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Alone at the top

Rams continue to show the way over Steelers

Posted: Thursday December 27, 2001 5:30 PM

I had a dream the other night. I was on the field getting ready to receive an onside kick and I called for a fair catch, basically to avoid the killer hit. There was a big hullabaloo, the officials conferred and they had to call the league office to find out if such a maneuver were legal. I woke up before the answer came down, but the thing bugged me. Could it really be done? I'd never seen it.

Finally I couldn't stand it anymore, so I called the office of officiating. I spoke to a young man who looked up the fair catch rule for me. Yes, you could do it, but only if the ball never touched the ground. Which would just about eliminate the play, unless, of course, the kicker, for some reason, popped one in the air, and even then you'd have to wait until you were sure the ball was actually coming to you, and you'd have to get your hand in the air in time, and ... well, it would be a pretty chaotic thing, with people jumping up all around you. Pretty silly diversion, huh? But if you really want silly, just wait and see what's coming.

Dr. Z's Power Rankings
Rank LW      Team
1 1
St. Louis Rams (12-2)
A very interesting shift in philosophy occurred during the week. Mike Martz lifted the punt receiving duties from Az-Zahir Hakim, who keeps both sides in the game. You never know whether he'll pop one or drop one, and Martz now says he'll trade excitement for steadiness, i.e. Dre' Bly. Could this also mean, as the playoffs loom, that he'll try to get Kurt Warner to go a little more conservative, in order to cut down on the picks (two against the Panthers, bringing his season's total to 18, highest in the NFC)? I don't think so, but I didn't think he'd ground Hakim, either. Look at it this way. Peyton Manning, wounded but still dangerous, will be throwing at a banged-up Rams' secondary Sunday. Warner will be operating against a Colts pass defense that gave Vince Testaverde a season high of 285 yards. A couple more picks by Warner and who knows what could happen? If you like shootout football, this game's for you. The over/under for combined passing yards is 700.
2 2
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-2)
I almost made the Men of Steel my No. 1 this week after their huge win Sunday. But hey, it was against Detroit. OK, we all know that the true No. 1 will be determined only after Supe XXXVI, and all this stuff is just window dressing, but I will be monitoring the last two contests of both the Rams and Steelers very closely to see which team really deserves the annual prize we award. What's the prize? Well, I'll be damned if it'll be a trip to Disneyland.
3 4
Chicago Bears (11-3)
Raiders fans, you're gonna have to wait your turn, and it's going to take longer than you'd like. The Bears made a valiant comeback on a typical week-after-clinching downer, while Oakland was taking its lumps from the Titans. Chicago earned this position. And I hope this serves as an adequate response to all the e-mail heat I know I'm going to receive.
4 5
San Francisco 49ers (11-3)
Big defensive surge protects a wounded QB. Classy stuff against a formidable opponent. How about that goal line stand? Who knows, maybe the Niners should be No. 3 (but no higher just yet).
5 6
Green Bay Packers (10-4)
Back comes the Pack, trying to climb from wild-card land into the golden realm of the bye. Bet they wish they could play the Bears again.
6 3
Oakland Raiders (10-4)
Well, hello, there you are. Thought you'd never get here. Trying to get accurate information out of Pride & Poise Land is as easy as it was to crack the old KGB files, so we remain uncertain as to just how bad the groin injury is to the kicker, Sebastian Janikowski, whose three blown field goals certainly didn't help things last Saturday night. Could be a cover up, could be worse than we think, could be somewhere in between. Maybe they'll relieve some of the kickoff pressure on Sebbie and let someone else handle the duties. Let's see, the Cardinals and Bucs both had their strong safety doing it. Are you ready, Johnnie Harris? (Who?)
7 9
New England Patriots (10-5)
Rest up, fellas, you've earned your bye. Where'd that big ground game come from? Imports and youngsters up and down the O-line. A reject running back, Antowain Smith, plowing for 156 yards against the Dolphins. This is a hot team, folks, that's peaking at just the right time, and if Oakland falters, the Pats could wind up as the No. 2 seed. Who would have thunk?
8 10
Baltimore Ravens (9-5)
Ravens vs. Bucs is my kind of game. Lots of defense, no flashy 80-yard TDs, unless a DB picks one off and goes the distance. I like the fact that this one's all by itself on Saturday night, uncluttered by those distracting streamers crawling across the bottom of the screen, announcing scores from around the league. Low scoring? It figures, but I have a feeling that there will be a lot of field goals set up by a lot of turnovers.
9 11
New York Jets (9-5)
The final game-winning drive against the Colts got all the ink, but I think the real pressure was on the defense. Indy got the ball on its own 20 with 55 seconds and two timeouts left, needing only a field goal to win. The Colts had scored on their last two possessions. The Jets defense was starting to sag, but it held firm and iced the game. Unsung hero on that unit? Ray Mickens, the nickel back who's been starting at the corner for Aaron Glenn.
10 7
Philadelphia Eagles (9-5)
A win over the Giants at home gives the Iggles the division title. I think the defense will provide it for them. The ground game has gone south. Running back Duce Staley is their leading receiver. Nosir, it's got to be a defensive show.
11 12
Tennessee Titans (7-7)
There I go again, annoying everybody by overrating a team with a mediocre record. Sorry but I just can't help it. I like this team's toughness. I like the way it defensed Rich Gannon and Tim Brown. Their QB and featured runner are playing hurt, their secondary's in shambles, yet the Titans hang in. Maybe I should have ranked them higher.
