Critical games this weekend in the Pac-12, Big Ten, and ACC could go a long way in determining conference championships -- and maybe even playoff berths.
18 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.
Al: I hate weeks like this, where "non-football" news overshadows the actual games on the field. We have Tampa's GM leaving his job to go to Atlanta, Tampa's upcoming opponent. There's Matt Millen's stupid comments and Joe Horn calling his mom after his second of four TDs against the Giants. Unfortunately, all of this nonsense is taking the attention away from some pretty good games with playoff implications that went down in Week 15. The Dolphins likely cost themselves a playoff spot after losing to the Eagles while Denver and Tennessee both eked out victories at home. Seattle continues to do its best to avoid the playoffs losing yet again on the road to a Rams team trying its damnedest to get home field advantage in the NFC. Carolina finally clinched the NFC South title against the Cardinals, who have been frisky at home this year. And, of course, there's Cincinnati's huge home victory over the 49ers to keep the Bengals in the hunt for the AFC North title. If I made a list in the pre-season of phrases that I would be least likely to write in Week 16, "the Bengals in the hunt for the AFC North title" would be close to the top of that list. Where do we start?
Ian: We start in Miami, where the biggest problem the Dolphins has become abundantly clear. It's not the running game that's been mediocre at times, it's not lackluster play of the defense, and it's not the cold weather in December; it's all because Jay Fiedler sucks. Clearly he's got a good mind for football, because he often reads the defense well and knows where the best place to pass the football is. And I'll give him credit for making a few key plays with his feet now and then. But he missed so many open receivers last night, it was pathetic. Even when he does connect with his receivers, it often takes an acrobatic catch to hang onto the ball, and there are certainly no yards after the catch. There's a reason Miami seems to load up on receivers whose best attribute is their hands; without them Fiedler's 21-40 night may have been a 5-40 night. When's the last time you saw Fielder hit a receiver in stride?
Al: Well, he is better than Brian Griese. The Dolphins aren't a team designed to have their QB carry them. There's no reason Jay Fiedler should have thrown 40 passes on Monday night. The Eagles are awful against the run. The Philly defensive line is especially poor up the middle. Why didn't Ricky Williams have 30 carries on Monday night? The VOA rankings may think he's a bit overrated, but if there's one thing Ricky can do well its pound the ball up the middle. The Dolphins didn't lose because Jay Fiedler can't lead his WRs. They lost because the Miami coaches couldn't realize that before the game and wouldn't let Williams carry them against a poor rush defense.
With Miami's loss, you can pretty much put a fork in them. NFL.com has finally put up a playoff standings page, so we don't have to figure out a team's "strength of victory" on our own. Denver has the conference record tiebreaker over Miami, so the only shot the Dolphins have at making the playoffs is to win out and hope Denver loses its next two. It's not impossible that Denver will lose both at Indy and at Green Bay. I think it's a lot less likely, though, that Miami wins this week on the road in Buffalo.
How about them Bills anyway? We're always the first people to jump all over Drew Bledsoe, but Buffalo has been playing pretty well recently. They've been in every game since Week 10. Their defense has been playing very well, allowing only 13.3 points per game over their last six. If they just hadn't forgotten they were playing against Billy Volek in the 4th quarter instead of Steve McNair, we'd be talking about what would need to happen for Buffalo to win the wild card.
Ian: C'mon, let's not start lauding the Bills for losing a bunch of close games. On NFL Primetime they were talking about how bad an idea it was to roll out Bledsoe on the potential game-tying two-point conversion, and they couldn't be more right. Was Bledsoe gonna run the ball in the end zone? No! So why roll him out? As they pointed out, this only serves to cut the field in half. A terrible call, but not something terribly unexpected from the Bills this year.
One thing I can't figure out from this weekend is how the Vikings lost 13-10. Onterrio Smith rushed 27 times for 148 yards, and Randy Moss had nine catches for 93 yards. With only one interception and no fumbles, how did the Vikings come away with only 10 points? They didn't even miss any field goals. As good as the Patriots and Eagles have been lately, the Vikings have been that bad. From 6-0 to 8-6? Missing the playoffs would be an awfully disappointing finish to a promising start for a season.
