Monday January 14th, 2008

You know who Sunday's biggest winner was, don't you? Somehow, without even playing a game, it was Bill Belichick's 17-0 Patriots who fared better than any one on the second day of the NFL's divisional-round playoffs.

It figures. It has been a magic carpet ride of a season in New England, and things just keep falling perfectly -- there's that word again -- in line for the history-making Patriots.

Not only did the No. 2-seeded Colts go down in flames at home to the underdog Chargers, eliminating the Patriots' most dangerous rival from the AFC playoff field, but suddenly resilient San Diego very likely expended itself in the process of both doing that favor for New England and reaching its first conference title game in 13 years.

San Diego entered the game with Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates hobbled by a dislocated big toe. He played, but he wasn't his usual factor, catching just two passes for 28 yards. And now the Chargers have exponentially more injuries woes to deal with as they head for Foxboro next weekend. Super-back LaDainian Tomlinson bruised his left knee and left the game in the second quarter. Quarterback Philip Rivers did the same after three quarters, injuring his right knee on his third touchdown pass of the day.

Something tells me that if No. 3-seeded San Diego needs to rely on the likes of backup quarterback Billy Volek and reserve running back Michael Turner -- as good as he is -- the Patriots have just received the last good break they need to ensure they represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLII. And that's with much respect for the remarkable effort that San Diego put forth in dethroning the defending Super Bowl champions.

All season long I've thought the Colts were the one team capable of going into Gillette Stadium in January and trading big-play punches with the high-flying Patriots. But I guess we'll never know now. Indy couldn't even handle the injury-decimated Chargers on Sunday in the final game ever played at the RCA Dome. So much for the Colts team that many of us pundits thought had been unwisely overlooked amidst this season's Patriots-mania.

Can the upstart Chargers possibly give New England a game? Will it be a repeat of New England's 38-14 Week 2 dismantling of San Diego, or something closer to last January's thrilling 24-21 Patriots upset of the Chargers in the divisional round?

Logic says the Chargers can't win if L.T., Rivers and Gates aren't quick healers this week. But then again, San Diego had no business getting through the Colts without the health of their biggest stars. It was an impressive display of resiliency by San Diego, but it's going to take another four quarters of that, and much more, to knock the Patriots off their pedestal.

Then again, we've been wrong before.

• There will be a Manning once again playing for a chance to go to the Super Bowl next week, just not the one most of us expected. Peyton's Colts go down at home against the Chargers, while Eli's Giants pull the 21-17 upset at Dallas. And little brothers -- of which I am one -- rejoice everywhere.

• On the bright side of the Cowboys' loss, Tony Romo can go to Cabo San Lucas and stay as long as he'd like. It's probably not the trip he was hoping to make -- I hear Phoenix is nice this time of year -- but I'm sure he'll hang tough.

• The NFC's two finalists -- Green Bay and the Giants -- were both 8-8 last season in the regular season. By comparison, the Patriots and Chargers, the AFC's final two, went a combined 26-6 in the 2006 regular season. Another reason to like the AFC in the Super Bowl.

Wade Phillips seemed like the right man at the right time when Dallas was riding high this season, but I didn't see much difference-making from him when things started to come apart for the Cowboys in December. And now his career record falls to 0-4 in the playoffs, with three different teams.

• Now that we know the NFL's Final Four, here are the four possible Super Bowl matchups, ranked in order of how we see their sizzle factor:

1. Patriots-Packers -- It'd be a rematch of Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans 11 years ago. The pairing of Brett Favre and Tom Brady -- the two most beloved quarterbacks in the league -- might be too much to take.

2. Chargers-Giants -- The Eli Manning-Philip Rivers 2004 NFL Draft Trade Bowl would give us media types one of those Super Bowl retrospectives that we love to write.

3. Patriots-Giants -- It'd be a rematch of the thriller we saw in the Meadowlands in Week 17. And I'm pretty sure neither coach would be asked about resting starters all week long.

4. Chargers-Packers -- Old Man River (Favre) versus Philip Rivers? That's all I've got, folks.

• What a war of attrition the Chargers-Colts game was. The Colts didn't have the services of receiver Marvin Harrison in the fourth quarter, and at various times they also lost running back Joseph Addai, running back Kenton Keith and safety Bob Sanders due to injuries. San Diego, as previously noted, played stretches of the game without its No. 1 running back and starting quarterback in Tomlinson and Rivers.

• And did I mention that San Diego was so short of offensive options against the Colts that rookie receiver Legedu Naanee -- the team's fifth-round pick from Boise State -- contributed a big catch for 27 yards? Can we just call him L.N. for short?

