Analysis  

 

December looms large for all 32 NFL teams; 10 things to ponder

The New York Giants' season is probably over, but give them credit for one thing: Tom Coughlin is the rare coach to admit that he scoreboard-watches. In fact, Coughlin showed his team the standings each week, as a way to remind them that despite an 0-6 start, the Giants were not totally out of the race for the NFC East title.

As the NFL begins the final month of an unpredictable season, there will be a lot more peeking at playoff scenarios because December is when teams begin to build momentum for the postseason. It is no accident that every coach, from Bill Cowher to Bill Belichick, has said they want their teams playing their best in December and January. All the weeks of hand-wringing inconsistency before then are mere prologue, a very extended preseason for all but the most inept teams.

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Twenty-four teams entered Week 13 either in or within one game of a playoff spot, and the AFC crowd is as bunched up as the Black Friday opening at Macy's. Fourteen of 16 AFC teams were in or within one game of a playoff spot at the outset of this week. The real gridlock, though, is for the final wild-card spot -- the only one that is truly undetermined in the AFC, because the team that doesn't win a hotly contested AFC West race between Denver and Kansas City is practically guaranteed the first wild-card slot -- where six teams were knotted up at 5-6 entering Thanksgiving.

Dismiss that scramble of teams at your own risk. The 2005 Steelers had to win their final four regular-season games just to qualify for the playoffs, and they went on to win the whole darn thing. And the 2010 Packers got on one of those December rolls and came out of the sixth playoff seed to emerge as Super Bowl champions.

The Patriots don't have to worry about qualifying for the playoffs, but for a team with far loftier ambitions, this remains a critical stretch, especially considering their early season offensive struggles and a rash of injuries that has pockmarked the defense.

"We've been able to hang in there, even when it hasn't always looked great, but really I would say that the season for us is kind of starting now," Belichick said earlier this week. "There are a lot of teams that were in good position that wherever you are -- 7-3, 6-4, 5-5 -- there are a lot of teams that are fighting it out. What happens this year will be determined by what happens in the next five weeks. This is where this team and every other team will define itself.

"We've seen plenty of teams in the past have great regular-season records and not end up in the winner's circle. We've seen other teams be 9-7, 10-6, whatever it is and end up at the right place at the end of the year. In this league, you can't take yourself out of the race by having such a poor start that you just have too much ground to make up, but it's really the teams that play well in November, December and January, and those are the teams that are standing in the end. That's what we're going to try to do."

What the rest of us will try to do is make sense of byzantine tiebreaker scenarios. But there is plenty more intrigue still left to be resolved, even for teams already out of the race -- maybe especially for teams already out of the race. A primer on the other storylines that will dominate December:

As the coaching carousel turns ... : The arrival of Black Friday means that Black Monday -- either the worst or best day of the NFL season, depending on how you feel about authority figures -- can't be far off. It's striking how head coaches move on and off hot seats during the season like a very high-stakes game of musical chairs. That should serve as a lesson to all of us. There is no point in making a hasty judgment about a coach's future in Week 5, because an unexpected streak -- good or bad -- can alter everything. Rex Ryan's security with the Jets looked hopeless entering September. Now? Maybe not, even if they don't make the playoffs.

The coaches whose jobs likely hang in the balance this month:

» Tampa Bay's Greg Schiano, who at one point seemed in danger of losing his job during the season, might be in the process of saving it right now, especially considering words of support he received from ownership last weekend.

» Washington's Mike Shanahan, whose mystifying relationship with Robert Griffin III and how it plays out in the next few weeks almost certainly will determine his fate.

» Miami's Joe Philbin, who seems to enjoy support from ownership but has a very public scandal and a struggling team to contend with as the season concludes.

» Houston's Gary Kubiak, whose time with the Texans is probably already up after a shockingly woeful season.

The injury report has never been more important: Three teams fighting for playoff berths have arguably their best players stuck in the trainers' room. The tight NFC North race could be decided by when Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (collarbone) and Chicago's Jay Cutler (high ankle sprain) can rejoin their respective teams. Rodgers seemed closer this week -- throwing some passes in practice -- but Cutler's timeline is still murky. And as the Cowboys make a push to challenge the Eagles in the NFC East, they will need linebacker Sean Lee (hamstring) to be fully healthy. The critical date there: Dec. 29th, the final day of the regular season, when Dallas hosts Philadelphia.

