GOLD JACKET GAME OF THE WEEK
NEW ENGLAND @ PITTSBURGH, 4:25 p.m. (EST)
The line: Patriots by 3
The weather: Mostly cloudy, high of 43
The story: This is about more than AFC supremacy and home-field advantage. Specifically, it is about Tom Brady. Seldom has he seemed more ineffective than Monday vs. Miami, but seldom is he more effective than he is vs. Pittsburgh … and you can look it up. Brady is 10-2 vs. the Steelers (including the playoffs), with 24 touchdown passes and no interceptions in his last eight. That’s the bad news for the Terrible Towels. Here’s the good: His only two losses were at Heinz Field. But then there’s this: Since 2001, or when Brady took over as the team’s starter, the Patriots are 40-11 in games immediately following a loss. This isn’t rocket science, people: If Pittsburgh is going to gain a bye and/or home-field advantage, it must do what it hasn’t — namely, solve Brady. In last year’s conference championship game he shredded the Steelers’ zone defense, and afterward players acknowledged they should’ve played more man-to-man coverage. Well, here’s their chance.
Something to consider: The Patriots have an NFL-best 48 points on the first drives of the second half.
THREE OTHERS SUITABLE FOR HALL-OF-FRAMING
GREEN BAY @ CAROLINA, 1 p.m. (EST)
The line: Panthers by 3
The weather: Partly cloudy, high of 59
The story: Aaron Rodgers says he’s not coming back “to save the season,” but who’s kidding whom? That’s exactly what he’s trying to do. Otherwise, why risk further injury? The Packers can’t afford another loss, but that’s what happens if Rodgers isn’t unwrapped. Otherwise, the Packers rely on backup Brett Hundley and the league’s 29th-ranked defense here, and that’s a no can-do. No knock on Hundley. The guy was 3-4 and kept the Packers alive with last weekend’s OT defeat of Cleveland. But he’s no Aaron Rodgers. Few are. Rodgers has done this before, but never quite like this. He hasn’t played in over two months, and his first audition is against … the league’s fifth-ranked defense and Cam Newton? Against an opponent very much in the running for a division championship? And on that team’s field? Good luck.
Something to consider: Since 2008, only Frank Gore has more total yards in regular-season games in December and January than Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart. Stewart, who scored three times last weekend, has 2,748 yards and 20 rushing touchdowns in those two months. Gore has 40 more yards and four fewer TDs.
L.A. RAMS @ SEATTLE, 4:05 p.m. (EST)
The line: Seahawks by 3
The weather: Rain, high of 47
The story: When you play the Seahawks, the job is simple: Do whatever you can to limit the damage Russell Wilson inflicts. Yes, they line up 10 other on offense, but he’s the one guy who matters … essentially, THE Seattle offense … and the numbers, please: Wilson has either run for or passed for the Seahawks’ last 25 touchdowns, and you have to go back to early October to find a game where the star quarterback wasn’t directly involved in a TD. “He does so many wonderful things,” said Rams’ defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. “He’s a tremendous player.” That’s one problem. The other? The Rams are dealing with several injuries on defense, including the loss of starting cornerback Kayvon Webster, who tore an Achilles last week. “That happens in this league,” said Phillips. So do Wilson heroics. If it’s heroics that determine the NFC West winner — and they could — it’s advantage: Seattle. The Seahawks have Wilson, and they’re home.
Something to consider: Rams’ quarterback Jared Goff is 5-1 on the road, with 12 TD passes and one interception.
DALLAS @ OAKLAND, 8:30 p.m. (EST)
The line: Cowboys by 3
The weather: Partly cloudy, high of 58
The story: If ever there were a time for the Raiders’ Derek Carr to “let ‘er rip,” as coach Jack Del Rio put it, this is it. The Cowboys rank 27th in pass defense and surrendered 24 TDs in 13 games. Plus, the Raiders absolutely, positively must win here to stay in the playoff picture … at least until going to Philadelphia on Christmas. But there are too many variables to overcome here to believe it can happen. Carr is in a season-long funk, and the offense ranks 21st in scoring. “Blame it on me,” Carr said. Not quite. Receivers drop too many passes. Amari Cooper remains sidelined. There have been an NFL-high six fumbles after catches where there were none a year ago And there is zero momentum, with the Raiders losing seven of their last 11. Plus, they play Dallas, and the Cowboys not only get Zeke Elliott back after Sunday; they remain firmly in the playoff scenario — with the season-ender vs. the Eagles suddenly looking more winnable without Carson Wentz. Dak Prescott has excelled the past two weeks. He should again.
Something to consider: The Raiders have 12 sacks in the three games under defensive coordinator John Pagano. They had 14 in the previous 10 under then-coordinator Ken Norton.
OUR BEST BETS
RON BORGES (Season record: 9-5) — JACKSONVILLE (–11). I’d like to be the Jags. Who wouldn’t?
RICK GOSSELIN (Season record: 7-7) — BALTIMORE (–7). The Ravens put up 38 on the Steelers in Pittsburgh last weekend. The Browns’ defense will be less of a challenge for a team point toward a wild-card spot.
CLARK JUDGE (Season record: 6-8) — WASHINGTON (–4-1/2). The Redskins own the NFC West, and this one is Blaine Gabbert vs. Kirk Cousins.
SUNDAY’S HALL OF FAMOUS
PITTSBURGH WR ANTONIO BROWN. With 114 yards, he can tie Calvin Johnson with 10,000 career yards receiving in the fewest games (115) in NFL history. He can also become the first player to reach 1,600 yards and 10 receiving touchdowns in three seasons.
CAROLINA QB CAM NEWTON. With 15 yards rushing, he ties Michael Vick as the only quarterbacks with four seasons of 600 or more yards rushing.
CAROLINA DE JULIUS PEPPERS. He’s a half-sack from tying Hall-of-Famers Bruce Smith, Reggie White and Kevin Greene as the only NFL players to have 10 seasons with 10 or more sacks. IN his last four games vs. Green Bay, Peppers has 5-1/2 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception.
SEATTLE QB RUSSELL WILSON. He has 29 touchdown passes and 482 yards rushing and on Sunday can become the first quarterback ever to have 30 TD passes and 500 yard rushing in multiple seasons.
BUFFALO QB TYROD TAYLOR. In four career games vs. Miami, he has eight touchdown passes and no interceptions and 151 yards rushing and another score.
BALTIMORE COACH JOHN HARBAUGH. He’s 17-2 vs. Cleveland.
ARIZONA DE CHANDLER JONES. The NFL sack leader (he has 14), he has six sacks and a forced fumble in his last six road games. He also has at least one sack in his last four games, period.
NEW ENGLAND TE ROB GRONKOWSKI. In five career games vs. Pittsburgh, he has 496 yards receiving and eight touchdowns.
DALLAS QB DAK PRESCOTT. He has eight touchdowns passing, no interceptions and three rushing scores in his last five road games.
TEN THINGS YOU PROBABLY SHOULD KNOW
- Seattle’s Russell Wilson has 17 fourth-quarter TD passes, the most in one season in NFL history.
- Jimmy Garoppolo’s 627 yards passing are the most since 1970 for any 49ers’ quarterback in his first two starts.
- Over the past six games, Philadelphia leads the league in scoring with an average of 34.2 points per … which is no surprise. But this is: Baltimore is second at 31.3.
- The Ravens won eight of their last nine games in Cleveland and have never lost there in December (3-0).
- New England is seeking an NFL-record eighth straight season with 11 or more victories.
- The Vikings have allowed an NFL-low 17 runs of 10 or more yards. Denver is second at 24.
- Since 2000, only three teams have scored more than 400 points and allowed fewer than 250 through the first 13 games: The 2007 Patriots, the 2015 Carolina Panthers and this year’s Eagles. The Patriots and Panthers each went to the Super Bowl.
- The Redskins are 5-8 overall but 3-0 vs. the NFC West. If they were to beat Arizona, it would mark only the second time since the 2002 realignment they swept a division. Washington has beaten the Cards the last seven times in Washington.
- Oakland’s Bruce Irvin has an NFL-best five sacks over the last three weeks.
- The Raiders lead the league with 15 scores of 20 or more yards.