Tuesday, December 13, 2011

NFL week 14: separation for real

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

NFC


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

AFC


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

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