The New England Patriots are unbeaten but not necessarily invincible. The New York Giants almost knocked them off Saturday night with nothing more on the line than pride.
The Dallas Cowboys have home-field advantage in the NFC but trudged through December with a suspect 2-2 record. With or without Terrell Owens, they haven't looked like a Super Bowl team for a month.
Against that backdrop, the NFL playoffs are about to begin. There are six new teams in the 12-team field, continuing a trend that speaks to parity and a weighted schedule that favors fourth-place teams. Of the 60 playoff berths available over the past five years, 33 have been claimed by teams that failed to reach the postseason the previous year.
This January, three 2006 division champs will be sitting home - the Ravens, Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints.
On the flip side, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a fourth-place team at 4-12 a year ago, captured the NFC South title this season. The Washington Redskins, another last-place team in 2006, storm into this playoff field with four straight wins.
It is still New England's Super Bowl to lose - there's no denying the dynasty - but the Patriots are no longer a lock to roll to their fourth championship of the Bill Belichick era. They will still have to beat the Indianapolis Colts and perhaps the streaking Jacksonville Jaguars to reach Glendale, Ariz., for the Super Bowl. After giving up 35 points to Eli Manning and the Giants, a New England loss is not such a ridiculous prospect.
Wild-card weekend, meanwhile, will feature two tantalizing matchups. The Jaguars go back to Pittsburgh three weeks after they whipped the Steelers at their own cold-weather game there, 29-22. This game will be played Saturday night at 8:30.
It looked almost like the Steelers embraced that return visit yesterday when they sat Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu and Marvel Smith in a loss to the Ravens that eliminated any chance of gaining the third seed in the AFC.
The other intriguing wild-card game sends the 9-7 Redskins to Seattle to face the Seahawks at 4:30 p.m. Saturday. Washington manhandled the Cowboys yesterday in a 27-6 rout to earn the NFC's sixth seed. Since the shooting death of safety Sean Taylor, the Redskins have played at a new level, and not even the switch from injured Jason Campbell to journeyman Todd Collins at quarterback has diminished that intensity.
At first glance, the Jaguars and Redskins appear to be two of the toughest teams - and therefore worst draws - in the postseason. New England and Dallas are forewarned.
Around the league
Yesterday's win notwithstanding, the Ravens suffered the biggest drop-off from last season, falling from 13 wins to five. The Bears and New York Jets were next with six fewer wins this season. The Cleveland Browns made the biggest jump, going from four wins to 10.
Following protocol, there were a number of playoff teams choosing to rest gimpy regulars this week, turning the schedule into a series of exhibitions. The Green Bay Packers sat seven starters but still thumped the Detroit Lions, who tanked a 34-13 decision in Wisconsin. Tampa Bay held out Jeff Garcia, Joey Galloway and Earnest Graham and lost for the second straight week. The Jaguars held out David Garrard, Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew and lost to the Houston Texans. Then the Seahawks were shredded by the Atlanta Falcons while resting several regulars.
Breaking that trend, however, were the Giants in a meaningless - for them - finale against the Patriots. The Giants held a 12-point second half lead and had the Patriots on the ropes before Tom Brady authored another comeback. The Giants visit the fresh Bucs on Sunday in an NFC wild-card game, but it wouldn't be surprising if New York won.
The 1-15 Miami Dolphins didn't help coach Cam Cameron's case for coming back next season under new team czar Bill Parcells with a dreary 38-25 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. Parcells figures to clean house, and Cameron will be fortunate to remain.
Former Ravens draft pick Chris Redman may have reclaimed a career in the NFL when he led the Atlanta Falcons to a 44-41 win over Seattle, throwing for four touchdowns and 251 yards. It was largely against second-line players, but Redman has shown he deserves to be on an NFL roster.
On a day when Chicago whirlwind Devin Hester returned another punt for a 64-yard touchdown (in addition to a 55-yard scoring reception), Houston's Andre Davis had two kickoff-return touchdowns of 97 and 104 yards. And in Cleveland's 20-7 win over the San Francisco 49ers, Joshua Cribbs nearly pulled a deuce himself. He took one kickoff back 76 yards for a touchdown, then lost a 94-yarder to a questionable holding penalty. Special teams have been huge this season, and that trend could continue in the playoffs.