Buddy Ryan used to call it the "slow burn." He hated the soft
zone, the three-man rush, the schemes that had defenders
retreating downfield like frightened forest creatures. He used
to say it wasn't defense; it was an engraved invitation to score.
So in the dying moments on Sunday we saw Jaguars defensive
coordinator Gary Moeller hand the game to the Ravens by rushing
one, two, three--count 'em--and giving quarterback Elvis Grbac,
who'd struggled for almost the entire second half, time to sit
in the pocket and read a newspaper and leave instructions for
his receivers to notify him when they got open. Which they did,
my goodness yes. Grbac's first completion on that final drive
went for a leisurely 25 yards, which was longer than any throw
he'd completed all day, the runner-up being a little dump-off to
halfback Moe Williams that became a 23-yarder by accident. I
needn't go too deeply into this travesty, which turned an
aggressive defense that had forced three punts and a fumble on
the four series before that into a patsy.
Oh, sure, when the drive had covered 57 yards and Baltimore was
on the Jacksonville 17, the Jaguars produced some semblance of a
pass rush, but by then it was too late. The momentum had swung.
Thus an upset that would have gotten Jacksonville at least
faintly back into the playoff hunt was averted, and we were left
with one of those smug Brian Billick press conferences devoted
to mocking all those folks who had doubted his quarterback. All
because the Jaguars coaches wouldn't let the defensive guys do
what they'd done successfully.
Moeller is not alone. Most defensive coaches feel the icy
fingers on the throat and hear the little voice telling them to
play it safe, take no chances. In September the Raiders had
Miami's offense on the ropes. Then, protecting a five-point
lead, the defense went soft, and Jay Fiedler marched the
Dolphins 80 yards in the last 1:41 to pull out the victory. In
early November, Cleveland coach Butch Davis, whose background in
the NFL is in defense, mellowed against the Bears, alternating a
three-man rush with a four-man mush-rush based on containment
rather than attack, and Chicago drove against his Browns twice
late in the fourth quarter and put two quickies on the board,
then won the game in overtime. One forced fumble, one major sack
or interception, and all those late-game heroics would not have
become part of the lore of 2001, but even the best of them
occasionally go soft in crunch time.
So who will it be this weekend? The Steelers, with their
multiple blitzes, have never been accused of lightening up, but
the Titans gave them all they could handle on Sunday when
Tennessee assigned its second tight end, 280-pound Erron Kinney,
to blitz control, which caused even the rowdy Steelers to back
off. Do I like the Titans, who are supposedly out of it now,
against the rampaging Browns? I do indeed. In this wacky season
many teams you assume are out of it are really still in it.
Guaranteed, some totally unexpected teams will be in the
playoffs. Following the same premise, I'll pick the Jaguars to
upset the Packers in the Monday-nighter, provided the defensive
players have their way and persuade Moeller to take that
three-man rush and stick it, uh, in the closet.
Here's another upset: Tom Brady to keep the hot hand and lead
the Patriots over the Jets, who had a bye week to read all about
how great they are. The Dolphins will beat the Broncos, who are
still looking for the elixir that will turn tight ends into
wideouts. I like the Ravens over the staggering Colts, although
Baltimore's defense tired badly at the end of the Jacksonville
game. The Steelers to beat the Vikings is my no-brainer, unless
Minnesota figures out a way to revive Randy Moss. Tampa Bay will
find itself unexpectedly fighting for its life against
Cincinnati, but the Bucs will prevail.
Finally, there is Atlanta, a curious team that would qualify for
the playoffs if they were held right now but draws little
support against mighty St. Louis. The Falcons draw lots of
support from yours truly, but not enough for me to pick them,
which is known as handicapper's cowardice. The Rams will win,
but they'll have a tougher time than expected.