Never before have we enjoyed two teams still undefeated in the same season after 12 games. And never has it been more clear to me that the best path to Super Bowl success involves taking full advantage of every potential benefit, including resting stars, hobbled players, and, well, pretty much anyone you can.
This debate could rage on for weeks, assuming the Colts and Saints keep on winning, but you will never convince me that the benefits of going all out to go 16-0 outweigh the massive risks. And the reward for going 16-0 pales ever so deeply in comparison to the euphoria that can only come from hoisting a Lombardi trophy (regardless of the regular-season record that preceded it). If you don't believe me, just ask Tom Brady and the gang how that 2007 season compares to their three Super Bowl winning years.
On a certain level, I get the arguments about not taking the foot off the gas pedal, not losing momentum, always playing to win, yada, yada, yada. And then you glance at the injury list coming out of games every Sunday, and you respect the brutal nature of this game, and you concede that an entire season -- and careers -- can be altered by just one collision, and you use those realities to make informed decisions that limit damage, manage potential risks and capitalize on all of the spoils that come with going three months in this league without losing a game.
Consider, for a moment, how richly NFL teams covet their bye week. It's that rare respite from a daily regimen of muscle-aching endeavors, with teams and fans analyzing when is the best possible time to get the bye. Imagine the luxury of being able to create your own bye, with the added benefit of another week off looming when the wild-card round begins.
Imagine being able to tune and prod your team all week in practice, pushing them and tweaking them, working on faults as much as needed without having to worry about exposing your most vital players to the rigors of game day. Imagine being able to truly rest and heal players rather than constantly juggle their status and get them back on the field as soon as possible. Imagine being about to focus on one or two potential playoff foes weeks ahead of time from a game-planning and schematic standpoint.
Now, I'm supposed to forget about all of that and go chasing the windmill of an undefeated season, all in the name of maintaining momentum? No, sell that somewhere else. If we're playing tennis, or miniature golf, or bowling, well, sure. Not football. That would be like taking every ancillary benefit squeezed from that perfect September, October and November and then possibly wasting it in late December.
Teams as good as the Saints and Colts won't just magically lose their mojo just because they lose a game, or win with backups. Offenses and defenses playing this well won't just fall apart because key players are given a half off here, or three quarters off there. The idea that role players might get ticked off because only the big-money guys get to sit doesn't fly with me either; the grunts know that without healthy quarterbacks and tackles and receivers there won't be any playoff bonuses coming along, and no Super Bowl rings to cherish from one generation to the next in their families.
Both of these clubs could have three meaningless games to navigate, which is more than enough time to build in a breather for second-team guys. I just can't rationalize how the alleged positive vibrations that would be spawned from, say, the Saints beating Tampa in Week 16, or the Colts beating the Jets that same week, could in any way compare to the devastation of losing two or three starters for any significant amount of time. There's a reason why the good teams monitor the snaps of their regulars so closely in the preseason, and the same principle holds now. And it didn't hinder either of these teams from roaring out of the gate.
That baloney about sending the wrong message to your team by not always playing your best players, I don't get it. I'd rather send the message that I'm going to celebrate and recognize the accomplishment of going 13-0 by giving people a well-deserved blow; that I am going to do everything in my power to get us a championship even if it means a little sacrifice on the scoreboard around the holidays (and, in fact, a hodge-podge of starters and reserves still gives these clubs more than a fighting chance against some of the lesser teams they will face).
Try addressing a somber and solemn locker room after Drew Brees or Dwight Freeney has been carted off the field with the playoffs on the horizon, every man in that room knowing their odds of bringing home the true prize just took a fundamental blow. But, hey, we swept the Bucs and we're 15-0! Try striking the proper chord and resonating with your players in those circumstances. What message are you going to send then?
Nah, I'd rather just heed the words of Colts boss Bill Polian, about as shrewd a football executive as we have seen in our time, and a man accustomed to cruising deep into seasons with a pristine record.
"I don't know how you get rusty when you practice four times a week. It's pretty hard to be rusty in that situation," Polian told NFL Network during an interview on "Around The League" this week. "Secondly, momentum is an overrated situation. We didn't have a lot of momentum going into the playoffs the year we won the Super Bowl. The fact is that at this time of year, you have many players who are injured, playing hurt, who need rest because they have nagging injuries through which they've been fighting. That's your first and most important consideration."
If these two teams were 11-1, would we still be having this debate? Would anyone second-guess the fact that you locked up that top seed as quickly as possible and then managed injuries and playing time accordingly?
We don't remember the 1972 Dolphins because they won all 14 regular-season games. We remember them because of what they did in the postseason to top it all off. And we don't remember the 2007 Patriots for the fact they went 16-0, so much as we remember them for not being able to close the deal against the Giants in the Super Bowl.
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Both of them should have very bright futures in the league because of the vast array of skills they possess and the proper mental framework. Just the same, neither has improved on his decision-making and execution in the clutch from his rookie season, either. Both offenses opened up somewhat, both running games have faltered from their 2008 pace, and both quarterbacks have failed to meet the challenge.
