Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
23 Sep 2006
by Aaron Schatz
(Sunday, 1:00 pm EDT)
The Bears and Vikings are both undefeated, but they are far from equal. The Bears were the better team last year, they had more positive indicators going into this season, and they've destroyed their first two opponents by the combined score of 60-7 while Minnesota has won two games by just a field goal apiece. One required a missed field goal by Washington, and the other required Carolina to fumble a pointless gimmick lateral during a punt return, handing the Vikings the ball in the red zone so they could tie the game in the fourth quarter.
Running back Chester Taylor provides a good example of how public perception doesn't line up with Minnesota's actual play on the field. Television announcers continually refer to the ex-Ravens backup as a workhorse who wears down opposing defenses. But even though the Vikings improved their offensive line with the return of Pro Bowl center Matt Birk from injury and the signing of Steve Hutchinson, the best guard in the game, Taylor is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry. Six of his 55 carries have lost yardage, another seven have gained nothing, and more than half have gone for two yards or less. And he isn't running better late in games, either; even considering a 33-yard overtime run last week, Taylor averages just 3.75 yards per carry in the fourth quarter or overtime.
The Bears aren't gaining much yardage on the ground either, but that's a product of opposing strategy, not their own offensive problems. Last year, the Bears couldn't pass at all, but ran well, so this year Green Bay and Detroit both stacked the line to stop the run -- only to discover that Bears quarterback Rex Grossman is better than he looked during a bad preseason, and much better than last year's starter Kyle Orton.
Last year, tight end Desmond Clark gained just 229 yards receiving. This year, with safeties and linebackers looking in the backfield and ignoring him, he already has 162 yards receiving. And with safeties watching the run instead of playing deep pass zones, speedy second receiver Bernard Berrian gets open with regularity. He has six catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns.
Will Minnesota fall into this trap as well? The Vikings turned star Washington tight end Chris Cooley into a non-factor in Week 1, limiting him to three catches that lost three yards. As for Berrian, the Vikings have controlled both of the number two receivers they've faced, Brandon Lloyd (one catch, 23 yards) and Drew Carter (four catches, 34 yards).
Combine these trends with home-field advantage, and the Bears don't seem likely to continue their surprising offensive barrage. If the Bears defense plays as well as it has in the first two games, and the Vikings can't find some consistent offense to go with their early good luck, it won't matter.
(Sunday, 1:00 pm EDT)
Despite a 12-4 record, the Jaguars spent last season hidden in the shadow of the Colts, and looked to be on the decline going into 2006. There was no reason to think their stalwart defense would falter, but the offense had to adjust to the departure of its best player, wide receiver Jimmy Smith, and deal with the waning talent of aging running back Fred Taylor.
Surprisingly, Smith's absence has not been a problem. In two years, Matt Jones has gone from college quarterback to Jacksonville's number one wide receiver. His tremendous size and speed make him tough to stop, although he sometimes stops himself thanks to his low catch percentage. (Both last year and this year, Jones has caught barely half the balls intended for him.) 2004 first-round pick Reggie Williams was a total bust in his first two seasons, but this year he seems to be a completely different person. He looks more interested, his routes are crisper, and he's in the right place when quarterback Byron Leftwich throws the ball.
With Taylor still subpar at 3.9 yards per carry, the Jaguars offense has been average overall, which is fine because the defense has been phenomenal. The Jaguars held Pittsburgh to just two yards per carry, less than four net yards per pass attempt, and zero points. The week before, the pass rush harassed Drew Bledsoe into three interceptions.
The problem for Jacksonville, of course, is that Peyton Manning is not Drew Bledsoe. The departure of Edgerrin James has cut down on the success of the Colts' running game, but Manning is as dominant as ever, and so are receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. While safety Donovin Darius played an important role in stuffing the Pittsburgh running game last week, the Jaguars need to use their safeties to help cornerbacks Brian Williams and Rashean Mathis this week. So far this year, the one weakness of the Jacksonville defense has been the deep pass. Dallas' Terry Glenn caught a 51-yarder against them in Week 1, and Mathis has twice given up long gains with defensive pass interference. When these teams met last year, Harrison torched Mathis over and over, including a 65-yard touchdown.
The Colts will need to score a lot of points to win because, through two games, their defensive improvements of 2005 seem to have vanished. They are last in the league giving up 5.8 yards per carry, so Taylor will look better than usual and Jacksonville can drain time off the clock if they get an early lead. The pass defense hasn't been much better, 23rd allowing 6.7 net yards per pass.
To maintain their divisional supremacy, the Colts need to get out to an early lead, picking on the Jacksonville secondary with long passes and taking away Jacksonville's ability to attack the weak Indianapolis run defense. A close game favors the strong Jaguars defense and could mean a changing of the guard in the AFC South.
This article appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun.
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