They couldn't come back next season. But nobody said they couldn't extend this one.
Maybe that was the fine print under the volumes of text written on the Nov. 23 demise of Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid. Both the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback and head coach were written off after a 36-7 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on that date, including some words of disdain from yours truly ("Mark it down," I wrote. "Five games are left in Philadelphia's season and McNabb's time in an Eagles uniform.").
Make that five games, plus one – at least. And perhaps all of 2009, too.
A little over one month ago, I couldn't fathom McNabb and the Eagles recovering from what was one of the most crushing losses of his career. He had turned the ball over three times and was benched after only one half against a Baltimore team that, in hindsight, was far better than most thought at the time. But we couldn't see it then. The city of Philadelphia and much of the media – both local and national – wasted no time turning on McNabb and Reid.
What we couldn't see at the time was an offense and defense that were going to get healthier in the regular season's waning weeks, or a quarterback who was capable of turning the NFC's elite teams and their seasons inside-out. But that's precisely what McNabb and the Eagles did, burying the Arizona Cardinals and Cleveland Browns and tripping the New York Giants.
But nothing seemed a more appropriate completion to the run than what happened Sunday, when Philadelphia vaporized a Dallas Cowboys team that began the season as a prohibitive Super Bowl favorite. Instead, the Eagles and Cowboys left Sunday going in opposite directions. McNabb finished the regular season dancing and Reid finished it applauding. All while the Cowboys were whipped 44-6 and yanked off the playoff stage by a giant question mark curled around their collective throats.
Five weeks can change everything. Just when we thought the curtain was coming down on McNabb and Reid, they're back on the postseason marquee. And this time, the critics will have to wait to see how the end plays out, lest we all miss the mark all over again.
Here are some of Sunday's other winners and losers …
• The Carolina Panthers
For a minute there, I thought they were going to blow that No. 2 seed with a fourth-quarter disaster, but they showed some heart in that winning drive against the New Orleans Saints. With his seventh 100-yard rushing performance in his last nine games, DeAngelo Williams might be the most dangerous player in the NFL going into the playoffs.
• Teams pursuing New England Patriots personnel man Scott Pioli
Had the Patriots gotten into the playoffs, it's highly unlikely the team would have allowed Pioli to talk to other franchises, as it did with Thomas Dimitroff and the Atlanta Falcons last season. With New England out, Pioli and the Patriots can go about their business in regular offseason fashion. For continuity's sake, it was the best thing that could happen for Pioli and suitors.
• The New York Giants running game
Two 1,000-yard rushers – Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward – is a huge feather in the cap of the offensive line. It's the first time that has happened since 1985, when Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner pulled it off with the Cleveland Browns. Make no mistake, the running game will be the difference if the Giants win their second straight Super Bowl.
• The Minnesota Vikings
Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson pulled it all together in the fourth quarter and the Vikings get their playoff berth. Owner Zygi Wilf proceeded to look like a total goof while he celebrated on the sideline. There's a lot to like about the Vikings, but the win puts them back into a state of quarterback paralysis. If Jackson plays well in the postseason, how can the Vikings not look at him as their rock-solid starter for 2009?
• Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jim Sorgi
He's a Week 17 warrior. In four Week 17 games in relief of Peyton Manning, Sorgi has completed 63 percent of his passes for 621 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. Now he goes back into mothballs until next December.
• The Atlanta Falcons
When the season started, I didn't think they'd have 11 wins in 2008 and 2009 combined. General manager Dimitroff should be the executive of the year; Mike Smith should be the coach of the year; running back Michael Turner should get MVP votes; and quarterback Matt Ryan should be the NFL's offensive rookie of the year.
• Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson
Forget the records. Brett Favre and the New York Jets are in the same place as his Packers – sitting at home for the postseason. Thompson would have been raked over the coals all offseason had Favre gone on to any level of playoff success. But Favre's three-interception finale and December collapse deliver a get out of jail free card for Thompson. And he gets a third-round pick from the Jets to boot.
• New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees
He fell short of Dan Marino's single-season record for passing yards but came closer to the mark than anyone in NFL history. Next to Reggie White, this guy has got to be the best free-agent signing in NFL history.
• The Houston Texans' future
Three years ago, this franchise was in shambles. Now the offensive playmakers are there to be competitive with anyone in the brutal AFC South. If this franchise isn't very active in free agency with some of the good defensive talent that will be available, it will be a big disappointment. An above average defensive end across from Mario Williams and solid additions at cornerback and safety could open the Super Bowl window next season.
• Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning
He didn't do anything to hurt his MVP candidacy in the finale, throwing one touchdown in a quarter of work. While Minnesota's Adrian Peterson had a solid final game, he also fumbled again on the Vikings' opening drive. It was recovered by a teammate, but Peterson had too many miscues down the stretch. Manning has done everything needed to take home the MVP trophy again.
• San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary
He coached the team with abandon and has earned the right to retain the job. Winning the finale over a Washington Redskins team that wanted to end on a winning note was another impressive notch in Singletary's belt. If offensive coordinator Mike Martz leaves, it will be very interesting to see how the roster is shaped in the coming months.
