Friday February 1st, 2008

PHOENIX -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we thankfully close in on Super Bowl XLII ...

• He didn't say it in so many words in his State of the League address on Friday, but it sounds to me like commissioner Roger Goodell reads How else to explain the league's willingness to consider changing how it seeds the 12-team playoff field other than to assume Goodell read the suggestions for doing so that I put forth in my January 6 column?

All hubris aside, the best thing I heard coming out of Goodell's annual address was that the NFL might tinker with its playoff seeding format. The league seems interested in trying to reduce the number of late-season games in which teams rest their starters because the outcomes have no bearing on the playoff races or seeds. By having it possible for a wild-card winner with a better record than a division champion to be seeded higher, the NFL could make more Week 16 and 17 games meaningful.

This season's playoff-implication Week 17 games such as Tennessee at Indianapolis and Dallas at Washington were both won by the teams that had something to play for, while the Cowboys and Colts rested many key starters. The loss by the Jim Sorgi-led Colts kept 10-6 Cleveland from qualifying for its first playoff berth since 2002, and put Tennessee into the postseason as an AFC wild card.

Though he didn't give any indication of the specific seeding format the league will consider, Goodell did mention that under a new approach to seeding, first-round games this season, such as Jacksonville (11-5) at Pittsburgh (10-6) and New York (10-6) at Tampa Bay (9-7), would have been affected. In each case, the wild-card team with the better record played on the road against a division winner with a lesser record, due to the weight given to division winners in the current system.

As I wrote last month, I don't expect the NFL to take the ultimate step and seed the 12-team playoff field 1-12 irrespective of conference -- giving us the potential of a Super Bowl pairing of the teams with the best two regular-season records, even if they're both in the same conference. But Goodell's announcement that the league's competition committee is re-examining the seeding format is a welcomed step in the right direction.

Oh, and, you're welcome, Rog.

• Long before they won an NFL record 10 consecutive road games, strung together three playoff upsets in a row, and arrived here as the underdog darlings of Super Bowl XLII, the New York Giants' season in effect nearly ended almost before it began.

We probably wouldn't be talking about Tom Coughlin's personality makeover, or Eli Manning's late-season resurgence this week if New York, already 0-2 and starting to come apart, had not rallied from a 14-point halftime deficit at Washington in Week 3. The Giants were staring 0-3 in the face, and needed a memorable, final-minute goal-line stand to secure that season-turning 24-17 win.

For a football team's season, it was a close to a near-death experience as it gets.

"If we would have been 0-3, who knows what would have happened?'' Giants middle linebacker Antonio Pierce said this week. "We needed to get that win. We needed to come out and play in the second half of that game with urgency. It was a boost for our team, especially for our defense, those last four plays on the goal line. I can't tell you which way this team would have gone if we didn't get that game.''

When they were down 17-3 at halftime in Washington, the Giants had allowed an NFL-worst 97 points in their first 10 quarters of their season. Their defense was being ridiculed, and first-year coordinator Steve Spagnuolo admits he wondered if the season was about to snowball in the wrong direction.

"Yeah, I'm not going to lie to you, I was concerned,'' Spagnuolo told me. "But I was never concerned about the lack of effort or the quality of players and the character of our guys. That never changed, that never wavered. I just trusted what we were doing, and that what the coaches were conveying to the players would somehow eventually come together.

"And God willing, really on that goal-line stand, we came up with that [fourth-down] play. Because who knows? The players just decided. Michael Strahan just willed that crew to stop them down there on those four plays. It was a really key moment in the season.''

The win at Washington sparked the Giants on a six-game winning streak, and they're 13-4 since that 0-2 start, becoming just the fourth team to reach the Super Bowl after losing its first two games.

"A season can certainly turn on one or two plays, and in this particular case it turned for the good,'' Spagnuolo said. "We don't have a crystal ball and we don't know what would have happened [at 0-3], but I'm sure glad it went the way it did and we're talking about it that way.''

