NFL races coming down to the wire

Dec 22, 2009 4:59 PM
Pigskin Picks by Andy Iskoe |

The finish line is in sight with just two regular season games remaining and that means much will be decided before the Playoffs field is set.  Half of the dozen Playoff teams are known while 6 are yet to be determined.  They shall be decided this week and next as 12 teams will go on to the post season while 20 teams will get a head start on planning for the 2010 season.

Indianapolis and San Diego are the only AFC teams assured of making the Playoffs and, in fact, will be seeded first and second with the Colts having already clinched the top AFC seed a week ago.  San Diego clinched the AFC West title and the number two AFC seed when they defeated Cincinnati this past Sunday while Denver was being upset in Oakland.

New England and Cincinnati lead their respective Divisions but neither has yet clinched a Playoff berth.  The two AFC Wild Cards are currently controlled by Baltimore, each with 8-6 records.  Yet a full half dozen teams are but a game back with 7-7 records making it quite likely that the final few AFC Playoff spots will not be decided until the regular season’s final week.

In the NFC Arizona, Minnesota, New Orleans and Philadelphia have clinched spots in the post season.  Dallas and Green Bay – both 9-5 – control the two Wild Cards and thus will make the Playoffs by winning their final two games.  The New York Giants could have become the NFC’s lone 8-6 team by winning at Washington Monday night.  But a loss by the Giants would have left them 7-7 and tied with Atlanta.  With the 6 other NFC teams having won no more than 6 games, only the Giants and Falcons are in position to snare the Wild Cards from the Cowboys and Packers should things break right over the final two weeks.

Last week was a great week to have been playing NFL Underdogs on the Money Line as heading into Monday night’s game six underdogs won straight up including a two touchdown underdog, Oakland.  Carolina was at least a touchdown underdog when they upset Minnesota Sunday night as was Dallas when they ended New Orleans’ perfect season on Saturday night.  Tampa Bay won at Seattle as a shade under to TD puppy.

These results show that even though we may often figure teams that have nothing to play for will not show up, such is often not the case at all.  Players are still playing to achieve certain goals and to leave positive impressions with fans and coaching staffs during the off-season.

Still, handicapping the final two weeks of the season is tricky with pointspreads often inflated due more to specific situations, the need to win or the lack of anything to play for than in the true differences between the teams.  The final weeks of the season must be approached with even greater caution than the first week of the season when little is known about teams for the new season but at least everyone is playing with an unblemished slate.Here’s a look at the 16 games to be played this weekend with the NFL giving us a gift on Christmas Day as the penultimate week of the season kicks off on Friday.  

And with these previews come heartfelt wishes for a very Happy Holiday season for one and all.

FRIDAY –

   San Diego (plus 3) at Tennessee (Over/Under 47) – San Diego may rest some starters as they are assured of the AFC’s number two seed.  Tennessee has remarkably overcome an 0-6 start to win 7 of 8 and could make the playoffs with a win here and next week at Seattle if they get some help.  The situation calls for a play on the Titans and their current form is almost as strong as the Chargers’, who have won nine in a row.  But this is the week for San Diego to exhale now that their playoff position is known.  The price is cheap enough to back the Titans especially if the line remains at a FG or less.  TENNESSEE

SUNDAY –

   Seattle (plus 13½) at Green Bay (41½) – Seattle was woeful in last week’s inexplicable home loss to lowly Tampa Bay as QB Matt Hasselbeck tossed a quartet of interceptions raising questions that he might be bothered by nagging injuries more than he is letting on.  The Seahawks may well have packed it in for the season.  Green Bay plays to secure a Wild Card and they are commended for their effort in last week’s loss at Pittsburgh.  The Pack rallied several times in that game only to lose on the game’s final play.  It’s a big number to lay but it’s hard to make a case for the underdog against a Packer offense that continues to be productive.  GREEN BAY.

   Oakland (plus 3) at Cleveland (39½) – Both teams are off wins last week and each has played hard over the last month despite long ago being out of the Playoff picture.  Charlie Frye started at QB last week for the Raiders and he returns to the team with whom he played briefly and where he played collegiately nearby.  Both teams may be looking at players with an eye towards next season.  The teams are similar statistically with Oakland having the edge defensively.  This could be an entertaining game and we often see such matchups produce greater than expected points.  OVER the Total.

