How to Pick College Football Bowl Games

January 18, 2011

As promised, here is my wrapup column with all the lessons I learned throughout bowl season. Timely, I know. This guide would have been extremely helpful a month ago.

However, if I don’t write these down, I won’t remember them next season. This way, I’ll only have to remember to look at my blog archives. I will almost certainly forget to do that, but there’s always a chance that I remember.

Some of these are rules that we were all well aware of before the games, but were emphatically reassured with this season’s games. Others are somewhat new thoughts. In no particular order, here are eight lessons I learned from this year’s bowl slate:

1. Do not bet against the SEC in the National Championship Game

Yeah, we already knew this one. SEC teams had won four straight BCS championships heading into this season. But Auburn really hammered this point home with their victory over Oregon.

In many ways, this was the SEC’s biggest challenge to their supremacy. The previous four titles came against the Big 12 and Big Ten. This was the Pac-10’s first crack at the SEC. The Pac-10 is widely viewed as the second fastest conference after the SEC, and Oregon dominated that conference like no team since USC six years ago. Though Auburn finished undefeated, they were viewed as one of the weaker SEC champions of recent times because of their propensity to do juuuust enough to win games. If a team was going to end the SEC’s reign of dominance, this was the year.

It was not to be. Oregon only lost by a field goal, but the difference was apparent. Auburn and Oregon were both fast, but only Auburn was big and fast. From now on, don’t pick against the SEC in the championship game – wait until another conference shows that they can compete with the best the SEC has to offer.

2. Trust the good SEC teams, but not the average SEC teams

The five best SEC teams to make bowl games (Auburn, Arkansas, LSU, Alabama, and Mississippi State) went a combined 4-1 with 3 blowouts. The next five teams (South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky) went 1-4. Last year, SEC teams that finished 8-4 or better went 3-1 in bowl games; teams 7-5 or worse went 3-3.

Between 1998 and 2008, SEC teams that entered bowl games with 8-4 records or better went 31-24 (.564). Teams with 7-4 or worse records went a 18-10 (.643). Way too small of a sample size? Absolutely. But it’s worth keeping an eye on. For many years, the strength of the conference was in the middle – the conference won only two of the first eight BCS titles. Since then, the conference has become top-heavy with the best schools getting the best recruits and coaches. It would surprise no one if the SEC became a conference of haves and have-nots like the Big 12 or Big Ten.

If so, watch out for the 6-6 and 7-5 schools in bowl games. If 6-6 SEC teams continue lose to mediocre teams from the Big East, Conference USA, and ACC, you might as well throw the “always bet on the SEC” rule goes out the door.

#3. Watch out for unmotivated teams

My full post on this is here. In that post, I identified the eight games this season with an unmotivated team that was favored by a touchdown or more. The games resulted in four blowouts for the favored team and four straight-up wins for the underdog.

In my original post, I compared these games to the 5 vs. 12 games in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Often in these games, you have an underdog that enters the game with something to prove versus a favorite that finds themselves in a less desirable bowl game because of a poor finish to the season. The lesson: beware of putting high confidence values on these teams in pools. It’s a pretty empty feeling when you know within the first five minutes that a team you put a high value on didn’t bother to show up for the game.

#4. Conference USA sucks

I know, I know, Central Florida beat Georgia after I swore up-and-down that a Conference USA team couldn’t beat a BCS conference team. In my Military Bowl preview, I pointed out that since 2005 Conference USA teams were 0-10 against BCS conference teams in bowls (0-11 after East Carolina was pummeled by Maryland).

Finally, C-USA champion Central Florida ended that streak with a 10-6 win over Georgia in the Liberty Bowl. Call me crazy, but I’m not impressed. I watched parts of the Liberty Bowl and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team care about winning as little as 6-6 Georgia did in that game. And the C-USA champion still barely slipped by.

SMU, Southern Miss, East Carolina, and UTEP all showed how overmatched mediocre teams from C-USA are against mediocre teams from other conferences. It might be okay to bet on a really good C-USA team, but resist the urge to pick 7-5 and 6-6 teams. And I’m well aware that Tulsa destroyed Hawaii, which brings me to my next point…

#5. Don’t trust Hawaii at home in bowl games

In this post, I listed Hawaii’s performance at home in bowl games since 1999. Long story short: you never know what you’re going to get with the Warriors at home in bowl seasons. They win games that they’re not supposed to and lose games that they’re heavy favorites in.

#6. Do stick with teams you like in the season and don’t over-think match-ups

If I made a list of teams that I really liked after the season, it would have included these teams: Stanford (maybe the best team in the country by season’s end); LSU (they just win baby); Boise State (drastically undervalued after losing to a very good Nevada team on the road); Notre Dame (ended season on a hot streak); and Nevada (see Boise State). The list of teams I didn’t like included: Kansas State and Georgia (both burned me late in the season); Michigan (0-8 ATS in their last eight games); Nebraska (peaked way too soon); and South Carolina (insanely overrated based on win over Alabama).

Then the matchups got in the way. I picked all five of those teams I liked, but for various reasons, only put 29, 17, 26, 18, and 24 confidence points on them because I was scared of their matchups. Amazingly, I picked Kansas State (28), Georgia (30), and Nebraska (34) for waaaay too many points because I thought they fell into favorable matchups. I also only picked a solid Florida State team for 14 against the South Carolina team that I thought was overrated. In the Michigan game, I did pick Mississippi State for 31, so at least I followed my instincts once.

The moral of the story? Stick with teams you like and teams you don’t like. Don’t let unfavorable matchups sway you from teams that you liked during the season. And definitely don’t let favorable matchups trick you into picking teams that just aren’t playing all that well.

7. Sun Belt > MAC

For some reason, the NCAA likes pairing up these two conferences against each other. Maybe it’s a conspiracy to keep these also-rans away from other teams. Whatever the reasons, I’m sure the bowls that have to host these teams absolutely love it.

The standard theory is that the Sun Belt is the worst conference in the country. This is wrong – the MAC is worse. Even picking up the scraps that SEC and ACC teams leave behind in the fertile recruiting territory in the South, Sun Belt teams are still way faster than MAC teams. Sun Belt and MAC teams have met in bowls five times in the last three years. Each time, the MAC team had the better record. They have gone 2-3. Their only two wins were 11-2 MAC champion Central Michigan over 9-3 Troy in double overtime last year and 9-4 MAC champion Miami over 6-6 Middle Tennessee this year.

The very best MAC teams might be better than the top Sun Belt teams. But if the team’s records are within a game of each other, trust the speed of the Sun Belt.

