Sunday January 17th, 2010

SAN DIEGO -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we, for the second time in a row, had the good fortune of being at the only dramatic game of the NFL's playoff weekend, that 17-14 Jets upset of the stumbling, bumbling Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium....

• Welcome to favorites weekend, and so much for the "rest versus rust" debate. For the first time in quite a while, the divisional round of the NFL playoffs was largely dominated by the upper seeds, rewarding those teams that rested last week and making a mockery of the issue of late-season rust and a lack of momentum heading into the playoffs.

In the NFC, the top-ranked Saints, losers of their last three games in the regular season, dismantled an Arizona team Saturday that had all kinds of mojo coming out of its 51-45 shootout win over Green Bay in the first round. Then the No. 2 Vikings, losers of three of their last five games, followed up by dismissing the red-hot Cowboys 34-3 on Sunday in the Metrodome.

In the AFC, the No. 1-seeded Colts -- who are always the epicenter of the rest versus rust argument -- sure looked rested enough to me, taking care of business in workmanlike fashion against visiting Baltimore Saturday night. Those two season-ending losses suffered by Jim Caldwell's club? No real factor, meaning Indy for now has dodged the bullet that always seemed to inflict damage in past years.

Form finally broke late Sunday afternoon at Qualcomm, as the No. 5-seeded Cinderella Jets beat the No. 2 seeded Chargers in a game that was so ugly it was beautiful. That outcome was all that kept us from having a once-in-five-years occurrence in next week's conference title games: AFC and NFC championships that would have matched the top two seeds for the first time since after the 2004 season, when New England (2) upset Pittsburgh (1) in the AFC title game, and Philadelphia (1) beat Atlanta (2) in the NFC championship game.

As is, three of the top four seeds survived into the conference championship round. Compare that with last year's divisional round, in which both top seeds lost their playoff openers (Tennessee in the AFC, to Baltimore; the Giants in the NFC, to Philadelphia), as well as the No. 2 seeded Carolina Panthers (to Arizona) in the NFC. Only the AFC's No. 2, the Steelers, broke that trend, winning at home against San Diego en route to their eventual Super Bowl title.

This year's playoffs feel like an aberration already, with all the lopsided games and lack of much drama (the Green Bay at Arizona shootout aside), but if it winds up giving us a Saints-Colts Super Bowl, it'll mark the first time since 1993 that we get a pair of top seeds pitted against one another in the last game of the NFL's season. That was the season the Bills-Cowboys rematch severely bored the football-watching public, with Buffalo and Dallas playing yet another uncompetitive game.

• Beware the Vikings, because recent history actually smiles much more on the No. 2 seeds than the top seeds. In this NFL decade (2000-on), eight of the 18 teams to make the Super Bowl were No. 1 seeds. But those eight went 1-7 in the Super Bowl, with only the 2003 Patriots earning a ring.

But of the four No. 2 seeds to make the Super Bowl this decade -- Pittsburgh in 2008, New England in 2004, Tampa Bay in 2002, and New England in 2001 -- all four have won the game and gotten the big confetti shower and the parade.

• It has all gone perfectly as planned for Brett Favre this season. Two years after he ended his 16-year Green Bay career with that galling home-field loss to the upstart Giants -- which his overtime interception helped decide -- Favre is once again leading an NFC North team in the NFC Championship Game. This time at the tender age of 40.

It's the Vikings and not the Packers but, let's face it, that only makes the story all the more remarkable. Whatever happens to Minnesota next week in New Orleans, I'd say the Favre experiment has worked -- and worked wonders -- for the Vikings. The organization kind of sold its soul last summer to entice Favre to town, but with Minnesota making its first NFC title game since 2000 (when it lost 41-0 to the Giants), you can't say it hasn't been worth the over-the-top effort.

Favre threw a playoff career-best four touchdowns against the Cowboys, and we now have at least one great postseason memory to put alongside all those huge postseason games he turned in for Green Bay.

And don't forget this: Favre is now just two wins away from becoming the first quarterback to ever lead two organizations to a Super Bowl title. Kurt Warner was gunning for the same accomplishment this postseason, but his playoff run ended Saturday afternoon in New Orleans.

Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Brett Favre and Jets rookie Mark Sanchez will be your final four quarterbacks this season. That's three of the top four vote-getters in the league MVP balloting and the season's top first-year passer going head to head in the conference championships. Not a bad bill of fare to look forward to on Championship Sunday.

• That wasn't a pass rush the Vikings sent after Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo on Sunday, it was a jail break. Romo spent his Sunday running for his life, and I do believe Vikings defensive end Ray Edwards played the game of his NFL life.

