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No real winner in NFC West

Any chance that commissioner Paul Tagliabue can convince the president to declare the NFC West a disaster area, grant the four franchises federal funding, and allow the league to ban the god-awful division from the playoffs? Talk about a mess!

Seattle has won just four games in the past three months. The Rams have lost four of five and, despite going into Sunday's game knowing the Seahawks had already lost to the New York Jets, still got waxed at Arizona. The Cardinals, who still have a mathematical shot at the division crown, snapped a four-game losing streak by pummeling the Lambs. And then, of course, there is San Francisco, which might have to petition for inclusion in the Pac-10 to have a chance to contend for a championship anytime soon.

There are 13 teams in the league with better records than the division-leading Seahawks, who top the NFC Wretched with a 7-7 mark. Heck, there are five AFC franchises who aren't in first place in their respective divisions, but have better records than Seattle. The only chance the division has of salvaging some respect is for the Seahawks to finish with a pair of victories -- they conclude the irregular season with home contests against the Cardinals (Dec. 26) and the Atlanta Falcons (Jan. 2) -- which would at least allow the division to avoid having the first .500 champion since Cleveland won the AFC Central at 8-8 in 1985.

But, let's be honest, does anyone out there really have faith that Seattle can accomplish even that modest feat?

The guy who really ought to be kicking himself right about now is Cardinals coach Denny Green, who might have pulled off a miracle in the desert had he not gotten antsy and replaced quarterback Josh McCown when Arizona was 4-5. The ill-timed switch, the kind at which Green has been so brilliant in the past, blew up in his face by precipitating a four-game losing streak.

McCown played well in Sunday's trouncing of St. Louis, his second solid outing since returning to the starting lineup, and Green and everyone else in Arizona can only wonder about what might have been if the third-year veteran had stayed atop the depth chart all season.

As for the Rams, well, they own a tie-breaker over Seattle, need the Seahawks to stumble at least once, and have to win home games against Philly and the Jets. Yeah, like that's going to happen, huh?

Diapers are off
In the first 11 appearances of his career, Kansas City tailback Larry Johnson carried 41 times for 168 yards and one touchdown. In the past three games, the team's first-round pick in the 2003 draft and a guy coach Dick Vermeil publicly suggested needed to move beyond the diaper stage, has posted 373 yards and five scores on 57 attempts.

On Sunday, in his first regular-season start, Johnson gashed the Denver run defense for 151 yards and two touchdowns. The performance allowed the Chiefs to become the first team in league history to have three different players post 150-yard rushing performances in the same season.

It also permitted the second-guessers to wonder why the Chiefs waited so long to give the former Penn State star a chance. It would seem that Kansas City officials, who reluctantly snatched Johnson in the first round of the '03 lottery only because they were uncertain Priest Holmes would recover from career-threatening hip surgery, undervalued Johnson. Or that Johnson, who rushed for over 2,000 yards in his senior campaign with the Nittany Lions, made a quantum leap in the past month. Whatever the answer, the Chiefs, who desperately tried to rid themselves of Johnson before the trade deadline but couldn't get a nibble worth considering, seem to have discovered a quality backup now for Holmes, who will turn 32 before the midpoint of the 2005 season.

And the Miami Dolphins, a team that tinkered with the notion of acquiring Johnson before the deadline, will still be looking in the offseason for the replacement to erstwhile tailback Ricky Williams. (Personal note here: After having been bombarded during CBS's telecast of the Steelers-Giants game on Saturday afternoon by incessant plugs for Williams' interview with Mike Wallace, I'm not exactly sorry I missed 60 Minutes on Sunday evening.)

Kansas City's current No. 2 tailback, Derrick Blaylock, is one of the players this season who has improved his stock for the spring free agent market and he figures to depart. Holmes has now finished two of the last three seasons on injured reserve. Kind of makes Johnson look pretty good now, huh?

There have been criticisms that Johnson was not a good fit for the kind of running back the Chiefs require in their West Coast-style attack. The talent evaluators insisted he needed to get into an offensive design which featured a "downhill" runner. Well, over the past three weeks, Johnson has added yards the way a snowball rolling downhill adds circumference. Maybe the decision to choose Johnson in 2003 doesn't look so bad now. Then again, the decision not to play him until absolutely necessary isn't looking so good.

