The Fine Fifteen
1. Pittsburgh (13-4). Most anticipated championship games of this decade: 1. Indy-New England, 2006; 2. Pittsburgh-New England, 2004; 3. Giants-Green Bay, 2007; 4. Pittsburgh-Baltimore, 2008; 5. New England-Indy, 2003. Next week's Steelers-Ravens matchup won't have the shiniest records, but it will have more intensity than any of the other four championship games on the list-- and that is saying something.
2. Baltimore (13-5). "We're the team you don't want to play right now,'' says Ed Reed. Right now? When exactly, this season, has anyone wanted to play this rolling ball of butcher knives?
3. Philadelphia (11-6-1). I think the Week 12 benching was good for McNabb. He's sure of himself, he's out to prove something and he's not afraid.
4. Tennessee (13-4). LenDale White backhanded compliment of the week. "We will beat them nine out of 10 times, but this time things didn't fall our way," White said. "I'm not taking anything away from Baltimore. I lose graciously.''
5. New England (11-5). Staying or leaving, Mr. Pioli?
6. New York Giants (12-5). "I thought our running game would give us some shorter distances to accomplish on third down,'' said Tom Coughlin after the 23-11 loss
7. Arizona (11-7). How do you know where to rank this team right now? I don't. But I'm putting them a little higher than I ever thought I would this postseason. The Cards are cashing in on scoring chances, allowing just 259.5 yards a game in the playoffs, playing tough (3.5 per carry) against the run and competing like this might be the last chance any of them ever have to do anything great in this game.
8. San Diego (9-9). Nothing to be ashamed of. Now the Darren Sproles free-agency clock starts ticking.
9. Indianapolis (12-5). Tick, tick, tick. The move is yours, Tony Dungy. All signs point to Dungy retiring, but we should know for sure in a matter of hours.
10. Carolina (12-5). Suddenly, the Panthers might have a quarterback need. And their first choice in the draft won't be 'til sometime in the late fifties.
11. Miami (11-6). Chad Pennington threw seven interceptions in 438 attempts in the regular season, and four in 38 throws against Baltimore. Let's not make that stat larger than life going into the offseason. Pennington deserves to be the opening-day quarterback for Miami in September, with Chad Henne continuing in apprenticeship behind him.
12. Atlanta (11-6). The Michael Vick day of salary-cap reckoning is coming. If the Falcons cut or trade him this offseason (what else can they do?), he counts as $7.11 million on their 2009 cap. If they keep him, he counts as $15.43 million. Now there's a tough call.
13. Minnesota (10-7). I see where Brad Childress has opened up the quarterback competition for next year. Good idea. But don't bury Tarvaris Jackson yet.
14. San Francisco (7-9). Happy trails to you, Aaron Salkin. You have been a heck of a PR man for the Niners, and you will be very good somewhere else.
15. Houston (8-8). Give the Texans a bookend pass-rusher to go along with Mario Williams and they could threaten Indy and Tennessee for the division title in 2009.
Quote of the Week I
"It's 10 years for me, 13 for Dawk, 13 for Runyan, 11 for Tra. This is something that is storybook. Five NFC Championships in 10 years. That kind of shows the trust and the coaching we have with Andy.''
Quote of the Week II
"We picked a bad day to have a bad day.''
-- Carolina coach John Fox, stating the obvious after a shocking 33-13 loss to the Cardinals, a game in which the Panthers entered as heavy favorites.
Quote of the Week III
"You want to know the 13 scariest words in professional football this year? 'For more on the Cowboys, let's go to Ed Werder at Valley Ranch.' ''
-- Ira Kaufman, pro football writer for the Tampa Tribune.