"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
17 Dec 2008
Note: An earlier version of this column was missing four games because of an editing slip-up. Our bad.
by Mike Tanier
Ho AND Ho AND [Ho OR (NOT Ho XOR Ho)].
'Tis the season for Boolean algebra.
George Boole was a 19th century mathematician. He was born in Lincolnshire, England, which at the time was called Conjunction Junction upon Avon, and he soon developed a fetish for tiny sentence fasteners. There were no ifs, ands, or buts about it for Boole: he loved ifs, ands, and ors to an unhealthy degree. He soon developed a symbolic logic system based on his favorite conjunctions, mixing math and grammar in sick, unhealthy ways.
Thanks to Boole, millions of aspiring mathematicians and programmers must learn "truth tables," elaborate daisy chains of conjunction-linked statements whose truth or falsehood mimic the on-off circuitry of a computer. In Boole's world, TRUE AND FALSE is false, TRUE OR FALSE is true, and FALSE AND FALSE represents everything said in the typical pregame show. Boole was both a nerd and a psychic, so he knew that a century later his work would have two applications: search engines and NFL playoff tiebreaker scenarios.
Without Boole, we would be unable to keep up with important current events by web searching for (Taylor AND Swift AND Joe AND Jonas) NOT (Camilla AND Belle) (don't judge me). And without Boole, we would have no way of knowing what teams must do to reach the playoffs.
Boolean algebra usually hums quietly away in Google programs until this time of year, when it finds its way onto the sports page. Here's the Colts' tiebreaker scenario, spelled out in all of its 19th century mathematical goodness:
The Colts can clinch a playoff spot with: (a win) OR (a tie AND a New England loss OR tie) or (a tie AND a Baltimore loss OR tie) OR (a tie AND losses OR ties by (Miami AND New York)) OR (a Baltimore loss AND (a Miami loss OR tie) OR (losses by Baltimore AND New England)) OR (a Baltimore loss AND a New York loss OR tie) OR (a New England loss AND a Miami loss OR tie) OR (a New England loss AND a New York loss OR tie) OR ((Miami AND New York losses) AND (Indianapolis clinches strength of victory tiebreaker over New York))
Every programmer knows that if one of the parentheses is missing, the whole system crashes. What's more, one misplaced conjunction can render all of the logic illogical. There's probably a glitch in the scenario above: if the Jets and Dolphins tie, the Colts lose two straight, the Texans beat the Bears and the Bengals beat the Browns, Wake Forest wins the Super Bowl. Usually, you don't spot the glitch until you've turned in the assignment or shipped the software.
Tiebreaker scenarios give writers fits. It's impossible to keep them all straight. That's why most of us use simple, general terms: the Colts "control their destiny" (how metaphysical), while the Eagles "need help" (more utilitarian). Wade into the violent riptide of the scenarios themselves, and you risk getting emails like this:
You idiot! You claimed the Colts could make the playoffs if the Jets tied, the Patriots lost, the Ravens tied, and the Dolphins scored over 70 points in their final victory. According to tiebreaker scenario #19, that's clearly not the case. You know nothing about football, nor discrete math for that matter!
I do know quite a bit about both subjects, but I also know what I don't know. When the scenarios become too complex, my only hope is to enlist the help of a 19th century mathematician. Or an elf.
Hermey the Elf has been many things: tenor in the elf chorus, dentist, misfit, confidante to illuminated reindeer. He worked at Football Outsiders for three years before moving on to a higher-paying site (curse you, Florio!) He still keeps in touch, and he sat down over eggnog to help me make sense of the playoff picture.
"Do you have any idea how much havoc the AFC West has caused this year?" Hermey asked, his gray-blonde hair dangling from the bottom of his pointy green hat. The three NFC South contenders are 9-2 against one of the weakest divisions in NFL history; when the Bucs face the Raiders in Week 17, that number will climb to 10-2. The AFC East contenders are 7-4 against the West Coast Patsies. "Those wins throw everything out of balance. Plus, the Broncos can't even clinch the division. We're talking about teams going 11-5 and still needing help, but the Chargers could still get in at 8-8."
