Push for the postseason
Pro Football Weekly takes an analytical look at the nfl's playoff contenders.
Three-quarters of the way through the 2003 season, the AFC looks to be stronger than the NFC, with the Chiefs, Titans, Patriots and Colts appearing to be the class of the league. In the NFC, the picture is much more muddled. Who do you like? The Eagles? Cowboys? Rams? Seahawks? Panthers? Vikings? Although we may not know the division winners or even all of the playoff combatants, this much is certain: The NFL's second season starts in only five weeks. With that in mind, we are turning the spotlight on teams still in the postseason race. Through Week 13, there are 16 teams sitting at .500 or better. Here's a closer look at each of them.
New England Patriots
What's working: With the Patriots, it sounds like a broken record, but the defense has been fantastic in spite of injuries up and down the roster. The offense can brag about surviving the injury bug as well, although its performance hasn't been as impressive as that of the defense. The offensive line has been a pleasant surprise, led by rookie C Daniel Koppen and new starting ORT Tom Ashworth, who have stepped in and performed well. Also QB Tom Brady has been on his game lately, limiting turnovers and running the offense quite well.
What needs to be fixed: Although RB Kevin Faulk has been a playmaker at times and a big bonus in the passing game, he has not been consistent, and neither has any other running back on the roster. The Patriots need the running game to take some pressure off Brady and the passing game and provide more balance. Also, the team will have to figure out what to do when injured WR Troy Brown returns to action. The Patriots will have seven receivers once that occurs, which means at least one current pass catcher could be cut.
What's working: The run defense has been a force at times, and although the pass defense has given up some really big plays, it has been mostly solid. The running game appears to be coming around again after a six-week slump in which RB Ricky Williams did not register a 100-yard game.
What needs to be fixed: The running game, though, could become more consistent. It needs to be able to crank out the yards week-in and week-out, without hitting a dry spell. The offensive line has been soft and has battled through injuries. If it can get healthy and add some punch to its repetoire, Williams would have a better go of it. And although QB Jay Fiedler has done a solid job in his return from a knee injury, the passing game has yet to actually frighten anyone into swinging their defense away from stopping Williams.
What's working: The running game, for starters. All season teams have put eight men in the box to stop RB Jamal Lewis, but he has run with the power and speed to thrive in these circumstances. TE Todd Heap has been productive in spite of the inconsistent play from Baltimore's quarterbacks. On the other side of the ball, RILB Ray Lewis again is a healthy, tackling machine. The Ravens were tied for the league lead in sacks entering Week 13 and have gotten the most out of rookie Terrell Suggs, who is a liability in coverage but a terror to block. SS Ed Reed has become one of the league's premier safeties and has been a force on special teams.
What needs to be fixed: Before QB Anthony Wright connected with WR Marcus Robinson for four touchdowns in Week 12, big plays from the passing game were few and far between. Wright, who is filling in for injured rookie Kyle Boller, doesn't need to be spectacular from game to game, but he must avoid mistakes and keep defenses honest. The Ravens, particularly Jamal Lewis, must take better care of the football. If there is a worry on defense, it is the secondary's tendency to surrender big plays on occasion. Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck riddled the Ravens for five touchdowns in Week 12.
What's working: A rushing attack stymied earlier in the season has picked up steam as the season has progressed. In their last four games, the Bengals are averaging 194.5 rushing yards per outing. RB Corey Dillon appears to be over a nagging groin injury; what's more, sources close to the team say his attitude has improved. Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski will call on Dillon and RB Rudi Johnson to wear down tired defenses this month. QB Jon Kitna has limited his mistakes and aided the in development of WRs Chad Johnson and Peter Warrick, who have been one of the NFL's best pass-catching pairings this season. On defense, CB Tory James has been a big help for a secondary that needed a talent upgrade. Head coach Marvin Lewis inspires great loyalty from his players, and he has consistently made the right moves with this team.
What needs to be fixed: You won't confuse the Bengals' defense with the ones Lewis coached in Baltimore. Stopping the run has been a problem all season. The secondary also has had its troubles, with Ravens WR Travis Taylor and Chargers WR David Boston in particular hurting the Bengals with big plays. Cincinnati's special teams also are of concern; returning and covering kicks has not been a team strength this season.
(* - not including Week 13 Monday-nighter)
What's working:QB Steve McNair is a possible MVP candidate and has the offense rolling. A deep WR corps that features Derrick Mason, Justin McCareins, Drew Bennett and rookie Tyrone Calico has helped McNair put up big numbers and turned the Titans into a passing team. Tennessee's run defense has stuffed the run as well as any team in the NFL.
What needs to be fixed: RB Eddie George looks to be on his last legs, and as a result, the Titans have had trouble establishing the run all season. Heading into Week 13's Monday-nighter, the Titans had suffered two losses (vs. the Patriots and Colts), both of which came when Tennessee came out flat on the road. Despite the Titans' success against the run, their defense has surrendered too much passing yardage and too many big plays.
What's working: The Colts' passing offense has delivered all season. Despite injuries to the WR and RB corps, QB Peyton Manning has cut down on interceptions and is having the best year of his career. WR Reggie Wayne finally has provided Manning with a consistent No. 2 option to WR Marvin Harrison. The pressure provided by DE Dwight Freeney has upgraded the pass defense. PK Mike Vanderjagt is perfect on the season.
What needs to be fixed: Although the defense has improved from last year, it still struggles against the run. This flaw could prove fatal with cold-weather playoff games around the corner. Having had key players like Harrison, RB Edgerrin James, OT Tarik Glenn and TE Marcus Pollard miss games, the Colts must stay healthy during the stretch run.
Kansas City Chiefs
What's working: A lot of things, primarily on offense. The Chiefs have the league's premier running game with Priest Holmes and a very mobile and efficient offensive line that has managed to stay healthy for a second straight year. QB Trent Green has been on a tear of late, making good decisions and spreading the ball around once he locates mismatches. Kansas City sits atop the turnover table (with 32 takeaways and 13 turnovers) and has gotten after the passer with greater frequency this season.
What needs to be fixed: Mostly the run defense, which has been gouged every way possible for at least 133 yards in seven of the last nine games. Not only are defensive linemen not controlling the gaps, they're not occupying blockers. And even if they do, tackles all too frequently are being missed elsewhere. Defensive coordinator Greg Robinson & Co. need to shore up that deficiency before the playoffs. More consistent performances from Kansas City's WR corps would be nice to have as well.
What's working: The ground game has been pretty good all season long behind the explosive running of Clinton Portis. The Broncos have been held below the 100-yard mark only twice and gained at least 200 yards rushing in weeks 12 and 13. In Week 14, the Broncos amassed 193 yards rushing. The offense seems to march to a different beat under QB Jake Plummer, in large part because of his mobility, creativity outside of the pocket and ability to improvise. The defense, despite season-ending injuries to OLBs Ian Gold and John Mobley, the fact that MLB Al Wilson is playing at less than 100 percent and the distraction of suspended DT Daryl Gardener, still managed to rank second in the NFL prior to Week 13.
What needs to be fixed: The Broncos really could benefit from Ashley Lelie stepping up. The second-year wideout has all the makings of a great one and was supposed to blossom this season, but he has come up short of expectations. Denver could use some better special-teams performances, especially with its coverage teams, and the makeshift LB corps needs to learn on the fly and avoid getting exploited. If Gardener returns with an improved attitude, it could be a huge lift for the defense.
