Green Bay couldn't hang on for the entire season, and I'm at a loss to separate New England, the Giants and San Francisco. Call it what it is: the honest-to-goodness Copout Fine Fifteen:
1. (tie) San Francisco (14-3). Four lead changes in the last 4:02. Vernon Davis (The Catch III) taking his place alongside Dwight Clark (The Catch I) and Terrell Owens (The Catch II) in Niner lore. That game Saturday afternoon is why we like sports.
1. (tie) New York Giants (11-7). Memories of 2007 are so valid they're scary. Eli Manning hitting every receiver even slightly open, and a pass rush that won't quit. Big, big trouble for anyone right now.
1. (tie) New England (14-3). The defense comes alive, finally, which is why they're in a three-way tie atop this prestigious list. That plus Tom Brady, who is pretty good. Brady set the franchise record for TD passes in a playoff game (four) in 28 minutes Saturday night. In 30 minutes, he had five. I don't know how you cover his tight ends. One is a problem. Two is mission impossible.
4. Baltimore (13-4). Very good test for the Patriots Sunday in Foxboro. My only concern is whether Flacco has much of a chance to win a scoring contest with Brady.
5. Green Bay (15-2). A couple of weeks ago, Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel described to me an interview session with defensive coordinator Dom Capers after one late-season shredding of Capers' disappointing defense, and McGinn described Capers as "ashen.'' I can only imagine what he was Sunday evening after the Giants put up 37 on Green Bay.
6. New Orleans (14-4). Second straight season that ended with a defensive meltdown at an NFC West champion -- a 41-36 loss at Seattle last year with Drew Brees throwing it 60 times, a 36-32 debacle Saturday in San Francisco with Brees throwing it 63 times. Balance, people. And protect the ball a bit.
7. Houston (11-7). Winning the division with a third-string quarterback, winning a playoff game with a third-string quarterback, playing a representative playoff game at Baltimore with a third-string quarterback ... pretty good season for a team that nearly fired its coaching staff 12 months ago.
8. Pittsburgh (12-5). Hard to imagine the Steelers taking that awful wild-card loss well. They have to get younger, obviously, but they also have to rebuild the offensive line.
9. Detroit (10-7). Looking at my rankings last week, I had the Lions lower than Denver and Atlanta. What was I thinking? Or smoking?
10. Atlanta (10-7). Coordinator wish list on defense? All Spags, all the time.
11. Denver (9-9). Tebow's losses (Detroit, New England, New England) can feel like the end of the world, because Tebow's inaccuracies make it difficult to sustain an offensive attack. But missing guard Chris Kuper hurt a lot because he's the kind of pile-driver who would have given Tebow a little more time Saturday night rather than see him running for his life so regularly.
12. Philadelphia (8-8). Next up for Eagles: the fate of Juan Castillo. Steve Spagnuolo, and a fan base, awaits word.
13. Arizona (8-8). Kevin Kolb, 57.7 percent accuracy. That has to improve, a lot.
14. San Diego (8-8). Doesn't it seem like about half of the weeks this season, Sean Payton's play-calling was designed to poke a sharp stick into the eye of GM A.J. Smith? Drew Brees threw 19 passes to Sproles Saturday, completing 15 for 119 yards.
15. (tie) Tennessee (9-7). Get Cortland Finnegan signed.
15. (tie) Miami (6-10). Don't mourn over not getting Jeff Fisher signed. Lots of good Plan B's out there.
Offensive Players of the Week
San Francisco QB Alex Smith. For six seasons, Smith's gotten nothing but grief -- much of it justified. But Smith will never have to buy another Anchor Steam for the rest of his life (wait -- do guys who went to Utah drink beer?) in the Bay Area because of the 80- and 85-yard drives he led in the last four minutes of the 36-32 divisional playoff stunner over the Saints.
New England QB Tom Brady. The best passing day in Patriots postseason history (368 yards) and six touchdown passes, tying the NFL playoff record set by Steve Young in the 49ers-Chargers Super Bowl 17 years ago. And a 48-yard, inside-the-20 punt. "I have no idea what the records are,'' Brady said dismissively after the game. And I think he means it. It's one of the reasons Bill Belichick likes him so much.
New York Giants WR Hakeem Nicks. His second straight strong playoff game -- seven catches for 165 yards, with two touchdowns -- is reason enough to honor him. But the dagger he plunged into the Packers just before halftime was the play of the game. "Those Hail Marys work about twice a year,'' said Tom Coughlin. Nicks, with the help of a Packer defense that was far too passive near the goal line, caught the 37-yard fly ball from Manning cleanly, and the Giants went into halftime up by 10, not three. Huge factor.
Defensive Players of the Week
Baltimore CB Lardarius Webb. Two interceptions for one of the game's underrated corners on a day when the Baltimore defense won the game against Houston. Two additional passes deflected too. Ed Reed had a big interception too, but here's the difference: The two Webb picks led to a touchdown and field goal, and on a day when the Ravens scored 20 points, his two plays were huge.
Houston DE J.J. Watt and OLB Brooks Reed. The Texans' season ended Sunday, but they have every reason to be excited about 2012. Biggest reason, other than Matt Schaub returning to health: a young defense led by two young stalwarts, Watt and Reed. They combined for five sacks of Flacco, and very nearly played well enough to oust the Ravens.
New York Giants DE Osi Umenyiora. After Umenyiora batted the ball out of Rodgers' right hand, FOX showed clearly how incredibly open Greg Jennings was down the left sideline. Umenyiora saved a touchdown, clearly. For the day, he had two sacks for 12 yards, and the forced fumble.
Special Teams Players of the Week
San Francisco P Andy Lee. The first-team All-Pro punter, who finally unseated the formerly peerless Shane Lechler on the prestigious team this season, had a great first playoff game: eight punts, 49.5-yard average, and only 29 return yards allowed to Sproles. After Lee's punts, the Saints took over at their 19-, 34-, 20-, 15-, 14-, 34- and 18-yard lines (not including the one Sproles fumble on a Lee punt). Drew Brees did a lot of damage, to be sure, but Lee made him work for it.
New York Giants S Derrick Martin. It's one thing to tell your front players on the kick-return team to stay alert for an onside kick. It's another thing for every guy on the line to wait until the ball is kicked. Martin and his mates did wait for Mason Crosby to kick it deep in the first half -- and when Crosby pooched an onside kick, it went right into the arms of the waiting Martin, who is a former Packer, by the way. Smart, smart play by Martin.
Coach of the Week
San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman. It took some guts to call a simple quarterback rollout, a naked bootleg, on 3rd-and-8 from the Saints' 28 with 2:18 to play, down a point. If Alex Smith is tackled behind the line, all of a sudden a 45-yard field goal attempt becomes a 48-yarder, let's say, and a miss means the Saints might be able to run out the clock with San Francisco having just one timeout left. A missed field goal and one first down by New Orleans, and the Saints win. But Roman saw something in the New Orleans defense, obviously, and figured a bootleg left would work. As I described above, it did ... for a 28-yard touchdown. It's not the score that won the game, but it's the kind of call that will stick with Roman for the rest of his coaching career.
Goats of the Week
Houston PR/WR Jacoby Jones. What's the one thing the Texans, playing with a third-string quarterback and playing at a team that was perfect at home this year, couldn't give Baltimore? A gift. And after the Texans held the Ravens to a three-and-out on Baltimore's first possession of the game, Houston was due to get the ball back, up 3-0 with momentum. Jones, though, tried to grab a bouncing punt while under heavy pressure from special-teams gunner Cary Williams. The ball bounced off Jones and Baltimore recovered at the Houston 2. The massive gaffe led to the Ravens' first touchdown, and Houston never led after that. I understand Jones recovered a Foster fumble later in the game, but that doesn't make up for the seven points he gave up earlier.
Green Bay S Jarrett Bush. For standing by and watching the ball fall into Nicks' hands on the Hail Mary at the end of the first half.
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