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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Monday, December 26, 2011 at 10:24 AM

If you were watching the NFL playoff races play themselves out this past Saturday afternoon, you may have noticed something relatively important. Hardly anyone of the teams bound for the postseason are playing well! In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to point to very many teams who are playing better right now than the two teams squaring off Monday Night on ESPN.

The New Orleans Saints have won six games in a row...and also COVERED six games in a row. Talk about red hot! They're not just winning, they're beating reasonably high expectations for an NFC power that won a Super Bowl two years ago.

Atlanta isn't as hot as New Orleans, but they are 7-2 straight up the last nine games...with one of those two losses being an overtime loss to the Saints. Yes, the road loss at Houston three weeks ago wasn't very impressive, considering it was C.J. Yates playing quarterback for the Texans. But, that was three weeks ago. Look at how many playoff contenders have had bad games since then:


  • Green Bay lost on the road at Kansas City, and is dealing with some injury issues that could loom large in January. Last year's eventual World Champions got healthy at just the right time. Maybe this year the fates have bad luck in store at just the wrong time. Oh, considering that the Packers barely survived the inconsistent NY Giants two weeks before the loss to the Chiefs...we're looking at a probable #1 seed that really isn't in championship form.

  • San Francisco did play well in their recent Monday Nighter vs. Pittsburgh. It didn't hurt that Ben Roethlisberger tried to play on one leg. Sandwiched around that game were divisional nailbiters on the road against Arizona and Seattle. In most years, championship caliber teams wouldn't be playing late season nailbiters against the likes of Arizona and Seattle.

  • Nobody in the NFC East seems capable of playing well two weeks in a row. Dallas lost to Philly...after dominating Tampa Bay...after losing to the Giants. Those very same Giants somehow lost at home to Washington in between wins over Dallas and the NY Jets. Eli Manning was 9-27 passing in the win, so he's not playing well at the moment even if the team is winning.

  • Detroit clinched one of the Wildcard spots with a Saturday victory over San Diego. They looked good in that game for the first time in weeks. The Lions needed a miracle to beat Oakland the week before in a game where they allowed almost 500 yards. Prior to that, they almost blew a lead at home against Minnesota.

It's easy to imagine Green Bay finding their form again when the playoffs start. Do you trust any of those other teams to play well...any more than you'd trust New Orleans or Atlanta?


  • New England's defense is a sure-thing to be shaky vs. playoff caliber opposition. This past week the offense disappeared for a half against Miami. It was reminiscent of their playoff loss at home to the Jets last January. Tom Brady is still carry too much of the load. And, they won't be playing somebody like Miami in the postseason.

  • Pittsburgh's offense has had several long stretches of dormancy this year. Ben Roethlisberger will have a little time to get healthy. But, if Baltimore doesn't lose at Cincinnati last week, Big Ben will be on the field in the first week of playoff action as a Wildcard. That's the Pittsburgh team that lost at SF, led Cleveland 7-3 late in the McCoy-concussion game, and barely held on in a 13-9 win at Kansas City not too long before that.

  • Baltimore had a couple of good quarters vs. Cleveland this past Saturday. They still almost gave the game away! And, their blowout loss at San Diego looked really bad when the Chargers got annihilated by San Diego. Baltimore's name is in the hat...but do they strike you as championship material at the moment?

  • The eventual AFC champion won't even be playoff caliber, which is becoming the standard in that division. Remember how badly Kansas City played in its first round game last year vs. Baltimore? Is it even possible to imagine something different for either Denver or Oakland?

  • Cincinnati can win the final AFC Wildcard spot if they knock off Baltimore at home this week. The Bengals almost blew the Arizona game this past Saturday...didn't really impress on the road against St. Louis the week before...and has generally been floundering through the second half of the season. If Cincinnati played Atlanta on a neutral field tomorrow, would you consider them a favorite? How far behind Drew Brees is Andy Dalton at the moment?

We don't mean to take a "the glass is half empty for every single playoff team" approach. Somebody's going to get things rolling in each conference. It's just amazing how sluggish many of the contenders are playing at the moment. We felt that was a great way to set up the Monday Night matchup...which features two contenders who have mostly been in good form for several weeks.

That brings us to our stat indicators...let's see what they're saying about this game...

Atlanta: 14.2 on offense, 12.4 on defense
New Orleans: 21.8 on offense, 14.4 on defense

Atlanta is a bit above average on offense, and has a decent enough differential of +1.8 in our favorite indicator stat in all of sports. For you newcomers, these are points scored and allowed on drives of 60 yards or more. New Orleans is playing lights out offensively, averaging a stunning 21.8 per game this season...and earning a +7.4 differential even with their defense softening up occasionally in garbage time.

The Saints are basically playing as well as their Super Bowl team of two years ago. They fell off the radar early with the season opening loss at Green Bay (it was just seen as proof at the time that the Packers were still better than the Saints). Losses at Tampa Bay and St. Louis made it seem like the Saints were more pretenders than contenders in terms of the Lombardi Trophy. But, the absolute reign of terror New Orleans has inflicted on the league since that loss in St. Louis has been a sight to behold. This team is clearly a championship threat once again.

Atlanta: 43% on offense, 41% on defense
New Orleans: 55% on offense, 33% on defense

Stunning numbers here for the Saints. The league has been centered in the high 30's all season, with more and more teams deciding they'd rather punt than risk a turnover. So, a number like 55% is just off the charts in terms of excellence. Fantastic job by Drew Brees and company when it comes to moving the chains. And, the defense deserves more credit than it's getting. They will allow some big plays...and they can be soft with a big lead. But, they're better than average in a key area.

Atlanta's offense is very good by this year's standards in this stat. But, that 41% is softer than it might seem because of how much standards have changed. Arguably the single biggest stumbling block Atlanta will have here will be on third down defense. If you're BELOW AVERAGE in third down defense, how are you going to stop Drew Brees?

Atlanta: +5 (23 takeaways, 18 giveaways)
New Orleans: -2 (12 takeaways, 14 giveaways)

Here's some more hope for the Falcons. They do have a chance to earn some cheap points in the turnover category. They have forced mistakes this season...while the Saints defense has been surprisingly week in this category all year. Remember how many turnovers they forced in their Super Bowl season? Remember that the game clincher came on a pick-six against Peyton Manning?! The Saints are forcing punts, but they're not taking the ball away. This will give Matt Ryan and the Falcons a chance to hang around as a road underdog.

You regulars know that we don't post our official selections here in the NOTEBOOK. We will tell you that we' believe ball control will determine the flow of the game, and who gets the money. New Orleans has a clear edge...but Atlanta has a script they can follow that will at least keep them in the game.

The bowl schedule picks up again tonight after a day off. Let's take a look at the Independence Bowl matching North Carolina and Missouri.

Vegas Line: Missouri by 5.5, total of 53
Market Moves: The line opened in the area of Missouri by 3.5 or 4. Smart money has been hitting the favorite ever since...with the line now getting in reach of -6 or maybe even -7 before kickoff. Nothing happening on the Over/Under in terms of Wise Guy action yet. That may change depending on game day weather developments.

N. Carolina: 51st
Missouri: 7th

Big edge here for the Tigers. We'll need to make adjustments on both sides of the ball with the remaining numbers. Though, we should note that it's very possible Jeff Sagarin of USA Today has overrated the Big 12 conference this year. There were 10 teams, and everyone played nine league games and only three non-conference foes. Missouri's non-conference slate was Arizona State, Miami of Ohio, and Western Illinois. Sorry, we just don't see THAT plus the Big 12 as the 7th toughest schedule in the nation.

N. Carolina: 50th (42nd passing, 71st rushing)
Missouri: 12th (57th passing, 11th rushing)

Nice edges here for Missouri considering that they played the tougher schedule. You can see why respected money liked them at the early lines. Missouri has some balance, and put up good numbers in a competitive (though possibly overrated) conference. North Carolina is just kind of there.

N. Carolina: 40th (90th passing, 14th rushing)
Missouri: 60th (91st passing, 43rd rushing)

These rankings probably come close to washing out once you adjust for strength of schedule. What matters most to us though is that Carolina ranks a gaudy 14th against the run, while Missouri's offense was 11th on the ground. That at least gives the Tar Heels a chance to be competitive. They're defensive strength can slow down Missouri's offensive strength.

ADDING IT ALL UP: The Independence Bowl is one that historically plays towards teams emotional readiness. It's hard to get college kids excited about a trip to Shreveport! JIM HURLEY'S sources will let us know which team is most excited about the trip. If NEITHER is excited, we'll think about the Under. If both are excited, we'll think about the Over as long as the weather is cooperating.

Don't forget that both the ACC and Big 12 will be well represented in upcoming bowls. Here's a great chance to get an early read on both conferences.

NETWORK'S Monday Night NFL- INDEPENDENCE BOWL games will be available by late morning right here at the website. Make a few clicks and have your credit card handy. If you have any questions, call the office at 1-800-323-4453. Be sure to check on basketball when you call. We do have pro hoop action available for you on the Monday card as well. IT'S TIME TO HOOP IT UP!

We hope you had a great Christmas Weekend. These days leading up to New Year's are going to be something special. KEEP THE GOOD TIMES ROLLING WITH JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK!

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