Heading into the penultimate weekend of NFL play, only seven teams are absolutely eliminated from playoff contention. That leaves eight current division leaders (most of them with the top spot locked up) and an unbelievable 17 other teams still harboring a mathematical shot at a wild-card berth. This is the way Pete Rozelle dreamed it up years ago: a system designed to keep interest high right to the very end, and to ensure that even the smallest-market football teams have a chance to get a piece of the pie. Hence we have six 6-8 teams—St. Louis, San Francisco, Minnesota, Green Bay, Carolina and Miami—who are technically still in the running, though the cards would have to fall in almost impossible ways in order for one of them to advance to the post-season. Still, it could happen, especially in that crazy-quilt NFC, where mediocrity rules and even division leaders like Dallas and Seattle don’t look secure.
As for adventures against the spread, the SMA swami exhibited his own brand of mediocrity last week, going 8-8. That leaves us 96-90-6 on the year. Not very prescient, to be sure (there’s parity everywhere). It sure doesn’t get any easier, either. This week’s slate is loaded with critical contentious matchups.
Spreads courtesy of FootballLocks.com.
1. MINNESOTA @ GREEN BAY (-3.5) Two 6-8 teams, each looking for a playoff Christmas miracle. The Packers are on a mild rebound, though they’ve only posted a 2-5 record at home this season. The Vikings lost an important game at home last week against the Jets, and now are handing the quarterbacking duties to rookie Tarvaris Jackson. The odds are that he’ll struggle, and it could be that the Vikings are finished for good. Prediction: Packers.
2. KANSAS CITY (-6.5) @ OAKLAND Sigh. The Chiefs (7-7) are sorta like the Jaguars: a totally mystifying team ATS, but with legit playoff chances. With Denver and Cincy facing off this week, one of them will emerge from that game at 8-7, which is what the Chiefs can be if they take care of business in Oakland. The Raiders (2-12) still look confused. Prediction: Chiefs.
3. TENNESSEE @ BUFFALO (-4.5) Two of the better stories in the AFC this year. Both teams have overcome rocky starts and stand at 7-7. The Titans have won five in a row, often in most improbable fashion; the Bills have had two impressive recent victories, over the Jets in New York and a shutout at home last week against Miami. Pretty tough call, but the Bills’ offensive execution has improved, and the team looks hungry. And they’re at home too. Prediction: Bills.
4. NEW ORLEANS @ NY GIANTS (-3) The 9-5 Saints kinda shot themselves in the foot at home last week, losing to the Redskins. Now they go to the Meadowlands, with its memory of last season’s Katrina “home” game. At 7-7, the Giants are desperate for a win to stay in the wild-card race. They’ve lost five of six, and frankly they have only themselves to blame for their predicament. Saints an appealing road ‘dog. Prediction: Saints.
5. CAROLINA @ ATLANTA (-6) Hard to believe that, after a season of ugly on-field play and ugly off-field behavior by players and coaches as well as disparaging remarks from the owner, the Falcons (7-7) are still in the running for the wild card. In fact, there are some tasty scenarios that could play out in their favor, and all they need do is keep winning. The Carolina saga is also negative, but at 6-8—and even with a four-game losing streak—they’re still in it mathematically. They probably still won’t have sore-thumbed QB Jake Delhomme, however, and his absence makes this a different (and much weaker) squad. The Falcons could certainly blow it, and this spread is a potential trap, but they still get the nod. Prediction: Falcons.
6. WASHINGTON @ ST. LOUIS (-2.5) The 5-9 Redskins defy analysis, after they beat the Saints last week in New Orleans. The Rams are one of those 6-8 teams hoping for wild-card mathematical magic. It’s a modest spread, and the home team, in theory, should be able to cover it. But anything’s possible here. Prediction: Rams.
7. INDIANAPOLIS (-9) @ HOUSTON The AFC home-field advantage game is still afoot, and the Colts would love to continue playing well, as they did against Cincy on Monday night. It’s a short work week for them and they have to travel, but to Houston, where a 4-10 team awaits yet another thrashing after getting shellacked 40-7 in New England. Hefty spread, but Colts are able. Prediction: Colts.
8. BALTIMORE @ PITTSBURGH (-3) Losing here doesn’t deal the 11-3 Ravens a fatal blow, but it would make getting the home field throughout the playoffs impossible if San Diego wins its game against Seattle. Steelers, on a three-game win streak, and now at 7-7, are playing well enough to be dangerous. Ravens QB Steve McNair expected to play after getting his hand stepped on last week. Ravens in the unusual position of being an underdog. I’d be surprised if they didn’t play a competitive game. Prediction: Ravens.
9. TAMPA BAY @ CLEVELAND (-3) Okay, here’s one that truly doesn’t matter to anyone. The 3-11 Bucs extended the Bears to overtime last week before losing, and the 4-10 Browns kept things close versus the Ravens before capitulating. Prediction: Browns.
10. CHICAGO (-4.5) @ DETROIT The Bears have nothing to play for. At 12-2, they’ve wrapped up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They’d probably like to rest up, though it wouldn’t hurt QB Rex Grossman to keep honing his skills and execute that offense. Detroit is 2-12, and the record speaks for itself. In the interest of pride, the Lions could muster some effort here; meanwhile, the Bears could slack off. For a meaningless game, it’s a very tough play. If the spread were higher, the Lions might rate. Even so, this could very well be “one of those games.” Prediction: Bears.
11. NEW ENGLAND @ JACKSONVILLE (-2.5) Just when you think there can’t be a tougher game to pick, along comes this important tilt. The Jags, at 8-6, must win, because either Denver or Cincy will be at 9-6 by day’s end, and the Jets could be also by Monday night. Jags facing a 10-4 Patriots team coming off a 40-7 rout of Houston. Jags are tough at home usually, but they must be smarting from their improbable loss last week at Tennessee, where they piled up huge yardage and time of possession advantages but lost on critical turnovers, all by quarterback David Garrard. It’s basically a must-win for Jacksonville, but New England also has to watch its back because they could still blow the AFC East divisional title by losing their final two games while the Jets win theirs. Should make for excellent television at any rate. Prediction: Jaguars.
12. ARIZONA @ SAN FRANCISCO (-4) The 6-8 49ers have little chance to make the playoffs, but it would be a surprise if they didn’t expend some effort in their final home game. Not a necessarily tough spread to cover under the circumstances, though the 4-10 Cardinals seem to be improving. A bit of a crap shoot. Prediction: 49ers.
13. CINCINNATI @ DENVER (-3) A big-time head-on battle for control of the AFC wild-card picture. Both teams are 8-6, with Cincy coming off a disappointing Monday night performance against the Colts, and the Broncos winning as they should against Arizona. Denver rookie QB Jay Cutler had a big-league game, which can only help his confidence. Bengals looked ragged against Indy, giving the handicapper pause, and rumors swirled this week that QB Carson Palmer has a sore shoulder. He’s probable for the game though. The Broncos would probably look better as the underdog. Prediction: Bengals.
14. SAN DIEGO (-5) @ SEATTLE San Diego, for all the great football they’ve played so far, still have not nailed down the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Baltimore and Indy, both 11-3, are breathing down their 12-2 necks. The Seahawks team they face is 8-6, and only 3-3 in their own weak division. The Seahawks of 2005 would match up well against this Chargers squad, but this year’s Seattle team has been hampered by key injuries and erratic play. Just a hunch but maybe the Seahawks will get it together enough to beat the spread. Being home helps. Prediction: Seahawks.
15. PHILADELPHIA @ DALLAS (-7) It’s been tough to believe in the Eagles this year, but they’ve proved they have heart. At 8-6, they trail the division-leading Cowboys by only a game, and a win here could really muck with the NFC playoff picture. They might lose, but that doesn’t diminish the betting value of Jeff Garcia and the points. Prediction: Eagles.
16. NY JETS @ MIAMI (-2) The 8-6 Jets scored a huge road victory at Minnesota last week. They’ve got themselves in a very nice position to snag a wild-card berth. In fact, if the Jets win out and the Patriots drop their final two games, the Jets can win the AFC East. Miami is 6-8 and mostly in a spoiler role despite a faint playoff hope. The Jets control their destiny, and they’re getting a couple of points here. Will they lose focus? Prediction: Jets.