Weekend Predictions: Falcons finally play good foe close, still lose

San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan - a former Falcons offensive coordinator - talks to Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan after Atlanta's 29-22 win Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019, at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

Credit: Lachlan Cunningham

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San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan - a former Falcons offensive coordinator - talks to Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan after Atlanta's 29-22 win Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019, at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

Credit: Lachlan Cunningham

Credit: Lachlan Cunningham

Weekend Predictions is back after a bye week. I went into the break with a winning record against the spread in five of the previous six weeks. I spent the time away thinking about how there’s still time to blow it and finish with a season losing record for the first time in four years of picking games against the spread.

That anxiety may be related to witnessing Georgia get ambushed by Alabama in the SEC Championship game. The Braves made me believe I can recover from a bad start and do great things. The Falcons convinced me that I can be no better than mediocre and still have a chance to win more than I lose. The Bulldogs reminded me to guard against getting too big for my britches.

Falcons (+9) at 49ers

One of the many weird things about this Falcons season is that they are 6-2 away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium (including the London “home” game) and 0-5 in their building. It can’t be explained away by who they played. The Falcons lost to the Patriots and Bucs at home, but also to three teams with losing records: Philadelphia, Washington and Carolina. You can probably tell I’m trying to talk myself into taking the Falcons (6-7) and the points.

Yes, I know their two road losses were blowouts against the Cowboys and Buccaneers, the only winning teams they’ve played away. I’m aware that tight end George Kittle has regained his All-Pro form for the 49ers (7-6) after injuries slowed him last season and early in this one. But my angle is that the Falcons are a solid road team, and I’m sticking to it. They’ll lose but cover.

Other NFL games of interest

Saints (+11) at Buccaneers

The casting for “Home Team” signals that while the movie is based on a true story, it’s not a true depiction of Saints coach Sean Payton. You don’t hire a likeable actor such as Kevin James to play an arrogant and amoral character. The movie focuses on Payton serving as an assistant for his kid’s pee-wee team during his year-long suspension from the NFL. Hopefully James-as-Payton teaches the kids that it’s wrong to cover up an organization-wide scheme to intentionally injure opposing players. Bucs cover.

Panthers (+10½) at Bills

The Panthers plucked coach Matt Rhule and offensive guru Joe Brady from college last year. Rhule had revived Baylor’s program, and Brady coordinated LSU’s all-time great passing offense. Rhule already fired Brady and has become so desperate that he’s playing two quarterbacks. This is another reminder that coaching in the NFL is so much harder than doing it in college. Bills are the pick.

Vikings (-3½) at Bears

A Vikings loss would help the Falcons in the NFC wild-card race. Incredibly, all but one of Minnesota’s 13 games have been decided by eight points or less. I’m always inclined to take the home ‘dog. I’ve got to do it when the Vikings never blow anybody out and now are dealing with COVID-19 attrition. Bears cover.

Washington Football Team (+9½) at Eagles

A tie is the best possible outcome for the Falcons in this game because they lost to both the Eagles and WFT. Stranger things have happened, such as this Falcons team still being part of the playoffs race in Week 14. The Eagles blew out the Jets with Gardner Minshew subbing for QB Jalen Hurts (ankle). I like WFT with the points even if Hurts returns to play.

Seahawks (+4½) at Rams

Instead of hiring Urban Meyer, Jags team owner Shad Kahn should have just copied Seattle’s Pete Carroll formula. Hire a candidate who was a very good coordinator and pretty good head coach in the NFL before going on to win a college national championship. Those kinds of coaches are dime a dozen. Seriously, Kahn could have hired any coach who can win without bullying players and generally being a terrible person. This is a tough game to pick because the Rams are dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak and Seattle has a lengthy injury list. I’ll take the Rams to cover.

Patriots (+2½) at Colts

I really enjoyed those five minutes when I believed the Evil Empire had finally crumbled. Last year QB Tom Brady left for Tampa and Bill Belichick’s bad drafting caught up with him. Now the Pats are striking back. They’ve won six games a row and lead the AFC East. Their defense is elite. QB Mac Jones is the heavy favorite to be voted NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. I like the the Pats with the points.

Packers (-5½) at Ravens

Packers QB Aaron Rodgers has been playing great despite his toe injury and a brain full of vaccine misinformation. Rodgers said he’s considering surgery after he aggravated the injury last weekend. He presumably has consulted credible medical professionals instead of doing his own research. Baltimore’s defense has slipped, and QB Lamar Jackson (ankle) is questionable to play. Packers are the pick.

College bowl games

Independence (Shreveport, La.): Alabama-Birmingham (+7) vs. No. 13 BYU

BYU is 10-2 with six victories against Power 5 opponents, including No. 10 Utah. Utah will play No. 6 Ohio State in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day for an estimated $6 million payout. BYU is banished to Shreveport to face UAB of Conference USA before Christmas for $2.2 million. Now you see why BYU is giving up its independence and joining the Big 12. I’d back UAB if star running back DeWayne McBride (ankle) was certain to play, but I’m guessing he won’t. BYU covers.

New Orleans: No. 23 Louisiana-Lafayette (-5) vs. Marshall

Coach Billy Napier led Louisiana-Lafayette to the Sun Belt championship before leaving to replace Dan Mullen at Florida. Now he’s got Gators players and fans repeating his (unintentional) mantra: “Scared money don’t make money.” This development would be extremely annoying to me if that corny phrase didn’t warm my gambling heart. Napier’s successor, Michael Desormeaux, will makes his head-coaching debut in this game. I’m backing Marshall to cover on the theory that its very good offense will cause problems for Louisiana-Lafayette’s stout defense.

Last week: 6-4 (72-66-1 season)