A tremendous regular season, which will be remembered mostly as Peyton Manning’s stellar return from a year away, Adrian Peterson’s assault on Eric Dickerson’s rushing record and a rookie quarterback class that might top the famed 1983 group, is in the books. The question remains, however: Is your Survivor Pool competition also finished? Every pool I have been involved in that remains deadlocked after Week 17 has continued into the postseason.
The rules can vary, but generally the field of teams you can pick from is completely reset. This also could be a year where that might not be the case, because it’s quite possible a few of the playoff teams weren’t used by the finalists during the regular season. I am referring to the Colts, Vikings, Redskins and, to a lesser extent, Seahawks. I didn’t have Minnesota or Washington as a top choice this year. All four teams missed the playoffs a year ago. That continued an amazing trend. Since the 12-team playoff format was adopted in 1990, at least four teams have qualified for the playoffs that were not in the postseason the year before.
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Indianapolis essentially hit the reset button on its franchise after last season’s 2-14 mark. Manning was cut loose, and the front office underwent a total overhaul. The Colts entered this year as one of the youngest teams in the league and expected to maybe double their 2011 win total as Andrew Luck adjusted to the speed of the NFL. Instead, they finished with 11 wins, tied for the third-most in the AFC, and a wild-card spot.
Minnesota was very much expected to bring up the rear in the NFC North again, but Peterson carried the Vikes to 10 wins and a playoff spot after a thrilling Week 17 victory over Green Bay – perhaps the game of the season. Peterson finished with 2,097 yards, nine short of breaking Dickerson’s mark. He also might have vaulted passed Manning as the NFL MVP favorite with his 34-carry, 199-yard effort against the Packers.
Redskins coach Mike Shanahan sounded like he gave up on the season when his team was 3-6 -- “Now you’re playing to see who obviously is going to be on your football team for years to come. Now we get a chance to evaluate players and see where we’re at. Obviously, we’re not out of it statistically, but now we find out what type of character we’ve got and how guys keep on fighting through the rest of the season,” he said then – but Robert Griffin III led Washington to seven straight wins and its first division title since 1999 (RG3 was nine then). The Skins are just the fifth team in NFL history to make the playoffs after starting 3-6.
Many considered the Seahawks playoff-caliber entering the season, but that looked somewhat doubtful after a Week 8 loss in Detroit had Seattle at .500. Then Russell Wilson started playing out of his mind, and Seattle lost only one more game. Wilson tied Manning’s NFL rookie record with 26 touchdown passes and might have stolen the Offensive Rookie of the Year award from Luck and RG3.
Regardless of your Survivor Pool rules, I will list the playoff games this week and next in the order of my confidence in the picks. Good luck!
Baltimore vs. Indianapolis: I think any chance the Colts had of pulling an upset disappeared when Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said Wednesday that he was retiring after this season. Think that might be somewhat motivating this week? No way Lewis’ teammates will let his career end on Sunday, and the Ravens have never been one-and-done in the postseason under John Harbaugh. Luck has been terrific, but the Colts didn’t beat a good team on the road (Titans, Jaguars, Lions and Chiefs).
Green Bay vs. Minnesota: Yes, the Vikings just beat the Packers, but that was at the Metrodome. I find it hard to fathom that Minnesota, which was 3-5 on the road this season, could beat Green Bay in back-to-back weeks. I find it equally hard to fathom that Green Bay, which hasn’t lost at home since Week 1, could lose consecutive playoff openers at Lambeau. The tundra should be quite frozen come Saturday night.
Houston vs. Cincinnati: Not too long ago, the Texans looked like the NFL’s best team. But then they were destroyed in New England on the way to losing three of their final four games and throwing away a first-round bye. I can assure you that Houston players had no expectations of playing this week and probably already were planning for five days off before starting preparations for the divisional round. But I do think Houston will be able to flip the switch here. Plus, Cincinnati top back BenJarvus Green-Ellis is banged up, and the Bengals haven’t won a playoff game in 21 seasons. Cincinnati is tied with New Orleans for the worst all-time road playoff record at 0-5.
Seattle at Washington: The Seahawks are the only road favorite in the wild-card round, but I’m not totally sure why. Seattle wasn’t very good on the road this season, and Wilson’s QB rating is 50 points lower away from home. The Seahawks do enter having won two straight away from the Pacific Northwest. But as noted above, the Skins have won seven in a row. Seattle is probably a chic wild-card pick to win the Super Bowl right now. Winners in the wild-card round have won the Super Bowl eight times, including each of the past two seasons.
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