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Pickin' and Grinnin' - Week 17
Bob Cunningham
December 30, 2004

Straight-Up: 147-93 (61%)
Against-The-Spread: 121-113-6 (52%)

Straight-Up: 14-2
Against-The-Spread: 9-6-1

Comment: Going into the last weekend, the trick is to first determine which teams have something play for and which don't, then determine among those that don't which might actually play to win anyway. Very tricky, especially when the deadline to submit this feature is Wednesday and many NFL coaches won't commit to their strategy until much nearer kickoff.

Pittsburgh (14-1) at Buffalo (9-6)

Line: Bills favored by 8 1/2. ATS Records: Steelers 10-5, Bills 11-4.

Steelers Status Report: Pittsburgh's 20-7 victory over Baltimore last week clinched homefield advantage throughout the playoffs for the Steelers. So, expect several ailing Steelers - including rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger - to sit this one out.

Bills Status Report: Buffalo routed San Francisco, 41-7, on the road and must win and get help to make the playoffs. A Bills victory combined with a loss by either the New York Jets or Denver will get Buffalo in.

The Series: No recent meetings. Pittsburgh has won six of the last nine meetings, but the Bills have prevailed in three of the last four at home.

Stats Worth Noting: Buffalo is 6-1 ATS as a home favorite this season, Pittsburgh is 3-1 ATS as an underdog.

Game Summary: This would be a fascinating clash if both teams needed the victory. No one is hotter than the Steelers, who have won 13 straight games, but Buffalo has played as well as anyone over the last two months. And because the Steelers already have the AFC's top seeding locked up, they have little to gain by winning. The Bills, on the other hand, must win to keep their playoff hopes alive. Buffalo takes it at home, but the Steelers defense keeps it competitive.

Prediction: BILLS, 20-6

Miami (4-11) at Baltimore (8-7)

Line: Ravens favored by 10. ATS Records: Dolphins 6-9, Ravens 9-6.

Dolphins Status Report: Miami has won two straight, including last Sunday night's 10-7 win at home over Cleveland.

Ravens Status Report: Baltimore lost at Pittsburgh, 20-7, and must beat the Dolphins and get some help to get into the playoffs. In addition to a Baltimore victory, the Ravens need a loss by Buffalo, or losses by Denver and Jacksonville.

The Series: Miami has won at home each of the last two years, including a 9-6 slugfest last season. The Dolphins have won four of five meetings overall.

Stats Worth Noting: Baltimore is 5-2 ATS as a home favorite this season including 2-1 when favored by more than a TD. Miami is 4-3 ATS on the road and 3-1 ATS when an underdog by more than a TD.

Game Summary: Nothing complicated about this one. The Ravens defense should easily control Miami QB A.J. Feeley and company while RB Jamal Lewis grinds his way to a big day. Ravens win because they have to, and because they're the superior club.

Prediction: RAVENS, 17-10

San Francisco (2-13) at New England (13-2)

Line: Patriots favored by 14. ATS Records: 49ers 6-9, Patriots 10-3-2.

49ers Status Report: With a chance to play spoilers, the 49ers instead were drubbed at home, 41-7 by Buffalo.

Patriots Status Report: New England locked up the second seed in the AFC and a first-round bye with a 23-7 victory over the New York Jets last week at The Meadowlands.

The Series: No recent meetings. The teams have split two meetings at Foxborough and the 49ers have won two of the last three meetings overall.

Stats Worth Noting: The Patriots are 4-1-2 ATS at home and 3-0 vs. the NFC West this year. San Francisco is a respectable 4-3 ATS on the road, but 2-3 when an underdog by more than a touchdown.

Game Summary: Sure, the Patriots don't need to win so they can cruise. But do you really believe they'll coast to such a degree as to allow the hapless 49ers to go into Foxborough and prevail? Truth is, if the Pats stuck helmets on Notre Dame-bound coach Charlie Weis and the waterboys, they'd still beat the 49ers. The only question is the final margin.

Prediction: PATRIOTS, 20-9

New York Jets (10-5) at St. Louis (7-8)

Line: Jets favored by 3. ATS Records: Jets 8-6-1, Rams 5-10.

Jets Status Report: The Jets were disappointing in dropping a 23-7 home decision to New England Sunday. They still haven't clinched a wild-card playoff berth. Instead, they must win, or have either Denver or Buffalo lose.

Rams Status Report: St. Louis took advantage of a skeleton crew put on the field by Philadelphia to defeat the Eagles Monday night, 20-7. The Rams can win the NFC West with a victory and a Seattle loss, or qualify as a wild-card with a victory and a loss by Minnesota.

