The wild-card races in both conferences are wide open, while, surprisingly, the division champion slots seem pretty much spoken for. Historic tailspins by front-runners, like what happened to the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, aren’t the rule in the NFL. Near-dominance tends to hold until the playoffs, and that’s where all bets are off. First-place teams like Indy, San Diego, Baltimore, New England, Chicago, Seattle, even New Orleans and Dallas, look like pretty safe bets, but facing all those desperate wild-card wannabes in these final weeks will not be fun for anybody. Except for us, the viewers at home.
The SMA swami regressed to 7-9 last week, leaving the yearly tote at 78-76-6. The oddsmaker is a formidable opponent indeed, and we’ve got our own version of crunch time right straight ahead of us.
Spreads courtesy of FootballLocks.com.
1. CLEVELAND @ PITTSBURGH (-7.5) The Browns are now 4-8 after a stirring victory over the Chiefs under the unlikely leadership of nobody QB Derek Anderson. Anderson might get the nod again, since starting quarterback Charlie Frye is questionable. Meanwhile, the 5-7 Steelers will be without S Troy Polamalu and WR Hines Ward, both important players. Steelers are much better at home, and a win is likely, especially since the Browns are as prone to take a step backward as they are to build on something good. But even if this were last year’s Steelers, this would be a hefty-enough spread. They’re simply not the same team. Prediction: Browns.
2. BALTIMORE @ KANSAS CITY (-3) Chiefs blew a big one at Cleveland on Sunday. They’re 7-5 and still in the thick of the wild-card hunt. The Ravens are 9-3 and are pretty much a playoff lock. If this game were critical to Baltimore, they’d be the clear choice. Still, I doubt they want to lose this one, since Cincy is nipping at their heels and has an easy home game against the Raiders. Very tough play, but the Ravens are a better team and they’re getting the points. Prediction: Ravens.
3. ATLANTA (-3) @ TAMPA BAY There is no crystal ball even in the realm of fiction powerful enough to foretell the Falcons’ future. They vaulted themselves back into the wild-card race with a road victory last week at Washington. At 6-6, they have, in theory, as good a chance as anybody to make the playoffs. This game, against the floundering 3-9 Buccaneers, is tailor-made to jump-start the postseason run, but knowing the Falcons, they’ll blow it. Yet even giving points, they’re worth the desperate gamble. Prediction: Falcons.
4. MINNESOTA @ DETROIT (-2.5) The Vikings, at 5-7, could win four straight to finish the season at 9-7, which actually might snare them a wild-card berth, if all the other NFC wild-card wannabes cooperate with typically lackluster play. Stranger things have happened. The Vikes have quarterback woes, but their defense has kept them in almost every game. The woebegone Lions (2-10) had their Super Bowl last week—they took an 18-13 lead into the fourth quarter at New England before succumbing 28-21. Hard to believe they’re favored here, but that just makes the pick easier. Prediction: Vikings.
5. TENNESSEE @ HOUSTON (-1.5) After an 0-5 start, the Titans have won five of seven games. They still lack consistency in executing a game plan, but they’re pulling out victories with hustle and Vince Young’s flow. What they said about the rookie quarterback is true: he’s got too much natural talent not to flirt with success. He’s already done that, and watching his further development will be fun. The Texans are 4-8, after defeating the Raiders in Oakland, in a game in which QB David Carr threw for 32 yards (!), while RB Ron Dayne found the fountain of youth (for him, anyway) in rushing for 95. Presumably this is anybody’s game, but Titans are impressing of late and worth the nod as a road ‘dog. Prediction: Titans.
6. NY GIANTS @ CAROLINA (-3) Two 6-6 teams with wild-card aspirations square off in a critical game. The Panthers are fresh off losing two straight road games to NFC East teams (Philly and Washington) they were favored to beat. Now they host the Giants, who have lost four straight and have watched a division lead vanish quickly. Both teams are fighting for their lives and neither’s recent play inspires confidence, although the Giants hung in there against the Cowboys last week. All things being frustratingly equal, the road ‘dog looks worth a risk. Prediction: Giants.
7. NEW ORLEANS @ DALLAS (-6.5) Two 8-4 teams hungry for the playoffs and, barring major meltdowns, headed there. The Saints haven’t backed away from anyone this season, and despite the loss of DT Hollis Thomas until the playoffs (an apparently bogus steroid suspension; he takes asthma medication), they’re a solid bet to beat this spread. Prediction: Saints.
