With four weeks remaining in the NFL’s regular season, we hold these truths to be self-evident (or at least I do):
* In the AFC, the Patriots, Texans and Kansas City are great bets to win their divisions, and the Chargers are a lock to make the playoffs as well. That means the only thing left truly undecided in the AFC is who’s going to win the AFC North and who’s going to nab the conference’s No. 6 wild-card seed? Will it be the Steelers as AFC North champs and the Ravens as the wild card, or the other way around? If there’s a 6-6 team with a chance to run the table and get in, put me down for the Titans, who have three home games remaining.
* The No. 1 pick in the 2019 NFL draft will belong to a team from California, with San Francisco (2-10) and Oakland (2-10) currently in the No. 1 and No. 2 slots, respectively, ahead of the No. 3 Jets (3-9) and No. 4 Arizona (3-9). It was a hide-your-eyes season of football in the Bay area.
* No on-the-bubble team has a tougher path to the playoffs than the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles (6-6). Yes, they’d win the NFC East if they win out, but that’s far easier said than done. Philadelphia faces three likely division champions the next three weeks: at Dallas, at the Rams, and home against Houston, before finishing at division rival Washington in Week 17. If the slow-starting Eagles become the first Super Bowl champion from the NFC to not make the playoffs the following season since the 2012 Giants, you’ll know why.
* The only No. 5 seed to win a Super Bowl since the NFL went to the 12-team playoff format in 1990 was the memorable 2007 Giants, who knocked off the perfect-season Patriots. But beware of this year’s fifth seeds if current form holds. The Chargers (9-3) and Seahawks (7-5) are proving they can play with anyone, anywhere in recent weeks, and both will be very tough outs in January.
* The worst-to-first contingent of Houston (9-3) and Chicago (8-4) field two of the most talented and deep defenses in the league, and you know what they say about defense in the postseason, it wins championships. Keep an eye on the Texans and Bears as potential handfuls to deal with as No. 3 seeds.
Last week: 9-7 (.563); Season: 119–71 (.626).
Jacksonville (4-8) at Tennessee (6-6)
I promise you we’re not in for another Chiefs-Rams shootout under the lights. Not even close. The Jaguars squeaked past the Colts at home last week with Cody Kessler at quarterback, but winning in Nashville will be considerably tougher. Tennessee beat Jacksonville 9-6 in Week 3 in Florida, and has won five of the past six meetings, including four in a row at home against the Jaguars. This is a game the Titans have to have to stay alive in the AFC wild-card chase, and they’ll get it done. But as usual, it won’t be pretty.
New York Jets (3-9) at Buffalo (4-8)
It looks like it’s going to be Sam Darnold back in the lineup against Josh Allen, if you’re into rookie quarterback showdowns. But that’s all I’ve got for you in this battle for last place in the AFC East.
Carolina (6-6) at Cleveland (4-7-1)
The Panthers are desperate after four consecutive losses served to totally flip the narrative of their season, so this is must-win territory. But they’re also horrible on the road, going 1-5 and needing a fourth-quarter miracle to win at Philadelphia. The Browns are 3-2-1 at home and still playing hard, even in the second half of what started as a blowout loss at Houston last week. Cleveland still has a couple wins in it this year, and this is one of them.
Atlanta (4-8) at Green Bay (4-7-1)
You get the feeling the Packers are going to get some kind of mental boost this week from having the Mike McCarthy melodrama ended last Sunday night with his late-season firing. The Falcons have been underachievers themselves, but I’m giving Packers interim coach Joe Philbin his first win as Green Bay for now avoids the ignominy of dropping into last place in the NFC North.
Winner: Green Bay
Baltimore (7-5) at Kansas City (10-2)
I give the Lamar Jackson-led Ravens a real chance to win this game, with a plan of trying to shorten the game by running the ball all day long at the Chiefs so-so defense. But in the end, Kansas City will be just explosive enough to snap Baltimore’s three-game winning streak and keep the pressure on veteran Ravens coach John Harbaugh in the season’s final month.
Winner: Kansas City
New England (9-3) at Miami (6-6)
The Dolphins almost always play the Patriots tough in South Florida, where they have beaten Tom Brady nine times in 16 tries, which makes them wildly successful by No. 12’s lofty standards. But this is an injury-decimated Miami offense, and if Adam Gase’s club doesn’t have No. 1 cornerback Xavien Howard due to injury, it’s hard to visualize this game staying close for four quarters. Get those hats and T-shirts ready to hand out, because New England is about to clinch its 10th consecutive AFC East title.
Winner: New England
New Orleans (10-2) at Tampa Bay (5-7)
My prediction calls for plenty of points. But the Saints this time will out-score the Bucs, a feat they couldn’t quite manage Week 1 in the Superdome. Drew Brees gets his MVP candidacy back on track, and Jameis Winston plays well in losing for the first time in his three-start reprieve.
Winner: New Orleans
New York Giants (4-8) at Washington (6-6)
Mark Sanchez starting against a New York team that plays its home games in the Meadowlands makes for a nice twist, but that’s a thin reed of interest to build this game around. The Giants have won three of four and are playing their best football of the season. Washington has lost three in a row and can’t seem to make the right move on or off the field.
Winner: New York
Indianapolis (6-6) at Houston (9-3)
The Texans’ started their current nine-game winning streak in Indianapolis in Week 4, when Colts rookie head coach Frank Reich unwisely passed up an almost certain tie and went for the win, with disastrous results. And to think at one point this season, Indy was 1-5 and Houston was 0-3. They’re a combined 14-1 since those low-water marks, but that Colts’ 6-0 loss at Jacksonville was a killer last week in terms of their wild-card hopes. It could be one of the day’s most entertaining games, but Houston at home will find a way to keep its win streak alive.
Cincinnati (5-7) at Los Angeles Chargers (9-3)
I would like to address that one particularly rabid Bengals fan who informed me this preseason via Twitter that I was an idiot when I picked Cincinnati to finish last in the AFC North, behind the third-place Browns. If your Bengals lose this game, and they will, and the Browns win at home against Carolina, which I think will happen, Cincinnati will be in last place with three weeks remaining. I await your lavish apology. And I don’t want to hear about all the Bengals’ injuries, that’s a part of the whole preseason prediction stew.
Winner: Los Angeles
Denver (6-6) at San Francisco (2-10)
The Broncos are playing with confidence and resilience and getting a breakout season from an unexpected source in undrafted rookie running back Philip Lindsay. While San Francisco could give Denver a game of it for a while, the Broncos will make it a four in a row for their once-embattled coach Vance Joseph, who suddenly looks quite safe.
Philadelphia (6-6) at Dallas (7-5)
More than anything, it’s the Dallas defense that makes me believe the Cowboys will win the NFC East. They’re fast, athletic and stay aggressive for all four quarters, smothering opponents before they can find open field. The Cowboys are 5-1 at home this season, and have won three of their four NFC East games. This game should clear the path to the division title for Dallas, its third in five seasons. The Eagles will stay in the scrum fighting for a wild-card berth and the No. 6 seed, with every team in that bunch perhaps losing this week (Vikings, Panthers, Eagles and Washington).
Pittsburgh (7-4-1) at Oakland (2-10)
As shaky as the Steelers have looked the last three weeks, in barely winning at Jacksonville and then losing to the Broncos and Chargers, there’s no way they’re giving away another game to this particular AFC West opponent. Pittsburgh simply has to stop the bleeding and maintain its tenuous grasp on the AFC North lead, especially with a visit from its long-time nemesis from New England looming next week.
Detroit (4-8) at Arizona (3-9)
You have to really be commended (or committed) to watch this game from start to finish. Arizona pulled that surprise in Green Bay last week, now can the Cardinals build their first winning streak of the season facing a different NFC North opponent at home? I’m not convinced. The Lions have just enough offensive firepower to squeak out a win in the desert.
Los Angeles Rams (11-1) at Chicago (8-4)
It’ll be a marquee clash of glamor offense versus elite defense in Soldier Field, and we could see the rematch in the playoffs in the Coliseum next month. The Bears’ takeaway-happy defense will challenge Jared Goff, but the Rams quarterback will make his share of plays while the returning Mitchell Trubisky might be rusty and only pose a threat to the Los Angeles defense with his legs and not his arm.
Winner: Los Angeles
Minnesota (6-5-1) at Seattle (7-5)
After watching the Vikings come up small in almost every one of their big games this season, I’m not picking against an improving Seahawks team that looks poised and ready to roll into the playoffs and do some damage. Russell Wilson will out-play Kirk Cousins in the game’s key moments and the Seattle’s vaunted home-field advantage will be decisive. Again, if the contenders for the NFC’s No. 6 seed struggle as much as I expect them to in Week 14, the Vikings even with a loss will still hold the conference’s final playoff berth at the close of Monday night.