• Playing the role of Randy Moss, circa 1998, in today's divisional playoffs: Sidney Rice. The coming of Favre to Minnesota has been the absolute best thing that ever happened to Rice, the third-year receiver from South Carolina. With three touchdown catches against Dallas, Rice has found the end zone 11 times this season, and his six-catch, 141-yard performance on Sunday announced his arrival as one of the game's most potent big-play threats.

• I'm getting the sense that Sunday won't make a difference in regards to Wade Phillips returning to the Dallas sideline for the 2010 regular season, but I think it should. The Cowboys weren't just beaten, they were humiliated by the Vikings, who aren't 31 points better than Dallas by anyone's estimation.

If I'm Jerry Jones, I certainly don't offer Phillips the new contract extension that he said he had ready and waiting for his coach. I might consider picking up Phillips' 2010 option, but a new long-term deal would be out of the question. Though the Cowboys finally ended their 13-year playoff-win drought last week with that win at home against Eagles, getting blown out in the divisional round shouldn't make anyone feel too comfortable.

• Speaking of that, nice knowing you, Shaun Suisham. Maybe you and Nick Folk can hang out, grab some beers and try to figure out who might be the next Cowboys kicker. This much we know: It's not going to be either one of you.

• This week's DeSean Jackson "I-should-have-kept-my-mouth-shut" award goes to Dallas strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh, who was beaten in one-on-one coverage on Sidney Rice's first touchdown catch of the game -- that 47-yard, first-quarter bomb from Favre.

Sensabaugh, you might recall, last week said Dallas would have to beat itself to lose in Minnesota. No, the Cowboys just had to get enough players like Sensabaugh to come up small in a big-game setting to lose to Minnesota.

• Yawn. Welcome to the NFL's series of Blowout Bowls. Six out of the first seven playoff games this month have been largely uncompetitive. Other than last weekend's Arizona-Green Bay overtime classic, the average margin of victory in this year's NFL playoff games has been 21.3 points, with all six being decided by margins ranging from 10 to 31 points.

• What exactly got into Reggie Bush? The Saints fourth-year running back finally had the kind of spectacular game that everyone was braced for the moment he stepped foot off the USC campus in 2006.

Maybe he got a motivational kick start from seeing Pete Carroll re-join the NFL? More likely, he realized it was now or never in regards to ever fulfilling his vast play-making potential. And what was up with that black bat he carried on the field in the pre-game? Bringing the wood? Really? At the NFL level, do motivational gimmicks like that actually work?

• In my 20 seasons of covering the NFL, and in another 20 years of watching the game prior to that, I've never seen a punt return break open as wide and as early as Bush's 83-yard back-breaker in the third quarter. It looked like Arizona only had about six players on the field, and none of them thought Bush had the ball.

• In NFL history, a playoff team's defense has never been torched like Arizona's was these past two weeks. The Cardinals gave up 45 points in the final three quarters last week against Green Bay -- and won -- and surrendered 35 in the first half at New Orleans. That's 80 points on 11 touchdowns and one field goal in about five quarters of action.

And to think last year Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt fired his defensive coordinator, Clancy Pendergast, even after the team's Super Bowl run. What might he do to Billy Davis in light of this month's defensive meltdown?

• The Saints would have beaten almost anybody on Saturday the way their offense was firing on all cylinders, but the Cardinals having to face New Orleans without cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (knee sprain) and safety Antrel Rolle (concussion) for most of the game was almost not fair.

• Ultimately it probably wouldn't have mattered in the outcome all that much, but if you're Arizona, and you want to keep the ball away from the Saints' point-a-minute offense, how do you not keep running the ball after you get a 70-yard Tim Hightower touchdown burst on the first snap of the game? The Cardinals had just 15 rushes against New Orleans, for 101 yards and a 6.7-yard average.

• I'm probably in the distinct minority on this, but Deuce McAllister was a very good NFL player, and it doesn't seem completely right to see him turned into a mascot of sorts to fire up the Saints and lead them onto the field against Arizona. Did New Orleans really have to go to the trouble of adding him to its roster to have him play that ceremonial role?

• This much the Cardinals proved on Saturday against the Saints: You can't give up 45 points in the playoffs and live to tell. Not that anyone really needed to remind Whisenhunt of that particular football truth.

• The Ravens' crying need for more offensive weapons should be job one, two and three this offseason. Running back Ray Rice is all alone when it comes to the reliable options that Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has to choose from.

It's Rice runs left, Rice runs right, or Baltimore throws it to Rice. Baltimore could have played another eight quarters against the Colts and wouldn't have topped the 20 points Indy put on the board.

• Sometimes I think Baltimore beats itself better than any of its opponents could. Key penalties bedeviled the Ravens throughout this season, and they were far too prevalent once again in Indianapolis. And then there was Ed Reed's crushing move of fumbling away that potentially game-turning third-quarter interception. It was a fantastic hustle play by Colts receiver Pierre Garcon, but why can't defenders anticipate the strip tackle or the ball punch every second they have the ball on a return? They all run with it like they're already envisioning what the play is going to look like on SportsCenter.

• I knew Baltimore was doomed when down 10-3, it unwisely allowed the Colts to get the ball back at their 36 with 1:26 left in the first half and two timeouts still in their pocket. You don't give Manning another late-half scoring opportunity, even if you have to turn conservative with your own play-calling staring at a seven-point deficit.

That Reggie Wayne touchdown with just seconds remaining in the first half was the back-breaker that forced Baltimore into trying to execute a two-score comeback on a day its offense looked as limited as the old Ravens used to look in their Kyle Boller era.

• Just my best educated guess, but I'll be surprised if Warner doesn't come back for one last go-round in 2010. Getting absolutely blown up by Saints defensive end Bobby McCray on that interception return probably didn't make Warner want to think about playing next season at age 39, but I don't see him wanting to end his career on the down note that Saturday in the Superdome represented for the Cardinals.

Just what we need though: Another veteran quarterback retirement watch to follow this offseason.

• Here's what Warner should do: He should do whatever it takes to avoid ever playing another game in New Orleans. That building has not been kind to the NFL's most famous former grocery shelf stocker. He's now 0-3 in the playoffs at the Superdome, having lost a 2000 first-round game to the Saints when he was with St. Louis, the 2001 Super Bowl upset at the hands of New England, and 31-point beatdown by New Orleans on Saturday.

He should retire from the Superdome.

Ed Reed says he's 50-50 on possibly retiring, and he does have a neck injury to consider, but I'm willing to bet that the Baltimore safety is back in his familiar spot come next September. If you took a poll of NFL players on the day their seasons ended, with the long grind finally over, my guess is that more than half would be thinking about hanging it up in at least a corner of their minds. That's just the level of exhaustion and the mental and physical toll that the season takes on a player.

Gaines Adams gone already, at just 26? The Bears' third-year defensive end never remotely lived up to his No. 4 standing in the 2007 draft -- he was chosen three spots ahead of the Vikings' Adrian Peterson -- but he at least was getting a chance to re-launch his NFL career in Chicago, after being traded there by Tampa Bay in October. You have to think that Adams would have benefited from a full season of tutelage from Bears defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, one of the best in the business.

On top of the Chris Henry tragedy last month, it has been a season filled with some sadness in the NFL.

• You may not know much about him except for his familiar last name, but I stand in awe of the coaching career of Redskins defensive assistant Kirk Olivadotti, who just might be the NFL's version of a cockroach. And I say that with the greatest respect, in deference to Olivadotti's ability to survive anything.

The Redskins on Saturday announced that Olivadotti has been retained by new Washington head coach Mike Shanahan, who moved him from linebackers coach to defensive assistant, making room for new linebackers coach, Lou Spanos. Olivadotti, the son of former Dolphins defensive coordinator Tom Olivadotti, joined Washington in 2000, and is the senior most Redskins assistant in terms of tenure. Remarkably, he has somehow managed to work for -- and be retained by -- every Washington head coach of the past 10 years: Norv Turner, Terry Robiskie, Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier, Joe Gibbs, Jim Zorn and now Shanahan.

Mike Tice's decision this week to go from being Jacksonville tight ends coach to Lovie Smith's new offensive line coach in Chicago might be a lateral move, but it makes all the sense in the world when you consider that his son, Nate, is a reserve quarterback at the University of Wisconsin, having transferred there in 2009 from the University of Central Florida.

Chicago is a mere 150 miles southeast of Madison, Wis., and Tice is now in better position to watch his 6-foot-5, 220-pound son play ball. The younger Tice had to sit out this season due to transfer rules, but he'll be eligible in 2010 as a redshirt junior. I live in Madison, Wis., these days, and I've seen the Tices in town more than once already. People forget, but before he had a 14-year NFL career as a tight end, Mike Tice was a quarterback at the University of Maryland.

• I can certainly see why the University of Tennessee rushed to hire Derek Dooley, the former Louisiana Tech head coach and the son of legendary Georgia head coach Vince Dooley. Because things worked out so well for the Vols the last time they hired the son of a well-known veteran football coach. That would be the Lane and Monte Kiffin tandem. You remember them.

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