After Panthers and Seahawks, NFC picture is fuzzy


Eli Manning

Eli Manning threw four INTs as the Giants lost at home for the first time this season.
AP/Gail Burton

If the NFL acronym unofficially also stands for "Not For Long," then NFC, at least in 2005, might as well mean "No Freakin' Clue." As in, none of us has even the slightest idea, with the exception of a few clubs, as to who's making the playoffs in the NFC, arguably the more competitive conference from top to bottom.

On Sunday, the NFC picture got a whole lot cloudier.

A couple of contenders suffered rather disappointing home losses, the Giants to the Vikings, the Falcons to the Packers. New York hadn't lost at home all year yet fell to a Minnesota team that doesn't win on the road very often. The Giants may be in the midst of a special season, but special teams cost them sole possession of first place in the NFC East, plus a tie with Carolina and Seattle (both 7-2) for the best record in the conference. It might be a good idea to hold off on mass production of Manning vs. Manning Super Bowl XL t-shirts.

The Vikings, behind touchdown returns via interception, kickoff and punt (a first for one game), earned their third win in four weeks. This sounds crazy, I know, but watch out for the Vikings. They remain afloat (there was the requisite water/boat reference), and their remaining schedule appears rather favorable.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, one-win Green Bay did the NFC South a favor by bringing the Falcons back to the pack; Carolina's blowout win over the Jets and the Falcons' home loss leaves Atlanta a game behind the Panthers and tied with Tampa Bay at 6-3.

To heck with a tie, Jon Gruden said. Borrowing a page from the book Dick Vermeil authored just last week, Gruden went for the two-point conversion rather than settle for the extra point, and that was the difference in a surprise 36-35 shootout victory over the Redskins in Tampa Bay.

Two teams who must have enjoyed that game's outcome are the Monday night combatants, Dallas and Philadelphia. An Eagles win would create a three-way tie for second place in the NFC East at 5-4 between the Cowboys, Eagles and Redskins. A Dallas victory would boost the Cowboys into a tie with New York for the division lead at 6-3.

The Seahawks, meanwhile, continue to assert themselves as the class of the NFC. Seattle, having now swept second-place St. Louis, has a three-game lead in the West and, with games against San Francisco (two), Tennessee, and Green Bay remaining, has an opportunity to secure a first-round bye, if not home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Finally, how about the NFC North? The season's running joke of a division ran the table in Week 10, going 4-0 with the two aforementioned upsets on the road. The Bears ran their winning streak to five games, while the Lions took care of the Cardinals and improved to 4-5 themselves behind, of all people, Joey Harrington (see below).

When teams who are considered contenders lose at home in November to lesser opponents, it's hard to believe they're for real. The AFC clearly is the power conference. In the NFC, Seattle, Carolina and maybe New York obviously are legit, and I do like the Bears' defense and running game. With everyone else, you just don't know.


By John Clayton, ESPN.com

Seattle's success
Success in the red zone is why the Seahawks have taken the NFC West away from the Rams, the high-scoring offensive team that had dominated them most of the four years they've been division rivals. When the Seahawks approach the end zone, they expect to score. During Sunday's 31-16 domination of the Rams, they scored touchdowns on three of five trips inside the Rams 20.


By Jeremy Green, ESPN Insider

Three and out ...
• There is no dominant team in the NFC. Five of the six teams that make the playoffs in the NFC will have shot. Chicago is the one exception.

• When I look at Byron Leftwich I see a good NFL QB, but I don't see "superstar."
• I love the way Tiki Barber finishes his runs. He puts his head down and gets that extra 2-3 yards.

Only perfect season that matters is postseason
Peyton Manning
It was business as usual for the Colts on Sunday. Peyton Manning (left) threw for almost 300 yards and three touchdowns (he's getting hot). Edgerrin James had another 100-yard game. Marvin Harrison topped 100. Indianapolis opened up a 21-0 lead over Houston and never looked back.

At 9-0, the Colts are the league's lone unbeaten team. The way they've won the last six -- each by no fewer than 14 points -- they look unbeatable, sparking conversation about the possibility of the first undefeated regular season since the 1972 Dolphins. Now, I don't subscribe to the theory that the Colts need to lose a regular-season game so to alleviate any additional pressure in the playoffs. But I do believe they will. Soon.

Like next week, when the Colts visit 7-2 Cincinnati. The Bengals are coming off their bye week and represent the Colts' most formidable opponent to date. Indianapolis' defense is much improved, but there is no overlooking the fact that it has achieved its lofty ranking mainly at the expense of B-level offenses like Baltimore's, Cleveland's, Tennessee's, Jacksonville's and Houston's (twice). The Colts' defense has seen nothing comparable to the passing combination of Carson Palmer to Chad Johnson, with Rudi Johnson toting the rock. Actually, it has -- in practice.

