GOLD JACKET GAME OF THE WEEK
DALLAS @ N.Y. GIANTS, 8:30 p.m. (EST)
The line: Cowboys by 3
The weather: Partly cloudy, high of 53
The story: Dallas can clinch the division with a victory, yet the Giants’ Justin Pugh insists it won’t happen – saying he and his teammates will hand the Cowboys “another loss.” Terrific. But he might want to pass the word to the rest of an offense that has lagged so badly it hasn’t scored more than 28 points in any game this season and five times has been held to no more than 17. By contrast, the Cowboys five times put up 30 or more, and only once since the season-opening 20-19 loss to the G-Men scored fewer than 20. Ezekiel Elliott is a load. So is rookie quarterback Dak Prescott. And tell me who covers Dez Bryant and Jason Witten? Someone? Anyone? Then there’s that New York defense that must operate without Jason Pierre-Paul the rest of the way … and, maybe, the rest of his career. JPP is out with a sports hernia, and anyone who can press the pocket is urged to apply for an audition. The Giants handed Dallas its only loss of the year, but that was three months ago … and in that time the Cowboys improved dramatically while the Giants have not. The Giants absolutely, positively force turnovers that haven’t come in abundance. Otherwise it will be another loss … only for Big Blue.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Eli Manning has nine touchdown passes, one interception and a rating of 104.8 in his past five home games vs. Dallas.
(Ezekiel Elliott cover photo courtesy of Dallas Cowboys)
(Sterling Shepard photo courtesy of N.Y. Giants)
THREE OTHERS SUITABLE FOR HALL OF FRAMING
HOUSTON @ INDIANAPOLIS, 1 p.m. (EST)
The weather: Afternoon Rain/Snow Showers, high of 38 (retractable roof)
The story: Brock Osweiler declared himself “ready for a must-win game,” but that didn’t change the line. It never budged. Reason: Nobody believes Osweiler can recreate what he did vs. Indianapolis in the fourth quarter and overtime of Game One between these two. The Colts should have won that one. They did not. They lost it, and just to make sure we understand each other: They … lost … it. Houston didn’t win. The Colts choked. That won’t happen again, not with Andrew Luck playing the best football of his season and the Colts at home where they’re 13-1 vs. the Texans.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Luck has 9 consecutive wins at home and is 3-0 vs. Houston there.
(Andrew Luck photo courtesy of Indianapolis Colts)
DENVER @ TENNESSEE, 1 p.m. (EST)
The line: Titans by 1
The weather: Partly cloudy, high of 53
The story: This is the best game nobody is talking about. Denver was lucky to win last week, but it played Jacksonville. Enough said. Now they Broncos are up against a hot team and a hot quarterback, and that combination – plus the Titans’ unlikely run to win the division – has experts favoring the home team. And why not? Marcus Mariota is one of the best quarterbacks in the business, and few teams run the ball better than Tennessee. Then there’s this: Denver has more trouble producing points on offense than our President-elect does producing a Secretary of State. But there’s more. Anyone know who is quarterbacking the Broncos? Trevor Siemian split reps with Paxton Lynch in practice this week and appears to be the starter. The Broncos can only hope. Because if it’s Lynch, you can say goodnight.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Mariota has thrown multiple touchdown passes in eight consecutive games.
SEATTLE @ GREEN BAY, 4:25 p.m. (EST)
The line: Seahawks by 3
The weather: Snow, high of 32
The story: We know Seattle is good, and we know Seattle is going to win its division. What we don’t know is what to make of the Packers. They almost certainly have to lap the field to reach the playoffs, and that won’t be easy – especially with Russell Wilson playing some of the best football of any NFL quarterback now. OK, so Aaron Rodgers is on a roll, and so the Seahawks lost a critical playmaker on defense in safety Earl Thomas. But the Packers cant run, and, even without Thomas, Seattle is infinitely better than Green Bay on defense. If the Pack can force turnovers … if they can limit the damage Wilson can inflict … if they can take advantage of Thomas’ absence … they have a shot. But that’s a lot of ifs, people.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Rodgers has 14 consecutive wins at home in December. During that time he has thrown 34 touchdown passes, with just four interceptions.
MONDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
BALTIMORE @ NEW ENGLAND, 8:30 p.m. (EST)
The weather: Rain/snow, high of 41
The story: For some reason, Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady struggles with Baltimore, though much of that history is tied to Ray Lewis/Ed Reed teams. Without them, he threw for three touchdowns in a come-from-behind defeat of the Ravens in the 2014 playoffs. Nevertheless, he’s 7-3 vs. Baltimore (including the playoffs), with 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. With a high probability of snow for this game, it could be a chess match – particularly since the two defenses are tied for second in fewest points allowed (17.3). Joe Flacco was en fuego last weekend, with a season-best four TD passes, but the Ravens have been mostly dysfunctional on offense this season, changing coordinators and struggling to run or throw effectively. There are holes to exploit in the New England defense, but Baltimore’s best strategy is to play ball-control and keep Brady nailed to the bench.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Brady is 14-6 on Monday night, with 44 touchdowns and 18 interceptions.
