The NFC South this year might be the worst division in modern U.S. sports history. Nonetheless, we are ready to make some profit off it with our NFL picks. The Falcons opened at -3.5 on NFL odds.
If There's a Tie ....
I don't have a dog in this fight from a personal standpoint as a fan, but I am absolutely rooting for a tie between Carolina (6-8-1) and Atlanta (6-9) and a New Orleans (6-9) victory at Tampa Bay. Let's say those two things happen even though it's highly doubtful there's a tie; New Orleans is -3.5 on NFL odds vs. the Bucs. The Panthers would win the division even though New Orleans would have the most wins of any South team. How can that be? Essentially, the NFL considers a tie one half of a victory. So a tie would really have Carolina and New Orleans tied with seven "wins." They split two regular-season meetings but the Panthers would take the next tiebreaker, which is better record in the division. Crazy.
Another interesting thing to consider before placing your NFL picks is that it's quite possible the head coach of the Panthers-Falcons loser is fired -- more likely and probably a done deal if it's Atlanta. Mike Smith has made some terrible late-game decisions this year that probably cost his team a couple of wins. Carolina's Ron Rivera may be able to withstand a loss because he was the 2013 NFL Coach of the Year and got a contract extension.
I also expect the NFC South winner to host Arizona in the first round of the playoffs and that's a potentially great matchup for the South champion because the Cardinals are in such disarray at quarterback. They are leaning toward giving fourth-round rookie Logan Thomas his first start this week at San Francisco. The Niners are 4.5-point favorites as it is in what will be Jim Harbaugh's final game as the team's head coach. I believe Arizona loses that game and that the Packers beat the Lions at Lambeau Field to win the NFC North. That would leave Arizona at No. 5 and Detroit as the No. 6 and having to likely visit No. 3 Dallas on wild-card weekend. So laugh at the South champion all you want, but it could well reach the divisional round.
The 2010 Seattle Seahawks as the only other team to reach the postseason in a non-strike-shortened season with a losing record. Those Seahawks finished 7-9 and beat heavily favored New Orleans in a playoff game in Seattle before falling the next week in Chicago.
How We Got Here
Carolina is surging at the right time, having won three straight. The Panthers had one of the NFL's best defenses last year and it didn't look remotely close to that level most of this year but has in the winning streak. No team has scored more than 17 points in that run. The Panthers welcomed back quarterback Cam Newton from a one-game injury absence on Sunday and he did just enough to beat the visiting Cleveland Browns 17-13. Newton, who suffered two fractures in his lower back in a car accident, threw for 201 yards and a touchdowns and ran 12 times for 63 yards and a score. That he could run that much with his back injury is amazing. Carolina held the ball for more than 38 minutes and limited the Browns to 228 total yards. Cleveland QB Johnny Manziel, a former Heisman winner like Newton, left in the first half with a hamstring injury and didn't return. The Panthers are now 11-1 in December the past three years.
Carolina is 7-8 against the NFL betting spread this season and 8-7 'over/under.'
The Falcons ended a two-game losing streak and eliminated New Orleans with a fairly surprising 30-14 win at the Superdome on Sunday to sweep the season series. Matt Ryan was very good, going 30-for-40 for 322 yards and a touchdown. Star receiver Julio Jones returned from missing game with a hip injury and caught seven balls for 107 yards. It was his third straight 100-yard game. Ryan has had four straight 300-yard games. The Falcons also forced four New Orleans turnovers, three in the fourth quarter. Osi Umenyiora returned a Drew Brees fumble 86 yards for a touchdown as time expired. Falcons running back Steve Jackson (quad), safety Williams Moore (shoulder) and cornerback Josh Wilson (hamstring) all left the game. Jackson is likely to play in this game. It's not clear yet on the other two.
Atlanta is 7-8 against the spread and 6-9 'over/under' on NFL odds.
In Week 11 in Charlotte, the Falcons were 2.5-point favorites on NFL odds and won 19-17. At the time it was the Panthers' fifth straight loss. Ryan threw for 268 yards and a touchdown, and Matt Bryant hit the go-ahead field goal with 2:08 left. Carolina's Graham Gano missed a 46-yard field goal attempt with 1:27 remaining and had a 63-yarder blocked as time expired. Newton threw for 292 yards and two scores -- both in the fourth quarter to rally his team from a 16-3 deficit -- but also two picks. Rookie Kelvin Benjamin caught nine passes for 109 yards and a score. The Panthers won the previous three meetings.
NFL Free Picks: Atlanta -3.5 at BetOnline and 'under.' This line already has moved to 4 at some sportsbooks so the chances of having to give only 3 points don't look good. I like Ryan at home even though Atlanta is just 3-4 at the Georgia Dome this year. Carolina has only two away wins.