Connect Four: The NFC's Top Seeds - 12/19/05

With two games left, the NFC's championship chase begins to accelerate. The Seahawks stand atop the conference after pulling out a comeback win over the Titans, but Bears have a defense that could decimate any team in the league. The Giants hope to continue their winning ways despite their spiky quarterback, and the Panthers might be the team nobody wants to face.



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Note: Seattle has clinched a first-round bye.


The Seahawks' long-anticipated date with the Colts lost some luster when Indianapolis suffered its first defeat of the season last week. Instead of trying to become the first team to beat the Colts this season, the Seahawks have a chance to compete for the best overall record in the league.

The team is 12-2 for the first time since 1984 and only the second time in team history. Indianapolis is 13-1 after losing to San Diego. Seattle can secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs by beating the Colts at Qwest Field. Seattle survived a scare against Tennessee last week before winning 28-24. The Titans scored 24 consecutive points while exposing the Seahawks' injury problems on defense. This was Seattle's first game against a capable quarterback in several weeks and the results were much different than they had been against San Francisco's Alex Smith and Philadelphia's Mike McMahon.

"We won and it gives us a first-round bye, which the players are very excited about, the coaches are very excited about," coach Mike Holmgren said. "We've just got to keep it going."

The Seahawks need to get healthier in their secondary. Cornerback Kelly Herndon could return for the final regular-season game. Cornerback Andre Dyson could return for the first playoff game. Seattle needs those guys to match up against the better passing games. But with quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and running back Shaun Alexander flourishing behind a top-rate offensive line, Seattle always has a chance. The Seahawks reeled off touchdown drives of 83 and 93 yards in the final 20 minutes Sunday. Hasselbeck is the NFC's top-rated passer, and Alexander leads the league in rushing.

Alexander has been putting up huge numbers for years. Hasselbeck's progress is what could make the difference come playoff time. "He has played well all year, and he's just come of age, in my opinion," Holmgren said. "This is his third year of playing all the time, and he's making the most of it.

"We have good people for him to hand the ball to and things like that, but I'm very pleased with Matt's play."


Matt Hasselbeck tossed three touchdown passes, and Shaun Alexander rushed for 172 yards as the Seahawks came from behind to beat the Titans 28-24 in Tennessee. Seattle jumped to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, but the Titans blocked a field-goal try to turn the momentum in their favor.

Tennessee scored 24 consecutive points over the second and third quarters. Seattle answered with touchdown drives of 83 and 93 yards. Hasselbeck found Joe Jurevicius for a 4-yard score and Darrell Jackson for a 2-yarder.

Seattle's defense had serious problems in coverage as the Titans spread the field and found gaping holes. But a pair of fourth-down, fourth-quarter stops prevented Tennessee from making the most out of its chances.


--RB Shaun Alexander surged back into the NFL rushing lead with a 172-yard performance Sunday against Tennessee. Alexander also added to his league-leading touchdown total with a 1-yard scoring run. He now has 1,668 yards and 24 touchdowns on the ground this season.

--QB Matt Hasselbeck strengthened his case to be the Pro Bowl starter by completing 21 of 27 passes for 285 yards and three touchdowns during a 28-24 victory over the Titans. Hasselbeck upped his rating to an NFC-leading 96.3 heading into the final two games. He has 22 TD passes and nine interceptions, including seven TD passes over the past two games. He is averaging 7.7 yards per attempt.

--WR Darrell Jackson returned from a 10-week layoff to catch six passes for 72 yards and a touchdown. Jackson played almost every snap offensively. He did not feel 100 percent, but this was a good first step in his return from knee surgery.

--WR Bobby Engram caught six passes for 95 yards against the Titans. He has 63 catches this season despite missing three games to injury. Engram ranks ninth among NFC players in receptions.

--TE Jerramy Stevens caught another touchdown pass Sunday against Tennessee. He now has TD receptions in back-to-back games. The return of WR Darrell Jackson made it tougher for the Titans to double-team him.

--K Josh Brown had a field goal blocked Sunday thanks to a breakdown in the protection. The play turned the momentum of the game, and the Titans reeled off 24 consecutive points.


Technically, Rex Grossman won't get credit for the 16-3 victory over the Falcons on Sunday night, but it was at the very least a huge save -- and maybe a save of the Bears' postseason hopes. Apparently having seen enough of rookie quarterback Kyle Orton directing an offense that had produced just 57 points in 5 1/2 games, the Bears replaced him with Grossman to start the second half, as a frozen crowd of 54,771 at Soldier Field erupted in cheers. The veteran took over with a shaky 6-3 lead and quickly provided the Bears with the offensive firepower they've lacked most of the season. The victory kept the 10-4 Bears in the No. 2 position in the NFC and widened their lead in the North Division to two games over the Vikings, who were beaten 18-3 by the Steelers.

Grossman had not played in a regular-season game since Sept. 26, 2004, when he suffered a torn ACL in his right knee against the Vikings. Entrenched as the starter when training camp began this year, Grossman suffered a fractured left ankle on Aug. 12 and has spent the past four months working to get back on the field.

"It felt great to get back out there," Grossman said. "It's been a long road to get to this point, after getting hurt again after being hurt last year. Sitting out first 13 games and coming in the second half of this one, it just feels amazing to get back out there and have success and be back out there with my teammates, and in the stadium. It was a blast. I had a great day. I feel like I might even wake up."

Bears coach Lovie Smith refused to anoint Grossman as the starter Christmas Day in Green Bay, but when offensive coordinator Ron Turner was asked if Grossman would start, he replied, "What do you think?"

For the past two weeks, Grossman pronounced himself fit, but Bears coaches insisted on sticking with Orton despite his subpar performances that left the Bears with the No. 30 passing offense in the 32-team NFL.


Quarterback Rex Grossman took over for Kyle Orton with the Bears holding a 6-3 lead over Atlanta at halftime. On his first play, Grossman fired a dart over the middle for 22 yards to Muhsin Muhammad off a play-action fake. The Bears were off and rolling to a 16-3 victory.

"That definitely gave me a lot of confidence," said Grossman, who completed nine of 16 passes for 93 yards. "That settled me down right there. Moose ran a great route, we got great protection, they bit up on the (run fake), left a void in the middle, and I just had to drop it in over the linebackers. It was one of those plays that made me breathe a little bit easier."

Three plays later, Grossman hit Justin Gage in stride for 10 yards to the Falcons 15. An 8-yard strike to Muhammad came two plays later, but then Grossman was intercepted by Keion Carpenter at the goal line. However, Bears tight end Desmond Clark poked the ball away from Carpenter, and it was recovered by Gage at the 1-yard line. Thomas Jones scored on the next play for a 13-3 Bears lead with 8:17 left in the third quarter.

On the Falcons' next possession after Grossman's TD drive, Bears safety Mike Green thwarted An Atlanta scoring threat when he intercepted an underthrown pass from Michael Vick at the Bears 15 and returned it 14 yards. Grossman completions of 10 yards to Muhammad, 11 yards to fullback Jason McKie and 19 yards to Gage on a perfectly timed sideline route set up Robbie Gould's third field goal of the game, this one from 39 yards with 53 seconds left in the third quarter for the final margin.


--QB Rex Grossman has apparently retaken the starting job he lost when he fractured his left ankle on Aug. 12. In his first action of the season, Grossman inherited a 6-3 lead and led the Bears to a 16-3 victory over Atlanta, completing nine of 16 for 93 yards.

--QB Kyle Orton was benched after a first half against Atlanta in which he completed two of 10 passes for 12 yards.

--RB Thomas Jones picked up 91 yards on 27 carries against Atlanta after failing to get 20 carries in either of the previous two games.

--WR Bernard Berrian caught two passes for 20 yards against Atlanta, rushed twice for 31 yards and returned two punts for 30 yards.

--CB Nate Vasher intercepted his eighth pass Sunday against Atlanta, leaving him two short of the Bears' all-time record. He is tied for second in the NFL with Denver's Champ Bailey and Minnesota's Darren Sharper.


In one of the most unlikely scenarios since this near-concluded 2006 season began, the New York Giants can wrap up the NFC East championship on Sunday with a victory over the Washington Redskins on Christmas Eve. The scenario became possible with an explosive and surprising blowout of the Kansas City Chiefs last Sunday, which provided the Giants with as many victories (10) as they had in the past two seasons combined.

Now it's the Redskins, probably the final stepping stone to the Giants' first division title since they won the NFC in 2000 en route to Super Bowl XXXV.

The only major concern, aside from injuries that kept several starters out of the Chiefs game, is the continuing lack of progress being shown by Eli Manning at quarterback. He is perilously close to sinking below a 50 percent completions ratio (he has completed 259 of 492 attempts) and has 22 touchdowns with 16 interceptions -- with five interceptions in his last three games.

But he still shows the occasional flash of being special, and it is more logical to remember that he has not yet completed his first full season as a starting quarterback.

The Giants' chances at Washington also will rest on whether the Giants can get any of their regulars back -- including linebackers Carlos Emmons (pectoral strain) and Antonio Pierce (high ankle sprain); defensive tackle William Joseph (high ankle sprain); and offensive tackles Kareem McKenzie (hamstring) and Luke Petitgout (back spasms).

But they'll have running back Tiki Barber, who had 220 yards in 29 carries against the Chiefs and has now gained 1,557 for the season -- breaking his team career record (1,518) with two games remaining.


The Giants shredded the NFL's top-ranked defense against the run in a 27-17 win over the Chiefs on Saturday. Running back Tiki Barber's 220 yards accounted for all but 3 yards of the Giants' rushing total. Barber broke the team rushing record (218, Choo Choo Roberts, 1950 vs. Chicago Cardinals) and included two touchdowns and a long gain of 55 yards. He even caught five passes for 29 yards, accounting for 249 yards of offense from scrimmage.

Amani Toomer caught five passes for 69 yards including a spectacular 31-yard TD that was so acrobatic it had to be reviewed to be sure his knee didn't touch the ground at the point of the catch. It didn't.

"I just willed myself not to let the knee get to the ground," he said. "When you want something badly enough, you work hard enough, you'll get it."

The Giants used a rookie free agent, Chase Blackburn, to start for Antonio Pierce at middle linebacker, and he responded with what coach Tom Coughlin termed "a smart, self-contained performance" that included nine solo tackles. There were two new O-line starters and one (left guard David Diehl) who switched positions (to right tackle). Bob Whitfield (left tackle) and Rich Seubert (left guard) were the newcomers.


--LT Luke Petitgout, who sat out Saturday's game with a back injury, will be evaluated this week to see if he can play Sunday. "We warmed him up and he felt good, but still had the question mark about how he could perform and how long he could perform," coach Tom Coughlin said. "So, he was a guy that we made active. We felt like in case we got in trouble there, he could give us a few snaps, but he really didn't warm up as well as I was hoping he would."

--RT Kareem McKenzie (strained hamstring) missed Saturday's game, but coach Tom Coughlin said he hoped he would be ready to play against Washington.

--LG Rich Seubert, who hadn't played since Oct. 19, 2003, when he suffered a horrifying spiral compound fracture of his right tibia, fibula and ankle in a game against the Eagles, made it all the way back and started against the Chiefs. "I feel so good for him, it is so emotional and inspirational," TB Tiki Barber said. "He has proved that when you work hard and then harder and harder, you can achieve."

--LT Bob Whitfield, in his first start since 2003 in Atlanta, played well against the Chiefs. He provided the block that gave RB Tiki Barber the 5 yards he needed near the end of the game to set the team's single-season rushing record. "I just held my block and held my block and waiting to see where the little guy was," he said. "I was happy to be the one, happy to be on this team."

--The team saluted the "12th man," the Giants Stadium crowd, which has often been accused of polite cheering and applauding. "They were gigantic," coach Tom Coughlin said. "The 12th man was back, and we appreciated it."

--MLB Chase Blackburn, the rookie free agent who started for Antonio Pierce, was still in a state of disbelief after the win over the Chiefs. "I am so excited and so happy I just can't believe it really happened," he said. "I need to think about this." Blackburn had nine solo tackles. He was signed out of Akron, where he was the roommate of QB Charlie Frye, drafted in the third round by Cleveland.

