NFL coaches face end-of-year exams

Pro football: The league's top field bosses will be looking for any and every kind of edge in the drive to the wire.

Analysis

December 05, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

December in the NFL is about bad weather, good quarterbacks and team chemistry. This year, perhaps more than most others, it's also about coaches who make a big difference.

Coaches like Bill Parcells and Marvin Lewis, who have inspired the Dallas Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals to shocking success this year.

Coaches like Dick Vermeil and Bill Belichick, whose expertise on offense and defense has prodded the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots to the two best records in the league.

Coaches like Andy Reid and Jeff Fisher, who changed their team profiles to keep the Philadelphia Eagles and Tennessee Titans in the thick of the playoff race.

In a season when there are as many as six men who merit Coach of the Year consideration, December's stretch run easily could be determined by which coaches can navigate their teams through the playoff maze.

While the quality of the play on the field is open to debate, there is no doubting the caliber of the coaching experience on the sideline.

Parcells won two Super Bowls and participated in a third. Belichick won one as a head coach and two as a defensive coordinator. Vermeil has taken two different teams to the Super Bowl, with a chance for a third.

The Ravens' Brian Billick, the Denver Broncos' Mike Shanahan and the Seattle Seahawks' Mike Holmgren have won Super Bowls.

Who holds the coaching advantage?

Belichick has shown the most resiliency as his Patriots absorbed an extraordinary number of injuries and still won their past eight games. Reid demonstrated uncommon patience waiting out an early season slump by quarterback Donovan McNabb.

Vermeil used the same big-play philosophy on offense when he coached the Rams to the championship in 1999 that his Chiefs now espouse. John Fox adopted a traditional approach - strong defense, punishing running game and good special teams - to guide the Carolina Panthers to the top of the NFC South.

The best coaches ultimately will have either the best quarterback or the best defense, along with a keen sense of team harmony. Here is a look at some of the variables.

Quarterbacks

The AFC has virtually all the best quarterbacks - Tennessee's Steve McNair, New England's Tom Brady, the Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning and Kansas City's Trent Green.

McNair (20 touchdown passes, six interceptions) and Manning (23 and 9) are enjoying MVP-type seasons. Brady plays best in the clutch, with a lineup he couldn't have envisioned last September. Green has the benefit of the league's most versatile running back, Priest Holmes.

Hot quarterbacks? Who is hotter than Cincinnati's Jon Kitna, who hasn't thrown an interception since Week 10? Maybe the Miami Dolphins' Jay Fiedler, who put up 54 points in his last five quarters since returning from a knee injury.

In the NFC, the potential cast of playoff quarterbacks includes McNabb and Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck and a group of flawed, or injured, candidates.

The Rams' Marc Bulger and Green Bay's Brett Favre (broken thumb) have both thrown 18 interceptions. Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper is turnover-prone once again as the Vikings slide toward collapse. Quincy Carter of the Cowboys has 11 interceptions in his last six games.

Defense

The Broncos (No. 2), Ravens (No. 4) and Patriots (No. 8) have the highest defensive rankings among AFC playoff contenders, while the Titans rank first in run defense, a critical component of postseason play.

The Chiefs are less than stout. They rank 27th defending the run, 26th in total yards.

In another key category, the Ravens rank second in the league in yards allowed per play; the Patriots are fourth, Miami seventh.

In the NFC, Dallas is first in yards allowed per play and in total yards, and third in run defense. The Vikings appear not to have a chance when it comes to defense. They are last in the league in yards allowed per play.

Schedule

The Chiefs (11-1) and Patriots (10-2) are battling for the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the AFC. The Chiefs visit Denver on Sunday in their last conference game of the regular season, then take on the dregs of the NFC North (Detroit, Minnesota, Chicago).

The Patriots welcome Miami to wintry New England this week with a chance to clinch the AFC East. Then New England gets Jacksonville before finishing with division scrums against the New York Jets and Buffalo.

The Chiefs can't afford to slip, obviously.

In the NFC, the Eagles (9-3) are vying with St. Louis (9-3) for home-field advantage. More imminently, they meet the Cowboys in a huge NFC East showdown. A Dallas win in Philadelphia gives the Cowboys the tie-breaker with a series sweep.

The Rams are unbeaten at home (6-0), which is bad for visiting Seattle and Cincinnati. The Rams' two road trips are to Cleveland and Detroit.

Advantage: St. Louis.

December dynamics

This is how the NFL's playoff seedings stand in Week 14, with four weeks left in the regular season. The top six teams from each conference make the playoffs and the top two teams in each conference draw a first-round bye.

AFC

Conf. Last 4 opp. Record vs.

Team (Record) record win pct. winning teams

1. Chiefs (11-1) 10-1 .479 2-1

2. Patriots (10-2) 7-1 .438 6-0

3. Colts (9-3) 7-2 .479 2-2

4. Bengals (7-5) 6-4 .521 3-1

5. Titans (9-3) 6-3 .500 2-2

6. Dolphins (8-4) 5-4 .604 2-3

7. Ravens (7-5) 4-4 .375 2-4

8. Broncos (7-5) 6-3 .625 1-4

NFC

Conf. Last 4 opp. Record vs.

Team (Record) record win pct. winning teams

1. Eagles (9-3) 7-2 .521 1-2

2. Rams (9-3) 7-3 .479 2-1

3. Panthers (8-4) 6-2 .271 1-3

4. Vikings (7-5) 6-3 .563 1-1

5. *Cowboys (8-4) 6-2 .479 2-2

6. Seahawks (8-4) 6-2 .500 1-2

7. Saints (6-6) 5-4 .417 0-6

8. Packers (6-6) 6-5 .354 2-4

*-Cowboys currently have tie-breaking edge over Seahawks for better record vs. common opponents.

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