Saturday, September 18, 2004

What I Hate About You

No, dear reader, this is not a column about you. Rather, it is a column about something near to the game yet, inevitably, so shrouded by deception--unreasoned perception. Since the Vikings'-Eagles' tilt on Monday involves this phenomenon, and since most of you are visiting this site primarily because I promise some Vikings' content, I shall start with the MNF game.

As of this writing, the Eagles are a 3 1/2-point favorite over the Vikings on Monday. This is fairly close to the original Vegas line, which means that Vegas--and bettors--both believe that Philadelphia is a slightly better team than Minnesota. Throw out the 3 points given to the home team and the Eagles are favored to win by a 1/2 point (feel free to round to 1). But is this an accurate assessment of the talent on the two squads? Is Philly really a better team than Minnesota?

As with anything, how one reaches a conclusion on talent depends greatly on what criteria one considers relevant. At first blush, the Eagles look pretty solid. In their first game of the 2004 season, the Eagles beat the NY Giants 31-17 and the newly acquired offensive weapon--Terrell Owens--scored three TDs. For good measure, Michael Westbrook added 119 yards rushing, while the defense threw in 4 sacks.

That sounds pretty good. Good enough to make the Eagles a favorite at home this Monday and good enough to make the Eagles favorites over a Vikings' team that is expected to make the playoffs. But, of course, the operative word is sounds. The Eagles sound good, but how good are they?

How good the Eagles are at this point in the 2004 season depends, in part, on how good one perceives the Giants to be. Last season, the Giants lost their last 9 games. They could not stop the run, they could not stop the pass, and, clearly, they could not win games. This year, the Giants are equally inept on offense, due, in full, to their lack of a starting QB (Oh where oh where has our Kelly Collins gone, oh where oh where could he be? With his hair cut short and his goatee cut long, oh where oh where has he gone?). The Giants have an apparently washed-out veteran QB warming the center's buttcheeks until rookie Eli Manning, no matter how green, becomes a more promising option as a starter (something that probably already has happened). A playoff caliber team should throttle the likes of the Giants this season, and the Eagles mostly did so. But that doesn't mean that the Eagles are any better than any of the other playoff teams in the NFC, all of whom would likely provide a similar showing against the Giants. As such, the Eagles' victory over the Giants offers little help in assessing the talent of the Eagles versus other NFC playoff-caliber teams. And how good the Eagles will be on Monday depends on how good one perceives the Vikings to be.

The Vikings dismantled what some considered to be one of the top defenses in the NFL en route to a 35-17 victory over the Cowboys last Sunday. Whether one agrees with the assessment of the Cowboys being an elite NFL defense--and I happen to believe they are somewhere below that status--the Cowboys unquestionably have a more capable defense than do the Giants. Both the Eagles and Vikings played at home last week so neither victor wins bonus points for strutting their stuff on the road. That means we can look at each team's offensive performance straight up.

The Vikings scored more points against a better defense last week and made it look easy. Moreover, while the Eagles relied on their primary weapon--TO--to score, Minnesota showed that it could score at will even without going to its primary target--Moss. If the Eagles take Moss out of the equation, as the Cowboys tried to do, Minnesota can go to Robinson, Burleson, Campbell, or Wiggins. If the Vikings focus on defending TO, the Eagles can turn to, well, the running game. And for every Westbrook, the Vikings can counter with a SOD. Even with Michael, Moe, and Jimmy out with injuries, Minnesota is simply a deeper offensive team and more difficult to cover. If Daunte "drives the bus," the Vikings' offense will do well this season, particularly against teams like Philly that have not demonstrated an ability to stop the run and that appear vulnerable to the pass.

Vikings 1, Eagles 0

Although the Vikings have the the edge on offense, whether they have the more impressive defense is much more a matter of perception--and one must wince hard to see a sterling defensive performance by either the Vikings or the Eagles last week.

The Cowboys scored 17 points against the Vikings, but should have had more. Dallas settled for a field goal on its opening drive despite driving deep inside Minnesota territory. On their second drive, the Cowboys settled for even less--a botched field goal attempt--despite holding the ball for nearly an entire quarter on the drive. Pitiful. A good offensive team would surely have scored on the drive and probably would have scored a touchdown. As such, the Vikings get credit only on the scoreboard for holding the Cowboys to 17 points. One could argue that the Cowboys got lucky in scoring a touchdown at the end of the first half, but the TD was only "lucky" if by "lucky" one means the Vikings defense was atrocious--a condition that tends to be more debilitating over the course of a season than would be mere bad luck.

To make matters worse, the Cowboys threw for over 350 yards. The Cowboys' rushing totals were not good, but they were forced to pass once they got behind so we do not know whether the Cowboys--without their starting running back against Minnesota--would have faired better given a tight game. That makes all the more remarkable, however, the fact that Vinny Testaverde (who the Vikings made look like Doug Flutie playing the Vikings in 2003) was able to throw for 352 yards. The Vikings knew the 'Boys were going to pass and still were unable to stop the carnage. That's bad pass defense, no matter how hard Brian Williams hits the receiver.

But as bad as the Vikings were against the pass, the Eagles were equally inept against the rush--which, given the state of the Giants' QB situation, speaks volumes. The Eagles were free to load up against the Giants, putting eight or nine in the box, as neither Warner nor Manning could hit anything on the field for much of the game. Nevertheless, the Giants rushed for 190 yards against the Eagles' defense. That's not good. That's bad.

Given the ineptitude of the Giants' QBs, what is not yet known is how solid/porous the Eagles' secondary is. Given their loss of two Pro-Bowl corners in the off-season, the guess here is that a thumb will not stem the tide--the dam is going to burst sometime this season, and probably sooner rather than later.

Though the Vikings' secondary is weak in coverage, the Vikings are good against the run. The Eagles are lousy against the run and appear set for a major letdown in their secondary. While it says little when measured against the good defenses in the NFL, the Vikings thus have the edge on defense over the Eagles.

Vikings 2, Eagles 0

Special teams

Mike Tice has drafted, benched, cut, and re-signed a kicker of dubious ability within the span of one NFL season. Tice has also signed Vinny Testaverde's boyhood NFL idol--Morten Andersen--to shore up the Minnesota kicking game. Because Mort cannot kick off or kick long field goals, Tice felt obliged--in a contract season for the coach--to bring back a kicker in Aaron Elling who also cannot kick off or kick long (or short) field goals. The rationale for Tice's enamoration with Elling is that Elling could kick in college and the Vikings "have invested so much in the kid." Didn't we invest a lot in Waswaa Serwanga as well?

Despite Tice's off-season contentions, the Vikings remain one of the few teams in the NFL unable to find a bona fide NFL kicker. This, alone, means that the Vikings cannot possibly be considered to have a better special teams than the Eagles, who have a bona fide NFL kicker (and punter, for that matter).

Vikings 2, Eagles 1

Special teams' play is important in the NFL, particularly on the road and particularly if the weather conditions are sloppy--as they may be on Monday night in Philly, but defensive and offensive play rank higher. Westbrook may well have a good game, and TO may well have two TDs against Minnesota, but, if Daunte maintains his composure, the Vikings should handle the Eagles, and they should do so to the tune of 34-24. Clearly, this prediction contradicts conventional perception of the ability of the Eagles and the Vikings, but conventional perception appears blind to what matters in this matchup.

Up Next: More about "you" and other things that matter.

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