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NFL Week 17: Wacky end to a wacky season

Ravens and Dolphins clinch playoff spots, while Cowboys and Patriots fall short; plus wild card picks.

By Jim BuzinskI
Outsports.com

Playoff structure stinks: Let's see – the 12-4 Colts were four games better than the 8-8 Chargers in the regular season; the 11-5 Falcons were two games better than the 9-7 Cardinals; and the Dolphins and Ravens are each 11-5, but Baltimore won their regular season matchup by two touchdowns. So, of course, the Colts, Falcons and Ravens all play on the road next week in the playoffs, thanks to a format that gives division winners automatic home games.

This has been a problem for years, but never more glaringly than this season. I think division winners should get a playoff spot, but in the wild card round teams with the better record should host. I know it won’t happen since the owners struck down such a proposal this offseason, but it makes no sense for an 8-8 team to get the huge edge of playing at home.

Being on the road, though, did not deter the Vegas oddsmakers, who made the Colts, Falcons, Ravens and the Eagles (9-6-1 and playing at the 10-6 Vikings) favorites next week. It has to be the first time in history that all four home teams were underdogs in a playoff weekend. The early line has the Falcons, Ravens and Eagles each favored by 3, while the Colts are 1-point favorites at San Diego.

Rookie QB Matt Ryan leads the Atlanta Falcons into the playoffs.
My look at the wild card round:

NFC

Atlanta (11-5) at Arizona (9-7):
The Cardinals have not beaten a team out of their division since Oct. 12 and look like they are running on fumes. Atlanta is the feel-good story of the year with rookie QB Matt Ryan and rookie Coach Mike Smith. The Falcons are the better team, but have been only .500 on the road. Since I have thought the Cards were frauds all season, I’ll stick to my guns. Falcons 27, Cardinals 20.

Philadelphia (9-6-1) at Minnesota (10-6):
Philly has won four of five to roar into the playoffs with their crushing 44-6 win against Dallas. Donovan McNabb has been terrific (for the most part) since being benched against Baltimore. The Vikings have won five of six but are unsettled at quarterback since Tavaris Jackson looks shaky one play and solid the next. Minnesota has a great run defense, but the Eagles don’t run much any way, so I am not sure it matters. This game pits Eagles coach Andy Reid against Brad Childress, his longtime assistant now with the Vikings. I’ll take the Vikings, who are 6-2 at home, with little feeling. Vikings 20, Eagles 14.

AFC

Baltimore (11-5) at Miami (11-5):
Two teams with rookie coaches and new quarterbacks from a year ago. Two teams that stunk and finished last in 2007 (Baltimore was 5-11, Miami 1-15). Cinderella lives! Baltimore won, 27-13, in Miami in Week 7. I have a hard time in picking this one, but I like the way Baltimore’s defense is playing. Ravens 23, Dolphins 20.

Indianapolis (12-4) at San Diego (8-8):
Never before has a visiting playoff team had such a larger number of wins than the home team, but this is how weird 2008 has been. These teams have played three times since 2007, with San Diego winning by 2 and 4 last year, and the Colts by 3 this season, so this is an even matchup. The Colts should move the ball easily through the air against a weak San Diego secondary. On the other side, the tall Charger receivers have the advantage over the Colts’ Smurf defensive backs. Expect this one to go down to the wire. Since I picked the Colts to win the Super Bowl before the season, I won’t pick against them, but this game is a tossup. Colts 31, Chargers 28.

These are my picks, so feel free to post yours in the comments.

Blow up the ‘Boys: T
here’s not a whole to say about Dallas’ 44-6 embarrassment at Philadelphia that put the Eagles in the playoffs and knocked the Cowboys out. We now know that Tony Romo is a lousy clutch quarterback (5-8 in December games), failing late in the season for the third straight year. In a fitting coda to the season, he collapsed while taking a shower after the game due to a rib injury. We also know this will be the 13th straight year the Cowboys will not win a playoff game.

From the Dallas Morning News:

Can anybody think of a more humiliating loss in Cowboys' history?

A playoff berth was on the line, and the Cowboys couldn't even manage to keep the game interesting for a half. There are zero positives from this pathetic performance.

