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Three Fantastic Games And One Very Satisfying Rout

January 14, 2011

Green Bay 21, Philadelphia 16

The Eagles’ second straight first-round loss should serve as a gut check for their fans. Philadelphia was NFL royalty for much of the 2010 season, earning the attention and acclaim of a New England or Pittsburgh. But after Sunday’s defeat, Philadelphia must be asking itself: Is this it? For all the hype around Michael Vick and the Eagles’ newfound ability to run the ball and the Miracle at the Meadowlands II, the Eagles finished 10-6 (fine, 10-5, removing Week 17) and were fortunate not to lose this game by more than five points. The Eagles haven’t been elite in a very long time – Philadelphia hasn’t earned a bye since 2004, Terrell Owens’ only full season as an Eagle. Since the remarkable NFC championship game run, they’ve never quite put it together when they needed to, choking away a winnable divisional game at New Orleans in January 2007, miraculously reaching a fifth NFC title game in 2009 but losing at Arizona, losing to Dallas with a No. 2 seed on the line in Week 17 last year, and now, with Donovan McNabb not around to take the blame anymore, again blowing a great chance at a first-round bye and being forced to play a wild-card game against a team that was simply better. Andy Reid still hasn’t committed to keeping Vick long-term, and while his performance for most of 2010 was magnificent, his last few games do raise the nagging questions of whether he can stay healthy and whether he can play at his midseason level for several more seasons.

Baltimore 30, Kansas City 7

Ravens fans should recognize this victory, even if doing so requires dredging up memories of years when the Ravens would win a few games by more than one score. 2010 aside, the Ravens are very good, even in the postseason, at thoroughly beating inferior teams. Baltimore crushed Miami 27-9 in a wild-card game two years ago and beat a deeply flawed Patriots team 33-14 last year; when the Ravens’ offense can control the ball, the defense usually spends the second half thundering through its opponents, and it does so especially when facing Matt Cassel. As for Kansas City’s meek performance, it shouldn’t come as a surprise, and it shouldn’t be chalked up to the “distraction” of Charlie Weis leaving for Florida; the Chiefs had a one-dimensional offense well before Weis’ imminent departure. Kansas City had played only two playoff teams all season – and its one victory in those games came at Seattle. This was the Chiefs’ seventh-straight postseason loss, which brings me to this: The Chiefs never get enough historical credit for being awful. They earn some brownie points because of Arrowhead Stadium and because Joe Montana played there for all of two seasons and because they won Super Bowl 4. But here’s the history of the franchise since the merger: Make two playoff appearances between 1970 and 1989, become a consistent contender for about a decade under Marty Schottenheimer, because they were under Marty Schottenheimer, go 3-7 in playoff games, including 0-2 as a 13-3 No. 1 seed, return to irrelevance with three hapless playoff appearances scattered randomly throughout the 2000s. So the Chiefs are basically the Browns. Everyone makes fun of the Browns for being from Cleveland, but at least Cleveland’s annual failure is hilarious and a metaphor for the decline of American industry and on national TV; Kansas City has just been very irrelevant for a very long time.

New York 17, Indianapolis 16

The Jets make a ridiculously easy target for anyone wishing to extol the virtues of modesty or decency or having a competent quarterback, and a loss to Indianapolis and Peyton Manning surely would have made the Tony Dungys of the world very happy. So we should all celebrate the Jets’ victory a little bit. Many observers noted that three of four road teams won last weekend, and that since 2004, home teams are only 13-15 in wild-card games. But there’s a pretty simple explanation: The NFL’s eight-division structure means more teams than before are going on the road with better records than their opponents. This year, Baltimore and New York both had better records than their opponents but had the misfortune of playing in the same division as the two best teams in football, and Green Bay had the same record as Philadelphia but was three seeds lower. The only team with a record advantage to lose was 11-5 New Orleans – and the inane divisional structure meant the Saints were playing in Seattle against a Seahawks team with four fewer wins. In the 28 wild-card games from 2004-2010, in only 13 did the home team have a better record, and the road team had a better record in 9. In the 28 wild-card games from 1995-2001, the last seven years of the NFL’s old six division structure (in which the 4/5 game featured two wild-card teams, guaranteeing the 5 seed would not have a better record than the 4 seed), home teams went 23-5, but the home team had a better record in 21 games, and the road team never did. So after an ESPN talking head offers us the 13-15 statistic, maybe they’ll give us the perfectly reasonable explanation for why that’s happening. And maybe the NFL will recognize something’s wrong with a playoff system in which teams with a worse record get home games nearly as often as teams that, you know, actually deserve them.

Seattle 41, New Orleans 36

In the 2009 season, the Saints played seven games outside – September wins at Philadelphia and Buffalo (cold-weather cities, but certainly not in early fall), two wins at Miami (one against the Dolphins, one against the Colts in the Super Bowl), wins against terrible Tampa Bay and Washington teams, and then a meaningless loss to Carolina. In 2010, they played eight – drivel at the likes of San Francisco, Arizona, Tampa Bay, Carolina, and Dallas, and then three in the cold. They beat lowly Cincinnati by four, lost at Baltimore, and then, you guessed it, lost to the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks last Saturday. Am I judging them for this? Yes.

Baltimore at Pittsburgh

“The last four games between these two teams have each been decided by three points, and each team has won two of them.” That’s the stat we’ve heard over and over this week, and it’s true – with one Andre the Giant sized caveat: Pittsburgh beat Baltimore with Ben Roethlisberger twice by three, and Baltimore beat Pittsburgh without Roethlisberger twice by three. Here are the real numbers: Roethlisberger is 5-0 against the Ravens since 2008, and he’s 8-2 against them all-time, with both the Ravens’ wins coming in 2006, the only year since Roethlisberger entered the league that Baltimore was clearly better than Pittsburgh. The real storyline here isn’t “Wow, what a physical, hard-hitting, old-fashioned football game these two evenly-matched teams will play,” but rather “Can the Ravens finally beat their long-time nemesis?” I’ll go out on a limb and say Pittsburgh by three, 16-13.

Green Bay at Atlanta

The Falcons enter as 2.5 point favorites – only the second time in five years that a home team wasn’t favored by at least three in a divisional game. Las Vegas thinks (or, more probable, thinks the general public thinks) the No. 6 seed Packers are better than the No. 1 seed Falcons. This creates a great dynamic often not present in playoff games: Both teams’ seasons will have been failures should they lose. Green Bay, remember, was a preseason favorite to reach the Super Bowl, and, despite its 10-6 record, has played well enough to warrant that expectation come playoff time. Atlanta, of course, is the No. 1 overall seed, and you don’t finish 13-3 every year. Both AFC games enjoy this dynamic, but any game involving Seattle certainly does not. Green Bay will take this, 27-20; I remain unsold on Matt Ryan, while Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFC.

Seattle at Chicago

The AP story after the Seahawks bested New Orleans last Saturday claimed, “the Seahawks did more than just validate their place in the postseason.” But the 41-36 win and Seattle’s 7-9 record are entirely separate issues. Intelligent frustration at the Seahawks making the postseason at 7-9 wasn’t, “It’s a shame such a lousy team is making the playoffs; the games won’t be as interesting because they’ll get crushed.” Instead, the issue was, “We know the playoffs are a crapshoot, so it’s unfair that such a lousy team gets a chance.” The outcome of the game was surprising, but upsets happen pretty routinely in sports. The object of restricting access to what are ultimately random playoff tournaments is to ensure the winner at least has some viable claim to the prize. 7-9 Seattle shouldn’t have been hosting 11-5 New Orleans not just because the Saints performed objectively better during the season but also because it allows for this very outcome. That said, the Seahawks played the game of their collective lives against the Saints and only won by 5; Chicago, 30-20.

New York at New England

Cynics love to bemoan big markets and big teams, but the buildup to Pats and Jets has reminded me why I’ll take New York vs. Boston any time, in anything. Making haughty comments about how Rex Ryan is putting more pressure on his team and might have to eat his words makes for an easy column, but does anyone who follows the NFL on days besides Sunday really wish Ryan would shut up? Following sports should mean more than watching Merrill Hoge and Ron Jaworski breaking down game tape; I want to see Ryan criticize Tom Brady for watching Lombardi instead of the Jets/Colts tilt, I want to see Ryan futilely attempt to drag Bill Belichick into some sort of media war, I want to see Antonio Cromartie decide he’d rather be known as the guy who said the stupid thing about Tom Brady than the guy who can’t remember his kids’ names. I love Wes Welker now. These covers are why the newspaper industry can’t be allowed to die. My only disappointment stems from the Jets constructing an inevitably horrible Monday: Either they idiotically lit the flame under Brady and Belichick and got smoked again, or their comments somehow inspired Mark Sanchez to throw accurate passes, and the Patriots fell in a shocker. The great thing about this week’s trash talk is it doesn’t matter; Brady would have picked Cromartie apart regardless, just as Belichick would have outcoached Ryan even if it weren’t “personal.” New England will win, 30-17.


From → January 2011

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