January 31, 2002
Fearless Rick's SUPER BOWL PICK
posted by Rick Gagliano
SUPER BOWL - Sunday, February 3
St. Louis -14 (53) New England - The Vegas bookies took a big hit when the Rams beat the Packers two weeks ago and got even with Philly covering the line late in last week's Rams victory. They also made a sizable score on New England's win, as heavy money went on the Steelers. This week, the Vegas oddsmakers opened the line at 15 1/2 and wise guys stomped it down immediately to 14. It should stay there until Sunday, when the betting action heats up. My personal view is that the line is too high - that New England will play a base cover 2 zone, possibly use 6 or 7 DBs (they did this back in November when they lost to the Rams 24-17) and try to contain the St. Louis attack. They will also change defenses repeatedly as they did against Pittsburgh and that completely confused Kordell Stewart. Focusing on the Rams offense in this game may be a mistake, however, as New England should be able to exploit their somewhat average run defense. The Eagles could have won last week's game easily by controlling the clock with the running game, but they went against it in the second half and had too many stalled offensive drives which cost them the game. When they got behind by 12, they had to pass, and still managed to score a late TD.
There are ways to beat the Rams and one of them is at their own game. Mid-to long-range passes into the zone defense mixed with runs on first and second downs. The Rams have such great weapons that most teams are unable to stop whatever they do, but the Rams braintrust of Warner and Martz does what no other team does better on offense - confuse the defense by running when they are thinking pass and vice versa. If the Patriots can figure out a scheme - and Bill Belichick may be better at this than anyone in the game - the Patriots have a good chance of pulling off the upset. When the Rams have the ball, they have to outguess them and keep Marshall Faulk in check. Blitzing Warner is not the answer, as the Eagles found out. He can unload the ball much too quickly and he always knows where his check-down receiver or back is, so I don't see the Patriots blitzing very much, if at all. The New England secondary is among the best in the league, so Warner may not have as much success as one would expect. The Rams will get nothing easy on the Pats, and they may have to resort to a ground game themselves in order to win. Noting all of this, I think the game will not go over the posted line of 53, and the final score will be a somewhat boring 28-17 win for the Rams or a 24-17 upset win for the Patriots. Either way, I don't see many points being scored, unless the Patriots have a big day.
What the Patriots have to do on offense is to take some deep shots and not throw many screens, but use runs up the middle, into the heart of the Rams defense, to soften them up. It worked for Philadelphia, though they didn't, in my opinion, stick with it. In Antowain Smith, they have a big running back that can bruise the Rams defenders. Zone blocking, misdirection and play action can also work against the Rams. Again, the Patriots need to mix up the play calling to keep the Rams off balance. And I also think Tom Brady could have a big day for the Pats. The Rams don't blitz much, even though when they do they are successful, but their pass rush is average. Brady may have all day in the pocket and if you give any QB in this league time, you are going to get burned. He has two very capable receivers, Troy Brown and David Hatten (the speedster) to throw to. Brown could be the difference in this game as he has emerged as one of the most dangerous players in the league. He runs sure routes, has great hands and can run with just about anybody. He's also very shifty and can break off big plays. Brown also will be key on special teams, an area in which the Patriots have a decided edge. The Rams do not focus on special teams play very much (with their offense, they don't have to) and the Patriots may make them pay for any mistakes. Special teams won the game last week for the Patriots and Troy Brown had a hand in both special team TDs. While the Rams may not like it, they may have to kick the ball to Brown a couple of times and containing him will be a key to their success.
Oddly enough, with the points so high, you don't hear many people talking about how badly the Rams will overwhelm the Patriots on offense. The Pats defense is for real, having given up 17 points or less in each of their last eight games - all wins - and the Rams, after all are human, not superhuman. SUPER BOWL IS A THREE STAR PICK - NEW ENGLAND & UNDER 53.
Source: Downtown Magazine
January 24, 2002
Fearless Rick's Conference Championship Picks 1/27/02
posted by Rick Gagliano
NFL Conference Championships - Sunday, January 27
With a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, Vegas oddsmakers are upping the ante for favorites players. While the Pittsburgh - New England line opened at a reasonable 7 1/2, favorites players pushed it to 9 1/2 right way. Same scenario with the Rams - Eagles. The line opened at 10 1/2 and now stands at 12. If you want to play favorites this week, you'll have to give up some points. Obviously, the heavy plays on the home teams indicate that fans are looking for blowouts, which may or may not be the case. Read on...
PITTSBURGH -9 1/2 (37) New England - Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense has been getting it done week in and week out throughout the season while the offense developed into the crisp unit it is today. Pittsburgh will rely on this defensive scheme to stop the running game of the Patriots, which features a big back in Antoine Smith. While Smith may find holes in the line, they will be filled quickly by the best linebacking unit in the league, one which led the NFL in yards against, yielding a mere 74.8 yards per game rushing. As the Ravens found out last week, running against this defense is going to be difficult. New England will most likely counter with the West Coast-style offense that has worked for them in the past, and especially so against the Raiders in crunch time last week. If they can find a weakness or a matchup to exploit they will. Problem is, the Steelers don't really have any weaknesses on defense, and if the Steelers sense that New England is abandoning the run, the blitz (with zone behind it) will be coming. And that spells trouble for the Pats and QB Brady, who finds ways to get the job done, but will be under pressure all day.
On offense, the Steelers possess some of the most unique and devastating weapons in the league. Starting with Kordell Stewart, their smart, agile and slippery quarterback, the Steeler offense presents a myriad of offensive sets and deployments with which to confuse and devastate opponents. In its most obvious fashion, the Steelers will line up in tight formations and run Jerome Bettis into the line behind some of the best blocking you'll ever see. If that's successful, it's over. The Steelers will be able to do anything they want. From there, Amos Zereoue, their speedy counter runner, Hines Ward (Slash #2) and Plaxico Burress, the fast, lanky (tallest receiver in the league at 6' 6") wideout, all present threats to the opposition. While the Patriots' defense has played well and is often overlooked, they do yield quite a bit of yardage (334.5 ypg and ranked near the bottom in both passing and rushing yards allowed) and are overmatched here.
There are simply too many plusses in Pittsburgh's favor. The have a huge advantage defensively, and offensively are more talented than New England. They dominated the league all season and New England has arrived here only because the rest of the AFC was pretty bad. The Steeler belong in the Super Bowl, not the Pats. It would be the upset of all upsets if New England were to win, especially in Pittsburgh. This game very likely will be as lopsided as the line suggests and could turn into a complete rout. New England may have trouble moving the football, while the Steelers have a big offensive line that will run over the undersized New England linebackers. New England's secondary is its strongest suit, but the Steeler receivers are faster, and Stewart won't be pressured very much. If the Pats decide to blitz, look for Kordell and Burress to hook up on some big plays. Also, don't overlook turnovers. The Steelers will not turn it over much, but could force a few from the Pats. This game will be a decisive win for Pittsburgh and rates a BEST BET.
ST. LOUIS -12 (49 1/2) Philadelphia - Both of these teams really belong in this game, but the burning question is whether the Eagles' defense can contain the Greatest Show on Turf for sixty minutes. Both squads are coming off convincing wins, and the Eagles proved that they have one of the best defenses in the league, completely mauling the Chicago offense. The one disturbing feature of the Rams-Packers contest is that the St. Louis offense really didn't have to do much. Favre threw six interceptions and three went for scores, with another returned to the Packer 4-yard line. The Rams only had 13 1st downs, were a miserable 3-12 on 3rd down conversions, had 91 yards on 22 carries and Warner was only 18-30 for 201 yards. Isaac Bruce caught only one pass all day. Like it or not, the Rams didn't really put on an offensive show, but they really didn't need to. I doubt that the Eagles will give them 8 turnovers with which to work, however. In fact, the Eagles are +6 in turnovers while the Rams are -4.
The Rams are obviously the most talented team in the league, and their defense has been a huge factor in their success this season. They are especially good against the run, ranked third in the league, but this number is a bit deceiving. Most teams are so far behind so early in games that they don't run the ball at all. Additionally, ANY team is better on pass defense when they know the opposition is going to throw, and that's the position the Rams' defense has been in most of the season. The problem for the Rams defense comes from Donovan McNabb, who has developed into an accurate thrower and has always been a dangerous runner. He will manage a couple of big plays against the Rams, without a doubt and the Eagles will manage to score at least 24 points. Using a good mix of running (Duce Staley must play big), passing (Chad Lewis, James Thrash and Staley and Buckhalter out of the backfield), and of course, some timely scrambles by McNabb. Now, as for the Rams offense...
