It’s the NFL’s dream, playoffs that seem as wide open as any in recent memory.
Any of the 12 flawed teams made it have at least an outside chance of getting to the Super Bowl. And perhaps winning it.
OK, realistically, drop the plummeting Giants and Cowboys and probably the Chiefs, who were a bit lucky to get in.
And make San Diego the favorite because it’s the least flawed, even though it is going in with a quarterback in his first season as a starter and a coach who has a career playoff record of 5-12.
Chicago is the top-seeded team in the NFC. Its quarterback, Rex Grossman, had as many interceptions returned for touchdowns against the Packers on Sunday night as he had completions (two each). And he threw in another pick for good measure. Passer rating for the half he played: Zero. Nil. Nada.
Want a favorite in the NFC? Try Philadelphia, which has won five straight and took the NFC East, which has three of the NFC’s six playoff teams. (All that means is that the East is less bad than the rest of the conference)
In fact, as soon as Andy Reid got word Sunday that Dallas lost and Philly had clinched the division, he benched his starters and still beat a presumed contender, Atlanta.
“It’s always good to get a day off,” running back Brian Westbrook said.
They might not get another for a while.
The playoff picture by conference:
The favorites have to be San Diego (14-2) and Baltimore (13-3), who will rest the first week.
They deserve it. The Chargers are the best team in the league by far and have enough weapons on both offense (LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates) and defense (Shawne Merriman, Jamal Williams, and a bunch of solid supporters) to match up against anyone.
That makes quarterback Philip Rivers and coach Marty Schottenheimer the question marks.
They’ll probably be at least OK – Schottenheimer now laughs when anyone refers to “Martyball,” the conservative, take-no-chances approach that may be the reason he’s lost so much in the postseason. That’s how the Chargers lost to the Ravens in Baltimore on Oct. 1. Schottenheimer reined in Rivers, tried to sit on a lead, and went down 16-13 on a late drive engineered by Steve McNair.
Marty now trusts Rivers, although his young QB hasn’t played well down the stretch and hurt his right foot against Arizona on Sunday. Still, if they meet the Ravens in the conference title game, the Chargers will need him. McNair gives Baltimore more offense than it had in 2000, when Trent Dilfer ran a prevent offense and let a defense that was even better than this year’s win a Super Bowl.
The two most obvious challengers are Indianapolis and New England (both 12-4). That’s because of the Peyton Manning/Marvin Harrison-led Colts offense and the Patriots’ three Super Bowl wins in the past five seasons. A team coached by Bill Belichick and quarterbacked by Tom Brady can beat anyone anywhere at any time.
But it’s hard to see the Colts going all the way with a defense that allowed 173 yards rushing a game. Larry Johnson of the Chiefs (9-7) may get at least that next Saturday in a game that could resemble a matchup three years ago in Kansas City – the Colts won 38-31 and there were no punts.
Sunday’s AFC wild-card game features the Jets (10-6) at the Patriots, the third meeting between the estranged mentor and pupil, Belichick and 35-year-old Eric Mangini. The Jets won 17-14 in Foxborough on Nov. 12 and will tell you they are not a “just glad to be here” team. That’s true: they’re solid, and pupil might even beat mentor again.
But if he does, don’t look for the Jets to get beyond the Ravens or Chargers. If the Patriots win, it’s another story, although the lack of a No. 1 receiver will probably hurt them down the line.
Start from the bottom by dismissing the Giants (8-8), who will lose in Philadelphia, where they won the second week of the season. That was when they were a pretty good team. Now they’re a less-than-average team with a lot of injuries and no chemistry among the healthy guys.
Nice for Tiki Barber that he played wonderfully in Washington last week. Now he can go off to TV, although he’ll probably get less face time there than he did as he celebrated his retirement for the last 10 weeks of the season.
Most likely dismiss Dallas (9-7), which might win at Seattle (9-7) because the Seahawks will be without their starting cornerbacks. But opponents are figuring out QB Tony Romo – if Detroit can do it, think of what better teams will do. So Bill Parcells is likely to continue to look exasperated.
The Seahawks are interesting because of their Super Bowl experience. But they are without both cornerbacks, Marcus Trufant and Kelly Herndon, who broke his leg in Tampa on Sunday. Although they’ve played well the last two games, it’s might be a little late for them to build momentum.
On the other hand, this is the NFC, where anyone can get hot.
The Saints (10-6) are the most explosive. What weapons don’t they have on offense? Drew Brees is at quarterback, with Reggie Bush to run outside and catch; Deuce McAllister to run inside; Marques Colston, Joe Horn and a nice receiving corps. Innovative coaching by Sean Payton. New Orleans has a shaky defense, but no one’s perfect in the NFC.
Chicago? The defense is allowing yards in bunches without Tommie Harris and Mike Brown, and who knows what they’ll get at quarterback. Grossman can throw for 400 yards and five touchdowns one week, then come up with a passer rating of zero the next week, with TD passes to the other guys. You can argue that the awful game against Green Bay on Sunday night was meaningless, but you need momentum going in.
Still, Chicago can be a tough home field in January.
That brings us to Philadelphia.
For whatever reason, Jeff Garcia seems to fit Reid’s system better than Donovan McNabb – although the fans and talk-show gabbers who blame the Eagles’ early troubles on McNabb are over the top. With Garcia, the Eagles run, and Reid has finally decided that Westbrook can be to his team what Payton (as Giants offensive coordinator) and Jim Fassel discovered about Barber a few years ago when they made him more than a part-time back.
For some reason, the defense has become rejuvenated, too. Jim Johnson’s blitzes are working and Brian Dawkins and Lito Sheppard give Philadelphia two very high-caliber DBs. They aren’t guys Rex Grossman wants to be throwing at.
So let’s send Philly to Miami. The Eagles are on their own once they get there – against the Chargers, Ravens or Patriots.