• If there's anybody in the world more conflicted about the outcome of Sunday's game than Don Hasselbeck, I don't know who it might be. Hasselbeck, the former NFL tight end and father of quarterbacks Matt and Tim Hasselbeck, has deep ties to both the Patriots and Giants.

On the Patriots side, Don Hasselbeck was drafted by New England in the second round in 1977, and played the first six of his nine NFL seasons in Foxboro. He still lives in the Boston area, where he has been an executive for Reebok the past 16 years. In addition, both his sons starred at Boston College, where Matt was recruited by and played for Tom Coughlin when the Giants head coach led the Eagles program.

On the Giants side, Hasselbeck played his final NFL season for New York, in 1985. The team's defensive coordinator that season was Bill Belichick, the current Patriots head coach. Hasselbeck is good friends with both the Mara and Tisch families, and Tim Hasselbeck was a reserve quarterback for the Giants in 2006, and went to camp with New York this season as well. He wound up serving as backup for 11 games for Arizona this year, once Matt Leinart was hurt and lost for the season.

And now the Patriots and Giants will meet on Tim Hasselbeck's home field -- the University of Phoenix Stadium -- in nearby Glendale on Sunday.

"It's very weird,'' Don Hasselbeck told me this week. "We do have some alliances with both teams. When Tom Coughlin was at Boston College as the receivers coach, we lived in the same neighborhood. My wife and I have always been close to him and his wife, Judy. It's a little weird for me to have all these different connections.''

Perhaps understandably, Hasselbeck didn't want to make a Super Bowl prediction for either team. "All I'll keep thinking about is the day after the game, I'll be headed to the Pro Bowl with [Matt] for the game. I'm going to look forward to that and avoid the rest.''

• Lord knows I swing and miss often enough, but here a couple pieces of clairvoyance that I'm feeling pretty good about this week. Last draft weekend, after the Patriots acquired Randy Moss, here's a snippet of what I wrote about the controversial acquisition:

"Moss realizes he's approaching last-shot territory, and he's desperate for both a Super Bowl ring and a little restoration work on his legacy as a potential Hall of Fame receiver.

"And here's something to keep in mind as we debate the wisdom of New England's move for the next three months: Moss's showing with the Patriots this season will tell us all we need to know. I think it'll be either an obvious grand slam, or an obvious whiff, with very little room for middle ground.

"I think it was an acquisition that will help ensure the Patriots outscore the high-powered Colts in their inevitable playoff showdown with their AFC rivals, giving New England a passing game that can trade punches with Peyton Manning and Co.''

And then, on Oct. 23, with the Patriots sitting at 7-0, I called off the dogs and proclaimed New England was headed for history at 19-0:

"I believe these Patriots will go 16-0 in the regular season, and then march through the playoffs to become the first 19-0 team in NFL history. Write it down and underline it twice. They're that good, and they're that motivated.''

• The Patriots have won a lot of ways in their seven-year run. This season they ranked first overall in total offense (411.3 yards), and first in passing (295.7). You tend to forget, but that's a far cry from their first Super Bowl-winning team, those underdogs that upset the Rams in 2001. That season, New England ranked a lowly 19th in total offense, and 22nd in passing.

Even New England's last Super Bowl champions, in '04, weren't exactly an offensive juggernaut. That year, despite Tom Brady's great talents, the Patriots were 11th in passing and seventh in overall offense.

• Because I guess we've got to quibble with something when it comes to perfection, New England's Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli have been getting questions this week about the lack of impact by the Patriots' '07 draft class. Only first-round pick Brandon Merriweather is on the team's Super Bowl roster, and Merriweather is a reserve safety.

"To that I'd say that our second-round pick was Wes Welker (acquired via trade from Miami) and our fourth-round pick was Randy Moss (acquired via trade with Oakland),'' said Pioli on Thursday, resting his case.

Merriweather, Welker, and Moss. That's decent impact.

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