Indianapolis (-1) over SAN DIEGO: San Diego wound up the season with four wins ó none against a playoff team ó to finish at 8-8 and, because of Denverís incompetence, capture the AFC West. Congrats! San Diego does its share of scoring but is also prone to giving up big chunks of yards through the air. It allows the second-most passing yards in the NFL (247 yards per game), which sounds like bad news against a team quarterbacked by Peyton Manning. Manning has not had his best year, but he can still sling it. After beginning the season 3-4, the Colts finished with nine straight victories, including a macho win at Pittsburgh. A key for Indianapolis is running back Joseph Addai, a difference-maker if heís on, who has been babied since he returned from a shoulder injury. The Colts canít rely on backup runner Dominic Rhodes to carry them through the playoffs. Perhaps San Diego is for real, but Iíve yet to be convinced, and something about a Norv Turner-coached team in the playoffs has me leaning in the opposite direction.
Baltimore (-3) over MIAMI: Both squads deserved trips to the postseason, but this is the end of the line for the Dolphins. Watching them try to score on Baltimore, no matter how much of their offense is run out of the wildcat, is going to be painful. And if it hurts to watch, imagine being Chad Pennington, Ricky Williams, and Ronnie Brown. Hopefully thereís plenty of ice in the tub. Baltimoreís defense is no joke, and Iíll lay the points on the road against an offense that has been efficient and opportunistic, yet underwhelming. Miami barely scrapes out 21 points per game and is a good-not-great 5-3 at home. The Dolphins have taken care of the ball ó Pennington threw just seven interceptions ó and their plus-17 turnover ratio is impressive (Baltimoreís is plus-13). The difference in this game will be Baltimoreís underrated ground attack, ranked fourth in the NFL at 148 yards per game. Yes, Miami has won five in a row to close the season, but those five wins were by an average of five points. Iím much more impressed by another number ó Baltimoreís 12-4 mark against the spread.
Atlanta (-2) over ARIZONA: Itís easy to fall for Arizona, which has a terrific offense (26.7 points per game, nearly 300 yards per game passing), and itís always fun to watch Kurt Warner complete pass after pass. The Cardinals finished the season 9-7 to win the NFC West. Two wins apiece against below-average divisional foes St. Louis, San Francisco, and Seattle got Arizona to six wins, and home victories over Miami, Buffalo, and Dallas accounted for nine. Thatís one win (Miami) against a playoff team, and that came in Week 2, before Miami established itself. Fortunately for the Cardinals, theyíre hosting this game, which causes me to pause, but I canít take the two points knowing how soft those nine wins were. Meanwhile, Atlanta emerged with an 11-5 record from the bruising NFC South. No team in that division (Carolina, Tampa Bay, New Orleans) finished below .500, and the Falcons went a respectable 3-3 in their division. More important, Atlanta ó behind rookie quarterback Matt Ryan ó finished 4-4 in road games, including nice wins at San Diego and at Minnesota. Iím laying the two points.
MINNESOTA (+3) over Philadelphia: Finally, a home team I can believe in ó and itís getting points. Philly is the conventional pick here, especially after it steamrolled Dallas in the season finale. The Eagles were impressive in crushing the Cowboys, not allowing a touchdown and forcing turnover after turnover. But I canít bring myself to hop on the Philadelphia bandwagon because I keep thinking back to the week before, when the Eagles needed a win, went on the road to face left-for-dead Washington, and came away with a 10-6 loss. That was just two weeks ago, but suddenly the Eagles are regarded by some ďexpertsĒ as the hottest team in football. I foolishly believed going in that Dallas would pull out a must-win game over the Eagles. Little did I know that Hurricane Ego had completely enveloped the Cowboys. But Iíve now seen the light. Itís bursting through the line toward the end zone, and the lightís name is Adrian Peterson. The Vikingsí star running back does have a tough matchup against Phillyís fourth-ranked defense, but when heís at home, on his own turf, Iím not betting against him.
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This week's OT cover
OT beat writersMaureen Mullen brings you Red Sox information and insights.
Tom Wilcox covers the Patriots.
Scott Souza is all over the Celtics.
Danny Picard is on the ice with the Bruins.
Mike McDonald takes a look at the humorous side of Boston sports