Forget the concept of 'momentum;' wild card picks, Welker injury huge for Patriots, hot player of the week.
By Jim Buzinski
How I saw Week 17 of the NFL:
Before I delve into my playoff picks, I wanted to write about the biggest myth concerning the playoffs -- that of "momentum." It doesn't exist any more and ignore anyone who bases their playoff picks based on that fallacy.
I had done all the research and was ready to write my own take but then came across this terrific piece by Bill Barnwell of Football Outsiders. He saved me several hundred keystrokes and he said it as well as I could have:
What recent results have showed, though, is that the idea of momentum -- of teams "peaking at the right time" -- is a crock. The last three years provide enough fodder to kill the idea. The 2006 Colts went 2-3 in December, losing by 27 to the Jaguars and by three to a 6-10 Texans team before narrowly beating a 6-10 Dolphins team to finish the year. They went and won four straight games en route to the Super Bowl.
In 2007, the Giants supposedly picked up momentum when they played the undefeated Patriots to an extremely close game, losing by three before starting off their hot streak. That's reasonable, but it was preceded by a 3-3 stretch that saw the team lose to the Vikings by 27, the Redskins by 12, and narrowly pull out victories over mediocre teams in Detroit (six points), Chicago (five points), and Philadelphia (three points). The idea that the Giants' win over the Patriots had given them momentum didn't come until they actually made it to the Super Bowl, and their "momentum" consisted of one game.
Last year's Cardinals took the cake, though. After virtually locking up the NFC West with a 7-3 start, Arizona took the rest of the season off. Finishing 2-4, the Cardinals lost to the Giants by eight and the Eagles -- the same team they'd beat in the NFC Championship Game -- by 28. It got worse in December. Playing two playoff-caliber teams, the Cardinals lost by 21 to the Vikings and the Patriots by 40. The idea that they had momentum is absurd; time will not produce a better example of a team limping into the playoffs for decades.
Of course, the flip side of the "momentum" idea is fallacious, too; there are plenty of examples of teams sweeping December after an uneven first three months, only to disappear in the playoffs. The 2007 Redskins won their final four games after burying Sean Taylor, pushing them into the playoffs after a 5-7 start, but got annihilated in Seattle when Todd Collins started throwing interceptions. Last year's Chargers went 4-0 in December to sneak into the playoffs, and beat the Colts with a great performance at home in the Wild Card round, but were summarily dispatched in Pittsburgh a week later. The Falcons finished 5-1, winning their final three, and lost to the Cardinals in the Wild Card round. The Dolphins did them one better -- going 5-0 to end the year, and 9-1 overall -- and got stomped, 27-9, by the Ravens in the Wild Card round. These are the most recent of many such examples in the past.
The 2007 Giants are a great example. I got sick of people claiming they won the Super Bowl because they played hard in Week 17. Nonsense. They won because they outplayed their four opponents in the playoffs and got some breaks (Patrick Crayton dropping a key pass in the divisional round, Brett Favre's hideous OT interception in the NFC title game and Asante Samuel dropping what would have been the game-ending pick in the Super Bowl). Had they lost their playoff opener at Tampa, I can guarantee that the same people who later lauded the Giants for playing hard in Week 17, would have then ripped them for not resting their starters in a meaningless game.
This season, teams with momentum are the Chargers (11 wins in a row), the Cowboys (three in a row with two consecutive shutouts) and the Packers (won seven of their last eight). Teams without are the Saints (lost last three, two of them meaningful games), Vikings (lost three of their last five) and Bengals (lost three of their last four). Ignore the Colts losing their last two since they yanked their starters early in both games. Yet, with the Saints and Vikings getting byes, don't assume what happened weeks before will have much of an impact. Conversely, don't book a Chargers-Cowboy Super Bowl just yet.
Bottom line: Teams win in the playoffs because they play well and breaks go their way, the same way they do in the regular season. And if teams peak, the right time isn't the end of December, it's the end of January.
On to the playoffs:
Before the season, I picked the Colts to beat the Packers in the Super Bowl. Since both teams are still alive, I will stick with that. But very little would surprise me in the NFC. I find it hard to see anyone other than the Colts, Chargers or (to a lesser extent) Patriots winning the AFC, but the NFC has seen six different champs in the past six years, so anything can happen. Indianapolis goes into the postseason healthier than at any point this season, key for a team without much depth, so I like their chances better than any other team.
Wild card picks:
NFC: Eagles (11-5) at Cowboys (11-5); Packers (11-5) at Cardinals (10-6).
These are rematches from Week 17 (as is Jets-Bengals in the AFC), which is an unfortunate coincidence since it's less compelling to watch the same teams play in consecutive weeks. For the record, in wild card games where the two teams met the week before, the regular season winner is 4-5 in the subsequent playoff matchup.
Flip a coin in either NFC game. The Cowboys swept the Eagles, but beating the same team back to back is tough. The Eagles fell from being the No. 2 seed with a bye to the No. 6 seed. The Cowboys are a legit Super Bowl contender the way Tony Romo is playing at quarterback and the way the defense is shutting teams down. On the hand, the Eagles have won their playoff opener seven times in a row. On a hunch, Dallas gets its first playoff win since 1996. Cowboys 27, Eagles 20.
The Cardinals are an impossible team to figure out and this game all depends on what Kurt Warner shows up -- the guy who throws five TDs or five picks. I lean more to the latter. I like the way the Packers are playing defense and Aaron Rodgers is becoming an elite QB. Packers 30, Cardinals 23.
AFC: Ravens (9-7) at Patriots (10-6); Jets (9-7) at Bengals (10-6).
The Patriots are 8-0 at home in the playoffs in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era. They should make it 9-0, but I give the Ravens a real shot. The devastating knee injury to Pats slot receiver Wes Welker is a huge blow to New England's offense. We also learned Sunday that Brady has been playing with broken ribs and a broken index finger on his throwing hand. The Ravens can move the ball, but have had a habit of self-destructing at key moments of big games. How weird that the Pats went 11-5 in 2008 without Tom Brady and missed the playoffs, but had a worse record this season with Brady back yet won the division. Pats by a late field goal, 16-13.
The Jets are the luckiest playoff team in years. They were trailing the then-unbeaten Colts when Indy pulled their starters and tanked. On Sunday, they played a Bengals team that rested a lot of key players and looked like it couldn't have cared less about the game, which the Jets won in a walk. Neither team has a potent offense, so this will be a close, low-scoring game. I see Jets QB Mark Sanchez making a key mistake near the end. Bengals 17, Jets 10.
Week 17 notes: The biggest development might have been Patriots receiver Welker injuring his knee against the Texans. It is being called a tear of the ACL and MCL, which means he is done for this season and maybe a long time into next. With his loss, the Patriots' chances of winning the Super Bowl just got a lot longer. He led the league in receptions, 60% of his receptions were for first downs and teams were forced to pick their poison - focus on Randy Moss and let Welker beat you underneath, or focus on Welker and watch Moss burn you deep. Minus Welker, the Pats don't have a serious threat at second receiver.
Cyd texted me that Colts fans must be cheering Welker's injury. Not me. I've been hurt playing sports many times and it sucks, so I never wish injury on anyone, even when they play for a hated rival.
Let it snow: The Colts (14-2), playing their second- and third-stringers, lost to Buffalo, 30-7. With their offensive starters in, the Colts were tied 7-7, then fell apart when Peyton Manning sat. The loss makes last week's dive against the Jets less meaningful, since a Super Bowl win by Indy won't have people saying they should have been 19-0 had they only played out against the Jets. The Buffalo game was in a snowstorm, and there is no way Manning would have played more than the quarter he did even had they been 15-0 going in.
Falling apart: The Giants started the season 5-0 and ended it 3-8. Still fighting for a playoff spot, the Giants lost their last two games 85-16. Pathetic. In the AFC, the Broncos started 6-0 and finished 2-8. Denver needs a new QB since it's obvious that Kyle Orton is nothing but a compentent backup.
Buyer beware: There's nothing more boring than late-season meaningless games involving playoff teams, and I feel bad for ticket-holders who don't get to see the stars play. On Sunday, Drew Brees sat for New Orleans, Manning sat for three quarters for the Colts, and Tom Brady started, sat, went back in and sat again. I know teams have earned the right to sit key people to avoid injuries, but watching the Colts was like watching an exhibition game. It's what makes many Week 17 games a letdown.
Hot player of the week: Jets safety Jim Leonhard is a 5-8, 186-pound safety with a handsome face and killer body. I've had my eye on him since his days with the Ravens.