Final week in NFL: Either tune up or shut-up

Jan 1, 2002 1:38 AM

For 19 teams, this week will mark the end of NFL competition until next summer. The other dozen teams this week will use the finales as a tune-up for the chase to the Super Bowl a month hence in New Orleans.

Several new teams will make the playoffs and there is serious doubt about whether either of last season’s Super Bowl participants, Baltimore and the New York Giants, will even qualify for a chance to defend the Conference championships.

As many as five teams that missed the playoffs last season have already won 10 or more games (New England, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Green Bay and San Francisco). The New York Jets can join that group with a win next week in Oakland.

The face of the NFL’s power structure continues to change virtually overnight. It will benefit many handicappers and bettors to study the 19 teams in the offseason that don’t make this season’s playoffs. Recent history suggests at least four will participate in the next season’s playoffs.

As was the case last week, our previews are being written without the knowledge of what occurred last Sunday because of our holiday printing deadline. However, by now we know the strengths and weaknesses of each team and, to a certain extent, the character.

The season ended last week for San Diego which has the obligatory bye. The schedule is the one originally slated for the week of Sept. 11. Seven games are divisional contests while another three games, including the Monday nighter, are interconference contests.

Here’s a preview of all 15 games.

Sunday, Jan. 6

Packers (—2) at Giants: If the Giants won at Philadelphia last Sunday they remain alive for the playoffs and will be huge Tampa Bay fans this week. A loss to the Eagles and this game begins the rebuilding process for 2002. The Giants have had problems against solid defenses all season while Green Bay has not been explosive on offense with any consistency. The Packers will be motivated regardless of the Giants’ situation with the NFC Central title and perhaps a home game in the wild card round at stake. Take PACKERS.

Broncos (pick) at Colts: With the pressure off of both teams this figures to be a wide open affair. Despite numerous injuries at key offensive positions all season Denver will be facing the weakest defense it has seen all season. Indianapolis has been able to move the ball downfield, but has a defense which allows opponents to score easily. Colts’ QB Peyton Manning has also contributed to the team’s decline by tossing several INTs that have been returned for TDs. Take OVER.

Cards (+3) at Redskins: Both teams can be encouraged by their play over the second half of the season. Arizona has an offense with the potential to be well balanced and explosive next season. Washington has to address some serious issues at QB. The Redskins’ defense has performed well following their rough start but will be challenged by an improving Cardinals’ pass attack. With both teams playing just to end their seasons, this could be a loose and wide open contest. Take OVER.

Bengals (+10) at Titans: Gone virtually unnoticed has been an improved Cincinnati defense that entered last week ranked 10th in the league in fewest yards allowed. But the Bengals offense has been pathetic, which explains their slide from a promising opening month. They have major questions at QB that need to be resolved during the offseason. Tennessee overcame a poor first half of the season to show why they were a playoff team the past two seasons with their fine play down the stretch. QB Steve McNair has had a strong season despite what’s been an off year for RB Eddie George, hampered by nagging injuries. Both defenses should have the edge what should be a ball control affair. Take UNDER.

Cowboys (+4) at Lions: Dallas continues to play hard, especially on defense where it was second only to Pittsburgh in fewest yards allowed prior to last week. The Lions have been beset by injuries all season and figure to be the less motivated of the two teams. Still, Dallas has had problems all season on offense and it’s questionable whether it can take advantage of a weak Lions defense. Conversely, Detroit’s lack of continuity on offense plays into the Dallas defensive strength. Take UNDER.

Pats (—3) at Panthers: The Patriots are at the top of the list of surprising stories in the NFL. Despite losing veteran QB Drew Bledsoe early in the season and having a marginal running game at best, backup QB Tom Brady has directed the Pats into the playoffs by making plays at key times and generally avoiding mistakes while posting modest stats. Carolina’s opening week win at Minnesota was its lone highlight in dropping 14 straight games. New England is fresh from its bye week and wants to maintain momentum heading into the playoffs. The Panthers can’t wait to head to the parking lot after this game. Take PANTHERS.

