Can Houston stop an elite passing team in the playoffs?
But as the day progressed, many teams proved to be no match for their opponent in Week 15.
In the key games, Denver crushed Baltimore while Atlanta shut out the Giants. Dallas and Pittsburgh played a good one, even though they just had 7-6 records. Indianapolis and Chicago kept things mildly interesting before falling to Houston and Green Bay, respectively.
Then there was the night game.
With New England’s rousing 28-point comeback attempt, we had a legitimate candidate for the year’s best game. The 35-minute blowout that turned into must-see drama practically salvaged the otherwise disappointing weekend.
San Francisco’s victory may have very well changed the landscape of the playoffs in each conference.
But even when watching that wild game unfold in Foxboro, the thought had to cross your mind that the 49ers' 31-3 lead was not as large as it probably should have been.
Why are we seeing another blowout in a game between two supposedly elite teams?
It has been one of the consistent themes of this inconsistent 2012 season: watching one good team take the other to the woodshed.
Often these games have been on prime time because the networks expected something great. Now we are done with Thursday night and Monday night games, and just two weeks remain in the regular season before the playoffs begin.
Just what can we expect to see in this bizarre season of blowouts between the best in the league?
Hard to define (and find) marquee matchups in 2012
It is no easy task to define what counts as a marquee matchup, especially at this stage of the season when only seven of the 12 playoff berths have been clinched.
Teams change so much over the course of the year, and in this season perhaps more than ever we are seeing a high level of inconsistency.
When Chicago and Houston played in Week 10, both teams were 7-1 coming in. That was the very definition of a marquee game. The Bears have gone 1-5 since, were blown out by San Francisco, and are in serious danger of missing the playoffs.
Was Indianapolis at Chicago a marquee game in Week 1?
No one had expectations for the Colts yet. They still did not have them when they played Green Bay in Week 5. Now both teams will be in the playoffs. (The Colts have something ridiculous like a 0.0001 percent chance of not getting in.)
Can we retroactively call that a marquee game?
What about when Green Bay played Houston the following week in prime time?
Houston was 5-0, but the Packers were just 2-3. Still, with a team that was 15-1 last year and has one of the best quarterbacks in the game, this was billed as a marquee game. The Packers blew them out 42-24 in Houston, leading by as many as 25 points.
Houston was just blown out again, 42-14, on Monday night last week in New England. Of the last 20 teams to have a No. 1 seed, only one legitimately lost a game by at least 24 points, and that was New England’s 31-0 loss to Buffalo in Week 1 of 2003. The 2004 Eagles lost to Cincinnati (38-10) in Week 17, but they rested starters for the playoffs.
Houston’s average margin of defeat (23.0) this year would be the largest for any No. 1 seed since 2002.
The New England game was supposed to be the biggest game ever for Houston if you listened to some of the pregame banter. Afterwards New England was immediately pegged as the best team in the league, only to fall behind by 28 points on Sunday night to San Francisco. It took one of the all-time comeback attempts for that game to get competitive.
Last week we looked at the six games between the likely division winners in the AFC this year (Denver, New England, Houston and Baltimore). Outside of the Patriots vs. Ravens back in Week 3, one team opened up a lead of at least 20 points in each of those games.
It continued on Sunday when the Broncos led 31-3 in Baltimore before winning 34-17. That was not a good game again. Good games happen when both teams are competitive.
The AFC is not the only conference this year with bad games. Remember the much-hyped rematch of the NFC Championship? The Giants went into San Francisco and easily won 26-3 after two nail-biters in Candlestick last year. Five weeks later Colin Kaepernick made his first start and dismantled Chicago 32-7 on Monday Night Football.
Speaking of prime time, was there anything more disappointing from a neutral fan’s perspective than the Packers playing their worst game in four years when they lost 38-10 to the Giants in Week 12?
Somehow these are the "same" Giants who beat the Saints 52-27 last week, only to get shut out 34-0 in Atlanta on Sunday. Only three other teams in history have gone from scoring more than 50 to a shutout the next game.
From the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, this has been 2012 in a nutshell.
Trying to define the 2012 marquee games
Since there is no right method to do this, let’s use the 12 teams currently slotted into the playoffs prior to Week 16 as the population for marquee games. Those teams are Houston, Denver, New England, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Atlanta, San Francisco, Green Bay, Washington, Seattle and Minnesota.
This means Pittsburgh, New York Giants, Dallas and Chicago are currently missing out. It is an imperfect method, but we needed to set some standard for comparison.
The following table shows data for 2007 through 2012. These are games between teams that would both make the playoffs. Listed is the record for the home team in these contests, the average final score in the game and the average scoring margin. The same is listed for the 10 playoff games each year (Super Bowl excluded).
Remember the 2012 games are based on the 12 current playoff teams, which are likely to change.
A few things stand out.
First, the home-field advantage has been big this year, up to more than 10 percentage points higher than usual. This is a good argument for the marquee games being "boring" as the home team has often taken care of business.
Scoring is also up this year, though the average margin is right in line with previous seasons at 11.2 points. Of course the final score of a game is not the best indicator of how close it was, but so be it.
The playoffs are a series of 10-game samples, so take the numbers with a grain of salt. But it is worth noting the two seasons (2009, 2011) with the largest regular-season margin have the highest playoff margin as well. The 2010 season remained rather tight throughout.
Perhaps more telling would be a list of the biggest regular-season routs between two playoff teams. Here are all the games decided by at least 30 points since 1999.
This is something that happened eight times from 1999-2011 or once every 1.63 seasons. Three games from this year alone are in the top 10. It has never happened more than once in a season since 1999 until this year’s trio. All but one game (Detroit at Denver last year) was won by the home team.
Two of those games are all but set in stone, while the Bengals would still have to make the playoffs to validate it. To get in, they might have to beat the slumping Ravens that smoked them in Week 1 this year when they meet again in Week 17.
As for the list, three of these pairs met again in the playoffs, and it was closer each time.
- Cincinnati treated 2009’s Week 17 game with little concern, which allowed the Jets to make the playoffs. The Bengals lost to New York again in the Wild Card game by a 24-14 final.
- A year later the Jets avenged that 45-3 humiliation in New England with a 28-21 upset in the AFC divisional game.
- The 2006 Bears and Seahawks met again in the NFC Divisional, and Chicago won 27-24 in overtime.
The rematch angle is one to keep an eye on, especially this year.
Looking ahead to January
The teams likely to fill this year’s playoff field set up a postseason of the rarest type. We are already guaranteed to set records (since 2002’s eight-division format started) for fewest new playoff teams and division winners.
Baltimore could enter on one of the all-time slides into the postseason, potentially losing its last five games as it just hopes to snag the AFC North crown again. Whether it is Pittsburgh or Cincinnati, not much is expected from the No. 6 seed, and the Indianapolis Colts are currently the worst 9-5 team ever with their -49 scoring differential and -17 turnover differential.
If it’s the Patriots in the No. 3 seed (very likely), they should make fast work of that No. 6 seed, while the Texans will take care of the other team that comes out alive. That will set up a titanic rematch in Denver between the Broncos and Patriots.
To get back to the Super Bowl, New England could be looking at a road trip through both Denver and Houston. That’s the impact of the San Francisco loss. Sure, the Patriots have already beaten both teams, but those games were at Foxboro.
On the NFC, things are a lot less settled right now as we wait to see who gets in (just three teams have clinched a playoff berth).
Atlanta could potentially start its quest for a playoff win in the Mike Smith/Matt Ryan era with a rematch against Washington, Dallas or the Giants. The Falcons swept the NFC East this year. They may end up facing Seattle too for the first time this year.
We might get a rematch from Week 1 between San Francisco and Green Bay. That was a surprising result at the start of the season when the 49ers led 23-7 in the fourth quarter before holding on for a 30-22 win.
When there are eight or nine playoff teams from last year returning this season, there is a good chance for some 2011 rematches. More importantly, most teams are going to have playoff experience, knowing what it takes to get the job done.
Whatever happens, hopefully there will be some great games to watch because this season has been lacking in that department.
Is it too much to ask for two good teams to stay within 14 points of each other for 60 minutes?
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.