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NFC looks wide open, more Snap Judgments from Week 17

Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a Week 17 that had a little bit of everything, except for any real high drama when it comes to how the Ravens, Jets and Cowboys won their showdown games Sunday and finalized the 12-team playoff field.....

• They say momentum is a prerequisite of success in the NFL postseason, but this year's NFC playoff field sure hopes it's an overrated factor. Because there's not a lot of mojo flowing in the National Flat Conference these days.

NFL PLAYOFF SCHEDULETop-seeded New Orleans is staggering into the playoffs, losing its third straight game on Sunday after its 13-0 start. Carolina beat the Saints 23-10, and New Orleans suddenly hasn't topped 17 points since beating Atlanta in Week 14. The Saints' holes all showed up in December, and with the bye week, New Orleans will go at least a month between wins.

No. 2 Minnesota (12-4) on Sunday managed to rout a listless Giants team, 44-7, but the Vikings will still enter the postseason with three losses in their past five games, and having not won on the road since Nov. 1. The win over New York was impressive, but I'm not sure how much beating the Giants is really worth these days.

No. 4 Arizona (10-6) was blown out 33-7 at home by fifth-seeded Green Bay (11-5), the very team the Cardinals have to play host to again next week in the first round of the playoffs. Arizona has now lost three of its last six games, fairly well duplicating last year's late-season slide. Worst of all, the unpredictability factor has returned to Arizona.

And then there's the curious case of the Eagles (11-5), who went into Dallas on a six-game winning streak, but came out strangely flat and got out-classed 24-0 by the Cowboys (11-5). Philadelphia had the No. 2 seed within its grasp with a win, but tumbled all the way to the bottom of the NFC field, at No. 6, and now must return to Dallas next week.

With so much malaise everywhere you look in the NFC, it's hard to spot a favorite. Dallas and Green Bay both look dangerous, and the Cowboys (three wins in a row) and Packers (7-1 in the second half) are playing with great confidence. But Dallas hasn't won a playoff game in 13 years, and Green Bay has to do it the hard way, hitting the road as a wild-card entry.

Add it all up and the NFC looks like a wide open six-team tournament, with anyone capable of showing up to represent the conference in Miami five weeks from today. I could make a legitimate case for all six teams heading south next month.

It could be fun. But it could be chaos, too. Either way, it's about to start.

• Kind of hard to take the Bengals seriously in the AFC playoffs field after their 37-0 debacle in the Meadowlands. Marvin Lewis made it pretty clear that his team's goal in the second half of the season was to play its way onto the NBC Sunday Night Football flex schedule, but I'm guessing even Cincinnati's head coach would admit his club wasn't ready for prime time against the Jets.

New York's got a legit defense, but the Bengals set offensive football back at least a couple decades with that showing. Cincy hasn't been explosive on offense all season, but before Sunday night, it had at least found ways to move the ball. Carson Palmer played well into the third quarter, and finished with one completion in 11 attempts, for zero yards and interception. The Bengals finished with 72 yards of offense, with five first downs and zero passing yards.

Of the three rematches in the first round of the playoffs next weekend, I'd say the Bengals (10-6) turning right around and beating New York (9-7) next Saturday afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium is the most unlikely of all scenarios. The Jets are going to the Queen City with a world of confidence, and the feeling that they're already playing with house money by even making the postseason. It wouldn't shock me if New York blew out the Bengals again, this time on the road.

I don't think the Jets are a strong threat to beat anyone else in the AFC field, but the Bengals clearly are their best matchup. That much was proven in vivid detail. Cincy has one and done written all over it, and making matters worse, it's facing a short week of work to close a very sizable gap between itself and New York.

• With the Patriots-Ravens and Jets-Bengals first-round games featuring four scuffling teams that all lost six or seven games this season, form has a great shot to hold in the AFC half of the bracket, delivering to us a Chargers at Colts AFC Championship Game in three weeks. Divisional-round pairings of Patriots at Chargers, and Jets at Colts could be very competitive matchups, but I'd take my chances with the rested squads from San Diego and Indianapolis winning their way to the title game. And then we'd be in store for what might be the real Super Bowl this season: Chargers at Colts, in a playoff rematch from 2008 and 2007 -- both of which were San Diego victories. Peyton Manning versus Philip Rivers could be as good as it gets.

• Half the teams in the NFL postseason did not make the playoffs last season: The Patriots, Bengals and Jets in the AFC; the Saints, Cowboys and Packers in the NFC. It's the 14th consecutive the NFL playoffs have featured at least five new teams.

• You have to figure the left knee injury suffered by Wes Welker early in New England's 34-27 loss at Houston will be devastating to the Patriots' playoff hopes. Welker reportedly tore his ACL and MCL, and that could doom the high-powered passing attack that the Patriots were counting on in the postseason.

But maybe all is not lost, given that New England immediately got a heck of a Welker impersonation from rookie receiver Julian Edelman against the Texans. Edelman wound up with a game-high 10 catches for 103 yards, cracking triple digits for the first time in his NFL career. And earlier this season, when the injured Welker missed games in Weeks 2-3, Edelman, the former Kent State quarterback, stepped up and caught 11 passes for 118 yards.

Still, Welker's 123 catches led the NFL this season, and that number becomes even more mind-boggling when you realize he missed almost three complete games. Hard to see Edelman replacing Welker as Tom Brady's favorite all-purpose target.

Roger Goodell gets it, and I say good for him that he does. The NFL commissioner realizes the integrity of the game is compromised when playoff-bound teams rest too many starters in the final weeks of the season. There's always a tipping point in the NFL in regards to competitive issues like this, and this time it was the undefeated Colts passing on a perfect season by pulling a good bit of their first team off the field in the third quarter of that loss to the Jets last week.

Playoff-bound teams not playing all-out to win when they're facing playoff contenders is much worse for the image of the league than the hit the NFL takes every August when those meaningless preseason games stir a similar debate. Goodell knows that, and wants to find ways to give teams incentives to legitimately play out their regular-season schedules, be it extra draft picks or another such carrot at the end of a stick.

It's rather bizarre that it has come to this: The NFL trying to give teams incentives for winning and playing a late-season game straight when it comes to their lineup. But it's an effort worth making, even if it only puts a dent in the now annual trend of seeing playoff qualifiers treat the final two weeks of the regular season like a necessary evil.

• With Welker (knee), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (knee), Anquan Boldin (knee, ankle) and Charles Woodson (shoulder) all leaving games for playoff-bound teams that had little motivation to win on Sunday, get ready for an even hotter level of debate this week regarding the wisdom of risking injuries to starters in late-season games that aren't all important.

But hey, somebody's got to play in these games. This isn't college football. There aren't 80-man rosters.

• My early, early read on next weekend's playoff pairings (at least the ones we know): The Packers look like they have the Cardinals pretty well figured out, and maybe only the potential loss of the injured Charles Woodson from Green Bay's secondary would allow Kurt Warner and the Arizona passing game to exploit the Packers defense. But I like Green Bay, fairly comfortably.

I don't know what to make of the Eagles' uninspired performance at Dallas, but the Cowboys clearly have the psychological edge going into their third meeting with their division rivals. Tony Romo picked the Philly secondary apart on the quick, underneath stuff, and Marion Barber was a tone-setter once again in the running game. I don't think Dallas will win by 24 points again, but it will snap that 13-year playoff-victory drought.

The Baltimore-New England matchup in the AFC will be the most physical game of the weekend, and I think the Ravens are a dangerous opponent for Tom Brady and the Patriots. But even with the damaging loss of Welker, I expect New England's postseason experience to provide just enough of an edge to let the Pats squeak past Baltimore.

• In the last six days or so, I think we found out definitively who the 2009 Vikings really belong to. They're Brett Favre's team. Not Adrian Peterson's.

Minnesota's pass-first mentality is all the way back, and Favre's four-touchdown, 316-yard passing performance against the Giants -- in just 2½ quarters -- underlines that the Vikings will only go as far as No. 4 takes them this season.

Peterson is not an afterthought in the Minnesota offense, but he's clearly not the Vikings' first thought either. Peterson hasn't logged a 100-yard rushing game since Week 10, and he hasn't averaged 4.0 yards or more in a game where he had at least 10 carries (he had nine rushes for 54 yards against the Giants, good for 6.0) in his past seven games.

Favre, on the other hand, is once again on fire. Starting with the beginning of the third quarter in Monday night's overtime loss to the Bears, he has completed 46 of 62 pass attempts, for 619 yards and six touchdowns. Not bad for an old guy in just a little bit more than one full game.

• The Week 17 Sunday should be one of the best days of every NFL season, with the action building to a crescendo as we watch desperate teams vying for those final playoff spots. But it was a little difficult to get pumped up on Sunday while watching the likes of Brian Hoyer, Curtis Painter, Marc Brunell, Tyler Thigpen, David Carr, Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Leinart quarterbacking their clubs.

• You knew it wouldn't be long until the Saints and Colts started streaking again. But I don't think this is the textbook approach of how to enter the playoffs as a No. 1 seed: With New Orleans losing three in a row, and Indy dropping its final two games.

Looks like yet another season in which the vaunted top seeds won't be breezing to a Super Bowl showdown.

• Maybe nobody in the NFL has to do more house-cleaning than the Giants on defense. New York mailed in another one Sunday in Minnesota, losing 44-7 to the Vikings, after dropping last week's 41-9 nail-biter at home against Carolina.

In the Giants' final four games, they gave up 45 points to the Eagles, 41 to the Panthers, and 44 to the Vikings. All told, New York's defense surrendered 40 points or more five times in its last 11 games, starting with that 48-point meltdown at New Orleans in Week 6. That hasn't happened to a Giants defense since 1966, in the Allie Sherman coaching era.

Defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan should be far from the only one whose job is in jeopardy this offseason.

• Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Broncos fans. It must be misery. Denver's season, once so hopeful at 6-0, crashed and burned amid two separate four-game losing streaks from Nov. 1 on. When will Denver fans ever have the faith to believe in this team should they get off to another fast start? The season always lasts just long enough for the Broncos (8-8) to blow a playoff trip.

A few things come to mind as we view the crazy rollercoaster ride that was the Broncos' 2009:

In the end, Josh McDaniels couldn't stop the bleeding any better than his predecessor, Mike Shanahan. Denver's late-season slides made no distinction between the Broncos old head coach and their new coach.

Boil it all down, and Kyle Orton played a lot like Kyle Orton of Chicago. Good enough to win some games, but not good enough to take you anywhere special.

And despite all those giddy moments between them when the early season wins kept coming, McDaniels and Broncos receiver Brandon Marshall are ending this year about how they began it: At odds, and seemingly headed for a divorce.

• On a day Tennessee's Chris Johnson became just the sixth rusher in NFL history to top the 2,000-yard mark, I think the more impressive performance was turned in by Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles. He gouged the Broncos for 259 yards rushing -- a Chiefs franchise record -- and a pair of touchdowns, and most amazingly of all, he finished with 1,120 yards this season despite not becoming a full-time player until Week 10.

Charles ran for 152 yards in the season's first eight games, and 968 in the final eight. Kansas City is going to look back and realize getting rid of Larry Johnson was its best move of the season.

• You get the sense that a four-game season-ending winning streak really might change the outlook for new Browns president Mike Holmgren in Cleveland. Holmgren is on record saying he doesn't think a coaching change after one season is a fair move, but he hasn't ruled one out either. But after seeing Cleveland respond with four consecutive victories to close out Eric Mangini's first season at 5-11 -- giving the Browns their first four-game win streak since 1994 -- my guess is that Holmgren opts for patience and refuses to go for the quick hook. Especially since Browns owner Randy Lerner is still paying off sizable chunks of cash to former head coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Phil Savage.

The Browns still need to establish their long-term plan at quarterback, but the situation in Cleveland looks a lot brighter today than it did a month ago. The Browns have Holmgren in place, 11 picks in next April's draft, and the confidence that comes from not losing in a month of NFL Sundays.

• The Patriots have got to start staying away from Bernard Pollard in season openers and season finales. It was for a different team in a different season, but Pollard found another way to hurt New England on Sunday, recovering a Fred Taylor fumble in the end zone for a touchdown in Houston's win, and being the guy credited for the tackle on the play in which Welker was hurt.

Pollard, the player who ended Tom Brady's 2008 season in Week 1, when he was then a Chiefs safety, just seems to have a knack to make himself a nuisance against Bill Belichick's club.

• None of them are going to the playoffs, but congrats to Atlanta, Houston, Carolina, and San Francisco, all of whom accomplished something for themselves by finishing strong this season.

-- The Falcons won their last three games to finish 9-7 and finally log those long sought-after consecutive winning seasons, their first in the 44 year history of the franchise.

-- The Texans won their last four games to climb to 9-7, earning their first winning season in the eight years since entering the league as an expansion team. That might be enough to convince owner Bob McNair to bring coach Gary Kubiak back for a fifth season.

-- The Panthers fought their way to an 8-8 record on the strength of a three-game season-ending winning streak, which avoided a losing season and likely will wind up saving head coach John Fox's job. Only once before has Carolina posted two straight non-losing seasons (2005-06).

-- And the 49ers won their last two games to get to .500, their first non-losing season since 2002. San Francisco's 8-8 showed progress under Mike Singletary, and it ends the streak of a combined 13 losing seasons in a row turned in by the NFL's bay area neighbors, the Raiders and 49ers.

• So if the Vikings (eight) and Colts (six) happen to meet in the Super Bowl in Miami, a whopping 14 replacement players have to be named to fill out the Pro Bowl rosters? Talk about watering down the honor of making the NFL's all-star game. Due to players who pull out of the game with injuries, the Pro Bowl rosters wind up being plenty padded enough by the time the game rolls around.

But the potential of bumping 14 alternates up to the game's active roster would make it more of a come-one, come-all game than a true all-star game. But I guess somebody knew that was a possibility when the game was moved to the weekend before the Super Bowl this season.

• Counting their Week 3 preseason trip there, the Packers will wind up making the long trek to Arizona the maximum three times this season -- once in preseason, once in the regular season, and once in the first round of the postseason.

I suppose Green Bay doesn't mind getting out of the cold this time of year, but it probably also helps that the Packers have destroyed the Cardinals on their first two visits. In the preseason game, Green Bay led 38-10 en route to a 44-37 win over Arizona. On Sunday, in a game that meant little for the Cardinals once Minnesota's win over the Giants was in the books, Green Bay built a 33-0 third-quarter lead and cruised home to a 33-7 win.

• We're on the cusp of Black Monday in the NFL, the day after the regular season ends, when some head coaches traditionally get canned. But I can't help but notice how many coaches might have rallied for a little job security with a late-season comeback. And not just the aforementioned John Fox in Carolina, Gary Kubiak in Houston, and Eric Mangini in Cleveland.

Wade Phillips is probably a playoff win away from making sure he returns to a fourth season in Dallas, Raheem Morris put on a bit of a winning charge in Tampa Bay, and Lovie Smith might have even saved his bacon in Chicago with those wins in Weeks 16 and 17. Add to that list Jim Mora's name, because he seems safe in Seattle at this point.

All of that leaves Washington, Buffalo and maybe Oakland as the teams in line to make a switch. All in all, that's nowhere near as much carnage as we were bracing for about a month ago.

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