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Friday, November 15, 2013
NFC picking up steam

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

The biggest surprise in September was how well things started for the AFC.

After going 25-39 against the NFC in interconference play in 2012, the AFC won 10 of the first 13 games against the NFC. NFC East teams were embarrassed by the AFC West. The AFC East whipped up on the NFC South. No one saw that coming.

But the NFC has rebounded. Previously winless Tampa Bay beat the Miami Dolphins on Monday night to bring the NFC into a tie with the AFC, 23-23. Four interconference games are scheduled this weekend, but the momentum has switched to the NFC for the final 18 games of interconference play.

Seventeen of the 23 AFC interconference wins have been spread among six teams -- Kansas City, Denver, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, New England and the New York Jets. Because of those wins, those six teams are the only squads in the AFC with winning records. Those six teams are 17-2 against the NFC.

Before last year, the AFC dominated the NFC for almost two decades. By securing a better cast of quarterbacks, the NFC became the better conference. Now, after a slow start to 2013, the NFC is re-establishing itself.

Here are the top 10 trends going into Week 11.

1. Battle for the No. 1 seed in AFC: You have to go back to 1969 to see a game that featured teams with records like Kansas City and Denver. The Kansas City Chiefs are 9-0 and well-rested thanks to a bye. The Denver Broncos are 8-1. In 1969, an 11-0 Los Angeles Rams team met the 10-1 Minnesota Vikings. Though their records are close, the Chiefs and Broncos couldn't be more different in terms of styles. The Broncos rely on the mind and arm of Peyton Manning. They're on pace for an NFL-record 654-point season. Under Andy Reid, the Chiefs win with a great defense and a conservative offense. Opponents are averaging only 12.3 points a game against them. Something has to give. Will the game be high- or low-scoring? Complicating things is the right high-ankle sprain of Peyton Manning. Manning's style of play allows him to stay on the field when others would have to sit. He works roughly 70 percent of his plays from the shotgun, which allows him to play pitch-and-catch with his receivers and tight ends. As hard as the San Diego Chargers rushed him in Week 10, they got to him only five times. The Chiefs have a better pass rush and know Manning is hobbled. If the game is high-scoring, it might be hard for the Chiefs to stay with the Broncos. Chiefs QB Alex Smith primarily has only two main weapons -- Jamaal Charles and Dwayne Bowe. If they are injured or contained, the Chiefs will have difficulty moving the ball.

Josh McCown
Josh McCown has proved capable, but he isn't a long-term replacement for Jay Cutler.

2. McCown's the man, for now: Jay Cutler proved against Detroit last week that he was a fast healer. He missed only one full game with a torn groin and had a 130 passer rating and a touchdown drive in the first quarter. A high-ankle sprain in the second quarter ruined the comeback. Bears coach Marc Trestman stayed with Cutler too long. Cutler was 4-of-12 in the third quarter and his throws got progressively more off target throughout the second half. Trestman scratched Cutler on Wednesday, so Josh McCown gets the start Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens. McCown has Bears fans excited because his numbers have been slightly better than Cutler's in his short time on the field, but make no mistake -- Cutler is the Bears' franchise quarterback even though he's a free agent after the season. There is no way Trestman and the Bears can let Cutler go and give the job to a 34-year-old McCown. Before the Lions game, the Bears were averaging 29.1 points a game thanks to the improved play of Cutler. McCown has averaged 19.1 points a game in his 34 career starts. Trestman sees some Rich Gannon-type qualities in McCown. He is a decent athlete and a smart quarterback. Until Cutler recovers from the high-ankle sprain, McCown holds the playoff hopes of the Bears in his hands.

3. Grounded running games: Injuries and slumps have negatively affected the running back position. The Houston Texans' Arian Foster is out for the season after back surgery. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers placed Doug Martin and Mike James on injured reserve and have four backs out for the season. Baltimore's Ray Rice has rushed for only 289 yards and a 2.5-yard average in eight starts. The team isn't using Rice's hip flexor injury as an excuse, but something isn't right. Rice has only 48 yards after contact for the entire season. He gets slightly less than a yard (.94) for each carry after contact. It's not age. He's only 26. The Ravens travel to Chicago with their season on the line. They beat the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 10 to stay somewhat alive in the AFC North race. But a loss would put them at 4-6, pretty much out of it. Tampa Bay will have to get through the final seven games with Brian Leonard, Bobby Rainey and Michael Hill as backfield options. Ben Tate remains the Texans' starting back despite four broken ribs.

4. The playoff fringe: Figuring out the top playoff seeds in each conference isn't hard. The Seattle Seahawks, New Orleans Saints, Detroit Lions, San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers are the top contenders in the NFC, while the Chiefs, Broncos, New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts and Bengals have the best chances of making the playoffs in the AFC. Week 11, though, features teams on the fringe with records of 5-4 or 4-5 playing each other. The 5-4 Bears play the 4-5 Ravens. The 4-5 Chargers play the 4-5 Dolphins. The Cleveland Browns will see if they have playoff hopes. They are 4-5 and visit Cincinnati. These outcomes will set the stage for the final weeks of the season. Since 1990, only 7 percent of 4-6 teams made the playoffs. Teams at 5-5 have a 29 percent chance. A 6-4 team has a 63 percent chance. Plenty is at stake in many of these games.

