(Ben Roethlisberger cover photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Steelers)
By Clark Judge
Talk of Fame Network
OUR SUNDAY BEST
DENVER @ PITTSBURGH, 4:25 p.m. (EST)
The line: Steelers by 6-1/2
The story: Pittsburgh is hot, hot, hot, winning four of its last five and closing in on a wildcard playoff spot. In fact, if the Steelers can win here — and they’re favored vs. a team with a better record — they’re in good shape.
Reason: The schedule. Their last two games are against Cleveland and Baltimore, a combined 7-19.
So make this their December Super Bowl, and while they’re up against the league’s top-ranked defense, you have to like their chances. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is healthy. His wide receivers are en fuego. Running back DeAngelo Williams has turned back the clock. And they’re home.
Moreover, Denver just lost its first game with backup Brock Osweiler, a defeat where he was ordinary and his offensive line was not. It stunk. Oakland ran wind sprints through the pocket, and Osweiler was the unlucky recipient of too many hits. Result: Denver couldn’t produce a touchdown, and the Broncos fizzled in the second half, blanked by an Oakland team the Broncos routinely dominate.
Denver’s hope here is its defense. The Broncos lead the league in sacks, and, guaranteed, linebacker Von Miller introduces himself to Roethlisberger. The question is: Can the Broncos get to Big Ben before he beats them with the vertical passing game? If so, we have a game. If not, Pittsburgh may have a ticket to the playoffs.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Denver is 6-1 on the road this season and can set a single-season franchise record with a seventh road win Sunday.
THREE OTHERS SUITABLE FOR HALL-OF-FRAMING
CAROLINA @ N.Y. GIANTS, 1 p.m. (EST)
The line: Panthers by 4
The story: The Panthers not only haven’t lost this season; they haven’t lost in their last 17 regular-season games. And the Giants? Well, they’re 6-7, dropping four of their last six. Put these two together and what do you have? A beatdown, right?
Not so fast.
The Giants have broken unbeaten streaks before (see New England, Super Bowl XLII), and they’re in the middle of a three-way chase for the NFC East championship. So they’re playing for something. Then there’s this: Carolina is the seventh team in the last 20 years to start 13-0. So what? So those clubs were 2-4 in their next games.
OK, so Cam Newton is an MVP candidate … Josh Norman is a defensive MVP candidate … Ron Rivera is a Coach-of-the-Year candidate … the Panthers lead the league in takeaways with 33 … lead the league in scoring … and are coming off their first shutout of the year. In short, nothing could be finer.
But that’s why this game looks like a trap.
It’s not just that the Giants know how to beat the unbeaten; it’s that Eli Manning is coming off his best performance in years and that wide receiver Odell Beckham is the most dangerous receiver on the planet. I know, they have issues … big issues … on defense, where they can’t get to the quarterback. But they’re selling the Us-Against-The-World theme here, and maybe, just maybe, it works .
It did with New England.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Rivera is 17-3 in December, tied with Seattle’s Pete Carroll for the best record since 2011.
HOUSTON @ INDIANAPOLIS, 1 p.m. (EST)
The line: Colts by 2
The story: Make this one for the NFC South championship, and make it between two teams crawling to the finish. The Texans lost their last two games. So did Indianapolis. The Texans lost their starting quarterback. So did the Colts. And both are stuck in neutral at 5-6.
But here’s the number that matters most: 0-13. That’s Houston’s record in Indianapolis. You heard me. The Texans never, ever, ever won here.
Houston hopes T.J. Yates can change that, and maybe he can. But I’ll take my chances with Matt Hasselbeck, even though he’s recovering from an injury to his ribs. One reason: He beat Houston earlier this season. Another: He has experience in big games, taking the Seattle Seahawks to the Super Bowl in 2005.
The key here: Who controls the line of scrimmage. Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney is coming on, and J.J. Watt is … and always has been … a load. Keep them off Hasselbeck, and the Colts keep the streak in Indianapolis intact.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: In his last two starts vs. Houston, Matt Hasselbeck is 2-0, with four touchdowns and no interceptions and a passer rating of 108.1.
GREEN BAY @ OAKLAND, 4:05 p.m. (EST)
The line: Packers by 3-1/2
The story: The Raiders aren’t going to the playoffs, but the Packers are … and, for the life of me, I can’t figure these guys out. They should’ve lost to Detroit two weeks ago but didn’t. Then they overwhelmed Dallas last week, and, suddenly, we’re supposed to believe they’re legit again?
Maybe. I say this is where we find out.
That’s because these aren’t the same ol’ Raiders. This is a team coming off a big upset of Denver and that feels pretty good about themselves. And it should. The Raiders have a promising young quarterback, a promising young running back and wide receiver and a heat-seeking missile on defense in linebacker Khalil Mack, the NFL’s sack leader with 14 — including five last weekend.
