Extreme Parity or Business as Usual?
About six weeks into every season, we hear why the current one is stranger than any that has gone before. Usually it's merely that the flimsy preseason conventional wisdom has been upended, and only those who fail to recall that the same thing happens every year are surprised. But is this season a little more off than most? Without defining what constitutes a season being "off," it's hard to answer that, but one thing about it jumps out: this year has brought more parity than usual. In an era reputed for parity, but with an Indianapolis team that had won 12 games every single year since 2003 (that streak has ended after Sunday night's loss), several teams chasing 16-0 over the last few years, and last year's Lions and Rams putting up historically bad component stats, this year does seem different.
For starters, there have been more games decided by three points or less than anytime since 1997, the 19 teams within one game of their division lead heading into Week 12 were the most in NFL history and there have been eight straight weeks with at least one overtime game, the most in a row since 2003. (Hat tip: NY Times.) Consider also that the Browns beat the Saints in New Orleans, crushed the Pats at home and then barely lost to the Jets in overtime before bailing bailed out against 1-10 Carolina at home Sunday on a missed FG. There are three 9-2 teams, but the Jets have been life and death just about every week with teams like the Lions, Browns and Texans, the Patriots are relying on a couple average backs, have no deep threat and have trouble against the pass, while the Falcons are poor against the pass, and their wins against good teams (Saints, Ravens, Packers) have been of the coin-flip variety. That's not to take anything away from those three teams who have pulled games out, but they hardly qualify as dominating teams like last year's Colts, Saints or Vikings.
In fact, I'd argue the Chargers are the NFL's best team despite being just 6-5, given their component stats, despite missing most of their receiving corps (which is getting healthier) for much of the year. After that the Packers and maybe the Eagles, and I wouldn't sleep on the Giants if they can squeeze into the playoffs and get Steve Smith and Hakeem Nicks back. But you could make an argument for about a third of the league from the Ravens, to the three 9-2 squads to the Chiefs (who were only beaten easily once – by the Broncos in Denver) – to the Steelers or even Bears who are starting to run block, and playing great defense. Which is why this season stands out for its parity.
Why You Needed to Have This Year's Breakout Players More than Ever
It's not just that players like Dwayne Bowe (typically fifth-round pick), Arian Foster (depends when you had your draft), Brandon Lloyd (undrafted) and Kyle Orton (undrafted) are surprisingly among the top performers at their positions, but that they're on pace for historic numbers. Bowe is on a pace for 20 receiving TDs (behind only Jerry Rice in 1987 and Randy Moss in 2007), Foster is on pace for 2327 yards from scrimmage (would be 7th all time), Lloyd is on pace for 1632 receiving yards (tied for 10th) and Orton is on pace for 4902 yards (3rd, behind only Drew Brees in 2008 and Dan Marino in 1984). And Michael Vick – who people felt shouldn't have taken Kevin Kolb's job due to injury (you remember who Kolb is, don't you?) – put up perhaps the greatest fantasy performance in NFL history against the Redskins.
Usually, the teams that win leagues have at least one or two of the year's major breakout guys, but this year when in some cases the cost was zero and the payout was historically good, it's that much harder to win without them.
What's going on in Tennessee?
First, Jeff Fisher (whose team is one game out of first place) announces that Vince Young would be benched (before he knew Young was out anyway) for Rusty Smith who was clearly not ready. If Young were healthy, and Fisher gave away that game due to personal problems with Young, that's a fireable offense in my opinion. Luckily for Fisher, Young was out anyway, and he didn't have the choice between walking back his benching of Young and sabotaging his contending team. Second, why did Tennessee pay $3 million for Randy Moss when they've barely used him in three games? Third, why did Chris Johnson get only seven carries? I realize he had only five yards, and also that Tennessee was behind, but Johnson could break a long touchdown at any time, and was certainly a better bet than Smith (who threw 31 passes).
