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?
16 Oct 2008
by Mike Tanier
Last week, The Sporting News asked Ben Roethlisberger which historic person he would most like to switch places with for a day. "Peter, so I could walk next to Jesus and ask him questions and see him work," Big Ben answered. After enduring 111 sacks in the last three years, Roethlisberger is ready to swap careers with a man who was crucified upside down.
An exchange between Jesus and Roethlisberger would no doubt be illuminating.
BEN: "You never wore a helmet, did you?"
JESUS: "No, but I walked everywhere I went."
The Steelers opponent this week knows a thing or two about petering out. Rumor has it that when asked about wobbly backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski denied knowing him three times. Chad Johnson then began to crow.
Meanwhile, in search of non-miraculous solutions for his ailing shoulder, Carson Palmer consulted New York Mets doctors, who are never busy in October. "I don't know about his arm, but I know those Bengals party too damn much," said Doc Gooden.
Without Palmer, the Bengals offense is little more than a series of hitch routes and adventurous Fitzpatrick scrambles. "We're pretty much inept," Bratkowski said after the Jets loss; Knute Rockne's estate did not sue for plagiarism. The situation in Cincy is so bad that Chris Perry's rushing Success Rate is 29 percent, which sounds more like Gaylord Perry's batting average allowed or Joe Perry's blood alcohol content circa 1981. Perry may lose his starting job to the Scourge of the Seven Seas himself, Cedric Benson. As apostolic as Big Ben may strive to become, he knows it's not safe to walk on water when Benson is around.
You guessed it: The Steelers will win on Sunday. But will they cover? That question is far less biblical and far more ... sinister.
The Bengals, Chiefs, Raiders, Rams, Seahawks, and Lions have a combined 4-27 record. Two of their wins came against one another. The other two -- Rams over Redskins, Chiefs over Broncos -- were trip-and-fall losses by good teams on turnover-and-mistake jags. The Sinister Six represent six of the seven worst teams in the NFL in DVOA, and the highest any of them rank in offense or defense is 17th, an honor bestowed on the Bengals defense. Really. The Raiders top the league in special teams (thanks, Johnnie Lee Higgins and Shane Lechler), but the other teams top out at 13th (Lions). These six teams are mediocre at their best and unwatchable at their worst.
It takes more, or less, than an awful record to make the Sinister Six. The Texans rank below the Raiders in DVOA, but they are spry and competitive most weeks, providing minimal comic relief. They are the honorary seventh member, like Bobby Keyes in the Rolling Stones (Ian Stewart was the sixth Stone). The Sinister Six teams have an Ed Wood quality: Their on-field bumbling and ham-handed front office intrigues make them ironically amusing. They fire coaches and GMs and start quarterbacks like Tyler Thigpen and Charlie Frye. Their quarterbacks race out of the backfield to avoid phantom blitzers. Their Hall of Fame tight ends show up with or-best-offer tags on Craigslist.
The Sinister Six are no laughing matter for oddsmakers, however. They force wiseguys to perform the kind of complex algebra usually reserved for Florida-versus-Burlington Juco college games. NFL gamblers don't like double-digit spreads very much, especially when the favorite is a team with obvious flaws, like the Jets or no-Romo Cowboys. As the Sinister Six sinks lower and lower, sports books start to wonder how high is too high when setting the spread.
Take the Rams. They may be believers again now that Jim Haslett has muttered a few magic incantations. "Coach Haslett told us all week that we just had to believe in ourselves," said Dante Hall. "All week Haslett reminded us that often the difference between teams in this league is confidence and swagger." Yep, that's all the Rams needed: a shot of confidence! Why couldn't Haslett provide that as defensive coordinator? It's only human nature to crank up your own efforts a notch for a few weeks after someone gets fired, so while Haslett's pop psychology will soon lose impact, his presence could elevate the team in the short term.
The Cowboys provide another set of handicapping headaches. Tony Romo injured? Check. Pacman Jones suspended for punching people? Check. A string of surprising losses and too-close-for-comfort wins? Checkola. Terrell Owens, dressed like Andre 3000's color-blind nightmare, refusing to speak after a loss? Checkaroni. New receiver in the fold? Checkmate. The stage is so obviously set for implosion that I feel embarrassed mentioning it.
The Romo injury will certainly hurt the Cowboys when they face the Bucs and Giants, but Brad Johnson is capable of beating a bad team like the Rams. As for the T.O. Clock, currently at two minutes to midnight, the arrival of receiver Roy Williams is like a healthy squirt of butane on a smoldering hibachi. He's gonna blow, but it may take a week for the embers to catch. The Rams and Cowboys may be teams going in opposite directions (even that's debatable), but the Cowboys are in Paris and the Rams are in Moscow; the continent between them can't be traversed in a week, even if you factor in injuries, meltdowns, and swagger.
There was an early 11-point line on this game, but once news of Romo's injury reached Vegas, the line plunged to 6.5. That feels right enough for me to pick the Cowboys and lay the touchdown.
Oddsmakers are just as sold on the Kerry Collins Titans as they are on the Brad Johnson Cowboys. Conversely, they may be as sold on the Chiefs, the Titans' Sinister Six opponent this week, as they are the Rams. Contrapositively, the 7-point spread in Titans-Chiefs may reflect the fact that both teams are defense-and-ball-control oriented, so scoring will be depressed (the over-under of 35.5 suggests the third explanation). Whatever the explanation, the Titans deserve more than a touchdown advantage against Carl Peterson's Antiques Roadshow.
The Chiefs spent their bye week shopping their lone asset, Tony Gonzalez, to any and all takers. Gonzalez stayed put against his will, even though ex-teammate Jared Allen texted Gonzo to convince him of the virtues of Minnesota. ("It's awesome, man. Gus Frerrote is the quarterback. We narrowly beat the Lions on phantom penalties. What could be better?") The yard sale mentality in Kansas City won't produce a Haslett-like confidence boost. Take the Titans, and though I am getting killed on "over" plays this year, take the over as well.
The Jets, just three-point favorites against the Raiders, are getting no love from Vegas. Maybe it's because the Jets were unimpressive in their win over the Bengals. Eric Mangini is getting clever again, calling scads of wide receiver screens and running a little Wal-Mart Wildcat in which Brett Favre hands off to motioning receiver Brad Smith. The gadgetry is a little precious for a team with Favre at quarterback and millions of dollars invested in the offensive line. Still, the Raiders offered a stinging indictment of the Lane Kiffin firing with their 34-3 loss to the Saints. JaMarcus Russell looks like he has no idea when to throw. Paycheck veterans like DeAngelo Hall and Javon Walker are already polishing their clubs instead of studying the game plan. I'm not sold on the Jets as contenders, but I'll lay the points to pick them over Cable's Unables.
As for the Lions, losing a close game is a step in the right direction. Right? Right??? "It's a tough pill to swallow, but at the same time, we've got to build from this," Rudi Johnson said after the Vikings loss. "We lost the game today, but I think we found our identity as far as being physical and pounding the rock and getting after it defensively." That's right, the Lions now have an identity: A team with no offense that loses games but talks about playing hard. A lot has changed in the post-Millen era, hasn't it?
The Texans-Lions spread was hovering around 8.5 on Tuesday night. Let me write that again. The Texans are 8.5-point favorites. OK, once more. A 1-4 TEAM IS FAVORED BY MORE THAN A TOUCHDOWN AGAINST THE LIONS. Has it sunk in yet? Sorry, I am not touching that spread with a pool skimmer. Maybe Danny Ocean should be the Lions next general manager: The team is doing a great job of destroying Vegas.
The Bengals are 9.5-point dogs against the Steelers. Those points are too good to pass up for a home team that played the Cowboys and Jets semi-tough, facing an opponent as flawed offensively as the Steelers. So I like the Bengals to cover.
The Seahawks are 10.5-point dogs as they travel diagonally across the nation to Tampa. Mike Holmgen's team isn't very good, but they offer their share of conundrums. If Charlie Frye threw a pass as far as he could, then Seneca Wallace ran out, picked it up, and threw the ball as far as he could, how far would the ball go? The length of the field? Could Vince Young or Joe Flacco out-distance them with one toss?
The Buccaneers defense does the little things exceptionally well. It has to, because their offense is like the local bus, making stops at every street corner and railroad crossing. Jeff Garcia is an upgrade over Mister Bumbles, but the Bucs are still forced to do more with less offensively. This week, Garcia will be in "don't turn it over" mode as he waits for the Seahawks offense to slide further into oblivion. Still, the spread is too high for the Bucs, so I like the Seahawks to cover.
Over the next month, some members of the Sinister Six will return to competitiveness. One or two will remain on our Worst DVOA Ever watch. Those teams will bring the 20-point spread back to the NFL, just in time for the holidays.
Lovie Smith endured a lot of criticism for the way his Bears handled the final moments of their 22-20 loss to the Falcons. A brief refresher: The Bears took the lead with 11 seconds to play, then squib-kicked to the Falcons 34-yard line. The Falcons returned the short kick 10 yards. With six seconds left, Matt Ryan hit Michael Jenkins on a 26-yard pass along the left sideline. Jenkins got out of bounds, and Jason Elam kicked a game-winning 48-yard field goal.
The squib kick is usually an awful strategy, but Smith was probably nervous about kicking deep to Jerious Norwood, who returned a kick 85 yards a few minutes earlier. Spotting an opponent the ball at the 44-yard line isn't ideal, but it might well have happened after a normal kick. Let's concede the squib as a necessary evil.
|Figure 1: Bears Tampa-2|
Smith's defensive call on the Jenkins catch deserves more attention. The Bears appeared to be in a Tampa-2 defense (Figure 1). The cornerbacks, including rookie Marcus Hamilton (24), allow the wide receivers to streak past them as they defend the flats. Jenkins races right through the underneath coverage, then flattens out in front of safety Mike Brown.
Smith's call, in hindsight, looks awful. The Tampa-2 is vulnerable to deep sideline routes: exactly the type of route the Falcons ran. Defenders should expect sideline routes in the waning seconds of close games, and coaches must put defensive backs in position to keep receivers in bounds. A more conventional call in this situation would be Quarters coverage (Figure 2). As shown, the cornerbacks drop at the snap to cover the deep sidelines, with the safeties taking the middle quarters of the field. In the diagram, two of the underneath defenders slide into the flat zones. That leaves one linebacker to defend the short middle, where the clock serves as an extra defender.
Hamilton made a mistake on Jenkins' catch. He should have ignored the running back drifting into the flat and gotten deeper. But Smith put the rookie in position for failure by assigning him the flat zone.
|Figure 2: Bears Quarters Coverage|
So what was Smith thinking? The Falcons still had a timeout, so Smith couldn't concede the deep middle of the field. By playing Tampa-2, he protected the Bears from 25-yard seam or post patterns that would have had the same result as Jenkins' reception. Because of injuries, Smith is short on experienced defensive backs, and he may have wanted to hide a rookie in underneath coverage, banking that the veteran Brown would make a quicker read on Jenkins' route.
Despite some late-game errors last week, I like the Bears this week. The Vikings have already allowed three punt return touchdowns this year. That would give the Bears an edge if all other things were equal. But in all other things, the Bears are a little better.
In Kansas City...
Gonzo: (Singing) Gonna lay down, my burden, Down by the Riverside (harmonica solo). Did you call the Eagles? What did they say?
Carl Peterson: Heckert said that they have an All Pro-caliber tight end in L.J. Smith. I think he was on peyote. Don't worry, someone will call.
Gonzo: Are you sure the phone is working? Check it.
Peterson: (Picking up Phone) Dial tone. Listen for yourself.
Gonzo: Hang up! Hang up! Someone could be calling right now!
Roy Williams: I'm the real Roy Williams!
Roy Williams: No, I'm the real Roy Williams!
Terrell Owens: (Standing with gun) I ... I can't tell them apart! I don't know who to shoot!
Roy Williams: Shoot him! He's the receiver who will take passes away from you!
Roy Williams: No, shoot both of us. It's the only way to be sure!
Terrell Owens: Quick, what happens after Week 17?
Roy Williams: Playoffs!
Roy Williams: Fly fishing with Cory Redding. No, wait, I mean... (BANG!)
Bill Polian: Your name, son?
John McCargo: John McCargo.
Polian: Anthony McFarland, got it.
McCargo: No, it's McCargo.
Polian: Booger McCargo. Welcome to the team!
McCargo: I think you have me confused with someone else.
Polian: You are a disappointing former first-round draft choice that we acquired in midseason to prop up a run defense that never seems capable of getting off the field, right?
McCargo: Something like that.
Polian: We don't make mistakes like that here in Indy, son. Now try on this jersey.
McCargo: Why does it say "Simon" on the back?
Joe Bugel: We're thrilled to have an over-the-hill ex-All Pro on the team here in Washington, Shaun. We sign guys like you all the time, and it never, ever comes back to haunt us.
Shaun Alexander: Thanks coach. I want you to know that I am well rested and ready to run harder than ever.
Bugel: Great. Why don't you run that gauntlet of assistant coaches over there, and they will hit you with the orange pads to get you warmed up.
Alexander: I don't think I'm ready for that, coach. Got anything softer?
Bugel: How about a gauntlet of kindergartners who will whap you with foam lightsabers?
Bugel: Four hundred cubic yards of well-whisked egg whites?
Alexander: Keep going.
Back in Kansas City...
Peterson: Well, Gonzo, guess it's not gonna happen. No one wants to trade a second-round pick for you.
Gonzo: That's the nature of this business. Wait a minute, second-round pick? I thought you were asking for a third-round pick!
Peterson: So many teams expressed interest in trading a third-round pick that I upped my asking price. Does that bother you?
Gonzo: It would. But I just heard that Terrell Owens shot Roy Williams, the Colts forced John McCargo to legally change his name to Dan Klecko, and Shaun Alexander smothered himself while trying to run a gauntlet of fabric softener sheets. In the end, there's no place like home.
Back in Week 1, we worried about jumping to conclusions. By Week 7, sports analysts worry about being hopelessly out of date. Write something in Week 4, and you'll have to answer for it in Week 7. Write something in Week 4 that isn't read until Week 7 because of the lag inherent in the dead tree media, and you run the risk of looking stupid.
Last week's Sporting News included a long article about that amazing, unstoppable Broncos offense. Jay Cutler got the cover and the "next Elway" treatment in the main feature, which compares the Broncos offense to the 1999 Rams and suggests they need a catchy nickname. Long, multi-part features like these spend a week or two in the pipeline, and NFL weeks are like dog years. I am guessing TSN editors were fidgety after the Broncos lost to the Chiefs, then got downright nervous when they won a field goal fest against the Bucs. The editors were probably grinding their teeth as the Broncos scored 17 points in a loss to the Jaguars while their Cutler-covered magazine sat on shelves.
Those are the risks of the print media. My Pro Football Prospectus 2008 Jets chapter became obsolete the moment the Jets acquired Brett Favre. High-speed news cycles can even catch you unprepared here in binary land. I had my share of embarrassing FOX Rundowns when the player I thought was healthy on Tuesday (and centered my article on) was downgraded to doubtful on Thursday. At least on the Internet, my Week 3 mash notes to the Broncos offense get buried under an avalanche of content. The Sporting News' outdated enthusiasm glares at us from the rack next to the Slurpee machine.
TSN's feature wasn't completely out of date. The Broncos have a fundamentally strong offense, and Cutler is indeed a rising star. Scratch deeper than Cutler and Brandon Marshall, and you find a solid 1-2 punch at running back in Selvin Young and Michael Pittman, a great offensive line, and one of the best rookie classes any team has seen in years. The biggest problems are still on defense, where the Broncos allow 5.1 yards per rush. The Broncos aren't the 1999 Rams, not even close, but they are a good enough team to reach the playoffs in a division with two wind-up toys. They should beat a Patriots team that is averse to beating teams on the ground and is now incapable of beating them through the air.
The same issue of TSN, which is really getting some mileage this week, finds tight end Dan Graham dissing Patriots fans as frontrunners who abandon the team at the first sign of adversity. "I don't like Boston," he said. "The fans here in Denver support everything, win or lose." Is Graham right? A quick StubHub search showed 800 sets of tickets available for Monday Night's game; Bill Belichick has all of the seller's names and social security numbers.
I'm not sure if 800 available sets of seats are a lot for a Monday night game between perennial contenders. Since some of the seats are going for $2,000 or more, I think that many of the sellers are speculators, not frontrunners who are tired of running. My guess is that Patriots fans are hanging tough for now (they have suffered so). So am I: They will win the division. Losses to the Chargers and Broncos were in the master plan the moment Brady got hurt. The Dolphins loss is the only surprise so far.
The Broncos aren't the only team in the midst of a course correction. Teams that started hot are cooling off, while early-season stumblers are starting to warm up.
Surprisingly few people fell into the premature coronation trap with the Giants, a strong team with a silly schedule (3-0 against the Sinister Six) that somehow avoided mega-hype despite their New York Defending Champion status. Even fewer people are panicking after the team's shocking loss to the Browns. Some guys in the locker room actually welcomed the humbling defeat. "My opinion on this whole thing is we needed that," said Brandon Jacobs. "We needed to take that 'L' and bring some people down a notch, know we can get beat. Everywhere, take [the media] down a notch, players in here, the ones who think we're over the mountain."
The Giants may have needed a little humble pie, but the Browns didn't expose any deeply-hidden flaws in a game that was much closer than the score indicates. The Giants aren't suddenly going to start giving up eight-minute touchdown drives against bad offenses. Eli Manning's Best Manning Ever award won't be shipped any time soon (I said they avoided mega-hype, not hype), but he'll still provide more no-pick games than three-pick games. Despite a sackless Monday Night, the Giants defense will still bring some heat against the porous Niners line.
There's no anti-Giants blueprint: You can beat them if you block well, tackle hard, mind your fundamentals, play mistake-free, and get the ball to your best players. The Niners' best players aren't that great, and they are mistake-prone on offense, so the Giants will win and cover.
Speaking of the upstart Browns, we left them for dead in Early August (when the Giants humiliated them in preseason) and we didn't look back until about 11 p.m. on Monday. Their silver lining victory comes with a dark cloud: Kellen Winslow won't return this season. The Browns are seven-point dogs against a Redskins team that has ridden the evaluation tilt-a-whirl all season: from parsnip to contender to team that can lose to the Rams. DVOA likes the Redskins, and Sunday's loss can be explained by "non-predictable" events like fumble returns and long field goals, plus predictable events like an offense settling to earth as opponents study film. Take the Redskins to win, but I think the Browns can cover that spread now that they are blocking and catching the ball better.
The Bills host the Chargers this week in a battle of hard-to-define teams. The Chargers keep mixing tough losses with resounding wins. They've also displayed a knack for coming out flat against very ordinary opponents. DVOA considers them above average (13th) and surprisingly consistent (10th in Variance) for a team that lost to the Dolphins and struggled for a half against the Raiders.
DVOA also likes the Chargers better than the Bills, a team that's headed for a course correction. After the Chargers, the Bills face the Dolphins and Patriots on the road and the Jets at home. They'll be healthy for those games; Trent Edwards was back in practice on Monday, and return man Roscoe Parrish will return this week or next. Edwards gives the Bills a better chance to win than J.P. Heave and Hope, but the Chargers are better in the trenches and stronger at the skill positions. Despite an offense full of walking wounded, they still have the weapons to exploit a weak secondary. By the end of the month, the Bills will be close to .500 again, and the AFC East will have sorted itself out.
Most observers kept their powder dry when the Colts limped out to an 0-2 start. Injuries were the obvious culprit, and as starters returned to the lineup one by one, the Colts steadily improved. Each week, they got a little better: First they won a tight game in which Peyton Manning played poorly (by his standards), then they won a tight game in which Peyton was fine but the run defense was awful, then everything clicked as they blew out a pretty good Ravens team. Despite some injuries at running back and trouble on defense, the "crisis in Indy" storyline has faded; "Business as usual in Indy" has returned. The effects of Peyton's infected summer have even worn off. "He's the same ol', same ol', you know? He don't change," Reggie Wayne said of Peyton.
