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Thursday, December 13, 2012
Updated: December 15, 9:39 PM ET
Expanded playoffs -- it's when, not if

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Roger Goodell's announcement that the NFL is considering playoff expansion comes at an interesting time.

Week 15 is the defining week of the 2012 NFL season. At no time in NFL history have six games this late in the season featured winning teams going against winning teams. The previous latest time it happened was in Week 14 of 2003. Ratings this week should be huge, and they deserve to be.

But a lot of drama is missing in these final weeks. Three of the eight divisions were clinched two weeks ago. The Houston Texans already are in the playoffs. Baltimore and Green Bay can clinch division titles with victories Sunday, and the Indianapolis Colts can clinch at least a wild-card spot if they beat the Texans.

That could leave as few as four playoff spots available in the final two weeks. This season, more than in the past, there are more haves than have-nots. The New York Jets -- a have-not on offense -- still have a chance at a playoff spot, but that's because only seven AFC teams have the appearance of being playoff-caliber. The AFC is down this season.

Which brings us to the idea of expanding the playoffs. Would it cheapen the playoffs? In theory, of course it would. Will it happen? Of course it will. The only question is when.

Goodell wants teams that have made the playoffs to play their starters, not rest them. He's been the most proactive commissioner in sports on the issue. He's moved a good percentage of the divisional games to the final two weeks to heighten divisional races.

I have contended that there is no way to change that practice. The Patriots, for example, are in the same position they've been in most years. They are tough to beat in late November and December, and they clinch their division early enough to rest starters.

Expanding the playoffs to 14 teams or 16 teams would heighten interest in otherwise meaningless games. It would make those divisional games more interesting. If the playoffs had 14 teams, the loser of next week's Cincinnati-Pittsburgh game would still make the playoffs. Go to 16 games, and the Jets could make it at 8-8 or 7-9. Based on this season's records, 11 NFC teams would be playing for something in the final weeks.

As everyone knows, Goodell wants an 18-game regular-season, but players don't. As everyone knows, Goodell doesn't like the preseason. I could see playoff expansion as a tradeoff for shortening the preseason from four games to two. Owners would lose the revenue from a home game if the preseason goes from four to two, but the extra playoff games would generate more revenue.

Playoff expansion also could balance the playoffs. Under the current scheme, the top two seeds are rewarded with a bye week if they have the best records in their conference. Often, though, those rewards are gifts. Some bye recipients are products of easy schedules and pay the price by losing their first home playoff game.

The NFL is having one of its more competitive seasons. Through Week 14, 115 games have been decided by eight points or fewer, a record. Twenty games have gone into overtime through Week 14, second most to this point in any season. Fourth-quarter comebacks are at an all-time high.

The competition committee will seek the input of coaches and general managers immediately after the season, and a vote on expanded playoffs will occur in March. I can see a 14- or 16-team format happening. If it doesn't happen next season, it will in the future.

Here are the trends for NFL Week 15:

1. Is this Soldier Field or M*A*S*H? The Bears listed 11 players who couldn't practice on their Wednesday injury report. Bears coach Lovie Smith elected to have a walk-through instead of practice. The Green Bay Packers have had seven inactive players because of injuries each of the past two weeks. Dr. James Andrews should be the play-by-play announcer for this game. Of the two teams, the Packers seem to be healing the fastest. Linebacker Clay Matthews and defensive end Mike Neal could be back Sunday. The Bears won't have Brian Urlacher and could also be missing cornerback Tim Jennings, wide receiver Earl Bennett and others. The Packers have weathered their injuries, and the Bears haven't. The Packers have won seven of their past eight games. The Bears have lost four of their past five, and the pressure in this game falls exclusively on them. All of the sudden, Smith's future is at stake. Smith enters the final year of his contract in 2013. He's due an extension. But last year's collapse and the possibility of a collapse that would keep his team from the playoffs this season could put his job in jeopardy. The Packers can win the division with a victory, and the Bears could still make it as a wild card if they lose this game but win the final two road games against Detroit and Arizona. A lot is on the line Sunday.

2. Is the AFC South in play? The Texans were humbled in their 42-14 loss to the New England Patriots on Monday night, but was there really any urgency for the Texans? Before the game, they held a two-game lead for AFC home-field advantage over teams that had clinched their divisions. Clinching the No. 1 seed is still within sight, but on Sunday, the Texans should have urgency. The Colts come to town, and Bruce Arians is talking about bringing the division title back to Indianapolis. The Colts, who have two games against the Texans in the final three weeks, are motivated. Like Houston, the Colts had a playoff test on the road against the Patriots four weeks ago and lost, 59-24. The Colts have been tough on the road, but they haven't beaten a winning team on the road. The key to the game might be the second quarter. Andrew Luck has displayed incredible comeback ability, and he's needed it. The Colts have been outscored 131-73 in the second quarter this season. Luck has to compensate for some of the holes created by the Colts' defensive conversion to a 3-4. He's done it well, but the Texans are one of the most complete teams in football.

Peyton Manning, Jim Caldwell
Peyton Manning and Jim Caldwell teamed up in Indy; now Caldwell is working with Baltimore, Manning's Week 15 opponent.

3. Following the Peyton Manning model: The most stunning news at the start of Week 15 was the Ravens' firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. During the offseason, Cameron received a contract extension, but part of the deal was accepting well-liked Jim Caldwell as a quarterbacks coach. Caldwell worked many years in Indianapolis with Peyton Manning, and John Harbaugh wanted him to bring ideas about the no-huddle offense and shotgun to Baltimore. How fitting is it that Caldwell's first game as a coordinator is against Manning, now a member of the 10-3 Denver Broncos? The Ravens' offense has been sputtering. The past four games, the Ravens have scored only 77 points. Their 4.9 yards-per-play average during that span is the sixth worst in the league. To clinch the AFC North, Joe Flacco must outduel Manning, aided by a coach Manning knows so well.

