Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
21 Dec 2005
by Al Bogdan and Vivek Ramgopal
Vivek: One more item that I want to add to last week's Holiday Wish List is a nice 50-inch plasma HDTV for the Cowboys. With that the Cowboys can watch the playoffs from a warm place inside their homes, as their post season chances took a severe hit this weekend.
With their 35-7 drubbing of the Cowboys, the Redskins put to rest the notion that their 14-13 win at Dallas in Week 2 was a fluke. Washington controls its own destiny because of a strong conference record and a tough AFC West. Despite its 8-6 record, Washington is 8-2 against NFC opponents with four losses coming courtesy of the AFC West. The other three NFC teams at 8-6 all have worse conference records (Dallas 6-4, Atlanta 5-5, Minnesota 7-4), so the formula is simple for Washington. Win and you're in. The playoffs are still within reach even if the Redskins fall to the Giants this weekend. Pretty good for a team that we all left for dead three weeks ago.
The Redskins were firing on all cylinders on Sunday, with their offensive line pushing Dallas' front four around all day. On the other side of the ball, Drew Bledsoe looked like, well, the Drew Bledsoe we have all grown to love. Washington's defense, led by defensive end Philip Daniels, took down Bledsoe seven times on Sunday and forced him to throw three interceptions. It was no coincidence that this sack attack occurred as Daniels, Joe Salave'a, and Cornelius Griffin played at full strength together for the first time since midseason. Daniels, who has battled groin and wrist injuries for the better part of the past two seasons, was rewarded with NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his efforts.
I am still going to pick on the Redskins for two things though. First, they need to use Rock Cartwright in short-yardage situations, but that was and still can be another column. The Redskins faced three third-and-short situations and opted to throw on two of them. It may have worked out for them this time, but I'd rather give the ball to Rock.
Second, the team needs to get Santana Moss going again. Corners have been physical with Moss at the line, preventing him from beating them off the starting blocks. Moss has gotten into the end zone only once since Week 7 and has not topped the 80-yard mark in that period.
Al: As Michael David Smith pointed out, teams have also done a good job at putting a safety deep in case Moss is able to get by the cornerback locked on to him. Of course, Dallas of all teams forgot to do that on Sunday, allowing Moss to have one long gain.
I'd be very worried about the injury to Randy Thomas if I were a Redskins fan. His replacement, Ray Brown -- formerly of the St. Louis Cardinals, certainly is experienced enough, but you have to worry how he'll hold up over a full game next week battling the great New York defensive line.
I'm with you Viv, though, that a loss to New York shouldn't really hurt Washington's playoff chances all that much. Each of the other three teams they're tied with has at least one more tough game on its schedule -- Dallas at Carolina, Minnesota vs. Chicago (who will likely need a win for a first round bye), and Atlanta at Carolina and at Tampa. Most likely all three of those teams finish at 9-7 or worse; Washington might get to play the Giants again in the first round of the playoffs.
Speaking of the Falcons, wow did they look awful on Sunday night. Yes, Chicago has a great defense, but the Atlanta offense's failure to do anything wasn't completely Chicago's doing. Michael Vick looked a step slower out there because of his injured ribs. Maybe that's why Jim Mora inexplicably went to T.J. Duckett on that fourth-and-1 instead of having Vick roll out and try to gain the yard on his own.
Chicago is going to be a very tough out in the playoffs if Rex Grossman can keep throwing the ball like he did against Atlanta. It's not like he was Peyton Manning out there or anything, but he was able to throw the ball with some zip directly to his receivers, something Kyle Orton had shown no ability to do in the first half.
Vivek: Everyone knew that it was a different team from Grossman's first pass attempt -- a 22-yard bullet to Muhsin Muhammad. Muhammad had played the good teammate role all season, but his frustrations clearly came to a boil earlier in the game. After Orton did not see him open in the end zone, Muhammad unleashed a verbal tirade on the rookie. The return of Grossman gives the Bears offense a dimension it did not have with Orton.
Chicago's third down conversion percentage should improve dramatically now as well. During one recent stretch, the Bears were 3-for-34 on third down conversions. Without any respect for the pass, defenses could stuff the box and neutralize Thomas Jones and the other running backs. Those Thomas Jones owners in their fantasy football finals this week should be happy.
While we're on the topic of quarterback shuffles, let's put an end to one speculation right now. Brett Favre will not play for anyone other than Green Bay next season. Favre will not pull a Jerry Rice or Emmitt Smith and move away from the uniform with which he is most recognized. Favre will not taint his legacy. (Yes, he tossed a few passes when he was with the Falcons, but does anyone have that image in his memory?)
