Thursday, December 29, 2005

Playoff Berths Await for the Stalwart as NFL Regular Season Concludes

Nothing to crow about last week, as the SMA Swami came in at 8-7-1 ATS. A few undecided playoff berths remain at stake on this, the final, weekend of the regular NFL season. Let's get to the rundowns:

1. Denver at San Diego (-10)—Denver has sewed up a first-round playoff bye. San Diego is out of the postseason running, but in fact Kansas City needs for the Chargers to lose in order for their slim playoff possibility to become a reality. Frankly, I don't see either of these teams having much incentive for leaving it all on this field. For the Chargers, a win will only be bittersweet, for at their best they're deserving of a playoff spot. Their tough schedule was too much to overcome. They might win this one, but I'm not confident of that spread. Pick: Denver.

2. NY Giants (-9) at Oakland—Giants want this one badly. They're already guaranteed a playoff spot, but a loss means that a Redskins victory at Philly gives the NFC East title to Washington. Having a first-round home game is worth fighting for. But the Giants are a little banged up these days on defense. Raiders are just playing out the string, but it might be interesting with former Giants QB Kerry Collins helming the home team. Giants should win, but by how much? Pick: Oakland.

3. Arizona at Indianapolis (-6.5)—All the Tony Dungy stuff aside, it would be a real downer for the Colts to drop their final three games. I imagine that even with Jim Sorgi (left) doing most of the quarterbacking, they can deliver a "W" at home against lowly Arizona. Pick: Indianapolis.

4. Baltimore (-3) at Cleveland—A game of no consequence that could go either way. Ravens just now showing glimpses of the good team a lot of people thought they'd be way back in September. Browns seem to be slowing up from earlier scrappy pace. Pick: Baltimore.

5. Buffalo (-1) at NY Jets—Another game between also-rans. Buffalo a better team, and coming off an exciting win over Cincy on the road. Pick: Buffalo.

6. Carolina (-4) at Atlanta—A huge game for Carolina. They need a win and a Tampa Bay loss to capture NFC South title. Plus, there's actually a scenario where they could be left out in the cold altogether if they lose. Atlanta is out of the playoff race after a lot of early-season hype. Falcons did play well last week against Tampa Bay, however. If Carolina wants this game badly enough, they should beat the spread. Pick: Carolina.

7. Chicago at Minnesota (-4)—What was thought might be a critical end-of-season game has turned into a ho-hum. Bears have a first-round bye no matter what they do. Vikings self-destructed last week against Baltimore with a playoff hope still available. Bears will work on their offensive chops here, with resurrected QB Rex Grossman getting needed playing time. Pick: Chicago.

8. Cincinnati at Kansas City (-7)—Believe it or not, after plenty of travails, the Chiefs still have a shot at the playoffs. But they need to defeat a very good Cincy team, and have both Pittsburgh and San Diego lose, in order to grab the wild-card. Cincy's already slated to host a first-round playoff game, and winning this contest won't change anything. Pick: Kansas City.

9. Detroit at Pittsburgh (-13.5)—Steelers need to win this game to assure their playoff berth. They could lose and still get in, but it might be better to just assume they need the "W," especially since their game will be played concurrently with the Cincy-KC matchup. Detroit is bad enough to not beat this healthy spread. Pick: Pittsburgh.

10. Miami at New England (-5.5)—Interesting matchup between surging Patriots and improving Dolphins. Dolphins, at 8-7, can actually gain a winning season with a victory. Even going .500 shows remarkable improvement under rookie head coach Nick Saban. All done with the likes of Gus Frerotte and Sage Rosenfels at QB. Patriots playing very tough football and seem to be feeling their oats, which is not good news for playoff-bound AFC teams. Pick: New England.

11. New Orleans at Tampa Bay (-14)—Buccaneers secure NFC South title with a victory. This game reeks of Tampa Bay rout: they have incentive and QB Chris Simms and RB Cadillac Williams (left) are playing very well. Pick: Tampa Bay.

12. Houston (-1.5) at San Francisco—The Texans favored on the road? I don't buy it. Pick: San Francisco.

13. Tennessee at Jacksonville (-3.5)—A pride game for the Titans, for whom a loss would mean a 4-12 season. Jags might be resting up for playoffs, which means a first-round game traveling either to Cincy or New England. There are rumors that Jags QB Byron Leftwich might try out his mending ankle. Not sure that's a good idea, or even if it matters. Pick: Jacksonville.

