Playoffs up for grabs

December 19, 2000 7:15 AM
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The NFL playoff picture is as unsettled as it has ever been, with just one week remaining in the regular season. As we go to press, only the New York Giants had clinched a division title. Five playoff berths remain to be claimed, although New Orleans will have clinched on Monday night if St Louis and Tampa Bay didn’t play to a tie.

In fact, with the Saints likely in the playoffs, they join Baltimore, Denver, the Giants, Oakland and Philadelphia as teams that will be there that did not make it last season. Only Minnesota and Tennessee have thus far made the playoffs for at least a second straight season. Thus, six of the eight playoff teams are "newbies," with the possibility of either the Jets or Pittsburgh and, in the NFC, perhaps Green Bay, giving the 2000 playoffs a very different composition from last season.

How much has parity crept into the NFL playoffs? Since they expanded to include 12 teams in 1990, at least half of every playoff field between 1991 and 1998 was made up of teams that were playoff repeaters from the prior season. In 1999, only five playoff teams from 1998 returned. In 2000, perhaps as many as eight teams will make the playoffs after being spectators in 1999.

With no clearly dominant team in either conference, and with the possibility of so many relatively inexperienced teams in the playoffs, there could be many surprises and several upsets along the path to Super Bowl XXXV.

Here’s a look at the final week of the regular season, noting that the Cleveland Browns finally get their bye week.

Week 17

Jacksonville (+4) at NY Giants (Over/Under 37): With their comeback win over Dallas on Sunday night, the Giants can gain NFC home field advantage in the playoffs with a win here. Jacksonville has played very well over the past month, but was victimized by poor weather and the awful field conditions in having their four-game winning streak snapped in Cincinnati last week. Both teams prefer to run the ball. Any inclement weather will only strengthen that game plan. The Giants will get even more conservative should they get the lead. The play is on the UNDER.

San Francisco (+7) at Denver (48 1/2): The 49ers’ defense has shown great improvement throughout the season. After allowing at least 20 points in each of their first ten games — including over 30 points in eight of them ”” four of their last five foes have been held to 17 points or less, with three of them scoring 7 or less. But those were very weak offenses. Now they face an angry Denver that blew a chance to win the AFC West when they lost at Kansas City last week. They’ll need a win here and some help in Oakland on Sunday. The play is on DENVER.

Buffalo (+3) at Seattle (42 1/2): Seasons of disappointment conclude for both teams ”” albeit with each team heading in opposite directions. Both were in the playoffs last year. After beginning the season looking as though they might be back, the Bills’ season has fallen apart with four straight losses, including three by at least 14 points. Seattle looked awful early in the season but has continued to play hard and has improved down the stretch for patient coach Mike Holmgren. They’ve won four of their last six games and figure to be the more enthusiastic team here. The play is on SEATTLE.

NY Jets (+6 1/2) at Baltimore (35 1/2): The Jets have squandered a pair of chances to not just clinch a playoff spot but perhaps even win the AFC East title. Now they must face the league’s top defense that’s on the verge of setting an all-time record for lowest scoring average. The Jets’ offense has never really been explosive all season when facing much weaker defenses. Baltimore’s offense had been performing well prior to last week’s lethargic effort in Arizona. This game will be played with playoff intensity, with the Jets having clearly the greater need. The play is on the UNDER.

St Louis at New Orleans (No Line): Depending on what happened Monday night, this could be for the NFC West title (if the Rams defeated Tampa) or for the Rams to simply make the playoffs (if Tampa won). New Orleans’ RB Ricky Williams might see some action after missing over a month with an injury. Our selection is predicated on what happened Monday night. If the Rams lost to Tampa and the Saints are the NFC West champs regardless of what happens here, the play is on the OVER. If the Rams won on Monday, making this a game that decides the NFL West title, the play is on ST LOUIS.

