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Final NFL Power Poll

What a season. The Falcons and Dolphins rose from the ashes to win 11 games a piece and make the playoffs.

11 wins for the Patriots wasn’t good enough to get in. New England became the first team to miss the tournament with an 11-5 record since the league expanded the playoff format to 12 teams in 1990.

The Chargers were 4-8 and three games behind Denver with four to play and somehow managed to steal the AFC West at 8-8.

The Jets and Cowboys suffered monumental collapses while the Ravens and Eagles experienced unexpected resurgences.

And let’s not forget about the Giants, who endured more than a helping of drama. In the final edition of the 2008 power poll, it’s the champs who again reign supreme.

1. New York Giants (12-4) There are concerns for the Giants going into the playoffs — notably the health of Brandon Jacobs and the ultimate effect Plaxico Burress’ absence will have on the passing game — but the road to Tampa goes through the Meadowlands in the NFC. The champs defended their crown admirably through a difficult regular season.

2. Tennessee Titans (13-3) Each of the other five AFC playoff teams finished stronger than the Titans over the last six weeks. However, despite going just 3-3 down the stretch, Tennessee solidified its status as the team to beat in the AFC with an emphatic 31-14 win over Pittsburgh in Week 16.

3. Carolina Panthers (12-4) The Panthers had a golden opportunity to steal home field from the Giants in Week 16 but John Kasay couldn’t connect on a 50-yard field goal at the end of regulation. Carolina is a seasoned and balanced team that has advanced to at least the NFC Championship Game in each of its three previous playoff appearances. Watch out for the Cats.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) The Steelers won six of their last seven, with the one loss coming in Tennessee on Dec. 21. After that game a few choice Titans saw fit to stomp on a Terrible Towel. It would be an understatement to say the Steelers took exception to that display and will look to exact some revenge should the teams meet again in the AFC Championship Game.

5. Indianapolis Colts (12-4) At 3-4, the Colts season was on the line in Week 9 against New England. They rallied to beat the Patriots and haven’t looked back since, steamrolling their way to nine straight wins to close out the 2008 campaign. Wild-card teams winning it all has become the trend recently (Pittsburgh in 2005 and the Giants in 2007). Indy fits the mold.

6. Baltimore Ravens (11-5) The Ravens have been smashing teams lately. A Week 15 meltdown vs. the Steelers is the only blemish on their record since mid-November. The Baltimore defense turned back the clock this year and Joe Flacco performed well for a rookie. A deep playoff run may be in the cards.

7. Miami Dolphins (11-5) By winning their last five games the Dolphins tied the ’99 Colts for the greatest turnaround in NFL history. Miami went from 1-15 a year ago to 11-5 and division champions, a remarkable feat. That it concluded with Chad Pennington returning to beat the team that jettisoned him was fitting.

8. New England Patriots (11-5) It could be argued that what Bill Belichick, Matt Cassel and the rest of the Patriots coaching staff and players accomplished this year was comparable to the 16-0 season of a year ago. Either way, there’s no disputing that this team deserved to be in the playoffs.

9. Atlanta Falcons (11-5) Matt Ryan deserves to finish in the top-three of the MVP voting after the resurgence he led in Atlanta. At this time last year the Falcons were reeling from the incarceration of their iconic quarterback and the unseemly departure of their coach. Now they’re back in the playoffs with a rookie quarterback leading the way. Wow.

10. Philadelphia Eagles (9-6-1) After tying the Bengals and getting tuned up by the Ravens, the Eagles were left for dead at 5-5-1. Heck, entering Week 17 Las Vegas still had them at 75/1 odds to win the Super Bowl. Then down went Tampa Bay. Down went Chicago. The Eagles did their part, dismantling Dallas to slip into the playoffs via the trap door. Now those are odds are 13/1. That must be one of the most drastic 24-hour shifts in the history of Vegas.

Week 17 Picks: 13-3

Overall: 166-88-1

Coming Friday: A comprehensive look at all four wild-card games and complete playoff picks.

Final NFL Playoff Picture and Week 16 Picks

You can call the NFL schedule makers prophetic or merely lucky, but they got it right this year. Week 16 of the 2008 slate features three games of great importance — Steelers-Titans, Panthers-Giants and Ravens-Cowboys. Each will go a long way towards sewing up the playoff picture, and all are shaping up to be December classics.

