By Gregg Easterbrook
Special to Page 2

Now that the regular season is over, it's time to start lining up excuses. The excuse Tuesday Morning Quarterback does not want to hear is, "We had a lot of close losses." Everybody in the National Football League has a lot of close losses!

On the final weekend, Denver honked out of the playoffs by a field goal, Jacksonville honked out by five points, Cincinnati honked by six points, Dallas honked the NFC East crown by eight points. Down the home stretch, Cincinnati lost by an extra point, then lost in overtime. Down the home stretch, Jax lost by a field goal, then by a touchdown, then by less than a touchdown. San Francisco was eliminated by a six-point defeat, Atlanta was eliminated by a seven-point defeat. Buffalo would have made the playoffs had it not lost twice by a single point. Carolina had three field-goal losses; change one, and the Cats would have been in.

In 2005, 45 percent of NFL games were won by a margin of a touchdown or less; 23 percent were won by a margin of a field goal or less. (I don't have the 2006 stats yet but assume it is similar; the 2005 figures are typical for the past decade.) Houston was the league's worst team in 2005, and six of its losses were by a touchdown or less. Oakland was the league's worst team in 2006, and five of its losses were by a touchdown or less. Cleveland was awful this season at 4-12; change the outcomes of the four games the Browns lost by a touchdown or less, and Cleveland would have been a playoff contender. Arizona was the butt of jokes in 2005, and again in 2006; in both seasons, the Cardinals lost five games by a touchdown or less. So teams that will be sitting on the couch this month watching the playoffs on television and seeing the head coach's neck veins fairly popping out of his skin in HD -- don't use "We lost a lot of close games" as an excuse. You know how many NFL teams had a lot of close losses this year? All of them did!

TMQ Cheat Sheet
This week: Gregg Easterbrook on ...

Stats of the week
Cheerleader of the week
Sweet 'N' Sour of the week
The football gods chortled
Worst crowd reaction
Favre retirement watch
Left over from TMQ's Christmas list
Why tactics matter
Darrent Williams, 1982-2007
Single worst play of the season

In terrible news, the murder of Broncos' cornerback Darrent Williams makes everything that happened in the Denver season pale in comparison. Some thoughts on the loss of this young man are below. For now, the lesser questions of Denver football -- in this case, why didn't the Broncos play for the tie? Last season, Atlanta knocked itself out of the postseason by playing to win in an overtime, when a tie would have kept the Falcons in contention. Sunday, it was Denver and San Francisco knotted at 23 points in overtime, the Broncos having first-and-10 on their 22 with 5:38 remaining. A tie puts Denver in the playoffs -- so play for a tie! There are 78 yards in front of the home team, whose crowd is roaring at jet-fighter-afterburner decibels. Seventy-eight yards is plenty of room in which to kill 5:38, play for a tie! At that point, the only way Denver could have failed to gain the postseason was by giving the ball back to San Francisco with some time left on the clock. How did the Broncos play it? Short pass, incompletion, incompletion, punt. Not only did Denver fail to seek a tie, it stopped the clock twice. You know what happened next.

In other news, TMQ loves Tiki Barber, whom this columns calls TTNY -- The Toast of New York -- and was glad to see his rip-roaring 234-yard performance in what perhaps was his final regular-season outing. But you can't help feeling Barber's two months of retirement talk have been a factor in the Giants' swoon. Jersey/A was 6-2 when Barber started giving nonstop interviews about his plan to retire, shifting the focus away from the team and onto himself. For his perhaps-final home game on Christmas Eve, Barber was introduced last, and came out with his family at his side. This shifted the focus away from the team and on to one player. There are some sports, prominently basketball, where an individual performance can determine victory. But football success is possible only if everyone thinks and acts as a team. Barber's nonstop retirement talk shifted the Giants' focus away from the team and on to its individual personalities and, as we found out, many of the Giants' individual personalities are not all that attractive. Barber started it by shining the spotlight on his own face and, much as TMQ loves the guy, Tiki might have triggered the Giants' swoon.

In other news, the Seahawks can relax -- the Cincinnati Bengals have now taken the mantle of TMQ's Single Worst Play of the Season So Far. See below. And in other football news, can there actually be a limit to Americans' interest in watching football on television? That had certainly never occurred to me, and it seems not to have occurred to the National Football League, either. See analysis of the floundering NFL Network below.

Finally, the AFC postseason entrants were a combined 21-3 versus the NFC. The NFC postseason entrants were a combined 10-14 versus the AFC. Anybody care to guess which conference will win the Super Bowl?

Stat of the Week No 1: Contenders Atlanta, Cincinnati, Denver and Jacksonville finished on a combined 2-14 run.

Stat of the Week No. 2: The Giants and Seahawks made the playoffs despite being outscored.

Stat of the Week No. 3: Jon Kitna took every offensive snap of the season at quarterback for the Lions.

Stat of the Week No. 4: Oakland's offense scored 12 touchdowns and committed 46 turnovers.

Stat of the Week No. 5: Buffalo, Green Bay, San Francisco and Tennessee opened a combined 5-19 and closed a combined 25-15.

Stat of the Week No. 6: Cleveland finished with 16 players on the injured list.

Stat of the Week No. 7: Marvin Lewis is 8-10 in December as a head coach.

Stat of the Week No. 8: Dick Jauron is 1-5 in terms of winning seasons as an NFL head coach.

Stat of the Week No. 9: Tony Dungy and Marty Schottenheimer are a combined 314-188 in the regular season and a combined 10-20 in the postseason.

Just like half the Redskins' players, she's got a zipper. (Knee injury.)

Cheerleader of the Week Michael Fitzgerald of Littleton, Colo. nominates Chelsea of the Washington Redskins Cheerleaders, a student at George Mason University. According to her team bio, Chelsea had to stop cheering for a year because she tore her ACL. That must give her empathy with the Redskins' locker room!

Sweet Play of the Week No. 1: With LaDainian Tomlinson and Philip Rivers on the sideline resting, things were getting a little sweaty for San Diego, which led Arizona 27-20 at the two-minute warning and faced second-and-2 on its 31. The Bolts needed to win to clinch the first seed, and Schottenheimer did not want to send his stars back into the back. The call was up the middle to blocking back Lorenzo Neal, who almost never carries -- 10 touches in 15 games to that point. Neal rumbled 43 yards, and the rest was kneel-downs. Coming into the game, Neal had 27 yards rushing on the season; on his last carry of 2006 he more than doubled his season output.

Sweet Play of the Week No. 2: San Francisco leading heavily favored Denver 17-16, Alex Smith looked left, pumped left, kept looking left -- then snapped back right and threw for 35 yards to Arnaz Battle, setting up a Niners' field goal. On that play Smith gave the appearance of being a first-overall draft pick.

Sweet Tactic of the Week: It's hard to figure out the pattern if there is no pattern! This season, Miami got good results by letting Jason Taylor line up wherever he wanted. Sometimes, offensive coordinators tell the motion man to move randomly -- go wherever he feels like -- so long as he ends up in the correct spot by the snap. Sunday, Mike Martz let all the Detroit "skill" players move randomly before setting for the snap. The result was delightful chaos. On one play, quarterback Jon Kitna lined up wide, then ran back to be under center for the snap; this wasn't planned, Kitna did it spontaneously. The Lions rung up 39 points with this tactic and you could almost see Cowboys defenders thinking, "How come we can't figure out the pattern of these shifts?" Note: Midseason, sportsradio and Dallas players were boasting about the Cowboys' defense. Dallas lost its last three home games, surrendering 104 points.

Sweet Sequence of the Week: Leading 10-7, the Seahawks had second-and-18 on the City of Tampa 32 late in the first half. Matt Hasselbeck threw an apparent touchdown to D.J. Hackett, but the completion was reversed. The next snap was third-and-18, and Hasselbeck went back to Hackett for 21 yards and the first down. Following a penalty, Hasselbeck threw to Hackett for the touchdown. The Bucs never caught on.

Sour Play of the Week No. 1: Needing a win to stay alive for the postseason, Cincinnati had second-and-10 on the Pittsburgh 20 with 22 seconds remaining in regulation, game tied, dead ball after an incompletion. The Bengals held one timeout and called it to think things over. What Marvin Lewis decided to do was kneel, then spike the ball -- assuming the winning field goal was automatic. Not only did the kneel-down move the spot backward, making what would have been a 38-yard attempt into a 39-yard attempt, had the Bengals simply run a regular play on second down, then let the clock tick to a few seconds and called the timeout, the kick attempt might have been shorter still. What, exactly, was accomplished by burning the precious final timeout in order to decide to kneel down when the goal posts were still a decent distance away?

Sour Play of the Week No. 2: Trailing heavily favored San Diego 27-17 with 3:26 remaining, the Arizona (Caution: May Contain Football-Like Substance) Cardinals faced fourth-and-goal on the Chargers' 2. Field goal, and the Cards never touched the ball again. Buck-buck-brawckkkkkkk! Yes, down by 10 points, you need a touchdown and a field goal. But for a coach to think "Let's take the field goal here" is buck-buck-brawckkkkkkk logic. You're on the opposition 2, very close to the touchdown. With just three minutes remaining you need the touchdown here, because the field goal that you also need can be launched from greater distance. Besides you're 5-10, why not play to win? And now you are 5-11.

The Football Gods Chortled: Startup NFL Network has concluded its first slate of NFL broadcasts, and "clang" is the sports term for what happened. Four of the five NFLN Thursday games were total duds, among the season's least interesting contests, culminating in the Green Bay 9, Minnesota 7 snore-fest the Thursday before Christmas. (Minnesota recorded 104 yards of offense, while the Packers lit it up for three field goals in Brett Favre's Interim Final Semifinal appearance.) Of 20 quarters NFLN aired on Thursday nights, only one, the fourth quarter of San Francisco at Seattle, was watchable -- and even those who get NFL Network likely switched that contest off when it was a drowsy 7-3 at the end of the third. Saturday night fare wasn't much better.

That 70s Show
Their re-runs draw about the same as NFL Network, and cost $1 billion less.

Embroiled in controversy with the big cable carriers, most of which haven't put NFLN on basic cable, NFL Network had gambled that outraged football enthusiasts would deluge the cable carriers with complaints after hearing about the fabulous games they missed. Instead none of the games were worth calling anyone about, unless you had an immediate family member in the starting lineup. NFL Network managed the dubious distinction of producing the lowest-ever modern ratings for National Football League broadcasts. According to Nielsen Media Research, just 2.4 million people watched Browns-Steelers or Chiefs-Raiders on NFLN -- the kind of numbers generated by syndicated reruns of "That '70s Show." The NFL's highest-ranked in-house telecasts drew barely a third the average audience for a "Monday Night Football" telecast. "NFL Network stopped for no gain" was the headline on the Wall Street Journal's analysis of NFLN's first season.

The reason most major cable carriers won't put NFL Network on basic is the league's asking price of roughly $8 per household per year. That is Tiffany by the standards of cable, where most channels charge perhaps $1 per household per year to the carrier or give themselves away gratis, with the channel's only income being advertising. (If most cable channels weren't inexpensive or free to the carrier, there would not be 100 channels on basic.) Only a handful of cable products, prominently ESPN, have managed to charge more than a couple bucks per household per year, and ESPN broadcasts live game programming every day, not once in a blue moon as with NFLN. In the pricing fight, NFL Network argued that its handful of live games are so incredibly valuable, they justified NFLN becoming one of the most expensive video products ever to enter the American home. Then the football gods made the NFL Network games practically worthless!

Was this just bad luck -- or are the football gods trying to warn the NFL away from the excitement-reducing effect of in-house broadcasting? If NFLN actually got its asking price of $8 per household per year for basic cable, that could have brought nearly $1 billion annually in rights fees to the league. Instead NFL Network's first-year rights fees from the few carriers that put NFLN on basic cable, plus from satellite carriers and cable companies that offered NFLN on a premium sports tier, was believed to be in the area of $100 million. Meanwhile the league left on the table the roughly $400 million Comcast bid to air the Thursday and Saturday night games on its sports channel. Comcast's offer was a stunning sum -- about $50 million per game, far more than CBS, Fox or NBC pay for NFL rights and close to the breathtaking $65 million per game ESPN pays for "Monday Night Football." Instead by airing the telecasts itself, the NFL settled for around $12 million per game. Had the Thursday and Saturday games been sold to Comcast, each NFL owner would have received a check this season for roughly $10 million; instead, figuring what NFLN earned minus its cost for producing the telecasts, each NFL owner might expect a check in the zone of $2-4 million. That's a substantial difference, especially for small-market teams that are sensitive to revenue swings.

Perhaps in the future, NFLN will earn more than the league could have realized by selling the Thursday and Saturday night rights; many successful enterprises initially seemed like bad ideas. But in the first season at least, NFL Network was a huge letdown to the NFL -- plus a warning sign that there might be, in fact, a saturation point for public interest in pro football. Several influential NFL owners, prominently Pat Bowlen of Denver, have been arguing that broadcasting NFL games is a license to print money, and therefore the league should do all the telecasting and keep all proceeds. As Park Avenue (NFL headquarters) is discovering, the broadcast business is more treacherous financially than it might seem. One of the benefits to the National Football League, or any sports league, of selling game rights to ESPN or other established networks is that those networks assume the risk of market vacillations: The league receives a fixed payment regardless of whether games are exciting or popular. When the NFL airs its own games, it assumes the risk. In 2006, the NFL lost its in-house broadcasting gamble -- the first television-sector defeat by the league since the early 1960s.

Note: In the final NFL Network broadcast, Jersey/A at Washington, NFLN ran a dozen "house ads," or ads for itself. The spots fairly begged viewers to call their cable carriers and demand NFL Network. It's nice to know that even the mighty National Football League needs public opinion on its side. But the ads urging you to call your cable carriers and complain about not getting NFL Network were seen only by viewers who already got NFL Network! TMQ wondered if NFLN was running so many "house ads" because it hadn't been able to sell the time to regular advertising customers.

Local Affiliates Update: For the final Sunday, Park Avenue allowed both CBS and Fox to show two games, the league's first double-doubleheader. With the NBC night game, that meant five NFL contests on television on New Year's Eve, most ever for a single day. There was only one game Sunday, Jacksonville at Kansas City, pairing teams that both had to win to remain alive for the playoffs -- and despite the unprecedented five-game slate, that game was not on in the Washington, D.C., area, where TMQ lurks. There was only one other game that paired two teams with winning records, New England at Tennessee -- and that game was not shown in Washington, D.C., either. And still the league refuses to allow most of America to subscribe to NFL Sunday Ticket! Thanks to Fox, at least, for switching from the Atlanta-Philadelphia woofer to the fascinating second half and overtime of San Francisco at Denver.

Welcome to Hyatt, Would You Like to Buy a Towel for Your Room? The Official Wife of TMQ just signed up for the Hyatt hotel frequent-stay points program. As her welcome gift she received four coupons that can be redeemed for -- free wake-up calls. Hyatt now charges for wake-up calls?

Worst Crowd Reaction: As Rex Grossman trotted back onto the field after throwing his second interception returned for a touchdown, the Soldier Field crowd booed lustily. As the Bears left the field for intermission trailing Green Bay 23-0, the Soldier Field crowd booed lustily. What, exactly, did the Soldier Field crowd think it would accomplish by booing its own quarterback and own team? Plus the game was utterly meaningless for the Bears, who already had locked up the NFC playoffs' first seed. Hey, Soldier Field crowd -- it is impossible to win more than the first seed during the regular season. What, exactly, did you want?

My Name is Bunk -- James Bunk: TMQ got around to seeing the new Bond flick, which left me longing for supervillains with master control rooms built inside an entire hollowed-out mountain without anyone noticing. Supposedly for the latest iteration of the Bond franchise, the new producers wanted something akin to realism. OK. But if the new premise is realism, why are Bond and M discussing state secrets over a cell phone? And how can the United Kingdom still exist if MI6 is so incredibly incompetent it assigns just two agents to assist Bond on a big mission and both of them are actually working for the other side?

Daniel Craig
The latest Bond movie has more beefcake than cheesecake. This really must be the 21st century.

The point of the excruciatingly long gambling sequence in "Casino Royale" was to get Ruthless Bad Guy No. 1 to lose $100 million so that, desperate to repay a debt to some terrorists, he would flip and tell the authorities what he knows about Even More Ruthless Bad Guy No. 2. Yet after the $100 million is won by Bond at the casino, neither MI6 nor the CIA seize Bad Guy No. 1, simply allowing him to saunter away, setting up the next nonsensical sequence. The whole point of the excruciatingly long gambling sequence was to get Bad Guy No. 1 hopelessly in debt so that he could be seized and given the choice between cooperation and protection, or being rubbed out by the worse guys. Inexplicably allowed to saunter off by the CIA team surrounding the casino, Bad Guy No. 1 immediately captures Bond and the comely Vesper Lynd. Bad Guy No. 2 then attacks, kills Bad Guy No. 1 and all his henchmen, but spares Bond and Lynd. This makes it TOTALLY OBVIOUS that either Bond or Lynd must be working for Bad Guy No. 2. Yet Bond, M and the CIA suspect nothing, setting up the final nonsensical sequence.

Be these things as they may, "Casino Royale" seems yet another example of the action movie that's built around strings of seemingly shocking plots twists with this common denominator: Once you know the true motives revealed at the end, previous actions make no sense. Vesper betrays Bond to steal the $100 million, apparently because she has been working for Even More Ruthless Bad Guy No. 2 all along. Bond single-handedly kills the entire Bad Guys No. 2 contingent in an improbable scene -- at one point he ducks behind a thin wooden beam that shields him from assault rifle fire at close range -- then tries to save Vesper from a collapsing Venetian building. She commits suicide by deliberately pushing away from Bond and drowning herself. Audiences think Vesper kills herself because she is ashamed that Bond has exposed her betrayal. Then in the epilogue we learn Vesper was cooperating with Bad Guy No. 2 because he kidnapped her fiancÚ. If love of her fiancÚ was Vesper's real motive, she would not have committed suicide. And if Vesper was always good, she would have told Bond the truth. It would have been TOTALLY OBVIOUS to her that if she handed the $100 million over to Even More Ruthless Bad Guy No. 2, his henchmen would kill her and her fiancÚ anyway -- plus obvious that James Bond, super-agent, was her fiancÚ's sole hope for rescue. The movie is structured to make the audience first think the Vesper Lynd character is pure as the driven snow, then think the Vesper character is the embodiment of evil, then finally think she was noble and tragic. Once you know the ending, in retrospect none of Vesper's actions made sense.

Spelling Bee
AP photo
It can't be long until the first spelling bee recruiting scandal. Scandal. S-c-a-n-d-a-l. Scandal.

Can ESPN Yahtzee Broadcasts Be Far Behind? Now that ESPN is broadcasting poker and spelling bees, TMQ wonders -- how long until there is a spelling bee scandal? Some seventh grader will get caught doing megadoses of vitamin A before a bee, or signing with an agent. Maybe taking bee pollen injections. Lunch-box manufacturers will slip money under the table to spelling-bee participants. A spelling-bee winner will get an endorsement contract to do ads for some goofy made-up corporate word like Accenture or Acela. There will be a recruiting scandal when an English teacher offers a prospect free dress shoes to switch middle schools.

Other possible telecasts of sport-like events:

• Toboggan races.

• Science fairs -- whose volcano erupts with the most fake lava?

• Flag football tournaments. (Wait, ESPN probably actually will show this.)

AP photo
Kirk Herbstreit and Bob Davie will do the color commentary on ESPN's upcoming tobogganing coverage.

Huh? What? Trailing playoff-bound Baltimore 16-7, the Bills faced third-and-8 on their 5 with 10 minutes remaining. Buffalo coaches sent in the "heavy package" of six offensive linemen, normally used at the goal line, ran a sweep for three yards, then punted. Huh? What? You're trailing by two scores with 10 minutes remaining, you're 7-8 and eliminated from the postseason and you're trying to set up better field position to punt from? I scarcely need to tell you the Ravens took the ball the other direction for the score that iced the game. You're 10 minutes away from a losing season, play to win! And now you have all winter to think about your losing season.

Favre Retirement Watch: Now that Brett Favre has played his Interim Final Semifinal game at Lambeau Field, then his Provisional Definite Last Unless Not Definite game on national television Sunday night, here are other possible Favre events for next season:

• Brett Favre's last bicycle ride to Packers' camp.

• Brett Favre's last frozen custard at Storheim's.

• Brett Favre's last home game against Oakland. (Note: All 2007 Oakland games to be blacked out for humanitarian reasons.)

• Brett Favre's last road game in New Jersey. (Note: Packers play at Giants in 2007 -- will either Favre or Tiki actually be retired?)

• Brett Favre's last address to the United Nations General Assembly. (Note: tentative.)

