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Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Wild-card races not so wild

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Roethlisberger/Porter
Depending on how things shake out, the AFC's last playoff berth could be at stake when Big Ben's Steelers take on Joey Porter and the Dolphins in Week 17.

Without making this too complicated, the AFC wild-card race probably will come down to the Week 17 matchup between the Steelers and Dolphins.

The Broncos appear to have the AFC's first wild-card spot locked up unless the San Diego Chargers slip and the AFC West title becomes a possibility. Denver is 8-4 and has winnable home games against the Chiefs and Raiders. The Broncos will reach 10 wins. There is no guarantee that the No. 6 seed will do the same.

The Jaguars face the biggest problem even though they are currently sixth in the AFC with a 7-5 record. Their next three games are against the Dolphins, Colts and Patriots, and they could lose all three. The Ravens (6-6) still can reach nine wins because they'll play Detroit and Chicago at home and finish the season in Oakland, but to reach 10 wins, they also would have to beat the Steelers at Heinz Field in Week 16.

The Steelers should beat the Browns on Thursday night. Then they'll need to win home games against the Packers and Ravens to head into the season finale in Miami at 9-6. The Dolphins would have to beat the Jaguars, Titans and Texans to be 9-6 heading into that last week.

The NFC wild-card race is pretty straightforward. The Packers are 8-4 and appear destined to earn the first wild-card spot. The second spot likely will go to the second-place team in the NFC East.

From the inbox

Q: I have played, coached and watched football for 40 years, and it is really jumping out at me how few NFL players tackle correctly or even attempt to. This commentary goes to the increased number and severity of concussions and how almost every defensive back or linebacker likes to lead with his head like a hammer or missile. Are proper tackling fundamentals not being emphasized enough in practice?

Dave in Wilmington, N.C.

A:
Your knowledge and experience are needed in helping the league and players figure out ways to minimize concussions. A friend of mine suggested the face mask is the worst thing that happened to football because it gave players the confidence to use their helmets as a weapon. Better tackling techniques need to start in junior high and continue through high school, college and the pros. Tacklers love to intimidate, but what they don't realize is they are suffering injuries that could shorten their careers and make their postcareer lives miserable. Jeffri Chadiha identifies some reasons for the poor tackling in our latest Hot Read.

Q: Will Brett Favre come back for another year with the Vikings? What changes must the Bears make to have better success with Jay Cutler?

Pat G. in Chicago

A:
If the Vikings reach the NFC title game and lose, I still think Favre could come back for another season. He's having a blast. As for the Bears, they need to find an offensive coordinator who can get more out of Cutler. Mike Martz, Charlie Weis and Jeremy Bates would be top candidates. They also need to upgrade at wide receiver because Devin Hester isn't a No. 1 receiver. Their problem is not having a 2010 draft choice in the first or second rounds. They probably will have to sign a free agent, but free-agent receivers usually don't offer much of an upgrade. When Cutler's right, he can make his receivers better, but the franchise needs to do something to make Cutler right.

Q: Would you agree with the claim that the NFC is a stronger conference than the AFC this season? This decade seemed to be dominated by the AFC, but with teams like the Vikings, Saints, Eagles, Cowboys and Cardinals, the NFC in my mind has surpassed the AFC as the superior conference.

Jim in Duluth, Minn.

A:
I thought this would be the NFC's year to take control of the league, but the NFC trails the AFC 26-22 in interconference wins. I think there is a stronger middle class of teams in the NFC and a deep group of elite quarterbacks emerging in the NFC. When you have a rebuilding team such as Jacksonville with the AFC's sixth-best record after 13 weeks, you have to say the AFC isn't dominating. But facts are facts. When AFC teams meet NFC teams, AFC teams prevail more often. They haven't backed down yet.

Q: What do you see Seattle doing in the 2010 draft?

Zheray in Seattle

A:
This has to be an offensive draft for the Seahawks. Their main needs are left tackle, quarterback and running back. Their offensive line is a disaster, and it's one of the reasons Tim Ruskell isn't the general manager anymore. Maybe people also would say the Seahawks need help at defensive end, cornerback and safety, but Ruskell tried to fix those positions during the past five years at the expense of helping the offense. Now, it's time to rebuild the offense, which is one of the reasons it makes sense for Mike Holmgren to return as the general manager.

Q: Do you think Cincinnati's approach of running the ball and playing good defense gives it the best chance to get to the Super Bowl, or will the Bengals need to let Carson Palmer scan the field a little more to compete with New England, Indy and San Diego?

Jason in Boca Raton, Fla.

A:
That might be the most astute question of the week. I've wondered about it for weeks. The Bengals are averaging 21.2 points a game, just about a field goal less than most of the other playoff contenders. With so many good quarterbacks scheduled to make the playoffs, there will be an urgency to score more points. The Bengals' coaching staff is starting to think it's been getting a little too conservative of late. A couple of injuries on defense could turn playoff games into higher-scoring affairs. I'm wondering whether Cincinnati has enough offense to go far in the playoffs.

Q: Why isn't Chris Johnson in the MVP race? Will Steven Jackson make the Pro Bowl?

Daryl in Florida

A:
Johnson is in the MVP race, but he's a distant fourth. His team's record is one of the reasons. Quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Drew Brees have their teams undefeated through 12 games. Favre has helped the Vikings to a 10-2 start. Johnson may reach 2,000 yards, but the Titans might finish at 8-8 or worse. Jackson will make the Pro Bowl easily. Our NFC West blogger Mike Sando has Johnson seventh in his latest MVP rankings.

Q: Can you put this debate to rest please? I have grown tired of people saying Marvin Lewis deserves coach of the year. I strongly disagree, although the Bengals are playing great. I credit defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and the offensive line for the team's great improvement. What do you think?

Brandon in Houston

A:
Lewis deserves a contract extension and a lot of praise for a good season, but he definitely will fall short of the coach of the year honors. The Saints' Sean Payton is my runaway choice. He's unbeaten. I know the Colts' Jim Caldwell deserves consideration as a first-year coach on an unbeaten team, but he inherited a team that annually wins 12 games. Payton will have a seven- or eight-game improvement over last season. He's my winner at the moment.

Q: C'mon, John! Joe Flacco, an elite QB? That's an obvious reach. Remember, he got the starting nod only because Troy Smith got sick. He has the prototypical size, but he doesn't have "it." He had another chance to prove his elite status on Monday night and failed miserably.

Robert in Los Angeles

A:
Despite his struggles on Monday night in Green Bay, Flacco is elite. He won 11 games as a starter as a rookie. It's not as though he's surrounded with great receiving talent. Normally, it takes four years for a quarterback to become elite. I watched him put together three fourth-quarter touchdown drives against the Vikings on the road. Flacco's a good one, indeed. We can agree to disagree.

Q: What do you think the Jets will do with their running back situation next year? If Leon Washington comes back 100 percent, will the Jets keep both him and Thomas Jones even though Shonn Greene looks like a solid back?

Frankie in Stratford, Conn.

A:
I don't think the Jets need to do anything. In many ways, they are lucky. Jones' success allows them to see whether they can squeeze one more year out of him as a feature back. If there is no salary cap, they'll get Washington back as a restricted free agent. Greene is available as an inside runner who can slowly take over for Jones if age starts catching up to him. It's the best of all worlds.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.