by Robert Ferringo - 12/16/2005
Right now, which conference is currently the strongest? The Sunset Station Casino in Las Vegas is currently offering Super Bowl odds with the AFC at -11, and the general consensus is that the AFC is clearly the most powerful. But I don't know if I'm buying that theory. At least not completely.
This weekend there are three critical games pitting AFC and NFC playoff contenders against one another, and eight total games featuring squads from opposing conferences. I feel as if this weekend will be a solid, not-so-hidden indicator of which conference is stronger at this point in the season. Heading into Week 15, the AFC is 25-23 straight up against the NFC, and the AFC is 27-21 against the spread in those games.
Tampa Bay at New England (-4.5), 1:30 on Saturday
These teams haven't squared off since 2000 when the Bucs won in Foxboro 21-16. Tampa Bay is an outstanding 5-2 SU on the road this season, but just 6-14 ATS in its last 20 away games. However, the franchise has just two cold-weather wins in its history, and there is a forecasted high of 37 in raucous Foxboro on Saturday.
The Patriots are on the verge of wrapping up their third consecutive AFC East title. Tom Brady's shoulder and ankle have been the topic of concern so far this week, but he will be ready to roll. He's been listed on the injury report for his sore shoulder most of this season, but still leads the league in pass yards. Also, he sprained his ankle early in the game against Buffalo and still managed three touchdowns. Those "ailments" won't slow him.
New England is 4-8 OU in its last 12 home games, while Tampa Bay is 4-10 against the total in their last 14 overall. The focus is on Gruden's offense against Belichick's defense, but I think this game will be won based on how New England runs the ball on Tampa Bay's front seven.
Kansas City at New York Giants (-3), 5 p.m. on Saturday
The Giants have some serious problems this week. Yes, they've been tough at home (6-1), but they're minus middle linebacker Antonio Pierce and lineman William Joseph. That could yield another monster game for Larry Johnson (142 yards per game and 10 touchdowns in six starts).
Furthermore, Kareem McKenzie and Luke Petitgout are both questionable. If they can't go (and indications are that they won't), that New York offensive line begins to look like last season's horror of a unit. Jared Allen and the Chiefs front four could have a day.
The determining factor here will be the New York fans and Eli's poise. Manning has been very shaky over the last four weeks, but should be able to tear up Kansas City's 30th-ranked pass defense. That is, if he has time.
Pittsburgh (-3.5) at Minnesota, 1 p.m. on Sunday
The Vikings are looking to make it seven in a row, and continue to put pressure on NFC North-leading Chicago. Pittsburgh knows all about pressure, and they'll continue to claw their way back into an AFC Wild Card slot.
The Vikings have been on fire since their 2-5 start. They're 5-0 ATS recently and 5-0 ATS in their last five in the Metrodome. However, The Love Boat scandal that marred their early season is back. It will be interesting to see how the criminal charges against four of their mates will affect the team. Fight or flight?
Pittsburgh has won six of its last seven games against the NFC North (2-0 this season) and is 18-6 in December and January regular season games since 2000. The key here is obviously Pittsburgh's 9th-ranked run offense against the Vikings' 17th-ranked rush defense.
Without further ado, here's my Week 15 Power Rankings:
1) Indianapolis (13-0) - The Colts offensive line has only allowed 12 sacks this season.
2) Denver (10-3) - If you run the ball (second in the NFL at 157.6 ypg) and stop the run (second in the NFL at 85.4 ypg) you win. It's that simple.
3) Seattle (11-2) - The Seahawks' "small" opening line of just 7.0 is the result of their trouble on the road over the past five seasons (17-21 since the start of 2001).
4) Cincinnati (10-3) - The Bengals' franchise has a 22-31-1 record in domes. However, they've won seven straight against the NFC.
5) Tampa Bay (9-4) - I don't know why I have such a hard time believing in this team. Chris Simms, maybe? Their two-tight end sets and power running game have been the crux of their offense.
6) Pittsburgh (8-5) - The most important aspect of this game isn't Ben's finger, it's the Steelers' secondary. They're going to get tested deep by Johnson and Co.
