Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
07 Dec 2005
by Al Bogdan and Vivek Ramgopal
Vivek: No matter how much analysis of the statistics and breakdown of the game tape we do, we self-proclaimed NFL pundits are still caught off-guard by the unexpected in the NFL (case in point, my Best Bets.) This week we take a look at a few things that went against conventional logic in Week 13 of the NFL season.
Vivek: In the past I've knocked Joe Gibbs for keeping with his predictable late-game play calling when the Redskins have a lead. The Gibbs model has been the same in both of his tours of duty in Washington -- build a lead, then kill the clock with the running back. The difference here is that Clinton Portis is best suited to running to the outside while Gibbs, being used to the big bruiser (a la John Riggins), prefers a North-South running attack. Enter the 5'7", 215-pound aptly-named Rock Cartwright. The fullback without a position in Joe Gibbs' H-back system finally showed what he could do with the ball on Sunday with a nine-carry, 118-yard rushing performance, most of those yards coming between the tackles. With both running backs, Gibbs can still keep the ball on the ground but can throw multiple schemes at opposing defenses.
Gibbs needs to use Cartwright more to remedy the team's inability to convert third-and-short situations. The team's overall 42.3 percent third down conversion rate is deceptive; the Redskins have struggled for most of the year on third-and-short. A look at the Power Success (the percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown) statistics shows that the Redskins (23rd) have trouble in these short yardage situations.
Al: I've been a big Rock Cartwright fan for years. He had a great 2003 campaign, ranking in the top 20 in DVOA. (Long-time FO readers may remember this article on why Cartwright had a better 2003 season than DeShaun Foster.) But for some reason, Cartwright wasn't a part of the offense in Washington last year even as Portis struggled mightily to move the ball. The Redskins had those same problems in short-yardage situations last year when they insisted on giving the ball to Portis. Clinton had the fifth worst DVOA in short-yardage situations last year among all running backs with at least 30 short-yardage carries, -16.1 percent. It was great to have a Rock Cartwright sighting. If the Redskins have any hope of making the playoffs, they'll need to get Cartwright back into the regular rotation at running back.
Vivek: What a difference a few weeks can make. Since exploding for 221 yards on 47 carries in their earlier 27-13 win at Cincinnati, the Steelers have seen a drop in the performance of their offensive line and running game. This week marked the team's fourth straight underachieving performance on the ground, which just so happens to coincide with a three-game losing skid. Three of the offensive linemen were flagged for penalties, and there were times when the linemen were slow in getting to the block. Willie Parker essentially outran his own blockers and either got hit for a loss or missed out on a chance to break free.
We cannot blame the offensive line entirely for the Steelers' downward spiral, as two fumbles by Parker and another by Duce Staley killed what could have been a storybook win for the hurting Ben Roethlisberger.
Pittsburgh suddenly went from being in the driver's seat for the division title after Week 10 to needing to leapfrog both the Chargers and Chiefs to get into the playoffs.
Al: The Steelers didn't lose that game against Cincinnati because of their offense. As fellow FO writer Ryan Wilson notes, the Pittsburgh special teams were awful on Sunday, giving Cincinnati great field position throughout the game.
Pittsburgh's only saving grace for their playoff push is that they have a much easier remaining schedule than either Kansas City or San Diego. Pittsburgh's best chance at making it in as a wild card is to finish in a two-team tie with San Diego. As we talked about last week, if the Steelers end up in a three way tie they will likely be the first team knocked out because of their poor conference record. If the Steelers were tied with Kansas City, they'd also likely lose on the conference record tiebreaker.
To get to that two-way tie with San Diego, Pittsburgh would need the Chiefs to lose at least two games, which could easily happen with Kansas City's tough upcoming schedule. San Diego would have to lose at least one more, again, not unbelievable with the Chargers having road games remaining at Indianapolis and Kansas City. But the Steelers pretty much have to win this week at home against Chicago, and win out the rest of the way, to make that happen.
Al: As the Monday Night folks pointed out, Seattle had been 1-7 in their last eight games played in the Eastern time zone going into the game against Philadelphia. A long road trip combined with predicted cold weather and a packed house ready to honor the late Reggie White would make things very difficult for Seattle. I can't tell you how many people I saw picking Philadelphia to win that game on Monday night.
But as we saw, Seattle had no problems destroying the Eagles on Monday. Mike McMahon did everything to telegraph his passes short of announcing the intended receiver over the P.A. system. Seattle returned two interceptions for touchdowns before McMahon was relieved by Koy Detmer, who was McMahon-esque in his ineptitude.
I'm guessing that game caused more surprising fantasy football results than any Monday night game in recent history. Two quick stories: Our friend Ian was up in one basic scoring league by ten points with Shaun Alexander yet to play going into Monday night. Unfortunately for Ian, his opponent had the Seattle defense, whichput up 39 points with a shutout, four sacks, four interceptions, two fumble recoveries and three touchdowns. In one of the leagues Vivek and I are in together, I was within striking distance of my opponent with Matt Hasselbeck, Brian Westbrook and Joe Jurevicius on Monday night. Needless to say, I ended up losing that one.
Vivek: If you took into consideration all the factors against the Seahawks that Al mentioned and then told me that:
â€¦ I would immediately have started writing about how the Seahawks fell victim to this trap game after the win against the Giants.
During the third quarter of their Week 5 game at St. Louis, the Seahawks finally decided to win on the road. They haven't looked back since. The Seahawks should close the season with six consecutive road wins, with remaining games at Tennessee and Green Bay. Throw in another game against the 49ers, and this team should take the top seed in the NFC playoffs.
Oh, by the way, Darrell Jackson is expected to return this weekend with enough time to shake off the rust before the Colts come to town.
Al: There isn't enough room to link to all the knocks made on Drew Bledsoe in past Scramble columns, but I'll add to that collection anyway. Even when the Cowboys had seven or eight players in to block the New York pass rush, Bledsoe would rush a throw to his nearest receiver the second he saw an unblocked red jersey. The Giants kept lining up Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan a yard or so wide of Rob Petitti and Torrin Tucker. That made it more difficult for Dallas' exceptional guards to help stop the New York pass rushers.
When the guards did try to take out the Giants defensive ends, that left the door open for their underrated defensive tackles. Kendrick Clancy had an amazing play which made all the highlight reels, where he almost beat Drew Bledsoe to the running back on a hand-off, causing a fumble which Antonio Pierce recovered for a touchdown.
If the Giants don't have the best defensive line in the league, then they at least have the deepest. I was worried about how they would fare when William Joseph went down with an elbow injury a few weeks ago, but Kendrick Allen and Fred Robbins have done a great job clogging the middle of the line in his absence. If Justin Tuck had been drafted by most any other team in the league, he'd likely be making a lot of noise as a Rookie of the Year candidate by putting up big sack totals. With the Giants, however, he's behind Pro Bowl candidate Umenyiora and future Hall of Famer Strahan on the depth chart. When Tuck does get in the game in obvious passing situations, though, the Notre Dame product has done a great job at attacking the quarterback, often when there are only two other pass rushers coming with him.
Vivek: "A good line beats a bad secondary" is the motto here. I wasn't as sure as Al that Bledsoe would have a rough day, but the Giants defense removed any doubt there. This comes after Matt Hasselbeck and the dangerous Mike McMahon picked apart the Giants secondary. The difference this week was that Strahan & Co. got to Bledsoe so quickly that the Dallas receivers never had a chance to get into and past the New York secondary. Only two of Bledsoe's 15 completions were for more than ten yards (26 and 22), and one of those plays came on the last play of the game as the Giants just needed to prevent a 70-yard gain in order to hold on to the win.
New York defensive coordinator Tim Lewis did a fantastic job of shuffling between blitzes and zone coverage in order to keep Bledsoe guessing.
