The Sunday GPS: Pack, Falcons in reprise of NFC title game


Matt Ryan photo courtesy Atlanta Falcons

GOLD JACKET GAME OF THE WEEK

GREEN BAY @ ATLANTA, 8:30 p.m. (EDT)

The line: Falcons by 3
The weather: Dome (retractable roof)

The story: This is a replay of the 2016 NFC championship game, and Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan are supposed to be its stars. Except they’re not. Not now, they’re not. Nope, that honor goes to the Falcons’ Mercedes Benz Stadium, hosting its first regular-season NFL game and built for slightly more than the cost of a new Mercedes. Try $1.6 billion. The good news is the concessions are a lot cheaper than the seats. In fact, they’re the lowest of any major sports teams, including bottomless sodas at $2, $3 pizza slices and $5 hamburgers. Now the question: Will the game live up … or down … to the cost of the food? Neither Rodgers nor Ryan was all that impressive a week ago, and the Falcons’ defense looked lethargic. The Packers’ D did not, and that could be a difference … although this game is on turf which plays to the strength of the Atlanta defense — speed.

The last word: Watch Julio Jones. He carved up the Packers’ secondary for nine catches, 180 yards and two TDs in January. But look closer: He had 66 yards in catches vs. Chicago last week, right? When Jones was held under 70 yards a year ago (and it happened six times), he always responded — averaging 7.6 catches for 144 yards and .8 touchdowns the following game.

THREE OTHERS SUITABLE FOR HALL-OF-FRAMING

PHILADELPHIA @ KANSAS CITY, 1 p.m. (EDT)

Alex Smith photo courtesy of Kansas City Chiefs
The line: Chiefs by 5-1/2
The weather: AM thunderstorms, high of 80

The story: Shortly after Kansas City shredded New England in the season opener, people started asking, “Are they a serious Super Bowl contender?” To quote Aaron Rodgers, “Relax. R-E-L-A-X.” It’s one game, people. I know Alex Smith had the game of his life, but that’s the point: It was the game of his life, and, as he said this week, he doesn’t expect to be with the Chiefs a year from now. Reason: They drafted Patrick Mahomes, and they drafted him because they were convinced Smith couldn’t make them a serious Super Bowl contender. Ah, yes, but it always helps to have someone like Kareem Hunt in the lineup, doesn’t it? If your offensive line can’t protect you, a rookie who piled up 246 yards in offense and three TDs can.

The last word: The Eagles converted 57.1 percent of their third downs last week, second only to Minnesota (64.3).

NEW ENGLAND @ NEW ORLEANS, 1 p.m. (EDT)

The line: Patriots by 6-1/2
The weather: Dome

The story: The Patriots are where they want to be … because, yes, Dorothy, there IS a place like home. It’s called the road, where the Pats were 8-0 a year ago and where they have the NFL’s best record since 1994. OK, so they stunk a week ago. But this just in: They lost their season openers in three of their five Super Bowl-winning years. Nevertheless, they have issues, and the big one is defense. They have no bona fide pass rusher, and that’s a problem vs. Drew Brees. Granted, he looked almost as bad as his offensive line a week ago, but he’s 3-1 lifetime vs. Tom Brady. Somebody has to wake up, and, just a hunch, it won’t be Adrian Peterson.

The last word: Since 2003, the Patriots are 42-6 following a loss.

MINNESOTA @ PITTSBURGH, 1 p.m. (EDT)

The line: Steelers by 6
The weather: Mostly sunny, high of 84

The story: Sam Bradford made the trip to Pittsburgh, and that’s encouraging. This, however, is not: The Vikings promoted third-string quarterback Kyle Sloter from the active squad. So what? So that’s a sure sign that Bradford’s sore left knee is of considerable concern. Coach Mike Zimmer insists Bradford will play, and the Vikings can only hope. Because if he doesn’t? Case Keenum, c’mon down, and sign me up for the Steelers. The guy is 9-14 as a starter, with nearly as many interceptions (20) as touchdowns (24). Plus, he’s facing a defense that just produced seven sacks, and a Steelers’ offense that produces points in bunches. Keenum does not, which means get used to seeing a whole lot of Dalvin Cook footage as the Vikings try to slow down the game … and the Steelers.

The last word: With Bradford at quarterback a week ago, Minnesota converted a league-best 64.3 percent vs. New Orleans.

OUR BEST BETS

RON BORGES — Minnesota (+6). That defense shouldn’t be a 6-point underdog to anyone. Mike Zimmer’s Vikings are 12-6 vs. the spread on the road and 10-2 vs. AFC teams. Why should that change in Pittsburgh?

RICK GOSSELIN — Arizona (–7).  The Cards will be without Pro Bowl running back David Johnson for the next two months. But they won’t need him to dismantle the Colts, who were shredded by the lowly Rams, 46-9, in the season opener.

CLARK JUDGE — Oakland (+13-1/2). Jets’ fans will be begging for “Heidi.”

SUNDAY’S HALL OF FAMOUS

BALTIMORE COACH JOHN HARBAUGH — He’s 16-2 vs. Cleveland.

INDIANAPOLIS RB FRANK GORE — He has seven career games vs. Indianapolis with 100-plus yards from scrimmage.

GREEN BAY WR JORDY NELSON –In his last three games vs. Atlanta, he has 18 catches for 307 yards and four TDs.

KANSAS CITY WR TYREEK HILL — He has at least one TD of 60 or more yards in five of his last six starts, an NFL record.

NEW ORLEANS QB DREW BREES — He’s thrown for 10 TDs and one interception in four career games vs. New England.

OAKLAND QB DEREK CARR — In two career games vs. the Jets, he has six TDs and 0 interceptions.

DALLAS QB ZAK PRESCOTT — He’s 4-0 in four career road games vs. the AFC, with nine touchdowns and 0 interceptions.

PAINT IT BLUE

Philip Rivers photo courtesy L.A. Chargers

It could be a blue season opener for the Los Angeles Chargers … and not because they put San Diego in their rear-view mirror. Nope it’s because the team will give all season-ticket holders custom sized Philip Rivers No. 17 jerseys for every seat they purchased … and at StubHub Center, that’s not a lot of seats. As a matter of fact, as of Wednesday evening, there were still 2,500 tickets available … at a stadium that seats no more than 27,000. The Chargers will also honor six members of the 1960 Los Angeles Chargers, a team that opened its season with a 21-20 defeat of the Dallas Texans at the L.A. Coliseum in front of 17,724 … or slightly less than will witness their return to L.A.

BACK TO SCHOOL

There are four games Sunday where former assistants … and now head coaches … meet their former bosses. It’s the ol’ teacher vs. the pupil backstory, and here are the details:

ANDY REID vs. DOUG PEDERSON. Pederson was Reid’s quarterback in Philadelphia and his offensive coordinator in Kansas City. Now they meet for the first time. The Eagles won three of their last four at Kansas City, including the last two, and are 9-4 all-time vs. former head coaches, though they’re 0-1 vs. Reid.

JAY GRUDEN vs. SEAN McVAY — McVay was Gruden’s offensive coordinator the last three years, but Gruden says the familiarity they share has no impact on Sunday’s game. “We have to treat this like another game,” he said. “You have to get after the quarterback. It’s the only option.”

RON RIVERA vs. SEAN McDERMOTT — McDermott was Rivera’s defensive coordinator the past six years, so the two should know each other well. Both are defensive coaches, and their defenses a week ago allowed one touchdown combined.

BRUCE ARIANS vs. CHUCK PAGANO — Arians was the interim coach of the Colts in 2012 and did such a good job (he led the Colts to a 9-3 record in Pagano’s absence) he was named Coach of the Year. This is his first game vs. his former boss. “The place will be packed,” said Arians, “and I’ve always had a great spot in my heart for that blue horseshoe.” A win for Arians would tie him with Don Coryell for the second most (42) in Cards’ history. A win for Pagano would be his 50th.

TEN THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW

  1. Since 2002, 108 of the 180 playoff teams started their seasons at 1-1 or 0-2.

2. If Jacksonville has seven sacks vs. Tennessee Sunday, they will have 17 for the year — breaking the record for the first two games of a season (set by Seattle in 1998) since sacks became an official statistic in 1982.

3. Sunday’s game between Tom Brady and Drew Brees marks the first time in league history that two quarterbacks with 10 or more Pro Bowl selections (Brady–12; Brees–10) play each other in the regular season.

4. If the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott throws a touchdown before his next interception he becomes the first quarterback in NFL history to throw the fewest interceptions with his first 25 career TDs. Nick Foles and Hall-of-Famer Kurt Warner are the current record holders at 5. Prescott has four.

5. An Oakland win over the Jets would make the Raiders 2-0, the first time they won their first two starts since 2002 … or, the last time they were in the Super Bowl.

6. With two more touchdown passes, Aaron Rodgers becomes the 11th player in league history to have 300 for his career.

7. With 53 yards Sunday, the Cowboys’ Jason Witten joins Tony Gonzalez as the only tight ends with over 12,000 career receiving yards.

8. With one touchdown catch, the Chargers’ Antonio Gates sets the NFL record for TD catches by a tight end with 112. He and Gonzalez each have 111.

9. Pittsburgh has scored 20 or more points in nine consecutive games, dating back to last season. It’s the longest current streak in the NFL.

10. The Buffalo Bills lead the league in plays of 10 yards or more with 18. Minnesota is second with 17.

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