1. The NFL can’t be too happy that the biggest game of the season’s final week is a showdown between two losing teams. With no more meaningful games to choose from, the league decided to flex the Rams-Seahawks matchup to Sunday night. That tilt will decide the winner of the NFC West as well as the fourth seed in the NFC. If the Seahawks can pull out an unexpected home win, they will win the division with a 7-9 record—not exactly the publicity the league wants out of the biggest game on the final week of the season. As it stands, three teams in the NFC will finish with better records than the NFC West champions.
2. The Rams currently sit at 7-8 after going 6-42 over the last three years. While head coach Steve Spagnuolo took a lot of heat for going 1-15 during his rookie season in 2009, he is now poised to be one of the leading candidates for Coach of the Year honors.
3. The Colts have been a bit of an afterthought in discussions regarding who will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. However, as the season winds down, Indianapolis is playing perhaps their best football of the year, and the Colts’ ability to run the ball is a large part of the season for their success. Recently re-signed Dominic Rhodes has run well, and second-year player Donald Brown seems to be hitting his stride after struggling for most of his time in the league. With Joseph Addai back in the lineup, the Colts are as deep at running back as they have been in years.
4. The Panthers have been truly horrible this season, the result of several poor decisions by the team’s owners and management. Owner Jerry Richardson inexplicably chose to allow John Fox to coach in the final year of his contract without offering an extension. In addition, Richardson put the handcuffs on general manager Marty Hurney in his attempts to re-sign the team’s best defensive player, defensive end Julius Peppers, which led to his departure. Hurney further deserves the blame for thinking that Matt Moore could hold the torch at quarterback until second round pick Jimmy Clausen developed. Those three decisions were the biggest reasons for the Panthers’ poor showing. But there was light at the end of the tunnel: Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. Now the whispers are growing that Luck will stay in college for his senior year, which means the prize for being so bad in 2011 might not be nearly the coup Carolina’s management and fans were banking on.
5. After weeks of purported investigation, the NFL announced this week that Vikings quarterback Brett Favre was fined $50,000 failing to cooperate with the league’s investigation of inappropriate conduct against former Jets employee, game-day hostess Jenn Sterger. While that outcome may be hard to believe, it seemed clear that the longer the league took to conclude the matter, the better the outcome was expected to be for Favre. The league clearly had no interest in embarrassing one of its most iconic players during what is now expected to be his final season in the league.
6. After the 49ers were soundly beaten by the Rams in a must-win game this week, head coach Mike Singletary was given his walking papers. Despite having two years and $5 million remaining on his contract, San Francisco chose to go in another direction after a disastrous season that began with the 49ers as the consensus pick to win the NFC West. The team came out of the gate slowly, however, with Singletary adding to the disarray by firing offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye early in the season. He followed that up with several questionable decisions at quarterback, failing to settle on either incumbent Alex Smith or Troy Smith, who was signed after being released by the Ravens in the preseason. Singletary may have been a solid motivator, but it was clear during his time in San Francisco that his lack of head coaching experience was a hindrance, so his firing was hardly a surprise.
7. Despite the Chargers disappointing season, owner Dean Spanos is expected to retain the general manager-head coach duo of A.J. Smith and Norv Turner. Although Smith’s decision to trade multiple draft picks to select running back Ryan Mathews in the first round hasn’t panned out, he has found a number of gems late in the draft as well as several useful undrafted players. As for Turner, while many outside of San Diego felt his job was on the line, he retains the confidence of Smith, who appears ready to place the blame for the Chargers’ lackluster showing in 2010 on special teams coach Steve Crosby.
8. Here’s to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for putting together another string of amazing performances and breaking the record for most consecutive passes without an interception, previously held by former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar. Brady’s last interception came in Week 6 against the Ravens.
9. Sticking with the Patriots, with Brady leading the way, New England is on pace to finish the season with the fewest offensive turnovers in the history of the league. The Patriots enter Week 17 having turned the ball over just nine times.
10. The Bengals convinced themselves in the offseason that the road to a deep playoff run lies in acquiring better receiving options for quarterback Carson Palmer. To that end, they signed veteran free agent wide receivers Antonio Bryant and Terrell Owens and used their first round pick on tight end Jermaine Gresham. Bryant washed out and was released before ever playing a down with the team, but Owens and Gresham have had productive years in 2010. However, with both Owens and fellow starting wide receiver Chad Ochocinco out of the lineup this week, Palmer had his most impressive performance of the season against a strong Chargers pass defense, completing 16 of 21 passes for 269 yards and four touchdowns. Owens certainly won’t be asked back in 2011, and Palmer’s performance this week may lead to Ochocinco’s exit as well.
11. After two strong performances, Broncos fans are rightly excited over the future of quarterback Tim Tebow. Tebow has produced a 1-1 record as a starter, piling up 446 yards through the air and 105 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. As expected, he has proven to be a dynamic presence when running the ball, but he has struggled with his pass accuracy. While the 308 passing yards he recorded against the Texans were impressive, a closer look reveals that the performance wasn’t quite the panacea Denver’s fans made it out to be. Houston features the league’s worst secondary and yet Tebow completed only 55.2 percent of his passes against them, going 16 for 29. That percentage was the second-lowest allowed by Houston this season, ahead of only Tennessee rookie quarterback Rusty Smith, who looked horrible as the Titans starter. That being said, Tebow clearly has shown a solid grasp of the team’s offense and may be the type of quarterback who can post a solid record by making enough big plays late in games to pull out wins.
12. Texans tight end Owen Daniels has had a disappointing season as he has struggled since suffering a season-ending ACL injury midway through the 2009 season. In addition to that, he suffered a hamstring injury this season that caused him to miss five games and slowed him down in another. Houston failed to make Daniels a big part of the offensive game plan prior to his hamstring injury, with his being targeted five times or less in five of his first seven games and never getting more than seven targets in the other two. However, since returning from the hamstring injury, he has been targeted 32 times in three games and has shown the pass-receiving ability that made him so dangerous in the 2008 and 2009 seasons. In those three games, Daniels has caught 17 passes for 209 yards and a touchdown. His contract is up at the end of the season, and the Texans may be reluctant to offer him a lucrative long-term contract extension, given both his extensive history of knee problems and the solid play of reserves Joel Dreessen and James Casey this season.
13. Another player who faces an interesting offseason is Cardinals wide receiver Steve Breaston. While Breaston has been productive when healthy, with 692 yards receiving in 12 games, he has missed three full games and most of another this season. His inability to find the end zone (with only one touchdown) despite producing several big plays (averaging a healthy 16.1 yards per catch) continues a trend that Breaston has displayed for most of his career. In four seasons, he has caught 183 passes but found the end zone just seven times. Arizona has several young wide receivers such as Early Doucet, Andre Roberts, Stephen Williams, and Max Komar that team management has been impressed by. With the team clearly in a rebuilding mode, it won’t be a surprise if the Cardinals decide to let Breaston walk after the season and instead go with younger players at the position.