We sometimes miss the game show "The Weakest Link." The sassy female host wasn't a looker, but something about her British accent and commanding tone was enough to conjure up images of leather lingerie and forbidden sex dungeons.
But we digress.
In the playoffs, one bad matchup can turn into a season of darkened rooms and heavy drinking for an otherwise solid team. If one battle on the field goes so decisively to one team, the entire war could be over. The coach and quarterback usually take the fall, but sometimes it's a guy who isn't even famous in his hometown who costs his team a chance at Super Bowl glory.
In other words: "You are the weakest link. Goodbye!"
Each team has one, a weakest link, and each coach is doing his darnedest this week to protect/exploit that player.
Here's a look at the weakest link on each divisional playoff contender.
BALTIMORE: RB Jamal Lewis
En route to a 13-3 record, the Ravens did almost everything to the highest form of excellence this season:
However, the Ravens are piss-poor running the ball. They were 31st in YPA (3.44), and while some of this is due to their offensive approach, most of it is due to Lewis's lack of breakaway ability.
He averaged 3.61 YPA, which was 39th out of 41 running backs with 600-plus yards, beating only Edgerrin James, with the traditionally awful Arizona run game, and Cadillac Williams, with the awful Tampa Bay offense. Lewis ripped off just three runs of 20 yards or more. Meanwhile, his fellow Baltimore running backs Musa Smith and Mike Anderson carried 75 times for a 4.48 average.
Lewis could be forgiven for his numbers because of Baltimore's ball-control, grind-it-out approach, but he didn't even give them first downs – he had 46 in 319 rushing attempts. That's 14.6 percent of his carries that went for first downs, worse than the aforementioned James and just a shade above Williams.
The man who rushed for 2,066 yards in 2003 is no more. In his place is a man that could cost the Ravens an opportunity to win their second Super Bowl of the new millennium.
Bring in the backups because you, Mr. Lewis, are the weakest link!
CHICAGO: QB Rex Grossman
This one should come as no surprise – for once, the NFL hype machine is right, pinning Chicago's playoff hopes squarely on No. 8.
Grossman went eight games this season without throwing a single pick. The Bears were 8-0 in those games and averaged a fantastic 33.0 PPG.
Grossman tossed at least one pick in eight games this season. The Bears were 5-3 in those games and averaged a more pedestrian 20.4 PPG.
If Chicago's starting QB tosses a couple picks, expect Lovie Smith to call in Brian Griese because you, Mr. Grossman, are the weakest link!
INDIANAPOLIS: MLB Gary Brackett
Despite a breakout (or shutdown) effort against the Chiefs Sunday, the Indy run defense has been as glaringly bad as any single entity in football this year – allowing 5.33 yards per carry, the worst we're likely to see for a long time in the NFL.
A rush defense has to be playing pretty poorly to enter the consciousness of the national media during the regular season, and being among the worst of all time
is enough to do that (although we're fairly certain the "pundits" wouldn't know about this historic futility if we didn't tell them about it back in November).
And just as the quarterback deserves blame for a poor pass offense, his defensive counterpart in the 4-3, the middle linebacker, deserves blame for a poor run defense. Brackett has been something close to a constant in the interior lineup this season, and he's proven that his short stature (5-11) and pudgy body only works with a full complement of standout players around him.
Even worse for Brackett: The Colts' run defense actually performed better when he was out of the lineup for two games, against Dallas and Buffalo. Indy surrendered 228 yards on 67 carries (3.40 YPA) in those two games.
He's questionable this week with an ankle injury. The Colts shouldn't wait to see if he can play.
The Colts should bench him because you, Mr. Brackett, are the weakest link.
NEW ENGLAND: RT Nick Kaczur
The Patriots don't have many statistical holes in their game. In addition to owning the No. 7 scoring offense and No. 2 scoring defense, the Patriots are:
- 2nd in defensive passer rating (88.3)
- 10th in rush defense (3.88 yards allowed)
- 6th in time of possession
- 7th in passer rating (88.3)
Their only significant deficiency is the statistically average running game (3.9 YPC, 18th in the NFL). Some of that is due to a disproportionate number of short runs by Tom Brady (49 rushes, more than Steve McNair), because New England's three tailbacks (Corey Dillon, Kevin Faulk and Laurence Maroney) collectively had a bang-up season.
Their final numbers: 1,680 yards, 4.21 YPA, and 19 rushing TDs, to go with 80 catches, 697 yards and three receiving TDs.
But the Patriots did struggle a bit trying to run from sets with a single tight end. Dill-Faulk-Roney ran 65 percent of the time from two- or three-TE sets and averaged 4.31 YPA; from zero- and one-TE sets, they averaged 4.06 YPA.
New England plays to its strengths (strong tight ends), but they also have needed the help on the right side of the line. New England tailbacks averaged just 3.36 on runs to the right (150 for 502 yards), where their weakest link resides.
A second-year man, Kaczur was beaten out by rookie Ryan O'Callaghan after an injury-marred camp and didn't regain his job until Week 9. Shawne Merriman is likely to spend at least 50 percent of his snaps on Kaczur's side, lining up next to run-stopping DE Luis Castillo.
The Patriots will need to protect their right tackle because you, Mr. Kaczur, are the weakest link.
NEW ORLEANS: DT Hollis Thomas
Hollis Thomas is a funny guy. The 33-year-old has popped up a lot on NFL Films over the years, cracking wise on the sidelines as he waits to get back in the game. He sings. He laughs. His teammates mostly ignore him.
But the sidelines might be the best place for him.
With Thomas the main run stopper in the middle of the Saints' defense for the first 12 games of the season, New Orleans was plenty bad. If it weren't for the Colts' run defense, the Saints' defense might have been making their own headlines – they allowed 4.94 yards a rush this season, better than only the Colts and closing in on the list of worst of all time
Thomas is coming off a four-game suspension for steroid use and hasn't even been on the practice field since November (he returned Wednesday).
Look for him Sunday – he'll be the guy getting pushed backwards by the Philly offensive line because you, Mr. Thomas, are the weakest link.
PHILADELPHIA: CB Roderick Hood
Everything was going great on Philly's road to Cinderella success ... right up until they lost cornerback Lito Sheppard to injury in the wild-card playoff game against the Giants.
The Eagles' secondary has been carrying the defense all year. The front line of the defense, for example, allowed 4.46 YPA (24th in the league), but the secondary more than made up for it. The DBs allowed just 5.84 yards per pass attempt (2nd), a defensive passer rating
of 73.6 (7th), and sent two guys to the Pro Bowl.
But the dropoff from Sheppard to Hood is precipitous. Hood returned kicks in 2004-05, but has been hampered by an injury and has never been a regular starter in four years with the Eagles.
Consider the team's quotes after losing Sheppard and being forced to play Hood:
- "He has some ability ..." – coach Andy Reid
- "It's tough playing corner ..." – defensive coordinator Jim Johnson
- "I'll hold it down as long as I have to ..." – Hood
Doesn't sound like a confident group because you, Mr. Hood, are the weakest link.
SAN DIEGO: ILB Randall Godfrey
The Chargers had the best offense in football this year, finishing No. 1 in scoring (30.75 PPG), Scoreability
and Offensive Hog Index
, while giving away a league-low 15 turnovers.
Clearly, their weaknesses aren't found on the offensive side of the ball
Their pass defense was solid, allowing 5.97 YPA (7th) and a passer rating
of 76.6 (11th). But their defense did struggle to stop the run.
They were 20th in run defense, allowing 4.18 YPA, and in their four games against the Chiefs and Broncos, two of the better rushing offenses in football, they allowed an average of 136 YPG and 4.77 YPA.
The weakest link on the Chargers defense comes in the interior of the linebacking corps, where 33-year-old Randall Godfrey is going to try to go despite a hamstring injury. If he can't play, he'll be replaced by special-teams ace/third-down rusher Stephen Cooper, who hasn't seen significant time on rushing downs in four seasons.
In addition to struggling against the run, San Diego had difficulty containing notable tight ends (a chore that often falls to inside linebackers): Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez had 12 catches for 183 yards in two games (well above his averages); Cleveland's Kellen Winslow grabbed a career-high 11 balls (for 78 yards); and Baltimore's Todd Heap led the Ravens with 60 yards (on 4 catches) in Baltimore's 16-13 win.
Look for New England to exploit the middle of San Diego's defense because you, Mr. Godfrey, are the weakest link.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Michael Boulware, SS
It's a bit of a mystery, trying to explain why the Seahawks are still playing here in January. But then you remember: Oh yeah, they play in the NFC West, the tattered red-headed stepchild in the welfare home called the NFC.
Seattle was pretty bad at just about everything this year. They were outgained (4,977 yards for vs. 5,285 yards allowed), outscored (335 PF to 341 PA) and generally outmanned.
However, the Seahawks continue to lead the league in the old "benefit from realignment" category. They've made four straight playoff appearances since joining the NFC West in 2002, including a pair of division titles with 9-7 records. They'd be toast back in the old AFC West, where Kansas City watched the playoffs from home last year with a 10-6 record.
Their worst trait this season is pass defense, where they allowed opposing passers a rating
of 86.1, 26th in the NFL. With a 1-3 record down the stretch – against QBs Matt Leinart, Alex Smith, Phillip Rivers and Tim Rattay – the Seahawks allowed seven touchdowns and picked off just one pass. For the season, they recorded just 12 INTs. Only five teams collected fewer picks.
Despite their glowing green uniforms, it seems unlikely that the Seattle secondary will be rendering Bears QB Rex Grossman powerless this weekend.
Since exploitable nickelback Pete Hunter will likely be on the bench for most of the game while the Bears play from standard two-WR sets, the bull's-eye is on Boulware's back.
He made few big plays in the regular season – no sacks, one forced fumble, two picks and four batted passes – and likely isn't at 100 percent after missing time toward the end of the season.
We'll know that you, Mr. Boulware, are the weakest link when a quarterback like Rex Grossman makes you his top target.