The USA celebrates Thanksgiving this week. On Thursday, the entire nation will take the day off to thank their own personal god for making them American. More quietly, the rest of the world will be thanking him for NOT making them American. What this does mean, though, is that there will be three NFL games played that day, rather than on Sunday. Which in turn means that you get a double dose of me this week.
Traditionally, Thanksgiving week is the week that the NFL turns serious, as teams start either looking towards the playoffs, or begin rebuilding for next season.
The playoffs are, broadly speaking, similar to those which determine promotion at the end of the football season here. The first objective of any team at the start of the season is to make the playoffs, which are in effect a knockout competition which ends with the Superbowl.
Being American, the NFL does make things a little complicated. In case you hadn't sussed it already, there are 32 teams in the NFL. These are split into two Conferences, the National Football Conference and the American Football Conference. Each Conference is then divided into four divisions, split geographically into north, south, east and west. To make the playoffs, a team has to either win their division, or be one of the best two other teams in the Conference. This means it is actually possible for one division to provide three of the six teams each Conference sends into the playoffs.
The reason why Thanksgiving week is important is that it is the twelfth week of the season. All teams have now had a week when they didn't play, so have played 10 games. With 16 games a season, it seems that the eleventh game is significant in telling who will and will not make the playoffs. On average, a side needs 9 wins to get there, so this week particularly marks the time when teams begin to give up and look at some of the fringe players. Oakland, for example, are clearly not expecting to get a win from their visit to the Chiefs this weekend. A defeat will leave them 2-9 and, although teams have reached the playoffs with a 7-9 record, they still have to play the Packers and the Colts, which means that 5-11 is probably the best they can aim for. With this in mind, they have already said that rookie quarterback JaMarcus Russell, the number one pick in this season's draft, will start for the first time in their twelfth game.
Statistically speaking, no team has yet reached the playoffs. It doesn't take a genius to work out that the unbeaten Patriots will be there, though. So will the Packers and the Cowboys, who are both 9-1. The reigning Superbowl champions, the Colts, spluttered back from two straight losses to beat the Chiefs on Sunday and are now 8-2 and should make it, too. After that, it is anyone's guess. The NFC looks particularly wide open, whilst in the AFC West no team has won more than 5 games anyway.
In fact, it is easier to say who won't be going to the playoffs. The Raiders have obviously given up. The 49ers are, frankly, rubbish and lost to the only team in their division, the St Louis Rams, on Sunday. All three sides are 2-8. Joining them in an underemployed new year will be the Falcons and, surprisingly, the Bengals, both of whom are 3-7. The Falcons' troubles we all know about, but the Bengals have one of the best quarterbacks around in Carson Palmer and two of the best receivers around in Chad Johnson and TJ Houshmanzadeh, yet have struggled in every game.
Also not going to the playoffs will be the New York Jets. They are also 2-8 and yet, despite being poor all season, are not bottom of their division, because that contains the Dolphins, who are still winless after somehow blowing a 7-0 lead to lose 7-17 to the Eagles at the weekend.
Theoretically, it is possible for any of the teams with just four wins – Ravens, Chiefs, Bears, Vikings, Panthers and Saints – to get through, but it would be a travesty if they did, as none of these sides is any good.
You might ask, incidentally, what the incentive is to keep playing your strongest side if you make the playoffs so early in the season. The answer is that the two teams with the best records in each Conference get a bye into the second week of the playoffs. The next two teams get to play at home against the 5th and 6th best teams. And the 5th and 6th places are usually up for grabs right up until the last week of the season. Exciting, eh?
This week's news:
- The Patriots score on each of their first seven possessions as they thrash the Bills 56-0. The eighth touchdown comes from an interception and Tom Brady and Randy Moss don't even play the last 11 minutes of the match.
- Tony Romo of the Cowboys throws four touchdowns to Terrell Owens as the Cowboys beat the Redskins 28-23.
- A Mike Nugent field goal in overtime gives the Jets a rare win as they beat the in-form Steelers 19-16.
- It's the battle of the zimmer frames in Wisconsin, as Brett Favre's Packers beat Vinny Testaverde's Panthers 31-17. Testaverde doesn't last the game and the Panthers use three different quarterbacks during it.
- Adam Viniateri atones for last week's miss by kicking the winning field goal with just four seconds left, as the Colts fumble and blunder their way past the Chiefs 13-10.
- An Adrian Peterson-less Vikings beat the Raiders 29-22, thanks in no small part to Chester Taylor, who stands in for Peterson and runs in three touchdowns.
- The Lions lost their unbeaten home record and somehow failed to beat the Giants, despite having two chances to win the game in the last two minutes. On both occasions Jeff Kitna threw an interception instead of a game-winning pass to Shaun McDonald. And for those of you who think that American footballers are soft, the Giants' Mathias Kiwanuka broke his leg on the second play of the game and still walked off the field.
- Absolute chaos at the end of the game in Baltimore. The Ravens thought they had stolen the match when the Browns' Phil Dawson hit the posts with a 51 yard field goal attempt from the last kick of the game. They were walking off the pitch when the referee overruled the call and said that the ball had hit the stanchion at the back of the posts, therefore the kick was good – television replays confirmed this. The players came back out again, the match went into overtime and Dawson kicked another goal to give the Browns a 33-30 win.
- Michael Vick finally went to jail this week, turning himself in three weeks early. Guess he couldn't find anyone to share Thanksgiving with. Possibly joining him will be Cato June of the Buccaneers, who was caught drink driving this week.
- Also this week, a horse collar cost Adrian Wilson of the Cardinals $10,000 – a 'horse collar' being the name for a tackle around the neck of a player.
- Finally, some nice news, seeing as it is Thanksgiving. Kevin Everett came out of medical rehab this week. He is still in a wheelchair, but slowly building up strength and still hopes to walk again.