by Aaron Schatz
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (6-0) at DENVER BRONCOS (5-1)
The Indianapolis Colts offense is as potent as always. The Denver Broncos have allowed just 7.3 points per game, the lowest in the league. The winner of this battle of strengths will move into the driver's seat in the AFC playoff race.
The Broncos are 1-4 against Indianapolis since 2001; watch this game, and you'll hear a lot about the Colts knocking the Broncos out of the playoffs in both 2003 and 2004. When the Colts exposed the Denver secondary by knocking them out of the 2003 playoffs with a 41-10 victory, the Broncos traded star running back Clinton Portis for Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey. The next year, the Colts knocked Denver out of the playoffs again, 49-24, simply passing to whichever receivers were not covered by Bailey. Again, Denver tried to fill holes exposed by the Colts, drafting three cornerbacks in the second and third rounds of the 2005 draft.
As a result, the Broncos may now have the deepest secondary in the league. Combine that with a strong set of linebackers, and you have one of the best defenses in the league. Denver has only allowed two offensive touchdowns in six games, both late in games where the Broncos had a comfortable lead.
But there are reasons to believe that Denver's defense is not quite juggernaut it seems to be. The Broncos have been stingy with points, but not necessarily with yardage. Opponents average 23.7 yards per drive, which ranks the Broncos sixth in the league. The defense has enjoyed an easy schedule; the last three opponents were Baltimore, Oakland, and Cleveland, three of the five worst offenses in the league in yards per play. It's also harder to score when you don't get the ball very often, and Denver has faced just 65 offensive drives this year, the third fewest in the league.
|Top Red Zone Defense DVOA, 1997-2006|
Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average ratings (DVOA) â€“ which break down each play of the season and compare it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent â€“ rank Denver as the top red-zone defense in the league. In fact, DVOA ranks Denver as the top red-zone defense since 1997, the first year for which we have play-by-play breakdowns. Never in that time has there been a team with a larger gap between overall defense and red-zone defense. Denver's red-zone defense is certainly going to be strong all year, but this current level of play is simply unsustainable.
Ironically, the Colts may not present the best test of Denver's historic red zone supremacy. On the other 80 yards of the field, the Colts have a DVOA twice as high as any other offense in the league. But this year, they have been just an average offense once they pass the 20-yard line. Peyton Manning's play-fakes become much less dangerous without the threat of the deep pass, and the Colts' running game tends to stall out as it gets closer to the goal line. Part of the problem is too many carries for veteran Dominic Rhodes (3.3 yards per carry) and not enough for rookie Joseph Addai (5.1 yards per carry).
The Colts may not be able to match Denver's strength in the red zone, but they will match Denver's other strength: third downs. The Broncos are the best defense in the league on third downs, but the Colts are the best offense in the league on third downs, and by a huge margin. The Colts have converted 57 percent of third-down opportunities, with no other offense higher than 47 percent. Denver, meanwhile, has allowed conversions on just 28 percent of third downs. (Chicago is the top third-down defense by NFL stats, but Denver is higher in DVOA because Chicago often gives up significant field position on third-and-long without allowing a first down.)
The problem for Denver is less the Colts offense, and more their own. The Broncos have yet to win a game by more than 10 points because their offense has been nearly as anemic as their defense has been powerful. The running game is fine, with Tatum Bell averaging 4.7 yards per carry and finally establishing himself as the starter after sharing time for two seasons. Quarterback Jake Plummer, on the other hand, has been awful.
When Plummer started the season slowly, it seemed like a normal slump, the kind every athlete endures. But six weeks into the season, nothing has turned around. Plummer has a completion percentage of just 52 percent, far below his 61 percent from last season. In fact, it is the lowest completion percentage of his career, lower than even 1999 when he had one of the ten worst quarterback seasons of all time. His average of 5.8 yards per attempt is more than a yard below any season since he came to Denver in 2003, and he's already thrown as many interceptions as he did last year (seven).
Plummer's problems are exacerbated by a struggling group of receivers. The only one having a good season is Javon Walker, acquired in the off-season from Green Bay. In particular, veteran Rod Smith seems to finally be slowing down at the age of 36. Walker has been thrown just five more passes than Smith, but he has seven more catches and 290 more yards. Denver has never relied on more than two wide receivers, and this year is no different; David Kircus is third on the team with just 62 yards. Tight ends, usually a big weapon in Denver, are also a problem. Veteran Stephen Alexander hasn't been good for years, and rookie Tony Scheffler has caught just two of the 13 passes thrown to him.
The Colts defense could be just what the doctor ordered for the struggling Denver offense. Last year's defensive improvement in Indianapolis has disappeared, as the Colts rank 22nd in pass defense and 29th in run defense according to DVOA. The center of that run defense got a lot stronger last week when the Colts dealt a second-round pick to Tampa Bay for nose tackle Anthony "Booger" McFarland, but he was forced into the starting lineup immediately when a car accident knocked out tackle Montae Reagor. The Colts are also banged up in the secondary, where safety Bob Sanders has missed four games after arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, and his backup, Mike Doss, was just placed on injured reserve.
The Broncos don't have as many injuries as the Colts, but they have one very big injury that stands out. Left tackle Matt Lepsis is the heart of the Denver offensive line, starting every game but one since 1999. Last week, a torn ACL ended his season, and the possible replacements are not promising. Lining up against Colts' right end Dwight Freeney, one of the top pass-rushers in the game, will be rookie Erik Pears, current right guard Cooper Carlisle, or veteran Adam Meadows, who hasn't played a game since 2003.
All these storylines add up to two evenly matched teams and the best game of the NFL season so far. The Broncos will probably set season highs for points scored and points allowed on Sunday, but it's impossible to guess which of those numbers will end up higher.
Eagles Will Regret Mental Blunders If They Miss Playoffs
by Michael David Smith
With eight seconds remaining in the first half of Sunday's loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Philadelphia Eagles had the ball at the six-yard line. Coach Andy Reid could have opted for an easy field goal, but he decided to try one more play, even though his team was out of timeouts.
Big mistake. Tight end L.J. Smith caught quarterback Donovan McNabb's pass, but he was tackled before he could score or get out of bounds, and as the last seconds of the first half ticked off the clock, the Eagles missed out on three points. They lost 23â€“21. One play never defines a season, especially if that play is a four-yard gain in the second quarter of the seventh game of the year. But for the Eagles, that play was the latest in a string of errors that have contributed to their 4â€“3 record -- even though they're good enough to be 7â€“0.
The Eagles' failure to conserve timeouts also stung them in the previous week's 27â€“24 loss to the New Orleans Saints. The teams were tied with two minutes left, and the Saints had the ball in field goal range. The Eagles had wasted their timeouts, so the Saints kneeled on the ball three straight times, running all but three seconds off the clock before the game-winning kick.
In that game, Saints coach Sean Payton showed better clock-management strategy than Reid. When New Orleans faced thirdand-1 with 2:17 left in the game and the score tied, running back Deuce McAllister gained five yards. Once McAllister had picked up the first down, the Eagles would have been better off allowing him to run into the end zone so the Saints' score would come with enough time for the Eagles to come back. By tackling McAllister after the first down, the Eagles gave the Saints three free plays to run out the clock. Although allowing an opponent to score a touchdown seems anathema to any football player, coaches need to understand that there are rare circumstances when that's what they need to instruct their players to do.
Reid said after the game that he didn't think of allowing the Saints to score until after McAllister picked up that gameclinching first down. He also said the Eagles used their timeouts early because they had trouble calling plays in noisy opponents' stadiums and had to avoid delay-of-game penalties. But smart coaches plan ahead for crowd noise. Reid and Philadelphia offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg also need to understand that the pass to Smith before halftime against Tampa Bay was a terrible call â€” in that situation a team should only call a pass that is certain to either score a touchdown or stop the clock with an incompletion.
Reid is a good coach, but the blame for clock-management mistakes falls squarely on his shoulders. Reid has a history of clock-management blunders dating to the Super Bowl two years ago, when the Eagles engaged in a slow, methodical fourth-quarter drive that took almost four minutes off the clock as they tried to come back from a 10-point deficit against the New England Patriots. Although the Eagles did score a touchdown and force the Patriots to punt on the next possession, by the time they got the ball back, they had just 46 seconds, and they lost, 24â€“21.
Reid shouldn't shoulder all the blame for the Eagles' three losses this season. In their loss to the Giants, a 24â€“7 lead turned into a 30â€“24 overtime loss thanks in large part to a fumble by running back Brian Westbrook and a personal foul on defensive end Trent Cole. The players -- not the coach -- deserve the blame for those mistakes. And the Eagles have had bad luck on everything from opponents making long field goals to fumbles bouncing the wrong way.
Despite all this, the Eagles, who host the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday, still have a good chance of making the playoffs. But in the important battle for homefield advantage, seven teams in the NFC currently have better records. If the Eagles fall short of getting the home-field edge, and then lose in the playoffs on an opponent's turf, they'll look back at a few mental mistakes and wonder what could have been.
These articles appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun.