With the NFL heading into its final month, the playoff picture is starting to take shape. The commentariat likes to justify its existence by telling you how complicated all the various scenarios are, but really, it's all pretty simple.
If your favorite team wins the rest of its games, it's going to the playoffs. Provided that your favorite team is at least 5-6. And really they should be at least 6-5. But then again --
OK, let's start over. Let's look at a single team, drawn at random. How about the Oakland Raiders. They're 4-7, in last place in the AFC West, in a four-way tie for fifth place for the two wild-card spots, three games out of the running.
If the Raiders win all of their remaining games, they'll finish 9-7, and if any three teams from among the Jacksonville Jaguars, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs completely collapse down the stretch, and the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns all lose at least one game, the Raiders are in.
I know that sounds convoluted, but the Raiders are going to lose to the Chargers Sunday night and they're not getting anywhere near the playoffs.
Onward to Week 13, with predicted winners in caps.
CINCINNATI (8-3) at Pittsburgh (7-4): The game of the week. The Bengals can take a commanding lead in the AFC North with a win, assuring themselves of their first division title in 15 years barring a collapse in the last four weeks. The Steelers have lost two in a row and are hurting. A loss renders them doubtful for the playoffs, a win gives them the division lead because they'd hold the tiebreaker, a sweep of both games against the Bengals.
This is the Bengals' third and last chance at a signature win this regular season. They lost the first two, home games against the Steelers and Colts. They'll get this one.
Dallas (7-4) at N.Y. GIANTS (7-4): The game of the week, NFC version. I keep thinking the Giants are better than they really are, and I keep thinking the Cowboys are worse than they really are. I'm going to keep thinking along those lines for at least one more week, or until New York is flagged for its 10th false-start penalty of this game.
Atlanta (7-4) at CAROLINA (8-3): The, uh, other NFC game of the week. There are a lot of games of the week this week. The NFC South is a three-way race between these two and the 7-4 Buccaneers, and the nice thing is they're all going to be playing each other a lot from now on, with a game between the Falcons and Panthers, Falcons and Bucs or Panthers and Bucs every week except Week 15.
The Falcons have had the Panthers' number in the Michael Vick era, but they're just not playing well enough on defense lately. They looked terrific in their last game, of course, but that was in Detroit. The Panthers' anemic offense will do enough to get a win as long as the defense doesn't let Vick go completely nuts. Vick's ill-advised project lately to become a pocket passer will help Carolina on that score.
TENNESSEE (3-8) at Indianapolis (11-0): What the Heck Pick of the week. The Colts are a terrific team playing such a weak schedule that I think I've picked against them more often than for them this year. They're perpetual What the Heckers.
TAMPA BAY (7-4) vs. New Orleans (3-8) at Baton Rouge, La.: In between this game and the season finale at home against the Saints, the Bucs have to play at Carolina and New England, then at home against Atlanta. If they want to make the playoffs, they'd best start -- and end -- by beating the Saints, which shouldn't be difficult.
Buffalo (4-7) at MIAMI (4-7): The Bills are just lousy on the road. They're 0-5, and it's a solid 0-5. They've been outscored 145-53. The Houston Texans, who are 1-10, haven't been outscored at anything like that rate, even on the road.
MINNESOTA (6-5) at Detroit (4-7): The Dick Jauron interim era begins in Detroit. When the Vikings return to Ford Field in two months and extend their winning streak to 13 with a Super Bowl victory, who's going to step up and say, "We never would have turned this season around if it hadn't been for the sex party on the boat"?
JACKSONVILLE (8-3) at Cleveland (4-7): The Jaguars have lost quarterback Byron Leftwich and running back Fred Taylor, so despite an easy schedule they're going to have to fight hard to make the playoffs. But they'll get a win here on the theory that teams play over their heads in the first game after losing their star player, in this case Leftwich.
Obscure, meaningless stat of the week, courtesy of the NFL: "Wide receivers Marvin Harrison of Indianapolis (11,979) and Jimmy Smith of Jacksonville (11,949) this week could become the first receivers in history to reach 12,000 career yards on the same day."
HOUSTON (1-10) at Baltimore (3-8): So the guy looks up and says, "It's OK, the room's already paid for." Just wanted to see if anyone would really read anything that came after "Houston (1-10) at Baltimore (3-8)."
