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Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Super Bowl Formula: Question marks

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

Matt Cassel
A woeful turnover differential is just one reason Matt Cassel and the Chiefs won't contend this year.

Bill Polian was the general manager of three different NFL teams for a total of 24 seasons. His Buffalo Bills made it to a record four consecutive Super Bowls. His Indianapolis Colts got to two, winning Super Bowl XLI.

Today, Polian is an analyst for ESPN and his head is still very much in the game. He eagerly and aggressively broke down the criteria of champions for this story and framed the premise in a unique way.

"If I put it in the negative," he said last week, "what are the things a team cannot have if it wants to play in the Super Bowl?"

And then he launched into the emphatic answer.

"You cannot have a game manager at quarterback," Polian said. "You cannot have a pedestrian running back. You cannot have a defense that can't get off the field on third down."

And the list, as far as these teams below are concerned, goes on. Here are those squads -- some of them with deceptively decent records -- that fall short of our benchmarks.

They could well be at the Super Bowl, sampling the Hurricanes at Pat O'Brien's, the Cajun zydeco music at Tipitina's or the Bananas Foster where it was first created, at Brennan's Restaurant.

But rest assured, they'll be in their civilian clothes.


Cincinnati Bengals (3-4)

Certainly, the Bengals have a better-than-average offense with the Andy Dalton-to-A.J. Green combination. Dalton (13 touchdowns, 10 interceptions) has matured and has been reasonably efficient. The defense is a decent, middle-of-the-pack unit. The 2-2 road record isn't horrible, either.

The devil, however, is in the details: The Bengals are minus-6 in turnover differential, one of the league's worst marks, and they're running a four-point deficit in the fourth quarter as well. Their fourth-quarter turnover differential (minus-4) is at the bottom of the standings.


Indianapolis Colts (4-3)

First of all, don't forget that the Colts were 2-14 last season. That record was what allowed them to draft quarterback Andrew Luck in the first place.

Surely, Luck seems to be an elite quarterback in the making, but the Colts are minus-10 in turnover differential, the league's third-worst number. In the fourth quarter, they are at minus-6 in turnover differential, dead last in the league. The road record is 1-2.

Miami Dolphins (4-3)

Ryan Tannehill has been modestly successful, but can you see the rookie from Texas A&M winning three playoff games? It will be difficult with the offense averaging just more than three touchdowns per game.

The fatal flaw with the Fish: a fourth-quarter scoring differential of minus-29, the league's fourth-worst figure.


Buffalo Bills (3-4)

Ryan Fitzpatrick is having a solid season, with 15 touchdown passes and nine interceptions. The Bills have even won two games on the road.

Defense is the issue here. The Bills are one of only three teams to have allowed more than 30 points per game (32.4). The red zone defense (opposing offenses have 19 touchdowns in 25 trips inside the 20) is the league's most generous. The minus-52 point differential in the fourth quarter is the league's second-worst.


Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-4)

This team does a lot of things right. Quarterback Josh Freeman has been better than a mere manager (14 touchdowns, 5 interceptions), and the team turnover differential is a better-than-respectable plus-7.

Where the Bucs look young is on the road -- they are 1-2 -- and on defense when they can't pressure the passer (11 sacks).

New York Jets (3-5)

With a ferocious defense, the Jets reached back-to-back AFC title games with Mark Sanchez at quarterback. But he has not progressed to the elite level. Nearly one-quarter of Sanchez's passes this season have fallen incomplete due to being overthrown or underthrown, the highest rate in league.

And, sorry, Rex, the defense has regressed terribly. Allowing 25.0 points per game with only 12 sacks isn't going to get it done.


St. Louis Rams (3-5)

Eventually this team will be a contender for coach Jeff Fisher. For the moment, though, this team (0-3 on the road, not including that awful loss to the Patriots in London) isn't quite ready.

Quarterback Sam Bradford (8 touchdowns, 7 interceptions) has been, uh, passable. The defense has kept opponents to about three touchdowns a game and has generated a solid pass rush. But only two forced fumbles suggests the Rams need to be more aggressive.


Oakland Raiders (3-4)

The story is similar here, where quarterback Carson Palmer (9 touchdowns, 5 interceptions) can't be faulted for what's taken place in Raider Nation.

Oakland's defense (an anemic 10 sacks) has given up 26.7 points per game. The Raiders have also won only one road game -- at Kansas City. Does that count?


Tennessee Titans (3-5)

Matt Hasselbeck (6 touchdowns, 4 interceptions) has given Tennessee some stability at quarterback, but defense remains a big problem.

The Titans can't pressure the passer (11 sacks) or create takeaways (8), and as a result give up a monstrous 32.1 points per game -- second-worst in the league.


Carolina Panthers (1-6)

Cam Newton isn't the only one frustrated by his sophomore performance. His numbers are down across the board, and the team is running a minus-5 deficit with respect to turnovers.


The defense gives up 23.9 points per game, and the road record is 0-3.

Jacksonville Jaguars (1-6)

You have to feel for Blaine Gabbert. The second-year quarterback from Missouri is trying, but the defense gives him no relief.

No team has fewer than the Jags' pitiful total of seven sacks; Packers linebacker Clay Matthews had six in the season's first two games.


Cleveland Browns (2-6)

What did new owner Jimmy Haslam get for his $1.05 billion purchase that was finalized last week?

One win.

Let's see, that works out to ... just more than $1 billion per win. This goes far beyond Brandon Weeden (9 touchdowns, 10 interceptions), who actually hasn't been bad. No job is safe, including, as it turned out, team president Mike Holmgren's. The road record is 0-4 and, with a daunting schedule, potentially 0-8.


Kansas City Chiefs (1-6)

Sorry, Chiefs -- the quarterback situation is a disaster, and it's become worse with Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn both suffering concussions. Six touchdowns, 13 interceptions and a 64.4 passer rating isn't going to get you into the tournament.

Cassel was the league's lowest-rated passer when he was benched. In that critical area of turnover differential, no one does it worse than the Chiefs. Their number -- minus-18 -- is far and away the league's worst.