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?
21 Sep 2005
by Al Bogdan and Vivek Ramgopal
Al: I don't want to get roped in again, but the Giants have looked really good the first two weeks of the year. Sure, the Giants started off strong last year as well, before falling on their face against a tough second half schedule, but there are a number of reasons I don't think we'll see the same type of collapse from New York this year again.
First is the drastic improvement in special teams. Jeff Feagles has been a good punter during his time with the Giants, but this is the first season that the punt coverage has finally caught up with him. Despite being in the middle of the pack in the NFL in gross punt yardage, the Giants are fourth in net punt yardage and third in the league in punts inside the 20-yard line. Feagles was good last year at kicking the ball to opponents inside the 20 last year, but now the coverage squad is getting downfield to make sure that the opponents stay there.
The player that seems to be emerging as the Giants' new special teams specialist is rookie linebacker Chase Blackburn, who was signed as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Akron. Blackburn was one of the last players to make the Giants, beating out former starting middle linebacker Kevin Lewis for the last reserve linebacker spot. Blackburn officially made only one special teams stop on Monday night, but he was causing havoc for the Saints' return teams all game long and recovered the Saints' fumble on the opening kickoff. The Giants held the Saints to under 15 yards a kickoff return and under nine yards per punt return.
I'm also more optimistic about the Giants' defense than I was last year. They finally have someone in Antonio Pierce who can tackle someone who gets past the defensive line. Speaking of which, the play of the defensive line has been a pleasant surprise. Michael Strahan's newly slim body hasn't stopped him from putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Osi Umenyiora has been equally effective on the opposite side of the line.
The biggest surprise, however, may be the great play of William Joseph and Kendrick Clancy up the middle. Joseph was quietly effective against the run last year, but he has continued to improve this year. Clancy, whom some looked at just as a player who would add depth to the Giant line when he was signed this off-season, has been dominant over these first two weeks. He schooled Arizona center Shawn Lynch, leading to Lynch's release after only one week of the season. Against the Saints, Clancy earned himself serious praise from the announcers. Unfortunately, the announcers were the ESPN Sunday Night crew, so the praise didn't amount to much more than â€œWill you look at that right there!â€?
The one concern on defense is the secondary. When the opposing offensive line is able to contain the pass rush, opposing wide receivers have not had trouble getting open against the Giants' defensive backs. Nickelback Curtis Deloatch was pressed into starting duty in Week 1 against Arizona, and he was abused by Kurt Warner and the Cardinal wide receivers. Aaron Brooks was able to put up almost 400 passing yards against New York with starting defensive backs Will Allen and Will Peterson both in the lineup. The Saints had no problem marching up the field against New York despite the Giants' ability to shut down Deuce McAllister. Although a good number of those yards came when the Giants were comfortably ahead in the game and playing a semi-prevent defense, Joe Horn and Donte' Stallworth found themselves wide open for most of the game. If it wasn't for the Saints' six turnovers, they would have easily put up more than 10 points on the board.
Vivek: Sorry to temper your enthusiasm, Al, but I'll be on the cautiously enthusiastic side. Put aside the score, and the Monday night game was a lot closer than at first glance. Joe Horn's losing the football as he dove for the endzone epitomized the night for the Saints. Let's look at what impact each turnover had:
Fred McAfee fumbles on the opening kickoff return â€“ Giants TD
Aaron Brooks intercepted in the second quarter â€“ Giants TD
Aaron Brooks fumbles â€“ Giants FG
Aaron Brooks intercepted at the Giants' 27 yard line â€“ Drive killed
Joe Horn fumble at pylon â€“ Touchback for Giants
Aaron Brooks intercepted in the Giants' endzone â€“ Drive killed
Throw in a missed FG, and this game was a gift for the Giants.
Even in the Week 1 42-19 blowout against Arizona, the Cardinals outgained the G-men. Yes, the only stat that matters is what is on the scoreboard, but I don't see the Giants keeping this up once the better teams hit the schedule.
Let's keep focusing on the offense a bit. Eli Manning is still completing less than 50% of his pass attempts, and I am much less confident about his accuracy downfield (case in point, his overthrow of Tim Carter on Monday night on what should have been an easy touchdown).
Al: The Giants will be fine as long as Eli doesn't do things to actively cause them to lose games, like Aaron Brooks did for his team on Monday night. If Eli has done one thing well this year, it has been recognizing weaknesses in a defense's coverage early on in games. Against the Saints, Eli recognized the early matchup advantage 6' 5â€? Plaxico Burress had when being covered only by 5' 10â€? Jason Craft, throwing three completions to Burress for 47 yards on the team's first extended drive of the game. Once the Saints adjusted their coverage, however, Eli struggled to find Plaxico -- or any other receiver down field. The same thing happened in Week 1 against Arizona. On the team's opening drive, Manning threw two completions to Jeremy Shockey for 29 yards and a touchdown when Shockey was matched up against defensive ends in coverage. After Arizona covered Shockey with corner back David Macklin or two linebackers, Manning was unable to complete another pass to the tight end all game.
This week will be a big test for Manning. He'll be on the road in an incredibly hostile environment. Charger fans will be merciless in verbally attacking the player who got himself traded to the Giants because he didn't want to play in San Diego. This is close to a must win game for San Diego, who can't afford to go 0-3 if they hope to make the playoffs in the AFC.
Al: You can email us at email@example.com, or fill out our handy contact form to send us your weekly fantasy questions. Remember to get your questions in by Tuesday so we can answer them in the column every Wednesday.
Morgan from Alexandria, VA thinks that hard time has affected Jamal Lewis:
Should I be getting ready to play Chester Taylor anytime soon with the way Jamal Lewis has played?
Vivek: I echoed your sentiments in frustration on Sunday afternoon, especially since I thought Jamal Lewis was my lock fantasy stud for the week. The Titans had let the Steelers and Willie Parker run for 206 yards in the season opener, so I thought 150 yards was attainable for Lewis. Instead, Lewis in two 2005 games has done what Lewis could do in two plays back in 2003. One reason not to trade him away for Parker just yet is the fact that the Ravens have been playing catch up from opening kickoff every week, forcing them into more passing situations than they'd like. Lewis only has 26 carries on the season, so he really hasn't had a chance to get a feel for the game and break off the big run from scrimmage. Let Lewis and the Ravens regroup during their bye week and see how he does against a good Miami run defense. That will be the barometer for Lewis.
Next up is Jersey Mike:
I'm in a 12 team league that starts 2 RBs in addition to a flex spot. Travis Henry is driving me crazy, because I haven't been able to start him in the flex spot. Is he worth a start soon?
Vivek: He's getting closer, Mike. Chris Brown might have had a better yards per carry, but Henry received a bulk of the work (18 carries versus Brown's eight) last week against Baltimore. Another telling sign is that 13 of his 28 carries have come in the fourth quarter, so Jeff Fisher has more confidence in Henry as the game winds down. This week might be one to keep him reserved, but it's a near-must start in Week 4 against Houston.
Al: Henry may be playable against Houston, but you have to find someone else for that flex spot over the long term if you want to contend for a title. Although their defense looked good against Anthony Wright last week, the Titans will be playing from behind most of the year. That means Steve McNair will be throwing the ball all over the field playing catchup, making it unlikely that either Henry or Brown will get 20 carries a game even if one wins the starting job outright.
Another Jamal Lewis question from Pat in Chicago:
I have Jamal Lewis and Kevin Jones as my starting running backs. Yeah, I didn't look at bye weeks when I drafted them. I have Stephen Davis as one of my backups, but I need to pick up someone else to play this week. Any ideas?
Al: Unfortunately, it's looking like Curtis Martin will be playing this week, otherwise I would highly recommend picking up Derrick Blaylock. Is Mewelde Moore still available in your league? He should get the majority of the carries in Minnesota for the foreseeable future, and the Vikings have a nice matchup against New Orleans this week. Marcel Shipp is more likely to be available and also has a good matchup against the Seahawks. Seattle has had trouble containing the run so far this year, giving up over 100 yards on the ground to both Jacksonville and Atlanta.
Al: For those of you fantasy owners without strong options at tight end, picking up whoever is playing the Packers that week might be worth trying. Marcus Pollard had a great day against the Packer linebackers in Week 1. Steve Heiden had the first 100-yard game of his career, scoring two touchdowns in Week 2. It's likely that the next three tight ends to face the Packers â€“ Alex Smith, Kris Mangum, Ernie Conwell â€“ will be sitting on the waiver wire waiting for you to pick them up before their matchup against Green Bay. Use these matchup advantages over the next three weeks instead of overpaying for one of the top tight ends in a trade.
