Finally, the regular season is over and all of the playoff spots have been set. There are 12 excited teams, a number of teams that will spend most of the offseason frustrated by the mistakes they made that eliminated them, and some teams at the bottom of the league that realize how much work they have to do to be in contention next year.
Week 17 offered a strange mix of good teams that were resting their starters and struggling teams with coaches on the hot seat trying to demonstrate they still can inspire their players to play hard and win. Here are my "six from Sunday" thoughts to wrap up the regular season:
1. Starting to look like Doomsday
Every Dallas Cowboys fan remembers the famous "Doomsday Defense" the team had back in its glory days of the '70s. The Doomsday Defense may have returned to big D, especially after the shutout they put on the Eagles this weekend. That performance comes a week after they shut out the Redskins, two weeks after they held the Saints to 17 points and three weeks after they kept the mighty Chargers to 20. In fact, in the last seven weeks, Dallas is giving up just 11.5 points a game. Against the Eagles, the Cowboys had four sacks, denied Philadelphia a run of more than 8 yards and contained DeSean Jackson. It's way too early to anoint this Dallas defense, but it made another big impression on me this weekend in a must-win situation. Can the Cowboys do it again next week, when those Eagles come back in playoffs?
2. Standardize the Week 17 schedule
I don't think there is a reasonable way to make teams play all their starters when they have nothing to play for in the final weeks because their playoff spot is locked up. The fans can be upset and the commissioner can ask the Competition Committee to look into ways to get the best players on the field in Week 17. All I can say is good luck!
But one thing that might help reduce the number of starters on the sidelines is to eliminate scoreboard watching, and that's easy to do. It won't keep a team like the Colts from resting players, but it will make everyone still in the hunt play until the gun sounds. Take every game that has playoff implications and play them in the 4:15 p.m. ET slot on Sunday. This week, there were eight such games. The problem was that three games -- Patriots-Texans, Giants-Vikings, and Steelers-Dolphins -- kicked off at 1 p.m. So before the Chiefs-Broncos, Ravens-Raiders, Packers-Cardinals, and Eagles-Cowboys games kicked off at 4 p.m., those teams had a chance to watch the early games -- which, in some cases, impacted what they did. One head coach playing in the late-afternoon slot told me he was watching the 1 p.m. outcomes to decide about playing his starters.
Perhaps the best example Sunday of how the early games affected the later games: Once Minnesota beat the Giants in the early game, the Vikings locked up the No. 2 seed in the NFC and the Cardinals had nothing to play for in their 4:15 game against Green Bay. As a result, Kurt Warner and other starters played very little. If all eight games were played at the same time, there would have been a lot more starters on the field Sunday.
3. Prolific passing numbers
All season, I have written about the passing game taking over the NFL. At midseason, it was clear that 300-yard passing days were going to be a more common occurrence than ever before. It was also clear that, unlike in the past when most monster passing games occurred in losing efforts, the big passing games in 2009 were turned in by winning teams. The '09 regular season ended with a record 10 quarterbacks breaking the 4,000-yard plateau. Seven of those 10 quarterbacks are in the playoffs, including four -- Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Brett Favre and Philip Rivers -- whose teams are the top two seeds in both conferences (and three of those four had very limited work (or none at all) Sunday, or their yardage would be even higher). Another NFL first: 12 quarterbacks threw for 25 or more touchdowns. Get ready for some real fireworks in the playoffs.
4. The next Chris Johnson
Chris Johnson may be the best non-quarterback in the NFL. He finished with 2,006 rushing yards, becoming the sixth player in NFL history to top 2,000. He closed the season with 11 consecutive 100-yard games, and is only the second player in NFL history to do that in a single season (joining the great Barry Sanders). Johnson also broke Marshall Faulk's season record for yards from scrimmage. CJ is a great player, but there is another young player that reminds me so much of Johnson: Jamaal Charles of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Charles got a late start this season, but finished strong Sunday and served notice for next year. A month ago, Charles was described as a poor man's Chris Johnson. Today, I would say he's comparable to Johnson. Charles has the same explosive running style that makes every carry a potential touchdown run. He finished off the Broncos on Sunday with 25 carries for 259 yards and two touchdowns. Four weeks ago, he had his first 20-carry game and the Chiefs have fed him the ball since then. In the last month, he has made every Chiefs fan forget Larry Johnson with 107 touches for 737 yards and four touchdowns. He has world-class speed and will rival Chris Johnson next year.
5. Professional pride
Once again, the NFL is a great place to learn the definition of professionalism. It would have been easy for the Cleveland Browns players, and even the coaches, to lose their will to win with the season down the drain and Mike Holmgren on his way to be the new president. Instead, the Browns completed a four-game winning streak Sunday and finished with some self-respect. It may be hard to let Eric Mangini go.
Consider that the Browns averaged 89 yards a game passing in this four-game winning streak and you realize they were playing and coaching with one hand tied behind their backs. But a star was born when Jerome Harrison took over as the bell cow back. As Phil Savage, the former GM that drafted Harrison, said to me last week: "Harrison rushed for 1,900 yards on a bad college team (Washington State) and everyone knew he was getting the ball." Nothing changed in Cleveland as he carried the team on his back. In the final four games, he had 119 touches for 612 yards and five touchdowns. His 153 yards per game average in that span projects over a 16-game season to 2,448 yards.
The Browns defense gave up 66 points in the win strak -- 16.5 per game -- and that doesn't happen on a team with its bags packed. The Cleveland Browns showed me plenty this weekend and over the last month.
6. Things that troubled me
As always, there were things that surfaced in Week 17 that trouble me. Brandon Marshall and Tony Scheffler were not in uniform for the playoff-hopeful Broncos. Whether Marshall could or could not play because of injury, he wasn't on the sideline for the game. As one former NFL head coach said to me, "That sends a bad message about the state of affairs in Denver."
Another thing that troubled me was the injuries to playoff contenders -- none worse that the Patriots' loss of Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker. As Jack Del Rio said to me last week, "We doubled him a lot and he still caught all 13 balls they threw to him." It will be tough for the Patriots to go deep in the playoffs without him. It remains to be seen how serious the injuries are to Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but the good news is that the Cardinals are 7-3 since 2007 without Boldin. At least the coaches and players believe they can win without him if need be.