By: Dave Baker
Last Sunday I went to a T.G.I. Friday’s to watch the Chicago Bears take a shot at snapping a five-game losing streak against the Green Bay Packers. Normally, I avoid chain restaurants. Except Chili’s – their queso dip is a revelation. I got no beef with $3 Bud Light tall boys, but eating stale mozzarella sticks and sharing a bar with a dozen people who showed no visible interest in professional football is fucking grim. After jumping out to a 7-0 lead, the Bears spiraled. By four in the afternoon, Chicago had ceded a second NFC North Division title to the Packers in as many years and sent the NFC playoff picture into pandemonium. I slumped a little lower into my stool, and toasted the likely end of the Lovie Smith era with a third tallboy and some fruity shot that tasted like something a homely looking high school girl would drink after her BFF Kevin told her he ‘just wanted to be friends.’ Nothing takes the edge off of realizing your team wasted a generation of great defense quite like triple sec and sour mix. My friend Mark patted me on the shoulder and said something more profound than any of Joe Buck’s vapid analysis: “You know, Bake, division games are important.” Thanks, prick. But my sarcastic friend is right. As we enter the final two weeks of the regular season, these games carry massive implications, especially in an NFC conference boasting five teams with 8-6 records. Dreams will be realized, hearts will be broken, and for a team like the Chicago Bears, the future of the entire franchise may be decided in the coming weeks. December football is like watching Sons of Anarchy, but better.
The AFC Playoff Picture
If the playoffs started today: If the playoffs started today, the Houston Texans and Denver Broncos would claim the one and two seeds. New England would finish third and host the Cincinnati Bengals in the first round; with the fourth-seeded Baltimore Ravens playing the fifth-seeded Indianapolis Colts.
How we see it playing out: Not too much intrigue in the AFC. The Pittsburgh Steelers are still alive at 7-7 and finish out their season hosting the Bengals and Cleveland Browns. The Steelers are in disarray, however. Ben Roethelisberger’s rib injury has hampered offensive production and reports of a strained relationship with offensive coordinator Todd Haley haven’t helped at this critical point in the season. After home games, it’s well known in league circles that Roethlisberger and Haley wear camo hats and shotgun Natty Ices in the players’ parking lot. Haley, who has a penchant for scrapping with players and fellow coaches on the sideline, has been uncharacteristically coy with Roethlisberger. After last Sunday’s overtime loss to Dallas, in which Roethlisberger tossed a game-altering pick on the second play of OT, Haley and Roethlisberger brought a 30-pack with them for the plane. They took their seats and Ben asked Haley, “You mad, bro?” Haley mean mugged Ben, shrugged his shoulders and took out his buck knife. “Nah, we’re cool, bro.” Haley sent the needlessly large blade through the aluminum can and handed the knife to Ben. This awkward exchange went on for the duration of the flight and ended with them crashing on the pullout coach in Mike Tomlin’s office, who I’m still not entirely convinced isn’t Omar Epps.
While Pittsburgh attempts to win out and hopes for Baltimore to drop their final two games against the New York Giants and Cincinnati Bengals, the Miami Dolphins can luck into the last wildcard spot if both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati lose out. The likelihood of Lauren Tannehill’s husband making a rookie playoff appearance is slim, but at least Dolphins fans can close out the season with the satisfaction that they are not the New York Jets. Which brings us to the comedic meltdown of Mark Sanchez and skinny Rex Ryan. Rumors have surfaced that Sanchez’s poor play can be attributed to his recent split with actress Eva Longoria. Ask yourself, Mark Sanchez, which is a greater accomplishment: winning a Super Bowl or becoming Eskimo brothers with Tony Parker? I honestly think that one is a no-brainer.
Extremely Bold and Premature Playoff Prediction: Tom Brady and the Patriots go on a mission in the postseason, winning road games at Denver and Houston on their way to a second Super Bowl appearance this decade. I base this prediction solely on the fact Tom Brady holds a slight advantage over Peyton Manning in the postseason. Some day very soon we’ll be given respite from talking about the ‘Patriot Way’ and the brilliance of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in the postseason and blah, blah, blah. We’re not quite there yet and with such a down year in the AFC, Brady has one more run in him.
The NFC Playoff Picture
If the playoffs started today: If the playoffs started today, the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers would have first-round byes. The third-seeded Packers would play the sixth-seeded Vikings in an NFC North playoff clash, and Russell Wilson and RGIII would join Andrew Luck as rookie QBs making their playoff debuts.
How we see it playing out: I’d have an easier time picking winners in the upcoming Italian Parliamentary elections (I’m all in on my boy Pier Luigi Bersani, by the way) than I would sorting out this mess in the NFC. According to CBS Sports:
– The New York Giants, who were once 6-2 and can clinch this week, can be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss + Washington win + Dallas win + Seattle win/tie.
– Chicago, who was once 7-1, can be eliminated from playoffs with loss + Minnesota win. In fact, any loss for the Bears in the last two weeks combined with any win for the Vikings will result in Chicago missing the playoffs.
– Only one scenario over the final two weeks will prevent the Dallas-Washington game from being a meaningful game in determining the NFC East champion. It only happens if the Giants win out and both Dallas and Washington lose in Week 16.
– If Washington-Dallas-N.Y. Giants are tied at 9-7, Washington will be the division champion if they beat Dallas to get there due to head-to-head sweep of Cowboys and winning 3-way tie on head-to-head. If Dallas beats Washington to get there, the Cowboys will be division champion on better common opponents record than the Redskins (9-3 to 7-5). In either case, the Giants would finish 3rd in the division in this scenario.
– Seattle has the obvious inside track on a wild card slot, but the Seahawks can also get to the No. 2 seed by winning out + San Francisco loss in Week 17 + one Green Bay loss. Seattle has the tiebreaker advantage over Green Bay in that scenario with a head-to-head win.
Well, that is all thoroughly confusing. I’m glad they actually pay people to break down playoff scenarios, because hitting refresh on the ESPN playoff machine and trying to make sense of it all got really tedious after, oh, I don’t know, twelve minutes?
As well as Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings have played lately, it’s hard to see them winning out and earning the final wildcard spot. The Bears, while in a freefall, have road games against Arizona and Detroit rounding out their schedule and the Vikings play at Houston and host Green Bay to end their regular season. The potential exists that the Packers, who’ve already secured the division, rest their starters in the finale, giving a desperate Vikings team an opportunity to join Green Bay as the NFC North’s second playoff team. Here’s to wishful thinking that Aaron Rodgers takes the field on December 30th. The pessimistic Chicago fan in me has already resigned himself to a long winter of meaningless Cubs signings and watching Marco Belinelli jack up threes. Starks are always right eventually: Winter is coming.
Extremely Bold and Premature Playoff Prediction: The Seattle Seahawks top the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game. The Niners lose the conference championship game at home for the second consecutive year, and Colin Kaepernick playing Russell Wilson sparks a brutally uncomfortable discussion somewhere about racially ambiguous star athletes. Skip Bayless will no doubt say something stupid and Stephen A will shoot him a look that says, “Chose your next words carefully, mothafucker.” Skip will back pedal and bring up all his black friends from high school basketball and the clip will become a major chapter in my upcoming self-published (and highly slanderous) work of non-fiction entitled Sh*t Skip Bayless Says. Copyright infringement completely intended. Do something, Justin Halpern.