Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Week 17 recap

Now, I'm hardly an expert on playoff strategy. My only NFL experience was four games as interim head coach of the 5-11 San Diego Chargers in 1998. Nevertheless, I can't help but wonder (aloud) about the wisdom of going into the last game of the season fully intending not only to lose, but to have your ass handed to you with Isotoner gloves. I'm not saying I know that being blown out 37-3 isn't the best way to begin a Super Bowl run, but it certainly looks that way from up here in the ivory tower.

As Week 17 landed on us like a heavy lourde, seven teams had locked in their playoff positions: Indianapolis, Denver, Cincinnati, New England, Jacksonville, Seattle and Chicago. It has become fairly common for teams in such a position to play the final game of the regular season at half-speed, as staying healthy for the playoffs takes precedence over putting one more tick mark in the W column. This year's Week 17 shoo-ins followed this strategy to varying degrees:
  • Indianapolis sat most of its starters for nearly the entire game. Had Arizona's Josh McCown not fumbled at the goal line in the closing seconds, the Colts would have gone into the playoffs on a three-game losing streak.
  • Denver played its first-team offense for the whole first half and left many of its defensive starters on the field the whole game. The Broncos wrapped up the season with a convincing 23-7 victory over the Chargers and now cruise into the postseason having won four straight and eight of nine.
  • Cincinnati took it easy against a Kansas City team going hell-for-leather trying to make the playoffs. The Bengals lost by five touchdowns.
  • New England, showing as little interest in the No. 3 seed as Cincinnati did, sat pretty much everybody and was almost defiant in its willingness to lose. Yet the Patriots still nearly beat a Miami team that was going all-out.
  • Jacksonville played a lot of second- and third-stringers and still dismantled Tennessee, which checked out about 10 minutes into the game.
  • Seattle, playing in Green Bay, took a dive as soon as Shaun Alexander had his records. With half an effort, the Seahawks could easily have blown the Packers into Lake Michigan, and everyone knew it.
  • Chicago double-checked Kyle Orton and were reassured that he is, in fact, a disaster as the Bears fell behind 27-3 at Minnesota. Just for kicks, they let Jeff Blake play in the fourth quarter, and he promptly went 7-of-8 for 44 yards and a touchdown. Which just confirms that playing Orton this year was a completely needless exercise.
What I took away from the weekend was that the Colts and Bengals are in serious trouble. When Indianapolis next takes the field, in the divisional round, it will have been a month since the Colts last played anything resembling a complete game. You don't take four weeks off and still win a Super Bowl. As for Cincinnati, after being humiliated by the Bills last week, the Bengals needed to demonstrate that they can play sharp, even if for only one series. They didn't do that, so you can pencil them in as losers at home next week. The Bears also could have benefited from a strong showing in defeat, but instead they looked awful and will trust Rex Grossman to get them to the Super Bowl with exactly six quarters of game experience in the past year.

On the other end of the losing-by-design spectrum, neither the Patriots nor the Seahawks tried to win, but both made it clear that they could have won at any moment if they'd bothered to put their starters back in.

All of this just leads up to my buried lede, which is the fact that I went an atrocious 8-8 in my Week 17 picks. It wasn't the worst showing in the pool, but it was close. (Nevertheless, I finished tied for a respectable fifth among the 30 or so folks taking part.) Why'd I do so poorly this week? I had assumed that the Bengals would lay down for the Chiefs, and they did, but I also assumed that the Broncos would take the day off, too. They didn't. The Chargers came into the game with "something to prove" -- and they proved something, all right. I thought there was no way Seattle would lose to Green Bay (wrong) and felt that Chicago had to give Grossman more behind-the-wheel training (wrong). I was wrong about New England, right about Jacksonville and wrong but ultimately right about Indy. I hate it when teams give up on the season, whatever the reason.

Four teams came into Week 17 knowing that a win would put them in the playoffs. I picked all of them to win, and they did: Pittsburgh, Tampa, Carolina and Washington. I also expected the Giants to win on the road in Oakland to lock up the NFC East title and a home playoff game. They did.

