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The NFL Playoffs are interesting, if not exciting – NFL Divisional Picks

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These NFL playoffs haven’t really been all that exciting.

I say that fully including the barn burner between the Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals last Sunday. That game aside, there wasn’t a single one that really kept me glued to the screen, rapturously paying attention.

But that isn’t to say that these playoffs haven’t been interesting – a key difference.

Every game thus far has been interesting. There’s plots, subplots, storylines  tracing back years. It may not be catchy, but there’s a lot of substance.

Take the Philadelphia/Dallas game. It wasn’t tightly contested, the outcome wasn’t in doubt after the second quarter. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth watching. After all it had:

  1. Michael Vick making some key plays when Donovan McNabb couldn’t – was he boosting his own profile? Sowing seeds to raise his own profile on the Eagles? Or was it a last gasp by a fading star?
  2. Another game where McNabb was pretty good in defeat – if he wasn’t so mobile, doesn’t he get sacked more? Or does his mobility give the Eagles offensive line a false sense of security?
  3. Tony Romo making a convincing case for the “Can’t win in December/playoffs” line being sent to the scrapyard
  4. A dynamic explosion by the Cowboys in the second that was – admit it – fun to watch. Even if the rest of the game wasn’t.

Perhaps it’s just me who likes these little things (I also like guessing what the storylines coming out of the game will be), but it’s foolish to just write the games off. That extends to this week – and I’ve thought up four interesting storylines that I’ll be interested in watching unfold.

Anyway, here’s my picks for the Divisional Round. Home team in CAPS.

NFC

NEW ORLEANS over Arizona

The main thing I really took away from the Cards/Packers game wasn’t anything about either quarterback or either defence. It was that the Cards were lucky, very lucky. They almost got burned on a long pass in OT, they won the game on a blitz where nobody covered Michael Adams on Rodger’s blind side. Luck wasn’t exactly on their side the entire game, but it was there in overtime.

That’s well and all, but it leaves me feeling shaky. They had a hard time defending against Rodger’s passing and choked away a 21-point lead in the second half (at home, no less). They can score and they ran all over Green Bay’s defence – but at the same time, the Packers had the best defence in the NFC (statistically speaking – the Packers were 3rd in points allowed per game, first in rushing, total yards per game).

Still, I can’t shake a feeling that the Cards are sizzle and no steak – they allow a lot of points because they can outscore a lot of teams. I can’t shake how Warner is practically ancient. I can’t shake how well they’re doing sans Anquan Boldin, either. They’re a team that I feel is ready for a drop.

Enter the New Orleans Saints.

You want to talk dynamic offenses? The Saints have scored more, moved the ball more, gotten more first downs then any other team in the playoffs. Sure, they can’t defend, but that almost doesn’t matter against a team like the Cards – this game will come down to who has the ball last; it’s last weekend redux. I like the Saints solely because they’ve been far more explosive this season.

What’s interesting about this match?

  1. It has the makings of a QB duel – two high-powered offenses throwing against teams that don’t defend the pass well. If any game has potential to outdo last week’s Green Bay/Arizona game, this is the one.
  2. The Cards are a streaky team; they tend to score in bunches. If they can’t get it going early, will it be too late?
  3. Will this be Kurt Warner’s final game? Will that be something the team keeps in mind – ie, Steelers winning one for Bettis a few years ago.
  4. The Superdome. How will Saints fans react if the Saints are anything less then stellar? Or, for that matter, how will they react if they are stellar?

Dallas over MINNESOTA

Call it momentum. The Cowboys are on a roll and really looking good. Especially Romo, who has thrown as many touchdowns since the start of December as he’s thrown interceptions all season.

They blew away Philly on the back of a 27-point second quarter. They shut out two of their last three opponents. They’re a team that I just have a feel for; in a tough NFC East they played their way into the playoffs, won the last game of the season to secure a home game and then beat the Eagles again to advance. I have a good feeling about them; they’re not a team that lucked into the second round.

I can’t say I feel the same about the Vikings. I should. but I can’t. I don’t trust their eight and 0 record at home this season. I don’t know if I trust Adrian Peterson. Or Farve.

See, the Dallas is not good against the pass. They’re in the lowest third of the league, with a little over 218 allowed a game. I feel like Farve will have a good game against them: he just  had two 300+ yard games in a row.

