Hooray! Bring on the playoffs!!
I'm actually enjoying those special commercials they've made to trump up the playoffs, the ones featuring actor Don Cheadle. The only problem is, after his fine recent stint on ER playing a surgical intern suffering from Parkinson's, I partly expect him in the commercials to suddenly start twitching. That's how well he played that character.
(BTW, refer to my original set of predictions for this season here.)
:: First, a postmortem on the Buffalo Bills this season. My original take on them was that Drew Bledsoe would invigorate the offense, the defense would still be lousy, and the team would finish 6-10 after last year's 3-13 disaster. Well, Bledsoe did invigorate the offense, and the defense was lousy, but the team finished 8-8, and they were mathematically in playoff contention until the second-to-last week of the season. (Granted, thirteen of the AFC's sixteen teams were still mathematically alive, but….) So, obviously, the Bills have to improve the defense for next year.
Two words, then: PASS RUSH. The Bills recorded only 31 sacks this year, less than two per game. That means their secondary pretty much bore the brunt of all their pass defense, and while those guys have talent they're simply not up to keeping receivers bottled up and covered for the four or five seconds that opposing quarterbacks usually have to throw. The Bills have to improve their pass-rush.
They also need to improve against the run. Giving up more than 130 yards rushing per game is simply lousy. It allows the other team to set the tempo, control the clock, and grind down the Bills' defenders.
So, they need to add some beef to the defensive line, and probably another top-flight linebacker. An offseason like the one following 1994, when the Bills added LB Bryce Paup and DT Ted Washington, is what's needed now.
On offense, the Bills could add a legitimate center and a little depth on the offensive line. The o-line, which had been in decline for years, showed a lot of improvement this year (especially due to rookie Mike Williams and developing youngster Jonas Jennings), but they still gave up too many sacks and were too inconsistent off the line, especially at the end of the season. If Bledsoe is the immediate hope for this team, then the line – while improving – still needs to be better. Also, they need a good blocking back and a legitimate threat of a tight end. Larry Centers catches a mean ball, but he's not that great a blocker while current tight end Jay Riemersma is, as far as I am concerned, a bust. (Oh, and resigning Peerless Price might not be a bad idea. Really.)
Finally, the Bills need to have better play selection next year. Bad play calling in crucial games killed the Bills this year, both in the Bills not adjusting their offense for the defenses they faced in the latter part of the season and in the Bills making very odd play selections in key situations, like calling a roll-out passing play on second-and-goal from the one-yard line or punting on fourth-and-one when in Patriots territory, but not quite in field-goal range, while trailing in the third quarter. Marv Levy was always criticized as being too conservative and unwilling to make changes in the face of what opponents were doing. The current Bills are the same way, and that needs to change.
No predictions for next year until I know who is on the team, so I'll wait until late August. 8-8? I'll take it.
:: Some people just don't deserve the luck they have, like that guy in West Virginia who won the Power Ball – despite the fact that he's already a millionaire. The New England Patriots are the same way. Once again, luck decides to smile on these guys, and the result is they won a game they had no business winning. First they get a defensive pass interference call against the Dolphins, on a play when the Pats receiver in question clearly pushed off. Then they get to sit back and watch as the Dolphins, late in the fourth and deep in their own territory with a slim lead to protect, decide not to run that guy in their backfield who has led the league in rushing this year and has set the Dolphins' all time single season rushing records and has rushed for two-hundred yards in two consecutive games and has had a great day running the ball all day. No, clearly that situation calls for dropping back into the end zone and throwing the ball. And not just throwing it anywhere, but at the receiver who happens to be covered by New England's best defensive back. I'm wondering if Dave Wanstedt was wandering the Miami sideline when he happened upon a looseleaf binder marked, "The Official Playbook of Mike Martz".
And then, the Patriots not only win the coin toss in overtime, but they get the Dolphins' kicker booting the kickoff out-of-bounds so they get the ball on their own 40, so all they have to do is pick up about 25 yards for their own kicker, who must have naked photos of the football gods in his locker, so automatic is he in anything remotely resembling a clutch kick.
That's two weeks in a row I've rooted for the Dolphins, and two weeks in a row they've blown it. Stupid Dolphins.
:: But, all is not lost! The Jets blew out the Packers, putting both the Dolphins and Patriots on vacation. I'll refrain from posting that goofy Jets cheer.
:: Time, then, to recap my predictions for the division winners and compare them to reality. Here are the actual winners, with my original predicted winners in parentheses:
AFC East: NY Jets (Miami)
AFC North: Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh)
AFC South: Tennessee (Tennessee)
AFC West: Oakland Oakland
AFC wildcards: Indianapolis, Cleveland (New England, Denver)
NFC East: Philadelphia (Philadelphia)
NFC North: Green Bay (Green Bay)
NFC South: Tampa Bay (Tampa Bay)
NFC West: San Francisco (St. Louis)
NFC wildcards: New York Giants, Atlanta (San Francisco, Chicago)
Not too bad. I picked six out of eight divisions correctly. I didn't do very well on the wild-cards, mainly because I didn't foresee the Rams and the Bears having seasons as bad as they did, relative to how they fared in 2001. I failed to account for the fact that in any given NFL season, some of the previous year's playoff teams are going to have disastrous outings, which always makes for at least one clunker of a game on Monday Night Football, since those games are always chosen in such a way that at least one of the previous year's playoff teams is participating.
:: My two Super Bowl picks are both division champs. The Steelers don't have home-field advantage, so their chances of making the Super Bowl are actually better than top-seed Oakland's, if recent history is any guide. Eight of the last ten AFC teams to go into the playoffs as top seed have failed to get to the Super Bowl (the 1993 Bills and the 1998 Broncos being the two that made it), and the home team has lost the last three AFC Championship Games. As for the Eagles, they're home for the playoffs. Home field is actually important in the NFC, with the last ten NFC top seeds advancing to the Super Bowl seven times (the exceptions being the 1992 and 1997 49ers and the 1998 Vikings). So, I'm sticking with my picks until the bitter, bitter end. And maybe even beyond it….
:: If I'm one of the top college players, the guys who have a real chance at being the number one pick, I'd give serious thought to faking an injury at the scouting combine or something. Anything to avoid getting picked by the Bengals.
:: Just to return to the Eagles for one minute: there are a lot of fine coaches in the NFL right now, but Andy Reed (Reid? Ried? Reade? I should look that up….) has done perhaps the most impressive job. Like many observers, I gave the Eagles up for maybe a wildcard berth when Donovan McNabb went down, and then I gave them up for dead when Koy Detmer went down. That an NFL team having its third-string QB, a guy who hasn't started a game since he was a junior in college or something like that, and not missing a beat on the way to securing the top seed in the playoffs, is surely indicative of one of the finest coaching jobs in modern history. In any sport.
:: The Dolphins swooning in December is nothing new, but who could have thought they'd get the running back they always wanted, the NFL rushing leader, and swoon anyway? And now they have to give the Saints two first-round picks. Didn't pay off, did it?
:: The Cleveland Browns are in the playoffs? 'Tis a strange new world, it seems….
:: Something tells me that Brian Griese will not be back in Denver next year. He was never very well liked there, and the Broncos' underachievement this year will probably do him in.
:: Doing this every Monday has been fun this year. I'll probably post some smaller bits about the playoffs as they happen, up to and including the Super Bowl. Congratulations to all the teams in the playoffs, and better luck next year to the ones who didn't get there. Except the Pats and Dolphins.
[EDIT: Somehow I failed to include the Jets in the list of division winners.]