The Pro Football Notebook

December 7, 2010 7:41 AM

Monday's Anti-Climactic Finish

BradyInCommand.jpgStarting late Sunday afternoon the big games were living up to their hype. Atlanta rallied from ten points down in the fourth quarter to beat Tampa Bay 28-24, starting with a kickoff return for a touchdown just after the Bucs had seemingly taken control with a 24-14 lead. Then in prime-time, Pittsburgh and Baltimore fought each other in an old-fashioned battle that warmed the heart of every purist--physical defense, hard-hitting in the trenches, Ben Roethlisberger limping around in a boot with his nose literally knocked sideways by Terrell Suggs, who was everywhere throughout the game. Finally the Steelers pull it out 13-10. I don't understand why, with a 10-6 lead and four minutes left, the Ravens even thought about throwing. It was apparent that Pittsburgh wasn't going to drive 50-60 yards for a touchdown if they had played this game until the spring thaw. Run into the line three times, either kill a minute-plus or make them burn their timeouts, then punt it away. Instead, Baltimore threw. Troy Polamulu blitzed. He knocked the ball out of Joe Flacco's hands, and the Steelers returned it to the ten-yard line. These teams are dead even in every way but one, and that's pulling out games like this. One wonders if the Steelers are now officially in the Ravens' head. In either case, the big games were worthy of the stakes and building to the ultimate crescendo, when New England hosted the New York Jets in the most significant regular season game. The young Mark Sanchez against the veteran Tom Brady. And it was at this point the veteran says "not so fast, young buck."

New England's 45-3 demolition of the Jets didn't happen because New York was whipped at the line of scrimmage. The teams were essentially even in running the ball. The difference came in that, while Brady was carving up the Jets' vaunted defense to the tune of 21/29 for 326 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions, Sanchez was playing like...well, a second-year player on the road, throwing three picks. One of them was a horrible misfire in the middle of the field when the Jets were threatening to cut the score to a manageable 24-10 in the third quarter.

The Patriot and Steelers wins help clear up the playoff picture, so let's move on with some revised projections...

AFC East: New England
AFC North: Pittsburgh
AFC South: Indianapolis
AFC West: Kansas City
Wild-Cards: Baltimore, NY Jets

Byes: New England (1) and Pittsburgh (2)
1st Round Matchups: (3)Kansas City vs (6) NY Jets, (4)Indianapolis vs. (5) Baltimore

As you can see, I'm not quite sold on Jacksonville just yet in the South, so I'm still leaning Indy even though they're going to have to back their way in. The Ravens' head-to-head win over the Jets gives them the edge in seeding, although at the 5-6 spots, it probably doesn't matter all that much. You will note that if the seeds do work out this way it sets up Round 3s in both Patriots-Jets and Steelers-Ravens if the wild-cards can handle their business on the road. That's an AFC Divisional Round that would draw some ratings.

NFC East: NY Giants
NFC North: Green Bay
NFC South: Atlanta
NFC West: St. Louis
Wild-Cards: New Orleans & Chicago

Byes: Atlanta (1) and Green Bay (2)
1st Round Matchups: (3)NY Giants vs (6) Chicago Bears, (4)St. Louis vs (5) New Orleans

The Bears work their way into the projections, though I still have them losing the finale at Lambeau Field that tips the division Green Bay's way. Chicago's got the head-to-head win with Philadelphia that gives them an edge in that race, plus the Bears have a one-game lead. The tiebreakers don't go as well for the Bears if the Giants, whom they lost to, end up missing the division crown, but NYG gets Philly at home here down the stretch.

Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in college football ,game analysis in the NFL. and coverage of college basketball. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.

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