Steelers jump Oakland in AFC

Dec 18, 2001 8:55 AM

With some teams already clinching playoff spots and others having been eliminated it becomes even more important in the final three weeks to determine how those coaches approach their remaining games.

In the AFC, West champ Oakland and Central winner Pittsburgh hold the top two seeds with the Steelers getting the overall edge.

Miami leads in the East but faces a tough game in New England this week with the Jets also lurking close behind.  Currently the Patriots, Jets and Ravens control their Wild Card destinies with New England in the best shape if Miami falls at Foxboro.

The Pats have a bye next week and end the season in Carolina while the Jets and Ravens have tough road games among their final three games.

Should one or more of these three teams falter Tennessee, Cleveland and Denver can finish 9-7 by winning their remaining games. Cleveland’s task is toughest with three road games to end the season, including one at Tennessee.

Denver hosts Oakland following this week’s bye before ending at Indianapolis.  If Tennessee can win at Oakland this week, the schedule is favorable with closing games at home against Cleveland and Cincinnati.

Things are no more settled in the NFC where only Chicago has clinched a playoff spot prior to Monday night.

St. Louis and San Francisco also have double digit wins and are odds on favorites to make the postseason, while Philadelphia has a three game lead in the NFC East with three to play.

The Eagles have road games at San Francisco and Tampa Bay sandwiched around the likely deciding home contest against the Giants.

Green Bay, at 9-4, is also in very good posture to make the playoffs as at least a wild card. If Chicago should falter, the Packers hold the tiebreaker edge over the Bears for the Central title.

The sixth playoff spot was clarified after Monday’s game between the Rams and Saints and should become even clearer following this week’s games. If the Saints upset the Rams, New Orleans would control the final Wild Card spot with a one game lead over Tampa Bay.

But it may not even matter what happened Monday night since the Bucs and Saints face each other this week and the winner would either be up by a game or hold the tie breaker edge with identical 8-6 records.

Three teams currently have seven losses and need to win out to have a shot for a wild card at 9-7. Atlanta has the toughest road while both the Giants and Redskins each have a tough road game sandwiched around home contests. But none of the three will be favored in each of their final three games so the prospects for each are remote.

This week’s schedule features a triple header on Saturday since there will be no Monday night game on Christmas Eve. Only six of the games are Divisional contests and there are five AFC vs. NFC games.

Dolphins (+3) at Pats (37): Those incredible Patriots just find ways to win despite putting up very ordinary statistics. QB Tom Brady continues to display leadership qualities and the Pats are playing with great confidence. Miami was understandably flat last week in San Francisco but will be more focused here in trying to sweep the season series. The Dolphins won 30-10 earlier at home in a game that featured less than 450 total yards by both teams. A similar pace here would mean many fewer points. Take UNDER.

Eagles (—3) at 49ers: The 49ers have thrown back to back shutouts in home games against teams from the AFC East. They’ve used more of a controlled offense to control the clock and that has lessened the pressure placed on a young but quickly improving defense. The Philadelphia defense has not allowed more than 21 points in a game all season. 49er QB Jeff Garcia was banged up last week and his status was uncertain. The play is on the UNDER.

Titans (+6) at Raiders (46): Tennessee’s defensive performance is down this season and that’s why the Titans need to win out and hope that a 9-7 mark can earn them a wild card. QB Steve McNair is having a solid season in directing the offense, which has been disappointing in the running game. Oakland has clinched the AFC West and needs to make up a game on Pittsburgh for the overall conference top seed. The Raiders also need to remain a game ahead of Miami, who defeated them earlier this season. Both teams have had problems on defense and Tennessee figures to be the much more aggressive team on offense. Take TITANS.

Saints (+2) at Bucs: The Saints hosted the Rams on Monday night and a loss would have both of these teams at 7-6 and make this virtually an elimination game for a chance at a wild card. The Bucs have to feel deflated after pinning so much of their hopes on last week’s game in Chicago. Their first half misfortunes showed after halftime when Tampa was listless and totally outplayed. The Saints are better-balanced team because of their ability to run the ball and rush the passer. Take SAINTS.

Rams (—8) at Panthers: The Rams take to the road again following Monday night’s game in New Orleans and will be healthy favorites over Carolina. St. Louis handily defeated the Panthers last month, 48-14. Carolina is off a Bye and has lost 12 straight since an Opening Day upset win at Minnesota. The Rams are vastly superior and an outright upset is remote. Still, St. Louis could take the Panthers lightly and get more of a struggle than they expect. Take PANTHERS.

