Confessions of a Football Junkie: Cut That Meat!
By Russell Levine
So, Peyton Manning failed to tie or break Dan Marino's single-season record for touchdown passes against Baltimore Sunday night, throwing for a single score in a 20-10 win. There's no shame in that -- not against a Baltimore defense that played more like the unit of its reputation than the one that's been lit up by the likes of Cincinnati's Carson Palmer in recent weeks.
Manning had a chance to tie the mark when an interception set the Colts up at the Baltimore 4-yard line in the final minutes, but Indianapolis correctly chose to take a knee and run out the clock. Given the attention on the record, Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy probably could have received a pass for giving Manning a shot at tying the mark in that situation, but that's not Dungy's style. He is a coach that has tremendous respect for the game and the way it is supposed to be played, so he wasn't going to allow the record chase to dictate his actions. Manning, who shares a similar respect for the game and its history, likely agreed with Dungy's decision. Instead, he'll get another chance to earn the mark at home against San Diego next week.
Manning's performance against the stingy Baltimore defense will add fuel to the fire of his critics, who like to argue that he has done most of his damage against the league's weaker defenses. Personally, I think it's a ridiculous argument. As readers of Aaron's QB rankings on ESPN.com already know, Manning had a solid game against Baltimore. Most importantly, he did enough against to earn a win, which is the ultimate stat. He has now guided a team with a very suspect defense to an 11-3 record and a division title. Anyone judging stats should consider those numbers along with the passing yards and touchdowns.
No matter what his touchdown tally in the regular season, Manning knows he will be judged by what happens in the postseason. The Colts could go 13-3 and still finish third in the AFC, meaning they might have to win at both Pittsburgh and New England to reach the Super Bowl. If they pull it off, Manning will finally silence all his critics. If they come up short, Manning will once again suffer compared to whichever quarterback ends up hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, particularly if it's Tom Brady for a third time in four seasons. It won't be entirely fair, but it's the nature of the beast and nobody understands that better than Manning.
Until then, we can still sit back and enjoy the absolutely superior level of Manning's play, even when the numbers are rather pedestrian, as they were against Baltimore. San Diego's defense will provide another stiff test for the Colts next week. If Manning sets the touchdown-pass mark against the Chargers, he will have earned it.
And even if you're in the "rings are the only thing" contingent that would choose Brady over Manning to start an NFL team, you at least have to give Peyton some credit for his work in that MasterCard commercial, easily the best turn by an NFL player in a TV ad since Bruce "This is it, this is it!" Smith in those Logo Athletic Bingo-themed spots from the mid-1990s. Please just allow me to apologize to Aaron in advance for a shameful attempt to kick off another Manning vs. Brady thread.
Shameful is a good word to describe the effort of the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. Poor Terry Robiskie. An NFL lifer, Robiskie has had two shots at a head-coaching position -- interim gigs with Washington in 2000 and Cleveland this year. In both cases, he assumed the head of a team that had absolutely quit on the season. How else do you explain the Browns, who should have been right at home in the snowy, windy, freezing cold conditions, looking like they couldn't wait to get inside while the Chargers from sunny San Diego looked right at home? It used to be the ultimate in lead-pipe locks when you saw a warm-weather or dome team playing outdoors in the cold and snow, but Sunday saw San Diego have no trouble with the Browns, Houston take apart Chicago and Jacksonville win at Green Bay, all in games played in bitterly cold conditions.
Freezing as he was, Marty Schottenheimer had to take some extra pleasure in the win over Cleveland. Not only did his Chargers clinch an improbable AFC West title, but they did it against one of Schottenheimer's former teams and they did it by playing vintage "Marty Ball." The Chargers attempted only six passes in the 21-0 win, one of which was a deep ball from Drew Brees to Antonio Gates for a 72-yard touchdown. Since it appeared the teams could have played about 17 quarters without the Browns scoring, Schottenheimer had no desire to put the ball up once his team got a lead. And why bother? Not when his tailbacks looked right at home in the miserable conditions, grinding out 175 yards on 44 carries. There was another advantage to the game plan -- it kep the clock moving and sped up the game -- helping everyone get back inside as soon as possible.
