(AP) - What a juicy matchup the NFL scheduled for Thursday night, a showdown for the lead in the NFC South and maybe for the best record in the conference.
Then the Atlanta Falcons didn't do their part.
Instead, the prime-time meeting between long-time rivals has lost much of its luster. Atlanta (2-8) is the biggest disappointment in the entire NFL, going from nearly making the Super Bowl to contending for the top overall draft choice.
It's been a rough year for the Falcons, who have been ravaged by injuries and plagued by sloppiness (minus-11 turnover margin).
"It's certainly not fun when you're not in the mix," Matt Ryan said. "That's part of this league. There are times when it can be humbling. You've got to keep your head down and keep going. I think you learn from everything, the good and the bad, and sometimes you learn more from the bad than the good. I think everybody is trying to learn from it, apply it to themselves and find ways to get better, find ways to use it as motivation."
The Saints (8-2) don't need much more motivation than this: If they can win out, they will get the home field throughout the NFC playoffs because they will have beaten the Seahawks (10-1), the only team ahead of them in the conference. They meet Dec. 2.
That's huge: No one wants to go to Seattle or to New Orleans in the playoffs.
"You always want to be at home," Drew Brees said, "especially in those games."
New Orleans (No. 4 in the AP Pro32) is a 9-point favorite at Atlanta (No. 31, AP Pro32). The Falcons have almost hit rock bottom. When the archrival Saints rout them in prime time, that will be as low as they can get.
No. 15 Dallas (plus 2 1/2) at No. 16 New York Giants
Giants win fifth straight, increase the angst in Cowboys fans.
BEST BET: GIANTS, 30-23
No. 7 Indianapolis (plus 2) at No. 13 Arizona
Bruce Arians was 2012 Coach of the Year as Colts interim. He's doing just as good a job in the desert. Still ...
UPSET SPECIAL, COLTS 21-20
No. 2 Denver (minus 2 1/2) at No. 6 New England
Tom Terrific tends to get the better of Peyton in Foxborough matchups. Not this time with that banged-up defense.
No. 8 San Francisco (minus 5) at No. 27 Washington, Monday night
If Niners have any designs on getting back to big game, they need to start now.
No. 18 New York Jets (plus 3 1/2) at No. 19 Baltimore
If Ravens have any designs on ... well, you know.
No. 5 Carolina (minus 4) at No. 17 Miami
Panthers must show some staying power after big win over Patriots.
No. 22 San Diego (plus 5) at No. 3 Kansas City
Now that the pesky perfection questions have ended ...
No. 11 Chicago (plus 1) at No. 21 St. Louis
Like Bears' backup more than Rams' backup at QB.
No. 28 Tampa Bay (plus 9) at No. 10 Detroit
Lions better be serious about Bucs, even with Thanksgiving date with Packers ahead.
No. 30 Minnesota (plus 4 1/2) at No. 14 Green Bay
Packers will be serious about Vikes before the holiday matchup in Motor City.
No. 20 Pittsburgh (plus 2) at No. 22 Cleveland
Not buying into either of these teams right now.
No. 32 Jacksonville (plus 10) at No. 29 Houston
Never have bought into either of these teams.
No. 26 Tennessee (plus 1 1/2) at No. 25 Oakland
A couple of inconsistent teams, but Matt McGloin is a nice story
2013 RECORD: Against spread: 3-10-2 (66-84-6). Straight up: 8-7 (96-66).
Best Bet: 4-7 against spread, 10-1 straight up.
Upset special: 3-8 against spread, 1-10 straight up.
AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org
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