A quick fix for the playoffs and my predictions for Wild-Card Weekend
Division winners shouldn't be guaranteed a home playoff game
Patriots didn't deserve to make playoffs ahead of Chargers
Will the road teams win all four games in wild-card round?
In the NFL, what passes for major debate today is how the wrong teams are in the playoffs. We seem to either want New England to get some sort of hall pass because they're home for the holidays and San Diego is in, or we want to just eliminate the division structure altogether and get the six teams with the best records in each conference in the playoffs.
No, and no. But what the NFL should do is not automatically award division winners a home playoff game. I'll get to the reasons for that in a moment, and I'll pick this weekend's game, but first, let's put away the violins for the Patriots, and for the death of divisions.
The fact New England lost out this year is an unfortunate anomaly. The Patriots are certainly one of the best seven or eight teams in football today, and 12 make the playoffs. In the last three weeks of the season, they played in the driving rain (Oakland), blowing snow (Arizona) and 40-mph gale-force winds (Buffalo) and outscored foes 109-33. Good team. Very good team. But let's compare the Patriots and Chargers in a few relevant categories.
Record: New England 11-5, San Diego 8-8. Huge advantage Pats.
Head-to-head: San Diego 30, New England 10 on Oct. 12. Advantage Chargers.
Division record: New England 4-2, San Diego 5-1. Advantage Chargers.
Last month: New England 4-0, San Diego 4-0. Even.
Last Half-Season: New England 5-3, San Diego 5-3. Even.
New England lost by 25 at home to Miami and by 23 at home to Pittsburgh, and allowed Brett Favre to convert a third-and-15 pass in overtime Nov. 13, leading to an overtime win by the Jets in Foxboro. So while there's little doubt they're one of the best teams ever to not make the playoffs, they're hardly the '85 Bears. Or even the '07 Patriots.
Regarding the idea to have two 16-team conferences, with no division distinctions, or to simply take the best six teams per conference to the playoffs: Bad idea. It'd take away the playoff-ramification significance of division games. Steelers-Ravens will always be a bad-blood game, but if both are 11-3 late in the year and assured of playoff spots, their game becomes nothing but a joust for better home-field seed in the playoffs -- and maybe Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh rest sore vets for a half because good health is more important to them than home playoff games.
What the league should do is determine home playoff games throughout the playoffs by virtue of record. That would reward the teams that played the best for 17 weeks ... and prevent much of the slacking-off by team in Weeks 16 or 17 if they already know where they'll be seeded, and whether they'll be home or away.
Should 11-5 Atlanta be at 9-7 Arizona, which beat no team in the final 11 weeks of the season other than the below-.500 dregs of its own division? In the 19 years the NFL has used the 12-team playoff format, I'd argue that Arizona is the worst division champion. (Go back and look it up. I did. I can't find a worse home playoff team since 1990.) The Cards capitalized on the worst division in recent NFL history -- the NFC West was 10-36 outside of its division -- and took road futility to a new high. They were 0-5 in the Eastern Time Zone, and lost those games by an average of 20 points. Atlanta, meanwhile, beat three playoff teams in the last six weeks, two on the road.
Should the Colts, four games better than the Chargers (12-4 to 8-8), have to fly to San Diego today for Saturday's playoff game? No. Indy won the head-to-head matchup, in San Diego, and by any measure is the better team.
I know what the NFL will say. We put a premium on winning the division, and we don't want to de-value it by not guaranteeing the division champ might be on the road for a wild-card game. But why? I understand the part about not devaluing the division champ. Fair. But a playoff berth alone is reward enough. What's patently unfair is telling an 11- or 12-win team that has survived a much more difficult schedule (11-5 Atlanta, for instance, or 12-4 Indy) that the reward for having a far superior four-month run is to be on the road in the first round of the playoffs.
It won't be hard to fix. And it must be fixed.
Now onto the picks for Wild-Card Weekend:
Atlanta 33, Arizona 17. Obviously, it's hard to not sing the praises of Matt Ryan, the Offensive Player of the Year. Let's look at how Ryan performed on the road in the most hostile of environments, in games at 2008 playoffs teams: lost at Carolina and Philly, won at San Diego and Minnesota. Total interceptions: two. Total time sacked: six. Ben Roethlisberger on the road against playoff teams this year: 1-2, two picks, 11 sacks. My point is, I don't think Ryan flew cross-country Thursday night thinking to himself: "Gee, this game's going to be too big for me.''
Indianapolis 29, San Diego 23. The Chargers have the best shot of any home 'dog to win this weekend. Peyton Manning is on a ridiculous late-season run, but Philip Rivers might be individually hotter (11 touchdowns, one interception in San Diego's 4-0 December). While I don't think the Colts will go into this game thinking it might be the swan song for Tony Dungy, who is expected to ride off into the real-world sunset after the season, I wouldn't be surprised if one of the trusted defensive vets like Dwight Freeney goes around to his guys when things get hot late in the game and says we're not letting our guy go down like this again, in the first game of the playoffs.
Baltimore 16, Miami 6. They played in Week 7, at Miami, and Baltimore won 27-13. Lesson from that game: Chad Pennington was an efficient 68-percent passer, and the Wildcat gave the Fish nothing. They ran it five times, for minus-one, five, zero, minus-three and three yards. Pennington will try to test Baltimore's corners a few times downfield, and his success or failure will determine the outcome. My view, obviously, is that the Comeback Player of the Year will not have one final comeback in him Sunday. Too much front-seven pressure from the unpredictable Ravens.
Philadelphia 20, Minnesota 13. You put Brad Childress on sodium pentathol, and he'll tell you he wishes he didn't have to run Adrian Peterson so much this year (363 times), helping him to a bad ankle entering the second season. He'll admit it was about right to have Peterson and Chester Taylor combine for 464 carries, but Peterson running it 78 percent of those carries was just too much. Well, forget that now. The Vikes have to get on Peterson's back one more time to have a good chance here, and I say the Eagles -- better than you think against the run, 3.5 yards per opposing carry -- will hold the gimpy Peterson under 80.