When Bill Cowher was contemplating the possibility of a Super Bowl repeat by the Pittsburgh Steelers at the start of the season, he noted that by the final six games of the regular season, coaches wanted to have their teams in a groove and playing near their peak.
So much for that. Last weekend settled plenty of playoff spots - Philadelphia, San Diego and Arizona got in Sunday - but also exposed so many weaknesses that NFL people are wondering where so many good teams went.
If the NFL maxim is, "It's not how you start, it's how you finish," then New Orleans, Minnesota, Green Bay, Cincinnati, Denver and New England must be worried about the postseason. Their fault lines have been exposed at the worst possible moment, the identities on which they built their playoff runs left in tatters, leaving almost everyone outside of Indianapolis (undefeated, despite an injury-ravaged defense) and San Diego (winner of nine straight) wondering what might be next.
"The thing about every coach, you know your strengths by this time, (and) all you're trying to do is hide your weakness," said Herman Edwards, the former Jets and Kansas City Chiefs coach who is now an ESPN analyst. "You're just trying to cover up. You're saying, 'This is what we do well; we'll have to play this way.' You can't get any more players."
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Never was that more on display than Sunday night, when the Vikings' offensive line was humiliated by Carolina's Julius Peppers. Until then, the Vikings appeared to be the most balanced team in the NFL, an overpowering defense coupled with a multitalented offense.
But teams that have been eliminated from playoff contention are dangerous because they can play spoiler - think of the Atlanta Falcons beating the Jets - and Carolina's defense opened the window onto how average the Vikings' offensive line had been. Brett Favre was sacked four times and pressured another 10. Coach Brad Childress was apparently so concerned about Favre's well-being - and, not incidentally, Favre's performance when the Vikings could not score - that he attempted to pull him in the third quarter, when the Vikings led 7-6.
The Vikings' defense did not help matters by allowing 20 points in the fourth quarter, and Jonathan Stewart was the first rusher in 36 games to go over 100 yards against the Vikings. But the state of the Favre-Childress marriage and the Favre-led offense, and Childress' ability to lead the team if the quarterback can win that kind of sideline argument, just became one of the biggest story lines of the postseason.
Here are other major concerns for teams hoping to make a playoff run:
New Orleans' injury-riddled defense took a beating from the Dallas Cowboys, who rushed for 145 yards. The Saints have winnable games against Tampa Bay and the Panthers remaining, but if a playoff opponent can get a lead on the Saints, the way Dallas did, there may be trouble. "The Saints' Achilles' heel is that you can run the ball against them, but people are always down two scores, so you feel like you've got to throw it," Edwards said.
Green Bay's secondary showed how much it missed cornerback Al Harris. The Packers were shredded by Ben Roethlisberger for 503 yards and three touchdowns. He was sacked five times, but the defensive backfield allowed 10 passes of 20 or more yards, and that did not include Roethlisberger's final throw, a 19-yard bullet to Mike Wallace in the end zone. The Packers had the second-ranked defense in the NFL entering the game, but the secondary has held up against lesser quarterbacks. In the NFC playoffs, it could face Drew Brees, Kurt Warner, Donovan McNabb or Favre. Eek.
Denver was outrushed 241-80 by Oakland, putting all the pressure on quarterback Kyle Orton. He was sacked three times, and the defense, the star of the quick start, allowed JaMarcus Russell, of all people, to win the game.
Cincinnati finally went back to throwing the ball - Carson Palmer threw for 314 yards and two touchdowns in a loss to San Diego - and the Bengals should remember that this is what will get them places, not the running game they have favored in recent weeks in a series of unnecessarily close games against teams such as Cleveland and Detroit. "They've gone to almost playing small ball," Edwards said. "Even though you're protecting your defense, it keeps the game close. You've got to take your shots. They haven't done that."
New England proved that Randy Moss was still a critical part of its offense, sending seven passes his way Sunday. The Patriots could have run for much more against Buffalo than the 109 yards they rolled up. Keeping the defense off the field should be the goal for the Patriots. They have only 28 sacks, and a team with any kind of decent quarterback can throw the ball. In the playoffs, New England could face Palmer, Peyton Manning or Philip Rivers. Eek, again.
Edwards knows what coaches are thinking right now. "You get into a phase; you're getting exposed," he said. "And you're saying, 'Let's don't even get involved with that."'
With two games left, though, there may not be any more time for playoff teams to hide.