Arizona (+7) at Washington (38 1/2): Washington was among the pre-season favorites to win the Super Bowl following the acquisition of some outstanding talent during off-season. Now the Redskins won’t even make the playoffs. Arizona’s season has also been disappointing. Both teams suffer from similar yet contrasting maladies. Washington has been distracted by a meddlesome, demanding owner. The Cardinals have been hampered by ownership that seems to care little about on the field success. Perhaps the Redskins will make a push to get interim coach Terry Robiskie the full-time job after having lost his first two games, both on the road. Arizona interim coach Dave McGinnis already has the full-time job. The play is on WASHINGTON.

Chicago (+9 1/2) at Detroit (37 1/2): Detroit kept its fading playoff hopes alive with an upset of the Jets. QB Cade McNown wasn’t sharp in his return from injury, leading an attack that was held to just 104 yards of offense. Both offenses have struggled to sustain scoring drives. Despite perfect indoor conditions, both sides have limited options. The play is on the UNDER.

Cincinnati (+10 1/2) at Philadelphia (35): Philadelphia is fresh after a bye week and has made the playoffs as a wild card. They’ll host that game with a win here. Cincinnati will be hard-pressed to play from far behind with their weak passing game, but their running game should be able to chew up the clock. Philly will be concerned with avoiding injuries. The play is on the UNDER.

Kansas City (-4) at Atlanta (40): Kansas City showed characteristic heart be dealing Denver a key loss last week. The Chiefs discovered a running game last week and should be intent on continuing to develop that part of their offense. This figures to be a very loosely played game, with both defenses lacking intensity and both coaches opting for creative play calling. The play is on the OVER.

Tampa Bay at Green Bay (No Line): Again, Monday night’s results will have a major impact on this game. If Tampa won, they’re already in the playoffs. Green Bay must win and get some help. Regardless, this game will be played with playoff intensity. The conditions don’t suit Tampa Bay. All week long you’ll hear how the Bucs are winless in their history when the kickoff temperature is below 40 degrees. This should be competitive, with scoring chances and points at a premium. The play is on the UNDER.

Miami (-4) at New England (35): After seemingly cruising to the AFC East title, a pair of losses has thrown Miami’s ability to just make the playoffs into severe jeopardy. A win here and they win the division title. A loss, combined with wins by the Jets and Colts, and the Fish might be on the sidelines. Miami won the earlier meeting 10-3. Likely cold and possibly inclement weather suggest this should be another game dominated by the punters. The play is on the UNDER.

Pittsburgh (-3) at San Diego (37 1/2): The Steelers remain alive for the playoffs, but they might already be eliminated when they take the field if the Jets win at Baltimore. Pittsburgh will rely on the running of Jerome Bettis and the slowly re-emerging skills of WB Kordell Stewart. The Chargers will play hard in seeking to avoid a 1-15 record. This could turn out to be an entertaining game. The play is on the OVER.

Minnesota at Indianapolis (No Line): If the Giants lost to Jacksonville on Saturday, Minnesota can win the home field edge in the NFC with a win. But if Tampa won on Monday and also wins at Green Bay earlier in the day, the Vikings need to win just to win the NFC Central title. Indianapolis likely needs to win to have a chance to make the playoffs and could still win the AFC East if Miami loses at New England. The play is on the OVER.

Carolina (+9) at Oakland (45 1/2): Oakland got a reprieve when Denver lost at Kansas City following the Raiders’ controversial loss at Seattle. A win here gives Oakland the AFC West title and a first round bye. Need has the better weapons and is already in the playoffs. The play is on OAKLAND.

Dallas (+13 1/2) at Tennessee (37 1/2): AFC home field advantage may be on the line as the Titans and Cowboys close the regular season. If Baltimore defeats the Jets on Sunday, a win by Tennessee is needed to clinch the AFC’s top seed. Dallas’ defense has played better the past two weeks, but still is vulnerable to the run. Titan RB Eddie George is in peak form. Dallas is likely to rely on inexperienced QB Anthony Wright once again. He made mistakes when pressured by the Giants last week. The Titans have the league’s No. 2 defense. When facing the league’s top defense (Baltimore), Dallas was shut out. Look for Tennessee to end the season with a third straight win as they seek to defend their AFC title. The play is on TENNESSEE.