No way to predict Super Bowl teams now

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (5) holds the Vince Lombardi Trophy after defeating the San Francisco 49ers 34-31 in the NFL Super Bowl XLVII football game, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (5) holds the Vince Lombardi Trophy after defeating the San Francisco 49ers 34-31 in the NFL Super Bowl XLVII football game, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: November 27, 2013

Officially, each NFL team's regular-season schedule comprises 16 games over 17 weeks and starts in early September, before the leaves have begun to turn. Unofficially, the whole thing is just getting going now.

This is what a league ridden with parity and debilitating injuries has wrought. Teams are so evenly matched that no game's final score is surprising anymore, and the sudden absence of a significant player can reverse a franchise's immediate fortunes. Aaron Rodgers, Reggie Wayne, Tamba Hali: Ask each man's coaches and teammates about the cost of losing him for any length of time.

Yes, Peyton Manning is in the midst of an incredible season. But as Sunday night illustrated, it sure does get cold in December and January, and Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are still out there, lurking like wolves.

The idea that anyone can predict who will reach the Super Bowl, let alone win it, before the season's final four or five weeks has become a fool's errand, and even the stretch drive is hardly an indicator of how the playoffs will shake out.

The Baltimore Ravens won nine of their first 11 games last season, lost four of their final five, then rolled through the AFC playoffs and the San Francisco 49ers. The 2011 Giants were 6-5, then lost two of their next three games before reeling off six straight victories. In 2008, the Arizona Cardinals lost back-to-back December games by a combined score of 82-21, and they were 42 seconds away from a championship until the Pittsburgh Steelers' Santonio Holmes caught a pass and tight-roped the end-zone sideline at Raymond James Stadium.

All of this background brings us, of course, to the Eagles. They are 6-5 ahead of their matchup Sunday against the Cardinals, and it's fun now to compare their schedule to the Cowboys' and wonder what they have to do to make the playoffs.

The Cowboys are also 6-5, and they hold the first tiebreaker by having beaten the Eagles five weeks ago, and they're unbeaten within the NFC East, and their schedule looks easier than the Eagles', but can you really count on Tony Romo, and what if Nick Foles keeps playing like a Hall of Famer? These are the games we play this time of year, and it's all fun and fruitless and, as Chip Kelly noted earlier this month, pretty much a waste of thought - for him and for everyone else.

"To spend time looking at what number I think is going to be the number you need to win in games, it means nothing," Kelly said. "Just go out and prepare for that game you've got that week, and that's what it should be about and what it's always about. It doesn't matter what I think it is. At the end of the year, I'm going to pat myself on the back? 'I thought it was 10. It was 10.' You don't get anything for it, do you?"

This is exactly the right way for an NFL coach to look at things, because every team is an organism, changing and evolving (or devolving) over 17 weeks. These are not the same Eagles who in Week 1 had the NFL abuzz, unleashing a 78-r.p.m. offense in the league's 331/3-r.p.m. world, and they're not the same Eagles who for a while couldn't help but surrender 500 yards and 30 points each week, and they'll be something else entirely by the time Dec. 29 and that season finale against the Cowboys roll around.

Three years ago, remember, the Eagles also had a new starting quarterback who was tearing their opponents apart, and they quickly became the fashionable pick to reach the Super Bowl. They were 10-4. It seemed all things were possible for them. Then the Minnesota Vikings taught the rest of the NFL how to defend Michael Vick in Andy Reid's offense, and, well, so much for fashion and possibility.

Will these final five weeks culminate in a similar collapse or in a more satisfying conclusion? I don't pretend to know. No one should. But at the moment, they promise to be more than a little interesting, because of everything that's mysterious about Kelly and Foles and the modern NFL, and that's something.


msielski@phillynews.com

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