The league's northern divisions pose a number of meaty questions, such as: "Is the Bears' offense due for a repeat performance?" "Why do the Lions have such pronounced splits?" and "Has Johnny Manziel made the Cleveland brass even crazier?"
08 Jan 2004
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, we're down to the NFL's Elite Eight. Two of them were very kind to me in Week 17, as Philly and Carolina destroyed the 'Skins and Giants as I predicted they would, giving me the title of this year's Best Bets Champion. A nice run for you down the stretch, but better luck next year.
Al: It's a good thing we weren't around to pick last week's games. I'm pretty sure I would have gotten every one wrong.
What a game in Green Bay on Sunday! I was very impressed with Matt Hasselbeck's performance. He made a few poor decisions but threw some perfect passes. If only his WRs could catch some of those perfect passes Seattle would have walked out of Green Bay with a win.
What I don't understand, though, is all the love being given to Ahman Green and the Green Bay O-Line after the game. At least around here, all the talk has been that it was the running game that won the game for Green Bay, not Brett Favre's passing. I'm not sure what game those folks were watching. Green and Najeh Davenport ran 30 times for only 87 yards, only 2.9 yards per carry. Favre completed 68% of his passes and threw for over 300 yards resulting in a 102.85 QB rating.
Ian: The Packers may not have had a statistically dominating rushing day, but when the Packers needed it most in the 4th quarter they were able to run right through the Seattle defense. On the 4th quarter drive that gave the Packers a 7 point lead, the Pack rushed 9 times and passed only 3. The drive ended unsurprisingly in an Ahman Green rushing touchdown.
Still though, you're totally right in that Brett Favre deserves major kudos for his elevated play since the unfortunate passing of his father. He's motivated and hungry for another championship, and with Brian Westbrook out I bet Philly fans aren't too confident of an easy win this weekend.
One team that's feeling very confident is the Indianapolis Colts, who surprisingly shut down Denver's rushing attack and destroyed them handily. Denver killed themselves with penalties, taking Clinton Portis out of the game by getting into 3rd and longs and falling behind so quickly with an awful defensive showing. Is Jake Plummer the MVP yet?
Al: I don't think anyone expected a Colt blowout Sunday. The Denver secondary was nowhere to be found. There was blown coverage and that horrible missed tackle on Harrison. When Brandon Stokely is dropping 144 receiving yards on you, you're doing something wrong.
It didn't seem like the Colts were doing that great of a job on Portis, Denver just kept taking him out of the game themselves. Portis averaged four yards a carry. That's a down day for him, but that's still a positive running game. The problem was that Denver couldn't afford to run Portis consistently after the first quarter. In the second quarter alone, the Broncos had 20+ yards to go on six different downs, not counting 4th downs. That was more than 1/4 of their non-4th downs in the entire quarter. After that, Denver was down 31-3. You're not going to see an NFL team run too much when they have to come back from a 4 TD deficit at the half.
I'm pretty disappointed, though, that I can't blindly pick against the Colts in the playoffs anymore.
Ian: Speaking of taking running backs out of the game, where was Jamal Lewis on Saturday?? I think Brian "The Genius" Billick outsmarted himself this weekend, by constantly passing the ball in a close game that could have easily been won if Jamal Lewis got going. Sure, the Titans defense was shutting him down early, but the second half is usually when Jamal gets it going and breaks off a 60-yard touchdown run. I was saying that I didn't like Baltimore's chances in the playoffs, since eventually the ball would have to be in the hands of Anthony Wright. I didn't think that would happen in a close game though.
Al: You have to run Lewis more than 14 times. In a close game like that, there's no reason Anthony Wright should be throwing the ball 37 times.
Al: And now, the moment everyone has been waiting for...
Al: For those of you just joining us, we started giving out the Keep Choppin' Wood Award in Week 9 in honor of Jaguar punter Chris Hanson ending his season by slicing his foot open with an axe. Coach Jack Del Rio had placed a tree stump and axe in the Jaguar locker room as a motivational tool. The stump and axe were a symbol of the team's motto "Keep Choppin' Wood." We gave the award every week after that to the player who does the most to help his team lose every week. Here, then, are the players that did the most to help their team lose this season. We'll each give our pick for each position. Feel free to give us your candidates in the comments section.
Al: Drew Bledsoe was the winner of the inaugural Keep Choppin' Wood award. It didn't get any better from there. After Week 7, the Bills were 4-3 and in the hunt for a playoff spot. From Week 8 on, Drew threw for over 200 yards in only one game. He threw only five TDs over those last nine games with seven INTs. But that's not why Drew gets my vote. What sets Drew above the rest of the competition is his sheer inability to get out of the way of oncoming rushers. Over those last nine games, Bledsoe was sacked an astounding 29 times. Drew cost the Bills 371 yards because of his sacks, 80 yards more than any other QB in the NFL.
Ian: There's no doubt that Drew Bledsoe is the starting QB and captain of this year's All Keep Choppin' Wood Team. I've said it before, and I'll say it again -- No one is as dependant on the rest of his team as Drew Bledsoe. If he simply showed some mobility in the pocket, or an ability to make a clutch play now and then, the Bills could be a playoff contender. But look up "deer in headlights" in the dictionary and you'll see a picture of Drew from the Sunday night game against the Chiefs.
Ian: When you talk about giving away games, look no further than Tiki Barber. Because he literally gave away games by handing off the ball to opposing defenses. And it's not like it was a fluke thing this year, he's had fumbling problems for a long time. It's gotten to the point that the Giants take him out of the game when they near the goal line, because they can't afford to fumble away points. It really is too bad he has this problem, because he's a great all-around back otherwise: quick to the hole, great receiver out of the backfield, and terrific open field moves. Just hang on to the damn ball.
Al: I'm not going to disagree with you here. Before the Giants completely collapsed in the second half of the year, Tiki Barber fumbled away three games for NYTD Blue. Against New England, he fumbled his first carry of the game, resulting in a New England TD. He later slipped and fell in the endzone, missing a potential TD catch. The Giants ended up with a FG. That's an 11 point swing just because of Tiki's mistakes. How many points did NY lose by? That's right -- 11. Tiki had a fumble in the second quarter against Dallas that led to a Dallas FG. Without that early FG, the Cowboys might never make it into OT and pull out the improbable win. Against Atlanta, the game that started the Giant slide into oblivion, Barber fumbled twice in Falcon territory ending two scoring chances. If the Giants scored TDs on those two possessions, they would have had a 21-20 lead in the fourth quarter. If Tiki would have just held onto the ball or stayed on his feet in those three games, NY could have been 7-2 after Week 10 instead of 4-5.
Al: I'm going to have to go with Keyshawn Johnson here. His numbers weren't particularly bad -- 4.5 catches, 60 yards per game. But if your team is willing to pay you millions of dollars not to play football you must be doing something to hurt your team. The Bucs won three of their next four games after Johnson was sent into the Fox broadcasting booth. Maybe they'd be in the playoffs if Tampa had just pulled the trigger a few weeks earlier.
Ian: Keyshawn's definitely worthy of being a starter on the team. There's not much more to say than what you said about him; the guy was a nuisance.
Lining up across from him at the other wide receiver spot has to be Peerless Price. He was brought in as a savior to an Atlanta passing attack that lacked any semblance of a #1 receiver. Just because Michael Vick went down doesn't mean that Price should have had such a horrible season; look at what Anquan Boldin had to work with in Arizona. Clearly overmatched as a #1 guy, Price struggled to get open all year and became a Loser League regular draftee. Not nearly worth his salary cap hit this year, Peerless has earned a starting spot on the team.
Al: Todd Heap was thrown to more than any other TE in the league. Heap was targeted by Baltimore QBs 112 times, #30 overall in the NFL. What separates Heap from the 29 people ranked ahead of him? Heap only caught 57 of those passes. That's a 51% catch/target percentage. The next most targeted TE in the league was Tony Gonzalez with 106 targets. Gonzo caught 71 of those passes, 67% of all passes thrown to him. Jeremy Shockey has gotten attention for hurting the Giants with all of his dropped passes, but Heap deserves just as much scrutiny. How would Baltimore have fared against Tennessee if Todd Heap hadn't missed half of the passes thrown to him?
Ian: It's true, given the lack of talent around him Heap should have had a huge year. Gonzo got his 10 touchdowns despite Priest Holmes setting an NFL record for rushing TDs on the year. Todd Heap scored a measly three. He should have been much better.
Ian: We're giving out team awards for offensive and defensive linemen, and my offensive line award goes to the Miami Dolphins. Ricky Williams may have had a bad year by Ricky's standards, but don't think it was all his fault. He almost never saw the light of day behind an offensive line that struggled all year to open up holes. Miami quarterbacks also struggled to buy time behind the line; there's a reason Jay Fiedler can survive better on the 'Fins than Brian Griese -- His half-decent mobility.
Al: Brian Griese was sacked once every 10.8 times he dropped back for a pass. That's not as bad as Drew Bledsoe's 1/9.6 ratio, but it's close. An honorable mention goes to the NY Giant O-Line which was just dreadful this year. They have to pick up a lineman or two in the first round this year.
Al: When you allow one RB to light you up for 500 yards on the season, you're the winner of the Keep Choppin' Wood D-Line of the year. Cleveland lost seven games by less than a TD. In those seven losses they allowed an average of 123 yards rushing. If their D-Line misses a few less tackles in those games, the Browns could have easily won the AFC North.
Ian: The Browns D-Line was absolutely terrible in those two games against the Ravens, and they weren't too good during the rest of the season. But my award for the Keep Choppin' Wood D-Line of the year goes to the Houston Texans. Not only did they give up the second-most rushing yards in the league, they managed a measly 19 sacks all season. Only Chicago had worse with 18 sacks. Oh, and only 4.5 of Houston's sacks came from their D-line. That's pathetic.
Ian: I'm looking forwards to the retirement of Bill Romanowski. He's certainly cemented himself among the select few most despicable players to ever play football. If it wasn't bad enough he spit in an opponent's face in years past, he decided to try out for next season's Playmakers show by punching his own teammate in the face, shattering Marcus Williams' eye socket in the process. Ouch. There isn't much more you can do to hurt your own team's chances than by taking out one of your own players.
Al: Especially if you also test positive for a soon to be banned steroid and miss the entire season with an injury. No linebacker had a bigger difference between what his team expected from him and what he actually delivered than Romanowski had.
Al: I'm combining these because it's tough to separate the blame. CB Denard Walker and FS Brian Russell were jointly responsible for keeping the Minnesota Vikings out of the playoffs. These are the two players that pushed Nate Poole out of bounds in the endzone with four seconds left against Arizona, costing the Vikings a playoff birth. If either of these players steps in front of Poole and bats down the pass, the Vikings are in the playoffs. If neither of these players pushes Poole out of bounds, Poole likely doesn't come down with both feet in bounds, and the Vikings are in the playoffs. Arizona converted a 4th and 24 with less than ten seconds left on the clock because of the play of Walker and Russell. They'll be choppin' wood elsewhere next season.
Ian: It's not often that one play will get you a starting spot on the All Keep Choppin' Wood Team, but when that one play costs your team the playoffs, you've earned it. And it's not like the Vikings secondary had been shutting down opponents, either. Starting opposite of Denard Walker at CB is Tim Wansley of Tampa Bay. When starting Tampa Bay CB Dwight Smith went down with an injury against the Indianapolis Colts, in came Tim Wansley to help with the prevent defense, since the Bucs were leading by a comfy margin of 21 late in the game. But apparently the word "prevent" meant "allow" to Tim, who repeatedly allowed Marvin Harrison to run right by him and beat him deep when that's the only thing the Colts could do to stay in the game. In future weeks, Wansley would have his problems as well, and has earned his starting spot.
At safety, starting opposite Brian Russell, is Atlanta's starting FS Cory Hall. Why Cory Hall? Well, for one thing, Atlanta had by far the worst pass defense in the NFL, so it'd be a shame if none of their players made it. And in 11 started games, Cory Hall managed a whopping 30 tackles, two passes defended, and zero interceptions. Given that opposing teams passed all over Atlanta, certainly Cory had plenty of opportunities to make plays, but barely showed up on the stats sheet.
Al: Of course our punter has to be Chris Hanson, who inspired the award by taking an axe to his foot. A punter injuring his own foot is one of the dumbest injuries you'll see this side of the dancing Gramatica brothers.
I'm sticking with the Jaguars for our kicker as well. A good case could be made for John Carney, who knocked the Saints out of playoff contention with his missed extra point against Jacksonville in week 16. However, over the entire year, it's tough to go against Seth Marler. Marler out-Rackered Neil Rackers this year. Marler may not have missed any extra points, but he missed plenty of field goals. He missed a field goal in 11 of Jacksonville's 16 games. The Jaguars lost two of those games by three points or less.
For kick/punt returner, we're going with none other than the NFL's career leader in all-purpose yards, Brian Mitchell. Mitchell was supposed to be the savior of the dreadful Giant return game. Instead, he somehow made it worse. In Aaron's special teams article, he ranked Mitchell as the league's worst kick returner. Mitchell averaged a putrid 5.3 yards per punt return and 20.3 yards per kick return. The Giants would have been just as well off letting the ball roll into the end zone every kickoff as they were allowing Mitchell to attempt a return
Ian: And our last position on the All Keep Choppin' Wood Team goes to the head coach; none other than Oakland head coach Bill Callahan. It's one thing to take a Super Bowl team and turn them into a 4-12 bunch of losers; it's another to have them wanting to punch you in the face after you called them the "dumbest team in America" in front of the press. To sum up:
QB: Drew Bledsoe, BUF
RB: Tiki Barber, NYG
WR: Keyshawn Johnson, TB
WR: Peerless Price, ATL
TE: Todd Heap, BAL
LB: Bill Romanowski, OAK
CB: Denard Walker, MIN
CB: Tim Wansley, TB
S: Brian Russell, MIN
S: Cory Hall, ATL
P: Chris Hanson, JAX
K: Seth Marler, JAX
KR/PR: Brian Mitchell
Head Coach: Bill Callahan
Al: Ian won the season series after Dallas no-showed on the road in Week 17 and Denver played Jason Beattie at CB against Green Bay. We'll start anew for the last three rounds of the playoffs. For this week, we'll pick all of the games and changes the scoring to add in the fourth game (4 pts for Best Bet, 3 pts for Very Good Bet, 2 pts for Hunch, 1 pt for I Guess I Have to Pick This Game)
Best Bet: Green Bay +5.5 over Philly: The Packers just match up too well with the Eagles to be getting five and a half points. The Eagles can't stop the run; the Packers can run the ball. Plus there's the Brett Favre mojo and Brian Westbrook's injury. Philly could easily win this, but they shouldn't be this big of a favorite.
Very Good Bet: New England -6 over Tennessee: I was originally going the other way on this one, thinking six points is too much for the Pats to be giving up against a team as good as the Titans. But then I remembered how one dimensional the Titans are. Despite his game last week, Eddie George is still a bad RB and the Titan offensive line isn't very good either. A one-dimensional offense going against a Bill Belichick defense? I just can't take the Titans.
Just a Hunch: Carolina +7 over St. Louis: Are the Panthers a fluke if they pull out this upset? Aaron laid out the argument for the Panthers pretty well in his divisional playoff article. It should be Stephen Davis time in St. Louis. Mark Bulger will throw an INT too many and the Panthers will pull the upset and get into the NFC Championship game.
I Guess I Have to Pick This Game: Kansas City -3 over Indianapolis: The Chiefs haven't lost at home since last season. That has to count for something here. Neither team can stop the run. I'll go with the team with the better running back.
Best Bet: New England -6 over Tennessee: I think game time temperature will be around two degrees. Yup, two. It's around twenty degrees right now and my face hurts from being outside. The Pats love this kind of weather; Tennessee will wish they were back home. McNair's gimpiness will finally catch up with him, and the Pats will roll.
Pretty Good Bet: Panthers +7 over St. Louis: I'm with you on this one; I wouldn't be all that surprised if the Panthers move on to the NFC championship game. The Rams have had trouble protecting their quarterback, while everyone's having trouble stopping Carolina from getting there. Here comes Carolina.
Just a Hunch: Indianapolis +3 at Kansas City: To make it to the Super Bowl, a team has to peak at just the right time, and now looks like the right time for Indy. They destroyed a Denver team that had beat up on them a few weeks back, while Kansas City laid a stinker against Minnesota in a game they needed to have a chance at homefield advantage. It's gonna be upset city in Kansas.
I Guess I Have to Pick This Game: Philly -5.5 over Green Bay: It's been a great run for Green Bay, and they've taken on the role of the Team of Destiny with their wild way of getting in the playoffs, and their wild win against Seattle. But the Eagles defense is finally healthy, and their wideouts are finally producing. I like them to win by 7 against the Pack.