Week 17 was wild, extraordinary, shocking, hilarious and mind-boggling. It was the kind of week that makes you feel tipsy even if you stayed stone sober. Monday morning readers may be feeling a slight hangover. Kyle Orton debunking the Tony Romo myth at 11:30 p.m. ET was the equivalent of 12-year-old scotch on an empty stomach.
Well, grab some aspirin and gulp some coffee: It's time for a first-look playoff preview. Let's examine the best, worst and most unpredictable players and units still standing after a surprising, glorious, wacky and utterly unpredictable final month of NFL football.
Best: Broncos, Peyton Manning and Patriots, Tom Brady. (tie)
Not gonna get in to all of this. Nope. Not gonna.
We have not forgotten Drew Brees, who threw as many touchdowns as incompletions (four of each) in the first half of a 42-17 win over the Buccaneers. But Brees has been a different quarterback against better pass rushes and on the road this season; he will be facing better pass rushes on the road throughout the playoffs. Buccaneers defenders were too busy crafting glowing letters of recommendation to the Penn State athletic director about Greg Schiano (gosh, we don't know how to replace him, except to stick a bucket on the handle of a mop and teach it to hate) to put up a fight against a Hall of Famer.
Also, Aaron Rodgers looked rusty and out-of-sync until the big finale.
Worst: Bengals, Andy Dalton.
Dalton does a lot of little things well, from play-faking to reading blitzes and making calls at the line. He does one very big thing poorly: He does not consistently throw passes downfield with accuracy. His performance against the Ravens in a 34-17 win was typical: a highlight-reel bomb, some go-up-and-get-it heroics from his receivers, tons of screens and tons of scattershot passes over heads and out of bounds. Granted, Dalton was 1989 Joe Montana compared to Joe Flacco on Sunday, but unless he delivers more strikes in the 10- to 20-yard range, the Bengals are destined to go as far as gobs and gobs of screen passes can take them. And we have arrived there.
X-Factor: Eagles, Nick Foles.
Foles reminds me of Trent Green. This season -- one of the best in history according to the efficiency rating stat, which goes a little weak-kneed at the sight of a low interception rate -- felt a lot like Green's 4,000-yard, 24 touchdown, 12 interception Chiefs seasons, though the numbers look a little different. The Dick Vermeil-Al Saunders offense stretched defenders horizontally and vertically, then froze them with play action, leaving Green to spread the ball around and take measured shots downfield. The window dressing is very different in Chip Kelly's scheme, but some of the core principles are the same. One big difference: Green was 33 years old when he worked his ball-handling magic.
This is a bad time to bring up the fact Green, for all his virtues, was 0-2 in playoff games.
Best: Eagles, LeSean McCoy, Bryce Brown and others.
Marshawn Lynch is the best power back in the playoffs. Jamaal Charles is the smoothest one-cut runner. But McCoy is a Barry Sanders-level talent operating in an offense that accentuates his talents. No running back in the NFL is as sudden when switching from lateral movement to an explosion in the hole. Few combine his ability to elude defenders in the open field with his ability to finish runs for extra yardage. And McCoy is roughly in Charles' class as a receiver.
Bryce Brown lacks McCoy's receiving ability but is like an off-brand version of McCoy in most other areas. Chris Polk adds a downhill dimension. Chip Kelly's scheme provides worn-out defenders and a stretched-out line, but McCoy does more to elevate Kelly than Kelly does McCoy at this point: a lesser back would not find the holes McCoy squirts through or provide all the second-level yards. McCoy would merit serious MVP consideration if, you know, no one threw 55 touchdown passes.
Worst: Colts, Donald Brown, Trent Richardson and ... Tashard Choice?
