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.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Lions season outlook, week 12

Back to the early-season script: first-half mistakes, second-half domination. What's troubling is that this was one of the worst defenses in football, and Detroit gave them opportunities over and over again. (I didn't see the game, so I don't know how much was Carolina playing well defensively and how much was Detroit making silly mistakes.)

Massey projections:
Week 12: Green Bay, underdog
Week 13: at New Orleans, slight underdog (moved up)
Week 14: Minnesota, overwhelming favorite (moved up)
Week 15: at Oakland, favorite
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.

No significant changes, and that will probably be the case the rest of the way. Weeks 12 and 13 move to the other side of the line (41% and 87%, both a tick or two away from reverting.) Estimated wins are 10.3, down just a touch. Again, Weeks 14-16 will be the keys; a win over New Orleans would be huge, and of course an upset of Green Bay on Thanksgiving, well ...

The Playoff Odds report is below:
Mean wins: 10.3, up 0.5
Playoffs: 67.0%, up 4.7 points
Division title: 5.1%, up 1.4 points
Top seed: 0.8%, up 0.2 points
NFC title: 3.7%, up 0.9 points
Super Bowl win: 1.6%, up 0.6 points

The Lions benefit somewhat from the Giants' loss to Philadelphia. New York's remaining schedule will likely drop them out of playoff contention, which is better than having Dallas stick around in the wild-card race (even though Detroit has the head-to-head win, that only applies if they finish with the same record.

The injury to Cutler may be significant, though. Let's take a look at the Playoff Odds with an estimate of the loss of Cutler (as well as Schaub and Cassel in the AFC):

Mean wins: 10.3, same
Playoffs: 69.8%, 2.8 points higher
Division title: 4.9%, 0.2 points lower
Top seed: 0.8%, same
NFC title: 3.6%, 0.1 points lower
Super Bowl win: 1.7%, 0.1 points higher

The higher playoff chances are from Chicago's chances dropping a bit; the smaller shot at the division is because Chicago still has a game left against Green Bay, and that hypothetical scenario requires the Packers to lose at least one more game (assuming Detroit sweeps them; obviously at least a split would be required). The Super Bowl chances are probably due to the prospect of facing Houston without Schaub.

So I got the offensive part right, but didn't count on the defense being put in untenable positions time and again against a solid offense. This time, it'll be much the same, except the defense will be better and the offense will be much better. It's a strange situation. On the one hand, no one expects the Lions to win. On the other hand, to be the best, eventually you have to beat the best. Detroit obviously isn't the best team in the league this season and probably isn't close, but a win Thursday would certainly be a big step back toward respectability. I just don't see it happening if Rodgers stays healthy. Packers, 34-29.

Last week: predicted 37-17, actual 49-35

Current mood: expecting the worst

Monday, November 21, 2011

boo wiper blades

I spent about 45 minutes changing my wiper blades today: 40 minutes determining exactly how much Honda's setup sucks and 5 minutes doing the job right once I found good instructions.

I have a 2007 Civic Hybrid, which is awesome because a) it gets great mileage (so not sarcastic) and b) it falls right in between the '06 and '08, which means you can't just go to any old store and be sure to get the right blades, because that chassis isn't in the book (thus sarcasm).

I finally gave up and went to AutoZone, and the guy there set me up with what I figured I'd need: two Rain-X blades, a 26" for the driver's side and a 22" for the passenger's side. (Expensive? Probably, but I change my blades about once every five years, and we get a lot of rain and snow here.)

After wasting time on the Honda owner's manual (pull at the tabs? ha ha), I found this link to a forum post that had pictures. It's for an Si sedan, but it works the same on the Civic Hybrid: use a screwdriver to pop the cap off and then remove the blades like you normally would. The caps don't go back on with third-party blades, but who cares? They seem to work fine, and with 2 inches of rain set for tomorrow, I just need a clean windshield.

NFL week 11: Now we know ... what, exactly?

Posted with lightning speed to make up for last week. If the Patriots blow it, then yes, I have awesome reverse jinx powers, and yes, I am available for hire.

