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NFL predictions

Cowboys (8-7) at Giants (8-7)

8:20 p.m., Ch. 8Giants by 3, 47

This is exactly what the NFL had in mind when it began backloading the schedule with division games: a winner-take-all game for the NFC East. As flaky as both of these teams tend to be, we've seen quarterbacks Eli Manning and Tony Romo play in big games, and it's inarguable Manning is better under pressure. Romo is playing with a bruised throwing hand, and he'll have former USF star Jason Pierre-Paul giving chase. Giants win it, though a playoff run seems unlikely.

Giants 27, Cowboys 24

49ers (12-3) at Rams (2-13)

1 p.m.

49ers by 10½, 35½

The 49ers run the ball well, play stout defense and QB Alex Smith, above, has exceeded all of our wildest expectations. But if you want to know one of the fundamental reasons they've been so solid, look no further than their stunning plus-26 turnover margin, the best in the league. That will make up for a lot of bad days in other areas. In this game, San Francisco is playing to lock up a first-round bye, which puts them one home win away from the NFC title game.

49ers 26, Rams 16

Panthers (6-9) at Saints (12-3)

1 p.m.

Saints by 8, 54½

There are a lot of variables here that will complicate matters for Saints coach Sean Payton, above right, For one, he wants to ensure Tom Brady doesn't surpass Drew Brees, above left, for the season passing record (Brady, also playing a 1 p.m. game, is 190 yards behind). So Brees definitely will play. But what if the 49ers are pounding the Rams, which would lock the Saints into the No. 3 seed? When do you call off the dogs? Those subplots make this a difficult pick.

Saints 31, Panthers 27

Seahawks (7-8) at Cardinals (7-8)

4:15 p.m.

Cardinals by 3, 41

Can these two make the NFC West interesting next season? Based on how they're finishing 2011, we believe the answer is yes. It's too late to accomplish anything meaningful this season, but both clubs have come on strong. We're leaning toward the Cardinals here simply because the game is in Arizona. Both clubs are solid at home. Here's a good fantasy tip: Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald, above, is averaging a career-high 17.8 yards per catch.

Cardinals 23, Seahawks 20

Ravens (11-4) at Bengals (9-6)

4:15 p.m.

Ravens by 2, 381/2

What's with the Ravens and their 3-4 road record? They are undefeated at home, but their road losses include the Titans (8-7), Jaguars (4-11) and Seahawks (7-8). That said, this is a tall order for Cincinnati and QB Andy Dalton. He threw for 373 yards in the first meeting, a 31-24 loss at Baltimore, and has been particularly solid lately. The Bengals make the playoffs with a win here, and coach Marvin Lewis, above, who was nearly fired last season, would look like a genius.

Bengals 24, Ravens 21

Steelers (11-4) at Browns (4-11)

4:15 p.m.

Steelers by 61/2, 341/2

The Steelers could be in prime position if things fall into place. QB Ben Roethlisberger, above, is going to attempt to play on his sprained left ankle. If the Steelers win and the Ravens lose, Pittsburgh wins the AFC North and will enjoy a first-round playoff bye. That means Big Ben gets off his feet and the Steelers will be that much more dangerous in the postseason. Meanwhile, Cleveland gets a last look at QB Colt McCoy as they try to decide if he's their guy.

Steelers 27, Browns 17

Chargers (7-8) at Raiders (8-7)

4:15 p.m.

Raiders by 3, 481/2

Last week at Detroit, the Chargers played like a team that has checked out. With as much at stake as the Raiders have — they can potentially win the AFC West with a victory — it's not hard to determine which team will play with more inspiration. The Chargers have the more potent offense and more talented defense, but all that has failed them more than a few times this season. In his past three games, Oakland WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, above, is averaging 101 yards.

Raiders 24, Chargers 23

Chiefs (6-9) at Broncos (8-7)

4:15 p.m., Ch. 10

Broncos by 3, 37

What would you have done if someone said two months ago Tim Tebow, above, would be under center for the Broncos in Week 17 with a shot to win his way into the playoffs? Laugh uncontrollably? Regardless, that's the scenario. An Oakland loss to San Diego would sew up the AFC West title, too. But Kansas City has played with more motivation since the firing of coach Todd Haley, and interim Romeo Crennel deserves credit. Look for Kansas City to pull off the upset.

