2021 NFL Playoffs MegaColumn

Welcome to the NFL Playoffs MegaColumn! With the regular season having finally reached its terminus, it’s time for me to take one last look back at the entirely too long season that was before I turn my attention to the upcoming playoffs. Now that the Mike Zimmer/Rick Spielman era of Vikings football has also been brought to a merciful end, I’ll also be taking a not-so-brief detour to work out my complicated feelings about this turn of events before I spend the remainder of the column making a series of horrifically under-informed playoff-related decisions. Not only will l get sweaty with overthinking as I struggle in vain to pick this year’s nigh-on-impossible-to-pick Playoff Confidence Pool, I’ll also share my Wild Card Weekend picks against the spread as though I have any business pretending I have actual spread-betting wisdom to impart when that couldn’t be further from the truth.

That’s a lot to get through, so enough dang preamble already! Let’s go!

Part 1: Regular Season Confidence Pool Wrap-Up

Good news, everyone! I have succeeded in my quest to finish above 0.600 in both my confidence pool picks and confidence pool points earned! Behold the splendor of my final season stats!

Week 18 Correct Picks: 11/16 (0.688)

Season Total Correct Picks: 166/272 (0.610)

Week 18 Points: 90/136 (0.662)

Season Total Points: 1,390/2,200 (0.632)

I went into Week 18 with little to worry about in terms of points, needing only 20 points to clear 0.600 for the season. For as long as I have been participating in any confidence pools, I don’t think I’ve ever, ever had a week where I even came close to coming away with 20 points or less. Frankly, I’m not sure it’s possible, even if one makes their picks randomly, or according to non-football related criteria, such as which team name sounds more badass (Pfft, what even is a Patriot? Certainly not as fearsome as a Jaguar, I can tell you that much!). With 90 points on the week, I secured the first component of victory.

By contrast, I had a lot to worry about in terms of picks, needing to hit on 9 out of 16 in order to exceed my goal. While it’s rare for me to hit on less than 9 picks in a week, it absolutely has happened. Hell, it’s happened in recent memory, as Week 16 of this season saw me go an utterly putrid 7-of-16. Complicating matters was the fact that I truly had no idea what teams were even going to be trying all that hard. To cite an obvious example, picking the Packers would’ve been a no brainer in any other week, and even with the Packers pulling starters I was fortunate that going out on a limb to pick the Lions panned out.

To cite a non-obvious example, my other instincts about which playoff teams would try their best and which playoff teams would not proved to be entirely faulty. I anticipated that the Cowboys wouldn’t bother trying to improve their seeding, and that the Eagles would pounce on this opportunity to whale on their arch-rivals, and instead, the Eagles rested, thus enabling the Cowboys to open a can of whoop ass. I also thought the Bucs might pull starters at some point, and they didn’t (although this only cost me points, since I did pick the Bucs, but had I known this I would’ve assigned more), It is only by good fortune that I learned the Bengals were resting before publishing, which saved me a pick and good points, too.

But even with a few high-profile blunders, I came away with 11 correct predictions and finished above 0.600 on the season in picks, too. Therefore, I hereby declare my confidence pool for the 2021 NFL regular season a rousing success. Feels good! I am also pleased to report that, from a column-writing perspective, I feel that I have tightened up confidence pool operations significantly. Not only did I uhm…actually start the confidence pool in Week 1 this season, I also had the good sense to start noting success percentages in both picks and points.

Well, I gained this good sense eventually, at any rate. Perhaps Week 7 was a wee little bit in the season to start doing this and still give myself credit for it, but hey, better late than never, right? With any luck, next season I’ll not only start the pool column in Week 1, I’ll also start tracking percentages in Week 2. Before I move on, I would also like to announce that next season, my goal for the confidence pool is to finish above 0.700(!) in both correct picks and points earned for the season. This is obviously ambitious, possibly past the point of foolishness, given that I just barely squeaked above 0.600 this season, but if I don’t set lofty goals for the season I run the risk of underthinking my picks from time to time. And yes, while overthinking one’s picks can cause real problems for one’s chances of success, underthinking one’s picks is certain to end in catastrophe. I’m excited, even though I feel like a video game streamer who can barely beat their chosen game on normal cranking the difficulty up to ultra hard in a fit of misplaced confidence. It’ll be fun, even though it might suck, and I can’t wait! (I mean I definitely can wait, but you get what I’m saying, surely.)

Part 2: Preseason Predictions, Revisited

Back in August, I made my preseason predictions for each and every team in the league in the form of The New Parents’ Guide, a celebration and skewering of the folly of predicting how this season – or any given season – of this dumb sport is going to go. What started out in my head as a cool and fun way of churning out a month’s worth of content for this humble little establishment turned into a nightmare, as I learned just how little I had been paying attention to most of the off-season happenings around the league, thus turning almost every entry into a life-or-death struggle to remember who each team’s ostensible starting quarterback was. Naturally, trying to spin this ignorance into trenchant insight while also sleep-deprived from raising a newborn proved less than possible in most instances.

