Ahead of the Curve
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There's something about the end of a regular season, something kinda' sad.

Sure, the playoffs are electric.  That's the whole point, right, win a championship?  As coach Herm Edwards would've said, "That's why...we play...the game," to win titles.

But we hear it ad nauseam.  Players and coaches sound like robots, week in, week out: 'It's all about the Super Bowl' or 'Nothing matters but that ring.'  I believe them.

It's like they're pre-programmed, as when an athlete gets gracious after winning an award (Griffin) or setting a record (Brees).  Once at the podium they go straight to thanking anyone who's ever shared a uniform or opened a door.  C'mon people, break with tradition and live a little!  Revel in it.  There's no shame in taking some credit for a change.  You've earned it.

Want to seriously thank your teammates?  Hand 'em one of the awards meant for the whole team: the BCS crystal ball (now that's an easy one to drop, even with sticky-gloves) or the Lombardi trophy.

So it's all about the Super Bowl?  Not so fast, pilgrim.

For most NFL fans the end of the regular season marks the end of the road.  If your team didn't qualify for post-play it's six long months before hopes & delusions can begin anew.

And then there are the thousands of folks whose livelihoods depend on the regular season.  Stadium vendors, hospitality workers, John Clayton (ESPN) & Jason La Canfora (NFLN), bookies, escorts, internet spammers...wait a minute.  Spammers aren't "folks," they're cockroaches.  But you get the point.

Fans with post-season tickets (figuratively speaking) are on cloud nine come January.  Though for most, a playoff spot merely postpones the inevitable.  A stay of execution, as it were.  One 'n done and then tune-in for the pure love of the game.  Right.

The other school of thought: every playoff team has a legitimate shot at reaching the Super Bowl.  It's not as if the National Football League is the NHL or NBA, leagues where, as John Houseman used to say so succinctly (80s TV ad): "They make (titles) the old-fashioned way, they eeeeeeearn (them)."

Finish the NFL regular-season hot and even at 9-7 you can run the (PS) table without breaking a sweat.  And with home-field (GB / NE), just three little 'ol wins and you're popping the champagne, baby.  It's an easy gig, relatively speaking.

So raise a glass and toast NFL 2011, the season that almost wasn't.  We laughed, we cried (figuratively speaking), but most of all, we cringed every time we saw a defender try to tackle an opponent.  Plenty of blind-sides and Milli Vanilli helmet-hair on the D-side but very little stick & hold.  Better tackling I see on the baseball diamond.

Here then are the curious games in NFL 2011's final week of regular season play.

Detroit (10-5) @ Green Bay (14-1) (1-1 / 1:00 EST / FOX)

For all of Mr. Suh's distractions these Lions got zots under the hood, so the Pack won't mess around.  Rodgers et al will play until it's in the books.  Saints are riding a wave and GB can't afford stumbling again on the cusp of playoff-time.

Packers win.

Carolina (6-9) @ New Orleans (12-3) (1:00 / FOX)

Final exam for Flash Cam in the city Andrew Jackson made famous (1815).  If Cam can keep it close against an NFL juggernaut, Carolina can ride that into next season.  But like all of their playoff brethren Saints gotta' keep the momentum moving this year (Seattle 2010).

Saints win.

Baltimore (11-4) @ Cincinnati (9-6) (4:15 / CBS)

Not just a mettle game testing playoff worthiness ("This is a playoff game" / Lewis / ESPN-AP / 12-29), it also sheds light on Joe Flacco's and Ray Lewis' leadership.  One is trying to forge it, the other trying to hang on to it.  Defense is even-steven, with both teams sack stalwarts.  Run-game and QB tilt to the crab-cake crew.

Ravens win.

Kansas City (6-9) @ Denver (8-7) (4:15 / CBS)

Sunday's best with lots 'o drama.  Tebow needs something good for 2012 carry-over, Crennel can lock-it-in with a win and Orton still has supporters at Mile High.  Broncos' Lance Ball must step-up as McGahee's ham-hobbled.  KC has a nice turf-trio and Kyle's primed to matriculate like the reincarnation of Chieftain Joe Montana ('94).

NFL 2011's been one heck of a ride for Timothy.  He's been over-analyzed, over-credited, scapegoated, deified, mocked and burdened with the resentment & hopes of millions in just his first season as a starter.  But what good is faith if it's not tested.

Chiefs win.

Dallas (8-7) @ NY Giants (8-7) (8:30 / NBC)

NFC East on the line and dripping with network cachet, but this one's all about NFL 2012.  Jerry Jones wants reason to go with Tony next season, even in a loss.  If healthy to play but bungles, Romo competes for his job next summer.  Same spot for Giants' Coach Tom Coughlin.  Win two more Tom and you're back for 2012.

Giants win.

Steven Keys

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