The NFL playoffs finally heat up, as a wild finish in Dallas and a tight game in Kansas City go some way to making up for the blowouts that preceded them.
24 Dec 2005
by Aaron Schatz
Four weeks ago, these two teams had the same 7-3 record. Now the Panthers can clinch a playoff spot with a win, while Dallas comes close to elimination with a loss. But even before the past month, the Cowboys and Panthers were headed in different directions. Just look, for example, at each team's defense against the passing game.
After six weeks, Carolina's pass defense ranked 12th according to Football Outsiders' DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) system, which breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. Since Carolina's Week 7 bye week, only the Giants and Bears have done a better job stopping the pass. The Panthers have gone from allowing 6.3 net yards per pass in their first six games to 4.5 net yards per pass in their last eight.
Dallas had its bye week after eight games. At that point, the Cowboys had allowed just 5.4 net yards per pass, and ranked seventh in pass defense DVOA. But in the six games since, Dallas is allowing 6.3 net yards per pass, and DVOA ranks them 24th.
The downward trend is bad, but even worse for Dallas is the way their pass defense matches up against the Panthers. DVOA ranks Dallas as the best defense in the league on passes to number two receivers, and fourth on passes to slot receivers. But they rank 23rd in defending number one receivers. These receivers average 13.9 yards per reception leaguewide, but 17.9 yards per reception against Dallas.
And Carolina, of course, depends more on a single receiver than any other team in the league. Steve Smith leads the league with 93 catches and 1,414 yards. Smith is the target of 35 percent of Carolina passes and has caught 68 percent of those passes. The league average for wideouts is 56 percent, and the only starting NFC receiver who has caught a higher percentage of passes is Seattle's Bobby Engram.
Dallas depends on a more diversified passing attack, but like the defense, it has faded since the start of the year. The Dallas offense ranked fifth in passing DVOA during the first six weeks of the season (7.0 net yards per pass), but is 17th since (5.2 net yards per pass). Carolina is excellent at covering wide receivers, although they have a weakness against tight ends that Dallas can exploit with Jason Witten.
What about the running game? Carolina gains just 3.4 yards per carry, 31st in the league, but allows just 3.6 yards per carry, third in the league. Dallas is mediocre running the ball and mediocre at stopping the run. Given those facts, it is hard to see the run mattering either way.
With last week's 35-7 blowout, Washington dismantled the Cowboys and the dreams of their fans as well. Carolina should take care of any leftover demolition work on Saturday.
This is the second game between Carolina's rivals for the NFC South title. Tampa Bay won the first game on the road 30-27, thanks to a Matt Bryant field goal in the final minute. Both teams are coming off dismal road losses in the cold, but those games won't have much bearing on the result in tropical Tampa.
Tampa rookie Cadillac Williams, for example, ran for just 23 yards on 14 carries against New England last week. In the previous four games, however, Williams had 408 yards, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. That includes 116 yards on just 19 carries when these two teams first met, with 83 of those yards coming where Atlanta is weakest: straight up the middle. The Falcons allow 4.9 yards on the average carry up the middle, worse than every team except the Saints.
Atlanta also had trouble running last week, but that was expected against the league's top run defense, Chicago. Tampa Bay is ranked third in DVOA run defense, but Atlanta's running backs did well against them in the first meeting: 82 yards for Warrick Dunn and 51 for T.J. Duckett.
Despite these runs, Atlanta deviated significantly from its usual offensive patterns in the first matchup. Quarterback Michael Vick threw for 306 yards, 75 more than his second-highest game this year and 39 more than the second-highest game against the Tampa defense. Yet Vick gained just 17 yards on the ground, his lowest total of the season. Sore ribs may limit his mobility again this week.
In the other oddity of that first meeting, the Falcons kept Tampa's star receiver Joey Galloway without a catch on five possible passes. This was one of only two games this season where Galloway did not catch at least four passes, and one of only five games where Galloway did not gain at least 75 yards.
