2006 NFL SIMULATION: THE LONGEST YARD

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The grind of pro football begins with off-season workouts and a grueling training camp along with a four-game exhibition season followed by 16 regular season games and playoffs. Injuries test the depth of every spot of a 53-man active roster and practice squad.

Often it comes down to a play or series of plays sometime in January, and the end result is frequently heartbreak and defines a franchise and player careers.

One such case highlights this 2006 NFL simulation.

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The Patriots started 0-3, but went on to win their next 13 games and throttled the Steelers in a marquee Wild Card round matchup. The Ravens became the eighth team in the simulation to finish the regular season, and the sixth to ultimately lose in the postseason. Baltimore stunningly lost to Jacksonville 42-3 in the divisional round. The rest of the AFC provided little drama with the Chargers and Jags easily winning their divisions. After a 4-1 start, the Indianapolis Colts proved to again be a massive disappointment, losing their next nine games.

The NFC provided no dominant team, with the Eagles earning the number one seed followed by Chicago. The Saints did not quite replicate their real-life run to the NFC Championship game but did earn a wild card spot.

The NFC Wild Card round was punctuated by a see-saw game between the Saints and Falcons won by Atlanta with a late Michael Vick touchdown drive. The Packers also earned a playoff slot in Brett Favre’s potential final season and won their first game in Seattle before being routed 55-27 in the divisional round. The other NFC division playoff saw the Falcons blown out in Chicago 40-6, we would know for sure in the months that followed that this would be Michael Vick’s last NFL appearance for a while.

As in real life, the Patriots traveled to San Diego for an AFC divisional playoff. The outcome would be different with the Chargers prevailing 6-0. The Jaguars followed for the AFC Championship and one of the most head scratching finishes in league history.

The Jags led before a LaDainian Tomlinson touchdown run cut the deficit to 31-26. The Chargers got the ball back in the waning moments and had first and goal at the Jacksonville one when Marty Schottenheimer and his coaching staff dialed up the following sequence to ruin Rivers and Tomlinson best chance at a title.

  • Antonio Gates is lined up as an apparent lead blocker but gets the ball, and stuffed for a loss.
  • A handoff to fullback Lorenzo Neal with a similar result.
  • On third and goal from the three Philip Rivers throws into the end zone, incomplete.
  • On fourth down, Tomlinson is finally given the rock but stopped for a loss of five.

Needless to say, Rivers and Tomlinson were not happy as the Jags celebrated their first Super Bowl appearance, leaving Houston, Tampa Bay and Tennessee and the lone franchises not to reach the big game.

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The Jaguars opponent would be the Chicago Bears, who won the NFC Championship in Philadelphia 30-13.

The faux Super Bowl XLI does get credit for being the closest Super Bowl in 14 years, which does not say much. A Thomas Jones touchdown proved to be the lone score as the Bears win their third Super Bowl in four attempts with a rain soaked 13-6 win, highlighting the Lovie Smith/Brian Urlacher era.

 

2005 NFL SIMULATION: ALOHA MEANS GOODBYE

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In the actual 2005 season, retiring Jerome Bettis and the Pittsburgh Steelers steamrolled through the AFC field from the number six seed en route to the Super Bowl XL championship.

The simulation Broncos likewise cruised to the number one playoff seed and was able to take advantage of home field and punch their ticket to Ford Field in Detroit. As in real life the Seattle Seahawks earned the NFC’s top seed, but were not as fortunate in postseason.

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The surprises started on opening weekend as the Houston Texans won their season opener for the first time in franchise history, defeating the faux Super Bowl XXXIX Champion Buffalo Bills.

Kansas City’s Larry Johnson began the season on a historic rampage, he rushed for 196 yards and two scores in the season opener and then accounted for a single-game league record of 377 yards from scrimmage and four scores in a Monday Night rout of the Raiders.

The Indianapolis Colts remain a perennial disappointment in sim play, finishing a distant second in the AFC South with a 7-9 record.

