Disappointing. There's no other way to describe losing at home to the Bengals. And the manner in which we lost made this game all the more painful. Up 14-7 five minutes into the second quarter, our Browns were completely dominated in their own house by one of the worst teams in football for the final forty minutes of play to fall to 1-3 on the season.
There's no way to sugar coat yesterday's disaster. I've been a vocal critic of the Browns offensive line, and yesterday's loss should have left no doubt that we have one of the poorest offensive lines in the entire NFL. We mustered just sixty-nine yards rushing on twenty-two carries (3.1 avg.) against the league's worst run defense, which had surrendered an average of 152 yards rushing per game in their first three contests. Tim Couch was harassed all day, and was hurried sixteen times and knocked down twelve times in his thirty-six pass attempts.
I think a lot of people underestimated the drastic effect that losing Ross Verba to a ruptured bicep would end up having on this team. As a matter of fact, Verba may have been the one player this team could least afford to lose. Despite the fact he was playing out of position at tackle, he was one of our better linemen and our best run blocker, and his loss weakened two spots on an already weak line. Barry Stokes, a journeyman that was a below average guard for us last season was moved to the critical left tackle spot. The guard spot he vacated was filled by the overmatched tandem of Melvin Fowler Jr. and Paul Zukauskas. What we were left with is a line that features a rookie center, a serviceable right tackle in Ryan Tucker, and three players that have absolutely no business starting in this league with no depth behind them.
Since getting our team back in 1999, as Browns fans, we have been subjected to atrocious blocking. We've seen no progress in this area, and this year's line may be worse than the one we trotted out on September 12, 1999 when we were stomped 43-0 in our return to the NFL after a three-year hiatus. No team in the league has seen less production from their starting guards and tight ends throughout this time span. The tight ends should not be spared from blame either. In addition to being no threat in the passing game, Steve Heiden and Aaron Shea have both incredibly overmatched in the run game and in their pass protections. They are a much bigger part of the problem than the casual fan realizes.
Of course, there are other lingering problems with this Browns team. After finishing 28th in the league in sacks last year, we are on pace to finish even lower in that category this season. Courtney Brown and Gerard Warren continue to be monumental disappointments, and it's hard to imagine either player on this team next season at even half of their current bloated salaries. We continue to suffer from mental mistakes such as dropped passes and rampant penalties. And the play calling on offense has become very predictable and lacks imagination.
The Browns are one last minute touchdown drive against the 49ers away from being 0-4 right now, and have scored a paltry 46 points in their first four contests. Despite these facts, the team is just one game out of first place in what is likely the weakest division in all of football. This weekend, we head into Heinz Field for a nationally televised Sunday night affair with one of the rivals one game ahead of us in the AFC North, the hated Pittsburgh Steelers. The following week, the defending AFC champion Oakland Raiders come to town. The Browns must win at least one of these next two contests to offer up any hope for the current season. Logic says this team is too weak in the trenches to match the playoff appearance of a season ago, when the Browns rallied from a 2-4 start to win nine games and secure a wild card spot. But this is a much younger squad; stripped of depth and veteran presence by the salary cap purge we endured this off-season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1): Wrapped two impressive road wins at Philly and Atlanta around the week two overtime loss to the Panthers. Still considered the best team in football, evidenced by the fact they are five point favorites at home vs. #2 Indianapolis in Monday night mega-match up.
Indianapolis Colts (4-0): The defense continues to improve under Dungy. Looked scary good in The Big Easy on Sunday night.
Kansas City Chiefs (4-0): Another team that has added a defense to go with the league's best running game. Huge game sees the #4 Broncos come to Arrowhead this week.
Denver Broncos (4-0): Is Plummer for real? If so, and if they can keep Portis healthy, the sky is the limit for Shanahan's team.
Minnesota Vikings (4-0): The Vikes have already beaten every team in their division behind a great offense keyed by one of the leagues biggest and nastiest offensive lines.
Seattle Seahawks (3-0): Notice a theme? Another team that has always been solid offensively has been reborn on defense thanks in part to the addition of Ray Rhodes. Watch this team.
Carolina Panthers (3-0): Do the Panthers have enough offense to compliment their phenomenal defense and special teams? The last three Super Bowl winners had far from explosive offenses.
Miami Dolphins (2-1): We should learn a bit more about this team after this week's game against the Giants in the Meadowlands in a match-up of two teams coming off bye weeks.
Buffalo Bills (2-2): Edge out the Redskins and Raiders for the final spot. Lost two straight hard fought games to the Dolphins and Eagles. Schedule softens up with the Bengals and the Jets on tap the next two weeks.
