The Chicago Bears may become the most disrespected top seed in the history of the NFL playoffs when the postseason begins on the first weekend in January.
Don't expect to read a different sentiment about that here.
The way the NFC playoffs shape up at this point, the Bears (9-2) will cruise to the top spot and home-field advantage. Over the final five weeks, the Bears don't play a team that currently has a winning record and the combined record of those teams is 19-36. The final three weeks are a parade of patsies with Tampa Bay (3-8), Detroit (2-9) and Green Bay (4-7).
This is not the type of schedule that's going to sharpen the turnover-prone Bears, who were guilty of four giveaways in their loss at New England last weekend. Only five turnovers by the Patriots kept the game close.
Looking ahead to the playoffs, the Bears have matchup problems against Dallas and New Orleans because both those teams have excellent wide receivers, allowing them to score quickly and put pressure on the Bears' offense. Furthermore, Dallas has a good enough defense to give quarterback Rex Grossman fits.
While the same can be said of the Bears' defense against Tony Romo, Dallas has better support around Romo. There's not a single starting skill-position player (quarterback, wide receiver, tight end or running back) who the Cowboys would trade straight-up with the Bears right now. Not even Terry Glenn for Bernard Berrian, although Berrian is a wonderful talent.
The same could probably be said for New Orleans, particularly once star rookie receiver Marques Colston returns from an ankle injury. About the only starting offensive skill player on the Bears who is clearly superior to his Saints counterpart is tight end Desmond Clark.
Is there an easy answer for the Bears? Not really. While critics raised the issue of benching Grossman after his latest bad outing, that's not a good idea. Veteran Brian Griese is a capable backup, but his weaknesses (holds the ball too long; bad pocket presence) will get exposed in a playoff atmosphere. Furthermore, Grossman is still the best long-term option for the Bears. It would be unwise to undermine his confidence at this point.
Assuming New Orleans can hold off Carolina in the NFC South, the key game in the NFC for the rest of the season will be Dec. 10. The Saints go to Dallas in a game that could decide the No. 2 seed in the NFC. In fact, the loser of that game might consider the No. 4 seed being a better option than the No. 3 seed because you likely wouldn't have a rematch until the NFC championship, if at all.
Of course, where does that leave NFC West leader Seattle in all of this? The Seahawks are a big wild card in this race because injuries have limited their stars until this week. Beyond that, the Seahawks have the toughest schedule down the stretch, including games at Denver this Sunday and against San Diego on Christmas Eve. The Seahawks will win their division, but probably will be the No. 4 seed. That's not good for a team that thrives on playing at home.
The New York Giants were noticeably absent from the above playoff look. The news this week of defensive end Michael Strahan criticizing wide receiver Plaxico Burress and then upbraiding a reporter who talked to Burress are the latest example of what's wrong.
The Giants are in chaos. The problem starts at the top. Many of the key players don't believe in coach Tom Coughlin right now.
"That's probably a pretty fair assessment," a member of the front office said. "Tom is a fine coach and he got our team under control [after former coach Jim Fassel was fired]. But I think the veterans have always sort of rolled their eyes at Tom and some of the stuff he does. Now, when they speak out and challenge him, there's not really a punishment. What's he going to do, bench guys he needs to play?"
Such was the case when Coughlin didn't really punish tight end Jeremy Shockey or running back Tiki Barber after they've second-guessed him at different times. Yes, Coughlin has called them in for meetings and, in particular, gotten on the very emotional Shockey.
But neither has ever really paid a high price. Meanwhile, both players continue to be treated well by the media. In particular, Barber has become a media maven. Never mind that he caused a major distraction when he announced that he was going to retire after the season. Conversely, when Coughlin coached in Jacksonville, he didn't have the type of high-profile veteran personalities he has in New York.
A large part of that is because Coughlin built the Jaguars from the ground up as an expansion team. He was able to establish and maintain a high level of respect, fear and control for a longer period of time. With the Giants, he hasn't been able to maintain it because the veterans know they can push back pretty hard.
Furthermore, Coughlin is only now getting on quarterback Eli Manning, even though Manning has been struggling for almost two months.
"You hear the frustration in Tom now, but I think some of the players were looking for that before," the executive said. "If he's going to get on Jeremy for speaking up or getting out of line, he should have gotten on Eli for not performing. Sometimes you give the quarterback a longer leash, but this may have been too long."
Does that mean that Coughlin is in trouble of losing his job? Not yet. The Giants are a pragmatic team when it comes to management. As bad as the loss to Tennessee was on Sunday, the team did have a 21-0 lead at halftime and easily could have iced the game if not for some odd mistakes. If rookie defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka gets the sack on fourth down when he had Vince Young wrapped up, the story would be different.
That said, if the team implodes further down the stretch and has a humiliating finish, the perception could change.
SOME IRVIN THOUGHTS
The truly sad thing about what ESPN analyst Michael Irvin said last week was not the insult of Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (suggesting his success is partly attributable to having black genes), which was so absurd that only a hyper-sensitive person would take offense. Rather, it was that Irvin furthered the stereotype that blacks are naturally better athletes than anyone else.
Without getting into a long dissertation about this subject, Irvin ultimately hurt the cause of equality with what he said. He reinforced the idea that there are differences between races that can't really be quantified.
This is the same logic that the late Reggie White used in making his comments before the Wisconsin state assembly in 1998. It's the same logic that leads some people to believe that Jews are better bankers and lawyers and that white people are smarter than black people.
Then again, we can thank actor Michael Richards for proving that's wrong.
Does talk like that happen in the locker room? Yes, but Irvin isn't in the locker room anymore. Furthermore, he's a mature adult of 40. He should know better. He should know that the world is built on hard work first and talent second.
