Monday, November 28, 2011

NFL week 12: separation?

Green Bay becomes all but uncatchable in the NFC, but the only changes in the AFC seem to come near the bottom.
  • The Lions needed to play mistake-free football to beat Green Bay. Stafford threw three interceptions, leading directly to 17 points, and the Lions committed 11 penalties. The defense did all it was asked to do, but once again, the offense put them in a hole they couldn't escape. Detroit has played four home games against teams currently in the playoffs, and they've lost three of them, each time because the offense couldn't run effectively. I think that's an indication that Detroit isn't really a playoff contender. They might get lucky and slip into the playoffs if Chicago continues to struggle or if Atlanta falters, but they won't get far. The other problem they have, well, you already know about that. At some point, you either stop committing personal fouls, or you simply are a dirty player. Apologies at this point are meaningless: Suh just needs to stop doing dumb things on the field. The Lions are deep at defensive tackle, but not so deep that they can afford to have an All-Pro-caliber DT missing games because he lost his temper. 
  • Give the Packers' defense credit: they made the plays they needed to. Detroit was 5 of 10 on third down, but the three interceptions were enough to give Rodgers the advantage he needed to counter Detroit's defense (the Packers were just 2 of 10 on third down). Detroit scored touchdowns on both of their red zone drives, but the second drive was a last-minute drive that really had no impact on the game. They aren't very good, but on Thursday, they were good enough, and that may be all the Packers need until playoff time. Then again, it isn't like there are any balanced teams in the NFC, so maybe Green Bay won't have to get a solid game from the defense until the Super Bowl, should they get there. (It's much easier to find flaws in the other contenders.)
  • Miami suddenly looks much less like an Indianapolis-caliber team and much more like a team that just had bad breaks to start the season, but they still have some issues. The decision to pick up Bush in the offseason doesn't look too bad until you look at his productivity at RB, and it's just as disappointing as it was in New Orleans. The difference is that the Saints had a passing game that didn't need nearly as much support; Moore is definitely playing better now than he did at first (which is what you'd expect from a backup), but aside from Marshall, the only other threat in the passing game is Bush, and he isn't nearly as effective if he's coming out of the backfield. Bush is like a weaker, less elusive version of Barry Sanders. He has a similar boom-or-bust mentality, but has much less ability to avoid contact, and thus there are many more carries for little or no yards.
  • Once again, Dallas' defense came to the rescue, holding the Dolphins to field goal attempts on four drives inside the 10. (Graham's longest kick of the four was 28 yards.) It almost wasn't enough: the running game was OK (even though DeMarco Murray got all of the RB carries), and the passing game struggled. Miami's defense is good, but like the Lions, the Cowboys have difficulty against teams with good defenses. That may not be a problem in the surprisingly weak East, but pretty much all the wild-card contenders in the NFC have good defenses, and Detroit has already shown what they can do in Dallas; it isn't a stretch to see Chicago or Atlanta playing even better than that. Romo is not playing his best every week, but the absence of Miles Austin is definitely a factor, and not having Felix Jones at 100% is a problem as well. 
  • San Francisco's lack of offense was finally exposed against Baltimore: unable to run the ball and unable to force turnovers to create short fields, the 49ers had to try the passing game, and of course it didn't go very well. Despite what commentators like to think, I believe Roman has designed an offense to hide Alex Smith's shortcomings, not to work on his weaknesses (it's probably too late for that), so there will be a risk of this happening against any solid defense. The game was close mostly because Baltimore is a similar team (strong on defense, vulnerable on offense), and that's probably a good sign for San Francisco because the teams they're likely to meet before the NFC championship game are similar, so they'll be on equal footing.
