As the NFL concludes its regular season with Week 17 divisional matchups, the playoff teams are almost all set. The Patriots, Steelers, Jets, Ravens and Chiefs are locked in for the AFC. The Falcons, Bears and Eagles are set to go to the postseason for the NFC. The NFC West is not yet determined and the Sunday Night game between the St. Louis Rams and the Seattle Seahawks will determine the winner of the NFC West and who will host a playoff game in the wild card week.
We all know that the 6-9 Seahawks have looked both terrible and surprising this season. The Rams have been a pleasant surprise, bouncing back from a 1-15 campaign to 7-8 and a win away from a home playoff game while being led by a rookie quarterback in Sam Bradford.
No one could have predicted this being the game to decide a playoff game. At the start of the season, the San Francisco 49ers were the popular pick to win the division while the Arizona Cardinals were still the champs and had the most talent on paper in the division.
If anyone had to predict the deciding game for the NFC West, it would have been the Cardinals/49ers games played in San Francisco. Both teams should have had between eight and ten wins, with this final game being the deciding factor.
Considering the trash talking between Arizona's Darnell Dockett and San Francisco's Vernon Davis and the Patrick Willis signing of the ESPN bus stating that the Niners would be the 2010 NFC West champs, the rivalry and bad blood would be there. San Francisco had won both 2009 meetings and Arizona both in 2008.
It would have featured Matt Leinart for the Cardinals against Alex Smith for San Fran, the two forever connected. Leinart would have been a 49er had he come out for the draft after his junior year. Instead, when he returned to USC for his senior season, Smith was the pick. Leinart would have finished his first season as starter out of the shadow of the retired Kurt Warner. A win should have led the Cards into the playoffs and erase all doubts about Leinart's ability to lead the team.
Since this playoff spot would be undecided and the rivalry heated, NBC would have picked up the game to show Sunday night as part of the flex scheduling. It would have been a football bloodbath, both teams fighting for their playoff lives.
The game would have come down to the final minutes, one team basking in glory while the other seethed with jealousy. The rivalry would have been fueled for at least another year of hate between the two teams.
That is how it should have been. Instead, the Cards/Niners game features two 5-10 teams who have gotten inconsistent play at quarterback and happen to be the only two teams that have fallen to the lowly Carolina Panthers.
It features rookie John Skelton for the Cardinals, the fourth quarterback to be named starter since Warner retired at the end of last season. It features the same Alex Smith, but returning to the starting position after a pair of benchings.
What could have been a marquee matchup is now an oversight, simply a game for pride. The hate and rivalry is still there, but there is no bravado like there could have and should have been.
Instead, the only thing this game decides is who will be in last place in the division and who will have the higher pick in the 2011 Draft.
It is not what should have been, but that is what you get when you underachieve in a bad division. We can hope for next year like so many other fans do, but this year we must think of only what could have been, which is the worst kind of disappointment that fans must suffer.