Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
04 Dec 2008
by Mike Tanier
The Canadian Mounties always get their man, especially if that man has had too much O'Keefe.
Canadian police officers are hoping to do right by North American motorists by keeping drunk drivers off the streets during the holiday season. Motorists crossing the Peace Bridge into Canada after last week's Bills game endured a lengthy traffic jam, caused in part by a sobriety checkpoint. The police will be out in extra force for Sunday's Dolphins-Bills game in Toronto. "We have 80 officers on this to make sure there's no traffic hindrance," said Detective Sergeant Cliff Priest of the Niagara Regional Police Service. Hopefully, all the cops are safely stationed in Marshawn Lynch-proof bubbles.
It's a good thing the Vikings aren't playing in Toronto, and not just because of Jared Allen. Brad Childress told a reporter that he celebrated his team's lead in the NFC North standings by drinking "a vodka as big as your head." When you consider the inflated ego of the average football columnist, that's one super-sized serving of Smirnoff. If the Vikings win the Super Bowl, Childress plans to drink a whiskey as big as Jason Whitlock's large intestine.
Such prodigious quaffing will get a person pulled over in Canada, where a special law calls for a 12-hour license suspension if the driver's BAC is over 0.05 percent. That's a tiny decimal, even lower than Derek Anderson's completion percentage. You can get that drunk just by saying the words "Amy Winehouse." If he ever travels north of the border, Childress will have to opt for weaker booze or journalists with tiny craniums.
Bills lineman/historian Langston Walker doesn't want any drunken fans to get into trouble on Sunday; he's concerned that there may be fistfights in the stands between surly Americans and rowdy Canadians. "You never know. I mean, the dollar's coming back against the loonie, and it's getting exciting. There might be some dirty words out there. You know, that 'O Canada' thing. It's tough. Might be the War of 1812 all over again. Canada did beat our asses in that," Walker said. "You never know. Someone might bring that up, and there might be some fights."
Walker was kidding, but in a way I hope he's right. It would be great to hear some obscure historical trash talk in the stands.
"Remember the Battle of Big Sandy Creek? Scoreboard! Scoreboard!"
"Oh yeah, well, Commodore Isaac Chauncey was a pussy!"
Drinking and driving is always an awful idea, but with illegal blood alcohol content percentages approaching levels that could result from an overzealous Lavoris gargle, some Bills fans may worry that a beer before kickoff could lead to a ticket on the ride home. As a public service to the responsible motorist who fears wrongful prosecution on foreign soil, we offer the following checkpoint tips:
Despite the traffic checks and the thumping they delivered to General Boyd at Beaver Dams, our Canadian neighbors are always gracious hosts. The globetrotting Dolphins should beat the J.P. Losman-led Bills, who are lucky to have a retractable roof over their heads these days. The untimely death of media mogul Ted Rogers strikes a somber note for Sunday; it also clouds the future of a Bills team hoping for an infusion of Rogers capital. Still, we can responsibly celebrate the fact that both the Dolphins and Bills are still mathematically alive, giving this game playoff implications, if not a sell-out crowd.
I'd love to have a skull-sized drink to celebrate the completion of this segment, but Aaron Schatz threatened to fire me if my blood alcohol content rises above the Broncos' DVOA. Better stick to milk.
The Broncos will reach the playoffs this season. They'll do so despite some ugly losses and one controversial quick-whistle victory. They've faced a schedule soft enough to swaddle a newborn and play in a division so bad that it would lose its automatic tournament bid in NCAA basketball. They face the Chiefs this week, so the Broncos should get their eighth win and essentially clinch the AFC West, unless they somehow manage to get swept by Herm Edwards' Pistol-Packing Mamas.
The Cardinals are also 7-5 in a candy store division. They face the Rams on Sunday, so the Cardinals will also earn their eighth win and a de facto division title. DVOA says the Cardinals are better than the Broncos, so their achievement appears less dubious. Still, their two-game losing streak to the Giants and Eagles exposed them as a less-than-elite team. Plus, they're the Cardinals.
The Broncos and Cardinals will probably limp into the postseason with 9-7 records. Meanwhile, good teams from the NFC East, NFC South, or AFC East will get crowded out of the Wild Card picture. It's unfair, but it's not news: Situations like these are the reason the Wild Card exists in the first place. The Broncos and Cardinals each did what they had to do -- the exact bare minimum of what they had to do -- to win their stumblebum divisions.
Now that they are all but certain to reach the postseason, it's time to figure out what they'll do when they get there. The easy answer: Get blown out in the Wild Card round by teams like the Ravens or Panthers. The glib answer is rarely the most satisfying one; remember that the Cardinals beat the Cowboys and the Broncos just knocked off the Jets, two feasible Wild Card opponents. Is it realistic to suggest that these two teams could sneak into the playoffs via the service entrance, then actually make themselves comfortable?
Let's break both teams down, examining their highs, lows, strengths, and weaknesses to figure out who they could beat in the postseason tournament. We'll also bring the Vikings along, though their grasp on the NFC North isn't that tight. Like the Broncos and Cardinals, the Vikings are A) 7-5, B) facing a team they should crush (the Lions), and C) not all that impressive. They fit this feature well.
Most Impressive Wins: Sunday's win was the Broncos' most complete effort of the season. Their other strong wins came by narrow margins against good NFC South opponents: the Buccaneers, Falcons, and Saints.
Most Disturbing Losses: The blowout losses to the Chiefs and Raiders are almost incomprehensible. The Broncos belly-flopped in a 41-7 loss to the Patriots, a team they could face in the Wild Card round.
Strength in Numbers: The Broncos have allowed just eight sacks. The days of plug 'n' play running backs have returned, as Peyton Hillis spearheads a ground game that averages 4.5 yards per rush.
Weakness in Numbers: There's no sugarcoating the defensive stats: Opposing quarterbacks complete 67.8 percent of their passes. Opposing rushers average 4.9 yards per carry and have scored 17 touchdowns. Kicker Mark Prater is 5-of-5 from beyond 50 yards but an ugly 3-of-7 from 40 to 49 yards. Opponents outscore the Broncos in every quarter but the first.
How the Playoffs Could Go: Any team with a healthy, balanced offense should rack up beaucoup points against the Denver defense, and Jay Cutler gets very sloppy when he presses. The Colts, Steelers, or Patriots will smoke the Broncos in a Wild Card game, and the Jets would probably do some damage in a rematch. The Ravens might be the best matchup for the Broncos: The Baltimore offense is simple, they don't have top-notch weapons, and the Broncos cornerbacks could bait their rookie quarterback into mistakes. Still, I would pick the Ravens to win.
Most Impressive Wins: Their 34-20 win against the Cowboys proved that these aren't the same lovable losers we've picked on since World War II. The Cardinals also blew out the Bills at a time when the Bills were playing well.
Most Disturbing Losses: The Jets and Eagles losses were very similar: The Cardinals let good-not-great offenses rack up huge early leads, mounted impressive comebacks, then watched the opponents dash away at the end. It's no sin to lose to good Redskins, Panthers, or Giants teams, but the Cowboys remain the only quality NFC team the Cardinals have beaten.
Strength in Numbers: You know all about the Cardinals passing game: Kurt Warner's completion percentage may have dropped to a still-awesome 68.4 percent, but Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston have 215 combined receptions for 2,790 yards. The Cardinals defense allows just 3.8 yards per rush.
Weakness in Numbers: The Cardinals average just 3.3 yards per rush. Tim Hightower gets a lot of praise, but his yards-per-carry average has dipped to 2.9, making him a liability everywhere but the red zone. Opponents have thrown 26 touchdown passes against the Cardinals, whose secondary is easy to cook when key players like Rod Hood are out of action. Warner's fumbles are still a problem (he has lost six) and Breaston offers little as a punt returner, averaging just 6.1 yards per attempt.
