Archive for January, 2005

Conference Championship Picks, Part Two

January 21st, 2005 Comments off

I can’t say I’ve spent as much time thinking about this game as I have about the AFC Championship. I can’t say I’ve felt as if I needed to, either.

Atlanta (+5) at Philadelphia

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way this game goes. OK, seriously, even with the threat of a winter storm removed (if looks like the snow will stop falling and the field will be cleared long before kickoff), and star wide receiver Terrell Owens out of the game with his leg in a cast, I can’t for the life of me see how Philadelphia can fail to win this game. Of course, the Eagles have managed to blow three straight NFC Championship games going into this weekend, and weird things can happen with Michael Vick in the game, so one never knows for absolute certain. But still … .

Since we looked at the numbers on the AFC game (see below), let’s look at the numbers here as well. (These are regular season stats. I’m thinking let’s just go ahead and throw out last weeks Divisional Playoff results entirely, since clearly neither St. Louis nor Minnesota ever belonged in the playoffs to begin with; the NFC has been a two-team conference for months now.)

The Eagles offense was ranked ninth in the league in terms of average total yards, having averaged 351.1 per game, eighth in scoring, with an average of 24.1 points per game. It faces an Atlanta defense that ranked 14th overall, allowing 325.4 yards per game, and in points allowed, with an average of 21.1.

The Falcons offense, by comparison, was 20th in overall yardage, averaging 317.7 per game and 16th in points scored, with an average of 21.3. It will be up against a Philadelphia D that was 10th overall, allowing 319.7 yards a game, and, most important, tied New England for second in points allowed, giving up an average of only 16.3 points per game.

The Eagles offense matches up very well against Atlanta in the passing game. Philadelphia was sixth in the league in passing (albeit with T.O. in the lineup), averaging 263 yards per game and putting up 32 passing touchdowns while giving up only 11 interceptions. Atlanta’s D was ranked 24th against the pass, having given up 239.9 yards per game and 19 touchdowns, though with 19 picks.

The Falcons passing offense was one of the worst in the league. The team averaged only 138.2 yards per game in the air, throwing 15 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. The Eagles pass D, meanwhile, was the league’s 12th best, allowing just 217.2 yards per game on average, giving up 16 touchdowns and logging 17 picks.

Atlanta comes out ahead in comparison only in the run game. And even there, there’s reason to like the Eagles. The Falcons had the league’s best rushing offense, with an average of 167 per game (and an astounding 5.1 yards per carry) and scoring 20 touchdowns on the ground. Philadelphia’s run D while often portrayed as bad, was truly no worse than average. The Eagles 16th-ranked run defense gave up 118.9 yards per game on the ground. They gave up only 13 rushing touchdowns, though. And here’s the big thing: the Falcons have a very bad habit of dropping the ball on running plays, while the Eagles have a very good habit of stripping the ball on run defense. That bodes ill indeed for Atlanta.

There’s something else about Atlanta’s rushing numbers, too. They have more to do with the fact that Vick is the best rushing quarterback the league has ever seen than with success in a traditional running game. In fact, Atlanta has a fairly small offensive line, which can have trouble opening holes for the run, and should have some difficulty handling Philadelphia’s aggressive defensive lineman, particularly Jevon Kearse, one of the best and most versatile defensive ends in the league.

The Eagles know that what they have to do to win this game is keep Vick under control. They’ll probably do that by employing Kearse more like a linebacker than an end in an attempt to keep Vick in the pocket, where he has trouble. They’ll also try to do it in much the same way that New England controlled Peyton Manning and the Colts offense last week: by keeping Atlanta’s offense off the field. And while the Eagles probably don’t match up well enough in the running game to mount long, smashmouth drives, they do have the talent to keep drives going with short, high-percentage passing plays. The Eagles will need to get the cold side of Atlanta’s hot-and-cold defense, which they can probably expect given that the Falcons are a dome team that will be playing on grass.

I think the challenges here for the Falcons will prove to be too much. And while I still believe the Eagles are a team that can’t win the big game, I’m fairly certain they’ll get another chance to prove that in two weeks. I’m taking Philly and giving the points.

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Conference Championship Picks, Part One

January 20th, 2005 Comments off

The picks are taking much longer than usual to write this week, so I’m gonna go ahead and post them one at a time. Here’s the tough one.

New England (-3) at Pittsburgh
The more you look at the raw numbers, the harder it is to get any kind of handle on this game. Or so it would seem. But maybe there’s something hidden in these teams stats that will reveal where this game is headed. Let’s find out.

