by Scott Benson

For more than 60% of the NFL, today is the last day of the 2006 regular season. Game over. Not so for the Patriots, who travel to Tennessee today for a final tune up with the Titans before the league’s second season begins next week. Let’s get the flavor of things with a quick run through the Sunday papers.

One thing I’ve learned by doing these links this season is that Michael Felger sure writes a ton of stuff for every Sunday Herald. I respect that. And typically, Felger writes every Sunday in a snark-free, straight-ahead style that belies his usual synergistic print/broadcast approach. A little bit of Media Mike seeps into today’s coverage, though. He opens by urging the Patriots to play to win today, and put the pressure on the Colts at 4:15. I think Felger’s in the minority here, but its not a position without merit.

For that, we go to Inside the Huddle, where Mike ranks the NFL’s best playoff coaches. Naturally, names like Belichick, Parcells and Shanahan top the list, but can you guess who #6 is? It’s everybody’s fair haired boy, Jets coach Eric Mangini. Some seven spots, for example, ahead of Carolina’s John Fox (5-2). Mangini’s never coached his team TO a playoff game – hell, he hasn’t even clinched it yet – much less WON one, but he’s the NFL’s sixth best playoff coach. Felger is careful to point out that this isn’t a ‘Coach of the Year’ poll – though if it was, he’d pick Mangini. Forgive me if I gag. No question that Mangini has done well to get the Jets to 9-6 and on the playoff brink, but don’t tell me this Mangini=Genius movement isn’t puffed up in great part by the media’s rooting interest in Border War II – The Protege.

Felger follows with some Quick Hits, and naturally gets around to the annual ‘rumors’ of Scott Pioli being targeted for Giants GM and further speculation about Bill Belichick’s contract. I have a low tolerance of this stuff to begin with (let me know when you KNOW something – besides, don’t pretend that ‘Scott Pioli covets the Giants job’ isn’t trotted out every freaking year at this time) but it gets ridiculous when Felger blames the Patriots, not the media, for the speculation. All they have to do is hold a big press conference clarifying everyone’s status for Mike and his friends, and then, the media will have no reason to speculate at all. Yeah. This week I heard from the New York papers that the Krafts would be more likely to let Belichick go than Pioli, because – essentially – Myra doesn’t approve of You Know What. Based on Chistian Peter. If the Krafts had only held a press conference to clarify that. Because the media has NO CHOICE but to speculate unless the team addresses every stinking whacko theory they can think of. What a load of bullshit, Felger.

Lastly, in a historically over-the-top second guess job, Felger suggests that the thrifty Patriots turned their nose up at Titans safety Chris Hope. I’m sure a search of the Herald archives will produce stacks of Felger appeals for Chris Hope while everybody else was screaming about Adam Vinatieri and the receivers. No question Hope is having a solid season for the Titans, but notice Jim Schwartz saying that it took awhile for Hope to get hip to the Titans defense and become a contributor. If that had been here, Felger would have been the first one to blast Hope for ‘not getting it’ and the Patriots for wasting their money on a Steelers retread while better players were ignored. Hindsight indeed, Mike. I’m sure your faithful radio listeners are soaking this up.

Let’s move on. Elsewhere in the Herald, Albert Breer does an extensive piece on how NFL players are surviving sixteen weeks of car wrecks. John Tomase has a Patriots Year in Review, and a list of the highs and lows of the season. I appreciated John’s fair opening to his year in review. Tomase also has today’s notebook, which brings the news that Vince Wilfork, Ben Watson and Kevin Faulk (all coming back from injuries) will be among the missing today.

In the Globe, Mike Reiss’s notebook has his take on the inactives. In his lead piece, Mike wonders which option the Patriots will take today – all in, or all ashore. Or something in between. I honestly have no idea what to expect myself.

Jim McBride thinks the Pats take a flyer – and the Titans take the game – in his scouting report. Amalie Benjamin gets a feature look at David Thomas, author of at least two exceptional plays in the win over Jacksonville. Ron Borges roars through some coaching stories, including Jeff Fisher’s – in this week’s football notes. I’m being careful what I wish for here, but this week’s notes had a little bit of the Borges bite back. Some of his notes entires this year have been sort of bland, but not this week. It’s like he’s getting fired up for the playoffs.

Judging by the headlines, Dan Shaughnessy apparently tells Patriots fans what to expect today. Trust me, you can skip this. Does he really think we believe he knows something about football?

At the ProJo, Shalise Manza Young opens with a Vinny Testaverde appreciation piece, and then gets the twice-comebacking Rodney Harrison for her weekly Who I Am. There’s also an uncredited game analysis.

You know what to do as the morning develops – check Reiss’s Pieces for the latest news. In the meantime, head over to the Patriots News Mashup to see what else is being said about the Pats.

Our friend Tim Jordan will be back later to pinch hit for me on the post game Rear View. Tim’s a great football fan with a hilarious way with words, so it should be a fun read. Enjoy – and by all means, from all of us to all of you – Happy New Year.