From here on out, we're picking the games that you should be watching every week, and we're telling you why.
Raiders at Steelers (1:00 PM, Sunday)
If you didn’t see this coming, then you’re probably not a believer, and you’ve stumbled onto this blog by accident en route to some former quarterback telling you that the Steelers will win because they’ll “circle the wagons” and “play Steeler football”, but allow me just one thought before you click on by: If the Raiders are actually coming together, and not simply riding a fluky streak of wins, this team has the talent to add a legitimate dark horse to the playoffs as opposed to an obligatory AFC West entrant. The Chiefs simply don’t have the defense or the second receiver to hang with more heavily armed opponents, and nobody should root for the undisciplined Chargers after what they’ve pulled with Vincent Jackson this year (Just wait until he’s in a Pats uniform and tearing up the league, along with the team’s seven (SEVEN) picks in the first four rounds of the upcoming draft. Thanks for that, AJ Smith.). The Raiders, on the other hand, look like a scary opponent that you don’t mind getting behind. Jason Campbell (or Bruce Gradkowski) both have a palatable skill set under center, particularly when Campbell is getting rid of the ball more quickly and spreading it around to his wide receivers, any of whom can go off for monster days in any given week. Run DMC is what the Bills were hoping CJ Spiller could be this year, performing capably between the tackles and putting the fear of God into defenses once he’s in open space. Zach Miller has been toiling in obscurity for a minute now, but it merits mentioning again: The dude is the next Antonio Gates. On the defensive side of the ball, Nnamdi is having another Nnamdi year (there might not be an elite player who excites fans less...a large part of his style), and the front line has notched 27 sacks on the year, with DE Richard Seymour playing like a man possessed and rookie DE Lamarr Houston getting involved for 2 of his own.
The point is that this is a team that can actually play a lot of different kinds of football, depending on what the situation calls for, while still having the firepower to impose their will on the game. Considering how beaten up the Steelers are looking at this point, and how they were made an example of by the Pats last week, isn’t it worth considering that we’d all rather live in a world with more teams like the Raiders, brimming with unanswered questions and undeniable potential, than the Steelers, who at this point are more of a monument to what was rather than any sort of promise as to what could be?
Browns at Jaguars (1:00 PM, Sunday)
If Eric Mangini wants to be taken seriously, he needs his team to win this game. Hell, we all need his team to win this game, if only because I’d hate to see Jack Del Rio rewarded for stripping this team of any identity to the point where they win because you have no clue who they are. At this point, the Jaguars win games by dragging them into an unlikable mess of chaos, not because they rely on Garrard’s unique blend of brute force and precision or MJD’s otherworldly ability to disappear between defenders. Certainly, Mike Thomas has been a pleasant surprise (though short WRs have a way of disappearing after a little while, as Mike Sims-Walker taught us), and TE Marcedes Lewis has been a revelation (7 TD on the year, finally using his massive frame in conjunction with his known receiving talent). All of these things, however, are reduced to clanging instruments without harmony under Del Rio. Mangini, with less talent (remember this: no Browns WR would be a top 2 WR on ANY other NFL team) and more adversity (I’ll always weep for you, Seneca Wallace) is crafting a symphony, focused around certain outstanding set pieces (The Avalanche Peyton Hillis on offense and CB Eric Wright on defense), but nevertheless relying on the cooperation of sound and sheet music. Put simply, only one of these head coaches deserves to helm a team next season, and it isn’t the one with the better record right now.
Buccaneers at 49ers (Sunday, 4:05 PM)
I’m rooting for the 49ers, because I think this Bucs team still has time to grow (one more solid draft, particularly for the defense, and they leap from explosive wild card to genuinely high-functioning machine), because the Falcons and Saints are going to prevent the Bucs from achieving in the postseason anyway, and because FREE TROY SMITH! FREE TROY SMITH! FREE TROY SMITH!
Giants at Eagles (Sunday, 8:20 PM)
The amount of athleticism that will be at war in that Eagles offensive backfield is going to be incredible. This is basically the football version of one of those Star Wars spacecraft battles.
Broncos at Chargers (Monday, 8:30 PM)
You think Josh McDaniels used up all his “F*** YOU” anger against KC? This Chargers team has yet to pull together a victory that impresses (the Texans victory was a fluke against a mediocre opponent, the Titans didn’t have any pass attack, the Cardinals are a mess, and the Jaguars hadn’t gone into full blown black hole mode). Meanwhile, the Broncos play southpaw offense, and are coming off of the kind of post bye week win that makes me think McDaniels has figured out how to use his underrated ground weapons (yes, that’s right, Knowshon Moreno and Tim Tebow are underrated). When the dust settles, this feels like the kind of game the Chargers have been losing all season, close contests that depend on a team executing consistently to win.