Monday, December 09, 2002

You know what the difference is between hitting .250 and hitting .300? I got it figured out. Twenty-five hits a year in 500 at bats is 50 points. Okay? There's 6 months in a season, that's about 25 weeks--you get one extra flare a week--just one--a gork, a ground ball with eyes, a dying quail -- just one more dying quail a week and you're in Yankee Stadium!

              -- Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), BullDurham

It is now that part of the NFL season known as "crunch time", when the playoff picture begins to solidify. This is when the best teams put their divisions away and shift their focus to securing home-field advantage or a first-round bye, and when a cluster of good teams start jockeying either for third (and, new this year, fourth) seed division titles and wild-card playoff berths. Each week sees more teams that have been "on the bubble" slide off it, into the ranks of the also-rans, and the worst teams start to play for pride and for the pleasure of being a spoiler. And for the teams on the bubble, this is when the season can become agonizing; this is the time of year where when the season is over, the players will look back and remember that one game or -- in some cases -- that one play that took them out of playoff contention. December is when a football season either becomes a success or a failure, and when the ones who fail look back and achingly wonder why they couldn't get that one more first down, not lose that one fumble, not had that one ball that was batted into the air come down into the arms of a defender, that might have meant that one more win and a season in January. This is when they wish for the football equivalent of that "one more dying quail".

:: For the Buffalo Bills, the end of their playoff hopes came yesterday with their definitive loss to the Patriots. It wasn't as bad as the 38-7 debacle at home a few weeks back; they played tougher yesterday, on the road, and their defense actually acquitted itself fairly well, although the tackling still needs a lot of work. The fault yesterday was squarely on Drew Bledsoe's shoulders: he threw four interceptions. Turnovers, as always, are the single thing most likely to utterly kill a football team. There isn't really much more I can say about this game, except that the Bills have shown a lot of progress this year. Their remaining three games are for redemption; even if they win them all -- an unlikely event -- to finish 9-7, they would need a series of miracles to make the playoffs. Next week they are home for the Chargers, who are in the thick of the playoff hunt and will need a win; then they visit the Packers, who have clinched their division but need to keep winning to get home-field advantage; and then they wind things up with an exhibition game against one of the lesser college teams (the Cincinnati Bengals).

:: For further instruction on how turnovers can kill you, look at the Steelers game yesterday. Instead of beating an expansion team to join the eight-game winners in the AFC and solidify their position in first place in the AFC North, they lost 24-6 to the Texans despite gaining almost nine yards for every yard gained by Houston. (Houston's 47 total yards is the lowest number of total yards gained by a winning team in NFL history.) The culprit? Five turnovers, three of those courtesy of Tommy Maddox. Now the Steelers are only a half-game ahead of the Cleveland Browns in the AFC North. If they want to make the playoffs (and keep my Super Bowl prediction alive!), the Steelers must win their division. I don't see a wild-card team coming from this division.

:: My other Super Bowl pick, the Eagles, kept their pace by beating the Seahawks. The Eagles are one of three ten-win teams -- all of them in the NFC -- and a victory next week will give them the NFC East title.

:: The Chiefs won't make the playoffs, but they are sure looking impressive in the last two weeks. They have won their last two games by the combined score of 98-10.

:: The road to the Super Bowl in the NFC may well end up going through Tampa. The Bucs appear to have the easiest remaining schedule of the three ten-win teams in the conference. And recent history may be on the side of the Bucs: four of the last five Super Bowl champions were teams that, at that point, had never won a Super Bowl before.

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