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Jacksonville at Denver: A “Preview”

Through five weeks, the Jaguars have been the worst team in the league and the Broncos have been the best. One could also argue that these two teams are even more extreme than the typical worst/best teams in the league, and that Denver has a larger home field advantage than your typical team. In other words, this is as large of a mismatch as we could possibly create, which jives with the historically large points spread of 28 points.

The situation is only getting uglier in Jacksonville. Blaine Gabbert continues to look like one of the worst quarterbacks to ever start 25 games in NFL history, so perhaps it’s good news that a hamstring injury will force Chad Henne into the starting lineup. And a few days after trading left tackle Eugene Monroe, 2nd overall pick Luke Joeckel went down with fractured ankle and is now lost for the season. Meanwhile, Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense look unstoppable.

I thought it would be fun to look at other times where the best and worst teams played each other. I’m going to define “best” and “worst” as the first- and last-placed teams according to the Simple Rating System, which means we’re actually going to have the benefit of hindsight here (i.e., we’ll be looking at the best/worst teams from the entire season, not as of the time when those two teams played). Since 1970, the best and worst teams have faced each other a total of 21 times, with the best team owning a perfect record.

YearTeamOppBoxscoreQBOpp QBH/RspreadPFPAMarg
2011NORIND10/23/2011Drew BreesCurtis PainterHome-1462755
2005INDSFO10/09/2005Peyton ManningAlex SmithRoad-1428325
2004NWESFO01/02/2005Tom BradyKen DorseyHome-1321714
1999STLCLE10/24/1999Kurt WarnerTim CouchHome-18.534331
1997DENSDG12/21/1997John ElwayCraig WhelihanHome-1338335
1997DENSDG11/30/1997John ElwayCraig WhelihanRoad-8.5382810
1992SFONWE10/11/1992Steve YoungHugh MillenRoad-17.5241212
1990BUFNWE11/18/1990Jim KellyMarc WilsonHome-1514014
1990BUFNWE10/28/1990Jim KellySteve GroganRoad-6271017
1989SFODAL10/15/1989Steve YoungSteve WalshRoad-14.5311417
1987SFOATL10/11/1987Joe MontanaJeff Van RaaphorstRoad-2325178
1987SFOATL12/20/1987Steve YoungChris MillerHome-1635728
1981PHIBAL11/15/1981Ron JaworskiBert JonesHome-14381325
1980PHINOR11/09/1980Ron JaworskiArchie ManningRoad-9342113
1976PITTAM12/05/1976Mike KruczekTerry HanrattyHome-2642042
1973RAMHOU10/07/1973John HadlDan PastoriniRoad031265
1972MIANWE11/12/1972Earl MorrallJim PlunkettHome052052
1972MIANWE12/03/1972Earl MorrallJim PlunkettRoad0372116
1971BALBUF10/10/1971Earl MorrallDennis ShawRoad043043
1971BALBUF12/05/1971Johnny UnitasDennis ShawHome024024
1970MINBOS12/13/1970Bob LeeJoe KappRoad0351421

In the ten times the best team in the league hosted the worst team in the league, the average score was 36-4. In the eight of those games where we have a points spread, the best team was favored by an average of 16.2 points. Let’s walk down memory lane.

2011: Saints 62, Colts 7 – Boxscore

True to form, this game featured the highest Game Script of any game from the 2011 season. The Saints held an average lead of 29.5 points in a game unfortunately placed in prime time. NBC was hoping for stories about Peyton Manning going home to New Orleans; instead, we watched Curtis Painter’s Colts fall behind 28-0 in the game’s first 20 minutes. The loss dropped the Colts to 0-7, and Indianapolis would start 0-13 before finishing 2-14. After being forced to deal with a full season of non-elite quarterback play, the football gods provided Andrew Luck to the city of Indianapolis a few months later. The Saints went 13-3 in 2011, and Drew Brees set the record for passing yards in a season, en route to winning the AP Offensive Player of the Year award.

This picture will never get old

This picture will never get old.

2004: Patriots 21, 49ers 7 – Boxscore

This was the last game of the 2004 regular season. The Patriots were the defending Super Bowl champs, and would win the Super Bowl five weeks after this game, too. The teams entered and exited the game with mirror records: the Patriots finished 14-2, while San Francisco ended 2-14 and won the right to draft Alex Smith. New England was locked into the #2 seed prior to the game, so perhaps that explains why the line was a bit low.

1999: Rams 34, Browns 3 – Boxscore

The first edition of the GSOT Rams against the expansion Browns? St. Louis had scored 121 points in their prior three games, so it’s not like the Rams were not yet properly rated. This is one of the best comparisons to Denver/Jacksonville you can find — St. Louis entered the game 5-0, Cleveland 0-6 — and still, the line was only 18.5. The Rams took a 21-3 first half lead, and Kurt Warner was “limited” to just 29 pass attempts.

1997: Broncos 38, Chargers 3 – Boxscore

John Elway’s 1997 Broncos weren’t as explosive as the Peyton Manning version, but this game in week 17 came just one month before the franchise won its first Lombardi trophy. One thing that’s crazy when you think about those teams is the death of the fullback: those Broncos teams started Howard Griffith, while the 2013 squad has Wes Welker. In this game, Elway threw four touchdowns, with each of his WOWY starsRod Smith, Ed McCaffrey, and Shannon Sharpe — reaching the end zone. Over in Minnesota that day, the Colts lost to the Vikings. That ensured that Indianapolis would land the first pick, while the Chargers (after trading up from 3 to 2) were left with Ryan Leaf.

1990: Bills 14, Patriots 0 – Boxscore

Yes, there was a time when the Bills were great; perhaps even more shocking to younger fans, there was a time when the Patriots were terrible. The 1-8 Patriots were 15-point underdogs when they traveled to Rich Stadium to face the 8-1 Bills. Three weeks earlier, Buffalo won 27-10 in Foxboro, , but this game was surprisingly close. Jim Kelly finished the game just 5 of 15 for 79 yards, and Buffalo clung to a 7-0 lead most of the game until an 80-yard touchdown run by Thurman Thomas in the 4th quarter. The Bills would go on to make their first of four straight Super Bowls, while the Patriots finished the year 1-15. Without a clear star in the draft, the Patriots traded down with the Cowboys, who selected Russell Maryland with the first overall pick.

Picket crosser!

Picket crosser!

1987: 49ers 35, Falcons 7 – Boxscore

The matchup in Atlanta that season appears in the above table, too, of course, but that game deserves an asterisk. Joe Montana, Roger Craig, and ten other regular 49ers crossed the picket line, which made them monster favorites in Atlanta (before a crowd of 8,684). But Bill Walsh left Montana and most of the regulars in for just five possessions, which is one of the reasons the Falcons were able to keep that game close.

In this game in late December, Steve Young was actually filling in for an injured Montana. Young actually didn’t have a great passing game, and Jerry Rice only had 4 catches for 58 yards to go with his two touchdowns. But Young, Craig, and Joe Cribbs all rushed for at least 60 yards. San Francisco easily covered the 16-point line, as the only Falcons points came on a kickoff return. On the ensuing kickoff, San Francisco negated that with a 92-yard Cribbs kickoff return score.

Atlanta finished the season 3-12 — yes, Shattenjager, we have another Marion Campbell reference today — and drafted Aundray Bruce with the first pick in the ’88 Draft. San Francisco’s season ended with one of the all-time playoff chokes — you don’t hear about that game very often when the legacies of Montana and Walsh are discussed — losing as 11-point favorites to the Vikings in the playoffs. Of course, the 49ers won the Super Bowl the next two years.

1981: Eagles 38, Colts 13 – Boxscore

Ron Jaworski and the Eagles were the defending NFC Champs, while the Colts were one of the worst teams of all time. Baltimore entered the game on a nine-game losing streak and had allowed 40 or more points in four of their last five games. The 8-2 Eagles were coming off a 52-10 victory against the Cardinals, so the 14-point spread looks pretty low in retrospect. The game was not very close: Philadelphia picked up 34 first downs to Baltimore’s 9, and outgained the Colts 574 to 208.

1976: Steelers 42, Buccaneers 0 – Boxscore

The gold standard of mismatches: the expansion and winless Bucs in Pittsburgh against the two-time defending champions. Pittsburgh had allowed just 28 points in their last seven games, and had Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, and Lynn Swann in the primes of their careers (John Stallworth missed the game with an injury). The game had a spread of 26 points — the largest in history until this weekend — and was played in typical December conditions in Pittsburgh. Former Steelers quarterback Terry Hanratty started the game for Tampa Bay, but he was replaced for the ol’ ball coach, Steve Spurrier. The Steelers out gained Tampa Bay 385 to 105, and limited the Bucs to just 11 net passing yards.

1972: Dolphins 52, Patriots 0 – Boxscore

In 1972, the Dolphins produced the only perfect season in NFL history. The Patriots? They finished third to last in points scored, last in points allowed, and last in points differential. New England’s defense was horrible, finishing last in points, yards, first downs, passing touchdowns, net yards per attempt, rushing yards, yards per carry, and rushing touchdowns. Even still, the game in Miami was the low point in a terrible year: Jim Plunkett went 7/19 for 66 yards and two interceptions, while Mercury Morris rushed 16 times for 90 yards and three touchdowns for Miami. The Dolphins led 31-0 at halftime, so third-string quarterback Jim Del Gaizo saw some garbage time action. Del Gaizo, born in Massachusetts, promptly completed four of six passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns. Head coach John Mazur resigned after the game.

1971: Colts 24, Bills 0 – Boxscore

In the ’70s, bad teams against good teams led to shutouts, and we close with our third straight scoreboard blanking. The Colts were the defending Super Bowl champions and won in Buffalo early in the season, 43-0. Buffalo finished the ’71 season 1-13, and ranked last in both points scored and points allowed. With the first pick in ’72, the Bills drafted Walt Patulski, the last Notre Dame player to be drafted number one.

When these teams met in December, the Colts were 9-2 and the Bills were coming off their sole win of the year. The game was scoreless in the first half, but Johnny Unitas got things going in the third quarter. Buffalo finished the day with just 8 first downs and six turnovers. Dennis Shaw averaged -2.3 Adjusted Yards per Attempt, while O.J. Simpson rushed 9 times for 26 yards. As for Baltimore, the Colts’ run under Unitas was coming to a close, and Don Shula’s new team was about to become the division overlord. The Colts were a dominant NFL team in the late ’60s, and beat out Miami for the AFC East crown in 1970, en route to winning the first post-merger Super Bowl. In ’71, Miami won the division by a half-game, shut out Baltimore in the playoffs, and made their first of three straight Super Bowls.

  • Muahahaha! Anytime the “worst” of anything is discussed, Marion Campbell comes up! It’s amazing!

    Joe Kapp’s return to Minnesota didn’t go so well, did it? I had never bothered to look at that Boston team much to realize how awful they were. I guess that makes Kapp’s drop from average numbers to cover-your-eyes awful make a bit more sense. He was old enough to be dropping off, but he’s an interesting case for seeing just how much the situation could affect even a quarterback, at least in 1970. With a dominant team around him, he was decent. With an awful team, he was one of the big reasons the team was so awful. (Also, in a stealth Marion Campbell connection, Bob Lee–who started that Minnesota game at the bottom of the chart–also ended up playing in Atlanta in ’73-’74!)

    In a list that includes such luminaries as Peyton Manning, John Elway, and Joe Montana, one man quarterbacked the best team in the league three times on this list, and that man is . . . Earl Morrall. He belongs in the list of weirdest, most fascinating quarterback careers in history with Steve DeBerg and Vinny Testaverde (with whom he shares more than a passing similarity).

    • Chase Stuart

      Agree on Morrall/Testaverde. I haven’t thought much about DeBerg’s career – might make for a good post (or guest post!).

      The thing that always blows my mind about Kapp is that the ’69 Vikings were so good and he threw 7 TDs in a game….he must have been labeled a “winner” so many times, and then he followed that up with one of the worst seasons ever.

      And yes, FP just can’t quit Campbell.

    • Danish

      Earl Morral is just an awesomely interesting career.

    • Kibbles

      I think Kurt Warner has “most fascinating QB career” on lock down for the foreseeable future. 1990-1992, third string quarterback for the University of Northern Iowa. 1993, starting quarterback for UNI, named Gateway Conference PoY. 1994, undrafted by the NFL, stocked the shelves of a grocery store for minimum wage. 1995-1996, quarterback for the Iowa Barnstormers Arena League franchise. 1997, got a tryout with the Chicago Bears, but had to miss it because of an injury… caused by a spider bite… on his honeymoon (what?). 1998, led NFL Europe in passing and TDs, earned the 3rd string quarterback job for the 4-12 Rams. 1999, earns the second string job behind new acquisition Trent Green. Green gets injured in preseason, Kurt Warner leads largest single-season turnaround in history, going 13-3 and winning a SB on the back of the most explosive offense the league had ever seen. Won league MVP and SB MVP. 2000-2001, completely rewrites the record books, wins another league MVP, makes another superbowl. 2002-2003, plays a total of 9 games, goes 0-7 in his starts, throws 4 TDs vs. 12 INTs, gets outplayed by his backup Marc Bulger, and the Rams decide to part ways with him. 2004, picked up with the Giants, gets benched at midseason for Eli Manning, and the Giants decide to part ways with him. 2005-2007, can’t stay healthy, looks pretty average, sees Arizona spend a top-10 draft pick on Matt Leinart, and looks poised to lose his starting job all over again. 2007-2008, suddenly catches fire again. After going 13-29 as a starter in his last seven seasons, he improbably turns the Arizona Cardinals into a superbowl contender. After going eight years without receiving an MVP vote, Warner gets one again in 2008 (and would have gotten plenty in 2007, too, except for… you know… Tom Brady). He also wins the Man of the Year award. Retires after the 2008 season ranking in the top 10 in comp%, yards per game, Y/A, AY/A, NY/A, ANY/A, and QB Rating. His three SB appearances are the three highest single-game passing yardage totals in SB history. Not bad for the third string quarterback from the University of Northern Illinois.

      • james

        Warner didn’t retire after 2008

  • James

    “Pittsburgh had allowed just 28 points in their last seven games”


    Speaking of the Steel Curtain and their contemporary Doomsday Defense and Purple People Eaters, when is someone going to come up with a cool nickname for the Broncos offense? We need something to rival the Legion of Boom.

    • Chase Stuart

      And then after allowing just 28 points in their last 7 games, the Steelers shut out their next two opponents.

    • Richie

      What was the last team that really got a nickname? Was it “The Greatest Show on Turf”? I can’t think of anything more recent.

    • The Four Horsemen of the Broncocalypse?

  • Nate

    It’s a rather unlikely scenario, but it would be amusing if the chiefs ends up being the SRS top team this year and Alex Smith ends up being a starting QB on both the best and worst teams over a season.

  • Richie

    I like that NE-SF is on this list in both directions. (NE being the best in one and the worst in the other.)

  • Joe

    Denver nickname:

    “Not Your Father’s Offense — Err, A Lot Like Your Father’s Offense”.

  • George

    I think that you are going to see a lot of things happening in this one, and it’s something that I am mindful of that I am now increasingly focusing on the numbers over what is likely to happen on the field (which is the actual important thing and numbers should only be a guide in some respects – especially when their connectivity isn’t 100% yet).

    The spread for the game opened at around 27.5, a few books touched 28 and it has now drifted down to around 26.5. In terms of the numbers, SRS, and Least Squares put it at around a 36 point game, Ken Massey’s site has it at 31 points but I think the question is how realistic is it that the game goes over the 28 point margin/difference? The fact that the line has drifted down I think the consensus is that it won’t (but on paper it has every chance of going over that margin).

    Denver doesn’t need to prove anything, and in some respects you could argue should be thinking towards the games ahead to come (at Indianapolis, and the series at Kansas City with a trip to the Patriots in the middle). Realistically they could be up by 21 at the half, and you’ve got to wonder would they have any real reason to leaving Manning in for the whole of the second half (and possibly take an unnecessary knock or tweak something)? Jacksonville realistically on paper have 0% chance of winning this game (especially with the loss of Joeckel, the loss of Gabbert probably won’t help either both of whom would have been factored into their current rating) I don’t see there being any reason for Denver to push this after half time and run the score up because what does that actually gain?

    I realise that the numbers are not 100% at this time year, but I think if both teams went at it for 4 quarters you would be looking at an over 30 point winning margin, I just don’t see the reason for Denver to take this approach (we have already seen Brock Osweiler in for a bit of the Philadelphia game and I think we see him in for some of the second half this week).

    The only thing I really like about this game (apart from Denver winning) is the fact that I think we are going to see some points put up one way or another. If Denver is significantly up by the half, I see players possibly taking their mind of things in the second half or playing soft coverages that may allow Jacksonville to get scoring drives (maybe not touchdowns put FG’s that they may not have otherwise got earlier in the game).

  • Larry

    I’d like the Broncos to play this game like Peyton plays every game-Like a PROFESSIONAL!If they have a solid lead after 3 quarters sit Mr. Manning and the first-stringers down and play others.Remember most of the offensive players use “STATS as bargaining chips for contracts-they are important!Regardless of winning by 30 or 24 points isn’t as important as playing smart,efficient football.Keep players productive but HEALTHY!!!

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