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NFL Stretch Run Surprises

   by Al McMordie - 12/05/2004

With four games left in the regular season, we can certainly separate some of the pretenders from the contenders as the postseason approaches. The NFC has one strong team, Philadelphia, while the AFC has three teams that are the favorites to advance to the Super Bowl, in the Colts, Steelers and Patriots. To get a sense of some of the strengths and weaknesses of these teams, and of potential playoff upsets, let’s take a look at some of the surprises of this NFL season.

Chargers' Run Defense: So who are these Chargers? It’s been a long time since a San Diego team made the playoffs, but the Chargers are the biggest surprise of this NFL season. QB Drew Brees has dazzled with MVP numbers while RB LaDainian Tomlinson is the glue that makes Marty Schottenheimer’s ball control offense go. However, the biggest surprise has been a young defense that has been terrific at stopping the run all year.

San Diego is No. 2 in the NFL at stopping the run, and allows just 3.6 yards per carry. Run defense is essential come playoff time (just ask the Eagles, who have lost three straight NFC Championship games, largely because they couldn’t contain the run). The run ‘D’ was magnificent again in Sunday’s huge 20-17 win over Denver, which puts San Diego in the driver’s seat for a surprising AFC West title. You win in January with defense, not offense.

Pittsburgh’s Balance: Before the season, coach Bill Cowher said he wanted to get back to having a more balanced offense. The old scowl-face delivered! Pittsburgh averages 156 yards rushing and 158 passing per game. Those remarkable numbers easily make the fiery Cowher smile, along with Pittsburgh's sizzling record. The powerful running game has taken the pressure off rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger, too, which has been a big part of the Steelers' success.

Patriots' Run Defense: Eyebrows were raised in the first half of the season when the Colts ran for 202 yards on the champs and the Steelers ran for 222. That didn’t come close to happening a year ago as New England marched to the Super Bowl. However, the Pats rank No. 8 in rushing defense behind its young defensive line of Ty Warren, Richard Seymour and rookies Jarvis Green and Vince Wilfork. Since getting bludgeoned by the Steelers, the Patriots have allowed 81, 50, 64, 77 and 46 yards rushing! They need to get the secondary healthy, though, to be a serious threat to repeat in January.

Eagles' Rush Defense: Philadelphia has rolled through all NFC opponents, and none was more spectacular than its flattening of Green Bay on Sunday. But the Eagles are ranked 20th in the league at stopping the run, and allow 4.5 yards per carry. The Eagles have allowed 165 rushing yards to the Browns, 252 to Pittsburgh, 158 to Carolina, and 169 and 170 in two games against the Giants! That’s a weakness that can be exploited, and one they’d better tighten up soon.

Colts' Pass ‘D’: What happened to Cover 2? The Colts were very strong against the pass last season, but they've been poor this year, second to last in the league (just ahead of New Orleans). Injuries have been part of the problem, but this defense has been giving up a lot of points, too. The Chiefs ripped the Colts for 590 yards in one game. The offense is of championship quality, but what about the defense?

I'll be at the Stardust Casino in Las Vegas on this Friday night (December 10) from 9 pm until 10 pm. I'll be competing against Mike Orkin in the semi-finals of the prestigious Stardust Invitational Handicapping Contest, so if you're in town, please stop by and say 'hello'. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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