Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
05 Oct 2005
by Al Bogdan and Vivek Ramgopal
Al:Is it too soon for us to re-think the playoff predictions we made just a month ago? I don't think so. In fact, I think it's time for everyone's fourth-favorite Scramble for the Ball semi-regular feature, Off the Wagon. For those of you just joining us, this is where Viv and I get a second chance at our playoff predictions after watching teams play actual games over the first month of the season. Here's our opportunity to admit our mistakes and replace our previous playoff picks with who we now think will be playing in January. However, there is a catch. Once you jump off a team's playoff bandwagon, you can't jump back on. So, if I decide that I'm giving up on my prediction that the Cardinals will be a wild card team in the NFC, I can take it back. But if they go undefeated the rest of the year and waltz into the playoffs, I've given up the right to say that I predicted it. Sound good?
Vivek: I already know that it will be hard to beat last year's predictions, which saw the Outsiders take the top prize in King Kaufman's NFL Preseason Predictions Contest. Not only have Jamal Lewis, Dante Culpepper and Chad Pennington started the demise of my fantasy football team, but they are killing my preseason predictions. Cadillac running like a Hummer and the Redskins' escaping by the slimmest of margins have me moving around some of my choices.
Vivek: The Panthers needed that Monday night win badly, even realizing this is a team that just missed the playoffs after a 1-7 start last year. This is one of the most frustrating preseason picks for any prognosticator out there. A healthy Stephen Davis was supposed to anchor a bruising ground game, but it has actually regressed compared to last year. With the Panthers having a healthy Kris Jenkins and two cornerbacks capable of disrupting passing schemes, I envisioned a defense similar to one that the Ravens had during their Super Bowl season. Instead, Kris Jenkins suffered his second season-ending injury in as many seasons, and the defense has not been able to get to the quarterback, pick off passes, or penetrate the line to stuff opposing running backs.
I am not completely hopping off the wagon for the Panthers, just lowering my expectations a bit and giving the division crown to Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers pimped their ride this off-season with Cadillac Williams. A hamstring injury could be a blessing in disguise for someone who was on pace for 470 carries. If that continued -- considering he only had 240 carries last year at Auburn -- I could have made it a Best Bet that Williams would have broken down by Week 10. On the other side of the ball, the Bucs have no problem stopping the run. No opposing back has broken off a run of more than 14 yards, and Tampa Bay has allowed a paltry 61.5 yards per game on the ground.
Al: I'm not sold on Tampa just yet. I like what Michael Pittman can do on the football field, even though he hasn't exactly been a family guy off the field. Even if Cadillac Williams' hamstring limits his ability the rest of the year, the Bucs will still be able to run the ball. Brian Griese is going to cost this team a few games with his turnovers. He has revitalized Joey Galloway's career so far this season, but Griese has also padded the stats of opposing defenders by throwing some beautiful interceptions into their waiting arms.
I also wouldn't go crazy thinking the Bucs are having some sort of reunion of their 2002 Super Bowl defense. Let's look at who they've beaten this year. Minnesota, Buffalo, Detroit and Green Bay have been four of the worst teams in the league so far this year. The Bills are the cream of the crop, at #20 in DVOA. The Vikings and Packers have huge problems on their offensive line that have contributed to their struggles running the ball. Detroit and Buffalo have quarterback problems that have prevented them from doing anything on offense. Yes, Tampa has played all four well, but it's not like the Bucs have been shutting down the 2004 Colts every week.
Tampa has a two game lead on Carolina right now, but I still like the Panthers' chances of winning the division because of their upcoming schedule. Both teams could win out before meeting in Tampa in Week 9. After that, though, Tampa's schedule is much tougher than Carolina's. The Panthers only have one road game that looks to be tough in the second half, finishing the season at Atlanta. Tampa also has Atlanta on the road, as well as New England and the second half of their home and home against the Panthers.
We're forgetting, however, about Atlanta here. With the likelihood of the Matt Schaub Experience taking flight in Atlanta increasing every week, I can't predict the Falcons to keep up their pace all season long.
