Scramble for the Ball's Parity Spectacular
by Bill Barnwell & Ian Dembsky
Bill: Ian and I got together on Sunday to watch a bit of the gridiron action, and what we found were a handful of fantastic plays interspersed with game after game of shambolic performances. For every Rob Bironas 60-yard miracle field goal that I was willing to bet my children's houses against, there were two Sebastian Janikowski missed chip-shot field goals. For every gorgeous move from Reggie Bush, there were three interceptions caused by balls hitting receivers in the chest and bouncing off their shoulder pads. For every Maurice Jones-Drew impersonation of Tommy Frazier, there were seemingly four consecutive turnovers going on in the Vikings-Bears game. For every Mathias Kiwanuka interception, there was a Mathias Kiwanuka fumble. Oops.
Ignoring Kiwanuka's attempt to become an aught-era Leon Lett, this week was full of performances from the top teams in each conference that should leave their fans and impartial observers with very little indications of their quality. Here's how the top ten teams, according to DVOA, did last week:
Chicago: Turned the ball over five times, but were saved by their defense and the brilliance of Devin Hester. Minnesota's defense is good, but they're not 107-yards-from-scrimmage good. Six weeks ago, Rex Grossman was an MVP candidate; now, Brian Griese seems like a palatable alternative. I don't think that Rex Grossman is a bad quarterback by any means, but would you have any faith in him not utterly destroying the Bears chances at least once in three games? Especially when they're against teams with defenses of this caliber?
San Diego: Had a decent, if not outstanding, performance against a pretty mediocre Buffalo team on the road. Did not cover, but I'll get to that.
Baltimore: Clearly knew that they'd already won Ian a jersey and didn't bother to show up against the Bengals on Thursday. I don't know that the Ravens area going to be able to run the ball in the playoffs, and if they can't, I don't think Steve McNair is going to be able to throw the ball around on most of the AFC teams he's likely to face. Well, except for the Colts. They can probably run on the Colts. And the Jets. But 61 yards on 17 carries? Jamal Lewis is toast. Not even tasty toast; he's the crumbs that get stuck in the toaster and get burnt over and over again. He needs to be cleaned out.
Dallas: Team of the Week. They went up to #1 in DVOA for a reason -- I was wrong two weeks ago when I said that they shouldn't be anointed as the best team in football. They were never second-best to the Giants all game; from the Kiwanuka fumble on, I never felt like the Giants were going to win. The Cowboys were always a step ahead of them. When the Giants scored to tie the game up, I looked over at Ian and said that they'd left too much time on the clock. He immediately scolded me for saying that. A minute of game time later, I was asking for the check.
Indianapolis: Well, they deserved a bit of bad luck. My nominee for Keep Choppin' Wood this week? Ben Utecht. His offensive pass interference penalty pushed the Colts back from the Tennesee 1-yard line to the 11, and the Colts kicked a field goal instead of scoring a touchdown. This, of course, set up the greatest moment of Rob Bironas' life, both that's passed and to come. I was yelling the same thing that Aaron was on the following kickoff; if the Colts had downed the kickoff upon catching the ball at the 40 instead of lateraling, they would've had a chance for a Hail Mary. Or, alternately, Adam Vinatieri would've been able to kick a 78-yard field goal to win the game. You doubt him? It was a clutch kick, fool, and we all know it's unpossible for Adam Vinatieri to miss clutch kicks.
New England: Played a miserable game against the Lions. If you watched the game without knowing anything else about the teams, you'd assume that the Lions were the division leaders and the Patriots were the bottom-feeders. There was something beautiful, though, about Josh McCown getting three passes thrown to him while Mike Williams was presumably working on motion capture for his role as the FOX Robot. McCown getting an offensive pass interference penalty, though, seemed unfair; after all, he's a quarterback! Shouldn't he have some leeway? It seems like it should be a sliding scale -- if Marvin Harrison does so much as touch a wide receiver, it should be ten yards, but McCown should be able to do anything short of employing a fire pit or exploding football technique. Also amusing was the New England papers feting Corey Dillon's nine-carry, 25-yard, three-TD day. You know, because not just anyone can run straight forward for three yards.
Jacksonville: David Garrard just wins, baby. Well, unless he loses. Aaron covered this very well in Audibles.
