Monday January 21st, 2008

FOXBORO, Mass. -- It's been a long time since we've had a Super Bowl rematch when the teams met in the final week of the regular season, as is the case with the Patriots-Giants (duplicating the 1977 Broncos and Cowboys). But why not? New York and New England played a great game just 22 days ago, and we could do a heck of a lot worse than get a repeat of that performance by both teams.

That game marked the only time I can remember that a team's Super Bowl run was legitimately launched by a loss. The Giants came out of that moral victory of a defeat to the Patriots a better, more confident team than it went in. How strange is that?

• In a rather surprising announcement, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell decided late Sunday night that the upcoming Patriots-Giants game will be seen exclusively on The NFL Network. (Wink, wink.)

"Hey, don't get greedy,'' Goodell reportedly said. "Everybody got their way the last time.''

Brett Favre had a marvelous renaissance season, but he really help cost his team the game Sunday night with those two interceptions after halftime. Wonder if this bitter ending will spark a new round of retirement speculation for No. 4?

• Thanks to Lawrence Tynes' wacky night at Lambeau, this may be the first time a Super Bowl team holds tryouts for a kicker the Tuesday before it actually travels to the Super Bowl city. We're kidding. We think. But could you blame Giants head coach Tom Coughlin for giving the idea some thought?

• I thought it was one gutsy call by Coughlin to even let Tynes try that 47-yard field goal overtime attempt, given his goat-like showing on his previous two misses. I would have gone for the fourth-and-5. Or punted.

Coughlin must have figured the worst already had happened, and New York could only go up from there.

• Get ready for a whole new round of the Boston-New York city rivalry stories. Which is kind of funny when you consider that the Patriots call themselves New England and play more than a half-hour outside of Boston, and the Giants play their home games in New Jersey.

Other than that, it's exactly like the Red Sox-Yankees.

• Note to the Patriots: Giants cornerback R.W. McQuarters tends not to grade out so high on securing the football. Before it was even fashionable for Giants fans to prepare to blame Tynes for the potential of a New York loss at Green Bay, they were preparing to blame the butter-fingered McQuarters.

• And the Patriots thought they were done facing Mannings this season when the Colts lost at home to the Chargers in last week's divisional round. On the bright side, they are 2-0 this year against Archie's boys.

• Raise your hand if you had Eli Manning going three consecutive playoff games without an interception. I wonder if Peyton has ever done that.

• Super Bowl storylines that we'll soon be sick of: Bill Belichick coaching in the big game against the Giants, the team he won his first two rings with as Bill Parcells' defensive coordinator; and Giants punter Jeff Feagles finally making it to the Super Bowl after 20 long years in the NFL.

• I know the New York media is notoriously tough, but I'm thinking this keeps Coughlin off the coaching hot seat lists heading into the 2008 season. Good for Tommy C., whose personality make-over this year paid off beyond his wildest dreams.

• It's almost not fair. They beat you in so many different ways. With so many different players taking turns posing in the role of weapon. In Sunday's AFC Championship Game against San Diego, you'd have a hard time making a case that anybody was more vital to New England's 18th win of the season than third-down back Kevin Faulk.

Take Randy Moss out of the New England offense, they can beat you via death by Wes Welker. Pick Brady off a season-high three times, and Laurence Maroney grinds you down with 122 yards rushing. Limit the Donte' Stallworth factor, and the Patriots just go to Jabar Gaffney for the touchdown that provided the game-winning points. And don't forget that New England fed Faulk the ball in almost every critical situation in a 21-12 win that was much more difficult than it sounds.

"We need everybody,'' Patriots Pro Bowl linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "Every week, we've got to use everybody we have. Everybody who's up [active].''

Didn't see Faulk being the difference-maker heading into the AFC title game? Surprised by his game-best eight catches for 82 yards, which included the biggest third-down conversion of the day, an 11-yard diving catch and roll for the first down on third-and-11 from the Patriots 24 with 6:30 left to play? I know someone who wasn't. The AFC scout that I've been using this month for's playoff Scout's Take told me this on Friday morning:

"The guy who always seems to do something in big games like these is Patriots running back Kevin Faulk. He's the guy who always seems to slip out of the backfield and make a play in the passing game when the other guys are covered. He's got a very underrated role on that team.''

Faulk's about the 12th guy you think of when it comes to the Patriots offense, but he's not underrated in his own locker room. He's a money player, and his teammates know it.

"He is a headliner,'' said Patriots linebacker Junior Seau, an 18-year NFL vet. "The third downs he plays are one of the reasons we're here today. Trust me, he's special.''

• Was anyone but me surprised by LaDainian Tomlinson spending almost the entire game on the sideline in this, the biggest game of his NFL career? Tomlinson (two carries for 5 yards, one catch for one yard) was tentative last week at Indy, too, never once pushing to get back onto the field after he suffered a hyperextended knee in the second quarter against the Colts. Easy for me to say? I hear you. But still.....

LT last week said it was the first time he has ever hurt either one of his knees, so a certain amount of caution is understandable. It's his career and he gets to decide such matters. But he also can't guarantee that he'll ever have another chance to play for a trip to the Super Bowl, so as I see it, the time to try to play the hero was now. No guts, no glory, and all that stuff.

Seems to me that Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (knee) and tight end Antonio Gates (dislocated toe) were playing hurt and gutting it out, but not Tomlinson, who has never lacked for toughness in his football career. He was probable for most of the week, and didn't even end the week on the injury list. More than anything, I'm just surprised. Maybe he's close to tearing something, knows it, and didn't want to take any chances.

When asked about Tomlinson's surprising absence from the game, Chargers head coach Norv Turner snapped at a reporter: "Where have you been?'' Turner went on to say: "He wasn't able to go. He tried to go.''

I'll say this: Willis Reed, he's not.

• L.T. wasn't the only NFL MVP who was underwhelming on Sunday. That might have been Brady at his playoff worst. He threw three picks after tossing just eight in his first 17 games this season. Brady hadn't been picked off in the red zone in more than two years -- the last time was that memorable Champ Bailey length of the field interception in the 2005 divisional round at Denver -- but when Antonio Cromartie intercepted him in the end zone late in the third quarter, it was officially a game the Patriots won in spite of Brady. Not because of him.

Brady finished strong, but overall his 22 of 33, 209-yard passing game was far below his 26-of-28 showing last week against Jacksonville. His three interceptions went along with a pair of touchdown passes and a season-low 66.4 passer rating.

• Pretty demonstratively huge game for the two ex-Chargers, safety Rodney Harrison and Seau. The two veteran Patriots defenders, who spent a combined 22 seasons wearing a San Diego uniform, just seemed to want it worse than anybody else in red, white and blue. They harassed Rivers all day, and consistently showed up on the game's biggest plays.

"We have shared a lot of years in San Diego, so to have the latter part of our careers to share this, it's special,'' Seau said of him and Harrison.

• How much better did the call by Chargers general manager A.J. Smith not to trade backup running back Michael Turner last offseason look on Sunday? Just imagine where San Diego would have been against New England with L.T. sidelined and no insurance policy to turn to in Turner (65 yards rushing on 17 carries)?

Look for Turner to be among the most coveted unrestricted free agents in the league come March.

• Even though I watched him play plenty of times with Miami, I really didn't know Chris Chambers was this good of a receiver until this Chargers playoff run. He makes catching the ball look easy, and while not being a burner, he looked like he had always had a step on his Patriots defender. Chambers had a team-best seven catches for 90 yards.

• With a nod toward Green Bay, New England, Washington and whomever else I'm forgetting, that San Diego secondary might be the best in the NFL. Chargers cornerback Quentin Jammer had an All-Pro game against the Patriots, intercepting a pass intended for Donte Stallworth and helping hold Moss without a catch in the first 37-plus minutes of the game.

Jammer also had a hand in creating the third-quarter interception by fellow Chargers cornerback Drayton Florence, and did a great coverage number on Stallworth as well. In short, he's playing like the No. 5 overall pick that he was coming out of Texas in 2002.

And there's Cromartie, a second-year corner, who added another interception to his total, giving him an NFL-high 12 this season. Cromartie picked off Brady in the end zone, and he too helped throw a blanket on the dangerous Moss all day long.

• This league doesn't need a salary cap. If the Patriots keep this dynasty thing up another couple years, the NFL is going to institute a talent cap.

• San Diego didn't play badly, mind you. But you can't beat the Patriots kicking field goals. On those four field goal drives, the Chargers needed to score touchdowns on three of them. Those 24 points would have won this game.

• While the Ravens coaching search wasn't exactly a seamless affair, it's hard to quibble with the end result. Baltimore hired former Eagles secondary coach John Harbaugh on Friday, and I like everything I know about the guy from my experiences around him in the past five years or so. Harbaugh is bright, engaging, greatly respected as a coach, and has the energy and enthusiasm that Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti was prioritizing.

Harbaugh spent all but one year of his 10-year Philly tenure coaching the Eagles special teams, and while that's not a very conventional route to a head coaching gig in the NFL, it does give someone a broad range of experiences in that a special teams coach probably deals with more players than any other assistant on the team.

In Baltimore, the ultimate test of Harbaugh's leadership will be how he handles inheriting a very veteran locker room that includes a lot of Ravens defenders who were rooting for Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan to get the top job. Chief among them is middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who is said to have Bisciotti's ear on all things these days. My hunch is that Harbaugh will do just fine with the team's veterans in terms of earning their respect, and that Lewis will quickly sign on to the new coach's program.

• Speaking of Ryan, his head coaching chances in Baltimore were always a long shot at best, but Harbaugh has already indicated that he hopes to keep Ryan as his defensive coordinator if possible. Ryan remains alive in the Atlanta head coaching search, but if he doesn't land that job, he might have other coordinator options to consider besides Baltimore. And they could both be in New York, as the Giants' or Jets' defensive coordinator.

Current Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is someone the Falcons want to interview as soon as possible for their head coaching job, and he could be their guy. Jets head coach Eric Mangini is still looking to replace defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, and New York earlier this month was known to be interested in Oakland defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, Rex's twin brother.

The Raiders said they intend to retain Rob Ryan, although there is some thought that a reunion between him and Mangini -- they worked together on Bill Belichick's staff in New England -- could still occur. Sutton is thought to be eventually headed for new Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano's staff in Miami as a position coach.

• It'll be interesting to watch if the heir apparent label actually ends up helping the handful of assistants it has been attached to around the league. Let's see if Gregg Williams ends up replacing Joe Gibbs in Washington, Jim Mora takes over for Mike Holmgren in Seattle, Jim Caldwell assumes control after Tony Dungy departs Indianapolis, and Jason Garrett eventually makes Wade Phillips unnecessary in Dallas.

The head-coach-in-waiting thing doesn't always seem to unfold as expected, does it? Last year, neither Ken Whisenhunt nor Russ Grimm got the job of replacing Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh (Mike Tomlin did). Al Saunders was once seen as Dick Vermeil's successor in Kansas City, and Belichick's tenure following Parcells with the Jets lasted about all of a day before he resigned.

• Funny, but I remember twice this season hearing Phillips say the following a Cowboys game: "We don't have a good offense, we have a great offense.'' At the time, the characterization fit.

But that "great'' Cowboys offense failed to put more than 17 points on the board last week in the divisional round loss to the Giants, and in his season wrap-up news conference the next day, Phillips didn't score many points for himself by intimating that while his defense did its part against the Giants, the offense didn't hold up its end.

• The wind chill was 9 degrees at kickoff in Gillette Stadium, and I was at Sunday's "warm'' game. Gotta love it.

• It just didn't feel like quite as big a game without Belichick in his hoodie. He must have some lucrative headband deal in place.

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