NFL Week 12: NFC Wild-Card Race On Display

The NFC wild-card race is on center stage Sunday, with teams like the Saints & Vikings fighting for survival, the Packers and Bears battling to avoid the wild-card round and the 49ers and Giants trying to hold on to first place. Fox’s doubleheader features two key games among this group of teams, and then it rolls on into Sunday night on NBC. The matchups of Minnesota-Chicago, San Francisco-New Orleans and Green Bay-NY Giants lead up our discussion of NFL Week 12.

Minnesota-Chicago (1 PM ET, Fox): The Vikings are 6-4 and tied with Tampa Bay & Seattle for the last playoff berth, both teams Minnesota has lost head-to-head to. But if they win in Soldier Field it throws the NFC wild-race into chaos, by pulling the Vikes even with the Bears and opening up both spots for fringe contenders.

Jay Cutler is still questionable after his concussion and the Bears’ offense has been a positive disaster without him in their two recent losses to Houston and San Francisco. While those teams have defenses better than the Vikings, it’s not like Minnesota’s D is bad. It’s a middle-of-the-league unit and more importantly, the Vikes match up well with the Bears. Chicago does a terrible job protecting its quarterback and Minnesota defensive ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison do a fabulous job crashing the pocket from both ends. This team gets beat in the secondary, but without Cutler, who’s going to do the beating for Chicago.

Presuming their quarterback is out, it’s going to be up to the Bears’ defense to force Christian Ponder into mistakes, which in turn means stacking the box against Adrian Peterson and making Ponder throw. Percy Harvin is expected back at receiver, so there’s at least a little bit of a risk if Chicago brings everyone to the line of scrimmage, but it’s still a gamble worth taking. Make Ponder prove he can make the plays necessary to win a really big game on the road.

My own view on this game is that who wins or loses depends on whether Cutler is available (yeah, bold pick, I know). It’s going to be low-scoring in any case and when an Over/Under line gets posted, take the Under, so long as the number stays around 35.

San Francisco-New Orleans (4:25 PM ET, Fox): New Orleans is feeling it in the playoff race, up to 5-5 and just a game out. There’s no room for error though, since the NFC South has been put out of reach by Atlanta and Sunday’s game is one of several tough battles for the Saints the rest of the way. They certainly need to win their big ones at home. San Francisco, at 7-2-1, has some breathing room in the NFC West, but is still tight in the race for both the #1 playoff seed, as well as slipping to #3 and out of first-round bye territory.

The Saints might be winning games, but they still aren’t’ defending the run. And even if you don’t believe San Fran’s backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick is as good as he looked Monday night, the performance against the Bears is going to require New Orleans to respect the pass. It’s also possible Alex Smith could get back into the lineup. The 49ers are going to run the ball effectively and their offensive success will depend on how many big plays Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis can make down the field. If past history against this particular defense—both in last year’s playoffs and by every other NFL opponent in 2012—is any indication, the number of big plays is going to be high.

Whether Drew Brees can answer for New Orleans depends largely on his offensive line’s ability to locate Aldon Smith. The Niner outside linebacker already has 15 sacks and he has to be kept from spending the day with Brees in the backfield. The fact New Orleans has shown a better commitment to the run since the return of interim coach Joe Vitt will aid that goal.

Picking New Orleans violates all my firmly held beliefs about taking a team that’s used a hot offense to beat some questionable opponents over a real football team with a running game and defense, but that’s what I’m going to do here. I like New Orleans’ homefield advantage, their desperation factor and their revenge factor, going back to January. There’s a lot of intangibles working in the Saints favor and I think they manifest themselves in a hard-fought victory.

Green Bay-NY Giants (8:20 PM ET, NBC): It’s another rematch from the second round of last year’s NFC playoffs. The Giants went reeling into last week’s bye, with two straight losses dropping them to 6-4. Green Bay has won five straight, pulled even with Chicago in the NFC North and started up Super Bowl and Aaron Rodgers MVP talk all over again.

Before we get carried away, this Packer offensive line continues to have significant problems and they did not play well in last week’s win at Detroit. The Giants’ defensive front is as good as always, with Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck having good years on the ends and Linval Joseph getting good pressure up the middle. It’s imperative the Packers have success running James Starks between the tackles, or it’s going to be a long day for Rodgers.

On the other side of the ball, Green Bay is doing a good job defending the run this season , and are healthy on both corners again, but Charles Woodson is still out and Clay Matthews is expected to miss another game with a hamstring injury. It begs the question of where the Packer defense is going to find big plays if Eli Manning doesn’t have another implosion? The answer is simple—they aren’t.

