Happy New Year, and welcome to the first week of the playoffs … at least for some teams that have to win today to keep playing next week and beyond. The Pittsburgh Steelers have already clinched a playoff spot, but they could ascend all the way to the top spot in the AFC and clinch home field advantage — with a lot of help. That’s probably the main reason that Ben Roethlisberger has been listed as probable for an otherwise meaningless game against the Cleveland Browns today at 4:15. A win, coupled by a Ravens loss, gives the Steelers the #2 seed. If the Patriots lose today at home to Buffalo on top of that, Steelers get to play at home all the way through January. Either way, the Steelers have to win first, and I think they’ll take care of business with a 27-10 win over the Browns.
Last week I went 4-3 and moved my record to 67-31. We’ll take a close look at games with playoff implications today:
- Ravens at Bengals – This isn’t just key for the Steelers. Baltimore has also clinched a playoff spot, but the Bengals can shut out the Raiders with a win over the Ravens at home. Baltimore isn’t a great road team, but they will be playing for the division title and a week off. I’ll pick the way I’m rooting and predict a mild upset, 24-19 Bengals.
- Bills at Patriots – Fresh off of a huge win over the Tebow-led Broncos, the Bills have to travel to New England to take on the best team in the AFC, at least at the moment. As much as I’d love to see the Steelers get the top seed today, I can’t see the Pats letting the Bills knock them out of the top spot, even if they want to rest some starters. They have a week off either way, so expect to see plenty of Tom Brady and a big day for the Patriot fans at home, 33-20.
- Cowboys at Giants – This one decides who keeps playing and who stays home. The winner wins the NFC East; the loser wins an opportunity to try out their new flat-screen TVs from Christmas next weekend. The Giants beat the Cowboys in Dallas three weeks ago, and the Giants won a big game last week against the Jets. Giants win, 35-24, in front of the home-town fans.
- Chiefs at Broncos – Denver wins the AFC West with a win; they risk falling out of the playoffs altogether with a loss, if the Raiders beat the Chargers. Playing the Chiefs at home, I’d expect the defense to recover from last week’s drubbing by the Bills on the road with a more solid game, and the usual fourth-quarter heroics of Tim Tebow. Besides, who doesn’t want to see Tebow in the playoffs … besides Bill Maher, I mean? Broncos 20-17 over the Chiefs.
- Chargers at Raiders – San Diego is only 2-5 on the road, but Oakland is only 3-4 at home. The Chargers have no shot at the playoffs but can finish the season 8-8 and avoid a losing season with a win over the Raiders. The Raiders have to win and then get help from the Chiefs to make the playoffs. I’ll pick the Chargers in an upset — I just think that they’ve been playing pretty well the last few weeks, while the Raiders have struggled. 23-17, Bolts.
- Lions at Packers -There are no playoff implications in this game; Green Bay has cinched the top seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and the Lions will go on the road next week as a wild card no matter what. However, a win sends them to New York (all right, New Jersey) to play the Giants, while a loss means they have to face the Saints at the Superdome. I’m not sure which would be better for the dome-based Lions, although I think I’d rather face the Giants rather than the Saints in this year’s first round. I’ll pick the Pack playing at home to beat Megatron and the Lions, 31-21.