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?
27 Nov 2004
by Aaron Schatz
Philadelphia is 9â€“1 and Atlanta 8â€“2, but the rest of the NFC is a morass of mediocrity. Nine different teams have between four and six wins, putting all of them in the playoff hunt. This weekend provides a number of opportunities for these teams to separate themselves from the pack, beginning with the Giants, who face the Eagles at the Meadowlands.
The Eagles dominate the NFC in the same way Barry Bonds dominates the National League. Nine of the top 10 teams in our DVOA ratings this season have been AFC squads, with Philadelphia the exception at number two. So the question about this game is not how the Eagles and Giants counter each other, but rather how the Giants can maximize the small chance they have of going to 6â€“5.
Since the Giants want to keep the high-powered combination of Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens off the field, and they want to keep rookie Eli Manning from the pressure of having to beat the NFC's best team solely on the strength of his arm, the key to this game is clear. The Giants need to give the ball to Tiki Barber, and they need to do it a lot.
The Giants' running game is the seventh-best in the league, averaging 4.6 yards a carry on the ground, and they might have the league's top rushing attack if Tom Coughlin would stop pretending that Ron Dayne is a professional football player. Pittsburgh's win over the Eagles three weeks ago exposed Philadelphia's clear weakness on run defense, and Barber had 125 yards on only nine carries during the Giants' first meeting with the Eagles this season. The Giants will need to give Barber more carries this time, and when he needs a break they should use Mike Cloud rather than Dayne.
The other important part of beating the Eagles will be keeping them from building an early lead that forces the game into Manning's hands. Philadelphia has outscored opponents 79â€“37 in the first quarter -- it would be 79â€“23 without the loss to the Steelers -- and has not turned the ball over once.
This game matches two teams headed in opposite directions. Buffalo, after starting the season 0â€“4, has won four of six games, and the losses came on the road against two of the AFC's top teams, New England and Baltimore. The Seahawks won three straight, then lost three straight, and then won three of their last four. But they haven't been winning by large margins, and the combined record of their last four opponents is 10â€“30.
The Seahawks are also riddled by injuries: They will be without both starting outside linebackers, Chad Brown and Anthony Simmons, as well as their top backup outside linebacker, Tracy White. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is questionable with a bruise on his right thigh so deep that it almost penetrates to the bone. That means backup Trent Dilfer will probably be throwing the ball to a wide receiver corps limited by the drug suspension of Koren Robinson and an ankle injury to Bobby Engram.
The wide receiver injuries will make 42-year-old Jerry Rice the second starting wideout opposite Darrell Jackson. This season Rice has become the football version of Willie Mays with the 1973 Mets; his touchdown catch last week was his first of the season, and that was his first game with more than 10 yards receiving since joining Seattle.
The injured linebackers are just one reason why Seattle's defense has fallen apart since its quick start. Over the season's first three weeks, Seattle was allowing 243 yards per game and only 4.1 yards per play. In the seven games since the bye week, Seattle is allowing 362 yards per game and 5.6 yards per play.
Buffalo makes a particularly poor opponent for the sinking Seattle defense. The blueprint to beat the Bills is clear: do not allow their offensive line to protect aging quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who makes mistakes when pressured. The Seahawks had 10 sacks in their first three games but only 13 since, despite a series of opposing quarterbacks who rank among the league leaders in sacks. (They rank only 25th in the NFL according to our adjusted sack rate statistic.) They'll have a hard time beating the Bills if they can't turn up the pressure.
Pre-game analysis of this matchup will focus on two star offensive players and their returns from injury: quarterback Byron Leftwich for the Jaguars and wide receiver Randy Moss for the Vikings.
Despite all the accolades Leftwich received earlier this season for his ability to lead late comebacks, his return is nowhere near as important as Moss's. The Jacksonville offense was only slightly above league average before Leftwich was injured, and there was little change in strategy or performance with backup David Gerrard under center.
The Minnesota offense, on the other hand, has not been the same since Moss left the field midway through the Week 6 contest against New Orleans. The Vikings started the season 4â€“1, averaging 352 passing yards per game and 8.7 net yards per pass attempt (including sacks). Since Moss was injured, the Vikings are 2â€“3, averaging 221 passing yards per game and 6.2 net yards per pass attempt.
Moss's return might launch the Vikings' offense from good back to phenomenal, but he can't change the fact that the rest of this team is awful -- the Minnesota defense and special teams are both among the league's worst. The Jaguars, meanwhile, have been slightly above average on both offense and defense.
Given the pre-eminence of the AFC this season, including a 28â€“17 record against NFC teams, it is reasonable to assume that an AFC team is superior to an NFC team with the same record. The Jaguars have played the NFL's third most difficult schedule, and they're the better of these two teams in most facets of the game. Vikings fans will flock to the Metrodome to enjoy the return of Randy Moss, but there's a good chance they will be heading home disappointed.
An edited version of this article originally appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun.
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