First, though, the question of whether you throw out what happened last week. Really, there’s no telling whether Pittsburgh’s poor play against the New York Jets revealed a team unready for the playoffs or was simply a slight misstep for a powerhouse team. We won’t know until sometime around 9:30 Sunday night. So, let’s see if we can find answers in the regular season stats and then come back to what the Divisional Round games might mean.

It goes almost without saying that in the regular season, New England had the better offense, Pittsburgh the better defense. The differences are fairly slight, though, particularly on defense, which makes it hard to look at the whole and come up with answers. So let’s look at the parts.

Offense: The Pats were ranked fourth in the league in scoring, putting up 27.3 points per game. The Steelers were ranked 11th, with 23.3. The Pats offense was seventh in total yards with an average of 357.6 per game, while the Steelers O was 16th with 324. The Pats passing offense was 13th in the league, averaging 234 yards per game, scoring 29 touchdowns and giving up 14 interceptions. The Steelers passing O was 28th with 185.6, 20 and 13. Only in the running game did the Steelers offense outdo the Pats. The Steelers rushing offense was ranked second, averaging 154 yards per game and 4 yards per carry, with 16 touchdowns and 14 fumbles. New England had the seventh-ranked rushing offense, with 133.4 yards per game, 4.1 yards per carry, 15 touchdowns and 17 fumbles.

Defense: The Steelers were ranked first in the league in overall D, allowing only 258.4 yards per game, while the Pats were ranked ninth, allowing 310.8. Both teams were outstanding against the run, but the Steelers were a bit better. First-ranked Pittsburgh allowed an average of only 81.2 yards per game (3.6 per carry) on the ground, giving up eight rushing touchdowns and forcing 22 fumbles. Sixth-ranked New England allowed 98.3 yards per game (3.9 per carry), allowing nine touchdowns and causing 23 fumbles. The Steelers, meanwhile, were a good deal more effective than the Patriots against the pass. Pittsburgh’s pass D was ranked fourth. It allowed 191.3 yards per game and 14 touchdowns, while logging 19 picks. New England’s pass D was ranked 19th. It allowed 231.9 yards per game, giving up 18 touchdowns while intercepting 20 balls. In what might be the most important defensive stat, however, there’s virtually no difference between the teams. Pittsburgh’s D was ranked first in points allowed, giving up an average of 15.7 per game. New England’s was tied for second, giving up 16.3 on average.

Pretty damned mind-numbing, isn’t it? Bear with me for a second here, though, because I wanna try to make sense of those numbers (to the extent that’s possible) and see if they mean anything. Let’s look at the points scored/points allowed differential first. Add the Pats average points scored to the Steelers average allowed and divide by two and you get 21.5. Do the same thing the other way around and you get 19.8. I’m no statistician or anything, but I’m gonna go ahead and assume that a 1.7-point differential (that’s about eight percent, no matter how you look at it) sits close enough to the margin of error that it’s not worth considering.

OK, then, how about looking at how strengths match up against strengths. The Steelers run the ball well, and don’t pass particularly well (or particularly often, actually). The Pats defend against the run better than they defend against the pass. So if all holds even, that should play to the Patriots advantage. If they can shut down the run (either by playing up to their standards on defense, or by getting a lead and making the Steelers throw), the Pats should be able to keep the Steelers out of the end zone. The Pats are much more balanced offensively, throwing and running with a lot of success. But the Steelers are more balanced on D, stopping both the pass and the run very well. So there’s little advantage to be found there either way. If the Pats can find a way to be effective in the air (where the Steelers are a bit more vulnerable than they are against the run) they can maybe force Pittsburgh’s DBs to play back a bit and maybe loosen things up for running back Corey Dillon (who had a great day against the Colts last week, but the Colts defense sucks). But there’s no telling whether they’ll be able to do that. Not just by looking at the numbers, anyhow.

So, you’re thinking, we just waded through all those numbers to get next to nowhere? Kinda, yeah. Welcome to my sick little OCD world.

But wait, wait, wait. I just thought of something else. Since defense wins championships, and since the two teams were not so far apart in some key defensive areas during the season, let’s take a look at how they came about their defensive stats.

The Pats played the first- and second-ranked offensive teams in the league in both overall yardage and points scored (Indianapolis, 404.7 yards per game, 32.6 points per game; and Kansas City 418 yards per game, 30.2 points per game). They played four of the league’s ten most prolific scoring offenses (with sixth-ranked St. Louis and eighth-ranked Seattle on their schedule), and four of the league’s top 10 offenses in terms of total yards (adding seventh-ranked Buffalo and tenth-ranked Cincinnati). The highest-ranked offense Pittsburgh faced in terms of overall yards per game was the Patriots (7). They faced only one other team in the top ten in that category, ninth-ranked Philadelphia. And the dropoff from Kansas City’s 418.4 and Indy’s 404.7 to New England’s 357.6 and Philly’s 351.1 is pretty significant. Pittsburgh’s highest-ranked opponent in terms of average points per game was New England, ranked fourth. They also played Buffalo (7), Philadelphia (8) and Cincinnati (10). (By the way, the Pats also faced the 11th- and 12th-ranked scoring offenses in Pittsburgh and Seattle, while the next highest uncommon opponent Pittsburgh faced was 18th-ranked Oakland — Both teams played the 17th-ranked Jets). Here again, the dropoff is meaningful. The Pats’ opponents from the top 10 in scoring averaged 32.6, 30.2, 24.7 and 23.4 points per game. The Steelers’ opponents from that same category averaged 27.3, 24.7, 24.1 and 23.4. The dropoff there, too, is pretty significant.

The Pats’ run D faced the second-, third-, fifth-, eighth- and ninth-ranked rushing offenses in the league. The Steelers’ run D faced the third-, seventh- and ninth-ranked rushing offenses. The difference there is noticeable and important. The difference in the quality of passing offense each team faced, however, is rather huge. The Pats faced the second-, third- and fourth-ranked passing offenses in the league, teams (Indianapolis, Kansas City and St. Louis) that averaged 295.8, 289.6 and 288.4 yards per game in the air. Pittsburgh faced the sixth- and eighth-ranked passing offenses, teams (Philadelphia and Oakland) that managed an average of 263 and 251.2 yards per game in the air. When you look at that, the statistical differences between the Patriots and Steelers passing defenses start to look a lot less important.

When you look at it that way, things start to seem clearer, and to look a bit better for the Patriots, who appear to have a slight edge in the matchup.

So now seems like the right time to take a look at what happened in the Divisional Playoff round last week, shall we? No need to crunch numbers there. What happened was that the Pats dominated the Indianapolis Colts on both sides of the ball, while the Steelers struggled against the New York Jets, coming out with a win in overtime that had far more to do with bad coaching choices and horrible kicking by the Jets than it did with anything the Steelers did on offense or defense. The Pats took the ball away from the Colts three times (two fumbles and an interception). The Steelers gave the ball away to the Jets three times (two interceptions, one fumble). The Pats looked like the seasoned playoff team they are and the Steelers looked like just another team struggling to get one more game out of its postseason. The Steelers haven’t struggled like that much, so the outcome of their game may have been a fluke. Again, we won’t know until Sunday. But the Pats have come up big in enough big games that we can say for sure that the result in Foxborough last weekend was anything but surprising. There, again, advantage, whether it’s slight or great, Patriots.

Add to that the fact that home-field advantage is almost meaningless in the Conference Championship round (home teams win slightly more than 50 percent of the time), the fact that the Pats offense is led by a quarterback, Tom Brady, who’s success in the playoffs to date has been astounding, while the Steelers quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, is in his rookie season (and that no team with a rookie quarterback has ever advanced to the Super Bowl), and the fact that the Pats are better coached than the Steelers (and that Patriots coach Bill Belichick is 2-0 in conference championship games while Steelers coach Bill Cowher is 1-3), and you get a pretty clear picture of where this game is likely to go.

It remains possible, of course, that the Steelers will win. They are, without question, a great football team, probably one of the two best in the league (that is, I don’t think either remaining NFC team can beat either remaining AFC team). They’re playing at home. And when they play well, they’re all but unstoppable. Plus, the media like the Pats a bit too much this week for my taste.

That said, it looks to me like the Pats are headed back to the Super Bowl. I think the Pats come out strong on offense, throwing the ball effectively and avoiding the kinds of mistakes that hurt them in their last game with Pittsburgh, giving Corey Dillon the opportunity to gain some yards (though I don’t think he’ll have the huge game some Pats fans seem to be expecting), and putting young Mr. Roethlisberger in the difficult position of having to win the game in the air, which will lead him to make the same kind of mistakes he made last week against the Jets. I think the Pats will find ways to score against Pittsburgh and will find ways to shut down the Steelers’ running game. That spells victory. So I’m taking New England and giving the points.

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Divisional Playoff Picks

January 13th, 2005 Comments off

On the one hand, I’m every bit as sick as the rest of the world of hearing and reading about the whole thing with Randy Moss pretending to moon the Green Bay fans after a touchdown in last week’s Vikings-Packers Wild Card playoff game. On the other hand, I’ve got a few things I want to say about the situation myself. So what am I to do? Well, shit, man, it’s my damned blog, so I’m gonna say what I’ve got to say.