Philadelphia: Everybody's 6-6 now. They put on a good showing against Carolina, but they have to go to Dallas and to the Meadowlands in Weeks 15 and 16. Do you have any faith in them winning either of those games? Well, it depends upon how far the...
New York Giants have fallen. Here's my question. If Tom Coughlin's supposed to be the disciplined coach, how come the Giants are self-destructing for the second season in a row? This time around, they didn't even bother to wait for the playoffs. What really bothered me about the loss was the 42-yard pass to Witten that got the Cowboys into field goal range. If you watch the replay, you'll notice that a linebacker is chasing uselessly after Witten about 30 yards away from the line of scrimmage. How can that be possible? It's one thing to have him (I'll assume it's Antonio Pierce, since I don't have the tape in front of me) bump Witten, or play a zone 10 or 15 yards off the line. But to expect him to chase Witten downfield for eight, nine seconds? You deserve to lose. And to the guy in the Audibles thread who complained that we were criticizing Eli for a game where he had good stats? Watch that slant in the end zone that Aaron Glenn dropped ten times as penance.
Cincinnati: Their offense doesn't deserve this. If Cincinnati's defense could just be mediocre -- like last season -- they'd be a lock for a wild card spot. Instead, their defense is pretty much useless, and they're going to have to get lucky. I only got to see the fourth quarter of their game against the Ravens, but they looked good -- and if they can get into the playoffs, they have an offense that's going to be capable of simply outscoring anyone. I'm not saying they're going to win the Super Bowl -- they have no chance -- but I want to see Bengals-Chargers II and I know I'm not the only one.
San Francisco 49ers (o/u 5.0)
Bill: Under, Ian: Under. Current Record: 5-7
Looks like we were both wrong on this one, as were a lot of the pundits coming into the season. With home games left against Green Bay and Arizona, getting that sixth win seems likely. Alex Smith hasn't become a top-tier quarterback yet, but he's so far ahead of where he was last season, the offense has risen to respectability. Of course, he's not the main reason why; he's simply stopped turning the ball over at alarming rates. No, the offensive surge is headed by star running back Frank Gore. The 49ers defense is getting better, and it's their key to victory at this point. If they can keep the game close, they can keep Gore involved, and the team has a much better chance of winning. Alex Smith isn't ready yet to win a shootout. Only in one of San Francisco's seven losses did their defense do a relatively decent job -- their recent 20-17 loss to St. Louis (where a late-game injury to Gore proved pivotal). In their other losses, they've given up 34, 38, 41, 48, 41, and 34 points. Ouch.
Green Bay Packers (o/u 6.0)
Bill: Over, Ian: Under. Current Record: 4-8
Hard to say how this team will finish up. With a finishing schedule including San Francisco, Detroit, Minnesota, and Chicago (in Week 17, when the Bears will probably be resting their starters), just about anything is possible. Bill was right in that Minnesota and Detroit wouldn't prove much challenge to the Pack (Green Bay has beaten both of them on the road already), and they may help the Packers reach the Over. It's the rest of the league that's giving Green Bay trouble. Their only other wins came over Miami after Green Bay's bye week, and then at home against Arizona. Ironically, though I thought their biggest weakness would be the running game, that's been fairly effective. Ahman Green is on pace for over 1,000 yards rushing despite missing two games entirely. The team just hasn't been especially strong anywhere, and is having trouble finding ways to win.
Detroit Lions (o/u 7.0)
Bill: Over, Ian: Under. Current Record: 2-10
Hey, it's another team that's already clinched their Over/Under! Unfortunately for the Lions, it's the Under. I mentioned that for the Lions, they don't have an impact player on defense this side of Shaun Rogers. Well, following a four-game suspension for steroids, it looks like he'll miss the rest of the season due to a knee injury after having only played in six games. The offense has certainly showed flashes of greatness, with Mike Martz working hard to get his system going. Too bad the flashes have been quite brief. This team is headed nowhere, fast.
New Orleans Saints (o/u 7.0)
Bill: Under, Ian: Under. Current Record: 8-4
Oh, we of little faith! As much as I wanted to believe the Saints would have a good season in storm-ravaged New Orleans, I couldn't bring myself to do it. Big mistake. Drew Brees has been phenomenal. Rookie Marques Colston has as well. Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush are providing that power/finesse combination that teams love to have. The offensive line has been surprisingly effective, but of course it helps that any blitzes can be met with dump-offs to the dangerous Reggie Bush with big play potential. The Saints have hit the Over with emphasis, and look to be on their way to a division title. This Sunday's New Orleans-Dallas match up will go a long way to establishing who is the NFC favorite.
