By Don Banks
January 01, 2012

Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a Week 17 that gave us playoff-scenario drama, record-breaking performances and the close of another unpredictable regular season in the NFL...

• That's the thing about magic. Now you see it, now you don't.

Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos are going to the playoffs as the AFC West champions, but this clearly isn't the same fairy tale we thought we were witnessing a few weeks back. Any way you choose to define it, at 8-8, and losers of three in a row, the Broncos backed into the postseason Sunday thanks to San Diego's 38-26 shellacking of the reeling Oakland Raiders.

They say that getting in is all that matters, but I'm not sure they're correct in this particular case. The Denver's offense was brutal at home in a 7-3 loss to Kansas City, and Tebow looked very much like the same quarterback who floundered around for most of 55 minutes in his very first start of the season, in Week 7 at Miami. So much happened in the span of those 10 weeks, but for Tebow and his team, this has to feel a little like the ultimate mixed blessing.

In the past two games especially, all the progress that Tebow seemed to be making as a passer disappeared. The Broncos' second-year quarterback finished just 6 of 22 against the Chiefs, for 60 yards, with one interception and one fumble lost. He ran just six times for 16 yards and was never a threat with either his arm or feet.

In some ways, I suppose it's fitting and brings us full circle to a degree in the Tebow story. Nothing about Tebow's game has been pretty this year, and when he and his Broncos went on that six-game winning streak earlier this season, little about it seemed to make sense. Now Denver's losing and Tebow's struggling, yet they're somehow headed for the playoffs despite it all, with almost zero momentum. Once again we're left trying to explain something that doesn't quite add up.

And don't look now, Broncos fans, but here come the 12-4 Pittsburgh Steelers, the best and most accomplished wild-card team in either conference. Denver will be a prohibitive underdog at home, and Tebow will be face to face with the most challenging and physical defense he's seen all year. It has the makings of a first-round playoff disaster for Denver, and that has to temper some of the enthusiasm for the Broncos' first postseason trip since 2005.

One more dreadful outing from Tebow next week and you wonder how much it'll temper Denver's enthusiasm about him from both the fans and the front office? Will John Elway start to backtrack a bit on the confidence he only recently started expressing in regards to Tebow's future as the team's clear-cut starter? Will head coach John Fox rethink his commitment to a Tebow-based read-option offense? Will the fans who adore No. 15 in Denver begin to see their faith start to crack ever so slightly if another egg-laying is in the offing next week?

As usual, none of the questions seem to have easy answers where Tebow is concerned. His situation has been unique from the start, and here we are at the regular season's end, and we might be even more confused than ever. If that's possible. The playoffs were the goal, and that goal has been attained in Denver. Tebow and the Broncos are still alive. It's just the magic that has disappeared.

• So much for Hue Jackson's oft-stated confidence that everything was going to work out in the end for his Raiders, in this year marked by the death of long-time team owner Al Davis.

Not only couldn't the Raiders win a woefully weak AFC West this season, but also Jackson mortgaged the team's draft future with the one-sided Carson Palmer trade (the Bengals make the playoffs as an AFC wild-card, while Oakland misses the postseason). Moreover, Oakland still finished just 8-8, the same record that Tom Cable got fired for in 2010.

The Raiders have no one to blame but themselves for not being back in the playoffs for the first time since their Super Bowl season of 2002. Oakland lost four of its last five games to waste a 7-4 start, and the parade of penalties committed by the self-destructing Raiders grew more comical every week. Palmer had another killer interception in the fourth quarter against the Chargers, his 16th pick in the 9 1/2 games he played this year in Oakland.

It was all there for the taking for the Raiders, but they wound up losing out on the third tiebreaker with Denver, their record against common opponents. The loss has to be galling for Jackson, who talked of Raiders karma this season and believed that Davis was helping divine his team's playoff fate. Maybe not.

If anything, the late-season meltdown will serve to limit Jackson's authority within the organization as Oakland goes on a search for a general manager to hire and brings a more traditional NFL structure to its front office. In the power vacuum that existed just after Davis' death, Jackson boldly inserted himself and made the deal for Palmer. Now that it didn't pay off, in spectacular fashion, the blame will rest quite rightfully and squarely on Jackson's shoulders. In Oakland, "Just Win, Baby'' rings hollow for yet another year.

• Got to love that the Bengals, the team that I'm not even sure the city of Cincinnati truly appreciates, made the playoffs in what was supposed to be a take-your-lumps kind of year. A rookie quarterback in Andy Dalton isn't supposed to take a team to the postseason, especially not when his best target is a rookie receiver (A.J. Green) and his offensive coordinator (Jay Gruden) is in his first year on the job, without the benefit of an offseason to install his program.

But no matter. The Bengals (9-7) hung in all season long, made the big Palmer trade and now get the last laugh. They're in the playoffs, and their disgruntled former quarterback -- who some say quit on his team this year -- is in Oakland, with the 8-8 and going nowhere (again) Raiders.

The Bengals lost at home to Baltimore on Sunday, but played fairly well for most of the game. Cincinnati got the breaks it needed with the Jets losing at Miami and Denver losing at home against Kansas City. And now they get one more bit of good fortune in the playoffs: A first-round date at No. 3-seed Houston (10-6), the AFC South champ that lost its last three games in the regular season, and might be starting a banged-up rookie quarterback in T.J. Yates.

Beware of the Bengals. They're playing with house money at this point anyway, and that alone makes them dangerous.

• It wasn't the most impressive Week 17 for the AFC playoff field. No. 3 Houston lost at home to Tennessee. No. 4 Denver lost at home to Kansas City. No. 5 Pittsburgh squeaked by in Cleveland, and No. 6 Cincinnati lost at home to No. 2 Baltimore. As for the No. 1-seeded Patriots, they needed a 21-0 first-quarter wake-up call against visiting Buffalo before they snapped to attention and buried the Bills 49-21.

• You have to say this much for the AFC top-seeded Patriots: They don't panic. That is one mentally tough and defensively deficient team in New England. No matter how big they fall behind early in the game, the Patriots keep coming at you, and remain resilient and relentless in their pursuit.

I can't say I remember a top seed that ever looked so vulnerable at the start of the NFL's postseason tournament, but when you check the bottom line, somehow New England is 13-3 and riding an NFL-best eight-game winning streak (tied with New Orleans) into the playoffs.

The Patriots love to live dangerously, as that 21-0 first-quarter deficit at home Sunday against Buffalo again proved. But it's not like New England is doing it on purpose. The Pats' defense just can't stop people early on in games, and it seemingly takes awhile until New England makes the necessary adjustments needed to slow down the opposing offense. But the Patriots had better tighten things up a bit in the playoffs, because you can't expect to score 49 unanswered points against anyone in January.

• That said, I also can't recall the last time the AFC playoff field felt this wide open, with New England, Baltimore and Pittsburgh all clumped so closely together in the conference's elite class. I picked the Ravens to make it to Indianapolis in the preseason, to face Green Bay, so I'll stick with that early September stab. But I really don't love anyone in the AFC this year. And I don't think I'm alone in that assessment.

• The big winner in Week 17? Give me the Falcons, because arguably no one helped themselves more in terms of a potential playoff run. Especially in the situation that Atlanta finds itself in this month, needing desperately to win a playoff game for the first time in the team's Mike Smith-Matt Ryan era. Let the Falcons suffer their third one-and-done playoff appearance in the past four years and the heat would be squarely on both Smith and Ryan in Atlanta.

But with the Falcons nailing down the No. 5 seed in the NFC with a win at home against Tampa Bay, while Detroit was losing a wild one in Green Bay, Atlanta is much closer to that first playoff win today. Why? Being the 5th seed means the Falcons avoid going to No. 3 seed New Orleans in the first round, where the Saints just demolished them last Monday night in that Drew Brees-apalooza.

The No. 6 Lions now have the unwanted assignment of opening up in New Orleans, where they too were routed this season, in Week 13. The Saints aren't invincible, but given the choice of playing in New Orleans or at the New York Giants in the first round, the 10-6 Falcons at least gave themselves the best possible shot to get a playoff run going.

• This competitive sibling rivalry the Harbaugh brothers have going on is getting ridiculous. Now Jim and John even have to match playoff seeds in their own little personal battle for one-upmanship. Jim's 49ers won at St. Louis to lock up the NFC's No. 2 seed, so naturally, John's Ravens had to follow suit, winning at Cincinnati to sew up the AFC's No. 2 seed.

Where will this end? Maybe Indianapolis. Imagine that.

• Week 17 turned out to be a fitting microcosm of the entire Bills' season. Both the game against the Patriots and the Buffalo season started off with fireworks, and then nothing. And I mean nothing. From 5-2 and flying high to 6-10 and another last-place showing in the AFC East. On Sunday, it was 21-0 Bills after one quarter, then 49-0 Patriots from there on out.

