NFL schedule makers could not have predicted it, but their Week 17 pairings provided previews of three of the four Week One wild-card games, with Arizona hosting Green Bay, Dallas hosting Philadelphia and Cincinnati squaring off against New York in the opening week of the playoffs.
In all three games, the team with the more playoff-weathered head coach — Ken Whisenhunt, Andy Reid and Marvin Lewis — was beaten handedly while protecting some of its star players, such as the bruised Kurt Warner, Michael Vick and Cedric Benson, and at the same time building confidence in their playoff-opening opponents by using more vanilla game plans than they will unleash next week, when the stakes are highest.
Make no mistake — the Eagles had too much to play for to lay down against Dallas, and they did not dial it down the same way Arizona and Cincinnati did out of the gate. Reid had no reason to pull back with a No. 2 playoff seed on the line. The Eagles clearly had problems with the center-snap exchange, as Nick Cole, replacing the injured Jamaal Jackson, struggled with the quickness of Jay Ratliff and misguided several short snaps, and the entire offensive line was not on the same page without its normal pivot, as protection appeared to be slid the wrong way in several situations, leaving McNabb facing extra pressure.
And the Eagles' defense was gouged in the running game by a game plan Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett put together to take advantage of their aggressiveness. After the Eagles fell behind 17-0 in the first half, it removed the balance that has allowed their offense to flourish all season, and Wade Phillips' defense capably was able to take away the big-play threat from an explosive offense that had been scoring 31 points per game on a six-game winning streak.
However, beating an opponent twice in one season is difficult. Pulling off the hat trick, in the playoffs no less, is even more challenging, especially against a head coach such as Reid who seldom loses back-to-back games. A win no doubt could have better positioned the Eagles for playoff success and they were outplayed by a better team on Sunday, but with Vick back in the lineup and Reid likely to bury himself in the office to get the offense corrected, the Eagles will be very tough to beat for a third time.
NFL playcallers often don't use a great deal of their game plans, and specifically design plays on a week-to-week basis knowing that defensive coordinators will be studying formations of recent tape to anticipate and stop what offenses do best. After the Cowboys pulled away, Reid continued to take shots downfield, but fully aware that the Cowboys would be on the docket the following week, did not appear to show as much as he had prepared if the Eagles had been closer in pursuit, and could be in a greater position of strength to motivate his team and prepare a game plan for next week after it unfolded the way it did.
Tony Romo has been more focused and surgical the last quarter of the season than at any time since he entered the league, and the Eagles' challenge will not be easy, but he still must show that he can handle the pressure of playing on the biggest of stages.
Whisenhunt, on the other hand, clearly laid down, letting Matt Leinart take the majority of snaps and not only protecting the aging Kurt Warner, but sitting down CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie after he banged his knee less than two minutes into the game.
Aaron Rodgers signaled that he was adorning an imaginary heavyweight belt after scoring a touchdown and his confidence clearly soared as the Packers hammered the Cardinals, preying on Rodgers-Cromartie's replacement Michael Adams as he stood in the pocket untouched, with the Cardinals not attacking an offensive line that leads the NFL in sacks allowed (51).
The Bengals were without some of their top offensive firepower, with Chad Ochocinco slipping on the cold turf before the game and not his normal self and Benson resting. The offense was clearly out of its element in the cold Meadowlands wind. Returning home should provide an edge, as will a healthy Benson who has crossed the 100-yard rushing mark twice against a Baltimore defense that closely resembles the Jets', not to mention the return of the inactivated DE Robert Geathers and DT Domata Peko back to the starting lineup.
When the game is on the line, defensive coordinators Billy Davis (Arizona) and Mike Zimmer (Bengals) are not going to be content leaving the game without a sack, as they both did in their regular-season finales without key defenders.
The Eagles are not without concerns, as Cole needs to correct his short-snapping deficiencies and get the line on the same page. The defense needs to tackle better and not blow as many assignments that allowed their gap integrity to be compromised against Dallas' multi-dimensional running game, but the tempo will be much different next week when the Eagles now fully understand they need to get out of the gates faster; when Rodgers has to deal with the pocket collapsing more rapidly; and the Bengals' power running game and staunch run defense are back at full force.
The Jets cannot be counted out, not with a defense as stingy as theirs has been, or a power running game that has gotten stronger down the stretch behind a smashmouth offensive line. But for the Packers and Cowboys, the fun they had running big leads against veteran coaching staffs with great long-term vision, could be very short-lived.
• The play with the greatest significance in Week 17 came on the Patriots' fourth offensive snap in the first quarter, when Wes Welker tore ligaments in his knee, silencing fans who boldly criticized the Colts for resting many of its starters the past two weeks in advance of the playoffs. The Patriots have to be encouraged by the performance of rookie Julian Edelman, a converted college quarterback, who clearly has made some strides from early in the season, but the absence of Welker will allow the Ravens and any subsequent opponent to focus on rolling extra coverage toward Randy Moss. The absence of Tom Brady's security blanket, combined with the ailing condition of Brady, playing with three broken ribs and a banged-up finger, will force the Patriots to place a greater emphasis on running the ball, and few teams have done a better job stuffing the run this season than the Ravens.
• There was some significant progress in Week 17 for the Falcons, Texans and 49ers. Atlanta for the first time in club history put together back-to-back winning seasons. The Texans, for the first time in franchise history, produced a winning record and positioned themselves for a playoff berth that did not fall their way, but still gives owner Bob McNair reason to believe the franchise is headed in the right direction. The 49ers, for the first time since GM Scot McCloughan joined the franchise as its top football executive, did not produce a losing season, finishing 8-8. With the Niners going into the offseason expecting to have offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye in the fold for the second consecutive year, they could have newfound continuity to continue building the offense.
• The Chargers head into the playoffs with the most momentum, riding an 11-game winning streak that could generate more interest in its football operation, with defensive coordinator Ron Rivera expected to draw head-coaching interest and director of player personnel Jimmy Raye in line for GM opportunities.
• Since taking over in Cleveland, Eric Mangini clearly made decisions for the future, stockpiling draft picks, benching Brady Quinn early in the season so his contract did not escalate and lessen his value on the trade market, dealing troubled talent for draft choices to clean up the locker room and spending little in free agency. He can make an argument for having the franchise headed in the right direction after closing out the final quarter of the season undefeated, including an inspired win over Pittsburgh. However, the sacrifices he made in his first season are expected to be for naught, as a new GM is expected to be installed to hand-pick a new head coach, much the same way Bill Parcells started anew in Miami with Jeff Ireland and Tony Sparano after Cam Cameron and Randy Mueller were in place for only one year.
• For non-playoff contenders, the end of the season became about playing for pride, and developing young talent. Falcons CB Chris Owens, who produced interceptions in back-to-back games, has come on strong down the stretch since being thrust into the starting lineup. Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles, in his second season, really emerged late in the year, culminating with a record-breaking rushing performance against a solid Denver defense. Panthers second-year WR Dwayne Jarrett, still younger than many NFL prospects entering the draft, made some great grabs, including a spectacular one-hander down the sideline. Jaguars rookie CB Derek Cox, capped off a season in which he started all 16 games, with a pick of Browns QB Derek Anderson, his fourth of the season. MLB DeAndre Levy was a tackling machine for the Lions, and Devin Aromashodu has looked the past few games like he is to Jay Cutler what Sidney Rice has been for Brett Favre, plucking the ball out of the air with his long arms and giving Cutler a receiver with a wide catching radius — something the Bears' QB has not had most of the season.
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