Back when I was a mere wisp of a lad, our report cards had three possible grades: "S" for satisfactory, "I" for improving, and "N" for needs to improve. You were either doing okay (S) or you weren't (N), and if you weren't, you were either getting better (I) or you weren't (still N). Getting a report card of all "S" grades was good for a dollar reward from the parents, which is the equivalent of nearly six whole dollars in current money. Nothing to be sneezed at.
I was an "all esses" kind of kid for quite a while. In fact, I was so confident in my ability to score the big "S" that, one day, in third grade, upon getting my report card and handing it to my Mom, I smugly announced, "All esses," without even looking at it. Unfortunately, my mom had to get all Trust-But-Verify about things.
I had received my first "N." My jaw dropped. I stared at the distastefully angular letter in horror and shock. My mom was sanguine, telling me not to worry and that I could get my mojo back with the next report card, but I was shattered. I mark that as the point where my academic career began its steady spiral into the depths of sub-mediocrity, kind of like Danny Bonaduce.
So it is with a good deal of trepidation that I grade my pre-season team-by-team round-up. Luckily, I'm too old for summer school. Let's work in reverse order from pre-season. Starting with the bottom of the AFC.
Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans I was so convinced these two were big losers that I wrote them both off as "suck ass" in a single sentence. And I was right. Both have shown twitches of life — the Texans offense has the middle of the road in sight — but I was way more right than wrong. Grade: A-
Buffalo Bills I accused them of decisions that were worthy of Isaiah Thomas. They're not that bad, but still pretty hopeless. Grade: B+
Cleveland Browns I couldn't find anything interesting to say about the Browns, and now, well, let's see: they fired their offensive coordinator and, um, then there's, uh, hmmm… Grade: A (Apologies to Craig Lyndall)
New York Jets They aren't that good. No better than I supposed, but their creampuff schedule means they may be the worst playoff team in the history of the NFL. Results are results. Grade: C-
Oakland Raiders The only thing I got wrong here was that Aaron Brooks went out due to natural causes rather than Randy Moss introducing him to his little friend. Art Shell is a mannequin on Prozac. High comedy, as predicted. Gawd, I hope these last two wins don't mean they are turning it around. What a waste that would be. Grade: A-
Jacksonville Jaguars My long shot pick for the AFC, the Jags are better than their record. Trashed by the Texans one week, they up and trash the Eagles the following week. How 'bout some consistency, guys? Sadly, I'm not grading on a curve. Grade: C
Baltimore Ravens Still waiting to see the highlight of McNair on the ground, wincing and gripping a body part. I'm counting on my grade improving in the second semester. Grade: C-
Kansas City Chiefs You tell me. One week, I'm right, they aren't close to playoff caliber; the next week, they are stomping someone and giving me a Dick Vermeil scrunchy face. Of course, since they might have to offer a contract to Jeff George, there is still hope for me. Grade: C
San Diego Chargers Looking like monsters, they are on track for an unexpected early exit from the playoffs courtesy of Marty Schottenheimer. Grade: A-
Cincinnati Bengals Haven't imploded yet. No further criminal activity. Ocho Cinco has only just started to cry "Look at me!" How disappointing. By the way, when Bob Costas makes a pre-game comment along the lines of "Chris Henry helps this team…as long as they can keep him out on bail," the line between professional sports commentating and snarky bloggery has been erased. Grade: D
Miami Dolphins Who knew Kool-Aid could cause such a hangover? At least I acknowledged the Kool-Aid effect; both SI and ESPN picked these losers for the Super Bowl. I get a failing grade, but they get expelled. Meanwhile, Ricky Williams and Drew Brees have been swapping smiley face emails since week two. Grade: F
Denver Broncos I no longer feel bad for not being able to get over the old Jake Plummer. Apparently, neither can Jake. He's constantly on the verge of a five interception game. And I am convinced Shanahan is made of wax. That hasn't stopped the Broncos from winning, though. Grade: B
Pittsburgh Steelers Here's the exact quote: "This may the year we stop talking about Brady and Manning and start talking about Brady and Ben." Brilliant.
Here's a further confession: You know how I told you the Steelers were the best bet for Super Bowl champs at 11/1, but then I told you never make futures bets? I told you they were a lost cause and should be avoided completely. You must remember, I said it three or four times in ALL CAPS. Can you guess where this is going? I am totally screwed. Grade: D
New England Patriots We spent a good chunk of the year dwelling on Tom Brady's body language, much to the delight of ladies everywhere, I'm sure.
It's been a big test for the Belichickian junta; they have gotten in the habit of letting major talents fly away when they get too big for their britches (read: ask for a ton of money). Are they so talented at every position that they should be well under the cap like they are?
At this point, the answer has to be yes. Even in the face another undefeated run for the Colts, I would have to say the Pats are in the driver's seat in the AFC. (Big games coming at home against the Colts, and then the Bears a few weeks later.) I called them the favorites, which was right. Grade: A
Indianapolis Colts Strangely, they are looking completely mortal once again, after last season's challenging of the Gods. They have problems with their running offense, which Peyton can cover for, and much bigger problems with their running defense, which has little hope. Yet, they are undefeated.
I thought they were good, but not worthy of top rating in the AFC, which is correct for the moment. But if they go into New England and take the Pats, I may have to lower my grade. Grade B+
Over to the NFC:
San Francisco 49ers Somewhat better than last year, but they still stink like a panhandler in the Tenderloin. Grade: A
New Orleans Saints I hope these guys lose. There I said it. I did not get all weepy over that shameless, Bonofied wankfest at the Superdome. I am the one person in the country who is not rooting for the New Orleans Saints. This team should be in Las Vegas. (Emeril has more restaurants there than in New Orleans anyway).
The Saints are like a pop quiz. Who knew this was coming? I am saved from failing by being absolutely right about Reggie Bush, though. Grade: D-
St. Louis Rams I called the Rams "A below average team, headed for a below average record." They are, in fact, slightly above average. They sure showed me. Grade: C-
Detroit Lions Hahaha! This, my friends, is the blow off class — the one you never even bother to show up for and it still raises your GPA.
How long before Millen goes into full-on Baghdad Bob mode and starts claiming the Lions have clinched the division? Then how long after that until Bill Ford Jr. orders the box office to sell playoff tickets?
Time out to send a good thought to my colleague RJ, who has been making picks since the beginning of the season. RJ has
an odd neurosis a strict policy of picking the Lions to win, no matter what. That means he starts every week with a one game handicap.
RJ is also known to have the largest collection of St. Jude paraphernalia in the known world.
Green Bay Packers The sad thing for the Pack is they have games against the Cards, Bills, 49ers, and Lions yet to play this year. Win three or four of those and maybe sneak in another win somewhere, say against a Bears team that has already clinched in the season finale and they'll end with six or seven wins. Madden and Chris Berman will start to argue that all they need are a few tweaks to become a playoff team, and that will be the excuse Favre needs to avoid his future for one more year.
I will admit the Pack, even discounting the current hot streak offense, are not as bad as I thought they were going to be. Grade: B
Atlanta Falcons At this point, they look destined for greatness, which I didn't foresee, and I still suspect won't happen. Yes, I know they just put up great passing numbers in two straight games for the first time in his career and the ritual canonization has begun. But, for the 500th time: Steady, reliable, team-leading QBs are more valuable than error prone, egotistical QBs who can make spectacular plays now and then. Until he proves otherwise by going deep into the playoffs, Mike Vick is the latter. Plus, he has herpes. Grade: C
Tampa Bay Buccaneers There are times when Vegas just nails things cold. At the outset of the season, I was stunned that a team that won 11 games in the previous year was sitting at over 60/1 to win the Superbowl (worse than the Cardinals and Redskins combined). I declared the Bucs to be an outstanding long shot bet. Apparently I wasn't cc'd on the memo that they decided to suck. Grade: D
Minnesota Vikings The Vikes look poised for about 10 wins this year and I may be the only one who is not surprised. I thought they could possibly sneak in as the Norris champs. Okay, that's not likely, but they can get a wild card, and if the Cardinals can win the World Series… (hen I say this, I am assuming that the team that played the Pats on Monday was actually the Lions dressed up like Vikings for Halloween.)
