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?
23 Nov 2005
by Al Bogdan and Vivek Ramgopal
Vivek: Open the doors and give me the driving gloves because I'm leading the troops onto the Chicago Bandwagon. For those of you waiting to join me on board, I will be the one choreographing the 2005 version of the Super Bowl Shuffle. At 7-3 and two games up on the Vikings (more than two if you factor in Chicago's earlier win against Minnesota), the Bears are sitting pretty atop the NFC North and are possibly turning into the team that nobody wants to face in the playoffs.
On Sunday, the Bears snapped Carolina's six-game winning streak and won their sixth straight game. (Ned Macey takes a deeper look at this upset in this week's edition of Any Given Sunday.) The Bears were not knocking off the crÃ¨me de la crÃ¨me of the NFL (opponents are a combined 15 games below .500), but Sunday's win against Carolina proved that a team needs to do one thing very well to win. In this case, it is play defense. Sunday marked the first time all season that the Panthers failed to reach the 20-point mark and the first time since Week 6 that they did not hit 30.
Delhomme was sacked eight -- yes, eight -- times and got knocked to the ground all day. He managed 235 yards, but nearly half of those yards came during Carolina's final two drives as they were playing catch-up. Opposing quarterbacks are throwing for a mere 160 yards per game against the Bears, due in large part to the Chicago secondary which has accounted for 11 of the team's NFC-leading 16 interceptions.
For all you Kyle Orton haters out there, didn't we recently see Trent Dilfer win a Super Bowl? Give this guy some credit. Remember that Orton was a Heisman candidate and potential first-round pick before injuries and losses derailed his senior season. I use the term derailed loosely as well -- Orton still finished with 30 touchdowns to only four interceptions. As long as the Bears keep playing defense and keep mistakes to a minimum, they could win with Cade McNown behind center.
A rougher patch is ahead with Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Tampa Bay, but this Bears team should hit the ten win mark with the Packers on the schedule twice.
Al: I hopped onto this one early, when I was the only FO writer to predict that Chicago would win the NFC North before the season started. Don't forget Viv, I was on the bandwagon all the way back in February, when I highlighted the 60-1 (which later moved to 70-1) odds the Bears were getting as one of the best Super Bowl future bets available. And let's just say, that wasn't a purely hypothetical exercise on my part, so I'm hoping the Bears can ride this wave of success for another couple of months.
But ten wins is a lot to ask from Chicago. Tampa and Pittsburgh are going to be incredibly tough road games for them to win, unless Tommy Maddox ends up behind center again for the Steelers. Chicago should get at least one win against Green Bay, and they should be able to handle Atlanta at home (cue the rabid Falcons fans). They could have nine wins going into the final week of the season, playing at the Metrodome against the resurgent Vikings.
Last week, I wrote that "outside of Seattle, there isn't a better bet to make the playoffs in the NFC than Chicago." I still stand by that statement, but after Minnesota's win over Green Bay on Monday night, it's quite possible that Week 17 game will mean something. The Vikings have a much easier schedule than the Bears do down the stretch, with home games against Cleveland, St. Louis and Pittsburgh, and road games against Detroit and Baltimore. Three wins isn't out of the question with that schedule.
I was impressed by the Vikings on Monday night. They beat the Giants the previous week thanks to some fluke plays and Eli Manning's inaccuracy. But against Green Bay, the Vikings played a much better overall game. On offense, they attacked Green Bay's obvious weaknesses by running Mewelde Moore at the poor Packers run defense, and they threw ten passes to Jermaine Wiggins to exploit Green Bay's inability to defend tight ends. The Vikings run defense continues to improve as the season progresses -- they were able to hold Frodo to only seven yards on 10 carries. That meant Brett Favre had to throw the ball for Green Bay to move down the field on offense, which these days means forced passes into double and triple coverage.
Vivek: What a year of headlines so far for the Vikings:
"The Trade of Randy Moss"
"The Original Whizzinator Â©"
"The Demise of Daunte Culpepper"
"The Party Boat"
And now we can add "Viking Ship Stays Afloat" to that list.
Like Orton, the Vikings need Johnson to minimize his mistakes. Unlike Culpepper, he won't be able to make up for any goofs with one big play. Johnson has not been asked to, nor will he, attempt 35 or 40 passes per game. As long as Johnson can avoid interceptions on the 25 to 30 passes he throws each week, the Vikings will stay in the NFC North race. The Minnesota running backs have a good three weeks ahead of them, as they face poor run defenses in Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis. That's even more reason to have extra confidence in Brad Johnson's ability.
Lost among the shuffle of Moore's 122-yard rushing day and Edinger's game-winning field goal was the second-half play of the Vikings much-maligned offensive line. The O-line has never recovered from losing its leader Matt Birk before opening day. After seeing his quarterback get crushed by Aaron Kampman, Mike Tice replaced veteran right tackle Mike Rosenthal with rookie Marcus Johnson. Second-year guard Anthony Herrera replaced Toniu Fonoti as well, and despite the drop-off in total bulk, the line managed to play as a cohesive unit. Brad Johnson still faced a good amount of pressure, but he had enough time to complete the short passes to keep the chains moving.
As a reward for a job well done, Tice will stick with Johnson and Herrera next week against Cleveland.
Al: Speaking of Cleveland, what's your take on the Charlie Frye long relief experiment? Earl Weaver used to advocate easing young starting pitching prospects into the major leagues by giving them a year or two of long relief experience before thrusting them into the starting rotation. Young pitchers get their feet wet in the majors in low pressure situations and their fragile young arms aren't taxed by throwing lots of innings at such young ages. In recent years, the Twins had great success using this strategy with Johan Santana.
But does letting your QB of the future play for a few series in the middle of every game help his development? Sure, the move will appease the folks over at StartCharlieFrye.com, but in the long run I don't see how this is going to help the Cleveland Browns. If Romeo Crennel is conceding the season in Cleveland and wants to get Frye some action, why bother sticking with Dilfer as the team's starter? You're not going to learn much about Frye's ability by just throwing him into the game for a random third quarter drive or two. It seems like it would be much more productive for them to see what Frye can do after a full week of preparation as the team's number one starter. Maybe by getting Frye half a season of starts this year, Frye and the Browns offense can have the same success next year that Eli Manning and the Giants have had this year.
Vivek: I'm with you on this, Al. I do not understand this game of quarterback roulette. If you are Nick Saban, and your quarterback started the game five-for-10 for 10 yards and two interceptions, then you can pull him in favor of an injured Gus Frerotte. Dilfer, however, led the Browns to a 9-0 lead before Charlie Frye played the next series. Dilfer started the first three series in the second half, and then again Frye took over for the last two.
There is no middle ground here. You either give your team the best chance to win (start Dilfer) or play for the future (Frye). Alternating quarterbacks does not allow Frye to get complete exposure to the pro game and only frustrates Dilfer.
Vivek: We are all stat geeks here, so I'll simply throw out numbers.
The Steelers' regular season record with Roethlisberger as the starter: 18-1.
The Steelers' regular season record without Big Ben as the starter: 2-3.
Roethlisberger's quarterback rating during the past two seasons: 102.5
Tommy Maddox's quarterback rating during the past two seasons: mid-50s.
"Doesn't have the big time arm strength."
As long as he keeps hitting two-thirds of his short to medium distance routes and winning games, that is all that matters.
Vivek: This should be in its own section of Lessons NOT learned from â€¦ well, ever. All defensive coordinators, take note. When Mike Vrabel comes out on offense, he is not a decoy. The linebacker has six career catches, all for touchdowns and all within two yards of the goal line. There is no chicanery, deception or trickery here. What you see is what you get.
