravens 24, Jaguars 10.

Packers at Bills

MDS’s take: The Bills’ pass rush might be able to rattle Aaron Rodgers and make this a closer game than most people would think. In the end, however, I think the Packers manage to win a competitive game.

MDS’s pick: Packers 20, Bills 17.

Florio’s takeKyle Orton vs. Aaron Rodgers.  Kyle Orton.  Versus Aaron Rodgers.

Florio’s pick:  Packers 37, Bills 17.

Buccaneers at Panthers

MDS’s take: The Panthers have beaten the Bucs without Cam Newton once this season, and they can do it again. Carolina remains in contention in the NFC South while Tampa Bay remains in contention for the first overall pick in the draft.

MDS’s pick: Panthers 20, Buccaneers 13.

Florio’s take:  The Bucs didn’t think it was funny the last time they saw Derek Anderson, and they won’t think it’s funny again.  Panthers get a step closer to an unlikely division title, and the Bucs get a step closer to an unexpected top-three draft pick.

Florio’s pick:  Panthers 23, Buccaneers 17.

Bengals at Browns

MDS’s take: Can Johnny Manziel provide the Browns’ offense with a spark? That’s the big question for this game, and I think the answer is yes.  Manziel will make enough plays with his arm and his feet, and the Browns’ defense will do well enough against Andy Dalton, that Cleveland’s playoff hopes will stay alive.

MDS’s pick: Browns 21, Bengals 14.

Florio’s take:  Last month, the Browns beat the Bengals by 21, with Brian Hoyer under center.  This month, it would be fitting if it goes the other way.  But Johnny Football will make his debut as an NFL starter only once.  Throw in the extra motivation that Manziel may have from the remarks of Marvin Lewis, and the 2014 Browns may not be done just yet.

Florio’s pick:  Browns 24, Bengals 21.

Texans at Colts

MDS’s take: If the Colts win, they clinch the AFC South, and that’s exactly what I expect to see. I have some doubts about how well Indianapolis will do in January because I’m not sold the Colts have a good enough defense or running game, but there’s no doubt that Indianapolis will be playing a home game in January.

MDS’s pick: Colts 34, Texans 20.

Florio’s take:  The Texans have never won at Indianapolis.  Next year, we’ll be saying the same thing.  Even if it’s not pretty for the Colts to get to where they need to be at the end of the game, they’ll find a way.

Florio’s pick:  Colts 30, Texans 21.

Raiders at Chiefs

MDS’s take: Could the Raiders do the unthinkable and sweep the Chiefs this season? I’m not seeing it. Kansas City is still fighting for a playoff spot and should beat Oakland easily.

MDS’s pick: Chiefs 28, Raiders 10.

Florio’s take:  A loss at Oakland sparked a three-game losing streak that threatens to keep Kansas City out of the postseason.  A loss to Oakland at home would clinch it.  Surely, the Chiefs won’t let it happen.

Florio’s pick:  Chiefs 27, Raiders 17.

Dolphins at Patriots

MDS’s take: The Patriots clinch the AFC East with a win, and they’ll get it against the Dolphins, who are a good team but have a tough road to the playoffs.

MDS’s pick: Patriots 21, Dolphins 20.

Florio’s take:  This year, the Dolphins commenced their late-season, playoff-missing slide a little earlier than last year.  It continues against a Patriots team that needs only to sweep its division rivals to nail down home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Florio’s pick:  Patriots 31, Dolphins 20.

Washington at Giants

MDS’s take: The Giants have already blown out Washington once this season, and I think they’ll do it again. The way Washington is playing, I might not pick them on the road against anyone.

MDS’s pick: Giants 34, Washington 10.

Florio’s take:  A late-season winning streak for the Giants could have been enough to save some jobs.  If it had started sooner.  Instead, the end is coming in New York.

Florio’s pick:  Giants 27, Washington 13.

Broncos at Chargers

MDS’s take: The Broncos clinch the AFC West with a win, and I think they’ll get it. What’s so impressive about Denver right now is that it’s winning not with big games from Peyton Manning, but with a good running attack and a good run defense. That’s going to make the Broncos a tough team to beat in January.

MDS’s pick: Broncos 23, Chargers 14.

Florio’s take:  The Broncos need to find a higher gear on offense if they hope to go deep into the postseason.  On Sunday, they will.  The running game has blossomed and the passing game is ready to flourish again, especially with tight end Julius Thomas ready to return after three weeks off with an ankle injury.

Florio’s pick:  Broncos 30, Chargers 23.

Jets at Titans

MDS’s take: This game matters only in that both teams are still in the hunt for the first overall pick in the draft, and both teams are sure to be interested in Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston. If you’re a fan of either the Jets or the Titans, you should probably root for your team to lose on Sunday so that it can win a higher draft pick. I think the Titans’ fans will go away happy because the Jets will win.

MDS’s pick: Jets 13, Titans 10.

Florio’s take:  The loser wins on draft day.  The winner loses.  So everyone wins.  And everyone loses.  And no one cares.

Florio’s pick:  Jets 13, Titans 9.

Vikings at Lions

MDS’s take: The Lions conclude their season with three straight divisional opponents, and they have a simple path to the playoffs: Win two games and they’re a wild card, win three and they win the NFC North. They should get it started with a big win on Sunday, as Teddy Bridgewater will struggle against a tough Detroit defense at Ford Field.

MDS’s pick: Lions 24, Vikings 10.

Florio’s take:  The Vikings continue an unlikely push to .500, but the Lions aren’t the Lions the Vikings had dominated not that long ago.  And the Lions know they don’t have much of a margin for error if they hope to get to the playoffs.

Florio’s pick:  Lions 30, Vikings 21.

49ers at Seahawks

MDS’s take: I think the Seahawks are going to be motivated not just to win this game, but to embarrass the 49ers. This one could get ugly, as the Seahawks are peaking and the 49ers are collapsing.

MDS’s pick: Seahawks 31, 49ers 3.

Florio’s take:  In this crazy year of upside-down outcomes, it would be fitting for the 49ers to chase a loss to the woeful Raiders with a win over the defending Super Bowl champions who are peaking once again.  But even in a season of surprises, the Seahawks slipping up against a sliding San Francisco team still goes beyond any plausible outcome.

Florio’s pick:  Seahawks 23, 49ers 10.

Cowboys at Eagles

MDS’s take: Philadelphia can’t actually clinch the NFC East on Sunday night, but it can come pretty close by taking a one-game lead and completing the season sweep over Dallas. That’s what I’m expecting to see, as Chip Kelly will get his offense straightened out and the Eagles will score plenty on the Cowboys.

MDS’s pick: Eagles 35, Cowboys 21.

Florio’s take:  Last time around, the Cowboys weren’t ready to be competitive after only three days off — especially with a quarterback who never practices on the third day after playing.  This time, the Cowboys have had extra rest and the Eagles have to be wondering whether they can compete with the best teams in the conference.  Last week’s loss to the Seahawks suggests they can’t, which could make it harder for them to match the intensity that the Cowboys will bring to Philly while chasing their elusive 10th win.

Florio’s pick:  Cowboys 30, Eagles 27.

Saints at Bears

MDS’s take: Both of these teams have been major disappointments, but the difference is the Saints still have something to play for in their lousy division. I like New Orleans to take this one.

MDS’s pick: Saints 20, Bears 13.

Florio’s take:  The up and down Saints can’t win at home, can’t lose on the road.  But they’re still tied for first place, and they’ll either be trying to keep pace with the Falcons or to move ahead of them with a win against the team for which coach Sean Payton played quarterback during the 1987 strike.  Eventually, the Bears may need a replacement for their current quarterback.

Florio’s pick:  Saints 27, Bears 24.

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Broncos, Patriots, Colts, Cardinals, Packers can clinch this week

Peyton Manning, Tom Brady AP

Through 14 weeks of the season, no NFL team has clinched a playoff berth. On Sunday, five teams can clinch playoff berths.

Here are the NFL’s official playoff scenarios:

DENVER BRONCOS clinch the AFC West if they beat the Chargers on Sunday. Denver also clinches a first-round bye with a win and losses by the Colts, Bengals and Steelers. Even if the Broncos lose to the Chargers they can clinch a playoff berth if the Dolphins and Texans both lose and at least two AFC North teams lose.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS clinch the AFC East if they beat the Dolphins on Sunday. New England also clinches a first-round bye with a win and losses by the Colts and Steelers, as well as a loss by either the Bengals or Broncos. Even if the Patriots lose to the Dolphins they can clinch a playoff berth if they get enough help in the form of a loss by the Bills and various combinations of losses by teams including the Bengals, Steelers, Ravens, Texans, Chiefs and Chargers.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS clinch the AFC South if they beat the Texans on Sunday.

ARIZONA CARDINALS clinch a playoff spot if they beat the Rams on Thursday, as long as Sunday’s Cowboys-Eagles game doesn’t end in a tie.

GREEN BAY PACKERS clinch a playoff spot if they beat the Bills on Sunday and the Cowboys lose to the Eagles, as long as the Packers clinch the “strength of victory” tiebreaker over the Cowboys, which is frankly too complicated a calculation to be worth determining right now.

Of this week’s 16 games, only two have no playoff implications at all: Washington visiting the Giants, and the Jets at Tennessee. We apologize to those of you in New York for the lousy games you’re stuck watching on Sunday afternoon.

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Week 14 power rankings

Falcons Packers Football AP

1. Green Bay Packers (last week No. 1; 10-3):  The Green Bay defense could be moving toward its usual postseason form.  Unfortunately.

2. New England Patriots (No. 2; 10-3):  With the three AFC East rivals on the docket, anything other than 13-3 would be a surprise.

3. Seattle Seahawks (No. 3; 9-4):  Allowing only 14 points to the Eagles is even more impressive than allowing six points combined to the Cardinals and 49ers.

4. Denver Broncos (No. 5; 10-3):  The Broncos seem to be doing everything they can to Seahawk-proof the offense.

5. Arizona Cardinals (No. 6; 10-3):  With the ascension of Kerwynn Williams, “Next Man Up” is becoming “Next Man No One Has Ever Heard Of Up.”

6. Philadelphia Eagles (No. 4; 9-4):  Based on Sunday’s game against the Seahawks, cross Chip Kelly’s name off the San Francisco wish list.

7. Dallas Cowboys (No. 8; 9-4):  Right state, wrong city when talking about an MVP candidate who could take it away from one of the quarterbacks.

8. Indianapolis Colts (No. 9; 9-4):  Andrew Luck is racking up stats like Peyton Manning, and late-game wins like John Elway.

9. Detroit Lions (No. 10; 9-4):  If Joe Buck thought Joseph Fauria’s touchdown dance was a disgusting act, Buck finally would have been right.

10. Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 11; 8-5):  The Steelers “A” team showed up on Sunday.  This week.  The “B” team probably will make the trip to Atlanta.

11. Cincinnati Bengals (No. 7; 8-4-1):  The Bengals “B” team showed up on Sunday.  This week.  The “A” team probably will make the trip to Cleveland.

12. Baltimore Ravens (No. 13; 8-5):  Losing Haloti Ngata left the rest of the Baltimore defense more focused than they would have been if they were on Adderall.

13. San Diego Chargers (No. 12; 8-5):  Bill Belichick said the San Diego stadium felt like a neutral site on Sunday night.  By next year, San Diego technically may be a neutral site for the Chargers.

14. Houston Texans (No. 19; 7-6):  Brian Hoyer’s next team could be pretty good next year.

15. Kansas City Chiefs (No. 14; 7-6):  The Chiefs caught whatever the Raiders were carrying.

16. St. Louis Rams (No. 23; 6-7):  Los Angeles could be getting a pretty good team.

17. Buffalo Bills (No. 15; 7-6):  Doug Marrone’s job could hinge on beating the Packers on Sunday.  If so, it may be time to start packing up the office.

18. Miami Dolphins (No. 16; 7-6):  At this rate, Stephen Ross will get turned down by Jim Harbaugh for the second time in four years.

19. Minnesota Vikings (No. 22; 6-7):  Mike Zimmer says it’s now Teddy Bridgewater’s team.  (Translation:  See ya, Adrian.)

20. San Francisco 49ers (No. 17; 7-6):  Remember the commercial with Kaepernick using headphones to tune out crazed Seattle fans who hate him?  They probably need to re-shoot it with crazed San Francisco fans who hate him.

21. Cleveland Browns (No. 18; 7-6):  When Marvin Lewis called Johnny Manziel a midget, maybe he wasn’t referring to Manziel’s height.

22. Carolina Panthers (No. 26; 4-8-1):  The Panthers passed on Victory Monday; why disrupt a routine?

23. New Orleans Saints (No. 20; 5-8):  The Saints have figured out how to win on the road just as they’ve completely forgotten how to win at home.

24. Atlanta Falcons (No. 24; 5-8):  Last night’s comeback underscores the fact that the Falcons have talent, which doesn’t bode well for the coaching staff.

25. New York Giants (No. 25; 4-9):  Good news, the Giants will finish the year swinging.  Bad news, at each other.

26. Chicago Bears (No. 21; 5-8):  From paying Jay Cutler to hiring Marc Trestman, the “C” on the helmet now stands for “caveat emptor.”

27. Oakland Raiders (No. 32; 2-11):  When they play the 49ers in four years at Santa Clara, will Jim Harbaugh be approaching his expiration date with the Raiders?

28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 27; 2-11):  At this point, getting the No. 1 pick would be much better than winning the division.

29. Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 28; 2-11):  If the Jaguars host the Titans on national TV (as they will in nine days) and no one watches, does the game make a sound?

30. Tennessee Titans (No. 29; 2-11):  Jake Locker has three more games to suffer one last debilitating injury with the Titans.

31. Washington (No. 30; 3-10):  With four years of guaranteed salary left on his deal, Jay Gruden probably wishes he’d be one and done in D.C.

32. New York Jets (No. 31; 2-11):  So how many G.M. candidates will pass on the job this time?

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NFC playoff picture: Plenty of contenders rooting for Bucs

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Getty Images

With their 43-37 victory Monday night vs. Atlanta, the Packers improved to 10-3 and kept pace with the Cardinals in the race for the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

For now, Arizona has a nose in front with three games left to play; its NFC record (7-2) is a half-game better than Green Bay’s (7-3), giving the Cards the tie-breaking edge.

However, the Cardinals face one of the tougher closing schedules of any of the primary NFC playoff contenders. The Cardinals’ only remaining game against a losing club comes Thursday at 6-7 St. Louis, which has won its last two contests by a combined 76-0 margin. Arizona also faces Seattle (9-4) and San Francisco (7-6), though the latter is in poor form.

Like the Cardinals, the Packers draw two winning teams down the stretch (Buffalo, Detroit). However, Green Bay also visits 2-11 Tampa Bay.

NFC South contenders New Orleans (5-8) and Carolina (4-8-1) also catch Tampa Bay in the final weeks. The Falcons (5-8) are finished with the Bucs, having swept the season series.

Now, Atlanta roots for Tampa Bay to finish with a surprising flourish, as does Arizona. Detroit is squarely in Tampa’s corner. So will Dallas and Philadelphia, and old expansion pal Seattle, too. And Carolina and New Orleans would love nothing more than for the Bucs to take a chunk out of the other one.

So as you contemplate various NFC teams building little shrines of hope to Bucco Bruce, here’s a look at the playoff seeding through Monday night. The NFL’s standings and tiebreaking rules were applied.

THE BIG SIX

1. Arizona Cardinals (10-3, .769). NFC West leader. Earn first-round bye, home-field advantage. Win tiebreaker for No. 1 seed on account of better NFC record (7-2) than Green Bay (7-3).

2. Green Bay Packers (10-3, .769). NFC North leader. Earn first-round bye.

3. Philadelphia Eagles (9-4, .692). NFC East leader. Host Lions in wild-card round.

4. Atlanta Falcons (5-8, .385). NFC South leader. Host Seahawks in wild-card round. NFC South’s top-seeded team on basis of head-to-head win vs. New Orleans.

5. Seattle Seahawks (9-4, .692). Wild card No. 1. Seeded ahead of Detroit on basis of better record in common games.

6, Detroit Lions (9-4, .692). Wild card No. 2. Seeded ahead of Dallas on basis of better NFC record (7-2 vs. 6-4).

JUST MISSING

7. Dallas Cowboys (9-4, .692).

8. San Francisco 49ers (7-6, .538).

OTHER NFC SOUTH CONTENDERS

11. New Orleans Saints (5-8, .385).

13. Carolina Panthers (4-8-1, .346).

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AFC playoff picture: Patriots remain in control

tombrady AP

The Patriots’ win in San Diego on Sunday night puts them in prime position: If the Patriots win their last three games, then the road to the Super Bowl in the AFC goes through New England.

But it’s not like the Patriots are a lock: If they slip up once and the Broncos win out, the Patriots would drop down to the No. 2 seed. What seems clear is that the Patriots and Broncos will be the two teams getting first-round byes in the AFC. The only way that won’t happen is if both the Patriots and the Broncos drop two of their last three.

Here’s how the playoff race looks through Week 14:

1. New England Patriots (10-3) Would have home-field advantage if the playoffs started today.

2. Denver Broncos (10-3) Denver loses the head-to-head tiebreaker with New England.

3. Indianapolis Colts (9-4) Indianapolis clinches the AFC South if it beats Houston on Sunday.

4. Cincinnati Bengals (8-4-1) The Bengals’ lead in the AFC North is now just half a game.

5. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5) The Steelers will win the division if they win out, and Cincinnati visits Pittsburgh in Week 17. The Steelers currently have the tiebreaker over the Ravens (division record) and Chargers (conference record).

6. San Diego Chargers (8-5) The Chargers beat the Ravens and own the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Outside looking in:

7. Baltimore Ravens (8-5) If the Ravens win out they’re guaranteed to leapfrog the Week 17 Bengals-Steelers loser, and make the playoffs.

8. Houston Texans (7-6) The Texans are first among the AFC’s five 7-6 teams thanks to the Texans’ 6-3 conference record.

9. Miami Dolphins (7-6) The Dolphins are 6-4 in the conference.

10. Kansas City Chiefs (7-6) The Chiefs are 5-4 in the conference.

11. Buffalo Bills (7-6) The Bills’ 4-6 conference record could sink them.

12. Cleveland Browns (7-6) The Browns are also 4-6 in the AFC and lost head-to-head to the Bills.

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NFL morning after: It’s time for Johnny Football

johnnymanziel AP

Browns coach Mike Pettine made a mistake on Sunday that might cost his team a playoff berth.

Pettine decided to stick with quarterback Brian Hoyer against the Colts instead of switching to rookie Johnny Manziel. The result was disastrous: Hoyer completed just 14 of 31 passes for 140 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions, and the Browns lost 25-24. The Browns got great play from their defense (forcing four turnovers and scoring two defensive touchdowns) and from their running game (running backs Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell combined for 108 yards), and Cleveland would have won this game if the Browns had even adequate play from their quarterback.

Instead, they got a lousy game from Hoyer, and they lost.

Would Manziel have been better? Obviously, we can’t say for certain. We haven’t seen enough of him to say for sure what kind of NFL quarterback he is. But we do know that a week earlier Hoyer was benched for Manziel, and the result was that Manziel instantly marched the Browns’ offense down the field on an 80-yard drive that ended with Manziel scoring a touchdown. Pettine should have benched Hoyer on Sunday against the Colts, but Pettine insisted afterward that he never thought about calling for Manziel.

“Did not consider a change during the game,” Pettine said.

That’s a shame, but it’s not a surprise. Coaches, by their nature, are risk-averse. Nearly every NFL coach would rather go with a bland veteran pocket passer than a flashy rookie who’s as likely to make plays with his feet as with his arm. Talented young players like Manziel get drafted in the first round because they have a higher upside than guys like Hoyer, but conservative coaches stick with the “safe” guys like Hoyer for as long as they possibly can.

Pettine stuck with Hoyer for too long. He should go to Johnny Football this week, and he shouldn’t look back. Unfortunately, Sunday’s loss dropped the Browns into last place in the AFC North, and there’s probably no amount of Manziel Magic that can get Cleveland into the playoffs. Pettine missed his best chance to get his team to the playoffs when he waited too long to make a change at quarterback.

Here are my other thoughts from Sunday’s games:

I love fat guy touchdowns. Raiders offensive tackle Donald Penn caught a touchdown pass on a tackle-eligible trick play on Sunday against the 49ers, and it was the third time in his career he’s done that. Listed at 340 pounds, Penn is the heaviest player in NFL history to record three career receiving touchdowns.

Bonus fat guy touchdown info. As long as we’re talking fat guy touchdowns, let’s mention that the Giants’ 303-pound defensive tackle Markus Kuhn scored a touchdown on a fumble recovery on Sunday. According to ESPN, there have now been five 300-pounders to score touchdowns this season: Penn, Kuhn, Colts offensive lineman Anthony Castonzo, Eagles defensive end Cedric Thornton and Eagles defensive end Fletcher Cox. And here’s a fun fact: At 290 pounds, J.J. Watt is the heaviest player in NFL history to score five touchdowns in a season. (The previous record for heaviest player to score five touchdowns was held by 280-pound tight end Eric Green.)