8. Some coaches get their teams up for bowl games; others fail miserably

The Missouri/Iowa game was a good microcosm of this theory. I read an argument on a message board on this game. Angry poster #1 argued that Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz gets his guys up for bowl games and Missouri’s Gary Pinkel struggles to do the same. Without doing any research, this seemed correct based on my memory. Then angry poster #2 pointed out that, before this game, Ferentz was 5-3 in bowl games and Pinkel was 4-3. Well great, now I didn’t know what to think.

Turns out, angry poster #1 was emphatically right. Of Ferentz’s three losses, only one was a blowout (the 2002 Orange Bowl to a USC team that would win the next two national titles). The other two were to Florida in 2005 (31-24; Florida won the national title the next year) and to Texas in 2006 (26-24; Iowa was 6-6 and Texas was 10-2). Pinkel’s three losses came in a 35-13 beatdown against Navy last year, a 39-38 loss to Oregon State in the 2006 Sun Bowl, and a 27-14 loss to Arkansas in the 2003 Independence Bowl. Really, the only bowl game that Missouri has looked impressive in is when an 11-2 Tiger team dominated an 8-4 Arkansas team 38-7 in the 2007 Cotton Bowl.

Records aside, not all bowl performances are created equal. In retrospect, I might still have picked Missouri, but not for 23 confidence points against a team that has historically always been ready to play. Same with Fresno State; as I pointed out here, Pat Hill has struggled getting his team ready for bowl games. For some reason, I picked them anyway. I shouldn’t have been surprised when Northern Illinois beat them 40-17 in a game that wasn’t even as close as the score indicates.

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Cornerbacks and the NFL Draft

January 17, 2011

Sometimes I have ideas for posts that simply don’t pan out when I do my research. Generally, I’ll come up with a theory that turns out to be wildly wrong, so I scrap the whole thing.

That’s what happened on this post. I had a theory that cornerbacks drafted in the first round tend to be busts a high percentage of the time and the best cornerbacks are drafted later in the draft. This turned out to be incorrect (sorta), but for reasons that were entirely unexpected by me. The research turned out to be pretty interesting though, so I decided to post it anyway.

I had the idea for this post right about the time that Packers cornerback Tramon Williams made the second half of Saturday night’s Packers/Falcons a mere formality with a devastating TAINT on the last play of the first half. For those not well-versed in Packers defensive backs, Williams was an undrafted rookie out of Louisiana Tech in 2007. He has become the best cornerback that the Packers have developed since they drafted Mike McKenzie in 1999. It’s not that they haven’t tried either – since 1999, they have drafted 15 cornerbacks. Two are still with the team – Brandon Underwood (drafted last year, primarily a special teams player) and Pat Lee (drafted in 2008, the dime back and part-time punt returner). Their top three cornerbacks are Charles Woodson (first rounder in 1998, came to Packers in 2004 via trade), Williams, and Sam Shields (an undrafted rookie).

My theory was that, judging from the Packers’ experience, it just isn’t worth it to draft a cornerback in the first couple of rounds. The short answer? I was wrong. The long answer? I might be right for a completely different reason.

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Here are the cornerbacks that were drafted in the first round between 1998 and 2008:

1998 (1 Pro Bowler, 2 average players, 1 bust) –
Charles Woodson (4) – Future Hall of Famer made the Pro Bowl in his first four seasons, was adequate for six seasons, then made four more Pro Bowls between 2008 and 2011.
Duane Starks (10) – Intercepted 25 passes and was a solid player for four teams in ten-year NFL career.
Terry Fair (20) – Lasted only four seasons before crashing out of the league.
R.W. McQuarters (28) – Intercepted 14 passes and was a decent player for four teams in eleven-year NFL career.

1999 (2 Pro Bowlers, 2 semi-busts) –
Champ Bailey (7) – 9-time Pro Bowler has 48 interceptions and is still one of the premier corners in the league.
Chris McAllister (10) – 3-time Pro Bowler was a shutdown corner for Ravens in eleven-year career.
Antuan Edwards (25) – Played for five teams in lackluster seven-year career.
Fernando Bryant (26) – Played for four teams in slightly less lackluster nine-year career.

2000 (1 Pro Bowler, 2 busts) –
Deltha O’Neal (15) – 2-time Pro Bowler. Had 34 interceptions in nine years, but was out of the league after the 2008 season.
Rashard Anderson (23) – Lasted only two seasons in the league due to a combination of substance abuse and lack of talent.
Ahmed Plummer (24) – Decent player for four years before injuries forced him to retire in 2005 after playing in only nine games in the previous two seasons.

2001 (1 Pro Bowler, 1 above average player, 2 busts) –
Nate Clements (21) – 1 Pro Bowl. Very good player, but 49ers questionably made him highest paid defensive player in history in 2007.
Will Allen (22) – No Pro Bowls, but has reputation as one of the best corner covers in league. Currently playing with Dolphins.
Willie Middlebrooks (24) – started one game in five years. Currently plays in Canada.
Jamar Fletcher (26) – played for five teams in eight years. Out of the league by age 29.

2002 (1 Pro Bowler, 2 average players, 1 bust) –
Quentin Jammer (5) – No Pro Bowls, only 14 interceptions in nine years with the Chargers.
Phillip Buchanon (17) – No Pro Bowls, 20 interceptions. Has played for five teams; was released outright twice.
Lito Sheppard (26) – 2 Pro Bowls, 1 All-Pro. Carved out a solid career playing for Eagles, Jets, and Vikings.
Mike Rumph (27) – Was called the worst corner in the league before the 49ers mercifully moved him to safety. Still lasted only three healthy seasons in league.

2003 (3 Pro Bowlers, 2 busts) –
Terence Newman (5) – 2 Pro Bowls, 26 interceptions. Has spent entire career as starter for Cowboys.
Marcus Trufant (11) – 1 Pro Bowl, 20 interceptions. Has spent entire career with Seahawks.
Andre Woolfolk (28) – Rarely played in four seasons with Titans. Out of league by 2006.
Sammy Davis (30) – Rarely played in five seasons with three teams. Out of league by 2007.
Nnamdi Asomugha (31) – 4 Pro Bowls. Premier shutdown corner in NFL. Amazingly, the ball was thrown his way only 27 times in 14 games in 2010. Signed to largest contract for cornerback in NFL history.

2004 (1 Pro Bowler, 2 above average players, 1 bust) –
DeAngelo Hall (8) – 3 Pro Bowls, 32 interceptions in seven seasons.
Dunta Robinson (10) – Was a starter for six seasons for Texans. In 2010, Falcons signed him to second largest contract ever for a cornerback.
Ahmad Carroll (25) – Weaknesses included not being able to cover receivers. Played parts of four seasons with three teams. Last seen as practice squad member of UFL’s Hartford Colonials.
Chris Gamble (28) – Has started at cornerback for last seven seasons for Panthers and grabbed 24 interceptions. One of the highest paid defensive players in NFL.

2005 (1 average player, 3 busts plus 1 bust at cornerback position) –
Pacman Jones (6) – Weaknesses included sobriety and not getting arrested. Actually had two decent seasons for Titans in 2005 and 2006. Last seen as member of Bengals, displaying little of the athleticism that made him the sixth overall pick.
Antrel Rolle (8) – Injuries and lack of coverage ability cost Rolle to lose his starting job after three seasons. Converted to safety in 2008, and has made two Pro Bowls since then.
Carlos Rogers (9) – Solid six-year starter for Redskins.
Fabian Washington (23) – Really fast, but not all that good. Has been mainly a backup for career.
Marlin Jackson (29) – A poor man’s Antrel Rolle. Mainly a backup cornerback, he has also filled in at safety at times, where he has done well. Eagles signed him in 2010 to be a safety, but a ruptured Achilles ended his season in June.

2006 (1 Pro Bowler, 1 average player, 2 busts) –
Tye Hill (15) – Part-time player has played for four teams in five years. Was waived by Titans before 2010 season.
Antonio Cromartie (19) – 1 All-Pro, 1 Pro Bowl, 18 interceptions in five seasons.
Johnathan Joseph (24) – Solid, if unspectacular five year starter with Bengals.
Kelly Jennings (31) – Still hanging around with Seahawks, despite being only a nickel or dime back.

2007 (1 Pro Bowler, 1 above average player, 1 TBD) –
Darrelle Revis (14) – 3-time Pro Bowler. Along with Asomugha, has reputation as premier shutdown corner in the league.
Leon Hall (18) – No Pro Bowls, but has been a standout corner with Bengals. Has 18 interceptions in just four seasons.
Aaron Ross (20) – Decent, injury-prone cornerback with Giants. Has started 24 games in four seasons.

2008 (2 Pro Bowlers, 1 above average, 2 TBD) –
Leodis McKelvin (11) – A good return man, but has been largely ineffective at corner in three seasons.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (16) – A standout with 13 interceptions. Selected to 2010 and 2011 Pro Bowls.
Aqib Talib (20) – Another standout, has grabbed 15 interceptions in three seasons.
Mike Jenkins (25) – Shutdown corner for Cowboys was selected to 2010 Pro Bowl, although he seemingly took a step backwards in 2010 season.
Antoine Cason (27) – Intercepted four passes in 2010 season, his first as a starter.

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For those counting at home, that’s 14 Pro Bowl cornerbacks, 16 busts, and only eleven that fell in between (I excluded Ross, McKelvin, and Cason because each has spent only one full season as a starter so far).

Generally, if a team has an almost 40% chance of essentially wasting a draft pick if they draft a player from a certain position, you’d think they’d stay away. But clearly teams are swayed by the 35% chance of hitting a Pro Bowl pick. And there’s very little in-between – they either waste a first round pick for a bust or get a Pro Bowl cornerback.

Six cornerbacks were selected to the Pro Bowl this season; five were drafted in the first round (fourth round pick Asante Samuel was the lone non-first rounder). That was a higher percentage than any position other than inside linebacker (all four are first-rounders).* It is hard to fault teams for looking for another one of these Pro Bowl cornerbacks, but I can’t help but think that using a first round draft pick on a 50/50 shot is something that the Detroit Lions would do.

* I quickly looked up all linebackers (the NFL doesn’t differentiate between OLB and ILB in  the draft, and I was too lazy to break them down myself) from 1998 to 2008. The result: 16 Pro Bowlers, 13 average/TBD, and just 6 busts. And this is at a position significantly more likely to face career-ending injuries than cornerbacks. Needless to say, this is a way better success rate than cornerbacks.

So what explains the results of first round cornerbacks? I have a few theories. I suspect it’s a combination of one or more of these:

1. It’s extremely difficult to identify first-round talent for the cornerback position. College receivers are just that much easier to defend. This year’s top CB prospect, LSU’s Patrick Peterson, faced the #2 WR prospect Julio Jones of Alabama…and that’s it for receivers projected to go in the draft. The second best CB prospect, Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara, faced exactly zero receivers projected to go in the draft.

More than any other defensive position, a cornerback faces a series of one-on-one matchups. Good college linebackers and safeties have to make reads each play. Good defensive lineman face double teams if they are dominant players. Good college cornerbacks, on the other hand, simply aren’t targeted. The offensive team will gladly leave the cornerback to cover a receiver and make the game 10-on-10. There’s a reason that Darrelle Revis’s nickname is “Revis Island” after all. It’s hard to figure out just how well a cornerback’s skills will translate to the pros if they don’t get the reps against the best receivers.

2. NFL teams look at the wrong numbers. The most important attribute for a pro cornerback is instinct. And yet NFL teams still fall for cornerbacks who perform well at the draft combine. Nebraska’s Fabian Washington was drafted in the first round by the Raiders in 2005. Washington was a solid cornerback for the Huskers, but no Husker fan realistically viewed him as a standout. Then he ran a 4.25 40 at the combine, the fastest time for any player that year, and jumped 41 1/2 inches in the vertical jump. Somewhat predictably, he didn’t crack the starting lineup for the Raiders and was traded to the Ravens in 2008. He started for parts of 2008 and 2009 before the Ravens benched him for good early in 2010.

Nnamdi Asomugha is probably the best shutdown cornerback in the league. He ran a comparatively slow 4.45 and jumped only 37 1/2 inches. Closing speed helps, but it doesn’t help that much. Yet since that’s all teams can measure in the combine, they fall for guys like Washington’s pure speed and neglect guys like Asomugha’s “quickness.”

3. Teams don’t know how to develop cornerbacks. For reasons that aren’t really clear to me, teams tend to thrust rookie cornerbacks right into the starting lineup. Because of the 1-on-1 nature of the position, a rookie cornerback is extremely easy to exploit. They also standout far worse when they have bad games; it’s easier to point to the one cornerback covering the 200-yard receiver than it is to point out just one of the seven lineman and linebackers charged with stopping the 200-yard rusher.

Fans jump on the rookie cornerback, and his confidence is shot. The most famous example of this is Broncos’ rookie Roc Alexander, who was charged with covering the Colts’ Reggie Wayne in the 2005 NFL Playoffs. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning mercilessly picked on Alexander. Wayne finished with 10 catches for 221 yards; Alexander played one more season with the Broncos and was out of the league for good by 2007.

Other than quarterback, cornerback is probably the hardest position for a rookie to play for all the reasons that I described above. And yet teams mostly refuse to keep a roster spot for a rookie backup cornerback. On top of that, only 18 of 32 NFL teams even bothered to keep a cornerback on their practice squad this season. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to line up opposite an NFL receiver every week in practice, instead of being thrown to the wolves each week in a game?