4. America's Team faces tough challenge: The Cowboys have clawed their way back into playoff contention with wins over Philadelphia and Cincinnati. They've won four of their past five. But none of that means anything if the Cowboys lose at home to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers are coming off their worst performance of the season, a horrible 34-24 loss to the San Diego Chargers. Ben Roethlisberger was coming off an SC joint sprain and wasn't particularly sharp. Mike Tomlin was furious at the way the defense allowed first downs at the start of drives. Figuring he's going to get the attention of his players in practice this week, Tomlin should be able to get a top performance. That couldn't come at a worse time for Dallas. Much of the recent Cowboys success is the result of the Tony Romo-Dez Bryant connection. Bryant has nine second-half touchdown receptions this year. But he has a serious injury to his left index finger. He's expected to play, but he might not be effective. Bryant knows he's at risk of doing long-term damage to his hands. One of his great talents is snatching incredible passes out of the air. If Bryant can't come up with big plays in the second half against the Steelers, it might be tough for the Cowboys to win.

5. Re-establishing credibility: Matt Ryan, who's 0-3 as a playoff quarterback, worked hard on improving his game during the offseason. With the help of Dirk Koetter's play calling, Ryan has had a career year. The Atlanta Falcons are 11-2. Ryan has four fourth-quarter comeback victories and six game-winning drives. He's having an Eli Manning-type season. But despite the best record in the NFC, the Falcons aren't getting a lot of respect. Their average play of late has them dropping to No. 5 in the ESPN Power Rankings. Part of the problem has been the Falcons' schedule, which has been the easiest in the league. Their opponents to date are .391. If you include the final three games, it's .404. The only teams they've beaten with winning records are Denver, Washington and Dallas. On Sunday, they host the New York Giants in a game that could earn the Falcons respect. The Giants are in a scramble to stay ahead of the Redskins and Cowboys in the NFC East, and their one-game lead looks very tenuous. At home, the Falcons may play some ugly games, but they usually win, even if it's in the final seconds.

6. Pressing the accelerator: When they jumped to a 21-0 lead Monday night, the Patriots exploited a Houston weakness. The Texans' offense isn't geared for comebacks. The Texans win by establishing a running game and having Matt Schaub operate a play-action passing offense. The Patriots' Week 15 opponent, the 49ers, might be built in a similar fashion. The Patriots will try to get off to a fast start. Whether it's the running game or the three-receiver passing game, the Patriots love to work a quick tempo and get plays off 25 seconds after the ball is put in play. The key for the 49ers is keeping the game close so that Colin Kaepernick doesn't have to get into a shootout with Tom Brady. If the game turns into a shootout, Brady has the more powerful weapons.

Marshawn Lynch
Marshawn Lynch gets a chance to make the Buffalo Bills regret letting him go.

7. Familiar faces in strange places: Two games feature a key player facing his former team. Marshawn Lynch gets his first chance to play the Buffalo Bills. The Bills traded him to Seattle, where Lynch has established himself as one of the best backs in football. Lynch has 1,266 yards and a 4.9 yard-per-carry average. His 474 yards after contact are the fourth best in football, according to ESPN Stats and Information. The Bills will rely on C.J. Spiller's quickness but have lost a power element to their running offense with Fred Jackson out. Meanwhile, Chad Henne returns to Miami as the starting quarterback of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Bill Parcells drafted tackle Jake Long and Henne for the Dolphins in 2008 instead of going for Ryan. Henne didn't get a second contract in Miami, and Long is finishing the last year of his contract on injured reserve. Henne didn't save Tony Sparano's job as head coach of the Dolphins and hasn't saved the jobs of Jaguars bosses who are being reviewed. Week 15's third reunion isn't as dramatic. The Chargers are playing the Carolina Panthers, who are coached by former Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera.

8. Wins that could save jobs: Rivera lost the general manager who hired him when Marty Hurney was fired, so he needs to win to keep his job. A strong finish could save him, and last week's victory over the Falcons helped. The Panthers finish against San Diego, Oakland and New Orleans. Despite a big win over Pittsburgh last week, Chargers coach Norv Turner knows he's a goner. Rex Ryan of the New York Jets isn't talking playoffs, but he's in the process of saving his job. The Jets have the easiest closing schedule in football. They've won horribly played games against Arizona and Jacksonville in the past two weeks. They play Tennessee on Sunday and finish against San Diego and Buffalo. If Ryan gets to 8-8 or 9-7, it may be difficult for owner Woody Johnson to let him go.

9. NFC North versus NFC West : The rise of the Seattle Seahawks has caused problems for the NFC North. The Seahawks and the 49ers each finished 3-1 against the NFC North, ending the days when the NFC West was considered the worst division in football. This week, the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals will see if they can close well against NFC North teams. Jeff Fisher has the Rams playing solid football, getting to 6-6-1. They host the Minnesota Vikings, who are trying to ride Adrian Peterson into the playoffs. The Cardinals hope to end a nine-game losing streak. They face the Detroit Lions, who are also out of the playoff hunt with a 4-9 record. The NFC West is 6-7 against the NFC North.

10. Another rookie showdown: Robert Griffin III's knee injury has added intrigue to the Washington-Cleveland game. Griffin has been practicing despite an LCL knee sprain, but he is not expected to start Sunday. If he doesn't, rookie Kirk Cousins gets the assignment. They will be going against rookie Brandon Weeden. The young Browns have won three in a row, which may give Pat Shurmur some hope of keeping his job. Weeden, running back Trent Richardson and receiver Josh Gordon are trying to be the first rookie trio to lead a team in yardage since 1968.