8. BUFFALO @ NY JETS (-4) Even if the Jets don’t make the playoffs, Eric Mangini is a shoo-in for Coach of the Year honors in the AFC. His team is 7-5, playing aggressive defense, and led courageously on offense by Chad Pennington at quarterback. It’s a very good story, and all the Jets have to do is keep winning and they might capture that wild-card berth. Surprisingly, they’re only 3-3 at home. The 5-7 Bills can be dangerous, and they’d love to upset New York’s Big Apple cart. It should be a close one, but if the Jets want it badly enough, they can cover. Prediction: Jets.
9. INDIANAPOLIS (-1.5) @ JACKSONVILLE The 7-5 Jags won last week against Miami, so that means it’s time to lose. Be pretty hard to see a spread this close and not throw one’s weight behind Peyton Manning, who, after getting thwarted by the Titans, could use a boost to his self-esteem. The Colts (10-2) have now lost two out of three. Anyone betting they’ll lose three out of four? Prediction: Colts.
10. PHILADELPHIA (-1) @ WASHINGTON Practically a pick ‘em, with 6-6 Philly—back in the wild-card hunt behind QB Jeff Garcia—against the 4-8 Skins who are nowheresville. Pardon my cynicism, but talk about the Eagles and the playoffs seems premature. Even with Donovan McNabb healthy they were losing games they should have won earlier in the year. Skins would love to bring Philly down to earth where they belong. Prediction: Redskins.
11. OAKLAND @ CINCINNATI (-11) The 2-10 Raiders have actually had good success beating the spread this year when it’s of the double-digit variety. If only trends were gospel. The 7-5 Bengals are feeling their offensive oats, and they could put on a fireworks display for the home crowd. Prediction: Bengals.
12. NEW ENGLAND (-3.5) @ MIAMI After winning four games in a row, the 5-7 Dolphins looked weak at home last week versus Jacksonville. They still have a pretty good defense, which could keep ‘em in this game for a while. Plus, it wouldn’t be like ‘em not to get up for the Pats (9-3). It’s only a hunch, but it says here the Fins’ll beat the spread. Prediction: Dolphins.
13. GREEN BAY @ SAN FRANCISCO (-5) Gee whiz, the Packers are annoying. They won three in a row earlier in the season to boost their record to 4-5 and give their fans hope. Now they’ve lost three in a row and stand at 4-8, including a 1-5 home record. But surprise, they’re 3-3 on the road, and they come into this mostly pointless scuffle getting five blessed points. The lovably surprising 49ers are now 5-7 after being outclassed in New Orleans last week. Maybe the Packers will roll over and play dead in this affair, or maybe Brett Favre will have an LSD flashback and think he’s playing the Niners in a 1996 playoff game. If the latter, Pack looks to beat the spread. Prediction: Packers.
14. SEATTLE (-3.5) @ ARIZONA The Seahawks (8-4) are gaining momentum with the return of Matt Hasselbeck. Arizona is pretty darn bad at 3-9, but they’d love to show the home crowd that there’s a future with Matt Leinart. Seattle’s just too good all-around. Prediction: Seahawks.
15. DENVER @ SAN DIEGO (-7.5) This could be the 7-5 Broncos’ season right here. It was one thing for Dallas’ Bill Parcells to switch to QB Tony Romo earlier in the season. Romo at least had been around the scout team for four years and knew his playbook. But Mike Shanahan’s shift to raw rookie Jay Cutler this late in the season is fraught with danger, and the kid looked pretty out of his element last week against Seattle. That said, the Broncs only lost by three, and their running game returned. And who knows—maybe Shanahan had simply seen enough of Jake Plummer, who in fact wasn’t doing any better than three-point losses himself. Presume all these things—Cutler doesn’t self-destruct, the Denver defense comes to play (though probably missing all-rugged LB Al Wilson), and Shanahan inspires his troops—and the end result is that the 10-2 Chargers win but don’t cover the spread. Prediction: Broncos.
16. CHICAGO (-6.5) @ ST. LOUIS The Bears begin the final quarter of their season against the first of a string of lousy teams. There’s plenty of criticism in the Windy City of quarterback Rex Grossman, who, after looking like he was coming of age in the early part of the season, has suddenly looked like a child among men. They’re gonna stick with him because, at 10-2, they can afford to. Meanwhile, the Bears defense is giving up a mere 12.5 points per game, and their secondary and special teams produce enough offense to beat up on the easy schedule. They even covered the spread against the Vikings last week, with Grossman going 6 of 19 for 34 yards, with 0 TDs and 3 INTS. Meanwhile, the Rams, once 4-1, have lost six of seven, including last week at home to the Cardinals, 34-20. They still have that passing game, for all the good it does ‘em. This game could have a surprise result, but if Grossman somehow gets back on the beam, don’t count on the Rams beating the spread. Prediction: Bears.