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2011 NFL Week 16 Primer

Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett smiles on the sideline while playing against the Philadelphia Eagles during the fourth quarter of their NFL football game in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, January 2, 2011. REUTERS/Tim Shaffer (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

MARQUE MATCHUP: Falcons vs. Saints, 8:30PM ET, Monday
From Giants-Jets to Chargers-Lions, there is no shortage of solid matchups on the Week 16 schedule. But it doesn’t get any bigger than Atlanta-New Orleans on Monday night. With a victory, the Saints will clinch the NFC South and keep themselves in contention for the No. 2 seed in the conference playoff picture. With a victory, the Falcons would clinch a playoff berth and remain in contention with the Saints for the NFC South crown. But for Atlanta, this game means much more than clinching a spot in the postseason. If they lose, they could accomplish the same thing next week at home against the hapless Buccaneers. No, a victory over the Saints in New Orleans would prove that the Falcons have the pieces in place to take down one of the elite teams in the conference. A win would also go a long way in instilling confidence in a Falcons team that has been inconsistent all season. Beat the seemingly unbeatable Saints on their home turf and the sky is the limit when it comes to the playoffs. Lose and have doubts remain about whether or not you can beat any of the top teams in the NFC. With cornerbacks Brent Grimes (knee) and Kelvin Hayden (toe) expected to return this Monday, the Falcons should be at full-strength defensively. And given how good Matt Ryan has looked running Atlanta’s no-huddle attack recently, the Falcons certainly have the weapons to pull off the upset in New Orleans. But whether or not they can do it is another question, especially considering the Saints are averaging nearly 40 points a game at home this season.

THE POTENITAL (NOTEWORTHY) UPSET: Eagles over Cowboys, 1:00PM ET, Saturday
Three weeks ago the Cowboys had a golden opportunity to take a two-game lead over the Giants in the NFC East and they went out and lost to the Cardinals in overtime. The following week, they blew their one-game lead over the Giants when they lost to New York at home, 37-34. My point is that the Cowboys have been in these positions before, when they’ve had chances to improve their standing in the division only to choke the opportunity away. They now have a one-game lead over the Giants again after New York inexcusably lost to the Redskins at home (a game in which I highlighted in this section last week). Now Dallas has a chance to either hold onto its one-game lead or win the division outright with a victory and a New York loss to the Jets. But something tells me Jason Garrett’s squad could choke on applesauce again. Philadelphia has been the most inconsistent team in the league this year but Andy Reid’s team is certainly capable of going into Dallas and knocking off the Cowboys in grand fashion. And if the Giants beat the Jets earlier in the day, the ‘Boys are even more likely to succumb to the pressure.

THE GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY: GREEN BAY PACKERS (vs. Bears, 8:20PM ET, Sunday)
It doesn’t get any easier for the Packers to clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC. All they have to do is beat the rudderless Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field on Christmas night and then they can rest their starters for two weeks if they choose to. Of course, they just lost to a rudderless Kansas City team a week ago so it’ll be interesting to see how Green Bay responds on Sunday. The Bears have looked completely inept offensively since Jay Cutler and Matt Forte went down with injuries (and justifiably so), but their defense has be known to keep Green Bay’s offense in check. Just last year, the Bears held the Packers to 10 points in Green Bay on a cold January afternoon at Lambeau and if Josh McCown can somehow revive Chicago’s dead offense, the Bears could pull off the upset. (Hey, crazier things have happened.) That said, this is a game the Pack should win. Again, it doesn’t get any easier for them to clinch the No. 1 seed in the conference.

PUT UP OR SHUT UP: DETROIT LIONS (vs. Chargers, 4:15PM ET, Saturday)
It’s been over a decade since the Lions made an appearance in the playoffs and it’s been nearly two decades since they won a postseason game. But they have a chance this Saturday to do something they haven’t done since 1999: Play past Week 17. All they have to do is beat the suddenly surging San Diego Chargers at Ford Field. Granted, even if the Lions lose they can still win next week and clinch a playoff spot. But next week they play at Green Bay and there’s no telling what the Packers will do in terms of resting starters. Thus, it’s best if Detroit handles its own business this weekend by knocking off San Diego, but it won’t be easy. Over the past three weeks the Bolts have played like everyone expected them to at the start of the year. Suddenly Philip Rivers has stopped turning the ball over, Ryan Mathews is running like a man possessed, and the defense has been lights out. Not that they would but if the Lions think the Chargers are going to waltz into Ford Field and lie down, than Detroit has another thing coming. Keep in mind that the Lions’ secondary is still banged up, which obviously plays into the hands of Norv Turner and his vertical passing attack. It’ll be interesting to see if Jim Schwartz’s squad can rise to the challenge and play with a little composure for once. If not, the Lions will put a ton of pressure on themselves to beat the Packers next week and end their horrific playoff drought.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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2011 NFL Week 16 Point Spreads & Odds

