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?
10 Jan 2007
by Bill Barwell & Alex Carnevale
Bill: There are eight teams left. Can we rule any of them out as utter pretenders, or is anything possible?
Alex: Some of those teams are in the NFC, so ... yes. The four best teams in the league are in the AFC. The only thing certain is that the NFC champion is going to be a massive underdog in the Super Bowl. You can bet on the AFC winner now if you want to give up a touchdown, and it's more than a solid bet.
Bill: You don't think the Saints could match up well against, say, the Colts or Patriots?
Alex: I know you're joking because you're whimsical like that, but the Saints went 1-3 against the AFC, and didn't do much after sneaking out an opening week victory against the Browns.
The remaining NFC teams are a combined 6-for-16 against the AFC, with Seattle clearly the team that had the most success. They beat Denver and played San Diego and Kansas City tough.
Bill: Yeah, but Seattle is also down to posting Craigslist ads for defensive backs.
Alex: Pete Hunter is a god!
Bill: Does God not need knee ligaments, either?
We might as well start with the Seahawks, then. You like them to upset the Bears in Chicago?
Alex: After the Bears had a bye week, they beat the 49ers 41-10. It was about this time that the Bears stopped playing meaningful games. Since then, their quarterback situation can only be described as grotesque, and they haven't stopped the run well all season. Do I like the Seahawks? Kinda. With the points? No question.
Bill: Their quarterback situation isn't grotesque. They have Kyle Orton on the bench. He just wins. The Seahawks were also a Tony Romo moment away from losing to the Cowboys at home. I don't know. I think I'm with neckbeards and shotguns on this one. Also, the Bears were fourth in the league in stopping the run from Weeks 1-9, and 16th in stopping the run from Weeks 10-17. So maybe the Tommie Harris injury has hurt them. Still, though, I just don't see how the Seahawks are going to be able to run the ball 30 times against the Bears. In fact, they might want to employ Rex Grossman as their offense and just punt away over and over again.
Alex: They gave up 157 yards to Ronnie Brown. Are you sure their initial high ranking wasn't just a function of playing ahead so often their opponents gave up on the run?
I doubt we'll see much of Grossman in this game, even if he starts. Julius Jones was able to run pretty easily through the Seahawks, and when the Bears played the Seahawks in Week 4, Thomas Jones went off for 98 yards and two TDs. Hasselbeck was repeatedly rushed in this game because of the lack of a Seattle running game, while a lack of a passing game now may prevent the Bears from succeeding with the run. The Seahawks are more consistent in all phases of the game right now with a healthy Hasselbeck and Alexander.
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Alex: Are the Eagles or the Saints contenders? Do you think the Eagles are the live-r dog? What did you make of all the dropped New Orleans passes?
Bill: This was the fifth-ranked passing attack over the last half of the season. One game, stuff happens. I'm more concerned about the Saints secondary versus Jeff Garcia.
Alex: Which team has better corners right now?
Bill: Good point. I think the Eagles' safeties are better, though -- Brian Dawkins goes a long way. I don't think this is too quantifiable, but the Eagles are used to guarding a Reggie Bush-type back in Tiki Barber, so they don't have to change their scheme around dramatically to account for him.
Alex: If it is going to be up to the AFC to win the Super Bowl, there are four teams. The Ravens only played three playoff teams this season, and one of these "teams" was coached by Herman Edwards; through margin of victory they've made themselves #1 in DVOA. The Colts eked out some close ones. Whether this helps them in a tight game is for the talking heads to decide. To me the matchup with the most number of possible outcomes is Baltimore-Indianapolis, due to the big play nature of the Colts offense and Ravens defense. (You get the feeling that Schottenheimer is going to play a certain kind of game on both sides of the ball, and Belichick is going to match it, and no team has the strength on either side of the ball to blow a team out or shut a team down.) Conventional wisdom suggests Peyton Manning redeems himself and leads his Colts to the promised land -- I'm going to instead put my faith in margin of victory and pick the Ravens.
Bill: I think the Ravens are going to win the matchup because their weakness -- running the ball offensively -- is mitigated by the Colts' weakness, stopping the run. Of course, they did a good job last week, but that team was coached by Herman Edwards.
Alex: We know Bob Sanders is one of the best tacklers on the Colts, which isn't saying much. Against the Chiefs, isn't it clear Sanders was the difference maker?
Bill: If you are a second-round pick and you're willing to hold out, you are gangsta, but I don't know if you are truly a difference-maker. Even if he is a huge difference-maker, he's not at 100 percent. Correlation's not necessarily causation. It could be a schematic switch or, alternately, the utter incompetence of Trent Green, too. Poor, poor bloomless rose.
Alex: Your refusal to give the Colts defense any credit is truly unmatched among analysts, and that's why you ended up with Larry Johnson in fantasy. How'd that work out?
Bill: Still three weeks to go my friend. Besides, they were playing against Herm! You should've warned me.
Switching games, do you think the Patriots can scheme up something to stop LaDainian Tomlinson?
Alex: I think the better question is, do they even have to focus on stopping LT? I won't invoke Belichick's catchphrase, but LT ... he's not what he isn't. When Philip Rivers has played poorly this season, the Chargers haven't been the offensive juggernaut we're used to. When Rivers struggles, so do the Chargers do, including a close game against the Raiders at home. This season did nothing to tarnish Bill's reputation for game-planning against young quarterbacks, as no quarterback 25 or under threw for more than 15 completions in a game against the Pats this season.
Bill: Yeah, but how many times did Belichick play against a quarterback under 25?
Alex: That's one of those "stats" you hear on TV. I was hoping your brainpower was diminished by your trip from Vegas.
Bill: The stars are slowly fading away.
Alex: The fact-checking is strong in you, Barnwell. Vince Young and J.P. Losman didn't fare too well. Of course, age wasn't much of an asset against Bill either.
Bill: Precisely. I'm a little kid. Rivers gets to play at home, with a better offensive line than either of those teams, and with a far better running game. Here's my problem for the Patriots this weekend: Who's going to stop Antonio Gates? Is Tedy Bruschi going to create a grit pile and hope that will slow him down?
Alex: Don't underestimate Bruschi's grit. The bottom line is that they will knife Gates in the thigh if it's what Belichick wants. He may not have to, though -- the Patriots have usually been terrific against the tight end. With defenses as healthy as the 2006 iteration, they were second in DVOA vs. tight ends in 2003, and fifth in 2004 before slipping to 22nd in 2005. This year, they're fourth, and the performance itself is absurdly good.
Bill: What if he offers up a virgin to Rodney Harrison on the bench? Will that gain him entrance in between the hashes?
But look at that number versus running backs! On the other hand, the Chargers are 25th against #1 wide receivers, which should bode well for Jabche Gaffwell. Oh wait.
Alex: You can say that again -- I refer to the continuing fountain of knowledge that is PFP 2006: "If the Chargers miss the playoffs again, you can bet it will be because the defense failed to hold leads against passing teams." Just eyeballing their schedule, the Chargers haven't faced many top quarterbacks all season, and Carson Palmer picked them apart for 49 points.
I know you love my Reche Caldwell fantasy draft pick now.
Bill: Oh yeah -- because Reche Caldwell's been real consistent this season. I'm concerned about the Chargers pass defense, too, but I don't know if the Patriots have the kind of attack to exploit their weaknesses. And, besides, the Chargers had the 11th-best pass defense in football this year; against the run, they were 22nd!
Alex: Against the quarterbacks they faced, 11th is pretty mediocre. Pop quiz hotshot -- what's the Covers.com over/under on the number of points scored in this game? No peeking...
Bill: But -- but -- DVOA accounts for the oppo ... ok fine. 46.
Alex: You cheated!
Bill: Never. I did, however, spend a week in Vegas. Not necessarily at a Holiday Inn Express, mind you, but 46 just felt right.
