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Crossing an item off my sports bucket list: My experience at Lambeau Field

I like going to Major League Baseball stadiums that I’ve never visited before because baseball stadiums, while each adhering to the field dimensions regulated by MLB, have their own distinct features and quirks that separate them from the others, whether it’s the now-gone hill and pole in center field of Houston’s Minute Maid Park, the Green Monster at Fenway Park in Boston, or the famed ivy on the outfield walls at Wrigley Field.

I don’t have the same feelings about NFL stadiums because, for the most part, there is nothing notable that distinguishes one from another.They are pretty much cookie-cutter facilities without unique features. There is one exception to that rule, in my opinion: Lambeau Field in Green Bay. That is the one NFL building that I feel is a classic that all football fans should visit in their lifetime. For me, that journey took place this past weekend.

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I am a fan of the Texans, who only played at Lambeau Field one time previously — a 24-21 Houston victory on Dec. 7, 2008. With the NFL’s scheduling formula, the Texans only play in Green Bay once every eight years because the teams play in different conferences. Knowing that, I knew if I didn’t go to the Week 13 game this year, I didn’t know if I would ever make it to Lambeau. Seeing a game at Lambeau Field has been on my sports bucket list for a while, so I made the trip from New York to experience a Packers weekend in Green Bay.

Stadium Tour

My Lambeau Field experience began on Saturday morning, with a tour of the stadium. I had never gone on a stadium tour before, but that was one of the things I wanted to do on this trip. It did not disappoint. It was informative, with tour guide Mike sharing a lot of information about the history of the team and facility, and took us to places throughout the stadium, most notably through the tunnel Packers players run through to take the field every home game and onto the outer edge of the field. It was a pretty cool experience to be standing there looking out at the nearly 80,000 empty seats — or, more accurately, bleachers — that just over 24 hours later would be filled with rowdy fans cheering on their team.

While being on the field was the highlight of the tour, there was more to the 90-minute-long experience. Other highlights of the tour included getting a panoramic view from a deck high above the south end zone, which is the highest point in Green Bay. Other stops included areas of the stadium that are accessible to people who buy suites and the Champions Club, which Mike described as similar to a country club, that has indoor seating in an area filled with Packers memorabilia, including Super Bowl rings, and access to the aforementioned viewing deck near the south scoreboard.

Packers Hall of Fame

After the tour, my next stop was to visit the Packers Hall of Fame which, as you’d expect, is filled with memorabilia and information about the history of the team and its best players. Highlights of the Hall of Fame include a room that houses the Packers’ four Lombardi trophies, of course named for the team’s famous head coach Vince Lombardi, and a replica setup of Lombardi’s office including the actual desk, chairs and telephone he used while serving as the team’s coach. There were video exhibits showcasing such events as highlights of 1967’s Ice Bowl — which was reportedly the impetus for Lambeau getting the nickname the Frozen Tundra — and the original Lambeau Leap, which was first performed by S LeRoy Butler on Dec. 26, 1993. Among the more unique memorabilia included in the Hall of Fame’s collection is pieces of goalposts from key games throughout Packers history and the trade agreement 1992 deal that sent young QB Brett Favre from the Falcons to the Packers for a first-round draft pick that would ultimately become RB Tony Smith, who totaled 329 rushing yards and 2 rushing touchdowns in his NFL career.

The Game: Texans at Packers

Then came Sunday and the game between the Texans and the Packers. The weather provided what I was hoping for — snow, which I feel is the part of the true Green Bay football experience. There was light snow for most of the morning and throughout the game. With a noon kickoff, there were already people in the parking lot tailgating by the time I got to Lambeau shortly before 9am. The weather didn’t deter fans from getting to the stadium hours early to partake in the usual drinking, eating and game-playing that is associated with tailgating. But it’s not just in the stadium parking lot, it extends beyond the grounds of Lambeau. The owners of nearby homes surrounding the stadium allow people to park in their yards and set up mini-tailgates for a fee — generally ranging from $10-40, depending on the home’s distance from the stadium. Nearby restaurants and bars also run their own pregame tailgate parties, offering unlimited food and drinks for a fee. I opted to go with the tailgate at Brett Favre’s Steakhouse, which had Super Bowl champion and Packers Hall of Fame WR Antonio Freeman in attendance signing autographs.

At noon, it was time for the main attraction of the weekend, with a kickoff temperature of 31 degrees and snow falling throughout the duration of the game. As mentioned earlier, the majority of the stadium — the original bowl plus some of the earliest additions — is made up of aluminum bleachers, which can get uncomfortable on cold days so many people either bring their own seat cushions or rent one upon entering the stadium. The newest additions in the upper levels of the stadium offer more traditional stadium seats.

As for the game itself, both offenses got off to slow starts — each team lost a fumble on their first offensive drives of the game — with no points on the scoreboard until Packers QB Aaron Rodgers threw a touchdown pass to WR Randall Cobb nearly halfway through the second quarter for a 7-0 lead that stood until Texans QB Brock Osweiler tied to the game with a touchdown pass to TE Ryan Griffin midway through the third quarter. The Packers then took a 14-point lead with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter — a pass to a wide-open WR Jordy Nelson early in the period and a three-yard run into the endzone by RB Aaron Ripkowski with 4:18 remaining in the game, putting Green Bay up 21-7. The Texans responded around the two-minute mark with a 44-yard catch-and-run by WR DeAndre Hopkins, but a missed PAT by K Nick Novak kept the score at 21-13. After a failed onside kick, the Texans were able to keep the Packers from earning a game-clinching first down, but with only one timeout remaining on the drive, the Texans got the ball back with just four seconds remaining. With the ball at their own 12-yard line, the Texans tried a short pass followed by several laterals as a last-ditch effort to score, but that failed as the Packers handed the Texans their third straight loss in front of a crowd of 77,867.

Both teams now sit at 6-6 on the season, with the Packers in third place in the NFC North and the Texans falling into a first-place tie with the idle Titans and, following Monday Night Football, the Colts in the AFC South.

Overall, even though the team I was rooting for lost, it was a good weekend as I finally got a chance to experience Lambeau Field for the first time. It is a trip that I would recommend any NFL fan should take at some point — including the tour — because of all of the tradition and history associated with the team and the stadium.

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Why I Don’t Agree With New York Banning DraftKings and FanDuel

On Tuesday, New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman ordered daily fantasy sports (DFS) operators DraftKings and FanDuel to stop accepting bets by state residents, arguing that the companies’ games are considered illegal gambling, according to state law. I disagree with the decision, which affects me as a New York resident who has been playing in NFL contests on DraftKings this season. The companies plan to appeal the decision.

For some background, DFS companies are legal under federal law; a 2006 federal law exempted fantasy sports from a prohibition that was instituted on online gaming, under the guidance that it is a game of skill as opposed to luck. Schneiderman apparently doesn’t agree that DFS is legal under that law, saying “it is clear that DraftKings and FanDuel are the leaders of a massive, multibillion-dollar scheme intended to evade the law and fleece sports fans across the country.”

In his letter to DraftKings, Scheiderman stressed some of the differences between DFS and traditional, seasonlong fantasy sports that makes DFS illegal while the seasonlong variety is legal, including that the “instant gratification” makes it easy to play DFS, which has “no long-term strategy.” He also argues that DFS is closer to poker — in that a small number of pros profit at the expense of more-casual players — than a lottery. According to Schneiderman’s investigation of the site’s data, the top one percent of winners get the majority of the winnings.

