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Posted: Wednesday November 21, 2001 12:25 PM|
|Sports Illustrated's Don Banks tackles three questions that matter to fans:
||As we stare down the season's backstretch, which teams are putting it together and poised to make a deep playoff run?
We'll give you two nominations to keep an eye on, one in each conference. Here are some hints: They both hold down first place in the East. They're both 2-3 at home, and both undefeated on the road. And they both look great in green.
Write it down: The Eagles and the Jets are teams to be reckoned with. After slipping to 3-3 with a home loss to Oakland, Philadelphia has rebounded win three consecutive wins and holds a 1 1/2-game lead over the second-place Giants. With a win this week at home against back-from-the-dead Washington (4-5), the Eagles can further tighten their grip on the division.
The Eagles were inconsistent on offense for much of the season's first two months, but they've won their past two games by a combined score of 84-20. Quarterback Donovan McNabb has begun to approach his 2000 form, wide receiver James Thrash has emerged as a go-to playmaker, and with Duce Staley again healthy, there is balance between the running and passing games.
Still, the Eagles are driven by their stellar defense, which has given up just 118 points, second fewest in the league. With a 4-0 road record and 4-1 in the division, the Eagles have only to cultivate a true home-field advantage in the cold-weather months. This week's test against the resurgent Redskins is an excellent starting point.
As for the Jets (7-3), they enter their bye week having won an AFC-best four in a row, with a half-game lead over their personal patsies, the Dolphins. New York is an impressive 5-0 away from home and 4-1 in the AFC East. The Jets too have a big divison home game coming up -- against New England on Dec. 2 -- that would go a long ways toward establishing some sense of dominance at the Meadowlands.
New York, like Philadelphia, looks ready for the long haul because it's built around a talented defense. The Jets are coming off their first road shutout since 1993 -- 24-0 at Miami on the strength of two interceptions returned for touchdowns -- and after a frustrating first month of the season, New York has adapted to the transition to the 4-3 defense. Opponents have scored just 28 points during the Jets' four-game winning streak.
And while the Jets' offense still isn't firing on all cylinders in the newly installed West Coast short-passing game, quarterback Vinny Testaverde has at least shown he can be trusted at the wheel and knows how to manage the leads that the defense has presented him with.
||What scheduling development would come as a blessing to NFL fans in this week of Thanksgiving?
Now more than ever, with the Lions and Cowboys both reeking, it makes sense to re-visit the idea of rotating the host-team duties for the two annual Thanksgiving Day games.
What about tradition you say? It's important, and it should be part of the equation. The Lions and Cowboys have been playing host to Turkey Day games for decades, and that should count for something.
But how about Detroit and Dallas having a Thanksgiving game every other year, with their assigments staggered? That way, every fourth Thursday in November, either the Lions or Cowboys would have a nationally televised home game, just like always. But in the day's other game, some other NFL city and its fans will get to experience the feel and fun of holiday football.
As best as it can, the NFL should make it equitable, rotating the one open game a year among its other 30 teams (once Houston joins next year). Playing on the road on Thanksgiving shouldn't disqualify a team from receiving the host duties when its turn comes around.
With such a plan, the NFL would could keep its rich Thanksgiving Day history alive in Detroit and Dallas, without penalizing the rest of the nation's football-watching fans who might like to take in a holiday game at their home team's stadium.
Lord knows we could use a break from the Lions and Cowboys this year. At 0-9, Detroit is winless coming into Thanksgiving for the first time in team history. At a combined 2-16, the Cowboys and Lions are as futile as they have ever been entering these centerpiece games. In Green Bay at Detroit and Denver at Dallas, the NFL will be featuring just one winning team Thursday.
This year, with the pickings on TV so slim, maybe it's time to pass on more than just that third helping of mashed potatoes and gravy.
||Where has the Randy Moss of Monday night been all season?
For a guy who rightly has been derided for his questionable motivation in recent years, Randy Moss gave his critics plenty of fuel in the Vikings' 28-16 defeat of the Giants. Minnesota's fourth-year receiver caught a season-best 10 passes for 171 yards against New York, and tied his career high with three touchdown receptions.
What's so bad about that? Nothing, except it only served to remind everyone just how little Moss had produced in the season's first eight games. Under the glare of the Monday-night spotlight -- where he always has done his best work -- Moss was once again the most breath-taking weapon in the game, consistently torching New York's secondary in a star-like performance.
But it begged the question: Why does it take a Monday night, or the emotion surrounding the retirement of his close friend Korey Stringer's jersey number to bring out the best in Moss? Don't bother asking Moss. He didn't deem to talk to the media after the Vikings' fourth win in nine games.
Before Monday night, Moss had scored three touchdowns in 32 quarters this season. He matched that number Monday in just four quarters. Before Monday night, Moss had a mere 39 catches for 538 yards this season, numbers that were far below his Pro Bowl level of impact, circa 1998-2000.
But facing the Giants, the team that rendered him invisible in last January's NFC title game, Moss was in his prime-time, playmaking mode, rolling up his largest yardage total since amassing 188 yards in a playoff loss at St. Louis in January 2000. Moss' three touchdowns were a feat he hadn't accomplished since his halcyon rookie days of 1998. He now has 10 TDs in seven Monday-night appearances.
The book on Moss has been rather straightforward the past two years. Get him involved in the game early and he'll play hard that day and affect the outcome. But if he's left out of the offense or taken out of his game in the first half, he's a good bet to mail in his performance with a look of boredom etched on his face.
The Vikings know this, and went to Moss early and often Monday night. He drew a 39-yard pass interference call on Minnesota's first drive, and capped that possession with one of his trademark leaping touchdown catches. It was vintage Moss. Just not the 2001 vintage.
For their $75 million investment, the Vikings deserve a few more of those games from Moss this season. One a week for the next seven weeks would be about right.
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