The 2003 season ended for the Minnesota Vikings last weekend because the Arizona Cardinals beat them on an improbable, desperate, last-gasp, fourth-down touchdown pass thrown and caught by people heretofore unknown beyond the Cardinals' huddle, and even there often referred to as "that guy" and "that other guy -- no, that one. Yeah, him."
That Week 17 loss knocked the Vikes out of the playoffs with a 9-7 record, putting an end to a year that started with six straight wins. The loss to Arizona meant that Minnesota lost to each of the four teams that ended up 4-12, the worst record in the NFL. When not playing the four worst teams in the league, the Vikings were 9-3.
All of which is a long way of saying that nobody can predict what's going to happen in this league with much accuracy, a point I'm going to want you to remember when I get to my predictions for this weekend's playoff games below.
Ron Jaworski, the former quarterback who now works for ESPN, is a seasoned, savvy and energetic observer of the game who talks regularly to coaches and players and dissects game film. In my opinion he's the most astute member of the NFL commentariat when it comes to game analysis. And he was the best of ESPN.com's panel of eight experts this year at predicting who would win each game.
He got 68.4 percent right, a little better than two out of three.
That sounds good until you consider the prediction record of a person who never played the game, rarely talks to coaches or players, doesn't watch game film and only sees a few games each week, sometimes with less than full attention. Let's call this person, just to pick someone at random, let's see, how about ... me. I was right 61.3 percent of the time. Not as good as Jaworski, but the difference was about one game a week. He certainly has put in a lot of sweat and pain and studying to gain a one-game-a-week advantage over the likes of me.
In my competition with ESPN.com's eight-man panel, about which they were unaware, I finished tied with Mike Golic for sixth place at 157-99, a .613 winning percentage. Golic caught me as I slumped in the last two weeks following a scorching 47-17 run in Weeks 12 through 15. My final What the Heck Pick record was 7-9.
Not in the competition but making a valiant effort was my son Buster, the coin-flippinest 11-month-old in America, who went 126-130, .492 with his trusty quarter, proving something about probability that I learned in fourth grade and have since forgotten.
But there's more than one way to be lousy at making NFL prognostications. You can also stink at trying to guess who will win the divisions and make the playoffs as wild cards.
At the beginning of the season I collected 28 sets of such predictions from around the Web, including my own. The only person in this group who picked as many as six of the eight division winners was Jim Buzinski of Outsports.com. Eleven observers picked five winners, including Jaworski, S.I.'s "Dr. Z" (Paul Zimmerman), Becky from Chicksonfootball.com and you, the readers of this column, who chose as a group.
The best predictor overall was Don Banks of Sports Illustrated. I determined this by awarding two points for each division winner and wild card team correctly pegged, and one point for each predicted division winner that won a wild card and vice-versa. Banks had 17 of a possible 24 points, just beating Buzinski's 16. You readers scored 11, same as Joe Theismann and Peter King. I had 10, same as the editors of Sports Illustrated, among others. Send me an e-mail for the full list.
So now we turn to the wild card round of the playoffs. Last year I went 8-3 predicting playoff games, better than any of the ESPN.com experts. It was the greatest football prognosticating performance of my career, and I predict I won't top it this year. Still, onward, with winners in caps.
TENNESSEE (12-4) at Baltimore (10-6): The Ravens have beaten the Titans five straight times, and they're favored in this one despite the records. Baltimore is awfully good on defense and Jamal Lewis is awfully hard to stop, but I think a semi-healthy Steve McNair will find a way to win this one. The Titans were your preseason pick to win the Super Bowl, and they would have been mine too if I hadn't taken the Bucs just so my pick and my readers' wouldn't match. I don't think they'll make it, but I like them in the mild upset here.
DALLAS (10-6) at Carolina (11-5): Panthers fans are touchy and write me lots of e-mails whenever I say their team is anything less than unbeatable. For that reason as much as any other, I'll take the Cowboys in this tough-to-call game, because I like getting e-mail.
Seattle (10-6) at GREEN BAY (10-6): The Packers are red hot, they have a better defense and Brett Favre is playing like a man possessed. And while the Seahawks got better on the road late in the season, they were still pretty bad on the road. The Packers have never lost a playoff game at Lambeau Field to a team not quarterbacked by Michael Vick, and that won't change Sunday.
DENVER (10-6) at Indianapolis (12-4): The way Peyton Manning has played this year, it's been looking like he's finally going to get that elusive first playoff win. But this is a bummer of a draw for the Colts. The Broncos are way better than a 10-6 team, and way better than the witness protection all-stars who were last seen losing to Green Bay 31-3 while the first-stringers drank cognac and smoked cigars on the sidelines. In games featuring the actual appearance of quarterback Jake Plummer, the Broncos were 9-2. They also have Clinton Portis, who figures to do a lot of running and not a lot of falling down against the Colts run defense, which the statheads at Football Outsiders calculate is the third worst in the league and the worst in the playoffs. And the playoffs include the Chiefs. I'm also skeptical of coach Tony Dungy's ability to win playoff games, and will remain so until he improves upon his lifetime 2-5 record.
I'm picking the road team in three out of four games. Home-field advantage is a powerful thing. Home teams are 39-11 in the last five playoff years. But then again: Who can predict?
Final regular season record: 157-99
Last week: 8-8
Final What the Heck Picks record: 7-9
Final regular season record I would have had if I had simply picked the home team to win every single game: 157-99
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