Handicapping the NFL playoff field
Chargers, Cowboys, Colts the favorites to win Lombardi Trophy
How the Wes Welker injury affects the NFL's play-sit debate
My picks for the all-pro team, awards and 10 Things I Think
NEW YORK -- Now that was a weird day. Sad with the devastating knee injury to one of the real poster children for everything that is good about the NFL, Wes Welker. Flummoxing with the total collapse of the Giants and Broncos. Maddening with starters sitting to some degree in six of the games involving playoff contenders ... and the weirdo Colts deciding that individual records are important a week after deciding 19-0 wasn't. Strangely undramatic for a Week 17, with only two win-and-get-in games, neither of which was any good -- the Ravens handling the Raiders with slight difficulty and the Jets handling the Bengals with none.
Eeriest part of the day: Houston safety Bernard Pollard landing on Welker after he had blown out his ACL and MCL early in Patriots-Texans and fallen to the ground in agony. This was 16 months after Pollard, then with Kansas City, had dove into Tom Brady's knee, shredding ligaments.
"I heard Wes yell out, the same way I heard Tom yell out,'' Pollard told me last night. "It was the same yell. It was terrible. He went down right in front of me. I saw his knee buckle, then I fell on him, and when he went down, I said, 'Just my luck.' ''
What are the odds of the same defender being at the epicenter of the temporary demise of two true New England heroes?
Other quickies from the day, and from very early this morning: When the Redskins' charter returned from San Diego after another dispiriting loss in the dispiriting two-year tenure of Jim Zorn, the team put him out of his misery, firing him with a year left on his contract. There's little doubt the team wants to hire Mike Shanahan. Owner Dan Snyder wasted no time in laying the groundwork. ... Shane Lechler's not going to get any notice for doing it (except maybe here), but he just finished the best punting season in the 90-year history of this league ... Bill Cowher might have to go to Buffalo if he wants to coach ... John Fox doesn't want to go anywhere ... The Raiders are playing for Tom Cable, making me wonder who exactly is going to change coaches besides Washington. I said on NBC last night that this isn't going to be Black Monday (black because so many coaches usually lose their jobs on the day after the season), but rather Charcoal Gray Monday ...
The Rams clinched the top draft choice by finishing 1-15, and an hour after his team lost to the Niners, GM Billy Devaney told me it's only about 14 weeks too early to decide if the Rams are going to take a quarterback or Nebraska defender Ndamukong Suh or someone else. "I can tell you with certainty that there's no white smoke coming out of our chimney yet,'' Devaney said. "I'm still sick over losing this game.''
My money's on Suh, with a QB in round two.
I've never seen so many legitimate MVP candidates, by the way. Between Peyton Manning's second-best year, Philip Rivers on an 11-game win streak, Drew Brees' record season, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers tearing it up, Tony Romo can't even make the top five, and he's been as good as it gets down the stretch, which is when an MVP is supposed to shine ... I finished choosing my All-Pro team in the wee hours of the morning, and I have some picks sure to rival my Stewart Bradley middle linebacker choice last year, and sure to make you nail me with some outraged Tweets.
I'll get to those stories in a few paragraphs, as well as the coaching news and gossip and what the NFL intends to do about all these games with an August feel being played on New Year's weekend. First I'll handicap the second season, which begins Saturday (Jets at Bengals at 4:30 Eastern, followed by Eagles-Cowboys at 8) and continues with Ravens-Pats Sunday at 12:30 and Packers-Cardinals at 4.
Leaders of the Pack
San Diego (AFC 2 seed). Not a pulverizing team on either side of the ball, but they're hot at the right time, with a top quarterback, Philip Rivers (nine interceptions in 511 pass-drops), and they can field a four-man receiving unit, including tight end Antonio Gates, that are all 6-4 or 6-5 across the board. Not a dominant defense -- though with Shawne Merriman resting his plantar fasciatis for 20 days before the divisional round, he could regain his rush ability -- or great run game. They just win. I love Rivers' guts and the fact that no defensive backfield can match up against those pass catchers.
Dallas (NFC 3 seed). Cowboys are classic hot team at the right time, with a mature quarterback, Romo, and a bookend pass-rush team, Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware, that's bordering on Freeney/Mathis in its impact this season. Shutting out the Eagles Sunday and holding DeSean Jackson to 62 rushing/receiving/returning yards, Dallas made me think it's ready for prime time. No big injuries either. Cowboys will be a very tough out.
Indianapolis (AFC 1 seed). We've all fallen slightly out of love with the Colts because of this white-flag deal the last two weeks. With me, it's more than that. They won 14 in a row. Of the last eight of those, seven were by 10 points or fewer. That's not an altogether bad thing because they've got the quarterback to win those games late. But an inopportune turnover or two late, and they could be cooked. Now, what I like about the Colts is because they've conserved Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis down the stretch, both should be ready to attack the quarterback in two weeks.
Minnesota (NFC 2 seed). You get the feeling Brad Childress kept his starters in so long against the Giants to try to drill it in their heads that they're good -- and dominant when they want to be. It's January, and no one should question whether Favre can play well late into the season at 40. The question should be whether the defense is up to the task of making enough big plays. I want to see Jared Allen come out and dominate a game, which he hasn't done since a three-sack day at Green Bay Nov. 1.
New Orleans (NFC 1 seed). The Saints are either going to kill some poor team in two weeks in the divisional round or stumble around and lose a game late. Whoever comes to New Orleans that weekend --Philly, Green Bay or Arizona -- will clearly be capable of winning against a team that's been in hibernation since its Nov. 30 destruction of the Patriots. "We'll be fine,'' Sean Payton said Friday. "We're getting our guys healthy, especially on defense, and when we come back to play [Jan. 16 or 17], we'll be back playing well.''
We'll see. This team's a total X factor.
New England (AFC 3 seed). I don't doubt the Patriots can mentally handle the loss of Welker. The big question is what it does to their already wafer-thin receiving corps. "The sad part isn't so much the pain of the injury,'' Benjamin Watson told me before the Patriots left Houston after their peculiar loss Sunday. "It's the pain for Wes, if he's not able to play, of not being able to do the thing he loves to do in the playoffs. He's such a great competitor and valuable guy on the team.''
They'll fill his spot with Julian Edelman, who is a Welker clone -- the same body type, the same frenetic quickness after the catch. Amazing that the Patriots are going to try to win their fourth Super Bowl in nine years with Edelman playing the part of Welker. My money's on Bill Belichick trying to win this month with the running combo of Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk and Fred Taylor eating the clock and a defense that, until Sunday, had played three very good games in a row.
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