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?
14 Dec 2005
by Al Bogdan and Vivek Ramgopal
Vivek: iPods, Madden 2006, and the Family Guy DVD top most holiday wish lists, but for NFL franchises, the holiday wish lists look a little different.
Vivek: Depending on how you look at it, lifetime membership to Kris Brown's Kick Club could be in high demand or dropping in value after his missed field goal on Sunday. While it cost the Texans a chance to beat the Titans, it moved them one step closer to winning the Reggie Bush sweepstakes. People have been calling for the Texans to trade this pick in order to fill more needs later in the draft. Pulling off a trade for a package similar to the one that the Giants gave the Chargers is tempting, but Reggie Bush is a stronger Marshall Faulk â€” essentially, a guy like that will come out in the draft once a decade. If they take Bush, the Texans could then use Domanick Davis as trade bait for a team that needs a runner. (Terry Bradway, I'm looking your way.) Or, if they decide to get a package of picks and the Jets or Packers bite, the Texans still might be able to select D'Brickashaw Ferguson (and finally keep David Carr on his feet) while grabbing an impact defensive player. Gotta love the options here if you're a Texans fan.
Al: I agree with you, Viv. If the Texans gets the #1 pick, they should be able to get a king's ransom from the teams picking right behind them who want Bush, ideally to move down to no lower than #3 or #4 and get a couple of extra picks in return. They can use an offensive lineman or four, but it's more likely that if the Texans do move down they'll do it because they cut David Carr and want to grab Vince Young or Matt Leinart. This team needs a lot more than Reggie Bush to improve next year.
Vivek: I see the Jets giving Chad Pennington another year to rebound and passing on a quarterback in this year's draft, meaning that running back will be a top priority for the team. Curtis Martin, who finally saw his streak of 1000-yard seasons end, has a cap number of more than $8 million next year. Cutting him early would save $6.2 million. If Martin returns to the Jets, expect it to be in a reduced role and with a smaller contract.
Al: The Jets' win over Oakland definitely took them out of the running for the #1 pick, but it might have also moved them down far enough that it doesn't make sense for Houston to trade the #1 to them. The Jets can't fall further than the #4 pick to even have a shot at trading up to grab Bush.
I doubt that Martin comes back with the Jets next year, at least without a serious contract renegotiation. Even then, at 32, coming off knee surgery, I don't see him being much of a contributor wherever he ends up playing in 2006.
I liked what I saw out of Cedric Houston on Sunday, but then again, it was against Oakland. There are a couple of intriguing backups that will be free agents this off-season that the Jets should look into -- as starters, like Chester Taylor, or at least to fill part of a committee, like Rock Cartwright. Don't forget, they also have Derrick Blaylock coming back next season. A combination of Blaylock, Houston, and Cartwright could be a solid, inexpensive backfield.
Vivek: Sunday's loss to the Dolphins was one of the most atrocious losses of the year in the NFL, not because of the score but because of what was on the table. The Chargers, widely regarded as one of the top three teams in the AFC, now face an uphill battle for the playoffs with the team needing to sweep Indianapolis, Kansas City and Denver. A two-point loss to Pittsburgh earlier in the season gives the tiebreaker to the Steelers, who end the season with a less-imposing schedule of Minnesota, Cleveland and Detroit.
Al: I still can't believe the Chargers lost to Miami. It's not that crazy to think their upcoming game against the Colts could have been a battle between two unbeaten teams if a few things had gone San Diego's way. And by gone San Diego's way, I mean if they weren't dumb enough to bench Antonio Gates in Week 1, didn't allow a blocked field goal touchdown return against Philadelphia, and stopped Denver and Pittsburgh on game-winning drives late in the fourth quarter.
Vivek: Sunday's two-point loss gives the Chargers five losses by a grand total of 15 points. Sure, maybe it is bad luck, but they still need a lot of bounces going their way to get a wild card slot.
Al: I haven't bought into the hype about the Giants being legitimate Super Bowl contenders, but in the NFC, they have a good chance of at least making it to the big game -- if they can get healthy. LB Antonio Pierce is out for at least this week against Kansas City, and as of Tuesday night, it was still unknown if or when LT Luke Petitgout, RT Kareem McKenzie, or DT William Joseph will be back in the lineup. The team did fine in Joseph's absence, but without Pierce backing them up in the middle of the field, you have to wonder how good New York's backup tackles will be. I'm not the biggest Luke Petitgout fan in the world, but I'd rather see him in there for the rest of the season than 42-year-old Bob Whitfield. McKenzie, however, would be the biggest loss if he misses any extended period of time. Kareem's having a Pro Bowl season at right tackle. Replacing him with left guard David Diehl, who was a disappointment at the position last season, would be a huge downgrade.
