Buddy Ryan used to call it the "slow burn." He hated the soft zone, the three-man rush, the schemes that had defenders retreating downfield like frightened forest creatures. He used to say it wasn't defense; it was an engraved invitation to score.
So in the dying moments on Sunday we saw Jaguars defensive coordinator Gary Moeller hand the game to the Ravens by rushing one, two, three—count 'em—and giving quarterback Elvis Grbac, who'd struggled for almost the entire second half, time to sit in the pocket and read a newspaper and leave instructions for his receivers to notify him when they got open. Which they did, my goodness yes. Grbac's first completion on that final drive went for a leisurely 25 yards, which was longer than any throw he'd completed all day, the runner-up being a little dump-off to halfback Moe Williams that became a 23-yarder by accident. I needn't go too deeply into this travesty, which turned an aggressive defense that had forced three punts and a fumble on the four series before that into a patsy.
Oh, sure, when the drive had covered 57 yards and Baltimore was on the Jacksonville 17, the Jaguars produced some semblance of a pass rush, but by then it was too late. The momentum had swung. Thus an upset that would have gotten Jacksonville at least faintly back into the playoff hunt was averted, and we were left with one of those smug Brian Billick press conferences devoted to mocking all those folks who had doubted his quarterback. All because the Jaguars coaches wouldn't let the defensive guys do what they'd done successfully.
Moeller is not alone. Most defensive coaches feel the icy fingers on the throat and hear the little voice telling them to play it safe, take no chances. In September the Raiders had Miami's offense on the ropes. Then, protecting a five-point lead, the defense went soft, and Jay Fiedler marched the Dolphins 80 yards in the last 1:41 to pull out the victory. In early November, Cleveland coach Butch Davis, whose background in the NFL is in defense, mellowed against the Bears, alternating a three-man rush with a four-man mush-rush based on containment rather than attack, and Chicago drove against his Browns twice late in the fourth quarter and put two quickies on the board, then won the game in overtime. One forced fumble, one major sack or interception, and all those late-game heroics would not have become part of the lore of 2001, but even the best of them occasionally go soft in crunch time.
So who will it be this weekend? The Steelers, with their multiple blitzes, have never been accused of lightening up, but the Titans gave them all they could handle on Sunday when Tennessee assigned its second tight end, 280-pound Erron Kinney, to blitz control, which caused even the rowdy Steelers to back off. Do I like the Titans, who are supposedly out of it now, against the rampaging Browns? I do indeed. In this wacky season many teams you assume are out of it are really still in it. Guaranteed, some totally unexpected teams will be in the playoffs. Following the same premise, I'll pick the Jaguars to upset the Packers in the Monday-nighter, provided the defensive players have their way and persuade Moeller to take that three-man rush and stick it, uh, in the closet.
Here's another upset: Tom Brady to keep the hot hand and lead the Patriots over the Jets, who had a bye week to read all about how great they are. The Dolphins will beat the Broncos, who are still looking for the elixir that will turn tight ends into wideouts. I like the Ravens over the staggering Colts, although Baltimore's defense tired badly at the end of the Jacksonville game. The Steelers to beat the Vikings is my no-brainer, unless Minnesota figures out a way to revive Randy Moss. Tampa Bay will find itself unexpectedly fighting for its life against Cincinnati, but the Bucs will prevail.
Finally, there is Atlanta, a curious team that would qualify for the playoffs if they were held right now but draws little support against mighty St. Louis. The Falcons draw lots of support from yours truly, but not enough for me to pick them, which is known as handicapper's cowardice. The Rams will win, but they'll have a tougher time than expected.