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NFL: Down the Stretch

   by Al McMordie - 12/14/2006

As we enter the last few weeks of the NFL season, is it better to be playing excellent football, or does it even matter? A year ago at this time the Colts were the favorite to win the Super Bowl with the best record in the NFL and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. There were questions as to whether it was better for coach Tony Dungy to rest his starters and coast the rest of the way, or to put the pedal to the metal.

Dungy chose to rest some starters. They lost two of their final three regular season games (0-3 ATS), barely beat a terrible Arizona team at home in the finale (17-13), needing a late TD, then lost the first playoff game to Pittsburgh, 21-18 as a double-digit favorite. They finished 0-4 ATS their final four games and looked listless in the first half of the playoff game. And those same Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl, winning their final 8 games (7-1 ATS).

This time of year, it’s better to be playing your best ball AND be healthy, which is not always easy to do in the rough and tumble world of the NFL. Think back two years ago: The 2004 champion Patriots went 12-0 SU, 9-3 ATS down the stretch. The 2003 champion Patriots went 15-0 SU, 12-3 ATS their final 15 games. In 2002 Tampa Bay went 9-2 SU, 8-3 ATS their final 11 games while winning the Super Bowl. The 2001 Patriots went 11-1 SU, 10-1-1 their final 12 games. You get the picture.

Even more revealing is that Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher and Bill Belichick didn’t “coastâ€쳌 or give star players rest. In the 2001 finale, Belichick pushed his team in a 38-6 rout of a 1-15 Carolina team. In the 2004 finale, the team had nothing to play for, yet after a 7-7 halftime tie with a bad San Francisco team, Belichick sent the starters back out for the second half in an eventual 21-7 win. Again, that game was meaningless, but it was more important to the coaching staff to execute and play well.

Which leads me to this 2006 season. The Colts are again the favorite to win it all as far as oddsmakers are concerned, but this team is not playing well, losing three of its last four games. Making matters worse is HOW they’ve been losing. The run defense is last in the NFL. They got run over for 219 yards two weeks ago in a 20-17 loss to Tennessee, then went belly-up Sunday as the Jaguars ripped through them with a surprising 44-17 victory. Jacksonville rushed for 375 yards! Jacksonville rushed 17 times for 251 yards and three touchdowns during the first half alone. Maurice Jones-Drew (166 yards) ran so much he started cramping up in the third quarter and had to get intravenous fluids. RB Fred Taylor was equally effective against the league's worst run defense, gaining 131 yards on nine carries before leaving the game with a sore right hamstring. Indy is now 1-4 ATS its last 5 games, and I can't see how Indy can match up with LaDainian Tomlinson & Co.

Speaking of the Chargers, San Diego continues to flex its muscles, riding a 7-game win streak, with a balanced and powerful offense that is 5th in the league. The Ravens are doing it on the other side of the line with a terrifying defense. The Ravens are 7-1 SU/6-2 ATS after Sunday’s impressive 20-10 win at Kansas City -- a team fighting for a playoff berth and one with a great home-field edge. The Ravens forced three turnovers and sacked Trent Green four times. It was only the second December home loss for the Chiefs since 1995! The Ravens have allowed 10, 0, 13, and 10 points the last four weeks (4-0 under the total).

If you’re looking for a sleeper team that might be getting hot at the right time, take a look at the Bengals. Cincy is 4-0 SU/ATS the last four games, including a win over the Ravens. It’s more important to play your best football this time of year, with the REAL season just around the corner. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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