I got in a heated argument with a friend this week ... about the Carolina Panthers.
This friend is not a fan of any NFC South team, isnt passionate about the leagues scheduling intricacies and isnt someone who criticized Cam Newton for having a fake smile before the 2011 NFL Draft. Hes got no real dog in the fight.
But he said something that really bothered me this week. He said the same thing Im hearing a lot of places that just drives me up a wall.
The Panthers havent beaten anyone.
Oh, I hate that. HATE. I dont hate many things. Seriously. I dont hate traffic. I dont hate rainy days without the umbrella. And I dont hate when my friends talk about Game of Thrones -- a show Ive never seen -- all the freaking time. But I hate the Panthers havent played anybody thing.
Why? Because winning in the NFL is hard. Really hard. And when you actually go out and win games, thats enough. The wins count the same, whether you beat the 85 Bears or the 08 Lions, public opinion be damned.
Youve heard the saying Any Given Sunday? Forget that. Its Every Given Sunday. Upsets happen, home losses happen, injuries happen. Teams get hot. Teams get cold. Quarterbacks go down. Rookies are relied upon. Winning in the NFL isnt something to take lightly, and its certainly not something to take for granted. Ask a Falcons fan. Ask a Texans fan. Those are the two teams I had going to the Super Bowl back in August. Yeah, I know. That looks dumb now. But I promise you, I wasnt alone.
The Panthers have now beaten four different NFL teams. And theyve beaten those four teams rather handily. Carolina has outscored its opponents 134-38 in those four wins. As for their three losses, only one of them -- a 22-6 disaster in Arizona -- was a blowout. They led the Seahawks the entire game in Week 1 and lost 12-7.
They lost on the final drive, on a questionable call, in Week 2 up in Buffalo. The Panthers, if a few balls and a few calls had gone different ways, would be 6-1 and the toast of the league.
They havent played anyone? Its not easy winning one game in the NFL, let alone four. This Panthers team has a promising young defense, led by what I view as the best front seven in all of football, and an emerging young offense.
Cam Newton, historically terrific in the second half of the season, appears to be just getting started. If he has a second half even close to as productive as he did in his first two years, we could be looking at an MVP candidate come January.
But they havent played anyone? Yuck.
This isnt college football. The Panthers did not pick their opponents back in April, and they certainly did not make the Vikings, Giants, Buccaneers and Rams into the outfits weve seen thus far.
Im looking at the NFC and I see one wild-card spot locked up by whichever NFC West power -- San Francisco or Seattle -- doesnt win the division. That other wild-card spot? Why not Carolina?
OK, deep breath. Its only football.
Cheat Sheet Trivia Question of the Week: Tyrann Mathieu won the NFLs Defensive Rookie of the Month Award for October. Name the only two other Arizona Cardinals to win the award.
Now, on to the picks.
Last Week: 11-2
Kansas City at Buffalo: Upset special! Kansas Citys favored on the road and is No. 1 in the all-important POWER RANKINGS across the Internet, but Ive got Buffalo here. The Bills are as tough as nails at home. Kansas Citys been a nice first-half story and Andy Reids your Coach of the Year thus far. But Im looking at the schedule, and Im a little nervous about trips to Buffalo and Denver, home games against San Diego and Denver and then a game at Washington. Lets check in on Dec. 9. The Chiefs could very well be 9-4 or 8-5.
The Pick: Bills 23, Chiefs 17
Minnesota at Dallas: The Cowboys gave up an eye-popping 623 yards of offense in Detroit last week -- the 11th most in league history -- and have now lost three different games in which theyve had leads in the fourth quarter. And yet, theyre on Cloud Nine compared to the Vikings. Minnesota gave up 182 yards rushing last week and the Packers scored on all but one of their drives. The Cowboys are desperate for an easy opponent after that heartbreaking Lions loss. The scheduling gods did them a favor here.
The Pick: Cowboys 34, Vikings 17
Tennessee at St. Louis: Whatever happened to Chris Johnson? After averaging 85.3 rushing yards in Tennessees first three games, the high-priced running back has run for just 27.5 per game in his last four. Though the offense is an eyesore, the Rams defense has been playing well of late. I like St. Louis to defend its home turf in the Jeff Fisher Bowl.