Vivek: The addition of Jason Whittle and Whitfield could mean that this offensive line reverts back to what it was last year, when its pass protection resembled that of the Texans. The main reason that I'm not sold on the Giants' chances for going deep in the postseason is the maddening inconsistency of Eli Manning. Take away some of his pass protection, and you could have the Giants fighting for the last wild card spot instead of the NFC East title.
Vivek: A breakout game for Braylon Edwards turned into a nightmare in the fourth quarter in Week 13 against the Jaguars; for the second straight season, a leg injury ended the season for Cleveland's first-round pick. Last year, Kellen Winslow fell victim to a broken leg, and we all know what happened to his knee this offseason. Edwards' recovery time from his ACL tear might be as long as eight months, which would jeopardize the start of his 2006 campaign as well.
Al: If the Browns could get Edwards and Winslow ready for Week 1 next season, they could make some noise in the AFC North. Charlie Frye has looked pretty good these past two games. With some improvements on the offensive line and another good year out of Reuben Droughns, the Browns could finally have themselves an offense.
Vivek: This is more likely on Matt Millen's wish list, and admit it, it would be great to hear the uproar if Millen went this route. It does look like Charles Rogers is on his way out of Detroit after his suspension, so Chad Jackson from Florida might look good for Millen. (Note the sarcasm.)
Al: My holiday wish for the Lions and their fans is that they have a new general manager making that top-10 pick in next year's draft.
Al: The NFL schedule makers have done a great job this year. There are a ton of playoff contenders matched up over the next three weeks, including the NFC South round robin tournament. But the biggest game may be the one being played in San Francisco on New Year's Day -- the Reggie Bush Bowl between the Texans and 49ers. Who can throw the game most effectively without looking like they're throwing the game? The #2 pick isn't worth as much to San Francisco as it would be to other teams since the 49ers have no use for Matt Leinart or Vince Young when they already spent the top pick in last year's draft on a quarterback. Granted, Alex Smith looked awful against Seattle, but you can't spend back-to-back early first-round picks on players at the same position. Unless, of course, you're the Detroit Lions.
Vivek: I disagree with Al about the draft possibilities for the 49ers. The one thing that I'm not seeing from Alex Smith (and granted it is early in his career) is the makeup that other top quarterbacks have. Of quarterbacks taken in the first round recently, in my mind, he has ranked (pre-draft) behind Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer, and Byron Leftwich in terms of potential. Smith, who can attribute his collegiate success to being a â€œcerebral quarterbackâ€? lacks that arm strength that would earn him the title of â€œfranchise quarterback.â€? His quarterback rating for his attempts of ten or fewer yards is only 52.7, but it gets even worse when you look at 11-20 yard attempts (18.1) and more than 20 (19.4).
My point is that if some team is willing to dangle a lower first-rounder or a combination of picks for Smith, and the 49ers do believe that Young or Leinart does have a much higher upside, then the team should explore those options.
Vivek: This past weekend, Johnson had his sixth consecutive 100-yard rushing game, breaking the record previously held by Priest Holmes. Johnson has risen to the fourth best rusher in the NFL in terms of yardage, and keep in mind that he did not have the starting job to himself until the first week of November. Johnson has always had the power and speed, but now he is being more patient and waiting for plays to develop behind his massive offensive line. That patience has paid off, and you can expect Larry Johnson to be a top three running back next season.
One piece of trivia for you: this February, Johnson should become the third Pro Bowl running back that has replaced Holmes in the backfield. (Ricky Williams at the University of Texas and Jamal Lewis in Baltimore being the other two.)
Al: You know the league has handled something poorly when John Madden is openly knocking the NFL during a Monday Night Football broadcast. If you were an NFL free agent, why would you sign with the Saints for next year? Even if the NFL gives assurances that the team will stay in New Orleans, is there any reason to believe them? The owner wanted out before Katrina, and the Superdome won't be ready until November 1 at the earliest. The likely plan for the Saints next year would be a split season between San Antonio and New Orleans. But what if the Superdome isn't ready by November 1? Would you trust that an adequate contingency plan is in place? The Saints were kicked out of their stadium for a women's volleyball tournament last week. If the Superdome isn't ready at the beginning of November, where does the team play when there's a dog show scheduled in the Alamodome? Things may look bad now for the Saints, but they'll look a lot worse next year when every player who can leave does so and the Saints are stuck overpaying for what few free agents are willing to take a chance on a team without a home.
Vivek: Let's see, I said things along the lines of "The Bucs will head south soon if Simms stays behind center" and "Simms looks completely lost in the pro game." Maybe the Bucs read Scramble and this became bulletin board fodder. (I can't even type that with a straight face.)
Whatever the reason, Simms has kept alive Tampa Bay's division title hopes with his play. In this five-game stretch in which the team has gone 4-1, Simms has completed 60 percent of his passes and thrown only one interception. Gone is the trouble reading defenses and the inability to make adjustments at the line, and now Simms is doing a much better job of managing the game. Nobody is asking Simms to throw for 300 yards, and he is winning games by realizing that.
Al: Kris Brown of the Texans gets it this week for missing a virtual chip shot that would have sent Houston's game against Tennessee into overtime after a great kickoff return by Jerome Mathis. I don't think he blew it on purpose so that Houston can get the #1 pick in the draft, however, as others have suggested. The kick was too terrible for it to have been an intentional miss. If you're going to blow a field goal on purpose, you'd have to make it believable. Just outside the uprights, or maybe even kick it low so that it could be blocked by a defensive lineman. But no one would be dumb enough to kick it practically parallel with the crossbar if he was trying to throw the game.
Leading off this week once again is loyal reader and part-time Scramble writer Ian:
I must again consult the Oracle, who correctly predicted that I should start Cadillac Williams over DeShaun Foster last week, which I did despite not thinking it was the right move. Now I'm in the playoffs, and the scoring system is (again) 6 pts for TDs, 1 pt for 20 yds rush/rec, 1 pt for 10 yds rush/rec over 100. I must pick two of the following options: Mike Anderson @ BUF, Cadillac Williams @ NE, DeShaun Foster @ NO. I'm leaning towards Anderson and Foster, but also think I should perhaps bench Mike Anderson since he seems to vanish at times. What to do, O wise one?
Al: I'd be nervous about relying on Anderson in a playoff game. He hasn't been that involved in the offense the past three games, a fact which has been somewhat hidden by his long touchdown catch against Kansas City two weeks ago. Tatum Bell had the majority of the carries last week, and Ron Dayne was more productive on the ground than Anderson for the two weeks before that.
After his midseason slump, Cadillac has put together four straight solid fantasy weeks. We're not the biggest DeShaun Foster fans here at Football Outsiders, but you have to start almost any running back playing against the Saints. He should be able to break off at least one long run in Baton Rouge.
David: I bet you'll be getting a flood of fantasy football questions this week, what with the start of many leagues' playoffs. I'm no different: just because I made it doesn't mean I have 100-percent confidence in my picking ability!
Pick 3: Burress, Branch, Wayne, Roy Williams, Lee Evans.
Pick 2: L. Johnson (a gimme), D. Davis, M. Anderson, T. Bell, Droughns
Al: WR: Burress, Wayne and Roy Williams. I'm not sure how much I like the Giants' chances to beat the Chiefs this week, but Burress should be able to have a nice game against the Kansas City corners. Reggie Wayne is a must start, and I like his matchup against the Chargers secondary that let Chris Chambers run wild. At the third wide receiver spot, I like Roy Williams. None of those three have great matchups, but Evans has a terrible matchup against Champ Bailey. That leaves Williams and Branch. Branch's production has dropped off in the second half. He's caught five balls in each of the past six games, but his yards per catch are down about a yard and a half from the first two months of the season. Williams is averaging over 14 yards per catch since returning to the starting lineup last month, and he has five touchdowns in five games. He's been a better fantasy option than Branch in four out of the last five games.
RB: Johnson and Droughns. I don't want to have to guess which Denver back will get the carries in a must-win fantasy playoff matchup. That leaves Davis and Droughns as the two safest options. Both have great matchups, but Droughns has been the better back this year. Plus, you never know what Houston will do to lose that game against Arizona.
Vivek: Droughns has been a fantasy sleeper in terms of yards on the ground, but do not expect him to grab those six points for a touchdown this week. He has gotten into the end zone only twice this year and not since Week 11.
Adam #1: Two playoff semifinal questions. 1) Is it time to give up on Steven Jackson, and start Willie Parker or Cedric Houston instead? 2) Hasselbeck or Garrard?
