After an abysmal start, the New Orleans Saints have marched into the NFC playoff picture. They have been playing as well as any team in the league over the last three games, and they are just one game out of the last playoff spot at 5-5.
They can score a significant win on Sunday if they can knock off the San Francisco 49ers.
The Niners will start Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, per the Los Angeles Times, and that gives the offense a new dimension. Although Alex Smith is mobile, he isn't quite as nimble or willing to run with the ball as Kaepernick.
The Niners' second-year quarterback has improved each time we've seen him, and he led a dominant performance on Monday night against the Chicago Bears. The Niners really opened up the playbook, and it will be difficult to game-plan for them moving forward.
Who wins this game?
The key to this game will be in the Niners' ability to control the Saints' running game. During the Saints' resurgence, the team has really rediscovered the ground game. In the last three weeks, the Saints have rushed for 143 yards per game—all wins.
Compare that to the 72 yards per game the team averaged on the ground in the first seven contests, and the difference is clear. The Saints began the season 0-5, and their inability to run the ball was a major factor.
If they can run it effectively, they will control time of possession, thus putting pressure on Kaepernick and the Niners offense. On the road, in a hostile environment like the Superdome, this is a tall task for a player in his second NFL start.
However, running it against the Niners is much easier said than done.
They looked awesome against the Bears, and Kaepernick was extremely confident. The Niners front seven will control the line of scrimmage, and San Francisco will make it clear that it is the favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Prediction: 49ers 27, Saints 20
Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears offensive line is the worst pass-blocking unit in the NFL. It looks even worse when you don't have an improvisational quarterback under center.
Who wins this game?
The Bears also made some major changes to their embattled unit.
Per ESPN, Gabe Carimi and Chilo Rachal have been relieved of their starting jobs in favor of Jonathan Scott and Chris Spencer, respectively.
I don't expect that to be a major improvement, but they won't be facing a front seven like that of the Niners this week. Minnesota's 26 sacks is more than the Niners have, but they don't snuff the run like San Francisco does.
To contain the Bears, you have to be fierce against the run.
Obviously, the Vikings have the premier running back on the planet, but don't let Monday night's lackluster defensive performance sour you on the Bears defense. It is still still sixth in the NFL against the run, and I don't see Adrian Peterson running wild against it.
With Percy Harvin out, per USA Today, the Vikings don't have a playmaker in the passing game to cause the Bears defense major issues. Look for the Bears to return to stuffing the run and forcing turnovers.
The offense won't be great until Chicago upgrades the tackle positions, but it will be good enough to win this game.
Prediction: Bears 23, Vikings 14
Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
If the Falcons win this game, they will all but clinch the NFC South. A victory would open a four-game lead on their closest competitors with only five games to play.
Who wins this game?
Most people are talking about the Saints' surge, but the Bucs have quietly won four games in a row.
The run defense has been excellent (No. 1 in the NFL), but Tampa Bay has been picked apart by the pass (No. 27 in the NFL).
That isn't going to render good results against these Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta's passing game can be among the most deadly in the league. Matt Ryan's penchant for multi-interception games has knocked him off the MVP short list, but his receiving corps keeps the team dangerous.
They haven't played particularly well in the last two weeks, but the Bucs' problems against the pass will get them sliced and diced this week. The team is on a four-game winning streak, but only one win came over a team with a serious chance at making the playoffs.
Josh Freeman is having a solid year—so I expect the game to be high-scoring. Doug Martin's emergence as a prime-time back could potentially take the ball out of Ryan's hands as well.
However, the Falcons defense and passing game represent a step up in competition for the Bucs. I see the Dirty Birds pulling out a tough and exciting road win.
Prediction: Falcons 37, Bucs 28
Green Bay Packers at New York Giants
Eli Manning has looked horrible in his last five games. As a guy that owns him in fantasy football, I personally don't appreciate the poor performances.
Who wins this game?
He's thrown more interceptions than touchdowns in four consecutive weeks, and his quarterback rating hasn't hit 80 in any of those games. In fact, he hasn't thrown for a score since he hit Victor Cruz on a busted coverage against the Washington Redskins on October 21.
With all that going on, the Giants will welcome in a red-hot Green Bay Packers team that has won five in a row and is eager to avenge its playoff loss to the G-Men last season. Things don't look good for the Giants—but then again, we thought that last year.
The Packers came in to New York on December 4 and beat the Giants in a 38-35 thriller, but the Giants turned the corner in that game. They went 7-1 to finish the season and playoffs, and they won the Super Bowl.
Can they make another run?
Because of the Washington Redskins' youth and the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles' ineptitude, they are still in control of the division. However, RG3 has the Skins charging.
The Giants need this game, and it starts with taking care of the ball.
If they turn the ball over, this game will become a rout. Playing it straight without the catastrophic errors, they still have the front four to give the Packers fits. They won't make the mistakes the Detroit Lions made in Week 11.
Manning will respond—as he always does—and the Giants will stop the Packers' win streak.
Prediction: Giants 24, Packers 20
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