Observation deck: The state of each division
The playoff picture is getting clearer, but there's still room for some craziness, especially in the NFC, writes Jeffri Chadiha.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The playoff picture looks much clearer now that we've moved past the 14th Sunday in this NFL season. Three more teams wrapped up division championships -- Dallas, Green Bay and Seattle -- and the big question in the NFC is who will wind up with the top seed.
Dallas (12-1) has the advantage in that quest after beating the Packers (11-2) in Week 13, but there's still enough room for some craziness. It just has been that type of year.
Here's how the divisions look as we head into the Monday night game between Atlanta and New Orleans:
AFC East: The Patriots secured the division title in Week 12. The big question is whether the Bills can join them in the playoffs. Buffalo drilled Miami 38-17 on Sunday and has a key game with Cleveland coming up in Week 15. The 7-6 Bills have been an inspirational story, but they have a tough road ahead: After the Browns, they face the New York Giants at home and the Eagles on the road. Ouch.
AFC North: The Steelers (9-4) hold just a one-game lead over the Browns, but Pittsburgh remains in great shape because it swept Cleveland this season. That being said, there have been some disconcerting moments for the Steelers lately, including a loss to the New York Jets and Sunday's manhandling by the Pats. Pittsburgh is a safe bet to win the division, but Cleveland -- 8-5 after its win over the Jets -- could give the Steelers problems in a potential wild-card game.
AFC South: The Indianapolis Colts should win the division. The Jaguars, however, have looked scarier with each passing week. They've won four of their past five and, at 9-4, are a lock to take one of the wild-card spots.
AFC West: The San Diego Chargers will win this division by default. They're 8-5, and nobody else in the West has a winning record. Sunday's overtime win over Tennessee was huge.
NFC East: Dallas won the title in style by overcoming a 13-point deficit in a comeback win over Detroit. The Giants, at 9-4, are a lock for one wild card. They hold a two-game lead in that race.
NFC North: Green Bay is the champ, and the Vikings are suddenly really dangerous. The Vikes (7-6) are riding a four-game winning streak in which they've outscored their opponents 110-34.
NFC South: Tampa Bay will win this division, but the Bucs had an ugly 28-14 loss to Houston. The Bucs' defense allowed backup Texans quarterback Sage Rosenfels to pick it apart (27-for-36, 209 yards, three touchdowns).
NFC West: Seattle has the division, and Arizona has to rally to stay in the wild-card race. The Cardinals fell to 6-7 with Sunday's 42-21 loss in Seattle, and injuries -- they've lost Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson for the season, and wide receiver Anquan Boldin is nursing a dislocated toe -- could haunt them down the stretch. The upside? Arizona finishes the season with three losing teams (New Orleans, Atlanta and St. Louis.).
Now we move to 10 observations gleaned from Sunday's action:
1. Taylor's resurgencePaying big money for aging running backs was a popular trend in the offseason. So far, Jacksonville's Fred Taylor has proved to be one of the best investments. After gaining 132 yards -- and scoring on an 80-yard touchdown run -- in a 37-6 win over Carolina, Taylor has gained 100 yards in his past three games. What's even more impressive is his healthy 4.7-yard average on 173 carries this season. It shows that the 31-year-old is still getting the most out of every touch he gets.
2. Lions blow opportunityIt's hard to blame one person for Detroit's 28-27 loss to Dallas, but that's exactly what is about to happen. All Lions linebacker Paris Lenon had to do was pick up a fumble by Tony Romo late in the fourth quarter and Detroit would've secured a victory. Instead, the ball bounced off his fingers and Cowboys guard Kyle Kosier fell on it. Less than a minute later, Romo hit Cowboys tight end Jason Witten with the game-winning, 16-yard touchdown pass.
Again, Lenon isn't solely responsible for the Lions blowing a 27-14 lead in the second half. But that play is a perfect example of why Detroit has lost five straight games.
3. Jauron's great jobEven though Bills coach Dick Jauron won't win the coach of the year award -- it would be shocking if that honor didn't go to Green Bay's Mike McCarthy -- he deserves some recognition. After Sunday's win over Miami, Buffalo is 7-6 with a huge game in Week 15 against Cleveland. He has kept the team focused through tragedy (the near paralysis of tight end Kevin Everett), a quarterback controversy (J.P. Losman and Trent Edwards) and a ton of inexperience (the Bills have one of the youngest rosters in the league). That's a heck of a feat in a conference that is far more competitive than the NFC.
