We interrupt debate about the intriguing postseason matchups to drop in a dose of stone-cold reality.
These could be football's finest final days for a long time -- a very long time.
Welcome to the new world order, where offseason football rules will not be what they've been.
Until there is a new collective bargaining agreement -- which almost no one is expecting for months -- there will be no free agency. Teams will not be allowed to shop for new players, players will not be allowed to sign with new teams and any player movement will be shut down.
Until there is a new agreement, there will be no trades. Washington cannot trade Donovan McNabb or Albert Haynesworth; Denver cannot trade Kyle Orton; no trades of existing contracts will be permitted until a new agreement is signed -- whenever that is.
Until there is a new deal, injured players such as Packers running back Ryan Grant, Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams or Jets safety Jim Leonhard cannot rehab at team training facilities. Each is on his own, forced to supervise his own rehabilitation to make sure he is on track for next season.
And should any player working out on his own suffer an injury that prevents him from playing next season, then he we will not be paid for that season. This will affect the way every player trains -- never mind that no one knows when or even if next season will kick off.
There will be a draft, April 28-30. But after Super Bowl XLV in Arlington, Texas, on Feb. 6, the draft will be the only way teams can try to improve themselves until there is a new agreement.
The offseason as usual will not exist. The rules are not what they once were. It's hard to imagine it not operating the same way now.
But short of a new collective bargaining agreement that almost no one is expecting anytime soon, it won't.
A new year, and new world, are upon us.
On to this week's 10 spot:
1. Don't blame Seattle: Criticism showered on Seattle for playing host to a wild-card game Saturday despite becoming the first NFL team to make the playoffs with a 7-9 record should be shared. Never has the NFL playoff seeding system looked so flawed. There will not be any postseason matchups this weekend in which the home team has a better record than the road team. The 11-5 Jets play at the 10-6 Colts, the 12-4 Ravens play at the 10-6 Chiefs, the 11-5 Saints will play at the 7-9 Seahawks and the 10-6 Packers will play at the 10-6 Eagles. If the NFL ever needed an incentive to re-evaluate its playoff seeding system, this would be it.
2. An interesting combination: No team has struggled more in the playoffs than Kansas City, and no team has been tougher on the road in the postseason than Baltimore. The Chiefs have lost six straight postseason games, and will set an NFL record for consecutive playoff losses if they lose Sunday's wild-card matchup against the Ravens. They share the record with the Cowboys (1996-2007), Giants (1939-50), Browns (1969-85), Vikings (1988-96), Lions (1991-99; still current), and Seahawks (1984-2004). On the other hand, the Ravens relish the road. Dating to the 2000 season, the Ravens have a 6-3 road playoff record, including a victory in New England last postseason against a Patriots team that's as tough to beat at home as any team in the league. "We have exactly what it takes to win a championship," said Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin.
3. Turnover trouble: Turnovers usually decide postseason games. If that's true this postseason, Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers have to be especially careful this weekend. They are going against two of the most opportunistic defensive backs in postseason history. Ravens safety Ed Reed and Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel each have intercepted seven postseason passes, tying them for fifth all time and putting them only two interceptions behind the NFL's postseason interception leaders, Charlie Waters, Bill Simpson and Ronnie Lott. Somehow, players such as these always seem to be at the right place at the right time -- or the wrong place at the wrong time for opposing quarterbacks. Reed led the NFL with eight interceptions, and Samuel led the NFC with seven.
4. Worst to first: As unlikely as it seems now, a last-place team from this season probably will win its division next season. It's hard to imagine now how that could happen, but it often does. In each of the past eight seasons, including this one, a team has jumped from worst to first. Kansas City did it this season, St. Louis fell one game short of doing it. This bodes well for the Bills, Bengals, Titans, Broncos, Redskins, Vikings, Panthers and Cardinals. One of these teams probably will be one of next season's surprise teams. No one can see it coming now. But no one could see the Chiefs at this time last year, either.
5. Pressure on Brees: New Orleans will be without injured running backs Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas for the postseason, meaning Reggie Bush and Julius Jones will have heavier workloads than at any point this season, starting Saturday against Seattle and its 21st-rated run defense. With the shortage of running backs in New Orleans, there will be even more pressure on quarterback Drew Brees. Hard as it is to imagine, Brees has thrown an interception in 12 straight games, the longest streak in the NFL since Jon Kitna in 2006. Yet in the postseason, few quarterbacks ever have been as on point as Brees, whose 103.7 postseason passer rating is second in NFL history behind only Packers Hall of Famer Bart Starr (104.8). New Orleans needs Brees to play up to his postseason standard -- or its title defense will be short-circuited.
