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Crunch time has arrived in NFL with four weeks left

Dec 11, 2001 8:25 AM

With just four games remaining and many teams alive for the playoffs, many matchups each week are virtually elimination games.

Currently the AFC Division leaders are Miami, Pittsburgh and Oakland with New England, the New York Jets and Baltimore holding the Wild Cards.

In the NFC, Philadelphia, Green Bay and St. Louis hold divisional leads with Chicago, San Francisco and New Orleans controlling the wild cards. Chicago is tied with the Packers in the Central but because the Pack holds the tiebreaker edge after sweeping the season series from the Bears.

Injuries continue to delay the posting of lines for several games as the status of key players is being delayed until the weekend. While important, injuries are often overrated by both the oddsmaker and the public.

We need look no further back than to last week’s performance of Minnesota despite the absence of QB Daunte Culpepper or Pittsburgh’s win over the Jets without RB Jerome Bettis, or the season-long performance of New England QB Tom Brady in place of Drew Bledsoe.

Obviously the injury factor must be considered, but it is even more important to not overreact. Good teams, especially those with stellar coaching staffs, are often able to compensate for key injuries.

A full 15-game schedule, including 10 divisional contests, are featured this weekend. Carolina has this week’s bye.

Saturday, Dec. 15

Cards (+5½) at NY Giants (37½): The Giants’ mindset is in question here as their upset loss at Dallas last week likely ended their hopes of returning to the playoffs. Arizona failed to take advantage of a chance to take over second place in the East last week. Both teams are in a sense of urgency and should take advantage of each other’s defensive vulnerabilities. Take OVER.

Raiders (—4½) at Chargers (46½): Oakland has struggled to defend the rush the past few weeks. San Diego’s fast early start is a distant memory. The Chargers have lost six straight and are just 1-8-1 ATS over their last 10 games. Historically this situation favors the home dog but fundamentally the Raiders are the better team and the Notre Dame coaching job is no longer a distraction. Take RAIDERS.

Sunday, Dec. 16

Broncos (—3) at Chiefs: The status of Denver QB Brian Griese is in question. The Broncos kept their season alive with last week’s win over Seattle. Kansas City rallied against Oakland only to fall on a failed two point conversion. The Chiefs have been making steady, though slow, progress in coach Dick Vermeil’s first season. Neither team has much of an edge defensively. Take CHIEFS.

Falcons (+1) at Colts: Indianapolis played at Miami last Monday and is all but mathematically eliminated from the Playoffs. With the pressure off the Colts may finally put in a big effort here against a Falcon team that has battled injuries all season. Both teams like to go for the big play on offense. After facing the Rams and Saints the past two weeks Atlanta will find the Colts’ defense much more to their liking. Take OVER.

Bengals (+8) at NY Jets: Cincinnati has dropped five straight and are the same old Bengals. They have failed to score more than 13 points in any of the five games. The Jets are historically weak in December and are already 0-2 this month. The Jets have also struggled on offense, scoring 21 or fewer points in eight of 12 games. Both teams plan their offense around the run. Take UNDER.

Jaguars (+2) at Browns (36½): Jacksonville continues to play hard and finally held on to a fourth quarter lead against Cincinnati. The Jags have battled injuries all season and will miss the playoffs for the second straight season. Cleveland leads the NFL in pass interceptions, but averages a league-low 3.0 yards per rush on offense. Cleveland won the first meeting 23-14. Take JAGUARS.

Vikings (—3) at Detroit: The status of Vikings QB Daunte Culpepper is in doubt, although backup Todd Bouman was impressive in last week’s rout of Tennessee. Detroit continues to play hard despite coming up short. The Lions have lost nine straight games by eight points or less. They may finally get a win here. Minnesota has lost all five road games this season. Take LIONS.

Patriots (—4) at Buffalo (38): They don’t win pretty but at 8-5, the Patriots are in control of their playoff destiny. The Pats have covered six straight games, five of them wins. Buffalo rallied late last week to edge Carolina for its first home win of the season. The home season ends this week and, at 2-9, the Bills can only hope to play spoiler. Buffalo outgained New England in the first meeting, won by the Pats 21-11. Take BILLS.

Eagles (—2½) at Redskins (35): Washington’s win at Arizona last week was its sixth in seven games, raising the season mark to 6-6. Three of the final four games are against other NFC playoff contenders. Washington defeated the Âí­Eagles just three weeks ago, 13-3. Both teams run well and struggle through the air. This has been a closely contested series going back 10 years. Take UNDER.

Bucs (+2½) at Bears (33): A month ago Chicago went into Tampa and took control early before holding on for a 27-24 win. This week all the media focus will be on Tampa’s inability to win in cold weather. The Bucs rarely win pretty and it’s dangerous to lay points with them. Tampa has performed well in three games as underdogs this season, including an upset win at St. Louis. Chicago’s lack of a consistent offense keeps this one close and Tampa is playing with more urgency. Take BUCS.

Dolphins (+4) at 49ers: This is a tough spot for Miami after having played at home on Monday night and having to play in New England next Saturday. The Niners also play next Saturday. San Francisco’s offense was held in check by an improved St. Louis defense last week but should have more success against a Dolphins’ “D” that has been just average against the run. Take NINERS.

Packers (—3) at Titans (42½): Tennessee failed to capitalize on a favorable situation last week in Minnesota that could have put the Titans back into the playoff race. At 5-7, the season is effectively over. Green Bay has finally gotten the lead in the NFC Central and control the conference’s number two seed. The Titans have improved on offense during the season but have been consistently weak against the pass. The Packers have Brett Favre. Take OVER.

Cowboys (+5) at Seahawks (34): Kudos to the Cowboys. They continue to play hard and their efforts were rewarded with an upset win last week over the Giants. Seattle fell to 6-6 after being unable to take advantage of numerous opportunities in Denver. Neither team has prospered from quarterback play and turnovers are more likely than touchdowns. Take UNDER.

Steelers (+3) at Ravens (36½): This will be a war, one of the most physical games of the season. Baltimore escaped with a 13-10 win in the first meeting as Pittsburgh kicker Kris Brown missed several medium-range field goals. The Steelers outgained the Ravens by 165 yards and shut down the Baltimore offense. Now it’s the Ravens’ turn to dominate a matchup of the NFL’s top two defenses. The Ravens, 5-1 in the last six games, can close within a game of Pittsburgh. Take RAVENS.

Rams (—6) at Saints (51): The Rams took over the lead in the NFC West with last week’s win over San Francisco and hold the top seed in the NFC. One of their two losses was at home to the Saints. The Rams may be motivated by revenge but the Saints are fueled by need. New Orleans is playing its most consistent football of the season and is perhaps the only team that plays the Rams confident of winning. New Orleans is 3-1 in the last four matchups with the Rams. Take SAINTS.