14. Seattle at Green Bay (-3.5)—Decent side story here, with Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren returning somewhat triumphantly to Green Bay, where he led the Packers to two Super Bowls in the '90s. His 13-2 team looks to be the cream of the NFC, but it'll be interesting to see how their defense holds up against playoff competition. This game's a blip. I guess the oddsmakers figure the Packers have something to play for. Like pride. But at 3-12, this is one decimated team. Favre's final home game at Green Bay? Pick: Seattle.

15. Washington (-7) at Philadelphia—Yes, the Eagles would love to burst the Redskins' late-season playoff-surging balloon. 'Skins, having won four straight and now at 9-6, in strange position whereby they can lose but still get a wild-card slot if Dallas or Carolina loses. On the other hand, if they win and the Giants somehow manage to lose in Oakland, they can snag an NFC East title and a first-round home playoff game. This looks like a dangerous game for the visitors, however, especially with 'Skins QB Mark Brunell questionable and usually unpredictable Patrick Ramsey (right) as the backup. Eagles gave Giants a tussle a few weeks back and could prove troublesome. If the Redskins have truly become as good as some suspect, they should grab this "W." Points a sticky wicket. Pick: Washington.

16. St. Louis at Dallas (-12.5)—Cowboys can make playoffs with a victory and a loss by either Washington or Carolina. Bill Parcells' squad got lucky last week against the Panthers, but it was still a major effort to go to Carolina with their backs to the wall and emerge triumphant. Cowboys are not a bad team at all. What's weird is that, by the time this game rolls around late Sunday night, they'll already know the outcome of the other games, and if Washington and Carolina have won, then this contest becomes moot. If the Cowboys can gain the wild-card berth by winning, then they should have all the incentive they need to beat this otherwise extravagant spread. If they're already out of the running, it's anybody's game. Pick: Dallas.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

When Your Reach Exceeds Your Grasp, There's Hell to Pay; Week 15 Bettors Learn Hard Lessons

In Steve Spurrier's first season as an NFL head coach, he guided the 2002 Washington Redskins to a 7-9 record. Inauspicious is the word for that. Which makes the same word applicable to SMA's prognosticating efforts last week. With the Chargers and Steelers winning on the road, the Seahawks winning but limping to the finish line against Tennessee, the 49ers finding some surprising mojo against the Jaguars, and with the suddenly resurgent Redskins delivering a sucker punch to the Cowboys, we lost our psychic shirts around here. Needless to say, taking a hopeful flyer on the Chiefs against the Giants on New York's home field was a real no-no. So we're battered and bruised, and now looking at a 15-17 record ATS the past two weeks. I guess that's still better than Spurrier's overall 12-20 pro record, which sent him scurrying for cover and back into the welcoming arms of the college coaching ranks. There's a lesson there: Never let your reach exceed your grasp. It's a tough lesson to learn, though. Especially when the betting's all in fun.

This is that time of year when weird things can happen on the football field. Like, Will the Lions rise up and smite the noble Saints? Or, Will the 49ers get inspired two weeks in a row to beat the spread, especially against a fellow also-ran? Or, Can Philly win two in a row on the road against an NFC West stinker? Seriously, though, there are still a handful of games that mean a lot to the playoff picture, and if you've got the inside scoop on the Redskins-Giants contest, please call us immediately. Collect. That game looks like a doozy.

1. Buffalo @ Cincinnati (-14)—Cincy still needs to win to get that first-round playoff bye, but here's another double-digit spread that perplexes. Them's a lot of points, even against too-often lackluster Bills. Let's hope the home crowd exhorts the Bengals into a bloodthirsty frenzy. Pick: Cincinnati.

2. Pittsburgh (-7) @ Cleveland—Steelers have tons of incentive to play hard-nosed football. The Browns are one of the better mediocrities, and there's a strong history of combativeness in this matchup. Browns would love to mess with the Steelers' playoff hopes, but I don't think it's gonna happen. Potentially tough spread, though. Pick: Pittsburgh.

3. San Diego @ Kansas City (-1.5)—Just another fun day in the life of San Diego's Marty Schottenheimer (left), the winningest active head coach in the league. Yes, Marty's got more victories than Joe Gibbs or Bill Parcells. Too bad he's also the Choke King of the playoffs. Once again, he gets to take his talented squad on the road in yet another matchup scheduled apparently by the Marquis de Sade. The Chargers upset the Colts last week, and once again established themselves as a team to be reckoned with. Yet the wounded Chiefs would love to put the kibosh on them and fan their own flickering, mathematically feasible playoff hopes. Too close to call, unless the Chiefs have simply given up after two straight devastating road losses to Cowboys and Giants. Pick: San Diego.

