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Forget about help from other teams. What the Chicago Bears and New York Giants could use right now is the expanded playoff format.
Think about it: If the expanded playoff format that commissioner Roger Goodell proposed at the NFL owners meetings earlier this month were in effect now, the Bears and Giants would feel a lot better about their playoff chances than they do now. In the current format, the they still have very slim hopes to make the playoffs. Depending on whether the postseason field were expanded to 14 or 16 teams, one or two more teams in each conference would be added to the playoffs.
Under a 14-team playoff format, there are scenarios in which the Bears or Giants or Redskins (even if they lose to Dallas on Sunday) could get a No. 7 seed. Under that same format, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Miami Dolphins and even San Diego Chargers would have new life heading in to Week 17. None of those AFC teams, of course, deserves to be in the playoffs.
Heading into the regular season's final Sunday, the Bears are sitting in seventh place in the playoff standings, while the Cowboys are eighth and the Giants ninth.
The AFC is still sifting through which teams will be the top four seeds, but there's no drama about who will make it to the postseason and who won't. Six teams already have punched their postseason tickets. The NFC East is going down to the wire between the Cowboys and Redskins, so there's plenty of drama left in the NFC besides who's seeded where. But would it be worth it to add even more teams to the playoffs?
|Mike Shanahan was criticized for his comments after a Week 9 loss, but the Redskins haven't lost since.|
1. The Redskins' resurgence: It's worth revisiting Washington's turnaround now to demonstrate just how quickly seasons can change. After a 21-13 loss to the Panthers dropped the Redskins' record to 3-6 in early November, Washington coach Mike Shanahan held a postgame news conference that many interpreted as Shanahan waving a white flag.
"You lose a game like that, now you're playing to see who is going to be on your football team for years to come. I'll get a chance to evaluate players and see where we're at," Shanahan told reporters. "Obviously, we're not out of it statistically, but now we find out what type of character we've got and how guys keep on fighting through the rest of the season."
Shanahan was roundly criticized for his team's performance and his own comments. Washington NBC sports anchor Dan Hellie tweeted: "Wow. Mike Shanahan 'now we have a chance to evaluate players.' Translation -- season is over." Yahoo blogger Frank Schwab, who used to cover Shanahan in Denver, wrote, "Redskins season-ticket holders will be happy to know that, in their coach's mind, they're paying to see four exhibition games."
Well, tickets to the last of those exhibition games now are going for premium value. Sunday night's Cowboys-Redskins game is the most in-demand ticket in the city in years. It harkens back to the days of great Dallas-Washington matchups, with the winner claiming the NFC East title. Washington's and Shanahan's evaluations continue.
2. Overcoming obstacles: Dallas and Washington share something other than the Sunday night stage. Each was severely punished last offseason for its accounting practices during the uncapped 2010 season. Washington lost $36 million in salary-cap space over two seasons ($18 million each season) and Dallas lost $10 million in cap space.
Each team believed that Giants co-owner John Mara was largely responsible for its penalty. The Redskins taped Mara's comments to ESPN.com last spring on their doors in the days leading up to Washington's Monday night game against New York on Dec. 3.
"I thought the penalties imposed were proper," Mara said in March. "What they did was in violation of the spirit of the salary cap. They attempted to take advantage of a one-year loophole, and quite frankly, I think they're lucky they didn't lose draft picks. They attempted to take advantage of it knowing full well there would be consequences."
Now the Cowboys and Redskins can each clinch the NFC East title with a win, while the Giants need help from the Lions, Packers and Redskins to land a wild-card spot. The story that started last offseason continues; the NFLPA is suing all 32 teams for collusion and everyone is waiting to see a ruling from U.S. District Court Judge David Doty, who never has been an ally of the league. Dallas and Washington haven't given up hope of recouping some of that cap space, but until Doty rules, the bigger storyline is Sunday night's game.
3. Reid's Philly farewell: Lost in the hype of the Dallas-Washington game is the fact that Sunday is expected to be Andy Reid's final game as coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, marking the end of one of the most impressive coaching runs in the NFL, and particularly in Philadelphia.
