The Sunday GPS: It's now or never for Atlanta's Falcons
GOLD JACKET GAME OF THE WEEK
ATLANTA @ NEW ORLEANS, 1 p.m. (EST)
The line: Saints by 5-1/2
The weather: Dome
The story: Atlanta is the defending NFC South champion. More than that, it's the defending NFC champion. But if it wants to repeat on either score -- and Super Bowl repeats are as rare as Browns victories -- it better win right here right now. The Falcons are hot, winning their five of their last six, but that's where comparisons end between this year's edition and the club that took New England to the mat in Super Bowl LI. Defending league MVP Matt Ryan has been nothing more than adequate, with 14 fewer TDs (32-18) and four more interceptions (11-7) through 14 games. Result: The Falcons don't score as they did a year ago. Nevertheless, they're still in the mix, and they're going to need more Matty Ice and less Matty Nice here. In his last seven starts vs. the Saints, Ryan has 15 TDs, four interceptions and a 108.4. Over the same span, wide receiver Julio Jones averages 96.4 yards per game. Both are critical to overcoming an opponent that not only is vastly improved on defense and in overall balance but that hasn't lost a home game since mid-September. You can look it up: The Saints won their last six home contests by a cumulative score of 198-131, scoring 30 or more in five of the six.
Something to consider: The Falcons are 9-0 this season when scoring 20 or more points.
FOUR OTHERS SUITABLE FOR HALL-OF-FRAMING
BUFFALO @ NEW ENGLAND, 1 p.m. (EST)
The line: Patriots by 11-1/2
The weather: Partly cloudy, high of 41
The story: Buffalo can reach the playoffs for the first time since 1999 by winning their last two games, and that's great except ... except one of those games is here. Say goodnight, people. The Bills just don't beat New England, and, yeah, I know it happened here last year. Jacoby Brissett was the quarterback; not Tom Brady. If there's anything as certain in life as death and taxes, it's Brady circling the bases on Buffalo. He's 27-3 vs. the Bills, including a 23-3 victory earlier this month. So there's that. Plus, the Patriots won nine of their last 10 starts. So there's momentum. But then there's New England playing for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. At the moment, the Patriots have it. But to keep it, they must beat the Bills this week and the Jets next ... with both games at home. Check, please.
Something to consider: Brady's 27 wins are the most by an quarterback vs. an opponent. He's also thrown for more touchdowns (67) vs. Buffalo than any opponent in his career.
L.A. RAMS @ TENNESSEE, 1 p.m. (EST)
The line: Rams by 6-1/2
The weather: Partly cloudy, high of 45
The story: The Titans need this game ... heck, they need the next TWO games ... to make a playoff run. And the Rams? They're all but in. So who has the incentive here? Tennessee, though the Rams aren't in the clear yet. But who has the guys who can score in bunches? Not Tennessee. If there's hope for the home team, it's this: The Titans won their last five here, including a defeat of Seattle, and the Rams are coming off an emotional beatdown of Seattle, a game that seemed to signal a power shift in the NFC West. Then, there's this: The league's leading scorer not only is out; but Rams' kicker Greg Zuerlein is lost for the season with a back injury. The guy was money, no matter the distance, and if this game is close his absence could determine the outcome. Remember, the Titans' Ryan Succop set an NFL record earlier this year by hitting his 56th consecutive field goal from inside 50 yards.
Something to consider: The Rams forced seven turnovers on opening drives this season. The last team to do that was the 2007 Patriots, but they did it in 16 games.
JACKSONVILLE @ SAN FRANCISCO, 4:25 p.m. (EST)
The line: Jaguars by 4
The weather: Cloudy, high of 60
The story: Christmas could come early for the Jaguars, who are alive for a first-round playoff bye. You heard me, Jim Mora: Playoffs. Their quarterback is hot, their defense is hotter and the Jags have won seven of their last eight. But the 49ers are no pushover. They won their last three, all with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback, and four of the past five. Garoppolo hasn't lost -- not just here, but ever (he's 5-0) -- and his 1,008 yards in his first three games as San Francisco's starter are the most by any 49ers' quarterback in his first three starts. They're also the second highest total throughout the NFL over that time, with only Ben Roethlisberger (1,077) better. So the 49ers have responded since Garoppolo's arrival ... on both sides of the ball, allowing an average of 17. 7 points the last three games. Which means ... which means, their quarterback is hot, their defense is hotter and they're on a roll. Sound familiar? Yes, Jacksonville should win this, but it won't be easy. The 49ers just knocked off, in succession, Tennessee and Houston -- with Tennessee the stiffest competition for Jacksonville in the AFC South -- and this is the 49ers' last home game of the season.
