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28 Dec 2005

Scramble for the Ball: Tampa Bay's Nightmare

by Al Bogdan

(Vivek is a bit under the weather this week, so it's a solo Scramble. Vivek sent in his best bets below.)

If Tampa Bay beats the New Orleans Saints in Tampa as expected on Sunday, they'll lock up the NFC South and the #3 seed in the playoffs. Even if the Saints somehow manage to end their four-game losing streak and pick up just their second conference victory on the season, Tampa is pretty much guaranteed a playoff spot anyway. In fact, the only scenarios in which Tampa could miss the playoffs are so obscure, that the NFL doesn't even bother to detail them as part of the official playoff scenarios. After you go through the usual "team X wins or ties" scenarios to get Tampa into the playoffs, the official scenarios end with the curious phrase "TB clinches strength of victory tiebreaker over DAL or NYG," without any explanation for what actually has to happen in that scenario for the Bucs to end up on the driving range next week.

Have no fear, Tampa fans looking for something to worry about this New Year's weekend, here is what needs to happen for the Buccaneers to miss the playoffs. To even get to a tiebreaker situation which would leave Tampa Bay on the outside looking in, the Raiders must first beat the Giants on New Year's Eve. On Sunday, Washington has to beat Philadelphia to win the NFC East, forcing the Giants into a wild card spot. After the Saints beat Tampa, Carolina has to beat Atlanta to capture the NFC South crown. Finally, Dallas has to beat St. Louis in the nightcap on Sunday to finish with 10 wins. If any of those things don't happen, Tampa is in the playoffs.

But if all those things do happen, the Buccaneers will be tied with Dallas and New York for the two Wild Card spots. As we all know, the first step to break a three-way Wild Card tie is to get down to one team per division. The Giants would win out over the Cowboys, because New York has one more NFC East win than Dallas does. New York and Tampa would then battle it out to determine who the #5 seed will be in the NFC.

New York and Tampa didn't play this year, so the head-to-head tiebreaker is out. After Tampa's loss to New Orleans, both teams will have NFC records of 8-4. Tampa and New York have the requisite four common opponents to apply the third tiebreaker (Minnesota, New Orleans, Washington, San Francisco), but thanks to losses at San Francisco and the Week 17 upset at home, Tampa will finish tied with New York at 3-2 over their five games against the common opponents.

That brings us to the old reliable strength of victory tiebreaker, a tiebreaker so rarely used that the NFL doesn't list an explanation for how you determine it on its website. A team's strength of victory is the winning percentage of the opponents that a team has beaten this season. Since the two teams in the tiebreaker situation have defeated the same number of teams, and there haven't been any ties so far in the NFL this year, we'll use the total number of wins instead of winning percentage for simplicity.

Taking into account the scenario which is already needed to get to this point, New York would have a strength of victory of 71 wins while Tampa would have 70. The Giants would need wins from Arizona, San Francisco, Kansas City, and Denver to add to their strength of victory, while Tampa would need Minnesota, Buffalo, Green Bay, Miami and Detroit to win to add to the team's total.

If both teams end up with the same strength of victory, we next go to strength of schedule, adding in the records of the teams New York and Tampa lost to this season. The Giants seem to have the advantage in that regard, with the Buccaneers having lost to San Francisco and the Jets and the Giants not having a loss to anyone with a sub-.500 record. If Tampa gets the strength of victory tiebreaker over New York, the Giants end up with the #6 seed because of their aforementioned tiebreaker over Dallas.

If the Giants lock up the #5 seed, however, that still leaves Tampa and Dallas to battle it out for the final playoff spot. The teams didn't meet head to head, and would both have 8-4 NFC records if Dallas beats St. Louis and Tampa loses to New Orleans. The teams have four common opponents (Carolina, Washington, San Francisco, and Detroit), with Dallas and Tampa both 3-2 in those games. That brings us back to our good buddy strength of victory. Dallas would start with the disadvantage to Tampa, with a strength of victory of 69 to Tampa's 70. Both teams defeated Detroit, making the result of the Lions' game against the Steelers meaningless for this discussion.