The Rams will pressure the Philadelphia secondary all day long. Conversely, the Eagles will try to put pressure on Kurt Warner, who is not much of a scrambler, but who can and will find Marshall Faulk if he needs a safety valve. The real test for the Eagles is to stop Faulk when he runs out of the backfield, and I think they can - somewhat. The line needs to hold people up at the point of attack - that they can do - but the linebackers need to stay in lanes and make tackles. Faulk will more than likely break off a few big runs - he does against everyone - but he may not score on any as the Philly secondary is fast. Noting that speed in the secondary, that is exactly where the game is going to be won or lost. If the Eagles can contain Holt, Bruce and Az-Hakim, in addition to Faulk, the Eagles stand a chance of winning this game. The Eagles will pick off a few passes in this game as well, because Warner is so confident in his and his receivers' abilities that he will force a few passes. The Eagles strength is in their secondary and their defensive line, both keys to stopping the passing game. Of course, nobody has stopped the Rams' passing attack this season (except Tampa Bay and the Giants), but the Eagles only need to stop them to a degree. If they can hold them to field goals instead of touchdowns on a few drives, make them punt a couple of times and give them long fields to work with, they stand a chance.
These two teams met in Week One in Philadelphia, with the Rams winning in overtime, 20-17. Granted, that was a while ago, but the same players will take the field. If anything has changed from that game it would have to be the Philadelphia offense, which struggled all day before getting two touchdowns in the 4th quarter to tie it and send it to overtime. You know that game is weighing on the minds of both teams.
Overall, this game sets up to be a classic. The Rams will surrender points to the Eagles, who have been on an offensive roll in the playoffs, putting up 31 and 33 against Tampa Bay and Chicago - two very good defensive teams - respectively. If the Eagles score 20-24 points, the Rams have to put up 33-37 to cover the line, and I actually think the Eagles are capable of scoring more than that. The Rams have given up 14 or more points in 13 of 16 regular season games. Conversely, the Eagles allowed 14 or more only 6 times and are one of the best road teams in the league (8-1, including last week's win in Chicago). This line could possibly go to 13, but I thought beforehand, and still do, that it should have been 7 or 8. The Eagles can win this game, and it would not be that much of a surprise. The Rams, while they are a completely solid team, are not facing just anybody. The Eagles can play with them every step of the way, and at the very least, keep this close. I like the Eagles with the points and over in a THREE STAR PICK.
Source: Downtown Magazine
January 17, 2002
Fearless Rick's Pro Football Picks
posted by Rick Gagliano
NFL - Divisional Playoffs, Saturday, January 19
CHICAGO -2 1/2 (32 1/2 ) Philadelphia - This one is nearly impossible to call, as both teams have superb defenses and offensive schemes that are varied and unique to the talent on their team. The Eagles absolutely need QB Donovan McNabb to stay in the pocket and throw the ball, because the Eagles running game leaves much to be desired. On the other hand, the Bears can use Anthony Thomas up the middle, on traps and outside, so they will be looking to establish the run. Those divergent offensive styles, and how they work against the opposing defenses are the key to this game. While the Bears are #2 against the run, they are ranked 29th against the pass. And while Philly is ranked #2 against the pass, they are only 18th against the run, allowing 115 yards per game. In what very may well develop into a defensive struggle, the Bears should manage to come out on top because of two keys. They protect their quarterback well (#1 in the league in sacks allowed - they will be able to pick up the Eagles' blitzes) and they have a solid edge in turnover ratio: +14 to +6. Watch for the Bears to play nickel defense on 3rd down and even 2nd and long situations if they are able to stuff the Philadelphia run, which they should. McNabb, while an excellent runner and scrambler, is a proven better pocket passer, so pressure by the Bears will work to their advantage. Bottom line is that you just don't advance in the playoffs without a solid running game and the Eagles don't have one. The Bears have matured nicely under coach Dick Jauron's guidance and he should be coach of the year. The Bears will continue on to face the Rams for the NFC title.
NEW ENGLAND -3 (40 1/2 ) Oakland - The Patriots might just be the real sleeper in this playoff season. Since they lost Drew Bledsoe, they have gone 10-3, won the AFC East outright and earned a bye with Tom Brady at the offensive helm. What's gone mostly unnoticed about the Pats has been their very capable defense, which has held opponents to 17 or less in 8 of their last nine games. Though not ranked very high defensively (24th overall), they are 6th in the league in scoring defense, and that's what matter. They are quite versatile, able to play either a 3-4 or a 4-3 or, like they did against the Rams and Colts, rush three with 6 or 7 defensive backs. You probably won't see that defense much unless the Raiders are in definite throwing mode (way behind). The Raiders looked lackluster nearing the end of the season, but their win over the Jets gave them a boost. Still, their defense surrenders too many yards on the ground and can be beaten with a good offensive mix. Antoine Smith, the Patriots big running back is a real weapon and if he gets rolling, it will open up Brady's short passing game along with some downfield shots. The week off gives New England a huge edge and is easily this week's BEST BET.
Sunday, January 20
PITTSBURGH -6 (32 1/2 ) Baltimore - The Steelers, despite the fact that they have the best record in the AFC at 13-3, played only one playoff team this season, the Ravens, and they split the games with them. The Ravens, after struggling through the season with injuries and questions about their offense, put it all together last weekend in their dominating, one-sided win over Miami. I think the Ravens would not rather play anyone else at this point. The Steelers are the team to beat and the Ravens beat them once this season already (13-10) - in Pittsburgh, to boot. In their rematch in Baltimore, the Steelers won 26-21, so the question is why is the line so large? In a game in which touchdowns will be at a premium, and with Jerome Bettis coming back from an injury, how does this add up? The Ravens have a better place-kicker in Matt Stover as well, and a potential game-breaker in punt returner Jermaine Lewis - the most dangerous player on the field. Additionally, the Ravens are battle tested and now a veteran team. The Steelers must get production from Bettis and accuracy from Kordell Stewart against potentially the best defense in the league. While the Steelers possess a high quality defense as well, they may not be able to move the ball at all here. Undoubtedly, this will be a defensive struggle, but the Ravens have great faith in Elvis Grbac's ability to get the job done. If the Ravens do not win the game outright, it will, without a doubt, be a very closely-played game. Neither coach wants to make mistakes that will give the other team an advantage, so look for lots of punts and good field position to carry the day. And the Ravens, especially if they can run the ball early, will come away with the THREE STAR UPSET SPECIAL.
ST. LOUIS -10 (54 1/2 ) Green Bay - Those points are very tempting, but after looking at this game closely, one has to realize that the talent level of the Rams offense is superior to the Packers'. Make no doubt about it - the Packers are a very solid team and deserving of being in this position. But they are not in the friendly confines of Lambeau Field, they are on the Rams' beloved indoor home turf and that gives the Rams an enormous edge. This one does not come down to exploiting weaknesses, X's and O's, or any traditional football metric. It comes down to speed, skill and craftiness. The Rams are possibly the best offensive machine ever designed in the history of the NFL and they are simply not going to be outscored by the Packers. Those 10 points are going to lure plenty of people, but the Rams are on a mission and will not let up one but in this one. I don't know if this will go over the line - I somewhat doubt it - because both teams play pretty good defensively. But I can see the final score being in the neighborhood of 34 -14, without any problem. The Rams will win this convincingly. FOUR STAR PICK.
January 10, 2002
Fearless Rick's Pro Football Picks 1/12 - 1/13/02
posted by Rick Gagliano
NFL PLAYOFFS - Saturday, January 12
PHILADELPHIA (11-5) -3 1/2 (32 1/2) Tampa Bay (9-7) - You'll hear all the talk about how Tampa Bay is 0-20 when it's 40 degrees or colder at kickoff, and there's no doubt about that, the Bucs struggle in cold weather. The Bucs won't get much of a break in that regard as it's likely to be around 40 at kickoff, but since this is a 4:30 start, it will get colder as the game progresses. So, there's the key stat that should keep this game at -3 at least, with Philly as the favorite. When it gets down to it, the Bucs and Eagles should produce the best game of the weekend, as they are probably the two best defensive teams in the playoffs. Forget about last week's game (won 17-13 by the Eagles), as both teams played reserves.
Looking at the two defenses, they are even in most regards, except interceptions. Tampa is second in the league with 28, while the Eagles recorded only 14 picks this season. Not that the Eagles' secondary is to be taken lightly - they are the second-ranked pass defense in the league (Tampa is #5) - but they are not quite the ball-hawks that Tampa is. Both squads will provide close man-to-man coverage and change into zones on long-yardage obvious-passing situations. The burning question is how will either team manage to score points? Tampa Bay will be unwavering in their dedication to an offensive game plan that will try to chip away at the corners of Philly's defense with plenty of running, short passes, traps and screens. The Tony Dungy style of offense is to wear opponents down and then bludgeon them late in the game with the running of Mike Alstott, and they will do that here. Also, don't be surprised to see some long pass attempts to Karl Williams or Jacquez Green both early and late in the game. Dungy wants to win the game, not merely a war of attrition. Tampa Bay can neutralize Philly's blitz packages if they execute well. Another plus for Tampa is the return of kicker Martin Grammatica, who is deadly inside the 50.
For the Eagles, they must rely upon the strong arm of QB Donovan McNabb again. His ability to stand in the pocket and find open receivers will be tested here, as Tampa Bay will rush four all day and blitz on occasion. There will be some new wrinkles in the defense, and it depends on how quickly the Eagles pick up the Tampa schemes that will make the difference. The Eagles can score if they get some separation for the Tampa Bay backs - a tough task - and McNabb is on the money. Any mistakes by him could prove costly. Philly wants to score early and try to take Tampa Bay out of their game, but that's also difficult to do. Only the Bears have managed to do that against the Bucs, and the Eagles do not have the rushing game to pull it off.
In what should be a low-scoring contest, and could become a classic, I like Bucs to win it or at the very least cover the line. This game could come down to a last-second field goal, and if so, it will more than likely be Philly kicking it. Those 3 1/2 points may come in handy at the end of the day.
OAKLAND (10-6) -4 1/2 (41 1/2 ) N.Y. Jets (10-6) - While on the surface, this is a match-up of teams with identical records, nothing could be further from the truth. The Jets have won three of their last four, the Raiders have lost three in a row, 4 of their last 6 and the two wins (28-26 over KC and 13-6 over San Diego) were hardly convincing against weak opponents in their own division. The Jets did pull out a squeaker last week right in Oakland's yard, on a 53-yard field goal by John Hall, but they will probably not have to do that again. In that game, the Jets turned the ball over 3 times, the Raiders none. All the Jets have to do is take better care of the football and they should win this handily. Also in last week's game, the Raiders had the time of possession advantage, mostly due to the Jets' turnovers. That also can change.
Offensively, the Raiders are not that creative, so the Jets should be able to play their base defense most of the way. Despite the big-play ability of Jerry Rice and Tim Brown, the Raiders' offense is built around a short passing game, and the Jets will allow the short stuff and wait for or force mistakes on third downs. On offense, the Jets can run the ball with Curtis Martin and their possession-type receivers, Coles, Chrebet and TE Anthony Becht should provide enough offense to power them to victory. If Santana Moss gets into the game at all, he also could provide a huge spark. The defense will give up points, but not enough to keep the Raiders close. The 4 1/2 points are a pure gift from the multitude of Raider fans who will bet their team despite what looks like a complete collapse. Here's a key number: In last week's game, the Raiders had the ball for 15 more plays (69-54) and still lost, 24-22. This one's going over the line, something on the order of Jets 34 Raiders 16. FOUR STAR PICK.
Sunday, December 13
MIAMI (11-5) -2 1/2 (33) Baltimore (10-6) - The Ravens, last year's Super Bowl Champions, are limping into the playoffs with a nearly-dead offense, and most of it falls on the shoulders of quarterback Elvis Grbac. His inability to sustain drives with key pass plays on 3rd down is going to cost plenty in this game. While the offense will rely on Brookins and Allen to move the ball on the ground, the Ravens cannot rely on them when it's 3rd and 6 or 3rd and 8. If Grbac can't hit Ismail or TE Shannon Sharpe when they are open, it means game over, and the Dolphins will steamroll them. The Miami offense is not exactly overpowering - it has gone into the tank on occasion: against the Jets, 49ers and New England (all playoff teams) - but if they get a crack somewhere, they will hammer it to death, and you can bet that Jay Fiedler will find cracks.
Neither of these teams have done well against playoff teams this season. Miami is 2-5, while the Ravens are 2-3, but in the AFC, just about anything can happen, as only the Steelers and New England look dominant. If there's any kind of glaring discrepancy in this game, it is the Dolphins' run defense, ranked 17th in the league, but part of that is because it is nearly impossible to pass against them. They are the #1 pass defense in the league (Baltimore is #11), so don't be fooled by that stat. The Ravens will not be able to run the ball successfully and they won't be able to throw it. Unless Elvis come back to life - Grbac, that is, not the King - this team is dead, dead, dead. It's hard to believe that the Dolphins, at home, are less than a field goal favorite. Apparently, there are still quite a few who still believe in the Ravens. By 4:30 Sunday, when this game is over, their faith will be shattered. I like the Dolphins to score on their first drive, lead by 10 at the half and cruise to an easy win. A late meaningless score will also bring in the over bet. THREE STAR PICK.
GREEN BAY (12-4) -3 1/2 (39) San Francisco (12-4) - The 49ers should not be taken lightly entering this game, but the Packers at home are a tough beat. The Niners were one of the more pleasant surprises in the NFL this year, but the Packers were also a bit of a surprise going 12-4 and beating the Bears twice. Against playoff teams, the 49ers were 2-3, while the Packers were an impressive 4-1, beating Chicago twice and the Ravens en route. Their sole loss to a playoff team was a tough 14-10 loss at Tampa Bay. Meanwhile, the 49ers lost to Chicago, St. Louis twice, but beat Miami and Philadelphia near the end of the season. Both of these teams possess significant firepower on offense and capable, but not dominating defenses. Both can create turnovers, and have positive ratios (Packers +9, 49ers +16).
The difference will be on offense, where the Packers have an edge. Brett Favre thrives on big games like this and should be able to gun all day to a variety of receivers, backs and tight ends. The SF offense is built around establishing the run with Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow, then using Stokes and especially Owens for big plays. If the Packers can stop the run or prevent the big pass plays, they should be able to outscore the Niners enough to win this game and cover. And unless the weather in Green Bay turns up rotten, this one is definitely going over the measly 39-point line. As this one wears on, I expect to see Green Bay's experience and home-field advantage take hold. The Packers should cruise to victory here in this week's BEST BET.
January 05, 2002
Fearless Rick's Pro Football Picks 1/6 - 1/7/02
posted by Rick Gagliano
NFL - Sunday, January 6
Green Bay (11-4) -3 (36) NY GIANTS (7-8) - Will either team show up? This is a rather meaningless game for both squads, but the Packers will probably want to go into the playoffs on a winning note and they could take the NFC Central with a win and a Chicago loss. Green Bay is a lukewarm pick.
INDIANAPOLIS (5-10) -2 (50 1/2 ) Denver (8-7) - Denver can take a little solace from winning this as they would end up being 9-7 and out of the playoffs. They are a horrible road team, going 1-6 ATS, but Indy is only 2-5 at home ATS. Do I have to choose? Take the Colts.
WASHINGTON (7-8) -3 1/2 (36) Arizona (7-8) - This could actually be one of the more spirited contests of the day, as both teams look to go to .500 with a win. It would be somewhat of an affirmation for the Redskins, who began the season 0-5, but it is equally on the minds of Arizona, a team that has played well of late. The Cardinals are an amazing 5-1-1 as a road team ATS, but the Redskins have a solid defense, an OK offense, and the Cardinals have nothing with which to stop them. Washington won the first meeting in Arizona 20-10, and they should dominate again. Redskins in a THREE STAR PICK.
TENNESSEE -5 1/2 (38 1/2 ) Cincinnati - Starters for Tennessee may get quite a bit of rest here, and the Bengals are fresh off an upset of Pittsburgh, so this game may be a stepping stone for both teams for the 2002 season. Tennessee took the first meeting, in Cincy, by a 20-7 tally, but look for the Bengals to exact some revenge here.
Dallas (5-10) -3 (36) DETROIT (1-14) - Detroit has officially gone home after winning one game. Dallas is playing pretty well, as evidenced by their stunning win over San Fran last week. Cowboy's will be riding high this week.
New England (10-5) -6 1/2 (37 1/2 ) CAROLINA (1-14) - New England needs to win to take the AFC East title outright. A loss by the Raiders would give them a first week bye in the playoffs, so they have something on the line here. Besides being a far superior team, the Pats are 3-0 ATS against NFC foes this season. Looks like Brady could have a big day against the depleted and defeated Panthers. BEST BET.
San Francisco (11-4) -2 1/2 (45 1/2 ) NEW ORLEANS (7-8) - You know the 49ers felt the sting of last week's loss to the Cowboys, but maybe they are looking ahead to the playoffs already. They have nothing to gain by winning this game, because they will be on the road against either Chicago or Green Bay, depending on the outcome of those teams' games. New Orleans is the most undisciplined team in the league, most players would rather sit this one out, but I like New Orleans to play much harder against the 49ers ho will likely rest many of their starters.
CHICAGO (12-3) -5 1/2 (33) Jacksonville (6-9) - A win by Chicago secures a first round playoff bye, so they will be up for this game. Jacksonville is just playing out the string, are a warm-weather team in a cold environment and may sit Brunell. The Bears are looking very strong and healthy, and should take this one handily. FOUR STAR PICK.
PITTSBURGH (12-3) -7 (35 1/2) Cleveland (7-8) - The Steelers have home field locked up for the duration of the playoffs, but Cleveland can finish the season a respectable 8-8 with a win. The Browns took Pittsburgh into overtime earlier in the year, losing 15-12. Motivation is a key, so give Cleveland a slight edge in this week's low-scoring UPSET SPECIAL.
ST. LOUIS (13-2) -14 1/2 (OFF) Atlanta (7-8) - St. Louis will play their starters into the third quarter at least, as coach Martz wants to keep his players on a bit of an edge, especially with a bye next week. Earlier this year, St. Louis won 35-7 in Atlanta, so look for more of the same. The Falcons may give rookie QB Michael Vick some playing time against the swift Rams' defense, but it will be to no avail. Rams will win another one big.
MIAMI -6 1/2 (37) Buffalo - The Bills are playing the most inspired football of any team in the league right now and they had Miami on the ropes in Buffalo on November 25, losing a game they should have won, 34-27. The Bills can get some revenge here, as Miami has already clinched a wild-card spot and can actually get a first-week bye with some help from Carolina (not likely). I like the Bills to win this one outright and gain a bit of respect at season's end.
OAKLAND -3 1/2 (41) N.Y. Jets - Both of these teams have nothing going for them heading into the playoffs and the Jets can actually back in with a loss, which is exactly what I think will happen. The Raiders do have much more talent on offense, and their defense should be able to handle the oversimplified Jet offense. The Raiders really need a win to restore some confidence and being at home helps a great deal. Oakland in a THREE STAR PICK.
SEATTLE (8-7) -3 1/2 (40) Kansas City (6-9) - one of the two meaningful games of the day, though if the Jets win, it is over for Seattle. Since the games will be played simultaneously, there may be some scoreboard watching, but I believe most of that will be done by the Jets. Kansas City has been playing better of late and stopping Priest Holmes will have to be a priority for the Seattle defense. In a gutty performance, the Seahawks will win, but not cover.
TAMPA BAY (9-6) -3 (33 1/2 ) Philadelphia (10-5) - DO NOT BET THIS GAME! These two teams will meet next week in Philly in a wild-card game. Neither team will show their hand with any kind of trick offensive play, and both may sit out key players. It is a game that both teams would rather not play, and there may be some shenanigans going on behind the scenes. Both squads just want to get a look and see how they match up for next week. The most meaningless game of the week and I am actually surprised the bookies are taking action. I will not even pick a winner here.
Monday, January 7
BALTIMORE (9-6) -10 (37 1/2 ) Minnesota (5-10) - Just one look at this line tells me there is something amiss. Baltimore may not even be able to score 10 points as it is, and may have locked up a playoff berth by game time. Minnesota is still looking for some respectability and it being a Monday nighter, may come out with a little more fire than your normal 5-10 team. Baltimore's defense has been banged up all season and coach Billick may put in some reserves if the game turns up meaningless, which it probably will.