Monday, December 29, 2003

It's a game of inches...on any given Sunday...

The playoff picture in the NFL is set, and now I can look at how my predictions matched up to reality. Sadly, not as well as last year, when I picked six of eight divisions correctly. But it's not all bad for me! First, a few random thoughts:

:: Yes, the Patriots had a hell of a year. But I'm still not ready to punch Bill Belichick's ticket to Canton. As far as I can see, he's had one admittedly superb season (this year), one amazingly lucky season (2001), and the rest of his head coaching career has been merely fair. The Patriots are also the most inexplicable 14-2 team I've ever seen; they simply don't dominate in any particular category, which leads a lot of people to wax poetic about "intangibles" and how they "just win" and all that. The problem with relying on mystique is that it can dissipate really quickly.

:: Wow, what a way for a season to end for the Vikings. I didn't get to see it, because the Packers game was televised in Buffalo, which was surreal enough. They showed the Packers basically congratulating each other and taking solace in fighting the good fight during their fourth quarter, while the Vikings were ahead. But then word started to percolate about Lambeau Field that the Vikes might be in trouble, and the fans started turning toward the people in the luxury boxes to tell them what was happening in Arizona. The last two minutes of Green Bay's game became louder and louder as they realized that they might go to the playoffs, and then that they actually would be going.

:: Remember how on Saturday Night Live, Kevin Nealon used to parody Brent Musberger in "NFL Live" sketches by appending every sentence with "on CBS"? Well, Phil Simms must have been on some similar plan, because he never referred to "the Super Bowl", but "the Super Bowl on CBS". I really don't think you guys need to worry, CBS. If I don't know what network is carrying the game, I promise to flip channels until I find it. Should be pretty easy to find the only football game on TV that day.

OK, time to look at my predictions versus reality. Here's a table, with each division's winner and my picks.

AFC EastNew EnglandBuffalo
AFC NorthBaltimorePittsburgh
AFC SouthIndianapolisTennessee
AFC WestKansas CityKansas City
AFC WildcardsTennessee, DenverNew England, Denver
NFC EastPhiladelphiaPhiladelphia
NFC NorthGreen BayGreen Bay
NFC SouthCarolinaTampa Bay
NFC WestSt. LouisSan Francisco
NFC WildcardsSeattle, DallasSt. Louis, NY Giants

So I only picked three of eight divisions correctly – just under fifty percent. But, seven of the teams I picked to make the playoffs did make it, just above fifty percent. I also noted back then that Minnesota, Seattle and Cleveland could well end up making noise in the playoff hunt, and two of three of those teams did: Seattle did make it, Minnesota came heartbreakingly close to making it, and Cleveland wasn't very good, but then, they played in a crappy division and on the last day kept the Bengals out. We all know that the Bills' work on the field did not match what just about anybody thought they'd do before the season, and the Giants were also underachievers in a big way.

Other than the Bills, my biggest bout of confusion lies with the Buccaneers; they fielded basically the same team that went 13-3 and won the Super Bowl a year ago, and they were inconsistent and lousy. In retrospect, I'm not sure what I saw in the 49ers or the Steelers before the season started; these were "reputation" picks, really. I'm a bit surprised that the Steelers stumbled so badly, but that has historically been a very tight division. I also didn't think Bill Parcells would get Dallas into playoff shape that quickly (although I thought for sure that he would get them there eventually), and I pride myself that I never once got on the Miami Dolphins bandwagon. And if they bring Wannstedt back, pencil them in for another late-season swoon next year too as their vaunted defense gets even older.

Obvously, my Super Bowl prediction (Buccaneers over Titans) can't happen. I think that if they're healthy, the Titans are probably the best team in the AFC on paper, but they are in the unlucky position of being a wildcard team, and with the current playoff format, no wildcard team ever gets to play a home game, unless by some crazy miracle both wildcards in a conference advance to the title game. The chances of that happening are pretty low.

So, who can beat the Patriots? In the AFC, I think that the Colts could do it, and so could the Titans, although their road is a lot harder. The Chiefs can't do it. If the Patriots get to the Super Bowl, I think the Eagles, Rams and Packers could all beat them, with the Eagles having the best chance to do so. I don't know if my stomach could handle another Rams-Pats Super Bowl, though, because I know Mike Martz would decide to get cute again, just like he did two years ago when he giftwrapped the championship for Belichick and company.

One thing is for certain: this year's playoffs should see some nifty, nifty football.

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