1. Most intriguing division
There are subplots in almost every division when it comes to the playoffs but no division is like the NFC East, which has three teams still fighting for the title and a possible wild-card spot. The Eagles-Giants game at Giants Stadium Sunday night will go a long way in deciding the division champion. The Cowboys have a very tough game against the Chargers. At this point it wouldn't surprise me if the Eagles win the game and the division. The Giants, who swept the Cowboys, could be the wild card and Dallas looks destined to fall short. Keep in mind the Giants' final regular-season game is against Minnesota, which should be resting players with the No. 2 seed clinched.
|David Duprey / Associated Press|
|QB Mark Sanchez is not happy that he's sitting this week, but Jets coach Rex Ryan would rather have him healthy for the final three games of the season.|
2. Rookie QBs down, not out
Starters from Week 1, Matt Stafford of the Lions and Mark Sanchez of the Jets will not make it to the field in Week 14. Sanchez badly wants to play but Rex Ryan won't risk further injury, and Stafford has already proven his toughness, rebounding from an injury to take the field on Thanksgiving. Both young signal-callers are good enough to lead their teams but for now the best thing is to rest them and not send them into the offseason with a major injury. The Lions have a capable backup in Daunte Culpepper. "Daunte is not at his first rodeo and will do well," Lions coach Jim Schwartz told me on Thursday. Still in the playoff hunt, the Jets need Kellen Clemens to come through against Tampa Bay. Clemens has thrown just eight passes over the last two seasons.
3. Seven in, seven out
Every August, as difficult as it is to see the upcoming failures of teams and the NFL's new rising stars on Labor Day weekend, I am asked by fans to name the six teams that will miss the playoffs after making it the year before, and the six that will replace them, a trend that seems to happen every year. If the playoffs were this weekend, there would actually be seven new teams from those that made the postseason last year: New England, Cincinnati, Jacksonville and Denver in the AFC, New Orleans, Dallas and Green Bay in the NFC. The seven that wouldn't make it that did a year ago include: Miami, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Tennessee in the AFC, Atlanta, the New York Giants and Carolina in the NFC.
4. Calling all fullbacks
Some think the fullback is a dying breed in the NFL with the amount of spread pass attacks we see every week. But fullbacks still play an important role in the pro game for many teams. This week it looks like at least four teams will be without their big blocking back. Dallas (Deon Anderson), St. Louis (Mike Karney), Washington (Mike Sellers) and Tennessee (Ahmard Hall). Keep a close eye on whether these injured fullbacks play and how well, or if their absence has an effect on their team's offense.
I had a great conversation with Michael Vick on Thursday about his two-touchdown performance last week against his old team, Atlanta, as well as what this week holds for him as the Eagles prepare for the Giants. He said Andy Reid predicted last week before the Falcons game that he would score a couple of times. Vick also told me the extended playing time he received in the blowout win invigorated him, and he has been staying after practice and getting some extra throwing in with the receivers this week. Look for Philadelphia to have a very interesting package for Vick against the Giants.
|Dave Martin / Associated Press|
|Falcons coach Mike Smith knows his team probably needs to win four games to make the playoffs, and it starts with Sunday's game against unbeaten New Orleans.|
6. Big game for injury-riddled Falcons
It's hard enough to stay in the playoff race but when injuries have torn your roster apart, it's even worse. The Falcons, who finished 11-5 and in second place in the NFC South last year, have a good-looking young team and would be in decent position to grab a wild-card spot if they had enough healthy starters, especially on offense. It's possible the Falcons will be without their quarterback, running back and three offensive linemen on Sunday when they host the unbeaten Saints. With another six players already on injured reserve, this has been a bad year for Mike Smith and his team. If they could ever pull off the win over the Saints this week and get to seven wins, they would be in much better shape with the final three games against the Jets, Bills and Bucs, and they should get a number of starters back. Beating the undefeated Saints is a tall order, even though they lost 35-27 in the first meeting.
7. Hot quarterbacks
With three consecutive games in which he has thrown a combined seven touchdown passes and just one interception, Alex Smith is establishing himself as the quarterback of the future in San Francisco. Since the 49ers switched to an "11" personnel package (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers), Smith has attempted an average of 38 passes per game. This week, Smith goes up against an even hotter QB in Kurt Warner. In the last four games, Warner has 12 touchdown passes, zero interceptions and has been sacked just two times. His QB rating in that stretch is an unbelievable 132.0. This should be a very interesting game. Keep in mind the 49ers beat the Cardinals the first time in Arizona. Linebacker Takeo Spikes, whose 49ers are out of the playoff picture, told me his team is excited to play the Cardinals and prevent them from clinching the division title.
8. My favorite matchups
The Broncos-Colts game on Sunday contains three of the most intriguing one-on-one player matchups of Week 14. Broncos outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil will rush against backup left tackle Tony Ugoh. Peyton Manning is not easily rattled but Dumervil already has 15 sacks and Manning averages 39 passes a game. Don't be surprised to see Dumervil bull-rush Ugoh. On the other side of the ball, Colts pass rusher Robert Mathis goes against backup tackle Tyler Polumbus. Mathis could get to Broncos QB Kyle Orton more than Dumervil gets to Manning. Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne told me Champ Bailey used to take Marvin Harrison before Harrison retired, and he expects Bailey on him all day.
9. M*A*S*H unit getting full
This is the time of year when we see a flood of players being put on injured reserve. When the doctor says an injury will take three to four weeks to heal it makes sense for teams to just IR the player and bring up someone from the practice squad. This week, Steve Slaton, Ryan Harris, Jim Sorgi, Larry Izzo, E.J. Henderson, Oshiomogho Atogwe, Chase Coffman, and Ogemdi Nwagbuo all went on IR. Teams really like to bring practice-squad players up because once under contract they are captured for at least three years.
10. Too early to clinch?
The Colts and Saints can lock up first-round byes this weekend, and the Vikings are close to doing the same, but it is a long way to the second round of the playoffs. Football players can't really shut it down for a month and then turn it on again, but that's the challenge these teams could face. I really like Drew Brees coming out and saying he's looking to go for an undefeated season. It keeps the team razor sharp. There's an ongoing debate about what to do if a team clinches early. It will be interesting to see what the Colts do if they beat Denver on Sunday and clinch the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Three meaningless games left plus a bye means the next important game would be January 17.