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Time to separate contenders, pretenders in the NFL

Steve Brownlee

Now that we’re at the halfway point of the season, can you tell the difference between the contenders and the pretenders?

Well, the easiest ones to see are the non-contenders who can’t even rise to the level of pretender. Put Miami and Cincinnati at the top of that class, followed closely by Washington, Atlanta and the New York Jets. Then comes Cleveland, Denver, Tampa Bay and the New York Giants.

That’s more than a quarter of the league right there, with the best record among that group being 2-5.

One of the biggest pretenders has to be Pittsburgh, who I heard an analyst say on Monday afternoon that all the Steelers have to do is beat Miami (done!) and Indianapolis this week (not yet) and they’ll be 4-4.

Oooh, so I’m supposed to see the Super Bowl at the end of the road for the Steelers this season. Yeah, right.

First off, what has Pittsburgh shown that would make me think the Steelers can beat Indy, and even if they do, it would take an implosion by 5-2 Baltimore to give Pittsburgh a chance to win that division.

Even then, what exactly would be the expectation for a 9-7 Steelers outfit in the playoffs, when they’d host a wild card team with at least 10 wins before having to face New England in the next round?

Short of bringing back players like Ben Roethlisberger from the injury list, which isn’t going to happen, any team that’s below .500 now and not getting a healthy infusion of talent right away isn’t going anywhere.

Say the same for Chicago, Oakland and even some .500 outfits like Jacksonville, Tennessee and Philadelphia.

Philly might have the best chance because the Eagles have underperformed due to a rash of injuries. Get a boatload of their quality players back, and they could easily catch 4-3 Dallas at the top of their division, even though the Cowboys thumped Philly 37-10 less than two weeks ago.

There always seems to be a surprise team or two in the second half of each season, but short of a complete makeover, these mediocre clubs don’t seem to cut it.

Now onto the picks:

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Today, 8:20 p.m.

San Francisco at Arizona — The Cardinals barely escaped my mediocrity meter at 3-4-1. That won’t help them here. 49ers, 33-20.

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Sunday, 9:30 a.m.

Houston vs. Jacksonville (at London) — An important game in the AFC South. I’m sure these teams are wondering why it has to be played across the ocean. With JJ Watt gone, I’ll take the Jaguars, 24-19.

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Sunday, 1 p.m.

Washington at Buffalo — The Redskins are just what Buffalo ordered to right its ship. Bills, 20-10.

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Tennessee at Carolina — After Kyle Allen & Co. got slapped around by the 49ers’ defense last week, a “normal” defense is just the tonic. Panthers, 27-23.

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Minnesota at Kansas City — Here’s thinking the Chiefs put their all into Sunday night’s game and it didn’t pay off. KC reverts to its usual defense against the recently inspired Minnesota offense. Vikings, 38-28.

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New York Jets at Miami — This New York team should be licking its chops at the idea of playing a minor-league team. Jets, 26-19.

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Chicago at Philadelphia — I would hope by now Philly detects the odor of division title in the vicinity, something unknown to the Bears right now. Eagles, 23-17.

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Indianapolis at Pittsburgh — An easy win over Miami doesn’t a turnaround make for the Steelers. Time to come crashing back to earth. Colts, 31-20.

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Sunday, 4 p.m.

Detroit at Oakland — I picked the Lions to win for the first time last week, and I almost got burned for doing it. A long trip to the West Coast through the smoky forest fires in northern California doesn’t do a football player any good. Raiders, 23-20.

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Tampa Bay at Seattle — OK, Seattle may have lost its home-field advantage, but that doesn’t mean it won’t beat a team it could just as easily defeat if the game were played in Florida. Seahawks, 28-17.

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Cleveland at Denver — Denver’s stock is rising. Cleveland’s still stuck on the shores of Lake Erie. Broncos, 24-16.

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Green Bay at Los Angeles Chargers — Remember, this is the hard-luck L.A. team that hasn’t come close to success in quite awhile. Packers, 33-23.

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Sunday, 8:20 p.m.

New England at Baltimore — The Ravens’ Lamar Jackson is another one of those second-year quarterbacks that New England coach Bill Belichick likes to feast on. Patriots, 29-19.

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Monday, 8:15 p.m.

Dallas at New York Giants — Between a rookie QB and a leaky defense out of New York, Dallas better take advantage to stay in front in their weak division. Cowboys, 24-10.

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Last week — 13-2, 87 percent. Season — 85-35-1, 71 percent.

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