(Photo courtesy of the Detroit Lions)
SUNDAY’S HALL-OF-FAME GAME
Detroit @ Green Bay, 4:25 p.m. (EST)
The line: Packers by 7-1/2
The weather: Partly cloudy, high of 27
The line: Yes, the Lions are in the playoffs. Yes, they’re tied for first in the NFC North. Yes, they have the league’s second-ranked defense, Megatron and a top-tier quarterback. But, no, I don’t give them much of a chance here, and it’s not because center Dominic Raiola is home with Miss Manners. It’s because they’re in the wrong place – namely, Wisconsin. The Lions haven’t won there since 1991, and that’s so long ago that Buffalo not only was a playoff team; it was a Super Bowl team. Worse, according to the Spreadapedia database, the Lions dropped 24 straight road games where they were underdogs by seven or more points. Aaron Rodgers (5-0 vs. the Lions at home) hasn’t been all that sharp lately, and he’s bothered by a strained calf. But he’s going to play, and that’s trouble. Basically, it comes down to this: If he finishes the game, the Lions can start booking flights for the playoffs now. It will be Green Bay, not them, that stays home for the playoffs.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Rodgers has 394 straight passing attempts without an interception and with 34 touchdowns at home. Both are NFL records.
FOUR OTHERS SUITABLE FOR HALL-OF-FRAMING
San Diego @ Kansas City, 1 p.m. (EST)
The line: Chiefs by 1
The weather: Mostly sunny, high of 39
The story: If it’s December the Chargers must be making a late push for the playoffs … and they are. They probably don’t have Ryan Mathews. They definitely don’t have Keenan Allen. And they definitely don’t have a healthy quarterback. Still, 75 percent of Philip Rivers is better than most quarterbacks taking snaps, and as long as he’s standing the Bolts have a chance. Yeah, I know, Kansas City won in San Diego two months ago, and I know that five of the last seven games between these two were decided by three points each. But that doesn’t matter … not after Kansas City announced that starting quarterback Alex Smith is out with a lacerated spleen. That means Chase Daniel gets the call, and advantage: San Diego. With the Bolts this close to the finish line, that may be just what they need to make a last-day playoff run … vs. Chase Daniel … for the second straight year. You heard me. Daniel has one career start, and it was last year’s season finale vs. San Diego. The Chargers won in OT, and Daniel played … well, OK. Still, you have to like San Diego here. I know the Chargers don’t match up well with these guys, and Rivers will have a tough time shaking a pass rush that ranks sixth in sacks. But no Alex Smith? That puts the heat on a Kansas City defense that forces a league-worst 10 turnovers, and good luck with that.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: The Chiefs haven’t allowed an opposing quarterback to throw for 300 yards and surrendered only three rushing TDs all season. They’re also the only team not to give up 30 or more points. The most they’ve surrendered is 26 to Tennessee in the season opener.
New Orleans @ Tampa Bay, 1 p.m. (EST)
The line: Saints by 4
The weather: Partly cloudy, high of 81
The story: Yep, these are two bad teams going nowhere, but that’s the point. This is the Marcus Mariota Bowl, with the Bucs clinching the first draft pick by doing what comes naturally: Just lose, baby. The Saints stink, so it won’t be a cinch. But what’s another loss when it guarantees you a lifetime with Mariota? I’m not a big fan of tanking, except let’s be honest: The Bucs have no choice. They have franchise receivers in Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, and Josh McCown and Mike Glennon as their quarterbacks. This isn’t exactly rocket science, people. So, all together now: Ready … set … lose.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Drew Brees won his last six vs. Tampa Bay, with a 103.3 rating.
Carolina @ Atlanta, 4:25 p.m. (EST)
The line: Falcons by 3-1/2
The weather: It’s the Georgia Dome, people!
The story: The Falcons are favored because … well, because they’re home where they seldom lose. Except they do now. In fact, if you include London’s Wembley Stadium, Atlanta dropped four of its last five games there, with its only victory a surprising upset of Arizona. But oddsmakers give Matt Ryan the benefit of the doubt, mostly because he’s on fire (with four straight passer ratings of 102.3 or better) and because he won five of his last six vs. Carolina at home. Still, he better have Julio Jones in the lineup, and while he’s still bothered by a sore oblique, Jones is expected to play. That’s good. But this isn’t: The Falcons won’t have running Steven Jackson and face a Carolina team that not only has jumped to eighth in rushing (largely behind the resurgence of Jonathan Stewart) but played Atlanta tough here the past two years — winning by one and losing by two. Then there’s this: The Panthers won three of the last four between these two. If Carolina can control the ball and the clock, the South rises in Charlotte.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Carolina won 11 of its last 12 in December.
Cincinnati @ Pittsburgh, 8:30 p.m. (EST)
The line: Steelers by 3-1/2
The weather: Rain, high of 44
The story: The winner is home next weekend. The loser hits the road for the playoffs. Simple as that. The Steelers are hot, winning four of their last five – including a 42-21 defeat of Cincinnati where they scored 25 fourth-quarter points. The Bengals hold a half-game lead in the AFC North, but, more importantly, just conquered one of their demons by winning a prime-time game – against mighty Denver, no less. Next on the list: Winning a playoff game. They haven’t done that since 1991, but first things first. If they win here they play next weekend in a stadium where they’re 14-2-1 over their last 17 regular-season starts. Of course, Paul Brown Stadium wasn’t enough to help them in last year’s playoff loss to San Diego, but that’s another story. Like I said, first things first. And first they must slow down a Steelers’ offense that ranks second overall, a quarterback ranked in the top three, the AFC’s best back and the league’s leading pass receiver. And maybe, just maybe, they have to do it without a healthy A.J. Green. Anyway, if they succeed, they earn the right to stay home … and prove that they’re not who we think they are.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Ben Roethlisberger is 15-6 vs. Cincinnati but only 6-4 at home.
