Pretenders 'n' contenders

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:20 AM ET

The final charge toward the playoffs has begun and every team but San Francisco, Miami and Cleveland still has a shot at the post-season.

This week, Atlanta, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh can clinch division titles with wins, while New England can do the same with a victory and a New York Jets loss.

Wild-card spots get a little messy after that, with three AFC teams at 6-6 trying to claw their way up and a pack of six 5-7 teams still in the thick of things in the NFC.

Enjoy the show.

Here are this week's picks:

* CINCINNATI +11 AT NEW ENGLAND: Which Bengals personality will show up: The team that came from behind on the road to beat Baltimore last week or the one that was crushed at home by the Ravens earlier in the season? Patriots 27, Bengals 23.

* CLEVELAND +10 1/2 AT BUFFALO: It's nasty in Buffalo at this time of year and Cleveland can't compete with a red-hot Bills team. The Browns may even be outscored by the Bills defence. Bills 30, Browns 10.

* N.Y. GIANTS +9 1/2 AT BALTIMORE: The Ravens were stunned at home by the Bengals last week and will take their anger out on a hapless Giants offence. Ravens 24, Giants 13.

* DETROIT +9 1/2 AT GREEN BAY: This game has all the ingredients for a Green Bay blowout: A dome team playing at Lambeau in December against a Packers squad that was embarrassed on the road by Philadelphia last week. Call it a hunch but rookie running back Kevin Jones will be the key to keeping it close for Detroit. Packers 26, Lions 20.

* SEATTLE +6 1/2 AT MINNESOTA: It's sad but Seattle still has a shot at winning its division -- even with another loss or two. But the Seahawks are feeling playoff pressure and will want to take advantage of Minnesota's depleted secondary. Vikings 28, Seahawks 24.

* OAKLAND +7 1/2 AT ATLANTA: The Falcons can clinch the NFC South with a win or tie against the Raiders. Atlanta should win but Oakland's rejuvenated air attack may keep the game interesting. Falcons 28, Raiders 21.

* CHICAGO +7 1/2 AT JACKSONVILLE: If there's one thing you can count on in the NFL this season, it's the Jacksonville Jaguars winning or losing by narrow margins. They should be able to squeak past the Bears this week. Jaguars 17, Bears 13.

* NEW ORLEANS +6 AT DALLAS: Rookie running back Julius Jones may save Dallas' season and, potentially, coach Bill Parcells' job. The playoffs are still a longshot but the odds are a lot better for the Cowboys than they were a few weeks ago. Cowboys 30, Saints 21.

* INDIANAPOLIS -10 AT HOUSTON: Peyton Manning threw five TD passes during a 49-14 win against Houston in Indianapolis earlier this season. If Manning has another big day, he could become the NFL's single-season record holder for touchdown tosses while the Colts could clinch a division title. Colts 38, Texans 26.

* N.Y. JETS +6 AT PITTSBURGH: Ben Roethlisberger's 10-game winning streak is a remarkable rookie record, although he didn't look like a rookie while driving toward the winning field goal in Jacksonville last week. He's a tremendous leader but New York sports a pretty tremendous defence. Steelers 21, Jets 20.

* ST. LOUIS +6 AT CAROLINA: With backup quarterback Chris Chandler at the helm, St. Louis managed to put up only 16 points at home against the NFL's worst team. That doesn't bode well for the Rams on the road against the Panthers, who are riding a four-game winning streak. Panthers 23, Rams 16.

* SAN FRANCISCO +5 1/2 AT ARIZONA: Even Arizona should be able to win by a couple of field goals against the Niners. With Emmitt Smith, who's questionable with an ankle injury, the Cards could find themselves on the right side of a blowout for once. Cardinals 26, 49ers 17.

* PHILADELPHIA -9 AT WASHINGTON: Not even one of the best defences in the league can defend all the weapons Philadelphia has on offence. The Eagles can secure a first-round bye with a win in Washington. Eagles 24, Redskins 14.

* KANSAS CITY NL AT TENNESSEE: Priest Holmes has been shelved for the rest of the year but Kansas City's playoff hopes have been 'doubtful' for weeks. The Chiefs should be able to win another game or two to close out a disappointing season. Chiefs 27, Titans 24.

UPSET OF THE WEEK

* TAMPA BAY +5 1/2 AT SAN DIEGO: The Chargers won a big game over their division rival Broncos last week and may be due for a letdown. The Buccaneers need a win to stay within striking distance of a post-season berth. Bucs 21, Chargers 20.

WEEK'S BEST BET

* MIAMI +11 AT DENVER: Denver hasn't looked like a playoff-calibre team lately. A big win over Miami at Mile High would help convince a few skeptics, including former Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe, who pegged the acquisition of quarterback Jake Plummer a huge mistake by coach Mike Shanahan. Broncos 33, Dolphins 12.

CHECK THE RECORD

Last week: 11-5 straight up; 11-4-1 against the spread. Season: 118-74 straight up; 92-89-7 ATS. Best Bet is 8-5 after New England trounced Cleveland. Upset of the Week is 7-6 after Carolina continued its roll against New Orleans. Best Bet and Upset picks are straight up.


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