Let me address the points made by Schneiderman. First, I think comparing DFS to poker hurts his argument because I have long argued that poker is a game of skill that, like DFS, should be exempt from that 2006 ban on online gambling. Schneiderman seems to think that because the outcome of the contests relies on outside forces that the DFS players cannot control — namely the athletes — there’s no skill involved in winning at DFS. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, DFS participants have no control over the performance of the players they select, but there is skill involved in choosing which players you want on your team. The people who do it right study stats of previous games and the players’ matchups in the coming games to determine who to select — you’re not randomly selecting players with no basis for your choices.

This also goes into my counterargument to Schneiderman’s point that the top one percent of DraftKings players win the most money. Many of them are DFS professionals who do it full-time. They spend hours, and even days, to select their lineups each week. Conversely, a casual player like me often spends some time on Sunday morning choosing players before the kickoff the 1:00 games. Naturally, you would expect the people who are able to put more time and research into it to win more often — and that would kind of indicate there’s some skill involved in DFS, not that it’s a “multibillion-dollar scheme,” which was the conclusion that Schneiderman jumped to.

Further, those DFS pros are wagering a lot of money, with the possibility of a large payout. So, of course, they’re going to get the majority of the winnings when most DFS players are probably closer to me; I play in one $3 contest a week, and sometimes add a second, similarly priced contest. I don’t expect to win thousands of dollars when I’m wagering so little. I’ve won $10 each of the past two weeks, which is a decent return on my small investment.

Going back to Schneiderman’s letter, he charges that DraftKings promotes its games as “a path to easy riches that anyone can win,” enticing player with claims of becoming a millionaire. That scenario sounds familiar. Where have I previously heard claims of easy riches and becoming a millionaire? Oh yeah, that’s right, I’m thinking of New York Lottery commercials. Of course, that’s it.

So how do DraftKings’ and FanDuel’s claims of winning big differ from the New York Lottery’s? Simple. New York runs its lottery and profits from the people who gamble on it, hoping to win millions in contests in which they have no control over the outcome. Which is pretty much the argument Schneiderman makes for banning DFS — which, I should point out, New York doesn’t make any money off of. And that, in my opinion, is why Schneiderman is going after the DFS companies — he wants his share of the pie from the more than 500,000 New Yorkers who play DFS, according to DraftKings spokeswoman Sabrina Macias.

The fact that Schneiderman only banned DraftKings and FanDuel — by far the two largest and most successful DFS operations — and not the other, smaller sites that run DFS games seems to confirm my suspicion that it’s about money. He is going after the two sites that make the most money off of DFS becasue the state stands to gain the most by going after those two sites.

So the solution is simple. Rather than banning DFS, New York should regulate and tax it. By regulating it, the state can control how DraftKIngs and FanDuel run their games, to make sure it’s not the “scheme” that Schneiderman thinks the sites are running. By taxing it, New York gets its share of the millions of dollars that the sites take in from New York residents. New York is obviously not opposed to gambling; in addition to the lottery, the state regulates the New York Racing Association, which runs several horse racing tracks across the state, and a couple years ago legalized casino gaming other than the Indian casinos that have long operated on Indian reservations in the state.

Thoughts?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers

NFL Divisional Round Preview: Patriots are big favorites, Packers-Cowboys play to advance to the NFC championship

With the wild-card games in the books, the top two seeds in each conference take to the field for the first time in this postseason. That means the Patriots, Chiefs, Cowboys and Falcons host games coming off of their first-round byes. For a team like the Patriots, that means veteran QB Tom Brady, one of the best in the postseason, takes on a Texans team with a mediocre offense while Cowboys rookie QB Dak Prescott not only gets his first taste of the playoffs but also the first truly meaningful game of his career, as the Cowboys led the NFC East virtually all season. The Falcons and Chiefs, meanwhile, have veteran quarterbacks — Matt Ryan and Alex Smith, respectively — who haven’t achieved a great deal of success in their postseason careers, save for Smith helping the 49ers reach the 2012 NFC Championship game. After finishing two games over .500 with a 129-127 record against the spread (and 156-98-2 picking games straight up) in the regular season, I went 2-2 against the spread (and 4-0 straight up but just 1-3 on the over/unders) last weekend.

Saturday

No. 3 seed Seattle Seahawks at No. 2 seed Atlanta Falcons (11-5, NFC South champions) (-5, over/under 51.5)

The Seahawks are coming off of an impressive win in the wild-card round against a Lions team with a quarterback that has been dealing with a broken finger for the last several weeks. This week, they’ll have a tougher matchup against a squad led by Ryan, who is a leading candidate for league MVP honors. RB Thomas Rawls was the Seahawks’ main offensive weapon last week, running for 161 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries. QB Russell Wilson was 23-for-30 for 224 yards and 2 touchdowns. Catching nearly half of those completions was WR Doug Baldwin, whose 11 receptions led to 104 receiving yards and a touchdown. WR Paul Richardson put up decent numbers for him, with 3 catches for 48 yards, including a touchdown on an impressive catch in the end zone, making up for a lack of production from TE Jimmy Graham.

Ryan is coming off of a career year in which he threw for 4.944 yards and 38 touchdowns with just 7 interceptions, giving him a NFL-best passer rating of 117.1. He hasn’t had much success in his postseason career, though, going 1-4 with a 9-7 TD-interception ratio in five starts, and he has thrown for fewer than 200 yards in three of those five games. Looking at what the rest of the Falcons offense did during the season, RB Devonta Freeman led the way on the ground, carrying the ball 227 yards for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns. No. 2 RB Tevin Coleman added another 520 yards and 8 scores on the ground on 118 rushes. WR Julio Jones had another of his typically great seasons, with 83 receptions for 1,409 yards and 6 touchdowns in 14 games. WR Mohamed Sanu added another 59 grabs for 653 yards and 4 touchdowns, and Freeman had good production in the air game out of the backfield, with 54 catches for 462 yards and 2 touchdowns. Defensively, the Falcons are among the worst in the league,ranking in the bottom 10 in both points and yards allowed.

This game is a battle of the league’s best scoring offense in the Falcons against a Seahawks defense that allowed the third-fewest points in the league during the season and gave up just 6 against the Lions last week. If the Seattle defense can’t keep the Falcons from getting into the end zone, which I don’t think they will, I think the key offensive weapon for the Seahawks will be Rawls. He’ll have to have another good game, like his 161-yard performance against Detroit, if the team has a chance to win. I don’t think Wilson will be able to keep up with Ryan in the air so it’ll be up to the rushing attack to outplay Freeman and Coleman, in my opinion. I don’t think they’ll be able to do it. Falcons win the game, 30-24, to advance to the fifth conference championship game in franchise history. They’ll cover the five-point spread, and the game will go over the 51.5.