Something to consider: The 49ers held their last four opponents to under 100 yards rushing, the first time that's happened since 2013.
SEATTLE @ DALLAS, 4:25 p.m. (EST)
The line: Cowboys by 4
The weather: Closed roof
The story: This is all about the return of Zeke Elliott and the redemption of the Cowboys. Once upon a time, big D stood for Doubtful ... which was the Cowboys' postseason prognosis. But, lo and behold, there's still a pulse there, and with Elliott back and the Eagles possibly tanking next week's season finale, it's not so much Doomsday in Dallas anymore. Of course, Seattle is no slouch ... especially with Russell Wilson healthy ... but the Seahawks are coming off an embarrassing beatdown at home and have a history of not traveling well. Yeah, OK, so they won four of seven on the road this season. They're still picked to lose here and for good reason: The Cowboys have Elliott again, and he's facing an opponent Todd Gurley just gashed for more than 150 yards. And Seattle? It has Russell Wilson. Period.
Something to consider: Wilson has 18 fourth-quarter touchdown passes, the most in one season in NFL history.
OUR BEST BETS
RON BORGES (Season record 10-5) CLEVELAND (+6). It's the holiday season, and the Browns deserve a gift.
RICK GOSSELIN (Season record 8-7) CLEVELAND (+6). The Browns ended their winless season on this weekend a year ago. Look for them to end their winless season on this weekend, as well. Josh Gordon wasn't with the Browns for most of their 14 losses. He'll be the difference in this game.
CLARK JUDGE (Season record: 7-8) ARIZONA (--3-1/2). It's not that the Cardinals are any good. It's that the Giants stink.
SUNDAY'S HALL OF FAMOUS
PITTSBURGH RB LE'VEON BELL. With 101 yards from scrimmage he passes Hall-of-Famer Eric Dickerson in reaching 8,000 career scrimmage yards the fastest. Dickerson did it in 64 games. Bell is playing his 62nd.
BALTIMORE QB JOE FLACCO. He needs four touchdowns passes to become the first Ravens' quarterback with 200 in his career.
MINNESOTA DE EVERSON GRIFFEN. In his past six road games, he has seven sacks and two forced fumbles.
CAROLINA QB CAM NEWTON. In his past four at home vs. Tampa Bay, he has eight touchdown passes, two interceptions and four rushing TDs.
ARIZONA WR LARRY FITZGERALD. With eight more catches he produces his fifth career 100-reception season, tying Antonio Brown, Wes Welker and Andre Johnson for the second-most 100-catch seasons. Only Brandon Marshall (6) has more.
N.Y. GIANTS' QB ELI MANNING. With 189 yards passing Sunday, he passes Hall-of-Famer John Elway (51,475) for the sixth most passing yards in NFL history.
NEW ORLEANS QB DREW BREES. With 39 yards passing he joins Hall-of-Famer Brett Favre and Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks with 70,000 career yards.
NEW ORLEANS RB ALVIN KAMARA. With a touchdown catch Sunday, he joins Hall-of-Famer Gale Sayers as the only NFL rookies to have six rushing TDs and six receiving TDs in their first seasons.
NEW ENGLAND QB TOM BRADY. With a victory Sunday, he becomes the only quarterback in NFL history to produce 12 12-win seasons.
TEN THINGS YOU PROBABLY SHOULD KNOW
- Five of the eight divisions have a team either in or tied for first place that finished third or fourth in the division a year ago.
- Since entering the NFL last year Kansas City's Tyreek Hill has 11 touchdowns of 50 or more yards. Only Devin Hester has more (13) in his first two NFL seasons.
- Arizona's Chandler Jones not only leads the league in sacks (15) but in tackles for losses, too (25).
- Jacksonville leads the league in points off turnovers with 123. Baltimore is second at 118.
- Over the past seven games, Baltimore leads the league in points-differential at +107. Philadelphia is second at +106.
- The New England Patriots lead the NFL in Red Zone takeaways with six. Baltimore is second with five.
- Dak Prescott had fewer than 215 yards passing in five of the six games without Ezekiel Elliott. He was also interception more times (7) than he threw TD passes (5) without Zeke.
- Dallas won't have a winning record at home for the fifth time in nine seasons. The Cowboys are 3-4 there and 37-34 in the regular season since 2009.
- The Rams' Todd Gurley is the second player in Rams' history to have 1,800 scrimmage yards and at least 14 touchdowns through the first 14 games. Hall-of-Famer Eric Dickerson is the other.
- The Rams need 16 points to set a single-season franchise road record. They have 235 for the season, with the 2001 Rams (250) holding the club mark.