24 Nov 2005
by Aaron Schatz
With the Lions and Cowboys both struggling in recent years, the NFL's traditional Thanksgiving contests have had trouble grabbing the public's attention away from the pumpkin pie. No problems this year, as Atlanta tries to salvage its playoff dream against Detroit and two division leaders match up in Dallas.
(Thursday, 12:30 p.m., FOX)
Fans want to believe the winner of every football game is the better team or the one that really "wants it more." But the Atlanta Falcons are a lesson in the role of blind luck when it comes to determining the winners each week.
Two weeks ago, the Falcons were tied for the best record in the conference at 6-2; Two home losses later, they sit in third place behind Carolina and Tampa Bay in the NFC South. But the Falcons actually played better in losses to the Packers and Buccaneers than they did in victories over the Saints and Jets a few weeks before.
One element of luck, for example, is fumble recovery. Stripping the ball (or holding onto it) is a skill, but coming up with a bouncing oblong ball is usually random chance. In Weeks 6 and 7, when they beat the Saints and Jets by a combined 16 points, the Falcons recovered all four of the fumbles they forced, and returned two of them for touchdowns. On offense, the Falcons fumbled twice and managed to recover both.
But in the last two weeks, Atlanta's defense has not failed to recover a single opponent fumble, while the offense has dropped the ball seven times and recovered it only twice. A fumble in the last two minutes of Sunday's 30-27 loss to the Bucs led directly to Tampa's game-winning field goal.
Another element of luck comes on long field goals. NFL kickers have hit 60% of field goals of 45 yards or more this year, but the defense on the field has almost no impact on whether these difficult kicks are successful. Before last week, three field goals of 45+ against Atlanta had all missed. In the last two games, the Packers and Bucs tried five such field goals and hit every one.
The irony of Atlanta's bad luck losses is that the team seems to have remedied one of its clear weaknesses: the passing game. Michael Vick suddenly looks like a complete quarterback, not a great scrambler with an inaccurate arm. In his first six games, Vick completed 52% of passes for 4.8 net yards per pass, with one interception per game. In the last three games, Vick has completed 65% of passes for 6.6 net yards per pass and has not thrown a single interception.
Vick isn't the only hot passer entering this contest, however. Through Week 9, Detroit's Joey Harrington had completed 55% of his passes for 4.5 net yards per pass. Since his top receiver, Roy Williams, returned from injury two weeks ago, Harrington has completed 68% of his passes for 6.7 net yards per pass.
The ground game is where the Falcons will have the advantage in this game. Only Seattle averages more yards per carry, and Detroit is just average against the run, allowing about 110 yards per game Meanwhile, after leading the league in rushing yards in the second half of 2004, Detroit's Kevin Jones has struggled all season, so the Lions may be unable to take advantage of Atlanta's porous run defense, ranked 28th in yards allowed per carry.
In the end, Atlanta is a mediocre team that loses to good opponents but usually beats bad ones. On Thanksgiving, they can give thanks that Detroit is one of the latter.
(Thursday, 4:15 p.m., CBS)
Since a Week 1 upset at the hands of the Dolphins, the Broncos have won eight of nine games, and their only loss came by a single point. Their offense and defense are both balanced between the run and the pass.
Even Denver's most obvious early-season flaw, third-down performance, seems rectified. According to Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average system (DVOA) - which breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent - the Broncos ranked just 27th in third-down offense and 28th in third-down defense during the first six weeks of the season. In the past five weeks, however, they've improved to seventh in third-down offense and second in third-down defense.
Denver's remaining Achilles' heel is an inability to stop opposing offenses in the red zone. The DVOA system ranks them 32nd in red zone defense, in part because they have yet to force a turnover inside their own 20. And Dallas quarterback Drew Bledsoe rates higher than any other quarterback this year when it comes to red zone efficiency, partly because he has no turnovers. (The Dallas running game, however, is below average in the red zone.)
With 14 touchdowns against seven interceptions, Bledsoe has been a surprising success as the Cowboys' quarterback, and the running game seems back on track with a healthy Julius Jones joining rookie Marion Barber for a combined 124 yards per game. But the Cowboys are winning games mostly with their defense -- and it is a defense whose strengths Denver can neutralize and whose weaknesses Denver can attack.
After struggling last season, the Cowboys have turned their defense around with a pass rush that ranks near the top of the league in sacks per pass play. But only Indianapolis has allowed fewer sacks than Denver. When the opposing quarterback gets the pass off, Dallas's secondary has been exceptional in covering second and third receivers, but mediocre against top receivers and tight ends. That's fine with Denver, since veteran Rod Smith and tight end Jeb Putzier are having solid years while second receiver Ashley Lelie has struggled.
And while DVOA ranks the Cowboys fourth in pass defense, it also ranks them 21st in run defense, which means they'll get a heavy dose of running back Mike Anderson (though his backfield partner, Tatum Bell, could miss the game with a bruised shoulder).
What could possibly mitigate Denver's clear advantage over the Cowboys? The crowd at Texas Stadium. Denver is unbeaten at home this year, but just 2-2 on the road.
This article appeared in Wednesday's edition of the New York Sun.
29 comments, Last at 26 Nov 2005, 7:10pm by Born a Bronco Fan/Die a Bronco Fan