Not your Father's NFL

It's Playoff time; time to dust off the football knowledge and impress everyone at the Super Bowl parties, right? Well, remember all those one-liners John Madden has been hurling at you since you were knee-high ("Offense wins games, defense wins championships; "You have to be able to run the ball in the playoffs;" ….)? Well, forget them. This year's wacky NFL season has changed some of the playoff "rules."

Rule 1.           You have to be able to run the ball to succeed in the playoffs.

 

Umm, no.  In fact, of the 12 playoff teams, only one had a player ranked in the Top 10 in Rushing (Giants, Tiki Barber—knocked out in the 1st Round).  The game when it became clear that the run didn't mean much anymore was the Dec. 1st meeting between Miami and Buffalo when Ricky Williams ran for 228 yards and Miami lost by 17 points!!!  How is this even possible?  Williams averaged 8.4 yds a carry.  That is virtually a first down every time he carried the ball.  Vince Lombardi must have been spinning in his grave.  At that point in the season, it was clear the forward pass was king.

 

Some in the sports media have dubbed this season "The Year of the Pass," and rightly so.  At the start of the 4th Quarter in the AFC title game it dominated, the Raiders had run the ball ONE TIME!  That is not a typo; once.  It is not only the passing game, but, more specifically, the short passing game (usually referred to as the "West Coast Offense") which has taken over.  After years of defenses being built around stopping the run, Offensive Coordinators decided to quick running the Bill Curry offense (3 handoffs, and a cloud of dust) and air it out.  League-wide, the average pass completion this year was 11.3 yds; the lowest in almost 3 decades.(Kudos to John Clayton at ESPN.com for this info., plus some help with the "Cover-2" D down below).  The Raiders play "small ball" at an even lower 11.2 yds/completion.  Spread the defense out, and dink and dunk for 6-8 yds a pop.

 

Rule 2.           The Packers cannot lose at Lambeau Field in the Playoffs.

 

After all, the Packers had never lost a Playoff game at Lambeau in their history.  This season, Atlanta, a dome team playing outside on the road who had snuck into the playoffs, surely wasn't going to be the team to shatter the myth of the Frozen Tundra.  Not in a snowstorm with a quarterback in his first full year as a starter, going up against 3-time MVP Brett Favre, right?  Wrong.  Mike Vick (unquestionably THE story in the NFL this year, but I am sure you are sick of hearing about it) snapped a 13-0 (2 wins were actually in Milwaukee, not at Lambeau) home playoff winning streak for Green Bay that dated back to 1933.  If you are a gambling man, I hope you like your new apartment, because you probably bet the house on the Pack on this one.

 

Rule 3.           Tampa Bay can't win in temperatures of less than 40 degrees.

 

Tampa Bay came into Week 17 of the 2002 season never having won a game in franchise history when the temperature was below 40 degrees.  Ever.  0-21.  Tampa Bay beat an injury-riddled Bears team with 5 field goals in Week 17 in sub-40 degree weather to end the streak.   But on the road against the Eagles at the Vet in January, which has both the worst turf and the worst fans in the NFL, the Bucs had no shot, right?  If you are a gambling man, I hope you like walking, because I'm sure you bet your car trying to win enough for a down payment to buy your house back.

 

Best Playoff Stories Getting Next to No Media Coverage….

 

1.         Butch Davis selling out his Defensive Coordinator in the post-game press conference after the Browns' late-game collapse in the Wildcard Round. 

 

After the Browns' colossal collapse in the 4th quarter against the Steelers, Head Coach Butch Davis held the normal post-game press conference.  When asked by the press why the Browns switched to a "prevent" D (you know, the one fans always say prevents their favorite team from winning) in the 4th quarter when their regular defense had been frustrating the Steelers, Davis said he didn't make that decision, the press would have to ask his Defensive Coordinator, Foge Fazio why the Browns switched.  Fazio, 63, retired on the Wednesday after the loss without much fanfare.

 

However, Fazio had a reputation for being a gambler and taking chances, so it seemed out of character for one of his defenses to go into a shell.  Well, Cleveland newspapers later reported Fazio actually wanted to attack Steelers QB Tommy Maddox, but Davis overruled him and ordered the switch to the dreaded Prevent D, supposedly out of a fear of giving up one big play.  Davis' gutless finger-pointing at Fazio in the press conference was the last straw for Fazio, who retired rather than deal with Davis' meddling.

 

(Check out http://www.cleveland.com/sports/plaindealer/index.ssf?/base/sports/104202371070610.xml for more )

 

If you're Tim Couch, it must be nice to know you've got such a stand-up guy as your head coach, with the Cleveland fans and sports media calling for the end of the Couch era, before it really got started.  Let me start a rumor I have absolutely nothing to back up.  Tim Couch to Cincinnati.

 

2.         Downside of Parity

 

The buzz word in the NFL this season was "parity."  On the last weekend of the season, virtually every team in the AFC had a mathematical chance of making the playoffs.  While the NFL was busy patting itself on the back for the success reshuffling the divisions had in creating races for playoff spots, there was another aspect that the NFL brushed under the carpet.

