NFL’s final week comes down to motivation

Dec 28, 2004 7:05 AM

The long football journey that began in the heat of training camp last July ends for 20 of the NFL’s 32 teams this coming Sunday. The fortunate dozen, whose seasons extend beyond Week 17, seek to win just two or three more games and earn a trip to Jacksonville to play in Super Bowl XXXIX on Feb. 6.

In the AFC, Pittsburgh holds the top seed which carries with it a first round bye and home field advantage throughout the conference playoffs. New England is seeded second and will also have a first round bye. Indianapolis gets the third seed and will host a first round wild card game as will San Diego, the fourth seed.

The two wild cards are still undecided although the New York Jets (10-5) have a one game lead over both Denver and Buffalo (9-6). Baltimore and Jacksonville are each 8-7. The Jets and Denver control their own fates and make the playoffs with wins on Sunday. In a three way tie amongst the Jets, Denver and Buffalo at 10-6, it would be the Bills and Broncos who’d advance as wild cards.

The NFC is not quite as settled, although Philadelphia has already earned the top seed with Atlanta second, Green Bay third and the winner of the NFC West (either Seattle or St. Louis) fourth. Seattle has already clinched at least a wild card and would have won the division with a St. Louis loss to Philadelphia on Monday night. Such a result would also have put Minnesota in as a wild card.

Should the Rams have defeated the Eagles they would remain alive. Two of the following teams ( Rams, Vikings, Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints) would gain the playoffs depending on what happens this week. Carolina hosts New Orleans in what, in effect, might be an ”˜early’ playoff game.

The final week of the regular season is usually treacherous for both linesmakers and bettors. Teams already in the playoffs and locked into seedings often rest many starters or play them for just a quarter or a half. Teams out of contention will often just go through the motions and not give the proverbial 110 percent.

Often games early in the day have bearing on those scheduled later and, in such cases, are often taken off the board. Depending on the early outcomes, the later games may be reposted with significant differences in the line. What had been a three or four point favorite before the morning games kick off could become a seven or eight point favorite if the "need to win" remains following the early game results.

Here’s a preview of the final week’s action with all games being played on Sunday and the Cowboys and Giants presenting the final act to the regular season Sunday night.

49ers +14 at Patriots (40): The 49ers will have little interest in putting forth much of an effort while the Patriots likely will rest regulars and use this as a tuneup. The New England defense might well pitch a shut out. UNDER.

Steelers NL at Bills: Pittsburgh has locked up the top AFC seed and its main focus will be to stay healthy. Rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger was banged up in last week’s win against Baltimore so expect the Steelers to play it very conservative with backup Tommy Maddox. Buffalo will go all out to win and then hope for help elsewhere. BILLS.

Dolphins +9 at Ravens (35): Miami will likely lack the intensity showed the past two weeks in home wins over New England and Cleveland. Baltimore needs to win and get some help to make the playoffs as a wild card. Both teams are considerably stronger on defense. UNDER.

Vikings NL at Redskins: Even with the last minute loss at Dallas last week, Washington continues to play hard and has shown at least modest improvement on offense over the last half of the season. The defense has been top notch all season. The outdoor venue and possibly poor weather conditions point to a strong season ending effort at home. REDSKINS.

Bengals NL at Eagles: Philly’s regulars are likely to see only limited action. Cincinnati has played well down the stretch, especially in the fourth quarter even when trailing by a margin. They play with a chance to finish 8-8 and have a chance to complete a season sweep of the NFC East. BENGALS.

Packers +3 at Chicago (36): Green Bay will host a wild card game next week and can not improve its position. Chicago has struggled mightily over the last month, especially on offense. The defense, even though shorthanded, has played well. Only twice has Chicago allowed more than 24 points. UNDER.

Saints +7 at Panthers (46): This should be played with the intensity of a playoff game. The loser is eliminated and the winner may well secure the final NFC wild card. Both teams have played well down the stretch. Carolina has won six of seven after starting 1-7. The Panthers are fundamentally better and defeated the Saints in the first matchup, 32-21. PANTHERS.

Lions NL at Titans: Both teams have long been out of realistic playoff contention, but neither has just mailed it in. Detroit continues to look with optimism towards next season with a vastly improved running game. Tennessee’s defense got even more banged up in the loss to Denver. LIONS.

Jets NL at Rams: The Jets simply need to win and they are in the playoffs, but would be the odd team out in a three way 10-6 tie with Denver and Buffalo. The Jets have already defeated three NFC West foes this season. The Rams have shown they are clearly an average team. JETS.

Browns +11 at Texans (40): Cleveland played with intensity last Sunday in Miami and figures to be flat. Houston, meanwhile, plays to finish at 8-8 in only its third NFL season. The Texans are clearly an improved and generally healthier than the Browns. TEXANS.

Bucs +2 at Cards (39): Two 5-10 teams. Tampa Bay is likely more disappointed with its season, which began with playoff expectations. Arizona showed promise in coach Dennis Green’s first year. The Cardinals are likely to put forth the better and more sustained effort. CARDS.

Falcons NL at Seahawks: Both teams are in the playoffs and figure to rest starters. Even Atlanta QB Mick Vick may see limited action at best. Seattle starting QB Matt Hasselbeck sat out last week’s win over Arizona with an injury. Backup Trent Dilfer may again see most of the action. Both offenses figure to be conservative. UNDER.

Colts +9 at Broncos (48): The surprising line in this game tells us that Denver has the need to win, while the Colts are entrenched as the AFC’s third seed. It’s possible these teams could meet again in next week’s wild card round. Indy QB Peyton Manning set the TD pass record in last week’s wild comeback win over San Diego and might sit much if not all of this game. Denver’s objective will be to gain the early lead and play it safe. UNDER.

Jaguars NL at Raiders: The Jaguars still have faint hopes of making the playoffs. Oakland has started to find some offensive rhythm over the last month, but mistakes and penalties continue to plague this undisciplined team. Jacksonville has injury concerns at QB. UNDER.

Chiefs -3 at Chargers (56): Both teams have been playing their best ball of the season down the stretch. As with other playoff bound teams, the Chargers are likely to rest many of their starters. KC coach Dick Vermeil will have his team enthusiastic to finish at .500 and building momentum for next season. CHIEFS.

Cowboys +3 at Giants (37): Dallas got a nice win for the home fans in the last minute comeback against Washington. The Giants have lost eight straight since starting 5-2 and will be highly motivated to give Eli Manning, his first taste of victory. Expect a very strong effort from the Giants on Sunday night. GIANTS.

Last week: 9-6

Season: 127-107-5