Vivek: We have to give the Cincinnati scouting department a lot of credit for this year's success, most notably the performance of this year's draft class - David Pollack, Chris Henry and Tab Perry. My pick for Defensive Rookie of the Year, however, goes to Cincinnati middle linebacker Odell Thurman. Thurman, taken in the middle of the second round, bolstered his candidacy with ten tackles and an interception that set up the eventual game-winning touchdown at Pittsburgh. Thurman's five interceptions, a remarkable number for a middle linebacker, go along with his team-leading 110 tackles.
This is not a unanimous Scramble pick, though, because â€¦
Al: â€¦ after his Monday night performance, and the endless accolades Al Michaels and John Madden were throwing at him, I wouldn't count Lofa Tatupu out of the race for top rookie. He's the starting middle linebacker on the team most likely to finish with the best record in the NFC. He's in the top 20 overall in the league in tackles, third behind Thurman and Oakland linebacker Kirk Morrision among rookies.
Vivek: Downfall might be a bit strong, but Javon Walker's defection from the Rosenhaus camp after the T.O. debacle could have a domino effect. Maybe not necessarily with clients jumping ship, but I don't think we will see a situation like this past summer when several Rosenhaus players threatened a holdout.
Al: Tra Thomas has also reportedly dumped Rosenhaus as his agent. I don't think downfall is too strong of a word. He wasn't able to get a new long term deal for any of his clients that held out or threatened to hold out this past summer. If you were an NFL player looking to sign a big deal this off-season, who would you want representing you: the agent who helped pave the way for Terrell Owens to lose as much as $10 million or one that didn't?
Al:Too many candidates to count this week. Out of the contenders we haven't already criticized in this column, I'll give this to Dre' Bly. After laying the blame for Detroit's troubles this year squarely on the shoulders of Joey Harrington, Bly let Koren Robinson catch a 52-yard touchdown pass when he had Robinson in single coverage. If you're going to call out your quarterback during the week, you have to get the job done on Sunday yourself.
Leading off this week is loyal reader and part-time Scramble writer Ian:
Big playoff matchup next week, and I need to choose to start either Cadillac Williams @ Carolina, or DeShaun Foster vs TB. The league scoring is only 1 point for every 20 yards rush/rec, with 6 for touchdowns, so it's a fairly TD-heavy format. Both teams have strong defenses. What to do?
Al: Neither of those are great options, but I'd go with Cadillac. It's not that I like Williams matched up against the Panthers, but that I like Foster matched up against the Buccaneers even less.
Williams had a decent game against the Bears two weeks ago, averaging four yards a carry, although he has only scored one touchdown since Week 2. Foster was great against Atlanta, but then again, most running backs have great games against Atlanta. Foster plays best against teams that have a tendency to give up big runs. That doesn't describe the Tampa defense which, going into Week 13, had given up the fifth lowest percentage of rushing yards on runs of ten or more yards.
Ray: This is it. The chips are down and all bets are in. If I win this week, I'm in the playoffs at the #2 seed. If I lose, I'm probably out on the curb for the postseason. I'm counting on you, FO!
QB: B. Johnson vs StL; Favre vs Det; Bledsoe vs KC
WR: Driver vs Det; Chambers @ SD
RB: Foster vs TB; FA pickup (K. Jones @ GB; Bennett vs StL; Duckett vs NO as well as other scrubs available)
TE: L.J. Smith vs NYG; Watson @ Buf
My own choices are listed first, but I'll take any advice you can give!
Al: QB: I'd start Johnson. The Rams have one of the worst pass defenses in the league, even allowing David Carr to put up nearly 300 yards and three touchdowns two weeks ago. Johnson should be able to hook up with at least one of the Robinsons for a long touchdown or two. Bledsoe's production has dropped off significantly since Flozell Adams was lost for the year.