No. 4 seed Houston Texans at No. 1 seed New England Patriots (14-2, AFC East champions) (-16, over/under 44.5)

In a rematch of a Week 3 game that saw the Patriots — with QB Jacoby Brissett starting — shut out the Texans at Gillette Stadium, the Texans head back to Foxborough for a chance at redemption as they try to make it to their first AFC Championship game in team history. Last week, the Texans beat the Raiders at home behind a strong showing by the defense — particularly DEs Jadeveon Clowney, who recorded his first career interception, and Whitney Mercilus, who had 2 sacks and 5 tackles in the game. CB A.J. Bouye had an interception of his own in the winning effort. The offense, as has been the case all season, wasn’t very explosive, although QB Brock Osweiler did show some promising signs at times, making a couple of nice throws to WR DeAndre Hopkins, who had 5 receptions for 67 yards and 1 touchdown on 9 targets. Overall, Osweiler was 14-for-25 for 168 yards and 1 touchdown. Not impressive but the lack of interceptions was a good sign because he had more interceptions than touchdown passes — 16 vs. 15 — during the regular season. The Texans couldn’t get much done in the running game; RB Lamar Miller was only able to get 73 yards on 31 carries, though he did get into the end zone once.

After missing the first four games of the season while serving his suspension for Deflategate, Brady put up impressive numbers, leading many to make him their MVP pick despite missing a quarter of the season. In his 12 starts, Brady had a 28-2 TD-interception ratio while throwing for 3,554 yards. Unlike Ryan, who hasn’t done well in the postseason historically, Brady almost seems to up his game in January. He has won 22 of his 31 starts — including four Super Bowl victories — and thrown 56 touchdowns compared to 28 interceptions. With TE Rob Gronkowski missing most of the season to injury, WR Julian Edelman was the team’s leading receiver with 98 receptions 1,106 yards and 3 touchdowns. TE Martellus Bennett stepped up in the second half of the season after Gronk went on IR. He finished the year with 55 catches for 701 yards and 7 touchdowns. RB James White was productive in the passing game out of the backfield, with 60 catches for 551 yards and 5 touchdowns. RB LeGarrette Blount was the team’s leading rusher, carrying the ball 299 times for 1,161 yards and an impressive 18 touchdowns. As if having one of the league’s best offenses wasn’t enough, the Patriots also had the best scoring defense during the season, giving up only 250 points — 34 fewer than the next best team, the Giants.

On paper this game seems like a blowout, and that is reflected as well in the 16-point spread. The Week 3 shutout doesn’t do much to refute that. While I don’t think this game will be close, I find it hard to give a team 16 points in the playoffs. The Texans defense will have to keep Brady and the Patriots in check if they want to have any chance of pulling off the upset because the Texans offense may be hard pressed to get into the 20s against a Patriots defense that allowed an average of 15.6 points per game during the regular season. Patriots win the game easily, but with a 27-13 score I’ll take the Texans with the points, and that will also be under the 44.5.

Sunday

No. 3 seed Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 2 seed Kansas City Chiefs (12-4, AFC West champions) (-1.5, over/under 44)

The Steelers easily took care of the Dolphins in the wild-card round to earn the trip to Kansas City to take on the Chiefs. In Sunday’s game QB Ben Roethlisberger didn’t have a great outing, going 13-for-18 for 197 yards and 2 touchdowns with 2 interceptions, but he didn’t have to be at the top of his game thanks to RB Le’Veon Bell, who set a Steelers postseason record by rushing for 167 yards and 2 touchdowns on 29 rushes. WR Antonio Brown helped the Steelers jump out to an early lead with a couple of first-quarter scores. Overall, he had 5 receptions for 124 yards and those 2 touchdowns. The defense had three turnovers, including an interception by LB Ryan Shazier.

For the Chiefs, Smith set a career high this season with 3,502 passing yards, though that resulted in just 15 touchdowns and he threw 8 interceptions, which was his highest total since throwing 10 in 2010. RB Spencer Ware was the team’s leading rusher, getting the start in 14 games and carrying the ball 214 times for 921 yards and 3 touchdowns. TE Travis Kelce caught 85 passes to lead the team with 1,125 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns. It was WR Tyreek Hill who was the Chiefs’ breakout star on offense this season. He had 61 receptions for 593 yards and a team-high 6 touchdowns in the passing game, but that’s not the only part of the game in which he was active. He had 24 carries for 267 yards and 3 touchdowns, and he added another 3 touchdowns on special teams, returning two punts and a kickoff for scores. Defensively, the Chiefs allowed 311 points during the season — seventh best in the league — but was in the bottom 10 in yards allowed.

The 1.5-point spread indicates that this game is expected to be close. The Steelers have the better offense with the Roethlisberger-Bell-Brown triplets, but the Chiefs have the better defense, which the team will rely on to keep the Steelers out of the end zone as much as possible as Smith and Ware can’t compare to Roethlisberger and Bell. The X-factor for the Chiefs is, of course, Hill. If he can continue the strong second half of the season that he had, it could be enough to get the Chiefs the win If he can score on a kick or punt return, that would certainly help take some of the pressure off of both the offense and defense. In the end, though, I don’t think the Chiefs will be able to score enough points to pull out the victory. The Steelers are the slight underdogs so I’ll take the points. I think Pittsburgh wins, 23-20, and I’ll go under the 44.

No. 4 seed Green Bay Packers at No. 1 seed Dallas Cowboys (13-3, NFC East champions) (-4.5, over/under 52.5)

The Packers pulled away from the Giants in the second half of their wild-card game last week and ended up winning by 25 points, but they may have lost a key player in the process. WR Jordy Nelson left the game early with what was later determined to be fractured ribs. Even without Nelson playing the entire game, QB Aaron Rodgers had a big game for the Packers, going 25-for-40 for 362 yards and 4 touchdowns. He had two receivers cross the 100-yard mark; WR Davante Adams had 8 receptions for 125 yards and 1 touchdown, while WR Randall Cobb came back after missing a couple games with an injury and had 5 receptions for 116 yards and 3 touchdowns, including one on a hail-mary pass just before halftime. The running game struggled, as it has most of the season, with RBs Christine Michael and Ty Montgomery splitting the touches almost evenly but totaling just 74 rushing yards between them. On defense, LB Clay Matthews had a sack and a forced fumble and CB Damarious Randall intercepted an Eli Manning pass.

Led by rookies Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys had their best season since 2007 with a 13-3 record. Prescott threw for 3,667 yards and 23 touchdowns with 4 interceptions. He also had 6 rushing touchdowns on 57 carries. That was nothing compared to what Elliott did on the ground, carrying the ball 322 times for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns. WR Cole Beasley was the team’s leading receiver with 75 receptions for 833 yards and 5 touchdowns. Veteran TE Jason Witten added 69 receptions for 673 yards and 3 touchdowns while WR Dez Bryant had 50 catches for 796 yards and 8 touchdowns in 13 games. The defense was the team’s weak point during the season, allowing both the fifth-most points and yards in the league.

Both teams have good offenses and questionable defenses so points should be easy to come by in this one. Nelson’s availability is a big question mark for the Packers. The team is saying he likely won’t be able to practice until Saturday, so a decision on his status for the game won’t be known until the weekend. If he can’t go, that would be a blow to the Packers offense and would require the likes of Adams and Cobb to repeat their performances from last week. I give the Cowboys a slight edge in this game because of Elliott. The Packers run game can’t come close to the production he is likely to put up, and that could be the difference in the game. Cowboys win, 30-27, so they don’t cover the spread but do advance to the NFC Championship game. And that score means I’m going over 52.5.

