(Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Colts)
THIS WEEK’S HALL-OF-FAME GAME
New England @ Indianapolis, 8:30 p.m. (EST)
The line: Colts by 3
The story: It’s Brady-Luck III, and tell me the last time you remember the Patriots as an underdog anywhere. Yeah, OK, so it was last year’s conference championship game. But that was Peyton Manning. This is Andrew Luck, and though he’s one of the game’s best and brightest young stars, he’s not Peyton Manning … or Tom Brady. Not yet, he’s not. Plus, he’s thrown seven interceptions in his previous two starts — both losses — vs. the Patriots. So why is Indianapolis favored? Look where this game is played. Luck beat Manning here a year ago, and the Colts won seven of their last eight (including the playoffs) there. Then there’s this: The last time New England beat a team on the road that ended up in the playoffs was 2011. Since then, the Pats lost five straight away from home vs. teams that went to the postseason … and make no mistake: That’s where Indianapolis is pointed.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: New England not only averages 40 points over its last five starts; it scored in the last two minutes of the first half in eight of its nine starts.
THREE OTHERS SUITABLE FOR HALL-OF-FRAMING
Seattle @ Kansas City, 1 p.m. (EST)
The line: Chiefs by 2
The story: This is one of the weekend’s most intriguing games, mostly because we’re going to find out a lot about both these teams. People tell me Seattle isn’t the same, but the Seahawks won their last three and are beginning to generate momentum. Still, they’re on the road, and where do they struggle? Uh-huh, places like Arrowhead. Plus, Kansas City is white hot. The Chiefs won six of their last seven, Alex Smith is doing what he does best (playing error-free football) and their defense is coming together. But if you’re looking for a key, try Marshawn Lynch. First of all, he’s listed as questionable, even though he practiced Friday. Second, Seattle has the league’s best rushing attack; Kansas City ranks 20th vs. the run. The heat is on Kansas City’s front seven to do here what the Giants could not a week ago.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: The Chiefs have not given up a rushing touchdown or allowed a 300-yard passer this season and allowed an average of 12.4 points per game over their last four starts.
Philadelphia @ Green Bay, 4:25 p.m. (EST)
The line: Packers by 6
The story: Normally, it might be the weather. The temperature is expected to be in the 20s. But it’s not the cold of Green Bay that’s the story; it’s the heat of Aaron Rodgers. The league’s leading passer, Rodgers shredded Chicago last week for six touchdown passes … in the first half. Moreover, he has 25 TD passes and only three interceptions and will be a load for the league’s 22nd-ranked pass defense to resist. So what’s Philadelphia’s hope? LeSean McCoy. The Packers rank 30th vs. the run, which means the Eagles’ best defense is its run offense — killing the clock, extending drives and keeping Rodgers off the field. Let’s face it, Philadelphia must prevent this from becoming a shootout between Rodgers and Sanchez because only one comes armed with live ammo, and the envelope, please: In his last eight starts at home with 10 or more passes, Rodgers has 26 TDs, 0 interceptions and a passer rating of 135.1. Oh, yeah, he won all of them, too.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: The Packers will wear recreations of their 1929 uniforms, the year they won their first world title. Green Bay has worn the uniform three times, winning all three games by a combined score of 89-32.
Detroit @ Arizona, 4:25 p.m. (EST)
The line: Cardinals by 1
The story: Welcome to the Drew Stanton Era. The Cards’ backup quarterback takes over for Carson Palmer and is under orders to do what he was doing last time Palmer was sidelined — namely, not make mistakes. Stanton can win games with his arm, as he proved last weekend, but his strength is in avoiding turnovers and relying on a defense that plays its best in the fourth quarter. And he can win them here. The Cards are 9-1 over their last 10 home starts and 15-3 over their last 18 anywhere. One problem for Stanton, and it’s not Ndamukong Suh. It’s the entire Lions’ defense. Nobody in the NFL is better. Look for field goals to determine the winner here, with Detroit at a distinct disadvantage in that department.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Do not underestimate the power of a home-field advantage. Since 2005, there have been 121 accepted false-start penalties by opponents at University of Phoenix Stadium — the highest total for NFL teams anywhere during that time.
