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With AFC’s top seed at stake, Patriots motivated to punish Dolphins

With the top seed in the AFC playoffs at stake, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick will be on the offensive today. It’s doubtful he will need to sweat out a big decision in overtime or get defensive if second-guessed by the media.

The Patriots are heavily favored to clinch home-field advantage in the postseason with a road victory over the Miami Dolphins, who are stumbling to the finish line by losing five of their past six games.

“Ongoing injuries present a bit of a risk with the Patriots at this sort of heavy price on the road,” said The Gold Sheet handicapper Bruce Marshall, who is laying 10 points with the Patriots. “Nonetheless, there are a lot of reasons to like New England. Belichick needs a win to guarantee home-field edge in the AFC, so he is not going to rest starters and sub liberally as he did in the regular-season finale last year against Buffalo.”

This is typically a good situation to support the Patriots, who are off an overtime loss to the New York Jets. Before this season, Belichick had won and covered seven straight regular-season games after a straight-up loss. New England 1-1 against the spread after previous losses in 2015.

The Patriots pummeled the Dolphins in the past two series meetings, both in New England, by a combined score of 77-20.

“There is just as much ammunition in the anti-Miami argument,” Marshall said. “Most sources believe interim coach Dan Campbell, who’s 4-7 since taking over, is going to be a definite ‘Black Monday’ casualty. Miami has been mentioned as one of the possible destinations for coach Sean Payton, should he leave the Saints. There are distractions aplenty with the Dolphins.”

The Dolphins failed to cover their past six games, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill has led the offense to more than 20 points just once in the past nine games.

“Expect Tom Brady and the Patriots to take care of business,” Marshall said, “while Miami prepares for yet another housecleaning that will officially commence on Monday.”

Marshall (Goldsheet.com) analyzes the rest of the Week 17 schedule:

New York Jets (-3) at Buffalo: This is the last chance for Buffalo to salvage something from a season that has failed to live up to coach Rex Ryan’s bluster, though a win would get the Bills to .500 and give Ryan a satisfying sweep over his former employer while possibly denying the Jets a playoff berth. The Jets were in a midseason slump at the time of the first meeting, one of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick’s few 2015 meltdowns, but they have rallied with five wins in a row to control their wild-card destiny. This is a slight preference for the late-season consistency of the Jets.

Tampa Bay at Carolina (-10½): After flying close to the flame in recent games, Carolina finally was burned last week at Atlanta. While coach Ron Rivera likely welcomes the end of the distractions of the undefeated talk, it does create some urgency for the Panthers, who risk blowing home-field edge in the NFC playoffs with a loss. It’s doubtful that happens, especially with Tampa Bay’s efforts becoming inconsistent in recent weeks. Jameis Winston also doesn’t throw the long ball well enough to burn the Panthers over the top as have some recent Carolina foes. The Panthers have handled numbers all season at Charlotte and should do so again today.

Baltimore at Cincinnati (-9½): With former quarterbacks Stoney Case and Elvis Grbac apparently unavailable, the Ravens opted for Ryan Mallett to take snaps last week versus the Steelers. But that upset win merely confirmed a season-long resolve by coach John Harbaugh’s team that has mostly stayed competitive despite being decimated by injuries. It looks as if AJ McCarron will be available at quarterback for Cincinnati, but I’m not sure that fact should push this number up to near 10. Much like Baltimore’s series with Pittsburgh, there have been several close games in recent years versus the Bengals, and Marvin Lewis has only one win by more than seven points in the past 11 games against Harbaugh. The points are intriguing with the Ravens, especially with Mallett motivated to earn a contract somewhere for next season.

New Orleans at Atlanta (-6): This clash between old rivals is about as meaningful in the standings as were their expansion-era battles of the late 1960s. Expect no special effort by the Saints on the road with the Sean Payton rumors a possible distraction and Drew Brees (foot) less than 100 percent. Meanwhile, the New Orleans defense is about to allow the highest passer rating in NFL history, as opposing teams have thrown for 43 touchdowns and tossed just eight picks versus the Saints all season. That’s bad news with Atlanta’s Julio Jones (18 catches in the past two weeks) off his best two games since the first half of the season.

Jacksonville at Houston (-6½): The Texans have shuttled quarterbacks — winning games with four of them, including Browns and Cowboys castoff Brandon Weeden the past two weeks — as most teams do nickel backs. Now Houston’s QB-of-choice Brian Hoyer looks as if he will be back in the lineup. Jacksonville could have extra bounce in its step with word that coach Gus Bradley will return next season, so expect the Jaguars to play loose and be dangerous. Only in a wild scenario could the Texans blow the AFC South to the Colts with a loss, so you can make a case for the upstart Jaguars getting near a touchdown. Also note that with Blake Bortles winging the ball all over the field and now up to 35 touchdown passes, the pace of Jacksonville games is brisk. The Jaguars have been a solid “over” play all year (10-5). The total of 45½ is reachable.

