The NFL regular season is three quarters complete and, with teams having just four games remaining, the race to the playoffs has intensified.
Now, the ultimate Super Bowl champion starts its late season run. In some years it’s, forgive the pun, a middle of the pack team such as Green Bay last season.
In other seasons it’s one of the teams that’s been at the top of the standings all season. Although no surprise, Green Bay and San Francisco became the first to clinch playoff berths this past Sunday by winning their respective division titles.
At 12-0 the Packers remain on the path to perfection and will play 3 of their final 4 games at home. Two of the home games are against division foes Chicago and Detroit who the Packers have already defeated on the road. The other two are against the weak AFC West — hosting Oakland this coming weekend and at Kansas City the following week.
The Packers are all but certain to earn the top seed in the NFC for the playoffs with the 10-2 Niners in good position for No. 2. Should the Niners falter, the New Orleans Saints could overtake them. At 9-3 the Saints are one of three teams unbeaten at home, along with the Packers and the Baltimore Ravens.
There is huge incentive to earn one of the top two seeds as those teams get a bye during the opening round and the benefits of that extra rest following a season with no formal off season conditioning due to the lockout cannot be underestimated.
Quite likely the team seeded fourth in the NFC will be the winner of the East where 7-5 Dallas currently leads the New York Giants by a single game. The Cowboys and Giants will meet twice in the final four weeks and the ultimate division winner might wind up 9-7 record, possibly 10-6.
With Atlanta, Chicago and Detroit each losing this past week the NFC wild card race has become wide open. That trio is each 7-5 which not only puts the 6-6 Giants into play but also a pair of 5-7 teams, Arizona and Seattle. There is a real possibility that the NFC wild cards will be a pair of 9-7 teams with an outside shot that 8-8 might be good enough.
There is no clear cut leader for the AFC top seed as four teams are tied for the best record at 9-3. New England leads the AFC East and Houston is atop the AFC South while Baltimore and Pittsburgh are tied for the lead in the AFC North.
Denver and Oakland are tied for the lead in the AFC West with 7-5 records, but the Broncos control their own fate in the division. Cincinnati, the New York Jets and Tennessee are also 7-5 which right now would earn the second AFC wild card. With nine teams at 7-5 or better and none at 6-6 we can pretty much eliminate 5-7 teams from wild card contention. Sorry, Chargers.
Injuries and depth are always factors that influence which teams are able to survive the final quarter of the season and make the playoffs. It will not be a surprise if a team under the radar makes a late season surge.
Perhaps one of those 7-5 teams is capable of making such a run. If so, Cincinnati, Detroit or even Tennessee might be that upstart team to make the playoffs after missing out last season.
Here’s a look at the 16 games to be played this weekend.
Browns +14 at Steelers (39½): It’s dangerous laying double digits in the NFL, but some matchups are more conducive for doing so. This is much like last week’s game between the Rams and 49ers in which a top notch defense hosted a very weak offense. The Browns have been held to 14 points or less in 7 of their 12 games. Pittsburgh has been much more potent offensively at home than on the road. STEELERS.
Colts +16 at Ravens (41): The Colts showed spark in New England, scoring 21 fourth quarter points to turn a lopsided 31-3 deficit into a respectable looking 31-24 defeat. It was their first cover after 7 straight ATS losses but the Colts still remain winless at 0-12. The Ravens’ offense should be low risk, needing to take few chances against one of the league’s worst defense and an offense that has shown little ability to come back. UNDER.
Texans +3 at Bengals (37½): The Texans have held six straight foes to 14 points or less. Cincinnati has started to fade, losing 3 of 4 following a 6-2 start. This is a much more favorable spot for the Bengals who now must play with a sense or urgency to keep playoff hopes alive. Houston likely without star WR Andre Johnson who was re-injured in last week’s win over Atlanta. BENGALS.
Raiders +11 at Packers (53½): Oakland QB Carson Palmer gives the Raiders a legitimate passing attack that should have success against a Packers defense that has been rather ordinary. Oakland is 6-2-1 ATS as an underdog this season and this is the first time the 7-5 Raiders have been underdogs of more than a touchdown. RAIDERS.
