HOUSTON -- Every so often, it seems, Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy gets this look on his face. It's not exactly a smirk, because that would obviously conflict with everything for which the classy Dungy stands, right? Nor is it the smarmy countenance that we have all come to anticipate from any human who has been transformed into part Cheshire cat.
Dungy broke out the look here Sunday evening, after a 23-14 victory that earned Indianapolis its second straight division championship, and just as he was beginning to respond to a query about his defensive line. "Hey, I love our defensive line," noted Dungy of a unit that notched all of the Colts' five sacks against Texans quarterback David Carr. "We got a lot of pressure. We love it when we get out in front, because we feel like our guys can really rush the quarterback, and can get pressure when we're playing with a lead."
Of course, with the league's highest octane offense, the Colts are usually playing from out in front. And, don't look now, but guess which defense now leads the NFL in sacks? If you guessed that it's Indianapolis, well, up until the final 30 seconds of the Philadelphia-Washington game Sunday night, you would have earned yourself half a cheroot. Mostly compliments of another standout performance from right defensive end Dwight Freeney, who lined up Carr in his crosshairs all day long and KO'd him three times, the Colts have 41 sacks for the season, which puts them just one sack behind the Eagles.
Freeney leads the NFL with 13 sacks. He and situational rusher Robert Mathis, who notched one sack versus Carr (after getting three against the Texans passer in the first meeting between the teams), now have 23½ sacks between them.
Starting left end Raheem Brock, signed as a free agent in '02 when the Philadelphia Eagles rescinded his draft rights after selecting him in the seventh round, has 5½ sacks. Tackle Montae Reagor, who posted a total of 4½ sacks during his first five NFL campaigns, has five sacks in 13 outings this season.
Lost amid all of the attention commanded by the fact Peyton Manning will break the league touchdown pass record is the likelihood the Colts, who are on pace for 51 sacks, will obliterate the mark for most sacks since the team relocated to Indianapolis. With three games yet to play, the Colts already have 10 more sacks than they recorded for the entire 2003 season.
"They can get people in your face, that's for sure, man," acknowledged Carr after a second straight bludgeoning this year at the hands of the Colts' defensive front. In two games against Indianapolis in 2004, Carr was sacked 10 times in only 72 "dropbacks," or once every 7.2 times he dared to trust his shaky offensive line.
It isn't by happenstance that the Colts are no longer sad sacks. They employ as their defensive line coach John Teerlinck, a guy who has mentored some of the league's best pass-rush groups during his NFL tenure. Coordinator Ron Meek is fond of attacking the pocket with a one-gap scheme. And, of course, Dungy has long favored smaller, quicker defensive linemen who can get off the ball like a sprinter coming out of the blocks.
"If you love getting to the quarterback, like I do, you want to be playing in this scheme," Freeney said. "And with our offense forcing the other team to play catchup, we can play catch the quarterback, because they're going to have to rely on the passing game at some point."
Truth be told, one of the remarkable elements of Sunday's game was that Houston, trailing 14-0 after less than 12 minutes, didn't immediately abandon its game plan and start to just chuck the ball all over Reliant Stadium. Fact is, the Texans got back into the game by running tailback Domanick Davis right at the smaller Colts' front, and gashing the unit for a pretty healthy stretch of the second and third quarters.
"Just think," said strongside linebacker David Thornton, "how many sacks those guys might have had if (Houston) had panicked and started throwing on every down."
So, sure, the Colts still rank statistically as the league's No. 31 defense. And you've got to wonder just how that will translate in the playoffs. But the Colts can bring the heat on the pass rush, and there are 16 teams who have surrendered more points, so the stats don't tell the entire story.
So, when Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Tice conjured up that crazy "Randy Ratio" thing a couple years ago, he was talking about how many times wide receiver Randy Moss would throw the ball, not have it thrown to him over the course of a season! Geez, who knew?
Memo to Tice, who provided owner Red McCombs one more excuse not to renew the 2005 option year of the coach's contract, given the bizarre play-calling in the Vikings' most recent defeat: Take the pencil out from behind your ear long enough to jot yourself a note about not having the NFL's most feared "red zone" receiver throw a pass from the 20-yard line. Not when you've got a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback who already has 31 touchdown passes. Not when you are trailing the Seattle Seahawks by four points in a critical game, with a first-and-10, and roughly two minutes remaining.
Tice and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan essentially took the ball out of the hands of Daunte Culpepper, who can run and throw, and took Moss' hands out of the end zone.
Anyone who has seen the replay knows the result: Moss rolled right on a reverse, got too close to the sideline, then put up a limp effort in the back of the end zone, a pass that was intended for Minnesota wide receiver Marcus Robinson and ended up in the possession of Seattle standout rookie safety Michael Boulware.
So, we're second-guessing a little bit here, you say? What's that about Pittsburgh tailback Jerome Bettis having thrown a pass, to tight end Jerame Tuman, for a touchdown late in the Steelers' victory over the New York Jets? Yep, "The Bus" did, indeed, lob a touchdown pass. It was, in case anyone is keeping track, his third touchdown pass in six career passing attempts.
But it was still crazy for Tice and Linehan to eliminate their best "red zone" receiver by placing the ball in Moss' hands on a reverse instead of throwing it into those two big mitts on a lob or a "fade" route. For the record, Moss previously had recorded four completions in seven attempts for 106 yards, with two touchdown passes and zero interceptions until Sunday afternoon, and had a completion of 37 yards earlier this year.
We offer that up, Minnesota coaches, in case you're seeking some sort of lame rationalization for the off-the-wall play call. But guess what? It doesn't matter and it doesn't make the late-game events Sunday any less dubious. The poor judgment could cost the Vikings the division crown. And it could cost Tice, a good coach with a dubious future, his job.
Playing with a heavy heart
Nice to see Mike Holmgren, who we still think is one of the top half-dozen or so head coaches in the NFL, get a much-needed win on Sunday, in part because of Randy Moss' faux pas. Just as good, too, to see Seattle wide receiver Darrell Jackson play such a huge role in the Seahawks' clutch victory.
The five-year veteran didn't get a lot of practice time last week. That's because he did what every good son is supposed to do when his father is dying of cancer: He excused himself from work, went home to Florida, spent time sitting with his dad in his final days. Jackson caught up with his teammates in Minneapolis, then went out and caught 10 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown. And he did so knowing that his father, after a long battle with the insidious disease, had passed away before kickoff.
Jackson desperately needed a few hours with his dying father. The fading Seahawks desperately needed a victory. The wide receiver took care of the first priority and then, despite a heavy heart, helped accomplish the second as well.
All about respect
Let's see, the Atlanta Falcons two weeks ago griped about being 1 ½-point underdogs for their Dec. 5 game at Tampa Bay, and got waxed 27-zip. The New York Jets, and in particular perennial Pro Bowl center Kevin Mawae, spent much of last week carping about the lack of respect being paid them by the media. And they got beat 17-6 by the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, failing to even get the ball into the end zone, with quarterback Chad Pennington tossing three "picks" after having thrown only four going into the game at Heinz Field.
See a trend here, don't you, dear readers? When are teams, and coaches, going to quit using the old "respect" crutch as a transparent motivational ploy? Enough already. The respect thing is old, hackneyed, silly, bogus, threadbare, and just a sorry excuse. For one thing, the oddsmakers who set the lines of games, aren't really making a commentary on who is the better team. They're trying to get as much of the betters' money as they can. Sure, the weekly line has something to do with relative team strengths, but it's more about where the wagers will fall.
The best bet for any player is to ignore odds. The Falcons spent so much time sulking about the Vegas line, that they forgot to block the Tampa Bay line, and quarterback Michael Vick nearly got killed.
The Jets fretted for a week about a media that denied them, at 9-3, their rightful due. Let me get this straight: Is that the same media most players, all over the league, claim knows nothing about the game? If that's the case -- and after 27 seasons of covering the league, I've only heard about a million times that if you never played the game, it's impossible to understand it -- why even pay attention to the people who write about the NFL?
Last time I checked, the Steelers, the only people whose respect the Jets should have worried over, didn't cancel practice last week. I'm pretty sure my contacts in Pittsburgh would have phoned me if Steelers head coach Bill Cowher had convened practice on Wednesday and announced: "You know what, guys, it's only the Jets we're playing this week. And since we don't respect them, heck, take the rest of the week off. See you Sunday at kickoff."
The only two people who ever played the respect card, and made it count, were Rodney Dangerfield and Aretha Franklin. So give it a break, please, guys. Worry about winning games. Do that, you'll find, and respect pretty much follows.
Uh, speaking of boorish behavior, we offer up Denver quarterback Jake Plummer, who responded to jeers from the home crowd following an interception on Sunday afternoon, by shooting the bird at the folks heckling him.
We respect Plummer for the competitor that he is. We champion his sense of loyalty and friendship for having stood up to the button-down suits who run the league when it came to memorializing his close friend and former teammate Pat Tillman. Heck, when Plummer was playing in Arizona, we pulled for the Cardinals to fall behind 28-0 in the fourth quarter, because there was virtually nothing as exciting as watching "The Snake" go frenetic, drawing up plays in dirt, and just letting his playground instincts take over in trying to rally his team. Oh, sure, he typically failed. But it was Plummer at his best.
But you've got to wonder -- and the ol' bird shot Plummer broke out while seated on the bench is essentially a convenient excuse to raise the subject -- if the guy is ever going to be a big-time winner. The "Mastermind" himself, Denver coach Mike Shanahan, was supposed to supply the kind of mentoring that would transform Plummer from a good player on a bad team to a playmaker on a Super Bowl champion. Problem is, Plummer lacks consistency, and on Sunday he kind of lacked common sense. Sometimes the two go hand-in-hand. Sometimes, too, they go finger-in-finger, we suppose.
At any rate, it was a bad move by a guy who has authored more than his share of botched maneuvers over eight mostly underwhelming seasons in the league. Plummer was more fun when he was the best player on that motley crew out in the Valley of the Sun. Maybe on Sunday, the Rocky Mountain High just got to him. By Wednesday, he can pretty much expect a FedEx delivery at his locker, containing a little missive from the league, fining him for his poor judgement.
About the only thing Sunday that challenged Plummer's idiocy was the play of Washington Redskins tight end Mike Sellers, who's had enough run-ins on and off the field in his rather spotted career than to think he's really not expendable, and that he can just keep cheap-shotting anyone who gets in his way. Here's a hint: You're not that good a player, Sellers, to keep surviving with the silliness you keep dishing out. Even with the fog that seems to have enveloped the Redskins sideline this year, Joe Gibbs won't stand for that stuff.
Kudos to Atlanta rookie coach Jim Mora for leading his team to just the third division title in the 39-year history of the franchise. It isn't often a first-year coach takes his team to the postseason. While he probably won't capture coach of the year honors, Mora deserves to be on the short list of legitimate contenders. ... Martin Gramatica on Sunday became the fifth different kickoff man for the Indianapolis Colts. On his first four attempts, before a couple of squib kicks in the fourth quarter, he averaged 70.5 yards, which means he got the ball to the goal line. On those four kicks, the Colts held the Texans to an average starting point of the 22.3-yard line, not bad since the previous average for the Colts was the 31.5-yard line. Gramatica also posted just the second touchback in 2004 for an Indianapolis kicker, and actually got a round of high-fives from teammates afterwards. ... Falcons tailback T.J. Duckett, who we keep hinting ought to play more, had four touchdowns on just 12 carries in Sunday's win over Oakland. For the season, he has just 96 rushes but eight rushing scores. ... New England wide receiver and part-time "nickel" cornerback Troy Brown had another interception on Sunday, this one in the end zone to kill off a Bengals scoring opportunity. That's three interceptions now for the veteran wideout. ... Minnesota free safety Brian Russell, who tied for the league lead in interceptions last season with nine, had pickoffs in each of the Vikings' first six games of 2003. He finally got his first interception of 2004 on Sunday in the 13th game of the season. ... The pitiful Cleveland offense eked out just 17 yards on 46 snaps against the Bills. That's just a little more than 13 inches, barely over one foot, per play. Browns tailback William Green, with 11 carries for five yards, averaged less than a foot-and-a-half per rush. ... Colts tailback Edgerrin James has rushed for 518 yards over the last four games. In the last three outings, he has 104, 105 and 105 yards. James is on pace for 355 carries, which would be his most since 2000. . . . With six more yards on Sunday, Ravens safety Ed Reed now has 317 interception return yards for the year. That's the most since the 1970 merger and Reed needs only 33 more yards to break the all-time league mark. ... Dallas safety Roy Williams, a liability in pass coverage for much of the season, registered his first interception in Sunday's defeat. ... San Francisco tailback Maurice Hicks, who filled in for the injured Kevan Barlow on Sunday, went into the game with 31 career rushes for 144 yards. In his first start, he carried 34 times for 139 yards and a touchdown. Might make it a little easier to dump the disappointing Barlow before his fat roster bonus comes due next spring. ... The game-winning field goal for Green Bay's Ryan Longwell was his third in five weeks.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.