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?
09 Dec 2004
Al: What happened to defense in the NFL? This is December. It's supposed to be cold, sloppy weather with defenses controlling games. Last week, 16 teams this week topped 25 points. Five teams topped 40. It's a sad week in the NFL when the Rams are involved in the week's lowest scoring game.
One good thing to come out of all this scoring is that we're seeing the development of the next wave of top-flight running backs. The first half of the season was pretty weak in terms of rookie running back performance. None were on pace to crack 1000 yards after Week 8. Over the past few weeks, though, either because of health or increased opportunities, a number of rookie running backs have begun to break out. Steven Jackson put up 119 yards against the 49ers and has averaged 4.6 yards a carry over the last four games. Kevin Jones has been putting up amazing numbers, averaging 119 yards a game and an incredible 6.3 yards a carry over his last four games. Julius Jones has only been in the lineup in Dallas for three weeks, put has scored five touchdowns and 429 yards, almost single-handedly keeping the Cowboys playoff hopes alive.
So who do you think has the brightest NFL future? I'm hoping it's Kevin Jones, since I used my #1 pick in our keeper league draft this year on him (speaking of which, I can't let a mention of our keeper league go without once again mentioning how awful your pick of Ricky Williams in the fourth round was this year. I can't wait until next year when you find some excuse to keep him on your roster just in case he tries a comeback in Week 11).
Vivek: I love it when Al buries that horse, digs it back up and kicks it again. Maybe Williams returns from Grass Valley and becomes a holistic team physician...
Finally, the running back has come back to Dallas. (We have not done a WWE plug in weeks, so sorry about the stretch there.) The Cowboys don't look too bad in passing on Stephen Jackson anymore. If Julius Jones was healthy for the entire season, Dallas would be in good shape for the playoffs now. His lack of size (5'9") does not seem to be much of an issue anymore, and he has done for Vinny Testaverde what Willis McGahee has done for Drew Bledsoe. Both QBs, who have had fans calling for their backups, have led their teams back into the playoff hunt.
McGahee, while not a rookie, must be mentioned in this crop of young runners. The Bills have gone 6-2 in their past eight games, and McGahee has rushed for 100 yards in five of those six wins, with 91 yards in that sixth win. Coincidence? I think not. With a below average offensive line McGahee creates a lot on his own -- making sharp cuts and causing defenders to miss while opening holes for himself.
Al: McGahee was solid on Sunday, averaging just about four yards per carry. He did have a fumble in the second quarter that could have cost the Bills if the Dolphins had someone other than A.J. Feeley at quarterback.
One other running back that probably deserves a mention is Chester Taylor in Baltimore. In his four starts this year, Taylor has averaged over 90 yards a game and 4.7 yards per carry. He had a sweet diving touchdown against Cincinati, starting his leap from the three-yard line. He might be good enough for the Ravens to consider getting rid of Jamal Lewis in the off-season. Lewis has missed four games this year because of injuries and his suspension for his drug conviction. When Lewis has managed to stay in the lineup, he hasn't performed like the quality, if overrated, back he was last season. His yards per carry average is the lower than it has ever been. His DVOA is about the same as it was last season, but the majority of Lewis' value has come from his ability to log a good amount of slightly above average valued carries. If he can't stay in the lineup, he's not all that valuable of a #1 RB. The Ravens should be able to get at least a second round pick from a team that needs a running back and is willing to take on a player with a little bit of baggage. Oakland would be a perfect fit.
Vivek: Oakland seems like a logical choice and of course Al Davis will probably draft his backup in Maurice Clarett.
While we're making picks for where some running backs are next year, I'll bet (don't hold Best Bets against me though) that Michael Bennett is reunited for Denny Green in Arizona next year. It's a foregone conclusion that Bennett is out of Minnesota with the presence of Onterrio Smith, Mewelde Moore and Moe Williams. Green should target Bennett, who can turn the corner and quickly change directions behind an offensive line that will not help him much.
Another running back who will be in a different uniform is Travis Henry, whom the Bills will trade in the offseason. Marvin Harrison's new $67 million deal, while at first glance seems to send Edgerrin James packing, actually allows the Colts to have enough flexibility to make a real push to keep the last member of the Big Three. If Edge bolts, however, Henry might be a quick fix via a trade. Let's see if Manning goes for 60 with another quick weapon.
Al: Indianapolis is talking a good game, but I can't see them re-signing James after giving those deals to Manning and Harrision. Or at least I don't think they should. Even if the Colts get creative with their contracts, the Colts will have to time up a large amount of cap space just on those three players. That means the Colts won't be able to spend as much money to upgrade at places they really need to, like on defense. It also means, though, that they'll be less likely to keep the players they have who will be looking for new contracts, like the members of the best offensive line in football. Peyton wouldn't be having the greatest passing season of all-time if he had to play behind Eli's offensive line. Without cap space to hold onto his linemen, Peyton could find out what his brother's been going through in the very near future.
