Icy Issues: the NFC is force-fed a chill pill

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jul 19, 2008



Warning! A dip into our Icy Issues is like a dip into frigid arctic waters. It's going to be sharp, brisk and maybe even painful. And it's sure to cause your ignorance to shrivel.
 
Today, we tackle the chilliest issues within each NFC division as we gear up for the 2008 season.
 
 
NFC EAST
Icy Issue: Who's the premier quarterback in the division, Tony Romo or Eli Manning?
Icier Response: It's Eli. And Romo might not even be No. 2.
 
Romo exploded on the scene two years ago to put up eye-popping regular-season numbers (4,211 yards and 36 TD in 2007), date bleach-blonde pop stars, appear in the gossip pages more often than Lindsay Lohan's girlfriend, and then fold like a paper airplane in the playoffs.
 
Eli is fresh off the most improbable postseason metamorphosis in NFL history, one that culminated with a shocking victory over the 18-0 Patriots and a game-winning TD pass in the single most pressure-packed drive in league history: no quarterback before Eli had ever (ever!) led a championship-winning TD drive in the final two minutes when anything less than a TD would have meant failure.
 
Seems rather obvious when you put it that way, doesn't it?
 
Right now, Eli Manning is a champion. Tony Romo is Don Meredith with a better publicist.
 
Hell, Romo might not even be the second-best quarterback in the NFC East.
 
Remember a guy named Donovan McNabb? He was recovering from a 2006 injury at the start of last season, later missed two games due to another injury, and was beaten and battered (he suffered a record 12 sacks in one game against the Giants). But he still passed for 3,324 yards, 19 TD, just 7 INTs and a fairly solid 89.9 passer rating.
 
McNabb can still play. (As we saw last week, too, McNabb is historically protective of the ball, with a career 2.12 interception percentage that's the second best in history.)
 
Plus, he's taken five different Eagles teams to the playoffs, with a 7-5 record to show for it. Romo's just not in McNabb's class until we find further evidence.
 
The key is the postseason. If Romo wants to become the next Roger Staubach or Troy Aikman, instead of the next Dandy Don with dimples, he'll have to win in the playoffs.
 
But not only has he made critical contributions to defeat in his two playoff apperances, he took an incredibly ill-advised trip to Mexico during wildcard weekend last year that was splashed across the gossip pages from coast to coast. It would have been fine if ... he didn't produce one of his worst games of the year a week later (18 of 36, 201 yards, 5.58 YPA, 1 TD, 1 INT, 64.7 rating)
 
And now the natives are getting restless. Just last week the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published an interesting report: Romo is not 0-2 in the playoffs. He's 0-5 in the playoffs, if you count his three one-and-done appearances as a college quarterback with Div. 1-AA Eastern Illinois.
 
That's called a trend, folks ... just like Eli's four straight rock-solid playoff performances are a trend.
 
NFC NORTH
Icy Issue: Can the Packers survive without Brett Favre?
Icier Response: Does a Cheesehead eat bratwurst?
 
Brett Favre's resurgence was the big story out of Green Bay last year. After all, quarterbacks always garner the biggest headlines. And, certainly, Favre's resurrection was an utter surprise and played a major role in Green Bay's unexpected 13-3 season. Teams don't advance to conference title games with poor quarterback play.
 
But – and we know this is hard for Favre fans to comprehend – he wasn't the only great statistical story to come out of Green Bay last year. In fact, the most shocking story to come out of Green Bay last year was that the Packers – not the 16-0 Patriots – were the most statistically solid and consistent team in the NFL last year.
 
Green Bay placed between 3rd and 7th in every single one of our Quality Stats in 2007. No other team could make that claim, not even the Patriots, who were a mere 10th on our Special Teams Index and 11th in Defensive Passer Rating (the weakness that ultimately brought down the gridiron Goliath in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLII).
 
In other words, the Packers were much more than a one-man show in 2007. They were an incredibly solid all-around team. There's no reason to expect they won't be a solid all-around team again this year.
 
So, surrounded by this club, quarterback Aaron Rodgers does not have to be spectacular for the Packers to reach the playoffs – and perhaps even threaten to make a Super Bowl run. He merely has to play competently, much like he did when he came off the bench to replace Favre against the Cowboys last season (18 of 26, 69.2%, 201 yards, 7.73 YPA, 1 TD, 0 INT, 104.8 rating).
 
