Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
20 Nov 2008
by Mike Tanier
Raiders punt returner Johnnie Lee Higgins offered a revealing description of his 93-yard touchdown on Sunday. "I just saw a bit of gibberish, then took two steps and it parted like the Red Sea."
He saw gibberish? What was he looking at? The Raiders' game plan? Matt Hasselbeck's press conference? Last week's Walkthrough?
Nowadays, everybody wanna talk like they got something to say. Take Matt Hasselbeck, who staggered to the podium on Sunday and accused the Cardinals of taking cheap shots at his fragile cranium. Hasselbeck later apologized, but said that he wasn't suffering from a postgame concussion, just the same judgment lapse that led to those Expedia.com commercials. The way this season is going, Hasselbeck will be ordering room service in Esperanto by December.
Brandon Jacobs took some shots to the knee last week, but he may have also absorbed a blow or two to the noggin. "We're capable of doing anything," he said of his Giants. "You might see one of us fly one day, you never know." It's OK for Jacobs to think he's Superman right now, because he's playing like the Man of Steel. But he must beware of Bizarro Jacobs. Bizarro Jacobs is big and strong like the real Jacobs, but he does everything backwards. Instead of bulling through tackles for extra yardage, he purposely falls down at the first sign of contact. Bizarro Jacobs is just like Shaun Alexander, but with bad grammar.
Jacobs may have been feeling overconfident, but it's good to hear a Giants running back compare himself to a superhero we can all stand behind. Tiki Barber was more of a Dr. Manhattan type: so aloof and transcendent that he can no longer communicate with us aphid-like mortals. If Barber's skin starts glowing in an eerie shade of blue, don't adjust your television. Just get out of New York.
Barber spouted his own brand of parting gibberish in the wake of the Tiebreaker McNabb story. "That's an indefensible comment he made," said the media gadfly and amateur OB-GYN. Barber is clawing at everything in reach as he battles his slow decline into utter irrelevance, so forgive him if he forgot another important subsection of the NFL rulebook: Piling on is a 15-yard penalty.
Andy Reid ultimately took responsibility for McNabb's lack of basic NFL knowledge. It's a good thing that Reid didn't call the plays for Moses at the Red Sea. He would have treated it like a short-yardage situation. "Hrmm, Joshua, run a hitch just past that big wave over there. Aaron, smoke route next to the flaming pillar. Zipporah, try to get open against those chariots. If no one is open, I'll throw my staff to L.J. the Stone-Handed Stonecutter."
If that had happened, you'd be reading this Walkthrough in hieroglyphics. And they wouldn't look like gibberish, even to Johnnie Lee Higgins.
They meet in sports bars every Sunday, in small New Jersey towns like Barrington, Bellmawr and Westmont. They huddle around the one television devoted to the Ravens game. Friends and family, teachers and town fathers, ex-teammates and ex-girlfriends: They all gather to root for Joe Flacco. I am often among them.
The Flacco boosters are Eagles fans by birthright, but they adopted the Ravens when Flacco became the team's quarterback of the future in April, then its quarterback of the present in September. Audubon, New Jersey, a $10 cab ride from Lincoln Financial Field (and a dry town, which is why we migrate to other locales on Sunday), has become a tiny purple village in an otherwise midnight green county.
So far, Flacco fandom has caused no conflict of interest for lifelong Eagles lovers. In Week 1, when the Ravens beat the Bengals, the Eagles demolished the Rams so easily that it was easy for Flacco supporters to ignore the big screen after halftime. The Eagles often play in prime time, so Flacco fans often watch their favorite son as a matinee idol, then tune to the Eagles as an evening feature. The Ravens are safely in the AFC, so rooting interests rarely collide. If the Ravens face an NFC East foe like the Giants, so much the better.
But the Ravens host the Eagles on Sunday, forcing the 9,000 residents of Audubon to examine their loyalties. Many of my co-workers and neighbors are torn. I'm torn. Root for the team that defines our sports fandom, or for the young man who walked our streets and sat in our classrooms?
For John Minardi, the choice was easy. "I’m going to the game next week, and I’m wearing a purple shirt," he told me on Sunday. Joe DePasquale's mind is also made up. "Ravens all the way," he told me.
Minardi and DePasquale are Flacco's former high school teammates and my former students. They are lifelong Eagles fans who followed Flacco's college career closely. When Flacco was drafted, they attended the draft party and press conference. They are two of the hundreds of people in this tightly knit community who find themselves swept up in something new. South Jersey isn't West Texas or Dade County, Florida. High school football isn't a big deal, and local heroes are rare.
Minardi and DePasquale are still Eagles fans at heart, but they’ve found the Eagles easy to set aside this season. "I see the Eagles as done," DePasquale said, pointing to the Eagles-Bengals game over his shoulder. "If they beat the Giants last week, it might be different, but they aren’t going anywhere this year." DePasquale allows that he would be satisfied by a compromise result: four touchdowns by Flacco, a 31-28 Eagles victory. "Yeah, that would be win-win." Minardi is more resolved. "If the Eagles beat the Giants, then I’d root for the Ravens anyway because the Eagles wouldn't need the game."
For young men who shared a huddle with Flacco, the personal relationships make a difference. "No one on the Eagles wakes up on Monday morning and cares whether I rooted for them or not. They are a roster full of strangers."
I heard the same story from many others in the past week. In the faculty lounge, most colleagues said they were rooting for the Ravens. In my neighborhood of casual fans and non-fans, few rush to sports bars or buy satellite dishes for out-of-town games. Sunday marks their second chance to see Flacco on local television, and he's the one generating the buzz, not the Eagles. In the classroom, well, every kid in Audubon is suddenly a distant relative -- except for Flacco's two youngest brothers, who are close relatives. The Eagles’ recent woes play a large part in the loyalty shift -- the Philadelphia Daily News voted them the least popular team in the region -- but I get the sense that even a 10-0 Eagles team would have a hard time competing with small-town enthusiasm.
Baltimore is just a 90-minute drive away, and crossover fans like Minardi and DePasquale have taken the trip down I-95 a few times. They embarked on an Inner Harbor/Fells Point junket a few weeks ago, when the Ravens were on the road. "They played the Colts and got smoked, so we didn't talk much football" recalls Minardi. Some Audubon residents chartered a bus for Sunday, so dozens of residents will descend en masse on M&T Bank Stadium, Minardi, DePasquale, and a host of Sunday bar regulars among them.
I can't get swept up in the Flacco frenzy as easily as my neighbors and co-workers can. I have a job to do. The Eagles strain my journalistic impartiality far enough. Now I have a small personal stake in a second team. Sure, lots of journalists get to know players. But they meet those players as adults. This is a young man I knew as a teenager. I see his brothers every day, and I am immersed in a community of his relatives and friends. I taught Ron Dayne, but that was in a large regional high school with no sense of community, and he started his career with the hated Giants. It was easy to simultaneously root for a good Dayne game and an Eagles win. This is different.
At the same time, it's wonderful. Sports fans need more teams to root for, not fewer. We need more reasons to cheer and fewer reasons to jeer. In our little community, Flacco’s success has caused the kind of excitement that comes from the ground up, in contrast to the top-down hype that tells us which players we should care about. Hundreds of small towns around the country and world have experienced the same phenomenon. There’s a reason most residents of Kiln, Mississippi, are Packers (and now Jets) fans. It's natural, it's powerful, and it's better than rooting for a bunch of displaced mercenaries brought to town by the local multi-millionaire.
For guys like Minardi and DePasquale, Sunday means bus tours and purple jerseys. For me, it means as much detachment as I can muster in the name of accurate analysis. I’m not making a pick, and I'll watch the game (on the main screen this time) with mixed emotions. Maybe I'll actually root for both teams, a Pollyanna who just wants to see a fair, well-fought game.
One thing's for sure: I'll revel in the excitement that has come over the little purple village I live in. Football fandom is too often about frustration and cynicism. This Sunday, it will be about community.
