- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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The fall of the NFC was hard to foresee entering the season.
In a quarterback-driven league, the NFC theoretically had the better quarterbacks. But three NFC playoff teams from 2012 -- Washington, Minnesota and Atlanta -- are 1-4. The Green Bay Packers are 3-2 but loaded with injuries.
So how has the NFC's drop off affected the remaining schedule?
Believe it or not, the Detroit Lions may have the edge in the NFC North. They have the easiest remaining schedule over the final 11 weeks, playing teams with a combined record of 22-34 (.393 winning percentage). Their remaining schedule is slightly easier than the Packers', who play teams with a .403 winning percentage.
Going into the season, NFC North teams appeared to have some of the toughest schedules in the league. The Lions, for example, had the fourth toughest based on 2012 records (.539 opponents' winning percentage). Each NFC North team had eight games scheduled against the AFC North and NFC East.
The NFC East has been the league's biggest disappointment. Outside of its divisional games, the NFC East has gone 2-12. AFC West teams have feasted on the NFC East for eight victories in nine games. Unless the NFC East improves, the Lions, who have three games remaining against the NFC East, have a chance to gain separation in the NFC North race.
Seattle and San Francisco have also benefited from declines in the two divisions on their schedules. The NFC West plays the AFC South and NFC South this year. The Houston Texans are in a free fall. The Falcons have broken down. Tampa Bay and Jacksonville are winless.
As a result, the Seahawks have the league's third-easiest remaining schedule (.404) and the 49ers are fourth (.411). If the Vikings and Giants can't turn things around, the Seahawks could end up with the easiest schedule for the entire season. Those are the two non-common games on the Seahawks' schedule, and the combined 1-10 record for the Giants and Vikings gives Seattle hope of staying ahead of the 49ers.
Overall, the decline of the NFC has significantly changed the scheduling equation. The nine easiest remaining schedules are assigned to NFC teams.
Half of the interconference games have been played (the AFC leads 19-13). But only 25 of the 96 divisional games have been played, which is why AFC teams have the toughest closing slates.
Injuries will play a big role in whether teams will bounce back from slow starts, and the list of significant injuries is growing. That's why it's hard to foresee many of the struggling teams bouncing back.
From the inbox
Q: Against the Cowboys, my Broncos showed they still have issues defending mid-to-long-range passes in the seams. It seems other teams are facing the same issue with the number of athletic tight ends out there. When a defense identifies a weakness like this, what can it do to improve?
Kyle in Wisconsin
A: If the problem is bad, the coaches might not be able to fix it until the offseason. Where the Broncos have hope is that they played the Cowboys without their best cornerback, Champ Bailey, and best defensive player, Von Miller. Miller will improve the pass rush. Bailey could take a little pressure off the secondary by matching up against good receivers. That won't completely solve the coverage problems of the safeties, but it gives the coaches better tools with which to work out the issues. Rahim Moore has been beaten on 15 of the 20 passes thrown toward him for 244 yards and two touchdowns. That has to be tightened up.
Q: Why is no one talking about the Raiders? I mean, I'm not saying they're a likely Super Bowl contender, but if I'm pegging an up-and-comer they're it. They've got a young, exciting QB who gets better every week despite an otherwise injured offense. They've got a good, developing defense. I'm not saying they even make the playoffs this year, but the Raiders are making some noise.
Parker in Seattle
A: I just saw them against the Chiefs and they have improved since the preseason. Their defense played hard. Dennis Allen did a nice job mixing defensive coverages. Terrelle Pryor played well. Still, they haven't done enough yet to draw much of a buzz. Pryor was sacked 10 times behind a horrible offensive line. The running game has struggled. A big concern is having so many players in the last year of their contracts. The Raiders have plenty of cap room, but if they don't re-sign the good players, they will regress next year. They are making progress, but they have to do something about that offensive line.
Q: The NFL wants to expand the regular season and now the playoffs to create more revenue. The players don't want to play more games, and rightfully so. The consumers don't want the playoffs expanded in fear that they will be watered down. Does this make the thought of expansion more relevant? I'm not talking one or two teams here, but more like eight. The NFL wants to expand outside of the U.S., so why not truly expand? Add four teams in Europe, and make that a division. That would eliminate a lot of the travel problems, and "expand the brand." In North America, add L.A., Oklahoma City, Calgary and Montreal. Each of those cities could support a franchise. Now there would be 10 division winners.
Chris in Pittsburgh
A: Wow. That type of expansion would totally water down the game. There aren't enough quality players to fill rosters of 32 teams. Expanding to that degree would create thin rosters that would break once a team gets five or six injuries. Owners don't want to expand. They like the 32-team format. General managers will tell you their rosters aren't 53 players strong. Depth this year is very weak. You are talking about adding 400 to 500 players to fill that big of an expansion. It doesn't work unless you want NFL Lite.
Q: In the past two years, despite poor quarterback play, I think Cecil Shorts has become a very solid receiver. With Jacksonville trading one of its better lineman already, and the team starting 0-5, why don't the Jaguars contact Atlanta to see what they can get for Shorts? With Julio Jones probably out for the year and Roddy White having his own injury issues, I think Shorts would be an outstanding pick-up with Matt Ryan throwing to him.
John in Seminole, Fla.
A: Why trade a good, young player? The Jaguars need to build talent, not unload it. I can understand the Eugene Monroe trade. He is a free agent after the season, and the Jaguars weren't going to pay him $7 million or $8 million a year to keep him. For too many years, Jaguars quarterbacks struggled because there weren't enough receivers to catch the ball. Shorts, Ace Sanders and Justin Blackmon make up a good, young trio. Now the Jaguars have to find the right quarterback to get them the ball. The Falcons, meanwhile, need to preserve draft choices to improve their roster with young players.
Q: Has the NFL considered making a change to the playoff structure? With five of the last seven Super Bowl champions playing in the first round, do you think there's a competitive disadvantage to having a bye in the first round these days?
Tyler in Santa Barbara, Calif.
A: Though it hasn't seemed to be the case in the past seven years, the bye week remains an advantage, not a disadvantage. What may have happened was the No. 1 being bloated by an easy schedule and not really being the best team in that conference. Still, changes are coming. If the NFL adds a playoff team to each conference, there will be a bye for only the top seed. If they add two playoff teams per conference, there might not be any byes. No need to mess with this now.
Q: What chance does Cam Newton have of being Josh Freeman-ed once the Panthers hire a new coaching staff? A new head coach will want to bring in his own guys. It's rare that a new coaching staff will keep the previous regime's QB, and given Newton's inability to win close games doesn't bode well for him. Freeman had a 10-6 year in Tampa, and Newton is still struggling to get the team to .500 in his third year.
Mike in Austin, Texas
A: I can't see that happening. Newton can only get better and any drop off in his play last year or parts of this year have not been as bad as Freeman's. I still think Freeman can be salvaged. A new coach would want a quarterback as talented as Newton to build around.
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