Which nitwit was it who said last week that the Philadelphia Eagles looked like a good bet to mail in the rest of the season?
They didn't look that way Monday night, though they didn't exactly look like serious contenders in beating the bumbling Carolina Panthers 27-24. Jeff Garcia did that thing he's done a lot of in his career -- play better than you think Jeff Garcia is going to play -- and the Eagles took advantage of the continuing meltdown of the Panthers, who once were considered serious contenders.
The win bumped the Eagles into a wild-card spot along with the New York Giants. The Panthers, along with the Atlanta Falcons, are tied for those two spots, but lose out in tie-breakers. Here's a flashlight and a map. See if you can find a legitimate playoff team in that bunch.
With a quarter of the NFL season to go, we're hitting the stretch drive, also known as the If Team A Wins Out and Team B Wins C Month.
In the NFC, there's a lot of if Team A stuff in that wild-card scrum -- the Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams, all mediocre or worse, are one game back -- but the real if is if the Chicago Bears, whose conference it is to lose, can survive Rex Grossman.
Perhaps you've heard about Grossman's quarterback rating Sunday. It was 1.3. If Grossman had thrown one more incompletion, his rating would have suffered by 1.3 points. If he'd thrown 20 consecutive interceptions, it would have done the same. The NFL quarterback rating makes little sense but this is one of those cases where it assessed the quarterback in question pretty well. A blind monkey would have sufficed.
Here's how bad it's gotten: Bears fans are clamoring for Brian Griese.
OK, the fans always clamor for the backup quarterback. But think hard, Bears fans. Grossman's in a terrible slump, but with the division clinched and four games against weak opponents on the schedule, coach Lovie Smith is making the right call by sticking with Grossman.
We'll see how long Smith sticks with Grossman if he turns in bad games in the next couple of weeks, but for now, the Bears' best chance of holding off the Dallas Cowboys is to stay the course. Nobody ever got rich overestimating the American public or inserting Brian Griese as their starting quarterback.
And I know, I know, the Cowboys, who look like the Bears' main competition for the conference title, switched quarterbacks midstream and took off. And Grossman is playing worse than Drew Bledsoe was. And this is the Year of the Backup Quarterback, with Romo, Jay Cutler, Matt Leinart, Vince Young, Damon Huard, Jason Campbell, David Garrard, Joey Harrington, Bruce Gradkowski, Seneca Wallace and now Garcia and Derek Anderson getting the starting nod or making contributions.
Think hard, Bears fans. That's all I'm saying.
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"Keep playing": Worked in '21, worked in '06 [PERMALINK]
We talked a bit Monday about how Michigan got passed in the Bowl Championship Series rankings by two teams that kept playing after the Wolverines had completed their schedule, the clear implication being that the way to the top of the BCS is to just keep playing, as long as you win, in which case it's helpful to schedule Western Carolina.
There's nothing new under the sun. George Halas employed the same strategy as player-coach-owner of the Chicago Staleys to win the 1921 American Professional Football Association championship.
The association's inaugural season in 1920 had ended with a dispute over the title, since the organizers had neglected to come up with a method for crowning a champ. Sound familiar? According to "The ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia," league officials decided to keep standings and declare the team with the best record the champion in '21.
"The Buffalo All-Americans defeated the Staleys on Thanksgiving Day, 7-6, seemingly wrapping up the APFA championship," the encyclopedia's editors write. "But Halas recognized that the league had no fixed schedule and no declared end date, so he kept playing. Halas scheduled Buffalo on Dec. 4 -- a game the All-Americans viewed as a mere postseason exhibition -- and the Staleys won, followed by victories against two weaker opponents. In the end, the Staleys' 9-1-1 record stood slightly better than Buffalo's 9-1-2 mark, and Halas laid claim to the championship."
Elsewhere in the encyclopedia, a listing of historical box scores indicates the All-Americans had played a game the day before, Dec. 3, which would lend credence to the idea that they didn't take that Dec. 4 game against the Staleys seriously.
But those box scores also show that the Staleys, rather than beating two weaker teams, beat the Canton Bulldogs -- not an obviously bad team at 5-2-3 -- and then played a scoreless tie against the 3-3-2 Chicago Cardinals. Databasefootball.com and Pro-Football-Reference.com say the same thing.
Anyway, the next year the APFA changed its name to the National Football League and the Staleys changed their name to the Bears. But Halas' keep-playing strategy is alive and well. Note to BCS contenders: Western Carolina's dance card is wide open for mid-December 2007!
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Playoff teams vs. playoff teams [PERMALINK]
Also Monday, by way of cracking on college football, I mentioned that all playoff-bound NFL teams -- those who'd make the postseason if it were to start now -- had played other playoff-bound teams at least twice.
This stands in stark contrast to college ball, where the top teams rarely play each other. Only six of the 10 BCS teams have played other BCS teams this season, and only two of them have played two games against other BCS teams.
That little bit of research led to some interesting numbers. I expanded it a bit to include not just the 12 teams sitting in playoff spots, but also the five teams tied for the final wild-card spots who'd miss the playoffs because of tie-breakers. So that's 17 of the league's 32 teams, almost exactly the top half. Here's how they've fared against each other.
Teams who would qualify for the playoffs today in bold.
OK, I said interesting, not earth shattering. But a couple of things caught my eye. For one thing, this imperfect measure is one more way of showing that the NFC is pretty much up for grabs if the Bears falter, and with only a third of their games against the top half (ish) of the league, the Bears, who look ripe for faltering, are relatively untested.
Also relatively untested: The Seahawks and, more interesting, the Chargers.
And the mystifying Jaguars come into focus a little better. What the Jags do is play to the level of their competition, going 4-1 against the playoff crowd and 3-4 against everybody else. Their losses have come against the Colts, and then the Houston Texans twice, Washington and the Buffalo Bills. Even their win over the Miami Dolphins Sunday fits the pattern. The Dolphins are playing like a playoff team, having won four straight before Sunday.
I'd call the Giants and Eagles the shakiest of wild-card holders, except that the teams on their tails, the Falcons and Panthers, haven't done much against good teams. All four teams play three other playoff contenders in the last four weeks.
And in case you're wondering, which I'm sure you're not, the three 5-7 teams, the Vikings, 49ers and Rams, aren't lurking. The Vikings are 2-3 against the 17 teams in or tied for playoff spots. The 49ers and Rams are both 1-5.
There are other ways of figuring out the same thing -- like, for example, watching the Vikings, 49ers or Rams play. But I thought I'd share this one.
Previous column: BCS outrage!
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