• St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson
He went over 1,000 yards for the fourth straight season, despite missing four games. That's the one bright spot this season. But with Jackson turning 26 this offseason, the time to make hay starts next year. He takes a lot of hits, and you can guarantee he's going to be one of those running backs who drops like a rock on the other side of 30.
• Cincinnati Bengals running back Cedric Benson
He was out of the league until Week 5, and now he's resurrected his career over the last 12 games. If he was in an offense with a top-notch fullback, I think he could be a solid 1,000-yard rusher with a carry average in the 4.4-yard range.
• Detroit Lions wideout Calvin Johnson
The guy had an amazing season considering his quarterback situation: 1,331 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. His 17 receptions of 25 yards or more led the entire league. He's everything Detroit thought he would be when he was taken No. 2 overall in 2007.
• Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers
His numbers were fantastic: 4,038 passing yards and 28 touchdown passes. When everyone said he had an impossible act to follow, Rodgers went out and did it with absolute aplomb. Give him another strong defensive end on the other side of the ball, and the Packers will see how he handles playoff pressure, too.
• The Oakland Raiders
They are proof that you can't predict the NFL. The go all the way across the country and beat a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that had to win to make it into the playoffs. And they run the football down the Buccaneers' throat to accomplish it. And how about Michael Bush? For all the talk about Darren McFadden, Bush was nearly as impressive in limited time this season.
• The Baltimore Ravens
If the Falcons didn't exist, Baltimore would be racking up postseason awards and ranking as possibly this season's best story. Like the Falcons, there is a boatload of redemption on this team. But none is bigger than what offensive coordinator Cam Cameron did. And it doesn't hurt that some of Cameron's pieces from his lost season in Miami have panned out, too.
• Miami Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington
He has shown class by downplaying it, but nothing is sweeter than revenge – and Pennington got plenty Sunday. Sure, the Jets weren't going to make it to the postseason, but seeing Pennington ride into the playoffs over the carcass of his former team was an amazing twist on the preseason Favre/Pennington saga.
A look at various statistics for the NFL's only winless teams, the 1976 Buccaneers (0-14) and the 2008 Detroit Lions (0-16):
Margin of victory
Points per game
Opponents' points per game
Offensive yds. per game
Defensive yds. allowed per game
• The Detroit Lions
Perfect in reverse: 0-16. There isn't much left to say. This is what it would have been like to watch the Titanic sink … if it had simultaneously collided with the Hindenburg.
• The Cowboys
They were slaughtered by Philadelphia in their finale, when all they needed to do was win to get into the playoffs. If there was anything that could make owner Jerry Jones think twice about his coaching staff, it's this kind of performance with the postseason there for the taking. Changes need to be made – somewhere. Maybe it's time to move on from the Terrell Owens marriage. He contributed almost nothing positive to this team in the last month of the season.
• The New York Jets and coach Eric Mangini
They were iced out of the playoffs before their loss to Miami even finished, but the Jets didn't do much to inspire confidence. Depending on Favre's future, this team is on the verge of salary-cap issues. At this stage, the best bet is that only one or the other is back next season – Mangini or Favre. I can't see the Jets doing this all over again with the exact same formula. And they couldn't afford it anyway.
It's rare that you see a network undercut itself on a big news story, but NBC managed to do it. First NBCsports.com reported that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was far behind in his rehab and that the 2009 season could be in jeopardy. Then NBC reported on its pregame coverage of the San Diego Chargers/Denver Broncos game that sources close to Brady refuted the earlier report, and that the quarterback was actually ahead of schedule in his rehab.
• The Patriots
Winning 11 games and missing the playoffs is maddening, especially for a team that has some pretty big decisions in front of it, including the futures of quarterback Matt Cassel, linebacker Tedy Bruschi and safety Rodney Harrison. All that hard work and success, and there's almost nothing to show for it.
• Cowher hunt 2009
Former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher reiterated that he's not going to coach next season, shrinking the pool of "elite" coaching candidates to zero. Unless, of course, Bill Parcells opts out of his gig in Miami, which he could do with owner Wayne Huizenga selling the majority of his ownership to Stephen Ross. But that pursuit could be complicated if the sale drags on, since Parcells' contract wouldn't allow him to opt out until a sale is completed. It's extremely unlikely he'd return to coaching, but who knows with Parcells.
• Former Browns general manager Phil Savage
Savage was given a three-year contract extension last May that would have taken him through 2012. Instead, he was fired Sunday in a sweep that will eventually include coach Romeo Crennel. Hired nearly four years ago as a rising personnel star from the Baltimore Ravens with a big reputation, Savage never solved his quarterback spot, never loaded the defense up with enough talent and picked an ineffective coach in Crennel. Don't be surprised if he finds his way back to Baltimore.
• The Browns
They suffered the first back-to-back shutout losses in their history and pretty much looked like something from the Butch Davis era. There is still plenty of talent to work with, but this franchise needs an Atlanta-esque attitude change.
• The Pittsburgh Steelers
They may have won their finale, but losing Ben Roethlisberger to a scary concussion could have a long-term impact. Not just on the playoff picture but potentially the future of the offense. This might be the alarm that moves the Steelers away from offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' spread scheme.
• Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Cadillac Williams
It was heartbreaking to see Williams suffer what appeared to be another devastating knee injury. All the guy did was come back this year after suffering a blown knee last season that many thought would end his career. If he comes back next year – and that is a huge if – it's going to be the longest, most excruciating offseason of his life.
• The Kansas City Chiefs
Not only did they look like they quit in their finale, running back Larry Johnson expressed his desire to be traded afterward. Johnson may have been right on when he told reporters, "The city is tired of me, and the organization and I have run our course together." Imagine L.J. in a Patriots uniform.
• The Chicago Bears
With the last wild-card spot a possibility even after the Vikings' victory, the defense continued to look like it needs some changes. You can't complain about the secondary play in the finale when you end every season with Mike Brown on injured reserve. Another top-notch starting cornerback and a legitimate pass rusher at defensive end would make a world of defense. Those aren't too hard to come by in the NFL, are they?
• The No. 1 seeds
So much for going into the postseason with momentum. The backups for the New York Giants and Tennessee Titans couldn't get a win in the finales, but it doesn't seem all that worrisome for these franchises. Both are veteran-laden and should come out strong after their first-round bye. Ultimately, what happened Sunday won't matter.
• Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Is it me, or did this defense just cash it in when the rumors surfaced about coordinator Monte Kiffin leaving for the University of Tennessee? The four-game losing streak and getting booted out of the playoff picture by his former franchise has to rank as one of the biggest disappointments in the career of Bucs coach Jon Gruden.
– Lions quarterback Dan Orlovsky on the franchise finishing the season an NFL-record worst 0-16.
The number of losses the Lions would have to begin 2009 with to equal the 26 straight losses by the 1976-77 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)
Loved: The 60 mph winds in Buffalo. It makes me root against a potential move to Toronto. The NFL needs stadiums that are feared late in a season. The pregame footage on CBS, with one of the goal posts whipped to almost a 90-degree angle, was excellent – as was one of color man Dan Dierdorf's lines: "The Bills could have used one of those leaning goal posts back in  in the Super Bowl."
Loathed: Seeing yet another Adrian Peterson fumble that nearly killed Minnesota's first scoring drive against the New York Giants. His electric 67-yard touchdown run aside, you can bet his lack of ball security is near the top of every defensive scouting report on Peterson.
Loved: Colts running back Najeh Davenport's one-handed catch and run against Tennessee. Cut multiple times by Pittsburgh before catching on with Indianapolis, I just can't figure out why he doesn't have more value as a No. 2 running back.
Loathed: NFL Network's Marshall Faulk. He contradicts himself too much. On Sunday, he tabbed Peterson his MVP because, "He has no franchise quarterback, he has no Pro Bowl wide receiver – it's just him." Then, he says of Detroit wideout Calvin Johnson: "He's the best receiver in the game, but the bad part is that it's easy to be the best receiver in the game when you're on the worst team." So it's hard to be great in Minnesota with lacking talent, but easy in Detroit because of the same issue? OK, Marshall.
Loved: Watching Colts coach Tony Dungy call an onside kick (recovered by Indianapolis) in the first quarter against Tennessee while leading 10-0. He took a meaningless game and threw in a wrinkle for which Indianapolis' first-round opponent will have to prepare. That's great coaching.
Loathed: Seeing Bills offensive lineman Duke Preston tussle with Patriots players at the end of the first half – a shoving match that allowed the clock to run out while Buffalo was trying to get the field goal unit on for a last-second attempt. Bills tight end Robert Royal was visibly furious at Preston, as he should have been. It was sheer stupidity, and I wouldn't put it past the Patriots being smart enough to pick a fight, knowing it would run the clock out and prevent the attempt.
Loved: Seeing Atlanta's Michael Turner go over 1,500 yards Sunday. From a personality standpoint, he's one of the league's best kept secrets. Fans in Atlanta will love getting to know him over the next several years.
Loathed: Watching the Houston Texans and wondering if coach Gary Kubiak knows how to use the challenge flag. I swear I've seen him play too conservatively with it a half-dozen situations this season. It happened twice Sunday – once on a Steve Slaton fumble that likely wasn't, and another time on a long Devin Hester catch at Houston's 1-yard line which probably would have been overturned. At least he got the second Slaton fumble right.
Loved: Seeing New England's Matt Cassel's run to convert a fourth down in the second quarter against Buffalo. The guy is fun to watch from week to week. I'll be disappointed if this is a one-year flash in the pan.
Loathed: Watching Pittsburgh starter Ben Roethlisberger carted off the field Sunday and knowing that if Byron Leftwich does anything of consequence in his absence, some Pittsburgh fans are going to be rooting for him to replace Big Ben permanently. Some fans never appreciate what they have.
- Donovan McNabb