Judy Battista highlights the storylines and factors to pay attention to in Week 15, beginning with a division marked by futility and continuing below with 10 more things to watch.
It took just a few hours Tuesday to sum up the chaos and confusion, the tension and bad karma that has enveloped the NFC South this season. From the first frightening pictures of Cam Newton's truck tipped on its side to the late-afternoon word of a series of meetings in New Orleans -- one of which involved the reported benching of a recent first-round draft pick -- a divisional race that will be won by the least-mediocre team was upended yet again by misfortune and desperation.
That it all happened less than 24 hours after the division-leading Atlanta Falcons fell to the Packers in a Monday night game during which they trailed 31-7 at halftime -- as true an NFC measuring stick as is possible to find with three weeks left in the season -- seemed to underscore the depths, along with the lousy defenses, brutal offensive lines and complete absence of consistency, to which the NFC South has sunk.
Somebody is going to win this division, though, and until Newton suffered two transverse process fractures in his back in the aforementioned accident, it seemed the Panthers -- who blew the doors off the Saints on Sunday to precipitate Tuesday's massive Big Easy makeover -- were best positioned to unearth a title from what has looked a lot like a trash heap this season. Carolina has just four wins right now, but no matter; the Panthers are just a half-game back of the Falcons and Saints. Unless those two teams can capture their final three games -- which would mark the first three-game winning streak for either team this season -- the NFC South champion will come with a cringe-worthy footnote: It will be just the second team to win a division with a losing record in NFL history. The first was the 2010 Seattle Seahawks, a group so unimpressive at 7-9 that most of the fans who participated in a Seattle Times poll just before the final contest of that regular season preferred the team lose, to preserve its draft position.
Players, not surprisingly, do not share that bleak view of even a slightly sullied division title.
"It's extremely motivating," Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said this week. "That's what you play for. Every year, teams put up, in the offseason, their team goals; the first one is to win their division. That's across the board. Somehow, things obviously haven't gone well for really any of us, generally speaking, in the division, but we find ourselves still in the hunt. It's a little unconventional and it's not typical of the NFC South, but it is what it is right now, and we're not going to apologize, and we're going to continue to try to win each game. That's been our approach all season."
But the NFC South champs will also host a playoff game, and that will surely restart the debate about re-seeding the playoffs so that -- in a scenario that could very well happen -- a 10- or 11-win wild-card team doesn't have to go on the road against a seven-win divisional champion. This conversation flares up periodically around this time of year, most recently last season, when the Saints and 49ers both had to go on the road as wild-card teams to face division-winning foes with inferior regular-season records. The conversation promptly died down when the Saints and 49ers both won, destroying the idea that the superior team is put at an insurmountable disadvantage when it has to work out of the visitors' locker room.
Besides, owners have shown little willingness to overhaul the system on the occasions they have considered re-seeding in the past. They see a home game as a reward for fans and teams for winning the division, and they worry that if the home game is removed, winning the division would become less important than having a dominant conference record, which might in turn diminish the importance of the traditional rivalries that fuel so many divisional games. The last time re-seeding was seriously considered was in 2008, when the Competition Committee put forth a proposal that would have opened the door for wild-card teams to host games if they finished with better records than the third- or fourth-seeded teams. There was so little interest from ownership that the proposal was withdrawn before a vote could even be taken.
And even the NFC South is probably not bad enough to change that.
"I think it will reignite some discussion, but am not sure there will be 24 votes to change the status quo," Giants president John Mara, a member of the Competition Committee, said this week. "There have been no discussions so far to my knowledge. I assume the Competition Committee will address this in February, but again, it takes 24 votes to change, and I just don't know if that is realistic."
Since the NFL went to the eight-division format in 2002, a division has been won three times by a team with an 8-8 record or worse. In all three cases, the division champion won its first playoff game. One of those teams was the 2008 San Diego Chargers, who went 8-8, won the AFC West and then beat the Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs. Panthers coach Ron Rivera was the defensive coordinator for the Chargers then.
"We are very fortunate," Rivera said. "We understand the situation. And it happens every year -- one of the divisions are down. I don't know if you can say 'down' as much as, 'They've played some tough competition, they've had some bad things happen, some unfortunate things.'
"So it's not like teams that get in with records like that don't deserve to be in it if they're going to go around and win their first-round game," Rivera continued. "I mean, that just makes sense to me, that it's about the division and who wins the division, and that's why it's set up the way it is. Wild-card teams have gone on and won the Super Bowl. You see it happening in other sports -- the (San Francisco) Giants had to play their way into the World Series, and they end up winning."
Such success seems unlikely for whoever wins the NFC South, which has the worst overall winning percentage (.317) of the eight divisions and has, in total, just eight victories and a tie against non-divisional opponents -- and just one of those non-divisional victories belongs to first-place Atlanta. But perhaps all four teams can take comfort in one trend: Just three years after the Seahawks were a league laughingstock and the object of skepticism even among their own rabid fans, they won the Super Bowl.