If these results happen, it’ll eliminate the possibility of my preseason Super Bowl LI pick — Packers over Patriots — from happening. With the Patriots likely beating the Texans, that prediction will stay alive if the Packers can manage to beat the Cowboys.

(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)

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Green Bay Packers v New York Giants

My NFL Picks Wild Card Playoffs: Giants-Packers highlights a weekend full of backup quarterbacks

After 17 weeks of the regular season, the NFL playoffs have arrived with 12 teams hoping to end up in Houston on Feb. 5 to play in Super Bowl LI, although just a handful or so have a realistic chance of making it there. There’s not a lot of star power in the wild card round, with teams like the Patriots and Cowboys having earned first-round byes. The best matchup of the weekend figures to be the last game of the weekend slate, when the Giants head to Green Bay to take on the NFC North champion Packers. Two of the other three games each feature at least one backup or third-string quarterback getting a start. During the regular season, I finished with a 129-127 record against the spread (and 156-98-2 picking games straight up).

Saturday

No. 5 seed Oakland Raiders (12-4, Wild Card) at No. 4 seed Houston Texans (9-7, AFC South champions) (-3.5, over/under 36.5)

For the second straight season, the Texans won the AFC South with a 9-7 record and host the first game of the postseason. It didn’t go well last season, when they got shut out by the Chiefs, 30-0. This time, they’ll play the Raiders, who are going to start third-string QB Connor Cook. QB Matt McGloin started in Week 17, filling in for QB Derek Carr, who suffered a broken leg a week earlier. McGloin left the game with a shoulder injury, though, so he will not be ready for action this week, setting Cook up to make his first career start in the NFL. The Texans quarterback situation is also a mess. QB Tom Savage started the last couple of games, but he had to leave Sunday’s game as he entered the concussion protocol and did not return to the game after that. That let QB Brock Osweiler, who was benched for Savage earlier in the season, get back in the game. At this time, Osweiler is expected to start for the home team.

Neither team is likely going to be able to rely on its running game, either. RB Latavius Murray is the Raiders’ leading rusher, but he totaled just 788 yards on the ground in 14 games. Texans starting RB Lamar Miller missed the last two games with injury but is expected to be ready to go this weekend. If healthy he can have a good game, but his health is a question mark. The Raiders likely have the advantage in the receiving game, with WRs Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper each having amassed more than 1,000 receiving yards. Subpar quarterback play limited the production of the Texans’ receivers, with WR DeAndre Hopkins leading the way with 954 yards but just 4 touchdowns. Rookie WR Will Fuller V showed promise at times, hauling in 47 catches for 635 yards and 2 touchdowns. If Osweiler starts, look out for TE C.J. Fiedorowicz, who is Brock’s favorite target not named Hopkins. Fiedorowicz had 559 yards and 4 touchdowns on 54 receptions, second only to Hopkins.

The biggest discrepancy between the teams comes on the defensive side of the ball. Even without DE J.J. Watt, who hasn’t played since Week 3, the Texans have one of the best defenses in the league, while the Raiders were in the bottom half of the league in points allowed and in the bottom 10 in yards against. With the teams expected to struggle to score points with the quarterbacks who will be starting for them, defense will likely be the X factor in this game, which is why I give the Texans have the overall advantage. In a rematch of the Mexico City game from Week 11, I’ll take the Texans to win the game, 16-10, so I’ll take the Texans (-3.5) and under the 36.5 total.

No. 6 seed Detroit Lions (9-7, Wild Card) at No. 3 seed Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1, NFC West champions) (-8, over/under 43.5)

Losing to the Packers on Sunday night forced the Lions on the road in Seattle instead of hosting a playoff game as the NFC North champions. This quarterback matchup is the opposite of the early game, with two quarterbacks who have strong track records over several seasons in the league. For the Lions, QB Matthew Stafford threw for 4,327 yards and 24 touchdowns with a career-low 10 interceptions. On the other side, QB Russell Wilson was inconsistent over the course of the season but got better as the season progressed and he got over some injuries that nagged him early in the season. He threw for 4,219 yards and 21 touchdowns with a career-worst 11 interceptions, although he ended the season without throwing a pick in the last two games. Overall, the two teams are pretty evenly matched at the quarterback position.

Injuries caused both teams’ running backs to significantly underperform. No back carried the ball more than 92 times for the Lions. That was RB Theo Riddick, who hasn’t played since Week 13. RB Zach Zenner was the LIons’ best running back late in the season, starting the final two games and scoring 3 touchdowns on 32 rushes. Despite being limited to nine games, RB Thomas Rawls led the Seahawks’ rushing attack, with 109 carries for just 349 yards and 3 touchdowns. Both teams had more success through the air, with each squad having a 1,000-yard receiver. For the Lions, it was WR Golden Tate, who had 91 receptions for 1,077 yards and 4 touchdowns. Veteran WR Anquan Boldin also had a good season; he had 8 touchdowns on 67 receptions. For Seattle, WR Doug Baldwin led the way 94 catches for 1,128 yards and 7 touchdowns. TE Jimmy Graham had 65 receptions for 923 yards and 6 touchdowns in a comeback season after playing in just 11 games in 2015.

The Seahawks have the advantage defensively, ranking in the top five for the season in both points and yards allowed. Even without S Earl Thomas, who is on injured reserve, the Seahawks have the better defensive unit than a Lions squad that allowed 66 more points than Seattle did during the regular season. Although the Lions have a good offense, I think the Seahawks will be up to the challenge and that should be the difference in the game. People say defense wins championships, and I think it’ll win this game for the NFC West champs. Seahawks win the game, 27-20, so I’ll take the Lions with the points and over the 43.5 total.

Sunday

No. 6 seed Miami Dolphins (10-6, Wild Card) at No. 3 seed Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5, AFC North champions) (-10, over/under 46)

Heinz Field will be the site of the early Sunday game when the Dolphins visit the Steelers. QB Matt Moore is going to get the start for the Dolphins, as he’s done each of the last three weeks as QB Ryan Tannehill recovers from his sprained knee. The Steelers will be starting a quarterback with plenty of playoff experience, Ben Roethlisberger, who didn’t have the best season of his career but is still better than the opposing quarterback. Steelers have the definite edge at the position.

The Steelers may have a slight advantage in the running game — with RB Le’Veon Bell, one of the league’s best at the position — but it’s probably the closest among the offensive skill positions. Despite being suspended for the season’s first three games and not playing in a meaningless Week 17 game, Bell ran for 1,268 yards and 7 touchdowns in 12 games. Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi had similar numbers — 1,272 yards and 8 touchdowns — also in 12 starts. A large chunk of Ajayi’s production, however, came in just a few games when he had back-to-back games of 200-plus yards in Weeks 6 and 7, with a third 200-yard performance in Week 16. Outside of those three weeks, his stats don’t look overly impressive. In the receiving game, WR Jarvis Landry led the Dolphins with 94 receptions, 1,136 yards and 4 touchdowns. But the Steelers again have the advantage at this position with WR Antonio Brown –perhaps Pittsburgh’s best offensive player — catching 106 balls for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns despite not playing in Week 17. Bell is also a key part of the receiving core; he was second on the team with 75 receptions on the season, adding 616 yards and 2 touchdowns to complement his rushing numbers.

