This Week in the NFL _lowres

Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel (2) scrambles away from Cincinnati Bengals free safety Reggie Nelson in the second quarter of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 14, 2014, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Richard)

THIS WEEK’S STORYLINE: The Saints will be looking for a win, and hoping Johnny Manziel can lead the Browns over the Panthers to put N.O. into the playoffs

The curtain lifted last week on the Johnny Manziel era in Cleveland. It wasn’t pretty.

At his best moments, the rookie quarterback appeared inept. At his worst, well, let’s just say some people in Cleveland likely had images of Tim Couch and Brady Quinn dancing in their heads.

There’s no way to sugarcoat Manziel’s performance. He completed 10 of 18 passes for 80 yards with two interceptions. For the sake of sanity, New Orleans Saints fans better hope the performance was an aberration and Manziel is able to quickly put it behind him and stumble upon brighter days in time for Sunday’s game against the Panthers in Carolina.

There are a few scenarios in which the Saints can qualify for the playoffs, but the simplest one — and the one the team is likely hoping for — can come to fruition Sunday if New Orleans beats Atlanta and the Panthers fall to the Browns.

If the Browns fail to live up to their end of the bargain, the Saints can still make the playoffs by winning their final two games against Tampa Bay and Atlanta. But life would be a lot easier and less stressful if New Orleans clinches the NFC South this weekend.

So, love him or hate him, fans of the Saints better hope to see Manziel doing his signature money sign on the field Sunday afternoon.

Nick Underhill

NICK’S PICKS: Underhill’s top five teams in the NFL (this week)

1. PATRIOTS (11-3)

With a defense that is good enough to rival its offense, New England has to feel good about its chances of ending a decade-long NFL title drought.

2. SEAHAWKS (10-4)

If they beat Arizona, it would be a big step toward ensuring the Saints won’t host defending champs in the first round of the playoffs (if the Saints make it).

3. BRONCOS (11-3)

Denver keeps winning, but it might have peaked earlier than hoped. Then again, winning by running the ball isn’t a bad thing.

4. PACKERS (10-4)

Losing to the 8-6 Bills might look bad on the surface, but don’t sleep on Buffalo’s defense. It’s legit. Green Bay found that out last week.

5. COWBOYS (10-4)

DeMarco Murray’s hand injury could be damning if it keeps him off the field or limits him. But if this offensive line is as good as we think it is, it might not matter.

This Week’s Games


WHEN: Noon Sunday

LINE: Browns by 1

BRIEFLY: This installment of “Battle of Ohio” has extra spice with playoff implications, trash talk and Johnny Football’s first career start. ... AFC North-leading Bengals have won past three road games. ... Bengals WR A.J. Green had career-high 224 yards receiving last week vs. Steelers. ... Bengals QB Andy Dalton, who had 128.8 rating last week, had career-low 2.0 passer rating in previous meeting with Browns. He had just 10 completions and three interceptions.

NICK’S PICK: Bengals 17, Browns 13

GREEN BAY (10-3) At BUFFALO (7-6)

WHEN: Noon Sunday

LINE: Packers by 41/2

BRIEFLY: Packers 0-5 at Orchard Park, and have never traveled to Ralph Wilson Stadium after Thanksgiving. ... Green Bay is 3-0 against AFC East opponents this season, while Bills are 3-0 against NFC North. ... Packers have scored league-best 134 points in first quarter. ... QB Aaron Rodgers ranks first in NFL with most TD passes (222), yards passing (27,520) and TD/interception ratio (222-54) through first 100 career starts.

NICK’S PICK: Packers 27, Bills 20


WHEN: Noon Sunday

LINE: Colts by 61/2

BRIEFLY: Texans have won two straight overall and three straight on road but are 0-12 all-time in Indy. ... Houston is 3-1 vs. AFC South this season with only loss coming at home vs. Colts. ... Texans lead NFL with 29 takeaways and need two to break franchise record, set in 2011. ... RB Arian Foster has scored touchdown in seven straight games.

NICK’S PICK: Colts 24, Texans 20

MIAMI (7-6) at NEW ENGLAND (10-3)

WHEN: Noon Sunday

Line: Patriots by 71/2

BRIEFLY: Dolphins ended Patriots’ streak of 10 season-opening wins. Patriots led 20-10 at halftime in September but were outscored 23-0 after that ... WR Jarvis Landry of LSU leads NFL rookies with 63 catches and in average kickoff return of 29.8 yards.

NICK’S PICK: Patriots 28, Dolphins 20


WHEN: Noon Sunday

LINE: Steelers by 21/2

BRIEFLY: Falcons are assured of second straight non-winning season, but lead NFC South with a tiebreaker edge over New Orleans (5-8). If Atlanta wins out, it would win division and host first-round playoff game. ... Steelers are half-game behind Cincinnati in AFC North.

