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What else would you rather do on a Friday morning than watch a poor man swing away at his weekly NFL Picks and Power Rankings? We’ll even throw in some extra purple with Three Reasons for Optimism and Three Reasons to Go `Uh-Oh.’
Power rankings
1, Broncos (12-3)
Last week: No. 1.
Comment: Twelve wins. Ten-game winning streak. Sounds like pretty much any other Peyton Manning season the past decade or so. Only this team also ranks No. 3 in defense. With this offense, the Broncos might be better off not having home-field advantage. Manning might want to spend the AFC title game indoors in Houston than outdoors in Denver.
2. Falcons (13-2)
Last week: No. 2.
Comment: I don’t believe any records are kept on this, but Atlanta might be the most overlooked 13-2 team ever. Why? Well, for starters, their past two seasons have seen them go 23-9 in the regular season and 0-2 with a 72-23 point differential in the playoffs. The Falcons also haven’t won a playoff game since 2004.
3. Seahawks (10-5)
Last week: No. 8.
Comment: The Vikings have Adrian Peterson, but Seattle is the more productive running team. They have three guys averaging 4.6 yards or better with over 350 yards. Marshawn Lynch has 1,490 and 11 TDs on 297 carries (5.0). QB Russell Wilson has 431 yards on 83 carries (5.1). And Robert Turbin has 359 yards on 78 carries. (4.6). So how has Russell, a rookie third-round draft pick, responded with the benefits of having this No. 2-ranked running game? He’s completed 63.4 percent of his passes with 25 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a 98.0 passer rating. He’s also helped the Seahawks win their last three games by a combined score of 150-30, including a 42-13 win over the 49ers last week.
30. Jaguars (2-13)
Last week: No. 30.
Comment: Need further proof that Tom Coughlin is a good coach? Here you go: Since the Jaguars fired Coughlin 10 years ago, Coughlin has more Super Bowl wins (2) than the Jaguars have playoff victories (1).
31. Lions (4-11)
Last week: No. 31.
Comment: Unfortunately for Calvin Johnson’s receiving numbers, this is the final week that the Lions will be able to fall hopelessly behind in a meaningless game.
32. Chiefs (2-12)
Last week: No. 32.
Comment: The Chiefs rank last in interceptions thrown (20) and interceptions caught (7). Ouch.
6. Packers (11-4)
9. Vikings (9-6)
13. Bears (9-6)
6. Packers (11-4)
Last week: No. 7.
Comment: Mike McCarthy won’t win NFL Coach of the Year, but he at least deserves some thought for no other reason than leading this team to a 10-2 mark after the “Fail Mary” fiasco in Seattle. When the replacement officials botched that last-second touchdown that gave Seattle the win and essentially ended the labor dispute with the regular officials, the Packers were 1-2 and looking at three more road games in their next four weeks.
9. Vikings (8-6)
Last week: No. 11.
Comment: If not for the “Fail Mary,” the Packers would have less to play for when they face the Vikings on Sunday. Green Bay would have the No. 2 seed and a bye wrapped up. And the Vikings wouldn’t be looking at the likely scenario of having to travel to Green Bay next week if they made the playoffs.
14. Bears (8-6)
Last week: No. 13.
Comment: He’s good, mind you. But at what point do we give pause before we keep referring to Jay Cutler as an elite quarterback and therefore a thorn in the Vikings’ side for years to come? Cutler has 18 TDs and 14 INTs. Christian Ponder has 15 and 12. Cutler an 80.2 passer rating. Ponder has a 78.8. I won’t compare the completion percentages since Ponder has no passing game beyond five yards of the line of scrimmage. Cutler needs better protection, but he also needs to complete better than 58.8 percent of his passes.
31. Lions (4-10).
Last week: No. 31.
4. Patriots (11-4); 5. Redskins (9-6); 7. 49ers (10-4-1); 8. Colts (10-5); 10. Bengals (9-6); 11. Texans (12-3); 12. Ravens (10-5); 14. Saints (7-8); 15. Cowboys (8-7); 16. Panthers (6-9);
17. Rams (7-7-1); 18. Dolphins (7-8); 19. Chargers (6-9); 20. Steelers (7-8); 21. Giants (8-7); 22. Titans (5-10); 23. Browns (5-10); 24. Jets (6-9); 25. Bills (5-10); 26. Cardinals (5-10); 27. Raiders (4-11); 28. Eagles (4-11); 29. Buccaneers (6-9)
1, The first drive: It’s baby steps, but given the state of this offense, especially without Percy Harvin, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave deserves a lot of credit for giving Ponder an early script that has been tremendously successful during the team’s current three-game winning streak. In the first drives against Chicago, St. Louis and Houston, Ponder has looked decisive, confident and all the other things he lacks far too often. He’s 7 of 7 for 111 yards, one rushing touchdown and one passing touchdown. The other drive ended with Adrian Peterson rushing for a touchdown. The Vikings never trailed after those touchdowns.
2, Peterson’s high standards: It’s been funny to hear people talk about how the Texans “shut down” or “took away” the Vikings’ run game. If running for 174 yards on 42 carries (4.1) is “shut down,” then shut me down every week. Yes, Peterson didn’t run for 150 yards, but the NFL has ruled that guys who aren’t chasing Eric Dickerson are allowed to carry the ball, too. Plus, I might be one of the few who actually was impressed that Peterson managed to get 86 yards the way the Texans played that game. Houston had cornerbacks completely ignoring the passing game while darting in from the edges to tackle Peterson whether he had the ball or not. Twenty-two of Peterson’s carries went for 25 yards. But three of them went for 61. All in all, it was a very productive running game.
3, Defense and the Dome: Before getting thumped 23-6 last week, the Texans hadn’t gone without a touchdown since Matt Schaub joined the team. And the Vikings hadn’t given up fewer points since beating Atlanta 24-3 in the 2007 opener, which was Peterson’s NFL debut. The Vikings haven’t played with this much confidence on defense in a very long time. And they get the significant edge of playing this game at the Metrodome. The Packers have a great passing attack, obviously, but they’re also 27th in the league in sacks allowed per pass play.
1, Packer swagger: No team in the league – other than whichever one Peyton Manning happens to play for – goes into a game with a higher level of confidence than the Packers. It doesn’t matter who’s hurt, where the game is being played or whether the replacement officials cheated them the week before. Aaron Rodgers gives this team a consistency that Brett Favre never did. And right now, the Packers have won a franchise-record 12 consecutive division games.
2, Ponder’s nerves: In my ledger, Ponder has played eight games in which I’ve felt he’s shown that the Vikings can continue to build around him as the long-term answer at QB. That means he’s played seven – in my mind – in which he’s shown the opposite. That point is probably moot because the consensus feeling is this next offseason will be bone dry when it comes to quality QBs via the draft, free agency and trade. So Ponder gets at least one more year. Playing well at home against the Packers with the playoffs on the line sure would help. Have you ever been at a wedding and your tie is too tight and you’re miserable? And you get to the reception and you get to loosen the tie and you feel fantastic? A win sure would loosen the noose that Ponder’s wearing.
3, `Claymaker’ is back: Vikings fans kind of figured out that Packers linebacker Clay Matthews was pretty good when he ripped the ball out of Peterson’s hands and returned it for a touchdown as a rookie in 2009. Peterson ran for 210 yards against the Packers four weeks ago. But Matthews didn’t play in that game. Asked how big a deal that was not to have Matthews, coach Mike McCarthy said, “He’s our best player on defense.” In other words, it mattered. Plus, the Packers were humiliated by poor tackling. They’ll give a much better effort this time.
Vikings 24, Packers 21: Blair Walsh opened the regular season with a winning field goal in overtime. He’ll end it with one against the Packers. The Packers are the better team. And they’re on a 9-1 roll. But I’m going with the home team and the fact the Vikings essentially need this to make the playoffs. Sure, they can get in with a loss if the Bears, Giants and Cowboys also lose. But what are the chances in the NFL that three teams you need to lose are going to lose?
Record picking Vikings games: 8-5.
GB minus-3 ½ at VIK: Vikings by 3.
NYJ plus-3 ½ at BUF: Bills by 7.
MIA plus-10 at NE: Patriots by 14.
BAL plus-3 at CIN: Bengals by 7.
CLE off at PIT: Steelers by 7.
JAC plus-4 at TEN: Titans by 7.
PHI plus-7 ½ at NYG: Giants by 3.
DAL plus-3 at WAS: Redskins by 10.
CHI minus-3 at DET: Bears by 7.
TB off at ATL: Buccaneers by 3.
CAR plus-5 at NO: Saints by 7.
KC plus-16 at DEN: Broncos by 10.
OAK off at SD: Chargers by 14.
ARI plus-16 ½ at SF: 49ers by 10.
STL plus-10 ½ at SEA: Seahawks by 14.
Overall Record Last Week: 10-6. Vs. Spread: 8-8
Record Season: 127-76-1. Vs. Spread: 99-99-1.
HOU minus-6 ½ at IND.
Colts 28, Texans 20: The Texans still need to win to clinch home-field advantage after last week’s lifeless 23-6 loss to the Vikings at home. But they’re heading for the perfect storm: A division road game that features the return of Colts coach Chuck Pagano, who has spent the past three months battling leukemia.
Last week: CHI minus-5 ½ at ARI. Prediction: Cardinals 28, Bears 21. Actual: Bears 28, Cardinals 13.
Record: 8-7.