The Series: The Rams have dominated this series, winning the last four meetings. The last was a convincing Rams triumph at The Meadowlands in 2000.

Stats Worth Noting: The Jets are 4-2-1 ATS on the road and 7-3 ATS as favorites this season. The Rams are 0-3 SU and ATS vs. the AFC East. St. Louis is 3-0 SU and ATS against the Jets since moving from Anaheim, Calif.

Game Summary: There's less pressure on the Jets, because they can lose and still make the playoffs, but that won't factor into coach Herman Edwards' gameplan. He'll treat it as a must-win. Although the Rams are at home and coming off a solid win over Philadelphia, the offense still isn't generating a lot of points... and the Jets aren't giving up a lot even when you consider their subpar play in last week's defeat at the hands of the Patriots. This game should have a playoff atmosphere to it, and although I frequently like the home team under such circumstances, the Jets are clearly, statistically the better-prepared club for a showdown. Even minus valuable defensive end John Abraham, the Jets' D wins it.

Prediction: JETS, 30-17

Cleveland (3-12) at Houston (7-8)

Line: Texans favored by 10 1/2. ATS Records: Browns 5-10, Texans 8-6-1.

Browns Status Report: Cleveland's 10-7 loss at Miami Sunday night was its ninth in a row.

Texans Status Report: Houston pulled off a shocking 21-0 shutout at Jacksonville Sunday for its second win in a row. The Texans have outscored their last two foes a cumulative 45-5.

The Series: Cleveland won the only previous meeting, 34-17 at home in 2002.

Stat Worth Noting: Houston is 4-2-1 ATS at home, Cleveland 1-6 ATS on the road.

Game Summary: The Texans can't make the playoffs, but they'll be every bit as motivated for their game as the contenders, because an 8-8 season would represent huge strides for the third-year franchise. The Browns, to their credit, haven't quit playing hard. But they just don't have the means, even if the will is still strong.

Prediction: TEXANS, 27-10

Cincinnati (7-8) at Philadelphia (13-2)

Line: Eagles favored by 3*. ATS Records: Bengals 6-9, Eagles 9-6.

Bengals Status Report: Cincinnati survived one of last week's most entertaining games, edging the New York Giants, 24-23 at home.

Eagles Status Report: Having already clinched homefield throughout the NFC playoffs, Philadelphia mailed it in Monday night in a 20-7 loss at St. Louis.

The Series: The home team has won the last four meetings, none recent.

Stat Worth Noting: Philadelphia has lost three in a row ATS and is 0-3 ATS against the AFC North this season. Cincinnati has covered ATS in the last three meetings.

Game Summary: A tough one to call, because Eagles coach Andy Reid is likely to take this game a little more seriously than Monday's exhibition-like effort. He'll want his team to avert rustiness but he'll still be looking to protect QB Donovan McNabb, RB Brian Westbrook and DE Jevon Kearse, among others. Ultimately, I believe Philly will put more emphasis on winning this one... and get it done, barely.

Prediction: EAGLES, 16-10

Detroit (6-9) at Tennessee (4-11)

Line: Lions favored by 3. ATS Records: Lions 8-6-1, Titans 4-11.

Lions Status Report: Detroit benefitted from a bad call, and subsequent blown replay ruling, to edge Chicago at home last week, 19-13.

Titans Status Report: Tennessee was throttled at home on Christmas night by Denver, 37-16.

The Series: Detroit has won two of three since the Titans moved from Houston, including the only meeting at Nashville in 1998.

Stats Worth Noting: Detroit is 5-2 ATS on the road, Tennessee 1-6 at home.

Game Summary: I believe the Lions are going to be real factors in the NFC North next season, and they'll be sufficiently motivated to make a statement of sorts with a road victory to close out the campaign. The Titans are shells of themselves with all their injuries, particularly on defense. Coach Jeff Fisher's team will play hard, but it won't be enough as Kevin Jones enjoys a big day for the visitors.

Prediction: LIONS, 27-20

Green Bay (9-6) at Chicago (5-10)

Line: Bears favored by 3. ATS Records: Packers 6-8-1, Bears 6-8-1.

Packers Status Report: Green Bay won a thriller at Minnesota on Christmas Eve, 34-31, to clinch the NFC North title. the Packers are assured of a home game in the first round of the playoffs, but cannot qualify for a bye.

Bears Status Report: Chicago was robbed of a potential game-winning TD by an official error - on the call and the replay the followed - and the Bears lost at Detroit, 19-13.