As for the other warm weather teams to win in the cold, Houston and Jacksonville, those results speak more to the dominance of the AFC over the NFC than anything else. Green Bay, which still clinched a playoff spot despite the loss to the Jaguars, finished 1-3 against the AFC this season, with two of the losses coming at home. For Jacksonville, which remained alive for a wild card berth, this win is one they can look back upon as they build their team, whether or not it results in a playoff spot this season.
As for the woeful NFC, it's a sorry state of affairs. Philadelphia and Atlanta have clinched the first and second seeds (and first-round byes), respectively, giving both teams absolutely nothing to play for in the season's final two weeks. That can be a thorny situation for coaches, who must strike a balance between keeping their teams sharp and resting their players for the postseason. Philadelphia, which has lost three straight NFC Championship Games, is veteran team with plenty of playoff pedigree. Coach Andy Reid is not likely to risk injuring his starters by playing them the entire game the last two weeks. And given that Reid saw his biggest offensive threat, Terrell Owens, limp off the field Sunday with a potentially serious ankle injury, he's got to be thrilled that Owens will have nearly a full month to rest the injury if need be before the Eagles play another meaningful game in the Divisional round of the playoffs.
Owens' injury, if it takes him out of the playoffs, could become the answer to the question "how will the Eagles manage to miss the Super Bowl this season?" Owens is the engine that makes the Philadelphia offense go, and without him, the Eagles become the same team that posed no downfield threat against St. Louis, Tampa Bay, and Carolina in those NFC title game defeats. The third receiver, former first-round pick Freddie Mitchell, didn't have a single catch against Dallas. As a result, all of Philadelphia is likely to be praying for Owens' ankle between now and mid-January.
Aside from the fortuitous timing, there's another silver lining in Owens' injury for Reid. If T.O. can't play in the final two games, he'll end the season with 14 touchdown catches, one short of the number that would require Reid to wear spandex tights to an Eagles practice to satisfy a preseason wager with his star wideout. In this holiday season of giving and reflection, I think we can all be thankful for that.
OK, I've waited long enough to talk about the Buccaneers, but I can't keep it bottled up any longer. Look, I know I'm still well within the Bill Simmons "five year exemption from complaining" that follows the Bucs' Super Bowl win in 2002, so I am decidedly not bitter. I am, however, convinced that someone in the organization actually did sell their soul to the Devil in exchange for that Super Bowl title.
In the 30 games since lifting the trophy in San Diego, the Bucs are 12-18. Of those 18 losses, 14 have been seven points or less and eight by four points or less. Of the 12 wins, only four have been by seven or fewer points, and the average margin of victory has been nearly 15 points. That means Tampa Bay has lost virtually every close game it has played the last two seasons. The law of averages suggests that Tampa Bay should have a few more wins than they do over that period. This season, the Bucs are one of just three teams (Carolina and Kansas City are the others) that have a losing record despite scoring more points than they've allowed.
Again, I'm not bitter. I'm not complaining. But as I try to convince my wife on a weekly basis as she listens to me grumble progressively louder while I watch Tampa Bay play, you'd have to admit that the Bucs have inflicted more suffering on their fans than the average team over the last two seasons. Maybe soul-selling is the only thing that finally got the team over the hump in 2002, and now the Bucs and their fans are paying for all eternity. If that's the case, I can still look back to January 26, 2003 and smile. A lifetime of 0-16 seasons can't change the memories of that day, spent sitting by my lonesome in the upper deck of Qualcomm Stadium, surrounded by an ocean on angry Raiders fans. It was a perfect storm of events and lucky breaks that allowed me to attend the game -- a miracle free ticket, a last-minute bargain airfare, a best friend living in L.A. who happened to know somebody who happened to own a vacant rental property in downtown San Diego. It was like it was meant to be. I should have known right then that there would be cosmic payback-aplenty to come. I think I'll pop in the Super Bowl DVD next Sunday at 4 p.m. rather than watch Carolina atTampa Bay. It might do me some good.
