The 2013-14 National Football League season is beginning to wind down as the winds of December blow (along with the snow) and, while the playoff picture is far from clear, several teams are looking at punching their tickets for the playoffs come January.
In the NFC, there is only one team that has secured a playoff slot. The Seattle Seahawks, with their 11-2 record, have the simple formality of winning on Sunday to capture the NFC West crown. By virtue of their beat down of the New Orleans Saints a couple of weeks ago, they hold the position as top seed in the NFC and, barring a complete collapse over the next three weeks, the road to the NFC title will go through the Northwest.
After Seattle, however, the picture is a bit muddled. None of the other divisions are close to determining a champion, with New Orleans and Carolina fighting it out in the NFC South, Detroit and Chicago tied atop the NFC North (with Green Bay lurking) and Philadelphia holding a one game lead over Dallas in the NFC East. Carolina and San Francisco can go a long way to making the NFC playoffs with wins this weekend and a loss by the Arizona Cardinals, while the rest of the divisions will be a fight to the finish.
The AFC picture is a bit clearer but much still needs to be done as far as positioning. The Indianapolis Colts are in the playoffs as the AFC South champion and will be looking to improve on their #4 seed should the Cincinnati Bengals (leaders of the AFC North) falter. New England just needs a win this weekend to capture the AFC East championship and, one game back of the Denver Broncos in the overall standings (and with a win over the Broncos), might be in position to steal the #1 seed.
The Broncos are currently the #1 seed, but that is a tenuous position. At 11-2 and only one game up on both New England and the Kansas City Chiefs, they could fall to the #5 seed should Kansas City catch them. The #6 seed is a mess, with Baltimore, Miami, San Diego, the New York Jets, Tennessee and Pittsburgh still potentially in the playoff hunt.
The Week 15 games have some heavy consequences, as you can see. Teams don’t want to go into the final two weeks of the season trying to earn their spot, so a win on Sunday is huge for some of the contenders (home team in CAPS, choice for game in BOLD, lines from the Mirage in Las Vegas).
San Diego Chargers vs. DENVER BRONCOS (-10.5)
The Chargers’ spot as a playoff contender will more than likely end with this trip to Mile High Stadium. With the pressure on, Broncos QB Peyton Manning isn’t about to let his troops falter, especially considering the game time conditions will be almost balmy for Denver (temperatures in the 40s and no snow). Although he will be without WR Wes Welker (out with a concussion) for the game, Manning still has enough in the arsenal (not to mention the Broncos D) to push Denver to the win.
Washington Redskins vs. ATLANTA FALCONS (-7)
The two bottom feeders in the NFC square off in the Peach State in an attempt to decide who the worst team in the conference is. Washington head coach Mike Shanahan seems to be making that decision even before the game begins by benching QB Robert Griffin III for the remainder of the season for backup QB Kirk Cousins. Although Cousins has shown moments of brilliance with the ‘Skins, to send him into the dome in Atlanta against the Falcons’ D isn’t a good idea. Atlanta (favored by only four at the start of the week) should win this one handily.
Chicago Bears vs. CLEVELAND BROWNS (NO LINE)
Injuries are wreaking havoc with this matchup to the point of the Mirage not even laying a line down on it. The biggest question is who will be under center for the Bears, Jay Cutler (probable as of Thursday) or Josh McCown. Cleveland might have found a quarterback in Jason Campbell (he was outstanding in almost leading an upset over the Patriots last weekend), but he’s one mistake away from starting the revolving door spinning on the banks of Lake Erie. The Bears need this game worse than the Browns if they are going to make the playoffs, thus I’m giving them the edge.
Houston Texans vs. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (-5.5)
It’s time for the Colts to right the ship if they are going to do anything in the postseason. Although they are locked in as a division champion, the Colts have been putrid in the past few weeks. The Colts’ coaching staff will need to work out these issues over the next few weeks and the Texans are a good place to start working on those things. Although Houston has pride on the line, I don’t see them mounting much of a charge on the road against the Colts.
New England Patriots vs. MIAMI DOLPHINS (+1.5)
This is one of the toughest games to pick on the Week 15 schedule. With a win, the Patriots capture the NFC East and maintain the pursuit for the #1 seed in the playoffs. The Dolphins, with a win, continue their push towards earning the #6 seed (currently only Baltimore, by virtue of their win earlier in the season against the Dolphins, holds that position). Add into that drama is the loss of Patriots QB Tom Brady’s security blanket, TE Rob Gronkowski, due to a horrifically torn ACL and MCL in their win over Cleveland last week.
The line started out with New England favored by three, but it has dropped to only a point and a half as Sunday approaches. I believe that the Dolphins will surprise the Patriots here and cover the spread if not win the game outright.
