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While it's somewhat disappointing that only two playoff berths are undecided going into Sunday's season finales, there are definitely some potential dream matchups Jan. 5-6.
As a result, please forgive me for letting go of my normal objective point of view (I really don't have a favorite team, despite what many of you think from time to time), but here's my list of teams I'll be pulling for this week: Washington Redskins, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, New York Giants and either the New England Patriots or Cincinnati Bengals.
Let's start with the NFC. If the Redskins beat Dallas for the NFC East championship, Detroit beats Chicago, Green Bay beats Minnesota, the Giants beat the Eagles to clinch the last playoff spot and the San Francisco 49ers win the West, here's what the first round looks like:
Giants at 49ers – While the Giants aren't exactly looking like the team they became at the end of last season, this group is still dangerous and interesting. Anytime you have that combination of pass rushers and quarterback, you are perfectly built to win on the road in the playoffs. Moreover, this is a great test to see if San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh's decision to switch from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick was really a good one. I have been a Kaepernick proponent for a long time and this matchup is one of the big reasons.
Seahawks at Redskins – Voters for the Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year ballot should ask for an extension if this game is played. The award will come down to quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III (sorry Andrew Luck, you know I'm a big fan of yours, but these guys stole the show). Better yet, this would be something of a return home for Wilson, who grew up in Richmond, Va., before heading off to play at both North Carolina State and then Wisconsin.
The matchups here are a little more defined. Sure, losses by the Houston Texans at Indianapolis (very possible) and/or Denver Broncos vs. Kansas City Chiefs (very unlikely) combined with a New England Patriots win vs. Miami Dolphins (very likely) could throw the top end of the bracket into flux. But that's unlikely to have a huge impact on the first round.
What's most important is that New England and Baltimore stay at their current seedings, No. 3 and No. 4, respectively. If the Patriots get the No. 4 seed, then we get a rematch of Indianapolis (locked in as the No. 5) and a third edition of Baltimore-Cincinnati (boring). With that in mind, here's the more interesting matchups:
Colts at Ravens – During Peyton Manning's Indy days, this was a playoff classic. Sadly, neither team is quite what it was back then (the Ravens' defense is a shell of what it once was), but this still has potential to be fun. Luck against Joe Flacco will be entertaining and Chuck Pagano returning to Baltimore to face his former defense will be yet another inspiring chapter in his great book (or screenplay or Broadway show or whatever this real-life drama hopefully becomes).
Bengals at Patriots – This game likely has the least drama to it (you could substitute Houston or Denver for New England and get the same feeling), but there's something about the Bengals that makes me think they're going to be interesting for the next couple of years. Quarterback Andy Dalton, wide receiver A.J. Green and defensive tackle Geno Atkins are all really young, so it's likely that they're going to get a few years to stay together before owner Mike Brown takes his inevitable hardline stance and refuses to pay at least one of them.
A THOUGHT ON TEBOW
The cacophony of criticism Tim Tebow has taken this week after it was reported (by extremely reputable reporters) that he asked out of playing Wildcat quarterback is simply unfair and lacking in big-picture perception.
While I don't doubt that Tebow gave every impression to New York Jets coach Rex Ryan that he wanted out (or, as Tebow put it, that he just wanted a chance to play "quarterback"), here's the real issue to consider:
Tebow has been lied to all season. For whatever reason, the Jets have tried to give the impression that Tebow was the No. 2 quarterback when that was never the case. The Jets have had chance after chance to put Tebow in for a struggling Mark Sanchez and continually refused to do it. When the Jets finally did make a change, it was first in a week when Tebow was hurt so that they could jump straight to Greg McElroy and then, finally, they bypassed Tebow altogether to start McElroy. With McElroy hurt, they have announced Sanchez will start against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.
Oh, and the Jets made a joke of the No. 2 spot by declaring last week that Tebow and Sanchez would be co-No. 2 quarterbacks.