Tashard Choice is the Ted McGinley of running backs: teams sign him when they are officially out of ideas. He has bounced from Dallas to Washington to Buffalo and now to Indy since 2011, sticking with the Bills because Chan Gailey had a peculiar liking for Choice's alleged wildcat skills (Gailey was the NFL's Uncle Si, so strange stuff happened). Choice is fumble prone and cannot catch the ball, but he's just nimble enough to break one or two 20-yarders per season. Since he only carries the ball 10 times in the typical month, that's enough to make his rushing averages look good. HE FITS RIGHT IN ON THIS DEPTH CHART.
Anyway, Choice joined Brown and Flinch Richardson for 75 yards on 25 carries against the Jaguars in the kind of blowout that usually generates 150-yard combined rushing days. The Colts have no chance of icing a quality offensive opponent when they hold a narrow lead, which will be bad news if they reach the second round.
X-Factor: Chargers, Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead.
Mathews rushed for 144 yards on Sunday. Yes, it was against the guys who clean Clark Hunt's pool, but Mathews has quietly put together a solid season and earned the trust of his coaches. He has only fumbled twice all season and emerged as a workhorse during the stretch run, with 107 carries for 473 yards in his last four games. Woodhead has been the best receiving back in the NFL, catching 86% of the passes thrown to him and serving as everything from the ultimate safety valve to a pesky red zone option. This is the best running back tandem you have heard little about.
Best: Broncos, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Julius Thomas and [MAYBE] Wes Welker.
Peyton Manning could make Huey, Dewey and Louie look like effective receivers, but these guys are better than that. In fact, these guys could give Harrison, Wayne and Clark a run for their money as Manning's best-ever receiver corps.
Best (Non-Broncos Edition): Bengals, A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, etc.
The Broncos receivers get a boost from their quarterback. The Bengals receivers are the phone books Andy Dalton needs to keep sitting at the grownup table. Green is the deep threat capable of much more. Jones specializes in going up and grabbing contested balls. Mohamed Sanu is a possession receiver with trick-play capability, Andrew Hawkins a sneaky screen-and-run specialist. Both tight ends cause matchup problems when healthy. Gio Bernard leaks out of the backfield to do damage. Everyone blocks, making the Bengals the nastiest (and most prolific) screen-passing team in the NFL.
The Bengals receiving corps' greatest shortcoming is that no one is 8-feet tall or has go-go-gadget arms when Dalton floats deep passes every-which-way. These are receivers who can turn screens or jump-balls into touchdowns. Dalton must help them deliver more routine plays.
Worst: Chiefs, Dwayne Bowe, Donnie Avery, Dexter McCluster, Sean McGrath, etc.
Bowe is a an adequate big-body possession receiver at this point in his career, not a go-to guy. Avery would be a useful No. 4 receiver on most playoff teams, McCluster a return man and third-down running back playing slot receiver. McGrath surprised a few early opponents, then settled in for a series of two-catch games. The Chiefs have only had one 100-plus yard game from a receiver all season: Avery gained 141 yards against the Eagles in Week 3, with most of the production coming on glorified screen passes. Avery gained 91 yards in two other games, and those three games are the only 75-plus yard performances by Chiefs receivers this year.
Andy Reid led the Eagles on deep playoff runs with James Thrash and Todd Pinkston as his starting receivers, so anything is possible. Chiefs-Colts is going to be a weird, weird playoff game.
X-Factor: Panthers, Ted Ginn, Brandon LaFell and [MAYBE] Steve Smith.
Smith could do for the 2013 Panthers what Anquan Boldin did for the 2012 Ravens. He's the veteran who catches the eight-yard pass on third-and-seven and fourth-and-short, in addition to his familiar roles as crafty deep threat and permanent agitator. Smith's presence allows Ted Ginn to play a specialized bomb-comeback-reverse role while Brandon LaFell and Greg Olsen work underneath.
Without Smith, the Panthers lack a player who can get open against Seahawks-caliber coverage, which is a problem for any NFC team with Super Bowl aspirations. For the first half of the Falcons game, Newton scrambled and misfired, watched LaFell and Domenik Hixon tip catchable passes and coped with some weird "try anything" wrinkles: Ben Hartsock lined up as a blocking back and forgot to block Osi Umenyiora in one scary moment that almost ended the Panthers playoff run before it began.
