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Auditioning for '07

If there was an award for aging quarterbacks who resurrect themselves late in a season, Philadelphia's Jeff Garcia would be this year's recipient. Like Brad Johnson in 2005, Garcia has emerged from the cusp of what was surely a retirement tour to become one of the hottest quarterbacks in the league. And he's given wings to a team seemingly pushed off a cliff with the season-ending injury to Donovan McNabb.

Since taking over for McNabb in November, Garcia has amassed his best numbers since his days as a Pro Bowler with the San Francisco 49ers. And like Johnson, he's doing it as he enters his late 30s (Garcia will be 37 in February) and coming off a brutal dip in career (in Cleveland and Detroit). Now he's got a shot to parlay the play into one last stab at a starting job. After signing a one-year pact with the Eagles in the offseason, Garcia will be free to flirt with teams looking for a short-term starter – or a veteran to create competition at the quarterback spot. Considering McNabb's recent spate of injuries, that should come with some dismay in Philadelphia.

As for the rest of the NFL, here is a look at how teams stack up heading into the final week of the season.


1. San Diego Chargers (13-2) – Quarterback Philip Rivers' 10-of-30 passing against a mediocre Seattle secondary was both ugly and troubling. Wide receiver Vincent Jackson's emergence the last three games is a good sign, but Keenan McCardell (zero touchdowns this season) has disappeared in the red zone.

2. Baltimore Ravens (12-3) – Mark Clayton (609 receiving yards and three touchdowns in his last eight games) has quietly developed into one of the more underrated wideouts in the league. For a guy who wasn't supposed to have big-play ability, Clayton has produced catches of 35, 42 (twice), 62, 65 and 87 yards this season.

3. Chicago Bears (13-2) – Controversial or not, coach Lovie Smith made the right move getting quarterback Brian Griese some snaps against the Lions. Rex Grossman is still this team's starter, but if Smith is willing to pull Grossman if he struggles in a playoff game, then he has to commit to getting Griese some burn before season's end.

4. New England Patriots (11-4) – With all the talk about Pittsburgh's Bill Cowher, why isn't there more buzz about the fact that Bill Belichick doesn't have a contract beyond the end of this season? Maybe it's because nobody in the league is sure if he does or not. But if he's been extended beyond 2006, why hasn't it been announced?

5. New Orleans Saints (11-4) – You've got to hand it to left tackle Jammal Brown and quarterback Drew Brees – they've got the gratitude thing down. The pair is taking New Orleans' entire offensive line to Hawaii during the Pro Bowl. Not a bad treat for the team's most surprising unit.

6. Indianapolis Colts (11-4) – Your defense has hit rock bottom when it makes the Texans' Ron Dayne look like a young Jerome Bettis. Houston was the seventh team to rush for at least 186 yards against the Colts this season.

7. Philadelphia Eagles (9-6) – Not to be cynical, but this whole run by Jeff Garcia is just inviting a quarterback controversy for 2007. Coach Andy Reid is too smart for that, and he'll always have Donovan McNabb's back (which he should). But it only gives Philly fans another reason to turn on McNabb at the faintest sign of struggle.

8. Dallas Cowboys (9-6) – It's hard to know what was more humbling for wide receiver Terrell Owens: dropping so many passes in the loss to Philadelphia, or seeing his team defeated this season by both McNabb and Garcia.

9. Denver Broncos (9-6) – Quarterback Jay Cutler's 99-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter against Cincinnati was something special. His yardage and completion percentages haven't been stellar, but Cutler's four-game start as a rookie has mattered where it counts most – eight touchdowns, four interceptions and back-to-back wins when the Broncos absolutely needed them.

10. Cincinnati Bengals (8-7) – Needing Oakland to beat the Jets to get into the postseason? Kiss the playoffs goodbye. And the Bengals are in this predicament in part because of a botched extra point, no less. It's got to be one of the biggest disappointments of the season.

11. Jacksonville Jaguars (8-7) – How could the Jaguars not open up the starting running back spot for competition after seeing what Maurice Jones-Drew has done this season? Jones-Drew has 15 touchdowns in 15 games, and almost 1,500 yards rushing and receiving despite not being the starter. This is an offensive rookie of the year season in almost any other year.

12. New York Jets (9-6) – Seven seasons in, and quarterback Chad Pennington is finally going to notch the first 16-game regular season of his career. If he's not the comeback player of the year this season, I don't know who is.


Tennessee Titans (8-7) – If there were any doubts about the offensive rookie of the year, quarterback Vince Young should have laid them to rest Sunday. Forget his relatively impressive statistics. The 8-4 record as a starter and four fourth-quarter comebacks should be more than enough to convince his critics.

THE MUDDLED MIDDLE (in alphabetical order)

Arizona Cardinals (5-10) – The Cardinals haven't packed it in just yet and the 4-2 division record is reason for encouragement. You have to take the bright spots wherever you can get them.

