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Crunching the Numbers: Week 15

Patriots stumble but don't fall; Seahawks, Bengals surging; revisiting the Bears

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Two more weeks. By year's end, the 2012 season will mercifully be over and we'll all be looking towards a fresh start. Needless to say, Andy Reid's tenure has gotten stale. While I will forever be grateful for him making my team relevant for the majority of the time I've followed the Eagles, I must concede that his decisions as coach since Jim Johnson's death have ultimately been the team's undoing. But in two weeks, it is officially in the record books and ancient history. In the meantime, we'll take a look at teams who are actually competing for a Super Bowl this year after the rankings:

Rank Team Score Change
1 New England 34.586 0
2 Houston 25.786 1
3 Seattle 24.007 3
4 San Francisco 23.856 0
5 Chicago 20.767 0
6 Atlanta 17.901 2
7 New York Giants 16.469 -5
8 Denver 12.944 2
9 Baltimore 10.750 -3
10 Green Bay 9.010 1
11 Washington 8.243 1
12 Cincinnati 6.188 2
13 Tampa Bay 0.873 -4
14 Cleveland 0.527 -1
15 Carolina -5.169 2
16 Minnesota -5.236 2
17 Arizona -7.963 4
18 San Diego -8.751 -3
19 New Orleans -9.063 4
20 St. Louis -12.508 -4
21 Miami -13.156 -1
22 Pittsburgh -14.819 -3
23 Dallas -18.249 2
24 Detroit -23.862 -2
25 Jacksonville -24.885 2
26 Tennessee -25.154 3
27 New York Jets -25.288 -3
28 Buffalo -30.140 -2
29 Oakland -31.171 1
30 Indianapolis -32.262 -2
31 Philadelphia -42.584 0
32 Kansas City -46.698 0

Just how good are the Bears? Once upon a time, they were leading the NFC North and first place in my rankings. Since then, they've gone 1-5, but have only dropped four places in the rankings. They are most certainly feeding off their impressive performances from earlier in the season to keep them afloat, but the wheels have not come off in spite of handing the division to the Packers last week. They still have a stingy defense (17.1 points per game) and force a good amount of turnovers (+14 on the year). And yet, if the season ended today, they would be on the outside looking in. If they do make the postseason (doable considering their schedule) I'll be looking to see if they win a game.

Statistic of the Week. So, every now and then we hear color commentators mention a team's third down offense and defense during a game. The importance of third-down defense is pretty straightforward; unless you subsist entirely on turnovers you're not going to win games if you can't force a punt. But what about the offense? Is third down really "the most important down"? We've heard and seen analysis on first- and second-down play and how it relates to creating "manageable" third downs. But perhaps offenses should be designing their playbook to avoid third downs in the first place. Of the twelve current playoff teams, six of them (Baltimore, Cincinnati, Minnesota, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington) have third down conversion rates below the league average of 38.12%. The Eagles, by the way, are just above the average at 38.34%. And while Atlanta and New England lead the pack in third down conversions, San Diego, Carolina, and New Orleans are all well above the average at converting third downs, while Washington is actually one of the worst teams in the league at 34.32%. Clearly, some playoff teams are surviving by avoiding third downs altogether - pay attention to see if it becomes their undoing in crunch time.

Playoff Picture. There was a lot of movement this week, so here's how the projections stack up:

1. New England, 34.586 (1)
2. Houston, 25.786 (2)
3. Denver, 12.944 (8)
4. Baltimore, 10.750 (9)
5. Cincinnati, 6.188 (12)

6. Cleveland, 0.527 (14)

1. Seattle, 24.007 (3)
2. Chicago, 20.767 (5)
3. Atlanta, 17.901 (6)

4. New York Giants, 16.469 (7)
5. San Francisco, 23.856 (4)
6. Green Bay, 9.010 (10)

Only Baltimore at this point is correctly predicted to be in the seed you see above, but I now have ten playoff teams in the ranking as opposed to nine. Seattle and San Francisco stand out the most. The Seahawks - who have scored 108 points in their past two games - can still technically win the division, although the 49ers can wrap that up with a win over them this weekend. They make the most intriguing matchup here, as Seattle has vaulted from a fringe team to my number-one seed in two games. Of course, Jim Harbaugh and his 'Niners won't be taking that lightly on Sunday night. New England still has a grip on the AFC's number one spot, but they dropped almost ten points after their loss last week. Amazingly enough, all four first round byes and both homefield advantages are still up for grabs with two games left to play. While the odds that they'll turn out how the look above are impossible, it will certainly be an exciting two weeks of football (unless, of course, you're an Eagles fan).

Eagles-Redskins Preview
Hmm, what? The Eagles play on Sunday? Oh, right. Well, they're up against an opponent who will be defending a playoff position, so don't expect anything too spectacular on the part of the Eagles, especially since the Redskins' backup quarterback guided the team to almost forty points in his first NFL start. Their attempts at being the "spoiler team" have been half-hearted at best, which pretty much sums up the entire season.

The Eagles will win because they will be inspired emotionally. Yes, this is a stretch, but is there honestly any other reason? I can't pull out any statistics, because the Redskins are better than them in almost every category, and are the superior team in the categories that matter the most. But emotionally, long-tenured veterans like Brent Celek and Trent Cole (I actually had to pause and think of names there) will want to give Reid a graceful exit from the team. Additionally, I would imagine they are upset about being mocked by the Bengals' staff in their locker room last Thursday. Throw the opportunity to significantly harm playoff chances of a division rival (and another one in Week 17), and maybe, just maybe, they will play with the desire to win. Of course, if you are already focused on the draft, this is your worst case scenario.

The Eagles will lose because the Redskins, whom we once affectionately called the Lolskins, are simply the better team. By a wide margin. Their defense may need some work, but they finally have their running back in Alfred Morris, which Mike Shanahan always seems to need to run his system effectively. Kirk Cousins has already shown the ability to be competent in his first NFL game. The Eagles, on the other hand, are the hopeless mess we've all come to know and bury our face in our hands over. But we will all take solace in the knowledge that very soon, the suffering will end.

So here we are, the first December since 2007 where playoff hopes are truly and mathematically dead. Except unlike 2007, there is no "McNabb 100% healthy" to hope for. There is no Brian Dawkins to keep the team together. There is only uncertainty. And while part of that uncertainty has its concerns, it also carries its own hope and excitement. For the first time since 1998, things will be different in Philadelphia. The team will be going in a new direction. We can only hope that Lurie's decision on what direction that team will take will be even better than the last one.

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