Saturday, January 5, 2008

NFL Year in Review/Playoff Preview

My 2007 NFL Preview contained some good predictions--I had the exact finishing order in two of the eight divisions and correctly identified six of the division champions--and some not so good predictions: I whiffed on all four Wild Cards and the NFC North standings are almost completely reversed from what I expected. As I mentioned in the introduction to that article, the NFL sees more teams go from worst to first than just about any other league for three reasons: (1) football is a violent sport and one key injury can wreck a team's season; (2) in a 16 game season, one loss carries the proportional weight of five NBA games or 10 MLB games; (3) many games are not decided until the closing minutes, so the difference between 10-6 and 6-10 could literally be a handful of plays. In other words, I knew going in that a lot of my predictions would not be correct because that is the nature of the sport. That said, let's take a closer look at what I predicted and what actually happened before I offer my thoughts on this weekend's playoff games and who will ultimately play in the Super Bowl.

I did a pretty good job with the AFC East. I had New England winning the division, Miami in the basement and Buffalo and New York also missing the playoffs. I whiffed on a couple of my "quick hits," though, because I expected Adalius Thomas to have a bigger impact than Randy Moss and thought that the Jets would "just miss the cut" for the playoffs this year.

I correctly predicted the exact order of finish in the AFC West. I said that the Chargers would win fewer than the 14 games that they won last season and that they would not make it to the AFC Championship Game; I was right about the first and we'll see about the second (I stand by that thought). I correctly called Oakland a "disaster area" and said that Denver and Kansas City would contend for Wild Card berths but fall short. Denver sort of contended--well, the Broncos weren't mathematically eliminated until near the end of the season--but Kansas City was just as bad as Oakland.

I knew that Pittsburgh would win the AFC North title but I--like everyone else--was surprised by the emergence of the Cleveland Browns, who actually finished with the same record as the Steelers but missed the playoffs by virtue of tiebreakers. I expected Baltimore and Cincinnati to be Wild Card teams. Not realizing that Derek Anderson would ultimately threaten the Browns' single-season touchdown record, I predicted that Brady Quinn would start playing by midseason and that he would have at least one 300 yard game.

I predicted the exact order of finish in the AFC South but thought that Jacksonville and Tennessee would "come up just short" in their Wild Card bids. Tennessee needed the Browns to lose to Cincinnati and the Colts to lie down like dogs but the Titans managed to make it in, while Jacksonville clearly is better than I expected.

I stand by my original AFC Championship Game prediction of New England beating Indianapolis.

I was right that Dallas would win the NFC East and that Terrell Owens would have one of the best seasons of his career, which certainly was not a given considering his age; Owens put up some of the best numbers ever posted by a 34 year old NFL wide receiver. I expected Donovan McNabb to remain hobbled and the Eagles to not make the playoffs but the Redskins and Giants both did better than I thought that they would.

Seattle won the NFC West as I expected but my "sleeper" team, San Francisco, literally fell asleep. I thought that the Rams would be bad but they were even worse than I expected, while the Cardinals were not as bad as I expected them to be.

Point blank, absolutely nothing in the NFC North went the way that I predicted. I did a little better with the NFC South, but of course everyone knew that Atlanta would be in the basement; would it be wrong to say that the Falcons' season went to the dogs?

I predicted that Dallas would beat New Orleans in the NFC Championship Game but that has been rendered impossible because the Saints did not qualify for the playoffs. Assuming that Owens is still a quick healer, I will stick with Dallas to win the NFC title, beating Green Bay. I realize that there is a significant chance that at least one of my conference championship game picks is wrong, because I went straight "chalk" and it we probably won't see the top two seeds on each side make it through unscathed--but New England, Indianapolis, Dallas and Green Bay truly have been the class of the league this year, a 16-0 team and three 13-3 teams that finished at least two games ahead of everyone else (and the Colts could have been 14-2 if it had mattered to them).

Here are quick takes on this weekend's games:

Seattle is a division champion, has a much better point differential than Washington (102 to 24) and has homefield advantage. All of that adds up to a 24-20 Seattle victory.

Pittsburgh has homefield advantage by virtue of winning the AFC North but Jacksonville has a better regular season record, won the head to head encounter this season between these teams and has a much healthier roster. Pittsburgh went 7-1 at home this year but that lone loss came at the hands of the Jaguars. It feels strange to pick Pittsburgh to lose at home but look for Jacksonville to prevail, 21-17.

On Sunday, we have another game in which a team with the better record visits a team that won its division. I'm not particularly sold on the NFC South champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, nor am I overly impressed by the New York Giants, their game effort against New England in the season finale notwithstanding. I look at this game as a "pick 'em," though the experts in Las Vegas afforded Tampa Bay the standard three points for homefield advantage. I think that the game will ultimately be decided by how well Tampa Bay deals with New York's pass rush; if the Bucs keep Jeff Garcia clean then he will make enough plays to win the game. I'll take Tampa Bay 19-16, perhaps on a field goal as time runs out; the Giants always seem to find a way to lose road playoff games.

The Chargers got off to a slow start this year but they are rolling and they have the easiest matchup of the first round, a banged up Titans team that could barely eke out a win against the Colts' scrubs. Norv Turner's sketchy record as a head coach gives me pause--particularly considering that the Titans' Jeff Fisher is a very good coach--but unless Turner has complete brain lock and forgets to give the ball to LaDainian Tomlinson the Chargers should win without too much difficulty; call it 35-14.

I am sticking with my preseason prediction that New England will beat Dallas in the Super Bowl.

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