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NFL races tighten

Nov 18, 2003 8:44 AM

At this time of year, the playoff picture becomes more important. Keep an eye on what truly are "must win" games. A 10-6 record likely gets a team into the playoffs while 9-7 probably does not, except for a division winner. Now, there are just two Wild Cards in each conference which makes it much more difficult.

Teams seeking to avoid their seventh win of the season this week are Buffalo, Cleveland, Houston, the New York Giants, Tampa Bay and Washington. Pittsburgh may have lost seven games already this past Monday night.

Already Atlanta, the New York Jets and Oakland have lost at least seven games so the 2003 playoffs will have a radically different look than they did last season.

In the AFC there are four teams that seem clearly headed to the playoffs. Kansas City leads the AFC West with the best record in the league. New England sits atop the East at 8-2 while in the South, Tennessee and Indianapolis are tied for the lead. The Colts and Titans meet in Nashville in two weeks.

With an eye toward keeping playoff hopes alive, here’s a look at all 16 games to be played this weekend.

Indianapolis at Buffalo (No Line): Buffalo’s problems on offense seemingly go deeper than an inability to play on the road as they were held without a touchdown at home last week against Houston’s no. 31 defense. The Bills have scored more than 10 points just once since week five. They should again struggle against an improving Tony Dungy defense. INDIANAPOLIS.

Jacksonville (+4) at New York Jets (Over/Under 43): The Jaguar defense, especially against the run, has been solid all season. The Jets have generally been yielding in yards but prior to last week have been holding opponents out of the end zone. UNDER.

Seattle (+2½) at Baltimore (37½): Seattle is making a third cross country trip in less than a month and the previous two resulted in losses in Cincinnati and Washington. BALTIMORE.

New Orleans (+5½) at Philadelphia (39½): New Orleans was sluggish in overcoming a deficit to beat Atlanta last week. Donovan McNabb is improving each game and is close to the form he had before last season’s injury. PHILADELPHIA

Pittsburgh at Cleveland (No Line): For the season the Browns have been below average on offense. So has Pittsburgh. In fact, both teams have defenses that rank significantly higher than their offenses which points to offensive struggles. UNDER

San Francisco at Green Bay (No Line): The Packers have a strong history against the 49ers with nine wins in their last 10 meetings. GREEN BAY.

Detroit (+10½) at Minnesota (46): Expect the Vikes to be aggressive on offense against a Lions’ team that just can’t trade points and has now lost 21 straight games on the road. MINNESOTA.

Carolina (+3) at Dallas (34): Both defenses are by far the best units on the field. Both teams rely on the run and their defense to keep them in games. UNDER

New England (+5½) at Houston (35½): Houston already has four wins in their second season but have been unable to win back to back games. New England should have success against the league’s no. 31 defense. NEW ENGLAND.

Chicago (+10½) at Denver (40½): Denver knows its best shot for the Playoffs is as a Wild Card. The Broncos know they can extend on Chicago so look for them to take many chances downfield. DENVER.

St. Louis (—7½) at Arizona (43): St Louis dominated the Cardinals in their earlier meeting, a 37-13 home win and won here last season by 13 points. The Rams have designs on a Division title and a first round Bye. Arizona is evaluating college talent for the draft. ST LOUIS.

Tennessee (—7) at Atlanta (44½): Atlanta surrendered a 17-0 lead at New Orleans and are looking towards next season. QB Mike Vick is doubtful for this game and the Titans should have success against the league’s no. 31 offense and no. 32 defense. TENNESSEE.

Oakland (+11½) at Kansas City (45): There could be a bit of a letdown following the end to KC’s dreams of a perfect season. The points are generous against a foe that is still giving an effort despite being their poor record. OAKLAND.

Cincinnati (—3) at San Diego (43): Cincinnati is playing with confidence. San Diego failed to maintain the momentum from their win over Minnesota We should see both teams have success running the ball. OVER.

Washington (+6) at Miami (35): Neither team has been able to find offensive consistency all season. Miami leads the league in allowing less than 15 points per game and has the significant edge on defense. UNDER.

New York Giants (+5½) at Tampa bay (38): Tampa’s defense statistically ranks no. 6 but they have allowed game winning drives in each of the past two games. Fundamentally they are the more complete team. TAMPA BAY.