Chalk up a good number of this year's losses and to injuries. 2006 could see the return of Ahman Green and Javon Walker, so the offense won't look as bad as its 2005 version. The arm strength is still there for Favre. The difference this year is that Favre is taking even more risks to make plays, because if he does not, nothing will happen. Before, he could rely on his receivers or ground game, but now it's a one man show. Sure, age is getting to him a bit, but he's not 24-interception bad. How bad is Favre's supporting cast? The team just signed Rod Gardner to give the offense a boost.
Al: It's tough to tell what, if anything, Favre has left. Maybe if he had a competent offensive line in front of him, a running back behind him that didn't graduate from Middle Earth University, and receivers that could both get open and catch a ball thrown to them, Favre would be right back among the game's elite. What we have learned, though, is that Favre isn't going to do you any good if you're rebuilding, which the Packers will likely still be doing next year. When Favre is throwing the ball all over the place, seemingly not caring about how many defenders are surrounding the nearest receiver, he makes it much more difficult to win.
It might be blasphemous to say this, but Green Bay would be better off saying good bye to Favre and giving Aaron Rodgers a shot behind center next year. A team that just needs a new quarterback to put them over the top next year -- Miami jumps to mind -- would likely give up a first round pick to see what Favre has left in the tank. Favre isn't winning another Super Bowl in Green Bay. If the Packers realize this and are willing to trade their legend, they'll move toward that goal a year or two more quickly.
Speaking of winning another Super Bowl, that sound you heard after Indianapolis lost to San Diego was the Patriots bandwagon getting fired up again. How did San Diego stop the Colts? With a strong front seven putting pressure on Peyton Manning and containing Edgerrin James. Well, lookie here. New England's front seven is finally healthy, shutting down opposing running backs and causing havoc to quarterbacks. The one difference, however, between the San Diego team that upset the Colts in Indianapolis and the New England one that will likely be looking to do the same in a month or so is the secondary. As good as Ellis Hobbs has looked recently at cornerback, it's one thing to handle Tampa's receivers in Foxboro and another to cover Indianapolis' receivers indoors at the RCA Dome.
Vivek: Before I start fearing the Pats again in a moment, I want to go back to your Favre-to-Miami comment. Favre to Miami? For starters, Peter King, Brett Favre and South Beach just don't go together. Do you really see a team (especially one like the Dolphins) giving up a first-round pick for a potential one-year wonder? I use the term â€œwonderâ€? loosely given that you have to factor in Favre's age. For a contender, Favre could be the difference maker, but not for the Dolphins. Again, it's a moot point because he will not be in another uniform next year.
Miami could instead use that top 10-15 pick to grab a solid possession receiver or a linebacker if Zack Thomas is let go in the offseason.
The Dolphins need a lot more than Favre to make a run at the Patriots for the AFC East crown. Before it's all said and done this winter, we might have to change that sentence to include AFC crown or Super Bowl Championship. Yep, Belichick's boys are right back where they want to be, and guess what? They're getting healthy.
So after all the jokes about the much maligned defense, take a look at that group that is on the mend: Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymor, Willie McGinnest, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Roosevelt Colvin. That group forms one of the most experienced and talented front sevens in the league. Moving Vrabel to the inside next to Bruschi has sparked life into him and further improved the team by pushing Monty Beisel and Chad Brown to the bench.
That 40-21 loss to the Colts in November is a distant memory, so Colts fans, be afraid. Be very afraid.
Al: We are, of course, putting the cart before the horse a bit here since New England will have to beat someone in the first round of the playoffs before they can get to take on Indianapolis. It will likely be Jacksonville that gets the honor of being a touchdown underdog to New England, but there's a scenario that isn't as unlikely as it seems that puts the Jaguars in the six seed and at Cincinnati. Even though Jacksonville has two cakewalk games ahead of them, if they win this week they'll likely rest their starters in Week 17. If Jacksonville loses that one and San Diego and Pittsburgh both win out, that three-way tie knocks the Steelers out of the playoff picture because of their terrible AFC record and moves the Chargers into the five spot because they would have one less conference loss than the Jaguars.
It's not like the Jaguars can't lose one of these last two on their own anyway, after they almost lost to the 49ers at home. San Francisco had the second worst pass defense in the NFL according to DVOA going into the game, yet David Garrard only managed 216 yards through the air on 21-of-40 passing. I'm not saying that Jacksonville is going to lose to Houston this week, but stranger things have happened.
Vivek: I am still not sold on David Garrard leading the Jaguars to a win in the playoffs, so the Jaguars' hopes rely on the recovery of Byron Leftwich's ankle. The Jags have beaten Cleveland, Arizona, Tennessee, and San Francisco by a grand total of 17 points recently. Last Sunday's ugly 10-9 win was exactly that: ugly. Garrard cannot rely on the ground game, as neither Fred Taylor nor Greg Jones has stepped it up.
