There are a couple of Sundays each football season when all hell seems to break loose, when the once-playoff hopeful teams start dropping off the radar and the ones still alive start battling for the right to play in January. Yesterday was one of those days.
:: OK, I keep harping on the Buffalo Bills' defense every week, but still! You know your team is too loaded on offense when they give up more than 220 rushing yards to the opposing team's running back, in a non-overtime game, and still win. This was the most rushing yards ever yielded by the Bills to a single player, the previous record having been held in a 1997 game in which Denver's Terrell Davis riddled them for something like 210 yards. That game, though, was an overtime game. (And I happened to be present at that game, one of two Bills games I've ever been to.) Now, if you subtract Ricky Williams's two touchdown runs, he only had 120 yards rushing. That's right: his two touchdown runs, by themselves, gained 100 yards: a 45 yard gallop and a 55 yard sprint. I don't think he made physical contact with a single Buffalo defender -- not even to brush against them as he ran by -- in either run. Nobody got a hand on him or was even in a position to do so. The defense is so bad that I posit the following: we will know with certainty the prospects for the Bills in 2003, as soon as the free-agent signing period and the draft are over. If they don't add some significant defensive help -- including beef on the line -- pencil them in for no better than 7-9 next year, too.
The other annoying thing about the Bills is their lack of discipline and precision. This was Week Thirteen of the season, and most of the key players are at least second-year men, with some -- Moulds, Price, Bledsoe, Ruben Brown, Pat Williams -- being actual veterans. They commit too many stupid penalties for a team of this level of experience. The Bills are a young team, but they're not the ragtag collection of rookies and cast-offs that comprised last year's squad.
Next week: an almost certain loss as the Bills go to New England, whom I still favor to take the division (contrary to my pre-season predictions, darn it all).
:: So Miami finally puts together a big offensive line, a ball-control centered offense, and they finally get the top-flight running back that they haven't had since....well, I can't remember the last top-flight running back Miami had. They do all this so as to avert the inevitable December swoon that is their trademark, when they have to go on the road to places like Buffalo and win without putting the ball in the air forty times a game, the way Marino used to do. And it pays off initially in the game: they take early command, getting good pressure on Bledsoe and not allowing his receivers to break free, mostly containing Travis Henry, and using their running game to make the big plays. And then, somehow, they lose because the great players on the Bills' offense start to play like the great players they are, making circus grabs and executing perfect routes and tricking defensive backs into hesitating just enough so they can get open. The Bills may have won this one by seventeen points, but they might very well have lost it by that many. This game was closer than the score would indicate.
:: Commentators galore are speculating on whether or not that injury to Kurt Warner's throwing hand has ever really been healed, and it certainly seems not; he can still put a lot of air under the ball but he can't throw with the precision that's been his trademark in the last three years. Add to that the obvious problems on his offensive line, and you've got the kind of disaster that befell the Rams yesterday. Eight sacks and a bunch of turnovers given up to the Eagles. But I'm also questioning Warner's leadership, because he doesn't seem to be the heart and soul of this team, the way Jim Kelly was to the Bills or Joe Montana was to the 49ers. Warner has never brought the Rams back from a fourth-quarter deficit. I think that Warner needs to grow beyond his status as a player with freakish physical gifts into a real, legitimate field marshall for his team.
:: ....but on the flip side of the coin, how about those Eagles, making my preseason Super Bowl pick look pretty good with their smothering defense and competent play by a third-sting QB? Wow!
:: And the Steelers keep pluggin' away at the AFC North, with Kordell Stewart beginning to put on what's referred to in baseball as a "salary drive". He's a free agent after this year, and he'll want some team to actually bring him on as their QB, so he's actually taking advantage of what is probably his last opportunity to look good in a Pittsburgh uniform.
:: Speaking of salary drives, someone should explain the concept to Arizona's Jake Plummer. Going 14-for-31 for 88 yards and three INTs is not going to bring general managers beating a path to Plummer's door with anything better than offers to be, say, David Carr's backup.
:: Michael Vick is the best player I've never been able to watch, due to the TV market in which I live. This guy must be exciting, though.
:: Now that there will only be two wild-card teams per conference, it seems a bit odd that both NFC wild-cards are likely to come from the NFC South. I'm thinking Tampa will win the division, with Atlanta and New Orleans also making the playoffs. And isn't it odd how here we are, with only four weeks left in the season, and there are still thirteen teams of whom it would not be terribly surprising if they won the Super Bowl? So help me, I actually like parity.