Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton

Weekend Predictions: Falcons win at Cam-less Carolina

They already have been eliminated from the playoffs, which is too bad for their fans. They are missing out on the most exciting time of the NFL season. Who doesn’t enjoy watching a bunch of mediocre teams to see which ones can catch a few lucky breaks and slip into the playoffs?

The Panthers still have a minuscule chance of earning an NFC wild card berth, but they’ve shut down quarterback Cam Newton because of a shoulder injury. The Falcons, who’ve won one game in six weeks, will face Newton’s backup, Taylor Heinicke, who has thrown five passes in the NFL.

Now, that’s entertainment! 

After picking every college bowl game last week, I was 4-3 against the spread through Wednesday. My picks were either really right, or really wrong, with no in between. My picks for Friday and Saturday’s bowl games: Florida International (plus-5½), Western Michigan (plus-12), Memphis (plus-3 ½), Houston (plus-3), Troy (plus 2½) and Hawaii (minus-1). 

I already hate some of those picks — crippling self-doubt creeps in when I get too much time to think about them — but no take backs. 

Falcons (-3½) at Panthers 

The news that Newton is out swung the betting line from Panthers -3½ to Falcons -3½. It may seem the Falcons are catching a break to face Heinicke. They may have been better off facing Newton, who no longer could throw far downfield. (Plus, the Charlotte Observer describes Heinicke as “sneakily athletic,” a classic in the white guy code words genre.)

Heinicke is a downgrade from Newton, but Carolina’s offense has been carried its running game. Atlanta’s defense has improved but that just means it’s no longer bad. Carolina’s defense has fallen off but it’s still pretty good against the run, and can you really trust the Falcons to rush effectively three weeks in a row? 

The QB switch adds a lot of uncertainty to this game. Picking ATS comes down to whether you believe the Panthers are a touchdown worse without the sore-armed version of Newton. I say they aren’t, so I’m taking the Falcons to win but like the Panthers to cover. 

NFC South 

Steelers (plus-6) at Saints 

Ben Roethlisberger disputed a report by NFL Network reporter Ian Rappaport that said the Steelers quarterback suffered cracked ribs during a loss at the Raiders. “(N)othing of what he says there is any truth to (it),” said Roethlisberger, who once listed his hometown as the fictional “Corey Rawson, Ohio” because some people in Findlay hurt his feelings by saying bad things about him. I’m taking the Saints to cover. 

Buccaneers (plus-7) at Cowboys 

The Bucs will miss the playoffs for the 11th straight season, Dirk Koetter is likely to be fired and none of their players were named to this year’s Pro Bowl team. No matter how bad things get for the Falcons they can always depend on the Bucs to show them how things could be worse. Give me the Cowboys to cover.

Other NFL games of interest 

Chiefs (minus-2½) at Seahawks 

The Seahawks will quality for the playoffs with a victory and a loss by either Washington or Minnesota. Seattle’s defense is respectable despite shedding most of the “Legion of Boom” players last offseason and the offense has been consistently productive with a so-so offensive line. Maybe Dan Quinn can call his old boss, Pete Carroll, to get some pointers. I like Seattle with the points. 

Ravens (plus-4) at Chargers 

The Ravens are winning in a passing league with QB Lamar Jackson, who is an electric runner but inaccurate passer. Coach Jim Harbaugh and coordinator Marty Mornhinweg have built an unconventional scheme around a talented player rather than forcing a talented player to run a scheme that doesn’t fit him. This may seem obvious but it’s revolutionary in the risk-averse NFL. Chargers cover. 

Texans (plus-1½) at Eagles 

Eagles defensive end Chris Long’s locker now includes a shrine to backup QB Nick Foles. I suspend my objection to religion in the workplace because the Eagles must do anything to maintain the mojo that allowed them to ride Foles to their first Super Bowl title last year and a win at the Rams last week. I’ll take the Eagles and give the points. 

Vikings (minus-6) at Lions 

The Lions fired coach Jim Caldwell after they finished 9-7 in consecutive seasons. GM Bob Quinn said 9-7 isn’t good enough anymore for the Lions, who’d won at least that many games during just six seasons since 1995 with Caldwell as coach for three of them. Now they are 5-9 under first-year coach Matt Patricia and have a ton of money invested in lackluster QB Matt Stafford. The Lions just can’t help being the Lions, but I’m taking them to cover. 

Bengals (plus-8½) at Browns 

The Browns beat the Falcons and have been the better team since. Cleveland fans are nice enough to occasionally remind me of this development, just in case I forgot that I clowned their team back then. The Bengals are banged-up, but I like them to cover. 

 Buffalo (plus-13½) at Patriots 

New England has lost two games in a row, prompting the Boston Globe to ask in a headline: “Is this the end for Patriots dynasty?” To which everyone not associated with the most insufferable franchise and fan base in all of sports replies: “Please let it be true this time.” The Bills have improved over the past five weeks, so I’ll take them to cover. 

Packers (minus-3) at Jets 

The Packers are out of the playoff chase but QB Aaron Rodgers will continue to play on a balky knee and sore groin. Rodgers said his decision to keep going in a lost season is “about leadership.” It’s also a pretty good way to ensure a narrative other than Rodgers never getting blamed for anything that goes wrong for the Packers. Green Bay covers. 

Bears (minus-4) at 49ers 

The 49ers have won three of their past five games, including Sunday against the Seahawks. Rookie quarterback Nick Mullens, former college free agent and practice squad player, has been effective behind a so-so offensive. Maybe Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian should call his predecessor, Kyle Shananan, to get some pointers. Bears cover.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.