It's easier to do the New York Times crossword puzzle than to figure who will be playing whom in this postseason. But just as basketball had its dream team, football has its dream matchups.
There are some potentially great games -- Philadelphia versus Dallas, Dallas versus Minnesota and Arizona versus New Orleans -- to name a few. But here are the must-see matchups that football fans can only hope come to pass.
1. Green Bay at Minnesota: Please, please, please let Vikings quarterback Brett Favre square off against Green Bay and quarterback Aaron Rodgers one more time. Who wouldn't want to see a third meeting between the legendary quarterback and legendary franchise that already drew boffo TV ratings the first two times they met this season? Three times would be a charm.
2. New York Jets at New England: These franchises get along about as well as Green Bay and Minnesota. Jets coach Rex Ryan already vowed not to kiss Bill Belichick's ring. But if Belichick could dispatch Ryan and the Jets, he would be one step closer to another ring.
3. Philadelphia versus Dallas: A taste will be provided Sunday, when these teams square off for the NFC East title and the chance to have the NFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye. One team is going to be highly disappointed Sunday and another equally excited. Eagles-Cowboys never gets old, and the stakes would be even higher in the playoffs.
4. New England at Indianapolis: It would be only fitting for Belichick to get one more opportunity to go for it in Indianapolis against the defense that stopped the Patriots on fourth-and-2. Interestingly, the coaches who made the season's two most controversial calls were Belichick on fourth-and-2 and Jim Caldwell on resting his regulars. Now one coach could end the other's season.
5. San Diego versus New Orleans: Of all the potential Super Bowl matchups, none would be more appealing than the Chargers versus the Saints and San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers against the quarterback who he once replaced, New Orleans' Drew Brees.
In Week 16, when it ignored and spit at history, Indianapolis deflated this season. But some of these too-good-to-be-true playoff matchups would inflate it back where it belongs.
And now, on to this week's 10 Spot:
Before it is razed, one final football game will be played Sunday at Giants Stadium, the Jets against the Bengals with a wild-card spot on the line. Children whose fathers used to take them to Giants Stadium now are old enough to take their own children there. Each has favorite moments from the stadium, which has hosted visits from Pope John Paul II, Paul McCartney and Peyton Manning. Some will think of the kicks they got from the 1994 World Cup or the 2007 David Beckham debut in front of 65,000 fans. Others will think of the tricks from Dan Marino's fake spike in 1994 or Jumbo Elliott's touchdown catch during the Monday night miracle comeback in 2000. There were scary moments that involved fallen Jets defensive end Dennis Byrd and celebratory moments that involved Giants' NFC Championships in 1987 and 2001.
But what this reporter always will remember is the wind tunnel at one end of the stadium that players and reporters walked down to enter the building. It was a downhill walk on paved cement that led straight to the field -- and it might have been the single coldest spot in the Northeast. For some reason, temperatures always seemed colder there, the wind seemed stronger there, and it always seemed like the last place in the world anyone would want to be -- especially in the heart of the winter -- until the field came into view. Now, before the curtain comes down and the wrecking balls are brought in, the Jets get one more home game to create one more memorable moment.
Slowly but surely, the Brown cloud seems to be lifting from Cleveland. Over the past month, the Browns actually have played inspired football, winning three straight games. Now they are on the verge of doing something the franchise has not done since the early part of the 1994 season or since it returned to Cleveland 11 seasons ago. The Browns are trying for their first four-game winning streak in 15 years, which they can accomplish with a win Sunday over struggling Jacksonville. Since the franchise returned to Cleveland in 1999, the Browns have won back-to-back games nine times and have won three games in a row three times, but they have failed to win four games in a row.
What makes this streak so intriguing is the way it impacts the future of Browns coach Eric Mangini. Had the Browns not reeled off this streak, Mangini certainly would have been sent packing. But his team's spirited play has forced new Browns president Mike Holmgren at least to ponder whether he has a head coach worth keeping. If the Browns come up with their first four-game winning streak since 1994, it will make Holmgren's decision even more difficult.