5. Defining Sunday for San Francisco: A five-game stretch against relatively easy teams may have fooled the 49ers into believing all was well with their offense. They went 5-0 in five games in which they scored at least 30 points, tying a franchise record. Things came crashing to a halt last Sunday, when they lost to the Carolina Panthers 10-9. Colin Kaepernick is taking criticism for his completion percentage dropping from last season's 62.4 percent mark to 56.4. Against winning teams, he's 2-3, and his offense is averaging 17 points a game. If the 49ers' offense can't compete against the potent New Orleans Saints offense, the 49ers would have to give up hopes of winning the NFC West. The problem is at wide receiver, and that became clear when Vernon Davis left the Carolina game with a concussion. Kaepernick has only two true pass-catching options -- Davis and Anquan Boldin. Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham opened the season on the physically unable to perform list. Manningham has returned, but he's still getting his football legs back. Outside of Boldin, the 49ers have only 20 receptions from wide receivers not named Boldin. They cut Kyle Williams. Jon Baldwin came over in a trade from Kansas City but has been mostly inactive. Marlon Moore was tried and released. Jim Harbaugh is running out of time to fix the problem.

6. Eagles starting to soar: Nick Foles is forced to run a different version of Chip Kelly's offense than Michael Vick because he's not a great runner. When Foles runs the read-option, defenses don't worry about his running like they do Vick, who often burns opponents for 20-plus-yard runs. Where Foles has succeeded in the scheme is in making quick decisions. In the past two games, he has seven touchdown passes on balls thrown at least 15 yards, bringing his season totals to 16 touchdown passes and no interceptions. Plus, somehow, the Philadelphia Eagles climbed back into the playoff race. Despite a winless record at home, the Eagles are 5-5 and tied with the Dallas Cowboys for first place in the NFC East. They host the Washington Redskins on Sunday in what may be a favorable matchup for the Eagles because the Redskins struggle against fast-paced attacks. Conversely, the Eagles' defense has struggled against every quarterback it's encountered this year, allowing more than 300 yards a game through the air. Buckle up, this could be a high-scoring game.

Scott Tolzien
The Packers are asking Scott Tolzien to keep them afloat while Aaron Rodgers heals.

7. Can Tolzien save the Green Bay Packers?: Things are a mess for the Packers. They are starting their third quarterback in three weeks, and the past two didn't take part in Packers training camp because they were on different teams. The Packers are 5-4, just trying to survive in the playoff race. Mike McCarthy wasted no time figuring out last Sunday night that Scott Tolzien was his quarterback for this week's contest against the New York Giants. Last week's starter, Seneca Wallace, suffered a groin injury in the first quarter that eventually landed him on the injured reserve list. Tolzien, a practice squad player the previous week, picked up the offense pretty well and kept the Packers competitive. But now, McCarthy has to see if Tolzien can win a game with Tom Coughlin and the Giants having a full week to prepare for him. Aaron Rodgers is hoping to be back for the Thanksgiving game against Detroit, but in the meantime, the Packers are hoping Tolzien can keep them afloat. Former Rodgers backup Matt Flynn is another option.

8. Minnesota Vikings visit Vikings West: For whatever reason, the Seahawks seem to like Minnesota's staff and players. Former Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell calls plays for the Seahawks. They traded for WR Percy Harvin in the offseason and in the past have signed Sidney Rice and Tarvaris Jackson. Still, this week's reunion may lack excitement. Rice is on injured reserve, Jackson is a backup and there's no guarantee Harvin, who just started practicing after having hip surgery during the summer, will be active. And the Vikings come in with a 2-7 record and a banged-up Christian Ponder at quarterback. Ponder hopes to be able to play despite a dislocated left shoulder. All the Seahawks are looking to do is come away with a home win, hit the bye week at 10-1 and start getting ready to try to clinch home field in December.

9. Contender or pretender? Several teams will get a chance to prove they're a playoff threat this week. After 10 weeks, the New York Jets hold the sixth seed in the AFC. Of course, only six teams in the AFC have winning records, so that might not be saying a lot. Still, Rex Ryan has done a remarkable job with this team. An already strong defense added Ed Reed Thursday as a playmaker and role player in the secondary. Geno Smith is 5-4 as a starter with four fourth-quarter comeback wins. And the Jets play a Buffalo Bills team that is trying to regroup around EJ Manuel, who looked rusty last week after returning from a knee injury that sidelined him for four games. The loser of the Miami-San Diego game will be unofficially dubbed a pretender because that team would drop to 4-6. In light of the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito incident, head coach Joe Philbin and general manager Jeff Ireland can't afford to have this season go into the tank or they may lose their jobs. At 4-5, the Cleveland Browns have one last chance to make a statement that they could be a contender. They visit the Cincinnati Bengals, who lead the AFC North with a 6-4 record.

10. Ready for prime time: The selection of Carolina and New England for Monday night's contest was a curious one. For ESPN, it was a chance to get the New England Patriots, normally a hard acquisition because they are such a great draw -- on air. ESPN gambled on the Panthers because of Cam Newton and the excitement he brings to the field. The network might have come up big because the Panthers are one of the hottest teams in football over the past month. Ron Rivera has turned around the defense and has put together perhaps the best front seven in football. The Panthers have won five straight, yielding a paltry 12.8 points a game, and opponents are getting only 283 yards a game against them. According to ESPN Stats & Information, when rookie defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short are on the field together, running backs are getting only 1.2 yards per carry before contact. When one is off, the number goes to 2.2. When both are off the field, backs get 3.8 yards per carry. It looks like this game will be a nice challenge for Tom Brady and his young offense.