In this space last week, we quickly examined the teams which potentially would have little or nothing to play for over the last two weeks.
And now, as we enter the final weekend of the 2005 NFL regular season, we take a glance at those clubs that still have stakes in these final results. Set your fantasy lineups with the following teams and their respective issues in mind (note – for simplicity, ties are not considered):
Pittsburgh, Kansas City – The Steelers control their own fate, but they must beat Detroit at home or have San Diego beat Denver to secure the AFC’s final wild-card berth. Should Pittsburgh stumble, and the Chargers also lose, Kansas City can steal the final slot with a victory over Cincinnati. San Diego is out of the race, but can affect a three-way tie for the final spot.
Cincinnati, New England – It may not be that crucial, but the Patriots can leap past the Bengals for the third seeding in the AFC with a victory over Miami and a Cincinnati loss at Kansas City. The Patriots and Chiefs are each home and favored.
New York Giants, Washington – The red-hot Redskins can overtake the Giants and win the NFC East crown by having Oakland upset the Giants on Saturday and then defeat Philadelphia the following day. Even if the Giants win, the Redskins are in the playoffs if they prevail. The Giants are already assured of at least a wild-card berth.
Dallas – The Cowboys need help, and will know whether they can make the playoffs or not before kickoff Sunday night at home against St. Louis. Washington, Carolina or Tampa Bay must lose. If it’s the Bucs, Dallas would also need the Giants to fall. Under any of those scenarios, a victory over the Rams will deliver a postseason berth.
Carolina, Tampa Bay – The Buccaneers own the tiebreaker, so a home victory over New Orleans wins the NFC South for them. Carolina is in the playoffs with a victory at Atlanta, and wins the South with a win and Tampa Bay loss.
And with that, we move on to the finales of Week 17…
OVERALL PREDICTIONS, 2005
Straight-Up: 161-79 (67%) ATS: 130-102-8 (56%) Over/Under: 109-125-6 (47%)
Straight-Up: 11-5 ATS: 10-5-1 Over/Under: 6-10
Denver (12-3) at San Diego (9-6)
Line: Chargers favored by 8 (total points line is 44)
Series: The Broncos rallied to beat San Diego at home earlier this season, 20-17. The last meeting at San Diego also was 20-17… in favor of the Chargers, last season. The home team has prevailed in the last four encounters.
Broncos Status Report: Denver cruised past visiting Oakland last weekend, 22-3, and is assured of the No. 2 seeding in the AFC playoffs, which means a bye through the wild-card round and a home game in the divisional round.
Chargers Status Report: San Diego lost at Kansas City Saturday, 20-7, and has been eliminated from postseason contention.
Fantasy Tidbit: This game is essentially meaningless for the Broncos, so coach Mike Shanahan may rest some players including RB Mike Anderson, who won’t play at all. With Tatum Bell also likely to be seated some, RB Ron Dayne might be a decent play.
Game Summary: The Chargers have nothing to play for except pride, but that’s a pretty good motivating factor in its own right. San Diego undoubtedly wants to prove it’s the best team not to make the playoffs, and earning its 10 th victory would be somewhat of a consolation. The Chargers should want this one a lot more than Denver, and yet pride can still be a factor for the Broncos. No playoff team wants to enter the postseason on a sour note. I’m forecasting a fairly competitive game.
Prediction: CHARGERS, 27-20
New York Giants (10-5) at Oakland (4-11)
Line: Giants favored by 8 (total points line is 44)
Series: No recent meetings, but the Raiders won the last five clashes going back to the late 1980s. Four of those were at Oakland.
Giants Status Report: The Giants lost at Washington Saturday, 35-21, and need a win here to clinch the NFC East crown. They have already clinched at least a wild-card playoff berth.
Raiders Status Report: Oakland lost at Denver last week, 22-3.
Fantasy Tidbit: The Giants will go all-out to win, and RB Tiki Barber has been red-hot. Receivers Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer, and tight end Jeremy Shockey, are all worthwhile starts. QB Eli Manning’s track record on the road is sketchy, so he’s a less confident play.
