Bar Is Set At Top For Packers And Falcons

Packers (7-3) at Falcons (8-2)Sunday, 1 p.m.Line: Falcons by 2 1/2

Labeling a game as a preview of the N.F.C. championship is like calling a young singer-songwriter the ”next Bob Dylan.” It sets the bar too high: you expect Cowboys versus 49ers circa 1992, but instead you get welterweight-caliber matchups. The season opener between the Vikings and Saints, both a conference championship preview and a rematch, devolved into a sloppy punter’s duel. Sunday night’s Eagles-Giants game, while close, was marred by dropped passes and inexcusable turnovers. The latest would-be championship preview pits the Packers, who have spent three seasons on the brink of breaking out, against the Other Leading Brand.

The Packers have become coach killers: both Wade Phillips and Brad Childress were fired after the Packers blew out their respective teams. Think of Clay Matthews and Aaron Rodgers as a bracing splash of ice water on the face of an indecisive owner. ”Your quarterback is 40 years old! We’re crushing him!” the Packers announce, ”Your coach has no idea how to turn things around! Pull the plug before it’s too late!”

Mike Smith’s job is in no jeopardy, but the Falcons must prove they bring more to the table than chain restaurant consistency. Their weekly box scores are so unwavering that it’s almost spooky, like realizing that every chicken Caesar salad served at T.J. McHappyhour’s contains exactly 8.5 croutons. Does Michael Jenkins have to catch exactly five passes each week? Does Matt Ryan get a bonus for completing between 24 and 26 passes per game? The Falcons sometimes appear to value a low standard deviation to a high point total. They need more flair.

The same Falcons performance level that produced easy wins against the Rams and Buccaneers resulted in tough losses against the Steelers and Eagles, and it could sink them against the Packers or a playoff foe. Without that extra spark of brilliance, the Falcons will always sound more like Jackrabbit Slim than ”Blonde on Blonde.” Pick: Packers

Chargers (5-5) at Colts (6-4)Sunday, 8:20 p.m.Line: Colts by 3

All is right with the Chargers now that the team has embraced 240-pound Mike Tolbert (25 carries, 111 yards on Monday Night) as a featured back. The Chargers just aren’t the Chargers without a roly-poly wrecking ball like Marion Butts, Natrone Means or Tolbert crashing into the line 25 times per game. Rookie Ryan Mathews will get some carries when his ankle heals, but Tolbert appears to be a better fit for the offense. He’s also much more fun to watch.

Back when the Colts appeared invincible, the Chargers routinely beat them. The Chargers are 4-1 in their last five meetings with the Colts, including playoff victories in 2007 and 2008. By shifting defensive linemen and linebackers into different formations before the snap, the Chargers were able to prevent Peyton Manning from calling the plays he wanted at the line of scrimmage. Manning has thrown 14 interceptions in eight games against the Chargers, and his passer rating is lower against the Chargers (74.8) than against any other team but the Browns. Factor in Tolbert’s battering ram potential and the Chargers’ tendency to charge from the rear late in the season, and this game has heavy upset potential. Pick: Chargers

Jaguars (6-4) at Giants (6-4)Sunday, 1 p.m.Line: Giants by 7

While you wrap your brain around the fact that the Jaguars are in first place, reflect for a moment upon the Giants’ short-lived reign as the best team in the N.F.C. Back-to-back divisional losses exposed major weaknesses: a secondary that allows receivers to get open over the middle too easily and an offense that thinks it needs to commit a minimum of three turnovers to have its parking validated. It’s a good thing the Giants’ defense is stingy on third down (opponents are 7 of 43 on conversions in the last four games) and in the red zone (allowing just two touchdowns in the last 10 trips); otherwise, they would give up over 30 points per game. An injury rash at wide receiver had the team kicking tires on every irregulars-rack wideout from Michael Clayton (signed midweek) to Kevin Curtis. Phil McConkey was seen running extra hard on a treadmill recently, but that may just have been a coincidence.

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