With Stanford's upset over Notre Dame and Ohio State's big win over rival Michigan in The Game, the playoff field has narrowed to the existing top four plus Michigan State, Ohio State, Stanford, and potentially North Carolina.
19 Nov 2005
by Aaron Schatz
In the NFL, multiple teams will finish the year with the same record. So every game between winning teams in the same conference presents a chance not only for a win but for advantage in the league's labyrinth of tiebreakers. That gives two of this weekend's games extra weight.
This is actually the first time all season the Falcons are playing a team that enters the game with a winning record. Only two of their opponents have winning records on the season, and Atlanta lost to both. Last week, the Falcons lost at home to a Green Bay team that came into the game 1-7 and had players missing practice during the week simply due to apathy. Despite six wins, it's hard to tell whether Atlanta is really any good.
But the same can be said for Tampa Bay. Last week, quarterback Chris Simms had his first good performance since taking over for the injured Brian Griese, and Tampa dramatically beat Washington 36-35 by going for a two-point conversion instead of an extra point at the end of the game. But that win doesn't erase the memory of Tampa getting crushed by Carolina two weeks ago, or the feeble loss three weeks ago to the worst team in football, San Francisco.
And while Simms broke out last week, the Bucs are still waiting on rookie running back Cadillac Williams. Still struggling from foot and hamstring injuries, Williams gained just 20 yards against Washington, and he's averaging just two yards per carry since returning to the field three weeks ago. Poor blocking by the right side of the offensive line isn't helping things, either.
If Williams isn't healthy, Tampa can't take advantage of Atlanta's porous rush defense, which ranks 26th in the league with 4.7 yards allowed per carry. They'll need to depend on another big passing day from Simms, which isn't out of the question. The Atlanta pass defense ranks 22nd 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.
It also helps that the Falcons like to blitz, which makes them susceptible to long passes, and nobody has caught long passes this year better than Tampa's Joey Galloway. Galloway is having his best season at age 34, when most receivers are watching their careers fade, and his 862 receiving yards are less than 200 away from his career high.
The Bucs are still a team based on defense, and many people say that their quick, agile linebackers are perfect for taking on the greatest running quarterback ever, Atlanta's Michael Vick. Last year, however, Vick's stats in a 24-10 November win at home were virtually identical to his stats in a 27-0 December loss in Tampa. The difference was how well Tampa defended Atlanta's other weapons. When Atlanta won, running backs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett combined for 129 yards while tight end Alge Crumpler caught four passes for 118 yards. When Tampa won, Dunn and Duckett had just 75 yards, while Crumpler caught one measly pass for five yards.
The most likely scenario is that these teams will once again split their series, with each team winning at home. The Falcons will win Sunday only to return the gift in Tampa on Christmas Eve.
The Colts have a powerful, diversified offense. Peyton Manning has a deep corps of receivers to choose from, led by one of the all-time great route runners, Marvin Harrison. Running back Edgerrin James is just as comfortable running up the middle as he is catching a pass out of the backfield. The difference this year has been on defense, where the previously-porous Colts have been shutting down opposing quarterbacks.
The Colts have an Achilles' heel, however. Their preference for speed over size on defense leaves them vulnerable to teams that can run the ball. And they still must prove themselves to critics who argue they've been helped by an easy schedule, building their reputation with wins over struggling teams like Houston, Tennessee, and Cleveland.
What makes this game interesting, besides the simple fact that the Colts are yet unbeaten, is that everything in the two preceding paragraphs also applies to the Cincinnati Bengals -- simply substitute Carson Palmer for Peyton Manning, Chad Johnson for Marvin Harrison, and the tandem of Rudi Johnson and Chris Perry for Edgerrin James.
Yes, there are distinctions between these teams. The Colts' pass defense is predicated on their great end rushers, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. They rank first in the league in Adjusted Sack Rate, which measures sacks per pass play adjusted for situation and opponent. The Bengals rank last in that same stat; their defense is anchored by the secondary, including cornerbacks Tory James and Deltha O'Neal and unsung safety Kevin Kaesviharn. Cincinnati has 20 interceptions while no other team has more than 14.
The Bengals also have the advantage in special teams. They'll gain precious field position on defense thanks to the strong kickoffs of Shayne Graham. Indianapolis ranks last in our special teams metrics, with a particular problem with return men dropping the football.
The public perception is that the Bengals are soft because Pittsburgh ran all over them, at home no less. But nobody has run all over the Colts because nobody has even had the chance. Indianapolis has not played a single game against one of the top dozen running games as rated by DVOA.
The goal of both teams in this game should be to build a lead large enough that the other team must abandon the run. Otherwise, James and Johnson will have big days in a closely fought contest. And while the Colts are probably a little better, they also are disadvantaged by playing on the road, at night, in temperatures likely to dip below 40 degrees. The Colts have the hype, but there's a 50-50 chance that the Bengals will have the win.
This article appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun.
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