Playoff Picture Coming into Focus, Peterson’s MVP Stock Rising And the Rest of the NFL’s Week 13 in Review

So here we are, exactly three-fourths of the way through the NFL season. My record against the spread is a sparkling 109-78-5, I’m in first place in both of my season-long Pick ‘Em leagues, I’m heading to the playoffs in one of my two fantasy leagues….and yet, I feel like I know nothing about the NFL. Or more accurately, I feel like I know nothing about what’s to come during the rest of the NFL regular season and playoffs. At different times throughout the season, we’ve heard that true NFL parity has finally arrived even while our eyes have told us that there are a handful of elite teams that are light years ahead of the rest of the league. On February 3rd are we going to see a Super Bowl Champ that barely made it to the playoffs—a 9-7 or 10-6 team that seems like an afterthought in early January? (like the 2011 and 2007 Giants or the 2010 Packers) Or are we more likely to see a team that’s basically been one of the best from the start of the season hoisting the Lombardi Trophy? (shades of the 2009 Saints, the 2008 Steelers or the 2004 Patriots)

But I’m getting too far ahead of myself talking about which Patriot team will be holding the Lombardi Trophy in February. Even though four teams have effectively locked up their division titles already, there’s still a ton to be decided in the final quarter of the season. By my count, in the NFC there are still three divisions up for grabs and seven teams fighting for the two wildcard spots. In the less-climactic AFC, there is still one undecided division and three teams vying for the two wildcard spots.

(By the way, you know how all season I’ve been clarifying what Seattle’s record should be every time I list their actual record? You know, because of the replacement ref debacle in week 3? Well that game is currently giving Seattle the tiebreaker over Washington for the 6th seed in the NFC. A lot of games to be played, but I’d be stunned if the Seahawks’ fake win over the Packers didn’t factor significantly into the final playoff picture.)

You can expect in these final four weeks I will be prioritizing my analysis to focus on playoff-contention teams more than the trash of the NFL. All that means is you’ll have to wait until the bottom of my posts to read all the fun jokes about the Jets, Ryan Lindley and Jim Schwartz’s brilliant coaching decisions.

By the way, if you’re looking to read a concise article about all the teams in the playoff hunt and what their finishing schedules look like, I find Grantland.com’s Bill Barnwell to be a pro at giving only the necessary information. You can read his playoff article from Monday HERE.

Let’s blast through the week 13 review so I can get back to surprising my girlfriend by taking down all of our Christmas decorations while she’s at work:

-Do you remember when the Falcons began the season 8-0 and players like Asante Samuel were fussing about the team not getting enough national respect? And then they went out in week 10 and promptly lost to the Saints? They followed that loss with three unconvincing wins: by four points at home against Arizona, by one point at Tampa Bay, and this past Thursday night by 10 points against those same Saints. How is a 10-point win against a division rival not convincing? When the quarterback of that division rival decides to throw five interceptions and you only score six points off of those turnovers. Yes, the final score is definitive, but anyone who watched that game knows that Atlanta played pretty bad after the first quarter.

-So Atlanta probably goes 13-3 at worst and gets the #1 seed in the NFC. But you know who this team looks exactly like? The 2003 Kansas City Chiefs. It’s OK if you don’t remember a thing about them; I’ll remind you. The ’03 Chiefs began the season 9-0, had a top-five offense, a below average defense and had absolutely no one expecting them to win a single playoff game even though they got a 1st round bye before hosting the Colts in the divisional round. Sound familiar? I know we’re still six weeks away from that divisional round, but would it surprise anyone if the Falcons were home underdogs if someone like Green Bay, Washington or the Giants were visiting Atlanta for that game? So, Atlanta, I’d say you’re getting exactly the amount of national respect that you deserve.

-Speaking of Drew Brees’ season-ruining game on Thursday, I’m glad I didn’t release my MVP standings last week because Brees would have no doubt been in the top 7. Now that he leads the league in interceptions, has only the 10th-best passer rating, and one could argue he singlehandedly ended the Saints’ season, I’d have to drop him out of the top 10 probably.

-Remember when I decided something was wrong with Green Bay’s offense? Let me quote from my Week 2 review post from way back on September 18th: Let me be the first to wonder if Green Bay’s offense is in a little bit of trouble through 1/8th of the regular season. They’re averaging 22.5 points so far, and I know it’s a tiny sample size, but we’re talking about a team in 2011 that went 15-1 while averaging 35 points per game…Just something to keep an eye on because if that offense takes a step back, their defense will have to play as good as it did against Chicago almost every week.” So they’ve raised their points per game from 22.5 to 24.7 over their past 10 games. That number puts them at 16th in the NFL in scoring, a few spots behind the Raiders and the Eagles. When I was watching the game on Sunday and saw Jordy Nelson leave in the 2nd quarter because of an injury, I decided that Green Bay has simply suffered too many injuries this year. It’s a good excuse for why they might be no better than a 5-seed in the playoffs, and it’s a good excuse for why Aaron Rodgers is having a slightly off year (except I know a certain quarterback whose best receivers from 2004-2006 were Troy Brown and Deion Branch, and his offense ranked in the top 10 in those years…just saying).

-The point I’m trying to make about Green Bay is two-fold: 1). Because of the injuries and the offense’s inability to fully click, they really shouldn’t be more than a three-point favorite against any team for the rest of the year. But because they are such a publicly-bet team every week, Vegas will continue to set the lines on their games accordingly. Expect them to be favored by about two or three points too many the rest of the way. 2). Aaron Rodgers will have to put together the greatest four-game stretch in football history to win the MVP Award.

-Sticking with the MVP topic for a minute, Minnesota’s opening drive of the 2nd half of their game against Green Bay was a prime example of why Adrian Peterson might be the NFL MVP. Here is the three-play sequence as described on espn.com’s play-by-play page for this game:

  • A.Peterson left end pushed ob at GB 12 for 48 yards
  • A.Peterson up the middle to GB 8 for 4 yards
  • C.Ponder pass short right intended for M.Jenkins INTERCEPTED by M.Burnett at GB -7. Touchback.

Sure, I might want to mention his 82-yard touchdown run in the 2nd quarter or the fact that he ran for 210 total yards in this game when trying to argue for his MVP worth, but I think the juxtaposition between Peterson’s successes and Christian Ponder’s failures is even more telling. If the 6-6 Vikings somehow make the playoffs, Peterson is the MVP winner. I’m not saying he shouldn’t win it if they fall short of the playoffs, but the suspense would be gone if they can sneak in (which they won’t…still have games against Chicago, Houston and Green Bay).

-One more piece of supporting evidence for Mr. Peterson: With 9:39 left in the 3rd quarter, the Vikings had 273 total yards of offense. AP had 210 rushing yards at that point. Ponder was 5-of-13 for 36 yards and two interceptions at that point. The Vikings were only down by one. Case closed.

-Congrats to the Bears. You joined Carolina as the only teams to allow Seattle to win on the road this year. The Seahawks are the classic “nearly unbeatable at home, totally beatable on the road” team. The Bears might regret this loss not only because bloggers like me can justifiably lump them in with a team like the Panthers, but also because this could be the game that decides who gets a wildcard spot and who doesn’t…and now the Bears lose a tiebreaker with Seattle. This Chicago team was 7-1 just four weeks ago, and now they’re looking at the possibility of being 8-6 with two games to play. Classic Bears.

-So Tampa Bay did exactly what I thought they’d do…lose to a good team. I mentioned last week when picking Denver (-7) over the Bucs that Tampa hasn’t beaten a good team all year. At 6-6, they’ve given us such a precise blueprint for winnable games vs non-winnable games that I think we can look at their final four matchups and know with 100% certainty whether they’re making the playoffs or not. Let’s play this out: Week 14 home vs Philadelphia = WIN, Week 15 at New Orleans = WIN, Week 16 home vs St. Louis = WIN, Week 17 at Atlanta = LOSE if Atlanta is still trying, WIN if Atlanta has #1 seed locked up. So there you have it. Tampa can go 10-6 if they get some help from Atlanta in week 17. Unfortunately Tampa loses tiebreakers to Washington and Dallas (two other 6-6 teams) so even if they win their final four games, they don’t necessarily control their own destiny. I’ve solved absolutely nothing with this paragraph.