Before Reid, who took over in 1999, the Eagles' longest-tenured head coach had been Greasy Neale, who was in charge for 10 years from 1941 to 1950. Only former Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack has had a longer run than Reid in the City of Brotherly Love -- Mack managed for a preposterous 50-year stretch from 1901 to 1950.
In this day and age of saturated sports coverage, nobody could manage/coach as long as Mack, and it will be tough for anyone else to last as long as Reid's 14 years.
Reid's selection of assistant coaches contributed to his downfall. Philadelphia struggled to replace legendary defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, and when the Eagles attempted to do it with offensive line coach Juan Castillo, they created issues in other areas.
Yet with a record of 130-92-1, Reid goes down as a Philadelphia sports legend, as unappreciated as he was underrated. Reid, 54, wants to coach next season, and he undoubtedly will draw interest. But some around the league are hoping that Reid takes a year off to spend time with his family, recharge his battery, study the game and return with a passion in 2014.
4. Record day for Peterson? Adrian Peterson's pursuit of a pair of NFL milestones comes down to the final Sunday of the season, as he faces a Green Bay Packers defense he trampled for 210 yards in Week 13. Peterson needs 102 rushing yards to become the seventh player in NFL history to reach 2,000 in a season, and 208 yards to surpass Eric Dickerson's season record of 2,105.
Peterson has received plenty of praise, and deservedly so, but some credit should also go to his offensive line and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. The Vikings' remade offensive line -- left tackle Matt Kalil, left guard Charlie Johnson, center John Sullivan, right guard Brandon Fusco and right tackle Phil Loadholt -- has performed well this season, despite starting two rookies -- Kalil and Fusco.
A line that did not hold up well last season has done just the opposite this season, giving the Vikings hope. Musgrave also deserves more credit than he has received. On a team that has a struggling quarterback in Christian Ponder and a limited passing game, Musgrave has made the calls that have helped Peterson break free. Peterson is a freak, a machine, but others have helped make his season possible.
5. The Culpepper effect: Even though Daunte Culpepper has not played in the NFL in three years, his mark on the game can still be seen. Culpepper affected the fate of franchises in Minnesota, Miami, New Orleans and Green Bay nearly as much as any player who has worn those uniforms.
Were it not for the success Culpepper enjoyed in 2004, Minnesota would have been more inclined to use one of its two first-round picks in the 2005 draft on a quarterback. Culpepper threw for 4,717 yards and 39 touchdowns, and the Vikings thought they were set at quarterback. That led them to use the seventh overall pick in 2005 on South Carolina wide receiver Troy Williamson and the 18th overall pick on Wisconsin defensive end Erasmus James. The Packers selected Aaron Rodgers with the 24th overall pick in that draft.
Culpepper struggled at the start of the 2005 season and then tore up his knee in late October, and the Dolphins traded a second-round pick to Minnesota for the then-disgruntled Culpepper instead of signing Drew Brees as a free agent. With Culpepper landing in Miami, Brees had no choice but to go to New Orleans.
Rodgers and Brees, the men whose fates are tied to Culpepper's, have combined to win two of the past three Super Bowls. Their success is an ongoing story, a reminder of how timing really is everything and why teams are wise to draft the best player available. Rodgers is now leading the Packers into a game against the Vikings (who must win in order to make the playoffs), hoping to beat the team that passed him over twice in the draft.
|Russell Wilson has a chance to replace Peyton Manning in the record book for most touchdown passes by a rookie.|
6. More rookie QB accolades: The amazing success of this year's rookie quarterbacks could become even more historical in the postseason. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, before this season, no rookie quarterback taken in the first two picks of the draft has ever started a postseason game, but this year it would happen with each of the top two picks if Robert Griffin III and the Redskins beat the Cowboys.
