Because there are only four games this weekend, there's a little room to talk about other topics. Let me start with the picks. This year I felt I had a pretty bad season, including a 5-11 week that was my worst ever. I declined to pick a few upsets which then happened, and I left a few picks on the table I'd like to have back. Still, I finished with exactly the same number of games picked right (165) as last season, and a slightly better percentage thanks to the second tie in the eight years I've been picking weekly for this column. That puts me fourth in the Delt Pledge Class (sorry, the nfluk 'experts') which I think may be my worst finish in a long time. But here's the thing. In five of my eight seasons, I've picked at either 64% or 65%. My best year (2009) was 68.7%, my worst (2006) was 59.4%. The difference between the worst and best seasons was 14 games, which is less than one game per week. So you see what a fine line it is, even before you start to contemplate the factors that turn close games one way or the other.
THE MVP DEBATE
The NFL, of course, fudges the MVP argument by also having an 'offensive player of the year', which allows voters to split the decision. MVP usually goes to the quarterback having the best year on a team who are successful in the playoffs. And this makes sense because quarterback is not only the most valuable position in football, it may be the most important in any team sport (goalie in Ice Hockey the only one that comes even close). So, the argument goes, the great QB is automatically more valuable than the great runner. The former will take his team all the way, the latter, absent a good QB and/or a dominating D, will not.
What Adrian Peterson has done in the past month is put the Vikings on his shoulders and elevate them into the playoffs overcoming Chicago's scheduling advantage and repeatedly rising to the occasion. His main competition in the minds of the media appears to be Peyton Manning, who has turned a 9-7 Denver team into the AFC's top seed. But in my mind, his real competition is the guy he will face this weekend, Aaron Rodgers, who has steered Green Bay to the division championship despite a raft of injuries that renders his supporting cast even more anonymous than Minnesota's. I am tempted to turn the positional argument around, knowing the QB is the key, it is even more unlikely that a runner can do what AP has done, and thus he would get my vote.
The odd thing is, if AP does win MVP, Manning will almost assuredly get the OPOY, and deservedly in the statistical sense. Rodgers' stat year is way off the amazing season he had last year, which Peyton missed entirely, and Rodgers is also victim to the sense of high expectations people had. Which is also the case with Tom Brady. New England gets to 12 wins despite a makeshift O line, and a defense that proves Bill Belichick must be a genius in scheming and less than a genius is drafting pass-rushers or defensive backs. Meanwhile Brady rolls on. The Pats beat Denver and Houston this season, were throttled by the Niners, and lost three winnable games, two to NFC West teams. It's hard to tell how good they really are, and their path to the Super Bowl goes through Denver, so the Brady-Manning matchup, if it happens will come after the MVP voting, but doesn't it seem like we had put that argument behind us years ago?
All games live on Sky Sports, Highlights Monday on BBC
Cincinnati (10-6) at Houston (12-4): JOHNATHAN JOSEPH BOWL! A rematch of last year's game in Cincy that TJ Yates won for the Texans. They are slumping, having lost three in a row to blow the top seed, and the Bengals are on a roll of sorts, which would be more impressive had they beaten Dallas or been more convincing against either Pittsburgh or a Baltimore team intent on not winning. The key to this game is running. Both teams feature passing games with only one wide receiving threat, so the Texans need Arian Foster to establish the run in order to make their play-action work, and the Bengals need Benjarvus Green-Ellis to allow them to control the clock and wait for AJ Green to get open. The key for Houston is ex-Bengal Johnathan Joseph, who will likely try to control Green in man coverage; when he does, the Bengals' options are reduced and the Texans can win. The Bengals can control Andre Johnson in more complex ways, they have a deep, veteran secondary that could cause Matt Schaub problems. People forget Kevin Walter was originally a Bengal too, and it may be the ability of guys like him, or Marvin Jones or Andrew Hawkins, to contribute that decide this one. Foster and Schaub have both looked decidedly limited lately, too. The real match-up to watch will be inside, where Geno Atkins and Domata Peko can deal with the Houston stretch play by blowing it up with penetration. Wade Smith somehow got voted to the Pro Bowl this season, but he will have his work cut out for him. The Texans need to avoid giving up special teams scores, and not be seduced that big plays will pull this one out for them, as they did last year. Can they win a grind-it-out game again? The Texans were 6-2 at home, but the Bengals were actually better on the road, at 6-2. The Texans were 3-4 against playoff teams, the Bengals 2-2. What those numbers mean is this is definitely the game everyone will skip if they have to do the shopping, visit the in-laws, or allow 'er indoors a couple of hours with the clicker. Pick: Texans
Minnesota (10-6) at Green Bay (11-5): On paper this is the most fascinating matchup of the weekend, with my two MVP candidates head to head in conditions that might favour the running game, or put more pressure on the quarterbacks to deliver in bad conditions. The easiest thing to say is that the Vikings need Christian Ponder to make plays and not turn the ball over, and veterans Jerome Simpson and Mike Jenkins need to step up. The Packers need to tackle better (Tramon Williams, Brad Jones) and continue to disrupt inside—BJ Raji actually had a pretty good game last week, despite Peterson's success, which came mostly off-tackle and away from Clay Matthews. You sometimes wonder if the Packers are like a World War I Spad or Sopwith Camel held together with bailing wire, string, and bubble gum, but if that's the analogy it's hard to think of the Vikes as Baron Von Richtofen's Flying Circus. One real key may be the Vikes' ability to generate pressure on Rodgers; they got five sacks last week, and Everson Griffen really seems to be hitting his stride now. You also worry if the game comes down to kicking (see below), although Blair Walsh has kicked in a dome for his home games, and isn't necessarily weather-beaten yet. But this is Lambeau pick: Pack
COCK-UP ENDORSES THE BLAIR WALSH PROJECT
The news that the Niners were bringing in Billy Cundiff (who was signed) and Justin Medlock to compete with David Akers during their bye week is a sign how far their confidence in the veteran has fallen (and indeed, perhaps his own confidence is equally low), but it did make me laugh. Because I had just figured my kicker ratings, and Cundiff and Medlock were the only two kickers to score lower than Akers!
I used Cock-Up, which stands for Carlson's Original Calibration for Kickers (Unscientific Programme), and is a simple way to grade performance using the stats the NFL provides. You give each kicker one point for field goals made up to 39 yards, but deduct three for each miss. Between 40-49 yards you get two for a make and lose two for a Norwood. And from 50 and beyond, you get three or lose one. Because some teams attempt more kicks than others, I then divide the number of points by the number of kicks, giving the Cock-Uppa.
Akers was 20/23 on 'short' kicks, 7/13 in the forties, and 2/6 beyond 50, which equalled 18 points on 42 kicks, or an 0.43 CockUppa. Medlock took only 10 kicks, generating only 4 points for an 0.40, and Cundiff, on 12 kicks, scored 0.00, the first kicker I've ever graded out with zero, as his misses cancelled out all his made kicks! The system works pretty well; Mason Crosby's 0.45 reflects the worry Green Bay have with him. Average is somewhere at or just below 1.00, which was scored by Dan Carpenter.
The league's best kicker this year, according to Cock-Uppa, was rookie Blair Walsh, who scored an impressive 1.45, helped by 10/10 beyond 50. He was just ahead of Browns' veteran Phil Dawson (1.39) and Tampa's Connor Barth (1.36). Actually, the best score belonged to Washington's mid-season signing Kai Forbath, at 1.50 on only 18 kicks. Greg Zuerlein, who reverted to normality soon after being nicknamed Legatron finished at 1.03, missing two inside 40, and hitting 7/13 at distance.
Of course my system doesn't account for 'pressure' and 'clutch' kicks, nor bad holds or blocking, nor desperation kicks beyond reasonable range. I am aware that guys who kick in domes have an advantage over guys who kick in wind and snow, and that given good conditions kicks travel further in Denver. I can't account for that in the stat, merely keep it in mind, but I do look at kickoff distance, and Walsh was fifth-best in the league, which helps reinforce his status. Interestingly, the league's best kickoff man was Graham Gano, another late season add in Carolina, though as you might imagine a number of the top kickoff guys were punters, who didn't handle the team's placekicking.
TEN THINGS I THOUGHT I THINK I THOUGHT OR THUNK
I wrote last year about Zero's Paradox in the NFL: this is the way some delay of game penalties are not called, and it's always explained because the back judge is looking at the play clock, then looks over to the ball, and throw the flag only if it still is not snapped. Because the look itself takes 0.99 seconds, and half of that is 0.495 seconds, and half of that is 0.2475 seconds and half of that is 0.12375 seconds and half of that is 0.061875 seconds and so on, the second hand never actually reaches the back judge equivalent of zero, so no penalty can be called. However, when coaches' want to call time to freeze the kicker, or more importantly when the zebras want to call the two-minute warning so the networks can run commercials, no such delay between clock hitting zero and whistle blowing occurs, even in the ball has already been snapped.
I wonder if Eric Dickerson would've sent such a nice text message to Adrian Peterson if AP had gained an extra nine yards?
Tennessee's 38-20 rout of Jacksonville featured five return touchdowns; the Jags offense wound up laying 13 on the Titans, who managed only 10! Rookie linebacker Zach Brown had two pick sixes (79 and 30 yards) and Darius Reynaud had two punt return TDs (69 and 81 yards), as the Titans did something no NFL had ever done before. Wow!
Remember the fuss about Vontaze Burfict's horrible combine performance? He went undrafted, but finished a strong season with a 10 solo tackle (18 overall) game against Baltimore and could make the all-rookie team.
Brady Quinn's stat line for the whole of the game (a 38-3 loss to Denver): 7 for 16 for 49 yards. Explain how that happens? Express surprise that Romeo Crennel was fired...and wonder if he, or Scott Pioli, hired Brian Daboll. Only in America!
I don't think Carolina's strong finish was down to Cam Newton suddenly turning on a switch, but to the team's switching their offense away from Cam as the focus of their running game. They were better last season because, without training camp, they had Newton run a scaled down version of their base offense. Then, having paid a small fortune to James Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, and Mike Tolbert, they decided to run a new offense where everything, including runs, went through Cam. No coincidence they laid 44 on the Saints with Williams gaining 210 yards on the ground.
Of course the Saints D allowed 530 yards of total offense, to pass the 7,000 mark and become officially the most porous of all time. Oddly enough, the team that held the old mark was the 1981 Baltimore Colts, and guess which New Orleans head coach was a defensive assistant on that team? Not Steve Spagnuolo, but Joe Vitt! Spags has had a rough time since leaving the Giants, and the marked improvement in the St Louis D this season says more than the weakness of the Saints.
If Chip Kelly were to move on to the NFL, do you think he'd be tempted to try Philadelphia and Michael Vick? Would he be able to adjust to Phillip Rivers in San Diego? I wonder if his move might turn out to be like Rich Brooks' when he left the Ducks for the Rams?
The NFC West was an interesting division, because you had four teams with very strong defenses, two of whom (Arizona and St Louis) remained offensively challenged even as Seattle got better and better with the ball as the season went on. The Niners couldn't beat the Rams, and the Pats went 1-3 against the NFC West, and 11-1 against the rest of the league.
Both the Broncos and Seahawks are unbeaten since Colorado and Washington legalised marijuana. Wow! Only in America!