Al: We could give this to Tommy Maddox again, but we've already beaten that horse. I'm going to go with Brandon Jacobs, even though the Giants ended up winning their game against the Eagles. After David Tyree's blocked punt gave the Giants first and goal on the Philadelphia one-yard line, New York went to their goal line back to punch it through into the end zone. Except Jacobs couldn't get that yard on first down. Or on second down. Or on third. Thankfully, the Giants called for a play-action pass on fourth down and Manning threw a perfect pass to a leaping Amani Toomer for the touchdown. Yes, the Giants didn't give Jacobs any holes to run through, but if you're a 275-pound running back whose only job is to get one yard in short yardage situations, you have to be able to push someone back a yard when given three chances to do so.
Dave from Brookline: I'm sitting in second in my league with a big game coming up in Week 12. My big decision to make is which 3 WRs to go with. I've got: D. Driver, B. Finneran, R. Brown, B. Engram, E. Wilford, and E. Parker. My running back problem is a good one to have, but I have to decide on who to use with Alexander, R. Johnson or R. Droughns. Finally, I lean toward starting Palmer against Baltimore, but Green against NE doesn't look bad either. Any advice greatly appreciated!
Vivek: The easiest roster question for me here is Green against the Patriots. The Pats secondary has been torched in the past three weeks. Peyton Manning (320 yards) had the lowest yardage total in that span, so that says something right there.
Al: How can you suggest benching Carson Palmer? Yes, Green has a nice matchup against the Patriots, but Palmer has been the best quarterback in fantasy football this year. Always start your studs. Palmer is a stud.
At WR, I'd go with Driver, Brown and Engram. As the Packers showed on Monday, if Brett Favre is going to throw the ball, odds are the pass is going in Donald Driver's direction. Against the depleted Eagles secondary, he should be good for at least 70 yards and a touchdown. Mike McMahon looked to be developing some nice chemistry with Reggie Brown against the Giants, especially on deep balls. I'd guess that the Packers would put Al Harris on Greg Lewis, at least to start the game, which means Brown and McMahon should have a few good chances at long touchdowns against the weak links of Green Bay's secondary. Engram has put together two solid games in a row and should have no problems getting open against Curtis Deloatch or Will Allen.
Alexander is an obvious start as one of your two RB spots. After Droughns' last two games, it may be tempting to start him against the Vikings, but I'd stick with Rudi at home against Baltimore. Johnson had 97 yards and a touchdown in Baltimore three weeks ago. There's no reason not to expect him to do that again.
Vivek: It looks like the Packers will be playing from behind, so Brett Favre will have to throw the ball to someone. That makes Driver the first pick. And like Al, I'd also go with Engram versus the Giants and Brown versus Green Bay. We differ about our second running back though. Droughns is quickly emerging as a solid fantasy play each week, regardless of the matchup. He just dropped 166 yards against a tough Miami defense, and you can expect the same against Minnesota.
Devin: OK, somehow I'm in first place (thank you, Shaun Alexander), and with a win this week I'll be pretty much assured of a playoff berth, so I'll use all the help I can get. It's a 12-team league with TD/yardage/PPR, plus bonuses for going over 100 yards. Here are my many decisions:
1) 2 Flex RB/WR spots from S. Davis, C. Martin, F. Gore, E. Moulds, D. Bennett, B. Edwards and B. Lloyd. I'd say that right now I'm leaning towards Moulds and Edwards, but Moulds has a bad matchup, and is clearly worse with Losman starting, and Edwards is a rookie on a bad team.
2) QB: Hasselbeck (vs. Giants), Brooks (at Jets). For the record, in our scoring system, each one has "won" 4 of the 9 weeks they've both played (one was essentially a tie).
3) TE: Marcus Pollard (vs. Falcons), or someone off the scrap heap? (Heiden, Troupe, A. Smith, Graham, Anderson, Putzier)
4) DEF: GB, Buf, Cle, Ten, Oak, NO, SF, STL. (I stuck to the Tampa Bay bandwagon a little too long) Actually, there are a lot of decent matchups there. Oakland hosting Miami is pretty promising after this past week.