It is in this context that I am delighted to report that I correctly predicted the divisional finish of 18 out of 32 teams, good for a success percentage of 0.562. Normally I try not to pat myself on the back too much for just barely outperforming a series of coin flips, but the times in my life when talking out of my ass has ended with even a modest success rate have been few and far between. Unfortunately, I did not correctly predict both the placement of each team in a division and the playoff status of each team, as I did for my home division last season. I did have 100% accuracy in predicting the final placements of both the NFC North and AFC East, but predicting Wild Cards for the Dolphins and Vikings denied me double-perfect predictions for either division.

Since I didn’t go double-perfect in any division, I’m at a bit of a loss when determining what quasi-educated guess of mine is worthy of the Best Prediction championship belt. At first I thought this would be a good opportunity to congratulate myself for ignoring my gag reflex long enough to declare the Titans would win the AFC South by default, but that shit was chalk for a reason. So instead, I’m going to congratulate myself for correctly predicting that the Chargers would miss the playoffs, because just about every season preview I read penciled them in for a spot, which made me feel I was going out on a limb for saying otherwise, despite their obvious flaws. And yet, this is a bittersweet triumph at absolute best, because while the Chargers weren’t always good, they were damn fun to watch and they will be sorely missed this weekend, especially as we watch gray dick heave up duck after duck.

This past weekend, as I began compiling the below tables, I suspected I would have to assign Worst Prediction ‘honors’ to my read on the NFC West, but now that the season is concluded and all the standings are finalized, my NFC West predictions don’t look so bad. All I did wrong was flip the Seahawks’ and Cardinals’ final positions. No, my worst predictions were unquestionably my AFC North ones, as I whiffed on the final standing and playoff status of every single team. I didn’t see the Bengals’ good season coming and I didn’t see the Ravens’ decimation due to injury coming and I…well, I deserve what I got for penciling the Browns in for any playoff spot, even a Wild Card. The only turn of events in the entire division I properly anticipated was the Steelers being a tough out despite a near-complete lack of offensive firepower; naturally, I did not anticipate that would be enough to get them a sneaky backdoor entry into the playoffs.

If you’re into this sort of the thing, the below tables compile and compare my season predictions for each division with the actual season results. These tables also include links to the original articles of The New Parents’ Guide, just in case you’re so bored at work that reading outdated, wild speculation from a guy who only sort of knew what he was talking about and was also running on fumes at the time sounds like something you could get into.

AFC South

TeamPredicted FinishActual FinishPlayoffs? (Predicted)Playoffs? (Actual)

Placement Prediction Accuracy: 0.500

Playoff Prediction Accuracy: 1.000

NFC South

TeamPredicted FinishActual FinishPlayoffs? (Predicted)Playoffs? (Actual)

Placement Prediction Accuracy: 0.500

Playoff Prediction Accuracy: 1.000

AFC East

TeamPredicted FinishActual FinishPlayoffs? (Predicted)Playoffs? (Actual)

Placement Prediction Accuracy: 1.000

Playoff Prediction Accuracy: 0.750

NFC East

TeamPredicted FinishActual FinishPlayoffs? (Predicted)Playoffs? (Actual)
Football Team2nd3rdNN

Placement Prediction Accuracy: 0.500

Playoff Prediction Accuracy: 0.750

AFC West

TeamPredicted FinishActual FinishPlayoffs? (Predicted)Playoffs? (Actual)

Placement Prediction Accuracy: 0.500

Playoff Prediction Accuracy: 0.750

NFC West

TeamPredicted FinishActual FinishPlayoffs? (Predicted)Playoffs? (Actual)

Placement Prediction Accuracy: 0.500

Playoff Prediction Accuracy: 0.500

AFC North

TeamPredicted FinishActual FinishPlayoffs? (Predicted)Playoffs? (Actual)

Placement Prediction Accuracy: 0.000

Playoff Prediction Accuracy: 0.000

NFC North

TeamPredicted FinishActual FinishPlayoffs? (Predicted)Playoffs? (Actual)

Placement Prediction Accuracy: 1.000

Playoff Prediction Accuracy: 0.750

Total Placement Prediction Accuracy: 0.562

Total Playoff Prediction Accuracy: 0.688

Part 3: Mike Zimmer (and Rick Spielman) – A Vikings Fan’s Retrospective

This seems almost impossible to think now, but for a while there, I truly believed that the Mike Zimmer era of the Minnesota Vikings was going to work out. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to the conclusion that winning a championship is not and should not be the sole criteria of success for a coaching or front office regime. It’s certainly the single most important criteria, but at the end of the day sports are entertainment, a distraction from real life and its many indignities. As such, all I’m really hoping to get out of watching my favorite sports teams play – including the Vikings – is a good performance and, with any luck, an accompanying win to give my day a bit of a boost.

After coming to this conclusion, I’ve further realized that demanding my beloved Vikings be in constant contention for actual Lombardi trophies is not only ahistorical, it’s also a poor use of my ever-dwindling emotional resources. The last time the Vikings so much as appeared in the Super Bowl was almost a decade before I was born; the original Star Wars was a few months away from premiering, and they also got crushed. I’ve never seen them so much as lose a Super Bowl, so why get worked up into a froth about their relative lack of title prospects? Seeing them win a good smattering of inconsequential noon games each season can be an end in itself, and once I came to this truth, I became a (marginally) happier sports fan.

By this relatively modest standard, the Zimmer/Spielman era of Vikings football was an undisputed success. Not only did the team win more games than they lost during this time, thus giving me the Sunday warm and fuzzies on the regular, the franchise also felt stable again for the first time since the late Dennis Green years. Let’s face it, the 21st century had not been particularly kind to the team prior to Zimmer’s arrival. True, there were some scattered highlights and scattered playoff appearances, but there were also late-season collapses and Whizzinators and piss-poor defenses and piss-poor offenses and multiple infuriating Randy Moss-related transactions and dick pic scandals and Metrodome collapses and fucking Brad Childress, to name but a few of the more prominent punchlines that came about during this time. But, under Zimmer and Spielman, the team transformed from one of the league’s lesser shitshows into a bastion of relative stability, and respect and prestige followed from that stability. It felt good.

But, when I say I truly believed Zimmer was going to work out as coach, I mean it in the most absolute, maximal sense. I truly believed Zimmer was going to win the Vikings a goddamn Super Bowl. Remember this game? I had forgotten about it until recently, but when I was reminded of it, I remembered exactly how hopeful I became as I watched it. The Vikings, flexed into primetime, kicked the absolute sorry shit out of the Giants that night, clinching a playoff berth and looking like the defense of the future. The next week, they stole the division title from the Packers at Lambeau. Of course, those Vikings ended up a one-and-done in the playoffs. (By all means, curse Blair Walsh all you want, but the play that haunts me all these years later is this one; after a fumbled snap, the Vikings’ pass rush took off just enough gas to let Wilson recover the ball and create a huge play that set up the game’s only touchdown.) But, even with the tough loss, I wasn’t too mad at the time. As I saw it, the Vikings had overachieved that year, and had nowhere to go but up.

And now, when I look back to that 2015 team and recall the incredible giddiness of watching that late-season run, sometimes I wonder if maybe that was their best chance after all. With that loss to the Seahawks, Teddy Bridgewater had started his last game for the team before suffering his most horrific injury. After all, the true hope of Zimmer’s regime was never with just Zimmer in those early years. The hope was that the team had finally found their quarterback after years and years of fruitless searches and veteran stopgaps. This dream, the dream of a coaching and quarterback situation that would win a title and remain in place for years, died in the August 2016, after a non-contact injury in practice.

Even so, the 2016 season went better than it had any right to, which is to say it went poorly, but the defense was so lights-out to start the season the Vikings looked like the best team in football for a few weeks. It was fun to watch at first, but the inevitable soul-sucking collapse, compounded with the fresh memory of Teddy’s injury, rendered it a slog and a waste of what should have been the first year of true contention. That contention was instead deferred a year, as the 2017 team was best and most fun to watch team of the era just about any way you slice it, and the Minneapolis Miracle was the greatest sports moment of my adult life, but their utter destruction at the hands of the Eagles in the conference final the next week has made that year’s team seem doom feel like an inescapable inevitability with hindsight. Fun season, make no mistake, but we all knew how a season of Case Keenum behind yet another terrible offensive line was gonna end. That ending now stings even more to know that afterwards, it was all downhill from there for Zimmer, Spielman, and the franchise.

It would be wrong of me to ascribe all of the team’s post-2017 ills to the signing of one Kirk Daniel Cousins, and hell, it’s not entirely impossible that he really was the best available answer to the Vikings’ then-pressing quarterback question. But, from my own admittedly myopic perspective, it was absolutely the moment everything went to shit. Cousins was brought in for the explicitly expressed purpose of putting a championship-caliber roster over the top, and as such, that 2018 season was an object lesson in how the very concept of a ‘championship-caliber roster’ can often be an empty lie we sports fans throw around to pass the time. All of the hype that surrounded that team was for naught, as their season ended with a Week 17 face plant, missing the playoffs entirely.

The three seasons afterwards were also bummers in their own way. As these years progressed, it became gradually clearer and clearer that no, Zimmer was not going to be the coach to lead the Vikings to glory. Yes, 2019 ended with a playoff berth and an actually pretty hilarious upset of the Saints in the first round that stands as Zimmer’s finest hour (line up Hunter and Griffen inside!? Have Andrew Sendejo man up on Michael Thomas!?!?!?), but led directly to a divisional round drubbing that made the team’s new ceiling perfectly clear. But a divisional round rubbing is an embarrassment of riches compared to the last two years, as the roster depth has rotted and the quality of play has done likewise with it.

The fact that bringing in Cousins proved not to be the final push over the top that the franchise needed to finally win it all has made it easy to blame Cousins for the team’s downfall. Well, that an his underwhelming play; dude has been somewhere between the 12th and 16th best QB in the game over the past few years, by my reckoning. That’s far from good enough to meet the lofty expectations set by his signing, and it’s nowhere even close to justifying the percentage of available cap space Cousins has received for his services. He’s a quarterback who can only succeed under the right set of circumstances, and he came at a price large enough to ensure that he would never be operating under the right set of circumstances, especially after he received a baffling extension in the 2019-2020 offseason. He’s also an idiot anti-vaxxer and I hate his guts, which hasn’t helped me cope with his periodic multi-turnover meltdowns and 3rd-and-long (and 4th-and-long) dumpoffs.

But I think Cousins’ status as an easy and mostly deserving target for my frustrations allowed me to maintain my belief in Zimmer for too long, and to make excuses for problems that obviously fell under his purview. If anyone asked me – and it’s to everyone’s credit that they mostly didn’t – I would’ve defended Zimmer from most of the common criticisms thrown his way. He’s not that conservative, he was just salty that John DeFilippo wouldn’t run the ball even when it was working. He doesn’t have a problem retaining offensive coordinators – Norv Turner sucked, DeFilippo sucked, and Shurmur and Stefanski both got poached immediately – how was that Zim’s fault? Of course he wants to run the ball, making Cousins throw more than 30 times a game is a great way to get a shitty Cousins game. I don’t think he had that much to do with Stefon Diggs forcing his way out of town, I heard Diggs was mostly sick of Cousins. Yeah the defense is declining, but what’s Zim supposed to do with all these key injuries and all these late-round rookies?

But, as this past season limped on, it became clearer and clearer that Zimmer had to go. The 2021 Vikings were one of the most miserable teams to watch in the entire league. Cousins became a self-parody of ineffectual game management, with his bafflingly favorable TD/INT ratio masking an unthinkable lack of situational awareness and a surfeit of failed completions. The team ran the ball too much and almost never succeeded at it, with opposing defenses recognizing the play before the blockers did. The defense, revamped in order to get the team back into the playoffs, still sucked even before another slew of creaky old big-name veterans (well, big-ish name veterans at any rate) went down with injury. Every game was close, even the ones that had no business being close. They lost to the Lions. They lost to the Cooper Rush-led Cowboys. They lost to the Browns. Those last two were at home, by the way, compounding the misery. It was time.

And, of course, as soon as Zimmer was dismissed, reports of just how fractured his relationship with…uhm, everyone in the entire damn building had become. That Zimmer was such a prick wasn’t actually news, but like I said, I selectively ignored and/or disbelieved and/or counter-argued a lot of this stuff for far too long. Hell, even Eric Kendricks, the best defender on the team for the past few years, made it plain as day that he was fed up with Zim’s shit by the end. I kind of convinced myself that, for all of Zim’s hardassery, his defensive veterans had still bought in. I guess not, huh? Acrimonious as the end of this era is, though, I’m mostly glad it happened. Those were some fun to watch defenses, I’ll tell ya, and the Zimmer-led Vikings won a good amount of games until they uh…stopped doing that. In the end, I suppose that’s all I asked of them.

Oh man, that sure was a lot of words there, wasn’t it? I went way over budget there, didn’t I? Crap, I forgot to discuss Rick Spielman’s firing in there; that’s okay, I can do it real quick. Rick Spielman had pros and cons as GM, but in these last couple of years I think he tried way too hard to keep the team’s championship window open to the team’s detriment, even though it wasn’t actually open anymore. How else does one explain the panic trades for Yannick Ngakoue and Chris Herndon? How does one explain paying an again Harrison Smith like he’s still in the prime of his career? How else does one explain deleting two more years of salary cap to extend Kirk Cousins?

His recent drafts left me baffled as well; I tend to view the draft as a crapshoot, but trying to restock key positions and key depth with a war chest of sixth and seventh-round picks seems like an ideologically confused half measure at absolute best. This is especially so given that I think the last late-round pick he actually hit on was Diggs, all the way back in 2015. Given all the other win-now moves he made the past few years, I’m not sure how he thought all those late draft picks were helping the team stay competitive in the short term. Hell, the early rounds haven’t gone so great lately, either. Outside of Justin Jefferson (here I must give Spielman credit for getting a first-rounder for Diggs on his way out) and Christian Darrisaw, the past few drafts haven’t yielded many emerging stars, or even all that many solid depth guys.

My point is, I think the Vikings needed a fresh start, and unfortunately, I think Spielman needed to go for that fresh start to materialize. Getting fired sucks, but life isn’t fair and football is less so.

I don’t know what the Vikings are going to look like next year, and I’m mostly trying not to worry about it. I can talk myself out of just about every head coaching candidate out there, but as long as they don’t hire Josh McDaniels I’m cool. The general manager search might be even more important, but it’s also even harder to care about for a filthy casual such as myself. As long as they don’t hire Ryan Grigson I’m cool.

Once the new regime is in place, who knows what they do in the short term. Trying to turn the team around quickly and compete for a playoff spot in 2022 is potentially justifiable, but so is using the first year as a Year 0 to figure things out. Do they keep Cousins for the last year of his deal, or do they shop him around? If they do trade Cousins, what’s their short term plan at quarterback? If they keep Cousins, what’s their long term plan at quarterback? Do they keep all of the defensive vets under contract, or do they try and trade some or all of them for picks, too? These are the sorts of questions I’m glad I’m not getting paid to answer. It’s somebody else’s job. I’m just here to watch the games, you know?

Part 4: Playoff Confidence Pool

Finally! All of that backward-looking introspective bullshit is over. Let’s pivot away from the games that have already happened and start talking about the games that are yet to come, shall we?

To that end, allow me to once again introduce the Playoff Confidence Pool! The Playoff Confidence Pool is vastly different from the Regular Season Confidence Pool. For the Playoff Confidence Pool, I will be making only one set of picks and point assignments now rather than making a new set of picks each week. These picks, and their inevitably horrible consequences, will stick with me for the duration of the playoffs.

The Playoff Pool rules are as follows:

  • Each playoff team is assigned a point value from 1-14, with 14 indicating highest confidence, and 1 indicating lowest confidence.
  • After each playoff game, you receive points equal to the value you assigned to the winning team.
  • Most total points after the conclusion of the Super Bowl wins. For the purposes of this column, I will note the points earned from winning teams, the points lost on losing teams, and the differential between the two in this space, both for the previous week and the duration of the playoffs.

The practical upshots of this should be reasonably obvious, but because I am nothing if not a generous man, I’m going to point them out for everyone, anyway. First and foremost, you want to assign 14 points to the team you believe will win the Super Bowl, 13 points to the team you believe will lose the Super Bowl, 12 and 11 points to your presumed Conference runners-up, and so on. You’re not betting the money lines, here; the goal is not to find the best value propositions, or to exploit inefficiencies in the market (with some exceptions, which I’ll get to in a bit). Your only goal is to assign higher values to teams that you believe will go farther, and lower values to teams that you believe are less likely to advance much, if at all.

Also, note that when making your picks, you will have to consider the actual playoff bracket, and which teams are likely to play each other. For example, if you believe that the Patriots would annihilate the Titans as they did in the regular season should they meet again in the playoffs, don’t put more points on the Titans than the Patriots! A quick examination of the playoff bracket indicates that a Titans/Patriots tilt in the Divisional Round is a distinct possibility. In light of this, I strongly urge you to make a playoff bracket and fill it in according to your picks for each game to organize your thoughts. Not only will this make assigning points less arbitrary, it will also help prevent cognitive dissonance-based errors, such as the one highlighted in the above example.

Now, about those inefficiencies that are worth paying attention to, and potentially exploiting. Since the final pool standings are determined by total points earned, and since the teams with byes are going to be playing fewer games than the teams playing Wild Card weekend, do give a very serious look to Wild Card Round teams that you think stand to make a deep run, and consider giving them big points. With only one bye in each conference, this is a much easier task in year’s past; by definition, at least two teams playing in the Wild Card Round this year will make it to the Conference Championship, one in each conference.

The second inefficiency is very closely tied to the first. Lots of people in your pool are going to go chalk on their point values. There’s going to be a lots of sheets with 14 on the Packers and 13 on the Titans (and vice-versa); I anticipate that the Buccaneers, Chiefs, and maybe even the Bills are going to be popular high picks, as well. If you think any of these teams are frauds, or if you think some of the other teams in the field are being slept on, go with your gut and pick against the grain. Playoff pool standings are going to be tight, and if you’re right about any of these picks against the grain, you stand to get big points while others in your pool weep over their high-value whiffs.

But again, keep in mind that once the Lombardi Trophy is being hoisted, the only thing that is going to matter is the total points. Successfully exploited inefficiencies are great and all, but don’t make any decisions solely because you find those inefficiencies tempting. Exercise extreme caution; be very deliberate in considering your beliefs, and assign your points according to those beliefs. If your beliefs lead you to put high points on a team others are sleeping on, great, but don’t force yourself to make those assignments if you don’t believe in them.

Finally, note that every Playoff Pool sheet will involve some sort of tiebreaker. Common tiebreakers include total points scored in the Super Bowl, margin of victory in the Super Bowl, etc. Please consult with your pool’s organizer for tiebreaker procedures.

With all of that in mind, here are my picks for the Playoff Confidence Pool. As you might imagine, picking the playoff pool after a regular season without even one singularly great team emerging was a brutally difficult exercise. Most teams in this year’s tournament could make some real noise and make it to their conference final or further; but damn near every team could just as easily faceplant in their first game out. I had to bracket and re-bracket out possibility after possibility in order to figure out how I want to assign my picks, and as a result, these picks could be rendered near-worthless as early as this weekend. It is my sincere hope that I have sufficiently hedged some of these picks to insulate myself from total disaster, but I must acknowledge the possibility that I haven’t. Follow these values at your own peril! If you follow these values exactly and get burned as a result, that’s on you. I am not liable for points missed as a result of mirroring these picks exactly!

14 Points: Green Bay Packers

Yeah, you read that right. For all of the Packers’ recent playoff woes, I think this is their year, finally. It’s not just that the have home field advantage and a first-round bye, it’s that of all of their possible divisional round opponents, only the Rams pose as much as a vague threat, and the Packers handled business against the Rams in the not-so-distant past. That said, a potential conference championship rematch against the Bucs hangs over this team like Sword of Damocles. While getting past the Bucs is by no means guaranteed, the Bucs are mortal and have their own problems; if the Packers can actually punch the ball into the endzone this time, this potential rematch could very well go much differently, indeed. These Packers are as close to complete as any team in the entire playoffs; having Wild Card Weekend off gives them an even greater a leg up.

13 Points: Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs are still the best team in the AFC…when they’re playing at their best. This isn’t the extreme qualifier it was early in the year, when their defense was a complete shambles (worth noting that the Chiefs weren’t even sort of the best team in the AFC during this period), but a narrow loss to Cincy and a less-than-impressive Week 18 victory over the Broncos suggests they are not currently the emerging juggernaut they appeared to be a month ago. All of that said, I think these Chiefs are still less flawed than last year’s team. They’ve fixed their offensive line and Mahomes has often done a better job of playing within structure, making him less dependent on pulling huge plays out of his butt. If they do make the Super Bowl they have every chance of winning, and I’m tempted to give them the full 14 points, but without that bye I can’t give them that level of confidence.

12 Points: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Make no mistake; while I do believe the Packers absolutely can beat the Bucs in an NFC title rematch, I do not believe the Packers will beat the Bucs if that rematch comes to pass. Yes, the Bucs are as mortal as any team, but a lot of their problems are injury-related. The list of players that could be returning for them as early as this Sunday is longer than I have time to rattle off, but potentially includes JPP, Shaq Barrett, Leonard Fournette, and maybe just maybe Lavonte David, too. Getting just one of those players back would be a huge boost; getting all of them back is a scary proposition. That said, Chris Godwin isn’t coming back and obviously, neither is Antonio Brown; any further strain on their receiving depth could pose a huge problem. There’s also a chance that even if their front six returns to full strength, the secondary won’t improve to the heights of last year’s playoff run. The Bucs are only 10th in pass defense DVOA, which is nothing to sneeze at but could get them in trouble if it remains even a relative weakness. Still, the Bucs have every chance of winning the NFC again, so if I’m gonna give the Packers max points putting the Bucs here is a no-brainer hedge.

11 Points: Tennessee Titans

I’ve given the Titans enough shit over the past couple of years, and while I feel that’s a good and necessary undertaking, it gets boring after a while. I’m legitimately impressed the Titans grabbed the top seed in the AFC after dealing with as many key injuries as they did. I think Mike Vrabel should win Coach of the Year, not only for getting his team this far after all those injuries, and not only for doing so with a new offensive coordinator, but also for overseeing a defense that, while not perfect, was better than anyone predicted. Unlike the Packers, however, I think the Titans have cause to fear many of their potential second round foes. The Patriots absolutely thrashed them recently, the Bengals already aren’t supposed to be here so who knows, and if (heaven forbid) the Steelers somehow escape Kansas City, there’s no reason to believe they can’t at least give Tennessee fits. And I am not at all convinced they can beat the Chiefs if the Chiefs roll in to Nashville in top form (or close to it). A returning Derrick Henry makes the Titans scarier than they’ve been in months, but even with the bye getting out of the AFC is a tall ask for a team this flawed.

10 Points: Dallas Cowboys

I know I warned everybody to avoid cognitive dissonance in assigning points, but since there’s almost noting obvious about how these playoffs will go, my arcane series of hedges has led me to put 10 on the Cowboys even though I’m not at all convinced they’ll even beat San Francisco! How can this be? Well, they finished the year 1st in overall DVOA, for starters. Despite their penchant for narrowing blowing winnable games, they must have been doing something right. If they do win this weekend, they’re headed straight to Tampa (spoiler alert: I’m not so much as entertaining the possibility of an Eagles upset Sunday, and neither should you), where they lost so narrowly in the season opener that there’s a sizable chance they’d win the rematch. It’s very conceivable indeed that that they’ll win the entire NFC. However, their work is cut out for them, I can’t ignore some of those losses, and of course, Mike McCarthy is still the head coach so who knows what manner of arcane game management failures he has up his sleeve.

9 Points: Buffalo Bills

I’ve said it enough times already this season, but man, I really thought this was the Bills’ year. I suppose it still could be; they have the talent to go toe-to-toe with everyone in this bracket, and hell, they did beat the Chiefs back when the Chiefs were kind of shitty. Of course, the Chiefs are vastly improved, and if the Bills win this weekend a rematch is all but guaranteed. And of course, if some of the Cowboys’ losses are cause for concern, where does one even begin to assess the damage wrought from the Bills’ baffling fuckups? The Bills could easy eat it as early as this weekend, but their overwhelming roster talent does make them dangerous if they can get their shit together, which is why I’ve hedged them up to 9. And let the record show that they should thank me for giving them this much. Losing to the Jaguars is grounds for disqualification from serious contention, in my book.

8 Points: Los Angeles Rams

I’m getting pretty sick of hearing about how “All In” the Rams are just because they have no qualms about shipping out high draft picks for known players who can help them win immediately. In this forsaken era, when every day-drunk schmuck who watches the sport thinks they have what it takes to be a successful general manager. Since acquiring underpaid talent through imagined drafts is the cornerstone of any amateur roster construction, and since I’ve made no secret of my belief that the draft gets entirely too much hype and attention, I think it’s wonderful that the Rams keep saying “Fuck the draft, we don’t need it” year in and year out. And it’s worked! They’ve been shipping off draft picks without a second though since trading up for Jared Goff, and possibly before then (hell if I paid that much attention to this team in the Jeff Fisher years), and all these years later they’re still in the thick of the playoff chase. Anyway, the Rams rebounded admirably from a terrible November, and are theoretically quite dangerous indeed, but I need to see Matthew Stafford actually win playoff games before I pencil them in anywhere past the divisional round.

7 Points: Cincinnati Bengals

This Saturday, the Bengals are the well-rested beneficiaries of a home game against an exhausted team coming off a last-second overtime victory and traveling most of the length of the country to play another game six days later. If ever the Bengals were to snap their unthinkably long playoff win drought, now would be the time. After this week, however, almost all of those advantages disappear. It’s worth mentioning that, relative to how much success the Bengals have enjoyed this season, DVOA kind of hates their guts. Aaron Schatz did us the favor of breaking down how that could be the case last week. While it’s complicated, and possibly says more about DVOA than it says about the Bengals, the short (and possibly oversimplified) version of this explanation is that they have benefited from penalties more than any other team, and they have depended on huge plays to a possibly unsustainable degree. Their offensive line still kind of stinks, and Joe Burrow still takes too many sacks. All of this sounds like a team that, while legitimately good in some ways, still has a fixed ceiling, and that ceiling sure looks like the second round.

6 Points: New England Patriots

If you follow the pattern I established for point assignments earlier (14 for the presumed Super Bowl winner, 13 for the Super Bowl loser, and so on), you will notice while that this 6 point assignment indicates a Wild Card Weekend loser, it’s the highest value Wild Card Weekend loser possible. Anything can happen in a division rivalry playoff game, and the Patriots beat the Bills in Orchard Park not too long ago, in one of the most compelling weird and stupid games I’ve ever seen. Of course, the Bills beat them right back a few weeks later and are unlikely to let Belichick and Friends pull that kind of shit a second time. On top of that, I don’t love the Patriots’ prospects in the later rounds. If Joe Burrow scrambling for his life long enough to find Chase, Higgins, or Boyd open on a downfield heave is unsustainable, what exactly is turning the clock back to the dead ball era and pounding out 3.5 yards at a time on the ground in order to mask Mac Jones’ deficiencies and/or lack of experience? Let’s face it, rookie quarterbacks and playoff success do not go hand in hand. Also, any prospective deep playoff run would also be entirely on the road, which doesn’t help.

5 Points: San Francisco 49ers

Even in a postseason full of this much potential chaos and this many question marks, the 49ers are a real mystery box of a team. Just about any outcome feels plausible, at very least; they could slop up every game they play by grinding up their opponents on the ground, and maybe march through the NFC in doing so, but it is slightly more likely that they will play their opponent(s) tough for however long they stick around, which could just as easily be this weekend and this weekend only. A win this weekend would send them to Lambeau next weekend, and I don’t like their chances there very much at all. Handsome Jimmy G. and his limitations are known to all at this point, and as with the Patriots getting through multiple playoff games with a potential liability under center is a tall order.

4 Points: Arizona Cardinals

For the second year in a row, the Cardinals stormed out of the gate early in the year, only to look less and less impressive as the season wore on. This time, they at least forestalled their collapse long enough to make the playoffs, but I haven’t been able to take them seriously as contenders in over a month, and given their white-hot start that’s its own kind of disappointment. Yes, the beat the Cowboys a couple of weeks ago, but note that they did so only barely, and further note that they pretty much have to make the conference championship in order to draw the Cowboys again (and, for that matter, the Cowboys have to make it that far, too). Again, anything can happen in a division rivalry playoff game, but a trip to either Green Bay or Tampa sure feels like curtains. And with they way the Cards have been playing of late, beating the Rams is still a big ask.

3 Points: Las Vegas Raiders

I already tipped my hand when discussing the Bengals, but since this column has already gone far longer than I originally envisioned I’ll use this opportunity to make things quick. That the Raiders made the playoffs after their season from hell is neat, but not they have to travel to face a well-rested Bengals team six days after pulling the football equivalent of an all-nighter. Yes, it’s technically possible to see them winning this week, but even if they do it’s all but impossible to see them beating either KC or Tennessee a week later. They’re also not that good to begin with (21st in overall DVOA).

2 Points: Pittsburgh Steelers

Goddammit. Listen, I don’t begrudge the Raiders’ decision to win the season finale game last week instead of letting the game end in a tie – if we’re going to get salty about teams trying to win games, what is it we’re doing here, exactly? – but I’m as bummed as everyone else that their victory kept the Chargers out of the playoffs, especially since it means this shitty, unwatchable Steelers team is in instead. Ben Roethlisberger sucks. Not only is he years past his expiration date, he is a rapist piece of shit who deserves to be in prison. Get ready for all kinds of repugnant Roethlisberger ass-kissing and glorification this weekend; I’m still barfing in my own mouth from all the gray knob slobbering we had to endure in the last couple of weeks of the regular season. Fortunately, they face a Chiefs team that reduced them to goo not one month ago, and are unlikely to pull off the upset even if the Chiefs have an off night. But, to my horror, I must confess that such an upset is possible, if only remotely.

1 Point: Philadelphia Eagles

For the second year in a row, this lonely point goes to the 7th seed in the NFC. However, unlike last year, and unlike the 7th seed in the AFC, this team’s mere presence is not a scalding indictment of the expanded playoff format. I mean, it’s still a mild indictment of the expanded playoff format; the Eagles stand almost no chance of escaping the first round, so in that sense their presence doesn’t meaningfully enhance the playoffs. But, whereas last year’s Bears were an embarrassment despite their modest level of relative quasi-success, this year’s Eagles are an adorable crew of overachievers. Good on them for making it this far! They’re certain to get sent packing on Sunday, but sometimes it’s enough to make the playoffs at all, you know?

Part 5: Wild Card Weekend Picks Against the Spread

Finally, this ever-so-long MegaColumn ends with picks against the spread for this coming weekend. I don’t bet against the spread much, and when I do I tend to suck at it, so I have about as much business making spread picks part of my playoff columns as I have diagnosing acute renal failure in house cats (uhm, cats do have kidneys, right?). Nevertheless, I’m going to be pickling against the spread anyway, because it’s fun and it will give me something to talk about for each game. Naturally, I will track my performance each week, both for the previous weekend’s games and the playoffs as a whole.

That said, the last thing this column needs is more padding, so for this week and this week only, I’ll eschew traditional game analysis in favor of discussing whether or not each game is worth watching. Let’s face it, six playoff games is too many for us with chores to do and family to hang out with on the weekends. I want to make sure you all respect your own time this weekend, even if the league doesn’t. Also, I think my playoff pool picks more or less explained my thoughts on each game, and I’ve already gone far too long. So enough, chat, let’s get some picks!

All lines pulled from MyBookie at 5:04 PM Eastern Time on Thursday, January 13th, 2022.

My pick for each game, and the relevant spread, is always listed first. Home teams are displayed in bold.

Las Vegas Raiders (+5.5) vs. Cincinnati Bengals

Should You Watch This Game: Yes! While this is far from the most important game this weekend (let’s face it, neither of these teams is winning the Super Bowl), it provides lesser subplots in abundance. Can the Bengals actually win a playoff game? Can the Raiders avenge Bo Jackson? Are either of these teams any good? I demand the answers!

New England Patriots (-4) vs. Buffalo Bills

Should You Watch This Game: Most definitely! This is a divisional rivalry playoff game, which is always exciting, and is even more so when both teams actually hate each other as much as these two do. It’s also going to be incredibly cold, possibly legendarily so. So yes, this good mean the game gets ugly, but if it does, odds are it will be the best kind of ugly.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-8.5) vs. Philadelphia Eagles

Should You Watch This Game: Absolutely not. Let’s move on.

San Francisco 49ers (+3) vs. Dallas Cowboys

Should You Watch This Game: I remember enough of the 90s that I’m inordinately hyped for this game. It’s a Cowboys/9ers playoff game, just like in the good old days! Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis! It’s also the one of the most uncertain games of the week, both in terms of outcome and in terms of what type of game transpires. It could be a rad shootout! It could be an old school, blow-for-blow exchange of long drives (think of the awesome offensive line play)! It could also be a penalty-ridden shit show, but we won’t know that until we watch, will we?

Pittsburgh Steelers (+12) vs. Kansas City Chiefs

Should You Watch This Game: God, I hope this game ends up skippable. If it doesn’t, I fear the worst. That said, I don’t think the Chiefs are gonna destroy the Steelers like they did a few weeks ago; rare is the playoff rematch the goes exactly the same way as the regular season game. Therefore, I’m inclined to view this line as too high.

Los Angeles Rams (-4) vs. Arizona Cardinals

Should You Watch This Game: Maybe, but only if your schedule allows, and only if you aren’t entirely burned out on football itself come Monday night. Yes, the Cardinals and Rams did split their season series, but the Cards’ win was forever ago and they haven’t shown much in forever, so I expect L.A. to handle business.

That’s it! Congratulations on completing the NFL Playoffs MegaColumn! I’ll be back next Friday with a much shorter column to get everyone ready for the Divisional Round! Have fun watching the games!

2 thoughts on “2021 NFL Playoffs MegaColumn

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