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Week 17 Judgements: With Texans' slide, AFC is a two-horse race

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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1. Let's be honest, folks: The AFC playoffs are a two-team race, and Denver and New England are the two teams. Forget Houston. The Texans hit the wall long ago and won't be a factor. They lost three of their last four, were outscored by 45 the past month, couldn't hold on to home-field advantage Sunday and have a quarterback nobody trusts in a big game. That should make it Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady for the conference championship game … how perfect.

2. Here's why you have to like Denver in the AFC: At home this season, Peyton Manning not only is 7-1, with his only loss in September to Houston, but he has 22 touchdowns and only three interceptions. But that's not all. The Broncos' seven home victories have been by an average of 19.3 points, with none less than seven and three by 20 or more.

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3. The two NFC quarterbacks under the most scrutiny in the playoffs: Atlanta's Matt Ryan and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick. Ryan must prove he can win a playoff game (he's 0-3), while Kaepernick must at least take the 49ers to the conference championship game -- or where Alex Smith had them a year ago -- to validate Jim Harbaugh's decision to choose him over Smith.

4. The two AFC quarterbacks under the most scrutiny: Baltimore's Joe Flacco and Houston's Matt Schaub. Flacco wins playoff games every year, but he's playing for a new contract, while Schaub hasn't done anything to inspire confidence in him or his team.

5. Adrian Peterson might have done more than put Minnesota in the playoffs. He might have won an MVP title, too. When I polled a substantial portion of the Associated Press panel two weeks ago, many of the respondents said they'd vote for Peterson if the Vikings made the playoffs or if Peterson broke Eric Dickerson's record. Well, he didn't break Dickerson's record, but the Vikings did make the playoffs. If nothing else, we have a photo finish between Peterson and Peyton Manning.

6. Congratulations to Trindon Holliday on an undefeated season. You heard me. The guy was 5-0 with Houston and 11-0 with the Broncos.

7. I know what you're thinking, Chicago: That's what you get for pulling for the Packers.

8. Don't tell me replacement refs didn't affect this season. They cost Green Bay the first-round bye the Packers deserved.

9. The Colts are the feel-good story of the year, especially with Chuck Pagano back on the sidelines, which means get ready for the Baltimore Ravens to be portrayed as this week's bad guys. That's OK by Baltimore because, frankly, there aren't a lot of good feelings there about the Colts. People there still haven't forgotten ... or forgiven ... what happened when the Mayflowers showed up in 1984.

10. The NFL owes it to itself to get rid of that stupid challenge rule immediately. We don't need another Jim Schwartz/Mike McCarthy fiasco in the playoffs where teams are penalized for their coaches' lack of self-control. It's a brutal rule and it needs to go ... now.

11. I'll say it again: The 49ers are living dangerously with David Akers. The guy is 9 for 19 on field goals from 40 yards and beyond, missing a 40 and 44-yarder against Arizona, and that will catch up to them in the playoffs.

12. Sorry, but I can't see Minnesota beating Green Bay twice in one week -- especially when the second game is in Lambeau Field.

13. If that was Michael Vick's dress rehearsal for his next job, he flunked the audition.

14. When Philadelphia offensive line coach Howard Mudd walked off the field with coach Andy Reid, he turned to him and said, "I'm sorry, my friend." Reid's players should have said it first.

15. Guess nobody with the Eagles got that Win One for Andy memo.

16. Andrew Luck doesn't have the numbers that RG3 and Russell Wilson do, and big deal. He'll get plenty of Offensive Rookie of the Year votes for this reason: Before he arrived the Colts were 2-14 and the worst team in the NFL. One year later, they're 11-5 and a playoff club. The difference: You're looking at him.

17. Consider this a wake-up call for Jim Schwartz and the Detroit Lions: Over the second half of the season they were 0-8, and since winning their first five of 2011, they're 9-19, including the playoffs.

18. So Jacksonville gives up 28 points without its opponent -- in this case, Tennessee -- running an offensive play? Pathetic. If I'm Shahid Khan, I want answers.

