NFL PICKS: Week 14

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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

Sixers' success against C's defense shows Boston still has room to grow

Sixers' success against C's defense shows Boston still has room to grow

Avery Bradley was a member of the NBA’s All-Defensive first team a year ago. And Al Horford has been among the league’s best interior defenders for a number of years.

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But as talented defensively as they may be, the Celtics are still learning how to play with each other as well as off of one another.

Injuries have slowed down the chemistry developing as quickly as some might expect. Horford missed nine games due to a concussion, and another game due to wife giving birth to their second child, Alia Horford.

And in Boston’s 107-106 win over Philadelphia on Saturday night, defensive chemistry -- not only among Horford and Bradley, but with all of the players -- remains a work in progress for sure.

Boston had a number of defensive issues in the first half which factored in the Sixer shooting 46.1 percent from the field while shooting 9-for-18 from 3-point range.

But the second half was an entirely different story as Boston’s defense picked up his intensity and focus level which would prove to be just enough to beat a scrappy Sixers team.

The Celtics (12-8) are four games over .500 for the first time this season currently have the third-best record in the Eastern Conference behind Cleveland (13-5) and Toronto (14-6). 

And while the players point to a handful of games that they felt they gave away, Avery Bradley reminds all that the success of this team this season has for the most part come with key players out of the mix or limited in some capacity.

“We haven’t played that many games with the full roster,” Bradley told reporters after the win. “We’re still learning how to play with each other.”

Bradley pointed out a moment in Saturday’s victory where a miscommunication between him and Horford led to a defensive miscue.

Boston has had similar mistakes made on offense this season, too.

“We haven’t really been in pick-and-roll that much,” Bradley said. “Every single game we need to improve.”

And that improvement has to continue evolving on the defensive side of things for this team to achieve its goals this season which include being among the last teams standing in the East.

Doing that will likely mean Boston re-establishing itself as a defensive force, something that should come with time and experience playing with each other.

Horford, who signed a four-year, $113 million deal with Boston in the offseason, says it’s an ongoing process for all involved.

“I have to learn to play with our concepts, the guys have to learn to play with me,” Horford told reporters after Saturday’s win. “We just have to make sure we keep playing the right way, be more consistent with that. I feel like we’re getting better but there’s still some work that we need to do.”

Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth-quarter performance

Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth-quarter performance

The pressure that comes with a tight game in the fourth quarter can be a weighty proposition for some NBA players.

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Then there’s Boston’s Isaiah Thomas who continues to save his best work for the fourth quarter.

Saturday’s 107-106 win at Philadelphia had yet another Thomas-like finish for the Celtics as the 5-foot-9 guard was at his most dominant state in the game’s final minutes.

Thomas finished with a season high-tying 37 points which included a stretch in the fourth in which he scored 12 straight.

“I just love the fourth quarter,” Thomas told reporters following the win. “I just want to win. Whether it’s making plays for myself or making plays for my teammates, it’s about making the right play. I get ultra- aggressive in that fourth quarter. That’s what I’ve always done.”

And his teammates appreciate how Thomas elevates his play in the game’s most pivotal moments.

“A lot of the credit is to Isaiah, how he was able to finish the game tonight,” said Avery Bradley. “He was able to make shots when we needed him to.”

And while Thomas knows his shots won’t fall all the time down the stretch, his fourth quarter mentality does provide him with a level of confidence that no matter what the defense does to him or what the score may be, he can swing the game’s momentum in his team’s favor.

“Some guys get a little tight, they get a little timid (in the fourth quarter),” Thomas said. “I embrace it. I want to be great. I want to be somebody my teammates can call on when the game is close.”

Here are the Stars, Studs and Duds from Saturday night’s game.

STARS

Isaiah Thomas: There was no more dominant player on Saturday night than Thomas. He finished with a game-high 37 points along with seven assists.

Dario Saric: It was a breakout game for the 22-year-old rookie who led the Sixers with 21 points as well as 12 rebounds for his third double-double this season. Both his points and rebound totals tied his career highs in those categories.

STUDS

Avery Bradley: Boston’s surge towards victory did not kick in until the third quarter which is when Bradley elevated his play offensively. In the third he scored 10 of his 20 points on the night, to go along with a team-high nine rebounds.

Ersan Illyasova: He finished with 18 points which included a pair of three-pointers in the closing seconds of the game. He also grabbed six rebounds and two assists.

DUDS

Celtics first half defense: There wasn’t much to like about Boston defensively in the first half. The Celtics struggled to take away or limit Philadelphia’s only strength Saturday night which was three-point shooting. The Sixers nailed nine of their 18 three-point attempts in the first half in addition to hurting the Celtics’ transition defense which gave up seven fast-break points to Philly compared to Boston scoring just one point in transition.