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NFL Power Poll and Week 15 Picks

1. New Orleans Saints (13-0) December has gone for the Saints the way it went for the Patriots in 2007: some close calls but the same results.

2. Indianapolis Colts (14-0) Jacksonville became the latest in a slew of Indy opponents to outplay the Colts but end up on the losing end.

3. San Diego Chargers (10-3) With the way they’re playing and their recent history vs. Indianapolis, the Chargers have to be the favorite to come out of the AFC.

4. Minnesota Vikings (11-2) The Vikings got back to basics last week by unleashing a heavy dose of Adrian Peterson on the Bengals.

5. Philadelphia Eagles (9-4) The Eagles, who have quietly won four straight, are again playing their best football coming down the stretch.

6. Green Bay Packers (9-4) Between their second-ranked defense and an MVP-caliber campaign from Aaron Rodgers, the Packers are set to enter the playoffs as the wild-card team nobody wants to face.

7. Cincinnati Bengals (9-4) The Bengals were already starting to stumble before Chris Henry was killed, which is why it’s tough to gauge how they will respond in light of the tragedy.

8. New England Patriots (8-5) Coming off the most tumultuous week of the Bill Belichick era, the Patriots found a way to beat the Panthers and avoid a total team implosion.

9. Denver Broncos (8-5) Nobody expected the Broncos to win in Indy, but they still blew a chance to sew up the 5-seed in the AFC.

10. Arizona Cardinals (8-5) With the Jekyll and Hyde act the Cardinals have performed this year, neither a return to the Super Bowl nor an inglorious first-round playoff exit at home would shock anyone.

Week 15 Picks (home teams in CAPS)

Indianapolis over JACKSONVILLE
NEW ORLEANS over Dallas
New England over Buffalo
Arizona over DETROIT
TENNESSEE over Miami
Cleveland over KANSAS CITY
Houston over ST. LOUIS
NY JETS over Atlanta
PHILADELPHIA over San Francisco
DENVER over Oakland
SAN DIEGO over Cincinnati
PITTSBURGH over Green Bay
SEATTLE over Tampa Bay
BALTIMORE over Chicago
Minnesota over CAROLINA
NY Giants over Washington

Last Week: 11-5
Overall: 137-71

NFL Power Poll and Week 14 Picks

With four games to go, both the Saints and Colts remain undefeated, the Chargers are making their typical late-season push and the Patriots are uncharacteristically tearing at the seams.  How has all that affected the latest power poll?  See for yourself.

1. New Orleans Saints (12-0) Washington had the Saints cooked last Sunday but poor special teams left the door open and Drew Brees pounced.

2. Indianapolis Colts (12-0) History has told us it’s not a good thing when the Colts wrap up home field advantage too early.

3. San Diego Chargers (9-3) If there’s any doubt about San Diego’s finishing abilities, look no further than Phillip Rivers’ unblemished 15-0 record in December.

4. Minnesota Vikings (10-2) A little bit of the old, gun-slinging Brett Favre made an appearance once the Vikings got down to the Cardinals last weekend.

5. Cincinnati Bengals (9-3) With consecutive road games in Minnesota and San Diego looming, it’s looking like the Bengals are going to have to settle for the No. 3 seed in the AFC.

6. Green Bay Packers (8-4) The Packers haven’t missed a beat since giving Tampa Bay its only win of the year a month ago, winning four straight in impressive fashion.

7. Arizona Cardinals (8-4) An epic 99-yard drive by Vince Young is all that has prevented the Cardinals from winning five in a row.

8. Philadelphia Eagles (8-4) The Eagles have weathered the injury storm and are back in the driver’s seat for the NFC East thanks to the Cowboys’ continued December woes.

9. Denver Broncos (8-4) The Broncos have bounced back admirably from a midseason swoon and have a wild-card berth in their sights.

10. Dallas Cowboys (8-4) It’s gut-check time for the Cowboys, who have to deal with the Chargers, Saints, Redskins and Eagles in a brutal final stretch.

Week 14 Picks (home teams in CAPS)

Pittsburgh over CLEVELAND
New Orleans over ATLANTA
Green Bay over CHICAGO
INDIANAPOLIS over Denver
Buffalo over KANSAS CITY
MINNESOTA over Cincinnati
NEW ENGLAND over Carolina
NY Jets over TAMPA BAY
JACKSONVILLE over Miami
BALTIMORE over Detroit
HOUSTON over Seattle
TENNESSEE over St. Louis
OAKLAND over Washington
San Diego over DALLAS
NY GIANTS over Philadelphia
Arizona over SAN FRANCISCO

Last Week: 10-6
Overall: 126-66

NFL Playoff Picture and Week 13 Picks

The calendar has turned to December, which is another way of saying the NFL playoff picture is coming into focus. Right now, it looks like the race for the No. 1 seed in the NFC and the pursuit of the second bye in the AFC are going to be hotly contested, whereas the wild card and division races are likely to be less dramatic. Let’s get right to it.

The Saints dispelled any skepticism about their elite status by blowing away the Patriots on Monday night, and in doing so officially opened the discussion on the possibility and likelihood of a 16-0 season. Of course, there’s a team in the AFC that’s also 11-0, but the major caveat is the Colts will have wrapped up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs by Week 15 (16 at the latest). Which would indicate the Jets and Bills will be seeing their fair share of Jim Sorgi in Weeks 16 and 17.