As the calendar turned from October to November, Denver looked like a postseason lock. The Broncos had confidence, momentum and a 6-0 record. Now, Nov. 1 feels like a long time ago. The Broncos are in danger of blowing a seemingly sure playoff spot for the third time in four seasons. Three seasons ago, Denver needed only to beat a 6-9 49ers team at home in the regular-season finale to clinch a playoff spot; it lost 26-23. Last year, Denver carried an 8-5 record into December and needed one win in its final three games to clinch the AFC West title; the Broncos lost their final three games. This season, the Broncos are 2-7 since Nov. 1 and are threatening to become only the third team since the merger in 1970 to start 6-0 and not make the postseason.
The first team that did it was the 1978 Washington Redskins, who started 6-0 and lost five straight games at the end of the season to finish 8-8. The next team to start 6-0 and fail to make the postseason was the 2003 Minnesota Vikings, who were beaten on the season's final day when Randy Moss' former college teammate, Nate Poole, reeled in a 28-yard touchdown pass from Josh McCown that enabled the Cardinals to wipe out a 17-6 fourth-quarter deficit and the Vikings to finish 9-7. Now the Broncos need a loss from the Ravens, Jets, Steelers or Texans to go along with a victory of their own to avoid becoming one of the league's big surprise stories at the start of the season and the end of it -- for different reasons.
Records are on the line Sunday. With a 70.62 completion percentage, Saints quarterback Drew Brees has the chance to break Ken Anderson's season completion percentage record of 70.55. But the air record is secondary to the one that can be achieved on the ground. Titans RB Chris Johnson needs 128 yards to become the sixth running back in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. He also needs 233 to tie Eric Dickerson's single-season record, the most worthwhile pursuit remaining in a disappointing Titans season.
But the mark that has not garnered anywhere near the same attention, but might be even more significant, is the number of total yards Johnson has gained from scrimmage. In addition to his 1,872 rushing yards, Johnson also has 483 receiving yards, giving him 2,355 for this season -- 74 short of tying the record that Marshall Faulk set with the Rams in 1999. So Johnson can become the newest member of the NFL's 2K club, possibly reach and surpass Dickerson's single-season mark, and shatter Faulk's record. Talk about a good day at the office.
Now that Carolina plans to bring back coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney, it might want to bring back restricted free-agent quarterback Matt Moore as well. With Moore at quarterback, the Panthers have looked and played like a different team. He has led them to a 3-1 record, throwing seven touchdown passes and only two interceptions. The past two weeks he has helped knock off Vikings quarterback Brett Favre and Giants quarterback Eli Manning. In those two games, Moore threw six touchdowns and no interceptions.
Compare Moore's numbers with those of Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme, who has eight touchdown passes and 18 interceptions this season. Delhomme is due nearly $13 million in guaranteed money next season. But the Panthers need to at least mildly placate Moore as well, especially considering that Carolina has no first-round pick, having traded it to San Francisco last April for the 49ers' second-round pick in the 2009 draft. When Moore becomes a free agent, Carolina must find a way to retain his services, then see whether he can continue to play next season the way he has this season.
If Houston had started this season as quickly as Matt Schaub has started games recently, the Texans would be making their first postseason appearance. No quarterback has been any better, or more productive, in the game's first 30 minutes than Schaub. During the first half of his past three games, Schaub has stormed out of the gate, throwing for 772 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions, a 75 percent completion percentage and a 132.2 quarterback rating. His timing has been spot-on. Houston must make a decision whether to pay Schaub a $10 million option bonus payment by the fifth day after the Super Bowl -- Feb. 12. Schaub's performance the past few weeks has made it a near-certainty that Houston will exercise that option.
Throughout this season, the game-planning of Texans coach Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan clearly has made a difference. Where Schaub and the Texans have struggled is in finishing off opponents. They've managed to do it the past two weeks to the St. Louis Rams and Miami Dolphins. But they will need to finish strong against the New England Patriots to post the first winning season in franchise history and keep alive their slim playoff hopes.
As pleasant as it might be for the Patriots to return to Houston, where they won Super Bowl XXXVIII, New England quarterback Tom Brady will have mixed memories. On the field where Brady won his second Super Bowl MVP trophy in three years, he will stare straight across the line and see Texans safety Bernard Pollard. Just last season, on opening day, when New England played Kansas City, Pollard charged through the line, crawled into Brady, tearing the ligaments in the quarterback's knee. Since then, a lot has changed. Kansas City released Pollard and Houston signed him. Meanwhile, Brady has yet to fully regain his preinjury form, though he has shown flashes of greatness as of late. Now the two players meet again in what represents a minor mental hurdle for Brady as the Patriots prepare to return to the postseason one year after missing it.
It's not as if San Diego's firepower has been some sort of lightning bolt. It has been more of a storm that has stuck around the NFL the past six seasons. This season, the Chargers are averaging 28.7 points per game. Even in the unlikely event that San Diego is shut out in its regular-season finale at home against the Redskins, the Chargers still would finish this season averaging more than 25 points per game for the sixth consecutive year.
As consistent as the Colts have been this decade, as explosive as the Patriots have been in recent years, the only other NFL team to average that many points per game over that many seasons were Paul Brown's Cleveland Browns from 1950 to 1955, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Those Browns averaged more than 25 points per game, a streak this season's Chargers are assured of matching. It is a testament not only to how good San Diego has been on offense this season but for much of this decade. Yet the most effective way to illuminate how good this offense is and has been is to win a Super Bowl.
Of all the players in the league, Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck might be my favorite person. He's engaging, funny, smart, personable, humble and a seemingly great family man. But as good a person as he is hasn't helped the way he has played quarterback. Lately, Hasselbeck has been struggling mightily. He looks as though he has lost his confidence and has been overwhelmed. His quarterback rating dropped from the 107.2 he posted Dec. 6 against San Francisco to 86.2 the next week at Houston to 45.2 the next week against Tampa Bay to 36.6 at Green Bay last week.
In the past three games, Hasselbeck has thrown three touchdowns and nine interceptions. But what he has done is force Seattle to seriously contemplate its future at quarterback. For starters, it must rehabilitate Hasselbeck's confidence and get him back to the Pro Bowl quarterback he has been. But the Seahawks also have to think about drafting a quarterback in April, especially considering that the Seahawks have two first-round draft picks -- theirs and the Broncos'. Hasselbeck be 35 next September. Although he does have time left, the Seahawks have no choice but to wonder how much.
By now, the Colts' decision to bench Manning and abandon history has been well documented. What hasn't been is a decision that Vince Lombardi made back in 1967, when Green Bay was playing its second-to-last regular-season game, just as the Colts were in Week 16. At the time, Green Bay was 9-1-2 and already had clinched the Central Division title. The Rams also were 9-1-2 but needed the win to try to catch the 10-0-2 Colts. Not only did Lombardi not rest his starters, but he was harder on them than usual, pushing players all week at practice. On game day, the Packers jumped to a 24-20 fourth-quarter lead before the Rams blocked a punt, threw a touchdown pass with 34 seconds remaining and beat Green Bay 27-24.
After the game, according to the book "Vince," a biography of Lombardi by Michael O'Brien, Lombardi was spotted staggering in the hallway, yelling, "Goddammit, I wanted this one!" Then Lombardi told reporters: "I think it's a credit to professional football and to the National Football League when a team which clinched its division championship [two] weeks ago plays as hard as this team did today. They are men of great desire and great dedication." This is not to say the Colts weren't. But their decision differed from Lombardi's, as ESPN colleague K.C. Joyner pointed out in an e-mail this week. And Indianapolis' still might work out. But in the season in which Lombardi refused to rest his regulars, the Packers beat the Raiders 33-14 in Super Bowl II.
The Schef's Specialties
Game of the week: Eagles at Cowboys. Looks like it could be the first of two meetings this month between these teams.
Player of the week: Cowboys QB Tony Romo. He is now playing the best football of his career and, despite the skeptics, is poised to have a productive postseason.
Upset of the week: Buffalo over Indianapolis. The Colts checked out last week and can't be any more fired up about a regular-season-ending trip to Buffalo.
Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.