Let’s begin with the Carolina-New York game. Both teams have identical 11-3 records, so the winner will take the top overall seed and home field throughout the NFC playoffs. While they have gone in divergent directions the last two weeks — Carolina has mowed down the Bucs and Broncos; the Giants have dropped a pair to the Eagles and Cowboys — this game is actually more important to the Panthers. They have proven to be unbeatable at home this season (8-0) but are a pedestrian 3-3 on the road. If they can’t go into the Meadowlands and knock off the banged-up Giants (Brandon Jacobs should play, but will be limited) Sunday night, it’s highly unlikely they’ll do it next month with a Super Bowl on the line against a presumably healthier New York team. The defending champs, on the other hand, proved last year — in Dallas and Green Bay among other places — that they can win on the road in the playoffs. There’s a good chance that the winner of this game will represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLIII.

Now to the AFC, where the top two teams are also meeting in what could be a prelude to the AFC championship. At 12-2, the Titans need only a win over the Steelers (11-3) to ensure home field throughout the playoffs. However, after losing two of the last four on the heels of a 10-0 start, Tennessee must win this game to avoid a tidal wave of skepticism about its toughness and character. The game will be played in Nashville, but the Titans will be without their two main men on defense, Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch. That very much evens the playing field. The Steelers, meanwhile, are flat out rolling. They’ve turned fourth quarter deficits — against Dallas and Baltimore — into victories the last two weeks and are playing with a chip on their shoulder. They simply don’t believe the opposition can butt heads with them for sixty minutes. A win over Tennessee and Pittsburgh effectively wraps up the No. 1 seed (it would need just a win over the Browns or a Titans loss to the Colts in Week 17 to clinch).

As for the Ravens-Cowboys contest, there really can’t be a more exciting inter-conference game at this time of the year. Both teams currently control their own destinies for one of the two respective wild cards in their conference. Whichever team wins will essentially be guaranteed a playoff berth, while the loser will be forced into a must-win then scoreboard-watch situation next week. The Ravens (9-5) are still livid at what they believed to be an erroneous touchdown call that cost them the game vs. Pittsburgh last week, and will look to take it out on Tony Romo and the Cowboys. Dallas (9-5) has begun to put it all together of late. The defense is playing as well as any unit in the league, having recorded 20 sacks over the last three games. Of all the wild card hopefuls, the Cowboys are undoubtedly the scariest.

What’s intriguing about the Baltimore-Dallas game is the ripple effect it will have on the wild card races. If the Cowboys lose Saturday night, both the Bucs (9-5) and Falcons (9-5) will know they control their playoff fates before they even take the field on Sunday. That can certainly be an advantage. If the Ravens come up short, the door opens for an AFC East team, likely New England. With the Patriots, Jets and Dolphins all tied at 9-5, a Baltimore loss means two of them should get in. Since the Patriots hold no tiebreakers and the Jets and Dolphins play each other in Week 17, New England would automatically control its own destiny for the final wild card (because only one of the Jets and Dolphins can finish 11-5). That would set the Patriots up for a divisional game — either in New York or Miami — on wild card weekend (because the AFC East winner will be the No. 3 seed). Of course, if the Jets or Dolphins stumble this weekend, a sixth consecutive AFC East title for the Patriots becomes a very real possibility. Fascinating stuff.

Here are the Week 16 picks (home teams in CAPS)

Indianapolis over JACKSONVILLE

DALLAS over Baltimore

CLEVELAND over Cincinnati

New Orleans over DETROIT

Pittsburgh over TENNESSEE

Miami over KANSAS CITY

San Francisco over ST. LOUIS

NEW ENGLAND over Arizona

TAMPA BAY over San Diego

NY Jets over SEATTLE

Houston over OAKLAND

DENVER over Buffalo

Philadelphia over WASHINGTON

MINNESOTA over Atlanta

Carolina over NY GIANTS

CHICAGO over Green Bay

Last Week: 13-3

Overall: 147-75-1

Week 15 Power Poll and Picks

With the Giants falling, the Panthers and Steelers rising, and Tennessee leading us to believe the Jets game was an aberration, there is a logjam of championship-caliber teams at the top of the poll. Check it out.

1. Tennessee Titans (12-1) The Titans have responded well since the Jets disaster, pounding the Lions and Browns by a combined 75-19. A Week 16 bout with the Steelers could be a preview of the AFC Championship if the seeds hold true.

2. New York Giants (11-2) Plaxico Burress aside, the G-Men ran into a desperate Eagles team last Sunday. At this time of the year the more desperate team tends to prevail. Up next for the champs? The desperate Cowboys in Dallas.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3) The statistics say the ’08 Steelers boast a historic defense. Those who doubted the numbers were surely silenced after watching the Pittsburgh D rise up and stun the Cowboys last week.

4. Carolina Panthers (10-3) The Panthers ran all over the Bucs on Monday night. Now they’re in position to run the Giants off course and steal home field throughout the playoffs. The two heavyweights meet on Dec. 21 in Carolina.

