Mortal Flaws: Weakness Fells a Would-Be Champion
by Justin Henry
Cold Hard Football Facts' Dr. Death (@jrhwriting)
Breaking tackles toward the gates of Troy
Run down Hector amid defensive convoy
MVP thusly thrust upon Achilles' hand
Until the permeance of December frost
Makes framework for triumph cost
The wounded heel cannot longer stand
The Cold Hard Crematorium does more than simply provide one of the penultimate stops for the wayward football team. In between these common-bond brick walls, we also anoint the bodies of would-be winners; those who collapsed in their mucked tracks, inches short of opportune land.
We've made much noise about teams with more holes than a cheese grater, but little has been said of the 'good' teams. Why would we waste our breath? Good teams are luminous and vibrant; what on Earth would draw these achievers to a coroner's slab?
Overcrowding, for one. Last year alone, two teams with winning records failed to make the playoffs: the 10-6 Bears and 9-7 Giants. Chicago's haunting defense was offset by a guard-less offense, while the defending champion Giants couldn't stop opponents from running, as well as converting third downs.
One too many close losses with these simple kinks meant their doom.
Had Chicago swept Minnesota, that second wild card slot would have been theirs. Perhaps they could have upended Aaron Rodgers with picks-a-plenty in the opening round, before toppling Matt Ryan in the Georgia Dome. Faced with either Seattle or San Francisco in the Championship Game, Jay Cutler would have been inundated by aggressive defenses, but so too would Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick. That Halas Trophy could have returned to its rightful Windy City home.
You know, if Chicago had just won one more regular season game.
As it stands now, twelve teams hold winning records. There's an even divide among the conferences, with six from the AFC, and likewise in the NFC. However, the NFC combination cannot make up the NFC bracket, no matter how good those are at season's end.
The NFC East is the only division without a winning team. After Sunday, the winner of the 3-3 battle of Philadelphia and Dallas will hold a favorable record, but as it stands now, neither team owns one. That means even if those other six teams ended up 9-7, 10-6, or even 11-5 or better, one of them wouldn't receive a playoff berth.
That's why each game is important: that one close loss leads to the loser's lament come calendar's end, as twelve other teams vie for something you coveted.
Remember those 15-1 Packers in 2011? Why did they lose at home in the Division Round to the 9-7 Giants? Because you can break through Green Bay's tissue-paper line to lay Rodgers out. Also, the Packers pass defense gave up the most yards that season, in spite of their memorable record.
The Giants took advantage of each quirk, gatecrashing Rodgers with their then-unstoppable line, and leaning on Eli Manning to have a grand old time throwing for ten yards an attempt. Not so surprising that New York won by 17, is it?
The Packers needed a good wheelchair afterward; they weren't putting pressure on either bloody heel after that.
Before anyone suffers the heartbreak our cheese-chomping Wisconsite friends endured, let's examine the twelve currently happy teams, and point out their most glaring weakness. It's mid-October, so plenty of time remains to patch up the sails.
Denver Broncos (6-0) - Pass Defense
The enduring image of Rahim Moore vainly flailing at Joe Flacco's "Mile High Miracle" bomb in January came back to haunt in Week 5 this season. Tony Romo's unexpected air show in Dallas led to touchdown passes of 79 and 82 yards.
Denver allows 7.56 net passing yards an attempt, the second worst average in the NFL. The defense has also allowed 11 throws of 30 yards or more (including four over 50 yards). If a quarterback can do what Romo did, it's entirely possible to go shot-for-shot with Peyton Manning's high flying offense. Just as long as you avoid picks at the end yourself.
Kansas City Chiefs (6-0) - Third Down Efficiency
Suppose the day comes where Kansas City matches up with an offense not prone to mistakes? Teams like the Broncos, Colts (barring Monday's off-night), and Chargers (depending on what side of the bed they get up on) all have fluid offenses that make use of a litany of weapons. Those teams make up half of the Chiefs' remaining schedule.
Alex Smith's 79.82 passer rating will be leaned on to make plays, especially against Manning in those head-to-heads. With the conservative QB behind center, the Chiefs' third down percentage is 32.58, sixth worst in the NFL. If the defense is stonewalled, trouble brews.
New England Patriots (5-1) - Scoring Efficiency
Yes, the Patriots were able to hang 30 on both the Saints and Falcons, but what about those two rainy games? New England barely squeaked by the Jets, and then got their bell rung by the Bengals, scoring only six points under monsoon conditions for their only loss.
Tom Brady's had trouble getting used to his unfamiliar sidekicks, and their 20.8 PPG (11th worst) indicates that. New England averages 117.21 yards per touchdown scored, which is the 12th worst average. Four of their five wins are by a touchdown or less. With Jerod Mayo out for the year, and Aqib Talib possibly missing time, the offense needs rhythm now.
New Orleans Saints (5-1) - Run Defense
Rob Ryan will probably be a Grand Marshal at Mardi Gras next year, given the way he's fixed much of New Orleans' historically-bad defense. Even with the positive changes that Dude Incarnate has made, there's still some lingering doubt regarding the ground aspect.
