Here are seven notes and observations following Week 17 in the AFC North:
The Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) will try to shrug off their poor performance in Sunday's 37-0 loss to the New York Jets as a meaningless game. But behind the scenes there has to be concern about the team’s effort and execution. Yes, the starters played only into the third quarter and the plays were vanilla, but the Bengals looked listless and sloppy against New York. There were several bad routes and dropped balls by receivers, poor blocking and seven penalties. The Bengals may have been better off not playing any starters, because they just didn’t look interested in playing Sunday night. Cincinnati will try to prove it can turn it on six days later in a rematch.
Speaking of rematches, there are 13 cases in NFL history where teams met in the regular-season finale and the first round of the postseason the following week. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the team that lost in the regular season is 8-5 in rematches, which favors the Bengals. Amazingly, we have three playoff rematches in the wild-card round with the Jets and Bengals, Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys, and the Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals.
With the emergence of Ray Rice, the opportunities for Baltimore Ravens backup tailback Willis McGahee have been sparse. But McGahee deserves a lot of credit for being ready when his number was called in a must-win game. McGahee ran for a season-high 167 yards and three touchdowns in Baltimore’s 21-13 win over the Oakland Raiders. It’s been more than a year since McGahee rushed for more than 100 yards. The last time was Dec. 20, 2008, against the Cowboys.
Baltimore's pass rush against Oakland was as good as I've seen all season. The Ravens had three sacks and added five additional hits on the quarterback. Raiders starter Charlie Frye had some success early but the accumulation of hits knocked him out of the game. The constant pressure easily flustered Raiders backup JaMarcus Russell, who committed two turnovers (one interception, one fumble) in the second half. It will be interesting to see the pressure packages Baltimore draws up in the playoffs this week against New England Patriots Pro Bowl quarterback Tom Brady.
If the Pittsburgh Steelers made the playoffs, I firmly believe safety Troy Polamalu would have returned this week in the wild-card game. His left knee was healing slower than expected, but Polamalu finally made significant strides the past two weeks. Polamalu was back to running, but what kept him off the field in Sunday’s win over the Miami Dolphins was the cutting and change of direction. With Polamalu back in the lineup, even at less than 100 percent, the Steelers would have been a scary wild-card opponent. Pittsburgh ended the year on a three-game winning streak.
Monday marks the official start of the Mike Holmgren era in Cleveland. The Browns’ new president is expected to arrive at the team’s training facility in Berea, Ohio, today and begin remaking the franchise. Will Holmgren start his new job by making a coaching change? We will find out soon. Holmgren is scheduled to meet with Browns coach Eric Mangini and the rest of his staff this week. Retaining or firing Mangini will be the first major decision "The Big Show" makes in his new job.
Expect a lot of offseason comparisons between Cleveland's hot finish to Cincinnati's hot finish in 2008. Therefore, some pundits will expect a dramatic turnaround for the Browns to finish near the top of the division in 2010. But I don't think those comparisons are accurate. The Bengals had stability going into the following year. Coach Marvin Lewis was entering his seventh season, and a franchise quarterback (Carson Palmer) was in place. The Browns are unsure about both positions. Cincinnati was continuing its program after a down year, while Cleveland could be completely starting over next season.