So I'm not going to save anything for suspense. I like the Oakland Raiders and the Philadelphia Eagles to be playing in Super Bowl XXXVII at the end of January.
I think the Tennessee Titans are hot enough (10-1 in their last 11 games), and the bye should heal up Steve McNair for a run at the Raiders.
But the two teams that I say "watch out for" come out of New York. The Jets and Giants are very dangerous.
|Rich Gannon fell only 395 yards short of Dan Marino's single-season record for passing yardage.|
The Jets went toe-to-toe with the Raiders just six weeks ago in a loss in Oakland. Chad Pennington's even better now than he was then. The Jets are not only good; they are confident.
The Giants have a tougher road because they'll have to pull this off on the road, and that's a tall order. But the Giants will beat the 49ers, I believe, this weekend. I also think they can win in Philadelphia because they almost did it in the first meeting this year with the Eagles, and they probably should have won by two or three TDs in last Saturday's game, except for some atrocious officiating that screams for disciplinary action.
The Packers always have a chance because of Brett Favre, but they have overachieved through some steep injuries. And losing a bye and home-field advantage Sunday will come back to haunt them. The Bucs just don't have enough firepower, although Brad Johnson's return could be a spark. Michael Vick can work some magic with the Falcons, but I'm not sure he's that much of a miracle worker -- yet. And the 49ers? I may be overlooking them, but I don't think so.
Back to the AFC, the Steelers are the biggest disappointment. They had a Super Bowl team. Maybe they will be inspired for this run, but what happened to their defense? Of the 12 teams in the playoffs, did you realize that the Steelers gave up the most points (345) this season? You can't win a championship with a spotty defense.
Yes, the Titans are a threat, and I like the fact that many of these players have been there, done that, as recently as 1999 when they went to the Super Bowl.
The Colts just aren't ripe, yet, but Tony Dungy has done a great job getting them back on track. The Browns? Well, at least Butch Davis will get his team a little playoff experience for the next step.
In the end, the Eagles and Raiders were the best teams this season. And I think the best teams will be playing in the end.
It's also time for the season's individual awards. Here are a few of them:
1. Rich Gannon, QB, Raiders -- He was the driving force behind the best team in football. He pulled the team out of a four-game slump that threatened to torpedo the season. He had one of the most productive seasons in NFL history. He did it against the toughest schedule and in the toughest division in football.
2. Derrick Brooks, LB, Buccaneers -- Quiet by nature off the field, a fury on it. He is the heart of the best defense in football. Four TDs on interception returns and another big interception vs. the Bears on Sunday night that helped the Bucs secure a badly needed first-round playoff bye. Ask Michael Vick how good he is.
3. Brett Favre, QB, Packers -- He really needs no explanation. True, he hit a midseason slump, but he persevered while his offensive line and backfield fell apart to injuries. Shrugged off a knee injury that would have sidelined most QBs. He probably needed a big-game win vs. the Bucs or Jets to win the MVP, but there's no reason to pick at this all-time great.
4. Steve McNair, QB, Titans -- The numbers won't dazzle you, but despite being too injured to practice the latter half of the season, he still passed for 3,387 yards and 22 TDs. Made big plays when it counted and led the Titans to a 10-1 finish after a 1-4 start.
5. Michael Vick, QB, Falcons -- Contrary to some critics, he is not about the hype. He is the real deal. And he carried a team that few people expected to be a playoff team into a wild-card berth. He did it with his arm and his legs (777 yards rushing and eight TDs), and he was often at his best with the game on the line.
6. Chad Pennington, QB, Jets -- I'm a believer. We talk about Tom Brady being like Joe Montana, but it might be Pennington. He threw for over 3,000 yards, had an NFL-high QB rating of 104.2 and was the spark to the Jets' dramatic AFC East-winning finish.
7. Priest Holmes, RB, Chiefs -- If he had not been injured in Week 15, he might have gotten the Chiefs a playoff spot with one of the greatest seasons ever by a back whose identity has escaped us until now.
8. Jason Taylor, DE, Dolphins -- He led the NFL with 18.5 sacks, but he also disrupted the run to a higher degree than given credit for, and he received Lawrence Taylor-like treatment down the stretch.
9. Marvin Harrison, WR, Colts -- Have you looked at the numbers? Here they are: 143 catches for 1,722 yards (and 11 TDs). The Colts won 10 games and grabbed a playoff berth. Even though Peyton Manning is the true MVP of this team, Harrison's season screams for recognition.
10. Brad Johnson, QB, Bucs -- Even though the Bucs managed to win their final game without him, the sense of despair that was felt in Tampa when Johnson hurt his back in Week 15 told you how valuable he was to the team's 12-4 season. He threw 22 TDs and only six interceptions.
Coach of the Year
1. Andy Reid, Eagles- - I know other teams had more injuries than the Eagles. But he went 5-1 and secured the NFC's first-round seed without Donovan McNabb and mostly with third-string QB A.J. Feeley. The telling moment was the week after McNabb was hurt when Reid refused to panic and took his team to San Francisco to win a critical game with Koy Detmer and Feeley in the saddle.
2. Mike Sherman, Packers -- Too many injuries to add up, but despite a disappointing loss to the Jets in the end, the Packers went 12-4. And, trust me, he grew in stature with his players when he confronted Warren Sapp. This guy is a terrific coach.