The AFC East teams got a double-dose of western hospitality: they faced both the AFC West and the NFC West, where only the Cardinals put up much of a fight. "The Colts and Ravens hold most of the Wild Card tiebreakers against the AFC East teams, as it should be," he said. "The Ravens and Colts are better teams." The Jets are one team that has Hermey scratching his head. "They somehow went 1-3 against the AFC West. They lost to the Niners. By all rights, they should be out of the loop, but they did such a great job in the division that they have tiebreaker advantages over the Patriots."
In the NFC, Hermey believes that the Eagles are a better team than the Bucs or Falcons, but he's happy that they tied the Bengals. "That tie makes my job easier," he said. "Imagine if the Eagles were also 9-5. Oy vey! The Wild Card picture would be impossible to untangle." What's more, the Eagles-Bengals game serves as a reminder that ties must be mentioned in all postseason scenarios. "Jets and Dolphins fans will definitely check to see what happens in case of a Week 17 tie this year," he said. "In the past, I would include ties in my breakdowns, only to have some sumbitch editor chop them out because they were wordy and confusing. That won't happen now."
It's a long way from the North Pole to Hermey's cramped office in the Lower East Side. He knocked around a lot after leaving Santa's workshop. "It's tough being an independent elf," he explained. "Me, Legolas, and Doug Flutie kept in touch early on, but we drifted apart over the years." Hermey's dental career fizzled out after a well-publicized nitrous oxide scandal. He hit rock bottom when life partner Yukon Cornelius lost a fortune in the dot-com bust. "Football was my salvation," he said. "I poured all of my natural elfin OCD tendencies into figuring out playoff scenarios." He's hoping to land a job on a studio show next year, but the networks stonewalled him in the past for "making Mike Tirico look short."
Hermey spends hours in his workshop poring over playoff scenarios, but he advises sportswriters and fans to let the details slide. "Nearly every team has to win, and nearly every team needs help," he explained. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that you want your team to win and every team with the same record to lose, and that covers 99 percent of the possibilities." The tiebreakers are ephemeral knowledge, important for a week and meaningless the next. "Leave the scenarios to the elves. Good writers and good fans should concentrate on the teams that have clinched, and they should focus on what those teams will do once the playoffs start."
Good advice, especially since the two playoff frontrunners have short circuited in recent weeks.
Steelers at Titans: If you think the Albert Haynesworth injury won't affect the Titans, then you haven't been hanging around their locker room. "Anytime he's not in there, it's definitely a problem," safety Chris Hope said on Monday, before Haynesworth's status was certain (he will miss the rest of the regular season). "We definitely need that guy in the trenches for us," added David Thornton.
There's a simple reason for all the worry. Haynesworth missed three games in the middle of last season. Opponents rushed for 166, 166, and 148 yards in those games. The Titans hadn't allowed a 100-yard rushing game all season before Haynesworth got injured. They mustered just one sack in each of the three games Haynesworth missed. He's one of the most valuable players in the NFL, and the Titans won't be able to replace him, especially since end Kyle Vanden Bosch has also been shelved for the season.
The Titans defense is slipping, but the Steelers are on the final leg of Piledriver Tour 2008. They haven't allowed over 13 points in a game since they faced the Colts on November 9th. The Steelers offense is nothing special, and the Haynesworth-led Titans could have fought them to a stalemate. Without Haynesworth, the Steelers will be able to run a balanced offense, and they won't need as many six-and-seven man protection schemes. The Titans defense will still be pretty good, but the Steelers should score 20 points. The Titans, like the Cowboys, Ravens, and Patriots, will be lucky to score 13.
You don't need Hermey to tell you that the STEELERS can clinch home field advantage by winning out. That's a nightmare, not just for the Titans, but for the whole AFC.
Panthers at Giants: The Panthers may be this year's version of the 2007 Giants. They have a veteran coach who began the season on the hot seat, a multi-faceted rushing attack, and an impressive-though-unheralded offensive line. Their schedule had some soft spots, and many analysts (like me) thought they would fade after their midseason Raiders-Lions feast (remember that the Giants fattened up on the Falcons, Niners, and Dolphins in one three-week stretch last year). For most of the year, the Panthers didn't even look like the best team in their division. But they are getting better just as the playoffs arrive, and they have a chance to make a late-season statement against an excellent team that suddenly looks vulnerable. All we need now is a three-network simulcast of this game, and it's déjà vu all over again.
The Panthers are in a unique position: they could clinch homefield advantage if they win out, but they could also get swept out of the playoffs with two losses and a long list of Bucs, Falcons, and Cowboys victories. That's the "AFC West Effect" we spoke about earlier: the Panthers are 4-0 against those cupcakes, but they couldn't separate from Bucs and Falcons teams on the same pastry line.
Snack time is over for the Panthers, but they do get to face a Giants team suddenly against the ropes. Brandon Jacobs appears unlikely to return for Sunday, and there was no news about right tackle Kareem McKenzie's injured back when we went to press. The Giants, as is the tradition, refuse to blame injuries for their two-game offensive brownout. "When there are plays there to be made, that is where we have to step up and make those plays," Eli Manning said, glossing over the fact that Jacobs, Plaxico Burress, and McKenzie were more likely to make plays than Derrick Ward, Domenik Hixon, or Kevin Boothe.
Without three top offensive players and facing two great defenses, the Giants gained just 218 and 211 total yards from scrimmage. They cannot expect to score 35 points per game like they did in midseason, but they can still reach the Super Bowl if the Giants can crank out 300-350 yards of offense and put up 21 points. They need a new approach, and they need it soon.
The pick: take the GIANTS if McKenzie starts, the PANTHERS if he doesn't. If Jacobs returns, it's a big bonus, but offensive line health is the real key to the Giants success.
Ravens at Cowboys:
The Storyline: The Cowboys are on a roll, having won one in a row. The Ravens are sputtering, having lost one straight game. Pretty soon, the experts are going to start breaking momentum down by quarters.
Phenomenal Football: Are the Cowboys playing great football right now? That seems to be the pundit consensus, despite evidence to the contrary. Their offense isn't playing well and the team's interpersonal problems have only been spackled over. The Cowboys defense has been excellent for two straight weeks, but they are facing the top two teams in DVOA over the next two weeks. Even if you think the Eagles are DVOA divas, it's too soon to start making playoff plans in Dallas. The Ravens are where the Cowboys were last week: they are coming off a hard-fought, last-second loss to the Steelers. They are built to play max-protect football, so don't expect them to wilt at the sight of DeMarcus Ware.
Hermey Says: "The Cowboys rank below the Buccaneers but above the Falcons and Eagles in most scenarios. A win here, coupled with an Eagles loss and a Falcons win, would put them in the postseason. My wiggling ears tell me that the Week 17 Eagles-Cowboys matchup will be far from meaningless. The Ravens are in good shape against the AFC East Wild Card hopefuls. They can lose and still make the playoffs, but they better not try."
Cardinals at Patriots:
The Storyline: The Cardinals are like that kid who got voted into the homecoming court as a gag. You know how it goes: all the popular kids decide to get together and pick Poindexter Aviclub, just to cheese off the establishment. The Cardinals are haltingly sidling toward January, losing to every legitimate contender along the way. Forget backing into the postseason; they're tunneling in.
Who we thought they were: Back in Week 2, I outlined how the Patriots could finish 10-6 without Tom Brady. That mission is all-but-accomplished; unfortunately for the Patriots, I didn't think the Jets and Dolphins would linger in the postseason picture through December. We may look back on the Week 4 Wildcat game as some kind of turning point: it marked the real beginning of the Bill Parcells-Tony Sparano era, and it may yet mark the end of the Patriots reign. As for the Cardinals, they are this year's Seahawks: the pretty-good team who wins the no-good NFC West. Like the Seahawks in a typical year, they could make some noise if they can find even a small semblance of a running game.
Hermey Says: "The Patriots will be eliminated from the AFC East picture if the Jets beat the Seahawks and the Dolphins beat the Chiefs on Sunday. A win keeps them Wild Card eligible, but the Colts and Ravens have tiebreaker advantages. Dolphins-Jets may be the biggest game on the schedule in Week 17. Even that conformist prig Santa couldn't have predicted that."
Chargers at Buccaneers:
The Storyline: There's a thin branch clinging to the side of a cliff wall. From that branch hangs some string. Tied to one thread of that string is a strand of over-boiled linguini. Dangling from that linguini are the Chargers' playoff chances.
December coping: The Bucs defense has allowed a staggering 477 rushing yards in the last two weeks, and the offense is also showing signs of strain. Jeff Garcia's expected return should help: the Bucs need Garcia's ball-spraying style to compensate for their lack of firepower.