Al: What a bizarre game. The Vikings had the ball for over 20 minutes in the first half and only ended up with three points. It looks like the Vikings made a bad decision going for it on 4th-and-5 in the first quarter from the Chicago 28. Maybe the weather conditions were so bad that a 45-yard field goal was impossible, but the play calling on those four downs was incredible poor. On the first three plays of the drive, Smith ran three times for 31 yards. Smith single handedly brought the Vikings into Chicago territory. What do the Vikings do? Hand off to Randy Moss for 8 yards, sack for -2 yards, hand off to Moe Williams for -1 yards, sack for -5 yards. You need two yards for a first down and Onterrio Smith was running all over the Bears. Why don't you give him the ball?
The Vikings ended the half with a 9 minute, 43 second long drive that ended with a field goal from the Chicago 3- yard line. This was the time to go for it on 4th down. Minnesota played scared and didn't want to go into halftime without any points after possessing the ball for over twenty minutes. If they kicked the FG during their first possession, they wouldn't have been in that predicament to begin with. Even without any points, you have to go for the TD in that situation. At that point, Smith had 21 rushes for 124 yards. Give him a shot to get in the end zone! Even if he doesn't make it, the Bears get the ball on their own 2-yard line with 1:10 left. They can't take a knee and give up a safety, so Chicago will have to run a play or two. Maybe the Vikings get lucky and force a turnover or a safety. If Minnesota can stuff Chicago there, they'd force Chicago to punt with about 15 seconds left in the half, since the Vikings still had two timeouts remaining. Minnesota still had chances to win in the second half, but penalties and a patented Culpepper INT to end the game ultimately led to their demise. I still think the Vikings make the playoffs, though, because it doesn't look like Seattle wants any part of a game in January.
Ian: Just because Seattle wants no part of the playoffs doesn't mean Minnesota's guaranteed a free ride. The way the Vikings are playing, what's stopping the Saints or Tampa from passing them for the last wildcard spot? New Orleans finishes @Jacksonville, then at home vs. Dallas. Tampa has Atlanta at home, then a tough road game @Tennessee. But one of those two teams will probably win both of their remaining games, leaving the current playoff leaders very little room for error. Of course, since we're talking about the Vikings as a wildcard contender, that means the Packers would be in line to win the division. The way they're playing lately, it wouldn't be at all surprising. Favre finally pulled it together enough to dominate another team through the air, even if it was the lowly Chargers. Quick, name a Chargers defensive back! The funny thing is, only Rodney Harrison comes to mind, but he doesn't even play there anymore.
Al: They do have Quentin Jammer, but I only remember him because of his name, not because of how he's played. Let's not be too hard on San Diego's pass coverage. There are five teams worse than the Chargers art stopping the pass.
As I'm sure our reader and resident NFC Central tiebreaker expert AMR knows, Green Bay would win the division if the Packers and Vikings win out. They have a tough road ahead of them, though. The Packers have been erratic on the road and have to go into Oakland this week. Who knows how the Raiders will play on Sunday? Then Denver goes into Lambeau with both teams fighting for a playoff spot. That should be a hell of a game. If only Minnesota wasn't playing the Chiefs this week, I might just pick them to win the division.
You're right, though, I shouldn't overlook Tampa for the final wild card spot. The Bucs are 3-1 in the post-Keyshawn era. The Falcons looked awful last week against the Colts. I don't see them walking into Tampa and getting a win. Tampa did a great job last year shutting down Michael Vick. The Bucs might even get lucky and face Tennessee's 3rd string QB in Week 17. Billy Volek is done for the year with a lacerated spleen. If the Titans win this week against Houston, as they should, they'd lock up a playoff spot. If I'm Jeff Fisher, I rest Steve McNair that last game of the season so he can get healthy for the first round of the playoffs. The Bucs need help, but it wasn't that long ago we wrote them out of the playoff picture completely. They've done a good job crawling back into the race.
