Observation deck: Beware the Redskins, who defy the odds
As the regular season came to a close with a few notable performances throughout the league, hail the Redskins. They have all the traits of a team that should be home watching the playoffs, and yet they claimed the NFC's No. 6 seed.
Washington and Tennessee claimed the final playoff berths Sunday, while most contending teams sought to make it through Week 17 without suffering costly casualties.
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Green Bay running back Ryan Grant suffered a stinger injury during the Packers' meaningless regular-season finale against Detroit.
The Giants suffered injuries to multiple starters against New England in another game with no bearing on playoff seeding.
Every team with playoff aspirations worries about injuries this time of year, but no team has fought through them more effectively than the sixth-seeded team from the NFC.
Beware the Redskins.
With a 27-6 victory at home over a Dallas team with nothing to gain, the Redskins secured the NFC's final playoff berth in defiance of convention. The NFL's most resilient team by just about any measure, Washington will open the playoffs Saturday at third-seeded Seattle (NBC, 4:30 p.m. ET).
The Redskins entered Week 17 with five starters on season-ending reserve lists and a sixth, Sean Taylor, having met a tragic demise. Five other teams entered the weekend with more than five starters lost for the season to injury. None earned playoff spots.The Redskins played the final three weeks without their injured starting quarterback. They won all three games. Jason Campbell is probably done for the season. That's notable, because the five teams with starting quarterbacks on injured reserve missed the playoffs. Six teams placed two starting offensive linemen on season-ending reserve lists this season, but only one -- Washington, of course -- is heading to the playoffs.
Pittsburgh suffered key injuries on both sides of the ball late in the season, losing Pro Bowl players Willie Parker and Aaron Smith. The fourth-seeded Steelers will open the playoffs at home against a fifth-seeded Jacksonville team that won at Heinz Field two weeks ago. Theirs is the late game Saturday (NBC, 8 p.m. ET).
Tampa Bay, fourth in the NFC and facing the fifth-seeded Giants in the early game Sunday (Fox, 1 p.m. ET), played much of the season without left tackle Luke Petitgout and running back Cadillac Williams. The Giants were healthy much of the way, but recent injuries to tight end Jeremy Shockey and others could prove costly.
Indianapolis, seeded second in the AFC, has learned to win without receiver Marvin Harrison and defensive end Dwight Freeney, former Pro Bowl players. The Colts' defense has ranked among the NFL's top five with safety Bob Sanders healthy.
The Titans, seeded sixth in the AFC after claiming a 16-10 victory over Indianapolis, are hurting on defense with Albert Haynesworth limited and two other starters -- Chris Hope and Ryan Fowler -- out for the season. Tennessee will face third-seeded San Diego in the late game Sunday (CBS, 4:30 p.m. ET). The Titans' victory eliminated Cleveland from playoff contention hours after the Browns defeated San Francisco. The Chargers won in Oakland 30-17.
Injuries played a role in which teams qualified for the playoffs, and injuries likely will play a role in which teams advance. Playoff teams averaged 2.8 starters on season-ending reserve lists heading into Week 17. Non-playoff teams averaged 4.6 starters on those lists.
Here are 10 observations from Week 17:
1. Tom Coughlin deserves a break
Yes, the Giants suffered injuries while playing to win against New England. But it's lazy to suggest they would have avoided the injuries if coach Tom Coughlin had decided to rest key players.
Center Shaun O'Hara left with a knee injury suffered late in the second quarter. The Giants carried nine offensive linemen into this game. One was inactive. Five have to play on every offensive snap.
Linemen laugh when reporters ask them about the benefits of resting starters for the playoffs. They know the concept usually doesn't apply to them.
Basic math applies to other positions as well.
Giants linebacker Kawika Mitchell suffered a knee injury in the first quarter against the Patriots. Coughlin carried seven linebackers into the game and one of them, Torrance Daniels, was not active. The others were going to play on defense and/or special teams.As noted last week, the Giants weren't good enough to pull their starters and coast into the playoffs. They were better Saturday, when quarterback Eli Manning sharpened up with his best performance in weeks.
2. Seahawks were fortunateSeahawks coach Mike Holmgren talked all week about playing to win against Atlanta, even though the game carried no playoff implications. That was fine, but in giving Pro Bowl left tackle Walter Jones a well-earned day off, Holmgren subjected quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to undue risk. Hasselbeck was sharp early in the game, completing his first three passes during a 10-play, 77-yard opening drive to a touchdown. He could have left the game at that point, but Holmgren kept Hasselbeck in the lineup for the first half.
Falcons defensive end John Abraham sacked Hasselbeck on Seattle's second drive. Abraham struck again later in the half, taking down Hasselbeck from the quarterback's blind side on a desperation third-and-40 play. Hasselbeck fumbled, and the Falcons recovered.
Game over for Hasselbeck, right? Wrong. Holmgren sent his Pro Bowl passer back onto the field for one more drive.
X-rays on the wrist were negative. Holmgren and Hasselbeck said the quarterback will be fine. Hasselbeck expects to practice without restrictions. The Seahawks were fortunate on that front.
3. Del Rio gets it right
While the Giants needed their quarterback to reestablish himself before the playoffs, Jacksonville faced no such issues. The Jaguars are arguably the most physical team in the league. A sledgehammer doesn't need much fine tuning.
The Jaguars lost the game 42-28 after allowing Houston's Andre Davis to score twice on kickoff returns. But this was a net gain for Jacksonville.
Quarterback Quinn Gray tossed four touchdown passes as the Jaguars set single-season franchise records for points (411), touchdowns (50) and touchdown passes (28).
Garrard, by not playing, protected the second-lowest interception percentage in league history among quarterbacks with at least 300 attempts in a season. His three interceptions in 325 attempts (.0092) challenged the mark Kansas City's Steve DeBerg set when he finished the 1990 season with four interceptions in 444 attempts (.0090).
4. Why teams kick to Hester
With a playoff berth potentially on the line, New Orleans punted to Chicago's Devin Hester and lived to regret it. Hester's 64-yard return touchdown helped the Bears to a 33-25 victory.
The Saints would have been eliminated from the playoffs even if they had won, but nonetheless, coach Sean Payton was simmering afterward.
"The punt plan was out of bounds, period," Payton told reporters.
Planning to kick away from Hester often is easier than executing the strategy. The Bears' fierce punt rush, responsible for two blocked punts last week, can make it difficult for punters to angle their punts toward the sideline.
Windy conditions in Chicago also can make it harder for punters to control direction. The result, too often, is six points for the Bears. Hester is that good.
The second-year pro has 11 return touchdowns in 32 games. Brian Mitchell, the all-time leader with 13 return touchdowns, set the record during a 223-game career.
5. Winning on the stat sheet
The Titans spent all week preparing for the most important game of their regular season. The Colts were mostly worried about padding their stats.
The odd mix of priorities produced an unusual beginning to the game.
The Titans were fired up about keeping the Colts in check early. The Colts appeared satisfied with Peyton Manning completing 10 passes to Reggie Wayne during the first two drives. The early flurry pushed Manning over 4,000 yards passing and Wayne over 100 receptions.
Both stars left the game shortly thereafter.
6. Vikings drop out
Minnesota lost control of its playoff destiny in Week 16, but the Vikings still had an outside chance of securing the NFC's sixth seed if they could win in Denver.
Someone forgot to tell Vikings receiver Troy Williamson. The Broncos inadvertently left the former first-round draft choice uncovered on a deep route, but the pass from Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson bounced off Williamson's chest and fell incomplete.
Minnesota, trailing 7-3 during the early stages of an eventual 22-19 overtime defeat, lost a fumble two plays later.
The Vikings far exceeded outside expectations by finishing with an 8-8 record this season. Adrian Peterson challenged for the NFL rushing title. Jackson enjoyed a few productive games late in the season. And the defense dominated at times.
Williamson, meanwhile, continued to disappoint. He caught 18 passes this season, none against the Broncos, and he has never caught more than 37 passes in a season.
That's not good enough for the player chosen seventh in the 2005 draft.
7. Time slots favor Giants, Bucs, Titans
The Seahawks drew the earliest playoff time slot despite closing the regular season in Atlanta, the team's third game in the Eastern time zone over the final five weeks.
The Giants and Bucs fared better, despite lower seedings.
The Sunday time slot gives the Giants eight days to recover from their Saturday night home loss to New England. The Bucs closed the regular season at home and will open the playoffs there, as well. The league avoided sending Tennessee to San Diego for a Saturday game after the Titans closed the season with a night game on the road.
8. Height of hilarity at Lambeau
Detroit commands so much respect in the NFC North that Green Bay attempted an onside kick while holding a 7-3 lead over the Lions in the first quarter of a meaningless game. After recovering the kick, the Lions responded by gaining 7 yards in three plays before punting from the Green Bay 38.
9. Houshmandzadeh fit to be tied
Cincinnati's T.J. Houshmandzadeh dropped a short pass in the left flat with the NFL receiving title on the line. The rare miscue during the final seconds of a victory over Miami left Houshmandzadeh tied with New England's Wes Welker at 112 receptions.
Houshmandzadeh finished the game with nine receptions.
San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson won another rushing title despite a limited effort in Oakland. He finished with 1,474 yards. Minnesota's Peterson finished with 1,341 yards, eight more than Philadelphia's Brian Westbrook.
In Atlanta, Seattle's Shaun Alexander scored the 100th rushing touchdown of his career, moving past Barry Sanders on the all-time list.
10. Collins gives Titans depthMost teams can't afford to lose their starting quarterback heading into the playoffs. The Titans are an exception because the gap between Vince Young and Kerry Collins is debatable.
Collins completed 10 of 13 passes for 106 yards after a leg injury forced Young to the sideline during the Titans' playoff-clinching victory in the RCA Dome. Young completed 14 of 18 passes before the injury. The Titans expect him back for the playoffs.
In fact, Young probably could have returned to the Indianapolis game, coach Jeff Fisher said, which tells you plenty about the team's confidence in Collins. Young is still finding his way as a pocket passer. Collins has Super Bowl experience and nearly 35,000 career passing yards.
More than any other playoff team, the Titans can afford to lose their starter. The drop-off from starter to backup simply isn't very far, if it exists at all.
Bonus: Signing off
Playoff implications obscured a couple of career-ending moments in Week 17.
The Panthers allowed retiring 44-year-old quarterback Vinny Testaverde to kneel on the ball as time ran out on Carolina's otherwise-meaningless victory over the Bucs.
In Cleveland, where the Browns' playoff fate was the story, 49ers defensive lineman Bryant Young succumbed to a stinger injury in his final game.
The state of quarterbacking in the NFL is such that Testaverde could conceivably get another call next season.
Young could have been finished years ago. His courageous return from a gruesome leg injury inspired teammates and opponents alike. Next stop: Canton.
Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.