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23 Dec 2004

Scramble for the Ball: Indoor Fireworks Still Burn Your Fingers

by Al Bogdan and Vivek Ramgopal

Al: It's Week 16 and only one NFC team has been eliminated from playoff contention. You know what that means? It's time for us, once again, to make our playoff predictions. We made our first predictions in the pre-season, revisited them after Week 3, and yet again after Week 10. The one catch was that once we jumped off a bandwagon, we weren't allowed to jump back on. Here's where we stood after Week 10:

Al Vivek
AFC East Patriots Patriots
AFC North Steelers Steelers
AFC South Colts Colts
AFC West Broncos Broncos
AFC Wild Card Jaguars Ravens
AFC Wild Card Chargers Jets
NFC East Eagles Eagles
NFC North Vikings Vikings
NFC South Falcons Falcons
NFC West Seahawks Rams
NFC Wild Card Packers Packers
NFC Wild Card Cardinals Seahawks
Off the Wagon Ravens Chiefs
Off the Wagon Titans
Off the Wagon Jets
Off the Wagon Redskins
Off the Wagon Buccaneers
Off the Wagon Chiefs

Al: Well, the AFC divisions are all set, and we only got one wrong. I can't pick the Jets since I wrote them off a few weeks ago, so for my AFC wild card picks, I'm sticking with Jacksonville and I'll add make Denver my second wild card team. The Jaguars finish off with Houston and Oakland. You have to like their chances to win out and finish at 10-6. Denver has the best schedule out of the remaining 8-6 teams. Reuben Droughns should have a field day against the Tennessee defense this week. That leaves a Week 17 matchup at home against a Colts team that likely will have their playoff fate sealed by then. Manning will likely have the TD record by then, so I wouldn't expect him to play much as he rests up for the first round. The Jets could very easily lose their last two and end up on the wrong side of tie-breakers with Denver and Jacksonville, depending on who ends up with the best "Strength of Victory" -- the combined winning percentage of all the teams that each team has defeated this year.

In the NFC, your guess is as good as mine. I've finally come to accept the fact that Arizona isn't going to make the playoffs. Seattle should be able to win one of their last two games at home to finish at .500. I really don't like the Rams' chances to win this week against the Eagles. Philly is going to use these next two weeks to figure out how to and if they can win without Terrell Owens and Hollis Thomas. With Marc Bulger still on the sidelines, the Rams will have a very tough time beating an Eagles team with something to prove. I like the Vikings to beat Green Bay at home this week and win the division.

For the NFC wild cards, the Packers have already clinched, so it is easy to stay with them after they get edged out of a division title. For the #6 seed, I like Carolina, who could actually clinch a playoff birth this week, despite only having seven wins. Of course, that scenario requires the Rams to lose, the Saints and Bears to lose or tie, the Seahawks to win and the Dallas/Washington game to end in a tie. The Panthers have played as well as any team in the NFC over the second half of the season and have the best chance of any of the 6-8 teams to win out.

Vivek: The San Diego turnaround is complete, and we can all begin the QB controversy for 2005. The Chargers will obviously have to be the AFC West winner, which bumps the Broncos into a flood of 8-6 teams. Al mentioned the schedules for the Broncos and Jags. Assume that the Steelers beat the Bills, eliminating them from the race. The Ravens have a shot of beating the Steelers this week and then ending the season with a win against Miami. You can see the tiebreaker procedure for yourself here. The first tie breaker would be a head-to-head matchup. The Jags win over Denver earlier this year (and Buffalo too if they happen to be there) will help them out. Conference record comes next, which clears things up about as much as Fermat's Last Theorem since all four teams are now 5-5 or 5-6. We go even deeper afterwards, as winning percentage against common opponents and strength of victory comes into play.

Long story short -- Jacksonville heads to the Promised Land.

As for the NFC, I'm sticking with my playoff predictions, but flip-flopping the division finish. The Packers have already clinched a playoff spot and should take the division title. I'm just waiting for a 7-9 team to win the NFC West.

Al: I'm just disappointed that the 49ers couldn't beat anyone except for Arizona so we won't get a 4-way, 6-10 tie in the NFC West.

