The playoffs are set! I’ll give my thoughts on each match up in a moment, but let’s look at what happened in week 17 first. Seven teams were fighting for their playoff lives, and 7 out of 9 that had clinched were still playing for a higher seed. Like last week, let’s start with the teams that have a legitimate chance to win the Super Bowl (at least 10 True Wins and a stable quarterback situation; if you haven’t read about True Wins yet, what are you waiting for?):
All these teams got the job done in week 17. I was confident that the Steelers would win a defensive struggle against the Browns and that the Saints and 49ers would cruise over the Panthers and Rams, but the Ravens surprised me again. The Ravens only seem to play well against good teams. They stepped up and beat the Bengals and earned a bye. They shouldn’t have any trouble getting motivated for the playoffs. The Patriots 12 True Wins came against a softy schedule; I’m taking the Ravens and Steelers as my AFC favorites, with a lean to the Steelers if Roethlisberger can get healthy.
The Packers continue to be the overall favorite any way you cut it. Their 13 True Wins tie the ’04 Patriots for the second most since 2002. Even with Matt Flynn at the helm for Green Bay, my Lions questionable defense let me down, and now they have to travel to the New Orleans Dome of Doom. Everyone is expecting New Orleans to win twice and face the Packers in the NFC championship game. I think San Francisco will put up a fight — especially with home field advantage in round 2 — but Green Bay is the right pick for the Super Bowl.
Next, the pretenders! All these teams have little to no chance, despite making the playoffs:
Poor, poor Texans. They got to 10 True Wins, but T.J. Yates is not going to get this team to the Super Bowl (neither is Jake Delhomme and neither is the ageless Jeff Garcia). It’s the weakest year in awhile for the AFC; the Texans would have had a real shot with Schaub healthy. Instead, as I expected, they head into the playoffs with 3 losses in a row and face the Bengals, who played a tough schedule and managed 9 True Wins.
The Giants are my NFC sleeper. They only got 8 True Wins, but they played an extremely hard schedule. Every team they played finished with at least 6 True Wins except for the Rams. They beat the Cowboys even worse than I thought they would to clinch the NFC East.
I suspect the 5.5 True Win Seahawks last year are one of the few teams to make the playoffs with 6.5 or fewer True Wins before the Broncos did it this year. The Broncos lost their last three, as I predicted they would. It turns out Tebow is not a wizard. Of course, those 5.5 True Win Seahawks beat the heavily favored Saints in the 1st round last year, but they were never a threat to win the Super Bowl. I suspect the Saints would have won 8 or 9 games out of 10 against the Seahawks last year.
Before I get to the leftovers, let’s go through the first round match ups:
- Bengals at Texans. Despite the Bengals miss in week 17, I’m taking them against Houston. I expect the game to be close, but the Bengals played in the tough AFC North, and Houston is a lame duck playoff team. They lost to the Panthers, Colts, and Titans to finish the season. Not good.
- Lions at Saints. My nightmare. I couldn’t believe the 4th quarter of the Lions-Packers game. I had high hopes for these Lions, and they will score some points in the dome, but let’s face it: the Lions have been lucky all year. Their defense is bad. New Orleans finished strong and got to 11.5 True Wins to the Lions 9. They should score a ton of points and get another True Win on Saturday.
- Falcons at Giants. The Falcons got 9.5 True Wins and 10 actual wins, while the Giants only got 8 and 9, but the Giants have home field advantage because they don’t have the Saints in their division. The Falcons were 4-4 on the road this year, including a loss to the Buccaneers. I’m going against True Wins again and riding the Giants, just like last week. Their schedule was impossible.
- Steelers at Broncos. Steelers win. The Broncos should draft a real quarterback.
First, the Michael Vick division (pretty good teams that had some bad luck):
- Eagles. They should expect a Vick injury every year, but even with the injury they managed more True Wins than 4 playoff teams. Luckily, they are keeping the band together (Andy Reid is staying). If they can get competent backup quarterback play next year or better injury luck they will be great.
- Bears. The Bears started 7-3, then Cutler got hurt, then Matt Forte got hurt, and their season ended prematurely. The great news for the Bears is their awful finish allowed them to fire offensive coordinator Mike Martz and GM Jerry Angelo in good faith. I suffered through some Martz in Detroit. If you’ve ever read TMQ, you know how much of an idiot Martz can be. He consistently held Chicago back by not relying on their strong ground game. Angelo was notorious for making players angry (Lance Briggs is one example that comes to mind). Great job by the Bears to keep head coach Lovie Smith, who has consistently won with low expectation teams. The Bears will be in the playoff mix again next year.
- Chargers. Phil Rivers can’t get a break. He’s like Peyton Manning before he won a Super Bowl, except even his teammates don’t like him. They had 9 True Wins against 6.5 (Broncos), 6 (Chiefs), and 5.5 (Raiders) for the rest of the division. They played spoiler in week 17 by beating the Raiders (as I predicted) but they missed the playoffs. Rivers is starting to make me believe in karma. Somehow, Norv Turner is coming back next year (he doesn’t really deserve to be fired, but it’s surprising that he wasn’t).
- Cowboys. They got the Vick injury they needed. They had a tough schedule, but it was slightly easier than the Giants schedule. They had a shot in the final game of the season, but the Giants proved to be the better team. Unlike the Chargers and Eagles, I’m not sure the Cowboys have the right pieces (Romo had a rough year). They still had a chance this year, though; bad luck in their own games (evidenced by their True Win deficit) is all that kept them out of the playoffs
Next, the Cam Newton division (mediocre teams with something to build on):
- Panthers. No need to explain here. Cam Newton plus 8 True Wins is something to work with. If only they were in a different division!
- Titans. I really thought they would catch the Texans for the division when Schaub went down. They won 4 of their last 6 and finished only half a True Win behind the Bengals. The Titans only beat one legitimate playoff team all year (the Ravens; I don’t count the Broncos or the Texans with nothing to play for in week 17), but they kept almost every game close. Strangely, 10 of their games finished with the winner between 22 and 27 points, and the loser between 10 and 17 points. In 4 of their last 7, the final score was 23-17.
- Seahawks. Tarvaris Jackson probably isn’t the answer at quarterback, but this team basically matched the True Wins total of the Lions (8.5 to 9). They were good enough to be a playoff team and have a great running game to build on.
- Dolphins. Last week, I wrote, “I think [the Jets and Dolphins] are pretty much even, despite their records. Expect them to play a close game and finish with 7.5 True Wins each, out of the playoffs.” Indeed, the Dolphins spoiled the Jets playoff hopes and won 19-17 to give each team 7.5 True Wins. In Matt Moore, the Dolphins have found a decent quarterback. They finished 6-3 and lost two very close games to the Broncos and Giants before that run. If Jeff Fisher decides to take charge of the Fish, they could make a lot of noise next year.
- Vikings. Yes, the 3-13 Vikings are not dead in the water. The quarterback situation is messy, and Peterson tore his ACL, but they had a True Wins deficit of 3.5! This is no time to panic. Joe Webb and Christian Ponder both looked good at times. Stay the course, upgrade where you can, and rejoice in your high draft pick driven by bad luck.
The Rex Ryan division (overconfident teams that need to reassess their approach):
- Jets. The Jets matched the Dolphins with 7.5 True Wins, but these are teams heading in opposite directions. Check out “manning jets” on Google Trends. The peaks around January, 2010, and January, 2011, relate to playoff games. The peak in August, 2010, is due to Calvin Pace smashing Eli Manning in a preseason game. I think we can all guess what the peak right now is about. Jets fans are grasping at straws.
- Cardinals. The Cardinals finished 7-2, but only one of those wins was against a playoff team (by 2 points at home over the 49ers) and two came against the lowly Rams. A more few stats explain it all: 1.5 more wins than True Wins; 55% completion percentage, 11 TDs, and 14 INTs for John Skelton; 58% completion percentage, 9 TDs, 8 INTs, and 7 fumbles for Kevin Kolb. Those fumbles aren’t necessarily Kolb’s fault, but that’s a lot of fumbles in 8 games. The lead headlines on the Cardinals official page are “Something to Build On” and “Kolb Faces Crucial Season.” I couldn’t agree more with the second one.
- Bills. Let me tell you the story of an NFL team. The team enters the season on a decade long playoff drought and their defense is quite bad. However, they start hot and get good quarterback play from a guy that everyone thinks could work out. Before you know it, they are 5-2 and the bandwagon is filling up fast. But the wagon breaks an axle from all that weight, and the team loses 7 of their last 8 games. This team is the ’07 Detroit Lions, with Jon Kitna at the helm. The Lions went 0-16 the following year. This team is also the ’11 Buffalo Bills, with Ryan Fitzpatrick in charge. My well-cultivated understanding of losing football says the Bills aren’t over the hump yet. Their early success this year is only going to prolong their misery by discouraging necessary changes.
- Raiders/Chiefs. I feel equally bad about both of these teams. They play in a soft division, which made them look better this year than they are. They both had more wins than True Wins (especially the Raiders). Neither team’s quarterback seems like a game changer, but both teams will probably stick with their QB next year. I would be really bummed if I rooted for either of these teams.
Lastly, the Sam Bradford division (teams that need to start over completely):
- Redskins. The Redskins showed flashes this year. They beat the Giants twice, the Cardinals, the Seahawks, and the Rams for their 5 wins. Not great, but not terrible, just like Rex Grossman. They are probably the best team in this group, and I still believe Mike Shanahan can turn them around, but they have a long way to go.
- Jaguars/Browns. The Browns finished 5th in scoring defense; the Jaguars finished 11th. The Jaguars were 6th in yards allowed; the Browns were 10th. Maurice Jones-Drew had another superb year for the Jaguars. However, both teams had horrible quarterback play from Blaine Gabbert (Jaguars) and Colt McCoy (Browns). It was sad to see such good defenses go to waste, but at least they have something to work with.
- Colts. Andrew Luck might be the answer, but it’s not the first time we’ve heard that story. Stay tuned for a post on the Colts decision. One thing’s for sure: Peyton Manning is not the answer. He just missed a whole year with a neck problem that causes weakness in his throwing arm! It’s time to retire.
- Rams/Buccaneers. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
Bring on the playoffs!