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?
16 Dec 2006
by Aaron Schatz
NFL seasons flow in different ways, as this weekend's biggest AFC games demonstrate. Tennessee is a team on the way up. Kansas City is a team on the way down. San Diego has been great all year, while Jacksonville has been great whenever biorhythms and astrology dictate it.
It's been an up-and-down season for these two AFC South rivals, but in very different ways.
Jacksonville's ups and downs have been mixed throughout the year. Last week, the Jaguars ran all over the Indianapolis Colts in a 44-17 blowout victory. But they also lost twice to the 4-9 Houston Texans. They beat the three good teams of the NFC East -- Dallas, Philadelphia, and the Giants -- yet lost to division doormat Washington.
At Football Outsiders, we drill down to the play-by-play level and give each team a rating for each individual game using our DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) metrics. Over the last decade, no team has been more inconsistent from week-to-week than the 2006 Jacksonville Jaguars.
Tennessee's season is more orderly: down, then up. Through the first four weeks of the year, the Titans were the worst team in the NFL. They ranked last in DVOA for both offense and defense. Since their near-upset of Indianapolis in Week 5, they rank 16th in offense and 12th in defense. That improvement went unnoticed at first, but the Titans are 6-2 since mid-October and won their last three in dramatic, last-minute fashion.
During this recent period of success, however, the Titans did have one very bad game: a 37-7 loss to the Jaguars. Rookie sensation Vince Young threw three interceptions and completed just 15 of 36 passes, while Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard had a season-high three touchdowns. The Jaguars kept Tennessee off the scoreboard until a meaningless score with three minutes remaining.
Tennessee's run defense is nowhere near as porous as the one the Jaguars faced last week, but running backs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew still combined for 135 yards, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. Garrard's success came in part because Tennessee's immensely talented and immature cornerback Pac-Man Jones was serving a one-week suspension. But even with Jones, the Titans have depth problems, ranking 30th in DVOA against slot receivers, and very few teams go three-wide more often than the Jaguars with Matt Jones, Reggie Williams, and Ernest Wilford.
The Titans offense revolves around Young. Nobody questions his scrambling skills -- he has five rushing touchdowns -- but Young has also blossomed as a passer, completing less than half his passes during his first seven starts, but 65 percent of passes during the last three weeks.
Unfortunately, Young doesn't know who he will be playing with on Sunday. Veteran running back Travis Henry is rejuvenated this season, but may miss the game with an ankle injury. Like Henry, starting wide receivers Drew Bennett and Brandon Jones as well as starting tight end Bo Sciafe are on the injury report as questionable.
Whoever plays running back, Henry or Chris Brown, will struggle against the Jaguars. The only thing consistent about the Jaguars this year is run defense; Jacksonville has only allowed four yards per carry in three games this year, none since Week 8. They even kept Young to just 14 yards on the ground.
The Jaguars are the better team, and they should end Tennessee's longshot playoff hopes while advancing their own. But "should" doesn't always mean "will." The 46 biggest X-factors in the NFL are Vince Young and the 45 men wearing Jacksonville uniforms that week.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (7-6) at SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (11-2)
The Chargers have already won the AFC West. They've already gotten LaDainian Tomlinson past the NFL record for touchdowns in a season. But there is still one thing left to play for: home-field advantage that will keep them in sunny California throughout the playoffs.
The Chiefs, on the other hand, are just desperate to stay in the playoff hunt. Two straight losses leave them a game back of Jacksonville and Cincinnati in the AFC wild card hunt.
In proper AFC West fashion, this game features two spectacular offenses led by two spectacular running backs, Tomlinson and Kansas City's Larry Johnson. Tomlinson and Johnson are neck-and-neck for the league lead in rushing yardage even though both players started the year slowly.
Through six weeks of the season, Johnson was averaging just 3.4 yards per carry, Tomlinson just 3.7. Since then, Johnson is averaging 4.7 yards per carry, Tomlinson an astonishing 5.8.
Running will be even easier since neither defense can keep eight in the box. Both teams have strong passing games, and this is also a meeting of the league's two best tight ends. San Diego's Antonio Gates leads all tight ends in receiving yardage and is two scores away from becoming the first tight end in NFL history with three seasons of 10 or more touchdowns. (No tight end has ever done it in two straight seasons, and Gates is about to hit three straight.) Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez has more receiving yardage than any tight end this year other than Gates, and his first catch of the day will give him more receiving yardage than any 30-year-old tight end in NFL history except for Todd Christensen.
Both defenses are average against the run, and both defenses are average against tight ends. But in the other areas of defense, San Diego has a huge advantage. DVOA ranks San Diego 11th against the pass, Kansas City 26th. San Diego also has the superior pass rush, with a league-leading 48 sacks compared to just 23 for the Chiefs.
There is one place where Kansas City's defense is better than San Diego: covering number one receivers. The Chiefs rank third against number one receivers, mostly because of cornerback Patrick Surtain, while the Chargers rank 28th. On the other hand, the Chiefs give up lots of yards to second and third receivers. So Chiefs quarterback Trent Green needs to look for veteran receiver Eddie Kennison, while Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers should hook up for some big gains with second-year receiver Vincent Jackson. Jackson had his best game as a pro last week (95 yards) and will start opposite veteran Eric Parker because Keenan McCardell is injured.
In the end, expect a lot scoring, a lot of highlights, a few lead changes, and another San Diego victory.
This article appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun.
9 comments, Last at 18 Dec 2006, 12:34pm by B