Dallas does have an advantage, however, in that it shares three of its four remaining vanquished opponents with the Giants -- Arizona, San Francisco, and Kansas City. Their fourth, San Diego, plays against New York's fourth, Denver. Since the Bucs had to lose the strength of victory tiebreaker with the Giants for their tiebreakers with the Cowboys to matter, they'll probably lose a nearly identical tiebreaker to Dallas. If the Bucs and Cowboys tie on strength of victory, they would move to strength of schedule, which as we mentioned before, doesn't help out the Buccaneers.

So what does this mean for you Tampa fans out there who want to avoid having to sit through the final Sunday Night Football game of the year on ESPN waiting to see if Dallas has a chance to knock your team out of the playoffs? In addition to the playoff scenarios listed everywhere, add "losses by San Diego, Kansas City, San Francisco, and Arizona" and "wins by Minnesota, Buffalo, Green Bay, and Miami" to the list. If Tampa is losing to New Orleans late, get out your slide rule and start checking the scoreboards to see if you'll need to cancel your plans on Sunday night.

Lessons Learned from Week 16

Lesson 1 -- Jim Mora Jr. is a Chip off the Old Block

Jim Mora Sr. was arguably the greatest coach of all time once he got to his post-game press conference. His legendary "Playoffs?! Don't talk about playoffs! Are you kidding me? Playoffs?! I'm just hoping we can win a game, another game!!?!?" rant will be replayed on sports radio stations and on highlight shows across the country until those forms of media are no longer in existence.

Not to be outdone by his poppa, Jim Mora Jr. created his own scene on Saturday, after an interviewer from the official radio station of the Atlanta Falcons had the audacity to ask him why his team was punting with a minute left in overtime. Mora responded to the insulting inquiry by taking off his headset and throwing it to the ground, reportedly almost striking one of the radio station's employees.

Lesson 2 -- There Will Still Be Football on Monday Night in 2006

Count me among those who won't miss Monday Night Football next season. Of course, we'll still have Monday night football next season, just on a different channel as ESPN starts carrying the games. There will also still be a primetime game on broadcast television every week as the Sunday night game moves to NBC.

So what exactly is the big deal here? If anything, football fans will benefit from this switch. Moving the broadcast game to Sunday night will allow the NFL to more easily give that network flexibility to get better games later in the season. It's much easier logistically for the NFL to switch a game from Sunday afternoon to Sunday night than it would be to switch that game to Monday night.

Scramble for the Ball Mailbag

Send your fantasy football questions each week to scramble@footballoutsiders.com, or fill out our contact form.

With fantasy season over, our readers are starting to send in some of their stories of what went wrong this season. Here's one:

You asked for the nightmare drafts. I've got you covered. Situation is an eight team league, start 2 QB, 3 WR, 2 RB, 1 TE, 1 FLEX (QB/RB/WR/TE), 1 K, 1 DEF, and one head coach. This is my draft:

1 K. Jones, DET RB; 2 D. Culpepper, MIN QB; 3 M. Bulger, STL QB; 4 B. Westbrook, PHI RB; 5 S. Jackson, STL RB; 6 M. Clayton, TAM WR; 7 H. Ward, PIT WR; 8 D. Jackson, SEA WR; 9 J. Plummer, DEN QB; 10 M. Bennett, MIN RB

Plus, this is the first year of a keeper league where you retain three players each year, so the damage is magnified. Manning? Tomlinson? Nah. Steven Jackson! Mike Anderson! (And, Rudi Johnson, the result of that sweet mid-season deal you guys recommended I take.)

Who would have recommended something like taking Kevin Jones with a first round pick? Oh yeah, that was us. Only Westbrook was a decent fantasy option this season, and even he got hurt in time to destroy whatever fantasy playoff hopes you may have had.

Rex is looking for some special teams points:

So all-knowing football guru people, tell me if you can ... who are the 'hottest' punt and kick return guys in the league right now? Thank you and have a great hoilday season!

The hottest one you'll be hearing about all off-season is Terrence McGee from Buffalo, who returned a kickoff and an interception for touchdowns against Cincinnati on Sunday. McGee is a free agent and should earn himself a huge signing bonus from one of the many teams in the league that can use an upgrade at both cornerback and kick returner.

