Falcons among betting favorites in pivotal NFL Week 17 games

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The Atlanta Falcons and Matt Ryan, whose playoff hopes are dependent on Week 17 results, take a strong head-to-head trend into a game against the Carolina Panthers this weekend.

In the only matchup of a crowded NFL Week 17 slate that has playoff implications for both teams, the Falcons are four-point betting favorites against the Cam Newton-led Panthers with a 45-point total at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

The Falcons, who essentially need a win or a Seattle Seahawks loss in order to earn an NFC wild card berth, are 7-2 against the spread in their last nine home games against the Panthers. However, the OddsShark NFL Database reveals that the Panthers have an identical 7-2 ATS mark over their last nine road games.

Speaking of Seattle, the Seahawks are 9.5-point favorites against the Arizona Cardinals with a 39-point total. The visiting team is 5-0-1 SU and ATS in its last six games in this matchup. The Seahawks, who deep-sixed the Dallas Cowboys’ playoff hopes during Week 16, are 7-2 ATS in their last nine games after winning as an underdog.

The Minnesota Vikings, who simply need to win to join the No. 1 seed Philadelphia Eagles as a bye team, are 11.5-point favorites against the Chicago Bears with a 39.5 total. The Bears are 0-5 SU and 1-4 ATS in their last five games on the road against the Vikings. The total has gone under in 11 of the Vikings’ last 13 divisional games.

The New Orleans Saints, who need a win or a Carolina loss to clinch the NFC South, are seven-point road favorites against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a 50.5 total. The Saints are 11-0 SU and 8-3 ATS in their last 11 games as a favorite. The Buccaneers are 7-20 ATS in their last 27 games at home in December.

The San Francisco 49ers are 3.5-point road favorites, with a 43.5 total, against the Los Angeles Rams, who will be either the NFC’s No. 3 or 4 seed. The 49ers are 3-1 SU and 4-0 ATS in their last four games against the Rams.

The moving parts in the AFC playoff picture involve the Nos. 1 and 2-seeded bye teams – the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers – and the two wild cards.

The Patriots, who hold the tiebreaker over the Steelers, are 15.5-point favorites against the New York Jets with a 44 total. The Jets are 7-1-1 ATS in their last nine games against the Patriots. The total has gone over in 13 of the Patriots’ last 17 games at home in December.

The Steelers, who might take out starters if it appears wrestling home-field advantage from the Patriots is out of reach, are 10.5-point favorites against the Cleveland Browns with a 38 total. The total has gone over in 10 of the Browns’ last 14 road games. The Steelers, who had a Christmas Day blowout win against Houston in Week 16, are 2-5 ATS in their last seven games after an ATS win.

The Baltimore Ravens, who can lose and still get an AFC wild card spot, are 9.5-point favorites against the Cincinnati Bengals with a 40 total. The Bengals are 5-2 ATS in their last seven games. The total has gone over in six of the Ravens’ last eight games in December.

Among other AFC wild card hopefuls, the Tennessee Titans are 3.5-point favorites against the Jacksonville Jaguars with a 41.5 total. The total has gone over in the Jaguars’ last 10 games in the late afternoon. The Titans are 5-1 SU in their last six games at home.

The Los Angeles Chargers are eight-point favorites against the Oakland Raiders with a 42-point total. The Raiders are 7-1 ATS in their last eight road games against the Chargers. The Chargers are 2-7 ATS in their last nine games at home in December.

And the Buffalo Bills are 2.5-point favorites against the Miami Dolphins with a 42.5 total. The Bills are 2-8 SU and 3-7 ATS in their last 10 games in the late afternoon. The Dolphins are 5-14 ATS in their last 19 games in December.

For more info, picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the new OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes, or check it out at OddsShark.libsyn.com.

Jags ‘threw a tantrum’ when Marrone started making changes

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) Jacksonville’s locker room was abuzz late last season. Four guys played table tennis while others crowded around a small table for dominoes. Two 80-inch televisions were tuned to a sports highlight show, and music blared from one corner of the room.

Doug Marrone, the team’s offensive line coach at the time, walked through and shook his head.

“Can you believe this?” Marrone whispered.

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The Jaguars were in the middle of a nine-game losing streak that would ultimately cost coach Gus Bradley his job. Marrone had watched from afar for two years, witnessing an atmosphere he felt was too loose, too laid-back and too lenient amid losing.

So when Marrone was hired to replace Bradley last January, high on his to-do list was to change the culture in Jacksonville. His success is one reason the Jaguars (12-6) are in the AFC championship game against New England (14-3).

The ping pong table was the first to go. Dominoes followed. The locker room stalls were overhauled, too, with Marrone mixing and matching position groups and putting certain players next to veteran leaders and/or NFL role models.

“We definitely threw a tantrum,” Pro Bowl defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. “Went in there and talked to him about it. Definitely wasn’t happy. I learned just to be quiet, you know, and go with the flow. He’s been at it longer than I have, and I’m just the football player. He says do this and I go do it. Just learn to follow him, and I’m glad I did.”

Marrone saved the most significant changes for the practice fields.

Marrone, top executive Tom Coughlin and general manager Dave Caldwell wanted a much tougher and more physical team. They drafted bruising running back Leonard Fournette and fiery left tackle Cam Robinson to complement a defense that was significantly beefed up in free agency with the addition of All-Pro pass-rusher Calais Campbell, Pro Bowl cornerback A.J. Bouye and veteran safety Barry Church.

They also designed an offseason program that was more grueling than most players had experienced. Marrone’s message was clear: Go hard or go home.