Vivek: When Mike Shanahan dropped Reuben Droughns in favor of Tatum Bell in Week 14 last year, we all thought that Denver would have a steady workhorse for the next few years. What happens next? Bell doesn't hit 100 yards combined for the next two weeks, and we area all suddenly checking the viability of Mike Anderson come draft day. Anderson turns in a four-carry/five-yard performance courtesy of an injury in Week 1 this year, while Bell totals 47 yards. You would think Bell would get some momentum, but a sprained ankle left some owners looking at Ron Dayne on the free agent wire. And just for fun, I'll mention that the Broncos just re-signed last year's opening day starter, Quentin "Futzing Around" Griffin. Is this enough to drive you crazy?
Vivek (using (Jeff Foxworthy voice): If you get beat twice for a touchdown within a 71-second span to cost your team the game, you might be the Keep Choppin' Wood Award winner. So in a sudden turn of events, Cowboys fans all across the country suddenly went from making Mark Brunell jokes to watching an ecstatic Dan Snyder play Ring Around the Rosie in a luxury box ... all courtesy of Aaron Glenn. Roy Williams and the defensive coordinator guessed wrong on whom to cover, but Glenn was the one who let Santana Moss slip by him. On a side note, it is also funny how Skins fans were three minutes from calling for Jason Campbell, and now every sports talk radio caller down in the DC area has proclaimed the end to any quarterback controversy.
Al: Mark Brunell threw two good passes on Monday night. Luckily for him and the Redskins they were both thrown downfield to a wide open Santana Moss. Take away those two passes and Brunell is 18-for-32 with 182 yards and an INT. That's a quarterback rating of 59.6. Thanks to the stellar coverage skills of Aaron Glenn, Brunell ended up with a rating of 94.1, and the starting job in Washington for the foreseeable future.
Al: We should have the standings updated either Friday or early next week. Here are the unofficial top performers at each position for Week 2:
QB: T. Rattay, SF: -1
RB: M. Moore, MIN: 2
RB: J. Lewis, BAL: 1
WR: R. Wayne, IND: 1 (tied with multiple other WR)
WR: J. Gaffney, HOU: 0
K: P. Edinger, MIN: 0 (K. Brown with 1 point was the lowest scorer who actually attempted a kick)
Al: (1-2 last week, 4-2 overall)
I'm never picking Arizona again. As always, the lines are courtesy of FOX Sports.
The Raiders have been soundly defeated in their first two games of the season. If they're going to turn things around, it won't be on the road against Philadelphia. The Eagles will have another ridiculous fantasy day. Everyone this side of Josh Parry is a top notch fantasy play.
Am I a bad person for picking against the Saints every week? Even with how bad the Vikings have looked these first two weeks, I just don't see the Saints being competitive this week in Minnesota. The offense gave away the game against the Giants on Monday night with six turnovers. They then have to fly back to San Antonio late Monday night/Tuesday morning where they'll sleep in their temporary homes. They then have at most three full days of practice/film study in their temporary facilities before they have to fly to Minnesota to play a game on Sunday at noon local time. If the Vikings can't pull out a win with their opponent at such a disadvantage, Mike Tice should be looking for new employment on Monday morning.
I really like this matchup, but unfortunately I don't have Sunday Ticket, so I won't be able to watch this one at home. Both teams have had very good defensive performances over the first two weeks and put up a ton of points last week. I see this as a pretty even matchup, so I'll take the home dog.
Vivek: (2-0-1 last week, 3-2-1 overall)
2-0 and a push. I'll take that for a week.
Al and I are being extremely contradictory this week. After what Cincy did to Minnesota last week, I'm officially on the bandwagon. Carson Palmer, Rudi Johnson and Chad Johnson have been the best offensive trio this side of â€¦ actually, in the entire league so far.
Stephen Davis is back, and the Panthers can play their ball control game like the one that took them to the Super Bowl two seasons ago. Jake Delhomme does not need to be extraordinary to beat the Dolphins, just efficient (see Chad Pennington's line from last week). Look for a score in the neighborhood of 14-10.
The newfound life in the Kansas City defense will have to stop the Denver ground game, something that is realistic given that no Bronco running back will be given the bulk of the workload. By forcing the Broncos into passing situations, the Chiefs can take this game. Oh, those Chiefs running backs should have an impact too.
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