Before getting on with the lovable nonsense that is professional football’s Wildcard Weekend, some end-of-year housekeeping chores are due.
For those just itching to know how the annual prediction score turned out, well, it was really not bad at all with a 167-86 final total, which is a .660 average; and one should take two out of three in this league every time.
For those keeping a close eye, you may have noticed that final tally only adds up to 253, and there are 256 games scheduled in the regular season; so hereby is an explanation: In Week 10 there was a tie between San Francisco and St. Louis, and since the accounting system doesn’t account for ties, it was thrown out. The other two missing games were the result of scheduling/publication deadline snafus owing to the league’s Thursday night slate. Small loss.
Like I said…housekeeping.
It’s also Awards Time, and everybody likes free goodies.
Coach of the Year – Bruce Arians. There were a lot of worthy candidates: Pete Carroll in Seattle, Mike Shanahan in Washington, or John Fox in Denver; plus some regularly great ones like Bill Belichick in New England or Mike McCarthy in Green Bay that nobody thinks about any more because either their excellence doesn’t get our attention now or they lose on personality points.
Arians – with a strong assist by Chuck Pagano who remained constantly engaged while still fighting leukemia – was given the impossible task of directing what was essentially a college all-star team through the constant rigors and challenges of an NFL season.
Their accomplishment is conclusive proof that, when talent and resources are roughly equal, the difference between winning and losing is motivation (the combined communication skill of instruction and persuasion), which is actually what coaches are paid to do.
After the way Arians was ignominiously dumped by Pittsburgh after the 2011 season, he couldn’t have found a better result. They remind one of Rick Pitino’s first Kentucky team, and perhaps even more Herb Brooks’ 1980 Olympic hockey champions – focused and deeply driven.
If there is any prediction about this at all it is that their accomplishment this year will mean even more to them one day than any championship they may one day win. They’ve dreamed and done the impossible, and that’s the sort of thing professionals work their whole lives to find a chance to do, if only just once.
Player of the Year – Russell Wilson, and goodness knows there are a hundred other worthy candidates out there for this one. The final cut came down to Adrian Peterson, Peyton Manning, London Fletcher, Bobby Wagner, and Robert Griffin III. (And when was the last time two Seahawks made the short list in anything?)
Seattle and Pete Carroll were laughed at for using a high draft pick to take him. He was snubbed by talent evaluators and media glitterati alike. Nothing (if you’ll excuse the expression) short of total failure was predicted. Moderate competence (think Chad Henne) was the best that could be expected.
In the “Year of the Rookie Quarterback” he was more consistent than Andrew Luck and more of an offensive threat than RGIII. No team since the 1950 Rams put up so many consecutive 50-point games in a season. By the end of the year, his team was just as big a monster on the road as it had become at home.
It’s been steady. It’s been unexpected. It’s been amazing. And there’s still more to come.
Team of the Year – Since they get to play for this one, we’ll hold the accolades for now. Suffice it to say, this appears to be a year of surprises.
Because it’s now playoff time, that means beginning with the teams ranked 5-12 in the final season standings. Who’s got the most in their tank this week? It appears to be the visitors most of the time, and here are the reasons why:
Bengals at Texans – Cincinnati has had the league’s best scoring defense over the last half of the season. The past month, they’ve even been putting points on the board. The downside has been the offense, which has become increasingly pedestrian. Andy Dalton has suddenly either lost it or been figured out. Houston is going to come with pressure at him all day, so he’d best be prepared to play a game he hasn’t shown in six weeks. Another option or two coming out of the backfield would not be a bad idea either, Jay Gruden.
For all of Cincy’s offensive foibles, the Wrath of Khan is about to come down on Matt Schaub’s head if he doesn’t stop stinking things up. Coach Gary Kubiak had his team in the driver’s seat until time caught up with them, along with a few crucial injuries (the aforementioned Schaub being just one), and an at best up-and-down December, the result of which was they failed to get a crucial week off.
So it comes down to consistent defensive fronts for both teams, the legs of Arian Foster being in better shape than Benjarvus Green-Ellis, a non-injured but also non-threatening Dalton versus a banged up and misfiring Schaub, two decent kickers playing indoors, and a partridge in a pear tree.
This just has toss-up written all over it and that normally means home team advantage. However, given Houston’s struggles of late and the fans’ irritation with fading hopes, plus the Bengals’ obvious motivation to respond more favorably than they did last year with essentially the same team and circumstances, there is a strong motivation factor (positive and negative) in play here. Doubt the dipstick if you wish, but Cincinnati’s tank seems fuller.
Vikings at Packers – Saturday’s second game is an even more intriguing matchup of familiar counterparts: a running team that throws a few surprises at you versus a passing team that runs at you when you are least prepared for it. On the defensive side of things, give the edge to Minnesota for consistency and speed up front. If those guys can get to Aaron Rodgers early and often, this one has all the makings of an upset.
But not at Lambeau in January. In the unlikely event AP can run it once again 30-plus times for 200-plus yards (for the third time this season against Green Bay) that rests the defense enough to keep constant pressure on Rogers, so that’s the key. But can the Vikes play the same game two weeks in a row against the same team?
The odds in pro football say no, and especially not when you change venues. Green Bay’s tank has got just a bit more in it, partly because they did not use it up last week and the impression is that Minnesota did.
Colts at Ravens – Baltimore has lost four out of five, and though they may put up one heck of a fight on Sunday, the ravages of time and a brutal season have shown on a proud but depleted defense. It’s entirely possible Joe Flacco shows up with one of his head-turning games, but it’s been so long we’ve almost forgotten what he’s capable of doing.
As for the motivation factor, the tanks in Indianapolis are topped off. They’ve got nothing to lose and everything to play for. It doesn’t get much better than that. It’s been awhile since Baltimore fans had a better reason to cry over their beloved Colts. This time they can win one for the ages in their former hometown. Maybe the old band will get back together for them one last time.
Seahawks at Redskins – It’s hard to imagine a better matchup for Wildcard Weekend. The tanks are so full you can smell the fumes from here. Spectacular rookie quarterbacks in front of a huge crowd absolutely starving for playoff football: Talk about your popcorn moments!
There’s lots of balance between these two, but Wilson is a much greater threat to throw the ball down the field and is just as accurate an overall passer. Plus he’s just as good a runner when he has to be, and when he does it’s as a scrambler looking to throw and not a designed read off an option. In other words, he’s much harder to predict.
Even predicting what RGIII will do doesn’t mean you can stop him, but the deciding factors to me are his injured knee appears to have slowed him down enough to make a difference in the defensive containment when he does run and Seattle’s secondary is back to full (and healthy) strength.
There you go football fans. Pick you own winners. Have some fun!