Game Summary: The Raiders have been dominant in this series, and for those who believe that’s a non factor consider that Buffalo had beaten Cincinnati five in a row entering last week’s seemingly lopsided matchup, and the Bills prevailed in an upset. With that said, however, Oakland has appeared to quit on the season, and the Giants have a lot riding on the outcome.
Prediction: GIANTS, 26-13
Miami (8-7) at New England (10-5)
Line: Patriots favored by 3½ (total points line is 42½)
Series: New England won at Miami earlier this season, 23-16, and has won six of the last seven meetings.
Dolphins Status Report: Miami whipped visiting Tennessee last Saturday, 24-10, for its fifth consecutive win. The Dolphins are out of the playoff picture, however.
Patriots Status Report: New England’s 31-21 victory at the New York Jets Monday night was its fourth in a row. The Pats have clinched the AFC East but cannot qualify for a first-round bye.
Fantasy Tidbit: The Patriots defense is on an impressive roll, and coach Bill Belichick will play this game to win so that his team can maintain momentum going into the playoffs. Also, New England could move up a slot. That means that blazing hot WR Chris Chambers is the only sure start for Miami.
Game Summary: The Dolphins are on an impressive winning streak, but there’s no way I’m picking against that New England defense now. The Patriots have only a little to gain, tangibly, by winning but it’ll be enough to keep their appetites whetted.
Prediction: PATRIOTS, 20-10
Buffalo (5-10) at New York Jets (3-12)
Line: Bills favored by 1 (total points line is 37)
Series: The Bills beat the Jets at home earlier this season, 27-17, but the Jets have won the last three contests played at The Meadowlands.
Bills Status Report: Buffalo snapped a five-game losing streak last week with an improbable 37-27 upset win at Cincinnati.
Jets Status Report: The Jets were dominated by visiting New England most of the way en route to a 31-21 loss Monday night. It was the Jets’ ninth defeat in 10 games.
Fantasy Tidbit: Buffalo QB Kelly Holcomb had a strong game against the Bengals and might repeat the feat. WR Eric Moulds, in probably his last game as a Bill, is also a reasonable start.
Game Summary: An intra-state rivalry with nothing whatsoever on the line, except a shred of hope for the Jets in the Reggie Bush sweepstakes. Excuse me while I yawn.
Prediction: BILLS, 17-14
Baltimore (6-9) at Cleveland (5-10)
Line: Ravens favored by 3 (total points line is 37)
Series: Baltimore prevailed at home in the first meeting this season, 16-3, and has won five of the last six meetings. Cleveland won in the last clash at home, however, 20-3 in 2004.
Ravens Status Report: Baltimore posted a solid 30-23 home win over Minnesota on Christmas night and has won four of its last six overall.
Browns Status Report: After having played relatively well in its previous few games, the Browns were routed at home by rival Pittsburgh Saturday, 41-0.
Fantasy Tidbit: Assuming you don’t have an obviously superior alternative, it might be wise to gamble one last time on Ravens RB Jamal Lewis. He’s absolutely torn up the Browns in his career.
Game Summary: The Ravens are on a mini-roll, thanks in no small part to rejuvenated QB Kyle Boller, who obviously is trying to earn a job for next season. But the Browns defense had been stellar at home before last week, and this is a rivalry that isn’t often discussed. The Browns and their new fans hate the Ravens, representing the old Browns ownership of Art Modell, who deserted the city. The pick: Cleveland’s defense bounces back from the Steelers debacle to earn a tie for third place in the AFC North with a mild upset.
Prediction: BROWNS, 16-13
Cincinnati (11-4) at Kansas City (9-6)
Line: Chiefs favored by 7 (total points line is 47½)
Series: These teams have played just twice in the last 14 years, splitting home wins including a 24-19 Bengals victory at Cincinnati in 2003, the most recent clash.
Bengals Status Report: Cincinnati was stunned at home by Buffalo last week, 37-27, and must win this one (or have New England lose) to secure the No. 3 seeding in the AFC playoffs.