In fact, I'm not sure either of those teams will be able to win the wild card in the NFC. There may be two teams with under .500 records in the NFC playoffs as division winners, but with the surprising strength of the NFC East, you're going to need at least ten wins to make the wild card. The Giants don't have a tough out-of-division road game left on their schedule. If they were facing tougher teams away from the Meadowlands, I'd be nervous about if Eli and the Giant offense can keep up their pace. But against the 49ers, Seahawks, and Raiders, there's no reason to expect they can't score enough to win on the road.
Vivek: I have increased my respect for the Redskins in the past week or so, but my DC-area neighbors down here keep telling me that there is no room on this bandwagon. It's not pretty at all, but the Redskins keep doing what it takes to win. Take Sunday's win against Seattle. The Skins converted a ridiculous 13 of 18 third downs, and ten of those were of seven yards or longer. During the past two Washington games, I've been screaming at the TV, â€œWho are you and what have you done with Mark Brunell?â€? The arm strength that was missing last year has suddenly emerged. If Brunell can stay healthy and the Falcons' passing attack never gets going, the Redskins are next in line for a playoff spot in the weak NFC.
Al: I'd still take Dallas and the Giants over Washington to win a wild card spot. The Redskins have a great defense, even with Lavar Arrington on the sidelines, thanks to their great secondary led by #24 Shawn Springs. Without an improved offense, however, I don't see how this team wins on the road against Denver, Kansas City, or St. Louis. I wouldn't be surprised to see this team lose five of their next six and quickly fall out of contention.
That doesn't mean, however, that the Redskins wouldn't win the NFC North in a cakewalk if they were just lucky enough to play in that division. Chicago has looked awful, but there's really no reason for me to move away from them as my pick to win the division, even though I think they'll lose this week. Make no bones about it, the Bears are awful. But they'll still be in first place even after falling to 1-3. I'm sticking with them because their defense is clearly head and shoulders above the rest of the division. I'm not convinced they are the best defense in the NFL, which our team efficiency rankings show them to be after three games, but they're good enough to win at least a half dozen games. That's all you need to win the NFC North.
Al: I've lost all faith in the Seahawks in the NFC West. There's no reason to think they'll win a game on the road this year. Games against the Cowboys, Giants, and Colts are all easily losable, even if all those teams have to play in Seattle's house. It's not that I'm at all confident in the Rams, but two of their road games are in domes, playing to the team's strengths, and they already have one road victory this year. 8-8 wins this division.
|Vivek||Patriots||Steelers||Colts||Chiefs||Bengals / Chargers|
Al: I didn't realize that we had the exact same playoff picks in the AFC. Even though Miami is in first place (and, as I said last week, I wouldn't be shocked if they won the division) I can't move away from my pick of the Patriots just yet. Sure, the Patriots' defense couldn't do anything right at home against the Chargers. But I just don't have enough confidence that Miami's defense can carry them to victories all year. Combine that with the quarterback problems in Buffalo and New York, and New England is still the king of the hill in the East.
Vivek: The Ravens have been a major disappointment to me. I honestly believed that Jamal Lewis had a shot at a 2000-yard season. With the additions of Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton, Jamal Lewis has been facing fewer eight-man fronts. Unfortunately for Baltimore, the passing game has been just as bad as the rushing attack. The Ravens' offensive line has been brutal, which sounds very strange given that Jonathan Ogden is still there. Even with an extremely weak remaining schedule (Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Green Bay, Cleveland twice), it's now likely that the Ravens will be on the outside looking in come playoff time.
Al: Thankfully, the Jets were away, so I had the Eagles-Chiefs game on FOX to rescue me from watching that awful game between Baltimore and New York. I've been disappointed in the Ravens as well. I can't see them even making the playoffs at this point. Who would have thought they could actually downgrade from Kyle Boller at quarterback? In the past, the Ravens have been able to stay in contention even without an effective offense because of their stacked defense. But the Ravens defense has not played up to the level we have expected of them. If not for his receivers' inability to catch anything thrown to them on Sunday, even Brooks Bollinger would have been able to move the ball against Baltimore. At best, the Ravens will finish with 10 wins, which might not be enough to make it as a wild card.
I'm still not going to put the Bengals in as division champs, though. They've been beating up on some terrible teams. They have at least five to six more losses on the schedule ahead of them. The Steelers, on the other hand, shouldn't lose more than three or four the rest of the way.
