Just when you think you've seen it all, Week 17 happened. Matt Flynn happened. An MVP race that could go either way, Brees or Rodgers, went kablooey. As did Tim Tebow, the Texans, the Jets, Carson Palmer and the Raiders.
This is going to be a different column. Hang on through the opening bit, and you'll see why.
Five stat lines, all telling a story of the season:
From a veteran who might have played his last regular season game, to a struggling quarterback, to historic tight ends, to a precocious instant-star wideout, to a quarterback who we're going to have pay attention to right now:
Hines Ward's career stat line
Seems like the Steelers were doing everything they could to get him his 1,000th catch, when Ben Roethlisberger began the game in Cleveland Sunday throwing to him on two of the first three plays, and finally got him number 1,000 early in the fourth quarter, a shovel pass for minus-three yards, tackled immediately by linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. "The best minus catch of my life,'' Ward said, grinning, afterward. He's the eighth receiver to be in the 1,000-catch club, and it'll be interesting to see if that's all there is to his career -- I doubt the Steelers bring him back next year -- and if the Hall of Fame voters think that Ward, catching and blocking, has done enough to get a bust in Canton.
Tim Tebow's recent stat line
This isn't good, not with Dick LeBeau coming to Denver Sunday for a playoff game, not with the Steelers being the best in the league at disguising defensive looks. Tebow's going to have to be more efficient running the ball, and Willis McGahee, who knows the Steelers well from his time in Baltimore, is going to have to make Troy Polamalu pay when he comes down to be the eighth man in the box to stop the run. But you usually don't win a physical game against the Steeler defense.
Does it really matter who catches the ball as long as they catch it?
What this season may have proven once and for all is it's not important who catches the ball for a team, as long as that receiver (or receivers) can move the chains and be threats the defense has to gameplan for. Darren Sproles has shown that in New Orleans, catching the ball in space. And the tight ends in New England have shown the same thing. Comparing the New England tight ends with the Detroit wide receivers, both duos catching the ball from a 5,000-yard passer:
Victor Cruz went on IR last year for the Giants after catching no balls in three games. Has any receiver ever burst onto the New York scene like this? Ever? Maybe Homer Jones with his speedy explosiveness compares, but that's about it. And he emerged slowly over two seasons before impacting the league with Bob Hayes in the '60s for a few years. New York hasn't been a haven for receivers, but it's doubtful Frank Gifford, Don Maynard or Al Toon had the impact overnight Cruz has had on one of the Gotham offenses. Put simply, he's nearly as vital to the Giants entering the playoffs as Eli Manning. What he's done in his first contributing season:
You have spoken: You think Drew Brees should be MVP. I asked for your votes Sunday night between 7 p.m. and 1 a.m. Eastern time, and more than 1,800 of you voted. The results:
Interesting, but not surprising. After the last week, I expected Brees to win the popular vote, in part because of his greatness this year, and in part of what Bill Barnwell wrote about on Grantland.com recently. He called it "recency,'' as in "what have you done for me lately?'' Brees, in the last seven games, is 7-0 with 25 touchdowns and three interceptions; he has set NFL records for passing yards in a season (5,476) and completion percentage (71.2). In the last three weeks, Rodgers has lost to Kansas City, beaten Chicago with a five-touchdown night, and sat (coach's decision) against the Lions.
Amazing that sitting Sunday would do so much to affect the race. Or might do so much to affect the race. As @joshbickford wrote with his vote for Brees: "Matt Flynn changes my vote to Drew Brees.''
In other words, the sick performance by Flynn in relief of the resting Rodgers could well have the effect of leaking votes from Rodgers and giving them to Brees. If a rusty backup like Flynn can throw for 480 yards with six touchdowns piloting the Green Bay offense, doesn't that diminish what Rodgers has been able to do all season?
"That shouldn't be the case at all,'' Flynn told me after his shredding of the Lions. He seemed upset to think it might be. "The numbers today were just because we went back and forth all day. Nothing I did today should do anything to diminish what Aaron's done. He's the MVP, for sure, for what he's done from the start of the season.''
Let me weigh in on just that topic ...
The MVP dilemma. Brees made it a horse race, and more than that. In the end, early this morning, I struggled with what to do with my vote, one of 50 for the annual Associated Press NFL awards and All-Pro team. I could go Brees, or I could go Rodgers, or I could, as I've done before, split my vote half and half. I thought a lot about doing that, and I can see why some voters might do that. Unlike baseball, the football MVP is done by voting for first place. Not first, second and third, or more than that. Just one vote. So that was a consideration in a very tight race.
Brees has had, arguably, the greatest statistical offensive season a quarterback has ever had, with the most passing yards, the best accuracy, and the fourth-most touchdowns in a season (46). Rodgers set the NFL mark for passer rating, became the first passer to have 12 straight games with a rating over 105, led the Packers to the best record in the league, and had the best passing season the Packers have ever seen -- which is saying something, considering their Hall of Fame heritage (Arnie Herber, Bart Starr and soon Brett Favre).
