NFL PICKS: Week 14

197883.jpg

NFL PICKS: Week 14

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

I'm going to try something different this week.

That's partly because after hovering around the edge of mediocrity for the last few Sundays I feel like we need to mix things up a little. But it's also because, as we enter Week 14, the NFL itself is very different.

For some teams, Week 14 marks the most significant stretch of the year the final four games. Seasons, in some cases, even careers are on the line. We're talking football life and death.

But for other teams, the season's already over, and while this is a prideful league, and very rarely will a team ever just roll over it's very hard to match the "this really matters" mentality. Maybe you can temporarily convince yourself that there's more on the line, but it won't stick.

So, with those two very distinct segments of the league now established, I'm going to break this week's picks into three categories.

1. Both teams are in playoff contention.
2. Only one team is in playoff contention.
3. Both teams have already checked out.

Games from Category 1 will count three times (win or lose), Category 2 games will count twice and Category 3 will count once. Makes sense, right?

I'm just putting more emphasis on the games where we know that both teams are still focused. It'll fun be.

Clearly, I have a warped sense of fun, but here are the picks

THREE-POINT GAMES

The Game: New England (-3) at Chicago

I don't care how well the Bears are playing, or which offensive mastermind is calling their plays. When Jay Cutler and Bill Belichick line up on opposite sides of the field, I'll take the coach every day of the week, and twice on Sunday. Or I guess in this case, three times.

Doesn't Cutler perfectly fit the mold of the kind of QB that BB traditionally dominates? Big arm. Slow feet. Dicey emotions. A pension for taking uncalculated risks. It's all there. It's Jay Cutler!

The two have actually faced off only once before October 20, 2008

Patriots 41, Denver 7

Cutler was 17-26 for 168 yards with one TD (caught by Daniel Graham) and two interceptions.

The Pick: Pats (-3)The Game: Oakland at Jacksonville (-4)
Both these teams are second-class citizens in their division. Or at least that's the pubic perception. Regardless of how well the Jaguars play or how long the Raiders hang around, no one wants to give them a chance. Indianapolis and San Diego will win it. They always do. That's been the story all season or at least since the Chargers woke up.

Whichever team loses this game will be quickly written off again. "They can't even beat the Raiders, see?" or "Oh my God, they lost to the Jaguars!" But the winner? Finally, we just might have to take them seriously. Especially with a) Indy still battling injuries and b) either the Chiefs or Chargers guaranteed to lose this week.

And in that case, I'm more comfortable believing in the Jaguars. Maurice Jones-Drew's locked in, David Garrard has legitimate big game experience, meanwhile the Jags have only lost twice in the last six weeks and that was at NYG and at KC. Hey, maybe we should already be taking this team seriously! Or, I don't know, maybe the Colts are just going to win anyway.

The Pick: Jaguars (-4) The Game: St. Louis at New Orleans (-9)
Arizona, Denver, Carolina, San Diego (pre-resurgence), Seattle and Washington. Those are the six teams the Rams have beaten this season basically, they're Tampa Bay Lite. Also, this will be their third straight game on the road, and they won the first two. Now, I know we live in a crazy world, one where LeBron James and Tiger Woods are both maniacal villains, Mike Vick's America's sweetheart and Shaquille O'Neal plays on the Celtics, but I refuse to believe that the St. Louis Rams can win road games on three consecutive Sundays. Not this year. So, yeah, I think the Saints will pull this one out.

But still, nine points is a lot of points to give when you're a team coming off back-to-back close calls against the Cowboys and Bengals. This one will be closer than the spread suggests.

(Also, it will be great to watch Sam Bradford play in the Superdome atmosphere. Not that he isn't used to crazy crowds; he's from the Big 12, where they play in front of 550,000 people every Saturday. But this is the NFL, and if Bradford can maintain his poise in New Orleans, it will be a major step in his maturation, and then maybe that first road playoff game won't be quite as daunting.

The Pick: Rams (9)The Game: Seattle at San Francisco (-5.5)
It kills me that a game between a 6-6 team and a 4-8 team qualifies as three-star material. But that's just the NFC West. It kills me a second time that the 4-8 team is actually favored by 5 12 in this mess, but again, that's just the NFC West. And, third time's a charm, it kills me yet again that I feel there's no other choice but to bet on the 4-8 team. It's really depressing. Can't we just realign already? Or how about contract?