New Orleans, on the other hand, very well may need to register a perfect season to ensure the NFC playoffs go through the Superdome. That’s because the Vikings, currently 10-1, fell to an out-of-conference opponent in the Steelers and therefore will hold the vital conference-record tiebreaker if the two teams finish with identical records (the Saints have completed the AFC portion of their schedule).

There are a few possible bumps in the road down the stretch for Minnesota, beginning this Sunday night in Arizona. That’s followed by a home game vs. Cincinnati (who already downed Green Bay at Lambeau Field earlier this year), road contests in Carolina and Chicago before the season finale at home against the Giants. Looking at that schedule, 14-2 seems likely for the Vikings. That means the Saints should be able to drop one of their final five (at WAS, at ATL, DAL, TB, at CAR) and still retain home field.

The No. 2 seed in the AFC — crucial because it gives a team a week off and a home game in the divisional round — is probably not going to the Patriots, although it’s still possible if they run the table. The more probable scenario has the second bye going to the winner of the Bengals-Chargers game in San Diego on Dec. 20. Both teams are 8-3 and both have manageable December schedules. Plus if they each finish 12-4, the winner of the head-to-head matchup will obviously hold the tiebreaker for postseason seeding. Huge game.

As for the wild-card races, we’ll know for sure after this weekend if there are going to be any in the NFC. Right now, the Eagles and Packers occupy the two slots with 7-4 marks. Still very much in contention are the Falcons and Giants, who are each 6-5. The Giants host Dallas (8-3) on Sunday, a game that will either thrust the G-Men into the thick of both the wild-card and NFC East races, or put a premature end to their season. The Falcons welcome Philadelphia in a must-win game that quarterback Matt Ryan has already been ruled out of. A loss to the Eagles finishes Atlanta. Green Bay can take a big step toward January by beating the Ravens on Monday night.

In the AFC, 10 wins looks to be the magic number for a wild-card spot, and the Broncos (7-4) should reach that with winnable games vs. Kansas City (twice) and Oakland at home. There’s little room for error, though, as Denver will have to travel to Indianapolis and Philadelphia in Weeks 14 and 16. If the Broncos take care of business against the teams they should beat, they’ll end a three-year playoff drought.

As for the other AFC wild-card berth, the Steelers, Ravens and Jaguars all sit at 6-5, but the sixth and final spot is Pittsburgh’s to lose. The defending champs finish with one of the league’s easier final slates (OAK, at CLE, GB, BAL, at MIA).

Recent history says the second Steelers-Ravens game will decide who’s taking to the gridiron and who’s watching from the couch come January. Given the way the Steelers played in defeat Sunday night (losing 20-17 in overtime) with a guy, Dennis Dixon, who had thrown a total of one NFL pass before Sunday, it’s tough to imagine the Ravens coming into Heinz Field and sweeping the Steelers, particularly if both Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu are back as scheduled.

Then there are the Titans. The dark horse. The squad everyone in the AFC is mindful of and — whether they’ll admit it or not — wants nothing to do with. Since getting blanked 59-love by the Patriots, Tennessee has blasted through five consecutive opponents, becoming the first team to lose its first six and win its next five. It’s no coincidence Vince Young has quarterbacked each of those victories, the latest punctuated by an awe-inspiring 17-play, 99-yard winning drive vs. the Cardinals, in which Young converted three fourth downs (including fourth-and-goal from the 10 with no time left). If you saw it live, you became a believer in VY and the Titans, plain and simple.

Which makes this weekend’s game between the Titans and Colts in Indianapolis absolutely humongous. Chris Johnson (he who is literally making a run at the all-time single-season rushing record) proclaimed on “Inside the NFL” two weeks ago that Tennessee was going to win out, finish 10-6 and become the first team ever to make the playoffs after such a putrid start. If the Titans can find a way to hand Indy its first loss of the year … let’s just say you’ll start seeing replays of that Johnson clip everywhere.

For now, here are the latest playoff projections.

AFC

1. Indianapolis Colts (14-2)
2. San Diego Chargers (12-4)
3. New England Patriots (12-4)
4. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)
5. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
6. Denver Broncos (10-6)

NFC

1. New Orleans Saints (15-1)
2. Minnesota Vikings (14-2)
3. Dallas Cowboys (11-5)
4. Arizona Cardinals (10-6)
5. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
6. Green Bay Packers (9-7)

Week 13 Picks (home teams in CAPS)

BUFFALO over NY Jets
Philadelphia over ATLANTA
CHICAGO over St. Louis
CINCINNATI over Detroit
INDIANAPOLIS over Tennessee
Denver over KANSAS CITY
New England over MIAMI
PITTSBURGH over Oakland
New Orleans over WASHINGTON
CAROLINA over Tampa Bay
Houston over JACKSONVILLE
San Diego over CLEVELAND
NY GIANTS over Dallas
San Francisco over SEATTLE
Minnesota over ARIZONA
GREEN BAY over Baltimore

Last Week: 10-6
Overall: 116-60