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?
04 Dec 2003
by Al Bogdan and Ian Dembsky
Welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where we discuss all things football. We'll have commentary on the latest NFL stories, as well as our Best Bets of the week and updates to our Survivor League (check the Scramble archives for full details). Al's a long-time Giants fan originally from Long Island, and Ian is a long-time Tampa Bay fan originally from Jersey, and we're both NFL and fantasy sports addicts. Look for Scramble updated every Thursday afternoon during the NFL season, and feel free to email us with any thoughts at scramble @ footballoutsiders.com.
Ian: Well, the Patriots have pretty much erased any doubters with one of the all-time great wins thanks to their 4-down stand against the Colts. What a game, and what a finish. I can't remember the last time a team stuffed an opponent on 4 straight goal-to-go situations with the game on the line like the Patriots did. As a Pats fan, and an owner of Edgerrin James in the Loser League, I can only imagine how much Aaron enjoyed that finish.
Obviously the Pats did a great job as a unit, but a whole lot of credit goes to the big man in the middle, Ted Washington. I hadn't realized how much the Pats were missing with him on the shelf. He epitomizes what a nose tackle should be to make the 3-4 defense work. He takes on two blockers and stuffs up the middle, freeing the linebackers to work their way to the running back and stop him before he can get to the secondary. Edge ran up the middle 9 times for 27 yards on Sunday. He never gained more than 7 yards that way. Preventing the opposing team from running straight at you is absolutely key to being able to play defense. Just ask Tampa Bay, who allowed Fred Taylor to rush up the middle 16 times for 90 yards, a 5.6 average, in a loss that pretty much eliminated the Bucs from postseason contention.
Al: Where was Warren Sapp on Sunday night? It's not like Jacksonville's offensive line had been effective running up the middle previously. They were in the bottom half of the league in rushing straight ahead going into the Bucs game. It's been a pretty disappointing season from Warren, especially if you consider that he's in the last year of his contract. I don't see him coming back to Tampa next year. It will be a much quieter place with Keyshawn and Warren gone. My random guess is that Sapp ends up with Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati. The Bengal defensive line is dead last in stopping runs up the middle. They can use all the help they can get.
So are you ready for a Pats/Rams Super Bowl rematch? St. Louis dominated Minnesota in the second half on Sunday. The Vikings had a chance to tie the game with a field goal early in the third quarter but tried a fake instead. After that failed, it was all over for the Vikings. Over the last 20 minutes of game time the Rams defense had an interception and forced three fumbles. Marshall Faulk may not be playing like he did a few years ago, but if the Ram defense can keep killing drives like they did Sunday, they won't need him to.
Ian: A Rams-Patriots rematch remains a distinct possibility. Marshall is getting healthy just at the right time for the Rams, and the Patriots are playing inspired football. But can they win on the road in Kansas City? There are still some wildcards to be decided, but most of the playoffs are shaping up, and it seems like the perfect time for the return of Oasis or Mirage.
Ian: We'll go through each playoff team (were the season to end today) and discuss whether they'll be playing in January, or if it's just a Mirage.
Kansas City -- Might as well start at the top, with the best team in football. With a 4-game division lead and 4 games to go in the season, it would take a total collapse for them to give up the division title. Their last 3 games following this week's Denver matchup are vs. Detroit, @Minnesota and vs. Chicago. In fact, I think it would take a collapse for them to give up home field advantage in the playoffs. An easy verdict: Oasis
Al: If we do enough of these, maybe we'll finally get our playoff predictions right. I'm guessing that if I did Oasis and Mirage before Week 17 I still get a playoff team or two wrong.
