by Ned Macey
The NFC is widely considered to be Dallas and Green Bay and then everybody else, but Seattle and Minnesota had impressive wins on Sunday. While these two teams staked their claims as the biggest threats to an otherwise preordained NFC Championship rematch, Tampa Bay lost by two touchdowns to a mediocre Houston Texans team. The Bucs are still in the driver's seat to win the NFC South, but that loss must prove they will be a non-factor in the playoffs, right?
The DVOA rankings, which consider every play of the entire season, would beg to differ. They still see Tampa Bay as the third best team in the NFC, albeit effectively tied with Seattle and Minnesota. (In the new ratings coming out today, the three teams are seventh, ninth, and tenth.) Different results on Sunday are not a sign that the other two teams are streaking while Tampa Bay is stalling. Isolating one week ignores the much bigger picture.
The Buccaneers were playing without their starting quarterback, on the road, against a team fighting for its playoff life. Dallas had a similar match-up against Detroit and, with a healthy starting quarterback, escaped in the final minute. Minnesota won on the road but did so against the worst team in the NFC, San Francisco. Seattle hosted an Arizona team playing without one of its Pro Bowl receivers as well as its two best defensive backs.
Worries about the Buccaneers are further eased after a closer look at Sunday's results. Luke McCown actually played reasonably well for the second consecutive game, but he is just not the quarterback that Jeff Garcia is. Garcia has been one of the ten most productive quarterbacks in football on a per-play basis this season.
Second, the mediocre Texans team they were facing is a much different beast when Andre Johnson is healthy. The underappreciated wideout has now appeared in six games this season. The Texans are 4-2 in those games and only 2-5 in the games he has missed.
Third, the Buccaneers offense and defense actually outplayed the Texans offense and defense. The Buccaneers averaged 5.2 yards per play. The Texans averaged 3.9. Both teams had two turnovers. The key differences in the result were third-down efficiency and an Andre' Davis kick return for a touchdown. The Buccaneers went three-for-15 on third and fourth down, while the Texans went 10-for-17.
The struggles on third down are a year-long problem for Tampa Bay, but never as bad as Sunday. For the year, the Bucs are strong on first and second down but still average on third down. On Sunday, third down was a total disaster. McCown completed only four-of-10 third down passes, and one of those was short of a first down. McCown was 21-for-28 on first and second down. One time he completed a third-down pass to Ike Hilliard, who had first-down yardage but lost a fumble. Even the running game was not immune, as on the very first series Earnest Graham was stuffed on third-and-2 and fourth-and-2.
The success of Houston on third down was largely attributable to Johnson. Quarterback Sage Rosenfels threw to Johnson on five third downs, and all five were completed for a first down. Johnson has made two Pro Bowls but still seems to fly under the radar in the otherwise mediocre Houston offense. He is undoubtedly one of the ten best wideouts in football, a physical receiver who can also threaten down the field. His effect on the Houston offense is enormous for a player who only has a chance to touch the ball around ten plays per game. The Texans' offensive DVOA in games that Johnson has played would rank 11th overall. Their offensive DVOA in the other seven games would rank 22nd overall.
An extreme difference like that is usually limited to situations where a team loses its quarterback. Houston has lost their starting quarterback, but the offense has not missed a beat without Matt Schaub. Rosenfels has been just as good. Since Rosenfels was already on the roster, the Texans may be kicking themselves over the hefty price they paid for Schaub. At least they did not let Rosenfels go and then feature a half-dozen other starting quarterbacks over the next two years all to end up 0-13. (In Miami's defense, Sage hardly lit the world on fire in his limited opportunities there.)
Rosenfels may be a modern-day Brad Johnson. He has good pocket presence and solid accuracy, but underwhelming tools. If you surround Rosenfels with excellent talent and a friendly offensive scheme, you can have a solid offense. He makes an excellent backup quarterback in any case.
