Ahead of the Curve
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Not in the Cards

It's a damn shame that the Arizona Cardinals, one of the most intriguing teams of the regular season (SD), will not be a post-season participant.

Had playoff slots been awarded by a win-loss standard (w/tie-breakers), instead of the League's stubborn devotion to a divisional / wild-card selection, Arizona at 10-6 would've made the grade. As it stands, Green Bay (4 seed), winners of the pedestrian NFC North at 8-7-1, will now host 12-4 San Francisco (5) at Lambeau Field.

You'd think the NFL would've learned a lesson in 2010. That's when the 7-9 Seahawks won the West and then tripped up defending champ New Orleans in Seattle before being easily dispatched by Kyle Orton and the Chicago Bears.

How to perfect playoff largesse? Ask the NFL and, according to Don Banks, they'll answer in one word: "expansion ("NFL" / Banks / SI.com / 12-27)."

We fans know better. We know all too well how the NBA & NHL have diluted their pool of talent & competition by expanding the playoff franchise well beyond the boundaries of common sense and quality control.

Retaining the division-format, at least in part, reflects the League's respect for regional representation, spreading the joy, as it were. It's a good thing, but not at the expense of common sense & fairness, i.e., the best records in the pro arena should play for the prize: they've earned it, they're most likely the best product and the fans expect it.

Memo to Rog: table expansion, ditch divisions, keep Conferences, work the rivalries into the schedule and seed the playoff garden with the 'best record' variety. Simple as A B C.

"Tale of Two Cities"

Count me among those who panned Green Bay's decision to play a rehabbing Aaron Rodgers before Sunday's NFC North title game vs. Chicago (GB 33-28). I termed it a "bad call" (cmt: "Aaron" / Farrar / SI.com / 12-26), "short-sighted" and "irresolute."

Crow's not so bad. Kinda' tastes like...chicken, but gamey.

Like cream, Packers "super" signal-caller rose to the occasion, playing what he says is a "top three" game of his starry career ("It's OK" / King / SI.com / 12-30).  A bit hyperbolic in the joyous after-glow, perhaps (Bears' D played its part), but the green & yellow are clearly a different bunch with Aaron under center.

I suppose I ought congratulate Packers' brass on their good fortune. Congratulations. Chicago's good fortune seems to've left town with Jim McMahon, the main cog in Bears' tremendous 1985-86 season, a departure in which GB played its part (C. Martin '86).

The Packers bench their capable back-up (Flynn) and make the playoffs in miraculous fashion, the Bears sideline their hot sub (McCown) and proceed to fizzle, going 1-2.

That's not just good fortune, no Sir-ee Bob. Luck's just one part of it. Other two parts: Ron Wolf & Ted Thompson. Ever since Ron arrived in Paper-land ('91), passing torch to Sherman ('01) and then Ted ('05), Packers bread nearly always lands butter side up.

Year of the Coach

"It's beginning to look a lot like" Peyton Manning has this season's NFL Most Valuable Player Award (AP) in the bag (5477 / 55-10 / 68%), one that'd be his record 5th. The Broncos QB is such a formidable case for the accolade, having set NFL single-season records for TDs, pass-yards and team-scoring (603), he could match Tom Brady ('10) as the only other unanimous selectee in the award's history.

Others may get some mention, and deservedly so. Brady, Brees, Le. McCoy, Phil Rivers & Jam Charles were all terrific. Still others won't be included in MVP discussion but should, including Cal Johnson, Josh Gordon, De. Jackson, Jim Graham & Russ Wilson.

Cam Newton's one of the "won't (but) should" guys. Trouble is, he's red-flagging.

Camster went hamster in his finale at Atlanta (W21-20), taking off 12 times for 72 yards. You can pull that run-at-will stuff against bottom-feeders, but do it against top-tier teams with a semblance of defense and you'll pay a price, in injury, fumble or lost opportunity.

For a time it looked like Cam had matured, fighting a college tendency to fear-flight when pressed or behind, working to turn flash into mobility & pocket poise, a la Cunningham, Young & Tarkenton. But emulating Vick over Aikmen is road to nowhere, title-wise.

Skip school too often (pocket), you'll never learn to read (defense & re-routes).  "Reading is fundamental," it's NOT an option.  Run is QB-crack: keep indulging in athleticism, make it bread & butter and one day you won't stop, always reverting when times get tough.

On the defensive side, unless a player challenges an existing mark on specialty items like sacks or INTs, the AP Defensive Player of the Year should always go to the League's top tackler. In 2013 that's Jaguars' 7th year linebacker Paul Posluszny (121.t / 40a / 3s / 2i / 1fr).

While rest of sportdom focuses on Black Monday's expected results, I accentuate the positive here and highlight the award race that's as wide open as Presidential '16, the AP Coach of the Year recipient. This one's chock full o' candidates from an NFL season that would make "Gomer Pyle USMC" smile wide ("Surprise, surprise!").

