NFL 2009 -- The Center No Longer Holds

Strange things are afoot at the NFL Circle K.

They began three years ago when a five seed, the Pittsburgh Steelers, won three road playoff games, four if you include the Super Bowl, en route to their title.

They accelerated when the '06 Colts became the first team ever with a scoring defense ranked outside the top 11 to win a Super Bowl.  Indy's pedestrian D finished 22nd overall and dead last in rushing defense.  But they got hot when it counted and helped their big name offensive mates get their rings.

They also showed that you didn't need to finish strong to win it all:  those Colts were 2-3 in December.

Last year another five seed, the Giants, shook off a 4-4 second half and won three road playoff games of its own, repeating the '05 Steelers feat when they knocked off New England in the Super Bowl.

Which brings us to 2009.  The parity Pete Rozelle tried to infuse into the game in the '80s with weighted schedules has been injected with the steroids of free agency.  The result is a free for all we could never have imagined even a few years ago.  Consider:

The Arizona Cardinals staggered into the playoffs at 9-7.  They lost four of five in late November and December.  The last of those four losses was an ugly 47-7 "contest" in New England, where a 78-yard TD pass to Larry Fitzgerald in garbage time was all that averted a shutout.

And yet, if the Eagles win tomorrow, the Cardinals will host the NFC Championship Game next week.

The nine-win Eagles have two wins over the Cowboys and Vikings fueling their hopes, but three weeks ago they lost 10-3 in Washington.  Many Eagles fans were ready to pull the plug on the Andy Reid/Donovan McNabb era after that game.

The Giants should be favored among the NFC remainders, since they boast a 12-4 record and home field advantage.  That edge did nothing for the Titans today, however, and New York went 1-3 in December.  Had they not rallied to beat the Panthers in overtime, they might be contemplating a five-game, season-ending skid after an 11-1 start.

On the AFC side, the Steelers have a big time, maybe all-time defense carrying a pop-gun offense, that ranked 22nd in yards and 20th in points.  The Steelers' offensive line is the weakest I can recall on a title contender.  The Steelers can't run (23rd) and they can't protect Ben Roethlisberger, who was sacked 46 times this year. He's coming off a concussion and the Chargers, who lost 11-10 to Pittsburgh in November, will no doubt try to knock him around tomorrow.

The Ravens are trying to win with the same formula.  Their defense is tired but gritty and it bailed out an offense that averaged less than two yards per rushing attempt today.  If the Ravens and Steelers meet a week from Sunday, we may need overtime before we see points.

If the Chargers and the Eagles win tomorrow, we'll see an eight-win team host the AFC title game and two nine-win teams squaring off in the NFC championship;  a 4th seed hosting a 6th in the junior conference and a 4th versus a  5th in the older one.

Given the crazy playoff results we've seen the last three years, I almost expect this to happen.

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