The 2008 NFL regular season is in the books and the bill has already come due for a few.
But first, let’s just say Week 17 didn’t do the networks and the Nielsens any favors for the Wild Card playoff round. No New York Jets and market No. 1 versus their nemesis the New England Patriots (Boston is the No. 7 DMA). No Chicago Bears and market No. 3 against America’s Team.
Instead, it’s the Miami Dolphins (No. 16) and Baltimore Ravens (No. 24) on CBS on Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m. The Philadelphia Eagles (No. 4, but they’re not the Dallas Cowboys) will visit the Minnesota Vikings (No. 15, not Da Bears) at 4:30 p.m.
On Saturday, ESPN, oops NBC — which is paying $500 million less annually than the total sports network’s $1.1 billion outlay and also gets this year’s Super Bowl, Roman numeral XLIII for those keeping score — will feature the upstart Atlanta Falcons (No. visiting the Arizona Cardinals, (Phoenix is No. 12), who stumbled down the stretch. Could be a shoot-out in the desert.
The primetime nightcap is a rematch of last year’s playoff meeting, but this time the Indianapolis Colts visit the 8-8 AFC West winning San Diego Chargers. Peyton’s group rides a nine-game winning streak into Qualcom as Norv Turner’s crew won its last four and capitalized on Denver’s collapse. Could be the best game of the weekend.
As for the regular-season rundown, here are few observations:
* Bill Belichick turned in his best ever coaching job in New England, where the Patriots became just the second team to finish 11-5 in the current playoff format and not make the dance. The Bully in the Hoody turned perennial back-up Matt Cassell into a monster in succeeding Tom Brady during the season’s very first quarter, and overcame other injuries all over the roster. Now, with Brady’s rehab reportedly well behind schedule, the Pats may have to toss a franchise tag to keep Cassell in their castle next season.
* Derrick Ward joined Brandon Jacobs in the 1,000-yard rushing club, making the Giants’ Earth and Wind (Ahmad Bradshaw is Fire) duo only the fourth RB combo to reach that plateau in the same season. (Warrick Dunn and the disgraced dog-beating QB also turned the feat.)
*The toothless Lions dropped them all to become the league’s first 0-16 squad. Having lost their 2007 finale, Detroit stands only nine away from matching the 1976-77 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 26-game ineptitude streak. Mercifully, coach Rob Marinelli was declawed of his duties this morning.
*Where fore art thou Romeo? Cleveland coach Romeo Crennel was also boxed up today. The same fate should befall the NFL schedule-makers who put the Browns in primetime five times in 2008.
* Jets coach Eric Mangini also was whacked. Who would have thought the high point for the erstwhile, emotionless “Man Genius” would have been his cameo for David Chase at Vesuvius in The Sopranos?
* Did we see the last of the gunslinger Sunday? The black box on the Jets season is as much about Brett Favre as Mangini. No longer strong-armed or quick on the draw, Favre and company lost four out of five to miss the playoffs. Who would have imagined that the Hall of Famer and Phillip Merling could summon the spirits of Richard Todd and A.J. Duhe in what is likely No.4’s last roundup.
* In their place, last year’s version of the Lions, the Miami Dolphins. Add in Bill Parcells, coach Tony Sparano, former Jet QB Chad Pennington and a little Wild Cat formation, and the Dolphins added 10 wins to their sole triumph in 2007 in claiming the AFC East. The revenge must have been particularly sweet, as Chad threw for a pair in front of TDs in front of Manicotti, er Mangini, and Jets fans in attendance at the Meadowlands Sunday.
* There were also major collapses in Denver and Tampa Bay, where coaches held far better pedigrees than the former New York coach. Mike Shanahan’s Denver Broncos needed just one win in their final three to take the AFC West, but were humiliated on Sunday in SD. In week 13, Jon Gruden’s Bucs battled the Carolina Panthers for NFC South supremacy. Four consecutive losses later, including a defeat to his former employer, the Oakland Raiders in Florida yesterday, and the team is done. Is Gruden in Tampa?
*One thinks the coach in Big D should have been left behind in the City of Brotherly Love after the ‘Boys 44-6 debacle in Philly yesterday, where Andy Reid, Donovan McNabb and Jim Johnson’s blitz schemes repeatedly lowered the boom on Tony Romo. Amazingly, Jerry Jones says Wade Phillips will return, which is welcome news for the rest of the NFL and Dallas detractors. Maybe, it’s TO and Romo who won’t.