The Colts have the most balance on offense, and when you add that to a stingy defense, Indianapolis appears to be the most complete team in the league. However, not only will the Colts not win all of their regular-season games, I say they'll lose three, maybe four: at Cincinnati, at Seattle on Christmas Eve and one or both of two tough home games against Pittsburgh and San Diego. And they still have to go to Jacksonville.

The important thing for the Colts is that they get to Detroit. If they're able to secure home-field advantage in the postseason, it's a good bet they'll go undefeated when it counts. At the end of the day, 3-0 is much more important than 16-0.

Resurrection day

Joey Harrington
Not certain if Joey Harrington or J.P. Losman are Ice Cube fans, but both would have to say Sunday was a good day.

It hasn't been a good year for Harrington (left), who played so poorly in the Lions' first five games that he was benched in favor of a still hurting and healing Jeff Garcia three weeks ago. Starting his second straight game in place of the man who replaced him as the starter, Harrington threw three touchdown passes and completed 22 of 32 overall with no picks in Detroit's win over Arizona. Roy Williams also staged a comeback, returning from a quadriceps injury to catch all three of Harrington's touchdown throws.

It may have had everything to do with the fact the Lions were playing the Cardinals. Or maybe being benched has done something for Harrington. Quite frankly, he has to do more than carve up the Cardinals for anyone to believe he's a different quarterback than the one who has frustrated the Lions and their fans for three and a half seasons. Coach Steve Marriucci did not name Harrington as his starter next week.

J.P. Losman
Losman (left) began the year as the Bills' starter but gave way to veteran Kelly Holcomb after Buffalo started 1-3. Holcomb left Sunday's game in the second quarter with a concussion, and Losman came in and hit on 9 of 16 with two touchdowns in the Bills' victory over Kansas City. Losman, like Harrington, may have won his job back after helping the Bills snap a two-game losing streak.

Is the Billick era coming to an end?

Brian Billick
On the positive side is the fact Jacksonville reached the 30-point plateau for the first time in nearly four years (58 games) and for once didn't have to struggle to win. On the flip side, it has been four and a half seasons since the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl playing this way, six and a half since they hired Brian Billick (left) from Minnesota, and yet Baltimore still doesn't have an offense.

Granted, Sunday's loss came against a Jags defense considered among the league's toughest, but Baltimore still managed only eight first downs and 163 yards of offense in losing its fourth in a row and eighth straight on the road. The Ravens haven't scored a touchdown in 11 quarters. Jamal Lewis' miserable season continued with 44 yards on 14 carries.

When we spoke about his job security, or perceived lack thereof, Billick pointed to his overall record, the contract extension he signed when owner Steve Bisciotti took control, and the inevitable peaks and valleys any coach with a lengthy tenure experiences as reasons why he had yet to feel the warmth of the hot seat. Then again, that was four losses ago. I've heard from two people with connections to Ravens ownership that Billick's job is anything but safe after the season.

The Ravens still don't know if they have a quarterback in Kyle Boller. Lewis, a free agent, hasn't looked right all year. Baltimore signed Derrick Mason, drafted Mark Clayton, got Todd Heap back, made Jim Fassel offensive coordinator and yet nothing has changed. It looks like the Ravens, whether Billick is coach or not, have little choice in the offseason but to blow it up on offense. That's about as close to explosive as this team is going to get.

The very definition ...

Tom Brady
He won't amass the numbers or, this year, the regular-season victories necessary to merit legitimate MVP consideration, but where would the Patriots be without Tom Brady? Certainly not atop the AFC East, that's for sure.

Brady (left) threw two go-ahead touchdown passes to Ben Watson in the second half, including the game-winner seconds before the two-minute warning. The Dolphins drove to the New England 5 before the defense finally held. At 5-4, the Patriots are the only team in the division with a winning record. New England, trounced by Indianapolis at home Monday night, also avoided losing consecutive games for the first time since 2002. Miami has lost five of six after a surprisingly strong (2-1) start.

With fullback Heath Evens serving as his primary tailback in place of Corey Dillon for all but a play, and with three offensive starters inactive, Brady threw for 275 yards and produced his 21st game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime since 2001 (most in the NFL). Among the quarterbacks who lead contenders, Brady shoulders the heaviest load. That in itself defines the term "most valuable."

