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.
25 Sep 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. Feel free to email us with any thoughts at scramble @ footballoutsiders.com.
Ian: Well, I'd better kick things off this week with an apology -- My recommendations of Brett Favre, Antowain Smith and Randy Moss didn't really work out as planned. I have no idea what happened to Green Bay, though I suppose I should have heeded my own advice from my Season Predictions awhile back: "... Favre doesn't seem to be as good as he used to. Whenever I watched him last year, it seemed like he was forcing balls too much, not getting rid of the ball when he needed to, and simply not playing smart football." Man, was that the case on Sunday against the Cardinals. Al, is anyone gonna stop the Vikings from winning this division?
Al: Nope, Minnesota should take the division easily. I wouldn't be surprised if they ended up with a first round bye. No one in their division looks to be competitive this year. Seeing San Diego, Oakland and St. Louis on the Vikings schedule isn't as scary as it looked a few weeks ago. They should get nine wins easily with a legitimate shot at eleven or twelve.
My fantasy suggestions were mixed. My sleeper pick Eric Parker didn't have that good of a game, but I wasn't expecting David Boston to be back on Sunday. Moe Williams continued to impress, though, with 149 combined yards. Marc Bulger was a bit disappointing, but he did end up rushing for a TD to make up for his 2 INTs.
No matter what Bulger does this year, though, I don't see the Rams making a run at a playoff spot. Expectedly, Marshall Faulk will miss a few games to injury. Unexpectedly, it's not just his broken hand that will be keeping him out, but surgery on torn cartilage in his knee. I'm still trying to figure out what happened here. ESPN's article states that Faulk first complained of soreness in his knee during training camp, but was later given a "clean bill of health". The article speculates that Faulk "tweaked" the knee Sunday.
I'm not clear if the "tweaking" aggravated the torn cartilage, or if the "tweaking" tore the cartilage. The Rams medical staff dropped the ball again on this one. Either Faulk's cartilage has been torn all along, or his knee was weak enough going into Sunday that he could "tweak" it and end up tearing the cartilage to such an extent that surgery is required. Just a few weeks after letting their second most important player, Kurt Warner, quarterback a game with a concussion, they allow the Rams most important player onto the field with damage to his knee. Marshall Faulk is too important for the Rams to allow him to play in such an injured condition. When Mike Martz gets fired in the off-season, the Rams medical staff should go with him.
Ian: I'm with you on that one -- playing injured happens in the NFL way to often. Maybe it's because they get paid millions of dollars that the coaches expect them to play hurt. We'll see a good test of this next weekend when it's determined if Daunte Culpepper can play with "multiple transverse process fractures" (also known as "three cracked bones in his back"). Mike Tice actually said this: "It's a very painful injury, but it's certainly one you can play with". That kind of thinking can ruin the very promising future of a young quarterback. Remember, it's not that the injury itself hurts your QBs play on Sunday, it's that there are 11 guys on the other team that would love to aggravate the injury by pounding him.
Al: There's a difference between playing through pain and playing with an injury. Playing through pain for the benefit of the team as a whole is admirable. Playing with an injury is just dumb, especially in the NFL as compared to other sports. Not only is it a more physical game, but overall the players have the worst contracts in professional sports. Out of the 22 given players on the field at a time, how many have an actual contract with guaranteed money for next season? It's definitely less than half, probably around a quarter. Your average player might think that he has to go out and play through an injury to increase his stats and the chances that he'll get a deal the next season. But, if that injury worsens too much through playing, the team will have no qualms about cutting a player with a "five-year" deal as soon as they can.
You're right on about 11 players wanting to aggravate an injury. That's why I had no problem with Mike Shannahan's fib from Week 2 about Jake Plummer's "concussion". I understand the need for the NFL to force coaches to accurately describe the likelihood that a specific player will play on Sunday. The opposing coach should have enough information to properly game plan for his opponent. However, I can see no reason that a coach needs to release the specific injury that a player has. All it does is encourage the opposition to focus on that body part and further injure an already weakened body part. What is gained by Denver telling the Raiders that Jake Plummer had a separated shoulder? All it does is increase the chance that Bill Romanowski will take a shot at Plummer's shoulder the second he gets a chance.
Ian: I think an important factor you're leaving out is how important public injury reports are to gamblers. One of the great things about the NFL is how interesting it is to bet on, and for bookies to create the spreads they need to know who's likely to play and who isn't. Undoubtedly gambling is a huge part of NFL popularity; the league is wise to cater to that aspect of its popularity by any means necessary.
Well, we're 3 weeks into the season. We've got 6 undefeated teams, 10 with one loss, 12 with two losses, and 4 with three losses. Let's talk about the best and worst teams in each category.
