With just five games remaining until the regular season ends, the playoff races are coming more into focus as teams on the bubble play themselves in either better or worse position.
The 2011 playoffs will have a different look from 2010 with perhaps half a dozen teams that missed out last year making the field of 12 this season.
In the NFC, Green Bay controls the top seed with an 11-0 record and San Francisco at 9-2 is No. 2. A win by New Orleans over the Giants on Monday night would have the Saints 8-3 with a chance to overtake the 49ers and an opening round Bye. No other NFC team has more than seven wins.
If the Giants defeated the Saints, they would be tied with Dallas atop the NFC East at 7-4 – the same as New Orleans and Atlanta in the South. Green Bay has all but clinched the North but both Chicago and Detroit remain in the thick of the Wild Card race with 7-4 records.
With no other NFC team better than 4-7 it seems all but certain that the six playoff berths will come from the aforementioned group of 8.
In the AFC there are six teams that currently control their playoff destiny although with several common games remaining things will change over the next few weeks.
Four teams are tied for the best record in the AFC with Baltimore, Houston, New England and Pittsburgh each 8-3. Oakland leads the West at 7-4, the same record that Cincinnati owns while in third place in the North behind the Ravens and Steelers.
Denver, the New York Jets and Tennessee are each 6-5 and need help to make the playoffs. With a 10-6 record likely to be good enough to at least tie for a Wild Card, 5-6 Buffalo also retains playoff hopes. The Bills face a brutal schedule over their final five games and are probably even money to finish no better than 8-8.
The final five weeks present different handicapping challenges. December games feature more teams trying to overcome injuries and with some “spoilers” relishing that role and others more interested in looking towards next season.
The lines maker continues to do an excellent job of attaining balanced results. Through last Sunday, home favorites were 53-59-5 ATS while home underdogs were 27-27-2.
The points have mattered in 28 of the 170 games that did not result in pushes, or 16.7 percent, in line with historical averages.
The high scoring games from September that reminded many age 50 and older readers of the old AFL are just a very distant memory. The UNDERS own an 88-84 edge with three pushes. Last week OVERS were only 6-9 (not including the Monday night result).
Here’s a look at the 16 games to be played between Thursday and Monday.
Philadelphia -3 at Seattle (44): Both teams have little to play for as well but the Seahawks should relish the rare opportunity to perform on the national stage. Philly’s edge in individual talent likely is offset by the intangibles that favor the hosts. SEATTLE.
Tennessee +1 at Buffalo (43): The Titans have an experienced QB in Matt Hasselbeck and RB Chris Johnson has started to finally come alive. Tennessee has rushed for over 170 yards twice in the last three games after the high in the first eight games was just 112 yards. TENNESSEE.
KC +8 at Chicago (37): Kansas City put forth a spirited effort in their 13-9 home loss Sunday night to Pittsburgh. The Bears rushed for 172 yards at Oakland, averaging more than six per carry. Caleb Hanie should perform better this week at home where the Bears have won each of their last 3 by double digits. CHICAGO.
Oakland +3 at Miami (42): In their win over Chicago the Raiders were unable to convert scoring chances into touchdowns, settling for 6 FGs. That adds support for a low scoring game against Miami as the Dolphins are 10-1 to the UNDER this season. The lone OVER was a Week 1 loss to New England. UNDER.
Cincinnati +7 at Pittsburgh (42): Cincy’s last four games have each been decided by 7 points or less, making this a solid number. Pittsburgh has not been a team able to blow away foes this season. At Kansas City the Steelers struggled to hold on for a win despite their +2 turnover edge. CINCINNATI.
Baltimore -6½ at Cleveland (37½): The Ravens are a far weaker team on the road than at home. All three of their losses have been on the road and of their two road wins one was by just a FG.. Each of Cleveland’s last three games has been decided by four points or less. Not surprisingly, the Browns gained 126, 148 and 134 rushing yards. CLEVELAND.
NY Jets -3 at Washington (38): Washington QB Rex Grossman is inconsistent at best and can not be counted upon for back to back strong efforts, especially against a team battling for the playoffs. NY JETS.
Atlanta -2 at Houston (40): Injuries have forced the Texans to rely upon third string QB, rookie T J Yates, as they seek their first winning season in franchise history. Houston is on a 5 game winning streak but are home underdogs due to the QB situation. The Falcons are a winning team playing with the greater need but will be facing the NFL’s top ranked defense. UNDER.
Carolina +3 at Tampa Bay (48½): Both defenses have had trouble stopping the run which suggests game plans designed to attack those weaknesses. As such, this could be a very quickly played game that offers value with the high total. That both teams are also minus in turnover margin also could portend several unfinished drives. UNDER.
Detroit +7½ at New Orleans (53): Heading into Monday night the Saints had averaged 40 points per game in 4 home games while the Lions have averaged 29 points per game in 5 road tilts. The ideal conditions indoor are conducive for a pair of teams that have big play capability. OVER.
Denver +1 at Minnesota (38):Tim Tebow magic continued last week as the QB with underwhelming statistics led an OT drive in San Diego that led to the game winning FG. Rookie QB Christian Ponder is getting valuable game experience but there’s little to suggest the Vikes are on the verge of a breakout effort. DENVER.
St. Louis +13½ at SF (38): There are few, if any, positives to mention about St. Louis as normally the first look in a game with this line would be towards the underdog. Double digit favorites are just 9-15-1 ATS this season. But in a matchup of class “A” teams hosting class “C” teams the home teams are 31-1 straight up and 21-9-2 ATS with an average margin of victory of 16 points. SF.
Dallas -5 at Arizona (46): Dallas has won four in a row but has covered just once in this streak. Very quietly Arizona has won 3 of 4 (and has covered 4 of 5) but at 4-7 they will miss the playoffs. Though no longer division foes this is still a rivalry for the Cardinals and their fans. ARIZONA.
Green Bay -6½ at NY Giants (51): This game remains one of the final hurdles between Green Bay and a perfect regular season. The Giants’ pass rush should apply pressure at times on Aaron Rodgers. Despite their huge game next week at Dallas, the Giants can do enough things well to give the Pack their most competitive game of the season. NY GIANTS.
Indy +21 at New England (49½): This is only the ninth time in 20 seasons that a team is favored by 20 points or more. The Pats were favored in the last 3 such games in their 16-0 regular season of 2007 and failed to cover in any of those. The better play may be the total. In the previous eight games involving large favorites 6 have been below the total, averaging just 37 points pre game. UNDER.
San Diego -2½ at Jacksonville (40): Chargers QB Philip Rivers is having a horrible season. The -10 turnover margin is indicative of a lack of focus and intensity. Jacksonville has the NFL’s worst offense, both in yards gained and points scored. But their defense ranks fourth in yards allowed and fifth in points. The UNDER is 10-1 in the 11 Jaguar games. UNDER.