Peter Carroll (13-3): Molds 2-yr. QB into a star, rock-solid D and no Percy Electric;

Jim Harbaugh (12-4): Remaining calm after two early stumbles is mark of a winner;

Chip Kelly (10-6): After 1-3 start, he looked 'out of his league' but guys are buying in;

Bill Belichick (12-4): Maybe BB's (& TB's) best work, with so many parts missing;

John Fox (13-3): Fact he missed time with illness only strengthens his achievements;

Andy Reid (11-5): Wheezing at finish (2-5) detracts some from a super KC revival;

Ron Rivera (11-4): Another hot seat, cool customer who built on D and guided his QB;

Sean Payton (11-5): Things looked bleak last year but Sean's the juice that fuels Saints;

Bruce Arians (10-6): 'Spread the joy' may be only thing preventing "Hail (Arians)!" x2;

Chuck Pagano (11-5): This season proof Bruce had a sweet system already in place;

Marvin Lewis (11-5): 6th man vying to repeat COY, 6-2 finish (Nov) makes good case;

Mike McCoy (9-7): Like Arizona, early erratic (4-6), but ended looking like an elitist;

Honorable Mention: Rex Ryan (8-8): In rough seas, he kept his wits and the ship afloat.

All Roads Lead to ESPN?

If he finds time in between gambling and signing sessions, J. Manziel might take note of Tim Tebow's new landing spot, where else, ESPN ("Match" / Deitsch / SI.com / 12-30). Like TT, John's football legacy will likely reside at his alma mater (Texas A&M) and not in the NFL where grapevine says he's rollin' the dice come April. John'd be wise to stay put, enhance, polish-up his resume at College Station, maybe win another Heisman, a title, earn a degree, dare I write. But that sort of 'wise' ain't Johnny's mug a' brew.

Pay close attention, Johnny, this could be you in three years, if you're lucky. And I like Tebow's hire. With a little polish himself (speech), Tim's a cinch. Just see if you can get these College GameDay guys to stop praying in the weight-room, Timbo. Muscled out.

Wild Cherry Picks: Donnybrooks

Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) @ Indianapolis Colts (11-5): 1-4 NBC 4:35

Chiefs 2nd half not so bleak (3-5), w/2 road Ws, INTs up (21), QB's down (7) & 2nd-string stout in closer. Big sack # (47) 1st H made, w/ Houston & Hali bunged. KC (+) v. Colts, run game (Charles v. ?). Colts (+), Luck learns fast, Mathis beasty (20S), Adam wily and Chuck has 'em ready (66 Pen). Reid's restfulness W17 pays off, Chiefs prove victorious.

New Orleans Saints (11-5) @ Philadelphia Eagles (10-6): NBC 8:15

Both squads terrific 2013 comeback stories. Too bad one's gotta' end. Saints 1-5 road ("Uh oh"), 2nd half, Eagles, 7-1 (W9>) w/ 3 of 7 vs throwers (AZ / DET / CHI). Foles fab, De & Le MVP and Coop a key. But playoffs is a new season and this one turns on experience & defense: edge Payton, Brees, Lofton & Jordan (12+S). Saints win.

San Diego Chargers (9-7) @ Cincinnati Bengals (11-5): 1-5 CBS 1:10

Bolts an AFC Cards, go 5-1 late, including road Ws vs PS'ers DEN & KC, w/ close loss @ CIN (W13). Mathews ran 16G for best year (1255), top corps, sweet 3d% (49), Novak nice (34-37) and Rivers country fresh goodness (70%). Liberal Cats love PBS, dual-run, sack-attack (43), get INTs (20) but Andy gives (20).  Chargers eked-out KC win, Cincy prevails.

San Francisco 49ers (12-4) @ Green Bay Packers (8-7-1): 4:45 Fox (GOTW)

Not as big as Deanna Durbin vs Judy Garland (MGM '36), but it's close. Winner has best shot v. Seattle. Surprising if Kaep Krusader runs wild again ('13 GB), not 'cause Dom has big-play D stoutish (Swiss cheese), but Jim knows QB-poise is key to change (SB47 funk).  49ers must stifle Rodgers early, who's smoother 'n Cheez Whiz and revenge-driven. Packers rising, get W.

Special Note: This final piece of 2013 is dedicated to the many victims of terrorism world wide this past year, with deaths in Iraq alone exceeding 8000 (LinkTV). My sympathy goes out to those harmed by the blasts and then who bravely inhabit these danger zones. The hope is that government & international forces receive all necessary aid to combat the deadly blight, can fashion a long-term, effective security plan, that the perpetrators are thwarted and the cycle of indoctrination into ignorance & arrogance is somehow broken.

Steven Keys

NFL Hunch Line

Photo Credit: Dairy cow / USDA-NRCS-PE / 10-4-11 / wc.cca / B. Nichols

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