GREEN BAY (2-9) at Chicago (8-3): This is not a What the Heck Pick. There's no good reason to think the Packers will win this game. I just do. And not because Brett Favre and the Packers have owned the Bears, winning 21 of the last 26 against them. The whole world -- including, crucially, this column -- has come around in the last couple of weeks to really believing in the Bears. Therefore, they're due to fall on their faces.
One could argue that they did that last week against the Bucs, who are good but not as good as the Bears, escaping with a win when Matt Bryant missed a chip-shot field goal at the end of regulation. That would be one's prerogative, but I don't count that as a trip-up.
Washington (5-6) at ST. LOUIS (5-6): The winner of this game will delude itself into thinking it's still alive in the playoff hunt. Harvard grad Ryan Fitzpatrick will start for the Rams, and I ask you, when's the last time a Harvard grad lost a game as an NFL quarterback? See my point?
N.Y. Jets (2-9) at NEW ENGLAND (6-5): If Sunday goes the way I'm predicting it's going to go -- keep in mind that this has never happened and never will, and therefore you must savor the meaningless of the rest of this sentence the way you would a morsel of the finest chocolate -- the Jets will be the big winners, vaulting to the front of the race for Matt Leinart/Reggie Bush/Vince Young in the 2006 draft.
ARIZONA (3-8) at San Francisco (2-9): The Cardinals may have to do without their best player, kicker Neil Rackers, who kicked six field goals against the 49ers in Mexico City two months ago. Even with the exchange rates being what they are, that's pretty good. Rackers hurt himself in practice Thursday.
The 49ers haven't been horrible at home, beating the Rams and Bucs and playing the Cowboys and Seahawks close. But they have been horrible when Alex Smith has played quarterback, which he'll do Sunday. That's as it should be. The kid's gotta learn. But it's going to knock the Cardinals out of the running for the top draft pick.
Denver (9-2) at KANSAS CITY (7-4): The Chiefs always beat the Broncos in Kansas City. The Chiefs have to win this game and the Broncos don't. So the Chiefs are the obvious pick, right? That means I should take the Broncos, because I like to play a hunch and go against the obvious pick. But my picks have been so awful lately, my hunches all so bad, I'm going against going against my hunch, and taking ... wait, I've gotten confused. Are the Colts playing in this game?
Oakland (4-7) at SAN DIEGO (7-4): As discussed above.
SEATTLE (9-2) at Philadelphia (5-6): This is probably a closer matchup than the records would indicate, since the Seahawks are a couple of breaks away from only being 7-4. But without Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens, the Eagles just don't have the weapons to exploit Seattle's biggest weakness, which is pass defense.
Season record: 112-64
Last week: 11-5
What the Heck Picks: 4-7
Teams, out of the 32 in the NFL, that are still mathematically alive for the playoffs: 30
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Will return Jan. 3 [PERMALINK]
This column is on leave for the rest of December. I'll be back on the daily schedule on Jan. 3.
I'm normally not the type of guy who feels he has to justify himself, but when a sports columnist spends most of the fall talking mostly about NFL football and then disappears for the last four weeks of the regular season, well, he has some explaining to do.
I'm taking a month off to stay home and spend time with my daughter -- who is also staying home, from daycare. Her older brother had to endure a month in the house with me when he was an infant, so little sister has to take the same medicine.
But fear not! Over the next two weeks, a roster of guest writers including Camille Paglia and Cintra Wilson will take my place three days a week. I'm not completely gone. I'll still do my annual Year in Sports roundup near the end of the month. Unless I can weasel out of it, I mean. I'll also post my NFL picks each week in this column's Table Talk thread.
And finally, I'll make my regular every-other-Friday appearance on "The Bob Edwards Show" on XM Radio on Dec. 16 and 30.
This is my last chance this year to thank you for reading this column, for catching the errors, amen-ing when you think I've gotten something right and arguing when you think I've blown the call.
Waking up every weekday morning to a blank, hungry computer screen and having to feed it 1,200 words or so is a grind. Even the best job in the world can wear a person down after a while. So I'm looking forward to a month with no deadlines other than the next bottle.
But don't get me wrong: I'll be itching to get back to it. It may be a grind, but it's worth it to get to have a running conversation with the greatest crowd in sports.
Previous column: The Grey Cup
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