NFC picture clear

Dec 3, 2002 6:51 AM

   With four weeks left in the regular season, the playoff picture is quite clear in the NFC but muddled in the AFC.

   Green Bay has already clinched a playoff berth by winning the very weak NFC North. Their 9-3 record is six games ahead of the field. Tampa Bay and Philadelphia also lead their divisions at 9-3 while San Francisco’s 8-4 mark is good enough to head the NFC West. Both Wild Card teams would be NFL South members Atlanta and New Orleans. The Saints, at 8-4, are two games better than the Giants, the only other NFC team with a non-losing record.

   The AFC has 13 of 16 teams at 6-6 or better. Indianapolis and Pittsburgh have clear division leads while Miami and New England are tied atop the AFC East. The Jets would make it a three-way logjam if they beat Oakland on Monday night. San Diego paced the AFC West, pending a Raiders loss Monday. The AFC does not have a single team with fewer than four losses.

   Bad weather increasingly becomes a factor, but bettors should not instinctively play the UNDER. High wind, rain, ice and snow often allows for big scoring plays which produce points and take little time off of the clock. In Buffalo last week, there were 59 total points scored in snowy conditions. The Over/Under dropped five points from where it opened at many books.

   Six of this weekend’s 16 games are divisional rematches. Here’s our look at each game.

   Bills (+4½) at Patriots (O/U 44½): New England is in great shape hosting all three AFC East rivals in the final four games. The first meeting, a much ballyhooed contest against former Pats QB Drew Bledsoe, was a one-sided rout for New England. A better effort out of Bledsoe in front of his ex-hometown fans could tie the Bills for the division lead. BUFF.

   Bengals (+3½) at Panthers (36): Cincinnati played well in their loss last week, but allowed a pair of touchdowns on a punt return and interception return. Carolina arose from their doldrums to shock Cleveland last week, getting five turnovers from the Browns. Yet they could only score 13 points in a game that saw less than 500 yards in total offense from both teams. UNDER.

   Browns (+2½) at Jaguars (42): Last week’s loss may have been the fatal blow to Cleveland’s playoff hopes. The Browns have too much ground to make up and face a tough schedule. Jacksonville wasted a chance to remain in playoff contention with their narrow loss to Pittsburgh. Fundamentally the Jags are better and rate the nod at a cheap price. JAX.

   Rams (+3) at Chiefs (46½): At 5-7, the Rams are an extreme longshot to make it as a Wild Card, trailing the Saints by three games. Kansas City is alive in the tightly bunched AFC, but closes against three division rivals. The KC defense has to be buoyed by a shutout of lowly Arizona, while the Rams’ offense is lacking confidence. KC.

   Texans (+13½) at Steelers (39): Houston continues to play hard but a lack of depth is taking its toll. The Texans have scored 17 points or less in eight of 12 games. The Steelers have played well offensively since their 1-2 start, scoring at least 23 in each of their last nine games. QB Kordell Stewart has played well since replacing Tommy Maddox. PITT.

   Falcons (+3½) at Bucs (38): The winner of this game takes over first place in the NFC South. Atlanta seeks to avenge its most recent loss which occurred back in early October. Tampa has the league’s top defense but the Atlanta D is improved. Plus the Falcons don’t turn the ball over while forcing a high number of opposition miscues. UNDER.

   Colts (+2) at Titans (43½): The Colts lead the Titans by a game in the AFC South and seek to avenge an earlier home loss. The Colts have already won in Philadelphia and Denver this season. Titans QB Steve McNair played brilliantly in last week’s comeback win at the Giants despite being injured much of the week. The Colts rank among the top 10 in total defense. INDY.

   Giants (+2½) at Redskins (36): Both teams have played themselves out of playoff contention in recent weeks. New York could come in flat after losing a pair of winnable games to Houston and Tennessee. Washington coach Steve Spurrier will not allow a letdown from his players who have had several extra days to prepare following their Thanksgiving loss in Dallas. WASH.

   49ers (-4½) at Cowboys (40): The 49ers have to be concerned about allowing over 400 yards passing and more than 14 yards per completion against Seattle. Dallas is rested and continues to play hard on defense while the offense is showing some improvement. DAL.

   Eagles (-3) at Seahawks (37½): Philadelphia is benefiting from solid coaching in the absence of QB Donovan McNabb. They have one of league’s most innovative head coaches and a defense that has gone largely unnoticed. Seattle’s offense has been more productive the past two weeks but now faces one of the league’s best defenses. PHILLY.

   Saints at Ravens (pick): The status of New Orleans QB Aaron Brooks was in doubt at the start of the week. The Saints played one of their better games of the season in beating Tampa Bay last week, but could suffer a letdown. Baltimore used special teams and defensive touchdowns to win at Cincinnati but the defense gave up yardage to the Bengals. OVER.

   Lions (+1½) at Cards (40): The viewing audience will be spellbound by this attractive matchup. Arizona, once 4-2, has lost six in a row due in part to an unusual amount of injuries and little depth. The Lions are troubled by poor coaching and bad personnel decisions. However, QB Joey Harrington shows great promise. Both playing for a high draft position. OVER.

   Broncos (+3) at Jets: Denver, losers of two straight and 3-of-4 following a 4-1 start, have been beset by injuries. The Jets have been more fortunate. Both teams like to run and each can play strong rush defense. UNDER.

   Raiders (-2) at San Diego: Oakland seeks to avenge an overtime home loss to the Chargers, who bounced back last week behind RB LaDainian Tomlinson in upsetting Denver. San Diego is well-coached team but the Raiders are clearly a more talented and experienced. The Silver and Black are playing with the greater need. OAK.

   Vikings (+9½) at Packers (44): Minnesota gave Atlanta a battle last week, but fell victim to the sensation ability of Falcons QB Michael Vick. Now they face Brett Favre. The Vikes have contained the Green Bay QB when playing at home. Green Bay has fared much better at Lambeau Field and has incentive to gain the top seed in the NFC. OVER.

   Bears (+8½) at Dolphins (37): Chicago is not as bad as the 3-9 record suggests but this was a 13-3 team last year. Miami has been dominant at home, winning 5-of-6 this season. All five wins were by double digits. The Bears have played five straight emotionally draining games, winning just once, in overtime against Detroit. MIA.