   Kansas City (plus 13½) at Cincinnati (41) – Back to back losses at Playoff-bound Minnesota and San Diego has seen Cincinnati’s lead in the AFC North shrink to just a single game over Baltimore.  The Bengals need a win here to clinch the AFC North and they figure to get it against defensively inept Kansas City who enter this game after having lost three straight games at home.  The Chiefs’ defense and special teams were equally horrid in last week’s loss to Cleveland.  Cincinnati rallied back from down 11 in the fourth quarter and only a Charger 52 yard FG in the waning seconds prevented that game from going to overtime.  There’s very little to support a sudden surge in effort from the Chiefs while the Bengals need to regain momentum for the Playoffs.  This is an ideal spot for a rout.  CINCINNATI.

   Buffalo (plus 8½) at Atlanta (41) – Atlanta’s late rally against the Jets for a win last week keeps the Falcons alive for both a Wild Card berth and the first back to back winning seasons in franchise history if they can win out.  Buffalo was game in defeat to New England but the offense continues to sputter.  Atlanta did regain QB Matt Ryan and RB Michael Turner last week but overall the Falcon offense has been barely average all season.  Buffalo has been solid on defense which could keep this game low scoring.  UNDER the Total.

   Houston (plus 3) at Miami (45) – This is a Wild Card elimination game as both teams are 7-7 and the loser is eliminated from the Playoffs.  The winner is not assured of making the Playoffs either although they have an excellent chance to pull even with current Wild Card frontrunners Baltimore and Denver, each of whom have difficult road games this week.  Houston has failed to come through several times in so-called pressure situations and last week barely beat a flu ridden Rams team by a FG.  Miami rallied from a deep deficit only to fall in overtime at Tennessee.  Miami seems to have the stronger will, the better coaching and the much stronger running game.  Those are enough edges to warrant a call on the hosts.  MIAMI.

   Carolina at N.Y. Giants (No Line) – The Giants played in Washington Monday night and should be about a TD favorite.  Carolina’s season has been disappointing, marked by woeful QB play and nagging injuries to their featured RB tandem.  The Giants’ defense is down considerably from the start of the season when they appeared strong against what we’ve since seen are some of the weakest offenses in the league.  The Giants are still contending for a Playoff spot but laying points is dangerous.  Carolina is off of their best effort of the season last week against Minnesota and this well coached team might be interested in finishing strong and lay the foundation for a bounce back season in 2010.  Backup QB Matt Moore continues to develop.  CAROLINA.

   Tampa Bay (plus 14 ½) at New Orleans (50) – The Saints tasted defeat for the first time last week when they fell at home to Dallas although they did rally and had a shot to tie the game in the final minute.  Now that the pressure for perfection is gone the Saints can go back to playing the aggressive type of football that marked their dominant efforts over the first half of the season.  They need a win to clinch the top NFC seed and face a Tampa team they crushed 38-7 in their first meeting.  Tampa returns from what had to be a very satisfying win in Seattle but the situation does not favor a second straight big effort.  NEW ORLEANS.

   Jacksonville (plus 9) at New England (43) – The Patriots have not been the same since they blew that 17 point lead in mid season at Indianapolis in mid season.  Whether there is an undisclosed injury hampering QB Tom Brady or the league is finally catching up to their schemes or age is finally catching up to them all three seem to be reasonable explanations as to why New England has not been able to turn it on as in seasons past.  Jacksonville put up a game fight in losing to the Colts last week and they do have several extra days of rest and preparation.  At 7-7 the Jaguars remain on the fringe of Wild Card contention and should put forth a big effort, especially with their potent ground game.  Until such time as the Patriots can demonstrate an ability to win by margins against average teams or better it’s tough to lay over a TD.  JACKSONVILLE.

   Baltimore (plus 2½) at Pittsburgh (40) – This figures to be a typical physical battle between longtime rivals with Playoff elimination on the line for defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh and a chance to all but clinch a Wild Card spot for the Ravens.  Baltimore has been playing better football down the stretch and the Steeler had a tough time ending their five game losing streak last week, falling behind a couple of times to Green Bay after building a seemingly comfortable lead.  Fundamentally these are still a pair of solid defenses and with so much at stake for both teams the way to look first is still for a defensive struggle with a result similar to their first meeting that ended with a 20-17 final in overtime.  UNDER the Total.