The good news for the Panthers is that Newton, his coaches and his receivers adapt as the game goes on and find ways to move the ball. The other good news for the Panthers is Smith may be back in two weeks.
Let's not forget that Anquan Boldin could also do for the 2013 49ers what Anquan Boldin did for the 2012 Ravens; the stat sheet in the 49ers 23-20 win over the Cardinals was Boldin's one-man show. The 49ers receiving corps is another X-factor and one of the great unknowns entering the postseason.
Best: Patriots, Ryan Wendell, Logan Mankins, Dan Connelly and whoever is healthy.
The Patriots offensive line is their secret weapon, the driving force behind all of the Brady magic. It may not be a Hogs-style pile-driving unit, and pass protection has lapsed a few times due to multiple injuries and substitutions at tackle, but the Patriots line is full of experienced veterans who do all the little things well.
Watch a simple inside zone or power running play, and you will see crisp double-teams and fold blocks, with vets like Wendell and Mankins slipping downfield quickly to eliminate linebackers from the play. The Patriots are not an electrifying running team, but they are a consistent one: productive four-and-five yard runs allow Brady to snipe away on short passes to keep drives humming.
The Patriots line is also deep. Sebastian Vollmer was lost for the year with a broken leg in October, but replacement right tackle Marcus Cannon is a stout run blocker who is good enough to survive in pass protection. When Nate Solder suffered multiple concussions at left tackle, Mankins slid over from guard, and newcomer Josh Kline proved to be a quick-footed replacement in the middle. The Patriots line should be a little healthier, and therefore deeper, the next time we see them.
Worst: 49ers, Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Jonathan Goodwin, Alex Boone, Anthony Davis.
This spot was reserved for the Dolphins, Ravens, or Steelers, and it could easily have been left blank when none of those teams got in because, well, they had awful offensive lines all season.
Most of the surviving playoff lines do something well. The Chiefs run block well but struggle in pass protection. The Packers line is mistake-prone but one of the best in the league at converting short yardage situations. The Saints have a big problem at left tackle but are solid everywhere else. The Eagles have Jason Peters and a bunch of guys who can get swamped if Chip Kelly does not provide a steady dose of down-the-throat running plays.
The 49ers have experience, stability, and no gaping holes, but their running backs are stuffed an awful lot, and Colin Kaepernick endures too many sacks for a quarterback who does not throw downfield that often. (Some are hold-the-ball sacks, but still). When Frank Gore carries 13 times for 14 yards, it's an issue.
X-Factor: Seahawks, Russell Okung, Max Unger, etc.
This is a tricky line to evaluate. Injuries sidelined left tackle Okung and center Unger for weeks, preventing them from developing continuity. Russell Wilson can make an offensive line look better with his legs, but he can also make it look worse. Wilson has gotten a little drifty in the pocket lately: he scrambles too early on some plays, then does too much interpretive dancing on others.
Marshawn Lynch can also make an offensive line look better by ripping through tackles, and the Seahawks fullbacks, tight ends, and receivers all block very well, springing Lynch on long runs when the offensive line did nothing special. Wide receiver Jemaine Kearse, in particular, thinks he is a cross between Hines Ward and John Hannah; the Seahawks may just want to slide him to left tackle the next time Okung is hurt.
At its best, this is a very good line. At its worst, it can be penetrated between the tackles -- Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett had a lot of fun two weeks ago -- and will force Lynch to pick up every inch up the middle on his own while making Wilson anxious. The better interior defenders in the NFC playoffs have taken note of what the Cardinals and 49ers have done in recent weeks. Home field advantage does not guarantee anything when an interior line is porous.
Best: Panthers, Greg Hardy, Charles Johnson, Star Lotulelei and others.
Sorry Seahawks! Your defensive line is deeper, and no team can mix and match on the front seven like you guys, but no playoff-bound line has taken over games in the last month like the Panthers line. Hardy has had an unstoppable two weeks as a pass rusher, with positive contributions from Johnson and others. Panthers opponents seem to face 2nd-and-19 from the moment they field a punt.
