(Photo courtesy of Jim Biever/Green Bay Packers)
THIS WEEK’S HALL-OF-FAME GAME
New England @ Green Bay, 4:25 p.m. (EST)
The line: Packers by 3
The story: Make this the preview for Super Bowl XLIX. The Packers are the best team in the NFC. The Patriots are the best team in football. Both are hot. The Patriots won their last seven. The Packers are unbeaten at home. Better yet, Aaron Rodgers hasn’t thrown an interception at Lambeau in his last 322 regular-season attempts. Moreover, he’s thrown 29 touchdown passes without an interception in his last nine home starts, all of which the Packers won. Oddsmakers make Green Bay the favorite because … well, because of the home-field advantage and because, until two weeks ago, you had to go back to 2011 to find a New England road win vs. an opponent that reached the playoffs. This is about more than Brady-Rodgers I and who’s the better quarterback. This is about playoff positioning, with both clubs maneuvering for a home-field advantage that could be crucial to their Super Bowl chances.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Both the Patriots (6-0) and Packers (7-0) are undefeated this season when scoring 30 or more points.
THREE OTHERS SUITABLE FOR HALL-OF-FRAMING
San Diego @ Baltimore, 1 p.m. (EST)
The line: Ravens by 6
The story: Yes, the rest of the schedule is full of potholes for San Diego, but never, ever, ever underestimate the Bolts. They’ve been here before, and they responded. In fact, there’s almost no one better down the stretch than quarterback Philip Rivers, who’s 30-6 in December, with 66 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. One problem: This isn’t December. San Diego has been unimpressive in its last three starts, two of which it won. Its offense is out of synch, and its defense was rescued last week by a last-minute Marcus Gilchrist interception. Baltimore, meanwhile, has momentum and a monstrous advantage at home. The Ravens almost never lose here, going 12-1 in November under John Harbaugh, and it’s hard to imagine them losing here. This one’s not about Rivers vs. Joe Flacco, and whom you trust more. Nope, it’s Justin Forsett vs. Ryan Matthews, and give the edge — and a decided one — to Forsett.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: The Ravens have held four opponents at home to 10 or fewer points this season.
Cleveland @ Buffalo, 1 p.m. (EST)
The line: Bills by 3
The story: Talk about mirror images. The Browns win with defense. So does Buffalo. The Browns start a recycled quarterback. So does Buffalo. The Browns keep a first-round quarterback nailed to the bench. So does Buffalo. I think you get the idea. Cleveland’s one of the year’s best stories, and the Bills are one of the best this week – burying the Jets in Detroit after snow forced them to evacuate Buffalo. But now they’re back home where they haven’t played all that well since the second game of the season to face a team that won three of its last four on the road. The Browns are a tough out, and former Buffalo defensive coordinator Mike Pettine – now Cleveland’s head coach – knows how and where to attack this Bills’ offense. Brian Hoyer won’t make as many plays as Kyle Orton, but he won’t make as many mistakes, either. But who cares? That’s not the Main Event. Donte Whitner vs. Fred Jackson is. Or is that Donte Whitner vs. all those Buffalo fans he offended last summer? It doesn’t matter. There is drama here, and much of it will center around the former-Bills-safety-turned-Twitter triggerman.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: The Bills lead the league with 46 sacks and are the only team with two players with 10 each.
Denver @ Kansas City, 8:30 p.m. (EST)
The line: Broncos by 2
The story: Poor Kansas City. The Chiefs were hot, hot, hot and ready for the takedown of Denver here, with first place in the AFC West at stake. Then along came winless Oakland and … poof ! … say goodbye to the penthouse suite. Now the Chiefs are hoping to recover against an opponent that hammered them last month and vs. a coach who’s beaten them eight of nine times – and they’re trying to do it with defense, few mistakes and a lot of Jamaal Charles. Could it happen? Sure. Will it? Doubtful. Peyton Manning and Denver have slipped since that loss in New England, but they’re still playing at a level above Kansas City – particularly on offense where they discovered another 100-yard back last week in C.J. Anderson. Keep that in mind because the Chiefs defense has not allowed a 300-yard passer all season. Nevertheless, for Kansas City to survive, it must get Charles untracked, hold the ball and keep Manning off the field. Otherwise, say goodnight.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Alex Smith hasn’t thrown an interception since Week 5, or 169 passes ago. The Chiefs are 7-1 in games where he has no interceptions.