  • Big non-conference win for Baltimore, especially with Pittsburgh still having to visit the 49ers. The Ravens have no real challenges left until Week 17 against Cincinnati, so even if Pittsburgh beats San Francisco, the Ravens should have a relatively easy path to the division title. All three 8-3 division leaders have just two conference losses, so it'll be important for the Ravens to win out and wait to see what happens in Houston. With the Texans down to their third-string QB (where is that Orton guy when you need him?), it may be just a matter of time before Baltimore moves up into a first-round-bye position.
  • Is there anyone still doubting that Christian Ponder should be the starting QB in Minnesota? The Vikings didn't have much of a chance with Adrian Peterson out, but Ponder still turned in a decent performance against a good team on the road: 68% completions, no turnovers, 7.4 Y/A ... he probably took too many sacks, but then Minnesota's offensive line isn't the best either. The Vikings need to be thinking about the future, starting now, and that includes the guy who missed Sunday's game. Chris Johnson should be a lesson to teams: don't invest a ton of money in a guy who simply can't make enough of a difference for your team. There are too many RBs out there. Peterson has done a great job in Minnesota, but he wasn't the main reason they made it to the NFC Championship two years ago, and he's obviously not keeping them out of the basement now. Minnesota is 5 games behind the Bears and Lions, with games remaining against each team as well as New Orleans and Denver. It's not out of the question for this team to finish 2-14. 
  • Matt Ryan had an impressive game against Minnesota, moving the Falcons into 6th in the conference ahead of Detroit. However, this should be an expectation against a weak team; Atlanta got a needed win, but they shouldn't have been struggling at home against a team missing their star RB and starting a rookie QB (even though he's playing better than the veteran). This was a 17-14 game relatively late in the fourth quarter. The Falcons caught a break with Houston's injury problems at QB, so they may escape with a big road win next week, and that would be huge. Detroit and the Giants have challenging schedules, so a win over the Texans combined with wins over the weaker teams on their schedule might give the Falcons a wild-card spot; a win at New Orleans might even give them the division.
  • Cleveland's offense struggled again against Cincinnati; McCoy was unimpressive (4.1 NY/A), the running game was kept in check, and while they did convert some third downs, they didn't get enough points to survive Cincinnati's comeback. The Browns deserve credit for staying with Cincinnati on the road, but credit only goes so far, and at some point Cleveland will be expected to do more than just compete. (Browns fans are pointing out that that point arrived about six years ago.)
  • With Buffalo's loss, the Bengals have a little more breathing room, but Denver opponents' insistence on ignoring deep receivers have basically put them in the Bills' place in the hunt, meaning that this was a game Cincinnati couldn't afford to lose. The offense put up decent numbers, but they're not as good as they seem: Benson had 106 yards rushing, but 33 of those were on one play. 20 carries for 73 yards isn't nearly as impressive. Dalton was 21 of 31 for 270 yards, but 51 of those were on a pass to A.J. Green; again, 30 passes for 219 yards isn't quite as good. The AFC does have some good offense/weak defense teams like the NFC does, but Cincinnati's two division opponents have strong defenses, and the Bengals will have to get more productivity against teams like Cleveland if they're going to beat Pittsburgh or Baltimore, which may be necessary for them to make the playoffs.
  • The Bucs have had, by far, the most difficult schedule in the league. Their opponents' winning percentage is nearly .600 (.597); all seven of their losses have come to teams with winning records, and five of those seven are currently in the playoffs (Detroit and Tennessee are the others). It's notable that the two closer losses are to the two latter teams; they had a close loss to Chicago, but the other losses were not close. Tampa Bay simply isn't a playoff-caliber team, much like Detroit isn't quite at that level. The Tennessee game highlighted their offensive struggles: five fumbles (four lost), one interception, 2 of 10 on third downs, only one red zone drive, only one touchdown. This season is making 2010 look like an outlier for Josh Freeman, and if he struggles like this next year, Raheem Morris will have to start looking for another QB. 
