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.

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