Commentary

Desperate times for Cowboys, Vikings

Sunday's loser would drop to 1-4 and face long odds to make playoffs

Originally Published: October 14, 2010
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The desperation game Sunday afternoon between the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings crystallizes a strange start to the NFC season.

Someone has taken the "o" out of offense in the NFC.

Scoring per team in the NFC has dropped a stunning 2.6 points a game from last season (21.8 to 19.2 points). Only six NFC teams are scoring more than 20 points a game, and 11 teams have watched their scoring averages crash from last season. The Vikings have dropped 13.6 points a game, the Saints 12.1, the Cardinals 5.8, the 49ers 5.4 and the Packers 5.0 from last season's averages.

Compare that to an AFC, in which 11 teams are scoring more than 20 points a game and 11 teams have increased their scoring. In a league in which quarterback play and scoring wins, the NFC is down.

The significant losses started with the retirement of Kurt Warner, leaving the Cardinals' offense in the hands of their third-string quarterback, undrafted rookie Max Hall, after Matt Leinart and Derek Anderson failed. Brett Favre and Drew Brees are off to slow starts. And Tony Romo, despite good stats, isn't finishing drives.

Last year was magical for the NFC as far as quarterback play and the crowning of the Saints in the Super Bowl. In five weeks, the magic has vanished.

Here are the 10 best highlights and trends of the week:

1. Elimination game: Thanks to some astute minds in the NFL public relations office, the league published what a lot of us may have scrambled for Sunday evening -- the history of 1-4 teams and their chances of making the playoffs. Those watching the Cowboys-Vikings game are almost like those who go to NASCAR events to see wrecks. Assessing the wreckage will be the postgame story. Since 1990, a dozen teams have made the playoffs after rebounding from at least three games under .500 at some point after Week 5. The 2008 Chargers were the most recent, bouncing back from a 4-7 start. The 2004 Packers won the NFC North after a 1-4 start. The 2002 Jets won the AFC East despite being 1-4 and 2-5. There isn't the same feeling, though, that similar luck will follow the 1-3 Cowboys or the 1-3 Vikings squad. One problem is both teams have had their bye weeks, eliminating their chances of refreshing their rosters. Favre must go 12 more games without a break. He has a sore elbow, a bad ankle and a major off-the-field issue. On paper, these are the most talented teams in the conference. Each team has 13 players with Pro Bowl experience. Even with all that talent, one of these teams could essentially be eliminated Sunday.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Jonathan Brownfield/US PresswireTom Brady will begin life without Randy Moss against a formidable Baltimore defense.

2. Inside-out look at Patriots: With Randy Moss gone, Tom Brady admitted the Patriots' passing offense must change. Moss not only stretched the field with his size and speed, but he was a presence that allowed Brady to use the entire field, especially outside the numbers. Brady, according to ESPN Stats & Information, has completed 67.9 percent of his passes outside the numbers for 421 yards, four touchdowns and a 98.9 quarterback rating. That was with Moss as a teammate. Believe it or not, that's around the middle of the pack in the league. The key to Moss was what he did in clearing out space in the middle of the field. According to Stats & Information, Brady has a league-best 117.6 yards, a 71.2 quarterback rating and five touchdowns inside the numbers. Unless Brandon Tate becomes a threat on the outside, defenses can concentrate their coverage to take away some of the Wes Welker passes inside the numbers.

3. Perfect return for Big Ben: Having missed four games with a player conduct suspension, Ben Roethlisberger is set to make his 2010 debut. The Cleveland Browns offer the perfect opposition. During his four-week break, Roethlisberger watched how Brett Favre struggled coming out of retirement to face hard games against New Orleans and Miami. The Browns offer Roethlisberger a soft entry and a great chance to win. First, he gets to watch the Steelers' highly energized defense go against rookie quarterback Colt McCoy in his first start, a result of high ankle sprains to Seneca Wallace and Jake Delhomme. Secondly, the Steelers have won 12 of their past 13 games against the Browns. Browns running back Peyton Hillis, one of the surprise stars of the first month, is struggling with a thigh injury that slowed him down last week. That injury handcuffs the Browns' running attack. For Big Ben, it should be a fun day.

4. Testing the concussion test: If commissioner Roger Goodell needed evidence to see the league's progress on concussion concerns, he should look no further than the NFC North. Jay Cutler of the Bears had 57 consecutive games played before sitting out last Sunday's game against the Panthers. A year ago, he probably would have talked his way into playing. Cautious team doctors didn't feel right about playing Cutler, particularly when it came to their attention that was his fifth career concussion. The Green Bay Packers are being cautious about the concussion of Aaron Rodgers, who might play Sunday. Rodgers has 37 consecutive starts. A year ago, Roethlisberger took a lot of unfair criticism -- even from his teammates -- for sitting out when he didn't feel right about a concussion. Now, the league's most durable quarterbacks can't get on the field unless they pass a gauntlet of concussion tests. That's progress.

5. Struggles along the San Andreas Fault: The Raiders and 49ers get together every four years for a regular-season game. How time flies when no one is having fun. Both franchises have been floundering for years. Neither team has had a winning season since 2002. The 49ers are 0-5 and QB Alex Smith is barely holding on to his starting job. Coach Mike Singletary keeps yelling, but players aren't responding. There is talk that at some point these two teams eventually could share a new stadium in the Bay Area. All they know now is that they've shared a lot of misery, and each franchise hopes things will get better when they meet again in 2014.

6. Can the AFC South remain the current NFL kings? Four teams in the AFC South have winning records at 3-2. The AFC South is a league-best 10-6 outside of the division. On Sunday, two teams -- the Chiefs and Redskins -- will get second chances against two of the best in the AFC South. The Chiefs played well in a 19-9 loss to the Indianapolis Colts last week. They visit a Houston Texans team that has lost its past two home games. The Texans' biggest flaw is pass defense. They are giving up a staggering 329.6 yards a game, but Chiefs QB Matt Cassel and the passing offense haven't been able to match up against some of the better passing teams, which will be a challenge for Cassel going against Matt Schaub of the Texans. The Colts play the Redskins on Sunday night. Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett will have a lot of creative packages that will pressure Peyton Manning, but the Redskins' defense ranks last in yards allowed. Manning could put up big numbers.

[+] EnlargeJosh Freeman
Kim Klement/US PresswireThe Bucs' Josh Freeman has had success going long. But can he outduel Drew Brees?

7. Are the Buccaneers for real?: Everyone figures the Bucs' status close to the top of the NFC South will be short. They are a rebuilding team and face what many thought before the season to be an impossible challenge Sunday against the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. But the Bucs have a 3-1 record and a quarterback on the rise. Josh Freeman is firing passes downfield and getting miracle catches. In fact, ESPN Stats & Information has Freeman leading the league in air yards (the yards quarterbacks are actually throwing the ball on their pass attempts), averaging 10.5 yards. Compare that to Drew Brees, one of the league's top quarterbacks, who is the third lowest in that category with a 6.42-yard average. Can Freeman beat Brees in a throwing match? Odds are against it, but here's a strange stat: The Bucs have won four of their past six games against the Saints, including a Dec. 27 overtime thriller last year in which they won with a field goal.

8. A surprise prime-time game in Jacksonville: The Jaguars are in the rebuilding mode, a mode that will continue into next season when the Jags are expected to find the long-term replacement for David Garrard. But Monday night they can take a big step in the AFC South when they play host to the Tennessee Titans. Titans coach Jeff Fisher enters with an aggressive defense and Vince Young. The game features two of the league's top running backs -- Chris Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew. Johnson is trying for his eighth consecutive 100-yard game on the road. The good news for the Jaguars is they will have a sellout.

9. So who's the starter?: Backup quarterbacks have started 16 of 76 games this season, but injuries have given a couple of deposed starters a chance to play again. In Philadelphia, Kevin Kolb will start over Michael Vick, who has damaged rib cartilage but hopes to be available for some action against his former team, the Atlanta Falcons. The Raiders' Jason Campbell, benched after only six quarters, is expected to get the nod over Bruce Gradkowski, who has a mild right shoulder separation. Kolb is the ideal system quarterback to fit the Eagles' West Coast offense. He operates out of three- and five-step drops, but the game against the Falcons could be a challenge. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 59 of Kolb's 76 pass attempts have been thrown for 10 yards or less. Five of the Falcons' league-most 10 interceptions have come within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Campbell also works a short passing game, but he's going to need to show more leadership if he wants to get more time as the Raiders' quarterback.

10. Bottom-feeders: The winless Buffalo Bills and Carolina Panthers get merciful bye weeks, leaving the Detroit Lions in the position of being a spoiler or a victim of a blowout. The Lions travel to the New York Giants, but they travel with the confidence of having a 44-6 victory over the St. Louis Rams (Week 5). Figuring the Lions haven't won a road game since 2007, they don't have much of a chance. Believe it or not, the Lions are the highest-scoring team in the NFC, averaging 25.2 points a game. The Giants are fifth at 21.2. As for the Rams, they host the struggling San Diego Chargers, who have lost three consecutive road games. Rams quarterback Sam Bradford struggled once he lost wide receiver Mark Clayton last week, so he will have to make the most of the remaining pass-catchers.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer