Hoo-RAH! 10 things we learned in Week 17

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 02, 2011



By Jonathan Colonel Comey
ColdHardFootballFacts intelligence officer
 
The matchups are set, the schedules are out – sweet sassy molassey, it's mother-effing playoff time, people!

This Saturday, it's New Orleans at Seattle at 4:30 p.m. with N.Y. Jets at Indianapolis to follow (8 p.m.). Safe to say that there will be more interest in the latter, as the most-hyped team on the planet takes on the world's most decorated QB ... in the regular season at least.
 
Then on Sunday, we've got Baltimore at Kansas City (1 p.m.) followed by Green Bay at Philadelphia (4:30 p.m.). In both cases, the road team seems to have the better squad. The Chiefs looked awful, losing to Oakland 31-10 on Sunday and the Eagles were hopeless offensively without Michael Vick and LeSean McCoy in a 14-13 loss to Dallas. At least the Eagles will have those guys back, where the Chiefs don't have any reinforcements coming.

Pittsburgh, New England, Atlanta and Chicago have the byes, which gives some credence to your parity theorists – only the Patriots made the playoffs last year, and certainly weren't very good in them.
 
But the Patriots were awfully good in Week 17, lambasting Miami 38-7, and it will be an upset at this point if any other team raises the Lombardi Trophy in a month's time. Should be fun to see if anyone can knock them off.
 
Here are 10 things we learned in Week 17: 
 
1. It was fitting that BrettFavre wasn't allowed a cameo farewell. Finally, after three sometimes embarrassing seasons following his first retirement, and six seasons since ESPN issued its first farewell tour, a coach stood up to BrettFavre.

According to reports, BrettFavre wanted to play, and interim coach Leslie Frazier (since upgraded to head coach) certainly could have kept him active, sent him out there for a handoff and a round of applause from the Detroit fans, and then played Joe Webb the rest of the way.
 
Instead, he treated BrettFavre like Eric Mangini and Brad Childress failed to do – he treated him like any other player. BrettFavre wasn't going to be of use, so he didn't suit up in Minnesota's 20-13 loss to the Lions. (By the way, the Lions exit 2010 with a four-game win streak, second only to New England's eight straight wins. It's Detroit's longest string of wins since 1999.)

Had BrettFavre not dragged the NFL through the mud for the past couple of seasons, he would have deserved a nice sendoff. But he forfeited so much good will with his flip-floppery and media milking (not to mention his recent sexting scandal) that the most fitting sendoff was to watch in a knit cap.
 
Let's hope the ol' urge to play doesn't bite again, and we can start enjoying the good times as memories of the recent bad times fade into history.
 
2. Congratulation to the Week 17 "breakout brigade." We pointed out last week that Brandon Lloyd, Arian Foster and Cameron Wake all had notable efforts in the final weeks of the 2009 season for their respective lame-duck teams that carried over to big 2010 performances.
 
So, who were the breakout guys this week?
 
Joe McKnight, N.Y. Jets RB. His previous claim to fame was being the guy the Jets kept instead of Danny Woodhead, who went on to big things in New England. But McKnight was a monster Sunday with 158 yards on 32 carries. And with Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson both underwhelming of late, maybe McKnight's  contributions aren't through?
 
Ryan Mathews, San Diego RB. Finally, the blue chipper did something (120 yards, three TDs), but it was too late for the Chargers. 
 
Stephen McGee, Dallas QB. He wasn't great through the air, but he didn't turn the ball over, ran for 55 yards and led the Cowboys to a fourth-quarter comeback.
 
Erik Walden, Green Bay DE. Where has this guy been? He's played a bit in the Packer rotation this year. But on Sunday he absolutely dominated the Bears with 10 tackles and two sacks. A star is born?

3. Ed Reed interception returns help make the NFL awesome. Generally, interceptions are returned 12-15 yards. Ed Reed, over his career, has averaged an incredible 26.6 yards per return, and now has 54 career picks after his two-INT job Sunday in Baltimore's 13-7 win over Cleveland. He's tied for 19th all-time. He finished 2010 with a league-best 8 INT, despite playing just 10 games.
 
Reed just missed being the Ravens' leading receiver Sunday with 48 yards, just shy of Todd Heap's 53. The sight of Reed rumbling is the equivalent of a triple in baseball – thrilling, rare but not too rare, and always seemingly on the verge of a disaster for someone involved.

On Reed's second return, you could see him look behind for a lateral – something coaches must have told him a hundred times never to do. But he was tackled before he had a chance to give it away.
 
Reed has 27 interceptions in his last 54 games since 2007 which, according to fourth-grade math, is one for every two games. Good stuff.

4. It's going to be an interesting decision between Detroit's Ndamukong Suh and New England's Devin McCourty as Defensive Rookie of the Year. It may be that Suh has this category all locked up with 10 sacks and a huge national profile. But McCourty has been pretty incredible over the season's second half.
 
McCourty has seven interceptions, all in the last 11 weeks, and has been the No. 1 cornerback all year for a 14-2 team that has improved each week.
 
New England was one of the worst teams in Defensive Passer Rating for the first half of the year. They ranked 27th in DPR as recently as Week 11 (94.7). They skyrocketed up the list over the last six week and end the year at 81.2 in Defensive Passer Rating, with a league-high 25 INT, thanks in large part to McCourty's strong play.

5. Eric Mangini and Tony Sparano didn't get ringing endorsements from their teams; Jeff Fisher and Gary Kubiak did. When your job is rumored to be on the line and you lose 41-9 (Mangini's Browns vs. Steelers) and 38-7 (Sparano's Dolphins vs. Patriots), you probably don't sleep too well.
 
