Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus! And he left some late, but much appreciated, Christmas gifts in Philadelphia, Green Bay and San Diego.
I must say, compared to last year's final weekend stinkers (few games with playoff implications but most filled with teams who'd thrown in the towel weeks earlier), this was a great weekend of football. The marquee matchups did not disappoint.
In Chicago, Aaron Rodgers, returning after a 7-game hiatus with a broken collarbone, looked rusty but led the Packers down the stretch to a game-winning 48-yard TD pass with less than one minute to go. San Diego had just enough to overcome Kansas City's scrubs, squeaking out an overtime win on their own turf. Despite the fact that the Chargers were trading blows with KC's backups, San Diego looked impressive taking the ball first in overtime and going on a clock-chewing 16-play, 9-plus minute drive. On the other hand, if you have the ball for almost 10 minutes and run 16 plays, you'd best be scoring touchdowns, not kicking field goals. Perhaps that's something the Chargers should worry about.
And in Dallas, Kyle Orton did his best Tony Romo impression by tossing an interception to seal his team's fate - a loss to the Eagles and another year of missing the playoffs. Somehow, the fans will find a way to blame this loss on Tony Romo. Although one has to wonder how long Jason Garrett will stick around? Since taking over the head coaching job in 2010, Garrett is a very average 29-27 with no playoff appearances. I'm not sure how Jerry Jones is sleeping at night, knowing his team hasn't been to the playoffs since 2009. Jones reiterates support for Garrett, and it appears he may return, but defensive coordinator, 73-year-old Monte Kiffin may be offered a retirement package. I'm thinking if he doesn't bite, they have to axe him - the Cowboys D was dead last in yards per game. Saying they were atrocious would be kind.
Also this weekend:
- Speaking of hatchet jobs....
"Black Monday" sliced and diced a lot of coaching staffs around the league. Most of the firings were expected - Jim Schwartz in Detroit, Greg "Big Bully" Schiano in Tampa Bay, Mike "My Way or the Highway" Shanahan in Washington, Leslie Frasier in Minnesota and Gary Kubiak in Houston (he was fired Dec. 6 - Wade Phillips has been coaching the team in the interim). The surprising dismissal came on Sunday night when the Browns fired first-year coach Rob Chudzinski, much to the chagrin of several Browns players, fans and media. In my latest Laces Out blog (you can read it on our website), I discussed Chudzinski's firing in detail. For brevity's sake, I'll just say that Haslam, Banner and Lombardi better know what they're doing. Browns fans are the most patient people in the world - we have to be - but you can only kick a puppy so many times before it's had enough and bites you. In a humorous side note, during Haslam's press conference discussing the firing of Chudzinski, a reporter asked Haslam if he could assure fans that the "Three Stooges" aren't running the team. Haslam's response: "Hey Moe! Wise guy! Whoop-whoop-whoop-whoop!" Actually, that wasn't his real response, but that would have been awesome.
- Many have left the dance, but the band plays on.
Hard to believe another regular season of football is completed. But it's onward and upward for 12 lucky teams - and this year, we're guaranteed a new Super Bowl champ, as defending champion Baltimore will be watching the playoffs from its living room. The worst of the bunch sitting at home? The Houston Texans, who started the season 2-0 and a Super Bowl favorite, rattled off a string of 14 consecutive losses to finish at 2-14. Second biggest loser? The Redskins, who clearly folded with about a month left in the season when it was apparent they would not make the playoffs, finished at 3-13. The Broncos and Seahawks share the best record at 13-3 and hold home field throughout the playoffs. Both are quite formidable at home - are they on a collision course to meet in the Super Bowl?
- Can we please just have some good wild card games this time around?
As I recall about last year's wild card round... I remember nothing because I slept through most of it. Blowouts were the name of the game, and it's hard to hang my hat on matchups that simply "look" promising, as I thought the same thing last year and it didn't work out that way. It's awfully depressing when you look forward to the NFL playoffs all season, watching the supposed cream of the crop slug it out, only to get a bunch of dud games. However, I'm holding out hope that the games are interesting enough for me to generate a full-length column next week (although I'm SURE I'll find something to talk about).
The playoffs begin on Saturday. The Chiefs and Colts kick things off at 4:35 p.m., followed by the Saints-Eagles at 8:10. Both games will be broadcast on NBC.
The Colts beat the Chiefs in Week 16 in Kansas City, so the rematch will take place in Indianapolis. The Chiefs, who started the year 9-0 but dropped five of their final seven (including losses in their two final games), rested all its starters last week, so they're looking to be fresh coming in to the game. The first matchup wasn't very close, but Andy Reid has playoff experience, so I'm looking forward to a better contest this time around.
Can the Saints win on the road? We'll find out when they travel to Philadelphia. Perhaps New Orleans' defense can somehow slow down that high-octane Philly offense, but then again, this game could also wind up a shootout. Defense = boring sleepy time. Shootout = football exciting enough to stay awake for.
On Sunday, the Chargers visit the Bengals for a 1:05 p.m. kick off on CBS, followed by a 4:40 start for the 49ers and Packers on FOX. The Bengals have not lost at home this season, but they also haven't won a playoff game in 24 years. Something's gotta give there. And the rejuvenated Pack meet the NFL's hottest team the 49ers, who enter the playoffs on a six-game winning streak.
Winning streaks, losing streaks, stats - they're all pretty much meaningless. Just ask the Ravens who entered last year's playoffs losers of 3 of their 4 final games. All they did was win the Super Bowl. So who will it be this year to rise above the rest? We'll get some answers this weekend.
Hopefully I'll be awake to see most of them.
Until next week, enjoy the games, my friends!