NFC West is hardly at its best

And in the 2006 NFC West race, with 100% of the precincts reporting to be bored out of their skulls when they’re not laughing to keep from crying, a champion has finally been declared.

And the winner is . . .

(Cue sound clip of football being punctured and deflating.). . . a loser!

Displaying a keen sense of symmetry if nothing else, the Seattle Seahawks clinched the NFC West title by losing, at home, after surrendering a last-minute touchdown pass to a quarterback who completed 33% of his attempts on Sunday.


Needing 10 passes to complete one, and 27 to complete eight, San Diego’s Philip Rivers kept trying until he at last succeeded -- connecting with Vincent Jackson for a 37-yard scoring play with 29 seconds left to give the Chargers a 20-17 victory over the Seahawks.

With the loss, Seattle’s third in a row, the Seahawks wrapped up their third consecutive NFC West championship because second-place San Francisco also lost, at home, to the Arizona Cardinals and their backup quarterback, 26-20.

Elsewhere, the St. Louis Rams had to go overtime to dispatch the 5-10 Washington Redskins, 37-31, leaving the NFC West standings in this sort of disarray with one game to play: First place: Seattle (8-7), because someone has to be.

Second place: St. Louis (7-8), still in the running for an NFC wild-card berth.


Third place: San Francisco (6-9), which would have won the division title had it won out and Seattle lost its regular-season finale at Tampa Bay. But for the 49ers, winning out against Arizona and Denver was too much to ask.

Fourth place: Arizona (5-10), the hottest team in the division with four victories in its last six games.

If the playoffs began today ... Seattle would be a first-round loser.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.


This Seattle championship is notable because the Seahawks finished first in the NFC West standings despite having the NFC West’s third-best intradivisional record.

Seattle split its six NFC West games, same as San Francisco, except the Seahawks were 0-2 against the 49ers.

The best intradivisional record in the NFC West belongs (of course) to last-place Arizona, which was 4-2 against division rivals.

The Cardinals gave Seattle the help it needed, despite Matt Leinart’s leaving the game because of a sprained left shoulder late in the second quarter.


This required aging Kurt Warner to come off the bench and protect a 20-3 Arizona lead. This was unfamiliar territory for Warner, who has spent recent seasons starting games and then faltering just enough to launch the NFL quarterbacking careers of Marc Bulger with the Rams, Eli Manning with the New York Giants and Leinart with the Cardinals.

Warner got the save in this one, sort of, driving Arizona to a pair of fourth-quarter field goals to stave off the 49ers, who outscored the Cardinals after Leinart’s injury, 17-6.

So Seattle’s in. But if the Seahawks lose to Tampa Bay and Philadelphia finishes 0-2, only three NFC teams will finish the regular season with winning records. They would be:

* Chicago, which is 13-2, but got there only after falling behind the 2-13 Detroit Lions by four points in the third quarter and changing quarterbacks in the fourth. Brian Griese replaced Rex Grossman, fulfilling the dreams of hundreds of thousands of Bears fans, and drove his team to the decisive field goals in a 26-21 triumph.


* New Orleans, which moved to 10-5 by routing the Giants at the Meadowlands, 30-7, as Reggie Bush recorded his first professional 100-yard rushing game, the Giants failed to take a single snap inside Saints territory and Eli Manning misfired on 16 of his last 19 passes.

(On this day, the Manning-Rivers trade appeared to be a push.)

* Dallas, which is 9-5 heading into today’s game against 8-6 Philadelphia.

Either way, one team standing 7-8 today will qualify for the NFC playoffs. There are four of them -- the Rams, the Giants (1-6 in their last seven), the Green Bay Packers and the Carolina Panthers, who rode four Chris Weinke pass completions to a 10-3 victory over Atlanta.


Carolina remains the league’s most disappointing team, but credit Coach John Fox with at least being smart enough to learn from trial-and-error.

Two weeks ago, Fox permitted Weinke to throw 61 times against the Giants. The Panthers lost, 27-13.

Sunday, Fox limited Weinke to seven pass attempts. Weinke completed four of them for 32 yards, and the Panthers rushed the ball 52 times for 183 yards. Result: Weinke won a start for the first time in five seasons, ending a personal 0-17 streak.

At the same time, Atlanta’s Michael Vick ran for 32 yards to become the first NFL quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. Vick now has 1,022 rushing yards, widening his lead over the previous record-holder, Bobby Douglass, who ran for 968 yards while leading the 1972 Bears.


These running feats raise a quick question:

Is it really a good thing to have your quarterback running for so many yards?

Vick’s Falcons are 7-8 and have lost four consecutive home games.

Douglass and the ’72 Bears finished 4-9-1.


When your quarterback runs for so many yards, it usually means your receivers can’t catch or your blockers can’t block, which forces your passer to run for his life.

And when that happens, your quarterback is usually scrambling for a losing team.

In the AFC, as many as four teams with winning records could be sitting out the playoffs.

Borrowing a page from the NFC West playbook, the Cincinnati Bengals scored a last-minute touchdown but botched the extra-point snap and lost to the Denver Broncos, 24-23.


That left Denver in possession of the AFC’s No. 5 seeding at 9-6. The New York Jets, 8-6 entering today’s game against Miami, hold the No. 6 seeding.

After them, the Bengals, the Tennessee Titans, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Kansas City Chiefs are 8-7. The Titans got there the hard way -- going 0-5, then 2-0, then 0-2, then 6-0, including Sunday’s 30-29 come-from-behind triumph at Buffalo.

The Vince Young success story has captivated millions of Americans, including the Bills, who blew a nine-point lead in the last 12 minutes and eschewed a last-second 45-yard field-goal attempt, instead having J.P. Losman toss up a desperation ball that was intercepted near the Tennessee goal line.

For the Bills, this was curious strategy, to say the least.


Buffalo Coach Dick Jauron, evidently still scarred by last year’s experience as Detroit’s interim coach, tried to explain that he didn’t want Rian Lindell kicking the potential game-winner into a gusty wind.

But it was OK for Losman to lob one up into that same wind, even though Lindell has already converted five field goals and Tennessee’s Rob Bironas had kicked a 42-yarder into the wind?

Maybe Jauron thought Lindell was tired.

San Diego (13-2) clinched a first-round bye and Baltimore (12-3) can do the same with a victory next week or a loss by Indianapolis.


Never count out the late-season loss by Indianapolis. The Colts were at it again, losing for the third time in their last four games -- and for the first time ever to the Houston Texans, 27-24.

Peyton Manning is 2-4 in his last six starts. Throw in Eli’s 1-5 and the Manning brothers are a combined 3-9 over the last six weeks.

In Indianapolis and New York, they are calling it a disaster.

Everywhere else, they are calling it just another episode of “Fall in the Family.”




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Young guns

Vince Young of the Tennessee Titans on Sunday became the first rookie quarterback since 1966 to rush for 500 yards in a season. The top five rushing totals for rookie quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era (since 1966):

*--* Player Year Team Yards Vince Young 2006 Tennessee 523* Bobby Douglass 1969 Chicago 408 Rick Mirer 1993 Seattle 343 Donovan McNabb 1999 Philadelphia 313 Marlin Briscoe 1968 Denver 308



* -- One game remaining; Source: