GOLD JACKET GAME OF THE WEEK
CAROLINA @ ATLANTA, 4:25 p.m. (EST)
The line: Falcons by 3-1/2
The weather: Closed roof
The story: Both these teams have something to gain here, and look at Sunday’s landscape: There aren’t many (any?) games where you can say that. Carolina already is in the playoffs but could win the NFC South with a victory and a New Orleans loss to Tampa Bay. Then again, defending NFC champion Atlanta could sneak in as a wildcard with a victory, leaving Seattle out of the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Or it could make it with a Seahawks’ loss. When these two met in early November, the Panthers prevailed … but it was close, 20-17. The Panthers are vastly better now. But Atlanta? I’m not so sure. The Falcons failed to score more than 13 points in two of their last four starts (both losses), and reigning league MVP, Matt Ryan, looks more like a leading candidate for MDP — Most Disappointing Player — with 18 TDs and 11 interceptions. That’s the bad news. The good? Ryan’s most dangerous weapon, wide receiver Julio Jones, says he’s good to go. The Falcons are supposed to have the edge here because they’re home, but this just in: They’re only 4-3 there, including losses to Miami and Buffalo, and scored 29 points in their last two home games.
Something to consider: The Falcons haven’t won once when failing to score more than 20 points.
THREE OTHERS SUITABLE FOR HALL OF FRAMING
CLEVELAND @ PITTSBURGH 1 p.m. (EST)
The line: Steelers by 7
The weather: Mostly cloudy, high of 18
The story: This is all about history in the making … which means it’s all about the Browns and 0-16. Only one team in the NFL ever got there, and that was the 2008 Lions. But the Bengals are a loss away from tying them, as well as making some history of their own for coach Hue Jackson — an NFL-worst 1-30 as a head coach with the Brownies. The Steelers have a first-round bye clinched and could gain the home-field edge if New England loses to the Jets … which they won’t. But the Steelers won’t lose here, either, even though there’s talk of them sitting starters Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell. Quick, now, tell me the last time Pittsburgh lost to Cleveland at Heinz Field? Try 2003. Adios, muchachos.
Something to consider: The Browns can only hope Roethlisberger doesn’t play. He’s 21-2 vs. Cleveland and has passer ratings of 100 or more in seven of his last eight homes starts vs. the Browns.
CINCINNATI @ BALTIMORE, 4:25 p.m. (EST)
The line: Ravens by 9-1/2
The weather: Mostly sunny, high of 27
The story: All the Ravens must do is win … and they’re in the playoffs for the first time in three years. And, if that happens, look out. They’re dangerous. First of all, they’re hot, winning five of their last six and six of their last eight. Second, they have a Super Bowl-winning quarterback who suddenly is back on his game. Third, they have a defense that leads the league in takeaways and shutouts (they have three). And, best of all, they know how to beat New England … and not only in Foxboro but in the playoffs. Keep this in mind: Every season the Ravens reach the playoffs under John Harbaugh they win at least one game. Honest. So win … and they’re in. But it won’t be easy. Yes, the Bengals are hurt, and, granted, they stink. But this is almost certainly coach Marvin Lewis’ last game as their head coach … and players rallied around him last week in their home finale. That showed me something. Now, he’s back where he made a name for himself as defensive coordinator with a Super Bowl champion, and he’d like nothing more than to exit as the head coach who kept the Ravens out of the playoffs by pulling a colossal upset.
Something to consider: The Ravens won 13 of their last 14 home regular-season finales.
BUFFALO @ MIAMI, 4:25 p.m. (EST)
The line: Bills by 2-1/2
The weather: Sunny, high of 76
The story: This is significant for one reason: With a victory, Buffalo could … and the key word there is could … reach the playoffs for the first time since 1999, breaking the longest postseason drought in the NFL. The Bills are favored, and they should be. They beat Miami two weeks ago and, frankly, they’re just better. But this is a potential trap. First of all, Miami is 4-3 at home … and beat New England just three weeks ago. Second, the Bills flounder on the road. They’re 2-5 there and failed to score more than 16 points in four of those games. Third, when the Dolphins were 5-10 (which they are now) in 2015, they faced New England and upset the high-flying Patriots in a game that cost the losers home-field advantage. So they know how to spoil a party. Quarterback Jay Cutler hasn’t thrown for 300 yards in his last seven starts (heck, he has only one 300-yard game this season), but this may be more about Kenyan Drake and the Dolphins’ ability to extend drives than it is Cutler. The Bills rank 30th in rushing defense, allowing an average of 126.7 yards rushing per and 13 gains of 20 or more yards. Only two teams (the Chargers and Bucs) allowed more.
Something to consider: Tyrod Taylor has nine TD passes, no interceptions and two rushing touchdowns in five career games vs. Miami.
OUR BEST BETS
RON BORGES (Season record 10-6) — SAN FRANCISCO (–3-1/2). I’m buying that the Rams are going with their reserves, which means Jimmy G goes 5-0 and blows the 49ers’ high draft choice.
RICK GOSSELIN (Season record 8-8) — WASHINGTON (–3). The season can’t end fast enough for the Giants. In a game where the two starting quarterbacks are playing what might be their final games for these franchises, I like Kirk Cousins.
CLARK JUDGE (Season record 8-8) — DALLAS (–3). Dallas will play hard. Philadelphia? Not sure. Doug Pederson says he wants all his starters to play … but he didn’t say for how long. Translation: Eagles coast.
SUNDAY’S HALL OF FAMOUS
GREEN BAY QB BRETT HUNDLEY. He’s 3-0, with seven touchdowns and no interceptions, in his last three road games.
ARIZONA COACH BRUCE ARIANS. He becomes the winningest coach in Cards’ history with his next win. He is currently tied with Ken Whisenhunt with 49 career victories.
DETROIT WR MARVIN JONES. He has five touchdowns in his last four starts vs. Green Bay.
MINNESOTA QB CASE KEENUM. He’s 4-0 in his last four starts vs. the NFC North.
NEW ENGLAND QB TOM BRADY. He has 11 touchdowns, no interceptions, in his last five games at home vs. the Jets.
CAROLINA QB CAM NEWTON. He has four rushing touchdowns in his last six games at Atlanta.
CINCINNATI WR A.J. GREEN. In four career games at Baltimore he has 579 yards in receptions (144.8 per game) and four TDs.
CHARGERS’ QB PHILIP RIVERS. He has nine TDs and no interceptions in his last five games at home.
SEATTLE QB RUSSELL WILSON. He has nine touchdown passes, no interceptions and 108.0 rating in his last four vs. Arizona.
JACKSONVILLE QB BLAKE BORTLES. He has 995 yards, with nine TD passes and one interception, in his last three starts at Tennessee.
ARIZONA WR LARRY FITZGERALD. With a reception Sunday, he ties former tight end Tony Gonzalez for the second-longest NFL streak with a catch in 211 straight games. Jerry Rice holds the record at 274.
KANSAS CITY QB ALEX SMITH. He becomes the first quarterback in NFL history Sunday to throw for at least 3,000 yards with fewer than 10 interceptions in each of five consecutive seasons. Smith has thrown for a career-best 4,042 yards this year, with 26 TDs and five interceptions.
TEN THINGS YOU PROBABLY SHOULD KNOW
- Since the 12-team playoff format was adopted in 1990, at least four franchises that weren’t eligible for the playoffs one season qualified for them the next. The most was eight in 2003.
- Baltimore allows an average of 16.4 points per game at home, third-best in the NFL.
- Philadelphia is the only team undefeated at home. The Eagles are 7-0.
- The Steelers are 15-1 at Heinz Field vs. Cleveland.
- Minnesota has allowed only 19 runs of 10 or more yards, fewest in the NFL.
- The 49ers held their last five opponents to under 100 yards rushing.
- Jimmy Garoppolo’s 1,250 yards passing are the most by any 49ers’ quarterback in his first four starts.
- With 10 more points, Tennessee’s Ryan Succop will break Al Del Greco’s single-season franchise record of 136, set in 1998.
- With 52 sacks, Jacksonville is five shy of the team record, set in 1999. The Jags lead the league by holding opposing quarterbacks to a rating of 67.5.
- The Patriots have been the AFC’s top seed six times, dating back to 2003. In all but one of those seasons (2010), they’ve gone to the Super Bowl.