I'm no 49ers fan, but it is kind of sad to see them like this. During the two Mariucci years when San Francisco finished below .500, you could tell it was a team in transition that would quickly rebound once Jeff Garcia got his feet wet as a starter and TO emerged as a legitimate #1 WR. Now, though, there's really nothing to be optimistic about in the Bay Area. Tim Rattay has been disappointingly inconsistent when he's played. When he hasn't, Ken Dorsey has done nothing but be another example of a failed Miami QB in the NFL. Kevan Barlow has been the biggest bust in the NFL this year, he'll likely finish the year with fewer yards as the 49ers primary ball carrier than he did when splitting carries with Garrison Hearst over the past three seasons. You know your offense is bad when you have to bring in four wide receivers, two quarterbacks, and a running back to try out for your team before Week 16.

Defensively, they have very little to build upon. Julian Peterson will be a free agent again and might be too risky for the 49ers to use their franchise tag on after he missed most of this season with a torn Achilles tendon. Maybe the rest of the young 49ers defense will improve with experience, but they haven't given their fans any reason to be too optimistic about their chances in the future.

To top it all off, 49er management doesn't seem too happy with Dennis Erickson, but they don't seem that anxious to get rid of him either. Erickson has shown interest in going back to college, but not at the cost of missing out on the $7.5 million he's owed by San Francisco. The 49ers were more than willing to allow Mississippi State to talk to Erickson their coaching vacancy, which says to me that they're more than willing to allow Erickson to walk out on his deal on his own accord. Have you ever heard of an NFL team allowing a random D1 college with a coaching vacancy to talk to their currently employed head coach?

Vivek: It's essentially a game of chicken in San Francisco. The Yorks are hoping that Erickson walks out to take the Mississippi State job, and Erickson is waiting for the team to get fed up with his reluctance to fire his assistants.

How far the mighty have fallen. In 1977, Eddie DeBartolo took the reigns of the 49 franchise and proceeded to go a perfect 5-0 in Super Bowls until 1997 when he was indicted on fraud and racketeering charges. DeBartolo handed over control of the franchise to his sister and her husband -- enter the York era and salary cap hell.

The team paid dearly for the mid-90s success, shedding more than $50 million in cap overruns while dropping to 4-12 in 1999. The next few years didn't see much better situations though. Going into 2004, the 49ers had $29 million, or about 35% of their cap room reserved for players no longer on the roster. Most of that was due to the large pro-rated bonuses that were given to players who subsequently got hurt (see Bryant, Junior) or just did not live up to expectations (see Stokes, J.J.).

What Did We Learn from Week 15?

Lesson 1 -- Punters Can Get Arrested Too

Al: Panther punter Todd Sauerbrun was arrested last week for DWI after doing 64 in a 35 MPH zone, without a license, and almost hitting a cop. Sauerbrun sounded apologetic afterwards, so hopefully he's learned his lesson and won't drive drunk again or get whatever help he may need.

But the more interesting thing I found while doing some research on Sauerbrun was that he has been feuding with the kicking Gramatica brothers for two years. A kicker feud? Sauerbrun convinced the Panthers to not bring in Bill Gramatica for a tryout last month to replace the injured John Kasay. The feud apparently began two years ago when the mysterious third Gramatica brother, Santiago, taunted Sauerbrun outside the Panther locker room following a Carolina/Tampa Bay game.

Lesson 2 -- Charles Woodson Isn't Worth The Hassle

Vivek: The former #4 pick overall from the 1998 draft has been more harm than help during the last few years in Oakland. Aside from his public intoxication arrest in which he refused to get out of a woman's car (which on the humor scale, is still well behind Najeh Davenport), he has not produced on the field. He has recorded only six interceptions in the past four seasons, and I don't buy that "shutdown corner" excuse at all. With all apologies to Champ Bailey, Deion Sanders was the last true shutdown corner who prevented quarterbacks from throwing in his direction. Teams still throw at Woodson. Don't forget that he called out head coach Bill Callahan last year, claiming that the team was unhappy with Callahan's moves. I wouldn't want him on my team, but this is an Al Davis franchise.

Scramble for the Ball Mailbag

Al: Send your fantasy and other football questions to scramble@footballoutsiders.com

Our first letter is from Neateye:

Call out Gouranga be happy!!!
Gouranga Gouranga Gouranga ....
That which brings the highest happiness!!

Al: OK. I'll get right on that.

