New Orleans @ Carolina
The time: 1 p.m., EST
The line: Panthers by 3
The story: It's not just the NFC South that's at stake here; it's playoff positioning, too. Neither of these teams wants to be a wild card because neither of these teams wins on the road. The Saints are 3-4 there, averaging 14 fewer points per game at home, and the Panthers' Cam Newton
is 11-12 on the road.
So there's plenty of incentive, but it's Carolina that has the advantage ... and not just because it's home but because it's hot. The Panthers won nine of their last 10, including victories over San Francisco and New England, and the Saints have stumbled, dropping two of their last three -- with quarterback throwing just two touchdowns in those games and getting sacked five times.
Brees and the Saints know how to reach the playoffs. Carolina does not ... at least not under Newton. But Carolina has been one of the league's best and brightest teams lately, and they haven't lost at home since the season opener. Moreover, their defense allows the fewest points in the league. OK, so he shredded the Panthers for four touchdowns two weeks ago. That won't happen again. Not here. Not now.
Something to consider: Carolina leads the league in time of possession and most series of five or more minutes and is fifth in most drives of 10 or more plays.
THREE OTHERS WORTH CHECKING OUT
New England @ Baltimore
The time: 4:25 p.m, EST
The line: Ravens by 2 1/2
The story: A week ago, New England was in position to start locking down home-field advantage for the playoffs. Now the Patriots aren't sure what's next, wondering just where they fit in the postseason picture -- especially with the defending Super Bowl champion up next.
Trust me, Baltimore will be tougher, much tougher, than Miami a week ago. It's not just that the Ravens are home, where they won 30 of their last 34; it's that they don't back down from New England, winning three of their last four against the Pats -- including two of three in the playoffs.
Plus, there's this: Baltimore is hot, winning its last four and five of its last six, and the Ravens are the one opponent Tom Brady
has trouble solving. Yeah, OK, so he's 5-3 against them. He also has eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions, the only opponent against which he has more giveaways than TDs.
Brady carried the Patriots all season, and the grind is beginning to show. Without tight end Rob Gronkowski, he's short of playmakers he can trust, and that could swing this game. Of course, so could the New England defense, which hasn't been good this season and not good, period, vs. Joe Flacco
through the years. In his last four starts vs. the Patriots, Flacco has 10 TDs, two interceptions and a 109.8 passer rating.
Flacco and the Ravens need this game to stay in the playoff picture. Brady and the Patriots need this game to hold their playoff position. New England is wobbling; Baltimore is not. Advantage: Ravens.
Something to consider: The Ravens have been in an NFL-high nine games this season where the score was decided by three or fewer points. They're 5-4. New England has been in seven, the second most, and is 6-1.
Arizona @ Seattle
The time: 4:05 p.m., EST
The line: Seahawks by 10 1/2
The story: Arizona has been one of the feel-good stories of the year, with coach Bruce Arians resurrecting a franchise that went dry after Kurt Warner retired. The Cards not only are 9-5 but won six of their last seven starts, tying for the league's best record during that period. Nevertheless, all things must pass, and the Cards will have trouble -- big trouble -- getting anything done here.
First of all, it's Seattle, the best team in the league and an opponent that outscored Arizona 92-22 the last two times they met, including a 58-0 beatdown in Seattle. Second, the Seahawks are home, where they haven't lost in two years. Last, the Seahawks can clinch home-field advantage with a victory.
Carson Palmer returned to the Cards' practice on Thursday, but wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald
is iffy -- waiting to be cleared from a concussion he suffered last week. Both are critical to Arizona's hopes, but those hopes are slim. Remember, the last time these two played, Palmer was sacked seven times and intercepted twice.
Something to consider: Seattle's Russell Wilson is 14-0 at home, with 31 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Chicago @ Philadelphia
The time: 8:30 p.m., EST
The line: Eagles by 3
The story: So now Chicago is the team to beat in the NFC North ... at least it is this week. But the task ahead is daunting. First, there's Philadelphia; then there's Green Bay, and first things first: The Eagles will be a tough out. Granted, they stunk in Minneapolis last week, but they won five of their last six -- including their last three at home -- and, like the Bears, are pushing for a division title.
But there's something else: Their quarterback, Nick Foles
, doesn't make the mistakes that Chicago's Jay Cutler
does -- with Foles throwing as many interceptions this season (two) as Cutler had the first half last week. More important, however, the Eagles can win without Foles. Running back LeSean McCoy this week called on coaches to put the offense on his shoulders, and it's easy to see why: The Eagles are the league's best rushing the ball, and the Bears are the league's worst at stopping the run.
Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs may return after seven games, and the Bears will need him. If they can't stop McCoy, they don't win.
Something to consider: Cutler won his last two vs. Philadelphia, with six touchdowns and no interceptions, and had a career-high 146.2 rating in his last game against the Eagles.
MONDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
Atlanta @ San Francisco
The time: 8:40 p.m., EST
The line: 49ers by 13
The story: Once upon a time, this looked like a must-see game between two teams in last season's NFC championship game. Then Atlanta imploded, and the game lost its luster. But it's not the contest that's the story here; it's the stadium. In all likelihood, this is the 49ers' last bow at Candlestick Park, and you better believe they want to make it a memorable one.
But that'll be tough considering the opponent. There's not much to like about Atlanta other than tight end Tony Gonzalez, but remember: This isn't about the game or a player. It's about The Stick. Still, if you're looking for 49ers to watch, start with tight end Vernon Davis. He shredded the Falcons in the conference title game, and he has 10 TDs in his last 11 starts -- including the past five.
Something to consider: San Francisco is the only team not to allow a 100-yard rusher this season.
CRUMMY GAME OF THE WEEK
Tennessee @ Jacksonville
The time: 1 p.m., EST
The line: Titans by 5
The story: Make this about Mike Munchak's future as head coach of the Titans ... if, in fact, there is a future. He absolutely, positively must close with a flourish to have a chance to return, and at least the schedule will cooperate: There's Jacksonville this week and Houston next.
Then, again, he didn't beat the Jags the first time they met this season. Moreover, Jacksonville finally has a pulse, winning four of its last six under new coach Gus Bradley. Contrast that with what Tennessee is doing -- the Titans lost eight of their last 10 -- and you see why Munchak better not send out his dry cleaning.
Something to consider: In his past three games vs. Jacksonville, Titans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has seven touchdowns, one interception and a rating of 110.2.
FIVE GUYS IT'S GOOD TO BE
--1. Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams. In his last eight games vs. New Orleans, he has 912 yards rushing (114 per game) and seven TDs.
--2. Denver quarterback Peyton Manning. He's 16-3 vs. Houston, with 44 TDs, eight interceptions and a passer rating of 108.5.
--3. Tennessee defensive tackle Jurrell Casey. He has a sack in each of his last three games vs. Jacksonville and a career-best 10.5 this season.
--4. Washington running back Alfred Morris. In three games vs. Dallas, he averages 131.3 yards rushing and has five TDs.
--5. Baltimore running back Ray Rice. He has three 100-yard games in six starts vs. New England.
BELIEVE IT OR DON'T
--1. Chicago has no fumble recoveries in the past 10 games, failing to recover opponents' last 10 fumbles.
--2. Oakland has allowed only three runs of 20 or more yards, best in the NFL.
--3. Quarterbacks Eli Manning
and Matt Stafford play each other Sunday, and figure on a lot of mistakes. The two combined for 48 turnovers this season.
--4. Philadelphia needs just eight 20-yard plays to tie the league record for most 20-yard gains in a season, a statistic that was first kept in 1995. The 2001 St. Louis Rams
hold the current record of 96.
--5. San Diego leads the league in third-down efficiency, converting 48.3 percent of its snaps. Denver is second at 46.9 and Carolina third at 45. 7.
--6. San Diego also has the fewest three-and-out series in the league (20), comprising 13.9 percent of their offense.
--7. San Francisco seven times this season produced 30 or more points, the most in franchise history since 1998.
--8. The Philadelphia Eagles
have doubled their interception total from last year when they had a league-low eight. They have 16, which ties them for ninth in the league.
--9. Larry Fitzgerald has five career rushing attempts vs. Seattle, more than he does against anyone else.
--10. Washington's London Fletcher hasn't missed a game in 16 years in the NFL. Fletcher, who says he's "99 percent sure" he'll retire after this year, has a string of 254 games in which he has played.
TEN NUMBERS THAT MAY MEAN SOMETHING
0-3 -- John Fox vs. Houston
4-0 -- New York Jets
' record when Geno Smith has a passer rating of 80 or better
5-1 -- Jeff Fisher vs. Tampa Bay
6-0 -- Cincinnati at home
10 -- Steve Smith TDs vs. New Orleans
11-0 -- 49ers' record when Colin Kaepernick has a passer rating of 100 or better
15 -- Average number of points allowed by Baltimore at home under John Harbaugh, best in the NFL
18 -- Touchdowns allowed by Carolina, fewest in the NFL
28-6 -- Philip Rivers in December
140 -- Kansas City points off turnovers, a league high
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