Rocky's Football Corner #18

by Rick Rockwell

We’re talking playoffs this week, because anything said after this point is all hindsight. Given how unpredictable this season has been in the National Football League (NFL), anything can happen in the second season. (Or as Coach Bill “The Big Tuna” Parcells likes to say: “the tournament.”)

Or as some teams like to say: everyone starts even and it is sudden death from here on out. Of course, that type of pressure makes the pretenders fold.

Some wonder if there are anything but pretenders in the National Football Conference (NFC). That’s the only conference with an 8-8 team in the playoffs and many of these teams, including the conference-leading Bears have looked shaky down the stretch.

So as is customary in these columns, a bold prediction: none of the teams playing this weekend in the first round will make it to the end.

In the NFC, the team that the sports pundits love right now is the comeback Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles have finished very strong. They have an experienced all-pro quarterback at the helm in Jeff Garcia. Running back Brian Westbrook has stepped up and of the NFC teams in the playoffs, the Eagles have the best rushing attack. And as the experts say, in the post-season you win with a strong running attack and a stout defense.

But the defense is the weakness for the Eagles. The Philly defense is good but not great. Three NFC playoff defenses are ranked better. And both the Bears and Saints have more balanced and complete teams. Yes, the Bears have overcome the weaknesses of Rex Grossman at quarterback, who was roundly booed by his hometown fans during the closing loss to the Packers. But given the playoff draws, if the Eagles win this weekend, they are headed to New Orleans. The Saints have the league’s best offense and their defense is a notch better than the Eagles. However, in the Eagles favor, it will be hard to beat them twice in one season and the Saints barely won the last time these teams clashed.

Over in the American Football Conference (AFC) four of the playoff teams have defenses better than the Eagles. So if the Eagles do make it to the super dance, they will have an uphill fight.

The Colts and Jets have the weak defenses in the AFC, and as predicted, look for an early exit by those teams this weekend. (The Jets have the worst offense and worst defense of any of the AFC playoff teams, by the way.) The Ravens have the best defense in the league, they have a week of rest this week, and they have a cool-headed quarterback in Steve McNair, who has Super Bowl experience. They will be beasts in the playoffs.

But their weakness is a rushing attack that ranks last among the AFC playoff bunch. Their running back Jamal Lewis continues improving, but he is not back to his form of 2000-2001. However, all teams go through either Baltimore or San Diego in the AFC and both are primed for major battles.

The Chargers are the most complete team in the AFC. They have the best ground game of any team in the league, and the number three defense of the AFC playoff teams. Sure, Philip Rivers has had a season-closing slump at quarterback, but handing off to newly-crowned Most Valuable Player LaDainian Tomlinson should take care of that.

Super Bowl Prediction: Chargers vs. Saints.

Coaching Roulette Update: Yes, everyone is writing about this topic this weak because the NFL has started its annual bloodletting. This column weighed in on this before the season was half over, which shows you the life expectancy of NFL coaches is like that of a mayfly if they start to lose.

Cardinals: Fired Dennis Green to make him the first casualty.
Outcome: Mistake. Anyone who takes over this sorry team will see it is at least a three- year rebuilding project. Cardinals fans, should get ready for more losing, just as the team was about to turn a corner.

Falcons: Turns out Jim Mora’s big mouth was as much of a coach killer as quarterback Michael Vick.
Outcome: Improvement. Bring in someone who can create an offense that builds on Vick’s talents.

Dolphins: Nick Saban thankfully bails for the college ranks; it seems he discovered it usually takes at least three or four years to rebuild an NFL team, and that was too much for him.
Outcome: Mixed. Saban’s heart wasn’t in it but he was likely a year or two away from good results. Can a new coach pick up where Saban left off?

Everyone is expecting a change in Pittsburgh and the Giants could also make a move depending on playoff outcomes. Any other NFL team that fires a coach (including Romeo Crennel in Cleveland) is making a mistake.

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