Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
04 Jan 2008
by Will Carroll
Now that the fantasy football season is done for the year, Football Outsiders is proud to bring Will Carroll's Black and Blue Report back to its original home for a special postseason run.
The Titans show why teams fight tooth-and-nail to earn a bye. They had to play hard in the last couple weeks just to make the playoffs, and couldn't get any extra rest for their starters, so now the team almost literally limps into the playoffs.
The most significant injury is to Vince Young, who spent the second half of a must-win game watching Kerry Collins play well. Young was shown by NBC on the sidelines getting worked on by the medical staff, but interestingly, they were working on his hip, not his quad. That matches up with his limp, the "head bobbing" often seen when someone with a hip injury is trying to walk. I'm very curious how Young will recover and whether his poor play in the second half is explained by a more serious injury.
Wide receiver Roydell Williams caught 55 passes for the Titans, tied for the team lead, but he broke his ankle in practice on Wednesday and will be out for the rest of the season. The Titans also have to contend with the loss of tight end Bo Scaife. While everyone was replaying Darrell Reid's hit on Chris Henry on a kickoff, it was Matt Giordano's shot on Scaife that made me jump out of my seat. Scaife folded around Giordano and in the end, came away with a lacerated liver. Lacerated liver! Think about that next time you see one of these big hits.
The Titans defense held up with a hobbled Albert Haynesworth, but even Joseph Addai isn't LaDainian Tomlinson. The defense is going to be keyed to L.T., and Haynesworth's effectiveness will decide whether or not the Tennessee defense can hold up. Double teams on Haynesworth keep double teams off Kyle Vanden Bosch.
The Chargers may not have the bye, but fortunately, they enter the playoffs relatively healthy. A couple key cogs to the defense -- Luis Castillo and Shawne Merriman -- have battled injuries and ... must .. resist ... easy ... line ... deep breath and continue. With the Titans offensive scheme and personnel, the mobility of Vince Young (or lack thereof) makes this a better matchup for the Chargers, since neither will tax their injured legs chasing plays.
On offense, the biggest concern is the slight knee problem that is still affecting Philip Rivers. Always known for his three-quarters delivery, Rivers has had to be very conscious of his base when passing over the past few weeks. That has slowed him up slightly, but according to those who have watched him closely, it's made him a bit more consistent and "realistic." "He'd occasionally make one of those Brett Favre throws, where you know it can't possibly get there," one NFL front office denizen said. "I think he knows he can't do what he thinks he could now, so the knee's helped."
(Ed. note: As for FO stats, three of Rivers' six highest DPAR games have come over the past three weeks.)
The Chargers come into the game relatively healthy and hope to escape it the same way, but the Titans' physical style isn't likely to let them off so easy.
Some teams succeed in spite of themselves. Coming off a year when injuries (ruptured spleen, anyone?) affected them as much as any team in football, the Bucs once again rank near the bottom in injury cost. The loss of Cadillac Williams is at the top of the list, but Michael Pittman, Jeff Garcia, and Earnest Graham have all had problems as well. The resurgent defense has held the offense together just enough to get to the playoffs, but are they healthy enough to use the remaining talent they have? It appears so. By sealing their playoff fate, they've been able to rest Garcia and Graham enough to get them back to a stage where the injuries shouldn't need compensation. The offensive line has their work cut out for them on both sides, but this type of game plays into their strengths. Injuries shouldn't be a significant factor for the Bucs.
Should we be worried that Plaxico Burress wasn't at practice much this week after hearing Cris Collinsworth rave about how he practiced the previous week? Probably not, since Burress has been doing this all season. His ankle, now a chronic problem that will likely affect him for the rest of his career, is just healthy enough to remain effective. In watching this season, I've developed a theory that teams that play the Pats one week play worse the next. I think the physical Pats put such a beating on opponents (which was clear with the Colts and Ravens, two physical teams) that they're down for the next week. We'll see if that holds true for the Giants, who played tough and didn't get the rest that many other teams would have received heading into Week 17.