Ian: I refuse to discuss Tampa's chances of making the playoffs any further. Let's just say that there's a bigger chance of me making it to the World Poker Tour than there is of the Bucs playing in January.
We've got a letter in the Scramble mailbox, and it comes from Josh in Pennsylvania:
"In last night's game, the Eagles challenged a play, won the challenge, and were awarded a touchdown. The question was whether or not the ball crossed the plane of the goal line while the offensive player was in the air, and before he touched out of bounds. It did, and it was a touchdown. Madden was explaining and drawing that the goal line extends out-of-bounds, and that the ball need only cross the imaginary extension of the goal line, EVEN OUT OF BOUNDS, before the player, who may also be out of bounds, touches the ground. In other words, he argued that a player may leap in the air, at an angle, starting in bounds, and may go out of bounds, still in the air, cross the extension of the goal line, out of bounds, and then land out of bounds, and be awarded a touchdown.
"I always thought the ball had to cross the plane of the goal line IN BOUNDS, and that is why players always do that funky reach thing. Even the referee disagreed, when he made his audible ruling, stating that it was a touchdown because the ball crossed the line in-bounds. Madden pointed out that the ref was wrong, and that the ball *could* have crossed out of bounds, but that it didn't matter, because either way it is a touchdown. Oh football experts, who was right?"
Ian: This is a great question, because as I was watching the Monday Night game I was thinking the same thing to myself. I wouldn't say I'm certain on this, but my instinct (which has proven right before) tells me that Madden, or rather whoever was telling Madden what to say, was incorrect. There have been plenty of times in all the football I've seen that a player is nearing the end zone and the sideline at the same time, and as he dives for the goal line he tries to reach out the ball so it crosses the plane in-bounds. They must be doing that for a reason, and I'm pretty sure that reason is that the ball needs to pass within the field of play, although the body of the player doesn't have to.
Al: Even if I don't get the official NFL rulebook for Christmas, I'm going to shell out the money myself just so I can answer questions like this. Of course, NFL.com's abridged rules have nothing on this. My understanding is the same as yours -- the ball needs to cross the goal line in bounds. Otherwise, why would players dive for the pylon when they're going out of bounds? Hopefully one of our readers has the actual rulebook and can answer this one for us in the comments.
Ian: Well, it looks like Jim Fassell is out as head coach after the year, as if we didn't know that already. Do you think the fault lies with him or with the players? Certainly injuries have hurt the Giants, as well as the untimely turnovers and poor special teams play. But I do think it's time for Jim to go. Once you've pulled that "chips in the center of the table" thing, you can never really top that from a team motivation point of view, and I don't think the players would be likely to respond to anything he has to say anymore. And, of course, he coaches in New York, which means that he had a leash shorter than a typical Eddie George rushing attempt.
Al: Of course everything isn't Fassel's fault, but he hasn't helped anything either. NY hasn't scored more than 1 TD in any of their last six games. Even with NY's injuries and poor roster, you'd figure a coach should be able to get his team to put 14 points on the board at least once in six games. I'm sure he'll resurface somewhere. If he wants to coach next year, he might be a good fit back in Arizona, where he was a successful offensive coordinator before taking over the Giants.
Al: It's pretty tough to give this award to anyone but Tim Hasselbeck this week. 6/26 for 56 yards, 0 TDs and 4 INTs. Put those numbers together and you get a 0.0 QB rating. I can't remember ever seeing that before. On Ryan Leaf's worst day, I don't think he even managed a 0.0. Hasselbeck had a 5th INT saved by a Dallas penalty. If either of us was QB, we couldn't put up a lower rating than that.
Ian: Tim Hasselbeck definitely deserved the award this week. Not only did he have a 0.0 quarterback rating, he actually managed to score a -6 in the Loser League! I'm sure Jason will cover that in the Loser League update. Anytime you can put up those kinds of loser numbers, it's hard to deny you the Keep Choppin' Wood award.
