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Feet Puns of the World Unite – Divisional Playoff Weekend

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Some loose, disconnected thoughts on each of the weekend’s NFL playoff games.

Pittsburgh Steelers over Baltimore Ravens

I’m glad I got home late on Saturday and missed the first half of this one, since it looked ugly. The main clip I saw of the first half was this bizzare fumble where everybody thought the ball was dead until somebody picked it up and ran it into the end zone. Shades of that Monday night game from a few years ago, where somebody (A Packer, I think) made a similar play – he was down, but nobody touched him, so he got up and ran the ball for a score or something and now, in every practice, coaches drill touching into players head with a variety of hot irons, backwards messages and a lot of screaming.

And when I tuned in, the Steelers were down big. It wasn’t a total surprise (thank god for The Score’s mobile phone app, which kept me somewhat in touch with the game). On the whole, it seemed like the Steelers brought both sides of their game to the table: their offensive line was not good early on, and while they did improve later, I still feel iffy about them and especially in their protection of Roethlisberger, who was getting nailed harder than even he’d find appropriate on a first date.

It wasn’t an especially convincing win, I thought, but the Steelers came out in the end. Yes, there was a tremendous comeback by the Steelers, but there was a big collapse by the Ravens offence. Their lead was built on turnovers and making the most of what they were given and they blew it by playing  just okay. Flacco is taking, and will continue to take, a lot of grief, but I’m not completely holding him to blame – he was under a lot of defensive pressure on  Saturday and did deliver some tight passes: one to TJ Houshmandzadeh and another to Anquan Boldin, both of which were dropped – Boldin’s cost them a touchdown and Housh’s killed a fourth-quarter rally. There was a punt-return touchdown, called back on a penalty and eventually turned into a field goal.

You know how in Techmo Bowl, turnovers seem to even out? If you get a fumble early, it’s almost certain you’ll fumble or get picked off later? I know it sounds Simmons-y, but that’s what I was thinking when Flacco fumbled in the third. I think that example held up throughout the game. The Steelers played odd in the first half and the Ravens looked odder in the second. Part of me wonders if it was the ball – the Ravens had a hard time hanging onto it – or if it had something to do with a blood-thirsty crowd, but I can’t find any real answers so I want to fall back on cliche: Pittsburgh wanted it more or something. I guess it comes down to something like this: Baltimore played better than they were in the first, worse than they are in the second and, combined, finished as the team everybody thought they were – defensively talented but with question marks on offence. The Steelers were the same; the first half went all wrong, the second all right and they look great for the comeback win, even if it wasn’t really all their fault.

Green Bay Packers over Atlanta Falcons

The must crushing thing about this game came right before halftime, when Tramon Williams ran an interception all the way for a score as the clock expired – and, most interestingly to me, right before the Packers would get the ball back on a kickoff. When that happens to me in Madden or Techmo or whatever, it’s always a huge boost – it’s all the psychological gain of a safety and more points on the board, too. I don’t think I called the game right then and there, but I started seeing it on Twitter and, looking back, they were right.

I’m not sure what this loss means to Matt “Ice” Ryan. In two playoff games, he’s underwhelmed, but that’s way too small a sample size to judge him as a heir apparent to Dan Marino or whatever. Marino was a singular talent who was saddled on some poor teams (and had the misfortune to play at the same time as Joe Montana, who had much better teams around him) for the bulk of his career; Ryan seems like an above-average QB who’s still young enough to make mistakes. It’s fun and it’s easy to draw a line connecting him to other QBs throughout history who never won much, but it’s disingenuous: he’s barely been in the league long enough to make playoff appearances.

As for the Packers, they looked amazing. Both their offence and defence were clicking as they rolled through the Falcons. I’ve been saying for a while they’re a lot better than people give them credit for – they lead the NFC in SRS, as I recall. I was thinking about that this morning when listening to a Simmons podcast, where him and noted NFL expert Adam Carolla used how close the Packers/Eagles game was to boost the Falcons – their logic was something like “Well, Green Bay nearly lost to Philadelphia and the Eagles are out of the playoffs, so that means the Packers are nearly out of the playoffs also,” which is fine except for the parts which don’t make sense (most of it). Green Bay is good, Philadelphia was nearly as good and both, I’d wager, were better than the Falcons.

Chicago Bears over Seattle Seahawks

A long while ago, I wrote a really long story on the Arizona Cardinals and the dangerous effects of hype. It was right before that Super Bowl where they came out of nowhere and put together a great run to the Super Bowl, mostly thanks to Kurt Warner lobbing touchdown passes to Larry Fitzgerald (which indirectly led to my favorite Slate article of all time).Essentially, it was about how everybody was buying into the team because it was a feel-good story and they possessed that rare sports element – momentum. They demolished teams in the playoffs, especially Carolina, and then tested the Steelers in the Super Bowl, but fell short of actually winning.

Anyway, the Seahawks began reminding me of them on Friday, when hype surrounding them began to hit critical mass – I think it was when Ron Jaworski said the Bears lead the NFL in negative-yardage-plays – and I started feeling iffy about picking them. It’s nice to call an upset, sure, but to ride that bandwagon? Yeah, I got ahead of myself.

The Seahawks played like they have all season on Sunday, which is to say not especially good. Their defence was lackluster, their offence sputtered like my first car and I don’t think anybody should have been surprised a 7-9 team lost to a team good enough to get a bye week. Chicago did look impressive, but I still don’t trust them – they’ve improved throughout the season, but I still feel like they haven’t been tested by a really good team yet. The Packers will be that test, but I’ll save that breakdown for another day…


NY Jets over New England Patriots

Forget Seattle over New Orleans, this is the upset of the playoffs. The Patriots were good this year and, if I’m remembering my advanced stats right, went into the postseason more highly rated than any of their previous seasons – including that one which finished 16-0. Brady was lights out, throwing everywhere to everybody (especially Branch, but also Welker) and they steamrolled teams.

But their defence? Well, it had problems. Third-most passing yards allowed, for one. It’s let teams hang in this season – Buffalo stands out in my mind – but was just good enough for their offence to make a few big plays here and there and push the game out of reach. So, on one side of the ball – Jets offence/Pats defence – I can’t profess to be totally surprised. But the other end – where the Jets stymied the Patriots offence – that was really cool.

Brady finished with a decent game – two scored and nearly 300 yards – but he had to throw the ball 45 times to get those numbers. Their running game was held to about 100 yards and neither running back really stood out, I thought. The Jets kept pressure on Brady and while he threw a lot, and had time to throw, just the idea of throwing that many passes makes me nervous. Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Roethlisberger all threw less times, but threw more efficiently: more yards, more scores and wins in all the games. Hasselbeck threw as much as Brady in his loss, too.

I don’t know if there’s an exact number I can point to, but I think there’s gotta be some kind of margin where it’s dangerous. First off, there’s the whole incomplete-passes-stop-the-clock angle, but there’s also the idea that it’s taxing on the entire team to run routes all day. For each of those passes Brady threw, he had two (at least) recievers running full tilt into the backfield. That’s gotta add up over time, doesn’t it?

Anyway, based on how well the Jets looked, they’ve gotta be seriously looked at to get past the Steelers. They’ve shown they can shut down explosive offenses (two thus far), but haven’t done much against a tremendous defence – but the Steelers defence looked shaky, too.  I’ll probably address this in further detail when I do my picks in a couple days.

One final thought: Enough with the Rex Ryan feet jokes already. They’re played out and really, isn’t it kind of cute that he likes his wife that much? I’d much rather have to deal with him than a player who sexually assaults women.

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Wild Card Weekend Thoughts

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Seattle over New Orleans

I said: New Orleans

What happened here was a huge upset, yes, and a fun case in some kind of weird football losing. The Saints were good, but only just made the postseason (I’m pretty sure New Orleans was actually the sixth-seeded team) and the Seahawks were awful yet managed to luck their way into a division title. And even though a division winning team beat a wild card team, it’s apparently one of the biggest upsets ever. After all, Seattle was historically awful, right? Just never mind that although Football Outsiders noted they were the third-worst playoff team ever, the two teams worse than them had each won their first playoff game. Or that New Orleans has never won a road playoff game.

The lasting image of this game is going to be Marshawn Lynch running over and into and through everything, like a car through a cardboard set of a city, into the end zone, as it should be. Holy shit what a run. But this entire game was cool: Matt Hasselbeck playing better than he ever has (even during his Super Bowl run a few years ago) and chucking the ball everythere. The Saints doing the same is fun, especially since their running game consisted of the most overrated college running back of all time and a guy who I forgot was still in pro football, which meant Brees was also going to chuck the ball all over.

I think I’ve said this before, but unless Ed Reed or Troy Polamalu are playing (hopefully against each other) I don’t really care about defence. I want to see teams score 30, 40 points. I got to see this on Saturday. Discount Lynch’s 67-yard rush and no runner finished with more than 65 yards rushing; this was a passing-oriented game. Brees finished with over 400 yards, Hasselbeck with four scores. Hell yeah!

If there was a downside to this game, it was the announcing crew which spent most of the game annoying me by saying things like “a screen pass is just as good as a handoff” over and over, forcing me to drink like one of the Pickwicks. I got it the first time, buddy. You don’t need to repeat it for 180 minutes.

What is there to make of the Seahawks, though? They can be a dangerous team, I suppose, but I’m wary to give them a ton of credit. After all, they play at home in a stadium which was actually designed to make the crowd loud enough to give them an advantage. They lit up the Saints for over 270 yards passing – but he threw for 366 yards in an earlier loss to the Saints. Seattle played their best game of the season and they’re probably going to get bounced in the next round. Which is fair, since this win was all they needed to vindicate getting into the playoffs with a crappy record.

NY Jets over Indianapolis Colts

I said: Indianapolis

Watching Peyton Manning make a pouty, sad face from the sideline is a playoff tradition my father and I somehow end up seeing almost every year and it’s one I never tire of. And the weird thing is that it’s nothing personal. I just like seeing Peyton Manning lose. Let me try and explain.

In a vacuum, Manning should be regarded as the finest quarterback of his generation. He’s put up numbers which seem all but untouchable, he’s got perhaps the best arm of anybody in the NFL. He’s been named player of the decade by Fox Sports, been named MVP four times, a first-team All-Pro six times and etc, etc, ad nauseum.  He’s been funny in commercials and managed the rarest of athletic feats: he hosted SNL and actually did a decent job.

In the regular season, Manning has put up some of the most insane numbers I can remember ever seeing. I remember the season where he threw for 49 touchdowns, obliterating the previous record. I remember another where his team went 14-2 and started with 13 straight wins.

But still, he collapses in the postseason, year after year after year. Sometimes it’s to Tom Brady – probably the closest thing to a rival Manning has – and sometimes it’s to lesser teams (like the Jets) and even win he wins, he still loses: yes, he won a Super Bowl, but it was against the Bears, a team quarterbacked by Rex Grossman. Loudmouthed sportscasters and Bleacher Report hacks will always be a chorus of voices reminding him of that fact.

Peyton Manning watches from the sideline after the Jets kick a game-winning field goal, thanks in part to a Jim Caldwell timeout

I don’t particularly think losing is part of what defines Manning, but it’s what people associate him with. He’s the regular season hero, the guy who puts up all the numbers and his defence lets him down. Or he loses because his offence is hurt. Or something. In that way, he’s kind of like Dan Marino (who never won a Super Bowl yet set all the records for Manning to break) because you always know in the back of your mind something is going to happen to him and it’s going to be brutal and Manning will make a face like he cannot understand why this keeps happening to him and when it does, you’re still surprised even though it’s more formulaic then an O Henry story because it happens in a way Bill Simmons would write a 14,000 word column on if it happened to his Patriots.

Case in point: 2006 divisional playoffs, Steelers at Colts. Jerome Bettis fumbles right near the goal line and only a tackle from future-bar creep Ben Roethlisburger prevents it being returned for a touchdown. Still, the Colts move the ball downfield and get it in position to kick a field goal to win the game as time expires. I am not watching this game, I am working at a supermarket with a girl named Katy who’s a diehard Colts fan. I can’t remember if we mocked each other throughout the day, but I do remember asking customers if they knew the score of the game. Oddly enough, more than a few did and we got a nice little rundown of what was happening. I’m pretty Katy laughed when told Bettis fumbled. And I’m pretty sure I laughed with notorious drunk Mike Vanderjact kicked his way out of organized labour.

That’s only one example. From a pick-six in last year’s Super Bowl to an onslaught of New England defensive players on a snowy Foxboro field, things never end well for Manning. Where his rival Brady seems to exist only in a sphere of winning, Manning exists in losing. Brady wins in spite of things – I still remember one Super Bowl he won after Carolina kicked a kickoff out of bounds and another where something like five seconds ticked off inexplicably after a late field goal. They’re the ying and yang of, well, something; isn’t it odd that in successive years, Manning won and Brady lost in the Super Bowl for the only time?

Back to Saturday evening. The Colts called a bizarre late-game timeout which gave the Jets more time to move downfield. Manning threw his arms up in the air. The Jets make a chip shot of a kick to win as time expires. Manning loses again, memorably, and makes another pouty face. Fun times to be a Colts fan.

 

Baltimore Ravens over Kansas City Chiefs

I said: Baltimore

The one game I got correct this weekend.

To me, the most interesting part of this game was San Diego’s special teams unit. How did Kansas City get here? By winning the division. How did they win the division? By winning more than the Chargers did – and what cost the Chargers at least one (and probably closer to two) wins? Their special teams unit.

All season I’ve been waiting for the other show to drop on Kansas City. Yes, they’re a decent team, but not overwhelming. I’ve had doubts about them since they lost in Week eight. And I’m not going to say the loss makes me feel vindicated or anything, but it shouldn’t be a total surprise. The Chiefs were decent, but they’re not the class of the AFC – and they certainly didn’t match up against a team which has been getting Super Bowl buzz all season. It’s kind of a shame the team had to collapse on national television, but it seemed bound to happen.

Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis sacks Chiefs QB Matt Cassel in the second half of Sunday's AFC Wild Card game

No, what should surprise was how poorly Matt Cassel played. Yes, Baltimore’s defence played well and forced turnovers. Yes, he was pressured – at times. But for him to have something close to eight seconds in the pocket – all day in football and certainly more than I remember Michael Vick getting – to find an open receiver and throw the cleanest looking interception I saw all weekend was amazing. It seemed everything which could go wrong for the Chiefs did go wrong in the third, and as things fell apart, the team lost itself and what was happening on the field started looking like a Hieronymus Bosch painting, a demonic vision of birds attacking some poor soul.

What does the win mean for the Ravens? They certainly look like a team to be reckoned with – even though their defence did bend here and there (hard to remember now but KC did lead 7-3 for a while) and their offence did take a while to really get into gear. Still, when they’re rolling, they’re a bundle of something: they kept pressure on the Chiefs offence, they forced turnovers and they took advantage of turnovers. They beat up upon a lesser team and they’re going to play the Steelers next week in a game which promises to brutal and low scoring. Maybe if it snows enough, somebody will crack a Stalingrad joke.

Green Bay Packers over Philadelphia Eagles

I said: Philadelphia

The last game of the weekend was probably not the most compelling or exciting but it was one of the more ferocious games of the weekend. The lasting memory of the game is probably that hit on Brent Celek in the fourth quarter – the one where he was reaching up for the ball and missed it and was slammed into, then knocked into the ground, by a Green Bay defender, causing a bunch of people on Twitter to lose their shit and start calling for pass interference – which didn’t happen. And fair enough, since it wasn’t a hit to the head.

It was representative of the game. Both sides came out swinging – the first play of the game was a sack of Michael Vick. The Packers looked like a team ready to take it to whomever is in their way – and better than the other three NFC teams this weekend.

But the thing to really take away isn’t how good Green Bay is, it’s how messed up the Eagles are. They’re a confusing team, able to work as a cohesive whole one snap and in disarray the next. Michael Vick was equal parts stunning and frustrating, missing open throws, making smart passes and forcing things to happen. On the overturned two-point conversion, his pass was right on the money to Celek (who made a good catch, too) but it was for naught. And on the second attempt, Vick was under enough pressure he just got rid of the ball.

Taken as a whole, Vick is a fascinating figure and not just because of his dissonance among the public. He’s  been an electrifying figure, in that he’s always liable to dash off for a bunch of yards, but he runs counter to the ideal of a quarterback – seeing him sit in the pocket and toss one somehow doesn’t feel right. However, this season saw Vick try to fit that role too – he completed more passes than he ever has and his QB rating jumped about 20 points from its previous high.  Is this a conscious effort to appease people? Is he leaving the brashness, the punkiness of being a run-first QB behind in hopes for wider acceptance? I can’t say I’d blame him if he was, even unknowingly.

Sunday, more than ever, he looked like a pocket QB. He finished with just eight rushes and on some of them – ones which may not have counted for rushes, but as sacks – he looked almost lost. Maybe it was Green Bay’s defence. Maybe he doesn’t have the confidence in his running game. Maybe he’s hurt – he was seen limping after that failed two-point convert. Or maybe he’s just out of shape (this is his first full season as a QB since 2006!). I don’t know. I can only speculate. But I’m sure he was frustrated at times. Again, I would have been too: between kicks missing the uprights to the Packers defence laying pressure on him, Vick had a tough day.

And I guess it led naturally to the finale, a deep pass picked off in the end zone by Tramon Williams. It was a high risk, high reward play. If I’m remembering right, it was only single coverage – and if the pass was a bit higher, could have been a catch. He makes that completion, he’s a hero with a NFL Films clip that lives on for a while. He didn’t and it was picked off. People are going to ask what he was thinking on that pass. Was it arrogance? Frustration? I’d wager he wasn’t thinking in terms like that, or even that if was complete he wins. Single coverage in the end zone. Somebody more accurate probably makes it. But, truth be told, Vick was not exceptionally accurate. I can think of one case where he had Celek open, right in front of him and he plunked it in the dirt.

I picked the Eagles in spite of a bunch of stats that favored the Packers: a better SRS, point differential and DVOA. I didn’t really make a clear case in choosing the Eagles (I said they’re just better than Green Bay but not like I was convinced) and so much of that faith was in Vick. I’m not going to say I should have known better… but I can’t say I’m surprised to be wrong, either.

Vick, America and image – NFL Notebook, week three

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It doesn’t matter what happens to him the rest of the season: Michael Vick has come back, rehabilitated himself and his image.

True, it is unlikely his incarceration will escape the biographer’s scope. People will remember that, remember the mental image of a dog getting killed, remember Vick heading off to jail.

But anybody who likes football, even casually, will look at what Vick is doing and will likely change his or her mind. What he is doing is not only by itself significant, but it’s context puts it into a whole another stratosphere.

Vick has stepped into Kevin Kolb’s shoes, led the Eagles to a win over a hapless Jacksonville team and put up great statistical numbers: in three games, Vick has thrown for 750 yards, six touchdowns, zero interceptions and has a QB rating of 110.2 (he’s also rushed for another 170 yards and a touchdown). He’s thrown for more yards then Mark Sanchez or Brett Farve, more touchdowns then Drew Brees or Aaron Rogers and his QB rating is second to Peyton Manning.

He is putting up these numbers only one season removed from being in jail. He’s doing it after being thrust into a starting role. He’s doing it for a coach who signing him, stuck him on the bench – first behind Donovan McNabb and then Kolb. He only came in after Kolb was concussed in week one against the Green Bay Packers.

And he’s doing it as one of the most scrutinized players in any sport right now: few, if any, athletes took the same kind of hit Vick did upon his arrest and conviction.

It’s easy to write it off as hysteria, but people hated Vick. He was a national punchline, somebody mocked on TV screens and on radio and blogs and print and almost every forum there is in which to mock him. Fantasy teams with names like Bad Newz Kennels. A joke on Family Guy. He was loathed, and as such, he was reduced to mockery.

America hates crime, really, but it really hates crime it can’t quantify. As idols of celebrity, athletes get a long enough leash for them to act badly. Baltimore receiver Donte Stallworth pled guilty to manslaughter after hitting and killing a pedestrian in 2009, for instance. He was suspended for all of last season and returned to play this year.

Vick sat out two full seasons, lost endorsement deals and declared bankruptcy. The owner of his team called him a liar and told the media he wasn’t wanted in Atlanta anymore.

And while Vick probably deserved all of that (he did after all run a dogfighting ring), it’s not hard to wonder why he got hit so hard while other players are not: Braylon Edwards was recently arrested for drunk driving and was benched for a quarter. Stallworth missed just a season after ending a person’s life. But … that is old hat.

He was hated, now he is feted. A Philadelphia newspaper used the headline Top Dog when he was named starter. His Eagles are 2-1 and are on top of their division. Even his opponents this coming Sunday claim they are rooting for him.

What has prompted this? Surely winning has helped more then a little bit. But the biggest part is his attitude. Where Vick was once rebellious, confrontational and brash – his hair, his talk and his attitude all oozed rebellion – he is acting more in the calm, somber role. This is not the same Vick who flipped off fans, for better or worse.

Vick’s comeback is a great story. It’s also very much one I’ve come to expect from the NFL, and by extension, the States. They may hate puppy killers, but they love it when people finally come around and fit in. It’s a melting pot mentality – we’ll accept you when you want to be like us.

And that’s what makes his such a popular comeback: Vick isn’t just winning football games, he’s doing so while appearing grateful for the opportunity. He hasn’t just come back; he’s turned a new leaf and become a better person in the eyes of people prone to judgment – somebody more like them.

Is that right? Does it really mean anything if Vick is quoted saying things like “I’m just trying to rise like the phoenix,” in papers across North America? Does it really make his comeback all the more impressive when he says a few words?

I’m not sure I think so. For once, I’m willing to let the stats tell the story.

**

I’m surprised when people are surprised by the Pittsburgh Steelers this season. Yes, it’s true they don’t have a true starting quarterback yet and won’t for another game (at least, anyway). And their offence leaves much to be desired.

O, but their defence! Their shutdown defence, holding teams to a NFL-low 11 points per game! That has 10 sacks! That held Tennessee to 11 points while forcing seven turnovers. The Steelers, at this point in the season, have the best defence in the league.

Just look at the highlights: Troy Polamalu flying through the air; Brett Keisel picking off Josh Freeman’s quick, nearly lateral, pass to Sammie Stroughter (who is then completely removed from relevency with a brutal James Harrison hit) and taking it in for a touchdown.

I’m not sure it will really make a gigantic difference when Big Ben returns to the team. The Steelers are winning games not with their offence, but with their D. They’re keeping teams from even getting into the game, let alone taking a lead (they’ve only been down twice this season, each time by a field goal).

Of course, it will be nice when he is back. Their offence, which actually looks pretty decent, will look better with him. Since a lot of their game, especially on Sunday against the Bucs, comes from big passing plays, they’ll benefit from Ben’s presence and size in the pocket.

But will it make a world of difference? No. It may not even a tipping point for the Steelers. Make no mistake: this is a team that is winning on the virtues of Polamalu, Harrison, et al.

**

Are the Chiefs for real? I don’t really know. They’re 3-0 and they did beat the Chargers, the likeliest team to contend with them for a playoff spot. Their defence is holding teams to the second-fewest points in the NFL this season. And it certainly helps that they have an easy schedule (they have upcoming games against Jacksonville, Buffalo, Oakland, Arizona, St. Louis).

Are they 3-0 good? Better then the Chargers good?

Well, last season the Broncos looked really good too and started 6-0, including wins over New England and San Diego. They finished the season 8-8 and out of the playoffs. Since this Chiefs team came basically out of nowhere, they’re an easy comparison.

But that Broncos team wasn’t as good defensively (by this point in the season, they had given up over 600 yards – nearly twice what the Chiefs have). I don’t think the two teams really compare.

If anything, I’m looking forward to see how they look against a team with a much better offence then Cleveland or the Niners: Indianapolis or Houston. Once they get past both of those teams, it’ll be a lot easier to judge them.

Written by M.

September 29, 2010 at 2:12 am

NFL Notebook, week two

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Week two of the NFL’s season gave me more then a few reasons and moments to vastly overreact, opportunities I gladly took advantage of.

If one were to follow me on Twitter, they would have seen me lay out a series of angry tweets about the Houston Texans and their head coach, Gary Kubiak, where I exclaimed he didn’t understand basic concepts in football, had given the win to the Redskins twice and made a pretty stupid joke about canned peaches.

All of which were eventually for naught when the Texans, thanks to a sneaky coaching move by Kubiak, won the game in overtime.

What does that sequence of events say about me as a sports fan? That I dive into things irrationally and without any regard? Yeah, probably. What does it say about me as some kind of sports journalism person? Probably something about a lack of restraint.

I think on the whole, though, it’s basically something about me as a Toronto sports fan. As something of a Leafs fan, I’m basically expected to vastly overact about everything. I’ve already had arguments about how the 2010 Maple Leafs will both make the playoffs and end up giving Boston the first overall pick in the draft.

Hell, I cheer for the Raptors. Of course I have wild mood swings.

So this all translates to the NFL, too. If any proof be needed, look at my picks for week two: there’s a bunch of what I’ll look back as overreaction and what seemed like perfectly reasonable observations at the time*. Of course the Bengals aren’t collapsing; Seattle probably isn’t a great team. Whatever, though.

So, what did I really get out of week two – with a mind towards not exploding all over little things?

1. Houston is a decent team.

The Texans did make some bizarre moves in the late stages of their win over the Redskins – not calling a timeout right away as the fourth ended, or even going into a punt formation – but that shouldn’t overshadow a gutsy second half comeback. The Texans roared back into the game largely thanks to Matt Schaub’s passing; their run-heavy approach didn’t net them a lot earlier in the game.

To me, that move says a lot more about the win then passing comeback does: Houston is a team with good enough offense – and a good enough O-line – that they can shift approaches in a game. That their line can go from pushing outward and creating holes to keeping pressure off of Schaub. I like that.

I do think they’re lucky as hell to be 2-0 right now, but these things have a way of leveling out over time. There’s no way they’ll win the division, I’m sure, but I don’t think they’ll finish out of the playoffs.

2. The Colts are who they always were

The idea that Indianapolis was going to have an off year is another big overreaction I saw in a few places. They lost to the Texans in week one, but that loss is the kind of one that happens every so often: some dropped passes here and there killed drives and eventually cost them the game. It wasn’t from a complete team collapse.

And what do ya know: they looked great on Sunday night, defeating the Giants 38-14. The Colts are a good team.

3. What happens when the Steelers get Ben back?

Two wins into the Steelers season has got me wondering about Big Ben, he of the alleged crimes and the motorcycle accidents. I figured without his presence, the Steelers offence would have a tough time moving the ball and scoring. And to some extent, they are.

But I didn’t really consider their defence. Thanks to the return of Troy Polamalu, their defence is absolutely phenomenal. I’ll always look to his injury last season as the reason why the Steelers didn’t do anything much, and with him back they look great.

After all, I’m describing a guy who figured out a snap count and jumped over Tennessee’s offensive live and got a sack. That has to be one of the greatest defensive plays I’ve seen maybe ever.

So what happens when Ben comes back?  Are we talking about a real contender? I don’t know if it’s an overreaction; it seems like Ben would put an already very good team – in a weak division – over the top.

But then, how much of a difference would it make? The bulk of the Steelers wins have been at the hands of the defence, which is forcing turnovers (seven on Sunday), making great plays (the aforementioned leaping tackle) and generally shutting down other teams (for example: opponents are only converting one-third of the time on third downs). Ben will not make a difference one way or the other with this.

Hell, if anything, the spotlight that will follow him throughout the season, as people decide to make a social stand (and not against somebody who deserves one, like Drew Brees) may only prove to be a distraction on the team, painting an even bigger target on the team; if they weren’t one you want to beat before, they are now!

Is that what will happen? Or will Ben be welcomed back with open arms. I have no idea. Alls I know is it’s going to be an interesting year.

*: Of course, I could say this about anything I’ve ever written.

Written by M.

September 20, 2010 at 8:39 pm

Posted in NFL Notebook

Dissecting the dangerous effects of hype

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I’ve been trying to get a Super Bowl column out for a few days now, but it just wasn’t coming. Perhaps this is because I’m tired of hearing the storylines, so tired I stopped reading anything coming out of Tampa the day after both conference championships. Perhaps because it doesn’t really matter to me how and why Kurtis met Brenda; that Larry Fitzgerald has a sportswriter dad; that the Cardinals are the underrated team of the year or whatever.

I just honestly haven’t been paying attention. So, with that, here’s my super bowl piece.

Going In
Without really looking at any number or stats or any real prep work, I like the Steelers. I think their defence should be able to handle anything Arizona can throw at them – or to Fitzgerald – and while I don’t know how well Roethlisberger will play, I kind of think it’s secondary.

If I was going to make a paraell of this one to another, I’d say it’s like the XXV, between the Giants and the Bills. Not in the sense that they’re closely matched, or in a storyline way or anything. But in a great defence against a great offense and not much else. That was a game won the Giants not because of a missed FG, but because the Giants offense was able to keep the Bills offense were only on the field for eight minutes in the second half.

I can see that happening again. So much has been said of the Steelers defence and almost as much has been said of the Cardinals offense. But really, I think those two might cancel each other out. This could be a game won because of much time the Steelers offence can burn up.

A Cursory Glance at the Numbers
My favourite stat – by a mile – is the point differential; the number of points scored by a team minus the points they allow. My reasoning for looking at it is that I think the bigger it is, the better the team is. This season it was +124 for the Steelers; +1 for the Cards.

That’s exceptionally low for a playoff team, let alone one in the Super Bowl. I think it kind of explains why the Cards were just a 9-7 team this season. But that’s just the season, not the playoffs.

For just these playoffs, it’s suddenly the opposite: +20 for the Steelers, +33 for the Cardinals. The Cards are starting to look a lot better. Keep in mind though, that the lion’s share of that difference is from their demolishing of the Panthers in the Divisional round; combined, the other games were won by just 13. I still think these two teams match up better then either of those suggest.

Let’s move to something a little more tangible: Kurt Warner vs the Steelers defence. If the Cards are going to win this game, it will be thanks to Warner’s arm. In all three of their playoff games, their running game has been effective, but not dominating. But Warner has had three great games in a row. Larry Fitzgerald has exploded in the recent past, including a three major day against the Eagles. And it’s interesting that Warner’s worst game (220 yards, 2 TD on 21 of 32 passing) was during their biggest win.

But Carolina was middle of the road against the pass; 16th in the NFL. The Eagles were third overall, allowing just over 180 passing yards a game; Warner picked them apart with a 279 yard, 4 TD on 21 of 28 day. He knows how to pick his spots.

At the same time though, Warner picked up the bulk of those in the first half of the game, when the Cards took a 24-6 lead to the locker room. In the second half, Warner was 8 of 12 for 76 yards. I think it’s worth noting more then a few of those were short passes that led to big YAC numbers, but I don’t have specific information handy.

Other side of the ball. Pittsburgh is the number one-ranked defence against the pass. They’re allowing about 157 passing yards a game; the number two defence allowed nearly 180. They’re allowing about 14 points per game, again the best in the league. They could pose trouble.

A look at the effects of hype
Every year, it seems to happen: one team gets an inordinate amount of hype. The Rams used to get it – they were the Greatest Show on Turf (pity they only scored 23 points in their Super Bowl win). For a while the Patriots got it. I vaguely remember the Steelers getting a lot, but Drive for Five or One for the Thumb kind of roll of the tongue, so it’s kind of justified.

But this year, nobody wants to be surprised. I think so many people were taken aback by the Giants upsetting the Patriots, they want to call it again. I know I’d like to; I picked the Patriots to win that game and I’d do it again. It’s an impressive thing, being able to call an upset before it happens. It’s trendy. It’s like telling your friends that Slumdog Millionare is going to get a best picture nomination before any of them had heard of it.

I think that’s whats happening this year. So many people are picking the Cardinals to win; maybe because it’s a trendy pick. Maybe people are choosing it because other people are. Because they want to be right if an upset happens.

A quick look at who’s taking who’s taking the Cardinals:
King Kaufman, Salon.com
Gregg Esterbrook, ESPN
Michael Silver, Yahoo.com
Will Litech
Dan Shanoff

Who’s taking the Steelers
John Clayton, ESPN
Tony Kornheiser (I think)
Peter King, Sports Illustrated
Most of the writers at SI, ESPN, CBS Sports, and most of what I’d call the sports writing establishment

So what does this mean? Ultimately nothing; people known for their outside the box take on sports are tending to fly towards the Cardinals while people who are established are taking the favourite. I don’t mean to sound like I’m hating on anybody here, but it seems this bowl might be hinging on the gap between the two groups; that bloggers are willing to take a bigger risk and pick the Cards almost as if they can’t agree with the establishment.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the establishment doesn’t want to go out on a limb; they’re reactionary as opposed to proactive. I don’t know.

Wherein Chuck D has never let me down
The Cardinals are a good story. Kurt Warner is a good story. So it the one about Fitzgerald’s dad. They’re fun, they’re the underdog and I get why so many people like them.

But they are hyped. They may be the buzzsaw, to use Litech’s term, but that doesn’t make the Steelers a piece of pine. I don’t like hype. Whenever I have bought into the hype and gone against my gut, it never seemed to end well – when I bought into Reggie Bush and took USC over Texas; when I decided that the Rockies were a team of destiny a couple years ago. So I’ll go with my gut.

Why? My problem with the Cards is their defence. They are allowing more and more yards each game. 250 against the Falcons, 269 against the Panthers and over 450 against the Eagles. If I were a Cardinals fan, this would worry me.

Pittsburgh isn’t a offensively dominant team in any way, really, but they’re about as capable as any of those teams. If they can put up 23 points against the Ravens, they can put up at least that many against the Cards, I’m sure.

So, I don’t care that the cool kids are choosing the Cardinals. It’s cool that a dad gets to cover his son in the Super Bowl, but it doesn’t mean he’ll play any better; his dad has been writing about him for a long while, apparently. I’m going to take Chuck D’s advice here and not believe the hype.

I’m taking the Steelers.

Written by M.

January 31, 2009 at 7:46 pm

Dissecting the dangerous effects of hype

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I’ve been trying to get a Super Bowl column out for a few days now, but it just wasn’t coming. Perhaps this is because I’m tired of hearing the storylines, so tired I stopped reading anything coming out of Tampa the day after both conference championships. Perhaps because it doesn’t really matter to me how and why Kurtis met Brenda; that Larry Fitzgerald has a sportswriter dad; that the Cardinals are the underrated team of the year or whatever.

I just honestly haven’t been paying attention. So, with that, here’s my super bowl piece.

Going In
Without really looking at any number or stats or any real prep work, I like the Steelers. I think their defence should be able to handle anything Arizona can throw at them – or to Fitzgerald – and while I don’t know how well Roethlisberger will play, I kind of think it’s secondary.

If I was going to make a paraell of this one to another, I’d say it’s like the XXV, between the Giants and the Bills. Not in the sense that they’re closely matched, or in a storyline way or anything. But in a great defence against a great offense and not much else. That was a game won the Giants not because of a missed FG, but because the Giants offense was able to keep the Bills offense were only on the field for eight minutes in the second half.

I can see that happening again. So much has been said of the Steelers defence and almost as much has been said of the Cardinals offense. But really, I think those two might cancel each other out. This could be a game won because of much time the Steelers offence can burn up.

A Cursory Glance at the Numbers
My favourite stat – by a mile – is the point differential; the number of points scored by a team minus the points they allow. My reasoning for looking at it is that I think the bigger it is, the better the team is. This season it was +124 for the Steelers; +1 for the Cards.

That’s exceptionally low for a playoff team, let alone one in the Super Bowl. I think it kind of explains why the Cards were just a 9-7 team this season. But that’s just the season, not the playoffs.

For just these playoffs, it’s suddenly the opposite: +20 for the Steelers, +33 for the Cardinals. The Cards are starting to look a lot better. Keep in mind though, that the lion’s share of that difference is from their demolishing of the Panthers in the Divisional round; combined, the other games were won by just 13. I still think these two teams match up better then either of those suggest.

Let’s move to something a little more tangible: Kurt Warner vs the Steelers defence. If the Cards are going to win this game, it will be thanks to Warner’s arm. In all three of their playoff games, their running game has been effective, but not dominating. But Warner has had three great games in a row. Larry Fitzgerald has exploded in the recent past, including a three major day against the Eagles. And it’s interesting that Warner’s worst game (220 yards, 2 TD on 21 of 32 passing) was during their biggest win.

But Carolina was middle of the road against the pass; 16th in the NFL. The Eagles were third overall, allowing just over 180 passing yards a game; Warner picked them apart with a 279 yard, 4 TD on 21 of 28 day. He knows how to pick his spots.

At the same time though, Warner picked up the bulk of those in the first half of the game, when the Cards took a 24-6 lead to the locker room. In the second half, Warner was 8 of 12 for 76 yards. I think it’s worth noting more then a few of those were short passes that led to big YAC numbers, but I don’t have specific information handy.

Other side of the ball. Pittsburgh is the number one-ranked defence against the pass. They’re allowing about 157 passing yards a game; the number two defence allowed nearly 180. They’re allowing about 14 points per game, again the best in the league. They could pose trouble.

A look at the effects of hype
Every year, it seems to happen: one team gets an inordinate amount of hype. The Rams used to get it – they were the Greatest Show on Turf (pity they only scored 23 points in their Super Bowl win). For a while the Patriots got it. I vaguely remember the Steelers getting a lot, but Drive for Five or One for the Thumb kind of roll of the tongue, so it’s kind of justified.

But this year, nobody wants to be surprised. I think so many people were taken aback by the Giants upsetting the Patriots, they want to call it again. I know I’d like to; I picked the Patriots to win that game and I’d do it again. It’s an impressive thing, being able to call an upset before it happens. It’s trendy. It’s like telling your friends that Slumdog Millionare is going to get a best picture nomination before any of them had heard of it.

I think that’s whats happening this year. So many people are picking the Cardinals to win; maybe because it’s a trendy pick. Maybe people are choosing it because other people are. Because they want to be right if an upset happens.

