Of all the ways we could have seen Brett Favre(notes) go out, this is the way it shouldn't have happened. But there he was Sunday, not playing. Not doing the one thing that will ultimately be the defining memory of Favre 20 years from now: The guy was gritty and for good or bad, always memorable to watch.
Seeing him standing on the sideline during the Minnesota Vikings' 20-13 loss to the Lions in Detroit for what will be the last game of his NFL career (seriously … it's really over now), makes all of us losers this week. Because for whatever we thought of Favre, there was no denying that for nearly two decades he made the NFL better. Did he have his peccadilloes? Most definitely. I have long been critical of his ego and how he related to some teammates over the years. But history will remember his contributions to the NFL far longer than what he allegedly did with his cell phone, or what date he showed up for training camp.
Wait and see: Even in the age of an Internet search engine that never forgets, Favre's legacy will ultimately be one that is left with a positive afterglow. Decades from now, when many fans my age have grandchildren, they'll talk about all the crazy games Favre pulled out, and all the injuries he played through. We'll still use the "gunslinger" term that was beaten to death during Favre's career. After all, this is the nature of NFL fans. We like to remember what made guys special. It's the same reason my grandfather used to tell me stories about the greatness of Bobby Layne but rarely mentioned that his favorite Detroit Lion was a legendary carouser. And even in those rare times he talked about Layne's wild life off the field, even that seemed to have a comical, somewhat positive spin on it.
Twenty years from now, the one memory that will stick out most for me about Favre was the 1993 NFC wild-card playoffs. I was a 15-year-old Lions fan and Favre was a second-year starter for the Packers. With just under a minute remaining and trailing by three points, Favre rolled left, threw across his body and snapped a 40-yard bomb to Sterling Sharpe down the Pontiac Silverdome's right sideline. The Packers won 28-24, and I spent the next several years mad at Lions cornerback Kevin Scott. I also spent that time lying about how my parent's 36-inch television screen had gotten a chip in it (I threw a screwdriver at it when Sharpe caught that touchdown. Sorry mom.).
I didn't see the tape of that game again until a few years ago. Favre and then-Packers coach Mike Holmgren had a lot more hair, but Favre was the same jubilant, emotional guy. And I had to crack a smile when after that touchdown, Brent Musburger said: "Call it what you will, but this could be a defining day for Brett Favre." He was right. Every once in a while, early greatness is actually a sign of things to come.
So that's why we all lost this weekend. Because it would have been better to see Favre play against Detroit, and win or lose, run off the field in full pads rather than a knit hat and sweatshirt. Even for those of us who considered Favre an unyielding drama queen the last few seasons, we'd rather have seen him throw one more ridiculously risky shovel pass, or pound one more fastball into triple coverage. One last memory, and a real retirement walk-off that erased the last few pump fakes we've endured with the Green Bay Packers and New York Jets.
But we didn't get it. And this time, there will be no next year.
On to this week's other winners and losers …
• Atlanta Falcons
With health and momentum usually the two chief concerns of top seeds going into the playoffs, the Falcons have to be thrilled. They remained one of the healthiest playoff teams in the NFC and got a lift heading into the restful bye week after steamrolling the Panthers on Sunday. Rust shouldn't be a huge deal, since Sunday's game saw plenty of action for all the primary starters. I loved the Gatorade shower for owner Arthur Blank, too. Only Blank's players could ruin a $5,000 suit and have their owner be fine with it.
• New England Patriots' rookie class
This collection has been superb. With the regular season now over, cornerback Devin McCourty(notes) (seven interceptions) and tight end Rob Gronkowski(notes) (10 touchdown catches) are defensive and offensive rookie of the year candidates. Tight end Aaron Hernandez(notes) (45 catches and six touchdowns) is a nightmare matchup for linebackers. Meanwhile, linebacker Brandon Spikes(notes) and punter Zoltan Mesko(notes) will be good starters for years to come, and defensive ends Jermaine Cunningham(notes) and Brandon Deaderick(notes) provide solid depth on the line. This is the kind of deep draft class that makes the Patriots contenders early this decade.
• Peyton Manning(notes)
Not only did the Colts make the playoffs, but they elevated themselves to the No. 3 seed after beating the Titans. That's about the best the Indianapolis Colts could hope for after suffering a rough midseason hiccup. Manning had nine touchdowns and only two interceptions in the past four games, all victories. Manning's response to adversity is his greatest trait. As for the postseason, this looks like a tired team. I still don't count them as a Super Bowl contender.
• Detroit Lions
I couldn't remember the last time the Lions won four straight games. Turns out it was in 1999. With 2011 here and Sunday's win over the Vikings completing the four-straight feat, I'm going to dub 2001-2010 as the Lions' "Forgotten Decade." The demons of the Matt Millen era have finally been exorcised. With wins over the Buccaneers and Packers down the stretch, this franchise is ready to compete for the NFC North – starting right now.
• Joe McKnight(notes)
McKnight needed this game. With Danny Woodhead(notes) tearing it up in New England and making the New York Jets regret cutting him, the guy who essentially took Woodhead's roster spot needed to show something. And McKnight did just that in the blowout win over the Buffalo Bills, rushing for 158 yards on 32 carries and effectively spelling the entire Jets backfield. He came to training camp woefully out of shape and went through fumbling issues, but this game gives him something positive to build on this offseason. And who knows, maybe he gets a look in the playoffs, too.
• Michael Bush(notes)
He's slated to be a free agent in 2011, and he used Sunday's win over the Chiefs as a rare showcase start, finishing with 171 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown. I don't think the Raiders are interested in pulling a San Diego with Darren Sproles(notes) and applying the franchise tag on Bush with Darren McFadden(notes) being the clear starter. Bush turns 27 this summer and has done enough to get a look as a starting running back somewhere, but it's unlikely he'll land a huge deal. Look for someone who wants a power punch added to the backfield. He'd be an amazing fit alongside Jahvid Best(notes) in Detroit.
• Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Yes, the Buccaneers were eliminated from the playoff race at the last moment. But they fought hard all the way through the finale, and closed the season beating a Super Bowl contender. Beyond that, a young roster saw a lot of development this season. I have taken my fair share of shots at Raheem Morris during his tenure, but the man deserves respect. He's got Tampa Bay going in the right direction. I'm looking forward to seeing Josh Freeman(notes) with another offseason of work under his belt.
• Tom Coughlin
You can't fire a guy who goes 10-6, no matter how you feel about the season's ups and downs. So the New York Giants' win over the Redskins means everything in that respect. In fairness to Coughlin, this team could be scary if all the offensive pieces would just stay healthy over the course of a season. That unit alone should make this team a Super Bowl contender next season. But something needs to be done about Eli Manning's(notes) ball security issues. Thirty turnovers in one season is ridiculous. Particularly for a 29-year-old who should be at the top of his game.
• Baltimore Ravens
Yes, the Ravens have plenty of red flags, but a 12-4 season is hardly something to sneeze at. Coach John Harbaugh did an underrated job of balancing a team that has rarely been on the same page on both sides of the ball. Something needs to be tweaked on offense. I'm still not convinced that Anquan Boldin(notes) is healthy. His vanishing act since Week 9 has been mystifying. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has the tools to get creative in the playoffs. Now he has to use them.
• Pittsburgh Steelers
For a team that has so much offensive potential, we've been waiting for the Steelers to put it all together on offense. Sunday's 41-9 win over Cleveland was pretty darn close, although the running game wasn't dominant. That said, the Steelers might have gotten to 50 points had Ben Roethlisberger(notes) not been pulled midway in the third quarter. This team has a shot to get healthy with a playoff bye, and frankly, I think this is the only squad that can knock off New England.
• Mike McCarthy
He probably never gets the credit for coaching as well as he does. I'm not sure there was a more talented team that dealt with as many injuries this season as the Green Bay Packers. McCarthy kept the Packers focused through two Aaron Rodgers(notes) concussions, a season-ending injury to running back Ryan Grant(notes), and a defense that watched multiple key players head to injured reserve. Green Bay's gutsy wild-card clinching win over a good Bears team is a testament to McCarthy.
• Houston Texans
Arian Foster(notes) won the NFL rushing title and the Texans showed up offensively in the last game of the season. But this is more about the expected addition of Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator than anything else. Say what you want about Phillips as a head coach, but the guy is a top end coordinator. He's the biggest acquisition this team could make in an offseason.
• Jason Garrett
He's expected to be named the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, and he probably deserves the shot at this point. Not only was Dallas 5-3 under his watch, the three losses came by a combined seven points. And the defensive effort in the season finale was excellent. If this team can play defense even close to that level in 2011, this is a playoff team again. But that's a sizeable “if."
• Ryan Mathews(notes)
It was nice to see a great finale (139 yards from scrimmage, three touchdowns) from the San Diego Chargers rookie who failed to live up to lofty expectations in 2010. Granted, it was against a terrible Denver Broncos defense, but Mathews still showed a great deal of pop. His fourth-quarter touchdown, where he ran around left end and turned on a dime up the sideline, was electric.
• Bud Adams
The more I've seen of Adams these last few seasons, the more I've been convinced the Tennessee Titans owner is the most classless of the NFL's billionaire egos. Flipping the bird last season was one thing. But his handling of the Jeff Fisher/Vince Young(notes) soap opera has been ridiculous. The Christmas card featuring Adams, Young and Chris Johnson (sans Fisher) never should have gone out. It simply made the head coach look bad. And I'm certain that will be the last straw for Fisher. I'd be stunned if we see him on the Titans' sideline again after Sunday's loss to the Colts.
• Chicago Bears
Woooo. The season-ending loss to Green Bay wasn't exactly a big deal, but the way the Bears played offensively certainly was. Jay Cutler(notes) was sacked six times and under pressure all day. He made some bad decisions, too – particularly the end-zone interception thrown into double coverage. I'd have to see the footage again, but I think Cutler threw that one off-balance. I haven't seen the offense look this bad (with Cutler as the starter) since the loss to the Giants. The postseason bye week will mean a lot to this team.
• Tony Sparano
He would have helped himself if the finale against New England would have at least shown the Miami Dolphins could be competitive in a meaningless situation. Instead they folded up shop in a way that shows how far they have fallen behind a hated division rival. That's not a good sign for Sparano's job security. Neither is the fact that Chad Henne(notes) is clearly not the quarterback they should be building around.
• Eric Mangini
He's the AFC North version of Tony Sparano. His situation might have been helped if the Cleveland Browns came out and showed some teeth against Pittsburgh. Instead, they rolled over and likely guaranteed that Mangini will be out. That said, Mangini is actually in better shape going into this offseason than if he had been fired a year ago. Despite the record, Cleveland was a respectable team this season, and the defense had plenty to do with that. I'd argue Mangini actually enhanced his chance of one day being a head coach again with his team's performance this season.
• Carolina Panthers
This is what a total rebuilding situation looks like. Head coach John Fox is out and the quarterback job is essentially wide open. DeAngelo Williams(notes) will likely be gone, and you have to wonder if Carolina might dangle wideout Steve Smith for a pick or two on draft day. But take heart, Panthers fans: The Bucs were 3-13 in 2009, and they turned it around quickly with good young pieces and the right decision with their quarterback spot. The most important thing now is making sure Andrew Luck – if he enters this year's draft – is the real deal.
• Matt Cassel(notes)
He got knocked around, but Sunday's horrific performance in the blowout loss to Oakland is exactly why I have been telling those on the Cassel bandwagon to kill the MVP talk. He improved as the season went along, but he hasn't always looked as great as his numbers. And he periodically has a dog game when he faces heavy pressure. I think what Sunday tells us is that while 2010 was a nice step forward for Cassel, there is still plenty of work to do. And changing the offensive coordinator right now isn't a plus.
• New Orleans Saints
They showed us why playoff teams wring their hands about the season finale. Not only did New Orleans take one on the chin in a 23-13 loss to Tampa Bay, it lost three key players in the process: tight end Jimmy Graham(notes), safety Malcolm Jenkins(notes) and running back Chris Ivory. The defense can't afford to lose starters. And even with a healthy Reggie Bush(notes), the loss of Ivory would be tough. He added a power element that made a difference this season, and you can't just assume Pierre Thomas(notes) can step in and fill that void. Graham has been a great mismatch in the red zone, too. Atlanta went into the postseason on a perfect note; this is the other end of the spectrum.
