NFL Nation: Final Word 2010 Week 17

Final Word: AFC South

December, 31, 2010
12/31/10
4:01
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 17:

[+] EnlargeArian Foster
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesArian Foster is the NFL's leading rusher heading into Week 17.
Will Arian Foster win the rushing title? He’s got as 56-yard lead on Jamaal Charles heading into Sunday, and Gary Kubiak has said it’s important for the team to keep Foster on top. But Kubiak hasn't always done well at getting Foster sufficient carries, and the Jaguars are capable of stopping a back. Foster only got 15 carries for 56 yards in the first game against Jacksonville, which the Jaguars won with a Hail Mary.

How do the run games unfold for the Colts and Titans? The Colts have been great the last two weeks at stopping the run and at getting their running backs going. The Titans will surely try to get Chris Johnson the ball, and a lightning fast back against Indianapolis’ speedy defense will be interesting. If the Titans have any pride at the end, they won’t want to give up yards to Joseph Addai, Donald Brown or Dominic Rhodes. In a game pitting pride against a playoff berth, the advantage is with the Colts, the better team with more at stake.

Can the Jaguars score? Trent Edwards is a major question mark, but he couldn’t have drawn a better matchup than the Texans’ pass defense. It will be difficult for Edwards to match David Garrard's red zone work. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the injured starter has 16 touchdowns and zero interceptions inside the 20 this season with the fourth-best passer rating, 113.8, in the NFL. Garrard and Maurice Jones-Drew, who is out, have combined for seven of Jacksonville’s eight rushing touchdowns in goal-to-go situations.

Can Indianapolis sort out its linebackers? Clint Session is expected to be active after missing the past eight games. The Colts have settled in with Gary Brackett flanked by rookies Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner, with Tyjuan Hagler mixed into to the nickel. How will they mix in Session against the Titans as he returns from a serious elbow injury? And if the Colts win the AFC South with a win or a Jaguars loss, do they gain a handle on what to do at linebacker in a playoff game?

Is this anyone’s swan song? Three of the four coaches in the division will head into the offseason as question marks, though things should be resolved quickly. Kubiak, Jeff Fisher and Jack Del Rio may all survive, and I don’t believe even a terrible result Sunday will have a big bearing on their futures. But in the day or two to follow, each will have an important meeting with his team's owner.

Final Word: AFC North

December, 31, 2010
12/31/10
4:00
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 17:

[+] EnlargeCarson Palmer
Larry French/Getty ImagesCarson Palmer will try to improve his career record against the Ravens to 10-3.
Can the Ravens beat Palmer? Few quarterbacks have had as much success against the Baltimore Ravens' vaunted defense as Carson Palmer. The Cincinnati Bengals quarterback is 9-3 in his career as a starter against Baltimore, including three in a row dating to last season. After beating Baltimore in Week 2, Cincinnati will be going for its second straight season sweep of the Ravens.

What about Flacco? On the flip side, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has a return meeting against the team he struggled with most this season. Flacco threw a career-high four interceptions in Baltimore's 15-10 loss to the Bengals in Week 2. The bad performance was a turning point for Flacco, who has only four picks in his past 13 games. The Bengals will try to confuse Flacco again, but the third-year quarterback has shown no signs of struggling in recent weeks. Flacco has led the Ravens to a 5-1 record in the past six games.

Will McCoy bounce back? Continuing our theme of starting quarterbacks, if there is one word to describe Colt McCoy of the Cleveland Browns during his football career, it would be "successful." So how will McCoy respond to his first awful game at the pro level? The Browns are about to find out as their rookie quarterback prepares for the Pittsburgh Steelers this week. McCoy left the University of Texas as college football's all-time winningest quarterback. The 2010 third-round pick played solid football until he ran into Baltimore's defense and threw three interceptions. McCoy doesn't have an easy task against Pittsburgh's No. 2-ranked defense.

Cleaning up special teams: Pittsburgh had a nice bounce-back game on special teams in last week's 27-3 win over the Carolina Panthers. Pittsburgh's kick coverage was shredded by the New York Jets in Week 15, but the Steelers didn’t allow any big returns and forced two fumbles (recovering one) against the Panthers. Covering kicks has been an issue for Pittsburgh the past couple of seasons, yet the team has cleaned up a lot of those mistakes this season under first-year special-teams coach Al Everest. It was a good sign for the playoff-bound Steelers to keep those struggles at just one game.