Despite being forced to play their entire schedule away from New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans Saints remained in the mix of the competitive NFC South all season long. The Saints were given a neutral field for simulation ‘home games’ and finished 8-8 compared to their actual 3-13 record.

In a heavyweight AFC Wild Card matchup, the New England Patriots held Fast Willie Parker in check en route to a 25-10 win over Pittsburgh. The Patriots would next visit Denver in the Divisional round as they did in real life and appeared headed to a Conference Championship berth until Denver’s Jake Plummer found Ashley Lelie for a 68-yard touchdown with 1:29 remaining to give Denver a dramatic 20-16 win.

In the NFC, the Seahawks hosted Carolina in the Divisional Round instead of the NFC Championship with a different result. Steve Smith caught six passes for 117 yards in a 14-6 Panthers win. In the other division playoff Washington defeated Chicago by the unique score of 11-3.

Championship Sunday presented intriguing scenarios with both 1995 expansion cousins Jacksonville and Carolina in play, along with the Broncos and Washington. The Broncos held serve with a 16-9 win over the Jaguars behind Mike Anderson’s 136 yards rushing. The win secured Denver’s fifth Super Bowl appearance in 10 years.

The Broncos result meant that if Washington were to beat Carolina, then Clinton Portis and Champ Bailey would face each other two years after the two were traded in a rare player-for-player swap of iconic players in their prime.

Portis did his part with a 79-yard touchdown reception, but Carolina won 19-13, which resulted in the Panthers and Broncos facing off 10 years prior to their actual Super Bowl 50 matchup.

Led by a 55-yard Tatum Bell run, the Broncos won their third championship with a 14-9 triumph. The win marked the AFC’s sixth straight championship, but still trail 24-16 in the series. Carolina’s Super Bowl appearance leaves the Titans, Jaguars, Texans and Buccaneers as the lone teams not to reach football’s grand stage.

And Jake Plummer becomes a two-time Super Bowl champion. Who would have thunk?

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2004 NFL SIMULATION: CIRCLING THE WAGONS

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The 2004 NFL simulation throws a major surprise as the Buffalo Bills roll through a 15-1 regular season and throughout the postseason.

How could the Bills and their circa-2000s CFL outfits crash the party against the traditional 2000s powers of the AFC? It takes a closer look at the stats to answer the question.

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In the actual season, the Bills started 0-4 but then caught fire and were in position to claim a playoff berth in Week 17 with a home win against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers rested most of their starters, but the game proved as the breakout of Fast Willie Parker. The Steelers won to knock Buffalo out of the postseason.

The Bills finished with an actual point differential of 111, good for fifth in the AFC and sixth for the entire NFL.

Per Wikipedia, a publication called Football Outsiders deemed the 2004 Bills as the best NFL team since 1990 to fail to make the playoffs according to their metrics. Pro-Football-Reference also scores the Bills with an expected W-L record of 11-5, two games better than their actual 9-7 campaign.

So the Bills faux Super Bowl XXXIX title does not come as a total fluke.

Other highlights of the ’04 season include the following:

  • Just two years after winning a faux Super Bowl XXXVII, the Miami Dolphins finish 0-16.
  • The other AFC playoff participants provided few surprises, the Steelers, Colts and Chargers won division titles while the Jets and Patriots earned Wild Card berths with 12-4 records.
  • The NFC proved much weaker, the actual NFC Champion Philadelphia Eagles finished 13-3, three games ahead of other conference teams in the sim.
  • The Seattle Seahawks make ‘history’ with their NFC West championship with a 7-9 record, a feat they also recorded in real-life in 2010.
  • The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made their third faux NFC Championship in five years, but fell meekly to the Atlanta Falcons 10-0, with Brian Griese throwing four interceptions. The ATL also won in Philadelphia in the divisional round in a reprise of the actual 2004 NFC Championship.
  • In their loss to Buffalo in the AFC Championship, rookie Ben Roethlisberger went 6-22 for 47 yards and two interceptions.
  • The best rushing day of the season belonged to Kansas City’s Priest Holmes, who rushed for 285 yards in a game v. the Carolina Panthers.
  • The Bills appeared in their fifth title game in the sim, winning their second championship. The Falcons first-ever appearance leaves the Buccaneers, Jaguars, Titans and Texans as the lone teams not to make a sim Super Bowl.

2003 NFL SIMULATION: CLINTON ADMINISTRATION

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Throughout Mike Shanahan’s reign as Denver Broncos head coach the team featured an elite run game. It started with Terrell Davis in the late 1990s, and the zone blocking scheme became a staple no matter who carried the rock. Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell all excelled as Denver running backs throughout the first half of the 2000s.

Clinton Portis was drafted in the second round in 2002 and spent two years as Denver’s featured back, exceeding more than 1,500 rushing yards both years before his assets were flipped to Washington for cornerback Champ Bailey in a rare player-for-player swap of elite players.

In simulation, Portis regular season highlight involved a historic 295-yard rushing day (320 yards overall) and five touchdowns in a 52-26 win over Kansas City.

Portis, along with quarterback Jake Plummer proved large in the simulation. The Broncos went 15-1 in the regular season before navigating a star-studded playoff field.

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Simulations have not been kind to the Green Bay Packers over 38 years, they did not appear in either of the first two Super Bowls, the lone appearance in the big game being a Super Bowl IX fart in the wind.

In real life, the Packers played their best ball of the season towards the end of the 2003 season, but it appeared they would miss the postseason until a Minnesota Vikings meltdown in the final minutes at Arizona provided Green Bay’s lifeline to the playoffs.

The Packers defeated the Seattle Seahawks in dramatic fashion and all but sealed a divisional round win in Philadelphia until coach Mike Sherman elected not to go for it on fourth and about three inches followed by Freddie Mitchell’s infamous fourth and 26 catch.

If not for that, many believed the Packers would had advanced to Super Bowl XXXVIII. By this time Brett Favre had completed his 12th year as starting quarterback and both Coach Mike Holmgren and Reggie White had left Green Bay without a Super Bowl appearance in this alternative reality.

Bill Belichick and Mike Shanahan met in simulation for the first time in the playoffs in the divisional round. The Broncos scored the home win in dramatic fashion as Jake Plummer found Rod Smith for a 25-yard touchdown with 1:23 remaining.

At 14-2, the Baltimore Ravens were the Broncos equal for most of the season as Jamal Lewis ran for 2,066 yards in the actual season. In the sim Baltimore defeated the Tennessee Titans in the division round to set up a dream AFC Championship matchup between the Ravens and Broncos. The game was won by Denver 26-10, sending Shanahan and the Broncos to their fourth Super Bowl in eight years.

In the NFC the Packers did not sweat out a playoff berth with a NFC North title and 13-3 record. Green Bay also handed the Broncos their lone loss in the regular season finale. The Packers memorable Wild Card game against the Seahawks at Lambeau Field was replicated in the divisional round.

Matt Hasselbeck did not win the opening coin toss, and Seattle did not score as the Packers recorded a 30-0 shutout. A week later Green Bay traveled to Carolina and easily defeated the top-seeded Panthers 23-3 behind Ahman Green’s 155 yards rushing.

The Packers and Broncos met in Houston six years after their actual Super Bowl XXXII matchup. This showdown proved one-sided as Portis rushed for 157 yards with three scores and Rod Smith added two TD receptions as Plummer out-gunslinged Favre in a 45-20 rout, giving Denver their second world championship.

Other brief notes on the 2003 season.

  • The sim likes the Buffalo Bills, who won the AFC East at 12-4 and swept the New England Patriots.
  • In real-life the Indianapolis Colts had established itself as contenders with a 12-4 record, but finished 6-10 in the simulation.
  • Jamal Lewis season highlights included 209 yards and two TD’s v. Arizona and 179 yards and three TD v. Jacksonville. Ahman Green put up video game numbers with240 yards and five touchdowns against St. Louis while Portis rushed for 216 yards in a 48-10 win over Minnesota and also eclipsed 200 against Indianapolis. Cincinnati’s Rudi Johnson had 240 yards in a game while Atlanta’s Warrick Dunn rushed for a 206-yard day.