… AND ONE THAT’S NOT
Cleveland @ Baltimore, 1 p.m.
The line: Ravens by 13
The weather: Showers, high of 46
The story: The Ravens can still make the playoffs, and that’s their motivation. But Cleveland? The Browns can scramble for early tee times Monday. Period. The Browns don’t have Johnny Manziel, probably don’t have Brian Hoyer and just announced they’re going to start someone named Connor Shaw at quarterback. Add that to John Harbaugh’s 12-1 record vs. the Browns, and you have a beatdown waiting to happen. OK, so the Ravens couldn’t solve a fourth-string quarterback last week, but that had more to do with Joe Flacco than Case Keenum. Trust me, it’s not going to happen again. Plus, all you need to know about Cleveland’s situation is that, given the chance to pick up $53,000, this week for six days’ work, backup quarterback Rex Grossman chose his family. Can’t say that I blame him.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: The Ravens won 11 of their past 12 regular-season home finales.
UPSET OF THE WEEK
Clark Judge –Carolina (+3-1/2) over Atlanta. With its rushing game back, the Panthers regain their identity … and the NFC South.
Rick Gosselin – Tampa Bay (+4) over New Orleans. The Bucs haven’t shown up all season. They finally do in the finale with a win over New Orleans, and it costs them the first overall pick of the 2015 draft.
Ron Borges — San Diego (+1) over Kansas City. Phillip Rivers is Mr. December Lite (Tom Brady is Mr. December, after all), so giving him extra points, even three, is a mistake. He’s an underdog with bite. So is San Diego.
LOCK OF THE WEEK
Seattle over St. Louis (+12-1/2). The Seahawks allowed 33 points the last five games, and, somehow, I don’t see Shaun Hill as the guy who’s going to solve them. OK, so St. Louis beat them earlier this season. That seems like two years ago; not two months. Everything now is in the Seahawks’ corner. First of all, they can clinch homefield advantage throughout the playoffs with a victory. So there’s incentive. Second, there’s that loss. So there’s payback. Third, they’re hot, winning eight of their last nine. So there’s momentum. And, last, they’re home, where they won 23 of their last 25 starts. So there’s a huge advantage. My guess: St. Louis doesn’t find the end zone even with a sherpa.
TEN GUYS ON SUNDAY’S WALL OF FAME
1, Minnesota S Harrison Smith. He aims for his fourth straight game vs. Chicago with an interception.
2. New England QB Tom Brady. He’s 23-2 vs. Buffalo, with 58 touchdown passes (his most vs. any opponent).
3. N.Y. Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul. In his last four starts, he has seven sacks and two forced fumbles.
4. New Orleans TE Jimmy Graham. In his last two starts at Tampa, he has 17 catches for 303 yards and a touchdown.
5. Washington RB Alfred Morris. He has seven touchdowns in five games vs. Dallas.
6. Atlanta WR Roddy White. He aims for his sixth straight game vs. Carolina with a touchdown.
7. Denver QB Peyton Manning. He won his last eight vs. Oakland, with 23 touchdown passes, seven interceptions and a 112.7 passer rating.
8. Green Bay WR Jordy Nelson. He has 34 catches for 815 yards and 9 TDs at home this season and scores in all seven home contests.
9. Detroit WR Calvin Johnson. He has 36 catches for 550 yards and 5 TDs in his last four games at Lambeau.
10. Cincinnati QB Andy Dalton. In his last three starts vs. Pittsburgh he has five TDs, no interceptions and a rating of 95.0.
HALL OF NOTES-WORTHY
1. At least four teams (Arizona, Dallas, Detroit and Pittsburgh) that failed to make the playoffs last year will play in January this season. Since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, at least four teams that failed to make the playoffs one season qualified the next.
2. Giants rookie Odell Beckham Jr. has at least 90 yards receiving in eight straight games. If he reaches 90 again Sunday he joins Hall-of-Famer Michael Irvin as the only receivers in league history to have nine straight games with 90 or more yards in receptions.
3. Kansas City’s Justin Houston is two sacks away from tying Hall-of-Famer Derrick Thomas’ single-season franchise record of 20.
4. If Kelvin Benjamin catches a touchdown pass Sunday, he, Mike Evans (11) and Beckham (11) become the first trio of rookie wide receivers to have 10 or more TDs in their first years. Benjamin has nine scores.
5. Eli Manning has a 109.8 passer rating in his last five games.
6. DeMarco Murray needs 29 yards to surpass Emmitt Smith for the Cowboys’ most rushing yards in one season (1745).
7. Green Bay is 7-0 at home, outscoring opponents 288-143. The Packers are the first team in league history to score 23 or more first-half points in six consecutive home games.
8. Andrew Luck has the most passes of 20 or more yards with 71. Peyton Manning is second with 62.
9. Baltimore allows an NFL-best 14.1 points at home this season. Detroit is second at 15.6, while Buffalo is third with 16.0.
10. The Buffalo Bills have never won a game at Gillette Stadium.