Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 16, 2018

Quantum Theory And The NFL Standings

The NFL’s regular season winds down, and the league’s standings suggest that change is in the air. Seven of the ten spots in the last five Super Bowls have been occupied by just three teams. New England has made three appearances and both Denver and Seattle two each. As this is written the Broncos have already been eliminated from this year’s postseason, and while the Patriots and Seahawks are both in now, neither has locked down a playoff spot with just two regular season games to go, and New England has now lost back-to-back contests. Of the three other franchises to make it to the big game in that timeframe, the Atlanta Falcons already know their season ends in two weeks, and both the Carolina Panthers and defending champion Philadelphia Eagles need to run the table and get some help in order to squeeze into the playoff bracket.

The teams at the top of that projected bracket are Kansas City and Houston in the AFC, and the Saints and Rams in the NFC. It’s been nearly half a century since K.C. played in a Super Bowl, and the Texans haven’t done so in their history. The two NFC franchises have been only slightly more successful, with a single Super Bowl appearance each in this century.

Because of the single elimination format, the NFL playoffs are more unpredictable than any of the other three major North American sports leagues; on any given Sunday, as they say. Perhaps the season-long heroics of 23-year-old Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes or Houston’s remarkable turnaround after an 0-3 start won’t matter come January, and the Foxborough dynasty will represent the AFC one more time. Perhaps the Rams’ Jared Goff will come back to earth and the Saints’ Drew Brees will be bothered by turning forty during the postseason, and the Seahawks, will slip through on the NFC side. A repeat of Super Bowl XLIX, moved from the Arizona desert to Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, the retractable roof edifice that just hosted Major League Soccer’s championship match. Perhaps order will be restored.

Before fans learn whether than will be the case, they must first navigate the season’s final two weeks, a period in which the focus in on the top of the standings, but much of the drama is down in the middle of the pack. That’s where a knot of clubs that range from barely to not quite good enough battle for the final playoff spots, and a chance to extend their season for at least one week.

The Chargers, or perhaps Kansas City, will be one of the four Wild Cards. Like the Rams, Los Angeles’s other team is having an unexpectedly good season, sporting a record of 11-3 that is a match for Kansas City. Thursday night the Rams went into Arrowhead Stadium and stunned the home crowd by going for a two-point conversion after scoring a touchdown in the final minute, rather than kicking the extra point to tie the game and wait for overtime. When a wide-open Mike Williams cradled Goff’s toss in the end zone, L.A. had a 29-28 win. But the Rams remain in second place because K.C. has the better division record at 4-1, over L.A.’s 3-2. If Oakland upsets Kansas City and Los Angeles beats Denver in the regular season’s final week the division winner will be decided by going deep into the NFL’s tiebreaking procedures.

The other three Wild Card spots are currently held by decidedly less impressive teams, with several equally middling squads in what passes for hot pursuit. After being upset by the 49ers on Sunday, the Seahawks are just above .500 at 8-6, and thus half a game ahead of the Vikings at 7-6-1. Washington’s .500 record has it just behind Minnesota, with Carolina and Philadelphia both alive as this is written with matching records of 6-7. However, the Eagles must contend with the Rams Sunday night, and the Panthers play the Saints on Monday, so the slim hopes of both franchises could shortly be reduced to a thread.

It’s a similarly tight battle for the remaining AFC Wild Card spot, with three teams currently at 8-6. Baltimore and its quarterback controversy is the squad that’s in for now, based on the tiebreaking criteria. But one slip by Lamar Jackson, who resurrected the Ravens season after replacing an injured Joe Flacco in Week 11, and either the Colts or Titans will be happy to take Baltimore’s spot. Also still clinging to hope are the Browns at 6-7-1.

Yes, it’s true. With just two games remaining, the Cleveland Browns have not yet been eliminated from the postseason. While it’s unlikely the Browns will be playing in January, that it is still possible after 1-15 and 0-16 records the past two years has fans along the banks of Lake Erie in a state of happy shock. The second biggest surprise on this list is Washington, which lost both starting quarterback Alex Smith to a gruesome leg injury and backup Colt McCoy to a less stomach-churning broken leg. The team then decided that Mark Sanchez, last seen fumbling the ball after running into the rear end of a New York Jets teammate, and Josh Johnson, who hadn’t started an NFL game in seven years, were the best quarterback options available, presumably because neither was named Colin Kaepernick. Johnson managed to beat the woeful Jaguars 16-13 on Sunday, snapping a four-game losing streak and keeping Washington in the hunt. Or so it says on the NFL’s website.

In truth all the teams outside the playoff bracket but still technically alive, as well as three of the four currently holding down Wild Card spots, are like Schrodinger’s cat. The thought experiment, designed in 1935 by an Austrian physicist for whom it’s named, illustrates the paradox inherent in popular theories of quantum mechanics. Those theories hold that at the subatomic, at the smallest scales of nature, things can exist in different states until they are observed, at which point an outcome results. Schrodinger postulated a cat inside a sealed box with a radioactive source, a Geiger counter, and a flask of poison. If a single atom of the radioactive source decays, the Geiger counter detects it and triggers the breaking of the flask, killing the cat. The unknown is the rate of decay, so under quantum theory until one opens the box, the cat is both alive and dead.

Of course, we all know felines can’t be both alive and dead at the same time, though they can act that way. But in the middle ranks of the NFL as the schedule nears its end, perhaps “on any given Sunday” now has a new meaning

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