Bears will give Lions all they can handle in Detroit

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Through 13 weeks only one NFL team has clinched a Playoff spot. The Dallas Cowboys are 11-1 and have clinched their second trip to the Playoffs in three seasons.

This is a key point to remember.

After making the Playoffs in 2014 for the first time since 2009 the Cowboys dropped to 4-12 last season. That decline was largely due to injuries as QB Tony Romo missed 12 games. But in 2014 the Cowboys were 12-4 so this season can almost be an extension of the season two seasons ago but with a pair of new key players – rookie QB Dak Prescott and rookie RB Ezekiel Elliott.

The Cowboys have a 2.5 game lead over Seattle for the top NFC seed with the Seahawks having a comfortable three game lead over Arizona in the NFC West.

The Cowboys can clinch the NFC East with a win over their closest pursuers, the New York Giants, this Sunday night. The other two NFC Divisions are still contested with Atlanta and surging Tampa Bay tied at 7-5 atop the NFC South. The Falcons and Buccs split their season series and the Falcons have the more manageable schedule as Tampa Bay plays at Dallas in two weeks. However, the Cowboys may have clinched the NFC’s top seed with a win Sunday night at the Giants and a loss by Seattle at Green Bay earlier in the day.

Detroit has a two game lead in the NFC North over both Green Bay and Minnesota. At 8-4 the Lions hope to make the Playoffs for a second time in three seasons. Green Bay is seeking an eighth straight trip to the Playoffs and will visit Detroit to end the season. Minnesota, which won the Division last season, was swept by the Lions but did defeat Green Bay, whom they visit in Week 16. This Division could come down to Week 17 and there is a strong likelihood only the Division winner will make the Playoffs.

The AFC is much more tightly contested with only 10-2 New England have breathing room in the AFC East with a three-game lead over Miami. Baltimore and Pittsburgh are tied atop the AFC North at 7-5. Pittsburgh hosts the Ravens in Week 16 and will be seeking to avenge an earlier 21-14 loss at Baltimore.

Depending on Monday’s result there could be a three-way tie atop the AFC South where Houston and Tennessee were 6-6 with 5-6 Indianapolis at the Jets on Monday. The Colts have already swept Tennessee but still has a rematch with the Texans. Houston has already defeated both the Colts and the Titans but has rematches with both and both are on the road. Tennessee will have been rooting for the Jets on Monday night to keep their chances of winning the Division realistically alive.

The best Division in the AFC. if not in the entire NFL. is the AFC West where Oakland enters next week atop the Division at 10-2. They will be at second play 9-3 Kansas City on Thursday night and need a win to maintain that lead as the Chiefs won the earlier meeting in Oakland. Denver is third at 8-4 and will be at Kansas City in Week 16 and then host Oakland in Week 17.

This figures to be the most compelling Division race over the final month with all three teams in position to make the Playoffs. Entering Week 14 the Chiefs control the first AFC Wild Card and Denver controls the second.

Double digit favorites this season are 6-3 ATS with New England 3-0 ATS in that role. The Patriots remain the team to beat in the AFC, with all due respect to Oakland, Kansas City and a few others, but will be without TE Rob Gronkowski, out for the season after back surgery.

Excluding pushes, the pointspread has mattered in just 18 of 191 games through Sunday, one of the lowest percentages for this category over the past quarter century. Entering Monday night the only game last week in which the points mattered was the week’s first game when Dallas, favored by 3, won 17-15 at Minnesota as a two-point conversion by the Vikings in the final minute failed, but not without a controversial no call on a hit to QB Sam Bradford.

Let’s get set for an exciting final four weeks of football as the fates and fortunes of the 32 teams will be decided.

Thursday

Oakland +3 at Kansas City (47): The Chiefs return home following road wins at Denver and Atlanta. The winner of this game takes the Division lead and will possess the AFC’s No. 2 seed, although both teams appear headed to the Playoffs. In what could be played as a chess match, scoring chances may be limited. UNDER

Sunday

Denver NL at Tennessee: The status of Denver starting QB Trevor Siemian keeps this game off the boards on Monday. Tennessee returns from its bye and will be in either a two- or three-way tie atop the AFC South. It is a favorable spot for the Titans, who played their last two on the road and will play their next two on the road. This is also Denver’s fourth road game in their last five and host New England next week. TENNESSEE

San Diego + 1 at Carolina (48): The Panthers will miss the Playoffs for the first time in four seasons. San Diego has played better than its 5-7 record would suggest with no loss by more than 8 points. Both teams have performed better on offense than on defense and each averages 12.0 yards per pass completion, tied for second highest in the league. With both teams out of contention this could be the most entertaining game of the week in terms of wide open play. OVER

Houston NL at Indianapolis: The Texans won the earlier meeting, 26-23. Indy has a huge edge at QB with a healthy Andrew Luck but the lack of a running game and a leaky defense are major areas of concern. The Colts have a pair of tough road games on deck and catch Houston playing a second straight road game. At a FG or less the Colts are worth considering for play. INDIANAPOLIS