Mounting QB conundrums: This already has been the year of the quarterback scramble, and not the exciting kind. But now midseason replacements are trying to nail down jobs.

Not long ago, it seemed certain the Eagles would look for a new quarterback in the offseason. Then the heretofore overlooked Nick Foles channeled his inner Tom Brady, replacing the injured Michael Vick and putting a stranglehold on the starting job by accumulating a 16-to-0 TD-to-INT ratio while leading the Eagles into the NFC East race. Foles was never anybody's idea of what Chip Kelly wanted in a quarterback. Except for maybe Chip Kelly. If Philadelphia makes the playoffs, does Kelly cast his long-term lot with Foles?

In Tampa Bay, Mike Glennon could be saving his coach's job at the same time as he secures his own. When Schiano cast Josh Freeman aside to install Glennon, it seemed more like a move to separate himself from a quarterback who was not of his choosing. Whatever the motivation, it has worked. The Bucs have won their last three games after an 0-8 start, and Glennon has thrown five touchdown passes and one interception during the winning streak. If Glennon is determined to be the quarterback of the future, then Schiano, who drafted him, is more likely to hang around, too -- even though there were much higher hopes for the Bucs coming into this season.

The trickiest decision, not surprisingly, might lie with the Jets. Rookie Geno Smith got off to an unexpectedly decent start, despite a lack of playmakers around him. But in recent weeks he -- and the Jets -- have imploded, losing three of their last four and being outscored by 79 points in the three losses, spurring the start of a quarterback controversy. With the Jets still alive for the final AFC wild-card spot, Ryan has a fraught call to make if Smith, who has thrown one touchdown pass to 10 interceptions in the last six games, struggles against the Dolphins this week and beyond. The Jets have almost no options. Matt Simms is their only healthy replacement, but he has shown even less in the NFL than Smith has. Whether or not Smith is benched in the coming weeks, if his play does not drastically improve, it will make for some sleepless nights for Jets general manager John Idzik, who drafted him in the second round. Idzik will have to decide if he should select another quarterback in the spring.

It's a lot to digest, alongside all the holiday meals. But here are 10 things to ponder in this weekend's games:

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1) Will the battle for NFC home-field advantage be settled Monday night in Seattle? Neither the Seahawks nor the Saints have lost at home, and Seattle currently holds a one-game lead for the NFC's No. 1 playoff seed. In the Saints, the Seahawks face a foe that is remarkably like themselves, with a famously undersized quarterback (Drew Brees is listed as one inch taller than the 5-foot-11 Russell Wilson) and real balance. New Orleans and Seattle are the only two teams that are ranked in the top five in both scoring offense and scoring defense.

The one potentially critical difference: The Saints are a much more dominant team at home. But on the road, they have outscored opponents just 106-101, including a two-point win over the Bucs and a six-point loss to the Jets. They average 12 fewer points per game on the road than in New Orleans. Two personnel issues to watch: 1) How much work will Seattle receiver Percy Harvin get in his second game back from a hip injury; and 2) does the pending suspension of cornerback Brandon Browner even matter to the Seahawks' defense, which ranks second against the pass? The Seahawks are 3-0 when Browner is out because of injury this season, allowing just 10 points per game. Last season, the Seahawks went 4-0 without Browner and allowed just 10.8 points per game.

2) Who are you and what have you done with the Chiefs' defense? When the Broncos and Chiefs played just two weeks ago, Kansas City entered with the league's best scoring defense, yielding just 12.3 points per game. Since then, the Chiefs are tied for the worst scoring defense, allowing 34 points per game. And in November, when they played the Bills, Broncos and Chargers, the Chiefs gave up 462.7 yards per game -- worst in the NFL. One big problem: According to Pro Football Focus, their top three cornerbacks were targeted 22 times by the Chargers last week and allowed 17 receptions for 350 yards. Injuries to Justin Houston and Tamba Hali (who hopes to play in Sunday's rematch against Denver) further complicate the Chiefs' issues. But the Broncos' offense has slowed, too. Their three lowest point totals of the season -- 27, 28 and 31 -- have come in their last three games.

