Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is hopeful that the healthy return of defensive end Jevon Kearse and the valuable year of experience gained by some of his young players will help improve a unit that allowed a much-too-generous 20.8 points per game this season.
"It's going to be nice to get Jevon back," said Johnson of his best defensive lineman, who went down in Week 2 with a season-ending knee injury. "And I think some guys have grown up. I think (right end) Trent Cole has grown up. (Strong safety) Sean Considine came through for us. So did (weak-side linebacker Omar) Gaither.
"We'll still make some adjustments with personnel. But I think some guys grew up and some guys got better. We'll see how it goes."
One guy who didn't grow up was rookie defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley, the team's first-round pick. Johnson had hoped Bunkley would make an immediate impact as an inside pass-rusher and run-stuffer. But he seldom played. The Eagles can only hope the light goes on for him before next season.
The Eagles don't have any defensive starters who are free agents, but there are several key role players who are, including nickel corner Rod Hood, nickel linebacker Shawn Barber, defensive end Juqua Thomas and former starting strong safety Mike Lewis. The only one of those four likely to return is Barber. But he's 32 and can't be overused. The same goes for starting middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, whose knees are starting to betray him. He has become a liability in coverage and his range as a run-stopper is shrinking.
"Trot can't play too many plays," Johnson said. "He's getting up there in age and now, you've gotta kind of watch that."
Gaither did a nice job on the weak sideafter replacing Matt McCoy in the second half of the season. But strong-side linebacker Dhani Jones probably won't be back, though it remains to be seen who will replace him. The Eagles had hoped ‘06 third-round pick Chris Gocong, who had been a defensive end in college, would win the job last summer, but he got hurt and spent the season on injured reserve.
The Eagles must find a replacement for Hood if he leaves. They signed former Giants corner William James (formerly Will Peterson) at midseason, but injuries kept him sidelined for all but four games. He also is a free agent, but the team likely will try to re-sign him.
"We just need to go back to work and get better at what we do and continue to improve," said cornerback Sheldon Brown. "If it's not broke, don't fix it. I don't think it's broke. When it was, we had injuries."
On offense, the Eagles two top offseason re-signing priorities will be quarterback Jeff Garcia and wide receiver Donte Stallworth. The Eagles have indicated they want both of them back, but both likely will test the free agent market before making a decision on their futures.
Garcia did an outstanding job after replacing injured Donovan McNabb in the second half of the season. Stallworth averaged 19.1 yards per catch, and had a 75-yard touchdown reception in Saturday's 27-24 playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints.
Despite the abuse he has taken and the emotional roller coaster he has ridden for most of the season, the Bears refused to baby quarterback Rex Grossman in what was arguably the franchise's most important game in 20 years.
Expectations were that offensive coordinator Ron Turner would go conservative, play it safe, keep the ball on ground and not ask Grossman to do anything more than not screw it up. The defense and the running game would handle the responsibility of winning the game.
But that's not the way Turner rolls, or Grossman for that matter. Forget about playing it close to the vest.
"We're not going to do that," Turner said. "We're going to run our offense, and we're going to give him chances to make plays. We asked him to make a lot of plays, and he made a lot of plays. We're going to be aggressive. We need to score to win; and to score, you've got to make plays down the field. We're not going to get conservative, and we didn't today."
The result was a 27-24 overtime victory over the defending NFC-champion Seahawks in the divisional round, which had been the Bears' undoing in their previous two playoff appearances — upset losses at home to the Panthers last season and to the Eagles after the 2001 season. The Seahawks nearly made it a hat trick of heartaches for Bears fans. But all-pro kicker Robbie Gould's 49-yard walk-off field goal touched off mad celebrations on the field and throughout chilly Soldier Field. It was the first game-winning field goal in Bears playoff history. Gould also booted a 41-yarder with 4:24 left in regulation to tie the game at 24.
None of Grossman's critics would have been shocked if Bears coaches figuratively took the ball out of his hands after his 0.0 passer rating in the regular-season finale that included 3 interceptions and 2 completions.
But, although the Bears often pride themselves as being a running team, they ran the ball 34 times while allowing Grossman to put it up 38 times. He completed 21 for 282 yards and a passer rating of 76.9, including a 68-yard bomb to Bernard Berrian that gave the Bears a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter, just 18 seconds after the Seahawks had tied it. The strike to Berrian was the Bears' second-longest play of the season and the longest reception of Berrian's three-year career.
While Grossman's inconsistency and depth-chart status were s among outsiders the past two weeks, teammates say they never lost faith in him.
"People always say, ‘Manage the game,'" Bears Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz said. "Well, you're not going to the Super Bowl with a quarterback who (just) manages the game. Rex is a quarterback who's going to make plays. That's why we believe he's our (best) quarterback. He can make any throw he wants."
The most important throw of Grossman's career was a 30-yard strike on third-and-10 to Rashied Davis that set up Gould's 49-yarder.
"He's going to throw that throw, the one that got us in position," Kreutz said. "A lot of guys wouldn't have thrown that pass, but he threw it, it got us down there. He played a great game with all the pressure on him, everybody saying (the problem) was just him. But there were times we didn't protect him, so how could it be just him?"
Grossman was sacked three times. After he suffered his only interception, on a ball that should have been caught by Muhsin Muhammad but bounced off his hands early in the fourth quarter, the Bears drove 48 yards to set up Gould's game-tying kick.
It wasn't Grossman's best performance by a long shot, but it was enough to get the Bears farther than they've been in 18 years.
"I don't care how we did it," Grossman said. "We're in the NFC championship game. We win one game we're in the Super Bowl, and we're two wins away from having a ring on my finger for the rest of my life."
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
So far, the 2006 postseason has been a postseason of firsts for the NFC South-champion Saints and their loyal, long-suffering fans.
They've had a first-round bye for the first time as well as a home game in the divisional playoffs for the first time in the often-laughable 40-year history of the franchise.
Following Saturday night's emotional NFC Divisional Playoff win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the Superdome, the Saints (11-6) recorded another first when they earned their first trip to the NFC Championship game.
Now, as a result of their 27-24 victory over the Eagles (11-7), the Saints are just one win away from their ultimate postseason first — a first-ever trip to the Super Bowl.
All that stands between them and a date with the eventual AFC champion in Super Bowl XLI in Miami is the Chicago Bears in Soldier Field on Sunday.
While that obstacle is obviously still in front of them, it's pretty heady stuff for a franchise that finished 3-13 a year ago and was a fashionable pick to finish last in their own division by everyone this summer.
When the Saints got two touchdowns from Deuce McAllister in the third quarter and the defense came up with three big stops in the final period, they ensured that their magical season would continue for at least one more week.
McAllister, who waited six seasons to participate in his first post-season game and endured a torn right ACL in October 2005, made sure to seize the moment.
He rushed for a club playoff-record 143 yards on 21 carries, scoring on a powerful 5-yard run early in the third quarter to cut a 21-13 halftime deficit to one point. Then, he got what turned out to be the game-winning score on an 11-yard swing pass from Drew Brees late in the period.
Appropriately, McAllister's 5-yard run for a first down with just more than 90 seconds to play clinched only the second playoff win in Saints' history. At the end of the run, coach Sean Payton triumphantly thrust his fists into the air, sending 70,001 fans into mass hysteria.
"This means a tremendous amount to the fans," said Brees. "You could just feel it after the game was over. The people were standing and screaming and yelling. I can't tell really (explain) what it means, but you could just feel it."
"Obviously, it's an exciting win for this team, this organization, this city," Payton said afterward. "I couldn't be more proud of a group of guys who fought and battled."
Like many of his players, Payton was just as happy for the celebrating fans who filled the Superdome on a season basis this year — just months after Hurricane Katrina rocked the city and Gulf Coast.
"I couldn't be happier," Payton said. "These people have been through so much. They're a big part of this win tonight and they're a big part of our season. I'm happy for the fans that have followed this team for so long through thick and thin. It's a special night."
"This is the first NFC Championship game for this city," Brees added. "We're so proud to give that to this community. But we're not done yet."
The Seahawks' offensive line was an injury-ravaged mess much of the season. That began to change in recent weeks and now the team has reason to think the future will be bright.
No one was happy about the way the season ended. Seattle's 27-24 overtime loss to Chicago stung because the Seahawks left so many opportunities on the field.
But with rookie Rob Sims and 2005 first-round pick Chris Spencer gaining momentum up front, Seattle's Shaun Alexander gashed the NFL's sixth-ranked run defense for 108 yards and two scores.
Sims, a fourth-round pick from Ohio State, has given Seattle the answer it sought when Steve Hutchinson left in free agency. He is a smart, physical player who can open holes in the run game.
Sims and Spencer became starters for the first time this season. Spencer took over at center when injuries sidelined veteran Robbie Tobeck. Right tackle Sean Locklear, a starter since 2005, should also be around for a while. He'll be entering his fourth season.
"Those guys are going to be mainstays for the next eight to 10 years around here," veteran fullback Mack Strong said. "Those guys are phenomenal players and they are getting better with each game."
Pro Bowl left tackle Walter Jones has a few good years left, leaving right guard as the only spot without long-range options.
"All you need is experience," Jones said, "and those guys are getting great experience going this deep in the playoffs."
The Seahawks need reinforcements at fullback, tight end, safety and along the defensive line. Those will be priorities heading into the offseason. Kicker Josh Brown, tight end Jerramy Stevens and free safety Ken Hamlin can become unrestricted free agents.
Tobeck and right guard Chris Gray turn 37 this offseason. They appear to be candidates for retirement. Fullback Mack Strong, 35, will also consider his options. Each helped the Seahawks go from perennial also-rans to a team that has appeared in the playoffs four years running. But it's time for some of the younger guys to get a chance.
"I think we've got a really good nucleus of guys that can take this thing to the next level," Spencer said.
Re-establishing offensive continuity will be a priority next season. Age, injuries and free-agent losses prevented the offense from sustaining rhythm. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck faltered as a result, and Alexander didn't get going until late in the season. A team with less depth never would have made the playoffs, but Seattle tapped into well-stocked reserves at receiver in particular.
"It's been the most unusual year that way," coach Mike Holmgren said. "In some respects, it has been one of my more rewarding years as a coach. I've seen great effort by young people that under normal circumstances probably wouldn't be playing a lot.
"As a coach, that keeps you going. That's good stuff. But I would just as soon not lose as many people as we lost."
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning will get a chance to exorcise his demons this week after the Patriots overcame a sluggish performance from Tom Brady and upset the AFC top-seeded San Diego Chargers to earn a trip to Indianapolis for the AFC Championship Game.
Manning and the Colts lost the 2003 conference title game and a 2004 divisional round game to the Patriots in Foxborough, but have since had their way with New England, winning at Gillette Stadium in each of the last two regular seasons by a 67-41 combined score. The last time New England visited the RCA Dome, it won, 38-34, after a final-second goal line stand back in 2003.
But now Manning and the Colts will get a shot to slay their nemesis on their home turf with a Super Bowl berth in the balance.
The Patriots did not play their best game in San Diego, but took advantage of several Charger mistakes to escape with a 24-21 win. They will need to play a much cleaner game in Indy to get past a Super Bowl-starved team that has played it best defensive football of the season in earning playoff wins over Kansas City and Baltimore while allowing a combined 14 points.
Safety Bob Sanders was a force for the Colts in the team's Nov. 5 win over the Pats and has given Indy's defense a playoff boost with his return from injury. The Patriots, who once seemed to own Manning, have also found slowing him much more difficult of late. In the first meeting of the season, Manning completed 20-of-36 for 326 yards and two touchdowns in out-dueling Brady, who threw four interceptions in the loss.
Brady did not play well for most of Sunday's win over San Diego either, but overcame three interceptions to lead a late-game comeback win.
New England is 5-0 all-time in AFC Championship Games and has won three of those five on the road - in Miami in 1985 and in Pittsburgh in 2001 and 2004. The Patriots will play for the conference title for the fourth time in six years.
In their three Super Bowl runs this decade, the Patriots have ousted five No. 1 seeds and knocked off the reigning MVP five times, including this year defeating LaDainian Tomlinson's Chargers.
Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson was miffed after the loss because some of the Patriots apparently celebrated their win at midfield while engaging in Shawne Merriman's "Light's Out" dance. Tomlinson called it classless and insinuated that such behavior starts with the head coach (Bill Belichick).
The Ravens' window of opportunity for another Super Bowl is closing, but they have positioned themselves for an equally strong run next season.
