While the race for the playoffs continues in the NFL, one big question remains: Can the Detroit Lions go the entire season without winning a game?
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
We take a moment this morning to mark a first in the NFL, a most inglorious first, however. As if things couldn't get any worse in Detroit, the Detroit Lions are oh-and-15 this season, that is, 0 wins, 15 losses. The Lions face the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, the last game in their regular season. A loss against the Packers would make the Detroit Lions the first NFL team to finish a season oh-and-16. Here to discuss this and other NFL matters is NPR's Mike Pesca. Good morning, Mike.
MIKE PESCA: Hi.
WERTHEIMER: Do the Lions have any kind of chance against the Packers?
PESCA: Well, I think at this point, I'd probably rather own GM stock than bet on the Lions.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PESCA: But yes, the Lions have a small chance, because they will be playing. But not a good chance; they are terrible on offense and much, much worse on defense.
WERTHEIMER: So, what got them to this point, luck or skill?
PESCA: Yeah, lack thereof. We should point out that Tamper Bay went oh-and14; they only played 14 games back then. But the Lions have been around for 75 years. They don't have the excuse of being an expansion team. And if you look back to what is the cause, the general manager, named Matt Millen, who's widely regarded as the architect of the failure; Matt Millen would draft players, they would not pan out, and next year he would draft some more players. So, if the blame has to be laid, it's on Matt Millen's head, and he's actually already been fired.
WERTHEIMER: Let's turn to teams with a chance. What are the big games this week?
PESCA: Let's take San Diego versus Denver; whoever wins this game is in the playoffs. And it's a rematch of a week number-two game where an interesting thing happened. The Denver Broncos were driving the field, down by seven, and with about a minute left, their quarterback fumbled; the Charges recovered the ball; right then and there it looked like the game was over. But the referee had inadvertently blown his whistle, thus negating the fumble, and Denver went on to win, and many angry Charger fans emailed the referee, Ed Hochuli...
WERTHEIMER: Wait a minute. How can you email a referee?
PESCA: Yeah. Referee is only a part-time job in the NFL, which is kind of odd for the most important guy on the field in a billion-dollar industry. But Ed Hochuli's a trial lawyer; he has to have his Web site and his email out there. Hochuli responded to a lot of the emails. He says, I feel terrible. I blew the call. If Ed Hochuli had not made that mistake, the Chargers would already be in the playoffs. Now they get a rematch with the Broncos, and as they say, if they win, they're in.
WERTHEIMER: The big game for Washington fans, of course, would be the Cowboys versus the Eagles, two teams we hate.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PESCA: Yeah. The Cowboys, they have the opportunity to go into Philadelphia to win that game and to make the playoffs. Philadelphia could also make the playoffs, but there's an interesting thing going on in Philadelphia; a lot of the Eagles fans would rather just have their team lose, and this way, they get to fire the coach and fire the quarterback. Sort of like in medieval times of bloodletting was said to be good for what ails you.
WERTHEIMER: So, what are you going to watch?
PESCA: Well, I live in New York, and I think the most interesting storyline here is the New York Jets versus the Miami Dolphins. The Jets, before the season started, signed Brett Favre. That got so much attention. Lost in the shuffle was the fact that the Jets quarterback at the time, Chad Pennington, was dismissed from the team. The Miami Dolphins picked him up, and the Dolphins were a team - they were only one-and-15 last year. But Chad Pennington has led the Dolphins to 10 wins so far this season. Chad Pennington goes into the meadowlands to face the Jets with the playoffs on the line. That'll be a great game.
WERTHEIMER: OK, Mike. Sounds like happy football.
PESCA: (Laughing) Yes. Thank you very much.
WERTHEIMER: NPR's Mike Pesca. He writes a weekly column on the NFL at npr.org.
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It is a tale as old as, well, if not Aeschylus, then Joseph Mankiewicz.
The plot of Mankiewicz's All About Eve as well as those of Toy Story, Dreamgirls, The Velveteen Rabbit and Cats adhere to the same structure. A shiny new toy, full of flash and marvel, is brought in, and the old standby is shunted aside. The forgotten, unloved, unwanted plaything mopes away solemnly. "Maybe they're better off without me," think Margo Channing, Woody, Effie, Rabbit, Grizabella — and Chad Pennington.