Chiefs Status Report: Kansas City won its showdown game with San Diego a week ago, 20-7, and can reach the playoffs with a victory here and losses by Pittsburgh and the Chargers.
Fantasy Tidbit: If you’re playing for a fantasy title this week, and Chiefs RB Larry Johnson is in your backfield, you can start counting your chickens right now. On the other side, Bengals QB Carson Palmer has a sore groin and might be rested.
Game Summary: Make no mistake, the Bengals will go all out to win this game even though what they gain from a victory is marginally important at most. Coach Marvin Lewis doesn’t want to enter the postseason on a two-game skid. But Kansas City has won 18 straight home games in December, and the Chiefs still have a sliver of hope for making the playoffs. A great matchup of offenses.
Prediction: CHIEFS, 30-24
Detroit (5-10) at Pittsburgh (10-5)
Line: Steelers favored by 14 (total points line is 35)
Series: No recent meetings. The home team has won the last five meetings.
Lions Status Report: Detroit edged New Orleans at San Antonio last week, 13-12.
Steelers Status Report: Pittsburgh routed host Cleveland a week ago, 41-0. The Steelers have won three in a row by a combined score of 80-12.
Fantasy Tidbit: Steelers RB Willie Parker flourished last week at Cleveland and is a good bet to put up another solid performance against the Lions. RB Jerome Bettis remains valuable near the goal line.
Game Summary: A second consecutive Steelers shutout? It might happen. Pittsburgh is as focused as we’ve seen the Steelers all season. They will be a handful for anyone in the playoffs, and they won’t let up in this seeming automatic win.
Prediction: STEELERS, 28-3
Arizona (5-10) at Indianapolis (13-2)
Line: Colts favored by 6½ (total points line is 43½)
Series: No recent meetings. The Cardinals have covered ATS in their last two trips to Indy.
Cardinals Status Report: Arizona held off visiting Philadelphia last week, 27-21.
Colts Status Report: A week after having their bid for a perfect season thwarted by San Diego, the Colts lost again – this time at Seattle, 28-13. Still, the Colts are locked in as the AFC’s top seed for the playoffs.
Fantasy Tidbit: Very unpredictable game, but the Colts defense is a fairly safe play.
Game Summary: My research on this game has revealed, at least on the surface, that the Colts will treat it much like they treated last week’s game at Seattle – as virtually meaningless, with the starters not hanging around long. But there are two things at work here in my view. First, the Colts are bent on playing hard for coach Tony Dungy in the wake of the tragedy that has hit the coach’s family (not that they don’t put out the effort anyway). Secondly, regardless of the top seeding and homefield edge, the Colts have a distinct fear of going into the playoffs on a three-game losing streak. Thus, I’m predicting that Indy plays this one to win at least for as long as it takes to get things under control. If they mail it in, I will be quite surprised (not to mention very, very wrong in my analysis).
Prediction: COLTS, 31-19
Chicago (11-4) at Minnesota (8-7)
Line: Vikings favored by 3½ (total points line is 35)
Series: Chicago waxed visiting Minnesota, 28-3, in October. The home team has won the last five contests.
Bears Status Report: Chicago’s 24-17 victory at Green Bay Christmas Day locked up the NFC North crown and No. 2 seeding in the NFC playoffs as well as the associated first-round bye.
Vikings Status Report: Minnesota’s 30-23 loss at Baltimore Sunday night eliminated the Vikings from contention.
Fantasy Tidbit: The Bears have nothing tangible to gain in this one, so beware of playing any Bears offensive starters. The defense is still a worthwhile start.
Game Summary: I haven’t located a firm commitment from Bears coach Lovie Smith to play this one soft, and he might give in to the temptation to play it straight-up. But my opinion is that he should rest his key people, and my prediction is predicated on that.
Prediction: VIKINGS, 24-16
New Orleans (3-12) at Tampa Bay (10-5)
Line: Buccaneers favored by 14 (total points line is 37½)
Series: Tampa Bay won at Baton Rouge earlier this season, 10-3. Oddly, the road team has won the last six meetings, and all six have gone under the total.
