Sunday, January 30, 2005 

Scouting the Opposition (again)

Mea culpa. The Patriots and Eagles shared five common opponents this season, since both played the Rams. But the Eagles played them on the next-to-last week of the season, so that game was as meaningless to the Eagles as their contest with the Bengals the following week. For what it's worth, St. Louis defeated Philadelphia 20-7. New England defeated St. Louis 40-22 on November 7.


Hide and Seek

I know this isn't a political blog, but I heard Brian Williams talking on Meet The Press this morning about how hard it is going to be to get the entire new Iraq assembly to meet in one place due to security concerns. Haven't they heard of video conferencing? Establish 2 or 3 sites, populate each with a roughly equal number of representatives from the different ethnic groups (the last thing you'd want is for each ethnic group to meet separately), and set up a video link. This way, the most one attack can do is kill off 1/2 or 1/3 of the government. As a temporary measure, it would make sense, similar to VP Dick Cheney's "undisclosed location" which he'll be using again this week during the President's State of the Union speech.


Scouting the Opposition

This season, New England and Philadelphia shared 4 common opponents, courtesy of the NFL schedule makers who matched up both the AFC and NFC East against the AFC North this year.

New England
10/31 at Pittsburgh 20-34
11/28 Baltimore 24-3
12/5 at Cleveland 42-15
12/12 Cincinnati 35-28

10/24 at Cleveland 34-31 (ot)
10/31 Baltimore 15-10
11/7 at Pittsburgh 3-27
1/2 at Cincinnati 10-38

Obviously, you have to throw out Philadelphia's game against Cincinnati, since none of their starters saw much action. It is interesting that both the Patriots and Eagles gave up 35+ points against the Bengals.

The other 3 games provide a dramatic contrast.

Cleveland had such a poor season that I'm tempted to ignore these games. New England dominated that game, with 412 yards of total offense, 225 on the ground, 27 first downs, and 39:08 time of possession. And it wasn't turnovers - both teams lost 2 fumbles, while Tom Brady threw one interception compared to Cade McCown's two picks.

But the Browns were 3-9 after that game and in full free fall mode after head coach Butch Davis resigned; by contrast, they took a 3-3 record into their game against the Eagles a month and a half earlier. That game was as even statistically as the score. Philadephia gained more yards (488, 367 passing, 121 rushing) than Cleveland (394, 229 passing, 165 rushing) but had fewer first downs (23-27) while time of possession was basically even (34:33 PH, 35:25 CL). McNabb lit it up for 376 yards, including 100+ each to Terrell Owens and Todd Pinkston. But even a 3-1 edge in turnovers nearly wasn't enough when Jeff Garcia ran for the tying TD with 30 seconds left in regulation. It took a 50 yard field from David Akers midway through overtime to win it for the Eagles.

Baltimore is a strange team. They were just 3-5 on the road this year, which kept them out of the playoffs with a 9-7 overall record. I thought good defenses overcame home-field advantage? The two games New England and Philadelphia played against Baltimore are a more interesting comparison than the Cleveland games because Baltimore entered both games playing well.

Against Philadelphia, the Baltimore offense actually outgained the Eagles 327-298, and held the ball for nearly 34 minutes, but that game was a perfect example of a "bend-but-do-not-break" defense that turns statistics on their heads. The Eagles led 9-3 in a battle of field goals early in the fourth quarter, when a McNabb-to-Owens TD extended their lead to 15-3 with 9:12 left. A Baltimore TD just over 3 minutes later made it a 15-10 final.

When the Patriots played the Ravens, it was billed as one of the top games of the year. CBS even rescheduled the game to a 4:15 ET start to build a bigger audience. The Ravens were 7-3, the Patriots 9-1. The conditions were awful, with heavy rain throughout, but the Patriots dominated in a 24-3 rout. Pick any stat you want, it wasn't close: NE 314-124 total yards, NE 144-77 rushing yards, NE 18-8 first downs, NE 35:54 time of possession and +2 turnovers.

