Spell MVP, McNair

Oct 21, 2003 6:28 AM

The NFL season is rapidly approaching the halfway point with a half dozen teams set to play their eighth game this weekend.

The final winless team, San Diego, notched its first victory of the season while the ranks of the unbeaten dropped by one when Carolina was thrashed at home by Tennessee. The Titans are quietly becoming one of the top teams in the league that nobody is focusing upon.

"QB" Steve McNair is making a case for being the MVP of the league and the Titans have scored at least 30 points in four straight games. Kansas City was also unbeaten heading into Monday night’s game and Oakland. If the Chiefs emerged with a win, they would join Minnesota as the only NFL teams with unblemished records.

Home Underdogs continue to struggle against the spread. Two covers in five games last Sunday actually improved the percentage. At 7-20, the home dogs are covering at an anemic 26 percent. Historically, that number is around 55 percent.

There is perhaps no better confirmation of the parity that exists in the NFL and how rapidly a team’s performance can change from season to season and week to week than the poor record of historically strong home underdogs.

Here’s a preview of this weekend’s 14 games with Atlanta. Green Bay, Oakland and Washington having byes.

Browns (+5½) at Patriots (37½): Both teams tend to play closely contested games. Neither has a balanced or powerful enough offense to blow foes away nor a defense capable of shutting down an offense series after series. Yet both have more positives than negatives and the generous points are worth taking. BROWNS.

Broncos (PK) at Ravens (39½): Denver must rely on third string "QB" Danny Kanell for the next month. Baltimore’s defense was ripped last week by a Bengals team coached by former defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis who basically constructed the Ravens schemes and knew the strengths and weaknesses. Denver does not have such an advantage and that third string "QB" issue is a concern. RAVENS.

Rams (+1) at Steelers (46½): With three straight losses and a bye week the Steelers have not tasted victory in over a month. The offense has struggled and Pittsburgh has scored more than 20 points only once. That was in the season opener. St. Louis has not been on the road in more than a month. The Steelers are desperate to turn their season around. STEELERS.

Seahawks (—1½) at Bengals (42): Seattle doesn’t win pretty but at 5-1 the Seahawks sit atop the NFC West and have won all three divisional contests. Seattle does not play division rivals again until the final three games of the season. Cincinnati is clearly an improved team, especially on defense, and the offense has started to come around. Seattle continues to benefit from turnovers on both sides of the ball. Both teams prefer to run. UNDER.

Lions (NL) at Bears: The "QB" situation on both clubs kept this game off the boards early in the week. Detroit’s Joey Harrington might be benched in favor of former starter Mike McMahon while Chicago’s Kordell Stewart may be healthy enough to replace backup Chris Chandler. Both teams are weak and have struggled to find offensive consistency. Rotating "QB"s is not the path to developing offensive continuity. UNDER.

Giants (+6) at Vikings (44): Both teams have top 10 offenses and rather average defenses. The difference is that the Vikings have been able to convert yards into points while the Giants have been plagued by turnovers, losing nearly three per game. Minnesota is looking like the team to beat in the NFC and is playing with great confidence. This is about the time Giants begin to play their best football. OVER.

Titans (—4) at Jaguars (44): Tennessee is playing its fourth road game in five weeks and gets a bye next week. Jacksonville is playing its third straight home game and had its bye last week to further develop rookie starting "QB" Byron Leftwich. Both teams defend the run very well but the Jags have shown the stronger rushing game. The rigors of the road and the improvement shown by the home side makes this an upset call. JAGUARS.

Cowboys (+7) at Bucs (37): Tampa Bay returns home seeking its first win at Raymond James Stadium after two overtime losses. Dallas has the second best record in the NFC at 5-1 but now faces its stiffest test. The six Dallas opponents are a combined 10-27. The Bucs may be suffering from the familiar Super Bowl letdown syndrome but injuries are also a factor. Both teams protect the football and are among the best at preventing points. UNDER.

Panthers (+1) at Saints (39): New Orleans finally played to its potential in routing undermanned Atlanta last week. Carolina suffered its first loss since last December in being totally dominated by Tennessee. New Orleans is actually gaining more yards than allowed, while the Panthers allow more than they gain. Neither defense has been adept at creating turnovers and both offenses can run the ball. OVER.

49ers (—7) at Cards (42): San Francisco played its best game of the season since an opening week rout of Chicago in handily defeating the Super Bowl Champion Bucs last week. A win here gets the Niners back to even on the season but they arguably would be 6-1 if not for some late game gaffes. Arizona has struggled on both sides of the ball and even last week’s bye might not be enough to remedy its deficiencies. The Cards have the worst rushing attack in the league. 49ERS.

Jets (NL) at Eagles: The possible return of Jets starting "QB" Chad Pennington kept this game off the board early in the week. His return would be a major plus for the Jets who have won two straight after starting 0-4. Philly "QB" Donovan McNabb continues to struggle. In last week’s fortuitous win over the Giants, McNabb passed for 47 yards and the Eagles offense was held below 150 total yards. JETS.

Texans (+12½) at Colts (42): In two games last season, the Texans managed just a FG in each against the Colts. And the Indianapolis defense is improved this season. The Colts offense has been spectacular for much of the season and now they are rested following their bye week. Houston’s defense has fared well against teams with limited offensive capabilities but the Colts present huge problems. It’s dangerous laying double digits on the road but Houston has already lost by 21, 28 and 21 points this season. COLTS.

Bills (NL) at Chiefs: Kansas City is off the Monday night game in Oakland and has the league’s top scoring offense. The Bills have the leagues No. 2 scoring defense so this presents an interesting contrast. Prior to Monday’s games the Chiefs were actually being out gained in yardage for the season. KC has excellent special teams play, which provides great field position and a short field for the offense. Buffalo finally got a solid ground effort last week from "RB" Travis Henry, which opened up the passing game. OVER.

Dolphins (—3½) at Chargers (37½): Miami is unbeaten on the road this season despite losing twice at home. San Diego had to hold on last week in Cleveland to get its first win of the season behind the strong running of RB LaDainian Tomlinson. Miami also has a strong ground attack with RB Ricky Williams. Both teams have been below average in passing the ball so this game figures to have time consuming drives featuring more runs. UNDER.

Last week: 8-5

Season: 46-49-3