Five words you’re going to hear a lot over the next five weeks:
“If the playoffs started today.”
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Well . . . the Cowboys and Seahawks would be the NFC’s top two seeds while the Patriots and Raiders would be 1-2 in the AFC. In the wild-card round, it would be: Giants at Falcons, Redskins at Lions, Chiefs at Texans, Dolphins at Ravens.
A lot will change, so don’t be surprised if some of these teams wind up on the outside looking in (another three words you’ll hear often).
Favorites went 8-7-1 against the spread (ATS) last week. Underdogs are 89-78-9 on the season. This week has some tough games to call. Expect a lot of close finishes.
GIANTS (8-3) AT STEELERS (6-5), 4:25 p.m.
TV: Ch. 5; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)
Steelers by 6; O/U: 48
Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger will forever be tied to the 2004 draft. So which of the two has a better shot this season to earn a third Super Bowl title? The belief here is that neither will get close enough, but if one team has a chance for a long playoff run, it’s definitely the Steelers. When Pittsburgh’s offense is clicking, with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell making highlight-reel plays, it’s nearly unstoppable. Manning to Odell Beckham Jr. should produce highlights in this matchup, too, so the over is a good play. But as far as the spread, the Steelers are the clear choice. There’s a reason Vegas made this spread nearly a touchdown, and the line most likely will land in the 7-to-7.5 range by kickoff. Why? Because despite an 8-3 record, the Giants don’t have one statement win on their resume, unless you count a 20-19 victory at Dallas in Week 1 in Dak Prescott’s NFL debut. Not including last week’s 14-point win at winless Cleveland, the Giants’ other seven wins were by a combined 27 points. Pittsburgh will be extra-motivated to either keep pace with Baltimore or pass them for first place. The Giants’ defense is improved from last season, but it won’t be able to stop the Steelers for 60 minutes. Lay the points and expect Pittsburgh to win a 34-24 game that won’t feel that close.
The pick: Steelers
COLTS (5-6) AT JETS (3-8), 8:30 p.m.
TV: ESPN, Ch. 7; Radio: ESPN (98.7)
Colts by 1.5; O/U: 48.5
Last week’s Patriots-Jets game was flexed out of Sunday night. Maybe next season the NFL finally will start flexing out Monday night games so we don’t have to be relegated to matchups like this one in early December. Andrew Luck is likely to return, but the Colts have just as many issues as the Jets, so don’t think this is going to be one-sided. In fact, the Jets are playing for pride, and that shouldn’t be discounted. Neither should the Jets being able to win a prime-time game at home a week after the NFL took that opportunity away from them. Ryan Fitzpatrick has his best game of the season as the Jets pull out the win.
The pick: Jets
1 p.m. GAMES
DOLPHINS (7-4) AT RAVENS (6-5)
Ravens by 3; O/U: 40.5
If the playoffs started today — there’s those five words again — it would No. 6 Miami at No. 3 Baltimore. But they don’t, and it’s still possible neither of these teams even makes it to wild-card weekend. The Dolphins have won six in a row, but barely beat the Rams and 49ers the last two weeks. The Ravens have the NFL’s No. 1 rush defense (74.9 yards per game), so Miami will need to rely on Ryan Tannehill more than Jay Ajayi. Advantage: Baltimore. The Ravens will make it four straight wins at home in what should be a close, down-to-the-wire game.
The pick: Ravens
RAMS (4-7) AT PATRIOTS (9-2), Ch. 5
Patriots by 13; O/U: 43.5
This is the third time the Patriots have been favored by double digits this season. They easily covered at Cleveland, and pushed at San Francisco. It’s hard to envision Jared Goff and a low-scoring Rams team putting up enough points to cover. Lay the points and bank on Tom Brady (18 TDs, 1 INT this season) having another big day.
The pick: Patriots
EAGLES (5-6) AT BENGALS (3-7-1)
Bengals by 1.5; O/U: 42
The Eagles are 1-5 on the road, but there’s a reason this spread is so small. The Bengals are down their top two playmakers, are an NFL-worst 2-8-1 ATS and shouldn’t be the pick just because this game is in Cincinnati.
The pick: Eagles
TEXANS (6-5) AT PACKERS (5-6), Ch. 2
Packers by 6.5; O/U: 45.5
The Pack finally got back on track Monday night, snapping a four-game skid. Now, after three straight road games, Lambeau Field will be rocking. Quick, when was the last time Green Bay won at home? The answer: Week 7 against the Bears on Thursday night. Returning home with a chance to get back to .500 will be a winning combination for the Packers. Houston’s defense will keep this close early, but look for Aaron Rodgers and the passing game to pull away comfortably for the cover.
The pick: Packers
LIONS (7-4) AT SAINTS (5-6)
Saints by 6.5; O/U: 53.5
This shapes up as one of the most competitive games of the week, which is why you should take the points. This spread should be a field goal at most, so getting the extra points feels like a steal. All 11 of the Lions’ games have come down to the fourth quarter or overtime, and this one should be tight, too. If Matthew Stafford outlasts Drew Brees and Detroit wins, it wouldn’t be a shock at all.
The pick: Lions
CHIEFS (8-3) AT FALCONS (7-4)
Falcons by 4.5; O/U: 49
Nobody talks about the Chiefs, but they’re one of the best teams in the NFL. They’ve won 18 of their last 21 regular-season games with a mix of just enough offense, great defense and sound special teams. Keep an eye on rookie Tyreek Hill, who last week became the first player since Gale Sayers in 1965 to have a rushing TD, receiving TD and kick return TD in the same game. The Chiefs’ consistency, plus the return of Justin Houston on defense give them a strong shot to build off last week’s wild overtime win in Denver. This one won’t be decided till the last minute or two, so take the points.
The pick: Chiefs
BRONCOS (7-4) AT JAGUARS (2-9)
Broncos by 3.5; O/U: 39.5
The Broncos find themselves on the outside looking in (there’s those three words again) after last week’s have-to-see-it-to-believe-it overtime loss. By the time Denver kicks off at Jacksonville, Gary Kubiak and his players will have heard about the coach’s questionable decision in OT to attempt a 62-yard field goal at least a few hundred times. Or, considering the social media world we live in today, maybe a few million times. However, after this one, Von Miller’s vicious takedowns of Blake Bortles will be all anyone is tweeting about. Despite going 0-4 in November, the Jaguars played tough, losing by a combined 22 points. Trevor Siemian’s foot injury and the uncertainty if he will play or not downgraded the Broncos from their original “Lock of the Week” status, but their defense should do enough. If Siemian plays, Denver wins a 24-10 type of game. If he’s out, make it 17-9.
The pick: Broncos
49ERS (1-10) AT BEARS (2-9)
Bears by 1; O/U: 43.5
Despite a combined 3-19 record, these teams are still fighting. Both teams’ upset bids last week fell just short in the red zone. San Francisco won an overtime thriller at Chicago in Week 13 last season, so maybe ‘13’ will be lucky again. The 49ers have been an improved team the last three weeks, and this is the spot they snap their 10-game skid.
The pick: 49ers
4 p.m. GAMES
LOCK OF THE WEEK
REDSKINS (6-4-1) AT CARDINALS (4-6-1)
Cardinals by 2.5; O/U: 49
(Sirens glaring) WRONG SPREAD ALERT! WRONG SPREAD ALERT! Washington, and not Arizona, should be favored in this game. The Cardinals are not the same team from last year and are favored only because they’re home. But if they lost to the Rams there earlier this year and barely beat the 49ers a couple weeks ago, what will the Redskins do to them? While Carson Palmer has regressed, Kirk Cousins has stepped up his game. He’s been on fire the last two weeks, completing nearly 75 percent of his passes while throwing for 824 yards with six TDs and no INTs. Arizona gave up two wide-receiver screen TDs last week in Atlanta, so watch out for speedy Jamison Crowder to try and replicate that. Cousins has so many weapons, and even if the Cardinals’ defense plays inspired at home, it’s hard to see Palmer keeping pace. Washington is legit, and will show it’s not only one of the NFC’s top teams, but the entire NFL’s with a statement win on the road.
The pick: Redskins
BUCS (6-5) AT CHARGERS (5-6)
Chargers by 3.5; O/U: 47.5
Bet the over in what should be the week’s highest-scoring game. Tampa Bay is hot after winning at Kansas City and then stuffing Seattle at home. The Bucs are confident and hungry, and even though San Diego is much better than its record lets on, Tampa Bay is primed for another upset.
The pick: Bucs
BILLS (6-5) AT RAIDERS (9-2)
Raiders by 3; O/U: 49
If you’re in a weekly NFL pool and have to pick every game, you probably saw this one and immediately picked the Raiders as small home favorites, right? This one deserves more of your time. Oakland has been one of the NFL’s great stories, but if you follow the action week to week you’ll know that the Raiders aren’t that much better than the Bills. The Raiders’ lone statement win was against the Broncos, while they won close game after close game against average teams. Buffalo, despite its inconsistent ways, played one of the most impressive games this season . . . in a loss. Remember the Bills’ Week 9 Monday night trip to Seattle? Buffalo jumped out to a pair of early leads and had Seattle on its heels at home, which is no small feat. If the Bills can play that way in Seattle, why can’t they do it in Oakland? Buffalo, in the hunt for a wild-card spot, needs this game more than Oakland, and that desperation will show as Tyrod Taylor and LeSean McCoy make big plays. With Derek Carr playing with a dislocated finger, the Raiders are primed to be picked off this week. Upset special: Bills 28, Raiders 27.
The pick: Bills
PANTHERS (4-7) AT SEAHAWKS (7-3-1), Ch. 4
Seahawks by 7; O/U: 44
After playing at Oakland, Carolina stayed on the West Coast to prepare for this prime-time matchup in Seattle. Smart thinking, but it won’t matter. The Seahawks were pushed around last week as the Bucs held them to five points. Expect Seattle to bounce back in a big way and get some payback from last year’s NFC divisional-round loss in Carolina.
The pick: Seahawks