Philadelphia Eagles (-5.5) vs. MINNESOTA VIKINGS
The Eagles are maintaining first place in the NFC East, setting up for a season-ending showdown with the Cowboys for the division crown if the status quo plays out. There’s no reason to think that the Eagles, who have been an outstanding 5-1 on the road this season, will come up short in this game against the Vikings, who have listed stud RB Adrian Peterson as doubtful..
Seattle Seahawks vs. NEW YORK GIANTS (+7)
Seattle, with the division crown and the #1 seed on the line with a win in this game, isn’t going to falter against the Giants. Although the Giants have been a little more like a professional football team of late, the Seahawks defense will be what the driver of the game is. I don’t see the Giants actually winning this outright, but the weather conditions for Sunday’s game (windy with the temps just a few degrees above freezing) will lend to a grind it out affair.
San Francisco 49ers (-5) vs. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
The 49ers are feeling the heat of late, trying to catch the Carolina Panthers for a better seed while fending off the Arizona Cardinals for the final playoff spot. While the Buccaneers have picked up their game also, the 49ers are getting healthy at the right time with WR Michael Crabtree working his way back into form. The 49ers shouldn’t have any problems with the Bucs because a stumble at this point in the season might just dethrone the defending NFC champions.
Buffalo Bills vs. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (+2)
In what will probably be a rainy day in the Sunshine State, the Jaguars aren’t getting any love from the Vegas bookies. The Jags have had a ten day break, however, having played their last game on December 5 (a win over Houston). This should allow for them to have put together an excellent game plan that will carry them to the win over the Bills.
Kansas City Chiefs (-4) vs. OAKLAND RAIDERS
It looks as though the Chiefs got back on the right track last weekend, although it was a thumping of the Redskins in Washington. The Chiefs can’t afford to lose touch with the Broncos, making this almost a must-win game. Although they are pretty much assured of a playoff spot at this moment, racking up a few more wins in case Denver gets complacent would be the difference between them playing on the road the entire playoffs or perhaps hosting a couple of game.
New York Jets vs. CAROLINA PANTHERS (-11)
I would normally hate to give up this many points, especially in the NFL, except for the fact that the Jets are playing horrendously at this point in the season. Their quarterback situation is a mess and their once staunch defense has become a sieve. The Panthers, coming off a beating by their division rivals the Saints, are going to be looking for vengeance in this game and should win it handily to keep them in the race for the NFC South championship.
Green Bay Packers vs. DALLAS COWBOYS (NO LINE)
There is no line on this game because of the indecision on whether Packers QB Aaron Rodgers will be back for the game. If he plays, he would at least give the Packers a shot at the win. If they have to go with QB Matt Flynn once again, the Cowboys defense will be able to carry the day against the Pack.
Arizona Cardinals vs. TENNESSEE TITANS (+2.5)
I’ve got to go with the Titans in this game for one simple reason; the Cardinals have been horrid on the road, going 2-4 to this point in the season. The Titans also have enough offense in QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and RB Chris Johnson to control the ball and keep Cardinals QB Carson Palmer and WR Larry Fitzgerald off the field. Thus, I’ll take the points and the Titans in this game.
New Orleans Saints (-6) vs. ST. LOUIS RAMS
Although it may be a road game for the Saints, they venture to St. Louis’ domed stadium. This means that QB Drew Brees and the track meet that the Saints offense has become will be able to run at full bore against a Rams defense that is just a little stronger than tissue paper. The Saints also have that drive of trying to stay ahead of the Panthers, whom they will play Week 16 with the NFC South division crown on the line.
Cincinnati Bengals (-2.5) vs. PITTSBURGH STEELERS
I’d really love to take the Steelers in this game just because they would enjoy taking down their longtime division rival as they look to win the AFC North crown. I just can’t, though. The Bengals offense is running well at this point behind QB Andy Dalton, RB Giovanni Bernard and WR A. J. Green and it should carry them to the win over the Steelers. As a side note, beware of Cincinnati in the playoffs, they’ve got just enough of everything (offense, defense, special teams, coaching, etc.) to be a dark horse in the AFC.
Baltimore Ravens vs. DETROIT LIONS (-5.5)
If there wasn’t a reason to believe in Lions QB Matthew Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson by this point in the season, then the recent brouhaha of a Ravens’ DB calling Johnson “old” (he’s 28, for crying out loud) should give them a bit more steam. Both teams are in need of a win, but the Lions will have Johnson catching everything this side of Lake Michigan to shut up the Ravens defense.
Last Week: Wow, a great time in the season to have a week like this! Went 11-5 to really boost our performance for the year. Hopefully we can maintain it over the final three weeks.
Season: 103-95-9, a solid but not spectacular run.
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