A quick look at who’s taking who’s taking the Cardinals:
King Kaufman, Salon.com
Gregg Esterbrook, ESPN
Michael Silver, Yahoo.com
Will Litech
Dan Shanoff

Who’s taking the Steelers
John Clayton, ESPN
Tony Kornheiser (I think)
Peter King, Sports Illustrated
Most of the writers at SI, ESPN, CBS Sports, and most of what I’d call the sports writing establishment

So what does this mean? Ultimately nothing; people known for their outside the box take on sports are tending to fly towards the Cardinals while people who are established are taking the favourite. I don’t mean to sound like I’m hating on anybody here, but it seems this bowl might be hinging on the gap between the two groups; that bloggers are willing to take a bigger risk and pick the Cards almost as if they can’t agree with the establishment.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the establishment doesn’t want to go out on a limb; they’re reactionary as opposed to proactive. I don’t know.

Wherein Chuck D has never let me down
The Cardinals are a good story. Kurt Warner is a good story. So it the one about Fitzgerald’s dad. They’re fun, they’re the underdog and I get why so many people like them.

But they are hyped. They may be the buzzsaw, to use Litech’s term, but that doesn’t make the Steelers a piece of pine. I don’t like hype. Whenever I have bought into the hype and gone against my gut, it never seemed to end well – when I bought into Reggie Bush and took USC over Texas; when I decided that the Rockies were a team of destiny a couple years ago. So I’ll go with my gut.

Why? My problem with the Cards is their defence. They are allowing more and more yards each game. 250 against the Falcons, 269 against the Panthers and over 450 against the Eagles. If I were a Cardinals fan, this would worry me.

Pittsburgh isn’t a offensively dominant team in any way, really, but they’re about as capable as any of those teams. If they can put up 23 points against the Ravens, they can put up at least that many against the Cards, I’m sure.

So, I don’t care that the cool kids are choosing the Cardinals. It’s cool that a dad gets to cover his son in the Super Bowl, but it doesn’t mean he’ll play any better; his dad has been writing about him for a long while, apparently. I’m going to take Chuck D’s advice here and not believe the hype.

I’m taking the Steelers.

Written by M.

January 31, 2009 at 3:46 pm

Breaking down how and why the Cardinals are the NFC Champions

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If nothing else, this certainly wasn’t expected.

By beating the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, the Arizona Cardinals earned a trip to Super Bowl XLIII, the first time the team has ever been to one

It wasn’t exactly the easiest of routes, for sure.

By winning the tepid NFC East, where no other team finished above .500, the Cards barely made the playoffs; they were seeded fourth but lost more games then Philadelphia, the sixth seed. In the first round, they weren’t given much of a chance against the Atlanta Falcons, a young and surging team led by Matt Ryan.

In a shootout, the Cards held on to win, 24-30. Their suddenly strong defence limited Ryan to under 200 yards and picked him off twice. Kurt Warner looked years younger, throwing for over 270 yards, 100 of them to Larry Fitzgerald. Remember that name.

Next week, the Cards went on the road to face Carolina, a team who won 12 games – and four of their last five. The Panthers, a six point favourite on ESPN, were blown out, 33-13. Why? Again, the mix of a defence that was coming together and an offence that was dynamic. Again, Warner threw for two majors and for over 200 yards. Again, the defence forced turnovers – five interceptions and a fumble. Again, a convincing win.

All of a sudden, these Cards looked like a threat.

But there was a pattern beginning to form. The Cards were a team that liked to throw the ball, early and often. They liked to score as soon as they could, and they usually did. In the first half, they had 14 against Atlanta, 27 points against Carolina. And as the game wound down, they usually did too: they only scored five points combined in both of those games’ fourth quarters.

This was their weakness. If a team kept running the ball early, controlling the clock, and wound down the defence early, there seemed to be a good chance they could stage a comeback late; they just had to keep the score from getting out of hand.

On to the NFC Championship, against Philadelphia, where the same script seemed to unfold. Throughout the first half, the Cards dominated – three touchdowns to Larry Fitzgerald. Two field goals. A 24-6 lead at the half.

But the Eagles kept pounding away. Eagles QB Donovan McNabb capped off a 90-yard drive with a 6-yard pass for a major. Shortly after, he completed four of five passes to move 60 yards, and made it a one-possession game after three.

And right at the beginning of the fourth, the Eagles took the lead on a huge, 62-yard score by McNabb to DeSean Jackson. The two-point failed, but still, the Eagles led 25-24.

This is how it was going to be lost for the Cards, right? This is right about when the wheels were supposed to fall off. When Kurt Warner drops back, forces a throw to Fitzgerald who’s in triple coverage, gets picked off and the game ends. That’s what we expect, isn’t it?

But instead, Warner went short, making quick passes that got the first downs, while using their running backs to keep clock moving. If you get a chance, look at the drive: 14 plays, 72 yards and almost eight minutes eaten off the clock. It wasn’t dynamic, it wasn’t a flashy show of exhibition.

But it was smart. It kept them going, kept the Eagles off the field and make the clock the Eagles enemy. Philly ended up burning their second timeout, just to keep some time left to retaliate.

They tried, too. McNabb threw throughout the next series, and after a couple first downs had a quick three-and-out. That was pretty much it for the Eagles.

Basically, in this win, the Cardinals proved themselves, if that makes sense. Out of all their playoff games, nobody tested them as hard as the Eagles did. The Cards got out early with a great passing game, but nearly lost it all when their defence began to lapse. But intead of sticking to what was working – but would have been the wrong choice – they went back to basics, driving the ball up the middle.

This change threw off the Eagles, who were so keyed in to Warner’s arm that it cost them the game. When they began to adapt to the running game, Warner began to throw quick short passes that kept the drive alive. After testing the secondary with bombs all throughout the first, this seemed to work.

All in all, it was a well deserved win.

Written by M.

January 19, 2009 at 5:43 pm