NEW YORK — The Arizona Cardinals have lost four of their last five games, allowing 37, 48, 35 and 47 points. Their only win during that period was over St. Louis, a 2-13 team. And if they don’t beat 4-11 Seattle at home on Sunday, they will finish 8-8.
Do we really want these guys in the playoffs?
Same for some of the other teams we will see in the postseason: Minnesota or Chicago; Tampa Bay or Dallas; Denver or San Diego, one of whom will win the AFC West? Heck, even the embarrassing New York Jets with the embarrassing Brett Favre have an outside chance to get in.
Very outside, fortunately.
For a number of years, there have been suggestions from some teams (usually ones just on the outside) to increase the number of teams qualifying for the postseason from 12 to 14 or even 16. For a number of years, thankfully, a majority of owners have decided the current number is just fine.
This year, 12 may be too many because the random ways of division alignment are producing playoff teams that don’t belong.
In the NFC, the East and South are relatively loaded, with the last place teams each 8-7. But the North and West are, respectively, mediocre and dismal.
“Right now, we aren’t what we were,” Kurt Warner acknowledged after Arizona lost 47-7 to Bill Belichick’s Patriots on Sunday, outgained 514-186. “If we’re happy with winning the division, then that’s all we’ll do.”
Here’s a very easy prediction: that’s all the Cardinals will do.
That’s because they are the beneficiaries of the nature of division alignment that this season has them grouped with the Rams, the Seahawks and the 49ers (6-9).
You can argue that San Francisco, 4-4 since Mike Singletary took over as coach and installed Shaun Hill at quarterback, might have won the division if the Singletary-Hill combination had been in place from the start. Instead it was J.T. O’Sullivan at QB, installed by offensive coordinator/genius Mike Martz with the concurrence of now departed head coach Mike Nolan.
But that would have provided just another mediocre playoff team.
In the AFC, the West is awful; the North and South strong at the top and the East a mystery — a division in which the Patriots, champions the last five seasons, could get left out with an 11-5 record although they are playing better than anyone in the division right now.
The only positive thought: Belichick sitting in front of his television set watching an 8-8 team (or two) struggling through the postseason. As he watches the Chargers and Cardinals stagger through a playoff game, he mutters to himself. In public, he says: “(We) weren’t good enough. Didn’t do what we had to.” Pressed on that, he says: “It is what it is.”
That’s if Belichick bothers to watch, which is unlikely.
How did we get here?
Blame the random nature of division alignment (see above). Plus bad coaching, bad luck and Ed Hochuli.
But not injuries. Yes, the Chargers’ defense struggled without Shawne Merriman, but the Giants lost their equivalent, Osi Umenyiora, during the preseason and are currently 12-3 with home-field advantage in the NFC against a much tougher schedule than San Diego endured in the AFC West. And Tennessee beat Pittsburgh on Sunday without Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch, its two most heralded defensive linemen.
Let’s start with Hochuli, who in the second week of the season blew a call that took away a late fumble recovery from the Chargers and ended up handing the Broncos a 39-38 victory.
If San Diego had won that game, maybe it wouldn’t have spent the season struggling to get to .500, a “landmark” it can achieve if it beats Denver at home on Sunday and ends up winning a division that also includes dysfunctional Oakland (4-11) and youth-laden Kansas City (2-13).
But the Chargers, notably president Dean Spanos and general manager A.J. Smith, are as responsible as anyone for their team’s underachieving.
After a 14-2 season in 2006, they fired coach Marty Schottenheimer, who is sixth on the all-time wins list but was/is 5-13 in the playoffs; “is” because his name keeps popping up for any number of potential vacancies.
So they hired the milder and more compliant Norv Turner, who had been San Diego’s offensive coordinator in 2001. Dallas, meanwhile, hired Schottenheimer’s defensive coordinator, the laid-back Wade Phillips.
Which brings us to the Cowboys, who managed to close Texas Stadium with a loss that dropped to 9-6 a team that was supposed to be the NFL’s most talented. Then they lucked out when everything broke right for them Sunday and put them back in the lead for an NFC wild-card spot.
Phillips is doing a wonderful job of calling defenses — that unit seemed to keep the Cowboys close until Baltimore broke two late, long TD runs Saturday night. But the face of the team is owner Jerry “Coach” Jones or Terrell Owens, depending on what paper you read, what Web site you visit or what network you watch. ESPN managed to give T.O. plenty of face time to rebut the findings of its own reporter about the discord of which he is the alleged centerpiece.
The Cowboys continue to cling to a scenario that makes them this year’s Giants — a team that sneaks into the playoffs and goes on a run to win the Super Bowl. But there’s a huge difference: last season’s Giants were an unselfish and well-led team. Think Michael Strahan, Antonio Pierce, Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin in place of T.O. and “Coach” Jones.
The NFC field will be the battle-hardened Giants at the top with either Carolina or Atlanta at No. 2. Indeed, the Panthers, the conference’s second-best team, could slip to No. 5 if they lose Sunday at New Orleans and the Falcons, as they should, beat the dismal Rams at home. Remember this: No road team has won an NFC South game, so the Panthers could lose to the 8-7 Saints.
As of now, the rest of the field would include the Vikings, Cardinals and Cowboys with the Eagles, Bucs and Bears a possibility. In order: average; bad; dysfunctional; and inconsistent times three.
Other than Tennessee and Pittsburgh, the most dangerous team in the AFC may not make the playoffs: New England. Baltimore has the defense, but can a rookie quarterback (Joe Flacco) win three playoff games? (That question also can be asked about Matt Ryan in Atlanta.)
If Miami wins the East, is it a threat? For one win, perhaps.
That leaves the Colts, the team most everyone perceives as a distinct threat.
But Peyton Manning, who is emerging as a most valid candidate for MVP, saved the Colts on Thursday night against a Jacksonville team that had long since stopped playing. Until the fourth quarter, the defense couldn’t stop the Jaguars — no one tackled, especially when Maurice Jones-Drew had the ball.
On the other hand, when the Colts won the Super Bowl two years ago, a defense that couldn’t tackle in the regular season suddenly was huge in the playoffs.
So make the Titans, Steelers, Colts and maybe the Ravens legitimate contenders.
Better than the NFC, but not great.
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