Last year’s losers have scheduled more wins

Oct 17, 2001 2:29 AM

As handicappers we must take note of how the NFL schedule unfolds. In particular, attention must be paid to the quality of opponents a team faces.

Remember that when two Super Bowl contenders meet early in the season, one of them must lose. Likewise, when a pair of doormats do battle, there must be a winner.

Take a look at the schedules played by the seven bottom teams in the league last season. Arizona, Atlanta, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, New England and San Diego finished at the bottom of their Divisions in 2000 with a combined record of 25-87 (Cincinnati finished fifth in the six team AFC Central).

Their ineptitude was rewarded with last place schedules ”” meaning that they would face one another during 2001. Thus far, in 2001, these seven teams have combined to fashion a record of 17-16.

Buffalo (+8½) at Jacksonville (Over/Under 39): Both teams had Byes this past weekend. Buffalo is winless with an offense that is struggling and a defense that has many faces to replace and already having suffered the loss of LB Sam Cowart. The concern for Jacksonville was their lack of depth behind the starting unit. Both teams have quality receivers, veteran quarterbacks and questionable defenses. The play is on the OVER.

New England (+10½) at Indianapolis (47½) ”” This is a quick second meeting between the teams who met just three weeks ago in New England. The Patriots, 10-point underdogs. totally dominated play and frustrated Colts QB Peyton Manning and his mates in a shocking 44-13 win. The Pats have fared well at Indianapolis as well in recent seasons. The Pats have either won straight up or lost by single digits each of the past dozen games. The preference is for NEW ENGLAND.

St. Louis (—6½) at NY Jets (46½) ”” The Jets continued their amazing mastery of Miami last week and their success once again was due to their avoidance of turnovers and the recovery of turnovers by the defense. The Jets lead the league in both categories but their overall offensive and defensive statistics are below average. The Rams lost versatile RB Marshall Faulk for several weeks to injury. As we saw against the Giants, his absence totally changes the nature of their potent offense. Expect the Rams’ offense to have difficulty adjusting to the loss of Faulk. The preferred play is on the UNDER.

Atlanta (+8½) at New Orleans (42) ”” Atlanta has covered eight straight point spreads in the series and 14-of-16 prior to New Orleans’ 23-7 home win late last season. The Falcons played inspired football last week in losing for the second time this season in overtime to San Francisco, despite a rash of injuries including the loss of RB Jamal Anderson for the season. New Orleans is playing only their second home game of the season. Both teams like to throw. The play is on the OVER.

Baltimore at Cleveland (No Line) ”” The questionable status of Baltimore QB Elvis Grbac kept this game off the board early although veteran Randall Cunningham performed well in relief in the loss at Green Bay. The Ravens defense will be less tested by Browns’ QB Tim Couch than Brett Favre. Cleveland continues to show improvement in most phases of their game and is gelling nicely under first year coach Butch Davis. Baltimore’s defense was embarrassed last week and that could portend a shutout here. The preference is for the UNDER.

Carolina at Washington (No Line): Both teams are off to disappointing starts, particularly Washington. The Redskins were still in search of their first win last Monday night in Dallas while Carolina’s lone victory came in Week 1 at Minnesota. The Panthers have played a much more difficult early schedule and continue to play hard for 60 minutes. The same cannot be said of Washington with friction remaining between coach Marty Schottenheimer and his players. Carolina is well-positioned for a win. The preferred play is on CAROLINA.

Chicago (+1) at Cincinnati (35½): Both teams are off to surprisingly good starts this season. Chicago has shown improvement on defense and recently the offense has perked up. Cincinnati has been strong at home dating back to last season. The Bengals have now won five straight in front of their home fans. Chicago has won three straight since an opening week loss at Baltimore in which the Bears led for much of the game. The Bengals defeated Baltimore on this field two weeks later. The play is on CINCINNATI.

Pittsburgh (+5½) at Tampa Bay (33½): Pittsburgh continues to win games on defense, much as Baltimore did last season. The offense is basically the running of RB Jerome Bettis as QB Kordell Stewart is being asked to simply avoid mistakes. Tampa showed a surprisingly strong passing game in losing in overtime at Tennessee last week. QB Brad Johnson threw 50 passes but completed just 24. Pittsburgh has the better defensive stats and stands a real chance to win this game straight up. The preference is for PITTSBURGH.

Tennessee (—6) at Detroit (38): It wasn’t easy but Tennessee finally got their maiden win of the season last week in OT after allowing Tampa Bay to rally for a pair of touchdowns in the final five minutes of regulation. Winless Detroit showed some moxie in rallying to make their loss at Minnesota respectable. QB Charlie Batch did seem to regain some rhythm with receivers Johnnie Morton and Germaine Crowell. Perhaps the Lions can use that second half momentum this week against a team that tried hard to give away a much-needed win last week. The play is on DETROIT.

Denver at San Diego (No Line): The status of Denver QB Brian Griese was in doubt at press time. Griese clearly appears to be hampered by a lingering shoulder injury. The season-ending injury to reliable WR Ed McCaffrey has impacted the offense as well and the Broncos’ defense has suffered. San Diego has lost two in a row following a 3-0 start, although both were on the road. The Chargers have had problems with Denver in recent seasons even with a fine defense. The preferred play is on DENVER.

Kansas City (—2) at Arizona (41): KC is struggling with coach Dick Vermeil’s offense but much of the problem can be traced to the limited number of healthy receivers apart from TE Tony Gonzalez. This has placed too much pressure on QB Trent Green to try to do too much. RB Priest Holmes has helped and the Chiefs figure to improve on offense. Arizona spotted Chicago an early lead last week and played well late but the defense can’t stop the run. The Kansas City defense has also shown some weakness against the run, which could allow for some big passing plays. The preference is for the OVER.

Green Bay (—3) at Minnesota (48): Minnesota’s offense finally showed some spark last week largely due to the running and passing abilities of QB Daunte Culpepper. Green Bay also was impressive on offense, gaining almost 400 yards against the tough Baltimore defense. This should be another high scoring shootout with at least 80 passes thrown and perhaps 1,000 yards in total offense. The preferred play is on the OVER. Philadelphia (+3) at NY Giants (36): Fundamentally the Eagles hold significant statistical advantages over the Giants. Both teams played the Rams tough this season. Philadelphia is off a bye week following a last-second upset home loss to Arizona. But the Giants have long dominated this series. The G-men have won nine in a row over Philly, including three last season. They are also 8-1 ATS in those nine victories. The play is on the NEW YORK GIANTS.