• Brett Favre's last exclusive interviews with "SportsCenter," Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine, the "Monday Night Football" booth crew, "60 Minutes," "The Today Show," "Good Morning America," "The Situation Room" with Wolf Blitzer, "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," "The Diane Rehm Show," The Atlantic Monthly and Democracy Now. (Note: Favre exclusive interviews to occur on daily basis throughout 2007.)

When will Brett Favre have his last hot fudge?

• Brett Favre's last flat tire in the Packers' parking lot.

Sons of the Rich, Sons of the Saint, Where Is the Child Without Complaint? "One lesson from 2006 is that big gains [in the stock market] can come with an unwelcome side effect, hefty capital-gains tax bills." Quotation from the Wall Street Journal on the final day of 2006. So the stock market has a record-smashing year -- the Dow Jones rose 16 percent to a record high -- and the Wall Street Journal is complaining that people whose stocks shot up must pay capital-gains taxes. The ideal outcome for an investment is that you end up paying capital-gains taxes! Ideally, you end up paying loads of capital-gains taxes. Would the Journal be happier if the market had crashed and investors owed Uncle Sam nothing?

The Ultimate Leader Chose Poorly: Most of rookie Jay Cutler's touchdown passes went to rookie receivers Tony Scheffler and Brandon Marshall -- the guys Cutler got used to throwing to in practice when they were second-teamers together in the first half of the season. Bottom line on the Cutler experiment: The Ultimate Leader yanked Jake Plummer for being 7-4, then Cutler went 2-3 the remainder of the season. Had Plummer continued at his previous plodding pace, Denver would have finished 10-6, fans would be calling 10-6 a huge letdown, and the Broncos now would be preparing for a playoff date.

Cutler didn't look bad for a rookie, but he was a rookie and painful mistakes were predictable. It's especially worth noting that The Ultimate Leader yanked Plummer when the Broncos were not only 7-4 but on the cusp of playing three of their remaining five at Once It Was Called Mile High Stadium, Denver having the strongest home-field advantage in the NFL. With that advantage at his back, Cutler went 1-2 at home. Actually the Denver crowd performed worse than the team. Late in the third quarter against San Francisco, Cutler became confused by a Niners' front and called Denver's final timeout; the home crowd booed lustily. He's a rookie quarterback! What, exactly, did the Denver crowd think would be accomplished by booing their rookie quarterback in his first high-pressure game?

Mercedes bike
Does this $3,000 Mercedes bicycle have heated seats?

Left Over from TMQ's Christmas List: Mercedes dealers have begun offering a bicycle that costs $3,600 and has an automatic transmission. Remember how the early automatic transmissions for cars, such as the 1956 Chrysler Torqueflite push-button gearbox, were mocked as frills? Now almost all cars have automatic gearboxes; people buy sticks only if they prefer sporty driving. How long until automatic transmissions on bicycles become the norm?

Disclaimer of the Week: The mojo Christmas gift at the Official House of TMQ was a Sony Bravia flat-panel HD television. The set came with an eight-page disclaimer in six-point type, so as to discourage reading. The disclaimer began with a "preamble," just like the U.S. Constitution, and contained such absurd verbiage as, "To protect your rights, we need to make restrictions that forbid anybody to deny you these rights." Rights are protected by law -- not by disclaimers! Video input note: TMQ gets, and likes, Comcast Digital, but the converters malfunction so often the Comcast guy is practically a family member. Wall Street Journal chip-universe columnist Walt Mossberg, perhaps the most influential writer on personal tech, devoted an entire column last week to complaining that his Motorola-built Comcast DVR digital box was driving him crazy. You'd think the CEO of Comcast would come to Mossberg's home and personally install a replacement! Comcast Digital includes 40 channels of high-quality no-commercials music, which is a great feature. But to listen to this music, essentially an advanced form of radio, you must first turn on your television. Only in America!

Flat screen TV
The disclaimer warns about the software -- it should warn about the shows.

On New Year's Eve at Hell's Sports Bar, a Giant Ball Drops on Each Patron: Hell's sports bar has 28 wide-screen HD TVs, and on Sunday all were showing the Cleveland-Houston game. For the highlight program, all 28 screens in Hell's Sports Bar showed nothing but, over and over, Cleo Lemon throwing an interception from his own 34-yard line with 15 seconds remaining in the first half of a close game.

Belichick Knew What He Was Doing: Sports-yak types claimed bafflement that Tom Brady and the other Flying Elvii starters played most of the game at Tennessee, though New England already had won its division and could not secure a bye. But whether the Patriots finished as the third or fourth seed was at stake, and Belichick needed a win to remain alive for third. Belichick knew the third seed won't have to play at San Diego in the divisionals round, while finishing third would insure that if New England and Indianapolis meet in the playoffs, the site would be Foxboro. Later in the day Indianapolis beat Miami, gaining the third seed. But it made sense for New England to play to win in hopes the Colts would falter, as they almost did.

Another Coach Fails to Observe TMQ's Law of the Obvious: Last year in its bowl game, the Offense of the Future run by Texas Tech wheezed out, recording only 10 points. This year sure was different, Texas Tech staging a thriller, coming back from a 38-7 deficit to beat Minnesota 44-41 in overtime (the largest comeback in bowl history). You know what I'm going to say next: Sometimes all a team needs to do is run the ball up the middle for no gain and everything will be fine. From the point at which the Gophers took their 38-7 lead until the start of overtime, Minnesota coaches called 11 passing plays and 11 rushes. The passing calls resulted in two sacks and five incompletions, stopping the clock. Behind by 31 points, Texas Tech was doomed if Minnesota simply ground down time; obligingly, the leading team kept stopping the clock. There were five seconds showing when Texas Tech snapped the ball for the 52-yard field goal that forced overtime. Had even one of those five incompletions by Minnesota instead been a rush up the middle for no gain, Texas Tech would have run out of time. Minnesota -- you're ahead by 31 points, why are you calling passes and stopping the clock? Two days later, the Gophers fired head coach Glen Mason.