The Cardinals defensive line had an opportunity to occupy this space, if only...
Worst: Packers, B.J. Raji, Mike Neal, Ryan Pickett, Mike Daniels, etc.
Raji, the biggest name, has been injured and/or invisible much of the year. Pickett has also been banged-up at times and a non-factor at others. Neal and Daniels are effective penetrators when pass rushing, but both are far too easy to take out of the play in the running game. The Packers allow 4.6 yards per rush, and it was easy to see why against the Bears on Sunday: the defensive line flows so aggressively in one direction that cutback lanes are often wide open behind them.
A Packers defensive line that is vulnerable to misdirection running plays? Where have the 49ers seen that before?
X-Factor: Bengals, Domata Peko, Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson and [NOT] Geno Atkins
The Bengals defensive line was championship caliber. For a few weeks after Atkins' injury, their line was downright awful. They have finally stabilized. Replacement Brandon Thompson has grown into his role, and the Bengals are blitzing a little more to provide more one-on-one opportunities for Dunlap and Johnson. There are still moments of mystery, however: Peko took on a Ravens double-team on 3rd-and-1 and crumbled like leftover wrapping paper. The Bengals defensive line could dictate against the Chargers. Or every blitz could be a moment for Philip Rivers to shine.
Best: 49ers, Patrick Willis, Navorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith.
The Niners have not allowed a running play longer than 35 yards in three years. Their defensive line and safeties have a lot to do with that, but their linebacking corps is as effective at cleaning up short runs as it is at rushing the passer. Football Outsiders tracks "second level" and "open-field" yards, the production running backs get when they first break through the line and when the track meet for a touchdown begins, respectively. The 49ers ranked seventh and second in the NFL in stopping these downfield running plays entering Week 17. There are a lot of run-oriented teams in the NFC playoffs. Being able to prevent four-yard runs from becoming 14- or 40-yarders could be the key to advancing.
Worst: Chargers. Donald Butler, Manti Te'o and a bunch of other guys.
It is hard to tell who is even starting at linebacker from week to week for the Chargers. Players like Bront Bird, Thomas Keiser and Tourek Williams have cycled in and out of the lineup for one of the league's worst defenses. Veteran Jarret Johnson used to start but is now a situational player. Butler, hurt for much of the midseason, is the most consistent linebacker: a chase guy who is adequate in pass coverage. Te'o has started to show some instincts in recent weeks as a between-the-tackles defender, but he is still easy to block and slow to react.
Melvin Ingram resurfaced in early December after major knee surgery, and the former top prospect has shown some potential as a pass rusher. But overall, this is an anonymous unit sandwiched between two other anonymous units on a defense whose only saving grace is the fact its next opponent employs Trent Richardson and Tashard Choice.
X-Factor: Broncos, Danny Trevathan, Paris Lenon, Wesley Woodyard and [NOT] Von Miller.
Trevathan, Lenon,\ and Woodyard are unheralded contributors who do what the Broncos typically need them to do: clean up running plays and drop into coverage to contain opponents passing desperately to catch up. But the Broncos' most difficult postseason task will be replacing Von Miller.
Woodyard, who was replaced by Lenon in many packages after a neck injury limited his effectiveness, may get more edge-rush opportunities in Miller's absence. Nate Irving will also get some looks. Veteran edge rusher Shaun Phillips and up-and-comers Robert Ayers (finally!) and Malik Jackson can provide some heat from the defensive line. Chasing Terrelle Pryor around in a 34-14 win did not tell us much; the Broncos pass defense is weak when they do not apply pressure, and there are two AFC quarterbacks who know how to cope with Peyton Manning in a shootout. (Greetings, Mr. Rivers).
Best: Seahawks, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and the Other Guy.
Not all of these selections were supposed to be earth-shattering, you know. By the way, "other guy" Byron Maxwell has been playing very well.
