Archive

Monthly Archives: January 2012

Because College Park’s filled with people who are not actually from Maryland, we see a lot of people in completely random–and awesome–jerseys. Each week (ish), we’ll be posting a little about the best we saw. Maybe there will even be pictures.

Seeing a bright green Paul Pierce #34 Boston Celtics jersey around this campus isn’t that shocking; we have a lot of New England transplants, and the Celtics are generally pretty good. What was shocking, though, was seeing one in the student section at Saturday’s game vs. Virginia Tech.

It’s difficult to overstate exactly how much a Celtics home jersey sticks out in the sea of red that is Comcast Center. One occasionally sees non-Terps red jerseys– there are always a few Alex Ovechkin #8 sweaters, but that makes a certain degree of sense. The Capitals are still a local team and hockey jerseys are awesome; it’s just an unorthodox way of rocking the red. And the weird shade of Hokie purple (brown? orange?) permeated the crowd a little bit.

But a green Celtics jersey? The Terps weren’t even playing Boston College, where perhaps a displaced New Englander who recently lost his authentic Troy Bell jersey, circa 2001, would represent his hometown more indirectly.

No, some dude woke up and decided to wear a bright green Paul Pierce jersey to a Maryland-Virginia Tech game. And I salute him.


Advertisements

Alex and I have been e-mailing each other all week in order to sort out our thoughts on the upcoming Ravens-Patriots game.  The result: 3,000+ words of pure football gold (or so we hope).  Enjoy!

 

Alex:

The Ravens are now closer to a championship than 28 of the other 31 NFL teams. Think about this–it’s the equivalent of the Wizards making the Eastern Conference Finals, the Orioles making the American League Championship Series, or the Terps making the Final Four. I can’t even imagine those teams making the playoffs/NCAA Tournament, let alone be a championship contender.

Of course, no one seems particularly happy or confident in Baltimore. The Ravens haven’t played particularly well, like able-to-beat-the-New England-Patriots-well, since at least early December or possibly Thanksgiving, depending on your view of those 24-10 victories over Indianapolis and Cleveland. This either means they haven’t played well in a while and it’s a huge problem, or that the Ravens are good enough to not play well for months on end and only lose one game in the process. We’ll know the answer in the narrative on Monday morning.

 

Derek:

It’s always interesting to me that the NFL playoffs are designed to pack such an asymmetrical amount of meaning into the final games of the season.  The disparity in the Ravens performance compared to all the other Baltimore/Washington area franchises (and for that matter most other sports franchises period) in recent years will be little consolation to our fans if we fail to win a Super Bowl this year.  It’s all pretty irrational when you think about it, the amount of games played during the season which are rendered totally meaningless by the single-elimination playoff system.

I’ve been a bit shocked by the lack of confidence in Raven’s fans leading up to this game.  I can’t remember a  playoff game in which so many fans seemed convinced that we would not only lose but get absolutely destroyed.  Perhaps it’s a product of the collective “growing up” of our peer group (since my generalizations about “Ravens fans” are based exclusively on my Facebook news feed) and an increased sense of pessimism or cynicism that comes with being an adult.

 

Alex:

It does feel like the Ravens were gifted into the title game. It’s been months since Baltimore either thoroughly demolished a terrible team or beat a legitimately good one. The Patriots’ absolute demolition of Tebowmania at least gives their fans confidence through the former. This view is partially due to a scheduling quirk–the Ravens did what they needed to, beating Pittsburgh twice and having the fortune to play San Francisco at home in a short week with a healthy quarterback, to avoid being the team to fly out to 8-8 Denver. They’ve reaped the rewards of some very good football. It just so happens they played it about ten games ago.

What’s been most on my mind though, is this: As a franchise, the Ravens did everything backward. They won a Super Bowl before experiencing any disappointment. This stands in stark contrast to the other major championship of my fandom. Even as an 11-year-old, Maryland’s national title in 2002 served to erase memories of 10-points-in-54-seconds and a 22-point lead in a national semifinal, both against Duke, for heaven’s sake. Fans with real historical perspective, of course, saw the title as vindication for Gary’s ’90s teams that never got past the Sweet 16, Lenny, Lefty, the ’74 team, and the closing of Cole. It has to rank as one of the most emotional championships of all time.

The knowledge that this team already won a championship carried through most of the 2000s. It eased the horrific Colts loss in 2006–enough key cogs were still there, and Brian Billick was still coaching. But we’ve started to see the exodus of some very, very important Ravens–Ring of Honor Ravens–who never even reached a Super Bowl in Baltimore. Todd Heap’s gone. Derrick Mason, warts and all. And it’s not stopping anytime soon.

 

Derek:

This conviction that the Ravens are definitely going to lose this week seems to me to be unwarranted.  I recognize that the Patriots are a better team than the Ravens (they rank 4th in Football Outsiders regular season DVOA while the Ravens were 7th for this year).  I also recognize that they have been playing better than the Ravens as of late (in the week 19 weighted DVOA rankings, which gives preference to more recent games and includes the playoffs, the Patriots are 2nd to the Ravens’ 9th.)  Despite this, I don’t see the difference between the two teams as insurmountable.  This Patriots team is very good, but not as dominant as either their ’07 or ’10 incarnations.  While they’ve blown out more than a few teams, they haven’t played many of the Ravens’ caliber.  Their only games against teams with winning records were consecutive losses to Pittsburgh and the Giants.

 

Alex:

The Patriots may not be as good as the 2007 and 2010 versions, but offensively, they’re still pretty dominant: Football Outsiders ranks ’07 and ’10, respectively, as the two best offenses of the last 20 years. This team is sixth.

The record vs. playoff teams argument that Ravens fans keep making is pretty misleading, I think (beyond the fact I’m not sure it means very much in such a matchup-dominated sport). Yes, the Ravens won in Pittsburgh and the Patriots lost there, but the Ravens get credit for four wins against playoff teams Cincinnati and Houston (once without Andre Johnson, and once without Matt Schaub), while the Pats get nothing for their wins against San Diego and Philadelphia, two teams better than the Bengals and beaten-up Texans squads.

 

Derek:

The 2011 Patriots may be the sixth best offense in the last 20 years but they’re only the third best this year according to DVOA.  I’m not sure if that points to how remarkable this season was for the top passing offenses or to some flaw in the DVOA statistic in being unable to properly adjust for differences in era (I should know more about how these advanced stats are calculated before I start tossing them around recklessly).  Either way, those two offenses ranked ahead of the Patriots both lost last week to teams that are no better than the Ravens.  All that may be saying is that if the Ravens force 5 turnovers they too may have a chance to win on a last second drive, but as we get closer to the game I’m getting less and less confident so I need any shred of hope I can cling to.

All of the Patriots success is predicated on their dominant passing game and their special teams.  Controlling field position and passing the ball well is certainly a winning combination in today’s NFL, but it’s not an invincible one.  The Patriots are still a deeply flawed team.   Their lack of a running game (Aaron Hernandez is probably the best back on their roster) should allow the Ravens to devote ample resources to containing the three-headed monster of Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez (I’m not going to pretend that they can be “stopped”).  Considering that the Ravens were the NFL’s best ranked pass defense in terms of DVOA this season, Ed Reed and company should stand a much better chance than most.

 

Alex:

The star of the Texans game, beyond sheer luck, was Ed Reed. For the first time in too long a time, you noticed Ed Reed. He came close to hauling in fantastic interceptions twice (Dan Dierdorf seemed to think he was dropping seven-yard crossing patterns, though; my hatred for announcers who aren’t Jeff Van Gundy remains strong), and then he made what should’ve been the game-clinching play, and the actual game-clinching play. It was vintage Reed–and I hate that I’m forced to include “vintage” at all. I view Reed’s retirement as fairly imminent, more than Ray Lewis’. Reed’s injuries are more severe, and I think he’s more comfortable not being around football. Lewis has had his moment, dancing around the field in Tampa 11 years ago. Reed still hasn’t, and if he doesn’t get it now, I’m not sure he ever will.

I’d like to think this generation of Ravens–and really, I’m not likely to follow as closely or care about as much any succeeding generation, as I eventually dip into the “real world” and have “responsibilities” and “bills”–can finally take that next step. Their legacy to this point is clear–if you’re not a Hall of Fame quarterback, we’ll beat you. If not, we simply won’t. They haven’t choked away playoff games; they’ve lost to Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, and in a few days probably Tom Brady. It’ll be a respectable run, but these Ravens will be forever defined by that failure, not their ability to beat Chad Pennington, Kerry Collins, Matt Cassel, and T.J. Yates. And it’ll be too bad, because I’ve really enjoyed the ride.

 

Derek:

This season has given me a much greater appreciation for how good Ed Reed is.  In the past I’ve tended to assume that Reed was overrated because of his high number of interceptions and frequently big returns.  I think this assumption probably skewed my perception of the games, and as a result I would frequently notice plays in which he blew his coverage while missing all the great things that he does on the field.  Reading Chris Brown’s piece on Grantland earlier this year changed my perception a bit and watching Ravens games I now feel more aware of the great plays that Reed makes even when the ball isn’t thrown his way.  Both Bill Belichick and the stats (being the leader of the top pass defense in DVOA) seem to support the theory that despite his low interception totals Reed actually had a much better season than Raven’s fans realize.

Ultimately the Ravens are not a team that gets blown out or participates in “shootouts”.  I have confidence in their ability to hold the Patriots under 30 points.  That leaves it up to the offense to win this game.  And while the Ravens may not posses one of the league’s premier scoring attacks it is an above average one.  Let’s not forget that this offense contains the NFL leader in yards from scrimmage as well as a pretty good set of receivers and tight ends.   While I wouldn’t pick the Ravens as a favorite this week, I also would not be at all surprised if Joe Flacco delivers against the dreadful Pats secondary and sheds that title of “Game Manager”.

 

Alex:

That Sunday night game in San Diego aside (the matchup issues with the Chargers’ big receivers are worrisome, to say the least, as the Ravens prepare for New England’s tight-end monster), the Ravens do generally limit high-powered passing attacks. The many losses to Peyton Manning haven’t been the defense’s fault (some recent scores: 20-3, 17-15, 15-6), and Baltimore’s 2-0 against Drew Brees’ Saints. And most importantly, the Ravens performed pretty damn well against the two Patriots’ offenses that rank so highly: 27 points in 2007, and 23 in 2010.

I certainly don’t expect the Ravens to get blown out, mainly because before the Chargers game, this team hasn’t gotten blown out since 2008. And unlike the previous three playoff runs, there’s no evidence the Ravens can’t beat great teams on the road.

Still, by every statistical measure this year, the Patriots were a little better. I’m still going to spend every Patriots possession praying Ed Reed pops out of nowhere, grabs a Brady pass, and starts setting up his blockers. 1 to 11, the Ravens might have more talent on offense than the Patriots do (I think the Ravens maligned receivers are better than the Patriots running backs; whether they’re used more effectively is another question entirely). I know I just said there’s no evidence the Ravens can’t beat great teams on the road, but it still feels like we’re asking them to do something we’re not quite sure they can pull off.

The Ravens have spent … a decade, really, trying to develop an offense that wouldn’t hold the team back. Ray Rice and Vonta Leach are Pro Bowl-caliber players; Ricky Williams is as competent a No. 2 as a team with such a gifted No. 1 could ask for. Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, and Lee Evans, plus the White Tight End (and Ed Dickson) are as capable receivers as the Ravens have trotted out there since the days of Vinny Testaverde throwing bombs to Michael Jackson and Derrick Alexander. Joe Flacco, circa 2011, is probably the best quarterback in Ravens history. I can’t really judge the offensive line, but it doesn’t seem miles worse than most teams the Ravens play. And I haven’t heard Michael Oher’s name in a few months, which is definitely a good thing. In short, I’m not sure you could ask for terribly more talent on offense when the defense is ranked No. 1 in DVOA.

But this week Reed said the defense is still the “big brother,” and I don’t think anyone disagrees with him. So if the Ravens lose, and it’s not 45-42 or something, are we right back at square one? Or can we just fall back on small sample size, content with the fact only the Ravens have reached the postseason each of the last four years?

 

Derek:

A lot of the coverage of this game is focused on the “last chance” for the Ravens veteran team to win a Super Bowl.  I understand the reasoning behind these statements.  The aging stars on defense and the feeling that our offense is hitting it’s slightly-better-than-average peak don’t exactly instill confidence when considering the future.  Despite that, I’m not sure I want to count this team out for the coming years just yet.  Maybe I’m vastly undervaluing the impact of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, but I think we have enough good players left to continue fielding elite defenses for a few years.  I also think that this offense will continue to improve.  I know Flacco hasn’t made that leap forward into the Roethlisberger/Romo second tier of quarterbacks we were all hoping for, but it is only his 4th season in the league.  It took Drew Brees and Tom Brady similar lengths of time to establish themselves as elites.  Not that I expect Joe Flacco to transform into an elite, but it’s also too early to write him off as a perennial “Game Manager.”  Add in a talented young group of WRs and TEs (Smith, Dickson, Pitta) and a few more productive years from Ray Rice if he stays healthy and the future looks, if not bright, at least well-lighted.

The other thing baffling me about coverage for this game on ESPN is the insistence on referring to the Ravens as “no longer an elite defense” and “not as good as the 49ers defensively”.  I don’t expect the guys on First Take to be well-versed in their Football Outsiders stats but even looking at the traditional stats the Ravens look rather elite and certainly comparable to the 49ers.  Of course the 49ers have a great defense this year, especially against the run, but you would think that even Skip Bayless could figure out that in a league where three QBs threw for 5,000 yards this year that passing defense is more important than rushing defense.  I refuse to believe that the Ravens would ever allow 32 points to a team in a game where we forced 5 turnovers (even if that team is the Saints).

 

Alex:

I’m really glad you brought up the 49ers. We keep hearing that defense beat offense last week, but that’s not at all what happened. How often did the 49ers defense actually stop the Saints offense? The Saints just fumbled a lot. I suppose fumbles are partly the creation of hard hits and aggressive defense, but I’d be a lot more impressed with the 49ers defense if the Saints hadn’t compiled 472 total yards. Somehow the 49ers get credit for being a ball-control, defense-first team while the Ravens are maligned for it. If anything, the Ravens at least perfected the strategy last week–no turnovers, no penalties, converting turnovers into touchdowns and not field goals. Oh, and the Ravens did beat the 49ers, if anyone cares.

In moving this from Football Outsiders stats to pure psychoanalysis, I do think the “last chance” stuff is fair. I just wonder how many times you can climb the mountain, fall down, reload, and try again before something snaps. The offense came up short in the playoffs in 2009, so the Ravens went out and got Boldin and Houshmanzadeh and suddenly had three big-name receivers. Houshmanzadeh caught a go-ahead TD in Pittsburgh and all seemed well. But in the doom and gloom of Heinz Field, that failed, so the Ravens reloaded the offense again and got the No. 2 seed so they wouldn’t have to play at Heinz Field. So now what, assuming a loss? Fire Cam Cameron, bring in a new offensive mindset, and just go again? I know that’s basically how Pittsburgh and Indianapolis finally won Super Bowls, and as long as the Ravens keep finishing 12-4 we know they’re pretty good.

 

Derek:

Your point about firing Cam Cameron may be important though.  I don’t know all that much about football strategy and play calling but it’s pretty obvious that the Ravens run one of the more traditional offenses in football.  Maybe the “last chance” talk is less about the age of the players and more about the dated style of play.  I don’t know whether a new offensive coordinator could update the offense to be more impactful in the age of spread formations and the shotgun, but it may be a direction the team needs to move in.

Another thing about Cam Cameron is that he seems to call an even more conservative game (if that’s possible) once we get a big lead.  I know this seems logical but I think he does it to a fault.  Part of the reason we haven’t had an impressive win recently is because we jumped out to big early leads against the Colts, Browns, Bengals and Texans and then spent the rest of the game piling up three-and-outs.  At risk of sounding like a Jack Morris defender making a “pitching to the score” argument I’m not sure our offensive performances in those games were exactly representative of what we’re capable of.

My Picks: The Ravens pull off the upset, 28-24.  The Giants also win 23-19 to set up an XXXV rematch.

 

Alex:

I’ve seen what’s happened to my beloved Washington Capitals over the last few seasons. In 2009, they blew a 2-0 series lead to Pittsburgh and lost Game 7 at home 6-2. So they go out and beat Pittsburgh four times the next year, post one of the best offensive seasons of all time and win the President’s Trophy. But then the offense fails them in the postseason as they blow a 3-1 lead to eight-seeded Montreal. So they bulk up the defense for 2010-11, capture the No. 1 seed again, playing an entirely different style of hockey, and get swept in the second round. This season? They quit on the coach and he was fired.

I just don’t know how many times we can keep doing this.

The picks: The Ravens cover, but lose 27-24. The Giants win more handily than most are expecting, 31-16.

Well, I suppose I slightly underrated how much missing half its roster would affect Pittsburgh. But aside from that little miscue out in Denver, I was 3-1 last week. So read on, maybe you’ll learn something.

New Orleans (-4) over San Francisco

I’m not going to pick a bad offense/good defense team to beat a good offense/bad defense team just because it’s the playoffs. The Saints offense is more impressive than a 49ers defense bolstered by a league-leading turnover differential. And more importantly, Sean Payton knows it.

New England (-13.5) over Denver

Double-digit lines in the last six postseasons:

2012 – New Orleans (-10.5) over Detroit
2011 – New Orleans (-10) over Seattle; Chicago (-10) over Seattle
2009 – Carolina (-10) over Arizona
2008 – San Diego (-10.5) over Tennessee; New England (-13.5) over Jacksonville; Indianapolis (-11) over San Diego; New England (-14) over San Diego; New England (-12.5) over New York

So, teams favored by double digits are 3-6 since 2007.

That deters me a little, but not enough. Donning my cynic hat (it fits very well) – last week’s game didn’t teach us much of anything about Tim Tebow. We knew he could throw a “deep” ball (can we please stop referring to those Tebow 20-yard passes as deep balls; watch what Joe Flacco uncorks for Torrey Smith, and then report back). That was about the only pass he completed with any consistency all season. He took what Pittsburgh gave him; Dick LeBeau just happened to give him touchdowns. Tebow was finding single-covered receivers with safety help nowhere in sight, completing simple patterns. He still missed plenty of throws any above-average quarterback makes. The Patriots are gaining a safety where the Steelers lost one, and they’ll probably actually use him in pass coverage.

And the quarterback Tebow’s opposing this week actually has two working ankles.

Baltimore (-7.5) over Houston

As someone who pulled pretty damn passionately for Houston last weekend in what I thought was an effort to avoid a third Pittsburgh matchup, I’m having some second thoughts. I think Ravens fans are overconfident in the run defense. I don’t think we fully realize how ill-equipped Ravens cornerbacks are to cover Andre Johnson, or quite how good the Texans’ linebackers are. But I don’t think the Ravens are going to lose.

In the Ravens’ last five playoff seasons (the last six seasons, minus 2007; counting Kyle Boller-started games where the Ravens were long out of the playoff race doesn’t really accomplish anything here), they’re 34-7 at home. Taking games against Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger out of the equation, they’re 32-3. 32-3.

They lost to Jake Delhomme in 2006, 23-21, back when the Panthers were good and losing to Jake Delhomme was perfectly acceptable. (Also, the Texans’ backup quarterback: Jake Delhomme). They lost to Kerry Collins in 2008, 13-10, but that score’s mostly a reflection of starting a rookie QB against a Jeff Fisher defense, and not to act very Ravens-fan-ish, but a phantom roughing-the-passer penalty definitely played a part in the defeat. And they lost to Carson Palmer in 2009, 17-14. That was, unfortunately, well after losing to Carson Palmer ceased being acceptable, but I’ve come to accept the Ravens will just lose a lot of games to Cincinnati and there’s not much that can be done about it.

I’m not particularly confident the Ravens will cover – seven points is a bit high for my liking – but of all Bill Simmons’ stupid gambling rules, “Don’t pick a team to cover if you don’t think it can win” makes the most sense.

That the Ravens lost a 12-7 stinker in Jacksonville three months ago doesn’t really matter anymore. This year, for the first time in the John Harbaugh era, the Ravens haven’t only gotten up for every big game – they’ve won them. When Pittsburgh, New York, and San Francisco came rolling in, national TV trucks close behind, the defense played with exactly the type of ferocity that a rookie quarterback drafted in the fifth round probably can’t handle. None of those teams had running backs like Arian Foster and Ben Tate or a wide receiver like Andre Johnson. But the Ravens have shown an extra gear this season – a fourth-quarter pass rush that didn’t let the 49ers close to the end zone, a two-minute drill from Joe Flacco in the lion’s den. At home, against a rookie quarterback? They’ll come through.

Green Bay (-7.5) over New York

We’re hearing a lot about some patented “Super Bowl 42 formula” this week, and there are some admittedly eerie (or coincidental, that too) similarities between the Giants’ 2007 run and this year’s version. They looked left for dead relatively late in the season. They played an undefeated team at home and lost 38-35 but built character, or something. They’re probably peaking at the right time.

But the “Super Bowl 42 formula” is more than a great pass rush and eating up clock with the running game. Without a certain play involving helmets and Rodney Harrison and probably acts of several religions’ Gods, the “Super Bowl 42 formula” is merely a formula for losing close, instead of getting blown out.

I don’t mean to whine about David Tyree’s catch (though if you want me to, just ask), but it’s important to remember the Giants didn’t win Super Bowl 42 by three touchdowns. They played well, the Patriots played poorly, and – let’s be clear – they got lucky. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The Giants could play almost the exact same game they did four years ago and still lose. Green Bay’s 15-1 with an offense only a little worse than what the Patriots trotted out in January 2008. The defense is worse – these Packers aren’t the ’07 Pats, and the Giants will probably score more than 17 points – but parts of the Giants defense aren’t very good, either.

New York could easily win this game. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if they did. But expecting them to pull a monumental upset just because  they did four years ago isn’t rational. There’s a reason no one expected the Giants to beat New England that year – and there’s a reason we shouldn’t expect them to beat Green Bay in this one.

After watching the complete set of non- National Championship BCS bowl games this past week, the details are already becoming a bit hazy in my mind.  What was the name of that Stanford kicker?  How many points did West Virginia score again?  A few months from now I will probably have trouble remembering who played who.  A year from now I will probably be unable to recall the winners, all images and details from the game completely vanished from my mind.

These games ought to be more memorable than they are.  From Russell Wilson’s clock management meltdown at the end of the Rose Bowl , to Stanford and Virginia Tech’s missed field goal overtime heartbreaks, to West Virginia’s record setting offensive explosion there was no lack of distinguishing features.  The inevitability of their relatively quick disappearance from college football’s collective memory remains.  How many non- National Championship BCS games do you remember that didn’t involve mid-major upsets, trick plays and a star running back proposing to his cheerleader girlfriend?

The real problem with the BCS bowls stems not from a lack of quality football teams or quality football games but from a lack of a meaningful context.  The games feel empty, purposeless and ultimately uninteresting because they are all of those things.

There was a time when the major bowl games were extremely important events.  Back then college football was a more regional game and winning your conference title carried more significance than simply as a means to a post-season appearance.  To win the Rose Bowl was at least as prestigious if not more so than winning the somewhat arbitrary AP National Championship vote.

Since that time college football has grown into a national sport that needed a more fitting way to decide a champion.  The BCS system has been great in this regard.  Having a championship game is a significantly more credible system than an arbitrary vote, and the addition of “objective” computer rankings into the system has also been an improvement.  Despite these clear benefits the BCS system has had the negative consequence of banishing the classic bowl games to a sort of purgatorial middle ground, no longer meaningful or important but also too entrenched in tradition and advertising dollars to get rid of.

I do not intend to make an argument for replacing the BCS with a playoff system.  The BCS represents one side of a tradeoff between the inclusiveness and excitement of a playoff and the exclusiveness and predictability of a single championship game.  It’s a respectable side to choose, ensuring that every championship game features two deserving teams and avoiding the possibility of a fluke champion who gets hot at the right time.  At the same time, it is a shame that so many good football teams are left without anything to play for at the end of the season, especially in a sport where the short season, large amount of teams and relative lack of inter-conference play makes choosing between the top teams a quite difficult task.

As I said before my memory is already a bit hazy, but I believe that there was a moment in Tuesday’s Sugar Bowl following Justin Myer’s missed field goal in overtime where Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer did not get angry or upset but simply laughed.  There are many possible explanations for this, but I’d suggest that at least part of the explanation lies in Beamer’s recognition that the game was ultimately meaningless.  There was a time when winning the Sugar Bowl would have been an important boost to the reputations of both Beamer and the Virginia Tech program.  Today, the difference between winning and losing in the Sugar Bowl doesn’t extend beyond a little extra money and a nice decoration for the trophy cabinet.

