Week 14 NFL Recap: The Floundering Four & Rooting For A Referee Mistake in the Super Bowl

gronk

We’ve got the next eight weeks to discuss the playoff teams. Today we lead off with possibly the craziest single subplot of the NFL season, and the one people are ignoring the most.

Four playoff teams from 2012, including two who won 12 or more games, currently boast the four worst records in the NFL. These epic free-fallers are Houston (2-11), Washington & Atlanta (both 3-10) and Minnesota (3-9-1).

Typically a handful of the previous year’s playoffs teams will miss the current year’s playoffs. But never have those teams all fallen to the very bottom of the league.

It’s simply stunning.

So what happened? Was their playoff appearance the anomaly or is their absence from this year’s playoffs the outlier? And how about the futures of each team’s head coach and starting quarterback? Let’s dive in.

Atlanta is probably in the best shape of these four teams. The Falcons have won 10 or more games in four of the past five seasons, and their implosions in the playoffs have become a yearly tradition. They were probably due to struggle a little and win only nine or 10 games in 2013, but the Julio Jones injury along with a few others absolutely short-circuited Atlanta’s season. But Matt Ryan will be fine at quarterback, and they still have good skill position players. I’m on record as saying Mike Smith will never get them to the Super Bowl, but you could do a lot worse than him. Even with the Falcons losing Tony Gonzalez after this season, I think they still contend for a wildcard spot next year and beyond. I’m going to say 2013 is the anomaly for Atlanta.

Washington would probably be next, but their value is almost 100% based on one player: Robert Griffin. He’s not even having a good year, but an average RGIII is a huge advantage over the teams that are starting the Matt Cassels and Case Keenums of the world. It seems like a known fact that Mike Shanahan won’t be back next year. As for the long term outlook, Redskins fans seem to be holding on tight to the notion that the $30 million they get next year toward the cap that they didn’t have this year due to violations will solve all the problems. But last time Dan Snyder had cap room like that, he bet big on Albert Haynesworth. So who knows. If RGIII comes back healthier in 2014 and they fix whatever management and player leadership problems seem to be bubbling to the surface, I think 2013 will go down as the anomaly during the Griffin Era. If he can’t stay healthy, then the 2012 playoff run will stick out as the outlier.

Houston steps up next with a roster full of names who should be better than an 11-game losing streak. One big problem is the injuries. No one could predict season-enders for Arian Foster and Brian Cushing. Matt Schaub’s midseason injury…no one can decide whether that actually hurt the Texans or helped them. There’s also a chance they were just extremely unlucky this year as eight of their 11 losses have come by a touchdown or less. Gary Kubiak’s already gone. It’ll be interesting to see if they use their high draft pick on a quarterback, or if they talk themselves into having Schaub and Keenum compete for the starting job in 2014. I don’t think they’re necessarily looking at a full rebuilding that will take three to five years because they have talent at several positions, but any time a team changes out its head coach and starting QB, you have to expect some struggles for a little while. I think worst case scenario for Houston is that they go back to being an annual 7-9 or 8-8 team, which means 2013 is somewhat of an anomaly.

And finally, those poor bastards up north, Minnesota. Truth be told, they were one of the top two candidates from last year’s playoff teams to miss this year’s postseason (Indy was the other one, and if they played in any division other than the AFC South, they’d probably be fighting for their playoff lives instead of being locked into the #4 seed). It’s not a complete anomaly that they made the playoffs last year, at least not in the same way a Buffalo Bills playoff appearance would be an anomaly. The Vikings have made the playoffs in four of the past nine years, but it’s not like they’ve been a true Super Bowl contender during that time (except for 2009 when Brett Favre brought them to the brink of the Super Bowl before devastatingly ripping them away from the brink with a classic Favre interception in the NFC Championship game). Besides that one Favre season, Minnesota’s had nothing in the way of quarterbacks over the last decade, and that feels like an understatement for 2013 when Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman have played hot potato with the starting QB position. If the Vikings do anything other than focus on finding a franchise QB during the offseason, every decision-maker in that organization should be exiled from our society. I don’t really know about Leslie Frazier as head coach, but if ownership is unsure about him at all, they might as well make a change after this season when the whole organization goes into rebuilding mode once again. But, hey, at least they’ll always have that tie in Green Bay. I think the Vikings are a long way off from competing. Let’s call the 2012 playoffs an anomaly, linked specifically to Adrian Peterson’s outlier of a career season that year.

