- Adam Schefter, NFL
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Minutes after Raiders kicker Jeff Jaeger booted a field goal that beat the Broncos and rearranged the AFC playoff picture in 1993, battered and bloodied Denver guard Brian Habib slumped in front of his locker and softly asked where his team would open the playoffs the next weekend.
Right back here, he was told, in Los Angeles.
Habib slumped even further, looking as if Denver had no chance. And it didn't. In the wild-card game the next weekend, in the same venue the teams played one week earlier, the Raiders blew out the Broncos 42-24.
A similar message might be delivered from one team to another this season, in hospitable Southern style: Come back, y'all.
For the first time in eight seasons, there could be another regular-season finale that turns into a wild-card rematch, most likely between Green Bay and Arizona, which plays host to the Packers in the final week of the season. It's possible the Packers will be returning to Arizona the very next weekend, but it's not the only potential wild-card rematch from a Week 17 game, just the most likely.
The Eagles play in Dallas in Week 17, and in an even more far-fetched scenario for back-to-back games, the Giants play at Minnesota in Week 17.
But for teams looking to history for a gauge as to what might happen, just consider the warning that comes along with mutual funds: Past performance is not any guarantee of future success.
Five teams have returned to the same city where they played their regular-season finale for a wild-card matchup. Of those five, only the 1993 Raiders -- the team Habib dreaded -- were able to sweep the back-to-back games.
The 1988 Oilers lost in Cleveland in the regular-season finale, then won their wild-card weekend. The 1993 Packers lost in Detroit in the regular-season finale, then won their wild-card weekend. The 2000 Rams won in New Orleans in the regular-season finale, then lost their wild-card weekend. And the 2001 Jets won in Oakland in the regular-season finale, then lost their wild-card weekend.
Now it could be happening again. Chances are it is with Green Bay and Arizona, who would square off if the postseason were to start today. Words not often heard in Arizona might soon be uttered to the Packers.
Come back, y'all.
It is now close enough to ponder and count: Titans running back Chris Johnson is running through defenses and into history. With a league-leading 1,626 rushing yards, Johnson needs 374 more -- an average of just under 125 per game -- to join O.J. Simpson, Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis and Jamal Lewis to become the NFL's sixth 2,000-yard rusher. But that could turn out to be his warm-up act. Johnson also needs 480 more rushing yards -- an average of 160 per game -- to eclipse Dickerson's season rushing record of 2,105 set in 1984. The marks are not entirely out of reach. Since Tennessee's bye week, when Vince Young took over as starting quarterback, Johnson has averaged 147 rushing yards. Should that clip continue, Johnson easily will join the 2,000-yard club, but fall short of Dickerson's mark. But when these marks get close, teams get motivated. Tennessee's final three games -- against the Dolphins, Chargers and Seahawks, none of whom boasts a top-10 run defense -- will be used as the Titans' last-ditch push to get to the postseason and to get Johnson the record. One NFL executive said this week that Johnson might be the best running back he has seen in 25 years.
The first round of the 2008 draft came and went without a wide receiver being selected. Then they started flying off the board. With the 33rd overall pick, the Rams drafted Houston wide receiver Donnie Avery. With the 34th pick, the Redskins drafted Michigan State wide receiver Devin Thomas. With the 36th pick, the Packers drafted Kansas State wide receiver Jordy Nelson. With the 41st pick, the Bills drafted Indiana wide receiver James Hardy. With the 42nd pick, the Broncos drafted Virginia Tech wide receiver Eddie Royal. And with the 46th pick, the Bengals drafted Coastal Carolina wide receiver Jerome Simpson. And then, with the 49th pick, the Eagles drafted California wide receiver DeSean Jackson. Were the draft held today, Jackson would go roughly 45 spots higher. This season he has helped transform the Eagles' offense into the most explosive unit that Andy Reid has coached in Philadelphia. This season, Chris Johnson has seven touchdowns of more than 50 yards. Jackson has eight. His eight touchdowns of 50 or more yards tied the NFL season record that Hall of Famer Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch and Devin Hester share. Hirsch scored eight 50-plus yard touchdowns in 1951, Hester eight in 2007. Jackson has done this despite missing one game two Sundays ago against Atlanta because of a concussion. Last month Jackson hired a new agent, Drew Rosenhaus. After this season, it's fairly simple to surmise one of the storylines. Oh, and by the way, Jerome Simpson? In two seasons, he has one catch for 2 yards. And he went ahead of Jackson.
When he left Green Bay and eventually wound up in Minnesota, eyebrows were raised. But before Brett Favre followed that path, Darren Sharper did it first. After the 2005 season, Sharper left Green Bay and signed with Minnesota, and right then, Packers general manager Ted Thompson got an idea of how such a move could work out. Now, four seasons later, the Saints' Sharper is locked in a battle with Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, who arrived in Green Bay one season after Sharper left, for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Each is worthy. At 33, Woodson has eight interceptions, two touchdowns and 61 tackles. Sharper, 34, has eight interceptions, three touchdowns and 54 tackles. An argument also could be made for the game's best young cornerback, the New York Jets' Darrelle Revis, who has intercepted six passes, scored one touchdown and blanketed some of the game's top wide receivers. But with their teams winning, Sharper and Woodson figure to get more support. Each has made his unit better and is one of the major keys to his team's defensive resurgence.
