Andrew and Sterling take an awards-style look at the crowded playoff picture. Plus, a special Thanksgiving Loser League announcement!
25 Dec 2003
by Ian Dembsky and Al Bogdan
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: Finals ended just in time. After barely being able to watch any football over the past few weeks, I was able to catch seven different games this weekend without having to rely on the Dish or a sports bar. A perfect way to unwind and forget about the eight-prong test for negligent infliction of emotional distress.
Maybe I just haven't seen enough of Tampa this year, but when did they start thinking they were the 1999 Rams? Every Tampa offensive play in the first half involved a change in formation before the snap. Maybe that works if you have Kurt Warner throwing to Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Az Hakim and Marshall Faulk in stride. But when you have Brad Johnson throwing behind Keenan McCardell, Thomas Jones, and Charles Lee you're going to end up with 4 INTs and a loss at home to a Falcon team that was tied for the worst record in the NFC.
Ian: Jon Gruden's systems may be effective if executed properly, but the complicated nature of them may not be worth the risk involved. The slightest confusion by a WR can cause Brad Johnson to throw the ball to a spot the receiver isn't, and often right to a defensive back. I've seen that happen several times this season, and his interceptions are a large part of the reason Tampa's not headed to the playoffs. Once the 4th quarter Tampa offense gets going, they can be unstoppable- probably because the system becomes much simpler when Tampa runs the no-huddle offense. Maybe next year things will get better for the offense, and Charles Lee and Thomas Jones will be comfortable with the schemes, but the occasional miscue has really hurt the Bucs this year.
One team that didn't have any problems last week was the Denver Broncos, who sent Miami to the golf courses with their dominating (and impressively so) win over the Colts. It's easy to see how the Broncos won -- first of all, Quentin Griffin was flat-out amazing. He had the most Barry Sanders-esque performance I've seen since Barry retired, leaving multitudes of defenders trying to tackle thin air. Apparently Quentin loved to play Madden and use the Juke button, since he made the Colts defenders look ridiculous with it all night.
In addition to his running being so effective, it helped keep Peyton Manning and Co. on the sideline for most of the game. Even Peyton can't throw touchdowns from the bench. The Broncos would run on 1st, rush on 2nd, and if a 3rd was necessary, throw a hook pattern on 3rd to get the 1st down. Wash, rinse, repeat. The Colts couldn't do anything about it, and it all added up to an astounding 44:58 to 15:02 time of possession difference. I don't think I've ever seen an offense dominate a game like that.
The last problem the Colts had was Peyton being too dependent on Marvin Harrison in the passing game. Granted, always throwing the ball to Marvin Harrison may not be the worst thing you can do, but when Denver had him covered Peyton should have considered passing elsewhere. I remember one play when Manning dropped back to pass. He looked left, and Reggie Wayne was standing there wide open. But rather than throw it there for a sure ten yards, he then looked right, saw that Marvin was double covered, and threw him a bomb anyways that was almost impossible to catch and fell incomplete. Anytime Reggie Wayne goes an entire game without touching the ball, you know Peyton wasn't doing his job of connecting with the open receiver.
Al: Zero catches for Reggie Wayne is really inexcusable. I guess I can go back to picking the Colts to lose in the first round again. I was getting nervous for a little while there that they were going to make it into the second round. Right now, it looks like they're getting Denver in their first playoff game. With a healthy Clinton Portis, I don't see the result being any different the second time around.
I was definitely impressed by Denver's play calling. Griffin and Mike Anderson ran 47 times for 192 yards. 47 rushes!?!? This is what the Panthers should have been doing all year. Nothing gets me more upset about play calling then a team having success running the ball early and then inexplicably abandoning the run, which then allows the other team to get back into the game. Denver ran early and often and kept at it, even with one of the best RB in football on the bench. Just look at this drive from the second quarter:
M.Anderson right end to DEN 23 for 4
J.Plummer pass to A.Lelie ran ob at DEN 42 for 19 yards.
Q.Griffin up the middle to DEN 47 for 5 yards
J.Plummer pass to R.Smith to IND 44 for 9 yards
Q.Griffin right end to IND 44 for no gain
J.Plummer pass to A.Lelie to IND 30 for 19 yards
M.Anderson up the middle to IND 27 for 8 yards
Q.Griffin right end pushed ob at IND 18 for 9 yards
Q.Griffin left end to IND 12 for 6 yards
M.Anderson left tackle to IND 8 for 4 yards
M.Anderson up the middle to IND 1 for 7 yards
J.Plummer up the middle for 1 yard, TOUCHDOWN.
12 plays, 9 rushes, 7:50 off the clock, 1 TD. You can't play offense much better than that.
I've been down on Denver most of the year, but that win Sunday changed my mind about them. If they can somehow avoid playing a game at Foxboro, they have a good shot at winning the AFC Championship.
One team that doesn't have a good shot at winning the AFC Championship is Kansas City. What an awful performance on Saturday. I was singing their praises in the Week 15 discussion thread, but after watching the Vikings tear the Chiefs apart, I can't see KC making it to Houston. If KC doesn't force turnovers, their defense hurts them. And if you're going to force turnovers, you'd think you'd be able to do it against Daunte Culpepper. KC might be able to get by Tennessee in the playoffs, since the Titans don't have anything resembling a running game, but if they have to face Baltimore or Denver I don't like KC's chances.
What about Onterrio Smith? Over his last two games: 48 carries, 294 yards, 3 TDs. I guess my decision to draft him over Byron Leftwich at #1 in our keeper league draft isn't looking as bad as it might have a few weeks ago.
Ian: Onterrio certainly looked awesome, but he's still gonna share time with Michael Bennett as Michael gets healthier. He's already been named the #2 running back behind Bennett for next week's game, though they'll certainly share time in the game. Maybe Minnesota will deal one of those guys in the off-season for a pick that would help shore up other holes like a #2 WR or the defense, but I think the likelihood is that next season both guys share time. It's too bad Philadelphia is demonstrating that a running back by committee can be a good thing, since it creates a fantasy football black hole. Thank god I don't have any Philadelphia running backs on my fantasy teams this year.
Kansas City may have played a terrible game Saturday, but let's not write them off just yet. They did abandon the run way too quickly, though. Minnesota started off the game with a touchdown drive. A promising initial drive by the Chiefs was cut short by an Eddie Kennison fumble, but it did show that they could move the ball upfield by running it. Minnesota turned around and scored another TD. At 14-0, it's hardly time to panic. Eight pass plays, three run plays and three punts later, it was 24-0 at halftime. I guess they forgot about that Priest Holmes guy.
There's no way we can make it through this column without talking about the insane finish between the Saints and the Jaguars. Fortunately, FOX took us over to that game for some bonus coverage. Bonus coverage?? That almost never happens! Well, we were instantly rewarded with the most bizarre ending to a football game you'll ever see. For those of you that were living in a closet this weekend, the short version of what happened is that the Saints scored a game-tying touchdown on a play full of laterals and running back and forth across the field. Of course, it only tied the game if they made the extra point, but they botched that, as John Carney's kick sailed wide right and Jacksonville hung on for a one-point victory.
A couple of things worth mentioning about that play. First of all, I personally believe that the first "lateral" was actually forwards, and that the play should have stopped there. But I can't truly argue with the official not overturning the play; it was close enough and ridiculous enough that they had to let it stand. Major kudos on the play go to Aaron Brooks, who made a clutch block that allowed Jerome Pathon to make it into the end zone. Many football shows pointed out how nice the block was, but no one remembered to mention that this block, the one that took place 50 yards downfield from the line of scrimmage, came from Aaron Brooks. That's right, the quarterback. What a heads-up play, along the lines of Derek Jeter appearing out of nowhere to tag Jeremy Giambi out at home plate in the baseball playoffs a few years back. Season on the line, and Aaron never gave up on the play. How many quarterbacks would have bothered to run downfield on that play? Again, major kudos to Aaron Brooks for running down the field when the likelihood of it mattering was virtually none.
As for the extra point, well, since I needed the Saints to win to get my Best Bet right, it was rather frustrating to see that happen. Especially after the Bucs blew a game to Carolina on an extra point miss. I'd never seen that happen at the end of a game; now I've seen it twice. I guess anything's possible in the NFL.
Al: That was the greatest play I've ever seen unfold live. That was the first time I've ever seen that play work. I thought the first toss was a lateral, but it was really too close to call. The last pass, from Deuce McAllister to Pathon was incredible. He tossed it a good ten to fifteen yards across the field, in the middle of and over at least five defenders. Kurt Warner in 1999 couldn't lead his receiver better than McAllister led Pathon on that toss.
You bring something interesting up about the Philly RB by committee. I wouldn't be surprised if more and more teams develop this approach, especially with the NFL's salary cap. Instead of spending big money and cap space on a premier #1 RB you have three RBs that give you the same level of performance. Philly has the top rushing offense in DVOA, yet they won't finish the year with a 1000-yard rusher. Minnesota has done something similar this year out of necessity. Moe Williams was the feature back the first half of the season, but with the return of Michael Bennett and the emergence of the O-Train, they can spread the carries around to whoever has the hot hand. Any of these three could be a #1 RB and make #1 RB money if given a full season to pad their stats. But since the Vikings have used all three, none will end up with over 1000 yards rushing or 10 TDs, theoretically keeping all three affordable over the next few years. If anything, this will make drafting a RB in the first round even more important in fantasy leagues, since you can't count on consistent production from RBs on teams that use the committee. (Aaron's note: Don't forget Atlanta when discussing great running back by committee situations... the passing game was so bad before Vick returned that nobody noticed how well Duckett and Dunn ran the ball during the occasional game that they weren't down by 40 points. #5 rushing ranking in DVOA, and very little of that is Vick.)
Ian: It also avoids football's biggest problem -- the injury bug. It's no coincidence that no Super Bowl champ in recent years has overcome a major injury; being healthy is almost as important as playing well in the NFL. When you've got three capable running backs that have had playing time and gotten used to the offensive system, one going down with an injury isn't the worst thing that can happen to your team.
On an entirely different note, it was extremely nice in a whole host of ways to see Brett Favre dominate the Raiders on Monday night. You could almost see it coming, as Brett certainly wanted to play well for his fallen father. That game and the six-touchdown effort by Peyton Manning against the Colts were two of the most dominating quarterback performances I've ever seen.
Before we give all the praise to Brett though, can we give a little love for his receivers? It's not like the receivers got open downfield and Brett him 'em in stride; he constantly lofted the ball up into tight single or double coverage, and the receivers kept going up and just getting the ball. Not to take everything away from Brett; he certainly put the ball in a position for his receivers to get it. But Wesley Walls making a diving catch through tight coverage in the back of the end zone?? What, did he lose 10 years of age all of a sudden? Certainly they were fired up to play well for Brett, as I've never seen such an all-around great day of receiving.
Al: A Wesley Walls sighting! And with the Packers victory, Week 17 becomes a little more interesting than it would have with a Green Bay loss. Here are the official playoff scenarios for Week 17 from NFL.com:
New England has clinched division title and a first-round bye.
New England can clinch homefield advantage throughout AFC playoffs with:
1) NE win or tie OR
2) KC loss or tie
Baltimore can clinch division title with:
1) BAL win or tie OR
2) CIN loss or tie
Baltimore is eliminated from playoff contention with a loss and a Cincinnati win.
Cincinnati can clinch division title with:
1) CIN win + BAL loss
Cincinnati is eliminated from playoff contention with a loss or tie OR a Baltimore win or tie.
Indianapolis has clinched playoff berth.
Indianapolis can clinch division title with:
1) IND win OR
2) TEN loss OR
3) IND tie + TEN tie
Tennessee has clinched playoff berth.
Tennessee can clinch division title with:
1) TEN win or tie + IND loss
Kansas City has clinched division title and a first-round bye.
Kansas City can clinch homefield advantage throughout AFC playoffs with:
1) KC win + NE loss
Denver has clinched playoff berth and will play first-round game.
Philadelphia has clinched playoff berth.
Philadelphia can clinch division title and a first-round bye with:
1) PHI win or tie OR
2) DAL loss or tie
Philadelphia can clinch homefield advantage throughout playoffs with:
1) PHI win + STL loss
Dallas has clinched playoff berth.
Dallas can clinch division title and first-round bye with:
1) DAL win + PHI loss
Minnesota can clinch division title with:
1) MIN win OR
2) GB loss OR
3) MIN tie + GB tie
Minnesota can clinch playoff berth with:
1) SEA loss OR
2) MIN tie + SEA tie
Green Bay can clinch division title with:
1) GB win + MIN loss or tie OR
2) GB tie + MIN loss
Green Bay can clinch playoff berth with:
1) SEA loss OR
2) GB win + DAL win or tie OR
3) GB win + DAL has better strength of victory than SEA OR
4) GB win or tie + SEA tie
Carolina has clinched division title.
St. Louis has clinched division title and a first-round bye.
St. Louis can clinch homefield advantage throughout playoffs with:
1) STL win or tie OR
2) PHI loss or tie
Seattle can clinch playoff berth with:
1) SEA win + MIN loss or tie OR
2) SEA win + GB loss or tie OR
3) SEA win + DAL loss + SEA has better strength of victory than DAL OR
4) SEA tie + MIN loss OR
5) SEA tie + GB loss
So how do you see things playing out this week? Here is my prediction:
1. New England
2. Kansas City
1. St. Louis
6. Green Bay
The biggest game in the AFC this weekend may be Indianapolis @ Houston. The Texans have been frisky at home all year. If the Texans pull off the upset, the Colts could be knocked down all the way to the #6 seed.