How the Playoffs Could Go: Tony Romo threw three touchdown passes against the Cardinals, but the Cowboys lost on a few lapses and a blocked punt. It was a game that could have gone either way, and could well go the other way in a rematch. Still, the Cardinals would be better off in a shootout rematch against the Cowboys than against defense-oriented foes like the Redskins, Bucs, or Panthers. The Cardinals' late schedule isn't too rough, so they could win 10 or 11 games and earn the No. 3 seed in the NFC. In that case, they could root for a relative weakling like the Falcons to squeak into the final Wild Card spot.
Most Impressive Wins: The Vikings beat the Panthers 20-10 in Week 3. Their last two wins, by a combined 64-26, have been convincing.
Most Disturbing Losses: The Vikings don't have any disturbing losses. At the same time, they didn't rise up to beat tough opponents like the Titans, Colts, or Buccaneers, and they split with both the Packers and Bears. In short, they have the resume of a true also-ran.
Strength in Numbers: The Vikings have rushed for 1,695 yards while allowing just 877. They average 4.4 yards per carry while holding opponents to 3.2. The Vikings defense has recorded 33 sacks and forced 28 fumbles.
Weakness in Numbers: The Vikings have also allowed 33 sacks. Their special teams are a mess: The Vikings have allowed four punt return touchdowns, but they average just 5.3 yards per punt return while calling fair catches an amazing 41 percent of the time.
How the Playoffs Could Go: The Vikings can defeat a run-oriented opponent like the Panthers, Redskins, or Buccaneers in a low-scoring game. The Cowboys would torch the Vikings secondary, and the Cardinals could probably outgun them while limiting the damage done by Adrian Peterson. Of course, with Pat Williams and Kevin Williams suspended for the rest of the season, the Vikings can't assume anything: The Bears could still sneak up on them. If that happens, the Broncos and Cardinals won't look so bad.
Buccaneers vs. Panthers: You'd think life would be easy for John Fox right now. His team is 9-3 and playing for a division title. On Sunday, they won in dramatic fashion, knocking a potential Wild Card opponent out of the playoff picture in the process. Despite the Panthers' success, Fox isn't sitting too comfortably, as this exchange from Monday's press conference indicates (transcript from the Charlotte Observer).
Question: We talked to you last week about breakdowns in run defense and this was another week when that didn't stand up. Could you comment on that?
Fox: I don't know where you're really going with this, but all I'd say is I think we're in the top third in the league in defense, I think we're 9-3 and it's a team game and yards don't win game, points do. So I hope that answers all your questions in one.
Question: But you have given up more points lately.
Fox: I think we've seventh in the league in points allowed. Again, my same answer.
Question: So the trend doesn't concern you, given than you were second in the league in points allowed?
Fox: It all concerns me. I'm just not in the mood for debating statistics. I don't like statistics anyway.
Question: Do you think your defense is playing as well as it was earlier this year?
Fox: It's playing well enough to be 9-3.
Wow, and that's the Charlotte media, not the hostile New York hyenas. No wonder Brad Childress dreams of drinking vodka from goblets shaped like sportswriter skulls.
Fox might like statistics better if he knew that DVOA ranks the Panthers as the seventh best team in the league, and that their defense still ranks eighth in the NFL despite two rough games against very good offenses. Unfortunately for Fox, the Buccaneers rank sixth in DVOA, and they hold the playoff tiebreaker advantage over the Panthers in the division. That makes Sunday's game crucial, and the fact that the Buccaneers won the first meeting 27-3 doesn't bode well.
The Panthers need a big game from their suddenly maligned run defense. Force the Buccaneers to be one-dimensional, and their weapon-free passing game will sputter. The Buccaneers are great at baiting and punishing mistake-prone quarterbacks -- Jake Delhomme threw three interceptions against them in Week 6 -- so the Panthers must be as smart on offense as they are stingy on defense.
Both the Bucs and Panthers are undefeated at home, so I'm taking the path of least resistance and picking the Panthers. Maybe the press will go easy on Fox when he has ten wins in his back pocket.