Jeff Fisher trolls Washington. I loved Fisher’s decision to name as his captains on Sunday in Washington the six players the Rams got when they fleeced Washington for the draft pick that became Robert Griffin III. With the picks they got from Washington, the Rams acquired Janoris Jenkins, Michael Brockers, Zac Stacy, Stedman Bailey, Greg Robinson and Alec Ogletree. So those were the Rams’ captains in Sunday’s win at Washington.

Steelers made a statement. That was a big 42-21 win for Pittsburgh on Sunday in Cincinnati. If they had lost, they would have been all but out of it, but now the Steelers control their road to the playoffs. The Bengals are still in first place right now, but if both the Steelers and the Bengals win their next two games, the division will be decided when they meet again in Pittsburgh in Week 17.

Le’Veon Bell is great. Although DeMarco Murray is getting more attention, a strong case can be made Pittsburgh’s Bell is the best running back in the NFL right now. Bell had 185 rushing yards and 50 receiving yards yesterday, his third straight game with at least 200 yards from scrimmage. Walter Payton is the only other player in NFL history with three straight games of 200 yards from scrimmage.

What’s wrong with Peyton Manning? The Broncos have won two straight games, but Manning doesn’t look like himself. In Sunday’s win over the Bills he completed 14 of 20 passes for 173 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions. His passer rating of 56.9 was his lowest in any game since 2008, and he’s failed to reach 200 yards in the last two weeks — his first back-to-back games of less than 200 yards since Weeks 16 and 17 of the 2009 season, when his Colts had already clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and were resting their starters. I don’t know if Manning is hurt or what, but he doesn’t look like himself lately. Fortunately for the Broncos, they’re winning with their defense and running game anyway.

The Trent Richardson trade remains a disaster for the Colts. Richardson gained just 30 rushing yards yesterday, and he also missed a blitz pickup on a big fourth-quarter play, resulting in Andrew Luck getting sacked. In 28 games as a Colt, Richardson now has 904 yards, or 32.3 yards a game. He’s just not good enough, and the Colts threw away a first-round pick when they traded for him. Yes, the Colts managed to win on Sunday despite Richardson’s bad game, but that was mostly because Brian Hoyer handed them the game. The Browns made a great trade when they fleeced the Colts for a first-round pick in the Richardson trade. The Browns ended up using the Colts’ pick to move up in the first round and draft Manziel.

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Week 14 injury report roundup

Washington Redskins v Indianapolis Colts

Over the course of the week, there are a lot of posts about the most prominent injured players but we know that you might not see all of them and that some others may fall through the cracks. As a result, we’ll comb through all the injury reports every Friday afternoon so that there’s one stop for all the news from every team playing on Sunday. So, without further delay, the injury report roundup for Week 14 of the 2014 season.

Steelers at Bengals

It looks like the Steelers will be without linebacker James Harrison (knee) after listing him as doubtful. They’ll definitely be without tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle) and defensive tackle Steve McLendon (shoulder) is questionable. The Bengals continue to wait for linebacker Vontaze Burfict (knee) to get healthy and it doesn’t look like they’ll have defensive end Margus Hunt (ankle,doubtful) or wide receiver James Wright (knee, doubtful). Defensive tackle Domata Peko (elbow) is questionable.

Colts at Browns

The Colts will be without cornerback Vontae Davis (concussion), which is a big blow for their pass defense. Guard Hugh Thornton (knee), offensive lineman Xavier Nixon (foot) and linebacker Andy Studebaker (hamstring) are also out. Browns running back Isaiah Crowell (hip), tight end Jordan Cameron (concussion), linebacker Jabaal Sheard (foot) and linebacker Karlos Dansby (knee) are all questionable. Tight end Gary Barnidge (ribs) and safety Tashaun Gipson (knee) are out.

Buccaneers at Lions

The Bucs listed tackle Anthony Collins (elbow), tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (back), running back Bobby Rainey (ankle), tight end Brandon Myers (calf) and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald (hamstring) as questionable even though none of them practiced this week. Linebackers Lavonte David (hamstring) and Mason Foster (Achilles) did practice and drew the same tag. Lions running back Reggie Bush (ankle) is probable to return and defensive tackle Nick Fairley (knee, out) is the only player listed as anything but probable.

Texans at Jaguars

The Texans ruled out tight end Garrett Graham (ankle) as out for Sunday’s game and listed safety Danieal Manning (hamstring) as questionable. The Jaguars won’t have defensive end Andre Branch (groin) or linebacker Khairi Fortt (hamstring), but defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks (foot) is probable after missing Friday’s practice.

Ravens at Dolphins

The Ravens are holding off on making a call regarding running back Justin Forsett (knee, questionable) and wide receiver Michael Campanaro (thigh, questionable). Wide receiver Torrey Smith (knee) is probable. Linebacker Johnathan Freeny (hamstring) and cornerback Jamar Taylor (shoulder) are out for the Dolphins while cornerback Cortland Finnegan (ankle), linebacker Chris McCain (ankle) and offensive lineman Nate Garner (illness) are doubtful. Tight end Charles Clay (hamstring, knee) is questionable.

