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Surprise favorites perchedatop the NFL standings

Nov 28, 2000 7:45 AM

If you’ve been out of touch with the NFL for about six months, you will be shocked when you open the newspaper and scan the pro football standings.

No, it’s not a misprint. The New Orleans Saints are tied with defending Super Bowl champion St. Louis atop the NFC West. And yes, those are the Philadelphia Eagles with the lead in the NFC East, not over the pre-season NFC popular choice Washington, but over the New York Giants.

The Redskins, 7-5, face a key game against the Giants this Sunday — one they must win or they’ll fall to 7-6 with just three games left.

Right now, the teams that control their own playoff destiny in the NFC are Philadelphia, Minnesota, New Orleans, Detroit, the Giants, St. Louis and Washington. All but Washington have four losses or less, but a win by the Redskins this week over the Giants would complete a season sweep of the New Yorkers and give Washington the tiebreaker edge. At 7-5, another pre-season choice, Tampa Bay, will also need some help to make the playoffs.

Intriguing AFC

The playoff situation is even more clouded in the AFC where Miami, Tennessee and Oakland hold division leads.

The Titans lead surging Baltimore by just a half-game in the AFC Central, while Oakland leads Denver by two games in the West.

Miami’s lead in the East is just a game over the Jets, but remember that New York swept the season series from the Fish. These six teams control their own destiny, but a pair of 7-5 teams from the AFC East — Buffalo and Indianapolis — need to just make up one game.

And the four AFC East contenders square off this week, with Miami looking to sweep the season series at Buffalo, while Indy attempts to accomplish the same at the Jets.

Here’s a look at this week’s schedule, which features seven divisional games: Four have playoff implications and match teams with winning records. There‘s also a pair of intriguing inter-conference match-ups involving teams contending for the playoffs, with Denver heading to New Orleans, and Tennessee visiting Philadelphia.

Thursday, Nov. 20

Detroit (+9) at Minnesota (Total 48½): Detroit (+13 in turnover margin) continues to win by limiting mistakes and playing fundamentally sound football. Minnesota continues to have one of the best running games in the league to compliment their awesome passing game. The Vikes won, 31-24, in Detroit earlier this season. A win here clinches the NFC Central title. The Lions are pesky enough to make the Vikings work to get the win in a competitive game. The play is on DETROIT.

Sunday, Nov. 3

Miami (+3½) at Buffalo (36): Miami held Indy to a season low in points last week, despite allowing almost 350 yards. Buffalo dominated Tampa Bay in the stats, outgaining the Bucs, 433-180, but key mistakes and breakdowns enabled Tampa to break open a close game late. Earlier this season, Miami won, 22-13. Both offenses have struggled to convert yards into points. Both defenses have generally played well. Weather is always a factor this time of the year in Buffalo. The play is the UNDER.

N.Y. Giants (No Line) at Washington: The Giants lead the Redskins by a game in the NFC East, but lost at home earlier to the ‘Skins, so this is a key game for tiebreaker purposes. Both teams have above average defenses. Surprisingly, the Giants have outscored Washington by a small margin. But the Giants have struggled when facing more talented teams. Perhaps the games each team played against the Rams illustrates the difference between the teams. The Giants lost at home to the Rams one week before Washington won at St. Louis. This game shapes up as a physical contest, with the team better able to run the ball getting the win. The play is on the UNDER.

St. Louis (N/L) at Carolina: The runner-up in the NFC West might not make the playoffs as a wild card. QB Kurt Warner is expected back for the Rams. We’ve learned there’s a very significant dropoff from Warner to backup Trent Green. St. Louis’ defense continues to struggle. The Panthers upset the Rams in St. Louis a month ago. Both teams figure to pass the football and test each other’s secondary. The play is on the OVER.

Arizona (N/L) at Cincinnati: These teams are a combined 5-19 and their overall statistics are similar except that Cincy can run the ball while Arizona can’t. Both teams, –14 in turnover margin, have suffered from poor QB play. For Arizona, the status of starter Jake Plummer is uncertain, but backup Dave Brown was horrible in last week’s loss to the Giants. The Bengals are likely to be small favorites. Despite a reluctance to lay points with either of these teams, the deciding factor is Cincy RB Corey Dillon being the most talented player on the field. The play is on CINCINNATI.

