Thursday and Long: Enough Already With the Jaguars
"I feel more than confident any time you tell me we're going to get Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed back," Lewis said, invoking the two key defensive cogs his defense had just played the Packers without. "We have to stop the things that are causing us trouble, but I'm not panicking one bit."
Of course, the biggest reason the Ravens -- and the Steelers, for that matter -- don't need to panic is one Lewis won't address out loud. The best thing the teams on the periphery of the AFC playoff race have going for them is that one of the conference's wild card spots is currently held by the Jacksonville Jaguars -- who, if they get in, would be the worst NFL playoff team in recent history.
The Ravens and the Steelers should look at the 7-5 Jaguars and be ashamed of themselves. How can either of these preseason Super Bowl hopefuls not be ahead of Jacksonville in the conference standings? The Jaguars don't appear to do much of anything well. They run the ball okay -- seventh in the league in rushing yards per game and fifth in yards per carry -- but beyond that just try and find something about them that even whispers "playoff team."
They've been outscored, first of all. The Jaguars have allowed 273 points and scored just 225. Only 10 teams have allowed more points and only nine have scored fewer. On average, they have outgained their opponents by 6.2 yards per game. They're 26th in punting. Their games are all blacked out because they have no fans. Seriously, I tried. Other than hand the ball off to Maurice Jones-Drew, I don't know what there is about the Jaguars to like.
"We have playmakers," Jones-Drew said earlier this week. "We have guys who know, if one part (of the team) isn't doing the job, they have to step up and do theirs. We have guys that are good at that."
And sure, in a mediocre field, that's the kind of thing that can elevate one team over others. But man, if Jacksonville gets in, I'd like my team to be their first-round opponent. And the fact that they have a chance to still be playing in the second week of January should say something alarming to the NFL about the quality of its product.
One more stunning statistical note about the Jags, and then I'll let this go. For this week, at least:
They rank 32nd in the NFL in sacks as a defense. They've collected a total of 12 sacks all year. And all right, so maybe that's their style. Maybe they're more of a coverage-based defensive unit than a pressure one. You want to give them the benefit of the doubt on that, go ahead. But look on the other side of the ball, and you'll find that the Jaguars have allowed 34 sacks. And only four teams have allowed more.
Sacks are only one stat, I grant you, but if you allow that they're any kind of indicator of the quality of a team's line play, you have to wonder how the Jaguars get anything done with offensive and defensive lines that put up those kinds of numbers. For the record, there are four teams that have made the playoffs the past six years despite finishing in the bottom five of the league in sacks as a defense. But of those four, none ranked any worse than fourth in preventing sacks on offense. Which means that one line might have been rotten, but the other was solid.
The 2009 Jaguars can't say that. They can't say much of anything, in fact, except that they're 7-5 and if the season ended today they'd be in the playoffs while the Ravens, Steelers, Dolphins and Jets would not. Those teams need to do a little soul-searching.
The Polamalu Effect
It feels simplistic to blame Pittsburgh's troubles on the absence of safety Troy Polamalu, but they're 4-1 this year when he plays and 2-5 when he doesn't. Moreover, their defensive statistics suffer without him. They're allowing an average of 272.6 yards per game, 201.8 via the pass, when Polamalu plays. Opposing quarterbacks average 5.5 yards per pass in games with Polamalu, and in those five games the Steelers have forced 11 turnovers.
In the seven games they've played without Polamalu, the Steelers have allowed an average of 315 total yards and 232.3 passing yards per game. Opposing QBs are averaging 6.6 yards per pass, and in those seven games the Steelers have forced just five turnovers.
Two scouts I talked to this week said Polamalu's absence absolutely had an effect, because he is the ultimate safety net. One of them said his innate ballhawking skills make up for the common errors even a good defense makes, and without him the Steelers look mortal. The other told me he thought opponents were becoming bolder with their game-planning and play-calling against the Steelers with Polamalu out, and that shows. In the last four games without Polamalu, the Steelers' opposing quarterbacks' yards-per-pass-attempt average has risen from 6.1 (Matt Stafford) to 7.1 (Matt Cassel) to 7.5 (Joe Flacco) all the way up to Bruce Gradkowski's 8.4 last week.
The good news for the Steelers, of course, is that they're playing the Browns this week. And Brady Quinn isn't likely to continue that trend in the snow and wind. But if Polamalu is out for much longer, you have to wonder if the Steelers' defense can be good enough to get the defending Super Bowl champs back into the postseason.
The main beneficiaries of the disappointing years by the Ravens and Steelers are the Cincinnati Bengals, who can clinch the AFC North title with a win on Sunday in Minnesota (or with losses by both Pittsburgh and Baltimore). But the Bengals are no fluke. In particular, they have been ultra-stout against the run. Adrian Peterson will try to break out of his personal slump Sunday against a defense that, so far this year, has allowed just one running back (Cleveland's Jerome Harrison, of all people) to rush for 100 yards in a game and has only allowed four (Harrison, Willie Parker, Ray Rice and Kevin Smith) to rush for as many as 50.
Cincinnati has played eight games since Harrison's Week 4 effort, and in that stretch they haven't allowed one opposing team to reach 100 rushing yards in a game. This week they'll be without starting DT Domata Peko (pronouced "DOE-me-TAH PEH-ko," in case you're wondering), who had arthroscopic knee surgery Monday, so that could open some things up. But their depth at the linebacker position is a strength of their defense and should help make up for Peko's absence.
Three for the Road -- Getting ugly now. I was 0-3 for the second week in a row, missing with the Cowboys, Ravens and Titans (though that last one was a flier all the way). So I'm now 8-10 since I started this feature and sinking fast. Road teams in the NFL were a respectable 6-10 last week and are now 78-114 this year for a winning percentage of just .406. And that includes the Patriots' win in London and the Jets' win in Toronto. So this is a tricky endeavor, but we plunge ahead nonetheless. Three road teams I like this week:
1. Dolphins over Jaguars. You already know how I feel about the Jags, but really I just want the Dolphins to win this to continue the playoff-picture chaos in the AFC East and the AFC in general. I'm assuming the Jets' win in Tampa Bay to keep pace and the Patriots (who haven't won anywhere this year but New England and old England) beat the Panthers at home, but who knows?
2. Chargers over Cowboys. The Chargers own December. December owns the Cowboys. Dallas is going to rue that they didn't put away the Giants last week. Which brings us to ...
3. Philadelphia over N.Y. Giants. I'm not backing down about the Giants. They beat the Cowboys on hate, and that can't hold up. Jacobs' TD was a fluke and so was Hixon's. Donovan McNabb is licking his chops watching that tape, especially with DeSean Jackson looking like he'll play.
**NOTE: Some people like Denver to win in Indianapolis. I don't hate that pick. I'm just through picking against Indy in Indy. There's a dent the size and shape of my head in that particular brick wall, and I'll leave it as is.
It's Just a Fantasy -- Three guys I wish I had on my fantasy team this week:
1. Drew Brees vs. Atlanta. This game doesn't qualify for "Three for the Road," because while I do like the Saints to win in Atlanta, so should everybody. It's too obvious. Brees against what's left of that Falcons' secondary could be a disaster movie.
2. Rashard Mendenhall vs. Cleveland. Snow and heavy winds forecast for Pittsburgh tonight. No Hines Ward. No Cleveland defense. Methinks the Stillers will be running the ball and running some more.
3. Anquan Boldin vs. San Francisco. If that performance Sunday night didn't open your eyes...wow. Boldin looks primed for a huge finish, playoff run and contract drive.
This week takes me to Minneapolis for a potential Super Bowl preview between the Bengals and Vikings. Hey! Don't laugh. The Vikings are all but locked into the No. 2 seed in the NFC and the Bengals have a very good shot at the No. 2 in the AFC. In fact, the winner of this game clinches a playoff berth. Gotta think Favre and Co. bounce back from last week's Arizona beating now that they're back home, but the Bengals are a surprising team, and not easy to play against. One thing's for certain -- I'll be headed to Ike's downtown on Saturday night for the best bar food on the circuit -- Twin Charlies.