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13 Dec 2004

Confessions of a Football Junkie: Playoffs? Playoffs?

By Russell Levine

You'll have to forgive me if this week's column is a little bereft of ideas. I spent much of Sunday evening thinking of ways to, ahem, insult the Steelers in the hopes of generating some controversy around here. When that failed me, I turned to calculating the various ways my fantasy team can squeeze 41 points out of Larry Johnson, Drew Bennett, and Erron Kinney Monday night to advance in the playoffs.

Sad as that may be, it was still preferable to rehashing Tampa Bay's latest close-but-no-cigar loss, this one coming by seven points at San Diego. As I said to my wife while watching the game and muttering to myself, it's a good thing the Buccaneers actually did win the Super Bowl two seasons ago. It's the only thing that allows me to tolerate this edition of the team.

At 5-8, but still alive in the pitiful NFC wild card chase, Tampa Bay has been pretty much one play away from turning around seven of its eight losses. Only the Oakland game in Week 3 (much more of a rout than the 10-point margin of victory) breaks the trend of games that generally have been decided by seven points or less, with Tampa Bay following an all-to-predictable pattern of falling behind early, rallying a seizing momentum in the second half, then making some critical mistake to fall behind for good.

Sometimes the mistakes are obvious -- turnovers have doomed the Bucs in a number of games, including against San Diego, when a Brian Griese interception was returned for the winning score with 4:09 remaining in a tie game -- and other times the problems have been subtler. There's a particular quality that winning teams have, or more importantly that losing teams lack. Much like the Supreme Court's definition of obscenity, you can't define it, but you know it when you see it. For Tampa Bay it manifests itself in things like false starts on first-and-goal, burned timeouts after a long gain, and touchy penalty calls that always seem to crop up at the worst time. It almost appears at times as if the Bucs are allergic to prosperity and have a pathological need to make things difficult on themselves.

On the plus side, the Buccaneers haven't packed it in and continue to fight back from holes of their own making. But though they may still be alive for a postseason berth, it's difficult for me to imagine Tampa Bay putting enough mistake-free play together to win its final three games (vs. New Orleans, Carolina, and at Arizona) to remain in the playoff hunt.

You can't say the same thing about Carolina, which has shaken off an unbelievable run of injuries to key players to win five straight following a 1-7 start. If the season ended today -- if you're like me, you hate that phrase as much as any football cliche, so please accept my apology -- the Panthers would grab the final spot in the NFC. And as long as I'm making use of overused phrases, let me add that nobody wants to see Carolina in the playoffs right now.

The way things are headed, with the Broncos fading in the AFC playoff picture and Reuben Droughns losing carries to Tatum Bell, Carolina's Nick Goings looks like the running back find of the year. Goings was sixth on the depth chart at tailback in training camp, but his heroics -- four straight 100-yard games -- have done as much to spark Carolina's turnaround as anything.

Carolina has games remaining against at Atlanta, at Tampa Bay, and vs. New Orleans. Three more wins will garner the Panthers an unlikely return to the post season and should win coach of the year honors for John Fox.

Will they get there? That remains to be seen. Since you're likely to read about 6,000 stories about NFC playoff scenarios the next three weeks, here's my take: Philadelphia and Atlanta will have the first-round byes. Seattle will finish 9-7 (losing at the Jets and beating Arizona and Atlanta at home) to win the West. Either Green Bay or Minnesota will win the North and the other will take a wild card spot as the fifth seed.

As mentioned, Carolina controls its own destiny for the sixth spot, but must beat Atlanta and Tampa Bay on the road the next two weeks. As well as the Panthers have been playing, that's still a tall order. The schedule may give Tampa Bay an edge, as it has the weakest remaining slate of the NFC contenders. The combined winning percentage of the Buccaneers' remaining opponents is .385. That figure is much higher for the teams Tampa Bay must pass in the standings, currently Carolina (.513) and St. Louis (.641).

As much as I'd love to pencil in the Buccaneers for the final spot, I just can't see them putting a run together to pull it off. They'll probably win two of three to finish 7-9, while Carolina will also go 2-1 down the stretch to grab the last spot at 8-8. St. Louis is in trouble with its remaining games at Arizona, and against Philadelphia and the Jets. Even if any of the other 5-8 NFC teams (Dallas, Detroit, Chicago, N.Y. Giants and New Orleans) could win out, they'd likely fall to Carolina on a tiebreaker.

If I'm wrong about the Vikings, and they miss the playoffs with a second-straight late-season collapse, coach Mike Tice can pretty well assume he won't be back for another try. In fact, Tice may be gone whether the team makes the playoffs or not, and Sunday's home loss to Seattle my have sealed his fate. Tice doesn't call the offensive plays for the Vikings -- that duty is handled by offensive coordinator Scott Linehan -- but Tice should have overruled Linehan's call for a end-around pass by Randy Moss with the Vikings trailing by four and just over two minutes remaining. Moss threw recklessly into double coverage, and the ball was intercepted, ending Minnesota's best chance to win the game.

