JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- This has been the season of the haves and have-nots in many ways. With two unbeaten teams chasing history, and seven teams with four or fewer wins, obviously a vast chasm exists between the very best and very worst, perhaps deeper than ever before.
Less documented has been the rise of the small-market team. In a year in which the New York Giants have been erratic, the New England Patriots have looked shockingly ordinary and the Pittsburgh Steelers have completely fallen apart, the NFL's version of small or mid-major teams have found a way to thrive.
There has been something of a changing of the guard going on in 2009. We all know what the Saints have accomplished. The San Diego Chargers, who also play in an outdated facility with limited revenue streams, are the hottest club in the NFL besides New Orleans and Indianapolis. Arizona took a step back on Monday night, but the Cardinals are headed to another division title and perhaps another long playoff run. Minnesota, a team that could end up in Los Angeles in a few years if it does not get a new stadium, is making a push for a first-round bye. The Bengals went undefeated in their AFC North slate, and could advance in the playoffs.
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That's not exactly marquee markets or marquee teams. Once again, in many ways, parity is the rule and the NFL is the great equalizer. Those clubs just mentioned won't be found in the list of the highest-spending teams this decade, and many of them are among the organizations that will receive additional revenue sharing based on their more antiquated stadiums.
For years, the owners of the Cardinals (the Bidwills) and the Bengals (the Brown family) were lumped in with perennial losers, but both franchises are enjoying a renaissance. Many have wondered if the Chargers would be heading back to LA, their old AFL home, for years. Of the group, only the Cardinals have a top-notch stadium.
What they all do have in common is a star quarterback. No position is more important, and these clubs have it covered. The teams are also evidence of a growing trend where the passer and the overall skill players on offense compensate for a pedestrian offensive line. Save for the Vikings, none of those clubs have sunk an inordinate amount of resources into the line, but all are receiving solid production.
The Bengals, for instance, went into the season fretting about the loss of Stacy Andrews and the inability of first-round pick Andre Smith to get on the field. The Saints lost their starting left tackle early in the season, the Chargers have played virtually all year without their starting center, and the Cardinals have let guys like Leonard Davis leave for monster contracts elsewhere.
NFC playoff picture in focus
I love the playoff races as much as the next guy -- OK, probably more -- but I just can't drum up much drama in the NFC. The league's lesser conference is lacking gusto, again.
If the season ended today ...
Save for the three-team race in the NFC East, which to me is more like Philadelphia's division to lose at this point, there isn't much to sweat out in the final few weeks. The other three divisions are essentially over, and we all know it, with Minnesota and Arizona in great shape, and New Orleans already locking up the South.
And let's not pretend the Packers aren't a wild-card team. At 9-4, including 7-3 in the conference, and Seattle still having to travel to Green Bay, the Packers are a lock for at least 10 wins. Plus they hold a head-to-head tiebreaker over Dallas (as do the Giants). No way I'm buying that a team below .500 at this point in the season is getting into the playoffs, which leaves only the NFC East teams to sort through.
Assuming Philadelphia wins the division, I still like the Giants to join the Packers as a wild-card team. As previously noted, they swept the Cowboys and if they take care of Washington on Monday, they get Carolina at home followed by a Minnesota club that might have absolutely nothing to play for in Week 17. If that's the case, the Vikings might just opt to keep Brett Favre under wraps and take a look at Tarvaris Jackson. Dallas might not win another game this season, and even an utterly mediocre, 9-7 Giants team looks in great shape to reach the postseason.
Business at hand
The league held some football operations meetings in Dallas on Tuesday and Wednesday, with every team represented, usually by personnel guys and salary-cap people -- those who make their living every day dealing with contracts and the CBA.
The NFL briefs everyone on the current climate, how negotiations are going with the NFLPA in terms of a new labor deal, and what to brace for and expect in 2010. The word out of that meeting, according to numerous sources who attended, was the same as it has been all season -- prepare for an uncapped year in 2010.
"To me, that's not really news, because that's what they've been telling us all along," one participant said.