Hermey Says: "The Bucs clinch a playoff berth if they win out. If the Bucs, Falcons, and Cowboys all finish 11-5, the Bucs would win a Wild Card slot by virtue of the fifth or sixth tiebreakers: strength of victory or strength of schedule. It takes elfin magic to understand all the scenarios, so just take my word for it."
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COACH: Throw in an interception on the final drive, and you have a deal.
At the start of the season, the Packers, Panthers, and Seahawks all looked like contenders. The Redskins weren't in the same class, but they turned some heads with a 6-2 start. Now, all three teams are out of the playoffs and sorting through the rubble of disappointing seasons. Here's a look at what went wrong.
Team: Seattle Seahawks
First Sign of Trouble: The front office leaked news of Mike Holmgren's retirement early in the offseason, then appointed Jim Mora the Less as Holmgren's heir. The leak revealed a communication rift between Holmgren and GM Tim Ruskell, and the rift widened when Ruskell made personnel decisions that were tailored to Mora's needs, not Holmgren's (Iron Mike had little interest in T.J. Duckett, for example). In August, the Seahawks suffered a rash of wide receiver injuries; they entered Week One with Nate Burleson and a bunch of guys named Courtney Taylor and Logan Payne at the position. Matt Hasselbeck was 17-of-41 throwing to this group of strangers, and the Bills routed the Seahawks in the opener.
Things Fall Apart: The Seahawks were 1-2 and much healthier at wide receiver after their bye week, but the Giants rushed for 254 yards against them in a 44-6 blowout. Charlie Frye started the following week, and tomfoolery ensued.
Offseason Agenda: Mora will hire a new offensive coordinator (Gregg Knapp is the obvious choice), and the Seahawks need a new offensive identity. The early-generation West Coast system Holmgren runs has grown stale. Mora's secondary was responsible for many of the team's problems this season, and he'll have to mold the defense into a more fundamentally-sound unit. There's enough talent on this roster for a quick resurgence, so Ruskell's decision to smooth the transfer of power may pay dividends in 2009.
Pick: The JETS have trouble with non-divisional opponents, but they need this game too badly to trip up.
Team: Green Bay Packers.
First Sign of Trouble: The Cowboys rushed for 219 yards against the Packers in Week 3. The Bucs followed that with a 178-yard rushing effort. The Packers kept the Bucs game close, but they lost when Aaron Rodgers got hurt and rookie Matt Flynn proved unprepared to take the reins. Run-oriented opponents like the Falcons and Titans saw a weakness and attacked, and the Flynn fiasco proved how little depth the Packers possessed at key positions.
Things Fall Apart: The Saints' 30-point scoring spree in the second half of a Monday night game sucked all the air out of the Packers' season. Since then, the team's ability to lose close games in unusual ways has reached comic proportions. The offense plays well, but the defense suffers critical lapses that yield huge plays.
Offseason Agenda: 1) Acquire a backup quarterback. 2) Bolster the run defense by getting deeper on the line. A good young cornerback and a decent safety would also help the cause. The Packers have a well-defined punch list that will get them back to the top, and they shouldn't take this season as a total loss. They found a quarterback.
Pick: It's impossible to pick the PACKERS to win anymore, but they usually lose by three or four points, they are likely to cover a four-point spread.
Team: Jacksonville Jaguars
First Sign of Trouble: Injuries to guards Maurice Williams and Vince Manuwai in the season opener forced the Jaguars to rethink their run-first philosophy. The Jaguars running game improved after they made some adjustments, but the team was still susceptible to offensive glitches, as in their 21-19 loss to the Bengals.
Things Fall Apart: The Vikings took a 14-0 lead in the first quarter in Week 12 and played keepaway for the rest of the game, proving that the station-to-station Jaguars offense had no comeback capability. Meanwhile, the Mike Peterson-and-iPods controversy revealed that Jack Del Rio wasn't in full control of the locker room.
Offseason Agenda: Del Rio will be under pressure to prove that Mike Smith wasn't the brains behind the team's 2007 success. Del Rio and his staff must prepare for life in a world without Fred Taylor, and they need to inject some quick-strike capability into both the offense and defense. David Garrard still needs more weapons in the passing game, and defenders like Derrick Harvey must take a big leap forward.
Team: Washington Redskins
First Sign of Trouble: The team's 6-2 start was built from a series of close wins, some of them against weak opponents like the Browns. Dan Snyder smelled a playoff push and started signing big-name no-talents like Shaun Alexander and DeAngelo Hall. Meanwhile, Jim Zorn quietly scaled back an offense that he never fully implemented. The Redskins scored a total of 16 points in losses to the Steelers and Cowboys, demonstrating that Zorn had run out of ways to get the ball to an injured Clinton Portis.
Things Fall Apart: Portis complained about his role in the offense before facing the Bengals last week. Zorn responded by calling a pass and two Mike Sellers runs from the one-yard line. Sellers fumbled the second carry, the Bengals held on to win, and Zorn lost credibility in his locker room and with the fickle Beltway media.
Offseason Agenda: The Redskins are doomed to repeat their mistakes as long as Snyder keeps playing fantasy football with the roster and mix-'n'-match with the coaching staff. The Zorn-Bugel Frankenstein offense must be scrapped in favor of a uniform system that can be implemented properly. Zorn deserves another year to sort things out, but there are rumors that the impetuous Snyder is done with Plan Z and ready to move to a new alphabet.
Pick: The DVOA Divas are playing so well right now that they can even overcome their own end zone idiocy. Take the EAGLES.
Bills at Broncos: C'mon, Broncos. It's closing time. The barfly's been drinking nothing but tequila shooters all night. You are both consenting adults. You should have asked her back to your place a long time ago. But no: you are still bumbling around with small talk. ("I think House has gotten repetitive, don't you?") Your playoff appearance is going to be a one-night stand, so all of this buildup is ridiculous. Just close the deal. BRONCOS.
Bengals at Browns: These teams only play well against the NFC East. The Bengals beat the Redskins, tied the Eagles, and played the Giants and Cowboys tough. The Browns beat the Giants and took the Redskins to the wall. Romeo Crennel and Marv Lewis would make great chairmen for a realignment committee if it weren't for that inconvenient "unemployed as of December 28" detail.
Texans at Raiders: The Texans began the season with four straight losses, then won three straight games, then lost four straight. They are now on a four-game winning streak, and they will make it five as long as no one toggles the lever back from "manic" to "depressive." The TEXANS are like the ex-girlfriend you could only dump with the help of three court injunctions and a locksmith.
Niners at Rams: The Niners have only allowed 41 points in the last three games. Mike Singletary doesn't seem so crazy now, does he? Wait, he's still nuttier than a cheese log. The NINERS beat the Rams 25-16 in Week 11 and have gotten slightly better in the ensuing weeks. The Rams are boring through rock bottom with a diamond-tipped drill; the only thing that can stop their decline is the end of the season.
Due to a cut-n-paste error, I omitted several games when Walkthrough was posted. I apologize to anyone who thought that I purposely left of their favorite team. I don’t hate your favorite team, and I don’t hate you. Sadly, the original write-ups are lost, but here are a few quick picks:
Falcons at Vikings: The Vikings defensive line is depleted (by injuries, not suspensions), so they’ll give up a lot of yards. I like Tarvaris Jackson more than most of the FO staff (which is different from saying I like him), but last week’s effort was a mirage, and the Vikings don’t have enough offense to compete on Sunday. FALCONS
Texans at Raiders: If you think the Texans could have won the NFC or AFC West, raise your hand. You can put your hand down, Norv. TEXANS
Dolphins vs. Chiefs: With Carl Petersen ready to step down, maybe Bill Parcells should walk across the field, make a few changes, and turn the Chiefs into contenders. And while he’s spinning straw into gold, maybe Parcells should whip up an economic stimulus package and an auto industry bailout. DOLPHINS
Saints at Lions: I’m completely out of Lions jokes. That’s saying something. SAINTS
Don't forget to catch Aaron Schatz and I at Chickies and Pete's in South Philly on Thursday Night. I'll be hanging out with Bob Cratchit and Wally Pipp next week, enjoying our one day off per year, but a fellow named Bill Barnwell is writing Walkthrough, and he considers himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. See you in two weeks. I think...
46 comments, Last at 19 Dec 2008, 10:27am by Kaveman