4. Another one under the radarThe offensive rookie of the year is also so obvious -- you might as well hand it to Minnesota's Adrian Peterson right now -- that Browns left tackle Joe Thomas probably won't receive his due. Some people thought Cleveland might take Peterson with the third overall pick in this year's draft, but it turns out Thomas was the smart move. His presence is a key reason the Browns' offense has been so potent this year. The same offensive line that had been horrendous in years past had given up only 16 sacks entering Sunday's game with the Jets. Thomas had a huge block on Jamal Lewis' game-clinching touchdown run in the 24-18 win over New York.
The bottom line: The guy is a future Pro Bowler.
5. When three isn't a charmWhen St. Louis started Brock Berlin in its 19-10 loss to Cincinnati, he became the fourth third-string quarterback to start a game in the NFL this season. The rest of that list: John Beck (Miami), Brooks Bollinger (Minnesota) and Vinny Testaverde (Carolina). If Chris Redman starts for Atlanta on Monday night -- and it looks as though that will be the case -- he'll become the fifth. Talk about a crazy year at that position.
6. Jackson coming of ageSpeaking of quarterbacks, Minnesota's starter, Tarvaris Jackson, is growing up in a hurry. His overall numbers for the season are mediocre -- he had a passer rating of 69.6 heading into Sunday's game against San Francisco -- but what really matters is how he has performed lately. In Jackson's past four games, he has completed 73.5 percent of his passes. The reason: He's playing like a man who realizes he doesn't have to do too much to help the Vikings win.
Minnesota has the best run offense in the NFL and the best run defense. It's hard for a young quarterback not to shine when surrounded by that much talent.
7. Grant gaining groundPackers running back Ryan Grant has been the hottest back in the league in the second half of the season. The same player who had only six carries through Green Bay's first six games has 744 yards in his past seven contests (including 156 in a 38-7 victory over Oakland on Sunday). In fact, it's looking as if he might wind up with 1,000 yards this season, which would be amazing considering that Green Bay had the league's worst rushing attack for most of the season. And because the Packers' remaining schedule doesn't include many tough defenses (St. Louis, Chicago and Detroit), it's a safe bet that Grant will get his magic number.
8. Oakland's strange moveIt's hard to understand how the Raiders can lose by 31 points to Green Bay and Russell can't play a down. Oakland coach Lane Kiffin told reporters his team wasn't playing well enough on offense to put Russell into a game, but that's not much of an explanation. Since when are there ideal circumstances for inexperienced signal-callers to get experience? If Russell can play a couple of possessions in a home win against Denver, surely he can take a few snaps in a blowout loss on the road. From everything we've seen, he's clearly a big boy.
9. Pro Bowl preparationIf there's one position where you can bet on somebody getting stiffed in Pro Bowl voting, it's going to be the outside linebacker spot in the NFC. Just consider the competition. Dallas has Greg Ellis (who had a sack Sunday to raise his total to a career-high 11.5) and DeMarcus Ware (who made last year's game and has 10 sacks and two forced fumbles this year). Detroit's Ernie Sims has had a great year, as well (he had 14 tackles and a forced fumble in Sunday's loss to Dallas), and Seattle's Julian Peterson has nine sacks of his own. Something tells me Sims is about to learn a hard lesson in disappointment because only three players can make the team at that spot and he's the only player in that group on a losing team.
10. Burress does it againSpeaking of the Pro Bowl, Plaxico Burress deserves to make his first appearance. What he lacks in overall numbers (he ranks 14th in the NFC with 62 receptions), he makes up for with quality (he's sixth in the NFL with 10 touchdown catches). He also has been the toughest receiver in the league all season. A bum ankle that has plagued Burress all season once again forced him to receive treatment on it before Sunday's 16-13 win over Philadelphia. He still managed to catch seven passes for 136 yards and a touchdown. It's clear the Giants wouldn't be thinking about the playoffs without him around.
Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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