Coming off a season in which the Ravens set the team record for wins in the regular season and earned their highest playoff seed ever, the Ravens should return almost intact because only four starters are expected to be free agents (linebacker Adalius Thomas, running back Jamal Lewis, offensive tackle Tony Pashos and fullback Ovie Mughelli).
"This is a bitter taste," quarterback Steve McNair said after the Ravens' 15-6 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC divisional playoffs. "We got to live with this the whole offseason. I think we're going to be even more hungry. We had a good run for the first year I was here. And we're looking for better things."
There is a chance the Ravens could be without offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden. The 10-time Pro Bowl player said there is a "possibility" that he might retire and end his career after 11 seasons.
"I'll take some time away and re-evaluate some things," Ogden said. "I'll see what I want to do next year a little later on."
The toughest of all the Ravens' free agents to retain likely will be Thomas, a pivotal member of the NFL's top-ranked defense.
His first venture into free agency came in 2003, a season that ended with Thomas breaking his arm and being labeled a special teams player. He drew little buzz that offseason, with the Ravens and one other team expressing interest.
Three years later, Thomas has become one of the league's most versatile players — rotating from defensive line to linebacker to the secondary — and has found himself being re-labeled as a playmaker.
After the playoff loss, Thomas acknowledged this might be his final game with the Ravens.
"It could be. That's how the business goes," Thomas said. "We'll sit down whenever they're ready and we'll go from there."
The Ravens' contingency plan would be to either re-sign equally versatile Jarret Johnson, who would be less expensive to retain, or start former second-round pick Dan Cody, whose first two seasons have been devastated by injuries.
There's similar uncertainty surrounding Lewis, who finished 20th in the NFL in rushing this season.
Lewis is expected to become a free agent for the second straight offseason because the three-year, $26 million contract he signed last March was essentially a one-year commitment. After receiving $6 million this season ($5 million signing bonus plus $1 million salary), he is scheduled to earn $10 million in the final two years of the deal.
"I love the Ravens. I've been here from the start and don't know anything else," Lewis said. "Whether I'm here or not, I think the Ravens will be all right."
One area in which the Ravens might want to improve is at fullback. Ovie Mughelli has made an impact in the second half of the season, but the Ravens probably will take a look at what lead blockers are available in the offseason.
The Ravens, though, are expected to try to keep Pashos, the only free agent on the offensive line. One of the last players off the practice field every day, Pashos has proven to be one of the team's hardest workers.
Another issue that could have to be addressed on the offensive line is the future of center Mike Flynn (who is scheduled to make $2 million in 2007 and 2008) and right guard Keydrick Vincent (who will make $1.6 million next season). Rookie second-round pick Chris Chester likely will start at one of those spots next season.
If last week's AFC wild card win over Kansas City was a stunner to the national media, Saturday's 15-6 AFC divisional playoff victory by the Colts over the Baltimore Ravens could probably be viewed as a downright shocker.
Thanks to an NFL playoff record-tying five Adam Vinatieri field goals and an opportunistic Colts' defensive unit that forced four Baltimore turnovers and sacked Baltimore quarterback Steve McNair twice, Indianapolis continued to confound the experts. The team that few gave much of a chance in the postseason will now take on New England.
Tony Dungy's team — now 14-4 for the year — will host its first-ever AFC championship contest. The Colts played in the 2002 title game, where they lost to New England. Indianapolis' 1995 team lost in the conference championship game to Pittsburgh.
"Obviously, I'm very, very proud of our team. We talked about it all week, that it would be a game like it was. We came in here last year and it was the same way, a dogfight against an exceptional defense. Our defense, we challenged them all week. They were going to have to keep it close, keep us in position until we could get them figured out (offensively). We never really did get them all the way figured out, but I thought our defense and special teams played outstanding," Dungy said.
"(Defensive tackle) Booger McFarland and I were talking at the end of the game. It was kind of a throwback game for us. We used to win a lot of games this way (when both were at Tampa Bay). We kind of went back old-school on (Baltimore). But it was a game we had to play. We had to play it this way. I said that our team can go on the road and win. We can win a lot of different ways.
"That's one of the things I think we've learned in the last five years. How to play tight games, how to play defensive games, how to play on the road. So, obviously, I'm very proud of them. It's just a group that they play hard and they play together. And we're starting to hit our stride at the right time."
Vinatieri has made eight field goals over the last two weeks in postseason wins against Kansas City and Baltimore but that shouldn't come as much of a surprise for those who have followed the kicker's NFL career. A pair of game-winning kicks in the Super Bowl for the New England Patriots. An AFC championship clinching kick, again for the Patriots, against Oakland.
So what's a few more kicks for an Indianapolis team that is searching for its first-ever trip to the Super Bowl and the first for the franchise since Super Bowl V nearly 36 years ago.
"I think you have to go out and perform every single time you step on the field. I'm just very fortunate that I play on a team that can score a lot of points. And the guys that are on the field at the same time I am do a great job," Vinatieri said Saturday.
"You've got confidence in the guys up front and you know the ball's going to be there. So you just have to go and do your job. You just try not to let all of the implications and all of the extra hype and all that stuff get to you. You really just have to go out there and focus in on what you're doing and hope for the best, I guess."
As for quarterback Peyton Manning, who had a pair of passes picked off against the Ravens and now has five interceptions in the Colts' two playoff wins, he doesn't care how Indianapolis has gotten to the title game. Just that they're there.
"I hear a lot of people say we'll throw all the statistics out the window in the playoffs, just get a win, but it's like we're the exception," Manning said. "You do whatever you can to try and make a couple of big third-down conversions. You take your field goals when you can.
"Obviously, you want to get touchdowns and it's frustrating to settle for field goals. But we knew that our defense had a tough challenge. We thought field goals would be enough if we got enough of them and also so possession of the football and getting a couple of third down conversions. And that's what it came down to."
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
Opportunity lost was the overriding feeling among the Chargers as their magical season came to an abrupt halt.
The franchise which hasn't won a playoff game since 1994 still searches for that postseason magic. Their most successful regular season in team history came crashing down thanks to a 24-21 loss to the Patriots.
"It probably won't sink in for a while," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "You know I hate to lose, but I hate it more for the guys in the (locker room). The guys that you don't know if they're playing next year, you don't know if they've got a couple years let. The guys that may be free agents at the end of the year. This team will never be assembled again. That's the way it works in this league."
Same goes for a team turning the ball over four times against an opponent which has won three of the past five Super Bowls. The Chargers picked the wrong time to play one of their worst games of the year.
"You look at the game and see how many mistakes as a team we made," cornerback Quentin Jammer said. "We got guys dropping balls, we got guys fumbling, penalties, unsportsmanlike conduct. We got so much stuff happening, that you just kind of wonder what is going on?"
Not the Chargers, as their 10-game winning streak and top seeding in the AFC mattered little to a team with Tom Brady at quarterback. Brady wasn't really on his game until it counted, and he responded with his 24th fourth-quarter, game-winning drive and sixth in the playoffs.
Much of the talk now turns to coach Marty Schottenheimer's status. Both team president Dean Spanos and general manager A.J. Smith predicted this team was built to go deep in the playoffs. With nine Pro Bowl players, the Chargers had grand visions.
Instead, they lost their second straight postseason game under Schottenheimer; it was his sixth straight loss.
"Marty's a great coach," wide receiver Vincent Jackson said. "And I don't think it's going to affect him. It's a group effort ... there's not one man in this room that's responsible for this loss so to point at one guy would be unfair."
Guess what? The NFL is unfair and it wouldn't be a surprise if Smith shows Schottenheimer the door despite him being one of five NFL coaches with 200 regular-season wins and a year remaining on his contract.
"The players make the plays, not the coaches," Jammer said. "Now if all of sudden we started running the ball third-and-10 and getting back to Marty Ball, maybe then you can blame that on Marty. But that is not what happened. What happened was we dropped balls, we didn't cover well, too many turnovers. All those things — especially against that bunch."
Asked point-blank if he expects to return, Schottenheimer said, "I do."
But his marriage with Smith has always been strained.
"Any time you're in the playoffs and lose, certainly, I have plenty of experience, there's a disappointment," Schottenheimer said. "But all you can ask them to do is go out and lay it one the line. And that's what our players did."
"I was upset, very upset," Tomlinson said after rushing for 123 yards and two scores. "When you go to the middle of the field and you start doing the dance that Shawne Merriman is known for, that's disrespect to me and I can't sit there and watch that. Just the fact they showed no class at all, absolutely no class and maybe it comes from the head coach — there you have it."