December football is playoff football.
Now, this isn't the playoffs in the winner-take-all, take-your-ball-and-go-home, you-better-bring-your-ass-to-the-store-with-that manner that January heralds. But the playoffs have begun in the NFL, with teams in both conferences playing for their postseason lives every week from here on out. Teams across the league should be playing their best football of the season right now and this is the period where we find out whose best is good enough and who just isn't up to snuff.
It's at the point now where you want to be looking for a couple things. First, look for teams that start to pick up steam, both against the number and against opponents over the next few weeks. They are usually strong bets early in the postseason. (Oh, and even losing teams can "get hot" ATS in the last month and build on that momentum for next year. Ask Cincinnati.)
Second, you want to be careful on betting teams in "must-win games". Teams are generally in must-win situations because they aren't that good in the first place. I know you want to pile on the Giants to make that late-season push, but the reality is that if this team was any good they wouldn't be playing must-win games for the next month. The same goes for Jacksonville, San Francisco, and a host of other teams clinging to playoff life.
Without further ado, here is a look at my Doc's Sports NFL Power Rankings:
1. New Orleans Saints (12-0) - Anyone whose confidence is wavering about the Saints after last week should rest easy. That was a predictable letdown spot for New Orleans and I'm of the opinion that a loss there would have been good for them. You don't want to use up too much of your magic in the regular season and New Orleans may be doing just that.
2. Minnesota Vikings (10-2) - Yeah, I know: it's blasphemy. How could I have the two-loss Vikings ahead of the Colts? Well, because they are my power rankings! And if those two teams met on a neutral field right now I think the Vikings would tear them up. E.J. Henderson's gruesome injury was a terrible blow to this defense. He was the quarterback of that stellar defense and one of the most underrated linebackers in the NFL. The Bengals will test the Vikes in the middle this week.
3. Indianapolis Colts (12-0) – The Colts had to have buried most of the public last week as the Titans were the "too easy to take the point" underdog. The Colts are a stellar 4-1 ATS in their last five meetings with Denver. The average margin of victory has been 19 points per game, and the one Denver win was a Week 17 blowout in which the Colts rested all of their starters.
4. San Diego Chargers (9-3) - In my mind this Chargers-Cowboys game is the best game on the board and the most difficult to handicap. I mean, the collective powers of Wade Philips AND Norv Turner under one roof? My head might explode. The 'over' is 20-8-2 in San Diego's last 30 road games and is 11-5-2 in their last 18 games overall. The Chargers are also an exceptional 19-6-3 ATS as an underdog and 15-6-3 ATS as a road dog, and they have been the anti-Cowboys, winning 15 straight December games.
5. Cincinnati Bengals (8-3) - So, I guess Cedric Benson's alright. Jeez. Just another maneuver that makes me question what the hell Marvin Lewis is doing. Benson is fresh off an injury and Lewis gives him the ball 36 times in a game against the terrible Lions. Give me a break. Isn't this what you went out and got Larry Johnson for? You don't think L.J. has something to prove? After back-to-back weeks of getting lulled to sleep (and not covering) against the sad-sack Browns and Lions, now the Bengals have to gear back up for a true test in Minnesota. That's a bad situation for Bengals backers, although Cincy is a perfect 6-0 ATS as an underdog this year.
6. Philadelphia Eagles (8-4) - Three straight wins (and a 2-1 ATS mark), including a blowout last Sunday, and the Eagles aren't favored this week in New York. That seem odd to anyone else? Going back to 2002 the Eagles are 10-4 ATS on the road in December (not including the playoffs). The underdog has covered 10 straight games in this series and Philly has won three straight over the G-Men after losing three straight. This play looks just too easy this weekend.
7. Green Bay Packers (8-4) - Beware: nearly 90 percent of the public is pouring money on the Packers this week and, as of yet, the line hasn't moved off 3.0. Chicago's season is over. But that also means that this game, against their hated rival, is their Super Bowl. Further, Chicago had the Pack beat in the first matchup in Lambeau. And I always think of Cody The Copywriter from my old job at the Watertown Daily Times: "Win on Monday, lose on Sunday."
8. Arizona Cardinals (8-4) - Revenge spot for the Cardinals this week in San Francisco. Despite the Cards completely outplaying and outgaining the Niners in Week 1 they collapsed due to turnovers and penalties. Kurt Warner will play Monday night but will be slowed with a bum hip. If the Cardinals win and clinch the West I would look for Arizona to rest Warner quite a bit down the stretch.
9. Baltimore Ravens (6-6) - Besides two games against Cleveland, this is Baltimore's first game against a team with a losing record since they played Kansas City in Week 1. The Ravens have played by far the toughest schedule in football. They are on a 1-4 ATS slide but they are 3-0 so far this year as a double-digit favorite. Ed Reed is questionable this week against Detroit with a strained hip. But my gut feeling is that he will not play.
