It was time for another visit to the ESPN Playoff Machine this morning, to see how the NFL playoff picture would shake out after you play out each game in the final three weeks. As was the case in last week’s projections, I used a conservative approach, deferring to home teams except when the road team seemed clearly superior.
This methodology creates some debatable results, ones that even I’m not entirely comfortable with. The two most prominent examples this week are the following…
*The way the Minnesota Vikings are playing right now, they look like a tough out at home. The Vikes have beaten Chicago on their homefield and when Minnesota went on the road to Baltimore it took a wild, heartbreaking ending to beat them.
Based on this, it is not unreasonable to look at their home games with Detroit and Philadelphia and pick the Vikings. I’m a little skeptical that Minnesota would win both of these games, but I feel like I’d mess with the projections far worse by trying to guess which one it would be, rather than just giving the home team the benefit of the doubt.
*With the season-ending injury to Rob Gronkowski, I can’t give the New England Patriots the benefit of the doubt in road games against mid-level playoff contenders, the way I did last week. Consequently, the Patriots are projected to lose road games at Miami and at Baltimore.
Here again, I feel like each pick individually is logical, but I’d consider it a good bet that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady find a way to pick off one of those wins. Based on how the rest of the projections fell, that’s the difference between a 2-seed and first-round bye, or a 3-seed and the long road to New York City for the Super Bowl.
But as with Minnesota, I felt it safer just to pick New England to lose both, rather than try and mix and match and figure out which road game they’d steal, thus creating ripple effects throughout the bracket.
What this methodology does do is shed light on which teams have the most favorable path. For example, last week, the projections showed the Pittsburgh Steelers holding serve at home and making the playoffs at 8-8. Even though the Steelers failed in this task last Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, the projections showed that Pittsburgh had blown a much stronger playoff position than their record may have indicated.
In this case, the projections tell us to keep an eye on those games Minnesota will play at home and New England will play on the road. They stand to be, to borrow a political analogy, the key battleground states that will settle playoff qualification and seeding on both sides of the bracket.
CURRENT NFL PLAYOFF PROJECTIONS
(6) San Francisco at (3) Dallas
(5)Carolina at (4) Detroit
BYES: (1) Seattle (2) New Orleans
(6)Miami at (3) New England
(5)Kansas City at (4) Indianapolis
BYES: (1) Denver (2) Cincinnati
There’s some debate going on regarding the San Francisco 49ers’ wild 41-34 win over the New England Patriots on Sunday night, with the argument being whether it means more that the Niners got a win in Foxboro, or that they blew a 31-3 lead in the process and allowed the Patriots to the tie the game. To borrow a phrase from Skip Bayless on ESPN’s First Take, “Are you kidding me?!” The San Francisco win significantly altered the playoff bracket in both conferences and might well be the determining factor in who reaches the Super Bowl—on both sides. So what if they blew a lead?
San Francisco did what most defenses have failed to do against New England this year and it’s that they shut down running back Stevan Ridley early and built up the lead. Tom Brady led a furious rally because that’s what Brady does, but when the Patriots have to throw the ball 65 times, they aren’t going to win, and for the Niners, the win was a nice vindication of Jim Harbaugh’s decision to go with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback over Alex Smith.
If you want to talk about what this win means as far as predicting a potential rematch in the Super Bowl, I’m skeptical about pulling too many conclusions. Every game is unique unto itself and certainly a rematch in New Orleans on two weeks’ rest would have an entirely different dynamic than a cold and rainy Sunday night in Foxboro. And frankly, why speculate about long-term implications when the short-term implications are so dramatic.
San Francisco’s win all but clinches the NFC West. Even if they lose at Seattle this coming Sunday night, the Niners would still hold first place and have the cushion of a Week 17 game against Arizona to lock it up. I’d been projecting Seattle to close strong and win this division. The Seahawks are still coming on strong and look like the best team in the NFC, but as I wrote last week, this is a team that would have a big threat out of the #2 seed. Not so much out of the 5-seed, where they would have to win three straight on the road. The Niners’ win in Foxboro might have knocked the Seahawks out of the Super Bowl.
The results from Sunday night also kept San Francisco in the lead for the #2 seed in the NFC, a race where Green Bay is in hot pursuit, only a half-game back. The Packers are a good news/bad news team. The offensive line problems and kicking game incompetence make it tough to believe they could win three games in succession. But give them a week off and a home game, then possibly a NFC Championship trip to Atlanta, a team they match up well against? The latter is a path Green Bay could navigate and the Frisco win reduced the Packers’ chances of making it to New Orleans.
Now let’s go over to the AFC. New England controlled its fate for the two-seed and a first-round bye, with only games against Jacksonville and Miami ahead of them, the latter at home. And if Houston just lost at Indianapolis in Week 17, the Patriots were poised to move to the top spot. Instead, the loss knocks them down into the #3 spot behind Denver, and with the Broncos playing home games with Cleveland and Kansas City, that isn’t going to change.
The Patriots are the kind of team that can come out of the first round and go the distance. But the problem here is that so are the Broncos. Brady & Peyton are on a collision course for a matchup in the second round, and the difference in the seeding is a week off—a significant issue for veteran teams—then playing at home. And while neither team would likely lose in the first round of the playoffs, you still have to give about 30-35 percent chance that an upset could occur.
Finally, let’s come to Houston. The Patriot loss all but secures the 1-seed for Houston—they do have to win one more game, but because they own the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Broncos, the Texans now have room to lose either this coming Sunday at home to Minnesota or in the finale at Indy. I suppose it’s not unthinkable they could lose both of these games, but I’d hardly call it likely. Houston will now avoid having to play both New England & Denver on its road through the AFC playoffs.
So to sum it all up—the result of Sunday night’s game had a significant impact on the Super Bowl hopes of sixteams—the two involved, along with Seattle, Green Bay, Houston and Denver. Yes, I think that’s more important than whether the Niners blew a lead in the process of winning.
Here’s how TheSportsNotebook’s NFL playoff projections are sitting right now. There’s one part that I feel requires some explanation, but I feel stupid even putting it down and that’s Pittsburgh to win the AFC North. I’ve got the Steelers beating the Bengals at home this week, while the Ravens lose to the Giants. Even though that game is in Baltimore and my recent projections have had Baltimore winning it, I was much more alarmed with Baltimore’s play last week than New York.
The Ravens seem to be a team in an irreversible free-fall, while New York just played a clunker of a game. Altering my pick on that game, and also pegging Cincy to beat Baltimore at home, opens the door for Pittsburgh to win over Cleveland in Week 17 and they would win the division under that scenario. I know the Steelers have done nothing to merit such confidence, but has anyone else in this division? Picking a New York win also bounces Chicago from the playoffs, and likely bounces Lovie Smith from a job. Still, keep in mind the Bears only have Arizona & Detroit ahead of them and one slip-up by New York lets them back into the postseason.
NFC EAST: Washington NFC NORTH: Green Bay NFC SOUTH: Atlanta NFC WEST: San Francisco Wild-Cards: Seattle, NY Giants Byes: Atlanta (1), San Francisco (2) 1st Round Matchups: (6)NY Giants at (3)Green Bay, (5)Seattle at (4)Washington
AFC EAST: New England AFC NORTH: Pittsburgh AFC SOUTH: Houston AFC WEST: Denver Wild-Cards: Indianapolis, Baltimore Byes: Houston (1), Denver (2) 1st Round Matchups: (6)Baltimore at (3)New England, (5)Indianapolis at (4)Pittsburgh
If these exit polling numbers hold, I’d pick Denver to win the AFC title and probably lean Atlanta in the NFC. Combined with my preseason choices of Green Bay & Houston, that would keep me covered from every angle.
The fans of the New England Patriots, and most independent observers are sounding alarm bells about the team’s 2012 chances. Tom Brady says that maybe they’ve spoiled everyone, that there’s this much consternation about the team’s long-term Super Bowl hopes. Who’s right? Or is the truth somewhere in between. Let’s break down the Patriots’ seven games thus far and see what stands out, and then assess their road ahead.
Week 1: won at Tennessee 34-13: It was a dominating performance, with a new-look running game being shown off as Stevan Ridley ran for 162 yards and the defense shut down Titan running back Chris Johnson. The latter had to be taken with a grain of salt though, as Johnson struggled against everyone for the first few weeks.
Week 2: lost to Arizona 20-18: This was part of a 4-0 start for Arizona, so the loss per se doesn’t look as bad then as it did now. Brady threw the ball well (28/46 for 316 yards), Ridley was reasonably effective running the ball and the defense prevented the now-injured Cardinal running back Beanie Wells from getting anything going.
But all was wiped out by a complete failure on the part of the offensive line—Brady was sacked seven times and hit six more. While New England missed a field goal at the end that could have won it, it was a fluke they had the chance—Arizona had fumbled while running out the clock.
Week 3: lost at Baltimore 31-30: The defense blew leads of 13-0 early and 30-21 late, setting the tone for what would be the most oft-criticized feature of this team in recent weeks. Brady carved up the Raven’ secondary, getting the ball outside to Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker with frequency. But he didn’t get the run support on this night. Joe Flacco did—the strong showing by the Baltimore quarterback was supplemented by a 101-yard night from running back Ray Rice.
This game is remembered as being the penultimate straw for the replacement refs (Green Bay-Seattle one night later finished the job), but it should also be remembered the New England defense really did nothing right, especially late in the game. The defensive pass rush—or lack thereof—was too much to overcome.