• The playoff-bound Texans were playing with their fourth quarterback of the season for most of the game against Tennessee, so on one level I absolutely get the desire to avoid overtime and risk any further injury. But to go for two points at the end of the game, even after getting a five-yard false start penalty? From the 2, go ahead and roll the dice to win or lose on the two-point conversion. From the 7? That's not really playing it too straight in terms of the league's pennant chase.

• Christmas came a week late for Matt Flynn and family this year. The Packers' backup quarterback all but backed up the Brinks truck Sunday at Lambeau Field. Flynn, a free-agent-to-be this spring, just expanded his market to ridiculous lengths with his 480-yard, six-touchdown pass afternoon in that 45-41 shootout win over Detroit. It's not easy to upstage the league's impending MVP, but Flynn just over-shadowed Aaron Rodgers, at least for a day, by setting team records for both his yardage and his touchdown throws.

I can only think of about 10-12 teams that might be able to use Flynn next season. I feel fairly confident in predicting his backup days are over.

• The Lions lost at Green Bay, but Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford set a couple team records of his own, throwing for a mind-boggling 520 yards and five touchdowns as Jim Schwartz's team went down swinging in a heroic bid for the NFC's No. 5 seed (which would have meant avoiding a first-round trip to No. 3 New Orleans).

Do the math in that Lions-Packers game and we were treated to a cool 1,000 yards of passing from the quarterbacks, and yes, that's an NFL record. The occasional Arena Football joke at the NFL's expense used to be funny, but not anymore. It's too close to the truth. Eleven touchdown passes and 1,000 yards in one game might be too much of a good thing.

• Patriots-Packers might be a fun Super Bowl on the indoor fast track in Indy, eh? A final score of 59-56 sounds about right, in the first 4 1/2-hour Super Bowl in league history, with no defense whatsoever being played. Judging from Week 17, I don't think either New England or Green Bay are exactly playoff-ready on that side of the ball.

• I don't care what Rex Ryan and the Jets brass might say, there's no way New York goes into the 2012 season with Mark Sanchez as the unchallenged and unquestioned starter. At the least, he'll have some serious competition for the first time since being drafted in 2009's first round.

Sanchez is what he is, and by that I mean we've seen enough of him now to know he's a middle-of-the-pack quarterback talent, and nowhere near the elite level. He threw three more inexcusable interceptions in the Jets' playoff-chance-killing loss at Miami, when New York desperately needed him to come up big and avoid the costly turnover.

Sanchez can't carry that Jets offense. That has now been proven. He obviously needs a running game and a stout defense to help him win games, and that formula wasn't there to be relied upon in New York this season.

• And let's not let the Jets defense off the hook. That's Rex Ryan's side of the ball, and he just watched his guys get trampled to the tune of a 21-play, 94-yard touchdown drive by Miami, the Fish's only non-field goal scoring march of the game. The Jets allowed six third-down conversions on that Dolphins drive, and I'm guessing Ryan was near speechless watching it unfold.

• You showed your true colors in quitting on your team, Santonio Holmes. The Jets receiver is a "me'' guy through and through, and clearly the Steelers weren't wrong about him after all. When the pressure's on, and things start to go against him, Holmes is the kind of guy who will take care of No. 1 first and foremost.

The Jets last offseason let Braylon Edwards walk because they thought the same thing about him. But in my book, Holmes just made Edwards look like a team player by comparison.

• Not that the Jets were streaky or anything this season, but they started the year 2-0, then lost three in a row, then won three in a row, then lost two in a row, then won three in a row, and then, finally, lost three in a row. That's how you get to 8-8 in the NFL, kids.

• Sorry, Jason Taylor. It would have been the stuff of storybooks if you had scored that career-capping late-game touchdown against the Jets in the last game of your 15-year NFL run. But Jets lineman Matt Slauson really was down by contact, and the league doesn't give gift touchdowns. Even for years of meritorious service.

• I don't know about you, but I am going to recognize Vikings defensive end Jared Allen as the NFL's all-time single-season sack king, with the 22 he racked up this year, capped by Sunday's big 3.5-sack showing in a loss to Chicago.

Allen may have come up a half-sack shy of Michael Strahan's 2001 record of 22.5 sacks in the eyes of the league, but we all remember how Strahan got the record-breaker that season. I wonder if Brett Favre had a flashback Sunday and fell down without a fight somewhere?

