- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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The NFC West, made up of pro football's bad seeds, may have done more damage this season than it can imagine.
With odds favoring a 7-9 team winning the division, the NFC West gave more ammunition to those who want to re-seed the playoffs, taking a home playoff game away from a division winner and giving it to a wild-card team with a better record. Rich McKay, co-chairman of the Competition Committee, wants re-seeding, but he's been able to get only 18 votes. The NFL requires 24 to pass such a rule change.
This would be a gross overreaction, but lately the NFL has been overreacting. For this season, the two-possession overtime supporters won a partial victory by getting a minimum of two possessions in playoff games. This was an overreaction to Brett Favre's NFC Championship Game loss and a few others last season.
A regular-season change wasn't needed. Sixteen of the 18 overtime games this season have had two possessions. Had a second possession been added, almost certainly some overtime games would have ended in ties.
Officials and defensive players have acted lost trying to figure out the midseason edicts to clamp down on illegal hits. Figuring out what hits are now legal has become as difficult as figuring out the federal tax code.
This is only the third time since the league went to 16 games in 1978 that a division winner will have an 8-8 record or worse. If the Seattle Seahawks lose to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Arizona Cardinals lose to the Dallas Cowboys this week, the NFC West will be 12-28 outside the division. Spreading 28 losses throughout the league artificially inflates records of other teams.
If the Seahawks and Cardinals lose Sunday, the NFC West handed Atlanta, New Orleans and Tampa Bay 11 victories in 12 games, all but handing the NFC South the No. 1 and No. 5 seeds and keeping the Bucs in the playoff race. Had the NFC West played any other AFC division than the AFC West, it would have done similar things in the AFC playoff race. But the AFC West isn't very good and went only 9-7 against the NFC West.
Whether it's 16 games or eventually 18 games, the NFL model for the regular season isn't big enough to handle aberrations like this year. I fear an overreaction, and that would be wrong. The last time the league had an 8-8 division winner was 2008 when the San Diego Chargers won the AFC West with that record. The next season, the NFL restructured its draft order and lumped the 12 playoff teams in the bottom 12 picks of rounds.
1. A Giants game with playoff ramifications: The final NFC playoff spot should come down to Sunday's game between the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers. The Packers lost the NFC North to the Chicago Bears, so their playoff hopes are pinned exclusively to this game, and if they lose, they're done. The Giants are trying to bounce back from losing a 21-point lead and possibly the NFC East to the Philadelphia Eagles in the Miracle in the New Meadowlands. Aaron Rodgers is back for the Packers after suffering a concussion. It will be interesting to see how Mike McCarthy uses him. Against the Atlanta Falcons last month, McCarthy spread the field with five receivers and gave Rodgers the option to run when his early reads were covered. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Packers have used four or more receivers 134 times, third most in the league. But Rodgers doesn't slide a lot and is vulnerable to hits that could lead to another concussion. Will the Packers be more cautious and keep in extra blockers to protect Rodgers? Stay tuned.
2. A building rivalry for the present and future: Drew Brees versus Matt Ryan doesn't draw the buzz of a Peyton Manning-Tom Brady showdown, but it might come close in time. The Falcons' 27-24 overtime victory over the Saints in New Orleans in Week 3 was a classic. A missed field goal by Garrett Hartley gave the Falcons extra life, and they won the game. Even if the Falcons lose Monday night, they can clinch the division with a victory next Sunday over the Carolina Panthers. Brees has a Super Bowl ring and Ryan, who has lost only one home game since 2008, could be a Super Bowl quarterback himself if the Falcons lock up home-field advantage in the playoffs and win two more home games in the playoffs. The key to this game is whether Brees can get deep completions against the Falcons, because in the first meeting the Falcons took away the deep ball. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brees was left to throw 29 of 38 attempts 10 yards or less. One interesting note is that the teams could meet again in the second week of the playoffs if the Saints get the fifth seed and beat the NFC West winner.
3. This isn't the Class of 2004: If Joe Webb starts for the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night against the Eagles, he will be the eighth rookie quarterback with a start this season, an NFL record. Don't get too excited. Sam Bradford of the St. Louis Rams became only the third rookie quarterback in NFL history to pass for more than 3,000 yards, but no one is doing backflips over this class. Colt McCoy of the Cleveland Browns, who plays the Baltimore Ravens this week, has a chance to be the Browns' starter of the future. Carolina's Jimmy Clausen, who was awful in Thursday's loss to the Steelers, could be out of luck in Carolina if Andrew Luck turns pro. Tim Tebow of the Denver Broncos has turned a spread offense into a conservative two-tight end or two-back offense that doesn't send out many receivers. John Skelton of the Cardinals goes against Dallas on Saturday night. Skelton, who's only holding the quarterback spot until the Cards get a veteran next year, is completing only 46.1 percent of his passes. Rusty Smith of the Tennessee Titans and Max Hall of the Cardinals are other rookie quarterbacks to start. The last time seven rookies started at quarterback was in 2004, the class that gave the league Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Matt Schaub. This class doesn't compare.
4. Tough assignment for the Colts: The Indianapolis Colts gained control of their playoff destiny with a 34-24 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars last week, but they must win out to make the playoffs. Sunday's assignment against the Oakland Raiders won't be easy. Losing slot receiver Austin Collie takes away a lot from Peyton Manning's three-receiver offense. The Colts run the three-receiver offense more than 50 plays a game. Collie, according to ESPN Stats & Information, was the most efficient receiver for a quarterback in the league this year. Manning completed 81.7 percent of his attempts to Collie for eight touchdowns before the receiver was lost for the season with his third concussion. After Collie went down against the Jaguars, the Colts went to two-tight end sets in the second half, and they gained a yard less per play in those formations than they did with the three-receiver sets. The other challenge is stopping Darren McFadden. Last week, linebacker Gary Brackett had a big game holding Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew to his lowest rushing day as a starter (46 yards). If the Colts can contain McFadden, the Raiders will struggle to get big plays.
5. Soldier Field footing the key to Jets-Bears: How the New York Jets and Chicago Bears handle the tricky field conditions at Soldier Field will be the key to one of Sunday's most interesting matchups. Snow neutralized the Bears' four-man pass rush against the New England Patriots in Chicago's last home game. Better weather is expected Sunday, but the Bears must pressure Mark Sanchez without having to do much with the blitz. Sanchez struggles against four-man rushes because that leaves seven players in coverage. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Sanchez completes 57.6 percent of his passes and has nine interceptions, five touchdown passes and a 70.4 passing rating against rushes of four or fewer men. The key for a four-man rush is the footing. If Julius Peppers can heat up his pass rush, it could be a tough day for Sanchez, who has a slight tear in his throwing shoulder.
6. "Hey, Smith get in there and play quarterback!" Is there any plan to what Mike Singletary is doing at quarterback? He started the season with Alex Smith. He tried Troy Smith, but he benched him when defenses started catching up to what he does. Singletary confessed that Troy Smith, who was in Baltimore and not San Francisco for training camp, had only a limited playbook. Singletary went back to Alex Smith for a win over the Seahawks but benched him after a loss to San Diego. Troy Smith went 3-2 as a starter, but he had Frank Gore in the backfield for four of those five starts. When Gore got hurt, Troy Smith lost his play-action game. Troy Smith will start against the Rams on Sunday. This is an all-or-nothing game for Singletary and the 49ers. If they lose, they are out of the playoff race and Singletary might be out of a job. This decision will either define or haunt Singletary.
7. Now, here's the clincher: Four teams are already in the playoffs. Five other teams have simple assignments: Win this weekend and you're in. The Ravens can clinch a playoff berth if they beat the Browns. The Jets can clinch a wild card if they beat the Bears. The Eagles can clinch the NFC East with a victory over the Vikings on Sunday night. The Saints can clinch a spot if they beat the Falcons on Monday night or if the Buccaneers lose to the Seahawks. The Giants can clinch a playoff spot if they beat the Packers. Basically, three spots are up in the air and might go until Week 17. The Chiefs have the edge in the AFC West but need to win their last two. The Colts need wins over the Raiders and Titans to lock up the AFC South. And someone has to win the NFC West.
8. AFC wins again: The AFC hasn't lost the inter-conference battle to the NFC since 1995, and the battle has become so matter-of-fact that it goes without fanfare. The AFC clinched another winning season against the NFC last Sunday night with New England's victory over Green Bay, giving the AFC the 33rd win in this 64-game series. The NFC will be hard-pressed to close out strong in the final three inter-conference games in Week 16. The Washington Redskins are in free fall going into Sunday's road trip to Jacksonville. The Detroit Lions don't have a healthy quarterback for Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins, as Matthew Stafford is out, Drew Stanton has a third-degree left shoulder separation and Shaun Hill will probably have to rush back from his finger injury. The best hope for the NFC is the Bears' home game against the Jets.
9. Coaches' hot seats: Perhaps the biggest game in Gary Kubiak's coaching career occurs in a place he might be next year. If Kubiak's Texans lose to the Broncos on Sunday, he might start thinking about just staying in Colorado. Two weeks ago, Texans owner Bob McNair seemed to accept the idea he'd keep Kubiak as long as the team doesn't lose out. The Texans then lost to the Titans 31-17, and a loss to the Broncos could lead to McNair reaching out to Bill Cowher as a replacement. (Cowher, by the way, would go to Houston, according to sources.) Kubiak, a former Broncos quarterback, would be a popular choice to replace the fired Josh McDaniels, particularly if John Elway enters the Denver front office. The Dolphins close their home schedule against Detroit, and it may be the crowd -- not the results -- that determine Tony Sparano's fate as head coach. Empty seats could lead to his firing. The Dolphins are 1-6 at home, and owner Stephen Ross is concerned that the bad home season and the popularity of the Miami Heat could turn this football town into a basketball town.
10. Bottom-feeders: The only thing to mention in the Cincinnati Bengals-Chargers game is that a loss by the Bengals could keep them in the running for the first pick in the NFL draft. In the Dallas-Arizona game on Christmas night, Jason Garrett could help his bid for the full-time job if he gets his fifth win. He's 4-2 and runs a pretty disciplined team.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
22hEric D. Williams
2dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo