Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
31 Dec 2005
by Michael David Smith
With half the playoff spots in the NFC up for grabs in Week 17, the NFL and FOX will call this the biggest weekend of the regular season. In reality, Week 17 is more like a weekend of exhibition games before the playoffs. History has repeatedly shown that teams still scrambling to make the playoffs aren't really title contenders, meaning any team that needs a win this weekend to get into the playoffs isn't good enough to get to the Super Bowl.
Since the NFL expanded the playoffs to 12 teams in 1990, no team that needed to win its last game to reach the postseason has made the Super Bowl. And while fans and the media will scrutinize every imaginable tiebreaker scenario, those scenarios are probably irrelevant to the question of who will win the championship. Only two of the 78 teams that have played in the 39 previous Super Bowls entered the playoffs on a tiebreaker.
So although the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina Panthers, Dallas Cowboys, and Washington Redskins will fight to make the playoffs this weekend, the real Super Bowl contenders from the NFC are the three teams that have already made the playoffs -- the New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks, and Chicago Bears.
The AFC race is even less interesting, with all four division winners and the top wild-card spot already determined. In the AFC, Cincinnati visits Kansas City on Sunday in a game that, at first glance, looks important: The Chiefs are fighting to earn a wild-card spot against the AFC North champion Bengals. But don't expect much of an effort out of the Bengals, whose goal will be to avoid injuries. And no matter what Kansas City does, the playoffs are probably out of reach: The Chiefs need to catch the Pittsburgh Steelers in the standings, which would require the 5-10 Detroit Lions to win at Pittsburgh.
Whether Kansas City or Pittsburgh nabs that sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC, the Steelers and Chiefs aren't battling for a chance to play in the Super Bowl -- they're battling for a chance to lose in the playoffs. The Steelers or the Chiefs would have to win three consecutive games, all on the road, to reach the Super Bowl. A likely scenario would be games at Cincinnati in the first round, at a well-rested Indianapolis in the second round, and at Denver in the AFC Championship. The Steelers and Chiefs are good enough to beat any of those teams on any given Sunday, but they're not good enough to beat all three of them on three straight Sundays.
Since the NFL added a sixth playoff team in each conference in 1990, the sixth seed has never gotten to the conference championship game, let alone the Super Bowl. And when the sixth seed loses, it usually loses a blowout: Sixth seeds have a record of 9-30, and those 30 losses have come by an average margin of 17 points.
The true Super Bowl contenders are the teams that have already clinched a playoff spot -- Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Denver, New England, Jacksonville, Seattle, Chicago, and the Giants. Teams that clinch this weekend are essentially playing for the right to lose to one of those teams.
If Week 17 is less important than most fans think at the bottom of the playoff race, it's utterly irrelevant at the top. The top two teams in each conference -- Indianapolis and Denver in the AFC, Seattle and Chicago in the NFC -- have secured their spots, meaning they'll treat the season finale like a preseason game and rest many of their top players. Only a few years ago, NFL teams wouldn't dream of treating a regular season game like an exhibition - the Broncos had sewn up home field advantage throughout the 1998 playoffs, but John Elway still played the entire game and threw 36 passes in the final week of the regular season.
But that was the end of an era. The next season, the St. Louis Rams clinched home-field advantage early, then rested their starters and lost the final game to the 4-11 Eagles. With all their starters healthy, the Rams won the Super Bowl. Since then, teams that have already locked up playoff spots have realized that the end of the regular season can go from meaningless to downright harmful if a key player is injured. Though some teams believe they need to win in Week 17 because they want to keep momentum going into the playoffs, the 1999 Rams showed that staying healthy is more important than having momentum.
During Week 17 last year, the strategy of resting starters in the final week of the season reached new levels. Six teams that knew their playoff positions were secure -- Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Atlanta -- either benched their top players completely or played them for only a few series.
Some commentators have suggested that eliminating the wild card and allowing only the four division champions into the playoffs would make the end of the regular season more exciting. (That argument was voiced in many circles when Major League Baseball expanded its playoffs in 1994. George W. Bush, then owner of the Texas Rangers, was the only baseball owner who voted against expanding the playoffs.) But there's too much network television money in those first round playoff games for the league to consider such a concept.
So the current playoff format is here to stay, even with Super Bowl contenders looking past Week 17 to the postseason. That makes the most important game this weekend the one between the two worst teams: The Houston Texans take on the San Francisco 49ers in a game that could determine which team gets the first pick in next year's draft. As fans in Dallas and Washington dream of the playoffs, fans in Houston and San Francisco dream of Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush.
by Aaron Schatz
When the NFL sets its schedule, there's no way to know which teams will still be in the hunt for a playoff spot come December. In the penultimate week of 2005, everything worked out for maximum drama, with multiple games pitting two teams on the postseason bubble against each other.
The final week of the season, however, will not be so dramatic. Only four playoff spots remain open, and four teams can get those spots simply by beating a non-playoff opponent. Only one game features two possible playoff teams, Cincinnati at Kansas City, but the Bengals are already AFC North champions and the game only matters to the Chiefs if Pittsburgh is upset by hapless Detroit.
Since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990, as noted above, no team which needed a win in the final week to make the postseason has even reached the Super Bowl. Still, hope springs eternal, and fans would rather see their favorite team in the playoffs than not in the playoffs.
Is there any reason to believe that one of these postseason bubble teams could possible blow its shot at the playoffs by falling to an inferior opponent? Here's a look, from the least likely upset to the most likely. Capsules may reference Football Outsiders' DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) system, which breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent.
Even if they lose, the Bucs can only miss the playoffs through a complicated series of wins and losses by other teams that would end in the NFL's convoluted "strength of victory" tiebreaker. And not only does DVOA rank New Orleans among the ten worst teams in every single facet of the game, but the Saints also want to lose. If Houston beats San Francisco, it creates a logjam of 3-13 teams that could also include the Saints, Jets, and/or Packers, leaving the top pick in the 2006 draft to be decided by strength of schedule. Though the final week could change things, right now this scenario would end up giving New Orleans the number one pick and the right to choose highly-touted USC running back Reggie Bush.
Sure, the Lions have five wins, but the best team they beat was Baltimore (6-9), and that was three months ago. The Lions have only one advantage over the Steelers: thanks to defensive tackles Shaun Rogers and Dan Wilkinson, they are the best team in the league preventing runs up the middle, which should limit Pittsburgh's ability to use Jerome Bettis. But that's fine with the Steelers, who will instead win by running Willie Parker to the outside, or passing the ball to Hines Ward and Heath Miller. Or perhaps the Steelers defense -- ranked second in DVOA behind Chicago -- will just harass Lions quarterback Joey Harrington into turnover after turnover.
The Giants are actually not on the playoff bubble. They've clinched at least a wild card, but a win would get them the NFC East title and bring the NFL playoffs to the Meadowlands for the first time since the Jets hosted Indianapolis in the 2002 wild card round.
Can Oakland exploit the Giants' weaknesses? Eli Manning is still inaccurate, and that can lead to interceptions -- except the Raiders have just five interceptions this year, last in the league. The generally strong Giants run defense is extremely susceptible to runs around left end, giving up 7.1 yards per carry, 31st in the league. Opponents are starting to take advantage: the Giants have faced more left end runs in their last three games (35) than they did in their first 12 games (33). But the Oakland running back will be Zach Crockett, usually a straight-ahead goal-line specialist, instead of injured starter LaMont Jordan.
That leaves Jay Feely's second-half case of the yips and the fact that Oakland has the hardest warm-weather stadium in the NFL for kicking field goals. From 2000-2004, visiting field goal kickers scored 11.5 points fewer than the league average from similar distances, only Green Bay and New England were harder places to kick. But Feely would have to get a planet-sized case of the yips and ten field goal chances to blow this game on his own.
This is the final game of the season, but Dallas only has a shot at the playoffs if Washington or Carolina loses. St. Louis has the league's most consistent offense because, while both the passing game and running game have been inconsistent, one has always been good when the other was bad. Since stopping the run has been Dallas' Achilles' heel for the entire season, the Rams have a chance to win if running back Steven Jackson is having one of his good days. They also need a few bounces of the ball to go their way, which could happen considering that Drew Bledsoe has been sacked 47 times, the fourth-highest total in the league, and sacks often lead to fumbles. Of course, the Rams have the same problems: their quarterbacks have been sacked 44 times and their offense has 21 fumbles, only two fewer than Dallas. And while the Dallas defense can't stop the run, the St. Louis defense can't stop anything.
Washington is in with a win; if the Giants lose, they could be division champions as well. Quarterback Mark Brunell is listed as probable with a sprained knee, and Washington's chances of being upset become much higher if he cannot play. Brunell's resurgence is a key reason behind Washington's winning record, and the drop to backup Patrick Ramsey is substantial. The Redskins will have a hard time depending on running back Clinton Portis to win this game, because while everything else has gone wrong for the Eagles this year, one asset remains: their run defense, ranked third in the league by DVOA. Of course, the Eagles still have to somehow score. Since Donovan McNabb's season ended with an injury seven weeks ago, the Eagles have the lowest offensive DVOA in the league, including less than four net yards per pass attempt.
If they lose, the Panthers still make the playoffs as long as Dallas or Washington loses as well. That's good news for them, because while the Falcons are a mediocre team, they are also a division rival playing at home with something to prove: that they they can post two straight winning seasons, something this franchise has never done. Atlanta's offense is built around the run, and while the Panthers have been a top run defense for most of the season, they were completely trampled by Dallas last week -- especially tackle Jordan Carstens, who was pushed five yards backwards by Dallas guard Larry Allen on nearly every play.
Atlanta will need to run the ball to keep their terrible defense off the field. Steve Smith, this year's most valuable wide receiver, is licking his chops at the prospect of facing an Atlanta secondary playing without its best cornerback, the injured DeAngelo Hall. But it will be tough for the Panthers, ranked 30th in run offense, to take advantage of the Falcons run defense, ranked last.
These articles appeared earlier this week in the New York Sun.
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