4. Tennessee @ Miami (-5.5)—Two rebuilding teams that are looking toward next year for quantum improvement. Dolphins coach Nick Saban already has his squad on the upswing, sporting a surprising 7-7 record, while Titans coach Jeff Fisher simply never knows what to expect from his young players. Anything could happen here. Go with the flow. Pick: Miami.

5. Jacksonville (-6) @ Houston—Jags QB David Garrard put 10 big points on the board versus the 49ers last week. Not too encouraging. For a 10-4 team that's a supposed lock for the playoffs, the Jags look shaky offensively. It's defense that's gotten them where they are, and they should win this game. However, they certainly didn't cover the spread against San Francisco, and this one's not a guarantee, either. Pick: Jacksonville.

6. Detroit @ New Orleans (-3)—Only Saints QB Todd Bouman's mother cares about this game, a meaningless affair between two sad sacks. The location is San Antonio, so the 3-11 Saints have a chance to perform well for the city that wants to adopt them. SMA's preseason prediction had the Saints at 4-12 for the year, so this is one of two final chances for the team to fulfill its destiny. Pick: San, New Orleans.

7. Dallas @ Carolina (-5)—The Cowboys got trounced by the Redskins last week, and are licking serious wounds. They still have an outside chance at a wild-card berth, but a lot of things have to fall in place for that to happen. First off, they have to beat the 10-4 Panthers in Carolina. No easy feat. Tampa Bay, at 9-5, is still breathing down the Panthers' collective neck, so it behooves them to play well. Pick: Carolina.

8. NY Giants @ Washington (-3)—'Skins were mysteriously favored by three last week against the Cowboys, then played an inspired magical game in which they could do no wrong. Fluke or fact? The Giants have a couple of injuries at linebacker, though fill-ins played well against Kansas City. Tiki Barber (right) is having a monster season, and as long as Eli Manning avoids critical mistakes, the Giants are tough, though only 3-3 on the road. This promises to be a classic tilt, with a divisional title and/or a wild-card berth at stake for one team or the other. Giants have been stronger season-long. Pick: New York.

9. Atlanta @ Tampa Bay (-3)—The Falcons like to think they're still in the wild-card race, and with help it could happen. But they've got to get past a Buccaneers team vying for a divisional title and striving to rebound from an embarrassing thrashing up at New England. The Falcons are too erratic to be counted on here. Pick: Tampa Bay.

10. San Francisco @ St. Louis (-9)—Pick your also-ran. Not sure what those nine points are based upon, unless it's the memory of Kurt Warner's 1999 season and the Rams' Super Bowl title. This is the kind of season-end game that could go any which way. Pick: San Francisco.

11. Philadelphia @ Arizona (-1)—Eagles traveled to St. Louis last week and came away one-point winners. The Cardinals lost to Houston. Doh! Pick: Philadelphia.

12. Indianapolis @ Seattle (-7.5)—An interesting matchup that some see as a preview of Super Bowl XL. Look for both teams to give quality efforts and ignore all that chatter about resting key players for the playoff run. That'll only happen if someone gets comfortably ahead. Seahawks defense faces stiff challenge against Peyton & Co., who are looking to regroup after last week's home loss to San Diego. Colts no longer perfect but still damn good. Pick: Indianapolis.

13. Oakland @ Denver (-13)—Broncs couldn't beat a healthy spread at home against Baltimore two weeks ago, then traveled to Buffalo last week and carved out methodical, convincing victory. When a talented 11-3 team at home faces a rudderless 4-10 team, even 13 points don't look so intimidating. Plus, Denver still needs to keep pace with Cincy in the battle for a first-round playoff bye. Pick: Denver.

14. Chicago (-6.5) @ Green Bay—If Bears QB Rex Grossman (left) keeps improving, the Bears will be tougher. Their defense is overpowering: a young, fast, hungry and swarming bunch that relentlessly pressures and punishes the opposition. With no offense, the Monsters of the Midway are still 10-4, and Grossman's encouraging play last Sunday against Atlanta definitely might be a shot in the playoff arm. Reeling Packers may never recover from their 48-3 Monday night pasting at the hands of Baltimore. Pick: Chicago.

15. Minnesota @ Baltimore (-2.5)—Vikings, at 8-6, have put themselves behind the playoff 8-ball by losing at home last week against the Steelers. Baltimore might be finally improving, but it's very hard to know that for sure. Intuition says that the Vikings will limp to their '05 finish. Pick: Baltimore.