But like you said, we may be jumping the gun, given that 13 teams are still alive for the final seven playoff spots.
Al: You're just begging for us to do yet another playoff prediction column, but in the interest of not getting an embarrassing number of these wrong with only two game to play, we'll save that for another week.
Vivek: I don't really know what Darrell Armstrong was thinking, but maybe his head hit the ground as many times as Drew Bledsoe's before he shouted, "How 'bout them Redskins?" at American Airlines Arena in Dallas.
Al: Hilarious. The Mavericks fined him $1000 for his actions. Nothing like getting the crowd to boo you on your home court.
Vivek: With time to throw, Boller finally had a performance worthy of his high draft selection. Take out two bad plays the week before against Denver, and you would be hearing more about Boller's turning the corner. As much as we praise Jonathan Ogden, the Ravens have had poor pass protection for the past few seasons. With either Jamal Lewis or Chester Taylor (or both) in the backfield plus Baltimore's talented receiving options, adding some veteran offensive linemen this winter might be enough to put the Ravens back into division title contention.
Al: Along the same lines, we also have Joey Harrington's stellar performance in the fourth quarter of Detroit's loss to Cincinnati. Harrington had been all but left for dead by the Lions and their fans. If you're Matt Millen, what do you do if Harrington finishes up the year with another two strong performances? That's right, you use your first round pick to draft him more weapons to work with.
Al: We'll give this award to a unit -- the grasp-less wonders that were the Kansas City Chiefs defense. You too can let Tiki Barber drag you five yards into the end zone. Or allow him to escape your clutches as he races 40 yards to the end zone on a play that shouldn't have gained more than five.
I also want to give a shout out to Reggie Wayne. Peyton Manning has gotten a lot of grief for his one man audible from a running play into a naked bootleg on fourth-and-1. What hasn't been talked about enough, however, was Wayne's total failure to do anything on that play. Thinking it was a running play to the other side of the field, Wayne stood motionless, neither blocking the cornerback across from him nor running a pattern to draw the defender away from the line. Had Wayne done either, Manning would have had a puncher's chance of getting into the end zone. By standing motionless, Wayne allowed Manning to be easily taken down short of the goal line.
As the season wraps up, we've been hearing about some nightmare drafts and trades that have completely backfired. Send them along, and we'll print some of the worst next week. I'll get the ball rolling with one of my yahoo drafts. My top picks (in order): Dante Culpepper, Clinton Portis, Javon Walker, Darrell Jackson, Michael Bennett, Isaac Bruce. Do I really need to explain why that team missed the playoffs?
Now onto the Mailbag and Richard:
Ok, so it's playoff final time, and I have a couple of difficult decisions.
WR (pick 2): Boldin, Wayne, Moss and Porter. TE: Gonzalez or Cooley. I'm a bit stuck, because I'm not sure if Wayne will play or if Boldin will be any good without Warner, and Moss and Porter have been frustrating me with their inconsistency all season. In terms of TEs, do you think Cooley is a viable choice over Gonzo after that three TD performance? Cheers.
Al: Cooley had a great game, and has had a very solid season, but he did it against a team that's just terrible against tight ends. He'll be going against a Giants defense that has been great at stopping tight ends this season. Gibril Wilson did a nice job against Tony Gonzalez on Saturday and I'd expect him to be matched up against Cooley on Christmas Eve. Stay with Gonzo.
At WR, I'm assuming that's Randy Moss you're talking about. I wouldn't worry about Indianapolis resting its starters against Seattle, so start Wayne. I'd be worried about Boldin, but you have to start him over the Oakland receivers. Anquan was lucky to top 100 yards after he caught a worthless 43 yard pass to end the game against Houston. Take that catch out of the equation and Boldin only caught 2 passes for 15 yards from non-Warner Arizona quarterbacks. Moss and Porter, however, have been way too inconsistent for you to play either of them in a championship game, especially against Denver on the road.
Our own Tim from Texas writes:
Am I plum crazy to be considering benching LT against KC in favor of Cadillac against Atlanta in my Super Bowl? Was the Giants game an aberration for the Chiefs run defense? LT hasn't been very good the last several weeks since he's been hurt, but I'm afraid of benching him and then killing myself when he goes off for 40 points.
While I have your attention, since I always start the wrong receivers, which two of Holt, Burress, Santana Moss, and Rod Smith?
Vivek: It's not like you're benching LT in favor of Heath Evans here, so it's a good problem to have. Williams had 116 yards on 19 carries the first time around against Atlanta, and there is no reason to believe that he won't duplicate those numbers against the worst rush defense in the league.