Look no further than Asomugha for support. He sat on the bench for the better part of his first two seasons in the NFL. Now he’s one of the best cornerbacks in the league. Sure, Revis started right off the bat and developed into a premier shutdown corner. But for every Revis, there’s an Ahmad Carroll – the Packers first round pick in 2004 that was such a train wreck that he was abruptly cut four weeks into the 2006 season.

4. Reputation. I think this plays a small part in how long a cornerback stays in the league. Cornerbacks are a lot like offensive lineman in that we tend to notice them only when they do something bad. Occasionally a cornerback will come up with a good interception, but more likely, you’ll only notice them if they get burned on a long pass or get an illegal contact or pass interference penalty called on them. Revis and Asomugha combined for zero interceptions this year, yet we know them as the best shutdown corners in the league. Every week, we see that the receiver that they cover is out of the picture. Like an offensive lineman who doesn’t allow sacks, we just know that they are good.

But this can also turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Quarterbacks see that other teams don’t throw towards those good corners, so they don’t throw their way either. But the cornerbacks that get burned once or twice a game…well, those corners will be getting picked on. Just like that, the gulf between good cornerbacks and bad cornerbacks grows wider, simply because that’s who quarterbacks choose to target.

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The schism between Pro Bowl and bust cornerbacks is probably a combination of those four theories. Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara is projected to go in the top five of the draft. I watched every Husker game this year and I couldn’t tell you if he’ll be a Pro Bowler or a bust. He was great for Nebraska, but it wasn’t so much for what he did – he had zero interceptions – but for what other teams didn’t do against him. Who knows if that will cut it against far more talented quarterbacks and receivers.

So what does this mean for NFL teams that draft a cornerback in the first round? Simply, beware: you have a 50/50 shot at getting a franchise cornerback and a 50/50 shot of wasting your first round draft pick.

If your team has a lot of needs, it’s probably not worth it to draft a cornerback. Your fans will remember. Trust me, Packers fans remember the name Ahmad Carroll. And not for good reasons.


12 (or so) Random Fantastic Finishes

January 14, 2011

I went to the Minnesota/Purdue college basketball game last night where the Gophers’ Blake Hoffarber went off for 26 points in the upset victory. I’m not a big Gopher basketball fan, so naturally, what I remember most about Hoffarber comes from his high school days (see #1 below).

He did serve as the inspiration for this list though. Everyone loves a wild finish. There have been billions of lists on the Internets about the best finishes of all-time. Without even seeing the lists, you can likely name most of the top ten. Flutie’s Hail Mary, the Music City Miracle, NC State’s buzzer beater over Houston, Christian Laettner’s shot over Kentucky, the Stanford/Cal play will all be there in some order.

I decided to take a different route. I picked 12 random, obscure, outrageous finishes that don’t show up on these lists. I immediately threw out all professional and most Division I college games. Some of these got fringe coverage as a SportsCenter Top Play, but you probably haven’t seen most of these before. Which means you’ll enjoy these plays. In no particular order:

#1. Blake Hoffarber sends the game into double overtime from his butt

The inspiration behind this list gets the #1 spot. Blake Hoffarber’s Hopkins team met Eastview in the 2005 Minnesota Class 4A State High School Basketball Championship. The teams were tied at 56 late in overtime when Eastview’s Darren Kent tipped in B.J. Viau’s missed layup to give the Lightning a 58-56 lead with 2.5 seconds left.

Hopkins threw the ball the length of the court towards several players near the baseline. Hoffarber fell to the ground in the scrum, but somehow found himself with the ball after it was tipped down. He fired a desperation shot towards the basket from his butt. It went in to send the game into double overtime. Hopkins went on to win 71-60 over the deflated Eastview squad.

#2. The greatest game in high school football history

This one is cheating a bit since it got national attention and even won a 1995 ESPY for Showstopper of the Year. It is still a high school semifinal game from 1994 though, so I’ll still count it as obscure.

12-0 state #2 Plano East met 12-0 state #3 Tyler John Tyler in the Class 5A Division II Region II semifinal. That doesn’t sound like a very important game, but these were two of the three best teams in Texas and the game was held at Texas Stadium, so I’m guessing it was a big deal at the time.

Plano East led 27-17 with 5:23 left but John Tyler had the ball at Plano’s 8-yard line. Plano stripped the ball from John Tyler quarterback Jeff Whitley and Marc Broyles scooped the ball up and returned it 90 yards to give John Tyler a seemingly insurmountable 34-17 lead. When John Tyler returned another fumble for a touchdown with 3:03 left to go up 41-17, it seemed safe to celebrate.

Then chaos ensued. Plano East suddenly was unstoppable. They quickly scored and recovered an onside kick.

And then they did it again.

And again.

Amazingly, Whitley hit Robert Woods for a 22-yard touchdown pass to put Plano East up 44-41 with 24 seconds left to give Plano East the improbable victory.

Or so they thought. John Tyler’s Roderick Dunn returned the ensuing kick 97 yards for a touchdown to give John Tyler a 48-44 win. Seventeen years later, I hope that the Plano kids are down to less than one nightmare a week.

#3. Eight points in seven tenths of a second

I refereed freshmen girls high school basketball for a season. You see some ridiculous things refereeing young women. This isn’t really a knock on girls’ basketball – it just is what it is. At that age, many of the girls have not played long enough to learn the game. I imagine small town girls’ basketball is a bit like that. There’s just not enough fundamental skills and athletic talent to go around. But it does lead to some fascinating outcomes. Here’s an example:

This came from the 2008 2A Oklahoma State High School Championship game between Pocola and Walters. Pocola hit a layup to take a 54-52 lead in the closing seconds and got the ball back, but could not run the clock out. Walters’ Vanessa Karpe nailed a three-pointer and was fouled with 0.7 seconds left on the clock. And then things got weird.

Walters’ bench players ran onto the court, thinking the game was over. The referee called a technical foul*, giving Pocola two free throws and the ball back. Karpe hit her free throw to give Walters a 56-54 lead. Pocola’s Lasea Been could only manage one of two free throws. That’s not so surprising, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so scared to shoot a free throw.

* For my thoughts on this, you should probably find my post “Oh, those power-hungry refs.”

Pocola had one last chance on the inbounds pass from half court and made it count – Callie Slate hit a long desperation three-pointer to give them a dramatic 58-56 victory.

#4. March Madness should be more like this

If an obscure college game is televised on CBS, but no one watches it, does it still count for this list? I vote yes, and since it’s my list, my vote counts. In 2007, Barton College and defending champion Winona State met for the Division II National Championship. Winona State found themselves up 74-67 in the closing seconds before Barton went on a frantic 10-1 over the last 38 seconds to steal a 77-75 victory on Anthony Atkinson’s layup at the buzzer.

