A WIN AND a prayer. That's what the National Football League season has come down to for several teams.
This is the week of the proverbial "must" game. Teams must win to make the playoffs or to lock up a home-field advantage.
For some, the task is quite simple. The Steelers and the Raiders merely need to win their Sunday games to clinch their division titles. The Cowboys just need a victory over the Falcons to become the final NFC wild card.
The Dolphins need to win to assure home-field advantage in the AFC wild-card game. The Eagles must do the same in the NFC.
From there, it gets more complicated.
The Chiefs need to win Saturday and then have the Raiders lose Sunday to make the Chiefs the AFC West winner. The Saints need to win Monday night to become the third NFC wild card, but only if the Cowboys lose Sunday.
Then there is the AFC Central tangle in which the Steelers, Oilers and Bengals all have divisional and wild-card chances.
The logical thing for the bettor is to go with the teams that need to win. The problem arises in situations like the Raiders'. If the Chiefs lose Saturday, the Raiders no longer face a "must" game. They win the division even if they lose the game.
And remember that teams in big games tend to be conservative. They want to avoid the big mistake, so they might pass up the big play. They play to not lose, rather than to win. When that happens, they can keep a weaker opponent in the game. So you must at least consider taking the points in some of the "must" games.
Last week, I was 9-5 (104-101-2 overall), and my best bets were 2-0 (18-14-2 overall).
CINCINNATI over Cleveland ( 15) -- This probably isn't even fair. The point spread should be for the first quarter, the way the Browns have been playing. The Bengals need this one to keep their playoff hopes alive. Bengals coach Sam Wyche is not the type to show mercy.
Kansas City over CHICAGO ( 1) -- The Chiefs need to win this Saturday game and wait for the outcome of the Raiders' game to find out if they win their division or hit the road as a wild card. The Bears don't need this one at all. They face the pleasant prospect of playing either the Cowboys or Saints in the opening round of the playoffs.
Best of the Rest
Pittsburgh over HOUSTON ( 1 1/2 ) -- The Oilers are not serious contenders without Warren Moon. The Steelers can make things easy for themselves by winning. Remember, I predicted a Bills-Steelers AFC championship match several weeks ago.
Giants over NEW ENGLAND ( 13 1/2 ) -- The Giants need a solid game to convince everybody they are ready for the playoffs. The Patriots will be looking for the nearest bus.
San Francisco over MINNESOTA ( 3) -- No team, not even the 49ers, can afford to go into the playoffs with two losses in a row. The point spread jumped on news that Joe Montana would return after taking a week off. You have to go with the defending champs. This game has no meaning to the Vikings.
SEATTLE over Detroit ( 3) -- The Seahawks can clinch a wild-card spot by winning if the Oilers or Bengals lose. We know the Bengals won't lose, but I expect the Oilers to. The Seahawks will know if they have a chance by kickoff. I'm assuming they will still be alive; otherwise this pick could die.
Rest of the bets
Buffalo ( 5) over WASHINGTON -- The Bills will rest some key players and are sure to have a letdown after their big win last week. But Frank Reich needs to play to get as much experience as possible, and the Bills have to protect him. Some second-liners getting a chance to play will not merely go through the motions. Best of all, this point spread is too big. The 49ers won their Super Bowls by building momentum toward the end of the season, winning after they didn't have to. The Bills are this year's 49ers.
San Diego ( 9) over RAIDERS -- The Chargers played the Chiefs nearly even last week before losing by a field goal. Whether the Raiders need to win this game or not, expect the Chargers to put up a fight.
PHOENIX ( 7 1/2 ) over Philadelphia -- The Cardinals, unlike several other teams, are still playing hard even though they are going nowhere. The Eagles can clinch home field for the wild-card game with a victory. They probably will win, but they won't cover this spread.
MIAMI over Indianapolis ( 7) -- The Dolphins have to get back on track after their pasting by the Bills. The Colts are last in the AFC on offense and next-to-last on defense. They should go quietly.
ATLANTA over Dallas ( 2 1/2 ) -- By now, we know that the Cowboys need to win to clinch a wild-card spot. But they will have trouble beating anybody without quarterback Troy Aikman.
NEW ORLEANS over Rams ( 6) -- The Rams looked like they were through for the season the way they played in their loss to the Falcons. What has happened to Jim Everett? The Saints will clinch a wild-card spot with a victory if the Cowboys lose.
Jets ( 3 1/2 ) over TAMPA BAY -- Here are two teams that will fight each other in the run for the bus. Might as well take the points in a meaningless game.
Green Bay ( 7 1/2 ) over DENVER -- For old times' sake, I'll go with the Packers because the Broncos are coming off four divisional games in a row. (You remember The System, don't you?)