Why Tactics Matter: "Do the Redskins' safeties think they are back to receive a punt?" That's what my 11-year-old, Spenser, asked when Washington lined up its safeties 15 to 20 yards deep against Jersey/A, then had them backpedal at the snap to boot. The G-Persons have not completed many deep passes lately, so it was unclear why Washington's defensive coordinator, the tastefully named Gregg Williams, wanted his safeties so far back. But having the safeties so deep opened things up for Tiki Barber's monster night, since only nine defenders were available to oppose Barber until he was in the open field where he could outrun people. Jersey/A leading 10-7, both safeties lined up more than 15 yards deep and Barber ran for 11 yards. On the next snap, both safeties lined up almost 20 yards deep and Barber went 55 yards for the touchdown that gave the Giants their eventual winning margin. Free safety Sean Taylor whiffed on an open-field tackle attempt on the play, while strong safety Vernon Fox was nowhere to be seen, despite lining up halfway to the end zone. Putting your safeties way back deep like you expect a Hail Mary is an invitation to run -- and Barber accepted the invitation.

Cowboys cheerleaders
Getty Images
The Cowboys Cheerleaders were a lot more ready for Detroit than the Cowboys.

Romo: From Zero to Hero to 56 Percent All-Pro: Perennially, Tuesday Morning Quarterback complains that the Pro Bowl voting is a popularity contest, not an attempt to determine who's had the best seasons. One indicator is that voting closes after 14 games -- why don't the final two games count? Because voting closes after 88 percent of the action, TMQ calls the chosen the 88 Percent All-Pros. Pro Bowl absurdity reached new lows last month, as Tony Romo was chosen as an NFC quarterback despite his having a career total of nine starts on the day voting closed. That made Romo a 56 Percent All Pro. Sure, the NFC is weak at quarterback, and Romo looked swell in several of those nine games. But would anyone have voted for Tony after watching his 10th outing? Hard upon being awarded a free ticket to Hawaii, in his 10th outing Romo led the Cowboys to just seven points at home against Philadelphia in a game that cost Dallas control of the NFC East, in the process recording a quarterback rating of 45.5, which is only slightly better than the rating you get for hurling the ball into the ground on every play. (If every pass clangs to the ground incomplete, an NFL quarterback gets a 39.6 rating.) In his next game, Romo again lost at home, this time to woeful Detroit, and his two careless fumbles were the game's decisive plays. Naming a guy who has played only nine games in his career to the Pro Bowl roster is a satire of the superficiality of Pro Bowl voting. Had Pro Bowl voting had closed after the 16th game, rather than the 14th, there's no way Romo would be Hawaii-bound. Thanks, Tony, for immediately proving my point on national television.

Romo note: All that media froth about the astonishingly unstoppable Romo was based on his first few games, when defenses seemed to relax for him and beginner's luck was in play. For the month of December, Romo finished with eight interceptions, seven fumbles and a pedestrian 77.1 passer rating.

Hawaii note: One reason voters "reached" for a gent who had played only nine games is that the Pro Bowl takes three quarterbacks; Romo was the third chosen. Annually a total of seven running backs and quarterbacks are sent to Hawaii from each conference, along with a total of eight offensive linemen. In football, there are twice as many offensive linemen as quarterbacks and running backs on the field. This means quarterbacks and running backs are significantly overrepresented at the Pro Bowl, compared to offensive linemen. Why wasn't the slot awarded to Romo as third quarterback instead granted to Jamar Nesbit of New Orleans or Ruben Brown of Chicago, blockers who've had Pro Bowl-caliber seasons and were shut out by the event's bias against offensive linemen?

Wolf Blitzer
AP Photo
When Wolf was acting in the senior play at Kenmore West High School, they made him memorize his lines.

Cheer-babe Professionalism Watch: Kickoff temperature 45 degrees, Cowboys' players in wraps and ski caps on the sidelines, the Cowboys' Cheerleaders wore two-piece summer outfits. Outstanding professionalism! If only the Cowboys themselves had wanted to beat the Lions as badly as the cheerleaders did. Kickoff temperature 46 degrees in Baltimore, the Ravens' cheerleaders came out in bare midriffs, and their professionalism was, indeed, rewarded by the football gods.

TMQ in the News: Last week the Buffalo News ran this profile, by Dan Herbeck, of Official Brother Frank Easterbrook, recently named Chief Judge of the federal appeals court for the upper Midwest. Among other things, the profile notes that at our high school, Kenmore West, Frank's classmate and pal was Wolf Blitzer, now the prominent CNN anchor. (The Blitzers lived a couple blocks over.) The 1966 Kenmore West senior class play was "The Diary of Anne Frank," with Frank playing Otto Frank and Wolf playing Hans van Dann. Looking for a great place to raise kids? You can buy a really nice, high-quality home in Kenmore, N.Y., a pleasant town with an old-fashioned Main Street, for half the prevailing price of housing in most big-city suburbs, then send your kids to Kenmore West, recently named a New York State "School of Excellence." Anyway, now that Frank is the chief federal judge for the Seventh Circuit, which sits in Chicago and has jurisdiction over Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, my suggestion is -- don't break the law in Wisconsin, Illinois or Indiana.

