Now that December's "crunch time" football has come, just watch closely and see how much those guys really matter now that the games mean so much.
Titans at Colts – All in all Coach Mike Munchack has had a pretty disappointing year in Tennessee and it all seems to have culminated in the struggles the team has endured at the quarterback position. If you look closer you see how those largely developed from problems with the offensive line.
As a former trench man himself, you would think by the second year the head coach would have put a strategy in place to fix that, but so far we’re still waiting for results. This fundamental flaw has also been evident in the team’s loss of productivity in the running game. That particular aspect has a few more issues than just Chris Johnson being less motivated because his contract got really fat.
Meanwhile in Indy, the team is together and determined. They are not yet talented enough to get much past the first round of the playoffs, but getting that far is so much above what everyone expected that it’s nearly a miracle to heartily applaud. Until Tennessee can win a few more battles along the lines of scrimmage, Indy will continue to have the upper hand on this divisional rival.
Jets at Jaguars - Jacksonville has never lost to the Jets. Inserting Chad Henne into the starting lineup has amazingly given the Jaguars a spark of vitality. As an added bonus, Henne is 3-1 in his career against the Jets.
On the mental flip side, New York is evaluating its options for quarterback of the future and where Tim Tebow can be most profitably shopped. The home team is just in a better place at the moment.
Chiefs at Browns - It is a good thing to see good things going on in Cleveland after all this time. Despite limited talent, the offense keeps mistakes to a minimum and the defense is getting impressive stops much more often. Let's just keep riding this horse while the weather's nice.
Chargers at Steelers – I don’t care who it is, you just don’t overlook anyone on the schedule because in the NFL that’s the quickest way to the Big “L.” From top to bottom, front office to the practice squad, Pittsburgh is the better team. But just as soon as you think you’re better than anyone, a guy like Philip Rivers will go all gunslinger on you and pop your ego with a 40-point outburst and you’re left with nothing but towel sweat and leg cramps to show for the week’s work.
Big Ben is coming back for a home stand, with ovations and cheers of adulation to the lovable Charlie Batch for pulling off a bonanza in crunch time. That might just make this the most emotional game of the week, for those who put much stock in such motivational things.
Pittsburgh’s defense is not going to get beat by a one dimensional threat and San Diego’s defense isn’t quite good enough to keep Roethlisberger from making just enough plays when it really matters.
Ravens at Redskins – Washington’s on a mini roll, which is a good thing to be on when you host the tough guys on your block - the purple gang from up the street in Baltimore.
The Ravens have the motivation of getting a playoff spot and possibly a division title with a win. Despite their loss to Pittsburgh last week, they still have a two-game lead, so they have a cushion should they need to take it.
With Terrell Suggs possibly out (or at least slowed) with another injury, it may come to that. Since they had trouble keeping Charlie Batch under control at home last week, is the defense up to containing RGIII on the road? The eyeball test of these two over the past couple of weeks forces me to say not really.
Ray Rice will be the difference-maker and if he cuts loose the Ravens are clearly favored as they are the better and deeper team. But Joe Flacco seems to have reached a plateau, so in this case the home team with offense tops the visiting team with an ailing defense.
Dolphins at 49ers - San Francisco probably comes out with a certain amount of vengeance in mind following their pedestrian performance in a loss to St. Louis last week. Coach Harbaugh hasn't let his team lose two in a row since he arrived in that city by the bay.
Like the Rams, Miami also tends to keep their opponent's big plays to a minimum, but expect more harassment from the Niners' defense as well as a bigger offensive role for Frank Gore following a month of Kaepernick fever.
Saints at Giants - Given our disappointment in their apparent lack of interest in last week's game against the Redskins, I'm reluctant to again go with New York. Still, this is the team that always gives its best effort when its back is right up against the wall. Having the Redskins and the Cowboys reaching through your back pocket is pretty much the 2012 football definition of being up against it.
While New Orleans' defense is finally getting the hang of a few things, the offense is starting to fall apart for the first time in Drew Brees' spectacular tenure. I suppose he could sort of use Reggie Bush in the backfield about now.
Cardinals at Seahawks - Arizona can only wish it had the offensive issues New Orleans has. They can also only wish their decent defense was enough to win games. The 2000 Ravens they are most definitely not. When Seattle's at home playing a team with major weaknesses, go ahead and write it down.
Lions at Packers - Matthew Stafford's penchant for excessive down field heaves is just the sort of attack that will give Green Bay's defense the fits. I can't quite go so far as to pick Detroit in the upset because the Packers at home are an awfully tough out, but an overtime thriller won't surprise me. Divisional games late in the season are often like that and, as undisciplined as they are, the Lions are not without some great talent. They need less impulsive coaching, though.
Texans at Patriots - This is the one everybody's looking forward to. Tough, tougher, and more tough. Two of the best going at each other with conference seeding during the playoffs at stake.
All eyes will be focused on Tom Brady's offense going against that Houston's front seven and decent secondary. Brady will put up his points, but if the Texans can get pressure going consistently he won't get many of them late in the game when they matter most.
The real key may turn out to be how Matt Schaub performs against the defensive schemes and special coverage packages Bill Belichick puts together just for the occasion.
Then there is the Arian Foster factor, which I think will be decisive, so I'm picking a win on the road in an upset only in the sense that anyone who beats the Patriots in Foxboro deserves acknowledgment as having done something special.