Sunday, January 3, 2010

NFL Crosses Regular-Season Finish Line Today

The NFL playoffs begin next week, and it is at this time of the year that I often turn my attention to what Peter King of Sports Illustrated has to say.

On the eve of the playoffs, King usually has some insights to share.

But King says there is no obvious favorite in the NFL right now. "[T]here's no lock in either conference," he writes. "That means the next month will be fun and maddening."

The playoff field is set in the NFC. All that needs to be done is settle on the order, which will be finalized with the outcomes of a few games on Sunday.

Three teams have clinched division titles in the NFC — New Orleans, Minnesota and Arizona. The winner of the Philadelphia–Dallas game will be the NFC East champ. The loser will be a wild–card team along with Green Bay.

Where the NFC's wild–card teams will play next week remains to be determined.

Things are a bit more unsettled in the AFC, although the four division winners are known — New England, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and San Diego. The Colts and Chargers have first–round byes.

What is not known is which two teams will be the AFC's wild–card teams, and seven teams enter the final weekend with a chance of grabbing one of those slots. It seems almost certain that tiebreakers will be factors when the dust settles.

Baltimore and the New York Jets control their own destinies, but their victories this week are far from certain. Based on season records, the Ravens probably have the easier assignment, facing 5–10 Oakland while the Jets must play the 10–5 Cincinnati Bengals. If either team stumbles, that will open the door for the Denver Broncos, who play 3–12 Kansas City. And, if the Broncos falter, there are scenarios that exist in which the Texans, Steelers, Dolphins and/or Jaguars could maneuver their way in.

But I like the Ravens' and Jets' chances, as I will explain in my predictions.
  • San Francisco (7–8) at St. Louis (1–14) — There was a time when a 49ers–Rams game was the marquee matchup in the NFC West, but this game has been rendered totally irrelevant. The Rams haven't beaten the 49ers in St. Louis since Nov. 26, 2006. The 49ers won the first meeting between the teams this season, 35–0. It was their first shutout victory since 2002. I don't know if the 49ers will register another shutout, but I do think they will win by at least two scores.

  • New England (10–5) at Houston (8–7) — The Texans can still make the playoffs, but they need some help. First, they absolutely positively must defeat New England — which is not such a tall order. If you're of the mindset that says beating New England is the embodiment of the impossible dream, your brain may be stuck in 2007, when the Patriots went undefeated during the regular season. But this is 2009, and location has a lot to do with whether the Pats appear likely to win or lose. They've gone 8–0 at home, but this game won't be played at home. The Patriots are 2–5 on the road. Unfortunately for Houston, though, the Texans have been better on the road than they have been at home. Consequently, there may not be much advantage for the Texans in the fact that the game will be played in Houston's Reliant Stadium, although if Houston wins, the Texans will secure their first winning season in their brief history, which will give their fans something to cheer about. Then, the Texans need at least two of the 8–7 teams in the AFC to lose today. Both New England and Houston are in the top five in the NFL in team offense and passing offense, and both are in the top 15 in team defense. The Pats are better against the pass than the Texans, though, so, on that basis, I'll give a slight edge to New England.

  • Atlanta (8–7) at Tampa Bay (2–13) — Atlanta has a chance to post back–to–back winning seasons for the first time ever if the Falcons can beat the lowly Bucs. That's kind of an astonishing thing, considering Atlanta has had an NFL team for more than 40 years. But Atlanta has no chance of making the playoffs so the winning season is about their only motivation. This has been a pretty competitive series, with the teams splitting their last 12 meetings and Atlanta winning the first meeting this season, 20–17. I'll give the Falcons the edge this time, too, even though they have lost their last two games in Tampa Bay.

  • New Orleans (13–2) at Carolina (7–8) — If the Saints win, they will sweep the Panthers for the first time since 2001. The way New Orleans has staggered through the last two games (both losses), that is far from a certain outcome. If the Saints want to go to their first Super Bowl, they need some momentum heading into the playoffs, and a win over Carolina may be just what the doctor ordered. But New Orleans' coach has decided to sit QB Drew Brees, safety Darren Sharper and tight end David Thomas because the Saints have clinched homefield through the NFC playoffs. I would have gone with New Orleans to win, since the Saints are 7–0 on the road and have the best pass offense in the NFC, but with Brees on the bench, I'm going to pick Carolina.

  • Cincinnati (10–5) at New York Jets (8–7) — As remarkable as it may seem, if the Jets win, they're in — the playoffs, that is. The Bengals, on the other hand, are already in, but they cannot possibly earn a first–round bye. All that remains to be decided is which wild–card team they will play. That will be decided in part by whether the Bengals are seeded third or fourth behind New England, but, since neither of the wild–card teams are known yet, it is impossible to tell whether being seeded third or fourth is more advantageous. It isn't hard to imagine the Bengals pulling most of their starters to preserve them for the playoffs, allowing the Jets to win with their starters facing Cincy's second–teamers. The Bengals and Jets are playing the night game so the outcome of the New England game will be known by the time they kick off. If the Patriots win, the Bengals will have no rational reason to risk their starters in a regular–season finale that has no meaning for them. The Jets, on the other hand, come into the game with something to play for, no matter what happens in the rest of the contests. Can the Jets do it? I think, with the NFL's best team defense and best pass defense, along with the best rushing offense, they can pull it off and advance to the playoffs to face either the Bengals again or the division rival Patriots.

  • Pittsburgh (8–7) at Miami (7–8) — The Steelers and the Dolphins are both longshots for the playoffs. For either team to get in, it will be necessary to win this game and then get a lot of help. But it is possible, at least in theory. In what may be a fit of paranoia, Pittsburgh linebacker LaMarr Woodley says the Patriots and Bengals will "lay down" to prevent the Steelers from being in the playoffs. I don't know if he is right about that, but I don't believe the Steelers will get all the help they need to qualify for the playoffs, whether deliberately or not, even though I do think they will defeat Miami.

  • The Cowboys certainly remember what happened
    when they faced the Eagles in the season finale last year.

  • Philadelphia (11–4) at Dallas (10–5) — More than half the games on the final weekend's schedule have a bearing on the playoffs, but more is on the line for both teams in this game. For openers, the winner will be the division champ. Philly even has a chance to clinch a first–round bye — if the Eagles win or tie. But if the Eagles lose, they could tumble to the sixth seed and probably would have to play the Cowboys in Dallas again next week. analyst Bucky Brooks says the winner will be the team to beat in the NFC playoffs. A few weeks ago, that would have seemed laughable. Now, though, it clearly seems plausible. Dallas won the first meeting; I'll pick Philly to win the rematch.

  • Jacksonville (7–8) at Cleveland (4–11) — It is astonishing that Jacksonville still has a chance to be a wild card. There are five scenarios in which the Jags get into the playoffs — but a lot of unlikely things would have to happen to make it so. I think the Jaguars will beat the Browns, but I don't think all the other things that need to happen for Jacksonville's season to continue will come to pass.

  • New York Giants (8–7) at Minnesota (11–4) — If the Giants hadn't imploded against Carolina last week, one can only wonder what this game could have been. The Vikings actually could lose the first–round bye and limp into the playoffs with a three–game losing streak if they lose to the Giants, possibly setting up their third meeting with Green Bay in the process. I don't know if that will happen, but the Vikings do seem to be experiencing their version of the Brett Favre December collapse. Interestingly, the same teams met in the same place in last year's season finale, and Minnesota won on a last–second field goal. The Vikings have a three–game winning streak against the Giants and haven't lost to New York at home since Oct. 13, 2004. The Vikings are 7–0 at home, but I'm going to pick the Giants to upend them in this one.

  • Indianapolis (14–1) at Buffalo (5–10) — You know that Peter King article I provide the link to at the start of this post? Well, King asks a good question concerning the Colts: "I don't like what Indy did Sunday," he writes, "but we knew it was coming. Why all the outrage?" When the Jets beat the Colts last Sunday, they preserved the 1972 Miami Dolphins' singular achievement of an undefeated season clear through the Super Bowl for another year at least. But how it happened seems to have left a bitter taste in many mouths in Indianapolis. Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star wrote that yanking quarterback Peyton Manning and several other starters in the second half, with the Colts nursing a mere five–point lead, amounted to "toss[ing] perfection away like a Christmas leftover." It was, without question, the smart thing to do since the Colts had already wrapped up homefield advantage through the AFC playoffs. Allowing the starters to risk serious injury while pursuing a perfect regular season would have jeopardized the Colts' championship chances. But now one must wonder if the Colts have halted their own momentum. There seems to be nothing to be gained in their season finale against Buffalo, but, with a bye week looming for the Colts while four AFC teams play next weekend, a win against the Bills could restore that momentum and make the difference as they prepare for whichever team comes a–calling the weekend of Jan. 16–17. Sunday will be almost 10 years to the day since the last time the Colts lost in Buffalo; they've won all three of the regular–season games they have played there since, but Dom Bonvissuto believes a loss to Buffalo actually is in the Colts' long–term interest. He observes in Sports Illustrated that the Colts need to lose to the Bills "for their fans' sanity sake. A win here followed by a run to the Super Bowl title will leave a huge What If hanging over a great season." I disagree with that. I think momentum is important, especially this year when, as King pointed out, no one seems to have the advantage. It is dicey to pick the Colts, even though they've won nearly three times as many games as the Bills, because no one except the Colts' coaching staff knows what the plan is for the starters. But I'm going to assume they do have something to play for this week so I'll pick Indianapolis to win.

  • Chicago (6–9) at Detroit (2–13) — The Bears have won three straight against the Lions, and Chicago's coach probably needs a win to keep his job. My thinking is that a loss to the Lions would be too much for the Bears' management, and Chicago's coach likely would be shown the door, even though he took the Bears to the Super Bowl just a few years ago. In the absence of any playoff implications, that will have to provide all the motivation — and I think it will. I'll take Chicago.

  • Washington (4–11) at San Diego (12–3) — After beating Tennessee on Christmas Day, the Chargers clinched a first–round bye. There is nothing to be gained in this game. The Colts have homefield advantage through the AFC playoffs so, unless the Chargers win their playoff game two weeks from now and the Colts lose, San Diego will only get one home game in the postseason, no matter what else may happen in the final weekend of NFL play. The Chargers may be motivated by a desire to extend their 10–game winning streak, and I think they will.

  • Tennessee (7–8) at Seattle (5–10) — Thanks to their loss to San Diego on Christmas Day, the Titans were eliminated from the playoff hunt, rendering this game meaningless. They may be somewhat listless in this game, and they haven't been too impressive on the road, going 2–5 so far this year. Seattle, on the other hand, is 4–3 at home — and the Seahawks have known for some time that they would not be in the playoffs. I'm going to take Seattle in this one.

  • Kansas City (3–12) at Denver (8–7) — At one point, Denver looked like a sure thing for the playoffs. But they have lost seven of their last nine, and a win over the Chiefs won't be enough by itself to put the Broncos in the playoffs. To accomplish that, the Broncos will need some help. I think they'll beat the Chiefs (Denver whipped Kansas City, 44–13, earlier in the season), but I don't think they'll get as much help as they need to move on to the postseason.

  • Baltimore (8–7) at Oakland (5–10) — The Ravens have beaten the Raiders the last two times they have played, but their last loss to the Raiders came in Oakland on Dec. 14, 2003. Statistically, the Ravens have been much better than the Raiders on both sides of the ball, but the advantage is more pronounced on defense, where Baltimore is third in the NFL while Oakland is 27th. I think the Ravens will win handily — and advance to the playoffs.

  • Green Bay (10–5) at Arizona (10–5) — Right now, the presumption seems to be that these teams will meet again next week in the first round of the playoffs so this may serve as a playoff preview. Of course, something entirely unexpected could occur, and they might face different first–round foes. In fact, it is still possible that Arizona could get a first–round bye — but, in addition to needing an Arizona win over Green Bay, that would call for help from Dallas against Philly and the Giants against the Vikings. The Packers' defense is a little dinged up, but it's ranked #1 in the NFL and, therefore, could cause some problems for the Cards. The Cardinals have nothing special to play for, and I expect them to keep much of their strategy under wraps, preferring to wait until an anticipated rematch with the Packers next week before revealing it. As a result, I will pick Green Bay to win this week.
Last week: 11–5.

Season: 171–71.

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