… AND ONE THAT’S NOT
N.Y. Giants @ Jacksonville, 1 p.m. (EST)
The line: Giants by 3
The story: All you need to know about this one is that the team that’s favored? Uh-huh, it lost its last seven starts. Over the past two months, these two combined for one victory, and it wasn’t the Giants who produced it. Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles looks like the second coming of Blaine Gabbert, and that’s not good, folks. He has more interceptions than anyone in the league and one more win than a dead man. After a run of opponents like Indianapolis, San Francisco and Dallas (the Giants’ last three) the Giants finally have something to be thankfuf for.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: The Jags have 33 sacks, third-best in the NFL and their highest total since 2007.
UPSET OF THE WEEK
Clark Judge – Cleveland (+3) over Buffalo. The Browns simply are better … especially now that Josh Gordon is back.
Ron Borges — San Diego (+6) over Baltimore. Young man Rivers starts his usual December push a day early, and when you’re 30-6 in the last month of the season that’s nothing but good.
Rick Gosselin — Cleveland (+3) over Buffalo. Josh Gordon tilts the field in Cleveland’s favor in the battle of Lake Erie titans.
LOCK OF THE WEEK
Indianapolis (+9-1/2) over Washington. There is more dysfunction outside the Capital Beltway than there is on Capitol Hill, and the benching of RG3 is the latest evidence. Two years ago he was The Next Great Quarterback. Now, he’s The Next Great Conundrum, with the Redskins unsure where to go next. For the time being, it’s Colt McCoy, but let’s be honest: He’s not the quarterback of the future. What the Redskins are telling us is that they’re dazed, confused and unsure what to do next and who to start next. The Indianapolis Colts have no such problem with the guy taken just ahead of RG3 in the 2012 draft — quarterback Andrew Luck — and hallelujah. I remember when some fans thought they drafted the wrong quarterback, and one question: Where are those people now?
FIVE GUYS WHO COULD MAKE SUNDAY’S WALL OF FAME
1. Washington LB Ryan Kerrigan. He has seven sacks and three forced fumbles in his last seven starts vs. the AFC.
2. Carolina QB Cam Newton. He has six touchdowns passing, one rushing and a passer rating of 128.6 in two career starts vs. Minnesota.
3. Cincinnati QB Andy Dalton. He’s 5-0-1 in his last six starts vs. the NFC, completing 71.8 percent of his passes for 15 touchdowns, three interceptions and a passer rating of 121.0. The Bengals are 17-2 when he has a rating of 100 or better.
4. New England QB Tom Brady. In his last two starts vs. Green Bay he has six TD passes and no interceptions.
5. Miami QB Ryan Tannehill. He completed at least 70 percent of his passes in his last four starts … and now he gets to do it against the Jets.
HALL OF NOTES-WORTHY
1. Since the current playoff system was introduced in 1990, 17 teams with losing records after 11 games made it to the playoffs – including last year’s San Diego Chargers (5-6 after 11).
2. The Arizona Cardinals have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 21 straight games.
3. With a win Sunday, New England would clinch its 12th straight 10-win season. Only the 1983-98 San Francisco 49ers have a streak (16) that’s longer.
4. The Patriots are the first team in league history to beat three straight opponents at least three games over .500 (Denver, Indianapolis and Detroit) by 20 or more points. If they were to beat Green Bay by 10 or more they’d become the first team in NFL history to beat four straight opponents at least three games over .500 by 10 or more.
5. Miami’s Ryan Tannehill leads all quarterbacks in rushing with 276 yards and now has run for 200 or more in each of his first three seasons.
6. There are 16 teams with at least seven wins, the most through 11 games in league history.
7. Arizona intercepted Matt Ryan nine times in two games the past two years (five in one; four in the other). Ryan has 105 career starts, and they’re the only two games in which he’s thrown four or more interceptions.
8. The Cardinals have 17 sacks over their last three games, their most over a three-game span since 1984.
9. Denver is the only team to rank in the top 10 in both total offense (third) and total defense (sixth).
10. The Broncos have allowed the fewest sacks (53) over the last three years and allowed the fewest (12) this season.