True story! Recently I met Richard Daley, the mayor of Chicago, who's done a fine job of presiding over the revitalization of the City of Big Shoulders. Mayor Daley said, "I hear great things about your brother. But it's the state and county judges, not the federal judges, I pay attention to." You need to know Chicago machine politics to appreciate that fully.

Mayor Richard Daley
AP photo
Duh Mare backs Da Bares.

TMQ in the News No. 2: Last week, Forbes magazine called Tuesday Morning Quarterback "popular." Forbes, you have excellent taste.

Hufnagel Also Asked to Turn in Cafeteria Pass: TMQ tracks how coaches preach "win as a team, lose as a team" and then blame their players for defeats. A subset of this phenomenon is head coaches blaming assistant coaches. As Jersey/A has crumbled in the second half of the season, Tom "Mr. Personality" Coughlin has publicly undercut his players, especially Eli Manning, and screamed at officials so boorishly he would have been ejected from an NBA game. (Tuesday Morning Quarterback really likes the NBA's new rules about coach decorum.) Last week Mr. Personality shifted the blame to Giants' offensive coordinator John Hufnagel, not merely taking away his playcalling duties but taking away Hufnagel's title. Did workers steal into the Giants' facility late at night and scratch the words "offensive coordinator" off Hufnagel's door? Last season was the second-highest scoring in Giants' history, and Hufnagel was writing the game plans and calling the plays then. My guess is Hufnagel was pretty much the same coach this season as he was last season. But this season things aren't going well, so Mr. Personality throws a fit of pique about Hufnagel having the words "offensive coordinator" following his name.

And yes, the Giants put up 34 points on Saturday night against Washington, but it might have helped that they were playing the league's 30th-ranked defense. Game announcers kept saying improved playcalling accounted for Barber's big night. Playcalling definitely matters, but fill-in Kevin Gilbride called 23 runs for Barber; the weeks before, in Jersey/A losses, Hufnagel called 19 runs, 16 for Barber. Do you really think a couple more handoffs to Barber completely altered the Giants' dynamic? Maybe Hufnagel did need to lose his playcalling duties to shake things up. But the dignified coach keeps that sort of decision private -- Coughlin called a news conference to announce he was blaming someone else. The boss who tries to shift blame to his assistants is telling the world he does not deserve to be boss.

Stop Me Before I Blitz Again! No. 1: Baltimore big-blitzed Buffalo often, and the results were classic big-blitz -- the Ravens surrendered a 44-yard touchdown when blitzing six, and intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown when blitzing six. In the second half of the season, Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan has called a lot of "overload" blitzes -- all blitzers come from the same area, overwhelming blockers on that side. This is the sort of tactic that works against ordinary teams but backfires against elite teams, because when you overload-blitz on one side, the other side must be open. Let's watch to see if the overload blitz backfires on Baltimore in the playoffs.

K.C. cheerleaders
The football gods smiled on these outfits with an improbable final-hour playoff invitation for the Chiefs.

Stop Me Before I Blitz Again! No. 2: Jacksonville big-blitzed Kansas City often, and the results were classic big-blitz -- the Jaguars, who went into the game surrendering an average of 16 points playing fairly conventional defense, surrendered 35 points using the big-blitz. Score Kansas City 14, Jax 10, Jacksonville called the rarely seen eight-man blitz. It's rarely seen for a reason! Easy 35-yard touchdown pass to Eddie Kennison.

Leftover Christmas Week Points: There was no Tuesday Morning Quarterback last week, owing to Christmas, but an observation about the little-watched games played on Christmas Eve bears making. Carolina at Atlanta, though a 10-3 snoozer between disappointing teams racing each other to the bottom, was fascinating from the standpoint of football tactics -- because the Panthers often lined up without a quarterback! Carolina entered the contest with Jake Delhomme hurt and Chris Weinke 1-17 as a starter on his career. For 10 downs in the game (nine that counted, one nullified by penalty), Weinke came off the field and tailback DeAngelo Williams lined up in the shotgun. Each time Williams simply took the snap and ran; the result was seven first downs in nine tries.

Unless the little-watched nature of the Christmas Eve games causes this tactical maneuver to go overlooked, coaches must notice that Carolina took its quarterback off the field and gained seven first downs on nine plays. Think about the standard rushing down in the NFL or Division I. The quarterback takes the snap, hands off and then stands around watching: meaning the offense is operating 10-on-11. In high school, the quarterback is usually a rushing threat, and often after handing off at least runs out a roll-out fake, meaning the offense is operating 11-on-11. One reason the Falcons rushed so well this season is that Michael Vick's ability to run meant Atlanta running plays were 11-on-11. Taking the quarterback out had the same impact for Carolina. Cats coaches obviously had lost confidence in Weinke, who attempted only seven passes in the contest. If you're going to rush on most downs anyway -- Carolina's sole touchdown drive was 15 rushing plays and one pass -- why not pull the quarterback for a running back and make the equation 11-on-11?

Schedule note: There will also be no Tuesday Morning Quarterback on Dec. 25, 2007. Put that in your day-planners now.

Darrent Williams, 1982-2007: Once at a Bill Cosby concert I heard Cosby say, "Nothing good has ever happened between midnight and dawn." He meant this seriously, and proceeded to talk about why it was foolish for anyone except cops and hospital personnel to be anywhere but home during those hours. According to initial reports -- bearing in mind that initial reports from the scenes of tragedies are often wrong -- Williams was murdered leaving a nightclub about 2 a.m., the morning following the Broncos' final game of the season. Yes, it was New Year's, and many people are out to all hours that morning. But should they be?

I am a big believer in the power of statistics to help us lead our lives. Statistics cannot tell us what will happen, but can suggest a great deal about what is likely to happen. Statistics tell us we should not fear airline flights but should be very wary about crossing the street. (There were 4,881 pedestrians deaths in the United States in 2005, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.) Statistics tell us we shouldn't worry about drinking tap water but should be cautious about corn syrup in foods. And statistics tell us we are far more likely to be victims of violent crime, or involved in automobile accidents, after midnight than before midnight. The sorts of people who are out on the streets in the wee hours, or driving on the roads then, are the sorts of people whom the wise avoid. It's not enough to mourn the loss of Darrent Williams. Learn the lesson: When the clock strikes midnight, you belong at home.

Hidden Play of the Week: Hidden plays are ones that never make highlight reels, but stop or sustain drives. On the first possession of overtime, Denver faced third-and-1 at midfield. San Francisco lined up with only three defensive linemen -- I thought, "This is going to be an easy conversion and the Broncos will march to win." Instead, both San Francisco safeties crashed from the outside and The Ultimate Leader inexplicably called a slow-developing rush from a set with Mike Bell eight yards deep. Safety Keith Lewis dropped Bell for a loss, the Broncos punted and you began to get this eerie feeling the Squared Sevens would win. The Broncos need one yard, the other team has only three defensive linemen on the field -- why not just quarterback sneak? Say what you will about Jake Plummer, he's a veteran and would have known to audible to the sneak. Jay Cutler turned and handed the ball to the guy eight yards deep.

This Fulfills My Obligation to Say Something About Several Games: Sorry, it was just impossible to care about games like St. Louis-Minnesota where neither team had anything to play for. Note: Les Mouflons missed the postseason despite being second-best in the league in turnover differential, at plus-14.

Jersey/A and Jersey/B Reach Playoffs by Beating Teams That Finished a Combined 7-25: Congratulations to Eric "I Was a Teenaged Coach" Mangini and his first-year postseason achievement, which I reserve the right to claim to have predicted. ("Don't assume this is a lost season for Jersey/B" -- me on Aug. 15.) But making the playoffs by beating Oakland essentially is backing in. On the first Oakland play of the fourth quarter, Aaron Brooks was sacked and lost a fumble on the Raiders' 22. A Jet blitzed from the offensive left, and extremely highly overpaid Oakland left tackle Robert Gallery, second overall choice of the draft in 2004, simply stood there doing nothing, not attempting to block anyone, as the blitzer went past. During the heyday of "Saturday Night Live," Bill Murray had a routine about how the United States military should become all-female: "Then if there's a war and the women beat the Soviet Union, great. If they lose, we say, 'Hey, you beat a bunch of girls.'" Now let's find out how Jersey/B performs when not playing the football equivalent of Murray's bunch of girls.

Single Worst Play of the Season So Far: It's overtime in the Pittsburgh at Cincinnati game. The defending champion Steelers are eliminated from postseason play, but Cincinnati must win to keep its playoff chance alive -- and it would later turn out that had Cincinnati won, Denver's surprise loss would have put the Trick or Treats into the postseason. Pittsburgh faces first-and-10 on its 33. The Bengals start a chain-reaction of fiasco by big-blitzing. Santonio Holmes catches a quick slant in front of Cincinnati corner Tory James, who stumbles. James then turns around and watches Holmes run 67 yards for the winning touchdown. It's overtime of the final game, if you don't catch the Pittsburgh runner your season ends, and James just stood there watching Holmes run; eventually, he sort-of jogged in the general direction of the play. Several other Bengals just stood watching Holmes head up the sideline, too. It's overtime of the final game, if you don't catch the Pittsburgh runner your season ends! Cincinnati Bengals, you committed the Single Worst Play of the 2006 Regular Season. Afterward, Carson Palmer whined, "This is just another game we shouldn't have lost to a team we feel we're better than." Carson: You prove this on the field, not in the media room. The no-account Bengals had no business in the playoffs, and the football gods spoke.

Reader Animadversion: Got a complaint or a deeply held grievance? Write me at Include your real name and the name of your hometown, and I may quote you by name unless you instruct me otherwise. Note: giving your hometown improves your odds of being quoted.

Generic Forecast Update: For seven consecutive seasons, Tuesday Morning Quarterback has offered this generic forecast, "The team goin' to Disney World will come from among the group that did not make the cut for 'Monday Night Football.'" That leaves me as a Kansas City Chiefs man, as the Flintstones are the sole team to qualify for the tournament that did not appear on "Monday Night Football."

Next Week: Brett Favre shoots to break Frank Sinatra's all-time record for most retirements.

In addition to writing Tuesday Morning Quarterback, Gregg Easterbrook is the author of "The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse" and other books. He is also a contributing editor for The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly and The Washington Monthly, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. Sound off to Page 2 here.