19. Nice job by the New York Jets. In the past two seasons, they beat exactly one opponent with a winning record. These guys aren't in need of a quarterback; they need an overhaul.

20. You have to feel for Cleveland's Pat Shurmur. He played young guys because that was in the best long-term interest of the organization. Unfortunately, it's not always in the best short-term interest of the head coach, and Shurmur learned the hard way. But his dismissal is no surprise. I told you on Twitter in August that the Browns would clean the place out from top to bottom, and here's why: Because new team president Joe Banner's ideas for 2012 didn't include Shurmur, GM Tom Heckert or team president Mike Holmgren. Period.

21. Sean Payton should congratulate NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Payton's value only increased with a year away from the game.

22. If Kansas City pulls the plug on GM Scott Pioli, people there believe the club will reach out to Bill Polian. If that happens, look for Polian to bring along his son, Chris.

23. It figures. The Chiefs gain the first draft choice in a year when there's no quarterback worth a No. 1 pick. In fact, there's no quarterback anywhere near.

24. The decline and fall of Chan Gailey goes back to the 2011 draft when the Bills passed on quarterback Andy Dalton because they had a conviction in Ryan Fitzpatrick. So the Bills took cornerback Aaron Williams with the 34th pick, and the Bengals took Dalton immediately afterward. Result: Fitzpatrick had 47 TDs and 39 interceptions in two seasons; Dalton had 46 TDs and 29 interceptions. But here's where they diverge: Fitzpatrick was 12-20, with two last-place finishes; Dalton was 19-13 with two playoff berths.

25. Don't feel too sorry for San Diego's Norv Turner. First of all, there's a $5 million paycheck waiting for him next season. Second, he'll be in demand ... as an offensive coordinator. Turner is one of the best playcallers out there, and if you're skeptical ask Troy Aikman what he did for his career. Anyone with a young quarterback will want to hire him -- which means Baltimore and the NY Jets should be on the phone. I wouldn't rule out Dallas, either, with Jason Garrett asked to give up his play calling.

You make the call

I asked Twitter followers a simple question last week: Imagine you're NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. What's your New Year's resolution? The responses were fast and furious, with a substantial representation of disgruntled New Orleans Saints fans. You can probably guess what they want. As for the others ... read on:

1. @YaboiLani: Make helmet-to-helmet reviewable, just like touchdowns ... too many missed calls this yr by refs on that play.

2. @JoeBucsFan: To reverse the flag football-ization of the NFL.

3. @HOGBOSS0197: Fix some of these rule, i.e., 12th man on the field when the snap is imminent and 'dual possession, etc.

4. @greg_embert: To get the games officiated more consistently. Does anyone really know what constitutes a PI or illegal hit anymore?

5. @rudyriley: I, RG1, resolve to rename to National Fluffball League and replace pads with pillows, duct-taped on. Safety first!

6. @SaintsDisciple: His New Year's resolution should be to resign.

7. @AdamLaHoste: To fulfill the goal of saving the NFL by resigning.

8. @eggheadwhodat: To resign.

9. @rachtummi: RETIRE.

10. @WhoDatWarriors: Learn about industrial due process.

11. @CrimeDonkey11: Admit his mistakes.

12. @cwacycle: Resolution -- be less autocratic, more humble and listen before coming to conclusions. Or learn to play well with others.

13. @Steph2654: Easy one. To think before he speaks.

14. @dcspeed: Fire myself.

15. @crummywatertowr: If I was Goodell I would resign. Talks up safety, adds a full slate of Thursday games which aren't safe.

Five things I like

1. Calvin Johnson's achievement: I'm not talking about getting this close to 2,000 receiving yards. The guy broke the Madden jinx, for crying out loud.

2. Demaryius Thomas' hands: Or should I say ... hand. Watch replays of Thomas' leaping, one-handed stab of a second-half touchdown pass, and tell me the NFL shouldn't be checking him for a glue-like substance.

3. Aaron Rodgers in domes: In 13 games since the start of the 2010 season he has 36 touchdowns, three interceptions and only one game with a passer rating under 100. Rodgers is 9-4 in those starts, with Sunday's loss one of the most difficult to swallow. It cost him and the Packers a first-round bye.