“You remember guys in camp talking about this took a few years off their lives,” Jackson said. “It’s pretty funny just to see us now. I guess he does know what he’s doing.”

The Jaguars were in full pads nearly every day during training camp, a tortuous stretch in draining heat and humidity that left rookies and veterans questioning the process and wondering if it would pay off. It was the NFL’s version of boot camp. Break them down, then build them up.

It ultimately brought players closer, making them accountable to each other and causing them to care more for each other. Winning was the final piece, and thumping Houston 29-7 in the season opener was all the proof players needed.

“It was the toughest training camp I’ve ever been a part of,” said linebacker Paul Posluszny, in his 11th season. “Coach Marrone would talk to us and say, `Listen, I have a plan and you have to trust me.’ With that, guys were able to say, `OK, we haven’t gotten what we wanted in years past doing things a certain way, so we have to buy in, trust the head man and know that that’ll bring us success when it’s time.’

“It was difficult just because of so many changes from what we were used to. I think the most important thing is we always said, `Well, if it helps us win, then it’s all good.'”

Jacksonville had lost 63 of 80 games over the previous five seasons – the worst record in the NFL during that span – and had been through two coaching changes.

Coughlin’s return was a key part of the team’s revival, and although the two-time Super Bowl-winning coach with the New York Giants gets much of the outside credit for the team’s turnaround, the reality is Marrone was the one pushing all the right buttons.

Marrone has been other places where players resisted, prompting personnel moves that would slow progress. That wasn’t the case in Jacksonville, and he credited his players for being open to change.

“They gave our staff the opportunity to say, `This is what we want to do. This is what we believe in as coaches or as an organization. This is how we want to handle ourselves,”‘ Marrone said. “We are still working toward that. It is not perfect by any means.”

It’s clearly working, though. The Jaguars are in the title game for the third time in franchise history, one victory away from their first Super Bowl appearance.

“They say (stuff) rolls downhill,” Jackson said. “Well, the good stuff rolls downhill, too. … It’s all worth it when you win.”

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

Jaguars’ Jalen Ramsey tells fans ‘we’re going to Super Bowl’

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey did pretty much the same thing that upset his Jacksonville Jaguars teammates last week.

He started looking ahead.

Ramsey told thousands of fans awaiting the team’s return from Pittsburgh late Sunday that the Jaguars “are going to the Super Bowl and we are going to win that (expletive).”

Jacksonville (12-6), of course, has the AFC championship game at New England remaining before even getting to the Super Bowl. The small-market franchise is winless in seven games in Foxborough, Massachusetts, and 1-10 all-time against the Patriots (14-3).

Ramsey’s comments surely will find their way north.

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“You come back and you’ve got all the fans here and things of that nature,” Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said.

“Obviously that’s something that everybody, they want to do when you get close. Whether you have to say it or not? The one thing I do know is the road to it always leads through New England.

“Our focus isn’t on anything else but the New England Patriots. It will be a great challenge for us obviously.”

The Jags took exception to the Steelers talking about facing the Patriots instead of them, and used it as motivation in a 45-42 victory Sunday.

Nonetheless, they stood behind their outspoken and ultra-talented defender.

“To me, it’s just a man that has confidence in his team,” defensive tackle Abry Jones said. “What’s he going to say? He knows what we’re going up there to do. It’s not like he ain’t saying nothing that’s not true.”

Fellow defensive tackle Malik Jackson said the difference between Ramsey’s remarks and comments from Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, running back Le'Veon Bell and safety Mike Mitchell is the timing.

“We’re so close that I think it’s OK to say, `Hey, we’re going to do this,”‘ Jackson said. “It’s one of those things that I think he believes in himself after the game he just had, locking down one of the best receivers in the game.

“He’s pretty hyped and he wants to let everybody know he’s hyped, so I think he’s just happy and he understands that we have a giant in front of us and we’ve just got to pay all the attention to this team.

“We don’t even know who’s going to play in the Super Bowl because we’re not looking ahead to that.”

Ramsey was unavailable during the team’s open locker room session Monday.

“He’s going to talk, but we’re going to show up,” defensive end Yannick Ngakoue said. “I just don’t like when people talk all week. You talk reckless and you lose.”

The Jaguars voiced their displeasure with being overlooked by the Steelers last week and were really vocal after the victory at Heinz Field. Players yelled, “Where’s Mike Mitchell at now” as they came off the field.

“I feel like they took us lightly. I don’t know why because we whooped them the first time,” Ngakoue said. “You’ve got to respect all your opponents. That’s why we’re not big in trash-talking. We’re big in playing on Sunday.

“Real guys, real people don’t talk. We throw the first punch. We threw the first punch and we got the victory.”

And now they have a matchup against the NFL’s most successful franchise over the past two decades.

The Jaguars are 1-3 against New England in the postseason, with the lone victory coming after the 1998 season – before coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady teamed up to take five Super Bowl titles.

Jacksonville’s win came against coach Pete Carroll and backup quarterback Scott Zolak.

The Jags are 0-7 against the Brady-Belichick combination.

“We’re not going to go out there like the Steelers the week before and talk about people in a bad way and give them bulletin board news,” Jackson said.

“We just continue to work and earn respect. … We just keep proving people wrong. (Blake Bortles) keeps proving people wrong, and we just keep going on it and pounding people. It’s just awesome to see and awesome to be a part of.

“We understand we have to do what we have to do or we’ll be watching the Super Bowl at home like everybody else.”

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