Any team can make a runfor a shot at Super Bowl

December 12, 2000 10:20 AM
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Just two weeks remain in this NFL regular season. With virtually every final score comes an impact on the playoff picture.

As we go to press, five teams have qualified for the Playoffs, including three that missed out last season. Joining playoff repeaters Minnesota and Tennessee are Baltimore, Oakland and Philadelphia. Several teams are on the verge of qualifying, including Denver, the Giants and the Jets. All were also on the sidelines as the Rams rolled to their Super Bowl title last January.

We might see as many as seven new teams in the playoffs this season compared to last with perhaps only the Rams, Miami and Tampa Bay returning from last season. Call it parity or mediocrity, the NFL has to love it. They used to say that on any given Sunday any team can beat another. Now, in any season any team can make a run at the Super Bowl.

In the AFC, wins by Miami and Denver will clinch playoff spots, while a win by the Jets would virtually assure them of the final AFC post-season invite. In the NFC, the Giants are one win away from winning the NFC East and joining Philadelphia and Minnesota in the playoffs. In the West, New Orleans can capture the division crown by defeating Atlanta if the Rams lose in Tampa Bay on Monday.

If both teams win or both lose, the West title will be decided when the Rams visit New Orleans in next week’s season finale.

Tampa Bay controls its own playoff destiny and could still win the NFC Central with a pair of wins and a pair of Viking losses. Detroit, Washington and Green Bay remain mathematically alive, but the Packers and Redskins need some improbable scenarios to still be playing at the end of December.

Here’s a look at this week’s schedule: Philadelphia gets to enjoy its playoff clinching win at Cleveland last week by finally enjoying their bye week. Keep this in mind. The Eagles are likely to be the freshest team in the playoffs when they begin at the end of the month.

Washington (-1) at Pittsburgh (Over/Under 37 1/2) (Saturday): Washington responded to their coaching change with a very dull effort in a one-sided loss at Dallas, in a game they needed to win to keep flickering playoff hopes alive. It’s evident the team has totally quit on the season. It’s hard to see much of an effort here as the disappointing season can’t end soon enough for the Redskins. The Steelers’ loss at the Giants last week eliminated them from the playoffs, but they’ve played enthusiastically all season as QB Kordell Stewart seeks to regain his own confidence and that of his teammates. Pittsburgh reflects their coach’s personality. They’ll be delivering hard hits all game against a team that would rather be elsewhere. Both teams remain mathematically alive for the playoffs, but realistically they have no shot. The play is on PITTSBURGH.

Oakland (-6) at Seattle (47 1/2) (Saturday): Oakland clinched a playoff spot with last week’s win over the Jets. The defense was outstanding, limiting New York to just 10 rushing yards on 20 carries. The Raiders lead Denver by a game in the AFC West but lose to the Broncos on tiebreakers, so this is an important game for Oakland. Seattle has played better on offense lately, but their defense remains ranked last in the league. Still, they haven’t quit despite long being out of playoff contention. They’ll put up an effort against the invading Raiders. The play is on the OVER.

New England at Buffalo (No Line): Last Monday’s game at Indianapolis will have determined whether Buffalo remains alive for the playoffs. The rash of injuries to their defense over the past few weeks pretty much doomed those playoff chances, but they remain a fundamentally solid team. New England couldn’t carry momentum from their Monday night win vs. the Chiefs, couldn’t establish a running game and couldn’t take charge in a game tied at the half. Buffalo has significant statistical edges and better talent at the skilled offensive positions. The play is on BUFFALO.

Green Bay (+7 1/2) at Minnesota (48 1/2): Green Bay was dull offensively in last week’s win over Detroit. Minnesota was equally as flat in losing decisively in St. Louis. It was the Vikings’ second loss in two games absolutely critical to their opponents’ chances of remaining alive as legitimate playoff contenders. After being routed at Tampa Bay, the Vikings responded with a solid effort in poor weather in an overtime Monday night loss in Green Bay. They clearly outplayed and outgained the Packers in that game and, but for the weather, would likely have won. Under ideal indoor conditions, this should be a fast-paced game with both teams capable of gaining huge chunks of yardage. The play is on the OVER.

Atlanta (+10) at New Orleans (41): The Saints kept pace with the Rams atop the NFC West with a fortunate though controversial win at San Francisco last week. They can clinch the division title here with a win because of tiebreaker edges if the Rams lose in Tampa Bay Monday night. Should that happen, it concludes a remarkable feat that would have seen all five NFC West teams win a division title over the past five seasons! New Orleans QB Aaron Brooks continues to improve and impress. Defense continues to play well, though the numbers have declined in recent weeks. Atlanta had a bye last week. Their enthusiasm to return for a pair of games to end a disappointing season has to be a concern. Outgained by over 100 yards per game, the Falcons have begun to look at younger players down the stretch, including QB Doug Johnson. The play is on NEW ORLEANS.

Denver (-3) at Kansas City (46 1/2): Denver continues to maintain pace with Oakland in the AFC West, trailing by a game but holding the tiebreaker edge. KC is playing out the string. This will be their final home game. Over the past 22 seasons the Chiefs have covered all five times they finished their home schedule as an underdog. Denver has the edge in the running game, but defensively the Broncos have been weak, especially against the pass — Kansas City’s offensive strength. But the KC defense is also weaker than in recent seasons. Weather might be a factor, but both teams have been able to demonstrate strong passing games. The play is on the OVER.

