Playoffs? Are you kidding me? Playoffs?
Yep, we have already reached the end of the 2012 NFL regular season. Just 16 divisional games remain, but two playoff spots are still open along with some intrigue over records. The Thinking Man’s Guide will continue throughout the playoffs, but here is the last preview before 32 turns into 12.
Texans at Colts: CHUCKSTRONG upset?
Almost every intangible quality of this game makes you want to pick the Colts.
Houston had another shockingly bad loss at home to Minnesota in an important game last week. Houston has lost by at least 17 points three times this season. That almost never happens to a playoff team, let alone one trying to secure the No. 1 seed.
Not that he needs the extra pressure, but this is actually the biggest game of Matt Schaub's career considering he missed the playoffs last year.
You know it will be an emotional day when coach Chuck Pagano returns to the Indianapolis sideline. Despite the Colts being locked into the No. 5 seed, they are going to play to win for their coach.
They have played to win for interim coach Bruce Arians, who went 9-3 in Pagano’s place. Only Hampton Pool (1952 Los Angeles Rams) and Wally Lemm (1961 Houston Oilers) won nine games as an interim coach.
The Colts are 9-1 in games decided by 1-7 points, which is the second best record ever (min. eight one-score games). Andrew Luck has led seven game-winning drives, which ties the NFL record (regular season) done 10 times in the past.
They may have a -42 scoring differential, but the Colts are 10-5 after beating the odds all season. In their Week 15 game against Houston, they trailed 20-3, but still made a game of it. A fumble at the 1-yard line and blocked punt for a touchdown are hard to overcome.
Plays like that are also hard to repeat, so they will not happen again this time. The problem is J.J. Watt, who terrorized the Colts. He’s not going anywhere; he is 2.5 sacks away from the all-time record (Michael Strahan had 22.5 in 2001), and the Colts have no answer for him. Luck was pressured a season-high 51.5 percent of the time in Houston.
Though the Colts play better at home, where they are 10-0 all time against Houston, this is probably the toughest challenge they have faced all season in their building. But the atmosphere should be something to behold in likely the last Colts’ home game of the season.
But with wanting to pick the Colts, the problem is simple. Houston is still the better team. Even if they look poor in recent weeks, they are still a better team than the Colts, and they beat them already without their best effort.
More than that, consider how huge this game is for Houston.
If Houston loses, their path to the Super Bowl is likely home next week versus Cincinnati, at New England (lost 42-14 there), and at Denver. Good luck with that.
If Houston wins, their path to the Super Bowl is all at home, and likely against Baltimore (beat them 43-13) or even Indianapolis, then the winner of New England/Denver.
Decisions do not come any easier as to which path you would rather take. The Texans must treat this like a playoff game, because the schedulers did them no favor in giving Peyton Manning (Chiefs) and Tom Brady (Dolphins) some cruise-control wins in Week 17.
A loss here is almost guaranteed to drop the Texans to No. 3 in the AFC, which is shocking given how they have been at the top all season.
But watch out for the underdog, because the Colts like to defy the odds, and especially at home against the Texans.
Packers at Vikings: CP, not AD, might need to be game MVP
With a win at home over rival Green Bay, the Vikings are in the postseason. That would do a lot to trigger a MVP award for running back Adrian Peterson, but there are two big problems at play here.
First, the Packers and Aaron Rodgers are on a roll, are the better team, and they need this game almost as much as the Vikings. Green Bay is 9-1 in their last 10 games, and they need this win to clinch the No. 2 seed. Their defense has been fantastic, allowing more than 20 points just once in the last 10 games. Rodgers has had a lot of success against this defense, so the Vikings will need points to match.
That’s the second problem. To keep pace, Christian Ponder is going to have to step up his game. His two interceptions were a killer in Green Bay in Week 13’s 23-14 loss.
Despite Peterson rushing for 210 yards that day, it did not even matter because of Ponder’s poor performance. He only passed for 119 yards, and 27 of those were meaningless yards on the final drive.
That just demonstrates the value of a quarterback. Even if Peterson is great, the Vikings actually need Ponder to star in this game to win and make the playoffs.
There is plenty of motivation for Peterson to be great here. He needs 102 yards for 2,000 yards rushing, and 208 yards to break Eric Dickerson’s rushing record (2,105 yards in 1984).
While these are amazing feats, is getting the record more important than winning the game? Any touchdown drive by Rodgers is just going to make the Minnesota play calling that more debated.
Peterson’s season has been incredible, but Minnesota has actually won their two biggest games (San Francisco, at Houston) when Peterson was at his worst. That is not a typo.
Against San Francisco, Peterson had 25 carries for 86 yards and did not reach the end zone. Meanwhile Ponder was efficient with 198 yards, two touchdown and no picks, and he had an impressive 23-yard touchdown run in the 24-13 win.
Just last week in Houston, Peterson again was held to 86 yards on 25 carries (identical line to San Francisco game), and did not score a touchdown. Ponder threw for 174 yards, a touchdown, no picks, and again had a 29-yard run (had 52 rushing yards when excluding kneel downs).
That is more of the formula the Vikings need to beat Green Bay. Great defense, Ponder making enough plays, avoiding mistakes and still feeding Peterson enough carries in the hopes he breaks the record.
The Vikings cannot afford to give Peterson 35-40 carries in an attempt to break a record if Rodgers is filling up the scoreboard as the Packers eliminate them.
This is basically a playoff game for Minnesota, and it must be coached as such. That means you go all out for the win, not the stats.
Bears at Lions: How impressive would 2,000 yards be?
The Chicago Bears should take care of business in this one, as Detroit is on a seven-game losing streak and basically playing for passing records at this point.
Chicago has the better defense and already shut down Calvin Johnson earlier this season (three catches, 34 yards). That game was close to being a shutout.
As a Bear, Jay Cutler is 6-1 against the Lions with 11 touchdowns and one interception in those games (101.2 passer rating). For as bad as Cutler has been against Green Bay, that is how good things have gone against Detroit.
Even if the Bears win they will still need to become Packers fans, rooting for a Minnesota loss to make the playoffs. Chicago would be just the fourth team (out of 63) since 1978 to start 7-1 and miss the playoffs.
The level of competition has done Chicago in lately, but they beat Arizona with little problem. The Lions have been competitive with everyone (well, except Arizona), though it was yet another struggle to score in Chicago back in Week 7.
That’s the story of Detroit’s season. Matthew Stafford is going to break records with over 700 pass attempts, and probably have another 5,000-yard passing season, yet he has only thrown 17 touchdown passes. Last season he had 41 touchdowns.
Calvin Johnson alone had 16 touchdowns last year, and is down to five this season. But he did break the single-season yardage record, reaching 1,892 yards last week. That puts him 108 yards away from the first ever 2,000-yard season.
How impressive is that?
Well for starters, this is definitely not the best season ever by a wide receiver. Sure, 2,000 yards sounds unbelievable, but it really loses the luster when you consider Detroit’s four-win season, the lack of touchdowns, and the absurd amount of pass attempts.
The 2012 Lions are basically the perfect scenario for someone to break 2,000 yards.
- Have a quarterback that throws the ball a ton (Stafford had 663 attempts last year too).
- Have a quarterback that is willing to force you the ball (Johnson has 117 receptions on 190 targets).
- Have a lot of your secondary receivers not step up and/or get injured, allowing you to get more targets.
- Play from behind often, ensuring the team will keep throwing the ball a lot in the game (Johnson has 1,202 yards when trailing).
While you still have to be an immensely talented receiver that can make plays all over the field, which Johnson clearly is, the situation he’s in undeniably gives him a huge advantage over other great receivers, past and present.
If the game is close late with the record in sight, check to see how much Stafford pushes for it. Chicago will be aware of this. Stafford was intercepted against Atlanta trying to force a pass to Johnson to break the record in dramatic fashion.
When you do that against the Bears, it could be six points the other way.
Chicago gets the win to likely sneak back into the playoffs, and Johnson gets force-fed the ball to break 2,000 yards in a 4-12 season. Such is the class system in the NFC North.
Cowboys at Redskins: Here we go again
Tony Romo will lead the Dallas Cowboys into a Week 17 road playoff game for the third time since 2008. That’s almost as many actual playoff games Romo has started in his career (four).
Is this what that annoying guy in that commercial meant when he said “déjà déjà vu”?
Just like last year, the Cowboys will end the season on Sunday Night Football with a chance to win the NFC East. Lose and their season is over. They lost 31-14 to the Giants last season. In 2008, the Cowboys went to Philadelphia in the exact same situation, and that was a 44-6 disaster.
Guess Dallas is on pace for a four-point win in Washington then?
Interesting how the NFC East often comes down to this final game. Few would have expected the Redskins to be involved when they were 3-6, but six straight wins has them ready for this one.
Just four teams have started 3-6 and made the playoffs. Only 13 teams started even 3-5 or worse and made the playoffs, though one was during the strike year of 1982 (Lions). The 1970 Bengals were actually 1-6 before winning their last seven.
So this is something rare, and at least one of these teams is going to pull it off. For all the talk of late-season “momentum” that these teams would have built with their finish, the first nine failed to win a playoff game. However, each of the last four did win their first playoff game.
Dallas has rebounded from their slow start with a 5-2 run. That does include the 38-31 loss to Washington on Thanksgiving. Washington led 28-3 in that one before Dallas mounted a comeback. But unlike the 49ers/Patriots, the Redskins stopped the bleeding with a drive for a crucial field goal late in the game.
What we have here is a huge contrast in the use of play-action passing game. No one uses it more than Washington, and according to Pro Football Focus, Robert Griffin III uses play action on 39.2 percent of his drop backs. Compare that to Tony Romo who uses it on 10.1 percent of his drop backs, which is the lowest among starting quarterbacks.
Both quarterbacks are very successful using it, with Griffin (119.7) ranking third in passer rating. Romo (118.5) is fourth.
When the teams met on Thanksgiving, Griffin killed Dallas on play-action passes: 8 of 10 for 230 yards, three TD, one INT and a 118.8 passer rating. Without play action Griffin was a much less deadly 11-of-17 for 74 yards and a touchdown.
It is crucial for Dallas to contain Alfred Morris, who rushed for 113 yards against them already. Letting Griffin go off on play action is just going to be deadly for this defense.
Washington’s defense has been getting better, but they can still be had. Romo had a career-high 441 yards passing, but had to throw it 62 times. The Cowboys are 0-6 in Romo’s biggest passing days.
The key will be for Dallas to get ahead early, which teams have not been doing lately against Washington, and that will help slow down the run/play-action threat. The Redskins are just not that successful yet when they have to drop back and throw without the element of surprise.
Unfortunately Dallas has been a slow-starting offense, but they are lately racking up the points by the end of the game. They have the ability to come back, which Washington already knows too well. Romo has four comeback wins against the Redskins.
Dallas really has not played a poor game since their bye week, and I am going against the media-driven grain to take the Cowboys to get it done this time. It’s not like Washington and Mike Shanahan have any big wins in a long time themselves.
For all the talk that will be put out there about the Cowboys in this situation, a Shanahan-coached team blew it in the same Week 17 situation in 2008 (lost 52-21 at San Diego) and 2006 (lost 26-23 in overtime to San Francisco at home).
No matter what happens, since it is a big game in prime time, that probably means another 28-point blowout. But here’s holding out hope one last time for a regular season game to deliver on the hype.
For the record, my season picks stand at 157-82-1 (.656).
Giants over Eagles – Wow, how does a team pound the 49ers (26-3) and Packers (38-10), yet may not even make the playoffs? The Giants need this win, and they need Chicago, Dallas and Minnesota to lose. Maybe crazier things have happened, but is there anything crazier than New York’s inconsistent title defense? This would mark the third time out of four opportunities the G-Men followed up a Super Bowl win with a missed postseason. Farewell, Andy Reid (and Michael Vick) in Philadelphia.
Patriots over Dolphins – Speaking of crazy, the Patriots can finish anywhere from No. 1 to No. 4 in the AFC. Smart money says they will be No. 3, or No. 2 should Houston lose. A sharper performance than last week’s in Jacksonville is expected. Miami usually plays the Patriots tough, but not so much in Foxboro late in the season.
Steelers over Browns – It is hard to pick the Steelers these days, as they are only two games ahead of Cleveland right now. But the thought of Cleveland sweeping the series for the first time since 1988 does not compute. Steelers get this one at home to finish off a disappointing 8-8 season.
Saints over Panthers – Carolina is 4-1 in their last five, but I am expecting the Saints to tie the season series and finish 8-8 in their Sean Payton-less season. Drew Brees will get at least one touchdown pass to set another record for being the first quarterback ever to throw 40 scores in back-to-back seasons. Just a few too many mistakes for Brees this year though. Carolina’s 6-10 record would duplicate last season’s. Are they really that further along than 2011? It’s hard to say.
Titans over Jaguars – Not much to see here. Jacksonville has had some competitive games against playoff teams, but getting blown out here would not surprise me, especially against inconsistent Tennessee. The only identity Mike Munchak has established in his two seasons is that his team’s not very good.
Bills over Jets – Remember when the Jets piled up 48 points (some return scores included) to beat Buffalo in Week 1? Yeah, maybe this season does feel longer than originally thought in the intro. Buffalo should win this one, but Chan Gailey still has to go. He is just 15-32 (.319) in three years in Buffalo.
Falcons over Buccaneers – I did not even read whether or not Atlanta is planning to rest players. They definitely should not as they already have the bye week to rest. Play your healthy guys, play well, and get the win to tie the franchise record (14-2). Tampa Bay is ending another season on a losing streak (five games and counting).
Bengals over Ravens – This is another odd game to pick because the Bengals are locked into the sixth seed, while Baltimore only has a slight chance to get the No. 3 seed (need the Patriots to lose). Yet, would you really want to beat a team so you can beat them again the following week? The Colts are probably a more attractive option for the Ravens to open the playoffs with, so I think they’ll throw this one. It won’t look intentional. Joe Flacco will just have one of “those days” on the road and no one will expect otherwise.
Broncos over Chiefs – During this 10-game winning streak, no one arguably has played the Broncos tougher than Kansas City. They do not get much pass rush, but they can cover well, which gives them a better chance against Peyton Manning than most defenses. But do you really expect anything other than an 11th straight win here? This is about the only sure bet in the league this year. Denver is getting that bye week.
Seahawks over Rams – Pretty amazing how well Seattle is playing, and yet they most likely will have to settle for the No. 5 seed. That probably means three straight road playoff games before the Super Bowl. That’s why you have to bring your best for all 16. Even with a loss this will have been a solid debut season for Jeff Fisher in St. Louis.
Chargers over Raiders – Hey Norv Turner…why, then, are you so surprised to hear your own eulogy? A 7-9 record and fourth consecutive season without a playoff win should be more than enough to put an end to Turner in San Diego.
49ers over Cardinals – If Alex Smith came into the game and completed 9-of-9 passes (shovel passes?), he would break the NFL record for single-season completion percentage. This hopeless dream is more entertaining than the actual game will be. The 49ers should have no problem wrapping up the NFC West at home, though it will be interesting to see how Brian Hoyer does in his first start.
For those wanting a summary, I have Houston taking the No. 1 seed, Green Bay winning a first-round bye, Dallas winning the NFC East, and the Chicago Bears sneaking in as the No. 6 seed.
Looking forward to breaking down the myths and realities of the NFL postseason, starting next week.
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.