2002 NFL SIMULATION: RUN, RICKY, RUN..

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Our 2001 NFL situation featured Kordell Stewart making a triumphant return to the city of New Orleans to claim a Super Bowl title for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In 2002, Ricky Williams was acquired via trade with the New Orleans Saints, who traded all of their draft picks to acquire the rights to draft the Heisman Trophy winner. 2002 proved to be by far Williams best season as a pro with 1,853 yards rushing and his lone Pro Bowl appearance.

In the sim, Williams returns to his San Diego roots for Super Bowl XXXVII and provides a performance for the ages.

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  • Realignment takes place following the 2001 season to accommodate the arrival of the Houston Texans. The new format of eight four team divisions remains unchanged as of 2016.
  • The Texans lost the first 15 games of their existence in alternate reality but finish their inaugural season on a high note with a home upset of the division champion Tennessee Titans, the franchise that previously graced Houston.
  • The New York Giants enjoy their best sim regular season in franchise history, their lone blemish a Week 16 loss at Indianapolis.
  • In real life, 2002 represented the Cleveland Browns lone playoff appearance since their 1999 return, where they lost to the Steelers. In the sim both Cleveland and Pittsburgh both finished 6-10.
  • In their first season in the NFC West, the Seattle Seahawks had a respectable real-life record of 7-9. In the sim the team took their lumps with a 1-15 campaign.

The Cincinnati Bengals 8-8 record earned them the AFC North Championship and the right to host 11-5 Denver on Wild Card Weekend. The Bengals won that game but lost in the divisional round to the Dolphins, who then traveled to Oakland and defeated the 14-2 Raiders for the AFC Championship.

The NFC West Champion San Francisco 49ers welcomed the 13-3 Carolina Panthers in the wild card round and won 24-10. The Niners defeated the 13-3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers to advance to the NFC Championship game against the St. Louis Rams, who upset the top-seeded Giants.

The Rams and 49ers met to determine who would represent the NFC for the 15th time in the Super Bowl between the two franchises. The 49ers won 27-15 to earn a return trip to San Diego, where the franchise won a faux Super Bowl XXXII for their fourth and most recent championship.

On Super Bowl Sunday, Williams rewrote Super Bowl history with 257 rushing yards and three scores in the Dolphins 39-10 victory for Miami’s second title in four Super Bowl appearances. Williams scored from 12 yards out in the first quarter, followed by a 47-yard scamper before halftime and a 24-yard run to put the Dolphins up 39-3 in the fourth quarter.

Needless to say, Ricky’s career reached an all-time high that day.

2001 NFL SIMULATION: BATTLEGROUND STATE

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I return with my 36th simulation from the Super Bowl era, with WhatIfSports data to replay the schedule for each season once, and only once. Included will be a recap from the bottom so you can wonder how the hell the Minnesota Vikings won five Super Bowls and how the Detroit Lions won one.

The 2001 season marked the third and final campaign with 31 teams in the league, necessitating at least one team per week to take a bye. The events of September 11 pushed the league schedule back a week and resulted in playoff games deep into the month of January.

The league scheduled the Raiders and Patriots on a snowy Saturday night in Foxboro. Charles Woodson forced a late fumble but the ref enforced the Tuck Rule. Adam Vinatieri somehow made a long field goal without help from the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, the Patriots won – and the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick dynasty launched.

In the sim however, the Pats reign of destruction will have to wait, both New England and Oakland finished 9-7. The Pats squeaked into the postseason while Jon Gruden got his termination letter from Al Davis.

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  • As in the actual season, the Steelers and Rams finished as the number one seeds in their respective conferences. The Rams appeared unstoppable and headed for their second Super Bowl in three seasons.
  • Also, as in the real season, the Indianapolis Colts imploded down the stretch with only one win in their final eight games. Playoffs!?!
  • The NFL  East proved hyper-competitive in simulation with he Dallas Cowboys in the mix and the Arizona Cardinals earning a rare playoff berth.
  • In the third season of its carnation, the Cleveland Browns went 7-9, but only one three games here, giving fans additional beer bottle throwing practice.

