The 2005 NFL season was simultaneously the most and least predictable year in history.
By "history," what I mean is the history of this column tracking experts' predictions, which could also be stated as "since 2003." Doesn't sound quite as good, but come on, we're talking about history here.
The 28 participants in the Third Annual King Kaufman Sports Daily NFL Preseason Predictions Contest, Which Needs a Better Name -- or KKSDNFLPPC, WNBN III -- did a historically bad job at picking who would win the divisions and the wild-card spots. But on a week-to-week basis, the 15-member Panel o' Experts was better than ever at picking the winners of individual games.
Still with me? No? Good, because I'm about to reveal my picks for the first weekend of the playoffs, and given my record I'd rather not have too many people around to witness that.
But first I have to reveal the winners of the two contests, so that the champs can know to claim their coveted prize, which is dinner at my house, home cooking neither guaranteed nor implied, and please call first.
The winner of the Preseason Predictions Contest, Which Needs etc. etc., is Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders, who is unusual among this column's contest participants in that he knows he's participating.
Contacted by e-mail, Schatz said, "I rule!"
Schatz won with 14 of a possible 24 points. The contest awards two points for each correct pick of the eight division winners and four wild-card teams. A single point is awarded if a panelist picks a team to win a division and it takes a wild card, or vice versa. Fourteen is an all-time low.
In 2003, Don Banks of Sports Illustrated won with 17 points, and last year the consensus of all of the Football Outsiders writers won with 18. Banks finished in a six-way tie for 20th this season with six points. The Outsiders consensus was tied for third with 10.
Schatz was also the leader in picking five division winners, also an all-time low. He was the only entrant who correctly picked all four division champs in one conference, sweeping the AFC.
Banks picked six division winners in 2003 and the Outsiders consensus had five and a half last year, having split on one division. The panel averaged 7.29 points and 2.29 division winners per entry this year, compared with 10.93 points and 3.93 division winners in 2003 and 12.03 and 3.85 in 2004.
There are a lot of plausible explanations for why the panel's performance was so poor this season, but my theory is that we all just got a lot dumber since last year. The complete standings are in this column's Table Talk thread.
One interesting tidbit is that several preseason annuals, Street & Smith's, Athlon Sports and Pro Football Weekly, were bunched near the top of the standings, rather than near the middle, where they usually are. But they did about as well as they usually do. It was everyone else who moved down. Your humble servant finished in a six-way tie for 14th with seven points.
It's worth noting that the NFC North champion Chicago Bears got not a single vote to win anything, even a wild card. Wild-card Washington got one wild-card vote. The St. Louis Rams (6-10) got twice as many votes as the Seattle Seahawks (13-3). I could go on at some length in this vein, but I don't want to lose the rest of you. I like it when someone's around in case I get locked in the bathroom.
The winner of the weekly Panel o' Experts was Sean Salisbury of ESPN, who defended his 2004 championship. Salisbury picked the winner in 180 of the 256 regular-season games this year, breaking 2003 winner Ron Jaworski's record of 175 wins.
Salisbury's .703 winning percentage makes him the first panelist ever to get 70 percent of the games right. Salisbury beat ESPN colleague Merril Hoge by one game. Hoge's winning percentage was a heartbreaking .6992.
As bad as the preseason predictions were, the weekly Panel o' Experts was better than ever. A year ago, Salisbury won the contest, also by a single game, with 164 correct picks. No one scored 164 this year, but Yahoo's Cris Carter and Larry Beil each got 165 right, which only earned them a tie for 11th place out of 15.
In 2003, the panel, then only 10 members, including my son Buster, then the coin-flippinest baby in America, picked 63.7 percent of the games correctly, not counting Buster's coin flips. In 2004, the panel expanded to 14 members, counting the coin-flippinest toddler in the Western Hemisphere, and got 61.9 percent of the games right, not counting the coin.
This year the panel was 15 strong and the coin-flippinest 2-year-old on the planet's picks counted because of his new system, picking favorites of six points or more and flipping for the other games. This method got him 171 wins, enough to have won in 2004, and good enough this year for a three-way tie for fourth place with ESPN's Chris Mortensen and Mark Schlereth.
Don't they feel silly for watching all that film. I picked 166 games correctly, good for a gentleman's ninth place. My What the Heck Picks went 6-10.
Overall the panel picked 65.6 percent of the games correctly. That means that from last year to this, the average panelist improved by about 10 games. The full standings are also in Table Talk.
Did we all get smarter? Well, probably not. See above. I think what happened was a shortage this year of those double-take, "Did I see that score right?" upsets that seemed to be about a once-weekly event last year. There were a few, but it didn't seem to be a running theme like usual.
So, the NFL: Predictable or unpredictable? You decide. I prefer to say it's unpredictable, which gives me a good excuse if my picks go horribly wrong as I make my ...
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First-round playoff predictions [PERMALINK]
Washington (10-6) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)
4:30 p.m. EST, ABC
These teams played a humdinger on the same field on Nov. 13, with the Bucs winning 36-35 on a two-point conversion with a minute to go.
While that game will be remembered for coach Jon Gruden's gutsy call at the end, it was also notable as the first game in which Tampa Bay's Chris Simms first looked like a genuine NFL quarterback. It was the first pro game the second-year man ever started, finished and won.
If Simms looks like an NFL quarterback Saturday against Washington's banged-up secondary, the Bucs have a good chance at moving on. The Washingtons also have injury concerns on offense, where quarterback Mark Brunell has a bad knee and running back Clinton Portis has a sore shoulder. The good news there is it isn't the other way around.
Both teams started the season well, looked dead at midseason and finished strong. As we saw in November, they're evenly matched. Washington's stronger on the lines, but Tampa has better and healthier weapons, and they're playing at home.
Prediction: Tampa Bay
Jacksonville Jaguars (12-4) at New England Patriots (10-6)
8 p.m. EST, ABC
The Jaguars this week became the one millionth team in American professional sports to complain that they don't get the respect they deserve. The complaints didn't get them any more respect, but they did win a fruit basket and a free breakfast buffet at Shoney's.
The Jags did ride an easy schedule to a 12-4 record, but they really are a good team. They went 3-3 against other playoff teams, which doesn't sound so bad when you consider that they had to play the Indianapolis Colts twice, or that the Patriots went 2-3 against playoff teams.
Another way to look at it is to say that the Jaguars beat the Seattle Seahawks, the best team in the NFC, they beat the AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals, and they beat the playoff-bound Pittsburgh Steelers on the road.
They'll get quarterback Byron Leftwich back from a broken leg, and he's reportedly back to full "speed," though they hardly struggled with backup David Garrard, going 5-1.
But here's the thing: They're playing the Patriots, and the Patriots are looking like the Patriots lately. Injuries to Richard Seymour and Tedi Bruschi are a concern, but New England's injuries are always a concern, and New England always wins in January. A win Saturday would give the Pats 10 straight playoff wins, breaking a record they share with the 1960s Green Bay Packers. They'll get it.
Prediction: New England
Carolina Panthers (11-5) at New York Giants (11-5)
1 p.m. EST, Fox
The Panthers started the season as a chic pick to win the NFC, lost two of their first three, then won eight of their next nine, losing only a bruiser at Chicago, the game that put the Bears on the map for many people.
The Giants, who looked like they might be a year away, rode running back Tiki Barber's tremendous year to the NFC East title. Eli Manning had a solid second year at quarterback and he has plenty of weapons, including Plaxico Burress and Jeremy Shockey.
New York's problem is that it's literally been searching desperately for ambulatory linebackers. It doesn't help that the Giants defensive backfield doesn't appear to have anyone who can cover Carolina receiver Steve Smith.
The Panthers are stout and healthy. They don't appear to have enough talent to go all the way, but I spent all of 2003 saying that and they came within a field goal of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. If they can keep the Giants' defensive end tandem of Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora from flattening quarterback Jake Delhomme on a regular basis, the Panthers should get the road win.
Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) at Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)
4:30 p.m. EST, CBS
These AFC North rivals each won in the other's park this year, the Steelers grinding out a 27-13 win in October and the Bengals nailing down the division title by intercepting Ben Roethlisberger three times and winning 38-31 a month ago.
It's a classic boxer-puncher matchup when these two play, the Steelers grinding it out on the ground and playing solid defense, the Bengals trying to make up for a so-so defense by creating turnovers and then lighting up the scoreboard behind quarterback Carson Palmer, who had an MVP-candidate season.
The Steelers' loss to Cincy on Dec. 4 was their third straight, but they turned it around the next week, beating the Bears 21-9, then won their last three to secure the last playoff spot.
The Bengals enter the playoffs on a two-game losing streak, having lost to Buffalo and been routed by Kansas City in weeks 16 and 17, but don't be fooled by that. Cincinnati had clinched the division title before the Bills game, and post-clinch games have as much meaning as preseason exhibition games. That is, none, even if teams are still playing for seeding, as the Bengals were. That just isn't motivation enough.
The Steelers will pound Jerome Bettis inside, send Willie Parker outside, and mix in passes to Hines Ward. Roethlisberger has a sore thumb that affects his throwing, so the passing game may be even more reserved than usual for Pittsburgh. That's good news for Cincinnati.
The Bengals can pound too, with Rudi Johnson, but they make their money through the air. If Palmer is able to connect often enough with Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, they'll win. The Steelers have trouble defending the pass, but if they can get enough pressure on Palmer, they can limit the damage.
The scores of the regular-season game give a clue to the outcome here. If it's a shootout, the Bengals win. A grinder, and the Steelers move on.
Seattle over Carolina
Chicago over Tampa Bay
Indianapolis over New England (I know, I promised)
Denver over Cincinnati
Seattle over Chicago
Indianapolis over Denver
Indianapolis over Seattle
Previous column: Vince Young leads Texas to title
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