16. New England (-5 ) @ NY Jets—The lousy Jets might keep this close, but it's pointless to worry about. Pick: New England.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Press Weighs In on Barnett Ouster at Colorado; Tunnel Vision (and Bad Grammar) Blur Analysis

Jon Saraceno's Dec. 13 USA Today "Keeping Score" column is entitled "Did Colorado Get Buffaloed by Barnett?" Seems like everybody wants to take out after Gary Barnett, the former Colorado football coach, who left the university recently under a cloud and with a $3 million bracer of a buyout. Until all the facts are in, Barnett remains a somewhat elusive and slick-demeanored dude who no doubt will wind up coaching elsewhere, barring revelations of gross and unforgivable scandal in the CU football program.

What's funny to me is the general opinion that Barnett (left) invented scandal at Colorado. Doesn't anyone remember Bill McCartney? Chicago sportswriter Rick Telander wrote a book years ago, The Hundred Yard Lie: The Corruption of College Football and What We Can Do to Stop It (1989), which detailed bad behavior all over the college football landscape and had special material related to McCartney's Colorado program, which harbored the same sex and alcohol issues Barnett is now accused of overlooking on his watch. Barnett's immediate predecessor, Rick Neuheisel, had similar problems as well.

So I guess I'd have to say, "No, Colorado wasn't buffaloed by Barnett." It looks to be business as usual as far as I can see. Besides, let's be honest: The only thing wrong with coaches who get pilloried for financially cooking the books or overlooking athletes' moral turpitude is that they've gotten caught. I have no idea if Barnett is responsible for malfeasance. He's managed to talk his way out of things so far, adopting a "Who, me?" stance that's proved effective.

Allegations have swirled. There's currently an investigation under way into the money issues surrounding Barnett's summer camps at CU. Plus, there's been past accusation that some of his players have been less than gentlemanly toward coeds. I guess the issue there is this: If he knew he had womanizing creeps on his team, why didn't he dismiss them? Who knows exactly what was swept under that rug, but Barnett escaped indictment. The players he kept around were good enough to win at a satisfactory level, and ironically enough, if Barnett's team hadn't been blown out two weeks ago by Texas, 70-3, in the Big 12 Conference championship game, he might still even be around. It would appear that the school's administration took losing the big game as the signal to oust the head coach. Which in a way makes them as strangely manipulative as Barnett. The cloud that surrounded Barnett certainly red-flagged his undoing, but he may yet walk out from under it unscathed.

Funny how no one thought of him as anything but a savior 10 years ago, when he took Northwestern to two straight postseason appearances, including the Rose Bowl. Northwestern had been in the throes of years of losing before his arrival. At a school where academic standards are seriously high, and recruiting against football factories like Ohio State and Michigan is nigh impossible, Barnett took young men who actually might qualify as "student-athletes," instilled them with pride and stressed teamwork, and made a rather modern miracle out of a pathetic, seemingly hopeless situation. There was one blip: an accusation of point-shaving. Well, if coaches are father figures and all that, even the good father might not know he's got a son who's consorting with gamblers. True, Barnett was always seeming to be on the verge of leaving Northwestern, and he played it coy and cagey as outside schools came a-calling. In their heady exultation that Barnett proved that their team could play with the big boys, overearnest Wildcat fans probably forgot that college football is a business. Never mind all the folderol about loyalty and such—Barnett did a great job at Northwestern, a program about which it was said it could never be done.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of his CU tenure was the case of Katie Hnida, a female placekicker trying to make the Buffs roster. In a very dark episode, Hnida claimed she was raped by a teammate. No doubt this situation was a huge burr under Barnett's saddle. We don't really know exactly what Barnett knew and when he knew it. But we do know that he sent an e-mail to the CU athletic director and inquired whether he should divulge what he knew of Hnida's promiscuity, presumably to throw some glaring light on the poor girl and an equal amount of suspicion on the propriety of her accusation. Did he have a point? Who knows.

But we do know that the school suspended Barnett in 2004 after he said of Hnida, "Not only was she terrible, she was a girl." This sounds harsh, I suppose, but if Hnida was terrible, possibly Barnett was responding to the notion that he felt politically bound to give her a shot, even when he knew the situation looked like nothing more than a publicity stunt. In stating that she was a girl, we can only conclude that Barnett was telling the truth as well. Sorry, folks, but big-time college football is still the domain of young, brawny men. Girls might break into the ranks someday, but should Barnett be attacked when he knew Hnida was a fish out of water?

