Monday December 29th, 2008

PHILADELPHIA -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we watch the total demolition of the Dallas Cowboys play out before an absolutely delirious throng of Eagles fans at Lincoln Financial Field ...

• This is why you should never, ever, ever give up on an NFL season, until they pull the mathematical rug from beneath your feet. Because even after an ugly Week 11 tie at Cincinnati that supposedly buried you, and a crushing Week 16 loss at Washington that all but eliminated you, a Sunday like this one can still unfold in Philadelphia.

In a span of about four hours, the Eagles went from having their playoff hopes on life support -- an almost breathless blip on the NFL radar screen -- to coasting to the NFC's final invitation to next month's Super Bowl tournament. It's the kind of wildly unexpected turn of events that makes Week 17 so captivating each and every season.

The Eagles came into Sunday needing a Raiders upset win at Tampa Bay. They got it. They needed a loss by either Minnesota or Chicago, and the Bears cooperated, dropping their finale at Houston. And they needed a homefield win over the equally desperate Cowboys, an outcome that was all but decided by the second quarter.

Of course, as it almost had to be, it was that much-derided tie in Cincinnati that made the difference in the end for the 9-6-1 Eagles. Without it, they're home next week, rather than playing in a first-round playoff game at Minnesota.

But Philadelphia's 44-6 thrashing of Dallas wasn't Sunday's only example of how quickly the fates can turn in the NFL. You had the Carolina Panthers earning the NFC South division title and their conference's No. 2 seed -- and avoiding the much tougher road of the No. 5 seed -- by nipping New Orleans 33-31 on John Kasay's 42-yard field goal with one second remaining. That outcome meant Atlanta was No. 5, despite being agonizingly close to grasping the No. 2 seed itself.

You had Minnesota winning the NFC North -- its first division title in eight years -- on a last-second 50-yard Ryan Longwell field goal against the Giants. The Vikings would have clinched with Chicago's loss moments later at Houston, but Minnesota wasn't in any position to count solely on that.

And you had the Miami Dolphins, 1-15 last season, deciding the fate of the New England Patriots, 18-1 last season. The Dolphins move on, and the Patriots go home. Has there ever been a bigger cumulative turnaround than the one that linked New England and Miami this season?

Sunday night, of course, we'll be treated to even more death-defying feats as the San Diego Chargers, who were 4-8 just an instant ago, try to beat the visiting Broncos and make their way to the playoffs at .500. Not even the Chargers themselves could have believed the scenario that has landed them with one last chance to fulfill their lofty expectations this season.

Week 17 had it all. And for so much of it, there was really no way to see it coming. It happens every year that way, and still we're surprised by the surprise of it all.

• I do believe Raiders interim head coach Tom Cable just took a giant step toward locking up the fulltime gig in Oakland. What more could a guy do to win his way into Al Davis's heart these days beside beating Mike Shanahan in Denver, knocking Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen's Bucs out of the playoffs in Tampa, and making sure that Monte "Father of Lane'' Kiffin loses his final game as the Bucs defensive coordinator?

That's the triple crown of sorts if you're Davis, who always has an old score or three to settle with his enemies. When the 2009 season opens, I fully expect to see the John Madden-sized Cable still calling the shots in Oakland (at least on the sidelines).

• Speaking of Gruden, if his job isn't in jeopardy after the Bucs' 0-4 December meltdown, why exactly isn't it? Delivering a Super Bowl victory in his first season in Tampa Bay bought Gruden a reservoir of time and goodwill, but the last of that political capital has now undoubtedly been exhausted.

It has been six long years since the Bucs' most recent playoff victory -- that Super Bowl blowout win over the Raiders -- and this season's collapse to a 9-7, non-playoff finish after a 9-3 start underlines the underachievement in Tampa Bay like never before. Gruden has always won a protective coating of Teflon when it comes to coaching on the hot seat, but you have to figure that's over.

Oh, and this just in: With Tampa Bay's elimination from the NFL playoff race, for the 43rd consecutive time, no team will be playing a Super Bowl on its own home field.

• Get the feeling Gruden and the Bucs organization won't be throwing a grand farewell party for the departing Kiffin? Fairly or unfairly, Kiffin is going to be blamed for plenty of Tampa Bay's demise this month. It was his defense that was torpedoed down the stretch, and there's a decent amount of animosity within the Bucs organization about the distraction that his imminent departure created.

But that's just typical scape-goating reflex for a collapse of this proportion. Everybody involved with Tampa Bay had a hand in this one, not just Kiffin and his defense.

• That settles it. Ryan Longwell is the most aptly named kicker in NFL history. Longwell's NFC North-winning 50-yard field goal at the gun against the Giants made him 6-of-6 this season from 50 yards or longer, and gave Minnesota its first division title since 2000.

• Here's one counterbalancing point to be made in the argument about whether playoff-bound teams should play all out in Week 17, even if there's nothing to be gained from it in regards to the postseason: Ben Roethlisberger.