It is often said that the NFL is a copycat league, and the Vikings certainly would have better off had they been paying attention when the Jets called for a halfback pass by Lamont Jordan against Baltimore in Week 10. The Jets' call was far more forgivable -- it was late in the first half, not the second, and they were already holding a 10-point lead. Though the interception of Jordan's toss -- also thrown recklessly into double coverage -- turned around a game that Baltimore eventually won in overtime, it's at least a justifiable play call in that scenario.

The Vikings can offer no such defense. In Daunte Culpepper, they have one of the league's better quarterbacks, and in Moss, probably its best receiver. It's true that Culpepper has struggled since Moss' hamstring injury in Week 6, and that Moss in not yet 100%, but he's still better than anyone else the Vikings have catching the ball, especially in the red zone. Moss threw a ball to Marcus Robinson that Robinson had virtually zero chance of catching. After the game, Culpepper said he hoped Moss was seeing something different than what he saw on the play -- double coverage. Moss did see something different -- he was throwing the ball with the mindset of Randy Moss, the receiver, a man who doesn't really need to be open to be open, especially in the end zone, because of his remarkable leaping ability and body control. How many times have you seen Culpepper loft a ball towards Moss in the end zone on a play where Moss appears to be blanketed by the coverage, only to have No. 84 come down with it?

Announcers can preach all day about how every receiver or running back is taught on the option pass to throw the ball away if the play is not wide open. But there isn't a receiver alive who doesn't truly believe that he's always open, and some, like Moss, are actually close to justified in that belief. That mindset is all the more reason no coach in his right mind would want an all-pro receiver decided whether another receiver is open on a critical play. In case you were wondering, Tice does indeed win the Mike Martz Award for that play call. If you're keeping score at home, that's Tice's second such honor this season.

Tice was probably wise when he let it be known last week that he was interested in the head-coaching job at the University of Washington (a spot that was filled by Tyrone Willingham on Monday). Tice has hardly received a vote of confidence from mercurial Minnesota owner Red McCombs, who has kept him the lowest paid coach in the league.

My anti-Martz move of the week goes to Eagles coach Andy Reid, for the way he reached out to his receiver, Todd Pinkston, in the Sunday night game against Washington. On Philadelphia's first series of the game, Pinkston short-armed a deep ball from Donovan McNabb worse than any player I've ever seen in college or pro. With the safety bearing down, Pinkston simply gave up on the pass, not even reaching out to try and catch it (after the game, he explained that he lost it in the lights; I respectfully disagree). That type of play, in which the receiver's courage comes into question, could have finished Pinkston with the Eagles. Many coaches would have pulled him from the game and sat him on the bench. But Reid, who knows he needs Pinkston to add a vertical threat opposite Terrell Owens, came back to Pinkston with the same play later in the quarter and the result was a fingertip catch and an 80-yard gain. Because of the second play, Pinkston probably took a little ribbing in the Eagles' film review on Monday. Without it, he might have been hiding under the desk or even cleaning out his locker.

* * *

The college-coaching carousel is really spinning at full speed now that Washington has tabbed Willingham and Notre Dame has given Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis a six-year deal to turn around the Irish fortunes. As much praise as Weis has received for his creative offense in New England, it's a somewhat strange move for a man that has known nothing but the pro game for the last 15 seasons.

My guess is that Weis' acceptance of the Notre Dame job may say more about his difficulty finding an NFL head job -- which was likely to continue for another year because the Pats appear primed for another long playoff run -- than it does about his desire to coach the Irish.

Certainly, there are some things about the way the Patriots have been run -- the emphasis on players that fit their system and their character ideals -- that could translate very well to recruiting at a place like Notre Dame. But if Weis is successful in South Bend, you have to think that will put him back on the radar screens of NFL teams, and it's hard to imagine a guy that has been covetous of an NFL head coaching job turning one down if it is offered in the next few seasons.

* * *

Signs you're watching a bad NFL game, number 425: When one of the announcers was coaching an NFL team less than a month ago. That was the case when I tuned into the end of the Arizona-San Francisco matchup on Sunday only to recognize the Pittsburgh accent of one Dave Wannstedt doing the color commentary. Those "one market" games (49ers-Cardinals was most likely broadcast only to the San Francisco Bay area) can be worth a watch/listen just to hear who turns up in the booth. I'll never forget channel surfing through Sunday Ticket in about 1999 and hearing a man with a heavy British accent calling a Falcons-Panthers game alongside Kevin Greene (and his heavy Southern accent). I'm still not sure I've fully recovered from that one.

As far as Wannstedt is concerned, I don't think he'll be moving to the booth full-time just yet (though he wasn't half bad in that role on Sunday). With University of Pittsburgh coach Walt Harris moving on to Stanford -- to replace the fired Buddy Teevens, who replaced Willingham when he went to Notre Dame, who ... well, you get the picture -- Wannstedt, who played and coached at Pitt before moving on the NFL, is a logical fit to fill the Panthers' vacancy.

* * *

If you missed Seventh Day Adventure last Thursday, Vinny and I are on hiatus for another week until the bowl season really gears up. But since we're going to predict every bowl game, Vinny takes Southern Miss (-4.5) in the New Orleans Bowl on Tuesday night and I'll take North Texas and the points.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 13 Dec 2004