NFL wild-card races have turned into a wild scramble

Dec 15, 2012 7:10 AM

Special To GamingToday

Last week, thanks to losses by the Steelers and Bengals, and victories by the Cowboys, Redskins, Rams and Vikings – all of whom have six losses – the wild-card races have turned into a wild scramble. Making it even tighter was Chicago dropping to 8-5 and the Jets improving to 6-7. 

Maybe this will be the year we get back to having an applicable tiebreaker of net points in division or conference games. One such game in 1980 resulted in a surreal ending, when Philadelphia won the NFC East over Dallas based on net points in division games. 

Thus, when Philly lost by a close-enough 35-27 margin to Dallas in the finale in Texas Stadium, the game-winning Cowboys were moping and the losing Eagles poured champagne.

On the weather front, looks like we’ll have to wait another week to get some icy weather. There are forecasts for light rain pretty much across the board, but probably nothing to influence game selections.

Also, what’s with those rookie QBs? Over the past two weeks they are 11-2 ATS, with one of the losses by one point. Strange.

Now, on to this week’s games:



Green Bay Packers (9-4) at Chicago Bears (8-5)

Time: 10 a.m. PDT

Line: Packers -3 (42½)

Facts: Over the past four seasons, the Packers have won 7 of 8 in this series (5-2 ATS), including a 23-10 triumph in Week 2 that resulted in Bears QB Jay Cutler (probable, neck/knee) throwing a hissy-fit at one of his burly blockers. Cutler was sacked 7 times and had 4 INT’s. • What’s at stake: The Packers clinch the NFC North with a victory that would drop Chicago into the swirling mess of teams with 6 losses. A Bears win would tie GB in the standings, but the Packers would still own the tiebreaker.

Analysis: The Packers, with only the No. 17-rated defense, held Chicago to 168 total yards in that early beat-down and should be getting back LB Clay Matthews (probable, hamstring), who had 3½ sacks in that early meeting. The Bears, meanwhile, will be without LB Brian Urlacher and might again do without the league’s top INT guy, Tim Jennings (doubtful, shoulder). And considering Cutler’s brittle condition and the awful protection he gets, backup QB Jason Campbell had better keep his arm warm. 

Forecast: Packers 23, Bears 13


New York Giants (8-5) at Atlanta Falcons (11-2)

Time: 10 a.m. PDT

Line: Falcons -1½ (51½)

Facts: The visitor in this series had won 12 in a row until the Giants took the past two in the Meadowlands, including last season’s wild-card game in which Atlanta took a surmountable 2-0 lead before falling, 24-2. • In NYG’s 52-27 rout of New Orleans last week, they had a 30-yard edge in average starting field position (49-19), the biggest gap for anyone the past 5 years. • Falcons QB Matt Ryan has 6 game-winning, fourth-quarter drives this season, all vs. teams they were favored to beat by at least a FG.

Analysis: The Falcons were beaten by Carolina last week 30-20, but after they matched a league-low with 35 first-half yards, rallied nicely with three TD drives of 80+ yards. New York, meanwhile, is overvalued based on its rout of the Saints. FYI: Teams such as the Giants who had an edge of 20+ yards in average launch point have gone 11-20-1 ATS their next game. Also, the Giants might be relying on “flippin” rookie RB David Wilson again with Ahmad Bradshaw ailing (doubtful, knee).

Forecast: Falcons 27, Giants 21


Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7) at New Orleans Saints (5-8)

Time: 10 a.m. PDT

Line: Saints -3½ (54)

Facts: Saints QB Drew Brees leads the league with 32 TD throws, but is tied with Andrew Luck for most INTs with 18. The last QB to lead both categories was Green Bay’s Lynn Dickey in 1983 (32/29). • Flashback: In 1977, the Bucs broke their NFL-record 26-game losing streak with a 33-14 victory in the Superdome as an 11-point underdog. Archie Manning, the dad of Peyton and Eli, pitched a pair of pick-6’s in that game for New Orleans.

Analysis: Both teams are on 3-game losing streaks after getting themselves in position for the stretch run. Oh, well. The Bucs, in particular, have to be feeling extra lousy after losing at home to the Eagles last week, prompting analysts to leap from their bandwagon. The blame can be put on the secondary, which is giving up a league record-high 312 yards a game in the air. There’s a good chance NO’s Drew Brees, who had 4 TD throws in the Saints’ 35-28 win over TB in Week 7, should victimize the Bucs again.

Forecast: Saints 42, Buccaneers 28


Minnesota Vikings (7-6) at St. Louis Rams (6-6-1)

Time: 10 a.m. PDT

Line: Rams -3 (38½)

Facts: The Vikings’ 6-1 home mark and 1-5 record on the road ties Seattle for the greatest discrepancy in the league. • The Rams have gone 3-1-1 since their bye, which came after a 45-7 loss to NE in London. The only major flaw is their somewhat inexplicable 27-13 home loss to the Jets. • Minnesota QB Christian Ponder has plunged from 10 on the passer chart to 27 since the team’s 4-1 start. In his past 8 games, he has thrown for only 239 more yards than RB Adrian Peterson has gained on the ground (1,419-1,180).