WR: I hate relying on Chambers, but he's a must start, especially with Sage Rosenfels behind center. Miami is going to be behind in this game so Rosenfels will be forced to throw the ball when Miami is on offense. As we saw last week, Rosenfels is going to throw the ball to Chambers if it is at all possible.
RB: I'm tempted to suggest Bennett against St. Louis depending on Mewelde Moore's injury situation. If Bennett is getting the start against the Rams, I'd probably start him. Like I mentioned earlier, Foster has a terrible matchup against Tampa. Minnesota could easily put 30+ points on the board at home against St. Louis, with Bennett playing a big role in their offense.
TE: Don't mess around with Ben Watson. Stick with LJ Smith, he's the only weapon the Eagles have left on offense.
Eric: Keeper league question â€“ I can keep UP TO six players. Delhomme, T. Green and Ward are no brainers, but then I have Droughns, Holmes, Burress, Duckett, McNair and Kennison as maybes. This is a ten-team league, starting rosters are 2 QBs, 2 RBs, 3 WR, FLEX, TE, K, D. It's a complicated compensation system if we don't hold onto all six, but basically, I can get an extra third round pick if I leave Holmes or McNair exposed and only keep five guys, and an extra 10th for the rest if I keep five. Who would you keep?
Vivek: For those of us who saw our fantasy seasons go down the tubes with Javon Walker or Dante Culpepper's legs, I guess that it is never too early to think about 2006. I would hold onto Priest because you are really getting a 9th round pick (six keepers plus the three draft rounds) by cutting him lose. If your system was for a first round pick, then I would take a shot at getting Reggie Bush or DeAngelo Williams. Without a running back on your roster, you should definitely hold onto Droughns and then make Burress your last protection.
Al: Yeah, you pretty much have to keep Droughns since he's your only real option at running back at this point. Burress is another definite keeper; he's been a solid fantasy play all season in New York. I guess I'd keep Holmes also, but mainly by default. There's a good chance this will be McNair's last season, Duckett doesn't get enough carries to be worth holding on to, and Kennison is really no different than any other wide receiver you should be able to grab in the draft.
More technical kinks. Coming soon.
Al: (1-2 last week, 20-15 overall)
No one warned me about the impact that having a child would have on my picking ability.
It should be 62 degrees and sunny in Jacksonville on Sunday. The Jaguars defense might be good enough to slow down the Colts, but their offense isn't good enough to put too many points up on the board, especially with David Garrard at quarterback. The Colts have a record number of consecutive wins by seven points or more. They'll keep it going and potentially lock up home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
This line started at +4.5 and actually moved to give the Bears even more points. I don't get why Pittsburgh is getting so much action after their loss to Cincinnati and Chicago's continued dominance on defense. Sure, Kyle Orton's awful, but the Bears have been able to contain much better offenses than Pittsburgh's with a hobbled Ben Roethlisberger and no running game to speak of.
I don't care who is starting at quarterback for Oakland. If New Orleans can come in and beat the Jets in the Meadowlands by two, Oakland should win by at least a touchdown. If the weather isn't bad, Jerry Porter should have a ridiculous game lined up against David Barrett.
Vivek: (3-1 last week, 21-23 overall)
If not for my prediction of a trap game for the Colts, trap game meaning a win by no more than two touchdowns, I would have had my second straight perfect week.
Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald will be regarded as one of the best receiver duos when it is all said and done. If not for a 285-yard performance in Week 11 against St. Louis, Kurt Warner would have five straight 300-yard passing games. This might be a mismatch on paper, but I am going to ride Warner's hot arm.
I've seen this line range anywhere from two to seven, with a few books turning off action on this game. With the news of Brian Westbrook's season-ending injury, I don't see anyway that this game is within two touchdowns. Last week will be nothing compared to what the Giants front four does this week. The bright spot for the Eagles is that it will mean rookie running back Ryan Moats' time to shine.
If the Seahawks can win by 42 with no offense whatsoever against the Eagles, imagine what they can do at home against the 49ers.
75 comments, Last at 10 Dec 2005, 5:56am by NF