The Saints give up 5.07 yards an attempt, third highest average. The Buccaneers would be off the schneid if not for Drew Brees' late drive, in part thanks to 160 yards gained running. New England strung together 141 en route to their last second win. If Brees doesn't build an early lead, the opponent has time to focus on a ground attack, which behooves New Orleans.
Seattle Seahawks (5-1) - Pass Protection
Russell Wilson's storybook rookie season didn't come without its share of lumps. The pint-sized quarterback was sacked 33 times, but rolled with the punches en route to the NFC Divisional Round. 2013 so far has blessed him with a 5-1 record, but that hasn't come without some crushing blows.
Wilson's already been sacked 17 times, which puts him on pace to get dropped 45 times for the year. Extensive injuries to Russell Okung (short-term IR) and Breno Giacomini have gutted the line. Even All-Pro center Max Unger missed a handful of games. Seattle's 32.05% conversions of third downs (fifth lowest) is a testament to the decline in security for Wilson.
Indianapolis Colts (4-2) - Run Defense
Defensive mistakes and dropped passes aside, the blueprint for defeating the Colts begins with the running game, as the Chargers demonstrated. Only one of their opponents has been held below 100 yards this year (Jacksonville with 40), while Oakland and Seattle racked up 171 and 218 respectively in tight losses.
It helps when Andrew Luck and the offense are having an off day (or night), but the defense gives up 4.60 yards a carry. The Chargers racked up first downs like they were foraging food for hibernation, with five players combining for 36 total carries.
San Francisco 49ers (4-2) - Run Defense
Despite the three-game winning streak without the troubled Aldon Smith (and two of those games without leader Patrick Willis), the 49ers are prone to giving quarter on the ground. Three of their last five opponents have tallied 130+ yards by running the ball.
Difference is, the 49ers have forced ten turnovers during this winning streak, including four fumble recoveries. When giving up 172 and 184 yards respectively to Seattle and Indianapolis, they only forced one turnover: an Eric Reid pick of Russell Wilson. Hold on to the ball, keep the defense guessing with runs (especially if the QB can do it too), and San Fran's highly beatable.
Cincinnati Bengals (4-2) - Scoring Efficiency
With the electricity generated from the Andy Dalton-to-AJ Green connection, a capable double tight-end set in Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, and the versatile threat that is rookie running back Giovani Bernard, the Bengals should score more than 20.2 PPG.
Turnovers have been costly. The team has committed 12, which is nowhere near the hellish chasm of the Giants' 23, but is still tied for sixth most. The Bengals have 2134 yards of offense, twelfth most, but has scored only 121 points. That's only a touchdown every 123.45 yards gained, the NFL's ninth most inefficient average.
Detroit Lions (4-2) - Run Defense
In five games this season, the Lions have allowed 105 or more rushing yards, peaking with 180 to the Packers. Oddly enough, the game where an opponent failed to rush for 100 was one of their two losses (Arizona with 87). It's not so odd, however, when you look a bit deeper at the numbers.
Detroit is 4-0 if they force two or more turnovers, but winless with one or less. Green Bay played flawless football on their way to those 180 rushing yards, and thus kept Detroit (5.39 YPA allowed, NFL's worst average) from asserting any control. Playing conservatively and patiently, like San Diego did to Indianapolis, is a template to winning over the Lions.
Chicago Bears (4-2) - Pass Defense
Yeah, these are still the Bears with the game-changing secondary (nine interceptions, led by Tim Jennings' three), and their four defensive turnovers provoke caution in their foes. However, the defensive front boasts just eight sacks, and opponents are scoring 26.8 PPG, seventh most.
Chicago allows 7.82 net yards a pass, the highest average in the league. If not for the turnovers, teams like the Bengals and even the Giants could have won those games. While the Lions win came from forcing turnovers of their own, New Orleans' victory was flawless and confident quarterback play from Drew Brees leading the way. It's turnover-or-bust for the D.
Miami Dolphins (3-2) - Offensive Fluidity
The Dolphins were one of the surprise 3-0 starters this season, although the air's fizzled from that balloon with two consecutive losses. The close win over the Falcons even seems dubious, now that Atlanta's defense has been proven to be as useless as a space heater in the Sahara.
Ryan Tannehill's endured 24 sacks in just five games, with ten coming over this two-game losing streak (four to New Orleans, six to Baltimore). The Dolphins give up a Negative Pass Play on 14.08 percent of dropbacks, the third worst mark. Coupled with a 3.66 YPA rushing average (seventh worst), and the Dolphins don't win without the defense stepping up.
Green Bay Packers (3-2) - Pass Defense
The Packers defense has improved in stopping the run (3.37 YPA allowed is the league's third best average) and they shut down third downs effectively enough (63.77 percent are stopped). The pass defense, however, has been virtually non-existent this season.
Their defensive passer rating is, somewhat surprisingly, the worst in the league at 108.23. Green Bay's only picked off two passes, allows 65.2% of passes to be completed, and gives 7.41 net yards per pass attempt (third highest average). In Green Bay's two losses, the opposing QBs completed 69.2% (Colin Kaepernick) and 71.4% (Andy Dalton) of their throws.
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