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Bengal Fever!

Dec 2, 2003 7:08 AM

What a difference a year makes. Many of last season’s playoff teams won’t be there this year, including Super Bowl runner-up Oakland and possibly the overall champ, Tampa Bay.

And with just four games remaining, the NFL playoff race is still up in the air.

In the AFC, there are four stand-out contenders, Kansas City, Indianapolis, New England and Tennessee.

In the NFC, two teams are on a collision course for the top seed, Philadelphia and St Louis.

Division champions are more clear-cut with Minnesota and Carolina holding the inside track.

The fun really begins in the AFC with Baltimore and Cincinnati battling it out in the North, while Kansas City and New England are in good shape in the West and East, respectively.

Mathematically, however, there are plenty of other "outside" possibilities, so this week’s games should still have an impact on the playoff race.

Here’s a preview of all 16 games.

Washington (+3) at New York Giants (37): Giants’ coach Jim Fassell is all but assured of losing his job following the season. For a second straight week the Redskins failed to hold a fourth quarter lead. The Giants won the earlier game in overtime so look to the underdog to have a chance at revenge. WASHINGTON.

Cincinnati (+3½) at Baltimore (39): Baltimore’s offense has cranked it up the past two weeks with a pair of 44 point outputs. Cincinnati is clearly a team on the rise and playing with great confidence. Cincinnati won the earlier meeting and at more than a FG are worth looking at once again. CINCINNATI.

Dallas (+5½) at Philadelphia (36): The Eagles have won seven straight and could go two up in the Division with a win here. Dallas has generally fared well following the Thanksgiving Day game and you just know coach Bill Parcells worked his team extremely hard in practice following that embarrassing performance. They’ll be competitive here. DALLAS.

Oakland (+4½) at Pittsburgh (40½): Pittsburgh has had problems all season on offense, especially an inability to establish a running game. Oakland coach Bill Callahan all but assured his ouster with his reference to his team as the dumbest in football. It’s hard to imagine his players going all out for him following that remark. PITTSBURGH.

San Diego (+3) at Detroit (43½): Both teams are playing out the string. Detroit has the brighter future with a defense that has improved during the season. San Diego has underachieved all season. The extra rest and playing at home might be the difference and have shown that they can defeat this level of team. DETROIT.

Chicago (+7) at Green Bay (39): Chicago has played much better than their record shows; they’re a couple of botched kicks away from being on a six game win streak. The Packers have been able to run the ball all season and that should be the difference here. GREEN BAY.

Seattle (+1½) at Minnesota (51½): Seattle has lost four straight road games, Minnesota has lost five of their last six games overall and struggled to get by Detroit in their one win. Both teams have strong offenses that are balanced and defenses that have been vulnerable. OVER.

Houston at Jacksonville (No Line): The Jags have been deliberate on offense with a solid ground game of their own. Houston has shown solid defensive improvement during the season despite their low stat rankings. Expect a physical game. UNDER.

Indianapolis at Tennessee (No Line): The Colts lead the NFL in passing offense and the Titans have the league’s best defense against the rush. This interesting contrast suggests we will see points on the board from the Colts and Tennessee is more than capable of keeping pace. OVER.

Tampa Bay (+1½) at New Orleans (40): Tampa’s season may have ended with last week’s loss at Jacksonville while New Orleans’ has been rejuvenated. The Buccaneer defense has been worn down and vulnerable in the fourth quarter. New Orleans swept Tampa last season and won earlier this year as well. NEW ORLEANS.

Arizona (+9½) at San Francisco (41½): The narrowest road loss for the Cardinals has been by 13 points. The 49ers are also winless in six road games this season but have won five of six at home with four of the wins by at least two touchdowns. SAN FRANCISCO.

New York Jets at Buffalo (No Line): Under coach Herman Edwards the Jets continue to play hard and QB Chad Pennington is getting sharper following his lengthy injury. Both teams have played pretty good pass defense so each should try to establish the run. UNDER.

Miami (+3) at New England (36): The Patriots can clinch the AFC East with a win here which would complete a sweep of the season series. All five of their home wins have been by at least 6 points. NEW ENGLAND.

Kansas City (+1½) at Denver (45½): KC was fortunate to escape with a one point win at home over Denver when they met earlier. Denver out-gained KC by over 200 yards in that meeting. Denver has some injuries on defense that negates some of their home field edges. Look for a high scoring contest. OVER.

Carolina (—2½) at Atlanta (40½): QB Mike Vick should start here and that will be a boost for the host. Atlanta continues to play hard and the presence of Vick combined with Carolina’s slump suggests this is a great spot for the home underdog to pull the upset. ATLANTA.

St. Louis (—4½) at Cleveland (43½): The Rams have excelled at home winning all six as host but have struggled on the road. Given the recent performance of home dogs and the poor road performance of the Rams, getting more than a FG gives the Browns an excellent chance to cover. CLEVELAND