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Week 12 NFL Picks, 2.0: The Audacity of Hope (for the Cellar Dwellers)

Even terrible teams have a path to joy this holiday season. Trust us.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Almost every NFL team is in the thick of things this year, which means that the clubs that are already out of the hunt are in really bad shape. Consider: The 5–6 Titans are alive in the AFC South. The 4–6 Packers have hope in the NFC North. Hell, even the 4–6 Rams could theoretically go on a run and make the playoffs. It’s all possible in 2016.

That is, of course, for everyone but the truly terrible teams that have somehow fallen out of contention in the year of epic clustering: the Jets (obviously), Bears, Niners, Jaguars, and Browns. Very few things can make the next five weeks entertaining for fans of those teams, but there is one possible path to joy for each club:

Keep a Camera on Jay Cutler at All Times

This is the state of things in Chicago right now:

The Bears are 2–8, Cutler is out for the year, David Fales is now on the roster, and Matt Freaking Barkley is probably going to start. No one wants to see that, so broadcasters should constantly show Cutler instead. Show him sulking. Show him looking uninterested. Show him staring into the abyss:

Just show him. It’s the only sliver of entertainment the Bears’ remaining games can deliver.

Let Chip Kelly Talk About College Jobs

Kelly’s Niners are 1–9 thanks to the worst roster in the NFL. Kelly’s Oregon team made a national title game appearance thanks to one of the fastest and most fun offenses in college football history. The LSU job is open, and the Texas gig will likely be open soon as well. Those are massive postings, and Kelly will undoubtedly be a part of the speculation around both searches. No one actually cares what Kelly thinks about Carlos Hyde, but we’d all love to hear him openly discuss what he likes about the Longhorns and freely mention his favorite restaurants in Baton Rouge.

Fire Gus Bradley, Hire Doug Marrone

Bradley’s continued employment has to be a bummer for Jags fans, but there’s good news: Marrone, who once left his job as Bills head coach without first securing a comparable position elsewhere, is on staff and is a pretty good internal candidate to get the full-time gig next year. Promoting Marrone now would allow us to ask some intriguing questions, including: Is Blake Bortles still a really bad quarterback under Marrone? Does the team know how to tackle under Marrone? There’s only one way to find out. Bonus: If Marrone doesn’t work out, Jacksonville can always get him to go away by giving him tons of cash.

Play Christian Hackenberg

In addition to Old Man Fitzpatrick, there are two young quarterbacks on the Jets roster. One of them has done this:

The other is Hackenberg, who, by all reports, is terrible. Todd Bowles wants you to know that comparisons between Hackenberg and Dak Prescott, who was drafted after Hackenberg, are not fair. It’s time for the rest of us to find out if that’s true, because for the sake of our collective entertainment, we need to see this in a regular-season NFL game.

Accept Your Situation

Sorry, Browns fans. There’s nothing we can say here.

And now, on to the picks. (Home team in CAPS.)

MIAMI (-7.5) over San Francisco

We’ve learned three things about Miami over the past month:

  1. Ryan Tannehill can be a good NFL quarterback.
  2. Adam Gase is a good NFL coach.
  3. Adam Gase is extremely cocky in the best possible way.

Gase took on the media and the quarterback-observer-industrial complex this week by ripping the Tannehill criticism that used to be quite commonplace: “I’m kind of questioning your guys’ evaluation skills right now,” Gase said. “I’m just glad you’re not in personnel.”

It’s rare for a player to make a leap as late as Tannehill has, but the 28-year-old posted a 100 quarterback rating this month. It’s great that Gase is excited about his QB’s progress, but if the coach is going to take on everyone who made Tannehill jokes in the past, he’s going to be at it for a while: There are an estimated 7.4 billion people on Earth.

San Diego (+1) over HOUSTON

If I told you that a member of the Houston Texans penned an essay titled “Am I Done?,” you’d immediately guess that Brock Osweiler wrote it, right? Alas! J.J. Watt is the guilty party, apparently feeling compelled to address retirement rumors that none of us knew existed. Here’s a sample:

Even without Watt, the Texans defense has still been pretty good. (Osweiler remains remarkably bad.) The Chargers are 4–6 and well outside the playoff race, and while that doesn’t qualify as “pretty good,” it’s worth noting that if they played in the AFC South, they’d be the best team by far.

CLEVELAND (+7) over N.Y. Giants

The Giants just might not be built to blow out anyone. They covered four straight games to start their now-five-game winning streak, but all of those spreads were under four points. They let the damn Bears hang around last week when favored by a score at home, and now they face the same spread as they head to Cleveland.

The Browns, of course, would kill for the “not built to blow out anyone” label. They’re 0–11 and may have hit rock bottom last week: Terrelle Pryor and Joe Thomas both called out management’s plan to tank, saying, essentially, that they wish they had more NFL-caliber players around them. Admittedly, Cleveland’s youth movement is officially absurd:

But you know what? Given New York’s tendency to let opponents hang around and the Browns’ anger about their current situation, I think they’ll keep this one close.

BALTIMORE (-4.5) over Cincinnati

Andy Dalton is now, essentially, the only good player on the Bengals offense who’s still healthy. A.J. Green and Gio Bernard accounted for 45 percent of Dalton’s targets on the season. They’re also now both out for the season. It’s not clear how Dalton will respond, because throughout his career, he’s usually had talented targets around him. Now he gets to throw to Brandon LaFell. That’s … a steep drop.