No, we don't come to praise Barnett; maybe only to bury him for the time being. His resurrection is virtually assured. Anyone remember Mike Price, the guy hired to be Alabama's head coach a couple of seasons ago, who was caught consorting with hookers at a Gulf Coast resort the summer before his first season even got launched with the Crimson Tide? Yep, that was embarrassing to all concerned. Alabama dumped him almost immediately, so shocked were they by the revelations. Well, don't look now, but Mike Price, now head coach of the UTEP Miners, takes his 8-3 squad into Mobile, Ala., for a Dec. 21 date in the GMAC Bowl against Toledo. (Here's betting he'll know where to go to celebrate should his team emerge victorious.)

College football is a cesspool of hypocrisy, and anyone who claims otherwise has blinders on. For guys like Barnett, it's a game of survival. He seems to play it pretty well, but maybe the summer camp audit will prove otherwise. Somehow I doubt it.

One last journalistic salvo by way of a note to Mr. Saraceno, whose Barnett story includes the following sentence: "When you're paid the kind of scratch Barnett was, the level of scrutiny and accountability is equally as high." Dear Jon: Are you aware that it is wholly incorrect to say "equally as high"? "Equally" and "as" are redundant in your construction. The correct statement would read: "...the level of scrutiny and accountability is equally high." Never mix your adverbs and conjunctions that way, dude. It's really bad writing. What's amazing is that your editor didn't catch it, either. Which only proves that incompetence is everywhere, even where you least expect it.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Huge Playoff Impact in NFL's Week 15 Schedule; No Rest for the Weary ATS

A .500 record is never anything to crow about, but Week 14 ATS looked to be a toughie from the get-go, and so it was proved to be. All things considered, I'll take the 8-8. Amazing how Houston in defeat did more for me than Denver did in victory. Ditto the Browns, who lost but covered the spread against Cincy. I knew those double-digit spreads spelled trouble; while the Broncos were lucky to escape with their lives against Baltimore, the Chargers dealt themselves a serious playoff blow by losing at home to Miami. And even though I picked the game wrong, my intuition that Philly would put up a stiff challenge against the Giants was spot-on and helped restore faith in parity. And hats off to the Colts; favored by 7.5, they held on to edge Jacksonville 26-18, and as far as I'm concerned, that was more important than the fact that Indy became only the fourth team in NFL history to begin the season 13-0. (The others were the '72 Dolphins, the '85 Bears, and the '98 Broncos.)

Alas, this week's games look even tougher, with the playoff picture now scrambled but good. There's plenty of incentive for everybody concerned to win, and even the games between also-rans, like Arizona/Houston, Cleveland/Oakland, or Philly/St. Louis, should be very difficult to forecast. We might have as much luck picking team names out of a hat, but if we're gonna sweat it out to achieve .500 anyway, we might as well have fun doing it with our brains.

This week's schedule includes three games on Saturday. (Don't forget, or you could leave yourself in the lurch with your bookie.) Another MNF stinker this week, Green Bay at Baltimore, which I guess looked fairly attractive way back when.

1. Tampa Bay @ New England (-4)—The 8-5 Patriots stirred memories of recent seasons past with last week's 35-7 pasting of the Bills in Buffalo. Brady and Dillon looked very good indeed, and maybe this team is ready to make a charge. Tampa coming off huge win in Carolina, and adding to a resume that says "playoffs." The 9-4 Bucs are 5-2 on the road this year and 2-1 against AFC opponents, and, in fact, they need to win this game more than New England does. Barring a Miami miracle, the Pats will take their division but won't get a first-round bye; they'll get a first-round home game no matter what they do. No wonder there was no early line for this matchup. The incentive is all Tampa's, but historically the Bucs don't do well in cold weather, though the 2002 Super Bowl winners bucked that trend. Pick: New England.

2. Kansas City @ N.Y. Giants (-3)—Poor K.C. They go into Dallas last week and play an emotional game but lose in the last seconds. Now they have to go on the road again against the team trying to stay ahead of the Cowboys. The 8-5 Chiefs caught a little divisional break when Chargers also lost, but they're still in the thick of a tense AFC wild-card scenario, and a 10-6 record might not be good enough, with the Jags already at 9-4 and Pittsburgh and San Diego also at 8-5. Giants eked out a "W" against overachieving Philly squad last week. We're at that time of year where everybody needs to win. Question is, Can the Chiefs leave it all on the field two weeks in a row? Sure wish their defense was better, that's for sure. I'd rather watch this game on TV than bet on it. Pick: Kansas City.

