Contenders break from pretenders

November 27, 2001 8:57 AM
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The NFL season is entering the latter stages and with all teams having played at least ten games we can now have a pretty good focus of how the Divisional races and Wild Card chases may unfold down the stretch. Over the past month many questions have been answered about those teams which started hot and looked superior in September and for those teams that stumbled out of the gate and caused us to wonder whether or not they would recover.

The NFC East is clearly the most mediocre division in the league. Consider that Washington, outscored 112-16 in losing their first three games before dropping another pair of games, is now just one game out of the lead. A five game winning streak and the failure of either Philadelphia or the New York Giants to take charge in the Division have enabled the Redskins to become a factor in the Playoff chase. It’s unlikely that any team from this Division will qualify as a Wild Card and it’s quite possible that a 9-7 record will be good enough to win the Division title.

Here’s a preview of this week’s action. The New York Giants have their Bye week and there are seven Divisional contests, including three rematches.

Eagles (—3) at Chiefs (37): This Thursday night interconference game features a Philadelphia offense still struggling to find some consistency. Kansas City finally won their first home game in five tries last week and being at home is even more of an advantage during a short work week. The Chiefs’ offense has also struggled. Take UNDER.

Broncos (+3) at Dolphins (41): Denver is well rested after playing on Thanksgiving Day so the cross country travel should not be as much of a disadvantage as normal. Miami has the better defense but the edge is not nearly as great as many might assume. Still, given the problems Denver’s offense has faced in establishing continuity works against them here. Take MIAMI.

Colts (+7) at Ravens (43): The Colts are a major disappointment and it may only be a matter of time before the players quit on the season. QB Peyton Manning is throwing too many interceptions and that is often indicative of defenses figuring out his tendencies. Baltimore is not as dominant defensively as they were last season but they still rank in the top three in the league. The Ravens have been able to move the ball but QB Elvis Grbac has had trouble getting to the endzone. The Ravens remain very much in Playoff contention and face a Colts team filled with doubt. The preference is for BALTIMORE.

Panthers (+10) at Saints (41½): Carolina has lost ten straight games of which seven have been by ten points or less. They continue to play hard but just lack the frontline talent to take over games. They nearly beat the Saints at home earlier this season, losing 27-25 on the game’s final play. New Orleans’ defense allowed over 430 yards is losing badly in New England last week. Take CAROLINA.

Vikings: (—7) at Steelers (41): Minnesota QB Daunte Culpepper appeared hobbled in Sunday night’s loss to Chicago and if he’s not one hundred percent the Vikes are in trouble Even with a healthy Culpepper the Vikes are in a tough spot as they face arguably the league’s best defense. The Steelers lead the league against the rush, something the Vikes have been unable to establish this season. Take PITTSBURGH.

Patriots (+4) at Jets (38): The Jets won the earlier meeting 10-3 but both teams are much improved since that September meeting. New England is flourishing on offense behind QB Tom Brady while the Jets have improved on both sides of the ball as they get comfortable with new coach Herman Edwards new systems. The Jets also lead the league with a remarkable +22 turnover margin through 10 games. Take NY JETS.

Rams (—7) at Falcons: The Rams are off of a Monday night game against a physical Tampa Bay team and now play the first of four straight Divisional games, three of which are on the road. Atlanta coach Dan Reeves has done a remarkable job in leading the Falcons to a 6-4 record despite the loss of RB ­­Jamal Anderson for the season. The artificial turf sets this up as a track meet. Take OVER.

Bucs (—3) at Bengals: Cincinnati has been unable to sustain their early season success despite the presence of RB Corey Dillon, one of the best in the game. The problem has been at quarterback. The Bucs are playing their fourth road game in five weeks and that has to take a toll, especially coming off of a Monday nighter. The play is on the UNDER.

Titans (+2½) at Browns (35½): Tennessee dropped to 4-6 with their loss to Pittsburgh last week and now trail three teams in the AFC Central. Cleveland has been a major surprise. The Browns are 6-4 despite having the league’s lowest rated offense but it’s an offense that doesn’t make many mistakes. Tennessee QB Steve McNair was rattled by the Steeler defense last week and will face similar pressure here. The Browns are playing with confidence and will play four of their final five games on the road so this is a key game if they are to remain in contention for the Playoffs. Tennessee’s confidence is a question mark. Take CLEVELAND.

Lions (+7½) at Bears (38): Da Bears play smashmouth football behind the leadership of LB Brian Urlacher and much resemble last season’s Ravens. The offense is below average and even the defensive stats place the Bears in the lower half of the league. But they make the big plays. Detroit continues to play hard and perhaps the effort of backup QB Mike McMahon on Thanksgiving gives the Lions a reason to continue their hard play despite an 0-10 record. Take ­­DETROIT.

Chargers (+3) at Seahawks (43): San Diego has now lost six of eight games following a 3-0 start. A lack of depth and questions about QB Doug Flutie to be able to physically endure a 16 game season are largely responsible. Seattle continues to suffer from a very inconsistent offense and their defense has started to weaken. Neither has been able execute well on offense in recent weeks. Take UNDER.

Cards (+4) at Raiders (45): Arizona is playing their best football of late and despite a 4-6 record are just two games out of first in the weak NFC East. Oakland may be the best balanced team in the league on both sides of the ball. The offense is potent and also leads the league in fewest turnovers, losing just 10 this season. Take OAKLAND.

Cowboys (+10) at Redskins (35½): These teams played a stinker of a Monday Night game in mid October which was won by Dallas 9-7 on a last second FG. It was Dallas’ eighth straight win over their most bitter rival. It was also the last game Washington lost. Dallas is well rested and continues to play hard. Take DALLAS.

Bills (+9½) at 49ers (46½): The 49ers have a solid offensive nucleus with QB Jeff Garcia and WR Terrell Owens and an improving defense. At 8-2 they are poised to once again make the playoffs. Buffalo’s offense has picked up over the past few games behind QB Alex Van Pelt. Five of the 49ers wins have been by less than a touchdown. Take BUFFALO.

Packers (—3) at Jaguars (42½): The Packers host the Bears next week in a critical NFC Central Division matchup. Jacksonville is 3-7, with four losses of four points or less this season. They could just as easily be 7-3. The Jaguars are playing hard for Tom Coughlin. Take JACKSONVILLE.