So the New England Patriots locked up home-field advantage for the second consecutive year and the third time in the past four.
Well, yes, as a matter of fact, it is. Because that makes them the safe bet not only to reach their second straight Super Bowl but to win it -- and here's why: History. The last four top seeds in the AFC playoffs reached the Super Bowl and so did five of the past six. But that's not all. Those last four numero unos? They all won Super Bowls, too, including New England twice.
But why stop there? This marks the seventh time since Tom Brady took over at quarterback that New England is the AFC's top seed, and in five of the previous six stops the Pats went to Super Bowls. So the smart money is on the Patriots as the AFC rep in Super Bowl LII.
And the NFC? Well, that's a little murkier. While three of the last four top seeds reached Super Bowls, none won the league championship. And, if you want to dig a little deeper in history, only three of the last seven top seeds made it to Super Bowls -- which means Philadelphia is no sure thing, especially with a backup quarterback.
Of course, neither is No. 2 Minnesota. Since going inside in 1982, when the Vikings go outdoors for conference championship games, they're 0-2 -- and while that's a small sample size it's representative of all indoor teams. They simply don't win outdoor conference championship games.
But going into the New Year, the Vikings look like the only NFC team you can trust. In fact, they were the only one of the top five NFC seeds entering Sunday that won.
The Eagles lost. The Rams lost. The Saints lost. And the Panthers lost. Which means ... which means the NFC is a free-for-all where the AFC is not.
LAST-AND-20 FOR 2017
- It wasn't just a good day for the Patriots Sunday. It was a very good one. First, they clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. But then Baltimore dropped out of the picture, and trust me: The Ravens were a legitimate threat to New England -- not only because they were hot but because they're a team unafraid of going into Foxboro in January. They won two playoff games there with Joe Flacco, including a conference championship.
- Biggest threat to New England now? Kansas City. The Chiefs have the speed and quickness that will cause New England trouble, and they don't make mistakes. Plus, they went into Foxboro this year and didn't just beat the Pats; they destroyed them.
- Yep, I love having the Bills back in the playoffs, too. But they're not there without Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton. So do the right thing, Sean McDermott: Save them a playoff share. They not only put you in the playoffs; they bailed you out of that Tyrod Taylor benching blunder.
- It's been awhile since a No. 1 playoff seed looked more vulnerable than Philadelphia does now. The last two games the Eagles are 3-for-25 on third downs, with Donnie Jones punting 16 times. Not good.
- There there's this: The only other No. 1 playoff seed to be shut out in a season finale? The 2008 Tennessee Titans. Result: They bowed out in their first playoff game, losing to Baltimore.
- Just a hunch, but the 49ers will be a trendy preseason pick for the Super Bowl in 2018, and you know why: Jimmy G. He's 7-0 as a starter, 5-0 with the 49ers.
- That's five Blake Bortles interceptions the past two weeks, and cue the Eli Manning rumors again. They'll start the minute Jacksonville loses its first playoff game, which could be next week vs. Buffalo.
- Give the Falcons credit: That was a gutsy victory and a complete team effort by the defending NFC champions. But the playoff run ends next week in L.A. because the once high-flying Falcons simply cannot score with the Rams ... and you can look it up. Atlanta failed to produce more than 24 points in each of its last five games and was held to 22 in two losses.
- It's official: The Browns have two of the first four draft picks (1 and 4) in 2018, so there are no excuses, John Dorsey.
- Maybe the Hue Jackson quote of all Hue Jackson quotes in two years of 1-31 with Cleveland: "I don't think anyone else could've done this job for the past two years." I'll second that.
- Now starring in "Downsizing:" New Giants' GM Dave Gettleman. He's not using a broom; he's using a vacuum.
- I'm all for someone hiring Josh McDaniels as their next head coach ... provided he brings Tom Brady with him.
- Bottom line: Special teams cost the Chargers the playoffs this year. Period.
- I don't know, but that sure felt like Eli's last game with the Giants.
- No, Todd Bowles didn't deserve to be fired. But he didn't deserve a contract extension, either. The guy lost of nine of his last 11, for crying out loud, and was outscored 94-32 in the last four -- all losses.
- So now it's Denver's Vance Joseph on the chopping block? You gotta be kidding. Hard to win without a quarterback.
- Guess we know how much Carolina needs Jonathan Stewart.
- Watch Dion Lewis run, and tell me he hasn't been studying Le'Veon Bell.
- That does it. The Saints' Alvin Kamara just got my Offensive Rookie of the Year vote.
- Shame on Mark Davis. He's the guy who fired Jack Del Rio after he went 18-14 in two seasons and last year took the team to the playoffs when it hadn't been there ... heck, hadn't had a winning season ... since 2002. Jerry Glanville was right: NFL stands for Not For Long. Del Rio deserved better. As former Raiders' star Charles Woodson said, Del Rio returned "respectability" to the Raiders, and that should count for something.
EXCEDRIN -- Earlier this season it agreed to sponsor a Browns' Perfect Parade. Smart. The Browns were a perfect 0-16. The parade is scheduled for Jan. 6.
N.Y. GIANTS' GM DAVE GETTLEMAN. He's the only GM who didn't lose this season.
BUFFALO. Time to party like it's 1999. The Bills are in the playoffs for the first time in 18 years.
LEAGUE PARITY. Only four of the 2016 playoff teams made it back a year later -- Atlanta in the NFC, and New England, Kansas City and Pittsburgh in the AFC.
INDIANAPOLIS RB FRANK GORE. He just became the fifth back in NFL history to rush for 14,000 career yards.
NEW ENGLAND LB JAMES HARRISON. Looks like he was right. He does have more to offer ... like five tackles, two sacks and one forced fumble in his debut with New England. He had more sacks in one game with the Patriots than he did all year with Pittsburgh.
DETROIT COACH JIM CALDWELL. After completing a season sweep of Green Bay, he announced that "I'm not done yet." Well, yes, he is. He was fired after going 36-28 in four years with the once miserable Lions and twice taking the team to the playoffs. To put that in context, consider that Detroit had one winning season in the 13 previous to Caldwell's arrival, was 60-148 during that time and went 0-16 in 2008. File this one under: Life Is Not Fair.
CLEVELAND FANS. Yes, owner Jimmy Haslam DID say he told GM John Dorsey he wants Hue Jackson back and that there's no debate. So now the question: Just what does it take for Dorsey to get the green light to hire a new coach?
PHILADELPHIA QB NICK FOLES. OK, so it was a meaningless game. Still ... he put up a passer rating of 9.3, absorbed a loss and was so ineffective that reporters couldn't wait to ask coach Doug Pederson if his faith in Foles was shaken.
BALTIMORE. The Ravens were this close to closing out Cincinnati ... at home no less ... and after overcoming two 14-point deficits ... but blow the coverage on fourth-and-12? And in the last minute? Unbelievable. Now they're out of the playoffs for the third straight year and the fourth time in the past five seasons.
OAKLAND COACH JACK DEL RIO. So this is what he gets for taking the Raiders to the playoffs last year for the first time in over a decade? Be careful what you wish for, Mark Davis. Remember: Jon Gruden's been out of football for nearly a decade (he last coached in 2008), and, after winning Super Bowl XXXVII with Tampa Bay, he not only had a losing record but never won another playoff game.
WASHINGTON QB KIRK COUSINS. He picked a bad time to suffer his first three-interception game in three years. If that was an audition for the Jets ... or anyone else outside the Beltway ... it might cost him.
WINNER AND LOSER
INDIANAPOLIS COACH CHUCK PAGANO. Yeah, he was fired. But he bowed out with a victory. Attaboy, Chuck.
FIVE THINGS TO LOOK FOR IN 2018
- The Browns win a game.
- The NFL continues to screw up ... and defend ... the Catch Rule.
- NFL owners reject Donald Trump's attempt to buy the Panthers.
- The Chargers still wish they were in San Diego.
- Jimmy Garoppolo mentioned in the same sentence with Joe Montana.
SUNDAY'S HALL OF FAMER
PITTSBURGH WR JUJU SMITH-SCHUSTER. Ben Roethlisberger didn't play. Le'Veon Bell didn't play. David DeCastro didn't play. Heck, there were starters galore who didn't suit up for the Steelers. But JuJu did, and what a performance. All he did was produce 265 all-purpose yards and score twice, including once on a 96-yard kickoff return. Furthermore, he made history. He became the youngest player in NFL history (he turned 21 in November) to produce over 1,000 all-purpose yards in one season. He had 1,157. Imagine what happens if/when Antonio Brown returns, and defensive coordinators have to defend Brown, Martavis Bryant and JuJu when Bell isn't shredding their front sevens.
SUNDAY'S HALL OF SHAMER
BALTIMORE DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR DEAN PEES AND THE RAVENS. What's been the one constant over the years with Ravens' success? Uh-huh, defense. It delivered the franchise two Super Bowls, and it had them within a minute of its first playoff appearance in three years. But then it collapsed on fourth-and-12 ... against Cincinnati ... at home ... and with a three-point lead. That's not supposed to happen to these guys. But it did, and it cost them more ... a lot more ... than a game. If that was, in fact, Pees' last game with Baltimore, it was an exit he -- and Ravens' fans -- will never forget. "It's like a bad dream," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "You can't believe it happened to us like this."