Chiefs +9 at NY Jets (36½): The Chiefs have now played five straight games scoring 10 or fewer points. The Jets have started to run the football better over the past month which has enabled QB Mark Sanchez to be more effective. Given the Chiefs’ prolonged ineptitude on offense expect the Jets to be aggressive in going for the lead and then turning things over to the defense to protect and likely extend that lead. JETS.
Vikings +8 at Lions (NT): The status of Minnesota RB Adrian Peterson is not certain. After starting 5-0, that included a 26-23 win at Minnesota in week 3, the Lions have lost 5 of 7 to have them as one of several teams now battling for a wild card. But a closer look shows that all 5 losses have been to winning teams whose combined record is 40-15. At 2-10 the Vikes represent a clear step down. LIONS.
Saints -4 at Titans (48½): New Orleans is just 3-3 on the road and catch the host Titans off of two straight wins. At 7-5 Tennessee has already defeated a pair of winning (Baltimore and Denver). The win over the Ravens came as an underdog in which they caught Baltimore off of a huge emotional opening week victory. The Titans are off of their two best rushing efforts of the year, gaining 202 and 187 yards behind RB Chris Johnson. Don’t be shocked by an outright win. TENNESSEE.
Eagles +3 at Dolphins (45): Finally we have a point spread that reflects reality rather than reputation. The Eagles are now underdogs for the third time in four games, although now are dogs to a losing team. After starting 0-7 the Fish have won 4 of 5 and have covered 6 straight There still is a decided edge in talent regardless of whether its Vince Young or Michael Vick at QB. EAGLES.
Patriots -7½ at Redskins (48): The Patriots have a huge edge on offense whereas Washington has the statistical edge on defense. But fundamentally this matchup greatly favors New England and QB Tom Brady should have success against a depleted Redskins defense. After a mid season offensive lull, the Pats have now scored at least 30 points in 4 straight games. PATRIOTS.
Falcons -2½ at Panthers (48): The Panthers have shown more balance in recent weeks with a solid running game to support rookie QB Cam Newton who’s not had to pass much recently as he did in September. Despite their well documented struggles on the road the past few seasons Atlanta had won 3 straight on the road prior to the loss at 9-3 Houston. The Falcons should be healthier for this game. FALCONS.
Bucs -1 at Jaguars: Tampa starting QB Josh Freeman is questionable. The Jaguars fired coach Jack del Rio last week with defensive coordinator Mel Tucker taking over as interim coach. Both teams are playing out the string and with nothing on the line this could be a wide open game with both offenses taking chances. Little to recommend about this one. JAGUARS.
49ers -4 at Cards (40): The Niners have allowed a league low 161 points, 28 fewer than second best Houston. At the same time the offense has been capably directed by QB Alex Smith who has not been called upon to make the big play but to avoid mistakes. Arizona’s defense has allowed just 17 points per game over the last after yielding 30 or more in 4 straight. The Niners won the first meeting 23-9. UNDER.
Bears +3½ at Broncos (36 ½): Tim Tebow actually put up some decent passing stats and his efforts were needed as the defense played poorly. Chicago was held to just a FG in last week’s home loss to Kansas City in which RB Matt Forte was injured early. Denver is now favored for just the second time in 10 games and first by more than a FG. Chicago will again rely on its defense. UNDER.
Bills +6 at Chargers (47): The Chargers have a strong history in December under soon to be ex-Coach Norv Turner and a win over the Jags would have them just two games behind AFC West co-leaders Denver and Oakland. Both teams should have success moving the football in what should be a loosely played but entertaining game. OVER.
Giants +3½ at Cowboys (49): The Giants have won two straight at the new Cowboys Stadium. QB Eli Manning is having a fine season and the Giants’ defense takes a step down in class in facing a Cowboys offense that has not performed to the level of New York’s last two foe, the Saints and Packers. GIANTS.
Rams +6½ at Seahawks (39½): Seattle has been playing well over the past month, winning 3 of 4 and averaging 140 yards rushing in their last 5. The Rams have been inept offensively all season, only twice scoring more than 16 points. Seattle will bring the greater energy to this game and we saw them perform well on the national stage last Thursday when they easily defeated Philadelphia. SEAHAWKS.
last week 8-7, overall NFL 86-96-5, PCT tebowing