6. Shopping for a kicker? Look here: Any team needing a kicker -- and there are plenty -- would be wise to monitor the Cowboys' kicking situation. Three of this postseason's 12 kickers -- Baltimore's Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundiff, the Jets' Nick Folk and Pittsburgh's Shaun Suisham -- kicked in Dallas before either being cut or not re-signed. No team has brought more kicking talent into the league before booting it out of its city. Last week Dallas signed veteran NFL kicker Kris Brown to compete next season with David Buehler. Whichever one doesn't make it should hardly be discouraged. Former Cowboys kickers have gone on to not only find other jobs, but to excel.
7. Bright future: Perhaps no team is better positioned for the future than Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers boast the league's best rookie wide receiver, the league's best rookie running back and one of the game's best young quarterbacks. Mike Williams had 11 touchdown receptions, more than any rookie receiver except Randy Moss, who had a league-record 17 in 1998. Running back LeGarrette Blount ran for 1,007 yards despite being deactivated the first two games of the season and three of the first five. Quarterback Josh Freeman beat playoff teams New Orleans and Seattle in the season's final two weeks while completing 42 of 52 passes for 492 yards, seven touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 145.7. Here, though, might be the most jaw-dropping numbers: Williams is 23 years old, Blount is 24 and Freeman doesn't turn 23 until next week. In one year, Tampa Bay has built a team that can last for a decade.
8. Tough to compete: If Andrew Luck had turned pro instead of returning to Stanford, he would have been a cinch to go No. 1 to Carolina. Right now, the Panthers are in the toughest quarterback division in the NFL. No division boasts a better trio of quarterbacks than Brees, Freeman and Atlanta's Matt Ryan. To have any chance to compete in their division, the Panthers must have a franchise-type quarterback. Without Luck, Carolina must lean on Jimmy Clausen or another quarterback it identifies in the draft. But Carolina could be affected the same way the New York Jets were in 1997. Back then, the Jets owned the No. 1 pick and could only hope that Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning would turn pro. He did not, so the Jets traded the pick. The next year, Manning wound up going to Indianapolis, which won a Super Bowl and built a new stadium that ensured the team would not leave the city. The Jets still haven't gotten back to the Super Bowl.
9. In hindsight: In 2008 -- less than three years ago -- the Redskins offered the Bengals two first-round picks for wide receiver Chad Ochocinco. Cincinnati refused to entertain the deal the Redskins were willing to make. Instead of trading for Ochocinco, the Redskins parlayed their 2008 first-round pick into two second-round picks and a fourth-round pick that turned into wide receiver Devin Thomas, tight end Fred Davis and wide receiver Malcolm Kelly. Washington then used its 2009 first-round pick, the other selection that would have been shipped to Cincinnati, on linebacker Brian Orakpo. Now the Bengals must make a decision on Ochocinco. He is entering the $6 million option year in his contract that the Bengals can pick up or decline. If the Bengals decide not to pick it up, Cincinnati can cut Ochocinco at no cost to the club. With the way the Bengals' young wide receivers played late in the season, it would not be a surprise. But it would have been nice if the Bengals had Washington's two first-round picks instead.
10. One of these seasons, it will happen: Since 2000, the only two teams that haven't made the playoffs are the Bills and Lions. It has been "wait till next year" each year since 1999. Each showed signs of dramatic improvement this season and each could be poised for brighter days next season, especially the Lions. The problem is, the Lions have to contend with Jay Cutler and the Bears and Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, and the Bills will have to do the same with Tom Brady and the Patriots.
The Schef's specialties
• Game of the week: Green Bay at Philadelphia: Eagles have beaten Packers in their only two postseason matchups, the 1960 NFL Championship (17-13) and the 2003 NFC Divisional Playoff (20-17 OT).
• Player of the week: Saints running back Julius Jones: New Orleans needs running backs, and Jones wants a chance to prove the Seahawks wrong.
• Upset of the week: Jets over Colts. Jets coach Rex Ryan: "We are not going to Indianapolis to lose, we are going there to win." Now let's see.
Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.