I'm sticking with my picks of Kansas City and San Diego over Denver for the last two playoff spots. The Broncos have a tough stretch of games coming up before their bye week. The Redskins could give them fits at home this week. New England won't be any better. Then, they travel across the country to play the Giants in the Meadowlands, before returning home to play the Eagles. That looks like 1-3 more than it looks like 3-1. I wouldn't read too much into the Chiefs' collapse against Philadelphia this weekend. Kansas City did a great job of taking Brian Westbrook completely out of the game. Against most teams, containing a back as good as Westbrook is more than enough to stymie an offense. Philadelphia, however, isn't most teams, and had more than enough weapons to come back despite the complete lack of a running game.
Al: Why was there barbed wire surrounding the field in the Sunday night game? Was the halftime entertainment a Mick Foley vs. Terry Funk match? Maybe there was a taping of Man vs. Beast after the game and the promoters wanted to prevent the lion running the 200-yard dash from eating people in the crowd.
No, unfortunately, neither of those things were the case. Barbed wire was placed around the base of the stadium to prevent fans from running onto the field. The NFL should be ashamed of themselves. If the NFL is trying to become more international and build a new fan base, they shouldn't treat the new fans with such little respect. What kind of message do you send to 100,000+ people you are trying to cultivate as football fans when you resort to the same security measures that farmers use to keep their livestock from running away?
Yes, I know that the barbed wire is there normally to prevent fans from jumping down during soccer games. But there's no reason the NFL should have expected such fanaticism from Sunday night's game. This wasn't the U.S. vs. Mexico in a World Cup qualifier, or an América and Chivas de Guadalajara match. This was the 49ers vs. the Cardinals, the two worst teams in football. A half dozen people dropped the football on the game's first play from scrimmage. The only stampede of fans that should have been expected was towards the ticket booth for a refund.
Before I get accused of an anti-New England bias, let me clarify my use of the word downfall: four to six losses instead of a major collapse. Last week Drew Brees had had enough time to take the snap, head out to Landsdowne Street, grab a bite from Kelly's Roast Beef and find his target downfield. I don't see this improving because of the injuries in the secondary to Rodney Harrison, Tyrone Poole and Randall Gay. Against the run, the defensive line has not been able to come up with defensive stops in short yardage situations. Bill Belichick will have to do something special to jump start this unit.
Vivek: Send us your general football or especially your fantasy football questions each week, and we'll answer them in this very space. If you want us to help you figure out who to bench or start or who to pick up off the waiver wire each week, contact us by Tuesday so we can answer the question in this space every Wednesday. You can either email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or fill out the contact form over at FootballOutsiders.com.
Russ kicks off this week with an Eliminator Pool question:
Thanks for the Cincy pick last week. Almost a scare, but I am in the final 15 now. Again, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Cincinnati are out.
Vivek: Where are the Chiefs-Browns matchups when you need them? The Colts-49ers game is the one with the biggest disparity in talent, but you took the Colts in Week 2 against the Browns. The usual surefire strategy of picking against the Browns will not work, as they host the Bears. One game that I am looking at closely is the Buccaneers-Jets game. Last week proved that the Brooks Bollinger experiment is going nowhere, the Giants' offensive line from last year decided to sneak into the Jets locker room this year. Curtis Martin has not been able to get it going all year, and the Buccaneers have shut down opposing runners. Not a good formula for success.
Al: I have to disagree, Viv. I don't like that game at all. I wouldn't place faith in the ability of Brian Griese to win a game against a decent defense on the road. This one has upset written all over it. Unfortunately, there aren't that many great matchups for home teams this week. I'd lean towards taking the Rams at home against Seattle. When in doubt, pick the home team in an NFC West matchup.
Nikki from Charlestown, Mass. needs a wide receiver upgrade and has quarterbacks as bait.
Which of my three quarterbacks would you trade to get a top receiver? Culpepper, Vick or Leftwich?
Vivek: If you move Culpepper, there is no way that you will get anywhere near equal value right now. The question is what is equal value â€“ the Culpepper through the first quarter of the season or the Culpepper that we assumed we'd see? I would try to pawn off Vick onto someone, but his injury history is going to hurt your bargaining power. I think you could get the most for Leftwich, but other owners probably will not view him as a fantasy starter, even though his fantasy stats are on par with, if not better than, Vick's.
