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NFL Handicapping: Teams that Could Finish Strong
by Trevor Whenham - 11/28/2012

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Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck

At this point in the NFL season there are some teams that we know are going to finish strong. The Patriots, Texans and Ravens are very strong in the AFC, for example, and San Francisco is for real in the NFC. Those teams are less interesting to bettors, though, because the public is all over them. What is more interesting is finding teams that have a good potential to be more impressive than people think. Here are four squads that have the chance to reward the bettors who believe in them the rest of the way:

Jacksonville

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The Jaguars have not been a good team this year. That much is obvious. They committed to Blaine Gabbert at quarterback, though, and that was at the heart of their issues — at least on offense. Thanks to an injury, though, Gabbert is out, and Chad Henne has taken over. There is absolutely no question in my mind that Henne is a starter in this league, and in the last two games he has shown it. After taking over in relief two games back he led his squad to overtime against the Texans. Then he led them to their first win in eight games against the Titans. He’s a much better fit for this offense than Gabbert. He also has a fairly favorable schedule — Buffalo, the Jets, the Dolphins and the Titans are all winnable games, and by the time they play the Patriots in Week 16 New England could have little left to play for. On top of it all, the team is getting closer to having Maurice Jones-Drew back in the fold after his lengthy injury absence, and that will obviously help the offense when he returns. I’m not suggesting that they will run the table or anything, but they have been a solid 6-5 ATS already (and a stunning 5-0 ATS on the road), so they are already better than the public thinks. And they will be better down the road than they have already been.

Cleveland

The Browns are far from a good team. In their last six, though, they are 3-3, and one of those losses came in overtime. That’s respectable for most teams, and for the Browns it’s almost miraculous. While the changes in ownership and leadership during this season have been distracting, they also provide something that has been eternally in short supply in Cleveland — hope for the future. That hope, and the fact that every player on the team is playing for their chance to be a part of that future, should ensure that effort and intensity remain high down the stretch. Their next two games are against Oakland and Kansas City, so they are well-positioned to win three straight and build confidence heading into a final three of Washington, Denver and Pittsburgh. They have been a respectable 6-4-1 ATS so far, and they haven’t cost bettors money two games in a row so far. Therefore, they are a reasonably easy team for bettors to trust.

Cincinnati

I really, really don’t like the Bengals. More correctly, I really can’t stand Marvin Lewis — he’s the worst coach in football. Despite his stunning incompetence and unrivaled ability to waste talent, though, the Bengals have won and covered their last three games — including a very impressive domination of the Giants. Andy Dalton is very confident, and A.J. Green is already the animal we knew he would be. The schedule makers have done these Bengals a favor, and they have the potential to win a bunch more games down the stretch as well. Their next three — at San Diego, against Dallas, and at Philadelphia — all feature troubled teams performing well below expectations. Then they travel to Pittsburgh, but the way things are going for the Steelers the season could be totally lost by then — and they could be bringing fans out of the stands to play quarterback. Then they finish at home against Baltimore, but the Ravens might be resting players by then unless a playoff bye is still on the line. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to see the Bengals go a profitable 3-2 ATS the rest of the way.

Indianapolis

There is absolutely no way you could have convinced me before the season began that these Colts would be sitting at 7-4 and in the driver’s seat of the wild card hunt. Impossibly, though, that is exactly where they are. Crazier than their record, though, is the fact that the team has a legitimate look at 10 wins. They play Detroit, Tennessee and Kansas City — three winnable games. They also face two against the Texans, but the second one is the final game of the season so there is a very good chance that Houston will be resting starters for their playoff run. In other words, the Colts have at least four very manageable games left, and they are only three wins from double-digits. Despite the attention they have gotten because of Andrew Luck and “Chuckstrong,” they are still a very solid 7-4 ATS, so they have been very kind to bettors — particularly in their last six (5-1 ATS). They have the potential to keep on delivering down the stretch.

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