One week and playoff spots still open

Dec 25, 2006 7:08 AM

As the year 2006 draws to a close, so too does the regular NFL season.

For more than a third of the league’s teams (20 to be exact) this weekend’s action will be the last of what has been a most interesting season.

A dozen teams will advance to the playoffs, with the Wild Card round being played over the first weekend of 2007. The postseason culminates on Feb. 15 in Miami with the crowning of the Super Bowl XLI champion.

With one week remaining, Chicago and San Diego are the favorites to meet in that matchup. Much can happen, however, over the next four weeks. The AFC has been the stronger conference for several seasons and the half dozen teams that make the playoffs are arguably as good if not better than most of the six teams that will comprise the field from the NFC.

As has been the case since the NFL expanded the playoffs from 10 to 12 teams more than 15 years ago, this season’s field will have a significantly different look. Several teams that were considered shoo-ins back in August to repeat their playoff appearances will be on the sidelines. In fact, there is a real possibility that half the field will consist of teams not in last year’s postseason.

As we go to press prior to the Sunday games of Week 16, a pair of playoff teams from last season (Washington and Tampa Bay) have already been mathematically eliminated. Last season’s NFC runnerup Panthers also have a very remote chance of returning to the playoffs with an 8-8 record. Their best possible case is winning the final two games.

Already a pair of new faces will join Chicago from the NFC in postseason play. Both Dallas and New Orleans have clinched playoff berths after missing out in 2005.

In the stronger AFC, through 14 games we already have two teams (Baltimore and San Diego) that have clinched division titles. The Ravens and Chargers are battling over the final two weeks for the AFC’s home field advantage. The Indianapolis Colts are in the playoffs after clinching the AFC South.

Reigning Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh has an uphill struggle to return to defend the crown. Winning their final two games would give the Steelers a 9-7 record, but a return to the playoffs would require several other events all to happen in the right combination. As it is, there could be at least one 10-6 team in the AFC missing the playoffs. That, of course, would depend upon which teams win and lose over the season’s final two weeks.

The following analysis and forecasts must be read with a great deal of caution since the only results for Week 16 known as we go to press are Green Bay’s win over Minnesota this past Thursday night and Saturday night’s victory by Kansas City over Oakland. Both the Packers and Chiefs could be eliminated, depending upon how the early Sunday games went.

As the early games next Sunday are being played, those that could be impacted by an early team winning or losing will likely be taken down. As those early games draw near to a conclusion, the afternoon games will be re-posted often at adjusted lines to reflect "need" or "irrelevance" based on the early results.

 

Also, the lines used in the following forecast are the advanced numbers published by the Hilton SuperBook prior to the games of Christmas weekend. As the Hilton has done all season, these lines are published and available for betting about 10-12 days before scheduled play. They also go before the results of the intervening weekend are known. Only side pointspreads are published. Posted totals are left off.

Best Holiday wishes to you and yours.

Here’s an early look at the games of Week 17.

SATURDAY

Giants -3 at Redskins: The Giants likely need to win to make the playoffs after having played a very tough schedule this season. Washington has been a disappointment, but has played the past few weeks with an eye towards seeing if QB Jason Campbell might be the answer next season. The Giants’ defense has gotten healthier over the past few weeks and their defensive leadership is the difference. GIANTS.

SUNDAY

Bills +3½ at Ravens: Buffalo has played well over the second half of the season with QB J P Losman and WR Lee Evans developing into a nice big play combination. The Ravens may rest regulars depending on their playoff positioning. Nevertheless, Baltimore’s defense remains the best unit on the field and will be the toughest ”˜D’ the Bills will have seen this season. UNDER.

Packers +4 at Bears: Chicago likely gives its starters limited playing time as the Bears have wrapped up home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Backup QB Brian Griese could see significant action should he be needed during the playoff run. Green Bay might still have the slimmest of playoff hopes following the win over Minnesota last Thursday. The Bears defense will harass Packers QB Brett Favre and he’s been prone to mistakes with a weakened offense compared to past seasons. BEARS.

Steelers +3 at Bengals: Depending on Christmas Eve’s results, this game could have playoff implications for either, both or perhaps neither. Both had played well heading into last week although the Bengals’ recent success has come mostly against lesser competition. The Steelers offense has been more productive in recent weeks largely due to the running or Willie Parker. OVER.

