By Don Banks | December 7, 2017 2:00 pm PT
We know how to crack the code now, at least in the NFC. The past two NFC champions have hailed from the NFC South, and represented the conference in the Super Bowl after finishing .500 or below the year before. That was the case for Carolina in 2015 (7-8-1 in 2014) and Atlanta last year (8-8 in 2015).
That bodes very well indeed for the first-place Saints (9-3), who were 7-9 the past three seasons. But then again, the Panthers qualify once again as well, sitting 8-4 after last season’s 6-10 bottoming out.
And come to think of it, that bounce back streak has a great shot to continue in term of the entire NFC this season, unless Atlanta or Seattle end up making a run that wins the conference. NFC East-leading Philadelphia went 7-9 last season and finished in last place in its division. The top-seeded Vikings were just 8-8 a year ago and in third place in the NFC North. And the Los Angeles Rams are atop the NFC West at 9-3 after being a dismal 4-12 in 2016.
Got that? Based on recent history, the Saints are locks in the NFC. Unless the Eagles, Vikings, Rams or Panthers beat them to the punch. At the moment, we’re looking at five out of six NFC playoff qualifiers having missed the postseason last year, with only Seattle returning to the field. That’s a ton of new blood in January.
* Last week’s picks: 13-3 (.813); Season: 13-3 (.813).
New Orleans at Atlanta — The Saints last Sunday in the Superdome won the game that sets them up to win the NFC South, besting the Panthers to sweep their season series. But now they face the defending champion Falcons twice in the next three games, so significant hurdles remain. Atlanta, currently in the No. 7 out-of-the-money playoff seed, should be the more desperate team. New Orleans would love to win and all but finish off the Birds, but the Falcons almost have to win to stay close to sixth-seeded Seattle (8-4). Winner: Atlanta.
Minnesota at Carolina — The NFL’s law of averages say the Vikings are due a clunker after winning eight in a row, including five road wins. But I’m not ready to climb off the Case Keenum bandwagon just yet. Minnesota’s stingy, tenacious defense will give Cam Newton and Co. all they can handle in Charlotte and the Vikings’ magic carpet ride will sail on for another week. Winner: Minnesota.
Indianapolis at Buffalo — Not sure if we’ll see Tyrod Taylor or Nathan Peterman at quarterback for the Bills, so it’s a tricky game to predict. But the Bills at home should be able to find a way to scrape past a bad Colts team that’s playing out the string. Ex-Colts coach Ron Meyer died this week, and he was always a fun quote. My favorite of his? “Those NFL owners, they don’t buy green bananas.’’ Truer now than even when he spoke those words in the 1980s. Winner: Buffalo.
Dallas at N.Y. Giants — By going back to Eli Manning at quarterback after the debacle of last week, basically the Giants just issued a great, big “Never mind,’’ only underlining how badly handled the whole episode was from start to finish. There will be great support for Manning coming from the MetLife Stadium stands on Sunday. Much less so on the field, from the skeleton crew that surrounds Eli on offense. Winner: Dallas.
Chicago at Cincinnati — Those Bengals, when they put their minds to it, they can some how find a way to lose to the Steelers in astounding fashion. Take a good look at these two coaches, John Fox and Marvin Lewis. Because they both could be asked to turn in their key card in less than a month. Winner: Cincinnati.
Detroit at Tampa Bay — Both teams had legitimate playoff hopes this season, but as it turns out, both teams were misinformed. Take a good look at these two coaches, too, Jim Caldwell and Dirk Koetter. Because they’re both in danger of being dismissed by New Year’s Day as well. Winner: Detroit.
Green Bay at Cleveland — The Aaron Rodgers-to-the-rescue scenario won’t mean a thing if the Packers can’t beat the winless Browns. It appears fool-hardy to pick Cleveland to win, but it feels like it’s finally time for the Browns to get a few breaks. A December home game was the formula for Cleveland’s lone win last season, and I like the Browns’ chances better this week against Packers quarterback Brett Hundley than I do when Baltimore visits in Week 15. Winner: Cleveland.
Oakland at Kansas City — AFC West Fever. Catch it. I love when bad divisions take center stage the way the three-team scrum involving the Chiefs, Raiders and Chargers have done in recent weeks. Kansas City feels like a team that’s on fumes at this point, and now there’s no Marcus Peters in the secondary thanks to his one-game team suspension for last week’s disappearing act (literally) against the Jets. But if the Chiefs are to have any real shot at regaining their equilibrium and winning a division they appeared to own this year, they have to have this game. Winner: Kansas City.
San Francisco at Houston — Jimmy Garoppolo at least makes the 49ers offense watchable, but the Texans probably have too much defensive might to let San Francisco improve to 2-0 under their new quarterback. Tom Savage and DeAndre Hopkins will play more than a little pitch-and-catch in this low-scoring Texans win. Winner: Houston.
Washington at L.A. Chargers — Now that they’ve clawed their way to .500 after 13 weeks, it would be so Chargers-like to stumble against an opponent with a losing record. And make no mistake, Washington is a strong 5-7 club. But I think Anthony Lynn has his team focused and having fun, and the Chargers’ comeback will continue in Carson. Winner: Los Angeles.
N.Y. Jets at Denver — Where’s bottom for these Broncos? They’ve already lost to the then-winless Giants at home this season, so why would the outcome be any different with the plucky, 5-7 Jets coming to town? Denver first-year coach Vance Joseph is going, going, almost gone. Winner: New York.
Tennessee at Arizona — The Titans have been out-scored by 16 points and yet they’re 8-4 and leading the way in the AFC South. The Cardinals aren’t going anywhere again this season, but I think they’ve got at least one more winning performance in them this month, and Bruce Arians will have them pumped up to knock off a first-place team. Winner: Arizona.
Seattle at Jacksonville — The Seahawks were my preseason pick to win it all this year, and I finally saw that Seattle team show up last Sunday night against Philadelphia, upsetting the visiting Eagles by 14 points. This will be a low-scoring defensive struggle, but I like Russell Wilson to make one more big play than the Jaguars’ stellar defense. Winner: Seattle.
Philadelphia at L.A. Rams — It’s the game of the week and a legit potential NFC title game preview. The Eagles finally looked mortal last week in Seattle, and I want to see how they respond to the first dose of real adversity they’ve encountered all year. They might be ready to blow the doors off L.A., but I doubt it. I think the Rams are playing with supreme confidence and Sean McVay will have some creativity to throw at Jim Schwartz’s stout Eagles defense. Winner: Los Angeles.
Baltimore at Pittsburgh — The Steelers escaped the upset in Cincinnati Monday night, and their huge showdown against the Patriots next week remains on track to settle home-field advantage in the AFC. The Ravens are quietly putting a few things together on offense and will put a good fight in Heinz Field, but Pittsburgh will find a way to prevail and improve to 11-2. Winner: Pittsburgh.
New England at Miami — The Dolphins have often played New England very tough at home, and they’re capable of pulling the upset if the Patriots don’t bring their A game. But New England’s defense has been money of late, and try as I might, I can’t see a Jay Cutler-led offense out-producing a Tom Brady-led attack. Can you? Winner: New England.
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