Sorry, Coach Dale. You and your measuring tape may have given us one of the best scenes in sports movie history, but here in reality, home field still matters. I don’t know why it does, but it does.
Intellectually, you’re right, of course. A football field is 100 yards long from goal line to goal line whether you’re in Foxboro or O.co (but not in Toronto. Or the rest of Canada. Silly Canadians.) It shouldn’t make any difference to professional athletes whether the gathered crowd cheers for or against them. But it does.
Don’t just take my word for it. Go back and watch Tuesday night’s National League wildcard game in Pittsburgh, where the 40,000 black-clad marauders spooked Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto into literally dropping the ball (and figuratively dropping something else in the back of his pants).
If you prefer pigskin to white leather balls, the same proof of home-field’s significance was on display the night before in NOLA, where the victorious Saints were aided, per usual, by their sublime home-dome advantage. In fact, Drew Brees and his pals look just about unbeatable on their home field – and that oughta scare the rest of the NFC, considering the Saints are 4-0 and looking good at the season’s quarter pole for one of the conference’s top-two playoff seeds.
Then again, the Saints have to be at least as frightened at the prospect of having to head to Seattle for a postseason game… and not just ‘cause they’ve still got emotional and/or physical scars from this. The Seahawks are formidable anywhere, but inside the NFL’s greatest stadium, in front of the 12th Man, they become the ‘Breaking Bad’ of football teams (read: the best)… and while home field always matters, in the 2013 NFC, it’s everything.
With the possible exception of the Seahawks, is there a team that could go into New Orleans this January and come out with a win? Green Bay? That seems about as likely as the climate-controlled Saints winning a playoff game in sub-zero Lambeau. San Francisco? They couldn’t even beat the Ravens in that dome! The prospects are even grimmer for visitors to the (presumably damp, raw) CLink, where Russell Wilson has never lost. (I know the sample size isn’t huge, but 10-0 ain’t jive.)
Point is, any of the NFC’s would-be contenders better spend the next three quarters of the season playing catchup with the conference’s two undefeated teams. Otherwise, the Saints and Hawks are almost guaranteed to be playing for a trip to New Jersey in early February. Who’d win that one? I’ll take the home team.
Maybe because Tom Brady threw a TD pass on Sunday to a guy named Mulligan, I’ve decided to give myself another swing at my post-season projections here that season’s quarter pole. Let’s be honest: correctly picking which twelve teams will still be around come January is almost as difficult as pulling off a fourth-quarter comeback with Jeff Tuel under center. Four weeks (plus a Browns’ Thursday night win) into the season, though, and things are looking clearer, the inherent unpredictability of injuries notwithstanding. So let’s get into it: the 2013 NFL playoff seedings, the accuracy of which I absolutely, positively guarantee… unless I change my mind by the season’s midpoint.
#1 seed: Denver Broncos (13-3; West champs)
Déjà vu watching another Peyton Manning team with a shot at 14 or more wins. It’s about as dependable as something dependable. And as a reminder, Von Miller and Champ Bailey haven’t even played yet. Yikes.
#2 seed: New England Patriots (12-4; East champs)
As our pal Daniel ‘@MoveTheSticks’ Jeremiah put it, “[Tom Brady] is doing what Lebron did in Cleveland.’ If you’re dense, DJ is saying Brady is surrounded by mediocrity. Or maybe he’s saying Anderson Varejo is on the Patriots, but I really don’t think that’s what he meant. Kudos to Belichick, too, for the unorthodox-but-successful move of treating Tony Gonzalez like the Falcons’ punt-team gunner with last Sunday night’s game on the line.
#3 seed: Houston Texans (11-5; South champs)
You think the Schaub negativity is rough now? Just wait ‘til the (almost) inevitable loss in the ‘Stick on Sunday night. They’ve also got a tough trip to KC in two weeks. Look at their schedule overall, though, and tell me where the other obvious losses are. In other words, stop burning the Schaub jerseys and relax, Houstonians – your Texans are still the most talented of the three pro teams in the AFC South.
#4 seed: Cincinnati Bengals (10-6; North champs)
Your first-place Browns have a terrific defense and some brown pants so ugly they’ll be sure to weaken all foes, but without Brian Hoyer I don’t think the mini-miracle can continue. (Yes, I just implied Brian Hoyer is an NFL team’s x-factor.) Meantime, downstate, Mike Zimmer’s defense is too good to not start dominating at some point, and that point will arrive sooner rather than later. How soon? This Sunday against the Patriots. (Yes, that’s a prediction they’ll win.) For the long haul, though, they might wanna consider going after the guy I suggested last week.
#5 seed: Kansas City Chiefs (13-3; wildcard)
Pet peeve: so-called experts validating their own failed preseason picks by saying, “No one saw the [FILL IN GOOD TEAM HERE] being a contender.” Well, some people did see the Chiefs’ turnaround coming…. Especially those of us who were paying attention to the fact the talented 2012 team simply got Romeo’d. KC was bound to be better with Andy Reid in charge. All that said, no one saw this team making an 11-game improvement… but even with two games upcoming against Denver, it’s a real possibility (as is a division crown if they can split with those Broncos).
#6 seed: Miami Dolphins (11-5; wildcard)
I caught a lot of Twitter heat last week when I said I’d rather have Ryan Tannehill than Russell Wilson. (And now, I’ll catch more even more in the comments section below.) Sorry if that opinion upsets you, Seahawks fans, but it’s not intended as an insult to your terrific QB. Tannehill is bigger, runs better, and – while he didn’t go to the playoffs last year – did a nice job in 2012 with lousy passcatchers and subpar o-line. If you think I’m crazy, call up Jeff Ireland and see if he’s interested in trading Tannehill for Wilson. (Don’t be surprised if hangs up when he figures out you’re not authorized to make that deal.)
Close but no cigar:
Indianapolis Colts 10-6 – Lots to like, but a schedule that includes Seahawks, at Chargers, Broncos, at Texans isn’t one of ‘em.
Tennessee Titans 9-7
Even though I think Ryan Fitzpatrick has at least one great game in him (and will show as much in the Titans’ upcoming win at home with the Chiefs this weekend in the Gold Star of David Upset of the Week), the Locker injury feels like a killer. He was just starting to roll, but his health – or lack thereof – is officially a problem. By the way, did you know Fitzpatrick went to Harvard?
#1 seed: Seattle Seahawks (12-4; West champs)
On one hand, the Texans shoulda been able to hold on last Sunday. On the other hand, the Seahawks were missing three starters from the league’s best o-line. Seattle’s nasty pass rush got Chris Clemons back last week, and Bruce Irvin’s back this week. Look out, NFL.
#2 seed: New Orleans Saints (12-4; South champs)
Yeah, yeah… Sean Payton’s a genius and Drew Brees is a wizard, but how ‘bout some more national attention for the real difference maker, tight end supreme Jimmy Graham? I could throw touchdown passes to the guy. Just toss it up high and let the big guy out-jump the overmatched linebacker and/or safety. Victory! By the way, Rob Ryan’s defense isn’t the ’76 Steelers, but so far it looks good… enough.
#3 seed: Green Bay Packers (11-5; North champs)
The Bears and Lions (and even Cassel’s Vikes) make the NFC North the toughest division in the NFL. I also feel like there might be some legitimate discord between Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers. A top-two seed is already probably out the picture… but I like that defense the Pack will get back on track at home against Detroit this Sunday, and – if the Bears can’t handle New Orleans in Soldier Field – will be just a ½ game out of first.
#4 seed: Philadelphia Eagles (10-6; East champs)
The abysmal defense won’t be properly addressed ‘til the offseason, but the Iggles have a shot to run off five straight starting at the Giants this weekend, then at Tampa, home with DAL, the Giants, and trip to Oakland. From there, they’ll be able to limp home in the league’s limpest division. Sidenote: Washington’s level of play is about to rise (how could it not?), but so will the competition.
#5 seed: Chicago Bears (11-5; wildcard)
As bad as Jay Cutler looked last week, I’m still buying him as an MVP candidate in Marc Trestman’s offense thanks to that collection of big, talented passcatchers and an exceptionally favorable remaining schedule.
#6 seed: San Francisco 49ers (11-5; wildcard)
Kaepernick and the Niners’ offense looked better a couple Thursdays ago thanks to the return of the still-wobbly Vernon Davis, the most complete tight end around when he’s right. If the his hammy issues are behind him, Davis will be the difference maker as a blocker, pass catcher, and general distraction for opponents who’d rather devote a defender to spy on Kaepernick. Make no mistake, though: this team’s overall personnel just isn’t as good as it was last year.
Close but no cigar:
Atlanta Falcons – 10-6
My preseason Super Bowl pick is in serious trouble of not even making the playoffs. Believe me, I’m stunned, but the injuries to key pieces have been crushing for a defense that was already a question mark. Apologists will point out the Falcons were a pass away from beating the Saints, a pass away from beating the Pats, and one incompletion by Tannehill from beating the Dolphins. Problem is, Atlanta is now 1-3 (3 games behind New Orleans including that head-to-head loss) and a tougher road ahead than the Bears and Niners. They might be as good as 5-3 when the Seahawks come to town in November…. But a return date with Saints and games in Green Bay and SF still loom. (Caveat: the Falcons beating the Niners head-to-head in two days before Christmas could flip things.)
St Louis Rams – 8-8
It hurts typing this one even more than the Falcons. I was certain Jeff Fisher would get St Louis to the next level this season. I was certain Sam Bradford would prove the only thing he’s lacked the last couple years was some speed to target. I was certain the talented defense would at least be able to hang with Seattle’s and San Francisco’s. I was wrong.
So… all this means the Wildcard Round matchups will be as follows:
#6 Dolphins at #3 Texans (HOU’s first-ever home playoff game against someone other than Cincy)
#5 Chiefs at #4 Bengals
Bye: #1 Broncos, #2 Patriots
#6 Niners at #3 Packers (they’re playing in January again. Why? Because it’s the law!)
#5 Bears at #4 Eagles
Bye: #1 Seahawks; #2 Saints
Looks like fun another fun January, no? Lemme know if you agree… or don’t. Either way.