  • Chris Johnson finally had a day worthy of his contract, and it came against a team that's known for having good defenses. Unfortunately, the Bucs' defense this season isn't anywhere near as good as it has been, so it's hard to see this game as anything more than the Titans taking advantage of a young, weak team. What's a bit more troubling is that Hasselbeck had a bad day against a bad defense: 4.7 Y/A (gross, not net), just a bit over 50% completions, 1 TD and two picks. The Titans also fumbled three times (recovering one), giving Tampa Bay far more opportunities than they should have. Tennessee can't afford to have games like this, even against the softer parts of their remaining schedule. Jacksonville has a much better defense than Tampa Bay, and even Indianapolis has played a couple of solid games this year. New Orleans will roll over the Titans if they play like they did Sunday, and Houston might do the same on New Year's; if the division isn't out of reach by then, it probably will be, and the Titans can ill afford to be in a position where that becomes a must-win game for them. They're not just showing the ability to play well enough on both sides of the ball to beat a good team.
  • Carolina was able to move the ball steadily against the Colts' horrid defense, which isn't much of a surprise. The fact that they got only 27 points is a surprise. Carolina's offense has actually been good this season, something that's been lost due to their defense being, well, worse than Indy's. (Their run defense is terrifyingly bad: there's a gap of 3.4 points between Cleveland at 30 and St. Louis at 31. There's a gap of 8.4 points between the Rams and Panthers.) It's been consistently bad, too, not just occasionally bad, so week in and week out, the Panthers struggle to keep up with their opponents, usually failing in the process. (Carolina's 9th in the NFC in scoring but dead last in points allowed.) So give them credit for winning on the road, even if it was against a hapless team. Last year, you see, that hapless team was Carolina. They have, as they say, been there and done that. 
  • On the other side of the ball, the Colts faced a terrible defense and ... ugh. Painter: 15 of 29, 2 picks, 1 fumble (not lost). Third downs: 1 of 9. They ran the ball OK, which is not good against the sieve that is the Panthers' run defense. There are no more winnable games on the Colts' schedule. Unless a team completely blows a game, this will be the second 0-16 team in NFL history, and like the Lions, it will be a team in desperate need of an overhaul. The Lions hired Martin Mayhew permanently (he was the interim GM), who then hired Jim Schwartz, and Detroit is now sitting at 7-4 and on the edge of the playoffs. The vast majority of that roster was replaced. It is not a stretch to suggest that the same thing needs to happen in Indianapolis. There are 6 players on Detroit's roster who were drafted during the Dark Times. (Jason Hanson predates them ... by a lot. In 2001, he was entering his 10th season in Detroit.) Interestingly, the Colts have 2 players from the Dark Times, Ernie Sims and Dan Orlovsky. (Picking up Lions retreads is usually a bad sign.) Are there 6 players on the Colts' roster that are unarguably part of the rebuilding process? Reggie Wayne is in his 11th season, as is Ryan Diem. Jeff Saturday is in his 13th season. Freeney and Mathis, 10th and 9th, respectively. Sure, you want to keep a few of the veterans, even if only because you can't replace 53 players in one season, but how many of these guys are going to be worthwhile players in three years? (And that's leaving aside the biggest question of all: what happens with #18? Who is, by the way, in his 14th season.)
  • Didn't I just mention St. Louis' defensive issues? Why, yes I did. Beanie Wells is not the next Walter Payton. He is, more than likely, the next Jerome Harrison: a guy who took advantage of a situation to put up monster numbers that he'll never again approach. Keep in mind that he had runs of 71 and 53 yards; those accounted for more than half his total. 25 carries for 104 yards doesn't sound nearly as impressive, does it? (Almost like a Barry Sanders day: the day where he ripped off two 80-plus-yard TD runs, he had just 215 yards total.) And after all that, Arizona still needed a late field goal to hold off the Rams (and spoil my pick 'em week: I missed only this game and the Lions game). Consider this: Patrick Peterson has four punt return TDs this year. In those games, the Cardinals won by 7, lost by 3, won by 6, and won by 3. You can't simply say "if he hadn't scored, they would have lost" because you're assuming nothing else would change significantly, but I think it's reasonable to suggest that a win in each of those three games would have been less likely without his TD, and the loss (to Baltimore) would have been bigger. So it wasn't all Beanie this time. After all, on seven occasions, a player has rushed for 200 or more yards in a losing effort. (O.J. did it twice, and both times, they were double-figure losses.)