None of what I have to say has anything to do with whether what Moss did was as hideously offensive as it’s been made out to be. It didn’t offend me, but I’m not everyone. And frankly, I don’t care if it was offensive. I’ve just never been one of those people who believe being offended is such a goddamn terrible thing.

I also don’t care about whether Moss was just turning the tables on fans who moon opposing teams’ buses on their way out of town. I mean, sure, that makes what Moss did a lot funnier than if it had come out of nowhere, but it doesn’t make it any wiser or better (or for that matter more foolish or worse) a thing to do.

And neither can I work up a whole lot of energy over the poor sportsmanship the move exemplifies. I can’t for the life of me understand how anyone could expect anything but poor sportsmanship out of an asshole like Randy Moss. It’s what he does. And he’s hardly the only professional athlete who prides himself on acting like a jackass most of the time. Nor is he the only one who’s rewarded for such behavior by fans and the media. So what the fuck. When in Rome, right?

The things I find most interesting (amusing, really) about the whole deal are the reactions of Vikings owner Red McCombs and the NFL.

McCombs response to the incident was to ask Fox TV to move play-by-play guy Joe Buck out of the booth for the Vikes upcoming game. That makes a lot of sense. Shows a lot of class and concern for sportsmanship, too. Nice one, Red.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think Joe Buck is as pure an ass as you’ll find in an NFL broadcasting booth. And his over-the-top reaction to Moss’s celebration (you had to hear it live to truly appreciate it, but lemme just point out that it included Buck apologizing to viewers for the fact that we’d been made to witness such a “disgusting act”), was just plain ridiculous. But come on, now, Red. The guy was expressing an opinion, which is part of his job. And if you ran a team that was a bit less willing to let the esteemed Mr. Moss get away with whatever the hell he chooses to do whenever he chooses to do it, there probably wouldn’t have been anything for Joe Buck to overreact to. If you’re afraid to tell Randy to get his shit under control, you’ve gotta live with the fact that some people are gonna criticize him and you and your team. It’s your choice, but you’ve gotta take whatever comes, good or bad, of the choice you make.

The league’s response is even funnier. The NFL hit Moss with a $10,000 fine for the incident, which, given how many millions of dollars the man makes, pretty much amounts to saying, “Well, we guess we’d better do something to make it look like we give a shit about this stuff.” I can think of two better ways of handling such matters. If you really don’t give a shit about this stuff, come right out and say so. Just make a statement saying, “You know what? If Randy Moss wants to mime a moon, that’s just dandy by the NFL.” I guarantee you, no one but Joe Buck will mind. Or, if you really do give a shit about this stuff, stop handing out minor fines for it. Stop handing fines entirely, in fact. Instead, make any end zone celebration that amounts to flagrant showboating — that is, not a dance, not a team celebration, not the Lambeau leap, but stuff like pulling out a Sharpie and signing a ball, running to midfield and spiking the ball, pulling out a cell phone and pretending to make a call, or pretending to moon the crowd at an away game — subject to an unsportsmanlike conduct call enforced on the kickoff (or on the PAT). That is if you really want to put an end to this stuff (and I’m not saying you should; I don’t care either way). Because I promise you that if that shit results in a player’s team having to kick off from its own 15, or missing what should be an automatic point after, or losing all hope of making a crucial two-point conversion — that shit will stop. No fine you can assess can possibly equal pressure from a player’s coach and teammates.

What does any of this stuff have to do with this weekend’s Divisional Playoffs? Not a damned thing. But I went and wrote it all anyhow.

One thing that happened in the Minnesota-Green Bay game that does have something to do with the upcoming slate of games is the fact that the Vikings won. And, no, I’m not just talking about the fact that the upset in Green Bay sent the Vikes to Philadelphia and the Rams (who also pulled off an upset victory last week) to Atlanta. I’m talking about the fact that that game illustrated for anyone who’s been paying attention that the NFC’s group of playoff qualifiers is probably only truly two deep. That is, you’ve got two real playoff teams, the ones that had week one byes (the Eagles and Falcons), and then the rest of the conference post-season teams, each of which was as good as the next. And despite all the talk I’ve been hearing about how the Rams might give the Falcons a good game on Saturday, I’m quite confident that the gulf between the top two seeds and the rest of the conference playoff teams will play out over this weekend.

