By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It’s the most wonderful time of the year. No, not Christmas or Hanukkah or New Year’s, though those are all fine times of the year. Wonderful, even. But the most wonderful time of the year? No, my friends, that title belongs to the final month of the NFL calendar.
OK, so you may be saying, “Oh, dear, that’s sad. Pathetic, really. Pity.” To that I would say this: FAIR ENOUGH!
But, with a precious four weeks remaining in the NFL regular season, things are starting to get real. Like, really real. If the entire season were one long NFL game, then we’d all be walking up the field holding up four fingers, preparing for the final 15 minutes. And the fact that basically nothing has been locked into stone yet makes it all the more exciting.
As Week 14 kicks off, just one team — the New Orleans Saints — has officially clinched a spot in the postseason. The 10-2 Seahawks, 10-2 Patriots, 10-2 Ravens, 10-2 49ers, 9-3 Bills and 9-3 Packers have all yet to cement a spot in the January tournament. The positioning at the top of both conference playoff structures is very much up in the air, and that applies at the bottom as well.
As it stands now, it seems a near-certainty that the Bills will own the top wild-card spot in the AFC. Over in the NFC, either the Seahawks of Niners will own that top wild-card spot.
As for the sixth spot, well, there’s quite a bit of intrigue there. The 7-5 Steelers are somehow in playoff position right now, which is something none of us believed to be possible when a fella named “Duck” trotted onto the field from the sideline earlier this year. But that seat is hardly comfy; the 7-5 Titans are right there, thanks to an equally implausible stretch of play from … RYAN TANNEHILL?!
Though the odds are steeper for the 6-6 Colts and 6-6 Raiders, they’re still right there in the event that Duck Hodges and RYAN TANNEHILL (!!!) falter in the final quarter of the season.
The NFC has less traffic for that sixth spot, which is currently held by the 8-4 Vikings and is really only being contested by the 7-5 Rams. (Apologies to the 6-6 Bears, but, well, no.)
As for how it all sorts out — and the playoff matchups that will follow — it’s really anyone’s guess. The Patriots and Ravens should be considered locks to get first-round byes, but the top seed is still uncertain. If the Patriots can beat the Chiefs this week (a big if), then they should be considered the favorite for that top spot, because the Ravens’ remaining schedule is much tougher. But then again … will either team end up really wanting that top seed?
Let’s say things stay where they are now. That would mean, provided the Chiefs can handle the Bills in the wild-card round (not a sure thing, but they’d be favored), it would be Kansas City making a trip to the No. 1 seed’s home in the divisional round. Meanwhile, the No. 2 seed would be welcoming in the Texans, who are obviously still formidable but seemingly pack less of a punch than the Chiefs. Maybe that’s up for debate.
In any event, there will be no easy matchup in the AFC in the divisional round, which should be as competitive as it’s been in a long, long time. (There could be a 12-4 team visiting a 13-3 team, and an 11-5 team visiting another 13-3 team. Wild times.)
While the Niners may have let their hold on the NFC West slip, they’re in position now to visit the .500 Cowboys in the wild card round, which isn’t the worst consolation.
The byes aren’t set in the NFC, as the 9-3 Packers have a fairly soft schedule (outside of the Vikings game) to finish the year. The Saints could land the No. 1 seed or miss the bye entirely, depending on how they finish the year.
Long story short, it’s going to be a fun month. And the schedules are short enough from here on out that if you really wanted to waste a few hours, you could bust out a pen and some paper and do your best useless forecasting for how it’s going to end. I’m not saying whether or not I’ve done just that … but … I will share what I think will be the best, most captivating postseason possible.
WILD CARD ROUND
Tennessee at Houston (would be their third meeting in four weeks!)
Buffalo at Kansas City
Los Angeles Rams at Green Bay
Seattle at Dallas
Kansas City at Baltimore (2018 MVP vs. 2019 MVP, Future Of The League™ at stake? Yes please.)
Houston at New England
Green Bay at New Orleans
Seattle at San Francisco (a Week 17 rematch)
Baltimore at New England (Can the defending champs find a way, or is it Lamar Jackson’s time?)
Green Bay at San Francisco
SUPER BOWL LIV
I mean. There’s no bad matchup there. Though the country will probably be rooting for a San Francisco-Baltimore rematch, and it would be difficult to not get geared up for that one.
It’s all a matter of preference, and at this point in time, it’s a grand exercise in time wasting. So, thank you for playing along.
Week 14 lacks some of that playoff excitement, but it’s worth noting that I am coming off a winning week. Yeah, it was only 9-7, but in a year when the picks have not been my friend, I need to take what I can get. Time to ride that momentum to a strong close to the season, so that I can show my face in public come 2020.
(Home team in CAPS; Thursday lines)
Dallas (-3) over CHICAGO
BUFFALO (+6) over Baltimore
Is it possible that I’m overrating the Buffalo defense? Sure. Is it possible that the Ravens might at some point stumble before the season ends? Of course. Is it strange to ask rhetorical questions instead of just making statements? Debatable.