Just two years later, Findlay and Cal Poly Pomona met in another thrilling Division II Championship. The two teams were tied at 53 in overtime when Findlay’s Tyler Evans took the inbounds pass with 2.4 seconds left, took two dribbles, and nailed a fadeaway three-pointer to give the Oilers the championship.

Don’t feel too bad for each losing team. Winona State and Cal Poly Ponoma both avenged their losses by winning the D-II title the following seasons.

#5. Play until the whistle

Westland John Glenn met Canton Plymouth in a late season Michigan high school football game in 2009. Trailing 28-27 with a few seconds remaining, John Glenn’s Ryan Perez lined up for a potential game-winning 33-yard field goal. It was blocked and Plymouth’s team ran off the field in celebration.

Only one problem for Plymouth. The whistle never blew. If the ball does not cross the line of scrimmage on a blocked kick, the kicking team can advance it. Neither team realized this, but only John Glenn stayed on the field. After an excruciatingly long three or four seconds of coaches screaming, John Glenn holder Tony Wilton picked up the ball and ran in for a touchdown to give John Glenn the improbable 33-28 victory.

One quick note: the referees could absolutely have blown it dead. The rules state that if neither team is attempting to advance or recover a live ball, the referees can blow the play dead. But they did not, so the play was still live and upholding the touchdown was the correct call.

#6. Stanford-Cal Part II

I’m not going to include the Stanford-Cal kick return on my list – everyone’s already seen that. Instead, you get this highlight from a Kentucky high school football game from last season.

[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJeCf4kJOCE&feature=related]

Pleasure Ridge Park took a 41-34 lead over Butler on a touchdown with 1.8 seconds left on the clock. All they had to do was tackle the kick returner. They could not quite manage that, and several laterals and one “The Band is on the Field” moment later, Butler scored to pull within one.

Naturally, they went for the two-point conversion and the win. The video calls it gutsy, but come on: if you pull off some crazy magic and win a 10,000 to 1 shot, you absolutely have to let that ride. That’s just gambling 101.

#7. Six points in two seconds

In a 2005 regular season game, Chicago State found themselves down to conference rival Missouri-Kansas City 69-66 in the closing seconds. The Cougars’ leading scorer Tyler Weeden missed a wide open three but the rebound fell to teammate David Inabnit. The tightly covered Inabnit took six quick steps. The referees, mistaking Inabnit for Kobe Bryant, did not call travelling. He made the Kangaroos pay and drilled an off-balance three-pointer to tie the game at 69 with 1.9 seconds left.

The Kangaroos’ length of the court pass was tipped to Chicago State player and the coach’s son Kevin Jones Jr. Jones Jr. fired the ball from seventy feet and nailed it, giving the Cougars the 72-69 victory.

Two hilarious notes about this game. First, what Eastern European country did Chicago State get those jerseys from? They look like the Mighty Ducks’ uniforms before Mr. Ducksworth stepped in to fund new gear.

Second, Kevin Jones Jr. was at the heart of some insane turmoil with the Chicago State basketball team. Apparently Cougar player Cam-Ron Clay challenged Coach Jones Sr. to a fight in the locker room at halftime of a game. Jones Sr. immediately expelled him from the team. Sounds reasonable, but there was one minor problem for Jones Sr: they were playing in Milwaukee at the time. The team just left Clay there. Clay was frustrated, so he did what any sane person would do – he came back to campus and beat the living crap out of Jones Jr. Twice. All three eventually were forced to leave the Chicago State campus. Presumably, their pictures are on the walls of the CSU security office like the people who spit off the rides at Walt Disney World.

#8. A viral lesson on why you shouldn’t miss a free throw on purpose

This game actually took place back in 2005, but became a viral sensation just a couple years ago. Division III Gulliford and Randolph-Macon found themselves tied at 88 when a Randolph-Macon player was fouled with just 0.6 remaining on the clock. He nailed the first free throw and missed the second on purpose. Gulliford’s Jordan Snipes grabbed the rebound and did this:

The shot enough is amazing, but I think what really propelled this video to viral stardom is the reaction of Gulliford’s #42 in the play. First, he managed to duck just before the desperation shot would have hit him in the face. Then his “holy crap” reaction when the shot goes in is just plain awesome.

#9. High school Hail Marys

In the 2009 South Dakota Class 11B High School Football Championship, Winner and Tri-Valley were tied at 6 in the closing minutes. Tri-Valley had the ball around midfield and were driving with two minutes left until Winner’s Ted Wonnenberg intercepted the ball to set Winner up with one last chance in regulation. Winner coach Dan Aaker employed the rarely used “don’t really try to score and run the clock down to four seconds before trying a Hail Mary” strategy. It worked as Jayd Knodell caught Wonnenberg’s tipped pass and walked into the end zone to win the state championship 12-6.

A week later, Utah’s Juan Diego Catholic pulled off the same feat to win the Utah Class 3A High School Football Championship. Juan Diego trailed 10-6 with the ball at their own 20 with 45 seconds left. Quarterback Cody Stevenson drove the Soaring Eagle right down the field and won the game on a stunning 33-yard touchdown pass to Bruce Nix as time expired.

But you know how furious South Dakota gets when Utah tries to one-up them. In the Class 11B championship the very next year, Flandreau had the ball on the Mobridge-Pollock four-yard line with 18 seconds remaining down 27-21. The announcer – clearly skilled in the fine art of foreshadowing – proclaimed that “we may have another Youtube sensation on our hands.” On the next play, Flandreau’s Luke Gassman catches a tipped touchdown pass and Nic Behrens kicked the ensuing extra point to give Flandreau the dramatic 28-27 victory. Touché, South Dakota. Touché.

#10. Not one, but two Hail Marys

In this obscure 1985 game, Division III Illinois College led Principia College late in the game until Principia scored a touchdown to take a 20-15 lead with just 28 seconds to play. Illinois College used a solid kick return to set up an improbable tipped Hail Mary touchdown catch to give them a 22-20 lead with two seconds left. Principia fell on the ball after a short squib kick, leaving one second left on the clock. Unbelievably, Principia completed their own Hail Mary and prevailed 26-22 over the stunned Illinois College players.

I apologize for the long video, but it’s pretty funny in its own right. Although the game didn’t take place until 1985, I’m fairly certain the video was filmed in 1977.

#11. This is the game that never ends

On March 12, 2010, Quinnipiac and Union met in Game 1 of a best-of-3 ECAC Hockey first round series. Puck drop was at 7:07 pm. Three periods and five overtimes later, the game finally ended at 1:03 am on March 13.

