Friday, December 30, 2005 

Quick Slants - Week 17

We've reached the final weekend of the regular season, and the playoff picture is much clearer this year than in past years. 6 of the divisions are settled, and Jacksonville has already clinched one of the wild cards. But there's still a lot of possibilities, and plenty of mis-information out there. Here's my best shot at clarifying the remaining scenarios.

Denver (12-3) at San Diego (9-6), 4:30pm ET, CBS
NY Giants (10-5) at Oakland (4-11), 8pm ET, ESPN

The Denver-San Diego matchup is intriguing, since I suspect more people from Pittsburgh and Kansas City will be watching this game than the hometown fans. Neither the Broncos or Chargers have anything to play for - Denver is locked into the second seed, while San Diego has been eliminated. But a Chargers win puts Pittsburgh into the playoffs and eliminates Kansas City regardless of how Sunday's games turn out. That's because if San Diego finishes 10-6, the worst case for the Steelers is a three-way tie with the Chargers and Chiefs. Following the NFL's 3-way tie-breaker rules, you break ties within a division first. San Diego would knock out Kansas City based on common opponents record, then Pittsburgh would trump San Diego since they beat the Chargers earlier this season.

In the New Year's Eve nightcap, the Giants need a win to wrap up the NFC East to avoid the possiblity of relying on the Redskins to lose on Sunday. After last week's debacle, I'd expect Tom Coughlin to have his troops pretty fired up.

Detroit (5-10) at Pittsburgh (10-5), 1pm ET, CBS
Cincinnati (11-4) at Kansas City (9-6), 1pm ET, CBS

These games may be meaningless if San Diego wins Saturday, but for the sake of argument, let's assume the Chargers lose.

Cincinnati had a bad loss last week at Buffalo, as Palmer forced a pass in the final minute with his team trailing 30-27 and was intercepted by Terrance McGee who returned it 46 yards for the capping touchdown. But all they have to play for is momentum and seeding - concepts that usually don't translate well. Kansas City is far more desperate and will have the home crowd behind them. (That said, if San Diego wins Saturday, the Bengals will win this one easily.) The only problem for the Chiefs is that the Lions have basically packed it in, last week's win against the lowly Saints excepted. Pittsburgh should have no trouble running up the score in their game, which will put them back in the playoffs.

New Orleans (3-12) at Tampa Bay (10-5), 1pm ET, FOX
Carolina (10-5) at Atlanta (8-7), 1pm ET, FOX

Tampa Bay should win the NFC South by defeating New Orleans, but note that they may have already clinched a playoff spot if the Giants win on Saturday. Tampa has the tie-breaker against Carolina, so the Panthers need to finish with a better record to win the division. Carolina's playoff chances were hurt by defeating Dallas last week, since if they lose they need either the Cowboys or Redskins to lose in order for them to get in. Those teams play later in the day, so the Panthers need to take care of business themselves to avoid some unneeded suspense.

Washington (9-6) at Philadelphia (6-9), 4:15pm ET, FOX

The playoff implications for this game are simple - if the Redskins win, they clinch a playoff spot; if the Giants lost the night before, a win also gives the Redskins the NFC East title.

Sunday Night
St. Louis (5-10) at Dallas (9-6), 8:30pm, ESPN

By the time this game kicks off, Dallas will know whether they still have a chance. Unlike the other teams in the NFC playoff race, the Cowboys need a win plus some help. In short, if the Redskins, Panthers, and either the Bucs or the Giants have already won, the Cowboys are out, and this game is meaningless. I'll spare you the details involving tie games and "strength of victory" tiebreakers for now, except for this scenario - if the Redskins lose, then the Cowboys need only to tie the Rams to make the playoffs.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 26, 2005 

The Ties Have It

After a weekend with a few surprises, here's a quick rundown on where the playoff races stand.

In the AFC, Denver clinched the second seed behind Indy, while Cincinnati inexplicably lost to Buffalo at home and failed to lock up the third slot. Meanwhile, Jacksonville continued to back into the playoffs with a win over Houston, wrapping up not only a playoff spot, but the fifth seed. The Jaguars now have a one game lead over the Steelers, who the Jags defeated 23-17 in overtime back in October. Pittsburgh still looks like a lock for the last spot, as they host Detroit next Sunday. But if the Steelers stumble, the Chiefs could still get in if they can beat the Bengals at home. That looks likely when you consider this - what exactly is the motivation for the Bengals to win next week? If Cincinnati wins, they are the third seed and will host Pittsburgh the following weekend. But if Cincinnati loses, and New England again takes care of business against the Jets tonight and the Dolphins next week, then New England moves into the third seed (and plays either Pittsburgh or Kansas City). That would give the Bengals a far easier first-round matchup against the Jaguars, and would likely end the Patriots season in round one.

The NFC race is a bit more open, with four teams fighting for three spots. The top two seeds are set, with Seattle and Chicago winning their games this weekend. Tom Coughlin and the rest of his Giants should send the Ravens a thank you card for showing up and knocking the Vikings out of the playoffs last night, since that result also put the Giants in. The Giants will beat Oakland on Saturday to wrap up the NFC East, but now they have a safety net. But even then, New Year's Day Day could be a fun one. In the 1pm ET timeslot, Carolina travels to Atlanta while Tampa Bay hosts New Orleans. If the Bucs can't beat the Saints, they don't deserve a playoff spot. Look for them to win the NFC South. With the Falcons out of the race, I don't know how they'll respond, but Carolina knows they can wrap up a wild-card spot with a win.

However, a Panthers loss is great news for the Cowboys and Redskins, who both have tie-breaker advantanges (Cowboys defeated the Panthers on Sunday, Redskins have a better conference record). But they'll still need to win their games - and they should. The Redskins play at Philadelphia in a 4:15ET start, while the Cowboys finish the season at home against the Rams at 8:30ET start. The NFL schedule-makers couldn't have done a better job.

Friday, December 23, 2005 

Quick Slants - Week 16

Merry Christmas everyone! Maybe Santa will bring me a new PC... There are a lot of playoff possibilities this week, and plenty of good games - most on Saturday as the NFL flip-flops their schedule to accomodate Christmas.

NY Giants (10-4) at Washington (8-6)

Both of these teams won huge games last week. The Redskins have come back from the dead, winning three in a row to put themselves in position to clinch a playoff spot this week. They need a win plus losses by three other teams - Dallas, Minnesota, Atlanta - but there are some tough matchups there. Meanwhile, the Giants can wrap up the NFC East with a win, and can still clinch a playoff spot if the Vikings stumble against the Ravens.

When these two teams played back in Week 8, the Giants embarrassed the Redskins 36-0 behind 206 yards by Tiki Barber and some help from 3 Washington fumbles. It will be interesting to see how much the revenge factor figures in. While Washington has won 3 straight, the only quality win was against Dallas - St. Louis and Arizona had already packed it in for the year. They have a lot to prove in this game. On the other hand, the Giants might be a bit over-confident after Barber shredded the Chiefs defense last Saturday. Should be a great game.

San Diego (9-5) at Kansas City (8-6)

Another matchup of long-time rivals will take place in Kansas City, as the Chargers and Chiefs battle in a game that may mean nothing. Unfortunately for these teams, Jacksonville and Pittsburgh appear to have a stranglehold on the two AFC wild card spots. The loser of this game is definitely out of the playoffs, and the winner might not be in much better shape. For the Chargers, I'm wondering if last week's win over Indy is going to end up being their Super Bowl. This game looks like it should be a battle of the running backs, LaDainian Tomlinson and Larry Johnson, but a look back at their first game in Week 8 tells a different story. Neither team rushed for 100 yards, while they both passed for over 300 yards during a 28-20 Chargers win. The statistics were nearly a dead heat, as San Diego gained 424 yards and earned 22 first downs, while the Chiefs gained 418 yards and earned 21 first downs.

Atlanta (8-6) at Tampa Bay (9-5)

Both of these teams got beaten up last week, scoring a total of 3 points between them. The Falcons are in a tough spot, forced to play the Bucs and Panthers in the final two weeks of the season, while both of those teams can clinch playoff spots with wins this season. Tampa won the first meeting between these teams, 30-27 back in Week 11, but if you looked at the stats you would never believe it. Atlanta outgained Tampa Bay 443 to 258, including a 293-118 edge in passing yards, plus a 26-to-15 edge in first downs, and the Falcons held the ball for just over 36 minutes. Neither of these teams can play from behind since they rely on the running game to set up their passing game. I think Tampa will bounce back and move a step closer to the playoffs.

Sunday Night
Minnesota (8-6) at Baltimore (5-9)

I'm mentioning this game for two reasons. First, I like that the Ravens showed up last Monday night and pummeled the Packers 48-3 instead of packing it in (pun intended), and second, a Vikings loss would open the door for several teams (Redskins, Bucs) to clinch a playoff spot. They'll be a lot of folks rooting for the Ravens in this one.

Monday Night
New England (9-5) at New York Jets (3-11)

All you need to know about this one is that the two big story lines are: 1) This is the last Monday night game on ABC after 35 years, and 2) The Jets aren't selling beer at the stadium since they are afraid of riots in the stands. The Patriots will play their regulars, but if the Bengals have wrapped up the third seed with a win on Saturday, I bet Belichick will pull most of them by the fourth quarter.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005 

Limping along

Sorry I haven't blogged in a while, but my PC died and it took over a week to get the problem sorted out.

In the meantime, the playoff races have started to settle themselves out. All four divisions in the AFC are settled, and Jacksonville and Pittsburgh remain in the driver's seat for the wild cards. All Jacksonville needs to clinch is a win over Houston. In the NFC, Seattle is in while Chicago and the Giants have commanding two game leads. Even the NFC South could get wrapped up this weekend, as Carolina has a one game lead and needs only 1 win to clinch. Plus they have an easy season-ending game against the Saints, who upset the Panthers on the opening weekend of the season.

More later after I catch up on some other stuff.

Sunday, December 11, 2005 

Quick Slants - Week 14

It may be 2 weeks until Christmas, but today is a great day for those lucky folks with DirecTV. With four weeks left, 21 teams are still mathematically alive for the playoffs, and 16 of those clubs are above .500 with a realistic shot at the postseason. So there are plenty of meaningful games this afternoon, while the two night games are not exactly exciting.

Chicago (9-3) at Pittsburgh (7-5)

Pittsburgh is in the midst of a 3 game losing streak (Baltimore, Indy, Cincinnati) and it won't get any easier today against the league's best defense. The Steelers offense came alive last week against a mediocre (at best) Bengals defense, but I have no confidence in them against the Bears. While Chicago has had the benefit of a weak schedule, the combined records of the teams the Bears have defeated (43-65, .398) is a little better than the Steelers (31-53, .369). However, I still think the Steelers will win this game, since they are far more desperate - a loss could drop them 2 games behind in the wild card chace (and 3 in the division), while the Bears have a 2 game cushion over the Vikings for first place in the NFC North.

Indianapolis (12-0) at Jacksonville (9-3)

The Colts need a win to end the suspense - not for a perfect season, but for the division title and homefield advantage. When these teams meet in Week 2, Indy trailed 3-0 midway through the fourth quarter, but ended up winning 10-3 on the strength of 128 yards rushing by Edgerrin James. Who knew that would be the Colts closest call this season? But with Byron Leftwich on the shelf, I have a hard time believing that David Garrard is going to lead the Jaguars to an upset. The Colts are unlikely to go undefeated since they will (and should) rest players down the stretch, but they'll improve to 13-0 today.

Tampa Bay (8-4) at Carolina (9-3)

When these teams met back in Week 9, Tampa Bay turned the ball over 4 times, including 2 Chris Simms interceptions, and lost 34-14 at home. Tampa Bay was narrowly outgained by Carolina 287-270, but had more first downs (18-15) and won the time of possession battle (31:23). Now the Bucs travel to Carolina to try to claim a share of first place in the NFC South. The Bucs were unimpressive last week, defeating the Saints 10-3, while the Panthers pulled away in the fourth quarter of their 24-6 win over the Falcons. It's time for Chris Simms to show he can beat a team with a quality defense on the road.

Kansas City (8-4) at Dallas (7-5)

If the season ended right now, both of these teams would be tied for the last playoff spot in their respective conferences. Coincidentally, these 2 teams hosted Denver the last two weeks, with Dallas blowing their chance on Thanksgiving while Kansas City won a hard-fought game last Sunday. That said, Dallas's defense is better than Denver's, which will give them an edge in this game.

Monday Night
New Orleans (3-9) at Atlanta (7-5)

The only reason this game is interesting is because it is Atlanta's last shot at the playoffs. They must win this game, which will allow them to gain ground in the playoff race since Tampa or Carolina will lose their game.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005 

Some Rest for the Weary

As teams start clinching playoff spots (Colts) and even division titles (Seahawks), the debate begins on how teams will handle the rest of their seasons after they clinch.

Last year, the Patriots rested many of their players in the final game of the season, and it certainly didn't hurt their Super Bowl run. In general, I believe that once you clinch the highest possible slot in the playoff seeding that you can, you should start resting players. Obviously, if the Colts clinch home field this weekend with a win at Jacksonville, they are not going to sit Peyton Manning for the final three games; together with the first-round bye that would be a four week break. I would consider resting injured players immediately, and then hold Manning and the starters out of the final game of the season. The Colts don't "owe" the other teams in the playoff chace anything. They won enough games so that the last month of their season is a glorified pre-season or training camp for the playoffs.

Sunday, December 04, 2005 

Quick Slants - Week 12

Today features four great games between divison rivals who are also playoff contenders. With just four weeks left after today, the stakes are high - a two-game swing at this point could mean the difference between winning the division or descending into the depths of the wild-card tiebreakers.

Dallas (7-4) at NY Giants (7-4)

I wonder if Billy Cundiff and Jay Feely will share war stories before this game? Both kickers missed game-winning field goals last week that would have given their teams their 8th win of the season. Fortunately, both games were against non-divisional opponents, but a miscue today could end the NFC East race. The Cowboys defeated the Giants 16-13 in overtime in their first meeting back in Week 6, so a win today would give Dallas a one-game lead plus the tiebreaker. It will be interesting to see if Jeremy Shockey repeats his performance from that game (5 catches for 129 yards and a TD) against an improving Dallas defense. There's going to be some snow around in New England today, but I don't know if it will impact the playing surface at the Meadowlands. Both of these teams like to run, but the Cowboys 1-2 punch of Julius Jones and Marion Barber may be better suited to a slow track.

After this game, the schedules of the two teams diverge a bit. Both teams face Kansas City at home and Washington on the road, but the Giants get the edge in their other 2 games, playing at Philadelphia next week and finishing up at Oakland. Dallas ends its season with a tough road game at Carolina before hosting St. Louis. But that even 2-2 home/road split for the Cowboys may still give them an edge over the Giants, who play 3 of their final 4 games on the road. The Giants really need today's game, and I think they'll win it.

Cincinnati (8-3) at Pittsburgh (7-4)

This is a crossroads game for the Bengals. They were embarrassed by the Steelers, 27-13, back in Week 7, giving up 221 yards on the ground at home. Now Cincinnati can wipe that away with a win today, and build a two game lead in the AFC North. But a loss drops them into a tie and gives Pittsburgh the tie-breaker, which would likely relegate the Bengals to the wild-card. I must admit that I'm hoping Cincinnati wins, since they are an exciting team to watch. The only problem is, this is a bad matchup for them.

First, Cincinnati's top-rated (AFC) offense is going up against one of the best defensive teams in the conference, especially against the run. The Bengals need to hope that Carson Palmer turns in a Peyton Manning-esque performance today, with some big plays to put the Steelers in catch-up mode. I'm sure they spent a lot of time studying the Colts-Steelers game on Monday night.

But I'm more concerned about when Pittsburgh has the ball. Roethisberger's two picks on Monday night didn't help, but he'll play better today. Cincinnati has given up more points than any other division leader other than the 6-5 Patriots, and has struggled to stop the run. If the Steelers can keep Palmer in check, limit the big plays, and control the ball on the ground, they can bounce back from Monday night's debacle and regain a share of first place.

Atlanta (7-4) at Carolina (8-3)

These divisional rivals play their first game of the season today, and they'll meet again on New Year's Day to finish the year. Both teams played mediocre teams last week, and although Atlanta looked great against Detroit while Carolina struggled, I still love Carolina today. The Panthers have the best defense against the run in the NFC (82.2 yards per game) and will need to slow down the best rushing offense in the entire league (183.1 yards per game). Michael Vick is playing better as a passer, with just one interception in his last three games, but good games against Green Bay and Detroit don't impress me. Carolina's defense is going to win them this game.

Denver (9-2) at Kansas City (7-4)

Now this is a rivalry with some history. Denver-Kansas City has featured a lot of great games over the years, though I'm partial to those Elway-Montana matchups. Today, Kansas City will try to get some payback for a 30-10 loss in Week 3 at Denver. In that game, Larry Johnson carried the ball just 8 times for 13 yards, while Priest Holmes was limited to 61 yards on 14 carries after the Chiefs fell behind 17-0 in the first quarter. I watched the entire Denver-Dallas game on Thanksgiving and the Kansas City-New England game on Sunday and to me it's no contest - Denver is flat-out better on defense. It was easy to see why Denver has allowed 40 fewer points than Kansas City. The Chiefs did beat up Tom Brady, but he was operating behind a decimated offensive line. Denver beat Dallas into submission, holding them to 85 yards rushing and picking off Drew Bledose twice. Denver can't clinch a playoff spot today, but this win will move them one big step closer.

Monday Night
Seattle (9-2) at Philadelphia (5-6)

The Seahawks took advantage of the Giants kicking woes last week to move one step closer to clinching the NFC West. If the Rams lose on Sunday to the Redskins, the Seahawks will have already clinched before taking the field, but they still have home-field to play for - and last week's game (11 false start penalities by the Giants) is great example of why it is so important. Philadelphia is technically still alive for the playoffs, but I wouldn't get too excited about beating Green Bay last week. Unless Seattle has a gigantic letdown, they win this game with ease.

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