The Hot Seat
Dick Jauron: Unjustly coaching with his job on the line despite a constant deterioration of talent since huge 13 win season in 2000.
Travis Henry: Banged up, averaging 2.1 ypc, and McGahee is progressing nicely.
Dennis Erickson: A highly questionable hire to begin with, the Niners are off to a 1-3 start and TO is causing problems.
Terrell Owens: Getting a bad rap as a cancer in his contract year.
David Boston: Hurting TO's next contract with his antics after signing a huge deal, backing up theory many have not to pay to much for WR's.
Herman Edwards: Despite 0-4 start, injury to Pennington will give him some leeway. Some being the key word.
Curtis Martin: Averaging well below four yards/carry with Lamont Jordan waiting in the wings in what appears to be a lost season.
Kyle Boller: How long can Billick stay with the rook? 46.8 QB rating to go with 6 INT's against 2 TD's.
Kordell Stewart: He stinks, the Bears stink, it won't be long before Grossman is in there.
Looking Ahead: Two showdowns between four of the top teams in all of football highlight the week five slate as Indy visits Tampa on Monday night and Denver travels to play at Kansas City. A couple huge rivalry games are also on tap as Cleveland plays at Pittsburgh on Sunday night, and the Redskins pay their first visit to The Linc to take on the resurgent Eagles. Other games of note see Miami play at the Giants, Mike Holmgren and Seattle travel to Lambeau to play Green Bay, and the Titans play at New England.
The College Ranks
Road To The Sugar Bowl: Despite the fact that we are but five weeks into the season, there are just twelve unbeaten teams left in Division 1A: Oklahoma, Miami Fla., Ohio State, Virginia Tech, Florida State, LSU, Tennessee, Arkansas, Nebraska, Northern Illinois, TCU, and Minnesota.
Four of these teams are off this week, and the other eight face substandard opponents, so the chances of this list staying at twelve teams into next week remains strong.
Michigan, Southern Cal, Georgia, and Texas lead the long list of one-loss teams that will need a slip up from each of the aforementioned teams to earn a berth to New Orleans for the BCS Championship Game.
Heisman Watch: We'll start it early this season. My weekly look at the constantly evolving top half dozen Heisman hopefuls…
QB Phillip Rivers, North Carolina State.: Has thrown for a mind-boggling 1800 yards already and has twelve TD's through the air and another two on the ground. Despite starting the season 0-2, the schedule softens up for NC St., and Rivers is likely the favorite as things stand now.
WR Larry Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh: History says a sophomore can't win the Heisman, but this incredibly talented youngster is off to a great start including 135 yards and 3 TD's in a big win over A&M last week.
Others to watch: RB Michael Turner / Northern Illinois, QB Brad Smith / Missouri, RB Chris Perry / Michigan, RB Cedric Cobbs / Arkansas, RB Frank Gore / Miami Fla., WR Roy Williams / Texas, WR Mike Williams / USC, WR Reggie Williams / Washington, QB Cody Pickett / Washington, RB Shaud Williams / Alabama, RB Darren Sproles / Kansas St., QB Eli Manning / Ole Miss
The Games That Matter: Many meaningful games, but no marquee match-ups as conference play commences. Four of the top eight teams, all of whom are unbeaten, are off this week.
- #16 Kansas St. Wildcats at #13 Texas Longhorns
- #9 Michigan Wolverines at #23 Iowa Hawkeyes
- #7 Tennessee Volunteers at Auburn Tigers
- #10 USC Trojans at Arizona St. Sun Devils
- Alabama Crimson Tide at #11 Georgia Bulldogs
- #18 Washington Huskies at UCLA Bruins
Well, I'm back again to try my hand at picking games against the Vegas number, and last year was a mild success for me doing just that. I offered up between two and four plays in both college and the pros last season in this portion of my column, and also started a complimentary Saturday morning newsletter with all of my late and final plays. By season's end, I had over 100 people request to be added to the distribution list of that newsletter. Before I go any further, here's a quick look at my documented record ATS since I started picking winners in print:
'01-'02 bowl games: 18-7 (72.0%)
'02 "Swerb's Blurbs" selections: 25-24-2 (51.0%)
'02 Saturday morning newsletter selections: 46-40 (53.5%)
'02-‘03 Bowl games: 14-12 (53.8%)
'01-‘02 playoffs: 7-4-1 (63.6%)
'02 "Swerb's Blurbs" selections: 21-24-1 (46.7%)
'02 Saturday morning newsletter selections: 30-29-1 (50.9%)
'02-‘03 playoffs: 8-6 (57.1%)
The keys to successful handicapping are preparation and money management. Here are some of the tools I use to help me assess the board each weekend:
- Anything written by Phil Steele at Northcoast Sports (www.ncsports.com). Phil is a local guy with a national following. His pre-season publications (including his legendary college football preview) are jam packed with every possible statistic you could ever want to know about any college or pro team over the past fifteen years. You may have heard Phil on Bruce Drennan's morning talk show, as he is on weekly during football season. Phil is a smart man, a hard worker, and takes his football eerily serious.
- The Internet. My two favorite sites are www.covers.com (now a site sponsor!) and www.sportslynx.com. Covers is a virtual mecca for any tidbits of information you could ever hope to find on upcoming games. Sportslynx is a site run by Chad Wilson, a friend of mine for some time, and a former cornerback at Miami of Florida University in the mid 90's where he was part of a fierce defense that also featured Warren Sapp, Ray Lewis, and The Rock. He has turned his attention to handicapping football, and has a proven track record of success that I can personally attest to. Also, www.vegasinsider.com is another solid site loaded with news, tips, and information. And lastly, the Insiders Network that our fine site is a part of is loaded with inside information, especially some of the fan message boards.
- My gut. If it's good enough to decide the QB situation for my Cleveland Browns, it's good enough to help me pick winners. There are many times when I cast aside the statistical analysis and play games based solely off a feeling I have as to how a game will end up playing out.
Alright…on to my weekly selections. If you'd like to be added to the Saturday morning newsletter, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
Florida Gators –13 vs. Mississippi Rebels
The Florida Gators will have revenge on their mind, and Ron Zook will have his job on his mind when Ole Miss and Eli Manning come to town this Saturday afternoon. Mississippi stunned the Gatos 17-14 last season in a game that started the Gator season down the wrong path. This is the Gators last home game for a month, and I expect them to play well and not look past an overrated Rebel team before hitting the road to play LSU and Arkansas.
Oregon St. Beavers –1 at California Golden Bears
Much like we saw with Oregon last week, I expect a big emotional letdown from Cal this week after stunning USC at home. Jeff Tedford is one of the best young coaches in college, but many forget that this is a team that returned just two defensive starters from a year ago and played well over their heads last week. I expect Steven Jackson and the potent Beaver offense to have their way with Cal in a convincing win.
Texas A&M Aggies +7 at Texas Tech Red Raiders
Always a hard fought game; the favorite is just 2-7 ATS in this series over the last nine. The Red Raiders are coming off a big win at Ole Miss, while A&M just caught one on the chin from Pitt at home. A&M is 0-4 ATS thus far, and trends like that usually don't go on for too long. They need a win, and despite their lackluster start, should not be getting seven points in this game.
Colorado St. Rams –6 vs. Fresno St. Bulldogs
Another team off to a tough start (0-4 ATS), I like the Rams and senior QB Bradlee Van Pelt to right the ship this week against Fresno. This is the Rams fourth straight home game, and they've lost the last two to Miami OH and Utah…two very underrated squads. They need to right the ship here, and I think they will do that with a convincing win against a Fresno team coming off games against Louisiana Tech and Portland State.
Miami Dolphins +1 at NY Giants
I still have a lot of questions about the Giants this season, and they are in for a tough fight in a suddenly loaded NFC East division. The Giants are suspect in the trenches, and in Miami they face an opponent very strong up front. The Giants are last in the league in rush defense, and in comes Ricky Williams off a bye week. The Giants have also struggled as home favorites over the past four years, going just 8-14-1 ATS in that role. The Giants also come off their bye week, but have lost straight up and ATS the last two seasons when doing so, while the Dolphins have covered two of the last three years off their bye. Take Miami.
Philadelphia Eagles –5 vs. Washington Redskins
In my opinion (and the opinion of odds makers based on this line), the Eagles poor start was a mere aberration. They handled a very solid Bills team on the road last week, and head back home to face the rival Redskins, who they've crushed the last three times they've played them. Not only are the Redskins ahead of them in the division, but also the Eagles will be eager to play well at their new stadium after the Monday night debacle to open the season against Tampa Bay. The Eagles went 5-1 ATS vs. the NFC East last year, and were also 5-2 ATS as a home favorite. The Redskins were 1-5 ATS in division, and Patrick Ramsay will likely get a wake up call this week vs. an aggressive Philly D that will be fired up before raucous fans. Take the Eagles.