We’ll never know how the NFL season would have played out if Tom Brady hadn’t busted his knee way back in September, but we can guess that the New England Patriots would have won at least a couple more games and would be on their way to another Super Bowl while a breathless nation takes a deep bow. It’s nice to take a break from all that.
But look what we’ve got instead. One of the AFC finalists, the Baltimore Ravens, stays alive with a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback. The two NFC finalists ended the regular season with a combined season record of 18-13-1. The Bengals played one of them to a tie.
The Ravens and the Philadelphia Eagles were the last teams into the playoffs, each the sixth seed in its conference. Now they’re in the final four. The Arizona Cardinals, being one of the first teams to clinch a playoff berth, stumbled through December as if to prove they didn’t belong. But they’re still around.
By this point in January, we want glamorous clashes between titans. We don’t want or expect the Cardinals or Ravens to be involved. But they did what they were supposed to do, which is more than we can say about the Titans.
Brett Favre couldn’t take the New York Jets to the playoffs, and the Green Bay Packers couldn’t get to there without him. The Dallas Cowboys, America’s Team, ended 2008 every bit as badly as the rest of America.
In a season of failing titans, no one believed the Tennessee Titans even after they won their first 10 games. And who believes the Ravens, who knocked out the Titans last Sunday?
Teams that grew competitive late in the season proved vulnerable to teams that didn’t. At least one wag — we won’t say who — figured the Carolina Panthers would fail down the stretch. But the Panthers started routinely breaking long touchdown runs as if they were a big high school team playing against small high school teams, and they demanded to be taken seriously.
Fools that we are, we obliged. Then the Panthers laid the smelliest egg of the playoffs, losing at home against the Cardinals, who laid the smelliest eggs of December, including losses by 28, 21 and 40 points in the season’s final five weeks. Now the Cardinals are hosting the NFC championship.
By every estimate, the New York Giants were going to cruise through a weak NFC playoff field, since they blew into November as the best team in the NFL. It didn’t last.
Once Plaxico Burress accidentally shot himself in a nightclub, the Giants lost the best weapon from their passing game, which already wasn’t very productive. And they ran into a blast of magic dust from Philadelphia.
The Eagles are charmed right now. Not the best team left, but the luckiest, and it’s sometimes better to be lucky than good.
The Eagles entered the final week of the season with almost no chance of making the playoffs. But on that final day, down went the Chicago Bears in Houston and down went the Tampa Bay Buccaneers against, of all teams, the Oakland Raiders.
When the Eagles lined up for their late afternoon game against Dallas that Sunday, they had new life. Win, and they’re in. So they won, every bit as decisively as the Cowboys lost. In a matter of 8:52 of game time right in the middle of that contest, the Eagles expanded a 10-3 lead to 41-3 as the Cowboys threw an interception and fumbled three times.
Next the Eagles went to Minnesota for the first round of the playoffs and pitched three shutout quarters for a 26-14 win as Donovan McNabb assembled his fourth 300-yard passing game of the season. The Eagles then played the Giants for the eighth time in three years, marking the NFL’s most visited rivalry of recent seasons with a stout defensive performance and a 23-11 victory.
The Eagles are in the NFC Championship Game for the fifth time in eight years, arriving with their usual tricks. Their defense has allowed only 51 points in their past five games. Their best rushing performance during that time came from Correll Buckhalter’s whopping 65 yards against the Cowboys. In two playoff games, star back Brian Westbrook has 74 rushing yards total.
It’s all about that defense controlling football games and McNabb making just enough plays to tough the Eagles through the road. In a year when the Eagles probably shouldn’t be in the playoffs, they’ve seized this gift, and they know what to do with it.
Chances are the Cardinals will offer little resistance, though these playoffs have proved impossible to figure. The Eagles crushed the Cardinals 48-20 on Thanksgiving night. At this point, though, it probably couldn’t matter less.
We’re left, then, with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the one team we don’t call a complete surprise in the conference championship round. Since a 24-20 loss to Indianapolis on Nov. 9, the Steelers have allowed only two opponents to surpass 13 points.
At 6-3 on that date, the Steelers were no more than solid. But they rallied to a 12-4 finish, their best since they ended 2004 with a Super Bowl win.
So it’s two AFC North teams, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, playing for the AFC championship. One doesn’t know if Bengals fans should be heartened or discouraged: Of the Bengals’ 11 losses, four came against those two teams. If you’re going to finish third in a division, it might as well be the division in which the top two teams are the only two left in the conference.
At the same time, it makes the Bengals’ climb toward the top all the steeper. More good news for the franchise that just can’t get enough of it.
CONTACT BILL PETERSON: firstname.lastname@example.org