Thursday, December 24, 2009

And Then There Was One ...

Well, one of the two remaining undefeated pro football teams took it on the chin last week, as I predicted. That was the good news. The bad news was, it wasn't the one I predicted.

Indianapolis survived Jacksonville, but New Orleans could not get past Dallas. I predicted that Jacksonville and New Orleans would win. So I was 0–2 in Week 15 before last Sunday — dubbed "Separation Sunday" — dawned. And that was before many of the upsets (at least as far as my predictions were concerned) occurred.

Anyway, the playoff picture is coming into focus now. In the NFC, Arizona has joined the Vikings and the Saints as division champion, and Philadelphia has clinched a playoff berth. Green Bay and Dallas appear to be on their way to the playoffs, but scenarios exist in which either could be overtaken by the New York Giants.

Things are a little less settled in the AFC, where the Colts and Chargers have secured their division championships. New England can clinch the AFC East with a win; if the Jets and Dolphins each lose one more, that would accomplish the same thing. In the AFC North, Cincinnati has a one–game lead over Baltimore, but the Bengals, who swept Baltimore, can clinch with a win or a Ravens loss.

Baltimore is still in the driver's seat for a wild card, but half a dozen teams are only a game behind the Ravens and the other wild card contender, Denver.

It's possible — even probable — that some of the playoff slots will be decided this weekend, but I expect some berths to be up in the air when the teams play their final regular–season games next week.

  • San Diego (11–3) at Tennessee (7–7) — As Jim Wyatt observes in The Tennessean, the Titans need to win out — and they need some help from others — to earn a playoff berth for the third straight year. The challenge is even greater, considering that San Diego brings a nine–game winning streak (and five straight road wins) into the Christmas Day encounter. On the other hand, the Titans' numbers aren't too bad, either. They've won seven of their last eight games and they have a 5–2 record at home. If they can somehow beat the Chargers, my guess is they will win their season finale against Seattle — and then it will be out of their hands. Can the Titans pull it off? Well, interestingly, they are about equal to the Chargers in team offense (better on the ground than through the air), but San Diego has a decisive advantage on defense. Based on that, I'll go with the Chargers.
  • Tampa Bay (2–12) at New Orleans (13–1) — This game is almost totally irrelevant — except for the matter of homefield advantage through the NFC playoffs. The Saints need a win (or a Minnesota loss) to wrap it up. One would think that Tampa Bay's weak defense will be no match for New Orleans' best–in–the–NFL offense. Mike Triplett of the New Orleans Times–Picayune reports that Saints QB Drew Brees says the loss to Dallas is "a hurdle that we have to overcome." I am confident they will be able to do so against the Buccaneers.

  • Baltimore (8–6) at Pittsburgh (7–7) — When these two teams met in Baltimore on Nov. 29, the Ravens won in overtime. The Ravens control their own destiny; the Steelers, meanwhile, are an enigma. Pittsburgh beat San Diego and Minnesota in the first half of the season and has lost to Oakland, Kansas City and Cleveland in the second half of the season but, nevertheless, upended an apparently playoff–bound Green Bay Packers team in the final seconds last Sunday. Baltimore (2–4 on the road) cannot take the defending world champs (5–2 at home) for granted, even though the Steelers are 1–4 in division play. I expect another close one, and I'll give Baltimore the edge by a single point.

  • Jacksonville (7–7) at New England (9–5) — There are a bunch of AFC teams at 7–7, but, thanks to the tiebreakers, the Jaguars are in the best position to overtake the leaders in the wild card race. If they can somehow beat the Patriots, their chances will be pretty good with only a trip to Cleveland remaining on their schedule — but the Jags are 0–4 against the Patriots in the regular season since their debut in 1995. The last time the teams met was in Foxboro, Mass., during the 2007 playoffs. Jacksonville kept it close in the first half, but two TD passes from Tom Brady in the third quarter put it out of reach. In 2006, the Pats won at Jacksonville. In 2003, they won in Foxboro. They won in Jacksonville in 1997. They won at Foxboro in 1996. I'll pick New England to make it 5–0 against Jacksonville in regular–season play.

  • Houston (7–7) at Miami (7–7) — The winner of this game probably will have little chance of making the playoffs, but the loser will be out of the chase for sure. At best, the winner will finish the season 9–7, a record that might be good enough to qualify for a wild card. But the best the loser can hope for is 8–8, and that is a considerable longshot. Statistically, the Texans have the edge in team offense and team defense. Miami is 4–2 at home while Houston is 4–3 on the road. I expect this to be one of the more competitive games of the week. Houston is 4–0 against Miami since launching its franchise in 2002, but this will be only the second time they've played in Miami. I'll go with the Texans.

  • Seattle (5–9) at Green Bay (9–5) — The Packers were oh, so close, in their game with the Steelers last week. They return to Lambeau Field, where they are 5–2, to take on a Seattle team that has little to play for — and has enjoyed little success on the road, going 1–6 so far. I expect Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers to pick apart Seattle's defense and help the Packers put a lock on a wild card.

  • Carolina (6–8) at New York Giants (8–6) — The series has been a decidedly mixed bag in the last 10 years. The Giants won their last encounter with the Panthers last year. Like this year's game, it was played at Giants Stadium; New York needed an extra period to claim the win. In 2006, New York won at Carolina. In 2005, the teams didn't play during the regular season, but they met in the wild–card round, and the Panthers blanked the Giants at Giants Stadium. In 2003, the Panthers won on the road again. Statistically, the Giants have a huge advantage over the Panthers in team offense, thanks largely to the gap in their passing attacks — although the Panthers do have the NFC's top–rated run offense. The Giants also enjoy the advantage in team defense, although the difference is not as profound. I pick the Giants — who may or may not still have a shot at the playoffs when the day is done.

  • Oakland (5–9) at Cleveland (3–11) — This will be the sixth time these teams have faced each other since the Browns resumed play as an NFL franchise in 1999, and Cleveland holds a 3–2 advantage over the Raiders in that time. This will be only the second time that the teams have played in Cleveland, though. The Browns won that first encounter, 13–7, on Oct. 12, 2003. The Raiders have been better than expected this year, although the road back to the playoffs is still long for this once–proud franchise, and it can be difficult to see what might tempt football fans in Cleveland to brave sub–freezing temperatures and a 50% chance of snow to watch these teams play. They have the two worst offenses in the NFL, and the Raiders have a slight edge on defense, although neither team has been spectacular in that category, either. The Browns are 1–5 at home, but they may have righted their ship, beating Pittsburgh the last time they played in Cleveland Browns Stadium. The Raiders, meanwhile, are 3–4 on the road. As I say, there are no playoff berths on the line, but the statistics suggest a close contest. I'll give a very slight edge to the Browns.

  • Kansas City (3–11) at Cincinnati (9–5) — In the NFL, teams don't play the other teams in their conference every year (except for the teams in their divisions). Thanks to some anomaly in the scheduling formula, though, this will be the seventh consecutive year these two teams have faced each other. And, with only one exception, the home team has won every time. The Bengals hoped to channel their grief over the sudden death of wide receiver Chris Henry into triumph last weekend by clinching their division title against San Diego. But the Chargers had other plans. Henry's funeral is behind them now, and this week's opponent should provide the perfect transition for the Bengals from mourning to celebration. After back–to–back losses to Minnesota and San Diego, the Bengals really need to clinch the AFC North this week. If the Chiefs pull off the upset, the Bengals will face a much higher hill to climb if they must travel to New York next week needing a victory over the Jets to punch their playoff ticket. But I think the Bengals, who have a big advantage over the Chiefs in both team offense and team defense, will prevail.

  • Buffalo (5–9) at Atlanta (7–7) — The Bills are definitely out of the hunt for the playoffs. The Falcons probably are, too, although they still retain at least a mathematical chance of tying one or both of the wild–card qualifiers in the NFC. Buffalo hasn't beaten Atlanta since Nov. 12, 1995, but the teams have only played twice since then, and the Bills haven't won in Atlanta since the Nixon administration. Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez is six catches away from a milestone and, while that probably isn't sufficient reason to pick a team to win, it is good enough for me. I'll pick Atlanta to win.

  • St. Louis (1–13) at Arizona (9–5) — This is a game that hardly seems worth mentioning since all the numbers seem to work against St. Louis and its worst–in–the–NFL record. The Cardinals have won six straight against the Rams, last losing to St. Louis at home on Sept. 24, 2006. Arizona has outperformed St. Louis in both team offense and team defense this season, which should come as no surprise. And the Rams come to the desert with a six–game losing streak. I pick the Cardinals to win by at least 10 points.

  • Detroit (2–12) at San Francisco (6–8) — Did you know that Tuesday was the 52nd anniversary of a rare playoff clash between division rivals in the 1950s? In those days, there were only 12 teams in the NFL, divided into two divisions, and the two division winners met in the championship game. There were no wild cards in those days, and, apparently, there was no tiebreaker system, either. In 1957, the Lions and 49ers tied for the Western Division title and had to play a playoff, with the winner facing the Cleveland Browns in the championship game the following week. The Lions won, 31–27, then went on to beat the Browns, 59–14. Detroit hasn't won a pro football championship since, although the Lions have qualified for the playoffs a few times. Clearly, they won't qualify for the playoffs this time, and neither, I'm inclined to say, will the 49ers, although they might still have a slim chance. I'll pick the 49ers to defeat the Lions.

  • Denver (8–6) at Philadelphia (10–4) — This may be the most significant game on this week's schedule. Philly is already in the playoffs, but the Eagles are striving to win the NFC East and, as a result, play at least one home game in the postseason. They even have a shot at getting a first–round bye. The Broncos, on the other hand, cannot win their division, but they can grab one of the AFC's wild card berths. Denver's road to the playoffs should be much clearer with a win over Philadelphia, since only Kansas City will remain on its schedule, but beating the Eagles, who are 5–2 at home, will not be easy for the Broncos, who have been inconsistent all season and have lost their last two. I'll take the Eagles.

  • New York Jets (7–7) at Indianapolis (14–0) — Students of pro football are familiar with Joe Namath's "guarantee" that the Jets would defeat the Colts in Super Bowl III. That was in January 1969. Recent history hasn't been kind to the Jets. In fact, you have to go back to 1997 to find the Jets' last win over the Colts. Indianapolis has won six in a row over New York — at the Meadowlands in 2006 (31–28), 2001 (45–24) and 1999 (16–13), at home in 2003 (38–31), 2000 (23–15) and 1998 (24–23). The Jets will be playing for their playoff lives, and the Colts are likely to rest their starters through much of the game. Nevertheless, I'll pick the Colts.

  • Dallas (9–5) at Washington (4–10) — Here in Dallas, there was a collective sigh of relief last weekend when the Cowboys defeated the previously unbeaten New Orleans Saints. If it weren't for Christmas, "December" would be a dirty word around here. And recent history hasn't helped December's image in Dallas. But, writes Kevin Sherrington in the Dallas Morning News, "In the throes of their annual month from hell, the Cowboys didn't just shake off a jinx. They may have turned a corner. Convincingly. Dramatically. Finally." Um, well, I'd take it easy on that "turned a corner" talk — at least until we have more evidence. And I say that knowing the Cowboys' next foe is the Washington Redskins, who have struggled this season but only lost by a single point when they came to Dallas last month (so Cowboys fans need not be deceived by the Redskins' lopsided loss to the New York Giants on Monday). The Cowboys have won six of their last 10 games at Washington, but last year's victory snapped a three–year losing streak, and last month's narrow win suggests that the Cowboys take the Redskins lightly at their peril. I'll pick the Cowboys to win — unenthusiastically.
  • Minnesota (11–3) at Chicago (5–9) It's probably assumed by most football fans that the Vikings won't have much trouble with the Bears — a team they handled with ease, 36–10, last month. But the Vikings have had their problems in Chicago in recent years. The last time the teams played in Chicago, the Bears won, 48–41. In 2007, the Vikings needed a late field goal to win at Soldier Field. In 2006, en route to the Super Bowl, the Bears beat the Vikings at Soldier Field, 23–13. The year before that, Chicago cruised to a 28–3 win. In 2004, the Bears won, 24–14. In 2003, the Bears won, 13–10. In 2002, the Bears won, 27–23. In 2001, the Bears won, 17–10. This is a different Minnesota team, with a Hall of Fame QB and a lot of talent at other positions as well, but the weather may also be a factor. Currently, the temperature is not expected to get above freezing on Monday (after a week of varying levels of snowfall) — and one must assume it will be even colder when the sun goes down. For a team like the Vikings that plays its home games indoors, that's an additional hurdle. Will that make it a mountain too high? It might, especially if New Orleans beats Tampa Bay and secures homefield through the NFC playoffs in their game on Sunday. Logic tells me, though, that Minnesota, with a team offense and a team defense that are ranked in the Top 10 in the NFL, will defeat Chicago.
Last week: 7–9.

Season: 160–66.

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