The Series: The Packers have 11 of the last 12 played at Chicago, but was beaten at home by the Bears earlier this season, 21-10.

Stats Worth Noting: The Packers are only 1-2-1 ATS as road favorites. Chicago is 3-1-1 ATS in division games.

Game Summary: Green Bay has little to gain from this contest, but it's a rivalry game and the Pack will do enough to be competitive. Chicago's offense is struggling mightily, but the Packers' D might be the tonic it needs.

Prediction: BEARS, 23-14

Minnesota (8-7) at Washington (5-10)

Line: Vikings favored by 4 1/2. ATS Records: Vikings 7-8, Redskins 7-8.

Vikings Status Report: With the NFC North title on the line, the Vikings lost at home to Green Bay on Christmas Eve, 34-31, and now must win to secure a wild-card playoff berth. Minnesota can still qualify with a loss if St. Louis loses or New Orleans defeats Carolina.

Redskins Status Report: Washington dropped a 13-10 decision at Dallas last week, the Redskins' 14th loss in their last 15 games against their arch-rivals and ninth in a row at Irving Stadium.

The Series: These teams have split the last six meetings, with the Redskins winning the only game played at Washington over that stretch. None recent.

Stats Worth Noting: Minnesota is 3-8 ATS in conference games. Washington is 4-1 ATS in NFC games outside its own division.

Game Summary: It will be in vogue to predict another Vikings gag this week just based on their recent history, but the Redskins simply don't have the weapons to keep up with Minnesota's attack, even when you consider the Vikings offense will have its hands full with the Redskins' stout defense. Plus, Washington will be without its only legitimate weapon, RB Clinton Portis. If the Redskins had come into this one on a winning streak, I could envision the upset. But they blew the game at Dallas last week. Minnesota finally gets that elusive quality, late-season road win... but it'll be in dramatic fashion.

Prediction: VIKINGS, 20-17

New Orleans (7-8) at Carolina (7-8)

Line: Panthers favored by 7 1/2. ATS Records: Saints 7-8, Panthers 10-5.

Saints Status Report: New Orleans beat visiting Atlanta last week, 26-13, and has won three in a row to put itself in position to claim a playoff berth. A victory in this one combined with a loss by St. Louis would do it.

Panthers Status Report: Carolina rolled at Tampa Bay last week, 37-20, and has won six of seven. The Panthers are in the playoffs with a win, and eliminated with a loss.

The Series: Carolina won the first meeting this season, 32-21, at New Orleans and has won the last four overall.

Stats Worth Noting: The Saints are 5-2 ATS on the road. Carolina has covered ATS in eight straight games and is 4-1 ATS in division games.

Game Summary: This is a great showdown game, although the numbers point strongly to the Panthers. Carolina is superior to stopping the run, rushing the passer, and forcing turnovers in addition to being at home. I also like coach John Fox a lot better than Jim Haslett. New Orleans has had a nice run, albeit against weak foes (Tampa Bay, Dallas, semi-Atlanta). Carolina will return to the playoffs.

Prediction: PANTHERS, 31-20

Atlanta (11-4) at Seattle (8-7)

Line: Seahawks favored by 5 1/2. ATS Records: Falcons 6-9, Seahawks 5-10.

Falcons Status Report: Having secured the second seed in the NFC playoffs, the Falcons played reserves in last week's 26-13 loss at New Orleans and will likely do so again.

Seahawks Status Report: Seattle held off Arizona last week at home, 24-21, and needs a win or a St. Louis loss to win the NFC West. The Seahawks are still in the playoffs even with a loss, if New Orleans wins.

The Series: The road team has won the last three meetings, including Seattle's 30-24 triumph at The Georgia Dome in 2002.

Stat Worth Noting: Seattle is 1-6 ATS at home.

Game Summary: The Falcons don't need this game, although coach Jim Mora maintains that he'll play it more seriously than he did at New Orleans. The Seahawks need the game to assure themselves of a division title.

Prediction: SEAHAWKS, 28-20

Tampa Bay (5-10) at Arizona (5-10)

Line: Cardinals favored by 3. ATS Records: Bucs 5-9-1, Cardinals 8-7.

Bucs Status Report: Tampa Bay was whipped at home by Carolina last week, 37-20.

Cardinals Status Report: A fourth-quarter rally fell short in Arizona's 24-21 loss at Seattle.

The Series: Tampa Bay has won the last three meetings, none since 2000.

Stats Worth Noting: Tampa Bay is 1-6 ATS on the road, the Cardinals 4-3 at home but 0-1 as favorites.

