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Friday, December 17, 2010
Bengals, Panthers in their own race

By Adam Schefter
ESPN.com

This column has been corrected. Read below

These days, when the NFL is preparing for its finest Sunday of showdowns this season, tiebreaker configurations are reserved for teams such as the Giants and Eagles, not the Panthers and Bengals.

But this is overlooking one of the most significant races now coming to a close.

The Panthers and Bengals are locked in a race for the No. 1 overall pick. The Broncos, Lions and Bills -- each with three wins -- also could sneak in, but that's not likely. More likely is that Carolina or Cincinnati will get dibs on the first overall pick.

Here's how the race, as significant as some playoff races, breaks down: The Panthers at 1-12 have an advantage over the Bengals at 2-11. However, despite the Panthers' 20-7 loss to Cincinnati on Sept. 26, it's actually the Bengals who are expected to own a key tiebreaker in this race.

The first tiebreaker for the No. 1 overall pick is not head-to-head competition but rather strength of schedule, according to the NFL. The team that has played the easier schedule gets the higher pick; the team that has played the tougher schedule gets the lower pick.

Because of the success of the Falcons, Saints and Buccaneers in the NFC South, the Panthers probably would have the tougher strength of schedule -- and the second overall pick -- if they finish with the same record as the Bengals.

And they could. Carolina plays host to a struggling Arizona Cardinals team on Sunday in what amounts to a winnable game for the Panthers. Cincinnati has its own winnable game against the Cleveland Browns.

So what it comes down to is this: The Panthers have the edge in the standings now, but the Bengals could have the tiebreaker edge if they cannot win again this season.

The race is on. Let the scoreboard watching commence.

On to this week's 10 Spot:

1. Jacksonville's impressive feat: Each season is a war of attrition.This season, some teams have been able to withstand multiple injuries. As of Wednesday morning, no team in the league had more players on injured reserve than the Jacksonville Jaguars, who had 16. That makes what the Jaguars have accomplished this season even more impressive. They are trying to become the first team since the 2002 Titans to sweep the season series from the Colts. But the Jaguars are hardly the only team that has had to combat a huge loss of manpower. The Colts, Lions and Bengals each have placed 15 players on injured reserve. The Packers and Dolphins have 13 players on injured reserve. And the Patriots, Buccaneers, Bills and Panthers each have placed 12 on injured reserve. It's impressive that the Packers, Dolphins, Patriots and Buccaneers could lose that many players and still rack up so many wins. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, some teams' health has contributed to their winning ways. The Bears, Falcons and Raiders have been the healthiest teams in the league, each placing only three players on injured reserve. No wonder their seasons have gone so well.

Tom Brady
The Patriots are the NFL's version of the Snow Miser -- they thrive in wintry weather, which is bad news for potential playoff opponents.
2. Patriots are icy-hot: AFC teams that want to reach the Super Bowl in Arlington, Texas, first must navigate their way through Foxborough, Mass. Good luck. New England already has beaten the Steelers, Ravens, Colts, Chargers and Jets -- just about any potential AFC playoff opponent. In the past two weeks, the Patriots have trounced the Bears and Jets by a combined 81-10. In their past five games, the Patriots have scored 196 points -- 32 more than the Panthers have scored in 13 games this season. They also have gone five straight games without committing a turnover, the longest streak in NFL history. And now New England is close to clinching home-field advantage through the playoffs. Trips to Foxborough are going to be cold. But any potential playoff opponent better pray to the Double Doppler Gods that it doesn't snow. In wintry weather, the Patriots are more reliable than snow tires. In the first half of their past three snow games, the Patriots outscored Chicago 33-0 last Sunday, Tennessee 45-0 last season and Arizona 31-0 in 2008. As California cool as Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is, he might be the greatest snow player on the greatest snow team in NFL history. See also: Vinatieri, Adam, greatest kick in NFL history.

And if what the icy-hot Patriots are doing this season isn't impressive enough, then just wait until the offseason. New England owns the Raiders' first-round pick for Richard Seymour, the Panthers' second-round pick for Armanti Edwards (is this criminal or what?) and the Vikings' third-round pick for Randy Moss. Carolina's pick is likely to be the top pick in the second round, which means New England either can take a plum player or, maybe more likely, auction off the pick for more premium picks. That's the Patriot Way. As it stands, New England is likely to have three of the 2011 draft's top 33 picks, four of the top 62 picks, five of the top 75 or so picks, and six of the top 96 picks. As if the Patriots need it. In a season in which they have established themselves as the favorite for the Super Bowl, New England also has proved something else that should unnerve the rest of the league. New England is well-positioned for this season and future ones as well.

3. Rejuvenated kickers: Cowboys, Redskins and Bengals fans are going to find this hard to believe, but kickers Shaun Suisham and Shayne Graham -- the very men who cost their teams games -- can do no wrong for their new teams. Since Suisham joined the Steelers in Week 11, he has connected on all nine of his field goal attempts despite the fact that he has kicked in what is regarded as one of the NFL's toughest stadiums for kickers. Since Graham joined the Patriots in Week 10, he has connected on all eight of his field goal attempts despite the fact that his past two games have come in Arctic-like cold and a Chicago blizzard. It's amazing to think how some franchises elevate players and others embarrass them.

LeSean McCoy
LeSean McCoy isn't the centerpiece of Philadelphia's offense, but he makes the most of his carries.
4.The real McCoy: What Scottie Pippen once was to Michael Jordan, Eagles running back LeSean McCoy has become to quarterback Michael Vick. Despite the fact that McCoy averages 14 carries per game and has had more than 18 carries in a game only once this season -- on Oct. 17 against Atlanta -- he still is only 28 yards shy of his first NFL 1,000-yard rushing season. But this is also because McCoy is averaging 5.3 yards per carry, tied for second best of any NFC running back. When McCoy is running the football as well as he did last Sunday night against Dallas, and as well as he hopes to in Sunday's NFC East showdown with the Giants, Philadelphia's offense cannot be stopped.

5. WRs on the IR: As challenged as the Chargers have been with injuries this season at wide receiver, the Giants have had more than their share at the position as well. When New York's Steve Smith was placed on injured reserve this week, he became the fifth Giants wide receiver to suffer a season-ending injury. Smith joined a list of injured Giants receivers that includes Domenik Hixon (knee), Victor Cruz (hamstring), Sinorice Moss (sports hernia) and Ramses Barden (ankle). Hakeem Nicks also missed two games because of a leg injury, and Mario Manningham is nursing a sore hip flexor. Good thing running backs Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw are in playoff form.

6. Saints' new turnover machine: When New Orleans advanced to and won its first Super Bowl last season, Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper was a major reason why. Sharper was a turnover machine, intercepting nine passes and scoring three touchdowns. When Sharper underwent offseason knee surgery, the Saints shifted former first-round pick Malcolm Jenkins to safety from cornerback, and now he is playing the way his predecessor did. Jenkins intercepted two passes against the Rams last Sunday, returning one 96 yards for a touchdown. Two games earlier, on Thanksgiving, Jenkins stripped the ball and a victory from Cowboys wide receiver Roy Williams. The Saints' defense thrives with turnovers and is getting them from Jenkins. New Orleans' newest playmaker will be on the same field Sunday as one of the top playmaking safeties in NFL history, Baltimore's Ed Reed. This time, Reed might face the tougher challenge. The Saints, who have flown as far under the radar as any defending champion can, have won six straight games while scoring at least 30 points in their past five.

7. The man who ended the streak: Blame Buffalo's former first-round pick Aaron Maybin for the end of Brett Favre's consecutive-games streak. Had Maybin turned into the player the Bills hoped, then he would have been at linebacker when Buffalo played Minnesota the first Sunday in December. Instead, Maybin was inactive and Buffalo turned to linebacker Arthur Moats, this year's sixth-round pick. Moats is the Bills linebacker who body-slammed Favre, injured the quarterback's shoulder and ultimately ended one of the most impressive streaks in U.S. sports history. In the days leading up to Monday night's Giants-Vikings game, Moats' cell phone kept blowing up. "There was lots of anticipation," Moats said. And when the Vikings deactivated Favre and ended his streak, the anticipation turned to reality. "I said, 'Man, that just happened?'" Moats recalled this week. With good reason. When Favre started the streak in September 1992, Moats was 4 years old. More than 18 years later, Moats went from watching Favre to sidelining him, maybe for good.

8. Remember these guys? Until Monday night, the last time Brett Favre failed to start was in September 1992, when the Jaguars, Panthers, Ravens and Texans were not even a part of the NFL, and the Houston Oilers and Los Angeles Raiders were. The starting quarterbacks at that time are veritable blasts from the past. They are a collection of quarterbacks now in Canton, broadcasting booths or retirement. It provides some perspective on exactly how long Favre has played. Here is a look at each team's starting quarterback in September 1992, the week before Favre started the first of 297 straight games.

9. Not yet time for Tim? Nobody could have or would have predicted that former Fordham quarterback John Skelton would wind up an NFL starter before former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow. But Arizona plans to go with Skelton the rest of this season while the Broncos have balked at giving Tebow more playing time. It could be that Denver is waiting to finish its road slate at Oakland on Sunday before giving Tebow more playing time in the Broncos' final two games of the season -- both at home -- against Houston and San Diego. Or it could be that Tebow will be used extensively Sunday. But either way, Skelton, the 155th pick in April's draft, already has beaten the Broncos and wound up starting his first game before Tebow, the 25th pick in the first round in April.

10. The rematch: It would be understandable if Tennessee hired PA announcer Michael Buffer for Sunday's pregame introductions. In this corner, Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan. In that corner, Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson. For the first time since they squared off Nov. 28 in a battle replayed too many times to count, Finnegan and Johnson will meet again. Last time, Johnson landed three punches to Finnegan's head; each player was fined $25,000 for his actions. After the brawl and the game, Titans coach Jeff Fisher lauded Finnegan for exercising restraint. Finnegan will need more than restraint Sunday. Asked if he'll need to remind Finnegan not to be drawn into another incident, Fisher said: "I don't think he got drawn into anything the last time around. So maybe someone needs to talk to Andre Johnson about that." Nobody needs to talk to the Titans about the damage Johnson has inflicted on them. In his past four games against Tennessee, Johnson has caught 34 passes for 490 yards and five touchdowns.

The Schef's specialties

•  Game of the week: Eagles at Giants. Winner probably takes NFC East, loser might miss playoffs.

•  Player of the week: Raiders RB Darren McFadden. Last time he played Denver, he rushed for 165 yards and scored four touchdowns.

•  Upset of the week: Bills over Dolphins. Miami is not the same team at home that it is on the road.

Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.

The first tiebreaker for the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft was incorrect in an earlier version of this column. Strength of schedule is the first tiebreaker for determining NFL draft order.