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Handicapping the NFL playoff field

NEW YORK -- Now that was a weird day. Sad with the devastating knee injury to one of the real poster children for everything that is good about the NFL, Wes Welker. Flummoxing with the total collapse of the Giants and Broncos. Maddening with starters sitting to some degree in six of the games involving playoff contenders ... and the weirdo Colts deciding that individual records are important a week after deciding 19-0 wasn't. Strangely undramatic for a Week 17, with only two win-and-get-in games, neither of which was any good -- the Ravens handling the Raiders with slight difficulty and the Jets handling the Bengals with none.

Eeriest part of the day: Houston safety Bernard Pollard landing on Welker after he had blown out his ACL and MCL early in Patriots-Texans and fallen to the ground in agony. This was 16 months after Pollard, then with Kansas City, had dove into Tom Brady's knee, shredding ligaments.

"I heard Wes yell out, the same way I heard Tom yell out,'' Pollard told me last night. "It was the same yell. It was terrible. He went down right in front of me. I saw his knee buckle, then I fell on him, and when he went down, I said, 'Just my luck.' ''

What are the odds of the same defender being at the epicenter of the temporary demise of two true New England heroes?

Other quickies from the day, and from very early this morning: When the Redskins' charter returned from San Diego after another dispiriting loss in the dispiriting two-year tenure of Jim Zorn, the team put him out of his misery, firing him with a year left on his contract. There's little doubt the team wants to hire Mike Shanahan. Owner Dan Snyder wasted no time in laying the groundwork. ... Shane Lechler's not going to get any notice for doing it (except maybe here), but he just finished the best punting season in the 90-year history of this league ... Bill Cowher might have to go to Buffalo if he wants to coach ... John Fox doesn't want to go anywhere ... The Raiders are playing for Tom Cable, making me wonder who exactly is going to change coaches besides Washington. I said on NBC last night that this isn't going to be Black Monday (black because so many coaches usually lose their jobs on the day after the season), but rather Charcoal Gray Monday ...

The Rams clinched the top draft choice by finishing 1-15, and an hour after his team lost to the Niners, GM Billy Devaney told me it's only about 14 weeks too early to decide if the Rams are going to take a quarterback or Nebraska defender Ndamukong Suh or someone else. "I can tell you with certainty that there's no white smoke coming out of our chimney yet,'' Devaney said. "I'm still sick over losing this game.''

My money's on Suh, with a QB in round two.

I've never seen so many legitimate MVP candidates, by the way. Between Peyton Manning's second-best year, Philip Rivers on an 11-game win streak, DrewBrees' record season, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers tearing it up, Tony Romo can't even make the top five, and he's been as good as it gets down the stretch, which is when an MVP is supposed to shine ... I finished choosing my All-Pro team in the wee hours of the morning, and I have some picks sure to rival my Stewart Bradley middle linebacker choice last year, and sure to make you nail me with some outraged Tweets.

I'll get to those stories in a few paragraphs, as well as the coaching news and gossip and what the NFL intends to do about all these games with an August feel being played on New Year's weekend. First I'll handicap the second season, which begins Saturday (Jets at Bengals at 4:30 Eastern, followed by Eagles-Cowboys at 8) and continues with Ravens-Pats Sunday at 12:30 and Packers-Cardinals at 4.

San Diego (AFC 2 seed). Not a pulverizing team on either side of the ball, but they're hot at the right time, with a top quarterback, Philip Rivers (nine interceptions in 511 pass-drops), and they can field a four-man receiving unit, including tight end Antonio Gates, that are all 6-4 or 6-5 across the board. Not a dominant defense -- though with Shawne Merriman resting his plantar fasciatis for 20 days before the divisional round, he could regain his rush ability -- or great run game. They just win. I love Rivers' guts and the fact that no defensive backfield can match up against those pass catchers.

Dallas (NFC 3 seed). Cowboys are classic hot team at the right time, with a mature quarterback, Romo, and a bookend pass-rush team, Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware, that's bordering on Freeney/Mathis in its impact this season. Shutting out the Eagles Sunday and holding DeSean Jackson to 62 rushing/receiving/returning yards, Dallas made me think it's ready for prime time. No big injuries either. Cowboys will be a very tough out.

Indianapolis (AFC 1 seed). We've all fallen slightly out of love with the Colts because of this white-flag deal the last two weeks. With me, it's more than that. They won 14 in a row. Of the last eight of those, seven were by 10 points or fewer. That's not an altogether bad thing because they've got the quarterback to win those games late. But an inopportune turnover or two late, and they could be cooked. Now, what I like about the Colts is because they've conserved Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis down the stretch, both should be ready to attack the quarterback in two weeks.

Minnesota (NFC 2 seed). You get the feeling Brad Childress kept his starters in so long against the Giants to try to drill it in their heads that they're good -- and dominant when they want to be. It's January, and no one should question whether Favre can play well late into the season at 40. The question should be whether the defense is up to the task of making enough big plays. I want to see Jared Allen come out and dominate a game, which he hasn't done since a three-sack day at Green Bay Nov. 1.

New Orleans (NFC 1 seed). The Saints are either going to kill some poor team in two weeks in the divisional round or stumble around and lose a game late. Whoever comes to New Orleans that weekend --Philly, Green Bay or Arizona -- will clearly be capable of winning against a team that's been in hibernation since its Nov. 30 destruction of the Patriots. "We'll be fine,'' Sean Payton said Friday. "We're getting our guys healthy, especially on defense, and when we come back to play [Jan. 16 or 17], we'll be back playing well.''

We'll see. This team's a total X factor.

New England (AFC 3 seed). I don't doubt the Patriots can mentally handle the loss of Welker. The big question is what it does to their already wafer-thin receiving corps. "The sad part isn't so much the pain of the injury,'' Benjamin Watson told me before the Patriots left Houston after their peculiar loss Sunday. "It's the pain for Wes, if he's not able to play, of not being able to do the thing he loves to do in the playoffs. He's such a great competitor and valuable guy on the team.''

They'll fill his spot with Julian Edelman, who is a Welker clone -- the same body type, the same frenetic quickness after the catch. Amazing that the Patriots are going to try to win their fourth Super Bowl in nine years with Edelman playing the part of Welker. My money's on Bill Belichick trying to win this month with the running combo of Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk and Fred Taylor eating the clock and a defense that, until Sunday, had played three very good games in a row.

Green Bay (NFC 5 seed). The Pack's 7-1 in the last eight, including 3-0 against playoff teams. Aaron Rodgers is every bit as dangerous as Brett Favre in his prime right now. But this could (underline could) be the Packers' path to the Super Bowl: Wild Card at Arizona, which showed nothing Sunday ... divisional game at New Orleans ... title game at Dallas or Minnesota. Green Bay's playing awfully well, but well enough to be a rerun of the Pittsburgh team that ran the table four years ago on the road or the Giants two years later? It's possible but problematic.

Arizona (NFC 4 seed).Ken Whisenhunt told me the Cards had two gameplans ready for the Packers Sunday -- one if the Vikings lost and one if they won. The fact that Minnesota won meant Arizona couldn't get a first-round bye in the playoffs, and so the Cards turned to Column B ... and got whomped. No biggie. The Cardinals return much of the same lineup that came within a 78-yard drive by Ben Roethlisberger of winning the Super Bowl last year, and if Kurt Warner gets the hot hand, they could go places. The difference between this year and last year, though, is last year they faced Jake Delhomme, rookie Matt Ryan and Donovan McNabb on the road to the Super Bowl. This year, the passers could be Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tony Romo or Brett Favre. A little better caliber of thrower.

Philadelphia (NFC 6 seed). Bad loss Sunday. The Eagles went from a bye and hosting a divisional game and possibly the NFC Championship Game to being on the road for three games to earn a Super Bowl trip. And it was how they lost too. McNabb had no answers for the Cowboy rush or secondary in a feeble performance, but he wasn't alone. Amazing how all that good feeling engendered by a month of very good football vanished in three hours.

New York Jets (AFC 5 seed). In four of their last five games, the Jets, the NFL's best running team, have rushed for 175 yards or more. If they do that Saturday at Cincinnati, they'll win by double-digits. A rematch at Indianapolis would be fun, particularly with Peyton Manning cordoning off the side of the field that has Darrelle Revis blanketing Reggie Wayne. Would the Jets have enough back-end cover ability to frustrate Manning and force a couple of turnovers? That could be the biggest factor in a Jets' postseason run.

By the way, I said prior to week 17 that the Jets were the luckiest team on the face of the earth to find Curtis Painter and J.T. O'Sullivan under their Christmas tree. I credit the Jets for surviving and making the playoffs, and they certainly looked like they belonged Sunday night in a weed-whacking of the Bengals at the Meadowlands. But the fact is they probably wouldn't have made it had the Colts not thrown in the towel eight days ago.

Baltimore (AFC 6 seed). Any team that can run can win this time of year, and the Ravens will go to New England hoping to control the clock with Ray Rice and Willis McGahee. What I like about the Ravens is they've won at San Diego this year (Week 2, 31-26), lost narrowly at New England (Week 4, 27-21) and lost even more narrowly to the Colts at home (Week 11, 17-15). But to win at each of those teams in the span of 15 days is a different task, obviously.

Cincinnati (AFC 4 seed). Saturday's rematch against the Jets is going to be better than we all think if nose man Domata Peko is squaring off with Nick Mangold in some semblance of good health. Peko is vital to keeping the Jets from running for 175 yards. If they do, the game's over. For the Bengals to think they can win at Indy and then at San Diego or New England is asking a lot from a team that is on the verge of being good but still needs a few pieces. And they missed Rey Maualuga (ankle; IR) Sunday night in one of the worst egg-layings in recent NFL history.

***

One idea to start the discussion on meaninglessness late in NFL seasons.

I'm convinced something should be done -- not has to be done.

Coaches don't want to hear about this ... except one from the AFC who I spoke with late Sunday night and who shall remain anonymous. He was concerned that even though the Jets could well have been one of the best six teams in the AFC at season's end, they got an unfair advantage by playing two teams in the last two weeks that already had playoff spots secured and weren't playing the way they'd play a regular game. "It's a matter of fairness,'' the coach said. "I don't know what can be done, but I'd like to see every team that plays a game with playoff implications have to play their best players.''

And isn't that the crux of the issue? Imagine this year if the Colts played their final two games at home instead of one at home and one on the road. Fans would be buying a 10-game season-ticket (eight regular-season games, two exhibitions), and four of them, under my scenario, would be games the Colts were playing to keep guys healthy, not to win. Fans already detest paying for the preseason. Paying for more games like the preseason is absurd.

I think it's a good idea to have each team intending to sit starting players for some or all of the game have to make that announcement on Friday, as a show of good will to the fans who pay good money to watch the games. I also think the NFL should take a page from baseball tradition: When either team in a late-September game is involved in a pennant race, the unwritten baseball rule is the team not in the race plays its usual starting nine. So tanking teams don't influence the outcome of games.

I realize the Welker injury is going to affect this debate. It should. It's a valid concern, losing valuable players to injury in games you don't have to win. I'm afraid there's no perfect solution to this one, but I do think Roger Goodell is going to direct the Competition Committee, like it or not, to do something about this before the start of the 2010 season.

***

Mike Holmgren can't be kneejerk about Eric Mangini anymore.

I said last night on NBC that despite the Browns' four-game winning streak (longest since Bill Belichick coached the team in the nineties), I think it's 60-40 that Mangini will get fired. But that's a legit 40 percent.

This isn't a typical up-and-down team that makes it easy on a new GM or football administrator to come in lining up the firing squad. This team has a few arrows pointing north -- the cleaning out of the salary cap, the accumulation of 11 picks in the 2010 draft, the sacrificing of good players (Kellen Winslow, Braylon Edwards) on a bad team for the future. The team played hard down the stretch in beating Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Oakland and Jacksonville, and Mangini and his staff began to develop a few unknown young players.

"I've taken a lot of heat for the Opportunity Period practices we run,'' Mangini told me last night, "but we've had a few players who never would have been able to show us much in regular practices show us quite a bit in those workouts.''

The Opportunity Periods are post-practice sessions that allow marginal players to come off the scout team for a handful of plays and work on plays the starters work on. Running back James Davis was lost for the year with a shoulder injury in one such practice in September. But as the season progressed, one of the stars of the Opportunity Period was Marcus Benard ("We never would have had the sense of his progress if he didn't have the chance to work in those periods,'' said Mangini).

The free agent from Jackson State began to play a prominent linebacker role against Pittsburgh in Week 14. That was the start of the winning streak, and the rangy Benard was all over the field that night. He had 3.5 sacks in the four-game streak, and he's a solid prospect for the Browns now.

I asked Mangini if he had a gut feel whether Holmgren will keep him when Holmgren takes over as the club's football czar this week. "This place was a mess when we got here, and it's not a mess anymore,'' he said. "Where we are now, I'm not nervous, I'm not anxious. I'm proud. If at the end of the day Mike wants to go in another direction, I'll understand, but I do think we're headed in the right direction.''

***

Shane Lechler should walk tall today. I had respect for the Oakland punter before Sunday's game; I already thought he was the best punter in Raider history before Sunday, and that's not to slight Ray Guy.

But Lechler needed maximum yards Sunday against the Ravens; he entered the game with a 51.1-yard gross punting average, just shy of Sammy Baugh's record of 51.4 yards a punts. And with the ball at midfield in the middle of the second quarter, Lechler lined up for his second punt of the day. I thought he'd just boot it into the end zone and take the 50 yards. "I thought about it,'' Lechler told me later.

But he skied a boomer toward the goal line, and the nose of the ball hit at about the half-yard line and the ball bounced back toward the five-, where it was downed. The Raiders had nothing to play for. Lechler was trying to break a 69-year-old record. But instead of taking the most yards, he played to pin the Ravens back -- and it worked. "You can make that kind of kick in Oakland, because the field in Oakland is 22 feet below sea level, and usually it's going to be wet, so the ball is going to stick there a little bit.''

Lechler finished with five punts for a 52.4-yard average, and his average didn't move a bit. So he couldn't break Baugh's record, which was achieved thanks to 38 of Baugh's punts coming on third down, from five to eight yards behind the line in quick-kick situations.

But Lechler smashed the net-punt record of 41.2 yards per punt set last year; his net punt this year was 43.9 yards. "I didn't everything I could to break the record,'' he said. "But punting is all about opportunity. My worst year punting, we went to the Super Bowl. Our offense has been so bad it's given me a lot of chances for big punts.''

Because he's often punting from deep in his own territory, Lechler has had some long ones that other punters on better offenses can't have. Two other points Lechler made: He wants Tom Cable to stay as coach. "He's exactly what we need -- a tough guy the players respect. We don't need to keep having a revolving door in the coach's office,'' Lechler said.

And as the richest punter of all time, Lechler said he has no idea how much he has in the bank. "When I signed that [four-year, $16-million] contract, my wife said, 'I'm going to go out and get us a gift.' She got an iPod. All I really care about being is the best punter of all time.''

1. San Diego (13-3). It isn't like you get anything for finishing the regular season atop the Fine 15, but the Chargers are playing the best of any team in football as the second season begins.

2. Indianapolis (14-2). Watching Curtis Painter, you can see why everyone in the Indy organization is so paranoid about Peyton Manning getting hurt.

3. Dallas (11-5). No team in football wants to play the Cowboys right now, not after they've knocked New Orleans from the ranks of the unbeaten and shut out two straight division foes.

4. Green Bay (11-5). I can almost say the same thing about Green Bay as I said about Dallas. Past three games: 36, 48, 33 points. Arizona's wary.

5. Minnesota (12-4). Vikes needed that. Big. And with seven touchdown passes in the past six Minnesota quarters, Favre has put the Favre-can't-play-in-December stuff to rest.

6. Philadelphia (11-5). Well, they used to have the most exciting offense in football.

7. New Orleans (13-3). Think of this: The Saints will take the field for their first playoff game having not played a very good game in 47 days.

8. New England (10-6). How amazing is it that Matt Cassel won 11 games last year and didn't make the playoffs, and Brady won 10 this year and did?

9. Arizona (10-6). Totally meaningless game for the Cards, because they could gain nothing and lose nothing by the time the Vikings won. I wouldn't read much into the Cards playing vanilla and getting rolled over.

10. Cincinnati (10-6). "I don't know what's going on with these Bengals,'' Cris Collinsworth said on the NBC game last night. Go figure an offense with all starters except for Cedric Benson playing, and looking so bad that it was 27-0 by the half.

11. Pittsburgh (9-7). What a weird, weird season. The Steelers need two things above all: a retooling of the offensive line and some way to keep Troy Polamalu healthy for 16 weeks.

12. Baltimore (9-7). Well, the Ravens survived. Now they have to travel to Foxboro and play a suddenly vulnerable Pats team, though New England hasn't lost at home this season.

13. New York Jets (9-7). Not sure where to put the Jets, but that was such a dominating performance, and the Jets look like they can run on anyone now.

14. Carolina (8-8). My favorite player in the past month? Well, other than Jerome Harrison and Romo, it'd have to be Julius Peppers. He made a tremendously athletic interception to cap the Panthers' win over New Orleans. Watch the video. It's one of those circus kind of catches that you wonder how it ever happened.

15. Houston (9-7). The Texans finally won a big game they needed to win ... and probably ensured Gary Kubiak will come back in 2010.

"We're dangerous. You have to be able to run the football this time of year, and you have to be able to play defense, and we can do that better than any team in the league. That gives us a chance in every game, no matter who we play.''-- Jets coach Rex Ryan after the 37-0 shutout of the Bengals that sent New York into the playoffs.

"Master Lock Revis has put a lot of great receivers on him this season. That will not happen this upcoming [week]. Darrelle Revis couldn't cover me in a brown paper bag on a corner of a Manhattan street in a phone booth. It's impossible.''-- Cincinnati receiver Chad Ochocinco, five days before being held to no catches against the Jets' corner Sunday night at the Meadowlands.

Chad told Bob Costas he'd change his name back to Chad Johnson if Revis shut him down Sunday night. Your move, Chad. Asked by a reporter after the game if he still planned to change his last name back to "Johnson,'' OchoCinco said, "Child, please.''

"On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, I would say 17, somewhere in that range.''-- Miami coach Tony Sparano last week, on the number of hours his coaches work during the week during the season. Sparano added that he gets into the office at 4 or 4:30 a.m. most days. "And 2:30, 3 a.m. this week,'' he said, referring to preparation days for the Steelers game on Sunday.

How is it possible for a man to be that productive working that long, every week?

Offensive Player of the Week

Willis McGahee, RB, Baltimore.

Hard to ignore the eighth-biggest running game of all time (Jamaal Charles' 259-yard day at Denver), but the Ravens were in a taut tilt at Oakland in the second quarter when McGahee had, in all probability, the greatest run of his life, busting through the Oakland line, then swatting away defensive back Hiram Eugene when it looked like Eugene was coming for the kill, and running 77 yards for what proved to be the eventual winning points. For the game, McGahee ran 16 times for 167 yards and three touchdowns, by far his biggest game of his season -- a season in which Ray Rice, until Sunday, had left him in the dust.

Defensive Player of the Week

Derrick Johnson, LB, Kansas City.

Lots of good candidates, but Johnson, playing the game of his life in a contest the Broncos had to have, returned Kyle Orton interceptions for 45- and 60-yard touchdowns, the daggers in a 44-24 stunner over the Broncos. Johnson had six tackles and four passes defensed on the day, and for a player who's been largely a disappointment, this game rekindled the hope that he can be a part of the Chiefs' future.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Nate Kaeding, K, San Diego.

With 47-, 24- and 45-yard field goals, Kaeding capped a strong year with an 11-point game, ensuring San Diego would finish the regular season on an 11-game win streak.

Coach of the Week

John Fox, head coach, Carolina.

With nothing to play for the past three weeks, Fox's team went 3-0 against teams that finished a combined 33-15 (Vikings, Giants, Saints). Though the Saints didn't come to play Sunday in Charlotte, Carolina beating three teams 90-26 when the games meant only pride is a sign Fox has the attention of every player in his locker room. A superb end-of-season run by one of the game's best coaches.

Goat of the Week

The Giants.

I hate giving a collective award here, but this isn't the lazy way out. It's reality. The Giants were a crushing disappointment, especially in a 44-7 loss at the Metrodome Sunday. In the final 11 games of the season, New York went 3-8 ... and allowed 48, 40, 45, 41 and 44 points in five of those losses. It's outrageous, really, that a team with such a defensive r�sum� played so poorly.

I don't like putting five quarterbacks on my final list of the year, but I had to put the five most indispensable guys here ... and if I had to put a sixth, I'd likely put Romo ahead of Darrelle Revis and Chris Johnson.

1. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis. To sum up for those who haven't followed this section this year: Manning wins because he broke in two new receivers (Austin Collie, Pierre Garcon), had the most accurate year of his career, with the second-most yards, despite throwing away much of two games at the end ... and the Colts started 14-0. Not only would this be his fourth MVP award if the actual results match mine -- the most any player has won -- but also it'd be his fourth in one decade.

2. Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego. Another triggerman for a team with a double-digit win streak and a just-OK run game. This is the year Rivers joined the elite of NFL quarterbacks -- and it's not going to be for just a little while.

3. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. Brees broke the single-season record for accuracy by a quarterback by sitting Sunday ... even though three decimal places will say he actually tied Ken Anderson's 1982 record of completing 70.6 percent of his passes. The exact numbers give Brees the edge. He completed 70.62 percent his passes (363 of 514) this year, as opposed to 70.55 percent (218-309) for Anderson in 1982. Even though he sat, Brees still played six more games than Anderson in 1982 because of the players' strike that shortened that season to nine games.

4. (tie) Brett Favre, QB, Minnesota. His most accurate season (.682), and tied for his best touchdown-to-interception differential (plus-26). An amazing year for a guy who was convinced Aug. 1 he wasn't playing.

4. (tie) Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay. Poetic justice, isn't it, that Rodgers pulls even with Favre in the final week of the year. Don't know if anyone else will do it today, but I think it's due: Eighteen months ago, Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy got roundly taken to the cleaners in the court of public opinion, but now that Rodgers has turned into a top-flight quarterback, I just think it's time to say those guys knew what they were doing.

Aaron Rodgers had Bob Lanier shoes to fill when he took the field for the Packers in September 2008, replacing Favre. Packer Nation either said good riddance to Favre (some), the front office is foolish for dumping Favre (maybe half), we're worried as heck about Rodgers (most), or some combination of those. Worry no more. After two regular seasons, Rodgers is not only a capable replacement, but also bordering on being prolific.

Take a look at the combined numbers for Favre's first two MVP years and Rodgers' first two as a starter:

They're about equally efficient. Favre was more explosive and won more. Rodgers ran better and was slightly more accurate. If you compared apples to apples -- Favre's first two starting seasons (not his first two MVP seasons, but his first two shaky starting seasons) and Rodgers' same two -- the one thing that would stick out is Rodgers' plus-37 TD-to-interception differential and Favre's plus-0.

Bottom line: Rodgers is off to a fabulous start, by any measure. Think of the men who replaced legendary passers of recent vintage like Joe Montana (Steve Young), Dan Marino (Jay Fiedler), John Elway (Brian Griese), Dan Fouts (Stan Humphries, eventually), Troy Aikman (Quincy Carter), and Jim Kelly (Rob Johnson). Young's the only star of the lot.

My favorite 2010 scheduling notes:

• Eli at Peyton. A Manning Bowl for the first time ever in Indianapolis.

• The Pats and Colts change venues. First there were five straight New England-Indy games in Foxboro. Now there have been four straight in Indiana. Next year, it shifts back to New England.

• Brutal sked for the Pats: Indy, Minnesota, Green Bay, Cincinnati and Baltimore at home; San Diego and Pittsburgh on the road.

• Giants at Vikes for the third straight year. Does the NFL dare make it a Week 17 game for the third straight year?

• If Bill Cowher coaches the Bucs, he'll face his former team, the Steelers, in Tampa.

• There'll be three Favre Bowls, if he returns to the Vikes: Vikes at Pack, Pack at Vikes, Vikes at Jets. Fireman Ed will be hoarse after that third one.

• Speaking of reunion games, Albert Haynesworth's Redskins at Tennessee.

• Local Drama Dept.: Oakland at San Francisco, Dallas at Houston, Kansas City at St. Louis.

A cheap travel note. It involves only walking -- 25 minutes on New Year's Day from my apartment in Boston's South End to Fenway Park. But that was the walk each way to the NHL Winter Classic, Bruins versus Flyers, and it was a great day. First, the best thing was standing on the field while the teams walked out for warmups. Everybody smiling. Tim Thomas, the Bruins' goalie, smiling. The Bruins coaches smiling. NHL brass smiling.Jon Miller, the NBC exec whose brainchild this great idea was, pulled out his phone and asked me to take a picture of him, smiling, by the side of the rink.

There's something to be said for a sports event where everyone's happy, even the fans of the losing team. And I must have seen 10 Flyers fans taking photos outside Fenway after the game. Just a cool, feel-good event that was a gas to attend.

"Ted Williams he ain't.''--@Lucasentric, of Iowa, on Drew Brees sitting in game 16 and winning the all-time single-season accuracy title over Ken Anderson by percentage points (see MVP Watch above). Nine people sent similar Tweets.

Williams woke up on Sept. 28, 1941, the final day of the baseball regular season, batting .399955. If he sat out a doubleheader that day against the Philadelphia Athletics, he'd have gone in the books with a .400 batting average. Manager Joe Cronin asked him what he wanted to do -- play or sit. Williams said, of course, he'd play, and in the first game of the doubleheader at Fenway Park, he went four for five, raising his average to .404. Between games, Cronin went to Williams again, asking him if was sure he wanted to play the second game. Williams said he was sure. In game two, Williams went two for three, raising his average to .406. So on the last day of the season, Williams, ensured of hitting .400 if he sat, played and had six hits in eight at-bats. No one has hit .400 since. No one's come within 10 points of Williams. The closest was Tony Gwynn, in 1994, with a .394 average.

Apropos of nothing, Williams didn't win the MVP that year. Joe DiMaggio did, getting 15 of 24 first-place votes by the baseball writers. That was the year DiMaggio had the 56-game hitting streak. The MVP wasn't a rob job, but consider that Williams got eight of 24 first-place votes for batting .406 and leading the league in home runs and having an on-base percentage (.553) more than 100 points higher than anyone in baseball that year.

I'm not equating the accuracy record with batting .400, just making a point about what Williams did. But it is coincidental that the accuracy record is not one of the all-timers people remember. In 1982, kicker Mark Moseley won the MVP (he kicked 20 of 21 field goals) in a pretty bad year for MVP candidates. In 2009, I would expect Brees to finish second or third behind Peyton Manning and perhaps Philip Rivers.

1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of Week 17:

a. I'm sad for any person in the business whose job gets eliminated, and I've felt awful for my colleagues at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Rocky Mountain News who lost their jobs in 2009. But this year's off to a rough start with the news that an excellent Redskins beat man, David Elfin, and a wise owl of an NFL beat man, Dan Daly, lost their jobs when the Washington Times, which has been losing money for years, eliminated the sports section of the paper in an attempt to survive.

Elfin and Daly have many fine colleagues, and I don't mean to slight them, but they're the ones I know best from the paper. A better correspondent than Elfin I never had in my years as the "Inside the NFL'' columnist at the magazine. He's battled Redskins management toe to toe over the years but never gave an inch, and I thought it was classy that Dan Snyder gave Elfin a Redskins jersey with his name on the back on his last day covering the team after 18 years. Good luck to all in finding work in this writer-eating business.

b. What a disgraceful last two weeks by the Giants.

c. Actually, I'm not sure which is worse in the last two weeks: the Giants or Curtis Painter.

d. Muhsin Muhammad should not retire. He can still cut, he can still run, and he still has good hands.

e. All four bye teams from last year -- Carolina, the Giants, Pittsburgh, Tennessee -- failed to make the playoffs.

f. If you can figure out what Bill Belichick was doing with his substitution patterns in potentially giving away the third seed (he didn't, because the Bengals lost Sunday night), let me know.

g. Other than Welker, Ed Reed (groin) is the injury that would worry me most this weekend. I expect Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (spiked in the knee) and Anquan Boldin (left ankle) to be OK.

h. How in the world are we going to get people fired up about the the Jets-Bengals rematch Saturday on NBC?

i. Sorry. I don't blame Josh McDaniels for Tony Scheffler saying he can't wait for the season to end, and for questioning Brandon Marshall's hamstring injury when the MRI on it showed no damage.

2. I think this is the way you build a continuum in the NFL: Last year, Marvin Harrison and Anthony Gonzalez, two of the top four receivers in the Colts rotation, combined to catch 117 balls for 1,300 yards and nine touchdowns. This year, Harrison retired and Gonzalez was lost for the season with a knee injury in the first game. In came Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon, in effect replacing Harrison and Gonzalez. Their numbers: 106 catches, 1,426 yards, 11 touchdowns. Collie was the 127th overall pick in the 2009 draft, Garcon the 202nd pick in 2008.

3. I think we could argue about this for a while -- particularly at outside linebacker, wide receiver and the offensive line -- but here's the All-Pro team and awards I submitted to the Associated Press this morning: Peter King's 2009 All-Pro Team, Awards.

4. I think if John Fox had his druthers, he'd coach out the lame-duck season of his contract in Carolina, then enter the 2011 season as the hottest coach on the market ... a season that history says will have a third of the teams in the league changing head men.

5. I think those of you worried about Charles Woodson's shoulder, don't be. When he came out of the game at Arizona, he told coach McCarthy he could return to the game if need be, and McCarthy said no.

6. I think this is what I liked about Week 17:

a. Good for Chris Johnson, the Tennessee running back who won the rushing title and finished with 2,006 yards for the season and an NFL record 2,509 yards from scrimmage. Goofballs like me wondered why the Titans took another first-round running back two Aprils ago, and Johnson has proven us wrong with not just the speed and shiftiness of a great back, but also the power inside the tackles.

b. Don't sleep on Malcom Floyd in the playoffs for San Diego. He's a 6-5 weapon too, just like Vincent Jackson.

c. Fred Jackson. The running back who went to the same college (Coe) as Marv Levy broke through with a 212-yard rushing game that made him the unlikeliest of 1,000-yard backs this year.

d. Terrell Owens. He passed Tim Brown for third on the all-time receiving yardage list (14,951) and seemed genuinely humbled after the game, thanking the fans for being nice to him in what's likely his only year in western New York.

e. Jamaal Charles. With 25 carries for 259 yards --eighth-most in a game in league history -- Charles now gives Scott Pioli and coach Todd Haley reason to think he might be more than just a changeup back.

f. Roger Goodell's gumption. And I've heard some wild speculation about what this advantageous "draft choice'' compensation or manipulation will be for teams that play their starters while other teams sit theirs. I'm told this is simply a germinating idea; nothing is set in stone. Goodell, though, is angry that so many teams (and fans) are affected by the act of a team or two. Let's see if the league office can come up with a plan that makes sense.

g. Isaac Bruce retires, with zero fanfare and 1,024 catches, 15,208 yards and 91 touchdowns.

h. The Atlanta Falcons winning their third consecutive game and finally having back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history. Oh what a season it might have been if not for all the injuries.

7. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 17:

a. You have to actually cover a player, Giants. Way to let Visanthe Shiancoe go in motion, then go across the formation uncovered, and catch the opening touchdown pass without covering him.

b. You have to actually tackle a player, Saints. Way to let Jonathan Stewart run 68 yards without touching him on the first series of the game.

c. I hear what Sean Payton is saying about keeping his guys healthy, but I've never seen a number one seed go into the tournament as cold as the Saints.

d. The struggles of Kyle Orton. He's proven this year he's a borderline starter, not a player a team can build a long future around.

f. Yikes. Mike Nolan's defense crumbled down the stretch in Denver.

8. I think if records don't matter much to the Colts, why did Indianapolis play Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark only long enough to get to 100 catches? It's fine that they did; I want a player to want to leave his footprints on NFL history. But to say Reggie Wayne or Dallas Clark catching 100 balls, or to say the record of consecutive regular-season wins by a team, is more significant to a franchise than becoming the first team ever to go 19-0 (and only the second team in modern pro football history to go undefeated for an entire season) is just flat wrong. And that's what the Colts have said.

This is likely my last word on the Colts' decision to bypass the chance to go for the unbeaten season, but I couldn't let president Bill Polian's comments to Rich Eisen on NFL Network the other night pass without a challenge. Polian said the perfect season "we did not feel was a historic achievement.'' But, Polian said, winning more games than any team in a decade, and winning the most consecutive regular-season games are "historical milestones that were worth going out there and risking everything for.''

I categorically disagree those milestone are more significant than 19-0. In my mind, they're not even close. Every football fan knows there's been only one 17-0 team, Miami in 1972, and never a team better than that. No football fan can tell you (with certainty anyway), nor does any football fan care, which team won the most games in the eighties, or nineties. The consecutive regular-season wins are certainly nice, but it's not imprinted on the brain stem of any football fan. Now, 19-0 ... that's immortality right there. And if you don't want to go for it because you don't want to risk injury, please say that. But to say it has no historical significance -- as Jimmy Johnson would say, "Puh-leeeeze.''

9. I think I've said it before about Tim Tebow and I'll say it again: The NFL team that can't find a spot for Tebow to help it win games is close-minded. I don't know if he can be an every-down quarterback, but I do know 28 teams passed on Joe Montana through two rounds because he was too small, 31 teams passed onTom Brady through five rounds because he was just another guy, and Kurt Warner went undrafted and twice went knocking on doors as an unwanted free-agent even after he won a Super Bowl in the NFL. Every GM didn't go to Harvard. Every personnel czar is not Ron Wolf. What I do know is if I ran a team, and I've got the 40th pick in the draft, and Tebow's there, I pick him without hesitation and pass the card in as, "Tim Tebow, football player, Florida.'' And I pop the champagne corks.

10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:

a. In the last 10 years, I've seen one very big game as embarrassingly one-sided as Florida's dismantling of Cincinnati -- the Baltimore beatdown of the Giants in the Super Bowl nine years ago. Fitting that they were both 27-point games. Just as the Giants didn't belong on the same field as the Ravens that day, Cincinnati looked like the Bowie Bay Sox against the Boston Red Sox.

b. Can we savor how great a college football player Tebow was before consigning him to the Bucs' practice squad, please?

c. Devils are amazing. Four straight wins over the Penguins, two straight by shutout, both by Brodeur. Met a guy in Blackhawk garb at the Winter Classic who predicting a Chicago-New Jersey Cup final.

d. Coffeenerdness: Ordered a triple grande hazelnut latte at NBC Sunday, and what came back was a triple venti skim 180-degree hazelnut latte. Uh, don't throw that skim crap at me, Starbucks. Not happening.

e. OK, I promise. Finally this week we're going to see "Up in the Air.''

f. Boy, did this season go fast. Incredibly fast. It's like you get on a roller coaster and just hang on, and before you know it, the Lions are 2-14 again.

Close

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