Tuesday December 8th, 2009

Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we take stock of where things stand in the NFL as the final four weeks of the regular season come into focus (that's 64 games and counting down if you're keeping track)....

• What's wrong with the Patriots? Tom Brady says it's a matter of lacking mental toughness and commitment level, but I think it goes further. For starters, they lost too much defensive leadership all at once. While each subtraction looks defensible in and of itself, the cumulative effect of trying to play without Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi has created a void greater than the sum of its parts. Especially when Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs are still missed in Foxboro.

Add to that the discouraging reality that New England has swung and missed in terms of the defensive veterans it has acquired in recent years. The level of exposure the Patriots young defensive players are suffering was supposed to be minimized by the likes of cornerback Shawn Springs, linebacker/defensive end Derrick Burgess and linebacker Adalius Thomas. But New England has gotten little or no impact from those veterans, and that has made it rely too heavily on young players who just aren't ready for the roles they were drafted to fill (see Jonathan Wilhite, Darius Butler and Terrence Wheatley).

The Patriots' lack of any threat in terms of pass rush has left their young secondary on an island in far too many games this season, and it's no wonder even the Chad Hennes of the NFL are starting to carve up New England's defense when the game is on the line. On offense, the season-long lack of a consistent third receiving threat has been limiting (Sam Aiken's big game at Miami notwithstanding), and the tight end combination of Chris Baker and Benjamin Watson has underachieved.

That said, don't shovel too much dirt on the Patriots just yet. They'll be favored to win all four of their remaining games -- Carolina, at Buffalo, Jacksonville, at Houston -- and they'll still claim the AFC East title and get a first-round home playoff game at 11-5 or 10-6.

They also have a chance to get a little healthier and more potent on offense down the stretch with the likely return of running back Fred Taylor (ankle) and versatile rookie receiver/return man Julian Edelman (arm), which could ease some of the burden on the defense. While it's true New England isn't feared the same way it has been for most of the decade, there won't be a long line of teams eager to face the Patriots in the playoffs, no matter how vulnerable they've been in the season's first 12 games.

• Got some testy e-mails for bringing it up last week in the Vikings' entry in my weekly NFL power rankings, but the Brett Favre-hits-the-wall-after-11-games theory certainly held true for at least the first week of December. Favre's late-season meltdowns on the turnover front have been almost a given since 2005, and as if on cue, he had his first multiple-pick game of the season (two, with two other potential interceptions dropped) in Sunday night's 30-17 loss at Arizona.

From 2005 on, Favre has thrown 36 interceptions and just 15 touchdowns in the last five games of the regular season, a differential of minus-21. In his first 11 games of those seasons, Favre's touchdown-to-interception differential was a gaudy plus-48, with 99 touchdowns and 51 interceptions. That's a swing of 69 clicks, making it fairly difficult to dismiss as a five-year trend. Or at least a trend of four years and one game.

• I've said the same thing during the Dallas December swoons of the past two years, but Wade Phillips is at it again, going tone deaf at the exact wrong time of the season. Phillips seems to be a fine coach when things are sailing along and the victories keep coming at regular intervals. But when things start to head south and need fixing -- which in Dallas is pretty much a December ritual -- Phillips tends to be at a loss for words, ideas or potential solutions.

Figuring out how to stop the bleeding is how an NFL head coach truly earns his money. But Phillips seemingly has little knack for that part of the job, and it was all too familiar Sunday evening at Giants Stadium to hear him lamenting how the Cowboys lost to New York only because they did things they do not normally do, like give up big plays or fail to convert on third down. Phillips mournfully shaking his head at those miscues isn't going to get anything corrected.

I actually think Phillips helped sow the seeds for the Dallas loss at New York by choosing last week, of all times, to complain about the lack of respect he and his record as a head coach receives. It was the wrong message at the wrong time. Wins in December would take care of all those perceived slights, and then Phillips wouldn't have to say a word. By bringing up the topic, and then failing against the Giants, Phillips looks like he once again let his focus stray at the point of the year when on-field results matter most.