Pittsburgh was red-hot when they knocked off both of these previously unbeaten teams in back-to-back weeks. The Eagles offense was dreadful in their game, managing just 113 yards (and 7 first downs) including a meager 23 yards rushing on 9 carries. Both QBs threw an interception, and the Eagles did cough up a fumble, so the Steelers won the turnover battle - but not as dramatically as they did against the Patriots the week before (+4). By comparison, the Patriots gained 248 yards and 19 first downs. But both teams held the ball for under 19 minutes (17:02 NE, 18:11 PH), and were never in either game after a poor start. If you're wondering about Terrell Owens, he had 7 catches for 53 yards, but his first catch came after the Steelers had built a 21-0 lead.

I'm sure Philadelphia would have done better the second time around against Pittsburgh, just like New England did, but there is a pattern of Philadelphia struggling on offense against good defenses. The question is, can Philadelphia's defense make a few big plays and hold New England in check too?


Super Hype Week 1

I hate the two week gap between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl. It helps logistics, but ruins the momentum of the season for the ordinary fan. What do you do today? Unless you are desperate enough to watch the AFL on NBC, you might actually have to do some work around the house.

Monday, January 24, 2005 

Blizzard of Turnovers

Turnovers kill. That's the lesson of the two New England-Pittsburgh games this year. Back in October, the Steelers built a big lead off turnovers, yesterday, the Patriots took a quick 10-0 lead off 2 turnovers and never looked back. Once the Patriots forced the Steelers to throw more often, they took advantage of a mediocre game by Ben Roethlisberger, picking him off 3 times. Even when Pittsburgh did try to run the ball, New England got much better penetration that I thought they would and stopped them on a lot of key plays.

The second half was more of a scramble, since New England's 24-3 lead meant that Pittsburgh had to take some chances - and they did make a few plays to keep the game from being a complete blowout. Corey Dillion was bottled up most of the day, with about half the yards he gained a week ago. That was expected, but it kept the Patriots defense on the field and makes the second half scores a bit more acceptable.

As a Patriots fan, I'm surprised it has been so easy so far. In past years, the playoff games have been a struggle. If you take away the Steelers turnovers yesterday maybe it would have been too; but the Patriots are a roll again.

The same cannot be said for the Eagles offense. Their defense game up big and controlled Michael Vick, but the offense missed some chances to put the game away in the third quarter. Atlanta does have a good defense, but not as good as New England's. If Terrell Owens is able to play, that will make a big difference, since McNabb can try to stretch the field, but otherwise, the Eagles defense will have to carry them in the Super Bowl.

Now we just have to wait two weeks...

Saturday, January 22, 2005 

Title Fights

After some upsets on wild-card weekend, all four home teams held serve last weekend. Now it's on to the conference championship games, which feature their own intriguing matchups.

NFC Championship Game
Atlanta at Philadelphia

This game is all about contrasts. The Falcons were the top rushing team in the NFL this season, which is obviously influenced by Michael Vick. The combination of Vick and Warrick Dunn is a great 1-2 punch with a lot of speed. Then they can bring in T.J. Duckett for power. Unfortunately, Atlanta's balance is awful - they were dead last in passing yards.

For most of the season, the Eagles's offense revolved around Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens. Even with Owens's injury late in the year, he accounted for nearly one-third of McNabb's passing yards. McNabb threw the ball a lot more, ran less, and handed off intermittantly; the Eagles were 7th in passing yards and 24th in rushing this season.

Atlanta's problem in this game is that Philadelphia has been a steady defensive team all year, good against both the run and the pass, giving up a fair amount of yardage but making the big play when they need to. The Eagles defense has given up nearly 60 yards more a game than the Steelers, but the Eagles held opponents to 260 points this season, just 9 more than the Steelers allowed. Atlanta allowed only a few more yards per game than Philadelphia, but their defense is almost as unbalanced as their offense - good against the run (better than the Eagles statistically) but weak against the pass.

If Terrell Owens has healthy, this game would be no contest. McNabb could stretch the defense and give Michael Westbrook room in the running game. But with Owens on the sideline, watch for Atlanta to take some chances defensively to stop the run and the short passing game. Atlanta's formula for victory is to get a lead and keep it on the ground, but the conditions might neutralize their speed - snow is expected tonight - and give Philadelphia an edge.

AFC Championship Game
New England at Pittsburgh

Last week, everyone loved Indy and Pittsburgh. This week, everyone loves New England. The truth is somewhere in between. Turnovers and injuries were the key to the Patriots loss at Heinz Field earlier this year. Corey Dillion did not play, then Matt Light got hurt, ruining the Patriots' running game. Ty Law's injuiry then made things easier for Big Ben, who spent the day throwing only when he wanted to, picking his spots.

