I'm on The Bandwagon, But ...
Green Bay (NFC 5 seed). The Pack's 7-1 in the last eight, including 3-0 against playoff teams. Aaron Rodgers is every bit as dangerous as Brett Favre in his prime right now. But this could (underline could) be the Packers' path to the Super Bowl: Wild Card at Arizona, which showed nothing Sunday ... divisional game at New Orleans ... title game at Dallas or Minnesota. Green Bay's playing awfully well, but well enough to be a rerun of the Pittsburgh team that ran the table four years ago on the road or the Giants two years later? It's possible but problematic.
Arizona (NFC 4 seed). Ken Whisenhunt told me the Cards had two gameplans ready for the Packers Sunday -- one if the Vikings lost and one if they won. The fact that Minnesota won meant Arizona couldn't get a first-round bye in the playoffs, and so the Cards turned to Column B ... and got whomped. No biggie. The Cardinals return much of the same lineup that came within a 78-yard drive by Ben Roethlisberger of winning the Super Bowl last year, and if Kurt Warner gets the hot hand, they could go places. The difference between this year and last year, though, is last year they faced Jake Delhomme, rookie Matt Ryan and Donovan McNabb on the road to the Super Bowl. This year, the passers could be Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tony Romo or Brett Favre. A little better caliber of thrower.
They'll Need Some Breaks
Philadelphia (NFC 6 seed). Bad loss Sunday. The Eagles went from a bye and hosting a divisional game and possibly the NFC Championship Game to being on the road for three games to earn a Super Bowl trip. And it was how they lost too. McNabb had no answers for the Cowboy rush or secondary in a feeble performance, but he wasn't alone. Amazing how all that good feeling engendered by a month of very good football vanished in three hours.
New York Jets (AFC 5 seed). In four of their last five games, the Jets, the NFL's best running team, have rushed for 175 yards or more. If they do that Saturday at Cincinnati, they'll win by double-digits. A rematch at Indianapolis would be fun, particularly with Peyton Manning cordoning off the side of the field that has Darrelle Revis blanketing Reggie Wayne. Would the Jets have enough back-end cover ability to frustrate Manning and force a couple of turnovers? That could be the biggest factor in a Jets' postseason run.
By the way, I said prior to week 17 that the Jets were the luckiest team on the face of the earth to find Curtis Painter and J.T. O'Sullivan under their Christmas tree. I credit the Jets for surviving and making the playoffs, and they certainly looked like they belonged Sunday night in a weed-whacking of the Bengals at the Meadowlands. But the fact is they probably wouldn't have made it had the Colts not thrown in the towel eight days ago.
I Can't See It (But Then Again, I Thought Arizona Was a Bad Playoff Team Last Year)
Baltimore (AFC 6 seed). Any team that can run can win this time of year, and the Ravens will go to New England hoping to control the clock with Ray Rice and Willis McGahee. What I like about the Ravens is they've won at San Diego this year (Week 2, 31-26), lost narrowly at New England (Week 4, 27-21) and lost even more narrowly to the Colts at home (Week 11, 17-15). But to win at each of those teams in the span of 15 days is a different task, obviously.
Cincinnati (AFC 4 seed). Saturday's rematch against the Jets is going to be better than we all think if nose man Domata Peko is squaring off with Nick Mangold in some semblance of good health. Peko is vital to keeping the Jets from running for 175 yards. If they do, the game's over. For the Bengals to think they can win at Indy and then at San Diego or New England is asking a lot from a team that is on the verge of being good but still needs a few pieces. And they missed Rey Maualuga (ankle; IR) Sunday night in one of the worst egg-layings in recent NFL history.
One idea to start the discussion on meaninglessness late in NFL seasons.
I'm convinced something should be done -- not has to be done.
Coaches don't want to hear about this ... except one from the AFC who I spoke with late Sunday night and who shall remain anonymous. He was concerned that even though the Jets could well have been one of the best six teams in the AFC at season's end, they got an unfair advantage by playing two teams in the last two weeks that already had playoff spots secured and weren't playing the way they'd play a regular game. "It's a matter of fairness,'' the coach said. "I don't know what can be done, but I'd like to see every team that plays a game with playoff implications have to play their best players.''
And isn't that the crux of the issue? Imagine this year if the Colts played their final two games at home instead of one at home and one on the road. Fans would be buying a 10-game season-ticket (eight regular-season games, two exhibitions), and four of them, under my scenario, would be games the Colts were playing to keep guys healthy, not to win. Fans already detest paying for the preseason. Paying for more games like the preseason is absurd.
I think it's a good idea to have each team intending to sit starting players for some or all of the game have to make that announcement on Friday, as a show of good will to the fans who pay good money to watch the games. I also think the NFL should take a page from baseball tradition: When either team in a late-September game is involved in a pennant race, the unwritten baseball rule is the team not in the race plays its usual starting nine. So tanking teams don't influence the outcome of games.
I realize the Welker injury is going to affect this debate. It should. It's a valid concern, losing valuable players to injury in games you don't have to win. I'm afraid there's no perfect solution to this one, but I do think Roger Goodell is going to direct the Competition Committee, like it or not, to do something about this before the start of the 2010 season.
Mike Holmgren can't be kneejerk about Eric Mangini anymore.
I said last night on NBC that despite the Browns' four-game winning streak (longest since Bill Belichick coached the team in the nineties), I think it's 60-40 that Mangini will get fired. But that's a legit 40 percent.
This isn't a typical up-and-down team that makes it easy on a new GM or football administrator to come in lining up the firing squad. This team has a few arrows pointing north -- the cleaning out of the salary cap, the accumulation of 11 picks in the 2010 draft, the sacrificing of good players (Kellen Winslow, Braylon Edwards) on a bad team for the future. The team played hard down the stretch in beating Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Oakland and Jacksonville, and Mangini and his staff began to develop a few unknown young players.
"I've taken a lot of heat for the Opportunity Period practices we run,'' Mangini told me last night, "but we've had a few players who never would have been able to show us much in regular practices show us quite a bit in those workouts.''
The Opportunity Periods are post-practice sessions that allow marginal players to come off the scout team for a handful of plays and work on plays the starters work on. Running back James Davis was lost for the year with a shoulder injury in one such practice in September. But as the season progressed, one of the stars of the Opportunity Period was Marcus Benard ("We never would have had the sense of his progress if he didn't have the chance to work in those periods,'' said Mangini).
The free agent from Jackson State began to play a prominent linebacker role against Pittsburgh in Week 14. That was the start of the winning streak, and the rangy Benard was all over the field that night. He had 3.5 sacks in the four-game streak, and he's a solid prospect for the Browns now.
I asked Mangini if he had a gut feel whether Holmgren will keep him when Holmgren takes over as the club's football czar this week. "This place was a mess when we got here, and it's not a mess anymore,'' he said. "Where we are now, I'm not nervous, I'm not anxious. I'm proud. If at the end of the day Mike wants to go in another direction, I'll understand, but I do think we're headed in the right direction.''
Shane Lechler should walk tall today. I had respect for the Oakland punter before Sunday's game; I already thought he was the best punter in Raider history before Sunday, and that's not to slight Ray Guy.
But Lechler needed maximum yards Sunday against the Ravens; he entered the game with a 51.1-yard gross punting average, just shy of Sammy Baugh's record of 51.4 yards a punts. And with the ball at midfield in the middle of the second quarter, Lechler lined up for his second punt of the day. I thought he'd just boot it into the end zone and take the 50 yards. "I thought about it,'' Lechler told me later.
But he skied a boomer toward the goal line, and the nose of the ball hit at about the half-yard line and the ball bounced back toward the five-, where it was downed. The Raiders had nothing to play for. Lechler was trying to break a 69-year-old record. But instead of taking the most yards, he played to pin the Ravens back -- and it worked. "You can make that kind of kick in Oakland, because the field in Oakland is 22 feet below sea level, and usually it's going to be wet, so the ball is going to stick there a little bit.''
Lechler finished with five punts for a 52.4-yard average, and his average didn't move a bit. So he couldn't break Baugh's record, which was achieved thanks to 38 of Baugh's punts coming on third down, from five to eight yards behind the line in quick-kick situations.
But Lechler smashed the net-punt record of 41.2 yards per punt set last year; his net punt this year was 43.9 yards. "I didn't everything I could to break the record,'' he said. "But punting is all about opportunity. My worst year punting, we went to the Super Bowl. Our offense has been so bad it's given me a lot of chances for big punts.''
Because he's often punting from deep in his own territory, Lechler has had some long ones that other punters on better offenses can't have. Two other points Lechler made: He wants Tom Cable to stay as coach. "He's exactly what we need -- a tough guy the players respect. We don't need to keep having a revolving door in the coach's office,'' Lechler said.
And as the richest punter of all time, Lechler said he has no idea how much he has in the bank. "When I signed that [four-year, $16-million] contract, my wife said, 'I'm going to go out and get us a gift.' She got an iPod. All I really care about being is the best punter of all time.''
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