Al: I always recommend sticking with your studs, so I'd start LT no matter what. But then again, I lost pretty much every one of my playoff games last week, so what do I know? Cadillac over LT would be a pretty ballsy play, but it looks like it might be the right one.
At wide receiver, I'd play Rod Smith and Holt. Now that it looks like the Ryan Fitzpatrick era may be over in St. Louis, Holt has a better chance at regaining his form as a #1 fantasy WR. Smith's numbers for the season are slightly worse than Burress' and Moss'. However, he has the best matchup and has been much more valuable recently with 280 yards and a touchdown over his last three games versus 187 and 0 touchdowns for Moss and 118 and 0 for Burress.
David is up next:
Hey, thanks for the tips last week. Worked out great. I was wondering if you had a last bit of advice on this topic: which defense do you prefer for this week? MIA at home vs. Tenn. or STL at home vs. SF? Let's just say that I got to the waiver wire first today.
Vivek: Tough call.
Reasons to play St. Louis: San Francisco has scored 22 points total in its past three games, the Niners offensive line ranks at the bottom of the league in pass protection, and Miami has given up 20 or more points in four straight games.
Reasons to play Miami: Miami is second in the NFL with 44 sacks, and Miami's defense is one of the tops in the league while St. Louis ranks in the bottom third.
My pick is St. Louis, with the hope that the San Francisco offensive line does its best Swiss cheese imitation.
Al: Yeah, I'd go with St. Louis as well, especially if points allowed count in the scoring system. You're pretty much guaranteed at least one interception and a couple of sacks combined with a single digit points total.
Mitch writes in with a wide receiver question for his finals:
It's gut check time. I need to choose between Burress and S. Moss for their game this week. They both sucked in the last Giants-Redskins matchup. What do you think?
Vivek: Moss because of the Eli factor. The Eli factor being errant passes, lobs up in the air and general inconsistency.
Al: I agree. Neither is a great play, but Moss has the better shot at getting a random big play at some point during the game.
Al: Your Week 15 Loser League All Stars:
QB: Kyle Orton, CHI: 0 points (10 passes, 12 yards)
RB: T.J. Duckett, ATL: 0 points (8 carries, -2 yards)
RB: Jerome Bettis, PIT: 1 point (9 carries, 16 yards)
WR: Lee Evans, BUF: 0 points (2 catches, 5 yards)
WR: Eddie Kennison, KC: 0 points (3 catches, 23 yards; 1 fumble)
K: Sebastian Janikowski, OAK: -3 points (1/1 XP, 0/2 FG)
Loser League owners may have been the only people across America unhappy when Rex Grossman replaced Kyle Orton as Chicago's quarterback against Atlanta on Sunday night. Although he helped the Fred Smoot Pleasure Cruises tie with Like Giant, Radioactive, Rubber Pants! for first place in Week 15, Orton's benching is going to hurt many contenders' chances of catching our second half contest leader, The Shiznits. Both second place Very Superman Team and third place Ready to Crumble have been relying on Orton to get them to the top of the standings. With Orton likely racking up 15 point penalties on the bench for the next two weeks, someone else will need to step it down a notch to knock our first place team off its pedestal.
Al: (1-2 last week, 21-19-1 overall)
I'm barely hanging on to the season lead. Can I finish the year with a winning record and hold you off? Doubtful.
I love the Panthers in this game so much that I know Dallas is going to end up winning by two touchdowns. Bledsoe has been awful since Flozell Adams went down, and things won't get much better for him if Marco Rivera can't go on Saturday. The NFL record for most sacks by a team in one game -- 12 -- is in serious danger of falling.
Tampa has never done a great job containing a healthy Michael Vick. An unhealthy Michael Vick, however, they can handle.
This has to be some sort of joke, right?
Vivek: (2-1 last week, 24-25-1 overall)
To quote Dennis Leary for Al, â€œI think you hear me knockin'â€¦.â€?
Edge will get no more than 17 carries and Manning will attempt no more than 20 passes before Tony Dungy puts in Jim Sorgi & Friends. Seattle, on the other hand, has home field advantage at stake and a heck of a lot to play for. Do you think the Seahawks want to play in five degree weather at Chicago in January?
Reggie Bush, welcome to San Francisco. As I mentioned above, the Jags have been barely beating the bad teams lately.
First the team loses Chad Pennington. Then Curtis Martin. Now the ability for the fans to drown their sorrows in a beer. The only brewski in the Meadowlands will be the one bringing down anybody in green.
39 comments, Last at 23 Dec 2005, 11:25pm by Beige Tangerine