• Rough, rough week for Dan Marino. Tom Brady threw for 338 yards against Buffalo on Sunday, bumping Dan the Man down to third place in terms of the NFL's single-season passing yardage leaders. Brady finished the regular season with 5,235 yards, easily besting Marino's 5,084 yards in 1984.

Drew Brees, who broke Marino's record last Monday night against Atlanta, hung up another 389 passing yards in the Saints' win at home against Carolina, and has now pushed the new league record to a remarkable 5,476 yards.

Can a 6,000-yard season be far down the road?

• Sunday was quite the sight on the quarterbacking front around the league. You had Kellen Clemens starting for St. Louis, Jake Delhomme playing most of the way for Houston, Josh McCown getting the call for Chicago and Dan Orlovsky again under center for Indianapolis. When you factor in the likes of Matt Moore in Miami, Kyle Orton for Kansas City, Tim Tebow in Denver, Seneca Wallace in Cleveland, Carson Palmer in Cincinnati, Joe Webb in Minnesota and John Skelton in Arizona, it makes you question whether anyone had the same quarterback as they started with in Week 1?

• The Texans' injury situation has been ridiculous this year, but ever since Houston clinched its first playoff berth with that Week 14 win at Cincinnati, it has looked very much like a team content just to have made the postseason, rather than anxious to make some real noise in January. Three losses to end the regular season, with two of them coming at home, and the other at struggling Indianapolis, tells me the Texans won't be a real factor in the AFC field.

• That was a very close call for Colts fans at Jacksonville. If anything, maybe it was the Jaguars who should have been doing a little long-term thinking on Sunday, losing a game but winning the battle to keep Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck out of the AFC South.

In the end, the Colts did have to Suck for Luck, but at 2-14, there weren't any historic depths of misery they had to endure. There have been plenty of 2-14 disasters over the years in the NFL.

• The 49ers hung on in St. Louis to wrap up the NFC's No. 2 seed that has seemed to be their destiny all season long, but San Francisco still settles for too many field goals in the red zone. David Akers kicked two more Sunday in three attempts, and his 44 field goals helped him break Gary Anderson's 1998 league record of 164 points in a season. Akers even threw his first career touchdown pass on a field goal fake in third quarter, lobbing the ball to a wide open Michael Crabtree from 14 yards out.

I like the 49ers, but I just don't see their offense having enough firepower to beat either New Orleans or Green Bay in the playoffs. Those red zone troubles will catch up to them in the postseason. And did you notice that after giving up just one rushing touchdown in their first 15 games this season, the 49ers defense allowed two scores on the ground against the 2-14 Rams? Not the best omen for the postseason.

• Still not sure how the Rams failed to account for Crabtree lined up wide on that fake field goal, but I'm fairly certain that play did nothing to help the job security of embattled St. Louis head coach Steve Spagnuolo. That gaffe kind of neatly summed up the Rams' entire lost season.

• Again with the premeditated and illegal end zone celebration, Stevie Johnson? Really? At some point you just realize a guy is never going to learn his lesson, and you chalk it up to being his own worst enemy. But Johnson seems to think he deserves a big new contract from the Bills, and yet he's doing everything in his power to make Buffalo wary of paying him.

• Vikings rookie quarterback Christian Ponder left the game early against Chicago with an injury, and he's starting to look a little like Detroit's injury-prone Matthew Stafford, circa 2009-10. Ponder needs to stay healthy next year, because he has already opened the door enough for his backup Joe Webb to make the case that he might be Minnesota's real quarterback of the future.

• Brian Schottenheimer's job as the Jets offensive coordinator may or may not be in jeopardy after New York's first season of missing the playoffs since Rex Ryan arrived in 2009, but know this: Schottenheimer had his contract extended this year by the Jets through 2013, so he'll be costing New York a little go-away money if the two sides do part ways.

• If anyone still wonders why the 1,000-yard rushing mark just doesn't have the same cachet it once did, meaning in the much-tougher-to-achieve 14-game era, I give you Chris Johnson's 2011 season. Johnson topped the 1,000-yard mark Sunday at Houston, gaining 61 yards on 15 carries to finish the season with 1,047 yards on 262 carries, a 4.0 average. But it just might have been the least effective and least impactful 1,000-yard season in NFL memory.

• If that's your team's closing statement, Raheem Morris, I think we all know what looms this week in Tampa Bay. So much for your guys fighting for your job. The Bucs end the season on a 10-game losing streak, and Tampa Bay started mailing in its performances weeks and weeks ago.

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