• I'm no play-calling expert, but if I were the Chargers I'd find more ways to get the ball into Darren Sproles' hands this week at New England. On the 56-yard pass that Sproles scored on late in the third quarter, the Chargers return man was gone almost before the Colts defenders knew he had the ball.

And what a grow-up game for Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson. Jackson looked every bit like a No. 1 receiver in grabbing a team-best seven catches for 93 yards and a touchdown in Indy.

• I don't have any particular nugget of inside information, but my instinct is strongly in the direction that we've seen the last of Mike Holmgren coaching in Seattle. As I wrote in mid-October, I expect Holmgren to walk away from the rest of his Seahawks contract once he takes a short break to take stock of his situation and do the self-inventory that he has gone through after each of the past two seasons.

I'd be very surprised if a 10th season was in the cards for Holmgren in Seattle. Holmgren and his wife, Kathy, have long talked about their plans for a post-NFL life, and how they both want to prioritize their charitable and church-related work. It could be that some health-related issues are also on Holmgren's radar screen, given the pressures and stresses inherent in the coaching lifestyle.

• While I don't have quite as much conviction regarding Tony Dungy's coaching future in Indianapolis, I think it's at least 50-50 that he'll step down from the Colts as well. It's tough to read his son's enrolling in a Tampa-area high school as a sign of Dungy's long-term commitment to Indianapolis, or am I missing something?

I could understand if Dungy considers his work in Indy sufficiently finished. He led the franchise to its long-awaited Super Bowl victory last season, and then he and his Colts took their best shot at a repeat this year, going 13-3 before being bounced out of the AFC playoffs at home on Sunday.

If the NFL coaching ranks lose both Holmgren and Dungy in the coming days, that particular fraternity will have lost two of its best. They're quality coaches, and even better men.

• It took some time to turn costly, but on their most critical play of the season -- that fourth-and-goal from the Chargers 7 in the final minutes -- the Colts were finally hurt by last summer's retirement of veteran offensive left tackle Tarik Glenn. San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman absolutely bull-rushed past Colts rookie tackle Tony Ugoh on that fourth down, pressuring Peyton Manning into a poor pass and a game-sealing incompletion.

• Maybe the most amazing thing I heard all weekend was that the Atlanta Falcons hired Patriots director of college scouting Tom Dimitroff as their new general manager without ever interviewing him in person. He conducted his interview with team owner Arthur Blank and Falcons team president Rich McKay via satellite last weekend. All other GM and coaching candidates met with the duo face-to-face.

I suppose you can score one for technology in this instance, but I find it remarkable that Blank, in essence, turned over the direction of his franchise to someone who he had never spent time with in person. To a degree, you could say Dimitroff was hired by the Falcons sight unseen (except on a TV screen). I can just hear Blank say to his new hire on his first day of work: "Oh, you looked a little heavier on TV.''

To me that speaks to how much the luster of the Patriots' success is worth these days in the NFL, that Blank was willing to invest in Dimitroff without more personal exposure to him. It also speaks to just how much potential job candidates who work for Belichick are loath to ask for permission to interview elsewhere during the playoffs.

• Is it too late to change my vote for the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year? I went with Randy Moss, and the Cowboys' Greg Ellis wound up winning. But if I had it to do over again, I'd go with Green Bay running back Ryan Grant -- just for the resurrection job he did after those two early fumbles against Seattle on Saturday.

• Is there anything better in the NFL than a snowy tableau at Lambeau? You can have the legendary Ice Bowl. I'll take those Winter Olympics that broke out Saturday in Green Bay.

• Did you notice how in the divisional round that fourth down became the new third down? The Jaguars, Patriots and Colts all went for a fourth down in unconventional fashion on their first drives in the divisional round, and not only did all three move the chains, they went on to score touchdowns on those possessions, jump-starting their offenses.

I've long thought that teams need to be more gutsy on fourth down, going against the book that says you only go on fourth when its desperation time or you're inches shy of the marker.

• What was Colts safety Bob Sanders thinking after that 48-yard Nate Kaeding field goal miss? As taunting calls go, that one should go in the league's officiating textbook. Not the smartest move for the league's defensive player of the year.

• We waited all this time for Marvin Harrison's return for that? Two catches, 27 yards and a key fumble -- his first at home since 2003 -- just when it looked like the Colts were starting to roll? When Indy's season was on the line, Harrison was in the spot he'll remember 2007 by, the sideline.

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