Sometime after 5 this morning, I finalized my call. I decided not to split the vote, because I thought it would be a cop out. I felt I had to make a decision. And I picked Rodgers. Four reasons:
1. I thought Rodgers was better for the full season. Rodgers was 14-1, Brees 13-3. So much can go into wins and losses, and each man did more than any on his team to lead to those wins. But in the two midseason losses that ultimately cost the Saints the second seed in the playoffs, Brees was less than perfect, and it hurt his team. In a six-point loss to Tampa Bay in Week 6, Brees threw one interception late in the first half that Josh Freeman turned into a touchdown three plays later. Late in the fourth quarter, down six, Brees threw an interception in the end zone. Two weeks later, New Orleans went to St. Louis and lost by 10 to A.J. Feeley and the Rams. Brees threw one interception that was returned for a touchdown, and the other was turned into a touchdown pass by Feeley. In Rodgers' first 12 weeks of the season, he ground up every opponent with remarkable efficiency, throwing 37 touchdowns with just five interceptions ... almost the same way Brees played at the end of the season. In the last eight games, Brees was as brilliant as Rodgers was for the first 12. The Saints were 8-0, and he threw 27 touchdowns with four interceptions, and was a paragon of accuracy. But those two losses to, as it turned out, 4-12 and 2-14 teams, with Brees mistakes a factor, weighed on my decision. In the end, it was like watching two almost perfect skaters, and one lands the quad and one has a perfect program except for double-footing the landing on one jump.
2. Brees had five multiple-interception games, Rodgers none. Not decisive, but a factor. I also thought the TD-to-interception differential (plus-39 for Rodgers, plus-32 for Brees) and the yards per attempt (9.25 to 8.33, in Rodgers' favor) was a factor.
3. I wanted to respect statistics but not be overwhelmed by them. I have tremendous respect for Brees the team player, and I couldn't care less that he was throwing the ball up 22 with three minutes to play against Atlanta. All he's doing is executing the plays that are called. But I don't want numbers, some of which are exacerbated in blowouts like the 62-7 rout of the Colts (Brees) and 45-7 rout of the Vikings (Rodgers), to affect the vote unduly, particularly since Brees threw 155 more passes than Rodgers.
4. Rodgers won the head-to-head matchup. Again, not overwhelming. But a brick in the wall.
As for the Flynn performance, I think it could be evidence that it's the system and the supporting cast as much as the player that makes the quarterback in Green Bay. But how much stock do you put in one game? Is it anecdotal or absolutely proof? I think it's more of the former, but I just don't think we have enough proof. How do we know that if Chase Daniel, Brees' backup, started against the Panthers Sunday with all that talent around him in the passing game, and with a superb play-caller in Sean Payton who knows what Daniel does well and what he doesn't, that he wouldn't have thrown for 330 and four touchdowns? We don't.
One of the things that bothers me about not voting for Brees is that I think, overall, he's been the best quarterback in football over the last six years, with a phenomenal record of achievement. And he hasn't won an MVP. I sincerely hope he does before he retires, and if he wins it this year, I won't be bothered at all, because Brees has been a great difference-maker this year. I just think Rodgers has been a little better for the full season.
Maurice Jones-Drew and his rushing title. I don't know why I find such justice in that. I think it's because this was a year when the game was turning to the air so much, and the Jaguars had a chance to win only when the ball was in Jones-Drew's hands. There were only two teams in football that had the running game as their primary means of ball-movement: Jacksonville and Denver. And Jacksonville faced a packing of the line of scrimmage in a different way than the Broncos. Because Tim Tebow was a running threat, the eight-man boxes he faced had to be alert for option pitches and end runs, when safeties and linebackers needed to be set wide to be prepared for anything. In Jacksonville, Blaine Gabbert was not a runner, and he was no threat to pass the ball efficiently. This is why the title felt so good for Jones-Drew. He was facing the most concentrated defense he felt in his six-year career, and he was all of the Jaguar offense, for good and for bad.
"First time in my life I saw 10-man boxes,'' Jones-Drew told me. "Last week against Tennessee, we came out with two tight ends and two backs, and they had 10 in the box. That's unheard of in this league. The guys in front of me, I'm so happy for them, because they don't get the attention they deserve. I am lucky to play with them.''
For the season, Jones-Drew had 1,606 yards, 10 yards behind Arian Foster's league-leading total last year. And it was significant to him that the winning effort came against Indianapolis. He hates the Colts, and always will, because they drafted Joseph Addai over him in 2006. "Every game I ever play against the Colts will be special, and I don't care what's at stake,'' he said. "I always have something to prove against them.''
Legends of the Fall. Two of the great players we've seen in the last generation, Jason Taylor and Jim Kleinsasser, retired Sunday. They come from different worlds. Taylor's a city kid from Pittsburgh who went to Akron and got discovered by Jimmy Johnson in the third round of the 1997 draft. Johnson made him a pass-rusher, and 139.5 sacks later, he walked away. Kleinsasser, a farm boy from North Dakota, went to the University of North Dakota and became one of the game's best blockers. Just ask Adrian Peterson. "One more year! Come on -- one more!'' Peterson said to Kleinsasser this fall. But there won't be another year for either man after a combined 28 years in the NFL. I talked to both late in the final week of their careers.
First day in an NFL locker room ...