3. Herman Edwards, Jets -- The season was falling apart, but Edwards would not flinch. He pulled Vinny Testaverde at the right time and allowed Pennington to flourish beyond our imaginations. The loss to the Bears was the lone slip, and even the Raiders will tell you that the best team they played this year was the Jets.
4. Jon Gruden, Bucs -- I laugh at the "same old Bucs" line. They finished with their best-ever record. They got a first-round bye. Gruden did it with an offense that has no speed, a shaky line, quarterbacks that few people regarded very highly. And he succeeded by coaching with a group of assistants that he had never previously worked with. His intensity also inspired a defense to its best year.
5. Bill Callahan, Raiders -- Talk about cool and having his act together. He never worried about Gruden's strong identity. The Raiders went through a crisis in October. Star players were screaming for the ball. Star players like Charles Woodson and Phillip Buchanon were getting hurt. But Callahan and Gannon wouldn't let the ship sink. He won the NFL's best division. He has more than passed the test.
6. Jeff Fisher, Titans -- Tennessee was 1-4 and the owner, Bud Adams, was complaining that the team was being out-coached. Fisher never blinked. The Titans ended on a 10-1 streak, won a division, got a first-round bye, and did it while Fisher nursed a banged-up team to health.
7. Jim Fassel, Giants -- He has done it before, but I thought Fassel's 4-0 December was the best I've seen in some time. He took the reins of the team when it was headed somewhere dark and rode it into the light of the playoffs. Not only that, but I think the G-men are a very scary team for the rest of the NFC field.
8. Brian Billick, Ravens -- When I asked ex-Packers GM Ron Wolf the other day about how he would cast a vote for this honor between Reid and Sherman, he answered, "Brian Billick. To do what this guy has done with that team ... with Ray Lewis and Michael McCrary on the sideline ... with all the turnover ... to be in the playoff hunt down the stretch ... well, it's the best job I've seen in a while." Never has 7-9 looked so brilliant.
9. John Fox, Panthers -- For all the reasons (minus the playoff part) that were stated about Billick, you can state about Fox. Really, this team had no business going 7-9. Outstanding rookie season.
10. Dan Reeves, Falcons -- We can say that Vick carried this team, but Reeves handled Vick like a pro. The Falcons far exceeded low expectations to land a playoff berth, and Reeves once again proved his mettle.
Offensive Player of the Year
1. Priest Holmes, RB, Chiefs -- In 14 games, he produced 2,287 yards total offense and 24 TDs. He had a 5.2 average per carry (1,615 yards rushing) and 70 catches. He was the deal.
|Priest Holmes threatened several NFL records before suffering a hip injury.|
2. Marvin Harrison, WR, Colts -- We've already went over the numbers. Shattered the single-season record for catches and topped 1,700 yards. It's not like the other team didn't know who was getting the ball, either.
3. Michael Vick, QB, Falcons -- The guy sizzled, throwing for just under 3,000 yards and running for 777 and eight TDs.
4. Rich Gannon, QB, Raiders -- He was shy of 5,000 yards, but he was a machine. And it didn't happen by accident.
5. Charlie Garner, RB, Raiders -- Really, remarkable stuff. He fell just short of going 1,000 yards in both rushing (962) and receiving (941). He caught 91 balls and averaged 5.3 per carry.
6. Ricky Williams, RB, Dolphins -- This is what all the fuss was about. Williams found himself in Miami and delivered an NFL rushing title with 1,883 yards and caught 47 passes. Far more powerful and quicker than we had seen. It wasn't his fault the Dolphins fell short.
7. LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, Chargers -- He may be getting slighted for the Chargers' season-ending slump. He carried them with 1,683 yards, 14 TDs and a 4.5-yard average behind an O-line that was splendidly coached, but way short on talent.
8. Terrell Owens, WR, 49ers -- I wonder how much that ball is worth that he autographed in Seattle. Because this guy is worth the price of admission every which way.
9. Drew Bledsoe, QB, Bills -- Funny how critics actually surfaced down the stretch. Bledsoe had the second-most passing yards (4,359) behind Gannon and threw for 24 TDs. He also led the Bills from a three-win season to .500 (8-8) and restored hope to the franchise.
10. Clinton Portis, RB, Broncos -- He ran for 1,505 yards and 15 TDs and had a 5.5 average per carry as a rookie who didn't start the first month of the season. That's worthy of mention, huh?
Defensive Player of the Year
1. Derrick Brooks, LB, Bucs -- He had 70 solo tackles and four TDs on three interceptions and a fumble return. He had 218 return yards on his five total interceptions. Sure, he is around other big-time players, but he was the best of the best on the only defense in the NFL that surrendered fewer than 200 points (196). Plus, he was the dynamo behind stopping Vick in two games.
2. Jason Taylor, DE, Dolphins -- If the Dolphins had made the playoffs, he might have edged Brooks, but there's no downplaying his performance. He was much more than the league's leading sacker (18.5).
3. Brian Dawkins, S, Eagles -- He had good numbers (62 tackles, three sacks, four fumble recoveries, two interceptions), but everyone knows he's the best player on one of the best defenses in football.
4. Warren Sapp, DT, Bucs -- I know, he's not always really popular. And he can get muscled at times. But just ask the offensive coordinators who game-plan for the Bucs, and they will tell you how much chaos he causes.
5. Simeon Rice, DE, Bucs -- He finished with 15.5 sacks and, like Taylor, is a much more respected all-around defender than his prior reputation.