1. New England (14-2). Sure, we all saw 14-2 coming.
2. Atlanta (13-3). That too. The Falcons are the top seed in the NFC for the first time since 1980.
3. Pittsburgh (12-4). The Steelers' weakness is their offensive line, which has really been, ahem, evident in the last eight quarters. Pittsburgh has 68 points in the last two weeks.
4. Baltimore (12-4). Sunday's results push the Ravens west to Kansas City instead of to Indy, and to a Sunday game instead of Saturday night. Since Baltimore's last two trips to Indianapolis resulted in losses by a combined 51-6, John Harbaugh and his men have to be quite pleased.
5. Green Bay (10-6). That's the Black and Blue Division you saw in the 10-3 Sunday win over the archrival Bears. Neither team gained 300 yards. Three drives of 40 yards or more in four quarters. I loved both teams' D.
6. Chicago (11-5). Tremendous effort by the Bears in a game they didn't need. I can't remember when the Bears-Packers rivalry was as hard-fought and even.
7. New Orleans (11-5). Let's step back for a minute. Think back to March 2006. The Saints might not have been long for New Orleans. They were in shambles, coming off Katrina and a makeshift home in San Antonio, and they signed Drew Brees to a six-year contract even though he was rehabbing from about as bad a shoulder injury as Dr. James Andrews had ever seen on a quarterback.
Brees has played five regular seasons now. Despite the loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday, that's five years, 49 regular-season wins, three playoff appearances, one Super Bowl win. Brees has had plenty of help, of course -- from Mickey Loomis, who got the players, and Sean Payton, who so ably has coached them. But 10 wins a year with that formerly motley crew? That, to me, with where the Saints were five years ago, is remarkable.
8. Philadelphia (10-6). Interesting nugget on the Sal Paolantonio/Ron Jaworski/Merrill Hoge NFL Matchup show Sunday morning that says much about the Eagles' playoff chances: Mike Vick, through 15 games, led all NFC quarterbacks taking sacks in the shotgun formation, with 20. We all saw the Minnesota game Tuesday night. Leslie Frazier had a brilliant game plan, rushing corners and safeties from all over the map; the biggest play of the game was a strip-sack by Antoine Winfield on a corner blitz, which Winfield returned for a touchdown.
Hoge's point was a valid one: Winfield was the rusher the blocking scheme didn't account for. There are those kinds of rushers that come on many pass plays, and those are the plays Vick is struggling to master. That's what you should expect to see out of Green Bay in the playoffs. And Vick, and the Eagles, had better get better at recognizing and evading the outside secondary blitzers. "If they can't handle it, they'll be one and done,'' Hoge said. Excellent, prescient analysis.
9. Tampa Bay (10-6). There are a few coaches who are glad they don't have to face the Bucs in the playoffs. What a handful. And let's put it out there right now: I love Josh Freeman. What a treat it'll be to watch him play over the next 10 years.
10. New York Jets (11-5). There's not one thing they do great except maybe on special teams. But they were nine points stingier than New England on defense, and 6-2 on the road during the regular season, where they'll have to make hay if they're to back up the very strong words of Rex Ryan.
11. Indianapolis (10-6). When the Colts were 6-6 last month we thought it was curtains. No way would they advance to the playoffs for a modern record-tying ninth straight year. But they edged four straight foes -- by 2, 10, 5 and 3 points -- and left the division in the dust, as usual.
12. San Diego (9-7). Out of mothballs, eh, Ryan Mathews? Lots of fantasy players could have used that three-touchdown, 120-yard rushing performance earlier this season.
13. New York Giants (10-6). The first thing I'm doing if I'm John Mara and Jerry Reese is ask Tom Coughlin what he plans to do to cut Eli Manning's mistakes down next season. Eli's gone from 10 interceptions in 2008 to 14 last year to 24 this year. Not acceptable.
14. Kansas City (10-6). I don't want to dump all over the Chiefs, but they got swept by Oakland, went 2-4 in the division and have a potential distraction with this Charlie Weis-to-Florida thing. Nice timing on that one, by the way, Chiefs.
15. Detroit (6-10). In the last five weeks of the season, they scared the Bears in a 24-20 loss, then beat Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Miami and Minnesota in succession. The cruelest thing about a job action in 2011? It could deprive Lions fans of seeing a playoff-contending season.
We have a winner. When I send my Associated Press ballot in this week, there won't be much mystery about the Most Valuable Player. Tom Brady should win it handily for the second time in his career.
1. Tom Brady, QB, New England. Brady threw four interceptions all year. In 47 minutes of the Colts' Nov. 28 game against San Diego, Peyton Manning threw four of his 17 interceptions for the season.
2. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta. Just wins, baby. In case you haven't heard it enough, the Falcons are 20-2 at home in games Ryan started.
3. Troy Polamalu, S, Pittsburgh. It's not just some games that he makes a big play to help his team win. It's the vast majority of them. An interception in the first minute Sunday at Cleveland was the latest example. An amazing nose for the ball, and tremendous sense of knowing when a play needs to be made.
4. Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia. A stunning presence, a threat unlike any other in the NFL, and one of the great comebacks in the history of the league. So you think this is too low? Several reasons. He missed five starts and 21 of the Eagles' 64 quarters overall. The Eagles won the same number of games as they won a year ago. And one of the signature wins of the season, 31-17 over Atlanta, was quarterbacked by Kevin Kolb. The name of the award is most valuable player, not most exciting player or best story of the year.
5. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis. Not one of his best years, but he did pilot a beat-up team to a 4-0 record and 30 points a game in the last month. But if you wanted to put Matt Cassel or someone else here, I'd understand.
"In this society, everybody wants to fire the coach all the time. We don't do that here.''
-- Giants owner John Mara, announcing after the Giants won their 10th game of the year Sunday in Washington that coach Tom Coughlin would return to coach the team in 2011.
"Daddy, we didn't have to say grace. We just ate with Jesus.''
-- Annabelle Hasselbeck, last spring (but worth repeating this week in light of Seattle's playoff berth), when new Seahawk quarterback Charlie Whitehurst -- who had a thick beard and long brown hair, making him look like the pictures of Jesus Christ -- came to dinner at the Hasselbeck house and the family began dinner without saying the traditional grace.
"I'm a football coach. I'm Jim Nobody from Nowhere.''
-- San Francisco interim coach Jim Tomsula, who won what will be the only game of his current tenure Sunday as the Niners routed Arizona.
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