Easy playoff scenarios: The Week 17 playoff scenarios are simple for the Ravens (11-4) and Steelers (11-4). Both teams are already in the playoffs, but a Pittsburgh win would clinch the AFC North and a first-round bye. For Baltimore, it can win the AFC North and a first-round bye with a win and a Pittsburgh loss. Both games are at 1 p.m. ET.

Final Word: NFC South

December, 31, 2010
12/31/10
4:00
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 17:

Scoreboard watching. This is going to be one of the big deals Sunday. Not necessarily for coaches, but for fans. For the most part, it’s pretty simple. If the Atlanta Falcons beat the Carolina Panthers, they win the NFC South and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. But New Orleans Saints fans will be rooting hard for the Panthers. If Carolina can somehow upset Atlanta, the Saints will claim the division and the top seed with a win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Things are a little more complicated for the Bucs. They need a win against New Orleans and lots of help. If they can come out with a victory, the Bucs will be flying back across the Gulf of Mexico rooting hard for the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants to lose.

[+] EnlargeJohn Fox
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliJohn Fox has a 73-70 record after nine years as Carolina's coach.
Fox’s last stand. John Fox, the best coach in Carolina history, quietly will coach his last game for the Panthers against Atlanta. (The Panthers officially announced Friday that he will not return.) Fox also might be keeping an eye on scores because several jobs might come open. Another late-season collapse in New York could mean the end for Tom Coughlin, whose team plays Washington. Once upon a time, Fox was a very popular defensive coordinator with the Giants. Fox likely will have other options, but the New York job would be a dream for him.

Angry Falcons. I wouldn’t count on Fox going out in a blaze of glory. The Falcons are still mad about losing to the Saints on Monday night. Coach Mike Smith has a rule about letting a game go after a day, but this one is sticking with Atlanta. I expect the Falcons will take out their frustration on the Panthers.

Changing of the guard? I don’t have a crystal ball and have no idea what’s going to happen with the labor situation. A quick resolution to that could make a lot of things more clear. But, at the moment, we must wonder if this could be the final game with their teams for some NFC South stalwarts. Tampa Bay’s Barrett Ruud and Cadillac Williams, Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams and Steve Smith and New Orleans’ Pierre Thomas are guys who may leave through free agency or trades.

Rising stars. Speaking of changing scenery and coaching changes, there are a couple of NFC South assistants who could jump into the headlines in the coming weeks. Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey’s name already has been tied to some jobs, at least speculatively because other teams can’t talk to him now. I also think that New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will get mentioned somewhere.

Final Word: NFC East

December, 31, 2010
12/31/10
4:00
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 17:


Are the New York Giants playing for Tom Coughlin's job Sunday against the Washington Redskins? If the Giants somehow lose this game at FedEx, there will be immense pressure on co-owners John Mara and Steve Tisch to fire Coughlin. And even a win doesn't guarantee Coughlin will return. The Giants dominated the Redskins at the line of scrimmage in their last meeting and Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw both had big days running the ball. The Skins have shown a lot more pride on defense in recent weeks, though, so I don't expect another blowout. Coughlin has asked his players to show more intensity early in this game. He was embarrassed by how his team was physically whipped by Green Bay last Sunday. If that happens against the Redskins, we could be reporting about a coaching search next week.

[+] EnlargeStephen McGee
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesWith another strong performance, Stephen McGee could be Tony Romo's backup next season.
This is a golden opportunity for Dallas Cowboys third-string quarterback Stephen McGee. If McGee can back up his nice performance against the Arizona Cardinals by leading the Cowboys to a win, he'll have the inside track on being Tony Romo's backup next season. Once McGee got comfortable against the Cardinals, he used his legs to create plays. He even had a Romo-like shovel pass when things broke down in the pocket. If McGee protects the ball, he'll have a great chance to get a win. The Eagles aren't going to do anything that exotic on defense as they prepare for a wild-card playoff game. Interim coach Jason Garrett, on the other hand, will pull out all the Ivy League stops to get a win and impress owner Jerry Jones.

Could this be Kevin Kolb's last start with the Eagles? We all thought Kolb was the heir apparent to Donovan McNabb, but that was before Michael Vick began his MVP campaign. Kolb will have an opportunity to put some more work on film for the teams that are desperate for quarterback help. I think Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg will keep things pretty vanilla with this game plan against the Cowboys, but Kolb will still take a couple of shots downfield against Dallas' cornerbacks. If the Eagles can get a first-round pick for Kolb, they'd have to think about moving him. And if you're the Cardinals or the Vikings, I think Kolb might be a better option than some of the rookies in this draft. And it's not like he'd break the bank since he's already earned the bulk of his money from the Eagles.

