Breaking down the 12-team race to Tampa
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
With a serious case of Playoff Fever, Burning Questions breaks down the postseason field from any number of directions, before wading into the controversial MVP debate in CNNSI.com's weekly Tuesday feature:
1. With the final two weeks of the regular season producing some of the tightest and most entertaining playoff races in recent memory, what trends and oddities are comprised in this year's 12-team Super Bowl tournament?
Answer: There is plenty to chew on.
Consider the following statistical nuggets:
2. If Burning Questions got to seed the playoffs based on who is playing the best ball as the post-season beckons, rather than those rather limiting regular-season records, what would the field look like?
Answer: We know this much: In the NFC, you could turn the seedings upside down and get it just about right. Has there ever been a stronger No. 5 and No. 6 combo than Tampa Bay and St. Louis? Has there ever been a weaker No. 1 and No. 2 pairing than the New York Giants and slumping Minnesota Vikings?
Here's our NFC field if we're throwing the records out:
1. Tampa Bay -- Defense can still win you a championship. Now about that cold weather thing....
2. St. Louis -- If Kurt Warner's head clears, and Mashall Faulk's legs and lungs hold up, they can beat anybody anywhere.
3. New York -- Yes, playing two at home in Giants Stadium could be a nice advantage. But has a five-game winning streak ever seemed so ho-hum?
4. Philadelphia -- They'll go as far as McNabb takes them, and he's capable of looking very inconsistent on any given day.
5. New Orleans -- Aaron Brooks is playing a bit shaky, and I guarantee you the Saints defense didn't really want to see the Rams stay alive.
6. Minnesota -- How do you go 11-5 and outscore your opponents by just 26 points? It's called a late-season defensive collapse.
In the AFC, there's considerably more sanity. Nobody can quibble with Tennessee and Oakland nailing down the top two seeds. Then again, sixth-seeded Indianapolis started its playoff run three games ago and could be the team in mid-January form.
Here's our AFC field, sans records:
1. Tennessee -- No one is forgetting the Titans. They've got as close to the whole package as any of the 12 teams. And there's no place like Adelphia.
2. Oakland -- The Raiders, too, have a strong home-field edge (7-1). Steady quarterbacking (see Rich Gannon) is also a key to January success.
3. Indianapolis -- The Colts have gotten their act together on defense, and that sense of urgency on offense will take home crowds out of the game.
4. Denver -- The quarterbacking situation is troublesome to say the least. But that running game gives the Broncos a chance in every game they play.
5. Baltimore -- You just get the feeling that the Ravens might have peaked three weeks ago. They can win with that defense, but that offense....
6. Miami -- Dolphins avoid another December choke job. But just barely. Strong road record (6-2) might serve them well.
3. In a race that has featured as much clarity as the presidential election, who really deserves the NFL's MVP honor?
Answer: It's hard to argue that there were players who meant more to their team's success than running back Eddie George did in Tennessee, quarterback Rich Gannon did in Oakland or quarterback Donovan McNabb did in Philadelphia.
But then you consider the case that has to be made to not select St. Louis' Mr. Everything, Marshall Faulk. Despite missing two games with a knee injury -- an absence not long enough to disqualify one from MVP consideration -- Faulk was the most devastating weapon in the game this year. His NFL-record breaking 26 touchdowns (18 rushing, 8 receiving) is one thing. His 11-touchdown explosion in the final three games, when the Rams desperately needed them, is another.
Faulk's 2,189 total yards from scrimmage trailed Indy's Edgerrin James by 114 yards, but he averaged 156.4 yards per game, to James' 144. He finished second in the NFC in rushing, with 1,359 yards, and as a running back placed in the top 15 among receivers with 830.
He can't be penalized for the Rams' lack of team success, because St. Louis made the playoffs, something that wouldn't have been possible without his huge December.
In a year in which there were at least five worthy candidates, Faulk was the worthiest.
Don Banks covers pro football for CNNSI.com.