The best kick returner in the league this year has been Jerome Mathis, one of the few bright spots on the Texans this year. Not only is he number two in the league behind McGee in average kick return yards, but he's one of the main reasons -- if not the only reason -- Houston has an amazingly dominant kick return team according to our special teams rankings. Through Week 15, the Texans kick return squad has produced 27.5 points above average, five points higher than any other team since 1998, which is as far back as the Football Outsiders special teams rankings go.

There haven't been too many spectacular punt returners in the NFL this year. There have only been six punts returned for a touchdown, compared to 11 kickoffs brought back to the house. For all the heat he's received for his poor play at cornerback, Pacman Jones has put together a nice season as the punt return man in Tennessee. He's averaged nearly ten yards a return, including one touchdown. He's also done a nice job on kickoffs, averaging over 25 yards per return. Both Tennessee's punt and kick return teams rank among the best in the league according to our rankings.

Reader Jeremy Norris gives his nomination for this week's KCW Award:

I'd like to nominate CB Will Allen of the Giants for this week's Keep Choppin' Wood Award. He got beat badly on all three of Santana Moss' touchdowns, and he was out of position on Clinton Portis' 19 yard TD run around the left end, leading to the score. That's four Redskins TDs that resulted directly from Allen blowing his assignment in one way or another.

Keep Choppin' Wood Award

Thanks for that great transition, Jeremy. As bad as Allen was against Washington, he doesn't deserve all the blame for those Moss touchdowns. According to Tom Coughlin, Allen was supposed to have help from a safety on the two long passes to Moss, but that help never arrived. If you want to give the award to someone from the Giants for their loss on Sunday, you could give it to Eli Manning for not throwing an accurate pass all game after Plaxico Burress dropped a sure touchdown on the first play from scrimmage.

I'm going to stay away from that game, though, since the Giants still clinched a playoff spot after losing to Washington. If you're going to give it to a defensive back, you should give it to one who cost his team a playoff spot instead. This week's award goes to the players who weren't able to stop the vaunted Baltimore passing attack -- Ralph Brown, Dovonte Edwards, Antoine Winfield, Fred Smoot, Darren Sharper, and everyone else in the Minnesota secondary who couldn't stop Kyle Boller from throwing for 289 yards (second most in his career) and three touchdowns (tying a career high).

Loser League Update

The standings should be updated shortly, but for now, here are your Loser League All-Stars:

QB: Steve McNair, TEN: -3 points (13 passes, 34 yards; 1 carry, 8 yards; 2 INT)
RB: J.J. Arrington, ARI: 2 points (10 carries, 23 yards)
RB: Antowain Smith, NO: 3 points (13 carries, 33 yards; 2 catches, 5 yards)
WR: Eddie Kennison, KC: 1 point (2 catches, 19 yards)
WR: Justin Gage, CHI: 1 point (2 catches, 14 yards)
K: Lawrence Tynes, KC: -4 points (3/4 XP, 0/1 FG)

Best Bets

Vivek: (2-1 last week, 26-26-1 overall)

Not being in the red is uncharted territory for me. Combine this with my performance on The Writers web site, and I'm pretty happy with my 2005 picks.

Houston +1.5 over SAN FRANCISCO

TAMPA BAY -14.0 over New Orleans

OAKLAND +8.5 over Giants

Al: (0-2-1, 21-21-2 overall)

I've gone 3-13-2 since coming back from paternity leave to let Vivek back into this race. I can't risk losing this on a tiebreaker because of Vivek's nine extra games, so I'm going to pick 12, that's right, 12 games this week to make sure that doesn't happen. I'm leaving out the Washington/Philadelphia game just so I don't have to root for anyone in that matchup. Every other game that you didn't pick gets one from me.

SAN DIEGO -9 over Denver

The Broncos are holding four starters out against the Chargers, and it's unlikely Jake Plummer and other key Denver players will see any action in the second half now that the team has the #2 seed locked up. San Diego will play hard to finish their disappointing season on an up note, and to knock the Chiefs out of the playoffs. Michael Turner should have a nice game against Denver's second string front seven.

INDIANAPOLIS -7.0 over Arizona

We'll see a lot of Jim Sorgi, Dominic Rhodes, and Troy Walters, but the starters should be in long enough to give the backups a ten point cushion.

Baltimore -3.0 over CLEVELAND

Look for Kyle Boller to continue his inexplicable late season surge and totally screw up the Ravens' offensive plans for the off-season.

Buffalo -1.0 over N.Y. JETS

FoxSports doesn't have the odds for this game up as of press time, so I'm going by USAToday, which inexplicably has the Bills as only a one point favorite against the Jets.

Carolina -4.0 over ATLANTA

DeAngelo Hall is out for the season finale. If Steve Smith can keep himself in the game, he could have a 200-yard day.

MINNESOTA +3.0 over Chicago

The Vikings will be interested in trying to keep their jobs, while the Bears are looking to keep everyone healthy. We should see a big dose of Kyle Orton in this one, which makes the Vikings defense a great fantasy play for those leagues that are still active in Week 17.

Cincinnati +2.0 over KANSAS CITY

Yes, Cincinnati's defense has not played well as of late, but neither has Kansas City's. You can beat their corners deep, which means a big game from Chad Johnson. The Chiefs may have been able to contain a hobbled LaDainian Tomlinson last week, but a healthy Rudi Johnson should do well if his offensive line can get him into the Kansas City secondary.

NEW ENGLAND -8.0 over Miami

This was supposed to be the Doug Flutie farewell game, but New England will still have a shot at moving into the #3 spot in the playoffs with a win.

Detroit +14.0 over PITTSBURGH

The Steelers could have a playoff spot locked up already thanks to a San Diego win over Denver's second string.

JACKSONVILLE -3.0 over Tennessee

Even though Jacksonville is locked into the #5 seed in the AFC, I still like their chances in this game. Byron Leftwich should play more than he would otherwise so that he can get some reps at actual game speed in preparation for the playoffs.

Seattle +3.0 over GREEN BAY

I don't care if Seneca Wallace plays 95% of his team's offensive snaps, they should stay within a field goal of the Packers. I just can't bring myself to give points with this Green Bay team.

DALLAS -12.5 over St. Louis

It seems like the Rams haven't played a football game in a month. There's no reason to expect them to show up in a road game against the Cowboys, who Bill Parcells will have playing hard in hopes of finishing the year with 10 wins, even if they're out of the playoff hunt by kickoff.

Posted by: Al Bogdan on 28 Dec 2005

30 comments, Last at 01 Jan 2006, 10:34am by NextCoast Winos


by Mike (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 4:49pm

note: I can't figure out how to fix the formatting on this when I hit preview...any suggestions to get my line-breaks back?

Ideas and suggestions, please

We're handing out awards in the fantasy league this year, a la the NHL. Many are league-specific (The Lady Byng for the most gentlemanly conduct for a manager) but here are some more of them, I'm looking for suggestions on names and winners:

1.) The Drew Bledsoe Award

To be given to a player whose injury has most greatly benefited his team: Daunte Culpepper

2.) The Reuben Droughns Award

To be given to the player whose success on the season is judeged to be the most random: Samkon Gado

3.) The Kerry Collins Award:
For the player who receives the most fantasy points despite a lack of talent or value to team: LaMont Jordan

4.) The Corey Dillon Award:

For the player whose skill and fantasy prowess are rendered worthless by playing for a perennial loser: Larry Fitzgerald

5.)The Chad Pennington Award:
For the player best exemplifying what we mean when we say "He's like Chad Pennington": Chad Pennington

6.) The Brandon Stokely Award: To be given to the best third wideout in the [fantasy] game: Kevin Curtis

7.) The Olandis Gary Award:
To be given to the player whose success on the fantasy fields is determined to be most directly based to the system in which he plays: Tom Brady (kidding)
Mike Anderson

by Mike (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 4:57pm

1.) I guess the preview wasn't an accurate picture of the formatting


2.) The Bills locked up McGee to a four year deal mid-season this year, I believe.

by Scott de B. (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 5:03pm

Line breaks never show up in the preview.

by Nathan (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 5:09pm

We should elect Kevin Jones to some sort of hall of fame. He is in all of our minds, and the death to all of our fantasy teams.


by Nathan (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 5:10pm

That was, I heart kevin jones. I forget that brackets are not displayed properly.

by Justus (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 5:32pm

I don't mind Kevin Jones. I took Shaun Alexander, Steven Jackson, LaMont Jordan, and Larry Johnson in my fantasy draft.

by Reinhard (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 5:55pm

Anyways, maybe hell be back next year.

