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The Pro Football Notebook

January 14, 2012 11:40 AM

How Hot Is Each NFL Coach's Pressure Cooker?

The Notebook has taken the last two days and looked at both the offenses and defenses of the remaining NFL playoff teams. Today let's look at the coaches, but with a different twist. Which one has the most pressure on them conming into this weekend? We're not talking about the pressure to win or lose your job, but the need to avoid making "He can't win the big one", or "He's lost the ability to win the big one" to become a dominant storyline between now and this time next year. Here's the rundown...

Bill Belichick (New England): The pressure on Belichick to win a playoff game has been lingering all year, ever since his team walked off its homefield last January having been upset by the New York Jets. Now, with a second straight #1 seed and a favorable draw with Denver coming in rather than Pittsburgh, New England simply has to win this game. Look, I think it's a ridiculous that a man with four AFC titles and three Super Bowl rings has to prove he can win playoff games, but if we're evaluating the pressure cooker, I've already seen plenty of reminders that New England's last postseason win was the 2007 AFC Championship over San Diego. If Tim Tebow pulls another rabbit out of his hat, it will be an excruciatingly long offseason for the Patriots.

Mike McCarthy (Green Bay): I think there's more pressure in this round than people might realize. If McCarthy loses to a 9-7 Giants' team that means he's only 1-2 in home playoff games at a place where homefield is considered to be as big as anywhere. The heat won't get super-intense, but there will be some notes that McCarthy basically had one good playoff run last year and otherwise has blown winnable situations. For the record, I don't think this necessarily applies to a potential game with the Saints next week, just because New Orleans has so much respect.

John Harbaugh (Baltimore): He's coached seven playoff games in his three years as head coach. All of them have been on the road and Harbaugh is 4-3. But he hasn't been to a Super Bowl yet and now his nemesis in Pittsburgh is out of the way, he's got a bye and a home game and a third-string quarterback coming to town. With that in place though come expectations and a heavy dose of pressure. Harbaugh has to win on Sunday against Houston.

Jim Harbaugh (San Francisco): There's zero pressure here. After turning San Francisco into a 13-3 team and then drawing a hot New Orleans team, no one will think the less of the Niner Harbaugh if they lose on Saturday.

Gary Kubiak (Houston): The Texans' coach got the monkey off his back when he first won the AFC South and then eliminated Cincinnati in the first round. If they even play competitively in Baltimore, people will note the Texans overcame injuries to their top two quarterbacks, Mario Williams and played most of the year without Andre Johnson and give Kubiak a break. As well they should.

Sean Payton (New Orleans): Because expectations are so high for the Saints, there's a little bit of heat here, but Payton was able to get rid of the demons of last year's playoff loss in Seattle with the win over Detroit last Saturday night. And he's got that Super Bowl ring in his back pocket which should buy him a little more time. I'd put his pressure level a little below McCarthy's, if only because New Orleans has to go on the road.

John Fox (Denver): There's no pressure anymore, not after the miracle finish to win the AFC West and then a bigger miracle to beat Pittsburgh. But a word of warning--the pressure on Fox will elevate fast after this year. His last playoff appearance in Carolina ended in a disaster when Jake Delhomme threw five interceptions and Kurt Warner picked them apart. Fox can't allow recollections of that to start surfacing. Last week's win went a long way toward burying them and he'll get an easy reprieve for a loss in Foxboro.

Tom Coughlin (NY Giants): Coughlin met his pressure test last week when he beat Atlanta, and I can't imagine he needs to beat Green Bay in Lambeau Field. Where I'd be curious to see the reaction is if the Giants lose badly. Remember, New York only went 9-7 and Coughlin is one of those coaches who seems to be perpetually on a hot seat. As long as they play it as competitively as they did the regular season game (a 38-35 GB win), the New York boss will be okay.

When we talk about the pressure to win playoff games, there's two things that irritate me. The first is that we even have to have the conversation. Without exception, all of these coaches have done the job in a parity-driven league to compete and get their teams to within two wins of a Super Bowl. But it did give me something to write about today, so maybe I shouldn't gripe too much.

The  second irritant is that we give no credit to coaches whose teams earn first-round byes. For example, we can cut Payton, Coughlin, Fox and Kubiak credit for a "winning a playoff game", while Belichick apparently still has to prove he can and McCarthy wants to avoid the subject even coming up. If we expanded the playoffs and had New England play Tennessee or the Jets in the first round, would that somehow prove a point? Or if Green Bay got rid of Dallas or Arizona? Playoff records are misleading when you don't factor in the de facto "win" that four coaches earn in advance.


Dan Flaherty is the editor of TheSportsNotebook.com, offering daily analysis, commentary and historical perspective.

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January 7, 2012 1:52 PM

NFL Playoff Memories: 1st Round

PackNiners.jpgIt's time for another weekend with the first round of the NFL playoffs. Yesterday, as I was making a three-hour drive through central Wisconsin, I grabbed a diet Dr. Pepper, relaxed and tried to think of the most memorable games at this round since 1990. That year is the cutoff point because it's when the NFL expanded the postseason to 12 teams and had four opening-round games. I'm afraid to say I was able to remember the matchup and winner of all 84 first-round games, and pertinent points from a lot of them. The fact I can remember this stuff while casually driving is surely at least one explanation for a lot of the problems in my life. But it is what it is, and I am who I am. So I thought I'd put a few of those memories down here.

I don't claim these are the best games of the first round, just ones that stood out in my mind. I have spared readers the references to Redskins playoff wins, simply because as long as Daniel Snyder is the owner I don't expect too many more, so what's here has to last me the balance of my lifetime. I'll bury readers with recollections of 'Skins wins some other time. Here are four recollections overall, that encompass six total games...

BUFFALO'S BATTLES: The Bills played the Houston Oilers in the 1992 playoffs and then met the organization again in the 1999 postseason after the Oilers had moved to Nashville and re-invented themselves as the Tennessee Titans. Both games would challenge for the top spot of best first-round game ever played, and at the very least the most amazing finish.

In '92, the teams met in Buffalo, a rematch from a regular season finale where the Oilers not only hammered the Bills 27-3, but cost them the AFC East title, a first-round bye, the health of their quarterback Jim Kelly, who hurt his knee and All-Pro linebacker Cornelius Bennett. Houston was an explosive offensive team, the first "Run-And-Shoot" team in the NFL, as Warren Moon was the quarterback on an attack that spread the field with four wide receivers. In the second quarter of this game, Moon gunned three scoring passes to three different receivers and opened up a 28-3 lead. An interception return for a score just after halftime stretched the lead to 35-3. Kelly was on the bench and backup Frank Reich was in. Reich was already the author of the greatest college comeback in history, when he led Maryland to a win over Miami after trailing 31-0. Now he duplicated the feat in the NFL. After a short TD run made it 35-10, Reich threw four straight touchdown passes, the last three to Andre Reed. Houston actually had to rally for a field goal to force overtime, before Buffalo won it 38-35. It set the stage for the third of Buffalo's four straight AFC championships. Houston continued a pattern of playoff disappointments and would not make a Super Bowl until their relocation.