Chiefs 23, Broncos 20

Lions (10-5) at Packers (14-1)

1 p.m.

Lions by 4, 43

The Packers, having clinched the top seed, have nothing to gain by winning, and there have been suggestions they will sit key players to get healthy for the postseason. If they sit QB Aaron Rodgers — a distinct possibility — the Lions would have a decided edge over backup Matt Flynn. He likely won't be able to match Matthew Stafford, above, throw for throw. And given the way the Lions thumped the Chargers by 28 points last week, it's clear their offense is humming.

Lions 27, Packers 20

Titans (8-7) at Texans (10-5)

1 p.m.

Titans by 2, 39½

The Texans say they will play this game like it matters even though it certainly does not. They are wary of going into the playoffs with three consecutive losses, which is what a loss here means. The Titans are playing for their playoff lives, needing to win and get help from elsewhere to get in. Houston has scored 13 and 16 points in its past two games, respectively, while Titans RB Chris Johnson, above, needs just 14 yards for his fourth consecutive 1,000-yard season.

Titans 23, Texans 21

Colts (2-13) at Jaguars (4-11)

1 p.m.

Jaguars by 3½, 37

There's absolutely nothing at stake in this game. That is unless you count the fact the Colts could lose the No. 1 pick in the draft by winning. With the Rams hosting the 49ers (who are playing for a first-round bye), the Colts are likely to finish ahead of St. Louis if they win this game. That could mean missing out on Stanford QB Andrew Luck on draft day. QB Dan Orlovsky, above, has been solid in leading the Colts to consecutive wins since replacing Curtis Painter.

Colts 21, Jaguars 17

Jets (8-7) at Dolphins (5-10)

1 p.m., Ch. 10

Dolphins by 3, 391/2

Jets coach Rex Ryan, above, can talk all he wants, but he can't change this fact: His team, coming off consecutive appearances in the AFC title game, is flat-out playing terribly down the stretch. That's not the way you would like to enter a make-or-break game that will largely determine the team's playoff fate. Right now, we would take Dolphins QB Matt Moore over struggling Jets QB Mark Sanchez. And the Jets defense has given up 74 points over its past two games.

Dolphins 23, Jets 21

Bears (7-8) at Vikings (3-12)

1 p.m.

Vikings by 11/2, 41

What a lost season this has turned into for the Bears. They went from being a team we figured would be dangerous in the playoffs to one that has lost five consecutive games. Chicago is winless since the injury to QB Jay Cutler, which was compounded by the loss of RB Matt Forte. We'd pick them to lose again here except the Vikings figure to have issues on offense without RB Adrian Peterson. Coach Lovie Smith, above, will see to it the streak ends.

Bears 21, Vikings 17

Redskins (5-10) at Eagles (7-8)

1 p.m.

Eagles by 8½, 451/2

No, the Eagles won't be in the playoffs. And no, they are no dream team. But it has become obvious lately just how dangerous Philadelphia could have been if it hadn't committed turnovers like they were going out of style (tied with the Bucs for the most) and had obvious chemistry issues. This could be the last game as an Eagle for WR DeSean Jackson, above, who can become a free agent. But there's reason to believe the 2012 Eagles will need to be reckoned with.

Eagles 27, Redskins 17

Bills (6-9) at Patriots (12-3)

1 p.m.

Patriots by 101/2, 50

A couple of months ago, you might have guessed this game would decide the winner of the AFC East. But that was before the Bills went on a seven-game losing streak and watched their season go up in smoke. When Buffalo beat New England in September, it took a huge effort by QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, above, and an uncharacteristic four interceptions by Tom Brady. Today, with the Patriots playing for the No. 1 seed in the AFC, Buffalo gets Brady's best.

Patriots 30, Bills 23

NFL predictions 12/31/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 31, 2011 6:43pm]

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