… AND ONE THAT’S NOT
Atlanta @ Carolina, 1 p.m. (EST)
The line: Falcons by 1
The story: OK, so the Falcons stink, and Mike Smith is on the hot seat. But this just in: They’re a game out of first in the AFC South. We don’t make ’em up, folks. Atlanta proved it can win away from home when it knocked off Tampa Bay last weekend, but that’s Tampa Bay. This opponent is better, though not much — especially with Cam Newton in a funk. The question now is: Hurt or not hurt? Newton says he is, but it won’t matter if the Panthers lose again. Their playoff hopes will be crippled … at least, they should be. Oh, wait a minute, it’s the NFC South where anything’s possible. Ask Mike Smith.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: In his last seven games vs. Carolina, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan has a passer rating of 100, with 15 TDs and 6 interceptions. When Ryan starts and produces a rating of 100 or better, the Falcons are 36-3.
UPSET OF THE WEEK
Clark Judge — New England (+3) over Indianapolis. I know about the Patriots’ record vs. playoff teams on the road. I also know about Andrew Luck’s history against them. I’ll make this simple: This is when New England accelerates toward the finish line. Never bet against Brady in November or December.
Rick Gosselin — New York Giants (+4) over San Francisco. The Giants have been embarrassed by the Colts and Seahawks since the bye. This is a franchise that doesn’t stay down for long.
Ron Borges — Seattle (+2) over Kansas City. Yes, the Chiefs won six of their last seven and are playing at Arrowhead, but if I can get the defending Super Bowl champions AND points, I’m taking the Seahawks.
LOCK OF THE WEEK
New Orleans (-7) over Cincinnati. First of all, the Saints are home where they rarely lose. Second, Andy Dalton and the Bengals are in a funk. And, third, New Orleans DID lose at home last week, making it almost certain it doesn’t happen again. Reason: They’ve lost two straight at home just twice since 2008. Yeah, I know, the Saints’ defense ain’t what it used to be. But have you seen Dalton lately?
FIVE GUYS WHO COULD MAKE SUNDAY’S WALL OF FAME
1. Atlanta WR Julio Jones. In two games at Carolina, he has eight catches for 173 yards and three TDs.
2. Chicago QB Jay Cutler. He’s won six of his last seven stars vs. Minnesota.
3. New Orleans QB Drew Brees. He’s 11-1 in his last 12 at home and threw for 510 yards in his last appearance vs. Cincinnati in the Superdome.
4. N.Y. Giants QB Eli Manning. He’s won five of six career starts vs. San Francisco, including the playoffs.
5. Green Bay WR Jordy Nelson. In his last five starts at Lambeau (including the playoffs) he has 27 catches for 569 yards and six TDs. Nelson has five touchdown catches of 40 or more yards this year. No other receiver in the league has more than three.
HALL OF NOTES-WORTHY
1. Since the current playoff format was established in 1990, 20 teams under .500 through nine games have made the playoffs — including Philadelphia and San Diego last year.
2. Sunday marks the first time in NFL history that four games include teams with records of .667 or better this late in the season.
3. With another 100-yard game Sunday, Denver’s DeMaryius Thomas can tie Charley Hennigan and Michael Irvin for the second-longest streak of consecutive 100-yard games (7) in league history to score 100 or more points in 17 seasons.
4. Chicago’s Brandon Marshall has 10 touchdown catches in his last 11 home games.
5. The Cardinals have held opponents to 20 or fewer points in their last five games and in eight of nine starts this season.
6. The Colts are 11-3 following byes since 2000 and 2-0 with Andrew Luck.
7. Indianapolis leads the NFL with 52 plays of 20 or more yards, with 10 of them resulting in touchdowns.
8. The New York Giants have gone 20 straight games without scoring an opening-possession touchdown.
9. In his last seven games, the Chiefs’ Alex Smith completed 69.2 percent of his passes for 10 TDs, one interception and a 104.2 passer rating. Smith’s teams are 21-1-1 when he starts and has a rating of 100 or better.
10. Pittsburgh rookie Martavis Bryant has six TD catches this season, the most ever by an NFL rookie in his first four games.