Bill Liesse's NFL column "Inside the Lines" for Sunday, Dec. 30
Today we decide the sixth playoff team in each conference, a pennant race that captures little public attention because of the universal assumption that we already know our NFL champion.
We’d like to set “playoff fields” for some various accomplishments we’ve seen this year. Half-size, though; just six for the whole NFL because 12 is too many. And with the caveat that the Patriots are ineligible, as they’ve dominated headlines to the point the following have gone unnoticed.
BEST COACHING JOB
No. 6: Wade Phillips, Dallas. Kept Terrell Owens quiet, kept Julius Jones and Marion Barber harmonious, lost only one besides the New England setback and elevated a talented roster in ways Bill Parcells could not.
No. 5: Dick Jauron, Buffalo. Lost a busload of defenders to injury and goes for a .500 season today, which is beyond what a fully healthy team was picked to do.
No. 4: Romeo Crennell, Cleveland. Team picked 4-12 by many can go 10-6. Made right call in three-man QB derby.
No. 3: Jack Del Rio, Jacksonville. Gutsy cut of Byron Leftwich was misinterpreted in preseason by ITL. It properly defined this group and David Garrard excelled. Maxed out Fred Taylor when temptation would have been to let Maurice Jones-Drew take over.
No. 2: Mike McCarthy, Green Bay. Didn’t panic over running-game concerns, systematically adding that element to a team that generally dominated a pretty good schedule.
No. 1: Tony Dungy, Indianapolis. Championship complacency? The Colts are an Adam Vinatieri chip shot and perhaps one stop vs. the Patriots away from perfection. This despite a season without Marvin Harrison, basically, and half a year without top rush end Dwight Freeney. Oh, and a third of the defense and all-Pro OT Tarik Glenn left before the season.
BEST QUIET VETERAN PERFORMANCE
No. 6: Matt Hasselbeck, QB, Seattle. On doorstep of 4,000 yards and 30 TDs despite no run game.
No. 5: Derrick Mason, WR, Baltimore. Put together 100-catch season with those QBs.
No. 4: Kurt Warner, QB, Arizona. Not the starter to open the season, he’s at 3,100 yards and 24 TDs.
No. 3: Bobby Engram, WR, Seattle. Reliable “third guy” has 12 yards per on 90 catches.
No. 2: T.J. Houshmandzadeh, WR, Cincinnati. Leads football with 103 catches, 12 for scores, with wire-to-wire excellence on team with no one else consistent.
No. 1: Fred Taylor, RB, Jacksonville. Sharing time with Drew, he’s at 1,200 yards on just 223 carries. His 5.4 a pop is exceeded only by rookie Adrian Peterson.
6. Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati. 5. Lovie Smith, Chicago. 4. Mike Shanahan, Denver. 3. Brian Billick, Baltimore. 2. Eric Mangini, Jets. 1. Bobby Petrino, Atlanta.
6. Daunte Culpepper, QB, Oakland. 5. Shaun Alexander, RB, Seattle. 4. Fred Miller, OT, Chicago. 3. Julius Peppers, DE, Carolina. 2. Steve McNair, QB, Baltimore. 1. Adam Archuleta, S, Chicago.
Steelers -31/2 at RAVENS: The Ravens have four wins. When they got their fourth win, Barry Bonds was unindicted, leaves were unchanged, Illinois football was unimportant and Steve McNair was unexposed. PITTSBURGH.
Chargers -8 at RAIDERS: The other “avoid the Jaguars” game, along with the game above. Both tee it up at 3:15, so the Chargers should be giving full effort to complete one of the more vilified 11-5 seasons in memory. SAN DIEGO.
Like ’em, but I’m scared
FALCONS -1 vs. Seahawks: Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I saw in the paper that there are no movie passes accepted for “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” ATLANTA.
Titans -6 at COLTS: Vince Young and Peyton Manning should both throw for about 70 yards, as the latter is expected to watch from the sideline after the first drive. Manning has, however, offered to gesticulate and call audibles all four quarters. TENNESSEE.
PACKERS -4 vs. Lions: Respect is a bit slow to come to Millenland. While the other teams resting stars (Indianapolis, Dallas, Jacksonville) have shifted to prohibitive underdogs, Green Bay trots out the JV and the Lions still get almost their full complement of points. Just give the GM a half-dozen more years and he promises to turn Detroit around. DETROIT.
BROWNS -10 vs. 49ers: A recap on the visitors’ QBs: They started with Alex Smith, the No. 1 pick, but he kept hurting his shoulder. For a while they used Trent Dilfer, but he died of old age around Thanksgiving. Then it was Shaun Hill, who’s not the Tulane kid who was cheated, along with Tampa, in that one NFC title game in St. Louis (that’s Shaun King). Now all those guys are out, and Steve Young said he doesn’t want to play, though it’s tempting, this being Cleveland. So the nod goes to the inimitable Chris Weinke, whose inclusion on the list of Heisman winners makes “Gino Torretta” look like “Roger Staubach.” We assume Rick Mirer lurks somewhere. CLEVELAND.
REDSKINS -9 vs. Cowboys: After seven straight season-ending losses, Dallas finally has the proper excuse this time. It will be a single week of “Wherefore art thou, Romo” for the diligent Terry Glenn, who readies for the playoffs with the only Week 17 season debut ITL can ever remember. WASHINGTON.
I’ll know more Monday
Saints -2 at BEARS: Purdon’t want to pick a winner in this sad matchup that 11 months ago was a conference final. But let’s take Brees over Orton. NEW ORLEANS.
Bengals -3 at DOLPHINS: Can’t you just feel it? Bengals put the same kind of stamp on their season that Baltimore did. They’d be remiss not to. MIAMI.
CARDINALS -6 vs. Rams: You know what they say when Marc Bulger and Kurt Warner meet. Whoever has the ball last ... fumbles in his own end zone and the other team wins. ARIZONA.
EAGLES -71/2 vs. Bills: Check the forecast, because in one of the great paradoxes of today’s NFL, Buffalo can’t play in the cold. Guess that’s what happens when your backfield is from Stanford and Cal. PHILADELPHIA.
Panthers -3 at BUCCANEERS: Only in the NFC Eclipse division (can’t look at it) could a team such as Tampa rest guys for the playoffs while simultaneously lining up for a high draft pick. CAROLINA.
I hate these games
Vikings -3 at BRONCOS: We trusted the Broncos to muster some pride last week vs. a rival, and they refused. Upon further review, this is a 6-9 team that has given up as many points as the Rams. MINNESOTA.
TEXANS -61/2 vs. Jaguars: In a good-faith move, Jax coach Jack Del Rio called Byron Leftwich and offered to let him play this one. Leftwich declined, choosing the unconventional path of staying with the Falcons until the end. With underrated stars David Garrard and Fred Taylor expected to sit out, this becomes a holiday tradition: the Drew-Gray game. HOUSTON.
JETS -61/2 vs. Chiefs: And just how long does Kenny Mayne plan to refer to it as “tackle football” before he realizes the tiny amusement factor is gone? Isn’t there a mascot battle to which ESPN can assign that dude? KANSAS CITY.
Last week: 8-8
Bill Liesse is sports editor of the Journal Star. Write to him at 1 News Plaza, Peoria, IL 61643, call (309) 686-3213 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org