--RB Tiki Barber resented the use of the phrase "jigsaw puzzle" to describe the battered and re-tooled O-line. "Maybe in your mind it's a jigsaw puzzle," he said with a smile. "This is a line that we knew coming into camp was going to work for us, and going into this game we were supremely confident that it was going to be effective."


The Carolina Panthers were in need of offensive weapons, and they found two on Sunday. In his first NFL game, wide receiver Drew Carter caught a big 40-yard pass from Jake Delhomme, and running back Nick Goings re-emerged as a weapon with 88 total yards from scrimmage to help the Carolina Panthers beat the New Orleans Saints 27-10 and recapture sole possession of first place in the NFC South.

Carter stepped in for Rod Gardner, who was released last week, and played mostly on four-receiver sets. Carter, a fifth-round draft pick in 2004 out of Ohio State, missed all of last season with a torn ACL and has been inactive for Carolina's first 13 games, despite having caught 11 passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns in the preseason.

His shot finally came Sunday as offensive coordinator Dan Henning varied from his traditional game plan and used more four-receiver sets. "I went in there hoping I would get dressed and get in the game," Carter said. "All year long I was thinking, maybe this week, maybe this week, maybe this week. I just tried to hang in there and practice hard."

Panthers safety Mike Minter said it was inevitable Carter would get on the field. "He has been killing us in practice, and that is why coach (John) Fox had to put him up," Minter said. "He has been making plays on our defense and really looking good. I told him today before the game, 'Drew, it's just like practice. Don't put any more pressure on yourself.' He took advantage of his opportunities. It's a good thing to see young guys step up and make the most of their chance."

Carter dropped a tough pass down the field that would have been good for a 30-yard gain, but he quickly made up for it with an 8-yard reception on third-and-7 on the same drive. In all, the Panthers threw deep to Carter three times on Sunday.

He finished with two catches for 48 yards, but offered plenty of promise for the future. "He is a guy with a lot of speed," Delhomme said. "We need to get him the ball. He's a big tall target who can run. When you go four wides it's kind of nice. You have Smitty, him and Keary (Colbert) and Ricky (Proehl). That's nice."

Carter hopes he showed enough on Sunday to convince Henning to make four-receiver sets a bigger part of the game plan on a weekly basis. "Hopefully we keep doing it," Carter said. "I hope the coaches have confidence that we can do four wides. We work hard as receivers, and we know we can plays. I think we showed that today."

Goings replaced Stephen Davis as Carolina's backup running back.

Davis was placed on injured reserve on Saturday because of swelling and soreness in his knee.


After Tampa Bay's 28-0 loss to New England on Saturday, the Panthers knew they could regain the NFC South lead after blowing a golden opportunity last week to take control of the division.

This time, they took advantage.

Carolina forced six turnovers, and Pro Bowl lock Steve Smith added to his sensational season with two more touchdowns to highlight a 27-10 victory over the hurricane-displaced New Orleans Saints at LSU's Tiger Stadium.

"We learned our lesson last week," said cornerback Ken Lucas, referring to Carolina's 20-10 loss to Tampa Bay. "Hopefully if we get a second chance, we'll do better the second time around. We've got two tough games left in the regular season, and both of them are still crucial. We can't have that lackadaisical attitude like we had two weeks ago. We've got to continue like we're down and we're trying to make the playoffs."


--WR Steve Smith was a stud again Sunday against the Saints with 85 yards receiving and two touchdowns, one coming on a 20-yard reverse.

--CB Chris Gamble came up with his sixth interception of the season on a Hail Mary, but otherwise did not play well in the first half against the Saints.

--CB Ken Lucas recorded his fifth interception of the season and completely shut down the Saints' Joe Horn.

--RB DeShaun Foster had 75 yards on 21 carries against the Saints before giving way to Nick Goings in the fourth quarter.

--RB Nick Goings had 52 yards on 16 carries against the Saints and re-emerged as a weapon on offense.

--K John Kasay missed from 50 yards out against the Saints and has now missed eight of his last 10 field-goal tries. Top Stories