Commentary

Late divisional games benefit league

Goodell's plan for more division games in the final two weeks is a success

Originally Published: December 21, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Heading into the final two weeks of the regular season, 22 teams are still officially in the playoff hunt and five spots remain.

So does Roger Goodell's plan for pushing most of the division games to the end of the season work?

Possibly. Goodell put 26 of the 96 divisional games in the final two weeks in order to promote tighter divisional races and minimize chances coaches will rest starters for the playoffs. With only six divisional games per team to spread over 17 weeks, I look at the problem as impossible to fix.

Under Goodell's plan, four of the eight divisional races are wrapped up while races in the NFC East and AFC West could go down to the final week. Still, coaches will rest key players to save them for the postseason.

Now that the Packers can't have a perfect season, and as long as they clinch home-field advantage this week, there is no reason to risk Aaron Rodgers to injury in the season finale against Detroit. The Packers are down three offensive tackles. Rodgers was the target of too many hits because of protection breakdowns Sunday in Kansas City after Bryan Bulaga and Derek Sherrod went down.

If the Saints can't catch the 49ers for the No. 2 seed, Sean Payton won't risk losing Drew Brees to an injury in Week 17.

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez, Jarvis Moss
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesMark Sanchez and the Jets have found it tough going outside of the AFC East.

The concern I had about clumping too many divisional games at the end of the season is differences created by the out-of-division schedules. For example, the Patriots played the fifth-easiest out-of-division schedule and went 8-2. The Jets played a much tougher out-of-division schedule and went 5-4 -- one of the reasons the Patriots clinched early.

Good teams usually go 8-2 or better in nondivisional games because they are harder to prepare for on a one-time basis. The Colts used that formula for years with Peyton Manning. Look at this season. Of the teams with 10 or more wins, four are 8-2 or better outside the division -- Green Bay, New Orleans, New England and San Francisco. The Steelers are 7-2.

Of that group of teams, the 49ers are the only team that didn't have a non-divisional schedule that ranked among the 10 easiest.

Regardless, the plan seemed to work out this season.

From the inbox

Q: It's time for all of you sportscasters-writers to reopen the quest for NFL MVP between Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. Almost all of you gave it to Rodgers after Week 2. Brees is setting records every week and is going to set a lot more. He is more important this year to his team than Rodgers. The voters have screwed Brees in 2006, 2008, 2009 and seem intent on doing it again this year. Please take a close look at this issue. In previous years Brees has clearly outplayed Tomlinson in 2006 and Manning in 2008 and 2009, yet he did not cash in. Do not let your co-voters do it again. Please how can a quarterback that is soon to own all the passing records in the NFL have never won an MVP? Think about that a bit.

James in Biloxi, Miss.

A: I will think about it, but you still have to go to Rodgers. The Packers are 13-1 with Rodgers. The Saints are 11-3 with Brees. Plus, Rodgers beat Brees in the season opener. Stats are great, but this is a bottom line game and the bottom line still favors Rodgers.

Q: I'm curious if you think that the NFL will permit coaches to challenge penalties. And I'm also curious why they aren't currently permitted to challenge penalties. I ask this because it would certainly even out some of these terrible calls on defenders when they hit the QB, such as in the Patriots-Redskins game in which the 'forearm to the head' was nonexistent and everyone in the stadium knew it was a bad call. If every scoring play is reviewed, why not every penalty?

Zac in Portland, Ore.

A: If you challenge penalties to go with calls, the game will go on forever, and the league will never let that happen. To include penalties, you'd almost have to give coaches more challenges during games, and that won't happen either. The NFL believes officials should make judgment calls and only use replays to fix obvious mistakes. Penalties are judgment calls. The NFL likes three-hour games. Too many replays slow the flow of games. Fans don't pay top dollar to watch officials poke their heads under a hood to see a replay.

Q: Not that I'm in favor of the new overtime rule in the playoffs, but is there any talk about approving it for the regular season next year? Would prefer your suggestion of adjusting the kickoff spot for OT, if something must be done.

Fred in Tampa, Fla.

A: The NFL will talk about using the playoff overtime rule in the regular season, but I don't see enough support for it to be voted in. There hasn't been one complaint this season about overtime. The two-possession rule can work in the playoffs because you can go extra overtime periods if necessary. Remember, the current overtime rule was installed to limit the chances of ties. That's worked beautifully.