• With the four most anticipated weeks of the NFL regular season about to play out, you might be surprised to learn that seven teams are already finished with their six-game division schedule, and 12 more have just one game remaining against a division opponent. That means just 13 of 32 teams will play at least half of their remaining four games head to head in the division. Maybe it's no wonder that only three of the eight division races remain undecided as we enter the season's backstretch.

The NFC East, by far, is the division that has the most potential for final month intrigue. All four teams have two division games remaining, and those include arguably the two biggest division showdowns still left on the NFL schedule: This week's Eagles (8-4) at Giants (7-5) game Sunday night at the Meadowlands, and Week 17's Philly at Dallas showdown, which could be a winner-take-all affair in terms of playoff implications. With home games remaining against both the Giants (Week 15) and Cowboys (Week 16), Washington also will have a big say in who wins the NFC East.

Division by division, here are the other division games remaining on the schedule:

-- AFC East: All that's left is New England's Week 15 trip to Buffalo, and that's disappointing given that the division has unexpectedly morphed into a tight three-team race between the Patriots, Dolphins and Jets through 12 games.

-- AFC North: The Ravens at Steelers in Week 16 might eliminate the loser from wild-card contention, but then again, with both teams at 6-6, the end could come sooner than that, rendering their showdown meaningless. The Steelers' trip to Cleveland this Thursday night is the only other division game left.

-- AFC South: The only division game remaining is Indianapolis at Jacksonville in Week 15, and that figures to mean much more to the Jags than the Colts, unless Indy decides it really wants to go for that 16-0 record.

-- AFC West: Denver gets a visit from Oakland in Week 15, and ends the regular season with the Chiefs coming to town. Taking care of business in those two games should put the Broncos in the playoffs for the first time since 2005.

-- NFC North: In an unfortunate scheduling quirk, the third-place, out-of-the-money Bears have all three of the remaining division games: hosting Green Bay this week, Minnesota in Week 16, and at Detroit in Week 17. Of those, the game against the Packers will hold the most meaning, but all of it in terms of Green Bay's playoff hopes.

-- NFC South: The Saints have already clinched the division, but their run at a perfect season still must clear games at Atlanta this week, home against Tampa Bay in Week 16, and at Carolina in Week 17. The drama will be rather one-sided in those games, with the exception of this week's must-win for the Falcons. Atlanta at Tampa Bay in Week 17 is the only other remaining division game.

-- NFC West: The Cardinals can clinch their second consecutive division crown with a win Monday night at San Francisco, but with a three-game lead and four weeks left, it's not exactly do-or-die time in Arizona. The Cardinals also face St. Louis in Week 16. The last division game of the season on tap is the 49ers at Rams in Week 17, which will be a playing-out-the-string affair.

• There's a certain clarity that surfaces this time of year as the playoff chase intensifies and teams either eliminate themselves or increase their odds to reach the postseason. Though it never turns out exactly as it appears it will (see the Eagles and Chargers making the playoffs at the last second in 2008), here are a few helpful ways to view the current landscape:

At the moment, there are 13 teams in the NFL with winning records. All but one of them (the 7-5 Giants) would be in the playoffs if they opened today. New York in the NFC and Jacksonville (7-5) in the AFC are the winning teams that appear most in jeopardy of missing the playoffs, although every time I peek at the 8-4 Cowboys' remaining schedule -- Chargers, at Saints, at Redskins, Eagles -- I can see 9-7 and no trip to the dance for Dallas on the horizon.

Eliminating everyone with less than six wins, there are 18 teams still in the running for 12 playoff spots. Actually, with the Saints and Colts both having already clinched a berth, you can think of it as 16 teams still vying for 10 spots.

The AFC field is trickier to discern than the NFC field, because 10 teams are still very much alive, even though five of them are likely vying for the same wild-card berth. The Jets, Dolphins, Steelers and Ravens are all 6-6 and on the Jaguars' heels for that No. 6 slot in AFC wild card.

In the NFC, the intrigue looks to center on the NFC East, where two of the three contenders (Cowboys, Eagles and Giants) likely will make the postseason, with the third going home. If there's a surprise team, it could still be the 6-6 Falcons, but they face difficult must-wins the next two weeks, at home against New Orleans and at the Jets.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.