A quick look at the NFL standings suggests a mad stretch run to the playoffs begins in Week 10.
In the AFC, the current first place teams are New England, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver. The pre-season prognosticators had all four as contenders, so there are no surprises there. But several other teams continue to be in the mix. Buffalo, Miami, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Baltimore, Kansas City and San Diego all have records of either 6-3, 5-3 or 5-4, and Houston cannot be counted out at 4-5. In all eight teams potentially vying for two playoff slots.
There is more separation in the NFC, but also some surprises. If the season ended now, Green Bay and San Francisco would both be out of the playoffs and the defending champion Seattle Seahawks would be the six seed.
Is that enough insanity? Now lets take a look at the Week 10 schedule.
Week 9 record: 9-4
Season record: 72-61-1
Cleveland Browns (5-3) +6 at Cincinnati Bengals (5-2-1)
One of the league’s marquee players is due to return in a few weeks. No, I’m not talking about the phony in Minneapolis. Josh Gordon has two games left on his 10-game hiatus and all reports have him ready to roll in Week 12. But who will be the starting quarterback by then? Both teams have interesting running back situations – Terrance West is emerging as the lead dog in Cleveland and Jeremy Hill is looking to repeat last Sunday’s monster game while keeping the seat warm for Giovani Bernard.
ATS pick: Browns
Kansas City Chiefs (5-3) -2 at Buffalo Bills (5-3)
The winner of this game gets a tenuous foothold on an AFC Wild Card slot. Rookie Sammy Watkins has been on fire for Buffalo, but tweaked his groin during the week and his status is in flux for Sunday.
ATS pick: Bills
Miami Dolphins (5-3) +3 at Detroit Lions (5-3)
For the first time in more than a month it can be said with confidence that all systems are go for Calvin Johnson. It will be a huge boost for a Lions franchise trying to shake a reputation for late season collapses.
ATS pick: Lions
San Francisco 49ers (4-4) +4.5 at New Orleans Saints (4-4)
Location, location, location. The Saints have grabbed control of the NFC South with a .500 record while the Niners have slipped to third in the NFC West. The Saints have also been riding momentum while San Francisco seems to be looking more towards a Jim Harbaugh exit strategy than making the playoffs.
ATS pick: Saints
New York Jets (1-7) -5 at Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3)
Can Ben Roethlisberger roll six touchdown passes for an unprecedented third consecutive week? He is as hot as anyone right now, including Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Congratulations to those fantasy football owners who have picked up Martavis Bryant in the past couple of weeks. Five of his first 10 career catches have gone for touchdowns.
ATS pick: Steelers
Atlanta Falcons (2-6) -1 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-7)
Considering their 56-14 rout over Tampa in Week 3, the Falcons seem like an easy pick as a slight favorite. But sometimes two plus two ends up equaling five. No NFL game is ever the same.
ATS pick: Falcons
Dallas Cowboys (6-3) -7 at Jacksonville Jaguars (1-8)
We arrive at the dreaded off-the-board game due to the continued questionable status of Tony Romo, who is dealing with two small fractures of the transverse process in his back. Romo could probably go this week, but the Cowboys should be able to win even with Brandon Weeden under center. That said, Dallas cannot afford to head into the bye on a three-game losing streak, Jerry Jones might look at it as the apocalypse.
ATS pick: Cowboys
Tennessee Titans (2-6) +9.5 at Baltimore Ravens (5-4)
After their loss in Pittsburgh on Sunday night that resembled pit road melee at Texas Motor Speedway, the Ravens must regroup fast to keep pace in the division. The Ravens can’t afford to get dropkicked into the cellar.
ATS pick: Ravens
Denver Broncos (6-2) -11.5 at Oakland Raiders (0-8)
Three sure things remain in life – death, taxes and Peyton Manning getting thumped on a cold blustery day in Foxboro. The good news is there is no better cure than a trip to the sunny East Bay where Manning will feast on the hapless Raiders.
ATS pick: Broncos
St. Louis Rams (3-5) +7 at Arizona Cardinals (7-1)
The Cardinals have climbed to the NFC’s top spot, but cannot let their guard down against a team fresh off a nail-biter of an upset in San Francisco. The Rams remain the best last place team in the history of the world.
ATS pick: Rams
New York Giants (3-5) +9.5 at Seattle Seahawks (5-3)
This week Ryan Phillips called for the end of Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning. One player not leaving anytime soon is Odell Beckham, coming off a 156-yard receiving performance. But do not expect a repeat against Richard Sherman and company.
ATS pick: Seahawks
Chicago Bears (3-5) +7 at Green Bay Packers (5-3)
Winter begins Sunday night in Lambeau and it will be a lot colder for the Bears if they don’t figure out their chemistry problems during the bye week. Things could get even uglier if Chicago gets throttled yet again.
ATS pick: Packers
Carolina Panthers (3-5-1) at Philadelphia Eagles (6-2)
Nick Foles goes down with a broken collarbone just like Aaron Rodgers did this time last year. The difference is Mark Sanchez does not present a downgrade, in fact Foles may have wound up getting benched had he not been hurt. Look for Philadelphia to put up big numbers on the struggling Panthers.
ATS pick: Eagles