Jets at Vikings

Tight end Jace Amaro (concussion) and defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson (toe) are both out for the Jets. Linebacker Anthony Barr (knee) and cornerback Jabari Price (hamstring) is doubtful for Minnesota while running back Jerick McKinnon (back) is out.

Panthers at Saints

The Panthers ruled out running back DeAngelo Williams (hand) and guard Amini Silatolu (knee). Tight end Greg Olsen (knee) is questionable, but the team expects him to play in New Orleans. Running backs Travaris Cadet (hamstring), Khiry Robinson (forearm), and Mark Ingram (ankle/toe) are all probable for a healthy Saints side.

Giants at Titans

Giants running back Rashad Jennings (ankle) is questionable and says he’ll be less than 100 percent if he does play this week. Linebacker Mark Herzlich (concussion) is also questionable while tackle James Brewer (concussion) and linebacker Jacquian Williams (concussion) are out. The Titans expects quarterback Zach Mettenberger (shoulder, questionable) to play and they’ll wait to give final word on tackle Taylor Lewan (ankle, questionable), tackle Michael Oher (toe, questionable), cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson (back) and wide receiver Kendall Wright (hand). Linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (hamstring) is out.

Rams at Redskins

The Rams aren’t much for intrigue this week. Every player on their injury report is listed as probable for Sunday. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson (shin) is questionable after missing practice all week and the Redskins have ruled out defensive lineman Kedric Golston (foot,back) and cornerback Chase Minnifield (concussion). Safety Brandon Meriweather (toe) is doubtful.

Chiefs at Cardinals

Kansas City’s iffy run defense won’t have defensive end Allen Bailey (concussion) to help them slow down the Cardinals. Wide receiver Junior Hemingway (concussion) is also out, but everyone else on the injury report is probable. The Cardinals ruled out running back Andre Ellington (hip), guard Paul Fanaika (ankle), safety Tyrann Mathieu (thumb) and defensive tackle Ed Stinson (toe). Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (knee, questionable) is a game-time decision again this week.

Bills at Broncos

Wide receiver Mike Williams (calf) has seen his playing time plummet because of coaching decisions and he won’t play a snap this week after being ruled out. Defensive end Jarius Wynn (knee) and tight end Chris Gragg (knee) are also out. Wide receivers Sammy Watkins (hip), Robert Woods (ankle), and Chris Hogan (hamstring) are all probable. For the Broncos, tight ends Julius Thomas (ankle) and Jacob Tamme (rib) are questionable but wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (ankle) is probable after returning to practice Friday. Cornerback Aqib Talib (hamstring) is probable as well.

49ers at Raiders

49ers right tackle Anthony Davis (concussion) is out again this week and he’ll be joined on the sideline by tight end Vance McDonald (back) and defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey (arm). Cornerback Tramaine Brock (hamstring) is questionable. The Raiders also ruled out their right tackle Menelik Watson (foot, ankle). Safety Johnathan Dowling (back) and tight end Brian Leonhardt (concussion) are also out. Linebacker Sio Moore (hip) and cornerback Tarell Brown (foot) are questionable and running back Latavius Murray (concussion) is probable.

Seahawks at Eagles

The Seahawks ruled out center Max Unger (knee, ankle) and hope to have him back next week. Tight end Cooper Helfet (ankle) is doubtful and cornerback Jeremy Lane (glute) is questionable. Quarterback Nick Foles is out and tight end Trey Burton (hamstring) is questionable for the otherwise healthy Eagles.

Patriots at Chargers

Patriots linebacker Chris White (ankle) is doubtful for Sunday night’s game. Long snapper Danny Aiken (concussion), cornerback Kyle Arrington (ankle), guard Dan Connolly (ankle), defensive lineman Dominique Easley (knee), wide receiver Julian Edelman (thigh), offensive lineman Cameron Fleming (ankle), linebacker Dont’a Hightower (shoulder), defensive end Chandler Jones (hip), wide receiver Brandon LaFell (shoulder) and running back Shane Vereen (ankle) make up the long list of questionable players. Chargers tackle D.J. Fluker (concussion) and center Chris Watt are questionable after returning to practice on Friday. Linebacker Donald Butler (quad) is also questionable after being added to the injury report as the week drew to a close.

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NFC playoff picture: A tip of the cap to the Cowboys

Tony Romo AP

Though the NFL’s playoff picture is rather unsettled as December begins, we can say this with confidence: a handful of contenders are going to lose to underdogs in these final weeks, and the teeth-grinding and hair-pulling and moaning is going to be something else.

It’s here, though, that we salute the Cowboys, who performed like contenders should on Thursday night in Chicago.

With a three-TD blitz in 13 minutes to begin the second half, the favored Cowboys sent the weak, wobbling, underdog Bears to the canvas, turning a 14-7 game into a 35-7 laugher. From there, the Cowboys (-3.5) coasted on in, securing a 41-28 victory and moving back into the NFC’s top wild-card spot.

However, some might say the Cowboys simply did what they were supposed to do in Chicago. And to be fair, a majority of December favorites do take care of their business.

Since 2004, December underdogs are 223-471 in regular-season play, per Spreadapedia.com. That’s just a 31.6 percent win rate, about three upsets in every 10 games and a little more than 20 underdog wins per December.

In the end, most December games go to form. Cowboys-Bears certainly did. But that is a testament to Dallas, which looked like a club with bigger and better things to do as it drained the drama out of Thursday night’s proceedings.

Yes, favorites usually win, but they don’t always assert. The Cowboys asserted themselves. That’s how it should be done in December.

Here’s how the NFL’s playoff seeding looks through Thursday night. The tiebreaking rules and standings were referenced:

THE BIG SIX

1. Arizona Cardinals (9-3, .750). NFC West leader. Earn first-round bye, home-field advantage. Win three-team tiebreaker for No. 1 seed on account of better NFC record (7-2) than Green Bay (6-3) and Philadelphia (5-2).

2. Green Bay Packers (9-3, .750). NFC North leader. Earn first-round bye. Win head-to-head tiebreaker with Philadelphia for No. 2 seed.

3. Philadelphia Eagles (9-3, .750). NFC East leader. Host Seahawks in wild-card round.

4. Atlanta Falcons (5-7, .417). NFC South leader. Host Cowboys in wild-card round. NFC South’s top-seeded team on basis of head-to-head win vs. New Orleans.

5. Dallas Cowboys (9-4, .692). Wild card No. 1.

6. Seattle Seahawks (8-4, .667). Wild card No. 2. Seeded ahead of Detroit on basis of better record in common games.

JUST MISSING

7. Detroit Lions (8-4, .667).

8. San Francisco 49ers (7-5, .583).

OTHER NFC SOUTH CONTENDERS

9. New Orleans Saints (5-7, .417).

13. Carolina Panthers (3-8-1, .292).

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PFT’s Week 14 picks

Ben Getty Images

It wasn’t as bad a week as some of the weeks we had earlier in the year, but 10-6 from MDS and 9-7 from yours truly was more “meh” than magnificent.

This week, we disagree on a pair of games.  And as I cling to a two-game margin, it could go away this weekend, sparking a three-week, dead-heat sprint to the 2014 PFT picks championship.

For the year, I’m at 125-67 (65.1 percent).  MDS has moved to 123-69 (64.0 percent).  To see our picks for all 16 games for the weekend, start reading.  Or keep reading.  Or just scroll and look for the scores.

Cowboys at Bears

MDS’s take: Are the Cowboys going into a late-season collapse?  Despite their ugly showing on Thanksgiving, I don’t think so.  Dallas’s offensive line should control this game against a mediocre Chicago defensive front, and the Cowboys will get back on track.

MDS’s pick: Cowboys 24, Bears 21.

Florio’s take:  Last year, the Bears blew out the Cowboys in prime time at Soldier Field.  This year, the Bears are having a harder time scoring points — and the Cowboys desperately need to get their ninth win, avoiding yet another possible 8-8 finish to the season.  With Tony Romo rested and the Bears simply not very good, it’s time for the Cowboys to ensure a winning season.  Finally.

Florio’s pick:  Cowboys 30, Bears 20.

Steelers at Bengals

MDS’s take: The Bengals have taken control of the AFC North, but the Steelers still have a chance to surpass them. Pittsburgh is so inconsistent, however, that I think I have to take Cincinnati in this one.

MDS’s pick: Bengals 20, Steelers 16.

Florio’s take:   The last time the Bengals were at home, they lost badly to the Browns.  Since then, Cincinnati has won three in a row on the road.  It’s time for a correction, especially with the Steelers feeling their season slipping away.

Florio’s pick:  Steelers 27, Bengals 24.

Colts at Browns

MDS’s take: The choice between Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel is less important than the fact that neither can hold a candle to Andrew Luck.  The Colts will put up a lot of points and win comfortably in Cleveland.

MDS’s pick: Colts 35, Browns 20.

Florio’s take:  Brian Hoyer, Johnny Manziel, both, or neither, the Browns currently don’t have the defense to keep the high-powered Indy passing attack under control.

Florio’s pick:  Colts 30, Browns 23.

Buccaneers at Lions

MDS’s take: Could the Lions collapse again this year like they did last year?  I don’t think so.  Detroit will make a statement that it’s a real contender with a big win over Tampa Bay.

MDS’s pick: Lions 38, Buccaneers 14.

Florio’s take:  The Bucs’ unlikely playoff dream likely died last week when Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis produced his reg flag in the nick of time.  The Lions’ playoff dream remains realistic.  With Reggie Bush potentially back and Calvin Johnson back to being Megatron, it’s time for Detroit to make their final push.

Florio’s pick:  Lions 34, Buccaneers 20.

Texans at Jaguars

MDS’s take: The Jaguars showed a lot of fight in coming back to beat the Giants, and I could see Jacksonville having a bit of a late-season run like it had last season, when the Jaguars played their best football down the stretch.  But the Texans’ defensive front is going to be too good for the Jaguars’ shaky offensive line.

MDS’s pick: Texans 20, Jaguars 10.

Florio’s take:   The Jags have shown they still have some fight, but the Texans are making one last push for the postseason.  They won’t make it, but they’ll make it above .500 this weekend.

Florio’s pick:  Texans 27, Jaguars 20.

Ravens at Dolphins

MDS’s take: This is a big game in the AFC playoff race, and it’s a game I like the Dolphins to win on the strength of their pass defense, which is going to force Joe Flacco into a couple of interceptions and win a low-scoring game.

MDS’s pick: Dolphins 16, Ravens 13.

Florio’s take:  It’s been easy to doubt the Dolphins this year.  But they continue to defy critics, at least when they’re not giving critics more ammunition.  This week, the critics will see a more accomplished Ravens team rolling into town and knocking Miami toward playoff oblivion.  For a change, I’ll break ranks and rely on the team that blasted the Chargers when it had the chance, against the team that recently found a way to lose to San Diego.

Florio’s pick:  Dolphins 27, Ravens 21.

Jets at Vikings

MDS’s take: I liked the Jets’ run-heavy offensive game plan on Monday night, but I don’t think it will work as well the second time around, now that Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has a week to prepare for it. The Jets won’t put many points on the board Sunday.

MDS’s pick: Vikings 13, Jets 6.

Florio’s takeTeddy Bridgewater already is better than Geno Smith will ever be.  And the Vikings have shown an ability to win the games they should.

Florio’s pick:  Vikings 27, Jets 13.

Panthers at Saints

MDS’s take: The NFC South has turned into a two-horse race, with the Panthers fading down the stretch. The Saints should win at home and end any hope Carolina had of winning the division.

MDS’s pick: Saints 31, Panthers 14.

Florio’s take:  The Saints somehow has lost three games in a row at home.  None of those opponents, however, were as bad as the Panthers currently are.

Florio’s pick:  Saints 33, Panthers 16.

Giants at Titans

MDS’s take: The Giants are really bad, but the Titans are even worse. I’ll take the Giants to win and the fans stuck watching this game to lose.

MDS’s pick: Giants 16, Titans 12.

Florio’s take:  The Giants continue their AFC South tour.  If they can’t beat the Titans, co-owner Steve Tisch may have to accelerate his timetable for evaluating the coaching staff.  Again.

Florio’s pick:  Giants 24, Titans 13.

Rams at Washington

MDS’s take: The Rams are playing excellent football right now, while Washington is cratering. I’ll pick the Rams to win another blowout.

MDS’s pick: Rams 27, Washington 10.

Florio’s take:  St. Louis has developed an ability to beat non-contenders to go along with its ability to beat contenders.  Washington isn’t a contender.

Florio’s pick:  Rams 27, Washington 17.

Chiefs at Cardinals

MDS’s take: This is a huge game for both teams. In Arizona, a loss would raise real questions about whether the Cardinals can avoid a downward spiral all the way out of the playoffs. In Kansas City, a loss could be a death blow to their wild card hopes. It’s hard to get a read on this one, but I have a little more faith in Alex Smith than in Drew Stanton, and that’s why I’ll go with the Chiefs.

MDS’s pick: Chiefs 24, Cardinals 21.

Florio’s take:  Both teams have lost two in a row.  Both teams desperately need to turn things around.  Injuries finally have caught up with the Cardinals, and the rest of the league has caught up with Drew Stanton.

Florio’s pick:  Chiefs 27, Cardinals 17.

Bills at Broncos

MDS’s take: The thing I like about the way the Broncos are playing right now is that they can win with defense and the running game: Peyton Manning doesn’t need a big game for Denver to win. On Sunday, I expect the Bills’ great front four to pressure Manning all day, but the Broncos to win anyway, thanks to the defense and the running attack.

MDS’s pick: Broncos 28, Bills 20.

Florio’s takeKyle Orton returns to Denver, after Tebowmania gave way to Peyton Manning.  The Broncos are simply better in every phase of the game.

Florio’s pick:  Broncos 42, Bills 20.

49ers at Raiders

MDS’s take: Things aren’t looking good for the 49ers right now, but nothing cures a slump like facing the Raiders. The 49ers will cruise to an easy win.

MDS’s pick: 49ers 28, Raiders 7.

Florio’s take:  Jim Harbaugh gets an early look at the stadium he could be calling home in 2015.  Hopefully he likes raw sewage and dead rats.

Florio’s pick:  49ers 34, Raiders 17.

Seahawks at Eagles

MDS’s take: The Seahawks are finally playing the kind of football we’ve been waiting to see them play, but winning in Philadelphia is a tall order. I like the Eagles to take this one.

MDS’s pick: Eagles 24, Seahawks 20.

Florio’s take:  Pete Carroll knows Mark Sanchez well enough to outscore him.  Sure, the Eagles looked great in Dallas.  But the Seahawks have looked even better in their last two games.

Florio’s pick:  Seahawks 30, Eagles 27.

Patriots at Chargers

MDS’s take: This is a great game between a team that earned a hard-fought win last week and a team that suffered a hard-fought loss last week. The Chargers are in control in the AFC wild card race, but their schedule is so tough that I just don’t see them making the playoffs. A loss to the Patriots will be the first loss in what is going to be a disappointing December in San Diego.

MDS’s pick: Patriots 28, Chargers 21.

Florio’s take:  The Chargers once went 32 years without beating the Patriots.  Currently, it’s been six years.  The streak will move to seven as the Pats get past last Sunday’s disappointing loss at Green Bay.

Florio’s pick:  Patriots 34, Chargers 21.

Falcons at Packers

MDS’s take: The Falcons had an impressive win over the Cardinals last week, but the way the Packers are rolling right now, I wouldn’t pick anyone to beat them at Lambeau Field.

MDS’s pick: Packers 31, Falcons 17.

Florio’s take:  Four years ago, the Packers rolled into the Georgia Dome and blasted the top-seeded Falcons in the playoffs.  So this is Atlanta’s chance . . . to endure a similar outcome at Lambeau Field.

Florio’s pick:  Packers 48, Falcons 20.

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