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NFL Week 13: The playoff races take shape

All division races are still wide open, but the Chiefs were the day's big winners. What's wrong with Peyton Manning and the Colts? The Lions get jobbed again, the worst uniforms of the season, Jim Irsay is an entertainer tweeter and Hot Player of the Week.

How I saw Week 13 in the NFL:

A month to go: With four games left for each team and seven of the eight divisions with no lead greater than one game, the last month promises to be exciting. The NFL has back-loaded a ton of division matchups, making the playoffs even harder to forecast, but here goes nothing.

AFC
East: By crushing the Jets (9-3) on Monday night, the Patriots (10-2) have the inside track not only on the division but on home field throughout the playoffs. If the Pats get that, I can't see anybody in the AFC going into Foxboro in January and winning. The Jets still look good for a wild card.

North: With their rock-em-sock-em 13-10 win at Baltimore (8-4), the Steelers (9-3) have a stranglehold on the division. The Steelers would likely have to lose twice for the Ravens to win the division, so look for Baltimore to go the wild card route.

seanlee300
Hot player of the week: Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee (Andy Colwell photo)

South: Jacksonville (7-5) leads Indianapolis (6-6), with the 5-7 Texans and Titans on life support. Despite losing four of five, the Colts still control their playoff fate, and in two weeks the Jags travel to Indy in the game that could decide the division. The way the Colts are playing, though, they could lose at Tennessee this Thursday, making the Jacksonville game pretty meaningless.

West: No team had a better Sunday than the Chiefs (8-4) and none worse than the Chargers (6-6). San Diego hosted Oakland as the hottest team in football and got streamrolled 28-13 (the Phillips Rivers for MVP bandwagon just ran off the road). Now, KC can lose next week at San Diego and still be in good shape, ending with winnable games at St. Louis and home vs. Tennessee and Oakland (the Chiefs are 6-0 at home this season).

San Diego is suddenly a longshot for a playoff spot, needing to win out and hoping KC loses to Oakland (and for the Raiders to lose once more). The Raiders are 6-6 overall and 4-0 in the division, so if the Raiders head into Kansas City in Week 17 within a game, the winner of that takes the division. I like the Chiefs chances a lot.

NFC
East: Philadelphia and New York are both 8-4 and play a pivotal Week 15 game in New York. The Eagles still have two games against resurgent Dallas while the Giants still play at Green Bay, so this race is wide open.

West: Either Seattle or St Louis (each 6-6) will win this dog of a division and it might not be decided until the two face off in Seattle in Week 17. I am rooting for the Rams, the hottest (in terms of looks) team in the league.

South: Atlanta (10-2) has the best record in football and with two games left against Carolina (1-11) and Seattle, the Falcons look good for 13 wins. But a Week 16 showdown against the 9-3 Saints still may be the division decider, assuming the Saints don’t stumble elsewhere (the still play at Baltimore). Tampa at 7-5 is a team of the future and I see them on the outside looking in come playoff time.

North: The Week 17 Chicago (9-3) at Green Bay (8-4) game might be huge, but both teams have tough schedules before. The Bears have the Patriots and Jets at home and at Minnesota, while the Packers play the Giants and Patriots in addition to a gimme against Detroit.

Peyton's woes: Peyton Manning threw four more interceptions in the Colts' 38-35 overtime loss against Dallas, giving him 11 in three games, the most in any three-game stretch in his career. He's had four interceptions returned for scores the past two games, which is incredible and has to be some kind of record. Some of his interceptions have been of the "why the f--- did he throw that?" variety I think it's a simple case of Manning pressing too much.

His offensive line is a shambles and the Colts can't run the ball, so Manning is trying to do everything himself. The result has been some ghastly throws as he tries to force balls when he would be better off throwing it elsewhere. Troy Aikman also made an interesting point that Manning is having to be the heavy with underperforming players, a task previously done by the retired line coach Howard Mudd and ex-offensive coordinator Tom Moore. I wonder if some of his teammates will now tell Manning to get his head out of his butt, stop worrying about them and just play better.

The Colts are threatening to join the long list of Super Bowl losers who failed to make the playoffs the following year (seven of the last nine). They started 5-2 but then the wheels came off as key players like Dallas Clark and Joseph Addai (along with a cast of thousands) went out.

How big is Clark’s absence? Try this from Charles Robinson at Yahoo:

Look at Manning’s numbers before and after Clark was placed on injured reserve. In the first six games with Clark, Manning threw 13 touchdowns and two interceptions, and posted passer ratings of 99 or higher in five of the six games. And in the six since Clark was removed from the equation? Manning has 11 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, and has posted passer ratings of 89.9, 67, 69.8, 96.3, 59.8 and 75.4.

Not closers: Last year the Colts were 7-0 in games decided by four or fewer points; this year they are 1-4. Teams in the NFL are so closely matched that just a couple of key plays can turn a game and a season. Last year, the Colts found a way to make those plays and this year they are not.

For example, despite the Manning pick-fest, the Colts were still ahead in the fourth quarter before Dallas took a late 30-28 lead on a field goal. But Colts defender Eric Foster stupidly committed a leaping penalty on the kick, wiping out the field goal by giving the Cowboys a first and goal. They then scored a touchdown and made a two-point conversion for a seven-point lead. Then, after tying the score, the Colts had a golden chance to recover a fumbled kickoff but three players whiffed on the ball and Dallas held on to force OT. On the Colts’ first drive, Reggie Wayne dropped an easy third-down pass that would have been a first down and the Colts punted. On the second drive, Manning was intercepted and Dallas went on to kick the game-winner. The 2009 Colts would not have committed any of those gaffes and that’s why they finished 14-2 and chased perfection, and why the 2010 version is poised to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2001.

Bunglers: Leave it to the 2-10 Bengals to find a creative way to lose. A Bengals defensive lineman jumped offsides to give the Saints a key first down late in New Orleans' 34-30 win. The Saints trailed 30-27 and lined up to go for it on fourth and 2 inside the Bengals' 10 with a half-minute to go. From the long time it took Drew Brees to call signals, it was obvious the Saints were simply trying to draw the Bengals offsides. If the Bengals don't move, the Saints call a timeout and kick a field goal and the game goes to overtime. But Pat Sims jumped, the Saints got a first down and on the next play Brees hit Marques Colston for the game-winner.

Robbed again: The Lions (2-10) lost Week 1 at Chicago when the refs bizarrely took a game-winning touchdown away from Calvin Johnson. They did it again Sunday in the rematch, a 24-20 Bears win. This time, the crappy call was a roughness penalty against Ndamukong Suh on Jay Cutler that was anything but. It kept the Bears' late TD drive alive and was a total BS call. Suh hit a running Cutler in the shoulder pads from behind, a legal play. If the Bears (9-3) make the playoffs, they should give the refs a playoff share.

Twitter away: I am not a big fan of Twitter since most tweets are inane, but Colts owner Jim Irsay opened an account last week and he is quite entertaining. He even tweets injury report news, which is pretty cool. I liked these two (condensed) before Sunday's game:

no tweets 90 min b4 kickoff? … I agreed to have the rule so the dude must abide!!!

Irsay is a huge rock fan and many of his tweets are lyrics from songs; the fun is trying to remember the song and artist (At pregame brunch and the piano sounds like a carnival,the microphone smells like a beer,they sit at the bar,putbread n myjar,whatyadoinhere).

seanlee100Hot player of the week: Until Sunday I had not noticed Cowboys rookie linebacker Sean Lee, 6-2 and 242 pounds. But he is totally adorable and hot in a geeky-jock way. He zooms near the top of my all-NFL hot team. The down-side is that he picked off Peyton Manning twice, once for a TD. The up-side is that he’s a fellow Penn State alum.

Not pussy cats: Jacksonville (7-5) is one of the league's surprise teams, picked last by most in the preseason and now in first place in the AFC South. The Jags aren't pretty to watch but they play tough and have had a way of pulling off some bizarre wins off (a last-play Hail Mary, a last-play 59-yard field goal and a win despite six turnovers). Their 17-6 win at Tennessee was more boring but left them in great shape to win the division.

Fashion flop: I generally hate the throwback uniform gimmick the NFL uses to drive jersey sales. Some throwbacks are cool (the Chargers' powder-blues are awesome) but most are butt-ugly. The latest were the hideous billiard balls worn by the Packers from sometime in the prehistoric age. I don't have the gay fashion gene, but even I could tell the Packers they were a no-no.

Too little, too late: Fans of the Cowboys and Vikings were braying for the heads of Wade Phillips and Brad Childress for weeks, but both team owners were slow to pull the trigger. What a mistake that was. Dallas is 3-1 since Jason Garrett replaced Phillips and the Vikings 2-0 since Leslie Frazier took over for Childress. Too bad both teams have no realistic playoff chances.