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?
30 Oct 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: Man, how about those Kansas City Chiefs? They didn't just beat the Bills; they completely pounded them into the ground. Seven turnovers? That's insane. I think the most impressive aspect of Kansas City's play was their offensive line; Holmes had daylight all day, and when Trent Green dropped back to pass, there was never anyone near him. Buffalo didn't register a single sack all game, and I don't know if they even pressured Green at all. On problem Kansas City has: Is there any head coach in football more annoying to look at than Dick Vermeil? Try making the Dick Vermeil face and holding it for five seconds. Now imagine doing that for 3 hours of a football game. Oh, and did I mention that Drew Bledsoe sucks?
The other team that's been incredible lately is the Tennessee Titans. Since their drubbing at the hands of the Colts, they're 5-1, and look at their points per game: 27, 30, 30, 38, 37, 30. At the beginning of the season, Bill Simmons, a.k.a. The Sports Guy at ESPN's Page 2 declared that Steve McNair would win league MVP and the Tennessee Titans would win the Super Bowl. I'd have a hard time disagreeing with that theory now.
Al: It's nice to have Drew Bledsoe to kick around again. I know the Bills have a poor pass blocking offensive line, but Bledsoe is still allowed to take a step in one direction or another to avoid a sack. I was very impressed by the Chief defense Sunday night. Before I get to the Titans, though:
Al: I'm horrible at this. I told you last week that I'd start off the column with my picks, just so you don't steal all of the good lines again.
Best Bet: New England +2 over Denver: Danny Kannell v. Bill Belichick's defense. 'Nuff said.
Very Good Bet: Cincinnati -3 over Arizona: Shhh... here come the Bengals. They've beaten playoff contenders two weeks in a row. The Cardinals had a nice upset of the 49ers, but c'mon, it's the Cardinals.
Just a Hunch: Dallas -3.5 over Washington: If I was a football player, the last place I would want to be this week is at a Dallas practice. Think Bill Parcells won't be working his team overtime after getting shutout in Tampa? The Redskins are coming off of a bye week where Daniel Snyder started undermining his head coach by hiring consultants to try to fix Washington's offense. When we talked about which coaches wouldn't survive the season last week, we definitely should have mentioned Spurrier. A loss to Dallas this week will get the rumors of his return to Floridastarted in earnest.
Al: Now back to the Titans. Eddie George still scares me. He's #46 in VOA (through Week 7). When was the last time a team with a starting RB that poor won the Super Bowl? Antowain Smith was at least an average RB the year the Pats won it all. Once Tennesseefaces a team in the playoffs with a quality pass defense, the Titans will be forced to run the ball. At that point you can say goodbye to the Titans. Tennesseeneeds to worry about winning the division and getting a first round bye before it starts making hotel reservations for Houston in January.
Ian: You can have whatever lines you want. I'll do my Best Bets later on.
You make a good point; the Titans are certainly lacking a running game. They seem a lot like the Philadelphia offenses of the previous two seasons, with an unstoppable McNabb and a bunch of crap everywhere else. McNabb did almost single-handedly get the Eagles to the big game though...
I bet you're glad that your boys in blue pulled off a Dr. Jekyll this week with their decisive victory in Minnesota. Just one turnover all game, and in the fourth quarter, when it mattered most, they were able to stop Randy Moss from even touching the ball. I'm not sure which was more surprising, that the Giants beat Minnesota or that Tiki Barber didn't fumble the football all game.
Al: I wouldn't really call the Giants' win a decisive victory. Sure they ended up winning by 12 points, but they were really only a Viking offside penalty and a Daunte Culpepper interception away from losing the game. New Yorkdominated the Vikings the entire day, yet they were playing from behind with six minutes left. The Giants wanted to blow that game, but the Vikings just wouldn't let them. NYTD Blue was pretty crappy once they got into the red zone. Before Barber's TD that put the Giants ahead for good, New Yorkhad four red zone possessions and scored only one TD.
I wasn't very impressed by the Vikings. Moe Williams had a few decent runs, but other than those few successful rushing plays the offense was very one dimensional. I'll never understand why Randy Moss doesn't have two defensive backs covering him on every single play. If you shut down Moss, the rest of the Vikings offense won't be able to beat you.