Funny how the Vikes have gone from the butt of every NFL one-liner to a team no one laughs at any more. An impressive character turnaround in a single year. It goes down in history as the greatest ever achievement by a man named Ziggy. Grade: A
Arizona Cardinals The Cardinals are what I thought they were! They are the same team we saw in pre-season! They are exactly what I thought they were! Grade: A
Philadelphia Eagles Came out of the gate strong. An OT loss to the Giants, a walk off field goal to the Saints, and that brutal 62-yarder to the Bucs were the sorts of losses people make excuses for. But the fact is, the Eagles are not anything close to their Super Bowl glory days, back when they were the sole NFC team of any quality.
Rough schedule the rest of the year; they will likely end up with eight or nine tough wins, though they will probably deserve 11. Which is the exactly what I meant when I said they were going to struggle to stay above average. Grade: B+
Chicago Bears There is little doubt left about the Bears. About the only chink in their armor has been the first half of that now mythical Monday night game against the Cards. They figured to take the Norris, but no way did I think Grossman would make that big of a difference. Grade: B-
New York Giants Like an action flick where the hero gets in a scrape, flees by jumping off a cliff only to land in river rapids, plunges over a waterfall, and desperately reaches out to grab a helicopter that was floating just within reach only to find the pilot is one of the bad guys he was trying to escape to begin with…
Eli runs hot and cold from play to play, never mind game to game. Tiki can uncharacteristically turns things into a mini-circus and draws a bit of ire. Shockey always seems on the brink of meltdown. Strahan seems to live in some parallel universe. Yet, here they are likely to take the division again.
Which is just what I called, although I will mark myself down for expecting a Tiki fall off. Grade: B+
Washington Redskins If you heard about an upcoming movie featuring a pack of mid-level, throwaway actors with some convoluted plot, you'd probably yawn or even laugh at the possibility of it having any merit. But if someone told you the script was by Charlie Kaufman and Scorsese was directing, you might think it could be something great.
That's my excuse for thinking the Skins had a chance. What's yours? Grade: C
Carolina Panthers My best bet in the NFC. Obviously, the Steve Smith-less games cost them big. Now they are two losses behind the Saints and Falcons, with no significant scheduling advantage over them. It's possible for them to turn it on and for the Saints and Falcons to come back to Earth. It's also easy to see them at 9-7 and going home early. Grade: C+
Seattle Seahawks They weren't shaping up to be all that impressive (as I predicted), even before the devastating injuries to Alexander and Hasselbeck. The division is sorry enough that they may still take it, but I'm looking for an early post-season exit. Yet another Super Bowl loser destined for sorrow the following year. Grade: B+
Dallas Cowboys Wow. Where to begin? First, I am totally grateful to the Cowboys for providing so much wonderful material this year.
Let's see, I said T.O. would destroy this team and, though he has come close both through his antics and his dropped passes, it hasn't happened yet. I said either Parcells would quit on them or T.O. would be cut. Neither has happened, although Parcells looked close at the end of the game against the Giants. I said nothing about Bledsoe, but I will blame that on me being wordy enough as it is. I did say the odds were wrong — Vegas had the 'Boys as the favorite to win the Super Bowl and they clearly aren't.
But the Cowboy and T.O. remain the story of the season. It's still an open book, so I'm not giving myself a grade on this one yet. I stand by my prediction of Parcells quitting (either de jure or de facto) or T.O. out of the picture (either on the bench or under the bus). Romo could hold everything together with some masterful play, but I'm not ready to believe it just yet. Grade: Incomplete
Mid-term GPA: 2.75. B/B-. The very definition of nondescript. Typical of my academic career. I guess I'll have to get into college on my SATs. The football equivalent of my SATs are my picks, which brings us to last week's results.
The spread picks were 2-3, which means I better meet with my guidance counselor and set up a fallback school. A layout of $550 and a return of $420, for a loss of $130.
The line picks fared better. They were only 3-3, but thanks to the fact that all the picks were underdogs, including a 2/1 payoff on the Cowboys, a $600 layout returned $725, for a gain of $125.
Overall, a lame performance. Not as lame as ESPN's Monday Night Football productions, but then nothing could be.
Seriously, is there a morals clause or something in the ESPN Monday Night contract? Is there some way the NFL can get out of this deal? That halftime giant puppet race was probably the single most pathetic thing I have ever seen in my life. And I've seen the Kevin Federline video, a Star Trek convention, and the final season of That '70s Show.
Ah well, the football season is a marathon, not a sprint (I keep telling myself), so on to this week's picks. The curious can get up to speed on our methodology by reading the Fool's Errand.
Games with the wrong favorite:
We have the Bills giving three to the Pack. Even after the home team adjustment, they appear to be pretty evenly matched. Pick: Packers +3.
Similarly, the Rams are giving three to the Chiefs. The difference here is that the home field adjustment puts the Rams appropriately DVOA superior. Plus, you just have no idea what Kansas City is going to do. Gotta pass on this one.
Games where the spread is too large:
Oh dear. The one standout here is the Lions getting six at home from the Falcons. Can we rationalize this? The Lions are due for a decent performance; they are at home, all they need to do is stay within a touchdown. I should take the Lions, but I can't do it for two reasons. 1) According to Football Outsiders, if you throw out the Saints game as a fluke, the Falcons become a top ten team. 2) If I pick the Lions, I will have that horrible taste of bile in my mouth all weekend. Pass.
The Vikings are giving five to San Francisco. The numbers are borderline here. Coming off that atrocious Monday Night loss to the Pats, the Vikes need a big win. And the 49ers aren't the Patriots. (You read that right: The 49ers are not the Patriots. That's me auditioning for ESPN's Monday Night Countdown.) We can't make this bet. Pass.
Games where the spread is too small:
The Ravens, at home, have markedly better numbers than the Bengals, yet are giving only three points. They may not win by much; maybe only ocho or even cinco, but that's enough. Pick: Ravens -3
The Steelers are only giving a deuce to the Broncos. The Steelers have been pretty good this year. No, really, they have, for the most part. Ben has just stunk things up beyond all reason. DVOA, that stat I put so much faith in, has them as the 11th best team in the League, even after Ben's gift to Al Davis. They are 2-1 at home. If Ben starts stinking things up again, Cowher will HAVE TO pull him. And, though the old Jake Plummer took a break last week, I'm sure he'll return to face the 3rd ranked defense in the NFL. Pick Steelers -2.
The Pats are giving three at home to the Peytons and so am I. The Pats are coming together and are clearly a better team. Not only that, how are the Colts, with their anemic run defense, going to stop Taylor and Maroney? Pick: Pats -3
Dallas is only giving three to the Redskins. But like the Pats, the Cowboys appear to be coming together under Romo. The Cowboys' numbers are going to be Bledsoe heavy for a while. Gibbs hasn't done well against Parcells. The 'Boys came through for me last week, so I'm gonna let 'em ride. Pick: Cowboys -3
There are no decisions for the money line picks, the spreadsheet must be obeyed. This week we have seven: The Ravens, Packers, Lions (Arrgh! The bile!), Chiefs, Saints, Broncos, and Pats.
So the school bell rings on another week. This one is heavy on favorites. That worries me. Are there Cliffs Notes for sports bettors?Powered by Sidelines