The runners are starting to spread out in the NFL championship hurdle; a group of six or seven teams that appear to have this year's pedigree and legs, another five or six just off that pace. Maybe two or three who could turn things around with a second half surge; we've seen that before, think New York Giants in 2007 or Indianapolis Colts in 2006. That's almost half the league still in with a reasonable shout, which is less to do with overall quality and more to do with competitive balance, that is, the cream will rise to the top even if it isn't gold top cream.
The bottom half of the league is pretty much in a pick 'em state, apart from the handful of teams that are really bad: Cleveland, San Francisco, the Giants if they continue to quit, maybe Indy, and a bunch without quarterbacks of note (Houston and Arizona meet this week in a matchup of two of those).
That means there are some matches, in what I'd call the NFL's repechage (that's a term used primarily in rowing, where the losers in a round meet in a second-chance round to still possibly advance. Luckily, the NFL doesn't play double-elimination. Or for that matter, promotion and relegation.
Here's the thing. The Pats played at altitude last week in Denver, and moved to Colorado Springs for a week to stay at altitude. They should be prepared for the 7,000 feet high atmosphere at Estadio Azteca, and even if most of the 110,000 crowd are cheering for Los Raiders, I think they will be in a position to wear Oakland out. Unless Amari Cooper can do to Malcolm Butler what Emanuel Sanders did last week, the Pats should be worth more than a TD, or one point for each thousand feet about sea level.
I like the Vikes the straight up in this one, and I'd like this value even better if it were 3 or even 3.5, so it might be worth waiting to see if the line moves by Sunday, which I think it might. This is a pretty outstanding match-up, especially considering both these quarterbacks, Jared Goff and Case Keenum looked awful with the Rams last season under coach Jeff Fisher. They both play aggressive defense, but their could be points scored here anyway: I like the pair of Stefon Diggs and the pride of Mankato, Adam Thielen to get on the board for Keenum's Revenge.
Outside Bet: Detroit (-3 at evens) at Chicago
The Lions can move the ball consistently through the air, the Bears can't. The Bears can run, sometimes; the Lions usually can't run at all. This could be another of those excruciating games where Matt Stafford has to lead a late comeback in a game he should have put away earlier, which is why I say I like QBs who go into the fourth quarter with leads and win than those who are always trailing, but this is an eminently winnable game for the Lions and 3 doesn't seem too much for them to overcome.
Slightly more outside would be Philadelphia (-3.5 at 20/23) at Dallas: I've picked the Eagles straight up without knowing if Tyron Smith is playing. But I know Sean Lee isn't, which is huge for Dallas. I always wonder if the team rallies to owner Jerry Jones when Jerry's waging war on the league office. One thing for sure - coach Jason Garrett will be on the sidelines clapping.