Game Summary: Both teams are thinking ahead to relaxing at home and watching the playoffs on TV. There's nothing to truly separate these two except that I believe one sports a little more talent than the other.

Prediction: BUCCANEERS, 17-16

Indianapolis (12-3) at Denver (9-6)

Line: Broncos favored by 9. ATS Records: Colts 9-5-1, Broncos 5-7-3

Colts Status Report: Indy rallied Sunday to edge visiting San Diego, 34-31 in overtime, and secure the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs.

Broncos Status Report: Denver dominated Tennessee on the road Christmas night, 37-16, and needs a victory or some help to make the playoffs.

The Series: The Colts routed the Broncos in the opening round of the playoffs last season, 41-10, at home and also won the last meeting at Denver, 23-20 in 2002. The Broncos scored a 31-17 win at Indianapolis in between.

Stat Worth Noting: Denver is 2-4-1 ATS at home, the Colts 4-2-1 ATS on the road and 1-0-1 as underdogs.

Game Summary: Colts coach Tony Dungy has reportedly committed to playing this one straight-up, for fear of losing momentum going into the playoffs. If that's really the case, then this is an easy call in terms of the pointspread. The Broncos must win, and QB Jake Plummer's confidence has been restored somewhat. But in the potential snow of Mile High Stadium, they'll first need to run the ball... which they can do with Reuben Droughns and Tatum Bell ready to go.

Prediction: BRONCOS, 24-17

Jacksonville (8-7) at Oakland (5-10)

Line: Jaguars favored by 4*. ATS Records: Jaguars 9-6, Raiders 5-10.

Jaguars Status Report: Jacksonville inexplicably was trounced at home by Houston last week, 21-0, and now must not only beat the Raiders but get help to reach the playoffs.

Raiders Status Report: Oakland played well but lost at Kansas City, 31-30, on Christmas Day.

The Series: These teams have played only twice, neither recent, splitting two meetings at Oakland.

Stat Worth Noting: Jacksonville is 3-1 ATS in AFC games outside the South Division.

Game Summary: Man... which Jacksonville team will show up for this one? It's mind-boggling that a team which was able to win at Green Bay in December can lose at home by shutout the following week to a team with a losing record. The guess here is that the Jaguars recover and score a much-needed victory... that won't yield a playoff berth.

Prediction: JAGUARS, 26-17

Kansas City (7-8) at San Diego (11-4)

Line: Chiefs favored by 3. ATS Records: Chiefs 6-9, Chargers 12-1-2.

Chiefs Status Report: Kansas City edged Oakland at home on Christmas Day, 31-30, for its third straight victory.

Chargers Status Report: The Bolts blew a 15-point lead and lost at Indy in overtime, 34-31, on Sunday. San Diego has secured the No. 4 seeding for the AFC playoffs, so this game is meaningless from that standpoint.

The Series: San Diego won the first meeting, 34-31, at Kansas City last month. The Chiefs had won the three previous encounters.

Stats Worth Noting: The Chargers have covered ATS in eight of their last nine games, the one exception being a push.

Game Summary: While San Diego can't improve its playoff position with a victory, you can be assured that coach Marty Schottenheimer will emphasize the contest to his troops. A loss would mean the Chargers would enter the postseason on a two-game skid, and momentum is a highly-touted and respected commodity. Still, RB LaDainian Tomlinson will probably share carries with Jesse Chatman, and rookie QB Phillip Rivers may make his debut. Kansas City comes in on a roll, and would like to finish with a non-losing record.

Prediction: CHIEFS, 31-21

Dallas (6-9) at New York Giants (5-10)

Line: Giants favored by 3. ATS Records: Cowboys 7-8, Giants 7-8.

Cowboys Status Report: Dallas rallied to nip Washington at home last week, 13-10.

Giants Status Report: The Giants were beaten at Cincinnati, 23-22, for their eighth straight defeat.

The Series: The Giants won the first meeting this season, 26-10 at Dallas. The Cowboys won the two previous meetings, including the last one at The Meadowlands, 35-32 on a Monday night last season.

Stat Worth Noting: The Giants are 1-3 ATS as favorites.

Game Summary: In terms of motivation, I expect the Giants to be more keyed up. They want to avoid finishing with such an extensive losing streak, and they'd like to get QB Eli Manning his first win as a starter. But it won't be easy, because Dallas coach Bill Parcells has known a lot of success at The Meadowlands.

Prediction: GIANTS, 30-20

* - estimated line, because official line was unavailable.