(Joe Flacco photo courtesy of Baltimore Ravens)
OUR BEST BETS
CLARK JUDGE — Washington (–1). So the Eagles lost just once in the past five times at home. They’re circling the drain, and quarterback Carson Wentz is struggling.
RICK GOSSELIN — Baltimore (+7). The Ravens always seem to play the Patriots tough. New England is flawed defensively without much of a pass rush, and its offense is without its defensive-stretching element in tight end Rob Gronkowski.
RON BORGES — Atlanta (–6). The Falcons need to keep pace with Tampa Bay, or the ghost of last year’s collapse will be knocking on its doors.
ON THE WATCH LIST
PITTSBURGH WR ANTONIO BROWN. With seven catches Sunday he has the most receptions (470) by anyone in a four-year span in the NFL. The current leader is Marvin Harrison at 469. But there’s more, people. With 148 yards vs. Buffalo, Brown becomes the fifth player in league history to have four consecutive seasons of 1,200 yards receiving AND eight touchdowns.
DENVER LB VON MILLER. With 2.5 sacks Sunday he ties Hall-of-Famer Bruce Smith as the third-fastest player to reach 75 sacks in his career. Smith did it in 85 games. Only Reggie White (62) and J.J. Watt (82) did it faster.
ARIZONA RB DAVID JOHNSON. With his next rushing touchdown, he joins Hall-of-Famer Gale Sayers as the only NFL players with 20-plus rushing TDs, five-plus receiving touchdowns and at least one kickoff/punt return TD in their first two years.
DALLAS QB DAK PRESCOTT. He’s the only rookie quarterback to produce 10 games with ratings of 100 or better in his first season. With a rating of 100 or better vs. the Giants he becomes the eighth quarterback in NFL history to have 11 or more games with ratings of 100 or better in one season. Of those eight, only two (Steve Young, 1994, and Kurt Warner, 1999) did it prior to 2004.
INDIANAPOLIS QB ANDREW LUCK – With a 300-yard passing performance he ties John Unitas for second-most (26) 300-yard passing games in franchise history.
(Antonio Brown photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Steelers)
SUNDAY’S HALL OF FAMOUS
CINCINNATI QB ANDY DALTON. He has seven touchdown passes, no interceptions and a rating of 137.3 in his past three games vs. Cleveland.
DETROIT QB MATT STAFFORD. He has seven touchdown passes and averages 305.3 yards per in his last three games vs. Chicago.
INDIANAPOLIS DE ROBERT MATHIS. He has the most career sacks vs. Houston (18.5) of any NFL player.
MIAMI QB RYAN TANNEHILL. He has five touchdown passes and no interceptions for a rating of 106.4 in his last three home games.
WASHINGTON QB KIRK COUSINS. In four career games vs. Philadelphia, he has 10 touchdowns and two interceptions and averages 336.3 yards per contest.
GREEN BAY WR RANDALL COBB. He aims for his fifth straight game at home with a touchdown catch.
NEW ORLEANS QB DREW BREES – He averages 335 yards passing in each of his last five starts at Tampa Bay.
NEW ENGLAND RB LeGARRETTE BLOUNT. He has rushing touchdowns in each of his last six games at home.
PITTSBURGH QB BEN ROETHLISBERGER. With a victory he would improve to 4-0 vs. Buffalo, including 2-0 on the road.
HALL OF NOTES-WORTHY
Dating back to the start of 2015, Detroit’s Matt Stafford has 41 touchdowns and no interceptions in the red zone – best in the NFL.
Since 2012, Carolina is a league-best 14-2 in the last four games of the season.
Arizona is 1-4 on the road this season. Its only win was at San Francisco.
Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant has converted 78.4 percent of his catches this season into first downs.
The Cardinals and Denver Broncos are the only teams with more interceptions than touchdown passes allowed.
Datroit’s Matt Prater has made a game-winning or game-tying kick in fourth-quarter drives of five games this season.
Atlanta has scored on 52.7 percent of its drives to lead the NFL. Dallas is second at 48.8.
The Cards’ David Johnson now has a franchise-record 12 straight games with 100 or more yards from scrimmage.
Tom Brady ranks first in third-down passer rating with a score of 132.3. Ben Roethlisberger is second at 117.9.
Tennessee is ranked seventh in total yards on offense. The Titans haven’t ranked that high this late in the season since 1993 when they were the Houston Oilers.
Green Bay won its last six at home vs. Seattle.
Under John Harbaugh, the Ravens are 3-5 vs. New England (including the playoffs). But in six games at Foxboro they outscored the Pats 153-135, with the Ravens’ four defeats decided by an average of four points.
Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker is 8-for-8 in field goals of 50 or more yards this season.
Since 2001, New England is an NFL-best 39-16 in games (including the playoffs) decided by seven or fewer points.