Jenn, another Bostonian, writes in next:
Which three RBs should I start? Clinton Portis, Carnell Williams, Warrick Dunn and Willie Parker.
Al: Parker is a definite start. He's been great, and the Chargers haven't been particularly tough against the run. I'd go with Dunn as the number two. The Chargers ran all over New England last week. Dunn should also cause some problems for the Patriots linebackers catching passes out of the backfield. If Williams is healthy, he's a definite start. If he's not close to full strength, however, you have to go with Portis. Make sure you keep up on Williams' status throughout the week, especially on Sunday morning.
Tommy S. writes in:
I'm in a flex league, may you please rank the order I should start these subsequent players: M. Pittman, C. Brown, Reggie Williams, C. Chambers, and K. Barlow. Also, should I start TE Todd Heap or L.J. Smith ? And should I drop the Jets defense this week in favor of Miami, Bears, Lions, or Titans ?
Al: Tommy, you really don't need to still have Reggie Williams on your roster. He was the worst receiver in the league last week and won't get much better. There has to be someone better available on the waiver wire. So, he'd be my last option at the flex spot. I'd put Brown first, followed by Pittman, Chambers, Barlow and Williams. Tennessee might actually have a chance against Houston, meaning Brown will be given more carries than he has seen thus far. As for Heap vs. Smith, I don't think either is a great play, but I'd go with Smith because of the overall strength of the Eagles offense. I don't think any of those four defenses are clearly better than the Jets' is this week. Tennessee is the best of the four you listed. They'll be good for at least a half dozen sacks against David Carr.
Vivek: Al is right on the money with every pick here. Brown is the full-time back after the suspension of Travis Henry, and Michael Pittman can easily step in for an injured Cadillac Williams. I have been very high on L.J. Smith for a while now. Chad Lewis's departure and the absence of a true number two receiver make him a top fantasy target.
B.A. Baracus' cousin Mr. P asks:
I'm 3 -5 and need to turn my season around. I'm in a league where I play two teams at a time on Sundays. Anyhow , here are my quandaries: 1) Which TE do I start Marcus Pollard or Ben Troupe? 2) Which two receivers do I start? Chris Chambers, Reggie Williams, Rod Smith or Joey Galloway ? and 3) Should I drop the San Diego defense this week for Miami, Detroit, Denver, or Tennessee ?
Al: 1) Troupe. Pollard won't do much against the Ravens. 2) Again with Reggie Williams. Rod Smith is an easy #1 play. Galloway has become Griese's favorite target, so he's the best bet of the other three to have a nice game, especially if David Barrett is lined up across from him. 3) Like I said before, I like the Titans defense this week.
Vivek: The KCW winner this week takes the cake for the best missed field goal sound byte of the year. Instead of sending the Redskins to their first defeat in 2005, Seahawks kicker Josh Brown clanged the ball off the left upright with one second left in regulation. Hometown kicker Nick Novak proceeded to nail the game-winner for Washington on the first drive in overtime. After seeing Scott Norwood, the Florida State kickers, and Ray Finkle, we all know that kickers occasionally miss. To Brown, however, this was the best kick of his entire life. "Honestly, the kick was perfect," Brown said. "I hit a great ball and unfortunately the upright got right in the way." Did he fail to see the hook on that ball?
Yes, and the Yankees were about to select me as a pitcher with their first pick in the 1996 amateur draft, but the bats of the opposing hitters kept getting in the way of my fastballs.
Al: Let's hope we don't find Brown on America's Most Wanted in a few years because he's on the run from the cops after firing a gun at Siegfried and Roy's house.
Al: Since this is the first real update to the contest, we're going to start off by giving you a peek inside the minds of your fellow FO readers. First, let's take a look at who the most popular players were. Somewhat surprisingly, no single player was selected by a majority of our readers. In fact, only one player is found on over 30% of contest entries â€“ last year's Loser League MVP Kevan Barlow. Here are the five most popular picks at each position with the percentage of readers who picked each player.
