With two road teams winning, including one starting a rookie quarterback, Wild-Card Weekend lived up to the billing. Let's take a look back.
Unsung Hero of the Year
There are so many great assistant coaches who do the work behind the scenes with little to no recognition. Every year, I present one such assistant with the Unsung Hero Award for excellence, which is named for the late Chip Myers. Seventeen current NFL head coaches have been weekly Unsung Hero honorees when they were assistants.
This year, the top assistant coach goes to New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who led his defense to a Super Bowl victory last season with an aggressive package built on the pass rush. Before the 2008 season even got underway, he lost five of his 2007 Super Bowl starters -- future Hall of Famer Michael Strahan retired, Pro Bowl end Osi Umenyiora suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason, and linebackers Kawika Mitchell and Reggie Torbor left via free agency as did safety Gibril Wilson -- but the defense didn't miss a beat. The Giants are the No. 1 seed in the NFC, finished fifth in total defense and points allowed. "Spags" is the 2008 Unsung Hero of the Year.
1. No place like home?
Home-field advantage is something every team wants heading into the playoffs, but only the Chargers and Cardinals came away with wins. The Cardinals clearly took advantage of crowd noise, with their defensive line getting off and rushing the passer. It was loud enough to disrupt Atlanta's offensive line in terms of hearing the snap count. However, playing at home wasn't enough for the Vikings or Dolphins to win. Next week could see other higher seeds fall. Since 2005, home teams are 6-6 in the divisional round.
2. Is there a giant in the field?
The Giants won three playoff games on the road and finished up with a victory over the previously undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII to cap a legendary run. There's no undefeated team to slay this year, but is there a squad capable of winning three road games and taking home the Lombardi Trophy? The Eagles and Ravens appear capable. Donovan McNabb looks like he's playing with house money. Baltimore's defense is playing like it did when the Ravens won the Super Bowl, and Joe Flacco is doing his best Trent Dilfer impression. Both teams have the No. 1 seed in their respective conferences this weekend. If they win, watch out! Look for one of the two to advance.
3. Beware of the rematch
This weekend, all four playoffs games feature rematches. A year ago, the Giants beat the Cowboys, Packers and Patriots in the playoffs after falling to all three during the regular season. This year the winners of the most recent game didn't have decisive victories. Tennessee beat Baltimore by three, Carolina defeated Arizona by four, Pittsburgh escaped against San Diego with a one-point victory and Philadelphia avoided a sweep with a 20-14 win over the New York Giants.
4. Vikings fans shouldn't be upset
For some reason, there is a group of Vikings fans that are overlooking a team that went from 6-10 in 2006 to 8-8 in 2007 to 10-6 and NFC North champs this season. They aren't considering the absence of two key defensive linemen, Pat Williams and Ray Edwards. They are screaming for the team to get rid of Tarvaris Jackson and fire Brad Childress. They should be more worried about the team leaving Minnesota after needing two NFL extensions to sell out a home playoff game. It's great to see ownership isn't reacting to the fans crying for firings. Los Angeles would love your team just as it is.
5. These guys are cashing in
I've never watched an NFL weekend of action that didn't make some player extra money in his next contract. Darren Sproles is scheduled to be a free agent at the end of the season. The franchise-tag price last year for running backs was $6.5 million. Two years ago, the Chargers tagged Michael Turner to give themselves an insurance policy against LaDainian Tomlinson getting hurt. Well, Tomlinson is older and more injury-prone now. Sproles had 328 total yards in San Diego's win over Indianapolis. Here come the big bucks for a 5-foot-6 running back.
Two other young players made money for themselves down the road. Baltimore's Le'Ron McClain made the Pro Bowl this year as a fullback, but has seen plenty of carries as a running back.. The 2007 fourth- round pick had 19 carries for 75 yards and a touchdown in the 27-9 win over the Dolphins. Eagles tight end Brent Celek, a fifth-round pick in 2007, helped absorb the loss of L.J. Smith. Celek had six receptions for 56 yards.
6. Change is good for the game
Webster's dictionary defines a purist as someone who adheres strictly and often excessively to a tradition. The NFL isn't a purist organization, as it constantly works to make the game better with changes. This offseason there are several issues the league needs to examine, some of which were on display again over the weekend. The driving forces for change should always be to make the game as safe as possible, within reason, produce a more enjoyable product for the fans and use logic to solve differences.
Here are four topics to address:
» Overtime: To watch Peyton Manning stand on the sidelines Saturday night and not get a chance to perform in overtime is ridiculous. What would be more compelling football than to see Manning take the field down seven points in overtime with one chance to drive his team for a score? We missed an opportunity to watch great football.
» Award voting: Playoff football shouldn't be seen as an isolated season insignificant in deciding who the best players and coaches are each year. There's no reason the Pro Bowl, MVP, Coach of the Year and every other award are decided before the playoffs.
» Reseeding the playoffs: Winning a division should still get you in the playoffs but not guarantee a home game. If a division winner and a wild-card team have the same record, the division title could be used as the tiebreaker. However, when the 12-win Colts had to go on the road against the 8-8 Chargers because they won the AFC West, it doesn't equate. San Diego didn't deserve a home game. If you want all regular-season games to have meaning, make winning important. There are only six division games, not even half of the 16-game schedule.
» Replay: Too much time is taken up to make calls the booth could decide in much less time. The last two minutes of each half is controlled by the booth, so why not use it the rest of the game, as it's used in college?