by Aaron Schatz
While Philadelphia and Atlanta are assured of spots in the postseason, the rest of the NFC playoff picture features a scrum between 10 teams with five to seven wins. Each of these teams will try to emerge from the pack this weekend, and no game has more playoff implications that the matchup between the fading Rams and the resurgent Panthers.
ST. LOUIS (6-6) at CAROLINA (5-7)
On the surface, this is a simple pairing of two out of the many mediocre teams now vying for a playoff spot in the NFC. A deeper look at each team's performance indicates that this game is a colossal mismatch in favor of Carolina.
According to Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) ratings -- which break down each play of the season and compare it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent -- Carolina has been the 13th best team in the NFL this season. This doesn't sound impressive until you consider that 10 of the top 11 teams in the ratings are from the AFC. Despite a losing record, Carolina has played better than all but two other teams in its conference.
The Panthers are riding a four-game winning streak because they've improved both passing the ball and defending the pass. Quarterback Jake Delhomme is making better reads and throwing fewer turnovers. While rookie wide receivers often struggle, Keary Colbert has made a number of pressure catches, while Mushin Muhammad uses size, speed, and experience to get open one-on-one. The defense is led by Julius Peppers, NFC Defensive Player of the Month for November, who gives quarterbacks fits both as a rushing down lineman and dropping into coverage.
The Rams are getting all the lucky bounces that the Panthers aren't, and their 6-6 record is the product of geography instead of performance. The Rams are 5-0 against their feeble rivals in the NFC West but 1-6 against the rest of the NFL, outscored in those games 236-140. DVOA rates both their defense and special teams as the worst in the NFL.
The legendary Rams offense, which had been keeping the team afloat, is now struggling as well. The Rams have scored less than 20 points for four straight games, and an injury to Marc Bulger means the quarterback duties fall to 40-year-old Chris Chandler. Running backs Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson are both hobbled by bruised knees, so third-stringer Arlen Harris is expected to start. The offensive line is in disarray, and the benching of right tackle Grant Williams means that backup lineman Blaine Saipaia, in only his second NFL start, will have to line up against Peppers.
Anything can happen in the NFL, and often it does, but expect both teams to be 6-7 at day's end.
TAMPA BAY (5-7) at SAN DIEGO (9-3)
Tampa owns the ignoble distinction of being that one non-division opponent beaten by St. Louis. The loss was just one game in a pattern that has plagued the Bucaneers since they won the Super Bowl two years ago, mixing dominant wins with close losses. When it seems time to give up on the Bucs' season, they win big, and when it seems that the Bucs have finally turned things around, they lose.
Tampa is back on an upswing after last week's 27-0 humiliation of 9-3 Atlanta, so beating another 9-3 team is certainly not out of the question. Unfortunately for Tampa, San Diego is a much better team than Atlanta, and not one that the Buccaneers match up with very well.
In general, Tampa's strong defense should slow down Drew Brees and the Chargers' passing attack. But stopping San Diego means stopping Antonio Gates, and unlike last week's opponents the Broncos, the Buccaneers do not have a particularly strong record against tight ends. Though they kept Atlanta's Alge Crumpler to a single catch last week, he totaled 118 yards in their first meeting, and Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez rang up 123 yards against the Bucs. San Diego's other star, running back LaDainian Tomlinson, seems to be coming around from early groin injuries, and Tampa's run defense is only average.
Tampa has been much better on the offensive side of the ball since Brian Griese took over as quarterback eight weeks ago, but Griese faces a surprising San Diego defense that has been as good as the offense, just less publicized. When Denver shut down the Chargers' offense last week, the defense rose to the occasion and won the game by picking off Jake Plummer four times. San Diego also has a strong pass rush that should be able to get to the oft-sacked Griese. But they also have some injuries in the secondary, and if the Chargers try blitzing Griese may have some openings he can exploit.
CHICAGO (5-7) at JACKSONVILLE (6-6)
When they began the season with three straight wins, it looked like the Jaguars would be 2004's out-of-nowhere success story. Now, with three straight losses, they are on the verge of falling out of the playoff picture.
The AFC has been so strong this season that Jacksonville ranks behind 10 other AFC teams in total performance as measured by DVOA , despite fielding an average offense and average defense. But they are still far ahead of the Bears: DVOA ranks Chicago as the worst of the six 5-7 teams still in the NFC playoff race. The reason is very clear: their offense has been the league's worst, below even the wretched Miami Dolphins.
But now the Bears have hope. Last week's 213-yard, three touchdown performance by Chad Hutchinson has Chicago fans thinking they have finally found a quarterback for the first time since Rex Grossman went down to injury in Week 3. The excitement should be tempered by the fact that Hutchinson's big game came against the porous Minnesota secondary; after adjusting for that fact, his performance was just average. Nonetheless, Chicago's previous two passers, Jonathan Quinn and Craig Krenzel, were the two least valuable quarterbacks of 2004, and an average passing game is all the Bears need to win a field position battle with their top ten defense and special teams.
Which leaves this question: Who is the real Chad Hutchinson? Is he a league-average quarterback who can manage the game and let the Bears defense win for him? Or was last week an aberration, and the real Hutchinson is the quarterback waived by Dallas after barely completing half his passes in 2002 with more interceptions than touchdowns?
Jacksonville will try to bring the latter Hutchinson out with a heavy pass rush from lineman Marcus Stroud and linebacker Mike Peterson. Don't be fooled by Jacksonville's low sack total of 24, the result of a schedule filled with strong offensive lines; adjust for opponent, and Jacksonville ranks fifth in the NFL in sacks per pass play. Chicago has allowed the most sacks in the league, and even Hutchinson's strong performance last week included five Minnesota sacks.
Jacksonville quarterback Byron Leftwich has pulled victory from the jaws of defeat with numerous late-game comebacks this season. But last week Pittsburgh responded to Leftwich's fourth quarter drive with a last-minute game-winning drive of their own. Now Leftwich must engineer a different kind of fourth quarter comeback -- one where Jacksonville rebounds to make the playoffs. Hutchinson has the same dream, and both quarterbacks must win this game for that dream to continue.
This article originally appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun. For those wondering, I did not preview the Seattle-Minnesota game for the Sun because I had already written a lengthy column about Seattle the previous week.
As a bonus, here is Tuesday's column from the New York Sun. Some of the facts in this column may be repeated in the game previews above. Please note that it was written on Monday with an expectation that Seattle would beat the Cowboys and cement their lead in the NFC West. Seattle decided to continue its implosion instead.
Slow Starters Turn Things Around
Every year, a handful of NFL teams begin the year on the wrong foot, only to hear commentators deliver the numbers on how unlikely it will be for them to turn things around. This year, however, it seems nobody was listening.
Only eight teams in NFL history have made the playoffs after beginning the season 1-4. But that number will surely rise once the 2004 season is in the books. Thanks in part to the mediocrity of the NFC, six different NFL teams are currently in playoff contention despite starting 1-4 or worse. Green Bay (7-5) and Cincinnati (6-6) began 1-4. Chicago (5-7), Tampa Bay (5-7), and Buffalo (6-6) began 1-5. And Carolina (5-7) has won four straight since a 1-7 start to make the most stunning climb back into the postseason picture.
Carolina's turnaround is notable not only because the hole they're climbing out of is so deep, but also because injuries have altered the roster to the point that it barely resembles last year's NFC championship squad. Carolina has lost last season's top receiver, Steve Smith, top two running backs, Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster, and its most important defensive player, Kris Jenkins. But new players have ably stepped forward to fill their roles, including rookie receiver Keary Colbert and fullback-turned-halfback Nick Goings.
Frequently, when teams reverse a poor start, it is partly the effect of a schedule filled with strong opponents early and weaker ones late. That is certainly the case with the Panthers. Their first eight opponents have a combined record of 57-39. Their final eight opponents have a combined record of 38-58, and that includes a St. Louis team that is 1-6 outside its own division.