Although neither team’s defense is particularly noteworthy, the Steelers also have the better unit on that side of the ball, having given up 53 fewer points during the season than the Dolphins did. And the Dolphins allowed the fourth-most yards in the league, which isn’t good when you’re facing a team with Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown. Overall, the Steelers are the clear favorites and should win the game, but I think a 10-point spread is a bit much for a game like this because the Dolphins can put points on the board. I’ll take the Steelers to win the game, 32-27, so give me the Dolphins (+10) and over the 46 total.

No. 5 seed New York Giants (11-5, Wild Card) at No. 4 seed Green Bay Packers (10-6, NFC North champions) (-4.5, over/under 44.5)

Wild-card weekend concludes with a matchup of one of the league’s best defenses against one of the top offenses. The Packers won 23-16 when these teams met at Lambeau in Week 5 so the Giants are looking to avenge that loss. Giants QB Eli Manning didn’t have great season, putting up his worst numbers since 2013. He threw for 4,027 yards and 26 touchdowns with 16 interceptions. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, on the other hand, almost single-handedly led his team to the division title as he had to deal with a lack of a running game and a poor defense. He had his best season since 2011, throwing for 4,428 yards and 40 touchdowns with just 7 interceptions.

The running game wasn’t either team’s strong suit this season, although Giants RB Paul Perkins started to come on in the last couple of weeks, culminating in a career-best 102-yard performance against the Redskins in Week 17. For the Packers, WR-turned-RB Ty Montgomery was the team’s leading rusher; he ran the ball 77 times for 457 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Giants have a strong one-two punch at receiver, with WRs Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard. Beckham had 101 receptions for 1,367 yards and 10 touchdowns while Shepard totaled 683 yards and 8 touchdowns on his 65 catches. For the Packers, WRs Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams lead the receiving core. Nelson had 97 receptions for 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns. Adams just missed the 1,000-yard milestone; he had 997 yards and 12 touchdowns on 75 receptions.

The Giants have the advantage on defense, ranking second in the league in points allowed. Conversely, the Packers were 12th-worst in that stat, having given up 106 more points than Big Blue. And the Giants’ defense will have to perform well if they want to win the game because the offense isn’t as potent as Green Bay’s. I expect the Packers to win the game and think they’ll cover, 27-21. I’ll give the 4.5 points and go over the 44.5

Awaiting this weekend’s winners in the divisional round are the Patriots and Chiefs in the AFC and the Cowboys and Falcons in the NFC. If my picks hold up, next week’s AFC games would pit the Texans against the Patriots and Steelers taking on the Chiefs in the AFC, while the Cowboys would host the Packers with the Seahawk visiting the Falcons in the NFC.

(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)

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Will the Chargers start 2017 by ending their tenure in San Diego?

The Chargers have called San Diego home since 1961, when they were in the AFL before eventually moving to the NFL when the leagues merged, after playing in Los Angeles in their inaugural season of 1960. When they take the field against the Chiefs at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday, it could be their final home game in San Diego. There is rampant speculation that they will be moving back to Los Angeles for the 2017 season, eventually playing in the Rams’ new stadium when that is finished, which is expected to be in time for the 2019 season.

When the NFL owners approved the Rams’ move to Los Angeles last January they also approved a move of the Chargers to the City of Angels, giving them an option that, if exercised, would allow them to move about 125 miles up the Southern California coast to Inglewood. The Chargers were given a year to exercise the option, which means they have just a few weeks left to pull the trigger if they choose to do so. With that in mind, when they host the Chiefs on Sunday in the final game of a sub-.500 season for the Chargers, their players, coaches and fans won’t know if it’ll be the last time they take the field in the city that the team has called home for more than five decades. It will be an emotional game, as it was last season when the possibility of it being the team’s final game in San Diego was already on people’s minds.

The issue leading to the possible relocation to Los Angeles is a new stadium. The team feels Qualcomm Stadium isn’t good enough anymore but the city isn’t willing to put up the money to pay for a new facility for the team. Talk of leaving San Diego picked up steam in November when a ballot measure that would have raised hotel taxes to help fund a new downtown stadium failed to achieve the two-thirds majority needed for approval. Had that passed, the team and the league would have contributed $650 million toward the project. In a seemingly last-ditch effort to save the team, city officials including Mayor Kevin Faulconer reportedly met with team owner Dean Spanos last week to try to reach an agreement. Earlier in the month, the city council offered to lease the land where Qualcomm Stadium sits to the Chargers for $1 a year over 99 years, allowing them to remain there while discussions about a new stadium continue into the future.

If this is it in San Diego for the Chargers, their run in the city will end with Week 16’s loss against a Browns team that was 0-14 entering the game and could be looking at another loss with a tough game against the division-rival Chiefs, who will be going all-out as they need a win — coupled with a Raiders loss — to have a chance at winning the division and earning a first-round bye in the playoffs.

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My NFL Picks Week 17: The Packers and Lions play for the NFC North crown in Game 256

As we enter Week 17, most of the playoff spots have been clinched, with just some seeding up for grabs. The only playoff berths that are still to be decided are in the NFC, with the NFC North champion set to be determined in Game 256 Sunday night and the No. 6 seed also unknown to this point. The winner of the PackersLions game will win the division and the loser has a chance at the NFC’s second wild card. The Redskins have the inside edge on the final playoff spot in the conference; if they win, they’re in. All six playoff teams have been determined in the AFC, but Sunday’s results will determine whether the Raiders or Chiefs win the AFC West, with the runner-up in the division landing a wild card. With QB Matt McGloin in for injured Raiders QB Derek Carr, it appears that the Chiefs could have the inside track to winning the division and the home playoff game that comes with that. I went 10-6 last week, bringing my record to 121-119 for the year. I’m using the lines from ESPN’s Pigskin Pick ‘Em game. My picks are in bold and my survivor pool pick is in red