All I know is that one of these six teams Saints, Bears, Giants, Packers, Eagles and Falcons won't make the playoffs this year because of the NFC West. That's just wrong.

The Pick: 49ers (-5.5)The Game: Kansas City at San Diego (-7)
Matt Cassel is questionable for this game, which technically means he's 5050 to play. But there's no way he's playing. I know we've come a long way with medicine, but we're still human. The guy had an appendectomy on Wednesday!

Just for fun I texted my friend Dr. E: "Any chance in hell that Cassel plays on Sunday after having an appendectomy yesterday?"

Response: "No effing way. That would be malpractice."

OK, so no Cassel, which is too bad because it's hard not to enjoy what he's accomplished this season. But honestly, it wouldn't have mattered. As much as I love Kansas City, this is the week the Chargers reclaim their familiar spot atop the AFC West and don't look back. I thought that even with Casssel; with Brody Coyle, I'll risk 300 fake dollars.

The Pick: Chargers (-7)TWO-POINT GAMESThe Game: Cincinnati at Pittsburgh (-8.5)
I'm not sure if I believe in karma, but it would help explain what's happening to Ben Roethlisberger. What do you think it will be this week, a separated shoulder? Plantar Fascitis? Bruised ribs? I've got my fingers crossed for all three.

This game reminds me a lot of last week's GiantsSkins game a division matchup, where one team's clearly among the league's best, on the fast track to the playoffs and looking to make quick work of an unworthy opponent. And the other's mired in all kinds of drama, bad blood and failed expectations. They're already looking to next year. Just need to stay healthy and pad the stats for incentives.

If the game were in Cincy, then maybe I could see the Bengals rise to the occasion, but not at Heinz.

The Pick: Steelers (-8.5)The Game: New York Giants (-2.5) at Minnesota

"The Vikings remain hopeful that Brett Favre will start on Sunday."

That's what I keep reading. But I wonder if it's true.

I mean, obviously, the Vikings will publicly back Favre. These are the last four games of his career and they feel the need to pay him the respect. But do you really think they want Favre to play.

Or how about this: Do you think the Giants want Favre to play? If you called Tom Coughlin this afternoon and asked: "Sergeant Coughlin, who would you rather face on Sunday: Brett Favre or Tavaris Jackson?" What would he say? Definitely Favre, right? Is there any question that Minnesota is worse right now with Brett under center?

But what's best for the team hasn't really been of Favre's concern, and it won't stop now. If he can play even if he shouldn't then he will. And the Giants will reap the benefits.

The Pick: Giants (-2.5)The Game: Green Bay (-7) at Detroit
I feel awful for Detroit football fans. Do you realize that the Lions are now 4-40 over the past three seasons? Four and Forty! No fan base (except for maybe the Jets) should ever have to withstand a run like that. And to make matters worse, they're stuck watching Matt Millen yap all over TV about how much he understands football, and which things "Team A" must change if they want to win. It's sad, really. But at this point, they're probably better off packing it in and playing for another high draft pick.

And then preparing to watch that pick sit on his ass all fall while the league settles it's labor dispute.

The Pick: Packers (-7)
The Game: Atlanta (-7) at Carolina
How can you take Jimmy Clausen against a defense as strong and feroicious as the Falcons? It's really that easy. Don't over think it. I wish I could make this one worth three.

The Pick: Falcons (-7)The Game: Tampa Bay (-2) at Washington

The Best Worst Team in the NFL is in trouble. After last week's loss to Atlanta, they're short their best defender, Talib Qalib, and their starting center, Jeff Faine. Not to mention that the loss pretty much assured that their surprisingly successful season won't end with a playoff appearance.

Tough times. But after the way the Redskins rolled over against the Giants, it's clear that they're done. Mike Shanahan knows it, too. You think he would have been willing to suspend his best player (Albert Haynesworth) if there was a still a chance to win? It's not like Haynesworth did anything much worse this week than he's been doing the entire season. He's been a jerk since the start of camp. The Skins have thrown in the towel, and the Best Worst Team in Football can smell the blood.

The Pick: Bucs (-2)The Game: Miami at New York Jets (-5.5)
This week in N.Y., Rex Ryan held a ceremony to bury the ball from last Monday's massacre, and symbolically move on from the embarrassing loss. In a related story, Tony Sparano held a ceremony to bury Chad Henne.

But back to the Jets I was pretty impressed with how they handled themselves immediately in the aftermath of Pats game. Of course, Braylon Edwards ran his mouth a little, but what would a week in the NFL be without Braylon doing something stupid? Right?

From Ryan, to Sanchez to Bart Scott, to Jerricho Cottchery the Jets have spoken and acted in a way that makes me believe that the loss will serve more as a wake up call, instead the first domino in a long-winded path of pain.

The Pick: Jets (-5.5)The Game: Philadelphia (-3.5) at Dallas
The Eagles are a different team without Asante Samuel, and it look like he'll be out again on Sunday in Dallas. But the fact that Dez Bryant is down for the 'Boys (broken ankle) might offset that a little. Despite the records, I wanted to still put this game in the three-point character just because I think there's a little added pressure on these Cowboys because of how awful they were to start the season. They've all got to earn their jobs, and shouldn't lack motivation at home against the most dangerous player in the NFL. Of course, I'm talking about Brent Celek.
The Pick: Cowboys (3.5)The Game: Baltimore (-3) at Houston
After a promising start, the Texans defense was eventually exposed and the wheels came flying off. Now they're hosting a Monday Night Football game in early December one the league presented to them with the expectation that they'd still be relevant and it means nothing. And that's too bad. That's nine straight years where the Texans missed the playoffs. They've only had one winning season in their franchise history, and even that was 9-7.

The Pick: Ravens (-3)ONE-POINT GAMES&8232;The Game: Denver (-5.5) at Arizona

(Ring Ring) "Hi, this is Coach Whisenhunt."

"Hey buddy, it's McD. You wanna play some golf this weekend?"

"Um, I got a game, kid."

"Wait, what? They haven't fired YOU yet!?"

"Yeah, yeah. I know, don't worry. I'll just keep trotting Derek Anderson out there until they have no choice. Can you play next Sunday?"

The Pick: Broncos (-5.5)

The Game: Cleveland at Buffalo (-1)

This may be the most depressing NFL game of the last 10 years. It's so sad. I don't want either team to lose.

But I guess it's been at least a week since something awful happened to Cleveland, so they're long overdue.

The Pick: Bills (-1)RECORD:
Last Week: 8-8Overall: 95-90-4

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

Curry's 36 lift Warriors past Thunder, back to Finals

warriors_thunder_durant_curry_053016.jpg

Curry's 36 lift Warriors past Thunder, back to Finals

OAKLAND, Calif. -  Stephen Curry dribbled every which way and drained yet another 3-pointer in the waning moments, pulled his jersey up into his mouth and yelled to the rafters in triumph once more.

A special, record-setting season saved for the defending champs, with a memorable comeback added to the long list of accomplishments.

Now, the MVP and his teammates are playing for another NBA title - just as they planned all along.

Bring on LeBron James once more.

Curry and Klay Thompson carried the 73-win Warriors right back to the NBA Finals, as Golden State rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 96-88 on Monday night in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals.

Curry scored 36 points with seven 3-pointers to finish with an NBA-record 32 in a seven-game series, while Thompson added 21 points and six 3s, two days after his record 11 3-pointers led a Game 6 comeback that sent the series home to raucous Oracle Arena for one more.

The Warriors became the 10th team to rally from a 3-1 deficit and win a postseason series. They return to the NBA Finals for a rematch with James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who lost the 2015 title in six games as Golden State captured its first championship in 40 years.

Game 1 is Thursday night in Oakland.

His signature mouthpiece dangling out and the game ball cradled in his left hand, Curry pumped his right arm as yellow confetti fell through Oracle Arena once the final buzzer sounded.

The Thunder trailing 90-86, Serge Ibaka fouled Curry on a 3-point try with 1:18 to go and the shot clock running out. The MVP made all three free throws, then a 3-pointer to seal it.

And Golden State's beloved "Strength In Numbers" catchphrase coined by Coach of the Year Steve Kerr was needed in every way on this night to do it.

Andre Iguodala joined the starting lineup for just the second time all season and the 2015 NBA Finals MVP hung tough against Kevin Durant, who scored 27 points on 10-for-19 shooting. Russell Westbrook had 19 points, 13 assists and seven rebounds.

Oklahoma City won Game 1 108-102 at deafening, soldout Oracle Arena, so Golden State never envisioned this one coming easily.

It just took a quarter and a half for Thompson to warm up after he hit an NBA playoff-record 11 3-pointers for 41 points in a 108-101 win Saturday at Oklahoma City that sent the series to a decisive seventh game back home in the East Bay.