Al: This just has to happen. I'm guessing it's the division winner in the NFC West. I just can't see either the Rams or Seahawks winning more than one game over the next four. These are just two bad teams. The Rams have been outscored by 50 points this year, but have somehow managed to make it to .500. The Seahawks allowed the Dallas Cowboys to score two touchdowns in two minutes at the end of the fourth quarter on Monday night. The Cowboys had scored two touchdowns or less in seven out of their eleven previous games before Monday, yet Seattle let them score that many when they had a ten point lead with under three minutes left in the game. The Seahawks aren't going to win on the road at either the Vikings or the Jets. They'd have to beat both Arizona and Atlanta at home over the last two weeks. Arizona, you have to expect Seattle to beat. But if the Falcons keep losing and need to win that game to secure a first round bye, I don't see the Seahawks coming through with the victory. The Rams probably need to beat the Panthers in Carolina this week to finish at .500. I'll pencil in a win against Arizona, but the Rams will be underdogs at home against Philadelphia and the Jets, especially if New York is still battling for a wild card spot.
Vivek: With Chris Chandler taking the reigns in St. Louis, there have been 53 different starting quarterbacks in the league this year. Granted, it seems like half of those have been from Chicago alone. Only 17 quarterbacks have started all 12 games, and five teams have already started at least three. During the past four seasons, there has been an average of about 55 different starting quarterbacks, which just echoes the value of teams signing the Billy Voleks, Kerry Collinses and Brian Grieses in the offseasons. There are plenty of Wally Pipps out there who lose their starting jobs after an injury, so some backup is waiting to take his turn as an NFL version of Lou Gehrig.
Vivek: Remember that you can send us your fantasy and other NFL questions to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Al: We have a keeper question this week from Blake T. Blake asks:
Recently converted reader, via Baseball Prospectus and Page 2. My question is this: I can keep two players from my squad this year, from two different positions. Here is the list of players on my squad. Who should I keep? Our league rewards yards from RB at 10 yards per point, 6 points for rushing and receiving touchdowns, 4 for TD passes. Here are the candidates:
Thanks in advance for taking the time to read my question. Looking forward to reading footballoutsiders.com for many years.
Al: Thanks Blake! Glad you found your way here. I'd rule out the wide receivers right away. You should be able to draft them, or players that are their equivalent, in the middle to later rounds of your draft. Since you can't keep two players at a position, that makes Brees a slam dunk choice as one of your keepers, which he would be anyway. Your real choice is between Portis and McGahee. As much as I think Portis will rebound next year if Joe Gibbs is able to get some offensive linemen this off-season, you have to keep McGahee. Since taking over as Buffalo's primary back in the middle of October, Willis is averaging 80 yards and just under a touchdown a game. Portis has been able to put up some big numbers a handful of times this year, but he's been too inconsistent running behind the awful Washington line. I'd keep McGahee and try to pick up Portis in your draft next year as your #2 or #3 running back if he slips into the second round.
Vivek: Brees, like Al said, is a no-brainer since you can only keep one player at each position. For your running back, I'm going with the proven commodity in Clinton Portis. I see a Gibbs and the Redskins realizing that Portis is no John Riggins and will let him run off-tackle and use his breakaway speed more next season. The numbers that stick out in my head are 3000 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns in the previous two seasons. Even though people are knocking his performance this year, he is still on pace to finish the year just shy of 1500 yards. His lack of touchdowns is more a result of an offense that hasn't found its identity all season.
Next up is a displaced Washington Fan from Massachusetts. Tim writes:
Are the Redskins for real? I mean, are they going to continue to score 31 points a game?
Vivek:31 points a game is going to be a stretch and the rest of this year is mostly auditions for 2005, but the Redskins are actually alive in the playoff hunt. The Redskins have finally started to utilize Chris Cooley as a receiving weapon during the past few games, with the rookie hauling in ten catches in the last two games and also scoring three touchdowns in the past four games. Cooley is a big bruiser who will be hard for defenders to bring down in one-on-one situations.
Winning three of the final four games to finish 7-9 is a possibility for the Skins with games against the 49ers, Cowboys and the always limping to the finish line Vikings. Here is one glimpse of hope for you -- if the Skins do manage to win out, and knock off the Eagles in the process, they have a very good chance of making the playoffs because of wins over some Wild Card candidates and also their conference record. The best bet is still a 6-10 season, but you can always hope, Tim.
