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.
28 Oct 2005
by Aaron Schatz
Nobody said retuning to the Super Bowl was easy, but both defending conference champions are struggling more than expected this season. The banged-up Patriots are 3-3,which is what the Eagles would be if a blocked field goal last week had bounced toward a San Diego player instead of a Philadelphia defender with a clear path to the end zone.
Last week, the Eagles shocked the NFL by keeping the league's best running back, San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson, to just seven yards on the ground. The Broncos are also built around a great running game, so Philadelphia will probably try the same line of attack. But Denver has an advantage San Diego didn't: a week to study last week's game film.
If the Broncos cannot use the run to stay out of third-and-long situations, they're in a heap of trouble. Denver has built a 5-2 record despite poor play on third downs, on offense as well as defense. Close wins kept this issue hidden until the Giants pulled back the curtain with Sunday's last-minute win. In the fourth quarter, the Giants were 3-for-3 on third-down conversions; Denver was 0-for-3.
When the Broncos have a third down with three yards to go or less, they convert at the same rate as the league average. But when third down requires four or more yards, they convert just twothirds as often as other teams.
When the Broncos pass,watch for veteran receiver Rod Smith. Last year, the Eagles secondary, though otherwise strong, was unable to cover the opposition's top receiver. This year is no different; remove the inept 49ers, and the Eagles are allowing top receivers to catch 75% of passes for an average of 94 yards a game.
In the off-season, Denver was ridiculed for bringing in a number of former Cleveland Browns to staff the defensive line, but the move has paid off and the Broncos are one of the league's strongest defenses against the run. But that won't matter much against the Eagles, who call running plays with the frequency of Haley's comet.The line makeover has made less of an impact against the pass, and the Broncos rank last in the league when it comes to sacking opposing quarterbacks despite a strong year from holdover Trevor Pryce.
On the other hand, the Eagles' passing game is not playing at the high level of seasons past. Philadelphia has built big numbers against poor pass defenses like San Francisco and Kansas City, but has finished below five net yards per pass in three of its six games this season. (The league average is six net yards per pass.)
If the game comes down to a last-minute field goal, Denver has a secret weapon on Philadelphia's bench: kicker Jose Cortez. With the injured David Akers expected back soon, Cortez was signed as a kickoff specialist after being run out of Dallas on a rail. But since Akers won't be back this week,the highly inaccurate Cortez will handle field goals as well, meaning Philadelphia shouldn't trust any game-winning drive that doesn't end with an Eagle in the end zone.
There's been a lot of talk this season about the possibility of a 7-9 team winning the NFC North, but that division currently has two teams at .500. The AFC East has just one: New England.
Of course, very few people expect New England to continue to play at a .500 pace.The Patriots' early struggles have in large part been due to their schedule, which has led them to Carolina, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Denver in the last five weeks. They've also suffered from a torrent of injuries on both sides of the ball, including the loss of safety Rodney Harrison for the season and left tackle Matt Light for most of it.
A week off has given the wounded some rest, and many New England stars are expected to make their return, including defensive lineman Richard Seymour and running back Corey Dillon. But the return getting the most attention is that of linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who was recently cleared to play after making a remarkable recovery from a mild stroke suffered in February.
Cornerback Tyrone Poole was placed on injured reserve yesterday, leaving a roster vacancy that Bruschi could fill. It'll likely be a game-day decision, but you know what coach Bill Belichick would prefer. Bruschi has been the leader of the Patriots defense for years, an undersized player with a natural instinct for the game that can't be measured by a scale or a stopwatch, but is clear when tallying tackles and turnovers.
Should Bruschi make his return, he and Seymour should bolster New England's defense against the talents of Buffalo running back Willis McGahee, but it won't solve the glaring weaknesses in the secondary. Starting cornerback Randall Gay still isn't healthy, and his backup, veteran cornerback Duane Starks, has been abysmal. Starks gives receivers too much cushion on short routes and is then left in the dust when receivers go deep.
But Buffalo has its own flaws and injuries.Taking advantage of Starks will be tough since a porous line has turned the deep pass into a rare occasion. Starting wideouts Eric Moulds and Lee Evans have caught only five passes over 15 yards after combining for 34 such passes last season.
