Whether or not the Ahmad Brooks personal foul on Drew Brees was a legal hit can be debated. The non-call of pass interference involving the Carolina Panthers and Rob Gronkowski on Monday night can also be debated.
What can't be debated is the impact of those plays on the NFC playoff race. The penalty on Brooks allowed the New Orleans Saints to continue their field goal drive to tie Sunday's game at 20 and eventually beat the San Francisco 49ers 23-20. The Gronk non-call was another blow to the 49ers' bid to return to the Super Bowl.
With six games left, the 49ers trail the Seattle Seahawks by three and a half games in the NFC West. They've also dropped a game behind Carolina for one of the two wild cards. If the teams end up tied, the edge would go to Carolina, which won at San Francisco in Week 10. Although there is no dominant team in any conference, odds are horrible of a wild card going on the road and winning three games, particularly if Seattle or New Orleans has home field.
Even though their road has gotten tougher, the 49ers still have a very good chance of making the playoffs. Their .443 closing schedule is the seventh easiest in the league. They play only two teams with winning records -- Seattle and Arizona.
Still, an official's call or a big play can have a major effect on how the playoff chips fall. Just ask Jim Harbaugh and the Niners.
From the inbox
Q: Just wondering why the NFL schedules some Sunday games for 4:05 p.m. and some for 4:25 p.m.? Wouldn't it make more sense to make them all 4:25 p.m.? The extra 20 minutes gives more time for the 1 p.m. games to finish. It's annoying when your team's playing the later game and you miss nearly a quarter of it because of a late finish in the previous game.
Josh in Sydney, Australia
A: Believe it or not, the 4:05 p.m. start is the right thing to do for the league. Some of the 1 p.m. games conclude before 4 p.m. so the 4 p.m. game provides continuous action for football viewers. Normally, the better games for the late afternoon are the ones slated for 4:25 p.m. Those games are distributed throughout the country more than the 4 p.m. games. Plus, the half-hour difference is a benefit to the fans in the stadium who can get home a little earlier if they wish. The way people watch games is different than it was two decades ago, when viewers relied on two networks to show two games. DIRECTV offers the ability to switch to any game at any time. You need a continuous stream of game action for the RedZone channel. The good move was moving the better games back to 4:25 p.m. to do what you suggest -- give 20 more minutes for the game of your choice to finish.
Q: Is it a coincidence that the Houston and Washington offenses have not met expectations this season? I realize that the two offenses are not exactly same. But it seems like the schemes being obsolete could be an explanation of why both teams have not performed as expected.
Sherman in New Braunfels, Texas
A: It's just a coincidence. Sure, Kyle Shanahan came over from Houston to work with his father with the Redskins. But the Redskins rank sixth as far as offensive yardage and are scoring 24.6 points a game. That's not exactly horrible. In Washington, anyone who didn't think Robert Griffin III would get off to a slow start was fooling themselves. Quarterbacks coming off ACL surgery usually start slow and get better as the season evolves. Running quarterbacks get off to slower starts. In the case of the Texans, Matt Schaub lost his confidence during a stretch in which he threw pick-sixes in four straight games. No doubt teams figured out some of the hot reads used by Schaub and designed by Gary Kubiak. If Schaub was flushed to his right, he usually threw to the tight end, Owen Daniels, as a hot read. But lost confidence is lost confidence. If you are wondering if the Shanahan calls were predictable Sunday, that wasn't the case. The Eagles took away the deep passes and forced RG III to throw into shorter windows, which didn't work out well for the Redskins.
Q: Does the NFL have any plans to curtail players asking for a flag when they feel there should be a penalty? It seems like there are multiple times in every game were they are almost begging the officials for a flag. Players should play and leave the officiating to the officials.
Chris in Janesville, Wis.
A: I never underestimate the NFL's tendency to react to any topic, but the league won't do anything unless the complaints become too extensive. I agree with you that there needs to be a limit. It does get tiring watching top players trying to do the officiating for the officials. But this is a free country in which everyone has the ability to express emotions or opinions. As long as it's done professionally, there shouldn't be a problem.
Q: It would appear that the Josh Freeman experiment in Minnesota is over. I haven't heard any discussion about his possible landing spots after this season ends. Any chance the Arizona Cardinals show some interest? Carson Palmer is not the quarterback of the future down there, and with them likely finishing the season over .500 their chances of finding him in the draft this year aren't great. Freeman's strong arm would at face value seem to be a fit for Bruce Arians' offense, and Arians has made a living coaching up-and-coming QBs. Freeman has shown flashes of brilliance, and if any of that is still salvageable Arians would have as good a chance as anyone at turning Freeman around.
Adam in Tucson, Ariz.
A: Arians is great with young quarterbacks, but his focus is on winning now with the Cardinals. Palmer has the Cardinals at 6-4, and Arians likes Drew Stanton as his backup. I would imagine that will be next year's duo. Where Freeman goes will be dictated by how much he's willing to accept for salary. He has been so bad he's going to need a few good games this year to create a market for himself as a starter. If he can't do that, then he's going to accept a No. 2 or No. 3 job someplace. That amazes me. In 2010, I thought he was one of the better young quarterbacks in football. If Greg Olson stays in Oakland as offensive coordinator, I could see him trying to talk the Raiders into signing Freeman. Olson did a great job of coaching him in Tampa Bay.
Q: One question I have pertains to the emergence of the electric tight ends and how defenses are adjusting. One thing that might work, at least with the Seahawks, is using a faster linebacker to cover the tight end. Bruce Irvin is big enough to not get bullied by a tight end, yet fast enough to keep pace with one. I just have not seen him utilized in this fashion. With a big game looming against the Saints, it might be a smart play.
Alex in Othello, Wash.
A: The adjustments to those tight ends are coming from the cornerbacks. Aqib Talib did a phenomenal job of covering Jimmy Graham a few weeks ago. I'm sure Richard Sherman of the Seahawks will match up against good tight ends on the Seahawks' schedule. The one thing you can't do now is rely on the Cover 2 to contain the electric tight ends. If you go Cover 2 on Graham, Drew Brees will either find the hole in the zone coverage to complete a pass to Graham or dump the ball off to Darren Sproles. A fast linebacker could jam an electric tight end at the line of scrimmage and feed him off to a corner or a safety. It's not easy, to say the least.
Q: I have read that the NFL is considering rules changes to further protect the QB because of all of the injuries this year. It appears to me that O-line play has been pretty subpar across the board this year. Bad O-line play leads to more hits on the QB, which leads to injuries. How likely is it that the new CBA limit on the amount of full contact hitting in practice in camp and the regular season is manifesting itself in poor O-line play and more injured QBs?
Erik in Richmond, Va.
A: I think you're on to something, but I don't think there will be any changes. Many of the offseason changes for the players were proposed by veteran offensive linemen who are thinking more of protecting the bodies of the players. They felt the offseason was too burdensome on the players and they traded off percentages of the revenue for lighter offseasons. I don't see owners increasing the percentage of money going to the players to change that. But there needs to be more done in preparing bodies for contact because right now it is not enough. Injuries league-wide are up 14.3 percent by my count. There are major depth problems along offensive lines. More needs to be done to develop offensive linemen, and a developmental league would only be a start.