Struggling teams become dangerous

NFL front-runners were frequently reminded last week that upsets can occur at any moment.

Updated: November 12, 2003, 3:01 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Chances are it was only a blip on the NFL radar screen, a once-in-a-blue-moon aberration which occurred appropriately in a week that included a lunar eclipse, just another of those inexplicable hiccups on the schedule.

But when seven of eight last-place teams won games last weekend, including victories by three division cellar-dwellers over first-place opponents as the schedule officially turned to the stretch run, the mass resistance of the downtrodden offered a graphic reminder that you take nothing for granted in this league.

And if you do, well, sometimes you get taken out behind the woodshed.

Doug Flutie
Flutie
"I'm never going to (suggest) that the Vikings didn't respect us, because they had already lost two straight games, and I think they came here pretty well prepared," said San Diego quarterback Doug Flutie, who engineered a 42-28 upset of Minnesota in his first starting assignment since 2001. "On the other hand, there's a degree of human nature involved in this thing, too. If you're a good team playing a team with a poor record, you can't help but think it might be a little bit easier day, right? And if you're the underdog, you want the other guy looking past you, maybe not taking things so seriously."

In no weekend since the 1970 merger, however, have so many "dog" teams bitten back with such ferocity. Obviously, this is only the second NFL campaign with eight divisions, and, thus, with eight last-place franchises. But even in those seasons when there were just six divisions, there was never a weekend when more than four last-place teams won their respective contests.

It would be naïve to expect a repeat performance of last weekend anytime soon. There is a juncture in every season when some franchises are so beaten down, and have accustomed themselves to defeat, that mere survival transcends victories. Still, there are always going to be bad teams that, in one or two late-season games, unearth enough incentive to nudge the pendulum their way for a day.

On last weekend's "Pride and Prejudice" schedule -- some woeful teams played for pride and others, where there figures to be coaching changes in '04, went hard hoping new staffs will review videotapes with an unprejudiced eye -- there were some last-place victories far less impressive than others. Conversely, there will always be winning teams who ignore the mere prospect of an upset until it is too late.

Last weekend, a lot of those elements converged, and Week 10 should serve as a sort of wake-up call to what can transpire when the planets are appropriately aligned. Seven clubs with an aggregate winning percentage of .214 defeated seven franchises which had a combined winning mark of .553. The last-place teams entered Week 10 play with a 12-44 record and their opponents were 31-25.

By sundown Sunday, those differences were irrelevant.

Pittsburgh ended a five-game losing streak but the stopper came against Arizona, the lone last-place club to lose in Week 10. The Jets gained some revenge for Oakland's recent successes over them, but the Raiders are hardly the same team that had dumped New York five straight times, twice ending their seasons with playoff losses. In a true misery-loves-company matchup, the Detroit Lions cobbled together their fist two-game winning streak in 40 contests, but still struggled mightily to top the equally inept Chicago Bears.

Those games were more pupsets than upsets, games in which underdog franchises were matched against opponents of similarly dubious pedigree, and where tremors created by the final scores were less than earth-shattering.

The real shockers, though, came in wins by San Diego, by Washington over Seattle, by Jacksonville over Indianapolis, and in Atlanta's victory at the New York Giants. The last of those was a game in which the Falcons snapped a seven-game skid and provided coach Dan Reeves with the 200th victory of his career. It may, unfortunately, have also provided Giants management the latest excuse to review coach Jim Fassel's tenure.

"That was," acknowledged New York middle linebacker Mike Barrow, "just about as embarrassing as it gets."

A sleeping dog is still a dangerous dog. Last week was kind of freaky. But there are going to be more games this month and next where you say, 'How did that happen?' What you want to avoid is being the team that is on the victim side of that question.
Vikings S Corey Chavous

While it is small consolation to Barrow and his teammates, for sure, the Giants had plenty of company in the red-face department last weekend. Few observers would have predicted any of those most notable worst-over-first outcomes, let alone all of them. At the same time, parity has made the "on any given Sunday" entreaty more than simply a hackneyed marketing mantra, and last weekend offered a graphic reminder of the reality that 2003 probably includes a few more surprises.

Many miserable teams, doubtless, will remain dogs. But some underachievers will have the occasional Sunday when they are more dogged, refuse to roll over and play dead, and put some teeth into their performance.

The fact of the matter is, there are inexplicable outcomes virtually every weekend on the schedule, but the upsets in the second half of the campaign are certainly magnified. Once the schedule reaches a juncture where centrifugal force is in play on paper, and the clubs' records are disparately spaced, it is only natural to perceive upsets as more dramatic. Fact is, teams may be more evenly matched than at first glance, but divisional standings have a way of muddying the view.

As the NFL's lone remaining undefeated franchise, Kansas City appears light-years ahead of everyone else, but you'd better believe Dick Vermeil and his staff are paying more than just lip service this week to the improvements the Cincinnati Bengals have forged under rookie head coach Marvin Lewis. At 4-5, the Bengals certainly appear inferior to Kansas City, but that record leaves Cincinnati just one game from the AFC North lead. Upshot: The Bengals, who in past years have been reduced to playing for self-esteem and for some individual incentives in November and December, now have more at stake. And so do the Chiefs, the latest team to challenge the Miami Dolphins' unbeaten season, and a team that could well run the table.

There are, then, a lot of reasons why the Bengals are a scary prospect for the Chiefs. And in the bigger picture, as the playoff stretch run heads toward the home stretch, there will be numerous examples of so-called "trap games" for division-leading teams, some cases in which clubs with losing records exact some measure of satisfaction at being a spoiler. "You hear all that stuff about 'playing for pride' and, sure, there's something to it," said Falcons middle linebacker Keith Brooking. "But the truth is, every week is a new game, and it just plays out. I don't think, once the game starts, that you're thinking, 'Well, here we are, in last place. What are we even doing here?' It's a different dynamic and you sort of react to what's going on out there."

That is certainly the rationale of most players, but not all, in the league. In many seasons, it isn't that difficult to identify the teams where players are simply mailing in poor efforts every week, franchises at which a lame duck coach has lost not only too many games but also lost his own locker room. Even then, though, individuals still manage to divine some source of motivation and, in a league where the balance of power is far more defined this season than in most campaigns, often that is enough to make a difference.

Case in point: Flutie didn't single-handedly dismantle a slumping Minnesota defense last Sunday, but he provided an individual spark that mushroomed into an inferno.

Incentive for losing teams comes in all shapes and sizes. But as Brooking pointed out, once the ball is kicked off, players simply react to the circumstances. Losing teams that are allowed to hang around in close games, contests in which the superior club can't find a way to close the deal, are always dangerous. A player on a roll, in rhythm, doesn't just suddenly pause in the middle of a big play to consider that it shouldn't be occurring. The league's spin doctors might push the parity button too much at times but, over the coming seven weeks, there will be outcomes that will have players in both locker rooms scratching their heads.

"A sleeping dog," said Vikings strong safety Corey Chavous, "is still a dangerous dog. Last week was kind of freaky. But there are going to be more games this month and next where you say, 'How did that happen?' What you want to avoid is being the team that is on the victim side of that question."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

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