- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Thoughts while driving home from Pittsburgh — and the Chargers-Steelers game — as Sunday turned into Monday:

- There are great teams and there are great seasons, and the trick is to distinguish between the two. The Giants had a great run in the playoffs last year, but as they showed in their one-and-done against the Eagles, they’re not yet a great team. Getting a healthy Osi Umenyiora back in ‘09 should help them in that regard. So should the two draft picks they received from the Saints for Jeremy Shockey.

- Something strange is going on in the NFL - and I don’t just mean the Cardinals being in the NFC Championship game. The Titans, for instance, started the season 10-0 and didn’t even win a playoff game. Then there are the ‘05 Colts, who started 13-0 and also lost their first playoff game. And let’s not forget the ‘04 Steelers, who won their last 14 in the regular season and were fortunate to survive their playoff opener before losing in the next round.

Bizarre. In the past, starts or streaks like those usually meant a club was a cut above - and destined to win the Super Bowl, or at least get there. Remember the ‘85 Bears winning their first 12 and going all the way? Or the ‘90 Giants winning their first 10 en route to the title? Or the ‘91 Redskins flirting with a perfect season well into November and then steamrolling everybody in the playoffs?

Back then, a sizzling start seemed to signify more than it does now. Heck, the Patriots won ALL their games last year, 18 straight, and still came up short in the Super Bowl. Not sure what’s behind it - whether it’s parity, teams peaking too early or just an aberration - but I thought it was worth mentioning. If you’ve got any theories of your own, send ‘em along.

- For all the grief he has gotten of late, Donovan McNabb is getting ready to play in his fifth NFC Championship game. That puts him in some pretty select company. The only quarterbacks who have started more conference title games than him are Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach and John Elway, all of whom started six. Donovan is in the next tier, tied with Jim Kelly and Snake Stabler - and just ahead of Tom Brady and Brett Favre, among others.

So give the man a little respect. He may not be on the very top shelf of quarterbacks, historically speaking, but his team has never - not once - made the playoffs and failed to win at least one game. Peyton Manning, on the other hand, has been one-and-done six times. (And his brother Eli has been one-and-done three times out of four.)

- But then, the postseason is a time for reappraisal. Take Kurt Warner, for instance. More than once in recent weeks, I’ve been asked: “Is Kurt Warner a Hall of Famer?”

Until now, I’ve always said: “Not quite. He’s had several Hall of Fame seasons; he just hasn’t had enough of them.” But after the Cardinals turned the Panthers into a wall hanging Saturday, I’ve revised my answer to: If Warner, at 37, quarterbacks the Cards to their first Super Bowl - after quarterbacking the Rams to their first Super Bowl nine years earlier - he definitely belongs in Canton, preferably wearing two helmets (or with one dangling from each ear). Never mind the two MVP awards, the 41 touchdown passes in ‘99, the 4,830 passing yards in ‘01 and all the rest.

- FYI: The only QBs who have taken two different teams to the Super Bowl are Craig Morton (‘70 Cowboys, ‘77 Broncos) and Earl Morrall (‘68 Colts, ‘72 Dolphins). The only QB to help two different clubs WIN the NFL title, on the other hand, is Norm Van Brocklin (‘51 Rams, ‘60 Eagles). Van Brocklin shared the position on the Rams with Bob Waterfield.

- Or am I forgetting somebody because it’s almost midnight and my eyes are glossing over as I barrel through the Breezewood, Pa., checkpoint?

- Last year’s conference championship games featured three coaches who were retreads: the Patriots’ Bill Belichick (previously of the Browns), the Chargers’ Norv Turner (previously of the Redskins and Raiders) and the Giants’ Tom Coughlin (previously of the Jaguars). This year’s Final Four features three coaches who have just gotten going in their careers: the Ravens’ John Harbaugh (first year), the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin (second year) and the Cardinals’ Ken Whisenhunt (second year).

Methinks this will embolden owners - owners with a coaching vacancy, that is - to take a chance on Somebody New. (And indeed, it already has. The Broncos just hired Belichick’s 32-year-old offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels. Which makes a certain sense, I suppose. I mean, if you can’t beat them - and Denver lost to New England 41-7 this season - become them.)

- And finally …

If you think the NFL is unpredictable now, wait until it adds a 17th or 18th game. Things are only going to get wackier. More opportunities for players to get hurt, more games for teams to hold starters out of after they’ve clinched playoff berths. A decade from now, what’s happening in these playoffs - all the home losses, the presence of a rookie quarterback (Joe Flacco) in the AFC title game, etc. - will probably seem perfectly normal, if not tame.

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