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NFL playoffs 2014: Revisiting the experts preseason predictions

Looking back, some will look smart, most will look silly.
Looking back, some will look smart, most will look silly.
Jason Miller/Getty Images

If sportswriters could actually predict the outcome of games, they wouldn’t be writing about sports; they’d be Biff Tannen in “Back to the Future Part II.” Prognostication is the oddest part of sports journalism. It’s one thing to review the game and make thoughtful assessments about everything from individual performance to coaching decisions to personnel schemes. It’s something else entirely to presage future events, especially when the game’s outcome is largely contingent on details like injuries, weather, and officiating that are beyond anyone’s foresight or control.

Yet still we try. The preseason playoff predictions made by many of America’s best and brightest NFL writers look hilarious in retrospect, often because of those capricious circumstances outlined above. Injuries to key players decimated the playoff chances of preseason favorites like the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans. The playoff fortunes of more common picks like the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys came down to a single play in the final minutes of the last game of the season. If the Chicago Bears come up with stop on that fateful 4th-and-8, many of these writers suddenly look a lot less smart.

The following list uses a rigorous formula to determine the quality of each writer/ outlet's preseason predictions. All writers were scored with two points for correctly picking the division winner or wild card team, and one point for teams that were projected to make the playoffs but not in the spot they finished. For example, if a writer picked the Broncos to win the AFC West and the Chiefs as a wild card, they would be scored four points, but the reverse (the Chiefs winning the division and the Broncos as a wild card) would only net two points. Because not all sites differentiated between the fifth and sixth seeds, no extra point consideration was given to them (for instance, a prediction that New Orleans would make the playoffs as the fifth seed was scored with 2 points, even though they finished with the sixth seed). For sites with multiple writers, the scores were tallied up and divided by the number of writers to reach an average. With six playoff teams in the two conferences, a perfect ballot would net 24 points.

Got all that? Good, because despite spending several hundred words hemming-and-hawing about the ridiculousness of the task, projections are nevertheless an integral part of an sportswriter's job. This list should provide clear insight into whose playoff predictions you should be paying attention to next preseason.

9. Fox Sports - 9 out of 24 points
9. Fox Sports - 9 out of 24 points Bob Levey/Getty Images

9. Fox Sports - 9 out of 24 points

The Good: Philadelphia Eagles make it to the playoffs
The Bad: Houston Texans beat Atlanta Falcons to win the Super Bowl
The Ugly: The 13-3 Seattle Seahawks don’t even make the postseason

If it wasn’t bad enough that Peter Schrager of Fox Sports got the lowest score of all NFL writers on this list, he also has the ignonmous distinction of writing the following item in his “Bold Predictions” section: “Matt Schaub (and the Texans) will get over the hump.” Schrager gets credit for picking the Eagles as a playoff team and writing that “Cam Newton will be the best young quarterback in football.” But still, Matt Schaub...yeesh.

8. Bleacher Report - 10 out of 24 points
8. Bleacher Report - 10 out of 24 points Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

8. Bleacher Report - 10 out of 24 points

The Good: Indianapolis Colts make the playoffs
The Bad: Atlanta Falcons defeat the Houston Texans to win the Super Bowl
The Ugly: Cleveland Browns make it as a wild card team

When I wrote about these playoff predictions in the preseason, I said that Josh Zerkle of the Bleacher Report “is either going to look really smart or incredibly silly in about four months.” He looks incredibly silly. Not only was he one of the few writers, like Schrager, that did not have the Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs, but he had THE CLEVELAND BROWNS as a wild card team. Picking two teams that finished a combined 6-26 to play in the Super Bowl is one thing. But picking the Browns to do anything but make their fans miserable is just plain embarrassing.

7. The MMQB - 11.75 (average between four writers) out of 24 points
7. The MMQB - 11.75 (average between four writers) out of 24 points Karl Walter/Getty Images

7. The MMQB - 11.75 (average between four writers) out of 24 points

The Good: Peter King puts up a very solid 16pts
The Bad: Everyone else
The Ugly: “Big Ben has long been underrated for his regular-season play. If the Steelers surprise and take the AFC North, it’s time to give him the [MVP] award.”

Arguably the most well-known football writer in America, Peter King actually did a fine job with his preseason predictions, netting a total score of 16 and being one of the few writers to correctly identify all four AFC division winners. The other writers at his new site, The MMQB, were among the worst in their preseason predictions. Both Greg Bedard and Robert Klemko posted just 10 points, while Jenny Vrentas was slightly better at 11. The sports journalism that group is producing has been excellent; the sports prognosticating, not so much.

6. - 12.45 (average between 11 writers) out of 24 points
6. - 12.45 (average between 11 writers) out of 24 points Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

6. - 12.45 (average between 11 writers) out of 24 points

The Good: Adam Schein scores 15 points, picks 5 of 6 NFC playoff teams
The Bad: Bucky Brooks and Ian Rappaport score just 10 points
The Ugly: “Tony Gonzalez rides off into the sunset with the Lombardi trophy”

The reason this story is going up now instead of after the season is that many of the Super Bowl picks of the worst pickers are still alive, and vice versa. This list catalogs a writer's overall prognosticating ability, not just their Super Bowl prediction. Take Adam Schein of His 15 points were the most among his colleagues, but his Super Bowl pick of the Falcons over the Texans (that’s his quote up there) now seems comical. So if the 49ers beat the Broncos to win the Big Game and you hear Bucky Brooks and Ian Rappaport bragging about how they “called it,” just remember that Brooks also “called” two teams from the miserable NFC East as making the playoffs, or that Rappaport had the dysfunctional Tampa Bay Bucs as a wild card team.