Yes, that was Pennington all alone in the moonlight on Aug. 7, when Brett Favre took over the quarterback duties for the New York Jets. Pennington was in Cleveland for a preseason game when the switch was announced, and he was left to board a New York jet hours before kickoff.
Pennington departed for sunnier skies in Miami not long afterward.
On Sunday, Pennington will face Favre at the New Jersey Meadowlands as the Jets take on the Dolphins with the playoffs on the line. And this time, it is Pennington — not Favre — who has it within his power to take his team to infinity and beyond.
Favre has looked terrible in three out of the Jets' last four games, all losses. Meanwhile, Pennington has rallied his new team to wins in eight of the Dolphins' last nine games. If winning meant that Pennington had to drive the field for a late touchdown, that's what he did. If it meant that he had to step aside to let his team's innovative Wildcat offense take over, he did, often throwing a block in the process. If it meant not tossing an interception, Pennington is very much onboard. His seven picks this season are the second-fewest among QBs who have started every game, and he is one of only three QBs with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of better than 2 to 1.
This year, Pennington didn't make the Pro Bowl and Favre did — an injustice that's out of Pennington's control. But Sunday's game will be in his control, and at the end, he just might serenade Jets executives with a rousing twist on the Jennifer Holliday/ Hudson torch song: "And I Am Telling You That I Am Going ... to the Playoffs."
Ice Man Ellis
Speaking of the Jets, the team fined defensive end — I would argue overly defensive end — Shaun Ellis for this move, about 35 seconds in.
Maybe it's unbecoming for a pro athlete, but the time-honored code of the snowball fighter dictates that whoever throws a snowball deserves one in return. Unfortunately for the Jets, this was their most accurate toss all afternoon. Rumor is that next season, defensive coordinator Bob Sutton will be scrapping the 3-4 defense in favor of a "wicked cool fort."
Odds Of An All-New York Super Bowl?
For the above reasons, I am suspending this heretofore regular feature. And also because the chances of a Jets-Giants matchup is slightly more than 1 percent.
Seeds Of Success And Dissent
As Jeff Chadiha of ESPN.com correctly points out, it's good to have the No. 1 seed in the playoffs:
Here's all you have to know about the value of being the top seed in the NFC playoffs: Six of the past nine No. 1 seeds in that conference have reached the Super Bowl.
But as Don Banks of Sports Illustrated points out, having the No. 1 seed isn't that good:
Keep in mind the following: This decade, the coveted No. 1 seed ain't all it's cracked up to be. ... Only one No. 1 seed has won the Super Bowl since 2000.
Both are right, but they're arguing different things. Banks is correct when he says the top-seeded teams — the Giants in the NFC and the Tennessee Titans in the AFC — aren't guaranteed tickets to Tampa. However, Chadiha is right to point out that they're more likely to get there than any other team. One way to look at the top seeds is that they have to win two home games to get to the Super Bowl. If a team has a 70 percent likelihood of winning each game, it still has only a 49 percent chance of winning both. That's just math.
Chokers, Jokers And Mediocres
Heading into the last week of the regular season, here are the teams that have cemented themselves as playing in cement. (To see how the rest stack up, you can go to sites like ESPN or Fox or CBS.)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Their record is good and they still could make the playoffs, but this is a tired defense.
San Francisco 49ers: Interim head coach Mike Singletary should be rewarded with an interim-ectomy. Samurai Mike possesses amazing powers of inspiration, stemming from the fact that he could probably beat up his entire team. Not all at once, but still.
Washington Redskins: It's good for everyone, be you a Portisan or a Zornian, to see the Redskins put forth a strong effort against a division rival. Otherwise, Congress might have authorized a bailout.
New York Jets: On their opening drive last game, they ran the ball seven times — gaining more than 4 yards a run each time. Then, faced with fourth and 1 from the Seahawks 2-yard line, they KICK A FIELD GOAL? Sadly, this is only the fourth-worst coaching decision of the afternoon.
Green Bay Packers: Playing the Packers is like trying to douse a carnival clown in a dunk tank. You get teased, even tormented. You lose the advantage and are overcome with frustration. You fire shot after shot, cursing yourself and investing time and effort, but in the end you walk away the victor, because he's still a clown in a dunk tank.