It's NFL playoff time again, and you know what that means: More annoying Don Cheadle commercials!
Also lots of good football. The AFC has at least four teams that look good enough to go to the Super Bowl. The NFC has none, but somebody's going to have to go.
Is a Patriots-Steelers AFC Championship Game an inevitability or can the Colts or Chargers get there? Can the wild-card teams, the Jets and Broncos, make a Cinderella run?
Can the Eagles end their streak of NFC Championship Game losses at three even without Terrell Owens, and after having lost their last two games while resting the first string? Are the Falcons paper tigers? Are the Packers as good as they looked in the second half? Are the Vikings as bad? Are the Rams and Seahawks the worst playoff teams ever? What's the capital of South Dakota?
Pierre. The other questions will be answered over the next three weekends. Let's have a look at wild-card weekend, in chronological order:
St. Louis Rams (8-8, wild card) at Seattle Seahawks (9-7, NFC West champs), 4:30 p.m. EST, ABC: The last time an 8-8 team made the playoffs was in 1999, when the Lions and Cowboys both got in as wild cards and both got pounded in the first round. The Saints made it as an 8-8 wild card in 1990 and lost in the first round.
I can't tell you if either of these teams is worse than all of the above 8-8 teams, but they're pretty rough trade for the playoffs. They both finished the season with two wins to get to or just above .500, but look who they beat. The Seahawks beat the Cardinals and the second string of the Falcons while the Rams beat the Eagles' second string and the Jets, who lost three of their last four and six of their last 11. The Jets' only win in the last month was over -- the Seahawks.
The Rams swept the season series. Everyone's talking about the Oct. 10 game in Seattle, perhaps the defining moment of the year for both teams, when the Rams roared back from a 17-point deficit -- or the Seahawks blew a 17-point lead, if you like -- with less than nine minutes to go and won in overtime. What no one seems to remember is that five weeks later the Rams beat the Seahawks easily at home, and that came in the middle of a five-game stretch in which the Rams were hideous. In the two games before and after that win, St. Louis went 0-4 and got outscored 153-70.
But it's awfully hard to beat the same team three times in one season, right? Wrong. Fifteen teams have played playoff games against division foes they'd swept that year, and they've gone 10-5. It's not unreasonable to think that if a team has beaten another team twice in one year, it's because they're better, or they at least have that team's number.
This could be a shootout, more because of bad defenses than good offenses. The Seahawks should be able to make hay with Shaun Alexander, last seen apologizing for his unseemly whining about coach Mike Holmgren calling plays with winning an important game in mind, as opposed to Alexander winning the rushing championship. The Rams should be able to throw on Seattle.
Both teams are fully capable of self-destructing, and for no other reason than home field, I'll pick the Rams to do so. St. Louis badly outplayed the Jets last week but came awfully close to losing because of turnovers and poor special teams play. The Seahawks kicked one game away to them this year at Qwisp Field. I think the Rams will return the favor. Prediction: Seahawks
New York Jets (10-6, wild card) at San Diego Chargers (12-4, AFC West champs), 8 p.m. EST, ABC: The Chargers are the best story in the NFL this year, turning around from a 4-12 season that was every bit as bad as that sounds to post a 12-4 record, and they're every bit as good as that sounds.
The Jets looked like a playoff team when they started the season 5-0, though that was mostly against pretty weak competition. But it included a 34-28 win at San Diego, underappreciated at the time because nobody knew the Chargers were really this good. The Jets followed that win with close wins over three terrible teams, the Dolphins, the then-struggling Bills and the 49ers, but then they gave the Patriots a tough game and blew out the Dolphins again for a 6-1 record.
Since then they've pretty much beaten bad teams and lost to good ones. Their only wins over teams that ended up with a winning record were the ones over the Chargers and Bills, though the Bills were 0-3 and on their way to 3-6 when they played the Jets.
The Jets would have to get a lot better in a hurry to beat the Chargers again. New York's offense has devolved to handing the ball off to Curtis Martin, who at 31 just became the oldest rushing champion in league history. But the Chargers are excellent against the run, which means the Jets will have to throw to win, and with Chad Pennington looking like a sore-armed quarterback since returning from a rotator-cuff injury, that hasn't been working lately.
The Jets are also good against the run, but the Chargers aren't so dependent on LaDainian Tomlinson. Drew Brees has had a fine year throwing to a deep receiving group led by Antonio Gates. San Diego has only lost once in its last 10 games, and that was a thriller in Indianapolis two weeks ago. Barring an unforeseen collapse, the Chargers shouldn't have much trouble here. Prediction: Chargers
Denver Broncos (10-6, wild card) at Indianapolis Colts (12-4, AFC South champs), 1 p.m. EST, CBS: Last year the Broncos beat the Colts in Week 16, then rested their starters in Week 17 and got blown out by the Packers, then got blown out by the Colts in the first round of the playoffs. This year the Broncos beat the Colts in Week 17 -- with the Colts resting their starters.
And now the Broncos are looking déjà vu right in the mush. It's not about who rests their starters. It's about who's the better team.
The Broncos are a pretty good defensive bunch, but they're going to have their hands full with the full-strength Colts. Peyton Manning is not overhyped. He really is this good, and he has the weapons he needs, including a punishing runner in Edgerrin James.
If the Broncos are going to win this one they're going to have to shorten the game by eating up clock with their running game, which they should be able to do against Indy. But that's not all. They'll also have to put points on the board, not just keep the ball out of Manning's hands, because however much time you give Manning, it'll be enough for him to do plenty of damage.
The way to limit the Colts' offense is to beat up their receivers and put pressure on Manning without blitzing -- he eats blitzes for lunch and picks his teeth with linebacker bones -- and by the way still stop James. There aren't many teams that have been able to do it. The list pretty much reads "Patriots." But the Broncos, playing a perfect game, have a shot.
But if I only had a dollar to bet on either that or a Colts blowout, I'd take the blowout. Prediction: Colts
Minnesota Vikings (8-8, wild card) at Green Bay Packers (10-6, NFC North champs), 1 p.m. EST, CBS: Look, it's another 8-8 team in the playoffs. The Vikings got there the hard way by completely folding down the stretch, as usual. Once 5-1, they lost seven of their last 10, including three of their last four, and backed into the playoffs with a loss to Washington.
I'd just like to say that as much as I hated the Vikings as a boy, and I hated them a lot, it's sad to see this dome team, once so fierce late in the year when the field at Metropolitan Stadium froze, habitually tank in December.
The Packers were almost a mirror image of the Vikes. They started 1-4, then won six in a row. The division rivals met twice, with the Packers winning a pair of 34-31 humdingers. Ignoring the hot and cold streaks, one way to look at it is that when the Packers and Vikings weren't playing each other, they were both 8-6, and when they played each other they were separated by two field goals in 120 minutes.
But why ignore hot and cold streaks? At this point in the season the Packers are playing like a legitimate playoff team, and with the serious questions surrounding every other NFC team, they've got a legitimate shot at the Super Bowl. The Vikings are playing like also-rans. They're also 1-4 on grass this year, and we all know about the Packers at Lambeau Field in the playoffs.
Still, the Vikings have one of the most explosive offenses in the league, led by Daunte Culpepper, who this year was the NFL's best quarterback not named Peyton Manning, and Randy Moss. Their porous defense and general lackluster play mean the Vikes can lose to anybody. But Culpepper and co. can keep them in any game. The Packers, with Ahman Green leading a pounding running attack, are almost designed to beat the Vikings, but Minnesota hung right there with them twice this year.
The scoreboard should get another workout this time, but it's a little hard to picture this Vikings team turning around all those trends -- their poor second half, their two losses to the Packers, Green Bay's playoff dominance at home -- and pulling off the upset. Prediction: Packers
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Preseason predictions winner [PERMALINK]
The staff of Football Outsiders is the winner of this column's 2004 NFL Preseason Predictions Contest, which needs a better name. Before the season I collected the preseason predictions of 27 experts, defined as more or less national typists and chatterers whose picks I could find without too much effort. My predictions, an aggregate of the 27 experts' picks, and the aggregated picks of you, the readers of this nonsense, brought the pool to 30. The point of all this is to prove that there is more than one way to be bad at making predictions about the NFL.
I award two points for each correct prediction of a division winner or wild-card team, one point for a predicted division winner getting into the playoffs as a wild card and one point for a predicted wild-card team winning the division. The maximum score is 24. Number of division winners picked serves as a tie-breaker.
Last year, Don Banks of Sports Illustrated won with 17 points. The Football Outsiders crew set a new record with 18. It was a rout: Sal Paolantonio of ESPN was second with only 15. Banks sank nearly to the bottom of the pack -- the shorthand for which is "Merril Hoge" -- with only 10 points. The readers of this column made an excellent showing, tying for third with 14 points. I was in a four-way tie for 13th with 12 points.
The Outsiders were also the leaders in picking division winners, with five and a half. The staff vote on the AFC South champion was evenly split between the Colts, who won, and the Titans. Randy Mueller and Mark Schlereth of ESPN both picked five division winners, as did Jim Buzinski of Outsports.com, who was the only predictor to get six champs right last year.
The Football Outsiders consensus and lead Outsider Aaron Schatz were the only entries in the contest that had the Steelers winning the AFC North. Peter King of Sports Illustrated picked them to win a wild card. No one picked the Chargers to win anything. The other division the Outsiders missed was the NFC South, where they had the Buccaneers.
Almost everyone correctly picked the Patriots, Eagles and Seahawks as division champs, and almost everyone who had those three also had either the Colts, Packers or Falcons. Everyone got at least two divisions right and at least two divisions wrong.
The prize for winning any of this column's pointless contests, except as noted, is dinner at my house. If the Football Outsiders plan to become the first winners ever to claim their prize, they should be advised it's going to be pot luck.
Here are the standings, with point totals followed by the number of division winners correctly predicted, in parentheses:
Football Outsiders consensus -- 18 (5.5)
Sal Paolantonio, ESPN -- 15 (4)
Randy Mueller, ESPN -- 14 (5)
Aaron Schatz, Football Outsiders -- 14 (4)
This column's readers -- 14 (4)
Dan Pompei, Sporting News -- 14 (4)
Mark Schlereth, ESPN -- 13 (5)
Experts consensus -- 13 (4)
Joe Theismann, ESPN -- 13 (4)
Mike Golic, ESPN -- 13 (4)
Sports Illustrated -- 13 (3)
Dr. Z, S.I. -- 13 (3)
Jim Buzinski, Outsports -- 12 (5)
King Kaufman -- 12 (4)
John Clayton, ESPN -- 12 (4)
Tom Jackson, ESPN -- 12 (4)
Cyd Ziegler, Outsports -- 11 (4)
Paul Attner, Sporting News -- 11 (4)
Vinnie Iyer, Sporting News -- 11 (4)
Peter King, S.I. -- 11 (3)
Sean Salisbury, ESPN -- 10 (4)
Eric Allen, ESPN -- 10 (4)
Brian Baldinger, Fox -- 10 (4)
Pete Prisco, CBS SportsLine -- 10* (4)
Don Banks, S.I. -- 10 (3)
Tuesday Morning Quarterback, NFL.com -- 10 (3)
Cris Carter, Yahoo -- 9* (4)
Clark Judge, CBS SportsLine -- 9* (4)
Len Pasquarelli, ESPN -- 8 (3)
Merril Hoge, ESPN -- 5 (1)
* No wild card picks.
This story has been corrected since it was originally published.
Previous column: Two great reads
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