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19 Nov 2005

Game Previews: TB-ATL, IND-CIN

by Aaron Schatz

In the NFL, multiple teams will finish the year with the same record. So every game between winning teams in the same conference presents a chance not only for a win but for advantage in the league's labyrinth of tiebreakers. That gives two of this weekend's games extra weight.


(Sunday, 1pm)

This is actually the first time all season the Falcons are playing a team that enters the game with a winning record. Only two of their opponents have winning records on the season, and Atlanta lost to both. Last week, the Falcons lost at home to a Green Bay team that came into the game 1-7 and had players missing practice during the week simply due to apathy. Despite six wins, it's hard to tell whether Atlanta is really any good.

But the same can be said for Tampa Bay. Last week, quarterback Chris Simms had his first good performance since taking over for the injured Brian Griese, and Tampa dramatically beat Washington 36-35 by going for a two-point conversion instead of an extra point at the end of the game. But that win doesn't erase the memory of Tampa getting crushed by Carolina two weeks ago, or the feeble loss three weeks ago to the worst team in football, San Francisco.

And while Simms broke out last week, the Bucs are still waiting on rookie running back Cadillac Williams. Still struggling from foot and hamstring injuries, Williams gained just 20 yards against Washington, and he's averaging just two yards per carry since returning to the field three weeks ago. Poor blocking by the right side of the offensive line isn't helping things, either.

If Williams isn't healthy, Tampa can't take advantage of Atlanta's porous rush defense, which ranks 26th in the league with 4.7 yards allowed per carry. They'll need to depend on another big passing day from Simms, which isn't out of the question. The Atlanta pass defense ranks 22nd according to Football Outsiders' DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) system, which breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent.

It also helps that the Falcons like to blitz, which makes them susceptible to long passes, and nobody has caught long passes this year better than Tampa's Joey Galloway. Galloway is having his best season at age 34, when most receivers are watching their careers fade, and his 862 receiving yards are less than 200 away from his career high.

The Bucs are still a team based on defense, and many people say that their quick, agile linebackers are perfect for taking on the greatest running quarterback ever, Atlanta's Michael Vick. Last year, however, Vick's stats in a 24-10 November win at home were virtually identical to his stats in a 27-0 December loss in Tampa. The difference was how well Tampa defended Atlanta's other weapons. When Atlanta won, running backs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett combined for 129 yards while tight end Alge Crumpler caught four passes for 118 yards. When Tampa won, Dunn and Duckett had just 75 yards, while Crumpler caught one measly pass for five yards.

The most likely scenario is that these teams will once again split their series, with each team winning at home. The Falcons will win Sunday only to return the gift in Tampa on Christmas Eve.

COLTS (9-0) at BENGALS (7-2)

(Sunday, 4pm)

The Colts have a powerful, diversified offense. Peyton Manning has a deep corps of receivers to choose from, led by one of the all-time great route runners, Marvin Harrison. Running back Edgerrin James is just as comfortable running up the middle as he is catching a pass out of the backfield. The difference this year has been on defense, where the previously-porous Colts have been shutting down opposing quarterbacks.

The Colts have an Achilles' heel, however. Their preference for speed over size on defense leaves them vulnerable to teams that can run the ball. And they still must prove themselves to critics who argue they've been helped by an easy schedule, building their reputation with wins over struggling teams like Houston, Tennessee, and Cleveland.

What makes this game interesting, besides the simple fact that the Colts are yet unbeaten, is that everything in the two preceding paragraphs also applies to the Cincinnati Bengals -- simply substitute Carson Palmer for Peyton Manning, Chad Johnson for Marvin Harrison, and the tandem of Rudi Johnson and Chris Perry for Edgerrin James.

Yes, there are distinctions between these teams. The Colts' pass defense is predicated on their great end rushers, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. They rank first in the league in Adjusted Sack Rate, which measures sacks per pass play adjusted for situation and opponent. The Bengals rank last in that same stat; their defense is anchored by the secondary, including cornerbacks Tory James and Deltha O'Neal and unsung safety Kevin Kaesviharn. Cincinnati has 20 interceptions while no other team has more than 14.

The Bengals also have the advantage in special teams. They'll gain precious field position on defense thanks to the strong kickoffs of Shayne Graham. Indianapolis ranks last in our special teams metrics, with a particular problem with return men dropping the football.

The public perception is that the Bengals are soft because Pittsburgh ran all over them, at home no less. But nobody has run all over the Colts because nobody has even had the chance. Indianapolis has not played a single game against one of the top dozen running games as rated by DVOA.

The goal of both teams in this game should be to build a lead large enough that the other team must abandon the run. Otherwise, James and Johnson will have big days in a closely fought contest. And while the Colts are probably a little better, they also are disadvantaged by playing on the road, at night, in temperatures likely to dip below 40 degrees. The Colts have the hype, but there's a 50-50 chance that the Bengals will have the win.

This article appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 19 Nov 2005

25 comments, Last at 21 Nov 2005, 10:50pm by ChicagoScott


by stan (not verified) :: Sat, 11/19/2005 - 2:21pm

I seem to recall the Colts coming from behind tow win in a game at night in the snow at Denver.

Cold is not the problem. Terrible slippery turf is a huge problem. The Colt receivers are not physical. They rely on quickness to beat physical, press coverage. When the field is a muddy mess, they can't get open and Manning has nowhere to go with the ball. Further, with the Colt O-line being among the worst in the NFL at power football, Edge has to be able to cut quickly on the draw and the stretch to be effective.

It's a mistake to confuse the effects of a bad field with cold weather. Sometimes cold weather leads to a bad field. Sometimes not.

by djcolts (not verified) :: Sat, 11/19/2005 - 2:31pm

According to weather.com - the temps at Cincy at 6pm will be 47 degrees with little wind.

by Jeff F (not verified) :: Sat, 11/19/2005 - 3:17pm

Yeah, I think the assertation that weather will be a factor is pretty irrelevant. 47 degrees isn't "cold" by football standards at all, even for a "soft" team like Indy.

by Led (not verified) :: Sat, 11/19/2005 - 3:51pm

"If Williams isn’t healthy, Tampa can’t take advantage of Atlanta’s porous rush defense, which ranks 26th in the league with 4.7 yards allowed per carry."

I disagree. Pittman is a capable RB. He may not be a game breaker, but he runs hard. He's been better than Williams this year in both FO and conventional statistics. Admittedly, some of that has to do with Williams' health, but 5.2 YPC is still 5.2 YPC.

by admin :: Sat, 11/19/2005 - 3:58pm

Yes, agreed. I'm not sure what Pittman's status is with the shoulder. I think that's an example of where I shortened for the Sun...

by Don M. (not verified) :: Sat, 11/19/2005 - 4:39pm

Re: #1 how do you figure that Indy's offensive line is bad? By any stretch of imagination, including the DVOA offensive line stats they're awesome at what they do. They are not a great drive-blocking short yardage line, but they protect the quarterback, well enough that he's had some well documented success, and Edgerin James has put up some stats that one wouldn't expect from a running back on a team with one of the "worst" offensive lines of all time.

by Justus (not verified) :: Sat, 11/19/2005 - 4:53pm

#6: stan said "among the worst in the NFL at power football". And then you say they aren't a great short yardage line. I'm pretty sure that's exactly what he meant. He didn't say a single thing about pass protection or the line overall. He certainly didn't say anything about it being one of the worst offensive lines of all time.

by Kachunk (not verified) :: Sat, 11/19/2005 - 5:53pm

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal about a month ago (that used Football Outsiders stats, actually) which rated the Colts' line as the best in the NFL. I don't remember precisely what their criteria were, maybe someone else does?

by Josh (not verified) :: Sat, 11/19/2005 - 8:37pm

8 - I do recall that article, all I remember is that it was based on FO's stats but modified by some statistics prof, I don't think they explained more than that

by doktarr (not verified) :: Sat, 11/19/2005 - 9:38pm

Stan has made this argument on this website many times. His basic thesis is that the Colt's O-line is terrible at pushing their guys back, and the low sack totals are due almost entirely to Manning's quick reads and quick release.

