Schedule aiding Buccaneers' rise
Raheem Morris was wrong when he said earlier this season that his Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the best team in the NFC, but he deserves credit for making them one of the most interesting teams in the conference.
Do you have a query for John Clayton?
Click here to send a note to his mailbag.
He has taken Tampa Bay from a 3-13 disappointment to an 8-5 team that could shock the world and make the playoffs as a wild card. The Bucs have winnable games coming up against the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks. That should get them to 10 wins. They finish against the New Orleans Saints, and it's not out of the question for New Orleans to rest some starters if it has locked up the No. 5 seed in the NFC.
But let's not kid ourselves. The Bucs' season is another example of how the schedule means everything. If the Bucs make the playoffs, they will be doing it at the expense of a more worthy playoff contender, such as the New York Giants, Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears or Philadelphia Eagles. The Bucs haven't beaten a winning team. There are 16 teams with losing records, and if the Bucs beat Seattle and Detroit, they will have beaten nine of them. They have two wins against the 1-12 Carolina Panthers.
The Bucs are 0-5 against winning teams, including 25-point losses to the Steelers and Saints. The Bucs shouldn't apologize for taking advantage of an easy schedule, but it's the only reason they're in the playoff mix.
There is a growing cry for winners of bad divisions such as the NFC West to not get a home game in the playoffs, but on the flip side it would be wrong to give a home playoff game to a team that hasn't beaten a winning team.
At the very least, though, Morris will end up a finalist for Coach of the Year, and Bucs fans can enjoy a young team that has a great young quarterback, Josh Freeman.
From the inbox
Q: Do you think a team with a mediocre offense and a superb defense can win a championship? Is the Steelers' offense just dormant and capable of coming to life, or is it anemic and in need of an offseason blood transfusion? Is ball control, field position and field goals enough when you have a defense capable of scoring and making game-changing plays?
Robert in La Paz, Bolivia
A: Everything depends on the year and the conference. So much of it depends on how many elite quarterbacks are playing at an elite level during a season. Before the draft class of 2004 (Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Matt Schaub), teams could go deep in the playoffs with good quarterbacks and very good defenses. It's tougher now, particularly in the AFC, because there are more quarterbacks playing at an elite level. I say this, though: things change fast. Look at the NFC this year. Brett Favre finally got old. Kurt Warner retired. Tony Romo missed most of the season with an injury. That opens the door for the type of offenses you are talking about. As for the Steelers, the problem is the offensive line. You can't lose two tackles on a struggling line and expect things to be great. Roethlisberger is getting crunched. You've noticed RB Rashard Mendenhall's numbers are dropping. An offense has to work with what it has, and those are some of the problems facing the Steelers.
Jason in Colonia, N.J., the 49ers do have a chance to get Jon Gruden, but they won't get him if a bidding war starts with Cleveland and Dallas. Tom in San Diego suggests the league is distracting the players from the "money split" issues in the collective bargaining talks by increasing the fines on illegal hits and making player safety such a big topic. The players are too focused on getting a deal done to let that distract them. Jason in Denver thinks Broncos fans would be pumped if the Texans fire Gary Kubiak and the Broncos hire him as head coach. I get the feeling Broncos ownership would feel the same way. I definitely can see both things happening. Hunter in Washington, D.C., likes the idea of Eric Mangini hiring Josh McDaniels to be the Browns' offensive coordinator. If Mangini is still the coach of the Browns next year, he should make that move. I just don't think Mangini will be back. Patrick in Boynton Beach, Fla., is thinking ahead. He wonders if the Eagles keep Michael Vick, would they move Jason Peters to right tackle to protect the left-handed quarterback's blind side. No, I think they would keep him at left tackle, but that's a good thought. Robert in Acworth, Ga., can't understand why Julius Peppers isn't getting more mention for Defensive Player of the Year. He has been great, but with only eight sacks Peppers is going to have a hard time topping the Packers' Clay Matthews, who has 12.5.
Q: For the sake of argument, let's say a player making the league minimum draws a fine. How can the league justify fining a guy $25,000 if he makes only $250,000. Essentially he would be fined more than he would be making that entire game. Could/should the league impose fines by percentages of pay?
Ray in Indianapolis
A: You raise a point I brought up recently. That's the problem of raising the fine level in the middle of a season. The minimum for a first-year player is $320,000. Players are paid on a 17-week basis, so a player in that situation is making $18,823 per game. It is totally unfair for a player to be fined more than he makes, particularly when his contract isn't guaranteed and he could be cut the next week without getting additional termination pay. A percentage-of-pay system should be worked out. Can we get you on the negotiating committee to get the CBA done?
Q: Why are the Detroit Lions so bad? Why can't our offensive line protect quarterbacks or open holes? What are the dynamics behind a franchise that gets jabbed in an episode of "The Simpsons"?
Harry in Lansing, Mich.
A: Better days are ahead, and I think the Lions are going in the right direction. Unfortunately, it's going to take time. The Lions went 0-16 in 2008 because they had nothing left from the Matt Millen era. This is probably a four-year process of rebuilding the roster. The offense has made progress, even without quarterback Matthew Stafford. Tight end Tony Scheffler and wide receiver Nate Burleson pulled coverage away from Calvin Johnson, allowing Johnson to have his best season. But the defense is going to take four years to turn around. They have three or four decent starters on the defensive line, one decent young linebacker, a good safety and maybe a solid corner. It could take two drafts to finish the rebuilding process on defense, and they have to do something to improve the offensive line.
Q: What do you think the Dolphins will do with Chad Henne? Will they bring in someone to compete with him next year, maybe a Carson Palmer, if Cincinnati parts ways with him? Is Tony Sparano's job in jeopardy?
Bob in Perrysburg, Ohio
A: They need to give Henne one more season, but they have to open things up for him. This offense has baffled me and Dolphins fans all season. The play calls have been conservative and the running offense has been spotty. Henne may not develop into an elite quarterback, but you'd have to say he can be close to Mark Sanchez. That should buy him another year. If the Dolphins get to nine wins, they should keep Sparano.
Q: I have been looking at the Jets' losses this year, and I was thinking that they aren't very good with extra rest. Do you think that is a coincidence or a real problem for them?
Steve in Long Island, N.Y.
A: There is something to what you are thinking. I think that points to the coaching more than the players. The Jets tend to over-coach on offense when they get too much time to prepare. I noticed that in the opening game against the Ravens. They got away from the run after the bye week and really haven't re-established what they are on offense since. Also, opponents have figured out some things on the Jets, and Rex Ryan has to fix that.
Q: I feel bad for Larry Fitzgerald. With Kurt Warner under center, he was a superstar. Now this year it seems he is an afterthought. Thoughts?
Ryan in Scottsdale, Ariz.
A: I agree with you and also feel bad for Fitzgerald. He has become an afterthought. Now people talk up Andre Johnson, Roddy White and Reggie Wayne as the best receivers in the league. Fitzgerald barely gets a mention, even though he might be the best. He sure was the best when he had Warner. A receiver can't do much when he doesn't have a quarterback. The concern the Cardinals have is if he gets frustrated and decides to leave in free agency. It has been tough enough for the Cardinals without a quarterback. Where would they be if they lose Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston?
Q: If John Elway joins the Broncos' front office, could he taint his great legacy in Denver?
Ian in Denver
A: Nothing can change what Elway did on the field. He was one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, and he made the Broncos one of the best franchises in football. Michael Jordan hasn't had great success running an NBA team, but it hasn't changed what people think about him as a player. Getting Elway in the front office adds credibility, but he has to make sure he hires good football people to make the right decisions on personnel.
Q: You're clearly not a Giants fan. You gave them a B after losing two offensive linemen and their top two wide receivers. My question is, why the harsh judgment on Eli? He's the reason we're even around the playoffs.
Jeff in New Jersey
A: Since when is B a bad grade? During the third quarter of the season, the Giants lost to the Eagles and played a horrible game against the Jaguars in which Giants fans booed. That's why they got that grade for the third quarter of the season. Justin Tuck had to have a verbal tirade in the locker room at halftime to get the team's mind right. Under those circumstances, a B is a good grade. As for Manning, he has thrown 19 interceptions. I still label him an elite quarterback, but that's 19 interceptions for a coach who preaches protecting the football.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
NFL WEEK 15 PREVIEW