Q: Can you tell me why no one talks about Matthew Stafford as a top QB? I know people think all his success is because of Calvin Johnson but that's not the whole story. He has the fifth most passing yards in the NFL behind Brees, Tom Brady, Rodgers and Eli Manning.

Steven in Brick, N.J.

A: I have to make a decision after the season whether to make Stafford an elite quarterback. Do you do that with just one great season? Clearly, he's played like an elite quarterback this season. His comebacks from 13 or more points down have been incredible. His stats match up with the top quarterbacks. I might lean to giving him elite status. He's earning it.

Q: I have to admit that I do not agree with your statement "The NFL has 10 African-American head coaches. The Rooney Rule is working." I would think the 10 coaches you mention were hired on their personal merits, professional job credentials, experience and ability to interview well for an extremely difficult public management position. Not because a rule required teams to let them get "a foot in the door." The rule seems a formality at best, as teams will fulfill their obligation to the rule and hire the candidate they think most qualified for the job. Thoughts?

Jacob in Balneario, Camboriu, Brazil

A: Before the Rooney Rule, African-Americans didn't get interviews for head-coaching openings. They couldn't get their foot in the door. Even worse, they weren't getting chances as coordinators to get the chance to advance into head-coaching consideration. No owner is forced to hire a minority, but they should be forced to interview the best and the brightest. It's not perfect, but it's working.

Q: John, Miami has stubbornly foregone drafting a quarterback for many years and have suffered as a result. (Just look at the great transition that the Packers enjoyed from Favre to Rodgers. Definitely didn't happen after Marino.) From which spot do you think the Dolphins will draft next year? Do you think they'll finally bite the bullet and draft a QB in the first round, or are they going to be stubborn again?

Brandon, Valparaiso, Ind.

A: As it stands now, the Dolphins draft eighth. That gives them two options. They might get lucky and have Robert Griffin III fall to them. If not, they are close enough to try to work out a trade with the Rams or the Vikings to move up into the No. 2 or No. 3 spot to get Griffin or Matt Barkley. It's time. We heard this same complaint about the Bears until they made the trade for Jay Cutler. With Cutler, they went to a conference championship game. It's time for the Dolphins to be bold and get the right quarterback.

Q: John, writing you regarding the Browns' excuse about their medical staff not knowing how bad the hit was on Colt McCoy. Here is a way to fix that. With technology today -- Apple iPad, Cisco CIUS tablet -- each team should have one so they can review all injuries, not just hard hits, to see what happened. This way they can determine the severity of the hit or injury. They can store past history of all players and keep track of their injuries throughout the year and then submit something to the league within minutes or, vice versa, the league can communicate with the medical staff immediately. Suggest this to the league.

Michael in Boston, Mass.

A: The technology has allowed that to happen. For example, the league put all of the hits on kickoffs together on tapes and that eliminated the wedge from the kickoffs. Too many players suffered career-ending neck injuries and concussions from wedge-busting plays. Thanks to the Browns' blunder, more eyes will be on players who have a chance of suffering concussions. The Browns suffered a major system breakdown on the sideline. While you can't say it won't happen again, the incident involving McCoy sparked more opportunities for concussions to be detected. Out of the McCoy hit, certified trainers will be in press boxes watching for such plays. The next step is having independent doctors on the sidelines making decisions about who can continue playing.

Q: I keep hearing that Josh McDaniels is Chiefs GM Scott Pioli's top choice to succeed Todd Haley. My question is how could Pioli possibly sell this to a fan base as an improvement over Todd Haley? I believe Haley was a good coach and that this team without Jamaal Charles, who clearly was the focal point of the offense, or Eric Berry is overachieving at this point at 5-8. If McDaniels is hired there will be huge fan backlash. This team is a good quarterback and nose tackle away from being a perennial playoff team, especially in a weak AFC West. Hopefully the reports are wrong. I'd like to see Jeff Fisher in KC red.

Nick in Overland Park, Kan.

A: Having spent the weekend in Kansas City, I get the feeling Romeo Crennel will get the job. If Steve Spagnuolo is fired in St. Louis, then Josh McDaniels can move to Kansas City and reunite with Matt Cassel and possibly Kyle Orton if the Chiefs re-sign him. That would be much more sellable. But Crennel has brought calm to what had been a turbulent season for the Chiefs. Players like him. Management likes him. He's the perfect fit.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter @ClaytonESPN

John Clayton

NFL senior writer