Because so many games had no bearing on the playoff picture, giving them an unpredictable anything-goes quality, I've indicated which games mattered in the playoff chase at the time they were played. Thus, St. Louis-Dallas gets a "No," because Dallas had been eliminated earlier in the day, while Cincinnati-Kansas City gets a "yes" because the Chiefs were still in the hunt at kickoff. Get it? Good. Let us never speak of this again.

New York Giants over Oakland: As the game wore on, it became increasingly clear that the Giants desperately needed to win. A loss would have given Washington the inside track for the division title, and the home playoff game that went with it. The Giants, as Saturday's game showed, are nothing special on the road. They let the Raiders stay in this one far, far too long -- and, man, is Eli Manning a jumpy little spud or what? Holy moly. (Yeah, but did it matter? Yes.)

Tampa Bay over New Orleans: Speaking of letting the other guy hang around too long. You're at home against a team that would probably need its collective gold-painted head examined if it hadn't quit on the season. If Saints QB Todd Bouman doesn't fumble in the fourth quarter, the Buccaneers might be holding their final team meeting today. (Yeah, but did it matter? Yes.)

Carolina over Atlanta: Combined record of the teams the Falcons beat this year: 44-84 (.344). Combined record of the teams the Falcons lost to this year: 82-46 (.641). You could spin this a couple of ways. One way is to say, disingenuously, that the Falcons had a schedule stacked with playoff teams. Another way is to say the Falcons can only beat bad teams and always lose to good ones. Guess which way I'm going. And that business about how the Falcons have 0wn3d the Panthers? Turns out it was just a scheduling quirk. (Yeah, but did it matter? Yes.)

Indianapolis over Arizona: Ugly. (Yeah, but did it matter? No.)

Kansas City over Cincinnati: Though the Bengals took off their clothes and lay face-down at midfield, the Chiefs should be credited for taking care of business with gusto. Too bad it was too late. I'll always remember this game as a clash between two teams that let the sclerotic Bills ruin their seasons. (Yeah, but did it matter? Yes.)

Pittsburgh over Detroit: The No. 6 seed never wins anything, and the Steelers always collapse in the postseason, but no team has as much steam in its head going into the playoffs. (Yeah, but did it matter? Yes.)

Jacksonville over Tennessee: An old-school ass-kicking gives Jacksonville momentum heading into the playoffs. Yet, the inevitable and insipid who-should-be-the-quarterback-in-the-playoffs questions should bleed away a healthy share of that same Big Mo'. (Yeah, but did it matter? No.)

Washington over Philadelphia: Having lived in the D.C. area for eight years, I know enough about the Redskins to know that their fans have been living these past three weeks with a half-formed nightmare floating below the surface of their consciousness. In it, the Redskins blow out Dallas, dominate the Giants, then go into Philadelphia and take a dump in their own pants. And for most of the first half Sunday, that nightmare was punching through into our world. But then the real Mike McMahon stood up, then the real Koy Detmer. (Yeah, but did it matter? Yes.)

San Diego over Denver: The Broncos had already locked in their playoff position, and thus had "nothing to play for." The Chargers had already been eliminated but still had two things to motivate them: (1) Pride, and (2) Tiebreaker rules that would have allowed them to knock the rival Chiefs out of the playoffs with a win. Lack of (1) prevented them from making good on (2). Further, we learned from this game that Philip Rivers is just as capable as Drew Brees of fumbling the ball in the end zone. Decision time in San Diego! (Yeah, but did it matter? Yes.)

New England over Miami: If Bill Belichick was going to throw the game anyway, the least he could have done was put Doug Flutie in there for more than a dropkick. Maybe a few series in front of the hometown fans. (Yeah, but did it matter? No.)

Baltimore over Cleveland: Hey, it's Kyle Boller! We've been looking for you, man! Where've you been? Two weeks ago, I picked the Packers to beat the Ravens, and Boller played like Marino. One week ago, I picked the Vikings to beat the Ravens, and Boller played like Elway. Chastened, this week I picked the Ravens to beat the Browns, and Boller played like Bradshaw. Carrie Bradshaw. (Yeah, but did it matter? No.)

Seattle over Green Bay: I don't know whether this was Brett Favre's last game. But Seattle -- led by Favre's former coach and his former backup quarterback -- rolled over less than halfway through, and the Packers still struggled to win. The whole thing reeked of pity, and seeing Favre's stats thrown up on TV as if he'd played lights-out against anyone other than scrubs was just ... sad. (Yeah, but did it matter? No.)

Buffalo over New York Jets: Kelly Holcomb threw twice as many interceptions as touchdowns, and he fumbled the ball twice. "Everything you can do, J.P. Losman, I can do better." Now Buffalo has a quarterback controversy. (Yeah, but did it matter? No.)

Houston over San Francisco: What's worse than 60 minutes of miserable football between two horrid teams? Seventy-one minutes of miserable football between two horrid teams. David Carr and the Texans have endured their most brutal season yet, but there is one silver lining for Carr (for any quarterback, really): As long as Tony Banks is your backup, your job is safe. We all know whose job isn't safe: Dom Capers'. When you're 2-13, you've got to beat the 3-12 teams. (Yeah, but did it matter? No.)

Chicago over Minnesota: Then again, even if Houston had won, Capers' job wouldn't have been safe. Look at what happened to Minnesota coach Mike Tice after the Vikings "beat" a good team "convincingly." All I'm going to say about Chicago is that the 1985 Bears wrapped up home field advantage weeks before the end of the season, yet they still played their starters and blew out their opponents. The 2005 version just threw out any chance it had at defensive immortality. Down and Distance's 2005 Bears vs. 1985 Bears Season Tracker has been updated here. (Yeah, but did it matter? No.)

Dallas over St. Louis: Once Washington beat Philadelphia, the Cowboys had nothing to play for, and you could tell. They put up a pretty good fight for a bunch of guys who'd just been kicked in the crotch, but still. (Yeah, but did it matter? No.)

SEASON: 172-84

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: FIN = Final ranking. W16 = Last week's ranking. PWR = POW-R centigrade score. REC. = Final record. P? = In playoffs?)
1 1 Colts 100.00 14-2 Y
2 2 Seahawks 94.76 13-3 Y
3 5 Broncos 87.56 13-3 Y
4 7 Panthers 86.36 11-5 Y
5 3 Steelers 86.26 11-5 Y
6 8 Giants 76.36 11-5 Y
7 10Jaguars 76.24 12-4 Y
8 6 Chargers 76.09 9-7
9 4 Bears 72.60 11-5 Y
1014Chiefs 69.33 10-6
1111Redskins 68.28 10-6 Y
129 Bengals 66.66 11-5 Y
1313Patriots 60.46 10-6 Y
1416Buccaneers58.35 11-5 Y
1515Cowboys 55.08 9-7
1612Falcons 52.87 8-8
1717Dolphins 50.59 9-7
1821Vikings 39.93 9-7
1918Ravens 39.61 6-10
2019Packers 37.59 4-12
2120Rams 35.51 6-10
2223Cardinals 30.98 5-11
2322Eagles 30.47 6-10
2427Browns 27.32 6-10
2524Raiders 25.77 4-12
2628Bills 23.59 5-11
2725Lions 23.34 5-11
2826Titans 20.22 4-12
2929Jets 15.99 4-12
3031Texans 6.37 2-14
3130Saints 4.59 3-13
323249ers 0.00 4-12

Teams eliminated this week from Super Bowl championship consideration (what?): Bears, Bengals, Patriots*. 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, Buccaneers, Giants, Panthers.

Teams in the Super Bowl championship hunt: Colts, Seahawks, Broncos, Jaguars..

*The Patriots proved in 2001 that they can win the Super Bowl as an 11-5 team, but only one 10-6 team has ever been crowned NFL champion: the 1988 San Francisco 49ers. If any team can match that feat, it's the Patriots. But as it stands, New England has met our criteria for elimination. Sorry.

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