- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Once again, the NFL season closes with the feel of the preseason.
New York Jets coach Rex Ryan is thinking about resting a banged-up Mark Sanchez. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick may rest his banged-up legs. With nine of the 12 playoff spots clinched, some quarterbacks might be pulled once those playoff teams get into the second half.
A year ago, commissioner Roger Goodell expressed serious concern about playoff teams benching numerous starters to save them for the playoffs. He responded by altering the schedule and putting 16 divisional games in the final week of the season. However, the only divisional game that has all-or-nothing results is the NFC West clincher between the Seattle Seahawks and the St. Louis Rams, and that contest is more like a play-in game for the NCAA basketball tournament. It will conclude the worst divisional race in league history and could produce a division winner with a losing record.
Sunday's only other divisional games between teams whose records are within one game of each other are Vikings-Lions and Cardinals-49ers -- battles for third and fourth place, not first or second.
The idea of juggling the schedule to maximize drama in the final week may be one of those unsolvable puzzles. The problem with moving divisional games to the end is that the nondivisional schedule creates the gaps in records. Seven of the nine playoff teams that have clinched had 7-3 or better nondivisional records.
Exhausting all the nondivisional games in the first 16 weeks of the season creates a race that allows too many teams to jog to the finish line.
1. Needing a few good men: Seahawks coach Pete Carroll knows he has "the 12th man," those loud fans in the Qwest Field stands. He wishes he had more good men on the field. His goal when he took over the Seahawks (6-9) was to revamp the roster and eventually win the NFC West. Never in his mind did he think he would have a chance to clinch the division after making 31 changes to the roster. The Seahawks have lost seven of their past nine games, and Matt Hasselbeck is doubtful because he suffered an injury to a muscle in his rear end when he scored a touchdown last week. Charlie Whitehurst is the odds-on favorite to start unless Hasselbeck makes a miraculous recovery. Carroll needs a great start to keep the crowd loud enough to cause Rams rookie quarterback Sam Bradford to be victimized by false starts. Since the Rams' Week 4 victory over the Seahawks in St. Louis, they've gone from using running formations on first down to spreading the field with three or four receivers 60 percent of the time. Because the Rams don't have speed at receiver, Carroll can succeed in man defense if his corners can cover. That would free up a defender in the box to slow running back Steven Jackson. But the strategy won't work if the Seahawks can't generate a running offense and score to make the defense's job easier. One thing we know about the NFC West is that winning on the road is tough. The Rams are 2-5 on the road in a division that has a road record of 6-24.
2. Back in Peyton's place: Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts can lock up the AFC's No. 4 seed and another AFC South crown if they beat the Tennessee Titans. This time, though, the Colts can't rest starters in the final week. The Jaguars play in the late-afternoon slot just like the Colts, so Indianapolis can't rest starters until it knows for sure it will win or the Jaguars lose and eliminate themselves. The keys for Manning and the Colts are to win and not suffer any more injuries. They most likely will host the Baltimore Ravens, which will be a physically demanding game. The Titans play hard for coach Jeff Fisher, but injuries along the defensive line and problems at quarterback have taken away their edge. Fisher's bigger battle will come after the game, when he has to hash out with owner Bud Adams whether Vince Young comes back at quarterback next season or Fisher simply leaves. As always, Fisher will take the strategy of trying to run the ball against the Colts to keep Manning on the sideline, but can the Titans do it with a defense that ranks 26th and is giving up 251.7 yards per game through the air?
3. Play them or rest them? Thanks to the Eagles' clunker on Tuesday night in snowy Philadelphia, the Chicago Bears clinched the No. 2 seed in the NFC and a bye week. That takes the urgency out of Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers, who need only to beat the Bears to make the playoffs. Here's the problem facing Bears coach Lovie Smith. He came to Chicago citing two goals: win the NFC North and beat the Packers. It would be hard for the Bears to meet the Packers before the NFC title game because that would require the Falcons to lose to the Carolina Panthers and lose the No. 1 seed. If that happens, the Packers and Bears could conceivably meet in the second round of the playoffs if the Packers make the playoffs and win their wild-card game. The rivalry between the Bears and Packers is intense, but it may be tough for the Bears to muster the maximum energy to win this game. One of the things that is becoming very apparent is that the Bears' Cover 2 defense can be picked apart by great quarterbacks unless their front four pressures on every play. Aaron Rodgers plans to attack that Cover 2 in order to make the playoffs.
4. Play them or rest them, Part 2? It's hard to make a case for Andy Reid to play Vick against the Dallas Cowboys when the Eagles have locked up the No. 3 seed. Vick is beat up. His completion percentages have been dropping weekly, and so have his yards per attempt because of the blitzes against him and the hits. His percentages have fallen from 61.5 to 60 to 58.1 in the past three games. Yards-per-attempt numbers that were in the nines and 10s have been 6.9 and 6.1 in the past two games. Resting Vick makes sense, and it gives Kevin Kolb the chance to showcase his skills for potential trade offers in the offseason. Ryan of the Jets is best advised not to play Sanchez a complete game against the Buffalo Bills or sit him completely. Sanchez needs to work to keep up his timing with receivers, but he doesn't need to risk further injury to his right shoulder. The Jets have clinched a wild-card spot, and nothing else is on the line.