The best undefeated team right now has got to be Kansas City. Sure, two of their wins have come against Houston and San Diego, but they also steamrolled a potent Steelers team despite trailing 10-0 barely 5 minutes into the game. Trent Green's still gotta cut down on the turnovers (5 picks vs. 3 touchdowns already), but he doesn't need to be that good to help this team win. Tony G. is getting healthy again, which could make they're offense even better, which is frankly scary.
Al: What, no "Oasis or Mirage" this week?
I'd have to go with the Colts as the best undefeated team in the league. That defense has been incredible. They've only allowed two TDs in three games, one of those in garbage time against the Jaguars. Looking at their next few games, it could be a month before someone scores a meaningful TD against Indianapolis. Edgerrin James is back in the top 10 in rushing. Maybe moving to a ball control/defense game plan will finally get the Colts out of the first round this year.
As for the worst undefeated team, I have to go with Minnesota. They haven't played a quality opponent yet this year. Winning at Lambeau Field seemed like a big deal at the time, but beating a team that loses to Arizona isn't that big of an accomplishment. Can Moe Williams put up a 100 yard rushing game against a team with an adequate run defense? Can Daunte Culpepper be effective with broken bones in his spine? The defense still has a lot to prove as well. Green Bay put up 25 points against the Vikings and only 13 against Arizona. We should learn a lot about the Vikings this Sunday against San Francisco.
Ian: Before Daunte hurt his back, I might have said Carolina was the worst undefeated team since they have Jake Delhomme at quarterback. But I have to agree with you on Minnesota; as you pointed out they haven't been playing top-quality opponents. And if I line them up against any of the other undefeateds, I see them losing.
I guess it's no surprise that I'm rating the Bucs as the best team with 1 loss. I think the biggest shocker is that Michael Pittman is actually starting to play well -- I think I even saw him make someone miss tackling him last week! Until their defense shows any signs of letting up they'll be the best team with one loss.
Al: It's tough to argue that any of the other teams with one loss is better than Tampa. Carolina played well when they beat Tampa, but that was a fluke win for the Panthers.
The worst 2-1 team? Easily New England. The Patriot running game is abysmal. Their passing attack is inconsistent and can be shut down by a secondary that can keep tight coverage near the line of scrimmage. They just lost their best defensive player for the rest of the season. The Patriots are the least likely of the 2-1 teams to make the playoffs.
Ian: You didn't just say that New England is worse than Dallas and Baltimore, did you? Gimme a break. I'm not sure which of those teams I like less, but both are worse than the Pats. I'll go with Dallas, since they have no offensive players with a respectable level of talent. Quincy Carter is still learning, Joey Galloway is a burner with a bad hamstring, and though I've watched two Dallas games I don't even remember seeing Troy Hambrick. The defense has some good players, but Parcells has a long way to go to turn these guys into playoff contenders.
There's a really surprising list of teams with 2 losses -- Cleveland, Oakland, Philadelphia, Green Bay, Atlanta, New Orleans, San Francisco and St. Louis. Of all those teams I gotta believe Philadelphia is the best. They got beat up by the defending Super Bowl champs and lost to New England on a hangover. But I look for them to rebound in a big way and still contend for a division title.
Al: I missed Dallas; I was only looking at the 2-1 teams. I forgot Dallas had a bye. I'd take the Ravens over the Patriots, though. Better defense and a better running game.
Best two loss team? San Francisco. They've scored 85 points and allowed only 47, yet have lost two out of three. Two close losses do not put San Francisco at the same level of the Texans. They still have Terrell Owens. Tai Streets has shown he could be a decent #2 WR. The Hearst/Barlow combination is still effective. The defense is top notch, the Football Outsiders rankings place them #3 in the league. I think they'll still pull out the division title or at the very least make the playoffs.
The worst two loss team is obviously the Texans. They're much better than last year, but still have no shot at making the playoffs until they get an offensive line that can run-block effectively.
Ian: Houston may not have a shot at the playoffs this year, but at least David Carr isn't playing like a stiff and they've got a wide receiver with a ton of UUUUUUUPside in Andre Johnson. The rest of the Houston roster is still crappy, but improving. The team with 2 losses that stands out to me as the worst is the Chicago Bears. Heck, they might be the worst team in the league as far as I'm concerned. Kordell Stewart is flat-out horrible, and Chicago's finding out the hard way. Marty Booker and Brian Urlacher are great players, but the entire rest of that team is terrible.
There are only four 0-3 teams, and oddly enough they're all in the AFC. The Jets, Bengals, Jaguars and Chargers have gotten off to really bad starts. Of those four, I'd rate the Jets as the best team. They've got the fewest points allowed of any of the other 0-3 teams, and they're only a Chad Pennington away from being a contender in the AFC East. The surrounding talent they have is evidenced by the numbers Vinny's been putting up in Chad's absence.
Al: Ugh, the Jets are awful. They're the worst 0-3 team. Vinny's been putting up good numbers because the Jets can't run the ball so he's forced to pass almost every play. The Jets do nothing particularly well. The fact that Chad Pennington and Laveraneus Coles could take this team into the playoffs last year says a lot about the talent of those two players. At least with the Jets sucking, we get great Herm Edwards tirades. He's taken Jim Mora's place of having the best post-loss press conferences in the NFL. I love his explanation of the Jets' offensive game plan in the second half against Miami in week 2: "Just throw it every play, I don't really care. Just throw the ball because we can't run it. We're kidding ourselves." That's great.
I'll go with the Chargers for the best 0-3 team. They still have LaDanian Tomlinson, one of the top five RBs in all of the NFL. When David Boston can stay healthy he's a legitimate #1 WR. Defensively they have their problems, but the Chargers have the biggest strengths of any of the winless squads.
Arguing which of these teams is the best is like arguing which commercial is the least annoying: the Kid Rock "Somebody's Got to Feel This!" Coors Lite ad, or that horrendous "Anyway You Want It, That's The Way You Need It" Ford commercial.
Ian: I think the worst 0-3 team in the NFL right now is Jacksonville. How can you figure those guys out? They're a horrible team that needs to rebuild, but they seem hesitant to begin the process. Getting Jimmy Smith back should be nice, but that will only give them 1 wide receiver worth having. On the bright side, I'm psyched for the Byron Leftwich era.
Ian: Well, my perfect streak has ended, right along with Brett Favre's career. I guess both had to happen sometime, but neither of us wanted it this soon. Of all the picks for me to get wrong, Green Bay at Arizona is not the one I expected. Brett, you can't even engineer a comeback drive at Arizona?? It'll be a long season in Green Bay. A strong week for you last week Al, getting only your Just a Hunch wrong, which you admitted was just a hunch anyways. But since I got 2 of 3 right also, you only make up 1 point and I've still got a commanding 16-10 lead. Enough of the recap, let's get to the picks.
Best Bet: Kansas City -3 over Baltimore: Kansas City has rolled over their first three opponents. Baltimore is a surprising 2-1, thanks to the rushing of Jamal Lewis. But last I checked, Kyle Boller was still the starter in Baltimore, and Priest Holmes was still healthy. Put 10 men in the box against the Ravens, leave 1 on Todd Heap, and it's an easy victory.
Pretty Good Bet: Indianapolis -2 over New Orleans: I guess I'm a fan of the already undefeated teams this week. The Colts seem to be evolving to a more defensive, pound-the-ball style of offense. That's a Tony Dungy offense. But in Indy, they have the offense to make it work. Marvin Harrison has started slowly by his standards, but I expect him to get a touchdown or two on Sunday.
Just a Hunch: Cincinnati +5.5 over Cleveland: I'll counter my two picks of undefeated favorites with the ultimate underdog -- Cincinnati. Cleveland has the talent to win this game, but Cincinnati has the talent to keep it close. I wouldn't be all that surprised if Marvin Lewis picks up his first W though.
Best Bet: Indianapolis -2 over New Orleans: As I mentioned earlier, the Colts defense has been great this year. The Saints offense has been very inconsistent. They only team they've had success against this year is Houston. I don't think New Orleans finds the end zone this week. Two points should be easy for the Colts to cover.
Pretty Good Bet: Jacksonville -3 over Houston: I'm going by Aaron's ratings on this one. The FBO rankings think Jacksonville is a mediocre team that has just experienced some bad luck and that Houston is a pretty poor team that got lucky once. The Jags will win a couple of games this year. This looks like one of them.
Just a Hunch: Dallas +3 over NY Jets: The Jets are horrible. Horrible. Bill Parcells will win more games in the Meadowlands in 2003 than the Jets will, at least until Chad Pennington returns. The Jets do nothing well. At least Dallas has a competent defense. This game will be awful to watch. Unfortunately, because I'm a poor law student without the Sunday Ticket package, it's the only 4 pm game I'll be able to watch. Sounds like a great time to get some work done or visit a sports bar.
Al: Once again, the Michael Vick/Jimmy Smith/James Stewart team escapes elimination thanks to two big weeks from its kickers. Ian's Belmont Cochlea gets booted this week, leaving him with only three teams alive in the competition. Marshall Faulk's injury and Curtis Martin's continued suckitude knocked the Cochlea out of the league. My team, the Defending Champs, wins immunity behind big games from LaDanian Tomlinson and Reggie Wayne.
Ian Damn you!!!!!!!!!
I've been singing "Anyway you want it, that's the way you need it" all day...