Playoff picture comes into focus

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This week marks the final week of the third quarter of the season and the Playoff picture is materializing.

Teams are about to be officially eliminated from contention, almost certainly beginning this week. It likely will be another week or two before any team officially clinches a Playoff spot, but a handful of teams are currently in excellent position to be playing in January.

In the NFC both New Orleans (South) and the L.A. Rams (West)are 10-1 and each has a four-game lead in their respective divisions. Chicago’s 8-3 record has the Bears a game and a half ahead of Minnesota in the Central. Dallas and Washington are tied atop the NFC East but with very mediocre 6-5 records, a game ahead of Philadelphia. 

Barring dramatic changes, the Saints and Rams should earn opening round Playoff byes with the Bears earning the third NFC seed and hosting the second of the two Wild Card qualifiers. The NFC East winner likely hosts the second Wild Card.

The situation is not nearly as clear in the AFC where 9-2 Kansas City has a one game lead over a pair of 8-3 teams – Houston and New England – for the top seed with Pittsburgh currently seeded fourth at 7-3-1. But the Chiefs’ lead in the AFC West is also just one game over a third 8-3 team, the L.A. Chargers. It is not inconceivable that the Chiefs could fall from the No. 1 AFC seed to a Wild Card should they lose their rematch with the Chargers in Week 15 and other things break a certain way. The game will be in Kansas City after the Chiefs opened the season with a road win over the Chargers. But both teams are heavily favored to at least make the Playoffs with five games remaining.

Thursday

Saints (-7.5) at Cowboys (Over/Under 53): It has been foolhardy to have bet against the Saints this season as New Orleans is an NFL best 9-2 ATS. They’ve covered the spread by an average margin of 9.3 points per game (Kansas City is second with an average result versus the line of plus 6.7 ppg). But what makes it even more dangerous to fade the Saints is that both of their ATS losses came in their first two games. 

Both teams have extra rest after playing on Thanksgiving Day. Rather than go against the Saints let’s pencil them in for at least 30 points, a number they’ve reached in nine of their 11 games (and five in a row) and trust the Cowboys to score at least 24 which is the league average for this season to date. OVER

Sunday

Colts (-4) at Jaguars (47.5): Jacksonville continues to unwind, having lost seven straight. They are making a change at QB and RB Leonard Fournette is suspended for this game. COLTS

Chargers (+3.5) at Steelers (51.5): This game has been flexed to Sunday night and has Playoff implications for both teams, each of which was upset in Denver over the past two weeks. The Chargers rebounded with an impressive 45-10 home win over lowly Arizona despite an early 0-10 deficit. Now it’s Pittsburgh’s turn to rebound from a loss in which the Steelers seemed to play without focus and intensity for much of the game with QB Ben Roethlisberger making some critical mistakes. ­STEELERS

Panthers (-3.5) at Buccaneers (56.5): Both teams have profiles that suggest a high-scoring game which would be in agreement with their performances this season. Tampa is 8-3 to the Over whereas the Panthers are 7-4 to the Over. In their earlier meeting, Carolina earned a solid 42-28 win over the Bucs and the Panthers have not won since.  Unless the line drops to a FG the better option would be with the Total. OVER

Ravens (-2) at Falcons (49): Atlanta has been a streaky team this season. After splitting their first two games the Falcons lost three in a row and then won three in a row before dropping their next three games. At 4-7 they are barely alive in the Wild Card race. Baltimore is 6-5 and still in the mix for a Wild Card. RAVENS

Browns (+6) at Texans (47.5): With their win at Cincinnati the Browns have equaled their total of four wins between 2015 and 2017. Interim coach Greg Williams is making the right decision and the young nucleus of players, led by QB Baker Mayfeld, continues to improve weekly. Houston has won eight straight with four of them by a FG or less. But three of those wins were on the road. Their home wins have been by 3, 7, 19 and 17 points. TEXANS

Bills (+5) at Dolphins (40.5): Barring turnovers, it’s hard to see either offense sustaining drives and converting scoring chances into more touchdowns than field goals. UNDER

Bears at Giants (No Line): The status of Chicago QB Mitchell Trubisky, who missed the win at Detroit, keeps this game off the board early in the week. Backup Chase Daniel filled in well and at 8-3, the Bears are likely a factor in the Playoffs. Strong defenses rarely take a week off. BEARS

Broncos (-3.5) at Bengals (42): With back-to-back wins over the Chargers and Steelers, Denver is now in the Wild Card conversation at 5-6. Cincinnati’s 4-1 start is a distant memory as the Bengals have dropped to 5-6 with three straight losses in their current 1-5 run. And the Bengals have now lost QB Andy Dalton for the season. BRONCOS

Rams (-10) at Lions (55): The Rams have the much better running game, a high powered passing attack and have excelled at avoiding turning over the football. Double digit favorites are 10-6 ATS this season and the Rams have scored at least 33 points in 9 of 11 games (23 and 29 in the other two). RAMS

Cardinals (+14.5) at Packers (44.5): It’s normal to first look towards the underdog when the line is at this level but the underdog has to have either shown the ability to score points or have an outstanding defense. Arizona has neither of these attributes. ­PACKERS

Chiefs (-15) at Raiders (55.5): Kansas City still controls the top seed in the AFC but their edge is just one game over New England, which has the tiebreaker edge, and their Division rival Chargers as they return from their Bye. As well as the Chiefs have played it’s very uncomfortable to lay double digits on the road, especially against a Division rival and especially when the line is more than 14. They may win in blowout fashion but that’s not the way to bet it. RAIDERS

Jets (+9.5) at Titans (40.5): Tennessee has lost two straight, each by double digits, in which they were small road underdogs. In their last home game they easily defeated New England, 34-10, and have earlier one score home wins over Philadelphia and Houston. In general the Titans do not win by huge margins. But the Jets have lost five straight with only one loss (13-6 at Miami) by less than 14 points. TITANS

Vikings (+6) at Patriots (48.5): Both teams appear headed to the Playoffs although the 6-4-1 Vikings have the more challenging path. In a game between two of the best all time ATS coaches the preference is to side with the underdogs getting nearly a full touchdown in a game they are capable of winning straight up. VIKINGS

49ers (+10) at Seahawks (46): This is the first of two late-season meetings between these NFC West rivals. At 6-5 Seattle is very much in the Wild Card race as QB Russell Wilson continues to display his versatility. Seattle’s proclivity for playing close games suggest this is a take with the underdog. 49ERS

Monday

Redskins (+6.5) at Eagles (44): These teams will meet again in Week 17 and this is the start of a tough finishing schedule for the Eagles who, at 5-6, still control their own fate in the NFC East. Washington continues to battle injuries that have challenged their entire offense. The Redskins have lost three of four and are fortunate to have even that lone win as they allowed 501 total yards but just 3 points to Tampa Bay. EAGLES

Last week: 6-9

Season: 86-86-4

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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