With one more week to go in the NFL's regular season, the guys offer their predictions on the final playoff battles, including the Cowboys-Giants showdown for the NFC East crown, Denver's pursuit of the AFC West title, plus Cincinnati's chances of clinching the final post-season berth in the AFC.
The NFC East is down to a one-game showdown between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants. Which team comes out on top?
Jesse Campigotto: I've given up prognosticating on the Cowboys, but I do think they're a slightly better team than the Giants. Just look at their point differentials: Dallas plus-39, New York minus-23. We're already going to have a negative-differential division winner in the AFC West (Denver or Oakland), and have we ever had two? Not in the last nine years, and that's as far as I looked. Of course, the Giants could blow out the Cowboys on Sunday night, but that doesn't seem likely. So if I have to make a pick, I'll go with Dallas. By the way, imagine the ratings for this game? Two huge markets, two storied franchises, no other games on, and it's a de facto playoff game.
Jason Davidson: The Giants take the NFC East because they have home field advantage this coming Sunday night. The way they bounced back on the 'road' against the Jets on Christmas Eve was impressive, considering the way they stunk up the joint the week before when the Washington Redskins paid a visit. The schedule, as of late, has worked out to the G-Men's benefit as they haven't had to travel since rallying for a huge 37-34 win at Cowboys Stadium in the Sunday nighter back in week 14.
Tony Care: Well, let's see. Which QB would I rather have in the fourth quarter of a win-or-else game, Eli Manning or Tony Romo. I'll take Eli there. Which defence can make key stops, the Giants or the Cowboys? Since it takes very little to confuse Dallas's secondary, I'll take New York's defence. That's my not-so subtle way of saying I like the Giants.
Denver and Oakland are tied atop the AFC West, but the Broncos have the edge in the tiebreaker, so a home victory against Kansas City seals the division. Do the Broncos clinch an unlikely division title?
Jason Davidson: Boy how Kyle Orton would love to play spoiler on New Year's Day. That being said, it looks as though the odds are in the Broncos' favour, but looking at how Denver was manhandled by the Bills in Buffalo on Saturday, it's not a sure thing. The Raiders have been next to impossible to figure out the last few weeks and they were pretty lucky to come out with an OT win in KC. Who knows how the Raiders will fare against the newly-eliminated San Diego Chargers at home.
Tony Care: I like Denver to finish things off. Unlike the Buffalo fiasco, the Broncos' defence should do a good enough job to limit the Kansas City offence while keeping Tim Tebow within striking distance. As Tebow has shown in the last two losses, he can't be down more than 14 points because he forces too many bad throws. A bonus for the Broncos is even if they lose to the Chiefs, the Raiders would still have to beat inconsistent San Diego to overtake Denver, which is no guarantee.
Jesse Campigotto: They should be able to take care of K.C. As I mentioned last week, the Chiefs have the fourth-worst point differential in the league, and the idea that after knocking off the Packers they'd rally to win this division was a little silly. The key for Denver is to get the lead early so that Tim Tebow can keep the ball on the ground. I knew he was cooked against Buffalo as soon as the Bills went up by more than two touchdowns. Sure enough, the wheels came off in spectacular fashion. When Tebow has to drop back on every down, he's one of the least effective quarterbacks in the league, if not the worst.
It won't be easy, but if the Cincinnati Bengals can knock off the Baltimore Ravens at home, they'll secure the sixth and final seed in the AFC. Can the Bengals pull off the upset?
Tony Care: They have a better-than average chance in this game and I wouldn't consider it an upset. Here is the key to the game as I see it: If the Bengals, who have the NFL's No. 6 run defence, can limit Ravens RB Ray Rice, their odds improve significantly. Baltimore QB Joe Flacco hasn't shown he can carry the load when the running game falters, so Rice is really the team's best option. That will be defensive co-ordinator Mike Zimmer's main focus. Shut down Rice and force Flacco to beat you. That should be the weekly game plan for every team playing against the Ravens.
Jesse Campigotto: Sure, but they got a bit unlucky in that Baltimore will still be playing for the division (not to mention a first-round bye) so the Ravens can be expected to bring their best effort. But Cincy only lost by a touchdown when these teams met in Bodymore on Nov. 20, and the Bengals turned the ball over three times (all INTs by Andy Dalton) compared to only once by the Ravens.
Jason Davidson: I think Cincy has a great chance to sneak into the post-season dance. Home field is a big deal here and the Ravens haven't looked very good on the road this season. Furthermore, back in Week 11, the Bengals kept it close in Baltimore, losing 31-24 and the Ravens were perfect this year at home. At the same time, there is plenty at stake for the Ravens as well, namely an AFC North title and a first-round bye. Still, I like the Bengals on Sunday.
The Steelers can still lock up the AFC North with a victory over the Cleveland Browns and a Ravens' loss in Cincinnati. But should head coach Mike Tomlin risk the health of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in order to go after the division title and a first-round bye?
Jason Davidson: Only if Charlie Batch is struggling and a rally is needed against the Browns. Batch looked pretty good in Pittsburgh's 27-0 blowout of the St. Louis Rams on Sunday. Batch went 15 for 22, with 208 yards passing and just one interception. Rashard Mendenhall got the job done on the ground with 18 carries for 116 yards and a touchdown. He will probably put up similar numbers against the Browns, who are 30th in the entire NFL against the run. Big Ben just might get some extra time to heal.
Jesse Campigotto: That first-round bye seems like it would be more important to the banged-up Steelers than to anyone else in the league. But do they need Roethlisberger to beat Cleveland? Pittsburgh shut out St. Louis 27-0 this week with Charlie Batch at the helm. Give how bad Roethlisberger looked when he tried to play in San Francisco last week, I'd take my chances with Batch, hope for the best, and give Roethlisberger the extra time to get better for the playoffs.
Tony Care: If it was as simple as winning and clinching a division crown I might consider it, but not in this scenario. To me you give Big Ben another week to rest his ankle and take your chances with Charlie Batch. If the Steelers have to play the extra week and settle for a wild card spot, so be it. There is no better team more experienced or equipped to make a playoff run on the road than the Steelers.
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