Tuesday, December 26, 2006

NFL Week 17 ATS: Home Stretch Finds 12 Nags Vying for 4 Wild-Card Berths

Twelve teams are out of it altogether. Eight teams are taking home divisional crowns. That leaves 12 remaining wannabes who wanna be in the playoffs as wild-card teams.

The NFC is so chock-full of not-very-good football teams that, theoretically, someone (the Giants) could enter the postseason with a record below .500, which is, in a word, pathetic. But even if the conference avoids this embarrassment, it’ll still be looking at some pretty woeful squads as potential entrants into the playoff fray. Besides the Giants, there’s Green Bay, St. Louis, Carolina and Atlanta sitting there with 7-8 records, each one hoping to win this weekend while all the others lose. (There’s only one open at-large spot in the NFC, because both Dallas and Philly are guaranted a playoff berth, one as the NFC East winner, the other as a wild card.) The Giants have the upper hand: beating the Redskins in Washington would lock it up for them, barring a Packers victory in Chicago and some weirdly improbable twists in the “strength of schedule” and “strength of victory” tiebreaker formulas.

Things are even crazier in the AFC, where the Jets and the Broncos have the inside track to the postseason. That is, all they need do is win. They’re both at home, and they both play weak teams (Oakland and San Francisco, respectively). But if one or both falters, all hell breaks lose, with the Bengals, Titans, Jaguars and Chiefs, all at 8-7, jockeying for viable position.

It’s pretty confusing. Those seeking a handy guide to keep near the television this weekend might want to print out this page from the online Hartford Courant, which offers a clarifying rundown of the playoff possibilities.

The last week of the regular season presents the handicapper with all sorts of extracurricular considerations. You’ve got teams desperate to make the playoffs, in some cases facing off against teams going nowhere. Will the playoff hopefuls lose focus and tank out? Do the also-rans play up to maximum potential out of pride? Does having a spoiler role really matter to a team that’s 2-13? Then there’s the case of the Patriots, who have won their division title but can’t secure the home field throughout the playoffs. They’ll be hosting a first-round wild-card game no matter what they do on Sunday, so will they care how well they play in Nashville, where the Titans are looking to win their seventh game in a row and snag a playoff berth?

The SMA swami was 9-7 last week, with road underdogs like the Eagles, Jets, Ravens, and Saints coming through with outright wins. Another road ‘dog, the Bengals, did their duty; they lost but beat the tight spread. The yearly record is now 105-97-6. If nothing else, that’s better than the 7-9 the Giants could wind up with while still being considered postseason-worthy.

These early-line spreads courtesy of FootballLocks.com.

1. NY GIANTS (-2) @ WASHINGTON Once they were 6-2. Now they’re 7-8. Yet a victory over the 5-10 Redskins could vault this seemingly heartless Giants squad into the postseason. In the past two weeks, the Skins have beaten the Saints and lost in overtime to St. Louis, displaying moxie in both road games. Skins RB Ladell Betts is making a strong case for why he should be a first-string player, and young QB Jason Campbell gains valuable experience with every outing. I suspect the Skins would love to stick it to the Giants, and they just might. Prediction: Redskins.

2. PITTSBURGH @ CINCINNATI (-6) This matchup hearkens back to the days of the old AFC Central Division. The 8-7 Bengals are desperate for a win, but getting one doesn’t guarantee the playoffs. Losing last week in Denver on a missed extra point has put them behind the 8-ball. They need to win and get help from the likes of the Raiders and 49ers. For a team with so much talent and promise, it looks like a bitter end. The 7-8 Steelers would probably like to make it back to .500 after a bitter year of their own. If the Steelers bring their pride, this’ll be a dogfight. Prediction: Steelers.

3. DETROIT @ DALLAS (-12) Once 8-4, and in the driver’s seat of the NFC East, the Cowboys are now 9-6 and can only get the division crown if the Eagles lose their game at home versus the Falcons. That’s also presuming the ‘boys beat this lost Lions franchise, now 2-13 after dropping a close one to the sleep-walking Bears last week. It would be priceless to see the look on Bill Parcells’ face if the Lions upended his inconsistent squad, which certainly has talent but seems lacking in the esprit de corps category. The Lions flat-out stink, but 12 points is a lot of esprit de corps to summon out of nowhere. Prediction: Lions.

4. CLEVELAND @ HOUSTON (-3.5) The locals are pretty happy in Houston, where the Texans beat the Colts last week and boosted their record to 5-10. Finishing at 6-10 would be a moral victory for Coach Gary Kubiak and would give the team something realistic to shoot for in ‘07. Alas, the Texans are recidivists of the highest order, and the 4-11 Browns are just the type of team to catch them napping. On the other hand, the Browns will be led this week by former Miami Hurricane Ken Dorsey at quarterback. Who knew he was even still in the league after his two less-than-stellar seasons in San Francisco? Prediction: Texans.

5. JACKSONVILLE @ KANSAS CITY (-2.5) A must win for both 8-7 teams, made all the more nerve-wracking because getting the victory still doesn’t guarantee a playoff berth. It’s appropriate that these two should face off at this juncture: both are talented and erratic and equally capable of playing good football. Seems like maybe the Chiefs have the upper hand with Trent Green at QB; his Jags counterpart, David Garrard, is not the kind of guy who can bring you back from behind. If Green and Larry Johnson get the Chiefs a lead, that could be the game. Hard to know if amazing Jags rookie RB Maurice Jones-Drew has any miracles left in him. He’s pretty darn good, though. Usually, so is the Jags’ defense. This should be a highly entertaining scrum. And very close. Maybe it’s Chiefs, 24-23. Prediction: Jaguars.