Marty Ball
No small sense of irony in the fact that San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer claimed his first division title since 1997, and the first for the Chargers since 1994, in snowy and wind-swept Cleveland on Sunday afternoon. Schottenheimer enjoyed great success during his head coach tenure in Cleveland in the mid-1980s, registering a 46-31 record, with three AFC Central titles and four playoff berths.

He also suffered incredibly poor luck in consecutive conference title games in 1986 ("The Drive") and '87 ("The Fumble"). It was those two devastating losses with the Browns, and some forgettable playoff pratfalls in his 10 seasons in Kansas City that marked Schottenheimer with the reputation of not being able to win The Big One.

Well, he figures to win a big one this year, since Schottenheimer ought to capture coach of the year honors for the transformation of the once-moribund Chargers franchise.

This is a season, as has been the case for the past few years, that featured no shortage of outstanding head coach performances. Bill Belichick all but willed his injury-ravaged Patriots to another superb season. Rookie head coach Jim Mora led Atlanta to just its third division crown. Pittsburgh is 13-1 in a season when no one felt the Steelers would contend, particularly once starting quarterback Tommy Maddox went down with an elbow injury. John Fox still has Carolina in the playoff hunt despite a 1-7 start and a M*A*S*H unit's worth of injuries. Andy Reid, always taken for granted, has done another marvelous job with the Eagles.

All those coaches, for sure, are deserving of strong consideration. But the metamorphosis that Schottenheimer wrought in San Diego, especially given that he and quarterback Drew Brees were on thin ice in the first month of the campaign, is noteworthy and puts him just a small cut above the rest of the coach of the year contenders.

It could also make general manager A.J. Smith a potential candidate for NFL executive of the year.

Saints marching
Don't look now but, yep, that's the New Orleans Saints in the rear-view mirror of the NFC wild-card chase. Hard as it might be to believe, the NFL's most underachieving bunch, a team that squanders more talent and opportunity than any other franchise, is back in the hunt courtesy of Sunday's comeback victory over Tampa Bay.

At 6-8, the Saints are in the mix with St. Louis and Carolina and, if you can figure out how they got there (beyond, of course, the dismal nature of the NFC), give us a call.

The Saints are actually in pretty decent shape. They host Atlanta next Sunday, a team that they nearly upset at the Georgia Dome in late November, and an archrival that often stirs New Orleans to play well. Then they conclude the season at Carolina, one of the teams they must leap-frog, on Jan. 2. It's as if one of those Bourbon Street witch doctors has concocted some exotic potion for the Saints. And rumors are mounting that, if the Saints finish the season with even a semblance of momentum, good guy head coach Jim Haslett will be back again in 2005.

As we've noted here in the past, easily excitable owner Tom Benson has been looking for an excuse to keep Haslett (and to retain the $6 million or so that he would owe his coach if he dismissed him), of whom he is fond. There have been times in '04 when Haslett was so emotionally wrung it appeared his firing would be an act if mercy, and you wondered if he just might walk away to salvage his sanity. But it's a strange year in the NFC and the Saints, as usual, are a strange team.

New Orleans claiming the last wild-card spot? Haslett keeping his job? Both are suddenly possible.

Block party
Not many offensive linemen who come out of the University of Hawaii, at least since June Jones became head coach there in '99 and installed the entertaining and high octane run-and-shoot attack, are known for their run-blocking. And why should they be, given that the Rainbows keep the ball on the ground so infrequently, and that the premium in Jones' four-wide receiver offense is on pass protection?

But count Kynan Forney of the Atlanta Falcons as the exception to the rule. Like most guards, the four-year veteran is not very well known, but Forney should be considered for the Pro Bowl team. Anyone who takes a look at the videotape from Saturday night's overtime victory against the Carolina Panthers, a game in which Forney quietly dominated his patch of turf on the interior of the line of scrimmage, couldn't help but agree.

In the game, Falcons tailback Warrick Dunn carried 28 times for 134 yards, both seasons high. Our personal play-by-play, unofficial, of course, showed that Dunn logged 21 carries for 114 yards over the right side, principally running behind Forney, a seventh-round choice in the '01 draft. For most of the game, Forney worked against Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner, and the matchup was awfully one-sided.