So to all those critics who are calling Tebow disloyal or not a team guy, remember that it works two ways. If a team is to expect loyalty, it should give loyalty in return or at least it should be honest. In this case, the Jets should have been straight with Tebow and made him the No. 3. For whatever reason, coach Rex Ryan wasn't straight about the situation and it became a joke.
And it turned Tebow into a running gag. Now, I'm no Tebow apologist. Anybody who has read my work during his career should know that. I may be one of the few people who still thinks his career can be salvaged, but I readily say that I don't think he can play on a regular basis right now.
But I will say that the way Tebow has been handled by the Jets is just wrong. If the coaches there don't think he can play, be straight with him, tell him that and make him the No. 3. For his part, Tebow has been a good soldier through the offseason, training camp and right up to now, even though they've toyed with him.
Yet now he gets treated like a selfish brat? Sorry, that's just wrong.
1. Green Bay Packers (11-4) – Holding the No. 2 seed is critical because there are so many young QBs in NFC bracket.
2. Atlanta Falcons (13-2) – I really like this team, but it's so hard to trust thinking that they're really this good.
3. Seattle Seahawks (10-5) – Has outscored opponents 150-30 over the past three games. This is the NFL, not the Big 12.
4. San Francisco 49ers (10-4-1) – Would love to see a rematch of 49ers-Seahawks in NFC championship game.
5. New England Patriots (11-4) – You know it's playoff time when Tom Brady starts riding his teammates.
28. Buffalo Bills (5-10) – Only time they have scored at least 20 in the past six games was against Jacksonville. Ugh.
29. Detroit Lions (4-11) – Why does it feel like Warren Sapp tutoring Ndamukong Suh is akin to Hugo Chavez getting pointers from Castro?
30. Oakland Raiders (4-11) – I'm not hearing much of Raiders fans these days. Oh yeah, there's not many left.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-13) – Dear Shahid Khan, Tebow may sell some tickets, but he needs to learn to play the NFL game.
32. Kansas City Chiefs (2-13) – Of KC's five Pro Bowlers (yes, somehow, five), four were drafted by Carl Peterson.
THIS AND THAT
After going over this again and again, I have come to one conclusion: If Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings win on Sunday and go to the playoffs, Peterson gets the nod as my selection for Most Valuable Player. Other than Peterson, who is averaging more yards per rushing attempt (6.0) than quarterback Christian Ponder is averaging per pass attempt (5.9), the Vikings' offense is a wreck. The defense is decent, but certainly not great. The only way the Vikings have been able to compete regularly is because of Peterson. They are 7-1 when he carries the ball 20 or more times and 2-5 when he doesn’t.
• If, as expected, San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith gets fired, he really has only himself to blame for it. One of Smith’s biggest problems has been his inability to keep good or great players. Here’s a list of skill-position players who Smith has lost over the years in San Diego: Quarterback Drew Brees, running backs Darren Sproles and Michael Turner, wide receivers Wes Welker, Vincent Jackson, tight end Scott Chandler, cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie and Drayton Florence and safety Steve Gregory. That’s not even counting all the aging players Smith pushed out, such as LaDainian Tomlinson, Junior Seau, Jamal Williams and Donnie Edwards.
• Give Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler credit for his recent remarks about maintaining stability at offensive coordinator. Cutler has the right idea after years of changes in Chicago. Though current offensive coordinator Mike Tice needs to do a better job, Cutler's not ready for a change as he's now working with his third coordinator in four years with the Bears. As a longtime reader pointed out this week, Cutler has regressed in every significant statistical measure (yards per attempt, yards per game, TD-INT ratio, passer rating) this year. That comes even though the Bears added wide receiver Brandon Marshall and backup running back Michael Bush.
• Word around the league is that Detroit's Jim Schwartz, the Arizona Cardinals’ Ken Whisenhunt and Chicago’s Lovie Smith are all expected to survive for another season. That expectation is based largely on the conservative approach that all three teams have historically taken with firing coaches, particularly when those coaches have money still owed to them.
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