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Friday, December 21, 2012
Blue bloods ... not new blood

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

In baseball, managers call out the closers for situations such as this. In the NFL, Week 16 gives plenty of teams a chance to close out their seasons and lock in playoff spots.

Seven of the 12 playoff berths are assured. Five of the eight divisions have been clinched. The Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts can complete the AFC playoff picture simply by winning. The Seattle Seahawks can lock in a playoff trip with a win over the San Francisco 49ers.

That could leave three NFC East teams -- the Washington Redskins, the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants -- battling until the final week for one or two playoff spots. The Minnesota Vikings can't clinch anything this week, but they are still in the mix for an NFC wild card.

What's apparent, though, is that the NFL's 17-year streak of having five new playoff teams annually is going to end. The seven teams already qualified are repeaters. One of the last wild-card spots will go to either the Bengals or the Pittsburgh Steelers, and both went to the playoffs last year.

Sunday should be a classic. Because Monday night is Christmas Eve, the "Monday Night Football" game is being played Saturday. The Atlanta Falcons, trying to clinch home-field advantage, visit Detroit. That leaves 15 games for Sunday, including 11 in the early 1 p.m. ET slot.

Here are the 10 top trends for the week:

Pete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh
Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh shared a testy encounter after the 2009 USC-Stanford game.

1. Rivalry in the NFC West: What recently was considered the league's worst division has advanced to prime time. NBC thought so much of the 49ers-Seahawks game that it flexed the game to Sunday night. Good call. This game has it all. Both teams have tough, physical defenses. Both teams have exciting young quarterbacks: Russell Wilson in Seattle and Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco. Both teams have exceptional running offenses. Then there is the rivalry between Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll that dates to their college coaching days. Carroll believes he owes Harbaugh a few things. In 2007, Harbaugh beat Carroll's USC team, 24-23, after Stanford was established as a 41-point underdog. In 2009, Harbaugh went for a two-point conversion with Stanford ahead 48-21. As they met at midfield after the game, Carroll asked Harbaugh, "What's your deal?" Carroll and Harbaugh are among the league's highest-paid coaches, but they have earned their contracts by turning around their franchises. The 49ers went to the NFC title game last year. The Seahawks are trying to make the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. All of a sudden, the NFC West is relevant and exciting.

2. Rivalry in the AFC North: For years, the Baltimore Ravens and the Steelers have dominated the AFC North. Sunday is a defining day for the Bengals. If they beat the Steelers, they can finally say -- for a year, at least -- that they have climbed above the Steelers in the division. Win, and they are in the playoffs. Lose, and they once again hand the playoff spot over to Pittsburgh. The Steelers have won the past five games against the Bengals, including a 24-17 win in Cincinnati this season. Time might be catching up to their roster, but the Steelers still have Ben Roethlisberger, and they have the fans at Heinz Field. The Bengals have cleaned out a lot of problems in their locker room and are together as a team. The good chemistry has helped Marvin Lewis to be in position for back-to-back trips to the playoffs. The franchise hasn't done that since 1981-82. Still, these are the type of games in which the Steelers historically rip the hearts out of the Bengals. No one will forget 2005, when the Bengals won the division over the Steelers but, in the playoffs, the Steelers went to Cincinnati and not only beat the Bengals but ripped up Carson Palmer's knee early in the game.

3. Identity crises: The biggest question about the game between the Baltimore Ravens and the New York Giants is this: Which teams will show up? The Ravens are normally good at home offensively and struggle on the road. But, after losses to Pittsburgh and Washington, the Ravens fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, then got worse on offense -- at home. Jim Caldwell was promoted to offensive coordinator, and although he was formerly the Colts' head coach, he was calling plays for the first time in the NFL. The debut was horrible. The game opened with a fumble and four three-and-outs. Injuries have negatively affected a defense that gives up 132.2 yards a game on the ground -- which ranks No. 26 in the league. Even though the Ravens have clinched a playoff spot, they are on a three-game losing streak and finish the season against the Giants and Bengals. The bigger mystery is the Giants. The good Giants put up 52 points on the Saints. This past week, the not-so-good Giants were shut out by the Falcons. The defense has been spotty. Opposing quarterbacks complete 64 percent of their passes against the Giants and average an 88.1 passer rating. A year ago, the Giants were 7-7 and went on a roll that led to a Super Bowl championship. This year, you don't know which Giants team will show up.

4. Adrian 2K: I still laugh at what Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt said Sunday when he was told Adrian Peterson had rushed for 212 yards. "Holy smokes," Watt said. Peterson is smoking. He needs 294 yards to break Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record. The Texans could determine whether that mission is possible. The Texans know they can clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs if they beat the Vikings. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips takes great pride in his defense. Normally, 3-4 defenses are difficult to run against. The Texans give up only 93.2 yards a game rushing -- which ranks No. 5 in the league. Peterson has gone against five 3-4 defenses. Three held him to fewer than 100 yards, but he faced those defenses in the first half of the season. He had 153 against the Arizona Cardinals and 210 against the Green Bay Packers. Believe it or not, the Vikings are playing for a spot in the playoffs, but this will be a tough assignment going against a focused Texans team.

Chuck Pagano
Chuck Pagano might be coaching in the postseason mere months after a leukemia diagnosis.

5. Feel-good story in Indianapolis: No franchise has turned adversity into a feel-good story as effectively as the Colts. They went 2-14 last season, when Peyton Manning had four neck operations and threw no passes. That gave them the next Manning -- Andrew Luck. Coach Chuck Pagano had to undergo treatment for leukemia, yet the Colts are poised to make the playoffs. On Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Colts could give Pagano his second Christmas present. The first was his clearance to return to work next week and coach the regular-season finale against the Texans. All year, interim coach Bruce Arians stressed making the playoffs to give Pagano a chance to coach in the postseason. The Colts can deliver on that promise if they beat the Chiefs. How can they not? The Chiefs fell off the map and are having a season much like last year's Colts did. They are 2-12 and can't pass the ball. The season is expected to cost general manager Scott Pioli and coach Romeo Crennel their jobs. This is the Chiefs' home finale. For the Colts, this game is the beginning of a new era, one in which they could make the playoffs with a new quarterback (Luck) at the helm.

6. Return of RG III: Luck and fellow rookie Russell Wilson are each one win from qualifying for the playoffs. Robert Griffin III wants to make a Rookie QB III playoff. With the help of Kirk Cousins last week, the Redskins took subtle control of the NFC East. If they win their final two, they win the division, knocking out the Giants and the Cowboys. After a 3-6 start, the Redskins are trying to become the fourth such franchise since 1990 to make the playoffs. Griffin sat out this past week with a sprained knee, but he has handled practice all week and was named the starter on Thursday. The first task is beating an underachieving Philadelphia Eagles team. Andy Reid has won five of his past seven games against the Redskins, but Griffin is creating a new slate for the Redskins. We'll see whether the slate includes the playoffs this year.

7. Romo-coaster on the upswing: The Cowboys have won five of their past six games and averaged 29.5 points a game in that stretch. Tony Romo has been hot. He's been particularly hot at home. Romo averages 346.4 yards a game at home, second best in NFL history. Because the Cowboys are playing a Saints defense that is giving up 287 passing yards a game, Romo should expect to put up great numbers. This should be one of the highest-scoring games of Week 16. Drew Brees of the Saints might be forcing too many interceptions, but you can count on him every week to throw for more than 300 yards. Take the over in this game.

Lovie Smith
Lovie Smith coached the Bears to Super Bowl XLI, but his nine-year tenure in Chicago might be ending.

8. Not a lot of "Lovie" in Chicago: It's probably a good thing the Bears finish the season on the road over the final two weeks. Things aren't going well in the Windy City. Brian Urlacher complained that Bears fans boo their own team more than any other fans in football. Lance Briggs has also been critical of the fans, many of whom are calling for the firing of Lovie Smith if the Bears don't make the playoffs. The playoffs, however, are still within reach. Despite blowing a 7-1 start, the Bears are 8-6 and finish the season with winnable games against the Cardinals and Detroit Lions. If they can get to 10-6, the Bears might be lucky enough to secure a wild-card spot.

9. Quarterback juggling: Several teams are finishing the season figuring out what they have at quarterback. Jets coach Rex Ryan benched Mark Sanchez and passed over Tim Tebow to get a look at Greg McElroy, the third-string quarterback getting his first start against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday. Originally, this game was scheduled for prime time. But both teams have played so badly that it might be better suited for Saturday morning with the cartoons. Ryan Lindley gets another start when he faces the Chicago Bears. The Cards beat the Lions last week in a game in which Detroit gave away the game like a Christmas gift. Some in Cleveland are wondering whether Pat Shurmur is getting close to benching Brandon Weeden, but Weeden gets another chance to turn around his most recent slide when he faces the Denver Broncos. Chad Henne is closing out the bad Jacksonville Jaguars season, but what chance does he face in a shootout against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots?

10. Outside looking in: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were eliminated from the playoffs this past week, and the St. Louis Rams probably will be eliminated this week. They meet Sunday in a game featuring two young teams that might show promise for next year. The Carolina Panthers and Oakland Raiders have been disappointments this season, but the Panthers are playing to see whether Ron Rivera keeps his job for next year. A win by the Panthers would make them 6-9 and give Rivera a fighting chance to come back as the coach in 2013. As for the Raiders, this game is a commitment to getting ready for the offseason. The Titans still have to determine whether Mike Munchak is the right coach after two seasons. They play the Green Bay Packers, who clinched the NFC North and would like to get a bye week. The Titans' Monday night win -- although ugly -- might have helped Munchak's job security a little. The Dolphins are still technically in the playoff race at 6-8, but they could be eliminated Sunday even if they beat the Buffalo Bills. A win would help general manager Jeff Ireland, who is expected to be back next year. Bills coach Chan Gailey probably needs a win to convince the fans he should be back.