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?
03 Dec 2005
by Aaron Schatz
There are no rematches in the NFL regular season except those involving division rivals, each familiar with the other's strategies and patterns. With seven AFC teams at 7-4 or better, a division title is the only way to guarantee a playoff spot, so rivalry rematches mean added pressure on head coaches to avoid the mistakes they made the first time around.
(Sunday, 1 p.m.)
Six weeks ago, the Steelers went into Cincinnati and humbled the Bengals 27-13. But they've scuffled along ever since and now need a repeat performance to keep their postseason hopes alive.
A Pittsburgh win means a tie atop the AFC North, with the tiebreaker advantage belonging to the Steelers. But if Cincinnati wins, the Steelers will be two games back with a harder schedule than the Bengals over the last four games. Their fifth loss in the AFC would be costly in terms of a wildcard tiebreaker, as Jacksonville and San Diego have just two AFC losses, Kansas City just three.
In the first meeting between the Steelers and Bengals, Pittsburgh's recipe for victory was simple: run. The Bengals have given up 4.7 yards per carry this year, which ranks 28th in the NFL, and they are particularly vulnerable up the middle. Three Pittsburgh running backs combined to run for 222 yards in the game, while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger only had to throw 13 passes for 93 yards.
Still, Roethlisberger was able to exploit Cincinnati's other defensive weakness: covering the tight end. Over the past eight games, the Bengals have allowed an average of 81 yards to opposing tight ends, including 58 yards to Pittsburgh's Heath Miller. The ball-hawk Cincinnati defense has 23 interceptions on the season, seven more than any other team -- yet not a single one has come on a pass intended for a tight end.
In an odd quirk of scheduling, the Bengals and Steelers have each played two games against Baltimore and one against Indianapolis since their first game against each other. The Bengals stomped on the Ravens twice and played the Colts close; the Steelers beat the Ravens by a single point at home and were upset on the road, then went to Indianapolis and got outplayed in every single phase of the game -- including the ground game.
Before the game, it looked as if the undersized Colts defense would be as vulnerable against the Steelers as the undersized Bengals defense had been. But the Colts, determined to stop the run, played with eight defenders close to the line, daring Pittsburgh to pass. Roethlisberger looked quite rusty in his return from injury, and the Steelers have trouble depending on any receivers other than Miller and Hines Ward. And with injured left tackle Marvel Smith replaced by rookie Trai Essex, the Pittsburgh offensive line struggled to set up its pass protection and run blocking.
Cincinnati's pass rush pales in comparison to the Colts', which should help Essex block and Roethlisberger find receivers. Pittsburgh also gets the crowd on its side this time. But if the Bengals can learn from the Colts and fix their weakness against the run, their high-powered offense should have enough time on the field to win Cincinnati the game -- and the division.
(Sunday, 4:15 p.m.)
The Broncos came into these teams' first meeting with a 1-1 record,having been trampled by a lowly Miami team and narrowly beating San Diego at home. But a 30-10 stomping of Kansas City began a run of dominance -- just one loss, by just one point -- that has most observers agreeing that the Broncos are second only to Indianapolis in this year's NFL hierarchy.
All season long, the Broncos have followed the template for winning they established in that game.The dynamic rushing duo of Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell combined for 145 yards on 25 carries. Quarterback Jake Plummer was efficient but threw primarily to veteran Rod Smith, who had 80 yards and a touchdown. Second receiver Ashley Lelie was a disappointment, catching just one pass.
Denver's defense shut down the Chiefs' running game, holding Priest Holmes to 61 yards and Larry Johnson to just 13 yards on eight carries. Denver's pass defense has been vulnerable to wide receivers all season long, and Kansas City's Eddie Kennison had 112 receiving yards and a touchdown in Week 3. But Denver is one of the league's best defenses against tight ends, and they held future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez to just 29 yards on five catches.
But here's the odd thing about the first meeting of these teams: While it fits the pattern of how Denver has played all season, the same is not true for Kansas City. The Chiefs who played the Broncos that day were almost nothing like the Chiefs who have played everyone else.
Kansas City has long had one of the league's worst defenses against the run. That's no longer true, thanks to the arrival of outside linebackers Kendrell Bell and Derrick Johnson. No team has run for more than 103 yards on Kansas City all season -- except Denver, which gained 223 yards on the ground against them, including 56 yards on two end-arounds by Lelie.
Kansas City defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham likes to play an aggressive blitzing scheme that usually forces a lot of incomplete passes, but gives up a lot of yardage. Kansas City allows a 58.1% completion percentage -- the eighth-best mark in the league -- but gives up 240 passing yards a game, which ranks 29th. Plummer completed 72% of his passes against the Chiefs, but tallied only 152 passing yards.
The biggest difference for Kansas City since Week 3 is Larry Johnson. In the four games since a spinal injury ended Holmes' season (and perhaps his career), Johnson has rushed for an average of 142 yards a game and 4.9 yards a carry. He isn't going to run against the Broncos the way he ran on Houston and Buffalo, but the Broncos won't be holding him to 13 yards, either.
Still, the Chiefs will need more than a 100-yard game from Johnson to make up that 20-point deficit from 10 weeks ago. They'll need the run defense that has played well against everybody else to show up against Denver as well.
This article appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun. And yes, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh also both beat Green Bay between their first matchup and this week's rematch. I couldn't figure out how to toss that in without ruining the flow of the paragraph.
22 comments, Last at 05 Dec 2005, 5:37pm by Dan