After days of answering questions about Terrell Owens, coach Andy Reid, quarterback Donovan McNabb and the rest of the Eagles probably will be eager to hit the field for Monday Night Football. Getting rid of Owens was a necessity, but replacing his offensive explosiveness is a near impossibility. McNabb will look to spread the wealth against a Dallas defense that has been bringing the heat all season long -- 24 sacks in eight outings, including four from rookie DE/OLB DeMarcus Ware.

Bill Parcells and the Cowboys will have had 15 days off to prepare for the trip to Philly. The extra rest was critical for previously hobbled RB Julius Jones, but only time will tell if the extra preparation was enough to prepare immobile QB Drew Bledsoe for the pressure he will face against defensive coordinator Jim Johnson's jailbreak defense.

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Tedy Bruschi is back to normal, if going head over heels into the opponent's backfield can be considered normal. The Patriots' linebacker blitzed and left his feet several times in Sunday's win over Miami, reverting to his old reckless habits and showing no fear after returning from a stroke just two weeks ago. Before the season, Bruschi actually tested better than last year in the areas of strength and agility. The guy has a stroke and heart surgery and comes back stronger and more agile. That's how hard he trained in the offseason.

Chris Simms: A star is born? Anytime a quarterback, let alone one making his fifth start, throws for 279 yards and three touchdowns against Washington's defense, that's saying something.

• The Steelers are in better hands with Antwaan Randle El under center than with Tommy Maddox. But it won't matter next week, when Ben Roethlisberger, from what I'm told, probably makes his return from a knee injury against Baltimore, in what would be a tune-up for the Colts game.

• These Bill Belichick-Nick Saban matchups are going to be fun for years to come. Their teams are so similar. The only difference is Tom Brady would have completed that last pass to Chris Chambers for a touchdown.

Matt Jones had his first career 100-yard receiving game Sunday and has three TD catches in his last four games. Think he's getting the whole wide receiver thing?

• The Chiefs have to win that game in Buffalo if they want to be a playoff team. The AFC is too competitive to give away a game against an inferior opponent, especially coming off such an emotional win as Kansas City's the week before. The Bills' defense hasn't been so good this year as to hold the Chiefs to three points.

• Arizona scored its first rushing touchdown of the season Sunday. No matter who's at quarterback or receiver, no balance means you've got no chance.

Jake Plummer: 16-for-22, no picks for a seventh straight game. He's thrown three all season after tossing 20 a year ago, one of five seasons for Plummer of 20 or more INTs. He's this year's Roethlisberger, only this isn't Plummer's first year. By the way, Denver is dope.


Gus Frerotte, Miami: 25 of 47, 360 yds, 2 TDs

Kurt Warner, Arizona: 29 of 45, 359 yds, TD
Kerry Collins, Oakland: 26 of 50, 310 yds, 2 TDs
Marc Bulger, St. Louis: 28 of 40, 304 yds, TD

Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona: 9 rec., 141 yds, TD
Joey Galloway, Tampa: 7 rec., 131 yds, TD
Hines Ward, Pittsburgh: 8 rec., 124 yds, TD
Roy Williams, Detroit: 7 rec., 117 yds, 3 TDs

Shaun Alexander, Seattle: 33 att., 165 yds, 3 TD
Clinton Portis, Washington: 23 att., 144 yds, TD
Larry Johnson, Kansas City: 27 att., 132 yds
Edgerrin James, Indianapolis: 26 att., 122 yds, TD

Week 10 leaders


Cedric Benson, RB, Bears
Carted off field with sprained right knee in second quarter vs. 49ers.
Kelly Holcomb, QB, Bills
Left game vs. Chiefs in second quarter after suffering a concussion.
Tony Parrish, S, 49ers
Left game vs. Bears in the first quarter with a broken left leg.
Ernest Wilford, WR, Jaguars
Suffered sprained shoulder in fourth quarter vs. Ravens.

Week 10 infirmary report


Sunday, Nov. 20
Detroit at Dallas, 1 p.m.
Carolina at Chicago, 1 p.m.
Oakland at Washington, 1 p.m.
Arizona at St. Louis, 1 p.m.
Tampa Bay at Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Miami at Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Jacksonville at Tennessee, 1 p.m.
Philadelphia at N.Y. Giants, 1 p.m.
Pittsburgh at Baltimore, 1 p.m.
New Orleans at New England, 1 p.m.
Seattle at San Francisco, 4:05 p.m.
Buffalo at San Diego, 4:15 p.m.
N.Y. Jets at Denver, 4:15 p.m.
Indianapolis at Cincinnati, 4:15 p.m.
Kansas City at Houston, 8:30 p.m.
Monday, Nov. 21
Minnesota at Green Bay, 9 p.m.

Complete schedule