CHARLOTTE -- The New Orleans Saints didn't blame Philadelphia Eagles Coach Andy Reid, but they could have done so.
The St. Louis Rams didn't thank Reid, but they certainly owe him a favor.
Reid's decision to sit his front-line players in the final two weeks of the regular season ultimately put the Rams in the playoffs and the Saints out.
If Reid had played his regulars last Monday night in St. Louis, the Eagles probably wouldn't have lost to the then-stumbling Rams. The Rams would have been eliminated from playoff contention, and the winner of Sunday's game here between the Saints and the Carolina Panthers would have secured a wild-card spot.
But Reid, with the top seed in the NFC playoffs wrapped up, rested quarterback Donovan McNabb, tailback Brian Westbrook and defensive end Jevon Kearse to avoid another serious injury like the severe ankle sprain that just had cost the Eagles the services of wide receiver Terrell Owens until at least Super Bowl Sunday. The Rams beat the Eagles, and then outlasted the New York Jets in overtime Sunday to sneak into the playoffs and eliminate the Saints. The Minnesota Vikings, Rams and Saints all finished 8-8, but New Orleans was ousted from the wild-card scramble on tie-breakers.
The Saints took it basically in stride as they watched kicker Jeff Wilkins's game-winning field goal for the Rams on a television set in the visitor's locker room at Bank of America Stadium late Sunday afternoon. A few players cursed. A few threw things into their lockers. But there were no extended rants, and no one brought up the approach taken by the Eagles that ended up ushering the Rams into the postseason.
Mostly, the Saints players said they were proud of themselves for winning their final four games after plummeting to 4-8, and for putting themselves in position to suffer a final-weekend playoff disappointment.
"Coach [Jim] Haslett told everybody we can take two roads -- the high road or the low road,'' wide receiver Donte Stallworth said. "We're all professionals. We get paid to do our jobs. At that time, everybody settled down and focused on what we had to do. Coach Haslett cut practice time but told us to pick the tempo up to game speed when we practiced, and that helped us out.''
The Saints' strong finish might have saved Haslett's job, unless he seeks more authority over personnel decisions and is rejected. The Saints haven't reached the playoffs since the 2000 season, Haslett's first year as their head coach. They again were regarded as an underachiever this season. But they didn't suffer the late-season collapse that had been the norm for them in recent seasons, and many people in the league doubt that Saints owner Tom Benson would be willing to fire Haslett and pay off the remainder of the coach's contract, even after a season in which Benson said after one game that his club had played like a high school team.
Sunday's game showed the best and worst of the Saints under Haslett. They didn't exactly look like they would rise to the big-game occasion early on, drawing two personal-foul penalties in the game's opening nine minutes. Haslett had a face-to-face verbal confrontation with safety Mel Mitchell on the sideline after Mitchell committed the second on those infractions on a punt play.
"We try to talk about being smart and not [retaliating], but we weren't very smart,'' Haslett said. "Stuff like that, you just don't want to get into that. Just go out and play the game.''
But the Saints regrouped. They stuffed the Panthers' running game, harassed Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme and rode the running of tailback Deuce McAllister to leads of 14-3 and 21-10 before holding on to win, 21-18, when they blocked a 60-yard field goal attempt by kicker John Kasay as time expired.
"We're probably the hottest team in the NFC right now,'' Haslett said. " . . . It's a shame we don't have a chance to play again.'' . . .
The Panthers finished 7-9 and failed in their bid to become the first team in NFL history to reach the playoffs after a 1-7 start to the season. They became the fourth straight Super Bowl loser to have a losing season as a follow-up. Three of the four -- the New York Giants in 2001, the Rams in 2002 and the Panthers this season -- went 7-9. The Oakland Raiders went 4-12 last season. . . .
Wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad had his 15th and 16th touchdown catches of the season in what might have been his final game with Carolina. He thrived as the Panthers' top receiver after Steve Smith's season was ended by a broken leg suffered in the opening game. But, under the terms of his current contract, Muhammad is to receive a $10 million roster bonus in March and count $12.5 million against next season's salary cap, and the Panthers almost certainly will release him before that bonus is due if they can't agree to a new deal with him.
"I pray that it works out,'' Muhammad said. "You never know what the future holds. We'll have to see.''
Said Delhomme: "This is a business. He's married and has four kids. I'd love to have him here, but that's out of my control.''
Muhammad finished one touchdown reception ahead of the Indianapolis Colts' Marvin Harrison for the league lead. He also led the NFL in receiving yardage with 1,405. The Saints' Joe Horn finished six yards behind, coming up one yard shy of giving the league two 1,400-yard receivers. . . .
Converted fullback Nick Goings had thrived as the Panthers' featured runner by necessity with tailbacks Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster on the injured reserve list. Goings had five 100-yard rushing performances in Carolina's previous six games. But he managed only 46 yards on 13 carries Sunday, and fumbled for the first time this season. It was one of three fumbles lost by Carolina.
The Panthers had only three rushing attempts in the second half. "I don't know about giving up on [the run],'' Coach John Fox said. "It wasn't too successful.''
The AFC ending up having three 9-7 teams -- Buffalo, Baltimore and Jacksonville -- miss the playoffs while two 8-8 clubs got into the postseason field in the NFC. Still, it could have been worse for the NFC. No team reached the playoffs with a losing record, as once seemed possible, and the conference didn't have three 8-8 postseason clubs, as would have been the case if Seattle had lost Sunday. As it turned out, this NFC playoff field is no worse than the 1999 NFC postseason field, in which Dallas and Detroit both qualified at 8-8. . . .
Reid's player-resting program leaves the Eagles going into the playoffs coming off two losses by a combined margin of 58-17 -- 20-7 to the Rams and 38-10 to the Cincinnati Bengals in Sunday's regular-season finale at Lincoln Financial Field.
The Eagles had narrow victories over the Washington Redskins and the Cowboys in their final two games with Owens, so they enter the postseason having not resembled an NFC champion-in-the-making since a 47-17 triumph over the Green Bay Packers on Dec. 5. There will be a six-week gap between that game and the Eagles' first playoff contest. After a first-round bye, they will host an NFC semifinal on Jan. 15 or 16, probably against the winner of Saturday's Rams-Seahawks game. The Rams beat the Seahawks twice during the regular season, so it's possible that the Eagles could open by facing the team that Reid helped to get into the playoffs. . . .
So much for those preseason prognostications about the NFC East making a return to glory this season with a deep, balanced divisional race. The Eagles, at 13-3, won the division by seven games over the Redskins, Cowboys and Giants, each of whom finished 6-10. It was the most lopsided divisional race in the league, and no other division had its second-place club finish below .500.
Thanks to the Eagles, however, the NFC East wasn't the league's worst division this season. NFC East teams combined for 31 wins, actually equaling the NFC South for the most of any division in the conference. NFC North teams had only 29 victories, and the lowly NFC West finished with 25. All four NFC divisions finished below .500, while all four AFC divisions were above .500. The AFC East had the NFL's most combined wins by its teams, with 37, followed by the AFC North with 36, the AFC West with 34 and the AFC South with 33. . . .
The Giants technically finished second in the NFC East under the tie-breaking procedures, with the Cowboys third and the Redskins last. The Giants went 3-1 in games between the teams, while the Cowboys were 2-2 and the Redskins 1-3. The Giants swept the Cowboys, including Sunday night's season-ending triumph that gave rookie quarterback Eli Manning his first win as an NFL starter. The top overall draft choice had lost his first six starts. The triumph ended an eight-game losing streak for the Giants.
49ers Decisions Looming
It now appears that the job of San Francisco 49ers General Manager Terry Donahue is in jeopardy, along with that of Coach Dennis Erickson. Team co-owner John York is to decide the fates of both of the organization's top football decision-makers in the coming days. The 49ers finished with an NFL-worst record of 2-14, matching the worst mark in franchise history.
Donahue this year received a four-year contract extension through the 2009 season, but York is said by people around the league to be contemplating the possibility of a complete organizational overhaul.
Erickson has three years remaining on a five-year, $12.5 million contract, and the 49ers would owe him the $7.5 million he's due over the next three seasons if they fire him. But 49ers officials didn't seem to fret over the possibility of losing Erickson when he interviewed for the University of Mississippi's head-coaching job late in the season, and Erickson could resign or be fired if he and York can't agree on the issue of possible changes to Erickson's coaching staff. York seems to believe that some changes are needed. Erickson has said he would resist any changes to his staff.
The Saints must make a decision about Haslett, and the Raiders must make a decision about Norv Turner. Four coaches whose job security seemed precarious late in the season -- the Rams' Mike Martz, the Vikings' Mike Tice, the Seahawks' Mike Holmgren and Denver's Mike Shanahan -- reached the playoffs. That won't necessarily save their jobs, though.
The Vikings backed into the playoffs after losing to the Redskins on Sunday, and they lost seven of their final 10 games of the regular season after a 5-1 start. That comes on the heels of missing the playoffs last season with a 3-7 finish following a 6-0 beginning. The problem is that owner Red McCombs would owe Tice $800,000 if he fires him after exercising the club's $1 million option for next season in Tice's contract. McCombs, facing a Jan. 1 deadline under the terms of Tice's contract, informed Tice last week that he was exercising the option.
A sixth straight season without a playoff victory by the Broncos would increase the disenchantment with Shanahan in Denver, even though Broncos owner Pat Bowlen has said that Shanahan can coach the team as long as he likes.
There also are some questions around the league about whether the Cowboys' Bill Parcells or Kansas City's Dick Vermeil could walk away from coaching, although Vermeil has said he's returning next season and Parcells has given no indication that he's about to exit.
The Cleveland Browns now will launch their searches for a new general manager and a new coach in earnest, having waited until after the regular season to intensify the process. . . .
Jaguars Coach Jack Del Rio was to interview with LSU officials Friday for the school's head-coaching job but pulled out at the last minute, reportedly because his agent, Gary O'Hagan, had not informed Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver of the deliberations.
The move apparently eliminated Del Rio from consideration for the job left vacant when Nick Saban departed for the Miami Dolphins. LSU announced the hiring of Oklahoma State Coach Les Miles today. Del Rio is a former Saints linebacker, and his daughter attended LSU. . . .
The Jaguars seem prepared to fire offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. . . . The seven NFL teams with new head coaches this season finished with a combined record of 48-64.
Dolphins Get No. 2 Pick
The Dolphins win the tie-breaker with the Browns (based on the combined record of their opponents) and will have the second overall selection in the NFL draft in April, after the 49ers. . . . Pittsburgh finished with the league's top-ranked defense, while Buffalo moved ahead of the Redskins for second. . . .
The Chiefs finished first in the NFL in total offense, ahead of the Colts. The Vikings dropped to fourth with their performance Sunday against the Redskins, behind Green Bay, and failed to give the league three teams averaging more than 400 yards per game for what would have been the first time in NFL history. . . .
The Lions agreed Saturday to a six-year contract extension with defensive tackle Shaun Rogers. The deal is worth approximately $46 million, including a signing bonus of about $15 million, and makes Rogers the highest-paid defensive tackle in the league.
The fourth-year pro was selected to his first career Pro Bowl this season after being a Pro Bowl alternate last season. He would have been eligible for unrestricted free agency in the spring, although the Lions likely would have used their franchise-player tag on him. The new deal runs through the 2010 season. The Lions also signed two other potential unrestricted free agents, punter Nick Harris and reserve linebacker Donte Curry, to contract extensions last week. . . .
The Jets' Curtis Martin won the league rushing title by a yard over the Seahawks' Shaun Alexander. Martin also moved past Jerome Bettis into fourth place on the NFL's career rushing list. . . .
The Colts' Peyton Manning was given most of Sunday off and finished the season with a passer rating of 121.1, breaking the single-season NFL record of 112.8 by Steve Young for the 49ers in 1994. . . . Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez led the league with 102 catches, a single-season NFL record for a tight end. . . . Rams wideout Torry Holt became the first player in NFL history to post five straight 1,300-yard receiving seasons. . . .
The 5,123 combined yards produced by Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper this year -- 4,717 passing yards and 406 rushing yards -- is the most ever in a season by an NFL quarterback. . . .
Vikings safety Corey Chavous suffered a fractured radius bone near his left elbow Sunday and will be sidelined for the playoffs. Third-year pro Willie Offord is to replace Chavous, who's one year removed from a Pro Bowl season. . . . Cowboys wideout Keyshawn Johnson broke his left ankle during the Sunday night game. Johnson is scheduled to have surgeries on his ankle and knee Tuesday. . . .
Jets wide receiver Wayne Chrebet suffered a concussion during Sunday's loss to the Rams. He missed the final eight games of last season because of post-concussion syndrome. But Jets Coach Herman Edwards indicated that he expects Chrebet to play in Saturday's playoff opener at San Diego. . . .
Wide receiver Koren Robinson was on the Seahawks' inactive list Sunday after a violation of team rules, reportedly because he missed a practice Saturday. It was the sixth time in seven games that Robinson didn't play because of behavior issues. He was benched for a game by Holmgren for an unspecified team rules violation, then served a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. He was to have a major role in Seattle's game plan against Atlanta, but the Seahawks managed to hold on for a last-second win anyway. Holmgren sent home Robinson on Sunday and is scheduled to meet with him today. . . .
The Patriots had scored first in 23 straight games (counting the postseason) until Sunday, when the 49ers ended the streak by jumping in front with quarterback Ken Dorsey's first-quarter touchdown pass. The Patriots last had failed to score first in a game on Nov. 23, 2003 against Houston. . . .
It was a good few days for Chargers prized rookie quarterback Philip Rivers. On Friday night, his wife Tiffany gave birth to the couple's second child, and on Sunday he got the first extended playing time of his rookie season. Rivers played the second half of San Diego's win over the Chiefs, following veteran Doug Flutie while Coach Marty Schottenheimer rested Drew Brees. Rivers's first NFL completion went for a five-yard loss, but he ended of connecting on five of eight passes for 33 yards and a touchdown.