Week 15 Sunday Picks: Falcons out to show they’re legitimate Super Bowl contenders

Brian McIntyre
Shutdown Corner

New York Giants at Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons are in the midst of the most successful period in the organization's history but have yet to win the playoff game necessary to validate the Mike Smith/Thomas Dimitroff Era. The Giants have won the last four meetings between the two franchises, including a 24-2 win in last year's wild-card playoffs. If the Falcons want to be taken seriously in January, they need to beat a team like the Giants in December.

Pick: Falcons 23, Giants 21

Denver Broncos at Baltimore Ravens

If you believe in things like karma, or the "football gods," you've probably noticed that the Ravens haven't looked like "The Ravens" since running a fake field goal when they were up 24 points late in the third quarter of a 55-20 win over the Oakland Raiders. Back-to-back losses has kept the AFC North up for grabs and the Ravens'  final three games on the schedule are against teams fighting for either playoff positioning (Denver) or spots in the postseason (N.Y. Giants, Cincinnati). The Broncos are red-hot, winning eight straight, but have lost to the Falcons, Texans and Patriots, so they're still seeking that signature win over a playoff-caliber team. Beating the Ravens would add that to their resume

Pick: Broncos 28, Ravens 20

Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears

The Packers have won four straight and seven of their last nine games in this classic rivalry that will reach a 184th game this Sunday at Soldier Field. The Packers have overcome injuries to their offensive line, and key players such as Greg Jennings, Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson to overtake the Bears and have a chance to clinch the NFC North on Sunday. Meanwhile, the Bears are banged up, with Jay Cutler reportedly battling a sprained MCL in addition to a neck injury. With four losses in their last five games, the Bears have shown that they're not as resilient or as deep as the Packers.

Pick: Packers 30, Bears 24

Washington Redskins at Cleveland Browns

Whether or not Robert Griffin starts may not be officially determined until Sunday, but the Redskins do have a capable alternative in fourth-round pick Kirk Cousins, who came off the bench to toss an 11-yard touchdown to Pierre Garcon before using his legs to score the game-tying two-point conversion in Sunday's 31-28 overtime over the Ravens. As a Michigan native, Cousins will be ready to face and beat an Ohio-based team.

Pick: Redskins 20, Browns 16

[Related: Nonsense RG3 race rant from ESPN talking head goes too far]

Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans

The Colts have dominated the regular-season series, winning 17 of 20 meetings, including eight of the last 10. Even without Peyton Manning, the Colts beat the playoff-bound Texans 19-16 in Indianapolis last December. The arrival of Andrew Luck, and the Colts' rallying around head coach Chuck Pagano, has them headed toward the playoffs, so any thoughts the Texans may have had of dominating the AFC South for the next decade in the same way that the Colts dominated the division in the Manning years, can be tossed out the window.

Pick: Colts 23, Texans 21

Jacksonville Jaguars at Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins let quarterback Chad Henne walk after last season, opting instead to pursue Peyton Manning, Matt Flynn and Alex Smith before adding David Garrard and selecting Ryan Tannehill in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft. Signed to a two-year, $6.75 million contract by the Jaguars, Henne took over for an injured Blaine Gabbert and immediately showed signs he belonged in the mix to start in 2013. Henne has cooled the last two games, however, completing 40 of 85 attempts for 387 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions.

Pick: Dolphins 17, Jaguars 13

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints

Saints quarterback Drew Brees has struggled during the current three-game losing streak, tossing nine interceptions in losses to the 49ers, Falcons and Giants. Life could get easier for Brees against a Buccaneers pass defense that ranks 32nd in passing yards allowed per game, 31st in passing yards allowed per play and that has just two interceptions in its last four games.

Pick: Saints 34, Buccaneers 28

[Also: Eagles' Andy Reid not going down without a fight]

Minnesota Vikings at St. Louis Rams

In the first season under Jeff Fisher, the Rams have improved from 22nd to 10th in total defense and 31st to 13th against the run. That revamped run defense will be challenged by Adrian Peterson, who has his sights set on Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing yards record (2,105). Rams middle linebacker James Laurinaitis (back) was held out of practice on Wednesday and Thursday but is one of the few defensive players in the league to have not missed a snap this season and should suit up against the Vikings.

Pick: Rams 23, Vikings 20

Detroit Lions at Arizona Cardinals

With the Cardinals losing nine straight and unable to locate a quarterback in the post-Kurt Warner Era, Ken Whisenhunt may be coaching to save his job over the final three weeks of the season. The same could be said of Jim Schwartz, who may have inherited a dumpster fire of a team in 2009, but the lack of discipline that persists on and off the field is as big a problem as the team's current five-game losing streak.

Pick: Lions 31, Cardinals 14

Seattle Seahawks at Buffalo Bills

The Seahawks and Bills will meet in the Rodgers Centre in Toronto. Not sure what the exchange rates are these days, but the only numbers pertinent to this meeting is the 3,043 yards and 27 touchdowns that Marshawn Lynch has posted in the 40 regular-season games he's played since being acquired from the Bills in October of 2010, exceeding the 2,765 yards and 17 touchdowns he accumulated in 45 games as a member of the Bills.

Pick: Seahawks 27, Bills 17

[Also: Roger Goodell, NFL considering playoff expansion]

Carolina Panthers at San Diego Chargers

Ron Rivera spent four seasons with the Chargers, the final three years as the defensive coordinator on Norv Turner's coaching staff before he landed the Panthers' head-coaching job. With the Panthers' firing of GM Marty Hurney, Rivera could be joining Turner on the job market in January, even though Carolina has won two of their last three games, including an impressive 30-20 win over the Falcons in Week 14.

Pick: Chargers 24, Panthers 23

Pittsburgh Steelers at Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant has not yet been medically cleared to play with a fractured left index finger, but with the playoffs on the line, he plans on delaying surgery and suiting up.

"Only thing y'all need to know is I'm playing," Bryant said after Thursday's practice.

Questions about his maturity level may justifiably persist, but few can question Bryant's toughness or passion for the game after he caught a 27-yard touchdown pass in a key win last week over the Bengals after suffering his finger injury. Bryant has arrived this season, catching 75 passes for 1,028 yards and nine touchdowns, seven of which have come over the last five weeks. With the hot streak he's currently on, why wouldn't he want to play against a Steelers team that may not have Ike Taylor on Sunday?

Pick: Cowboys 23, Steelers 21

Kansas City Chiefs at Oakland Raiders

They may be a combined 5-21 entering Sunday's action, but this old AFL rivalry is always fun to watch. Two things worth tuning if for are Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles' bounce-back season, with Charles ranking fifth in the NFL with 1,220 rushing yards after missing most of the 2011 season with a torn ACL. The Raiders have one of the league's worst run defenses, allowing an average of 156 yards over the last seven games. On the Raiders' side, the team may finally let 2011 supplemental draft choice Terrelle Pryor play in a regular-season game.

Pick: Raiders 28, Chiefs 27

San Francisco 49ers at New England Patriots

Did someone order a Super Bowl preview? The Patriots can light up the scoreboard, ranking first in the NFL with a 36.3 points per game average, scoring 97 more points this season than the second-place team (Denver). The 49ers are tops in the league at preventing opponents from scoring, allowing a league-best 14.2 points per game this season. The X-factor should be 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has completed 82 of 120 pass attempts (68.3 percent) for 984 yards with three touchdowns and one interception since replacing a concussed Alex Smith. The 6-foot-3, 233-pound Kaepenick also has 240 yards and three touchdowns rushing, including runs of 50 yards in each of the last two games.

If the Patriots can't keep Kaepenick in the pocket, or Justin Smith and Aldon Smith off Tom Brady, they could be in for a long night. Something tells me Bill Belichick, Matt Patricia and Dante Scarnecchia are aware of that and will have a pretty good plan in place for Sunday night.

Pick: Patriots 27, 49ers 23

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