There are still four weeks left to go, but is pro football's regular season already over?
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), and Emma Carmichael (writer, Deadspin) look ahead to the end of football season.
Hey, sports fans!
With four weeks left in the NFL regular season, and to honor the recent 10th anniversary of Jim Mora's all-time classic postgame rant, let's talk about playoffs.
In the NFC, the Packers and Niners have already cliched division titles. If New Orleans beats Tennessee and the Falcons lose at Carolina, the Saints will win the NFC South. Only the East remains wide open, with Dallas and the Giants vying to see who can be less mediocre.
But does it really matter? The NFC is like the 2012 Presidential campaign. Green Bay, the champs, are running as incumbents, and clearly have been the league's best all year. The Saints, despite waxing and waning, have obviously been the top contender. In other words, and with apologies to Louisiana Democrats, New Orleans is Mitt Romney. Whatever the Newts and Niners of the world may think, everyone else knows it's going to be Romney against Obama for the White House, just as we all know it's going to be Saints versus the Packers for the NFC title. For reelection, though, the president has to win an Electoral College majority. For a return to the Super Bowl, Green Bay will only have to beat the Saints at Lambeau. Which they will.
The AFC is just as easy to peg. Denver will win the Western division. Which, for Bronco fans anyway, should be enough to definitively prove that Richard Dawkins is wrong. Houston will clinch the AFC South on Sunday with a win plus a Tennessee loss. But the Texans are burning through quarterbacks like Spinal Tap went through drummers. The only true contenders in this conference are the Patriots, Steelers, and Ravens, all at 9-3. New England may clinch the AFC East on Sunday by beating Washington, but the Patriots' defense still leaks more than Julian Assange on an ether binge. Pittsburgh, as you know, has already lost twice to Baltimore.
So, sure, if the season ended today, the Ravens would be the AFC's third seed. If the season ended today, though, people who bought tickets for the last four games would be really, really peeved. So would the Ravens, who finish the regular season against the Colts, Chargers, Browns and Bengals. You have to figure that Baltimore wins out, and Houston collapses, while the Pats lose at least one. That gives the Ravens the bye week and home-field throughout the playoffs, meaning the Steelers—having beaten the Pats—will have to play in Baltimore for the AFC title. The Ravens will win, duh, but then fall just four points shy in the league championship, making the Green Bay Packers your winners of Super Bowl XLVI. Tadah!
Patrick, there's really no reason to even bother playing the games, is there? Or do you have a different playoff scenario in mind?
Playoffs? Playoffs? There are four games left in the regular season—note for non-math majors: that's 25 percent of the entire season—and you're already penciling in Super Bowl point spread? Really?
I mean, I know your Kansas City Chiefs are traditionally out of postseason contention at this point on the calendar—and that maybe, just maybe, the Tyler Palko Era has been slightly underwhelming. Still, I think you're confusing college football—where December's utterly uncompelling Beef O'Brady bounty of non-playoff bowl games doesn't matter—with its professional counterpart.
Fact is, there's still a lot to like—or at least watch in a holiday party eggnog haze—before we get to the postseason.
Tim Tebow, for instance. Confession time: I was sick of him before he ever took a pro snap. I giggled the first time I saw him try to throw from the pocket—the mo-capped passing animations from late-1990s video games are smoother and more convincing. But now? I'm all in. Not to cheer him on, nor root for his demise, but simply because he's fun. He makes fourth quarters thrilling. He's doing something different, something I never thought I'd see: commandeering an option offense in the NFL.
But hey, maybe you like traditional gunslingers. Fine. Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees all are on pace to break Dan Marino's single-season passing yardage record. Who needs Madden NFL? The Green Bay Packers might go undefeated, which means more Mercury Morris sightings. Or maybe you like division races. The NFC East and AFC West are hardly settled. Also, at least one of these teams—Detroit; Chicago; the New York Jets; Dallas, always Dallas—is bound to implode and collapse. And isn't that what made Boston Red Sox watching so fun last September?
Indeed, there's plenty to care about if your favorite team stinks. Like this season's slate of blindfolded, cigarette-smoking head coaches. Buh-bye, Andy Reid? Did Norv Turner finally do enough by not doing enough to get canned? Then there's the frantic jockeying in the Suck for (Andrew) Luck sweepstakes, a race to the bottom of standings. Open question: why are the Miami Dolphins suddenly trying to win games? What if the Indianapolis Colts finish 0-16? Do they take Luck? Dump Peyton Manning? Keep both and subject America to a torturous, summer-long Archie Manning open-whispering campaign? Do the 1976 Tampa Bay Bucs and 2008 Detroit Lions crack open the bubbly?
Look, if actual United States presidential candidate and actual one-time Republican party front-runner Herman Cain can quote the wit and wisdom of the Pokemon movie while addressing the nation, then I can sum up the case for engaging with what's left of NFL 2011 by invoking noted 20th -century philosopher Eagle Eye Cherry: Save tonight. Fight the break of dawn.
Come tomorrow, the sweet, sweet lunacy of Brett Favre-to-the-Bears could be gone.
Jake, are you on board with the fierce urgency of now? Or are you in Hampton's Tomorrowland camp, plotting playoff bets and pouring over mock drafts?
How about a little of both? Allow me to make the following predictions:
1. The Packers will finish 16-0
2. The Packers will not win the Super Bowl
Why would I say that? Because incredibly, Green Bay could finish 16-0 and still not be one of the best five teams in the NFL. The defending Super Bowl champs have been flying high in 2011 to be sure, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers is doing his best 2004 Peyton Manning impression. But the Colts didn't win the Super Bowl that year for the same reason the Packers won't this year: a lack of defense.
Green Bay's defense isn't bad, it's putrid. The Packers are allowing a whopping 397.8 yards (second-worst in the league) and 21.8 points per game (15th-worst in the league). The team has been able to overcome its defensive ineptitude because of Rodgers and a soft schedule—the Packers will go the entire season without playing the 49ers, Steelers, Ravens, or Patriots. Their lone win over an elite team was a 42-34 nailbiter in Week 1 against the Saints that came down to the final play. But at 12-0 with only the Chiefs, Raiders, Bears, and Lions left on their schedule, the Packers will probably finish the regular season undefeated. They could even get through the Saints and Niners to reach the Super Bowl. But the winner of the AFC North (Pittsburgh and Baltimore are currently tied at the top) is my Super Bowl favorite. Let's say Pittsburgh 24, San Francisco 16 in Super Bowl XLVI.
What about you, Emma? What's on your radar screen for the rest of the NFL season?
Like Patrick, I'm a little bit more interested in the remainder of the regular season than I am in making predictions about the playoffs, and I'll tell you why: David Tyree. In the 2007 NFL season, we must all remember, the Patriots were the undefeated shoo-in candidate for the fourth Super Bowl in the Brady era. The Giants, being evil and at least partly red, were Mitt Romney, of course. And New England—16-0 at the end of the regular season—lost it all on an impossible catch pinned against his helmet. Undefeated seasons crumble quickly, and sometimes they do so at the most heartbreaking moment possible.
I wouldn't wish a variation of The Catch on anyone except a Jets fan, though. But like Jake, I would hope for some perspective here: There isn't a set script for the rest of the NFL season, Hampton (and, much as I'd like it, there isn't one for politics, either). It's been a wonderful shock to see the 49ers get to a point where Jake would actually confidently place them in the Super Bowl and I don't immediately laugh at him, but it's not something I could have predicted a year ago. For me, the greatest thing about the NFL playoffs, aside from Super Bowl commercials, is that they aren't anything like the MLB's, NBA's, or NHL's. Teams don't get seven shots to win it all; they get one. That leaves room for surprises. The Packers might be a great offensive team, but they're not immune to The Catch.