The Patriots won in Baltimore in the wild card round but then traveled to balmy Miami the following week, where they lost 36-26. Both the Packers and Rams fell in the divisional round, falling to the Eagles and Bucs respectively.

The Steelers hosted the Dolphins for the AFC Championship, and Kordell Stewart silenced his many critics as he led Pittsburgh to a 43-10 rout and its first Super Bowl appearance in 22 years. Meanwhile the Eagles defeated the Buccaneers for the second straight year to claim the NFC crown.

The Eagles and Steelers traveled to New Orleans for the all Keystone State Super Bowl. Kordell Stewart makes his Crescent City homecoming a memorable one as the Steelers win their fourth World Championship in as many attempts with a 24-6 victory. Super Bowl losers have now averaged 5.7 points in the past six games of the series. It also marked the first consecutive AFC victories since Super Bowl’s IX and X.

Now a brief recap of alternative universe NFL history.

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2000 NFL SIMULATION: THE DEFENSE RESTS

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Many of football’s most memorable champions feature a marquee quarterback, along with perhaps an elite running back, plenty of points scored and a highlight reel of offensive fireworks.

However an old adage also says defenses win championships, and the 2000 Baltimore Ravens ranked as amongst the best of all time.

For that reason, it comes as little surprise that the Ravens become the third consecutive team to repeat their actual World Championship in simulation.

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  • Everything was nice and spread out between both conferences. The second place team in all six divisions earned playoff berths.
  • The AFC East in particular was competitive with no easy touches. Peyton Manning made his first playoff appearance in his second year in the league.
  • The Ravens and Tennessee Titans comprised possibly the NFL’s best two teams in the AFC Central. They would not get a chance to meet up in the playoffs however.
  • The Cleveland Browns appear to be on the right track, with a competitive 6-10 record in their season season.
  • The NFC provided no dominant teams, with the Giants, Buccaneers and Rams all posting 12-4 campaigns. A strong strength of victory resume vaulted Tampa to the number one seed and the possibility of playing Super Bowl XXXV in its own stadium.

The Colts return to the playoffs went out with a whimper, losing at home to the Dolphins in the wild card round. Kicker Mike Vanderjagt questioned Peyton Manning’s mindset on Canadian television two days later, Manning returned the favor and destroyed Vanderjagt in a sideline interview during the AFC’s 59-58 Pro Bowl victory.

Kerry Collins and the New York Giants did not make it to Tampa, the Giants lost at home to the 49ers on Wild Card Weekend while the Eagles dispatched the Minnesota Vikings and the Titans escaped with a 19-17 win over the Oakland Raiders.

The Ravens opened playoff competition with an 18-0 shutout over the Dolphins while the Titans lost on the road in Denver, 22-17. In the NFC, Tampa Bay defeated the 49ers 21-13 while the Eagles made a major statement with a 47-13 rout at St. Louis.

The Broncos traveled to Baltimore to play their old rival who they know as the Cleveland Browns in drag. In a brutal and bloody affair the Ravens punched their Super Bowl ticket with a 10-6 win. The Buccaneers hosted their franchises first-ever NFC Championship game appearance but lost to the Eagles 17-10, giving Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb a Super Bowl appearance prior to the first of their four real-life championship game appearances.

Days later the Eagles returned to Tampa with designs on the franchises third championship in as many Super Bowls. The Ravens would have none of it as they added their name to a recent list of Super Bowl routs. The game featured only one touchdown  but kicker Matt Stover etched his name in the Super Bowl record books for eternity and beyond with seven field goals in the Ravens 28-3 win.

For the postseason, the Ravens defensive dominance became a performance for the ages by not allowing a single touchdown, just three field goals. WhatIfSports listed Tony Banks and not Trent Dilfer as the quarterback of record, proving just how far an elite defense can take a team.