Commentary

Spotlight belongs to NFC

Conference's four division titles still undecided; familiar situation for Cowboys

Originally Published: December 27, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The NFC is the prime attraction in Week 17.

Last week took a lot of the drama out of the AFC playoff race. The Denver Broncos, New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals joined the Indianapolis Colts as division winners. The Kansas City Chiefs were already set as the top wild card.

The NFC North will be determined when the Green Bay Packers visit the Chicago Bears in a 4:25 p.m. ET start. NBC flexed the Dallas-Philadelphia game to determine the NFC East title. The Carolina Panthers would wrap up the NFC South by beating Atlanta in a 1 p.m. ET slot.

The San Francisco 49ers visit Arizona but will be scoreboard watching to see whether the Seattle Seahawks beat St. Louis and clinch the NFC West. The New Orleans Saints host Tampa Bay in a late afternoon start to determine where they fit in the playoff race.

No seed is currently set in the NFC, which will be featured all day Sunday.

Here are the top 10 trends going into Week 17.

[+] EnlargeKyle Orton
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesKyle Orton is faced with the task of having to outscore the Eagles'
high-flying offense.

1. Once again, playoffs or bust for Cowboys: In 2008, 2011 and 2012, the Cowboys needed to win the season finale to make the playoffs. They lost those three games by a combined score of 103-38. On Sunday night, the Cowboys will face this challenge without Tony Romo, who has a herniated disk. Although Romo's replacement, Kyle Orton, is considered one of the best backups in the league, he has to overcome the Cowboys' defensive problems. The Eagles generate 420.7 yards of offense a game. The Cowboys give up 418.6, including 290.7 through the air. Field position could be a big problem for Orton if the Eagles move the ball well against the Cowboys' Cover 2 defense. Romo was the league's fourth-best quarterback in producing points on drives that started inside his 20-yard line, converting 36 such drives into 62 points. He's had eight touchdown drives that started inside his 20. It's hard to believe Orton can come off the bench and match that effectiveness. Two ways to lose against the Eagles are settling for three-and-outs and committing turnovers. Orton might have to play a perfect game just to stay with the Eagles.

2. The return of Aaron Rodgers: After missing seven games, Rodgers was cleared to play against Chicago in a winner-take-all game for the NFC North title. Though it didn't look promising earlier in the week, Rodgers was able to get the Packers' team doctor to allow him to return. How much will that change things? We'll see. Not only does Rodgers give the Packers a better chance to take the NFC North from Chicago, but he also could make them that much more dangerous in the playoffs.  Matt Flynn has kept the Packers in the playoff race by winning two of his past three starts. Rodgers averages 28.2 points per start during his career. He's done enough throwing in the past couple of weeks that he shouldn't be rusty. His return makes the NFC North "play-in" game that much more interesting.

3. Last stand for Ravens: The Bengals won the AFC North with a Week 16 victory, leaving the Ravens with only one chance to make the playoffs. They have to make it as a wild card and it won't be easy. Although Baltimore's main competitor is a Miami Dolphins team it beat on Oct. 6, the San Diego Chargers can ruin the Ravens' party if they beat the Kansas City Chiefs. A three-way tie between the Dolphins, Ravens and Chargers at 9-7 would give the No. 6 seed to Miami because of a better conference record. The Bengals plan to play their starters against Baltimore even though the chances of getting a No. 2 seed are remote. Ravens QB Joe Flacco says his knee feels better, but his performance level dropped Sunday because he struggled to move around in a knee brace. The interesting twist in this game is the chance the Ravens might have to return to Cincinnati on Jan. 5 if they clinch the wild card. Because the Bengals beat the Colts three weeks ago, the Bengals have the edge for the No. 3 seed. Home field has meant everything to the Bengals. They are 7-0 at home and have scored 40 or more points in their past four home games. The rivalry between the two teams makes it unlikely the Bengals will pound the Ravens, who are still stinging from their 41-7 loss to New England. Everything is on the line for them Sunday.

4. Dolphins don't have it easy: The Dolphins know a win over the New York Jets on Sunday could be only a partial ticket to the playoffs. They also might need a Chargers victory over Kansas City to prevent a two-way wild-card tie with the Ravens. Miami should feel good about Chiefs coach Andy Reid's plan to mix in backups with the starters. The game means nothing to the Chiefs. They are the No. 5 seed regardless and have to make sure they are healthy heading into the playoffs. But there's no guarantee the Dolphins will beat the Jets. Rex Ryan wants to get the Jets to eight wins to make it tougher for ownership to fire him. His defense is good enough to make life miserable for Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who will play despite a knee injury. He's been sacked 58 times and is starting to feel it. With nothing to lose except his job, expect Ryan to come up with a lot of exotic schemes to harass Tannehill, who might struggle with his mobility.

5. NFC West is best: The NFC West went 30-10 against the rest of the league, and now the four divisional teams turn their aggressiveness against one another. The Rams visit Seattle trying to take away a No. 1 seed and home-field from the Seahawks. Although the Rams are the only team in the division out of the playoff race, Jeff Fisher can set up a promising 2014 if he can get the win and finish at 8-8. Seattle QB Russell Wilson is coming off a rare poor performance in which the Seahawks lost at home to Arizona. He was at the Seahawks' facility at 4:30 a.m. Monday morning trying to fix some decision-making mistakes. A Seahawks win would clinch home field and give the Seahawks a great chance to go to the Super Bowl. A more intriguing game is San Francisco's visit to Arizona. The 49ers clinched a playoff spot with a win over Atlanta Monday night. They still could win the division if Seattle loses and they beat the Cardinals, but the Cardinals have everything on the line. They know the chance of getting a wild card is remote because they lost to New Orleans, which could lock up the second wild-card spot if it beats Tampa Bay. Don't discount the chance of the Cardinals beating San Francisco and getting that 11th win. Their defense is geared to stop the run and they are coming off an upset win over the Seahawks in Seattle.

6. The Broncos without Von Miller: The Broncos survived their first stint without linebacker Miller. They went 6-0 to start the season while he served a six-game suspension. Now, they have to head into the playoffs without him because of an ACL tear. That's a problem for the Broncos. Sure, he wasn't the same Miller as last year, when he battled for defensive player of the year with an 18½-sack season. He played at around 270 pounds and had five sacks in nine starts. Somehow, the Broncos have managed to get 39 sacks this season, but they are also giving up 25.7 points a game. The Broncos close out their regular season in Oakland, where Peyton Manning is poised to break more NFL records.

7. Getting ready for Black Monday: As many as eight head coaches could be on the sidelines for their final games Sunday. The Houston Texans have already fired Gary Kubiak. Ryan (New York Jets), Leslie Frazier (Minnesota), Greg Schiano (Tampa Bay), Dennis Allen (Oakland), Mike Shanahan (Washington), Mike Munchak (Tennessee) and Jim Schwartz (Detroit) are on the hot seat. The mystery remains in Dallas. Jerry Jones continues to say Jason Garrett isn't coaching for his job, but a loss Sunday could make Jones reconsider. Whether Romo's back injury gives Garrett a reprieve if the Cowboys lose will be determined by the middle of the week.

8. The NFC South race isn't over: Even though the Panthers beat New Orleans last week to take the lead in the NFC South, the division is still up for grabs. The Panthers have to win in Atlanta. The Saints figure to beat Tampa Bay because they are playing in the Superdome, where they blow out just about everyone. The Panthers are expected to be without WR Steve Smith, who suffered a sprained left knee in Week 16.  A win gives Carolina a bye week. That buys time for Smith to get back. Cam Newton doesn't have a lot of pass-receiving weapons, so he will have to hope that Ted Ginn Jr. has a good game replacing Smith.

9. Finishing off another great DPOY race: Last year, J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans beat Aldon Smith of the San Francisco 49ers and Miller for Defensive Player of the Year. Watt had 20½ sacks. Smith had 19½. Miller had 18½. This year's battle is even more intense. Robert Quinn of the St. Louis Rams has 18 sacks. Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly has 146 tackles, has four interceptions and is coming off a 24-tackle game. The Seahawks offer safety Earl Thomas and cornerback Richard Sherman. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict has 157 tackles for the Cincinnati Bengals. Robert Mathis of the Indianapolis Colts has 17½ sacks and eight forced fumbles. And don't forget Watt, who is still the league's most dominating defender even though the Texans are on a 13-game losing streak.

10. Running backs limping to the finish: It's been a tough year for running backs. LeSean McCoy of the Philadelphia Eagles is running away with the rushing title with 1,476 yards, but the role of feature running backs seems to be changing. Not a single back is averaging 20 carries a game. There were only five last year. There may be as few as 14 1,000-yard runners, two fewer than last year. The most amazing drop is in 100-yard rushing games by running backs. There have been only 87 this year. There were 121 last year.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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