Analysis: The biggest battle between these surprising playoff hopefuls could be how successful the Rams are at slowing Peterson, the rushing leader with 1,600 yards. However, AP is coming off a career-high 31 carries. For what it’s worth, In three previous career games with 29 or 30 carries, he came back the next week to average 58 yards and on 14 carries. Hmm. And considering STL held the run-heavy Bills to 61 ground yards last week, their lowest total in 19 games, St. Louis might also have the right recipe this week. 

Forecast: Rams 19, Vikings 13


Washington Redskins (7-6) at Cleveland Browns (5-8)

Time: 10 a.m. PDT

Line: Off

Facts: Redskins coach Mike Shanahan vows to keep folks guessing as to which rookie QB he’ll start: Robert Griffin III (questionable, knee sprain) or Kirk Cousins. Last week Cousins, who has never started, rallied Washington late in its 31-28 OT win over Baltimore. • The Redskins are on their first 4-game winning streak since 2008. Cleveland is on its first 3-game run since 2009. • The Browns committed 13 turnovers their first 5 games en route to a 0-5 start, but only 7 in their next 8 games.

Analysis: No matter what happens the rest of the way cynical Redskins fans can pop the corks over the fact their team won’t be the first since the mid-1960s Broncos to finish last 5 straight seasons. Cheers. But this week Washington’s fate hinges on RG3, the only one of seven rookie QBs this year to win in his starting debut. With the prospect of him being well below full speed or Cousins getting the nod, the vote is for Cleveland and graybeard rookie QB Brandon Weeden, who’s 5-2 vs. 3-4 defenses.

Forecast: Browns 26, Redskins 20


Jacksonville Jaguars  (2-11) at Miami Dolphins (5-8)

Time: 10 a.m. PDT

Line: Dolphins -7½ (37½)

Facts: In the 1999 postseason, the Jaguars beat the Dolphins 62-7 in Dan Marino’s farewell. • Dolphins standout OLT Jake Long is on IR for the last month of the season for the second straight year. Last season Miami finished with 3 wins in a row. • Since Jaguars QB Chan Henne’s sterling relief job 4 weeks ago for the Jags vs. Houston (4 TDs, 0 INTs), the past 3 games he’s had 3 TD passes and 5 INT’s. He has the lowest completion percentage among qualifiers at 51.6. 

Analysis: As poorly as the Jaguars have played in their first year under Mike Mularkey, the only coach to lead the Bills to a winning season this century, they at least have been able to perform ably on the road, going 5-1 ATS. But with Henne’s nose dive in place of injured starter Blaine Gabbert, big-play receiver Cecil Shorts (probable, concussion) shaky and without RB Maurice Jones-Drew yet again (doubtful, foot), Miami might not have to score too often to win. But that spread is too big.

Forecast: Dolphins 17, Jaguars 14


Denver Broncos (10-3) at Baltimore Ravens (9-4)

Time: 10 a.m. PDT

Line: Broncos -2½ (48)

Facts: AFC West champ Denver will be playing against a division leader for the fourth time this season. The Broncos are 0-3 in those previous games, losing to Atlanta, Houston and New England in the first 5 weeks. • This marks the first time in 27 home games the Ravens aren’t a favorite. The last time it happened was in 2009 when Peyton Manning’s Colts were a 1-point choice. Indy won 17-15. • Manning’s former coach with the Colts, Jim Caldwell, will be calling plays for the first time in his career on Sunday for Baltimore.

Analysis: Whereas the Ravens are coming off back-to-back losses for the first time since early in 2009, Denver is on an 8-game winning streak. But the Broncos’ past four victims have a combined mark of 16-36. Last Thursday, although Denver beat Oakland 26-13, they had only one TD drive longer than 2 yards. On the motivation meter, Denver certainly wants a bye, but the needle moves a lot more for Baltimore, playing at home and in danger of blowing its 1.5-game lead in the AFC North. 

Forecast: Ravens 24, Broncos 16


Indianapolis Colts (9-4) at Houston Texans (11-2)

Time: 10 a.m. PDT

Line: Texans -9½ (48)

Facts: Houston is coming off a 42-14 Monday Night Football loss at New England. The last time the Texans were on that prime-time stage they followed that by being waxed at home by Green Bay 42-24. • Indy also plays Houston in the season finale and can win the division provided it sweeps the Texans and finishes at least tied with them. • The Colts put RB Donald Brown in IR this week. He was the team’s second-leading rusher with 417 yards, 145 behind Vick Ballard. Plus their center and offensive RG are ailing. 

Analysis: Houston, such a heavy favorite to win the AFC South that bets for the division title at the LVH Superbook were off the board most of the season, will be looking to end all this drama and blow the Colts’ hopes to smithereens. It shouldn’t be too difficult considering Indy, guided by the league’s No. 31-rated passer (Andrew Luck), has lost by a minimum of 20 points in each of its 3 road games vs. teams with a record better than 4-9. Not to mention the Colts have a turnover margin of -16.

Forecast: Texans 38, Colts 13


Carolina Panthers  (4-9) at San Diego Chargers (5-8)

Time: 1:05 p.m. PDT

Line: Chargers 3 (45)

Facts: In the first half of the Panthers’ 30-20 home win vs. Atlanta last week, they ran 48 plays to the Falcons’ 11 in taking a 16-0 lead. Carolina’s 270-35 edge in yardage at the break was the biggest gap in a game this season. • In their last meeting in 2008, Carolina won 28-24 as a 9-point ’dog. • Last week, the Chargers converted 12 of 22 third-down tries against Pittsburgh’s top-rated defense en route to a 34-24 victory. • The Panthers have had 5 TD drives of 80+ yards the past 2 weeks. In Games 1-11, they had 6.

Analysis: The Chargers’ scoring outburst in Pittsburgh was aided by 2 TD’s off short fields and a defensive TD. In fact, San Diego had only one drive longer than 48 yards, so it’s not like QB Philip Rivers found the winning elixir on his own. For Carolina, it appears QB Cam Newton waited for the nation’s glaring spotlight to aim in another direction before he quit sulking and played like Superman. In the past 4 games, he’s had a part in 11 TDs without a turnover. One more thing: The Panthers are 5-3 ATS as an underdog. 

Forecast: Panthers 27, Chargers 24


(at Toronto)

Seattle Seahawks (8-5) vs. Buffalo Bills (5-8)

Time: 1:05 p.m. PDT

Line: Seahawks -5½ (42½)

Facts: Seattle sure got even with Arizona, winning 58-0 last week after falling in the opener 20-16. The biggest reversal in history, though, occurred in 1940 when the Bears, 7-3 losers to Washington late in the season, gained revenge 3 weeks later in the title game with a 73-0 win in D.C. as a 1-point ’dog. • Teams are 4-8 ATS after wins of 30+ points this year. • Buffalo is 1-3 in its Toronto home away from home, but won last year 23-0 against the Redskins, getting a league season-high 10 sacks. 

Analysis: The Bills took a hit last week when bulldozing RB Fred Jackson was lost for the season with a knee injury. But in the past, fleet C.J. Spiller, who’s got 944 ground yards and averages 6.6 a carry, is an able replacement. Seattle, meanwhile, could be without playmaking WR Sidney Rice (questionable, shoulder), who scored the overtime TD in Chicago two weeks ago a split-second before being knocked senseless. Considering Buffalo has yielded only 5 offensive TDs the past 4 games, the points are inviting.

Forecast: Seahawks 16, Bills 14


Detroit Lions (4-9) at Arizona Cardinals (4-9)

Time: 1:05 p.m. PDT

Line: Lions -6½ (43½)

Facts: There are 3 teams in the league on losing streaks of 5 games or more. Here are two of them: Detroit at 5, Arizona at 9. • The Lions had 27 first downs, converting 11-for-17 on third downs, yet still had only 20 points in the snow in Green Bay last week. • Arizona’s 58-0 loss in Seattle last week was the tenth worst shutout defeat in league history. The only one of those big losers to rebound and win its next game was Tennessee three years ago after falling 59-0 at New England.

Analysis: After the Cardinals’ big loss, WR Larry Fitzgerald said: “The goal is never to let that repeat itself.” Not to worry, since that’s the only 58-0 game in history. Anyway, the Lions also have a crummy taste in their mouths after blowing double-digit leads in 3 straight games. So, who’s got the motivational edge? Give it to Arizona, since Detroit wasn’t humiliated. Plus the Cards, who return to rookie QB Ryan Lindley, are at home. Besides, teams are 8-3-1 ATS after being mauled by 30+ points this year.

Forecast: Cardinals 20, Lions 17


Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6) at Dallas Cowboys (7-6)

Time: 1:25 p.m. PDT

Line: Steelers -1 (44)

Facts: The buzz out of Dallas is that WR Dez Bryant (questionable, finger) will play. • Pittsburgh has gone 8 straight games without yielding 300 yards of offense. Dallas has done that well in 1 of its past 10 games. • This is only the Steelers’ third trip to the Metroplex in the past 21 years, including their Super loss to GB two seasons ago.• Since midseason 2011, Dallas is 0-9 ATS at home. • Pittsburgh started 5 drives inside its 10 last week vs. San Diego, the most by anyone in a game this year. 

Analysis: Two weeks ago the Steelers were coming off a horrible 20-14 loss in Cleveland in which they committed 8 turnovers. Smoke came from Coach Mike Tomlin’s ears and lava from his mouth. Pittsburgh responded with an upset win in Baltimore behind third-string QB Charlie Batch. This week Tomlin is at it again after the Steelers’ flabbergasting 34-24 home loss to San Diego as a 7½-point favorite. And with Big Ben back in the QB groove after a layoff, things look right for Pittsburgh to come through again.

Forecast: Steelers 28, Cowboys 17


Kansas City Chiefs (2-11) at Oakland Raiders (3-10)

Time: 1:25 p.m. PDT

Line: Raiders -3 (43½)

Facts: Kansas City is 8-1 in Oakland since 2003. In all other road games the past 10 years, the Chiefs are 20-49. • The Raiders, coming off a 26-13 home loss to Denver last Thursday, have gone 0-6 ATS their past 6 games, matching the longest streak by any team this season. Nine years ago, the Raiders hosted KC while on a 6-game ATS losing streak and fell 17-10 as a 4-point underdog. • In their Week 8 meeting, the Raiders won 26-16 as a 1-point ’dog thanks to a +3 turnover edge. Oakland hasn’t won since.

Analysis: This game will be played in the relative privacy of a largely empty Oakland Coliseum with players either striving for personal milestones or merely trying to make it through the final 3 weeks without needing an ambulance ride from the stadium. Thus, KC rates an edge with hard-to-tackle Jamaal Charles, whose 80-yard dash to a TD last week in Cleveland was a highlight. Oakland RB Darren McFadden could do that, too, but he’s always leaving games in midstream. Edge Chiefs.

Forecast: Chiefs 34, Raiders 21


San Francisco 49ers (9-3-1) at New England Patriots (10-3)

Time: 5:30 p.m. PDT

Line: Patriots -5 (46½)

Facts: The Patriots, the league’s highest-scoring team, face the 49ers who have yielded the fewest. Dating to 1991, the league’s top scoring team (based on season-ending stats) has faced the top defensive team 10 times, going 8-2. • The 49ers are 5-1 in East Coast games the past 2 years, but with Alex Smith at QB, not current starter Colin Kaepernick. All other West Coast teams are 5-14. • In NE Coach Bill Belichick’s previous 2 games against inexperienced QBs in 2012, the Patriots lost in Seattle to Russell Wilson, 24-23, and rallied past Indy 59-24, with two pick-6’s of Andrew Luck.

Analysis: The Patriots, on a short work week after their 42-14 home Monday Night Football win over Houston, have fared well on abbreviated rest, whipping the Jets 49-19 on Thanksgiving this year and foiling San Diego and Philly last year off other Monday Night Football outings. However, in those previous games they weren’t facing a QB nearly as elusive as Kaepernick (Michael Vick didn’t play for Eagles). Plus, the bandaged Patriots offense line could be in trouble against a San Fran defense that’s had 2 games with 5+ sacks the past 4 weeks. But, then again, the Patriots never lose at home in December. Thus …

Forecast: Patriots 26, 49ers 24 



New York Jets (6-7) at Tennessee Titans (4-9)

Time: 5:40 p.m. PDT

Line: Titans -2 (41)

Facts: When these teams last met in Nashville, in 2008, the Jets won 34-13 to end Tennessee’s perfect start to the season at 10-0. QB Brett Favre won only one more time for the Jets, excluding the 2010 game when he faced NYJ while with Minnesota. • That Titans loss 4 years ago was the most one-sided in history for an unbeaten team with at least 9 victories. • Including last week at Indy, the Titans have had an average starting point on drives inside the 20 in 4 games this season. In the previous 2 years, that never happened to them. • The Jets have had 4 games with more than 40 rushes, most in the league, including the past 3 weeks. NY is 4-0 in those games.

Analysis: The Jets are on a 2-game winning streak and no doubt thinking playoffs, considering they are a game behind in the battle for the final wild-card spot. But their recent victories came against two of the most miserable teams in the league (Cardinals, Jaguars). Had Jacksonville’s Chad Henne not pitched INTs from the New York 10 and 28 last week, the Jets might be playing only for whatever pride they have left. The Titans, meanwhile, are playing before the home crowd in a Monday Night Football game for the first time in 4 seasons. The prime-time atmosphere worked for them in a Thursday night victory against Pittsburgh as a 6-point underdog. So, why not again?

Forecast: Titans 24, Jets 14


Last week: 8-7-1 ATS; 12-4 SU

Season total: 105-97-5 (.520) ATS; 120-87-1 (.580) SU

“Popular” Bob Christ has been forecasting NFL games for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in newspapers from coast to coast in Canada and the U.S. Contact him at [email protected].

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