It is nothing new, but as we creep closer and closer to the start of free agency and the 2010 league year, it becomes all the more apparent that there will be some changes to the way teams operate next season in terms of who hits the market, how little clubs can spend, which teams get to spend big, and so on. It should be a very different free agency than what we've become accustomed to.
Picking Cutler apart
I believe at some point Jay Cutler will turn things around in Chicago. At some point the light will turn on, he will make some better decisions and become a winning quarterback. But that time is not now.
Cutler's woeful season is not all of his own making. Lack of protection, dropped passes, poor routes, wrong routes, and bad luck all have something to do with it. But man, this has been a season to forget. Cutler has now made 50 starts in his NFL career, and is 22-28. He's never played on a team that was particularly good on defense and hasn't always been blessed with much of a running game, either. While he is good enough to make serviceable receivers look pretty good, his pedestrian 83.8 career passer rating belies his talent and has as much to do with his 59 career picks in 50 starts as anything else.
This season, Cutler has been a wreck away from Chicago. He has thrown just eight touchdowns to 17 interceptions in his six road games with the Bears. Only two quarterbacks in the NFL (rookie Matthew Stafford and Jake Delhomme) have thrown more total interceptions this season than Cutler's 17 on the road. For the season, Cutler has thrown an interception on 4.8 percent of his passes, which is JaMarcus Russell territory (4.5 percent in 2009).
For his career, Cutler has thrown 30 touchdowns to 35 interceptions in 24 road games. He has a career rating of just 78.4 away from home. Against the Ravens in Baltimore's home finale Sunday -- and a defense that has been very good the last six weeks -- I just don't see that changing much. Next year, it has to.
Points of order
» I can't help but like what I see from Michael Crabtree. He has developed much quicker than I expected given how much time he missed. He has the body type to be a dominant receiver in the Anquan Boldin mold and teams are already respecting him defensively as a legitimate No. 1. He has to continue to hone his skills, route running and adjust to the mental rigors of the game. Still, with Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and Crabtree in place, and two first-round picks upcoming in the draft, the 49ers should be able to contend in the mediocre NFC sooner rather than later. ...
» The two biggest firecrackers in the league are DeSean Jackson and Chris Johnson. They are threats to take it to the house any time they get the ball in their hands. ...
» If the Baltimore Ravens don't find a way to wrap up potential free agent DE Dwan Edwards -- with Trevor Pryce and others on that line aging they would be wise to do so -- expect several 3-4 teams to have strong interest in him. I wouldn't be surprised if Green Bay let a guy like Aaron Kampman walk and took aim at Edwards in what is a very slim free-agent class. ...
» The Eagles' addition of fullback Leonard Weaver has been among the most astute in the NFL. He has been a key power runner, a stud in pass protection and has great hands as a receiver along with the ability to pick up yards after the catch. He is having an All-Pro year and I expect his role to only increase as the games become bigger. ...
» Pretty amazing that Jeremy Bridges couldn't crack Washington's weak offensive line this summer. However, the guard has given the Cardinals great production at left tackle in an emergency role the last few weeks. ...
Fourth down and 4 to go
- London Fletcher should make the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career. The ironman more than deserves it. He may not be as dynamic as Patrick Willis, but he's a sure-tackler, as smart of a middle linebacker as you will find, and he's been the linchpin in Washington's excellent defense this season. He's having a better season than anyone else on that side of the ball and serves like an extra coach on the field. He's been overlooked for too long and has never warranted the recognition more. In a game where some players have little to no desire to play in the Pro Bowl, it would mean everything to Fletcher to finally get that opportunity.
- Quirky fact: The Ravens lead the NFL with an average margin of victory of 19.6 points in their seven wins. Their average margin of defeat is just 6.0 points in their six losses, with half of those defeats by three or fewer points. They've battered the lesser teams and come up just short against the league's best.
- Am I the only one out there who can't stand that hat Tom Brady insists on wearing during interviews, the one with his interlocking initials on it? Are those things selling? People buying that stuff on eBay? I just don't see it. Maybe I'm missing something. Tweet me (@JasonLaCanfora) if I am.