• Marvin Lewis
It ended about as badly as it could for Lewis: A 4-12 record, a team that was schematically out of whack all season, and a mini spat with Chad Ochocinco(notes). I won't blame Lewis totally for what happened in Cincinnati. The franchise needs a legitimate general manger, plain and simple. I hope the talk about the University of Pittsburgh being interested in Lewis is legitimate. And if it was smart, Penn State would hire Lewis – a Pennsylvania native – as a defensive coordinator, with an eye toward him being Joe Paterno's successor in 2012. I love Paterno, but he will never step aside voluntarily at Penn State.
• Washington Redskins
Forget the 6-10 record. I'm just going to say it one more time: This team is going down the wrong road if Rex Grossman(notes) is the starting quarterback. And I have no reason to believe that won't be the case in 2011. You can just see where Mike and Kyle Shanahan are going with this one: Grossman averaging almost 40 passes a game next season, and Redskins fans coming to learn the joy of a guy who throws off his back foot. I'm fine with Donovan McNabb(notes) not being the guy. But Grossman, who will turn 31 in August, is nothing but mechanical trouble over the course of a 16-game season.
• Andy Reid
Talk about killed momentum. The two losses to end the season really put a damper on all the hype surrounding the Eagles. But I think it's worse that there are now reports that Reid would bench Michael Vick(notes) in the playoffs if he's having trouble recognizing the blitz. I can't imagine where that came from, but if it was leaked by someone on the coaching staff, Reid should fire someone. That is absolutely not the kind of thing you want on Vick's mind heading into the postseason.
(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)
Loved: The amazing speed of Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace(notes). He roasted speedy Browns cornerback Joe Haden(notes) on a 56-yard touchdown, then showed speed and elusiveness on a 41-yard gain later in the first quarter. At the start of this season, it was hard to believe Wallace could fill the void left by former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes(notes). Not only did he fill it, he has arguably been an upgrade over Holmes.
Loathed: The dropped interception by Raiders linebacker Quentin Groves(notes) in the first quarter against Kansas City. Groves' stone hands negated a perfect defensive play that should have resulted in an easy 90-yard interception return for an Oakland touchdown. Instead, it ultimately allowed the Chiefs to kick a field goal.
Loved: The patience and smarts shown by Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan(notes) on his 6-yard touchdown pass to Tony Gonzalez(notes) in the first quarter against Carolina. Ryan scrambled to his left and toward the line of scrimmage, luring linebackers out of coverage and opening a pocket of space for Gonzalez. It was a Pro Bowl play.
Loathed: The one-handed catch attempt by Browns tight end Ben Watson that landed in the arms of Steelers safety Troy Polamalu(notes). The pick will go into quarterback Colt McCoy's(notes) stats, but it was all Watson, who tipped the ball into the air twice, allowing Polamalu to make the play.
Loved: Baltimore's stunning designed tight end screen off a flea flicker in the first quarter. Escorted by lead blocker Michael Oher(notes), the superb misdirection resulted in a wide-open field for Todd Heap(notes), who went 37 yards and set up an eventual field goal. Tip of the cap on this clever play.
Loathed: Seeing the Falcons go for it (unsuccessfully) on a pair of fourth-down plays while leading Carolina 14-0 in the second quarter. The Falcons could have taken field goals and a 20-0 lead. Not sure why you don't play it safe with the No. 1 seed on the line.
Loved: Drew Brees'(notes) amazing first-quarter dump off through traffic to Reggie Bush that went for a 19-yard gain. I can't believe Brees snuck the pass through the middle of the defensive line – at shoulder level – and past Bucs defensive end Stylez G White(notes). It was like a Magic Johnson touch pass.
Loathed: Watching Buffalo's Brian Brohm(notes) struggle against the Jets' second-string secondary. Every time I watch Brohm, I scratch my head over how he was once considered a potential No. 1 pick in the NFL draft during his college career. It shows you why pre-draft work is so important to scouts who are sorting out quarterbacks.
Loved: The spectacular 2-yard fade route touchdown from Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman to wideout Dezmon Briscoe(notes). Not only did Freeman throw the perfect fade, Briscoe somehow worked behind extremely tight coverage to catch the pass and keep his feet in.
Loathed: Seeing Rashard Mendenhall(notes) step out of bounds about three yards before he would have been touched by a Browns defensive back on a dump off and 24-yard run early in the second quarter. You have to give Mendenhall a mulligan, since he has shown the ability to be a physically punishing back. But stepping out of bounds to avoid a defensive back was un-Steelerlike.
- Mike Holmgren