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THE INSIDE TRACK | COMMENTARY

Lack of Dominant Team Should Make for Exciting Postseason

November 26, 2000|MICHAEL WILBON | WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — Here we are a dozen weeks into the NFL season, ready to begin the bell lap of the race to the playoffs, and there's no assurance a great team is going to emerge. The teams that can ring up points can't stop anybody and the teams with airtight defenses can't score with any consistency. There are teams who aren't quite there yet like the Eagles, teams that appear to have missed their time like the Jaguars, teams that may exist just to tease us like the Buccaneers and Colts, star-crossed teams like the Saints, and teams that have cried wolf too many times like the Raiders.

The fact that the teams with the very best records are so seriously flawed will probably prevent greatness, but it will allow for a breathless final month. The race couldn't be more wide open because there simply isn't one complete team in the league.

If we did this by ranking, like college football, my NFL Top 10 would be Titans, Vikings, Raiders, Dolphins, Redskins, Ravens, Rams, Eagles, Colts, Jets.

Start right here in the NFC East with Sunday's combatants, the Eagles and Redskins. The Eagles have a fine defense, great special teams, rate as high on the guts-meter as any team in the league, and have a quarterback headed for stardom if he doesn't become Jake Plummer. They're going to make the playoffs because even if they lose this week to the Redskins and next week to Tennessee, they'll still beat the Browns and Bengals to win 10 games. But...can you trust a team to seriously contend with a quarterback in just his second year and a running back-by-committee?

The Redskins are the only team in the league that rank in the top 10 in both defense (No. 4) and offense (No. 6). But until Monday night, they had the worst special teams around and the offense can't justify all those yards gained without real points scored, and may not be able to get vertical regardless of who plays quarterback. While Washingtonians typically and predictably spend days on end discussing a quarterback controversy, Ray Rhodes has put together a Super Bowl-worthy defense that would be appropriately appreciated in Philly or Chicago or Pittsburgh.

Let's take the Vikings and Rams together since the same thing ails both of them: defense. The Vikes can't defend the pass (25th in the NFL), the Rams (28th in total defense) can't defend anything. The difference between them, though, is that the Rams are allowing 30 points a game while the Vikings have managed to keep that to 21 per game. The Rams--who have somehow fallen off the table with essentially the same defensive personnel who played so well last season--will not, I said will not, make it to the Super Bowl no matter who the quarterback is. You roto geeks keep taking the Rams, I'll take defense. Tampa Bay and the Redskins have now provided a blueprint of how to dismantle the Rams' offense.

Perhaps some of you recall my dear friend Tony (Radio Free) Kornheiser taking the position that Dennis Green was having a nervous breakdown in Minneosta when he decided to go with Daunte Culpepper. Green is coach of the year and Culpepper is MVP narrowly over Rich Gannon on this ballot. Thirty other coaches want to know where they can shop for such a breakdown. (And if Green is having a breakdown, what's ailing Bill Belichick in New England? That fact that he even has a job, and the Patriots gave up a first-round draft pick to get him, should be a source of embarrassment to the NFL. Belichick, for the second time, is a failure at head coaching while a man who consistently took his team to the playoffs, Art Shell, can't get a whiff of a second chance.)

Among the other NFC teams that are 6-5 or better, the Giants do a bunch of stuff pretty well but nothing great; the Saints were going to finish 10-6 or better but there's no chance of that now because of the devastating injuries to Ricky Williams and Jeff Blake; Tampa still doesn't have a passing game (25th in the league) and their most reliable offensive player (Mike Alstott) is out for the season. Detroit? The Lions could be the worst 8-4 team in the history of the NFL, which is a credit to both Bobby Ross and Gary Moeller.

The AFC East could send four teams to the playoffs, but it's fair to be suspicious of all of them. The Dolphins usually play great defense, but the only team more deficient in passing in the whole league is Cincinnati. Those early comebacks have led the Jets to believe they can come to play only one quarter per game--the fourth--but they can't live this way down the stretch. The Bills are in a wrenching quarterback controversy that Wade Phillips seems unable to negotiate. (Redskins, take note.) And the Colts, with a soft defense and no killer instinct, for the first time are threatening to become a disappointment.

The Broncos are wonderful to watch and they've got our attention locally because Gus Frerotte was so splendid in relief last week. But does anybody in Washington think Gus is taking the Broncos, with an iffy Terrell Davis, to the playoffs?

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