Another fantastic day is in the books for the NFL. Our wallets might have taken a big hit in 2013, but the unpredictability of the NFL season provided the best start-to-finish drama in the history of the league.
It started with the league’s other 31 teams and fan bases taking a big nervous gulp on September 5th, when the Denver Broncos put up 49 points, via SEVEN Peyton Manning touchdown passes, on opening night.
It ended with the league’s other 31 teams and fan bases bursting into laughter on December 29th, when the Dallas Cowboys, via a back-breaking Kyle Orton interception, choked away the NFL’s final playoff spot.
It was a season-long emotional roller coaster for the common football fan.
And week 17 was a microcosm of the whole thing:
In the AFC:
- Baltimore and Miami, in what turned out to essentially be “win and you’re in” games, both screamed loud enough for the whole world to hear, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
- The Ravens were gift-wrapped a game in which Andy Dalton threw FOUR interceptions. But not to be outdone, Joe Flacco threw his own handful of picks (only three) and the Ravens’ putrid offense could only muster up nine points off those four Dalton turnovers. A spectacular 222 yards of offense for the Ravens in a must-win game.
- Meanwhile down in Miami, the Dolphins were busy giving up 374 yards to the Jets, aka the team ranked 27th in offense according to Football Outsiders. In fact, they let Geno Smith finish the game with a QBR of 90.7. His QBR for the year is 35.9. Oh, and Ryan Tannehill joined in on the interception fun from that other game. He had three of them himself.
- After Pittsburgh took care of business against Cleveland, they got to watch in horror as Kansas City’s backups pissed away a 24-14 4th quarter lead in San Diego. A Chiefs win would send the Steelers to the playoffs. A Chargers win would send them to the playoffs while knocking out Pittsburgh. This was set up for a dramatic ending that everyone would remember for both the Steelers and Chargers rising from the dead and for the final AFC playoff spot being decided on a final play in an outstanding game…And then the refs provided one very important moment that we absolutely needed in week 17 if you were going to dub this a microcosm of the entire season. The refs blew Kansas City’s 41-yard field goal attempt at the end of regulation by not calling San Diego for an illegal formation. The error, confirmed by the NFL, would have given Ryan Succop a 35-yard-field goal attempt, instead of the 41-yarder he ultimately missed.
- Obscure field goal formation penalty that alters a game and a team’s season. Sound familiar, Patriots fans?
- So the Chargers get into the playoffs in a somewhat controversial way. They’re 8-8, and while no one expects them to do much, I will say they are easily the most entertaining choice out of those four AFC wildcard contenders. Maybe Philip Rivers, Keenan Allen, a throwback Antonio Gates and the combo of Ryan Mathews & Danny Woodhead can get hot and make a game out of it in Cincinnati this weekend.
- Nothing else too dramatic in the AFC on Sunday. As Denver (#1), New England (2), Cincinnati (3), Indianapolis (4) and Kansas City (5) all maintained the same seed that they entered the day with.
- The attention in the AFC is going to be devoted to Denver & New England, due to them getting the byes and the Brady-Manning rivalry, as well as to Kansas City because of the franchise’s immediate turnaround under Andy Reid and the intrigue over how well they’ve played all year. But I want to spend a minute addressing the other two division winners who might get overlooked.
- Indianapolis: Don’t bank on them in the playoffs just because they’ve won their last three games in blowout fashion (25-3 over Houston, 23-7 at Kansas City, and 30-10 over Jacksonville this past Sunday). Remember that those opponents are two awful teams and one that was resigned to its #5 seed fate and probably didn’t give 100%. No, if you’re going to back Indy in January, it’s going to be because they’re battled-tested (six regular games vs playoff teams) and seem to play up to their competition (4-2 in those six games). And if they get past the visiting Chiefs in the wildcard round, they’ll face a team they already beat this year…the Denver Broncos.
- Cincinnati: Here’s your case for picking Cincy to win it all. They are 2013’s version of the 2012 Ravens. AFC North team with a solid defense that people wrote off because of injuries (Leon Hall and Geno Atkins = Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis, etc). They have a young QB who no one has faith in, and who constantly is the butt of jokes from other teams’ fans (Dalton = Flacco). They’re a team that didn’t impress much during the regular season and that is largely being overlooked as the playoffs begin.
- The difference is that Cincy has even more offensive talent than last year’s Baltimore team.
- And remember that there was absolutely no indication heading into last year’s playoffs that Flacco was about to put up 11 touchdowns and ZERO interceptions during a four-game Super Bowl run (working against this comparison is that Dalton has looked far worse this year than Flacco did last year).
- I doubt I’m going to pick the Bengals or Colts to be that longshot team that gets hot and wins it all, but they’ve each got at least a little case to be made.
- I was watching Peyton Manning shamelessly pad his passing stats against Oakland when Andrew Siciliano, DirecTV’s Red Zone Channel host, told us, “Call it what it is. The greatest quarterback season in the history of the NFL.”
- And it’s so true. I’m just glad the stars have realigned back to the good old days when Manning is breaking every regular season record while the entire world greases his pole, and Brady and the Patriots are back to winning ugly, getting lucky and being discounted by the national media.
- Another sign that glory days might have returned for New England? Brady threw a pass in the 4th quarter that was intended for #45, Williams….Who? Apparently D.J. Williams. Unrecognizable players popping up in key spots = another Patriots Championship Days Staple.
- Amazingly, LeGarrette Blount is now in the “can’t afford to lose him” conversation for the rest of the year. Just like we drew it up when we penciled the Patriots in for 12 wins and a run to the Super Bowl.
- One AFC-related gambling note: If you didn’t run to your computer to lock in “Oakland +3 2nd half,” during halftime of the Raiders-Broncos game, then you must hate money. Manning had just broken Drew Brees’ single season passing yards record and added four more passing touchdowns to his collection. The Broncos were up 31-0. Me and my 10 closest friends could have outscored the Broncos in the 2nd half.
In the NFC:
- Not nearly as chaotic in this conference as a late Carolina push against Atlanta, then a New Orleans blowout of Tampa Bay and an easy Seattle win over St. Louis locked the Panthers into the #2 seed, the Saints into the #6 seed and the 49ers into the #5 seed.
- But I’d like to take a moment to offer a respectful, professional golf clap to the 2013 Arizona Cardinals. After the 2012 disaster known as “Kolb, Skelton, Hoyer and Lindley try to play QB,” the Cardinals put up a fine season with a serviceable Carson Palmer, a hidden running back gem in Andre Ellington and a nasty defense. Ten wins will get you into the playoffs more often than not, but it wasn’t meant to be this year. Thanks for single handedly making a few NFC teams push themselves through the final week due to your constant nipping at their heels.
- If you got on the Arizona bandwagon around midseason, you were handsomely rewarded from a betting standpoint. They covered eight of their final nine games of the season. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed them so much. I often picked them as my most confident bet of the week.
- Kind of couldn’t have asked for a better game then Green Bay-Chicago. There was a ref screw job alert when a Bears player got called for a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty after trying to pull up on a hit against Aaron Rodgers, only he had to use his arms to break his fall and lightly touched the Green Bay QB. There was also player ineptitude when Rodgers fumbled in the 2nd quarter, only all 22 players on the field thought it was an incomplete pass so everyone awkwardly stood around while the ball was sitting still on the ground and the refs refused to blow a whistle. Of course the Packers finally recognized the situation and promptly scored.
- These are the kinds of plays that determine divisions when your division is full of hot steaming garbage.
- For Green Bay’s troubles, they’ll draw San Francisco in the opening round of the playoffs…an opponent that causes Aaron Rodgers to angrily mumble under his breath for three straight hours while Mike McCarthy self-induces a coma to avoid making a game-changing mistake and Dom Capers sits in the coach’s box repeatedly shitting himself.
- And for our third referee screw job reference of the blog, let’s turn to Al Michaels at Cowboy Stadium:
- “So the Cowboys get screwed on that situation,” said Michaels when a clock glitch turned into a Dallas penalty with five minutes left in the 4th quarter in the division-deciding game against Philly. Gotta love how the refs did not let week 17 go by without altering the course of events for the 2013 playoffs.
- Another great NFC game, this time decided by ages-old rule that states, “Whichever man lines up behind center for the Dallas Cowboys shall lose games in the most ball-busting fashion possible…it does not matter if his name is Tony Romo or something goofy like Orton.”
So there you have it, folks. Twelve playoff teams’ hopes and dreams on the line over the next 34 days, and eleven bitter disappointments guaranteed.
We’ll be back with separate AFC & NFC playoff previews later in the week. And I might just dig through the archives to find my best and worst predictions from the 2013 preseason.