Monday, December 19, 2011

NFL week 15: failure

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

NFC

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

AFC

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

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