Round one of the NFL playoffs seems to exist this season solely so America can laugh at Tim Tebow and New Orleans and Pittsburgh can formally advance to football culture wars at San Francisco and New England (or Baltimore, but let’s not consider that possibility). Football Outsiders ranks the Steelers and Saints second and third respectively in overall team efficiency, and Las Vegas gives them higher Super Bowl odds than Baltimore and San Francisco, which have a game fewer to win. They’re legit and could easily play into February. Beyond New Orleans and Pittsburgh, though, this weekend looks largely irrelevant.

The four bye teams rank among Football Outsiders top seven – for the most part, the best teams aren’t playing this week. (Houston’s ranked fifth, but was first when Matt Schaub went down; its high ranking reflects the team’s early performance, not any aptitude in the T.J. Yates era.) Last year, New England and Pittsburgh earned the top two Football Outsiders’ slots and first-round byes, but the next four teams – Green Bay, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and the New York Jets – all played wild-card weekend. The Packers and Eagles played each other in a tight contest that probably doubled as the NFC championship game. Top-seeded Atlanta was No. 8, and Chicago placed 16th. In 2009, Baltimore, New England, Philadelphia, and Dallas placed in Football Outsiders’ top five and faced each other in the first round; the bye teams were 6th, 7th, 8th, and 10th.

2009 and 2010 could be the aberrations – 2008 and 2007 saw more commonality between the highest-seeded teams and those judged the best by advanced statistics, and 2011 might merely be a return to the norm. From a who’s-going-to-win-the-Super Bowl perspective, there are clear, three-team tiers in each conference: the four bye teams (San Francisco largely by virtue of being a bye team) plus Pittsburgh and New Orleans, and then everyone else.

The result, then, is two games with little larger significance. Atlanta lost at home to both New Orleans and Green Bay, as well as quite convincingly at New Orleans only two weeks ago. The Falcons are consistent and balanced (the most consistent game-to-game team of the last 20 years, according to Aaron Schatz) – these traits could easily carry them to victory in the Meadowlands on Sunday, but barring three 50-yard Julio Jones circus touchdown catches (which, really, isn’t terribly far out of the realm of possibility) it’s difficult to see how they suddenly reach heights of which they’ve repeatedly fallen short before.

New York played the top teams a little closer than Atlanta did, and one could even argue the Giants were rather unfortunate to come out of their San Francisco-New Orleans-Green Bay gauntlet 0-3. But while Eli Manning seemingly has the firepower to keep up with Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, those guys didn’t put up only 10 points vs. the Redskins. The Giants have rode a ferocious pass rush and Manning miracles from the depths of wild-card weekend to ultimate glory before, but they’ve also suffered embarrassing home playoff defeats. If history is our guide … we’re not going to learn much from it.

Regardless of the teams’ chances to make noise later, Atlanta/New York is compelling itself, particularly now that Justin Tuck and the Falcons offensive line have decided they hate each other. Cincinnati at Houston, on the other hand, is probably the worst playoff matchup ever. The Texans aren’t awful. Their defense and special teams both rate above average, and Arian Foster and Ben Tate comprise one of the best running back combos in the league. And I’ve convinced myself Yates isn’t actually that bad, an opinion that may or may not be factually supportable. But their ceiling is painfully obvious; they did, after all, lose to Carolina by 15 at home (perhaps more importantly, they only scored 13 points on Carolina’s defense). Cincinnati and its one win against a team with a winning record are this year’s Kansas City Chiefs, and they’ll probably suffer a similar fate. At one point, Houston would’ve been favored in this game by double digits and looking at a reasonable shot at the Super Bowl. Now, though, the game’s meaningful only for New England and Baltimore desperately backing the team whose victory would send Pittsburgh to the other next weekend.

The Picks

Houston (-3) over Cincinnati
New Orleans (-10.5) over Detroit
New York (-3) over Atlanta
Pittsburgh (-8.5) over Denver

Full Playoff Picks

AFC championship game: Pittsburgh over Baltimore
NFC championship game: New Orleans over Green Bay
Super Bowl: New Orleans over Pittsburgh