So after all that, we know ... um ... well, Green Bay has a really good offense, San Francisco has a really weak schedule, and that's about it. (Actually, Green Bay's schedule has been significantly weaker than the 49ers'. Of course, with Detroit twice and the Giants, Bears, and Raiders once each, that'll change a bit.) Playoff contenders who can win a couple of games over the next 2-3 weeks may find themselves resting in Week 17 while the pack of teams below them scrabbles frantically for a postseason spot.
  • The Jets aren't really that far out of the playoffs. They're ninth right now, trailing Denver and Tennessee on conference record, and just a game behind sixth-place Cincinnati. So that doesn't look bad. But the sweep by the Patriots means that the division is all but out of reach, and the loss to Denver not only throws them back into the pack, but gives them a direct competitor with a head-to-head win. With Buffalo, Washington, and Kansas City up next, Rex Ryan's team could certainly be 8-5 in three weeks, but then Buffalo was probably counting wins the same way until recently, Washington nearly beat Dallas, and Kansas City ... OK, that one's a New York win.
  • Mel Kiper had an interesting take (subscription required) on the Tebowne. (Of course that's what it'll be called. Don't be silly.) Basically, his point is that it's all very well to run an offense that ignores the forward pass as much as possible, but like pretty much every other gimmick, the read-option offense John Fox is running will be picked apart by a league that tapes every single play to be examined in detail. Once that happens, what are they going to do? Tebow's accuracy, as mentioned here every week, is far below that of an average NFL quarterback, and that's in the Tebowne. What would it be in a conventional offense? Also, what happens if he gets hurt? Do you think Brady Quinn can run this offense? Ha ha. Ironically, Orton would be better suited to it, given his experience with the spread offense at Purdue and the pseudo-option they ran from time to time. It's only worked against the Raiders, who have a bad defense ... and within a week, the Chiefs, who also have a bad defense, shut it down pretty well. Denver's schedule isn't particularly strong, but Chicago and Minnesota will probably eat up the read option, and Buffalo and New England will test Denver's defense. If Tebow can't learn to throw accurate passes soon, Fox may regret moving away from the NFL-caliber QB currently on his bench in favor of the decision that says all you need to know about Josh McDaniels.
  • Cam Newton, on the other hand, deserves a good bit of credit. He is running an NFL offense, and he's doing a darn good job of it. Granted, in Steve Smith, Newton has what Tebow does not – an excellent receiver who will go and get it if he can reach it – but on the other hand, Tebow is not a rookie, he's a second-year player who's taken over a mediocre offense and helped to make it putrid. Newton is a rookie who's taken over a putrid offense and helped to make it pretty good. Think about it this way: if you could make a team from Carolina's offense and Jacksonville's defense, two of the more overlooked units in the league, it'd probably be a top-five team. The Panthers are 8th in DVOA on offense; the Jaguars are 3rd on defense. Instead, the worst defense in the NFC does things like give up 49 points and nearly 500 yards to what's nearly a bottom-quartile offense in Detroit. (Yeah, Newton's 4 interceptions contributed to those points, but not so much to the yards.) Ron Rivera did a good job rebuilding the offense; next year, the defense has to come first.
  • Third verse, same as the first: the Lions make silly mistakes and fall behind big, then come roaring back to win. The Dallas comeback looks better as the Cowboys improve, but the Minnesota game still looks bad, and this game even worse. Stafford made some bad decisions once again; fortunately, Carolina's defense is so bad that it was only a matter of time before things turned around. Don't read too much into his 335-yard, 5-TD performance. It may have built his confidence heading into Thursday's showdown with the Packers, but the problems that plagued Detroit against San Francisco and Atlanta are still there, and it's hard to imagine that a team this unsound can beat a team like Green Bay, even with the struggles the Packers have had on defense. Sure, Detroit has scored 42 or more three times already, something they haven't done since 1952, and they've come back from double-digit halftime deficits three times, something they've never done before ... but confidence and momentum don't make plays for you. The Lions can't fall behind Green Bay by 17 and expect to win. 
  • Blaine Gabbert was surprisingly effective with the short passing game against Cleveland, converting 7 of 15 third-down opportunities, but the Jaguars crossed midfield exactly once in the first three quarters, and their last-minute drive stalled at the 1. Their defense again did all that could be expected of it, and again their offense did just enough to lose. Jacksonville has lost road games by 29, 6, 4, 10, and 4 this season. The blowout at the Jets would have been a loss no matter what (and that was the McCown Experience anyway), but this team could arguably be 6-4 and in the thick of the playoff race with even a mediocre offense. Whoever is Jacksonville's coach next year (the odds of Del Rio being retained are still slim, I think, particularly after he claimed not to know about the decision-making and playcalling on the final series from the 1) must look for a number of players on offense: help for the OL, depth at WR (if not a top WR), and a QB who can run an NFL offense. It's a shame that the defense is playing so well and the team is struggling so much.
  • ESPN's stat pages are so poorly written ... when you sort within a particular group, sometimes the data you get is not the same as the data you just saw. For example, when you look at kickers, they're sorted by field goals made to date, but if you sort by attempts, you get last week's data. Typical ESPN. Of course the NFL's site actually returns a Page Not Found error, which is even worse. The page was found, idiots. I was just on it. I had to go to Yahoo to get sortable stats. Anyway, the point is that Phil Dawson is just 4 of 6 from 20 to 29 yards, the only kicker in the NFL to miss two in that range. He's missed one from 40 to 49, and he's dead-on from 50-59 (6 of 6, leading the NFL in makes and tied in attempts with Janikowski, who's made 5, and Cundiff, who's made 1 – anyone want to ask John Harbaugh about those decisions?), and now he's only 2 of 3 from 30 to 39. Fortunately, it didn't cost the Browns, but if they hadn't stoned the Jaguars at the 1, that missed kick would have been more noticeable. Of course the blame would have been misplaced: when you put up just 14 points, the kicker is not your biggest problem. The Browns have kept most of their games close, so the problems aren't as apparent as they are on other teams (like Indianapolis), but Cleveland has yet to win a game by more than one score, and they've scored more than 17 points just once, against that Colts team in a 27-19 victory. Jacksonville and St. Louis have matched that; every other team, including the Colts, have scored more than 17 at least three times. (New Orleans and Green Bay have done so every game this year.)
  • The latest entrant in "Can you outscore Green Bay?", the Bucs, lost by only 9. They were the sixth opponent to score 20 or more points on the porous defense. (That's not a lot for an average NFL team, but it is a lot for an unbeaten team. Anyway, back to the Bucs.) Josh Freeman had a pretty good game, but did throw a pair of interceptions, and Tampa Bay would have loved to have those drives back. It's hard to blame the defense for getting shelled by the Packers, but then this is not your average Tampa Bay defense, either. I mean, St. Louis held the Packers to 24. Aqib Talib can't cover everyone at once. Gerald McCoy can't be your only threat on the defensive line. (Well, Adrian Clayborn is doing a nice job in his rookie season, but where's the rest of the pressure from the line?) Last year, people were praising Raheem Morris' young, talented team for getting into the playoff race and staying there until a late loss to Detroit pushed them out. This season, it almost seems like the Lions ended their hopes early: the Bucs are 11th and have losses to fellow wild-card contenders Detroit and Chicago. That effectively puts Tampa Bay four games back of both teams with six to play, and that's just not going to happen. The Bucs might run the table (unlikely, with games at Atlanta and Tennessee and home against Dallas), but even so, I doubt they'd pass four other teams and also get the Lions or Bears to lose at least four of six.
  • Detroit's defense may drop a bit as a result of their Carolina performance, but let's say that they're still a top-5 defense. Chicago is the only other team Green Bay has played who has anywhere near the Lions' quality at defense (and in fact, the two teams are comparable on defense, 4th and 5th prior to Week 11 games). The Packers' performance was its worst of the year, and it was still pretty good: 392 yards, 5 of 13 on third downs, 3 three-and-outs prior to garbage time, only one turnover. They forced only two turnovers and had a three-and-out after each one. All that, and they never trailed, led most of the game by at least two scores, and won by 10. The Bucs made too many mistakes to pose a challenge for Green Bay; the Lions have more potential, but then they just gave up 35 to Carolina. It's hard to see this team dropping a game until (unless) they rest their starters, but then last year's Chicago team had a better defense than this year's Packers do, and when Cutler went down, they ground to a halt. (And remember the Packers were shut out by Drew Stanton and the Lions when Rodgers suffered a concussion and missed most of the game.)
  • The Bills have gone from 5-2 and in good position in the East to 5-5 and lucky to be in the race for a wild-card spot, and even that's in doubt with the Jets and Tennessee up next, two teams tied with them at 5-5. The other losses were understandable, but this loss, I don't know. This looked like the old Bills, not the new Bills. I don't know that history plays much of a role in most games, but if you've just endured a difficult season, when you begin to struggle, it's got to be hard to avoid thinking "yep, just like last year." Buffalo is definitely a better team this year, but it's not hard to see them finishing 5-11. 
  • I saw someone trying to praise Reggie Bush for scoring touchdowns. (It was on Yahoo somewhere. They do a good job of investigating stories, but have virtually no analytical content. Every story boils down to "Ooh, shiny!") Touchdowns are obviously important in terms of scoring, but they aren't so important that everything else you do should be ignored, especially as a running back, or in Bush's case, "running back". Sunday's stats: 15 carries, 32 yards, 1 touchdown. Four receptions on five targets, 34 yards. Which was better? Hint: not the running. Here are his runs: 3 on 1st and 10 (fail), 3 on 1st and 10 (fail), -2 on 1st and 10 (fail), 2 on 1st and 10 (fail), 2 on 1st and 10 (fail), 6 on 1st and 10 (success), 5 on 2nd and 4 for TD (success), 4 on 2nd and 17 (fail, not really his fault), 11 on 1st and 10 (success), 0 on 1st and 10 (fail), -4 and 2nd and 10 (fail), 0 on 1st and 10 (fail), 1 on 1st and 10 (fail), 0 on 2nd and 9 (fail), 1 on 2nd and 8 (fail). If we leave out the good-luck-on-that play, it's 3 of 14, which is not really good. Buffalo's defense is not that good, and still Bush struggled to get anything on most carries. (Those weren't just average failures. Needing 4 on first down, Bush got 2 yards or less 6 times in 10 carries.) Daniel Thomas is a running back. Reggie Bush is a wide receiver. (Side note: USC players are overrated. Draw your own conclusions about the Pac-12.)
  • The Raiders are not only leading the West, but are just a game out of first overall in the AFC ... and they have a tiebreaker edge over Houston thanks to a head-to-head win. Could Oakland actually get a first-round bye? With Chicago, Green Bay, and Detroit on the schedule, they'll have to earn it, but with Houston likely to struggle in Schaub's absence, and considering the obvious flaws in Baltimore (offense) and New England (defense), it's entirely possible. The Raiders put this one away early (24-7 at halftime, 27-7 after three) and then sat on the ball to win, although they probably should have thrown the ball more in the second half: Michael Bush had an uninspiring 3.6 YPC day (30/109). Then again, Palmer had just 164 yards on 17 of 23, so maybe they were only going to get short gains even if they did throw more often. Up next: the Bears without Jay Cutler. Time for Oakland's weak defense to teach Chicago fans that Caleb Hanie isn't the answer to anything.
  • Christian Ponder threw three interceptions, fumbled once, and was sacked five times, so it's not like he had a great game, and Oakland's defense isn't that good. (I think I just said that.) This is not going to be one of those games that people use as an example of the wisdom of the switch at QB. This game showed why Vikings fans might be watching the worst team in the NFC. St. Louis might be worse on both sides of the ball, I guess, so maybe second-worst, but there's no question that Carolina has something Minnesota doesn't: a functional offense. People are rightly bashing Denver for the Tebowne, but the Vikings deserve just as much criticism for building a run-heavy offense in a league where passing is the way to win. They're just now realizing that it won't be enough to find someone to throw short passes and hand off 30 times, especially not with a defense that has trouble stopping just about anyone. 
  • Not Tony Romo's Fault. No turnovers, 23 of 37 for 292 and 3 TDs ... if the Cowboys had lost this game, it would not have been Romo's fault. Blame special teams for their struggle: a holding penalty after a 63-yard punt that backed the Cowboys into a hole they couldn't escape, a 23-yard punt out of that hole, a 32-yard punt return after the next drive that set up another Washington touchdown, another 55-yard punt return that resulted in no points ... even if Dallas manages to hang on to the East lead, they'd better be hoping that Detroit is the top wild-card team, because the next-best team is Chicago, and their special teams are great. Washington's, believe it or not, are bad. Devin Hester might get 300 return yards against these coverage units.
  • Rex Grossman was ... uh ... not bad. Dallas' defense is pretty good. The return of Good Rex, if that's what this is, is too late to get Washington back in the race in the East, but it might mean that Washington can look to fill spots other than QB in next year's draft. Prior to this game, that was looking almost like an obvious move for the Shanahans. Of course Voldemort could demand that they pick up the best available QB anyway, or trade a few picks to get one (Washington actually has an extra 3rd and an extra pick somewhere else, with a 6th or so going to New Orleans), but if someone keeps him out of the room, Washington might be able to build more strength on the lines. Their picks will be valuable, too: Washington's just 3-7 against the sixth-easiest schedule in the NFL so far, and they have the fourth-hardest schedule remaining, with games left against both New York teams and New England.
  • Cincinnati had a nice comeback against Baltimore, particularly given that A.J. Green was out, but they have to be kicking themselves for the turnovers that set up the need for a comeback. Dalton's last two picks, both in Cincinnati territory, set up short fields that gave the mediocre Baltimore offense easy opportunities to score. Baltimore's scoring drives were 4, 5, 8, 1, and 1 plays ... yeah, I know, "1 plays" doesn't look right, you know what I mean. The one real sustained drive ended in a field goal. If they'd made the Ravens work harder on offense, they might have had a chance to steal a road win, and then Pittsburgh would be leading the division and Cincinnati would be the top wild-card team. (Interesting that North teams currently hold both #1 seeds and all four wild-card spots.) Next week's game at home against Cleveland should be an easy win, and then they can prepare for the big game at Pittsburgh the following week.
  • Can you really win a championship with just defense? Baltimore's offense is bad and their special teams are worse, but somehow they manage to do just enough to win over and over again. Granted, there is enough time left in the season for pretty much any contender (other than Green Bay and San Francisco) to go down in flames, but when you consider that Baltimore's only loss to a fellow contender is to Tennessee, a team well down in the AFC standings, the Ravens are actually in a really good position. This Thursday's game against San Francisco is easily their hardest remaining game; if they win that, it's not a stretch to see them at 12-3 going into the season finale at Cincinnati, and that will definitely be #1-seed territory. (Only three other teams have just 3 losses, and one is Pittsburgh, the team Baltimore swept.) Certainly Flacco will have to be more careful with his passes if the Ravens are to make a playoff run, but they could well be making that run in Baltimore ... and possibly Indianapolis too.
  • Seattle did well to pick up a win on the road, but they're still not a good team. I have no idea how this team beat Baltimore and the Giants but lost to Cleveland. With Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco still on the schedule, they can have a reasonable impact on the NFC playoff race, but unlike last season, they'll be nowhere near it. 
  • The Rams' "how'd they do that?" win was the New Orleans game, of course, the one that buried any chance of the Saints getting a break during the first round of the playoffs. Any thoughts of a happy second half that started after the Cleveland win ended after a 7-point outing against the Seahawks. If St. Louis doesn't beat Arizona at home Sunday, they'll be 2-14 and wishing that the Colts had signed a QB in the offseason. (At worst, the Rams would pick fourth, and that's still not a bad position to be in.)
  • Yeah, Skelton had a bad game, but San Francisco's defense is strong (it's their offense that's weak). Putting in Bartel to figure out what he can do was probably a good idea, but let's not be throwing Skelton away just because he had the worst game of his short career against a team much better than the Cardinals. It's hard to believe that this team is just three years removed from that fourth-quarter rally that nearly became only their second league title in 87 years. (Yeah, the franchise goes back that far: they were actually around in the APFA days as well.) Just as Detroit has risen from 0-16 to 7-3 and a possible playoff run, Arizona has fallen from that 9-7 team that, like the Colts two years before, improbably hosted the conference championship game and won to make it to the Super Bowl (but unlike the Colts, couldn't take home the trophy). This team looks like it's years away from contending again.
  • San Francisco's remaining regular-season tests will come from the AFC, starting with the Ravens, in Baltimore, on a short week. They have that game and a Monday night game against Pittsburgh to help them figure out what needs to be tweaked for the playoffs (hint: passing), and then four practice games against divisional opponents before they get a first-round bye, and trust me, nothing is going to stop them from getting that bye. The rest of the division is so bad that they could rest Alex Smith and Frank Gore and still finish as the #2 seed. (Remember that New Orleans has three conference losses. Even if the 49ers fall to both Baltimore and Pittsburgh, they'd still be 11-1 in conference play.)
  • Jake Locker, welcome to the NFL. Remember that if Chris Johnson is in the game, you have no running game. (12 carries, 13 yards. Locker nearly beat that on a single carry.) Three of Tennessee's five losses have been by seven points or fewer; a running game wouldn't necessarily have helped in any of those games, but it sure couldn't have hurt. Just like Tebow is the poster child for QB W-L record as the dumbest statistic in football, Johnson is the poster child for not giving a RB a blockbuster contract. There is too much available talent (Exhibit A: Kevin Smith, who was, granted, an RFA) to justify putting so much of your cap into that position.
  • Matt Ryan did have a pretty good game against the Titans, although the last three drives prior to putting the game away were 12 plays, field goal; 6 plays, punt; and 9 plays, fumble. Atlanta converted only 4 of 12 on third down, putting Tennessee in position to make a late run. Fortunately, the Falcons ran out the clock on their last drive, but you get the feeling that they just don't have the skill on offense necessary to win playoff games. With Julio Jones out, this looks just like the team that needed to draft him in the first place, the team that is supposed to have decent talent (White, Gonzalez, Ryan, Turner) but doesn't seem to get enough out of it. Sure, they beat the Lions, but Chicago and Green Bay dispatched them easily, and you already know about the New Orleans game. I don't think Ryan has lived up to his ridiculous nickname ... he looks pretty much like any other young QB, not quite sure of what he's doing, just talented enough that he can make you look good, not quite talented enough to avoid critical mistakes in big situations. 
  • Oh, Philip Rivers ... here's a gift-wrapped chance to get back into the game, and you throw an end-zone interception. San Diego's special teams gave Chicago possession three times in four drives in Charger territory, and all four of those drives resulted in touchdowns, but San Diego was still within reach prior to that mistake. Rivers' final interception on the next drive (on his next pass!) sealed the game. Rivers' 4.4% interception percentage is third-worst in the league, better only than Kyle Orton and The Rex Grossman Experience. His 5.9 ANY/A is solidly middle-of-the-pack. He's been sacked 25 times, fourth-worst in the league, but that's a function of passing attempts: the three guys who are worse, Roethlisberger, Bradford and Tarvaris Jackson, all have significantly fewer attempts. The running game isn't the problem in San Diego, but the passing game has been, and a lot of that is on Rivers' shoulders, I think.
  • The injury to Jay Cutler isn't going to be as big of a deal as you think during the season, but it's probably going to prevent the Bears from making a Super Bowl run this season, just as it did last season. The Bears just use their offense as an occasional way to finish off drives: the heart of the team is the defense and special teams, and Sunday, that was true yet again. The defense didn't sack Rivers and only hit him once, but did get two big interceptions to stop fourth-quarter drives, and you probably read about the big returns. The one thing about this streak, though, is that it's come mostly against weaker teams. Detroit's the best team of the group, and their qualifications are sketchy. Tampa Bay, Minnesota, and San Diego aren't that good, and the Bears stomped only one of those three teams. They have only two games left against decent opponents, so that should be enough for Chicago to make the playoffs as long as the return teams continue to work magic. If Hanie or his backup have to move the offense 70-80 yards, though, the Bears could have problems.
  • DeSean Jackson just doesn't get it. Yeah, the rule about 15-yard penalties canceling out is silly (especially when there are opposing personal fouls and nothing happens), but it is what it is. You make a big play and your first reaction is not just to flip the ball at Giants on the sideline (and it's hard to imagine he didn't know exactly who the target was), but to continue to mock them after you make your way back onto the field ... dumb. Just dumb. Distractions? The Eagles haz them already. They should give Jackson the boot: sit him for the rest of the year. He just got back from a one-game suspension for basically putting himself above the team (go all in: either sit everything out or participate in everything, otherwise it looks like you're being lazy to get out of meetings, which he probably was), and this is his reaction? Let the NFLPA protest. They like lost causes. Deactivate him and leave him at home. Keep him away from the guys who are working hard to get Philadelphia back in the playoff race.
  • The Giants need to be really careful. A win would have put them virtually even with New Orleans, with Monday night's game giving the winner a one-game-plus lead for the #3 seed in the NFC. The home loss dropped them to 8th in the conference; there's a cliff between them and the 4-6 teams, but those include Seattle and Philadelphia, two teams who've beaten the Giants, and a loss to New Orleans would put New York too close to the edge. (At least the Giants split with the Eagles. They'd lose a tiebreaker to Seattle because of the head-to-head loss.) With Green Bay after the Saints game, it's not unreasonable to see the Giants at 6-6 and falling quickly out of the playoff picture ... and their next game after that is a Sunday night game at Dallas, who has Miami and Arizona next and might well be 8-4. 
  • Nobody really thought the Chiefs had a chance at New England, did they? OK, let's move on.
  • New England is now in a virtual tie with Houston for first in the conference, with Baltimore just behind them due to playing one fewer conference game. The Patriots play neither team, which means, well ... if the Eagles don't stop the one-dimensional Patriots this week, expect to see boring old Bill Belichick at 13-3 and sitting at home during the wild-card round, waiting patiently for the next victim in Foxborough. I'll read their schedule to you, and you stop me if you hear a game they might lose. Indianapolis (hahahahaha), at Washington, at Denver, Miami, Buffalo. Right. Me either. This team shouldn't be that good, not with the defensive problems they've had, but remember the 2006 Colts? Their offense was great, their defense was not ... and then in the playoffs, the defense turned in three great games, and the offense made up the difference the one time the defense couldn't get it done. You don't have to dominate the regular season (as the defending champion Packers will tell you), you just have to win in the playoffs. 
Playoff teams are starting to separate in the NFC: good news for the Lions and Bears, because a Giants collapse might mean that Atlanta is the only remaining team that might pose a threat. (Good for the Bears, who have a win over Atlanta; bad for Detroit, who lost to them.) In the AFC, it's still a big mess from top to middle. The only thing we know is that Indianapolis is still the worst team in the league. Hey, the second-worst team in the conference is on a three-game winning streak, and the third-worst team has one of the best defenses in football. In the NFC? Well ... how about that Newton kid?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

NFL week 10: better late than never

So Thursday games began last week, so it's a good thing I'm watching stuff closely, because last week was busy, and as a result it's Sunday and I haven't written anything yet. Here goes a quick look around the league:
  • If Oakland wins the AFC West, the trade for Palmer may turn out to have been a decent one. Certainly Indianapolis could have used him, but then that's what they thought about Collins, and you can see where that went. San Diego's defense seems to be a really big problem, so I don't know that Palmer deserves a ton of credit, but he was accurate and put up a lot of yards, and Rivers was not quite so accurate. (Palmer: 299 on 20 attempts, 14 completions. Rivers: 274 on 47 attempts, 23 completions.) Big win for Oakland, big loss for San Diego.
  • Detroit and Chicago are tied at 6-3, which is appropriate, because in many ways, they're similar: offenses that are potent when things go well but puzzlingly weak when they don't, defenses that can shut down just about any team in the league. The main difference is on special teams, where the Lions are very bad and the Bears are very good, and that showed up Sunday. The two interception TDs reflect Stafford's decision-making process, I think. The knock on him coming out of college was his accuracy, and he's struggled with that, but I think it's also a lack of quality OL. He's learned to get rid of the ball rather than take big hits, but he still thinks he can fire a ball into any coverage, and he can't. Chicago took advantage of that and pulled even with Detroit in the division, which also means in the wild-card race. With division tiebreakers coming first, Chicago couldn't afford to drop two back plus a sweep at Detroit's hands; now each team has to take care of business.
  • New Orleans looks pretty safe in the South with their win over Atlanta. I think Mike Smith probably made the right call, but he should be consistent: there was another fourth-and-one in Atlanta territory where he didn't go for it. Also, in the games I've seen, Atlanta has run the ball up the middle even when they weren't having success doing so (44% of their carries, which is actually less than the NFL average of 50%, so maybe I'm not reading this correctly), and I think this makes their chances of converting worse than those of the average team. Calls like that keep Atlanta a mediocre team instead of the playoff contender they seem to think they are.
  • Pittsburgh had a big win at Cincinnati. That's the kind of game you have to win if you're really a contender, and just as Detroit learned against San Francisco and Atlanta, Cincinnati's learning that you can't just put a few wins together and call yourselves a good team. They're 16th in DVOA, which is generally on the outside of the playoffs, but with the AFC carefully beating each other up, they might yet sneak in if they can surprise Baltimore this weekend.
  • St. Louis pulls out another big win – don't laugh. When you're struggling, every road win is a big win. No one's talking about Sam Bradford being the next great-QB-name-goes-here, though: his 4.7 ANY/A is on a par with guys like Curtis Painter and Kyle Orton. (Before you make a Purdue joke, Drew Brees is at 7.2.) To be fair, it's not all Bradford. St. Louis is just a bad team, through and through. I suppose Spagnuolo has to take some of the blame for not building a better team at this point. Cleveland isn't much better; although McCoy was pretty accurate, he didn't move the ball very well, and the Browns struggled in the red zone again. You have to wonder if Holmgren is going to build anything meaningful in Cleveland: Browns fans have suffered through change after change and really have nothing to show for it. Why should the next guy bring anything different?
  • The Bills aren't out of the playoff race, and the Cowboys aren't securely in it, but you could forgive their fans for thinking that way. Remember back when we were talking about Detroit, Tennessee, and Buffalo as playoff teams? They don't either. A road loss is understandable, but falling behind 28-7 at halftime isn't. The Bills looked completely out of it last week, and the AFC race is crowded enough that they can't afford to lose many more of these. It's one thing to be a couple of games out with 3-4 weeks to go, but it's another to have to pass 5 teams in those 3-4 weeks. Buffalo's not in that position yet, but time's running out, and Dallas isn't much better off.
  • The Colts lost their easiest remaining game, and Painter looked terrible in the process. The move to put Collins on IR looks worse and worse as the season goes on, unless his post-concussion symptoms are still present. (I never saw anything to that effect, but I could have missed it.) Neither of these coaches might be around next year, but that isn't going to fix the personnel issues they both have. It says something about the Colts' defense that Blaine Gabbert was 14 for 21 against them. 
  • The Broncos are finally using Tebow for what he is: a running back who had experience at QB at a lower level. If they only had a guy on the roster who'd played QB and could hit receivers and such ... if only ... I think it's funny that the same organization that essentially dropped Orton for throwing interceptions will keep Tebow even though he can barely even complete a pass. They'll learn, I guess. Kansas City, on the other hand ... ugly loss at home. If this keeps up, Haley won't make it until the end of the season. Without Cassel, the Chiefs' offense will be even worse than it is now, and you can't really blame all that on the absence of Jamaal Charles. 
  • Miami's sudden resurgence is interesting, but then you look at the teams they beat (Kansas City and Washington) and it's not that surprising. Schedule strength means a lot, you know. Maybe Moore really is becoming an adequate replacement QB, something Washington would love to have. Grossman is terrible, as everyone except for the Shanahans seems to have known coming into the season. If Beck isn't any better, who else can they play? 
  • The Cardinals pretty much ended Philadelphia's playoff hopes. With or without Vick, this team isn't playing well enough to earn a postseason spot. Maybe they should send DRC back to Arizona? He might actually have a better shot with the Cardinals than with the Eagles. Arizona's defense did a good job shutting down Vick and Philadelphia, and yet another disappointing loss means that the (ha ha) Dream Team is now 12th in the NFC, three games behind the two playoff teams (Detroit and Chicago) without considering tiebreakers. They're really in the same boat as Arizona: using the rest of the season to figure who stays and who needs to go.
  • Big win for Houston, blowing out a decent Bucs team at Tampa Bay. Without Schaub, it'll be interesting to see if the Texans can hold onto a first-round bye, but they may have built a big enough cushion to maintain that spot, and they do have a light enough schedule that they should get at least 10 wins in any event. Tampa Bay isn't that far out of a playoff run, but they really haven't shown that they have that level of talent this season. Josh Freeman is showing his lack of experience ... maybe next year will be the year Tampa Bay contends in the South.
  • Tennessee picks up a needed win in Carolina. Keeping Cam Newton in a check is a good sign for the defense; the offense looked good, but then the Panthers' defense is terrible, so that's more of an expectation than an accomplishment. Chris Johnson looked less like an anchor this game than he has most of the year, and Matt Hasselbeck still looks like a reasonable QB. (Perhaps a little too soon for Seattle to have given up on him?) Carolina's two wins make the season a slight improvement. It sounds callous to say it, but the losses really aren't that important. This season is more about finding young talent and building toward next season. Like most terrible teams, Carolina can't fix it all in one year.
  • Baltimore is going to regret this loss. Seattle is a tough place to play, but that's no excuse: their offense is bad, and their defense isn't good enough to make the Ravens struggle like they did. You have to question the playcalling, of course: only 12 carries when Ray Rice is getting 5+ yards a carry? Pete Carroll will pull out the occasional win like this, but it doesn't change my opinion of him: he's in over his head, and his tenure will last until Seahawks fans get tired of 4- to 7-win seasons with occasional upsets.
  • The 49ers win another big game against a playoff contender, and this one basically wraps up the #2 seed in the NFC for them. There are still seven games to go, but with a two-game lead on the Giants plus the head-to-head tiebreaker, San Francisco should finish right behind the Packers and wait to host New Orleans in the divisional playoffs. (Of course the Saints might not win their wild-card game, but then the #6 team is probably not going to be a strong one this year. Can you see Chicago or Detroit winning in New Orleans?)
  • Someday we'll look back and laugh at all the people who thought Mark Sanchez was a quality NFL quarterback. Of course we expect head coaches to be optimistic about their teams (do you want your coach to say that he doesn't think you'll make the playoffs?), but Rex Ryan has to figure out eventually that the Jets are simply not that good. They've got a solid defense, which is a requirement for pretty much any Super Bowl contender, but they're wasting time letting a mediocre QB run their offense. The Patriots have a bad defense this year, yet Sanchez made them look pretty good. 
  • Green Bay crushed Minnesota at home. Well, duh.
The Packers and 49ers pull away from the pack in the NFC, while Chicago pulls even with Detroit and Dallas and Atlanta lurk behind them. Pittsburgh is suddenly looking for the #1 seed again as everyone waits for the Texans to collapse, and the playoff pack goes all the way down to the group of four teams at 5-4, all waiting for someone above them to slip up.

Lions season outlook, week 11

While the score may have been surprising, keep in mind that 21 points came from the defense and special teams. The Bears' offense played about as well as you'd expect; credit goes to the Chicago defense, but those touchdowns aren't predictors of future performance. Massey's estimate of "slight underdog" was probably applicable here.

Massey projections:
Week 11: Carolina, overwhelming favorite
Week 12: Green Bay, underdog (moved down)
Week 13: at New Orleans, underdog (moved down)
Week 14: Minnesota, heavy favorite (moved down)
Week 15: at Oakland, 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.

Essentially the opposite of last week, with the Green Bay game moving as well. Estimated wins are 10.4, so a little less than a full game down from last week. Still a decent shot at playoffs, but the Lions have used up their free games: they'll have to win the games in which they're favored to have a decent shot.

The Playoff Odds report is below:
Mean wins: 9.8, down 0.7
Playoffs: 62.3%, down 17.2 points
Division title: 3.7%, down 9.2 points
Top seed: 0.6%, down 2.9 points
NFC title: 2.8%, down 4.0 points
Super Bowl win: 1.0%, down 2.4 points

The loss to Chicago essentially removes any remaining chance of winning the division and getting the top seed; the NFC and Super Bowl odds drop as Detroit shows an inability to beat contenders on the road. Playoffs are still in the picture, but as with Massey's projections, the Lions need to hold serve at home and also win at Oakland.

As mentioned last week, this wasn't a killer, but it sure didn't help. Chicago needed the game more than Detroit did (falling back two games behind the Lions with Detroit holding a sweep would have put Chicago against the NFC East and South teams for the remaining wild-card spot). Carolina is a different story: they still have a long way to go to be decent, and the defense shows it. Detroit tends to play well against bad defenses, and I think that will be the case today. Lions, 37-17.

Last week: predicted 13-23, actual 13-37

Current mood: fingers crossed

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Lions season outlook, week 10

Obviously no changes on the Lions' side ... it was disappointing to see Chicago beat Philadelphia because it puts the Bears even with Detroit if they win this week, but it does keep another team farther from playoff contention, and the Lions don't have to pass every team.

Changes below come from opponents' results:

Massey projections:
Week 10: at Chicago, slight underdog
Week 11: Carolina, overwhelming favorite
Week 12: Green Bay, slight underdog
Week 13: at New Orleans, slight underdog
Week 14: Minnesota, overwhelming favorite (moved up)
Week 15: at Oakland, heavy favorite (moved up)
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.

Not much to note. The Green Bay home game is about to flip to underdog status, and the Minnesota game is just barely overwhelming. The Lions are still heavy favorites or better in four of their remaining eight games, which suggests at least a 10-6 record, and in fact estimated wins are up again to 10.94. (Remember that the Lions have three games as underdogs where the likelihood of them winning is 40% or better.)

The Playoff Odds report is below:
Mean wins: 10.5, unchanged
Playoffs: 79.6%, down 4.1 points
Division title: 12.9%, down 7.1 points
Top seed: 3.5%, down 1.4 points
NFC title: 6.8%, down 1.7 points
Super Bowl win: 3.4%, down 1.0 points

The Chicago win establishes the Bears as a serious contender for a playoff spot (up 22.6 points to 62.2%, third among wild-card teams behind Detroit and Atlanta). Green Bay continues to recede in the distance: while their defense still looks flawed, their offense still looks good enough to overcome those mistakes.

The meat of the schedule begins Sunday. A win in Chicago would be a huge boost to Detroit's playoff hopes; a loss isn't a killer, but it does create problems, given that the loss to Atlanta gives the Falcons a head-to-head edge. The Bears are vulnerable, just as the 49ers and Falcons were. Playoff teams win at least some of these games. Make it happen.

Do I think it will? No. The Lions had several chances to win the San Francisco game at home and did not, and Dallas doesn't yet look like a contender. Until Detroit can beat a contender on the road, I'm not sure they can get it done. Bears, 23-13.

Last week: no game

Current mood: pessimistic

NFL week 9: road teams rule

The top of the AFC draws more closely together as the bottom begins to separate. Green Bay shows yet again how vulnerable they are, but hold on to win, as 9 of 14 games go to road teams, the most since some week I don't know about. (I'd check on p-f-r but I can't get through right now.)
  • Big win for the Jets, and some credit is due to Mr. Sanchez. He had two turnovers, but completed nearly 75% of his passes and converted 6 of 11 on third downs. As usual, the defense had a lot to do with the victory, but they didn't carry Sanchez the entire way this week. (Bad news: a red zone interception on their first drive. Good news: TD drives of 79 and 84 yards to put the game away.)
  • This was Buffalo's chance to put some distance between themselves and the Jets and Patriots, but instead of being a game up on New England and two on New York, they're in a three-way tie, and with a game coming up in New York, they could find themselves fighting for a wild-card spot if they can't return the favor after Thanksgiving. On the other hand, even though the Bills have struggled against good defenses, six of their eight remaining games are against weaker defenses (Miami twice, New England, Denver, Tennessee, and San Diego), so they may slip into the playoffs without having to work out those issues. Success, on the other hand ... well, even the wild-card round might work out if they can get the top spot, because it will almost certainly be the AFC West champ, but the divisional playoff would be against an AFC North or AFC East team, most likely with solid defense.
  • So yeah, Seattle's not returning to the playoffs. Tarvaris Jackson: 17 of 30, 0 TDs, 3 interceptions. Marshawn Lynch had a pretty good game, but you can't win on running alone unless you have an exceptional defense, and Seattle's defense is far from exceptional. (Their run defense is actually pretty good, but this isn't the right year for that to matter.) Jackson, surprisingly, is playing much better than Charlie Whitehurst did, but QB is still a position of need for Seattle. All those of you desperately hoping that Seattle chooses Matt Barkley so that he and Carroll can go down in flames together, raise your hands ... 
  • Tony Romo didn't exactly tear up the Seahawks' secondary, but he did throw for 279 yards and two scores with no interceptions and no fumbles. The Cowboys converted nearly 50% of their third-down tries (6 of 14), so even though they struggled once again to get to the end zone, they did keep Seattle's offense off the field to a reasonable extent: time of possession was split. This doesn't sound too bad, but keep in mind that Seattle's defense is not that good. Dallas should have destroyed Seattle, especially at home. This is simply not a playoff-caliber team. 
  • Speaking of playoffs, the Falcons climbed back into the NFC race with their shredding of the Colts. Matt Ryan is still having issues (14 of 24, including an interception at the 6 that was returned for the Colts' only score), but as long as Atlanta can beat bottom-feeders, they can hang in the wild-card race. This week's game against New Orleans will give them a shot at the division: lose, and they're probably out of it. Win, and suddenly they're even with the Saints. 
  • No surprises Sunday in Indy: although the Colts did do a pretty good job most of the time, the two plays on which Julio Jones got loose turned the game from a long shot into an impossibility. Atlanta's defense is strong, so it was unlikely that Painter would get too much done, and indeed he didn't. Time to look ahead to Jacksonville and Carolina: if there is a chance to avoid joining the 2008 Lions, those games would be it. 
  • I can't explain Miami's win at Kansas City. Moore was 17 of 23 with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions, but the Dolphins converted just 3 of 10 on third down. Miami only ran 47 plays ... they did gain a lot on those plays, but they didn't force turnovers, and they didn't have long punt returns, so I guess they just made the most of the chances they had. They did stop the Chiefs four times on downs, including twice on the Miami 3, and did hold them to three three-and-outs deep in Kansas City territory, so maybe that was a contributing factor. At any rate, it was a huge win for Miami: they avoid 0-for-2011 and maybe give Sparano a few more weeks as head coach. (On the other hand, it may have also made Reggie Bush look more like an actual RB, and that could be a burden for the next coach to bear.)
  • Any questions about Kansas City being a viable playoff contender? No? All right, let's move on. Exactly two teams since 1940 have split their first 8 games while being outscored by 70 points or more (no team won more than 4 games in that scenario): the 1989 Steelers and the 1965 Giants. The Steelers, the team that got blown out 51-0 by Cleveland in Week 1 and 27-0 by Houston (the Oilers) in Week 7, actually made the playoffs, slipped past Houston in overtime, and fell to Denver in the divisional playoffs. The Giants finished four games back of Cleveland in the NFL East and and were nowhere near the playoffs. I think this Chiefs team is closer to the Giants than the Steelers. 
  • Tampa Bay finished their split with New Orleans, to no one's surprise. They now have four losses, all against possible playoff teams, including losses to two possible wild-card competitors (Detroit and Chicago). Sitting tied for 8th at the halfway point, the Bucs can't afford to lose many more games: not only do they have to win games just to get in position, but they also have to pass at least 3 teams (depending on the tiebreaker with Dallas) to get where they need to be.
  • The Saints' defense did a good job sealing the win for New Orleans, keeping them in the drivers' seat in the South. That's kind of important, because with San Francisco and Green Bay at 7-1 and 8-0 respectively, New Orleans is looking at a #3 seed at best: should they drop out of the lead, they could well find themselves behind Detroit and Chicago or Philadelphia or Atlanta, depending on who seizes control of the other wild-card spot. As with most NFC teams, the weakness here is the defense, not the offense, so it's important for them to stand up against possible playoff teams.
  • Another game, another adequate offensive performance, another easy win for San Francisco, giving up just a 59-yard field goal at the end of the first half and a last-minute touchdown in the second half. There's no real need for Harbaugh to change anything, not with a five-game lead in the West, and with five games left against that division, even if they lose the other games (Giants, Ravens, Steelers), that's still 12-4, which should be no worse than a #3 seed and will more likely be a #2 seed; a win over the Giants would practically lock that away. They're still the NFC version of the Jets – Smith isn't going to win them many games and would likely lose a playoff game for them – but they don't have much choice right now. I wouldn't be surprised to see Harbaugh pick up a QB in the 2012 draft, though.
  • Turn out the lights, the party in Washington is over. Washington's now 3-5, three games back of the Giants and falling, and with no offense in sight, it's hard to imagine this team anywhere near the playoffs. They'll finish below .500, Shanahan will be fired, Voldemort will trick someone else into coaching the team, and the process will repeat itself. The franchise has won two playoff games in 12 seasons with Voldemort as owner (sadly, one of the two wins was over Detroit in Snyder's first year, 1999) ... actually, let me continue that parenthetical thought. In 1999, they beat Detroit but lost to Tampa Bay. In 2005, they beat Tampa Bay but lost to Seattle. (You may remember that Seattle team from the Super Bowl with questionable officiating.) In 2007, Seattle messed up the pattern and beat them again. It would be nice to say that Snyder ruined the franchise, but actually they'd missed the playoffs six straight years prior to his purchase. (Yes, the Lions were playoff regulars and Washington was not. Yes, this is the same universe.) He has, however, prevented them from getting any kind of continuity. It's interesting to think that someone close to my age knows so much less about football despite having so much more of a chance to affect a team. It's also interesting to see how many businessmen are more than willing to hire people to run their other businesses, especially in industries where they don't have knowledge, and yet they insist on being hands-on owners in an industry where they have almost no knowledge. Keep it up, Voldemort!
  • More of the same from Cleveland. The defense does what they can, but they get no help from the offense. Next year, the transition to the new offensive scheme should be complete, but there's no telling who'll still be around. Randy Lerner is another 40ish owner who's done nothing to distinguish himself among his peers: one playoff season (2002, his first as owner), one 10-win season that did not result in playoffs, and nothing else. (Well, he did do something: he reinforced the idea that the Belichick coaching tree is virtually worthless.) Cleveland fans wanted an expansion franchise to replace the Browns; more and more, it looks like they got an expansion franchise. They won't finish at the bottom of the AFC thanks to the Colts, but they won't be any closer to contending than they were last year, or the year before ...
  • The Texans are pulling away from the rest of the South, much as they've seen Indianapolis do season after season. With the Titans' surprising loss, suddenly a division title looks almost like a guarantee, especially with Andre Johnson due to return soon (if not against Tampa Bay, then perhaps after their Week 11 bye). Wade Phillips has once again picked a good horse to hitch himself to: Houston's fifth-ranked pass defense has played a significant role in the Texans' franchise-best start, but as at his other stops, there's little to connect to Phillips other than timing. Gary Kubiak doesn't likely care much, as long as they can continue to play at that level. Houston is one of the few teams that seems to have talent on both offense and defense, even with Mario Williams out for the year. That might give them an advantage over unbalanced teams like New England and the Jets.
  • Meh offense, solid defense ... the Bengals keep winning. I still think Mike Brown's locked in a closet somewhere and has no idea that his team is tied for the best record in the AFC. Just think, if they hadn't lost to Denver ... anyway, even though Cam Newton is getting all that attention in Carolina, Andy Dalton's done, well, hmm. He's barely above replacement level and significantly worse than Carson Palmer was last season, so what is it, exactly? Ah, it's the schedule. Cincinnati had the second-hardest schedule in the league last season, but has played the 25th-hardest schedule to date. It won't get much harder after this, so expect the Bengals to be in the North hunt (and the wild-card race) until the end.
  • The Titans are in very much the same situation as Tampa Bay in the NFC: 1.5 games out of first, tied for 8th in the conference, far enough back that they can't afford too many losses. When the two teams play after Thanksgiving, it'll likely be the end for one team's hopes, if indeed either team is still in the hunt. Finishing their home stand 1-2 likely means it's the Bucs who'll be the playoff contender: with games remaining at Atlanta, Buffalo, and Houston, Tennessee would almost need to win the rest just to have a shot at the playoffs, and that means beating both Tampa Bay and New Orleans in Nashville. 9-7 probably wouldn't be good enough anyway, but you've got to start somewhere, and in this case, "somewhere" is Charlotte. Lose to the Panthers, and the Titans can start planning for 2012.
  • TEBOWTEBOWTEBOW report: 10 for 21, 124 yards, 2 touchdowns. No turnovers, though, so he got that part right. His career-high single-game completion percentage is 55.6%, last season against Houston's awful pass defense. This year, he's up to 46.4% after the Oakland game. When he gets enough attempts to be eligible, he'll be next-to-last in the NFL, ahead of only Blaine Gabbert. Curtis Painter, on a significantly worse team, has completed 53.3% of his passes. Kyle Orton, the guy "responsible" for all of Denver's losses to date, completed 58.7% of his passes. The Broncos are winning despite TEBOW; don't let the media tell you otherwise. (When Orton leaves next season and Denver has no QBs at all, McDaniels' destruction of the franchise will have been complete.)
  • Oakland's special teams did them no favors Sunday. An 85-yard punt return for a touchdown, a 41-yard kickoff return to set up another short field (actually, that drive ended with a missed field goal) ... that plus three interceptions by Carson Palmer cost the Raiders a chance to take the lead in the West and bury Denver for good. Palmer will have the chance to post another 300-yard passing game at San Diego this week, and he'll need it: even in a weak division, you get only so many chances, and I think this may turn out to be one the Raiders couldn't afford to blow. I will say that Oakland seems to have chosen well with respect to replacement QBs ... makes you wonder what would have happened if the Colts had traded a couple of picks to pry Palmer out of Cincinnati instead of picking up Collins. (It's fair to say that Palmer wouldn't have left for a situation where he might not be the dominant QB, but then Campbell isn't out for the season and was playing well in Oakland, so there's no telling what'll happen in late December, not to mention next year.) 
  • The Giants could have gone into Foxborough and lost, and no one would have been that surprised. They'd still be in first place in the East, they'd still have a good shot at the division, and we wouldn't have thought twice about it. Instead, they come away with a win, and not just a win, but a win on a last-minute drive. True, New England's defense is nothing like what it once was, but that doesn't mean that a drive on the road in those situations is easy, and Manning deserves credit for making it happen. The OL kept him clean (the Patriots recorded no sacks), and although Eli completed just over half of his passes, he was 4 of 5 on the first touchdown drive (plus a defensive PI call) and 3 of 6 on the second drive (plus another defensive PI). Just enough to get the job done. This was a huge start to New York's grueling second-half stretch (technically this was the last game of the first half for them, but you know what I mean). Another difficult game is up Sunday: a loss to San Francisco would make it hard for the Giants to get a first-round bye, but a win could push them closer to a shot at the #1 overall seed in the conference.
  • Four turnovers, two touchdown drives yielded in the last half of the fourth quarter ... this looks almost like an ordinary team, not a Patriots team. Lack of pass pressure is definitely an issue, and it's noteworthy that despite that problem (or perhaps because of it), Albert Haynesworth is no longer on the team. New England's remaining schedule is pretty soft, so they could still make the playoffs, but don't be surprised if they end up visiting the Jets or Bills and getting whacked in January. I just don't know if you can fix personnel issues this late in the season.
  • The one thing the Rams are doing well is avoiding interceptions. They have the third-fewest interceptions per drive, behind only the 49ers and Lions. They're dead last in points per drive and 26th in starting field position, though, and you could see that in the Cardinals game. They did not start a single possession in Cardinals territory, and they settled for field goal attempts on four of seven drives that reached Arizona's half of the field (the other three ended in punts). You'd think it was because they were having Bradford dump the ball off underneath instead of pushing it into coverage, but he's completing just over half of his passes ... if he is dumping it short, he's not even doing that well. Something has to change to take some of the pressure off the defense: there aren't too many games in NFL history where a team recorded two safeties and lost. (Denver did against Seattle during a loss in 1983 and Buffalo did the same against Houston in 2003; two other teams recorded two safeties on 10/5/2003, but they both won.)
  • Kevin Kolb should sit out this week as well. He's not going to gain anything by going up against his former team. Arizona is still a lousy team, even after their win over St. Louis, and they're going to lose to the Eagles no matter who is at quarterback. Better that he gets healthy for the return engagement in St. Louis than that he rushes back and gets pounded by the Eagles' and 49ers' defenses. Larry Fitzgerald managed to get a TD in the win, but it's small consolation: not only is he stuck on yet another bad team, but he's running about 20-30% under his normal receptions pace. (Strangely, his YPC is a career-high 17.0, well above his 14.9 in 2008. Maybe opponents just can't believe that Kolb or Skelton actually found him?)
  • Aaron Rodgers was very efficient yet again in San Diego, but yet again the defense nearly gave the game away at the end. Mike McCarthy has to be concerned about a team that forced only two punts and nearly gave up a 21-point fourth-quarter lead ... it's one thing for Dallas or Minnesota to give up a lead like that, but they're not contenders, and those were first-half or third-quarter leads anyway. It would have been hard to fault the offense if the Packers had lost that game. It's easy to say that that won't happen again, but the Chargers had a second-tier offense that instead looked like Green Bay's for much of the second half; the defense cannot perform like that against the Giants and possibly the Lions if Green Bay is to run the regular-season table, and if anything happens to cause problems on offense, this team could come to a crashing halt.
  • The two first-quarter mistakes Philip Rivers made may have cost the Chargers the game, but Rivers deserves credit for getting the team back into a position to make a run at a win. Antonio Gates looks to be either recovered from his latest injury or strong enough to fight through whatever pain remains. Mike Tolbert's doing a good job replacing Darren Sproles. The defense is really the area of concern, although it's hard to assign them much blame for failing to slow down the Green Bay juggernaut. They do have to play better against Oakland and Denver, though, and the Chicago game in between may be a good test as well. Jay Cutler will make mistakes if you let him.
  • The Ravens pulled off a dramatic sweep of the Steelers, giving them the inside shot at the AFC North title and a likely first-round bye (or possibly even the #1 seed, given that neither the South nor the West seems capable of producing a 12-win team, and the East may well beat each other up). The offense still doesn't look that good, but they did turn the ball over only once; John Harbaugh may be lowering his expectation to where Flacco is expected only to be a caretaker, rather than a problem-solver, and that might be more in line with the QB's recent level of performance. Flacco's still around his 2008 numbers rather than what he posted in 2009 and 2010, and that may not be enough to lead the Ravens to a Super Bowl win, or even to an appearance in Indy if they should face a team like the Jets in the playoffs. The Ravens need to know that the offense can get a touchdown or two when it's needed, and while that did happen Sunday night, it's not happened often enough to make this truly a championship-caliber team, even at 6-2.
  • Pittsburgh's defense allowed Baltimore to convert an amazing 14 of 21 third-down opportunities ... six drives of 10 plays or more ... although they gave up just one drive of more than 50 yards, that happened to be the game-winning drive, and it came after a drive that started at the Steelers' 46 and gained just 19 yards in 6 plays. Pittsburgh has come up short in both games against Baltimore, and with Cincinnati winning games against weaker opposition, there's a real possibility that those games might leave the defending AFC champs at home during playoff time. This Sunday's game at Cincinnati isn't necessarily a must-win game, but losing it would give Pittsburgh three division losses, all to teams ahead of them in the standings. It's one thing to look at the games against St. Louis and Cleveland as must-win games, but another to actually win them; don't overlook the boost the Browns might get if they knew they could knock the Steelers out of the playoffs with a January win at Cleveland.
  • Chicago did two important things Monday night: they beat a potential playoff competitor, and they kept Cutler from being sacked. They have the opportunity to do exactly the same thing Sunday, and repetition of the later event will have a direct impact on their ability to repeat the former. Giving up third-down conversions seemed to be an issue for the Bears, and they did have weaknesses in both aspects of their offense (two fumbles by Forte, just over 50% completions from Cutler), but a road win is a road win, and there's a huge difference between being 5-3 with a chance to tie for second in your division vs. being 4-4 with the possibility of falling three games back plus knowing you've lost the head-to-head tiebreaker. Chicago probably won't catch the Packers for first in the North or the NFC, but then they got first-hand experience last year that tells them home-field advantage isn't always necessary. Their next step is to beat Detroit; the rest can wait.
  • The NFC isn't strong enough to count most teams out of the hunt yet (except for the NFC West; San Francisco is in and the others are out), but the laughably-named Dream Team doesn't have much time to get things fixed. The Eagles are three games out of first, with a loss in hand against the first-place Giants, and they're two games out of the second wild-card spot, with losses in hand against both the Bears and Falcons. A loss November 20 at the Giants will likely end all playoff hopes; Dallas and Tampa Bay are both a game ahead of the Eagles, and there's no way Philadelphia could overcome even a three-game deficit in the division, much less a four-game deficit with the Giants holding a sweep. Win that, and they still might have to win out to take the division, which means beating the Patriots and Jets in Philadelphia.
Not much has changed; I guess the AFC West really is that bad, and no team in the AFC really seems to be that good, but then each week Green Bay seems determined to show how badly their defense can play, so I wouldn't suggest that Packers fans start checking with their Indianapolis-area friends about crashing in early February. (Hint: don't ask me. Hell no. Stay outside in the cold, freaks.) The NFC will probably see some separation in the next couple of weeks, but the AFC might have a number of teams in play all the way through Week 17. We'll see.
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