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14 Oct 2006
by Aaron Schatz
While few fans expected Chicago to be as dominant as they seem to be early in the season, most fans expected them to once again win their division. The same cannot be said for the NFC's other three division leaders. Each of these 4-1 teams is coming off a season of double-digit losses. Which teams are for real, and which teams are just enjoying some early luck?
Two big games this weekend will go a long way towards providing the answer, with two of the division leaders playing each other, and the third hosting the defending NFC champions.
Not only are both of these teams 4-1, but each loss came by a single score. Nonetheless, play-by-play breakdown shows that the Eagles have been the superior team this year in every phase of the game except for field goals and punt returns.
The biggest difference is on offense, where the Eagles are averaging 6.8 yards per play. That's more than a full yard per play ahead of every other NFL team except the Giants (6.1). Donovan McNabb leads all quarterbacks in passing by nearly 300 yards. The Eagles still prefer the pass to the run, but when they do run, they're the best team in the league according to the Football Outsiders DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) metrics.
DVOA ranks the Saints tenth in passing offense -- better than anyone expected, but far below the Eagles. While veteran Joe Horn is getting his yardage as usual, the leading lights of the New Orleans passing game are both rookies. Nobody expected seventh-round pick Marques Colston from Hofstra to become the go-to guy for new Saints quarterback Drew Brees; he leads all rookies with 374 yards receiving. But everybody expected second overall pick Reggie Bush to get a lot of time as a slot receiver, and he's second among all running backs in receiving yards.
Bush is quite similar to Eagles running back Brian Westbrook, and it will be fascinating to watch both players work against defenses designed to stop them. The Saints so far rank second in preventing gains on passes to running backs, and the Eagles rank fourth.
Bush has been great as a receiver, but terrible as a runner. In college, USC could create huge holes for him, but with the Saints the holes are smaller, and Bush isn't getting through them. Despite his legendary speed, linebackers have been getting to him on slow-developing outside runs before he is able to turn the corner and accelerate. As a result, he's averaging barely three yards per carry -- bad enough to cancel the benefits of a big comeback season from veteran Deuce McAllister. McAllister, averaging 4.8 yards, has a style far more suited to a Saints line that's better at blocking up the middle.
McAllister should be able to gain yards against an Eagles run defense that's been league-average so far. But DVOA ranks the Philadelphia pass defense fifth, while the New Orleans pass defense ranks just 15th. The Saints also must overcome an injury to rookie safety Roman Harper, replaced in the lineup by journeyman ex-Giant Omar Stoutmire. Philadelphia is also dealing with injuries in the secondary, but starting cornerback Lito Sheppard played well in his return last week, and undrafted free agent Joselio Hanson actually managed to shut down superstar Terrell Owens for most of the game. The Eagles lead the league with 23 sacks, and while the Saints are near the top of the league in preventing sacks, the same could have been said a week ago about Dallas -- until Philadelphia sacked Drew Bledsoe seven times.
Not only are the Eagles playing better than anyone outside of Chicago, they're winning games despite bad luck. The Eagles have a poor fumble recovery rate and the only field goal missed against them was a 54-yarder.
It all adds up to an easy Eagles win, except for one caveat, a variable that nobody can measure with numbers. The post-Katrina Saints have been energized by the crowd during their first two home games since returning to the Superdome, and that emotional lift could make this game much closer -- or even produce an upset.
The Seahawks are underperforming expectations this year, while their archrivals in St. Louis are surpassing them. But it's difficult to tell how good each of these teams is, because of the circumstances surrounding their wins and losses.
The Rams surprised the league by upsetting Denver on opening day, but since then have played four close games against four of the league's worst teams -- and actually lost to San Francisco. In general, the Rams have been lucky in the same ways the Eagles have been unlucky. Although Marc Bulger has the lowest completion percentage of his career, he has thrown zero interceptions -- primarily because defenders have dropped a number of would-be turnovers. (As we learned last year from Eli Manning, a lower completion percentage with very few interceptions isn't sustainable over the long term, although Manning's completion percentage last year was much lower than Bulger's this year.) Furthermore, opposing offenses have fumbled seven times and the Rams have recovered all seven, a feat of total randomness rather than skill. Two of these fumbles weren't even forced by the Rams defense, just quarterbacks dropping the snap, and one of those was Kurt Warner fumbling the ball away when Arizona was in field-goal range and down by just two points.
For 11 quarters of play to start the season, it looked like Seattle had fully defied the infamous Super Bowl Loser's Curse. Then came the 27 garbage-time points they allowed the Giants in the fourth quarter of a game they once led 42-3, followed by a complete whitewash at the hands of the Chicago Bears. Despite a winning record, Seattle ranks just 19th in our DVOA ratings, solely because of these five quarters. In general, garbage time plays and blowouts are just as predictive of future performance as any other plays, but it's hard to believe that the Seahawks will play as badly for the rest of the season as they did two Sundays ago in Chicago.
Seattle's offense is plagued by injuries to running back Shaun Alexander and along the offensive line. Those problems are compounded by poor decision-making by usually steady quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. Hasselbeck threw only nine interceptions in 2005, but already has seven this year. The improved St. Louis pass defense, meanwhile, ranks second in the NFL with eight interceptions.
Seattle gets starting tight end Jerramy Stevens back from injury, and veteran wide receiver Bobby "The First Down Machine" Engram is out sick, so don't expect to see as much of that four-wideout set that's become a Seattle staple since the trade for ex-New England receiver Deion Branch. But the Seahawks may want to use Stevens more as a blocker, since the Rams lead the league in defending passes to tight ends. On the ground, while backup Maurice Morris has to fill in for Alexander, St. Louis is not Chicago, and Seahawks shouldn't have trouble running the ball against a Rams defense giving up 4.7 yards per carry (24th in the NFL).
The Rams are back to being one of the league's top offenses, despite a major change in philosophy with the hiring of head coach Scott Linehan. They run more and throw more short passes. Running back Steven "Don't Call Me Stephen" Jackson is tied for the NFL lead with 465 rushing yards, but the Rams aren't necessarily more efficient on the ground -- Jackson has the same 4.1 yards per carry average as last year, and the Rams' run offense ranks 15th in DVOA. Also, like every other Linehan team, the Rams stall out in the red zone, and kicker Jeff Wilkins leads the league in both field goals and attempts. The Seattle defense was dominant for the first 11 quarters of the season, and porous in the last five, so it's not easy to gauge how good it really is. One important matchup: While this year's Seahawks have been much stronger against starting receivers than they have been against slot receivers, cornerback Marcus Trufant historically has great difficulty covering Rams star Torry Holt.
Seattle still looks like the better team, but like New Orleans, the Rams will enjoy a significant home-field advantage. The Seahawks have always had trouble winning at the Edward Jones Dome; even last year, when they were far better than the Rams, they beat them by just six points. And while Seattle had the bye week off to prepare for this game, historical research shows that the team coming off the bye week has no advantage when both teams have winning records. (If you own a copy of PFP 2005, check out the San Francisco chapter for that analysis.)
An edited version of this article appeared in Friday's New York Sun.
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