Dallas has reason enough to be alarmed. But this is going to make its trip to New Orleans for Saturday night's game against the Saints even more daunting. More often than not, teams that have played the Saints this season have gone into a tailspin after New Orleans beat them. New Orleans beat Detroit in Week 1 and started the Lions on a two-game losing streak. New Orleans beat Buffalo in Week 3 and started the Bills on a three-game losing streak. New Orleans beat the Jets in Week 4 and started them on a three-game losing streak. New Orleans beat the Giants in Week 6 and started them on a four-game losing streak. New Orleans beat the Rams in Week 10 and started them on their current five-game losing streak. New Orleans beat the Patriots in Week 12 and started them on a two-game losing streak. Of the 13 teams the Saints have played this season, only five won the next week, though the results still are pending on Atlanta, last week's opponent. Dallas needs to find a way to win, if not Saturday night, then certainly in Washington the next week or against Philadelphia in the regular-season finale.
After getting scorched in Baltimore, the Lions now face a high-flying, angry Arizona team. Considering Detroit's recent past, it is hard to imagine how in the world the Lions will be able to stop Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner and wide receiver Anquan Boldin. In their past 45 games dating to 2007, the Lions have allowed an astounding 1,367 points -- an average of 30.7 per game. In what is one of the stats of the year -- and Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz might want to close his eyes before reading this one -- the Lions could become the first team since the NFL merger in 1970 to allow the most points in the league for three straight seasons. This season they are the only team in the league to already have surrendered more than 400 points. In other words, it's already safe to say that Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant will not be the Lions' first-round pick. They need a running back, desperately. But Detroit would do backflips if it were forced to learn the proper pronunciation of Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
The raw emotion of Sunday's Cincinnati-San Diego game makes it compelling enough. No team or family should have to endure what the Bengals have this season. But beyond human emotion, it also might be the single best matchup of the weekend, a potential playoff preview, with the Bengals' wildly underrated cornerback tandem of Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall asked to slow the Chargers' tremendously talented wide receiving tandem of Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd. Coaches who have faced Joseph and Hall rave about how good those two are. They were the Bengals' first-round picks in 2006 and 2007. Few teams have been able to slow San Diego, which excels at jump balls on deep balls. San Diego has become as close to an unstoppable offense as there is in the NFL. Teams recently have taken away Jackson and, to a lesser extent, Floyd, resulting in more catches for San Diego tight end Antonio Gates. LaDainian Tomlinson has run like a man possessed since learning he was going to become a father. Somehow, with the help of Joseph and Hall, Cincinnati must figure a way to do what no team has done since Denver did back in mid-October: beat the Chargers. Since Oct. 19, the Chargers have stormed their division, reeling off eight consecutive wins and improving Philip Rivers' record in December to 16-0. The stakes Sunday are large: The winner will have the edge for a first-round bye and home divisional playoff game. The loser can begin making plans to host a game on wild-card weekend.
While Randy Moss has hogged headlines in New England, his wide receiving counterpart Wes Welker has pieced together a remarkably productive season. No receiver in the league has been more consistent, resilient and durable than Welker. Despite missing two games this season with a knee injury, Welker has 13 more catches than any receiver in football. He is third in receiving yards, only 79 behind Houston's Andre Johnson. But check out this statistical oddity: Welker has caught 66 straight passes without any going for a touchdown. Last time Welker scored was nearly two months ago, Oct. 25 in London. Since then, the Patriots have had their bye and games in which Welker's reception totals have been nine, nine, 15, six, 10 and 10. Of course, Welker's streak might be on the verge of snapping. He is going against my fantasy football team this weekend, which assures of him of at least one and probably two touchdowns.
Miami has been successful running the football, but the Dolphins' most significant and successful handoff went from Chad Pennington to Chad Henne. Few expected the transition from one Chad to another to be this smooth or successful this early. But after the 33-year-old Pennington opened this season with a 0-3 record and injured his shoulder, the 24-year-old Henne took over, going 7-3 as a starter and leading the Dolphins into the thick of the AFC playoff race. Maybe the Dolphins qualify for the postseason, maybe not. But the Dolphins seem to have finally found a worthy successor to Dan Marino. Henne throws well, works hard and commands respect. The respect will only grow if he finds a way to win at Tennessee on Sunday, and then at home against Houston and Pittsburgh in the season's final two weeks. Henne's stats have been pedestrian, but his intangibles, and record, have been more impressive. He can be for Bill Parcells in Miami what Phil Simms was for Parcells in New York -- a tough, talented, winning quarterback.
Washington tried trading for Jay Cutler. It explored drafting Mark Sanchez. And ultimately, it might have wound up with the most preferable alternative of all, Jason Campbell. After the trade rumors from last offseason and the consistent chaos this season, Campbell remained unflustered. He has exuded a quiet confidence that has enabled him to prosper, boost his value for next season and prove to the Redskins that they might not need to draft a quarterback. One NFL head coach said this week that if Campbell were in the 2010 draft, he would be the second quarterback picked. Campbell still holds the football too long -- a la Aaron Rodgers, who was drafted one spot ahead of him in the 2005 draft -- but he is tough enough to withstand the hits and the doubters. While Campbell slowly has emerged, so have some young Redskins targets, most notably tight end Fred Davis and Devin Thomas. Suddenly, the team looks as if it has some young offensive firepower. With Campbell's contract up after this season, he has proven to the Redskins that Washington's quarterback of the future might just be its quarterback of the present.
The Schef's Specialties
Game of the week: Dallas at New Orleans -- There's nothing like watching an oncoming car crash against a team playing for history.
Player of the week: Cardinals QB Kurt Warner -- He usually bounces back from poor performances with big games, especially against helpless defenses such as Detroit's.
Upset of the week: Cincinnati over San Diego -- The Bengals honored the memory of Vikki Zimmer, wife of their defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, with an upset over the Ravens. Now they try to honor the memory of wide receiver Chris Henry.
Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.
13hEric D. Williams
2dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo