As we hit home stretch, suspense reigns in NFC playoff chase
AFC is more settled than the NFC, which has six teams going for one playoff spot
Ray Rice's 4th-and-29 conversion was spectacular, but came with controversy
Miller vs. Watt; Stat of the Week; Fine Fifteen; Ten Things I Think I Think; more
Prelude to a diss: In the last 52 weeks, the Packers have met the Giants three times. Green Bay has allowed 35, 37 and 38 points, and an average of 419 yards a game, and nine Eli Manning touchdown passes. Time for defensive coordinator Dom Capers to figure out a way to cover the Giants deep. Time for Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews to heal. Time for a shaky line to protect Aaron Rodgers. Time for GM Ted Thompson to find reinforcements for the line.
Now we enter the cruel month of December with six NFC teams separated by one game fighting for the last playoff spot. (And if Green Bay doesn't wake up after that five-alarm fire of a loss Sunday night to the Giants, the Packers might give away the five seed.) In the AFC, we're going to sleep through the playoff race, because it looks like it'll be 7-4 Indianapolis, 6-5 Pittsburgh and 6-5 Cincinnati fighting for two spots, and the way things look now, none is a threat to the AFC elite.
But there is an interesting subplot in the AFC, which Ray Rice raised to me last night, before getting on a giddy Ravens charter to return home from the impossible 16-13 overtime win at San Diego.
"I don't know what kind of medicine the Steelers will put Ben Roethlisberger on this week,'' Rice said, "but they're going to give him something."
Pittsburgh-Baltimore, the rematch, Sunday at The Big Crabcake. (I think that's Chris Berman's invention, so I'll give him naming rights.) And does anyone think the Steelers stand a chance of winning in Baltimore without Roethlisberger, who missed his second game with a dislocated first rib (last week's column explains how dangerous that injury can be, and typically the injury would take more than a month to heal) Sunday? Next Sunday, he'll be 20 days out from the dislocation. I can't see him playing, and when I look at the Steelers' schedule, I'd hope he could play the last four, because the schedule's advantageous to Pittsburgh compared to the Colts and Bengals down the stretch. The Steelers finish at Dallas, then Cincinnati and Cleveland at home. Indy has Houston twice in the last three weeks. The Bengals close with the Steelers and Ravens. Logic says Roethlisberger for the last three games, four if the Steelers are lucky, could still win the sixth seed.
Now for the NFC. It's bizarro world. Here's how I handicap the six-team race:
1. Washington (5-6). The 'Skins and Bucs are playing the best among the contenders, and if Washington can win one of the next two (Giants Monday, Ravens to follow), the last three weeks (at Cleveland, at Philly, Dallas) are manageable. How great would it be to see Robert Griffin III in a Wild Card game at Soldier Field, getting chased through the snow by Urlacher and Briggs?
2. Tampa Bay (6-5). Watching the Bucs the last month, I keep thinking no one wants to play them. Greg Schiano's instilled a toughness in them, and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan has obviously worked wonders with a rejuvenated Josh Freeman. The problem's the schedule. Bucs are at Denver, at New Orleans and at Atlanta in December. The only hope with that tough slate is maybe the Falcons have nothing to play for in Week 17, and Julio Jones and Matt Ryan sit.
3. Seattle (6-5). Seahawks have the tiebreaker right now, but that can disappear if Richard Sherman does. (See below.) Russell Wilson has been efficient in his rookie season. Now he'll need to be explosive, even more than in his last four weeks (nine touchdowns, one pick) to make up for what may be a yawning gap in the secondary.
4. New Orleans (5-6). The loss to San Francisco was logical, as well as disappointing. New Orleans now has to go 4-1, minimum, against a murderer's row slate (at Atlanta Thursday, at the Giants, Tampa Bay, at Dallas, Carolina) in the next month. All things are possible with Drew Brees, of course, but maybe not with a defense that just doesn't pressure the quarterback enough.
5. Minnesota (6-5). Can Adrian Peterson play quarterback? Green Bay twice, Houston on the road, and Chicago in the last month. I just don't see it.
6. Dallas (5-6). Schedule doesn't matter to me. The Cowboys haven't played well since September. Why start now?
So here's how I see the Wild Card round on the first weekend of January:
NFC (Byes: Atlanta and San Francisco): Green Bay at the Giants (Saturday night, NBC), Washington at Chicago (early Sunday, FOX).
AFC (Byes: Houston and New England): Cincinnati at Baltimore (Saturday afternoon, NBC), Indianapolis at Denver (late Sunday, CBS).
I repeat: Andrew Luck at Peyton Manning. The Irsay Bowl. I am reminded of a quote Bill Parcells uttered every other week in the four seasons I covered the Giants for Newsday in the '80s: "Sometimes God is playing in these games."
Now for the news of Week 12:
The best cover corner in the game is in limbo this morning. Adam Schefter broke the news last night just after the Seahawks' charter lifted off from South Florida to go home from a loss at Miami: Seattle cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner were handed four-game suspensions for violating the league performance-enhancing drugs policy. They'll appeal, and be available for the Seahawks until their appeals are heard and ruled on. Sherman has taken over the title of top cover corner in the game from the IR'd Darrelle Revis, and he should be available to play Sunday in Chicago, as the Seahawks try to stay alive in the playoff hunt.
"This ... issue will be resolved soon and the truth will come out. Not worried,'' Sherman tweeted early this morning when the Seahawks landed at SeaTac. He should be. The likelihood is he'll eventually have to serve four games, and if it's not this year while the appeal plays out, it'll be next year, which would put Seattle in a major hole early in 2013. As it is now, pass defense has been a major reason why Seattle's the sixth NFC seed through 11 games. The best secondary in football has allowed just 59 percent completions and a 75.4 passer rating. What we don't know now is how long the appeals process will take, but since the news broke, the league isn't going to want it to linger. Seattle's December: at Chicago, Arizona, at Buffalo, San Francisco, St. Louis. Looks like 3-2 with Sherman, 2-3 without him to me.