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Packers, Falcons reflect before moving forward

Packers, Falcons reflect before moving forward
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The Packers' reward for pounding Eagles QB Kevin Kolb in Week 1? Facing Michael Vick in the playoffs

Charles Woodson(notes) had just helped push the Green Bay Packers into the postseason, sending them headlong into a confrontation with a monster they helped create. He couldn't help but laugh at the surreal symmetry of it all.

As any Cheesehead can attest, if the reigning NFL defensive player of the year and his teammates could hop onto a Frozen Tundra Time Machine and replay their first game of the 2010 season, they'd surely show a little brotherly love toward Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb(notes).

Knowing what they know now, would the Packers have been so insistent on forcing Kolb to spend some quality time with the Lincoln Financial Field turf?

"Oh, absolutely not," Woodson said Sunday evening, a couple of hours after the Pack's 10-3 victory over the Chicago Bears on the final Sunday of an eventful and surprise-filled regular season. "We'd have told players to just grab him around the ankles and let him down gently. Because, I mean, now we have to deal with him."

Yes, Michael Vick(notes) and the Eagles will be waiting for the Pack next Sunday in the first playoff weekend's marquee matchup at The Linc, the stadium where Green Bay's postseason push began about 100 years ago. Or so it seemed – after all, as we were reminded on Sunday, four months is a long time in a league in which breathless reassessments of a team's relative worth take place on an immediate and constant basis.

"Oh, man, so much has changed since then," Woodson said, flashing back to the Pack's 27-20 victory over the Eagles on the second Sunday of September. "Thinking back to that first game, it was a new era in Philly, with Donovan [McNabb] gone and Kolb at quarterback. Then we knock him out, Vick comes in and leads a comeback and ends up tearing up the league. Sixteen weeks later, all of a sudden, it's Vick's team.

"Believe me, we know what we'll be facing."

As the NFC's final playoff qualifier and No. 6 seed, Woodson and his teammates aren't in position to complain about their rigorous path to a potential championship. A trendy preseason Super Bowl pick, the Packers (10-6) survived a slew of injuries and frustrating defeats to secure a wild-card berth for the second consecutive season. On Sunday they won a hard-fought battle at Lambeau Field against the Bears, who despite having already clinched the NFC North and a first-round bye went all-out against their rivals.

For the most part, we got what we expected on Sunday:

The Pack's victory ended the postseason hopes of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who'd scored a 23-13 road upset of the New Orleans Saints, and the New York Giants, whose 17-14 triumph over the Washington Redskins was rendered moot by the previous Sunday's blowout defeat to the Packers at Lambeau.

The other two open spots in the 12-team postseason field were filled by the Indianapolis Colts, who eked out a 23-20 victory over the Tennessee Titans to move past Kansas City for the AFC's third overall seed (though with the Jacksonville Jaguars' 34-17 defeat to the Houston Texans, the Colts would've been in as AFC South champs anyway); and the Seattle Seahawks, who beat the St. Louis Rams 16-6 Sunday night to win the NFC West and become the first under-.500 team to reach the playoffs in a non-strike season. The Seahawks' victory was technically an upset, but they were playing at home against another team with a losing record.

Most intriguing was the competition playing out in each conference for the remaining first-round byes, with the Saints and Baltimore Ravens hoping the Atlanta Falcons and Pittsburgh Steelers, respectively, would slip up and allow them to steal division titles. The Falcons and Steelers, however, were in foot-on-throat mode and ended all suspense early, with Atlanta punishing the pathetic Carolina Panthers 31-10 to earn the NFC's No. 1 seed and Pittsburgh crushing the Cleveland Browns 41-9 to lock up the No. 2 seed in the AFC.

Like the Packers and Eagles, the Falcons and Steelers traveled to the playoffs from a common origin. Back on Sept. 13 at Heinz Field, when Pittsburgh pulled out a 15-9 victory on Rashard Mendenhall's(notes) 50-yard touchdown run in overtime, neither the victors nor the losers understood how good they were or what it all meant. As Falcons coach Mike Smith said on Sunday, "it seemed like it was five years ago" – and among other things it showed that Pittsburgh could prosper without Ben Roethlisberger(notes) in the lineup.

"I knew we'd be OK because we didn't make the playoffs last year," Steelers receiver Hines Ward(notes) recalled Sunday afternoon, citing his team's desperate push to return to elite status. "I didn't think [the Falcons] would be good."

As the Falcons flew home to Atlanta, they weren't sure about their place in the league's pecking order, either. After a breakthrough season in '08 in which first-year coach Smith and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan(notes) led them to the playoffs, the Falcons had sputtered to a disappointing 9-7 record in '09, but they headed into the current campaign brimming with confidence. With untested Dennis Dixon(notes) starting at quarterback for the Steelers as Roethlisberger began his four-game suspension, the opener at Heinz seemed to be a prime opportunity for Atlanta to flex.

"Our expectations were quite big going into the season, and it was one of those games that was like a right cross to the face," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff remembered as he drove home from the Georgia Dome on Sunday. "We flew home saying, 'OK, let's regroup. We have to be able to clean some things up if we're going to have a chance to be who we want to be.' That sounds odd that we felt that way at the beginning of the season, but it was a reality check for us. It wasn't just a jab – it was a serious shot."

Smith's team lost just twice more in 2010, to the playoff-bound Eagles and Saints, and went into Sunday's game against the Panthers determined to deliver an early knockout punch against the league-worst Panthers. Atlanta jumped out to a 14-0 lead, and Smith twice blew off field-goal attempts to try fourth-down plays (both were unsuccessful), clearly wanting to disabuse Carolina of any notion of being able to compete. Ryan's 14-yard touchdown pass to star wideout Roddy White(notes) in the final minute of the first half effectively sealed the deal.

The highlight of the second half came when White and halfback Michael Turner(notes) snuck up behind owner Arthur Blank on the sidelines in the game's waning moments and dumped a bucket of Gatorade all over his stylish gray suit.

It's one thing to soak the coach, but the man who signs the paychecks? Gutsy move.

"We're having fun," White said Sunday night. "His wife said it was OK."

Upon further review: Getting Mrs. Blank's pre-bath blessing was a brilliant move.

"I'm sure Arthur, as much as that's a very, very expensive thread count, was very happy about having the suit cleaned in a way other than dry-cleaning," Dimitroff said. "I'm very, very happy for our owner, and the fact that he can truly put the tumultuous 2007 season aside and, in the city and amid his owner brethren, feel very proud of what the organization has accomplished under his guidance."

Translation: The price of a new suit is nothing compared to the priceless purging of the Bobby Petrino era from the psyche.

Of course, there's still so much of the current picture that we can't see – and if you don't believe me, ask the 2007 Giants, '08 Cardinals or last year's Jets what a postseason can do to for a team's perception.

That's why Woodson, as he prepares to face a transcendent offensive force of his team's own making, isn't daunted by Vick or the Pack's draw as a return trip to Philly approaches.

"We just feel good about our team," Woodson said. "Through all of the situations, injuries and adversity, we've just continued to fight and get wins and play good football. We feel like we've had two playoff games the past two weeks, and we're excited about what lies ahead.

"We know it doesn't matter how you get in, as long as you get in. We did what we needed to do today to secure our spot. Now it's on."

Bring on the monster.

THE HIGH FIVE …

In an effort to reduce the prospect of playoff qualifiers tanking their final games – and in the wake of a quirky 2009 season which saw three Week 17 clashes involving opponents already slotted to meet one another in first-round playoff rematches the following weekend – the NFL made a point of scheduling 16 intra-division games on Sunday. It's still not a perfect system, but early results were promising. "I think the fans loved this game [Sunday] – ending the season with the league's longest-standing rivalry, with the Bears already in the playoffs and us having to play our way in," Woodson said. "We knew they would play hard, and that's what the fans want to see. I agree with the new system. That's one thumbs-up for the league – this was thought-out perfectly."

You'd think after losing wideout Wes Welker(notes) to a torn ACL in last year's non-crucial season finale, Patriots coach Bill Belichick, whose team had already wrapped up the top seed in the AFC, might have approached Sunday's game against the Dolphins a tad conservatively. While he did rest Welker, Belichick played Tom Brady(notes) into the third quarter – for the second consecutive year, he brought his star QB back into the game after initially replacing him with backup Brian Hoyer(notes). He got away with it, though, and Brady, who'll almost certainly win his second MVP award later this week, completed a remarkable season in which he threw 36 touchdowns against just four interceptions and didn't throw a pick in his last 335 attempts, an ongoing NFL record. The Pats (14-2) rolled over Miami 38-7 to close the season with eight consecutive victories. So, is New England the team to beat in the playoffs? Duh.