1) The game that could determine the NFC East champion. The Cowboys are undefeated on the road and will enter battle in Philly with a rested Tony Romo, who is on pace for the third-highest road passer rating (125.0) in any season since 1960. Romo said he did not take painkillers for his various ailments before Dallas' Thanksgiving loss to the Eagles, which was the only game since 2013 in which Philadelphia's defense kept a quarterback's passer rating below 55. Can the Cowboys stop the Eagles, though? On Thanksgiving, Philly outgained Dallas 464 yards to 267, and the Eagles had a season-high 256 yards rushing.
2) Seattle rising. The Seahawks sent the 49ers into their current tailspin when they held them to just 164 yards of offense in Week 13. The decline of Colin Kaepernick (121 passing yards, two interceptions, four sacks taken in Week 13) has been startling, but the revival of the Seahawks' defense hasn't been. Seattle is healthy and coming off a thrashing of the Eagles in which that powerful Philly offense was held to its lowest point total this season -- and the fewest yards of the Chip Kelly era. The 49ers might be able to salvage their season if they win in Seattle. For the Seahawks, on the other hand, this will be the first of three straight divisional games, which will likely determine the NFC West champion and playoff seeding.
3) Eyes on the ground in San Diego.Peyton Manning has never thrown for fewer than 200 yards per game in three straight games, but he might want to get ready for that milestone this week. The Broncos are averaging 182.7 rushing yards over their past three games, while the Chargers have allowed at least 100 rushing yards in six of their past eight games. Philip Rivers completes a league-high 80 percent of his play-action passes, but getting a ground game going will be tough against a Denver defense that ranks second in the league against the run. The Broncos will clinch the AFC West with a win. The Chargershold the sixth seed in the AFC now, but they have the third-toughest remaining strength of schedule.
4) Dolphins-Patriots II has a much different complexion. Miami beat New England in Week 1, outscoring the Pats 23-0 in the second half. That seems like a very long time ago. In their last five games, the Patriots have faced Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers, losing only to Rodgers. New England held its opponents over that stretch to 18 points per game, and limited the opposing quarterbacks to seven touchdowns and a passer rating of 80.4 while picking off five passes. The Dolphins are one game behind the fifth and sixth seeds in the AFC, but their offense has averaged just 14.5 points per game in their last two outings.
5) Johnny Football vs. history. The good news for new Cleveland starter Johnny Manziel: The Bengals' defense gave up more points in Week 14 against Pittsburgh (42) than it had in the prior three games combined (36), when Cincy went 3-0 to take the AFC North lead. The bad news: Manziel will be the 21st quarterback to start for the Browns since the team returned to the NFL in 1999. The only one of those with a winning record was Brian Hoyer (10-6), who lost his job after a three-game stretch in which he failed to throw a touchdown pass and was picked off at least twice per game. The Browns are the 12th seed in the AFC and in last place in the division.
6) Buffalo's stellar pass rush faces its greatest test yet. The Bills have a league-leading 48 sacks. The Packers' explosive offense is fronted by Aaron Rodgers, who averages 2.90 seconds in the pocket before throwing -- the fifth-longest time to throw in the NFL. Buffalo has 28 takeaways this season, second-most in the NFL, but the Packers have just eight giveaways, fewest in the league, with Rodgers responsible for just three interceptions and a fumble. The Packers are chasing the Cardinals for the NFC's top seed, while the Bills are currently the 11th seed in the AFC.
7) Expect a lot -- a lot -- of offense in Atlanta. The Steelers' Antonio Brown (149) and the Falcons' Julio Jones (147) are the two most-targeted receivers in the league -- although Jones' availability is not a sure thing. Pittsburgh averages 427 yards per game of offense (second in the NFL), while Atlanta allows a league-high 410.8 yards per game and has the worst passing defense in the NFL. The Steelers have allowed at least two touchdown passes in seven straight games. The Falcons lead the NFC South, while the Steelers are narrowly trailing the Bengals in the AFC North.
8) Even without Cam Newton, the Panthers have a decided advantage over the Bucs. Opposing quarterbacks are completing 68.8 percent of passes against Tampa Bay, the highest completion percentage allowed in the league. Derek Anderson, Newton's backup, started Carolina's Week 1 victory over the Bucs, completing 70.6 percent of his passes that day for 230 yards and two touchdowns.
9) Maybe the Saints can take some comfort in knowing their opponent Monday is a team in crisis, too. Or that they have the easiest remaining strength of schedule in the league, which might lubricate their path to the NFC South title. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who leads the league with 21 giveaways, could provide a balm for the Saints' reeling defense, which is ranked 31st and is forcing three-and-outs on just 12.3 percent of opponents' drives, the worst mark in the NFL.
10) Comeback City. Perhaps the surest sign of the explosion in passing: There have been 37 comebacks of 10 points or more this season, tied for the most at this point in NFL history. The other season in which there were 37 at this juncture? 2013. And those marks barely top 2011 and 2012, when there were 36 such comebacks through Week 14. Last week alone, three teams (Baltimore, Indianapolis and New England) staged double-digit comebacks.