5. Indianapolis Colts (9-4) At one point the Colts were 3-4. Seems about time to start talking about “that team” nobody wants to face in January.

6. Baltimore Ravens (9-4) The Ravens need 11 wins to be assured of a playoff spot. That means a split against the Steelers and Cowboys is essential over the next two weeks. Easier said than done.

7. Dallas Cowboys (8-5) Just a devastating collapse in Pittsburgh last week. That said, Atlanta’s loss swung the wild card tiebreaker in the Cowboys’ favor. The remaining schedule (NYG, BAL, at PHI) may be treacherous, but Dallas now controls its own playoff destiny.

8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-4) It’s December and we’re still waiting for the Bucs to present some proof that they won’t be one and done in the postseason. The “top-notch defense” argument suddenly holds less water after the Carolina game.

9. New England Patriots (8-5) Junior Seau played 28 snaps in the Patriots’ comeback win in Seattle last week. Five days prior to that he was surfing the Pacific. Need you hear any more about the adaptability and resiliency of New England?

10. Philadelphia Eagles (7-5-1) The final score may have read 20-14, but the Eagles thrashed the Giants in their house. Suffice to say it was a timely and resonant first division win for McNabb and company.

Now for the Week 15 picks (home teams in CAPS)

CHICAGO over New Orleans

Washington over CINCINNATI

ATLANTA over Tampa Bay

Seattle over ST. LOUIS

MIAMI over San Francisco

NY JETS over Buffalo

INDIANAPOLIS over Detroit

JACKSONVILLE over Green Bay

San Diego over KANSAS CITY

ARIZONA over Minnesota

Tennessee over HOUSTON

Pittsburgh over BALTIMORE

CAROLINA over Denver

DALLAS over NY Giants

New England over OAKLAND

PHILADELPHIA over CLEVELAND

Last Week: 13-3

Overall: 134-72-1

NFL Playoff Picture and Week 14 Picks

Usually at this point in this season — 12 games down and four to go for each team — most division races are heating up. Not this year.

In the NFC, the Giants have home-field throughout the playoffs secured while the Cardinals are already preparing for a home game in the first round, courtesy of the NFC West title they’re about to earn. In the South, to the winner of Monday night’s showdown between the Bucs and Panthers will go both the division crown and the second bye in the conference. The only divisional murkiness lies in the North, where the Vikings — currently 7-5 with a one-game lead over the Bears — will have to contend with a potentially bumpy schedule (at DET, at ARI, ATL, NYG) as well as the imminent suspensions of their two cogs on the defensive line, Kevin and Pat Williams (although the suspensions are presently on hold as the players union has filed suit to block them).

The divisional picture is equally clear in the AFC, where the Titans will take the AFC South and the top seed in the postseason. Out west, the Broncos have a three-game advantage over San Diego and a manageable final slate (KC, at CAR, BUF, at SD). Denver will be the fourth seed and host a wild card game. The Jets are lined up to wrestle the AFC East away from the Patriots for the first time since 2002. They could conceivably run the table (at SF, BUF, at SEA, MIA) and steal the second bye from Pittsburgh. While the Steelers are the most complete team in the conference, they must deal with unquestionably the most difficult final four games (DAL, at BAL, at TEN, CLE) of any AFC contender.

In essence, the entire divisional landscape of the league can be summed up in three questions. 1) Will Carolina avenge a 27-3 loss to Tampa Bay and win the NFC South? 2) Can Minnesota evade the obstacles and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2004? 3) Is Pittsburgh capable of gaining the AFC’s second bye in spite of a brutal December schedule? We’ll see.

Right now, it’s the wild card races in both conferences that have the most moving parts. In the NFC, there are technically five teams battling for the two berths. However, the loser of the Tampa Bay-Carolina game will be 9-4 and virtually guaranteed a wild card, barring a total collapse. That means Dallas (8-4), Atlanta (8-4), Washington (7-5) and Philadelphia (6-5-1) will have to duke it out for the last spot. As for the AFC, there are four teams for two berths. Again, though, that is misleading, as the Colts are 8-4, riding a five-game winning streak and looking at the easiest final month (CIN, DET, at JAX, TEN) of all the contenders. Indy is a minimum 11-win team. Which leaves Baltimore (8-4), New England (7-5) and Miami (7-5) vying for the sixth and final spot.

So of those seven squads, which two are most likely to be playing football in January? Let’s take a closer look, within the context of each conference.

NFC

Dallas Cowboys: 8-4 (at PIT, NYG, BAL, at PHI)

It’s painful to merely look at the Cowboys’ December schedule. They will clash with, in succession, the league’s first, third, second and seventh ranked defenses. All have ferocious, unrelenting pass rushes and physical secondaries that can challenge the Dallas passing attack. They can also all stop the run. That said, the Cowboys appear to be peaking and getting healthy at the right time, which means they’re capable of winning any of these games. A 2-2 split is most probable, which means the Giants and Eagles games are especially critical if a 10-6 Cowboys team is to have any tiebreakers in its favor (most of the time wild card tiebreakers come down to conference record).

Atlanta Falcons: 8-4 (at NO, TB, at MIN, STL)

The next two weeks are crucial for the Falcons. If they can find a way to win in New Orleans and beat Tampa Bay at home, they’ll be in the drivers seat hitting the home stretch (as Dallas will be hard pressed to knock off the Steelers and Giants on consecutive Sundays). Behind the continued and striking improvement of rookie Matt Ryan, the Falcons have notched four of the last five, including a couple of tough divisional games and a victory in San Diego last week. As of now Atlanta is the team that most readily controls its own destiny.

Washington Redskins: 7-5 (at BAL, at CIN, PHI, at SF)

No team wants to finish with three out of the last four on the road, but at this point that’s far from Washington’s primary concern. The Redskins are 1-3 in their last four contests, mainly because they haven’t been able to put points on the board — scoring a total of 43 points during the lull. Clinton Portis has been playing hurt, and it’s shown, as he’s rung up just one 100-yard game in that stretch after recording five in a row. Jason Campbell’s receivers have not helped him by any measure, dropping countless passes in big spots. Anything short of a huge showing on Sunday night in Baltimore and Washington’s drive to return to the playoffs will stall out.

Philadelphia Eagles: 6-5-1 (at NYG, CLE, at WAS, DAL)

Impressive as he was coming back with an elite performance on Thanksgiving after being benched the week before, Donovan McNabb still has a mighty task ahead of him. Simply put, a loss to the Giants this week effectively kills Philly’s season. That’s what happens when you tie the Bengals. On the bright side, with the bizarre Plaxico Burress/Antonio Pierce incident coming to a head as this piece goes to print, maybe the Eagles are drawing the champs at the right time. Regardless, it’s simple. A win in the Meadowlands and Philly is alive and kicking.

AFC

Baltimore Ravens: 8-4 (WAS, PIT, at DAL, JAX)

Not what you would classify a friendly slate of games for the Ravens, but they have the benefit of playing three of them at home, where they are 4-1. Since getting pasted by the Giants in Week 11, Baltimore has responded with two resounding victories over the Eagles and Bengals. Considering the opponents they’ll have to face this month, a split of their last four games is the most likely scenario for the Ravens. Like Dallas, the pressure will be on Baltimore in their two remaining conference games, as three of their four losses have come against AFC teams. Even at 10-6, if the Ravens end up with five conferences losses they’ll probably be on the outside looking in come playoff time.

New England Patriots: 7-5 (at SEA, at OAK, ARI, at BUF)

With a 5-5 record in the AFC, the Patriots are pretty much assured of having no tiebreakers going in their favor should it come down to that. Which would indicate New England has to run the table if it wants to be competing for a Super Bowl for the sixth straight year. Given the Patriots’ track record of playing better as the games gain importance and the weather becomes inclement (they’re a cumulative 27-5 in the month of December since 2001), it’s plausible that New England wins out. They will be favored in every game left on the schedule, meaning a lack of preparation or an off-day is all that stands between them and 11 wins.

Miami Dolphins: 7-5 (at BUF, SF, at KC, at NYJ)

You gotta hand it to the Dolphins. They were routed by the Patriots in a blood match and clearly felt the effects well into last Sunday’s game against the Rams. But they held on and are now set up to be heading into the final week at 10-5 for a divisional clash with the Jets. It’s questionable whether they’ll be able to seal the deal and get back to the postseason for the first time in eight years, but don’t forget this was a team that still hadn’t even won a game at this juncture of the season last year.

Now, on to the Week 14 picks (home teams in CAPS)

SAN DIEGO over Oakland

CHICAGO over Jacksonville

Minnesota over DETROIT

TENNESSEE over Cleveland

GREEN BAY over Houston

NEW ORLEANS over Atlanta

INDIANAPOLIS over Cincinnati

DENVER over Kansas City

NY GIANTS over Philadelphia

NY Jets over SAN FRANCISCO

Miami over BUFFALO

ARIZONA over St. Louis

New England over SEATTLE

PITTSBURGH over Dallas

BALTIMORE over Washington

CAROLINA over Tampa Bay

Last Week: 8-8

Overall: 121-69-1