We wrap up the final Sunday of the 2011 NFL regular season with 20 stray thoughts…
1. The “Should division winners automatically get a home playoff game?” debate begins anew. But if the league was unwilling to make a change after the 7-9 Seahawks benefited from the 12th Man to beat the 11-5 Saints in last year’s wild-card round, it’s unlikely the rules will be reworked this offseason, despite how frustrating it must be for Steelers fans to have to go on the road — maybe without starting safety Ryan Clark, who hasn’t been able to play at that altitude for health reasons, and definitely without the injured Rashard Mendenhall — to play a Broncos team that registered four fewer wins than their team did. (How ’bout that for a run-on sentence?)
2. The Giants are not a good playoff team. In fact, I think the Cowboys would put up a better fight on wild-card weekend and beyond. Look for Atlanta to be one of two or three wild-card teams to win next weekend (the Steelers are a favorite, the Bengals are a slight underdog in a toss-up and the Lions should battle the Saints hard). But a team with a similar feel won the Super Bowl as a wild-card squad in 2007, so I’m not ruling anything out with Tom Coughlin.
3. Same old Cowboys. Talented enough to be a national tease on a weekly and yearly basis, but always falling short. It had little to do with Tony Romo, who played well despite an injured right hand. They just continue to fail in December and January, and Jerry Jones has to be crushed that they’ve now missed the playoffs in their first two seasons at the new billion-dollar stadium. The saddest part is that I don’t see a good reason why 2012 will be any different. Look for the Giants, Redskins and Eagles to all be better next year.
4. Matt Flynn looks like he could seriously be a superstar at some point, somewhere. How do the Packers keep finding these quarterbacks? Is it the system (even though it’s changed from the Bart Starr era to the Brett Favre era to the Aaron Rodgers era)? Or is it luck? The Ron Wolf Effect.
5. The record books are beginning to look stupid, at least in the passing section. Drew Brees set, like, 37 new records on Sunday, and yet he might not even be the offensive player of the year. Three guys — Brees, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford — had over 5,000 yards this season, and Rodgers probably would have had he played in Week 17. Eli Manning fell just short of 5,000, too. Prior to this season, only two players had accomplished that feat in NFL history. Imagine showing someone from the 1950s the boxscore from Sunday’s Lions-Packers game? They’d think it was a joke. This is beginning to remind me of the steroid era, and its effect on the baseball record books. Except in this case, there’s nobody to blame.
6. Two more thoughts/questions on that subject: 1. How many passing yards do you think a 23-year-old Dan Marino would have had in 2011? I’ll set the imaginary over/under at 5,700. And 2. Isn’t it strange that receiving records aren’t being broken left and right, too?
7. Rodgers is still the MVP and the offensive player of the year. I can’t take it away from him, regardless of Brees’ records. You can’t deny a 9.3 yards-per-attempt average, a 45-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 122.5 passer rating for a 15-1 team.
8. Any other year, Maurice Jones-Drew is in the OPOY picture. In fact, he and Larry Fitzgerald are my “under the circumstances” MVPs. Jones-Drew just won the rushing title despite being a member of the league’s worst-ranked offense. Fitzgerald, who had at least 105 yards in three of his last four games, somehow raised his numbers this year despite being surrounded by a mediocre-at-best unit.
9. Ray Rice could be a difference-maker in January. That’s assuming Cam Cameron will allow that to happen. Rice capped a quiet but superb season with 191 yards Sunday in a division-clinching victory over Cincinnati on the road. He’s clearly the best offensive player in the AFC North, and heads into the playoffs with a head of steam after picking up 644 rushing yards in five games dating to the start of December. His final numbers — 2,068 yards from scrimmage, 15 touchdowns — surprised me.
10. If that’s it for Steve Spagnuolo, it’s tough but justified. Overachieving in 2010 might have actually hurt Spags in 2011, but you can’t go 2-14 two years after 1-15. Everyone’s got injuries, so that excuse only takes you so far. St. Louis is about to pick second in the draft for the third time in five years, and they picked first in 2010. I think Spagnuolo has what it takes, but it’s time for a new approach in eastern Missouri.
11. I’m surprised Raheem Morris has lasted this long. I figured he’d be a goner before the team’s flight landed back in Tampa Sunday night. I can’t remember the last time, if ever, I saw a team lie down that blatantly. That’s despicable. They simply lost faith in Morris.
12. The Steelers are looking pretty good for dumping Santonio Holmes prior to the 2010 season. At some point, it’s just not worth the headache. The Jets might be realizing that now.
13. It’s going to be an interesting offseason in Jets Land. Mark Sanchez, who had nine turnovers in three losses to finish the year, can’t be trusted, and the defense is no longer good enough to mask Sanchez’s mistakes and general lack of execution. I’m thinking about Matt Flynn right now.
14. If Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson are on, Detroit can beat anyone, anywhere…and that includes the Saints in New Orleans. Saturday night will be super-interesting. That’s the top game of wild-card weekend. I think it’s a one-score game.
15. No Mendenhall, no problem. If the Steelers fail to get back to the Super Bowl, it won’t have anything to do with the loss of Rashard Mendenhall. Isaac Redman has been a more productive back all season.
16. New England has to worry about these slow starts. They were having issues with falling behind early in September, October and November, but it’s just getting ridiculous now. The offense hasn’t scored first since Week 13, and in the last three weeks they’ve been outscored 38-7 in the first quarter against three non-winning teams. Baffling from a Bill Belichick squad. They won’t be able to get away with that in the playoffs.
17. How the hell did the Rams score 27 points? Against the stingy Niners defense, Kellen Clemens completed just 14 of 31 passes and Steven Jackson had only 76 yards on the ground. And San Francisco didn’t turn it over. That’s mystifying.
18. How ’bout those Bills on third down? Three for their last 30 to finish the year. That’s sickening.
19. Arizona finishes the season with a 4-0 overtime record. Kinda crazy considering nature of overtime — that you’ve played 60 minutes with your opponent and no one has emerged to establish a tangible edge. If things had gone the opposite way, they’d have finished 4-12 and have a top-five draft pick.
20. The Tim Tebow magic is gone. Mr. Fourth Quarter was 2-for-8 with 17 yards, a pick and a zero passer rating in the Broncos’ third straight loss Sunday. And now the Denver quarterback situation will be a prime storyline throughout the offseason. I get the feeling this story isn’t going away any time soon, regardless of where Tebow is on whoever’s depth chart.
(Jerry Jones photo via Timothy Burke)