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Posted: Sunday January 3, 2010 8:42PM; Updated: Monday January 4, 2010 1:41AM
Don Banks
Don Banks>INSIDE THE NFL

NFC looks wide open, more Snap Judgments from Week 17

Story Highlights

I could make a legitimate case for all six NFC teams making the Super Bowl

We found out definitively who the 2009 Vikings really belong to: Brett Favre

The Patriots have got to start staying away from Bernard Pollard

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Donovan McNabb and the Eagles saw their six-game winning streak come crashing down on Sunday.
AP

Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a Week 17 that had a little bit of everything, except for any real high drama when it comes to how the Ravens, Jets and Cowboys won their showdown games Sunday and finalized the 12-team playoff field.....

• They say momentum is a prerequisite of success in the NFL postseason, but this year's NFC playoff field sure hopes it's an overrated factor. Because there's not a lot of mojo flowing in the National Flat Conference these days.

NFL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE

Top-seeded New Orleans is staggering into the playoffs, losing its third straight game on Sunday after its 13-0 start. Carolina beat the Saints 23-10, and New Orleans suddenly hasn't topped 17 points since beating Atlanta in Week 14. The Saints' holes all showed up in December, and with the bye week, New Orleans will go at least a month between wins.

No. 2 Minnesota (12-4) on Sunday managed to rout a listless Giants team, 44-7, but the Vikings will still enter the postseason with three losses in their past five games, and having not won on the road since Nov. 1. The win over New York was impressive, but I'm not sure how much beating the Giants is really worth these days.

No. 4 Arizona (10-6) was blown out 33-7 at home by fifth-seeded Green Bay (11-5), the very team the Cardinals have to play host to again next week in the first round of the playoffs. Arizona has now lost three of its last six games, fairly well duplicating last year's late-season slide. Worst of all, the unpredictability factor has returned to Arizona.

And then there's the curious case of the Eagles (11-5), who went into Dallas on a six-game winning streak, but came out strangely flat and got out-classed 24-0 by the Cowboys (11-5). Philadelphia had the No. 2 seed within its grasp with a win, but tumbled all the way to the bottom of the NFC field, at No. 6, and now must return to Dallas next week.

With so much malaise everywhere you look in the NFC, it's hard to spot a favorite. Dallas and Green Bay both look dangerous, and the Cowboys (three wins in a row) and Packers (7-1 in the second half) are playing with great confidence. But Dallas hasn't won a playoff game in 13 years, and Green Bay has to do it the hard way, hitting the road as a wild-card entry.

Add it all up and the NFC looks like a wide open six-team tournament, with anyone capable of showing up to represent the conference in Miami five weeks from today. I could make a legitimate case for all six teams heading south next month.

It could be fun. But it could be chaos, too. Either way, it's about to start.

• Kind of hard to take the Bengals seriously in the AFC playoffs field after their 37-0 debacle in the Meadowlands. Marvin Lewis made it pretty clear that his team's goal in the second half of the season was to play its way onto the NBC Sunday Night Football flex schedule, but I'm guessing even Cincinnati's head coach would admit his club wasn't ready for prime time against the Jets.

New York's got a legit defense, but the Bengals set offensive football back at least a couple decades with that showing. Cincy hasn't been explosive on offense all season, but before Sunday night, it had at least found ways to move the ball. Carson Palmer played well into the third quarter, and finished with one completion in 11 attempts, for zero yards and interception. The Bengals finished with 72 yards of offense, with five first downs and zero passing yards.

Of the three rematches in the first round of the playoffs next weekend, I'd say the Bengals (10-6) turning right around and beating New York (9-7) next Saturday afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium is the most unlikely of all scenarios. The Jets are going to the Queen City with a world of confidence, and the feeling that they're already playing with house money by even making the postseason. It wouldn't shock me if New York blew out the Bengals again, this time on the road.

I don't think the Jets are a strong threat to beat anyone else in the AFC field, but the Bengals clearly are their best matchup. That much was proven in vivid detail. Cincy has one and done written all over it, and making matters worse, it's facing a short week of work to close a very sizable gap between itself and New York.

• With the Patriots-Ravens and Jets-Bengals first-round games featuring four scuffling teams that all lost six or seven games this season, form has a great shot to hold in the AFC half of the bracket, delivering to us a Chargers at Colts AFC Championship Game in three weeks. Divisional-round pairings of Patriots at Chargers, and Jets at Colts could be very competitive matchups, but I'd take my chances with the rested squads from San Diego and Indianapolis winning their way to the title game. And then we'd be in store for what might be the real Super Bowl this season: Chargers at Colts, in a playoff rematch from 2008 and 2007 -- both of which were San Diego victories. Peyton Manning versus Philip Rivers could be as good as it gets.

• Half the teams in the NFL postseason did not make the playoffs last season: The Patriots, Bengals and Jets in the AFC; the Saints, Cowboys and Packers in the NFC. It's the 14th consecutive the NFL playoffs have featured at least five new teams.

• You have to figure the left knee injury suffered by Wes Welker early in New England's 34-27 loss at Houston will be devastating to the Patriots' playoff hopes. Welker reportedly tore his ACL and MCL, and that could doom the high-powered passing attack that the Patriots were counting on in the postseason.

But maybe all is not lost, given that New England immediately got a heck of a Welker impersonation from rookie receiver Julian Edelman against the Texans. Edelman wound up with a game-high 10 catches for 103 yards, cracking triple digits for the first time in his NFL career. And earlier this season, when the injured Welker missed games in Weeks 2-3, Edelman, the former Kent State quarterback, stepped up and caught 11 passes for 118 yards.

Still, Welker's 123 catches led the NFL this season, and that number becomes even more mind-boggling when you realize he missed almost three complete games. Hard to see Edelman replacing Welker as Tom Brady's favorite all-purpose target.

Roger Goodell gets it, and I say good for him that he does. The NFL commissioner realizes the integrity of the game is compromised when playoff-bound teams rest too many starters in the final weeks of the season. There's always a tipping point in the NFL in regards to competitive issues like this, and this time it was the undefeated Colts passing on a perfect season by pulling a good bit of their first team off the field in the third quarter of that loss to the Jets last week.

Playoff-bound teams not playing all-out to win when they're facing playoff contenders is much worse for the image of the league than the hit the NFL takes every August when those meaningless preseason games stir a similar debate. Goodell knows that, and wants to find ways to give teams incentives to legitimately play out their regular-season schedules, be it extra draft picks or another such carrot at the end of a stick.

It's rather bizarre that it has come to this: The NFL trying to give teams incentives for winning and playing a late-season game straight when it comes to their lineup. But it's an effort worth making, even if it only puts a dent in the now annual trend of seeing playoff qualifiers treat the final two weeks of the regular season like a necessary evil.

• With Welker (knee), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (knee), Anquan Boldin (knee, ankle) and Charles Woodson (shoulder) all leaving games for playoff-bound teams that had little motivation to win on Sunday, get ready for an even hotter level of debate this week regarding the wisdom of risking injuries to starters in late-season games that aren't all important.

But hey, somebody's got to play in these games. This isn't college football. There aren't 80-man rosters.

• My early, early read on next weekend's playoff pairings (at least the ones we know): The Packers look like they have the Cardinals pretty well figured out, and maybe only the potential loss of the injured Charles Woodson from Green Bay's secondary would allow Kurt Warner and the Arizona passing game to exploit the Packers defense. But I like Green Bay, fairly comfortably.

I don't know what to make of the Eagles' uninspired performance at Dallas, but the Cowboys clearly have the psychological edge going into their third meeting with their division rivals. Tony Romo picked the Philly secondary apart on the quick, underneath stuff, and Marion Barber was a tone-setter once again in the running game. I don't think Dallas will win by 24 points again, but it will snap that 13-year playoff-victory drought.

The Baltimore-New England matchup in the AFC will be the most physical game of the weekend, and I think the Ravens are a dangerous opponent for Tom Brady and the Patriots. But even with the damaging loss of Welker, I expect New England's postseason experience to provide just enough of an edge to let the Pats squeak past Baltimore.

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