Next, we have letters from two readers facing the same conundrum. Dan in LA writes:

I am in the championship game for my league. Donovan McNabb is my starting QB. Billy Volek is available. Would I be crazy to pick up Volek and start him over McNabb ? My thinking is that (1) McNabb doesn't have TO to throw to this week (2) It is a meaningless game for Philly -- McNabb gets limited snaps in the 2nd half (3) Volek has been on fire lately. What do you guys think ?

P.S. My league is kind of like the NFC this year. I qualified for the fourth (and last) spot despite having a 7-7 record. Good thing the tie-breaker favored me !

Nolan J also wrote in:

I've made it to my fantasy league's championship, which is played in week 16. I have a bit of a quarterback conundrum: my starter is Donovan McNabb. Now that they've clinched home field advantage, I can't see the Eagles letting McNabb play more than a half, if at all. So I'm considering starting my backup (Favre - not a bad backup) or Volek (who's been on fire recently, I'm planning on picking him up off of the waiver wire this week).

First question: am I crazy to not want to start McNabb, or am I thinking correctly here? I can see advantages for both Favre and Volek -- Favre's playing the Vikings (poor defense), and Volek is playing the Broncos who appear to have mailed it in. But I can also see disadvantages -- Favre doesn't usually play well in the Metrodome, and Volek just doesn't have a long track record. One more bit of info is that my opponent has Drew Bennett, so starting Volek would help to counter yet another huge game by Bennett. Which of the 3 do you suggest starting?

Al: I'm of a different opinion about how Philly will use McNabb over these next two weeks. With Owens out, I really don't think that the Eagles can afford to have McNabb on the bench. They're going to need these next two weeks to figure out what they can do without the wide receiver that has been such a huge part of their offense. If you do get gun-shy about McNabb, though, both of you should grab Volek. If I was Nolan, I'd start Volek over Favre. Historically, Brett hasn't been himself when playing in domes. Volek has put up great numbers as a starter and should be productive at the very least against the Broncos.

Vivek: From a fantasy standpoint Volek should be big this week -- Chris Brown will sit out the rest of the season, meaning that a 28-for-40/350 yard/3 TD day is in the cards. Don't discount Favre though. Your comment about Favre not playing well in the Metrodome got me curious, so I did some digging for his games at the Metrodome:

2003 18 28 194 3 2
2002 24 43 296 2 3
2001 21 35 169 2 1
2000 26 38 290 2 1

A few of those INTs from 2002 came with the Favre trying to make a 4th quarter comeback, so his numbers aren't that bad. I think the Favre/Metrodome myth is just that, a myth based on poor team performances, not an individual.

Al: So over the last four years, Favre's averaged 22.25 completions, 36 attempts, 237.25 yards, 2.25 TD, 1.75 INT in the Metrodome for a QB rating of 81.6. Over those four seasons in games where Favre didn't play in the Metrodome, his rating was 87.2. That's not an insignificant difference, even though QB rating is ridiculously flawed.

But what am I talking about here? Yards? Completion Percentage? QB Rating? This is Football Outsiders! We laugh in the face of simple numbers such as these. We scoff in their general direction. So here, for the first time, are Brett Favre's passing numbers over the past six seasons split across a whole bunch of different scenarios by PAR, DPAR, VOA and DVOA (all stats explained here):

BRETT FAVRE, 1999-2004
MINNESOTA 5 -1.6 1.8 -19.7% -0.4%
NON-MIN DOMES 10 5.7 6.7 20.9% 26.4%
ALL DOMES 15 3.3 5.1 7.4% 17.5%
ROAD OUTDOORS 31 3.3 3.2 10.6% 10.6%
HOME 48 2.8 3.0 0.6% 0.8%

According to these numbers, Favre hasn't performed that poorly in domes after all. Except for the Metrodome that is. When he's played there, Favre's been bad. Real bad. Below replacement level bad. Worse than Joey Harrington bad. Stay away from him this week.

Kenny G's illegitimate cousin Barry G is back with some fantasy questions:

I know that Vivek picked the Cleveland offense for KCW last week, but my choice for KCW this week for the entire Cleveland Browns team. In the words of Shannon Sharpe, the Cleveland authorities should have been present to arrest the players and coaches for fraud on Monday when they picked up their paychecks. TMQ remarked that it was hard for the Browns to spot the SD Chargers with their white uniforms in the snow -- not so. The Chargers defensive players were the ones standing over the offensive players as they laid on the turf, and the Chargers offensive players were easy to spot by the back of their jerseys as the Browns defense was watching the Chargers offense score (SD felt the need to throw only 8 passes). Unlike Miami and SF which seem to be putting an effort into their play, the Browns have tanked the rest of the season.

As for fantasy football, it usually is better to be lucky in good, and in my case I was very lucky as two of my teams are still alive; one team by a one-point win thanks to kicker extraordinaire David Akers blocked extra point and Payton Manning taking a knee (if Edge had gained just 1 more yard, my team would have been eliminated). My choices for Week 16:

1) QB (pick 1): Brady @ Jets, Bulger vs. Philly, Volek vs. Denver. I think a hot Volek's the play.

2) RB(Pick 2): Dillon @ Jets, Portis @ Dallas, K Jones vs. Chi, J Jones vs. Wash, Taylor (Q) vs. Houston. I think Dillon is automatic and I like Portis this week.

3) RB (pick 2): K Jones vs. Chi, A Green @ Minnesota, McAllister vs. Atlanta, Tiki @ Cincy. (Droughns being relegated to bench duty). I lean to Ahman Green and McCallister since Atlanta is resting its people and NO's playoff hopes are still alive).

4) WR (pick 2): Evans @ SF, Lelie @ Tenn, Boldin @ Sea, D Jackson vs. Ariz; I think Evans is a must start and lean to Lelie as the other WR.

5) WR (pick 2): D Jackson vs. Ariz, C Johnson vs. Giants, Roy Williams vs. Chi, TJ Housh vs. Giants. I lean to Chad Johnson and Roy Williams.

My defensive questions have been resolved by Buffalo being a weekly must start as its D/ST is now in the same league as Baltimore and New England. Thanks for your advice.

Al: Glad to see you're still alive in two leagues. I made the championship game in one league thanks to the Cleveland offense putting up a goose egg against the San Diego defense. Just so I don't toot my own horn too much, I should also point out that I lost in the consolation playoff round in a league last week filled with fellow law students who had never played fantasy football before. The team that knocked me into my battle for 7th place game this week only started one QB, instead of two for half of the season. And his one QB was Kerry Collins. Anyway, enough about me, let's talk about you, Barry.

1) I agree with Viv's answer to the last letter. Play Volek.
2) Portis has been on a little bit of a roll this month. Maybe this bodes well for his performance next season. However, I'd go with Fred Taylor as your #2. He lit up the Packers last week in Green Bay and has topped 140 yards three times over his last six games. The Texan run defense has been pretty good this year, but they allowed over 100 yards to Curtis Martin and Edgerrin James over the past few weeks and gave up 91 yards to Antowain Smith a month ago.
3) Get Droughns off the bench! Sure, his numbers have tailed off the past few weeks, but it's almost impossible to have a bad game against Tennessee, the way their defense has been playing lately. Larry Johnson averaged 14.9 yards a carry two weeks ago. The Titans have been giving up over 40 points a game over the last month. The Broncos are going to score and Droughns should be a big beneficiary. I agree with your assessment of Deuce. I'd give him the nod over Ahman.
4) Agreed on Evans and Lelie. Both are playing against suspect defenses in must win games for their teams.
5) I'd go with Chad as well against the suspect Giant secondary, even if they manage to find Will Peterson (scroll down on that page for info). Williams finally had a good game last week after disappearing for the past two months. I'm not convinced that you can count on him, though. I'd feel safer with Jackson against the Cardinal defense.

A good number of Scramble readers are playing in championship games this week. Gerry D's back with some questions about his final matchup of the season:

Thanks for the advice last week. Fortunately, I did ignore part of it, and started Roy Williams instead of Witten. I am now in the semifinals. My team is unchanged. The scoring for the league is all TDs are 6 (including TDs passed, don't ask -- it seemed like a good idea 15+ years ago), with a single bonus point for a 300 yard passing day, 100 yard rushing day, or 100 yard receiving day. Start 1 QB, 2 RB, 3 WR (TE count as WR), 1 K.

Choices at QB are Carr, Palmer, and Vinny. I am leaning heavily towards Palmer if he plays.

RB is clear: Tomlinson and Alexander.

WR is still a mess: Bryant, Moss, Williams, Bradford, Witten, Lloyd, Franks, Morton, Pinkston, or Watts. I am leaning towards Moss, Williams and... dunno. Probably Bryant. But I could really use help deciding.

K is going to be Kaeding over Carney.

Al: Agreed on Palmer if he can play, but I wouldn't be too optimistic. He missed practice on Wednesday and is still listed as questionable. If Palmer can't go, go with Carr. Vinny has another tough matchup this week against Washington.

At WR, I'm not going to convince you not to play Williams. So, I'd play Pinkston at #3. I really like the Eagle offense to try to put a ton of points on the board this week to show themselves and the league that they can still score without Terrell Owens. McNabb is going to have to find someone to throw to and Pinkston has clearly been the best wide receiver on the Eagles other than Owens.

Keep Choppin' Wood Award

Al: Detroit long-snapper Don Muhlbach is the obvious choice here. But Nick Harris, the Lion holder, shouldn't go blameless here either. When Muhlbach botched the snap, it was Harris' responsibility to do something, anything, to try and get points on the board for Detroit. Harris completely froze, waiting to get tackled on the play. Were the odds good that Harris would have figured out a way to get two points for the Lions? No, but you have to at least take a shot.

Vivek: Muhlbach is the unanimous winner here. The game brought back memories of the January 2003 Giants-49ers playoff game and "the snap" from Trey Junkin. Holder Matt Allen didn't realize that there were six seconds left on the clock before the third down attempt, and fired an ill-fated pass attempt into the end zone.

Loser League Update

Al: The Mark Brunell All-Stars are running away with the contest with only two weeks to go. 13 points separates MBA from the #2 teams, Ready to Crumble and Tralfaz, Yuck. Only eleven points separate the #2 teams from our own Pat Laverty's Fighting Ferrets and Do-do-do-do Andy Johnson... tied for 11th.

Deadfull and the Purple Chickens tied for first place last week with 34 points. Neither, however, could hang with your Loser League All-Stars:

QB: Brian Griese, TAM -- 5 points (21 passes, 118 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 1 fumble)
RB: Willis McGahee, BUF -- 2 points (11 carries, 25 yards, 2 catches, -1 yards)
RB: Marshall Faulk, STL -- 3 points (10 carries, 22 yards, 1 catch, 13 yards)
WR: Chris Chambers, MIA -- -1 point (3 catches, 24 yards, 1 carry, -10 yards, 1 fumble)
WR: Troy Edwards, JAC -- 1 point (2 catches, 10 points, 1 carry, 2 yards)
K: David Akers, PHI (!) -- -5 points (0-1 XP)

Best Bets

Al: (2-1 last week, 24-21 overall) You've got two weeks to make it back to .500. I say pick 'em all.

New England -3 over NY JETS

The Jets picked the wrong time to play against New England. I can see the Pats coming into New York looking to destroy the Jets to take away some of the sting from New England's awful loss on Monday night. New England will be playing not only for their slim chance of home field advantage through the playoffs, but also for a first round bye. If the Patriots lose this game, they risk finishing the season as either the #3 or #4 seed. I just can't see the Pats losing this one.

Carolina +3 over TAMPA Bay

I'm 3-0 picking the Panthers the past three weeks. I'm not going to stop picking them until they give me a reason to.

NEW ORLEANS -2.5 over Atlanta

The last thing I want to do is pick the Saints in a must win game in December. But the Falcons are doing the smart thing and resting Michael Vick and anyone else they can over these next two weeks. The Saints should be able to beat Atlanta's backups.

Vivek: (3-1 last week, 22-36 overall) Late season surge to only quasi-mediocrity?

INDIANAPOLIS -7 over San Diego

I'll keep rolling with Payton Manning in the RCA Dome, regardless of who the opponent is.

Washington -2 over DALLAS

Patrick Ramsey, who recently was named the starter for 2005, leads Washington to a 14-10 win.


Jim Mora Jr. isn't following Herman Edwards' mantra. Nothing to lose, nothing to gain.

SEATTLE -7 over Arizona

Matt Hasselbeck looks like he'll be under center come this weekend, and expect the return of Koren Robinson to keep the playoff hopes alive.

Denver -3.5 over TENNESSEE

No Chris Brown means that the Denver D can focus on Billy Volek.

SAN FRANCISCO +11 over Buffalo

11 points - Willis McGahee = 49ers covering

Posted by: scramble on 23 Dec 2004



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