5. Employment panic: Tom Coughlin of the Giants, Tony Sparano of the Dolphins and Gary Kubiak of the Texans are on the coaching hot seats, but other than Coughlin, what happens Sunday might not affect whether these coaches will be back next year. Clearly, Coughlin can't afford a loss to the Washington Redskins after the Meltdown in the Meadowlands and last week's 45-17 loss in Green Bay. A three-game losing streak and no trip to the playoffs could hasten Coughlin's departure in New York. Sparano is under review by Dolphins owner Stephen Ross because a 1-7 home record has caused too many Dolphins fans to skip games. Ross must have figured out by now if he's going to keep Sparano or recruit Jon Gruden or Bill Cowher. Kubiak may be saved by the possible hiring of Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator. The Texans will play the Jaguars, but if they can't beat a Jacksonville team without Maurice Jones-Drew and David Garrard, owner Bob McNair might have to reconsider keeping Kubiak. The Bengals, meanwhile, will close out against the Baltimore Ravens in a game that could be Marvin Lewis' last as the Bengals' coach. Lewis plans to meet with ownership Tuesday. If the Brown family gives him more authority, Lewis could stay.
6. Losing the interim tags: Four interim coaches close their slates Sunday, with only Jason Garrett of the Cowboys and Leslie Frazier of the Minnesota Vikings having chances of staying on. Garrett and Frazier need wins. The Cowboys play the Eagles, and Garrett needs a win to be 5-3 as an interim coach and to calm Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who is still steaming about the Christmas night loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Frazier earned a positive review for the Vikings' win in Philadelphia, but Vikings ownership has not fully reviewed how good Frazier would be as the full-time coach. The Vikings finish against the Detroit Lions, and a loss wouldn't help. Eric Studesville, interim coach of the Broncos, finishes the season against the San Diego Chargers, and there's no chance he'll stay on. Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula gets a one-week fling as the 49ers' interim coach and plans to go back to Alex Smith in a game against the Cardinals. The 49ers have reached out to Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, but they probably will eventually end up going the assistant coach route.
7. Coach of the year competition: One of the great debates is the NFL Coach of the Year. Is it Bill Belichick of the Patriots for going young with rookies and possibly ending up 14-2? Is it Andy Reid for trading Donovan McNabb to the Redskins and resurrecting the career of Vick? How about Mike Tomlin of the Steelers, who went 3-1 without Ben Roethlisberger and could lock up the No. 2 seed if the Steelers beat the Cleveland Browns? It may be hard not to select Todd Haley if the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Oakland Raiders and finish 11-5, a seven-game improvement. Raheem Morris of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could help his cause if the Bucs beat the New Orleans Saints and finish 10-6, seven games better than last year.
8. Brett Favre, the final chapter: This has to be it for Favre, whose statements about retiring must be taken seriously. Each quadrant of his body has some injury, including a concussion that could prevent him from making a final appearance on the field. The Vikings finish the season at Detroit. If a doctor says he passes a concussion test, Favre would get one last chance to play. That would bring closure to everything. The Jenn Sterger case is closed from the NFL's standpoint; Favre received a $50,000 fine for not cooperating. Frazier would let Favre play if he's cleared, and why not? Joe Webb showed some promise in the victory over the Eagles, but he hasn't shown enough that the Vikings won't seek another quarterback in the offseason.
9. Finishing the season with backups and rookies: At least 13 backups or rookie quarterbacks could start in the season finale. Jimmy Clausen of the Panthers is expected to close out against the Atlanta Falcons; Colt McCoy of the Browns will get his second start against the Pittsburgh Steelers; John Skelton of the Cardinals will go against the 49ers and Tim Tebow of the Broncos will face the Chargers. If Webb starts for Favre, that's five rookies. You could see Stephen McGee of the Cowboys start against the Eagles if Jon Kitna can't go. Rex Grossman could start for the Redskins against the Giants. Garrard is out in the Jaguars-Texans game, so Trent Edwards may get a chance to show he is worthy of bringing back next season.
10. Bottom-feeder: The only thing on the line in the San Francisco-Arizona game is draft position. The Cardinals currently hold the No. 5 spot in the draft because they have played the easiest schedule among the six teams with 5-10 records. The 49ers are sixth. Because both teams played easier schedules than the three four-win teams, the loser could move up to fourth or third or even second if Denver, Buffalo or Cincinnati loses. With both teams in need of quarterbacks, a loss could get one of them a young quarterback.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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