As the 2013 National Football League season enters into its stretch run, playoff positioning is becoming important for several teams.
At this point, the AFC would have division champions in Denver, Indianapolis, New England and Cincinnati (the #1-#4 seeds) with Kansas City and the New York Jets holding the wild card entries. The Jets’ hold on that position is a tenuous one, however (whoever finishes second in the Kansas City/Denver battle is all but assured of a wild card); Miami (5-5) has the same record as the Jets and a host of 4-6 teams (six altogether) could make a stretch run to pass both the Dolphins and the Jets.
The NFC picture is a little cloudier than that in the AFC. Other than Seattle (10-1, #1 seed and a virtual lock to take the NFC West), the rest of the roster is completely wide open. New Orleans currently holds the two seed, but they only have a game advantage in the NFC South over the surprising Carolina Panthers (currently #5). Detroit (currently #3) is tied atop the NFC North with Chicago and the Green Bay Packers are only a game back. Philadelphia (#4) leads the NFC East, but that is far from concluded either. Finally, last year’s NFC Champion, the San Francisco 49ers (#6), isn’t assured of that slot with Arizona and the Bears both holding the same records.
As you can see, this is the time for teams to start making their moves to position themselves as best as possible for the playoffs (or even if they are going to make the playoffs). Some of the games this weekend have a “playoff” feel while some of the others have potential to introduce some “spoilers” (a couple just have a whiff of “stinker” about them!) (home team in CAPS, choice for game in BOLD, lines from the Mirage in Las Vegas).
New Orleans Saints (-9.5) vs. ATLANTA FALCONS
This is one of the games that, at the start of the season, was going to separate the contenders for the NFC South crown, the Saints and the Falcons. Alas, fast forward almost three months and it is barely just a “spoiler” game. The Falcons’ collapse has been precipitous due to the factor of injuries that have decimated the offense. After barely escaping last week against the 49ers, the Saints will be looking to show they are the dominant team in the NFC. In the past, I would have taken the Falcons, buoyed by a raucous home crowd, to take this game but, this year, the Saints will march through the Georgia Dome with ease.
Pittsburgh Steelers (+2) vs. CLEVELAND BROWNS
The battle by Lake Erie on Sunday will essentially be a knockout game (guess we can call this a “playoff” game). With both teams 4-6 (and two games back of Cincinnati), the loser can basically call an end to their season as any hope of the division title will be gone and the wild card a long shot. Cleveland shouldn’t even be here after working their way through three quarterbacks and trading their 2012 first round draft pick running back only weeks into the season. Pittsburgh has somehow found a way to gut out a two game winning streak (including last week’s surprise win over Detroit) and, if they were to win on the road, might just end up sneaking into the playoffs somewhere with a continued streak (a long shot, but still).
Weather conditions for Sunday’s game are for below freezing temperatures with a chance of snow. This one could honestly go either way, but I’ll take the Steelers and the points in what will be a low scoring affair (possible 10-9, 14-13).
Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. DETROIT LIONS (-9)
Although Tampa has reeled off two victories in a row (over a besieged Miami team and the injury ravaged Falcons), they haven’t exactly shown that this sudden surge is anything to believe in. The 30th ranked passing game and 13th ranked running game of the Bucs will not be able to deal with the defense of the Lions and let’s not get started on the Lions’ O versus the Bucs’ D. WR Calvin Johnson and QB Matthew Stafford are in a zone right now and, when you add in RB Reggie Bush balancing out the attack, this should be a long afternoon for the Buccaneers in the Motor City.
Minnesota Vikings (+4.5) vs. GREEN BAY PACKERS
Two weeks ago, the Pack was riding high atop the NFC North. That was before QB Aaron Rodgers went down and, in the very next game, backup Seneca Wallace hit the training room. Their third option this year, Scott Tolzien, is trying to keep the ship righted in time for Rodgers’ return, but the season is quickly slipping away (as are hopes at a playoff berth).
The Vikings are seemingly rounding into form (although last week’s thumping by Seattle stings a bit) as QB Christian Ponder and RB Adrian Peterson look to make this a “spoiler” game. The Packers may win in the end, but it will be close; take the Vikings and the points and try to avert your eyes from this game.
San Diego Chargers vs. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (-4.5)
After becoming the last team to fall from the unbeaten ranks (you did hear those champagne corks popping in Miami, didn’t you?), Kansas City isn’t going to be a very happy team. Leading the AFC West to this point in the season, the Chiefs and their 9-1 record would only be good enough for the first wild card if the playoffs started today (requiring a road trip to Cincinnati). They will look to make up ground by eliminating the 4-6 Chargers from contention this weekend and hope that Denver stumbles during their visit to the Northeast.
Chicago Bears (+1) vs. ST. LOUIS RAMS
This game is basically a pick ‘em as the Bears have a quick trip to the Gateway City for a clash with the Rams. The Bears will still be without QB Jay Cutler, but backup QB Josh McCown has been able to keep things going somewhat (they still would be better with Cutler under center). The Rams are also without their starter, QB Sam Bradford, but they have surprised some with backup QB Kellen Clemens and their crushing defeat of the Indianapolis Colts (38-8) two weeks ago (the Rams were on a bye last week). This game has that whiff of “stinker” on it and, if I was betting, I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. For our purposes here, I believe the Bears will win outright and keep themselves in the race for the NFC North title.
Carolina Panthers (-4) vs. MIAMI DOLPHINS
If I had told you at the beginning of the season that the Panthers were going to give the Saints a run for the NFC South title, you would have probably called the nearest mental hospital to admit me. The Panthers and their third year quarterback Cam Newton have blossomed this year, though, and their last two victories over San Francisco and New England have been quite impressive. They have a six game winning streak that has been driven by Newton and a staunch defense (5th in opposing passing yards, 3rd in rushing yards), two instances which should extend their streak to seven and keep the pressure on the Saints.
New York Jets vs. BALTIMORE RAVENS (-3.5)
The “stinker” stench is all over this game. The Jets, although they hold the final wild card slot at this time, is too inconsistent to make any serious run at the playoffs. The defending champion Ravens showed some signs of life (AKA a running game) last week, but that still didn’t prevent them from going down to the Bears on the road. The only reason I can give you for taking the Ravens here is that they are at home; the Jets are 1-4 on the road this season and there is no indication that they will change that course anytime soon.
Jacksonville Jaguars (+10) vs. HOUSTON TEXANS
Another “stinker” game this week features the two bottom teams in the AFC South trying to stay out of the race for the first round draft pick in the 2014 NFL draft. Houston will win this game behind another outstanding effort from WR Andre Johnson and their cadre of running backs, but it will not be by the ten points that they are giving up to the Jags.
Tennessee Titans vs. OAKLAND RAIDERS (+1)
This tilt in the Bay Area is another elimination game, with both teams at 4-6 and a loss basically eliminating them from the playoffs. The general consensus has this game anywhere from Tennessee favored by a point to Oakland being favored by a point and a half, meaning that the bookmakers aren’t really sure what’s going to happen. In these cases, you normally want to stay away from placing a wager, but I’ll take the home team (the Raiders) and their defense over the visiting Titans.
Indianapolis Colts (+2.5) vs. ARIZONA CARDINALS
The Colts have made like Harry Houdini over the past few weeks, scrambling to pull out victories over Houston and Tennessee the bookends around the whipping they took at the hands of St. Louis. The Colts have to figure out why they are putting themselves in this situation and rectify it before playoff time, otherwise their playoff trip will be a short one. QB Andrew Luck should be able to push the Colts past the Cardinals, but don’t be surprised if the Cards pull off a 1-2 point win in this game.
Dallas Cowboys (+2.5) vs. NEW YORK GIANTS
A few weeks ago, this game looked like it would be a “stinker,” now it has become one that will determine who is left to challenge the Eagles for the NFC East division crown. I normally am a bit hesitant to take Dallas on the road (they never seem to have the same drive that they have when in Texas) and the resurgent Giants will give them a game if not win it outright. It will be a close one, however, thus I am taking the Cowboys and the points.
Denver Broncos (-2.5) vs. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
THIS is the only game on the Week 12 slate that looks like it will be a great one. Peyton Manning, Wes Welker and the Broncos, the new leaders in the AFC West (and overall #1) will be looking to maintain that status as they take on Tom Brady and the Pats. The drive for both teams will be strong to win this game, as the Patriots can ill-afford letting either the Jets or the Dolphins back into the AFC East race and the Broncos would like to continue to put pressure on the Kansas City Chiefs with a rematch against them next week in KC.
The Broncos just have too much offense going for them to think that they’ll stumble against the Patriots. Besides, if Manning and Welker can’t get up for this game, then perhaps all they do deserve is a wild card berth.
San Francisco 49ers (-6) vs. WASHINGTON REDSKINS
Still irritated from last week’s loss to the Saints, the 49ers will come into DC with a huge chip on their shoulder and take it out on the Redskins. The ‘Skins have been in turmoil of late, with QB Robert Griffin III ‘s leadership being called into question and head coach Mike Shanahan on the hot seat. That seat will get even warmer after the defending NFC East champions drop this game to the ‘Niners in a big way.
Last Week: I didn’t think it was possible, but I pushed THREE games last week in going 6-6-3. That is no way to make anything when it comes to betting football.
Season: 78-75-8…at least I can say I am squashing ESPN commentator/Grantland editor Bill Simmons, who was 64-78-5 prior to last week’s games (it also appears he was under .500 for last week’s picks). It’s going to take some big weeks from Simmons to catch up with me!
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