On defense, Buffalo's young cornerbacks can shut down the opposition's best receiver, but have trouble stopping second and third options. That's a major issue against a quarterback as skilled at spreading the ball as Tom Brady. Furthermore,the loss of middle linebacker Takeo Spikes to injury has crippled Buffalo's run defense, which is allowing an NFL-worst 5.4 yards per carry. That means a happy return for Dillon if he is truly healthy, and a national spotlight for backup Patrick Pass if he is not.
The Patriots have had two weeks to rest and address their one clear weakness; the Bills have had one week to rest and address two clear weaknesses. That math says New England will return to the win column.
by Michael David Smith
Mike Martz, the St. Louis Rams coach who announced this week that he will sit out the rest of the season because of a heart infection, has always had one great skill: the ability to call offensive plays. So during last Sunday's game, when Rams president of football operations Jay Zygmunt blocked Martz's attempt to call offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild from home to suggest a play, the message was clear: If the St. Louis brass doesn't want Martz to call plays, it doesn't want him around, period.
Officially, Zygmunt and team president John Shaw claim they expect Martz to coach the team again next season. Truthfully, no one expects Martz back on the St. Louis sidelines in 2006. The real question is whether the Rams can reach a compromise with Martz that would allow him to pursue coaching jobs elsewhere and get the team off the hook for the one remaining year of his contract.
If Martz does gain that freedom, it's unclear whether a head coaching job would open up for him. The NFL has several coaching vacancies every year, but Martz is a lightning rod, clashing with the front office for much of his tenure in St. Louis. Unless an owner is willing to grant his coach an unusual amount of autonomy, Martz might not find work in his first year on the market.
Many teams would love to have Martz as an offensive coordinator, but he might prefer not to become an assistant again. He could sit out a year secure in the belief that a head coaching offer will eventually come his way for one simple reason: He's a great coach. Though it's fashionable to bash Martz for his bizarre penchant for wasting instant replay challenges on trivial calls, the truth is, he's one of the sharpest offensive minds of his time.
In the 1990s, as offensive coaches like Mike Shanahan and Mike Holmgren won Super Bowls using the short, precision passing game that the media refer to as the "West Coast Offense," Martz studied under Ernie Zampese, an offensive coach who believed that long passes were the ticket to success. In 1999, when Rams head coach Dick Vermeil finally gave Martz the chance to run an offense, the Rams won the Super Bowl behind one of the greatest offenses in history. Martz was rewarded with the head coaching job when Vermeil stepped down at the end of the season.
In his time as an assistant coach and head coach, Martz has taken three quarterbacks who were relegated to the scrap heap of the NFL and turned them into Pro Bowlers. Everyone knows the story of Kurt Warner, who went from grocery store clerk to Most Valuable Player. Fewer people realize that Trent Green was an eighth-round draft pick who threw only one pass in his first five seasons in football before blossoming under Martz, and that Marc Bulger was a sixth-round pick released by the New Orleans Saints before starring in St. Louis.
With his coaching resume, some team will give Martz another chance to get to the Super Bowl. The same likely can't be said for his replacement in St. Louis, Joe Vitt.
When Martz announced he would take a leave of absence, St. Louis made Vitt, the assistant head coach and linebackers coach, his interim replacement. Interim coach is the most thankless job in the NFL: St. Louis is the 16th team since 1990 to change coaches during the season, and in 12 of the 15 previous cases, the interim coach has been fired at the end of the season.
Whether Vitt can beat those odds or some other coach replaces Martz, the Rams' identity will change. Offensive playmakers Marshall Faulk (32), Isaac Bruce (32), and Torry Holt (29) are aging, and the young talent on the Rams' offense will move them in the direction of becoming a run-first, pass-second team: The Rams' last two first-round draft choices were 231-pound running back Steven Jackson and 320-pound offensive tackle Alex Barron. NFL fans have grown accustomed to labeling St. Louis the "Greatest Show on Turf," but with Martz moving on, the show is likely over.
These articles appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun.
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