Will Corey Dillion make the difference Sunday? It will help, but the Patriots will need to throw the ball a lot more (and more productively) than they did against the Colts. The Steelers were #1 against the run, and I expect Dillion to have some problems, especially early on. Like most road teams in the playoffs, you have to go into the game expecting the home team to be fired up - you have to survive against that emotion and not panic, as Phil Simms might say. The Patriots will not panic, but neither will the Steelers. I would be shocked if the Steelers didn't attack the Patriots deep. Look for big throws downfield if the Steelers get their running game going (which will be easier if Richard Seymour misses another game), but Pittsburgh's coaches have to walk a fine line. They don't want to put Roethlisberger in too many third-and-long situations, but if they are too conservative, they'll end up like the Colts.

Just like in Philadelphia, snow is in the forecast for Saturday, so the already legendary bad turf at Heinz Field should also be a factor.

Monday, January 17, 2005 

Pats Win

I'm stunned. I know I shouldn't be, but I really thought the injury to Richard Seymour would hurt the Patriots yesterday. The last drive of the game padded the Colts stats, but they held the ball for less than 20 minutes before that final drive, and you can't score when you can't get on the field. New England won with its defense and the running of Corey Dillion and Kevin Faulk. When a team runs for more yards than it throws for (200+ to 144) you know two things: 1) That team had the lead start-to-finish, and 2) The other team simply could not stop them.

All four home teams won over the weekend, as the top seeds held serve. Now it's on to the conference championship games. More on those later.

Sunday, January 16, 2005 

3 down, 1 to go

After watching the great Steelers-Jets game, the two NFC games have been a letdown. Two games, two blowouts by the Falcons and Eagles. Should be a good NFC title game.

As a Patriots fan, I'm a little nervous that all 3 home teams have won. On average, there is normally one road win this weekend...

Saturday, January 15, 2005 

Kicking it Away

The Steelers survived three big turnovers to beat the Jets 20-17 in overtime. I just watched Herman Edwards's press conference on ESPNNEWS, and I can't believe his explanation (which was also given by Dan Dierdorf during the telecast) for why Chad Pennington took a knee on the final play of regulation before Doug Brien's 43 yard FG attempt. First of all, are you that scared of the Steelers special teams? The 2 extra seconds the Jets ran off wouldn't have allowed the Steelers to run a play unless they got a very quick whistle on the kickoff, and a squib kick can be tough to handle. Second, why not at least try to gain yardage instead of surrendering some? It looked to me like Pennington lost about a yard on the play. Brien had already missed from 47 yards two minutes earlier, so the Jets should have been more aggressive. Yes, he hooked the ball a lot, but who knows how a 33 yarder would have turned out? New York hit a nice screen to Curtis Martin for a first down earlier on the drive, but then stayed on the ground and played into the Steelers hands. The Jets did almost nothing on offense today, but they did hit some intermediate passes.

Going into this game I thought the Steelers were the favorites to win the AFC, and I still do. They completely smothered an albeit mediocre Jets offense, gained 193 yards on the ground, and had they not turned the ball over 3 times and given up a big punt return, this game could have been 24-10 or worse.


Divisional Weekend

This is always the best weekend of NFL football, as the top 4 teams are back in action after the bye week. It's always a good idea not to get blinded by what last week's winners accomplished, since the bye teams historically have a great record in the Divisional Playoff round. It's also a week of mixed emotions, since there are only 3 more games left after this weekend. Unless you are a baseball fan (which I am) your sports offseason is right around the corner.

New York Jets at Pittsburgh
Saturday 4:30PM EST CBS

I'm sure Bill Cowher has pointed out to his team that CBS wanted the Indy-NE game in their "prime time" slot on Sunday afternoon. It is incredible to me that most folks are picking the Steelers to win this game going away, but then expecting them to lose next week. Pittsburgh is 15-1, with 14 straight wins, and an undefeated rookie QB. They have already beaten the Jets, Patriots, and Eagles, and their defense gave up the fewest points of any team in the league:

Pittsburgh 251
New England 260
Philadelphia 260
NY Jets 261

When these two teams last met on December 12, it was a defensive battle. The game was 3-3 entering the fourth quarter, when Jerome Bettis threw for a TD and ran for another as Pittsburgh pulled away for a 17-6 win. Ben Roethlisberger had a bad game (9-19-2-144) but the Steeler defense held Chad Pennington to similar stats (17-31-3-189) and three INTs. I expect another low scoring game, with Pittsburgh content to ground it out on the ground as they have all season, and advance to the AFC title game.

St. Louis at Atlanta
Saturday 8PM EST FOX

Meanwhile, this game should be a shootout. Atlanta won their only meeting this season back in week 2 34-17, but that was a long time ago. I'm still amazed the Rams made the playoffs despite allowing 73 more points than they scored (319-392), but the Falcons finished 11-5 when their point differential was +3: 340-337. Marc Bulger showed last week that he can move the Rams offense, but their defense nearly gave it away at the end, and survived only because of (yet another) dropped ball. This game looks wide open, with plenty of big plays and mistakes possible on the turf. But in a sense, this game will be anti-climatic if Philadelphia wins on Sunday; there is no way either of these teams can compete against the Eagles defense.

Minnesota at Philadelphia
Sunday 1PM EST FOX

On the surface, this game looks like a battle of two star QBs, Donovan McNabb and Duante Culpepper. Both teams have injured star WRs, though Terrell Owens is out and Randy Moss will likely play. The difference is on defense, where Philadelphia has been terrific while Minnesota has been porous at best. But can Philadelphia exploit this without Owens? The Eagles have had trouble scoring at times, and while the last few weeks are misleading because they clinched home field so early, they did lose their last two games and were hardly impressive against the Redskins (17-14) or Cowboys (12-7) the previous two weeks - even before Owens got hurt in the third quarter of the Dallas game. Over their last 4 games (1.5 with Owens, 2.5 without), they scored just 46 points while allowing 79. These flaws may doom the Eagles chances eventually, but they should win this game.

Indianapolis at New England
Sunday 4:30PM EST CBS

This game has been over-analyzed so much here in New England that it is tough to come up with anything new and insightful to say. As I wrote earlier, I completely disagree with the notion that the Steelers have no chance against the winner of this game - though I suspect they would prefer to play the Colts defense. The Patriots offense is being underrated, while their defense, which has been hurt all year, has somehow managed to give up the 2nd fewest points in the NFL. But you do get the sense that maybe the Colts are due, almost like the late 1980s in the NBA, when Detroit finally defeated Boston, and later, when Chicago dethroned Detroit. Peyton Manning has had his finest season, and the Colts defense is better, but still below average. The messy track might slow down the Colts receivers, but the temperatures look to be around freezing, which is average for this time of year.

One factor I haven't heard much about is Corey Dillion's fumble problems. What if the Patriots get the ball first, drive down the field, and Dillion drops it inside the 5? The Patriots have taken advantage of similar Colts mistakes in the past, or, depending on your point of view, forced similar Colts mistakes. Turnovers will play a big role again, since these teams are evenly matched overall due to the injuries to the Patriots secondary. If this game becomes a shootout, I like the Colts chances. The Patriots definitely need to stretch the field against their defense, but also need ball control to keep Manning off the field. I hope it works.


Seeing Red

While Joe Buck was grandstanding a bit with his comments on the Randy Moss "celebration" last week, Red McCombs should worry about his own team's performance on the field instead of going after broadcasters. When you go 8-8 with Duante Culpepper at QB, something is seriously wrong. The Vikings should stop complaining and get better personnel people who can trade Moss and fix the defense.

Monday, January 10, 2005 

Winging It

After a terrific pair of games on Saturday, Sunday was a bit of a downer. For the second straight year, Indy and Peyton Manning completely dominated Denver. Once again, the Colts have become a trendy pick, especially with the Patriots depleted secondary. As I Patriots fan, I am a bit more worried than last year, since I'm concerned that a couple of quick scores early could take Corey Dillon out of the game. But the long-range forecast for Sunday is 19 degrees, so maybe that's a good sign.

In the late game, an early 17-0 deficit and 4 Brett Favre interceptions were too much for Green Bay to overcome. The Minnesota defense finally played a decent game against Green Bay. I was amazed that Culpepper has thrown 16 TDs with no interceptions in his last five games against Green Bay, but Minnesota still lost the season series this year. It looked like the Packers had a shot when they cut the lead to 24-17, but Minnesota drove right down the field and put the game away. Unfortunately, the Vikings will have to play the Eagles next week, and might not have a healthy Randy Moss. That's a tough draw. Meanwhile, Mike Martz should send Mike Tice a new car, or some kind of extravagant present - the Vikings win means that the Rams get to play inside against the Falcons next week, and that is a very winable game for that offense.

Sunday, January 09, 2005 

Road Warriors

Both home teams had their chances yesterday, but couldn't make the big play when they needed it. Seattle's drops are getting a lot of attention. I admit this was the first complete Seattle game I've watched since they played New England in October, and I was surprised to see that they still had problems catching the ball. But during yesterday's game, I never had the feeling that Seattle was going to win. It just seemed that St. Louis was able to make plays when they needed them, especially on some long third downs. Bobby Engram's drop in the end zone, on a somewhat difficult play that would not have been deemed spectacular, was symbolic of the Seahawks season.

The late game was another matter. San Diego played well at times, and while I thought their lack of playoff experience would be a factor, I was impressed by the last drive in regulation as Drew Brees made several key plays. The Chargers kept Curtis Martin in check on the ground (66 yards) but his 47 yards receiving included a couple of great runs after the catch. In the end, the Jets had made enough plays early in the second half so they could hold on for the win. Unfortunately, the officials nearly gave the game to San Diego at the end of regulation. I know you can't rough the QB, but the pass was already incomplete. Eric Barton's shot to Drew Brees's head had no effect on the play; the fact that Barton nearly sacked him did, as the pressure made Brees throw the ball before he was ready. With a fresh set of downs, Brees threw the tying TD pass to send the game to overtime.

But overtime was another adventure. Nate Kaeding's missed FG reminds me of other close calls Marty Shottenheimer has had; I remember a playoff game that Kansas City lost on a missed FG while he was the coach. The Jets then drove right down the field to set up for a 28 yard FG, which Doug Brien had to make twice because the officials allowed the Chargers to call a late timeout. I agree the officials on this one, since that's a tough spot - what if the Chargers have determined that they have too many men on the field, try to call a timeout, the officials don't let them call it, and the Jets miss the kick but get a second chance because the officials do call the penalty?

Here's hoping today's games are as closely contested. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 08, 2005 

Wild Card Weekend

Four games in two days on three networks. Should be a wild weekend.

St. Louis at Seattle
Saturday 4:30PM EST ABC

The first of two matchups between divisional rivals this weekend. Neither of these teams has been impressive this year, with St. Louis needing overtime last week just to get into the playoffs. Some folks are making a big deal out of St. Louis winning both meetings this year, but they haven't played since November 14, and a lot can change in nearly two months. Both games featured plenty of offense, with St. Louis winning the yardage battle 441-391 in Week 5 and 462-372 in Week 10. St. Louis won the first game in Seattle 33-27 in overtime after trailing 27-10 with 8:42 left in the fourth quarter. Marc Bulger's three late TDs helped them overcome his 3 interceptions. In the second game, the Rams scored the first 17 points of the contest and won 23-12. Shaun Alexander had two big games in losing efforts, 23-150 in the first game and 22-176 in the second. As you might expect, Marshall Faulk didn't do much in game 1 as the Rams spent most of the day throwing (15-51) but came up big in game 2 to help run out the clock (18-139). Look for Seattle to keep the ball on the ground and away from the St. Louis offense.

Both of these teams were bounced out of the playoffs in overtime games last season; Seattle lost their wild card game to Green Bay 33-27, and St. Louis lost their divisional game (at home) to Carolina 29-23 in a wild double-overtime game that they should have won. We'll see if this game is as competitive.

New York Jets at San Diego
Saturday 8PM EST ABC

I cannot wait to watch this game. We do not see San Diego much in the Northeast, but we get force-fed the Jets who have not been impressive lately. The loss to St. Louis doesn't bother me nearly as much as their poor effort against New England, who is beatable (as much it pains me to say). Unless San Diego starts turning the ball over, they should be able to outscore a fairly pedestrian New York offense. The Jets won their meeting in Week 2 34-28, but that was so early on that you cannot use that as a reason to pick the Jets today.

Denver at Indianapolis
Sunday 1PM EST CBS

Now these two teams play for real after their shadow-boxing exhibition last week. Denver has been preparing for this game since last January, when they were embarrassed 41-10. Why do you think they traded for Champ Bailey and signed John Lynch? But Peyton Manning and the Colts should win again unless they get caught in the trap of looking ahead to the Patriots (without Ty Law).

