Division up for Grabs

Atlanta, GA - The St. Louis Rams will be banking on a new regime to bounce back from yet another terrible season.

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That approach has certainly worked for the Atlanta Falcons.

With a first-year general manager, coach and quarterback, the Falcons have a chance to win the NFC South on Sunday as they conclude the regular season against a Rams team that is already looking to next year.

Oddsmakers from Online Sportsbook Sportsbook.com have made the Falcons –14 point spread favorites for Sunday’s game against the Rams. Current NFL Public Betting Information shows that 58% of more than 4,187 bets for this game have been placed on the Falcons –14.

Jay Zygmunt, St. Louis' president of football operations, resigned Monday in the fallout from another terrible season. It's the first of many changes the Rams (2-13) are expected to make over the next few months.

At this same point last season, Atlanta (10-5) won its final regular-season game to finish 4-12. No one thought the Falcons would become a playoff contender one year after quarterback Michael Vick was sent to federal prison, convicted of funding a dogfighting operation.

But new general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith cleaned house, releasing a number of veterans. They drafted quarterback Matt Ryan in the first round, and he has led Atlanta to its first playoff appearance since 2004.

The Falcons clinched a postseason spot with a 24-17 win over Minnesota on Sunday.

Atlanta can win the NFC South and earn a first-round bye with a win over St. Louis and if Carolina loses at New Orleans. If that scenario occurs, the Falcons and Panthers would each finish 11-5, with Atlanta winning the tiebreakers based on its 8-4 conference record.

"I thought it was a possibility, but I didn't put a whole lot of stock in it," Smith said. "As the season progressed it became apparent to me in the way this league was falling out in wins and losses, I thought if we could get to December and be close that we'd have a chance."

Atlanta is 6-1 at the Georgia Dome and will be heavily favored versus St. Louis, which has lost nine in a row. The Panthers will be playing the Saints at the same time in New Orleans.

"I think the guys will be up for the challenge," Smith said. "They know if we play well and get the outcome we desire, there's a lot out there (in the playoff standings) that can change.

"There's still a lot that's going to change in how this tournament is put together."

Smith has been rewarded for giving Ryan a chance to start in his first year. Ryan has completed 61.7 percent of his passes for 3,280 yards and 15 touchdowns against nine interceptions.

He has been complemented by a bruising running game, with Pro Bowler Michael Turner ranking second in the NFL with 1,491 yards and a franchise-record 16 TDs.

St. Louis, meanwhile, has a building block at running back going into next season if Steven Jackson can remain healthy.

Jackson got his heaviest workload of the season Sunday, rushing for 108 yards on 32 carries in a 17-16 loss to San Francisco. It was his first 100-yard game since Week 7 against Dallas.

Although Jackson has been limited to 11 games due to a thigh injury, Rams coach Jim Haslett expects him to be fine for Sunday's game.

Haslett's status for next season, however, is questionable.

It's anticipated that Billy Devaney, the executive vice president of player personnel, will be promoted to general manager and will head St. Louis' second coaching search in two seasons. The list of candidates will include Haslett, who replaced Scott Linehan after an 0-4 start and produced two quick victories.

Haslett appears to be a longshot, but he would like a fresh start to help rebuild St. Louis.

"There has to be a togetherness being built at the training camp, there has to be an attitude that you believe that you can win that starts in training camp," Haslett said. "All that stuff, you just don't do that in the middle of the season.

"When you're struggling like we are right now, it's hard to believe that you're going to win a game."

The Rams are 5-26 the last two years, and their losing streak is the franchise's longest since the move to St. Louis in 1995.

The Rams beat the Falcons 28-16 on Dec. 2, 2007 in the teams' last meeting.

Top Betting Trends:
All games in this series since 1992
ATLANTA is 12-11 against the spread versus ST LOUIS since 1992
ATLANTA is 12-12 straight up against ST LOUIS since 1992
15 of 23 games in this series have gone OVER THE TOTAL since 1992
Games over the last 3 seasons
ST LOUIS is 1-0 against the spread versus ATLANTA over the last 3 seasons 
ST LOUIS is 1-0 straight up against ATLANTA over the last 3 seasons 
1 of 1 games in this series have gone OVER THE TOTAL over the last 3 seasons
All games played at ATLANTA since 1992
ATLANTA is 6-5 against the spread versus ST LOUIS since 1992
ATLANTA is 8-4 straight up against ST LOUIS since 1992
9 of 11 games in this series have gone OVER THE TOTAL since 1992
Key Player Injuries
[C] Nick Leckey IR - Foot - 11/26/08
[CB] Justin King IR - Toe - 08/16/08
[CB] Ricky Manning, Jr. IR - Foot - 10/13/08
[CB] Tye Hill IR - Knee - 12/09/08
[OL] Mark Setterstrom IR - Knee - 08/17/08
[OT] Brandon Gorin IR - Shoulder - 08/18/08
[RB] Brian Leonard IR - Shoulder - 10/13/08
[TE] Randy McMichael IR - Ankle - 10/06/08
[WR] Dante Hall IR - Ankle - 11/03/08
[WR] Derek Stanley expected to miss rest of season - Knee - 12/16/08
[WR] Drew Bennett IR - Foot - 11/03/08
[CB] David Irons IR - Knee - 12/16/08
[CB] Von Hutchins IR - Foot - 07/28/08
[OT] Renardo Foster is out for the rest of the season. - Knee - 11/21/08 [RB] Thomas Brown IR - Leg - 08/30/08
[S] Antoine Harris IR - Groin - 12/09/08
[TE] Ben Hartsock IR - Toe - 11/26/08
[WR] Laurent Robinson IR - Hamstring - 12/17/08

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Posted: 12/24/08 10:45AM ET

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