Friday December 28th, 2007

For a league that has always prided itself first and foremost on knowing how to make the savvy public relations move, the NFL's decision to allow both NBC and CBS to simulcast the NFL Network's broadcast of the New England-New York game was a master stroke.

By giving ground in its two-year-old battle with two of the biggest cable TV companies, the NFL got to play the role of the good guy, swooping in at the last minute to save the day and bestow a historic gift that the football fans of America thought they would be denied.

Most fans will forget that the league waited about as long as it could before giving up the NFL Network's exclusivity with the game. What will linger is a gesture designed to create goodwill for the league and its still-fledgling network.

Every will benefit from the league's novel solution, with the game airing on three networks, piquing fan interest and creating even more buzz than the game already was generating. Give them something new, and some viewers will tune in just to see what all the fuss is about.

If the Patriots wrap up the league's first 16-0 season Saturday night in Giants Stadium, they won't be the only ones ending 2007 on a note of perfection. The NFL took a defeat and played it into a victory -- both in the short term and the future.

• Week 17 produces some weird situations every year, and this season is no different. Both the Redskins and Titans seem to be in great shape to nail down the sixth and final playoff berth in their conferences, because they're playing the Colts and Cowboys, two playoff qualifiers who have locked up their postseason seedings and will be resting key starters.

But after looking at recent history, I wouldn't be too comfortable if I were a Washington or a Tennessee fan. Remember 2004, when all red-hot Buffalo had to do was beat visiting Pittsburgh in Week 17 to secure a playoff berth? The Bills were 9-6 and had won six in a row. The Steelers had already secured the No. 1 seed in the AFC, and started backup quarterback Tommy Maddox in place of the banged up Ben Roethlisberger (ribs).

No matter. The Bills' sure thing evaporated in a 29-24 loss, and they missed the playoffs.

Last year gave us another example of how treacherous Week 17 can be for playoff contenders playing against teams with nothing to play for. All Denver (9-6) needed to do was beat visiting San Francisco (6-9) to make the AFC playoff field. You'll recall that the 49ers prevailed 26-23 in overtime, ending the Broncos' playoff dreams.

The Cowboys at Redskins game seems to me to be particularly ripe for a surprise on Sunday. That rivalry is full of examples of the inferior team winning a huge game, upsetting the favorite at the worse possible time. Even with the Cowboys resting some key starters and maybe playing quarterback Tony Romo little, Dallas is a dangerous opponent for a Redskins team that must win.

I'm not a gambler, but I've got a hunch that form will hold and one of the two teams that has nothing to play for -- Indianapolis or Dallas -- is going to pull the upset and ruin somebody's season.

• Do you realize that if Tennessee and Washington do take care of business and earn playoff berths, half of the NFL's 12-team postseason field will hail from the AFC South (Colts, Jaguars and Titans) and the NFC East (Cowboys, Giants and Redskins).

On another playoff note, unless the Saints climb over Washington and Minnesota to earn the NFC's last spot, half of the 12-team postseason field will be comprised of teams that didn't make the Super Bowl tournament in 2006. That's about par for the course these days in the NFL.

Pittsburgh, Jacksonville and either Tennessee or Cleveland would be the newcomers in the AFC, with New England, Indianapolis and San Diego being the repeaters. In the NFC, Green Bay, Tampa Bay and either Washington or Minnesota would be playoff newcomers, while Dallas, the Giants and Seattle are the repeaters.

• Somehow I don't think either the Saints or Bears envisioned the Week 17 rematch of their NFC title game showdown in Chicago being such an afterthought. A little less than 12 months ago, the Bears looked like the reigning power in the NFC, while the Saints were the consensus team on the rise. But N(ot) F(or) L(long) really does ring true in the league.

• A word of unsolicited advice to Packers linebacker Nick Barnett, who this week waffled on whether to file a grievance against the league protesting the around-the-neck takedown move that referee James Quirk executed against him last Sunday in Chicago: Let it go, or risk looking like a whiner. It may not have been wise of Quirk to try and pull Barnett off the pile during a scuffle by a forearm to the throat, but there certainly was no intent to injure the Packers linebacker. Since when is a player wearing full pads in jeopardy of being seriously injured by a middle-aged ref?

Then again, Barnett's just lucky that wasn't Ed Hochuli trying to separate the pile.

• Let's see if I have this right: Whether the Browns (9-6) win or lose at home Sunday against San Francisco (5-10) has no bearing on whether Cleveland makes the playoffs for the first time in five years.

But the outcome of the Titans at Colts game will determine not only whether the Browns make the playoffs, but maybe the future of quarterbacks Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn in Cleveland, and if you believe the rumors involving Miami's new VP of football operations Bill Parcells, possibly the 2008 place of employment of Browns head coach Romeo Crennel.

That's all.

• It'll likely be Jim Sorgi time in Indianapolis this week, and that's going to diminish the accomplishment in the eyes of some if the Titans do clinch a playoff berth by beating the Colts. But don't even think about suggesting an asterisk for third-place Tennessee, because the feat of going 10-6 and making the postseason in the NFL's toughest division -- the AFC South -- would be legitimate in every way.

• It's the final week of the regular season, and I still don't know what to make of the 9-6, first-place Bucs. Tampa Bay is 5-0 in the NFC South entering this week's game against Carolina. But the Bucs are 4-6 against everyone else. That's probably not good news for Tampa Bay's playoff hopes, because the Bucs are likely to be the only NFC South team to make the postseason.

• Something tells me that Kansas City's Herman Edwards returning to face the Jets at the Meadowlands for the first time since he ended his tenure as New York's head coach isn't going to get the fanfare he once imagined.

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