Cincinnati -5 at Cleveland 43.5: Cleveland is off its bye and seeking its first win after an 0-12 start. They will be highly motivated to get that win at home against their instate rival. The Bengals will miss the Playoffs for the first time in six seasons. Cleveland should bring a greater level of intensity to this game. It’s been tough to play on the Browns this season but it’s just as tough to lay points on the road with a team accustomed to making the Playoffs but that will miss this season. CLEVELAND

Pittsburgh -2 at Buffalo (47.5): After four straight losses (both SU and ATS) the Steelers have won (and covered) three in a row. Last week’s win over the Giants was not pretty but the Steelers were clearly in control and the defense played extremely well. Both offenses have excelled in avoiding turnovers, which portends a cleanly played game. Buffalo is a home dog for just the second time this season. Their running game, which includes the mobility of QB Tyrod Taylor, lends support for taking what could be as high as a FG at home. BUFFALO

Arizona +2.5 at Miami (43.5): Miami has shown improvement since the start of the season. Both teams’ running games are average at best and Arizona does have the better defensive stats. Arizona has lost four of five road games this season, winning only at lowly San Francisco. Miami has won five of six home games, each by at least a FG. MIAMI

Chicago +7.5 at Detroit (43.5): This is a revenge game for the 8-4, NFC North leading Lions who lost 17-14 as short road favorites in Chicago in Week 4. It was the Lions’ third road game in four weeks to open the season and Detroit has won 7 of 8 games since. Most of those wins have been close as last week’s 28-13 win at New Orleans was their first win by more than 7 points. Chicago has played surprisingly gritty football despite all of their key injuries. Four of their last six losses have been by less than 7 points and all the pressure in this game is on the hosts. CHICAGO

Minnesota -3 at Jacksonville (40): These teams are very similar with weak offenses but strong defenses. The Jags have not allowed more than 304 total yards in any of their last five games, including holding Denver to 206 last week. The Jaguars have scored more than 23 points just once all season and have been held to under 20 points 7 times. UNDER

New Orleans +2.5 at Tampa Bay (51): New Orleans has lost three of four following a 4-1 stretch and was totally ineffective in last week’s home loss to Detroit. This will be a major test for the young Buccs whose statistics in most key categories are virtually identical to the Saints’ stats. This suggests laying a FG or less at home is supportable. Tampa has covered three of its last four games in this series. TAMPA BAY

Washington -1 at Philadelphia (46.5): The Birds have lost three straight, 5 of 6 and 7 of 9 following a 3-0 start and have played the last two months as they were projected to play before the season began. Washington won the first meeting with a huge 493 to 239 edge in total yards. Despite similar rushing statistics, Philly’s success on the ground came early whereas Washington’s has been strong following a weak September. WASHINGTON

NY Jets NL at San Francisco: San Francisco is allowing a huge 1.4 yards per rush more than the Jets. In Ryan Fitzpatrick the Jets do have the edge at QB and that, combined with the rushing defense edge, makes for a better case in supporting the visitor despite the travel and shortened week to prepare. NY JETS

Seattle -2.5 at Green Bay (46.5): Sure, Green Bay has largely underperformed this season but, as with Seattle, they are experienced and have been able to play their best down the stretch. Seattle still has a comfortable three-game lead in the NFC West with four to play and are on path to the NFC’s number two seed. Green Bay is in a more critical situation and Seattle has three losses and a tie in six prior road games this season. GREEN BAY

Atlanta -5 at Los Angeles (45): The Rams defense will be tested yet again but a potent Atlanta offense that averages 6.6 yards per play, tops in the NFL. The Rams are last, averaging just 4.7 ypp. That contrast suggests the Rams will rely on their defense to stay competitive for as long as possible while their own offense continues to struggle. The Rams have scored 10 points or less in five of its last six games and seven times this season. UNDER

Dallas -3 at NY Giants (47.5): These teams have a history of close games with only one of their last nine meetings decided by more than a TD. Both teams have big play offenses and both defenses have played better than their stats suggest, especially the Cowboys. The public likely will continue to back the Cowboys and the “sharps” will likely take more than a FG with the G-Men. The Giants control the top NFC Wild Card and had won six in a row prior to their loss at the Steelers. NY GIANTS

Monday

Baltimore +7.5 at New England (46): Of Baltimore’s five losses only one has been by more than 8 points. But that was a 10-point loss at Dallas. Yet 7 of New England’s 10 wins have been by double digits, including 7 of their last 8. The Total might make for the better play. Prior to last week’s 38-6 win over Miami the Ravens played five straight UNDERs. New England has played three straight UNDERs and each team is 8-4 to the UNDER this season. UNDER

Last week: 10-4 (w/o MNF)

Season: 94-88-4

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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