Understanding this year’s NFL season is like finding an easy economics class at Georgetown: it just can’t be done. Both of last year’s Super Bowl teams missed the playoffs and St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner looked more like Elvis Grbac than Joe Montana. The New York Giants and Jets both made the playoffs and conjured up dreams of a magical Meadowlands Super Bowl (sorry but Subway Super Bowl makes no sense in this case). The AFC playoff race in the last couple weeks had more than a hundred possible permutations, but even more inexplicably, the New Orleans Saints couldn’t beat the Cincinnati Bungles on the road in the second to last week of the season and therefore lost a playoff spot.

If anything, it was the year of the third-string quarterback. No one received more attention than benchwarmer A.J. Feeley who, with the help of a superb Eagle defense, led Philadelphia’s late-season charge to the number one seed in the NFC. Winless Kurt Warner somehow reincarnated himself into third-stringer Marc Bulger, who looked phenomenal when he wasn’t hurt. Though he started off the season as the backup, Pittsburgh Steeler Tommy addox virtually qualified for third-string status with his stints in the Arena League and most embarrassingly, the XFL. The XFL’s first and only MVP finally put an end to the Kordell Stewart experiment and solidified his place as a true starting quarterback.

Lest we forget about Steve Spurrier’s game of musical quarterbacks in Washington where third string one day could translate into starter the next day.

This was also the year of overrated new faces in new places. The aforementioned Spurrier and defensive genius Marvin Lewis led the Redskins not to the Super Bowl, but to mediocrity and confusion. Ditto with Tony Dungy in Indianapolis. Ricky Williams had a career year with Miami, but the Dolphins once again crumbled in December and failed to make the playoffs. The same thing applies to Drew Bledsoe, who launched offensive fireworks in Buffalo but still left the city with the bitter taste of Scott Norwood wide right. But perhaps the most overrated new face was not on the field but in the booth. Yes, the legend himself, John Madden, provided harmless observations that my non-football-watching mom could make. Aside from Madden’s patented sound effects and his Maddencruiser, adden during every game sounded like Dick Vitale high on Duke. Everyone was Awesome with a capital “A,” baby.

Usually the playoffs calm the waters of the regular season and bring everything back to normal. In some part, wild card weekend did hold true to this tradition. Despite its four-game winning streak and the New York media hyping a possible Jets-Giants Super Bowl, the Giants crashed and burned during a one-point loss to San Francisco. Like its losses to Houston and Tennessee earlier in the season, the Giants fell apart at the end of game. Usual Giants scapegoat Kerry Collins stayed as far away from this mess as possible by throwing for four touchdowns and generating a powerful offense. Instead the blame was unfairly put on 41-year old Trey Junkin, who was playing his first game as a Giant. Watching a teary-eyed Junkin put all the blame on himself was honorable compared to the reluctant members of the Giants defense. Forget the blown referee call, Paul Tagliabue’s intervention and other tidbits; the truth is that the Giants defense could not handle the 49ers’ no-huddle offense in the second half.

On the other hand, the Jets and Falcons defied the odds. Mike Vick surprised even his most devout followers when he pulled off the impossible by winning a playoff game in Green Bay. While no one had previously beaten the Packers in a playoff game at Lambeau Field, the Packers had never faced a quarterback who could do virtually anything like Vick.

Though not as talented as Vick, the Jets’ Chad Pennington looked like Broadway Joe Namath in crushing the hapless Colts, 41-0. People expected the Jets to win this game but not by this much. Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy’s playoff jinx certainly contributed to the Colts’ loss, but Pennington’s pocket presence was uncanny.

This weekend’s conference semifinal matchups may not live up to the surprises and drama of wild card weekend, but given the way the season has gone, there should be a few more gifts under the Christmas tree.

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