Archive for December 2006
Hello again and welcome to the 2006 season of the NFL Answer Man. On
Sunday night the Answer Man drove home from Vegas. On Monday night
the Answer Man couldn’t get on the Internet because it hadn’t been set
up yet at our new apartment. And with the crazy new NFL Network
schedule, the Answer Man’s deadline was Thursday at 5:00 Eastern.
It’s been a sleepless couple of nights for the Answer Man.
We like our new apartment: plenty of room for the Answer Baby. This
is her only year as the Answer Baby. Next year she’ll be the Answer
Toddler. The year after that we’ll be starting her off on her
volleyball career. The most ludicrous thing in the world is that kids
get to go to places like UCLA for free just because they’re good at
volleyball. The Answer Man wants a piece of that action in 2024.
Along with the new apartment in Tempe, Arizona, we badly need a new
cell phone number. But for now, the Answer Man is still available at
(206) 817-4358, or in honor of Hanukkah, 817-GELT. Call anytime. The
email address we monitor closely these days is email@example.com.
As always, I have tried to anticipate any of your reasonable questions
about NFL playoff scenarios and answer them here. Let’s get started:
Q: Before we talk about the playoffs, what does the NFL Network have
to do with your deadline?
A: Unlike recent years, when the NFL ran a scattered handful of
Thursday night games, this year they’re running a continuous series of
them. They created this package, including some Saturday night games
as well, and put it up for competitive bid during the most recent
round of TV contract negotiations. Then they took a gamble and
rejected all the bids, keeping the package in house. The gamble was
that they could make more money producing their own broadcasts and
selling their own commercials on their own network, the NFL Network.
The key revenue item, though, was charging cable companies for the
right to carry the network.
Some would call this extortion. Some would use a milder term, like
“hard-nosed bargaining.” Either way, the viewers are caught in the
middle. We’re supposed to complain to our cable providers when
there’s a game on the NFL Network and we can’t watch it. This is
supposed to cause the cable providers to cave in to the NFL’s pricing
demands. The whole scheme is typical of cable network negotiations:
the viewers are always shut out in the cold. In 20 years when we call
up all our TV programs on demand from the Internet, we’ll look back
and marvel at how it used to be. (Or, like leasing our home phones
from AT&T, we’ll forget it ever happened.)
One decision I had to make, moving into our new apartment, was which
digital cable “tier” to order. We were entitled to one free tier. I
chose the entertainment tier, with Lifetime Movie Network and Oxygen,
over the sports tier with the NFL Network and whatever they’re calling
OLN with the hockey games these days. I figured the Answer Wife is
home all day, taking care of the Answer Baby, and she might as well
have channels she wants to watch. And I figured I wouldn’t be
extorted out of five bucks a month by the NFL when, after next week,
I’ll have no use for their channel until next November. So tonight
I’ll be listening to the Vikings and Packers on radio.
But my point is that I wanted to get this column out before tonight’s game.
Q: Why? Is there something so important about tonight’s game?
A: Eh, not really. The winner will have a decent chance at the
playoffs: the Vikings better than the Packers, as the Vikings hold
literally every tiebreaker at 8-8 except a head-to-head with the
49ers. The loser will be eliminated, if the Vikings, or all but
eliminated, if the Packers (who would need lots of help, including a
couple of wins by Detroit).
Q: Any other games like that on Sunday’s schedule?
A: The Panthers and Falcons. The Panthers, now 6-8, are definitely
eliminated with a loss, and have a chance with a win, though they’d
still need plenty of help. The 7-7 Falcons would be in trouble with a
loss and in great shape with a win.
Q: Do the Falcons control their own destiny? Or do the Giants?
A: Among wild card contenders, the Eagles are alone at 8-6, so they
clearly control their own destiny. (In fact, if they beat Dallas on
Monday, they will be in first place and will hold the tiebreaker to
win the East Division.) Then there are two teams with 7-7, the
Falcons and Giants. What you’re asking is: If they each win out, who
makes the playoffs?
The Giants do. They have beaten the Falcons head to head. You’d
think that tiebreaker would be enough to answer your question. But if
the Falcons finish 9-7, they’ll have beaten the Eagles in Week 17. So
the tiebreaker actually depends on whether the Eagles also finish 9-7,
and if so, whether the Eagles earn a wild card with that record or win
the division, which would mean the Cowboys would have a wild card at
9-7. And the Cowboys have beaten the Falcons, too, so that’s bad news
Basically, if both the Falcons and Giants finish 9-7, then the Falcons
miss the playoffs if the Cowboys lose twice.