At Football Outsiders, we're not just about DVOA. There's DYAR, ALY, and EYards, too. And then there are conventional stats, which we use sparingly but can often get the job done. Telling someone the Giants are first in the league in rushing DVOA is all well and good, but sometimes you have to pound your fist and yell: "They are averaging 5.3 yards per freakin' carry!"
While doing my weekly research, I collected a handful of conventional stats that do a fine job of explaining why teams are winning or losing this season. Here's a look at those stats, their impact, and some picks for some of this week's biggest games.
Team: New York Giants
Stat: 5.3 yards per rush.
Impact: The Giants lead the NFL in rushing average by 0.7 yards, and the impact of their running game can be found in other stats like time of possession (the Giants have the ball a league-high 33:25 per game). Brandon Jacobs does most of the dirty work, but both Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw average more than five yards per carry. After what the Giants did to the Eagles and Ravens run defenses (219 and 207 rushing yards), you can't accuse Jacobs and company of fattening up on Rams and Bengals. Props go to the offensive line, of course, but coordinator Kevin Gilbride deserves credit for changing his stripes. The former run 'n' shoot guru now hands off on about 57 percent of first downs and trusts his running game to get the job done in short yardage and at the goal line.
Pick: Wait for the next capsule.
Team: Arizona Cardinals
Stat: 70.9. Kurt Warner's completion percentage.
Impact: Ken Anderson set the completion percentage record of 70.6 in the strike-shortened 1982 season. Warner has already thrown 72 more passes than Anderson threw that year. Steve Young holds the full-season record of 70.3 percent in 1994. His Niners won the Super Bowl that year. Critics might suggest that a high completion percentage is the result of a dink-and-dunk offense. Well, duh. There are going to be a few short dump-offs in the data when a quarterback completes seven of every ten passes. But three Cardinals receivers have more than 45 receptions and average more than 12 yards per catch, so there is only so much dinking going on. The high-percentage passing sets up drives like those the Cardinals had against the Seahawks in the first half on Sunday: Warner completed eight of nine passes to set up a field goal, then went three for three en route to a touchdown, then completed five of six in a 65-yard field goal drive. The Cardinals average 8.1 yards per pass attempt on first downs. That kind of production helps the running game, slows the pass rush, and sets up lots of long drives.
Pick: Passing alone won't beat the Giants. The Cardinals have to stop the run and protect Warner to win. Their run defense isn't bad (10th in DVOA), but while the Cardinals line has improved, the Warner sack-and-fumble risk is still very high. Look for the Giants to win a game that will look a lot like their victory over the Eagles two weeks ago.
Team: Tennessee Titans
Stat: Six sacks allowed.
Impact: I have been watching the Titans' sack totals for more than a month. Kerry Collins' sack percentage of 1.81 percent isn't very close to the NFL record of 0.98 percent set by Dan Marino in 1988, but it is currently eighth on the all-time list. The Titans' low sack totals are the result of a great line playing in a scheme that emphasizes extra protection, with a veteran quarterback who knows when to get rid of the ball. There's also feedback at work: By running effectively, the Titans stay out of easy-sack third-and-long situations, which allows them to run more often, which keeps pass attempt totals low, which keeps sack totals low. Part cause of the Titans' success, part result, those six lonely sacks are a sign that the Titans' fundamentals are strong.
Pick: The Jets outscore opponents 71-33 in the first quarter. They are good at jumping out to leads, though holding onto them isn't their strong suit. If they can take an early lead, the Jets run well enough to hold onto it, and their rebuilt secondary will force Collins to do more than toss softballs to his tight ends. Of course, the Jaguars jumped out to a lead last week and couldn't hold it, but it has to work one of these weeks.
Team: Kansas City Chiefs
Stat: Six defensive sacks.
Impact: Yep, just six. Derrick Johnson has a sack and a half; Alfonso Boone, Ron Edwards, Tamba Hali, and Glenn Dorsey each have one. Pat Thomas picks up the change. The Chiefs played the Titans this year, and a temporal rift opened up in the Titans pocket. Kerry Collins entered the vortex, visited another dimension, defeated an evil warlord, ruled as a benevolent emperor for five years before teaching the natives the secrets of representative government, then came back and threw a 10-yard pass to Justin Gage. He had that much time.
Pick: Who needs sacks when you have a Pistol offense? And who needs an offense when Trent Edwards' psyche just went over Niagara Falls in an apple bushel? Chiefs.
Team: San Diego Chargers
Stat: 68.6: Opponent's completion percentage.
Impact: There's a reason Ben Roethlisberger threw the ball 41 times on a windy, snowy evening against the Chargers. There's a reason defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell was fired. The Chargers have intercepted just six passes all season, and they've allowed every Tom, Dick, and Tyler to pick them apart. Even in a low-scoring game like the Steelers loss, a defense has to force incompletions more than 31.4 percent of the time. Otherwise, that defense gives up drives of 10, 9, 8, 14, 10, and 13 plays, limiting the number of chances the league's second best offense has to score points.
Pick: Bad pass defense against the Colts? All of the receivers healthy for the Colts? Let me think for a second. Done thinking. Colts.
Team: Detroit Lions
Stat: Two defensive interceptions.
Impact: The Lions have defensed a league-low 27 passes, meaning that most opponents' passes aren't even contested. The acquisition of Leigh Bodden was supposed to improve the Lions' awful secondary, but Bodden (who has one of the picks) can only cover one receiver at a time. Blame Matt Millen if you want, but it was Rod Marinelli who insisted on bringing in old Buccaneers like Brian Kelly (ready to retire) and Dwight Smith (ineffective before getting hurt).
Pick: The Bucs must look at the Lions as a convalescent center for old or ineffective Tampa-2 defenders. That may be why Derrick Brooks is playing so darn hard this year: He has Lions nightmares.
Bengals at Steelers: The Steelers are 10-point favorites with an over/under of 35 in the final game of a three-game home stand. The score will be 21-13 Steelers with one second to play Thursday night. Ryan Fitzpatrick will throw a hook-and-lateral to Chris Henry, who will pitch to T.J. Houshmandzadeh just before getting arrested. Hooch will elude four Steelers defenders, but Troy Polamalu will strip the ball and lateral to Lamar Woodley. Chad Johnson will use the confusion to slip into a Steelers uniform, sneak back onto the field, and take a lateral from Woodley. Unfortunately, he'll forget which end zone is which and score a Steelers touchdown. The whole play will be nullified because Cedric Benson was wearing non-regulation shoelaces, so the final score will be 21-13. You, of course, will have the Steelers and the over, so you're screwed.
Panthers at Falcons: DVOA still believes in the Panthers (ninth overall), but I do not. They handled the Falcons easily in Week 4, but the Falcons have improved since then. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart will be able to run against a defense that allows 4.9 yards per carry, but the Falcons' offense will put up some points, and their pass rush will generate a few turnovers.
Texans at Browns: The Browns are 2-0 on Monday night. They play the Eagles on Monday night in mid-December. A good night to do some Christmas shopping, I think ... Have you noticed that the "I'm sick of all the Brady Quinn hype" complaints actually arrived before Quinn received any legitimate hype? The Browns snuck his first start into a Thursday night game with little national juice, and while ESPN gave him some star treatment before Browns-Bills (who else you want to talk about?), it's not like he has his own one-hour holiday special. What we have here is a case of the Anticipatory Hype Complaint: Fans who know a player will soon be overexposed jump the gun and crank up the sarcasm whenever the guy's name gets mentioned. Those fans might want to ingest a little less NFL media so they have a higher tolerance to garden-variety new quarterback curiosity. That doesn't apply to Football Outsiders, of course: Read us three times per day, once in the morning, once before bed, and once when your boss is droning on about "mission statements." Texans.
Niners at Cowboys: New Niners quarterback Scrappy-Doo is surprising opponents with a generous dose of Puppy Power. Scrappy (OK, Shaun Hill) is already drawing Jeff Garcia comparisons. If he wins a few more games (he is 3-1 in two seasons as the Niners starter), he'll be compared to that fellow who plays quarterback for the Cowboys.
Hill will have to work on his Hollywood bona fides if he hopes to become Tony Romo Junior. During his double latte stint as the Niners' starter last year, the non-famous Hill fibbed to strangers that he was a UPS driver. Most folks believed him. Romo is no delivery boy, though we can imagine the kinky Jessica Simpson romp now. ("OK, Tony, you play the UPS driver. I'll play the lonely girl waiting to get my meter read.") The Cowboys are in the soft patch of their schedule now. Tune in on December 7 when they face the Steelers.
Vikings at Jaguars: For the Jaguars, the AFC South title is out of reach, and playoff hopes are nearly nonexistent. How can Jack Del Rio keep the troops focused? With motivational tactics, of course. "I've got a million of them," said the scourge of iPod wearers everywhere.
Walkthrough got a look at Del Rio's goodie bag. First up, some "Excellence" posters with pictures of rock climbers on them, plus a large banner reading "What can you do for the Jaguars?" in the locker room. Then, casual Fridays. Del Rio will then dress up the usual Keep Chopping Wood speech with a set of anvil loppers, changing the theme to Keep Clearing Brush. Finally, he plans to stop clenching his fists and cursing under his breath whenever Michael Smith is mentioned. Vikings.
Patriots at Dolphins: Their Week 3 matchup taught us to love a crazy formation called the Wildcat and to fear life in a Tom Brady-less world. Week 12 finds the Patriots and Dolphins in the Jets' rearview mirror, the Wildcat hysteria cooled off, and otherwise sober sportswriters talking about a $70-million contract for Matt Cassel. Before Cassel starts picking out platinum-plated pool skimmers, he should prove he can avenge that September blowout. It should be easy, now that he's figured out what to do with Randy Moss and Wes Welker. The Patriots need this game badly; they face the Steelers next week, then have a two-game soft patch (Seahawks and Raiders) before finishing with the Cardinals and Bills. Four wins get them to 10-6, but it's hard to get the numbers to add up to four without this game.
Bears at Rams: The Bears are now .500 and starting to feel the heat. They rushed Kyle Orton back from ankle surgery and started him against the Packers even though he wasn't ready. Since when are they shy about giving Rex Grossman a 30th chance? They replaced Devin Hester with Danieal Manning on a fourth-quarter kickoff against the Packers. An injury precaution, or a sign of frustration? Teammates are even starting to look at each other askance. "The thing I can't wait to do is watch the film and see, even after the game was a little bit out of hand, who gave up," said defensive end Adewale Ogunleye. "We've got to get that straightened out. We've got to have guys on the field that are going to fight all the way to the end. And hopefully we'll see that we had all 22 guys fighting." Browns-esque effort lapses aside, the Bears should beat the Rams with one arm tied behind their backs. Or even with Grossman at quarterback.
Packers at Saints: One of our major nuggets of truth here at FO states that good teams don't necessarily win close games. Good teams win blowouts, then win enough close games to reach the postseason. The Packers are 3-0 in blowouts, two of them against good opponents (Colts and Bears), but 1-3 in seven-point games. They are a good team, and their running game may have turned the corner after dropping 200 yards on the Bears (138 of those yards came in the first half, so it wasn't garbage-time production). Take the Packers to beat a Saints team dealing with a simultaneous case of the dropsies on offenses and the no-tacklesies on defense.
Raiders at Broncos: The path to the AFC West title is wide, straight, smooth, and well-lubricated, just like a backyard slip 'n' slide. Could've made that simile a lot worse. All the Broncos have to do is lift their legs and let momentum take them where they want to go. Ooh, that still sounds bad. I'll quit when I'm ahead.
Redskins at Seahawks: Ground control to Major Matt. The hits were legal, that is that. Take some aspirin and may God's love be with you. Redskins.
There has been a lot of talk about the handwritten letter Jim Fassel sent to Al Davis this week. I was lucky enough to obtain a copy of the letter. There's a chance it's a hoax, of course (it was given to me by a ninth grader), but as an Internet journalist it is my job to pass along unsubstantiated rumors without fact checking. Don't blame me if it's bogus, blame the system.
Anyway, decide for yourself:
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