49ers (—2) at Saints: New Orleans was eliminated from the playoffs last week and with the pressure off they may again play up to its potential. The 49ers will need to win this game to secure a home game in the wild card round. QB Jeff Garcia is nursing bruised ribs and might be held out. When not committing stupid penalties, the Saints are a strong and well-balanced offense. They lost by just a point earlier this season in San Francisco. Take SAINTS.

Jaguars (+5) at Bears: The Jags end their season with their fourth road game in five weeks while the Bears prepare for the playoffs with a chance at winning the NFC Central and earning an opening round bye depending on what happens with Green Bay. The Jags battled injuries all season but never quit, playing their best football over the past month, including straight up wins as underdogs in all three of those recent road games. The Bears have very ordinary statistics except where it matters most ”” on the scoreboard. Chicago is fueled by a defense which should shut down the Jaguars. Take UNDER.

Browns (+12) at Steelers: Cleveland ran out of gas weeks ago and has been playing on fumes for the past month or so. The offense has been inept most of the season although the running game has had some decent efforts in recent weeks. Pittsburgh has been relentless and is deservedly the favorite to win the AFC title on the strength of the league’s top defense and, surprisingly, an improving offense that ranks in the top five. Cleveland ends its season with a third straight road game. Pittsburgh’s second half intensity should yield another Cleveland loss. Take STEELERS.

Falcons (—17) at Rams: The fact that Atlanta had playoff possibilities, albeit faint, until last week is a testament to the coaching of Dan Reeves and the guts of oft-injured QB Chris Chandler. Despite one of the weakest defenses in the league, Atlanta has been able to win games against average competition and fare well against most of the better teams, including an upset win at Green Bay. The Falcons lost a pair of overtime games to San Francisco which probably cost them a wild card berth. St. Louis won the earlier meeting a month ago 35-6 and is fully capable of repeating that effort. With next week off, the Rams starters are not likely to get much rest here. Expect a full effort from Atlanta and the generous points are worth consideration. Take FALCONS.

Bills (—7) at Dolphins: This was expected to be a rebuilding season for Buffalo on both sides of the ball and a look at their record validates those expectations. The Bills have shown slow but steady improvement throughout the season and have
continued to play hard. Miami is gearing up for the playoffs and will rely on its defense. Miami needed a furious late rally to win in Buffalo 34-27. The rematch should be much lower scoring. Take UNDER.

Jets (+7) at Raiders: Given the right set of circumstances these teams could meet again in a couple of weeks in the playoffs. Oakland wrapped up the AFC West weeks ago and that’s not always a good thing. The Raiders have not played crisply for much of the past month and have not been nearly as dominant at home this season. The Jets employ a conservative philosophy designed to minimize mistakes and put themselves in a position to win late in the game. This shapes up as a battle between the defenses which makes the points worth taking with a Jets team that has improved greatly on defense. Take JETS.

Chiefs (+4) at Seahawks: The Chiefs have shown steady progress on offense all season and rank in the top five in yards gained. The development of the running game behind Priest Holmes makes the Chiefs a very fashionable darkhorse next season with coach Dick Vermeil already taking his two prior teams, Philadelphia and St Louis, to Super Bowls. Seattle’s season has been disappointing and questions continue to surface about coach Mike Holmgren. Both teams figure to play wide open football and there should be points aplenty. Take OVER.

Eagles (+2) at Bucs: This might be a preview of a wild card game next week in Philadelphia if the Eagles can hold off the Giants to win the NFC East. The Bucs likely made the playoffs as the final Wild Card with the win last Saturday over Baltimore. Tampa Bay has been strong at home late in the season since Tony Dungy took over as coach. Both teams rely on defense to set the tone while asking their offenses not to turn the ball over. Take UNDER.

Monday, Jan. 7

Vikings (+8) at Ravens: Baltimore may have already secured a wild card before they taking the field. The Ravens figure to go all out against coach Brian Billick’s former employer. The Vikings will miss the playoffs for just the second time in 10 seasons under coach Dennis Green and there has been finger pointing all around. Clearly Minnesota is a team in great disarray and the players can’t wait for the season to end. Baltimore figures to hit harder and longer on defense, while the offense takes advantage of a porous Vikings defense. Take RAVENS.