Detroit at New York Jets (No Line): Both teams remain alive for the playoffs despite losses last week although the Jets are in much better shape. In fact, a win here clinched them at least a wild card. They can still win the AFC East if they can make up one game on Miami. Detroit has suffered from poor quarterback play all season. Starter Charlie Batch appears to have never fully regained 100% from injuries that sidelined him at the start of the season. This is Detroit’s third straight road game. They’re being outgained by 44 yards per game. The Jets also have QB concerns, with Vinnie Testaverde’s questionable status keeping this game off the board as the week begins. The play is on the UNDER.

Jacksonville (-10 1/2) at Cincinnati ( 42 1/2): The Jags were eliminated from the playoffs last week despite their rout of Arizona. They’ll be playoff spectators for just the second time in their brief history. But they may be playing the best football of any team in the league, having won four straight games by an average score of 36-12. RB Fred Taylor has been spectacular during. The Bengals lacked response after falling behind at Tennessee. Their offense that relies too heavily on the run prevented them from coming from behind. Cincy is averaging just 166 passing yards per game. Despite the overall disappointment of how their season will end. the Jags have an offense and a defense ranked amongst the league’s ten best. The play is on JACKSONVILLE.

San Diego (+8 1/2) at Carolina (38 1/2): This has been a trying season for San Diego. It winds down with uncertainties about head coach Mike Riley perhaps leaving for USC as well as the quarterback situation for next season. The Chargers have been unable to rush the ball, having an incredible -27 turnover margin. Unbelievably, the Chargers are losing almost two net turnovers per game. Carolina has been inconsistent, but has enough fundamental edges to suggest a good effort here. This is San Diego’s second straight trip to the East Coast. That has to take a toll on a team that can’t wait for the season to end. The play is on CAROLINA.

Tennessee (-15 1/2) at Cleveland (36 1/2): Tennessee continues to play very well. All three losses this season have been by a FG or less. But their 5-9 ATS record suggests a team that struggled to win by large margins. Last week’s 35-3 win over Cincinnati was their only win by more than 14 points this season. Last month, the Titans defeated the Browns 24-10. Cleveland took some chances on offense last week in their loss to Philadelphia and actually outgained the Eagles 418-391. But their offense is still very weak. They’ve battled injuries all season. Due to injuries, Philly has been unable to maintain a solid running game. Tennessee RB Eddie George is among the best in the league. He’ll pound the ball and ultimately wear down the Browns’ defense. Cleveland’s inability to run the ball plays into the strength of the Titan’s No. 2-ranked defense. The play is on TENNESSEE.

Chicago (+6) at San Francisco (45 1/2): Chicago had one of its best games of the season in last week’s win over New England but now faces one the league’s better offenses. The 49ers’ offense is much stronger and better balanced than Chicago’s and should be able to have success. San Francisco’s weakness has been its defense, which couldn’t hold a lead against New Orleans last week. Though out of the playoffs, both teams have continued to play hard. Facing a weak defense, Chicago may have trouble trading points. The Bears have scored 17 points or less in 10 of 14 games. The play is on SAN FRANCISCO.

Indianapolis at Miami (No Line): The Colts hosted Buffalo last Monday night. Even with a win, they would have remained barely alive for the playoffs. Miami’s loss to Tampa Bay surrendered the Dolphins’ control of home field in the AFC playoffs. They still lead the Jets by just one game in the East. For the season as a whole, Miami has been a big surprise. Indianapolis has been one of the bigger disappointments following last season’s 13-3 record. Turnovers can explain much about both teams, with the Colts -12 (before Monday) and Miami +13. That, and Miami’s much better defense, suggest that Miami’s pace controls the game. The play is on the UNDER.

Baltimore (-14) at Arizona (37 1/2): Through 14 games, only Jacksonville has gained more than 300 yards against the Ravens, and the Jags did it twice! No other foe has gained more than 286 yards. Baltimore’s last three foes have each been held to under 200 yards. Arizona is barely going through the motions. Baltimore has found an offense after October’s futility, scoring at least 24 points in each of their last five games. Given their defense, that’s more than enough to cover this number, especially given the huge edges in the ground game enjoyed by the Ravens on both sides of the ball. This game has the sharpest contrast in turnover margins, with Baltimore + 17 and Arizona -19. The play is on BALTIMORE.

New York Giants at Dallas (No Line): Dallas showed spunk last week in beating up on old rival Washington to sweep the season series, likely knocking the Red-skins out of the playoffs. QB Troy Aikman suffered another concussion and is unlikely to play, although he might make a token appearance to receive thanks from the crowd for a brilliant career in what may well be his final appearance on this field. The Giants displayed a surprisingly efficient passing game in their win over Pittsburgh last week. In the first meeting this season, the Giants ran for over 200 yards. The Dallas defense still ranks last against the run. This game should be dominated by both teams’ rushing and be low scoring. The play is on the UNDER.

St Louis (Pick ‘em) at Tampa Bay (49): As expected, Ram QB Kurt Warner was much sharper last week.