AFC has better balance down stretch

Dec 10, 2002 6:34 AM

The NFL season has just three weeks remaining and only a handful of teams have been mathematically eliminated from postseason play.

Just seven teams in the NFC begin the stretch drive with winning records while 11 teams are above .500 in the better-balanced AFC.

The six NFC playoff teams are pretty much set with Green Bay and San Francisco having already clinched Division titles and Philadelphia likely to do so this week. Tampa Bay, Atlanta and New Orleans are fighting for the NFC South title. The two teams that fall short likely making the playoffs as Wild Cards.

The battle for the top seed in the NFC, which carries home field advantage throughout the playoffs, may also come down to the final week. Philadelphia is in control with a 9-0 record against NFC opposition.

The AFC continues to be tightly bunched with Oakland holding the top seed with its 9-4 record. There are 10 teams at 7 or 8 wins. Should several flounder in the final weeks, there are also a pair of 6-7 teams looking to win three in a row. How strong is the AFC West? Denver and Kansas City have the worst records in the division at 7-6

Only four of this weekend’s 16 games are divisional contests. Many will have an impact on Wild Card positioning, especially in the AFC.

Raiders at Dolphins: Both teams are likely playoff-bound and could meet for the AFC title. The Raiders are playing like they were when they started 4-0. But, this is a tough spot with a pair of home games on deck against division rivals. Miami ends with a pair of games on the road. Defense usually prevails over offense. MIAMI (-2).

Seahawks at Falcons: Atlanta’s trip to the postseason hit a speed bump last week in Tampa. Seattle has played well of late, but the visitors have fallen way behind in the last two games. Seattle’s poor rush defense will have trouble here. ATLANTA (-9½).

Chargers at Bills: San Diego, at 8-5, is playing with need to keep on a path to the playoffs. Buffalo’s hopes are pretty much shot after last week’s loss in New England. San Diego’s defense has been among the worst in the league over the past month. The weather conditions can only be a hindrance. BUFFALO (-3).

Jets (-3) at Bears: The Bears have been beset with numerous key injuries. The Jets won a huge game against Denver last week and, at 7-6, still have a shot at the playoffs. New York is not potent on offense and prefers to use the clock for ball-possession drives. UNDER 42.

Jaguars at Bengals: Jacksonville is assured of another non-winning record following last week’s final play loss to Cleveland. The future of head coach Tom Coughlin is in doubt. The same can be said of Cincinnati coach Dick LeBeau, but nobody is surprised at the Bengals failures. Cincy still comes to play, despite the key errors. CINCY (+3).

Colts at Browns (pick): The Colts were unable to win at Tennessee last week and now find themselves effectively a game behind the Titans in the AFC South due to tiebreakers. Cleveland’s playoff hopes were bolstered with their last second win at Jacksonville. The importance of the game suggests both teams will use conservative game plans. UNDER (38).

Bucs at Lions: This is a natural flat spot for Tampa Bay, but one has to wonder what the Lions have left in the tank. The Lions again blew a lead in a winnable game only to fall in overtime. The morale of the team has to be questioned. The Bucs are showing an air of confidence we did not see under the previous coaching regime. TAMPA BAY (-8½).

Titans (-3) at Texans: Take a look at the stats from Houston’s 24-6 win at Pittsburgh last week and you’ll be stunned. Three first downs and 47 total yards are record lows for futility by a winning team. Those are not misprints. Three defensive TDs were the keys to the win. Baltimore’s offense has also been stuck in neutral most of the season. UNDER (35).

Vikings at Saints (-7): Key New Orleans injuries at QB and RB could be a factor. The Saints showed heart last week in winning comfortably in Baltimore after a win the previously week against Tampa Bay. Minnesota still has problems on defense, especially late in games. The Saints are clearly showing that there will not be a repeat of last season’s OVER 44.

Redskins at Eagles: The Eagles handled the Redskins with ease on the second Monday night of the season, 37-7. Philly has overcome the loss of QB Donovan McNabb to contend for the best record in the conference. The Eagles played well in a natural flat spot, winning in Seattle last week. Skins are playing out the string. PHILLY (-8).

Panthers at Steelers: The Panthers exploded for 52 points last week while Pittsburgh dominated Houston in all areas except the scoreboard. The situation sets nicely for the Steelers. Clearly the better team, expect the home side to have success moving the ball on a tiring Carolina defense. PITTSBURGH (-8).

Chiefs at Broncos: Current form points clearly to the Chiefs, who are tied with Denver at 7-6 in a battle for a Wild Card. KC has scored 49 points in each of its last two games. Denver’s season is unraveling after a 4-1 start. The Broncos have dropped three straight home games on their once invincible turf. The Chiefs look attractive as underdogs, but Denver is the better team. DENVER (-4).

Packers at 49ers: This attractive matchup will likely eliminate the loser from having a shot at NFC homefield edge in the playoffs. The 49ers have been playing more consistent football but the Packers are more explosive. Green Bay QB Brett Favre has struggled early in his last few starts. Both teams have great playmakers. The Packers have won eight of nine from Frisco since 1995, but this is the final 49ers home game. SAN FRAN (-3).

Cowboys at Giants: The Cowboys gave the 49ers a great game last week, losing to a far more talented team in the final minutes. The Giants rebounded from a pair of tough losses to defeat disinterested Washington. The Giants won the earlier meeting, 21-17. This game should be just as close. DALLAS (+4½).

Cards at Rams: The Rams are out of the playoff picture after a resounding loss at Kansas City, 49-10. The Cardinals survived a battle of bad football teams in edging Detroit in OT. St Louis returns home after three straight road games. We should see a better effort from the banged up Rams. ST LOUIS (-7).

Patriots at Titans: This game is huge, especially if things come down to tiebreakers. Tennessee has improved on both offense and defense and is playing its final home game. The Patriots have not been as dominant on offense, but the defense has been very solid over the past month. TENNESSEE (-2).

Last week: 9-6

Season: 107-83-3