With the NFL season nearly three quarters completed, more than half the league might be nearing the end of the race to the playoffs. Some teams are still fighting for their playoff lives, while others are putting their postseason hopes in the hands of backup quarterbacks.
The first coach firing just happened in Jacksonville, and many are wondering about the ripple effect. Tim Tebow continues to defy the odds. The Packers look unbeatable. Yet, could there be a dark horse in this playoff race?
1. An extension for Tebow Time?
Tebow doesn't really do anything like other NFL quarterbacks. Broncos coach John Fox made a great point to me this week when he said, "No team we study on tape is playing against an offense like ours, so we're not sure how they intend to play against us until the game starts."
That might explain the very slow starts by the Broncos. Under the direction of Tebow, the team has scored more touchdowns in the fourth quarter than they have in the other three quarters combined. Fox also pointed out that he has no problem with Tebow carrying the ball 20-plus times because, as he said, "Tim is bigger than any of our running backs and he has a physical style."
CBS analyst and former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason calls him "Peyton Hillis at quarterback." The Broncos take to the road against the Vikings this weekend, and Tebow is 4-0 as a starter on the road. He also leads the No. 1 rushing attack in the NFL. The Vikings are probably without Adrian Peterson and the Broncos defense will get after rookie QB Christian Ponder. It looks like the legend of Tebow continues.
2. Last roadblock for Pack attack?
The Green Bay Packers are on a 17-game winning streak and look unstoppable with Aaron Rodgers throwing at least two touchdown passes per game this year. Rodgers -- who has 33 TD passes to just four interceptions -- does take sacks, and when I looked at the schedule earlier in the year the Week 13 game against the Giants in New York looked like the biggest stumbling block to an undefeated season.
Remember when the undefeated Broncos led by John Elway came in to play the Giants with a 12-0 record and lost? Could the Giants do it again? Not after watching them fail to sack Drew Brees last week, and not after realizing the Giants' pass rush has five sacks in the last 110 pass plays.
Rodgers takes a sack once every 14 pass attempts and still wins, so unless the Giants rediscover their once-mighty pass rush the Pack attack rolls on.
3. Many teams calling on backup QBs
It always amazes me when good backup quarterbacks are available, but not many teams reach out and pay to get one. Sooner or later, starting quarterbacks in this league go down with injuries and the fate of the franchise rests on the arm of the backup.
The Texans are trying to stay in the top spot of the AFC South and win the division for the first time in franchise history. That challenge became more daunting now that Houston is on its third-string quarterback and a fourth option is in the wings.
Chicago, Kansas City and Miami will all have backups on the field this weekend, while Arizona gets its starter Kevin Kolb back. A total of 62 quarterbacks have thrown passes in games so far this season, which averages out to just under two quarterbacks per team with five games to go.
4. Playing the spoiler role
A month ago, I declared the Carolina Panthers and the Miami Dolphins as my favorite teams to play the spoiler role down the stretch. The Panthers can knock Tampa Bay's slim playoff dreams right off the table this week. Carolina coach Ron Rivera and I talk every week, and he is very excited about the progress his team is making. The Panthers are a dangerous team.
The Buccaneers won 10 last year and are very disappointed with their five-game losing streak. The Bucs have problems on defense, dropped passes on offense and a quarterback who is struggling. The Panthers lead the NFL in explosive plays (more than 20 yards), and Cam Newton is three rushing touchdowns away from the all-time record for quarterbacks. The Buccaneers are giving up 395 yards a game and the Panthers are starting to feed the ball to DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart more. Can the weak Panthers defense contain Bucs running back LeGarrette Blount and shake off a 1-12 road record over the past two years to put a dagger in the Bucs' season?
Miami is perfectly positioned to cause some real damage to AFC West-leading Oakland. Since Matt Moore took over at QB for the Dolphins, he has raised the point totals from 15 to 26 per game. Carson Palmer has to be careful around a Dolphins defense that has at least two interceptions in each of the last three games.
Oakland's three-game win streak is on the line with a trip across the country. Since 2002, the Raiders are 7-20 on the East Coast.
5. Dark horse for the playoffs
If the postseason started today, here are the teams that would be in the playoffs:
» NFC 1. Green Bay, 2. San Francisco, 3. New Orleans, 4. Dallas, 5. Chicago, 6 Atlanta
» AFC 1. Houston, 2. New England, 3. Baltimore, 4. Oakland, 5 Pittsburgh, 6. Cincinnati
Who is on the outside looking in with the best chance to make it? The realistic candidates are Denver, the N.Y. Jets and Tennessee in the AFC, and Detroit and the N.Y. Giants in the NFC. For me, the dark horse from this group is Tennessee.
Matt Hasselbeck led the Seahawks to the playoffs last year with a late run. Chris Johnson looked like his old self last week with 190 yards rushing. The Titans already beat the Broncos, and they have games left against the Bills, Colts, Jaguars and Texans at the end of the season. The Texans might have clinched by then and could be resting.
6. What does firing coaches now accomplish?
The Jacksonville Jaguars fired coach Jack Del Rio, as well as wide receiver coach Johnny Cox, this week. The Colts fired defensive coordinator Larry Coyer. Others will follow for sure, but what is the point of such moves this late in the season? The Colts defense will not be any better against the New England Patriots, in fact it should be worse. As for the Jaguars, Del Rio knew he was a dead man walking all year, but always took the high road when discussing the team and his future.
There is more blame to go around and there's also a rookie quarterback on the field. The timing was bad, to say the least, and don't expect much improvement Monday night when the Chargers come to town.