Upgraded QBs, more scoring and a good draft keep teams with top 10 picks in playoff picture

3 factors unite 6 rising teams

Nfl Week

December 24, 2006|By Alex Marvez | Alex Marvez,South Florida Sun-Sentinel

After last week's games, 24 NFL teams remained in the playoff hunt, including six teams that had top 10 picks in the 2006 draft: New Orleans Saints (No. 2), Tennessee Titans (3), New York Jets (4), Green Bay Packers (5), San Francisco 49ers (6) and Buffalo Bills (8).

While only the Saints (9-5) are guaranteed a playoff berth or even a winning record, all six franchises have three common threads when it comes to their resurgences.

Improved play at quarterback: Miami Dolphins coach Nick Saban's decision to trade for Daunte Culpepper instead of signing Drew Brees via free agency as New Orleans did looks worse every week. Brees ranks in the NFL's top three in passing yards (league-high 4,240), touchdown passes (25) and quarterback rating (98.2).

Like Brees, New York's Chad Pennington also has soundly rebounded from a major shoulder injury. Green Bay's Brett Favre has thrown 12 fewer interceptions through 15 games than his league-high 29 in 2005.

The other three teams have young quarterbacks who are starting to blossom. San Francisco's Alex Smith has 15 touchdown passes compared with just one in a horrible rookie campaign.

Buffalo's J.P. Losman has averaged one touchdown every 15 pass attempts in the Bills' current 5-2 run.

And Tennessee's Vince Young has more rushing yards (462) than any other rookie quarterback in the Super Bowl era.

Increased scoring: Through 14 games, all six teams were averaging more points than last season.

The Saints have shown the most improvement, jumping from 14.7 points in 2005 to 25.9 under the tutelage of Sean Payton. Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is another first-year head coach who has installed a more effective offensive system.

Outstanding 2006 drafts: Tennessee has obviously hit paydirt with Young, and New Orleans running back Reggie Bush (first round) and wide receiver Marques Colston (seventh) are the second rookie teammates in NFL history to each gain at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage.

The Jets used first-round picks on two offensive line starters, left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold. Tight end Vernon Davis (Maryland), one of three rookie starters in San Francisco, has two touchdown catches in the past two games after missing most of the season with a broken leg.

And the Packers and Bills have started five rookies for most of the year, with Buffalo fielding four on defense in last Sunday's 21-0 shutout of the Dolphins.

Alex Marvez writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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