Taylor: "I don't know. I had big dreams. I just thought that first day, 'I hope I can make the practice squad.' But hey, I got the winning lottery ticket. I was drafted by a guy [Jimmy Johnson] who knew exactly how he wanted to use me. Right place, right time.''
Kleinsasser: "Now, you've got to understand. I came from North Dakota. Here I am in the Vikings locker room. That was the team. Randy Moss to the left of me, Cris Carter to the right, John Randle across the locker room. I'm like, 'Holy crap! What planet am I on? What am I doing here?' But soon you realize how everyone's got a job to do, and if you do your job, you belong.''
Most memorable day in the NFL ...
Taylor: "Tough to pick one. Very tough. One game I loved came in 2007 when we were 0-7 and the Bears were 7-0, and I got my 100th sack and an interception of Rex Grossman. That was memorable. Another day I loved -- and please don't get mad at me for this, Miami fans -- is when I played for the Jets last year and we beat the Patriots. What a great feeling that was. Winning was always the most important thing. I wish we did more winning.''
Kleinsasser: "Remember Adrian Peterson's record-breaking game against San Diego? [Peterson rushed for a single-game-record 296 yards against San Diego as a rookie.] I had a block in that game I'll always remember. It was a kick-out block to the sidelines, I think it was Shawne Merriman, and Adrian got a huge run, and he went on to make history. That was always important to me, because it was my job.''
Happiest day in the NFL ...
Taylor: "Well, I never met a win I didn't like. But like I said, we didn't win enough. I really wanted to win a ring.''
Kleinsasser: "I've always been waiting for that one. I had a great career, but I had two disappointing NFC Championship Games. I wanted to win a Super Bowl. It's such a team game, and if you don't win that last game, it hurts.''
Lessons of the game ...
Taylor: "The first day of your professional career is the last day you'll be 100 percent healthy. But ... I think the rewarding thing to me about football has been the ability to make someone's day, to have an impact on people's lives. That is something I really appreciate, and something I hope I can continue to do. And one more thing: We belong to the best fraternity in the world.''
Kleinsasser: "Everything comes full circle. The same things that are important in life -- teamwork, hard work, work ethic, family -- are important in football. I was lucky to have such great parents who taught me the lessons I would need to know in football. Determination, sacrifice, having pride in your work ... Sometimes you say, 'There's no way I can do that,' but then you keep working with your teammates, and you realize you can do it. It taps into who you are as a person.''
The future ...
Taylor: "Maybe TV. Maybe something in the media. I don't know. Maybe nothing for right now except being with my family.''
Kleinsasser: "Take some time. Be a dad. Find my path. Find my passion. I don't know what that is. But I have time.''
Matt Flynn just made himself a lot of money
Before I get to Flynn, a few words on Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Stafford was brilliant Sunday at Lambeau Field. What he should do with that game is take every offensive snap, put them on a DVD, and put it in a drawer. When he's 45 and his kids are old enough to understand football greatness, put the DVD on and show them what a special player their father is. Not just for throwing for 520 yards, but for hanging in and dueling the Packers (he can't play defense) on a foul-weather New Year's Day on which he became the fourth quarterback ever to throw for 5,000 yards in a season. It's going to be fun to watch Stafford, Aaron Rodgers and maybe Jay Cutler duel over the next eight or 10 years.
Okay. Now onto Flynn. Imagine the value of a 26-year-old unrestricted free agent quarterback in a market with four quarterback-needy teams (Indianapolis, Miami, Washington, Seattle and maybe Cleveland) who won't all be able to move up to get one of the two quarterbacks expected to go very high in the draft -- Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. That brings us to Flynn. He'll either be a free agent and get to choose whatever team he wants, or have the franchise tag put on him by the Packers and be traded in March or April to the team that likes him the most. My early money's on Washington or Seattle. The Redskins have to have a quarterback if Mike Shanahan is going to have any chance to win, and Seattle GM John Schneider worked for the Pack when Flynn was drafted by Green Bay. But we'll see.
"That's an easy trap to fall into, to be thinking about that right now, but I can't let my mind wander to that, because I love this team too much, and this team has been too good to me,'' Flynn told me after his masterpiece against the Lions. He threw for more yards (480) and touchdowns (six) than any passer in the storied history of the franchise. "I have to be focused on doing whatever I can to help this team win now. So I won't let myself get caught in that.''
Flynn called it "humbling, unbelievable,'' to have played the game he did. "It just got to be a shootout,'' he said of the 45-41 Packer win. "During the week, I had a feeling I might play, and [coach] Mike McCarthy just said to me, 'We're going for it.' We were going to do whatever it took to win with the players who were playing. Aaron [Rodgers] really helped me. The history of developing quarterbacks really helped me, because I've learned to prepare like a starter, and I've learned to physically mimic him as much as possible because he does everything so well.''
Flynn now has started two games in the last two seasons, and you can bet sometime soon (maybe this week) Shanahan and his peers in Miami and Seattle and Cleveland will be putting on the tape of these games:
Finally, just one more reason to kvetch this morning if you're a Dolphins fan.
