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Playoff hopefuls’ stakes high

Quietly, the Arizona Cardinals are in the playoff chase, and surprisingly, quarterback Carson Palmer is silencing some of his critics.

A look at the NFL’s playoff picture shows some new teams knee deep in the hunt. The Cardinals (7-4) are going virtually unnoticed despite a four-game win streak.

Those wins came at the expense of four struggling foes — Atlanta, Houston, Jacksonville and an Indianapolis team searching for an identity after the loss of veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne.

The Cardinals are 3-point underdogs today at Philadelphia, which has named Nick Foles its starting quarterback for the remainder of the season. The Eagles (6-5) are riding a three-game win streak and battling Dallas for the NFC East lead.

Brian Blessing, a handicapper and radio host for DonBest.com, sees Arizona and Philadelphia as teams with playoff aspirations, but with the stakes raised down the stretch, each could be facing an uphill climb.

“The Eagles are winning, but just like the Cardinals, who have they been facing?” Blessing said. “Philadelphia defeated Oakland, Green Bay without Aaron Rodgers and a bad Washington team.”

The Cardinals-Eagles loser could be backed against the wall in the playoff push, with the head-to-head result a possible tiebreaker.

Foles has been solid, passing for 16 touchdowns with no interceptions while taking the job from Michael Vick. Palmer has been protecting the ball, too, compiling eight touchdown passes and two interceptions in the past four games. By no small coincidence, the Cardinals are winning.

“Current form makes this a difficult spot to play the side,” said Blessing, who recommends betting under the total of 48½.

“The Cardinals have the better defense, but they are traveling east for an early game, and we know how that usually winds up. In addition, the Eagles are coming off a bye. It’s a big game for these teams, and it could be played pretty close to the vest.”

Blessing breaks down the rest of today’s Week 13 lineup:

■ Tennessee at Indianapolis (-3½): The Colts are coming off a 40-11 pasting at the hands of Arizona, and quarterback Andrew Luck is lucky he’s still in one piece. Give the Titans credit for their win at Oakland, but I’m not in the business of backing Ryan Fitzpatrick. For every good thing he does, three calamities are on the horizon. Following its prior three losses, Indianapolis bounced back with winning efforts against San Francisco, Denver and these same Titans. Lay the points with the Colts.

■ Denver (-5½) at Kansas City: This first-place showdown in the AFC West features teams coming off close losses. The Chiefs can’t afford to get in a shootout with Peyton Manning. Despite being banged up on defense, look for Kansas City and its raucous crowd to make things difficult for the Broncos. The value could be on the home ’dog, but the safer play looks like under 49.

■ Jacksonville at Cleveland (-7): Amazingly, the Jaguars have won two of their past three. That’s reason for a ticker-tape parade in Jacksonville. But they will not fare well against the Cleveland defense, and if the Browns don’t turn the ball over and gift wrap points for the visitors, the favorite should cover. Also, look under the total of 40½. The past 28 games played in Cleveland in December went 21-5-2 to the under.

■ Tampa Bay at Carolina (-7½): The Panthers are on a roll, winning seven in a row, but they are catching the Buccaneers at the wrong time. Tampa Bay has played inspired football while winning three straight. This is a big number to ask Carolina to cover with its trip to New Orleans on deck. The Panthers had better stay focused on Tampa Bay. Take the points.

■ Chicago at Minnesota (-1): Josh McCown has seven touchdown passes and one interception in place of Jay Cutler. The Bears’ defense remains a high-risk, high-reward unit that can create a few short fields for the offense while getting shredded at the same time. Indoors on a fast track, this game should feature plenty of points. Play over the total of 50.

■ Miami at New York Jets (-2): The Geno Smith era in New York is not pretty. The rookie quarterback is struggling. This game will be ugly, and points will be at a premium. It’s not a question of which quarterback will blink first but which blinks more often. A slight advantage goes to Ryan Tannehill, even on the road, so I’ll side with the Dolphins.

■ Atlanta vs. Buffalo (-3½) at Toronto: The Bills are off a bye, and, at long last, they might be a relatively healthy team. Look for running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson to move the football. The question is, can they punch it into the end zone with regularity? The Falcons have run for the bus, but the hook makes it tough to lay the points. Buffalo’s defense is aggressive, and the atmosphere in Toronto for these games makes a funeral seem like a picnic. Look under the total of 47.

■ St. Louis at San Francisco (-7½): The Rams hang tough within the NFC West and play their division foes with an air of confidence. The 49ers earned a Monday night win in Washington, which shortens their week of preparation. San Francisco needs to be prepared and not thinking about Seattle’s pending visit next week. Take the points with St. Louis.

■ New England (-7) at Houston: A letdown after the Patriots’ wild comeback to beat Denver could be part of the equation here. New England is on cruise control and headed for another AFC East title. But if the Patriots are lacking focus, it could show up on the defensive side of the ball. Tom Brady will have some fun, but also look for Texans quarterback Case Keenum to have success in this spot. Play this over 47.

■ Cincinnati at San Diego (-1): The Chargers are off a dramatic win at Kansas City, and this game means more to them. San Diego is in a logjam for the final wild-card spot in the AFC. Philip Rivers passed for 392 yards and three touchdowns in the upset of the Chiefs to snap a three-game losing streak. The Bengals are off a bye, which is a big edge at this time of the year. Plenty of money has been bet on the over (48½), but I’d look to go the other way. The Chargers’ 41-point outburst last week was a misnomer, and Cincinnati’s win against Cleveland two weeks ago featured defensive and special-teams touchdowns with the Bengals’ offense generating only 224 yards. Play this under the total.

■ New York Giants (-1) at Washington: Both teams are coming off losses, but at least the Giants showed up with an effort against the Cowboys. It’s tough to back either team with any confidence. Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is running for his life, and Eli Manning’s production has taken a massive nosedive this season for the Giants. I lean to a lower-scoring game that goes under 45½.


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