I also was disappointed in Minnesota's play calling late in the game. I'm probably overreacting here, since the plays I'm talking about happened when the Vikings were down 12 points with 24 seconds left, but it has stuck with me for some reason. I see only two choices for the Vikings in that spot. They can concede defeat by taking a knee or putting in their backups to keep their starters from getting injured. Or they can go for the win with a quick Hail Mary, onside kick, then another Hail Mary.
What do the Vikings do? They throw a ten yard pass to Moe Williams. The Vikings still had 17 seconds at this point, which is theoretically enough time for a Hail Mary, onside kick, Hail Mary. Culpepper then threw an incomplete pass, bringing the time down to 11 seconds. 11 seconds is pushing it, but I still think that if everything breaks right the Vikings might have enough time for 2 scores and the onside kick.
What does Daunte Culpepper do next? He scrambles for 13 yards, ending any remote chance Minnesota had to win the game. 11 seconds left in the fourth quarter is not the time to sit in the pocket and wait for a receiver to get open. With 11 seconds left, you have to take three steps back, step up and throw to the end zone with the hope that a receiver will get there in time. Just poor play calling and decision making at the end of the game. If you aren't going to give yourself a chance to win with 24 seconds left just kneel on the ball or put in the reserves. There's no reason for Culpepper and Moss to be on the field running plays if you aren't going to go for the win.
Ian: Players have a tendency to do stupid things when their team seems to be facing insurmountable odds. I get more annoyed when the coaching staff gives up. Take Monday night for instance. The Chargers are down 16 to the Dolphins with around 2:30 left. Brees takes a sack, and it's 4th and 15 around midfield. Now, clearly the odds of getting a first here are very low, and the chances of getting two touchdowns with two 2-point conversions are even lower, but you _have_ to take that chance. Marty sends in the punting unit, and Ricky Williams runs out the clock. What a wimpy call.
Ya know, I looked at the standings this morning, and in the AFC North in first place are the Baltimore Ravens at 4-3. In second place? The Cincinnati Bengals at 3-4. Shhh... Here come the Bengals...
Al: What kind of message does that punt send to the San Diego offense? I completely agree. Even though the Chargers don't have much of a chance to convert in that spot, you have to go for it just to show your offense that you have some confidence in them.
Ian: It is time for a Playoff Team Edition of Oasis or Mirage. We'll talk about each team that would make the playoffs if they started today, and decide if they're likely to be there at the end of the season, or if it's just a Mirage.
Ian: The New England Patriots are currently in first place, despite an offense that hasn't really lit it up and a defense constantly hit hard with injuries. Something changed recently though. Time and time again, I've watched Tom Brady miss a wide open wide receiver downfield. He just couldn't make those throws accurately. It's plagued the Pats the last few seasons, and has allowed defenses to play the Pats tight and stuff the run. But all of a sudden, Brady remembered how to throw that deep pass. Every game he seems to hit one clutch bomb or post pattern to move the ball downfield. The best of which, obviously was his throw to Troy Brown to beat Miami in overtime. And what do you know? Now that teams are honoring the passing game, the running game has opened up with Kevin Faulk and Mike Cloud. Miami's got a tough schedule ahead with their next 2 games vs. Indy, @Tennessee and vs. Baltimore, and they'll follow that up with their annual December slump, so I think the Pats have what it takes to hang on and win the division. Verdict: Oasis
Al: I'd bet on New England finding a way to stay on top of their division also. I really like them this week at Denver. Pencil in two more wins against Houston and Jacksonville and that's nine wins for the Pats. Their other five games are DAL, @IND, MIA, @NYJ, and BUF. 2-3 would be a very conservative estimate over that span. That's 11-5 which should be more than enough to win the division, especially with a win in the books already over Miami to help out in a tiebreaker situation. Verdict: Oasis.
Miami has a hold on the final AFC wild card spot right now with a half game lead over Denver. I don't see the Broncos catching up to Miami, especially with Danny Kannell running the offense over the next few games. I don't think Miami will be great over the second half of the year, but it's tough to find another team that will overtake the Dolphins for the final playoff spot. The Bills have looked horrible. The Jets could make a late season run with The Chad back, but they have a huge whole to dig themselves out of at 2-5. I can't see two teams from the AFC North making the playoffs. Can Oakland make a run with Tuiasosopo? I wouldn't bet on it. Miami will make the playoffs by default. Verdict: Oasis.
Ian: Brian Griese looked very good this week. I can't imagine the 'Fins will go back to Jay Fiedler after Monday's game. Ricky Williams was pretty much shut down, and the Miami offense was still able to put points on the board. And man, is their defense amazing; Patrick Surtain may be the best cornerback in the league. Denver may have caught them with a healthy quarterback, but not now. Verdict: Oasis
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. Kyle Boller sucks. Verdict: Mirage.
Al: The AFC North is really anyone's to win. Even the Steelers, my preseason AFC Champion prediction, still have a shot, especially with Jerome Bettis back as the starting RB. I can't see Baltimore hanging on with their difficult remaining schedule. I don't see another four wins in their future. The first team to eight wins will take this division and the Ravens look like they have the toughest road there. Verdict: Mirage
The only way the Indianapolis Colts don't make the playoffs is if either Peyton Manning or Marvin Harrison gets hurt and is lost for the season. Even then, Indy could still get to ten wins with their schedule. A weakened Colts team could still beat the Jaguars, Jets, Falcons and Texans. I can't wait to pick against the Colts in their first playoff game. Verdict: Oasis
Ian: Indy making the playoffs is a foregone conclusion; the question is can they win the division over Tennessee? In week 2, the Colts plastered the Titans 33-7. The key to that win was Edge running for 120 yards and a touchdown, while Steve McNair got knocked out for 2 series with a dislocated finger. James seems to be back to form with a 104 yard rushing day this past weekend, and Peyton Manning is doing the best quarterbacking I've ever seen. Period. Steve McNair can't lead the Titans to a division title by himself. Verdict: Oasis
On the other hand, McNair can certainly lead the Titans to a wild card spot. I mentioned how hot the Titans were playing earlier; suffice to say they're making the playoffs. Verdict: Oasis
Al: It's tough to see the Titans missing the postseason, barring a serious injury to Steve McNair. If he gets hurt, all bets are off. The Titans have the same crappy four teams on their schedule than the Colts do. An easy ten wins will get them into the playoffs in the AFC. Verdict: Oasis
Has a team ever gone 8-0 and missed the playoffs? Barring the Californiawildfires spreading to Missourior some other disaster this one's pretty easy. Kansas City is making the playoffs. Verdict: Oasis
Ian: It was pointed out during Sunday night's game that the last three teams to start out 8-0 won the Super Bowl. Whether or not this team makes the playoffs is not an issue. Verdict: Oasis
Ian: Dallas leads their division, but are they for real? Tampa spanked 'em 16-0, and they only beat the Giants due to a New Yorkmeltdown. I have to give them a lot of credit for playing the way they have thus far, but I can easily see them losing 3 of their next 4 games against Washington, Buffalo, Carolina and the Patriots. I think they'll fail to win the division, and miss a wildcard spot to some combination of Tampa Bay/Carolina/St. Louis/Seattle. Verdict: Mirage
Al: I'm not sold on the Cowboys, but I see their schedule a little differently than you do. I think they have a clear advantage in their next two games, home against Washingtonand on the road against Buffalo. After that, though, Dallas could easily lose 4 in a row with home games against the Panthers and Dolphins and road games at Philadelphia and New England. At that point they'd be 7-6 playing at Washington. Even if they pull that game out, they have the Giants next in a game that could decide a playoff birth. At best I think Dallas ends up at 9-7. That won't be enough to win the NFC East and probably won't be good enough for one of the two wild card slots either. Verdict: Mirage
I think Minnesotais the only real lock in the NFC. They have a three game lead over the Packers and a very light schedule the rest of the way. The Vikings still have games against San Diego, Detroit, Chicago and Arizona. Not to mention games against Green Bay and Oakland which look pretty good based on the current standings. I'd be shocked if Minnesota didn't end up with at least a first round bye if not home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Verdict: Oasis
Ian: I would like to repeat exactly what you said about the Vikings and add nothing whatsoever. Verdict: Oasis
Can we all agree that the Best Off-season Pickup of the Year award goes to Carolina and Stephen Davis? He has been amazing, and it really makes you wonder what the heck Steve Spurrier was thinking when he showed him the door. Davis is on pace for over 1,900 yards this season, while his best rushing total in Washingtonwas 1,432. John Fox has built this Panther team from the lines on up, and the effectiveness of that method is showing in their record. I hate to say it, but I'd be surprised if Tampa catches them for a division title. Verdict: Oasis
