It is hard to believe but the NFL regular season has reached the three quarters mark with only four games remaining for each team before the playoffs.
As the season enters its final quarter there are teams that control their own fate. One of those is Cleveland, which faces a decision on whether to start Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel this week.
Others will need varying degrees of help in addition to winning out and others, such as the two New York teams, that can do no better than play the role of spoiler.
The Divisional and Wild Card races are coming into focus and will be sorted out over the final four weeks. Things are incredibly tight in the AFC, especially in the race for the two Wild Cards. In the NFC there is the real possibility, as happened with Arizona last season, a 10-6 team will miss the playoffs.
As the season winds down many teams will find themselves in “must win” games. Keep in mind that “must win” does not equate with “will win” and those teams in “must win” situations are there usually because they failed to capitalize in previous situations, often situations that were favorable.
At the same time, don’t be confused by a “must win” situation faced by a team that needs the win to keep its hopes of just making the playoffs with a so-called “must win” game to improve a team’s seeding or clinching of a bye or home field advantage.
New England is all but certain to win the AFC East. At 9-3 the Patriots lead 7-5 Buffalo by 2 games with Miami favored to also be 7-5 after playing at the Jets on Monday night.
The AFC North remains wide open with all 4 teams having winning records and in position to either win the Division or earn a Wild Card.
Indianapolis is in good position to win the AFC South and could be the only team in that division to finish above. 500. At 8-4 the Colts may not be able to earn an opening round Bye unless they win out and pass over one of the other division leaders.
Denver leads the AFC West by a game over San Diego and by two over Kansas City. The Chargers have the tougher end of season schedule that includes a rematch at home versus Denver in two weeks and a season ending game at the Chiefs.
Philadelphia has overtaken Dallas atop the NFC East and hosts the Cowboys in two weeks. Both teams control their own destinies in making the layoffs with the Eagles in much better position.
A similar situation exists in the NFC North with Green Bay leading Detroit by a game. The Division title could well be decided in Week 17 when the Packers host the Lions, seeking to avenge an early season loss at Detroit.
Only one team will emerge from the NFC South with New Orleans and Atlanta tied with ugly 5-7 records. New Orleans hosts the Falcons in the season’s penultimate week, looking to avenge an opening week upset loss in Atlanta.
The NFC West has become very interesting now that Arizona has lost back to back games, dropping to 9-3 and seeing its lead over Seattle cut to just a single game and over San Francisco to two games. Both the 8-4 Seahawks and the 7-5 49ers are in danger of missing the playoffs. Seattle is tied with a pair of second place teams, Detroit and Dallas. The Seahawks lost earlier in the season to the Cowboys.
Arizona could stumble down the stretch and lose 3 of its final 4 games, finishing at 10-6 for a second straight season and miss the playoffs with that same record for a second straight year.
A short 16 game schedule all but insures that playoff matchups are not decided until the final week or two and the NFL wouldn’t want it any other way.
Get set for a great final month of football, filled with a roller coaster of incredible highs and unbearable lows.
Here’s a look at the full slate of 16 games that mark the start of the 2014 regular season’s fourth quarter.
Dallas -3.5 at Chicago (51): The ‘Boys cannot afford to look past the Bears. At 5-7 Chicago is relegated to playing the role of spoiler but success in that role may have to wait until next week when the Bears host New Orleans on Monday night. Still, the more supportable play would be to expect a high scoring game given that both offenses are much better than both defenses. OVER.
Baltimore +3 at Miami: The Ravens have relied more on offense the past couple of season while the aging defense has begun a transition. Both teams have been successful in both running the football and defending the run but the Dolphins have been much better at defending the pass. That could be decisive in Miami winning and covering as about a FG home favorite. MIAMI.
Pittsburgh +3.5 at Cincy (47): Pittsburgh returned from its Bye with a poor effort in last week’s 35-32 home loss to New Orleans in a game that was not as close as that score might suggest. The Bengals have the better defense and the Steelers possess the better offense. The overall talent edge is with the hosts who have had a strong home field over the past several seasons. CINCINNATI
Indy -3.5 at Cleveland (49.5): The Browns could be involved in a QB controversy after rookie Johnny Manziel provided some spark after replacing Brian Hoyer, who has been ineffective in recent weeks despite leading the Browns to a 7-5 record. Cleveland is still in the layoff chase and worth backing as a home underdog getting at least a field goal. CLEVELAND.
