Steel Curtain sending midseason message

Nov 9, 2004 7:30 AM

At the midway point of the regular season, all the NFL teams have played at least eight games. Four teams (Denver, Miami, Oakland and San Diego) have the final byes of the season this week.

It is about this time in the season that we start to see which teams have that Super Bowl look. Clearly the Pittsburgh Steelers have to be at or near the top of the list, following wins over previously unbeaten New England and Philadelphia in consecutive weeks. The Patriots and Eagles also rank among the legitimate contenders. These three are the only one-loss teams.

There is still much football to be played, but we can at least get some idea of how the playoff chases are unfolding.

In the AFC, New England and Pittsburgh are alone in first place in their respective divisions. Denver and San Diego are tied atop the AFC West at 6-3. Jacksonville, at 5-3, holds a half game lead over Indianapolis pending the outcome of Monday night’s game between the Vikings and Colts.

With just two losses the New York Jets would get one of the two wild cards, while Baltimore is an eighth team with three or fewer losses. The Ravens are at the Jets this week in a game that is likely to have at least wild card implications.

In the NFC, all four divisions have single leaders. At 7-1, Philadelphia leads the East and controls the NFC top seed. Atlanta is 6-2 in the South and Minnesota will be 6-2 with a win this past Monday night. Even with a loss, the Vikes still lead the North.

In the West, Seattle is 5-3 and leads St. Louis by a game. The New York Giants are 5-3 and hold one of the wild cards, while Green Bay and Detroit join the Rams at 4-4.

Things are tightly bunched so you can see just how important a single game is in the NFL compared to the other major sports that play much lengthier schedules. Injuries and depth are always a concern, derailing the best of teams. In the end, defense and the ability to avoid turning the ball over should ultimately determine which teams make it to the postseason.

Home favorites were just 3-5 against the points last week. Home underdogs had a third straight winning week at 3-1. One team that started the week as a home dog, but was bet to pick’em was Cincinnati. The Bengals blasted Dallas and rewarded those who moved that line.

However, many backers of one home favorite were disappointed. St. Louis started the week as a 2½-point underdog to visiting New England. Apparently the public panicked like Chicken Little and felt the sky would fall in with the injuries to the Patriots starting defensive backs. In a very rare move of 4½ points, the Rams were favored at kickoff by 2.

Nothing more need be said other than Bill Belichick’s Patriots put up 40 points against Mike Martz’ Rams who were held to just 22.

Nine of Sunday’s games went clearly "over" the total. A 10th game (Houston at Denver) pushed the 44-point closing number at many places, although virtually all of the movement from 41½ came Sunday. Just three games stayed "under."

For the first time this season, "overs" lead "unders" on a season long basis. Nearly 48 total points per game were scored Sunday.

Here’s a look at this week’s 14 games.

Sunday, Nov. 14

Ravens (NL) at Jets: Injuries keep this game off the board. Jets QB Chad Pennington had to leave in last week’s loss at Buffalo. Baltimore’s defense continues to bail out the below average offense. The Jets offense has struggled all season against the better defenses. UNDER.

Steelers (-4½) at Browns (42): It is hard to sustain the intensity the Steelers have played with the past two weeks. Both of the wins were at home and now must face a Cleveland team that played well in the loss at Baltimore. The Browns seek to avenge an earlier loss in Pittsburgh. Upset alert. BROWNS.

Texans (NL) at Colts: Houston hung in for a half at Denver, but the Broncos played with a sense of urgency to easily get the win. Indianapolis played on Monday night, seeking to avoid a third straight loss. The schedule favors the Colts, who play their next two games on the road. while Houston returns home for a pair of games. COLTS.

Bears (NL) at Titans: Chicago’s defense, a strength all season, keyed the comeback win over the Giants last week. Tennessee is rested following a much needed bye, and the Titans should be reasonably healthy. This game is critical for the Titans with three straight divisional road games on deck. Wrong place for the Bears. TITANS.

Bucs (+3½) at Falcons (41): Tampa has quietly won three of the last four and the offense is improving under the leadership of QB Brian Griese. The defense remains strong and made key plays last week in the win over high powered Kansas City. Atlanta plays its first home game in almost a month. Tough to lay more than a FG with a team being outgained by nearly 50 yards. BUCS.

Lions (NL) at Jaguars: The very questionable status of Jacksonville QB Byron Leftwich keeps this game off the boards. The Jags are off a bye, but the absence of Leftwich will hamper the offense. Detroit continues to put up weak stats on both sides of the ball, especially on offense. UNDER.

Seahawks (+1½) at Rams (50): Seattle has been waiting for this game since last month’s fourth quarter collapse that saw the Seahawks blow a 27-10 fourth quarter lead in an overtime home loss to these Rams. That started a three game losing streak. Emotion and revenge is significant in this case. SEATTLE.

Chiefs (NL) at Saints: Injuries keep this game off the board. Both teams have weak defenses and potent offenses, although the Saints have not been as productive as their potential suggests. Still, the indoor venue suggests both offenses will be able to mix their solid running and big play passing games well enough to put plenty of points on the board. OVER.

Bengals (+3) at Redskins (37): Both teams are off upset wins. The big difference is on defense, where Washington allows more than 100 yards less per game than the Bengals. The Redskins also have a better running game. The linesmaker is telling us that this game is a pick on a neutral field, but it would appear Washington has the better talent. REDSKINS.

Vikings (NL) at Packers: This series has had a longstanding home bias, although both teams did win on the road last season. Over the last decade, the home team has won 15 of 20. Green Bay is rested, which means QB Brett Favre should be healthy. Minnesota is off a Monday night game at Indianapolis and likely to again either be without Randy Moss or with a Moss less than 100 percent. PACKERS.

Giants (-2½) at Cards (37½): The Giants had five turnovers in their upset loss to Chicago last week. The avoidance of turnovers is what had enabled the Giants to get off to their hot start. Arizona is not a very good team but live off a defense that continues to create turnovers. New York coach Tom Coughlin will address those turnover issues in practice this week. GIANTS.

Panthers (+1) at 49ers (41): Both teams are 1-7 and the loser likely will battle Miami for the top choice in next April’s draft. San Francisco has put up the better stats on both sides of the ball. Carolina continues to be hampered by injuries at RB, which should enable the 49ers above average pass defense contain Carolina. 49ERS.

Bills (+8½) at Patriots (37): Buffalo is playing better in recent weeks and has won three of the last four. The Bills also gave New England one of its toughest games of the early season. The Pats still may be the best team in the league. Buffalo QB Drew Bledsoe has struggled against his former team as Bill Belichick continues to game plan better than every other coach. PATRIOTS.

Monday, Nov. 15

Eagles (-6) at Cowboys (41½): Things have unraveled in Dallas and it’s clear that Vinny Testaverde is not the answer. The offense has sputtered in recent games and the defense has performed way below its league leading level of a season ago. Philadelphia was physically beaten up in Pittsburgh last week but is well coached and has the resiliency to bounce back quickly. The Eagles are still an outstanding road team. EAGLES.

Last week: 6-7

Season: 67-58-4