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DALY: Subplots fuel last week of NFL regular season

- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 29, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION

Just because the Washington Redskins have been out of the playoff picture since Thanksgiving doesn't mean the last Sunday of the NFL regular season can't be entertaining.

After all, you have the top seed in the AFC at stake. You have the first pick in the draft up for grabs. You have three division races, including the NFC East, still undecided. You have some notable statistical achievements within the reach of some celebrated players.

And you have Graham Gano trying to kick a 50-yard field goal.

There's no telling what the winds will be like in Philadelphia this weekend, but if Gano can boot another long one in the Redskins' finale against the Eagles, it'll give him five 50-yarders for the season — a club record. He probably doesn't even know it, so for goodness sakes don't tell him; he's got enough to worry about with a new baby and all. But hey, who wouldn't want to surpass franchise legend Mark Moseley (four of 50 yards or longer in 1977) and John Hall (four in 2003) in the record book?

Why, Gano can even break Moseley's team mark of 33 field goals in a season (set in 1983) by kicking four — of any length — in Philly. Sad, isn't it? The Redskins have been slugging it out for 15 games now, and here we are talking about kicking heroics. And the flip side of kicking heroics, in this case, is the offense's eternal red-zone difficulties. Only one kicker in the league, I'll just point out, has made more field goals inside of 30 yards than Gano (13).

But enough about that. Here are some more pertinent thoughts and observations about Windup Week in the NFL:

• It's amazing how distant the lockout seems these days. Some folks feared there might be an abbreviated season; instead, we've enjoyed another memorable one, thanks in large measure to quarterbacks such as Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, New Orleans' Drew Brees and New England's Tom Brady — and their continued insistence on pushing the envelope.

Brees (5,087) already has broken Dan Marino's 27-year-old record for passing yards in a season by three yards. But Brady (4,897), depending on how Sunday plays out, could end up breaking Brees' mark. In fact, before the afternoon is over, Brady could throw his 300th career touchdown pass (he needs three), reach 40,000 career passing yards (he needs 359) and hit the 5,000-yard mark for the year. Wonder whether they'll stop the game to announce any of these milestones — and whether the Patriots will be charged with any timeouts.

Rodgers, meanwhile, takes a 122.5 passer rating into the Packers' rematch with Detroit. The all-time record is 121.1 by Indianapolis' Peyton Manning in 2004. Rodgers also has a shot at 50 touchdown passes, which would tie Brady's mark, but he might not stay on the field long enough to do it. The Pack have wrapped up the home-field advantage in the NFC, and they don't want Rodgers to catch a chill — or to get his head stepped on by Ndamukong Suh, for that matter.

Maybe the biggest surprise of this season, though, is that two rookie quarterbacks — Cincinnati's Andy Dalton and Carolina's Cam Newton — have made a major impact despite missing out on minicamps and OTAs (which were scrubbed because of the labor dispute). Dalton could put the Bengals in the playoffs with a victory over Baltimore on Sunday, and Newton has been a revelation with his arm (3,893 passing yards, a rookie record) and his feet (674 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns, a record for QBs).

• A 5-foot-7 running back, Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew, could wind up leading the league in rushing. (He has 1,437 yards, 128 more than the No. 2 guy, the Eagles' LeSean McCoy.)

• Meanwhile, a 5-foot-6 all-purpose back, the Saints' Darren Sproles, is closing out a quietly spectacular year. For starters, Sproles has rushed 81 times for 563 yards, a 7-yard average. No running back has had that many carries and that high an average in more than half a century — since Hall of Famer Lenny Moore in 1958 (82/598/7.3). Sproles also has 81 receptions for 681 yards, making him one of just three backs in the NFL with 500 yards rushing and 500 receiving (Houston's Arian Foster and the Ravens' Ray Rice are the others). And he's is averaging 27.2 yards on kickoff returns and has run back a punt 72 yards for a score. Sproles is the Buddy Young of his era (though Buddy was a little smaller at 5-4 and — believe it or not -faster, being a sprint champ).

• Finally, the Andrew Luck Sweepstakes will be decided Sunday — by 4 p.m., give or take. Luck, of course, is the Stanford quarterback most prognosticators say will be taken first in next year's draft. The two finalists for his services (or the right to trade them) are Indianapolis and St. Louis, both of which have suffered through 2-13 seasons and have only one more afternoon of anguish to go (the Colts against the 4-11 Jacksonville, the Rams against 12-3 San Francisco). But here's the best part: The future of these two franchises could well be decided by Dan Orlovsky (Indy's stand-in for the injured Manning) and Kellen Clemens (St. Louis' replacement for the ailing Sam Bradford).

Clemens, you may recall, was in training camp with the Redskins this summer. Who knew, four months later, he might have his hands on the wheel of history?

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