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22 Dec 2003

Confessions of a Football Junkie: Blinded by Glaring Flaws

by Russell Levine

I'm disappointed to see that the AFC playoff situation is pretty much wrapped up after Week 16, with five of six spots already clinched (Either Baltimore, the current leader, or Cincinnati will win the North for the final spot). Because of that, we're unlikely to see the type of thrilling finish of last season, when Miami, New England and the Jets were vying for a single spot on the season's final day. But it does give me a chance to get an early start on breaking down the AFC field.

It's often said that the salary cap and free agency have robbed the NFL of its dominant teams, so perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that the six AFC playoff teams all have glaring flaws. Let's take a look at the contenders, in their current order of seeding (I'm going to assume Baltimore wins the North):

1) New England (13-2)

Flaw: While the Patriots appear to have the best all-around team in the NFL, they struggle to run the ball, ranking 27th in yards-per-game. Until the Buccaneers proved otherwise last year, a bottom-tier running game was thought to be a death-knell for a team's playoff chances.

Playoff outlook: The Pats may not be the most effective rushing teams in the league, but Bill Belichick remains committed to the run. He's one of the coaches who understand that it's the attempt to run that matters as much as the output, so even though they only average 3.4 yards-per-rush, that Pats are 12th in the NFL in rushing attempts. Continuing to hammer backs into the line for a yard or two keeps the heat off the QB by wearing down defensive linemen, which can open up things in the passing game. So the next time your favorite team keeps plugging away with a seemingly ineffective rushing attack, don't grumble, applaud instead. This approach helped deliver a Super Bowl for the Buccaneers last season and it may do the same for the Pats this year.

2) Kansas City (12-3)

Flaw: Ghastly defense. The Chiefs were not a playoff team last year because their defense was every bit as bad as their offense was good. So they went out and signed a bunch of free agents on the defensive side of the ball and got off to a 9-0 start that had everyone raving about their remade D. In reality, it was the heroics of kick returner Dante Hall that turned some early losses into wins and masked the fact that the Chiefs' D was still awful. The Chiefs are 3-3 in their last six games and have been lit up by the Bengals, Broncos and Vikings. Their defense is ranked 30th overall, dead last in the NFL against the run.

Playoff outlook: In a word, dim. Indianapolis' loss to Denver in the Sunday-nighter may have prevented the Chiefs from giving away their first-round bye, but I don't trust this team in the playoffs, not with that defense. They could be looking at a divisional-round home game against Indianapolis, which has its own defensive questions, and even with the contest at Arrowhead, I'll take my chances that Manning, Harrison et al could score enough to win.

3) Indianapolis (11-4)

Flaw: The Colts are a Jekyll-and-Hyde defense, at times dominant and at times porous. I'm willing to give them a mulligan for the Sunday-night loss to Denver. The Colts were playing for playoff positioning and the Broncos were playing for their playoff lives. Big advantage to Denver. Even so, it's a little disconcerting that the D handed Indy a quick 7-0 lead with a Gary Brackett interception return, whipping the home crowd into a frenzy, then proceeded to give up nearly 200 yards rushing to Quentin Griffin and Mike "I didn't inhale" Anderson. The Colts' defense has improved by leaps and bounds in the two years since Tony Dungy took over, but they have a way to go yet before they reach championship form. Dungy believes in speed and tackling ability above all things, and it will take him another offseason to get enough of his kind of players in the lineup. But the flashes are there -- did you see Gary Brackett's 31-yard return on the third play? Brackett, a linebacker, is exactly the type of player Dungy loves -- undersized (5-foot-10, 235 pounds) and fast. After making a great recognition play for the interception, he took off for the end zone as if shot out of a cannon.

Playoff outlook: Clearly, losing the potential first-round bye is problematic. If they can hang on to win the AFC South, the Colts are probably looking at a return date with Denver (and a healthy Clinton Portis) in the first round. In short, a tall order for the Colts, although playoff rematches have a funny way of not following form of the regular-season meetings. If they can get a better defensive effort, the Colts can beat the Broncos and potentially the Chiefs in the divisional round. Could they win at New England and get to the Super Bowl? Doubtful.