The Pick: Rams 17, Titans 13
New Orleans at New York Jets: Forget the Jeff Fisher Bowl. Weve got another Ryan Brother Bowl in New Jersey on Sunday. Rex is 2-0 vs. his brother, getting the best of him when Rob was the defensive coordinator in Cleveland in 2010 and Dallas in 2011. Theres been less hijinks this time around than in years past, but Rex did have one zinger during his press conference on Wednesday. When he was asked which twin wishes he could look as good as the other, Rex said, Oh please, its pretty obvious. The lap band worked for me. Im just going to say that. Put it out there. Its out there, Rex!
The Pick: Saints 23, Jets 20
San Diego at Washington: If I had to fill out an MVP ballot this week, Id have Philip Rivers in my top 5. Hes back among the top-tier quarterbacks in 2013, leading the NFL in completion percentage and ranking second in the NFL with a 111.1 rating. Can he keep it up in Washington on Sunday? You better believe it. The way the Redskins defense has played this season, Billy Volek, Stan Humphries, Bob Gagliano, Mark Vlasic, John Friesz and Moses Moreno could get the job done in Washington on Sunday. Ah, our first Moses Moreno reference of the season. Who had Week 9 in the Office Pool?
The Pick: Chargers 33, Redskins 23
Atlanta at Carolina: All eyes seem to be on the Falcons offense and its lagging run game this week, but wheres the defense been this year? The Falcons D hasnt given up fewer than 23 points in any games this season and has forced a conference-low six turnovers. They gave up 201 yards on the ground to the Arizona Cardinals. Expect lots of Cam, lots of Deangelo Williams, and lots of Yeah, but's after the Panthers beat the banged-up Falcons.
The Pick: Panthers 30, Falcons 20
Philadelphia at Oakland: Dont look now, but the fourth team in the AFC West a team no ones talking about in that division has a bit of a nice stretch of schedule coming up. At 3-4 and very much in the AFC wild-card hunt, the Raiders have the Eagles (3-5), New York Giants (2-6), Houston Texans (2-5), Tennessee Titans (3-4), Dallas Cowboys (4-4) and New York Jets (4-4) in consecutive weeks. Im not saying theyre about to go on a 2012 Washington Redskins-esque run to the playoffs, but Im also not NOT saying that.
The Pick: Raiders 27, Eagles 23
Tampa Bay at Seattle: I was talking to the dashing Alex Marvez this week about the Defensive Player of the Year over the first half of the season. Its easy to like Richard Sherman, the boisterous and downright awesome cornerback in Seattle, but his Legion of Boom teammate Earl Thomas might just be the guy. I sat with Thomas after the Seahawks dominant Thursday night win over Arizona a few weeks back. The former Texas safety, a guy a lot of people thought was too small to be a star in this league, is the best safety in the NFL.
The Pick: Seahawks 31, Buccaneers 16
Baltimore at Cleveland: The 3-4 Ravens currently have their worst record under John Harbaugh since 2008. "We have to get better. We have a lot to improve on," Harbaugh said this week. "We have to find a way to get better. That's the business we're in." If weve learned anything from this unit over the past five years, do not count them out. Theyre at their best when everyone else has already counted them out.
The Pick: Ravens 24, Browns 20
Pittsburgh at New England: Its tough to win games without an offensive line. Ben Roethlisberger lost three more offensive linemen in last weeks loss to the Raiders and there doesnt seem to be any immediate help on the way. Good luck, sir. As for the Patriots, I just wish Bill Belichick would scrap the hoodie and go with the Captain Jack Sparrow look full-time.
The Pick: Patriots 24, Steelers 16
Indianapolis at Houston: I went back and watched the Chiefs-Texans tape, too. Lots of film work this week! What do you say about that, Jaworski? Anyway, the Chiefs D started figuring out Case Keenum in the second half of Kansas Citys 17-16 win in Week 7. The Colts have had a full week off to study and prepare for the kid. I think its a game, but Im going with Andrew Luck over Case Keenum in a battle of two one-time Houston scholastic superstars.
The Pick: Colts 27, Texans 23
Chicago at Green Bay: Did you see Aaron Rodgers last Sunday night? Theres only one guy who can do what he does. Its him. Hes not losing this one to Josh McCown.
The Pick: Packers 34, Bears 23
Cheat Sheet Trivia Answer of the Week: Simeon Rice and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are the only other players win the Defensive Rookie of the Month award with the Cardinals.