Sunday 1PM games

Bills at Jets (+3.5) – The Bills are coming into this game having fired head coach Rex Ryan this week, while the Jets are back to QB Ryan Fitzpatrick as their starter after QB Bryce Petty suffered an injury in last week’s blowout loss to the Patriots. The Bills have announced they’re benching QB Tyrod Taylor, for financial reasons, and starting QB EJ Manuel. I trust Fitzpatrick to have a better game than Manuel in the battle of backup quarterbacks, so I’ll take the Jets and the points.
Bears at Vikings (-5.5) – The Vikings’ season has taken a sharp turn since the team’s 5-0 start and they will miss the postseason in what began as a promising campaign. The Bears, meanwhile, have struggled all year. The way the Vikings have been playing, I”m not confident is giving this many points with them, but I’ll do it because the Bears aren’t good.
Ravens at Bengals (-2.5) – I’m surprised the Bengals, who scored 10 points last week, are favored over the Ravens, who barely missed the playoffs. I think the Ravens are demonstrably better than the Bengals so give me the points with the road team.
Browns at Steelers (-6.5) – With their win last week, the Browns avoided a winless season, but they have a tougher task this week against the Steelers. The Steelers are locked into the three seed in the playoffs and have made indications that their starters may not play — at least for the entire game. Even the Steelers’ backups should be able to beat the Browns, though, so I’ll take them.
Cowboys at Eagles (-2.5) – The Eagles being favored over the NFC’s top seed in the playoffs likely reflects the fact that the Cowboys probably won’t play their starters all game. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has said QB Dak Prescott will get the start and QB Tony Romo won’t play, which means third-string QB Mark Sanchez will likely see action if/when Prescott is pulled. Regardless, if the Cowboys are getting points, I’m taking them. Give me the Cowboys.
Texans at Titans (-2.5) – The Texans are another team that is locked into their playoff seed with nothing to play for this week, which means RB Lamar Miller will in all likelihood sit out his second straight game. The Titans are going to have QB Matt Cassel under center, though, after QB Marcus Mariota suffered a fractured fibula last week. With Cassel at quarterback, the Texans defense should have a strong game and help the Texans to victory. Give me the Texans and the points.
Jaguars at Colts (-4.5) – The Jaguars are coming off of a win but they’re still not a good team and win the quarterback matchup is Blake Bortles against Andrew Luck, I find it hard to pick the team led by Bortles. I’m going to go with the Colts in this one.
Patriots at Dolphins (+9.5) Two playoff teams meet in this game pitting division rivals against each other. The Patriots are coming off a 38-point victory against the Jets last week, but they likely won’t be able to put up those types of numbers against a better Dolphins team. While the Patriots likely haven’t locked in the top seed in the AFC playoffs yet, they currently hold that spot and may not play the likes of QB Tom Brady for all four quarters. I expect the Patriots to win the game, but I’ll take the points with the Dolphins at home.
Panthers at Buccaneers (-6.5) – The Buccaneers are technically still alive for the six seed in the AFC, but they need a win and a lot of help in other games to get it. I expect this to be a close game so I’m going to go with the Panthers and the points, but I think the Bucs can win the game.

Sunday 4PM games

Saints at Falcons (-6.5)The Falcons are playing for the NFC’s No. 2 seed, which would give them a bye in the first round of the playoffs so I expect them to go all out to win the game. The Saints, on the other hand, have nothing to play for and are just finishing out the season. Falcons win the game and I’ll take them to cover the spread.
Raiders at Broncos (-1.5) – The Raiders need a win to clinch the AFC West title and the two seed in the playoffs, but that will be tough to do with McGloin replacing the injured Carr. Even though the Broncos don’t have a good offense and their defense hasn’t looked as good in recent weeks as it had earlier in the season, I’m going to go with the Broncos because I think the Raiders offense takes a significant hit with McGloin under center. 
Chiefs at Chargers (+5.5) – The Chiefs need a win, coupled with a Raiders loss, to win the division and earn a first-round bye. What stands in their way is a Chargers team that handed the Browns their first win of the season a week ago. I expect the Chiefs defense to be able to hold down a Chargers offense that is riddled with injuries so I’ll take the Chiefs and give the points in what can be the Chargers’ final home game in San Diego if the rumors of the team moving to Los Angeles are true.
Cardinals at Rams (+6.5) – The Rams’ return to Los Angeles hasn’t gone well, with the team sitting on a 4-11 record heading into the final week of the season. The Cardinals’ record isn’t much better, but I think they’re a significantly better team than the Rams. I’ll take veteran QB Carson Palmer over rookie QB Jared Goff. I’ll pick the Cardinals to cover.
Giants at Redskins (-7.5) – Giants head coach Ben McAdoo has said their starters will play even though they have nothing to play for as far as playoff positioning. The Redskins, however, are in a win-and-in situation. If they can beat their division rivals, they will earn the second wild card in the NFC. A Washington loss would open the door for the loser of the Sunday night game to grab that final playoff spot. While the Giants are saying their starters will play, who knows if they’ll do so for the whole game? I expect the Redskins to win the game — solidifying their entry in the postseason — but I think the Giants will keep it close so give me the points.
Seahawks at 49ers (+9.5) – A win would allow the Seahawks to land the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye if the Falcons lose to the Saints. It shouldn’t be hard for the Seahawks to hold up their part of that scenario facing a bad 49ers team. The question is will they win by double digits to cover the spread? I think they can as I expect a blowout in this one. I’ll take the road team.

Sunday Night Football

Packers at Lions (+3.5) – The final game of the regular season will determine who wins the NFC North and is guaranteed a playoff spot. If the Redskins lose earlier in the day, both the Packers and Lions will make it to the postseason, with the winner clinching the division and the loser getting a wild card. With both teams potentially playing for their playoff lives, you don’t have to worry about them not playing their best players as is the case with other teams. The Lions haven’t played well recently while the Packers are among the best teams in the league over the past month or so. I expect that trend to continue with QB Aaron Rodgers leading the Packers to the division title and a home playoff game. That would leave the Lions on the outside looking in at the playoffs if my prediction of the Redskins beating the Giants comes true.

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My NFL Picks Week 16: Giants, Steelers, Chiefs among teams looking to clinch playoff berths

With Christmas falling on a Sunday this year, this week’s NFL schedule is different than it usually is; in addition to the typical Thursday and Monday games — the final ones of the season, as all Week 17 games are played on Sunday — the majority of the games will be played on Saturday, with just a doubleheader late Sunday afternoon and evening. A number of teams have the chance to clinch a playoff spot this week, including the Giants, Steelers and Chiefs — all of whom just need to win to guarantee themselves postseason action. Other teams that need some help to get into the playoffs this week are the Lions, Falcons, Packers, Texans and Dolphins.  I went 9-7 last week, bringing my record to 109-113 for the year. I’m using the lines from ESPN’s Pigskin Pick ‘Em game. My picks are in bold and my survivor pool pick is in red

Thursday Night Football

Giants at Eagles (+2.5) – Visiting teams typically don’t do well on Thursday nights, but it’s a quick trip from MetLife Stadium to Philadelphia so the travel shouldn’t affect the Giants too much on their short week. With the way the Giants defense has been playing over the last several weeks, I don’t expect QB Carson Wentz and the Eagles to have much success on offense. Giants win — and cover — to clinch a spot in the playoffs.

Saturday 1PM games

Falcons at Panthers (+2.5) – The Panthers looked good against the Redskins on Monday night, but I expect the Falcons to provide a tougher test for the defending NFC champions, who are barely hanging on to playoff contention. I expect QB Matt Ryan to continue leading the Falcons to another strong offensive showing and the Panthers won’t be able to keep up. Falcons cover.
Dolphins at Bills (-3.5) – I’m surprised the Bills are favored in this game. I realize QB Matt Moore will be starting for the Dolphins, but he played decently last week and it’s not like the BIlls offense has been lighting defenses up of late. I think the Dolphins win the game outright so I’m taking the points on the road.
Redskins at Bears (+2.5) – Their loss to the Panthers on Monday night knocked the Redskins out of the second Wild Card slot in the NFC, so they know there’s no room for error. I think QB Kirk Cousins and the rest of the Redskins offense will play better this week, despite a short week on the road, so I think they can do what they need to get the win over the Bears. I’ll take the visitors again.
Chargers at Browns (+6.5) – Two games is all that stands between the Browns and becoming just the second team in NFL history to finish a season 0-16. They play the Steelers in Week 17, which means this is their last realistic chance to avoid that fate. I don’t think they’re going to do it. Especially with WR Terrelle Pryor having an injured finger, I think the Browns fall to 0-15. I do think, however, they can keep the game somewhat competitive so I’ll take them with the points.
Vikings at Packers (-6.5) – The Packers need this win to stay alive in the NFC North race. The Colts easily beat the Vikings on Sunday so even a hobbled QB Aaron Rodgers should be able to lead the Packers to victory against a Vikings team that has lost three of its last four games. I don’t expect this game to be close so I’ll take the Packers and give the points.
Titans at Jaguars (+4.5) – It’s been more than two months since the Jaguars — who fired head coach Gus Bradley after Sunday’s game — last won a game. QB Blake Bortles has been among the worst players in the league at the position this season, while Titans QB Marcus Mariota has been playing well. I expect the Titans to easily beat the Jaguars so I’ll take them to cover.
Jets at Patriots (-16.5) The Jets looked bad last week, but 16.5 points is a lot to give any team. I expect the Patriots to win this game easily, but there’s no way I can take them to cover that spread, which is among the biggest in any game this season. Patriots win, but I’ll take the points.

