NFL Week 16: At last, a true “must-win” game

The NFC South’s playoff representative probably will finish the regular season with a 6-10 record, unless Carolina defies the odds and makes it in at 6-9-1. And while NFL analysts often are too ready to call a game a “must-win” game (week 4?), with two regular-season games left, the NFC South has gifted everyone a true must-win game, at least for one participant.

If the currently 5-9 Atlanta Falcons want to make it to the playoffs, they simply must beat the Saints in New Orleans on Sunday.

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New Orleans is just a win better than Atlanta at this point, but the Falcons beat the Saints in a fun overtime game back in week 1, and the Saints, which are the hosts of this weekend’s rematch, are just 3-4 at home. Of course, the Falcons, which are sort of weirdly 4-0 in the division, are just 2-5 on the road, so who knows. If Atlanta is going to win, as it must to keep its seemingly improbable postseason hopes alive, one has to think that it will need both of its star receivers, Roddy White and Julio Jones, on the field on Sunday.

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Tuesday Afternoon Inside Linebacker

tail3ALDLAND’s weekly football review returns after an infamous fall wedding weekend. Bear with us as we attempt to piece together the happenings of the last few days.

College Football

Pregame:

  • After the Game of the Century of the Season of the Week last week in College Station, everybody predicted a scheduling letdown this week. Sports predictions have become (always were?) completely useless and devoid of meaning, but once in a while, the wisdom of the crowd gets it right. Throwing out expired food? No, actually. A soft slate of week-four matchups? For the most part, yes.

The games — That 70s Show:

  • Clemson opened the week of play by getting punchy on Thursday night in a closer-than-it-should-have-been win over North Carolina State. So far as I can tell, the Tigers have played only fellow Carolinians to this point in the season. A check of their schedule confirms this, and the trend will continue this weekend. (EDIT: Except for that little game against UGA in week one.) Clemson 26, North Carolina State 14.
  • A number of teams posted gaudy scores and spreads. Since they already had their fun, they’re all getting grouped in this one paragraph. Ohio State 76, FAMU 0. Louisville 72, FIU 0. Miami 77, Savannah State 7. Washington 56, Idaho State 0. Baylor 70, Louisiana-Monroe 7 (that one’s actually a little surprising). Florida State 54, Bethune-Cook 6. Wisconsin 41, Purdue 10. UCLA 59, New Mexico State 13. Texas A&M 42, SMU 13. And others.

Big Ole weekend rundown: The rest

I don’t know why I keep making it sound like this Nebraska-Michigan game is the most massive tilt ever. It should be fun, but still. The game between these two new conference-mates needs a name, like the Corn Bowl, but it isn’t quite deserving of that just yet. Maybe the Toddler Bowl will work for now. (“My extra hatred for you is only semi-rational and based on the fact that, nearly fifteen years ago, we had to share something that I wanted all for myself because I hate sharing!”) This game will capture my attention because I will be there watching it, but in case you aren’t similarly piqued, here are three other things for you to keep track of this weekend:

  1. Vanderbilt vs. Tennessee: While Michigan and Ohio State no longer have their annual meeting this week, the ‘Dores and Vols are keeping steady on. What will be different this year when these two meet in Knoxville? For one thing, Vandy will be the favored team. Vegas is giving them a point on the road in the SEC, which is really something. UT is 0-6 in the conference, but they’ve cooked up hope of winning this one the only way they could: by pretending star QB Tyler Bray can make it back from a hand injury to play in this game. Vandy isn’t much better on paper– just 2-5 in the conference– but they were two missed plays from being 4-3, and they’ve done better than Tennessee against all common opponents. Vanderbilt must win in Knoxville this week or in Winston-Salem next week to be bowl eligible. The Vols, meanwhile, must win this game and their next one (against Kentucky) to be bowl-eligible and avoid a losing season. They also have to win this game to avoid being brought face-to-face with the undeniable recognition that they’re really bad. They’re going to lose, though, and everyone who’s been paying attention will be both glad and unsurprised. (For what the win can mean for the Commodores, read Bobby O’Shea’s post today at Vanderbilt Sports Line.) 7:00 pm, ESPNU
  2. Carolina vs. Detroit: The Cam Newton Roadshow rolls through the Motor City this weekend, and the Lions’ defenders are licking their chops, which is good, because the Lions’ offenders (that doesn’t quite work, does it?) are licking their wounds. With impressive statistical output that has failed to translate into wins, Newton has been a sort of inverse Tebow this season, and I don’t see this game as the one where the Panthers really put things together. On the other hand, Detroit has been looking less and less stable, successful, and inspiring the closer they get to their Thanksgiving Day meeting with the Packers. The Thanksgiving game is simultaneously a point of intense pride and an albatross for Detroit, and I’m worried that, as more cracks begin to show in their new-look image and play this year, doubt creeps in with the capability of reverting to the old, bag-on-the-head team we’re used to. Hanson kicks the Lions to an uncomfortable win in this one. 1:00 pm, FOX
  3. NASCAR Championship: It’s too tough to encapsulate an entire season (the longest in all of professional sports) into a quick hit here, but when this Sunday’s race at Homestead is over, NASCAR will have its first champion not named Jimmie Johnson in five years. Instead, it’s down to two drivers: Tony Stewart, who won the championship in 2002 and 2005– the last year before #48 went on his dominant streak– and Carl Edwards, the back-flipper who’s never won it all. Edwards holds an extremely narrow lead of only three points heading into this final race, which should make things very exciting. 3:00 pm, ESPN

Enjoy!