"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
by Ian Dembsky and Vivek Ramgopal
Ian: Howdy! Welcome to another edition of Scramble for the Ball. First of all, a quick shoutout to the columnist I've been spelling. Al is now a father; his wife recently gave birth to a healthy Emma Bogdan. Congrats Al.
Let's begin in New England, where as most people predicted, the Colts finally exorcised the demons of Foxboro past and trounced the Patriots, 40-21. I have to admit, I don't think I've ever seen an offense play a better game of football in my life. It's become cliche when talking about the Colts, but it's really pick your poison when it comes to defending them. Early on, the Colts established a solid running game as the Pats did what they normally do against Indy -- drop eight into coverage. As Edge kept churning out first downs, all of a sudden there was more and more single coverage on the outside receivers, and Manning never failed to take advantage of it. What was incredible was not just how many completions the Colts wideouts had, but how wide open they were every time they caught a pass. But give Manning enough time, and he really showed that he can pick you apart.
Of course, giving him time was the most important factor. The Patriots had virtually no pass rush. Richard Seymour's absence had a much bigger impact on the game than anyone could have imagined; without a man in his face Peyton was free to scan the field and find whomever he wished while his O-line did a terrific job of pass protection.
Vivek: Monday night was a first for me, or at least a first in a while â€“ a Monday Night Football game that I was actually looking forward to, and the same can probably be said for the rest of the planet. Take a look at what we've been treated to recently and notice the lack of hype.
Brady started 10-for-10, methodically picking apart defense, as he completed six passes to five different receivers to start the game. I expected the Colts secondary to come out hitting hard, especially Mike Doss and Bob Sanders, but that intimidation was not there. The Colts defense just is not that good ... yet. Before the flood of hate mail, let me explain:
1) The schedule -- this team has really only stopped one good offense (St. Louis). Cincinnati, San Diego, and Seattle are left on the schedule, two of them on the road.
2) I was not impressed by the tackling Monday night. This is a league-wide problem, but it seemed like every Colts defender was trying to tackle with his shoulder. I took some anatomy classes in college, so I know it's hard to bring someone down without the use of the arms.
3) Teams can run against the Colts. Chalk it up to injury and the fact that the Pats were playing catch-up, but Corey Dillon should have run the ball more than 12 times. Sure the Pats were forced to sign Mike Cloud to backup Dillon this week, but there should have been more touches. You only need to look back to the first drive (four rushes and one reception) to see what kind of success the Pats could have had if they continued with this gameplan.
Something else I have to bring up is Belichick's decision for the onside kick. I've learned to rarely, if ever, question Bill Belichick, but last night's decision to go for the onside kick called for questioning. Down by two touchdowns midway through the third quarter, what message does the onside kick send to your defense? Belichick basically said that he would rather have the Colts get in the endzone or kick a field goal quickly and then take his chances to recoup some points on offense. It was the NFL equivalent of a basketball team intentionally fouling the opponent at the end of the game.
And the result of the onside kick -- four plays, five yards, 1:01 off the clock and a field goal.
Ian: Here's where you and I disagree. What's wrong with Belichick's decision? Look you don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that the Patriots simply couldn't contain the Colts wideouts on Monday night. It was clear that Indy was more likely to score than not on every possession. So Bill figured that the chance of the Patriots' recovering the kick was greater than the chance of the Pats defense's coming up with a stop. And the Pats were likely to have to onside kick at some point; might as well try it when the Colts weren't lined up to prevent it. It turned out poorly, but I don't disagree with the decision.
Vivek: Speaking of coaching decisions, I have to give Dick Vermeil a lot of credit for his gutsy last-second decision to go for the win. The Raiders just scored on two straight possessions to take the lead, and with Sebastian Janikowski, there was a good chance that the Chiefs would not get the ball back had they lost the coin toss.
Ian: On to Minnesota, where the Viking offense got exactly what it needed -- Steady quarterback play. Hard to fault Daunte Culpepper too much, since his team wasn't exactly providing the solid support a quarterback needs. But it was clear that when Randy Moss left, Culpepper decided to take responsibility for the whole team on his shoulders, and clearly he put too much pressure on himself. It was as if he was convinced that he needed to make a big play every play, pulling the ball down and taking off without giving his receivers time to develop their patterns and running around in the pocket to avoid any kind of rush rather than simply getting rid of the ball. The result was a lot of 3rd-and-long situations, a number of fumbles, and a ton of forced balled that turned into interceptions.
After watching Brad Johnson lead Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl title, one thing we learned about the guy is that he's smart about getting rid of the ball. He often would have as many throw-aways as big passes, but he was smart, efficient and wouldn't turn the ball over. The Vikings gave up just 3 sacks and one turnover on Sunday, and it helped them get a much-needed win over a division foe.
Vivek: Everyone else who is kicking themselves for cutting Michael Bennett raise his hand. Finally he comes through given the opportunity. The thing that surprised me most about Bennett's performance was how he ran the ball â€“ through the middle as more of a power runner versus the more familiar speed runner to the outside. The offensive line had a lot to do with this. A unit that has not recovered from the loss of Matt Birk was ranked at the bottom of the league, but it did enough for Bennett last Sunday. The line did not overpower the defense, but created just enough space for Bennett to slice through the middle.
We'll see if Bennett figures prominently in the Vikings' gameplan for the rest of the season, but let's hope that the team learned something, unlike the Eagles who still did not use Brian Westbrook enough. The seventeen carries Sunday night were a season high for Westbrook, but he only rushed the ball sparcely in the fourth quarter. Late in the game at the Redskins 13-yard line, McNabb attempted three straight passes, missing twice. My biggest beef with not having Westbrook run the ball was the fact that there was nearly two minutes left in the game. If McNabb did get into the endzone, the Redskins would have still had plenty of time to attempt a field goal.
Ian: There's something I've been wondering about for a long time now, and it has to do with punting. It's not uncommon for a team to have a drive stall out just beyond midfield, and so they punt and try to pin the other team deep. But the approach is always the same: Have the punter boom it high and short, and hope it doesn't go in the endzone, or doesn't roll in if it hits down within the 10-yard line.
But whatever happened to the Coffin Corner? Seriously, I just can't fathom why punters don't worry less about how far they kick it, and worry more about where they kick it. Aiming it to go out of bounds within the 10-yard line seems like a good system to me. Why leave it up to chance, when that strangely-yet-beautifully shaped pigskin hits down on the 5 yard line, and who knows where it's gonna go?
Vivek: I'll chalk this one up to inexperience and the merry-go-round of punters in the NFL. Out of the top 20 punters this year (by yards per punt), 12 have less than five years of experience. These young punters are focused on showing that they can boom the ball deep in order to get a tryout and a job, versus showcasing directional and situational punting. A big leg can also eliminate the need for a team to keep a long kicker/occasional kickoff man on the roster.
Leading off this week is Alex:
L.J. Smith is listed as questionable. If he's not able to suit up, what other TE should I select: D.Jolley, Desmond Clark, Alex Smith, K.Mangum, C.Anderson, or M.Schobel? Also, may you kindly rank these players in the order you would start them: M.Moore, J.Jurevicius, C.Chambers, K.Barlow, and J.Bettis. And lastly, should I drop J.Brown in favor of Elam?
1) Cincy is on a bye, so that knocks out Schobel. I don't like any of these TE matchups, but I would go for Courtney Anderson, who has the more explosive offense around him.
2) Jurevicius, Chambers and then none of the rest. Moore is still nursing a wrist injury, and Michael Bennett's performance last week might have cost Moore his job. Barlow is facing a tough Chicago run defense on the heels of an awful Week 9 performance. Frank Gore, anyone? It also looks like it is time to bring the Bus (knee) in for servicing.
3) Brown has been more accurate, so hold onto him.
Ian: I'd also consider going for Doug Jolley. Now that Chris Baker is out for the season, look for the Jets to try and get Jolley worked into the offense a bit more. Of course, I have very low expectations for all the players you've mentioned. You're probably best off just hoping L.J. Smith plays.
Next up is Scramble regular Randy.
1) What is this weeks defense d'jour? Jets, Washington, Cleveland, Seattle, Oakland, or KC?
2) Should I stick with Tynes or pick up J.Wilkins or Buffalo's kicker?
3) My first round bust, Kevin Jones, is ailing. Should I seek solace this week in RBs M.Bennet, G.Jones, A.Peterson, Sam Gado, or Cleveland's Wright ?
4) Which 2 WRs should I start ? A.Chatman, R.Smith, J.Jurevicius, E.Wilford or C.Chambers ? And if R.Ferguson comes back, who has more value between him and A.Chatman?
1) KC versus Buffalo
2) Tynes. You should never spend more than five seconds debating about a kicker. With the exception of one or two guys, they're all about even.
3) Jones is looking doubtful with his arm injuries, so Bennett would be the safer play
4) Jurevicius and Rod Smith. I'm souring on Chambers, who has had a hard time getting involved in the Dolphins offense. And for part II of your question â€“ Ferguson, because he is the more proven entity.
Ian: As a Tampa Bay fan it kills me to say so, but I like Washington's defense more than Kansas City's this week. Arrington is back, they're full of playmakers, and Chris Simms has had a lot of trouble protecting the football lately.
