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.