And if he does reach the playoffs, and avoids Favre's pesky little habit of tossing the ball into the hands of the other team at critical junctures – like on the second play of overtime, for example – the rest of the Packers might find that they're good enough to carry their quarterback to the Super Bowl.
 
NFC SOUTH
Icy Issue: What was the quietest story in football last year?
Icier Issue: Shh! Don't tell anybody, but it was the Tampa Bay defense.
 
The Buccaneers fielded the NFC's best defense in 2007, marking a return after a one-year hiatus to the elite defensive status the club has enjoyed every year since defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin arrived in 1996.
 
Tampa finished the season No. 1 in the NFL's senior circuit in both scoring defense (16.9 PPG) and total defense (278.4 YPG). They topped the entire NFL in pass defense (170.5 YPG).  
 
It was this defense that proved the difference between the 2007 division champ Bucs and the rest of the struggling NFC South: Tampa's defense surrendered 77 fewer points (270) than the division's No. 2 defense from Carolina (347 points) – a difference of nearly 5 points per game.
 
And for all this defensive dominance, the Bucs earned not a single Pro Bowler and not a single nationally televised game in the regular season.
 
Tampa needs to find an offense to become a serious contender. And that doesn't look likely: head coach Jon Gruden's offense has struggled to find a rhythm since his arrival in the Super Bowl championship season of 2002. Gruden appears a lot on NFL Films, often barking out these complex offensive play calls. Yet the Tampa offense last ranked in the top half of the league in scoring in 2001 – under head coach Tony Dungy.
 
But the class-of-the-conference defense gives the Bucs a fighting chance each week, even if you never hear about it.
 
NFC WEST
Icy Issue: How bad is the NFC West?
Icier Response: Let's put it this way: the NFC West is so light, shapeless and ethereal that physicists have recently declared it a gas.
 
Arizona and San Francisco are trendy picks in some circles to dethrone perennial divisional champ Seattle and perhaps even – we're trying not to laugh here, folks – make some noise in the playoffs.
 
But it's difficult to envision any kind of noise coming out of a division that, since its creation, has proven utterly incapable of competing with the rest of the NFL.
 
The NFC West took its current indefinable "shape" with the divisional re-alignment of 2002.
 
Over the six seasons since then, just eight NFC West teams have reached the playoffs. That's only two more playoff team than the absolute minimum possible dictated by the NFL's pesky "divisional champs automatically reach the postseason" rule.
 
And five of those eight playoff teams have been the Seahawks – the closest thing in this sad, limp, empty potato sack of a division to a dominant team.
 
But even Seattle is a watered down version of a regular divisional power. Mostly, the Seahawks have simply feasted on the dead-weight detritus that floats around the bottom of the pigskin petri dish that is the rest of the NFC West. Yes, Seattle was the NFC's No. 1 seed and won the conference title in 2005 ... but then got smacked around in the Super Bowl by the AFC's No. 6 seed, Pittsburgh.
 
And since that Super Bowl loss, over the past two seasons, Seattle has won just two games against Quality Opponents (teams that finish the season .500 or better). That's it. Two long seasons and two measly victories against teams with winning records. And this is the best team in the division! We can't even make up stats that good, folks.
 
The Cold, Hard Football Facts began tracking Quality Wins back in 2004. Seattle has been the undisputed class of the NFC West over that period, capturing all four divisional crowns. But the Seahawks boast just six Quality Wins (not including playoffs) since we invented the stat back in 2004.
 
To put Seattle's six Quality Wins over four seasons into perspective, consider that New England boasted seven Quality Wins last year alone – nine if you count the playoffs.
 
In other words, Seattle is a true paper tiger– barely able to compete against Quality Teams, partly because they rarely ever face Quality Teams. Division powerhouse Seattle is a mere 6-10 vs. Quality Teams since 2004 – that's just four games a year against teams with winning records.
 
This inability to compete by Seattle says quite a bit about the hopes of the entire division. Yes, NFC West upstarts Arizona and San Francisco may be poised for that big "breakout season" that many "pundits" predict – if you define a "breakout" season as a 9- or 10-win campaign and a wildcard-round playoff loss.

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