4. The Giants' continued connection to Sandy Hook Elementary school: The club invited nearly 400 students, parents and faculty members from the Newtown, Conn., school to Sunday's season finale, and hear, hear. The Giants didn't win their division, but they made all the right moves here. "It means a great deal to us," said Giants coach Tom Coughlin, "and we'd certainly like to honor them. It’s special to us to have them here this weekend."

5. Arian Foster's TD celebration: No sooner had the Houston star crossed the goal line than he bolted straight for a "ChuckStrong" banner at the back of the end zone, tapped it, then bowed. Nice.

Five things I don't

1. Aldon Smith without Justin Smith: The 49ers' star linebacker had 19½ sacks with Smith by his side. He had none without him, and that includes a season finale against an Arizona team that played with two open windows at tackle.

2. Anything about Nnamdi Asomugha: The Eagles spent a lot of money on the Pro Bowl cornerback, and it seemed like a coup. It was more of a death sentence. He never fit in and proved again Sunday why the club will be better off without him. All I know is the more I saw of this guy the better Joselio Hanson looked.

3. Chicago's season: Congratulations, guys, you made history. Since 1990, only one team (the 1996 Washington Redskins) started the year 7-1 and failed to make the playoffs. Now, there are two.

4. Dallas in season finales. That loss makes the Cowboys 2-11 in their past 13 season-enders, and if the pain feels familiar, it should. Dallas had a chance to win the NFC East last year against the Giants and lost there, too.

5. Adrian Peterson missing the single-season rushing record: Peterson finished only 8 yards short and would've caught Dickerson if the game went to OT. Fortunately for the Vikings, it did not, but what a story if Peterson made history AND put his team in the playoffs at the same time.

Five guys who have some 'splaining to do

1. Dallas QB Tony Romo. Just when you want to believe the guy has turned the corner he becomes ... yep, Tony Romo again. He hadn't thrown an interception in his last six fourth quarters, but he threw one Sunday night ... and just when it looked as if the Cowboys were poised to make a last-minute run. Instead, it sent them to another crushing loss, and get ready for more Romo bashing.

2. Houston coach Gary Kubiak: You have homefield advantage locked down ... until, that is, you go into a sudden and unexpected spinout, losing three of your last four. And tell us why in the world we should believe you can pull out of your funk for the playoffs? Because I don't think you can.

3. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy: He nearly cost his team a touchdown by pulling a Jim Schwartz and throwing a challenge flag when he couldn't. Fortunately for him, the play apparently was buzzed for a challenge before McCarthy checked in ... or so referee Mike Carey said ... and the Packers were spared a grim lesson.

4. Philadelphia tackle King Dunlap: He knocked over an official as he was trying to get to the Giants' Antrel Rolle and got lucky -- he was penalized but not tossed. Question: What about making contact with an official don't these guys understand?

5. New York Jets owner Woody Johnson: He didn't attend his team's season finale, and, yeah, OK, so the Jets stink. There must be a better reason for stiffing your ballplayers and coaches.

Just asking but ...

Is that it for MJD in Jacksonville?

Where does Andy Reid wind up next?

How long do the Seahawks last?

How dangerous is Minnesota?

Do the Texans win a playoff game?

By the numbers

2: Consecutive 5,000-yard passing seasons by Drew Brees

3: Eli Manning TD passes in the first quarter

4: Tennessee touchdowns on returns

5: Consecutive Cleveland seasons with 11 or more losses

7: Games where Adrian Peterson ran for 150 or more yards

11: Consecutive Denver victories by seven or more points

26: Mark Sanchez turnovers this year

26: Russell Wilson TD passes, tying Peyton Manning's rookie record

278: Giants' points at home, a franchise record

3,645: Calvin Johnson receiving yards the past two seasons

My top 5

1. Denver
2. Atlanta
3. New England
4. San Francisco
5. Seattle

My bottom 5

32. Kansas City
31. Jacksonville
30. Oakland
29. Philadelphia
28. Detroit
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