12 8
Miami Dolphins (9-5)
OK, they'll make the playoffs and possibly win the division, with two homies against Atlanta and Buffalo remaining, but I still don't like what has happened to them. For instance, why did their run defense come up so soft against San Francisco and New England, back to back? Very un-Wannstedtlike.
13 13
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-6)
At one time I was accused of constantly ranking the Bucs too high, and now the Bay fans have a legitimate complaint after I failed to raise them, following their massacre of the Saints. But look at it this way. I don't think they're better than the Dolphins. One or two weeks does not a season make. The Titans' spot might seem logical for Tampa Bay, but that would mean lowering Tennessee after their Raiders win. This rating game is a tricky business.
14 15
Washington Redskins (6-8)
Just think, if they hadn't messed around with Jeff George early in the season, they could have been in the thick of it now. On second thought, maybe not. They were a pretty disorganized bunch in September and October. Worst of all, they weren't playing hard. Now they are. It's been a roller coaster ride for the Skins fans. Preseason, a solid contender, then the laughing stock of the league, then a contender again, if only slightly, then out of it.
15 16
Denver Broncos (7-7)
At the beginning of the season everyone wondered why under the wide blue sky they wanted to keep three quality running backs. And now? Olandis Gary is out for the year, Terrell Davis is "running sluggish," and Mike Anderson is wondering why he doesn't get to play more. The message -- if your salary cap can stand it, you stock up on good players.
16 21
Atlanta Falcons (7-7)
Chris Chandler and his 400-yard arm can mess things up for two teams, the Dolphins and Rams. You don't believe it? Well, I'm not so sure I do, either, but I didn't think the Falcons would be 7-7 at this point.
17 23
New York Giants (7-7)
There he goes again, bending over backward for the New York teams. Let me explain myself, and maybe this will help answer the mailbaggers. They did beat the Seahawks, so they deserve a higher ranking. Two victories, never mind how they got them, brought them back into contention for not only a playoff spot but a division title. There are only two contending teams beneath them, the aforementioned Seahawks and Saints, and you know what happened to them. I rest my case.
18 17
Seattle Seahawks (7-7)
Well, I guess they're still in contention, although I'd bore everyone silly by going into all the yes-buts. Hard luck has dogged them of late, the QB's sore shoulder, the decimation of their secondary, but you know as well as I do that the 16-game season is an endurance contest. Sad but true.
19 14
New Orleans Saints (7-7)
What's happening here? Have they lost interest or what? I didn't think they could play a worse game than they did against the Rams. But then they went out last week and proved me wrong. I mean is Aaron Brooks a hot young quarterback or a long-term project? What kind of coaching is that offense getting? And how could a defense that ranked ninth in the league against the run allow the Bucs' Mike Alstott to manhandle them the way he did?
20 22
Jacksonville Jaguars (6-8)
Tony Brackens is showing All-Pro form. Too late. Stacey Mack is running for big yardage. Too late. Saddest pair of words in the English language.
21 18
Cleveland Browns (6-8)
OK, a few of their guys wound up on police blotters. It happens. But why did they pick up that wacko special teamer the Packers cut, Chris Akins? If ever there was a coach-breaker ...
23 20
Indianapolis Colts (5-9)
They’ve gotten off Peyton Manning’s case and now they’re yelling about the defense, or lack of same. Well, in training camp you looked at all the people on that unit and you said, yeah, they’ve addressed the problem. They’ll be OK. The problem, and we didn’t see it at the time, was a lack of depth, but can you honestly tell where injuries will strike?
23 19
Minnesota Vikings (5-9)
"Build me a new stadium or I'll leave," says billionaire owner Red McCombs. You want to root for his team? Go right ahead.
24 24
Arizona Cardinals (6-8)
Another win or so and they've got a shot at the C-division championship.
25 26
Kansas City Chiefs (5-9)
Priest Holmes, who is seven yards ahead of Curtis Martin for the NFL rushing title, has given the season some life. The Chiefs face Jacksonville and Seattle, the Jets face Buffalo and Oakland. If this were cable TV we'd have a fan poll to vote for who will take it, 75 cents per entry. I know who my guy would be, but I ain't telling.
26 25
San Diego Chargers (5-10)
Well, Mike Riley says he won't play Drew Brees, which tells us that he wants to try to squeeze out another win in an effort to save his job. Who's he kidding? I mean does 6-10 really look that great on a resumé.
27 27
Dallas Cowboys (4-10)
I'll let you in on a secret. There will be no surprises from here on down.
28 28
Cincinnati Bengals (4-10)
So you call for a fair catch on an onside kick that's popped in the air and a guy hits you anyway? Do they drop the flag, or do they rule that it couldn't be helped, amid all that thrashing and everything? Some day before I die I want to see that play.
29 30
Buffalo Bills (2-12)
During their happy years in the late '80s, early to mid-'90s, they once beat the Jets seven straight in New York. I'm trying to dumb up interest in this game, you see.
30 29
Detroit Lions (1-13)
People in the know say that the real problem with this team is lack of overall speed. Well, that can be cured if you scout the Olympics. Getting them to play football is another story.
31 31
Carolina Panthers (1-13)
But then again, why would anyone but me ever think of calling for a fair catch on an onside kick?

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