Contenders often don’t play like it

Here we are in the final week of the regular season, the weirdest, wackiest and sometimes most wonderful week on the NFL schedule.

I used to think I could pick games by placing teams into one of three camps — those that have clinched a playoff spot, those that desperately need a win, and those that have been eliminated.

Only the middle group should be pushing hard, supposedly making them the best bets to win.

But in the past few years, it seems like there’s so much pressure on those teams, they just as often as not fold like that cheap suit of 1950s lore.

The teams out of the playoffs end up being the ones playing the best football, unencumbered by expectations.

Still, those nonplayoff teams got there the old-fashioned way — they earned it. So it’s hard to just make the Browns, Jaguars and Bears slam-dunk picks this week.

Let’s take a look:

Sunday, 1 p.m.

Baltimore at Cincinnati — Cincy has quietly played better lately, all three of its most recent losses by five points or less. Meanwhile, the Ravens must be disappointed getting knocked out of the playoffs last weekend. Bengals, 26-20.

Jacksonville at Indianapolis — Two more nonplayoff teams. Indy at least shows some life. Colts, 31-24.

New England at Miami — With the AFC playoff teams locked in, a lot of starters may rest. But New England still needs to clinch the No. 1 seed. Patriots, 23-19.

Chicago at Minnesota — Minnesota reminds me of that Bugs Bunny cartoon when the plane is nosediving at ever-increasing speed, then stops just before it hits the ground when it runs out of gas. Bugs climbs out and says something like, “Whew! That was a close one!”

That’s the cartoons, but these are the real-life Vikings. Well, the purple-and-gold ones from Minneapolis, anyway. Bears, 20-10.

Buffalo at N.Y. Jets — The Bills’ interim coach comes from this year’s staff, so will the Ryan-less team rally around him? Nah, not so much. Jets, 17-13.

Dallas at Philadelphia — This is the week to rest, Cowboys. And Philly makes that final push for some respectability. At least that’s what I keep telling myself. Eagles, 29-19.

Cleveland at Pittsburgh — I haven’t predicted the Browns to win all year. That means I’m 14-1 picking their games. Steelers, 24-16.

Carolina at Tampa Bay — OK, I read the scenario that the Bucs need to get in the playoffs — they need to win, have Washington tie and Green Bay lose, while clinching the strength of victory tiebreaker over the Packers, which means having Tennessee, Indianapolis, Dallas and San Francisco all win.

It would be smarter to invest your 401(k) in MegaMillions tickets for the next 20 years than bet on this happening. Saints, 34-28.

Houston at Tennessee — Two teams without their starting quarterbacks. Houston did it by choice, however. Texans, 18-15.

Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

New Orleans at Atlanta — Call this a playoff preview for the Falcons, who still don’t know how to play defense. Saints, 40-31.

N.Y. Giants at Washington — Because the Giants are locked into a wild card and not a No. 1 or 2 seed, this has to be their bye week. Meanwhile, Washington wins and they’re all but in. Redskins, 20-13.

Oakland at Denver — Pride in Denver trying to take out Oakland QBs in consecutive weeks. Broncos, 23-17.

Arizona at Los Angeles — The Rams tempt me, but they’re so inept they couldn’t hold it together against the 49ers last week. Cardinals, 22-19.

Kansas City at San Diego — I should’ve seen the Browns taking out San Diego last week. It’s just TOO hard to go 0-16 — and I say that as a Lions’ fan. Chiefs, 27-19.

Seattle at San Francisco — Regardless of what’s at stake, Seattle needs a decent game to build at least a little momentum for the playoffs. Seahawks, 30-24.

Sunday, 8:30 p.m.

Green Bay at Detroit — The pick you’ve been waiting for. The calm, analytical people think home field is quite an advantage for the Lions, since they’re 6-1 there.

Who’ve they beaten? The Redskins, that’s a plus; then there’s Philly, L.A., Jacksonville, Minnesota and Chicago, all by one to seven points. That’s no rogue’s gallery.

And their home loss was to Tennessee, which in the end wasn’t up to snuff either.

Sorry, fellow Lions fans, the Packers are a whole other level above any of their previous home opponents. Packers, 33-25.

Last week — 11-5, 69 percent. Season — 150-88-2, 63 percent.

Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is