Saints better pray

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 10:18 AM ET

At the start of the season, many NFL pundits predicted the New Orleans Saints would contend for the NFC South title. It didn't take long for the 'Ain'ts' to prove them wrong. The talent-laden offence looked disinterested and the defence looked as if it couldn't keep anyone out of the endzone.

They stumbled to a 4-8 record and looked doomed.

But wins against Dallas and Tampa Bay the last two weeks have put the Saints back into playoff contention. A victory over Atlanta combined with a Carolina loss would temporarily put the Saints into the final wild-card position.

Maybe Santa exists, after all.

* GREEN BAY +3 AT MINNESOTA: This afternoon's matchup may be the most important game of the week. Whichever team wins this game clinches the NFC North. Green Bay has already secured a playoff berth but Minnesota needs the division title to make it to the post-season.

Vikings 30, Packers 26

* OAKLAND +8 AT KANSAS CITY: Historically, Oakland has trouble on the road against Kansas City. The Raiders, though, have shown they can score through the air -- something the Chiefs have a hard time defending. In what should be a shootout, Kansas City should pull off a late score for the win. Chiefs 38, Raiders 35

* DENVER -4 AT TENNESSEE: Denver is in a tough fight for the last AFC playoff spot. Playing on the road against the Titans, then at home to the Colts, makes the Broncos' task difficult. Tennessee has been moving the ball well but can't stop anyone. If Denver doesn't play well on defence, the playoffs could be just out of reach. Broncos 27, Titans 24

* BALTIMORE +5 AT PITTSBURGH: The Steelers have won a few games in ugly fashion without wide receiver Plax Burress in the mix. He may return to the lineup this weekend and that bodes well for the Steelers' chances of locking up home-field advantage in the AFC. Steelers 23, Ravens 17

* CHICAGO +51/2 AT DETROIT: Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher is done for the season. Fantasy players with Lions running back Kevin Jones on their roster should take note. The rookie's hard-nosed running should open up the passing game for Joey Harrington, too. Lions 24, Bears 17

* SAN DIEGO +7 AT INDIANAPOLIS: The Chargers have played some great football this year but haven't faced a team as pass-happy as the Colts. Peyton Manning should be able to overtake Dan Marino as the single-season record holder for touchdown passes --maybe even by the end of the first half. Colts 35, Chargers 27

* HOUSTON +7 AT JACKSONVILLE: To keep possession of that second AFC wild-card spot for another week, Jacksonville needs a win over Houston. If the Jags play as well at home as they did on the road in Green Bay, they should be able to turf the Texans and officially eliminate Houston from the playoffs. Don|t think the visitors will go down without a fight, though. Jaguars 23, Texans 20

* CAROLINA +3 AT TAMPA BAY: Tampa Bay will try to play the role of spoiler while keeping alive its own slim hope of a playoff berth. The Bucs lost 21-14 to the Panthers in Week 12 and it's tough to sweep a season series in the NFL. Bucs 24, Panthers 20

* ATLANTA +3 AT NEW ORLEANS: With no chance of improving in the NFC playoff picture, Atlanta's Mike Vick gets a well-deserved break. So do the New Orleans Saints, who are suddenly making a move toward that last wild-card slot. Saints 21, Falcons 17

* NEW ENGLAND -2 AT N.Y. JETS: New England just doesn't lose two straight games -- not even on the road against a great New York Jets defence. Patriots 23, Jets 20

* WASHINGTON -2 AT DALLAS: Both offences are streaky but Washington's defence is among the elite. Redskins runner Clinton Portis is trying to be the first back to tally 1,500 rushing yards in each of his first three seasons. Redskins 31, Cowboys 20

* ARIZONA +7 AT SEATTLE: Seattle fans have been on a roller-coaster ride this season. Their expectations have gone from reaching the Super Bowl to making the playoffs to just staying above .500. Good news, though, the Seahawks just need a win to secure a post-season berth. Seahawks 28, Cardinals 20

* CLEVELAND +6 AT MIAMI: It took a while but Miami's offence is learning to cope without Ricky Williams in the backfield. Dolphins 26, Browns 12

* PHILADELPHIA +21/2 AT ST. LOUIS: After losing Terrell Owens, Eagles may rest QB Donovan McNabb and RB Brian Westbrook early. Philly has already locked up home-field advantage as the NFC's top seed, while St. Louis needs a win to keep division title hopes alive. Rams 27, Eagles 23

- - -

WEEK'S BEST BET

* BUFFALO -111/2 AT SAN FRANCISCO: RB Willis McGahee likely will sit. Former starter Travis Henry can't play and rookie Shaud Williams didn't look good while relieving McGahee against Cincy last week. Buffalo should win handily but may let up enough to allow San Francisco to make a few big plays. Bills 31, 49ers 20

- - -

UPSET OF THE WEEK

* N.Y. GIANTS +61/2 AT CINCINNATI: All early-season critics of Bengals QB Carson Palmer are eating their words and finding newsprint tough to digest. If Jon Kitna starts for the ailing Palmer this week, the spread may be too high. Cincinnati has to be wary of an upset now that New York rookie QB Eli Manning is starting to get into a groove. Giants 28, Bengals 27

- - -

CHECK THE RECORD

Last week: 9-7 straight up, 9-7 ATS; Season: 139-85 straight up, 108-105-7 ATS. Best Bet is 10-5 after Washington hammered the Niners. Upset of the Week is 7-8 after Detroit botched an extra point in the dying seconds against Minny. Best Bet and Upset picks are straight up.


Videos

Photos