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is sacked by Loins Nick Fairley for a 1yard loss during first quarter action against the Detroit Lions at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 4, 2011. UPI/A.J. Sisco

Four spreads of note:

Falcons +6.5 @ Saints, 8:30PM ET, Monday
The spread opened at 7.5 but has dropped a full point to 6.5 at most sports books, although some places still list the line at a touchdown. For as unbeatable as the Saints have been at home this year (both literally and figuratively), 7.5 points was too high. Quite frankly, I think 6.5 points is too high considering this is a divisional game and the fact that the Falcons are 11-5 against the spread in their last 16 trips to New Orleans but 6.5 makes more sense than 7.5. Again, Drew Brees and New Orleans has been a juggernaut at home this season but there has been a different feel to this Atlanta team the past two weeks. Ever since they trailed Carolina 23-7 at halftime a couple of weeks ago, the Falcons have played perfect football. That’s not to say Atlanta will pull off the upset on Monday night, but their no-huddle attack has looked very efficient these past six quarters and even though the competition (Carolina and Jacksonville) hasn’t been good, the Falcons appear to have finally found some consistency on offense. It’s not a stretch to think this game will be tight throughout.

Giants +3 @ Jets, 1:00PM ET, Saturday
What on God’s green earth do you do with this game? This isn’t really a true home game for the Jets since the Giants play in the same stadium, but it’s not like the G-Men have played well at home this year anyway. They lost to Seattle at home, barely beat Buffalo and Miami at home, and lost to Philadelphia, Green Bay and Washington at home as well. Their signature victories this year came on the road against New England and Dallas, respectively, so I’m not sure there’s an advantage for the Giants to play a home “road” game versus the Jets this weekend. Given how bad both of these teams looked last week, I wouldn’t touch this game with your money. The over is 4-0 in the Giants’ last four games as an underdog and 4-0 in the Jets’ last four home games overall, so maybe I would toy with the total. But in my eyes there’s little to no value in the side.

Rams +15.5 @ Steelers, 1:00PM ET
Make no mistake the Rams are a horrendous football team. If they were to play the Colts on a neutral field tomorrow, I’d have no qualms about taking Indianapolis. That said, the Steelers’ offense has been in a funk of late and there’s a good chance that Ben Roethlisberger will be held out for Saturday’s game. He clearly didn’t look right on Monday night in San Francisco and seeing as how the Steelers could beat the Rams with Charlie Batch under center, there’s no sense in playing Big Ben. That said, even if the Steelers could win with Batch it doesn’t mean that St. Louis can’t stay within two touchdowns of Pittsburgh (even on the road). Kellen Clemens had some success last week versus the Bengals because Josh McDaniels scaled back the playbook and kept things simple. McDaniels is likely to do that again this week, especially against a nasty Pittsburgh defense. Thus, if both teams are playing things close to the vest, 15.5 points is a little high for what could be a 10 or 13-point game.

Eagles +1 @ Cowboys, 4:15PM ET Saturday
With this being a divisional game that has impact on the NFC East race, there’s already plenty of interest in this matchup. But throw in the fact that Dallas opened as a 3-point favorite and is now down to –1 makes this game even more intriguing from an odds standpoint. It’s rare when oddsmakers open a line at 3 and move off that number, unless it’s to go up to 3.5. It’s not often that a spread opens at 3 and drops all the way down to 1 unless there’s a significant injury, which isn’t the case here. Methinks there may have been some heavy action on Philadelphia when the line opened, forcing bookmakers to adjust right away. Either way, I’m extremely interested in seeing how much this line dances over these next couple of days.

2011 NFL Week 16 Odds:

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Five Questions for Week 16 in the NFL

Every Tuesday I’ll take a look at the five biggest questions surrounding NFL teams for that week. This week I take a look at the huge Monday night matchup in the NFC South, the “Battle for New York” and the late-pushing Chargers.

