Monday, January 01, 2007

We'll always have the Sabres....

So the NFL regular season ended yesterday, and with it, the entire season for the Buffalo Bills, making it seven years in a row without the Bills going to the playoffs. This is, of course, no surprise to me, as I knew going in that this was going to be another rebuilding year. But this year leaves me feeling better about the rebuilding process that's underway here.

The Bills went 7-9, which is one game better than the 6-10 record I predicted back in September. In itself, that's pretty good news; the season unfolded pretty much as I hoped it would. JP Losman showed improvement -- not steady improvement, but improvement nonetheless; he developed poise in the pocket and cut down significantly on the bad decisions he was making with regularity early in the year (and quite a lot last season, when he got to play). Losman took every single snap under center for the Bills this year, showing durability behind one of the league's below-average offensive lines. His final numbers for this year were respectable for a guy in his first full year as an NFL starting quarterback (62.5% completion rate, 3051 yards, 19 TDs, 14 INTs, 84.9 rating). Next year, with a better line in front of him and a year of experience, he should get even better. (If he falters next year, then that's when to dump him, in my opinion. But he seems like a competitive enough athlete that he won't falter. I hope.)

As regular readers know, my long-standing complaint about the Bills is their stoutness at the line of scrimmage, and that hasn't changed. Adding some heft to the defensive line and some better blocking to the offensive line has to be the priority for GM Marv Levy this year. Now, some of what's happened may be beyond his control -- i.e., maybe if rookie John McCargo doesn't break his leg, he develops into a prime run-stuffer -- but the defense still tends to get overrun by larger, more physical lines.

The big free agent name for the Bills is cornerback Nate Clements, who actually had a pretty good year. He's going to get lots of money from somebody this offseason. I just hope it's not the Bills. Clements is good, but I don't think he's good enough to tie up the kind of money that the Bills would be better served using to address other needs, and Clements frankly seems like a guy whose motivation for playing at a high level may well drop a bit once he gets that big contract. In short, I expect Clements to join the rest of the league's underachievers on the Redskins roster.

Willis McGahee isn't a free agent this year, but he will be after next year, so this will be the season when he starts pouting about his money and potentially threatens a holdout. Frankly, his results this year don't help his case. In a league where 1000 yards is no longer the mark of an elite running back, McGahee failed to even make that mark. No, he wasn't running behind a good line, but the line wasn't the disaster it's been in recent years either. McGahee only averaged 3.8 yards per carry this year, and most disappointingly, last week he let the guy he pushed out of Buffalo, Tennessee's Travis Henry, to show him up on his own home field. Ouch. I'm not against re-signing McGahee, but there's no way he deserves a massive contract extension at this point, and if he gets belligerent to the point of demanding a trade, I'd be fine with sending him to some NFC team that needs a back. I'd rather see Anthony Thomas running behind an improved line than see McGahee stick around to underachieve behind a "meh" line.

Anyway, the Bills played well this year. Seven wins, with six of their nine losses being by three points or less, and they were only really blown out in one game (Chicago). The low point was obviously their loss to woeful Detroit the week after the Bears killed them, but other than that, they were competitive in every game, frequently giving the opposition fits if not winning outright. I've often thought that the sign that a rebuilding process is working the way it should is when you become the losing team that nobody wants to play. This year, the Bills were the team nobody wanted to play. That bodes well for the future, I think.

:: As for the rest of the league, it turns out that my predictions this year were...faulty. I mean, really faulty. I pretty much blew it when picking winners this year. Here are my preseason playoff picks, with the actual winners in parentheses afterwards:

AFC East: New England (New England)
AFC North: Pittsburgh (Baltimore)
AFC South: Jacksonville (Indianapolis)
AFC West: Denver (San Diego)
AFC Wildcards: Indianapolis, Cincinnati (NY Jets, Kansas City)

NFC East: Dallas (Philadelphia)
NFC North: Minnesota (Chicago)
NFC South: Carolina (New Orleans)
NFC West: Seattle (Seattle)
NFC Wildcards: Philadelphia, Tampa Bay (Dallas, NY Giants)

Five of the teams I picked to make the playoffs actually got in, and both of the teams I picked to get to the Super Bowl (Carolina and Jacksonville) missed the playoffs with identical 8-8 records. Ick. Of course, it's hard making predictions in the first place. Mostly they're based on what teams did the year before, and the danger there is that you can't predict things like injuries and which players will suddenly explode onto the scene and which players that exploded onto the scene last year are actually going to play at that level consistently versus the guys who just had career years.

So, I guess I can make a new Super Bowl prediction then, right? Sure! First of all, let's rule out the Chargers and the Bears both getting there. Here are the results of all AFC and NFC top seeds going back to 1990 (Super Bowl champions in bold, wildcard teams in italics):

YearAFC Top SeedAFC ChampionNFC Top SeedNFC Champion
1992PittsburghBuffaloSan FranciscoDallas
1994PittsburghSan DiegoSan FranciscoSan Francisco
1995Kansas CityPittsburghDallasDallas
1996DenverNew EnglandGreen BayGreen Bay
1997Kansas CityDenverSan FranciscoGreen Bay
1999 JacksonvilleTennesseeSt. LouisSt. Louis
2001PittsburghNew EnglandSt. LouisSt. Louis
2002OaklandOaklandPhiladelphiaTampa Bay
2003New EnglandNew EnglandPhiladelphiaCarolina
2004Pittsburgh New EnglandPhiladelphiaPhiladelphia

So what does this tell us? Well, for one thing, that over the last sixteen years, AFC top seeds are only 5-11 at converting home-field advantage into a Super Bowl appearance, while NFC top seeds are 10-6 in that same span. Also, the last time both top seeds made it through to the Super Bowl was in 1993, when the Bills and Cowboys met for the second consecutive year. Note, also, that in that span, the AFC has had five wildcard teams make the Super Bowl, with three of those winning it; the NFC has never been won by a wildcard team.

So, if one of the top seeds is more likely to make the Super Bowl, it's probably the Bears, who will have to beat two crappy NFC teams to do it. As for the Chargers, they're great and all, but I expect Philip Rivers's lack of playoff experience to bite them. Based on what I saw yesterday in the Bills' finale, I think that the AFC right now is Baltimore's to lose. That defense of theirs is amazing, they already beat the Chargers once, and Steve McNair has playoff experience where Rivers does not.

Right now, it's looking to me like the Ravens and the Bears in the Super Bowl, with the Ravens probably winning it. But I've been stunningly wrong before, so for all I know, this year could see Kansas City and the Giants going at it.

Just as long as the StuPats lose soon, I'm happy.


Anonymous said...

Okay, I will play along. I agree that Rivers is too inexperience, but I think that SD is too strong everywhere else so that inexperience will be compensated for. Plus, they play at home!

In the NFC, I think Philadelphia is playing the best ball right now. I think if McNabb hadn't gotten hurt, they would have been a favorite. Garcia has proven that he can run this offense the way he ran SF's offense when he went to the Pro Bowl. It is basically the same, west coast offense. With the Bears having QB problems and the defense has been not as strong as it once was, I believe it will be S.D vs. Philly in the Super Bowl.

Kelly Sedinger said...

Well, consider the AFC coaching matchups: Brian Bilick, who has a ring already, versus Marty Schottenheimer, who always seems to come up short. And in the playoffs, great defense always seems to trump great offense, and I have a feeling that a well-rested Baltimore D would give Rivers fits. The SD scenario looks a lot to me like the Steelers scenario from two years ago.

Philly has been playing awfully well of late, and I bet that there's no single player who has more to prove this postseason than Jeff Garcia, who was very good in SF, but has been given up for dead everywhere else he's been until now. Philly's certainly intriguing.