Saints Status Report: New Orleans lost at San Antonio to Detroit, 13-12, last week.
Buccaneers Status Report: Tampa Bay outlasted visiting Atlanta in overtime a week ago, 27-24, and can capture the NFC South title with a win or a Carolina loss. The Bucs have not yet clinched a playoff berth, however.
Fantasy Tidbit: No nonsense here. The Bucs defense and RB Cadillac Williams are the safe starts. QB Chris Simms is a risk, because Tampa Bay might not need him to throw much.
Game Summary: The recent history of this series is compelling – the visiting team always wins, and it’s always low-scoring. Okay, but there isn’t usually a playoff berth on the line for one of the teams when they clash. As it is, there’s no logical way I can predict the Saints to pull the upset. Tampa Bay has to win, and it will. But I like the game to be fairly close and, yes, relatively low-scoring.
Prediction: BUCS, 20-9
Carolina (10-5) at Atlanta (8-7)
Line: Panthers favored by 4 (total points line is 42)
Series: Carolina dominated the first meeting at home, earlier this month, 24-6. The Falcons had won the previous three meetings including a pair at Atlanta.
Panthers Status Report: Carolina lost at home to Dallas Saturday, 24-20, and must win (or get help) to secure a playoff berth. The Panthers need a victory and a loss by Tampa Bay to win the NFC South.
Falcons Status Report: Atlanta lost at Tampa Bay in overtime a week ago, 27-24, and was eliminated from playoff contention.
Fantasy Tidbit: The Falcons run defense has been inconsistent all year, and Carolina QB Jake Delhomme has been a little shaky of late. That could add up to a lot of work for Panthers RBs DeShaun Foster and maybe even Nick Goings.
Game Summary: The Panthers have been an enigma this season. At the beginning of the season, I wasn’t overly impressed while many pundits were predicting a return to the Super Bowl for them. They lost their opener at home to New Orleans, and I did my “I told ya so” thing. Then they went on a sizable roll, and I ended up proclaiming a few weeks ago that I was apparently wrong about them. But now they’re fighting just to get into the playoffs, facing a Falcons team playing at home and with nothing better to do this weekend than ruin a rival’s postseason hopes. Atlanta coach Jim Mora will have his team ready to play, and I’m seeing a big ’05 finale for QB Michael Vick. Technically, this is my Upset Special, although in my opinion it’s not a shocker.
Prediction: FALCONS, 23-20
Tennessee (4-11) at Jacksonville (11-4)
Line: Jaguars favored by 3½ (total points line is 38)
Series: Jacksonville captured the first meeting this season, 31-28. The last three meetings have all been decided by exactly a field goal.
Titans Status Report: Tennessee was thumped at Miami last week, 24-10.
Jaguars Status Report: Jacksonville whipped Houston on the road, 38-20, to lock up the fifth seeding in the AFC playoffs.
Fantasy Tidbit: Avoid either of Jacksonville’s QBs, Byron Leftwich and David Garrard, because there’s a good chance both will see action in this one. This is an unpredictable game from the Jaguars’ standpoint, because the game is relatively meaningless to them. Also, Tennessee QB Steve McNair is hurt again. He might be replaced by Billy Volek.
Game Summary: Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio will probably be cautious with some players, like RB “Fragile” Fred Taylor, in light of the standings situation. But as previously noted, most teams don’t like the idea of going into the postseason on a downer. Here’s a vote that the Jaguars will take care of business.
Prediction: JAGUARS, 21-13
Houston (2-13) at San Francisco (3-12)
Line: Texans favored by 2 (total points line is 38)
Series: First meeting.
Texans Status Report: Houston lost at home to Jacksonville Saturday, 38-20.
49ers Status Report: San Francisco won on the road for the first time in ’05, beating St. Louis, 24-20.
Fantasy Tidbit: Houston WR Andre Johnson and San Francisco RB Frank Gore are the two most obvious plays.