KC's in the playoffs, no doubt there. I'm not as convinced that they'll be the #1 seed as you are, though. The Chiefs could easily lose this week in Denver; KC has lost the last two meetings in the Mile High City. I'll give KC a win at home against Detroit next week, but I'm not ready to pencil in a victory over the Vikings in Week 16 or the Bears in Week 17. The Vikings will be fighting for their playoff lives at home. There is an outside shot that Chicago will still be in the playoff hunt the last week of the season. I could easily see KC having a let down one of those weeks, bringing them to three losses. That opens the door for New England or the AFC South champ to take home field advantage. Verdict: Oasis
Speaking of New England, they're a playoff lock as well. They're also my favorite for home field advantage in the AFC. I could easily see the Patriots winning their final four games. New England might not need KC to lose two of their final four games to get home field advantage. If KC loses to Denver this week and finishes with the same record as New England, they would go to the "strength of victory" tie-breaker. Strength of victory is the combined winning percentages of all the teams that each team has defeated this year. It's too early to determine who would win that tiebreaker, but I'd give the edge to the Patriots whose two losses have come against the weaker teams on their schedule. So, yeah, Pats get home field and go to the Super Bowl. Verdict: Oasis
Ian: I'm a big fan of everything the Pats do; especially the way they seem to play together so well and play above their raw talent level. But in a playoff game Tom Brady's tendencies to throw bad interceptions will come back to haunt them. And I think Miami comes into New England this week and comes out with a victory -- Miami is so happy to have Jay Fiedler behind center that the offensive line has been firing on all cylinders. All good football streaks come to an end, and I think the Patriots winning streak ends this week. I still think they win the division though. Verdict: Oasis
There's gonna be quite a showdown in Tennessee this week when the Colts come to town. The Colts defense hasn't been great, but they've been getting better, and Tony Dungy has the offense he always wished he had in Tampa Bay. I've said it before, and I'll say it again -- no one passes a football better than Peyton Manning. His comeback against Tampa and his almost comeback against New England shows you how unstoppable he can be; lord knows why the Colts threw only one pass with first and goal at the two-yard line, and why that pass went to Aaron Moorehead. Regardless, the Colts will win this week, in part helped by Steve McNair's limited mobility. They'll go on to win the division as well, and possibly a number two seed. Verdict: Oasis
Al: You only throw once from the one yard line because you have Edgerrin James. I do agree, though, that it was a bad decision to design a 3rd and goal play at the 1-yard line around your eighth receiving option. I don't see the Colts holding on for the division. Indy has been playing down to their opponents on the road all year. They'll lose Sunday, win their next three, and then lose to the AFC North champ in the first round of the playoffs. Verdict: Oasis
How can you use a Steve McNair injury as a reason to pick against Tennessee? McNair is always injured. The Titans are unbeaten at home, where McNair has a 110.8 QB rating. It's amazing that the Titans are having all of this success with arguably the worst running game in the league. The Titan O-Line is second to last in Adjusted Line Yards, only beating Detroit. Eddie George is #32 among RB in DVOA. How are they winning? Turnovers. The Titans have the second best turnover differential in the NFL at +12. Only three teams have turned the ball over less than the Titans have. Eddie George may not be helping the Titans much with his running, but at least he's not hurting the team by fumbling. Verdict: Oasis
Ian: McNair is almost always playing injured, but the injuries he's usually dealing with are in his back, neck or shoulders. This one hurts his mobility, which is one of his biggest assets. The interceptions he threw against the Jets were due to him not being able to avoid the rush, and also due to the Jets not respecting his potential to run out of the backfield; a very important aspect to his game. He's certainly gonna lead the Titans to a wildcard, but not to a division title. Verdict: Oasis
Way back in our Week 9 Oasis or Mirage, I had this to say about the prospects of Baltimore winning its division: "Baltimore is the weakest of all the current division leaders at 4-3. Hot on their trail are the 3-4 Cincinnati Bengals. Maybe it's too early to jump on the bandwagon, but I think the Bengals will end up winning this division in a shocker. December 7th, Cincinnati at Baltimore; don't be surprised if that actually turns out to be a feature matchup." I would like to repeat exactly what I said, and add nothing whatsoever except to point out that both teams are now tied at 7-5. Verdict: Mirage
Al: I'm still shocked that a Cincinnati/Baltimore game in Week 14 could decide a division title. I'm going to disagree with you, though. I like Baltimore's chances to stay on top of the division much more than Cincinnati's. If Baltimore beats Cincinnati, they're a virtual lock for the title. Baltimore has a much easier schedule over the last three weeks of the season than the Bengals do. I just can't see Cincinnati winning on the road in St. Louis. Verdict: Oasis.
Finally, we have Miami. They have a tough schedule these last four weeks. You can't pencil in any victories for Miami on the road, in cold weather, in December. The Dolphins are at New England this week and then back in Buffalo in Week 16. In between, they get Philadelphia in Miami, who are only the hottest team in the NFC. 2-2 would be an optimistic finish for the Dolphins, with 1-3 more realistic. Miami can't go 1-3 and make the playoffs without getting a lot of help from Denver and Cincinnati. It's unlikely that if either of those teams are 9-7 they'd end up with a worse conference record than the Dolphins. Are you willing to bet on Miami on the road in the cold in December? I'm not. Verdict: Mirage.
Ian: Hmm... What was I thinking earlier when I said Miami will beat New England. This is Miami in New England in December! Sometimes teams from up north have fatigue issues when playing in the South, but the opposite effect seems to be stronger -- Tampa and Miami always suck in the cold weather. It's nice that Ricky's been hitting his stride lately, and that Fiedler has made the offense better, but a Miami collapse in December is a bad new episode of the Simpsons -- You keep hoping cause the talent's there, but get disappointed every time. Verdict: Mirage
Over in the NFC the Philadelphia Eagles have been on a tear lately, thanks largely in part to the resurgence of Donovan McNabb. Over the last 7 games, all wins for the Eagles, McNabb has thrown 7 TDs and just 3 INTs, with a rushing TD as well. For the most part, the yardage has been there, and even when it hasn't, like the Monday night Green Bay game, he came through when it counted on the game-winning drive. With Dallas finally sucking like they're supposed to (did you really think that Quincy Carter and Troy Hambrick would win a division title?), the Eagles are the best in the NFC East. Verdict: Oasis
Al: As much as I hate to say it, Philly should run away with the division. I don't like Dallas' chances this Sunday at Philadelphia. With a win there, the Eagles will be a virtual lock for the NFC East title. The only difficult game left on their schedule is next week at Miami. Even if by some chance Dallas wins on Sunday, Philadelphia should end up at 11-5 and breeze into the wild card. Verdict: Oasis
I don't see how Dallas won't make the playoffs this year. Even after losing this week in Philadelphia, they should still easily win two out of their last three against the Redskins, Giants and Saints. That will put them at 10-6, avoiding any messy tiebreaker situations. What happened to the Cowboy secondary against Miami on Thanksgiving? I'm guessing it's just a fluke and Bill Parcells will have his team ready for a run at the playoffs. I just can't see his team losing three out of their last four and losing a tiebreaker to miss the playoffs completely. Verdict: Oasis.
Ian: I think that either Seattle or St. Louis will end up with one of the two wildcards, so the other one is between Dallas and the team that will actually win the other wildcard, New Orleans. Can Deuce McAllister possibly be playing any better? Over the next 3 weeks the Saints will face Tampa at home, who they always beat, then vs. the Giants and then at Jacksonville, both very winnable games. That'll set up the game that will decide the last wildcard, Dallas at New Orleans in week 17. I'll take the home team to win that game. Verdict: Mirage
Carolina's the one team in the NFC that's been pretty assured of a playoff spot for awhile. They're 5-0 in the division, with only a game at Atlanta this week before they sweep. New Orleans won't be able to catch them for the division title, esp. having lost 2 games to them. Verdict: Oasis
Al: I completely agree about Carolina. Their schedule is just too easy. They might have some trouble this week with a returning Michael Vick, but if the Panthers don't finish the season 3-1 I'll be shocked. All they need is two wins to lock up the division. There isn't a better lock in the NFC than the Carolina Panthers winning the NFC South. Verdict: Oasis.
Minnesota should hang on and make the playoffs, but only by the skin of their teeth. Watching the battle for the NFC Central title is like watching the Celebrity Poker Showdown on Bravo. Yeah, it's poker and they're playing for a title, but does it really matter who wins? If the celebrity champion bought in at the World Series of Poker would they make it past the first day? The first hour? It really doesn't matter who wins this division, they'll be knocked out in the playoffs pretty quickly. The Viking collapse isn't very surprising, but they should be able to go 2-2 to finish the year. If Green Bay gets to 9-7 the Packers would likely win the divisional tiebreaker, leaving the Vikings with the wild card. Verdict: Oasis.
Ian: The Vikings are truly an enigma... When's the last time a 6-0 team dropped to 7-5, and looked so bad doing it? For some reason the Vikings defense has disappeared, and Daunte has forgotten everything he'd learned about protecting the football. I think he's gonna pull it together though, and the Vikings will play well enough down the stretch to win the division title. Frequent forum poster NFC Central Freak and I may disagree on why he's having problems (sorry dude, but Favre is simply sucking), but regardless of why, he's not playing well enough to lead the Pack to a division title. Verdict: Oasis
The scariest team in the NFC right now, with apologies to the Eagles, is the St. Louis Rams. They're defense has been getting it done all season, and now Marshall is back and will probably be healthy for at least another 3 or 4 games. Torry Holt is simply unstoppable, and Isaac Bruce is finally finding the endzone. But can the Rams hold off Seattle? Even if Seattle can pull off the win at St. Louis, with 3 of their 4 last games being on the road I don't think they'll outplay them in the other 3 games. Verdict: Oasis
Al: The Rams should easily win three out of their last four games. Seattle and Cincinnati aren't beating the Rams in St. Louis. Their other games are at Cleveland and Detroit. The Rams lead the league in takeaways. Their offense won't need to step on the field to beat the Lions, the league leader in interceptions thrown. Easy division title and at least a first round bye. Verdict: Oasis.
