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25 Nov 2006
by Aaron Schatz
For the second straight year, the NFC playoff race features one team miles ahead and a group of competitors battling for spots two through six. Three games ahead of everybody else, Chicago can spend the last six weeks trying to fix its flaws before the postseason arrives, while the 12 teams between 6-4 and 4-6 fight for a chance to expose those flaws come January.
(Sunday, 1pm EST)
Nine weeks ago, Atlanta pulled the short end of the NFL stick and had to serve as the sacrificial lamb for the Saints' emotional post-Katrina return to New Orleans. The Saints dominated in that game, but this time the emotional circumstances are far different, and so are these teams.
To be specific, both defenses have fallen apart. According to Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average ratings (DVOA) -- which break down each play of the season and compare it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent -- the Saints' defense ranked fourth in the league through three weeks. Since then, it has been the worst in the league. Atlanta's decline began one week later: the Falcons were sixth in defensive DVOA through four severe splits this weeks, but rank 28th since they returned from their Week 5 bye.
Why have these defenses collapsed? New Orleans had a few injuries to deal with, but the best explanation is simply that the Saints were playing way over their heads to start of the season.
For the Falcons, however, the collapse is all about injuries. Defensive end John Abraham and middle linebacker Ed Hartwell have each played just two games this season, although both may finally be ready to play this Sunday. A still-hobbled Abraham won't be able to do much against a Saints offensive line that has given up the fewest number of sacks in the NFL.
Abraham's partner at defensive end, Patrick Kerney, is gone for the season after tearing a pectoral muscle. Up-and-coming young defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and veteran run-stuffing tackle Grady Jackson are both injured and listed as questionable.
In the secondary, starting cornerback Jason Webster is out with a groin injury, nickel back Kevin Mathis is lost for the year with a neck injury, and rookie Jimmy Williams may not play because of an ankle injury. That could leave DeAngelo Hall partnered with Allen Rossum, who is a swell punt and kickoff returner but not a very good cornerback.
The Saints may be without spectacular rookie receiver Marques Colston, who sprained his ankle early in last week's game. But New Orleans has a better backup plan on offense than Atlanta does on defense. Over the last three weeks, subbing first for veteran Joe Horn and then Colston, Devery Henderson has 280 yards and two touchdowns.
Quarterback Drew Brees has put up some spectacular numbers in recent weeks -- 510 yards last week is the sixth-highest total in NFL history -- and running back Deuce McAllister is having a good season. But don't expect much from number two overall pick Reggie Bush. He averages just 2.9 yards per carry, and defending passes to running backs is the one thing the Falcons defense does really well (third in the NFL).
Atlanta's usually excellent running game has sputtered over the last month, and Warrick Dunn is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry since Week 7. So the Falcons' chances once again rest on the shoulders of quarterback Michael Vick, who has frustrated fans all year by mixing strong performances with horrible ones. If Good Vick shows up to shred the New Orleans defense, this game will be an exciting shootout. If Evil Vick shows up, the Saints will sweep the season series.
(Sunday, 4:15pm EST)
Like Atlanta must deal with the battle between Good Vick and Evil Vick, Chicago must deal with the battle between Good Rex and Evil Rex. The difference, of course, is that Chicago's league-best defense and special teams are usually good enough to overcome Rex Grossman's bad days.
Despite injury woes, New England's defense has improved substantially since the start of the season. In Weeks 1-3, only Tennessee and Houston had worse defenses than New England. Since Week 4, only Chicago and Jacksonville have been better on defense.
Some observers feel that Grossman's gambling, gunslinger style makes him a Brett Favre in training. Given what the Patriots did to the real Brett Favre last Sunday, the Bears should probably be expecting Evil Rex this week. That means the defense has to shut down Tom Brady and the balanced Patriots offense.
The Bears pass defense has some severe splits this year: below average against number one wide receivers and tight ends but the best in the NFC against number two and three receivers as well as passes to running backs. For the most part, that's a good mix against the Patriots, who spread the ball around with no clear number one receiver, and also love to use running backs on swing and screen passes.
Unfortunately for Chicago, all that spreading the ball around has left tight end Ben Watson as New England's leading receiver. When the Patriots do manage to get into the end zone against this defense, Watson will probably be the man holding the ball. The Bears have the best red zone defense in the NFL after ten games, but the Patriots are fourth in red zone offense.
Both of these teams are excellent against the run, although the Bears have problems tackling in the secondary. Chicago ranks eighth in DVOA against the run, but 30th in giving up double-digit runs. Expect a lot of one- and two-yard carries from the Patriots, punctuated by a couple of huge highlight-worthy runs from shifty rookie Laurence Maroney -- probably around left end, where the Patriots running game is strongest and the Bears run defense is (relatively) weakest.
The Patriots need to make sure they get big chunks of yardage on first down, because if you go into second-and-long against the Bears, you are probably also going to third-and-long and then punting. Although Chicago is the league's top defense on second down and third down, the Bears are actually just 23rd on first down. The Patriots offense is strong on first and third down, but strangely impotent on second down -- particularly second-and-10 or more, when they average a league-worst 3.9 yards per play.
If the Bears are behind going into the fourth quarter, a comeback will be nearly impossible. Chicago's offense ranks ninth if you only include the first three quarters, but 30th in the fourth quarter. New England's defense ranks 16th in the first three quarters, but second in the fourth quarter.
This is Chicago's third straight road game, and conventional wisdom says that teams struggle if they have to play three straight on the road. It's not true; there's almost no difference between the third straight road game and any other road game. Over the last dozen years, road teams lost 59 percent of the time, with an average margin of 2.8 points. In a third straight road game, teams lost 59 percent of the time, with an average margin of 4.8 points.
An edited version of this article appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun.
34 comments, Last at 28 Nov 2006, 3:50am by Bearcat