Sunday January 10th, 2010

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight after taking in three-fourths of the NFL wild-card playoff weekend and preparing to write a separate story after attending the fourth game ...

• I'm not going to proclaim the dynasty is dead and start writing the obit. I'm not going to give into the sweeping overstatement, made for dramatic effect. As long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are still around, the New England Patriots should remain both relevant and relatively successful.

But it's not knee-jerk in the least to admit that these are not the same old Patriots. As the new decade opens, it's obvious that the NFL's team of the just-past decade is no longer the outfit that has inspired awe, admiration and a good bit of fear for most of the past 10 years.

Nothing ever underscored that fact quite like the 33-14 destruction of the Patriots that Baltimore delivered on Sunday at Gillette Stadium. Don't let the score fool you. It wasn't really that close.

As the Ravens' always loquacious linebacker Terrell Suggs said after the game: "We gave them a humbling ass whupping today.''

That they did, and in so many ways this was the kind of loss that we've never seen from New England. Entering the game, Belichick and Brady had never lost a home playoff game together, going 8-0. Make that 8-1.

Before Sunday, Belichick had never gone one-and-done in the playoffs as a head coach, dating to his first trip to the postseason with Cleveland in 1994. That streak spanned seven playoff appearances between 1994-2007, but that's done too, now.

The aura that for so long surrounded the Patriots is gone. They won the AFC East and made their way back to the playoffs this season, but in reality they looked like just an average team most of the time. No signature wins. No sustained burst of dominance. All the vulnerabilities that showed up on that Monday night against Buffalo in Week 1 were still pretty much in evidence Sunday against Baltimore.

The Ravens jumped on the Patriots early, and never let them breathe at any point thereafter. That's what New England used to do to other teams, season after season. But now the Patriots have it done to them. And they don't always fight back or do anything about it. They got bullied by Baltimore, just as the Saints, Broncos and Jets bullied them earlier this season. And we're just not used to seeing that from a New England team.

In truth, since that shocking Super Bowl loss to the Giants about 23 months ago, little has gone right for New England. There was Brady's stunning knee injury in the 2008 opener, finding a way to somehow miss the playoffs despite an 11-5 record that season, and this year's tougher-than-expected weekly grind to 10-6. And now this, a quick playoff exit by a team that seemed to be bounced out of the postseason almost before it had even begun, with New England being run over for 234 yards of Ravens rushing in the process.

As long as Belichick and Brady return, the Patriots aren't finished as a playoff contender. But their days of owning the Super Bowl and running roughshod in the postseason are long over, and they aren't scaring anyone these days when they break the huddle. These aren't the Patriots we remember. These aren't the Patriots the rest of the NFL has put on a pedestal. But these are the Patriots as they currently exist: Good, but far from great, and flawed in any number of ways.

This is going to take some getting used to.

• As it turns out, it wasn't really about missing Wes Welker for New England. It was about missing Randy Moss. Five catches for 48 yards in the biggest game of the season just isn't going to cut it for the Patriots passing game.

• Can't remember ever seeing Tom Brady look so inaccurate. It was Brady's first three-interception game since the 2007 AFC title game against San Diego, and it could have been worse for Brady. Coincidentally, that three-pick showing against the Chargers was in New England's most recent playoff win. Brady also lost a fumble to complete his four-turnover day.

• What a playoff weekend it has been so far for young NFL running backs. With Baltimore's Ray Rice hammering away at the Patriots for 159 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, the Ravens offense could get away with quarterback Joe Flacco going 4 of 10 for 34 yards and an interception.

The Jets got 135 yards and a 39-yard touchdown run out of rookie Shonn Greene in their 24-14 win at Cincinnati, and Dallas was led by second-year man Felix Jones (148 yards rushing on 16 carries, with a 73-yard scoring burst) in its 34-14 rout of Philadelphia. In a losing cause, Cincy's Cedric Benson went for 169 yards and a 47-yard touchdown run against the Jets.

• San Diego didn't play this weekend, but you could argue the Chargers were one of the big winners on Sunday. The Ravens beating New England sends the No. 5-seeded Jets to San Diego next Sunday, rather than the Patriots, who have been the Chargers' playoff nemesis in recent years.

I have a hard time believing that San Diego would have struggled to beat this year's Patriots, but in past years, the Chargers had New England in their heads. San Diego lost in the playoffs to New England in both 2006's divisional round and 2007's AFC title game.

Then again, given the roll the Jets are on, maybe Baltimore did San Diego no favors after all.

• Saturday turned out to be a very good day for the sons of famous NFL head coaches. In his very first try, the Jets' Rex Ryan accomplished something his father, Buddy, never did as an NFL head coach: Win a playoff game. Buddy Ryan was fired by the Eagles after the 1990 season, solely because he had gone one-and-done in the playoffs in the 1988-89-90 seasons. Buddy never got a sniff of the playoffs in his brief head coaching tenure in Arizona.