Pittsburgh (-11) at Cleveland: Even against the lowly Browns, laying double digits on the road is cause for pause. Moreover, Ben Roethlisberger might not be 100 percent, and key receiver Martavis Bryant could be sidelined. But the mild spark Johnny Manziel provided the past few weeks for Cleveland could be absent, as he is not scheduled to play, so we’ll see if the Browns rally around Austin Davis. But in an absolute must-win situation and with Cleveland still deeply flawed and perhaps distracted with coach Mike Pettine likely to be fired Monday, I can make an exception and lay the points.

Oakland at Kansas City (-7): Winning streak or not, Kansas City has lost a bit of its edge in recent weeks. The Chiefs at least have a playoff bid secure, and any extra emotion to perhaps win the AFC West if Denver loses might be a bit artificial. The Raiders appear to be live ‘dogs in this spot, as Derek Carr is still whipping the ball around the yard, and Oakland still is playing hard. The Raiders were in position to beat the Chiefs in early December before Carr threw three interceptions. Despite failing to cover their past two at Arrowhead, the Raiders are 11-4-1 ATS in their past 16 at Kansas City, and this is a road-oriented series with the visiting team 23-9-1 ATS in the past 33.

Tennessee at Indianapolis (-3): This probably is well-liked coach Chuck Pagano’s final game with the Colts. Running back Frank Gore is due for a heavy workload for Indianapolis, which is down to Ryan Lindley and Josh Freeman at quarterback. This game remained off the board Saturday. When the line is posted, the Colts will be small favorites.

Washington at Dallas (-4): Why do the oddsmakers assume the Redskins are not going to try this week because they have the NFC East secure? Jay Gruden will not want this team to lose momentum, and Washington always has plenty of Dallas hate, plus revenge from the first meeting. The Redskins have ascended since that Dec. 7 loss, and injury-plagued Dallas has declined since, with the Cowboys’ Kellen Moore-led offense scoring 11 points per game the past two weeks. There is more chatter that coach Jason Garrett could be in trouble with owner Jerry Jones. The Cowboys’ only home win this season was a miraculous one in the season opener versus the Giants, so there looks to be some Washington value in the price, and perhaps a measured vote for this to stay under the total (39½).

Detroit at Chicago (-1): One month ago we wouldn’t have given Detroit coach Jim Caldwell much chance to survive. Now there appears to be a scenario that might grant Caldwell a reprieve, based mostly on the Lions’ late-season rally that has seen them win five of seven. Another win would get the Lions to 7-9 after a 1-7 start. The Bears also bring some momentum into the finale after last week’s win at Tampa Bay, so with the teams combining for 71 in overtime in their first meeting, over 45½ might be worth a look.

Philadelphia at New York Giants (-4½): After Chip Kelly’s midweek dismissal in Philadelphia, all eyes are on Tom Coughlin, who could be coaching his final game for the Giants. Since New York didn’t exactly dig deep for its embattled coach last week at Minnesota, it’s hard to make much of a case for the Giants, but the alternative doesn’t seem much better. The return of Odell Beckham Jr. from his one-game suspension should at least add a bit of excitement to the dreary overhang of this game, and with the recent collapse of the Philadelphia defense, look over the total of 51.

Minnesota at Green Bay (-3): The Packers’ 30-13 win in Minnesota on Nov. 22 was the only really good game they have played in the second half of the season. Green Bay has major problems, with an inconsistent and injury-decimated line not protecting Aaron Rodgers. The receiving corps is troubled, the run game remains uneven, and the defense is not good enough to compensate. The Packers are 4-5 straight up in their past nine games. There is always a first time an emerging contender such as the Vikings wins a showdown game. Right now Minnesota simply looks the better team, so this could be the week. Note the outstanding spread record of Minnesota under coach Mike Zimmer, who is 12-3 ATS this season and 17-4 in his past 21.

San Diego at Denver (-9): The Broncos will not risk losing their first-round bye and a chance to leapfrog the Patriots to get home edge in the AFC playoffs. Still, with the Chargers having covered five straight on the road, I’m not especially enamored laying this heavy price with Denver. Every possession has become tedious for the San Diego offense, which has had several bad games despite Philip Rivers’ impressive numbers. The Broncos held the Chargers to three points in the first meeting, and since Brock Osweiler has not been prone to errors, don’t expect any short fields or cheap scores for San Diego. I doubt this one hits the 40s, so I’ll make a case for the under (41½).

St. Louis (-3½) at San Francisco: More intrigue surrounds coaches Jeff Fisher and Jim Tomsula, both of whom are perhaps on their way out, though Fisher’s Rams have rallied and can close the season at 8-8 with a fourth straight win. Still, road favorite is not a role familiar to St. Louis. I can probably make a better case for this to stay under despite a low total (37½), as San Francisco home games exceeded 38 just once this season.

Seattle at Arizona (-6): Since the Carolina game starts at the same time, the Cardinals will have a chance at home field for the NFC playoffs at kickoff. The Seahawks will gun for a win and a chance at the fifth seed, which would give them a chance to face Washington in the wild-card round rather than travel to Green Bay or Minnesota. Even considering Arizona’s attributes, it is hard to overlook the Seahawks getting a touchdown.

— Compiled by Matt Youmans/Review-Journal

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