St. Louis Rams (o/u 7.0)
Bill: Under, Ian: Under. Current Record: 5-7
This Rams team has a long way to go to reach the Over. It looks unlikely thanks to a murderer's row of upcoming defenses, including Chicago at home and road games against Oakland and Minnesota. Their other game, a home game against Washington, is winnable, but can they win two of the remaining three games? A push for the season seems likely. Steven Jackson is churning out yards in both the passing and running games, but the rest of the team hasn't played well enough to reach a winning record. Of course, that doesn't prevent them from being in the hunt for the wild card.
Arizona Cardinals (o/u 8.0)
Bill: Over, Ian: Over. Current Record: 3-9
Well, when we're wrong, we're wrong. Not only have the Cardinals locked up the Under, I made the following bold and ill-conceived statement: "This is a playoff team." Oh well. What happened? Well, not to beat an over-used joke to death, but the Arizona Cardinals offensive line is who we thought they were -- terrible. Not even Edgerrin James can make them look good. Larry Fitzgerald's missed time due to injury was certainly a problem, but pretty much the whole season fell apart following one of the biggest meltdowns of all time, their primetime loss to the Bears. The future is starting to look bright with Matt Leinart getting his game together. As for the playoffs, well, there's always next season.
Atlanta Falcons (o/u 8.0)
Bill: Over, Ian: Under. Current Record: 6-6
Going into the season, I said that Atlanta's season rested on the development of Michael Vick's accuracy as a passer, as well as his receiver's ability to catch the ball. Three-quarters of the way through the season, the jury's still out. At times it's looked like it's all come together, while at times the passes are inaccurate, and the accurate ones are also dropped. The net effect is that the offense and defense both rate average, and thus this is an average team. How will they perform in their last four games, at Tampa and Philly and home against Dallas and Carolina? Who knows. One thing's for sure: The more this team hands off to Jerious Norwood, the better.
Minnesota Vikings (o/u 8.0)
Bill: Under, Ian: Over. Current Record: 5-7
For starters, is it safe to say that Minnesota got the better end of the Steve Hutchinson/Nate Burleson swap with Seattle? Burleson has become a decent punt returner, but that's about it. Hutchinson has helped anchor a solid offensive line that's making Chester Taylor look very good. That being said, the problem for this team has surprisingly been the erratic play of Brad Johnson. It's partially due to the Vikings' lack of possession receivers, but Johnson simply has not gotten the job done. He's turning the ball over too often for the quarterback of a team that should be based on defense and the running game. With home games against Detroit and Green Bay, and road games against the Jets and Rams, avoiding the Under is still a possibility, but it's a long shot.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (o/u 8.0)
Bill: Under, Ian: Over. Current Record: 3-9
This past weekend, I was watching the Bucs-Steelers game and rooting hard. I was rewarded, as Tampa inched closer to a top draft choice next season by continuing to look pitiful all over in a loss to the Steelers. Hard to blame their failures on the loss of Chris Simms to injury; Tampa deserved to lose him after the beating they let him take against Carolina. Cadillac has been having trouble finding daylight, Michael Clayton was dropping easy catches before going down with injury, and the defense just isn't as good as it used to be. I feel terrible for jinxing the team so badly by predicting a 10-win season. Lesson learned.
Philadelphia Eagles (o/u 8.5)
Bill: Over, Ian: Over. Current Record: 6-6
Well, despite Jeff Garcia taking over in Philly, this team is in the thick of the wild card chase. The Over is going to be hard to obtain, as they'd have to win three out of a tough closing schedule of road games at Washington, the Giants, and Dallas, followed by a home game against Atlanta. It's strange -- with McNabb at the helm, this team kept finding crazy ways to lose close games. Now, they get a crucial late interception to help beat the talented Carolina Panthers. A sign of things to come? Probably not, but who knows what to expect. Hard to know what to expect from the Redskins, Giants, or Falcons on a given week. Garcia's looked relatively comfortable running the show, but he's going to have to keep it going if the Eagles are to make the playoffs.
Chicago Bears (o/u 9.0)
Bill: Over, Ian: Over. Current Record: 10-2
As expected, the defense of the Bears continues to dominate. Unexpectedly, the offense has been a roller coaster of a ride, providing an aerial assault some weeks, while providing absolutely nothing on others. Of course, in the NFC North, half of a great football team is enough to win you a division title. With the Over already accomplished, all speculation now is on how far Lovie Smith will let Rex Grossman continue to lead the offense. If the past few weeks are any indication, it looks like it may be time for a switch.
New York Giants (o/u 9.0)
Bill: Under, Ian: Over. Current Record: 6-6
It's a real shame -- injuries have absolutely decimated this roster. Losing Strahan and Umenyiora has really put a damper on their pass rush. Tiki Barber hasn't run quite as effectively since breaking his thumb. Amani Toomer was another key threat on the field; defenses haven't had to do much to contain David Tyree or Tim Carter. Of course, when talking about the Giants' successes, we have to bring up Eli Manning, who still only looks good for about five minutes of each game. He has to pick it up if the Giants are to salvage their season and make the playoffs. The Under is looking likely, but the way things are going, that doesn't mean they can't make the playoffs.
Washington Redskins (o/u 9.0)
Bill: Under, Ian: Under. Current Record: 4-8
Turns out that Brunell's success last season was indeed a Mirage, and Jason Campbell time is upon us. He hasn't looked too bad, but it took the coaching staff too long to realize that Brunell was washed up, and now the Redskins are essentially looking ahead to next season. At least Clinton Portis will be well rested when next season begins.
Dallas Cowboys (o/u 9.5)
Bill: Over, Ian: Under. Current Record: 8-4
All the Cowboys need to do to hit the Over is win two of their last four games, including New Orleans, Philly, and Detroit at home, and Atlanta on the road. Far from a sure thing, but it certainly seems likely. Dallas is clicking in every facet of the game. Tony Romo has done an excellent job of keeping the chains moving. He's finding T.O. and Terry Glenn when he has time, but unlike Bledsoe is doing a good job of keeping things moving forwards with shorter passes to Jason Witten and the running backs when he doesn't. The defense is playing solid if unspectacular football. A very good offense and a solid defense is enough to put you near the top of the NFC this season, which is why Dallas is probably headed for the Over.
Carolina Panthers (o/u 10.0)
Bill: Under, Ian: Over. Current Record: 6-6
Can I take that one back? What's going on with this team? How can a team with so many talented players lose so many games? Certainly, the biggest factor has been the lackluster play of Jake Delhomme. Famous for late-game heroics, he's doing the opposite lately -- losing his team games. He's already got more interceptions and more fumbles than all of last season. His passer rating on third down is at the bottom of the league. He's certainly an intense competitor, but he needs to be more effective passing the ball if this team is to make the playoffs, much less the Super Bowl, as many people predicted before the season.
Seattle Seahawks (o/u 10.5)
Bill: Over, Ian: Under. Current Record: 8-4
Amazingly, this team has a decent chance to hit the Over, despite missing Shaun Alexander and Matt Hasselbeck for extended periods of time. A 3-1 record with remaining tilts against San Francisco, Arizona, San Diego, and Tampa Bay is certainly within reach -- especially with the offense clicking once again. The team passed a major hurdle by going into Denver and beating the Broncos (of course, it didn't hurt that Jay Cutler practically handed them the game with that awful heave-ho pick returned for a touchdown). A division title is almost assured at this point, but Seattle's fighting for a home game in the playoffs, and possibly a bye week. It looks like they'll get it.
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Loser Leaguers of the Week
QB: Since we were watching the Bears-Vikings game at 1:00, Ian and I were closely monitoring Rex Grossman and Brad Johnson's attempt to outdo each other and become Losingest Loser of Week 13. Unfortunately for Johnson, the Vikings benched him for Brooks Bollinger and Tarvaris Jackson, which meant Grossman won out. And by won out, of course, I mean matched the low Loser League score of the 2006 NFL season by busting out a -5, which tied the mark previously held by ... Rex Grossman. If Rex Grossman were your girlfriend, he wouldn't just cheat on you with an ex-boyfriend, or some random guy when she was drunk. Instead, you'd be reading the paper and you'd see that she'd been arrested for attempting to set some sort of one-day carnal relation record and she would neglect to tell you. The point I'm trying to make? When Rex Grossman is bad, he's really bad. The sad part of the whole story is that Grossman could've achieved a -6 with a single less rushing yard (which, considering he had -9 on the day, wouldn't have been a tall order); sadly, my dream of a QB with a negative passing and rushing performance must wait for another day. Johnson? He joins Grossman at the -5 club (if Jay-Z owns the 40/40 club, the -5 club would probably be owned by Skee-Lo or the not-dead guy from Milli Vanilli); realistically, he played worse, but he only had three quarters to work with instead of four.
RB: A trio of NFC backs share the honors in what was a pretty decent weeks for running backs across the league. Cadillac Williams has made showing up in this part of the column a habit; Ian's beyond yelling at the Buccaneers at this point and now glorifies their ineptitude like it's an admirable trait. Julius Jones has no such excuse -- he's quietly lost his playing time to Marion Barber. Jones had 24 yards on 11 carries and after starting off the season with four good games in five, he hasn't averaged more than 3.8 yards a carry in a single game since then, and that high-water point was Indianapolis. Thomas Jones, also quietly, is having his second straight very solid season. Sunday was just an off day against a very good run defense.
WR: Long-time loser league favorite Travis Taylor paces the field this week with a very well-played two-catch, nine-yard performance -- you have to assume that he avoided that extra yard on his second catch solely to know that a zero would get him some pub this week. OK, maybe not. Many wide receivers checked in with a sole point behind him, including Javon Walker, Roscoe Parrish, Greg Jennings, Antwaan Randle El, Ashley Lelie, and Ike Hilliard. They all had worse numbers than Josh McCown.
K: We mentioned Sea Bass before, and his -4 this week (that's two extra points to the good, three missed field goals to the bad) brings back good times for me. A few years ago, there was a playoff game in my fantasy league that I'd lost -- my opponent was up several points and I had no players left. All that needed to happen was for Sebastian Janikowski to get hurt, the Raiders to get shut out, or any other permutation of performance that did not involve Janikowski losing several points for his team. Two missed field goals later, I was miraculously in the second round. The other owner quit fantasy football for good.
Keep Choppin' Wood Award
Bill wants to give this week's award to Ben Utecht, and with good reason. David Carr deserves honorable mention for leading his team to negative (!) passing yardage. Jake Delhomme giving away the Monday night game with an interception thrown on the Eagles 1-yard line was awful.
None of it was as bad as the play of Jay Cutler though. As mentioned before, under duress against Seattle, up 10-0 late in the first half, he simply lobbed up a target-less pass that ended up right in the hands of Seattle defender Darryl Tapp, who cruised into the end zone untouched to bring Seattle back into the game. It would only be a "bad pass" if his team was down late and they were desperate for offense. Up 10-0, however, it was completely inexcusable. His final numbers were respectable only because of a short, easy completion to Brandon Marshall, who did all the work on his 70-yard touchdown romp. Welcome to the NFL Jay, you're this week's Keep Choppin' Wood Award winner!
Bill: (0-3 last week, 23-15-1 overall)
KANSAS CITY (-3) over Baltimore
Always love Kansas City at home, especially with a great secondary against a team that can't run the ball. Baltimore may be able to shut down the run, but their secondary can be beaten, as seen on the T.J. Houshmandzadeh touchdown last week (well, by a few people, at least).
Oakland (+10) over CINCINNATI
A risky bet, sure. But Oakland's defense is GREAT. And Cincinnati's defense isn't so great. This one will be close.
Chicago (-5.5) over ST. LOUIS
If St. Louis couldn't move the ball on Arizona...
Approaching Respectability Bets
Ian: (2-1 last week, 14-22-3 overall)
Tennessee (+1.5) over HOUSTON
This line makes me want to fly to Vegas and place a wager. The Texans are favored over the Titans??? Tennessee beat the Colts last week; meanwhile Houston had negative passing yards. I don't get it.
SAN DIEGO (-7.0) over Denver
I also don't trust Jay Cutler enough to think he has a chance on the road in San Diego. Merriman's back with a vengeance, and San Diego is now thinking about home field advantage through the playoffs. Sorry Denver fans, but I think the playoffs are out of reach.
Atlanta (-3.0) over TAMPA BAY
Better draft pick ... Better draft pick ... Better draft pick ...