5. ESPN - 12.92 (average between 12 writers) out of 24 points
5. ESPN - 12.92 (average between 12 writers) out of 24 points Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

5. ESPN - 12.92 (average between 12 writers) out of 24 points

The Good: John Clayton and David Flemming throw up 16’s.
The Bad: ESPN “Insiders” KC Joyner and Mike Sando finish 23 of 48.
The Ugly: Joyner’s pick of Rob Chudzinski as Coach of the year.

This was an interesting year for predictions in that two teams who were largely favored to win it all -- the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos -- met expectations in the regular season and earned No. 1 seeds. But surveying all these picks, I haven’t seen a single writer that had either the Carolina Panthers or the San Diego Chargers making the postseason, not on ESPN or anywhere else. The parity in the NFL is a great thing for the game but it makes predicting the playoffs brutally hard.

4. Pro Football Talk - 13 (average score between six writers) out of 24 points
4. Pro Football Talk - 13 (average score between six writers) out of 24 points Ezra Shaw/Getty Image

4. Pro Football Talk - 13 (average score between six writers) out of 24 points

The Good: Josh Alper’s 17 tied for the second-highest score among all writers.
The Bad: Mike Florio picked the NFL’s two worst teams, Houston and Washington, to make the playoffs.
The Ugly: “The reality of 50-percent playoff turnover (which was “only” 33 percent last year) makes it hard to predict which teams that made it last year won’t make it this year.”

Pro Football Talk does a great job of breaking league news in ALL CAPS HEADLINES FOR ADDED URGENCY. Turns out they’re not so bad at the predictions either. Josh Alper absolutely crushed with his 17, and Curtis Crabtree and Mike Wilkening posted more than respectable scores of 14. Maybe next year they can leave out head honcho Mike Florio, whose weak 11 brought down their stellar average.

3. - 14 (average between seven writers) out of 24 points
3. - 14 (average between seven writers) out of 24 points Jim Rogash/Getty Images

3. - 14 (average between seven writers) out of 24 points

The Good: Five of the seven writers had a score of 14 or higher
The Bad: Chris Burke’s pedestrian 11
The Ugly: All seven writers picked the Raiders to finish last in the NFL (they finished fifth from last).

Lead by the estimable Don Banks (aka Donnie Brasco, the man with the golden nickname), fared much better than their colleagues at The MMQB when it came to picking playoff teams. Even more impressive, some of their more specific predictions about the rest of the season -- particularly the section predicting what New England’s season would be like -- proved almost eerie in their accuracy.

2. CBS Sports - 14.4 (average between seven writers) out of 24 points
2. CBS Sports - 14.4 (average between seven writers) out of 24 points Brian Bahr/Getty Images

2. CBS Sports - 14.4 (average between seven writers) out of 24 points

The Good: The lowest score in the group was a still decent 12.
The Bad: Five of the seven writers had the Steelers in the playoffs.
The Ugly: “In news that surprises absolutely no one, the Jets were the unanimous choice to finish last in the AFC East.”

Congrats, CBS Sports; collectively, you were the most accurate group of prognosticators, including John Breech's very impressive score of 17. You all get virtual champagne sprayed all over you.

Now that we're done with that, I’m intensely curious to review the picks of famed masochist Pete Prisco, who went through and predicted the final score of EVERY SINGLE GAME OF THE ENTIRE 2013 SEASON. Let’s check on his predictions for three of the best games of the year: Denver 51, Dallas 48; Detroit 31, Dallas 30; and Baltimore 29, Minnesota 26. In Prisco’s alternate reality that really did unfold somewhere in this vast and mysterious universe, those games finished: Cowboys 30, Broncos 28; Cowboys 27, Lions 26; and Ravens 20, Vikings 17.

Even if the winners were wrong, Pete Prisco (my God, I love hearing that man’s name) predicted the exact margin of victory in the final scores of two out of the three of the craziest games of the year. He's clearly a witch that must be burned with fire.

On to our No. 1 writer...

1. - 19 out of 24 points
1. - 19 out of 24 points Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

1. - 19 out of 24 points

The Good: Correctly selecting six of eight division winners and three of four wild card teams.
The Really Good: Being one of exactly two writers to pick the Eagles to win the NFC East.
The Best: Me. I am the best.

Yes, what you’ve suspected for some time is, in fact, true: I am the greatest person on this list at looking into the future and predicting what will come. Although I did fall slightly short on the promise that my picks would be “100 percent accurate," I have great confidence that the second part of that sentence, the one in which I “ascend to God-like status as a football clairvoyant,” is still very much in play.

There are stories about flying too close to the sun and getting your feet burned off or some such nonsense, but scoring 19 out of 24 points -- with the next closest writer getting no higher than a 17 -- makes me impervious to the sun’s rays and also imbues me with the power of flight. I am now someone who demands to be taken seriously as a picker of professional football contests, which is roughly the American equivalent of knighthood.

This is a great time to mention that if you want to know what’s going to happen in this weekend’s playoff games, you can call my hotline at 1-800-FOOTBALL-GOD and I’ll be happy to tell you for the low, low rate of just $25.00 a minute. Trust me, it’s worth it: I’m the guy who scored 19 of 24 points on the preseason prognostication scale.

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