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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, December 15, 2012 at 8:30 PM

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise when it comes to the NFL and the league's playoff rules: Tiebreakers very much matter and case in point is should the New England Patriots - now sitting there at 10-3 while entering the much-ballyhooed Sunday Night Game against the San Francisco 49ers - finish tied with the Houston Texans (11-2 while entering Sunday's game against Indianapolis) for the best overall record in the AFC, it would be the Pats (of course) who would get the home-field advantage throughout the upcoming AFC Playoffs thanks to last Monday Night's 42-14 wrecking-ball win over the Texans.

You don't think that would make a major difference in the two teams' mindsets?

On one hand you could have a potential AFC Championship Game in potentially snowy/chilly Foxboro ... or else a climate-controlled game at Reliant Stadium in Houston? Whoa, boy!

The same goes, of course, throughout the NFC where the Niners are keeping fingers crossed that their tie and loss this year against NFC West rival St. Louis doesn't cost them something big - like a first-weekend playoff bye!

The up-to-the-moment NFL standings reveals that heading into Week 15 action on this third Sunday in December, right now San Francisco would land the NFC's #2 playoff seed behind Atlanta but so many things can change in these final three weeks of regular-season play and it's not outside the real of possibility that the 49ers - who are at Seattle next weekend and then wrap things up with a Week 17 home game against weakling Arizona - could either hurdle their way into that numero uno seed in the conference or else could hobble back and possibly not even capture the NFC West.

Keep in mind that Seattle (8-5) plays Buffalo in Toronto this weekend, than hosts the 49ers and than plays at home against St. Louis in the regular-season finale and so you conceivably could have an 11-5 Seahawks team beating out San Fran for divisional honors - so this prime-timer between the Niners and Patriots is mucho meaningful even if it's a non-conference affair.

We'll get to the NFL Week 15 Sunday Night Preview in just a moment but first here's a quick-hitter look at the hottest spread sides right this minute in the league where they play for pay:

  • The Cincinnati Bengals - fresh off their resounding 34-13 win at 4 ½-point underdog Philadelphia on Thursday Night Football - have notched spread wins in five of their last six games
  • The Cleveland Browns are a hearty 3-0-1 ATS (against the spread) the past four weeks while heading into their Week 15 home game against Washington
  • The Denver Broncos - at Baltimore this weekend -- are 5-2 versus the vig ever since their Week 7
  • The Green Bay Packers have covered six of their last eight games dating back to mid-October while heading into Chicago in Week 15 action
  • The Indianapolis Colts are a nifty 6-1-1 vig-wise these past eight weeks and now are gobbling up a TD-plus price in Houston on Sunday
  • The St. Louis Rams - who host Minnesota this weekend -- have covered four of their last five games since their early November bye
  • The aforementioned Seattle Seahawks are 7-2 ATS since early October and now are laying points in not-so-neutral Toronto against the Buffalo Bills
  • And the streaking Washington Redskins have reeled off four consecutive pointspread "W's" since their well-timed Week 10 bye and now the 'Skins head into Cleveland for Week 15 fun-n-games.

Now, here's the NFL Week 15 Sunday Night Game Preview ...
SAN FRANCISCO (9-3-1) at NEW ENGLAND (10-3) - 8:25 p.m. ET, NBC
It's the Super Bowl matchup that nearly was last year until the 49ers lost 20-17 in overtime against the New York Giants in the NFC Championship and so now the NFC West leaders get their shot at making a big-time/prime-time splash and the $64,000 question is will this prove to be too large a stage for second-year San Fran QB Colin Kaepernick?

The read-option signal-caller - who put last week's 27-13 win/cover against 11-point underdog Miami on ice with his 50-yard TD run with just over two minutes remaining in the game - must stay step-for-step with the NFL's top-ranked offense and one that's scored 40-plus points in three of its last four outings this year.

Chuck into the mix the fact that the Patriots have won 14 consecutive December games and the latest December win - that 42-14 blowout of Houston last Monday Night - featured four scoring strikes by QB Tom Brady who's a California guy who would like nothing better than to silence a yappy Niners defense here.

Brady - who threw for 296 yards in that win against Houston earlier in the week - sports a 29-to-4 TD-to-INT ratio this season but remember he won't have favorite target TE Rob Gronkowski here (broken arm) and there appeared to be times in that aforementioned MNF game when TE Aaron Hernandez (8 catches for 58 yards and two scores against Houston) simply couldn't shake free from tacklers and make that explosive, up-the-field play.

One likely strategy for the Niners: Get TE Vernon Davis involved early/often as the Pro Bowler has just three catches for 19 yards in all the past three weeks and remember he also had a prime-time game against Seattle this year when he didn't catch a single ball. If Davis is able to flip the field with a big-play reception here, it could prove to be a real morale boost to a Niners offense that has scored 30-plus points in three road games this year (although lots of points were scored by the defense in that recent road win in New Orleans).

Spread Notes - New England is 8-4-1 against the Las Vegas prices this year and the Patriots will enter this game having failed to cover seven of their last nine tilts against NFC competition. On the flip side, San Francisco's 8-5 ATS overall this year and the 49ers own a 20-10-1 ATS log in the brief Jim Harbaugh Era and that includes a nifty 5-1-1 spread log whenever placed in the underdog role. The Niners' only dog appearance this season: A season-opening 30-22 win at 6-point fav Green Bay.


Let's go back the past five or six years to discover the best bets at Bowl Time. Here goes ...

     Alabama has covered four of its last five bowl tilts
     Boise State is 5-1 ATS in its last half-dozen bowl games
     BYU's covered its last three consecutive bowl outings
     Florida is 5-1 ATS in its last six bowls
     Florida State - believe it or not -- has covered its last eight consecutive bowl games the past eight years
     N.C. State has covered all three of its bowl games the past four years
     Rutgers has covered five of its last six bowls dating back to 2005
     Stanford's covered its last three bowls game in a row the past three years
     And, finally, USC has covered all four of its bowl tilts since 2006.

NOTE: Get all the Bowl Previews right here in Jim Sez!

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