The Colts are the same ol', same ol', with a run defense that gets gouged but a pass offense that quickly turns every missed assignment into six points. They're looking to knock off the Titans in two weeks and re-stake their claim to the AFC South, but they must go through the Packers first.
If you hoped the Favre talk would die down after the Packers' early-season wins, then your hopes were dashed by the team's three-game skid. The CBS suit-fillers exhumed the Favre controversy on Sunday, with Dan Marino criticizing the team for dealing you-know-who while Shannon Sharpe played Devil's Advocate. Sharpe resisted the easy soundbite analysis that placed blame on Aaron Rodgers. "Last year Ryan Grant ran the football well," Sharpe said. "Last year they stopped the run. Would Brett Favre run the football this year?"
Grant ran the ball better against the Seahawks. The D-line also played better, but it suffered a blow when Ryan Pickett injured his left triceps. The Packers are already playing their starters too long on the line, and they are putting too much pressure on rookie Jeremy Thompson to play meaningful snaps. The Packers play a string of suspect offenses after the bye (Titans, Vikings, Bears), so they will be able to cover for a few defensive injuries. There's nowhere to hide defensively against the Colts, however, and Peyton will be happy to play a banged-up NFC North team after losing to two of them with one hand tied behind his back in September.
The Panthers are an 8-8 team in midcourse correction. They looked great against the Falcons and Chiefs, but once they faced a good defense, the turnover-prone, third down-deficient Panthers were back.
The Panthers should move the ball better against the Saints than the stingy Bucs, but the healthy Saints defense is no longer a punchline. The Raiders may not be much of a test, but it was enlightening to see Jason David and other Saints defenders baiting JaMarcus Russell on pass after pass, eventually picking one off after a few near-misses. That's the way a team with a quick-trigger offense should play defense: Focus on turnovers, get the offense more possessions, make opponents pay when they abandon the run.
And the Saints offense can be a lot of fun. I scribbled the following remarks about them in my trusty notebook on Sunday afternoon:
Things they do right: 1) Play-action post/corner bombs. 2) Passes over the middle where Drew Brees delivers the ball before Reggie Bush or the other receivers make their break. 3) Off-tackle runs to Deuce McAllister on first down.
Things they do wrong: 1) Kick field goals. 2) Anything that involves a handoff to Bush, except at the three-yard line.
Saints-Panthers games often have a tortoise-hare quality. Take the Saints, but know that the hare has already been caught napping once or twice this year.
I like the Ravens this week, though their offense is seizing up from an overdose of players under 25 years old. Maybe they should try the ... Wildcat! Yes, it's a Pavlovian response. When you say Dolphins, I say Wildcat. Dolphins. Wildcat. Dolphins. Wildcat.
Yes, Wildcat is the new buzzword, and everyone who earns money by diagramming x's and o's is scribbling Dolphins plays to make a quick buck. Even me; I submitted some diagrams to ESPN the Magazine, and they will run sometime in the next few weeks. ESPN got the primo pics, including a sweet diagram of last week's reverse pass to Patrick Cobbs. This little leftover comes from the Patriots game. It's called amortization of resources, folks.
|Figure 3: Wildcat Pass to Fasano|
On this play, Ronnie Brown fakes the handoff to Ricky Williams and has the option to either run or pass. Brown has two receivers in his line of sight: Anthony Fasano (80), running a fade, and Ted Ginn, Jr., (19), running a crossing route. With Brown rolling, the right cornerback may ignore his coverage responsibility to play the run. That's what happened against the Patriots, and Brown hit Fasano for an easy touchdown.
It's simple stuff, but the Dolphins can only run a play like this a few times per year. Tony Sparano has zero interest in letting Brown throw against the Ravens defense unless the coach is certain the Ravens are stacked against the run.
Next week: Guess what men's fragrance I have started wearing. Will it change my life? It's the Walkthrough you can't afford not to read.
30 comments, Last at 17 Oct 2008, 5:31pm by SteveGarvin