Bill: I like the over there. As for the result? I'm gonna say Patriots. I think they can run on the Chargers and keep their offense off the field, and that the game will end up looking like a late eighties Giants-49ers game.
Alex: As most people know, the way the public bets on a game can move the line on a game over the course of a week. Current lines:
New England at San Diego (-5)
Seattle at Chicago (-8.5)
Philadelphia at New Orleans (-5)
Indianapolis at Baltimore (-4)
If you had to guess, which team is getting the most action with respect to their line according to Wagerline.com?
Bill: Well now everyone knows, thanks for ruining it Alex. I gotta say Seattle. Everyone and their mother knows Rex Grossman can't be trusted.
Alex: Easy enough -- Seattle's getting 62 percent of the action on their line. But who's No. 2?
Bill: Hmmm. Indy?
Alex: That's what I would have thought, too. They're third with 57 percent of the action on their line. Care to wager one more guess?
Bill: Well, I've narrowed it down to one out of four. I'll trust in your topicality, say the Pats and that people don't trust Philip Rivers?
Alex: Good guess -- the Pats are definitely winning their line, and deservedly so considering Belichick's playoff history and Schottenheimer's playoff herstory. When you think about it, there's nothing that Vegas bettors love more than a team with an inspirational story. The Saints and their high-octane offense are No. 2.
I love Philadelphia with those points -- their offensive line is continually impressive, and there's as much chance of them putting serious distance between themselves and New Orleans as the other way around.
Bill: I have a saying, Alex. People who bet with their heart need to sell theirs on the black market. Because they don't have any money left. I'd be hesitant to bet for or against the Saints throughout the playoffs because they can be two very different teams. It'll be interesting. The Saints are 32nd against #1 wide receivers, but will Reggie Brown or Donte' Stallworth be the guy for Jeff Garcia?
Alex: Brown did have six catches for 121 yards and a TD when they played in October.
Bill: That was with McNabb, though.
Alex: They didn't have Stallworth, either. Poor little McNabb believer. When will you buy the Jeff Garcia jersey and drink the Kool-Aid? For all the talk about the Superdome advantage, the Saints were just 4-4 at home.
Bill: I'm not shaving my head and posting pictures of violent Playboy playmates on my wall to gaze at. So you want to bet against them at home?
Alex: Five points is too much. They only won by a field goal last game, and much like the Bears, they haven't looked good lately. I think the Saints will probably win, and I wouldn't bet on the game, but if I did, I'd take the points and grab the Eagles, who have been there before. They have "playoff experience".
Bill: And "veteran presence"! Say the Eagles win outright and fall in the Championship Game, as is their birthright. Is there a QB controversy in the off-season?
Alex: With another organization, you'd have to say wholeheartedly yes, but Andy Reid's a smart guy, and Garcia's already attracted the gaze of a half-dozen braniac GMs across the league, so McNabb will be the quarterback in 2007.
Bill: I didn't mean for the Eagles, I meant for Campbell Soup. They've already shown a predilection for bald white men, what with the Hasselbeck signing. Why not Garcia? And if he does leave, where does he go?
Alex: Don't force me to search his trashy wife's MySpace for clues. He played in cold weather in the CFL, and the list of contenders with an off-season quarterback vacancy begins and ends with the Bears.
Bill: Don't hate her because she's ballin'. Stay focused. Um, the Bears have three quarterbacks they're committed to already. They couldn't get rid of all of them. Right? What about Kansas City?
Alex: Trent Green will go down with a concussion around Week 3, Damon Huard takes over and performs capably, Herm brings Green back and he leads the team to a playoff loss. When you have a formula that works...
Bill: Yeah. That will be a little more difficult to do this year with Larry Johnson on half of one leg and Will Shields on his recliner. I'm calling Huard to Miami right now.
Alex: Who's the player no one knew before this Sunday that we will know after this Sunday?
Bill: "We" being the communal Football Outsiders we or the "I watch football but I don't really pay attention" we? The former, I can't say. The latter, Mark Clayton.
Alex: I think Jim Sorgi becomes the next hot young thing after he rushes for 70 yards and throws three touchdowns to Reggie Wayne.
Bill: I don't get it. Did you join a scout team fantasy league or something?
"In the span of a week, Trey Junkin had gone from pensioner to player to pariah. For 19 seasons, he had been a solid if marginal NFL journeyman who reveled in his anonymity. 'You have one shot to get a snap right, one split-second,' he says from his home in Winnfield, La. "The reward for getting it right is that nobody knows your name." He had made more than 2,000 snaps in nearly 300 NFL games, getting it right nearly every time."
--Franz Lidz, SI.com
The year is 2020. Romo sits, staring deeply into a picture of himself circa 2010, doing ecstasy with Renee Zellweger. "It's gone," he moans, drool wetting the space bar on his computer. "It's all gone." Despite the presence of his wife, a former Playmate, and his two sons, both named Tony, Romo doesn't get much sleep. Late at night during the NFL playoff season, you can usually find him posting on messageboards under the handle 'ballwuzslick69,' or photoshopping Jessica Simpson's head on the faces of his children.
"Junkin's career was practically a hymn to the work ethic. The oldest son of an exacting Navy flyer, he took infinite pains to achieve precision. Even in retirement, his daily eight-hour workouts included rope curls, bench presses, leg presses, rice grabs, medicine-ball sit-ups, hitting railroad irons with a sledgehammer, yanking nails out of boards with his fists and lugging weighted buckets with his fingertips."
Romo rises at 5:30 a.m., when he makes his sons produce macaroni models of their father. "Why did you stop playing football, daddy?" the younger Tony says. Romo grabs his younger by the arm and angrily upbraids him with a dried ziti noodle. Finally, Romo seems to want to teach his son an important lesson based on experience. "Go long!" Romo shouts, and his son tears off across the Romo family estate, 20 acres designed in the shape of the signature Dallas Cowboys star, waiting for a football his father now refuses to throw. "Go long, son," Romo breathes, nearly whispering now, "and don't come back."
"The most infamous long snapper in NFL playoff history was at a New Orleans bistro contemplating the Chilean sea bass at the end of his fork."
The man who used to be known as Romo is now Tony Nomo. He'll always have his Keep Choppin' Wood Award, though. He'll always have that.
Aaron's in trouble. Tim and Alex are riding high. We'll begin to update the "Best of the Rest" teams next week when we know which first-round teams actually made it through two games.
|2007 Football Outsiders Playoff Fantasy Teams|
|QB||Garcia, PHI||12||Brees, NO||0||Rivers, SD||0|
|RB||Tomlinson, SD||0||Lewis, BAL||0||Westbrook, PHI||21|
|RB||14||Jones, CHI||0||Addai, IND||20|
|WR||Harrison, IND||4||Muhammad, CHI||0||Colston, NO||0|
|WR||Jackson, SD||0||Horn, NO||0||Stallworth, PHI||10|
|WR||Berrian, CHI||0||Mason, BAL||0||Branch, SEA||4|
|TE||Smith, PHI||0||Clark, IND||10||Heap, BAL||0|
|K||Kaeding, SD||0||Vinatieri, IND||15||Gostkowski, NE||14|
|DEF||Philadelphia||1||San Diego||0||New England||11|
|QB||McNair, BAL||0||Manning, IND||11||Brady, NE||19|
|RB||Dillon, NE||9||Alexander, SEA||6||5|
|RB||McAllister, NO||0||Bush, NO||0||Maroney, NE||6|
|WR||2||Wayne, IND||9||Clayton, BAL||0|
|WR||4||Brown, PHI||7||McCardell, SD||0|
|WR||Henderson, NO||0||Caldwell, NE||5||20|
|TE||Gates, SD||0||Stevens, SEA||19||Watson, NE||2|
|K||Carney, NO||0||Stover, BAL||0||Gould, CHI||0|
69 comments, Last at 12 Jan 2007, 7:38pm by DenverMatt