Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Week 17: And that's a wrap

So here we are, another regular season in the books. I went a respectable 10-6 in my picks for Week 17, and finished the year at 154-102, pretty much in the middle of the pack. Well, toward the bottom half of the middle of the pack, really. On the other hand, I finished with the highest score in our survivor pool. You had to pick a team to win each week, but you could only use each team once. If you picked incorrectly, your score went back to 0. I finished with 7. My survivor picks, by week:
1 Seattle Detroit W, 9-6 1
2 Cincinnati Cleveland W, 34-172
3 PhiladelphiaSan FranciscoW, 38-243
4 Atlanta Arizona W, 32-104
5 Chicago Buffalo W, 40-7 5
6 Washington Tennessee L, 22-250
7 JacksonvilleHouston L, 7-27 0
8 N. Y. GiantsTampa Bay W, 17-3 1
9 San Diego Cleveland W, 32-252
10Detroit San FranciscoL, 13-190
11Kansas City Oakland W, 17-131
12IndianapolisPhiladelphia W, 45-212
13New Orleans San FranciscoW, 34-103
14Tennessee Houston W, 26-204
15Baltimore Cleveland W, 27-175
16New England Jacksonville W, 24-216
17N.Y. Jets Oakland W, 23-3 7
I picked five teams to both win and lose: Detroit, Philadelphia, Jacksonville and Tennessee. I was right both times only with Philly and the Titans. I have no idea what that means.

N.Y. Jets 23, Oakland 3: Two AFC teams had the chance to claim wildcard spots simply by winning on Sunday. Both were playing at home, and both were going up against Bay Area All-World Chumps. Denver couldn't take care of business against the 49ers. But the Jets, facing the chumpiest of all chumps, got it done with baseball bats to the knees. Man, could anyone have predicted 10 weeks ago that the Jets would beat out all the other strong AFC contenders for a wildcard spot? I'm sure some reedy football blogger did.

St. Louis 41, Minnesota 21: What else is there to say? Minnesota was once 4-2, with victories over Washington, Carolina and Seattle, all playoff teams in 2005, and a close loss to Chicago. We've since learned that Washington, Carolina and Seattle aren't particularly good this year, and Chicago might be a mirage, too. Still, you could say the Vikes have "come a long way" since then. A team that hasn't gone anywhere, on the other hand, is the Rams. They finished the 2006 season just as they started it: with a win over a team that wasn't nearly as good as it had been made out to be in the preseason. After that opening victory over the Broncos, St. Louis' season consisted of two three-game win streaks against middling-to-lousy teams (Cardinals-Lions-Packers and Raiders-Redskins-Vikings) and, in between, a whole lot of losses to everybody else.

Pittsburgh 23, Cincinnati 17: The beauty of this game was that the Bengals couldn't lock up a playoff spot just by winning. They had to win, and then hope for Kansas City to beat Jacksonville, which wasn't going to be easy, and for San Francisco to win at Denver, which was so remote a possibility as to be ridiculous. Every year you see teams in this situation go out and win their own game, only to watch, dejected, as the teams they need to come through end up losing. But in a fun twist, the Bengals choked, at home, against a division rival that had nothing to play for, then went into the locker room and watched as K.C. held off Jacksonville and the 49ers blew everyone's mind by knocking off the Broncos. And so the Bengals take off the vertical black-and-orange stripes for another offseason and put on the horizontal black-and-white ones.

New England 40, Tennessee 23: Last season, the Patriots went into the final game aware that if they lost, they'd be the No. 4 seed in the playoffs rather than the No. 3. If the seeding had held up, that would have meant games against the paper-tiger Jaguars and the hollow Colts rather than the red-hot Steelers and the Broncos, the one team Bill Belichick can't seem to beat. I'm not saying they took a dive in that game, but they did start Matt Cassel, and they sent out ancient quarterback Doug Flutie to drop-kick a PAT just for giggles. This season, as the Patriots went into the final game, it wasn't clear which seed would be better for them, as the wildcards would be in doubt until Denver played later in the day. So the Patriots went ahead and played to win, starting Tom Brady and all those guys. However, that didn't stop them from giving another Reagan-era QB the opportunity to mess around with history: They sent in Vinny Testaverde (d.o.b. 11/13/1963) to throw a touchdown with less than 2 minutes left, thus giving him a TD pass in 20 straight seasons. Titans fans, of course, claim this was excessive and poor sportsmanship because New England was already up by 10, but you know what? Fuck 'em. They've spent the entire season telling us how Vince Young is this epochal game-breaker who can take a nothing play and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile. Well, then I don't blame the Pats for trying to extend the lead to three scores.

Kansas City 35, Jacksonville 30: Instead of just calling the game as it unfolds in front of them, some announcers insist on concocting "story lines" and flogging them repeatedly regardless of what's going on down on the grass. (This was why you had Chris Collinsworth on NFL Network cooing in clueless awe Saturday as Eli Manning found the occasional acorn against one of the league's worst pass defenses.) In the Jaguars-Chiefs game, CBS's Gus Johnson decided in the third quarter that the story line was going to be Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio's ("gutsy") decision to bench quarterback David Garrard for third-stringer Quinn Gray. Don't get me wrong: Gray played well. But that doesn't excuse Johnson's full-throated exclamation, "WHERE IS BARBRA STREISAND, BECAUSE I THINK A STAR HAS BEEN BORN!" First of all, it's interesting that Johnson would reference the Streisand remake of A Star Is Born rather than the clearly superior and far more enduring Judy Garland version. Of course, neither would have been the sort of reference you'd expect your typical NFL viewer to appreciate, even if they understood it, and I'm sure Steve Tasker was getting pretty fidgety next to Johnson in the booth. Regardless, Johnson, who confessed that he has long been a Quinn Gray fan, banged this drum for the rest of the game. Which means he had no psychic space left over to discuss how Gray fits into Jacksonville's abysmal QB management. Remember, Del Rio let it be known earlier in the year that he preferred Garrard to Byron Leftwich, based on Garrard's "production" (that is, wins that occurred on Garrard's watch, regardless of his role in them). Pretty soon, though, the rest of the league had assembled a book on Garrard and began taking him apart piece by piece (culminating in the disaster in Nashville). So Del Rio tossed Garrard overboard and ran Gray out there against K.C. Now what had been a run-of-the-mill, two-way QB controversy is now a three-way. Was it the right move to go to Gray? I'm not saying it wasn't. But Gus Johnson wasn't saying anything except that Quinn Gray is the CUTEST boy in the WHOLE SCHOOL. In a secondary story, Kansas City won and advanced to the playoffs.

Houston 14, Cleveland 6: Coming into the weekend, this was the only game in which both teams had already been eliminated from playoff contention, so you can imagine why CBS broadcast it to about as close to zero percent of the country as it could without violating the terms of its contract. Each team's schedule each year is determined by formula and includes games against the other teams in the conference who finished in the same place in their divisions. That means first-place teams play first-place teams and, for the purposes of our discussion here, last-place teams play last-place teams. The Browns, playing in the stacked AFC North, and the Texans, playing in the suddenly stacked AFC South, will probably get quite familiar with each other in the coming years.

San Diego 27, Arizona 20
Baltimore 19, Buffalo 7
Imagine that: Two teams with the top playoff seeds still playing to win on the last weekend of the season. The Chargers, who had already clinched a first-round bye but needed to stay ahead of the Ravens for home field, saw both Philip Rivers and LaDanian Tomlinson leave the game with injuries. Some idiot somewhere will say one or both shouldn't have played -- it was the Cardinals, after all. But playing them and getting them dinged is still better than letting them sit for this game, then letting them sit for two more weeks while their fire dies out, then getting humiliated in the playoffs. (For more, see the Carolina-New Orleans game below.) In Baltimore, meanwhile, don't let that game-clinching interception by Samari Rolle fool you. He smelled of toast for most of the game, and the Colts will be throwing at him all day in the divisional round of the playoffs. Assuming the Colts make it that far, which may be assuming a lot.

Indianapolis 27, Miami 22: Last year the Colts finally won home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, only to spit up all over themselves in the first game. So this year it's back to the wildcard round with them. This game was too close for too long for Indianapolis fans to feel good about it (Cleo Lemon! Cleo Lemon!), but for once we got through Week 17 without having to endure the Jim Sorgi Explosion.

Philadelphia 24, Atlanta 17: OK, when a team sends out its third-string quarterback against you? And that quarterback didn't even know he was going to play until the game had already started? And then that QB throws three TD passes to backup receivers? And you lose the game? Yeah, that's going to cost you.