As it is, Indianapolis' Andrew Luck and Seattle's Russell Wilson (a third-round pick) are already set to lead their teams into the postseason. Luck and Griffin are on the verge of making playoff history, and Wilson could leave his own mark in the record book. Wilson has thrown 25 touchdown passes, one shy of the rookie record set by Peyton Manning in 1998. If Wilson can throw at least two touchdown passes against the Rams on Sunday, he'll add to the impressive list of accomplishments this year's rookie passers are compiling.
7. Jenkins' record returns: Wilson will try to capture his record Sunday against a rookie cornerback who has set marks of his own. Janoris Jenkins of the St. Louis Rams has returned three interceptions for touchdowns this season, tied for the most by a rookie in NFL history. The other rookies to accomplish the feat, Lem Barney in 1967 and Ronnie Lott in 1981, who both are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Jenkins has four interceptions in all, six total turnovers, and four touchdowns. St. Louis gambled on Jenkins, using a second-round pick on a player who had top-10 talent but dropped in the draft because of character concerns. From the moment he set foot on the field in minicamp, Jenkins' skills have shined. He has been better than the Rams thought, both on and off the field.
As good as Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David, Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner and Packers cornerback Casey Hayward have been, no defensive rookie has been better than Jenkins. He is worthy of this season's Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.
8. Give Atkins some credit: Few will vote for Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins for Defensive Player of the Year, but Atkins has been the league's best interior lineman and as much of a defensive force as anyone in the league.
In his third season since Cincinnati selected him out of Georgia in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, Atkins already has a career-high 12.5 sacks and many other plays he has single-handedly disrupted and destroyed. He had two sacks during the Bengals' playoff-clinching win over Pittsburgh. His power is impressive and he has enough quickness to do things most players can't. It's the reason he played middle linebacker in high school.
Atkins can chase, pursue and disrupt with equal success, and the one person who fought for the Bengals to draft Atkins was Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. When NFL teams interview Zimmer for head-coaching jobs in the coming days and weeks, they should remember the quality of his personnel assessments as well as the type of coach and man he is.
9. In praise of Arians: Nobody could have handled an interim head-coaching job better than Bruce Arians did in Indianapolis, where he took over for Chuck Pagano after Pagano learned he had leukemia.
For starters, Arians never moved into the head coach's office, never abandoning his assistant roots or disrespecting the man to whom the office belonged. The Colts went 9-3 under Arians, and have the AFC's No. 5 seed locked up with a 10-5 record heading into Week 17. On the day Pagano returned to work this week, he stepped to the podium at his welcome-back news conference, looked at Arians and said, "Damn, Bruce, you had to go win nine games? Tough act to follow."
Pagano wouldn't want it any other way. Arians turned himself into a worthy head-coaching candidate and Pagano got well in time to rejoin his team. Pagano is a mere 4 pounds lighter after his cancer treatments. He's at his fighting weight, ready for the rest of the season. And if the Colts can figure out a way to beat Houston on Sunday, they would give former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos a chance to become the AFC's No. 1 seed.
10. Remembering the struggles: As we look ahead to the New Year, it's time to reflect on this past year, the saddest NFL year in recent memory. The only other one that compares or exceeds it in my lifetime is 2001, when the unspeakable events of 9/11 led the NFL to wisely delay its games.
But this past season had way too much tragedy, with one sad weekend after another. It started in training camp, when Reid's son, Eagles assistant strength and conditioning coach Garrett Reid, died in a training camp dorm room, unable to beat his demons.
And the name Sandy was twice connected with sadness, with a superstorm bearing that name slamming the East Coast in October and an unthinkable series of events unfolding at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
As we turn the calendar, let's remember people in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut who lost their homes, a young woman named Kasandra Perkins, Jerry Brown Jr., and those families in Newtown who will not get to watch their children grow up.
• Game of the week: Cowboys vs. Redskins -- Tom Landry and George Allen would be proud.
• Player of the week: Bills running back C.J. Spiller -- Spiller is averaging 6.48 yards per carry, which is 0.8 more than the single-season yards-per-carry record that Jim Brown averaged in 1963.
• Upset of the week: Buccaneers over Falcons -- Atlanta has nothing to gain, so it's time to rest some players who need it, such as wide receiver Roddy White.