Denver (Pick) at New Orleans (45): Both teams won with backup QBs last week, with Denver totally dominating Seattle (over 500 yards of offense). The Saints out-gained St. Louis by over 50 yards, and now control their own destiny. Denver has the decided edge on offense, but the Saints have a similar edge on defense.In the battle of backup QBs, New Orleans’ Aaron Brooks rates a slight edge over the more experienced Gus Frerrote because of his mobility and defensive support. The play is on NEW ORLEANS.

Oakland (3) at Pittsburgh (42): The Raiders appears to be the best team in the AFC, although they’ve struggled on the road. Pittsburgh got a much needed win in Cincinnati, but remains a longshot to make the playoffs. Pittsburgh has played good enough defense to suggest Oakland will not win easily here, either. Both teams have very strong running games, so the number of possessions may be limited, especially since neither team loses many turnovers. The play is on the UNDER.

Seattle (Pick) at Atlanta (43): Both teams have struggled, explaining their combined 7-18 record. Injuries have hurt both teams, preventing continuity and improvement during the season. They’re each being outgained by more than 100 yards per game. Each has had trouble stopping the run, which usually enables opponents to have success picking their spots to throw. Seattle may have more offensive versatility with RB Ricky Watters. The Falcons have a slightly better passing game. The play is the OVER.

Dallas (+11) at Tampa Bay (38): Tampa Bay clings to playoff hope because of the surprising performances of previously unheralded Eagles and Saints. Dallas’ problem continue to be on defense, where they allow a league-high 175 rushing yards per game. Their offense has struggled of late, scoring more than 17 points in just one of their last five games. They do have extra rest. RB Emmitt Smith should be back after suffering a concussion in their Turkey Day loss to Minnesota. Tampa’s defense, still its strength, is down statistically from last season, allowing almost 300 yards per game. The play is the OVER.

Tennessee (-3) at Philadelphia (36½): Tennessee, a formidable team, could return to the Super Bowl. All three losses have been by 3 points or less. The Eagles are improving every week and have rewarded their backers with an 8-3-2 ATS record. Donovan McNabb is putting up decent numbers; his ability to run the ball makes him a big play threat. This is Tennessee’s only non-division game in a 7-game stretch and the first of three games against AFC Central foes for the Eagles to end the season. The play is PHILADELPHIA.

San Francisco (-2) at San Diego (44½): The pressure is off of the Chargers, who finally got their first win after 11 straight losses, despite only 201 yards in offense. San Francisco is rested and has played pretty good football for the past two months. Jeff Garcia continues to mature and has become more comfortable as a leader. The 49er defense has also played better of late, including limiting Kansas City to just 7 points and 290 yards a few weeks ago. They also held Atlanta to 6 points just before their bye week. San Diego’s offense is on a par with the Falcons. The play is on SAN FRANCISCO.

Indianapolis (+2½) at N.Y. Jets (45): NYJ seek to avenge a 23-15 loss at Indy. A loss here puts Indy’s playoff prospects in great peril despite the presence of three of the NFL’s premier offensive performers. The Colts have been hurt by turnovers and are -10 in turnover margin. Indy’s statistical edge on offense is much greater than the Jets’ edge on defense, holding the Colts to an average of less than 17 points over their last seven meetings. The play is on UNDER.

Cleveland (+13) at Jacksonville (38½): Jacksonville has won 3-of-4, and defeated Cleveland on Opening Day, 27-7. Cleveland has been woeful on offense all season, averaging just 10.5 points per game. Jags RB Fred Taylor appears back to full strength. That means the passing game will be more effective. The talent gap is great. While Jacksonville seems to have been able to compensate for numerous injuries, the same can’t be said for the Browns. The play is on JACKSONVILLE.

Green Bay (N/L) at Chicago: The Pack’s playoff hopes are virtually gone. Chicago has improved and been much more competitive in recent weeks. They defeated both Indianapolis and Tampa Bay in their last two home games and won earlier this season at Green Bay, 27-24. But that was several Bears quarterbacks ago. Shane Matthews, the current starter, has been slow to produce. Chicago’s running game has been significantly better than Green Bay’s. That should enable the Bears to control the clock and keep Packers QB Brett Favre on the sidelines. The play is on the UNDER.

Monday, Dec. 4

Kansas City (N/L) at New England: KC backup QB Warren Moon showed his age and rustiness in a loss in San Diego. New England is being outgained by more than 50 yards per game. Neither team has been able to run the ball effectively, which suggests this Monday nighter will feature plenty of passes. The Chiefs have put up the better passing stats, but those have been with Elvis Grbac. Monday night games have been high scoring, and with both teams being forced to rely on the passing game, a couple of big pass plays can be expected. Play on the OVER.