Atlanta Falcons Matt Ryan throws in the second half of their NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints in Atlanta, Georgia November 13, 2011. REUTERS/Tami Chappell (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

1. Can the Falcons be the team to slow the Saints?
The Saints have looked unbeatable the past six weeks. If there’s one team that could knock off the Packers in the playoffs, it’s universally believed to be New Orleans . While they’ve been inconsistent and conservative on the road at times, they’ve been unstoppable on their home turf. Considering they already knocked off the Falcons in Atlanta earlier this year, what makes anyone think the Saints will lose on Monday night when they host their biggest rivals on primetime? For starters, the Falcons have looked like a completely different team since they faced a 23-7 deficit in Carolina two weeks ago. They scored 24 unanswered points to beat the Panthers and then turned around four days later and humiliated the Jaguars in every facet of the game last Thursday. Granted, beating Carolina and Jacksonville is a little less daunting than bringing down the Saints in New Orleans . But if Matt Ryan and the Falcons have finally found some consistency offensively thanks to their no-huddle attack, then there’s no reason to believe Atlanta can’t go score-for-score with the Saints on Monday. Remember, this isn’t the same opportunistic defense that the Saints had in 2009 when they won the Super Bowl. The Falcons should be able to move the ball with their assortment of weapons. But again, beating Brees on his home turf will be Atlanta ’s toughest task of the year. If they can pull it off, the Falcons won’t just have a shot to win the NFC South – they’ll have confidence that they can beat anyone.

2. Which New York team will rise to the challenge?
Despite their epic fail in Philadelphia over the weekend, the Jets are still in good shape in the AFC (where they’re currently the sixth seed in the conference). But considering Rex Ryan’s defense just allowed 45 points to the Eagles and Mark Sanchez is still their quarterback, the Jets can’t feel too good about their present situation. The same can be said for the Giants, who failed to show up last Sunday against the Redskins. Their 23-10 loss to Washington came just seven days after their huge 37-34 win over the Cowboys (a win that allowed them to temporarily claim first place in the NFC East), so it was more than a little surprising that the G-Men didn’t bother to get up for Rex Grossman and Co. Searching for answers, the Giants will now put their playoff hopes on the line against a Jet team in a similar boat. At this point, it’s hard to figure out which team has an advantage, or if there’s even one to be had. If Eli Manning takes care of the football and the Giant defense shuts down Shonn Greene, then the G-Men shouldn’t have any problems collecting a huge victory. But the Giants never make anything easy, so flip a coin when it comes to which team will show up on Saturday. Whichever one does is going to have a shot at playing beyond next week, while the loser is potentially looking at a long offseason.

3. Can the Chargers make things really interesting in the AFC West?
The Chargers, those sand-bagging sons of bitches, are now just one game behind the Broncos in the AFC West after rattling off three consecutive wins. Just a few weeks ago Norv Turner looked like he was heading for the unemployment line and now San Diego has a legitimate shot of catching Denver in the division. That said, the Bolts have a tough task this Saturday. They play a Lions team with playoff aspirations of its own, and even if the Bolts can take care of their own business they still need Denver to lose in Buffalo. But we’ve seen a run like this before out of San Diego. In 2008 they were sitting at 4-8 before rattling off four straight wins to sneak into the playoffs and wound up upsetting the Colts in the Wild Card round before losing to the Steelers the following week. Thus, if there’s a team that could make things interesting not only in the AFC West but in the entire conference, it’s the Bolts. So strap in tight: Turner’s boys still have life.

4. Will the AFC North crown be decided in the final week?
To answer my own question, I’m sure it will. The Steelers host the hapless Rams this Saturday while the Ravens host the punchless Browns. Neither Pittsburgh nor Baltimore are expected to lose, so first place in the division will come down to the final week. But something of note is how inept the Steelers looked offensively on Monday night. Granted, San Francisco has one of the top defenses in the league but Pittsburgh continues to struggle on the offensive side of the ball. Outside of a 35-point effort against the Bengals in Week 13, the Steelers have managed just 13, 35, 14 and 3 points in their last four games. Ben Roethlisberger didn’t look right against the Niners on that bad ankle, which could severely affect the Steelers’ chances of repeating as AFC champions. While their defense is still solid, there’s no denying that Pittsburgh’s offense is in a funk. And if they can’t wrangle home field advantage away from the Ravens these next two weeks then Pittsburgh has a tough roe to hoe come playoff time.

5. Will the top seeds in both conferences be decided after this week?
All the Packers need to do to clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC is beat the Bears on Sunday night, which they should. But there could be some jockeying for the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in the conference these next two weeks as the Niners and Saints are each tied at 11-3. While the Saints have a tough game against the Falcons on Monday night, the Niners play a rejuvenated Seahawks team in Seattle on Saturday. Thus, it’s possible that we could see a one-game separation between San Fran and New Orleans for the right to have home field advantage and a first round bye. In the AFC, the Patriots have moved ahead of the Ravens and Texans for the moment, but they still need to win out or have Baltimore or Houston lose. The Patriots host the Dolphins and Bills these next two weeks, so it’s very likely that New England will be the top seed. Baltimore hosts Cleveland and Houston plays at Indy so there may not be a change between the Ravens (who are the No. 2 seed by virtue of tiebreakers) and the Texans (who are the No. 3 seed) this week.

