How else to describe Andy Dalton’s stats at the half last Saturday: four for 10, with three passing yards total. How else to explain RGIII limping off the field in the fourth quarter on Sunday, the ACL and LCL in his right knee fully torn; or the postgame spectacle of Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan insisting that Griffin was determined to continue playing after aggravating a pre-existing injury in the first quarter—“He said to me, ‘Trust me, I want to be in there.’ And I couldn’t disagree with him”—as if it released Shanahan himself from responsibility. (The extent to which the coach has failed as a custodian of his quarterback’s safety is only now being revealed; when RGIII’s knee was first injured, on Dec. 9, Shanahan claimed he allowed the QB to go back into the game for four plays only after he was cleared by orthopedic surgeon James Andrews. Dr. Andrews now claims he not only did not clear Griffin for play, but that he in fact never examined him.)
Perhaps it’s only possible to make the foolish, hopeful predictions I made last week when you’re a casual football fan because you haven’t become cynical. You’re not worn out by week after week of bodies breaking down in the service of an outmoded ideal of masculinity (“You have to step up and be a man sometimes”). You haven’t been disappointed by teams performing exactly as they’re supposed to, and never better. In three out of four games last weekend, the higher seed won; sure, those wins were not always impressive—12 of Houston’s 19 points against Cincinnati came from field goals—but that doesn’t make them count any less.
So this week, statistics trump sentiment. Facts trump desires. And the only narrative I believe in is the one the numbers dictate.
Baltimore at Denver: A veritable hotbed of pathos. There are the Broncos, the surprise first seed in the AFC—though the fact that they earned a spot in last season’s playoffs on the dubious talents of Tim Tebow should have made an excellent case for the strength of the team as a whole—led by unexpected MVP contender Peyton Manning, who seems to be playing as well or better with a fused neck than he did with a more normally constructed one. And then there are the Ravens, with middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who will be retiring after this season. Lewis’s personal arc—from murder suspect to respected Baltimore philanthropist in just over a decade—has been adoringly chronicled, only with the part where he’s convicted for obstruction of justice mostly left out. Does Lewis deserve to go out on top? Does Manning deserve a second Super Bowl ring, given that his doofus of a younger brother has two? The correct answers (“no” and “yes”) don’t matter. What does matter is Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Using that scale, at the end of the season, Denver was ranked second in the league overall; Baltimore was ranked eighth. That, with the promise contained by Manning’s enormous forehead, is enough to convince me to give the edge to the Broncos.
Green Bay at San Francisco: The 49ers beat the Packers in the season opener, and though past performance is not always a predictor of future success—and though Aaron Rodgers was throwing hard, flat, accurate passes last Sunday against the Vikings—this matchup makes me nervous. Back in the ’90s, Steve Young’s 49ers were regularly eliminated from the playoffs by Brett Favre’s Packers, a fact that brought me no small amount of joy, given my love for Favre (and my grandfather’s devotion to Young). Football Outsiders has the two teams just about neck-and-neck in both DVOA and Super Bowl victory probability, so just this once, I’ll vote with my heart: Packers over 49ers. Bonus points to whoever can guess Jim Harbaugh’s facial expression in the event of a loss most accurately; there are quite a few to choose from.
Seattle at Atlanta: In vain I have struggled against the Seahawks’ obvious dominance. It will not do. They will not be repressed. They will humiliate and defeat Matt Ryan’s No. 1 seeded Atlanta Falcons. But don’t be convinced by (a paraphrased) Mr. Darcy; be convinced by the Seahawks’ 42-13 trouncing of the 49ers in Week 16. Be convinced by a team that ranks first in both overall DVOA and weighted DVOA, which is to say, a team that has only gotten better as the season has progressed. Or, if you’re a Falcons fan, be frightened.
Houston at New England: Last year, the highlight of the Patriots’ divisional outing, a 45-10 demolition of the Broncos, was quarterback Tom Brady punting the ball away himself on a third and 10 late in the third quarter. I don’t expect similar antics this Sunday, but judging from the Texans’ inability to finish drives, I wouldn’t be surprised by a similar score; you don’t accumulate four field goals due to your stellar abilities in the red zone. Sure, the Texans have the third-ranked defense (by DVOA), but New England has the first-ranked offense, and J.J. Watt can’t possibly bat down every Tom Brady pass. Less than a month ago, the Patriots overpowered Houston 42-14. This time around, I suspect the Texans will beat themselves; then Bill Belichick will beat them again, for good measure.