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,
Eeriest part of the day: Houston safety
"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
The Rams clinched the top draft choice by finishing 1-15, and an hour after his team lost to the Niners, GM
My money's on Suh, with a QB in round two.
I've never seen so many legitimate MVP candidates, by the way. Between
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.
We'll see. This team's a total X factor.
They'll fill his spot with
By the way, I said prior to week 17 that the Jets were the luckiest team on the face of the earth to find
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
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 (
"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
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.''
But Lechler needed maximum yards Sunday against the Ravens; he entered the game with a 51.1-yard gross punting average, just shy of
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.''
"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.''
"Master Lock Revis has put a lot of great receivers on him this season. That will not happen this upcoming [week].
"On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, I would say 17, somewhere in that range.''
How is it possible for a man to be that productive working that long, every week?
Hard to ignore the eighth-biggest running game of all time (
Lots of good candidates, but Johnson, playing the game of his life in a contest the Broncos had to have, returned
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.
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.
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.
Aaron Rodgers had
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
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?
• There'll be three Favre Bowls, if he returns to the Vikes: Vikes at Pack, Pack at Vikes, Vikes at Jets.
• Speaking of reunion games,
• 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.
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.
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
Apropos of nothing, Williams didn't win the MVP 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
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
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
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.
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
g. Other than Welker,
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
2. I think this is the way you build a continuum in the NFL: Last year,
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:
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
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
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.
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
b. You have to actually tackle a player, Saints. Way to let
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.
8. I think if records don't matter much to the Colts, why did Indianapolis play Reggie Wayne and
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
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
9. I think I've said it before about
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
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.