4) Baltimore (9-6)

Flaw: Huge question mark at QB. Brian Billick deserves a ton of praise for having his team in position to win its division just two years after a major salary-cap purge. But can the Ravens expect to win in January with Anthony Wright under center? True, Wright has done some nice things since taking over for the injured Kyle Boller and ineffective Chris Redman, but he's completely untested in a playoff-type atmosphere.

Playoff outlook: The Ravens certainly have the defense to win, and Jamal Lewis will give them a puncher's chance on offense, but would you want Anthony Wright taking snaps in the 4th quarter, down seven points, on third-and-11? Me neither.

5) Tennessee (11-4)

Flaw: The Titans are another team that struggles to run the ball -- their 3.3 yards-per-carry average is the worst in the NFL. But Jeff Fisher, like Bill Belichick, knows the value of the attempt. Tennessee is 11th with 30.1 rushing attempts per game, so they don't give up on the run even when it's not effective.

Playoff outlook: The Titans and Patriots are the only two teams in the AFC picture with any playoff pedigree, so the experience should serve them well. They could still win the AFC South over the Colts and pick up the third seed, but the fifth seed and a road date at Baltimore may be preferable to a home game with peaking Denver. If I'm an AFC coach, the Titans are probably the opponent I'd least like to see with the ball, trailing by seven, with two minutes to go. Steve McNair has broken the hearts of too many teams for anyone to be comfortable in that situation.

6) Denver (10-5)

Flaw: Their seed. The Broncos struggled badly when Jake Plummer was out for a month, and it will most likely force them to play all their playoff games on the road.

Playoff outlook: To me, Denver may be the most intriguing team in the AFC derby. Statistically, they're strong on both sides of the ball. Plummer is a guy who doesn't always have the best numbers, but he seems to be figuring out that he doesn't have to take a lot of chances to win. His completion percentage (62.6) is way up over his career average and his interceptions are way down, which tells me that he is playing very smart football. For the first time in his career, he's surrounded by plenty of talent, and he's learning that he doesn't have to try and force balls into coverage to help his team win. Denver is definitely not going to be an easy out in the playoffs, especially if Portis is healthy.

There you have it, six teams, all with questions marks. Will we see Denver at New England in a month's time for the AFC title? Stay tuned.

* * *

It's gotta be the hair, or the cameras: No doubt you have seen shots of the new 'do Randy Moss unveiled for Saturday's game against the Chiefs. Moss undid his usual braids and let a huge Afro hang out of his helmet. He responded with an outstanding game -- 111 yards and two scores on seven receptions. Coach Mike Tice attributed the performance to the new coif. "I knew he was going to play well as soon as I saw the hairdo," Tice said.

But QB Daunte Culpepper offered a different, and much more insightful, reason for Moss' big day. "In a nationally televised game, he is focused," Culpepper said. "He has that look in his eyes. It's something special. I wish he could be like that all the time, but it's tough to get up like that every week."

It's really telling to have a quarterback basically admit the team's best player only really tries hard when the spotlight is brightest, and to have that remark barely raise an eyebrow. The idea that Moss takes plays off has been beaten to death in recent years, but to hear his teammates admit it is still something of a shock. Good news for Minnesota: If the Vikes make the playoffs, every game is on national TV.

* * *

Sometimes in the NFL, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. When the Bucs found themselves in desperate need of an onside-kick recovery against the Falcons Saturday, they used a play that had worked against them three weeks ago.

Late in the first half of a Week 13 loss the Jacksonville, the Jaguars lined up to kick off and attempted a squib kick down the middle. Only the kick inadvertently hit one of Tampa Bay's up men and was recovered by Jacksonville.

Fast forward to Saturday. The Bucs' first attempt at an onsides kick was of the more traditional variety and was recovered by the Falcons. Later in the fourth quarter, after Tampa Bay had scored to get within eight points, they broke from their kickoff huddle, sprinted to the line and had Martin Gramatica try to line the kick off an Atlanta player -- which is exactly what happened. Tampa Bay recovered and scored again, but after a failed two-point conversion, needed yet another onsides-kick to have a chance to win.

This time, the Bucs outsmarted themselves, as Gramatica's pooch kick traveled nearly 30 yards downfield and was easily fielded by the Falcons, ending the game and eliminating Tampa Bay from the playoffs.