I'll be watching the interior of the Cowboys' offensive line Sunday. There are several players -- Kyle Kosier, Leonard Davis, Marc Colombo -- who could be replaced up front this offseason. If the Eagles let defensive tackle Antonio Dixon play for at least the first half, he'll pose a great test for Kosier and center Andre Gurode. Dixon took over as the starter in Week 5 and Brodrick Bunkley's not been able to regain his spot. The Cowboys' interior linemen have had trouble moving their feet and creating any push in the running game this season. Dixon's tough to move and I could see him being a difficult matchup for Kosier.

This is an important game for Mike Shanahan because of the evaluation process. Shanahan loves the fact that New York is still fighting for a playoff spot. He wanted the chance to have one last true evaluation of quarterback Rex Grossman heading into the offseason. Giants coordinator Perry Fewell will bring pressure from a lot of different areas, so Shanahan will see how Grossman responds. It's hard to imagine the Skins heading into 2011 with Grossman as the starter, but for now, that's still a possibility. I also think this game will give the Redskins a chance to see how young players such as outside linebacker Rob Jackson and safety Kevin Barnes build on last week's game against the Jaguars. Starting outside linebacker Brian Orakpo will likely return to the lineup, but Jackson will receive plenty of reps. Barnes made a big play against the Jaguars in overtime, but Shanahan wants to see him improve in other areas. He has to do a better job of tackling in the open field.

Final Word: AFC West

December, 31, 2010
12/31/10
4:00
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 17:

[+] EnlargeMatt Cassel
John Rieger/US PresswireMatt Cassel and the Chiefs still have something to play for on Sunday.
Chiefs looking to go perfect at home: In the end, it will not kill the Kansas City Chiefs if they lose to Oakland at home Sunday, but they do have some carrots to play for. The Chiefs will be the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs if they beat Oakland. If the Raiders win and the Colts beat the Titans, Kansas City will be the No. 4 seed. Beyond the No. 3 seed, the Chiefs are playing to finish with a perfect home record. Kansas City is 7-0 at the New Arrowhead Stadium. New England is the only other 7-0 team at home in the NFL.

Raiders look for consolation prize: While the Chiefs are playing to be perfect at home, the Raiders are playing to be perfect in the AFC West. The Raiders are 5-0 in the AFC West. If Oakland beats the Chiefs, it will become the first team since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to go undefeated in its division and not make the playoffs. The feat has been accomplishment by 29 teams in that time span. Although Oakland has been impressive in its division, its 2-8 record against the rest of the league is what is keeping the Raiders out of the playoffs.

Chiefs keep hold of the ball: If it weren’t for the Patriots, the Chiefs would be on pace to set an NFL record for fewest turnovers. Kansas City has committed 12 turnovers. The NFL record is 13. New England has turned the ball over just nine times this season. Still, record or no record, the Chiefs’ supreme ball security is a big reason they are headed to the playoffs.

League leads at stake: Several AFC West players can finish the season as the NFL leader in key statistical areas. Denver receiver Brandon Lloyd is the NFL’s leader in receiving yards by 48 yards. Philip Rivers trails Colts quarterback Peyton Manning by 39 yards and Drew Brees by 27 for the NFL lead. Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles trails Houston’s Arian Foster by 56 yards for the NFL rushing yards lead. Charles, who has 1,380 rushing yards, is also on the verge of joining rushing royalty. He is leading NFL running backs with a 6.4 per carry average. Only one player in NFL history has finished a season with more than 1,100 yards and a 6.2-plus per-carry average. The legendary Jim Brown had 1,863 yards and averaged 6.4 yards per carry in 1963.

McDaniels in Kansas City? Could this be Charlie Weis’ last regular-season game as the offensive coordinator of the Chiefs? Last Sunday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter said he wouldn’t be surprised if Weis didn’t return next year. If so, Schefter said a logical replacement could be former Denver coach Josh McDaniels. I know, the first thing you’re going to think of is the handshake controversy with Kansas City head coach Todd Haley in November. Haley was upset with McDaniels and refused to shake hands after a Denver win. Haley apologized the next day and the two embraced after a Kansas City win three weeks later. McDaniels was fired the next day. The Haley-McDaniels tiff was temporary. McDaniels is close with Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli, and he was Matt Cassel’s offensive coordinator in 2008, when the two had a great relationship. If this situation ever arose, I think the Chiefs wouldn’t miss a beat offensively, especially because McDaniels is a Weis disciple. I’m not sure this is going to happen, but it would be a huge story if it did.

Final Word: NFC North

December, 31, 2010
12/31/10
4:00
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 17:

The stakes at Lambeau Field: Let's run through the possibilities one more time. It's possible that the Chicago Bears could take the field with a chance to grab the NFC's top playoff seed with a victory. In order for that to happen, the Bears would need losses from the Atlanta Falcons (to the Carolina Panthers) and the New Orleans Saints (to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). It's a long shot, but it's still worth monitoring. The difference between playing the NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field, as compared to the Georgia Dome, is immense. As for the Green Bay Packers, a victory will ensure the NFC's No. 6 seed and a wild-card game at the Philadelphia Eagles next weekend. If they lose, the Packers will need losses by the Bucs and New York Giants (to the Washington Redskins) in order to qualify.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Knox
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesBears receiver Johnny Knox has thrived on routes outside the numbers in recent weeks.
Cutler vs. Capers: As he predicted (and against our better judgment), the Bears have grown more proficient with the deep pass in recent weeks. Quarterback Jay Cutler has hit receiver Johnny Knox for three touchdowns over the past two weeks on routes that took him outside of the numbers, according to ESPN Stats & Information. But among many other things, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers has schemed to prevent opponents from hitting big sideline passes this season. The Packers, in fact, have limited quarterbacks to a 55.9 passer rating on passes outside of the numbers, the best in the league.

Traditional Black and Blue: Cutler and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers have been getting the ball downfield efficiently as of late, but both defenses seem equipped to limit big gainers. We just discussed the Packers' sideline defense. On Thursday, we noted that Rodgers historically has been much more successful in the short-range game against the Bears. What does it all mean? Potentially, we could be in store for an old-fashioned Black and Blue game, one decided by defense and the ability to grind out a few key first downs on offense. How novel!

The stakes II: The winner of Sunday's game at Ford Field will be the division's third-place team. The loser will finish last. It's a symbolic and semantic issue, but I wouldn't rule it out as totally insignificant. The Minnesota Vikings spent upwards of $150 million on player payroll this season. Finishing in the division cellar would be a capper to a disastrous season. The Lions, meanwhile, have finished fourth in each of the past two seasons. They've already more than doubled their win total for 2008 and 2009 combined, but I like the fact that they aren't going to pop any champagne corks if they leapfrog the Vikings this season. "I don't think it means that much," defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. "The only thing that would really mean something is obviously winning the division and being able to move on to the playoffs. Winning and being third in the division, it seems you're the second loser in the whole thing. That's the way I pretty much see it right now." Translated: these Lions expect to finish higher than third in the near future.

So long, farewell: Sunday will apparently be the final game in uniform for Vikings quarterback Brett Favre, who seems unlikely to play because of a concussion. Favre's pending departure is but the tip of the Vikings' offseason iceberg. They have an aging roster with nearly two dozen pending free agents, including these prominent names: Nose tackle Pat Williams, receiver Sidney Rice, linebackers Chad Greenway and Ben Leber, defensive end Ray Edwards and kicker Ryan Longwell. Whenever the 2011 season begins, chances are the Vikings will look much different than the team that takes the field Sunday.

Final Word: NFC West

December, 31, 2010
12/31/10
4:00
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 17:

[+] EnlargeMatt Hasselbeck
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesQB Matt Hasselbeck's status remains unclear as Seattle's crucial game against St. Louis looms.
Quarterback gamesmanship. Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has painted a bleak picture for injured quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's starting prospects heading into the NFC West title game against the St. Louis Rams. There's still a chance Hasselbeck will play, of course. The Rams are probably banking on it. If Carroll is playing injury mind games, he probably has his own team in mind more than he has the Rams in mind. He wants Seattle preparing as though Charlie Whitehurst will get the start. That way there's no letdown if Hasselbeck cannot go.

The playoff picture is clear. The winner of the Rams-Seahawks game draws a wild-card playoff matchup at home against New Orleans or Atlanta. The NFC West champ can expect to play the Saints. Drawing Atlanta in the wild-card round would require Carolina winning in the Georgia Dome and the Saints losing at home to Tampa Bay. The Saints and Falcons were each 2-0 against the Rams and Seahawks this season. They scored 34 points in three of the four victories, with New Orleans beating the Rams by a 31-13 score in the other game.

Seahawks rendered defenseless. Seattle has allowed more than 5,700 yards in a season for the fifth time in the 2000s and the eighth time in Seahawks history. The 2000 team allowed a franchise-worst 6,391 yards. That figure is safe heading into Week 17 -- the Rams would have to gain 688 yards to bring that mark into play -- but the 2010 team could wind up allowing the second-highest total in team history. The Rams can make it so by gaining at least 345 yards Sunday. Seattle is allowing 380.9 yards per game.

Watch those offensive tackles. Seattle's Sean Locklear and Russell Okung could have problems against Rams defensive ends Chris Long (8.5 sacks) and James Hall (10.0 sacks). Okung's balky ankles complicate matters for Seattle. Fred Robbins, the Rams' defensive tackle, also has a favorable matchup against the Seahawks' interior offensive line. The Rams' tackles could have their own issues, which leads into the next note.

Rams like to get a jump. Only the Minnesota Vikings (30) and Oakland Raiders (29) have committed more false-start penalties than the Rams (28) this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Teams visiting Qwest Field have committed a league-high 103 such penalties since 2005. Rams players with the most false starts this season: right tackle Jason Smith (five), left tackle Rodger Saffold (five), center Jason Brown (three), left guard Jacob Bell (two), right guard Adam Goldberg (two) and tight end Billy Bajema (two).

Bonus note. Yes, the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers also play in Week 17. A victory by the 49ers would mark the seventh season in a row one team has swept the other in this series. Draft positioning is also on the line. The loser of this game could select as early as No. 2 overall in the 2011 draft if enough other variables fell into place. The way things stand heading into Week 17, the Cardinals would draft fifth and the 49ers sixth. The winner is likely to lose roughly five spots.

Final Word: AFC East

December, 31, 2010
12/31/10
4:00
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 17:

[+] EnlargeShonn Greene
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJets fans are hoping Shonn Greene can replicate last season's year-end surge.
The Jets must build some ground-and-pound momentum. Since the start of November, the Jets' vaunted ground attack has been erratic. They've put together some impressive performances in terms of total yardage, but from Weeks 9 through 15, they averaged better than 4 yards an attempt twice and scored four rushing touchdowns. LaDainian Tomlinson's hot start is a distant memory, but this time last year was when Shonn Greene took over for Thomas Jones and helped the Jets reach the AFC Championship Game. Greene averaged 5.8 yards a carry and scored a touchdown last week against the Bears. He needs to remain a force for the Jets to have a shot at a long playoff run.

Tony Sparano's job probably isn't on the line Sunday, but a Dolphins victory wouldn't hurt. NFL Network insider Michael Lombardi reported a few days ago that Bill Parcells already had talked Dolphins owner Stephen Ross into retaining Sparano for 2011. But on Thursday, Sparano said he hadn't yet spoken to Ross about his future, although a meeting had been scheduled. I doubt the result of a Week 17 game with no postseason implications will factor into Ross' decision. I suspect Ross has all but made up his mind already. Still, if the Dolphins can knock off the NFL's best team, then they not only will end the season on a high note but also will avoid finishing with a losing record.

Buffalo on Sunday can slide anywhere from No. 2 to No. 9 in the draft order. Bills fans have been analyzing their draft needs for the past four months. The Panthers have the top pick already locked up. The Bills are 4-11 and tied with the Bengals and Broncos for the second-worst record. But thanks to strong seasons from the Patriots and Jets, the Bills will lose any draft-order tiebreaker because they have a more difficult strength of schedule. The Bills can finish second in the order if they lose to the Jets and the Bengals and Broncos both win. The Bills can't finish worse than ninth because the No. 10 team will own a better record.

Patriots starters will play, but Wes Welker's injury won't be far from anybody's thoughts. Brace yourselves, Patriots fans. Even with the AFC's top seed clinched, it looks like the Patriots are going to use their best players in Sunday's meaningless game versus the Dolphins. Patriots coach Bill Belichick might very well remove them later in the game, but Welker tore up his left knee in the first quarter of last year's irrelevant finale. If the Patriots can escape Sunday without any significant injuries, it would be a relief.

The Jets could use a fast start Sunday against the Bills. The Jets have struggled all year in the first quarter. There's a good chance several of their top players will see limited action Sunday, so a sharp performance while they're on the field could help them generate some confidence for the playoffs. The Jets have scored only 33 first-quarter points. In the Jets' past seven games, they have been outscored 47-13 in the first quarter.

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