Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Week 16 with excuses galore

It should be quite clear by now that Down and Distance is not going to finish the 2006 NFL regular season having correctly picked two-thirds of the winners, as was the case last year. This week I went 8-8 in the picks, and with one week left to go in the season, my record stands at 144-96. Last year, by contrast, I was 164-76 at this point. That was 20 games better than I'm faring this year. And it was a better-than-Vegas success rate of 68.3%, compared with a flat 60% this year. Even if I ran the table next week, the best I could do for '06 would be a paltry 62.5%.

But it's not just me, thankfully. Oriole Magic, the front-runner in our picks league for 2006, is, by my reckoning, just 153-87 going into the final week. Last year's leader after 16 weeks, Monsters of the Midway, was 170-70, or 17 games better.

So what's going on? Have we all gotten a lot less prescient, very suddenly? No, the NFL has just gotten a lot less polarized, very suddenly.

"Parity" is a word you hear a lot, one that people use to describe whatever they happen to think is wrong about the NFL. It's commonly used incorrectly to describe the phenomenon of sudden ascendance: for example, the Rams going from 4-12 in 1998 to 13-3 in 1999, or the 2004 Steelers jumping from 6-10 to 15-1, or this year's Saints, who've gone from 3-13 to 10-5. (There's also sudden collapse: The 2002 Super Bowl teams going from 23-9 to 11-21.) That's not parity, however; that's volatility. Parity simply means equality. Under a true parity system, there are no "good teams" and no "bad teams," no haves and have-nots. Everyone is just average.

A generally accepted definition of an "average" team in the NFL is one that finishes a season with 7 to 9 wins. There isn't much difference between a 7-9 record, an 8-8 record and a 9-7 record, except for a few random bounces of the ball. Under that definition, last season produced the fewest "average" teams of any year in the salary cap era, which began in 1994. Here are the number of 7- to 9-win teams in each of the past 15 years:

7- to 9-

With only five "average" teams last year (Atlanta at 8-8 and Dallas, Miami, Minnesota and San Diego all at 9-7), the league saw its greatest polarization in recent memory. Most of the franchises were definably "good" or definably "bad," and most matchups had a clear favorite. The pickin' was easy!

This year is totally different It's like the mid-'90s all over again. As of now, there are 12 teams at 8-7 or 7-8 and are thus guaranteed to finish with 7 to 9 wins. (They're evenly divided between the AFC and NFC, by the way) Seven other teams are either 6-9 or 9-6 and could climb into (or fall back into) the "average" pack. When 19 teams out of 32 are decidedly average, picking winners consistently becomes a nightmare. That's why my record -- and everyone's record -- has been so dismal in 2006.

Just for grins, here's my week-by-week record in 2005, and this year:


OK, now that I've used science to prove beyond a doubt that the problem is the National Football League rather than me, let's get to the recaps:

Green Bay 9, Minnesota 7: I can't imagine this dreadful Thursday night display is going to convince anyone that they just have to have the NFL Network. America loves field goals, even when they're no good!

Kansas City 20, Oakland 9: And for those asking whether the NFL Network could have lined up a game any more desultory than Thursday's Vikings-Packers showdown, the answer is yes: Saturday's Chiefs-Raiders hoedown. The Oakland defense is more or less stout, but the Oakland offense is capable of nothing -- literally, nothing -- so your typical Oakland game involves the Raiders' opponent "jumping out" to a 7-3 or 10-6 lead and then just running out the clock. For like 45 minutes. If there's anyone to feel sorry for in Oakland, I'd pick quarterback Andrew Walter. You can see it all over the poor guy's face: He knows that this is not only the last year he'll start in the NFL, it's probably also the last year he'll even make a roster. Walter rewrote the Pac-10 record book while at Arizona State, but now his football career -- the NFL dreams he's harbored since boyhood -- have dissipated into the chilly night. If I'm Brady Quinn, looking at the possibility of going to the Raiders with the first pick in the draft, my pretty white teeth are chattering uncontrollably.

Chicago 26, Detroit 21: Here are some receivers who didn't drop the winning touchdown pass for Detroit as time ran out Sunday: Matt Jones, Mark Clayton, Roddy White, Reggie Brown, Vincent Jackson, Chris Henry. They didn't drop the winning touchdown pass for the Lions on Sunday because way back in 2005, the Lions drafted Mike Williams instead of any of them. To be fair, Roddy White and Chris Henry probably would have dropped the pass, too. If I'm Brady Quinn, looking at the possibility of going to the Lions with the first pick in the draft, my pretty white underpants just turned dazzling yellow. I've chosen to focus on the Lions here because there's nothing left worth saying about the Bears.

New Orleans 30, N.Y. Giants 7: There are two definitions of "discipline." One is "punishment," the other is "self-control." The first kind of disciplinarian, then, is someone who subjects his charges to all sorts of ridiculous rules and shitty grudges and punishes them publicly when they don't comply. That's Tom Coughlin. The second kind is someone who lays out specifically how he expects his charges to produce, then holds them accountable for meeting those expectations. That's Sean Payton. Is it any wonder then, that after both teams had a rough first half, the Saints responded with 24 unanswered points, while the Giants simply quit?

New England 24, Jacksonville 21: Look, I've finally become a Patriots fan, and I'm glad to see they're winning, but I don't know. They just look ... unconvincing. I know they can beat anybody, but will they?

San Diego 20, Seattle 17: Seattle can take satisfaction in being the first Super Bowl runner-up in five years to make the playoffs. Then again, if you need a loss by the San Francisco 49ers in Week 16 to win the division, you're really only making the playoffs on a technicality. On the San Diego side, Philip Rivers needs to get his shit together pronto. The past couple of weeks, he's played like one of those Garrardesque quarterbacks who "just win games." And you know what happens to them.

Denver 24, Cincinnati 23: We can talk about the botched snap on the extra point all we want. Carson Palmer would probably prefer we do, because something's wrong with his throwing motion. There's no way this game should have even been close. If Palmer had hit his open receivers, this would have been a romp for the Bengals. Well, if the receivers had also caught the balls and held onto them. Which is a big "if."

N.Y. Jets 13, Miami 10: ESPN kept showing us footage from the Second Miracle at the Meadowlands in a vain attempt to fool us into thinking we were eating something besides a rain-basted turd served in an empty stadium. All that stands between the Jets and the playoffs now is the 2-13 Raiders. But don't count on it.

Baltimore 31, Pittsburgh 7: The Steelers had "climbed back into playoff contention" by stealing milk money from the Buccaneers, Browns and Panthers by a combined 84-13. So it was refreshing to see the Ravens come into Pittsburgh and, for the second time in five weeks, pull down the Steelers' pants in front of all the girls. And the Steelers weren't wearing any underwear!

St. Louis 37, Washington 31 (OT): Your 2006 Redskins: Beat the 2-1 Jaguars, lose to the 0-5 Titans. Beat the 4-3 Cowboys, lose to the 2-7 Bucs. Beat the 6-4 Panthers, lose to the 5-6 Falcons. Beat the 9-4 Saints, lose to the 6-8 Rams. Oh sure, talk about Marc Bulger if you must. Someone has to play for the NFC in the Pro Bowl.

Tennessee 30, Buffalo 29: You know, I hate it when coaches kick late field goals when they really need to be going for it on fourth down. In the final minute Sunday, however, the Bills needed a 45-yard field goal to win the game, but Dick Jauron instead elected to go for it on fourth down. To go for the touchdown on fourth down. When they were down by 1 point. When their kicker was 5-for-5. The X-factor in this game wasn't Vince Young. It was stupidity and cowardice. I guess that's an X-factor and a Y-factor, actually.

Tanpa Bay 22, Cleveland 7: Remember how Derek Anderson had made Charlie Frye expendable? Well, since this game pretty much locks up the No. 3 draft pick for the Browns, it looks like we'll get the chance to see whether hometown hero Troy Smith will make them both expendable.

Houston 27, Indianapolis 24: The Colts had six possessions and scored on four of them. Unfortunately, the Texans had seven possessions and scored on five of them. The Colts have always had the ability to score on two-thirds of their possessions; the difference this year is that even bottom-scrapers like the Texans, with washouts like Ron Dayne, can run the ball at will and outscore them. Who looks the worst after this game? Probably the Bengals.

Carolina 10, Atlanta 3: Last week Michael Vick threw four touchdown passes, but all anyone wanted to talk about was the fact that he took himself off the field with two minutes remaining and the game still somewhat within reach. The week Michael Vick became the first quarterback to amass 1,000 yards rushing in a season, but all anyone wants to talk about is the fact that the game was within reach all damn day and Atlanta's offensive juggernaut could put up just 3 measly points. A Falcons fan reading this might get disgusted and say, "Whatever Vick does, he gets criticized. Vick just can't win." I agree!

Arizona 26, San Francisco 20: After all the "Leinart + Edge = Super Bowl" excitement and all the "Arizona-is-turning-it-around" talk this year, the Cardinals this week improved to 5-10. After next week's presumptive loss at San Diego, they'll be 5-11. Last year, before they turned the whole franchise around, they were 5-11. The year before that? 6-10. That's the Way Of The Cardinals. If in the offseason they can sign the entire Indianapolis offensive line, the bulk of Chicago's special teams, and the entire Baltimore defense, they might well go winless in 2007.

Philadelphia 23, Dallas 7: Heh. Eagles fans think Jeff Garcia is the answer. That's like thinking Tony Romo is going to get you to the Super Bowl.

SEASON: 144-96
(2005 through Week 16: 164-76)

Down and Distance's exclusive KA-POWER RANKINGS are back for their second year. The product of a simple formula, the rankings have predicted 10 of the last 16 Super Bowl winners. Further, 14 of the last 16 Super Bowl winners finished the regular season No. 1 or No. 2 in the KA-POWER RANKINGS system. 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. Don't like where your team is ranked? Blame science. (Key: W16 = This week's ranking. W15 = last week's ranking. POW = KAPOW-ER centigrade score)
11 Bears 100.001717Seahawks 45.10
24 Ravens 95.131818Dolphins 47.48
32 Chargers 91.481920Vikings 43.15
43 Patriots 89.982021Rams 42.51
55 Jaguars 80.202119Falcons 42.42
67 Saints 75.522223Panthers 36.41
76 Cowboys 70.482322Titans 35.87
811Eagles 66.172424Redskins 33.83
99 Colts 64.842525Cardinals33.46
1010Bengals 62.882626Packers 28.64
118 Steelers59.312727Lions 24.12
1212Broncos 55.742830Texans 21.61
1315Chiefs 53.96292949ers 21.20
T1416Jets 51.083028Browns 18.75
T1414Bills 51.083131Bucs 11.34
1613Giants 47.483232Raiders 0.00
Teams eliminated this week from Super Bowl championship consideration (what?): None. Teams previously eliminated: Raiders, Titans, Lions, Dolphins, Cardinals, Redskins, Browns, Bills, Texans, Buccaneers, 49ers, Steelers, Packers, Bengals, Vikings, Rams, Jets, Eagles, Falcons, Jaguars, Giants, Panthers, Chiefs, Broncos, Cowboys, Seahawks, Saints.

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