A second shutdown of Galloway is not likely; neither is a second 300-yard game for Michael Vick. Atlanta's best hope is for continued success on the ground and a strong pass rush to sack Tampa quarterback Chris Simms or harass him into throwing interceptions. If Tampa's offensive line looks as bad as it did last week, that won't be difficult.
But Atlanta desperately needs an early turnover, because their run-oriented offense isn't built for comebacks. The Falcons have not won a game all year in which they were losing at some point in the second half. They also have not won a game all year in which their opponent came into the week with a winning record. It's hard to see this being the first.
by Michael David Smith
The San Diego Chargers' defense has been the talk of the NFL this week after roughing up Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts and ending their drive for an unbeaten season. But the Chargers' defensive effort on Sunday was too little, too late, for a team that will likely miss out on the playoffs, in large part because the team has failed to protect a fourth quarter lead four different times this season.
Having an excellent offense prop up a subpar defense is a something of a tradition in San Diego. In the history of pro football, no team has a richer history of great offenses than the Chargers, and yet they have never won a Super Bowl.
The Chargers have had two of the best offensive coaches in NFL history, first with the passing game pioneer and Hall of Famer Sid Gillman in the 1960s and then with Don "Air" Coryell in the 1970s and 1980s. Since its maiden season of 1960, San Diego has led the league in passing yards 10 times, more than any other franchise, including every year from 1978 to 1983. In the 1980s,with Dan Fouts under center, the Chargers' offense led the league in both total yards and first downs every year from 1980 to 1983, a four-year streak that no team has ever equaled.
In 1985 the Chargers set an NFL record with 259 passing first downs, a record that still stands despite the league's continued rules changes to favor the passing game. But just as inevitable has been an under performing defensive unit. Bad defense kept the Chargers from being the best team in football, notably in 1981, when San Diego topped the league in both points scored and yards gained but was undermined by a lousy defense and finished only 10-6.
In addition to Gillman, the Chargers have suited up five Hall of Famers, all of them vital parts of the passing game: Fouts, receivers Charlie Joiner and Lance Alworth, tight end Kellen Winslow, and tackle Ron Mix, one of the best pass-blockers of his era.
Given the history of a great passing game, it's a bit surprising that current coach Marty Schottenheimer, known for his conservative belief in a sound running game, is now leading what might be San Diego's best offense yet. Gillman and Coryell were ahead of their time in emphasizing the passing game. Schottenheimer, by contrast, is a throwback to the old days of run-first football. San Diego's current offense is less flashy than its predecessors, but its best player, LaDainian Tomlinson, is the greatest running back in franchise history.
Tomlinson has 1,323 rushing yards this season and 7,222 for his career. Last year, in only his fourth NFL season, he became the first player in Chargers history to rush for more than 5,000 yards in his career. And while quarterback Drew Brees and tight end Antonio Gates deserve a great deal of credit for a solid passing game, blocking is where San Diego sets itself apart.
Fullback Lorenzo Neal, named to the Pro Bowl this week, is one of the best lead-blockers in the history of the NFL, and the offensive line, led by right guard Mike Goff, is so good that in each of the last two years, Tomlinson's little-known backups (Jesse Chatman last year and Michael Turner this year) have averaged 6.0 yards per carry.
But barring a major upset in the season's final two weeks, the great offense won't get to showcase itself in the playoffs. The Chargers have allowed 237 passing yards per game this season, fifth worst in the league. A week before looking so impressive against Manning, they couldn't lay a finger on Miami's Gus Frerotte, allowing him to complete 14 of 22 passes for 229 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions in a 23-21 loss.
Perhaps most important, San Diego has repeatedly been on the losing end of close games, with their five losses coming by a combined 14 points. Because of that, San Diego will most likely be the best offense watching games from home in January -- and not for the first time in franchise history.
These articles appeared in the Friday edition of the New York Sun.
17 comments, Last at 25 Dec 2005, 2:25pm by Smeghead