Monday December 31st, 2007

If there was an overriding theme to Week 17, it was that this year's playoff field best hope that the traditional December emphasis on building momentum heading into the postseason is vastly overrated.

The last week of the 2007 regular season wasn't particularly kind to the teams that have earned the right to extend their seasons into January. The Giants fought gamely, but lost at home to New England. The NFC's top seed, Dallas, looked rather desultory in losing in the rain at Washington. Seattle, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh all rested some key starters, and fell to teams that started the day with losing records.

After Tennessee managed to beat Indianapolis in the Sunday night game, it means that seven of the 12 teams headed for the playoffs lost their final game of the regular season.

Meaningful? Maybe. Maybe not. The decision of so many playoff-bound teams to rest several starters undoubtedly skewers the Week 17 results. But still, you can't like what you see of the Cowboys offense about now. Or Seattle's defense. And the general state of affairs in both Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay -- which have both lost three of their past four games -- has to be making Steelers and Bucs fans a bit uneasy, to say the least.

On the old momentum meter, here's how I'd have my up to the moment rankings at the start of the AFC tournament:

1. New England; 2. Indianapolis; 3. San Diego; 4. Jacksonville; 5. Tennessee; 6. Pittsburgh. I'm pretty certain that's about right.

In the NFC, strangely enough I'd have it: 1. Washington; 2. N.Y. Giants; 3. Seattle; 4. Green Bay; 5. Dallas; 6. Tampa Bay. While we can have differences of opinion in the league's junior varsity conference, it's hard to make the case that anyone in the NFC other than Washington is playing its best ball of the season as the playoffs approach.

By next weekend, and the following weekend after that, we'll know how significant the momentum factor really was in this year's NFL postseason.

• One more thought about Tampa Bay: I know we didn't see much of starting quarterback Jeff Garcia in the season's final month, but if the same Giants team that pushed the Patriots to the brink Saturday night shows up in Tampa in next weekend's first round, New York could win by 17 points.

The NFC South champion Bucs (9-7) have beaten only last-place Atlanta over the span of their past four games.

• While it was great to see the Giants play it to the hilt Saturday night against New England, I've got no qualms with playoff-bound teams like Jacksonville and Green Bay resting a bunch of starters Sunday. It sounds great to pontificate on doing whatever protects the integrity of the game, but with how hugely important the injury factor is in the NFL, doing what you deem best in regards to your team's health is just a common sense approach.

The downside to that approach is that you do risk losing something in terms of the momentum you take into the playoffs. That said, I consider myself very much a traditionalist who wishes every team would play it straight up right down to the last week of the season.

• With the Texans trouncing Jacksonville 42-28 to finish a hopeful 8-8 in the NFL's toughest division -- their best record in the six-year history of the franchise -- I think it's an easy call to make Houston the team on the rise in the AFC. The Texans won three of their last four, and went 5-3 in the season's second half.

Houston's notoriously poor pass protection took a quantum leap forward in 2007, and the Texans defense has exciting young playmakers in defensive end Mario Williams, tackle Amobi Okoye, middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans and cornerback Fred Bennett. On special teams, receiver Andre' Davis on Sunday became just the seventh player to ever return two kickoffs for touchdowns in the same game.

Maybe one of the few questions that remain in Houston is whether Matt Schaub this season proved that he's head and shoulders better than underrated backup Sage Rosenfels at quarterback? Rosenfels went 4-1 this season as a starter, while Schaub was 4-7.

• By noon Monday, the 50 voters for the Associated Press NFL awards must have their ballots in. Here's how mine is going to read:

MVP -- New England quarterback Tom Brady locked up my vote with his Week 7 showing at Dallas. Nothing in the season's final 10 weeks changed a thing.

Comeback player of the year -- I expected the Patriots' acquisition of receiver Randy Moss to pay off from the day the deal went down on draft weekend. But an NFL record 23 touchdown catches, not to mention almost 1,500 yards receiving? I didn't expect that.

Offensive rookie of the year -- Vikings running back Adrian Peterson hasn't finished strong, but he was spectacular for a good bit of the season and edges Cleveland offensive tackle Joe Thomas.

Defensive rookie of the year -- 49ers middle linebacker Patrick Willis has been a solid and at times dominating play-maker since the first whistle of training camp.

Offensive player of the year -- Brady's league record 50 touchdown passes, 4,806 yards passing, and just eight interceptions was a season for the ages. Now we know what he'd do if he had Peyton Manning's receivers.

Defensive player of the year -- Indianapolis safety Bob Sanders not only stayed healthy enough to play week in and week out this season, he was a force in a Colts defense that very quietly had a superb season.

Coach of the year -- Bill Belichick and his Patriots made history in record-breaking fashion. I don't know how you stack up anyone else's coaching job alongside his this season.

• Eagles receiver Kevin Curtis scores a touchdown for the second week in a row on a teammates' fumble recovery? Talk about Johnny on the Spot. Has that ever happened before?

• Three weeks ago, I wouldn't have given Donovan McNabb more than a 30 percent shot to return to Philadelphia for a 10th season as the team's franchise quarterback. But in going 3-0 in the Eagles' final three games, McNabb looked like the McNabb of old, and I'd be shocked if Philly casts its fate with second-year man Kevin Kolb in 2008.

Maybe it was a matter of McNabb getting his knee right all along this season.

• What a microcosm of the Saints' lost season that was in Chicago on Sunday. Plenty of offense (25 points, 28 first downs, 413 total yards), but not enough defense. And a never-ending supply of self-inflicted troubles (three turnovers, eight penalties for 72 yards).

New Orleans' Sean Payton is a quality head coach, and the Saints will get some things fixed on defense in 2008. But that was a much more flawed Saints team than anyone anticipated this year.

• From an eight-point second-quarter lead in the Super Bowl in February, to not winning consecutive games all season until Weeks 16-17, that was Chicago's wildly disappointing ride in 2007.

• A couple items in the wake of the Patriots perfect regular season that I think are getting vastly underplayed: New England this season was 7-0 against teams that wound up with a winning record, with six of those teams being 10-6 or better (Chargers, Colts, Cowboys, Steelers, Browns and Giants). By comparison, the 1972 Dolphins were just 2-0 against winning teams.

And the Patriots have now won an NFL record 19 regular-season games in a row, topping their own mark of 18 set in 2003-2004. That means that in the span of the past five regular seasons, New England has had two separate 18-game winning streaks. The Patriots are a combined 66-14 in those five regular seasons of 2003-2007. That's astounding.

• What is it about the NFC East teams -- who all were .500 or above this season -- struggling to win at home? Both of the Cowboys' losses entering Week 17 came at Texas Stadium, where they finished 6-2 this season. But the 10-6 Giants and 8-8 Eagles were both just 3-5 at home, and the 9-7 Redskins had to beat Dallas on Sunday to up their record at FedEx Field to 5-3.

• If nothing else good came out of Atlanta's miserable season, at least good-guy and longtime league assistant Emmitt Thomas now owns a victory as a head coach in the NFL. Named the Falcons' interim head coach for the final three games of the season after Bobby Petrino's desertion, Thomas was 0-2 before Atlanta rallied past Seattle 44-41 on Sunday.

I hope Thomas got that game ball.

• There were some defenses this week that apparently tried to start their offseasons a bit earlier. Six different slugfests featured both teams scoring at least 23 points: New England 38-35 over the Giants; Atlanta 44-41 over Seattle; Cincinnati 38-25 over Miami; Houston 42-28 over Jacksonville; Chicago 33-25 over New Orleans; and Carolina 31-23 over Tampa Bay.

• You know Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner relished the opportunity to end his season by putting a whipping on Marc Bulger and the Rams. After taking the Rams to a pair of Super Bowls, Warner has never really forgiven St. Louis for opting for Bulger over him after the 2003 season.

• Last year in Week 17 at Invesco Field, it was the Broncos who had their playoff dreams crushed by upstart San Francisco, with the 6-9 49ers beating 9-6 Denver in overtime. In a weird sort of turn of events, this time it was the 6-9 Broncos who beat the visiting 8-7 Vikings in overtime, ensuring that Minnesota had no chance for the NFC's last playoff berth.

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