Chargers (+3) at KC Chiefs (40½): San Diego’s promising 5-2 start is a distant memory as seven straight losses have clinched a losing record. The Chiefs struggled to defeat Denver last week after building a healthy lead, but needed an overtime FG to get the victory. Both teams have above average offenses and each has an area of significant defensive vulnerability. Take OVER.

Seahawks (+4) at NY Giants (35½): It wasn’t pretty but the Giants kept their slim playoff hopes alive with their last minute win over Arizona. The Seahawks remained alive at 7-6 in the AFC with a dominant win in sloppy conditions over Dallas, which defeated the Giants just a week earlier. The Giants are fundamentally the more talented team, but have not shown the energy that fueled their drive to the Super Bowl last season. Seattle has played poorly on the road, while the Giants have scored over 23 points just once. Take UNDER.

Bills (+4) at Falcons (41 ½): The Bills end their season with the first of three straight road games and will be hard pressed to improve upon their two wins to date. Atlanta once stood 6-4 and very much in the playoff picture but three straight one-sided losses have all but mathematically eliminated the Falcons. Still, QB Chris Chandler should have success against a very vulnerable Buffalo pass defense. Plus, the Falcons should be inspired in their final home game against a beatable foe. Buffalo’s motivation under a first year coach must be questioned. Take FALCONS.

Bears (—2½) at Redskins: Chicago has clinched a playoff spot and is ripe for a letdown after six straight divisional contests, including that huge win over Tampa Bay last week. Washington had success moving the ball last week against Philly but just couldn’t crack the end zone against one of the league’s top defenses. At 6-7, Washington still can sniff a wild card but will have to win its final three games. It should start here. Take REDSKINS.

Bengals (+10½) at Ravens  (34): Super Bowl XXXV was a long time ago for Baltimore as the Ravens were dominated at home by Pittsburgh last week and are in a struggle to earn a wild card. They currently hold down the sixth and final playoff spot but face a tough game in Tampa Bay next week. Cincinnati failed to hold a 14-3 fourth quarter lead in losing to the Jets and have now lost six straight. Baltimore is a veteran team that rebounds well and can be expected to take charge early. Take TITANS.

Browns (+8) at Packers (38): Overlooked in the confusion that surrounded the end of Cleveland’s loss last week has been that their only TD came on a 97-yard interception return. The offense continues to be miserable and has shown no improvement. Green Bay surrendered first place in the NFC Central after losing at Tennessee. The Packers figure to rebound with a solid effort against a team that cannot trade punches. Sure, Cleveland’s defense leads the league in interceptions but Packers QB Brett Favre has never shied away from challenges. Take PACKERS.

Lions (+9½) at Steelers (36): Both teams could have letdowns here. Pittsburgh just clinched the AFC Central title with a convincing win at Baltimore, while Detroit finally got its first win of the season after 12 straight losses. The edge may go to the Steelers, who seek to keep winning and maintain the AFC’s top seed. The Lions may relax now that they’ve gotten that maiden win. Take STEELERS.

Cowboys (+3½) at Cards  (37½): Despite a one sided loss in Seattle last week the Cowboys played hard for three quarters, trailing by just 12-3. Arizona played well for 56 minutes but ultimately allowed the Giants to make their only big plays of the game in the waning moments to lose and drop out of wild card contention. Dallas has controlled this series over the years and won the first meeting at home 17-3.  Take COWBOYS.

Jaguars (+3) at Vikings (46): Vikings QB Daunte Culpepper may be done for the season but Todd Bouman has filled in well. Minnesota won’t make the playoffs for just the second time in 10 years under head coach Dennis Green.  Jacksonville survived a bizarre conclusion in Cleveland last week. Take OVER.

Jets (+2) at Colts (47): It’s a game of need for the Jets who tempted fate and their poor December history with a furious fourth quarter rally at home last week to beat Cincinnati. The Colts are playing out the string and finally showed a bit of character last week by taking an early lead on Atlanta and answering several scores in a solid 41-27 win. The Jets lead the NFL with a plus 23 turnover margin. They will use a ball control offense to limit the Indianapolis offensive possessions. Take UNDER.