Cowboys vs. Steelers: Back to work, Cowboys. That bar crawl across the NFC West sure was fun, but it's time to sober up and forget about 34-9 blowouts. The Steelers, Giants, and Ravens want to perform a detailed, painful performance review before they declare you playoff-worthy.
The Cowboys are limping into the Labors of Hercules portion of their schedule. Demarcus Ware and Marion Barber missed practice at the start of the week; the early skinny is that Ware will play with a brace, but that Barber may be out of action on Sunday. Ware's presence is critical against a Steelers team vulnerable to a heavy pass rush. Ware is one of the two or three best defensive players in the NFL right now (Albert Haynesworth and Nnamdi Asomugha are also on the short list), so his presence or absence will change the complexion of this game.
The Cowboys scored 69 points in the last two weeks, but they don't want to suffer the same fate as last week's Patriots. Remember Matt Cassel and his back-to-back 400-yard games? The Steelers popped that balloon in a hurry. The Steelers will keep the score low, and they'll win if Ware is unavailable. With Ware in the game, the matchup changes, and the Cowboys will match the Steelers sack for sack, and then some.
Redskins vs. Ravens: The Redskins need to win out to harbor any real playoff hopes, and Jim Zorn believes he can keep them seaworthy by jettisoning some of the ballast from his playbook. At least, I think that's what he believes. "Each week, as we try to grow in our game plan, I'm always torn between that fine line of pushing the envelope a little bit," Zorn told the Washington Post, "or should we back off and not work so much on the things that I'd like to do, but work on those things that we have to do? I continue to try to push us to say, 'Well, we can do this. Well, we can do that.' But it's obvious, I think, in these last several games, we can't do it all. So we might have to take a step back before we can take another forward." Got it?
The Redskins climbed into the playoffs with a four-game winning streak at the end of last season, but the planets won't align again for them this year. At least Zorn isn't trying to make history repeat itself by bringing Todd Collins off the bench. That would really be walking the fine line to push the envelope. Instead, he's hoping to fight simplicity with simplicity. The Ravens win by clamping down defensively and executing a run-run-bomb offense that would make Al Davis misty-eyed if he were still capable of producing mortal tears. If it's good enough for Joe Flacco, then it should also work for Jason Campbell.
The scaled-back approach may work against the Bengals, Eagles, and Niners, Washington's final three opponents. On Sunday Night, the Redskins will face a charged-up Ravens team that feasts on mistakes. You can't beat a team like that by stepping backward, even if you are doing it to step forward.
Eagles vs Giants: Nothing stops the Giants. Their top running back gets hurt, and they keep winning. Their top receiver channels Cheddar Bob, but they keep winning. They put up a mediocre performance against a good division opponent (they really didn't play well against the Redskins), but they keep winning. Only the Speed Bump Browns could make them bottom out, and the Giants learned after that loss to ease off the accelerator and stay focused when facing foes in the prone position.
The Eagles were lying flat in the middle of the freeway two weeks ago, but their vital signs blipped on Thanksgiving night. They played the Giants tough in Week 10, losing because -- stop me if you heard this before -- they couldn't convert short-yardage situations. With a theoretical chance of making the playoffs and several veterans in professional jeopardy, the Eagles still have something to play for. 'Tis the season for the Eagles to mount a climb from their self-excavated chasm, so an upset is very possible.
But not likely. The Eagles lost guard Max Jean-Gilles last week, the backup to injured starter Shawn Andrews. The third-stringer is Nick Cole, who lists at 6 feet tall and 350 pounds, making him more a geologic formation than a man. Cole, a center by trade, endured an ill-fated stint as the Eagles' goal-line fullback (is there any other kind?) before playing well at guard against the Cardinals. "He's a heck of an athlete," said Andrews. "People always talk about his height, but it's not like he has to rebound or anything." No, but he needs to keep twisting, stunting defenders away from Donovan McNabb, and a longer wingspan would certainly help.