One particular third-quarter sequence was fairly memorable. On a first-and-10 from the Carolina 33-yard line, Forney got whipped inside by Buckner and Dunn was stuffed for a two-yard loss. But three snaps later, Forney drove Buckner several yards off the ball as Dunn gained 16. On the next play, he hooked the Panthers' defensive tackle inside, and Dunn cut behind the block for a six-yard advance. And then on the ensuing play, a second-and-four from the Carolina six-yard line, Forney knocked tackle Kindal Moorehead almost into the end zone as Dunn scored.

It would be easy to attribute to Falcons' first-year offensive line coach Alex Gibbs, the veteran line mentor who has been so controversial over the years for the cut-block scheme he created in Denver, for Forney's development. But Forney was a good player before Gibbs arrived on the scene. The incoming staff knew it, and so did Atlanta management, which gave him a four-year contract extension this summer.

Forney is actually bulkier than Gibbs likes his linemen, but his feet are plenty quick enough for a scheme that's conducive to 290 pounders (Forney checks in at 307 according to the roster), and he is technically very sound in his mechanics. He can trap a bit, pull and get out and block on the second level. "He's definitely their best (lineman)," said one Panthers assistant. "It's not even close. The guy is a player." In the fraternity of faceless offensive linemen, guards hold a special degree of anonymity, but Forney is gaining admiration around the NFL from teams beyond the Panthers as well. A good, tough player who has helped Atlanta lead the NFL in rushing yards.

Punts
If you didn't think Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy and quarterback Peyton Manning were already among the NFL's classiest people, you didn't see the conclusion to the Colts' late-night victory over Baltimore. Handed a final shot at tying Dan Marino's touchdown pass record, when linebacker Cato June stepped out of bounds in the "red zone" on a last-minute interception return, Manning eschewed the opportunity and instead kneeled twice to kill the clock. You think he didn't earn the admiration of some folks on the Ravens' sideline? ... In his five starts for the injured Duce Staley, the venerable Jerome Bettis has carried 158 times for 621 yards. His fewest carries in those five games was 29 attempts. Project his numbers in the five starts to a full 16-game season, and Bettis would have 1,987 yards and (ready for this?) 506 carries. The NFL single-season record for rushing attempts is 410 by Jamal Anderson of Atlanta in '98. Of course, Bettis, 32, couldn't keep up such a pace for an entire season. No one could. But he certainly has demonstrated it isn't time yet to park The Bus in the garage for good. ... By virtue of Sunday's loss, Cincinnati assured itself of a 14th straight non-winning season, one of the longest such streaks of futility in recent league history. ... Cleveland has now been shut out, by a combined score of 56-0, in its last two home finales. The 21-0 blank job on Sunday was the first shutout for San Diego since 1994. ... Chargers standout inside linebacker Donnie Edwards continues to be a hot player. Edwards had another interception on Sunday, his fourth in the last four outings. He had just one pickoff in the previous 22 games. ... Tampa Bay became the first team in history to follow a Super Bowl championship with two straight losing seasons. ... Tennessee backup quarterback Billy Volek threw for 492 yards on Sunday at Oakland, and lost. It marked the second straight 400-yard game for Volek, and the second straight defeat. In the last two weeks, he has completed 69 of 103 passes for a mind-boggling 918 yards, with eight touchdown passes and just one interception, and is 0-2. Fact is, Volek has averaged 329 passing yards in his seven career starts, but is just 2-5. That includes an 0-3 mark in games when he threw for 300-plus yards. ... Volek's favorite target, wideout Drew Bennett, has eight touchdown catches in his last three games. He had just nine in the previous 53 contests. ... Green Bay's "red zone"-area problems continued on Sunday as the Packers turned the ball over four times inside the Jacksonville 23-yard line. ... In their Sunday loss, the Rams surrendered 30 points (or more) for the sixth time this year. The feeling around the league is that the St. Louis linebacker corps is one of the worst in the NFL, despite featuring some high-round draft picks. ... Kansas City cornerback Dexter McCleon had two interceptions on Sunday. That is notable, in part, because he had zero entering the game, after notching at least one interception in each of the preceding seven seasons. ... With two sacks on Sunday night, Indianapolis defensive end Dwight Freeney now has 39 for his career. That's the most ever in NFL history for a player in his first three seasons. Freeney passed Richard Dent, who had 37 ½ sacks in his first three years with the Chicago Bears.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.