Vivek: The contract that the Eagles gave Terrell Owens last year will be the biggest one he'll ever see. Drew Rosenhaus wanted to make a splash as the super agent, so he convinced Owens that both of them were on the same page and had the same goals. Remember that Rosenhaus did not negotiate Owens' original contract, so Rosenhaus needed a new contract for the big payday. Even more appalling was the press conference on Tuesday, in which Rosenhaus and Owens blamed the media for building this up. I don't even need to comment on how absurd that was.
Now I am not saying that TO was a puppet and sat idly through all this, but I blame his agent even more. These guys are much smarter than to fire off all these statements. In my mind, these were calculated moves with calculated risks, and ones that backfired.
Ian: Steve, we're all big fans. Anyone would be hard pressed to come up with another player that was more of a warrior when it comes to football. You've got a great nickname, great all-around game, and came within a yard of a potential Super Bowl title. But hang â€˜em up. No one wants to see you get killed on the field, and the talent level of your team just isn't worth the risk. A loss to Cleveland? The Titans are just too far from being title contenders, and you're too close to a career-ending injury. Walk away healthy, and we'll respect you forever.
With the exception of the Laker girls, when was the last time that cheerleaders were prominent? 'Nuff said.
Ian: It's a bit unfair to do it, since most of these players wouldn't be playing at all if not for injuries, but I'm giving the award to the entire New England secondary. This was a game the Patriots had to win. They had the crowd on their side, and Tom Brady played an excellent game. But I've never seen so many wide open wide receivers. And since the Patriots were almost always rushing three and dropping eight, where was the coverage? How was it so easy for Manning to complete over 75 percent of his passes? Sure there were injuries to starters, and sure it was the Colts offense, but there were so many third down opportunities to make a play and force the Colts to punt, and that play was almost never made.
Vivek: For the FOXSports audience, this week marks the second half start of our ever so popular Loser League. Sure, anyone can pick LT or Shaun Alexander and brag about taking home a fantasy division title. Where is the skill in that? If your fantasy drafts burn you on an annual basis, then the Loser League is for you. This is the contest where you compete against hundreds of other readers to see who can come up with the lowest fantasy score each week. The catch? You can't just pick Jim Sorgi or Darren Sproles â€“ the players you pick must play and reach certain minimums or else your team is subject to penalty points.
Remember to get your picks in by November 12, and I hope all your teams are awful.
Taking home a copy of Pro Football Prospectus 2006 (as soon as it's printed) for winning the first half contest was David Hess of New York and his entry, Vote For Pedro. Leading the way for Vote For Pedro were quarterbacks L.P. Losman and David "I Get Knocked Down, But I Get Up Again" Carr.
Ian: The first half of the Loser League is in the books, so without further ado, here are your First Half Loser League All Stars:
Kyle Orton â€“ Nothing beats a rookie pressed into service when it comes to the Loser League. Especially when it happens the week before the season starts, and it's a team that relies on defense and running the ball anyway. Kyle averaged a mere 7.7 points for the first half of the season, but we'll give him credit. He's a Loser League All Star, but a worthy NFL starter.
Unworthy NFL starters are the honorable mentions, Alex Smith and Joey Harrington. For Alex Smith to finish second in average points is astounding, given that he only started four weeks, and thus pulled six penalties (one due to a bye). But when he started, he redefined â€œsuckâ€?, turning in fantasy performances of 1, -7, and 0.
The top individual performance is the aforementioned -7 clunker by Alex Smith against the Colts. Close behind was a -5 point performance Week 3 by Kyle Orton against the Bengals, thanks to five interceptions.
Jamal Lewis â€“ Coming into the season, there were plenty of question marks surrounding Jamal Lewis. The most prominent, of course, was how would he perform after life in prison? Well, obviously not so well. But fortunately for Loser Leaguers, he's making a lot of money, so he always gets his carries. His only penalty was his bye week, and on only one other week did he top 15 points. His three lost fumbles are a nice bonus.
Marcel Shipp â€“ Frankly, it surprised me that Jamal Lewis sucked worse than Marcel Shipp. It was very close though, and Marcel didn't have the starting job at the beginning of the season. Give him one more carry in Week 1, and he's the top Loser League All Star. That being said, the Arizona rushing attack is woeful, and makes for great Loser League stats.
Honorable mentions at running back go to Kevan Barlow and, surprisingly, Chris Brown. Barlow has been a very consistent Loser, avoiding penalty except for his bye week. Chris Brown has been quietly getting hot over the last four weeks, but it couldn't make up for early poor play, and his lack of any penalties thus far definitely helped there.
The top loser performance by a running back goes to a player who certainly isn't likely to have one again: Larry Johnson of the Chiefs. In Week 3 at Denver, he rushed 8 times for a mere 13 yards, and managed to fumble the ball away once, leading to a highly unusual negative week for a running back at -1 points.