Al: I'm afraid that the Panthers will shoot themselves in the foot by not running the ball 40 times a game. Their success is directly related to their ability to run. Jake Delhomme isn't taking them to the Super Bowl. It's Davis, DeShaun Foster and the O-Line that might take the Panthers to Houston in January. With games against Houston,
Tampa is currently in line for the final wild card slot thanks to their victory over Philadelphia earlier in the season. Call me crazy, but I think the Bucs might get edged out for this final playoff spot. Injuries and bad penalties have killed Tampa. The Bucs defense isn't the unstoppable force it was last year. The Panthers have shown that you can run a power back with success against Tampa and the Colts showed that you can throw at whichever corner isn't Ronde Barber. Warren Sapp has been acting like he's more worried about pissing off the NFL than he is in stopping the run or getting to the QB. The biggest game of Tampa's season will be week 12 against NYTD Blue. That game could determine the final wild card spot in the NFC. Verdict: Mirage
Ian: Is it finally time for me to disagree with you? Tampa's defense sucked the last few weeks due to their injuries piling up, but Monte Kiffin showed he still knows what he's doing by having a week to prepare with his current healthy players and having them shut down Dallas. Troy Hambrick, the kind of rusher you might expect to pound the ball well against Tampa, had 11 carries for a mere 25 yards. The Dallas passing game was shut down as well and it actually had been pretty effective thus far this season. The other bright spot for Tampa
The NFC West has turned into a very exciting division this season. As I predicted at the beginning of the year, Seattle is currently on top, especially thanks to their comeback win over the Rams in week 3. Of course, this was soon after Marc Bulger took over at quarterback, and now that he's entrenched as the full-time starter he's been virtually unstoppable. Still, Seattle has a relatively easy schedule, and has a great shot at winning the division. The real test will be weeks 14 and 15, when they play at Minnesota, then at St. Louis.
One strange thing in Seattle has been the lackluster play of Koren Robinson -- but for those of you in fantasy leagues, hang onto him. He was a late bloomer last season, having scored 4 of his five touchdowns in the last 6 weeks of the season, when he averaged 108 yards a game. In fact, I'd advise you to buy low on him if you don't have him. His resurgence along with some high-scoring victories against Minnesota and St. Louis will lead the 'Hawks to a division championship. Verdict: Oasis
Al: How confident can you be in a team that lost to the Bengals last week? I'd love to pick against Seattle making the playoffs, but I can't find another team that will make it ahead of them. I see four more wins on their schedule at the very least. The Seahawks won't hold onto the division, but should slide into the #5 seed as a wild card. If they lose this week to the Steelers, however, all bets are off. Verdict: Oasis
When I picked the Rams to struggle in the preseason, it was based on an assumption that Mike Martz wouldn't be willing to bench a healthy Kurt Warner. Now that Martz has given the keys over to Mark Bulger, I have to go back on my prediction. I was a part of the Rams bandwagon when they won the Super Bowl, but I jumped off after they lost to New England two years later. I'm hopping back on now. The Rams will win the NFC West and beat out Carolina for a first round bye in the playoffs. Just look at their schedule! 7-2 is probably a conservative estimate of the Rams record over their last nine games, especially if Marshall Faulk can come back and stay on the field for the rest of the year. It's time to get my Rams jersey out of storage. Verdict: Oasis
Ian: Yeah, Marc Bulger to Torry Holt is proving as uncoverable as Manning to Harrison lately. It's amazing how good Torry Holt is -- when he catches balls, it's not like he's outjumping people, he usually has around 5 yards clearance from the nearest defender. I don't know how he does it (and unfortunately, due to line-of-scrimmage camera angles very few of us can), but he's got to be the best wide receiver in the league at getting open downfield. Lawrence Phillips could rush for these guys and they'd make the playoffs. Verdict: Oasis
Ian: And now it's time for a new weekly feature on Scramble for the Ball. As you may or may not have seen, the Jaguars punter knocked himself out for awhile by gashing his own leg with an axe. Why in the world was he doing this? Because of the team's motto, "Keep Choppin' Wood", and the big tree stump and axe in the team's locker room. Needless to say, this is no longer the team's motto. In honor of this ridiculously stupid event, we will be handing out the weekly Keep Choppin' Wood Award to the player who does the most to help his team lose each week.