One of my favorite plays on Sunday came when the Bucs' Josh Freeman(notes), on fourth-and-1 from the Saints' 18-yard line late in the third quarter, faked a quarterback sneak, dropped way back in the pocket and, off his back foot, threw up a high pass for Mike Williams that the rookie wideout caught in the end zone over the outstretched arms of cornerback Jabari Greer(notes), giving Tampa Bay a 10-point lead. Though the Bucs (10-6) didn't get into the playoffs, they completed a remarkable seven-game improvement in coach Raheem Morris' second year and finally got their signature victory – the Saints were the only team they beat that finished with a winning record. Most important, they have a skilled, clutch and bold quarterback who looks capable of doing great things for the next decade, or longer. In a division that includes Drew Brees(notes) and Matt Ryan, and with Andrew Luck possibly on the way to No. 1-pick-holding Carolina (sources say the quarterback is leaning toward staying at Stanford for another season, but that could change in a hurry if coach Jim Harbaugh leaves for Michigan or an NFL job following Monday's Orange Bowl), that's an enticing prospect.

I can already tell you one team that will be a trendy preseason playoff pick for 2011: the Detroit Lions. With their trio of prolific offensive weapons (oft-injured quarterback Matthew Stafford(notes), halfback Jahvid Best(notes) and wideout Calvin Johnson(notes)) and strong 2010 finish, they'll drive prognosticators wild next summer. In truth, players and coaches around the league were high on the Lions from the start of the recently completed campaign, but Detroit's progress under second-year coach Jim Schwartz was obscured by a 2-10 start. On Sunday, the Lions beat the Vikings 20-13 to complete a season-ending, four-game winning streak that included victories over the Packers and the Bucs (the one Morris' team will bemoan all offseason). So go ahead and jump on the Lions for 2011; you won't be alone. "I hope it's the right pick," quarterback Shaun Hill(notes) said Sunday evening after throwing for 258 yards against the Vikes. "We're on the right track."

After his stirring 2009 season that nearly ended with a Super Bowl appearance, Brett Favre's(notes) second year with the Vikings was set up for potential disaster – and things couldn't have played out much more miserably. Sidelined for a concussion for what he insists will be the final game of his 20-year career, it seemed appropriate that Favre, at game's end on Sunday, raced off the Minnesota sideline and into the Ford Field tunnel at warp speed – it was the fastest I've seen him move since he left Green Bay. For all the drama and trauma that came with his 2010 campaign, I'm going to look back on his career very fondly, having been privileged to cover so many of the stirring moments he provided. As for the Vikings, they face an uncertain future in so many ways – they have stadium issues that could lead to a move to Los Angeles; unrestricted free agency looms for many of their key players, including wideout Sidney Rice(notes), defensive end Ray Edwards(notes), defensive tackle Pat Williams(notes) and linebackers Ben Leber(notes) and Chad Greenway(notes); oh, and that lockout thing. On a positive note, there are numerous reports that owner Zygi Wilf has decided to retain interim coach Leslie Frazier, a potential star in the profession who has impressed his superiors with a calm yet forceful leadership style since replacing Brad Childress in late November.

TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND

1. How awesome it is that Transitions XtrActive Lenses exist, and that I now have a pair in my possession. The background: Before visiting Arizona in early October, I complained that my new Transitions lenses didn't get dark enough in the bright sunshine and didn't work through windshields, making them a non-factor in the car. Shortly thereafter, I was contacted by some very cool people affiliated with the company who were confident that the XtrActive Lenses would solve my problem and hooked me up with a pair to prove it (while resisting the temptation to view me as a shameless groveler, which I swear I wasn't – at least not on a conscious level). Lightly tinted when you're inside or it's dark out and sufficiently shaded in the California sunshine, the XtrActives are my new go-to glasses, and I'll be rocking them throughout the playoffs and Super Bowl. Though they activate slightly in the car, I'll still probably carry a pair of traditional shades for driving purposes – I'm a little extreme that way – at least until they invent some glasses that tint under those conditions, too. Wait, there I go again … kindly forget that last part!

2. Why Baltimore is heading into the playoffs with a Fox News mentality on offense: You know, ultra-conservative, and turning "fair and balanced" into an ironic battle cry. The Ravens (12-4) held on for a 13-7 victory over the Bengals and, as the No. 5 seed in the AFC, open the playoffs next Sunday against the AFC West champion Chiefs in Kansas City. They've won four consecutive games, but they don't seem to have legitimate momentum, and the notion of them winning four more games to secure a second Super Bowl championship seems dubious even to some of the people in their locker room. "Only if the offense plays well," one Baltimore player told me Sunday. "Every week we play to the level of our opponent." Another Ravens player said he was mystified by the team's unwillingness to "air it out," saying, "If not, we're one and done." The player noted that the Bengals' Jerome Simpson(notes), a newly installed starter in the wake of injuries to Chad Ochocinco(notes) and Terrell Owens(notes), "had twice as many targets and catches than all of our wide receivers combined." He's almost right: Targeted 14 times, Simpson caught 12 passes for 133 yards and a touchdown; Derrick Mason(notes), Anquan Boldin(notes) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh(notes) were thrown to a collective nine times and caught seven balls for 60 yards and zero TDs. Having witnessed the Ravens' impressive 30-24 victory over the Saints two weeks ago, I'm still convinced they're capable of competing with anyone. Yet if they want to win a championship, I believe coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will have to be bolder than they were on Sunday.

OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN

During a long conversation with Steven Jackson on Friday, the Rams' Pro Bowl halfback told me how excited he was to play in what would be the most meaningful game since his sole postseason appearance as a rookie in 2004 – and to play at Seattle's Qwest Field, period. "It's actually my favorite stadium," he said. "Each and every year, I look forward to that game, and this one will be my 100th career start. It's a great atmosphere, and people always come up from Corvallis, [Ore.], where I went to college. It doesn't take Sunday Night Football, or even a division title on the line, to get me jacked up for this game." After watching the Rams underutilize their best player in the game that ended their season, I'm the one who's jacked up, and not in a good way.

Jackson carried 11 times for 45 yards and gained 39 more on four receptions, and it's ridiculous that St. Louis coach Steve Spagnuolo didn't lean on him more. Instead, Spagnuolo put his team's offensive fate in the hand of rookie quarterback Sam Bradford(notes), who completed 19 of 36 passes for 155 yards and threw an interception. I know Bradford has done some nice things this season, and he may become a star in future years, but it would have made a whole lot more sense to try to pound the Seahawks – who have struggled to defend the run this season – on the ground with the physical, relentless Jackson. As one Seattle player told me afterward, "Yeah, they're trippin', not feeding that guy." Meanwhile, the Seahawks fought through their recent difficulties running the ball by allowing the tandem of Marshawn Lynch(notes) (20 carries, 75 yards) and Justin Forsett(notes) (three carries, 28 yards; three receptions, 22 yards) to play an expanded role, thus taking some pressure off of fill-in quarterback Charlie Whitehurst(notes). Jackson, to his credit, stuck it out through the Rams' protracted run of ineptitude that included a 1-15 season in 2009 and can hopefully be a major part of a team that appears poised to continue its improvement curve next season. I hope that if the Rams find themselves in a similar position in 2011 that Spagnuolo finds a way to get him more than 15 touches – and I hope Jackson gets so much action in the Pro Bowl that he's a slam-dunk MVP choice.

TEXT/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK

"Woo hooo!"
– Text Friday morning from Julie Foudy, referencing Stanford's streak-breaking women's basketball victory over Connecticut. (Yes, I have a few friends who attended the Bay Area's second-most academically challenging university, and we coexist despite our differences. To be fair, it helps when you are one of the greatest soccer players in U.S. history, and hilarious, and awesome in every way.)

"It's crazy how things change but I'm glad it did."
– Text Sunday evening from Patriots receiver Deion Branch(notes), who began the season with the Seahawks before getting traded back to New England.

"Yea it's been a long season for all of us! Def 1 for the books. Issues that might happen once a year for teams were on our plate every week"
– Text Sunday night from Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe(notes).

"Whatta ya know!!!"
– Text Sunday night from Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupu(notes) after Seattle won the NFC West by beating the Rams.