1. Seattle (12-3). It’s only one game, against a variable Cardinals defensive front that changed things up on Russell Wilson consistently. I wouldn’t be too worried. But the Rams come to town Sunday. Home-field in the NFC is on the line. When the Rams and Seahawks met in St. Louis in October, Seattle struggled to win—and to score 14 points. Somebody better block Robert Quinn.
2. San Francisco (10-4). Smart play by the Niners this year, resting stalwart defensive end Justin Smith regularly. In the first 14 games, he’s sat 9, 15, 15, 24, 15, 9, 25, 26, 13, 11, 18, 29, 10 and 18 snaps. January insurance.
3. Denver (12-3). A win at Oakland Sunday and the Broncos would have a duplicate of 2012: a 13-3 record, top seed in the AFC, and a playoff game at home in the divisional round … and it still is mathematically possible that the game could be against Baltimore. But the Von Miller loss is a dagger.
4. Carolina (11-4). Great win. A franchise-changing win. And may I say that the three most important players in the NFC South championship game (barring a major upset of the Panthers Sunday by Atlanta) have something significant in common? Linebacker Thomas Davis, linebacker Luke Kuechly and quarterback Cam Newton were all first-round draft picks by fired former GM Marty Hurney, who apparently did something right in his tenure.
5. New England (11-4). As stunning as 15- and 19-point playoff victories by Baltimore in Foxboro were in the last four years, that’s how stunning a 34-point New England win in the Inner Harbor was Sunday.
6. New Orleans (10-5). I wouldn’t throw the season in the dumpster just yet, Saints Nation, but barring a stunning upset by the Falcons Sunday over the Panthers with a Saints win over the Bucs, New Orleans will have to win four games away from the Superdome to win the Super Bowl this year. Points scored in the last three road games: 7, 16, 13.
7. Arizona (10-5). The Cards are in tiebreaker hell because of 12- and 24-point losses to the Niners and Saints earlier this year, and a 6-5 conference record. But they can take solace in winning the 2013 Teams Are Petrified To Meet Them In The Playoffs Award.
8. Cincinnati (10-5). The Bengals have had 49-, 41-, 42- and 42-point explosions in the last two months. This is a very interesting playoff team right now, and the first time in franchise history that Cincy has made the playoffs three years in a row.
9. Indianapolis (10-5). The season’s long. Week 3: Colts travel to San Francisco and crush the Niners 27-7. Got crushed a few too many times since. But this is two straight weeks that the defense showed up and looked like it did that day by the Bay. There may be some January hope for this team.
10. Kansas City (11-4). The potential return match in Indianapolis in the Wild-Card round in 12 or 13 days looks a lot worse than it did 24 hours ago.
11. Philadelphia (9-6). Just when you think you’ve got the league figured out, a week after giving up 48 point to the Minnesota Vikings the Eagles go and beat the Bears by 43.
12. San Diego (8-7). Road wins over Kansas City and Denver in the last month, and the feeling that you do not want to face Philip Rivers (69.7 percent passing, 29-10 touchdown-to-interception differential) in January.
13. Pittsburgh (7-8). Seven weeks ago the Steelers were 2-6. Just a friendly reminder that the season’s 17 weeks long.
14. Miami (8-7). This is not the morning, Dolfans, to remind me that you won at Pittsburgh two weeks ago. Not after that goose-egg-laying to the Bills.
15. Chicago (8-7). I’m open about who to put at No. 15. Ideas?
The Award Section
Offensive Players of the Week
Peyton Manning, quarterback, Denver. Manning pooh-poohed the touchdown passes record on the phone afterward, saying it would be broken as early as next season. Could well be. But two years after missing the season and not being able to throw the ball much at all because of four neck procedures, Manning became the first player in NFL history to exceed 50 touchdown passes and 5,000 passing yards in a season. And the Broncos moved within a win at Oakland Sunday of clinching home-field in the AFC.
Cam Newton, quarterback, Carolina. In the first 59 minutes of the NFC South title game at Charlotte, Newton was totally unimpactful as the Saints ground out a 13-10 lead. Then he drove the Panthers 65 yards, completing three of five passes, including the final 14-yarder to Domenik Hixon for the winning touchdown in a 17-13 victory. This was the biggest drive of Newton’s three-year career, and if he’d failed, the criticism would been weighty. But coming through in the final minute of huge games is what franchise quarterbacks do, and give Newton credit: He came through in the biggest moment of his career.
Defensive Player of the Week
Luke Kuechly, linebacker, Carolina. Never on any level of football—in nine years of high school, college or pro—has Kuechly had the kind of day he had in the biggest game of his pro career Sunday: 24 tackles and an interception in the 17-13 victory over the Saints. He had help from Thomas Davis, his partner at linebacker, and some excellent pass rushing too. But Kuechly was the big star of a threatening defense in the game in which that unit arrived.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Brad Nortman, punter, Carolina. Into the teeth of a torrential downpour in the third quarter of the NFC South championship game, Nortman, Carolina’s sixth-round pick last season, nailed a beauty downed at the Saints’ 2-yard line. On the next stalled series, Nortman booted one 57 yards to the Saints’ 3. For the game, he punted eight times for a 50.8-yard average … with a 47.0-yard net. On a day like that, Nortman was a huge player for the Panthers.
Coach of the Week
Bruce Arians, head coach, Arizona. (See above.) The Cardinals are 10-5 playing in the toughest division in football, and just handed the best team in football its first home loss in two years. This pick’s easy.
Danny Smith, special teams coach, Pittsburgh. Made the call of the day, with the game on the line in the third quarter at Green Bay, and the Steelers punting from their 44, trailing 14-10. Out of the punt formation, Smith had punter Mat McBriar roll right with the snap and throw a perfect ball, a 30-yard pass to fourth-string tight end David Paulson for a first down. A gutsy call, and a great throw. Who knew McBrian had it in him? On the next play, Ben Roethlisberger ran for a 13-yard touchdown, and the Steelers went on to win 38-31. Cool story for Smith, a Pittsburgh native and Edinboro (Pa.) State grad who is in his rookie year coaching the kicking game for Pittsburgh.
Ron Rivera, head coach, Carolina. With the Panthers 1-3 and Rivera’s job certainly in jeopardy, Rivera fretted how irrelevant the franchise had become. Even after they won a couple of games, he was bugged by how much the Panthers didn’t matter. Well, they do now. Carolina’s won 10 of 11 since the 1-3 start, and the Panthers clinched a playoff spot Sunday and will win the NFC South with a win at Atlanta or a Saints loss to the Bucs. Amazing stuff.
Goat of the Week
Nick Perry, linebacker; Don Barclay, tackle, Green Bay Packers. With the Steelers lined up at 31-all to kick a go-ahead field goal with 90 seconds left, Perry got called for encroachment. This gave the Steelers a first down and allowed them to score a touchdown instead, forcing the Packers burn their final timeout along the way. Then, after a 70-yard Micah Hyde kickoff return, the Packers drove to the Steelers’ 1-yard line and were in position to tie the game in the final seconds. But on second down, Barclay committed a false start with 22 seconds left, causing a 10-second runoff, and Green Bay was able to run only one frenetic play down the stretch instead of a possible three. The Packers lost this one as much as Pittsburgh won it.
David Robinson, state climatologist, New Jersey. On the CBS Sports Network’s That Other Pregame Show, Robinson gave one of the dumbest weather predictions in meteorological history. He said there is about a 10 percent chance of snow during the Feb. 2 Super Bowl in New Jersey. “We’ve never had a big snowstorm on February 2, looking back at 80 years of records, over in Newark,” Robinson said. “But just two days after that, back in 1961, there was 15 inches of snow on the fourth of February.” A nonsensical point, David. Feb. 2 does not have some magical, mystical significance, and because it didn’t blizzard for a long time, that has no bearing on whether it will snow or rain or sleet or be 58 and perfect on the day of the Super Bowl.