Lions +12 at Cowboys: It’s been another disappointing season for Detroit, while Dallas is playoff bound and considered by many the one team that can win in Chicago should the Bears and Cowboys meet. Dallas may need this win to clinch the division title and an opening round bye might be at stake. Regardless, Dallas coach Bill Parcells will not want a sloppy effort from his team in the final dress rehearsal for the playoffs. Detroit’s level of enthusiasm for the full 60 minutes has to be questioned. COWBOYS.

Browns +2½ at Texans: Both teams showed modest improvement at various times this season, but their overall lack of depth combined with injuries limited the success. Cleveland is going with backup QB Derek Anderson to end the season and is playing its third road game in four weeks. Houston is closing with its third home game in the final four weeks. This is a big step down in class after facing both New England and Indianapolis the past two weeks. TEXANS.

Dolphins +6 at Colts: Miami is off of three straight divisional games. The Colts may need a win here to gain a bye next week, which could lead to the starters seeing limited playing time. Either way, the Colts figure to use a conservative game plan to reduce the risk of injury by limiting the number of plays by the offense. Miami’s defense has been its strength all season. UNDER.

Jaguars +3 at Chiefs: Both teams may still have Wild Card possibilities when this game kicks off. Jacksonville should be in better position but let several wins fell from its grasp during mid season. The Chiefs have historically played well at home late in the season, even if nothing has been on the line. KC is playing its first home game since the death of owner Lamar Hunt and will give its characteristically strong home effort. Jacksonville has played much better at home than on the road. CHIEFS.

Rams +4 at Vikings: Both teams may have already been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. Minnesota is already looking towards next season with the QB change to rookie Tarvaris Jackson, who was shaky in his first start last Thursday in the elements on the "frozen tundra" in Green Bay. The conditions will be more to his liking inside the Metrodome. We should see both teams playing loose, wide open football. OVER.

Panthers +9 at Saints: Carolina’s disappointing season comes to a close against perhaps the league’s most pleasant surprise. The Saints are playoff bound and may need a win here to secure an opening round bye. The New Orleans defense has struggled in recent weeks. Carolina’s defense has been hard hit by injuries for much of the season. This is a revenge game for the Saints, who were dealt their first loss of this dream season by Carolina back in Week 4. SAINTS.

Raiders +10 at Jets: The Raiders’ pitiful season comes to an end with this cross country road trip. The Jets should still be very much in the battle for a Wild Card and they continue to play well. New York finds ways to win despite below average statistics on both sides of the ball. Oakland continues to be woeful on offense, while still playing solid defense. UNDER.

Falcons +4½ at Eagles: If Philly pulled off the upset in Dallas on Christmas Day, a win here gives them the NFC East title. A loss means this game should have Wild Card implications for both teams. Atlanta has been inconsistent all season despite its strong running game. The Eagles have battled to overcome the loss of starting QB Donovan McNabb in midseason with backup veteran Jeff Garcia fitting in very nicely with the Eagles’ version of the West Coast offense. Philly is in a favorable situation, returning home after three straight road games against divisional foes. EAGLES.

Seahawks -2 at Bucs: Tampa Bay has long been eliminated from the playoffs after having won the NFC South last season. The offense has struggled all season following the season ending injury to starting QB Chris Simms and the frequent injuries to second year RB "Cadillac" Williams. Seattle likely wins the NFC West but its play on both sides of the ball has been down significantly from last season, especially on offense. The Bucs have played well at home, with a pair of close wins over teams contending for the playoffs. BUCS.

Patriots PK at Titans: The Patriots may have reason to play hard in this game with a first round playoff bye possibly on the line. Tennessee has played well over the second half of the season. Regardless of how the Titans fared last week in Buffalo the future is bright behind rookie QB Vince Young. The fine play will be reflected in the very competitive line on this game. New England’s overall talent is better and its defense has played very well on the road, allowing an average of just 11 points prior to last week’s matchup in Jacksonville. UNDER.

Niners +8 at Broncos: San Francisco has enjoyed a fine season with a very young offense that figures to improve next year. The Niners have struggled on the road and are facing a team that may need to win to earn a Wild Card. This line could reach double digits. Considering it is another AFC vs. NFC matchup, the high level of the Broncos’ favoritism is justified. San Francisco’s offense will be limited with the suspension of starting WR Antonio Bryant. Denver QB rookie Jay Cutler continues his development. BRONCOS.

Cards +10 at Chargers: San Diego is the AFC favorite to reach the Super Bowl. Arizona has had another poor season following an offseason of key acquisitions and a summer of high hopes. Coach Dennis Green may be on his way out. The Chargers may have already wrapped up the top seed in the AFC and could rest players. Arizona’s offense has been more productive over the season’s second half, while the defense has not shown much improvement. OVER.