Irvin should know it because he's an example of it. Irvin was never the fastest receiver in the NFL nor did he jump the highest. Not even close. Neither did guys like Jerry Rice or Art Monk or lots of other Irvin contemporaries. What Irvin and those guys did was work to perfect their craft.
Unfortunately, in one really stupid, bad joke, Irvin sold out his own work ethic. Just like in one hate-filled rant that no apology can excuse, Richards hurt a lot of people aside from himself and, hopefully, his career.
AWESOME, BUT PASSIVE
While it's certainly hard to argue with the offensive results posted by the San Diego Chargers, Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints – respectively ranked 1, 2, 3 and 6 in scoring – there is one odd trend that has developed among those teams. They are unusually conservative in second-and-short situations, which are often considered great times for coaches to be aggressive because the defense is so vulnerable. In fact, San Diego and New Orleans are almost absurdly conservative in those situations, which are defined as needing 3 yards or less. In addition, goal-line and hurry-up situations where teams were running out the clock were taken out.
San Diego, for example, has been in second-and-short 25 times this season. The Chargers, who lead the NFL with 353 points, have passed only twice. New Orleans is worse, having had 35 chances and only passing twice. Indianapolis has had 40 chances and has passed 10 times. Dallas has had 25 and passed six.
Beyond all of that, the results show that running the ball is actually far less effective. Those four teams have combined to run 106 times for a total of 369 yards gained. That's an average of a little less than 3.5 yards per carry, even with the defense at a disadvantage. While those runs have produced three touchdowns, the offense failed to get a first down a third of the time.
By contrast, passing hasn't been wildly successful, but it has been markedly better. Those teams have combined to throw 20 passes, completing 14 for 134 yards and one touchdown. There have been no interceptions and no sacks, although former Dallas starter Drew Bledsoe was called for an intentional grounding call on one play. Overall, it's an average gain of almost 7 yards per play and the chance of getting a first down is almost exactly the same by percentage.
What's the reason? According to an unnamed offensive coordinator, the basic idea is simply to stay on the field, get the first down and continue the drive. Because the defense is so relaxed, the feeling is that getting a big play with the running game is just as good as with the passing game.
"It's worked for us," he said.
Hard to argue.
JONES-DREW STILL LOOKING FOR RESPECT
Jacksonville Jaguars rookie running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who was the No. 60 overall pick in the draft, is quietly having a wonderful season with eight touchdowns. In fact, he's having a better season overall than New Orleans' Reggie Bush, the No. 2 overall pick and the guy who has overshawdowed Jones-Drew since college.
Bush played at USC and won the Heisman. Jones-Drew played at UCLA and spent most of the time reading Bush's press clippings.
"That was OK because I just figured if you want to be the best, you better know who you have to beat to get there," Jones-Drew said. "It gave me more incentive to keep working."
This season, Jones-Drew has 90 carries for 454 yards as the backup to veteran Fred Taylor. Jones-Drew is averaging 5.0 yards per carry and has six touchdowns rushing. He also has 32 receptions for 317 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 9.9 yards per catch.
By comparison, Bush has 109 carries for 331 yards and one touchdown, an average of 3.0 yards a carry. He also has 64 catches for 431 yards, an average of only 6.7 yards per reception. He also has a punt return for a score.
Still, Bush is getting all the hype.
"Nothing against Reggie 'cause he's a good guy. I talk to him a lot," the 5-foot-7, 215-pound Jones-Drew said. "But when Reggie scored his first touchdown, they were playing it up real big and it was all over the place. By that time, I already had four. I mean, if you want to play up the fact he has (64) receptions, that's great, but don't build him up because he has that first TD.
"It's kind of aggravating, but I just try to use that for motivation."
It also helped that Jones-Drew played at De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif. Jones-Drew helped the school set a national record for consecutive victories (151) and has produced a healthy list of NFL players. Along with Jones-Drew, there's Amani Toomer, Aaron Taylor and D.J. Williams.
"D.J. is the one who helped me get where I am," Jones-Drew said. "He taught me how to work. He said, 'You always have to work like there's someone better than you out there.'"
ON THE RUN
- Houston backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels was knocked out for the season with a broken thumb after he made a tackle. Rosenfels was covering a return of a missed field goal after being the holder on the play. It marked the second time Rosenfels has made contact with an opposing player by his choice. During a preseason game against the Saints four years ago while he was with Miami, Rosenfels made a block in which he was later fined for making an illegal (low) block. A Saints player was injured on the play. "I've made two tackles (hits) in my career. I was fined $12,500 for the first one, and now I've got this injury," Rosenfels told the Houston Chronicle.
- Does Atlanta lack discipline? While quarterback Michael Vick brandishing his middle finger is a clear indication that something's wrong, there was further proof early against New Orleans. On two of the first four defensive plays for the Falcons, they were called for personal fouls. That included a silly play by cornerback DeAngelo Hall where he tackled Saints wide receiver Devery Henderson well after Henderson was in the end zone at the end of a 76-yard touchdown pass.
- The 49ers have dismissed a stadium plan proposed by San Francisco because, in large part, the plan includes a multi-level garage. That would make tailgating tougher and, worse, strike the usual fears of being in an enclosed area in an earthquake. However, when a 49ers official said fans of the team were "terrified" of the idea, he was over the top. The bigger problem with the proposal is that the hotel and shopping area that the city has proposed as part of the plan is simply silly. That area, in the south corner of San Francisco where the team currently plays, holds little or no appeal for potential visitors and shoppers.
- Dolphins quarterback Daunte Culpepper had a second surgery on his right knee to remove scar tissue that hadn't been detected earlier in his rehabilitation process. Although the surgery, which was arthroscopic, was considered minor, it's still unlikely that Culpepper will be able to play again this season. The Dolphins are holding out some hope, which is why Culpepper has not been put on injured reserve.