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Keep it Simple
by Dennis Ranahan

The final week of the regular season is like a jigsaw puzzle. How the pieces fit together can determine who has the advantage. Pressure can swing against a team that needs a game against a squad that has nothing more to play for than winning their last game to douse some other teams’ hopes.

One thing is for sure, when a team is locked into their playoff position they have little to play for and may have already spent the week before their final game preparing for their possible opening playoff round opponent. If a team needs a game, playing against one of these squads with nothing to play for, they have a huge edge.

But, be cautious on your assessment of who has nothing to play for. I learned my lesson the hard was in 2006.

On the final day of that regular season, the New England Patriots played the Tennessee Titans in Nashville and were locked into their playoff position. The Titans, who came into that game with an 8-7 won/loss record still had a chance to make the playoffs with a victory and help from other teams losing that were in front of them.

From all outward appearances, the Patriots had nothing to play for and the Titans fell into the category of needing both a win and help. For reasons that run deep, a team that needs more than just their win, but help from other teams losing, has a motivational edge over teams that just need a win to advance to the playoffs.

Seemed a perfect spot for the Titans to beat the Patriots. All the national media was talking all week about how the Patriots may sit key players, read that as Tom Brady, and prepare for the postseason.

Our thinking was aligned with all the reporting on this game and the importance for Tennessee with nothing to play for on the Patriots side. The point spread reflected this too, as the 8-7 Titans were a 3½ point favorite over the 11-4 Patriots.

Then the game started.

The Titans scored first, and led 3-0, but we knew something was amiss when Brady and the rest of his offense started the game. We knew something was even worse for us when the Patriots scored the next 19 points and rolled to a 40-23 win.

It was Paul, early in the second quarter, who spotted the reason for our final day of the season miscalculation. In the corner of our office he had his pencil out trying to figure out why the Patriots were playing this game like they needed it, and he discovered that if New England won this game, and the Wild Card and Divisional results fell perfect in the Patriots favor, New England would host the AFC Championship Game.

In other words, the Patriots did have something to play for on the final day of the regular season even though they were locked into their playoff position. With a win, they had a chance to host the AFC Championship Game if this team and that team won and lost to their maximum benefit in the playoffs. If they lost to the Titans on the final day of the regular season, they would have had no chance of hosting the AFC Championship Game.

The guy who figured this out first was Bill Belichick, and while he allowed the media to report his team had nothing to play for, he was like a snake in hiding waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting prey … in this case, the Titans and football world.

As it turned out, the Colts hosted the AFC Championship Game that year and beat New England while Peyton Manning engineered a comeback that overcame a 21-3 deficit enroute to his only Super Bowl win with the Colts.

Paul is still on my football staff, and he is currently working the numbers to figure all the contingencies for which teams are in line to win and what teams don’t have anything to play for. While he’s doing that, I’m going to keep this real simple.

The Pittsburgh Steelers need to win and have the Cleveland Browns upset the Baltimore Ravens in order to earn a postseason berth. I’m not sure what is going to happen in Baltimore, but I know this, the Steelers are going to get their side of the bargain done in convincing fashion.

Qoxhi Picks: Pittsburgh Steelers (-14½) over Cincinnati Bengals