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Dec 24, 2002 7:25 AM

   The NFL regular season draws to a close this weekend and much remains undecided.  The playoff situation in the NFC is pretty straightforward as it has been for much of the past month.  But in the AFC there are still many possible scenarios, although we know which teams control their own fate.

   All four division winners in the NFC have been known for a couple of weeks with the seeding still in doubt.  Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Green Bay and San Francisco have wrapped up first place, while Atlanta and the New York Giants will earn wild card berths with wins this weekend.  Should either the Giants or Falcons stumble, New Orleans can get the final wild card spot with a win over Carolina.

   Oakland and Tennessee have clinched division titles in the AFC with Oakland in control of the conference’s top seed.  Pittsburgh would have won the AFC North with an upset victory in Monday night’s visit to Tampa Bay or a win over Baltimore this Sunday. Indianapolis can clinch a wild card with a win over Jacksonville.  Three teams can still win the AFC East (New England, Miami and the New York Jets).

   The AFC wild card scenario is a mess and won’t be sorted out until the late Sunday afternoon games.

   Keep in mind that it is not unusual in the final week of the season for the Sports Books to suspend wagering on upcoming games while earlier contests are being played.  Often the earlier games, or the ones played on Saturday, have a bearing on the playoff chances of teams playing later. Those contests may be made unavailable for betting for a period of time.

    So if you have strong convictions, act early.  But you might also consider exercising caution and choose to wait until just before kickoff to make your plays.  It will be an exciting final weekend of play, especially in games involving AFC teams.

   In this weekend’s action, 12 of the 16 games could affect the playoffs.

   Eagles (-1) at Giants (36 1/2): Both coaches have done remarkable jobs in getting their teams to this game.  With a win the Eagles clinch homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.  The Giants make the playoffs with a win against a team they beat nine straight times before losing the last three. GIANTS.

   Chiefs (+6 1/2) at Raiders (48): The Chiefs sure don’t make things easy for themselves, having given up a 21-6 lead last week before winning on a late FG to keep their playoffs hopes alive.  Oakland is playing as well at the end of the season as they did in September.  They again dominated Denver in last week’s key battle.  The Chiefs will be without RB Priest Holmes but still showed a strong passing game without him last week.  CHIEFS.

   Dolphins (+2 1/2) at Pats (38 1/2): Both teams need to win and enter the game off upset losses.  Miami’s fine defense was hammered by Minnesota’s running game last week and has historically weakened late in the season.  Miami has also played poorly on the road all season.  PATRIOTS.

   Cowboys (+6) at Redskins (37): Both teams are out of the playoffs and Dallas is likely to be without their coach Dave Campo following this game.  The Cowboys may have little motivation especially following their blowout losses the past two weeks.  Washington is looking to end a 10- game losing streak to Dallas and Redskins coach Steve Spurrier will use that, plus job competition for next season, to motivate his team.  REDSKINS.

   Bengals (+7 1/2) at Bills (45 1/2): The Bills were eliminated form the playoffs last week but still their season must be considered a success.  They are greatly improved and a team on the rise in 2003.  Cincinnati finally got a home win last week and has played hard despite being long out of contention.  The Bengals might have the greater motivation here.  BENGALS.

   Falcons (-2 1/2) at Browns (41): Both teams have reasons to play hard. Atlanta clinches a wild card with a win, while the Browns improve their wild card chances.  Cleveland might also win the division if Pittsburgh drops its final two games. Both teams figure to take chances on offense and neither has an outstanding defense.  OVER.

 

   Vikings (-4) at Lions (48): Minnesota continues to play hard under first year coach Mike Tice and has improved defensively.  Detroit was again routed last week and there are likely to be front office changes following the season.  Both teams figure to play a wide-open game with nothing at stake other than jobs. OVER.

   Titans (-7 1/2) at Texans (36 1/2): If Oakland lost on Saturday, a Tennessee win gives the Titans the top seed in the AFC.  Houston has done very well for a first season team and should again play hard in front of its faithful fans. Tennessee is on a roll, going 9-1 SU in the last 10 games. Expect the Texans to be competitive in its season finale.  TEXANS.

   Panthers (+7) at Saints (45): The Saints have played themselves from a likely division title to perhaps out of the playoffs if both the Falcons and Giants win.  New Orleans has allowed at least 20 points in every game this season.  The Saints’ offense has struggled in recent weeks but its speed should be an advantage on the fake turf. SAINTS.

   Ravens (+7) at Steelers (NT):  A Pittsburgh win in Tampa on Monday clinched the division title. A loss means the Steelers must win here unless Cleveland also loses.  Both defenses have played well down the stretch in what should be another physical contest.  UNDER.

   Jaguars (+4) at Colts (NT): Jaguars QB Mark Brunell’s status was uncertain at the start of the week. The Colts need a win to get a wild card. They did show some fight last week after falling way behind.  Jacksonville appeared to have quit last week and it’s hard to see an inspired effort here.  COLTS.

   Packers (-1) at Jets (40): The Jets’ playoff fate could be known at kickoff but should New England defeat Miami the Jets would win the AFC East with a victory here.  There are still wild card possibilities for the Jets.  Green Bay’s NFC seeding may not be known until Tampa Bay plays at night.  We can excuse the Jets loss two weeks ago in a natural flat spot and rely on the overall improved performance since mid-October.  JETS.

   Cards (+10 1/2) at Broncos (43 1/2): Denver harbors faint wild card hopes but will need help.  Arizona plays hard but has just suffered too many injuries. The Broncos do not have a quitter’s mentality so expect Steve Beuerlein to again be at QB.  Denver should take out its frustrations on an undermanned Cardinals squad.  BRONCOS.

   Seahawks (+ 4 1/2) at Chargers (43 1/2): The Chargers have faint playoff hopes while Seattle has been eliminated despite fine play over the past month.  The Seahawks are playing enthusiastically and may have saved coach Mile Holmgren’s job. San Diego is the more talented team and should put forth an effort here to end a disappointing season on an up note. CHARGERS.

   Bucs (-5) at Bears (NT): There may be seeding implications for Tampa Bay once the dust of the afternoon has settled.  Chicago has been a non-contender since midseason following a 13-3 record a year ago.  Tampa Bay has never fared well in cold in late season and can be expected to struggle again.  UNDER.

   49ers (NL) at Rams: San Francisco is likely the fourth seed in the NFC and will host a wild card game next weekend.  The Niners figure to rest a number of players.  The Rams may be without RB Marshall Faulk and they have banged up quarterbacks.  Defense figures to control the game with both offenses not at full strength.  UNDER.

   Last week: 8-7.

   Season: 124-98-3.