NFL’s elite have avoided ‘must win’ situations

December 24, 2001 9:09 AM
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Over the final two weeks of the NFL season you will hear many references to teams being in “must win” situations in order to qualify for the playoffs.

Often the phrase will be applied to teams with six or seven losses battling to stay alive in the Wild Card chase. Do not be influenced by such talk.

Teams are in must win situations because they’re not good enough to have secured playoff positions until now.

Because of the holidays the publishing schedule has necessitated that the previews that follow will have been written before the results of last Sunday’s games were known. Thus some playoff scenarios may have been settled.

So educated attempts have been made to read the mind of the linesmaker which, if not too heavily influenced by egg nog, should be pretty close to the mark.

New England gets the penultimate bye of the season and the 16th week of play features eight Divisional contests. Because of New Year’s there will again be no Monday night game, but the weekend will kick off with a Saturday night tilt between a pair of teams needing wins to keep playoff hopes alive.

With best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year, here are the previews of 2001’s final weekend of games.

Saturday, Dec. 29

Titans (pick) at Bucs: Both teams are built on the philosophy that defense wins games. Each side asks the offenses, especially at QB, to not lose games. Neither team has been as successful this season in executing that strategy as they were last year, especially defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore. Both offenses have been able to move the ball but have been stopped short of the end zone. Because of the defensive reputations of the teams we are likely to see a total posted that affords plenty of room for scoring. Take OVER.

Sunday, Dec. 30

Colts (+10) at Rams: The Rams appear to be the class of the NFL and certainly the best of the NFC. They deserve to be heavy road favorites. Indianapolis is winding down a very disappointing season that was not totally unexpected given that the Colts did little during the off-season to address their defensive weaknesses. The Rams took such steps and that’s why they are the Super Bowl favorites. St. Louis might rest some starters but the backups will be out to show that they can run the system just as well. Look for points aplenty. Take OVER.

Vikings (+8) at Packers: The Vikings are winless on the road this season and will miss the playoffs for just the second time in 10 seasons. Green Bay is battling Chicago for the Central Division title and a first round bye which is very important with no week off prior to the Super Bowl. The Packers will seek to avenge a 35-13 rout by the Vikes earlier this season. Minnesota’s intensity and enthusiasm must be questioned on what is likely to be the “frozen tundra.” Take PACKERS.

Cardinals (pick) at Panthers: Barring the unthinkable last week, Carolina’s lone win of the season came on opening day at Minnesota. Considering how the Vikes have played this season that win is far less impressive than it was at the time. The Panthers have struggled with a rookie QB and no running game and the defense has been tested all season. Arizona has shown flashes of brilliance this season, especially WR David Boston. The Cards should have success attacking the league’s weakest defense. Take CARDINALS.

Bills (+7) at Jets: Despite being out of contention since early October, Buffalo has played well in recent weeks and has lost by double digits only twice in the 10 games prior to last week. The Jets have found it difficult to win by margins this season with a conservative offensive philosophy. They have a terrible history in December and their loss at Pittsburgh and deep rally to edge Cincinnati by a point two weeks ago have only built upon that history. Take BILLS.

Bears (—2½) at Detroit: Both teams were in tough scheduling spots last week after Detroit finally got their first win of the season and Chicago clinched a playoff spot. The Lions are playing with an eye towards next season while the Bears are seeking momentum as the playoffs approach. Chicago was fortunate to edge Detroit in the earlier meeting, 13-10. With the Central title at stake the defense should again come up big. Take BEARS.

Browns (+6) at Titans: The Titans escaped with a 13-10 win at Oakland last Saturday to keep their faint playoff hopes alive and are favored to finish 9-7, but must hope for help elsewhere. Cleveland’s solid defensive play all season has been offset by one of the league’s most inept offenses. Tennessee won handily in Cleveland earlier this month, 31-15. We should see a similar result here. Take TITANS.

Chiefs (+3) at Jaguars: This is the “what could have been” game as both teams suffered through numerous injuries before beginning to play their best football. Kansas City is a team to watch next season as RB Priest Holmes will be aided by some healthy receivers in a maturing offense. Jacksonville had to endure virtually the entire season without RB Fred Taylor who, when healthy, allows the offense to flourish under QB Mark Brunell. Both teams figure to play hard here and this could result in a very entertaining game. Take OVER.

Falcons (+ 8) at Dolphins: Atlanta is another team that, when healthy, challenged to make the playoffs. Despite losing star RB Jamal Anderson early in the season, the Falcons had a winning record into mid-December. Miami appears to be undergoing yet another late-season swoon as consecutive road losses at San Francisco and New England suggest. But even their most recent wins over Denver and Buffalo were struggles. Atlanta will play hard and, although a straight up win is unlikely, a competitive effort is likely. Take FALCONS.

Steelers (—7) at Bengals: The Steelers are the class of the AFC and have played the most consistent all-around football the entire season. Cincinnati’s fine early-season start has become a distant memory. The Bengals have played surprisingly well on defense all season but poor quarterback play greatly limited the effectiveness of RB Corey Dillon. The Bengals are capable of an inspired effort against a Steelers team that will be content to grind out the yards and win by a narrow margin. Take BENGALS.

49ers (—4½) at Cowboys: San Francisco’s Saturday win over Philadelphia likely earns them a home game in the wild card round. This could be a natural flat spot before ending the regular season next week at New Orleans. Dallas isn’t very good on offense but plays hard and has put together many solid defensive efforts. The Cowboys rank among the top five in the league in fewest yards allowed. Take UNDER.

Giants (+6) at Eagles: The Giants are still live in the NFC East after a dramatic win over Seattle. With a tough game for Philly next week at Tampa Bay, the Giants could capture the title by winning here and again next week at home against Green Bay. Both teams should turn the game over to their defenses and look to limit mistakes on offense, taking very few chances. Take UNDER.

Raiders (—1) at Broncos: With Denver out of the playoffs this game has less significance than usual but will not lack for intensity. The teams despise one another and Denver would love nothing more than to deal the Raiders a loss that could drop Oakland to the No. 3 AFC seed and lose an opening round bye. Denver is rested following last week’s bye, while Oakland has been vulnerable on defense and sluggish on offense of late. Denver has dominated the series under head coach Mike Shanahan. Take BRONCOS.

Seahawks (pick’em) at Chargers: The Chargers have lost eight straight games and had just one cover (1-10-1) in the past 12 contests. This is San Diego’s last game (idle next week) and should use the contest as a springboard to continued improvement next season. The Chargers will finish with a losing season but it’s still an improvement over last season’s 1-15 mark. Seattle has struggled all season on the road and, after played on the East Coast last week, might not be sharp in a second straight road game. Take CHARGERS.

Redskins (+6) at N.O. Saints: Last week’s results did neither team any good in the playoff chase. Washington has played the more consistent football over the past month, especially on defense. New Orleans may have cost themselves a pair of games this season with inexcusable penalties that are indicative of a team playing with little discipline. After dropping their first four road games, the Redskins have straight up road wins at Denver, Philadelphia and Arizona. Take REDSKINS.