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Wingin’ it

Dec 17, 2002 7:37 AM

   Philadelphia and Tampa Bay joined Green Bay and San Francisco as the only NFC teams to have clinched NFL playoff berths. No AFC teams have yet guaranteed themselves a trip to the postseason.

   In the NFC the race for the two Wild Cards took a surprising twist as both New Orleans and Atlanta lost while the New York Giants hammered Dallas. The Saints and Falcons control their own fates and have much easier finishing schedules than the Giants.

   The AFC remained tightly bunched after Oakland lost at Miami and thus missed a chance to become the conference’s first 10-win team. Amazingly, 13 of the 16 teams are bunched between 9-5 and 7-7. Pittsburgh is the only division leader with more than a one game lead.

   Here’s a look at all 16 contests, including eight games between division rivals.

   Dolphins (-4) at Vikings (45½): Miami has an underrated offense and an outstanding defense. Minnesota has a potent offense but a very porous D. Minnesota takes a huge step up in class against the Miami defense. MIAMI.

   49ers (-7) at Cards (NL): San Francisco clinched the NFC West title despite losing a key game against playoff-bound Green Bay. Arizona has decimated by injuries, wiping out a promising 4-2 start. The 49ers figure to have a much greater level of intensity in what may be a half empty stadium. Arizona is off a tough loss at St. Louis. 49ERS.

   Eagles (-6) at Cowboys (37): Even without QB Donovan McNabb, Philadelphia has become the team to beat in the NFC. The Eagles have a solid offensive line and an outstanding defense. Dallas continues to play hard but is overmatched in talent. The Cowboys figure to struggle against a Philly team fighting to secure home field throughout the playoffs. UNDER.

   Bills (+6½) at Packers (42½): It was a struggle but Buffalo got by San Diego last week to keep its mathematical chances for the playoffs alive. Green Bay is battling for home field and we all know how well the Packers, and especially QB Brett Favre, play at home in December. GREEN BAY.

   Lions (+11½) at Falcons (45): Atlanta’s current form is not good following a pair of losses at Tampa Bay and to Seattle. The Falcons have to win their final two games to make the playoffs. Detroit is playing loose and showed spirit in a tough home loss to the Bucs. Atlanta may not be trustworthy as such a huge favorite against a team that won’t quit. DETROIT.

   Bears (+3½) at Panthers (36½): Chicago defeated a Jets team last week that had been involved in some internal controversy. Carolina did not play well in losing at Pittsburgh, reverting back to its ineffective play on offense. Both teams are loose and play for pride. Neither can be counted to finish drives. UNDER.

   Saints (-7) at Bengals (47): With last week’s loss to Minnesota this is now an important game for New Orleans’ playoff hopes. The Saints have allowed at least 20 points in every game this season. Cincinnati continues to make blunder after blunder and suffer penalties at key times. The Bengals actually have the better defensive stats and the Saints might be adversely affected by the pressure and the weather. CINCINNATI.

   Giants (+5½) at Colts (41½): New York remains alive for a Wild Card but they have two tough games to end the season. The Giants win by not turning the ball over and have improved their running game during the season. Indianapolis controls their own destiny. Coach Tony Dungy is comfortable playing conservatively with a lead which gives the Giants an excellent chance to steal this game in the fourth quarter since the Colts are likely to be happy to nurse even a FG lead. NY GIANTS.

   Titans (-3) at Jaguars (NL): The Titans are off Monday night’s game against New England and finish the season on the road. They are unbeaten within their Division, holding tiebreaker edges over the Colts. Jacksonville, despite being 6-8, has actually outscored its opposition by 38 points — sixth best in the conference. Don’t be shocked by an upset. JACKSONVILLE.

   Chargers (+3) at Chiefs (NL): Both teams played well on the road in losses last week with each team having a chance to force overtime in the final half minute. The status of Chiefs star RB Priest Holmes (injured hip) was in doubt at the start of the week. San Diego has struggled with five losses in seven games following a 6-1 start. San Diego won the first meeting, 35-34. This one should be similarly high scoring. The play is on the OVER.

   Texans (+6) at Redskins (37½): Washington’s season has been one of great disappointment while Houston’s has been one of encouragement. Washington’s offense has scored over 21 points just four times this season but not once in their last seven games. Houston has struggled to find an offensive rhythm all season. UNDER.

   Rams (-1) at Seahawks (46): Perhaps we have been too hasty in forecasting the departure of Seattle coach Mike Holmgren following the season. Although his team will not make the Playoffs they continue to play their best football of the season and again showed no quit last week in winning at Atlanta in overtime. The Rams blew a huge lead against battered Arizona last week but were fortunate to get a last minute FG to win. Seattle has been more energetic in recent weeks. SEATTLE.

   Broncos (+4) at Raiders (47½): This is a huge revenge game for Denver after the Raiders humiliated the Broncos last month, 34-10. The contempt held for Oakland owner Al Davis by current Denver coach (and former Raider coach) Mike Shanahan is well documented and Shanahan’s Broncos had beaten Oakland in 12 of 14 meetings before last month’s loss. This has always been a fierce rivalry and, barring a huge disparity in turnovers, both teams’ quick strike ability means this game likely goes to the wire. DENVER.

   Browns (+2½) at Ravens (41): This is an elimination game between a pair of 7-7 teams with only slim hopes of making the playoffs as a Wild Card. Baltimore ends their season at Pittsburgh next week and the Steelers might be off of a loss in Tampa this coming Monday. The Ravens, despite a shortage of talent and the loss of outstanding LB Ray Lewis during the season, seem to know how to win. Cleveland has demonstrated the opposite more often than not.  BALTIMORE.

   Jets (+3) at Patriots (NL): The Jets’ Playoff hopes were all but mathematically dashed with the upset loss at Chicago last week. New England is battling with Miami for the AFC East title and played in Tennessee on Monday. The Pats hammered the Jets 44-7 back in week two. The Jets have clearly improved since then but they might not have yet recovered from last week’s shocking loss in Chicago. New England had again been playing well prior to their game in Tennessee but have beaten the Jets only three times in their last ten meetings. NY JETS.

   Steelers (+4½) at Bucs (41): Tampa Bay needs to keep winning in its quest for home field advantage and at least a first round bye. Pittsburgh needs to keep winning just to make the Playoffs and a loss here would give them only a half game lead in their Division with very questionable chances for a Wild Card. The Steelers have excelled on defense recently, allowing their last two foes to gain a TOTAL of just 404 yards in their last THREE games! This should be a war. UNDER.

   Last week: 7-8

   Season: 115-91-3.