So protecting Aaron Rodgers is not only recommended; it’s imperative. Green Bay protected him a week ago with a running game that produced 230 yards, but good luck trying to recreate that here. The Raiders rank 12th vs. the run, allowing just over 101 yards a game and holding four opponents to under 50 apiece. That means more pressure on Rodgers to make plays and more pressure on Rodgers vs. a pass rush tied for ninth in sacks.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: The Raiders’ 11 sacks the past three weeks are tied with the Jets for most during that period.
MONDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
(Drew Brees photo courtesy of the New Orleans Saints)
The line: Saints by 3
The story: There’s not much to say about a meaningless game between two teams going nowhere, so we won’t waste your time. The Saints have the advantage here A) because they’re home; B) they have Drew Brees and C) Detroit seems to have hit the wall with that last-second loss to Green Bay. This one is designed strictly for Fantasy-Football players everywhere. Period.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Detroit’s Ezekiel Ansah has 29 career sacks in 43 games.
LOCK OF THE WEEK
SEATTLE over CLEVELAND, 4:05 p.m. (EST)
The line: Seahawks by 15
The story: The Seahawks are making their annual push for January, winning six of their last seven, while the Browns … well, they’re making their annual push for the next tee time. They won last week with Johnny Manziel, but that was just their third victory this season. Now, they begin a three-game stretch that includes Seattle, Kansas City and Pittsburgh – three clubs that, outside of Carolina, are the hottest in the league — and let’s see how Manziel navigates that minefield. It may determine where he is in 2016.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Seattle’s Russell Wilson has three or more touchdown passes and no interceptions in each of four consecutive games. But that’s not all. He has 16 TDs, 0 interceptions and a passer rating of 145.9 in his last four.
(Home teams capitalized)
Rick Gosselin. N.Y. GIANTS (+5) over Carolina. The Giants ended one perfect season in a Super Bowl. They can end another perfect season in December.
Clark Judge. N.Y. GIANTS (+5) over Carolina. The Panthers are ready to fall, and the Giants know how to take down Goliath.
Ron Borges. PHILADELPHIA (+3-1/2) over Arizona. Home dogs are always a good idea, even one that’s played like a dog half this season.
SIX GUYS ON SUNDAY’S HALL-OF-FAME RADAR
(Larry Fitzgerald photo courtesy of the Arizona Cardinals)
Arizona WR Larry Fitzgerald. He has 38 catches for 650 yards and eight touchdowns in six career games vs. Philadelphia – and at least one touchdown in each start.
New Orleans QB Drew Brees. He’s won four of five vs. Detroit (including the playoffs), with 16 touchdown passes and two interceptions. Plus, in his last two Monday Night starts, he’s thrown for 795 yards, with six touchdowns and one interception.
Indianapolis WR T.Y. Hilton. In seven games vs. Houston, he has 40 catches for 749 yards and six TDs.
Chicago WR Alshon Jeffery. In his last four games vs. Minnesota, he has 35 catches for 534 yards and four TDs.
Minnesota RB Adrian Peterson. In his last five home games vs. Chicago, he’s run for 659 yards (including 211 in his last home game vs. the Bears) and six touchdowns.
Washington QB Kirk Cousins. He won five of his last six starts at home, with 11 TD passes, 0 interceptions, three touchdowns rushing and a rating of 114.9.
HALL OF NOTES-WORTHY
There are 25 teams still in contention for playoff spots (14 in the NFC; 11 in the AFC), the fourth most with three weeks to play since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.
Carolina and Seattle each have 24 straight 100-yard rushing games, tied for the longest active streak in the league. The last team to rush for 100 or more yards in 24 consecutive games was the 1976-78 Chicago Bears.
The Raiders are 0-3 vs. the NFC North this season.
With a victory over Baltimore, Kansas City becomes the first team in NFL history to win at least eight straight games following a losing streak of five or more.
With two-and-a-half sacks vs. Green Bay, linebacker Khalil Mack would set a record for most sacks (11.5) in a span of four games since sacks became an official statistic in 1982.
Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall scored touchdowns together in seven games this season, tied for the most by any teammates in NFL history. With a touchdown by each Saturday vs. Dallas, they break the record set by Randy Moss and Cris Carter in 1998.
Detroit’s Matt Prater is 17-for-17 in field goals, the only kicker in the league with over 10 attempts who hasn’t missed.
Mike Mularkey is 0-5 vs. New England.
Arizona’s Carson Palmer not only has a franchise-record 31 TD passes; he’s the first quarterback in Arizona history to have two 4,000-yard seasons.
Denver has five defensive touchdowns (four interceptions, one fumble recovery), tied for first in the NFL.
Pittsburgh has scored 82 points in the last two minutes of a half, the most in the NFL this season.
Pittsburgh and the N.Y. Jets are tied for the most red-zone takeaways with six each.