Houston -4 at Jacksonville (42): Houston was dominant in its win over Tennessee and at 6-6 still has a shot at the playoffs. Houston has the edge on both sides of the football. The defense will be facing rookie QB Blake Bortles in the first of two meetings down the stretch. Houston’s defense leads the NFL in forcing 2.3 turnovers per game. The Jags cough it up on average twice per game. HOUSTON.
NY Giants +1 at Tennessee (45.5): Both teams are off ugly losses with the Giants blowing a 21-0 lead at Jacksonville and the Titans blown out by 24 points at Houston. Tom Coughlin could be a lame duck coach for the Giants whereas Tennessee’s Ken Whisenhunt is only in his first season as Titans’ boss. That could point to a more focused effort from the hosts. TENNESSEE.
Carolina +9.5 at New Orleans (49): The Panthers were sloppy off their bye in a 31-13 loss at Minnesota but can still win the Division despite their 3-8-1 record. But there are more reasons to trust the Saints, even though we can’t conclude that their ills have been cured just off of their win over the Steelers. But the Saints did win the earlier meeting at Carolina, 28-10, outgaining the Panthers 375 to 231. NEW ORLEANS.
TB +10 at Detroit (41.5): The Bucs have only been blown out twice and both happened in the first half of the season. None of their last 5 losses has been by more than 10 points. Both teams have played games that have been lower scoring than expected with the Lions 9-3 to the UNDER and Tampa 8-4 in the same direction. UNDER.
St. Louis -2.5 at Wash (44): Washington remains a team in turmoil and it’s hard to make a case to back them, especially considering they are on a 0-4 and 1-8 ATS slide. The Rams are favored on the road for the first time since 2010. They have not won back to back games this season. In defeat last week Washington did show some spark behind reserve quarterback Colt McCoy. WASHINGTON.
NY Jets +5.5 at Minnesota: The Jets are off of Monday night’s game against Miami and playing out the string for soon to be ex-coach Rex Ryan. Minnesota continues to play with enthusiasm for first year head coach Mike Zimmer and have covered 5 of their last 6 games. The Jets were a woeful 2-8-1 ATS and -12 in turnover margin, with just 7 takeaways through their first 11 games. MINNESOTA.
Buffalo +10 at Denver (48): RB CJ Anderson has provided a much needed spark in the ground game for the Broncos, who have run for over 200 yards the past two weeks. Buffalo dominated the second half in last week’s home win over Cleveland. On a yards per play basis, these teams rank first and second, allowing under 5.0 ypp including allowing under 4.0 yards per rush. UNDER.
KC PK at Arizona (40.5): On offense the Chiefs have the better running game and Arizona the better passing game. That’s a matchup of strength vs. strength and weakness vs. weakness. The teams are tied for fourth in allowing just 18.7 points per game and tied for fifth in losing just 1.1 turnovers per game. Combined the UNDER is 15-8-1. UNDER.
SF -7 at Oakland (41): At 7-5 San Francisco is in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Although their offense has sputtered the 49ers defense remains top notch and will be facing one of the league’s weakest offenses. Oakland has topped 24 points just once this season and has scored 14 or fewer points in 8 of its dozen games. SAN FRANCISCO.
Seattle +1.5 at Philly (49): Seattle should try to dictate the pace of this game with a more limited offense that concentrates on moving the chains rather than relying on the big pass play. That strategy also works to keep the fast paced Eagles offense on the sidelines. With both teams having key Divisional games up next, this could be a conservatively played game which translates to ‘low scoring.’ UNDER.
New England -3.5 at SD (50.5): Both quarterbacks Brady and Rivers have repeatedly shown the ability to rally from behind which suggests the last team to have the football could be in position to win the game. That makes taking at least a FG with a home team an attractive option. The Chargers are 5-1 SU at home with the lone loss by a FG to Division rival Kansas City. SAN DIEGO.
Atlanta +11.5 at GB (56): Both offenses feature outstanding wide receivers and a rushing game that is secondary to the pass attack. Atlanta’s defense ranks last overall and last against the pass. The Packers have blowout capability but Atlanta should get its share of points to make this an entertaining, high scoring contest. OVER.
Last week: 7-8 (prior to MNF)
Andy Iskoe, and his Logical Approach, provides his popular and unique handicapping statistics to Gaming Today readers and online visitors. He has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football. Contact Andy at [email protected]