Here’s the rest of what I see coming up:

NY Jets (+8.5) at Pittsburgh
Here’s your evidence that long-term trends almost never tell the whole story in the NFL. Home teams in the divisional playoff round boast a winning average of better than .800. There are good reasons for that. Those teams have had a week to rest, and, of course, they got the week off and the home game because they played well enough during the regular season to earn it. So that clearly favors Pittsburgh here. Then again, rookie quarterbacks have a horrible history in the playoffs. There’s a good reason for that as well. As anyone close follower of the NFL can tell you, playoff football is an entirely different game than regular season football. It’s faster. It’s harder hitting. And you have win week after week against the best teams in the league. That’s why in the Super Bowl era, only one rookie QB, Shaun King playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1999, has ever won a playoff game. (And the Bucs barely won that game, beating the Washington Redskins 14-13 by virtue of a pair of turnovers deep in Redskins territory that set up both Tampa Bay scores and a bad snap that cost Washington its chance to attempt what would have been a game-winning field goal. A week later, the Bucs lost to the St. Louis Rams in the NFC Championship.) That, of course, would appear to bode ill for Pittsburgh and its rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Trouble is, one of those overwhelming long-term statistics will mean nothing to the outcome of this game. And since there’s no guessing which one it’ll be, you have to kind of forget both. The only thing that makes sense, then, is to look at what happened the last time these teams played, which was in week 14 (not too long ago) at Pittsburgh. Jets quarterback Chad Pennington, just back from an injury, threw three interceptions that day. And the Steelers held Curtis Martin, the league’s leading rusher, to 72 yards on 24 carries (plus 35 yards on three catches). Can they do that again? Probably not. In their previous meeting, Martin had 174 yards, so he can surely do well against the Steelers defense if things go right for him. And if Pennington has a better day, giving the Jets D a chance to rest some, New York can probably keep things a good bit closer, maybe even give themselves a chance to win it. Also, Roethlisberger hardly had a stellar day in that last game with the Jets. He went nine for 19 with 144 yards, two interceptions and no TDs (though, in fairness, he might easily have ended up with one touchdown, if his team hadn’t had running back Jerome Bettis throw into the end zone on a trick play from the 10 yard line). But the Steelers are a 15-1 team for good reason. Their D is tough to penetrate (the toughest in the league, in fact). And Roethlisberger, despite his struggles in that last game with the Jets, appears to have a better head on his shoulders than any rookie QB I’ve ever seen. I don’t see the Jets losing by eight and a half, but I don’t see them winning either. I like Pittsburgh to come out of a tough, hard-fought game by about a field goal, maybe less.

St. Louis (+7) at Atlanta
The Rams’ victory last week over a Seattle Seahawks team they’d beaten twice during the regular season (accounting for a quarter of their eight victories) appears to have a good number of people believing the Rams of a few years ago have been reborn and are poised to hammer their way through the playoffs. I’m not so sure. I see a team that only qualified for the playoffs because it’s in a weak conference that beat an opponent that only qualified for the playoffs because it’s in a weak conference. I see a team that doesn’t match up well defensively against Atlanta’s offense. I see a team that needs to contain Falcons quarterback Michael Vick in order to win this game and that showed no ability pull off anything nearly so difficult during the course of the regular season. I see a crushing defeat at the hands of the team that I believe will be representing the NFC in the Super Bowl in three weeks. Take the Falcons and give the points.

Minnesota (+9.5) at Philadelphia
Last week, I called the Vikings the team least worthy of its playoff berth. I was wrong. The Vikes stepped up and beat the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. And although I believe that mostly just proves that the Packers didn’t belong in the playoffs either, I have to respect the Vikings, particularly quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who was amazing in that game, and asshole wide receiver Randy Moss, who played better hurt than most guys play healthy. This week, I’ll say that the Eagles are the team that least deserves to win in the playoffs. They chose not to show up for their last two regular season games, having shored up home-field advantage throughout early on, and there ought to be a price to pay for that. In fact, I’m sure the Eagles will pay, but not this week. The Vikings, while clearly playing with heart, are outclassed by the Eagles even without star wideout Terrell Owens (also an asshole). The Vikes will lose, but not, I think, by more than a touchdown.