Their inexperience has manifested itself at the most crucial times. Ryan and Flacco have each thrown five fourth-quarter interceptions, tied for fifth-most in the NFL. (It's noteworthy that Flacco has been asked to throw 32 more fourth-quarter passes this season than he did in all of 2008; seems like a bit much to me). Flacco had a 7-1 TD/INT ratio inside the red zone in 2008, with a 78.0 passer rating. This season he has completed just 50 percent of his red-zone attempts with seven TDs, three INTs and a woeful 59.1 rating. That ranks 34th among all QBs with at least 10 red-zone attempts, while Ryan is not much better, ranked 30th overall in the red zone in 2009.
Ryan has been beat up the last few weeks and had to miss a start last Sunday, something that surely had to eat away at him with the club's season hanging in the balance. Flacco felt a different sort of pain Monday night after throwing three completely avoidable and very damaging interceptions at Green Bay with his team's season hanging out there as well, including a crippling pick late in the end zone from 3 yards out.
Overall, in his last five games, Flacco has completed just 59 percent of his passes for 1,032 yards, with two TDs, six INTs and a 67.0 rating, If you're looking for the biggest difference between the surge made by the 2008 Ravens, and the persistent close defeats suffered by the 2009 Ravens, that's as good a place as any to start.
I expect both quarterbacks to enjoy much success, and these growing pains will eventually be forgotten.
Decline of Pittsburgh's defense
The Pittsburgh Steelers have been spending a lot of time recently talking about concussions and quarterbacks and offensive chemistry. While the Steelers scored just six points in a loss to the Browns on Thursday, the real problems in the Burgh are on defense and special teams. We've always thought of Dick LeBeau's unit as a sack-crazed, pressure-bringing, game-closing, turnover-addicted group.
Hasn't been the case this season. They entered Week 14 ranked 26th in takeaways, 25th in takeaway points, 20th in points allowed at the end of a half (or game), 21st in two-minute defense. A year ago, opposing quarterbacks produced a meager 63.4 rating against the Steelers, second-best in the NFL; this year, entering the week, opposing passers had an 84.0 rating, 16th in the NFL.
A year ago, Pittsburgh outscored opponents 107-75 in the fourth quarter and overtime; this season they are being outscored 105-78 in the fourth quarter. The loss of Troy Polamalu has a whole lot to do with this, of course, but it's not cause enough for the five-game slide that has gripped the Steelers.
Change is good in Green Bay
I spoke with someone who scouted the Baltimore/Green Bay game Monday night, and asked him what differences he saw in the Packers' pass protection from early in the season when Aaron Rodgers was getting sacked at an NFL-record pace. He said he sees three differences: Some of it is personnel, some is Rodgers getting rid of the ball faster, and some seems to be the improved chemistry between all parties.
Things have changed there, especially during the Packers' four-game winning streak. They allowed 41 sacks in their first nine games, and just four in the past three games. The scout pointed to the injury that ended center Jason Spitz's season and put veteran Scott Wells in the center position. "They lost some athleticism there, but they gained a lot of veteran experience. Wells seems to have given the quarterback a different comfort level. He's making the calls and settling everyone down."
The Packers also added free agent Mark Tauscher midseason and he has replaced the much maligned Allen Barbre at right tackle (left tackle Chad Clifton has also been more healthy of late). "Tauscher seems to be playing on one leg, but he's much more of an anchor," the scout said. "Barbre was just getting run over by people. Tauscher is getting in the way. You don't have people running free to the quarterback."
The scout also points out, however, that you don't necessarily need a great offensive line these days if you have the right quarterback and the right scheme, pointing to the Steelers and Cardinals reaching the Super Bowl last season, Arizona shining again in 2009, the Bengals flourishing despite losing key linemen in the preseason (and never getting Andre Smith on the field much), etc.
"The skill guys can create the offense and make the offensive line," he said.
Fourth down and 4 to go
- As much as was made of Flacco and Ryan in 2008, the idea of rookie QBs and rookie coaches reaching the postseason was bizarre as well. Don't think we're going to see that happen again for a while. The 2008 rookie coaching class, three of which reached the postseason and the other, Jim Zorn, posting a surprising 8-8 record with a subpar roster, hasn't fared as well in its sophomore season. Zorn is 3-9 while John Harbaugh, Mike Smith and Tony Sparano are each 6-6 and chasing a postseason spot.
- John Fox's job security in Carolina might not be helped by the fact the Panthers have the league's toughest schedule for the duration of the season, playing opponents with a combined 36-12 record. Oh, and for those wondering why I refuse to buy into the Cowboys, they face teams that own a combined 32-16 mark, which isn't exactly the antidote to their December woes. The only "gimme" game in there is a trip to Washington, which will be anything but an easy chore. The Ravens and Cardinals face the easiest schedules.
- No team runs the ball more between the guards than the Jaguars. In fact, no one is close. The Jags have 210 rushes up the middle; no other team has even 150 such rushes (the league average is 101). It's by far the team's sweetspot, as Jacksonville has rushed to the left and right a grand total of 126 times. Kinda quirky.
- I went a horrendous 8-8 last week and am definitely stuck in a rut. I liked the Steelers on Thursday, so I'm not off to a good start. I like the Saints, Ravens, Packers, Seahawks, Colts, Dolphins, Chiefs, Bengals, Patriots, Jets, Titans, Raiders, Chargers, Giants and Cardinals for the rest of the week.