But in general, the league's resurgent teams are not simply playing as well as before but against weaker opponents. Instead, the midseason transformations of these teams are a valuable reminder that, contrary to old school wisdom, the pass is far more important than the run.
Carolina's Jake Delhomme, for example, averaged 5.8 yards per pass attempt and tossed 11 interceptions during the Panthers' 1-7 start. That has improved to 7.8 net yards per pass attempt with only two interceptions during their current four-game winning streak. Carson Palmer averaged 4.5 net yards per pass attempt during the Bengals' 1-4 start, but 7.1 net yards per pass attempt over their subsequent 5-2 run. His steady season-long improvement was certified on Sunday after he engineered a 17-point fourth-quarter comeback against the league's top defense in Baltimore.
Even more important than an improvement in passing the ball has been an improvement in stopping the pass. According to our DVOA ratings, five of these six teams have dramatically improved their pass defense since their poor starts, and each of them has had an above-average pass defense over the past eight weeks: Tampa (4th), Chicago (6th), Buffalo (8th), Carolina (14th), and Cincinnati (15th).
Ironically, the one team that has not seen its turnaround driven by improved pass defense is the team with the best chance of reaching the playoffs: the Packers. Donovan McNabb's effortless dissection of Green Bay's zone coverage during Sunday's humbling 47-17 debacle showed that the Packers' pass defense, though statistically improved from its 1-4 start, is still one of the worst in the NFL.
Improvement on the ground has to be a lot bigger than improvement through the air in order to have the same effect, but that's the story in Green Bay. Though five weeks, the Packers allowed 5.3 yards per carry, 29th in the NFL. Since Week 6, they've allowed just 3.8 yards per carry, good for sixth in the league. The Green Bay ground game has had a similar improvement on offense, climbing from 3.9 yards per carry over the first five weeks to 5.4 yards per carry in the eight weeks since.
As bad as they looked on Sunday, Green Bay still has the inside track on a playoff spot. At 7-5, they share the top of the NFC North with the Vikings, and whichever team does not win the division will probably qualify as the first wild card.
The battle for the second wild card comes down to whichever team finishes second in the NFC West, 6-6 Seattle or 6-6 St. Louis, and a series of teams that are currently 5-7. St. Louis may have beaten league doormat San Francisco this week, but it has lost its last four out-of-division games by an average of 21 points and finishes its schedule with Philadelphia and the Jets. Most likely, one of these 5-7 clubs will pass the Rams for the second wild card spot, and that team will probably be one that began the year 1-5 or worse.
Of the five teams at 5-7, the two playing the strongest football are also the two with the easiest remaining schedules. Carolina has two easier games, overrated St. Louis and New Orleans at home, and one difficult game, in Atlanta. Tampa Bay has two easier games, New Orleans at home and Arizona on the road, and one hard game, in San Diego. For the fourth game, on December 26, the two teams play in Tampa. The winner of that game will likely secure the second NFC wild card slot.
What about Buffalo and Cincinnati? This week's results put both teams surprisingly close to playoff position, tied with Jacksonville at 6-6 and only a game behind Denver and Baltimore. Remaining games in New England and Philadelphia probably mean the Bengals will have to satisfy themselves with hopeful thoughts of 2005. But a league-best special teams along with strong defense against both the run and the pass means Buffalo, which still gets to play San Francisco and reeling Cleveland, is definitely in the mix to join division rivals New England and New York in the postseason.
So two or even three of these teams might make the playoffs. But don't expect any of them to duplicate the legendary heroics of the 2001 Patriots, patron saints of slow-starting football teams. Those Patriots were the only team to ever start 1-3 and make the Super Bowl, let alone win it. Only two teams, the 2002 Titans and 1976 Steelers, ever made it to the conference championship after a 1-4 start. In the end, seasons that start slowly usually end fairly fast.