It's the eve of the NFL playoffs but we've already got some champs around here. Great bunches of them. This column's fourth annual Panel o' Experts has resulted in a pileup at the finish line.
For the second year in a row the panel -- actually two panels made up mostly of nationally known typists and chatterers, plus me -- found the NFL to be simultaneously more predictable and unpredictable than ever.
And for the second year in a row I'm going to try to convince you that the real story is unpredictability, because I want you thinking along those lines as you read my always-terrible first-round predictions, which follow.
The first panel, known as the Preseason Panel o' Experts, tries to pick the eight division winners and four wild-card teams. Two points are awarded for each correct pick, one for each playoff team picked but in the wrong spot, for example picking the Dallas Cowboys, who won a wild card, to win their division.
That panel had its best and worst showing ever. Never before has the winning score, 13 points, been so low. But the 25 members -- including one entry consisting of a consensus of the other 24 -- did better than ever at picking division winners, averaging 4.0 champs per expert, breaking the old record of 3.93 in 2004. Last year the average was 2.29.
I'm burying the lead about the winner because there was no winner, really. There was a four-way tie. Cyd Ziegler of Outsports, Merril Hoge of ESPN, and the Sporting News and Street & Smith preseason annuals all garnered 13 points. All picked four division champs except Hoge, who had five. Ziegler, by the way, was the only panelist who picked the New Orleans Saints to win the NFC South.
Almost everybody on the panel picked four division winners, and in almost every case the four were New England, Indianapolis, Chicago and Seattle.
The Weekly Panel o' Experts picks the winner of each game, as this column does every Friday. Or tries to anyway. The champ this year, ending the two-year reign of ESPN's Sean Salisbury: Another tie. Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports and Mike Golic of ESPN, who led with an all-time low of 161 correct picks in 256 games.
A year ago the panel had an overall .656 winning percentage and it took a record 180 correct picks for Salisbury to win. This year, for the first time ever, the panel had a sub-.600 winning percentage at .593. This column, with a valiant rally from the midseason cellar, finished 13th out of 16 with a 146-110, .570 record.
My son, Buster, coin-flippinest 3-year-old in the Lower 48, who picks any favorite of six points or more and flips for all other games, and who led the panel for significant stretches of the season, faded down the stretch, finishing eighth at 153-103, .598. His chief non-expert rival, porn star Adriana Sage, finished third at 157-99, .613.
The prize for winning any of this column's Panels o' Experts is dinner at my house, home cooking not implied, but entire magazines are ineligible because of cost concerns. Also because of cost concerns, winners are not notified.
So what's it all mean? It means the NFL is pretty damn unpredictable! Which leads me to...
NFL wild-card round predictions [PERMALINK]
Kansas City (9-7) at Indianapolis (12-4)
4:30 p.m. EST, NBC
You ought to know the story of this game: Kansas City powerhouse back Larry Johnson vs. the Colts' historically poor run defense, and whether Peyton Manning and Indy's great offense can offset that mismatch.
With Dallas Clark healthy again and providing an underneath threat, the Manning to Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne attack is once again extremely dangerous. Beyond Johnson, the aging Chiefs are ordinary, with quarterback Trent Green battling injuries all season and the line not what it once was.
Johnson should be able to make some hay against the porous Indy defense and keep Manning off the field for long stretches, but if it comes down to a great runner vs. a great passer, take the passer. Especially at home.
Buster's pick: Indianapolis (7-point favorite)
Dallas (9-7) at Seattle (9-7)
8 p.m. EST, NBC
Three months ago the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals stumbled into the postseason playing rotten baseball, then went all the way to the World Series. Think about that before you let these two teams have it for coming into the playoffs having each lost three of their last four.
And then let 'em have it.
The Seahawks have actually done yeoman work overcoming injuries that sidelined offensive stars Matt Hasselbeck, Shaun Alexander and Darrell Jackson for long stretches, plus a patchwork offensive line in the wake of the free-agent defection of Steve Hutchinson, plus that Super Bowl loser's curse thing. A weak schedule and a weaker division helped a lot.
