It's the time of year when the men are separated from the boys in the NFL.
That often can lead to rough weeks for the guys who put on the pads -- and the guys who try to read between the lines and pick the games, too. Like last week. Ouch.
But last week certainly didn't hurt as bad for me as it did for the Bears, who find themselves not only in dire straits in the division -- but in the conference if they want to make the playoffs.
This season is looking eerily like 2011, when the Bears tanked in the latter part of the year -- thanks to injuries -- and failed to reach the postseason. Now with three losses in their past four games, injuries are mounting again.
The Bears could be without Earl Bennett and Devin Hester at wide receiver, and likely are without Brian Urlacher at least the rest of the regular season. True, it's not as crucial as when they lost QB Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte last year. But these other pieces of the puzzle could be just as damaging.
A loss on the road in Minneapolis this week may as well be the waving of a white flag for the Bears. I believe they'll come to play and find a way to win as long as they can keep what's left of their stars on the turf.
But certainly a few hours away, the bigger news has been the Colts winning seven of their last eight behind Andrew Luck. It would be some kind of amazing if the Bears, with all their talent and hot start, managed to blow a near-certain playoff spot and the Colts got in just a year after going 2-14.
BEARS (8-4) at Minnesota (6-6)
Noon Sunday, Fox. Bears -3 (39.5)
The skinny: Suddenly things got pretty serious around Halas Hall, didn't they? A 7-1 record became 8-4 pretty quick, and last week's debacle against Seattle is perhaps the best evidence that the Bears could be fading down the stretch. They'll have to contain Vikings RB Adrian Peterson in a big way and force Minnesota to pass -- and then hope the secondary is ready to play some ball again.
MattE’s pick: Bears 26, Vikings 20
Tennessee (4-8) at COLTS (8-4)
Noon Sunday. Colts -5.5 (48.5)
The skinny: I have to admit to being still quite awestruck at the Colts this year and Luck. If I had a vote for Rookie of the Year, forget Robert Griffin III. My vote would be going south on I-65, especially after Luck helped lead Indy to two scores in the last couple minutes to beat the Lions on the road. Luck beat the Titans in OT earlier this year, and he'll have another award-worthy outing this week.
MattE’s pick: Colts 37, Titans 20
St. Louis (5-6-1) at Buffalo (5-7)
Noon Sunday. Bills -3 (42)
The skinny: Look out, NFL -- the Rams are about to get to .500! After their upset of the 49ers -- and remember, they played them to a tie earlier, as well – the Rams could do some late-season spoiling. Although there's really not much to spoil in Buffalo.
MattE’s pick: Rams 24, Bills 20
Dallas (6-6) at Cincinnati (7-5)
Noon Sunday. Bengals -3 (45.5)
The skinny: Both of these teams have to take this one if they want to stay in the wild-card hunt in their respective conferences. Cincy's defense has been off-the-charts good over the last month, but only a 31-13 win over the Giants stands out as being truly impressive. Wins over the Chiefs, Raiders and Chargers? Meh. The Cowboys will give them a much bigger test.
MattE’s pick: Cowboys 27, Bengals 23
Kansas City (2-10) at Cleveland (4-8)
Noon Sunday. Browns -6.5 (37.5)
The skinny: The Chiefs mustered up some inspiration and snapped an eight-game skid to beat the Panthers at home. But now they have to take it on the road, and c'mon – it's not like they're suddenly good. The Browns, though, could win three straight. Not that they're suddenly good, either.
MattE’s pick: Browns 27, Chiefs 13
San Diego (4-8) at Pittsburgh (7-5)
Noon Sunday. Steelers -7.5 (43)
The skinny: Even though the Steelers probably will be without Ben Roethlisberger again at QB, they are playing at home against a team that has just two wins in the last 10 games – both against the hapless Chiefs. If they can get it done on the road against Baltimore without Big Ben, they can get it done at home against a Chargers team that has completely fallen apart.
MattE’s pick: Steelers 24, Chargers 17
Philadelphia (3-9) at Tampa Bay (6-6)
Noon Sunday. Bucs -7.5 (47)
The skinny: The Eagles, of course, are downright awful. But they kept things interesting on the road at Dallas despite a loss, and I think they can keep things interesting against a Bucs team that has dropped two straight after announcing it was a playoff threat.
MattE’s pick: Bucs 26, Eagles 20
Baltimore (9-3) at Washington (6-6)
Noon Sunday. Redskins -2.5 (47.5)
The skinny: I know the Ravens have struggled on the road, and I know they just lost to the struggling Steelers, and I know everyone loves Robert Griffin III. But their defense is coming to play this week.
MattE’s pick: Ravens 26, Redskins 16
Atlanta (11-1) at Carolina (3-9)
Noon Sunday. Falcons -3.5 (47.5)
The skinny: How little respect to the Falcons get at 11-1, tied for the best record in the NFL? They're only 3.5-point favorites against a 3-9 team. Sure, they're on the road, but wouldn't you expect them to win by more than a touchdown if they were in Atlanta? The Panthers just lost to Kansas City, for crying out loud! I like the Falcons, and I like them much bigger than the line.
MattE’s pick: Falcons 37, Panthers 17
N.Y. Jets (5-7) at Jacksonville (2-10)
Noon Sunday. Jets -2.5 (38.5)
The skinny: This is so silly, but despite the Jags losing eight of their last nine games, I like them at home to pull off the upset, though it's just a mild one. Especially if the Jets are starting Greg McElroy at QB. Well, regardless of who they start at QB.
MattE’s pick: Jaguars 24, Jets 20
Miami (5-7) at San Francisco (8-3-1)
3:05 p.m. Sunday, CBS. 49ers -10 (39)
The skinny: The Niners will win this one, but it'll be thanks to their defense. I just don't trust much of what is going on on the offensive side of the ball under Colin Kaepernick. Nor do I trust Jim Harbaugh's senses for bailing on Alex Smith midseason.
MattE’s pick: 49ers 20, Dolphins 13
New Orleans (5-7) at N.Y. Giants (7-5)
3:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox. Giants -5 (53)
The skinny: What in the world happened to Drew Brees? He's probably wondering the same thing about himself. After throwing TDs in consecutive games since about forever, he was shut out and threw five picks against the Falcons. But beating the Giants on the road is the Saints' only shot to stay alive for a playoff spot, and they'll keep it close.
MattE’s pick: Giants 34, Saints 31
Arizona (4-8) at Seattle (7-5)
3:25 p.m. Sunday. Seahawks -10 (35)
The skinny: The Seahawks are arguably the best home team in the NFL. The Cards started out 4-0 and have lost eight straight since. This is a no-brainer.
MattE’s pick: Seahawks 31, Cardinals 13
Detroit (4-8) at Green Bay (8-4)
7:20 p.m. Sunday, NBC. Packers -7 (51.5)
The skinny: It's ridiculous how close the Lions are to being right there at the top of the NFC North. Three straight home games late leads, all blown. So on the road, against the Packers, they're pretty much toast.
MattE’s pick: Packers 37, Lions 20
Houston (11-1) at New England (9-3)
7:30 p.m. Monday, ESPN. Patriots -3.5 (51.5)
The skinny: Can you say shootout? The Patriots are the top-scoring team in the NFL at 36 points per game. The Texans are No. 2 at 29 ppg. The Texans are perfect on the road, and the Pats have won six straight. Expect Matt Schaub to have a big game through the air trying to match Tom Brady, and the Texans will be right there at the end.
MattE’s pick: Patriots 38, Texans 35
Last week: 6-10 straight up, 4-12 against the spread. Season: 119-72-1 (.623) straight up, 95-94-3 (.503) against the spread.
Matt Erickson is an award-winning journalist whose NFL picks have appeared in The Times for 10 seasons. He also covers mixed martial arts for The Times, USA Today and is the assistant editor of MMAjunkie.com.