Little drama down the stretch?
With several teams closing in on playoff berths, divisional games could lose luster
Inside the Huddle with John Clayton
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell decided a few years ago to schedule more divisional games toward the end of the season to generate excitement.
Divisional games usually are close. This year, for example, 56.9 percent of all divisional games have been decided by eight points or less. As a result, the NFL could have a record season for close games.
But how competitive will the final month of divisional games be? The Seattle Seahawks clinched a playoff berth Monday night and six other teams can clinch playoff spots this weekend, possibly taking away some of the drama during the final month of the season.
In the AFC, the Indianapolis Colts can clinch the AFC South with a win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. The New England Patriots can clinch the AFC East if they beat the Cleveland Browns and the Miami Dolphins lose in Pittsburgh. The Denver Broncos can clinch a playoff spot with a victory over the Tennessee Titans, and the Kansas City Chiefs are in if they win in Washington and the Dolphins lose.
In the NFC, the Seahawks clinch the NFC West with a win at San Francisco. The New Orleans Saints clinch a playoff spot with a win over the Carolina Panthers along with losses by Dallas and Arizona. The Panthers are in if they win and Arizona, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Dallas lose.
If teams clinch early, some of the later divisional games may not be as close or as competitive as they were early in the season.
Here are the top 10 trends going into Week 14.
1. Saints-Panthers take the big stage: The battle for the NFC South comes alive Sunday night. The Panthers have won eight in a row and are tied for the lead in the division. These teams meet twice in three weeks. This is a matchup of two extremes. Saints coach Sean Payton has the great offense. Panthers coach Ron Rivera has a dominating defense. Both teams are so good at what they do it's probably safe to anticipate a split during the next three weeks with each team winning at home. The Saints have a significant advantage in the Superdome. They've won 14 straight home games when Payton is on the sidelines. They are 10-0 in prime time in the past four years. It's hard to beat Drew Brees when he's at home, and when Payton is calling the plays, it's even more difficult. But the Panthers are playing with supreme confidence. Over the past eight weeks, they are beating teams by an average of 14 points a game, holding teams to 12.4 points a game and limiting teams to 30 percent on third downs. They have perhaps the best front seven in football. They also know that the Saints are playing on a short week because of the Monday night game and that teams playing the physical Seahawks often lose the next week.
2. Diminished rivalry? The Week 2 showdown between the Seahawks and 49ers was considered one of the highlights of the year. The teams dislike each other and there is a great rivalry going back to college between Pete Carroll of the Seahawks and Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers. The Seahawks' 11-1 start, though, has taken some of the luster off this game. The Seahawks lead the 49ers by three games and can clinch the NFC West and a first-round playoff bye with a victory. Because they are home, the 49ers enter as slight favorites, but the matchup between Seahawks QB Russell Wilson and 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick is intriguing. Wilson is at the top of his game. His growth since the last time he was in San Francisco is off the charts. In Week 7 of last season, Wilson was still feeling his way as a rookie quarterback. The 49ers held him to 122 passing yards and nine completions in a 13-6 San Francisco win. By November of last year, Wilson was emerging as one of the best quarterbacks in football. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Wilson leads the NFL with a 86.3 QBR and a 69.3 completion percentage in games played in November and December. And he has thrived despite Sidney Rice's being on injured reserve and Percy Harvin's being available for only one game this season. Wilson gets the most of the players around him. For most of the season, Kaepernick has had only Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis as main receiving targets. Michael Crabtree caught two passes for 68 yards last week in his 2013 debut and played 42 plays. Kaepernick started to look more like the Kaepernick of 2012. The goal for the 49ers is to win, make the playoffs and hope to get a rematch with the Seahawks in the playoffs.
3. Battle for AFC's No. 3 seed: Denver and New England appear to be set as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the AFC. On Sunday, the Colts visit Cincinnati in what shapes up as the battle for the third seed. Both teams are 8-4 and the winner would have the tiebreaker. Each team is in good position to win its division. The difference between the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds is significant. The No. 4 seed would probably host a game against the Kansas City, while the No. 3 seed gets either Baltimore, Miami or whichever teams wins the last AFC wild card. Even though the Colts squeaked out a win over Tennessee last week to all but wrap up the AFC South, they are struggling. Losing WR Reggie Wayne for the season has negatively affected QB Andrew Luck. Wayne's absence has caused a one-touchdown drop for the Colts' offense, which is averaging 19.6 points in the five post-Wayne games. Other than Coby Fleener and T.Y. Hilton, Luck has limited throwing options. Last week, Colts coach Chuck Pagano benched halfback Trent Richardson and guard Mike McGlynn, and wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey might be next. He dropped key passes last week and missed on two blocks. The Bengals are coming off a nice 17-10 win over San Diego and haven't been beaten in five home games this year.
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4. Tough test for Eagles' D: The most exciting game of the weekend could be the Detroit Lions' visit to Philadelphia. Lions QB Matthew Stafford throws 41.6 passes a game and averages 318.75 yards per game. He's on pace for his second 5,000-yard passing season in three years. The Eagles give up 296.8 yards a game through the air and have to find some way to contain Lions receiver Calvin Johnson. Stafford has to decide which cornerback he wants to pick on. Cary Williams gets burned for 4.6 passes and 55.66 yards a game. Bradley Fletcher gives up 4.4 catches and 59.2 yards in the nine games he's played. Whoever draws Johnson is doomed to even worse statistics. Stafford targets Johnson 12 times a game. Eagles quarterback Nick Foles continues to be one of the surprise stories of the season. He has taken over for Michael Vick and now has 19 touchdown passes and no interceptions. Chip Kelly's offense averages 66 plays and 403.6 yards a game. Expect a high-scoring game.
5. Numbers game for Cowboys: It's not easy to figure out where the Dallas Cowboys are headed. Since 2011, the Cowboys have been predictable. They are 18-2 against teams that finish the season below .500 and 5-19 against teams .500 or better. So where do you put the Chicago Bears, Monday night's opponent? The Bears are 6-6 and more than likely will have Josh McCown at quarterback. Jay Cutler is still working his way back from a high-ankle sprain. With Cutler, the Bears are a winning team. As much as the coaching staff likes McCown, he's still a backup and has struggled to get victories. If the Bears have indeed become a losing team, then the Cowboys should win and get to 8-5. The other problem is the turn of the page in the calendar. Tony Romo has been one of the best November quarterbacks in football. He's 24-5 in November games. He's 13-19 in December and January. This game will be a gauge for Dallas.
6. Fitting that Tennessee visits Denver: It's probably good that Peyton Manning hosts the Titans instead of Manning going to Tennessee to play. The Titans' inability to sign Manning is an understated part of recent NFL history. Late Titans owner Bud Adams wanted Manning in a Titans uniform, returning him to the state in which he played college and is so popular. Had Manning taken the Titans' offer, he eventually might have ended up with an ownership share along with the ability to run the franchise in the future. Manning stayed away from the sentiment of returning to Tennessee and made a football decision. He went with John Elway and the Broncos, a decision that propelled the franchise to the top of the AFC. The Titans are all but out of the playoffs at 5-7. The other interesting part of this game is the weather. Much has been made of Manning's struggles in cold weather. In regular-season games played in 32 degrees or colder, Manning is 3-7, completes 59.4 percent of his passes and has 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. The forecast calls for temperatures in the teens.
7. Wallace returns to Pittsburgh: The Steelers made a bold move in training camp in 2012. They had been offering more than $10 million a year to extend Mike Wallace's contract. He kept saying no, so they offered $8.3 million a year for Antonio Brown. The Steelers host the Miami Dolphins and it's pretty clear the Steelers are getting more bang for the buck. Brown is on pace for a 113-catch, 1,470-yard season. He's getting almost twice the amount of yards after the catch than Wallace. Wallace, meanwhile, has struggled to get in sync with Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Wallace has 56 catches for 743 yards and only three touchdowns. The Dolphins gave him $12 million a year, but those aren't $12 million-a-year numbers. Wallace said he expects to get booed upon his returned to Heinz Field. Brown has emerged as a No. 1 receiver while Wallace is trying to re-establish that reputation in Miami.
8. AFC versus NFC: The NFC can clinch the inter-conference championship this weekend in the four inter-conference games. The NFC holds a 30-24 lead in inter-conference games. After going 3-10 in the first three weeks, the NFC has won 27 of the last 41 games. It's very likely the AFC might be able to pull off two or three victories to postpone an NFC clinching. The Baltimore Ravens should beat the Minnesota Vikings. Kansas City is catching the Washington Redskins at a time when their offense lacks confidence. The San Diego Chargers host the New York Giants. Tampa Bay hosts the Buffalo Bills and hope to win to help Greg Schiano's job security.
9. Battle of rookie quarterbacks: New York Jets coach Rex Ryan believed he would appease ownership and management by keeping Geno Smith as the starter even though he gets worse by the week. Since Week 7, Smith has the league's worst QBR (8.8), a 48.2 completion percentage and 10 turnovers. He hasn't thrown a touchdown pass since Oct. 20. Going into the season, I wondered whether Smith would be negatively affected by the team's lack of talent at receiver and the team's average running attack. Clearly, he has. Hey, if Tom Brady averaged a little more than 20 points a game and completed less than 56 percent of his passes when he was missing his top five pass-catchers from last year, how is an inexperienced quarterback such as Smith going to make up for the lack of talent? The Raiders, meanwhile, made the bold decision to stay with Matt McGloin, an undrafted rookie, at quarterback even though Terrelle Pryor has recovered from a knee injury. McGloin-Smith doesn't make for compelling football, though.
10. Last stand for Redskins: The pressure continues to build for Mike Shanahan and Robert Griffin III. At 3-9, the Redskins are going to have to scramble just to have a six-win season. If they lose Sunday's home game to Kansas City, they could be heading for a 4-12 year, and that won't please owner Daniel Snyder. The problem with facing Kansas City is Andy Reid, the Chiefs' first-year coach. Reid, according to Elias, has won more games at FedEx Field than any other visiting coach. While he was with the Philadelphia Eagles, Reid beat the Redskins 10 times in FedEx.