It is my distinct pleasure to award the first ever Keep Choppin' Wood Award to none other than Drew Bledsoe. I realize the rest of the Bills team wasn't exactly lighting it up against Kansas City, but no one takes a sack like Drew Bledsoe. Watch whenever another team blitzes -- before he even thinks about throwing the ball away like Brad Johnson would, he just crumples up into the fetal position and goes down for the sack. Drew passed for 153 yards and 3 interceptions, while fumbling the ball twice.
Al: Without a strong offensive line, Bledsoe is a detriment to his team. If you can give him 5 seconds every play to step back, step up and throw, Drew can be among the best in the league. If he only gets two seconds to make a quick decision or sidestep out of a blitzing linebacker's way, they might as well play one of us at QB. We can lose a game just as well as Bledsoe can.
One letter for us this week from Kristen in Massachusetts:
"Arena Football is becoming increasingly popular. New teams keep popping up and attendance rates are also rising. Do you anticipate more players making the cross from arena league to the NFL? (Kurt Warner is the golden example, of course.) If so, can you anticipate any changes in the NFL, however subtle, to either the plays that are called or the way that viewers experience the game?
I ask this partly because of the XFL. Although the XFL only lasted one year, the camera angle that they developed is now seen in the NFL. But I don't imagine that the NFL will replace the coin flip with scramble for the ball!"
Al: Arena players will most certainly keep coming over to the NFL. It's the closest thing to the minor leagues that the NFL has for players who have exhausted their college eligibility but still have dreams of playing football for a living. An Arena League game is a great time. To our readers, if there's a team in your area you really should check out a game. There's non-stop action and it's relatively affordable to take a family to see a game. The Mohegan Wolves game that we went to in the spring was a blast. I think the Wolves scored something like 25 points in the first quarter. Plus, there's the unintentional comedy factor of watching referees officiate a game when they obviously don't know the rules of football.
The one Arena League rule (also used in the late, great XFL) which I'd like to see the NFL adopt is allowing forward motion behind the line of scrimmage. It just makes the game more exciting. What's more interesting to watch: Randy Moss standing on the line of scrimmage or Randy Moss racing towards the line of scrimmage? It will lead to more interesting offensive plays and formations which can only lead to a more entertaining product for the fans.
Ian: I also expect that there will be more players coming to the NFL from the Arena league. There are plenty of players in the NFL who are drafted late because not much is expected of them, but then go on to be amazing players. I'm sure the same potential exists in many players never drafted by the NFL. Most of those players go to play in the Arena league, and some certainly will prove they're NFL worthy. With all the injuries in pro-football, teams are always looking for fill-in talent from outside the organization, and the AFL is a great place to look.
I very much agree on the idea of motion before the snap in the NFL. There's also another rule that I think could be an intriguing addition to the NFL -- late in the game, the clock only keeps running if the offense advances the ball past the line of scrimmage. That means no taking a knee, and a stuffed run could mean a chance for the defending team to get the ball back. I doubt it would actually get added to the NFL, but a team should win by pounding the ball forwards, not by taking a knee.
Ian: After another 3-0 week from me, while you went 1-2, I have a 34-25 advantage. Good luck catching up. For those of you who haven't been reading for awhile, we've been picking since week 1, and awarding 3 points for a Best Bet, 2 for a Pretty Good Bet, and 1 for Just a Hunch. On to my picks...
Best Bet: Oakland -2.5 over Detroit: I think that Ohio
Pretty Good Bet: St. Louis -3 over San Francisco: The Rams are on fire lately. San Francisco lost to Arizonalast week. And the Rams are only getting 3 points?? Sure, they're playing on the road, but they torched Pittsburgh on the road last week. Gimme St. Louis.
Just a Hunch: Seattle -4.5 over Pittsburgh: Every week we have to be told that Tommy Maddox will keep his job another week. And every week he goes out and throws a couple more interceptions. I suppose it's better than starting Charlie Batch. Look for Seattle to rebound in a big way from their loss at Cincinnati and pound the Steelers.
Al: My Stone Cutters' crappy WRs finally caused the team to be knocked out after Weeks 7 and 8. Getting only 4 points out of Plaxico Burress, Quincy Morgan and Todd Pinkston over two weeks is too much for even Jon Kitna to overcome. I'm not worrying about my three remaining teams, though. They easily finished #1, #2 and #3 for the week.