It was a rough all-around day on Sunday (see the Martz Award section for more on why that was the case). Not only did the Buccaneers choke away any reasonable hope of a playoff spot -- after getting all the help they needed from other teams, they managed to blow a 10-point lead at home to the Saints in the final five minutes -- but my fantasy team got bounced from the semifinals despite my second best scoring week of the entire season.
Not even Drew Bennett could save me this week, but that begs the question, who is Drew Bennett, and when did he turn into Randy Moss? It's been largely lost in the shuffle because the Titans are out of the playoff chase, but in the last three games, Bennett has hauled in 28 passes for 517 yards and eight touchdowns. And he's not just piling up garbage time numbers, either. Seven of the eight scores have come in the first half.
Bennett, a undrafted free agent from UCLA, is a huge (6-foot-5) target with incredible leaping ability and body control, allowing him to win most aerial battles for the ball. He's also faster than people think (and let's be honest, any time a Caucasian player is fast, people feel the need to make a note of it) and runs excellent routes. With the Titans out of the playoff picture and Steve McNair injured, Jeff Fisher has thrown caution to the wind and allowed Billy Volek to throw downfield with regularity, and the result is the development of Bennett into one of the NFL's most fearsome weapons.
It will be interesting to see how the Titans approach the passing game next season, whether or not McNair returns. Will they continue the mad bomber approach? Right now, they're the most entertaining team in the league, even if they're not winning.
Mike Martz Award
Sunday was not an enjoyable day of football viewing for me. Not only did I suffer with the Buccaneers as they collapsed, but I spent the afternoon nursing a sore hand thanks to a very Martzian decision on my part -- if I consider myself the "coach" of my two children, that is. Confronted with a son who was throwing a fit over the things that four-year-olds throw fits over (that is, nothing) I made the rookie mistake of picking him up in front of me. Any veteran dad knows that you always pick up the children to the side, for reasons that will become obvious. I wanted to explain why I was taking away his favorite book, but I got about two words out before one of those thrashing little four-year-old legs caught me square in the "lower abdominal region." To my credit, I at least put him down before reacting. I'm somewhat less proud that my reaction included a four-letter word and a confrontation between my right hand and the plaster wall (the wall won by TKO).
So, I suppose I'm a candidate for the Mike Martz award, but I can't take the honor because nobody's ever called me a parenting genius or wizard, nicknames that have been bestowed on the Martz winner: none other than Martz himself. Martz wins not for a single play-call in his team's embarrassing 31-7 loss at Arizona, but for its overall performance, and for the bevy of excuses he offered afterwards (again, by comparison, I accept full responsibility for the state of my right hand this morning).
Martz placed the blame on Chris Chandler, his 39-year old backup quarterback, who started in place of the injured Marc Bulger before being yanked in favor of Jamie Martin. "It's tragic for this football team, for [the quarterback] position to hold this whole football team hostage, but that's where we are," Martz said after the game. It's tragic? Isn't Martz the offensive guru who's responsible for the quarterbacks? Isn't he the de facto GM who signed the over-the-hill and frequently concussed Chandler to be his backup in the first place? The only tragedy here is the failure of Martz to accept responsibility for the mess he's created in St. Louis.
Martz is holding his own award hostage. Does he know how much harder it's going to be for me to pick a weekly winner if he gets fired after the season?
Seventh Day Adventure update
Our college picks column will return with the first of two bowl editions on Thursday. Until then, Vin and I will continue to pick the early bowl games. I'll take Syracuse (+5) over Georgia Tech in the Champs Sports Bowl on Tuesday and Bowling Green -4 over Memphis in the GMAC Bowl on Wednesday. Vinny goes with Georgia Tech and Memphis.