Wild-card races not so wild
Without making this too complicated, the AFC wild-card race probably will come down to the Week 17 matchup between the Steelers and Dolphins.
Do you have a query for John Clayton?
Click here to send a note to his mailbag.
The Broncos appear to have the AFC's first wild-card spot locked up unless the San Diego Chargers slip and the AFC West title becomes a possibility. Denver is 8-4 and has winnable home games against the Chiefs and Raiders. The Broncos will reach 10 wins. There is no guarantee that the No. 6 seed will do the same.
The Jaguars face the biggest problem even though they are currently sixth in the AFC with a 7-5 record. Their next three games are against the Dolphins, Colts and Patriots, and they could lose all three. The Ravens (6-6) still can reach nine wins because they'll play Detroit and Chicago at home and finish the season in Oakland, but to reach 10 wins, they also would have to beat the Steelers at Heinz Field in Week 16.
The Steelers should beat the Browns on Thursday night. Then they'll need to win home games against the Packers and Ravens to head into the season finale in Miami at 9-6. The Dolphins would have to beat the Jaguars, Titans and Texans to be 9-6 heading into that last week.
The NFC wild-card race is pretty straightforward. The Packers are 8-4 and appear destined to earn the first wild-card spot. The second spot likely will go to the second-place team in the NFC East.
From the inbox
Q: I have played, coached and watched football for 40 years, and it is really jumping out at me how few NFL players tackle correctly or even attempt to. This commentary goes to the increased number and severity of concussions and how almost every defensive back or linebacker likes to lead with his head like a hammer or missile. Are proper tackling fundamentals not being emphasized enough in practice?
Dave in Wilmington, N.C.
A: Your knowledge and experience are needed in helping the league and players figure out ways to minimize concussions. A friend of mine suggested the face mask is the worst thing that happened to football because it gave players the confidence to use their helmets as a weapon. Better tackling techniques need to start in junior high and continue through high school, college and the pros. Tacklers love to intimidate, but what they don't realize is they are suffering injuries that could shorten their careers and make their postcareer lives miserable. Jeffri Chadiha identifies some reasons for the poor tackling in our latest Hot Read.
Red in Denver asks whether the true value of the Jay Cutler-for-Kyle Orton trade will be revealed in how much the Bears fall and how high the Broncos' first-round choice in the 2010 draft becomes. The true value of the trade will be who ends up with the better quarterback. Orton is in the last year of his contract. Cutler has to change his game, but he has talent. You win in this league with quarterback play. Orton may not be scoring many points, but he's not losing games like Cutler. This discussion requires more than one season of evaluation. Sharif in Augusta, Ga., has seen some of Terrell Owens' good games lately and wonders what people around the league think about him. Owens is still respected, but many think his days as a 1,000-yard receiver are over. Someone will sign him next year. Eddy in San Diego asks whether Philip Rivers will ever win an MVP. He does get overlooked, which is easy to do when Peyton Manning is on the verge of clinching his fourth MVP award. If Rivers can put together a 14-2 season, he could win it, and he certainly has the skills to be a top MVP candidate. Doug in Cleveland wonders whether the Cowboys' biggest problem is their offensive line's poor play. I'm not ready to go there yet, but my fear this year was that the offensive line would start to have age problems during the second half of the season. Derek looked at my list of 14 elite quarterbacks and wondered where I had Orton. I put him in the next category, which is a good quarterback who has the ability to take a team to the playoffs. I call it the middle class of quarterbacks. To get into the elite class, you have to score more than 21 points a game, complete at least 60 percent of your passes and throw for more than 220 yards a game. He's just short of those numbers but is still a winner. Adam in Sacramento, Calif., noted that I wrote the phrase "when the league goes to 18 games" in last week's mailbag. Trust me, once the league sorts through all its labor problems, the end result will be an 18-game schedule. More games mean more revenue. Adrian in Norfolk, Va., asks whether the Bills will use free agency, trades or the draft to get a top-caliber quarterback. Unless you believe in Jason Campbell, free agency might not offer much. I'm not buying Michael Vick as an option. The draft would offer better hope. Kyle in Hartford, Conn., wonders why Darrelle Revis isn't being discussed as the leading contender for defensive MVP. He's a candidate, but not the leading candidate, because guys such as Elvis Dumervil have a lot of sacks. Brandon in Los Angeles has a great question: What will the Chargers do at running back if they don't bring back LaDainian Tomlinson? First, you sign Darren Sproles to a long-term deal, and then you draft a good inside runner in the first three rounds. Shane in Aberdeen, Wash., reminds me that the Packers went to a short-passing offense in 2007 to cover for a nonexistent run game and now are doing it to help their struggling pass protection. He's wondering why I should give credit to Mike McCarthy for doing it this late in the season. You make adjustments as the season progresses, and at 8-4, something must be working.
Pat G. in Chicago
A: If the Vikings reach the NFC title game and lose, I still think Favre could come back for another season. He's having a blast. As for the Bears, they need to find an offensive coordinator who can get more out of Cutler. Mike Martz, Charlie Weis and Jeremy Bates would be top candidates. They also need to upgrade at wide receiver because Devin Hester isn't a No. 1 receiver. Their problem is not having a 2010 draft choice in the first or second rounds. They probably will have to sign a free agent, but free-agent receivers usually don't offer much of an upgrade. When Cutler's right, he can make his receivers better, but the franchise needs to do something to make Cutler right.
Q: Would you agree with the claim that the NFC is a stronger conference than the AFC this season? This decade seemed to be dominated by the AFC, but with teams like the Vikings, Saints, Eagles, Cowboys and Cardinals, the NFC in my mind has surpassed the AFC as the superior conference.
Jim in Duluth, Minn.
A: I thought this would be the NFC's year to take control of the league, but the NFC trails the AFC 26-22 in interconference wins. I think there is a stronger middle class of teams in the NFC and a deep group of elite quarterbacks emerging in the NFC. When you have a rebuilding team such as Jacksonville with the AFC's sixth-best record after 13 weeks, you have to say the AFC isn't dominating. But facts are facts. When AFC teams meet NFC teams, AFC teams prevail more often. They haven't backed down yet.
Q: What do you see Seattle doing in the 2010 draft?
Zheray in Seattle
A: This has to be an offensive draft for the Seahawks. Their main needs are left tackle, quarterback and running back. Their offensive line is a disaster, and it's one of the reasons Tim Ruskell isn't the general manager anymore. Maybe people also would say the Seahawks need help at defensive end, cornerback and safety, but Ruskell tried to fix those positions during the past five years at the expense of helping the offense. Now, it's time to rebuild the offense, which is one of the reasons it makes sense for Mike Holmgren to return as the general manager.
Q: Do you think Cincinnati's approach of running the ball and playing good defense gives it the best chance to get to the Super Bowl, or will the Bengals need to let Carson Palmer scan the field a little more to compete with New England, Indy and San Diego?
Jason in Boca Raton, Fla.
A: That might be the most astute question of the week. I've wondered about it for weeks. The Bengals are averaging 21.2 points a game, just about a field goal less than most of the other playoff contenders. With so many good quarterbacks scheduled to make the playoffs, there will be an urgency to score more points. The Bengals' coaching staff is starting to think it's been getting a little too conservative of late. A couple of injuries on defense could turn playoff games into higher-scoring affairs. I'm wondering whether Cincinnati has enough offense to go far in the playoffs.
Daryl in Florida
A: Johnson is in the MVP race, but he's a distant fourth. His team's record is one of the reasons. Quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Drew Brees have their teams undefeated through 12 games. Favre has helped the Vikings to a 10-2 start. Johnson may reach 2,000 yards, but the Titans might finish at 8-8 or worse. Jackson will make the Pro Bowl easily. Our NFC West blogger Mike Sando has Johnson seventh in his latest MVP rankings.
Q: Can you put this debate to rest please? I have grown tired of people saying Marvin Lewis deserves coach of the year. I strongly disagree, although the Bengals are playing great. I credit defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and the offensive line for the team's great improvement. What do you think?
Brandon in Houston
A: Lewis deserves a contract extension and a lot of praise for a good season, but he definitely will fall short of the coach of the year honors. The Saints' Sean Payton is my runaway choice. He's unbeaten. I know the Colts' Jim Caldwell deserves consideration as a first-year coach on an unbeaten team, but he inherited a team that annually wins 12 games. Payton will have a seven- or eight-game improvement over last season. He's my winner at the moment.
Q: C'mon, John! Joe Flacco, an elite QB? That's an obvious reach. Remember, he got the starting nod only because Troy Smith got sick. He has the prototypical size, but he doesn't have "it." He had another chance to prove his elite status on Monday night and failed miserably.
Robert in Los Angeles
A: Despite his struggles on Monday night in Green Bay, Flacco is elite. He won 11 games as a starter as a rookie. It's not as though he's surrounded with great receiving talent. Normally, it takes four years for a quarterback to become elite. I watched him put together three fourth-quarter touchdown drives against the Vikings on the road. Flacco's a good one, indeed. We can agree to disagree.
Q: What do you think the Jets will do with their running back situation next year? If Leon Washington comes back 100 percent, will the Jets keep both him and Thomas Jones even though Shonn Greene looks like a solid back?
Frankie in Stratford, Conn.
A: I don't think the Jets need to do anything. In many ways, they are lucky. Jones' success allows them to see whether they can squeeze one more year out of him as a feature back. If there is no salary cap, they'll get Washington back as a restricted free agent. Greene is available as an inside runner who can slowly take over for Jones if age starts catching up to him. It's the best of all worlds.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
MORE NFL HEADLINES
- Bills expect full stadium vs. Jets in Detroit
- Blount: Happy release led to return to Pats
- Gruden: 'Clock's ticking' on struggling RG III
- Raiders' Woodson on celebration: 'Ridiculous'