* * *

Did anyone have a worse night that Joe Namath on Saturday? During ESPN's telecast of Jets-Patriots, Namath twice told sideline reporter Suzy Kolber "I want to kiss you" when asked about the Jets struggles.

Then again, perhaps ESPN is lucky that Namath made such a fool of himself. Without that incident, the talk coming out of the game might have been about the network's nauseating self-promotion and celebration of its 200th NFL telecast. Who cares? Sure it was a landmark achievement for ESPN to land NFL rights, but it was not, as halftime guest Roy Firestone suggested, a watershed moment in the history of television or the NFL. All the retrospective of the first 199 telecasts accomplished was to make clear the fact that Mike Patrick has been a terrible NFL announcer for 17 years.

* * *

We're still a few days away from any of the meaningful college bowls being played, but I spent some time over the past few days watching what college football was available: the Division I-AA and Division III national championship games and the Miami (Ohio)-Louisville GMAC Bowl.

The main attraction of the GMAC Bowl was, of course, Miami QB Ben Roethlisberger. As expected, Roethlisberger, a junior, announced after the 376-yard, four-touchdown performance that he would enter the NFL draft. Roethlisberger could be a top-10 pick, and he certainly played like it in the 49-28 win over Louisville. He made all the throws, and showed excellent mobility for his size (6-foot-5, 242 pounds).

It wasn't Roethlisberger's heroics that caught my attention, however. It was how Miami coach Terry Hoeppner, with a comfortable lead, decided to get cute and nearly let Louisville back into the game. Hoeppner likes to use Roethlisberger to pooch-punt on fourth-down situations where Miami might otherwise go for it, the idea being to prevent a punt return. He's hardly alone in that strategy -- Belichick called for Tom Brady to execute a similar kick against the Dolphins in the snow a few weeks ago. But for the deception to work, it has to be believable that the team might actually go for the first down.

Leading 35-21 in the third quarter, Hoeppner called for a pooch kick on a 4th-and-9 play from the Louisville 45-yard line. Roethlisberger had already punted once in the game, and when he lined up about 10 yards deep for the shotgun snap on this play, it was obvious to everyone he intended to kick again. Louisville linemen came pouring in to block the kick, recovering in excellent field position. It didn't lead to a comeback, but it could have. There's a time and place for trick plays, but this was not it. I can't stand when coaches start thinking too much instead of just playing the game properly. It's especially inexcusable when you're playing with a lead.

I only watched the first half of the Division III national championship game between Mount Union and St. John's of Minnesota, but I saw one of the plays of the year in college football. Mount Union came into the game riding an NCAA-record 55-game winning streak and had won 109 of 110 overall. It had outplayed St. John's in the first half and led, 6-0, with time running out. At the Mount Union 14-yard line and with time for only one more play, the Johnnies called for a swing pass to tailback Jake Theis. Theis gathered in the pass around his own 20-yard line and broke three tackles, bowling over the final defender to reach the end zone as time expired. The play gave St. John's a 7-6 lead they never relinquished, going on to a 24-6 win. You could watch college football for a month and not see a better play in such a big spot.

Congratulations to the Michigan J.V., I mean the University of Delaware, for its Division I-AA championship. The Fighting Blue Hens, who wear uniforms nearly identical to the Wolverines, routed Colgate, 40-0, Friday night to win the title. It didn't hurt Delaware that it had five Division I-A transfers, including defensive end Shawn Johnson, who led the ACC in sacks last season at Duke. After graduating early, he enrolled in Delaware's graduate program for one semester so he could play another season of football. You'd think that of the 9,000-odd rules in the NCAA manual, that maneuver would be outlawed, but it isn't.

In other college football news, Michigan traveled to Southern California on December 20, a full 12 days before its January 1 Rose Bowl date against USC. I love Michigan football, and I'd love to see them win the game, but there's no way you can convince me a college team needs to arrive at its bowl site two weeks before the game. I'll keep this trip in mind the next time I get a solicitation from the athletic department bemoaning the state of its finances.

You can read an archive of Russell's columns from earlier in the season here; prior to last week the column appeared at FootballNetwork.com.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 22 Dec 2003