Connect Four - The NFC's Top Seeds

Shifting fortunes mark the NFC's top four teams. The Seahawks have proven to be the class of the conference, and the Bears have a confident defense with just enough offense to win anywhere. The Buccaneers will try to put a fork in the NFC South this Sunday, but the Giants have a newly-found concern: What has happened to their mega-hyped quarterback?


Team

Div

Overall Record

Div. Record

Conf. Record

Strength of Victory

Strength of Sched.

Conf PF + PA Rank

Overall PF + PA Rank

Overall Net Pts

TD

1 *yz-Seattle

W

13-2-0

6-0-0

10-1-0

.400

.436

3

5

187

55

2 yz-Chicago

N

11-4-0

5-0-0

10-1-0

.388

.440

14

25

82

27

3 Tampa Bay

S

10-5-0

4-1-0

8-3-0

.447

.462

15

29

12

30

4 x-N.Y. Giants

E

10-5-0

4-2-0

8-4-0

.447

.511

9

21

99

42


x-clinched playoff berth
y-clinched division title
z-clinched first-round bye
*-clinched homefield advantage

================
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
================


The Seahawks have accomplished all of their regular-season goals, giving coach Mike Holmgren the option of resting key players against the Packers on Sunday. Players seemed to favor sticking with the starters in an effort to maintain momentum and the NFL's longest current winning streak, but Holmgren will decide.

Seattle has won 11 games in a row to clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. The team is 13-2 overall and 8-0 at home this season, claiming Qwest Field victories over the Giants, Cowboys and Colts. Seattle has the NFC's best record since 2003, winning 32 of 47 games for a .681 winning percentage.
Pro Bowl fullback Mack Strong said the team must keep its focus squarely on the Packers. The game does carry some extra meaning for several Seattle players and coaches with ties to Green Bay. Holmgren spent seven seasons as the Packers' coach. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was a backup quarterback in Green Bay. Several coaches and front-office personnel came with Holmgren from Green Bay to Seattle.

After beating the Colts on Christmas Eve, Holmgren did not immediately say whether he'll start resting starters for the playoffs. But it's safe to assume Seattle won't take undue chances with key players. Losing Hasselbeck, for example, would probably doom the Seahawks to a first-round playoff exit.

"We have reached all our goals that we could reach in the regular season, and now we have to function and prepare for the playoff season," Holmgren said. "Now, we can take a little bit of a breath and get ready for the playoffs."

The Seahawks need to get some key personnel healthy for the postseason.

Wide receiver Darrell Jackson could probably use some down time to let his surgically repaired knee rest. Cornerback Marcus Trufant might need to protect his bruised back, which prevented him from playing the final three-plus quarters Saturday. Cornerbacks Kelly Herndon and Andre Dyson are recovering from injuries that have kept them out of recent games; Seattle could have both back for the playoffs. Defensive tackle Chuck Darby, who missed the Indianapolis game, has been slowed by a knee injury.

Resting those players could allow each man to return for the playoffs at closer to full strength.

REPLAY

The Seahawks overcame a severely depleted secondary to defeat the severely undermanned Colts, 28-13, at Qwest Field. quarterback Matt Hasselbeck completed 17-of-21 passes with two touchdowns while running back Shaun Alexander finished with 139 yards rushing and three scores.

Seattle entered the game without its second and third cornerbacks, a situation that deteriorated quickly when No. 1 cornerback Marcus Trufant left the game with a first-quarter back injury. Fortunately for Seattle, the Colts rested quarterback Peyton Manning after two series, and wide receiver Marvin Harrison did not play at all.

The Seahawks continued their season-long trend of allowing chunks of yardage before buckling down in the red zone. Manning moved the Colts up and down the field on both of his possessions, but the two-time MVP emerged with only three points for his efforts. Seattle scored touchdowns on three of its first five possessions, only to miss several chances at putting away the game.

Seattle's defense finally put the game out of reach when defensive tackle Marcus Tubbs sacked backups Colts quarterback Jim Sorgi, knocking the ball into the air. Defensive tackle Craig Terrill caught the fumble and returned the ball inside the Indianapolis 20 with less than six minutes to play. Alexander followed with his third score of the day, staking Seattle to a 28-6 lead with about five minutes left.

PLAYER NOTES

--RB Shaun Alexander bolstered his case for league MVP with a 139-yard, three-touchdown effort against the Colts. With 1,807 yards in 15 games, Alexander leads the race for the NFL rushing title by more than 100 yards. He has 27 total touchdowns, tied for the NFL single-season record set by Priest Holmes in 2003. Alexander has done all this within the framework of the NFL's top-ranked offense, helping the Seahawks win 11 consecutive games while posting a 13-2 record. The sixth-year pro from Alabama has not lost a fumble this season.

--QB Matt Hasselbeck topped 80 percent completions for a third consecutive game. He has completed 59-of-73 passes for 679 yards and nine touchdowns in the last three games. He has thrown only one interception during the stretch. You won't hear Hasselbeck's name in the league MVP conversation, but his numbers stack up nicely with those of the top quarterbacks, and his team has won 11 games in a row.

--TE Jerramy Stevens triggered a $125,000 pay raise for 2006 by catching his 45th pass of the season Saturday against the Colts. Stevens has 16 catches over the last four games. He needs two more receptions to break the franchise single-season record for catches by a tight end. Stevens has a touchdown grab in each of the last three games.

--WR Darrell Jackson saw his reps reduced against the Colts as the Seahawks played it safe with their No. 1 receiver. Jackson had missed practice time with swelling in his surgically repaired right knee. The team wants him to be fresh for the playoffs.

--CB Marcus Trufant suffered a bruised back against the Colts and did not return to the game. The team was not yet sure when Trufant might return from the injury. Depth is a concern in the secondary.


=============
CHICAGO BEARS
=============


For the first time in 10 weeks, and only the fifth time in 27 games, the Bears scored more than 20 points, and they needed most of them to clinch the NFC North title and a first-round bye in the playoffs, hanging on for a 24-17 Christmas night victory over the Packers. Not coincidentally, it was the first regular-season game quarterback Rex Grossman started after missing 27 games. He ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in Week 3 last season, and he fractured his left ankle Aug. 12. Grossman sparked the offense on Dec. 18 while playing just the second half against Atlanta in his first appearance in 15 months.

"Rex definitely showed some improvement," Bears coach Lovie Smith said after the win over Green Bay. "The offense put 24 points on the board; that's a step in the right direction."

It was the Bears' first sweep of the Packers in 14 years, and it will be just their second playoff appearance in 11 years.

"When I first took the job, I talked about beating Green Bay, winning the division and winning a world championship," a triumphant Smith said. "We've accomplished two of those goals right now, and we're in the hunt for the third one."

Most of the current players weren't around in 2001, the last time the Bears went to the playoffs. But Pro Bowl safety Mike Brown, who missed the Packers game with a strained calf muscle, was, and he likes this team better, mostly because of Grossman. "I'd say we have a team that's five times better than the one in 2001," Brown said, while wearing his NFC North Champions cap. "We're a more complete team, especially now that we've got No. 8 (Grossman) back. He's the guy that is our leader. A guy that we all respect, a guy that we know has all the talent in the world, and we're going to go as far as he takes us. We've got a lot of confidence in him."

REPLAY

With 1:26 left, Packers wide receiver Donald Driver went 56 yards with a Brett Favre pass to the Bears 35-yard line. With no timeouts left, Favre was sacked for the only two times in the game and then picked off for the fourth time, and the second time by Chris Harris. The rookie safety's final interception sealed the Bears' 24-17 win.

The defense allowed the Packer to pile up a disappointing 365 yards, the highest yield of the season for the NFL's No. 1 unit. Favre (30-for-51 for 317 yards but no TDs) played more conservatively in the early going, peppering the Bears with short completions. And the Bears' normally reliable punt coverage team allowed Antonio Chatman to score on an 85-yard return with 7:54 remaining in the game to turn what was beginning to look like a blowout into a 24-14 contest.

Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs had stepped in front of a Favre pass intended for William Henderson at the Packers 10-yard line and then strolled into the end zone to increase the Bears' lead to 24-7 with 4:01 left in the third quarter, minutes after rookie Robbie Gould's career-long 45-yard field goal.

After Packers kicker Ryan Longwell, who later misfired a 39-yard field goal, missed a 38-yard attempt wide right, the Bears wasted no time capitalizing. On their first play, Grossman dropped a perfectly placed bomb into the outstretched hands of Bernard Berrian for 54 yards to Green Bay's 18. Two plays later, Thomas Jones scored on a 2-yard run for a 14-7 lead with 5:05 left before halftime.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Rex Grossman completed just 11 of 23 passes at Green Bay, but they went for 166 yards and a touchdown, despite some drops by his receivers. Grossman came out hot, completing six of nine passes for 119 yards.

--WR Bernard Berrian had a career-best 93 receiving yards on three catches, including a career-best 54-yarder, in the win at Green Bay.

--RB Thomas Jones picked up 105 yards on 25 carries at Green Bay, his first 100-yard game in nine weeks.

--WR Muhsin Muhammad caught five passes for 58 yards at Green Bay but dropped two passes, including a potential touchdown that slipped between his hands. That play could have put the game away late in the fourth quarter.

--PK Robbie Gould's 45-yard field goal at Green Bay was his longest as a pro.


====================
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
====================


The Bucs have more to play for than just reaching the postseason. They could win the NFC South. Credit the kids.

Rookie Cadillac Williams, tight end Alex Smith and tackle Dan Buenning have put Tampa Bay in position to return to the playoffs a year ahead of schedule.
Williams rushed 31 times for 150 yards and a touchdown Saturday in a 27-24 overtime win over the Atlanta Falcons. By eliminating the Falcons from the postseason, the Bucs (10-5) can clinch the NFC South title and at least one home playoff game with a win Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, thanks in part to the Dallas Cowboys' 24-20 win at Carolina.

"That's what you play for. This is everything right here," cornerback Brian Kelly said. "You tell me, going to Disney World in Orlando, that Week 16 you're going to be playing the New Orleans Saints for a division title, you couldn't write a script better than that. Everything's out there. And, you've got Christmas."

Considering that the Bucs lost starting quarterback Brian Griese after a 5-1 start, winning the tough NFC South would be a big accomplishment. Third-year pro Chris Simms, who passed for 285 yards and two touchdowns against the Falcons, has grown up quickly in Jon Gruden's complicated offense.

Meanwhile, the Bucs' aging defense has kept its standard and is ranked second overall in the league. Linebacker Derrick Brooks is heading to his ninth straight Pro Bowl, and defensive end Simeon Rice has led the Bucs with 12 sacks. "Isn't that a beautiful thing, man? Control," Rice said. "And I'm a control freak. To be in control of your destiny is a beautiful thing."

Said kicker Matt Bryant, "This team has battled through so much for so long. It just shows the heart of this team. We'll take on the world. We've been doing it from the beginning. The world picked us to not do very good, and we've managed to prove the world wrong quite a few times, so we've just got to do it one more time."

REPLAY

The Bucs beat the Atlanta Falcons 27-24 on Matt Bryant's 41-yard field goal with 15 seconds remaining in overtime. Tampa Bay tied the game with seconds remaining in regulation on Cadillac Williams' 6-yard touchdown run. Bucs receiver Edell Shepherd fumbled the overtime kickoff, but Dewayne White blocked Todd Peterson's 28-yard field goal. A low snap contributed to Bryant's shank of a 27-yard field goal in overtime before he hit the game-winner.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Chris Simms saw his streak of passing attempts without an interception end Saturday at 127 when he was picked off by the Falcons' Keith Brooking.

--WR Michael Clayton suffered a turf toe injury in the first quarter and did not return Saturday against the Falcons.

--RB Cadillac Williams rushed 31 times for 150 yards and a touchdown against Atlanta, joining Errict Rhett as the second Tampa Bay rookie to rush for 1,000 yards. Williams (1,097) surpassed Rhett's 1994 rookie total of 1,011 rushing yards.

--RT Kenyatta Walker suffered a sprained right ankle in the fourth quarter of Saturday's game against the Falcons. He returned briefly but was replaced in overtime by tackle Todd Steussie.

--FB Jameel Cook scored his first touchdown of the season on a 9-yard pass from Chris Simms against the Falcons.


===============
NEW YORK GIANTS
===============


The Giants failed to lock up the NFC East championship Saturday when they were drubbed by the Washington Redskins, 35-20, but they nevertheless earned a spot in the playoffs -- a wild card spot, for the moment -- when the Baltimore Ravens beat the Minnesota Vikings. The Giants could have clinched the NFC East division championship with a victory over Washington, but must now depend on a victory on the other side of the country -- in Oakland -- next Saturday night to clinch their first NFC East prize since 2000.

The Raiders, woebegone and sadly disappointing this season, nevertheless have the offensive weapons to spring a major surprise on the Giants, and nobody would enjoy it better than Oakland quarterback Kerry Collins, who left the Giants in anger after the Giants traded for Eli Manning on draft day 2004.
He saw the handwriting, of course, and was not in a mood to be charitable. "I ain't no baby sitter," he said at the time. He turned down an offer from general manager Ernie Accorsi for a three-year contract worth $7 million, with the second and third years voidable by either party -- and he would still get the full price.

So he left, demanding his release, and signed with Oakland for approximately $2 million less.

It has been disappointing for him in Oakland, and he was even benched for a game in favor of seldom-used Marques Tuiasosopo. The Oakland offense was thought to be a barn-burner this year, with the acquisition of wide receiver Randy Moss to go with Jerry Porter, and the signing of free agent running back LaMont Jordan from the Jets, a budding starter just itching to get clear of Curtis Martin.

It was not to be, and now the only thing the Giants want from Collins is a division championship, the prospect of which should make for a delightful cross country flight on New Year's Eve.

REPLAY

The Giants were never in the game against the Redskins, save a brief portion of the first quarter when rookie Chase Blackburn, starting at middle linebacker for the injured Antonio Pierce, intercepted a Mark Brunell pass and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown, giving the Giants a 10-7 lead. After that, however, it was a case of sloppy offense and shoddy defense and a failure to stop Washington wide receiver Santana Moss (five catches, 160 yards, three touchdowns) and running back Clinton Portis (27 carries, 108 yards, one touchdown -- and one touchdown pass).

Giants running back Tiki Barber, who has carried the team during its stretch run, struggled to get 80 yards in 16 carries, and could not light a fire for the offense.

Perhaps the most glaring weakness was quarterback Eli Manning. He struggled for the fifth consecutive game, and it became clear that the receivers were not in synch with their young leader.

Defensively, cornerbacks Curtis Deloatch and Will Allen were beaten unmercifully. Allen, a five-year veteran who has played reasonably well until the last two games, was embarrassed more than a few times by Moss. Incidentally, after 15 games Allen has yet to record an interception.

PLAYER NOTES

--Rookie LB Chase Blackburn was released from the hospital Sunday after leaving Saturday's game on a stretch following a collision that left him with a neck stinger. Coach Tom Coughlin said he would be surprised if Blackburn was available to play next Saturday. "The medical post trauma obviously is in the neck area. But, all the tests disproved any fact that there might be some type of fracture or anything like that," Coughlin said. "There was nothing of that nature. He is sore, his neck is sore, and we think he's going to have to recover from this obviously, but he's out of the hospital and he does not have any type of debilitating injury."

-- LB Jessie Armstead, who has not played in the league this season, worked out for the Giants last week. Coach Tom Coughlin did not rule out signing Armstead to bolster a beat up linebacking corps.

-- LB Carlos Emmons (strained pectoral muscle) did not play against Washington, and coach Tom Coughlin said he did not expect him to play against Oakland.

-- TE Jeremy Shockey appeared to be working the referees for a penalty Saturday while Redskins LB Lemar Marshall was intercepting a pass intended for him. "We need to finish the play obviously and the result was an interception, which probably should not have been thrown in that area anyway," coach Tom Coughlin said. "But, you can't expect officials to -- they're not going to make that call anyway until probably the play is over."
Shockey, who labored with a sore/sprained ankle for most of the second half Saturday, caught just two passes and, for most of the game, was covered by Redskins SS Sean Taylor, a former teammate at the University of Miami. "He always does a good job," Shockey said. "We work out together in the off-season. He's tough but he doesn't usually stop me."

-- C Shaun O'Hara was particularly upset after Saturday's loss. "The last thing we wanted to do was fly to Oakland to win our division championship," he said. "We had many, many opportunities to win today. We just couldn't finish it."

-- The Giants' Game Inactive list included four starters -- MLB Antonio Pierce, SLB Carlos Emmons, ORT Kareem McKenzie and RDT William Joseph. Blackburn, Reggie Torbor, Bob Whitfield and Fred Robbins, respectively, filled in.

-- RB Tiki Barber, who had 80 yards in 16 carries, giving him 1,656 yards in 329 carries this season, tried to explain Saturday's loss. "We had plenty of chances," he said. "We just couldn't find the big play when we needed it." He needs just 12 carries vs. Oakland to tie the single-season team record (341, Joe Morris, 1986).

-- DE Osi Umenyiora, the NFC's sack leader in just his third season, was rewarded by the team with a six-year, $41 million contract extension.


SeahawkFootball.com Top Stories