Commentary

Playoff atmosphere? More like play-in

Cowboys or Giants will win the disappointing NFC East, but can either go far in playoffs?

Originally Published: December 29, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The NFL couldn't be happier to see the New York Giants playing the Dallas Cowboys in a make-or-break game.

The NFC East has always been a big national draw. The Cowboys and Giants are two of the more marketable franchises in the NFL. Their games draw big ratings. Both teams have top quarterbacks, Tony Romo and Eli Manning.

Yet based on how this season has gone, this Sunday night is more of a play-in game than a playoff preview. This is obviously more significant than obtaining the last spot in the NCAA basketball tournament, but you don't get the feel that the winner can generate a deep playoff run.

The NFC East has been the most disappointing division in football. Everything was set up for the NFC East to have three 10-win teams, much like the NFC South of 2010. The NFC East was playing the NFC West, a long-struggling division that had two teams changing quarterbacks. NFC East teams figured to go 3-1 or 4-0 against the NFC West.

The Cowboys and Redskins each went 3-1 against the West, but the Giants and Eagles combined for 3-5 records. The Giants are 3-4 in home games and the Cowboys are 5-3 at home.

And both defenses underachieved. Problems in the Cowboys' secondary have them 14th for yardage allowed while the Giants are a horrible 28th.

The NFC East champion will be a disappointing 9-7. The winner of this game will play either the Falcons or the Lions and will struggle to stop either offense.

Still, it will be fun to see Manning duel Romo. This has been a great year for Manning. He's the best fourth-quarter quarterback in football. Romo has battled injuries and has been heroic at times -- and the goat at others.

Romo enters this game with a swollen right hand that could cause him problems gripping the football. His injury could cause one mistake that may give the edge to Manning, especially if the game is decided in the fourth quarter.

Here are the 10 things to watch this week:

[+] EnlargeKyle Orton
AP Photo/Ed ZurgaKyle Orton has an opportunity to make Denver regret releasing him.
1. Should the Broncos have kept Kyle Orton? Broncos vice president John Elway thought he was doing the right thing when he released Kyle Orton, the starting quarterback who lost his job to Tim Tebow. First, he could save the franchise money by releasing Orton, who was clearly going to be claimed. Second, he sensed Orton's frustration sitting behind Tebow, who wasn't a 50-percent thrower. What Elway didn't figure was that Orton would end up with the Kansas City Chiefs and be in position to derail the Broncos' unpredictable playoff run. Orton has thrown for 299 and 300 yards in his two starts for the Chiefs. Until Orton replaced Tyler Palko as the starter, the Chiefs were easy prey.

Orton could go into Denver and beat Tebow. Orton was the better quarterback in training camp and is the more conventional pocket passer. But even as the starter, Orton knew the fans wanted Tebow. He felt the pressure, and it showed in his play. Orton's a fascinating story. Had he fallen in the waiver claims to Chicago, the Bears might have stayed in the playoff race after Jay Cutler broke his thumb. He could have helped the Cowboys when Romo was hurt. The Chiefs had priority waiver powers at that time, and although they are out of the playoff hunt, they would love to ruin the Tebow show for Broncos fans. It will also be interesting to see what defense interim head coach Romeo Crennel uses against Tebow. Last Saturday, the Bills came up with a 60-minute game plan that featured more man pass coverage and make it tougher for Tebow to complete passes. Crennel showed two weeks ago against the Packers that the Chiefs have the man-to-man skills to frustrate a top offense.

2. Will the Chargers care enough to ruin the Raiders' season? Everyone in the Chargers' locker room knows Sunday will be Norv Turner's last game as head coach. Even if A.J. Smith is retained as general manager, Turner will be fired. Will the Chargers put up a great effort knowing a coaching change is coming? The Chargers looked lost on defense last Saturday in a blowout defeat to the Detroit Lions. A win could have saved Turner's job. There is enough hatred in the Chargers-Raiders series to inspire the Chargers and knock the Raiders out of the playoffs. The Raiders have to win and the Broncos have to lose for the Raiders to win the AFC West. Head coach Hue Jackson gambled the future of the franchise by trading two prime draft choices to acquire quarterback Carson Palmer at midseason after Jason Campbell broke his collarbone. Palmer has been up-and-down as a starter. He's thrown 15 interceptions in his nine games for the Raiders. To finish 8-8 and out of the playoffs would be a major disappointment for Jackson and the Raiders.

3. Two-for-one sweepstakes in Cincinnati: Because 20,000 seats remain unsold for the Bengals' finale, the Brown family created a two-for-one ticket deal to try to fill Paul Brown Stadium for Sunday's game against the rival Baltimore Ravens. A Bengals victory would give them a No. 6 seed as a wild card. If the Steelers beat the Browns and the Bengals win, the Steelers would win the AFC North and the Ravens would be a wild card again. Several Steelers fans who couldn't get tickets for the Browns-Steelers game in Cleveland bought Bengals tickets to cheer against the Ravens. Don't count out the Bengals in this game. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, a former Ravens defensive coordinator, knows how to beat the Ravens. He's built his team to have man-to-man pass coverage ability, which gives the Ravens' offense problems and usually creates lower scoring games. Lewis has won five of his past six at home against the Ravens.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe Steelers want to use Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday against the Browns -- sparingly.
4. Risking further injury to Roethlisberger: Wisely, the Steelers kept Ben Roethlisberger and his left high-ankle sprain out of last Sunday's game against the St. Louis Rams. The Rams were predictably bad, so the Steelers were confident they could beat them with backup Charlie Batch. Roethlisberger is practicing this week, and the Steelers want to use him at least 25 plays against the Cleveland Browns. Sam Bradford of the Rams came back and played twice on a similar high-ankle sprain and only made the injury worse. The Steelers know Roethlisberger could help them win the division and get a bye if the Steelers beat the Browns and the Ravens lose to the Bengals. Despite the risk, the Steelers are thinking about rolling the dice.