 

What the NFL has ignored is that the downside to realignment is that deserving teams stay home, while teams in weak divisions (like the Colts) can get a playoff spot, and get pasted in the playoffs.  Have there ever been two better teams who didn't make the Playoffs than the Broncos and the Dolphins?  Throw in the Super Bowl Champ Pats, and you've got 3 very solid teams.  With a break here and there, either one of these teams was good enough to have made it to the AFC Title game. Heck, Miami manhandled the Raiders just 2 weeks before the Playoffs started (more on that below). It should be some consolation to these two teams that they should have a field day next year when they face soft non-divisional schedules because of their lesser records this year.  Nevertheless, any of these teams would have dominated the Colt's division, and the Broncos and Dolphins both had the talent to play on Super Bowl Sunday, and the press (outside of Denver, Miami, and Boston anyway) should have had more to say about it.

 

Things you CAN count on in the Super Bowl:

 

For the first time ever, the statistically-rated No. 1 Offense will face the No. 1 Defense in the Super Bowl.  I guess we finally get to see whether its Offense or Defense that really does win championships.  Here are some things you can count on in the Big Game:

 

1.         The team with the fewest turnovers almost always wins.

 

The one football cliché that actually means something is "The team who turns the ball over the least, will win."  In this year's playoffs, the team who suffers the most turnovers is 3-7.  In the Super Bowl, the numbers are even more staggering.  In Super Bowl history, the team who has more turnovers is 2-27 (in 7 Super Bowls, the teams were tied for turnovers).  Only Pittsburgh in 1980 and Baltimore in 1971 were able to win after turning the ball over more than their opponent; Baltimore somehow winning 16-13 despite 7 turnovers.  Tampa Bay was ranked No. 1 in the regular season in turnover differential.  Interesting…

 

2.         Both teams will go "No-Huddle"; the Raiders will do it better.

 

Despite, the somewhat deceptive scoreline, the Eagles moved the ball very effectively late in the NFC Championship when they switched to the no-huddle.  In fact, the Bucs looked very tired and were not getting any pass rush when McNabb threw that awful pass that Ronde Barber stepped in front of and went the distance, putting the game out or reach. 

 

There are a lot of advantages to running a no-huddle, but one of the biggest has to be forcing the defense to play a "base" defense.  Defense in today's NFL is focused on specialists and mass substitutions to get in the right "package" for the particular down and yardage.  However, the no-huddle doesn't give the defense time to substitute, and forces defensive coordinators to play a "basic" D, rather than be able to put the schemes and personnel they want in on any given play.  A good no-huddle offense that is moving the ball (and getting first downs—"3 and out" in a no-huddle will kill your own defense) gets to look at the same players playing the same basic scheme, and usually begins to pick a Defense apart.  A nice side effect is that keeping the same defenders on the field tends to wear down a defense.  With Gannon, Rice, Brown, and the emerging Porter, the Raiders are a force to be reckoned with in the no-huddle.  The Bucs have gone and can go no-huddle, but are not as fluid on offense as the Raiders, and are unlikely to be able to sustain drives in this set-up.

 

3.         Tampa Bay will try to use their "Cover 2" defense to make them No. 1.

 

Tampa Bay is the King of the "Cover 2" Defense, a scheme which the rest of the NFL has tried to copy, but no one does it better than the Bucs.  What is "Cover 2"? (for a through breakdown, check out ESPN's Football 101 http://espn.go.com/ncf/columns/davie/1437187.html )  Cover-2 is a zone coverage in which the corners and linebackers divide the short part of the field into 5 zones, and the 2 safeties (hence the "2") divide the deep part in half and "play center-field."  The safety scheme cuts down on big plays.

 

Tampa Bay is the best team in the league at the Cover-2, but the last defense to shutdown the Raiders was the Dolphins in Week 15.  The Dolphins used 6 defensive backs for most of the game, and played aggressive bump & run man-to-man coverage on Rice and Brown.  Look for more man-to-man by Tampa Bay, which they do disguise in Cover-2 "looks" (called "Man Under"), however, this scheme puts a linebacker on either Rice, Brown, or Porter.  I think how Tampa Bay does in man-to-man could be the deciding factor in the game.

 

And the Winner is………

 

I've got to go with the Raiders.  I just think they'll be doing more scoring than the Bucs' D will be doing stopping.  The Raiders' offense has been a well-oiled machine in the playoffs, wearing teams down, and then finishing them off in the 4th quarter.  The Raiders run a quick passing offense, not giving the Bucs' vaunted pass rush much time to get to Gannon.  This will be magnified even further when the Raiders go to the no-huddle, leaving the same Bucs' front 4 in for extended periods with no subs.  Speaking of Gannon, for all the hype about Gruden and the Bucs D, let's not forget that the Raiders have the League MVP running the show in their backfield.  While the Bucs' offense is improved, an early Raiders' lead or a shootout could be too much for Tampa Bay to overcome. 


Another reason the Raiders must win is Chris Berman of ESPN picked the Bucs, and that guy hasn't picked an NFL game in ages.  In the preseason, he picked the Bengals to go to the Super Bowl.   The Bengals.  Take the Raiders giving 3 ½.

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