   Denver (plus 7) at Philadelphia (41) – Both teams have reasons to play hard.  Philly has clinched a Playoff spot but not the NFC East title which would give them at least one home Playoff game.  They still have an outside shot to catch Minnesota for the NFC’s number 3 seed.  Denver controls their Wild Card fate and looks to bounce back from a shocking home loss to Oakland in which the Broncos were two touchdown favorites.  The Broncos have the better rushing attack, slight edges on defense and have actually scored better on the road than at home.  The Eagles have the better passing offense but will be facing the league’s second ranked pass defense.  Denver may not have enough to garner a straight up win but they have enough positives to keep this one competitive.  DENVER.

   St. Louis (plus 14) at Arizona (43½) – Arizona is pretty much locked in to the NFC’s number 4 seed and the Cards will host a Wild Card round Playoff game.  They’ve already won their Division and will likely give backups added playing time over the final two weeks although the starters will also see plenty of action to avoid rust.  St Louis was game in their narrow loss to Houston last week in which several players were recovering from the swine flu.  They just don’t match up well against the Cardinals and are likely to again be relying on third string QB Keith Null.  This one comes down to how many points the Arizona offense wants to score as the Rams figure to contribute very little to the scoreboard.  Arizona likely tops 30.  ARIZONA.

   Detroit (plus 11) at San Francisco (41) – Credit Detroit with a game effort last week in rally from a 17-0 halftime deficit to tie Arizona at 24 before surrendering the game winning TD to the Cardinals.  Both teams are looking towards 2010 with the 49ers having brighter prospects at the moment, especially with their nicely developing offense.  That offense should have success against a defense that is allowing a league high 36 points per game on the road.  San Francisco has four double digit home wins this season including each of their last two home games which were against teams much better than the Lions.  SAN FRANCISCO.

   N.Y. Jets at Indianapolis (No Line) – There is no line currently on this game as bookmakers await further information regarding Indianapolis’ plans with their starters as the Colts have already secured the top AFC Playoff seed.  This was also the case prior to their win last Thursday in Jacksonville and the starters played nearly a complete game, including QB Peyton Manning who led the game winning fourth quarter drive that keeps the Colts unbeaten.  The Jets continue to be plagued by the growing pains of rookie QB Mark Sanchez.  But the Jets’ defense remains the league’s best statistically, allowing just 263 yards per game, nearly 30 ypg less than second best Green Bay.  The pass defense has been especially strong, allowing a league low 160 ypg.  The combination of the Jets’ troubles on offense and their solid defense suggests this game will be low scoring.  UNDER the Total.

   Dallas at Washington (No Line) – Washington hosted the Giants Monday night and figures to come just over a FG underdog against their bitter rivals.  Dallas needed a late touchdown to edge the Redskins 7-6 in their first meeting.  The Cowboys finally won a December game and did so by knocking off unbeaten New Orleans.  Yet they still found a way to nearly blow that game by shanking a FG off the uprights that would have given them a 10 point lead with but minutes to play.  But they survived the Saints last minute drive to put themselves in position to clinch a Wild Card with a win here.  Prior to Monday night the ‘Skins had covered fine in a row and have played solid football over the second half of the season.  They’ve had a solid defense all season and the offense has shown improvement in recent weeks.  The fundamentals point towards another low scoring game between these foes who are very familiar with one another’s capabilities and limitations.  UNDER the Total.

MONDAY –

   Minnesota (minus 7) at Chicago (42) – The Vikings have had their problems on the road of late, dropping their last two such contests at Arizona and Carolina by a combined 56-24 score.  Chicago is playing out the string and cannot truly play spoiler as the Vikes have already clinched the NFC North title.  But Minny is now in danger of losing the number two NFC seed to Philadelphia depending on how things break in the season’s final two weeks.  We’ve seen teams out of contention use the national limelight as a stage to at least get some satisfaction as San Francisco upset Arizona two weeks ago and last Sunday night saw Carolina upset these very Vikings.  But Chicago has not shown the same signs entering this contest as have those other teams that pulled off big home upsets.  The night cold will be a challenge for the Vikes in general but not for QB Brett Favre who enjoyed these conditions when with Green Bay.  It’s tempting to make a case for the Bears but the edges just are not there.  With Minnesota hearing Philly footsteps for the number 2 NFC seed they should put forth a fully focused effort here and they have the edges on both sides of the ball to get the win and cover.  MINNESOTA.

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Andy Iskoe