Bryant Johnson â€“ Who? Bryant Johnson of Arizona, who's probably being picked up off of your waiver wire right now, thanks to the injury to Anquan Boldin. He's only pulled penalty twice (once due to a bye week), but he's been amazing every other week. His non-penalty week-by-week point totals: 2, 1, 5, 0, 2, 1, 12. It helps that Arizona is often losing in games and goes to three-wide sets. Bryant finished with an average of six points per week.
Lee Evans â€“ Lee actually tied Johnson with six points per week. Benefiting greatly from the J.P. Losman experiment, the Bills passing game rarely got on-track, and as a result Lee's value suffered. Lee never caught more than 3 passes in a game, yer only pulled penalty twice (once due to a bye week). His non-penalty week-by-week totals: 5, 1, 0, 2, 6, 2, 7. A thing of beauty is a joy forever.
Honorable mentions go to perhaps the biggest fantasy bust of the season, Michael Clayton of Tampa Bay, and Travis Taylor of Minnesota. Clayton just hasn't gotten it going after a sensational rookie season last year. Travis Taylor earned a lot of fantasy starts after his two-touchdown Week 3 performance, but people seemed to forget that this is Travis Taylor, and even a broken clock is right twice a day.
No wide receiver managed to pull off negative points this season (oh, how I pine for the days of Az-Zahir Hakim with the Rams). Three players managed a zero point week though, the two Loser League All Stars and Jabar Gaffney of Houston.
Ryan Longwell â€“ Not only did Ryan Longwell lead all Loser League players with a paltry 2.9 points per week, he was almost 2 points per week worse than the second-worst kicker, and more than 3 points worse per week than any quarterback, running back, or wide receiver. With the Packers defense struggling, the offense is often compelled to go for touchdowns, and thus Longwell has attempted only 11 field goals this season. He's only converted on seven of them for a loser-rific 60 percent conversion rate. And he also managed to miss an extra point, which we score as -5 points.
Honorable mention goes to the New York Jets front office, for jumping all over Loser League specialist Mike Nugent who, like Longwell, is seven-for-11 on field goal attempts thus far. But Mike hasn't missed an extra point, and had his bye week already. But look for him to finish in the top three for sure during the second half of the Loser League season.
The top Loser performance for a kicker goes to Matt Stover, who way back in Week 1 managed a -5 thanks to three missed field goals against the Colts. Three different kickers managed a -2, including the two players already mentioned, and the now kickoff-only Jose Cortez.
With all that being said, I'm proud to award the First Half Loser League MVP Award to none other than Ryan Longwell! The funny thing is, I bet he was the starter for many fantasy teams as the season began, so his earning of this award is all the more impressive. But as said before, it wasn't even close. Longwell ran away with this award.
Ian (3-1-1 last week)
Not a bad return for me on the Best Bets front; if I could have talked myself out of taking the Patriots I would have gone 4-0-1. Amazingly, I got my Houston pick right, even though I took â€œDomanick Davis +13.5â€? â€“ he didn't even play. Onto this week's picks.
If this game was in New York, I'd be a bit more hesitant, but there's a reason Brooks Bollinger is on my Loser League team this week. I expect him and the Jets to get trounced by the Panthers, who are on fire right now, and who make a terrific Survival Picks Pool choice if you haven't used them already.
Atlanta leads the league when it comes to running the football. Green Bay is awful at defending the run. And there's a waiver wire stampede this week for someone named â€œSamkon Gado.â€? I'll take the Falcons minus the points.
I'm not a big Arizona fan, but it's hard to take Detroit minus points against anyone at this point. It's especially hard with Kevin Jones banged up and Joey Harrington at quarterback. Amazingly, Neil Rackers is one of the best fantasy plays of the week. I'll be disappointed if he has fewer than 5 field goals.
Marc Bulger is back, and so is Isaac Bruce. I think Seattle has a great chance of winning this week, but I think St. Louis will make a late push for a backdoor cover.
Vivek: (2-1 last week, 12-18 overall)
One point away from an unblemished week. Damn you, Brooks Bollinger! For those of you who have been doing second half eliminator pools or are in leagues where you pick games straight up, take a look at the weekly picks by The Writers. Yours truly (in the NFL Guru Division) is third overall, which proves that I have some prognosticating skills â€¦ just not when you factor in the spread. As a whole, the Writers are coming in at an impressive 63 percent win rate, which is on par with some other major sites out there.
I actually checked a few sites to see if the favorite was switched. Not a typo. Do you trust either of the QBs for Buffalo?
I'm still not sold on Eli Manning's accuracy. An ill advised or errant pass will cost the team the chance to cover.
If Jon Gruden wants to keep his playoff hopes alive in the crowded NFC South, he needs to replace Chris Simms. The Skins defense is going to force him into a lot of bad decisions.