Playoff cut line looks like 9-7

Dec 4, 2001 9:16 AM

The NFL season is approaching “must win” time as several teams are faced with virtual playoff elimination with one more loss.

Five of the twelve 12 that made last season’s playoffs already have at least six losses and both Indianapolis and Minnesota have lost seven times. Two other such teams have five losses. A 9-7 record is marginal at best to make the playoffs as a Wild Card.

Currently Miami, Pittsburgh and Oakland lead their divisions in the AFC with the New York Jets, New England and Baltimore controlling the Wild Cards. The NFC races feature a tie for the top spot in the West between St Louis and San Francisco while Philadelphia and Chicago are the other division leaders. Green Bay currently holds down a Wild Card with Tampa Bay, Atlanta and New Orleans tied for the final Wild Card with 6-5 records. Three other teams, all from the NFC East, are just a game back with 5-6 records.

There are few “elite” teams this season with no team seemingly invincible. Four teams, Chicago, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and St. Louis, have just two losses apiece after 11 games. Of this group only St. Louis made the playoffs last season, a further indication of the parity that has become the NFL on a season to season basis over the past few years.

Former Commissioner Pete Rozelle used to say that on any given Sunday any team could beat another. That saying has been revised so that in any given season any team can rise to make the playoffs or even win the Super Bowl.

Certainly the past two seasons, in which St. Louis and Baltimore rose from non-playoff teams to Super Bowl champs, give this statement validity. Anyone care for a Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Chicago Bears Super Bowl? It could happen as both teams currently hold the home field advantage in their respective conferences.

Baltimore gets its bye this week. Ten of the week’s 15 games are divisional contests with all but Washington’s game at Arizona being a rematch of games played earlier this season. Injuries and the uncertain status of key players keep a number of games off the board as we go to press on Monday. Here’s a preview of the action.

Sunday, Dec. 9

49ers (+8½) at Rams (54½): Clearly the week’s marquee matchup, this game will go far in deciding the champ of the NFC West. San Francisco has displayed excellent balance on offense all season with RB Garrison Hearst back in top form. The Rams are explosive on offense but opponents have been able to disrupt the passing game by pressuring QB Kurt Warner. On the surface this shapes up as a high scoring shootout, but the Niners’ ability to sustain ball control drives suggests we might see a lower scoring game than the one played earlier this season which was won by St. Louis 30-26. Take UNDER.

Titans at Vikings (NL): Both team’s quarterbacks are banged up which keeps this game off the board as the week begins. Minnesota rallied behind backup QB Todd Bouman to score twice at Pittsburgh in last week’s close loss while Tennessee had an easy time in dismantling Cleveland. Both teams are weak defensively against the pass and both offenses should try to exploit those vulnerabilities. Take OVER.

Panthers at Bills (NL): The Panthers came oh so close to victory once again last week in New Orleans yet still managed to lose their 11th straight game. This will be Carolina’s final road game of the season as following next week’s bye they’ll close out the season with three straight home games. Buffalo is winless at home this season and will play its final home contest next week. The Bills have by far the better stats, including the better defense. Take BUFFALO.

Bears at Packers (NL): Green Bay played at Jacksonville on Monday night so no line was available at press time, but we can expect the Pack to be favored by about a TD barring any significant injuries against the Jags. The Bears survived a poor effort to defeat Detroit last week, perhaps looking ahead to this meeting for first place in the NFC Central. Green Bay won the first meeting 20-12 and this game again figures to be decided by the defenses. Take UNDER.

Browns (+5½) at Patriots (36½): Cleveland has done a remarkable job staying in playoff contention this deep into the season but they suffer from a lack of depth and don’t have enough playmakers. The Browns have taken advantage of opponents’ mistakes but have the league’s worst offense. New England is playing its best football in several seasons and very much in playoff contention. Take PATRIOTS.