NICK’S PICK: Steelers 23, Falcons 20


WHEN: Noon Sunday

LINE: Ravens by 131/2

BRIEFLY: Ravens OT Eugene Monroe faces former team for first time since being traded to Baltimore in October 2013. ... Ravens RB Justin Forsett spent 2013 with Jaguars, rushing six times for 31 yards. He’s got 192 carries for 1,080 yards this year. ... In 2011 meeting between teams, Ravens managed only 16 first-half yards and QB Joe Flacco threw for only 137 yards.

NICK’S PICK: Ravens 27, Jaguars 20

TAMPA BAY (2-11) at CAROLINA (4-8-1)

WHEN: Noon Sunday

Line: Panthers by 51/2

BRIEFLY: QB Josh McCown has four TD passes in last two starts against Carolina. ... WR Mike Evans has eight touchdowns in past six weeks and leads NFL rookies with 10 TDs. ... RB Doug Martin rushed for 138 yards in last game at Carolina. ... WR Vincent Jackson needs 139 yards receiving to surpass 1,000 for sixth time in career.

NICK’S PICK: Buccaneers 20, Panthers 13

OAKLAND (2-11) at KANSAS CITY (7-6)

WHEN: Noon Sunday

Line: Chiefs by 10

BRIEFLY: Raiders ended 16-game skid vs. Chiefs last month, starting current three-game skid for Kansas City. ... Raiders have not won back-to-back games since Weeks 7 and 8 in 2012. ... Raiders have lost nine straight on road. ... Oakland leads NFL in TD percentage in red zone at 77.3. Kansas City is tied for third at 66.7.

NICK’S PICK: Chiefs 27, Raiders 20


WHEN: Noon Sunday

Line: Giants by 61/2

BRIEFLY: Matchup of NFC East rivals who have fallen on hard times. Since 2009, each team has made the playoffs once. ...Redskins have lost five in row. ...Rookie WR Odell Beckham Jr. of LSU had 11 catches for 130 yards and touchdown last week. He is first rookie in NFL history with 90-plus yards receiving in six straight games.

NICK’S PICK: Giants 24, Redskins 10

NEW YORK JETS (2-11) at TENNESSEE (2-11)

WHEN: 3:05 p.m. Sunday

Line: Jets by 1

BRIEFLY: This is Jets’ sixth road game vs. Titans since start of 2006 season, most of any team outside AFC East. ... QB Geno Smith was 23 of 34 for 289 yards and TD in only game vs. Titans. Smith tied for first among AFC QBs with seven TDs rushing since the start of last season. ... RB Chris Johnson played six seasons with Titans and ranks third in franchise history with 7,965 yards rushing, with 50 TDs rushing.

NICK’S PICK: Jets 20, Titans 17

DENVER (10-3) at SAN DIEGO (8-5)

WHEN: 3:05 p.m. Sunday

Line: Broncos by 4

BRIEFLY: Broncos can clinch fourth straight AFC West title with win or tie. ... Broncos have won three straight in series, including in last season’s playoffs, and seven of eight overall. ... Peyton Manning is tied for NFL lead with Andrew Luck with 36 touchdown passes. Needs 90 yards for 14th 4,000-yard season.

NICK’S PICK: Broncos 24, Chargers 20


WHEN: 3:25 p.m. Sunday

Line: Seahawks by 81/2

BRIEFLY: Second meeting in past three weeks. Seahawks won 19-3 on Thanksgiving night for first road win against 49ers since 2008. ... 49ers need win to keep playoff hopes alive. ... 49ers have been outscored 71-16 in past two regular-season games in Seattle.

NICK’S PICK: Seahawks 24, 49ers 17

MINNESOTA (6-7) at DETROIT (9-4)

WHEN: 3:25 p.m. Sunday

Line: Lions by 7

BRIEFLY:Lions DT Ndamukong Suh had two of team’s eight sacks against Minnesota in October. Detroit DE Ziggy Ansah had 21/2 sacks and forced fumble in that game. ... Minnesota QB Teddy Bridgewater has 119 passer rating in past two games. Detroit’s Matthew Stafford has 123 rating in past two. ... Vikings have lost only two fumbles this season, fewest in NFL.

NICK’S PICK:Lions 21, Vikings 14


WHEN: 7:20 p.m. Sunday

Line: Eagles by 31/2

BRIEFLY:Cowboys are 6-0 on road. They’ve never finished a season 8-0 away from home. ... Eagles are seeking first 10-4 start since 1995. ... QB Tony Romo 7-6 vs. Eagles with 17 TDs and 15 interceptions. ... TE Jason Witten has 126 catches for 1,424 yards and seven TDs in 22 games against Philadelphia. He’s four catches away from 11th consecutive season with 50 receptions. ... RB DeMarco Murray has 11 100-yard rushing games, tied with Emmitt Smith for most in team history.

NICK’S PICK:Eagles 27, Cowboys 23

LAST WEEK: 12-3; SEASON: 117-60