N.Y. Giants 34, Washington 28: One moron in the stands for Saturday's game held up a sign that proclaimed of Tiki Barber, who was playing the final regular season game of his career, "You will be missed but not forgotten." Huh? By definition, if you are missed, you are not forgotten, and if you are forgotten, you cannot be missed. Some dumbass with a Magic Marker thinks he's a poet, and NFL Network puts him on national television. OK, it was great to see Barber have such a monster performance (23 rushes, 234 yards, 3 TDs) in his final regular season game, but as I watched him run around and over the Keystone Skins, I could already hear Sports Illustrated's designated Tiki-fluffer, Peter King, chiseling this game into a cornerstone of his one-man campaign to sneak Barber into the Hall of Fame. Whenever King makes his case, which is often, he comes at it from a different direction, but each time, it comes down to this: Barber plays in New York, and he plays well, therefore he deserves to be in Canton. Fine, Pete. Barber gets into the Hall when Ricky Watters, who has more yards and more touchdowns in just as many seasons, plus a Super Bowl ring, gets in. Actually, no, scratch that. I'd take Watters before I'd take Barber. Why? Because my standard for the Hall of Fame is that when you walk away from the game, you do it with nothing to prove. Barber is retiring as the 17th-leading rusher in NFL history. You have to respect that. And he's leaving while he's still in top form and still has his health. You really have to respect that. He's seen Jerome Bettis essentially crippled at age 36 and has decided that's not for him. But Bettis is going into the Hall because he gave it everything he had. Even if he hadn't earned a Super Bowl ring, he'd still go in, because he left it all out there on the field. Two more good seasons could get Barber to No. 7 on the all-time rushing list, and three more could get him to No. 4. If he wants to be in the Hall as the equal of Emmitt and Sweetness and Barry Sanders, he needs to prove he's their equal on the field. Hey, what about Barry Sanders? Didn't he retire before he was "done," too? Yes, but he did so as the No. 2 rusher, and it was clear that with just one more average season, he would be No. 1. Everyone knew it; everyone acknowledged it. Sanders had nothing left to prove. A Super Bowl ring? With Detroit? It was never gonna happen, and everyone knew and acknowledged that, too. But the Giants have every opportunity in the next few years to compete for a ring, provided a few characters get their heads screwed on right. Barber is passing on the opportunity. Again, he's doing it for his health, and there is nothing objectionable about that. But a Hall of Famer doesn't just give up on the Super Bowl dream. If he doesn't have the ring, he has to be dragged off the field, completely used up. Think Dan Marino. Think Warren Moon. Think Bettis, who got his championship only after he had made the decision to retire. So no, while we all wish Barber well, he doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame. Now, let's talk about the actual game: There was nothing here to make you think the Giants are going anywhere but down in flames in the playoffs. Moving on ...

Seattle 23, Tampa Bay 7: While the meek were inheriting the Earth in Dallas and Denver, they were up to their same, sad old tricks down in Tampa. You just knew that at least one playoff contender would trip over a doormat this week, and I picked the Bucs with the assumption that Seattle was pretty much the worst the NFC had to offer. The only difference between Seattle and an 8-8 team is ... well, a 23-7 victory over Tampa Bay.

Detroit 39, Dallas 31: If I'm Lions general manager Matt Millen, I'm up in my luxury box wearing my big clown coat and thundering in impotent rage that my team went and won this game, thus depriving me of the chance to squander the No. 1 overall pick in next year's draft. Since Millen took over the Lions in 2001, he's pissed away the No. 2 overall pick (Collarbone Rogers in 2003) and the No. 3 overall pick (Joey Harrington, who lives on in Honolulu blue here, in 2002), but never has he had the chance to work his magic with the No. 1 (unless he's advising the Texans on the side). Lions fans who had dreamed that Brady Quinn or some kind of top-flight quarterback would be coming to Detroit can find solace in knowing that Millen would have done something weird with the top pick anyway.

San Francisco 26, Denver 23 (OT): Denver choked away a playoff spot, but within hours, it didn't seem like such a big deal anymore.

Carolina 31, New Orleans 21: It was a shame to see the Saints pull their starters out of the game before the first quarter had even ended. They'd had such a fantastic run in 2006, and it was a pity that their season should end that way. Yes, they'll host a playoff game at the Superdome in two weeks. But one thing we've learned about Week 17 in the past few years is: Teams that lack recent playoff success must play to win in the final game of the season, especially if they have a first-round bye. Three weeks is too long for most players to go without seeing any meaningful action. They lose focus, they aren't as sharp. They puff themselves up, and then when it's go time, they're flat. Want examples? Chicago, 2005 (threw final game, lost at home in playoffs). Indianapolis, 2005 (threw final two games, lost at home in playoffs). Pittsburgh, 2004 (tried to throw final game, barely beat Jets at home in playoffs, then lost at home). Compare these with the 2003 and 2004 Patriots, who absolutely killed their final opponents, and last year's Steelers, who had been playing full-tilt for six weeks before ass-kicking the Colts and Broncos en route to the Super Bowl. Sometimes you can throw your last game and succeed -- but only if you've been to the elite level before. The Saints haven't been anywhere in years. When they're getting rolled by the Eagles in two weeks, I'll be smoking a fat cigar and laffing my fatter ass off.

Green Bay 26, Chicago 7: Then there's the Chicago Bears. Whereas the Saints' starters played for only a quarter, but played well, the Bears starters played for a full half, and looked horrible. The offense is back where it was in 2005, the defense has fallen apart, even Devin Hester is gimpy. If Rex Grossman is looking for consolation after going 2-of-12 for 33 yards, no TDs and 3 interceptions, it's that Brian Griese wasn't all that better (5-of-15, 124 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs) and Kyle Orton is still the No. 3, so it's not like they've got Vince Young ready to take his job away. The Packers, meanwhile, played like a team fighting for its playoff life. At about 2:30 p.m. ET, the DirecTV Sunday Snap channel put up a graphic that declared: "Green Bay can clinch a wildcard berth with a win + ARI win + DET win + MIA win + MIN win + SF win + CAR loss + HOU loss + TB loss." So the Packers' hopes rested on the outcome of nine games involving 18 teams, or more than half the league. Alas, Detroit, San Francisco and Tampa Bay did their part, but Arizona, Miami, Minnesota, Carolina and Houston did not. By game time, the Packers had nothing to play for, although I guess there was something about this being an emotional game for their quarterback. I didn't catch all of it. Like, he's from Chicago, maybe? Or was close friends with Gerald Ford? Whatever it was, he was all choked up afterwards.

SEASON: 154-102
(2005 for the season: 172-84)

Down and Distance's exclusive KA-POWER RANKINGS have wrapped up their second year with Baltimore overtaking Chicago at the wire. 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: FIN = final ranking. W16 = last week's ranking. POW = KAPOW-ER centigrade score. P? = team in playoffs?)
1 2 Ravens 100.0013-3Y
2 1 Bears 96.3213-3Y
3 4 Patriots 93.9512-4Y
4 3 Chargers 93.9214-2Y
5 5 Jaguars 79.42 8-8
6 6 Saints 75.0110-6Y
7 7 Cowboys 70.52 9-7Y
8 8 Eagles 70.4610-6Y
9 9 Colts 68.5812-4Y
1010Bengals 64.36 8-8
1111Steelers 63.90 8-8
12t14Jets 60.1610-6Y
1313Chiefs 58.56 9-7Y
1412Broncos 58.18 9-7
1517Seahawks 52.98 9-7Y
1616Giants 52.83 8-8Y
17t14Bills 51.46 7-9
1820Rams 51.34 8-8
1918Dolphins 47.426-10
2021Falcons 44.81 7-9
2122Panthers 44.35 8-8
2219Vikings 42.186-10
2326Packers 38.27 8-8
2424Redskins 37.685-11
2523Titans 37.03 8-8
2727Lions 32.493-13
2828Texans 28.496-10
292949ers 27.80 7-9
3030Browns 21.476-10
3131Bucs 12.654-12
3232Raiders 0.002-14
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.

Teams still eligible for Super Bowl championship consideration: Chargers, Ravens, Bears, Colts, Patriots.

Notes about the final rankings
Be aware that the KA-POWER RANKINGS system considers the year in totality, just as the NFL playoff system does. The Tennessee Titans, for example, weren't just handed a playoff spot because they played so well in the second half of the season. They started 0-5; that's what's keeping them home in January -- and what's keeping them at No. 25 in these rankings. (Because you were wondering, going just on the final 11 games of the season, the Titans would rank at No. 15 with a centigrade score of 54.14. Still pretty low for an 8-3 team, huh? Well, consider: Those eight wins came by 3, 6, 18, 3, 3, 6, 7 and 1 points, for a total of 47. The three losses were by 30, 1, and 17 points, for a total of 48. Tennessee's resurgence was one of this year's remarkable stories, but they could have easily gone 6-10, 5-11, even 4-12.)

If there were one more week in the season, the top four teams in the rankings might well get shuffled again; they're that close. The big story at the top is the fall of the Bears, who had sat in the top spot since Week 4. Their slide reflects mostly the collapse of the defense. The Bears gave up at least 21 points in each of their last four games, compared with only twice in their first 12.

There are four teams that did not make the playoffs that finished higher in the rankings than teams that did. The Jaguars this year were a case study in inconsistency. One week they'd dominate a good team (41-0 over the Jets, 37-7 over the later-season Titans, 44-17 over the Colts). The next, they'd eke out a nail-biter over another good team (24-17 over the Cowboys, 9-0 over the Steelers, 13-6 over the Eagles). And the next they'd lay an egg against a clearly inferior opponent (36-30 to the Redskins, 27-7 to the Texans, 27-24 to the Bills). They're higher in the rankings than every team they beat, except New England. Of course, they're higher than every team they lost to, too. Statistically, the Bengals and Steelers are interchangeable, and they're right where they belong. The Jets aren't as strong a team, but they had a far easier schedule. The Broncos are indeed better than the Seahawks and the Giants, which isn't saying much.

We'll see in February how well the KA-POWER RANKINGS system holds up this year, but in the meantime, all shall hail!

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