Monday January 7th, 2008

Wild Card weekend is in the books, and what I liked most about it was that form held as we head into the divisional round.

I know what you're thinking: Form held? How so, when two lower-seeded road teams prevailed over higher-seeded opponents playing at home? A pair of No. 5's -- Jacksonville in the AFC and the Giants in the NFC both beat their conference's No. 4 seeds, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay.

Ah, but look a little closer. In all four cases, the team with the best record in their playoff matchup won: The 10-6 Seahawks beat the 9-7 Redskins. The 11-5 Jaguars beat the 10-6 Steelers. The 10-6 Giants beat the 9-7 Bucs. And the 11-5 Chargers beat the 10-6 Titans.

In other words, the teams that proved themselves better over the course of the four-month regular season proved it again in the first round of the playoffs. What this weekend did for me was strengthen the argument for making the NFL playoffs a 12-team seeded tournament based on regular season records, rather than setting up the postseason based on divisions and the 38-year-old AFC-NFC format.

Once upon a time, the NFL rotated the sites of the conference championship games between divisions, that's how the undefeated 1972 Dolphins bizarrely wound up playing at Pittsburgh in that season's AFC title game. But the league eventually saw the inequity of that setup and changed its rules.

The same way it might someday make sense to make sure that 11-5 Jacksonville doesn't have to play at 10-6 Pittsburgh, just because the Steelers won a weak AFC North, while the Jaguars finished second in the much-tougher AFC South. Ditto for the Giants-Bucs first-round game on Sunday, where 10-6 New York was penalized with a road game because it hails from the tough NFC East, while 9-7 Tampa Bay earned a home game by virtue of winning the soft NFC South.

I liked the fact the fraud No. 4 seeds (Steelers and Bucs) both got dismissed this weekend by No. 5 seeds that didn't have the benefit of Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay's easier schedules. Both the Bucs and Steelers lost three of their last four regular season games, portending their one-and-done playoff exits.

If we had a 12-team seeded tournament, the Bucs and Steelers wouldn't have earned home games. And with that kind of seeding, you might have fewer of those Week 16 and Week 17 games where a division champion rests a slew of starters, knowing that it can't influence its seeding one way or another.

Keep the AFC-NFC and divisional alignment in place to give the regular season and the schedule the structure it requires. But seed the playoffs 1 through 12, and let the matchups reflect teams' overall records. If that were the case, even the Super Bowl would be enhanced, because we might be in-line for that Patriots-Colts pairing that could never happen in the current system.

Makes a world of sense, if you ask me. Probably too much to ever happen. But what do you say, NFL?

• After watching him play so well for most of the game against the Patriots last week, I had a feeling that Eli Manning would have a sharp, relatively mistake-free game against the Bucs this week.

But please take note of the following: All those pundits who will rush to label Manning's showing at Tampa Bay his coming-of-age performance in the NFL (or defining career moment, take your pick), a good portion of them will be the first to pontificate that he just doesn't have what it takes if he goes out and lays an egg next week at Dallas. Count on it.

I'm not anticipating him struggling against the Cowboys, mind you. But can we just hold off a bit on the coming-of-age declaration? We've had how many false alarms already in that department in Eli's case? Let the guy do it for longer than one week before we rush to announce his arrival among the league's elite quarterbacks.

• For all the grief Manning takes, he just did something that his older, more celebrated brother, Peyton, couldn't manage. He won a playoff game in his third career postseason start, coming in his fourth NFL season.

Once upon a time not all that long ago, Peyton Manning had to endure the charges that he couldn't win in the playoffs. He lost his first three postseason starts, in 1999, 2000 and 2002 and didn't end that streak until beating Denver at home in the first round in 2003 -- his sixth NFL season. It took Peyton only a week to notch his second playoff win -- that memorable 38-31 shootout at Kansas City in the 2003 divisional round.

In the three full seasons that Manning has been the Giants starter (2005-07), New York is 29-19 in the regular season; and next week at Dallas he'll play in his fourth playoff game. In the three full seasons before that (2002-04), the Giants went 20-28 with just one playoff game (a loss at San Francisco in 2002's first round).

• I know this much: As much as the NFC's top-seeded Cowboys might respect the Giants, they're thrilled that it's not Washington making the trip to Texas Stadium for Sunday's divisional-round game. Whether the Cowboys admit it or not, the Redskins were not a team that Dallas wanted to see for a third time this season.

• I'm still not positive that LaDainian Tomlinson broke the plane of the goal line with the ball on that game-clinching one-yard touchdown leap on fourth-and-goal. But you can't really argue that it cost Tennessee the game when that touchdown made it an 11-point margin of victory.

• Dink and dunk over the middle. Dink and dunk down the field. That's what Jon Gruden likes to do with his Tampa Bay passing game; and that's what Jeff Garcia can give you. But live by the dink and dunk, die by the dink and dunk. That's what Tampa Bay learned the hard way, once again.

The Bucs' longest gain in the passing game was a 26-yard swing pass to running back Michael Pittman, and that came in the fourth quarter after New York already led 24-7. Playing for the injured Sam Madison, Giants backup cornerback Corey Webster did a superb job of taking away the Bucs' only vertical threat, Joey Galloway, who finished with just one catch for nine yards.

• That makes it eight road wins in a row for the Giants, who have not lost away from home since getting beat 45-35 at Dallas in Week 1 on a Sunday night. Could it be that New York, which was just 3-5 at home, doesn't exactly relish the friendly environment that prevails at Giants Stadium? Giants fans have a tendency to turn on their heroes in a New York minute.