Maybe that’s too harsh—Green Bay got a couple sacks from Erik Walden last week, but overall, this is a game where Manning has to step with a big performance against a team missing its best playmakers. Green Bay’s only real hope on the road is for a big game from Starks, creating some opportunities for Rodgers and getting some breaks with a bad game from Manning. That’s the formula that more or less worked in a big road win at Detroit, the Giants aren’t the Lions, Eli isn’t Stafford and the Pack’s not getting out of the Meadowlands with a win. Take the Giants and give the three.

The rest of the NFL Week 12 card…

Denver-Kansas City: CBS will show most of the country this game in the early time slot, as Peyton Manning’s resurgence seems to have made them a second home team to America. Grantland’s Bill Barnwell pegs Manning as the likely choice for MVP and it’s hard to argue against it. Although nothing’s harder than coming up with a reason why the Chiefs would win this game.

Atlanta-Tampa Bay: This game might well have been included in with the big three above, with the Falcons looking to bounce back after their first loss of the season and the Bucs right in the wild-card race. The only downer is this game won’t be seen by all or most of the country like the others will be. And though I know Tampa’s at home, I’m going to be surprised if they win this game. The pass rush for the Bucs is too poor and the Falcons are too motivated.

It would be nice if Atlanta got some rushing production from Michael Turner—something they didn’t do two weeks ago against the Saints—but the Tampa pass rush is so bad, this is one game where Matt Ryan can probably try 50 passes and get away with it.

Seattle-Miami: Just when I was starting to believe in Miami, they throw a clunker like last Thursday night in Buffalo. At 4-6, the Dolphins are now a playoff longshot. By rights, Seattle should be an easy call this week with the defense still stellar, Marshawn Lynch still rolling and Russell Wilson getting better as the season progresses. But the Seahawks are a different team on the road. This one’s going down to the wire. I’d lean Miami, and they’re definitely worth the value at (+3) on the line. Also keep an eye on the total of 37—I know it’s low, but this game has the look of one that can still go Under.

Pittsburgh-Cleveland: Are we writing Pittsburgh off to quickly? They’re only a one-point favorite against the Browns, so I’m guessing some type of public opinion is moving against them. It’s understandable, with Ben Roethlisberger still out, along with Troy Polamulu, and now third-string Charlie Batch expected to be behind center.

But Mike Tomlin has made do in some tough situations and it’s not like he’s asking Batch—a veteran, with substantial starting experience by the way—to go beat New England or Houston. He’s asking him to manage the game, let what’s become a sound running game take over and beat a team that’s mastered the art of shooting themselves in the foot. Sure, I think this will be close, but when the money’s on the table, the Steelers find a way to win.

Baltimore-San Diego: These teams are probably of roughly equivalent talent, with the Ravens being a little more talented on the offensive side, with the Chargers having superior pass rush personnel on defense. But there’s a reason Baltimore is 8-2, while San Diego is 4-6 and it’s called knowing how to win.

There’s a part of me that wants to go with the Chargers for the same reason I picked the Saints—homefield, must-win spot and here we throw in Ravens on a letdown after beating Pittsburgh and traveling west. But what has happened this season to ever pick San Diego? What has happened to make us believe Baltimore couldn’t overcome a bad performance and win anyway? Oh, and Philip Rivers brings his interception problems to a game with Ed Reed roving the secondary. Nothing like gas on a fire.

Oakland-Cincinnati: TheSportsNotebook broke down the Bengals’ playoff chances earlier this week. Carson Palmer against his old team adds some intangibles that Cincy, as the better team if all goes according to form, really doesn’t need to be involved.

Buffalo-Indy:  Believe it or not, if the Bills win, they’re back in the playoff discussion. Indy is 6-4 and a win here pulls 4-6 Buffalo within one game, as well as opening the door to other 4-6 teams to climb back in. And I think Buffalo’s going to do it. The Colt secondary has been poor all year and was really exposed last week. I’m not saying Ryan Fitzpatrick is Tom Brady, but nor am I saying the Bills will hang 59 points on the board. Maybe 28, and if the Bill defense shows up—and with ten days to prepare there’s no reason to think they won’t—Buffalo gets a big road win.

Tennessee-Jacksonville: Kudos to Jacksonville for showing up in noble losses like last week’s overtime crusher to Houston and an earlier game at Green Bay. Now the Jags have to show up like that in a winnable spot. I like Chad Henne at quarterback and the sudden breakout it inspired from rookie receiver Justin Blackmon, and I’ll pick Jacksonville to get a road win that ruins Tennessee’s outside shot at the playoffs.

Carolina-Philly (Mon Night): It’s Monday Night matchups like this that make me unashamed to admit I’ll watch the finals of Dancing With The Stars  instead.