Oh, and holy shit, thats some confusing playoff scenario you went through. Interesting though.

by Mark (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 6:11pm

Interesting stuff for Tampa Bay however there is one huge error. the game is home for tampa and its not in San Antonio!!!!

by pcs (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 6:25pm

Mora needs you guys on speed-dial.

by CaffeineMan (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 8:52pm

Mora needs you guys on speed-dial.
Speed dial? Speed dial!? Don't talk about speed dial! We're just trying to find the phone!

I want to give a shout out to this column, FO in general, and the posters under this column for their help in winning my league in my rookie FF season. Of course, a heapin' helpin' of luck in the draft with Alexander and Portis didn't hurt, either. :D

by NF (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 9:04pm

I had my first fantasy football team destroyed by bad WRs. I ended up one win from making the playoffs, and lost two match-ups by 8 and 4 points. In only a few weeks did the three WRs I started combine for more than 10 points. The rest of my team was solid, with good depth at running back, Drew Brees, who only did really badly a few times a year, and the Carolina defense to sub in for the Philly defense when the offensive decline made it hard for the D to keep the score down. I did fix some of my problems at WR by trading for Steve and Rod Smith 3/4 of the way through the season, but it wasn’t enough to get me into the playoffs after my horrible start.

The gory details of my WR drafting:

Round 4 (33rd pick): Joe Horn (34.15 points for the season). Still available: Steve Smith (142.50 points), Antonio Gates (113.90 points).

Round 5 (48th pick): Roy Williams (74.80 points). Still available: Larry Fitzgerald (122.50 points), Keenan McCardell, and others.

Round 7 (68th pick): Brandon Stokely (don’t even ask). Still available: Santana Moss (121.85 points), Rod Smith (87.05 points).

by Catholic Samurai (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 9:08pm

I'll let this quote say all that needs to be said about the Tampa Bay situation:

"So, if the Beers beat Detroit and Denver beats Atlanta in the American Southwestern Division East Northern, then Milwaukee goes to the Denslow Cup, unless Baltimore can upset Buffalo and Charlotte ties Toronto, then Oakland would play LA and Pittsburgh in a blind choice round robin. And if no clear winner emerges from all of this, the two-man sack race will be held on consecutive Sundays until a champion can be crowned."

by Zac (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 9:54pm

I count New York with 70 in the SOV, pending the outcome of the 4 remaining games that can help them. The teams New York has beat currently have 67 wins (and I think the NFL conference standings verify that), and they would gain 3 from Dallas, New Orleans, and Washington winning.

If Tampa Bay doesn't win the SOV, they're out, because they've already lost the SOS tiebreaker to both New York and Dallas (Tampa Bay can get at most 114 SOS, while New York and Dallas already have more than that [benefits of playing the AFC West this year, which is currently worth 8 games SOS more than the AFC East, which TB played]). From the ambigious language you use in the article, I can't tell if you knew that already or not.

by Zac (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 10:37pm

Also, if we take the outcome of each game to be random, I figure TB has a 50% chance of finishing with a better SOV than NYG, and a 63.3% chance of finishing with a better SOV than Dallas.

by Matthew Furtek (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 11:34pm

That wouldn't be a BASEketball quote, would it?

by Potomac Drainage Basin Indigenous Person (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 2:36am

Mike (1):

I'd give the Drew Bledsoe award to Priest Holmes. Perhaps Gado is a finalist for the Olandis Gary award as well?

by Joon (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 3:48am

isn't houston's super +27.5 kickoff return rating due in part to the fact that they are so terrible that they've returned a zillion kickoffs? it looks to me like a counting stat, rather than a rate stat, so maybe it should be adjusted for # of opportunities. that said, i'm sure mathis still scores well, since he's been sensational.

by Phil (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 3:54pm

The Fred Taylor Award
Given to the player universally predicted not to finish a season: Terrell Owens.

by US 30 (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 4:16pm

Zac (re 13):

I agree that I get 70 for the Giants' SOV wins in this scenario. Also, it's true that Tampa definitely loses the SOS tiebreaker to either the Giants or Cowboys.