But the Cowboys are good against the run, ranking behind Green Bay, Minnesota and Pittsburgh. If they can limit Peterson’s damage, I have a feeling that Farve will throw himself out, so to speak. He’s 40 years old, I don’t think he has another huge game left in him.

What’s interesting about this match?

  1. Adrian Peterson. Dallas can defend against the run, but can they stop the best running back in the playoffs? In an October game against Baltimore – The Ravens rank just behind the Cowboys in rushing defence – Peterson ran for 143 yards on 22 runs. Will that happen again?
  2. Can Dallas keep up the momentum? I’m not the only person who’s been getting a 2007 NY Giants vibe from the Cowboys this year. This game will be their biggest test – if they can beat the Vikings at home, they have to become a favourite to make the Super Bowl.
  3. Was Dallas’ win a fluke? If you discount their 27-point quarter against the Eagles, they only scored seven points and moved 257 yards; Philadelphia was almost as effective, with one touchdown and 238 yards. Is it fair to wonder that if the Cowboys didn’t explode in the second, they might have lost the game?
  4. The ‘Brett Farve’s Final Game’ clause is in full effect here. The last time I remember it being this strong? His overtime loss to the ’07 Giants. Keep that in mind.

AFC

INDIANAPOLIS over Baltimore

I wouldn’t count the Ravens out, really, but this would be a tough game for them to win. They’re on the road, playing a very tough offense… but you already knew that, didn’t you.

As much fun as watching that side of the game – Manning throwing to Wayne against Ed Reed/Ray Lewis – will be, it’s the other side that matters more.

Look at the one game between the Ravens and Colts this season, a 17-15 win by the Colts. The key to take away from that game: how throughly the Colts defence shut down the Ravens. In that game, the Ravens kicked five field goals and missed one more. They were in Baltimore’s red zone five times and couldn’t score a touchdown – even from the one-yard line. Why? The Colts defence came up big when it mattered: with the Colts leading 14-12 in the fourth and the Ravens with a first and goal from the one-yard line, they shut down the Ravens – an incomplete pass and two rushes that went nowhere.

That’s the advantage for the Colts in this game. They’ve shown that they don’t bend under pressure and can stop the Ravens when they need to. The Ravens, on the other hand, haven’t shown they can pound the ball past the Colts.

This even goes to last week, when they won the game on turnovers and with their defence. Yes, that big run right at the start of the game was a shot across the Patriot’s bow, but it was how they limited the Patriots to six yards total and caused three turnovers on the Patriots first four that did New England in.

Back to the Ravens defence for a second. In their last two meetings, they allowed 48 points, 709 yards and six touchdowns to the Colts. Manning has completed almost 70 per cent of his passes against them. He’s shown that he can easily pick apart the Ravens’ secondary when he wants to. For a team that prides itself on a tough defence (ranked third overall in the NFL and eighth against the pass), Manning is something outside of their control. They have shown time and time again that they cannot limit him.

That’s why if the Ravens want to steal this game, they’re going to have to crack the Colts defence. And they’re not going to do that.

What’s interesting about this match?

  1. Will Joe Flacco finally lead the Ravens into the end zone? In both of his games against the Colts, Flacco has never thrown a touchdown against the Colts; the Ravens haven’t scored a touchdown, either.
  2. Will Manning be rusty? He hasn’t played major minutes in a game since December 17th, almost a month ago. Or will the extended rest pay off for Manning and the rest of the Colts offense?
  3. How will Pierre Garcon play? With some of his family involved in the horrific earthquake in Haiti, will he play the game of his life?
  4. How many times will the announcers bring up Marvin Harrison? And how many times will they compare his situation to that of Ray Lewis? (My guess: once, which is one time too many)

SAN DIEGO over NY Jets

I want to call the Jets lucky to be where they are. And while there’s always a little luck in the playoffs, it’s grossly unfair to say that any team lucks into the second round of the playoffs.

The Jets have slugged their way here. They are not a great team, but they’re one of the harder teams to get past: just look at their defence, one of the best in the playoffs. Look at the stats their defence puts up: just under 154 passing yards allowed per game (first in the NFL). About 252 total yards allowed per game (first in the NFL).

Going into a game against a pass-happy team like the San Diego Chargers, one would imagine that they’ve got a nice shot at stealing a win.

But for all the stops the Jets can make (and they make more then a few), look at how many turnovers their defence creates. They’re right near the bottom of the league with 11 forced fumbles. They’re right in the middle of the league with just 17 interceptions. Their defence isn’t quite as intimidating when it can’t create turnovers.

