Two major AFC showdowns, the NFC West, the 'fight' and more. The editors debate.
Athlon's Steven Lassan, Nathan Rush and Braden Gall debate five burning questions for Week 13 in the NFL:
1. Two-part question: a) Should a team under .500 be allowed into the playoffs and (b) should a division winners be granted an automatic berth into the playoffs?
Steven Lassan: It’s unfortunate that a team under .500 could make the playoffs, but this is the first season in NFL history that it could happen. Although a team like Philadelphia, Green Bay or the Giants could end up missing the playoffs, I have no problem with the NFC West champion with a record under .500 getting into the postseason. Any talk of taking away a playoff bid to a team under .500 even when they win their division is a complete overreaction to this season. Any team that wins its division should earn an automatic berth into the playoffs.
Nathan Rush: a) Yes. (b) Yes. The current setup of four division winners plus two Wild Card berths for each conference is the most logical way to determine playoff teams. The four teams in every division play 14 common opponents. And while even those “common” opponents are not “identical” — this year, some teams played against Big Ben or Mike Vick and some got Charlie Batch or Kevin Kolb — it is the most similar road and most consistent measure of that quadrant of a conference. The final of the four in every division deserves a postseason berth, period. Since the NFL realigned to eight divisions with four teams apiece in 2002, there has never been a team with a losing record make the playoffs. There have been four division winners with an 8–8 record, however. Three of those four won their Wild Card game before losing in the Divisional Round. In 2008, the 8–8 Chargers controversially made the playoffs over the 11–5 Patriots and 9–7 Jets before knocking off the 12–4 Colts in the first round. The real question isn’t whether or not division winners (regardless of record) should make the playoffs. The question is whether or not those teams should have home field advantage in the first round.
Braden Gall: My inner sports geek tells me that no team in any sport should be allowed to compete for a championship in the postseason with a record below .500. Do you take away the auto-bid from division winners? I do not like that idea, but you cannot have losing teams hosting playoff games. The NFL could very simply make any team with a losing record inelegible for postseason play and award three WIld Cards too. The easier solution, especially since it has never happened before, is to simply reseed the teams and force the divison winner with a losing record to go on the road (an idea the league has already toyed with anyway).
2. Which game are you more looking forward to and why: Steelers-Ravens or Jets-Patriots?
Steven: Both games are must-see events from Week 13, but I’ll take the Steelers-Ravens. Both teams absolutely hate each other, producing one of the hardest hitting games the NFL has on the schedule. With the rate the NFL is handing out fines and the past history of this series, there could be quite a few from this game on Sunday night. This rivalry is arguably the best in the NFL over the last five seasons, with the last three matchups each decided by three points. With both teams at 8-3 and a potential AFC North title on the line, expect another close game – likely coming down to a field goal once again.
Nathan: Pittsburgh is 1–5 over its last six trips to Baltimore. Worse, Tom Brady has an 18–2 career record in regular season home games in December and January. But even if the Ravens and Patriots do keep trending at home, these are can’t-miss games. Personally, I lean towards the Steelers-Ravens matchup. They are two dinosaurs on their way to extinction due to Comet Goodell. If you can only watch one game, enjoy the pure, physical, traditional American tackle football of Steelers-Ravens while it lasts. These three hours could be among the final football games ever played. James Harrison knows. Ray Lewis knows. Expect both teams to play as if this is the last time they will ever play football — because in some ways, it could be.
Braden: I am leaning toward the AFC East on this one, but the talent level, storylines and weight of each game is remarkable. The Jets and Pats are No. 1 and No. 2 in the race for AFC homefield. The coaches are sexier (well, you know what I mean) and more volatile. Tom Brady has emphatically stated how much he hates the new rival. And then there is little Danny Woodhead, who has played for both teams this season. How could anyone not love The Woodhead! Plus, the Jets-Pats game doesn't come on during Boardwalk Empire.
3. Should Andre Johnson and Cortland Finnegan have been suspended for their fight last Sunday?
Steven: This was an ugly incident for the NFL and certainly one they want to avoid in the future, but a fine is probably the right decision in this case. The decision by the NFL not to suspend Richard Seymour after his punch against Ben Roethlisberger probably weighed in favor of both players in this case. If you suspend one player for his actions, you have to suspend both, but Andre Johnson has a clean reputation, and this was completely out of character. Considering this isn’t Finnegan’s first incident and his wish to be the dirtiest player in the league, his next misstep should result in a suspension.
Nathan: No. Andre Johnson has a Thursday night game on NFL Network. The NFL makes money off of the NFL Network. Why would the NFL sabotage its own ability to make money by suspending a marquee player? The bottom line is the bottom line in any business. Roger Goodell has a lengthy track record that, if viewed in a certain light, can easily be seen as self-serving. As I’ve said before, he’s mad with power and greed. But this isn’t even technically a “conspiracy,” as many have wrongly labeled it. This is a “conflict of interest” where the reality of money outweighs the perception of equal justice. Aside from the obvious NFL Network issue, past actions and league-wide reputation come into play in this case-by-case suspension system. Johnson vs. Cortland Finnegan is similar to the Richard Seymour vs. Big Ben. In both cases, the “guilty” party has one of the league’s best long-standing reputations, while the “victim” has an equally lengthy bad track record. Sometimes people get what they deserve and everyone looks the other way while it happens. The past is never dead; it’s not even past. That was proven once again this week.
Braden: I do not condone any sort of fighting on any field of play, yet I love NHL hockey. So right off the bat, I am having a tough time reconciling the double standard. That being said, the NFL got this one right by simply fining the two players. Scuffles happen all the time in the NFL (although brawls appear to be a part of Finnegan's daily diet) and that isn't going to change anytime soon. It would have been interesting to see had the roles been reversed — meaning Finnegan threw two haymakers at Johnson — if the league would have cracked down harder on the talkative, troublesome cornerback. My advice to the Titans defensive back would be to stay in his own weight class, however, because The Giant mandhandled him.
4. Is this merely a bump in the road for Peyton Manning or are we finally seeing the decline of one of the best to ever play the game?
Steven: I think it’s just a bump in the road for Manning and the Colts. The receiving corps has been hit hard by injuries all season, leaving a lot of mixing and matching each week. Also, the offensive line has been shaky and the rushing attack ranks near the bottom of the NFL. Without any continuity in the receiving corps, Manning has struggled to find a rhythm in the passing game. If the Colts can get healthy down the stretch, they will be a dangerous team to watch in the playoffs.
Nathan: Brett Favre is showing signs of decline; Peyton Manning is still one of the elite passers on the planet. The Colts, however, are a bad football team. Jim Caldwell’s blank stare won’t change that. Manning’s laser-rocket-arm — which, in baseball scouting terms, was once a plus-plus tool and is probably now “only” a plus tool — is the only thing that has kept Indy above .500 this season. I expect Prince Peyton of the Manning royal football family to reign, health permitting, well into his 40s.
Braden: Thirteen years of excellence says this is probably a just a speed bump. The Colts are struggling, though. They have lost three out of four and Manning has seven INTs in his last two games (nine in his last four against only seven TDs). This team has been dealing with serious injury issues all season, but that is the nature of the game and isn't unlike most teams at this point in the season (See Green Bay, for example, which has lost its starting TE, RB, RT, MLB and S.) Additionally, Reggie Wayne's play has taken a serious step back and is hurting Manning's play. Maybe Marvin Harrison was better than we thought after all.
5. Has Roger Goodell unfairly targeted the Steelers for their physical style of play?
Steven: I understand the logic behind protecting players and eliminating the helmet-to-helmet collisions, but some of the calls against Pittsburgh over the last couple of games have been ridiculous. The Steelers own arguably the NFL’s most physical defense, which certainly leads to some vicious hits. Isn’t football a contact sport? With the NFL’s plan to fine for flagrant hits, the Steelers seem to be under the microscope moreso than any other team in the league. I don’t know if Goodell has mandated the officials to specifically target the Steelers, but it does seem they’ve been held to a different standard.
Nathan: No. It’s not unfair; it’s coldly calculated. The Steelers represent everything that Goodell wants to change about football — which I think is a chilling piece of foreshadowing, since the Steelers are the most successful franchise of the Super Bowl era. The Steelers have an identity that poses a threat to the Commissioner’s objective to redefine football as a different game by the same name. What the Steelers do and how they play has nothing to do with their coach, their quarterback, who's on the defense or what year it is on the calendar. The Steelers play Steeler football. Everyone knows, respects and fears what that means. Players and coaches eventually retire; but Steeler football is a philosophy that borders on seasonal Sunday religion. The Steelers are a name brand like Coca-Cola. And in order to sell New Coke, Goodell must take Coca-Cola Classic off the market. Once the Steelers stop playing Steeler football, the rest of the league will fall in line. It’s a diabolical, yet undeniably brilliant, strategy.
Braden: Reputations exist for a reason. We don't know what James Harrison or Troy Polomalu are going to do. We only know what they have done. Whether he has changed or not, Harrison seems to be paying for his repuation. Hines Ward might not have been completely correct in his hypocrisy diatribe on Wednesday, but Goodell does seem to be making an example of the Steelers. Whether that is right or wrong is up to officials, doctors, players and coaches — not the armchair quarterbacks of the world (of which I am one). Who he is doing it for is another issue entirely (hint: It ain't the players!).