-If the payoff for having to endure the Ravens’ four-game winning streak while Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb were out is watching them lose to Charlie Batch, I’ll take it. Finally the NFL’s luckiest team got only an average amount of luck and they lost to a 37-year-old quarterback who has no right being employed in the NFL. And finally the door is open for New England and Denver to leap over Baltimore in the AFC playoff seedings. If Atlanta is the NFC’s least-scary playoff team, then Baltimore might be the AFC’s. And if the Ravens fall to the 3rd or 4th spot in the AFC and have to play on the road after the wildcard round, their season is pretty much over.

-And, listen, I’m willing to give the Ravens credit for going 4-1 so far without Lewis and Webb, but only if the media stops acting like Lewis is a valuable asset to the Raven defense. You can’t have it both ways. In fact, why does Baltimore even want Lewis back for the playoffs? They’ve done just fine (or better) without him.

-Even though Pittsburgh and Cincinnati gained ground on Baltimore in the AFC North, it still appears the Ravens will win the division. That leaves the Steelers, the Bengals and the Colts battling for two wildcard spots. I’m predicting the Steelers and Colts will get to 10-6 and the Bengals will fall just short at 9-7.

-For Indianapolis, suddenly their week 16 game at Kansas City looms large. If they beat Tennessee at home in week 14 and lose their two games against Houston, the difference between 10 wins and a playoff spot and 9 wins and no playoffs is that game against the Chiefs. On paper that looks easy…the Chiefs are 2-10. But that’s absolutely a game that a young team with an inexperienced quarterback (who’s throwing way too many interceptions, by the way) could lose.

-By the way, I’m not at all concerned that the Patriots had to “sweat out” their win in Miami on Sunday. I’m now willing to admit that something about playing in Miami is difficult for the Patriots. We saw Tom Brady missing easy throws and forcing a pass that got intercepted; Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez dropping multiple balls; Stephen Gostkowski missing a makable field goal…But they still won by 10.

-Wait, I meant to say “they should have won by 10.” Depending on when you bet the Patriots last week, you got them anywhere between a 7.5-point favorite and a 9-point favorite. So I don’t have to tell you that the field goal Miami decided to kick on 2nd down with 31 seconds left in the game that took the score from 23-13 to 23-16 really fucked me over. And that’s the difficulty with picking a large-point favorite. You just can’t plan for that. The Patriots had a 16-play drive just before the field goal in question, and they had absolutely no motivation to score a touchdown. They played for their own field goal. And since the Dolphins needed both a field goal and a touchdown, it made sense for them to kick it first and try to recover an onsides kick. Such a wildcard at that point in the game. It seriously ruined my day.

-One more note on the Patriots/Dolphins game: Who was primarily covering Brandon Lloyd all day? Shouldn’t the Dolphins immediately give that guy a giant contract? He has to be the best cornerback in the NFL, right? Because no quarterback forces passes to a wide receiver quite like Brady does to Lloyd. All year long, that’s been the thing between those two guys. No matter how tightly Lloyd is covered, Brady always tries to jam at least a handful of passes in there. And yet in this game, Lloyd’s name wasn’t even mentioned until there was 12:29 left in the game and it was only because one of the announcers said, “Let’s see if they finally try to get Lloyd involved.” Don’t know who was covering him, don’t care, he’s the new Revis.

-Oops, last note on the Patriots (I mean it this time): I’m worried about Brandon Spikes…worried that he’s gonna turn into one of my least favorite players and then I’ll have to awkwardly cheer for him but secretly hate him. He already got suspended in 2010 for failing a PED test. And this season he’s been accused of being a dirty player by his opponents on a couple occasions. And now he’s on the verge of over-celebrating after meaningless pass defenses and tackles, like I saw him do when he broke up a 2nd down pass attempt by the Dolphins early in the 3rd quarter. He’s teetering on the edge of being a guy I’d absolutely hate if he was on any other team. Don’t go over the edge, Brandon.

Now for the quick notes on all the things that had no playoff implications:

-As brutal as the Dolphins’ backdoor cover was against the Patriots, Philly’s backdoor action on Sunday night in Dallas was even worse. Again, depending on when you made the bet, you got Dallas favored by anywhere from 8 to 10 points. So with the Cowboys clinging to a 4-point lead with about six minutes left, you were obviously as ecstatic as me to see Bryce Brown fumble and Morris Claiborne return it for a game-sealing Dallas touchdown. Cowboys up 11, game over, money in the bank. Until with 53 seconds left the Eagles decided to return a punt for a touchdown and ruin my life. Just some gut-wrenching gambling losses this week.

-Speaking of gut-wrenching, how would you like to have been a football fan who attended the Cardinals/Jets game on Sunday. Throughout the morning, I found myself constantly making notes about this game while giggling with a weird sense of pleasure. After all, the Jets are my most-hated non-Seattle-based team, and the Cardinals are one of the few teams to beat the Patriots this year. So imagine my delight when I saw the following things transpire in that game:

  • Mark Sanchez had been picked off three times by the beginning of the 2nd quarter, and yet, the score was still 0-0. That’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from Arizona, right?
  • With nine minutes left in the 2nd quarter, Sanchez and Ryan Lindley had combined for 8 completions to their actual teammates and 4 completions to the other team’s defense.
  • At halftime, the Cardinals led 3-0. Any time you can see a half of football where the QBs are a combined 15-for-36 for 143 yards, you gotta be psyched about that.
  • Sanchez finally gets pulled for Greg McElroy with about four minutes left in the 3rd quarter. [Insert joke about what Sanchez was writing on his clipboard when McElroy threw the go-ahead touchdown…My joke would be something about Sanchez drawing a picture of his cock squirting semen all over Rex Ryan and McElroy, but I’m sure there’s been better jokes out there on the web.]
  • I made a note that Arizona was “entering Steelers in week 12 territory” by recovering four turnovers and only having six points to show for it.
  • And then we get these final stats: Ryan Lindley finishes 10-for-31 for 72 yards and 1 interception (an average of 2.3 yards per completion)…and somehow he wasn’t the quarterback who got benched.
  • Sanchez and Lindley’s combined stats for the game: 20-for-52, 169 yards, 4 interceptions, 0 touchdowns

-You can read plenty of articles breaking down the fight for the top seeds and playoff spots in both conferences, but what about the “fight” for the first overall pick in the 2013 draft? Right now Kansas City and Jacksonville are tied with 2-10 records. But don’t sleep on the three teams with 3-9 records either: Philadelphia, Carolina and Oakland. I think Carolina’s out of this race because they have too many winnable games left on their schedule ( San Diego, Oakland, New Orleans). Getting a fourth win would eliminate them. Oakland has a home game against the Chiefs and a road game against the Chargers, and I think they’ll win one of those, so they’re out too. That leaves three teams that I believe can all finish the season at 3-13. If someone wants to email me the info on how the tie is broken for who gets the top pick in that situation, I’d appreciate it. I just won’t spend the time researching it myself.

-I saw Silver Linings Playbook on Saturday night, and the biggest problem I had was the scenes outside of Lincoln Financial Field, where a way-too-happy Eagles crowd was tailgating before the games. I picture much more of a funeral-like atmosphere outside the stadium these days.

-When we were watching TV on Saturday night, that Clay Matthews Fathead commercial came on (the one where he shows us all the different Clay Matthews Fatheads he has in his house). When the commercial ended, Julie asked me in all seriousness, “Is that guy’s name Fat Head?” I told her not only is that not his actual name, but it’s not even his nickname…Except now it is.

-I started following Andrew Siciliano on Twitter this weekend. For those of you who don’t have DirecTV, he’s the guy who runs the Red Zone Channel anchor’s desk all Sunday long (DirecTV’s version of Scott Hanson, if you will). I noticed A-Sic was tweeting pretty consistently all morning and afternoon. How is he possibly doing that with eight football games all on at the same time? Is someone tweeting for him? Is he a genius robot? I live so close to the studio where he broadcasts from that I feel like I should be allowed to visit and watch him for a whole day to see how he does it. What a gifted individual.

-And finally, if you need statistical evidence to support just exciting, fascinating and incredible this NFL season has been, chew on this: There have been only 3 weeks out of 13 without at least one overtime game (Weeks 2, 5 and 9). There have been multiple overtime games in 7 of the 13 weeks. And there have been a total of 19 overtime games so far this season. (If you’re expecting me to say these are NFL records, I’m sorry disappoint you. I don’t have a clue if that’s the case or not.)