And in Dallas Saturday night, Wade Phillips, in his fifth attempt, finally joined his father, Bum, as a playoff-game-winning NFL head coach. The Phillipses are now the first father-son head coaching tandem in league coaching history to both win in the postseason.

• It could wind up being the replay challenge that saved Wade Phillips' head coaching career. At the very least, it was the replay challenge of the NFL season so far, when Phillips made them take another look at that Sean Jones interception early in the second quarter, after Philadelphia had just stunned Dallas and tied the game at 7-7 with that 76-yard Michael Vick-to-Jeremy Maclin touchdown pass. On the next snap from scrimmage, Tony Romo threw high to Miles Austin and Jones, an Eagles safety, made what appeared to be a diving interception, returning the ball to the Dallas 14.

But Phillips threw the red hanky, and replays showed that the ball came in contact with the ground before Jones had fully established possession. Rather than leading to a quick Eagles lead and a huge shift in momentum toward Philly, the reversal seemed to calm the Cowboys and they went on to score on that drive, and their next three as well, building an insurmountable 27-7 halftime lead en route to their 34-14 humbling of the Eagles.

• With the Ravens upsetting the Patriots, the Jets avoided the following assignment: Having to win in consecutive weeks at the Colts, home against the Bengals, at the Bengals, and back at the Colts. That would have been a run of Indy, Cincy, Cincy, Indy if you're keeping score at home.

• I really don't like Matt Light's chances to ever pull on a Patriots uniform again after the New England loss on Sunday. And it didn't slow down the team's transition to Sebastian Vollmer at offensive left tackle one bit when Light got beaten badly by the Ravens' Terrell Suggs on New England's first offensive snap, with Suggs stripping Brady of the ball and recovering it to set up the second Baltimore touchdown.

Quirky, quirky stuff.

• They can't possibly meet now until the AFC title game, but are you starting to get the feeling maybe the Colts should have played their starters the whole way in Week 16 and eliminated the plucky Jets when they had the chance? If New York gets another shot at Indy, I'm pretty sure Jim Caldwell will play his starters the whole game.

Can you imagine the irony if New York is the team that knocks the Colts out of the playoffs after the whole Week 16 play/rest debate in Indy? I wouldn't want to be the one to ask Colts general manager Bill Polian if he has any regrets about the way the Colts played it.

• Absolutely loved Mark Sanchez tweaking one Pete Carroll in the quarterback's post-game news conference Saturday.

"Speaking of Coach Carroll, I just want everyone to know, I completely disagree with his decision to go to the NFL,'' Sanchez said, who couldn't avoid cracking up at his own beautifully executed joke. "Statistics show that it's not a good choice.

"No, I'm just kidding. I talked to coach a bunch. I told him I was gonna hammer him about it, but I wish him the best whatever happens, whether he stays in school or not.''

Stays in school. That was perfect. Using Carroll's own words against him was a masterstroke by the Jets rookie quarterback, and I like the way the kid thinks. A long memory always helps in the NFL.

• Speaking of Sanchez, I think what he really needs is to show a little enthusiasm out there. Did you see him running around like a madman during the Jets' beatdown of the Bengals, jumping on teammates and high-fiving everyone in sight? He made me tired just watching him.

• After the Cowboys' thrashing of the Eagles, I think it's time to shelve the cliché about it being tough for anyone to beat the same team three times in the same season. It's happened now two years in a row in the playoffs, with Dallas-Philly this time around and the Steelers over the Ravens last season.

If one team is clearly better than the other, apparently it's not so difficult to pull off the three-peat.

• In a game of that magnitude for Philadelphia, how is it possible that Brian Westbrook touches the ball once all game? Westbrook is one of the Eagles' most proven and experienced big-game performers, and he never ran the ball once against Dallas, and caught just one pass for 27 yards.

Inexplicable.

Shayne Graham? No, forever more in Cincinnati he'll be known as "Shank'' Graham. You miss from 28 and 35 yards in a playoff game in which your team loses by 10, you deserve whatever grief you get.

• Pretty disappointing performance by Carson Palmer. He looked more like the untested rookie making his first career playoff start than Sanchez did. He started the game consistently throwing wild high, and he never really got his aim right all day. It wasn't as bad as blowing out his knee early in his 2005 playoff debut against the Steelers, but Palmer's two-game playoff career isn't much to write home about.

• As good as Sanchez was against the Bengals, the real rookie story of the day for the Jets was running back Shonn Greene, the third-round pick from Iowa who shredded Cincy's defense for 135 rushing yards and that 39-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

The Jets became the first playoff team since 1934 to have a rookie run for a touchdown and another rookie pass for a touchdown in the same game. Greene also is the third rookie rusher since 2000 to post a 100-yard game in the playoffs, joining Baltimore's Jamal Lewis in 2000 and Joseph Addai in 2006.

• As good as Thomas Jones is, and he finished third in the league in rushing this season with a career-best 1,402 yards, Greene looks like the Jets' future No. 1 back to me. The Bengals couldn't seem to bring him down on first contact all day long.

• Where's that Roy Williams been all season in Dallas? The Cowboys forgotten and highly overpaid receiver looked like a legitimate play-making threat against the Eagles, especially in the first half when Dallas and quarterback Tony Romo needed to get things rolling.

Williams finished with five catches for 59 yards, but the plays he made, and when he made them, were huge for the Cowboys.

• On the other hand, that was just the latest example of coming up small in the playoffs for Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb. The TV cameras found him all loosey-goosey in the pre-game, playing with Dallas fans in that glassed off tunnel in the new Cowboys Stadium, but McNabb could have basically stayed at the team hotel for all the impact he made in the first half, when the game was on the line.

Get ready for a new round of speculation regarding whether McNabb will ever be the guy to lead the Eagles to the promise land.

• There's a fine line between confidence and cockiness, and I do believe DeSean Jackson wound up on the wrong side of it in the week before the Eagles' rematch with Dallas. Next time, save your big-talking tweets until after you get your revenge against the Cowboys, DeSean.

• But while we're on the topic of cockiness, as much as I like the Cowboys' chances to beat Minnesota next week at the Metrodome, I thought Wade Phillips' club was just a little too pleased with itself at times Saturday night. A little too much celebrating after big plays. A little too much strutting and chest-thumping.

That kind of thing has bitten the Cowboys in the butt before, because there's no place in the NFL where success earns you more attention and praise than in Dallas. Just consider yourself warned, Dallas.

• The next time Chad Ochocinco talks about doing anything against Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, can we all just ignore him? No. 85 really didn't get a sniff of the ball against Revis the past two weeks, and it was painfully obvious there was no way he was getting open in one-on-one coverage by the Jets' All-Pro cornerback.

• How crystal clear is it that Cincinnati desperately needs a receiver who can stretch the field and make opponents defend the deepest zones of the field? I'd say that's job one for the Bengals in either the draft or free agency.

• Going in, I thought the Bengals were the biggest frauds of the 12-team playoff field, that's why I ranked them No. 12 in my NFL playoff power rankings last week. But they're even less explosive on offense now than they were at any point during their 10-6 regular season.

Cincinnati made the conscious decision to become a running-led team this season, but it did so at the detriment of their passing game. The running game and solid defense was enough to win the AFC North, but it's not going to get you far in the NFL playoffs. Yes, the Jets have the same strengths, but when two teams that both run the ball and play defense square off, it was the team that threw the ball better (New York) that prevailed.

• I voted for Peyton Manning as the league's MVP, but that said, in a four-man race that looked so close for so long this season, I'm shocked that Manning out-polled his nearest competitor by 32 votes (Drew Brees finished second with 7½ votes, Philip Rivers got two, and Brett Favre one). There's only 50 of us who get a ballot for the Associated Press's MVP honor, so a 32-vote margin is a blowout and a half. And I don't think the gap between those four quarterbacks was anywhere near that large this season.

• Add it all up and the Michael Vick experiment in Philadelphia this season really wasn't worth all the fanfare. Vick helped the Eagles with that 76-yard touchdown pass Saturday night, but he killed them too with that fumbled exchange/fake to fullback Leonard Weaver.

I believe they'll be teams interested in him this offseason as a starting option (St. Louis comes to mind as one potential good fit), but it's a bit of a stretch to say that Vick rehabilitated his career as a quarterback this season.

• I've already noted Andy Reid won the coaching tree honor in this year's playoffs, with himself and former Eagles assistants Brad Childress and John Harbaugh all in the postseason. But ex-Ravens head coach Brian Billick at least placed second. Both Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis and New York's Rex Ryan, who faced off on Saturday, were Billick's last two defensive coordinators in Baltimore.

• I wonder if Terrell Owens still thinks Dallas would miss him this season and regret its move to dump him? Let's see the bottom line tally: With T.O., no playoff wins in Dallas. Without T.O., a date in next week's NFC divisional round in Minnesota.

• That Tashard Choice, he runs as hard as Marion Barber used to. But don't get me wrong. If I'm the Cowboys, I'd keep giving the ball to Felix Jones as long as he keeps churning out games in which he produces 178 yards from scrimmage.

• Got my first extended look at Alabama's Heisman-winning running back Mark Ingram in the BCS National Championship game against Texas the other night, and I agree with the assessment I've heard for weeks now: He's got more than a little Emmitt Smith in him. Just the balance Ingram runs with, and the ability to slide through holes and never be brought down by the first tackler is very Smith-like. Those are big shoes to climb into, but Ingram comes closer to matching Smith's package of skills than any runner I've seen.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.