1) The purrfect season has come to an end, and with a 31-21 loss in Green Bay yesterday the 2008 Detroit Lions stamped themselves as an all-time horrible team, becoming the first NFL team to go 0-16. The last team to go through a season winless was the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who at least had the excuse of being an expansion team. Detroit was just inept, and that's the kindest way of putting it. I really didn't think it was possible for a team to do this--I mean, after all, the team was BOUND to get lucky one week, wasn't it?--but I was obviously wrong. And, the signs were there, too--last year's team lost seven of its last eight games. It will take a long time to right the ship in Detroit.
2) If there is one thing that can give Lions fans hope, it is the 2008 Miami Dolphins. Last year's Miami team went 1-15. This year, it's 11-5 and a division title, Miami's first in eight years. I'd like a show of hands on who saw this coming. I'll bet that the answer is no one. Sure, it was easy to predict that the team wouldn't go 1-15 again, and maybe some cockeyed optimists took a look at the easy schedule and even saw a possible 7-9 or 8-8 record. But 11-5? Not a chance.
3) I never imagined feeling badly for the New England Patriots, but when you go 11-5 after your MVP, Hall-of-Fame bound quarterback goes down in the first quarter of the first game of the season and STILL don't make the playoffs, you are entitled to some compassion. The Pats never quit, and they even found that their backup QB, Matt Cassel, can really play.
4) Is there a more gutless collection of wimps in the NFL than the Dallas Cowboys? We all know about the 'Boys struggles in December over the last ten years or so, but yesterday's performance in Philadelphia was abysmal even by Dallas standards. The Eagles ran roughshod over a Cowboys team that looked uninterested in being there. Here is the telling statistic: In the second and third quarters, the Cowboys turned the ball over on five consecutive possessions. FIVE. Tony Romo lived down to his reputation of coming up tiny in big games. Wade Phillips proved that Andy Reid may have competition as the worst game-day coach in the NFL. All in all, a disgraceful performance.
5) Still, the biggest choke act of the 2008 NFL season belongs to the Denver Broncos (I'll get to the grounded Jets of New York and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers shortly). Three weeks ago, they were 8-5 and needed to win ONE of their final three games to clinch the division. They lost all three, including a home loss to the nothing-to-play-for, offensively-challenged Buffalo Bills last week. So, last night's 52-21 throttling at the hands of the San Diego Chargers really shouldn't have come as a surprise. Now, at 8-8, San Diego is the AFC West Division Champ. Four week ago, who would have predicted that?
6) Ah yes, the New York Jets. Five weeks ago they had just crushed the previously unbeaten Tennessee Titans 34-13 on the road and people (including me) were speculating on what the city of New York would do if the Jets and Giants had to host conference title games on the same day. Instead, the Jets flopped miserably down the stretch, losing four of the final five games to miss the playoffs, including yesterday's finale at home against the Miami Dolphins. To add insult to injury, the Dolphins' QB was Chad Pennington, who New York unceremoniously dumped as training camp ended so that it could install Brett Favre as its signal-caller. Pennington gave Miami the leadership it needed and played mistake-free football. Favre ended the year with as many interceptions (22) as touchdown passes, including three terrible picks in yesterday's game. That move worked out well for New York, didn't it?
7) Giving the Broncos and Jets a run for their money were the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who four weeks ago were 9-3 and eying a first-round playoff bye. Instead, they lost their final four games of the year, including yesterday's inexplicable 31-24 loss at home to the awful Oakland Raiders, to miss the playoffs altogether. Still, I'm willing to cut the Bucs some slack, if only because I never thought that they would be any good and their 9-3 record was largely (in my mind) the product of some overachieving and good breaks.
8) So, the playoff matchups are as follows:
1) Philadelphia at Minnesota. The Iggles are favoured. Both teams feature strong defenses. The Vikes have NFL rushing leader Adrian Peterson, who is a threat to score from anywhere on the field. The Eagles have the more balanced offense and a better quarterback. I like them to come out of Minnesota with a narrow win, something along the lines of 20-17.
2) Atlanta at Arizona. Atlanta is another team that came out of nowhere to make the playoffs, and its coach, Mike Smith, will rightfully get consideration for the "Coach of the Year" Award. Arizona was the beneficiary of playing in the worst division in football. Atlanta wins this game, and rather easily, I think.
3) Baltimore at Miami. Two opportunistic teams meet in an improbable playoff match. I think that Baltimore's defense will shut down Miami's offense, and the Dolphins' cinderella story ends.
4) Indianapolis at San Diego. Two of the hottest teams in football meet, and while Indianapolis is the better team, in my mind, it has traditionally had a lot of problems with San Diego. I think that those problems continue and the Chargers win a bruising battle.