Things to Take Away from Week 12
• Brandon Jacobs has had fresh legs all year, and showed that was still the case despite a heavier (14-carry) workload. Jacobs isn't going to make people miss in the backfield, but he's got his burst back and is hitting the hole hard again.
• With Adrian Peterson hurt and Chris Johnson on a fading team and a non-factor in the passing game, is Peyton Hillis the No. 2 fantasy RB right now? One thing's for certain, Manning is not the most valuable Peyton in fantasy anymore, especially after throwing seven interceptions in his last two games.
• Speaking of which – did Manning peak between 2003 and 2007, and is he now at age 34 in a decline phase? Manning's got a 6.9 YPA this year, and was 7.2 in 2008. Even last year, Manning was sixth in QB rating and 10th in YPA. And was Marvin Harrison not just a product of Manning's greatness, but helped create Manning's success far more than most give him credit for? I realize Manning's receivers have been hurt, and he has no running game, but how a quarterback plays in poor conditions is probably a better barometer of his current value than how he performs under ideal ones. The contrast with Philip Rivers and Tom Brady (No Randy Moss, less-than-100-percent Wes Welker) is stark.
• One thing that's not Manning's fault is how terribly Reggie Wayne played Sunday night. Maybe he's hurt, but reports I read were that it was his knee, not his hands. Wayne dropped at least three easy catches and failed to make plays on one or two others. He has 76 catches this year (111-catch pace), but is averaging just 11.3 yards per catch and has just four touchdowns. It looks like he's taking Torry Holt's career path where he didn't miss games, but nagging injuries and age robbed him of explosiveness, and he's only relevant because Manning's targeting him a lot. I'd bet someone like 36-year old possession receiver Derrick Mason could at least match Wayne's production were the two to switch places.
• The Bears are starting to run-block. Not only did Matt Forte get 117 yards on 14 carries against the Eagles, but he got 97 on 25 carries (3.9 YPC) in Miami the week before. While that doesn't sound impressive, the game was on the road, the Dolphins are seventh in the league against the rush and this week absolutely stuffed Darren McFadden.
• The suddenness of Frank Gore being out for the season after what seemed like a minor injury is surprising. But more surprising as of 24 hours ago is that Brian Westbrook would be a desirable commodity. Westbrook looked pretty good (albeit against one of the worst defenses in the league), but I didn't see the lightning quickness or explosion he used to have, and I'm not all that bullish on his prospects against real defenses, assuming he can even stay healthy.
• Sam Bradford – after being praised largely from a scouting perspective as the Rams had the 31st-ranked pass offense heading into Week 12 – broke out with 308 yards, 8.3 YPA three TDs and no picks. Granted it was against Denver, but he looked incredibly sharp, and the return of 6-5, 215-pound Danario Alexander (who I'm going to pick up in as many leagues as I can) bodes well.
• Andre Johnson has a future in MMA after his playing days are over. Seriously, the guy is 220 pounds with Manny Pacquiao's hand speed!
What to Watch in Week 13
• The Jets in New England on Monday night in a game that could determine homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
• The Steelers in Baltimore likely playing for the AFC North title
• The Cowboys, who played well enough to beat the Saints, in Indy against the slumping Colts
Beating the Book
Saints -7 at Bengals
The Saints have come on of late, but I like the idea of fading a less-than-dominant dome team on the road in a cold weather venue. The Bengals keep losing, but they're not hopelessly out of games, and I expect them not only to cover but win outright. Back Cincy.
Bengals 24 – 20
We lost with the Giants last week to go 6-6 in this forum and 84-87-5 on the season. We were 10-7 in this forum last season, 131-122 overall. We were 12-5 in this forum in 2008. From 1999-2009 we've gone 1439-1262 (53.3%, not including ties).
The full article comes out on Wednesday night.
Surviving Week 13
Last week was uneventful only because John Kasay missed a last second field-goal which would have knocked out 50 percent of the field in typical pools. Maybe a few people had the Broncos, but everyone else got through. Let's look at the numbers for this week: