Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Lions season outlook, week 17 and beyond

A rout of San Diego puts the Lions in the playoffs, and a New Orleans rout of Atlanta gives Detroit the #5 seed for now. The opening line for the Detroit-Green Bay game was Packers -1.5, but that's already shifted to Detroit -3.5 ... clearly Las Vegas or bettors (or both) see McCarthy resting his starters in a mostly-meaningless game for the Packers. Atlanta plays a late game, so they'll know at kickoff whether or not they have a shot at the #5 seed.

Massey projections:
Week 17: at Green Bay, heavy underdog
Tossups are 50%; slight favorites are up to 3-2 (60%), then favorites up to 3-1 (75%), then heavy favorites up to 5-1 (86%), then overwhelming favorites. Slight underdogs are down to 2-3 (40%), then underdogs down to 1-3 (25%), then heavy underdogs down to 1-5 (14%), then overwhelming underdogs.


We'll have to wait for next week to find out more ... Massey's new layout makes it really hard to draw any conclusions. Sagarin has the Lions as a slight favorite against either Dallas or the Giants and a 6- to 6.5-point underdog against New Orleans or San Francisco, so that #5 seed is a big deal.

The Playoff Odds report for Week 17:

Mean wins: 10.2, up 0.3
NFC title: 4.6%, up 1.3 points
Super Bowl win: 2.1%, up 0.7 points

Obviously a playoff spot is secured, and that probably is the cause for the increase in NFC and Super Bowl title chances.

The Lions didn't struggle at all last week. It was 24-0 at halftime, and San Diego was never really close. I believe Detroit will have the same focus on the road, even if in front of a hostile crowd and likely in inclement weather. (Weather Underground says otherwise, though.) I'll assume that the Packers don't play Rodgers much, if at all. Detroit will move the ball fairly well, and Flynn won't do nearly as well against a fired-up defense. It won't be easy, but the Lions will lock down the #5 seed. Twenty years ago, they had a similar situation, but it was for the division title and a first-round bye, and it was against the AFC's #1 seed, the Bills. With Kelly, Thomas, and Reed on the sidelines, Buffalo was still able to hold down Barry Sanders and company, but Detroit stole a win in overtime, 17-14, finishing 12-4 (still a franchise record for regular-season wins) and setting the stage for their only playoff win in modern history. There will be no playoff home game, barring some crazy upsets (right, Colts fans?), but still ... Lions, 20-17.

Last week: predicted 31-26, actual 38-10

Current mood: ready for this "playoffs" thing I've heard so much about

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

NFL week 16: what's left?

Here's a quick rundown of the playoff standings and possibilities:
  • Green Bay has locked up the #1 seed in the NFC. (It's not "homefield advantage throughout the playoffs", as announcers like to say, because the Super Bowl is at a neutral site.)
  • San Francisco leads New Orleans for the #2 seed by virtue of a better conference record. To hold on, they just need the same result at St. Louis that the Saints get against Carolina: a win clinches it, a tie will do it if New Orleans does not win, and the 49ers can get it even with a loss if the Panthers beat the Saints. These are both 1:00 games, so Sean Payton can't rest Brees (now that he has the record) and his starters as he could if the 49ers played first.
    Prediction: The 49ers will beat the Rams and finish with the #2 seed. 
  • The 8-7 Cowboys and 8-7 Giants meet on Sunday night for the NFC East title and #4 seed. A Dallas win puts the Cowboys in; a tie or a Giants win puts New York in the playoffs.
    Prediction: New York sweeps the Cowboys and makes the playoffs. Tony Romo is blamed for not winning the game from the bench.
  • Detroit holds the #5 seed at 10-5, while Atlanta is #6 at 9-6. Both teams have clinched playoff spots with the next-best team at 8-7 (see above) but no better than 8-7-1. Detroit visits Green Bay and Atlanta hosts Tampa Bay. Atlanta holds the tiebreaker thanks to a head-to-head win over Detroit, but the Falcons have to beat Tampa Bay and hope the Packers play their starters against the Lions to take the #5 seed back. The NFC North game is early and the NFC South game is late, so Mike Smith could rest his starters for a third game against New Orleans if the Lions don't lose to Green Bay at 1:00.
    Prediction: Mike McCarthy will rest his starters; the Lions will take advantage and win at Green Bay, finishing with the #5 seed. 
  • New England has a one-game lead over Baltimore and Pittsburgh for the #1 seed in the AFC, but would lose a tiebreaker to either team. To hold on, the Patriots need either a tie or a win over Buffalo, or losses by both AFC North teams. Baltimore has a head-to-head sweep of Pittsburgh and thus has the divisional tiebreaker: if Buffalo wins, a Baltimore win gives the Ravens the #1 seed. A win by Buffalo plus a loss or tie by Baltimore means a Pittsburgh win over Cleveland puts the Steelers #1. The team that finishes second in the AFC North gets the #5 seed.
    Prediction: New England crushes the Bills and gets the #1 seed. Baltimore loses to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh beats Cleveland, giving the Steelers the division and the #2 seed. Baltimore is #5.
  • The Texans are locked into the #3 seed; their loss to the Ravens plus the Baltimore advantage over Pittsburgh means that the only way the AFC North champ finishes with the same record as Houston is if it's Baltimore.
  • Like in the NFC, the weakest division is up for grabs: the winner gets the #4 seed. Unlike in the NFC, the second-place team in the AFC West could still get a wild-card spot. Denver holds the tiebreaker over both Oakland and San Diego based on record in common games, so only the Raiders and Broncos have playoff possibilities. If Denver matches Oakland, they win the division, and if Oakland has a better result, they win.
    Prediction: TEBOW fails to deliver again as Kyle Orton knocks the Broncos out of the playoffs. (There's a lesson in there somewhere. Too bad Josh McDaniels isn't around to learn it.) 
  • Denver can't get a wild-card spot: either they win the division or they're out. That leaves Oakland, Cincinnati, and the Jets with chances to finish as the #6 seed. Cincinnati is 9-6 and controls its destiny: anything but a loss puts them in. They also get in with a loss plus not-wins by Oakland and New York. The Raiders need a win plus a Cincinnati loss (a win over the Jets gives them the tiebreaker there); the Jets need a win plus losses by both the Bengals and Raiders.
    Prediction: Cincinnati's win over Baltimore gives them the #6 seed. 
That would mean that the wild-card round would be Detroit at New York, Atlanta at New Orleans, Baltimore at Oakland, and Cincinnati at Houston.

In non-playoff news:
  • Great job by the Colts to pull out two wins from a disappointing season. That makes a huge difference, especially for the fans. Yes, there are fools who believe that Andrew Luck will make the Colts Super Bowl contenders "just like Peyton did", and yes, having a marquee QB makes it a lot easier to succeed in the playoffs, but Luck is no sure thing, and I don't know that you could even get players to tank. Indianapolis still has a slight advantage in strength of schedule over the Rams, so they might get the #1 pick even if they win one more game.
  • Raheem Morris says he isn't going to fire himself. Funny, that's what Matt Millen said too, and he actually could have done it. Sure, maybe last year's Bucs weren't as good as 10-6, but that was their record, and that's a lot better than 4-12. Carolina has a terrible defense and is going to finish with 6 wins. What does that say about the future for Tampa Bay? 
  • Non-playoff draft position will be fun to figure out. There are four NFC teams at 7-8 and four AFC teams at 8-7. Expect tiebreakers to have an impact outside the playoff chase as well as within it. (And note that a 4-12 team could pick sixth this year!)
  • Minnesota catches a huge break, playing bad Chicago next week. A win there would make them 4-12, which would be two games worse than last season, but understandable given the Lions' resurgence. Still, Leslie Frazier has to be feeling heat. With Adrian Peterson out indefinitely (maybe he'll be healthy for Week 1 in 2012, maybe not), suddenly the Vikings have to determine whether or not they'll have a competent passing attack next season. Joe Webb apparently wasn't the answer, but continues to look good as long as he's not the starter. Christian Ponder is young and shows promise, but he's going to have to play better to help Frazier keep his job. Minnesota is certainly doing nothing to encourage the construction of a new stadium (at taxpayers' expense, naturally), and it's hard to picture a city wanting this NFL team. 
  • The two teams with the best strength of victory are Indianapolis (Houston and Tennessee) and St. Louis (New Orleans and Cleveland).

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Lions season outlook, week 16

Yet again, another close call. Yet again, it came down to the final play, and yes, a 65-yard field goal is still a viable attempt if Sebastian Janikowski is your kicker. The Lions held on, though, and escaped Oakland with a huge win. Instead of being just a game ahead of the sub-wild-card pack, Detroit is now two games up, with their magic number being 1 ... a Lions win, or a loss by each of the teams that don't have a tiebreaker edge over Detroit (Seattle, Chicago, and Arizona), will give them a wild-card spot. Two wins plus at least one Atlanta loss will give them the #5 seed and an "easier" game at the NFC East champion. (Of course if it's Dallas, the Lions already have good memories from a road game there.)

Massey projections:
Week 16: San Diego, slight favorite
Week 17: at Green Bay, heavy underdog (moved up)

Tossups are 50%; slight favorites are up to 3-2 (60%), then favorites up to 3-1 (75%), then heavy favorites up to 5-1 (86%), then overwhelming favorites. Slight underdogs are down to 2-3 (40%), then underdogs down to 1-3 (25%), then heavy underdogs down to 1-5 (14%), then overwhelming underdogs.

San Diego remains about the same thanks to the Chargers' renaissance. Green Bay drops a little, but of course that is assuming the starters play the entire way. They likely won't, as the Packers should crush the injured Bears and clinch the top seed next week. Without a perfect season at stake, the last game should be meaningless.

Unfortunately, Massey's site has changed, and expected wins are no longer available.

The Playoff Odds report for Week 16:

Mean wins: 9.9, up 0.5
Playoffs: 85.6%, up 11.5 points
NFC title: 3.3%, up 0.9 points
Super Bowl win: 1.4%, up 0.4 points


Winning a 50/50 game gives you an extra half-win. Chicago's collapse is complete, the Giants throw away wild-card hopes, so it's up to Seattle to make a wild-card run. (They have most of the remaining playoff hopes at 10.9%.)

The Lions did struggle against the Raiders' defense, except when it came to Calvin Johnson, and that seems to be a Mrs. Lincoln situation. The Lions were lucky to hold on for the win. Fortunately, they'll be at home this week, but unfortunately, San Diego has figured out how to play again. Instead of an easy win, this should be a close game. I believe Detroit will clinch a playoff win at home, though. Lions, 31-26.

Last week: predicted 24-14, actual 28-27

Current mood: excited

Monday, December 19, 2011

NFL week 15: failure

Not on the part of the Lions, of course, but for many other teams, opportunities were lost this week. Several of those teams won't get another chance like the one they had Sunday.

NFC

  • Green Bay lost a game that was essentially meaningless: San Francisco was the only team that could catch them in the first place, and that would require the Packers losing out and the 49ers winning out. All that this did was take the pressure of deciding how hard to play in Week 17 off Mike McCarthy, to the delight of Lions fans. Green Bay has a guaranteed win next week at home against the toothless Bears, and after that, McCarthy can send out the starters for a token series against Detroit and let them rest. (Side note: it's a good thing Green Bay ran away with the division, because look at the schedule. How on earth did the Packers get both Chicago and Detroit at home in the cold to close the season, while the Bears visit Green Bay and Minnesota? If you're going to set up more divisional games in December and January, then split them up better.)
  • San Francisco's loss to Arizona was a big deal, and not just because it gave the Cardinals hope for a wild-card spot (at least for one week). That plus a loss on Monday night would have all but knocked the 49ers out of a first-round bye, and if the 49ers somehow lost their last two games (losing at Seattle is a possibility; at St. Louis, well ...), they could have fallen to fourth if Dallas wins their last two games, thanks to that Week 2 overtime loss. The win over Pittsburgh locked the NFC East champ into the #4 seed and kept the 49ers ahead of New Orleans thanks to their conference record.
  • For a quarter, it looked like New Orleans might be giving Atlanta and San Francisco a big chance to grab the #2 and #3 seeds ... and then the Saints remembered that Minnesota is terrible, blowing out the Vikings to record their 11th win of the season, the third straight season they've accomplished that. No other NFL team has a streak that long. With Atlanta and Carolina at home (again, how does this happen?), New Orleans should keep the pressure on the 49ers for that #2 seed.
  • Dallas got their loss out of the way on Saturday night, then sat back and watched as the Giants lost a golden opportunity to move back into the division lead. However, there are four teams at 7-7 who'd love to pass Dallas in the wild-card race, such as it is, should they continue to stumble, and even Philadelphia has a chance at Dallas' NFC East spot. The Cowboys will have no one but themselves to blame if they do blow it, though: they can knock the Eagles out at home on Saturday and then hold off the Giants in New York. If they do win this week, the Jets may well put the Cowboys in, although neither New York team looks particularly playoff-worthy at this point.
  • Atlanta, on the other hand, had an excellent week: they won easily on Saturday, and Chicago and the Giants lost on Sunday. The Falcons still control the race for #5 in the NFC, but they can't afford to think they have it locked up. Detroit's schedule just got easier with Green Bay's loss, and the Falcons visit New Orleans on Monday night. A loss there could well send them to New Orleans again in the wild-card round (if the 49ers finish with the #2 seed), rather than what seems like a much easier game in Dallas or New York. 
  • Detroit was about 5 minutes away from falling into a pack of 7-7 wolves when they realized that this year, they have an offense capable of coming back in just about any situation. They roared back to knock off the Raiders and hang on to the #6 seed. (I think Calvin Johnson is still open as I type this.) 391 yards passing, 4 touchdowns, zero interceptions ... Stafford did have the one sack/fumble/touchdown, but other than that, he played well when he needed to. The Lions were 8 of 17 on third downs, Johnson had 9 catches for 214 yards and 2 touchdowns, and while the Detroit defense did give up a number of big plays, they forced a number of punts as well (Oakland was just 1 of 9 on third down), and that was enough to set the stage for yet another double-digit comeback. The Lions can't keep digging those holes, though, and they can't keep committing penalties. Even if the two horse-collar calls were crap (there's only one penalty called less consistently and accurately than that one, roughing the passer; the one on Avril was particularly bad), it's hard to argue with the rest. Discipline is still a problem. It's no surprise that Schwartz didn't stick to his guns about benching players who commit post-possession fouls (although I'm not sure there were any Sunday); the Lions just don't have the depth to do it now. 
  • Seattle does not have an easy road to a playoff spot. They have to win out and have Detroit lose out, which sounds great until you realize that Seattle's last two games are home vs. San Francisco and at Arizona, who might also be playing for that final wild-card spot. Actually, Seattle could also sneak in if Atlanta loses out, but because the Falcons beat the Seahawks, Atlanta holds that tiebreaker, so it can't be for the #6 spot. A three-way tie with Atlanta, Detroit, and Seattle would work, because Seattle would have a better conference record (after Atlanta's sweep of Detroit and Seattle gives them the #5 seed) ... and if you put the Giants in at 9-7 for a four-way tie, Seattle actually gets the #5 seed themselves thanks to that conference record. All that said, Seattle needs a lot of help. Even if they don't get it, Pete Carroll's team has done a good job getting this far with Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback. (And here I thought San Francisco was going to win the division by six games. It turns out the NFC East might be the division with no teams over .500.)
  • The Bears are done. You knew that already. It's interesting to see how important Cutler and Forte are to Chicago ... last year, with Stafford out and Best banged up, the Lions still won their last four games, two of which were against teams in playoff contention (although the Packers did lose Aaron Rodgers to injury in their game). This year, with much better defense and special teams than Detroit had last year, and with arguably a better offensive line, the Bears have nothing. I think Chicago just doesn't have enough talent on offense to get through injury problems, and Martz still doesn't impress me as an offensive coordinator. (There's also the decision to pass on an experienced backup. Imagine if Carson Palmer were in Chicago ...)
  • The Giants seem determined to miss the playoffs. A win over Washington would have put them back in first place with two games to go, but the inexplicable loss at home to Washington means that they could actually be out of the playoffs by the time the Cowboys visit in Week 17. A loss to the Jets (or wins by Detroit and Atlanta) means that the Giants can't get a wild-card spot, and if Dallas wins as well, the Cowboys get the division. This is a game that New York had to win; losing a game like this makes you wonder if they'd have a chance even if they did make the playoffs. Most of the Giants' losses are understandable, especially with Seattle at 7-7 now, but being swept by Washington is what will have New York players watching TV in January.
  • Arizona nearly blew their slim chances at a playoff spot, then rallied for an overtime win (how can you not cover Larry Fitzgerald?). Next up is a road game at Cincinnati, who's also fighting for a playoff spot. If they survive that game, they still need Detroit to lose to San Diego, and then in Week 17, an Arizona win and a Detroit loss would give the Cardinals the edge based on conference record. 
  • Philadelphia is still in the hunt as well. A win over Dallas next week pulls the Eagles to within a game of first place; if the Giants lose to the Jets and beat Dallas, and Philadelphia beats Washington, the Eagles get the division thanks to their 5-1 division record. I know, it sounds crazy, but then someone should have put the East away by now, and that hasn't happened yet. The Eagles can't get a wild-card spot, but they can win the division as long as the Giants cooperate.
  • Carolina is definitely an improved team on offense. If they can add a couple of solid players on defense, this could be a pretty good team next year. The South is a tough division, so they've got a ways to go before they can contend for it, but the Panthers are quite a bit better than they were last season. There haven't been many games where they looked like a 1-15 team: they've only lost three games by double digits, and all of those were to playoff contenders (Atlanta, Detroit, and Tennessee).
  • Washington's had a bad season, in part because they have bad quarterbacks, but they swept the Giants, and that means a lot in D.C. They should beat the hapless Vikings next week, and then they could potential derail the Eagles' long-shot bid for a division title in Week 17. 
  • Tampa Bay, on the other hand, has road games left against Carolina and Atlanta (scheduling fail), so they'll probably end up 4-12. Not good for a team that was 10-6 last season and just a few plays from making the playoffs. The Bucs need a lot of help on both offense and defense; I don't know that you can put a lot of this on Raheem Morris, but it's easier to change coaches than to change players, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see Tampa Bay look for a new coach next season. (Of course the Glazers may be sending more money overseas to pay for their loss-leader EPL team, so perhaps Morris will get to coach through the end of his contract.)
  • Minnesota has two winnable games left, so they might not look as bad as they are when the season is over. (Washington is unpredictable, so that might not be an easy win, but look at the Bears and tell me that they can beat the Vikings.) Christian Ponder is getting valuable playing time, but that's about all Leslie Frazier can take from this season. The offense is bad, the defense is bad, special teams are bad ... if anything happens to Jared Allen, what's left of the Vikings' pass rush will disappear. It's easy to see why QB Redacted retired. Would you want to have finished your career with this team?
  • St. Louis' remaining schedule: at Pittsburgh, home vs. San Francisco. The Rams have gotten noticeably worse this season (they weren't anywhere near as good as their 7-9 record would suggest), and that has to be a problem for Steve Spagnuolo. As Detroit fans will tell you, you can't just plug a highly-drafted QB into a bad offense and expect him to win games for you, even if the offense already has one of the better backs in the league. (Will somebody rescue Steven Jackson already? He deserves better than this.) The Rams have problems on both sides of the ball, and I don't know that one more draft is going to fix all of them. It doesn't help matters that the rest of the division seems to have left them in the dust. 

AFC

  • The Patriots' defense still doesn't look very good, and yet New England now has a one-game lead on the entire conference with two weeks left. Home games against Miami and Buffalo virtually guarantee the Patriots a 13-win season, which means a first-round bye at worst and the top seed at best. (Favorable scheduling.) I know that not too many playoff games end up as 40-38 shootouts, but it wasn't that long ago that Indianapolis figured out how to get its sieve-like defense to resemble a playoff-caliber defense come playoff time, and it worked very well. (Facing a team with Rex Grossman at QB in the Super Bowl didn't hurt either.) 
  • The Ravens are in, and they will be no worse than #5 with a win or a Cincinnati loss Saturday, but they had a chance to win out and take the division, and instead they had to wait (and wait and wait) for San Francisco to stop Pittsburgh, keeping Baltimore in first place in the North. The Bengals will probably be in the wild-card race in any event, so the season finale at Cincinnati will be an important game for both teams. Baltimore does not want to face a high-powered offense, not as long as Joe Flacco continues to struggle. The Chargers sat back and made Flacco check down again and again, and the Ravens simply couldn't put together enough short passes to sustain drives. Other AFC defenses have taken note.
  • We knew the Texans couldn't keep winning with a third-string QB. They're safely in the playoffs, but it would be nice to get a bye as well. Houston should beat Indianapolis on the road on Thursday, and then a win in the season finale against Tennessee will have them rooting for a Pittsburgh loss. The worst Houston will likely be is third; the TEBOWs would win a tiebreaker based on conference record, but that would require two Houston losses and two TEBOW wins, and I don't think God cares enough to make that happen.
  • TEBOWTEBOWTEBOW failed once again to defeat an actual team with an actual offense. Thankfully, Belichick knows enough not to play a prevent defense the entire fourth quarter against a guy who can't read coverage and can't throw well. John Fox is well aware that a run-heavy team simply can't compete in the current NFL, but he has no choice: TEBOW isn't going to become an NFL quarterback, and the fan base wasn't going to sit quietly and let a real quarterback work through some problems when TEBOW was on the bench, waiting for his chance to show what a star he could be. It would be ironic if Orton led Kansas City to a win in Denver in Week 17 to knock the TEBOWs out of the playoffs. (It might also serve Elway right. He knows better than to let this kind of situation develop. You need to support your coach and GM when they make good but unpopular decisions. Without that support, they have to do things like run an option offense in one of the most passing-heavy eras of all time. That's like putting your money in a savings account when stocks are providing 10% dividends.)
  • Baltimore neatly wrapped a present and put it under Mike Tomlin's Christmas tree: a first-round bye. Unfortunately, the Steelers returned it unopened, and they remain the #5 seed. If Roethlisberger's health continues to be an issue, even a win over St. Louis isn't a guarantee (ask New Orleans), and of course the Steelers must still get some help to get that first-round bye. The #1 seed is pretty much out of reach thanks to that loss on Monday night, and as long as Houston has the same record as Pittsburgh, the Steelers can't count on getting a bye even if Baltimore does stumble down the stretch.
  • The Jets got blown out by a team barely in the playoff race. Their margin for error isn't gone yet, but Cincinnati is now tied with the Jets, and three teams are just a game back. There is plenty of time for New York to play themselves out of the playoffs: they could even lose their tiebreaker edge over Cincinnati if both teams split, but New York's loss to is Miami. (The Jets currently have an edge in common games, so an extra conference loss would swing the tiebreaker back to the Bengals.) First, though, they need to focus on the Giants. Eli giveth and Eli taketh away; for the Jets to feel good about postseason play, they need to hope for the former. 
  • Cincinnati gets a little scheduling help, but not much, for their late-season playoff drive: their last two games are at home against Arizona and Baltimore, both playoff contenders. Ah, that early-season loss to the non-TEBOW Broncos ... flip that result and Cincinnati is 9-5 and still hoping for a share of the division title. Instead, they may need to win out and hope for some help. With one of the wild-card spots already taken by the second-place team in the North, that leaves just one spot, so the Bengals need to end Arizona's playoff hopes and then look for some help. 
  • Oh, Tennessee. Of all the times to stumble ... a win would have put the Titans in the #6 spot thanks to the Jets' loss, but instead Tennessee is a game back and has to rely on the "win out and get help" scenario that so many teams hope to avoid this time of year. Jacksonville will be no sure win, not with the Jaguars' defense playing as well as they have, and of course Houston will have something to play for during the final week, so that game isn't a guarantee either. Mike Munchak has to be thinking about his decision to start an injured Hasselbeck against the speed-rushing Colts defense. Indianapolis didn't get to him much, but they did harass him a lot and force quite a few short passes. Hasselbeck averaged just 5.6 YPA (better than Orlovsky's awful 4.8, though), and his two interceptions were both significant (one for a touchdown, the other one for a touchback). Combine that with another plodding game from Chris Johnson (one carry for 35 yards, 14 other carries for a total of 20 yards), and Tennessee doesn't really look like a playoff team after all. Winless team? Not any more.
  • Similarly, Oakland was playing pretty good defense against Detroit, except for covering Calvin Johnson. Time and time again, Stafford found Johnson open deep against the Raiders' secondary (oh Al, if you'd only seen these throws), and in the fourth quarter, Oakland was unable to stop the Lions from erasing a 13-point deficit, pushing the Lions to the edge of the playoffs and the Raiders to the edge of elimination. With Kyle Orton looking good in Kansas City and the defense coming to life in San Diego, Oakland's last two games don't look so easy any more. Hue Jackson's done a good job of keeping the momentum that Tom Cable built, but the Raiders may end up regretting the two games that got away. (Especially the loss to Buffalo. How bad does that look now that the Bills are well out of playoff contention? At least Detroit will finish with no fewer than 9 wins.)
  • San Diego isn't out of the picture any more, but they don't have any more home games, and their two remaining games are at Detroit and at Oakland, so to make the playoffs, they'll have to beat the Raiders for sure (or lose out on a tiebreaker) and then hope Denver struggles again. Defense is still an issue for San Diego (Baltimore's offense isn't that good, so stopping the Ravens in San Diego isn't as impressive as you might think), and Detroit is currently fourth in the league in scoring, so expect the Chargers' run to end in Ford Field. (The Lions have put up 48, 45, and 28 points against AFC West teams. I wonder what the NFL record is for most points in interconference games in one season?)
  • Like Philadelphia, Kansas City still has a shot at the division and no shot at a wild card. (Seven conference losses, including one to the Jets, will prevent them from winning any tiebreakers.) The Chiefs' last two games are home vs. Oakland and at Denver. If they win both, they'll be 8-8. A Denver loss at Buffalo plus a San Diego loss at Detroit means that both the Raiders and Chargers will be 7-8 going into their Week 17 showdown; the Chargers could even beat Detroit as long as they lose to Oakland. If no team is better than 8-8, Kansas City would win thanks to a 4-2 division record.
  • Miami is out of the playoffs, but they look a lot better at 5-9 than they did at 0-7. With games against the Patriots and Jets, the Dolphins will play a role in the playoff race even though they have no stake in it themselves.
  • Buffalo's tailspin continues, and with Denver and New England left, the Bills will likely finish 5-11. Some of that is from playing a tough schedule, but some is because the defense is bad. The Bills have a long way to go to be a contending team, and they'll have to do it in a division with a perennial contender in New England and another halfway-decent team in New York.
  • Like Miami, Cleveland can play spoiler, facing Baltimore and Pittsburgh in their last two games. Nothing much seems to have changed for the Browns: they're still a bad team that occasionally plays good games. I'd like to suggest patience for Cleveland fans, because teams can't be turned around quickly, but it would be understandable if they chose not to listen. The Browns haven't had consecutive winning seasons or playoff appearances since 1988-89. (The Lions did the former in 1999-2000 and the latter in 1994-95.) They've also lost 10 or more games in eight of the last nine seasons, with the exception being their 10-6 non-playoff season in 2007. (You know, the year that Derek Anderson looked like an NFL quarterback.) The Marty Schottenheimer era is a distant memory, and it'll be a couple of years before we know if Pat Shurmur has the Browns on the right track.
  • The Jaguars are just playing out the string. They can avoid tying the franchise record for losses by beating either Tennessee or Indianapolis, which would seem realistic given Sunday's results. (If they beat both, it'll be the 14th time in 17 seasons that they'll have won at least 6 games. Not bad for an expansion franchise in a tough division.)
  • Speaking of franchise records, the Colts avoided setting one by picking up a win against Tennessee. (They were also 1-15 in 1991.) Indianapolis hadn't had a losing season in 10 years, so younger Colts fans are probably shocked that this is happening. They've never known anything but winning. Older fans could tell them about unimpressive teams and losing seasons and "Playoffs?" (That was, I believe, the press conference after a 40-21 loss to San Francisco in 2001. The Colts fell to 4-6, but were still in the playoff race, I think, which is what prompted the question that led to the reaction I'm sure you've seen.) In a couple of years, maybe the Colts can win again. It won't happen next year. There are too many holes to fill, and an aging Peyton Manning can't hide them all. 
Games to watch:
  • Monday night, Atlanta at New Orleans. Anything but a Falcons win gives New Orleans the division. An Atlanta win or tie puts the Falcons in the playoffs, and a win keeps their division hopes alive.
  • Saturday, Oakland at Kansas City. The winner stays on Denver's heels, the loser is nearly finished (Oakland) or done (Kansas City).
  • Saturday, Arizona at Cincinnati. The Bengals are closer to a playoff spot; the Cardinals need two wins plus help.
  • Saturday, NY Giants at NY Jets. The Jets are in a better spot than the Giants, but neither team can afford a loss at this point.
  • Saturday, San Diego at Detroit. A Chargers win gives them a shot at the playoffs, a Lions win puts them in for the first time in 12 years.
  • Saturday, Philadelphia at Dallas. The Cowboys clinch the division with a win and a Giants loss or tie; the Eagles need a win plus help.
  • Saturday, San Francisco at Seattle. The 49ers chase the #2 seed while Seattle hopes for two wins plus help.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Lions season outlook, week 15

That was close. For a few minutes, it looked like the Lions would throw away an opportunity to move toward their first playoff spot in 12 seasons (an opportunity, as it turned out, to make up ground on every NFC wild-card contender except Atlanta). Fortunately, the refs helped Detroit on the final play, and instead of getting an embarrassing loss to a weak team with a third-string QB, the Lions hang on to pick up their 8th win, something that hasn't happened since 2000. It's turtles all the way down from here, though: one important game followed by another important game ...

Massey projections:
Week 15: at Oakland, slight favorite
Week 16: San Diego, slight favorite (moved down)
Week 17: at Green Bay, overwhelming underdog (moved down)

Tossups are 50%; slight favorites are up to 3-2 (60%), then favorites up to 3-1 (75%), then heavy favorites up to 5-1 (86%), then overwhelming favorites. Slight underdogs are down to 2-3 (40%), then underdogs down to 1-3 (25%), then heavy underdogs down to 1-5 (14%), then overwhelming underdogs.

San Diego drops again as the Chargers seem less likely to have thrown the season away and Detroit nearly loses a game they should have won easily. Green Bay does slide, as I thought it would. Expected wins are up a tick to 9.28, which is unusual given that two of their three remaining games dropped in probability.

The Playoff Odds report is below, and this time, it's just the injury-adjusted version:

Mean wins: 9.4, up 0.2
Playoffs: 74.1%, up 8.1 points
NFC title: 2.4%, down 0.1 points
Super Bowl win: 1.0%, unchanged


Nothing unusual here: Chicago and Dallas rocket downward, with Atlanta and Detroit the beneficiaries. NFC and Super Bowl chances are unlikely to change much, if at all.

Stafford did not carve up the Minnesota secondary. Jared Allen did cry about the officiating, but in this case, his complaints were justified: that was absolutely a face mask penalty that went uncalled, and bad calls in game X don't justify bad calls in game Y. Still, the defense swarmed Ponder and Webb (6 turnovers, 4 sacks, 2 touchdowns – I really should have started them) and built a big enough lead to give Detroit the chance to hold on when the second half, for a change, did not go their way. That should happen this week as well. Carson Palmer has played just one good defense, and he actually had a decent day against Chicago ... but he's thrown 3 or more picks in three of his seven games, all of which came against teams with average to below-average pass defenses. Detroit's pass defense is second in the league. If Houston or Delmas is healthy, this could be ugly for Oakland; if the Lions aren't careful, though, they could struggle against the Raiders' defense. (Oakland does give up a lot on the ground, but with Kevin Smith injured, the Lions would have no one to take advantage of that.) I think they will be careful, and I think Detroit's defense will give them their ninth win of the season. Lions, 24-14.

Last week: predicted 37-21, actual 34-28

Current mood: cautiously optimistic

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

NFL week 14: separation for real

Maybe it was a good thing I skipped a week. Well, I didn't do it on purpose – I meant to finish last week's post and never did – but it worked out that way. Now it's easier to see what's going on, playoff-wise, and so we'll proceed in seed order rather than by game. I'll break down what needs to happen and what could be a problem in the last three weeks.

NFC


  • Green Bay just has to keep Aaron Rodgers healthy. They've basically clinched home field throughout, with a three-game lead over New Orleans and San Francisco, so it's just a matter of playing out the string. Of course they ought to try to win every game (or give the fans refunds; tickets cost the same amount for games that teams throw away as they do for games where teams try), maybe. You have to balance rust against injury: the Colts haven't always managed that well, so maybe it'd be better to let the offense run the remaining teams off the field?
  • San Francisco clinched their division, but they're suddenly in a battle for the #2 seed with New Orleans, thanks to Arizona's upset win. They may get a break, though, if cheap-shot artist James Harrison is suspended for this week's game in San Francisco. Pittsburgh is the 49ers' lone remaining threat on the schedule, and anything that makes that game more likely to be a San Francisco win is a good thing. I don't think Harbaugh wants to see Alex Smith trying to run the offense in the Superdome: as it turns out, while Smith may be better now than he has been before, he's still no more than a mediocre QB, and that won't be enough to erase a deficit if the 49ers face one in the playoffs.
  • By the same token, New Orleans wants to win out and hope for a 49ers loss so that they can get a first-round bye and home field in that matchup with San Francisco, should it present itself. (How big is that loss to St. Louis now?) The Saints have a similar schedule: one tough game, home against Atlanta, surrounded by winnable games. The Saints' defense is still bad, and there's always the issue of a dome team playing outdoors in bad weather. I know, you're saying that San Francisco isn't in the Snow Belt, and my response to you is that I've been to San Francisco for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and it is not like weather in Los Angeles. It may not be Green Bay, but it may be cool and wet, and Brees doesn't have years of experience playing in that weather. (Yes, he did at Purdue, occasionally, but even then, the Boilers went to warm-weather bowl games in Texas and California.)
  • Now we get to the fun parts. The Giants were in danger of being steamrolled by the entire NFC playoff field, or at least most of it, until they snuck past Dallas and into the East lead. (I still think that these late time outs are crap. What is this, baseball?) New York's conference record is bad enough that they'll lose a tiebreaker at that level, and both the Lions and Falcons have advantages in common games, so barring a collapse by one or both, the Giants must win the division to make the playoffs. That makes the season finale against Dallas a must-win game. New York probably has to beat Washington and the Jets, too, but Dallas is so unpredictable that maybe that won't be necessary.
  • For a while, it looked like Atlanta was handing Detroit a nice Christmas present, but then they remembered that they don't want to play New Orleans or San Francisco in the first round, and they held off Carolina. The Falcons are in a good position at 8-5, and they can probably lose to New Orleans and still get in, but Jacksonville and possibly Tampa Bay will have interim coaches in place, and those games are always harder to predict. Remember, this is the team that scored just 13 points in Tampa during their first meeting. Atlanta can't afford to drop the return game as well.
  • Speaking of presents, Detroit watched two of the three teams directly above them in the playoff hunt lose on Sunday. The loss to Atlanta will break any ties with the Falcons, so the Lions are still sixth, and they'll lose a tiebreaker with Chicago, but they have the head-to-head edge on Dallas and should hold off the Giants as well, so as long as the Bears keep falling, Detroit will keep planning for another January game. Stafford has to stop making poor decisions, though. It should also be cause for concern that the offense generated just 20 points at home against an unimpressive defense. Ironically, only San Francisco has a noticeably better defense among NFC playoff contenders, so it isn't like the Lions' OL should be getting run over in the playoffs, but then Detroit has already lost to Green Bay, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Atlanta this season, so it's not like they've shown they can beat a playoff-caliber team. (Yes, they beat Chicago, the team with no QB and with an injured star RB, and yes, they beat Dallas, the team with significant end-of-game execution issues.)
  • Chicago is done. Yes, they have tiebreaker advantages over Atlanta, Detroit, and Dallas, but they have to win one more than the former two to get back in the picture, which means beating a hot Seattle team when Matt Forte won't be in the lineup, beating the Packers (which is no sure thing even if McCarthy rests his starters), or winning at Minnesota, and even that wouldn't necessarily help them enough. Given their struggles against AFC West teams, I wouldn't be surprised if Chicago ends up 7-9. All Bears fans who thought the NFC championship was evidence that Caleb Hanie should be the starter, you can go to Denver and root for TEBOWTEBOWTEBOW.
  • As long as Dallas stays within a game of the Giants, they can steal the division in Week 17, but that may mean beating Philadelphia, the team that crushed them 34-7 in October. I'm not sure that Jason Garrett and Tony Romo can keep their composure for a full game any more. A wild-card spot is unlikely, with both Chicago and Detroit having tiebreaker advantages and Atlanta basically being even. DeMarco Murray's injury is big, more because of the depth he provides than because of his skill itself. (After all, Felix Jones had a great game against the Giants. Sadly, I started Brandon Saine instead because I thought Murray would get all the touches.) Look at the Lions as an example of a team that's struggled because of their lack of depth at RB.
  • Seattle isn't entirely out of the playoff picture, but they do need a lot of help. They would have to pass Atlanta because of their loss to the Falcons, and they'd have to pass Detroit unless they can beat San Francisco to improve their record in common games (and even that might not be enough), but either of those teams could conceivably lose out, I suppose. It's more likely that the Seahawks will simply look back at their wins over the Giants and Ravens as good signs for the future. Next year, they'll be saying that all Carroll needs is one more year before Seattle is ready to make a run ... and eventually they'll figure out that he's never going to build the Seahawks into a winning team, just like he never built the Jets or Patriots into winning teams. He's the kind of coach who succeeds only when he has a built-in advantage over you. (Did I say "cheating"? I did. Carroll at USC = cheating. Also, recruiting advantage.) There is no advantage like that in the NFL.
  • Arizona's upset of San Francisco gives them the faintest bit of hope of grabbing a wild-card spot, but like Seattle, they'd need a lot of help. Their schedule isn't the best, either: after a win over Cleveland, they visit Cincinnati and then host Seattle to end the season. Arizona might also have a common-games advantage over Detroit, so like Seattle, they will be rooting against the Lions the next three weeks. It's unlikely they'd do any damage once they get to the playoffs, though. Arizona is a bad team in a bad division, and they're riding a couple of fortunate bounces into an outside shot at the #6 seed. New Orleans or San Francisco would make short work of them in the wild-card round.
  • The Eagles, like the Giants and Cowboys, have to win the division to get in. It's not impossible, either: Philadelphia has a game left against the Cowboys and is already 3-1 in the division. Beat Dallas, Washington, and the Jets, and they finish 8-8 with a sweep of Dallas. If the Cowboys lost at least one of their other two, and if the Giants lose at least two, Philadelphia would win a tiebreaker (divisional record or head-to-head, respectively) and steal a home playoff spot in a season that arguably could have gotten Andy Reid fired. Of course, it's just as likely that they'll fall to the Cowboys and Giants, finish 6-10, and get Reid fired anyway. (And for what? Someone else who won't be able to get DeSean Jackson to be responsible?) Amazingly, Philadelphia has lost to four other teams ahead of them in the playoff race (Atlanta, Chicago, Arizona, and Seattle), so barring some crazy finish where they edge Detroit on strength of schedule, it's the East or nothing, starting Sunday against the Jets.
  • Hey, did you hear about that rookie quarterback that's engineered a massive turnaround in offense for his team? The one who can run option plays and throw the ball downfield too? No, idiot. The guy who can actually play the position reasonably well: Cam Newton. He's 14th in DYAR, above a number of notable QBs, and 16th in DVOA. (DYAR is a counting stat, so it gives Newton an edge over guys like TEBOW who didn't play a full season; DVOA is a rate stat. The combination gives you a better idea of where a particular QB's passing offense ranks among his peers.) Remember, this is an offense that was dead last in 2010. The defense is still miserable (thus the loss in Detroit, a game where the Panthers scored 35 points and lost by two scores), which is why you hear all that nonsense about the guy in Denver and nothing at all about a guy who has, at least for one season, demonstrated that he was worthy of being the #1 pick. He does run a bit more than your average QB, so it's possible that as defenses adjust to option plays, Newton's passing effectiveness will drop (see: Denard Robinson and Big Ten play), but at least there's hope for this guy as a long-term QB.
  • When Rex Grossman is making you look bad, your defense is bad. Remember when Washington was 3-1? Neither do I. (And boy, do the Giants and Cardinals wish they had those games back.) Donovan McNabb wouldn't have worked out this season, not after the Shanahans set fire to that bridge, burned it, sank it into the swamp, burned the swamp, and buried the ashes of the swamp, but with a longer offseason, they might have tried to find a veteran QB who had some ability. There's no evidence that either Grossman or Beck is a long-term solution. The good news is that Ryan Kerrigan is turning out to be a force up front. With a real QB and more help up front on both sides of the ball, this team might be all right in 2012, but with Snyder still pulling strings, it's just as likely that they'll sign Terrell Owens and Kerry Collins next year.
  • Tampa Bay will probably finish 4-12. Here are the teams that will have beaten them: Detroit (8-5), San Francisco (10-3), good Chicago (7-6), New Orleans (10-3), Houston (10-3), Green Bay (13-0), Tennessee (7-6), Carolina (4-9) twice, Jacksonville (4-9), and Atlanta (8-5). They also beat Atlanta and New Orleans. That's what's going to get Raheem Morris fired? This is the hardest schedule in the league, and failing to get a winning record out of it will mean that while all these young players are starting to improve, a whole new coaching staff will come in, probably implementing new offensive and defensive schemes. Does that sound like a good idea to you? Me either. 
  • Minnesota, on the other hand ... the McNabb idea was a fiasco, Ponder has a ways to go before he becomes a competent NFL QB, and the defense is a shadow of what it's been in the past. (Insert comment about PEDs and the Williamses.) The Vikings have a long way to go to become respectable again, and they're facing the prospect that they may have to do it during a time when their three division rivals are also good. (Detroit isn't quite there yet, and Chicago may not stay there, but this year, there's a clear gap between those three and Minnesota, if also a gap between Green Bay and the next two.) It's also unlikely that Leslie Frazier will survive the rebuilding process. The Vikings are just another one of those teams that was held together just a bit too long: one too many reloading years. As a Lions fan, I have this to say: "HA HA!" (Yeah, that's for the comments when both teams were 6-10 last season. Who's laughing now? This guy, and all the other NFC North fans who dislike Minnesota.)
  • As for the Rams, well, I have nothing but sympathy. 1-15 in 2009, beating only the 2-14 Lions ... and two years later, at 2-11, beating only New Orleans (??) and Cleveland. Left on the schedule? Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco, all with something to play for. ugh. I haven't seen enough of the Rams to know for sure what the problem is, but I suspect some of it is that Bradford just wasn't that good last year, and now that he isn't throwing half again as many passes as the rest of the league (prior to his injury, that is), his counting stats aren't that high. St. Louis needs to rebuild their offensive line to get Bradford more protection and to get Jackson some running room. They need more depth at WR and RB. They probably need more help on the defensive line as well. I know, it sounds like I'm saying that the Rams need help everywhere. Well, they do.

AFC


  • Lions fans can appreciate this: Houston keeps winning, even with a third-string QB. With Carolina, Indianapolis, and Tennessee at the end of their schedule, it's possible that this will continue. The Panthers' defense is still miserable, so Yates should be able to put up some points against them; obviously the Colts are still a mess, so the Texans should win that Thursday night game; and the Titans have QB health issues of their own, with Jake Locker being forced into action last week. It's interesting that an AFC South team is still making a run at the #1 seed (although whether or not the Texans get it may be out of their hands: with no head-to-head sweep and all having two conferences losses, it'll likely come down to strength of victory), but it's sure not the team people would have predicted at the end of last season.
  • The Ravens have three weeks to get their offensive problems worked out. Fortunately, they play three teams with mediocre to bad defenses (San Diego, Cleveland, Cincinnati). Baltimore should keep the pressure on Houston and New England, and should hold off Pittsburgh for the North crown, but they'll still make the playoffs even if they slip up. The only way they can miss is to lose out and have Tennessee win out: in that case, the Titans' victory would give Tennessee the final wild-card spot. 
  • On the other side of the ball, the Patriots have three weeks to practice not being terrible on defense, and like Baltimore, they have opponents who should help with that: Denver, Miami, and bad Buffalo. (Remember when the good Bills were leading the East?) Unlike Baltimore's issues, this isn't a problem that will resolve itself by playoff time. New England will have to score enough points to overcome their inability to stop other offenses. It'll be interesting to see how the playoff situation works out, too. I think any of these three teams would rather play the TEBOWs than each other in the divisional playoffs. (That's assuming the TEBOWs can get past the AFC North runner-up, of course.)
  • Speaking of TEBOWTEBOWTEBOW, the Broncos are practically assured of a division title now. A loss to New England wouldn't hurt them much, because they can still win the division by winning their last two games (Oakland has 5 conference losses and Denver would have just 4). The season finale at Kansas City, though, could be a must-win game: should Denver be up by just one game, a loss there and an Oakland win would give the Raiders the division based on division record (2 losses to 3). It doesn't really matter, though. Either Baltimore or Pittsburgh will roll whoever the AFC West champion is, and honestly, that needs to happen. I am amazed at the number of people who think that being a bad quarterback on a winning team makes you a good quarterback. (ESPN actually asked who was more "clutch", TEBOW or Tom Brady. If I didn't know better, I'd guess the Denver-New England game was on ESPN, and that this was just the usual self-promotional crap that ESPN does.) I'm also amazed at the number of defensive coordinators who figure that because TEBOW can't hit a receiver in tight coverage, he can't hit one in soft coverage either. P.S. He's a running QB, just so you know. On a two-point conversion, he might just keep the ball. Call it a hunch.
  • Does it even matter if Pittsburgh wins the North? A number of these guys were on the team that won a road-trip Super Bowl (did you know Jerome Bettis was from Detroit?), so it's not like it's just something that happened in the past, and it might be easier to face Denver in the first round and then Houston in the next, should the Texans finish with the #1 seed, rather than taking on New England, even if it's a home game. The Steelers do have a close win at home over the Patriots, plus a loss to the Schaub Texans and the sweep at the hands of Baltimore, but I think it's better to consider current performance rather than regular-season results. Pittsburgh seems less likely to be affected by an extra game or road games than Baltimore would be.
  • The Jets have to be happy with Oakland's schedule: New York can't afford to be tied with an AFC West team (they lost to both the Raiders and Broncos), so it's better for them to have the second-place team trailing them, record-wise. The Jets do not have an easy closing schedule (Eagles, Giants, Dolphins), and with the #5 seed out of reach, they have no margin for error ... well, little margin for error. The head-to-head loss to Oakland doesn't come into play in the case of a three- or four-way tie, but the Jets already have five conference losses compared to four for Tennessee, and if the loss that knocks New York into a tie is to Miami, that would cost them against Cincinnati as well. Of course, holding off those teams could simply put the Jets in Foxborough for another loss to the Patriots ...
  • The Titans, on the other hand, welcome Oakland as part of a tie, because that keeps their loss to Cincinnati out of the tiebreaker picture. They have a relatively easy schedule (Colts, Jaguars, Texans), so their best shot is to win the two games they ought to and then hope to take advantage of Houston's injury problems in the finale. Of course, they already need help to make the playoffs, but with just four conference losses, Tennessee is in better shape than the other middle-of-the-pack teams, so they don't need to worry too much about who's in a tiebreaker. (The odds of it being just the Bengals and Titans are pretty small.)
  • Cincinnati has three losses by less than a touchdown, plus two 7-point losses, and all of those are to teams in the playoff hunt (although one, San Francisco, is not a direct competitor). Flip any of those games and the Bengals are in the thick of things; as it is, Cincinnati needs wins plus help, and likely a lot of it. St. Louis and Arizona are must-win games, as is the season finale against Baltimore, but even that may not be enough. They would need two losses by the Jets (or just one, if it's their Miami game) plus at least one Oakland loss (the Raiders have a significant edge in strength of victory and would get even a bigger boost from a win over Detroit).
  • Oakland's win over Chicago may be the last bright spot in their season. The unexpected loss to Miami cut away the last of the Raiders' lead in the West, and the loss to Green Bay dropped them into the tail end of the wild-card race. Oakland can't afford a loss to Detroit, but it'll be no small task to beat the Lions, especially given the struggles that Carson Palmer has shown from time to time this season. Like Cincinnati, Oakland will need help even if they do win out, but for now, their focus has to be on winning their next game. 
  • San Diego has climbed back to the edge of the playoffs, at least at first glance, by beating the struggling Jaguars and Bills. They'll need to win out and get a ton of help, though, and that seems highly unlikely: they play Baltimore next and then close the season at Detroit and at Oakland. It's more likely the Chargers will finish 6-10 and think about which recycled coach would do better than Norv. (With respect to decision-making in games, the answer might be "most of them.")
  • In retrospect, it was really a combination of a weaker schedule plus good play that made the Bills look like a playoff team. At 5-2, they had just one win over a team that was obviously a playoff contender (New England), and four of their next six losses came against similar teams. Throw in whippings at the hands of Miami and San Diego, and it becomes clear that the Bills weren't really contenders in the first place. Buffalo will finish with double-digit losses for the third straight season, and while the Lions may snap their 11-year postseason drought, the Bills will not. 
  • The firing of Todd Haley was overdue: it's been obvious for quite some time that the Chiefs are a really bad football team. They squeaked out close wins over hapless Minnesota and Indianapolis as well as injury-ravaged Oakland and Chicago, and they stole a win from bumbling San Diego, but the rest of the season has been a better indicator of the depth of talent on this team: a 34-point loss to Buffalo, a 45-point loss to Detroit, a 28-point loss to Miami, a 31-point loss to New England, a 27-point loss to the Jets. Yes, the Chiefs are missing a solid RB in Jamaal Charles, but then Haley rarely used him for more than half a game anyway. Yes, they're missing a good safety in Eric Berry, but strength on defense starts with the line, not the secondary. Kansas City made the playoffs last season with smoke and mirrors; the talent on the team is more like the three seasons before, when the Chiefs were a combined 10-38. Yes, Scott Pioli is to blame for the lack of depth, and I'm going to predict that yet another Belichick disciple will be given the axe for failing to show competence in another city. (Perhaps it was the system as a whole, rather than any of its components? And with that in mind, perhaps Crennel is not the best man for the permanent job in KC.)
  • On the other hand, the firing of Tony Sparano seemed either too early or too late. Why not fire him after the 0-7 start? Why fire him after the team goes 4-2 in its next six games? Miami also has injury and depth issues (never mind the idea that Reggie Bush is a running back), and of course there is the problem of having two playoff contenders in your division, so a season that might have them near the division title in the West instead has them far back in the East. I wonder sometimes if ownership in Miami really knows what it's doing. Give Sparano credit for doing what he could with the talent he had in front of him, even if he never managed to get the Dolphins to play well enough in the right games to get the results he apparently needed to stick around longer.
  • Speaking of ownership issues, since being awarded an expansion franchise to replace the departed Browns, Cleveland has posted numbers remarkably similar to Detroit's: two winning seasons (although Detroit is on the verge of a third), one playoff appearance (a loss), nine seasons with 10 or more losses (although Cleveland is on the verge of a tenth). William Clay Ford and his son Bill were excoriated for the Millen debacle, and like them, Al Lerner and his son Randy have taken a lot of heat, deservedly so, for failing to accomplish much of anything. While that may be changing in Detroit, nothing seems to be changing in Cleveland. Another season, another coach, another scheme, another disappointment. Even their wins have been uninspiring: 8 points over Indianapolis, 1 point over Miami, 3 points over Seattle, 4 points over Jacksonville. The defense isn't as good as it looks, and the offense is a train wreck. The passing game is basically Josh Cribbs and sub-replacement-level receivers who can't catch; the running game is three yards and a cloud of dust. (First in the NFL in avoiding stuffs, last in second-level yards, 29th in open-field yards. This is a running game that will tell you that if you need three yards, it'll get you three yards. If you need seven yards, it'll get you three yards.) Cincinnati has a good young quarterback in Andy Dalton, the Ravens and Steelers are again near the top of the AFC, and Cleveland will again have a good position in the draft. It doesn't seem right.
  • Most of what got Jack Del Rio fired was finding himself in a situation where his quarterbacks were an injured, ineffective veteran, a rookie, and an ineffective journeyman. With no passing game and a weak running game, Jacksonville has no offense and thus no way to catch up when they fall behind. The defense has done a stellar job: despite finding themselves in difficult positions time and time again (the Jaguars gave opponents the fourth-best starting field position in the league), they give up few points (9th in points per drive) and force a ton of punts (2nd). More than half of opponents' drives end up in punts (only Pittsburgh has done better), but that's true of Jacksonville's offense as well (only St. Louis has done worse). The Jaguars need a ton of talent on the offensive side of the ball: they have Maurice Jones-Drew and ... um ... anyway, they need a ton of talent. With the right players, they might have a shot at .500, but they have to start by replacing players on offense. You cannot expect your defense to hold opponents under 10 points a game to get a win.
  • The Colts have actually been pretty decent at running the ball this year, which is odd because that's usually something they do quite poorly. Everything else has been a disaster. Drafting Andrew Luck would be a waste: it would be better to flip the pick for a number of lower picks so that they can start plugging some of the holes (and so Peyton doesn't get killed if he is able to return in 2012), so that when they do get someone to replace Manning, he actually has a chance to survive. The graveyard of NFL QBs is full of young players with promise who went to bad teams and were buried in a grave of mediocrity. (The difference between the NFL and college football is like the difference between online and offline Madden play. Offline, pretty much anyone with skills can have a good season, even with a bad team, but it's something completely different when you're in a league with people who are, for the most part, at least as talented as you are. Even if you have a good team, you might end up with a losing record, and if your team sucks, you'll be lucky to win four games.)
The game to watch this week is Detroit at Oakland. A Lions win keeps them securely in the hunt and pushes Oakland to the edge of elimination; a Raiders win gives Dallas hope of making up ground in the NFC, and if coupled with a New England win over Denver would make the AFC West race interesting again.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Lions season outlook, week 14

So that was the last of the bonus games, the ones the Lions probably weren't going to win. The rest are games they probably need to win, possibly including the season finale (the one where Green Bay will have clinched everything and should be resting their starters). With Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, and the Giants losing, Detroit could have been in a really nice position with a win, but whatever.

Massey projections:
Week 14: Minnesota, heavy favorite
Week 15: at Oakland, slight favorite
Week 16: San Diego, favorite (moved down)
Week 17: at Green Bay, heavy underdog

Tossups are 50%; slight favorites are up to 3-2 (60%), then favorites up to 3-1 (75%), then heavy favorites up to 5-1 (86%), then overwhelming favorites. Slight underdogs are down to 2-3 (40%), then underdogs down to 1-3 (25%), then heavy underdogs down to 1-5 (14%), then overwhelming underdogs.

The San Diego game flips and the Green Bay game is about to move to overwhelming. Still, Detroit is favored in three of its four remaining games. Expected wins are down to 9.24, once again dropping after a loss. (Those "partial" wins – the games in which the Lions are not favored – have a more noticeable impact later in the season.)

The Playoff Odds report is below:
Mean wins: 9.2, down 0.5
Playoffs: 58.2%, up 5.8 points
NFC title: 2.3%, up 0.3 points
Super Bowl win: 1.0%, up 0.3 points

Again, the mean wins drop due to Detroit not winning a game they had a reasonable chance of winning. The division title is effectively out of reach, but the playoff chances spike because of Chicago's unexpected loss to Kansas City.

Next, playoff odds reflecting the loss of key QBs:

Mean wins: 9.2, same
Playoffs: 66.0%, 7.8 points higher
NFC title: 2.5%, 0.2 points higher
Super Bowl win: 1.0%, same

The playoff odds jump is a reflection of Hanie's struggles. Kansas City was crushed by Detroit; the Bears should have done the same.

The Lions did dig themselves a big first-half hole and did not climb out of it; I got basically everything right about that game. Unfortunately for Detroit, injuries on defense continue to pile up. Suh will be suspended for this game as well, and if neither Delmas nor Houston can play, the Lions will have backups in too many positions to be able to pressure Ponder as they'd like to, especially if Fairley misses any time. (He probably wasn't 100% in the first place.) Still, with Peterson either out or just returning after a high ankle sprain, an injury that really affects RBs, Minnesota won't be quite the same team they were early in the season. Ponder's much better than McNabb was, but he's still inexperienced, and the Lions will be looking to take advantage of his mistakes. The beleaguered Vikings defense won't have a home crowd to support them: look for Jared Allen to cry about officiating as Stafford carves up their secondary. Lions, 37-21.

Last week: predicted 20-31, actual 17-31

Current mood: expecting something decent

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Pain in the butt phone

So even though my HTC Incredible doesn't have the HTC-branded keylogger that was deliberately planted on so many Android phones, it didn't have Gingerbread: I had the same issues a lot of other people did, mostly because of HTC's buggy update installation process (which is related to the whole "low on disk space" error when you're not low on disk space). I had the update downloaded, but the phone wouldn't reboot to install it, and it wouldn't say why.

Fortunately, I found instructions that helped me install the update on my own. It was mildly alarming, though, to see that my phone rejected a date change even when I turned off automatic date and time updates (I had to set it ahead one month because one year wouldn't "take") ... seems like more of that can't-opt-out behavior that's the whole problem with the Carrier IQ keylogger. (FWIW, I think that company should be fined a certain amount for every phone from which it collects this data; do the same thing to the company installing the software and this won't happen again.)

UPDATE: Same issue as back in December. Phone says I need an update, downloads it, says there's no room to install it, doesn't tell me again after I clear disk space. Follow the same steps, update installs. So between HTC and Google, no one could fix this issue from the last time it happened ... maybe Microsoft isn't so foolish trying to work their way into the cell market. After all, when they entered the console market, Sony and Nintendo had established themselves as dominant players, just forcing Sega out ... and now, Microsoft's a major player, with Nintendo on the periphery and even Sony struggling to keep up. Microsoft has a ton of money and has been doing this for a long time. If Google isn't careful, these OS issues will send people elsewhere.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Lions season outlook, week 13

The one Sunday each year where I'm guaranteed not to have to worry about the Lions playing. Of course, it turns out to be a Sunday where the only game I picked wrong was my 1-point game. (I also picked Detroit to beat Green Bay because why not? I still won this week. Back off.) Detroit had its chances, but once again, they made too many mistakes against a better team. A win would have been huge, but instead, they're faced with the prospect of falling a game behind Chicago and Atlanta with both teams having tiebreaker advantages against them.

Massey projections:
Week 13: at New Orleans, underdog (moved down)
Week 14: Minnesota, heavy favorite (moved down)
Week 15: at Oakland, slight favorite (moved down)
Week 16: San Diego, heavy favorite
Week 17: at Green Bay, heavy underdog

Tossups are 50%; slight favorites are up to 3-2 (60%), then favorites up to 3-1 (75%), then heavy favorites up to 5-1 (86%), then overwhelming favorites. Slight underdogs are down to 2-3 (40%), then underdogs down to 1-3 (25%), then heavy underdogs down to 1-5 (14%), then overwhelming underdogs.

Trending down because of the loss and other teams' performances. Minnesota and Green Bay are both in the 85-86 range (in opposite directions, of course). San Diego is on the verge of being an overwhelming underdog. Expected wins are down to 9.64, and that will probably fall again if the Saints win Sunday night, as is expected given their dominant performance Monday night against the Giants.

The Playoff Odds report is below:
Mean wins: 9.7, down 0.6
Playoffs: 52.4%, down 14.6 points
Division title: 0.1%, down 5.0 points
NFC title: 2.0%, down 1.7 pointsSuper Bowl win: 0.7%, down 0.9 points

The mean wins drop due to Detroit not winning a game they had a roughly 50-50 chance of winning; the division and top-seed odds plummet because the loss locks Detroit out of first, barring some forfeits; the rest simply reflects a Detroit loss. They can't afford many more of those.

Again, playoff odds reflecting the loss of key QBs:

Mean wins: 9.6, 0.1 lower
Playoffs: 55.1%, 2.7 points higher
Division title: 0.1%, same
NFC title: 1.9%, 0.1 points lower
Super Bowl win: 0.9%, 0.2 points higher

Similar to last week, with the playoff odds higher because of Cutler and the Super Bowl odds higher because of Schaub and now Leinart. Not sure why the mean wins are lower.

I thought it would be a shootout, but the defenses stood tall, especially Green Bay's. If that isn't the case Sunday night, this could get ugly. The one blowout loss this year came in a game when 21 points were scored without the defense on the field; the Lions have yet to be rolled by an offense. Of course, they haven't faced a strong offense on the road since the Dallas game, and in that game, they were terrible in the first half. I don't think New Orleans will help them out in the second. Saints, 31-20.

Last week: predicted 24-39, actual 15-27

Current mood: expecting the worst

Monday, November 28, 2011

NFL week 12: separation?

Green Bay becomes all but uncatchable in the NFC, but the only changes in the AFC seem to come near the bottom.
  • The Lions needed to play mistake-free football to beat Green Bay. Stafford threw three interceptions, leading directly to 17 points, and the Lions committed 11 penalties. The defense did all it was asked to do, but once again, the offense put them in a hole they couldn't escape. Detroit has played four home games against teams currently in the playoffs, and they've lost three of them, each time because the offense couldn't run effectively. I think that's an indication that Detroit isn't really a playoff contender. They might get lucky and slip into the playoffs if Chicago continues to struggle or if Atlanta falters, but they won't get far. The other problem they have, well, you already know about that. At some point, you either stop committing personal fouls, or you simply are a dirty player. Apologies at this point are meaningless: Suh just needs to stop doing dumb things on the field. The Lions are deep at defensive tackle, but not so deep that they can afford to have an All-Pro-caliber DT missing games because he lost his temper. 
  • Give the Packers' defense credit: they made the plays they needed to. Detroit was 5 of 10 on third down, but the three interceptions were enough to give Rodgers the advantage he needed to counter Detroit's defense (the Packers were just 2 of 10 on third down). Detroit scored touchdowns on both of their red zone drives, but the second drive was a last-minute drive that really had no impact on the game. They aren't very good, but on Thursday, they were good enough, and that may be all the Packers need until playoff time. Then again, it isn't like there are any balanced teams in the NFC, so maybe Green Bay won't have to get a solid game from the defense until the Super Bowl, should they get there. (It's much easier to find flaws in the other contenders.)
  • Miami suddenly looks much less like an Indianapolis-caliber team and much more like a team that just had bad breaks to start the season, but they still have some issues. The decision to pick up Bush in the offseason doesn't look too bad until you look at his productivity at RB, and it's just as disappointing as it was in New Orleans. The difference is that the Saints had a passing game that didn't need nearly as much support; Moore is definitely playing better now than he did at first (which is what you'd expect from a backup), but aside from Marshall, the only other threat in the passing game is Bush, and he isn't nearly as effective if he's coming out of the backfield. Bush is like a weaker, less elusive version of Barry Sanders. He has a similar boom-or-bust mentality, but has much less ability to avoid contact, and thus there are many more carries for little or no yards.
  • Once again, Dallas' defense came to the rescue, holding the Dolphins to field goal attempts on four drives inside the 10. (Graham's longest kick of the four was 28 yards.) It almost wasn't enough: the running game was OK (even though DeMarco Murray got all of the RB carries), and the passing game struggled. Miami's defense is good, but like the Lions, the Cowboys have difficulty against teams with good defenses. That may not be a problem in the surprisingly weak East, but pretty much all the wild-card contenders in the NFC have good defenses, and Detroit has already shown what they can do in Dallas; it isn't a stretch to see Chicago or Atlanta playing even better than that. Romo is not playing his best every week, but the absence of Miles Austin is definitely a factor, and not having Felix Jones at 100% is a problem as well. 
  • San Francisco's lack of offense was finally exposed against Baltimore: unable to run the ball and unable to force turnovers to create short fields, the 49ers had to try the passing game, and of course it didn't go very well. Despite what commentators like to think, I believe Roman has designed an offense to hide Alex Smith's shortcomings, not to work on his weaknesses (it's probably too late for that), so there will be a risk of this happening against any solid defense. The game was close mostly because Baltimore is a similar team (strong on defense, vulnerable on offense), and that's probably a good sign for San Francisco because the teams they're likely to meet before the NFC championship game are similar, so they'll be on equal footing.
  • Big non-conference win for Baltimore, especially with Pittsburgh still having to visit the 49ers. The Ravens have no real challenges left until Week 17 against Cincinnati, so even if Pittsburgh beats San Francisco, the Ravens should have a relatively easy path to the division title. All three 8-3 division leaders have just two conference losses, so it'll be important for the Ravens to win out and wait to see what happens in Houston. With the Texans down to their third-string QB (where is that Orton guy when you need him?), it may be just a matter of time before Baltimore moves up into a first-round-bye position.
  • Is there anyone still doubting that Christian Ponder should be the starting QB in Minnesota? The Vikings didn't have much of a chance with Adrian Peterson out, but Ponder still turned in a decent performance against a good team on the road: 68% completions, no turnovers, 7.4 Y/A ... he probably took too many sacks, but then Minnesota's offensive line isn't the best either. The Vikings need to be thinking about the future, starting now, and that includes the guy who missed Sunday's game. Chris Johnson should be a lesson to teams: don't invest a ton of money in a guy who simply can't make enough of a difference for your team. There are too many RBs out there. Peterson has done a great job in Minnesota, but he wasn't the main reason they made it to the NFC Championship two years ago, and he's obviously not keeping them out of the basement now. Minnesota is 5 games behind the Bears and Lions, with games remaining against each team as well as New Orleans and Denver. It's not out of the question for this team to finish 2-14. 
  • Matt Ryan had an impressive game against Minnesota, moving the Falcons into 6th in the conference ahead of Detroit. However, this should be an expectation against a weak team; Atlanta got a needed win, but they shouldn't have been struggling at home against a team missing their star RB and starting a rookie QB (even though he's playing better than the veteran). This was a 17-14 game relatively late in the fourth quarter. The Falcons caught a break with Houston's injury problems at QB, so they may escape with a big road win next week, and that would be huge. Detroit and the Giants have challenging schedules, so a win over the Texans combined with wins over the weaker teams on their schedule might give the Falcons a wild-card spot; a win at New Orleans might even give them the division.
  • Cleveland's offense struggled again against Cincinnati; McCoy was unimpressive (4.1 NY/A), the running game was kept in check, and while they did convert some third downs, they didn't get enough points to survive Cincinnati's comeback. The Browns deserve credit for staying with Cincinnati on the road, but credit only goes so far, and at some point Cleveland will be expected to do more than just compete. (Browns fans are pointing out that that point arrived about six years ago.)
  • With Buffalo's loss, the Bengals have a little more breathing room, but Denver opponents' insistence on ignoring deep receivers have basically put them in the Bills' place in the hunt, meaning that this was a game Cincinnati couldn't afford to lose. The offense put up decent numbers, but they're not as good as they seem: Benson had 106 yards rushing, but 33 of those were on one play. 20 carries for 73 yards isn't nearly as impressive. Dalton was 21 of 31 for 270 yards, but 51 of those were on a pass to A.J. Green; again, 30 passes for 219 yards isn't quite as good. The AFC does have some good offense/weak defense teams like the NFC does, but Cincinnati's two division opponents have strong defenses, and the Bengals will have to get more productivity against teams like Cleveland if they're going to beat Pittsburgh or Baltimore, which may be necessary for them to make the playoffs.
  • The Bucs have had, by far, the most difficult schedule in the league. Their opponents' winning percentage is nearly .600 (.597); all seven of their losses have come to teams with winning records, and five of those seven are currently in the playoffs (Detroit and Tennessee are the others). It's notable that the two closer losses are to the two latter teams; they had a close loss to Chicago, but the other losses were not close. Tampa Bay simply isn't a playoff-caliber team, much like Detroit isn't quite at that level. The Tennessee game highlighted their offensive struggles: five fumbles (four lost), one interception, 2 of 10 on third downs, only one red zone drive, only one touchdown. This season is making 2010 look like an outlier for Josh Freeman, and if he struggles like this next year, Raheem Morris will have to start looking for another QB. 
  • Chris Johnson finally had a day worthy of his contract, and it came against a team that's known for having good defenses. Unfortunately, the Bucs' defense this season isn't anywhere near as good as it has been, so it's hard to see this game as anything more than the Titans taking advantage of a young, weak team. What's a bit more troubling is that Hasselbeck had a bad day against a bad defense: 4.7 Y/A (gross, not net), just a bit over 50% completions, 1 TD and two picks. The Titans also fumbled three times (recovering one), giving Tampa Bay far more opportunities than they should have. Tennessee can't afford to have games like this, even against the softer parts of their remaining schedule. Jacksonville has a much better defense than Tampa Bay, and even Indianapolis has played a couple of solid games this year. New Orleans will roll over the Titans if they play like they did Sunday, and Houston might do the same on New Year's; if the division isn't out of reach by then, it probably will be, and the Titans can ill afford to be in a position where that becomes a must-win game for them. They're not just showing the ability to play well enough on both sides of the ball to beat a good team.
  • Carolina was able to move the ball steadily against the Colts' horrid defense, which isn't much of a surprise. The fact that they got only 27 points is a surprise. Carolina's offense has actually been good this season, something that's been lost due to their defense being, well, worse than Indy's. (Their run defense is terrifyingly bad: there's a gap of 3.4 points between Cleveland at 30 and St. Louis at 31. There's a gap of 8.4 points between the Rams and Panthers.) It's been consistently bad, too, not just occasionally bad, so week in and week out, the Panthers struggle to keep up with their opponents, usually failing in the process. (Carolina's 9th in the NFC in scoring but dead last in points allowed.) So give them credit for winning on the road, even if it was against a hapless team. Last year, you see, that hapless team was Carolina. They have, as they say, been there and done that. 
  • On the other side of the ball, the Colts faced a terrible defense and ... ugh. Painter: 15 of 29, 2 picks, 1 fumble (not lost). Third downs: 1 of 9. They ran the ball OK, which is not good against the sieve that is the Panthers' run defense. There are no more winnable games on the Colts' schedule. Unless a team completely blows a game, this will be the second 0-16 team in NFL history, and like the Lions, it will be a team in desperate need of an overhaul. The Lions hired Martin Mayhew permanently (he was the interim GM), who then hired Jim Schwartz, and Detroit is now sitting at 7-4 and on the edge of the playoffs. The vast majority of that roster was replaced. It is not a stretch to suggest that the same thing needs to happen in Indianapolis. There are 6 players on Detroit's roster who were drafted during the Dark Times. (Jason Hanson predates them ... by a lot. In 2001, he was entering his 10th season in Detroit.) Interestingly, the Colts have 2 players from the Dark Times, Ernie Sims and Dan Orlovsky. (Picking up Lions retreads is usually a bad sign.) Are there 6 players on the Colts' roster that are unarguably part of the rebuilding process? Reggie Wayne is in his 11th season, as is Ryan Diem. Jeff Saturday is in his 13th season. Freeney and Mathis, 10th and 9th, respectively. Sure, you want to keep a few of the veterans, even if only because you can't replace 53 players in one season, but how many of these guys are going to be worthwhile players in three years? (And that's leaving aside the biggest question of all: what happens with #18? Who is, by the way, in his 14th season.)
  • Didn't I just mention St. Louis' defensive issues? Why, yes I did. Beanie Wells is not the next Walter Payton. He is, more than likely, the next Jerome Harrison: a guy who took advantage of a situation to put up monster numbers that he'll never again approach. Keep in mind that he had runs of 71 and 53 yards; those accounted for more than half his total. 25 carries for 104 yards doesn't sound nearly as impressive, does it? (Almost like a Barry Sanders day: the day where he ripped off two 80-plus-yard TD runs, he had just 215 yards total.) And after all that, Arizona still needed a late field goal to hold off the Rams (and spoil my pick 'em week: I missed only this game and the Lions game). Consider this: Patrick Peterson has four punt return TDs this year. In those games, the Cardinals won by 7, lost by 3, won by 6, and won by 3. You can't simply say "if he hadn't scored, they would have lost" because you're assuming nothing else would change significantly, but I think it's reasonable to suggest that a win in each of those three games would have been less likely without his TD, and the loss (to Baltimore) would have been bigger. So it wasn't all Beanie this time. After all, on seven occasions, a player has rushed for 200 or more yards in a losing effort. (O.J. did it twice, and both times, they were double-figure losses.)
  • The Rams are last in the NFC again, thanks to their win over Baltimore. (Minnesota has a better conference record and thus is 15th.) Last year's 7-9 record is a distant memory, and the notion that Sam Bradford is definitely an up-and-coming QB is also a distant memory. Without counting stats in his favor, his conventional numbers are less gaudy, and so people are more likely to listen when you bring up things like 4.6 ANY/A and -19.0% DVOA. To be fair, those stats really reflect "the St. Louis passing game when Sam Bradford is QB", and so they are not all his fault, but then I don't know anyone who looks at more than counting stats and says that Bradford is a good QB at this point in his career. More than likely, he's just another OK kid (no pun intended) who was thrust into a difficult situation and couldn't make it work. The Rams would be a bad team this year no matter who was at QB; it just doesn't help that the guy they have isn't doing much of anything well. The one thing he is doing well, something that should actually be a concern for Rams fans, is avoiding interceptions. He's third among NFL QBs in interception percentage, behind only Aaron Rodgers and that one guy in Minnesota who's now a backup. (No, really. McNabb struggled at everything else, but he wasn't throwing picks.) You can make the argument that last season's 2.5% is proof that Bradford just doesn't throw picks, but I think it's more that he's had good luck his first two seasons. I'll have to check FO's dropped interceptions charts to see if that's played a factor, but for some perspective, the NFL career leader in INT% is Rodgers, at 1.8%. McNabb is actually tied with Bradford (and some guy named Brady) at 2.2%, third behind Neil O'Donnell. Is he really that good at avoiding interceptions? I guess he could be, but give me another season or two like that before you convince me. Rodgers has done it for 4 seasons, and the other guys have more than that under their belts.
  • Buffalo's run is over, and with Fred Jackson out and AFC playoff contenders disappearing in the distance, that red-hot start won't culminate in a playoff appearance. (FO mentioned that "there's a pretty good chance that teams like Buffalo, Tennessee, and Detroit are going to be good all year" after Week 4. Of course, the model didn't know that Detroit and Tennessee had faced relatively weak schedules and that Buffalo would collapse mid-season.) Fitzpatrick had a pretty good game against a strong Jets defense, but the Bills couldn't manage anything on the ground (C.J. Spiller is not the same kind of back Jackson is), and it's much harder to kill the clock when you can't run the ball. A win would have made the Bills the 6-5 team hoping for other teams to slip in December; the loss means Buffalo can start thinking about 2012. 
  • Mark Sanchez is just not a good QB. The "ability" to throw touchdown passes late in games is nice if you seem to have it, but it doesn't make up for the inability to throw good passes during the first three quarters so you don't have to come from behind all the time. Hopefully Rex Ryan has dropped that silly Super Bowl talk; this team isn't nearly good enough to win one. There will be no AFC Championship appearance this season. The Jets will be lucky to make the playoffs, but they won't get far. There are too many solid defenses that will simply shut down New York's anemic offense, and the one team that has a defense the Jets might break, New England, will simply outscore them.
  • Matt Leinart actually looked like a decent NFL quarterback for a half. He used short passes to inch the Texans down the field and build a small lead (that would have been bigger if Arian Foster hadn't lost a fumble that became a Jaguars TD). Then he got hurt, and whatever semblance of a passing game Houston had ... actually didn't seem to change that much. Yates' completion percentage was lower than Leinart's, but his Y/A was about the same. The difference was field position: with Leinart in the game, the Texans started two drives in Jacksonville territory and another at the 45, and those gave Houston 13 points. In the second half, they had exactly one drive start in Jacksonville territory, and it was a three-and-out. Houston might be another team to consider some kind of option play; of course it takes much more than a week to learn the read option or triple option or inverted veer or whatever, but if the alternative is what we saw Sunday, well, I'd go with the option.
  • So ... Blaine Gabbert != NFL QB. Not yet, anyway. Perhaps more specifically, not a QB in Jacksonville. I never associated them with a spread offense in the first place, so coming from that at Missouri means he's got to learn an entire new scheme, take snaps under center instead of in the gun, all that ... just a bad combination. In retrospect, releasing David Garrard wasn't such a big deal (because he's injured and couldn't have played anyway), but it does say something that the Jaguars ended up with zero competent QBs. How strange is it that three of the four AFC South teams ended up going to their third-string QBs? (The Colts haven't made a permanent change to Orlovsky, but he did see some playing time.) As I was writing this, Jack Del Rio was fired. I think it's the right move, but of course it's far too early to guess what will happen next in Jacksonville. I don't know that it makes sense to talk about who the best fit would be, because we don't know how much control they'll have over personnel decisions and thus how compatible the existing talent will be with the new schemes.
  • The Bears' defense held Oakland to a field goal or less on all but one drive, but that one drive was enough to put the game out of reach. All those people who were hoping that Hanie would replace Cutler? Yeah, they're kind of quiet now, aren't they? Cutler is not the problem. The scheme was most of the problem; the offensive line and lack of quality receivers makes up the rest of it. When Martz finally realized that the Bears didn't have the personnel to run his run-and-shoot-style offense, he relented and switched to quicker passes and better protection, using Tyler Clutts much more often, and the Bears suddenly had a productive offense. With Cutler out, they're obviously going to suffer until Hanie gets used to NFL-caliber defenses. Fortunately for him, Seattle is the only top-16 pass defense the Bears will face until the playoffs. Again, the goal should be for Hanie to be a caretaker, not to be the focal point of the offense: Chicago's defense should be good enough to make up the difference. They were on Sunday, but Hanie's mistakes cost them.
  • The Raiders were lucky. If Cutler had been healthy, Oakland's inability to score touchdowns would have dropped them into a tie with the Broncos. Instead, they get another big win and remain just a game out of the top spot in the AFC. Carson Palmer seems to be comfortable in the Raiders' offense, with 8.1 Y/A against a solid defense. Oakland's defense forced enough turnovers to help out; with Green Bay and Detroit still on the schedule, they may have to step up two more times. Miami could actually be more of a challenge now that Moore is playing like a decent QB, but Kansas City and San Diego should be wins, and if Tebow continues to struggle against decent defenses, the Raiders probably won't have to beat either NFC North team to win their division.
  • No, I don't know how Rex Grossman managed to help Washington pull out a win at Seattle. OK, it had something to do with the opposing QB (could Grossman and Tarvaris Jackson be the least impressive QB matchup in recent times?), but still, that doesn't win games for you unless the other guy is throwing interceptions for touchdowns. 314 yards, 2 TDs, three fourth-quarter scoring drives ... obviously the defense had something to do with it (last four Seattle drives: three-and-out, three-and-out, four-and-out, interception), but Seattle only gave Washington the ball in Seahawks territory on one of the three drives (the interception ended the game), so it wasn't like Washington could settle for field goals. They still need a competent QB if they're going to have a shot at competing for the division next year, but for now, if Grossman can have games like this, it'll be enough to make them competitive, and that's enough to keep them even with Philadelphia for now. (Random thought: imagine getting odds from someone that going into December, Rex Grossman and Washington would have the same record as Philadelphia.)
  • The rah-rah stuff is wearing off in Seattle, and we're beginning to see the same stuff that Pete Carroll did in New England: not much of anything. I think he's a poor judge of talent; he doesn't have to be good at USC because a lot of top athletes want to go there, so all you need is to sign enough recruits who become good that you can beat UCLA and Stanford and sometimes Oregon. In the NFL, it's much more difficult to build a roster, so you can't afford to make as many mistakes. Jackson isn't good enough to be a starter. Zach Miller is basically a non-factor. Marshawn Lynch is better than Reggie Bush and maybe a few other guys, but that's it. Steven Hauschka is doing a good job kicking, but if that's the high point of your offense, you're doing it wrong. (Surprisingly, the passing game isn't worse with Jackson than it was with Hasselbeck last season. It isn't so much that the decision to let Hasselbeck go was bad as it is that he's been a great fit in Tennessee, which is even harder to explain given that Chris Johnson is having a terrible season.)
  • Remember when New England looked like they might struggle to make the playoffs? Me either. With the Texans down to a third-string QB and the Ravens' offense looking at times like it has a third-string QB at the helm, it's hard to imagine anything preventing the Patriots from securing the #1 seed in the playoffs, and from there, the only question is whether or not they'll face a defense capable of disrupting their offense. Baltimore, New York and Houston all have defenses capable of the job, but none have offenses who could take advantage of New England's weak secondary. You don't have to be the best team in the conference to get to the Super Bowl, you just have to beat the teams in your way, and the Patriots look more than capable of doing that. Philadelphia's pass defense isn't that bad, despite what people believe (the run defense, however, is another story), but Brady had these numbers: 10.4 NY/A, 3 TDs, 0 interceptions, 1 sack. 
  • Is it Andy Reid's fault? For thinking that an offensive line coach can run a defense, yes. For not using the running game more, yes. For not building an offense that can score in short-yardage situations, yes. Is there a coach out there who could do more than he is? Well, take a look at some of the new coaches in the league. (Compared to Reid, that would be all of them, of course. That sounds crazy, but did you know that after him and Belichick, the next two coaches in terms of tenure are Marvin Lewis and Jack Del Rio, at least prior to this week? I know.) Can you be sure you'd get, say, a John Harbaugh and not a Todd Haley? No. Has Reid lost the players? Well, he's lost DeSean Jackson, but then sometimes you're going to get players who don't care about the team in the first place. It's better to get rid of the players than to get rid of the coach. Besides, the next coach is going to inherit a really young roster, because you can only keep expensive free agents together for a certain amount of time. Wait ... that's an argument to get rid of Reid. (Better to let the new coach get the kinds of players he wants than to try to build a team from what the last one left.)
  • By now, it should be obvious what Denver's going to do. They're going to run the ball, and run it some more, and some more, and then run the ball, and occasionally Tebow will chuck the ball 50 yards downfield. That's all they have. Detroit took that feeble offense, fed it into a wood chipper, and tossed the pieces into an incinerator. Everyone else has looked at it as if they'd never watched college football in the '70s. San Diego's defense, like others Tebow has faced, is bad, so it's kind of understandable that they weren't able to stop him. That doesn't mean Tebow had a good game, although he does deserve credit for one thing: turnovers, or rather the lack thereof. He just doesn't turn the ball over. He has a single interception, against Detroit. (Unfortunately, it was an end-zone interception that was returned for a touchdown.) He's fumbled just five times in six games. (One of those was returned for a touchdown by Detroit as well.) He's going to make you stop Denver on third down, and if you can't do that, they're going to take time off the clock and put up 3s and occasionally 7s on the board. Against weaker teams and the Jets, it's worked. It will not work against Chicago and New England.
  • San Diego is 13th in the AFC. Behind them are Jacksonville, who lost their starting QB and are relying on a rookie and a journeyman; Miami, who lost their starting QB and are relying on a journeyman; and Indianapolis, who lost their starting QB and are relying on an untested backup. Unlike the Florida teams, San Diego has their starting QB, and also unlike them, the Chargers' defense is terrible. Philip Rivers isn't having a bad year, just an OK year, but even Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers would be hard pressed to undo the damage San Diego has done defensively. 15.4% DVOA, 29th in the league. 7.2 NY/A, tied for 27th with New England. 30th according to Brian Burke. 26th in points allowed. When Norv Turner is shown the door, that defense will be one of the reasons why. Turner never really made the most of the talent he had in San Diego, but that was all right as long as they were at least making the playoffs. That will not happen this season.
  • Man, Pittsburgh's offense sucks this season. Wait, it doesn't? What? That's the funny thing: it doesn't. It just looked terrible against Kansas City, which is really hard to understand given that teams like Buffalo and Detroit set the Chiefs' defense on fire. In fact, just like the Steelers struggled the entire game against Indianapolis, they struggled against Kansas City. If they continue to have difficulty against bad teams, then December will be a tough month for them: of course the 49ers game will be an exception, but they play Cleveland twice (well, once on January 1, but that's basically football December) and St. Louis once, and a loss in any of those games would probably put the division out of reach. Pittsburgh is two games clear of seventh-place Denver, so they've got quite a cushion right now, but there are only so many times you can win three straight road playoff games, and I don't think this team is good enough to do that. 
  • Hey, New Orleans! Styx welcomes you to the Paradise Theater! Ah, one of the few albums both my dad and I liked ... and not so different than the performances that Drew Brees is putting up this year. Saints fans might feel like they're at a concert, looking at the fireworks in the Superdome. 363 yards, 9.6 Y/A, 4 TDs, no picks. The Saints posted 577 yards in total offense against the Giants, the most they'd allowed since 1948 (in a 63-35 loss to the Chicago Cardinals; Chicago QBs were 15 of 20 for 280 yards and 5 TDs in that game, which probably equates to something off the charts these days). New Orleans is now just a game behind San Francisco for second place in the NFC, and with Pittsburgh on the 49ers' schedule, it's not impossible that New Orleans, who looked at one point like they might stumble in the South, could end up resting in January while the 49ers try to pick apart Detroit or Chicago or Atlanta. Sunday's game against the Lions will be big for both teams. 
  • The Giants aren't out of the playoffs by any means. They're just a game behind Dallas with two games to play against the Cowboys, and just a game behind Chicago, Atlanta, and Detroit for a wild-card spot, with no head-to-head losses against any of those teams. On the other hand, during the most challenging stretch on their schedule, they've won just a single game, against New England, and sandwiched between losses to the #2 and #3 teams in the NFC is a loss to a struggling Philadelphia team that likely won't even break .500. The Cowboys are playing better, which gives New York four tough games of the five they have remaining. A loss to Green Bay would be entirely understandable, but losing the following week to Dallas would all but eliminate them in the East, and at 6-7, they'd probably only have a shot at the second wild-card spot, and even then only if two of the three teams above them falter. The Giants are learning something that the 2007 Lions could have told them: strength of schedule can make you look a lot better or a lot worse than you really are. That Lions team looked like playoff contenders the first half of the season; in the second half, they looked more like the 0-16 team they'd be in 2008. The Giants aren't nearly that bad, but they could finish 1-7 like Detroit did that year. 
Believe it or not, the contenders are pulling away in both conferences. There are probably 8 teams in the mix in the NFC and 9 in the AFC, and in a couple of weeks, those numbers will probably shrink. Green Bay can start preparing for the divisional playoffs now, but no one else is close to locking up anything ... San Francisco has the division in hand, but could finish as the #2 or #3, depending on what the Saints do, and obviously it's in the best interest to avoid that #3 spot. The top seed in the AFC is starting T.J. Yates at QB. (At least for now.) Anyone who can tell you how the AFC is going to shake out is just silly. It seems likely that New England will be in their usual position, but who knows? Houston keeps winning even though three of their best players have missed or will miss significant time this season.
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