7) New England (8-5) - Brady is 19-0 in games when the kickoff temperature is below 40 degrees.
8) Carolina (9-4) - Ken Lucas and Dan Morgan are both still gimpy, and Mike Rucker (questionable) is also 50/50 for Sunday. Expect a lot of blitz packages out of the Panthers.
9) Jacksonville (9-4) - The Jags are 4-1 against the NFC this season. Under David Garrard's guidance, Jacksonville has outscored its opponents 32-9 in the second half of their last two games.
10) Chicago (9-4) - Their "defensive letdown" of 21 points last week was still better than the average defensive performance of 13 NFL clubs. Not having safeties Mike Brown and Chris Harris hurts the rush defense just as much as the pass defense. Maybe more.
11) New York Giants (9-4) - The Giants lead this series 8-2. They would rather not get into a shootout, but with the league's No. 5 scoring offense they won't shy away from it.
12) Dallas (8-5) - The Cowboys have been in nine games decided by six points or less. They're 5-4 in those contests.
13) Kansas City (8-5) - Dick Vermeil is 13-6 SU in December with K.C. The Chiefs offense has called 417 passes and 415 runs on the season, a near perfect balance.
14) Atlanta (8-5) - It's going to be 8 degrees in Chicago on Sunday night. We'll find out just how tough this Falcons team is.
15) San Diego (8-5) - So are the Chargers the Best 8-5 Team Ever?
16) Minnesota (8-5) - Kevin Williams is listed as probable, but I've read reports that his knee injury is actually worse than that.
17) Washington (7-6) - Not only would a win be a crippling blow to Dallas' wild card hopes, it would also vault the Redskins back into the mix. Washington is 3-5 against teams over .500.
18) Miami (6-7) - The Dolphins are 3-0 since Nick Saban proclaimed that he "doesn't care" about this season.
19) Cleveland (4-9) - Charlie Frye looked good in Cincinnati last weekend. But the Jungle isn't the Black Hole. The Browns are just 2-13 SU in their last 15 on the road.
20) Philadelphia (5-8) - I think it's absolutely ridiculous that anyone would call out Donovan McNabb, who is truly one of the great players and great guys in the game.
21) St. Louis (5-8) - Picking up the Eagles blitz will be crucial to how Ryan Fitzpatrick performs. If Philly is consistently getting pressure, five more INTs could be in the cards.
22) Oakland (4-9) - Darrell Russell's story is tragic. It's just another chapter in Oakland's checkered past of troubled characters. But I expect an inspired performance out of this motley crew, in spite of Norv Turner (who will never coach in the NFL again).
23) Buffalo (4-9) - Fans will be storming the field in Orchard Park this weekend. But not in the good way. Kelly Holcomb is 3-2 this year as a starter, and will get the nod.
24) Baltimore (4-9) - All of Baltimore's wins have been at home this season. Their offensive line is missing three starters, and Jonathan Ogden has a sore hamstring.
25) Green Bay (3-10) - Samkon Gado is making the Pack's decision about Ahman Green a lot easier.
26) Tennessee (4-9) - The Titans are 5-1 ATS in their last six at home against Seattle.
27) Arizona (4-9) - Leonard Davis is the only offensive lineman that has appeared in every game this season for the Cards. Not surprisingly, they have just two rushing touchdowns in 13 games.
28) Detroit (4-9) - These guys gave up on this season three weeks ago.
29) New Orleans (3-10) - Todd Bouman is a poor man's Marquis Tuiasosopo.
30) New York Jets (3-10) - The Jets have won 12 of the last 15 meetings against the Dolphins. John Abraham has been popping off about his contract situation - again.
31) San Francisco (2-11) - San Francisco is just 1-6 ATS in its last six road games. They've failed to cover 16 points in six games this year. Five of those were on the road.
32) Houston (1-12) - Houston just accepted an invite to the Bush Bowl on January 1st. They'll be going up against the 49ers in San Francisco.
Questions or comments for Robert?
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The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Doc's football picks service.