Worst: Chargers, Richard Marshall, Eric Weddle, Shareece Wright and Marcus Gilchrist.
Marshall and Wright started at cornerback for most of the season and combined for one interception, which is quite a feat. The Chargers overall pass defense improved in the second half of the season, but they let Terrelle Pryor complete 78 percent of his passes against them early in the year, so everything is relative. Bengals receivers should combine for 300 yards against the Chargers, assuming Andy Dalton's targeting computer functions semi-properly.
X-Factor: Saints, Keenan Lewis, Roman Harper, whoever is available.
The Saints secondary is limping into the playoffs without Jabari Greer and Kenny Vaccaro. Lewis and others have stepped up, with the help of a brutal pass rush and Rob Ryan's "Hide the Weakness" schemes. Vaccaro's absence will limit some of Ryan's safety blitzing, and there are tons of inexperienced players behind vets Harper, Lewis and Malcolm Jenkins. Ryan's smoke-and-mirrors tactics can be deadly but have a high backfire rate. The Eagles are a hard team to play mix-and-match substitution football with, and they will test both the depth and stamina of the Saints' secondary.
Best: Chiefs, Dexter McCluster, Quintin Demps, Dustin Colquitt and others.
McCluster and Demps are fine returners, but when rookie Knile Davis ripped off long returns against the Broncos and Colts, it revealed just how good the blocking is on kick and punt returns. Colquitt is a fine directional and inside-the-20 punter. Kicker Ryan Succop is the weak link, as we saw in the final seconds of regulation against the Chargers.
Worst: Saints, Darren Sproles, Shayne Graham, etc.
Sproles is a great all-purpose return man having a miserable year: few big plays, too many fair catches. His blocking units are the anti-Chiefs: By the time Sproles waves for a fair catch, there are often two-to-four opponents surrounding him. Penalties have also erased a few big gains.
Graham replaces Garrett Hartley, who spent most of his career dangling by a professional thread. Graham is the Tashard Choice of kickers.
X-Factor: Packers, Mason Crosby, Micah Hyde, etc.
The Packers have a Jekyll-and-Hyde special teams …
Look folks, it's Week 17, it is after midnight, and I have been writing dozens of jokes per week since summertime. You are going to get some Micah Hyde-Jekyll-and-Hyde caliber humor at the end of Week 17. I promise to reinvigorate the humor quality control as soon as I get some sleep.
Micah Hyde is a dangerous, but mistake-prone return man. Crosby is a streaky kicker on a hot streak. Crosby's kickoffs are generally short, and the Packers return units are vulnerable (Devin Hester gave them several Sunday scares). Randall Cobb is available for return duties if Mike McCarthy does not want to get too Hyde-bound (there it is again). The Packers face a 49ers team that is brilliant at playing field-position football, so an edge one way or the other could tilt the game. There is just no telling which way the Packers kick units will tilt.
Yes, Twinkle Brady Magic and Lord Belichick Sorcery. But there is something more prosaic to consider here.
What happened to the Patriots in the last month has been business-as-usual for them for the last decade. No one with any history in this organization has ever planned a golf junket or expected to attend a daughter's dance recital in early January. None of the veterans are swamped with overheated congratulations or desperate requests for tickets from friends and family, because friends and family have done this for years, too. Everything about the Patriots conditioning, preparation and day-to-day lifestyle assumes they will be playing in January, that the media attention will increase and so on. That playoff experience is not some magic property that makes them unbeatable, but it trims five percent off the fatigue and distractions that can undermine a less-experienced organization's postseason preparation.
Also, Twinkle Brady magic and Lord Belichick Sorcery.
The Bengals have a well-established playoff routine, too. It just doesn't work.
There is a lot of Super Bowl experience on the roster and coaching staff. The combination of perseverance in Aaron Rodgers' absence and the return of thunderclap touchdowns when he came back have helped the Packers become more multi-dimensional than they have been in past years. That run defense is still a huge problem.
The Time of Our Lives
Farewell, Dolphins and Ravens. Good riddance to bad rubbish.
So long, Bears. You figured out how to stop the off-tackle run on Sunday, but it was a month too late. A Bears-Dolphins or Bears-Ravens Super Bowl would have been too horrible to contemplate. Both lines would be thrown 15 yards backward after each collision.
Great effort, Cardinals. You were good, but no one is going to petition Congress to see Carson Palmer and Rashard Mendenhall in the playoffs.
Sorry, Steelers. You can count on many things in this world, but Andy Reid resting his starters is among them.
Welcome to the playoffs, Chargers. Nice work hiding in the blind spot behind the Broncos and Chiefs all year, and way to use every part of the tiebreaker process, like an Inuit community butchering a whale.
Cowboys … why do I get the feeling you are about to get more interesting:
Farewell, non-playoff teams. A few of you will be missed. A few most definitely will not.
Twenty teams failed to make the playoffs on Sunday, none as spectacularly as the Ravens and Dolphins. Never have two teams worked so hard to prove so conclusively that they did not deserve a playoff slot that either could have reached out and plucked. Both teams deserved to be eliminated. You deserved better than having to watch them. I deserve better than having to write about them. In Sunday's early games, the Ravens and Dolphins provided all the pleasure of hate-watching some awful reality show. The Ravens and Dolphins were the Dance Moms of the NFL, but they are gone now, so there is no sense dwelling on them.
Sunday's early games brought bewilderment instead of clarity: They were like the distilled essence of the last month, right down to the soggy Steelers win and the ugly Lions loss. The Panthers started flat, and it appeared that they would at least lose and knock the Cardinals out of the playoffs by default (the best possible way to knock the Cardinals out of the playoffs). But Cam Newton found himself, and the Falcons were just having one of their teasing first quarters -- the Falcons have outscored opponents 79-54 in first quarters this year, for all the good it has done them. The Panthers came back to make the Saints and 49ers games meaningful, and all the early afternoon action meaningless. When you cannot count on the Panthers to stick to the outdated script and backflip into the postseason, you cannot count on anything.
The early games offered nothing but farewells. Farewell, Rob Chudzinski and the Cleveland Browns. Chud failed to win with Jason Campbell and Fozzy Whittaker as his backfield; as soon as we find someone who succeeds, we should make him Emperor of Earth, not head coach of the Browns. Farewell, Mike Shanahan. That Redskins-Giants game never ended, with both teams battling meaninglessly in a stinging downpour as a kind of penance for the past four months. Shanahan forced Kirk Cousins to throw 49 passes in a slush bath to drive home his contempt for his employer, fans and organized human endeavors in general. I expected to see Shanahan come out for the fourth quarter wearing a Napoleon hat. Waterloo. Watergate. Waterlogged. Whatever: farewell, Mike Shanahan.
Rex Ryan, meanwhile, reportedly saved his job by letting his left-handed running back throw passes and his rookie defensive tackle play running back. The Jets should have tried that in mid-November. (The decision was made before the game, but still, no take-backs.)
The late games initially brought more un-clarity, or less clarity, or the kind of anti-clarity you get from drinking cheesecake-flavored vodka and reading Deepak Chopra in a hotel room by yourself. Thanks to the Dolphins and Ravens, the Chargers could clinch the playoffs by beating the Chiefs, who were slotted as the fifth seed and had nothing to play for. Andy Reid, among his other quirks, is particularly gung-ho about resting starters. He got so carried away filling out Sunday's inactive list that he accidently added Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook. Reid was so extreme in his pre-playoff deactivations he actually let A.J. Jenkins start at wide receiver; Jenkins usually cannot be counted on to turn on the overhead projectors in the offensive meeting room. The Chiefs paved a playoff parking space for the Chargers and offered to valet.
It was then that we discovered a force more unwatchable than the Ravens or Dolphins offenses. The Chargers defense cannot stop a runaway Roomba, and it could not stop Chase Daniel and Knile Davis from carving them up like it was the second quarter of the first preseason game. With the Chiefs leading 24-14 in the third quarter, it appeared there would be a four-way, 8-8 tie for the sixth playoff seed. In that event, the Steelers would host a play-in game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Meanwhile, the Bears and Packers played a back-and-forth gem at Soldier Field. The Bears rediscovered defense. The Packers rediscovered Aaron Rodgers. The Bears rediscovered Devin Hester. The Packers rediscovered hanging around and waiting for Aaron Rodgers to do something amazing to win the game. Both teams heard us talking about how the Cardinals should be in the playoffs in their place, so both set out to play vintage Bears-Packers football. Rodgers connected with Randall Cobb on fourth-and-eight, and it felt right. The playoffs should be about Rodgers connecting with Cobb, not eleven Justin Tucker field goals, or Ryan Tannehill completing a screen with Bryant McKinnie's defender trying him on for size like a hipster scarf.
As the Packers and Bears demonstrated what a do-or-die divisional playoff game should look like, Chiefs-Chargers entered The Twilight Zone. The Chargers tied the game. The Chiefs drove downfield to kick a game-winning chipshot at the end of regulation, and missed. (The officials missed an obvious illegal formation by the Chargers). The Chargers faced fourth-and-two in overtime, lined up to punt and faked it. Eric Weddle gained 2.0005 yards but lost the football. Nico Johnson grabbed the ball and handed it to Cyrus Gray, who raced for a touchdown … but Weddle's forward progress was stopped, so the Chargers retained the ball.
Down the field the Chargers drove, munching 10 minutes of clock. Were they playing for the tie, old-school NHL style? Forced to settle for a field goal, they slipped comfortably into prevent mode. It was the Dump 'N' Chase Daniel. An eventual Chargers stuff ended the madness, and put the best possible AFC sixth seed in the playoffs, the third-place team in the Norris Division.
Thank heavens for Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning. They saw Week 17 games they needed to win and treated them like piles of annoying-but-necessary paperwork. The Seahawks also stapled and collated their business. When the Chargers finally skated off the ice, 11/12ths of the playoff picture was crystal clear and most of it made sense. Manning and Brady first-and-second seeded. The Seahawks perched on home turf.
All that remained was Romogeddon.
Kyle Orton was always an adequate quarterback and a precise short passer. The Cowboys coaching staff, in a shocking development, crafted a wise game plan: lots of stretch running, plenty of underneath passes. The Eagles accommodated Orton by assigning linebackers to cover Jason Witten for most of the evening. Orton hit Witten 12 times for 135 yards. The Cowboys kept settling for field goals, but their pass rush was twisting Nick Foles into a pretzel, so all was well. The Eagles clung to one-and-two point leads while Orton led productive drives to answer each Eagles score.
What happened with 1:49 to play will be forgotten by most of society, but you and I will long remember it, dear reader. It was not just a routine interception by a backup quarterback to decide the champion of a weak division. It was a play that exposed a lie. Five years of Tony Romo trolling came down to one crystalizing throw by his backup, a Steady Eddie who had been completing similar passes all evening long. Fourth quarter blunders are not a Romo problem. They are a Cowboys problem, a problem of planning, preparing, and execution that extends across multiple years. Romo is just the biggest fish who has swam in the contaminated water the longest.
That final interception by Brandon Boykin also set things right for the playoffs. There are no embarrassing teams in the NFC, no stumbling Cowboys or defense-deficient Bears. Instead, Aaron Rodgers and the clever, red-hot Eagles are in. The Chargers may be the least of four evils for the AFC sixth seed, but we don't have to look at or hear about the Dolphins offensive line anymore, so hooray. We got the best possible playoffs, and the playoffs we deserve to watch. After all of the obscurity of Week 17, the seedings are clear, and easy to get excited about.
Ten games and (for me) 13 turnpike exits to go until the Super Bowl. Let's get ready for a thrill ride.