One more refinement to this excellent article: the Bucs' nightmare scenario can also happen if the Panthers tie the Falcons. If this happens, just add half an SOV point to the Bucs (whether against the Giants or the Cowboys) and subtract half a point from the Cowboys.

by Sean (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 6:26pm

Who can believe it's come to this point? I'm in my championship game and I'm trying to decide between starting Tom Brady and Kyle Boller. The Pats technically have something to play for, but I don't think the difference between a three and a four seed is going to be enough of an incentive to play their starters all game.

I think I'm actually leaning towards starting Kyle Boller.

by Sid (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 8:30pm

Interesting sidenote:

Hidden in Sunday's Cardinals-Colts stinkfest is that Neil Rackers needs two FG to set a new record for most FGs in a season. And he's missed a few weeks due to injury!

by Starshatterer (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 8:49pm

Sean (#120 )--

Go with Boller -- Brady against Miami is far too risky, even at home.

Hopefully Boller can finsih the season before turning back into a pumpkin. 8-)

by Sid (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 8:59pm

RE: 20

I'd also go with Kyle Boller.

by Towwb (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 9:39pm

Championship game, and Mike Anderson's injury means I need to fill my flex spot with a receiver. Wilford (Titans), Keyshawn (St. Louis), or Randle El (Detroit)?

by Sean (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 9:50pm

Keyshawn, without question.

by Sid (not verified) :: Fri, 12/30/2005 - 1:25am

RE: 24

Obviously Keyshawn, unless your league counts return yardage (and then you might consider ARE).

by A.W. (not verified) :: Fri, 12/30/2005 - 11:57am

The Jerome Bettis award: Given to the player who contributes the most fantasy points from your bench (or possibly from the waiver wire): Lee Evans

by Mr Shush (not verified) :: Fri, 12/30/2005 - 12:59pm

I had exactly the same Brady-Boller debate with myself this week and have gone with Boller. Then again, I don't have a championship on the line - it's a points league and I'm about 100 points behind the guy in first and 100 ahead of the guy in third. Still, I think playing Brady would be running scared - it would be making a bad decision just because you'll look less stupid if you're wrong.

by bob (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 12:28am

So, if you could keep one keeper for next season: Rudi, Steve Smith, Anquan Boldin? 1. Rudi: worry about Perry? what about workload? Any reason to expect a decline? 2. Steve Smith: fluke? I expect a good year, but #1 WR again? 3. Boldin: awesome #s considering his injury. Awfully risky, considering his knees.


by NextCoast Winos (not verified) :: Sun, 01/01/2006 - 10:34am

Football Outsiders and contributors: Thanks for another great year. I truly dig your site. When I can make time for it I read virually every article and try to read every comment.

This article is typical: I read the minutae of the NFL tie-breaker system and really enjoyed it. I even went back to understand it. I'm planning my genius comments for when I hook up with friends to watch the Rose Bowl (not being played, against all that is holy, New Year's freakin' Day). But I know that when the talk turns NFC play-offs, most of what I have to offer will rhyme with "Go 'Hawks."

And, dammit, it's my turn to have nothing but "Go 'Hawks!" to say.

But I digress. I particularly enjoy the articles, frankly most of them, that make my head hurt. It's like reading about football and learning at the same time ... in the best possible sense.

So thank you all at FO and frequent contribs ...

...and for those of you whose favorite teams are out of the mix, lemme here a 'second favorite team' "Go 'Hawks!" for Matt and the boys and the Qwest Field Faithful.

Try it; it's good this year.