(Photo courtesy of the Arizona Cardinals)
SUNDAY’S HALL-OF-FAME GAME
Seattle @ Arizona, 8:30 p.m. (EST)
The line: Seahawks by 8
The story: This one’s for the NFC West, and first question: Is there anyone out there who feels good about Arizona’s chances? Correction: Is there anyone out there other than Bruce Arians who likes the Cards? Arians is the leading candidate for Coach of the Year, but there’s only so much a guy can do before he reaches the tipping point. And, people, we’re there. OK, so the game’s in Glendale where the Cardinals are a perfect 7-0. Plus, with a victory, Arizona clinches the NFC West AND home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. But here’s the catch: Arians must start third-stringer Ryan Lindley, work in fourth-stringer Logan Thomas, and try to get something, anything, from an offense that’s minus its top two quarterbacks and top running back and that has three offensive touchdowns the past four weeks. And he must try against a Seattle defense that’s allowed a grand total of 27 points … the last four games and held the Cards to three in Seattle. Arians is a magician, but he needs more than a magic wand here. Yeah, I know, the Cardinals have a terrific defense, too, but there’s a big difference: The Seahawks have Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch to aim at them. Arizona? Make it Lindley, Thomas and Kerwynn Williams. Check, please.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Arizona has allowed 20 or fewer points in an NFL-best 12 games this season. The Cardinals rank third in points allowed; Seattle ranks second.
FOUR OTHERS SUITABLE FOR HALL-OF-FRAMING
Atlanta @ New Orleans, 1 p.m. (EST)
The line: Saints by 6
The story: This one could be for the NFC South, though let’s be honest: It’s hard to trust anyone in this division. New Orleans is the favorite because … well, because the Saints are home where they don’t lose … only they do. They dropped their last four there. OK, so maybe they’re favored because they finally looked like themselves vs. Chicago this week … except the Bears don’t have a pulse and just benched their quarterback. When these two met in the season opener, Atlanta gained nearly 600 yards against a top-five defense from last year. That was our first warning that, to paraphrase Denny Green, THE SAINTS AREN’T WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE! But neither is Atlanta. The Falcons were supposed to be bullet-proof at home, too, but they lost four of their last five there (including the London game) — and one of those defeats was to … ahem … Chicago. So how you can’t trust the Falcons – especially if Julio Jones is hurting? Mike Smith has no choice. His job could depend not only on winning this game but winning the division.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Drew Brees is 7-1 at home vs. Atlanta, with a passer rating of 103.8.
Kansas City @ Pittsburgh, 1 p.m. (EST)
The line: Steelers by 3
The story: Yes, Pittsburgh controls its destiny and wins the AFC North if it wins its next two games. But that may not be as easy as it sounds. The Steelers play Kansas City now and Cincinnati a week from now, and both are tough outs. Still, Pittsburgh’s game plan Sunday is pretty simple: Keep Ben Roethlisberger on his feet. One problem: Kansas City has a ferocious pass rush, and the last time we saw bookends Tamba Hali and Justin Houston in action they turned Derek Carr into a piñata. Roethlisberger is a big target. He’s not a scrambler, though he is marvelous at extending plays, and he holds the ball longer than virtually almost anyone not named Kyle Orton. But he has an ally in AFC rushing leader Le’Veon Bell, and he keeps defenses honest by punching holes in them. Bottom line: If the Chiefs can’t get to Big Ben, they’re toast. They don’t score a lot as it is, and better hope for significant contributions from their defense to pull the upset.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Ben Roethlisberger is 3-0 at home vs. Kansas City.
Indianapolis @ Dallas, 4:25 p.m. (EST)
The line: Cowboys by 3
The story: The Colts have almost nothing to play for. The Cowboys do. With a victory, they’re one step closer to clinching their first division title since 2009. Easy, huh? Slow down. First of all, running back DeMarco Murray is hurt, breaking his left hand in last week’s defeat of Philadelphia. He’s expected to play, but expectations are low. Second, this isn’t Mark Sanchez the Cowboys face. It’s a quarterback who leads the league in TDs and yard passing and could gain MVP consideration for doing what he’s done with a club that leaks on defense, has no running game and struggles to protect the passer. With Andrew Luck, all things are possible. Third, the Cowboys are 3-4 at home and 7-0 on the road, while Indianapolis is 4-2 on the road. None of that sounds all that promising for Big D, but look at the odds. The experts expect Dallas to win. If Murray is handicapped – and it’s hard to imagine he won’t be – it’s up to Tony Romo to play as he did last weekend and to prove once and for all that this is a different team and that he is a different quarterback. Will he? Stay tuned. Remember: The Cowboys have been in this position before and gagged. Plus, Indy is on a four-game roll and is intent on building momentum for the playoffs.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Luck is tied for the league lead with 12 fumbles, losing six, and is third in interceptions with 12. The Colts have 29 penalties and 12 turnovers the past four weeks.
Denver @ Cincinnati, Monday Night, 8:30 p.m. (EST)
The line; Broncos by 3
The story: People in Denver insist there’s nothing wrong with Peyton Manning, but the eyes don’t lie. He doesn’t throw with velocity. He doesn’t throw as often. And those touchdown passes that once came so easily? Yep, they’re history. Nevertheless, there’s this idea that this is Denver, 1997, all over again, with C.J. Anderson to Peyton what Terrell Davis was to John Elway. Please. Davis is a Hall-of-Fame candidate. Anderson is a third-string back. Plus, Manning is the offensive coordinator, and tell me the last time he preferred running the ball to throwing it. I swear, there’s something not right with the guy, but nobody will cop to it. Cincinnati is an enigma that looks dreadful one week; marvelous the next. We know Denver is going to the playoffs, but we’re not sure about Cincinnati. So this is more about who the Bengals are than Denver and Manning, and I can tell you: they are a team desperate to win. They have a half-game lead in the AFC North and finish in Pittsburgh. Winning here could convince them … and others … that they’re playoff-worthy, and, Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, start your engines. If you want to beat Denver, and good luck. The Broncos have the league’s second-best run defense, meaning … meaning this one may be on Andy Dalton’s shoulders.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Manning hasn’t lost to Cincinnati in eight games (seven with Indianapolis; one with Denver). He completed 66.5 percent of his passes, with 20 TDs and five interceptions.
… AND ONE THAT’S NOT
Cleveland @ Carolina, 1 p.m. (EST)
The line: Panthers by 3-1/2
The story: The winner here is the scorekeeper. He can take most of Sunday off, and it won’t matter. Cleveland couldn’t find the end zone with Johnny Manziel, and the Browns hold opposing quarterbacks to the lowest passer rating (71.7) in the league. The Education of Johnny Football makes this somewhat interesting to people not in the 440 area code, with the emphasis on somewhat. The line is lower than expected, but that’s because of the Cleveland defense. It’s a lot better than its quarterback, and somebody must think it will produce points. Nevertheless, there’s only one club here that remains in the playoff picture, and it’s not Cleveland. Carolina has something to play for, and it’s called the NFC South.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: The Browns have 22 takeaways in their last nine games, the most of any NFL team. Cleveland and Detroit are the only teams to force an interception every game since Week 6.
UPSET OF THE WEEK
Rick Gosselin — Minnesota (+6-1/2) over Miami. The Vikings have figured it out. More importantly, Teddy Bridgewater has figured it out with consecutive 300-yard games. Rookie quarterbacks grow by leaps and bounds as the season wears on.
Clark Judge – Indianapolis (+3) over Dallas. The Cowboys can beat Mark Sanchez and Jay Cutler. They’re going to struggle with Andrew Luck.
Ron Borges – N.Y. Jets (+10-1/2) over New England. Rex Ryan’s last hurrah against the Patriots leads his defensive players to give him all they’ve got. It won’t be enough to win, but it will be enough to make Tom Brady miserable.
LOCK OF THE WEEK
Green Bay (-11-1/2) over Tampa Bay. The Packers are coming off an embarrassing loss where Aaron Rodgers looked more like Paul Rodgers – you know, as in Bad Company? Anyway, there was a lot of Bad Company with Green Bay a week ago where everyone on the Packers stunk, including normally reliable receiver Jordy Nelson. That won’t happen a second straight week, and it won’t happen against one of the league’s bottom feeders. The Packers are playing for a first-round bye; the Bucs are playing for Marcus Mariota. Put them together and you have another Tampa Bay loss.
FIVE GUYS ON THIS WEEK’S WALL OF FAME
1. Philadelphia WR Jeremy Maclin. He has four 100-yard games in his last five games vs. Washington, including a 154-yard effort earlier this year.
2. San Diego QB Philip Rivers. In two career games vs. San Francisco, he completed 75 percent of his passes, with five TDs, no interceptions and a 130.1 passer rating.
3. New England QB Tom Brady. In his last six games vs. the Jets he has 12 touchdown passes and one interception.
4. N.Y. Giants QB Eli Manning. He’s 3-0 vs. St. Louis, with nine TD passes, one interception and a 115.5 passer rating.
5. Arizona DE Calais Campbell. He has five sacks in his last two starts vs. Seattle.
HALL OF NOTES-WORTHY
1. Twenty-one teams still remain in contention for the playoffs. Only Denver, New England and Indianapolis have won their divisions.
2. With nine receptions Sunday, Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown can surpass Wes Welker and Herman Moore (123) for the second-most catches in a season. Marvin Harrison holds the single-season record at 143. Incidentally, Brown has at least eight catches in eight consecutive games, an NFL record.
3. Four rookies – Odell Beckham, Jr., Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin and Sammy Watkins – each are approaching 1,000-yard seasons. If three of them make it, they will have set an NFL record. In 1986, two rookies – Ernest Givins and Billy Brooks – each caught over 1,000 yards in passes.
4. The St. Louis Rams have not allowed a TD in three consecutive games
5. In his last eight games vs. the AFC, Tony Romo has 17 touchdown passes, two interceptions and a 112.3 passer rating. Furthermore, he has the best passer rating (118.3) over the past four games, with Drew Brees (115.9) second.
6. Baltimore’s Elvis Dumervil (17) and Terrell Suggs (11) have combined for the most sacks of any pass-rushing duo in the NFL.
7. The Ravens have the biggest sack differential (+29) in the league. They’ve allowed only 16 this year while producing 45, the third most in the NFL.
8. Atlanta’s Steven Jackson has seven touchdowns in eight games vs. New Orleans.
9. Dallas is 4-1 in games decided by seven or fewer points and 3-1 in games decided by three or fewer.
10. Denver’s Connor Barth has five field goals in two of his previous three games and has made 11 straight since joining the team. With one more, he will set a franchise record for most consecutive field goals without a miss to start a Denver career.