6. ST. LOUIS (-2) @ MINNESOTA Rams need a victory for even a shot at the playoffs, and then they need help. Vikings now 6-9 and out of it after flirting with success all season long. Vikings have no offense, while Rams have it in spades, with Marc Bulger leading the passing attack and hulkish Steven Jackson pounding out the ground game. The Vikings’ defense has been stalwart all year, but at this point they might ease up. Prediction: Rams.

7. CAROLINA @ NEW ORLEANS (-3) The Panthers need a win plus help from others to get a wild-card spot. The Saints are 10-5 and have gained a first-round playoff bye, so the outcome here for them is superfluous. If they want, they can rest up the troops and maybe hand the Panthers a sympathy “W.” Prediction: Panthers.

8. OAKLAND @ NY JETS (-12.5) The 9-6 Jets are poised to make the playoffs, and all they have to do is defeat possibly the worst team in football. At home, no less. Can’t see how the Jets can miss the victory. But they might not cover. Prediction: Raiders.

9. SEATTLE @ TAMPA BAY (-3.5) The defending NFC champ Seahawks limp into the postseason, and the best record they can have is 9-7, presuming they beat the bad, bad Bucs (4-11). The Hawks could really use a good tune-up game here, to at least show us that maybe they’re not what we suspect they are, i.e., a .500 team lucky to be playing in a lousy division. Shaun Alexander and Matt Hasselbeck could use the work, so look for Seattle to grind out the victory. It might not be so easy, but they’re getting points, so the play is made a lot easier. Prediction: Seahawks.

10. NEW ENGLAND @ TENNESSEE (-3) The Titans are on a six-game winning streak and playing magical football. A win here would put them at 9-7 and give them a playoff shot, which would happen for sure if the Broncos, Bengals and Jaguars all lost. It’s a meaningless game to the Pats. Seems pointless to even play Tom Brady, as a matter of fact. This game will be played concurrently with the Bengals-Steelers and Chiefs-Jags tilts, so scoreboard-watching will be hard to resist. Prediction: Titans.

11. BUFFALO @ BALTIMORE (-9) With the Bills out of the playoffs and the Ravens marching onward into them, this might look like a meaningless affair. In fact, the Ravens, at 12-3, could gain home field throughout the playoffs if they win and, by some miracle, the Cardinals defeat the Chargers in San Diego. The Ravens have been nipping at the Chargers’ heels all season, and if they tie at 13-3, the Ravens win the key postseason advantage by virtue of their victory over San Diego in Week 4. Failing that, the Ravens at least want to stay ahead of Indy in the race for a first-round bye. Prediction: Ravens.

12. SAN FRANCISCO @ DENVER (-11) A lot of AFC wild-card hopefuls are pulling for the 49ers (6-9) to play over their heads in Denver and deal the 9-6 Broncos a lethal blow. Broncs won a biggie last week over Cincy, and they’re holding up under rookie QB Jay Cutler. The Niners are scrappy and they have Frank Gore running the ball, so a Denver “W” is not automatic. Plus, Cutler’s still young and mistakes can happen. Hefty spread for such an up and down team to cover. Prediction: 49ers.

13. MIAMI @ INDIANAPOLIS (-9) This game has some potentially important implications for the Colts. If they win and Baltimore loses, they’ll gain a first-round bye, which is a huge advantage in the postseason. It means extra rest and the opportunity to host a divisional playoff game. Maybe the Colts will use this game to try some new defensive schemes against the run. If they don’t improve in that department, it may not matter how great Peyton Manning is. Dolphins playing out the string at 6-9, and Cleo Lemon (??) replaced Joey Harrington at quarterback in their Monday night game versus the Jets. (Pop quiz: Where did Cleo Lemon play his college ball? Answer below.) Dolphins could still beat this spread. Prediction: Dolphins.

14. ATLANTA @ PHILADELPHIA (-7.5) For the 9-6 Eagles, this game means the difference between a division title (with a first-round home game) and a wild-card berth (with a first-round game on the road). A letdown here is simply not acceptable, not for a team that’s shown so much grit. The Falcons will probably wind their way to their inevitably sluggish 7-9 destiny, even though victory keeps them theoretically alive in the wild-card race. (Fact is, if the Giants win on Saturday, the Falcons will be out of it anyway.) For all that, there’s no guarantee the Eagles cover. Prediction: Falcons.

15. ARIZONA @ SAN DIEGO (-13.5) The 13-2 Chargers sometimes struggle with lousy teams. They’ve shown a tendency to keep ‘em hanging around for a while before eventually getting the “W.” But if the Chargers want the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, they need to win this one, because the Ravens are right behind them and are playing a home game of their own. The Cards, once 1-8, are now 5-10, which means they’re playing at a 4-2 clip and showing signs of respectability. They don’t have Matt Leinart, though, out for the season after injuring his shoulder against the 49ers. Old vet Kurt Warner has taken over; he could have problems with that swarming Chargers defense. Prediction: Chargers.

16. GREEN BAY @ CHICAGO (-2.5) Yet another game that means nothing to the Bears, now 13-2. Still, it’s a home game and it’s against the rival Packers and who knows if it isn’t maybe Brett Favre’s last appearance at Soldier Field. The Packers are 7-8 and with an outside playoff shot (though by the time this Sunday night game rolls around, the Giants may have already made that proposition academic). Bears haven’t really been playing very well of late, and if the game turns out to really mean something to Green Bay’s playoff chances, then it could be a barn-burner. Prediction: Packers.

Pop Quiz Answer: Arkansas State.

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