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Use Your Collusion

With the Redskins apparently controlling their playoff fate again, Tom trots out a wild conspiracy theory involving the Lions and Packers that would leave even a victorious Washington team out in the cold.

Detroit Lions v Green Bay Packers Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

With a convincing victory over the Chicago Bears on Saturday, plus some help from the Saints and the . . . (*shudder*) . . . Cowboys, the Washington Redskins appear to be back in the playoff driver’s seat.

All the Skins have to do now is beat the Giants at home on Sunday.

Or so it would seem.

From the Redskins’ POV, everything appears to be falling into place nicely: Washington not only gets the Giants at home, but New York has already clinched a wild card spot and cannot improve its position. In theory, the Giants should be looking to rest starters.

Of course, Washington beat New York earlier this year, so maybe there’s a “revenge” factor that might keep Eli Manning and Odell Beckham and the other Giant stars on the field longer than expected. Or maybe Ben McAdoo follows the Tom Coughlin school of thought and won’t rest players heading into the playoffs. But, even if the Giants’ starters play the whole game, the Redskins have a lot more at stake than New York does.

All of that bodes well for Washington. If the Redskins do take care of business, they’ll be in the playoffs for a second consecutive season for the first time since 1991 and 1992 — the final two years of Joe Gibbs I.

The Packers are 9-6. So are the Lions. The loser of their season-ending game will obviously be 9-7, worse than the 9-6-1 mark the Redskins would have with a win over the Giants.

But there’s a wrinkle.

What if the Lions / Packers game doesn’t have a loser?

If Green Bay and Detroit tie, all three teams in this conversation would be 9-6-1. The first tie-breaking procedure would be to see who wins the NFC North. The Packers already beat the Lions once this year, and a tie would mean they were 1-0-1 against the Lions, giving them a head-to-head winning percentage over .500, and, thus, earning Green Bay the divisional title.

The next tie-breaking procedure would be for the wild card. As we all remember, the Lions used a last-minute touchdown drive to beat the Redskins earlier this year.

That means Detroit would be in, and Washington — despite beating the Giants — would stay home.

That raises the question: Why wouldn’t the Lions and Packers just conspire to tie, guaranteeing both of them a spot in the postseason?

I mean, why wouldn’t they other than (1) ethics, (2) the spirit of competition, and (3) the inevitably massive fines and penalties the league office would hand down after the fact?

(Look, I didn’t say it was a FOOLPROOF theory, but stay with me, here)

As Dan Steinberg pointed out on Twitter, the Lions would be less disposed to entertain this idea than the Packers, because a brokered tie would mean giving up a shot at a home playoff game in favor of a trip to Seattle. Going for a win would actually give the Lions a slim chance at grabbing the #2 seed and a bye — if Atlanta and Seattle both lose.

However, from a pure game-theory perspective, devoid of any kind of moral considerations, the Packers and Lions should absolutely agree to tie.

I’m not aware of this ever happening in football. Well, not American football, anyway.

It’s happened in soccer a whole bunch of times! The most famous might be the so-called “Disgrace of Gijon,” in which Austria and West Germany essentially stopped trying to score ten minutes into their match, with the Germans up 1-0. The two sides knew that this result would allow both teams to advance out of the group stage of the 1982 World Cup at the expense of Algeria.

There have been other examples of this practice in club and international soccer. Mitigating against the possibility of collusion is one reason why many top soccer leagues and tournaments play all of their final-day regular-season or group-stage games simultaneously.

That isn’t the case in the NFL.

The Redskins play at 4:25. The Lions and Packers play on Sunday Night Football. As such, the North teams would already know the stakes before they kick off.

If Washington wins, the only way Detroit and Green Bay could guarantee themselves playoff berths would be if they agreed to tie.

Do I think this will happen? Of course not. The teams would likely face record fines and lose draft picks — at least — if they were clearly colluding to produce a tie. It would also be pretty difficult to convince coaches and players to agree to a choreographed outcome. Way too much competitive spirit. Way too much pride. Way too much scrutiny.

And, so, all of us can watch Josh Norman and OBJ square off on Sunday afternoon and cheer Washington on in an intense NFC East showdown without fear that the Redskins will be cheated out of a playoff berth if they win.

That being said . . . if it just so happens that the Lions and Packers legitimately find themselves all square at the end of regulation, I wouldn’t be surprised if the two teams get VERY conservative in overtime.

Moreover, if the Packers have the ball in their own territory with less than five minutes to go in OT, I can almost guarantee you that they will play for a tie at that point. I’m talking about them chewing up as much clock as possible, and, if they have the opportunity, kneeling down at the end with the score still deadlocked.

And the Lions would be totally fine with that decision.