Week 4: won at Buffalo 52-28: Not only did Ridley run over the Buffalo defense for 106 yards, but another quick little running back out of the SEC named Brandon Bolden got in the mix, going for 137 (Bolden is from Ole Miss, Ridley from LSU). New England piled up 247 yards on the ground and on defense they intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick three times. This was also the first big game for tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had 104 yards receiving and the offensive line gave Brady solid protection.
Week 5: beat Denver 31-21: Another dominating day for the running game, with 251 rush yards, 151 of them by Ridley. What New England did not do well was protect Brady—they surrendered four sacks and five QB hits—or protect their lead.
A 31-14 game after three quarters was quickly cut to ten and Denver’s own mistakes ended two drives that could have really made it interesting. The lack of pressure of Peyton Manning was nearly deadly, as the Bronco QB hung a 31/44 for 337 yards/0 interceptions stat line on the board.
Week 6: lost at Seattle 24-23: This is the game the media is overreacting to. Last I checked, Seattle’s a good team with a tough, physical defense that plays well at home. Losing to them by one hardly counted as a reason to count the Patriots out (or if it does, that count out San Francisco for losing at Minnesota, Baltimore for losing at Philly and the New York Giants for losing at home to Dallas and Houston for being completely embarrassed at home by Green Bay. At which point no one is left).
It is fair to be concerned about the secondary in this spot though. The New England defense took away the running game, built a 23-10 lead and forced Russell Wilson to throw. The Seahawk quarterback responded, with a 16/27 for 293 yards/0 interceptions game. Other than defensive end Chandler Jones, no one got any pressure. In the meantime, the Pats couldn’t run the ball and Brady ended up throwing 58 times. Here’s a hint—when you throw nearly 60 times a game you’re going to have problems in the red zone and protecting leads, and the Pats had both.
Week 7: beat the NY Jets 29-26 in OT: It was kind of a ho-hum game for New England on offense. They ran the ball decently and Brady had an okay game. Mark Sanchez added to the legitimate concern that exists over the secondary, as he threw for 328 yards. But on Sunday the Patriots got pressure—four sacks and four QB hits and it was a sack and fumble that ended the game in overtime.
A few other points that stand out on a game-by-game review—in spite what may be written about Wes Welker’s problems over his contract and with the front office and the occasional benching, he’s a very active part of the pass offense and is having another good year.
The pass protection has improved in recent weeks. And on the negative side, you have to be bothered by the fact that the games against Baltimore, Denver and the NY Jets saw the opposing quarterbacks really heavy up in targeting one receiver (Torrey Smith, Demaryius Thomas and Jerome Kerley) and the secondary was still unable to stop them or at least force the ball to be spread out.
So how much should New England fans be panicking? In my view, not at all. There are concerns to be sure—the secondary’s inability to get interceptions or hold leads is an obvious problem. The pass rush is still too sporadic, a problem whose connection to the core concern is obvious. But these are problems that New England had last year and they still made the Super Bowl. When you watch them play this time around, you often see decent defense for three quarters or so. Last year you never saw it.
And the offense is markedly better. Brady might not be stuffing the stat sheet and thrilling Fantasy owners, but he’s yet to play a bad game (save maybe Arizona when the protection collapsed) and the running game has become a real threat. New England is a better team than they were a year ago, and while 4-3 is not ideal, it’s still enough to lead the AFC East.
Where New England fans can be concerned is that this team probably needs to get a first-round bye—at least the #2 seed in the AFC—if they’re going to reach the Super Bowl. Baltimore is 5-2 and holds the tiebreaker, while Houston is 6-1. The Patriots play the Texans at home in December and can cut into the gap and possibly alter the overall tiebreaker dynamic if they, Houston and Baltimore all end up in a dead heat. At this point, I think any conversation about the #1 playoff seed can be restricted to these three teams.
The schedule offers New England some immediate opportunities to make some hay. They play St. Louis in London this coming week, and after a bye its home games with Buffalo and Indianapolis. A three-game win streak is very realistic, and with the next road games against the Jets and Dolphins, it’s easy to see the Pats going 5-0. At the very least, they need to win four of those five, because then its back-to-back prime-time games with Houston and San Francisco, both at home.
If the Patriots conclude this stretch at 10-4, they should be in position to at least grab a bye and possibly the #1 overall seed. With Baltimore’s injuries, its possible 9-5 could still be enough to get in at #2, because the final two weeks are chippies at Jacksonville and at home against Miami.
The close losses New England has suffered have eliminated the margin for error, at least in terms of completing for an AFC playoff bye. But the position in the AFC East is solid and the fundamental trajectory of their team is better than it was in 2011. And last I checked, that team came within a play or two of winning the Super Bowl. So take the finger off the panic button Pats fans.