Since it’s already Tuesday afternoon, let’s quickly empty out the week 14 notebook:

  • Starting with the Monday night game…You know that Chicago team that showed up last night? The one with two giant wide receivers who are practically uncoverable and the versatile running back who can play receiver almost as well as he plays runner? That’s the Chicago team that I’ve been betting on all year. Except only rarely have they shown up as this particular team, which helps me understand why I’ve lost so much this year. To me they seem like a more-talented version of the Patriots (except at QB). I’ll take Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey over any two WRs from the Patriots. And obviously Matt Forte is 100 times better than Stevan Ridley. Both defenses are awful against the run and suspect against the pass. What am I missing? Especially with no Gronk, this Chicago team does laps around New England from a talent standpoint. And yet, one team is fighting just to stay in the playoff mix and the other is still charging toward a 1st-round bye. I guess the difference is Brady/Belichick but also the weak AFC East.
  • From an objective standpoint Sunday morning’s games were collectively the craziest set of games in NFL history. But when your X factor, indispensible offensive weapon goes down for the year with a knee injury amidst all that amazing chaos, it’s impossible to feel good about an entertaining Sunday. That was seriously the most heart-breaking hour of excitement for Patriots fans. It would have been nice to have a few minutes to enjoy yet another come-from-behind win before remembering “Oh yeah, these guys barely cracked 20 points per game without Gronk, they’re fucked.”
  • But I will say, it’s the first Sunday of the season where I made the conscious decision to let my bladder burst, if it came to that, rather than miss a single play on the Red Zone Channel by using the bathroom.
  • We can feel sorry for ourselves that two entertaining players suffered season-ending injuries on the same day…Gronk and Tyrann Mathieu, or we can petition Spike TV to create a reality show around these guys rehabbing their ligament tears while living in the same apartment in a party town. I would kill to see Mathieu trying to lay low while recovering, staying on the straight & narrow, avoiding the temptations that got him into trouble in college, while Gronk parties night after night, bringing home a truck full of women and inadvertently enabling Mathieu to slip back into his old habits. I would watch that TV show.
  • In the “punishment does not fit the crime” category, I dare someone to convince me that tapping a quarterback on the helmet or knee is an equivalent offense to a kicker grabbing an opponent who’s running 20 miles per hour by the face mask and violently twisting it 180 degrees. Not only do both actions come with a 15 yard penalty, but the guy who taps the QB’s helmet is likely getting a bigger fine (if the kicker even gets fined at all). I thought of this when Saints punter Thomas Morstead almost ripped Tedd Ginn’s head off in this very manner to save a touchdown on Sunday night.
  • Speaking of the Saints, I might have underrated their chances at beating the Seahawks in a rematch at Seattle in my column last week. They’d obviously be an underdog, but even if the Sean Payton-Dres Brees offensive genius is a little overblown, they’re still the team most likely to be able to add a couple offensive wrinkles and put up 30 in Seattle. The Seahawks are probably going to average at least 30 points per game at home in the playoffs so I’d think the Saints would be a more likely candidate to match that score than someone like Carolina or San Francisco.
  • Since we’re talking playoffs…have you ever seen a team back into the playoffs quite like the Indianapolis Colts? They’re now 2-3 in their last five games (4-4 in their last eight), and look terrible every week. There’s probably not a less deserving playoff team.
  • So the Colts are pretty much locked into the #4 seed, and the Chiefs are almost guaranteed the #5 seed. That means they’ll be facing each other in the wildcard round of the playoffs, but more importantly, neither team has anything left to play for in the regular season. Keep that in mind when picking games that involve them. You don’t want to be the asshole who bets on the Chiefs and finds out too late that Chase Daniel is getting the start over Alex Smith.
  • The NFC North has become everything we ever wanted out of the NFC East: No one daring to keep their record more than one game above .500, the teams treating the division title like it’s an STD…really inspiring stuff coming out of that division.
  • I’ve been saying it all year, but it feels relevant to reiterate my stance on the current state of officiating: The NFL has been NBA’ified. Not only do the refs actually look incompetent more than they ever used to (prime examples this week were Jeff Triplette ruling BenJarvus Green-Ellis’s scamper into the end zone a touchdown even though his knee hit the ground well short of the plane, and Jerome Boger’s crew getting nearly every call wrong in the Patriots game, including the touch foul against Cleveland in the end zone on the Patriots’ game-winning drive), but the scrutiny around every single call is out of control. Fans expect a flag on every play. Players and coaches scream for a flag every time a play works against them. Multiple Vikings players were quoted after their loss to Baltimore as thinking the refs really boned them good, except no one could point to a specific call that went against them. They just thought the entire game was poorly officiated.
  • And I think we’re at a breaking point. With how many games have been determined by a disputed call or non-call at a crucial moment this year, you’ve got to think at least one of 11 playoff games is going to fall into this mess. I want to see some officiating reform because I think it stinks that the non-athletes on the field are determining games. Therefore I’m rooting for the Super Bowl to be determined on an atrocious penalty or non-call.
  • As far as the week 14 picks against the spread go, well it was a throwback to 2012 for me. 10-6 against the spread including 4-1 in my confidence picks. And Julie was no slouch either. She went 9-7 despite using the weather as literally the only determining factor in each pick. Should I run it back for week 15 with both mine and Julie’s picks? I know she’s a fan favorite, but I’ll have to see if she has time in her busy schedule.
  • Week 15 picks coming on Thursday.
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