Atlanta Falcons (7-8) – If we didn't already know it, coach Jim Mora's reign is all but over. Owner Arthur Blank refused comment after Sunday's loss to Carolina, referring reporters to comments he made to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in November. In that article, Blank said an 8-8 record and failure to make the playoffs wouldn't be accepted.

Buffalo Bills (7-8) – Beyond Jason Peters and Melvin Fowler, that offensive line needs a talent upgrade this offseason. Left guard Mike Gandy might be a serviceable piece, but the youngsters on the right side – Duke Preston and Terrance Pennington look like backups waiting to happen.

Carolina Panthers (7-8) – Offensive coordinator Dan Henning deserves some credit for a creative game plan against the Falcons. Not many NFL teams win games by attempting only seven passes and the direct snap to DeAngelo Williams was gutsy.

Green Bay Packers (7-8) – If quarterback Brett Favre does come back, don't be so sure it will be with the Packers. After seeing Steve McNair make such a fast impact on the Ravens, surely a few solid defensive teams will consider bringing in an aging future Pro Football Hall of Famer as a quick fix (Jacksonville, anyone?).

Kansas City Chiefs (8-7) – New Orleans wideout Marques Colston wasn't the only seventh-round steal of the draft. Safety Jarrad Page's two interceptions against Oakland should open some eyes to one of draft bargains we rarely have heard about this season.

Miami Dolphins (6-9) – Two key questions to consider: Why is Nick Saban admitting he misses college at this stage of a season, and why isn't Alabama seriously pursuing any other coaching candidates for its vacancy?

Minnesota Vikings (6-9) – Cutting wide receiver Marcus Robinson the day before Christmas, apparently due to him venting frustration over coach Brad Childress, seemed like a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. Maybe Childress had his fill with Terrell Owens in Philadelphia, but he's made it pretty clear since his hiring that he's not willing to take much public criticism from players.

New York Giants (7-8) – How costly was that 3-5 home record this season? With all due respect to Charley Casserly's résumé, he can't seriously be in the mix for the Giants' general manager position. This is going to be an internal hire … unless Scott Pioli becomes an option (don't bank on it).

Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8) – Dan Rooney's refusal to comment about the coaching staff might not be a bad sign. If Bill Cowher is still mulling over a return as most believe he is, Rooney could be going out of his way to make sure he doesn't say something that pushes the coach out the door.

St. Louis Rams (7-8) – He's gotten a big assist from a joke of an NFC field, but give Scott Linehan credit for keeping his players from packing it in for the season. Which begs the question: If Linehan somehow qualifies for the playoffs, is this class of rookie coaches (with Eric Mangini and Sean Payton having turned their teams around in year one) one of the best ever?

San Francisco 49ers (6-9) – Even with the playoff elimination, things are sounding pretty upbeat around the 49ers. Coach Mike Nolan is talking about all the progress made and how the offseason starts right now. But with a road game left in Denver? It sounds like a recipe for a blowout and a 10-loss season.

Seattle Seahawks (8-7) – Wide receiver Deion Branch's four dropped passes helped cost Seattle the game Sunday. And while it's only his first season in a new system, he sure looks a long way from justifying the massive contract (six years, $39 million) the Seahawks gave him this year following the trade with New England.


Washington Redskins (5-10) – The loss to St. Louis on Sunday might have been the worst game of safety Sean Taylor's career. His failed attempt at a second-quarter arm tackle of rookie Dominique Byrd was downright embarrassing. Joe Gibbs' 26 regular season losses over the last three years equal the 26 losses he suffered his first six seasons with the Redskins.


28. Houston Texans (5-10) – It's absurd that three of the five wins this season have come against Jacksonville (twice) and Indianapolis. Despite Ron Dayne's career day, the running back spot isn't solved. What team would pass up Adrian Peterson in the NFL draft to cast its lot with Dayne?

29. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11) – No way this team signs quarterback Chris Simms to a two-year deal if the coaching staff and front office are headed for a sweeping. This regime has got one more year to get back on track.

30. Cleveland Browns (4-11) – Yes, coach Romeo Crennel is sounding defeated and the situation at quarterback (not to mention with Braylon Edwards) is looking ominous. But at least the Browns have an impact player in linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, who has put up one of the most quiet 10-sack seasons ever for a rookie.

31. Oakland Raiders (2-13) – Seven games without a touchdown this season – seven! It sure makes all of those salary-cap decisions on offense look a little tougher. The trio of Barry Sims, LaMont Jordan and Ronald Curry are due over $14 million in bonuses this offseason. All three might be gone.

32. Detroit Lions (2-13) – Not to defend wide receiver Mike Williams, but it's hard to rip a guy who has gotten almost no run this season for failing to make a tough game-winning catch on Sunday.

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