3. Denver (-9) @ Buffalo—Bills got smacked by Patriots but good last week, 35-7. Broncos slipped past Baltimore, 12-10. With that hiccup out of the way, AFC West-leading Denver should get back on track with a decent victory. They'll need it to keep pace with Cincy in the playoff bye derby. Pick: Denver.

4. Arizona (-1) @ Houston—The bowser of the week. Artistically, this game could be really ugly, but figuring the spread on it is as tough as they come. Law of averages works in favor of the 1-12 Texans, who are home after having lost their last two on the road by a combined total of 4 points. Cardinals made the Redskins sweat last week, but still lost at home. In the interest of aesthetics, they should probably just not play this game, but we're stuck with making a choice. Pick: Arizona.

5. Carolina (-7) @ New Orleans (in Baton Rouge, La.)—Actually, San Antonio Saints has a ring to it. But Baton Rouge Saints sounds like a AA minor league baseball outfit. If 9-4 Carolina can't get up for this game, with a divisional title and possible wild-card berth at stake, then, well, they might as well forfeit the rest of their season. But they could lose this one and still finish 11-5, proving how important a good running start can be. Pick: Carolina.

6. N.Y. Jets @ Miami (-9)—A lot of history behind this match-up. The Dolphins are fresh off an energizing win at San Diego, and the Jets are fresh off an "it's about time" win over the lackadaisical Raiders. Believe it or not, at 6-7, the Dolphins are still not out of the AFC East divisional race. Nick Saban is proving that good coaching matters, and his team is capable of beating this spread, maybe even handily. Pick: Miami.

7. Philadelphia @ St. Louis (-3.5)—Last year's playoffs are only a dim memory for both of these squads. Injuries, ailing coaches, and off-the-field soap opera have conspired to ruin the 2005 season of each. Eagles offense is helmed by QB Mike McMahon (left), and the Rams' once-proud passing game is being run by rookie QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. Assuming the Eagles shot their wad last week in a tough loss to the Giants, then maybe the Rams can scoot by with this one. Pick: St. Louis.

8. Pittsburgh (-3) @ Minnesota—Both teams are 8-5, so why would visitors be favored by 3? Vikings have won 6 straight and can throw a major wrench into the NFC playoff works by continuing their winning ways. Their rise seems unlikely—especially without Daunte Culpepper—but remember: a lot of pre-season prognosticators picked them to do well and even win the weak NFC North. They still might do that if the Bears falter. Pick: Minnesota.

9. San Diego @ Indianapolis (-7.5)—The 8-5 Chargers absolutely need to win this game, while the 13-0 Colts are trying for a perfect record to match the history-making 1972 Dolphins. Why, you ask, did the Chargers shoot themselves in the foot, losing to Miami last week in San Diego? I have no idea. Unless it's the Schottenheimer Curse all over again. The Chargers do have an unbelievably brutal schedule, but that's the way it goes. I think the Colts want that record, and if they can beat the Jags in Jacksonville by 8, as they did last week, then they can at least duplicate that result at home against the Chargers. The Colts' defense plays a bigger role these days in keeping the team ahead of every challenger. Pick: Indianapolis.

10. Seattle (-7) @ Tennessee—Considering the 11-2 Seahawks have the inside track to the Super Bowl, and the Titans are now 4-9, fresh off an underwhelming home victory over the Texans, you'd think this spread would be a lot more. Seattle defense can be porous, though. The Titans play aggressive football, and it's not lack of trying that has been their downfall. They just don't execute anything with any consistency. No reason to think they'll suddenly put it all together now. Pick: Seattle.

11. San Francisco @ Jacksonville (15)—The 9-4 Jaguars have a leg up on all the AFC wild-card competition. No one can touch them if they win out. The 49ers will hardly stand in their way, but what about that spread with Jags QB David Garrard still trying to achieve consistency? Niners got trounced by Seattle last week, 41-3. They are one bad team. Pick: Jacksonville.

12. Cincinnati (-7.5) @ Detroit—The Bengals are in a fight with the Broncos to see who can get that other AFC first-round playoff bye. They were challenged by Cleveland last week, but still won not playing their best. Tough to imagine the Lions playing a coherent-enough game to beat this relatively modest spread. Pick: Cincinnati.

