0 and 4-get playoffs

September 24, 2002 7:32 AM
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   This coming weekend marks the completion of the first quarter of the season for the 24 teams who have yet to enjoy Bye weeks. Making the Playoffs after starting 0-2 is very difficult and an 0-3 start means it’s almost impossible to overcome that early deficit. A team starting 0-4 has virtually no chance of making postseason play so this week is extremely critical for the four teams that have already opened the season with three straight losses-Cincinnati, Detroit, Minnesota and Seattle. St Louis could be the fifth member of that ignominious group if they lost at Tampa Bay on Monday night. And a pair of other teams, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, are winless in their first two games and resume play this weekend following their Bye week.

   There have been many early season surprises, both positive and negative. The football season is much like a game itself with teams making adjustments and counter adjustments in an effort to disguise weaknesses and emphasize strengths. We are approaching the end of the season’s first quarter. We are able to see which coaching staffs are able to make those adjustments and which staffs are not.

   But before being hasty in drawing too many conclusions we must also be aware of the scheduling dynamics of the early season. Some teams have opened against the better teams in the league while other teams have drawn a more favorable early schedule. Keep in mind that when two good teams meet, one of them must lose. When two bad teams meet one of them must win.  The linesmaker will be looking predominantly at final scores in an effort to gauge how the public will bet. Much of the public looks just at final scores and win/loss records in forming their opinions. Successful handicapping requires going beyond this data and looking more at strengths, weaknesses and quality of competition faced.

   Here’s a look at the fourteen games to be played this weekend.

   Miami (-3) at Kansas City (Over/Under 44½)-It’s hard to find fault with anything that Miami has done this season. In opening with three solid wins the Dolphins continue their strong early starts. Kansas City has been a very entertaining team this season and their preferred fast pace suggests there will be many points scored in this game. Miami’s underrated offense is starting to gain recognition. The play is on the OVER.

   Chicago (+3) at Buffalo (43½)-Chicago blew a 20-0 lead last week in losing at home to New Orleans. The Bears were without key defensive personnel which caused the Bears to switch from an opening three point favorite to a home underdog of plus one and half at kickoff. Buffalo continues to benefit from the leadership of QB Drew Bledsoe and the Bills have shown no quit in the fourth quarter. The preference is for BUFFALO.

   New Orleans (-7) at Detroit (46½)-New Orleans has been very impressive in winning their first three games. The wins have come against teams that each made the Playoffs last season and were a combined 34-14. The now face the final member of the new NFC North but catch the Lions after having finally showing some spark. Despite losing to Green Bay the Lions have decided to go with rookie QB Joey Harrington. He’ll pay his dues but also will improve as the season progresses. Look for another high scoring game from both teams.  The preferred play is on the OVER.

   Carolina (+7½) at Green Bay (43½)-The good news is that Carolina, 1-15 last season, has won their first three games this season. The bad news is that the wins have come against teams that are a collective 0-8 thus far. Still, the defensive improvement is clear as new head coach John Fox shows why he was so highly regarded when with the Giants. Green Bay QB Brett Favre is starting to get comfortable with his new set of receivers and will provide a much tougher test for the Panthers. The play is on GREEN BAY.

   New York Jets (+3½) at Jacksonville (43)-The Jets have been a major disappointment in the early going, needing a kick return to start overtime for their only win back in week one. The past two weeks have seen a pathetic performance from the offense. Jacksonville is off of a Bye week and have played with confidence in splitting their first two games. Until the Jets can get some confidence of their own on offense, it will be hard to back them. The preference is for JACKSONVILLE.

   Houston (+20½) at Philadelphia (No Total)-Philadelphia is off of impressive back to back Divisional blowout wins. This is only the seventh time since 1982 that a team has been favored by at least 20 points. Such favorites have gone just 2-4 in past situations. But Houston might not score and the Eagles can be extremely conservative and not take chances in a game they can by whatever margin they choose. The preferred play is on the UNDER.

   Cleveland (+6½) at Pittsburgh (40½)-Last week’s amazing comeback win may be a watershed game for Cleveland. Despite outplaying Tennessee for much of the game the Browns trailed 28-14 with barely five minutes remaining. They will have plenty of confidence as they take the field against the 0-2 Steelers. Pittsburgh has struggled on offense and looked horrible on defense in losing to New England and Oakland. The fundamentals still favor the Steelers if they’ve been able to the necessary corrections during their Bye week. The play is on PITTSBURGH.

   Dallas at St Louis (No Line)-Dallas was totally outplayed in Philadelphia last week while St Louis had a tough game Monday night at Tampa. There is a huge talent gap between these teams and Rams will be solid double digit favorite barring significant injuries vs. Tampa. The Rams’ defense should be able to frustrate Dallas QB Quincy Carter and force mistakes. The preference is for ST LOUIS.

   New York Giants (-3) at Arizona (38½)-The Giants managed just three field goals last week against Seattle despite over 350 yards of total offense. The defense did excel in holding the Seahawks to just 145 total yards. They face their fourth straight NFC West foe in former division rival Arizona. The Cards have covered 8 of their last 11 games dating back to last season despite playing seven of those games on the road. This is a winnable game for Arizona even though they are likely to play in front of a less than half filled stadium. The preferred play is on ARIZONA.

   Tampa Bay at Cincinnati (No Line)-Cincinnati has looked awful on offense, scoring just 16 points in three one sided losses. They catch Tampa Bay off of what was an emotionally charged game against St Louis. Tampa has also struggled on offense heading into Monday night and the Bengals, despite the losses, have been respectable on defense. The play is on the UNDER.

   Tennessee (+6½) at Oakland (43½)-Tennessee was expected to be a Playoff contender this season. But other than the second half of their opening game against Philadelphia the Titans have looked very average and have lost winnable games each of the past two weeks. Oakland has looked very strong in defeating Seattle and Pittsburgh and are rested following their Bye. Tennessee clearly has the talent to compete with the Raiders although RB Eddie George continues to be plagued by nagging injuries. Their confidence level also has to be questioned. The preference is for OAKLAND.

   New England (-3) at San Diego (42)-This is the week’s only matchup featuring a pair of unbeaten teams and both are somewhat of a surprise. New England was challenged in last week’s overtime win against Kansas City but were totally dominant in defeating the Steelers and Jets. San Diego’s 3-0 record is less impressive with wins over teams that are a combined 2-7 and now face the best offense they’ll have seen to date. Both QBs have performed well and both teams have been able to run the ball. Points are worth taking with an unbeaten home underdog. The preferred play is on SAN DIEGO.

   Minnesota (+3) at Seattle (44)-Barring an overtime tie one of these two disappointing teams will gain their first win of the season. Both teams had half-time leads last but neither played well after recess. Both teams have had problems on both sides of the ball and have been unable to establish any offensive consistency. Neither team can be backed with confidence but Minnesota does have more playmakers. The preference is for MINNESOTA.

   Denver (-7½) at Baltimore (36)-Baltimore’s offense has been non-existent before their Bye week although the defense did play well against both Carolina and Tampa Bay. Denver has been very efficient in opening with three straight wins but have averaged just 310 yards per game on offense. If Baltimore is to have a chance to get their first win of the season, their defense will have to keep this game close. The play is on the UNDER.