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3) Which gives out first: Nick Foles' flawless play or the Arizona pass defense? Foles leads the NFL with a 128.0 passer rating (he will break Aaron Rodgers' single-season record of 122.5 if he keeps it up) and he has yet to throw an interception in 162 attempts for the Eagles this season. But the Cardinals' pass defense has been stellar, especially in the team's recent push into the NFC playoff picture. In the last four games, opposing quarterbacks facing the Cardinals have a passer rating of 64.2, and in the last 185 passes thrown by opposing signal-callers, the Cardinals have logged seven interceptions. On the season, Arizona is tied for third in the league with 15 picks.

4) Do the Colts just need to have an extra cup of coffee to avoid another slow start against the Titans, or is it the absence of Reggie Wayne that has ground the offense to a halt? Over the last four games, Indianapolis has been outscored 93-12 in the first half. And the Colts trailed at some point in the first half in seven straight games. Indy hasn't lost back-to-back games since 2011, but the team has been outscored 129-76 in the four games since Wayne suffered a season-ending knee injury. At 5-6, the Titans entered the week in the sixth AFC playoff spot, but this is the first of three straight games against opponents with winning records: at Indianapolis, at Denver, vs. Arizona.

5) Should we not get our hopes up for a quarterback shootout between the Dolphins and Jets? Ryan Tannehill and Geno Smith are two of the three most-sacked quarterbacks in the NFL (Joe Flacco is the third), and they are two of the five lowest-rated passers on throws more than 15 yards downfield. At 5-6, both teams remain in the mix for the final AFC playoff spot, but they are fading. The Dolphins have lost six of their last eight games, and their patchwork offensive line might struggle to block the Jets' dominant defensive front. Smith could be on a short leash because the Jets have been outscored 56-17 in the last two weeks, and since Week 6, Smith has been the worst quarterback in the league statistically. He has gone three straight games without completing 10 passes. The last quarterback to do that? Tim Tebow with the Broncos in 2011.

6) Whither Patriots running back Stevan Ridley? In two games against the Texans last season, he rushed for 154 yards and two touchdowns. Will he even get on the field this week in Houston after fumbling in the first quarter against Denver, his third straight game with a lost fumble? But since Week 6, he has a league-leading seven rushing touchdowns. The Patriots probably would like to get the running game going to help keep J.J. Watt from teeing off on Brady. Last season, Watt had just a half sack in two games against the Patriots. But he is second in the NFL with 37.5 quarterback knockdowns and hurries.

7) Will Cam Newton need to engineer another game-winning drive in the fourth quarter? He has done it in three straight weeks as part of the Panthers' seven-game winning streak. The Panthers' defense might give him a hand this week. The top-ranked scoring D in the league faces a Bucs offense that has averaged 29 points during its three-game win streak but still ranks 28th in scoring offense.

8) How much will receiver Michael Crabtree help San Francisco's offense? He is expected to play Sunday against St. Louis, his first game since he tore his Achilles tendon in the offseason, and Colin Kaepernick sure could use him. The third-year pro has the fewest passing yards per game in the NFL and has failed to throw for 200 yards in eight of 11 games. In the 2012 campaign, Crabtree accounted for 34.9 percent of the 49ers' targets with Kaepernick as the starter in the regular season and playoffs -- and 57.1 percent of the team's receiving touchdowns during that period.

9) Can the Redskins protect Robert Griffin III against the Giants, who have just 18 sacks this season? Griffin took a beating Monday night against San Francisco, and he has been sacked 12 times in the last three games, giving birth to a cottage industry -- dissecting why his teammates don't help him up -- and questions about if he should be benched to safeguard him with the playoffs out of reach.

10) Can the Bengals' defense slow the Chargers to keep them from becoming the third AFC West team to get in playoff position? Philip Rivers has thrown for more than 400 yards three times this season (he had 392 last week against the Chiefs), but Cincinnati has not allowed a 400-yard passer in the last 113 games. The Bengals also are the NFL's best at preventing bigger plays, allowing just 109 plays of 10 or more yards, while the Chargers are tied for fourth in producing such plays, with 167.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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