OUR SUNDAY BEST
Carolina @ New Orleans
The time: 8:30 p.m., EST
The line: Saints by 3
The story: Talk about a surprise. New Orleans was supposed to be in the mix for supremacy of the NFC South, but Carolina? Puh-leeze. The Panthers looked like a doormat waiting to happen, with their coach, Ron Rivera, on everyone's Hot Seat list. But now? Now, they're the league's hottest act, riding an eight-game win streak and threatening to bounce the Saints from first place in their division.
So this is a big game, but it's bigger for New Orleans than it is the Panthers, and here's why: The Saints must ... absolutely, must ... be home for the playoffs if they're serious about reaching the Super Bowl. Reason: Dome teams that go outdoors for the postseason are doomed teams, and no need to remind the Saints. They're 0-3 in road playoff games under Sean Payton.
So there should be an urgency for New Orleans. Unfortunately, there's also a problem, and it's the Carolina defense. Nobody in the league is stingier, with the Panthers allowing an average of 13.1 points per game and checking seven of their 12 opponents to 10 or fewer points. Furthermore, the Saints are operating on a short week, having played in Seattle on Monday when they were so bad even their charter couldn't get off the ground.
Nevertheless, they have something to prove, and talk about being in the right place at the right time: They haven't lost at home this season and won their last 14 regular-season games there under Sean Payton.
Something to consider: Under Payton, the Saints are 7-1 on Sunday nights, including 5-0 at home.
THREE OTHERS WORTH CHECKING OUT
Detroit @ Philadelphia
The time: 1 p.m., EST
The line: Eagles by 3
The story: There's been a lot of talk about Eagles quarterback Nick Foles and what he's done with coach Chip Kelly's offense, and there should be. The guy's been so marvelous (19 touchdowns, no interceptions and the league's best passer rating) that Kelly this week called him his quarterback "for the next 1,000 years."
OK, that was an attempt to end weekly questions about the quarterback position, and maybe it works. What Kelly didn't talk about is the Eagles' defense, and that may be the key to the team's success here. Philadelphia hasn't allowed more than 21 points in its last eight games, and that's a start.
But so is this: The Eagles have nearly twice as many interceptions this season (15) as last year (eight) when their defense was a sieve, and that's worth remembering because Detroit quarterback Matt Stafford is prone to mistakes. In fact, he has 10 interceptions the past five games, and if that doesn't change the Lions are in trouble.
Something to consider: Detroit hasn't allowed a rushing touchdown the past eight games.
Indianapolis @ Cincinnati
The time: 1 p.m., EST
The line: Bengals by 6
The story: This game shouldn't be as good on the field as it looks on paper. Yes, Indianapolis will win the NFC South, and, yes, it scored impressive victories over Seattle, Denver and San Francisco. But, no, the Colts are not one of the league's best and brightest -- stumbling along since their upset of Denver, unable to produce points in bunches and too often having to play catch-up with opponents.
Basically, the Colts are in something of a funk, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the play of quarterback Andrew Luck. In his last four starts he has two touchdown passes and five interceptions, and that must change if these guys are to make a contest of this one.
Remember, Cincinnati hasn't lost at home this season, and its defense is playing so well that, despite the losses of cornerback Leon Hall and defensive tackle Geno Atkins, the Bengals have 10 takeaways the past three games.
Something to consider: Indianapolis won five of its last six in December and seven of its last nine vs. the Bengals.
Seattle @ San Francisco
The time: 4:25 p.m., EST
The line: 49ers by 2 1/2
The story: The Seahawks are the best team in the NFL and smoked the 49ers the last two times they played, including a 29-3 beatdown earlier this season. So what's with that point spread? Well, Seattle is on a short week, doesn't have the 12th Man here and hasn't won in San Francisco since 2008. Plus, oddsmakers figure it's payback time, with the 49ers determined to prove they're not as bad as their last two performances vs. Seattle when they were outscored 71-16.
Figure this to be a low-scoring event, with turnovers dictating who wins. San Francisco's Frank Gore has a history of success vs. Seattle, with his two best rushing performances vs. the Seahawks, but Gore isn't the catalyst to a San Francisco victory. Defense is, with the 49ers determined to do what others cannot: Frazzle quarterback Russell Wilson. He hasn't thrown an interception in six of his last seven starts, all of them victories.
His counterpart, Colin Kaepernick, hasn't thrown one in his last two starts, and that's good. But this isn't: In his last two starts vs. Seattle he has one touchdown pass, four interceptions and two losses.
Something to consider: The 49ers are one of only five teams this season that haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher.
MONDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
Dallas @ Chicago
The time: 8:40 p.m., EST
The line: Cowboys by 1
The story: Consider this a wake-up call for both teams. Dallas is a notoriously bad finisher, too often pulling el foldo down the stretch, while Chicago has been in retreat lately, losing three of its last four, and four of its last six.
The Bears are still in the race for the NFC North, but that's more a testament to how bad the division is, with no one able ... or willing ... to run away from the field. Quarterback Josh McCown makes his fourth straight start, and while he's been decent (nine touchdowns, one interception) the Bears haven't been. Their issues are more with a porous defense, and that could be a problem vs. Dallas quarterback Tony Romo.
But that's where the wake-up call comes in. Romo is 11-15 in December, a record so bad that even owner Jerry Jones felt obligated this week to address it. The solution? Well, maybe more of running back DeMarco Murray and less Romo. It worked last week when Murray scored three times in a come-from-behind defeat.
Now the Cowboys are up against the league's 32nd-ranked run defense, and it doesn't take an Einstein to figure out what that could mean. Plus, there's this: Dallas is 10-0 when Murray has 20 or more carries.
Something to consider: Romo has the highest fourth-quarter passer rating (102.5) of all time, ahead of Aaron Rodgers (100.8) and Steve Young (97.9).
CRUMMY GAME OF THE WEEK
Buffalo @ Tampa Bay
The time: 1 p.m., EST
The line: Bucs by 2 1/2
The story: There's little more at stake here than draft position. Both teams are stuck at the bottom of their divisions, with Tampa Bay showing enough of a pulse that maybe, just maybe, coach Greg Schiano escapes the firing squad when the season's over. I say maybe. A loss here would tighten the squeeze on a coach who has no margin for error.
Something to consider: Tampa Bay quarterback Mike Glennon has a 110.8 passer rating in his last five starts.
FIVE GUYS IT'S GOOD TO BE
--1. San Francisco linebacker Aldon Smith. He has four sacks in his last four games vs. Seattle.
--2. Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch. In his last four starts vs. San Francisco, he's averaged 104.8 yards and scored six times, including four rushing touchdowns.
--3. Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams. In his last eight games vs. New Orleans he has eight touchdowns.
--4. Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. He has four sacks in his last two home games.
--5. Arizona defensive end Calais Campbell. He has four sacks in his last three homes games vs. St. Louis.
BELIEVE IT ... OR DON'T
--1. It's cold in Denver, with temperatures Sunday predicted to be in the teens for Sunday's game, and that's better for Tennessee than it is Denver quarterback Peyton Manning. He's 3-7 when the thermometer hits 32 or below, with 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
--2. The Baltimore Ravens are 14-2 at home when the temperature at kickoff is 40 degrees or colder. It is expected to be in the mid-30s Sunday.
--3. New England won 16 of its last 17 games in December.
--4. Miami has never won a game at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field.
--5. With one touchdown pass Sunday, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger breaks the club record of 212 set by Terry Bradshaw.
--6. Miami coach Joe Philbin has lost six games, but he hasn't lost a challenge. He's five-for-five when challenging calls.
--7. There have been 14 teams this season that overcame 14-point deficits to win.
--8. New England twice this season hasn't committed a penalty in a game, the first time that's happened in franchise history.
--9. Dallas defensive end DeMarcus Ware aims for his fourth straight Monday Night game with a sack.
--10. New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski nailed his last 21 fourth-quarter field-goal attempts, including two 53-yarders last week.
TEN NUMBERS THAT MIGHT MEAN SOMETHING
--0-2 -- New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning vs. the team that drafted him, San Diego.
--0-3 -- Broncos coach John Fox vs. Tennessee.
--4 -- 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin's 100-yard games vs. Seattle.
--6 -- Saints tight end Jimmy Graham's 100-yard receiving games.
--13-5 -- Quarterback Peyton Manning vs. Tennessee, including five straight wins.
--17-3 -- Record of cornerback Darrelle Revis' teams when he has an interception.
--27 -- Straight Justin Tucker field goals without a miss.
--46-6 -- New England's record in December since 2001.
--87 -- Times kicker Adam Vinatieri has accounted for his team's margin of victory, second best in NFL history.
--132.7 -- Saints quarterback Drew Brees' passer rating in his last two home starts vs. Carolina.
-- Clark Judge, a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange, has covered pro football since 1982 and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selections Committee.