• Had a heck of an intriguing question posed to me Saturday night at the Jaguars-Steelers game. If the 2006 NFL Draft were re-held today, would USC's Reggie Bush still be taken ahead of UCLA's Maurice Jones-Drew? I don't think so. And I'm not sure it's even remotely a debate.

Score another one for the science of NFL drafting. Bush was the No. 2 overall pick in the first round. Jones-Drew went toward the end of the second round, 60th overall.

• My early hunches for the divisional round: The Packers squeak past the Seahawks; the Patriots handle the pesky Jaguars; the Colts outslug the Chargers; and the Cowboys find just enough to handle the Giants for a third time this season. In other words, the home teams and top seeds go 4-for-4.

• In the Be-Careful-What-You-Wish-For department: Tom Brady might not be aware of it, but nobody this decade has won the NFL MVP award and a Super Bowl in the same season. Just sayin'.

The last guy to get both the hardware and a ring was St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner in 1999. Marshall Faulk couldn't do it in 2000, Warner couldn't repeat his feat in 2001 (thanks to Brady and the Patriots), Rich Gannon failed in 2002, co-winners Peyton Manning and Steve McNair came up short in 2003, as did Manning in 2004, Shaun Alexander in 2005, and LaDainian Tomlinson last year.

• C'mon, somebody needs to fess up. Who kept Brady's MVP honor from being unanimous by casting that lone vote for Green Bay's Brett Favre? Peter King, was it you?

• Steelers fans have figured this out already, but Pittsburgh first-year head coach Mike Tomlin really butchered his two-point conversion strategy in the fourth quarter Saturday night.

Tomlin went for two while down 28-23 with 10:29 remaining in the game, which is simply too early to be worrying about the one versus two debate, no matter what the vaunted "chart'' says. The Steelers converted their two-point try, but it was wiped out by a 10-yard holding penalty. Remarkably, even at the Jaguars' 12, Tomlin had his offense again go for it, and this time the Steelers failed.

Had Tomlin just kicked the extra point after that touchdown, and after the next Steelers touchdown (when Pittsburgh again went for two and failed), he would have had a 31-28 lead to protect on Jacksonville's last game-winning field goal drive. Maybe overtime would have ensued. Instead, because Tomlin jumped the gun on the two-point call, he was only up 29-28, which allowed Jacksonville to play for a game-winning field goal on its final meaningful possession.

NFL head coaches consistently hide behind the chart as to when to go for two, but when will they learn that they shouldn't? The chart doesn't think one move ahead like a coach should do, realizing how the resulting math from a failed two-pointer can quickly come back to haunt you.

• It would appear that Todd Collins' deal with the devil was a four-week agreement, but did not extend into a second month. That explains a lot of what we saw from Washington's backup quarterback in Weeks 14-17.

My favorite nugget of the NFL's entire Wild Card Weekend was that those two Collins interceptions against Seattle -- both of which were returned for touchdowns, by Marcus Trufant and Jordan Babineaux -- were his first picks in more than a decade. Collins' most recent interception had come Nov. 30, 1997, for Buffalo in a game against the Jets.

How many quarterbacks can brag that they went a decade between picks?

• I can't say enough how impressive Hines Ward was for the Steelers against Jacksonville. He singlehandedly kept Pittsburgh alive against the Jags with those game-high 10 catches for 135 yards. He's the Steelers' MVP every season in my book.

• What a display of pass pressure put on by the Seahawks' front seven. Collins was sacked three times and either hit or hurried more than 20 times. Seahawks defensive end Patrick Kerney help set the tone of Seattle's defense, and while I voted for Indy safety Bob Sanders for the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award, Kerney deserved some serious consideration for that honor with his NFC-best 14½ sacks.

• That Grady Jackson is one very large man. The Jaguars defensive tackle is listed at 345 pounds in your game program. But that's a mere suggestion. Jackson left 345 behind a while ago. And he can still play. Just ask the Steelers interior offensive linemen. And Ben Roethlisberger, too.

• Not the most inspiring of efforts by the Redskins offense on Trufant's 78-yard scoring return of that Collins interception. With the exception of a few Washington offensive linemen, most of the Redskins in pursuit looked like they preferred to let one of their teammates try and tackle Trufant.

Santana Moss and Todd Collins, we're looking in your direction.

• Seattle's D.J. Hackett may be the best NFL receiver that (almost) nobody knows about. Hackett's six-catch, 101-yard day against Washington showed me and others who Matt Hasselbeck's go-to guy is these days.

• Nice game for Steelers safety Tyrone Carter. First, he got deked by Jones-Drew on MJD's 43-yard second-quarter touchdown catch and run, despite having the angle on the ballcarrier and the sideline working in his favor. And little guys alone didn't give him trouble. The Jaguars' 240-pound quarterback, David Garrard, actually faked or just bulled his way past Carter on the game's key play -- Garrard's 32-yard quarterback draw in the final two minutes. Carter looked like he wanted no part of tackling Garrard.

• Ben Roethlisberger had a great season statistically. But what a bitter taste in his mouth that he'll take into the offseason after throwing three interceptions, losing a fumble and taking six sacks against Jacksonville.

He's one of the top five quarterbacks in the NFL, but Big Ben still can be a bit enigmatic, no?

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