  • The Rams are last in the NFC again, thanks to their win over Baltimore. (Minnesota has a better conference record and thus is 15th.) Last year's 7-9 record is a distant memory, and the notion that Sam Bradford is definitely an up-and-coming QB is also a distant memory. Without counting stats in his favor, his conventional numbers are less gaudy, and so people are more likely to listen when you bring up things like 4.6 ANY/A and -19.0% DVOA. To be fair, those stats really reflect "the St. Louis passing game when Sam Bradford is QB", and so they are not all his fault, but then I don't know anyone who looks at more than counting stats and says that Bradford is a good QB at this point in his career. More than likely, he's just another OK kid (no pun intended) who was thrust into a difficult situation and couldn't make it work. The Rams would be a bad team this year no matter who was at QB; it just doesn't help that the guy they have isn't doing much of anything well. The one thing he is doing well, something that should actually be a concern for Rams fans, is avoiding interceptions. He's third among NFL QBs in interception percentage, behind only Aaron Rodgers and that one guy in Minnesota who's now a backup. (No, really. McNabb struggled at everything else, but he wasn't throwing picks.) You can make the argument that last season's 2.5% is proof that Bradford just doesn't throw picks, but I think it's more that he's had good luck his first two seasons. I'll have to check FO's dropped interceptions charts to see if that's played a factor, but for some perspective, the NFL career leader in INT% is Rodgers, at 1.8%. McNabb is actually tied with Bradford (and some guy named Brady) at 2.2%, third behind Neil O'Donnell. Is he really that good at avoiding interceptions? I guess he could be, but give me another season or two like that before you convince me. Rodgers has done it for 4 seasons, and the other guys have more than that under their belts.
  • Buffalo's run is over, and with Fred Jackson out and AFC playoff contenders disappearing in the distance, that red-hot start won't culminate in a playoff appearance. (FO mentioned that "there's a pretty good chance that teams like Buffalo, Tennessee, and Detroit are going to be good all year" after Week 4. Of course, the model didn't know that Detroit and Tennessee had faced relatively weak schedules and that Buffalo would collapse mid-season.) Fitzpatrick had a pretty good game against a strong Jets defense, but the Bills couldn't manage anything on the ground (C.J. Spiller is not the same kind of back Jackson is), and it's much harder to kill the clock when you can't run the ball. A win would have made the Bills the 6-5 team hoping for other teams to slip in December; the loss means Buffalo can start thinking about 2012. 
  • Mark Sanchez is just not a good QB. The "ability" to throw touchdown passes late in games is nice if you seem to have it, but it doesn't make up for the inability to throw good passes during the first three quarters so you don't have to come from behind all the time. Hopefully Rex Ryan has dropped that silly Super Bowl talk; this team isn't nearly good enough to win one. There will be no AFC Championship appearance this season. The Jets will be lucky to make the playoffs, but they won't get far. There are too many solid defenses that will simply shut down New York's anemic offense, and the one team that has a defense the Jets might break, New England, will simply outscore them.
  • Matt Leinart actually looked like a decent NFL quarterback for a half. He used short passes to inch the Texans down the field and build a small lead (that would have been bigger if Arian Foster hadn't lost a fumble that became a Jaguars TD). Then he got hurt, and whatever semblance of a passing game Houston had ... actually didn't seem to change that much. Yates' completion percentage was lower than Leinart's, but his Y/A was about the same. The difference was field position: with Leinart in the game, the Texans started two drives in Jacksonville territory and another at the 45, and those gave Houston 13 points. In the second half, they had exactly one drive start in Jacksonville territory, and it was a three-and-out. Houston might be another team to consider some kind of option play; of course it takes much more than a week to learn the read option or triple option or inverted veer or whatever, but if the alternative is what we saw Sunday, well, I'd go with the option.