I always enjoy the column, and any help you can give me is greatly appreciated.
Al: 1) I'm a big fan of going with running backs at your flex spot whenever you can. Always take a starting running back over a wide receiver, especially receivers in bad offenses, like the ones you have. Stephen Davis has a nice matchup against the Bills, one of the worst teams in the league in defending power running situations. That means Davis should have some goal-line success against Buffalo and be good for at least one score. If you're ever going to use Curtis Martin in your fantasy lineup, this is the week. The Saints do very few things well, and stopping the run isn't one of them. In a nationally televised game, this will likely be the last big game of Martin's career.
2) Hasselbeck. I wouldn't trust Aaron Brooks, even against the Jets.
3) Stick with Pollard. He has a nice matchup against the Falcons, who have struggled against tight ends.
4) When in doubt, I'd play whoever is up against the Texans. Even the Chiefs defense, which has been a terrible fantasy play all year, had a great game against Houston on Sunday night. Go with St. Louis.
Vivek: 1) Neither Moulds nor Edwards has proved to be consistent this year. Like Al said, Davis and Martin.
2) If Mike McMahon can go for nearly 300 yards against the Giants, Matt Hasselbeck will be drooling at the chance. The Giants' overall pass defense numbers have improved during the past few weeks, but remember that Cody Pickett and newly anointed starter Brad Johnson were behind center for two of the past three games.
3) If you want proof about the Falcons' struggles against tight ends, take a look at our breakdown of pass defense versus specific receiving targets. Atlanta ranks 31st in defending tight ends.
4) Playing against the Texans pretty much guarantees you four sacks and less than 250 yards of total offense each week.
Geoff: Hi guys: Which Jones (Kevin or Julius) should I start this week? (Yes, I'm in last place. No, I don't totally hold it against FO.) The strange thing about my league is that it counts carries as a full point...
Al: Definitely the Pro Football Prospectus 2005 cover boy, Kevin. Julius will likely still split carries on Thanksgiving against a pretty good Denver run defense. Atlanta can't stop anyone on the ground.
James: Two questions. First, as my second QB (after Carson Palmer) who should I start: Jake Delhomme or Eli Manning? Manning seems to be facing the easier pass defense (Seattle), both by traditional stats and by DVOA, than Delhomme (Buffalo). Additionally, looking at the WR breakdowns here, it appears that Buffalo really shuts down #1 WRs, so if anyone can shut down Steve Smith, it's Buffalo. Carolina doesn't seem to have much of a passing attack beyond Smith. However, I'm not sure I'm really confident in Manning...
Question number two: Which three out of the following four WRs should I start? Santana Moss, Bobby Engram, Joe Horn, and Kevin Curtis. I thought Curtis' numbers would begin to slip since Holt and Bruce are both healthy now, so I didn't start him on Sunday. Naturally, he had the best performance of any of my receivers. This week the Rams face Houston, whose pass defense is horrid no matter how you look at it. How likely is Curtis to continue to play a prominent role in the Rams attack? And if I start him, which of the other three don't I start? Horn faces a tough pass defense in the Jets, but he's still the #1 for New Orleans, I guess, and the Jets appear to struggle against #1 WRs.
Al: I'd go with Eli. I'd expect the Panthers to concentrate on their running game against the Bills. Smith will likely have his usual 100+ yard game, but I wouldn't expect Delhomme to have a great day overall. Manning isn't a great play on the road, but 200 yards and a couple of touchdowns is a reasonable expectation.
I'd expect Curtis to continue to play a big role in St. Louis' passing game, even with Isaac Bruce back in the fold. However, I'd be worried about how good that passing game will be in the near term with Bulger out for at least the next few weeks and possibly the rest of the season, even against the Texans. Your other options are good enough that you can keep Curtis on your bench and wait for Bulger to return to action.
