This week’s Early Edition keys in on a few divisional games that could shape the playoff landscape significantly, but there are a few other intriguing games that could color our view of the teams as we steamroll toward the playoffs — plus a few teams that about are far from the playoffs as you can get, too. Here are the biggest storylines as we take an early look at Week 14’s action.
Showdown in NOLA
It’s a short, bitter week for the New Orleans Saints as they pick up the pieces from the brutal loss to the Seattle Seahawks and get prepared to face the suddenly scorching Carolina Panthers Sunday night in New Orleans.
The short week was made shorter for the Saints when their plane out of Sea-Tac was delayed because of engine failure, similar to what had played out on the field. Now they must face a Panthers defense that actually is statistically better than the one that held them to a mere seven points on Monday.
The Panthers might not be as tenacious and ferocious in the secondary as the Seahawks are, but they clearly come in brimming with confidence and possess one of the most gifted defensive lines — led by Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Star Lotulelei — in the game.
But there’s another part of the equation: Cam Newton and the Panthers’ effective and waxing offense against a Saints defense that tried everything in vain against the athleticism and precision of Russell Wilson and the Seahawks. Blitzing didn’t work — so will they ditch that approach against Newton?
It’s a fascinating dilemma they face with such a big game on the horizon.
Niners try for late push
All the Seahawks have clinched is a playoff spot, even if the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoff strata appears all but a given at this point. But their opponents this weekend, a road date with the rival San Francisco 49ers, can’t be one they overlook.
Although this might seem as much a playoff tuneup as anything, the Seahawks know they still have to go toe to toe with an angry but improving 49ers club and that the division still goes through San Fran until further notice. (Just don’t expect Richard Sherman to say that.)
If it’s Sherman vs. Michael Crabtree, who reintroduced himself to his teammates and the league with a 60-yard catch and run Sunday, then we’re grabbing our popcorn. It’s a matchup — and a game — that easily could reprise itself in the postseason, no matter which team wins.
The first result was stunning at the time: a 29-3 blasting at the hands of the Seahawks in Week 2 that started with an early safety, and steamrolled from there. Actually, it felt a lot like Monday’s Saints-Seahawks game.
If the Niners hope to win, they must avoid that jarring, tone-setting defensive play the Seahawks seem to have in all their signature victories and frustrate them with stone-cold, almost boring, efficiency. At this point, the Seahawks’ biggest obstacle might be themselves, and the best way to beat them could be to frustrate them and hope they self-destruct with penalties and faulty blocking and tackling.
Hanging on for Bear life
The loser of Monday’s Dallas Cowboys-Chicago Bears game will have a hard time feeling good about their postseason chances, although the game clearly has more urgency for the Bears, who currently have tiebreakers over the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants (who are behind them in the standings) by virtue of head-to-head wins but are still behind the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles to get into the playoff’s top six.
Another thing really working against the Bears: their 3-6 conference record, which ranked 11th out of NFC teams, and is the second tiebreaker for playoff considerations.
Will Jay Cutler return yet? Too soon to tell. But Cutler’s absence might be the least of their many worries now. The defense has been bad when it has not been blitzing lately, the offensive line has taken a step back and penalties are absolutely killing them. Then, on top of that, public doubt has set in: The questioning of head coach Marc Trestman and his decision to kick in the overtime loss to the Minnesota Vikings has dominated the Chicago airwaves this week.
Strange, but the Bears — not the Cowboys — are the team riding the emotional wave coming into this game. Rare that the ‘Boys are outdone in the drama department, but this week they are.
Major draft implications
We don’t blame you if you don’t watch or DVR Thursday’s Houston Texans-Jacksonville Jaguars game, but this is actually a fairly critical game in the NFL landscape. It won’t play out until May, and there still are four weeks of action left to change the order, but right now the Jaguars and Texans are in serious running to be picking 1-2 in the NFL draft.
What’s stunning, too, is the fact that the Jaguars — the league’s doormats for the first half of the season — have shown some real spunk of late, winning three of four games, and have been the better of the two teams lately.
Still, Vegas has installed the Texans as the slim favorites on the road, and with all of their slim losses — seven of 10 have come in one-score games — the sentiment seems to be that they are the more talented club.
But what about the more motivated one? Gus Bradley might be a Coach of the Year candidate had his team not gotten off to an 0-8 start with the way he’s firing up his troops the past month. The run defense has improved significantly, and the offense has run the ball better and converted more on third downs. But more than that, Bradley has convinced his players to give him their all, which is pretty remarkable when they were roundly consider the worst team in the NFL.
This weekend’s game could change that.
As it stands now, the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts — who meet this Sunday, both sitting at 8-4 — are the three and four seeds in the AFC playoffs. Both are favored to win their respective divisions, with the irony being that the Colts have really struggled to finish opponents off lately, and yet they’d have to really stumble to lose the AFC South and the playoff berth that comes with it.
But the Bengals have not been markedly better of late, even with two solid victories the past two weeks. That said, the game is in Cincinnati and the Bengals are one of five NFL teams that are unbeaten at home (5-0).
With a weakened AFC playoff field arising, Andy Dalton and the Bengals could help themselves out considerably by beating Andrew Luck and the Colts and earning the 3-seed, which could have them facing an 8-8 or even a sub-.500 team in Round 1. Meanwhile, the 4-seed would have to face a Kansas City Chiefs team that, despite losing three straight, was unbeaten into November.
There are six teams right now competing for the final AFC wildcard spot, and the Bengals have beaten three of the five head to head (by a combined 60 points), with the two losses (to the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins) by a field goal or less on the road. There’s a big difference, it appears, between the third and fourth playoff seeds, and this game Sunday could end up being a major implication in how it all stacks up.
Smith and lesson
New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan has been criticized for the way he has handled rookie Geno Smith, whose early-season poise has turned to a nightmarish stretch where he has issued out 10 turnovers and zero touchdown passes in the past five games.
Smith was assured he’d still be starting this weekend when the Jets host the Oakland Raiders, but the ice beneath his feet has been thawing for some time, especially after being benched Sunday in the loss to the Miami Dolphins.
But what was Ryan to do? He has been totally handcuffed on this one.
First, he was given an untenable quarterback situation, whether or not Mark Sanchez got hurt. Smith was new GM John Idzik’s pick, and perhaps not Ryan’s first choice, although that’s speculation. When Sanchez went down, Ryan went all in with Smith — out of necessity.
And Ryan’s decision to bench Smith was borne out of the same force of necessity in that he was trying like heck to win a game and had no choice but to bench his starter. Smith had completed 4-of-10 passes for 29 yards and was showing no indication he could win the game, even though it was only 6-0 at the time.
Of course, neither could Matt Simms, and frankly, we wonder if David Garrard — inactive for five weeks now and having not thrown a regular-season pass since 2010 — could offer any proper relief.
But the lesson here is that a lame-duck coach with a rookie quarterback does not a good pairing make. The thinking used to be that playing a rookie bought you time, but in this day and age of instant results, that does not work anymore.
This train is heading down a rough set of tracks, despite Ryan coaching with every ounce of passion and effort in his body.
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