Minnesota at Green Bay
Sunday 4:30PM EST FOX

Another shootout anyone? Brett Favre has already burned the Vikings twice this year, and he has to like his chances at home in early January. These teams met in Weeks 10 and 16, so those results are useful to look at. Green Bay won the first game with a 33 yard field goal by Ryan Longwell at the final whistle. Randy Moss did not play, which opened the door for Nate Burleson to have a huge game (11-141 and a TD). The Packers had a 24-10 lead at the half, and 31-17 late in the fourth, but 2 Culpepper TD throws tied the game.

On Christmas Eve, Favre overcame his own mistakes and drove the Packers down the field late for another 34-31 win, this time in the Metrodome. Not only was the final score the same, but so was the tempo - fast, with a lot more offense than defense. Look for more of the same this time.


The Byes Have It

As we get set to watch the wild card games this weekend, it is important to curb your enthusiasm for the winners, no matter how well they look. Since the playoff field was expanded to 12 teams in 1990, just 11 of the 56 wild-card game winners have advanced to their conference championship game. Of those 11 teams, 5 reached the Super Bowl and 2 won it. In other words, the teams who earn a bye have won 80.4% of the divisional playoff games since 1990:

Divisional Playoff Results for Home (Bye) teams since 1990

Year W L Notes
2003 2 2 Carolina lost Super Bowl, Indy lost Conf. champ
2002 4 0
2001 3 1 Philadelphia lost Conf. championship
2000 3 1 Baltimore won Super Bowl
1999 3 1 Tennessee lost Super Bowl
1998 4 0
1997 3 1 Denver won Super Bowl
1996 3 1 Jacksonville lost Conf. championship
1995 2 2 GB and Indy both lost Conf. championship
1994 4 0
1993 3 1 KC lost Conf. championship
1992 3 1 Buffalo lost Super Bowl
1991 4 0
1990 4 0

This format has been great at rewarding the best teams in each conference. Prior to 1990, the 10 team field contained 3 divisional winners and 2 wild cards in each conference. Every division winner received a bye, increasing the chances that a poor division winner with a record worse than one of the wild cards would get a week off. The only "advantage" for the best team was that they got to play the winner of the wild card game instead of a rested team. Now it is nearly impossible for a division champion with a lousy record to get a bye, an important point with so much parity in the NFC this year.

Thanks to Sharp Sports for helping me with this research. Their site allows you to look up results and standings for any of the major sports, and their search option is fairly powerful. In my case I searched for playoff results since the mid-1980s since I had forgotten when the playoff format changed.

Monday, January 03, 2005 

Running out the clock

The final pieces of the playoff picture fell into place when Seattle held off Atlanta and won the NFC West, and Denver rolled over the Indy JV team to get the last AFC wild-card. Jacksonville only has themselves to blame for being on the outside looking in; how can you get shutout at home by Houston on the next-to-last week of the season? If the Jaguars would have won, they would be the 6th seed this morning since they beat the Broncos earlier this week. Buffalo and Baltimore also had their chances, so please, no crying about Indy playing their scrubs against Denver.

History says that the teams with the bye will reach the conference championship games. Of the 8 teams who are playing next week, Green Bay looks to have the best chance of advancing to the Super Bowl, but their porous defense scares me.

Sunday, January 02, 2005 

Short Story

Well, my predictions were mostly wrong again, but I'll take credit for expecting the Vikings to lose and back into the playoffs. Minnesota will be the sixth seed and will travel to Green Bay next week in what should be a great game. But how can you pick the Vikings to beat the Packers when they couldn't even beat the Redskins? Still, it should be quite a shootout next weekend.

Thanks to Minnesota, St. Louis's overtime win means that they will play Seattle next week; the Seahawks need to beat the Falcons to get the division and home-field.

In the AFC, I can't believe Buffalo blew their chance. As a Patriots fan, I've always liked Drew Bledsoe, even with his limitations, but his fumble on his own 10 yard line ended Buffalo's season and might have ended Drew's starting gig. J.P. Losman will get a long look next season, especially since the Bills are such a running team that they can live with a young QB. You have to wonder how much this game affected the Jets-Rams game since the Jets knew they had locked up the 5th seed by late in the 4th quarter.

