Saints plus a few sinners emerge at NFL midpoint

Oct 22, 2002 7:24 AM

   There is no clear favorite at the halfway point I n the NFL season, but a number of candidates have emerged as teams to beat, including a few surprises.

   Green Bay, 6-1, was expected to contend but the strong start is still something of a surprise.

   New Orleans, 6-1, is a talented team that imploded over the final month of last season. Coach Jim Haslett has to be applauded for having his team forget the past.

   San Diego, 6-1, got off to a 5-2 start in 2001 before losing its final nine games. The early success showed there was some talent on the Chargers. With both QB Drew Brees and RB LaDainian Tomlinson now in their second seasons, the Chargers appear legit.   Disappointments would include the 0-5 start of St Louis although things are changing. The Rams have won two straight and head into their bye week looking ahead to three very winnable games and a possible 5-5 record with six games remaining.

   Tennessee, Washington and the New York Jets also would be classified as early season disappointments while some would throw Minnesota into that group.

   Atlanta and Indianapolis could be waiting to emerge. The Falcons are allowing just 14 points per game, while the Colts were ranked ninth in total defense.

   Here’s a preview of this weekend’s games. Eight games are Divisional matchups including the first rematch of the season. Green Bay, Miami, St Louis and San Diego have byes.

   Raiders (-3) at Chiefs (55½): Both teams have high-powered offenses that score points in bunches.  The game has the highest total posted yet this season but it may not be high enough.  The teams have combined for 11 OVERs and 2 UNDERs, with five of Kansas City’s seven games featuring at least 69 total points. OVER.

   Bears (+1) at Vikings (46½): The first rematch of the season. On Opening Day, the Vikings led most of the game before the Bears rallied for a 27-23 win. Neither team has played well since then. Chicago does not enjoy as great an edge on defense as you might expect. VIKINGS.

   Falcons (+4) at Saints (48): This is still a Divisional rivalry albeit in the new NFC South. As members of the NFC West, Atlanta had great point-spread success (9-1 ATS) against the Saints, especially in New Orleans. One has to wonder why the 6-1 Saints are favored by only slightly more than a FG against a .500 team. FALCONS.

   Browns (+3) at Jets (42): Following their bye, the Jets gave their best effort of the season in defeating Minnesota. Despite giving up lots of yardage the defense made the big plays, including three interceptions. Cleveland was outgained at home against Houston by more than 100 yards in last week’s win. JETS.

   Steelers at Ravens (NL): QB Tommy Maddox seems to have sparked the Pittsburgh offense and the running game has picked up as a result. Baltimore is again relying on defense, even though there are many new names on the team. This should be a physical low scoring game. UNDER.

   Lions (+7) at Bills (50): Buffalo is a surprising 4-3 and off its best defensive effort of the season last week at Miami. Detroit has played much better since going with rookie QB Joey Harrington. Both offenses are their better units and this game could feature several big pass plays. OVER.

   Bucs (NL) at Panthers: Questions surrounding both starting quarterbacks kept this game off the board early in the week. Both teams have emphasized defense and a conservative offense.  Carolina has lost four straight following a 3-0 start, despite playing well on defense. The Panthers allowed more than 17 points for the first time in last week’s 30-0 loss at Atlanta. UNDER.

   Titans (-5½) at Bengals (41): Two struggling teams coming off byes. The 2-4 Titans were expected to be a playoff contender, while the 0-6 Bengals were expected to show some improvement from last season’s 6-10 mark. Both have struggled to run the ball despite two of the league’s best backs in Eddie George and Corey Dillon. Tennessee’s edge at QB and in defending the run is the difference. TITANS.

   Seahawks (+2½) at Cowboys (37½): Seattle continues to have problems stopping the run, allowing an average of almost 190 yards per game. Seattle may have found the right foe in Dallas, with struggling QB Quincy Carter still learning the position. Fewer mistakes decide this one. So far, Seattle has fared better in avoiding turnovers. SEAHAWKS.

   Cards (+8) at 49ers (41): San Francisco let a win slip away last week with a sloppy fourth quarter in New Orleans. The 49ers are tied with surprising Arizona atop the NFC West at 4-2. Arizona’s wins are deceiving. The Cards have been outgained by their opponents. All signs point to a fully focused effort from the hosts. 49ERS.

   Broncos (+2½) at Patriots (46): A key game for the slumping Patriots, who have lost three in a row after starting 3-0. Their losses have been marked by an inability to stop the run. Denver (5-2) also has been less than impressive in recent weeks. The Broncos have a long-term history of success vs. the Pats. However, New England has won two of the last three.  PATRIOTS.

   Texans (+10½) at Jaguars (38½): Jacksonville’s strong start has been slowed by back to back losses. The Jags outgained the Ravens by over 130 yards but could not convert on key downs. Houston showed more offense in setbacks the past two weeks, but Jacksonville’s defense is better than the Bills and Browns. UNDER.

   Colts at Redskins (NL): The Colts defense ranked in the Top 10 in both yards and points allowed prior to the Pittsburgh game. Their so-called high powered offense was average at best, The Redskins have struggled to find offensive continuity in recent weeks. Patrick Ramsey may be another problem and not the answer at QB. Washington’s improved defense held its last three foes to just under 281 yards per game. UNDER.

   Giants (+7) at Eagles (37): It’s quite clear that Philadelphia is the better team and will be contending for the Super Bowl. The Giants will contend for a .500 record. However, NY had won nine straight games against Philly prior to last season. The Eagles swept last year, but only by 1 and 3 points. Expect another close decision, especially with Giants off a bye week. GIANTS.

   Last week: 13-0.

   Season: 68-31-3.

(Monday night game recorded in season mark.)