Indianapolis (+2.5) at New England
Here’s the game the whole football watching world, except for Patriots fans, apparently expects to end in an upset. Peyton Manning and the Colts offense, conventional wisdom has it, will simply prove to be too much for an injury-plagued Patriots D. They’ll score maybe 40 points and they’ll finally break their long losing streak in Foxborough, paving their way to the trip to the Super Bowl they’re perceived to deserve. Trouble is, all those Indy backers, fans and experts alike, appear to have forgotten a few things. Like, say, the fact that New England, too, has an offense. A good offense. A better offense, in fact, than the one that beat Indy in the AFC Championship game last year and again at the start of this season. And the Pats D, in spite of injuries, has played exceptionally well all season. Let’s look at what the numbers say, shall we? The Colts offense is first in the league in points scored with 522 (32.6 a game). They face a Patriots defense that’s second in the league in points allowed with 260 (16.3). The Pats offense, meanwhile, is fourth in the league in scoring with 437 (27.3). It faces a Colts D that’s 19th in points allowed with 351 (21.9). Even without considering the fact that the Colts have amassed a good part of their impressive offensive stats playing indoors on turf and will be facing New England outdoors on grass (where the Colts don’t play well), that’s advantage Patriots. Furthermore, despite last weekend’s results, it remains axiomatic that you have to be able to run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense to win in the playoffs. The Patriots average 133.4 yards per game on the ground (seventh in the league) while the Colts average 115.8 (14th). The Patriots, meanwhile, allow only 98.3 yards per game on the ground (sixth) while the Colts allow 127.3 (24th). That sort of tells a story, doesn’t it? In the words of the great Foghorn Leghorn, “You can argue with me, but you can’t argue with figures.” The Pats win 35-31.

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Wild Card Picks

January 6th, 2005 Comments off

I’ve been spending a lot of time in my car this week, which means I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to Sirius NFL Radio. This is mostly a good thing. I mean, how couldn’t it be? Hours and hours of talk about the greatest sport ever invented as the pros head into the playoffs. This is fun.

That said, there are a few negatives. First, I’m pretty sure I hate John Riggins and Adam Schein, who host the program Afternoon Blitz. Why? Because they treat the defending champions like a non-factor in the playoffs, acknowledging the Patriots as part of the post-season picture only occasionally and mostly begrudgingly. Asked by a caller one day this week to rank the playoff teams in the respective conferences, for instance, they offered Pittsburgh easily as the AFC’s best team — and fair enough, the Steelers were amazing in the regular season, finishing 15-1, which makes them the best team in football until someone beats them — taking plenty of time to heap praise on the Steelers, then said something like, “I guess you’ve got to say New England at number two,” and nothing more about the Pats, before going on to talk about how great the Indianapolis Colts are. What the fuck, fellas? That’s a damned impressive team that plays in Foxborough, a team some pretty smart people think can repeat as league champion, a team that — unlike the one and three seeds you guys are so impressed with — opted to play football right through the last quarter of the regular season. Maybe you could give them a little bit of respect. Just a little.

Second, if I hear one more New Orleans fan whining about the tie-breaker rules that kept the Saints out of the playoffs, I’m gonna lose my fucking shit. Look, folks, here’s the deal: 8-8 teams don’t belong in the playoffs. They just don’t. And, yeah, two 8-8 NFC teams made the playoffs this season while yours didn’t. And, yeah, the three-way tie-breaker system is odd. But it is what it is. It’s on paper. It’s as fair as any other tie-breaking system. And all the Saints needed to do to make the post-season in the miserable NFC was to win one more regular-season game than they lost (well, two as it works out), something they were unable to do. The Vikings and the Rams got a gift. They’re in the playoffs even though they have no business being there, because other than Philadelphia and Atlanta (and maybe Green Bay — but probably not), the NFC simply doesn’t have any teams that have earned a damned thing this season. And bellyaching about how your team deserved the spoils of conference-wide inadequacy more than those other teams doesn’t reflect well on either you or the team. So shut up already.

Here’s how I see Wild Card weekend shaping up:

St. Louis (+4) at Seattle
One of two games this weekend featuring division rivals, one of which (the Rams in this case) swept the other in the regular season. And if you listen to the league and to ABC, that’s supposed to make this an exciting matchup. Can the Rams pull off the difficult task of beating a team three times in a season? Can they become the first 8-8 team ever to win a playoff game? Who cares? You know what the bottom line here is? Neither of these teams is going anywhere in the playoffs. This is the last game for one of them, the second to last for the other. And that’s all there is to it. The only reason this game has any potential to be exciting is the fact that one team is probably as sucky as the other. So, yeah, I’m taking the Rams to pull off the upset, just like virtually everyone else. But who the hell knows? And who the hell cares?

NY Jets (+6.5) at San Diego
Forget the fact that the Jets offense has been limping along for the last several weeks. Or don’t. Because it’s a factor. But consider these factors as well: The Jets are playing their second straight road game, making a cross-country trip a week after taking a loss at St. Louis in a long overtime. That’s not an easy situation to be in. Also, you have to wonder to what extent Jets defensive end John Abraham’s approach to this game is indicative of the mindset of other Jets players. Abraham, who was expected to return from a knee injury in time for that Rams game but didn’t, now says he’ll base his decision on whether to play this weekend (in a playoff game) on whether he believes reinjuring the knee (always a possibility in pro football) will hurt his chances to get a good deal as a free agent in the off season. Way to get behind your team, John. If there are other Jets players who feel that way, it’s gonna be a very long evening for New York. And while I couldn’t be more delighted by the idea of the Jets and their wonderful fans taking one on the chin, I have to sorta feel bad for guys like running back Curtis Martin and quarterback Chad Pennington, both of whom play hard all the time and deserve better. The Chargers, who have been remarkable this season and who clearly value winning, should take this one by a touchdown.

Denver (+10) at Indianapolis
The Colts deserve to lose this game as punishment for refusing to field a team in last Sunday’s matchup against the Broncos. The Colts essentially elected to take Denver as their wild card round opponent by taking the loss in Colorado last week (a win over the Broncos would have opened the door for another AFC team to take the six seed). They probably believe they can’t help but put the same kind of hurting on the Broncos this season as they did in last season’s playoffs. And if there’s any justice in this world, they’ll pay for their arrogance with a first-round loss to a lesser team. Thing is, there is no justice in this world. So while I don’t expect a blowout, I do expect the Colts to win a tight one, maybe by a field goal.

Minnesota (+6) at Green Bay
The Vikings are easily the team least worthy of its playoff berth. They don’t act like they want to win. They don’t even act like a team a lot of the time. Mike Tice is without question one of the worst coaches in the league, a talent squanderer of the highest (lowest?) order. And they lost to the Packers twice during the regular season. Still, if the Vikings remember to run the ball some of the time they might actually be able to stay with the Pack until the fourth quarter. Even then, I don’t see them pulling off an upset victory, though. I’m taking Green Bay straight up, Minnesota with the points.

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Week Seventeen Picks

January 2nd, 2005 Comments off

Yes, that’s right, I’m late. What’s it matter? We all know where this week’s games are headed, don’t we? Actually we don’t. Not against the spreads, anyhow. But, you know what? There’s no amount of insight anyone can offer there.

Seven of 12 playoff seeds are locked in. Four AFC teams — Pittsburgh, New England, Indianapolis and San Diego — and three NFC teams — Philadelphia, Atlanta and Green Bay — go into this weekend knowing exactly where they’re seeded for the postseason, which is to say with no incentive to play hard or risk injuries to key starters. Another 15 teams have been eliminated from playoff contention. That leaves 10 teams that aren’t either looking forward to next week or looking forward to next year.

The New York Jets, Denver, Buffalo, Jacksonville and Baltimore, all have some kind of hope (though it’s slim for those last two) of sneaking into one of the AFC wild card slots. And in the NFC, Seattle, which is in the playoffs, is looking to sew up a division title and a home game while St. Louis, Minnesota, Carolina and New Orleans are all seeking some way into the post-season. Trouble is, only four of the teams that are still in contention are playing each other. Far more of this week’s games pit superior teams with no incentive to play against inferior teams that either downright desperate or at least interested enough in winning that they ought to come out ahead. But by how many points? Dunno. Every one of these things could be decided by 20. Or by three.

Looking for a smart wager? Stay the fuck away from professional football this week. Put the money aside and make an extra bet on the playoffs next week.

For whatever little it’s worth, though, here’s what I see:

Cincinnati (-3) at Philadelphia
The Bengals will look like the Bengals in the first half, when they’re up against the Eagles starters. Then in the second half, they’ll start to look more like the Bills. It won’t matter, but only because it doesn’t. Take Cincinnati and go on ahead and give those points.

Cleveland (+9.5)at Houston
No one’s going anywhere this season, but maybe the Texans will next year. Of course, that’s what people said about the Browns a year ago and look at how well that worked out. Take Houston and give the points.

Detroit (-3) at Tennessee
Another game with no implications for anyone. Except, you know, maybe Lions quarterback Joey Harrington, who needs very badly to end his season with a stellar performance. I’ve got a feeling he’ll get one and that the Tennessee offense, with an injured Billy Volek under center, will have a hard time keeping up.

Green Bay (+3) at Chicago
No team needs to keep up its momentum more than the Packers, who are in the playoffs after a mediocre season only because the Vikings organization doesn’t realize its got a shitty coach. I bet they play hard and find a way to pull off the upset even if their starters do end up on the bench by halftime.

Miami (+11) at Baltimore
The Ravens still have an outside chance of finding their way into the playoffs — if they win and every other AFC team in contention loses, they’re in, baby — so they’ll play their asses off for nothing. The Dolphins, who have found some kind of soul of late, will manage to make them sweat. And since both of these teams are D oriented, what you have to do here is take the Ravens straight up, but the Dolphins with the points.

Minnesota (-3.5) at Washington
The Vikings make it into the playoffs either by winning this game or by benefiting from a Jets victory over the Rams. They’ll get in the cheap way, not because the Redskins are a good team (they’re not; and without running back Clinton Portis, they’re less of a good team than usual), but because that’s the kind of football team the Vikings are. Take the Redskins to win it outright.

New Orleans (+8) at Carolina
In an ideal world this would be a slugfest, a battle to the finish between a home team that has battled its way back from an awful start to its post-Super Bowl season — and made a late push for the playoffs in spite of being burdened with major injuries — and a visitor that has had an up-and-down season but is determined to go somewhere for a change. But this is the real world. And in the real world, the Panthers put a major beating on the Saints. Take Carolina and give the points.

NY Jets (-3) at St. Louis
Two teams looking for a way into the playoffs. One of them belongs there. The other one should get the opportunity to start shopping for a new coach by the end of the day tomorrow (if they ‘re smart, which they usually aren’t). Take the Jets and give the points.

Pittsburgh (+9) at Buffalo
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has bruised ribs. Running back Jerome Bettis has a sprained ankle. And wide receiver Plaxico Burress is still nursing a hamstring injury. None of those guys will see the field this week in this game that means nothing to Pittsburgh. Add the fact that the Bills are hotter than hot and playing for a playoff spot (which, sadly, it appears they won’t get — they need a win and a loss by either Denver or the Jets, which ain’t gonna happen) and you get the formula for a Buffalo win. Take the Bills, but don’t give the damned points. Pittsburgh’s D has too much pride to let it get out of hand.

San Francisco (+13.5) at New England
The worst team the league goes to Foxborough to face the defending champions. It’s hard to imagine the Pats will do anything but win, second team or not. But two touchdowns is way too much to give in this situation.

Atlanta (+5) at Seattle
A win here, or a St. Louis loss to the Jets (see above) gives the Seahawks (who would be 9-7) the NFC West championship and the conference four seed, which illustrates just how sad the NFC is. Fortunately for Seattle, the Falcons have nothing to play for here. Not that it matters, really, since the Rams have no chance of beating the Jets anyhow. One way or the other, the Seahawks are a guaranteed first- or second-round casualty in the playoffs. Take the Hawks and … I don’t know, give the points? Who cares?

Tampa Bay (+3) at Arizona
No one goes anywhere no matter what happens here. And Buccaneers quarterback Brian Griese is hurt, so I guess you’ve gotta like the home team. I guess. Maybe Arizona wins it by exactly three. Yawn.

Indianapolis (+9) at Denver
Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy would have to be dumber than paint to let his starters anywhere near the field in this game. Not only do the Colts know they’ll be hosting a game next weekend, but they also know that if they lose this game, they’ll likely end up facing the Broncos again, whereas if they win this one, they might end up playing Buffalo. There’s no question which team they’d rather have, so my guess is they’ll find a way to lose to the Broncos here only to eat them for lunch in a week. Still, give nine to Indy? Are you insane?

Jacksonville (pick ’em) at Oakland
Chances are beyond good the Jaguars’ fading playoff hopes will have gone to black before this game kicks off. The Jags need a win plus losses by both Denver and Buffalo. That’s not in the cards. But I still expect Jacksonville to come out and play hard. They should have no trouble winning against an Oakland team that has a busy off-season ahead, because it desperately needs a new … well a new everything.

Kansas City (-3) at San Diego
It was obvious this game would have little meaning five months ago. You knew one team would be headed for the playoffs, probably as AFC West champs, and the other would be headed into a long off-season. It’s just weird which team turned out to be in which position. What does any of that mean. Nothing. Just like this game. Take the Chiefs and go on ahead and give the points.

Dallas (+3) at NY Giants
What a way to wrap up a season. Two once-great teams that have no chance of going anywhere facing each other to answer the question of which has fallen farther. Oh, and there’s the drama of Giants quarterback Eli Manning, at the beginning of his career, facing Cowboys quarterback Vinny Testaverde, who’s about three seasons past what should have been the end of his, but who’s nonetheless contemplating playing another. Oh, my, oh, my. This is pro football at its finest. Take the home team and give the points. Or go the other way. I don’t know.

Please, please get here soon, playoffs.

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