Lions (+8½) at Bucs (36): Detroit, though winless, remains a dangerous foe as long as the fight remains. The Lions have now lost an incredible eight straight games by just eight points or less. Tampa Bay rarely wins big as they use a conservative approach to offense and rely on the defense to create opportunities. The Lions are an attractive underdog, especially at this price. Take LIONS.

Jaguars at Bengals (NL): The Jaguars are off of their Monday night game hosting Green Bay while Cincinnati rallied late to force overtime before falling at home to Tampa Bay, their fourth straight loss. During this streak the Bengals have scored just 33 total points as the passing game is virtually non-existent, decreasing the effectiveness of what should be a strong running game with RB Corey Dillon. Jacksonville won the earlier meeting 30-13 in a game that featured just one turnover and barely 600 total yards of offense. The Jags have played solid defense all season. Take UNDER.

Saints at Falcons (NL): Atlanta QB Chris Chandler was knocked out of last week’s game against St. Louis which keeps this game off the board as the week begins. There is a huge dropoff to backup rookie QB Michael Vick who continues to struggle in adjusting to the NFL. New Orleans had a much more difficult time than expected in defeating Carolina last week in a 27-23 win despite dominating the statistics. The stats suggest the Saints should have success throwing against Atlanta’s weak pass defense but Atlanta has covered nine of the last 10 games against New Orleans. Take OVER.

Giants (—4½) at Cowboys (36): The Giants are off their bye week. At 5-6 they are tied for second in the NFC East and probably need to win all five remaining games to have a chance to defend the NFC title. NY rallied to beat Dallas earlier 27-24 after playing a sloppy first half. Two of Dallas’ three wins this season are against Washington, a team they routinely defeat. The Giants will be playing with a greater sense of urgency. Take GIANTS.

Chargers (+7) at Eagles (38): The Eagles have the benefit of several extra days of preparation following last Thursday’s win at Kansas City. The offense has been inconsistent behind QB Donovan McNabb but the defense has been solid. San Diego’s 3-0 start is a distant memory as five straight losses have essentially taken the Chargers out of playoff contention. Take UNDER.

Redskins (Pick) at Arizona (39): Washington’s momentum came to a halt with its ninth straight loss to Dallas last week while Arizona shocked the NFL with a road win at Oakland. The Redskins have played better defensively over the past two months while the offense tries to ground it out on the ground. Arizona displayed their best offense of the season last week. Take UNDER.

Chiefs (+10) at Raiders (45): Oakland was seriously challenged last week by Arizona and lost in overtime after staging a second half comeback. Their offense is still the best balanced in the league but the defense has shown signs of weakness over the past few weeks, especially against the run. Kansas City has extra preparation time and has enough offense to challenge the Raiders in the renewal of this long time rivalry. Oakland won the earlier meeting on Opening Day 27-24, rallying from behind. Take OVER.

Jets at Steelers (NL): The Jets’ defense let them down last week as New England rallied from a 13-0 half-time deficit to snap New York’s five game winning streak. Pittsburgh held on after building a huge fourth quarter lead to defeat Minnesota as the defense took it easy against Minny’s backup QB and it almost cost them. Both teams rely on the ground game and the defense to win games. Steeler RB Jerome Bettis was banged up in the win over Minnesota but should be able to play here. Take UNDER.

Seahawks (+5½) at Broncos (41½): Denver’s season is effectively on the line in this game as they seek to avenge an earlier loss at Seattle and avoid falling to 6-7. The offense has never recovered from the opening week loss of WR Ed McCaffrey and the passing game has suffered. But Seattle’s offense has been even more ineffective. We can expect Denver’s best and most sustained effort of the season. Take BRONCOS.

Colts (+6½) at Dolphins (44): The Colts must be given credit for pulling together in giving a solid effort at Baltimore last week following the turmoil arising from the spat between head coach Jim Mora and QB Peyton Manning. But they still lost to the Ravens as the defense let the team down once again and Manning tosses another INT that was returned for a TD. Miami rallied from behind to defeat Denver last week and now sit atop the AFC East. Take DOLPHINS.