  • So ... Blaine Gabbert != NFL QB. Not yet, anyway. Perhaps more specifically, not a QB in Jacksonville. I never associated them with a spread offense in the first place, so coming from that at Missouri means he's got to learn an entire new scheme, take snaps under center instead of in the gun, all that ... just a bad combination. In retrospect, releasing David Garrard wasn't such a big deal (because he's injured and couldn't have played anyway), but it does say something that the Jaguars ended up with zero competent QBs. How strange is it that three of the four AFC South teams ended up going to their third-string QBs? (The Colts haven't made a permanent change to Orlovsky, but he did see some playing time.) As I was writing this, Jack Del Rio was fired. I think it's the right move, but of course it's far too early to guess what will happen next in Jacksonville. I don't know that it makes sense to talk about who the best fit would be, because we don't know how much control they'll have over personnel decisions and thus how compatible the existing talent will be with the new schemes.
  • The Bears' defense held Oakland to a field goal or less on all but one drive, but that one drive was enough to put the game out of reach. All those people who were hoping that Hanie would replace Cutler? Yeah, they're kind of quiet now, aren't they? Cutler is not the problem. The scheme was most of the problem; the offensive line and lack of quality receivers makes up the rest of it. When Martz finally realized that the Bears didn't have the personnel to run his run-and-shoot-style offense, he relented and switched to quicker passes and better protection, using Tyler Clutts much more often, and the Bears suddenly had a productive offense. With Cutler out, they're obviously going to suffer until Hanie gets used to NFL-caliber defenses. Fortunately for him, Seattle is the only top-16 pass defense the Bears will face until the playoffs. Again, the goal should be for Hanie to be a caretaker, not to be the focal point of the offense: Chicago's defense should be good enough to make up the difference. They were on Sunday, but Hanie's mistakes cost them.
  • The Raiders were lucky. If Cutler had been healthy, Oakland's inability to score touchdowns would have dropped them into a tie with the Broncos. Instead, they get another big win and remain just a game out of the top spot in the AFC. Carson Palmer seems to be comfortable in the Raiders' offense, with 8.1 Y/A against a solid defense. Oakland's defense forced enough turnovers to help out; with Green Bay and Detroit still on the schedule, they may have to step up two more times. Miami could actually be more of a challenge now that Moore is playing like a decent QB, but Kansas City and San Diego should be wins, and if Tebow continues to struggle against decent defenses, the Raiders probably won't have to beat either NFC North team to win their division.
  • No, I don't know how Rex Grossman managed to help Washington pull out a win at Seattle. OK, it had something to do with the opposing QB (could Grossman and Tarvaris Jackson be the least impressive QB matchup in recent times?), but still, that doesn't win games for you unless the other guy is throwing interceptions for touchdowns. 314 yards, 2 TDs, three fourth-quarter scoring drives ... obviously the defense had something to do with it (last four Seattle drives: three-and-out, three-and-out, four-and-out, interception), but Seattle only gave Washington the ball in Seahawks territory on one of the three drives (the interception ended the game), so it wasn't like Washington could settle for field goals. They still need a competent QB if they're going to have a shot at competing for the division next year, but for now, if Grossman can have games like this, it'll be enough to make them competitive, and that's enough to keep them even with Philadelphia for now. (Random thought: imagine getting odds from someone that going into December, Rex Grossman and Washington would have the same record as Philadelphia.)
  • The rah-rah stuff is wearing off in Seattle, and we're beginning to see the same stuff that Pete Carroll did in New England: not much of anything. I think he's a poor judge of talent; he doesn't have to be good at USC because a lot of top athletes want to go there, so all you need is to sign enough recruits who become good that you can beat UCLA and Stanford and sometimes Oregon. In the NFL, it's much more difficult to build a roster, so you can't afford to make as many mistakes. Jackson isn't good enough to be a starter. Zach Miller is basically a non-factor. Marshawn Lynch is better than Reggie Bush and maybe a few other guys, but that's it. Steven Hauschka is doing a good job kicking, but if that's the high point of your offense, you're doing it wrong. (Surprisingly, the passing game isn't worse with Jackson than it was with Hasselbeck last season. It isn't so much that the decision to let Hasselbeck go was bad as it is that he's been a great fit in Tennessee, which is even harder to explain given that Chris Johnson is having a terrible season.)
  • Remember when New England looked like they might struggle to make the playoffs? Me either. With the Texans down to a third-string QB and the Ravens' offense looking at times like it has a third-string QB at the helm, it's hard to imagine anything preventing the Patriots from securing the #1 seed in the playoffs, and from there, the only question is whether or not they'll face a defense capable of disrupting their offense. Baltimore, New York and Houston all have defenses capable of the job, but none have offenses who could take advantage of New England's weak secondary. You don't have to be the best team in the conference to get to the Super Bowl, you just have to beat the teams in your way, and the Patriots look more than capable of doing that. Philadelphia's pass defense isn't that bad, despite what people believe (the run defense, however, is another story), but Brady had these numbers: 10.4 NY/A, 3 TDs, 0 interceptions, 1 sack. 
  • Is it Andy Reid's fault? For thinking that an offensive line coach can run a defense, yes. For not using the running game more, yes. For not building an offense that can score in short-yardage situations, yes. Is there a coach out there who could do more than he is? Well, take a look at some of the new coaches in the league. (Compared to Reid, that would be all of them, of course. That sounds crazy, but did you know that after him and Belichick, the next two coaches in terms of tenure are Marvin Lewis and Jack Del Rio, at least prior to this week? I know.) Can you be sure you'd get, say, a John Harbaugh and not a Todd Haley? No. Has Reid lost the players? Well, he's lost DeSean Jackson, but then sometimes you're going to get players who don't care about the team in the first place. It's better to get rid of the players than to get rid of the coach. Besides, the next coach is going to inherit a really young roster, because you can only keep expensive free agents together for a certain amount of time. Wait ... that's an argument to get rid of Reid. (Better to let the new coach get the kinds of players he wants than to try to build a team from what the last one left.)
  • By now, it should be obvious what Denver's going to do. They're going to run the ball, and run it some more, and some more, and then run the ball, and occasionally Tebow will chuck the ball 50 yards downfield. That's all they have. Detroit took that feeble offense, fed it into a wood chipper, and tossed the pieces into an incinerator. Everyone else has looked at it as if they'd never watched college football in the '70s. San Diego's defense, like others Tebow has faced, is bad, so it's kind of understandable that they weren't able to stop him. That doesn't mean Tebow had a good game, although he does deserve credit for one thing: turnovers, or rather the lack thereof. He just doesn't turn the ball over. He has a single interception, against Detroit. (Unfortunately, it was an end-zone interception that was returned for a touchdown.) He's fumbled just five times in six games. (One of those was returned for a touchdown by Detroit as well.) He's going to make you stop Denver on third down, and if you can't do that, they're going to take time off the clock and put up 3s and occasionally 7s on the board. Against weaker teams and the Jets, it's worked. It will not work against Chicago and New England.
