I spend all week watching game film, hours and hours of footage. And I have a passion for fantasy football. So it was only natural that I took the next step and put pen to paper, so to speak, and jotted down my fantasy thoughts as I went along. I'll continue to do so each week during the NFL season. Enjoy!
• The most impressive thing I have seen on tape this week came from the Jaguars-Steelers game Sunday. With a little more than five minutes left in a tied game, the Jags took the kickoff and marched right down the field and scored. I know that is not impressive because a lot of teams do that. What was impressive was how they did it. Teams that have an identity that fits the strength of their players usually get the most out of their players.
Let's go back and think about what Jacksonville did just before the season started. They cut starting quarterback Byron Leftwich and promoted David Garrard to the starting spot. Leftwich is a deep-drop passer with an elongated, slow delivery, and he left the Jaguars' offense a mess. Garrard is the complete opposite. They had the foundation (a strong running game), and they have used Garrard to build the passing game off of that. I have studied them all season, and it seems to me they have gotten better every week, doing the little things like motion and stack releases to help their receivers. Jags offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has been brilliant this season.
OK, so going back to that last drive, it speaks to what championship football is all about and how you take advantage of matchups. The Steelers lost defensive end Aaron Smith, one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in all of football. So where do the Jags attack? Yes, right where Smith would have been playing. His replacements just couldn't hold up, and the Jags used the runs they have worked on since Day 1 to finish that game. It was like they had prepared for that drive since training camp. This offense is for real, from the quarterback to the running backs to the receivers.
• Speaking of offenses, if there is one guy on the Browns' offense that makes everyone else's job a little easier, it would be tight end Kellen Winslow. I went back to the Browns' Week 2 shootout against the Bengals, and one of Winslow's touchdown catches came on a post route against Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph. It was pretty impressive. As for the Bengals, when your cornerback can't cover the other team's tight end, you will have problems matching up. The Bengals' defense has gotten better, but Winslow will give it all kinds of problems this week, and that will help everyone else have a good day as well.
• If the Vikings are to make the playoffs and then make a playoff run, it will be because of their defense. Their defense can and always has been able to stop the run, but now they can get after the passer, too. They have picked up the pressure packages and now blitz more, and when they blitz, they play tight, man-to-man defense on opposing receivers, making that pressure extend all the way out to the receivers as well. With this new approach, it has made this defense one of the best in the NFL. Fantasy owners, they're no longer a pushover matchup.
• What will the Giants do against the Bills offensively? Well, one thing they better do is run the heck out of Brandon Jacobs, their 245-pound wrecking ball. Jacobs is a true north-south runner, meaning he does not change directions very well. He's not nearly as effective when he must stop his feet or turn his shoulders to the sideline. So you can bet the Bills will try to close off the point of attack, meaning Jacobs will have to change directions to find a new hole. If they fail to do that, they better get ready for a train ride, because once he gets a head of steam going, he is very tough to bring down. And it'll be even tougher for the Bills to stop Jacobs in the second half, as long as he stays healthy.
• A real bummer about Willie Parker, huh? He broke his leg against the Rams on Thursday night, and the Steelers will lose one of the most dynamic and explosive players in all of football. That team will miss him in all facets of the game, especially in the playoffs. But I expect Willie to come back with a vengeance next season.
• The Colts' offense has changed drastically over the past month or so. With Marvin Harrison out, the Colts have become an offense that uses motion and formations to help them in the passing game. As I study them, I see them getting more and more comfortable with what offensive coordinator Tom Moore is doing to help them maximize their talents. This team plays in a dome, but it is built for outdoor play more than you realize. Look out, Patriots.
• Of all the teams trying to sneak their way into the playoffs, the Browns might be one of the most dangerous to face -- and not just because of their offense. Their defense is no longer a weak link. They have improved, and it has all started with better play from their defensive line. That unit has been controlling the line of scrimmage, which helps everyone involved, from their linebackers to their defensive backs. It also is the key to stopping the run, which they have done a much better job of. As such, they have been able to blitz more, and even have become very good at it. If this defense continues to develop like it has, it'll be a force down the road.
• Why have teams been able to slow down the Patriots' offense lately? Well, first off, when the Patriots were beating the tar out of opponents in the first half of the season, it was because opposing teams had not seen how the Pats were going to use Wes Welker and Randy Moss. Now that opponents have seen how the Pats use those two receivers, they are coming up with defensive schemes to stop them. The more strategies that work on tape, the more the great defensive minds in the league devise ways to slow the Patriots, who haven't exactly helped things by being a pass-first team. I know, I know. They ran the ball last week. But it was nothing special when you consider they had only two field goals and a touchdown that was set up by their special teams. Defenses are playing the pass against the Patriots, and they are coming up with different packages that are working.
• The best way to beat the Patriots is with a physical, balanced offense that can either score touchdowns, not field goals, or help the team win the field-position battle. I see more teams ably match up to the Patriots than I did a month ago.
• As I study the Chargers and watch them improve as a team, a couple of things really stand out. First of all, their running game has tremendous power and uses misdirection plays well. That has made them almost impossible to stop on the ground. But more importantly, Philip Rivers is looking better each game. He is throwing the ball with anticipation, like he did last season. That said, he is still not consistent enough to get that team to the Super Bowl.
• The Seahawks have publicly admitted they have given up on the run and will be a passing team from here on out. Well, it was obvious to me by looking at the game tape that Carolina, the Hawks' Week 15 opponent, had game planned to stop Seattle's passing attack and had no concern for their running game. This is not a good sign for Seattle. The goal of a defense each week is to make a team one-dimensional, and the Seahawks did that for the Panthers. If they want to make a playoff run and finish out the string well, they must find some balance on offense.
Merril Hoge is an analyst for a wide variety of NFL programs on television and ESPN Radio. Check him out Sunday on "NFL Matchup" at 8:30 a.m. ET on ESPN and on "ESPNEWS Fantasy Insider" with Matthew Berry from 11 a.m. to noon ET on ESPNEWS. He also will be on "NFL Live" on ESPN at various times throughout the weekend.