Baltimore is also in an interesting spot. The Steelers are charging hard in the division, while the Ravens are coming off a loss to the Cowboys that Joe Flacco said should have been a win — a comment he then had to specify wasn’t a joke. That’s not the mark of a division champion, exactly, but Baltimore should be able to take advantage of the Bengals’ misfortunes.

Random note of the week: Baltimore receiver Steve Smith Sr. says he likes playing because he gets to dish out “generational ass whoopings.”

ATLANTA (-4.5) over Arizona

The Cardinals offensive line is bad:

Their passing game is, too:

They’re imploding. Meanwhile, Atlanta is pretty good. Not much else to say here.

Jacksonville (+7.5) over BUFFALO

That’s a nice shot from Ryan, who also called the Jaguars the “best two-win team” he’s ever seen. They actually may be the most depressing, because Bradley’s continued presence means sad press conferences. After the Jags’ most recent loss, the team’s website presented his presser under the headline “Day after: ‘They’ll come to work.’” But as bad as the Jags have looked, they haven’t quit yet, and they’ve recently kept games close against some decent competition, holding their past three opponents within a score. That should continue Sunday.

Seattle (-6.5) over TAMPA BAY

Doug Baldwin gave his own sideline the finger last week after hearing the call for this trick play, which resulted in Baldwin throwing a TD to Russell Wilson:

That may shock some people, but I’ve been in Seattle’s locker room around playoff time, and brutal honesty works well for them. Pete Carroll has a team full of alpha dogs, and he smartly lets them do things like … that.

Jameis Winston hasn’t flipped anyone off lately, but his Bucs are 5–5, and he has just one interception in his past four games. He’s also emerging as one of the NFL’s best locker-room-speech guys, an oft-overlooked but crucial quality:

Unfortunately for Bucs fans, Winston is still too inconsistent to keep this up, meaning he’s due for a dud against a stout D.

Los Angeles (+7) over NEW ORLEANS

Jeff Fisher was ready to praise Jared Goff after his first career start, pointing to the rookie’s … lack of delay-of-game penalties. Fisher did not mention throws like this:

While Goff hasn’t shown much yet, Todd Gurley has reemerged as a threat, tallying 76 yards and a touchdown last week. That ground game provides an extra dimension, and the Rams defense has done enough to prevent the team from losing by more than one score in its past five games. L.A. will score the 20 or so points needed to cover here.

Tennessee (-3) over CHICAGO

As mentioned, Cutler is done for the year, joining the Bears, whose season ended in September. Cutler’s time in Chicago is likely over, too, and it’s not too soon to wonder whether John Fox could bow out as well. Gase’s emergence in Miami after his year as offensive coordinator in Chicago should forever frustrate Bears fans. He would have been the perfect head coach for the Bears, helping Cutler grow in the last few years of his prime. Without Gase, however, Cutler regressed, completing less than 60 percent of his passes this season, seeing his passer rating drop by 24 points, and throwing more interceptions than touchdowns. The Titans, who got new life in the AFC South after Houston’s loss to Oakland on Monday, win this game by default.

New England (-8) over N.Y. JETS

Let’s check in on how New York is responding to the Jets naming Ryan Fitzpatrick Sunday’s starter:

Todd Bowles must fear for his job. There’s no other explanation for trying to get meaningless wins from the veteran instead of giving meaningful time to Hackenberg and Petty.

There’s no comparable madness on the other sideline, but there will be anger after the Patriots beat the Niners by far less than they should have in Week 11. They need their swagger back. Unfortunately, their coach can’t help with that.

Carolina (+3.5) over OAKLAND

The Raiders look great, and Derek Carr looks like an MVP, but they’re also due for a stinker.

Positioned to pounce: the Panthers, who are talented and frustrated and still have an outside shot at earning a playoff spot. They’ve won three of four, and the lone loss, to Kansas City, was so disastrous that it bordered on a being a fluke. Cam Newton got 800 kids to do the Mannequin Challenge, so he’s already having a big week:

Pulling an upset on the road won’t be nearly as hard.

DENVER (-3) over Kansas City

The Chiefs’ bandwagon joined the Vikings Bandwagon and the Wentz Wagon on the side of the road last week when K.C. lost at home to the Bucs. Meanwhile the Broncos, who are 7–3 against the spread this season, are returning to full health. Aqib Talib and Derek Wolfe are both practicing, and the Broncos are getting in work elsewhere, as well, by claiming that the Raiders’ Mexico City victory was rigged. That’s the surest sign yet that this AFC West round-robin race for the division title is going to get testy. I expect the Broncos to win on Sunday night and pull away from the Chiefs, setting up a Week 17 showdown with the Raiders to determine the division.

PHILADELPHIA (-3) over Green Bay

Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski used the phrase “Monster Under the Bed” team to describe the Packers: You worry about the monster until one day you realize there’s nothing there. It’s never going to happen for this Green Bay team. Aaron Rodgers has looked fine these past few weeks, but the Packers have lost four straight, and the defense looks miserable.

The only consolation for Green Bay’s defenders is that on Monday, they’ll go against Philly’s receivers, who are even worse. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers could be fired any week now, since he’ll be scapegoated before any other changes occur. And change is necessary. Just look at linebacker Kyler Fackrell, who last week was so excited and energized that he somehow fell down almost immediately. Same, Kyler, same.

Last Week: 10–3–1
Overall: 78–73–8 (Not including Thanksgiving results)