At long last, we can all look at the schedule without seeing Seahawks-49ers, Rams-Lions or Buccaneers-Panthers. We're looking at the cream of the crop, where only the worthy are in. And the Jets.
(Home team in caps)
CINCINNATI (-2.5) over New York Jets
I'm not in the camp that believes the Bengals were 100 percent not into that game on Sunday night, though I am thoroughly impressed with Carson Palmer's unbelievable stat line: 1-for-11, zero yards, one interception. That, my friends, is tough to do.
Though while I'm unwilling to say that was the Bengals' worst effort, I know it wasn't their best. However, if the injury to rookie Rey Maualuga is as devastating to that defense as everyone seems to think, then that could be at least a glimpse of the Bengals' defense.
Still, it's hard to look at anything in this one that doesn't ultimately lead back to the matchup at quarterback. Mark Sanchez has been doubted all season long, and he's responded with … mediocrity. I expect nothing more on Saturday.
But I'm expecting some big things out of Palmer. He hasn't tasted the playoffs since the Kimo von Oelhoffen hit, and he's good enough to engineer a victory at home.
Everyone's talking about the Jets, saying they can run, run, run, but the Bengals' rush defense is seventh in the league in rushing yards allowed per game. The Bengals can simply throw the ball better.
It was a successful rookie campaign both for Sanchez and Rex Ryan, but it will end in southwest Ohio.
Philadelphia (+4) over DALLAS
I'm making a point to not over-analyze the Week 17 matchups we saw, because really, that was not the Eagles team that I watched play this season. Nor was it really the Dallas team that's been showing up to play every week.
So for this one, I'm looking at this matchup like it hasn't happened yet.
Just 12 yards separate the two in passing yards per game, and just nine yards separate the two in stopping the pass. Translation: Nobody is getting shut out 24-0.
If I had to guess, I'd wager that the two teams will match each other touchdown for touchdown, but a special teams touchdown for Philly will make the difference.
NEW ENGLAND (-3.5) over Baltimore
Why is it that the Patriots' early-season win over the Ravens has been categorized as "a game the Ravens would have won had it not been for Mark Clayton's brick hands on fourth down"? He should have caught the pass, but they still would've needed to score, and if you want to play the coulda-shoulda game, you could change the outcome of 75 percent of NFL games.
So no, the Ravens shouldn't have won.
Still, that game was centuries ago, and not much can really be drawn from it. This week, I expect to see Tom Brady at his best, scanning the field and picking apart the defense. It's how he operated until 2007, and now, with Wes Welker gone, he won't have his go-to guy.
Of course, that's a hit for the offense, but for Brady, it might be what he needed to get back to playing the way he used to play when all he did was win.
The major concern out of New England this week has been the Baltimore running game — and with Ray Rice averaging 5.3 yards per carry and Willis McGahee averaging 5.0, it's a fair assessment — but even if Rice goes off, the Ravens are still just 2-2 when he goes over 100 yards. Plus, with the returns of Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren, the Pats' run defense is about to get a major boost.
As much as I'm not a guy who sticks to the historical numbers, I can't help but be affected by the Patriots' perfect record at home in the playoffs since 1994. And if they do win, I don't think it will take a last-second field goal.
ARIZONA (-1) over Green Bay
Another Week 17 rematch to ignore. At least I hope so.
I say that because the Cards have had a Jekyll and Hyde side to them this year, scoring 30 points one week before falling flat the next. Yet the one thing they haven't done is play two stinkers in a row. So they've got that going for them.
Green Bay, though, can't be overlooked, and this could turn into the game of the weekend. The Pack has the advantage in the numbers, but color me unimpressed with their road resume. The Packers are 5-3 away from Lambeau, but records can be deceiving. Two wins came in Cleveland and St. Louis, while a loss came in Tampa Bay (Creamsicle Bowl, anyone?). They also let a surefire win slip away in Pittsburgh, unable to come up with a stop in a wild fourth quarter. Their win in Chicago is the only one that can truly be classified as a quality road win, with last week's game looking more like one from late August.
I think the Packers are capable of pulling this one out, but until they show they can win on the road with something on the line, I'll stick with defending NFC champs.
Last week: 9-7