The Cowboys looked for a midseason stretch like the best team in the NFC, playing beautifully in the early days of the Tony Romo era just as the Chicago Bears were stumbling. Remember that?
Romo hasn't quite turned into a pumpkin now that the league has some game film on him, but he's turned into something bearing way too strong a resemblance to the man he replaced, Drew Bledsoe, a true triple threat man: 1) Hold on to the ball too long, then 2) fumble it or 3) throw an interception. Plus, the Cowboys have stopped playing defense.
If Romo can get the ball deep to Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn against Seattle's injury-depleted secondary -- and if Owens doesn't drop too many, the Cowboys could win. But I think the Seahawks will get enough pressure on Romo to disrupt him, and Hasselbeck will find enough holes in the Cowboys' own rough secondary for Seattle to ride its famed home-field advantage to a win. And a ticket to a second-round blowout.
Buster's pick: Seattle (coin)
N.Y. Jets (10-6) at New England (12-4)
1 p.m. EST, CBS
I guess you know the story of this one too. Bill Belichick vs. Eric Mangini. Master vs. student. Genius vs. disciple. Dude with a grudge over his underling taking a job the dude didn't think the underling was ready for, and in the dude's own division to boot, vs. grudgee. Reluctant handshaker vs. Eric Mangini.
Yawn. They split during the year, each winning on the road. The Jets seriously overachieved -- Mangini for Coach of the Year -- and the Patriots tend to turn it up a notch in the playoffs, especially in terms of their defensive scheming. The Jets have probably gone just about as far as you can go with Chad Pennington, a smart, crafty quarterback with a wet noodle for a right arm.
With the strength of the AFC this year, the Patriots don't look like a Super Bowl team, which of course are dangerous words. They're not what they have been. They're a run-first team these days, with two strong backs in Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney and a decided absence of dangerous receivers for Tom Brady to throw to. They also will miss safety Rodney Harrison, lost for the year in Week 17 with a knee injury.
But they did go 12-4, they have won three in a row and six out of seven, and they are the New England Patriots. If they get the job done in this one, we'll see what all that means in a week when they go to San Diego.
Prediction: New England
Buster's pick: New England (9-point favorite)
N.Y. Giants (8-8) at Philadelphia (10-6)
4:30 p.m. EST, Fox
The Giants went 6-2 in the first half, 2-6 in the second. Detect a trend there?
The Eagles have been red hot since losing Donovan McNabb for the season, which looked like curtains at the time. Jeff Garcia came down from the scrap heap to guide Philly to the NFC East title -- a crown the Cowboys couldn't kick away fast enough -- with five straight wins.
Garcia's played well, but the real key has probably been the switch from the pass-happy play calling of head coach Andy Reid to the more balanced approach of assistant Marty Mornhinweg. The Eagles can be run at, and the Giants have this Tiki Barber fellow who just ran for 234 yards at Washington last week and who's looking for a last hurrah before his reported retirement.
But Barber's only managed 126 yards on 40 carries -- a 3.2 average -- in the two games against the Eagles this year, and beyond him, the Giants offense gets shaky. Eli Manning is beginning to slide into the disappointment category, and with Jeremy Shockey hurt, that's one fewer tool to work with. No pun intended.
The Eagles should keep it rolling and put an end to the red-ass tenure of Giants coach Tom "On Time Is Five Minutes Late" Coughlin.
Buster's pick: Philadelphia (6.5-point favorite)
Chicago over Seattle
Philadelphia over New Orleans
San Diego over New England
Baltimore over Indianapolis
Note: Those middle two games look like coin flips to me. Not that they'll ever happen, since my picks this week are surely wrong.
Chicago over Philadelphia
Baltimore over San Diego
Chicago over Baltimore
This column has been corrected since publication.
Previous column: Nick Saban
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