Wild Cards wide open
with just 2 to go

Dec 19, 2006 6:49 AM

With two weeks left in the NFL regular season, only six of the 12 playoff berths have been clinched.

In the NFC, Chicago wrapped up the NFC North and secured the top overall seed. The Bears will play away from home only if they reach the Super Bowl. The surprising New Orleans Saints won the NFC South and currently hold the tie breaker edge over Dallas for No. 2 seed and an opening round bye.

Dallas has secured a playoff spot, but not the NFC East title. The Philadelphia Eagles can win the division by beating the Cowboys in Dallas on Monday and then defeating Atlanta at home New Year’s Eve. The Eagles and New York Giants control the two Wild Cards with seven teams mathematically alive at 6-8 or 7-7. Included in that group is Seattle, current leader of the NFC West.

In the AFC, San Diego, Baltimore and Indianapolis have clinched playoff berths. Both the Chargers and Colts have won their respective division titles. New England has a two game lead in the East over the New York Jets with two games to play. The Jets, Jacksonville and Denver are 8-6 and would be joined by Cincinnati if the Bengals defeated the Colts on Monday night.

Most likely the two Wild Cards will come from that group of four although four 7-7 teams (Buffalo, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Tennessee) remain mathematically alive.

It is looking like at least one 10-6 team in the AFC won’t make the Playoffs. There could easily be one 8-8 team in the NFC that does.

After five weeks this season, teams favored by at least 7 were 24-0 straight up. Since then, the margin is 33-13 SU, with four of the losses over the past three weeks (in 15 games). Underdogs are 118-95-5 for the season, slightly better than 55 percent.

Here’s a look at Week 16 games which feature a Monday doubleheader on Christmas Day. Happy Holidays to one and all.

THURSDAY

Vikings +3 at Packers (37): The Pack is playing with confidence following a pair of wins. Minnesota is not used to the outdoors at this time of season. Plus the Vikes are contemplating a change in starting quarterbacks, which cannot be seen as a positive. PACKERS.

SATURDAY

Chiefs -5 at Raiders (37): After being shutout by St. Louis, the Raiders are now averaging barely 11 points per game for the season. They are 2-12 despite a defense that is allowing less than 290 yards per start. Kansas City clearly overachieved when they winning 7-of-9 in midseason. This is a much more favorable situation than last week at San Diego. CHIEFS.

SUNDAY

Titans +4 at Bills (37): Tennessee has won five straight games outright, despite being underdogs in each contest. It’s tough to make a case against either of these teams, especially since both are 10-4 ATS. Rather, focus on the fact both offenses are averaging less than 300 yards per game. Possible poor weather conditions tend to work against offensive continuity. UNDER.

Saints +3 at Giants (47): Saints QB Drew Brees coming off his worst game of the season. The Giants still control their own playoff destiny, have the better talent and are playing with the greater sense of urgency. They have also faced much tougher competition over the past month and a half. GIANTS.

Panthers +6 at Falcons: The status of both starting QBs remain uncertain at the start of the week. Both teams have struggled mightily on offense all season. Carolina has topped 24 points just once and that was in a 26-24 win at Tampa Bay way back in Week 2. Atlanta has scored 20 or less in nine of the last 13 games, including a 20-6 win at Carolina. UNDER.

Redskins +2½ at Rams (43½): The Rams are the healthier team and playing their final home game. Washington might be more focused on playing spoiler next week against the New York Giants. St. Louis is more experienced at QB and has the better balanced offense. RAMS.

Colts -9 at Texans (48): Houston has played hard for much of the season but their lack of overall talent and depth has become evident in recent weeks. The Texans have a winnable game next week against Cleveland. Indy won the first meeting 43-24 and is averaging 100 yards per game more on offense than the Texans. COLTS.

Ravens +3 at Steelers (36): Baltimore is in the Playoffs and could have clinched the AFC North title if Cincinnati lost at Indianapolis on Monday night. The Steelers will be motivated to avenge the 27-0 licking they took at Baltimore a month ago. Since that loss, Pittsburgh has won three in a row and allowed just 13 points. Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger has been more consistent and RB Willie Parker has had several sensational games. The Steelers may be playing their final home game for long time coach Bill Cowher, who has hinted at retirement. STEELERS.

Bucs +3 at Browns (34): To its credit, Tampa Bay rallied to overcome a 14-point fourth quarter deficit in Chicago to force overtime. Tampa has a slight edge on defense, but the overall statistics are down considerably from the past few seasons. The Browns actually have one more win than the Bucs. Cleveland may also be more focused on winning their final home game. Tampa’s enthusiasm and ability to play well in the bitter cold of the Midwest for a second straight week has to be questioned. BROWNS.

Bears -4 at Lions (42): Chicago might rest some starters for this game, including starting QB Rex Grossman. This would normally be a good spot to take Detroit, but the Lions are 2-12 straight up and 4-10 ATS. That’s exactly the opposite of Chicago. The Bears defense has been leaky of late and need to regain some of the swagger with a strong effort against a team they defeated 34-7 in Week 2. The spot hollers Detroit. The fundamentals suggest Chicago. BEARS.

Patriots +2½ at Jaguars (37): New England rebounded from a shutout loss at Miami with a dominating win over Houston. This is revenge for Jacksonville, which was easily eliminated from the playoffs at New England this past January. The situation calls for a play on the hosts, but New England needs a win to wrap up the AFC East and remain alive for a first round bye. The Pats are in the rare role of underdog. PATRIOTS.

Cards +3½ at Niners (45): Arizona reverted to being the Cardinals and lost at home to a Denver team that had been struggling mightily for a month. San Francisco defeated Division leader Seattle for a second time, continuing the improvement made under second year coach Mike Nolan. The 49ers have an emerging elite RB in Frank Gore and an improving young defense. They also have a 4-2 record at home. NINERS.

Bengals NL at Broncos: Denver is likely to be favored by less than a FG regardless of Cincinnati’s Monday night result in Indianapolis. Denver has had the more consistent rushing game and played better defense, though the margin is not great. Denver has lost three straight home games, all to teams that will make the playoffs. Cincinnati is in a tough scheduling spot, having to play off a short week of practice following the Indy game. BRONCOS.

Chargers -3 at Seahawks (47): San Diego’s defense limited the Chiefs to just 250 total yards, including just 90 on the ground. Seattle will likely win the NFC West unless losing the final two games and San Francisco wins out. The Chargers figure to play hard, as they have all season. They do not want to risk losing momentum, a strategy that has backfired mightily in recent seasons to teams wrapping things up too early. Plus, this is another AFC vs. NFC matchup. CHARGERS.

MONDAY

Eagles +7 at Cowboys (47): It’s been a tale of three seasons for the Eagles. A 4-1 start followed by 5 losses in 6 games and then three straight wins. Dallas rebounded from a shocking home loss to New Orleans with a comeback win at Atlanta. In replacing injured starter Donovan McNabb, QB Jeff Garcia has enjoyed great success running the Philly offense. Dallas made the midseason switch at QB to Tony Romo and Romo’s has responded better than most expected. This line seems a bit too high. EAGLES.

Jets +2 at Dolphins (36½): Despite subpar stats, the Jets continue to win. Especially on the road! The Jets are 5-2 away from the Meadowlands, including wins at division rivals Buffalo and New England. One of the Jets home wins was 20-17 over Miami. The Dolphins lost at Buffalo last week, which officially knocked the Fish out of playoff contention. Miami’s profile has been a weak offense and a strong defense. UNDER.