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Grantland’s Search for The Next Great Fantasy Football Writer: So You’re Saying There’s a Chance

[Editor’s Note: I decided to enter a sports writing contest for the first time in my life this week. Grantland.com is running a contest to find their next fantasy football writer. Here are the details: Fantasy Island. The contest called for an original article, no more than 750 words, giving your top 5 overall fantasy football picks for 2012, and also one sleeper pick. The toughest part of this was limiting things to 750 words. You’d never know it from my WBFF blog posts, but I tend to be a bit long-winded. Anyway, here is my submission to the contest. Feedback is welcome, but it won’t change anything since I already submitted my entry. Enjoy.]

So the top five fantasy scorers in 2011 were all quarterbacks, and you want me to go QB-heavy with my top five overall picks this year? I’ve heard a crazy rumor: the NFL is now a passing league! But I’m not taking the bait, at least not entirely.

Since you’re twisting my arm on QBs, I’ll take two at the very top of my rankings, Tom Brady (#1) and Aaron Rodgers (#2).

Why Brady over Rodgers? Well if these guys are both such safe picks, which they are, why not go for the guy with more upside? Rodgers’ offense averaged 35 points per game last year, the first time in his career that his team exceeded the 30 points per game mark. In three of Brady’s last four healthy seasons, his offense has averaged over 30 points. And while the Packers’ 2012 offense is basically unchanged from 2011, the Patriots added Brandon Lloyd, who many are predicting could do what Randy Moss did for the Pats’ offense in 2007. You can’t go wrong with either QB, but I’m taking the one who has a better chance of throwing to a record-setting offense in 2012.

You wanted me to consider Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford for the top five in 2012? Here’s what I’m considering: We’ve always heard the Saints’ offense works so well because Brees and Sean Payton basically share a brain when it comes to running it. So what should we expect when half of that brain is banned from the team this year? Not worth the risk…Pass. As for Stafford, come talk to me when he has consecutive seasons of good health and elite numbers. Pass again.

Though it’s tempting to put Calvin Johnson in my picks, I’m going with three running backs to round out my top five. Welcome to the party, LeSean McCoy (#3), Ray Rice (#4) and Jamaal Charles (#5).

McCoy barely beats out Rice, my tiebreaker being “overall team offensive competence.” Since 2009, McCoy’s first season in the NFL, the Philadelphia offense has been significantly better than the Baltimore offense. I will always trust an offense that runs through Michael Vick to generate more scoring opportunities and longer drives than an offense that runs through Joe Flacco. I’d actually trust an offense that runs through me over a Flacco-led unit. And if you think McCoy can’t sustain his 20 touchdown total from 2011, think again and realize how badly the Eagles DON’T want Vick trying to run for TDs on the goal line.

And why Charles, coming off a lost season from an ACL tear in 2011, as my fifth-ranked fantasy player? Because most importantly, he looks like the Charles of old. Watching his preseason work so far, there’s no hint of any lingering issues from the knee injury. He’s had almost a full year to recover, and remember that before the injury Charles was the next big thing, the guy most likely to have a “Chris Johnson in 2009”-like season. True, it seems like he’ll never get more than 250-275 touches in Kansas City, but he didn’t need any more than that to produce over 1,900 total yards in 2010. The bonus is that the Chiefs play 10 games this year against teams that ranked in the bottom 12 in run defense in 2011. I like Charles’ odds to have some monster games against such soft defenses. You go ahead and enjoy a safer pick like Arian Foster. I’ll go for the home run. Oh, and Matt Cassel is the Chiefs’ quarterback. Romeo Crennel knows that. I think they’ll run the ball plenty.

Give us a sleeper, too, you say? A genius pick that no one else would have the balls to put out there? Look no further than Minnesota Vikings savior Christian Ponder. I’ll wait for the laughing to stop.

As a rookie in 2011, he played in nine full games, putting up double-digit fantasy points in six of those. In 2012 he has a (hopefully) healthy Percy Harvin and a shiny new toy in Jerome Simpson. Tell me you’d rather have a Sanchez, Cassel, Palmer or Locker, but then go look at Ponder’s preseason stats as well as the defenses he faces in weeks 7-14 this year (four consecutive game against teams ranked 22nd or worse in pass defense last year). Now tell me again with a straight face that you’d rather have those guys over Ponder. Can’t do it, can you?