Game Summary: Honestly, I have no idea what will transpire in the “Reggie Bush Bowl.” The loser will likely be able to claim the first overall pick in next spring’s draft. And both teams certainly could use Bush (if I was Houston, I’d trade down – but that’s another subject). The statistics favor Houston, which explains why the odds-makers have installed the 2-13 Texans as 2-point road favorites over the 3-12 49ers. My gut goes opposite of the numbers and points to San Francisco at home. I’ll follow the stats (because they’re right more often than I am) and hope both teams even try to win.
Prediction: TEXANS, 20-14
Washington (9-6) at Philadelphia (6-9)
Line: Redskins favored by 7 (total points line is 37)
Series: Washington won the first meeting this season at home, 17-10, but the Eagles had won the previous six meetings.
Redskins Status Report: Washington whipped the visiting New York Giants last week, 35-21. The Redskins are in the playoffs with a victory, and claim the NFC East crown with a win and a loss by the Giants.
Eagles Status Report: Philadelphia lost at Arizona, 27-21, Saturday.
Fantasy Tidbit: QB Mark Brunell reportedly will start despite leaving last week’s game with a bruised knee. But despite his recent strong play, I don’t recommend him. RB Clinton Portis is a safer bet.
Game Summary: It’s been a lost season for Philadelphia, but the Eagles would salvage a great deal of pride and depart the season on a significant positive by knocking off the Redskins. This game will be a tough one for Washington – no question. But I have virtually no confidence in Eagles QB Mike McMahon, and the Redskins have come up big in the clutch the last two weeks, whipping both Dallas and the New York Giants in showdown games. Philly will play tough, but the Redskins’ defense will be the difference.
Prediction: REDSKINS, 17-13
Seattle (13-2) at Green Bay (3-12)
Line: Packers favored by 3 (total points line is 40½)
Series: The Packers have won the last two meetings, both at home, including a 33-27 wild-card playoff victory in overtime two years ago (actually January of 2004).
Seahawks Status Report: Seattle whipped Indianapolis at home Saturday, 28-13, to lock up the top seeding in the NFC playoffs.
Packers Status Report: Green Bay lost at home to Chicago, 24-17, Christmas Day.
Fantasy Tidbit: Although he will certainly be rested, Seattle RB Shaun Alexander might see enough action to get his 28 th TD of the season, which would be a single-season record. Maurice Morris is the better play overall among Seahawks backs.
Game Summary: Some trivia for you – has a 12-loss team ever been favored over a 2-loss club in the history of the NFL prior to this? I doubt it. If anything, this game might reveal a clue as to Packers QB Brett Favre’s intentions. If he plays the whole way, as he would any game, it might mean he plans to return. If he’s pulled so that the fans can give him a standing ovation, it may signal the end. Anyway, the heroics we thought we’d see haven’t come. Maybe this week, and with the stats meaning nothing being that Seattle will likely clear its bench, I reluctantly take the host Pack.
Prediction: PACKERS, 27-21
St. Louis (5-10) at Dallas (9-6)
Line: Cowboys favored by 12½ (total points line is 43½)
Series: No recent meetings. The visiting team has won the last three contests dating back to 1990.
Rams Status Report: St. Louis suffered its sixth loss in seven games, 24-20 at home to San Francisco last week.
Cowboys Status Report: Dallas rallied to beat Carolina on the road, 24-20. The Cowboys must win and get some help to reach the playoffs.
Fantasy Tidbit: Dallas will know before kickoff if it’s playing for anything, but Coach Bill Parcells would likely never play it soft under these circumstances. The Cowboys’ entire offensive roster is worthy against the sorry Rams defense. Yeah, that means that both RBs, Julius Jones and Marion Barber III, could come up big.
Game Summary: It would take a whale of a letdown for the Cowboys to play poorly enough to allow St. Louis the chance at the upset. Consider that the Rams blew a 13-point lead against the 49ers last week, and you have all the information you need.
Prediction: COWBOYS, 34-17