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Falcons not dead yet, it just looks that way

With three weeks remaining, Mike Smith’s shrewd coaching moves have put the Atlanta Falcons in position to win their division and make a deep run in the playoffs.

There are a lot of ways to spin a story, and only a shameless intern in the Falcons public relations department could put that type of positive spin on this one. The truth is it’s a clumsy story about one of the most pathetic division races in NFL history.

The NFC South is worse than a dumpster fire. It’s an implosion at the sewage treatment plant. The Falcons, 5-8 and 4-0 within the division, sit atop the pile and stink a little less than the other three teams.

New Orleans (5-8) has a four-game home losing streak. Carolina (4-8-1) just won its first game in two months and its quarterback is recovering from a car crash. Tampa Bay (2-11) has a doofus superfan who fires a cannon in a ridiculously dumb Bud Light commercial.

It’s also true the Falcons should be 7-6, if not for Smith’s late-game strategical blunders in losses to Cleveland and Detroit. Smith is a nice guy, but … he’s Gomer Pyle with a fancy job title and a headset.

Smith also has a good quarterback in Matt Ryan and an elite wide receiver in Julio Jones. When all of the puzzle pieces are in place, Atlanta’s offense can be impressive.

Ryan passed for 375 yards and four touchdowns, and Jones had 11 receptions for 259 yards in a 43-37 loss at Green Bay on Monday. However, the Falcons trailed 31-7 before their offense took off, and Jones exited the game with a hip injury.

Jones’ status is questionable, but he appears to be on track to play Sunday, when Atlanta is a 2-point home underdog to Pittsburgh. This feels like a game the Falcons will win, and they probably need Jones on the field to pull it off.

It’s tough to predict what you’re going to get from the Steelers, who are 8-5 but dropped home games to the Saints and Buccaneers. Ben Roethlisberger is capable of shredding the Atlanta defense through the air while Le’Veon Bell does the ground work. In his past three games, Bell has totaled 484 yards on 80 carries.

I’ll roll the dice with the Falcons, who are typically solid on their home field, and hope Jones is healthy enough to make big plays and Smith avoids screwing up in the fourth quarter.

It’s also worth noting all four teams in the AFC North are above .500. Cleveland (7-6) plays host to Cincinnati (8-4-1) in a game that is suddenly intriguing because the Browns are finally starting Johnny Manziel at quarterback. It’s worth watching, but I won’t be betting it.

Four more opinions for Week 15 (home team in CAPS):

■ COLTS (-6½) over Texans: Indianapolis has covered 11 consecutive games against division opponents. This is also a play on a quarterback mismatch. Andrew Luck is the real deal, leading the Colts to a 9-4 mark against the spread and always bouncing back from a subpar performance. Ryan Fitzpatrick found a magic touch in the past two games, but that can be viewed as a fluke because Houston beat Jacksonville and Tennessee, two terrible teams.

■ BILLS (+5) over Packers: This appears to be a flat spot for the Packers, who have won five straight big games, four of those at Lambeau Field. Green Bay is 3-3 on the road, with Aaron Rodgers passing for 12 touchdowns with three interceptions. Buffalo’s fifth-ranked defense pressured Peyton Manning last week and can contain Rodgers enough to make this competitive. A late field goal could decide it.

■ CHARGERS (+4) over Broncos: Manning was intercepted twice and his streak of 51 games with a touchdown pass was stopped in Denver’s 24-17 victory over Buffalo. Manning will find the end zone this week. But this is December, and this is when Philip Rivers shines with a career record of 30-7 in this month. He did flop against New England last week, but he did beat the Broncos on the road last December.

■ Cowboys (+3½) over EAGLES: Underdogs usually fare well in NFC East games. The ’dog in this rivalry is 24-8 ATS. Mark Sanchez was surprisingly sharp when Philadelphia massacred Dallas on Thanksgiving. That was a bad spot for the Cowboys. It could be payback time for the other quarterback, so I’ll bank on Tony Romo to cover.

Last week: 4-1 against the spread

Season: 39-29-2

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.

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