With playoff spots open, expect dramatic ending

Rewind one year and remember how meaningless the last few weekends were in the NFL regular season. It’s all much different now, because there will be drama in this finish.

We won’t be experiencing any apathy today or in Week 17 as the AFC and NFC wild-card races are wide open.

The NFC is not that difficult to sort out. The Green Bay Packers (9-5) are in the driver’s seat, but they are forced to show up for the last two weeks after blowing last week’s game at Pittsburgh.

Fortunately for the Packers, they’re 14-point home favorites today over a Seattle team that seemingly has run for the bus.

The Packers close the season at Arizona, where the Cardinals might be resting players. Arizona and Green Bay have a realistic chance of meeting again the following week in the playoffs.

Dallas (9-5) and the New York Giants (8-6) likely are dueling for the final spot in the NFC.

The Giants looked great Monday at Washington, but take that with a grain of salt. New York is a 7-point favorite over a banged-up Carolina team today, and the Giants close at Minnesota, with the Vikings potentially resting key personnel.

The Cowboys have played well recently and are coming off an upset win at New Orleans. The bad news is we’re forced to watch the Redskins again tonight, when Tony Romo and the Cowboys roll into Washington as 7-point favorites.

It’s a big rivalry, so there’s a chance the Redskins will put up a fight, but it would help if they don’t try ill-conceived fake field goals.

The AFC playoff picture is crowded and confusing.

In Miami, a pair of 7-7 teams collide, with the Dolphins installed as 3-point favorites over the Houston Texans.

Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers are 3-point home favorites over Baltimore, which at 8-6 controls its destiny.

Jacksonville (7-7) holds the tiebreaker edge in many scenarios, but the Jaguars face a difficult task as 71/2-point underdogs at New England.

The New York Jets are 51/2-point underdogs at Indianapolis, and the Colts are giving every indication that they are interested in completing a 16-0 regular season.

Denver would be in if the season ended today, but the Broncos might be on the outside looking in when all is said and done. The Broncos are 7-point underdogs at Philadelphia, and they wrap up the season at home against Kansas City.

The fact so many games matter this late in the season is music to the ears of the multitude of fans intently following the games. The NFL’s power is reflected in terms of the wagering handle.

“Even if the games are meaningless, the bettors will still head to the windows,” Las Vegas Hilton sports book director Jay Kornegay said. “The holidays actually have a much deeper impact on how much is wagered as opposed to the quality or importance of the games. Things will hit full stride again in the final week of the season.”

This could be your final opportunity to get juicy Super Bowl futures. Teams such as Baltimore and Green Bay are higher than 25-1 odds, but those numbers might fall if they win today.

“That’s a fair statement,” Kornegay said. “But it’s also a matter of how teams look in the process. If they win in impressive fashion, the title odds will definitely decrease. If someone wins in ugly fashion, their odds could actually go up.”

One of the more entertaining games today might be Oakland at Cleveland. The Browns are 3-point favorites. Neither team is good, but both are playing hard and could put on a decent show. I’d rather see these teams play than suffer through another prime-time Redskins debacle.

Brian Blessing, project manager for Las Vegas Sports Consultants, can be reached at bblessing@lvsc.com. Listen to the LVSC oddsmakers on “Sportsbook Radio” at 3 p.m. weekdays on ESPN Radio (1100 AM) and Sirius 98.

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