Ian: I basically agree with you entirely, except for one thing: I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that Cincinnati will win the AFC North. It's too early for their Cinderella story to end. They're certainly gonna handle the Browns at home, which will make the Sunday night game between the Steelers and Ravens decide the last playoff spot (and possibly the last NFC wildcard spot, oddly enough). Maybe the Steelers can pull off the upset. They have a run defense that's at least in the top half of the NFL, so it shouldn't be a cakewalk for Jamal Lewis. Since he's going for 2,000 and potentially the NFL record, everyone knows he's gonna run the ball a ton, so Pittsburgh ought to be able to at least contain him. And when the season is riding on Anthony Wright throwing the ball, anything can happen. The Steelers will have nothing to lose, and everything to gain by spoiling Baltimore's playoff hopes -- and I think they have a good chance at doing it.
The Texans aren't gonna beat the Colts this week. Indy got beat up at home last week, but that was by a Denver team that literally ran over them. Domanick Davis has looked good this year, but the Texans offensive line is nowhere near as good as Denver's offensive line. That game could get ugly quick, as I'm sure Peyton will see that Reggie Wayne didn't touch the ball last week and realize he's got to spread it around more.
I see that The Rams odds to win the Super Bowl have already dropped from 7-1 to 4-1. Damn, I was hoping that line would hold until I got to Vegas this weekend; I guess I'll have to take Indy at 11-1 and hope for an unlikely winner. Ya know, Green Bay at 34-1 might be worth a small bet; I sure as heck wouldn't want to face Ahman Green and Brett Favre in the playoffs this year...
Al: The Broncos at 27-2 would be a very nice bet. I don't see why anyone would take the Patriots at 2-1. They're not that much better than every other team in the league. The worst future bet out there is the 3-2 odds that the Super Bowl matchup will be the Rams vs. the Patriots. That's the most likely Super Bowl pairing, but it's not likely enough to be a barely more than even money bet.
Ian: On a side note that harkens back to last week, the Scramble Mailbag was greeted with this message from Vern Klukas:
"I have a 2001 rule book, and a touchdown is defined thus:
Rule 3, Section 38
A Touchdown is the situation in which any part of the ball, legally in possession of a player inbounds, is on, above, or behind the opponent's goal line (plane), provided it is not a Touchback.
Rule 3, Section 20, Article 2 defines a Ball Out Of Bounds as:
The Ball is Out of Bounds when:
(a) the Runner is out of bounds;
(b) while in player possession it touches a boundary line or anything other than a player on or outside such line; or
(c) a loose ball touches a boundary line or anything outside such line.
I can't find a explicit definition of the goal line plane, but it would seem that, unless the ball touches out of bounds, it is the player's position that determines if the ball is out of bounds. It looks like Madden is right on this one."
Ian: Thanks Vern! I guess a player can dive diagonally out of bounds and score. As always, the true test will come when someone actually does it intentionally, and the NFL releases the official ruling to us.
Al: That makes no sense. I guess it does make sense according to the rulebook, but it just doesn't match what I've seen. I swear I've seen players not awarded a TD when they had fallen out of bounds near the goal line but missed the pylon.
Al: his should be pretty obvious. We should consider renaming this the John Carney Award.
Al: It wasn't that long ago that I was down nine points in this thing. Now, I've cut the lead down to just one point. The season score stands at 47-46 (3 pts for Best Bet, 2 pts for Very Good, 1 pt for Hunch). For me to win the contest, I have to win outright since you have a substantial lead in our first tiebreaker -- most total games correct. THE SYSTEM! isn't much help this week. I'll have to go it alone and hope you pick the Saints again.
Best Bet: Dallas -2 over New Orleans: I don't really like any of the lines this week except for this one. Dallas still has a shot at the division title and a first round bye. New Orleans has a shot at 3rd place in the NFC South. Miami's annual late season collapses get all the publicity, but New Orleans' end of the year failures have been just as good. No one can fall apart down the stretch like the Saints can. Bill Parcells gets eleven wins, which probably puts him over the top in a crowded Coach of the Year field
Very Good Bet: Houston +7 over Indianapolis: When the Texans are my Very Good Bet, you can tell I don't like any of the lines this week. Like I mentioned earlier, I think Houston has a legitimate shot at winning this one. The Texans are frisky at home. Don't sell Domanick Davis short. Not only does he have the best misspelled first name in professional sports (beating out the ten different versions of "Antoine"), but he almost has 1000 yards rushing on the year after not starting for the first month and a half of the season. The Texans gave Tennessee all they could handle last week. I'd expect the same effort against the Colts. (Aaron's note: The scary thing here is that my spell check didn't even tag "Antoine.")
Just a Hunch: Denver +6.5 over Green Bay: This is how impressed I was by the Broncos last week. I'm breaking the Cardinal Rule of NFL betting by betting against Brett Favre in Lambeau Field. I can see the Packers having a small letdown this week after their emotional win against Oakland. Denver might not win, but this game should be close until the end. The Broncos are one of the best teams in the league. They shouldn't be getting six and a half points against anyone.
Ian: Ugh... The most important week of the year for Best Bets thus far, and I pull an 0-3. Thanks, John Carney! It's now or never, and thankfully you've left me some good odds I can ride to the title.
Best Bet: Philadelphia -6.5 over Washington: I'm amazed this spread was under a touchdown. Philly is hungry for a win, and Washington has been playing without a quarterback or a running back for the past 3 or 4 weeks. If Tim Hasselbeck can handle the pressure of Philly blitzes, then I'm Neil Rackers.
Pretty Good Bet: Carolina -5.5 over NYTD Blue: Funny, Al, you haven't been referring to them as NYTD Blue lately. Maybe that's because they're horrible, and during their seven game losing streak only once have they kept the final score within 13 points. It may turn out to be a meaningless game for Carolina in terms of playoff seeds, but momentum into the playoffs is important and they should be able to spank the G-Men.
Just a Hunch: Jacksonville +3 over Atlanta: Don't look now but the Jaguars are a hot team. They've won three of their last four, with the only loss coming in a blizzard at New England. Fred Taylor has actually been healthy (!) and Leftwich to Smith is becoming a weekly threat to go deep. Here's hoping the Jags can keep it close.
To those of you that have been reading Scramble all year, we'd like to say thanks, and we hope you've been enjoying this stuff. Next week I'll be blowing money in Vegas and Al will be living the good life at Disney, so there won't be any Scramble. But stay tuned for the week after, when we present the first ever All Keep Choppin' Wood Team. 'Til then, draft as many St. Louis players for your playoff fantasy football team as you can...
Al: I'd like to echo Ian's thanks and wish you all a Merry Whatever You Celebrate! Although there won't be a Scramble next week, there will be a column up next week presenting the first annual Football Outsiders Fantasy Playoff Draft Roundtable. Your favorite Outsiders that aren't Ian or me will be talking about the playoffs and drafting their playoff fantasy teams.
Jason: What's on the Loser League players' holiday wish lists?
Jay, playing the role of the New England Patriots, wishes for his most unlikely winning streak to continue. He was tops again for a fourth week with 36 points. Despite a 2 TD day from Tim Hasselbeck, he got great performances from Marcel Shipp (12 rushes for 32 yards) and Az Hakim (2 catches for 9 yards).
Ian, playing the role of the Minnesota Vikings, wishes to hold onto his precarious overall lead, after appearing insurmountable just a few weeks ago. Heading into the final week, he now has just a 1 point lead over Jay and me. His Week 16 picks of Chad Pennington (2 rushing TDs more than cancelled out the 5 picks), Jamel White (only 4 carries) and Bill Schroeder (just one catch) didn't help his cause much.
Pat, playing the role of the Seattle Seahawks, wishes the officiating would quit getting in his path to victory. His technical gaffe of selecting Phil Dawson (on IR) rather than Brett Conway (0-1 FG) cost him a win this week. But he's already looking past his rookie season, and will be a Loser force to be reckoned with in '04.
Aaron, playing the role of the Oakland Raiders, wishes to hit the reset button on this season. Expectations were high entering the year... if VOA could help select the best Losers, Aaron could really clean up. Unfortunately Aaron spent more time buried in a bizarre combination of baby spittle and spreadsheets and found himself at the bottom of the standings. And I don't think he enjoyed Jerry Rice's 159 receiving yards against Green Bay very much. (Aaron's note: Worst... Garbage Time Loser Performance... Ever...)
And me? Playing the role of the St. Louis Rams, I wish for a return to former glory. I still have a chance to repeat as champion of the League, but only if I have a stellar Week 17. So with 3 Lions on my team, I'm counting on them being pounded into the ground.
Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion, as well as a full-season wrap-up, in the New Year.