On the frantic final Sunday of the NFL season, attention deficit was the order of the day.
With the exception of the Sunday night play-in game, in which the Seattle Teachers College Seahawks battled the Southwest St. Louis A&T Rams for the right to be embarrassed at home by the New Orleans Saints next week, there was no single game to concentrate on that wasn’t affected by one or two others.
The league, concerned about questions of effort and ethics in final-week matchups, set the schedule so that all games were played between divisional opponents. The plan was successful, insofar as no game featured a team whose playoff slot was set versus a team needing a win. At least, that was the case until Atlanta opened a predictably wide early lead against 2-13 Carolina, locking up the number-one seed in the NFC.
Suddenly, the Chicago-Green Bay game presented the dreaded scenario, as the Bears could gain or lose nothing whatever the result, while a Packers win would put them in the playoffs.
Allow me to address the ethical question of whether a playoff team is obliged to make its best efforts to win a game that means nothing to its playoff seeding: Of course not. The risk of injury to a vital player is too great. Your only obligation is to do what’s best for your own team in the big picture, not necessarily try to win each individual game. If the NFL thinks otherwise, let it give preferential treatment in the playoffs to teams that won in Week 17.
In other words, I have no earthly idea why Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, and Devin Hester were playing in the fourth quarter in Green Bay. If Lovie Smith believed his quarterback needed to keep his timing heading into the playoff bye week, Cutler’s performance (21-of-39 for 168 yards, two interceptions, a 43.5 rating) is hardly one to spend fourteen days dwelling on.
Rex Ryan, whose Jets won’t have the luxury of a week off, gave one to many of his starters, not dressing Darrelle Revis, pulling Mark Sanchez after one series, and giving the ball to reserve running back Joe McKnight on more than half of the team’s plays from scrimmage. His prime players rested on the sidelines while the junior varsity romped over the Bills, 38-7.
The other quick knockout in the early games was registered by Pittsburgh, who went into Cleveland and tore through the Browns for a 31-7 halftime lead, effectively ending Baltimore’s interest in its game against Cincinnati. The Ravens were going to be the fifth seed in the AFC unless the Steelers lost; with that possibility eliminated quickly, Baltimore ground out a lackluster 13-7 victory. The only early surprises were Kansas City losing big at home to Oakland, falling to the fourth seed if Indianapolis could defeat Tennessee, and Tampa Bay beating New Orleans, which made no difference to the Saints once the Falcons won, and would only matter to the Bucs if the Packers and Giants both lost.
(Before getting too excited about the 10-6 Bucs as a sleeper for 2011 – if there is a 2011 season – remember that this was Tampa Bay’s first win all year against a team with a winning record. And it came in a Week 17 game against a team whose playoff status had already been determined.)
As the second games began, there were two pairs of games to follow in tandem: Tennessee at Indianapolis and Jacksonville at Houston (the Jaguars needing a win and a Colts loss to squeeze into the AFC South title), and the New York Giants at Washington and the aforementioned Chicago at Green Bay.
With the four games going on more or less simultaneously, their progress can be combined into a single graph that is nearly as confusing as the afternoon itself. The movement of the lines indicates each team’s standing in its game, leading or trailing, and by how much. The Giants were encouraged by reports from Green Bay, then had to hold on just to win their game after being knocked out of the playoffs. And while Jacksonville never led and Indianapolis never trailed, for a good deal of the third quarter the combined outcome was very much in doubt:
When it was all over, almost nothing had changed. New England remains the hottest team, and the Jets and Ravens will face inferior teams in the first round, though Kansas City’s loss means Rex Ryan’s defense faces its playoff nemesis Peyton Manning in Lucas Oil Stadium. The Giants’ collapse was completed, the Packers take the NFC’s best point differential on the road to face an Eagles team that rested its starters rather than force them into two games five days apart, and the Super Bowl champion Saints will play Seattle, the worst team ever to make the postseason. Atlanta continued to make believers, and Jay Cutler and the Bears continued to make doubters.
The day was a rollicking blast, with so many possibilities taking shape and fading away. It was reminiscent of what January 1 used to be in college football, before the removal of the top two contenders and the stretching of the schedule made it just a long series of exhibitions.
This may have been the last regular-season day of pro football for a while, so I hope you savored it.