In mid-March 2006, the Miami Dolphins were trying to decide between trading for quarterback Daunte Culpepper with Minnesota or signing free agent quarterback Drew Brees of the Chargers. One problem: Brees was in the early stages of rehabbing after major shoulder surgery, an operation that left in doubt whether he'd be near 100 percent for the start of the 2006 season. Brees had a generous (all things considered) offer from New Orleans of six years and $60 million, which seemed a little risky considering the surgery.
On the night Miami had to decide which way to go, owner Wayne Huizenga was out to dinner with a friend in Palm City, Fla., not far from his personal golf club, The Floridian. "I want them to sign Brees,'' Huizenga said at one point. "They want Culpepper.'' He said coach Nick Saban and the Dolphins' football people were worried about Brees' shoulder. Huizenga got a call on his cell phone and walked outside.
When he came back inside the restaurant, Huizenga said his football people were insistent that Culpepper, for reasons monetary and football and health, was a better choice than Brees. "I told them, they're the football guys, not me,'' said Huizenga. But the owner repeated that if it were up to him, he'd have signed Brees.
Miami is 38-58 since, with zero playoff wins; the Dolphins will have their fifth head coach since that night (including interim boss Todd Bowles) sometime in the next month. New Orleans is 62-34, with a Super Bowl win, with one coach.
Amazing how much damage one shortsighted decision can do to an organization.
So You Think You're a 2011 Expert? Take the first annual (oh, no -- now you're going to hold me to that) Peter King NFL Year-in-Review Quiz. Think you know what happened since the last Super Bowl? Then you should ace this. Fifty questions, with no time limit.
Before you start, two words of caution: No Googling. Anyone can use the internet to be a big hero. I'll print the answers Tuesday, and though I'd love to give an all-expenses-paid trip to the inside of my disturbed brain to the winner, this is for entertainment only. No prizes. But if you're feeling brave and think you've gone 50-for-50, send me an email to brag, with your answers, to email@example.com.
I've broken the quiz into three sections -- general knowledge, identifying the speakers of the quotes of the year, and feats of the season. Here goes.
General, Sublime and Ridiculous Section
1. What team, in a January playoff game, had 11 defensive backs dress for the game -- a quarter of the active roster -- and won the game because of that defensive depth?
2. A 40-yard-line seat at the first Super Bowl cost $12. A ticket to watch the Super Bowl last February in Arlington on a big-screen TV in an exclusive roped-off area outside Dallas Cowboys Stadium cost how much?
3. Which first-round pick in the 2011 draft has sisters named Passionate and Peace?
4. Five hours after the players and owners broke off talks in March in the nation's capital, which two negotiators were seen at the Westend Bistro in Washington with five empty beers bottles on the table -- and, I might add, were not very happy to be seen?
5. What Midwestern NFL franchise has traded up in the draft twice in its history?
6. Which father and son were taken with the exact same draft pick 24 years apart, the son being picked last April?
7. An NFL kicker competed in the Preakness Cornhole Tournament in the infield at the famed horse race in Baltimore. Which kicker?
8. Which NFL player's new book had readers standing in line to buy it 31 hours before it was placed on the shelves last June?
9. Under the new labor agreement, how many padded practices per season can an NFL team have?
10. Owners voted 31-0 in July to approve a 10-year labor agreement with players. Which team, not surprisingly, abstained?
11. One of the big keys for players in the new labor deal was earning a bumped-up percentage of all future television revenue. What percentage of TV revenue will players get over the 10 years of the current agreement?
12. In training camp, which owner, after watching a stretch of hard practices for his team, arranged for two ice-cream trucks, with chimes ringing, to drive onto the practice field?
13. Who are the Buffalo Bills' offensive and defensive coordinators?
14. Who is the only man to play for Joe Paterno at Penn State and go on to be a head coach in the NFL?
15. Which team, with six playoff appearances in the last seven years, is 5-25 in its last 30 preseason games?
16. According to commissioner Roger Goodell, a female is likely to be doing something in an NFL game for the first time in league history within three years. What will a female be likely to do?
17. In Cam Newton's first four games, he threw for 374 yards or more three times. In John Elway's first 170 games, how many times did he throw for 374 yards?
18. This NFL tackle tweeted on his iPhone that he didn't know who Steve Jobs, the inventor of the iPhone, and many other things, was.
19. Speaking of tweeting: Name the player who tweeted this season: "One of the reasons I don't tweet much is cause the weed jokes get kinda old."
20. The Rams scored four points in the third quarter at Arizona Nov. 6. How many times had that been done previously in the 92-year history of the NFL?
21. Name the team that started the season 1-4 and finished the season 0-3 and made the playoffs.
22. What coach took his team to the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery the day before playing a road game at Washington this year?
23. What team had two players whose names ended in "kowski'' who combined to outscore the New York Jets by themselves, 25-16, in a 2011 game?
24. This Villanova product and urban poet was signed to the active roster, released or signed to the practice squad a total of 21 times by one team in the past five months -- and had a grand total of two tackles in 2011.
25. According to an SI story in 2011, this NFL executive turned down an opportunity from the Jets in 1983 to be an offensive quality-control coach on Joe Walton's staff?
Who Said It?
26. "In this society, everybody wants to fire the coach all the time. We don't do that here.''
27. "I've been underestimated. I always find that to be a wonderful competitive advantage.''
28. "I hope John does better than I did, because I stunk at it.''