Q: Who gets the bye week in the NFC?
A: The Saints, probably. They hold a head-to-head tiebreaker over the
Cowboys. The Seahawks, a game behind, cannot win a tiebreaker against
the Saints but can against the Cowboys. If the Cowboys win this week,
the Seahawks win the tiebreaker. (Huh? It’s because the Cowboys
would have to lose next week to finish 10-6, and the Cowboys’ opponent
next week is the Lions, who are a common opponent with the Seahawks.)
If the Cowboys lose this week (and beat the Lions next week), it’s a
strength of victory tiebreaker that’s too close to call.
Q: All right, then, what about the AFC? Who gets the bye week there?
A: The Chargers not only have the best record but hold all the
tiebreakers, with one exception: the Ravens beat them head-to-head.
The Ravens thus win a two-way tiebreaker with the Chargers or a
three-way tiebreaker that also includes the Patriots.
Between the Ravens and Colts, the Ravens have a better record against
common opponents and hold the advantage.
The Patriots lose every tiebreaker on the board except head-to-head
with the Bengals, which would only come into play in a wild-card
Q: What situation is that?
A: The situation where the Patriots miss the playoffs: losses to the
Jaguars and Titans, plus the Jaguars beating the Chiefs, plus the Jets
winning twice, plus the Bengals or Broncos winning twice. (The
Bengals and Broncos meet this week, so it’s one or the other.) If it
were only the Patriots and Bengals tied at 10-6, the Patriots would
win. But adding the Jaguars to the mix reverses the result: the
head-to-head victory is no longer relevant and the Bengals win based
on conference record.
You may have seen in the official NFL playoff scenarios that the
Patriots clinch the division with a win or tie, and that even if they
lose, they clinch a playoff berth if the Bengals and Broncos TIE EACH
OTHER. So now you understand that. The Patriots can only miss the
playoffs if either the Bengals or Broncos win twice and finish 10-6.
If they tie each other, then neither one can win twice.
Q: All right, I get that. But shouldn’t the Patriots have clinched
A: Not yet. If the Patriots and Jets both finish 10-6, the Jets win
the tiebreaker with a 7-5 conference record, versus 6-6 for the
Conference record, between teams in the same division, is the fourth
tiebreaker. The Patriots and Jets, at 10-6, would have split
head-to-head and compiled identical 4-2 division records. Next comes
record against common opponents: when teams are in the same division,
they play 14 such games. I’m going to give away one of my secrets
now. When calculating the common opponents tiebreaker within a
division, the easy technique is to spot the two non-common games.
Whoever has a better record in those two games loses the tiebreaker.
In this case, the Patriots have beaten Cincinnati and lost to Denver.
The Jets have lost to Cleveland, but finishing at 10-6 means they’ll
have to beat Oakland. Therefore the common opponents tiebreaker is a
Q: And the perennial question: Can the Dolphins still make the playoffs?
A: The perennial answer: No, they can’t. The best they can finish is
8-8, and they would have to be the second best team in their division,
with that paltry record, to have a chance. The best they can hope for
is that the Jets lose a home game in Week 17 to the worst team in
Raiders franchise history. But even then, the Jets’ 3-3 division
record would beat the Dolphins’ 2-4. Sometimes, as we’ve seen, a
three-way tie reverses the result of a two-way tie, but not this time.
If the Bills join the Jets and Dolphins at 8-8, the Dolphins would
still be eliminated on account of their two losses to the Bills this
Q: The Bills — they’re a good story. The Titans, too.
A: Do you have a question?
Q: Um … the Bills and Titans are a good story — aren’t they?
A: Yes, they are. Both teams have made thrilling runs back to
respectability. And this Sunday, they play each other. This means
that one team is guaranteed to continue its thrilling run. (The run
is guaranteed to end for the other team, for you glass-half-empty
types.) Whoever wins will hold a decent number of tiebreakers and
have a fair chance of making the playoffs. (The Bills, though, will
need the Jets to lose Monday night.) Whoever loses will be
eliminated, or nearly so. (The Bills won’t be mathematically
eliminated upon losing, unless the Chiefs have already beaten Oakland
on Saturday, which they will.)
Q: Anything good on TV this weekend?
Besides the TNT marathon of A Christmas Story? Why, yes. The biggest
games of this weekend are both on CBS, both on Sunday at 4:15 Eastern
Sports Time: Cincinnati at Denver and San Diego at Seattle. You know
if they had flex scheduling this week, they’d have loved to move one
of those to prime time.
Q: Yeah, what’s up with that flex scheduling? How does it work? Why
don’t they have it this week?
A: To take your last question first, they don’t have it this week
because they didn’t want to schedule a broadcast for Christmas Eve: no
one will be watching. (Still, just as nature abhors a vacuum, the
college bowl games abhor a hole in the broadcast schedule, so the poor
schlimazels from Arizona State get to spend Christmas Eve at the
Flex scheduling works like this: Starting in November, the league
picks a game every week to move off the regular Sunday schedule and
move into the Sunday night slot. The networks have the right to
protect a few of their games from being selected; exactly how this is
done surely involves a lot of behind-the-scenes maneuvering to which
we the public are not privy. In any case, the league announces 13
days in advance which game is being moved to Sunday night.
The exception is in the last week of the season, when the move is
announced 6 days in advance. This is for the stated purpose of
ensuring that the Sunday night game has playoff implications. In
years past, the season would often end with a Monday night game that
looked good on the schedule in April but was an ugly dog come New
Year’s. The problem was so acute, they eventually stopped playing
Monday night games at the end of the season. Now the hope is that the
season will end with a nationally televised game so compelling, people
will actually tune in and watch.
I’m excited to see how the league handles this and whether they
succeed in selecting a game with playoff implications. In my last 18
years of charting the football playoffs, I’ve seen this phenomenon
over and over again: the early games on the schedule resolve so many
scenarios, the late games no longer matter. This is why in my charts,
I list the games in chronological order, and why the last column is so
often filled with dashes. By the time the last game comes around, it
usually has much less meaning than it had at the start of the day.
So the challenge for the league is to select a game that not only has
playoff implications on Monday when they make the selection, but still
has playoff implications on Sunday night once the other 15 games are
over. I’m wondering if they’re up to it. The decision has to be made
on Christmas morning, so I wonder how that’ll go over too.
As I look over next Sunday’s schedule, one game jumps out at me:
Atlanta at Philadelphia. If the Falcons win this week, that’s the
game I would definitely choose for Sunday night. If they don’t, it
means the Panthers win, and I might choose their game with the Saints.
I could see the value to NBC and the league of promoting a meaningful
game in New Orleans on New Year’s Eve. But if it looks like New
Orleans will have already locked up the 2nd seed by Sunday night, then
we lose the “meaningful” angle. So then if the Steelers win this
week, I might go with their game at Cincinnati.
Q: So, any predictions?
A: All right. In the NFC, in order of seeding, we’ll have Chicago,
New Orleans, Dallas, and Seattle as division champions, the Giants as
6th seed, and as 5th seed the winner of the Falcons at Eagles (which
is why I expect it to be the Sunday night game). In the AFC, I expect
San Diego, Baltimore, Indy, and New England as division champions.
Wild cards are Denver and Cincinnati, with seeding to be determined by
this week’s game.
Q: And for the Super Bowl?
A: I see no reason to go against the trendy San Diego-New Orleans
pick. One thing for sure: this year extends the perfect 0-for-41
streak where no team has ever played the Super Bowl in its home
stadium. Just their luck this year the game isn’t in San Diego or New
Q: Next year it’s at the Cardinals’ new stadium. 0-for-42, anyone?
A: That was my line. I’m already anticipating complaints that the
Glendale stadium is off by itself, in the middle of nowhere, next to
nothing but freeways, surrounded by 80 acres of parking lots, at least
an hour’s drive from anyplace meaningful. The Sports Guys of the
world will be wistfully looking back to the great venues like San
Diego, New Orleans, and Miami. As if this year’s Super Bowl is truly
in Miami. The Dolphins play at a stadium off by itself, in the middle
of nowhere, next to nothing but freeways, surrounded by 80 acres of
parking lots, at least an hour’s drive from anyplace meaningful. So
at least be consistent. I’m watching you, Sports Guy!
Q: With that finger-pointing eye gesture?
A: That’s the one. ”I’m looking … at you … at YOU!”
Q: Getting a little punchy, are we?
A: Oh, heavens, yes. No time for fact-checking. Yes, it’s indeed TNT
that has the marathon of A Christmas Story, but the rest of the facts
are at your own risk. Tell me if you spot a problem.
Let’s get this thing out the door. See you next week.
(c) 2006 Jonathan Elgart. May be freely distributed if copyright
notice is preserved.