5. Little chance of change for the NFC's No. 2 seed: The NFL dangled the chance of moving the Saints-Panthers game to 4:15 Eastern if the Falcons beat the Saints on Monday night. The Saints won, and the league decided to keep the Saints at the same time slot as the 49ers-Rams game. That keeps the NFC No. 2 seed in play and promotes the idea of playing starters instead of resting them for the playoffs. Saints coach Sean Payton will be watching the scoreboard closely, because once the 49ers take a big lead, he can pull starters, knowing the 49ers will clinch the bye week and the No. 2 seed. The Rams are hopeless. Steve Spagnuolo is expected to be fired this week. His 10-37 record is the worst in the league over the past three seasons. He brought in Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator and turned a developing offense into one of the worst in football. The Rams are down two injured quarterbacks (Bradford and A.J. Feeley) and will go with Kellen Clemens on Sunday. On Dec. 4, the 49ers blanked the Rams 26-0. The Saints know the Rams won't help them out much Sunday.

6. The Luck Sweepstakes: People wondered whether teams would tank the season in order to have the No. 1 pick in the draft and be in position to select Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. That didn't happen. The Colts went 0-13 before winning their last two games. The Rams are 2-13, but they already have a quarterback, so they aren't trying to get Luck. The amazing twist to Sunday's Jacksonville-Indianapolis game is that it might serve the Jaguars to tank the game so the Colts don't get Luck. All the teams in the AFC South have watched the Colts dominate the division with Peyton Manning behind center. The last thing an AFC South team would want is Manning and Luck in Indianapolis. In a quarterback-driven league, the Colts could dominate the division for another decade. Should the Colts win, the Rams could be in position to get two or three possible first-round choices from teams trying to trade for Luck. If the Jags lose, the rest of the AFC South might be considered the lucky winners.

7. Needing a break: The New York Jets and Tennessee Titans need the Bengals to lose to keep their playoff hopes alive. Both teams want to finish the season with a victory to be 9-7 with a prayer. Both have decent chances of winning. The Titans travel to Houston to face the Texans, whose fate doesn't change whether they win or lose. They will be the No. 3 seed and play next week in the playoffs. They will give wide receiver Andre Johnson 10 to 15 snaps to get back in shape after missing nearly a month with his second hamstring pull of the season. The Titans plan to expand a three-receiver package that worked well last week against the Jaguars. The Jets travel to Miami frustrated with last week's loss to the Giants. Plenty of fingers have been pointing at Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer for declines in the Jets' offense. Sanchez will stay, but there might be a change in offensive coordinators. Rex Ryan kept talking about winning the Super Bowl. It's tough to realize that this was a season in which the team wasn't good enough to make the playoffs.

8. Taking a breather: The Packers finish the season against the Lions knowing they are the No. 1 seed. They will have the luxury of resting starters. The offensive line is banged up, and head coach Mike McCarthy doesn't have to risk injury to quarterback Aaron Rodgers by playing him the entire game. Rodgers may not play at all. The Patriots are in a different position. They need to beat the Buffalo Bills to clinch the No. 1 seed, so they probably need to play Tom Brady until they have a big enough lead to pull starters. Regardless, both teams know they will have next week off to get injured players healthy again.

[+] EnlargeNnamdi Asomugha
Drew Hallowell/Getty ImagesThe addition of Nnamdi Asomugha was supposed to help the Eagles reach the Super Bowl, but it didn't work out that way.
9. Figuring out what went wrong: The Chicago Bears play the Minnesota Vikings and the Washington Redskins visit the Philadelphia Eagles in season finales for teams that have had head-scratching years. What went wrong? The Eagles were supposed to be a dream team. They paid $12 million a year to bring Nnamdi Asomugha to their secondary, yet he was beaten out by a $375,000 first-year player (Brandon Browner of the Seahawks) for first alternate honors on the NFC Pro Bowl team. Redskins coach Mike Shanahan told the world that John Beck was better than most of the quarterbacks available in the 2011 draft. After a couple of starts and many complaints from Redskins players, Beck was benched and Shanahan went to Rex Grossman, who is an interception machine. After a 7-3 start, the Bears lost Cutler to thumb surgery and haven't won since. The Vikings fell apart this year faster than their stadium roof last season. They are 3-12, and the season has been a disaster.

10. Finishing strong: Though this may not be big nationally, the Cardinals-Seahawks game will produce an 8-8 team, something no one expected at midseason. The Cardinals were 1-6. To get to 8-8 despite losing their quarterback (Kevin Kolb) to concussion problems is a major accomplishment for head coach Ken Whisenhunt. Pete Carroll and the Seahawks rebounded from a 2-6 starter and came up with a formidable running attack and a tough defense. Whichever team is 8-8 will have momentum going into next season. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers close out their season against the Atlanta Falcons with the chance head coach Raheem Morris will be fired next week. The Bucs have lost nine in a row and have been mostly uncompetitive in the second half of the season. The Falcons will use this game to try to get to 10 wins and tune up for the wild-card round.

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

John Clayton

NFL senior writer