10. Denver Broncos (7-5) - For most of the last decade the AFC was a scissors-paper-rock league with New England beating Indianapolis, Indianapolis beating Denver, and Denver beating New England (lately we have subbed San Diego for Denver). I don't know why we would expect any different. The Broncos are just 1-4 ATS at Indianapolis and the road team (and underdog) is just 1-4 ATS in the last five meetings. Denver will obviously move the ball against the Indy front seven. But Kyle Orton has to play better in the red zone than he has over the last several weeks.
11. Dallas Cowboys (8-4) - Stop me if you've heard this one: Dallas can't win in December. How bad have they been? Try 3-13-2 ATS in their last 18 games in December and 1-9-2 ATS in their last 12 games in Week 14. I'm not one for the "Week 14" stat, but it's also tough to ignore. Dallas is definitely a disrespected favorite this week with all of the money piling on San Diego. But this is an absolute must-win game for Dallas. They head to New Orleans and then have tough divisional games against the Redskins and Eagles to close the year. This thing could definitely snowball on them.
12. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-6) - Much like everyone else, I'm kind of speechless about this debacle. And it's understandable that there is actually some significant Browns money coming in this week. But the Steelers are still 8-3-1 ATS in the last nine meetings with the Browns, with seven of the last 10 meetings decided by double-digits. News this week is that Troy Polamalu probably won't return at all this season. I think he's proven this year just how much he means to this team.
13. New England Patriots (7-5) - Yeah, I'm done with the Patriots. Early in the year I told myself - even wrote it in this space - that the Pats weren't very good this year. Then somehow I got suckered into them in the middle of the season and have had to bite the bullet with them. Ugh. I'm not telling you anything you don't know: you can't make up for the experience on defense that this team has lost over the last two or three years. And as good as Tom Brady has been the heart of this team has always been its defense. Rumor has it that Randy Moss is starting his cancerous ways again in the locker room. Stay tuned. New England is 43-17-2 ATS at home against a non-divisional opponent.
14. New York Giants (7-5) - I am on the fence this week about the Giants. On one hand I think that they are the type of team that we should be staying far, far away from. They truly are not that good and Philadelphia is a stronger, healthier team that has dominated the series recently. On the other hand, nearly 70 percent of the action on this game is on the Eagles. That makes the Giants a disrespected favorite. And weird things seem to happen every December in the NFC East, with at least one team going on a savage run. This could be it for the G-Men.
15. Miami Dolphins (6-6) - Even though Jacksonville is a great place to be this time of year weather could be a factor this Sunday. There is a 60 percent chance of rain. And in a game that features two pretty physical defenses and two offenses that want to run the ball I think that could make for a low-scoring affair. Miami is on a 6-3 run both SU and ATS and they have quietly been playing some very good football over the last two months. Besides that collapse in Buffalo their only losses lately have come against the Colts, Chargers, Patriots and Saints.
16. Atlanta Falcons (6-6) - It's safe to say that the Chris Redman Show was a disaster, as predicted. And the Falcons shouldn't expect any sympathy from New Orleans this week. There was a lot of jawing at the end of their game in New Orleans last month, a game in which Atlanta earned a garbage backdoor cover. Four straight meetings have gone 'over' the total and I just don't see how Atlanta's secondary will be able to slow down Drew Brees and Co. The Falcons are just 2-5 SU over their last seven games and showing once again why this franchise has never had back-to-back winning seasons.
17. Tennessee Titans (5-7) - I know that everyone points directly at Vince Young as the reason why the Titans have come out of nowhere to make a run at the playoffs. But the reality is that they got healthy in the secondary and their back seven has started to play like the group we saw in 2008. That is the real reason they have come alive. Tennessee is just 2-7 ATS as a favorite the week after playing the Colts.
18. Jacksonville Jaguars (7-5) - I know, I know: if the playoffs ended today the Jaguars would be playing in the first round. And by now you should know: I'm still not buying. This team has exactly zero wins against a team with a winning record and its crowning achievement is sweeping the Texans. Jacksonville is just 3-11 ATS in its last 14 home games and even though they count as a "disrespected favorite" (about 66 percent of the action is on Miami) the Jags are just 1-12 ATS laying points over the last few years. They have also been outscored by about 50 points by their opponents this year.
19. New York Jets (6-6) - Is it an altogether bad thing that Mark Sanchez isn't starting this weekend? Last week I mentioned how weak this Jets front seven had been in getting at the quarterback. Well, the No. 1 pass defense in the NFL should have a field day this week against rookie Josh Freeman. The Jets are never the type of team that you want to play as a road favorite. But either you believe that they are capable of making a move this year or you don't.
20. Houston Texans (5-7) - Wait, so the Texans AREN'T going to be the sleeper team this year? Haha! And yes, I'm laughing at everyone - and that's a LOT of people - that had the Texans pegged for a major move this year. Everyone was up in arms (rightfully so) about Kris Brown's option-pass interception at first-and-goal at the five-yard line. If memory serves that is actually the third game this year that Brown had single-handedly cost Houston with a goal line turnover: he fumbled into the end zone from the one-yard line against the Jaguars and he was stuffed four times from the same spot at Arizona. Kinda begs the question: why is this well-past-his-already-mediocre-prime running back even on this roster? Schaub is 50-50 to start this week and we definitely won't know anything - despite what is released - until Sunday.
21. San Francisco 49ers (5-7) - Even though the Niners are all but finished in their fight for the division crown I would expect nothing but a top effort on Monday Night Football. San Francisco is 3-1 ATS in its last four with the Cardinals and the underdog in this series is on a stellar 6-1 ATS rush.
22. Chicago Bears (5-7) - At this point all the Bears are doing by winning is dooming themselves to another year of Lovie Smith and ruining their draft position. Chicago should let it all hang out this weekend against the Packers, who could be primed for a letdown after their stellar MNF performance. That said, the Bears are just 5-12-1 ATS against Green Bay and just 2-8 ATS hosting them at Soldier Field.
23. Carolina Panthers (5-7) - Look for Matt Moore to get the start again this week for the Panthers, as allegedly Jake Delhomme still can't grip a football (or avoid throwing interceptions in the middle of the field). But don't be fooled by Carolina's win last week. They were outgained by nearly 170 yards and bailed out by the fact that Josh Freeman went "Delhomme" on their asses.
24. Seattle Seahawks (5-7) - If you kick out their win over pathetic St. Louis, Seattle has dumped its previous five road games by an average of 17.6 points per game. Needless to say they are just 1-5 ATS on the road and they are 0-7 ATS as a road dog.
25. Buffalo Bills (4-8) - So far this season the teams that have played on Thursday nights have gone 6-4 ATS the following week. That mark is boosted by a 5-1 ATS mark last Sunday by the teams that played on Thanksgiving and got some extra rest. The Bills are 7-2 ATS in their last nine road games (7-3 ATS if you count their loss in Toronto) and they have road upset wins at Carolina and the Jets this year. This team still always plays better when there are zero expectation.
26. Washington Redskins (3-9) - I don't think that there can be a better representation of Washington's season (or the past five, for that matter) than last week's game: they have the talent to compete with the best teams in football but their lack of discipline, leadership, and savvy in tight games have made them a laughingstock. The Redskins offense has managed 21.7 points per game over the last month after averaging just 14.1 points per outing through the first eight weeks. A lot of that is just the lights turning on with this offense in Year 2 of the West Coast offense.
27. Oakland Raiders (4-8) - Now do you believe me that the Raiders would be at least a .500 team this year if Bruce Gradkowski had started at quarterback since Week 1? Before you hop on the bandwagon this week consider: Oakland is 8-13 ATS the week following a win, including 0-3 ATS in that spot this year. They are also 16-37-1 ATS at home and this team has been outscored by its opponents 282-142 this season.
28. Kansas City Chiefs (3-9) - Stop me if you've heard this one: the Chiefs can't turn the corner on their rebuilding until they regain their home field advantage. For over two decades the Chiefs enjoyed one of the biggest home edges in football. However, they are just 5-14 ATS in Arrowhead over the last two-plus years and were embarrassed again last week. This defense has been hit for an average of 30.3 points per game in its last six games, including 44 and 43 the last two weeks. They are now facing a team that hung 54 points on them in a nearly identical spot last year (a 54-31 Bills win).
29. Cleveland Browns (1-11) - This week the Browns are finally facing a total in a range that they deserve: 33.5. I believe that number marks the lowest total of the season. Cleveland is just 3-7 against the total in its last 10 games, although six of the last nine meetings with the Steelers have sailed the number. Cleveland is also 3-1 ATS against Pittsburgh in the last four meetings.
30. Detroit Lions (2-10) - Dante Culpepper will be starting this week for the Lions against the Ravens. Now, before you start laughing and throwing your cash on the Ravens I will say that it is this capper's belief that, much like with Oakland, if Detroit had gone with the veteran backup this entire year they would have been much more competitive.
31. St. Louis Rams (1-11) - The Rams haven't played on the road much (only twice in the last six weeks) but they have been pretty steady away from home. They are 3-0 ATS in those three games, including an outright win at Detroit. Safety O.J. Atogwe, the team's best defensive player, is likely done for the season due to a shoulder injury.
32. Tampa Bay Bucs (1-11) - Rookie quarterbacks. In what was the "squarest" underdog pick of the week, the Bucs buried backers with that dud on the road. Remember people: this is still a 1-11 team with an overmatched coach. Even if they had been playing better this is still an awful football team. As if it mattered, the Bucs get Aqib Talib and Michael Clayton back this week.
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