Remember the last time the Eagles started an inexperienced lineman against the Giants? It was in Week 4 of 2007, when Winston Justice replaced Tra Thomas. The Giants had 12 sacks in that game. Cole may be a little better than Justice (he also plays a less critical position), and the Giants' defensive line isn't as scary as last year's model. But cut the Giants' sack total in half, and it's still a long day for McNabb, who is still on the rebound from his benching two weeks ago.
The league can suspend Plaxico Burress, Harris Smith, Monte Stratton, or just about anyone else for that matter. The Giants will keep rolling.
In St. Louis
MARC BULGER: (under center) Audible! Audible! Delta Freeze Right Z Tulsa!
STEVEN JACKSON: (to himself) Good. An off-tackle run. I'll stuff it down their throats.
WILL ALLEN: Guys! It's an off-tackle run right to Jackson! I saw it on film!
ANNOUNCER: I believe this is an off-tackle run right to Jackson. The Dolphins coaches told me that they knew some of the Rams' signals.
RANDOM FAN: This is going to be an off-tackle run right to Jackson. I saw Jaws diagram this on NFL Matchup. Those Rams signals are pretty easy.
SMALL CHILD: Daddy, this is an off-tackle wun wight by Jackson. I saw it on Noggin. Moose and Zee bwoke down the film.
STEVEN JACKSON: Sorry coach, didn't mean to lose six yards. I can't understand it. I think we might be tipping our plays.
JIM HASLETT: Silly Steven. The problem is your conditioning. You should never have held out.
TOM LEWAND: You wanted to see me, Mr. Ford?
WILLIAM CLAY FORD: Tom, you may have heard that many CEO's in the auto industry will accept one-dollar salaries next year in a show of good faith that they are trying to keep the industry afloat. As a Ford, I thought it was my duty to join them.
LEWAND: A noble gesture, sir. What does that have to do with me?
FORD: Well, if the chairman is only making one dollar, the chief operating officer has to make even less, right?
LEWAND: Gee sir, I don't know. Um, what are you handing me?
FORD: Pesos. Twenty of them. A family in San Antonio Guaracha can survive for weeks on that. Count it.
LEWAND: I trust you sir. And I know we need to tighten our belts. But is this really the best way to turn the Lions around?
FORD: Beats me. I know the pay cut is harsh, Tom, but it could be worse. Speaking of which, go put these soda tabs on Rod Marinelli's desk. Stress that the aluminum is extra pure.
in New York
BRANDON MOORE: This is ridiculous. Every time we make a big play, a Broncos player ends up on the ground.
LEON WASHINGTON: You don't think they're really hurt?
MOORE: No. If working for Eric Mangini has taught me anything, it's how to think like a paranoid lunatic. They are faking injuries to interrupt our momentum. The guy who is out there now claims to be severely dehydrated. What bull.
LEON WASHINGTON: They can't slow our momentum. We have Brett Favre. Right, Brett? Brett?
(Brett Favre walks silently to the middle of the field.)
WATERBOY: Water for the Jets! Jets first! (An injured Broncos player reaches for a drink.) No. No water for this one.
INJURED BRONCO: God help me!
(Favre takes the water bucket and pours some over the player, who looks up to see a heavenly aura.)
WATERBOY: Hey, you can't ... gasp.
(The shamed waterboy slips away as the Broncos player drinks his fill, then looks upon Favre with a mix of awe and gratitude)
WASHINGTON: He really is special.
MOORE: I agree. To the playoffs, ramming speed!
FO chief Aaron Schatz and I will be at Chickie's & Pete's in South Philly on Thursday night, December 18. If the game gets boring, we'll start throwing around trivia questions. If it's really boring, we may bring out the Andy Reid effigy and a book of matches.
The Leaf movie lives! Tim Carr was in San Diego Wednesday screening his documentary in the town that made locker room tirades famous. Carr wrote and directed the film and stars as Ryan Leaf. I get considerable screen time as a handsome football historian/humorist. It's the best film I've ever been in, so if there are any other screenings, make sure you check it out.
Jets vs. Niners: Even Jets players admitted that they were overconfident after their victory against the Titans. "It was good to get that humble pie after Thanksgiving," Leon Washington said after Sunday's loss to the Broncos. The Jets' run defense may have sprung some leaks, but the Niners are 26th in the league in run DVOA, so don't expect miracles.
Bengals vs. Colts: The Cincinnati Enquirer interviewed Bengals President Mike Brown early in the week. Brown refused to comment on Marv Lewis' future -- "I'm not going to give one of those endorsements," he said -- and was avuncular when discussing the possibility of "firing himself" by hiring a true general manager. "I call them themes. They (fans and customers) like to talk about different themes when things don't go well." It's never a good sign when the team's top executive sounds like a literature professor. Colts.
Jaguars vs. Bears: The Bears are reeling. With three losses in four games, they've fallen to the furthest fringe of the playoff picture, and opponents have gotten wise to all the wrinkles they use to hide the fact that they don't have much talent on offense. As they trudge toward a .500 record, we should focus on the positive. Matt Forte is very good. Greg Olsen has All-Pro potential. The Devin Hester experiment wasn't a disaster, though the Bears may have traded a great return man for an average receiver. The defense is still stout. Add a top receiver and improve the quarterback situation (insert your favorite Donovan McNabb rumor here) and the Bears may have something. Contrast the Bears with the Jaguars' sinking ship and you'll realize there are worse fates than a .500 record. Bears.
Texans vs. Packers: The Eagles and their ever-glowing DVOA percentages are a source of constant consternation here at headquarters. Well, the Packers out-Eagle'd the Eagles this year. They have outscored their opponents, outgained them, hold a big edge in third down conversions (44.4 to 37.8 percent), and have a sometimes brilliant passing game. They are 5-7 because their biggest weakness -- run defense -- is a major issue for a team that faced the Vikings twice, the Titans, the Falcons, and other top rushing teams. They also come up short in lots of little categories, like penalty yards (779 to 538) and the dreaded fumble luck (opponents have lost just three fumbles). If the Packers really want to emulate the Eagles, then they'll go on a little run now that all hope is lost. They'll start that mini-run against the Texans, who aren't as bad as their record but aren't as good as they looked in those candy apple red uniforms on Monday night.
Falcons vs. Saints: The Falcons and Saints play in the "other" NFC South. The Bucs and Panthers run the ball, stop the run, generate turnovers, and win slobberknocker contests. The Falcons and Saints can score 40 points on any given Sunday, but they rank below the other two teams because of A) the Falcons' inexperience and leaky secondary, and B) the Saints' weak running game, mistake-prone defense, and Sean Payton's pathological need to call double-reverse-option-waggle-screens at inopportune times. The Falcons won the opener and should beat an opponent that was hit hard by the diuretic scandal.
Browns vs. Titans: Remember that 40-pass game-plan the Titans used in their blowout loss to the Jets? Scrapped. Shredded. Wrapped around a bunker in the bait box. After pounding out 231 rushing yards on the "toddler" difficulty setting Thursday, the Titans are back to running and play action. Even LenDale White is back with the program. "It was good to get things going again," White said. "I think we're definitely going to depend on the run heavily if we're going to win games and go deep into the playoffs and eventually the Super Bowl." Expect more of White and Chris Johnson this week as the Browns kick off the Ken Dorsey era and prepare to kick Romeo to the curb.
Raiders vs. Chargers: Norv Turner's blame deflector shields are working again. A.J. Smith gave Norverrific an emphatic vote of confidence this week despite the Chargers' steady skid into irrelevance. Granted, it's too early to pull the plug on Turner, who took the team to the AFC Campionship game last season. After all, this season can be blamed on injuries, Ted Cottrell, Ed Hochuli, and lots of other people who aren't Turner. The Chargers will win here and should win in Kansas City next week, but the Raiders should cover that big spread. See, they are turning things around. What more evidence do you need?
Patriots vs. Seahawks: This game has been flexed out of my consciousness. It might as well air on Tuesday morning at 4:30 a.m. on the Independent Film Channel. Still, you should watch to see if Mora the Less is wearing a Huskies cap on the sidelines. Patriots.
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