Saturday 4PM games

Colts at Raiders (-3.5) – The Colts are looking to stay alive in the AFC South, while the Raiders are hoping to win the AFC West and get a first-round bye in the playoffs. Despite how well the Colts played against the Vikings last week, I don’t think they’ll be able to put up the points they’ll need to beat QB Derek Carr and the Raiders. Oakland covers.
49ers at Rams (-3.5) – The 49ers haven’t won since Week 1, but the Rams seem to be getting worse as the season has progressed. This should be a tough game to watch without a lot of points being scored by the offenses. For that reason, I’ll take the 49ers with the points although I think the Rams are the better team and will win the game.
Buccaneers at Saints (-2.5) – QB Drew Brees plays well at home at the Superdome, and after putting up 48 on the road against the Cardinals last week, I think the Saints will be able to beat the Bucs this week. It’ll be a higher-scoring game than their meeting two weeks ago when the Bucs won 16-11. Go with the Saints.
Cardinals at Seahawks (-8.5) – The Seahawks have already wrapped up the NFC West title but are still vying for a first-round bye. Seahawks QB Russell Wilson bounced back last week from a poor showing against the Packers the week before and I think he’ll have a good game this week — after all, the Cardinals gave up 48 points last week. The Seahawks should win the game, but I don’t think they’ll cover the spread so I’ll go with the Cardinals on the road.

Saturday Night Football

Bengals at Texans (-2.5) – The Texans made a big change during last week’s game, benching offseason free-agent signee QB Brock Osweiler in favor of QB Tom Savage, who showed some promising signs, helping to lead the Texans to a comeback victory against the Jaguars. That earned him the start this week against the Bengals, who may get WR A.J. Green back from his injury. The Texans control their own destiny in the AFC South — if they win their last two games, they’re the division champs. The offense should be improved with Savage at the helm, as opposed to Osweiler. With the defense the Texans have, I think they can win this game.

Sunday Doubleheader

Ravens at Steelers (-5.5) – The first Christmas Day game could determine the AFC North champion. The Steelers, who have won their last five games, sit a game ahead of the second-place Ravens in the division and will clinch the division if they win the game. It won’t be easy against a good Ravens defense, but the Steelers have one of the better offenses in the league, led by QB Ben Roethlisberger, RB Le’Veon Bell and WR Antonio Brown. Ravens QB Joe Flacco will have to be at the top of his game in order to lead the Ravens to a win that would keep them alive in the division race. I think the Steelers win the game but I think it’ll be close so I’ll take the points with the Ravens.

Broncos at Chiefs (-4.5) – The Chiefs suffered a tough loss against the Titans last week that could have cost them the AFC West title. They’ll get a chance at redemption against the Broncos, who have slim hopes to return to the playoffs a season after winning Super Bowl 50. I don’t think the Broncos offense will have much success against the Chiefs defense. Give me the Chiefs in this game.

Monday Night Football

Lions at Cowboys (-7.5) – The penultimate week of the regular season concludes with a battle of division leaders when the NFC North-leading Lions visit the Cowboys, who sit atop the NFC East. If the Packers lose on Saturday, a win would guarantee the division for the Lions, while the Cowboys are looking to clinch their division and earn home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a victory. Both teams rely on their offenses to win games and the Cowboys are better overall, with QB Dak Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliott leading the way. Because both teams have good offenses, I think it’ll be a close game so the Cowboys win but don’t cover. I’ll take the points.

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NFL: Denver Broncos at New England Patriots

My NFL Picks Week 15: Patriots try to get revenge on the Broncos

The end of the regular season is quickly approaching as we enter Week 15, which begins with the Rams — who fired head coach Jeff Fisher earlier this week — heading to Seattle to take on the Seahawks. The NFC North-leading Lions visit the Giants in an early Sunday game, and the Patriots head to Denver to take on the Broncos in a rematch of last season’s AFC Championship game in the doubleheader game. Sunday night features the Buccaneers, who are in the hunt for a playoff spot, taking on the Cowboys, who are coming off their second loss of the season last week. I went 10-6 last week, bringing my record to 100-106 for the year. I’m using the lines from ESPN’s Pigskin Pick ‘Em game. My picks are in bold and my survivor pool pick is in red

Thursday Night Football

Rams at Seahawks (-14.5) – The Rams have been the laughingstock of the league this week, firing Fisher after giving him an extension earlier in the season, and they’re not very good but 14.5 is a big spread. On a short week, there’s usually not a lot of offense in Thursday night games so the Seahawks will win the game but they won’t cover.

Saturday Night Football

Dolphins at Jets (+2.5) – With QB Ryan Tannehill suffering a sprained knee last week, the Dolphins are down to backup QB Matt Moore, who isn’t great but better than some of the backups in the league. The Jets are using QB Bryce Petty and will be without starting RB Matt Forte, who suffered a potentially season-ending injury on Sunday. The Forte injury gives RB Bilal Powell a chance to get the start. I don’t think the Jets will have enough offense to win. Dolphins win and cover.

Sunday 1PM games

Browns at Bills (-9.5) – The Browns continue to look for their first win to avoid going 0-16. With three games left, this could be their best remaining chance to get a win, but QB Robert Griffin III didn’t look good in his return to the field last week. WR Terrelle Pryor is the only Browns player on offense who’s been productive this season. I don’t see them getting the win in Buffalo, but I also don’t think they’ll lose by double digits so I”ll take the Browns with the points, though they’ll be 0-14 when the game is over.
Packers at Bears (+6.5) – The Packers need to win this game to keep their playoff hopes alive, while the Bears are just playing out the season. The Bears will get WR Alshon Jeffery back from his four-game suspension and RB Jordan Howard has been having a good season, but I don’t think the Bears have enough playmakers on offense to beat the Packers, who have started to play well in recent weeks behind QB Aaron Rodgers. Packers cover.
Steelers at Bengals (+3.5) – The Bengals have won two in a row — last week’s win came against the Browns — but they’re having a disappointing season at 5-7-1. The Steelers are on a four-game winning streak, and I continue that to continue behind the offense of QB Ben Roethlisberger, RB Le’Veon Bell and WR Antonio Brown. I’m taking the Steelers.
Lions at Giants (-4.5) – This battle of playoff contenders sees Lions QB Matthew Stafford going into the game with an injured finger, which won’t help him find success against a Giants defense that has looked good in recent games. I think the Giants win the game and cover to stay in the Wild Card chase.
Titans at Chiefs (-5.5) – The Titans need to keep winning if they want to win the AFC South, but that won’t be easy this week against a tough Chiefs defense. The Chiefs beat the Raiders by eight last Thursday and now have extra rest before taking on the Titans at home. I expect the Chiefs to win the game and cover.
Colts at Vikings (-4.5) – The Colts are coming off a loss to the Texans that put their playoff hopes on life support. I think they’ll bounce back to keep this game close, but I think the Vikings defense will ultimately be enough to win the game to stay in the playoff race. I’ll take the Colts with the points, though.
Eagles at Ravens (-6.5) The Ravens had a disappointing game against the Patriots on Monday night, but the Eagles aren’t the Patriots. The Eagles have lost four in a row and I don’t expect them to be able to score much against a Ravens defense that is among the best in the league. I’ll give the points.
Jaguars at Texans (-6.5) – The Jaguars are looking for their third win of the season, but that might be a tough task on the road against a Texans team with a good defense led by DE Jadeveon Clowney. Texans QB Brock Osweiler isn’t very good so I’m not confident about giving so many points with the Texans, but I’m going to do it because the Jaguars aren’t good.