Al: Tough call with Jackson, but I'd stick with him. If Ryan Fitzpatrick is going to throw five interceptions a game, there's no reason for teams not to regularly bring a safety down into the box, like Arizona did a few weeks ago, to shut the Rams running game down. However, you don't have any other great options. The Vikings have been tough against the run lately, and I wouldn't be surprised if Bettis was a bigger factor than Parker in Pittsburgh's game plan. That leaves Jackson against Cedric Houston, who looked good against a bad Oakland defense. But I don't expect Houston, on the road against the Dolphins, to duplicate his performance from last week.
Adam #2: For many of us, this week is a time to stash onto our keeper league rosters a player or two who didn't contribute in 2005 but has an interesting upside for 2006. Any suggestions?
Vivek: After having Pennington, Ahman Green, Jamal Lewis and Randy Moss on one of my keeper teams, I've been thinking along the same lines for a while now. A few guys that jump out at me:
Patrick Ramsey -- With Jason Campbell on the Washington roster, Ramsey will be somewhere else next year. Ramsey's accuracy on short to medium range passes and his strong arm can mean success in a system that is based on shorter, timed routes.
Billy Volek -- Steve McNair insurance. Despite the 2-9 record as a starter during the past two seasons, Volek has had eight quality starts with injuries and diminishing talent around him.
Drew Bennett -- Injuries have kept Bennett from matching his 1247-yard, 11-touchdown season from 2004, but a full year (and possibly back with Volek) might boost his numbers in 2006.
Ray: My QB situation has me in yet another quandry. Favre @ Baltimore or Bledsoe @ Washington? According to Football Outsiders' DVOA stats, Washington has the better pass defense. But Favre has been pretty awful fantasy-wise the last few weeks, and Bledsoe had a great game against KC. Also, am I nuts for thinking it's time to bench Randy Moss? He's been pitiful the last few weeks, and if Tuiasosopo plays again, Moss is likely to be dead weight on my roster. Of course, my current alternative is Donald Driver, but he has been outscoring Moss lately (if not by much). Or should I go fishing for a FA to fill the spot?
Al: Randy Moss has become a forgotten man in the list of players who have killed fantasy seasons. He's only had three 100-yard games this year and hasn't found the end zone in a month. You're not crazy to consider putting him on your bench for the playoffs, but I wouldn't do it for Donald Driver or waiver wire fodder. Norv Turner has already said Tuiasosopo won't be starting against Cleveland, so even if rookie Andrew Walter is behind center, Moss will have someone better throwing to him this week than he did last week in New Jersey.
As for your quarterback, go with Favre. Both have been bad fantasy options lately. Play the better matchup.
Setzler: Lame fantasy defense question for you. My playoff opponent this week has a very good team, and we're pretty evenly matched. I think my defense has a very good chance to be the deciding factor, so who do I play? Miami (against the Jets) or Denver (against Buffalo)?
Al: Denver. The Broncos have been a good fantasy defense all year. Kelly Holcomb is back behind center in Buffalo, and he has at least one fumble in every game he's started this year. Denver should be good for at least three turnovers.
Vivek: In terms of DVOA, the defenses are pretty even. The difference is who you see having a better game: Cedric Houston and Brooks Bollinger or Willis McGahee and any quarterback. Unlike Al, I'll take Miami.
Tony: Throughout most of the year, my wide receivers were my strength. I had Santana Moss, T.O., and Steve Smith. Then, when I lost T.O., I traded for Kevin Curtis, who was great until Bulger went down. Now Curtis is entering his third week of being useless, and my only other option is Laveranues Coles ... so, who do I start in the semis, Curtis @ Philly or Coles @ Miami?
Vivek: It wasn't just Bulger's injury that ended Curtis' hot streak. Isaac Bruce has forced Curtis into a true third receiver role, limiting his production to five catches in the past three games. Coles has not scored a touchdown since the first week of November, but I'll take my chances that he gains some yardage on one of his five catches.
Al: I'd still go with Curtis. With Bollinger throwing to him, Coles will give you 30-50 yards without much of a chance of scoring. At least with Curtis, you have a better shot that he'll break a long one for a touchdown.
Daniel: My fantasy team consists of Shaun Alexander, Carson Palmer, and a bunch of other guys who've done just enough to get me by this season. Fortunately that was good enough to get me a first-round bye in my league's playoffs, but, you know, I'm hoping to do a little better than that this week. With that in mind, which of these RB's would you say is my best option?
Mike Anderson @ BUF, Willie Parker @ MIN, Ronnie Brown vs. NYJ, Cedric Houston @ MIA, Ryan Moats @ STL? Also, would you go with Eddie Kennison @ NYG, Bobby Engram @ TEN, or Joe Jurevicius @ TEN?
Al: Moats. I've listed my reasons for being down on Parker and Anderson elsewhere in the mailbag. I'd stay away from Brown for the same risk of playing the wrong part of a running back by committee. That leaves Houston and Moats, both rookies starting their second career game and their first on the road. Moats is playing the weaker run defense, so I'd go with him. At wide receiver, Engram is the pick. Engram and Jurevicius have been going back and forth the past few weeks as Matt Hasselbeck's favorite target. Bobby looks like he's the hot hand, so go with him.
Raul: Is Mark Brunell to be trusted this week in a big game against Dallas? I'm riding a six-game win streak into the playoffs and I hate to make unnecessary changes to my lineup. David Garrard (vs. the 49ers) is my backup, but I'm afraid Jacksonville will rush for five touchdown's and throw the ball 20 times.
Vivek: Garrard did have a pretty good day against Indy last week (26-for-35 for 250 yards and a touchdown). Before the Chiefs last week, the Cowboys had held opposing quarterbacks to under 200 yards passing for five straight games. On the flip side, Brunell hasn't topped 200 yards in his past four games. Garrard should be the easy pick against an awful San Francisco defense.
Al: I agree. It's not like you're benching Peyton Manning to play Garrard. In addition to what Vivek said about Brunell's lack of recent passing yards, he has also thrown only four touchdown passes in his past seven games. If anyone is going to stick to a ground game on Sunday, it will be Washington riding Sheriff Gonna Getcha as far as he'll take them.
Al: A much belated Loser League update. For those of you who have been checking the results despite the absence of Loser League updates in this space, there were some problems with the Week 12 results, which have been refigured for everyone. Now, your Week 14 Loser League All-Stars starring Randy Moss:
QB: Alex Smith, SF: 0 points (22 passes, 77 yards; 6 carries, 18 yards; 1 fumble; 1 INT)
RB: J.J. Arrington, ARI: 0 points (9 carries, 26 yards; 1 catch, 6 yards; 1 fumble)
RB: Willis McGahee, BUF: 0 points (8 carries, 3 yards; 1 catch, 5 yards)
WR: Randy Moss, OAK: 1 point (2 catches, 18 yards)
WR: Kevin Curtis, STL: 1 point (2 catches, 13 yards)
K: Ryan Lindell, BUF: -1 points (1/1 XP, 0/1 FG)
The Shiznits from Kittery, Maine, home to Yummies Candy & Nuts and their 10,000 pounds of candy on display, are at the top of our second half contest standings with three weeks to go. A low-scoring day from Brad Johnson helped make up for a shocking 20-point performance from Gus Frerotte to keep The Shiznits on top of the standings.
We had a tie in Week 14, with two teams scoring 19 points. San Francisco, like its real life counterpart, was carried by Alex Smith, Brandon Lloyd and Kevan Barlow. D'Brickashaw! also had Kevan Barlow, who was paired up with J.J. Arrington's zero-point performance to carry this team to the top.
Al: (0-2-1 last week, 20-17-1 overall)
I can't believe I'm letting you back into this race. I have no idea how to pick these games anymore. Either the lines are ridiculously huge, or you have two teams playing each other that were out of playoff contention a month ago. I'll go with the lame games and leave the ones that matter to you.
When two terrible quarterbacks are playing each other, I like to take the one that's at home. Fitzpatrick will hit Holt or Curtis for one long strike during the game, which will open things up enough for Steven Jackson to be productive.
Charlie Frye played well against a pretty good Cincinnati defense. Against a bad defense in Oakland, he should do even better.
If there's one thing Arizona can do it's pass the ball, with Kurt Warner hooking up regularly with Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. If there's one thing Houston can do, it's lose football games. I expect more of both on Sunday.
Vivek: (1-1-1 last week, 22-24-1 overall)
Maybe your newborn daughter should start making picks for you â€¦
The lines this week, as Al mentioned, are brutal. I'm tempted to skip the NFL picks this week and instead take the Arkansas State Indians +17 in the New Orleans Bowl and NC State -6 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl (real bowl game).
Matt Millen take note. This is how a team should draft.
The Seahawks have their sights set on home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs, so don't expect any letdown this week at Tennessee. The Titans have not been able to stop the run this year, so Shaun Alexander should control the game with a 120-yard performance.
Denver's ground game + the second worst run defense = Denver covering the spread.
41 comments, Last at 19 Dec 2005, 12:57pm by cjfarls