A logical guess at wild-card slate, plus 10 things to watch for Sunday
My Best Guess Dept.: So the big question in the past few days, with the least amount of playoff drama entering the last week of the regular season of all time (or so it seems), is about the schedule for the first weekend of the playoffs. Hey, you're bored, and you love the NFL, and you want to plan your wild-card weekend ... I guess.
This is how I see it, pending, of course, normal things happening like Atlanta beating Carolina and the Packers winning the NFC's sixth seed and the Steelers holding off Baltimore for the AFC's second seed:
Remember a couple of things. Last year, the NFL gave NBC what was on paper the best game, even though it turned out to be a dud -- Philadelphia against Dallas. Even though the Arizona-Green Bay wild-card game the next day turned out to be the game of the postseason, I don't think the NFL would force FOX to take the game involving the dud NFC West winner. Thus, NBC -- which has to take one AFC and one NFC game -- would get the game involving the NFC West team.
So in my scenario, FOX gets the best NFC game, which, of course, is the Packers versus Eagles. The other one? Just a guess, but my feeling is the NFL has to give NBC its preferred game on Saturday for the prime-timer. And NBC would want Ray Lewis versus Peyton Manning over the Jets against the upstart Chiefs.
Sunday night, you'll see if my guess is right.
This is the weekend we should all be screaming about playoff seeding. God knows if you've read me or listened to my screeds on it, I believe the NFL has to change playoff seeding. There is every reason to give the division winner an automatic berth, but no reason to give a bad division a home playoff game. On Sunday night, the Seahawks -- 6-9, losers of three straight by an average of 19 points a game -- have to win one home game against a 7-8 team to HOST a playoff game. I mean, when would we ever be able to make a better point about how messed up it is to guarantee a division winner a home playoff game.
To me, it makes no sense that a 12-4 wild-card team (the Saints, potentially) plays at a 7-9 division winner (Seattle, potentially). But that's what will happen if the Saints finish as the top wild-card team and the Seahawks win the NFC West and finish as the fourth-seeded team in the NFL.
But the more I think about it, the more I think the NFL's going to do nothing about it for the next three years at least. Here's why:
1. With the game in such a state of flux with the labor talks, I don't see a rules change with this gravitas being passed. I can hear the discussion now. The Competition Committee this offseason is going to talk about how there are bigger fish to fry than worry about the once-in-a-while injustice of a bad division winner hosting a very good wild-card team.
2. The specter of an 18-game season will give every owner pause before voting for a change to the playoff policy. Who knows about the uncertainty of the 18-game season, for instance, if it comes into play for 2012 and beyond? Will teams vote for a different set of rules for the playoffs? Seven playoff teams per conference? I've learned this covering the NFL: When there's uncertainty, there's inaction. And that's what I see happening here. Nothing. I mean, no change to the playoff picture until the establishment understands how the bigger schedule is going to impact everything.
3. Not enough teams/owners have been affected by it. The Colts are the only team to truly have been disadvantaged (I was going to use a stronger word) by the fact that division winners get an automatic home game. Two years ago, the 12-4 wild-card Colts had to travel to the 8-8 AFC West-winning Chargers in the first round of the playoffs. Although the Colts beat the Chargers in San Diego during the regular season, then had four more wins than San Diego during the season, the rules mandated Indy traveling west for the game. But the Colts never complained, nor did they utter a peep after the game after losing narrowly in overtime. Rules generally get changed when some team gets jobbed. The Colts did, but said nothing. And no one else has been jobbed badly by the system. So no one has raised much of a stink about the rule ... though they should.
So when you hear all weekend about the prospect of changing the rule, be aware that the rule is a bad one and should be fixed. But in this era's NFL, don't expect anything to change. I'd be stunned if it did, with the labor negotiations uber-occupying everyone's mind in the league.
Kid, the franchise drafted you first overall to win play-in games for the playoffs. The Rams just didn't think it'd be in year one. Still, the Rams are the better team Sunday night, and it's because of the St. Louis offense. Bradford's a better bet to play well than the shaky Charlie Whitehurst of the Seahawks, and Steven Jackson's worlds better than a Seattle run game contending to be the worst in franchise history statistically. "Been an amazing year so far, but we've got more to do,'' Bradford said the other day. A turnover-less, 65-percent passing night by Bradford in the din of Qwest Field would be enough to get it done.
Say it three times fast. The Rams call him "Illinois Mike'' and there's little doubt Sam Bradford will look for him often Sunday night. He's become the best pass-catching receiver in the intermediate area for the Rams. He missed four games with a high left ankle sprain early in the season, and he's missed four more with a high right ankle sprain now. He's been practicing this week, and the Rams think he has a good shot to play Sunday night. If he goes, he'll be a key guy for Bradford.
Joe Webb, QB, Minnesota, at Detroit:
And all of a sudden, the Vikings scratch their heads and wonder if Webb might really compete for the starting job next summer.