What's working: The team got off to a horrible start, losing its first two at home, but has rebounded and improved incrementally each week. After a horrendous start and the worst six-game stretch of his career, QB Donovan McNabb has shaken off questions about his injured thumb and lack of production by becoming the team's MVP over the past month. Prior to being picked off once last week vs. the Panthers, he had gone four games without an interception. While McNabb was struggling, the three-headed running game, featuring the surprising Brian Westbrook, Correll Buckhalter and Duce Staley, was the offense's backbone. The defense, ravaged by injury throughout the season, has battled bravely and brandished its depth. The coaching staff has done an amazing job of keeping this team together. What needs to be fixed: The wide receivers are not producing very much - Todd Pinkston and James Thrash have combined for 65 receptions thus far. Although the offensive line has come together recently, it still allows too much pressure and will be shorthanded without Pro Bowl OG Jermane Mayberry for the rest of the season. The offense is prone to long droughts and could be much better on third- and fourth-downs. The defense is a bend-but-don't-break model that gives up yardage but keeps teams off the scoreboard well.
What's working: Prior to their Thanksgiving Day debacle, just about everything was working defensively. The team was No. 1 in total yards, passing yards, first downs and points allowed before the 40-21 loss to the Dolphins. Although it is a smallish unit, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has used its great speed and a more aggressive formula to get this group to achieve great success. QB Quincy Carter has been solid, avoiding the chronic mistakes that plagued his early career. Head coach Bill Parcells has been a big hit, shrugging off talk of potential conflict with owner Jerry Jones and molding a young team into a worthy, hard-working opponent. The team has shown resiliency in following up each of its first three losses with three impressive wins.
What needs to be fixed: For the offense to take another step, Carter must continue to make big plays like he did the first six weeks of the season. Since then, big plays have been few and far between. Part of the reason is RB Troy Hambrick has not done well week in and week out as the featured runner, and you have to wonder how much RBs Adrian Murrell (assuming he is re-signed) and Aveion Cason can provide in relief. OG Larry Allen, the team's most dominant lineman for years, has been a shadow of his former self and has found himself in Parcells' doghouse at times. Special teams could use some shoring up.
What's working: Scott Linehan's offense has been one of the most productive in the league. The Vikings' offensive philosophy is simple to explain, complicated to scheme against. With seven or fewer "in the box," the Vikings pound the ball behind one of the NFL's biggest starting offensive lines. RB Moe Williams held the fort until last year's starter, Pro Bowl RB Michael Bennett, returned to the starting lineup in Week 12. Teams now are forced to choose between stopping Bennett or WR Randy Moss with an extra defender. The defense has been opportunistic, matching last year's total for interceptions (16) by Week Seven. The CB play has generally been superior to what it was in 2002, and the addition of rookie DLE Kevin Williams has balanced the defensive line.
What needs to be fixed: Minnesota has returned to its turnover-happy ways in recent weeks. The hope is that Bennett will reduce the number of big plays QB Daunte Culpepper is asked to make. But the greater concern is with a defense that has proven incapable of the key stop during its recent slide. The Vikings' defense is not fast, isn't laden with great tacklers and lacks the difference-makers at several positions. Teams have gouged Minnesota with outside runs and schemed to work for isolation with backs and tight ends to pick up huge chunks of yardage.
Green Bay Packers
What's working: The ground game is one of the best in the NFL and features three running backs averaging better than 5.0 yards per carry. The Packers are just 40 yards shy of 2,000 rushing yards on the season, and have better balance than most teams. By comparison, there were teams that just crossed the 1,000-yard rushing plateau last week. The power-running game has given Brett Favre more favorable matchups outside and made it impossible for defenses to defend everyone. The offensive line is deserving of top billing. MLB Nick Barnett is hobbled, but he was the defensive MVP through the first 11 games. Since DT Grady Jackson has come on board, the Packers' run defense has stiffened.
What needs to be fixed: Green Bay's run defense has been shored up but cannot be considered stout. A weakness each of the last three seasons, the Packers are hopeful they will be stronger against the run with their new D-line rotation and run blitzes. Favre has become a good play-action passer, but he and Green have been detriments in the turnover department. WR Donald Driver, on the heels of a breakout season in 2002, has faded, in part because of the attention given the running game. TE Bubba Franks and WR Robert Ferguson have had minimal impacts.