I want to give out a couple of honorable mentions this week. One goes to Michael Lehan, who was "covering" Denver wideout Ashley Lelie with under a minute to go in the game. Denver had no timeouts, and needed to move downfield from their own 37-yard line to kick a game-tying field goal. Lehan let Lelie get behind him for a big gain, which might be the worst example of situational coverage I've ever seen.
The other honorable mention goes to Jaguars kicker Seth Marler. Not so much for just what happened this past Sunday, but I can't recall the last time a kicker has missed a field goal in five straight weeks. I can't possibly let a horrible streak like that go unmentioned in this column.
Al: Once again I have to give much love to Anthony Brancato and THE SYSTEM! I went 3 for 3 last week and narrowed your lead to 47-44 (3 pts Best Bet, 2 pts Very Good, 1 pt Hunch). I felt kind of bad catching up to you using such an infallible betting technique, so for my picks this week I didn't take THE SYSTEM! into account. What do you know? I ended up taking two cold weather home teams anyway.
Best Bet: Buffalo -1 over Miami: I don't need any system to tell me Miami's losing this game. The Dolphins are 1-6 against the spread over both their last seven overall and on the road this year. Buffalo's beaten the spread over their last three. Plus it's December and the Dolphins don't want to lose their January tee times.
Very Good Bet: Pittsburgh -6 over San Diego: Arguably the least exciting game of the week. The Chargers are slightly more awful than the Steelers. San Diego's one strength, their running game, should be neutralized by the Pittsburgh's #2 rushing defense according to DVOA. I feel sorry for the folks in Pittsburgh and San Diego who will have to watch this one.
Just a Hunch: Carolina -10 over Detroit: The Lions haven't won a road game since 2000. They've only covered once on the road this year. The Panthers are on the decline, but they should be able to stomp all over the Lions.
Ian: Man, it's been a rough second half for me and my picks. At least I've managed to get most of my Best Bets right; if we were scoring purely on number of games correct I'd probably be out of the lead right now. Damn you for taking the Steelers after I said last week to pick against the Chargers the rest of the season. At least you left me to pick:
Best Bet: New Orleans +1 over Jacksonville: Am I missing something here? How in the world is Jacksonville a favorite over the Saints? New Orleans has beaten all the teams they were supposed to beat this season. Here's all the teams they've lost to: @Seattle, @Tennessee, vs. Indianapolis, Carolina twice, @Philadelphia and vs. Tampa Bay. Only the loss to Tampa was really unexpected, and that's just because of the Saints tendency to beat up on the Bucs the past few seasons. There's no reason the Saints can't manhandle Jacksonville, even if it is a road game.
Pretty Good Bet: Chicago -4.5 over Washington: Tim Hasselbeck playing in Chicago? Giddy-up!
Just a Hunch: Arizona +13.5 over Seattle: This just feels like one of those games that's Ã¢â‚¬Å“obviouslyÃ¢â‚¬Â? gonna be a blowout for the Ã¢â‚¬ËœHawks. They're dominant at home, the Cardinals suck on the road, and Seattle needs this game for playoff contention. Games like this are ones that everyone adds to their teaser bets with Seattle -7.5, and everyone ends up losing.
Al: Yup, I'm still the champ.
Jason: Tim Hasselbeck gave an early holiday gift to Jay, completing a whopping 10 passes on Sunday. Unfortunately for Tim, four of those completions were to the guys on the wrong team, resulting in a -6 loser score, and lifting Jay to a third-straight first-place finish. I made a small gain on Ian's overall lead, beating him in a tiebreaker (Thanks for the passing TD, Freddie Mitchell!), while Jay's recent surge has him just behind me, in third place.
What's this world coming to? Usual Loser staples Curtis Martin and Troy Hambrick went off last week, racking up a combined 417 yards of offense last week. At least we know this isn't totally bizarro world, as neither of them managed to score. And we haven't lost our faith in these guys to suck. They've both been drafted in Week 16.