|Kyle Orton||28.4%||Kevan Barlow||48.8%||Johnnie Morton||16.1%||Joe Nedney||29.1%|
|Kyle Boller||24.6%||Reuben Droughns||18.9%||Marty Booker||13.6%||Doug Brien||24.9%|
|JP Losman||24.6%||Travis Henry||17.2%||Ike Hilliard||11.2%||Jose Cortez||19.6%|
|Trent Dilfer||19.3%||Ronnie Brown||15.4%||James Thrash||11.2%||Josh Scobee||17.5%|
|Eli Manning||15.4%||JJ Arrington||11.2%||Amani Toomer||10.5%||Olindo Mare||15.8%|
As always, our readers have not let us down in naming their Loser League squads. We have a few Napoleon Dynamite fans with "Vote for Pedro," "I got nunchuck skills," and "Do Chickens Have Large Talons?" There are tributes to Matt Millen, Bill Belichick, Michael Vick, Ryan Leaf, Freddie Mitchell and half the backup quarterbacks in the NFC. And of course, a few names whose explanations wouldn't really be appropriate on a family-oriented site like this one.
Here's a brief recap of the first three weeks of the contest. Week 1 was a close battle, won by the aforementioned Talons. Week 2 saw two teams finish with single digits as Duke Blue in the Pros won the week with seven points. In Week 3, The Schmucks defeated the entry of yours truly, I Miss Ron Dayne, by three points, thanks to an incredible three players with negative points: Kyle Orton, Larry Johnson, and Jose Cortez.
Now, here is your All-Loser League team for Week 4
QB: Tim Rattay, SF -- 0 points (21 passes, 126 yards; 2 fumbles, 1 INT)
RB: Carnell Williams, TB -- 1 point (11 carries, 13 yards; 2 catches, 6 yards)
RB: Fred Taylor, JAC -- 2 points(8 carries, 14 yards; 1 carries, 13 yards)
WR: Eric Moulds, BUF -- 1 point (2 catches, 14 yards)
WR: Michael Clayton, TB -- 1 point (2 catches, 11 yards)
K: Rian Lindell, BUF -- -1 points (0/1 FG; 1/1 XP)
The Clowns out of Dayton, Ohio were our low scorers in Week 4 with a quality 18 point showing. The Clowns had solid performances across the board, with no scored player earning more than 4 points. After four weeks, Christ Punchers holds a slight overall lead over Ice Cold Bruschi, and Vote for Pedro.
Al (3-0 last week, 8-4 overall):
That's more like it.
The Browns defense stifled Peyton Manning and the Colts in Week 3. They sacked Brett Favre six times and picked off two of his passes in Week 2 at Lambeau Field. They shouldn't have any problem shutting down Kyle Orton at home this week.
I'm going to go on the record and predict an upset here. Sure, the only real highlights of the Jets season have been watching opposing punt returners enter the no spin zone when they try to field former Australian rules football star Ben Graham's punts. But I don't like this matchup for the Bucs. With Williams banged up, Tampa will be relying a lot on Michael Pittman catching passes out of the backfield. That plays right into the strength of the Jets' defense - their linebackers. The Jets will struggle to move the ball against the Tampa defense but should do better once Vinny Testeverde replaces Brooks Bollinger.
The Rams haven't lost to the Seahawks at home since Lawrence Phillips was their leading rusher. There's little reason to think either defense can stop the other team's offense, but the Rams should come out victorious.
Joey Harrington against the Ravens' defense?
Yes, I'm picking against New Orleans again. The Packers have to win at least one game this year, and there's no better time than at home against the Saints. Favre almost pulled off the comeback on the road against Carolina last week and should have no problem throwing on New Orleans.
Vivek (1-3 last week, 5-8 overall):
That's more like it.
I had too much faith in Cincinnati continuing its dominance and Minnesota building on its Week 3 win. This week I'm going with the Road Warriors.
This Jacksonville team has two wins over the Jets and Seahawks that failed to impress me ... Expect the Bengals to run Rudi Johnson 27-30 times during the game against one of the worst run defenses in the league ... Chad Johnson just checked the box next to my name on his list of people that are on his bandwagon.
Take the Skins with the points, but not straight up.
I still flinch when I see Eli with a higher quarterback rating than his big brother. Expect that to change this week.
Philadelphia is coming off a tremendous comeback win at Arrowhead, while Dallas is still having nightmares about Santana Moss. Dallas is also 0-4 against the spread this year.
71 comments, Last at 10 Sep 2010, 3:04am by uggs outlet