Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Despite hits on image, NFL interest is as high as ever

Roger Goodell: The NFL commissioner speaks at a news conference Friday in response to criticism of the handling of domestic abuse.
Roger Goodell: The NFL commissioner speaks at a news conference Friday in response to criticism of the handling of domestic abuse. AP

This was the season that found suspended stars Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson the disgraced faces of the NFL. A year earlier concussion lawsuits were the talk of the league. Together, the issues of player safety and off-field controversies have pushed embattled commissioner Roger Goodell and the dented NFL shield into public-relations turmoil.

Now comes the antitode:

Football. Games. The ones that matter most as the regular season wraps up with Week 17 on Sunday and the 12-team playoff grid is set — the Super Bowl awaiting.

The image hits King Sport has taken are real, but this is the time of year when we are reminded that interest in the NFL, reflected in attendance, TV ratings and, yes, gambling, continue to be buoyant.

Competitive balance is the reason. Four of eight division titles are yet to be determined. Twelve of 16 final-week games include a team in the playoffs or still contending. Ten games have direct bearing on playoff seedings.

In the AFC, the Patriots, Broncos, Colts, Bengals and Steelers have their playoff tickets, while four other teams are in a scrum for the sixth and final spot.

In the NFC, the Seahawks, Packers, Lions, Cardinals and Cowboys are in, with two other teams, Carolina and Atlanta, in a head-to-head game for the final berth. Either the Panthers or Falcons will enter the playoffs with a losing record, a rarity, as winner of the lowly NFC South, and yet that in some ways is the best game of the week — the only one with winner-take-all stakes.

That’s the luck of the NFL. Even when it loses, it wins.

Fins in Pro Bowl

No surprise DE Cam Wake and CB Brent Grimes were only Dolphins among 86 players selected for Pro Bowl. No Miami guys among the first wave of 55 alternates proves nobody else was close.

The 20 first-time honorees included former Hurricanes Greg Olsen (Panthers TE) and Calais Campbell (Cardinals DE), former FIU star T.Y. Hilton (Colts WR) and ex-Dolphin Vontae Davis (Colts CB).

Only four teams were shut out of a PB pick: the Giants, Jaguars, Titans and Vikings.

Scatter-shooting

▪ Super Bowl odds for all 15 teams still in contention entering the final week of the regular season, via Sportsbook.ag: Patriots and Seahawks both 5-2, Packers 5-1, Broncos 6-1, Cowboys 10-1, Steelers 18-1, Colts 25-1, Lions 30-1, Chargers 35-1, Cardinals 50-1, Falcons and Bengals both 60-1, Ravens 75-1, Panthers 100-1 and Texans 450-1.

▪ Pats’ five seasons in a row with a first-round playoff bye is the best run by any team since the current postseason format began in 1990.

▪ The Lions at Packers game marks the first time since the 1993 season that two teams with at least 11 wins have met in a season finale with the division title on the line.

▪ Bears’ Matt Forte needs seven catches Sunday to tie the running back record of 101 set by Larry Centers in 1995.

▪ Eight quarterbacks have at least 30 TD passes, shattering the only season high of five. And three other guys with 28 or 29 could further grow the record.

▪ You need further appreciation for Don Shula’s NFL-record 347 victories? Pats’ Bill Belichick, fourth all-time with 230, would need to average 10 wins a season for 12 more years, until he’s age 74, to surpass Shula.

Happy holidays, all!

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