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NFL Weekly Picks - Divisional Week
By Bob Cunningham
January 8, 2003
 

STRAIGHT-UP
Last Week -- 4-0
Overall -- 154-106 (59%)

AGAINST THE SPREAD
Last Week -- 3-1
Overall -- 134-116-10 (54%)

PREMIUM PICKS*
Last Week -- none
Overall -- 16-11-2 (59%)

So far, from my perspective, the NFL playoffs are going to form. However, the truly fascinating aspect of last week's wild-card results is that all four losing coaches have previously won Super Bowls, while the four victorious bench bosses -- Tennessee's Jeff Fisher, Carolina's John Fox, Indy's Tony Dungy and Green Bay's Mike Sherman haven't...

...Yet.

If that forms holds this week, there will be a pair of upsets in the AFC... but I wouldn't count on that.

AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

TENNESSEE at NEW ENGLAND - Saturday, 8:15 p.m. EST

Records: Titans 13-4, Wild-card, No. 5 seed; Patriots 14-2, East Division champs, No. 1 seed

Line: Patriots favored by 6 points

Key Injuries: Titans: RB Eddie George (prob); Patriots: none.

Fantasy Take: Make no mistake about it -- despite the 38-30 score of New England's victory earlier this season, defenses will rule the day at Foxboro. Although both teams sport effective fantasy QBs, neither is an ideal play. It can be argued that because Steve McNair is an elite quarterback, and that Tom Brady isn't far behind, and that both have to be played regardless of the circumstances. And that's okay... but don't expect Peyton Manning-type numbers. Ditto for the ground games. Each team's top receiver, Derrick Mason for Tennessee and Troy Brown or maybe David Givens for the Patriots, might come through with a decent day because top-notch possession wideouts often shine against elite defenses that are effective in taking away big plays.

Summary: New England has been on a legendary role -- 12 straight victories going in. Much has been made of their 8-0 home record as well as their Super Bowl title from just two years ago. And head coach Bill Bellichick is a genius, to boot. How can the Pats be beaten? Well, they'll go down if McNair comes up with enough big plays. He's really banged up, however, and I just don't believe the Titans can rely on Eddie George or even their stout defense to win at Foxboro if McNair is merely average. The pointspread is too many, but I like the Patriots to scratch out a low-scoring victory, probably with a late field goal by Adam Vinatieri being the difference.

Prediction: PATRIOTS, 13-10

INDIANAPOLIS at KANSAS CITY - Sunday, 1 p.m. EST

Records: Colts 13-4, South Division champs, No. 3 seed; Chiefs 13-3, West Division champs, No. 2 seed

Line: Chiefs favored by 3

Key Injuries: none.

Fantasy Take: Shootouts in the postseason are uncommon, so before you start planning out a 45-41 type of game, bear that in mind. And beyond that, both these defenses get somewhat of a bad rap. The Colts' D is vastly improved under head coach Tony Dungy, and KC's may be statistically inferior to other elite units, but especially at home the Chiefs get it done by forcing turnovers and increasing their resiliency in their own red zone. With all that said, however, this is still the most anticipated of the four divisional playoff games from a fantasy standpoint. The main weapons for both clubs should put up solid numbers. In fact, second-tier guys like Indy TE Marcus Pollard and KC wideout Eddie Kennison are good to go as well.

Summary: As indicated, I fully expect both defenses to rise to the occasion... but while the Colts are all the rage after their dismantling of Denver last week at home, it's a whole other game to go to Kansas City and have success. I like the rested Chiefs at home, because head coach Dick Vermeil has been here before. In fact, Vermeil beat Dungy in the NFC Title Game of 1999, a St. Louis 11-5 victory over Tampa Bay. Undoubtedly, this game will feature more scoring... and the majority of it will be done by the Chiefs.

Prediction: CHIEFS, 27-17 *(premium pick)

NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

CAROLINA at ST. LOUIS - Saturday, 4:30 p.m. EST

Records: Panthers, 12-5, South Division champs, No. 3 seed; Rams 12-4, West Division champs, No. 2 seed

Line: Rams favored by 7

Key Injuries: none.

Fantasy Take: Carolina's defense is first-rate, but the Panthers lack the speed to slow the Rams significantly. Unless St. Louis' pass protection breaks down badly, the Rams will score with enough frequency to be valuable. All the key offensive personnel are strong plays, including WR Isaac Bruce. The Rams defense is a solid play as well -- this group is significantly better than the 2001 cast that lost to New England in the Super Bowl. For the Panthers, RB Stephen Davis will get his yards, but don't expect as much from the passing game as Carolina managed against Dallas -- when both Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad had more than 100 receiving yards each. It wouldn't surprise me, however, to see veteran Ricky Proehl score on his former mates.

Summary: I like the Rams decidedly, but not because of the "fastest show on turf" mentality. Instead, I simply believe their defense will shut the Panthers down. St. Louis will strike for just enough big plays on offense to turn a relatively close game for three quarters or so into a decisive triumph by the gun.

Prediction: RAMS, 31-16

GREEN BAY at PHILADELPHIA - Sunday, 4:45 p.m. EST

Records: Packers 11-6, North Division champs, No. 4 seed; Eagles 12-4, East Division champs, No. 1 seed

Line: Eagles favored by 5 1/2

Key Injuries: Packers: DL Gilbert Brown (prob); Eagles: RB Brian Westbrook (out)

Fantasy Take: With Westbrook sidelined, Eagles RBs Duce Staley and Correll Buckhalter will be forced to share less. Of the two, I like the veteran Staley to get the bulk of the workload. Philly QB Donovan McNabb will put up typical numbers, and the defense will be solid as usual. Green Bay RB Ahman Green can be expected to enjoy a solid day, but the passing game's success will determine the contest's outcome. At home, I like Philly's D to win the battle with Brett Favre and the Packers' talented but mostly inexperienced receivers.

Summary: I bought in to the team of destiny thing for Green Bay going into last week, and I suppose that winning a game during which you're outplayed would be more fodder for that thinking. Seattle, after all, sort of deserved to win considering the game was played at Lambeau Field. And remember, Green Bay was my preseason Super Bowl pick. But what I saw last week was a troubled pass defense that, except for a single, huge, game-winning play was handled by the Seahawks' air game. Philadelphia has been giving up lots of rushing yards all season, but nevertheless have won 12 of 16... so I don't believe Green's inevitable 150 yards and a TD are big concerns. Green Bay is the "en vogue" choice for the upset. But my gut says Philly -- the home teams make it a clean sweep as the Eagles' fourth quarter defense is too tough.

Prediction: EAGLES, 20-13