The connection between the NFL and gambling is so inextricable that it's sometimes instructive to think of them as one in the same: In many ways, particularly considering the rise of fantasy football, it's difficult to imagine one without the other. They are both representative of America at its best and at its worst.
I'm not much of a gambler myself, so whenever I end up in Las Vegas for one reason or another and am roaming around the casinos, I find that my goal is less to make money -- this being Vegas and all, built on suckers whose plan it was to make money there -- and more to stretch as long as possible what little money I've decided it's acceptable to lose. The goal is to make the experience last, to keep playing.
As a fan of a team -- in my case, the Arizona Cardinals -- I feel this way about the NFL season itself. I'm not expecting my team to win the Super Bowl: I just want them to give me reason to keep watching as long as possible. I want them to be in the playoff chase until the end. Last year, this was ideal: The Cardinals got hot late -- including a win over the Seahawks in Seattle, something no one else did last year -- and just missed out in the last week. I would have liked them to make the playoffs, of course. But mostly I just wanted them to keep me invested all season. They did that. Thus, successful season.
With the NFL season kicking off tonight, I thought I'd preview the proceedings from this perspective. Sure, anyone can just give you projected standings. But what really matters for fans of each team is how long they'll be especially motivated to watch. How long is your team in it? There is value, of course, in still watching your team once they're out of the playoff run: Believe you me, this is the only way this Arizona Cardinals fan usually watches the NFL past October. But what you really want is to still be hanging in.
So that's how we'll do this. I'll try to pick every game and run through the whole season and we'll list the standings as I see them at each quarter mark, starting in Week 4. Then, I'll let you know which teams' fans can probably stop watching when. Remember: The goal is to make the experience last, to keep playing.
Week 4 Projected Standings
Week 4 Eliminations: Minnesota Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans
This one is rather simple: Only three teams in the wild-card era (since 1990) have begun the season 0-3 and made the playoffs: The 1992 San Diego Chargers, the 1995 Detroit Lions and the 1998 Buffalo Bills. Only one of those, the Chargers, made it with four consecutive losses. (You might remember this stat because the Giants started 0-6 last year, and their fans tried to talk themselves into making some sort of late-season run to the NFC East title.) If you're 0-3, you're toast, and if you're 0-4, you're really toast. The Jaguars play the Redskins in Week 2, but other than that, the three teams listed don't have many soft opponents early on. Sorry, guys.
Week 5 Eliminations: Buffalo Bills
Sorry, Bills: A 1-4 start, when you still have to play the Patriots twice, is doom here. There isn't a fan base that has suffered more than the Bills' have, and this year, as they're certainly used to by now, isn't going to be any different. Seriously, I'm really sorry.
Week 6 Eliminations: Houston Texans
That's right, Colts fans. Your division is so terrible this year that: a) Honestly, the second-best team might end up being a feisty Jacksonville team run by an ambitious, smart new management team; and b) You essentially can secure a division title with a Thursday win on the road against Houston. Basically, you're like Memphis when they had John Calipari as coach, rampaging over Conference USA. Of course, eventually you have to play real teams in the tournament.
Week 7 Eliminations: NONE.
But man, Jets, we're looking real close at you.
Week 8 Projected Standings
Week 8 Eliminations: Oakland Raiders, St. Louis Rams
The AFC is so generally weak in the middle that we're tempted not to count anybody out at this point … but yeah, good luck Oakland escaping from a 1-6 start. Had Sam Bradford not been hurt you could almost see the Rams pulling something together this year -- and if they were in the AFC, they could conceivably contend without him -- but a 2-5 start in that division will doom them before the halfway point.
Week 9 Eliminations: Baltimore Ravens
As you can probably tell: I think this is the year it implodes in Baltimore. The team is old -- and getting older -- and that Joe Flacco contract is just getting uglier. Honestly, after all the Ray Rice business, it serves them right. Washington becomes the first team to lose to Minnesota this week, so the bottom might be just about to drop out there. Also, I hope you've noticed Cleveland -- behind a presumably starting-by-then Johnny Manziel -- has a little fire in their belly at the midway point in these projections. (And please don't think there is any homerism in the Arizona Cardinals' 6-2 start (with a bye week mixed in there.)
Week 10 Eliminations: None
But only because the AFC is so weak, and because Washington was off this week.
Week 11 Eliminations: Atlanta Falcons
All told, the Falcons probably should have been let loose a couple of weeks ago.
Week 12 Projected Standings
Week 12 Eliminations: Giants
A home loss to Dallas on Sunday Night Football (maybe) finally does it in for the Giants. You guys had a heckuva playoff run. Twice. Out of nowhere. The NFC North should still be looking pretty strong at this point. Congratulations, everybody still in this, by the way: You made it to Thanksgiving!
Week 13 Eliminations: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Washington Football Team
Three terrific games on Thanksgiving. A huge Bears win over the Lions -- those poor fans; as always, Detroit fans, you should have stayed home on Turkey Day -- gives them control of the NFC North. Dallas beats Philadelphia to move into a tie for first in the NFC East. And San Francisco beats Seattle in what turns out to be the best game of the day. As for our little elimination game, Indianapolis finally puts Washington out of its misery, and Tampa Bay -- a trendy preseason playoff pick, I've noticed -- loses at home to Cincinnati, ending that little dream. That team's gonna be nice next year, though.
Week 14 Eliminations: None
Massive win for Philadelphia at home against Seattle, putting them back in the NFC East lead. Also: This is where I project a crushing home loss for my Cardinals against the surging Chiefs, evaporating the one tiny margin for error in that crazy division.
Week 15 Eliminations: Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins
The Eagles get revenge for the Thanksgiving loss with a home win over Dallas that essentially clinches them the division with two weeks to go. They've got the tiebreaker, and Dallas can't win the wild card, so that'll take care of them. Cute of the Dolphins to hang on this long, but the Patriots finally send them off the board. With a fortnight of season left, there are 18 teams competing for 12 spots.
Week 16 Projected Standings
Week 16 Eliminations: Carolina Panthers, Detroit Lions
The post-Thanksgiving collapse for Detroit is complete; they fall in Chicago and are bounced from contention. Carolina beats Cleveland, but it doesn't matter: The NFC is so deep that 9-6 with a week to go just isn't enough. Cleveland and Pittsburgh both lose -- the Steelers to Kansas City, which has made a wild late-season charge, winning six of eight to take control of the second-wild card -- and they need the Chiefs and the Jets to lose, along with a ton of other stuff, to have any hope.
Week 17 Eliminations: Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets
A brutal Jets loss at Miami ends Rex Ryan's quixotic attempt to sneak in the playoffs again, and Kansas City's win over San Diego knocks out Cleveland and Pittsburgh. (But do you think Browns fans are excited by having Johnny Manziel lead them to their first non-losing season since 2007? Maybe?) The Chargers end up with the first wild-card slot, with Kansas City the second. In other words: The AFC has the exact same six playoff teams as last season. It's almost the same in the NFC: My Cardinals lose three of their last four to just miss out again, and it turns out that the only replacement is Chicago instead of Carolina. The Bears end up winning the NFC North after going 5-1 in the division, with the Packers stuck with the second wild-card and San Francisco, once again, grabbing the first.
Wild Card Round
DENVER over Kansas City
SAN DIEGO over Cincinnati
NEW ORLEANS over Green Bay
SAN FRANCISCO over Philadelphia
I'd say there's a bit of a difference between the No. 5 seed and No. 6 seed in the AFC: Fifth-seeded San Diego gets perpetual first-round patsy Cincinnati, while Kansas City has to play Denver.
INDIANAPOLIS over San Diego
NEW ENGLAND over Denver
SEATTLE over San Francisco
CHICAGO over New Orleans
So the NFC and AFC Championship Games that many people are predicting end up all happening in the divisional round: Thank Indianapolis and the weak AFC South for that. Here's guessing that Tom Brady gets Peyton Manning one more time. (I wonder if there will be a bit of television hype for that game. It's possible, I guess.)
NEW ENGLAND over Indianapolis
SEATTLE over Chicago
Brady and the Patriots have now vanquished Colts past and present, and Seattle knocks around a scared Jay Cutler and the upstart Bears, no problem. This might actually be a less exciting weekend than the one before.
Super Bowl XLIX
SEATTLE over New England
It's the old dynasty falling to the new one: The Seahawks look to me like a team that might rattle off a few of these in a row. Brady's last stand falls short in Arizona, a place he's already lost one Super Bowl. And Richard Sherman and Russell Wilson are anointed our new gods.