The Steelers starting quarterback suffered a second-quarter concussion in that meaningless 31-0 win over Cleveland on Sunday, and though he may be fine with Pittsburgh not slated to open its playoff run for another two weeks, who knows if the injury will impact the Steelers' chances in January?

I know the 2007 Giants were universally lionized for their decision to give it their best shot against the undefeated Patriots in Week 17, but the story doesn't always end like that. Sometimes the call doesn't wind up looking heroic. Sometimes it looks short-sighted and maybe even foolish. Given the chance for a do-over, I wonder if the Steelers would approach the issue of Roethlisberger's playing time any differently?

• What a tough year it has been for Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Bills only had seven home games there this season (thanks to Toronto), but one of them featured a power outage that knocked the game off network television and KO'd the scoreboard, and in Sunday's season-finale against the Patriots, those 55 mph wind gusts nearly brought down the goal posts and made an absolute mockery of the kicking game.

• Can't think of a more fitting epitaph for the Saints' 2008 season than that close-but-no-cigar 33-31 loss at home against Carolina. New Orleans scored 21 fourth-quarter points to take a 31-30 lead, but when the Saints needed it most, the defense failed again, giving up a last-second 42-yard John Kasay field goal to make the Panthers the NFC South champion.

• Wouldn't you love to know what Dan Marino was really thinking when Drew Brees's desperation pass fell incomplete, leaving the Saints quarterback 16 yards shy of breaking Dan the Man's 24-year NFL record for single-season passing yardage?

Here's a hint: It wasn't "Aw, shucks. Poor Drew.''

• Do you realize the Panthers' win at New Orleans was the first time all season an NFC South team won a divisional road game? That made the Falcons, Bucs, Panthers, Saints a combined 11-1 at home in divisional games, which is just another reason why the NFC South was the best in the league this season.

• Somehow I can't imagine a Bill Belichick-coached team ever mindlessly allowing the clock to wind to triple zeroes while some Patriots players engage in a skirmish that keeps New England from even trying a just-before-halftime field goal attempt in a 3-0 game.

But that's what Dick Jauron's Bills did on Sunday. And it was all too indicative of the disarray that has ruled in Buffalo in the season's second half.

• I have never seen anything quite like that 47-yard Rian Lindell field goal attempt early in the second quarter in gusty Buffalo. It was the first time ever that a ball went wide right and wide left on the same kick.

• I mean, what more could anyone ask of Matt Cassel? Not only did he lead the Patriots to an 11-5 record without even a quarter of play from Tom Brady this season, but he punts too. That was a quick-kick, wind-aided 57-yard beauty he launched (to the Bills 2) on third down in the fourth quarter.

Take that, Tom.

• I'll say this for the winless Lions, they earned their way into infamy. There was nothing cheap about their 0-16 record. They lost close ones, blowouts, and in-between-type games. They lost every way imaginable, and when you thought they had lowered the bar as far as they could, they found a way to lower it a bit more.

And now they're a team for the ages, with Detroit's season serving as the exclamation point on perhaps the worst decade of football in NFL history. From 2001 to now, the Lions have defined failure in the league, and perhaps all they have to be thankful for today is that the league will eventually go to a 17- or 18-game regular season schedule and some sorry team might come along some day and out-lose them.

• Have to admit that I'm a bit sorry to see the 1976 Bucs lose their exclusive place in league history. As a teenager growing up in the Tampa Bay area, I rooted for those expansion Bucs, and they still occupy a nostalgic corner of my heart.

The Lions have nudged them aside in the record books, but in defense of John McKay and his lovable losers, Detroit is nowhere near as entertaining. Then again, who could be?

• Did you notice that referee Ed Hochuli drew the coveted Detroit at Green Bay assignment in Week 17? The NFL obviously wanted him about as far away from the Denver-San Diego showdown as possible. At least in a meteorological sense.

• Not again. Not another Carnell Williams knee injury. You couldn't watch the Bucs fourth-year running back go down in the fourth quarter Sunday without wondering why this game is so good to some in terms of health, and so cruel to others.

• Don't look now, but Oakland's JaMarcus Russell just had a very strong finish to his sophomore season in the NFL. Look for the 2007 first overall pick to be touted as one of the players to watch as we head into 2009.

• So long and farewell, Willie McGinest. Though your final season in the NFL wasn't much of a victory lap in Cleveland, you'll always have those three Super Bowl rings as a Patriot.

• Didn't take the woeful Browns long to lower the boom on general manager Phil Savage, huh? But why wait when you can begin to pursue the Patriots' Scott Pioli any second now?

• I've said plenty about the Jets' Brett Favre experiment this season -- both good and bad -- but the bottom line is that the gamble didn't work out too well for New York. Chad Pennington and the Dolphins are in the playoffs, while Favre and the Jets are out.

There's no other scorecard that matters.

• Good call, 49ers. Mike Singletary showed more than enough to warrant the investment in his head coaching future. Singletary is a little on the edge, emotionally speaking, but after that rocky start -- the dropping of the trau in his halftime locker room -- he showed that he could be trusted with the keys to the franchise.

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