The Fine Fifteen
1. Tennessee (13-3). Oh, the Titans will need the first-round bye. Imagine the physical welts a divisional-playoff game against Baltimore would leave, and then, in a potential title game, the Colts or Steelers coming to town -- Indy on an 11-game winning streak, the Steelers with Terrible Towel revenge on their minds.
2. Pittsburgh (12-4). Ben Roethlisberger is going to be fine, from the sounds of it. I'm not one to kill Mike Tomlin for playing Roethlisberger some in the final game of the year, either.
3. New York Giants (12-4). Anyone think the Falcons won't go into Glendale and beat the Cards? That could lead to a very tough divisional-round matchup for the Giants -- and I emphasize could because Minnesota would have to win its wild carder against the Eagles, and that's no sure thing. The Giants' pass rush has gone limp -- 12 sacks in the last eight games -- and Matt Ryan might have chances to make some plays on a decent day at the Meadowlands. That might be the tricky part. On Sunday, it was 65 with a light breeze in East Rutherford. Tomorrow it could be 16 with a 27-mph gale.
5. Baltimore (11-5). One year ago tomorrow, Steve Bisciotti fired Brian Billick. Good deal for Billick; he got $15 million over three years from Bisciotti to not coach, freeing him to work in TV and on a new book, both things he likes. Good deal for the Ravens; they got a coach, John Harbaugh, who would be coach of the year in many other seasons. And still may be.
6. Indianapolis (12-4). Who'da thunk it? When the Colts limped out of Tennessee on the night of Oct. 27 with their fourth loss in seven games, I was sure they'd never, ever make the playoffs. They not only made it, but they haven't lost since that October night.
7. New England (11-5). You lose your best player -- maybe the best player in football -- seven minutes into the season, and win 11 games with a neophyte, seventh-round quarterback, missing more starter-games due to injury than ever in the Belichick Era ... what an incredible season, even if it didn't end in the playoffs.
8. Atlanta (11-5). Great stat from Mike Lombardi, who has more jobs than I do: Falcons are plus-95 in first-half point differential this year, which leads the league and tells you offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey isn't afraid to fill the air with Matt Ryan spirals early and often.
9. Miami (11-5). Dolphins improve by 10 wins over 2007 ... and the reward is a rematch with Baltimore, which beat them by two touchdowns on Oct. 19 in Miami. They'll play Sunday afternoon, in Miami again. The thing is, I don't think either team cares if the game's on the moon.
10. San Diego (8-8). Amazing but true: Chargers never once led the AFC West this year -- until the end of the regular season. That's when it counts, by the way.
11. Philadelphia (9-6-1). Imagine the team that tied Cincinnati and got manhandled by Baltimore winning four out of five to sneak in. And I assume the Eagles will be favored to win their playoff game at the Vikes.
12. Minnesota (10-6). Nobody loves the Vikings, but you've got to at least like a team that wins seven of its last nine to make the playoffs.
13. San Francisco (7-9). Don't know if this Singletary way will work long-term, but he sure lit a fire under this team in the last two months.
14. Arizona (9-7). I'd be surprised, bordering on stunned, if the Cards beat Atlanta.
15. Houston (8-8). Andre Johnson caught 115 balls for 1,575 yards and eight touchdowns this year. I have a feeling we're going to be talking about Johnson for a long, long time.
Quote of the Week I
"If you're going to worry about getting guys hurt, play tennis. It's so unplanned, so chaotic out there. If you're worried about that, you shouldn't be out there.''
-- CBS analyst Steve Tasker, on what he knew would be criticism of the Steelers for playing Ben Roethlisberger in a meaningless game.
Quote of the Week II
"The coaches are in place. How can I be any clearer ... Look, can y'all not understand statements? What the [expletive] is going on here? The coaching staff is in place. The coaching staff is in place.''
-- Dallas owner Jerry Jones, peeved with the press for one of the few times in his ownership on Friday, coming about as close to saying 'the coaching staff is coming back without actually saying, "The coaching staff is coming back.''
He could well be certain, deep down, that Wade Phillips and his staff will return. But if he were, he should have said, "I'm absolutely not making a coaching change, and you can take that to the bank. The staff will return intact too.'' Jones seemed, at the time, to have kept the door open to making a change. He could have said the next day, "I never said the coaching staff is coming back.'' He could have scoffed at the media for making it an issue when it never was one.
The easiest way to handle the issue is simple. When you hire a coach, you make this announcement at the opening press conference: "This is how we're going to handle the coaching situation here. At the end of every season, I'll tell you if the coach is going to return for the next season. I'll make no comment during the season, or before the season, or deep in the offseason, about the status of the coach or the coaching staff. So if you ask me about it, I'm going to say 'no comment.'
Reminds me of many situations in the past, where owners and GMs dismiss talk of making a coaching change. Last year, Baltimore owner Bisciotti told everyone in the Ravens' organization he was bringing Billick back. The day after a 5-11 season, he started having second thoughts, and the next day he whacked Billick. "I just changed my mind. I can't explain it to you,'' he said. He wouldn't have had to if he'd never said in the first place, with certainty, he was bringing Billick back.
And let me just say this: I would bet you a triple grande hazelnut latte that Jerry Jones did NOT say to anyone on the team plane last night, "The coaching staff is in place.''
Quote of the Week III
"I had a blast working with these guys. It was a lot of fun.''
-- Brett Favre, sounding like he'd played his last game in a storied NFL career Sunday.