  • San Diego is 13th in the AFC. Behind them are Jacksonville, who lost their starting QB and are relying on a rookie and a journeyman; Miami, who lost their starting QB and are relying on a journeyman; and Indianapolis, who lost their starting QB and are relying on an untested backup. Unlike the Florida teams, San Diego has their starting QB, and also unlike them, the Chargers' defense is terrible. Philip Rivers isn't having a bad year, just an OK year, but even Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers would be hard pressed to undo the damage San Diego has done defensively. 15.4% DVOA, 29th in the league. 7.2 NY/A, tied for 27th with New England. 30th according to Brian Burke. 26th in points allowed. When Norv Turner is shown the door, that defense will be one of the reasons why. Turner never really made the most of the talent he had in San Diego, but that was all right as long as they were at least making the playoffs. That will not happen this season.
  • Man, Pittsburgh's offense sucks this season. Wait, it doesn't? What? That's the funny thing: it doesn't. It just looked terrible against Kansas City, which is really hard to understand given that teams like Buffalo and Detroit set the Chiefs' defense on fire. In fact, just like the Steelers struggled the entire game against Indianapolis, they struggled against Kansas City. If they continue to have difficulty against bad teams, then December will be a tough month for them: of course the 49ers game will be an exception, but they play Cleveland twice (well, once on January 1, but that's basically football December) and St. Louis once, and a loss in any of those games would probably put the division out of reach. Pittsburgh is two games clear of seventh-place Denver, so they've got quite a cushion right now, but there are only so many times you can win three straight road playoff games, and I don't think this team is good enough to do that. 
  • Hey, New Orleans! Styx welcomes you to the Paradise Theater! Ah, one of the few albums both my dad and I liked ... and not so different than the performances that Drew Brees is putting up this year. Saints fans might feel like they're at a concert, looking at the fireworks in the Superdome. 363 yards, 9.6 Y/A, 4 TDs, no picks. The Saints posted 577 yards in total offense against the Giants, the most they'd allowed since 1948 (in a 63-35 loss to the Chicago Cardinals; Chicago QBs were 15 of 20 for 280 yards and 5 TDs in that game, which probably equates to something off the charts these days). New Orleans is now just a game behind San Francisco for second place in the NFC, and with Pittsburgh on the 49ers' schedule, it's not impossible that New Orleans, who looked at one point like they might stumble in the South, could end up resting in January while the 49ers try to pick apart Detroit or Chicago or Atlanta. Sunday's game against the Lions will be big for both teams. 
  • The Giants aren't out of the playoffs by any means. They're just a game behind Dallas with two games to play against the Cowboys, and just a game behind Chicago, Atlanta, and Detroit for a wild-card spot, with no head-to-head losses against any of those teams. On the other hand, during the most challenging stretch on their schedule, they've won just a single game, against New England, and sandwiched between losses to the #2 and #3 teams in the NFC is a loss to a struggling Philadelphia team that likely won't even break .500. The Cowboys are playing better, which gives New York four tough games of the five they have remaining. A loss to Green Bay would be entirely understandable, but losing the following week to Dallas would all but eliminate them in the East, and at 6-7, they'd probably only have a shot at the second wild-card spot, and even then only if two of the three teams above them falter. The Giants are learning something that the 2007 Lions could have told them: strength of schedule can make you look a lot better or a lot worse than you really are. That Lions team looked like playoff contenders the first half of the season; in the second half, they looked more like the 0-16 team they'd be in 2008. The Giants aren't nearly that bad, but they could finish 1-7 like Detroit did that year. 
Believe it or not, the contenders are pulling away in both conferences. There are probably 8 teams in the mix in the NFC and 9 in the AFC, and in a couple of weeks, those numbers will probably shrink. Green Bay can start preparing for the divisional playoffs now, but no one else is close to locking up anything ... San Francisco has the division in hand, but could finish as the #2 or #3, depending on what the Saints do, and obviously it's in the best interest to avoid that #3 spot. The top seed in the AFC is starting T.J. Yates at QB. (At least for now.) Anyone who can tell you how the AFC is going to shake out is just silly. It seems likely that New England will be in their usual position, but who knows? Houston keeps winning even though three of their best players have missed or will miss significant time this season.

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