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In Fair World, Cardinals Would Win NFC North

Posted By Jay Mariotti On December 23, 2013 @ 6:21 AM In JM - 24/7 Quick Takes,JM - Archive,JM - Main Event,main feature,NFL | No Comments

The commissioner must intervene. An unworthy team is going to host an opening-round game in the playoffs, from a division nobody wants to win, while a team that just beat down the presiding Super Bowl favorites inside their madhouse stadium likely will be eliminated. Geography be damned, Roger Goodell should temporarily move Arizona to the NFC North so that competitive justice is served.

Because something is wickedly wrong when the Cardinals, who have won seven of their last eight and are led by a man who might repeat as NFL Coach of the Year, have to sit home in the postseason and observe one of two charlatans from the NFC North: 8-7-1 Green Bay or an equally suspect Chicago team that was smoked 54-11 by the Eagles. Just when we were ready to call off the postseason and award the Lombardi Trophy to the Seahawks, the Cardinals marched into the most intimidating venue in American sports, quieted a wild crowd that recently moved a nearby seismometer needle, punished Russell Wilson to the point he might consider that baseball offer from the Texas Rangers — say, immediately — and ended Seattle’s 14-game home winning streak with a 17-10 shocker.

“You have to give them credit. They played really well on defense, harder and tougher than we wanted them to be,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.

Yet even if they’d loom as a dangerous team in January, the Cardinals are screwed thanks to their place in the almighty NFC West, where the Seahawks and 49ers are perched ahead of them. Only a combination of an Arizona victory over the 49ers (possible) and a Tampa Bay victory at New Orleans (impossible) puts the Cardinals in the playoffs. Imagine an 11-5 team being eliminated while a 8-7-1 team plays a home game, simply because protocol insists that division winners receive such perks.

“Whether we make the playoffs or not, we beat one of the best,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said.

Whether? It shouldn’t be a question. Remember the MVP chatter for Wilson? He was sacked four times and, on the rare occasions he had time to throw, was so rattled that he missed open receivers. He completed only 11 of 27 attempts for a career-low 108 yards as the storming Arizona defense, led by Karlos Dansby, also stymied Beast Mode back Marshawn Lynch. The Cardinals were more physical than the NFL’s most physical team in the NFL’s most difficult road setting. I want to see the Cardinals in the postseason.

I’ll have to settle for the St. Louis version. The winner of the Chicago-Green Bay game, which should be played on a field of manure, advances as the NFC North chumps. I mean, champs.

The Bears, who could have clinched the division with a victory, were down 14-0 barely after Carrie Underwood had finished her pre-game song. They weren’t ready to play, and Chicago fans will be shouting all week for rookie coach Marc Trestman to reinsert Josh McCown at quarterback for the Green Bay “showdown.” If Jay Cutler was far from the only reason for the loss, he was sacked five times as the offense failed to develop a rhythm against a swarming Eagles defense, which somehow had allowed 48 points to another NFC North weakling, Minnesota, the previous week. The recent switch from McCown, who had been the league’s hottest quarterback, to Cutler, who was returning from an ankle sprain, wasn’t roundly endorsed in the Bears locker room. With the Packers pondering an unlikely but still possible return of Aaron Rodgers, the clamor for McCown, heretorore a second-string journeyman, will be loud.

“We knew what was at stake and the opportunity we had, and we didn’t get it done,” Trestman said.

“I thought we had a good game plan,” Cutler said. “We had good practices this week. Obviously, we didn’t play like it.”

The Bears defense, known as the “46” in their ’80s heyday, should be called the “40.” They’ve now yielded at least 40 points in four games this season, as many as they had allowed collectively in their previous nine seasons. The Packers might not need Rodgers, who is recovering from a broken collarbone and shouldn’t be rushed before he is ready when he has five or six highly productive seasons ahead in his career prime. Scoring points isn’t the problem in Green Bay.

This time, it was clock management in the final frenetic seconds of a 38-31 loss to Pittsburgh. The Packers and coach Mike McCarthy were wrong to blame referee Carl Cheffers and his crew for mishandling the situation. Poised on second-and-goal from the 1-yard line to either force overtime or pursue victory with a two-point conversion. the Packers sabotaged themselves with a false-start penalty with 20 seconds left. They still should have had two chances to score, but they suddenly became confused when umpire Undrey Wash was overseeing the mandatory 10-second runoff after a penalty and didn’t allow center Evan Dietrich-Smith to immediately snap the ball. They lost their poise when they still had all the time to needed to execute two plays.

“Time was just ticking; he was just sitting there on Dietrich. I don’t have an answer for that,” right tackle Don Barclay said, per ESPN.com.

“Well, we were all up, we were all set, and then he came up and told Evan to take his hand off the ball,” left guard Josh Sitton said. “And then we all kind of got up, and then he wound the clock. I think we were ready, and I think that took a few more seconds than it should have.”

But Cheffers didn’t signal for the clock to start running until after Wash had moved away from the line and Cheffers was standing behind the quarterback, Matt Flynn. The Packers had allowed the situation to become chaotic, which may or may not have happened if Rodgers had been playing. Flynn managed only to get off one play, missing Jarrett Boykin to seal the defeat and not noticing an open Jordy Nelson. Said Flynn, per ESPN: “We knew we were going to get a run-off, we knew the clock was going to run and so we got everybody lined up. We should have been able to get two plays off. We thought that the operation, getting the ball down and the clock started was a little bit weird. But we should’ve been able to get two plays off. We went as fast as we could.”

McCarthy, who has grown easily irritated at the 24/7 coverage of the Rodgers situation, chose to blame the officials. Any reason why the center and quarterback couldn’t execute the snap sooner? “Not when the umpire is standing there and the clock is running. I don’t know what you can ask Matt Flynn to do, or Dietrich-Smith,” McCarthy said.

Not the right answer.

But at least McCarthy has one more game to redeem himself. Jim Schwarz does not. With the Lions out of the playoffs after losing five of their last six and choking away the division lead, Schwarz will be fired. Whereas the Cowboys and Tony Romo finally disproved the rap that they can’t win in December, Schwarz has lost nine straight games in December and January. There is too much talent on this team to suffer collapses, and Detroit fans voiced their displeasure in the final seconds of regulation, booing when Schwarz allowed the clock to expire for overtime despite having 23 seconds and two timeouts remaining with the ball at the Lions 25. Known for his short fuse, he turned around on the sideline and shouted toward the stands. He said he wasn’t reacting to the boos but was trying to rally the fans.

“That’s a tough situation when your players are getting booed,” Schwarz said. “You want to keep them fired up and that’s what I was trying to do.”

Either way, with overtime looming and a season and his job on the line, you don’t pay attention to what fans are doing. Predictably, the Lions lost to the Giants in overtime.

“We’ve come a long way, but we’re still not quite there, obviously,” Schwartz said. “We are still a play away from turning these games around on offense, defense or special teams. Any more than that, I think, just like I’ve always done, I think we’ll characterize it after the season.”

Does he realize there’s nothing left to characterize but the identity of his successor? “Speculation is not my business,” he said. “My business is coaching the team and trying to keep the team focused. That’s job enough without worrying about all the other stuff. Where we were (in first place), you can’t worry about where we were. It’s about where you are in the present.”

That would be in third place, at 7-8, in one of the uglier divisions in NFL history. If Goodell can’t move Arizona to the NFC North this week, maybe he can purge the division altogether. It absolutely reeks, with one stinker of a finale remaining. Might the Packers and Bears take the noble step of not showing up?

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