Tuesday, January 05, 2010

NFL -- 2009 in Review

So the 2009 NFL regular season has now come and gone, and -- as usual -- what a crazy year it was. Once again the NFL shows why it is the king of all sports in this country -- this is a league that consistently seems to put together the best and most flexible schedules as far as televising their contests, and it's a league that showcases its stars, stars who are for the most part about as athletic as anyone in the sports world today. But the NFL has also figured out that parity is key to the long-term success of a sports league in America -- something the other major sports still seem to be trying to figure out, with varying levels of success. So the worst teams automatically get the best picks every year, and the result is that nothing is set in stone from one year to the next, something which fills the entire NFL fan base with excitement and anticipation heading into every year anew. And of course the league was full of the usual big stories that really provided heightened interest for all who enjoy taking in a game (or sixteen) during the weekends in the cold months for most of the country.

Without question one of the biggest stories of the NFL in 2009 has got to be Brett Favre's return to football in Minnesota. Although through 10 games the Vikings were 9-1 with Favre at the helm, and Favre was at the time a clear candidate for the league's MVP, the real story emerged in the final few games of the season when it came out that Favre had been systematically changing his head coach's running plays to pass plays in audibles and the line of scrimmage over the past several games. This culminated a few weeks back against the Panthers when Vikings coach Brad Childress informed Favre that he was to be benched in favor of Tavaris Jackson in a 7-6 game, after which Favre essentially told his coach to go screw, he wasn't leaving the game. Childress relented, and the parties later claimed to have cleared up their differences, but ultimately the Favre saga remains one of the key pieces of the NFL story in 2009, especially with his team heading into the playoffs losing 3 of its final 5 games.

Which leads me to my second big story of the 2009 NFL season -- the end-of-season collapse of the league's three biggest juggernaut teams. Although every year we do see the best teams sit players and not play to win in their final game or two if they can get some extra rest for their stars as a result, I definitely cannot remember a year when the league's best teams all entered the playoffs on such a shaky note. The Vikings, as mentioned above, were 10-1 after Week 12 but ended the season 12-4 after losses at the Cardinals, at the Panthers and at the Bears in the final quarter of the season. But this pales in comparison to the league's two real titans, starting with the Vikings' NFC rivals in the New Orleans Saints. Here was a team that was 13-0 after Week 14, but then suddenly the bottom dropped out and after trying to lose several games earlier in the season, Dallas stepped in in Week 14 and beat the Saints by 7 in front of the hometown New Orleans fans. Then the Saints followed that game up with an inexplicable overtime loss to the lowly Bucanneers, finally ending the season by pulling their starters and getting beat down on by a rallying Panthers looking to save their head coach's job for at least another year.

And then we come to the Colts. This might have become the story of the year after the Favre stuff died down in the final couple weeks of the season, as Colts head coach Jim Caldwell opted to pull his entire starting squad with a 5-point lead in the third quarter against the Jets in Week 16 despite his team sitting at 14-0 with a chance at football immortality and a 16-0 season. A whole lot of football fans have said they understand this move -- made to look even smarter after seeing Patriots' leading receiver Wes Welker blow out his knee in the first quarter of Week 17's more or less meaningless game against the Texans -- but personally, in particular as someone who has been actively involved in sports for most of my life, I am squarely in the camp that does not understand the move. Again, Peyton Manning, who has achieved almost every possible individual and team goal in his illustrious career as an NFL quarterback, had his chance at cementing football immortality by becoming the first team to ever complete a 16-0 season without the aid of blatant cheating, and the team had a slight lead against a strong defense in a game where the Jets had not done anything other than a kickoff runback for a touchdown early in the second half. At any time during the third and fourth quarter, Caldwell could probably have reinserted Manning and gotten his team the victory, but the Colts stuck to their game plan and pulled Manning along with many other starters and allowed the team to lose. This, from a team that has repeatedly sat its starters at the end of seasons during Manning's career and has gone on not to win the superbowl, while the one year that the team did win the superbowl was the season that the Colts were forced for scheduling reasons to play its way through all 17 games of the season. And the part that really pushes this decision over the edge for me is that Manning, in addition to being one of the great quarterbacks and incredible field generals in the modern-day NFL, hasn't missed a single start in more than twelve years. Twelve years! So the Colts management opted to pull their starters and turn a lead into a defeat to miss their chance at going 16-0, and in losing its chance to go undefeated for the year they also copied the strategy that has failed to produce a superbowl victory in the end several times in the recent past, and they benched a guy to protect him from injury when he hasn't missed a single game at the toughest position on the field to put together a longevity streak. It just doesn't make sense. And now the Colts, who played their starters in Week 17 only for a couple of short series, also go into the playoffs having turned their record around from 14-0 to 14-2 after two losses at season's end. So we're looking at the Vikings losing 3 of 5 to end the season after starting 10-1, the Saints going from 13-0 to 13-3 to end the year, and the Colts dropping from 14-0 to 14-2. How these separate losses of momentum for the NFL's three hottest teams through early December will affect the teams' playoff chances in January remains to be seen, but in all it really contributes to what has been another crazy, crazy year in the No Fun League.

The last thing I would mention regarding summarizing the 2009 NFL season are some of the incredible comebacks and turnarounds, the biggest surprises on the upside and the biggest disappointments of the season. For starters, you've got the New York Giants and the Denver Broncos, who started off 5-0 and 6-0, respectively, but both ended the season at 8-8 clips and on the outside of the playoff race looking in. Ultimately, although neither squad was all that great of a team in the end IMO, I see the issue with the Giants as being more related to scheduling than anything else. The Giants began the year 5-0 with games against Washington, Dallas, Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Oakland, once that schedule turned around after Week 5, the team faced 9 out of 11 opponents with at least .500 records on the year, losing 7 of those 9 games. Denver, on the other hand, I think more played over their heads in starting off 6-0 on the year, including wins against the playoff-bound Cheatriots, Chargers, Cowboys and Bengals during that streak, but once the Broncos passed their bye week after Week 6, they were a changed team and ended up spiralling down a 2-8 finish to miss the playoffs by a game and really leave their fans shaking their heads.

On the flip side of the equation, I was really impressed most of all with the Tennessee Titans this year, who started off the season 0-6, including bottoming out with an embarrassing 59-0 blowout at the hands of the Cheatriots before also taking their bye week in Week 7, but where the Broncos seemed to have fallen apart during their time away, the Titans made the move of the year in switching quarterbacks from Kerry Collins to Vince Young, and the result was visible immediately as the team went on a 5-game winning tear and finished up 8-2 in its last 10 games to eke its way back to .500 as well by season's end, including victories in that second half against .500+ teams the 49ers, Jaguars, Texans and Cardinals. The Carolina Panthers were another team that really turned things around and pretty much saved their head coach's job in the process in the second part of the 2009 season, starting off 0-3 and sinking to 4-7 before rattling off four wins in their last five games to also end the year at 8-8. So you had the Giants, Broncos, Titans and Panthers all finishing up 2009 with identical 8-8 records, although the teams could not have been moving in more opposite directions in so doing.

Other disappointments or impressive performances in 2009 in the NFL? Of course there's always the Redskins, who seem to spend at least $100 million every offseason on some big signing or signings, and yet who seem unable to generate victories no matter what they try and no matter who is leading the team. The Skins finished 2009 at 4-12, including early-season losses to the Panthers, the Chiefs and the Lions. And speaking of the Lions, that team still royally sucks but at the same time, let's give the team some props for finishing at 2-14, a full infinity percent better than the franchise's win total from 2008. Eric Mangini probably deserves some kudos as well for keeping his team from throwing in the towel and busting out with four straight wins to end the 2009 season and lift his team out of the NFL's cellar and to an almost-respectable 5-11 overall record. The Houston Texans finished 9-7 on the year after coming from behind to defeat the Cheatriots in the final game of the season, the Houston franchise's first-ever winning season, and the Atlanta Falcons rode on Matt Ryan's back to a 9-7 record, the first time in franchise history that the Falcons have posted back-to-back winning seasons. And, speaking of streaks, the two hottest teams in the NFL heading into the playoffs do not include the Vikings, Saints or the Colts -- it's the Chargers, who have won 11 straight in the AFC, and the Eagles in the NFC who won 6 straight games before getting crushed in Dallas in a crucial NFC East matchup to decide who would take the divisional title in 2009. More on that later in the week when I make my picks for the weekend's playoff action.

As far as my regular season picks, I picked five games against the spread in each week of the NFL regular season except for Week 1 and Week 17, and I ended up with a record of 39-34-2. Although anything over .500 means a winning season bet-wise, the way it happened was not pretty, as I ran that record up to 35-20 after Week 12 only to close out 4-14 in my final four weeks of utterly pathetic picks. I mean, I couldn't find a winner no matter what I tried in the final quarter of the NFL season. I saw a game that I thought for sure was mis-priced, and then the team on the other side of my bet would run back a late touchdown and snatch away a victory, or better yet, I even picked the opposite of who I thought would win the games near the end and even then I would push or be straight-out wrong. 39-34 is to tell the truth not much different than my past history of picking games against the spread, so the hot early start to my picks in the 2009 was sadly more likely the aberration than the norm, and the late-season nosedive was probably always destined to come. But I had fun picking the games and writing about them here, as I will continue to do heading into the NFL playoff rounds, and I know that my knowledge of both the NFL and of picking games against the spread grew as a result of the analysis I was regularly doing here at the blog.

Lastly, I wanted to take a quick look at my preseason predictions for the 2009 NFL season to see how they fared against reality.

In the NFC East, I correctly predicted the Eagles to go 11-5, I missed the Giants' win total by 1 with my prediction of 9-7 for the G-Men, and I nabbed the Redskins as well in the range of 4-6 wins. But the Cowboys surprised me big time, in particular with their strong 3-game December win streak to capture the East in going 11-5, as I had them pegged for an 8-8 season under country bumpkin coach Wade Phillips, who also grabbed the divison title away from the Eagles in what definitely came as a surprise to me on the season.

In the NFC North, my predictions were more or less a disaster. I figured the Vikings for 10 wins but they surprised me with 12, while I tapped the Bears and new quarterback Jay Cutler for 10 wins and the division crown in what turned out to be a horrible performance for both Cutler and the Bears on the year. I also figured the Packers to improve, but only to around .500 and to miss the playoffs, both of which were also wrong as the Pack made a strong run and was never really in doubt as a wildcard team behind the surging Vikings this year. But hey, I was spot-on that the Lions would win exactly two games on the year, so that means I basically got this division just about correct, right? Right?

In the NFC South I once again got swayed by the crowd and predicted the Panthers to win 11 or 12 games, although they inexplicably won just 8 despite fielding essentially the same team as the one that won 12 games in 2008. I correctly picked the Falcons to have another solid year behind Matt Ryan, Roddy White and Michael Turner, although injuries to all three of those players in several key games in the second half of the season kept the team limited to 9 wins instead of the 11 I was figuring them for before the season began. I tapped the Bucanneers to win 7 games this year, a far cry from the pathetic 3-13 record they ended with, and I figured the Saints for 8 or 9 wins, also a far cry from the 13-for-13 they put up in running the best offense in football before losing their momentum in the final three games of the year.

Lastly, in the NFC West, I predicted that the 49ers would steal the division with 9 wins vs 8 or 9 for the defending champion Arizona Cardinals. In the end, the Niners simply could not muster enough consistency on either side of the ball when it counted to make a late-season run at the division, and although at 8-8 I was very close with the Niners, the Cardinals came through with an upside surprise at 10 wins to defend their title as NFC West champions and give themselves a chance to defend their NFC Championship from 2008 as well. I also predicted the Rams to improve on 2008's 2-14 record by a couple of games (they actually got worse, finishing at 1-15), and I was one game ahead of the Seahawks' 6-win 2009 season, although at least I was on track that this would be a down year for both of the other teams at the bottom of the NFC West race.

My preseason NFL predictions were not much better in the AFC, unfortunately.

In the AFC East, I again went totally with the pundits in expecting 14 wins from the Cheatriots who actually finished the season at 10-6, though I was correct that they would win the division at the least. I predicted 10 wins from the Dolphins, who made a nice run but eventually succumbed late in the year and finished at 7-9. Although the words I wrote back in September about the New York Jets and their rookies at quarterback and at head coach sound spot on for how this season ended, the Jets were handed two wins that would have almost surely been losses at the end of the year against two of the toughest teams on their schedule to finish out the year 9-7 and with a miraculous playoff berth. And bringing up the rear I correctly had Buffalo in this division, for whom I predicted 5 wins but who actually came up with 6 thanks to again a final-week gimme game against a bunch of no-names as Indy sat everybody who might possibly contribute to a deep playoff run.

The AFC North was yet another division where I allowed the preseason pundits to cloud my judgment and have me predicting a two-team race along with the rest of the so-called experts, as I expected 12 wins from the Ravens and 11 from the Steelers in producing two AFC playoff teams yet again out of this division. Well, I was right about the two playoff teams, but I completey ignored the Bengals, who back then were still the Bungles in my mind and who I tapped for just 4 or 5 wins on the season, but who actually busted out with a 10-6 record and who easily ran away with the division while the Ravens and Steelers had to scramble until their final games to know if they would be in or out of the 2009 NFL postseason. But again I stepped it up at the bottom of the division, predicting the Browns' 5 wins exactly thanks to Mangini's late-season push back into quasi-respectability.

Yet again I went with convention to my detriment in predicting the AFC South, where I expected another 11 wins and a division crown from the Titans, who surprised everyone by starting off 0-6 before recovering strongly on the back of Vince Young to finish at 8-8. Being the genius that I am, I also predicted a down year for the Colts, who I figured would win just 10 games amidst a new head coach, the loss of their top wide receiver and a struggling running game, where obviously I misjudged just how incredible of a player, play-caller and a leader Peyton Manning really is. I was pretty close in guessing 8 wins for both Houston and Jacksonville on the year, although I have to admit that each team played better than I thought they would as this season wore on.

And lastly, there is the AFC West, where I predicted the Chargers would win 11 games and the division (they won 12), mostly due to just how horrible the division would really be, which it was. I figured the Broncos for just five wins (they actually won 8 after a 2-8 swoon to finish the 2009 regular season), the Chiefs for 4 (which was spot-on), and the Raiders for 2 or 3 wins, when they actually (somehow) won 5 games.

So in all, it was a pretty laughable set of predictions for me on the NFL season for 2009, as I was looking for division winners of Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago and San Francisco in the NFC, plus wildcards of Minnesota and Carolina. In reality it is Dallas, New Orleans, Minnesota and Arizona winning their respective divisions, while Philadelphia and Green Bay nabbed the wildcards, meaning that I picked exactly one playoff team correctly out of six picks during the preseason in the NFC. So sweet. In the AFC I fared only marginally better, predicting division winners of New England, Tennessee, Baltimore and San Diego, with wildcards of Pittsburgh and Miami, while the actual division winners proved to be New England, Indianapolis, Cincinatti and San Diego. The AFC wildcard teams of the Ravens and the Jets rounded out a better but still uninspired performance with my predictions for the AFC as learned a really important lesson here in my first year of making these predictions -- the pundits don't know shiat, so don't follow them anymore unless I actually believe what they believe. As I mentioned above, the NFL above all other sports leagues in this country has parity built in to its very core, and there are more worst-to-first stories in this league than in the other three major U.S. sports combined I am sure.

Later in the week I will post my predictions for the four playoff games this weekend, including three of which that are rematches of this past weekend's Week 17 matchups, in which all three were blowouts to end the regular season.

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