Indianapolis (11-5) at Baltimore (10-6): CHUCK PAGANO/JIM CALDWELL BOWL! ZBIKOWSKI/REDDING BOWL! IRSAY REVENGE DERBY! Remember a few years ago, when Peyton's Colts went into Baltimore and won 15-10? The Ravens' D held them without a TD, but the Colt D, in the midst of a late-season surge sparked by the return of Bob Sanders, was even better, or the Ravens' O was even worse. Well, the return this week is of Ray Lewis, whom I honestly doubt will make much of a difference on the field, but who could negate the emotional boost of ‘Chuckstrong’ which helped turn the Colts into one of the great stories of the year. Pagano, of course, knows the Ravens' D inside-out, which ought to help Andrew Luck, but the real question mark will be which Ravens' offense shows up, and it won't be the one with Tyrod Taylor running the option. Why the Ravens went away from the no-huddle concepts that looked so impressive when we watched them beat the Pats on Channel 4 is better left to Cam 'Cam' Cameron. Even Elmer Fudd wecognises the Wavens should wely on a gweat wunner like Way Wice from Wutgers, but 'Cald' Caldwell seems to be able to remember that he's got a gweat wunner in Way Wice, and if he watched tape of Kansas City running for 350 yards against the Colts (and losing) it should give him some ideas. He also may be able to get Joe Flacco comfortable enough to try something more sophisticated than telling Torrey Smith to go long. The Colts' best weapon in this game may be their tight ends, and although Dwayne Allen has been the more impressive, it wouldn't surprise me to see them try to involve Coby Fleener in ways that stretch the Ravens' D horizontally. Andrew Luck has been able to maximise the Colts' offensive talent, making big plays when it's necessary, and not enough attention has been given to how good that overall rookie class has been on O: Ballard, Hilton, and Brazil as well as those named. But the supporting cast is not as strong, and although the Ravens are not as talented a team as in years past either, pick: Ravens
Seattle (11-5) at Washington (10-6): WASHINGTON DERBY! This is being billed as the battle of the two rookie read option quarterbacks, which is true as far as it goes, but it might just as easily be billed a battle of runners, Marshawn Lynch vs Alfred Morris, who amazingly had run right through the so-called rookie wall. I wonder if Pete Carroll's years of defending Oregon while at USC will give his defense any tips to counter the Skins' attack: Seattle has one of the best defensive units, top to bottom, in the league, and have the personnel to be able to blow up some of the read-option concepts. They also can keep their safeties involved, because with Brandon Browner back you can expect to see their corners playing press man coverage, with Kim Chancellor perhaps the key figure in stopping the run. The Redskins beat the Cowboys last week by selling out on pressure against Tony Romo—a surprise because London Fletcher was expected to be used to cover Jason Whitten (he had five picks this season), not blitz so effectively. I don't know if they can get away with that against Russell Wilson; there are holes in the Seahawks' line but Wilson is excellent at avoiding bad passes. So is Robert Griffin, who has thrown only five picks all season; he has fumbled nine times, but the Skins' have only lost two of those. I wonder if the Seahawks have the receiving weapons to test the Skins' secondary; I still think DeAngelo Hall can be exploited, but Sidney Rice may not be the guy to do it. In contrast, the Skins have four receivers who see the ball; the Seahawks only two. If these teams met in Seattle, I'd pick the Seahawks in an instant; as when they won this matchup in 2007 in Seattle. If they met in Omaha, ditto. I hesitate only because they are in DC, which is the long trip for Seattle, who were 3-5 on the road this year, including wins at Miami in week 12 and Detroit in week 8. Pick: Seahawks
NATE'S CHRISTMAS CAROL: Finally, this one kept the Carlson household singing all through the festive season, and may until twelfth night...
Oh Tannenbaum, Oh Tannebaum
Jest jerseys green delighted us
There were smiles when summer days were bright
But not when winter snows are white
Oh Tannenbaum Oh Tannenbaum
What happened to your playoff fight?
Oh Tannenbaum oh Tannenbaum
Rex Ryan's foot in mouth disease
Was amusing when the times were good
When Belichick quaked 'neath his hood
Oh Tannenbaum oh Tannenbaum
You'll kiss his rings down on your knees
Oh Tannenbaum oh Tannenbaum
The question's how were you to know?
Your offense run by Sparano
Had no place for St. Tim Tebow
Oh Tannenbaum oh Tannenbaum
You wonder who was running the show.
Oh Tannenbaum oh Tannebaum
The Sanchize brought you your pink slip.
Why couldn't you stop when he'd worry ya?
Bench him quicker than Eva Longoria.
Oh Tannenbaum oh Tannebaum
Could anyone now be sorrier?
Oh Tannenbaum, oh Tannenbaum
Even Fireman Ed threw in his bets.
There's no way to imagine what
Might have happened without the fumble butt
Oh Tannenbaum oh Tannenbaum
With Ed gone Jest fans can't spell Jets.
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