13. Cleveland @ Oakland (-3)—Cleveland is a scrappy 4-9, having played Cincy last week to a near standstill; Oakland is an impotent 4-9, having lost to the Jets. Raiders QB Marques Tuiasosopo (left) squares off against Browns' QB Charlie Frye (right). Which means...what? (Maybe they'll set NFL records for aggregate ineptitude.) For what it's worth, the Browns look like a team that wants to keep improving. Pick: Cleveland. [LATE-BREAKING NEWS: Kerry Collins has been tapped to start at QB for the Raiders.]

14. Dallas @ Washington (-3)—It's been a while since a game in this historic rivalry actually meant something. It's huge now. At 7-6, Redskins are battling to stay in the playoff race, and this game begins a home stretch of contests against all three divisional foes. The Giants come to D.C. next week, and Philly hosts the season closer. A sweep puts the 'Skins at 10-6, and with help they could grab a wild-card. Cowboys won emotional, critical game versus the Chiefs last week. It would be nostalgic and fun and good for football to see Joe Gibbs best Bill Parcells, but overall history is against it. Pick: Dallas.

15. Atlanta @ Chicago (-3)—The Bears have the NFC South's number this year. They beat New Orleans and Tampa Bay on the road, then defeated Carolina in Chicago. This is a huge game for both teams, and it's a real toughie to pick because let's face it, the Bears have no offense. At 9-4, they've had only two games this season that qualify as blow-outs, and among their losses is one to less-than-mediocre Cleveland. This is the Bears' final home game; they're 6-1 at Soldier Field. Hard-to-peg Falcons are 4-2 on the road, and this is a must-win for them. When the Bears are victorious, it's usually a tight squeeze. Can they beat the Falcons by 4? Well, they beat the Panthers by 10. Pick: Chicago.

16. Green Bay @ Baltimore (-3.5)—Another dog of a Monday-Nighter. Will Favre work any magic? Who knows, but it could be his last MNF appearance as a Packer. Ravens somehow kept things frighteningly close against the Broncos last week, while Pack struggled to defeat Detroit in friendly Green Bay surroundings. Those three and a half points are just enough to sink a logical bettor. Pick: Ravens.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Clairvoyance Doesn't Bring Security, but It Sure Delivers a Nice Temporary High

The SMA braintrust looked positively clairvoyant last week, snagging 12 out of 16 ATS, with the Redskins and Panthers coming through in fine style. We’re still tinkering with our hometown loyalties, however, and we’ve simply got to stop believing that the Titans are better than they look. In fact, they look 3-9, and that’s exactly what they are. Even this week’s home date against the lowly Texans looks iffy ATS. So how do you root for a beloved lousy team to win the game, but not by too much??

And how about those swamis in the NFL’s scheduling office? They decided that this week’s Saints/Falcons matchup would be worthy of a Monday Night Football slot. Since when was putting the Saints in prime-time on Week 14 of any season a viable idea? Yeah, the Falcons are still alive in the playoff race, but their fortunes have slipped, and they’re not really playing very well. Strangely enough—or maybe not so, in light of Katrina—the Saints have a better record on the road than at home this year. But I don’t wanna think about that too much, since I went ahead and picked the Falcons to beat the spread at home. (Saints preserve us!)

Five games are double-digit spread affairs this week. That looks like a lot to me. After all, these aren’t college games we’re calling, where teams get their asses kicked in a Big 12 conference championship by 70-3. That said, I went with the big numbers 4 out of 5. But I have a feeling that the bookies feast in Week 14. We’re only just pawns in their game, you know.

1. Tampa Bay @ Carolina (-5)—Huge divisional matchup with a lot on the line, including impact on wild-card scenario. Gotta assume the Panthers’ D-line will throttle Bucs QB Chris Simms (right). Pick: Carolina.

2. New England (-3) @ Buffalo—The Bills played tough at home two weeks ago against Carolina, holding the Panthers to 13 points and forcing a push ATS. New England simply isn’t the team of the recent past. The Bills’ D is no embarrassment, and they’ve got a chance to make this close. Pick: Buffalo.

3. St. Louis @ Minnesota (-6.5)—Vikings are still in the playoff hunt, and the Rams are only still in it mathematically. Vikings are on a five-game winning streak, and the Rams just give up too many points. Plus, the Rams’ Harvard-grad rookie QB Fitzpatrick has now learned that not every team around here is as beatable as the Houston Texans. Pick: Minnesota.

4. Chicago @ Pittsburgh (-5.5)—Lovable but ornery young Bears have won eight in a row, and they count Carolina and Tampa Bay as recent victims. The Steelers have lost three in a row and, at 7-5, are fighting for their playoff lives. They looked better last week against Cincy, especially because QB Ben Roethlisberger (left) looks like he can throw again, despite the fact that his thumb is slated for post-season surgery of some kind. Still, the Steelers did lose at home, and this spread looks tricky indeed, considering that the Bears are giving up only 10.6 points per game. Pick: Steelers.

