With the NFL regular season entering its final six weeks, action is starting to heat up and the games mean more. With that, I'll begin predicting games the rest of the season, starting with this week's slate of weekend games:
New Orleans at Atlanta - In the tightly packed NFC South, this game will be huge in propelling the playoff hopes of one of these teams. Atlanta is the NFC's most inconsistent team, and they've lost three in a row, which means they're due for a win this week. New Orleans' suddenly suspect defense has given up 31 and 38 points the last few weeks. Atlanta is capable of putting a lot of points on the board, and they're the pick.
Cincinnati at Cleveland - Other than a one-point loss to the Bucs, the Bengals' losses have all come to playoff contenders this year. That means, despite the collective misperception of the Bengals as an elite team, they're still a team that will beat the teams they're better than on paper. Cincinnnati will keep up their playoff hopes with a win to improve to 6-5.
San Francisco at St. Louis - If there was a team that was going to challenge Seattle in the NFC West, a lot of people would have said Arizona, some would have said St. Louis, but I don't think anyone would have said the 49ers. But, here they are, at 5-5, with a real shot to contend for a playoff spot. The Rams have made ill-use of their weapons on offense, especially running back Stephen Jackson, who has only been given 16.4 carries over the last five games, all of which have been losses, not coincidentally. The 49ers seem to have had the Rams' number of late, and they're the hot team, so I'm picking them to win on the road and keep the NFC West race close.
Pittsburgh at Baltimore - I was really tempted to pick the Steelers in this game given the desparate straits they find themselves in, and the history of the Ravens and Steelers playing each other close, no matter the records. But Ben Roethlisberger has a whopping 17 interceptions this year - Pittsburgh barely got by Cleveland last week in spite of his 3 picks - and I can't see him facing a defense the caliber of the Ravens and getting out alive. Baltimore will keep it up at home.
Carolina at Washington - New Redskins QB Jason Campbell was impressive in his first start against Tampa Bay last week, and I expect the Redskins to put forth a great effort at home on Sunday. However, the mystery of the deterioration of their defense has yet to be solved, and facing a Panthers team that needs to win to keep the Saints and Falcons from nipping at their heels, they will go down to defeat in a close game.
Arizona at Minnesota - Here's the stinker of the week, a game that nobody outside of Arizona and Minnesota will want to watch. Minnesota has rapidly slid from contender status in recent weeks, and I think Cardinals' coach Denny Green will be fired up visiting his old home and with nothing to lose given the lame-duck position he finds himself in. Matt Leinart could have a big game against a questionable Vikings pass defense, and I'm picking Arizona to get their third win of the season.
Houston at NY Jets - There's no doubt that the Texans are a team headed in the right direction, but nothing in their season to date leads me to believe that they can beat a tough opponent on the road in late November. The surprising Jets will keep up their playoff hopes by winning a game they should win.
Jacksonville at Buffalo - This is a game that Jacksonville can't afford to lose in the tight race for the wild-card spots in the AFC. But Jacksonville is a curious team that will lose some games that will make you scratch your head in confusion. The Bills, playing at home, and coming off of a an exciting last-second win in Houston, will surprise the Jags and deal them a crushing blow to their playoff chances.
Oakland at San Diego - Some games don't need too much analysis. The Chargers are arguably the AFC's best team right now, and nobody needs a reminder of how bad the Raiders are. San Diego wins easily.
NY Giants at Tennessee - The Giants are coming off of two consecutive losses, and Tiki Barber is unhappy with the number of carries he's getting. But New York has historically been a team that bounces back when their backs are against the wall, including multiple times this season. That's why I like them to defeat the ever-improving Vince Young and the Titans in a close game on the road.
Chicago at New England - This is probably the game of the week, and it's a tough one to pick. It'll be an interesting litmus test to see how wide the gap is between the conferences when the NFC's best team faces one of the elite in the AFC. While Chicago has beaten good teams in the Seahawks and Giants this year, both were missing key players at the time, and neither team is at the level of the Patriots. New England has already lost three games at home this year. No way Bill Belichick lets them lose a fourth.
Philadelphia at Indianapolis - Once upon a time, Jeff Garcia was a Pro Bowl quarterback for the 49ers. A couple of failed stints in Cleveland and Detroit later, he's now the Eagles' backup QB for the injured Donovan McNabb, and will get a chance to start this week against the Colts. My guess is that Indianapolis has learned something from last year, and will come back focused and ready to rock at home following their first loss of the season last week in Dallas. I like the Colts to pull away in the second half and get the win.
Green Bay at Seattle - In another mediocore Monday Night Football matchup, it looks like the Seahawks will get Matt Hasselbeck back this week, and have the tandem of Hasselbeck and running back Shaun Alexander together for the first time in a long while. Meanwhile, Green Bay hasn't beaten a team with a winning record this year. They won't break that streak this week. Seattle will maintain their first-place standing in the division with a win.