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Friday, December 3, 2010
Tight races are NFL fantasy come true

By Adam Schefter
ESPN.com

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.

Arguments could be made for any number of potential division winners. The Patriots and Jets will help settle the AFC East race Monday night in the "marquee" matchup of the season, according to Rex Ryan.

The Ravens and Steelers will square off in an equally compelling AFC North game Sunday night.

The Jaguars and Colts are tied for the division lead in the AFC South.

The Chargers, making their patented second-half run, trail the Chiefs by one game in the AFC West.

The Giants and Eagles play each other one more time in a game that could decide the NFC East.

Chicago and Green Bay meet on the regular-season's final day in a game that could decide the NFC North.

Atlanta and New Orleans play on "Monday Night Football" on Dec. 27 in a game that could be for the NFC South title.

And Seattle and St. Louis -- with San Francisco lurking only one game behind -- are tied in the NFC West.

This year, no team has dominated. Parity has.

Each division is as up for grabs as a Hail Mary.

On to this week's 10 Spot:

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.

Matt Ryan
The Falcons have three consecutive road games coming up. History suggests they won't win them all.

2. Atlanta hasn't lost yet at home but now it's time to be challenged on the road. Atlanta is embarking on a string of three straight road games -- at Tampa Bay, Carolina and Seattle. The events of the past decade say it will be difficult for Atlanta to win all three, no matter how winnable each game might look. In this decade, 34 teams have played three consecutive road games and only four -- the 2001 Jacksonville Jaguars, the 2005 Jaguars, the 2006 Eagles and the 2009 Giants -- have managed to win all three. Yet if the Falcons can find a way to win two of the three, they will put themselves in great position for their next home game -- Monday night, Dec. 27, against the New Orleans Saints. That game that shapes up with the same type of significance as Sunday night's Pittsburgh-Baltimore game and Monday night's Jets-Patriots game.

3. What's at stake in Sunday night's Pittsburgh-Baltimore game and Monday night's New York-New England game will shape the rest of the season. Winners will move into first place in their divisions and get the inside track on a first-round bye and a home divisional playoff game. Losers will have a much more challenging road. The second-place teams in the AFC North and AFC East probably will have to open the postseason on the road in locales such as Indianapolis and San Diego against quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers. Then, if the second-place teams can pull out road wins in the wild-card round, they would have to play the divisional playoff round against the winners of Sunday and Monday night's games. In other words, Sunday and Monday night's losers will be forced to take the longest possible road to Super Bowl XLV.

4. The New York Jets openly have stated it is a priority to re-sign wide receiver Santonio Holmes, who is in the last year of his contract. They also have stated it is a priority to re-sign wide receiver Braylon Edwards, who's also in the last year of his contract. But deep down, the Jets and people around the league know that they have very little chance of re-signing wide receiver Brad Smith, who helped New York win Thanksgiving night against Cincinnati with a rushing touchdown and a return touchdown. Like Holmes and Edwards, Smith also is in the last year of his contract. Unlike his wide receiver teammates, the Jets know that Smith is likely to receive a strong offer from another team and they will be unable to keep him. Chances are, this is Smith's last season with the Jets. At least he is making it a memorable one.

5. Nearly two months after the trade, it looks like Randy Moss needed the Patriots more than the Patriots needed him. Since New England traded Moss to Minnesota for a third-round pick in 2011, the Patriots have gone 6-1 while Moss has gone 1-6. In those seven games for the Vikings and Titans, Moss has caught 17 passes and scored two touchdowns. At the time of the deal, many around football thought New England weakened its team and its chances of winning this season. Just the opposite. The trade that looked smart to some then looks even smarter now.

6. It is not only Colts quarterback Peyton Manning who has looked mortal this season. The same is true of Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb. Three of the game's great all-time quarterbacks have been among the lowest-rated passers in the NFL this season. Since Week 5, Manning, Favre and McNabb rank in the bottom eight of the league in passer rating. Manning ranks 25th with a 79 passer rating, Favre ranks 29th with a 75 rating and McNabb ranks 31st with a 72.2 rating. During the same time, the two top-rated quarterbacks have been Baltimore's Joe Flacco (108.2) and Kansas City's Matt Cassel (107.3), who since Week 5 has thrown 18 touchdowns passes and only one interception. But this season, potential Hall of Fame quarterbacks have been busted.

7. One reason Peyton Manning has struggled is the Colts' inability to run. With running back Joseph Addai nursing a shoulder injury that is likely to sideline him again Sunday against Dallas, the Colts will try to improve a ground game that has not accumulated more than 76 rushing yards in any of their past four games, when Indianapolis has gone 1-3. "I'm not saying the Colts' run game stinks," wrote Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz, "but when Peyton Manning play-fakes, opposing linebackers convulse in laughter." Indianapolis has proved that, as much as Manning is the focal point of the franchise, the ground game is still key. This season, when the Colts have rushed for 75 or more yards in a game, they are 5-0. When they have rushed for fewer than 75 yards, they're 1-5. Not difficult to figure out what the Colts need to do down the stretch.

Todd Haley/Josh McDaniels
After the Week 10 fireworks between Todd Haley and Josh McDaniels, what will we see in the Denver-Kansas City rematch?

8. When Denver and Kansas City played Nov. 14, the Broncos continued blitzing the Chiefs on defense and throwing long on offense despite having an insurmountable lead. Chiefs coach Todd Haley didn't like it, and he let Broncos coach Josh McDaniels know it. As the two coaches were supposed to shake hands, Haley was overhead telling McDaniels, "There's a lot of [expletive] being talked about you." And this was before the Broncos and McDaniels were fined a combined $100,000 for illegally videotaping a 49ers walk-through practice in London. Now Haley and McDaniels meet again, and their postgame get-together will be analyzed even more than the game. But know this: Should the Chiefs get a lead, especially a big one, they are going to play this game as if they were behind.

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.