5. Oakland (-3) @ New York Jets—Gosh, the Jets suck. Oakland is no prize, either, and who knows what they’ll do. But the Raiders do have some offense, and a couple of scores should do the trick. Pick: Oakland.

6. Indianapolis (-7.5) @ Jacksonville—The Jags have a defense that might actually stymie Peyton Manning for a couple of series. The problem is that the Colts also have a defense, one capable of giving fill-in Jags QB David Garrard fits. This should be a hard-hitting affair, and maybe a surprise result. But it’s tough to back it with money. Pick: Colts.

7. Houston @ Tennessee (-6.5)—The Titans seem to be deteriorating; unlike teams loaded with young players, they're not showing the kind of improvement you might expect. Plus, they’re getting hit by the injury bug, losing talented rookie wide receivers Roydell Williams and Brandon Jones to season-ending surgery. They might win this game, but there’s every reason to believe it’ll be close. Pick: Houston.

8. Cleveland @ Cincinnati (-12)—I have a feeling Cleveland’s gonna stick around for this one. Their defense is scrappy enough to hold on for a while, before Bengals claw their way to victory, say, about, 28-17. Pick: Cleveland.

9. Washington (-3) @ Arizona—Redskins got back on winning track last week by beating an NFC West squad (the Rams) on the road. They get the same challenge here. (Seems like an awful lot of plane travel.) At 6-6, the Redskins need to win out for any playoff chance, and after this game they close the season with contests against each of their divisional foes. Their destiny is in their own erratic hands. Pick: Washington.

10. New York Giants (-7) @ Philadelphia—Based on their Monday night performance against Seattle, the Eagles look remarkably pathetic. They have no QB, no running game (and injured Brian Westbrook was just declared out for the year), and their receivers drop passes. To be fair to their defense, it was the Eagles’ offense that was responsible for a lot of the Seahawks’ points in the 42-0 debacle. Giants need this game in a hotly contended divisional situation. It’ll be a tougher battle than it looks for the G-Men, and someone in Vegas knows it, because the early spread on the game was -3 and then changed to -7 from Monday to Wednesday. Ask yourself this: Is it possible for Eagles coach Andy Reid to inspire his troops to make a sufficient effort—especially with their defense—to thwart the playoff aspirations of a longtime hated divisional rival? I almost wish I could take this one back. Pick: New York.

11. San Francisco @ Seattle (-16)—Seattle wants to win this game in service of getting home-field advantage come playoff time. So they need to play well, but they don’t need to break a sweat or risk injury to key players. It could be a romp, of course, but they only beat the Niners by two points on Nov. 20 in San Francisco. Pick: San Francisco.

12. Miami @ San Diego (-13.5)—San Diego is hot, and they need to stay that way. I don’t like these points much, however. Dolphins are capable of tenacity; on the other hand, their QB last week in a close win versus the Bills was Sage Rosenfels (right). Sounds more like a stock brokerage to me. Pick: San Diego.

13. Baltimore @ Denver (-14)—Even at 9-3 and looking good, the Broncos need to keep pace in the AFC West, where Kansas City and San Diego are breathing down their necks. They could probably sleep-walk through this affair and come out with a win, but 14 points is always reason for concern. Pick: Denver.

14. Kansas City @ Dallas (-3)—All eyes will be on this matchup, where two good teams engage with divisional and wild-card aspirations looming large. K.C. looked good against Denver last week, but sometimes they just don’t put it all together. They’ve won three in a row, while the Cowboys have dropped two straight. Go with the positive trend. Pick: Kansas City.

15. Detroit @ Green Bay (-5.5)—This game would be a laugh-riot if it weren’t for the fact that it’s a bitch to call. Both teams are on three-game skids. The Packers winning wouldn’t be a surprise at all, but at 2-10, what says they’ll beat the 4-8 Lions by six points? Pick: Detroit.

16. New Orleans @ Atlanta (-10)—If the Falcons are so good, why are they 7-5 and in third place in the NFC South? And why did Carolina drub ‘em 24-6 last week? Aren’t they supposed to get up for a game like that? If they can’t get it in gear for this one, you can write ‘em off for the rest of the season. As it is, they still might be goners, and there’s nothing that says they will cover this spread handily. The Saints kept it close against the Buccaneers last week. Pick: Atlanta.