Finally, a mirage in the NFC. My crazy NFC prediction: Seattle doesn't make the playoffs. They're awful on the road. If it wasn't for Arizona being Arizona, Seattle wouldn't have a win outside the Pacific Northwest. I just can't see the Seahawks going on the road and beating either the Rams (6-0 at home) or the 49ers (5-1 at home). I'll give the Seahawks a win over Arizona in Seattle. That leaves this week's game in Minnesota, which if I'm right will decide the second NFC wild card berth. I'll take the home team and leave Seattle at home in January once again. Verdict: Mirage
Ian: There are several annual traditions in football -- the Fred Taylor injury, the Bengals fighting for the #1 draft pick, and the week 16 update on the 25 scenarios that would get Seattle into the playoffs. Like the other two, this year is when it comes to an end. The Seattle offense has been absolutely en fuego lately, especially since Darrell Jackson remembered that it's good to catch the football. They may lose to St. Louis, but they'll shred the Minnesota defense this week and cruise to a wild card. Verdict: Oasis
Ian: This week's Keep Choppin' Wood award goes to someone not for what they did, but for what they didn't do. Chad Scott of the Steelers Ã¢â‚¬Å“playsÃ¢â‚¬Â? cornerback. This past Sunday, in a game that had the Steelers season on the line, he made two horrible plays that ultimately cost his team the game. Early 1st quarter, Cincinnati has the ball 3rd and 3 on their own 49 yard line. Jon Kitna rolls towards the right sideline, and his only option is Kelly Washington roaming the sidelines, being covered by Chad. 10 yards away from Kitna, Scott decides to run towards the quarterback, who calmly lobs the ball to a now-completely wide open Kelly Washington who strolls down the sideline for a 51 yard touchdown pass. Perhaps Chad didn't want Jon rushing for the first down, but he has to be aware that he's single coverage on Kelly and he has to honor that; he should have given up the first and kept his defense on the field.
Two minutes to go in the first half, Cincinnati has 2nd and goal at the 4 yard line. They were stuffed on a rushing attempt on first down, so the Bengals did what almost every team does in that situation: pass the ball. Chad was responsible for Chad Johnson -- you may have heard of him -- on the play, and completely ignored him as Chad strolled to the corner of the end zone and caught an easy touchdown from Kitna. Congratulations Chad Scott, your horrible playing has possibly earned you a spot on the bench, as well as this week's Keep Choppin' Wood award!
Al: Somehow my Bizarro picking scheme worked last week and I picked two games correctly! Unfortunately, Ian picked two games right as well. Luckily, I hit my Best Bet, so I narrowed Ian's season long lead by a point to 41-33 (3 points for Best Bet, 2 pts for Pretty Good, 1 pt for Hunch). I thought about doing Bizarro bets again this week, but I don't want to go to that well too often. Instead, I'm going to use some theories of one of our readers, Anthony Brancato. Anthony is a moderator of the NFL board over at Sports Central. In last week's Scramble/Open Discussion thread, Anthony posted that since 1998, warm-weather and domed teams playing on the road in November and December in a cold weather stadium are 5-16-1 against the spread. I was in awe of both that stat and that someone came up with that stat so I posted a response. Anthony and I have been emailing each other, and it turns out he's been keeping track of stuff like this for 30 years. My record this year seems to indicate that I'm not that great at picking these games myself, so I thought I'd use some of Anthony's work and pick three warm/dome visitors playing in cold weather. (Anthony's written more about this in a guest column posted Saturday.)
Best Bet: New England -3 over Miami: Warm visitor, cold stadium, 4:15 start. Fits perfectly with Anthony's data, but this is such an obvious best bet regardless of any theory. New England is 9-1-1 against the spread in their last 11 games. Miami is 1-4 over their last 5 against the spread. There's no better time for the annual December Dolphin Decline to begin than now.
