Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Week 15 recap

The most amazing thing I saw in the NFL this weekend wasn't the Chargers knocking down the Colts. It wasn't the triumphant return of the Ass-Kicking New England Patriots. It wasn't Tiki Barber running for 800 yards against Kansas City. It wasn't even Kyle Orton's Last Stand. It was the fact that there were five games between teams that had "nothing to play for," and in all but one of those games, the teams slugged it out like a Super Bowl berth was on the line. The games weren't necessarily pretty -- there's a reason the teams in these games had long since been eliminated from the playoffs -- but Jets-Dolphins, Browns-Raiders and Eagles-Rams went down to the wire, and Cardinals-Texans might have, if all of Arizona's quarterbacks hadn't died. (The less said about Packers-Ravens, the better.) Can you imagine two 30-45 NBA teams playing so hard in the last games of the season? Two 70-82 baseball teams? Absolutely not. But in the No Foolin' League you play to win the game.

Now that I've got that little love song out of the way, I'll swear a mean blue streak over the fact that Down and Distance missed four of those five "meaningless" games in this week's picks. Considering that I went 10-6 for the week, It's clear I'm far better at forecasting the outcome of titanic matchups than dinghies.

What I got right, and what I got wrong:

New England over Tampa Bay: The Buccaneers conducted a clinic on how you can beat the Patriots: Protect your quarterback and let your receivers take advantage of the weak secondary. That clinic lasted all of three plays on the Bucs' first drive. Then the Patriots conducted a clinic on how to beat the Buccaneers: Stack the line of scrimmage to cut off the inside running lanes and pressure the QB. That clinic lasted the rest of the afternoon. With the Bucs' run game shut down and Chris Simms getting the crap knocked out of him, it wasn't a good day to have a Jolly Roger on your hat. Simms didn't really do anything wrong; he just didn't have time to do anything right. And thus the Patriots are close to reclaiming their team-to-beat status, and the Buccaneers are right back where they were two weeks ago: looking up at Carolina.

New York Giants over Kansas City; Neither Good Eli nor Bad Eli showed up for the Giants, just Mediocre Eli. Fortunately for Big Blue, Untouchable Tiki was in the house, so New York could have put Balding Tim in at QB and still won. If I were Dick Vermeil, I'd have my players running tackling drills all week. Those skills will be valuable in the future. Because 2005? Done.

Denver over Buffalo: When I tuned in near halftime, the Broncos were down 7-0 and had done nothing of consequence, and yet I didn't have any doubt that they were going to win because the Bills are that bad.

Jacksonville over San Francisco: As a reward for playing the toughest early-season schedule this side of San Diego, the Jaguars got a playoff stretch consisting of the 49ers, Texans and Titans -- so easy, it made me laff till my belly jiggled like a bowl fulla jelly. Naturally, because these are the Jaguars, they played down (way, way, way down) to their opponent's level. Had San Francisco's quarterback not been Alex Smith, the 49ers might have put up 16 points. Which means Jacksonville would have scored 17.

Miami over New York Jets: Sage Rosenfels wins another one late. Matt Millen, give this man an enormous contract! Earlier in the year, I asked whether coach Nick Saban would be a Jimmy Johnson or a Steve Spurrier after moving from college to the pros. I'm starting to think I have my answer. The question now is: What would he offer, and to whom, to get into position to land a top QB in the draft?

Carolina over New Orleans: You've got to hand it to the Panthers. Well, actually, the Buccaneers just handed it to the Panthers. It being the NFC South title. The question now is whether Carolina will hand it back.

Seattle over Tennessee: You see Seattle come into this game at 11-2, and you see Tennessee come in at 4-9. As the game progresses, you wonder why the Seahawks need a late rally to win. Then you remember how hard it is for West Coast teams to fly all the way across the country to play a game at the equivalent of 10 a.m. Seattle time. Then you understand why that late rally was so important: If the Seahawks can claim home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, they won't have to fly all the way across the country to play a game at the equivalent of 10 a.m. Seattle time. Then you see why I'd make a game like this a Best Bet.

Pittsburgh over Minnesota: On the late edition of SportsCenter, Tom Jackson, whom I'm not afraid to admit I like, declared Minnesota's performance his "disappointment" for the week. He said of the Vikings:
"They did all the things they hadn't done during that six-game winning streak. Brad Johnson making mistakes down in the red zone. They had four trips into the red zone; they only scored three points off those four trips. ... They weren't opportunistic on defense. They basically got 'out-physicalled,' if you will, by the Pittsburgh Steelers, something they hadn't done during their winning streak."
Here's something else the Vikings didn't do during their winning streak: play a good football team. (Forget the Giants game. The Giants brought their Z game against the Vikings, which is why Minnesota was even able to complete, let alone win.) Minnesota didn't have a chance Sunday against the Steelers, who have considerable experience playing and winning the kind of games the Vikings were pretending they'd played this year.

Cincinnati over Detroit: This game was finished 12 minutes into the first quarter. The Bengals, long the laughingstock of the league, steamrolled to their first division title, first playoff berth and first winning season since 1990. They've already guaranteed their best record since 1988 and have a solid chance at the best record in team history. But why dwell on the job Marvin Lewis has done in building the Cincinnati franchise when we can continue to rubberneck at the job Matt Millen has done in destroying the Detroit franchise? To wit: I don't actually run a professional football team, so you'll have to excuse me if my ideas are a little "out there." But it would seem to me -- just a fan, mind you! -- that if your team is going to bench its starting quarterback and let him take the blame for five years of your poor draft choices, your inept coaching and your incompetent management, then you should at least be committed to keeping him on the bench. But there was Joey Harrington in the game in the fourth quarter, after Jeff Garcia had once again failed to play any better behind the same awful line and throwing to the same awful receivers.

Chicago over Atlanta: The really amazing thing is that the Bears probably would have won this game even if Lovie Smith hadn't done the absolutely, positively, can't-stress-enough-how-much-it-was-the right thing and yanked Kyle Orton. After a full half of watching Orton miss the open man again and again (repeat again six more times), the whole of Chicago howled with delight as Rex Grossman came out. With his first pass, complete to Muhsin Muhammad for 22 yards, Grossman took the starting QB job back for good ... or at least until he breaks another leg bone. Which should happen, oh, sometime in the second quarter at Green Bay. Meanwhile, poor Michael Vick (13-of-32 for 122 yards, no TDs, two interceptions, 25.7 rating) continues to pay for the hubris of Falcons fans.
(The Down and Distance '85 Bears vs. '05 Bears Season Tracker has been updated. See latest results here.)

Indianapolis over San Diego: Though I picked the Colts to win, I'm not exactly shocked by the outcome (explanation). Man, was this game refreshing: For once, a team came into a game with Indianapolis understanding that to beat the Colts, you have to play better football than they do. The Chargers didn't take stupid penalties trying to be tuff. They didn't waste possessions with gadget plays and garbage. They came into Indianapolis and punched the Colts in the mouth. Now if only someone would acknowledge that the Chargers won this game more than the Colts lost it.

Dallas over Washington: When the wheels come off, they pretty much mow down everybody on the visitors' sideline. "If the Cowboys score more than 17," I had said, "they win." Well, they didn't, and they didn't. These teams appeared headed in entirely different directions Sunday. The Redskins' million-year-old quarterback threw four touchdowns. The Cowboys' million-year-old quarterback produced four turnovers. The Redskins defense took a can opener to Drew Bledsoe and made a necklace out of his ears. The Cowboys defense waved cheerily as Washington ball carriers blew past them. Joe Gibbs screamed to the heavens after victory became clear. Bill Parcells screamed at his punter after Dallas was already down by five touchdowns. Considering the opponent and the stakes, it was the biggest game ever played at FedEx Field. Chargers-Colts wasn't Sunday's big surprise. This was.

Oakland over Cleveland: Anyone who rooted for the Redskins in the 1990s could have told the Raiders what kind of coach they were getting when they hired Norv Turner two years ago: the kind of coach who gets seven points out of Kerry Collins, Randy Moss, Jerry Porter and LaMont Jordan. At what point are we allowed to acknowledge that the Cowboys' offense of the Aikman-Smith-Irvin era had more to do with Aikman, Smith and Irvin than with offensive coordinator Turner? Not to take anything away from the devastating arsenal of offensive weapons that is the Cleveland Browns, but ...

St. Louis over Philadelphia: Two, three, four years ago, this would have been a marquee matchup. In 2005, it gets the Sam Rosen/Bill Maas treatment. Gruesome.

Arizona over Houston: It appears the boys in Houston heard all the talk about the Texans taking a dive in order to get the top draft pick. Fun fact: The 2004 49ers and the 2005 Texans have a combined record of 4-26 -- and three of those four wins came against the Cardinals. Every Sunday, I spin the dial and try to check in on each game at least once. When I pulled this one up, Arizona had John Navarre at quarterback. Ugh. Game, and season, over.

Green Bay over Baltimore: One of the cool things about Monday Night Football is that you can get a great game out of a terrible team. A down-on-its-luck club with no chance at the playoffs can get totally amped up for its one and only shot in the national spotlight. Think about the 2-11 Dolphins stunning the 12-1 Patriots a year ago today. But what can you expect when the terrible team in question has already played on MNF twice and another time on Sunday night? Judging by what we saw from the Packers this week ... nothing. The Ravens, however, saw opportunities and jumped on them. Opportunity for Kyle Boller to show he can play at this level. (Thanks, porous Packers secondary!) Opportunity for Jamal Lewis to audition for a new contract. (Thanks, stumblebum Packers D-line!) Opportunity for Brian Billick to save his job by "finishing strong." (Thanks, momentum-killing Packers play-calling!) I'm going to go to my grave wondering why I picked the Packers over and over and over this year. But I'm not the only one. A final note: With their all-black uniforms and bright white shoes and socks, the Ravens looked like a women's aerobics class whenever they huddled up.

SEASON: 155-69

Down and Distance's exclusive POW-R-'ANKINGS are the most accurate assessment of team strength available on the Internet, Ethernet, ARPANET, Aqua Net or any other -net. Honed by master mathematicians, lauded by football enthusiasts, the formula behind them predicted 10 of the last 15 Super Bowl winners, and 14 of the last 15 Super Bowl winners finished the regular season No. 1 or No. 2 in the POW-R-'ANKINGS system. Get it? I mean, spaceships go to the moon with wider error margins than this. If Galileo or Copernicus had had science like this on his side, he'd have been Pimp No. 1 for all time. Unlike with other, lesser rating systems, no opinion is involved in formulating these rankings. None. Teams are ranked on a centigrade scale, with 100 representing the NFL's strongest team and 0 its weakest. (Key: W15 = This week's ranking. W14 = Last week's ranking. PWR = POW-R centigrade score)
11 Colts 100.001718Dolphins 46.20
22 Seahawks 90.651820Browns 39.77
33 Chargers 80.511928Ravens 38.61
45 Bears 80.272017Packers 38.26
56 Panthers 78.462119Vikings 35.36
64 Giants 77.562221Rams 35.24
78 Bengals 76.272323Eagles 35.01
87 Broncos 76.002422Raiders 33.95
99 Steelers 71.122524Cardinals31.40
1012Jaguars 63.962626Titans 31.07
1110Falcons 62.142725Lions 27.67
1215Redskins61.352827Bills 20.70
1316Patriots58.462929Jets 16.65
1414Chiefs 57.393031Texans 12.46
1511Cowboys 56.523130Saints 11.12
1613Bucs 53.13323249ers 0.00

Team eliminated this week* from Super Bowl championship consideration (what?): Buccaneers. Teams previously eliminated: Texans, Titans, Packers, Saints, 49ers, Jets, Bills, Ravens, Browns, Vikings, Cardinals, Dolphins, Raiders, Lions, Eagles, Rams, Redskins, Steelers, Cowboys, Falcons, Chiefs, Chargers.
*Though the Patriots have posted five losses, they've proved they can win the Super Bowl with an 11-5 record. So they get a pass for now.

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