If there's a key for this game, it's how well Brandon Jacobs can hold up. His second half has been what many of us expected for the full season, though he still has major questions about durability that will need to be answered.
I've never been one to shy away from puns or cliches, so why start now? The Steelers limp into the playoffs with Ben Roethlisberger banged up, Willie Parker just a memory, Najeh Davenport their best option, and the offensive line buckling more than that car Roethlisberger hit with his head two years ago. The defense is thin, missing Aaron Smith and seeing Troy Polamalu continue to have physical problems, no longer the fly-around player he was when the Steelers dashed through the playoffs just a few years ago. (The Colts might want to note the decline and fall of Polamalu, but I guess Bob Sanders already has his big guaranteed deal.)
And so much for the good news. The line lost Marvel Smith to back surgery, meaning they're playing a third-stringer (Trai Essex) at a key position, having also lost Max Starks in a meaningless game. Roethlisberger should be able to play without significant limits due to his sprained ankle; he has played well despite knee problems in the past. He'll have his wide receivers at the ready, with last week's rest being key for Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward.
There's not much more that can be said about Davenport's injury history. His ankle problems are well chronicled and the Steelers just need him to stay healthy for a week at a time, not carry a feature load.
(By the way, the injury stats don't support Fred Taylor's claims about the Steelers' field. My feelings on the artificial stuff are pretty well known, and I think the team would be well served by sticking with the grass and hiring more or better groundskeepers.)
For the Jags, it all comes down to defense. The offense is relatively healthy, going deep at all skill positions (though in the case of the wide receivers, it means they're equally mediocre) and the key players -- David Garrard, Fred Taylor, and Maurice Jones-Drew -- all got last week off. Given their complete dominance the last time they played the Steelers, there isn't much of a secret with how Jack Del Rio will run the offense.
The bigger question is the defense, where injuries have really hurt Jacksonville. Without Mike Peterson (whose hand is still keeping him from even practicing) and Marcus Stroud, the defense has become a little flatter and more reliant on the system rather than individuals making plays. That's not necessarily a bad thing -- it's worked for them for several weeks and could continue to do so deep into the playoffs.
It's odd to say this about a team that heads into the playoffs minus their All-Pro safety and starting quarterback, let alone one that had wide reciever problems throughout the season and couldn't seem to keep their defense together, but the Redskins are fairly healthy. No, Jason Campbell isn't coming back, no matter how far they get into the playoffs. The Skins will have to play with the ones that brung 'em, but that's not a bad thing. Todd Collins has played second-string in the Al Saunders offense since the days of leather helmets, and his understanding of the offense has opened things up. The Redskins are now spreading the offensive workload around at virtually every position. Santana Moss has his speed back after injuries nearly shut him down for much of the second half, while Clinton Portis has performed well enough while learning to save a bit of wear and tear on his own body. Whether they're talented enough to win remains to be seen, but if emotions count, this team is not only relatively healthy, they're dangerous.
Injuries have dictated game plans for the Seahawks. Luckily, Mike Holmgren had just enough depth to pull off that particularly difficult move. When Deion Branch or D.J. Hackett was down, they'd run more and shift the targets to Bobby Engram and Nate Burleson. When Shaun Alexander fell apart, the team threw more and let Mo Morris take the running load. Yes, it's a bit of luck that when the running game was hurting, all three wide receivers were in place and vice versa, but luck is the residue of design, said Branch Rickey, and that residue apparently comes in that neon greenish stripe that was heretofore unexplained. Hackett is a bit of a wild card, his chronic ankle forcing him to finish his season on the bench, but the rest should -- should! -- be productive, spreading the offense, while Shaun Alexander is just -- just! -- effective enough to split carries with Mo Morris. Hackett isn't as important to the offensive scheme as many people think, but teams didn't show that they could game-plan for all the Seahawks' weapons on the very few occasions that they were all on the field. We'll see if Dan Snyder remembered to purchase that page of the playbook.
35 comments, Last at 07 Jan 2008, 5:05pm by Carlos