Each Friday, columnist Dan Daly and Redskins beat writer Ryan O’Halloran debate an NFL issue. This week: The Saints finally lost, and the Vikings look vulnerable. Is the NFC up for grabs, or do New Orleans and Minnesota still meet for the conference title?
Dan Daly: As long as Brad Childress doesn’t take Brett Favre out, yeah, I think we’ve got a good shot at a Vikings-Saints title game. Every time I see Childress on TV, I’m reminded that he looks like every college professor I ever hated. Of course, if Favre throws a couple of those what-was-he-thinking interceptions in the playoffs, as he has been known to do, the Eagles could bump them off. Philadelphia has been finishing strong - as it did last season, when it should have gone to the Super Bowl. But it has been the Saints’ and the Vikings’ year. They’re the teams that have had all the attention focused on them - and rightly so. For three months, both teams were virtually unbeatable. Favre and Drew Brees flinging passes in the Superdome is the game, I think, most people would like to see.
Ryan O’Halloran: I wouldn’t mind seeing Packers-Vikings in the NFC title game, but there’s just something about the series of events recently that leads me to believe that Philadelphia is going to knock out Minnesota or New Orleans in the second round (most likely the Vikings, based on the seeding). It’s almost as if Andy Reid finally saw the light when the Redskins almost knocked off Philadelphia last month - stay the hell out of the way. He totally micromanaged that game, and it nearly cost him. As for the Saints, the Redskins and Cowboys have provided a blueprint of sorts - don’t fall behind by seven touchdowns in the opening quarter, and you’ve got a shot.
DD: It’s hard to see anybody else making a serious run. The Cardinals used up all their luck last season, getting to play two home games against teams with better records. As for the Cowboys and Packers - I think it’ll be the Packers who make it - Dallas has problems scoring, and Green Bay just gave up 503 passing yards to Ben Roethlisberger. That suggests to me that neither is NFC title game material. It’s not unusual for teams that have had great seasons to dip a little bit in the last few weeks - get their second wind, so to speak. I’m not overly concerned by what has happened recently to the Saints and Vikings. Just watch them when they’ve had two weeks’ rest… and are playing against opponents who had to slug it out the weekend before.
RO: The first-round byes meant nothing last year when Carolina and the Giants lost, but the first-round matchups this year would seem to have more of a smash-mouth feel (Packers-Cardinals, Cowboys-Eagles), and that could take a toll. I’ll go with a Philadelphia-New Orleans NFC title game.
REDSKINS THIS WEEK
at REDSKINS (4-10)
Sunday, 8:20 p.m.
TV: Chs. 4, 11
Line: Cowboys by 7
Outlook: All signs point to a Dallas victory. The Cowboys pulled the shocker at New Orleans last week and have two additional days’ rest plus some momentum; the Redskins were pummeled by the Giants and have the short work week. This is Washington’s chance to show it hasn’t mailed in the season, but Dallas won’t take the Redskins lightly because of the teams’ first matchup.
The pick: Cowboys 17-13
GAME OF THE WEEK
at STEELERS (7-7)
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 9, 13
Line: Steelers by 2 1/2
Outlook: Pittsburgh needed 503 yards passing from Ben Roethlisberger to break its five-game losing streak and bail out Mike Tomlin for a curious onside kick decision. But things will be tougher against the Ravens’ sixth-ranked pass defense. Baltimore has seemed to establish an offensive identity the last two weeks - averages of 7.7 and 4.0 yards a rushing attempt. The Ravens stay alive.
The pick: Ravens 26-23
at TITANS (7-7)
Friday, 7:30 p.m.
TV: NFL Network
Line: Titans by 3
Outlook: Sure Tennessee is 7-1 following an 0-6 start, but San Diego just shouldn’t be favored to win this game; the Chargers should be considered a near lock to reach the AFC title game - that’s how impressive they’ve been the last two months. San Diego is 6-1 on the road and rolling toward a first-round bye.
The pick: Chargers 34-20
INSIDE THE AFC
• It’s a lock it will happen eventually, but if Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning passes for 159 yards Sunday against the Jets, he will become the fourth player in NFL history to reach 50,000 yards (and a win would make the Colts only the second team to start 15-0 in the regular season). The current 50,000-yard club: Brett Favre (68,692), Dan Marino (61,361) and John Elway (51,475).
• Another AFC South player on the cusp of history is Houston’s Andre Johnson. He needs 67 receiving yards to join Indianapolis’ Marvin Harrison as the only players to post 1,500-plus yards in consecutive years. Harrison did it in 2001-02 (1,524 and 1,722 yards). Johnson had an NFL-best 1,575 last year.
• Buffalo rookie safety Jarius Byrd won’t have a chance to add to his nine interceptions. He’s out for the last two games with a groin injury, opening up two final chances for Houston linebacker Brian Cushing and Redskins pass rusher Brian Orakpo to make a case for defensive rookie of the year.
• Fred Taylor doesn’t play for Jacksonville anymore, having signed with New England last offseason, but he still has strong opinions about the Jaguars. On Wednesday, he said he expects the Jaguars to end up in Los Angeles. “I don’t know what’s going to be a decision maker or breaker, but you look at average attendance and… they’re going to find a team to take out there,” he said. “I don’t want to offend anyone. Never do, but you’ve got to be realistic.”
INSIDE THE NFC
• Big homecoming Sunday in Philadelphia when safety Brian Dawkins returns with Denver. The Broncos (8-6) are 2-4 in the second half and need wins to stay alive; the Eagles have clinched at least a wild-card berth. Dawkins was the face of the Eagles’ defense for 13 years before parting ways in free agency. “I’m sure the fans will welcome him the right away,” Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown said. “It’s one of those memorable moments and games.”
• By the way he abused Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie last week, Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers showed his huge worth with a sack and a bunch of pressure. Peppers, who is being paid $16.7 million this year and has held a season-long boycott of the media, is playing at the top of his game according to teammates. “He was playing possessed [last week],” linebacker Na’il Diggs said.
• Arizona (9-5) is aiming for its first 10-win regular season since 1976 and hopes it can build on the NFC West crown instead of going into a funk like it did last year when Minnesota (35-14) and New England (47-7) posted blowouts. The Cardinals host 1-13 St. Louis on Sunday. “We need to play a lot better than we did last year at this time,” receiver Larry Fitzgerald said.
Five wacky numbers that don’t translate into a team’s record or player’s production:
1. San Diego’s rushing game - The Chargers rank last in yards a carry (3.3) and yards a game (86.2) but are 11-3 with nine straight wins.
2. Wes Welker and the end zone - The New England receiver leads the NFL with 109 catches (16 more than second-place Brandon Marshall), but Welker’s four touchdowns are tied for 31st among the top 50 pass catchers.
3. Indianapolis’ third-down defense - The Colts are allowing teams to convert 45.8 percent of their third down conversions, second worst in the NFL. But Indianapolis is 14-0.
4. New Orleans’ kickoff coverage - Thomas Morstead leads the NFL with 27 touchbacks, but the Saints are 30th in covering his kicks (24.8-yard average). They’re still 13-1.
5. Washington’s special teams coverage - The Redskins are one of only four teams in the top 11 of punt (11th) and kickoff coverage (second) and yet are 4-10 and in the NFC East cellar.
BY THE NUMBERS
118 Rookies who started at least one game this year, already the fifth-highest total since the seven-round draft format started in 1994.