by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

The upcoming final week of the NFL regular season is always one of the more intriguing ones of the campaign. The potential exists for many games to more resemble preseason contests, especially for teams locked into their playoff slots. Those sorts can be excused for subbing liberally and resting key starters. Meanwhile, teams out of playoff contention entirely can be expected to do some experimenting, too, although the unwritten rule of the NFL is that if the game has potential postseason consequences for one team, an opposing side is not expected to lay down its arms and put forth a low-key effort, especially if it has no compelling reason to do so (avoiding injury for the upcoming playoffs, etc.).

What we always like to remind readers is that players, no matter their teams being in the playoff race or not, are never well-served by putting forth less than their best efforts. Future employment is hardly guaranteed for many NFL performers, who will never help their job prospects by going through the motions.

Teams in must-win scenarios, have not provided the negative pointspread trends through the years that many observers might expect. Indeed, it can be argued that teams without playoff consequences are more likely to play loose and thus be more dangerous in the final week. In last year’s corresponding TGS issue, we recalled similar dynamics on the final weekend of the 1965 NFL season, when the Packers and Colts were involved in dogfight for the old Western Conference crown. Yet with supposedly nothing to play for other than pride, their opponents in the last weekend (Colts vs. Rams, Packers vs. 49ers) summoned extraordinary efforts as a prelude to the memorable conference playoff the following week between Baltimore and Green Bay at Lambeau Field. Similarly, and more recently, who could forget a going-nowhere, 3-12 Arizona Cardinals team scoring twice in the final two minutes of the 2003 regular-season finale, including a 28-yard TD pass on the final play from Josh McCown to Nathan Poole, to knock the visiting Vikings out of the playoffs (and give the NFC North to the Packers) in a stunning 18-17 Big Red win.

Similarly, we don’t believe teams will take it easy in the final week in order to help their draft prospects for the following spring. Again, players whose jobs could be in jeopardy are rarely going to do anything less than give 100%, especially for a team and potential new regime they might have nothing to do with in the future. And there have been a few famous late-season results in the past by teams that have fought hard and cared less about the upcoming draft order. We recall vividly how the 1988 Green Bay Packers, staring at the top pick in the 1989 Draft and a chance to select UCLA QB Troy Aikman, instead won their finale at the then-called Phoenix Cardinals, 26-17, gifting the top pick in the upcoming draft to Dallas instead. And we know all the good that happened with the Cowboys and Aikman in subsequent years.

What we often watch in the final week are situations that seem to be spinning out of control, often involving coaches on the hot seat. Remember, Jacksonville, Miami, and Kansas City have already made changes during the season and will be looking for new coaches immediately upon the end of the regular season. Heading into this final NFL weekend, we’d pay attention to the following other situations in which coaches look to be in the most trouble.

San Diego...Norv Turner’s five-year tenure with the Bolts will almost assuredly come to an end following the Sunday regular-season finale against the Raiders. Missing the playoffs the past two years has sealed Norv’s fate. Already there is talk in San Diego that the Spanos’ are looking big with their next hire, perhaps interested in Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden (though both appear extremely content in their current TV gigs), or former Titans HC Jeff Fisher. Andy Reid’s name has also been floated if the Philadelphia coach decides to part ways with the Eagles. A native Californian, Reid would reportedly get the same deal from the Chargers as did Pete Carroll with the Seahawks, providing final say in personnel matters. Regardless, expect Norv and perhaps GM A.J. Smith to be out soon after the finale at Oakland.

Tampa Bay...Raheem Morris’ three-year run with the Bucs is reportedly in danger due to a debilitating nine-game skid that has wrecked a once-promising campaign. The unravel has been complete, with blowout losses at modest Jacksonville and Carolina in recent weeks and the collapse of a defense that was considered to be Morris’ expertise. Moreover, third-year QB Josh Freeman has regressed alarmingly, although a variety of nagging injuries have contributed to his demise. Sources say it is very unlikely for Morris, without a playoff berth in three years, to survive, especially with the team backsliding so precipitously after an apparent breakthrough in 2010.

St. Louis...The Rams have been saddled with a variety of injuries all season that have helped prevent a repeat of an uplifting 2010 campaign in which St. Louis was in the playoff hunt until the final week. Still, barring an upset win over the 49ers in Sunday’s finale, HC Steve Spagnuolo will have sandwiched 1-15 and 2-14 records around last season’s 7-9. The departure of last year’s o.c. Pat Shurmur to the Browns (where he’s now the head coach) proved a major negative, especially since the offense has mostly misfired (with injuries playing a part) for new o.c. Josh McDaniels. Sources say Spagnuolo and GM Billy Devaney are less than 50-50 to survive, though insiders continue to indicate that reclusive new owner Stan Kroenke is a difficult read. Sources say if Kroenke decides to ditch Spagnuolo, he likely looks for a new coach with NFL experience after the last two Ram hires, Spagnulo and Scott Linehan, took over straight from the coordinator ranks without any NFL head coaching experience. The potential coach and GM openings could convince a big name, perhaps Jeff Fisher, to look hard at the Rams if it means having sway over personnel matters as well. One rumor making the rounds under the Gateway Arch is for Fisher and current Chargers GM A.J. Smith to move in tandem to Edward Jones Dome.

Indianapolis...The Colts’ rally down the stretch has probably saved the neck of HC Jim Caldwell, who might have been made a scapegoat if the Colts finished winless minus Peyton Manning. Now the word from Indy sources is that Caldwell likely survives barring a collapse in the finale on Sunday at Jacksonville.

Dallas...As always, owner Jerry Jones is the wild card in the mix, which is why the possibility he could dismiss HC Jason Garrett if the Cowboys don’t win the NFC East cannot be ignored. There is talk that Jerry could decide to blow up the organization and start anew if the Cowboys fail this weekend against the Giants, which could also mean that QB Tony Romo’s days in Big D might be numbered if Dallas misses the playoffs for a second straight year. No one has to remind Jones that Romo has won just one playoff game in his five previous years as the starter. If Jones goes shopping for a new coach, sources say he will likely look at some big names such as Cowher or Gruden and at least place a courtesy call to Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, who has rejected the NFL before but remains on Jones’ speed-dial just in case.

NY Giants...Much like Garrett in Dallas, Tom Coughlin could be in trouble if the G-Men lose the finale to the Cowboys and miss the playoffs, which would mark the third straight postseason miss for the Giants. Coughlin is running low on capital from his Super Bowl XLII win over the Patriots and has not won a playoff game since.

As always, stay tuned...

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