Patriots an intriguing underdog

Apparently, it's business as usual for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. This is no time to sleep on the job, no time to close shop for the holidays and act as if nothing matters.

The NFL schedules 16 games for each team, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick typically tries to win them all even if he can afford to rest starters. He knows the value of keeping a team sharp going into the postseason.

New England, which has clinched the AFC East title, has incentive to win because it still can earn the No. 3 playoff seed.

Anything is possible, because game plans can change on the fly, but Brady is set to play four quarters when the Patriots visit the Houston Texans on Sunday. "Close game, blowout, if we get behind ... I'm expecting to play the whole game," the quarterback said Thursday.

Of course, Peyton Manning made the same statement last week and then was pulled in the third quarter, and we know how that turned out for the Indianapolis Colts. Manning's sour expression said it all.

The Texans (8-7) must beat New England and get help with losses from two of three teams -- Baltimore, Denver and the New York Jets -- to earn their first playoff trip in franchise history.

I'll take the Patriots as 8-point underdogs simply because Belichick plans to play his starters and it's rare when you can get more than a touchdown with New England.

How rare is it? The Patriots have not been underdogs of eight points or more since 2001, when it happened four times. New England covered three of those games and won two outright.

With the unpredictability of Week 17, the first Sunday in January will feel a lot like the last week in August. Several exhibition-type games are on the schedule, and I'll back the 'dogs in most of them.

In a desperation shot to reach .500, here are nine more plays (Home team in CAPS):

Colts (+8) over BILLS: With what happened last week, why would Manning take a snap in this one? The Colts should be competitive even with Curtis Painter at quarterback. Buffalo, held to three points last week, scored more than 17 points once in its past eight games.

Saints (+7) over PANTHERS: On the heels of two losses, New Orleans needs to play well, and quarterback Drew Brees said he plans to "go the distance and do whatever it takes to help us win." Carolina lost wideout Steve Smith to a broken left arm.

BROWNS (-1) over Jaguars: Jerome Harrison's running has shot some life into Cleveland, which has won three straight and covered six straight. Jacksonville has dropped three in a row, including an uninspired 35-7 loss at New England last week.

Eagles (+3) over COWBOYS: This game means a lot because the NFC East title is on the line. Dallas won 20-16 at Philadelphia on Nov. 8. In a revenge game, the Eagles and the points look good. Expect an array of big plays from Donovan McNabb and Tony Romo.

Giants (+9) over VIKINGS: Minnesota needs the win to earn a first-round playoff bye. The Giants might want to salvage some pride after absorbing a savage 41-9 beating from Carolina. Giants coach Tom Coughlin should get a good effort from his team.

Bengals (+10) over JETS: If the Jets win, they're in the playoffs -- thanks to a gift from the Colts. Don't expect Jets rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez to light up the scoreboard. Sanchez has not functioned well in cold weather. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said his team will play full speed.

Falcons (-21/2) over BUCCANEERS: Matt Ryan threw three touchdown passes last week for the Falcons, who are 8-7 and in position to post back-to-back winning records for the first time in the franchise's 44 seasons.

Chiefs (+121/2) over BRONCOS: Denver is 0-5 against the spread in its past five games as a double-digit home favorite, including a 20-19 loss to Oakland on Dec. 20. The Broncos will miss wideout Brandon Marshall.

CHARGERS (-4) over Redskins: Philip Rivers never loses in December, and San Diego wants to put this away early and extend its 10-game winning streak. The Chargers are the hottest team in the league, and they have no reason to shut it down now.

Last week: 2-3 against the spread

Season: 35-42-3

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports writer Matt Youmans can be reached at or 702-387-2907.