Most factors favor Falcons

Pairing a rookie quarterback with a first-year head coach once was thought to be a formula for failure in the NFL. But with Matt Ryan throwing the passes and Mike Smith calling the shots, the Atlanta Falcons fooled everybody this season.

The Falcons, 10-5 straight up and 9-6 against the spread, clinched a playoff spot last week and can win the NFC South with some help today.

Atlanta closes the regular season by hosting the hapless St. Louis Rams, who are 2-13 and have lost nine in a row.

“You couldn’t find two more opposite teams than these two,” said The Gold Sheet handicapper Bruce Marshall, who recommends a wager on the Falcons as 14-point favorites.

St. Louis has a solid running back in Steven Jackson, but he has been limited by injuries, and the rest of the team has come apart at the seams. It’s doubtful the Rams will stage a last-ditch rally for interim coach Jim Haslett.

“We want no part of the Rams,” Marshall said. “Haslett is almost certainly gone after this game, and huge changes are coming. With a bad team on the road in the last game, it’s a bad situation, and the Rams are going to get nailed.”

The Falcons earned a postseason spot with a 24-17 upset win at Minnesota last week.

Atlanta can win the division and get a first-round bye with a victory over St. Louis and a Carolina loss at New Orleans. In that scenario the Falcons and Panthers both would finish 11-5, with Atlanta winning the tiebreakers based on its 8-4 conference record.

The Falcons are 6-1 at the Georgia Dome, where they beat Carolina by 17 points and New Orleans by 14. The Gold Sheet projects Atlanta to beat St. Louis, 31-10.

Ryan has passed for 3,280 yards and 15 touchdowns while avoiding the mistakes that plague most rookie quarterbacks.

Marshall (goldsheet.com) analyzes the rest of today’s Week 17 schedule, with The Gold Sheet’s score prediction for each game:

Oakland at Tampa Bay (-121/2): The Buccaneers have been flat, losing three in a row, but the Raiders have been erratic. This is a meaningful game for Tampa Bay and coach Jon Gruden. We lean toward the Bucs, who need to win to make the playoffs and also need Philadelphia to beat Dallas. The Gold Sheet pick: Tampa Bay, 30-10.

• Detroit at Green Bay (-101/2): We are very reluctantly taking the Lions, who have covered five straight on the road. The Packers don’t have much going for them, but it would be humiliating to lose to an 0-15 team, and that should motivate the Packers some. TGS pick: Green Bay, 27-20.

Dallas at Philadelphia (-11/2): I lean under the total (43) more than the side. The total is a little high. It’s just Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb outplaying the Cowboys’ Tony Romo in a clutch game. Romo has not done much in December games, and he has been sick this week. Philadelphia is 5-2 straight up at home. TGS pick: Philadelphia, 17-13.

N.Y. Giants at Minnesota (-7): I’m going to give the Giants a shot. The Vikings can clinch the NFC North, and the Giants have secured the NFC’s top seed. But the scenario of a team in a must-win spot against a team that is resting players is somewhat overrated. The line is an overreaction to the situation. Giants coach Tom Coughlin plays to win, and I don’t trust the Vikings, who are shaky at the quarterback spot. TGS pick: New York, 20-19.

Chicago at Houston (-3): We have a slight lean toward the Bears, but this is way down on my list. The Texans have played better down the stretch with Matt Schaub back at quarterback, but they laid an egg in a 27-16 loss at Oakland last week. The Bears are still alive in the NFC North. TGS pick: Chicago, 23-20.

Carolina (-21/2) at New Orleans: I think defense is going to win this game for the Panthers. They need the win to sew up the NFC South and a first-round playoff bye. Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams, who had four touchdowns last week against the Giants, is having a monster year running the ball. The Saints’ defense has been weakened by attrition. TGS pick: Carolina, 31-23.

Kansas City at Cincinnati (-21/2): Chiefs quarterback Tyler Thigpen has shown a lot, even though the team keeps finding ways to lose. Kansas City has more to offer with Thigpen and running back Larry Johnson. There are plenty of negatives with the Bengals, who are not getting much from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. I also like this to go over the total (38). TGS pick: Kansas City, 28-21.

Jacksonville at Baltimore (-11): The Ravens get a wild-card spot with a win, and I would lay the points. This is a good matchup for Baltimore, with its tough defensive front able to shut down the Jaguars’ running game. The Ravens have allowed only 10 points per game at home, covering five of seven games. TGS pick: Baltimore, 29-6.

Tennessee (-3) at Indianapolis: This feels like a preseason game. Kerry Collins will start at quarterback for the Titans, but look for coach Jeff Fisher to play a lot of guys. We lean toward the Colts, even if it’s backup quarterbacks Jim Sorgi and Vince Young getting most of the time. Indianapolis is on an eight-game winning streak and wants to keep it going into the playoffs. TGS pick: Indianapolis, 24-16.

Cleveland at Pittsburgh (-111/2): The Browns have gone five straight games without an offensive touchdown, an unbelievable drought. This is probably coach Romeo Crennel’s last game. Cleveland will start Bruce Gradkowski at quarterback. We’ll go with the Steelers and the under (34). TGS pick: Pittsburgh, 24-0.

Miami at N.Y. Jets (-3): Jets quarterback Brett Favre looks old and is really struggling. He has thrown a league-high 19 interceptions. The Jets have had breakdowns all over, and they have not covered the spread in their past four games. The Dolphins are doing everything right. It’s ironic that Chad Pennington has a chance to wrap up the AFC East against his former team. Miami is the better team getting points, and that’s a good scenario. TGS pick: Miami, 23-13.

New England (-51/2) at Buffalo: The Patriots have been very impressive the past two weeks, scoring 49 and 47 points. Matt Cassel is putting up huge numbers, passing for 3,615 yards and 21 touchdowns. New England coach Bill Belichick always keeps Buffalo in check; the Patriots have held the Bills to 17 points or fewer in the past 10 meetings. It would be a shame if New England goes 11-5 and misses the playoffs. TGS pick: New England, 31-16.

Seattle at Arizona (-7): I like this one to go over the total (451/2). The Seahawks are showing up, and quarterback Seneca Wallace has not played all that bad. Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner will want to be sharp after a poor effort against the Patriots, and Arizona probably will play Matt Leinart in relief of Warner. TGS pick: Arizona, 27-16.

Washington at San Francisco (-3): Shaun Hill has done some positive things as San Francisco’s quarterback, and the team has responded to Mike Singletary since he became interim coach. The Redskins got what they wanted by beating the Eagles last week, so coach Jim Zorn’s job seems to be safe. Washington quarterback Jason Campbell has regressed in the offense. The under is 10-0-1 in the past 11 Redskins games. TGS pick: San Francisco, 20-13.

Denver at San Diego (-8): I still think the Chargers are unreliable. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson is not quite the same, and the defense is not as good. The Broncos can hang around. San Diego players are talking so much smack about Denver quarterback Jay Cutler and calling him a punk. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is more of a punk than Cutler by a long shot. I like Broncos coach Mike Shanahan over San Diego’s Norv Turner in a close game. TGS pick: Denver, 27-24.

Compiled by Las Vegas Review-Journal sportswriter Matt Youmans.

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