Playoff field half done,
whole lot altered

Dec 16, 2003 6:29 AM

Half of the 12 playoff teams have clinched spots with just two weeks left in the NFL regular season. Of those six, only Philadelphia and Indianapolis were there last year.

New England, Kansas City, Carolina and St. Louis are four of perhaps nine teams at could make the playoffs for the first time since at least 2001. This season’s playoffs will have a radically different look from last season’s march to the Super Bowl.

Six of last season’s playoff teams have been mathematically eliminated ”” Oakland, Pittsburgh, the New York Jets and Giants, Atlanta and Cleveland. Two others, San Francisco and Tampa Bay, are barely alive and need lots of help. Tennessee will make the postseason with one win in the final two games or a loss by other contenders.

It’s natural at this time of year to play teams in "must win" situations and against teams that have been eliminated. There is some truth and some fallacy.

Often teams are in "must win" situations because they will have failed recently to capitalize on opportunities. Such teams are flawed and will not necessarily perform up to their potential simply because they need to win. This is generally true of teams with mediocre records such as 6-8 or 7-7. A team with double digit wins that "must win" to lock up a conference’s top seed is a much more reliable.

Teams like the Giants have tossed in the towel. A number of others with no realistic playoff shot are continuing to play hard. Buffalo, the New York Jets and Chicago come to mind.

Here’s a preview of this weekend’s 16 games, with three played on Saturday.

Falcons (+7) at Packers (38½): Former Tampa Bay GM Rich McKay has taken a similar position with Atlanta but his knowledge of the Bucs will likely be felt more during the off-season. Michael Vick had the worst game of his brief career in last week’s loss at Indianapolis. Tampa Bay faces the league’s No. 31 offense and No. 32 defense in a state of free fall. BUCS.

Chiefs (—2½) at Vikings (54½): These were the final two teams to lose their first game this season. KC rebounded to post a 12-2 record, while the Vikings have dropped 7 of the last 9 to fall into a tie atop the NFC North with Green Bay. The Vikes have played their best ball at home and should exploit the Chiefs defensive weakness against the run. VIKINGS.

Patriots (—3) at Jets (35): New England’s steady though unspectacular play has produced 10 straight wins. The Pats are contending with KC for the top seed in the AFC playoffs. After an 0-4 start, the Jets have won four of six and has a .500 season as a motivational goal. The weather conditions and conservative bent of both coaches suggest a low scoring game. UNDER.

Dolphins (NL) at Bills: The matchup favors Buffalo here as they showed up nicely in Tennessee last week and seek to end the season on a high note. Miami has a poor history on the road in northern climates and has fared badly everywhere during December. Buffalo is still playing hard. BILLS.

Ravens (—3) at Browns (37): Baltimore’s loss at Oakland last week was not that unexpected given that the Ravens were off three straight home games. Cleveland’s game effort in Denver last week says more about the Broncos than giving a positive review to the Browns. Baltimore should rebound from last week’s loss and their top five defense is capable of shutting the Browns down. RAVENS.

Redskins (+4½) at Bears (35): Washington quit early in its loss to Dallas last week. The lack of a running game and worn down defense suggests little reason to play hard. Chicago is trying to save coach Dick Jauron’s job and the Bears have the goal of finishing .500. The offense is weak but the defense continues to improve each week. BEARS.

Bengals (+7) at Rams (53½): In recent weeks the Cincinnati offense has become more productive and team is much more balanced. St Louis has won the NFC West and is vying with Philadelphia for the NFC’s top seed. But the Rams have not been as impressive as many think although playing well at home. Still, Cincinnati is very much in the playoff chase and playing with confidence. BENGALS.

Lions (+10) at Panthers (37½): The Panthers have won a remarkable seven games this season by a FG or less so laying points is hazardous. The Lions have not quit ”” they are just short on talent. Carolina does struggle to get its points while Detroit has had one of the leagues worst offenses following the 42-point outburst against Arizona in Week 1. UNDER.

Saints (pk) at Jaguars (43): Although the Saints still cling to very faint playoff hopes, their Super Bowl was last Sunday night when the routed the New York Giants. The result gave added value with the host. Jacksonville was very much in their game at New England until the fourth quarter. The Jaguars have played excellent defense all season. JAGS.

Giants (+11) at Cowboys (35½): The Giants have quit on their coach. Dallas played an outstanding game in shutting out Washington last week after facing four probable playoff teams the previous four weeks. This is a step down in class for the Cowboys and they are laying a rather large price. But there is little to suggest that Giants have much of an interest. COWBOYS.

Titans (NL) at Texans: Backup QB Billy Volek did a fine job filling in last week for Tennessee’s Steve McNair and that sense. McNair has missed significant practice time so Volek has gotten many reps with the starting unit this season. The Titans have the league’s top rushing defense. Houston has one of the three worst offenses and defenses in the league and is banged up. TITANS.

Chargers (+6) at Steelers (40): The Chargers have now lost 15 of 18 games dating back to last season. Pittsburgh is assured of just its third losing season in coach Bill Cowher’s dozen seasons and will miss the Playoffs for just the fourth time during his tenure. The likely cold temperatures should make the Chargers run the ball. Pittsburgh has a weak passing game. UNDER.

49ers (NL) at Eagles: Philly is battling St. Louis for the best record and top seed in the NFC. San Francisco ended its Playoff hopes with a loss in Cincinnati. The Niners are 0-7 on the road. Philadelphia has won five in a row at home after dropping the first two. A tough travel spot for the 49ers, playing their fourth road game in five weeks. EAGLES.

Cards (+13) at Seahawks (43½): Perhaps no two teams in the NFL have a greater home/road dichotomy. Seattle has been solid at home, miserable on the road. Arizona whipped Seattle at home, but has lost all seven road games by at least 13 points. Seattle has all the edges against the Cards and is unbeaten at home, with their last two home wins by 21 and 27 points. SEAHAWKS.

Broncos (NL) at Colts: The Broncos dominated Cleveland last week, despite winning by a field goal in overtime. RB Clinton Portis is banged up and his status is uncertain for the game. Indianapolis is playing dominating Super Bowl type football. In what will surprise many readers, both teams have top 10 defenses. UNDER.

Packers (—5½) at Raiders (44½): QB Brett Favre continues to look sharper as his injured thumb heals. Oakland defeated Baltimore last week though outplayed for a good part of the game. The Raiders still can’t stop the run and the offense has floundered under third string QB Rick Mirer. Green Bay has the firepower to outscore Oakland and the Raiders No. 28-rated defense. PACKERS.

Last week: 9-5-1

Season: 101-96