Quinnipiac’s Jeremy Langlois tied the game at 2-2 just 1:12 into the second period. Neither team would score for the next 129 minutes of game time – longer than two full normal-length games. Quinnipiac mercifully won the game on Dan Holt’s goal 10:22 into the fifth overtime, breaking the previous record for longest NCAA game by over nine minutes.

The previous record? Yale’s 3-2 victory over Union in five overtimes in 2006. Apparently the Flying Dutchmen need to work on their conditioning.

Don’t feel too bad for Union though – they went on to win the next two games in the series to advance to the next round.

#12. These kids and their celebrations

William Paterson met Albertus Magnus in the first round of the 2010 NCAA Division III Basketball Tournament. William Paterson’s Gabriel Paul hit a short jumper with 1.6 seconds left and the Pioneer players began to celebrate.

Too soon. Albertus Magnus inbounded the ball to long distance shot specialist Byron Reeves, who promptly drained the three-quarters length shot to send Albertus Magnus to the second round (where they lost by 34 to DeSales).

How come we can’t get shots like that during March Madness? All I can figure is that it has to be some sort of conspiracy because of the work hours that would be lost to Youtube.

Bonus: Amazing hurdles comeback

In the 2008 Indiana District 4AA girls’ 110 meter hurdles, Deborah Jones needed to finish in the top four to qualify for the state tournament. After a late stumble on the third-to-last hurdle, her dreams looked to be shattered when Central Catholic’s Alexis Courage passed her for fourth place.

Jones refused to give in and picked up a head of steam as if from nowhere. Courage clipped the last two hurdles and Jones flew past her for a dramatic fourth place finish.

The finish proved huge. Jones went on to upset the field and win the first of three consecutive 110-meter hurdle state championships.


NFL Divisional Weekend Picks

January 14, 2011

A fantastic weekend of football coming up in the NFL. Four matchups and not a single clunker. We have games from the two biggest rivalries in the AFC, the two best teams in the NFC, and the luckiest team in the league versus America’s adopted underdog. Here are my picks:

Baltimore (13-4) at Pittsburgh (12-4, -3)

This game is pretty simple: one team is going to win by a field goal. Here are the results of the seven Ravens/Steelers games since Joe Flacco entered the league in 2008 (away team first):

12/5/10 – Pittsburgh 13, Baltimore 10
10/3/10 – Baltimore 17, Pittsburgh 14
12/27/09 – Baltimore 20, Pittsburgh 23
11/29/09 – Pittsburgh 17, Baltimore 20 (OT)
1/18/09 – Baltimore 14, Pittsburgh 23 (playoffs)
12/14/08 – Pittsburgh 13, Baltimore 9
9/29/08 – Baltimore 20, Pittsburgh 23 (OT)

Five of those seven games were decided by a field goal. And even that’s deceptive. Pittsburgh won by 9 in the 2009 playoffs only after Flacco threw a late TAINT and won by 4 in the 2008 regular season on Ben Roethlisberger’s TD pass with 43 seconds left.

So basically we just have to figure out which team is going to win by three.* Let’s roll through some considerations.

* This could be the first game ever where I’d actually think about taking “push” if someone offered it.

At first I thought that Baltimore might be better than Pittsburgh this year based on their head-to-head matchups. They both finished 12-4 and the Ravens had the season series in the bag in the closing minutes in Pittsburgh in Week 13. The Ravens had the ball facing second and five on their own 43, up 10-6 with 3:20 left. Inexplicably, Joe Flacco drops back to pass.* Troy Polamalu comes around the outside, strips the ball and LaMarr Woodley returns it to the 9-yard line. The Steelers punch it in and steal the division from the Ravens just like that.

* I like going for the win in this situation as much as anybody. But, come on, if you’ve held the opposing team to six points in the first 57 minutes of the game, you absolutely have to run the ball, punt if necessary, and take your chances that they can’t drive for a touchdown in the last two minutes.

But then I looked back to the Week 4 game. Flacco needed to drive the ball forty yards in the last 55 seconds for a last-minute touchdown to give the Ravens a 17-14 win in Pittsburgh. Charlie Batch was at quarterback for the Steelers. Yeah, I’d call the season series a wash.

Then I thought about giving the edge to the Steelers based on the home field advantage. Road teams are 3-4 in this series since 2008 and won both games this season. Another wash.

My favorite tiebreaker in these tight games is which quarterback I trust more. Roethlisberger’s playoff record: 8-2, 2 Super Bowls, 1-0 vs. Ravens. Flacco: 3-2, 0-1 vs. Steelers. Huge advantage for the Steelers. If you’re going to go down with someone, you’d rather it be with Roethlisberger than Flacco. And yes, that was a subtle Big Ben joke.

To top it off, 62% of the public is on the Ravens this weekend – the highest of any team. Enough said. Steelers win 20-17.

Seattle (8-9) at Chicago (11-5, -10)

How quickly things change: just a week ago, fans considered Seattle a joke and I actually picked against them getting 10.5 points at home. A few poor decisions from Sean Payton and one highlight reel Marshawn Lynch touchdown run later, and suddenly the Seahawks are America’s darling and a trendy pick to upset the Bears this weekend.

It’s not difficult to see why. The Seahawks put everything together and looked incredible last weekend against the defending champion Saints. Matt Hasselbeck had the game of his life, throwing for 272 yards and four touchdowns. That was the first time he threw more than two touchdowns in ten career playoff games and only the sixth time he’s thrown four touchdowns in a game since his career began in the late 1970s. And his best receiver was Brandon Stokley. I didn’t know Stokley was still alive. I can only assume is immortal, so that’s another huge advantage for Seattle. Then there’s the 23-20 Seahawk upset victory over the Bears on the road back in Week 6.

Meanwhile, the Bears have Jay Cutler, who holds the record for most times making an entire fan base say “are you shitting me?” in unison. In his defense, he has decreased his interception total from 26 last season to 16 this season. He has compensated for that by increasing his sack total from 35 last year to 52 this year, capped by an insane nine first half sacks against the Giants. Cutler has never won a bowl or a playoff game before. The last time he played in a playoff game of any kind? The 2000 Class 3A Indiana High School State Championship. Again, in his defense, his team won that game…but I think the Bears should pack some extra pants just in case.

This game will come down to which Seahawk team shows up for the game. If it’s the team that struggled to finish 7-9 this season, the Bears win easily. If it’s the team from last week’s Saints game, the Seahawks could actually pull off a second straight huge upset.

Again, I’ll point out the same statistic from last week – the Seahawks either win (8 times) or lose by more than 15 (9 times). Last week, I didn’t think the Seahawks could win outright, so I picked the Saints. This week, I do think the Seahawks can win outright. They’ve already done it once this season and are playing better football now. Naturally, I’ll end up way off, but for now Seattle is the pick. Seahawks win 31-21.

New York Jets (12-5) at New England (14-2, -8.5)

The Jets spent the week trash-talking the Patriots. Antonio Cromartie called Tom Brady an asshole and Rex Ryan called the rivalry personal. Brady shrugged it off, saying that he’s been called worse. Then wide receiver Wes Welker did this at a press conference, presumably as the entire team cracked up behind the curtain:

Call me crazy, but I think the Patriots might come out a tad bit looser than the Jets. The Patriots are already a better team than the Jets – they beat them 45-3 on this same field just a few weeks ago. Trash-talking yourself into a corner might not have been the best approach to this game, although it is certainly the most amusing.

I just can’t see any way the Jets win this game. Of course the last time I said that, I picked the Saints to dominate the Seahawks. If you’ve learned anything so far, you should immediately go put your money on the Jets. The Patriots win 41-14.

Green Bay (11-6) at Atlanta (12-4, -2.5)

If I couldn’t provide any objective analysis last week, I definitely can’t this week. Am I terrified that #1 seed Atlanta isn’t even favored by the standard 3 points at home? Am I even more terrified that the majority of the public is on the Packers? Am I most terrified that the Packers have become a trendy Super Bowl pick? Yes, yes, and yes. The Packers still win 24-21.


Questionable Coaching Decisions on Wild Card Weekend

January 10, 2011

I am always amazed at how much preparation an NFL head coach puts into a football game. These guys spend hours upon hours breaking down film and coming up with game plans that will give them any possible edge, however slight. They prepare for seemingly every situation and yet don’t seem to be aware of the Boy Scout-mantra “Always be prepared” for unexpected situations. In both of Saturday’s playoff games, a coach’s bizarre decision altered the course of the game at a key moment.

#1. New Orleans kicks a field goal on 4th and 2 down by a touchdown

Oh Sean Payton – what happened to you? Aren’t you the same guy that’s still featured on commercials for calling for an onside kick to open up the second half of the Super Bowl?

Here’s the situation: down 34-27 with 9:13 left in the game, the Saints faced a 4th-and-2 on the Seattle 3 yard line. Payton sent kicker Garrett Hartley out for the chip shot field goal to pull the Saints within four. The Saints actually do get the ball back one more time, fail to get a first down, then this happens:

and the Seahawks hang on for one of the biggest upsets in recent playoff history.

Two things about this decision. First, the Saints went for it on 4th and inches from their own 39-yard line midway through the third quarter. Um…isn’t that way more dangerous than this situation? Second, anytime your worst case scenario involves giving the ball back to Matt Hasselbeck on his own 3-yard line, still only trailing by a touchdown, isn’t that a fairly safe situation?

This isn’t rocket science – the only smart move in this situation is to go for it. Look at it this way:

If the Saints go for it on 4th down: best case scenario – they tie the game at 34; worst case scenario – they turn the ball over on downs to the Seahawks at their own 3;

If the Saints kick a field goal (assuming he makes the chip shot): best case scenario – they pull within four and pin them deep on the kickoff; worst case scenario – they pull within 4 and the Seahawks get a solid return and are set up in good-field position to clinch the game.

The worst case scenario for the made field goal is actually worse than the worst case scenario if the Saints go for it. All that preparation for the game and then Payton makes a terrible decision at the worst possible time.

#2. Jim Caldwell’s timeout late gives the Jets the game

There’s still three rounds of games left, but I can say with confidence that this will be by far the most egregious decision of the playoffs. Here’s the situation: the Colts are up 16-14 in the closing seconds. Mark Sanchez leads the Jets to the Colts’ 34-yard line with 36 seconds left. The Jets then run the ball up the middle for one yard. They only have one timeout left so it’s pretty clear that the Jets are going to sit on the ball and attempt a 50-yard field goal to win the game.

And then Colts coach Jim Caldwell inexplicably calls his final timeout. Given the gift of an extra timeout, the Jets set up a fairly safe out pattern to Braylon Edwards. The pass is complete to the Colts’ 14-yard line and the Jets run the clock down to three seconds and Nick Folk kicks a 32-yard field goal to send the Jets to the next round. I think Peyton Manning’s reaction to the timeout tells the story:

Now I don’t really have to explain how insane it is to let a team attempt a 32-yard field goal when they were willing to settle for a 50-yard field goal. Rather I’ll just point out that, despite all that preparation that went into this game, Jim Caldwell apparently forgot that the Jets kicker is Nick Folk. The same Nick Folk that the Cowboys waived before the end of the season because he was such a train wreck. The same Nick Folk that is a career 7-for-14 (2-for-5 this season) on kicks 50 yards or longer.

And yet Caldwell says “no thanks” and lets the Jets get 18 yards closer. Folk makes the field goal, the Colts go home, Peyton Manning has a sudden aneurysm, and Jim Caldwell is suddenly on the hot seat. Quite the decision.


Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl Preview

January 9, 2011

Nevada (12-1, -8) vs. Boston College (7-5)

The nation’s third best rushing attack meets the nation’s best rushing defense in tonight’s Kraft Hunger Bowl. Nevada averages 305.9 yards per game on the ground while Boston College allows only 80.9 yards per game on the ground.

The rushing battle is really the only one that matters – Boston College’s offense is somewhere between pretty bad and downright awful, so their ability to compete in this game will be entirely contingent on their ability to stop Nevada’s rushing attack. The Eagles average only 18.9 points per game and their season-high against an FBS team is the 26 they put up against 5-7 MAC team Kent State. They have not overcome a deficit of more than seven points in any of their seven wins. If Nevada is able to run on the Eagles early, it’s game over.

The most outrageous yet intriguing storyline in this game has been the fluctuations on the spread. The game opened with Nevada as 9.5 point favorites and quickly jumped to 10.5 when the public bets came in on Nevada. 70% of the public bets have come in on the Wolf Pack. Yet the line has dropped all the way down to 7.5. This means that some sharps are betting large amounts on the Eagles. Conspiracy theorists have jumped all over this screaming that the fix is in.

This works out pretty well for me: I’m going with Nevada to win because I don’t think that Boston College has seen a rushing attack as good as the Wolf Pack’s this season. The pistol offense isn’t as scary if you have six weeks to prepare for it, but the Eagles are only going to be able to stop it so many times. Plus, if I’m wrong about this, I’ll just join the conspiracy theorists and scream that the fix was in. Nevada wins 31-10.


NFL Wild Card Weekend Picks

January 8, 2011

Here are my picks for the NFL divisional round:

New Orleans Saints (11-5, -10.5) at Seattle Seahawks (7-9)

If the BBVA Compass Bowl is the appetizer before the meal that is the NFL wild card round, this game is at best the salad before the good stuff is served. Joe Posnanski had a good piece the other day about just how bad these Seahawks are. It’s pretty much a given that they are the worst playoff team ever. They are the first losing team ever to make the playoffs and before this season only seven .500 teams had ever qualified for the postseason. But Posnanski points out that it goes deeper than that: not only are the Seahawks a 7-9 team, they are a really bad 7-9 team. In the last five years, 16 teams have finished 7-9; the Seahawks have a worse point differential than all but three of those teams. They are just a bad team.