Johnson, a two-time Pro Bowl quarterback and Super Bowl champion, represents the extreme upside of Rosenfels' potential, though he may be more likely to match Damon Huard's career. Still, in a league that sees such incompetent quarterback play each year, one wonders why a decent player like Rosenfels struggles to get a real opportunity.
Rosenfels' performance was all the more impressive because it came against a solid Tampa Bay defense. The names have changed radically from the Super Bowl season of 2002, but the scheme is similar and cast-off players appear to be thriving. Greg White has stepped in for Simeon Rice and Dewayne White to excel from the right defensive end position. He dominated on Sunday with three sacks and two forced fumbles.
White is one of the most outstanding stories of the 2007 season. White's big break came in the Arena League, where he played for Jon Gruden's brother. Apparently Jay Gruden can spot talent, as the recommendation has yielded an irreplaceable outside rush that helps make the defense go. The spot on an NFL roster was a long time coming.
White was drafted by the Texans in 2002 but did not even make that expansion roster, nor any other regular NFL roster until this season. White bounced around for years between practice squads, NFL Europe, and even a stint in Canada. When he got cut, he sometimes had to find short-term work, including at Best Buy.
White told the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Mark Craig that the worst job came after he was cut by Washington. "You know the show Laverne & Shirley, how they worked on that assembly line? That was me. Kerry Foods in Ashland, Ohio." At $7 an hour, the work was not glorious, and White's tenure there was short. "I got fired. When I'd go on a lunch break and come back, I'd always forget to put my hair net back on." Fortunately for the Buccaneers, White did not forget how to rush the passer, nor does he forget to swipe at the ball when he makes a hit. He has forced an impressive six fumbles on the season.
White was matched nearly play for play by the Texans' own defensive end: Mario Williams, who was born two years after Laverne & Shirley went off the air. Last year's first-overall pick had a slightly easier path to the NFL than White (and a slightly larger bank account), but he too faced the doubters after the Texans passed on Reggie Bush and Vince Young. This season, at least, the Texans are getting the last laugh, as Williams is playing as well as any player taken in last year's top 10. Williams's pass rushing skills are very solid, but most impressively, he combines those skills with stout run defense.
Williams combined with the rest of the defensive line to apply constant pressure to McCown. The Texans also appeared intent on limiting the big plays of Joey Galloway. This approach, however, can hardly be seen as a blueprint for stopping the Buccaneers. Galloway still totaled 87 yards, and he did get free behind the defense one time only to have McCown overthrow him. The Buccaneers also marched regularly into Houston territory, only to stall out. The Texans defense remains a work in progress, and a few well-timed third down stops saved them from getting into a shootout.
The Buccaneers remain a very good team that has received very little national notoriety. Their one weakness, however, appears to be play on the road. They are 5-1 at home, with the lone loss a one-point game against a very good Jacksonville team. On the road, they are only 3-4, with blowout losses in Seattle and Indianapolis to go with this loss and a loss in Detroit. All of their road victories are in their (not very good) division.
The good news for Tampa Bay is that they will host their first-round playoff game. The better news is that Sunday's loss has them in line to be the fourth seed, which means a game against the Giants rather than the superior Vikings. (For those who point to the Giants' better record, I will direct you to the beatdown applied by the Vikings in the Meadowlands just a few weeks ago.)
The Buccaneers will have Jeff Garcia back this week. Ike Hilliard may be out for a little while but should be back for the playoffs. With all their parts, they are a good enough team to beat anybody else in the NFC. With the way they have played on the road this year, however, it seems likely that their season will come to an end in Dallas during the Divisional Round.
After five years of existence and no playoff appearances, the Texans would be willing to worry some other day about seeding, home-field advantage, or even winning a playoff game. The team would just love to get into the tournament. At 6-7, they are on the absolute fringe of the playoff race and almost assured of another year at home in January. They have a winnable game this Thursday in Houston against Denver. Closing games against Indianapolis and Jacksonville seem more difficult unless either team is resting their starters. Still, the Texans are a much better team this season than they have been in recent years, and if they can keep Johnson healthy next year, they have a fighting chance of finally making the playoffs.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.