Ed: Looks like Santa arrived early in our weekly football threads … and dropped a couple of big lumps of coal in our stockings. My picks last week resulted in a 2-5 showing, dropping my season record to 56-42 and within range of a potential sub-.500 season. In my defense, who knew that the Miami Dolphins would take out the New England Patriots last week? Actually, that’s one wrong pick I was glad to have made …

Jazz: Oh, wait. Is this the spot where I was supposed to say something pithy about my dismal 1-6 week, finishing with a note of cockeyed optimism for the future? Okay, fine. I’m now 52-46, only one more week like the last one away from falling below .500. But for the moment, if you stick with my picks you still have, on average, a 53.06% chance of doing better on your wagers than if you flipped a coin or allowed Paul the Octopus to pick them for you. As for the Jets… don’t even get me started on the Jets.

Ed: Speaking of the Patriots, today’s big game pits them against the Steelers in Pittsburgh (4:25 pm ET, CBS). At stake is home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and possibly even the first-week bye. If the Pats lose and the Jaguars keep on winning, Brady & Co might have to play that first weekend. The Steelers have barely won their last couple of games, but they have won, while the Pats lost badly in Miami last week. They get Gronk back this week, but their pass protection suddenly looks suspect. I’ll pick the Steelers in a 35-31 win at home. The Jets travel to the Big Easy to take on the Saints (1 pm, CBS), as New Orleans needs a win to keep pace with the Panthers. The Jets’ offense didn’t show up in Denver last week, and they may get lost on the way to New Orleans, too. Saints take this one, 33-14. Minnesota welcomes Cincinnati after both teams lost last week (1 pm, CBS), but this one should be relatively uneventful too. The Vikings will win their division with a win or with losses by the Packers and Lions, but they’ll take care of business themselves today. Skol, Vikings, with a 24-10 win.

Jazz:  I would dearly love to see the Steelers beat the Cheatriots and possibly even force them to play all three steps of the playoffs. And coming in as only a three-point underdog with home field advantage they just might do it. Plus, New England is banged up on both sides of the line. But the Steelers’ defense has been suspect and they haven’t been able to hold some mediocre QBs to under 200 yards in a while. I’ve got to go with the spread and take New England 30-27. (Sorry, Ed.) The Jets aren’t exactly playing a hot hand right now and they’re facing the New Orleans Saints on the road. It’s going to be tough, but I have to believe that Gang Green is ready for… oh, who am I kidding? Vegas only made New York a more than two-touchdown underdog out of pity. Saints win 34-13. As for the Bengals trying to bring down the Vikings and scar their hopes for a divisional title, I think Ed’s got it about right. A good effort by Cincinnati, but I’ll still take Minnesota 28-10.

And for a few more playoff-critical games …

Ed:

  • Packers at Panthers (1 pm, Fox) –Aaron Rodgers returns for the Pack with an outside shot at a wild-card spot, but he’s coming back against the league’s 5th-best defense and a team that has to win to keep pace with the Saints. Carolina’s D is seventh-best against the pass; Green Bay’s is … 24th. Rodgers may give the Pack a spark, but expect the Panthers to burn past Green Bay anyway, 27-21.
  • Rams at Seahawks (4:05, Fox) – The Rams have to have this win for the tiebreakers in the NFC West, while the Seahawks could put itself in the driver’s seat with a victory. Seattle scored an impressive win against the Eagles and a similarly high-powered offense two weeks ago, but then lost in Jacksonsville. LA lost to the Eagles last week despite scoring 35 points. Seattle should win this at home in a shootout, 37-31.
  • Cowboys at Raiders (8:30, NBC) – Dallas is having trouble beating quality teams after Ezekiel Elliot’s suspension, but Oakland isn’t quite a quality team. The Raiders’ loss to the Chiefs last week put an end to their playoff hopes, but Dallas is still in the hunt for a wild card. Cowboys 24-20 over the Raiders.
  • Falcons at Buccaneers (8:30 pm Monday, ESPN) – Atlanta still has an outside shot at the NFC South crown but a wild-card slot is more likely. They can’t afford to lose another game with both the Saints and Panthers one game ahead of them in the division, so look for the Falcons to pull out all the stops against Tampa Bay. The difference will be on defense, where the Bucs are rated 30th in the league, and Matt Ryan will feast on them. Falcons 35-20 over the Bucs.

Jazz:

  • Packers at Panthers (1 pm, Fox) – Aaron Rogers being back is what will make the difference between the Packers getting slaughtered by the Panther and only losing to them by a reasonable margin. Carolina takes it 33-24.
  • Rams at Seahawks (4:05, Fox) – Seattle beat the Rams earlier this year and Russel Wilson is no joke, but the Rams have been surprising everyone. They’re going to bounce back against a very tough Seahawks team in what will probably be one of the more enjoyable games to watch, 23-17.
  • Cowboys at Raiders (8:30, NBC) – The Cowboys are a slim favorite here, but they’re still without Elliot for one more game and they actually had to break a sweat to beat the Giants last time. The question is, can Oakland take advantage of this perceived weakness? I’m betting they can. I’m going with the upset here and picking the Raiders 24-21.
  • Falcons at Buccaneers (8:30 pm Monday, ESPN) –If this wasn’t the Monday night game I don’t think we’d be picking it. The Bucs just haven’t been very good and Atlanta is highly motivated to at least wrap up a wildcard slot. They’ve got enough tools left in the box to pull it off. Falcons win handily, 28-17.