Tennessee's year came in 1999. Even though they won 13 games, they had to play a first-round game with Buffalo, as Jacksonville won the old AFC Central division. The Titans were led by quarterback Steve McNair and had a Pro Bowl runner in Eddie George. They were a more physical team that their immediate forerunners in Houston and had a rookie defensive end named Jevon Kearse who could cause a lot of problems. Kearse sacked Buffalo quarterback Rob Johnson for a safety to key a 2nd quarter run that saw Tennessee go up 12-0 at halftime. Johnson was feeling pressure in a lot of ways, as he was not a popular choice to start over fan favorite Doug Flutie, who always seemed to have a knack for making the big play. Buffalo scored on two touchdown drives in the third quarter, but foolishly went for two points on one and missed. At 13-12, the teams traded field goals and with 16 seconds left, Buffalo was kicking off with a 16-15 lead. The kickoff was given to tight end Frank Wycheck who went to his right sideline, stopped and threw the ball across the field to receiver Kevin Dyson. The lateral ended up in a touchdown and to the fury of Buffalo fans and players, it was ruled on replay that the lateral had gone backyard (further research, including that of an NFL Films computer analyst confirms the call was correct, and that was my belief watching it at the time). The Titans went on to the Super Bowl. The Bills haven't been back to the playoffs since.

GREEN BAY-SAN FRANCISCO RIVARLY: These teams have met several times and several different rungs of the postseason and we'll revisit some of those if another chapter is written in this year's NFC Championship Game. In 1998 and 2001 they played in the first round, each one memorable in its own way.

In 1998 the Packers were the two-time defending NFC champs, but at 11-5 were off the championship pace. After a three straight MVP seasons, Brett Favre's TD-INT ratio dropped to 31-23 and the Vikings won 15 games and the old NFC Central. San Fran had been ousted by the Packers each of the previous three years and was looking for some revenge. The game would prove to be nothing short of a classic. Favre and Steve Young each played well, but each also had a couple interceptions. Green Bay led 17-10 at half, but the pendulum kept swinging back and forth and San Fran had a 23-20 lead late in the fourth quarter. At this point, Favre led his team on a long drive that ended with 15-yard pass to Antonio Freeman and what looked to be the winning score. Young marched the 49ers back. He got them to the Green Bay 25-yard line, aided considerably by an atrocious no-call where Jerry Rice obviously fumbled and it was recovered by Green Bay. But in those days there was no recourse to the Man Upstairs (the replay official, not the Almighty in this case). Young took advantage of the opportunity and rifled a perfect strike to Terrell Owens over the middle for the game-winning touchdown.

Green Bay and San Francisco each briefly disappeared for a couple years after the Niners lost the ensuing 1998 playoff game in Atlanta. The Pack and Niners weren't back in the playoffs until 2001, and they found each other again, this time at Lambeau Field. With both teams at 12-4, this was, based on the records, the best first-round game ever played. Twelve wins is a Super Bowl-caliber season and somebody was going home right away. The defenses controlled early and a missed PAT by Green Bay was the difference as they trailed 7-6at halftime. Favre, on his way to a 22-for-29 day with 269 yards, stepped it up and led one drive for a field goal and another capped with a 19-yard touchdown pass to tight end Bubba Franks. The Packers short-sightedly went for two to go chasing that missed extra point and dug themselves a bigger hole when a failure kept the score at 15-7. San Francisco's Jeff Garcia then led a TD drive of his own in the fourth quarter and his two-point play did work, tying the game. The Pack took over one last time. Winning the rushing battle was the biggest factor in winning this game, as Ahman Green rushed for 86 yards, while Frisco's Garrison Hearst was held to 42. After a field goal, Green took in a 9-yard touchdown run that wrapped up a 25-15 win. Packer head coach Mike Sherman never advanced past the second round of the playoffs, but this win is the answer to those say he couldn't win a big game. In a battle of NFC title proportions, Sherman made great halftime adjustments and his team won.

The Buffalo battles with Houston/Tennessee and the Green Bay games with San Francisco are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the history of the first round. Surely, you've got your own games that stick out if you find your mind wandering on a long drive (surely you do, please tell me I'm not the only one). Let's see where the four games coming up this weekend fall within NFL lore.


Dan Flaherty is the editor of TheSportsNotebook.com, a site offering daily commentary, analysis and historical perspective.

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December 29, 2011 1:05 PM

Five Possible AFC Darkhorses

AFCDarkhorses.jpgA year ago it was the Green Bay Packers who went into Week 17 not even sure if they would be in the playoffs. We all know how it turned out. The long route to the Super Bowl has become more common in recent years--in 2005 Pittsburgh came out of the #6 seed. The next two years saw the Indianapolis Colts and New York Giants each win it all without the benefit of a first-round bye. Arizona won the NFC crown in 2008 in a year where the NFL playoff bracket looked a lot like my March Madness bracket usually does--red lines drawn through it and riddled with upsets. A league that used to rank second only to the NBA when it came to seeing the chalk prevail in the postseason has become more wide-open. The reasons for that can be speculated on, but the reality of recent results is plain. Who are the best chances for a miracle run this January?

I believe we have to look at the AFC. The first criteria for a Cinderella story is a soft favorite at the top. The '05 Steelers were an exception in that they beat what was probably Tony Dungy's best team at Indianapolis, but most unexpected playoff runs in any sport come in a year where the favorite has obvious flaws. If Green Bay's vulnerabilities do them in, it will be New Orleans or San Francisco that picks up the pieces, and I'm not ready to call either one a Cinderella story (in the big picture of the regular season the Niners certainly are, but this post is focused strictly on teams that turn around an inconsistent regular season).

New England, Baltimore and Pittsburgh are the legitimate contenders in the AFC, and Houston's a unique case altogether, in that a true contender is now tough to get a read on with T.J. Yates at quarterback. The Texans are more in the mold of the 1990 New York Giants, who had to replace Phil Simms with Jeff Hostetler going into the playoffs and won the Super Bowl in doing so. This post is looking for a different type of surprise.

There are five teams in the AFC who are still alive for two remaining playoff berths (AFC West champ and the last wild-card). None are assured of playing football beyond New Year's Day. Therefore it's Cincinnati, NY Jets, Tennessee, Oakland and Denver that draw the Notebook's focus with the question being this--if they survive Week 17 what are the reasons they could win three straight in the AFC playoffs and make it to Indy on February 5. Alongside each team is listed its current odds at making the Super Bowl...

Cincinnati (20-1): A playoff run for Cincinnati would have to be predicated on defense and that's never a bad place to start. The Bengals do a good job defending both the run and the pass, and their pass rush is sound. Their front four gets pressure up the middle from defensive tackle Geno Atkins and on the other side of the ball their offensive line protects Andy Dalton, something that's a tribute to tackles Andre Smith and Andrew Whitworth. The big problem Marvin Lewis' team will face is that they don't run the ball consistently. Even with Cedric Benson having broken the 1,000-yard barrier the team as a whole ranks 13th among 16 AFC teams in yards-per-carry. It's easy to see Cincinnati playing well and keeping a favorite at bay, then being unable to salt away the game by picking up first downs on the ground.

NY Jets (40-1): There's nothing like being able to execute in the red zone for helping pull off an upset and the New York offense does that better than anyone in the NFL. In terms of raw yardage, their AFC rank is 15th in rushing and 13th in passing...yet they're third in points scored, trailing only the machines at New England and San Diego. Can you see the Jets being outplayed at, for example, Baltimore, yet holding a 21-19 lead in the fourth quarter? It's very possible and with their success in winning road playoff games (four over the last two seasons), they won't choke up when it's time to close. It's an unexpected problem rushing the passer that's put Rex Ryan's team in this spot to begin with and could undo them in the playoffs. The Jets do a poor job in getting to the quarterback. They really need linebackers David Harris and Calvin Pace to step it up or having two solid cover corners in Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie goes to waste.

Tennessee (35-1): The Titans are on defense what the Jets are on offense--it's not a great unit, but they make plays in the red zone. It's also been an unexpectedly strong year for the Tennessee secondary, which ranks 3rd in yards allowed per catch in spite of not having a great pass rush, a credit to corner Cortland Finnegan and his mates. Offensively, pass protection is excellent, as left tackle Michael Roos leads up a line that's consistently been one of the NFL's best. Tennessee's problem is an unlikely one--they can't run the ball with any consistency. Chris Johnson's ankle injury and I would guess the fallout from his late arrival into a late-starting training camp haven't helped. Without a real big-play threat down the field, the Titans need to be able to run if they're going to win playoff games.

Denver (12-1): It's all about the late-game mojo in Denver. The Broncos have great playmakers on defense, where Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller can wreak havoc with the quarterback, and the corner tandem of Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman is solid. The running game can keep them in it, with Willis McGahee producing conventionally and Tim Tebow running it himself. If this formula keeps it close in the fourth quarter, will Tebow-Mania be in anyone's head  on the other sideline?

Oakland (15-1): Carson Palmer has done an excellent job in smoothly integrating into this offense since his midseason acquisition and the Raiders are well-balanced. Palmer can go down the field to Darius Heyward-Bey and find tight end Kevin Boss underneath. If Jacoby Ford is able to return from a foot injury that's another weapon to open up the field. Oakland's offensive front has paved the way for Michael Bush to have a good season running the ball and also protected Palmer well. Defensively, the Raiders can get pressure up the middle with tackles Tommy Kelly and Richard Seymour, along with middle linebacker Rolando McClain. And maybe they'll get Darren McFadden back to give them a game-changer both running and catching the ball. Now the bad news--the Oakland defense is lousy against the run, making it harder to play from behind, and their give/take ratio is in the bottom half of the AFC and hoping for McFadden to come back seems like more wasted energy with each passing week.

None of the five possible darkhorses look strong, but they wouldn't be darkhorses if they did. And I think we also need to point out something important regarding Green Bay's run last season--the Packers were getting healthy and peaking as the playoffs hit. The team that actually took the field in January was much better than a #6 seed--really, the team that took the field for last year's playoffs is the one we watched all year this time around. The 2010 Packers didn't just get hot, they were coming together. I don't think we can say that about anyone in this group. Of the five, I give the Raiders the best shot at pulling off the 3-0 run through the AFC if they get a shot, but whether it's through the AFC West or the wild-card, they need to first beat San Diego and then wait on help.


Dan Flaherty is the editor of www.thesportsnotebook.com, a site offering daily commentary, analysis and historical perspective.

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December 26, 2011 4:54 PM

NFL Week 16 Closing Thoughts

GiantsJets.jpgSome quick thoughts on the NFL Week 16 games...

SHOWDOWN GAMES (Both teams in playoff hunt)

*Oakland survived Kansas City in overtime and stayed alive, but only getting 71 yards rushing is a big source of concern as a potential playoff spoiler plays San Diego next week and then a possible first-round home game with Pittsburgh or Baltimore. They won't win if they can't run.

*The Battle Of The Big Apple, Giants-Jets, was about as appalling of a football game one can imagine for a situation that was so important to bad teams. Both teams looked like they were sleepwalking. Neither one could stand prosperity. In the end, Mark Sanchez was inept, while Eli Manning pulled some big plays out his hat, notably the 99-yard touchdown pass to Victor Cruz.

*Cincinnati took the pole position for the last AFC playoff spot when they beat Arizona 23-16, allowing all of the Cardinals' points in the fourth quarter. The Bengals shut down Beanie Wells on the ground, something that will bear them in good stead for a matchup with Ray Rice and Baltimore in the finale.

*Michael Vick was razor-sharp in the Eagles' 20-7 win over Dallas, although when you have enough time to set up and order for delivery when you're in the pocket, the job gets a lot easier. By the time this game actually kicked off, the Giant win meant Philly was eliminated and Dallas was going to a Week 17 battle in the Meadowlands regardless. The Cowboys played like it--the lack of a pass rush is the bigger long-term problem than Tony Romo's bruised hand, while the Eagles played with some pride.

*Like Philadelphia, it just took Seattle too long to get started. Even in a tough 19-17 home loss to San Francisco, the Seahawks still ran the ball on the league's toughest run defense, as Marshawn Lynch ran for 107 yards. Seattle is certainly playing better than Dallas or the NY Giants right now, but at 7-8, they have only themselves to blame for the poor start.

*Detroit's Matthew Stafford continues to mature into an elite quarterback in front of us. One week after leading a double-digit comeback in Oakland, the Lion signal-caller was flawless in a blowout of San Diego that locked up a playoff berth. Stafford was 29/36 for 373 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions.

PLAYOFF IMPLICATIONS (1 team involved)

*Not only did the bloom come off Tim Tebow's rose, with his four interceptions in Buffalo, but the Denver rush defense collapsed along with it, allowing 111 yards to C.J. Spiller.

*Jacksonville hung with Tennessee defensively, containing Chris Johnson to only 56 yards, while Maurice Jones-Drew ran for 103, but the lack of a passing game continues to be the Jags' sore spot, as the Titans stayed alive with a 23-17 win.

*Not making mistakes will take you a long way. New England couldn't stop Miami's running game with Reggie Bush, they didn't run it themselves and they gave up big plays down the field to Brandon Marshall, all the while falling behind 17-0. With no turnovers though, Tom Brady eventually brought them back and the Patriots are closing on the AFC's #1 seed.

*Baltimore's 20-14 win over Cleveland put them on the cusp of the AFC North title and at least a first-round bye, but this was a disappointing effort. There was no rush defense, as Peyton Hillis ran for 112 and the Ravens did nothing particularly well offensively.

*Pittsburgh's easy win over St. Louis without Big Ben didn't come in spite of backup Charlie Batch. The #2 quarterback was solid, going 15/22 for 208 yards and no mistakes. With a game against Cleveland next week that only means something if Baltimore loses in Cincinnati, I could see the logic in Mike Tomlin sitting down his starter again.

*Chicago didn't have the firepower to beat Green Bay last night, but the Packers really have work to do on that rush defense, which was gashed for 199 yards and by all rights should have had them in a hole by halftime. With a #1 seed locked up, I would imagine we won't see too many Green Bay starters again until the divisional playoffs.

OTHER GAMES

*I don't ever like to say a team quit, especially from reading a box score, but how else do you explain Tampa Bay giving up 270 rush yards to Carolina?  I hate making character judgments of a team when I'm not in the clubhouse, so I'm open, if not anxious to hear a more strategic explanation.

*Adrian Peterson goes down for Minnesota, Toby Gerhart picks right back up, as the backup rushes for 109 yards as Washington takes an inexcusable home loss to a team that was 2-12 coming in.


Dan Flaherty is the editor of www.thesportsnotebook.com, a site offering daily analysis, commentary and historical perspective.

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December 20, 2011 3:37 PM

Can Philly & San Diego Make A Miracle Run?

Thumbnail image for EaglesJets.jpgThere's two weeks to go in the regular season and the Philadelphia Eagles and San Diego Chargers are still hanging around. The Chargers' blowout of Baltimore moved them to 7-7 and within one game of Denver in the AFC West, while the Eagles buried the Jets and got unexpected help in the form of Washington's upset win over the Giants. At 6-8, the Eagles still have a shot at the NFC East. The Notebook takes a look at how both teams got here and what needs to happen for an unlikely playoff berth to happen...

*Both teams do it with offense, especially the Chargers who trail only the Brady-led Patriots among AFC teams in scoring. While the San Diego running game with Ryan Matthews has to be respected, it's still fairly average, so this offense ultimately comes down to Philip Rivers and his ability to connect with Vincent Jackson and Malcolm Floyd on the outside, along with tight end Antonio Gates over the middle. Philadelphia does it with rush yardage, although a lot of that comes through Michael Vick. A key to the Eagles' success is usually the ability of LeSean McCoy to produce in the conventional running game.

*Both teams rank 10th in their respective conferences on defense and they're equally subpar in defending both the run and the pass. Whether either head coach, Andy Reid or Norv Turner is going to be back is doubtful, but even if they are, I have to think new defensive coordinators are on their way. While neither team is bursting at the seams with talent on defense, there's enough individual playmakers( Trent Cole & Jason Babin for Philadelphia, Antwan Barnes for San Diego) that it's unacceptable for a potential playoff season to be derailed on D.

*Both teams are terrible when it comes to taking care of the football, each ranking near the bottom of their conferences. In the NFC, the Eagles are only better than the Redskins in turnover ratio. The only AFC team worse than San Diego is the Colts. This is a direct consequence of bad defense and putting your offense in tough situations.

Having an explosive offense with shaky defense and lousy turnover numbers are the formula for overall mediocrity, yet being able to look really good when it's all clicking, and that's exactly why Philadelphia and San Diego are at where they're at--on the fringes, yet having made a late push. What's gotten better in recent weeks?

*For San Diego, pass protection has made all the difference and that was never more evident than in last night's blowout win over Baltimore. A tough Ravens pass rush never sacked Rivers, and in this current three-game win streak he's only hit the deck twice. What's Rivers done with that time to throw? How does 63-for-84 (75%) for 804 yards, seven touchdowns and zero interceptions over that same timeframe sound?

*Philadelphia has found its pass rush. In consecutive wins over Miami and the NY Jets, they've knocked the quarterback down thirteen times. Six sacks have come from Jason Babin alone.

Now where do we go from here? Based on the tiebreakers and remaining schedule, Philly's got the best shot. Outside of their own control, they only need the Giants to lose this week to the Jets (neutral site game at the Meadowlands), which would give New York an eighth loss. Presuming Philly takes care of Dallas on Saturday (dropping the Cowboys to 8-7), they then need the Giants to win a season-finale battle with Dallas in the Meadowlands. Not only do those two pieces of help look realistic, they look likely. So perhaps the biggest question is whether Philadelphia can win on the road in Big D this coming Saturday and then take care of Washington at home in the finale.

San Diego needs a lot more to go their way. First off, they close with tough road games at Detroit and at Oakland. The pass rush stepped up big last night in sacking Joe Flacco seven times, four of them by Barnes, but even with that, they're still in the bottom half of the AFC in pressuring the quarterback. The momentum has to continue into games with Matthew Stafford and Carson Palmer, who each played very well in their head-to-head duel yesterday.

Then if San Diego does win both games (which pushes them past Oakland in the standings), they still need Denver to lose its remaining two. The Broncos control all tiebreakers with the Chargers. The teams have split head-to-head and if Denver loses to Kansas City, that would create a tie on divisional record. But the next tiebreaker down is common opponents, and the Broncos hold the edge, thanks to a Thursday night win over the New York Jets, a team San Diego lost to. That's the only difference and it's why Denver must also lose at Buffalo this week for the Bolts to have a shot.


Dan Flaherty is the editor of www.thesportsnotebook.com

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December 16, 2011 9:25 AM

NFL Sunday TV Previews

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for NFLCountdown.jpgBefore we get into the Week 15 TV previews, I need to open with a huge gripe against CBS. How is it, with three weeks to go in the season and a doubleheader week on your hands that you decide to deliver Cincinnati-St. Louis to most of the nation in the early time slot?  On the surface it makes sense when you see Tennessee-Indianapolis and Miami-Buffalo as the only other options. But why was the Jets-Eagles game in Philadelphia moved back to 4:15 EST? Put it back in the early slot where it belongs and then you've got a full day of AFC East action, starting with that game and then going to New England-Denver for the late game. That's my gripe of the week. Now let's dive into the games...

SATURDAY NIGHT: Dallas-Tampa Bay (8:15 ET, NFL)
The rumor mills are swirling around Tampa head coach Raheem Morris, who looks to join Miami's Tony Sparano and Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio in making a clean Florida sweep of coaches getting fired before the season is over. Whatever happens the next three weeks, Morris almost certainly won't be back in 2012 and unless Dallas still has a hangover from the loss to the Giants, it's tough to see how they win here. Josh Freeman hasn't gotten it together throwing the ball this year and the Buc passing offense languishes near the bottom of the league in yards-per-attempt. When you consider the Tampa pass defense also rates very poorly, it spells trouble. Tony Romo should get a lot of time to throw against a front four that's banged up and doesn't rush the passer well anyway, and from there to spread the ball around to Dez Bryant, Austin Miles and Jason Witten. If that happens, Tampa can't keep up. The only thing that give one pause about this game are natural respect that has to be afforded a home team in the NFL and a lingering possibility that Freeman could find last year's touch and make this a game. Possible, but a week reed to grab onto in Week 15.

SUNDAY EARLY

Cincinnati-St. Louis (CBS)
Can we just concede the win to the Bengals and have these two cities play baseball instead? The only way the Rams can win is if they first establish Stephen Jackson running the ball, and the Bengal rush defense is excellent. The pass defense is beatable, but Sam Bradford is banged up, struggling and coming off a bad game on Monday Night in Seattle. He may not even play and it's unlikely to matter. I can see St. Louis causing some problems defensively if they can get Chris Long and James Hall loose on the edges to pressure the pocket. If that happens, the rookie Andy Dalton could give them some mistakes. What's more likely is that Marvin Lewis plays it safe, runs the ball with Cedric Benson against a soft rush defense and then lets his own D close out the game.

Washington-NY Giants (Fox)
As a Redskins fan this game is the painful reminder of how far things have fallen since a 28-14 Week 1 win over the Giants infused September with such hope. It's the only good game Washington's played all year and New York now smells the NFC East title after their comeback in Dallas on Sunday night. Where Washington does match up well here is defending the run and they can force the game into Eli Manning's hands. The Giant quarterback has answered that challenge ably this year, and the Washington secondary is beatable. The X-factor in this game, as if often is in Washington games, is the play of Rex Grossman. The Giant pass defense is far from unstoppable and if Grossman doesn't self-destruct he can get into a passing race with Manning and make this a game. But even that requires the 'Skins to get Jason Pierre-St. Paul blocked on the outside and that's not something they haven't done well. I'm not feeling good about the game on Sunday, which is as close as I'll come in a public venue to picking against my own team.

Green Bay-Kansas City (Fox)
This game will go to most people between the Mississippi River and California as the Packers chase history. There's nothing suggesting that the knee injury to Greg Jennings suffered last week is going to slow Green Bay's determination to get to 16-0, nor should it. Jennings will be ready for the playoffs and the Packer receiving corps is deep enough to say "next man up." Keys to watch will be how Green Bay does in protecting Aaron Rodgers. Not because it will matter for this game, but because if the Chief defense, currently ranked 13th in the AFC in sacks, can get to the Packer quarterback, then anyone can. I'm inclined to think that anyone can and it's the biggest factor that makes Green Bay's coming playoff run still interesting. As for Sunday, Kyle Orton is supposed to make his first start as a Chief, and I would imagine several turnovers are going to be produced by the aggressive Packer defense and even if you're a betting man and give (-14) to take Green Bay, you should be comfortable in the second half.

Other games include...

New Orleans-Minnesota:  New Orleans is even with San Francisco for the #2 seed and first-round bye in the NFC playoffs and they won't let up here. Drew Brees in a dome is too much for the Viking defense to stop, even allowing Jared Allen his moments rushing the passer. Adrian Peterson is listed as questionable, which I take to mean he will probably play. If he has a good game, Allen gets a couple sacks and they force Brees into some mistakes, an upset is possible. That's not an unrealistic scenario but I wouldn't bet on it.

Seattle-Chicago: Can someone explain to me why the Seahawks are (+3.5) against a team without its quarterback, without its running back and just showed a phenomenal ability to play their way out of a road win last week in Denver? Apparently someone in Las Vegas misses the memo that Seattle's starting to play some good football. They beat the Bears in Soldier Field.

Carolina-Houston: The inability of the Panther defense to hold a lead last week against Atlanta was disheartening. The ability of Cam Newton to put up points makes this a good game and possible upset spot, but I don't see them stopping the Texans' ground game and if they don't control tempo, they don't win on the road.

Tennessee-Indianapolis: I wouldn't be shocked if the Colts finally come up with a win here. I can see Dan Orlovksy playing well and if Matt Hasselbeck's not sharp and it stays close, the home team can steal one. If Indy's going to win a game, this is a good spot to pick them--and they can afford to win at least one and still get Andrew Luck.

Miami-Buffalo: Normally I'd have taken the Dolphins, but firing Tony Sparano leaves one unsure what to think as far as the Dolphins' mindset. Regardless, a nothing game in the AFC East.

SUNDAY LATE

New England-Denver (4:15 ET, CBS)
Is it going over the top to say that this is Tom Brady's chance to prove he's in a class with Tim Tebow? Yeah, I thought so. I'm inclined to take the conventional view that this is where Tebow's magic ride comes to an end and we see that for all his real strengths as a quarterback, he's not ready to get into a real passing battle with anyone, much less Brady. But the Denver defense has some matchup edges that could keep this one close. Von Miller is a terrific pass rusher on the outside and Brady can be forced into mistakes. The Patriot running game is mostly non-existent and both Tebow and Willis McGahee should be able to get some rush yardage of their own. I suspect New England is able to gradually open up some distance in the third quarter, but if it's within a score in the fourth quarter, does anyone still want to doubt Tebow?

Other games include...

NY Jets-Philadelphia: I know the Eagles finally got a win last week, but I like the way the Jets are coming together right now and look for Shonn Greene to have a good game running the ball, the defense to get some turnovers and Rex Ryan's team to keep their lead for the last spot in the AFC wild-card race.

Detroit-Oakland: Good game in Oakland, with both teams facing must-win spots. I'm willing to write off Oakland's hideous showing last week in Lambeau as being more about the Packers, although no NFL team should ever play quite that badly. Detroit lacks a rush game, while Oakland has one and that, along with homefield advantage tips the balance.

Cleveland-Arizona: Instead of complaining about getting the Cincy-St. Louis game in the early slot I guess I should be grateful I don't have to see this one.

SUNDAY NIGHT: Baltimore-San Diego (8:20 ET, NBC)
This game, along with a Week 17 trip to Cincinnati, are Baltimore's big hurdles to wrapping up a long-sought AFC North title, probable first-round bye and possible #1 seed in the AFC playoffs. Philip Rivers and the San Diego offense have been back on track the past couple weeks, but doing it against Buffalo and Jacksonville aren't the same as doing it against the Ravens. I'm looking for Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs to get a couple sacks and generally make Rivers' life miserable in the pocket, and if Ryan Matthews can't keep Baltimore honest by running the ball, it's going to be tough to generate much offense. Baltimore's rush defense is the best in the AFC if you're curious. I respect San Diego enough to think this will be a good game at home, but I do expect the oft-unfocused Ravens to bring their A game to Qualcomm Stadium and the only way they'll lose is if they get too cute offensively. Ray Rice is capable of running it down the throats of a soft Charger run defense, and it's imperative Baltimore stick with that and not be tempted to exploit an equally susceptible pass defense by having Joe Flacco throw 40 times and turn it into a finesse game against Rivers. San Diego can win that battle and it's up to John Harbaugh and his coaching staff not to strategize themselves out of a win.


Dan Flaherty is the editor of www.thesportsnotebook.com

 

December 14, 2011 12:34 PM

The AFC's Big Four

HuntTrophy.jpgIf the race for the NFC title looks more like a coronation for Green Bay, the AFC race is wide-open. Four teams are sitting on 10-3. The Notebook takes a look at the AFC's Big Four...

New England (10-3): The Patriots are pretty much a known commodity at this time. Tom Brady executes the offense with skilled precision and the defense can be had. The latter point has been drawing frequent attention throughout the season and  the Pats are being dismissed as a serious championship contender because of it. The criticisms are fair enough--this unit ranks 10th in the 16-team AFC in allowing points, and the pass-defense is second-worst in the conference. But they will get a healthy Devin McCourty back and they are closer to middle of the conference in terms of getting sacks. Andre Carter has knocked the quarterback down ten times this season. If you combine that, with Bill Belichick's tactical ability and the possibility that the Pats could play two playoff games in Foxboro with less than ideal conditions for throwing the ball and the defense could survive. And if you got to the Super Bowl against Green Bay (or for that matter New Orleans), is anyone going to discount Belichick's ability to put something together with two weeks to prepare? I'm not saying the Patriots' problems aren't real and its imperative they get homefield advantage, because you don't want to expose that secondary to a climate-controlled environment like Houston. But maybe we shouldn't dismiss them as a regular season wonder too quickly.

Baltimore (10-3): Baltimore is tied with Pittsburgh in the AFC North, but holds the tiebreaker, so even if they lose a road game at either San Diego or Cincinnati, they might still escape with the division title if Pittsburgh loses in San Francisco on Monday Night. The Ravens look like the most complete team in the AFC. The defense is its usual stout self, dominant against both the run and pass, and with an ability to harass the quarterback. John Harbaugh has a decision to make in how to handle Ray Lewis' foot injury. You can't be cavalier about the need to win the division and get at least a first-round bye, as the Ravens' recent playoff history has been marked by having to go on the road too many times. But you certainly want Lewis healthy in January. With a power running back in Ray Rice, along with a solid receiver combo of Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith, I see no reason to change my preseason choice of the Ravens to make it to Indianapolis.

Pittsburgh (10-3): The aforementioned Monday Night visit to Frisco will take place without James Harrison after his suspension by the NFL and it may take place without Ben Roethlisberger, nursing his ankle injury. I would imagine Big Ben will play as that always seems to be how these injury reports with him end up. But it underscores the problem that the Steelers are playing a game that's must-win for their division title hopes and will be shorthanded and wounded. Roethlisberger carries a below average running game and without him, Pittsburgh is just a team that can't control the line of scrimmage and can't protect is quarterback. Add to that the absence of Harrison and the defense's ability to carry the team will be limited. Terrific coaching job by Mike Tomlin this season, but the Steelers' shortcomings still make it impossible for me to see this as a Super Bowl team. Then again, I could barely see them as a playoff team in September and they proved me wrong, so we'll see what else the head coach has in his bag of tricks.

Houston (10-3): The only reason Tomlin can't be AFC Coach of the Year, is that Gary Kubiak has to get the honor. Just for hiring Wade Phillips to be the defensive coordinator is reason enough and then beating both Atlanta and Cincinnati with a third-string rookie quarterback in T.J. Yates seals the deal. The injury to Matt Schaub is really unfortunate, because if the Texans can throw the ball, then they, and not Baltimore are the most complete team in the conference. The 1-2 running punch of Arian Foster and Ben Tate is dynamite. Tight end Owen Daniels enables a short passing game to control tempo. The health of Andre Johnson's hamstring will be important and Kubiak is another coach with a decision to make--push Johnson hard in an attempt to get the #1 seed, or make sure the nagging injury is healthy next month. Defensively, Kubiak and Phillips have made due without defensive end Mario Williams and have turned one of the game's worst pass defenses into one of its best. They run the ball, they play defense, they've got a game-breaking receiver and a solid tight end. If they have someone who can deliver them the ball, we're talking Super Bowl--and a team good enough to beat Green Bay.


Dan Flaherty is the editor of www.thesportsnotebook.com

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December 12, 2011 4:43 PM

MNF Preview: St. Louis-Seattle

StlSea.jpgSeattle is still clinging to some slim playoff hopes as they take the field tonight for a home game with St. Louis. The Seahawks are 5-7, and with both NFC wild-card spots currently held down by 8-5 teams (Atlanta & Detroit), its possible 9-7 will enable a team to sneak in. That storyline is the only thing that makes tonight's game even remotely tolerable.

The Rams had their moment in the sun back in October when they shocked New Orleans, but beyond that a win over Cleveland is all they have to show. And it's looking like third-string quarterback Tom Branstetter will get the call tonight at Qwest Field. Ideally St. Louis would look to run the ball behind Stephen Jackson and get the pressure off the backup. And I'm sure they will try and do that, but stopping the run is the one area where Pete Carroll's defense does pretty well. I look for Seattle to take away Jackson, force Branstetter to throw and then it's going to get ugly in an environment that's as loud as any in the NFL. Defensive end Chris Clemons will tee off and I expect the Seahawks to get 4-5 takeaways tonight.

Before dismissing the possibility of the Seahawks making it to 9-7, consider their remaining schedule. They've got a tough road game in Chicago, but we've seen with Jay Cutler on the sideline how beatable the Bears have become--come on, Kansas City just won in Soldier Field and they fired their coach a week later. After that it's San Francisco at home, and if the Cardinals can stop the run and pressure the passer in order to get a win over the 49ers, then why can't the Seahawks? The season then ends with a road battle at Arizona, another team who's currently 6-7 and trying to play their way in. All it takes is just one of the Falcons/Lions duo to lose two of the next three, and that season finale Seattle-Arizona game could suddenly have some playoff meaning. The odds are still strongly against it, but there's just enough of a possibility that I'll tune into this game tonight.


Dan Flaherty is the editor of www.thesportsnotebook.com

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December 9, 2011 1:08 PM

NFL Sunday TV Previews

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for NFLCountdown.jpgCBS has the doubleheader this week and its early coverage is spread out mostly among three games, all pretty good, but none fantastic. Here's the Week 14 TV breakdown...

EARLY

New England-Washington (CBS)
The Patriots are locked in a three-way tie for homefield advantage in the AFC, along with Baltimore/Pittsburgh and Houston, and it's imperative to at least finish second in that race and get a first-round bye in the playoffs. Washington's 4-8, but has shown some life in recent weeks, with a win over Seattle and then a competitive loss last against the Jets, where the 34-19 final belies the fact the 'Skins led with five minutes to go. Both teams are mediocre on defense, although with the Redskins that's more likely because they get no help from their offense. Rex Grossman has got to be able to move the ball efficiently, targeting Santana Moss and Fred Davis and then get support from the running game, and mix in some screen passes to Roy Helu. That's realistic. But Grossman also has to do without making mistakes. There's no room for error against Tom Brady and Grossman is renowned for making plenty of errors. The Redskins are my team and I expect a good game again, but it's a big leap of faith to think they'll play the mistake-free game they need to win.

Kansas City-NY Jets (CBS)
Would you believe the 2011 Jets are more an offensive team than a defensive one? The D is average this year, while the offense has average 24 points a game, good for 8th in the NFL. KC's offense ranks 29th in points scored and that's even with Matt Cassell being in at quarterback. Tyler Palko's in now, and while the Chiefs got a nice win in Chicago last week and are playing some very good defense overall, they just don't score enough to beat anyone with an offense worth mentioning. Even with a New York defense not quite up to Rex Ryan standards, they'll still get turnovers and then be able to manage the game with Shonn Greene running the ball. A win enables the Jets to keep pace with Cincinnati and Tennessee in the race for the last wild-card spot.

Houston-Cincinnati (CBS)
Speaking of Cincinnati, the Bengals have a tough matchup with Houston, who showed they could beat quality teams with third-string quarter T.J. Yates behind center. Last week's 17-10 win over Atlanta was a great statement for the Texans' stout defense and strong running game, and Yates was mistake-free. Now they have to do it on the road. Cincinnati's defense is solid and can minimize the running game of Arian Foster and Ben Tate. This one's likely to be another low-scoring game where which rookie quarterback, Yates or Andy Dalton, makes the mistakes. Dalton, as players might say, isn't a rookie anymore, having started all year. He'll have the crowd behind him and I like the Bengals to pull out a hard-fought 16-10 win. Houston still has a two-game lead on Tennessee in the AFC South, so there's room to spare. Enough time for them to call Brett Favre and get him ready in time for the finale against the Titans and then the playoffs.

New Orleans-Tennessee (Fox)
This is the main Fox game this week with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in Nashville, and the Titans are a team that is coming together down the stretch. Chris Johnson, after a lockout followed by a holdout, is fully in rhythm and rushed for 153 yards in a win at Buffalo last week. The Saints have plenty of rhythm themselves, having won back-to-back prime-time games against Detroit and the New York Giants. Drew Brees is making a late push to catch Aaron Rodgers for MVP and at 9-3, the Saints are trying to catch the 10-2 49ers for the #2 seed. Right now a New Orleans-Green Bay NFC title game looks like the real Super Bowl, but the Saints now have to prove they can beat a surging team on the road. The only way you can beat the Saints is if you can force Brees into a couple mistakes and I don't think the Titans have the defensive playmakers to do that, nor do they have the offense that can put enough pressure on New Orleans to run up and down the field. The Saints keep rolling with a 31-20 win.

Other early games are...

Indianapolis-Baltimore:  Indy had a competitive-looking 31-24 loss in New England last week and Dan Orlovsky threw for over 300 yards. But a closer look shows the Pats had a big lead and the game was never really in doubt, and Orlovsky piled up the numbers after the game was settled. And in either case, the Baltimore defense is not the New England defense. This one's never in doubt.

Atlanta-Carolina: Atlanta missed a big opportunity with their loss at Houston last week and at 7-5 are in a fight with Chicago, Detroit and New York for two playoff spots. The Falcons still have a one-game lead on the crowd, but that could well end here, if they can't get Michael Turner established on the ground. I like Cam Newton to have a big day and the Panthers to win their second straight NFC South game.

Minnesota-Detroit: Both quarterbacks threw the ball well in losing efforts last week, getting no help from the running game or defense. The Vikings are likely to find some ground support from Adrian Peterson, but I find it difficult to think that Christian Ponder will have another huge game as he goes in front of the Ford Field crowd. The absence of Ndamakong Suh keeps this one close, but the Lions still have too many weapons in the passing game and Minnesota's secondary is beatable.

Philadelphia-Miami: The Dolphins are surging, while the Eagles are fading. Playing at home, the Fish are a no-brainer pick. The city of Philadelphia can focus in early on the Flyers, who are leading the Eastern Conference.

Tampa Bay-Jacksonville:  The Jags, with Maurice Jones-Drew, have a consistent threat in the running game, but the Buccaneers have a bigger advantage in that they know who their coach is. Tampa finally gets a win.

LATE

Oakland-Green Bay (CBS)
Green Bay's pursuit of perfection is the operative storyline here, but don't overlook the fact that Packers do want to clinch the top seed in the NFC playoffs as soon as possible and need at least two more wins (or San Francisco losses or combination thereof) to make that happen. Oakland is tied with Denver atop the AFC West and this road trip is seen by many, the Notebook included, as the principal reason the Broncos are now the favorite. If Oakland is to steal the win nobody thinks they can get, it needs to start and end with Michael Bush pounding the ball inside against a vulnerable Packer run defense and opening up some options for Carson Palmer down the field. That's not unrealistic, but it looks like Darren McFadden's much-awaited return won't happen this week, depriving the Raiders of another weapon in a game where they need all hands on deck. Defensively, Oakland has the defensive front and linebackers to stop Green Bay's running game and to get the heat on Aaron Rodgers. But the Packer running game has often sputtered this year and the pass protection is weak enough to inspire Rodgers to take out some of that insurance he's hawking in the latest State Farm commercials. None of it has caused Green Bay to lose a game yet, and the Raider secondary isn't up to the task of breaking precedent. Rodgers leads a win where the points flow to similar to last week against the Giants, but it isn't quite as hair-raising in the final five minutes.

Chicago-Denver (Fox):
A good chunk of the country will also get this matchup as their one Fox game of the day. The Bears are 6-6 and flailing desperately to get into the playoffs behind the arm of Caleb Hanie (note to Lovie Smith: Call Brett Favre. It would make for a lovely Christmas night in Lambeau Field, filled with peace on earth and goodwill towards men. Yeah right). Tim Tebow answered critics such as the Notebook, who said he couldn't throw the ball, by producing over 200 yards of passing offense in Minnesota last week and winning a 32-29 shootout. Denver is still at their best when its defense, Willis McGahee and the running game and Tebow focused on just being mistake-free. If they do that again here, it will be enough to win, as the Bears are without Matt Forte and Hanie is as mistake-prone as Tebow is error-free.

Other late games are...

San Francisco-Arizona:  The Cardinals are playing some improved football and at 5-7 are actually only a game out of the last playoff berth in the NFC, trailing New York, Chicago and Detroit and being tied with Seattle. Arizona beat Dallas last week and for as consistent as San Francisco has been and as tough as they are defensively, I find it hard to believe this team makes it through the entire stretch drive without one unexpected upset. It happens here in the desert, a big blow as Frisco tries to hold off New Orleans for the #2 seed and first-round bye.

Buffalo-San Diego: At the start of the season I drafted Philip Rivers and Ryan Fitzpatrick as my Fantasy quarterbacks. I've won one game all year. That's as good an explanation as any as to why this game is meaningless.

SUNDAY NITE

NY Giants-Dallas (8:20 ET, NBC):
It's New York's last stand. They trail Dallas by one game in the NFC East, but this is the first of two head-to-head showdowns and the Giants realistically need a sweep. They're also barely hanging on in the wild-card race. Offensively, both teams are about even when it comes to producing points, but Dallas has played better defensively. The biggest reason is that the Cowboys defend the run and that's exactly what the Giants rely on to make their offense go. They got a decent performance last week from Brandon Jacobs and that helped enable Eli Manning to have a big day. But that was at home and against a Packer run defense that lags well behind the rest of their team. Dallas will be able to be the more balanced team, they're playing the best coming in and they're playing at home. I never want to underestimate Tony Romo's ability to throw three interceptions at the wrong time, but I think he'll save that for another day. Dallas puts a chokehold on the division in front of the national audience.


Dan Flaherty is the editor at www.thesportsnotebook.com

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December 7, 2011 2:50 PM

NFL Playoff Projections

NFLPlayoffs.pngThe fourth quarter of the NFL season begins tomorrow night, as all teams have four games left, and here's how the Notebook projects the final weeks shaking out amongst the contenders...

NFC East: Dallas (9-7), NY Giants (8-8)
These teams play each other twice and I'm assuming a split. The Cowboys have a one-game lead at present and hold the tiebreakers. Their two-game sequence with the Eagles and Buccaneers offers three of the most combustible teams in the NFL. I've projected Dallas having one of their off-days and splitting these two games, but in the end as long as Dallas doesn't lose both to New York they win the NFC East. Round One is Sunday Night in Big D.

NFC North: Green Bay (16-0), Detroit (8-8), Chicago (8-8)
I've made the assumption that Green Bay is going to go for perfection rather than rest starters and with their final two games being home dates with Detroit and Chicago it's a decision that has huge implications for the playoffs. The Lions also have to visit Oakland. Chicago should really make the call to Brett Favre. Both runner-ups will lose three of their last four.

NFC South: New Orleans (12-4), Atlanta (9-7)
Atlanta's key swing game is a road date in Carolina and I've projected them getting caught for an upset. New Orleans wins a head-to-head battle between the rivals on the Monday after Christmas.

NFC West: San Francisco (13-3), Seattle (7-9), Arizona (7-9)
Seattle and Arizona are both 5-7 right now, so if I'm right about the Giants, Bears and Lions, the two West runner-ups will have  shot at sneaking in at 8-8.

This sets up Green Bay and San Francisco with the first-round byes, Dallas hosting Atlanta in a 4-5 game and New Orleans taking who emerges out of the crackup at the bottom. Because a lot of my  projections are generic (i.e., looking at a couple games and just figuring a split), I can't do the tiebreakers and with this many teams and this many variables I don't know how valuable that would be anyway. One important thing t note is that the Detroit/Chicago tie is broken before anything else, as final division standings are always set first. If I'm New Orleans, I'm hoping that I play the Bears, presuming Cutler is still out of the playoffs.

AFC East: New England (12-4), NY Jets (10-6)
It's looking like the Jets' playoff chances come down to a road game in Miami in Week 17, what now looks like a terrific matchup given how well the Dolphins are playing.

AFC North: Pittsburgh (13-3), Baltimore (12-4), Cincinnati (11-5)
Why the Steelers? How about two games with Cleveland and one with St. Louis as we hit the homestretch. The keys to this division are Pittsburgh's road date with San Francisco, which I think they find a way to win, and Baltimore's Week 17 game in Cincinnati. I've projected the Bengals, due to Baltimore's ability to get close to the prize and then let it slip away. If the rest of the Notebook projections hold that means the game settles the  AFC North, homefield advantage and the final wild-card berth all in one fell swoop.

AFC South: Houston (11-5), Tennessee (10-6)
Terrific job by the Texans defense in getting it done against Atlanta last Sunday. This is another team that should be dialing up Favre to at least see if he can get in good enough shape to get them to the Super Bowl, but the defense and running game can hold off the Titans.

AFC West: Denver (9-7), Oakland (9-7)
This division probably comes down to whether Oakland can sweep a pair of AFC West games at home against San Diego and at Kansas City. I'm betting it's a split, which hands the divisional tiebreaker to Denver (each team currently has two AFC West losses). If the Raiders sweep those two it likely gets them in.

Projections here make Pittsburgh and New England the teams with the byes and send Baltimore to Denver for one wild-card game, with Cincinnati visiting Houston for another.


Dan Flaherty is the editor of www.thesportsnotebook.com

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