He missed his initial seven shots before hitting a 3 6:02 before halftime, energizing the Warriors in their first Game 7 at home in 40 years.

Back-to-back 3-pointers by Thompson and Iguodala pulled the Warriors within 54-51 with 7:57 left in the third. They tied it on Curry's 3 at 7:21 and he followed with another 3 to give his team the lead.

Curry and Thompson each topped the previous record for 3s in a seven-game series, 28 by Dennis Scott and Ray Allen. Curry hit one over 7-foot Steven Adams in the third, and Thompson wound up with 30.

Iguodala replaced Harrison Barnes in the starting lineup for just his second start of the season and first of the playoffs, and what a move by Kerr and his staff, who did the same thing last year in crunch time. Iguodala made a pretty bounce pass through the paint to Draymond Green for Golden State's first basket of the game, and his smothering defense on Durant kept the Thunder star without a shot until his 3 at the 5:45 mark in the first. Durant had just nine points on five shots in the first half.

But Oklahoma City dictated the tempo with snappy passes and the hard, aggressive rebounding that had been such a part of its success this season. The Thunder couldn't maintain it.

The Warriors, who began 3 for 11 from long range and 9 of 32 overall while falling behind 35-22, lost their last Game 7 at home: 94-86 to Phoenix in the Western Conference finals on May 16, 1976.

Penguins edge Sharks 3-2 in Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

penguins_sharks_game_1_053016.jpg

Penguins edge Sharks 3-2 in Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

PITTSBURGH - Nick Bonino's main job for the Pittsburgh Penguins is to get to the front of the net and create chaos. The well-bearded forward executed perfectly in his debut in the Stanley Cup Final.

Bonino took a pretty feed from the corner by Kris Letang and beat Martin Jones from in close with 2:33 remaining to lift the Penguins to a 3-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks in Game 1 on Monday night.

Rookies Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary staked Pittsburgh to an early two-goal lead before the Sharks tied it in the second period on goals by Tomas Hertl and Patrick Marleau. The Penguins responded by upping the pressure in the final period and it paid off with Bonino's fourth goal of the playoffs after he darted to the San Jose net in time to knuckle Letang's pass by Jones for the winner.

Game 2 is Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.

Matt Murray finished with 24 saves for Pittsburgh, which began its bid for the fourth title in franchise history by peppering Jones constantly in the first and final periods. Jones made 38 stops but couldn't get his blocker on Bonino's wrist shot. The Penguins threw 41 shots at Jones, well over the 28 he faced on average during San Jose's playoff run.

The Sharks made it to the first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history by rebuilding themselves on the fly. Two years removed from a brutal collapse from a 3-0 series lead in the first round against Los Angeles, San Jose ended a 9,005 day wait to play in the NHL's championship round by relying on a tough, aggressive style that squeezes opponents with a relentless forecheck while limiting chances in front of Jones.

Yet veterans Marleau and Joe Thornton - the top two picks in the 1997 draft held in Pittsburgh who had waited nearly two decades to make it to the league's biggest stage - insisted the Sharks were hardly satisfied after dispatching St. Louis in a cathartic Western Conference finals.

Maybe, but the Sharks looked a step slow - maybe two steps slow - while searching for their footing against the Penguins, who rallied from a 3-2 deficit to edge the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games to advance to their first Cup Final since 2009.

Rust, who surprisingly made the team out of training camp and became an unlikely playoff star by scoring both of Pittsburgh's goals in Game 7 against the Lightning, gave the Penguins the lead 12:46 into the first when he slammed home a rebound off a Justin Schultz shot for his sixth of the postseason, a franchise record for playoff goals by a rookie.

Less than a minute later Sheary, who didn't become a regular until the middle of January, made it 2-0 when Sidney Crosby whipped a blind backhand cross-ice pass to Sheary's stick. The rookie's wrist shot from the right circle zipped by Jones and the Penguins appeared to be in complete command by overwhelming the Sharks in a way few have in months.

San Jose and its group of Cup newcomers regained its composure in the intermission and responded with a big surge. Hertl jammed a shot from just outside the crease between Murray's legs on the power play 3:02 into the second to give the Sharks momentum. Late in the second, Marleau collected a rebound off a Brent Burns one-timer behind the Pittsburgh net and then beat Murray on a wraparound to the far post that caromed off Murray's extended right leg and into the net.