Due to a last-minute comeback directed by quarterback Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers are on the verge of something that seemed improbable in September.
Carolina’s entire season has been a comeback story, from its 1-3 start to a dramatic victory over New Orleans a week ago. By beating the Saints, the Panthers (11-4) are in position to clinch the NFC South and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
“It’s Dr. Phil Week in the NFL, as the usual psychological angles galore will be presented as the regular season concludes,” The Gold Sheet handicapper Bruce Marshall said. “It’s especially true here, with going-nowhere Atlanta facing a Carolina side that has sewed up a playoff berth but is playing for more.”
The Panthers are favored by 6 to 6½ points at Atlanta today, and Marshall is siding with the Falcons (4-11).
“There have been definite signs of life lately from the Falcons, who have covered four of their past five games and have most of their walking wounded back on the field,” Marshall said. “Atlanta looks very live at home.”
With tight end Tony Gonzalez playing his final game, “there could be extra motivation on the Falcons side,” Marshall said.
Newton will be without his top target, Steve Smith, because of a knee injury.
Marshall (Goldsheet.com) scouts the rest of the Week 17 schedule:
■ Green Bay (-3) at Chicago: Aaron Rodgers’ return has triggered a point-spread move toward the Packers. But he’ll be taking his first snaps in almost two months, and no evidence suggests Green Bay was the class of the NFC North even when Rodgers was available earlier in the season. The Bears should be primed to atone for last week’s stinker at Philadelphia, and either Jay Cutler or Josh McCown are capable of detonating the vast Chicago weaponry. The spread value rests with the Bears.
■ Houston at Tennessee (-7): We are tempted to plead the Fifth Amendment and refuse to incriminate ourselves for being forced to testify on behalf of either of these AFC stragglers. After all, the options are a Titans side that has failed to cover five straight at home and hasn’t extended the margin versus anyone since late September. Or the gutless Texans, who have lost 13 in a row. Forced to choose, we opt for the greater go-against case, which would suggest an anti-Houston vote. There’s no fault in recent Titans efforts for under-fire coach Mike Munchak.
■ Cleveland at Pittsburgh (-7): As the dust settles, the Browns are a familiar 4-11 while the Steelers at least have showed their class by staying alive in the AFC wild-card chase, albeit remotely, after a 0-4 start. With only one win since Oct. 3 and one cover in the past six, it’s hard to anticipate a Cleveland rally, especially since quarterback Jason Campbell has gradually looked as ineffective as Brandon Weeden did earlier in the season. Note that Pittsburgh has covered eight of its past 11 this season and usually beats the Browns, going 18-2 straight up in the past 20.
■ Washington at New York Giants (-3½): It’s fair to wonder if either of these coaches are going to return in 2014, with Mike Shanahan’s fate surely up in the air in Washington and rumors filtering that the Giants’ Tom Coughlin might be thinking about retirement. Despite losing seven in a row, the Redskins are displaying more life since benching Robert Griffin III, with eager Kirk Cousins responsible for back-to-back covers. On the other hand, Eli Manning (26 interceptions) has been too mistake-prone to trust.
■ Baltimore at Cincinnati (-6½): Cincinnati is 7-0 straight up and against the spread at Paul Brown Stadium. But after securing the AFC North title last week, the dynamics are different in the regular-season finale as the Bengals can’t improve their playoff seed — and get a first-round bye — unless New England simultaneously loses to the Bills in Foxborough for the first time since Bill Clinton occupied the White House. Expect a desperate effort from a Baltimore bunch that needs to win to keep wild-card hopes alive. Prior to a misleading 41-7 loss to the Patriots, the Ravens were involved in games decided by three or fewer points in nine of 11 weeks.
■ Jacksonville at Indianapolis (-10½): There remains a scenario in which the AFC South champion Colts could secure a first-round playoff bye, although it requires losses by the Patriots and Bengals to be activated. Remote as those possibilities might be, the Colts have given no indication that they are about to ease up. Indianapolis had a 437-205 edge in yards of offense in a 37-3 romp at Jacksonville on Sept. 29.
■ Philadelphia (-7) at Dallas: Kyle Orton is not able to keep plays alive as does Tony Romo, but he is a serviceable backup quarterback. And given Romo’s record in the regular season’s final week, maybe Dallas isn’t hurt as much as the oddsmakers think by Romo’s absence. Remember, the Cowboys kept Chip Kelly’s offense in check in a 17-3 win at Philadelphia, although it was Matt Barkley at quarterback for much of that game. The spread inflation creates value for a Dallas recommendation.
■ New York Jets at Miami (-6): A win will get the Dolphins a wild card in all scenarios, save a two-team tiebreaker with the Ravens. Miami’s Ryan Tannehill had completed 68 percent of his throws with eight touchdowns in December before encountering the Buffalo cold. The Dolphins’ pass rush so unnerved Jets rookie Geno Smith four weeks ago that coach Rex Ryan went with Matt Simms in the second half of a 23-3 Miami win. The Dolphins are worth a look.
■ Detroit at Minnesota (-2½): It’s tough to make a convincing case for either of these soon-to-be-vacationing squads, each with coaches in the line of fire. Late-season efforts from Minnesota have been more encouraging, as the Vikings had covered six of seven before running into a Cincinnati buzzsaw last week. The best recommendation in games involving Minnesota this season has been the over — the Vikings are 13-2 over the total, including a 34-24 Week 1 loss at Detroit.
■ Buffalo at New England (-8): The Patriots have a remote chance to secure a home-field edge throughout the AFC playoffs, but a more realistic challenge is holding on to a first-round bye that could be squandered to the Bengals or Colts with a loss. The improving Bills are no worse with Thad Lewis at quarterback instead of hurting rookie EJ Manuel. But series trends point to Bill Belichick, who has not lost at home to the Bills since 2000.
■ Tampa Bay at New Orleans (-12): All we need to know here is that the game is being played at the Superdome, where the Saints are 16-0 straight up and 15-0-1 ATS with coach Sean Payton on the sideline since 2011. The question on the Tampa Bay side is if mild improvement in the season’s second half is enough to bring back coach Greg Schiano. I’m less sure about Schiano’s future than another Saints recommendation at home.
■ Denver (-11) at Oakland: After 15 mostly outstanding efforts that have put them into position to secure the home-field edge in the AFC playoffs, it’s doubtful the Broncos and Peyton Manning throw all of that away. The Raiders are back to the erratic Terrelle Pryor at quarterback. Take note of Denver’s 19-7 spread mark in its past 26 regular-season games. Dennis Allen’s future as Oakland’s coach is up in the air.
■ San Francisco (-1) at Arizona: It’s too bad the red-hot Cardinals probably are going to miss the playoffs, although they at least will have a mathematical chance to advance when this one kicks off. Michael Floyd’s development as another receiving target for Carson Palmer has taken some of the pressure off Larry Fitzgerald. If Arizona’s nasty defense could keep Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson boxed in last week, it can do the same to Colin Kaepernick. The Cardinals have covered their past five and are 11-4 ATS for coach Bruce Arians, so I prefer the home ’dog.
■ Kansas City at San Diego (-9½): The Chargers could be eliminated from playoff contention by kickoff if Miami beats the Jets, so their motivation factor is hard to gauge. Even if Chiefs coach Andy Reid low-keys it for this game, he has several capable backups such as quarterback Chase Daniel, who will be eager to impress. Even with its playoff seed secured, spread inflation creates value for Kansas City.
■ St. Louis at Seattle (-11½): The Seahawks made this a must-win game by losing last week to the Cardinals. That should be disconcerting for coach Pete Carroll, as the Rams have matched up physically in recent meetings with Seattle. Rams coach Jeff Fisher’s defense has controlled the Seattle offensive line in the past few matchups, but the Rams’ offense can’t be counted upon to do much damage behind Kellen Clemens. Under the total of 43 looks tempting.
COMPILED BY MATT YOUMANS