Pretty Good Bet: Philly -5.5 over Dallas: This is a visitor in cold weather, but it's not a late game. Turns out that this year, it doesn't matter that much. Warm/dome Visitors in cold weather are 5-11 against the spread so far this year, no matter what time of day they are playing. In early games since 1998, the warm/dome visitor in a cold stadium is 61-86-6 against the spread. Dallas has lost its last four games in Philadelphia and has been shut out twice on the road this year. Philly has won and beaten the spread in their last 7 games. No brainer pick.
Just a Hunch: Cleveland +4 over St. Louis: Another great stat from Anthony. Since 1999, the beginning of the Rams offensive resurgence, St. Louis is winless when temperature at kickoff is below 47 degrees. Monday night in Cleveland should be a balmy 32 degrees or so. Since 1998, warm/dome teams playing at night as visitors at a cold weather stadium are 8-15-2 against the spread. Plus, it's the first Monday night game in Cleveland in years, so the Dawg Pound will be out in full force.
Ian: Wow, you've got a Best Bets advisor on board now. Who knows, if you do really well you may manage to end up only losing by 2 or 3 points. If San Diego doesn't pull off a crappy backdoor cover, I'd have been 3 for 3 and this thing would be just about over. No matter, I've got it covered this week.
Best Bet: Indianapolis +3.5 over Tennessee: I've been saying throughout this column that I think the Colts will go into Tennessee and win. I'm definitely gonna take them +3.5 points; it figures to be a close game either way. And I'll take Mike Vanderjagt in the clutch over Gary Anderson any day of the week.
Pretty Good Bet: Chicago +7 over Green Bay: This spread is indicative that spreads come from the minds of the bettors, and not the skills of the teams. Chicago has been playing great football lately, and the Pack have struggled mightily. Chicago always plays hard against Green Bay; I'll never forget when Walter Payton Ã¢â‚¬Å“lifted upÃ¢â‚¬Â? Bryan Robinson of the Bears to help block a field goal and beat the Pack towards the end of what was a losing season for the Bears. They should keep it close, if not win against the Pack.
Just a Hunch: Seattle +1.5 over Minnesota: Seattle has been playing so well, and Minnesota has been playing so poorly, that I'm gonna take the Ã¢â‚¬ËœHawks to win here and wrap up a wild card spot.
By the way, I would have made New Orleans over Tampa my best bet, since they always beat the Bucs, but they're only favored by 1.5. That means that a one point Saints win means a wrong bet and a Bucs loss -- the ol' double whammy. Never bet on your own team as the underdog.
Al: Going into Week 14, my team Big Dick McGee has a commanding lead with 129 points. Jay Fiedler, Clinton Portis, Chad Johnson and the Miami D combined for 100 points, outscoring the other two teams left in the competition all by themselves. The final Ian team, To Heck with Running Backs has a respectable 94 points after big weeks from Chris Chambers and Daunte Ã¢â‚¬Å“Good thing we don't count turnovers in this leagueÃ¢â‚¬Â? Culpepper. My other team, The Defending Champs, had a disappointing 80 points after a sub par week from Donovan McNabb, Trent Green and Stephen Davis. I still like my chances of knocking out Ian this week since he still has to rely on Emmitt Smith, Moe Williams and Trung Canidate. Hopefully next week will be the last Survivor League Update for the season.
Jason: You know how at the end of MNF this week, the Jets nonsensically decided that handing off the ball to Curtis Martin was a better idea than kneeling on the ball? Well the resulting 3 yard loss knocked a point off C-Mart's fantasy score, giving Jay a one point win over Ian in this week's contest. Suffice to say, Ian threw his hat in disgust. Another disgusted participant this week was Pat, whose idea to pick Miami players versus the Dallas D seemed like a fine idea right up until kickoff. Jay Fiedler with 29 points, Chris Chambers at 27 points and 14 points from Ricky Williams equaled a last-place Week 13 finish for Pat.
What do Marques Tuiasosopo, A.J. Feeley and Danny Wuerffel have in common, besides the fact that their names are fun to say? Answer: They all would have been better picks than the five quarterbacks we selected this week. Sure they didn't play a down, and Wuerffel isn't even on a team, but the 15 point penalty incurred would still be better than Jake Delhomme (17), Doug Flutie (17), Byron Leftwich (also fun to say, 19), Drew Bledsoe (20) and the aforementioned Jay Fiedler. Kurt Kittner, why have you forsaken us? And finally, in the "Who woulda thunk it?" file, it's too bad nobody drafted John Kasey this week, as his 1-2 XP, 1-4 FG performance against Philly would have been good for an astounding -7 points. Neil Rackers, please take notes. Your recent accuracy has begun to frighten us.