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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Thursday, December 15, 2011 at 9:23 AM

As long as the Atlanta Falcons can keep from stubbing their toe very badly Thursday Night in a national TV game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, they are a virtual shoe-in to return to the NFC Playoff brackets in 2011.

They were a surprise #1 seed last year, but failed to get out of the first round because of an unlucky draw against eventual world champion Green Bay. This year, they're very likely to be a Wildcard team that has to play on the road in the first week of postseason action. But, they do have an outside chance to catch New Orleans and win the NFC South (which would probably mean a home game with no bye).

Let's start with a look at the NFC South race...then we'll examine what great shape Atlanta is in for a Wildcard (respected computer assessments show Atlanta with anywhere from a 90-95% chance to quality in one of those two ways). Finally, we'll crunch some head-to-head indicator numbers with Jacksonville for those of you interested in handicapping tonight's game on the NFL Network.

New Orleans: 10-3 (3-1 in division, 6-3 in NFC)
Atlanta: 8-5 (2-2 in division, 6-4 in NFC)

Atlanta trails by two games with three to go, which is pretty bleak. But, one of those games does come against the Saints. Win THAT game and get some help elsewhere...and there's at least chance for a tie. New Orleans currently owns the tie-breaker every which way they could. Should Atlanta beat the Saints in the Big Easy though, the divisional and NFC records would even up...moving the ultimate tie-breaker even further down the list. We'll cross that bridge when we get to it, because it probably won't be needed. New Orleans will be about a TD favorite at home over Atlanta when they meet next week.

New Orleans: at Minnesota, vs. Atlanta, vs. Carolina
Atlanta: vs. Jacksonville, at New Orleans, vs. Tampa Bay

The Saints have been vulnerable on the there's an outside shot they might lose as favorites of -6.5 this Sunday at Minnesota. Can they finish 1-2 straight up in a trio of games where they'll be laying about a TD or more? Hard to see it, particularly with how well this team plays at home.

When not playing New Orleans, Atlanta will be prohibitive favorites in its other two games. The Falcons are -11 Thursday vs. Jacksonville, and will be clear favorites at home in their season finale against a very disappointing Tampa Bay squad. That's why the Falcons are up over 90% to reach the playoffs. They're looking at a likely 10-6 finish amidst a hunk of teams that may have trouble getting there.

NFC WILDCARD CONTENDERS (best two qualify)
Atlanta: 8-5 (projected for 10-6 finish)
Detroit: 8-5 (at Oakland, vs. SD, at GB)
Chicago: 7-6 (vs. Seattle, at GB, at Minnesota)
NFC East Runner up: 7-6 with tough schedule
Seattle: 6-7: (at Chicago, vs. SF, at Arizona)
Arizona: 6-7: (vs. Cleveland, at Cincinnati, vs. Seattle)

Let's take those one by one:

  • Detroit is basically pick-em this week at Oakland, and will have its hands full with San Diego the next week too. The Green Bay game may be a lame-duck for the Packers...but should Green Bay have a shot at a 16-0 season, the Lions may get the Packers at full force. Very tough to assume two wins in three for Detroit there for a team that's 3-5 its last eight games, though it's surely possible. That brings 9-7 into play as a Wildcard record. (Note that Atlanta owns a tie-breaker over Detroit because of a heads-up victory).

  • Chicago has been helpless offensively with Caleb Hanie at quarterback, even losing to a horrible Kansas City squad. Can the Bears, losers of three in a row with Hanie, rally to finish strong against that schedule? They're favored by -3.5 vs. Seattle...but are in worse form than the Seahawks lately. Losing out is possible, and they'd have to win two of three just to get to 9-7. The Bears do have slightly the best of it at the moment in the tie-breaker with Detroit (but each team has big divisional games left), and would own a tie-breaker over Atlanta because of a heads-up victory in the season opener.

  • NFC East runner-up: We're talking about Dallas and the NY Giants here obviously, as both teams are currently 7-6 at the top of that division. Each has challenging schedules left, and they have to play each other again...which guarantees that the runner-up will have at least seven losses. Somebody's going to win the division. The eventual runner-up will have to sweep their other games. Note that Dallas loses a tie-breaker to Detroit because of a heads-up loss. Hopes may be brighter in a couple of weeks though if Dallas can take care of business as favorites vs. Tampa Bay and Philly, while the Giants do the same against Washington and the New York Jets. Should Detroit and Chicago keep fading...there's hope.

  • Seattle and Arizona are barely in the race, like one of those scenes in an action movie where the hero is hanging onto a ledge by his fingertips. Except, here, Seattle and Arizona aren't really heroes, but fringe characters who you know are going to fall anyway. Recent surges combined with fades from Detroit and Chicago have given them a chance at least. The schedules you saw above give at least one of these teams a chance to run the table...which might mesh with Detroit losing its coin flip games and the NFC East teams failing to sweep tough schedules.

That sets the stage for this weekend's action. We can tell you already that we're likely to have a strong play in Dallas-Tampa Bay on Saturday Night...and we're looking very closely at Seattle-Chicago and Detroit-Oakland for serious investments on Sunday afternoon. All the media hype about New England and Denver will help keep some of these other games off the radar in a way that's going to help us.

Now...onto TONIGHT'S matchup! Atlanta is likely to win. Should they be laying that many points?

Jacksonville: 7.2 on offense, 10.4 on defense
Atlanta: 13.7 on offense, 12.8 on defense

Jacksonville's very strong defense always gives them a chance in big dog situations. A number near 10.0 is very good this season. Atlanta basically has an average defense, while the Jags do a very good job of stopping people. Atlanta's offense does have a big edge though. Everybody has an offensive edge vs. the helpless Jags. The team has a great running back and nothing else. Atlanta has versatility, which gives them a variety of ways to win this game.

In terms of the pure differentials, Jacksonville is -3.2, while Atlanta is +0.9. That would grade out to more like a 7-8 point favorite rather than the line we're seeing tonight once you factor in home field advantage. The problem's hard to love Jacksonville after they were dominated so badly by San Diego a week ago Monday. Once they fall behind, there's no way to catch up. And, the team is in a bit of a letdown spot after winning a state rivalry game with Tampa Bay last week.

Jacksonville: 34% on offense, 36% on defense
Atlanta: 44% on offense, 42% on defense

Nothing new Jacksonville stops people on defense, but can't move the chains themselves on offense. Atlanta is on the right side of zero in terms of differential...but not in a way that suggests any dominance. You're seeing in the numbers why Atlanta is just a Wildcard contender this year instead of a true championship threat. The numbers you see on third downs don't justify a double digit spread.

Jacksonville: +5 (22 takeaways, 17 giveaways)
Atlanta: +1 (19 takeaways, 18 giveaways)

Would you have guessed Jacksonville would win this stat? They play very conservative on offense because quarterback Blaine Gabbert just doesn't know what he's doing yet. They're just 4-9 straight up, even with a good turnover mark. And, this becomes a much sloppier team when they fall behind.

For Atlanta, more evidence that this is a nice team but not a championship threat. The numbers have "pretty good" written all over them, which is enough to beat Jacksonville comfortably, but not enough to scare the NFC powers at the moment.

JIM HURLEY is working very closely with his sources to determine the Jacksonville mindset in this game. If they show up, they can certainly match earlier efforts where they lost close games thanks to strong defensive play and an offense that can run some clock if nothing else. If they're not at peak focus though, they're going to fall behind in a way that blows up like the San Diego debacle did. It's going to be one of those two pathways. Which one?

Link up with JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK to find out! You can purchase Thursday's pick right here at the website with your credit card...or call the office at 1-800-323-4453.

Back with you Friday to provide an early stat look at Saturday's college bowl kickoff tripleheader. On Saturday we'll run key numbers for the Dallas-Tampa Bay game on the NFL Network. Sunday we'll preview Baltimore-San Diego in NBC's prime time game and outline the AFC playoff picture for you. Then we're going to be very heavy with bowl and NFL coverage through the end of 2011 because of the intense college schedule.

Be sure you're with us EVERY DAY in the NOTEBOOK so you know what's REALLY happening in the world of sports!

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