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Tuesday Morning Quarterback Excerpts, 12/13/05


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It's Jacksonville's biggest game in years, a rare sellout Alltel Stadium crowd is roaring, it's the Jags' first possession -- and the game is over. Why? Taking the opening kickoff, Jax reached fourth-and-1 on the Indianapolis 43. All week, Jax players had boasted about how they would be physical and fearless with the undefeated Colts. Now it's fourth-and-1 in Indianapolis territory, and Jacksonville is punting! The Colts are the best team in the league: You've got to take the fight to them, you can't wimp out on the very first possession!!!!!! Boom goes the punt, and TMQ wrote the words "game over" in his notebook with 10:46 remaining in the first quarter.

Forget that it took the Colts just six snaps to pass the point where the ball would have been had Jacksonville gone for it and missed. You knew the Colts would immediately roar past that point! Never in my years of watching football have I seen a much-anticipated monster game between two good teams decided so soon: neither team had even scored, yet the game was so totally over. Indianapolis drove the length of the field for a touchdown on the possession, but you knew that, too. Coaches boom a punt on fourth-and-1 because they think it's the "safe" thing to do. Actually it's the risky thing. Three quarters of NFL fourth-down runs gain a first down (74 percent in 2004, to be exact). This means punting on fourth-and-1 in opposition territory passively surrenders a chance of a drive that produces points, in order to hand the ball over to the other side. Plus when coaches go for it in situation like this, they send the message they are challenging their players to go win the game. When coaches order a mincing fraidy-cat punt, they send the message they expect to lose and are already thinking about how to shift blame at the press conference. "Game over" in my notebook on the first series -- well Jax, at least you set some kind of record.

Now the Colts have locked up home-field advantage in the AFC, and tradition says rest your starters. But with three regular season dates remaining plus the bye week, Tony Dungy's starters will not play a meaningful game again until January 14th at the earliest! No NFL team has ever faced such a gap between consequential contests. So here's my two cents: Dungy should make the final three Indianapolis games meaningful by formally announcing that a 16-0 finish is the team's goal. Give the Colts something to play for, an incentive to stay focused. Of course, if any starter looks hurt, immediately sit him. Otherwise go all-out to join the 1972 Dolphins' champagne toast, and let everyone know this is the plan. Colts players are saying the right thing -- we only care about the Super Bowl. You know they desperately want to go 16-0. Letting them try might improve the Colts' Super Bowl odds, by keeping the team focused.

All right-thinking football enthusiasts should root for Chicago on Sunday against Atlanta. Why? Chicago must beat Atlanta in order to prevent Seattle from locking up home-field advantage if it beats Tennessee. If Seattle doesn't lock its best seeding this week and still needs to win the following week, the Colts-at-Blue Men Group contest on Christmas Eve could be a monster game; if Seattle has already locked, the game may instead be a snorefest. The big question for the Ming Ding Xiong ("Bears whose outcomes are decided by fate" in Mandarin) is whether to switch from low-voltage quarterback Kyle Orton to first-draft-choice Rex Grossman. Grossman hasn't taken a snap since September 2004. But he's got more star power than Orton, who has a plodding 60.9 passer rating, and the Bears will have trouble in the playoffs if they remain in the bottom third for scoring. Owing to this, the sports-yak world is likely to spend the week advocating that Chicago switch jockeys. But keep in mind, Grossman is short on experience and his 71.1 career passer rating is not exactly scintillating. Everyone who has played quarterback for the Bears since Jim McMahon has looked underwhelming -- it's a combination of teammates, tactics, weather and the fact that the football gods seem to prefer every Chicago game end with a score of 10-6. My two cents is that the Bears should dance with the one what brung 'em. Lovie Smith could impose cloture on the debate by announcing Orton is Da Man, before a divided locker room develops.

And in other football news, Moo Cows' kicker Kris Brown lines up for the chip-shot 31-yard attempt with 10 seconds remaining, the kick is up, it's way off target -- what a huge relief to Houston fans! The Texans thus retain a one-game lead over San Francisco in the Reggie Bush sweepstakes. (Aside: the most impressive statistic of Week 14 was that 69,149 Tennessee spectators came to see the 1-12 Texans confront the 3-9 Titans.) With victories Sunday, the Jets and Packers all but dropped out of the Reggie Race, which surely caused some gnashing of teeth in network boardrooms. Can you imagine how great it would have been for NFL marketing to have Reggie Bush in New York? Bearing in mind that for NFL purposes, New York is located in New Jersey.

Stats of the Week: Not only does Shaun Alexander have more rushing yards than 19 of the league's 32 teams, he has more rushing attempts than four teams.

Stats of the Week No. 2: Stretching over two games, Buffalo was outscored 56-0.

Stats of the Week No. 3: First overall draft choice Alex Smith has nine interceptions and no touchdown passes.

Stats of the Week No. 4: Tom Brady is 14-0 when the kickoff temperature is below 1.66666667 Celsius (35 Fahrenheit).

Stats of the Week No. 5: In his last two games, Chris Chambers has 23 receptions.

Stats of the Week No. 6: In a game the Ravens lost by two points, Baltimore reached the Denver 1, 15, 24 and 35 without scoring.

Sweet Special Teams Play: Everyone raves about kick returners; no one raves about the wedge. On Antonio Brown's 91-yard kickoff return touchdown that proved the winning points for Washington over Arizona, Brown simply fielded the ball and ran straight up the middle untouched behind terrific wedge blocking. It's pretty fun to run 91 yards straight up the middle when everyone in front of you has already been knocked to the ground.

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