29. "I spent a lot of time in school psychologist offices. I didn't apply myself. I might have had some learning disability, but they used to give me these IQ tests, and one day my Mom told me, 'You blew away the IQ test -- there's nothing wrong with you.' I said, 'Mom, I just don't like studying.' ''
30. "They talk about heaven, and I don't know what is waiting for me up there. But I can tell you this: Nothing will happen up there that can duplicate my life down here. Nothing. That life cannot be better than the one I've lived down here, the football life. It's been perfect.''
31. "If [Ryan Mallett] is not a top 10 player in this draft, then I quit.''
32. "If Roger's in office for 25 years, this will be the toughest challenge he'll ever face. However it turns out, it's a resolution he'll have to live with for the rest of his career.''
33. "Albert Haynesworth can do almost anything he wants. He doesn't want to do anything. To me, that's the issue. He's one of those you walk into a meeting and tell him, 'Put the phone down.' The next day you have to tell him to put down the phone. The next day you tell him to put down the phone.''
34. "Robert Kraft is a man who helped us save football. Without him, this deal does not get done.''
35. "I will not play for another team. My last down of football will be with the Colts.''
36. "It's good to be in heaven.''
37. "We don't have a chip on our shoulders. We've got a bag of Doritos.''
38. "When I was sitting in that Green Room at the draft in New York, and I was dropping, and no one would pick me, the last thing I was thinking was it was a good thing. But I'm glad I got to fall way down. I should be here. It's the place for me. The game is bigger than us. The team is more than us. It's a community team, blue-collar and understated and not at all about self-glorification. Vince Lombardi put it that way: Winning is the only thing that matters.''
39. "I was told, 'Mayor Bloomberg just went on TV, said you should be, you know, punished to the full extent of the law.' I said, 'Who is Mayor Bloomberg?' ''
40. "Al Davis and I would talk for a solid hour, two or three times a month. Nighttime, weekends -- it didn't matter with Al. In all those hours and hours of conversations, Al gave me a Harvard Business School degree in pro football. It's something I could never repay.''
41. "The NFL would fall apart without me.''
42. "As a coach, your only job is to put your players in the best position to win, with all the different skill sets they have. What kind of coach would I be if I didn't look at what my players do best, and try to capitalize on those things?''
43. "Have a good day, Mr. King. And God bless you."
44. "Hey Ben! You Tebowed 'em!''
45. "I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses.''
Big Players, Big Games
46. He threw for 854 yards in his first eight NFL quarters.
47. He set an NFL record for field goals in a season.
48. They committed nine false-start penalties in a very loud road stadium.
49. He sacked Matthew Stafford six times this season.
50. He had games of 19, 17, 16 and 16 tackles but was not elected to the Pro Bowl.
1. Green Bay (15-1). Doubt it will matter, but sitting Aaron Rodgers Sunday means 20 days between Rodgers playing in a game ... between the Dec. 25 game versus Chicago and the Jan. 15 divisional tilt.
2. New Orleans (13-3). Lost Mark Ingram for the year, with a reaggravation of his nagging turf toe. Amazing how it seems almost meaningless now, the way the Saints are clicking. Scored 42, 45 and 45 the last three weeks, and the scary thing is, they could have had more.
3. San Francisco (13-3). Doubt defensive coordinator Vic Fangio had a pleasant flight home from St. Louis, after watching the Rams get two rushing touchdowns. Niners had allowed one in the previous 15 games.
4. New England (13-3). Not to rain on the Pats' top-seeded parade or anything, but foes threw for 4,703 yards on New England this year. That's so bad it's almost scandalous -- 1,348 more yards in the air than the Patriots allowed in 2009.
5. Pittsburgh (12-4). I have no idea how Tim Tebow is going to score more than three field goals Sunday. I'll almost be surprised if he put up that many points.
6. Baltimore (12-4). First home playoff game of the Harbaugh Era 13 days from now, and if Cincinnati can beat T.J. Yates and the Steelers can handle Tim Tebow, you'll never guess who will march into Baltimore for the game. Clue: Uniforms are black and gold.
7. New York Giants (9-7). We know they can score, and the pass-rush is a swarm, and the Giants will be a tough out if they can cover anybody.
8. Atlanta (10-6). Delighted to see Tony Gonzalez sign up for one more season, and thrilled to see him get one more shot at his first career playoff win. That's right. The man has 1,149 catches, second in NFL history in receptions, and has never been on a winning side in a playoff game. His teams are 0-4 in the postseason.
9. Detroit (10-6). How will Jim Schwartz convince his players they have a chance to beat Drew Brees on the road after surrendering 480 yards to a backup quarterback Sunday?
10. Philadelphia (8-8). Won its last four by an average of 19.8 points.
11. Arizona (8-8). Cards went 7-2 in their last nine. Not in any dominating way, but impressive enough.
12. San Diego (8-8). Best team in the AFC West at season's end, but there's this weird thing about the NFL. Something about six-game losing streaks being bad for your playoff health.
13. Tennessee (9-7). Quirky stat of the week: Titans won four games after Thanksgiving, scoring 23 in each win.
14. Houston (10-6). Entering the postseason as meekly as, and with as little momentum as any team since ... well, Denver.
15. Cincinnati (9-7). Healthier than their Saturday playoff foe, and probably a little better overall. But it's hard to believe in a team that beat one team with a winning record this year, and that team (Tennessee) finished 9-7.
Offensive Players of the Week
Hard not to pick the two guys who combined to throw for 1,000 yards Sunday in the breezy, cold snow of Lambeau.
Green Bay quarterback Matt Flynn. He threw for 480 yards, with six touchdowns and one interception in the bizarre 45-41 win over the Lions. The Packers have been playing football since 1921, and never has a Green Bay quarterback thrown for as many yards or for as many touchdowns. A virtuoso game in his last regular season game as a Packer. Flynn will be an unrestricted free agent after the season.
Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford. He threw for 520 yards, with five touchdowns and two interceptions in the bizarre 45-41 loss to the Packers. He finished the season with 5,038 passing yards, the most in the 82-season history of the franchise (Detroit was the Portsmouth Spartans for four seasons before moving to Detroit in the '30s.) A tremendous way for Stafford to end the season.
Jacksonville RB Maurice Jones Drew. With 25 carries for 169 yards against a line that was stacked to stop him most of the game, Jones-Drew, who has fought since 2006 to prove he was better than his draft stock, broke the team's single-season rushing record and won the NFL rushing title. No back deserves it more.
Defensive Player of the Week
Minnesota DE Jared Allen. He needed 4.5 sacks against Chicago and its pathetic offensive line to break the all-time single-season sack record of 22.5 held by Michael Strahan. He got 3.5 by midway through the third quarter ... and then was held sackless by a team that mostly bled the clock the rest of the way. A tremendous season by a player whose motor never stops.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Kansas City P Dustin Colquitt. The Chiefs-Broncos contest was a field-position game throughout and here's where the Broncos took over after Colquitt punts: the Denver 10, 14, 26, 16, 19, 49 (of Kansas City), 25 and 16. If you're going to force Tim Tebow to start from his 20 or worse five times, you have to like your chance to win. For the day, Colquitt -- whose brother Britton was Denver's punter Sunday -- averaged 47.1 yards per punt, with a net of 41.8.
San Francisco K David Akers. For the second time in his career, Akers threw a pass in a game -- this time on a fake field goal attempt with the ball landing in wideout Michael Crabtree's hands for a 14-yard touchdown. That gave the Niners a 27-10 lead with 16 minutes to go and turned out to be hugely valuable in San Francisco's seven-point victory. Akers added two field goals to his 2011 total, giving him 44 for the season; 41 had been the record, and he broke that last week. Which leads us to...
Coach of the Week
San Francisco special teams coordinator/assistant head coach Brad Seely. He thought of the cool play that turned out to be vitally important in the Niners' win at St. Louis. In situations when San Francisco failed to pick up a new sets of downs on third down and were left in field-goal range, why not have a receiver amble to the sideline but not all the way off the field? So they practiced it a couple of times, having Crabtree head off, hoping the defense would believe he's out of play and that only 10 players were on the field.
When it was called Sunday, Akers had the option to kill the play and attempt the field goal if he thought the Rams were getting wise. But the play worked to a T, and Akers saw Crabtree near the sidelines and the Rams ignoring him. This is what I like about the 49ers -- they're not married to the conventional way of doing things. That's a good reason they're 13-3 and have the second seed in the NFC playoffs.
"Hey, about an hour ago, their D coordinator told us, told [offensive line coach Chris] Foerster, that if the Giants would have lost last week, they were in the playoffs. He didn't mention that they still had to beat us today. F--- him, f--- these guys, In 2012 the Redskins are gonna be the NFC East champions, and that starts right f------ today."
-- Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan captured before the team's loss in the season finale at Philadelphia by Comcast SportsNet Washington.
"I'll tell you what. It's tough for guys to follow a captain that kind of behaves in that manner."
-- Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson, on Santonio Holmes, after Holmes got into a shouting match with a player or players in the huddle late in the Jets' loss to Miami, then, according to those on the sidelines, took himself out of the game with the New York season on the line. Holmes is a team captain.
"Who knows? Maybe I'll come back for another special season."
-- Baylor quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, after Baylor's Alamo Bowl victory over Washington Thursday.
Now, Griffin is almost certainly leaning toward coming out, and ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported Sunday he would enter the draft; he has until Jan. 15 to do so. All he was saying Thursday is this: "I want Baylor Nation to enjoy this," Griffin said. "It's not about me. I have a decision to make. But I want us to enjoy these next few days, and when it's time to make that decision, I will."
"Sam is an extremely talented player. Nothing that's happened this year has changed Sam Bradford's future or his outlook going forward. I think, in some ways, going through seasons of adversity can really be a positive for a young player or a coach or anybody for that manner. Nothing comes easy. Sometimes it's good to learn those lessons young so that it makes you really understand and you really cherish the opportunity.''
-- St. Louis offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, on Sam Bradford's sophomore-jinx of a second season in the NFL.
The Jacksonville Jaguars have done something I am quite sure has to be an NFL record this season. They have placed 31 players on injured reserve and/or waived players with injury settlements. The Elias Sports Bureau, which has the Jags for 26 players on IR (the difference being several players who were waived with injury settlements, which I count as players lost for the year with injuries), said Jacksonville has the most players on IR of any team in football in the last 10 years, at least.
The amazing thing is the defensive backfield. Twelve corners and safeties lost due to injury. That's almost worth an exclamation point. I've never heard of any position group getting ravaged like that before. Check out the list of the 31 lost Jaguars:
OL: Eben Britton, Kevin Haslam, Bradley Vierling;
RB: Rashad Jennings, Richard Murphy;
WR: Mike Sims-Walker, Brian Robiskie;
TE: Zach Miller, Martin Rucker;
DL: Aaron Kampman, Austen Lane, Matt Roth, John Chick, Aaron Morgan, D'Anthony Morgan, Steve Wesley, Mark Schiechl;
LB: Clint Session, Kyle Bosworth;
DB: Rashean Mathis, Ashton Youboty, Darcel McBath, Rod Isaac, Derek Cox, Courtney Greene, T.J. Heath, Chris Prosinski, William Middleton, Terrell Whitehead, David Jones, Scotty McGee.
Parity in the regular season (this is the 16th straight season at least five new playoff teams have qualified) and parity in the postseason:
In the last four seasons, home teams are 21-19 in playoff games.
In the last six seasons, the Super Bowl has been won by sixth, first, second, fifth, third and sixth seeds.
"Coach Jackson on 2012 role: 'I'm going take a stronger hand in this whole team, this whole organization. ... everything that goes on here.' ''
-- @CorkOnTheNFL, Raider beat man Steve Corkran, quoting coach Hue Jackson after the disappointing end to the Raider season.
Uh, has anyone told Mark Davis and Amy Trask?
"Nice knowing you Raheem Morris.''
-- @qbpick, after the Falcons took a 21-0 lead on the defensive horrendous Bucs 12 minutes into the Tampa Bay-Atlanta game.
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 17:
a. Romeo Crennel's job performance, which has to be one of the best by an interim coach in recent years. He went 2-1, including the Chiefs handing the Packers their only loss, and his defensive players showed how badly they want to play for him by allowing 33 points in the three games he coached. He deserves the full-time gig.
b. Telling Stat of the Day, from my NBC partner Joe Gesue: Steve Spagnuolo has lost more games in three regular seasons, 38, than Bill Belichick has lost in the last 10 regular seasons (37).
c. Jimmy Graham, with one of the best one-handed catches of the season -- with a Panther linebacker draped on him.
d. What a catch by Steve Smith, with Gumby-like use of his feet on the sideline.
e. Miami: a 21-play, 94-yard drive against a defense we all thought was supposed to be good this year.
f. Though he got fricasseed in the court of public opinion all season, Philip Rivers ended up a 4,624-yard passer this season, with a plus-seven TD-to-pick differential. Not great, certainly. But not a nightmare either.
g. Everything about Matthew Stafford this season -- from staying healthy for four months, to throwing the deep ball with such accuracy and instinct, and forming the best deep-ball bond in the game with Calvin Johnson.
h. Washington has a slew of offensive problems to fix, but Jabar Gaffney's not one of them ... 68 catches for 947 yards was a good season for a guy who always seems to get open.
i. Fitting that Indy linebacker Pat Angerer finished with an 11-tackle game. Every time I looked up this year, he was in double digits in tackles.
j. If this is it in Coltville for Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis (I think it is for both looming free agents), they went out well, Wayne with eight catches and Mathis with a sack of Blaine Gabbert.
k. The New England tight ends: 15 catches, 246 yards, three touchdowns. Who will cover them in the postseason?
l. Kudos, Rob Gronkowski, for the best offensive season a tight end has had: 90 catches, 1,327 yards (most ever by a tight end), 14.7 yards per catch, 17 touchdowns (most ever by a tight end).
2. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 17:
a. Stupid call in Patriots-Bills late in the half, with Tom Brady chasing the play after an interception and Drayton Florence blocking him, and Florence getting a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness. For, as the officials ruled, driving Brady into the ground. Dumb call. All Florence did was block a man going toward the pile, presumably to try to make a tackle.
b. Awful clock management in the final minute of the first half by Buffalo coach Chan Gailey, letting 25 seconds run off the clock instead of taking one of two timeouts left with the ball in New England territory.
c. You're kidding, Panthers. Fifteen seconds left in the first half and you let Marques Colston get behind everyone in the secondary and catch a bomb for a late, defensively idiotic touchdown?
d. The Giants not being able to run well. That's going to hurt at some point in the playoffs.
e. Another reason for Brett Favre Haters to rise up: When Favre took a dive and handed Michael Strahan the last sack of his record-setting 22.5-sack season a decade ago, he set the stage for Sunday, when Jared Allen, who finished with 22, would have had the record if Favre hadn't been so charitable toward Strahan.
f. The Raiders and penalties: 163 of them (10.2 per game) for 1,358 yards ... both being NFL records. (Read Joe Posnanski's take here.)
g. Carson Palmer's season wasn't good enough to get the Raiders into the playoffs. Raiders without Palmer: 4-2. Raiders with Palmer: 4-6.
h. One more thing Hue Jackson has to figure out: Palmer's passer rating: 80.5; Campbell's, 84.1. A lot of that is Palmer learning on the fly, to be sure. But that just means there will be all the more pressure on Palmer to be a playoff quarterback in a weak division in 2012.
i. The Bucs have too many high picks on defense who are too entitled before they've done anything great.
j. Points allowed, Tampa, last eight games: 37, 35, 23, 38, 41, 31, 48, 45. A disgrace is what it is. How does a head coach with a defensive background allow that to happen?
k. Speaking of defense, what are Jim Schwartz and Gunther Cunningham going to do this week with the Lions? Yards allowed last five games: 438, 425, 477, 367, 550. And now going back to New Orleans.
l. Bears offensive line ended 2011 in style, allowing seven sacks.
3. I think it's the golden age for so many things in the NFL, including punting. Number of punters with 40-yard net punting averages in 2011: nine. Number of the same in 2010: three. Andy Lee of the Niners averaged 50.9 yards gross and an amazing 44.0 net, while his Bay Area neighbor, Shane Lechler, was similarly great -- 50.8, 40.9.
4. I think Rex Ryan's practice of coddling Santonio Holmes went way too far when he made Holmes a captain before the season, and the Jets are paying for it now. Holmes is far too immature to be a captain. Ryan thought he could turn Holmes into a leader by giving him a position of authority. Instead, it enabled him to act entitled, and his teammates all saw him pouting and acting sullen throughout the game Sunday.
Of the many things the Jets have to fix in 2012, Holmes' attitude and Ryan's willingness to so easily hand over a position of authority as a carrot to a player he's trying to motivate is on page one of the list.
5. I think the one thing Rams owner Stan Kroenke did not like when he looked at his team over the last three years of the Steve Spagnuolo reign is that the Rams not only went 10-38 ... but also had one victory over a team that finished the season with a winning record. That came this year, with the win over the Saints.
6. I think the Bucs can get a new coach, and will. But if the fans don't see the Glazers spend in free agency this year, they won't come back in the numbers the franchise needs to flourish.
7. I think it'd be an upset if Crennel doesn't return as full-time Chiefs coach, with a strong offensive coordinator imported to coach Matt Cassel -- if, as the team presumes, Cassel is back next year.
8. I think here are some 2012 schedule highlights:
a. Drew Brees at Aaron Rodgers, again. Hope that becomes like the Colts and Patriots have been for so long -- an annual game.
b. Yes, Colts at Pats, again. Tom Brady needs a new Peyton -- or he needs the current Peyton to get back healthy so we can see more great duels.
c. And Tebow, or whoever Denver's quarterback is, at New England too.
d. Cam Newton and the Panthers at Michael Vick and the Eagles.
e. Tough road for the Niners next year. The Rex Ryan Jets (angry, I presume) on the road, along with Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady ... all away from home. And a rematch of the Handshake Bowl at Candlestick -- Jim Schwartz and the Lions will come to town.
f. Green Bay at the Giants, again. And Green Bay at Seattle, which could be interesting. Could, because I think Seattle's one of the three or four teams I'd make a candidate to have strong interest in Packer free agent quarterback Matt Flynn.
9. I think Victor Cruz made my All-Pro team with what he did over the last month or so, particularly with the 99-yard catch-and-run TD to spur the win over the Jets last week, and the 74-yard version of the same Sunday night to start the Giants on their rout of the Cowboys. In all, he averaged a 123-yard game over the last seven weeks, when the Giants had to ride the passing game so heavily because they just can't run it efficiently.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Haven't seen Girl With the Dragon Tattoo yet. Dying to. Figuratively.
b. The 24/7 show on the Rangers-Flyers continues to be the model for what sports reality shows should be. It's more real to me than Hard Knocks, and I love Hard Knocks.
c. Happy New Year, Steve Sabol. I can't tell you how many people have asked me this year, "How's Steve doing?'' Wishing you a great year.
d. You too with the Happy New Year, Paul and Linda Zimmerman.
e. That was a rough movie to watch the other night, The Hours. Had no idea what it was. That'll sober you up in a hurry. How brilliant is Meryl Streep? I could watch her plant a garden.
f. Our first New Year's Eve in New York was a real barnburner. Slept through it, though I'm told there was a lot of yelling and screaming and fireworks. No recollection of any of it.
g. Coffeenerdness: To the woman in the East Side Starbucks who put a white cream mask of some sort on her face while nursing a coffee the other day and reading the paper ... I mean, gross.
h. Beernerdness: Beer highlight of the week, by far, was having my first Allagash White on tap in about six weeks the other day. That stuff's the nectar of the gods. You have to try it. It's the beer from the little brewery in Portland, Maine, that knows how to make a good white beer as well as anyone.
i. Winenerdness ... and no, I'm not starting this as a column staple, but I did want to praise Dan Patrick for introducing me to Hollywood & Vine cabernet, which we've had at some NBC Saturday night dinners this year. Had it the other night, and I was reminded how good it was -- smooth with a strong taste of blackberry.
j. Thanks to all for their concern and Twitter care and help in finding daughter Mary Beth's lost dog in Seattle. Lucy the shepherd-lab mix turned up a day later at an animal shelter, and the reunion was a good one.