Tight races are NFL fantasy come true
No leader has more than a one-game edge; even some last-place teams still have hope
If late NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle had a dream, this would be it.
He would dream that in some divisions, last-place teams would be created nearly as equal as first-place teams. He would dream that eight divisions could come down to the final Sunday of the season. He would dream that as we enter December, no division leader would have more than a one-game lead. He would dream this season. There never has been a season in which nobody has been able to run away with a division, when some last-place teams were not eliminated early, when 19 teams were within one game of first place, when magic numbers were irrelevant. Since the eight-division era began in 2002, this is the latest point at which no more than one game has separated the top two teams in every division.
1. It is a foregone conclusion that coach John Fox will be leaving the Panthers when his contract expires after this season. And there's already talk centering on one of the candidates to replace him. The Panthers will consider hiring Cardinals assistant head coach Russ Grimm to replace Fox, according to two NFL sources. Grimm is a logical candidate for a multitude of reasons. For starters, Grimm's credentials make him one of the top assistant coaching prospects available. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson also is close to Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, whose team trained Grimm as a coach. When Richardson made his first head-coaching hire, he hired former Steelers defensive coordinator Dom Capers. And Grimm's former head coach with the Washington Redskins, Joe Gibbs, who is popular in NASCAR country in Charlotte, has been pushing Grimm's candidacy. Grimm would not be as pricey as a coach like Bill Cowher, which would make him even more appealing to Richardson. But when the Panthers sift through head-coaching candidates after this season, Grimm is firmly expected to be on or near the top of the list.
9. Not only was Frank Gore the 49ers' leading rusher with 853 yards, he also was their leading receiver with 46 catches. Now that a fractured hip has ended Gore's season, the 49ers will have to rely on more than just 31-year-old running back Brian Westbrook, who ran for 136 yards during Monday night's win over Arizona. San Francisco also will have to lean on sixth-round pick Anthony Dixon, who led the NFL in rushing during the preseason with 300 yards and four touchdowns. Once the regular season rolled around, the 49ers were able to lean on Gore. They didn't fully trust Dixon on blitz pickups, as was the case with Tampa Bay and rookie running back LeGarrette Blount. Now San Francisco has little choice. It must rely on Dixon and Westbrook. "Yes," 49ers coach Mike Singletary said, "kind of 'Thunder and Lightning.' You know, that's been used a lot through the years with running backs but with both those guys it literally is applicable." It's now up to Westbrook and Dixon to run the 49ers to an NFC West title.
10. Noted Dallas Morning News football reporter Rick Gosselin uncovered an interesting statistical nugget on how some of the league's better known running backs have fared. This season, Cincinnati's Cedric Benson has rushed for four touchdowns, Dallas' Marion Barber and Baltimore's Ray Rice each have run for three, Seattle's Marshawn Lynch has run for two and Washington's Clinton Portis has run for one. And every one of those 13 touchdowns came on a 1-yard run.
The Schef's specialties
• Games of the week: Steelers versus Ravens, Jets versus Patriots. Either could be an AFC Championship Game preview.
• Player of the week: Colts QB Peyton Manning. Would be stunning if Manning doesn't rebound with a big performance against an overmatched Dallas secondary.
• Upset of the week: Cincinnati over New Orleans. Bengals due for a bounce-back game.
Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.
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