Motivation is often the prime mover at the sharp end of the NFL's regular season. Those teams in postseason contention have their focussed narrowed through the keyhole of Super Bowl possibilities. Those outside the play-off picture can flounder without such direction, as they navel-gaze at a campaign of underachievement.
In which case, tonight's late game should be a pretty easy one to call. The Atlanta Falcons, whose record stands at a mighty 12-2, can secure homefield advantage and a first-round bye for the play-offs with victory. The Detroit Lions, however, mired at a mediocre 4-10, are already looking back on a year of disappointment, even embarrassment.
Consequently, handicapping the Falcons by a mere field-goal this evening would seem an insufficient equalizer. However, on the Vegas books, such levellers are usually there for a reason. So it's worth taking a closer look at why this Lions unit, which blew out so spectacularly last week in a humiliating 38-10 defeat to the lowly Cardinals of Arizona, has been afforded so much respect.
Firstly, although it's a Saturday, this is a primetime Monday Night Football match-up in front of the eyes of a nation (NFL TV schedulers have never let the actual day get in the way of the way of a good game). And secondly, they're at home. In short, the Lions will be desperate to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and send a raucous holiday crowd home happy. They cannot simply pack up camp and steal away quietly into the night.
More crucially, though - on the law of averages alone - a case can be made for Detroit finally getting their collective act together. After all, on paper, this is not a 4-10 team. They made the play-offs last year and have a highlight reel of flair players on both offense and defense. But a year is a long time in this league. And the aggregation of smaller failings - poor individual performance, a litany of needless penalties at pivotal moments, even questionable coaching decisions - has made the difference.
Quarterback Matt Stafford is the embodiment of such concerns, underlined by his alarming touchdowns-interceptions ratio of 17-15. Along the way he's also thrown in some fumbles for good measure - ability blighted by basic mistakes. Stafford has been quick to hold his hands up and apologise to teammates and fans alike. And so he should with a QB ranking of 24th in the NFL.
Now comes the perfect time for Stafford to rebuild his rating on a high-profile stage, where he will be ably assisted by star wide receiver, Calvin Johnson, who is now running at optimum strength after some tweaks and niggles earlier in the season. Johnson can even supersede Jerry Rice's single-season record of 1,848 yards receiving with a couple of good games to close the campaign.
But it is on defense where the Lions can make the biggest improvement. And they'll need to if they are to stop Falcons flagbearer, Matt Ryan, who enjoyed a season-best 142.6 QB rating in Atlanta's mauling of the New York Giants last Sunday. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Su should be the man to step up and lead his defensive line, but this bruiser has been another Lion to come up short of expectations this term. Many question his attitude but this former top collegiate star. Yet Su remains a top talent in both sacks and tackles (his 2010/11 figures bear comparison with the best). So Ryan could be in for a torrid time - especially as the doubt persists that the Falcons' dominant status is more indicative of a soft schedule than genuine Super Bowl credentials.
It's always wise to be weary of a team whose performance is less than the sum of its parts. However, it's also prudent not to wake sleeping Lions with a thorn in their paw, lest you catch a nasty surprise. And while I will apologise for mixing my metaphors and folklore, I won't apologise for recommending Detroit. They may have lost six straight, but the Lions can finally get the engine running in Motor City. And be home in time for Christmas.
Back Detroit Lions (+3.5 points) on the Match Point Spread @ [1.98] or better
Back Detroit Lions (+3 points) on the First-Half Point Spread @ [1.82] or better
Back Detroit Lions TD to be First Scoring Play @ [4.0] or better
Back C Johnson to be First / Anytime Touchdown Scorer @ [7.0] or better