Michael Turner’s groin is fine, should play against Saints

ATLANTA - SEPTEMBER 19: Michael Turner  of the Atlanta Falcons walks to the locker room with trainers after injuring his groin against the Arizona Cardinals at Georgia Dome on September 19, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

I don’t know why I didn’t realize this before, but I just re-read the headline to this piece and it hit me that part of my job is to write about other mens’ groins.

Mom must be proud.

Falcons head coach Mike Smith reiterated today what he confirmed yesterday following Atlanta’s 41-7 thrashing of the Cardinals: Michael Turner is fine and barring a setback, will play against the Saints this Sunday.

After rushing for 75 yards on nine carries in the first quarter against the Cardinals, Turner suffered a groin injury and wasn’t inserted back into the game. But he didn’t need to go back in, as the Falcons built a big lead thanks in part to Jason Snelling’s (24 carries, 129 yards, 3 total TDs) monster day. It would have been foolish had Turner gone back into a blowout and risk further injury.

With a trip to New Orleans coming up this Sunday, the Falcons will need a healthy “Burner.” The Saints’ biggest weakness defensively is arguably up the gut and with the way Atlanta ran the ball yesterday against Arizona, having the backfield duo of Turner and Snelling is vital. The key to beating the Saints is a) getting pressure on Drew Brees and b) keeping him and his offense off the field. The Falcons can accomplish one of those two goals with a healthy dose of Turner and Snelling.

That said, this is also a game that Matt Ryan needs to step up. He played extremely well in the win over the Cardinals (21-32, 225 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs), but he failed to make plays against the Steelers in Week 1. That’s not to say that he didn’t play well, he just didn’t play well enough. When Pittsburgh shut Atlanta’s running game down, Ryan couldn’t come up with that one play in the passing game to turn the momentum on its head. If he’s in a similar situation this Sunday, it’s time for “Matty Ice” to produce.

This will be a great test for a team that many consider to be a sleeper Super Bowl contender this season. If Turner is 100%, the Falcons certainly have enough weapons to go toe-to-toe with the most explosive offense in the NFC. The Saints and Falcons played two thrilling games last year (both NO victories), and their first meeting this season should be more of the same.

Is the NFC South on the line tonight?

With over eight games remaining on the schedule, it might be a little early to suggest that a division winner could be theoretically crowned tonight in the NFC South, but a closer look reveals otherwise.

At 6-0, the Saints currently have a two game lead over the 4-2 Falcons in the division. A win tonight and New Orleans will open up a three game lead over Atlanta with nine games remaining for each team. Granted, a lot could happen in nine games but barring injury to Drew Brees the Saints don’t look like a team that will implode in the second half.

A quick peak at the rest of the Saints’ schedule reveals very winnable games against the Panthers (twice), Rams, Bucs (twice) and the Redskins. The only games that present a challenge are home dates with the Patriots (Week 12) and Cowboys (Week 15), as well as a trip to Atlanta in Week 14. The Falcons have a longer roe to hoe, with road games against the Giants and Jets, as well as home games against the Eagles, Saints and pesky Bills. So with all things considered, a loss tonight and a three-game hole would be incredibly tough to climb out of if you’re Atlanta.

Even at 4-2, the Falcons have a lot to prove. Michael Turner is averaging a full YPC less than he did last season, Matt Ryan started off hot but is now fading and the defense has major issues in the secondary. After they were spanked last week in Dallas, the Falcons need a good showing tonight in New Orleans not just to keep pace in the NFC South, but also to prove to themselves that they’re a legitimate playoff contender.

Atlanta will certainly be tested tonight. The Saints have the most balanced offensive attack in the league and if the Falcons can’t generate any pressure on Brees, he’ll light up a secondary that is athletic, but is often overmatched in coverage do to lack of size (Brent Grimes) or technique (Chris Houston). The Falcons’ corners don’t play well in man-to-man coverage, so blitzing extra linebackers isn’t always a possibility. That means the front four of John Abraham, Jonathan Babineaux, Jamaal Anderson and Chauncey Davis must step up and provide a consistent pass rush or else Atlanta will get torched.

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