Mangini can at least blame a dearth of talent for Cleveland's struggles. They added some nice pieces this year, but still are weak at the skill positions and up front on defense.

Sparano has a pretty good football team, and deserves credit for the soundness of his offensive and defensive fronts. They went 7-7 vs. teams not named New England. But he couldn't find a way to get production out of his offense. A new offensive coordinator to replace Dan Henning seems to make sense, as does the import of a better quarterback.
 
Jeff Fisher's Titans, meanwhile, played inspired ball in their 23-20 loss to Indy, and withstood the injury/insubordination of Vince Young pretty well in the end. Fisher's teams never stay down for long.

As for Kubiak's Texans, they always seem to stay down, but they're also tantalizingly close to being a real threat. The Houston offense was a constant, but Kubiak has never been able to find the answers for the defense. Maybe bringing in a defensive guru will help the case. In any case, Kubiak has probably done enough to stay at the helm, especially with Houston's impressive 34-17 win Sunday over a Jacksonville team that was fighting for a potential playoff spot had the Colts lost (which they almost did). 
 
6. The football season won't be the same without Scott Hanson and the NFL RedZone. If you've got NFL RedZone, the sight of Scott Hanson greeting you with bright eyes and manic energy at 1 p.m. is one of the highlights of your Sunday.
 
If you don't have it, well, it's time to pick up a second job and get it.

As great as the playoffs are, they are a different experience than the adrenaline rush of having eight games going on simultaneously, cutting from one to the next thanks to the excellent RedZone production team, with point guard Hanson deftly handling the action. It's like an all-you-can-eat buffet, and, well, the chow line is closed down 'til next year.
 
Oh well. Buffets are all well and good. But savoring a filet mignon is better – and that's what playoff football is. Yum!

7. Bill Belichick is Coach of the Year, but Raheem Morris isn't far behind. New England's over-under win total in Vegas in the preseason was 9.5, and they won 14 games. The +4.5 swing was the biggest in the NFL – tied with the Bucs, who were at 5.5 wins and wound up with 10.
 
And as we first reported here last week, Belichick is now the first and only coach in NFL history to win 14 or more games in four different seasons. Hell, only one other franchise (San Francisco) has accomplished that feat, let alone one coach.

Belichick clearly deserves the nod as the season's best coach. And if he doesn't win it there's some splainin' to do.
 
Still, it's hard not to be impressed by the play of Morris's Bucs. They didn't have much on paper and they were hit by injury quite a bit, but still played well enough to be in the playoff mix.
 
They even got a Quality Win in their last shot at a good team after an 0-5 start. Sure, Drew Brees went to the bench before it was over, but the Bucs beat the Saints fair and square, 23-13.

With the NFC South stacked with the Falcons and Saints, the future isn't a sure thing for Tampa, but at least they've found their coach.
 
8. Speaking of win totals, if you had the Panthers and the under you've been counting your money since early November. The Cowboys, Vikings and Bengals might have been the season's biggest disappointments, but it the Panthers who underachieved the most based on their preseason Vegas win projection.
 
Carolina's over-under was 7.5, and they won twice. Easiest gambling win since our crazy cousin Eddie bet us $100 he could eat an entire cow (he couldn't).

Here's how reality went in comparison to preseason projections:
Arizona: -2.5 (estimated to win 7.5, won 5)
Atlanta:  +4
Baltimore: +2
Buffalo: -1.5
Carolina: -5.5
Chicago: +3
Cincinnati:  -3.5
Cleveland: -0.5
Dallas: -3.5
Denver: -3.5
Detroit: +1
Green Bay: +0.5
Houston: -2
Indianapolis: -1
Jacksonville: +1
Kansas City: +3.5
Miami: -1.5
Minnesota: -3.5
New England: +4.5
New Orleans: -0.5
N.Y. Giants: +1.5
N.Y. Jets: +1.5
Oakland: +2
Philadelphia: +1.5
Pittsburgh: +3
San Diego: -2
San Francisco: -2.5
Seattle Seahawks: -0.5
St. Louis Rams: +2.0
Tampa Bay: +4.5
Tennessee: -2.5
Washington: -1.5

9. Lovie Smith deserves the Ballsmanship Award for going for the win against the Packers. Maybe it's foolish, but the Bears tried their damndest to beat the Packers Sunday despite having their No. 2 seed in the NFC all wrapped up.
 
They failed to do so, losing 10-3, but put in a heck of an effort in the loss.
 
Was it the rivalry? Maybe, maybe not. More likely, Smith wanted one more test for his still-young offense against a hungry defense like the Packers.

Unfortunately for him, his Bears failed the test, so this attempt at maintaining momentum might have backfired. If the Bears are going to go anywhere in the playoffs, they'll have to do better than the 17.0 PPG they averaged vs. Quality Opponents this season.
 
10. The Raiders truly don't have a clue. So, Oakland finally learns how to be competitive, and finds a real identity as a smashmouth team that runs the ball and blows things up on the defensive line. They go 8-8, sweep the AFC West, close their season with a 31-10 road win over KC in a game that meant something to the Chiefs ...

And Tom Cable is reportedly out the door?
 
Cable was saddled with Jamarcus Russell all of 2009, and seemed to really do wonders with actual skilled players in 2010. The Raiders were -182 in point differential last year. The improved more than 200 points, to +39 this year. That's a bigger turnaround than the Chiefs or Bucs managed, and Todd Haley or Morris are Coach of the Year prospects.

Obviously, Cable has some rough edges, but isn't that the Raiders' style?
 
Puzzling. As we said at the start of the year, the Cable guy needs some respect.

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