What's working: Head coach John Fox's conservative approach has limited the offense's mistakes and put games in the hands of the defense. The "D" hasn't disappointed, and QB Jake Delhomme has been better than expected. WR Steve Smith has emerged as a playmaker, and RB Stephen Davis has been a workhorse. Davis' power running has set the tone for the Panthers, who feed off his energy and believe they simply need to control the tempo to be successful. A favorable schedule through the month of December - away games vs. the Falcons, Cardinals and Giants, and home vs. the Lions - could produce an NFC South crown.
What needs to be fixed: The defense hasn't been finishing games of late, slipping some in the fourth quarter and allowing games to be closer than they should be. The secondary is healthy, but CBs Terry Cousin and Reggie Howard are providing too much cushion and aren't wrapping up when they tackle. Davis also is showing signs of wear and tear after putting together a stellar first half of the season. Delhomme's fiery demeanor in the huddle has given the Panthers a spark, but without Davis running at full strength and opening up the passing game, Carolina could stumble down the stretch.
New Orleans Saints
What's working: Nobody has any complaints about RB Deuce McAllister, whose consistency has been the anchor for the Saints. He set a team record for most consecutive games rushing for 100 yards, and his long runs have opened the passing game for QB Aaron Brooks. Brooks has been up and down all year, but he has been more of a leader in the huddle and has given the team a quiet confidence. The defense finally is jelling after struggling to get used to playing with each other in the first half of the season, and now that just about everyone is back healthy again, the Saints could be in a good position to make a run.
What needs to be fixed: The offense is committing too many penalties, particularly before the snap, and the offensive line could stand to be more disciplined. WRs Joe Horn and Donté Stallworth haven't been the gamebreakers they were expected to be, and the offense needs to have more weapons to lean on than just McAllister. The defensive line still isn't getting to the quarterback quite like it needs to in order to take pressure off the secondary, and DEs Charles Grant and Darren Howard must make their presence felt.
St. Louis Rams
What's working: Head coach Mike Martz has done an excellent job adjusting the Rams' offensive philosophy to suit the team's personnel. No longer in constant-attack mode, the Rams are still the NFC's highest-scoring team. Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce provide a formidable one-two punch at wide receiver, RB Marshall Faulk appears to be coming around after missing five games with injuries and QB Marc Bulger has offset his sloppy play of late with great resilience in crunch time. The Rams' speedy young defense has become one of the league's most opportunistic units, and PK Jeff Wilkins is having a career year.
What needs to be fixed: The Rams have been very turnover prone (33 on the season). They also must cut down on their mistakes, particularly Bulger, who has shown a tendency to lock on to Holt and not throw enough check-downs underneath the coverage. The offensive line has been inconsistent, especially its run blocking, and the team has done a poor job all season of picking up blitzes. The Rams' coverage teams also have done a poor job, allowing five touchdowns on punt and kickoff returns this season. Martz's quirky play-calling has been very questionable at times, and he continues to have huge problems managing the clock and using timeouts wisely.
Record: 8-4 What's working: Although somewhat sporadic, Seattle's spread offense, spearheaded by QB Matt Hasselbeck, is among the most dangerous in the league. Hasselbeck is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season, WRs Darrell Jackson, Koren Robinson and Bobby Engram each have more than 35 catches and RB Shaun Alexander has been consistently productive. The defense has tailed off after an impressive start, but it still is vastly improved under new coordinator Ray Rhodes, who has installed a more aggressive go-for-the-throat mentality. Although P Tom Rouen had a costly punt blocked and returned for a touchdown vs. the Ravens, he has been a very underrated contributor to the team's success.
What needs to be fixed: Although few teams have played as well at home this season as the Seahawks, it's been a different story on the road, where Seattle has been unable to win since Week Two. It would appear the Hawks need to win at least one of their three remaining road games to solidify a playoff berth. As good as the offense has been, it has been stymied on occasion by the receivers' penchant for dropping passes. Burdened by a host of nagging injuries, the defense has regressed, particularly a secondary that started out the season on a high note, thanks primarily to the stellar play of rookies Marcus Trufant and Ken Hamlin. CB Shawn Springs has been the secondary's weakest link.
Material from Pro Football Weekly.
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