Denver and Jacksonville are the key teams to watch now. If Denver wins, they play at Indianapolis next week. But a loss knocks them out and opens the door for Jacksonville. If both Denver and Jacksonville lose, Baltimore gets the 6th seed.


Games of the Day

Every team is in action today, with 16 games ranging from crucial to meaningless. There are plenty of playoff scenarios, but seven of the eight top playoff spots are locked up:


1. Pittsburgh 1. Philadelphia
2. New England 2. Atlanta
3. Indianapolis 3. Green Bay
4. San Diego

None of these teams can move up or down, which is quite unusual heading into the last week of the season. Since none of them play each other this week, 7 of the 16 games today feature a team that will be inclined to rest their regulars to get ready for the playoffs. Here are a few thoughts on each of the games that matter today:

Early Games

New York Jets at St. Louis
This is the best game of the day. The Jets need a win or a loss/tie by the Bills or Broncos. Since both of those teams are playing against teams who are locked into the playoffs (Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, respectively), the Jets have to assume that they need a win to get in. By the way, if the Jets make the playoffs they will almost certainly be the 5th seed; they drop to 6th only if they lose and the Colts and Bills both win.

Unlike the Jets, the Rams do not control their own destiny. They need a win plus a loss by either Seattle or Minnesota; if Seattle loses, St. Louis wins the NFC West, if Minnesota loses, St. Louis takes one of the wild-card spots.

The bottom line is that the Jets should beat the Rams. St. Louis can't stop anyone, so even New York's meager offense should be enough. Plus, the Jets should be fired up from their disappointing performance last week against the Pats.

New Orleans at Carolina
It will not be exciting, but this is a key battle in the NFC wild card race. Both teams need a win and (reasonable) help to get in. Carolina gets an edge for being at home, and because they handled New Orleans easily a month ago. The Panthers took a 26-0 lead in that game and held on for a 32-21 win.

Minnesota at Washington
Mike Tice got a contract extension, but I still wonder if he'll get fired if the Vikings lose this game. Minnesota gets in with a win, but can also get in if the Panthers or Rams lose.

Miami at Baltimore
Folks, the Ravens are toast. Not only do they need to win, but they need help from three teams: losses by Buffalo, Denver, and Jacksonvile (or a tie in the Jaguars case). Baltimore will win this game, but I have a hard time believing that both Buffalo and Denver will lose against unmotivated opponents. The one bright spot is that a Buffalo loss eliminates Jacksonville, so that may elimiate the Jags motivation too.

Pittsburgh at Buffalo
Drew Bledsoe gets a shot at redemption. Tommy Maddox starts at QB for the Steelers, and it's likely that neither Duce Staley nor Jerome Bettis will play. The Bills are red-hot, and they have a fairly straight-forward way to get in: Win and hope for the Jets or Broncos to lose.

Late Games

The trick here is that the early games may decide some of the races and change the picture.

Atlanta at Seattle
Seattle is already in, and needs a win to clinch the NFC West only if St. Louis beats the Jets. Therefore, the Seahawks should know by kickoff if they still need a win. The only nightmare scenario that can drop Seattle to the 6th seed (and a first round game at Lambeau against Green Bay) is if they lose and both Minnesota and St. Louis win their early games.

Jacksonvile at Oakland
Indianapolis at Denver
I'll cover these together since we've already been over this ground. Jacksonville will already be eliminated if Buffalo has won; the Jags need a win and losses by both Buffalo and Denver. On the other hand, Denver controls its own destiny and can clinch with a win. The Colts mind-set could be interesting. They are locked into the 3rd seed and will play the Jets if New York or Pittsburgh wins. But if both of those teams have already lost, then the Colts control who they will play - Colts win, they play Buffalo; Colts lose, they play Denver again.

Predictions Summary

The Jets will beat the Rams and claim the 5th seed in the AFC. Buffalo also wins, but misses the playoffs as Denver defeats an uninspired Indy for the last spot.

A Rams loss greatly simplifies the NFC picture. Seattle gets the NFC West before playing a down, and will host Carolina. Minnesota stumbles again, but backs in because St. Louis lost. As a result, both NFC wild-card teams are 8-8, while the 10-6 Bills and 9-7 Ravens and Jaguars are out of luck in the AFC.


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