Meanwhile, the Saints might just be the best team in the NFC right now. Aside from their meaningless last game, they won seven of eight to close the season, losing only at Baltimore.* They did lose their top two running backs (Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas) to injuries for this game, but it’s not like Julius Jones and Reggie Bush are terrible. The Seahawks are 21st in the league against the run…and that’s after playing six games against NFC West teams (19th, 25th, and 32nd in rushing offense). I think the Saints will be alright if they want to run and, even if they somehow can’t, they have the third best passing offense in the league to fall back on.

* I get when teams rest their starters for the last game of the season if it doesn’t matter. It’s not a big deal that the Saints played Chase Daniel in the fourth quarter of last week’s game that was meaningless to them but a must-win for the Bucs. But the Saints were down 23-13 with two minutes left facing a fourth and one from their own 49. They PUNTED. Now that’s just nuts. It’s one thing to try to win with your backups in. It’s a completely different thing to just stop trying to win completely. I’m hesitant to say you should punish them for this type of behavior, but Sean Payton and Raheem Morris are good friends…isn’t that borderline collusion?

The other common theme I keep hearing is that Seattle has a great home field advantage. That’s certainly true – the crowd was a huge factor in throwing Sam Bradford off his game in the win over St. Louis to qualify for the playoffs. But they also finished only 4-4 at home with only one victory over a winning team (27-20 over 9-7 San Diego). Home field advantage will help, but it won’t help that much.

Finally, there’s this: in their nine losses, the Seahawks have lost by at least 15 points every game (coincidentally, their closest loss was 34-19 at New Orleans). That means that if you want to pick Seattle to cover the spread, you better think they can win the game. I don’t. New Orleans wins 35-14.

New York Jets (11-5) at Indianapolis Colts (10-6, -2.5)

In his column this week, Bill Simmons helpfully points out that the Jets have been building towards this game since they lost in the AFC Championship Game. If they lose, it will be a huge disappointment. The Jets are certainly a better team this year and the Colts are surprisingly just not very good.

Indy has only played five games against teams that finished with a winning record and could only manage a 2-3 record. Manning leads the #1 passing offense in the league, but beyond that this is a very mediocre team – they can’t run the ball (29th in the league) and their defense is below average (20th in total defense). Though they won their last four games to grab the #3 seed, let’s not forget that this was a team facing elimination all the way back in Week 15 – a loss to the Jaguars would have kept Peyton Manning and company out of the playoffs for the first time since 2001.

The Jets finished with an 11-5 record, improving from last season’s 9-7 finish. Plus they’re just a fun team to watch. In a normal year, they would have been the team with the most drama in the league: sexually harassing a reporter, dong shots, masseuses suing former quarterbacks, foot fetish videos, and coaches tripping opposing team’s players. Unfortunately, this isn’t a normal year and the Jets finished a distant second to the Vikings in the drama department.

The Jets’ have one of the best defenses in the league and most think that the key matchup will be Manning versus the Jets defense. I disagree – I think the key matchup is the Jets vs. the Jets. The Jets have one of the more bipolar teams in the league. Their last five games were: a 45-3 loss to the Patriots, a 10-6 loss to the Dolphins, a 22-17 victory over the Steelers, a 38-34 loss to the Bears, and a 38-7 victory over the Bills. Good luck trying to figure that one out. There’s not even a common theme going through those games. They beat good teams (Steelers) and lose to good teams (Patriots and Bears). They beat bad teams (Bills) and lose to bad teams (Dolphins). Their offense plays well (Bears and Bills) and plays terribly (Patriots and Dolphins). Their defense plays well (Dolphins, Bills, and Steelers) and plays terribly (Patriots and Bears).

All this means is that one of two things will happen in this game. First, the more talented Jets team comes out playing well and asserts their will on the Colts. Manning can only do so much with the Colts’ subpar receiving core against the swarming Jets D. LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene have great days against the weak Colts D and Sanchez does just enough to keep them guessing. The Jets cruise to a fairly easy victory.

The other option is that the awful Jets team that got destroyed by the Patriots and lost to the Dolphins at home shows up. The Jets’ offense looks shaky and Manning picks apart the defense as easily as Tom Brady and Jay Cutler did. The Jets are still the more talented team, so the game is tight, but the fourth quarter turns into Peyton Manning at home in the playoffs versus Mark Sanchez on the road in the playoffs. I’m not Rex Ryan, but I’m guessing he’s not a fan of that matchup.

I think it’s a coin flip between these two scenarios. But if I’m a Jets player (or fan), I’m terrified of Peyton Manning taking over in the second scenario…and I come out tight and make that scenario a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Colts pull out the victory 28-24.

Baltimore Ravens (12-4, -3) at Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)

Tough game for the Chiefs last Sunday. With a win against the Raiders, the Chiefs would have locked up the #3 seed and playoff games against the Jets and Steelers in the first two rounds. They didn’t just lose. They were destroyed 31-10. Offhand, I can’t remember a team so triumphantly blowing a game in the last week of the season with playoff implications on the line. Now the Chiefs get the Ravens and potentially the Patriots in the second round.

Kansas City benefited from a ridiculously week schedule – they played a grand total of two teams with winning records (finishing 1-2 with one win against San Diego and losses to San Diego in the rematch and Indianapolis). They haven’t made the playoffs since the 2005 season. Meanwhile, Baltimore is filled with veterans that have been there, done that. They finished 12-4 with a much tougher schedule, playing seven games against teams with winning records and finishing a respectable 4-3 in those games.

And you know what? I’m still picking the Chiefs to upset the Ravens. This game has too many red flags for me. First, the Ravens are only a 3-point favorite. Given the facts of the previous paragraph, that is stunningly low. Second, on a related note, everyone is on the Ravens for the victory. Every year at least one wild card game seems too easy to pick. This is the game this year.

Finally we have the biggest reason I’m picking the Chiefs: Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs have some of the best fans in football – I guarantee that there are already at least 20,000 fans out tailgating 24 hours before the game. They will be LOUD. Joe Flacco has been very shaky at times this year and that crowd will get to him. I expect the Chiefs to come out a bit nervous, but the crowd will rattle Flacco and keep the Chiefs in the game long enough for them to calm down. Kansas City eventually pulls the upset, 20-17.

Green Bay Packers (10-6) at Philadelphia Eagles (10-6, -3)

Come on, you can’t expect me to make an objective analysis of this game. I’m a homer. The Packers win 28-24.