Sunday 4PM games

49ers at Falcons (-13.5)The Falcons put up 42 points on the Rams last week — without WR Julio Jones — and now they get the 49ers, who will have to travel across the country for the game. I normally don’t like taking the favorite with such a big spread, but the Falcons offense can put up points and the 49ers aren’t a good team so I’ll give the 13.5 points.
Saints at Cardinals (-2.5) – Two of the more disappointing teams in the league meet in this contest. I believe QB Drew Brees and the Saints offense can do what they need to win this game against a Cardinals team that has a decent defense. Since I think the Saints can win outright, I’ll take the points.
Patriots at Broncos (+3.5) – This is a battle between one of the league’s best offenses in the Patriots against the Broncos’ strong defense. We saw a similar matchup on Monday night when the Patriots took on the Ravens and won that game convincingly. Despite having to travel to Denver on a short week,I expect QB Tom Brady and the Patriots to win this game and cover the 3.5 points.
Raiders at Chargers (+2.5) – Two teams that could be moving to new cities in the coming years meet in what could be one of the Chargers’ final home games in San Diego. The Raiders are definitely the better team and I expect QB David Carr to bounce back from a subpar performance against the Chiefs last week to lead the Raiders to their 11th win of the season.

Sunday Night Football

Buccaneers at Cowboys (-7.5) – The Bucs are looking for their first six-game winning streak in franchise history, but it’ll be a tough task for QB Jameis Winston and the rest of the team to do that against the Cowboys, who still have the league’s best record after losing to the Giants on Sunday night. Cowboys QB Dak Prescott performance hasn’t been as prolific in his most recent games as it has been for much of the season, but I still think the Cowboys will be able to win the game. I don’t, however, think they’ll cover so I’ll take the Bucs with the points.

Monday Night Football

Panthers at Redskins (-4.5) – The Redskins are looking to stay in the NFC Wild Card race by picking up a win at home on Monday night. I think the Redskins have just enough to cover the spread so I’ll take them to win.

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MLB Hot Stove Catch-Up: Sale gets traded, Fowler and Chapman get paid

It’s been more than a month since the Cubs  won their first World Series title in more than a century, and with the MLB Winter Meetings now in the books, there have been a number of trades and signings that have sent notable players to new teams. The White Sox, clearly in rebuilding mode, have gotten rid of a couple of their top players in exchange for prospects while the Cubs have lost a couple pieces of their championship team.

Perhaps the biggest move of the offseason this far has been the Red Sox acquiring SP Chris Sale, who has a career 3.00 ERA, from the White Sox in exchange for a package of prospects led by 2B Yoan Moncada, one of the top prospects in baseball, and SP Michael Kopech, who is still early in his development but has the potential to be a top-of-the-rotation guy as he gains experience in the pros. The other players going to Chicago in the deal are OF Luis Alexander Basabe and P Victor Diaz. For the Red Sox, Sale adds another top-of-the-line starter to a rotation that already includes reigning AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello and former Cy Young winner David Price. If the Red Sox can get good performances out of the bottom of their rotation in 2017, they could be among the best teams in the American League.

A day after dealing Sale, the White Sox traded CF Adam Eaton to the Nationals in exchange for a trio of pitchers, led by SP Lucas Giolito, who made a few starts in the majors last season but has a 2.73 ERA in 369 innings in the minors. Giolito adds some depth to Chicago’s rotation while Eaton allows the Nationals to send Trea Turner, who played the outfield for much of 2016 after being brought up, back to his natural position of shortstop.

In another trade involving notable players, the Mariners dealt SS Ketel Marte and SP Taijuan Walker to the Diamondbacks in exchange for SS Jean Segura and two minor league players. In Segura, the Mariners get a young second baseman who took a big step forward in his offensive production in 2016, hitting career highs with a .319 batting average, 20 home runs and 64 RBI. He also has speed, stealing 33 bases last season. That gives the Mariners strong offense with their middle infielders in Segura and 2B Robinson Cano. Walker hasn’t achieved much success yet in his major league career, posting a 4.18 ERA with 322 strikeouts in 357 innings. Marte, who has played in 176 games in his major league career, is a .267 hitter without power, but he can steal some but he has some speed.

The Astros, who failed to live up to the high expectations set for them last year after making the playoffs in 2015, have made some moves to boost their lineup. In addition to signing free-agent OF Josh Reddick to a four-deal, they traded a couple of minor league pitchers to the Yankees in exchange for C Brian McCann, which allows them to use Evan Gattis as their full-time DH. The Astros also signed veteran OF Carlos Beltran, who played for them in the second half of the 2004 season, to a one-year contract. That gives the Astros an outfield of Reddick, Beltran and CF George Springer to go along with an infield that includes 2B Jose Altuve and SS Carlos Correa, who are among the best players in the league at their positions. In a lesser move, the Astros signed SP Charlie Morton, who will likely slot into the bottom of their rotation.

As mentioned, the Cubs lost two of their players to free agency. Closer Aroldis Chapman signed a five-year, $86-million contract with the Yankees, who traded him to the Cubs at the trade deadline. Also leaving Chicago is OF Dexter Fowler, who is staying in the NL Central after signing with the Cardinals. Fowler’s contract is worth $82.5 million over five years. Even though they lost Chapman, the Cubs won’t be without a top closer after trading for RP Wade Davis from the Royals. They traded OF Jorge Soler to get Davis.

In other deals:

  • OF Yoenis Cespedes, who opted out of his contract with the Mets after the season ended, re-signed with the team, inking a four-year deal reportedly worth $110 million.
  • The Braves added veteran pitching with the signings of SPs R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon, as well as trading for SP Jaime Garcia.
  • The Giants signed RP Mark Melancon to a four-year contract. He should slot in as their closer to start the year.
  • The Dodgers kept SP Rich Hill, who they traded for during the season, by signing him to a three-year contract. He should slot in as the team’s No. 2 starter behind SP Clayton Kershaw.
  • The Marlins signed SP Edinson Volquez to a two-year contract.
  • The Nationals traded 2B Danny Espinosa to the Angels for a couple of pitchers.

This likely isn’t the end of the transactions this offseason, with more than two months to go before spring training gets underway.