Jon L.: Is Curtis Martin worth playing this week vs. NO over Thomas Jones?
Al: Yes. Like I said earlier, I think he'll have a big week against the awful Saints. Jones has been very solid this year, but he's playing a top ten defense against the run on the road.
Dan: I'm not sure who to send this to but since you cover the Loser League in your column, I thought I'd send it to you. I noticed an error in the Week 10 stats. Ricky Williams is shown as getting 15 points when he had 11 carries for 14 yards and one catch for 18 yards.
Al: Thanks for pointing this out. We've let the appropriate parties know, and it should be fixed by the time you read this. If you have Loser League questions in the future, feel free to use our contact form and select â€œLoser League Issuesâ€? from the drop down menu.
Vivek: After Nathan Vasher's 108-yard return of a missed field goal two Sundays ago, Al and several readers inquired about how the NFL distinguished this return from other ones out of the end zone, most notably Chris McAlister's in 2002. Chris Hoeltge from NFL.com helped us out with this email:
Yes, you can say Vasher's return was longer then McAlister's. The Elias Sports Bureau sent people out to both stadiums to measure where the return started the following day. In the Ravens game, they found McAlister's footprint and measured the distance from the end zone to that. In the Bears game, they took a picture of the catch with them and measured to the Bears logo, as the picture clearly showed Vasher on the grass behind the logo.
Little known scoring fact: McAlister's return was originally scored as a 108-yard return. After measuring, the play was changed to a 107-yard return. The previous record was 106 yards (held by 3 players), so it was still a record.
Al: Week 2 of our second half contest saw some spectacular performances. The Neverending Sex Cruise finished in the single digits with nine total points. What's even more amazing is that score was only good enough to come in second place for the week. RS Connection had only eight points, taking first place thanks to Jason Hanson's negative performance.
Here are your Loser League All-Stars for Week 11:
QB: Vinny Testeverde, NYJ: -1 points (25 passes, 152 yards; 2 fumbles; 2 INT)
RB: Steven Jackson, STL: -1 points (12 carries, 6 yards; 3 catches, 16 yards; 1 fumble)
RB: Jamal Lewis, BAL: 0 points (13 carries, 26 yards; 1 fumble)
WR: Wes Welker, MIA: 1 point (2 catches, 12 yards)
WR: Chris Chambers, MIA: 1 point (3 catches, 12 yards)
K: Jason Hanson, DET: -1 points (1/1 XP, 0/1 FG)
Al: (0-3 last week, 18-11 overall)
Let's just forget that happened.
I see a Turducken leg, or whatever stupid award Fox is giving out on Thanksgiving this year, in Kevin Jones' future. I don't like the Falcons' chances going on the road on a short week after a tough loss on Sunday.
If the Redskins can't handle the Raiders at home, I can't see them hanging with the Chargers.
Yeah, I'm picking against the Bears after writing such nice things about them above. If this game were in Chicago I'd be going the other way.
Vivek: (1-2 last week, 14-22 overall)
Let's give Michael Vick some credit. After we all hammered him for his 11-for-26, three interception performance against the Jets, he has looked much more comfortable in the pocket. In his last three games, Vick has completed 64 percent of his passes, including five touchdowns and no interceptions. The last two games have ended in losses, but that should change this week.
I think this is the week when adversity is too much for Tom Brady to overcome. The Pats cannot stop the run (enter Larry Johnson and the Kansas City offensive line) or defend the pass (enter Trent Green). Brady owners should have a good fantasy day, but the end result should be a loss for the Pats at Arrowhead.
After what I just wrote, did you expect me to go against the Bears this week? The Bears win 16-13.
And I'll take the over on the +2 line for the number of anonymous Rams quoted this week about the disarray of the team. Steven Jackson will redeem himself after last week's game and the Rams should easily cover, even with Jamie Martin at quarterback.
25 comments, Last at 27 Nov 2005, 3:48am by Lions fan