Entering the season, it was thought that the Cowboys wouldn't be able to prove anything until the playoffs. They won't even get a chance after this embarrassing display.

Sunday, Dallas owner Jerry Jones stated unequivocally that Coach Wade Phillips and his entire staff will be back. Jones should say “April fool,” since he needs to fire everyone. This team started 3-0 and went 6-7 in their last 13. Phillips looks clueless on the sidelines, the team is dysfunctional and a total make-over is needed. It will be a long offseason in Big D and you can expect ESPN to breathlessly hype every move.

Tick-tock:
For a terrific look at Week 17 from an Eagles’ fan perspective, check out Joe Guckin’s blog post of watching all the action as it unfolded around the league.

Dump Gruden and Shanahan:
Tampa’s Jon Gruden and Denver’s Mike Shanahan each won Super Bowls, but neither of their teams has done much since. Tampa has not won a playoff game since their 2002 Super Bowl season, while Denver has one playoff win since John Elway retired after the 1998 season. And both teams collapsed at the end this season, losing a combined seven in a row down the stretch.

Tampa was 9-3 and needed one win to secure a playoff spot. But the Bucs got run over at Carolina, lost a close one at Atlanta and then lost back-to-back home games against California teams (San Diego and Oakland) who had to travel west to east, normally a killer. The Bucs led the Raiders by 10 Sunday in the fourth quarter, then allowed Oakland to make it look easy in scoring the final 17 points for a 31-24 win.

Denver, at 8-5, had a three-game lead against the Chargers in the AFC West, but Sunday’s 52-21 blowout loss at San Diego gave the Chargers the division title. Last week, Denver lost at home to sub-.500 Buffalo and two years ago in Week 17 lost at home to sub.-500 San Francisco; the Broncos would have made the playoffs by winning either of those.

So how do Gruden and Shanahan keep their jobs, especially the latter? Shanahan runs the Denver football operation and has shown zero ability in drafting defensive players. I know winning two Super Bowls gets you a grace period, but his is at 10 years and counting. As for Gruden, the supposed offensive guru has never developed a quarterback and the defense looks suddenly very old and fell apart in the final month.

Weird stat:
This one flew totally under the radar, but the Colts allowed only six passing touchdowns this year, the fewest ever in a 16-game NFL season. It’s weird since the Colts did not have a great defense this year, and it also showed they played few top quarterbacks.

Reversal of fortune:
Talk about karma biting a team in the butt. The 2007 New England Patriots went 16-0 and reveled in running up the score through the first three-fourths of the season, having Tom Brady throw meaningless TD passes with 30-point leads to pad his stats and set records. Throw in Spygate and the Pats became the most hated team outside of New England, a moniker they seemed to embrace.

This calendar year began fine as the Pats reached the Super Bowl, but then it all came crashing down. New England lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl in a huge upset, lost Brady for the season in Week 1 of 2008 and then became only the second team in history (along with the 1985 Broncos) to win 11 games and miss the playoffs. For the first time since 2002, there will be no New England in the playoffs; it’s a fluke, since they are clearly a playoff-caliber team, but the football gods seemed to say that what goes around comes around.

Mr. Even Year:
As soon as Miami picked up Chad Pennington off the discard pile, we should have seen the playoffs in the Dolphins’ future. Pennington has quarterbacked a playoff team in 2002, 2004 and 2006 (with the Jets), and now in 2008 with the Dolphins. I have always liked him as a quarterback and thought he got a raw deal in New York from the fans and media. These are the same fans and media now lamenting that the Jets let him go and picked up Brett Favre, who looked washed up the last five games.

Pathetic:
In their last six games, the Cleveland Browns scored 0 offensive touchdowns.

Perfect symmetry:
The Detroit Lions went 4-0 in the preseason and 0-16 when it counted.

Who would have thunk?
What odds would you have gotten had you predicted this before the season: Baltimore, Miami, Atlanta and Arizona would make the playoffs, while Dallas and New England would miss them? It perfectly sums up the strangest, least-predictable season I can remember. Bring on the playoffs!