For the NFL, week 15 of the regular season was not an easy one, in many respects. Just like the rest of us across the country, those in the NFL were no doubt shocked and saddened by the tragic events of Newtown, Connecticut. The NFL observed a moment of silence at each game, and the New England Patriots shot 26 flares into the air to honor each of the fallen. However, the games went on, and what came out of this weekend was, well, a fine display of excellence from the players.
The NFC East is at a three-way tie for first with two games to go. Although the New York Giants, who after being routed by Atlanta found themselves not just out of first place in the NFC East but out of the NFC playoff bracket all together. The Cowboys and Redskins tied the Giants, and the three are in a three-way duel for what could be the only playoff slot out of the division. There are so many scenarios to go through I won’t bother, but given that Dallas and Washington play each other in week 17, at least that will, hopefully, cut the race down to two.
The NFC West, on the other hand, is shaping up nicely, with a climatic showdown between the surging San Francisco 49ers and stunningly good Seattle Seahawks, both coming off impressive wins against the AFC East. With the 49ers holding a game-and-a-half lead over the Seahawks for the division lead, they can clinch it next week when the two meet, in a game so grand that NBC flexed it, something the NBC brass thought was worth advertising. The 49ers blew a 28 point lead against the Patriots, but found their footing just in the nick of time and emerged victorious with a seven point victory over the Patriots in Foxboro, snapping a series of December win streaks for the Patriots, and cementing the 49ers as a premiere team in the NFL, albeit one with a few things to work on. Meanwhile, the Seahawks beat the Buffalo Bills so bad that Pete Carroll actually apologized for running a fake punt in the fourth quarter when they had the game well in hand.
Houston beat Indianapolis… barely. However, that win secured them the AFC South crown, and that coupled with the Patriots’ loss, nudged them one step further towards a bye week. Houston needed the win too; coming off of a stomping by the Patriots, who seemed invincible coming off of last week, Houston was able to restore their pride and confidence by beating a tough divisional foe… who’d have thought we’d already be calling the Andrew Luck-led Colts that? (If you raised your hand, put it down, we all know you’re lying.)
The Packers claimed the NFC North title again. The real winners of that result: the replacement officials, who are no longer on the hook for a mistake that potentially cost a team a playoff berth… or are they? After all, the Seahawks, who won that controversial game, are in the NFC wild card hunt, and would they be if not for that game? Maybe. In any case, the Bears looked bad, and the Packers beat them, and locked up their spot in the playoffs this year.
It was a great weekend of football; a lot of games came down to the wire, and a lot of them were meaningful. Although the AFC playoff bracket is informally locked, a lot of teams are still in play there, especially since the Bengals, who hold the six seed, are not always the most reliable team in terms of winning; they falter in week 16, then the flood gates open. The NFC playoff bracket will likely not be locked until late Sunday night/early Monday morning after week 17, since so many teams are still in the mix.
Finally, I want to say the following about the NFL playoff system: it is absolutely perfect the way it is. This talk of expansion is a bad idea, and reeks of a money grab. The limited number of slots, six for each sixteen team conference, make the playoffs truly a battle of great squads, well most of the time. Granted, the formula and infrastructure can be tweaked a little (personally I think all seeding should be based on records, not on division titles vs. wild cards), but the requirements for entry are quite fair. Expanding the playoffs is a bad idea because the three week set up works perfectly; four games the first two weekends, conference championships the third, Super Bowl two weeks later. Anything more only burdens players and makes them more susceptible to injury, which isn’t fair to them or the fans.