GREEN BAY (-13) over Washington
I initially made a typo when writing out these picks, and I had Green Bay -3. That was a much easier pick. Nevertheless, we’ve ended up in the same place.
Denver (+9.5) over HOUSTON
Not really sure what’s going on with the Broncos, but they’ve been competitive in four of the last five weeks, and they even won two games. More importantly, they led to me getting retweeted by the quarterback of the Denver Broncos/bassist and singer for blink-182, so I’m all for this late-season change.
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) December 2, 2019
That’s what really matters.
San Francisco (+2.5) over NEW ORLEANS
I’m always wary of West Coast teams that stay on the East Coast for a week instead of making two trips. Baltimore to San Francisco is kind of a long flight, but Baltimore to Florida, and then Florida to New Orleans? Doesn’t save you that much time, and when you factor in the inconvenience of living away from home for eight or nine days, it seems like a lot of work.
Nevertheless. All of that playoff seeding talk from earlier? This one figures to play a rather big role in a number of ways. And, oddly, even though the Saints are the only team to have clinched a playoff spot … they have not been particularly impressive since their bye. I’ll stash them in the Prove It bin for the time being.
CLEVELAND (-8) over Cincinnati
It’s The Disappointment Bowl. The Failure Bowl. The Ohio Is Not Proud Of You Bowl.
Zero out of five stars. Will not watch. (If it was on a Thursday or Sunday or Monday night? I’d devour every snap. Wouldn’t you? We are a sick people.)
Carolina (+3) over ATLANTA
You can bet I rushed to Google how well or poorly teams fare the week after firing their head coach. Oh, you can bet it, brother.
I found a blog from 2016, and at that point, teams were on a slight heater, going 3-0 after firing their coach and covering in all three games. Teams playing a week after firing their head coaches had covered six straight games at that point. But then the Rams went out and lost 24-3.
Another blog from last year showed that the Giants also lost and failed to cover after firing Ben McAdoo. The Browns also failed to cover the week after firing Hue Jackson last year. But then the Packers won and covered after Mike McCarthy was fired.
WHAT’S A BOY TO THINK?
Hard to say, really. But the NFC South smells. And the Falcons’ good two-week stretch was nothing more than a glitch in the matrix.
Detroit (+13) over MINNESOTA
The Vikings won some games big early this year. But their last four wins have come by an average of 7.5 points. That includes a 12-point win over the Lions.
Plus, David Blough’s Hall of Fame career has begun. So …
Miami (+5) over NEW YORK JETS
What a slap in the face to the hottest team in football, making them five-point underdogs against a team that just lost to the Bengals.
Indianapolis (+3) over TAMPA BAY
So, here goes the thinking here: The Colts are not bad enough to lose three straight and five of six. The Bucs aren’t good enough to win three straight and four of five.
Sometimes, it’s just that simple.
Los Angeles Chargers (-3) over JACKSONVILLE
(The Jaguars are dead.)
Kansas City (+3) over NEW ENGLAND
I’d feel fine picking the Patriots if they had proven capable of taking advantage of Houston’s terrible defense last week. The fact that they did nothing until garbage time makes me think they won’t be able to capitalize on Kansas City’s defense, which isn’t quite as bad as Houston’s but is nevertheless bad.
It’ll really come down to whether or not Patrick Mahomes can avoid being awful in the first half. He was unable to do that twice vs. the Patriots last year, and their defense has only gotten better, so hey, maybe it happens. I just think the Patriots would have won this game in September or October. Given the state of both teams at the moment, it’s kind of hard to not go with the Chiefs.
Pittsburgh (-2.5) over ARIZONA
Duck Hodges does many things. But he does not lose December football games in Arizona. Everyone knows that.
By the way, the Cardinals have been so irrelevant for so long that I didn’t even realize until a few weeks ago that University of Phoenix Stadium changed to State Farm Stadium a full 15 months ago. How are you going to change the name of University of Phoenix Stadium? How?!
OAKLAND (+2.5) over Tennessee
I really just can’t get past the Tannehill thing. Like, I see it. I understand it. But … my body refuses to believe it.
Bold move by me to pick the Raiders one week after they essentially got pantsed and then tripped whilst their pants were still around their ankles, falling headfirst into a koi pond. But that’s just me, Mr. Bold Picks.
Seattle (pick ’em) over LOS ANGELES RAMS
If you read the intro, you know that I’m hoping the Rams get into the playoffs. But also, the Rams are wildly inconsistent. And Seattle is hot, hot, hot.
New York Giants (+10) over PHILADELPHIA
ELI MANNING ON MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL, BABY! 2019 — you’ve got to love it.
Last week: 9-7
*I am somehow missing a game. There have been 192 games played this year, not 191. We can probably all assume that this is a win that I’m missing, right? I suppose I’ll do some digging to find it to make sure, but, like, I mean … it probably was a win.