The Colts' O-line runs a unique system. They don't really try to push guys back on most running plays, in stead moving laterally to seal a lane for James. The Colts' blocking schemes also allow them to sell pass longer - the Colts offense in general relies on misdirection moreso than any other offense in the league. Their signature "stretch" play is proably the best example of this: Manning sprints out to make the handoff (in stead of pithing the ball like the other 31 teams) so that you don't know whether it's run or pass for two seconds longer.

There's certainly some truth to the idea that Manning, not the line, keeps the sack numbers down. He reminds me of Marino in the way that blitzing him seems like a gift, since there's less guys in coverage and you won't sack him anyway. In the Pats game in particular, he seemed perfectly comfortable waiting as long as he could, then throwing before the pocket collapsed.

I think it would be a mistake to call the Colts O-line a BAD line. They run a unique system and run it very well. Nobody is arguing that these guys are behemoths like KC or Baltimore or Atlanta. But they are effective, in the context of their system.

When I look at the Colts O-line, I see a team that picked guys who can do exactly what they need them to do. Good allocation of resources.

by doktarr (not verified) :: Sat, 11/19/2005 - 9:46pm

Is the Indy run D really all that bad? DVOA rates it as slightly better than average (although a lopsided distribution leads to them being ranked 19th in the league). Cincy, on the other hand, is all the way back at 31st - worse than Houston. Are these defenses really comparable?

by Purds (not verified) :: Sat, 11/19/2005 - 10:41pm

As I live in New England without DirectTV, I have seen the Colts only a few times this year (vs Baltimore, vs St. Louis, & vs NE). However, in those games it appeared to me that the Colts have relied much less on the stretch play this year. The FO stats have the Colts running 31% to the outside ends this year, but the stats from previous years do not have the % chart.

Anyone else see, or think they see, that the Colts haven't used the stretch play as much this year?

by Kibbles (not verified) :: Sat, 11/19/2005 - 11:00pm

Re #1: Just because the Colts have won games in the cold doesn't mean the Colts do not play worse in the cold. I mean, I recall 3 years ago when Tampa won a game when kickoff was below freezing. Of course, that's the only game in the entire history of the franchise that they've won when kickoff was below freezing, but everyone knows that anecdotal evidence is ironclad!

Compare their winning percentage in games under 50 degrees to their winning percentage in games over 50 degrees and I'll start believing you if you tell me the Colts don't play worse in the cold. Until that time, offering one game that they won in the cold as proof that they play just as well in the cold simply won't cut it.

by Purds (not verified) :: Sat, 11/19/2005 - 11:46pm


Use the numbers realistically. What you need to compare is the Colts record in AWAY games under 50 degrees versus AWAY games over 50 degrees.

Of course, any self-respecting team will win more home games than away games (or they have a DUMB general manager who doesn't know how to craft a roster to the team's advantage). Thus, you can't lump the Colts home record with the generic "above 50 degrees" group.

by Purds (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 12:02am

Quick stats for Colts in the cold:

Above 50 degrees on road: 12-3
Below 50 degrees on road: 2-2 (both losses to NE)
(I did not include the Colts loss at Den at end of 2004 when Manning and Co. played 3 plays -- playoffs for Colts were already set).

So, what does that tell us? That the Colts can't beat NE, not that the Colts can't win in the cold. Was anyone else beating the Pats then?

Just to complete this:
2003-present at road domes: 4-0
2003-present at home: 18-3 (not counting Den 2004 -- sat everyone and lost as again, playoffs were set)

by Purds (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 12:04am


Colts lost meaningless game at Denver 2004, at home 2003. I didn't count those games.

by doktarr (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 2:21am


I'm in a similar situation - I lived in Indiana for the last few years, but not this year. I also seemed to notice fewer stretch runs in the nationally televised games. I'm not sure if this is a general pattern or something particular to those games.

by bobman (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 6:41am

Living in Seattle, without a Dish, I have seen about the same of the COlts as you have but I have the same impression--James up the gut much more than ever. I assume this is because "the defense is taking away the long pass" and they're trying to soften up the D (or in this case, firm them up in the middle by forcing tghem to bring a safety or two up) to open the passing game.

regarding home and away records, in Dungy's tenure (I got this either from the indystar.com or the Colts website) they are only one game different home and away, roughly 22-6 home and 22-7 away. So don't call consistency dumbness on Polian's part. Last season they were 7-1 on the road (losing to NE away) and 5-3 at home giving a gift to Denver in the last game.
I'm psyched for Sunday's game, but frustrated that in Seattle, they choose to show SD vs Buff instead of two first-place teams!!! They still show ANY game featuring the AFC West since they are the Hawks' old division, even though the Hawks have been in the NFC for four years now.... grrrr.

by longtime firsttime (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 11:07am

(fyi, CIN fan here...)

PIT made CIN LB Odell Thurman look like a total sucker a few wks ago. The Edge can do the same -- opening up the middle to the TE or crossing WRs, especially w/ how Peyton can play-fake. It may not be *the key*, but Marvin needed to tell Odell to not overpursue. We'll see if Odell matured since then.

Of course, Odell was involved in the locker room scuffle the other day -- supposedly yelling @ veterans, so he's maturing? hmm


by Brian (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 12:12pm

Yep, very few stretch runs this year (comparatively anyway). It seemed like last year they were running that almost every play (either actually running or play-action), this year only occasionally.

by Bob (not verified) :: Sun, 11/20/2005 - 3:32pm

vick gets sacked at 1. schaub fumbles, tb touchdown. tampa up 10-0. uh oh atlanta.

by pawnking (not verified) :: Mon, 11/21/2005 - 11:44am

Can we start to re-examine Indy's schedule? I'm looking at the Cleveland game, for example, and it is starting to look better as the games go by. Not great, but better. Also, looking at their second half schedule, It's looking easier and easier. Only the game at Seattle will be a major toughie. They have Pittsburgh and San Diego at home, and the other road game against Jacksonville isn't like they're playing a great team...

Who wants to give me odds that Green Bay will still have a chance at making the playoffs in week 16? I'm thinking 50-50...

Seattle has two tough games left, both at home. The are clearly the class of the NFC, could they go 14-2 with a win over Indy?

Cinci has an easy schedule, with only at Pittsburgh being a game they won't be favored in, and if Big Ben is out that game, we could see the Bengals getting a first week bye...

Denver and San Diego have the hardest schedule going in of the better teams, with them playing each other at San Diego in the final week. Denver may be fighting (with Cinci) for a first week bye. SD may be fighting for a playoff spot. That should be a pretty good game...

by Kibbles (not verified) :: Mon, 11/21/2005 - 2:49pm

Re #16: That's a great point about home/road splits, and it's good to see some actual numbers on the matter, even though they really aren't that conclusive. One point, though... I have no problem with you not counting the 2004 Denver game, because that genuinely was meaningless, both because their seed was locked and because they were likely facing Denver again a week later; however, you can NOT eliminate the 2003 game. That was EXTREMELY meaningful. New England, KC, and Indy all had between 2 and 3 losses, and all 3 were involved in a furious dogfight for a first-round bye. Indy played all of its starters for the entire game, desperately trying to get the bye. Denver humiliated them fair and square, in a very meaningful game for BOTH teams.

Re #18: Could be worse. I mean, the AFC West has been one of the best and most entertaining divisions in the entire NFL every single year since the re-alignment. All of the best offenses and all of the best RBs live there. Lots and lots of good games. I'd love to have a steady diet of AFC West games to wash the bad taste of the NFC West clashes out of my mouth. Alas, I'm stick in central Florida, which means that every week FOX and CBS air the Tampa and Jacksonville games, and all the sports bars put Miami on the big screen. It's hell on earth.

by JAT (not verified) :: Mon, 11/21/2005 - 3:29pm

Kibbles, you beat me to it. That 2003 Colts-Broncos game was not meaningless, and was a very impressive win for the Broncs. I shudder a little whenever the Colts play the Broncos (recent playoff results notwithstanding) because of that game.

by ChicagoScott (not verified) :: Mon, 11/21/2005 - 10:50pm

Only 2 teams have flat-out whipped the Colts in the past 2.5 years-- the Patriots several times & the Broncos (2003 regular season). I attended both games in 2003 & we were shocked by how easily they handled the Broncos after getting smacked around a few weeks earlier.