Al: The Redskins may not score 31 points the rest of this season. Let's not forget this team hadn't scored more than two touchdowns in a game before last week's drubbing of the Giants. Chris Cooley is going to lead the Redskins into the playoffs? I don't see it. Just be patient Tim and wait for next year.
Al: An honorable mention goes to Florida Marlins first baseman Jeff Conine. Jeff will have to have surgery on his shoulder for the second time this off-season after separating it playing paddleball.
Vivek: Or an early frontrunner for the MLB KCW winner because of time spent in jail: Detroit Tigers outfielder Craig Monroe who pulled a Wynonna Ryder and walked out of a clothing store wearing a $29.95 belt.
This week's winner is an ensemble cast -- the Baltimore defense. Praise them all you want, but there is no way that defense should have let the Bengals march down the field in the last 1:42 left in the game and kick the game-winning field goal. That good of a defense should not be letting T.J. Houshmandzadeh burn them for 32 yards and then Chad Johnson get the team into field goal range with a 22 yard reception. The most devastating part of this loss is that the Ravens are now in a very precarious situation for the playoffs. At 7-5, they are in a jumble of four 7-5 or 6-6 teams fighting for the last wild card spot in the AFC.
Al: I watched the NFL Network On Demand highlights of this one. There didn't seem to be a Baltimore defensive back within three yards of Chad Johnson on most of his receptions. On his first touchdown, Johnson was laying on the ground with an entire quarter of the end zone to himself when he caught the ball. On Johnson's second TD, Ed Reed handed Johnson a five yard area near the back corner of the endzone all to himself.
Al: Week 13 was won by Illegal Touching, from Ithaca, NY. Great team name. Ready to Crumble maintained a nine point lead in the season standings with a decent 46 point week. I don't like this team's chances of holding on for the rest of the year, though. With Craig Krenzel, Emmitt Smith and Martin Gramatica all missing time, it will be very difficult to keep up this pace. The best team in the top 10 may be the Electric Mayhem. Dr. Teeth and friends would be in great shape if Josh McCown can get his way back into the Cardinal lineup, but even without him this team's in good shape. Rudi Johnson, Duce Staley and Kevan Barlow is as good of a RB trio as you'll find in the loser league for the rest of the season. All are guaranteed to get at least eight carries a game, absent an injury. None are much of a threat to find the end zone, unless the Bengals get to play the Browns every week.
Here are your Loser League All-Stars from Week 13:
QB: Old School Drew Brees, SD -- 1 point (27 passes, 106 yards, 1 fumble, 1 INT)
RB: Warrick Dunn, ATL -- 4 points (11 carries, 43 yards, 2 catches, 9 yards)
RB: Tiki Barber, NYG -- 3 points (15 carries, 38 yards)
WR: Larry Fitzgerald, ARI -- 1 point (2 catches, 12 points)
WR: Clarence Moore, BAL -- 0 points (2 catches, 9 yards)
K: Jay Feely, ATL -- 0 points (0-0 FG, 0 XP)
Al: (2-1 last week, 20-19 overall) What a ridiculous week. More than half of the games have a line of more than a touchdown. There are two home teams that are two-score underdogs. Is there any game worth watching this week? Finals couldn't have come at a better time. No line is less than 5.5 (the Tennessee/KC line hasn't been released yet).
Why isn't this one of the lines that is bigger than a touchdown? Seattle hasn't beaten anyone good on the road this year. If Keyshawn Johnson can put up 116 yards against the Seahawk secondary, just imagine what Randy Moss is going to do.
There isn't a hotter team in football than the Panthers. They've won four straight by at least a touchdown. The Rams are 1-5 against the spread over their last six and were only able to put up 16 points at home against the worst team in football last week.
This may be the shakiest of the big lines. As bad as the Dolphins have been this year, they've only lost by eleven or more points twice -- on the road against their division rivals New York and New England. I think the Broncos will win this one, but only by single digits.
Vivek: (2-3 last week, 17-32 overall) For those of you first time readers, no, that does not mean 17 for 32 on the season.
There is no John Abraham on the pass rush this week, but Bryan Thomas is better against the run. The Jets will win the game outright and show the AFC that a Pittsburgh-New England Championship game isn't a definite.
Dan Marino's record will stand for at least one more week as Payton throws for only two scores on the day.
The Bengals will ride the momentum of last week's 24-point fourth quarter as the curse of the 11-point spread will take out New England betters. For us fantasy geeks, Corey Dillon is a great play -- the Bengals are next to last in the league for rushing yards allowed and you bet Dillon wants to stick it to his former team.
Randy Moss and Nate Burelson will both post huge numbers, and this loss by the Seahawks will only strengthen those calls to fire Mike Holmgren.
The Saints can't stop the run. They can't stop the pass. Another huge game for the Cowboys offense.