Look at their schedule. The Jets have lost to pedestrian teams all season: there’s a 22-24 loss to Jacksonville in week 10. A 30-25 loss to Miami in week eight. A 7-10 loss to Atlanta in week 15. All of those teams were .500 or other at the time of those losses.

What about their wins? Most of their late-season wins to get to the playoffs have been against weak teams (Buffalo, Carolina, Tampa Bay) or teams that had already clinched a playoff spot (Indianapolis, Cincinnati). They had an easy schedule, with 10 games against teams at .500 or under. They barely made it into the playoffs, thanks to late-season collapses by Denver and Pittsburgh. They only clinched in the last game of the season; it could have just as easily been Houston playing last week.

On the other hand, the Chargers are one of the best teams in football right now. They overcame a slow start, losing three of their first five games, then ripped off 11 straight wins. That streak includes wins over Philadelphia, Dallas, Cincinnati and a 32-3 crushing of Denver that likely spelled the end of the Broncos season.

They are more then a match for the Jets. Phillip Rivers has thrown for more then 4200 yards, for 28 majors and completing more then 65 per cent of his passes. All on a team without a wideout that grabs your attention: Vincent Jackson, Antonio Gates and Malcom Floyd are all big parts of their pass attack.

And this is on a team that was seemingly built around LaDainian Tomlinson, one of the best running backs of the decade. Although LDT has statistically taken a step back this season (his yardage and number of carries are continuing a downward trend), he’s still scored 12 majors.

What that all means is that the Chargers are balanced. Better balanced then any other team right now. Balanced like the suspension on (noted Chargers fan) Jimmie Johnson’s #48 Impala. They have more then enough to overcome anything the Jets can try and stop them with.

On the other side, rookie Jets QB Mark Sanchez is playing in what should be a good venue for him. San Diego is warm and sunny, conditions that he’s surely used to playing in (thanks to his USC days). Add that to the Jets very good running game (ranked first overall in the NFL with 172 yards a game and 21 rushing touchdowns) and it’s not like New York will be stranded.

San Diego’s defence is, at best, pedestrian. They can’t defend the run (20th overall with 11 yards per game). Does that mean the Jets will spend the day pounding the ball up the Chargers gut? Or, if they go down early, will they be forced to start making passes and fall right into the Chargers trap?

What’s interesting about this matchup?

  1. How will Rex Ryan use Sanchez? He’s playing in a familiar climate and should be in good position to pass – but the Chargers can guard the pass. Will the Jets be forced to chip away at a lead with a steady running game?
  2. How will Chargers tight end Antonio Gates play? In his las four games, he’s scored a touchdown in each – but is averaging just above 40 yards receiving. If the Jets can shut down Jackson, can Gates become Rivers bailout guy?
  3. This game will answer two nagging questions: one, does LDT still have his fastball, or has the years caught up to him? And second, just how good is the Jets defence, anyway? Granted, the Bengals were shut down, but that win was almost as much on Carson Palmer’s terrible day as it was anything the Jets did.
  4. Can the Jets kill the clock? With a great running game, one would imagine that the Jets gameplan is geared more to keeping the Chargers offence sitting on the sidelines then it is to putting up big numbers. And while that has worked in the past, it can also be disastrous, like when the Colts took apart Miami earlier this season. It will be interesting to see if the Jets can limit the potential damage – and if the Chargers will quickly move around.

Last week: 3 of 4

Overall (playoffs): 3/4

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    These NFL WIld Card Weekend Picks are Superbad

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    I had a discussion the other day with a friend on the best movies of the decade. We threw around a lot of titles but didn’t really come to any conclusions: was it No Country for Old Men? Almost Famous? Inglorious Basterds?

    Anyway, a couple nights later, I caught Superbad on Showcase. I hadn’t seen that movie since it came out a few years ago and frankly didn’t want to; I got really tired of people making McLovin jokes.

    But as I watched it, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Two years later, it still felt fresh. It felt fresh the next day when I watched it again. And it felt fresh yesterday when I shelled out five bucks for a used copy.

    Is it the best movie of the decade? Maybe. But without a doubt, it’s the most quotable. And with a nod to Bill Simmons, it inspired me and my buddy Bernard to hand out quotes for my NFL Playoff picks.

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    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

    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

    NFL Wild Card weekend pre-game notes

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    It seems like Bizzaro World, or something, for the first week of the NFL Playoffs. Not only are the Miami Dolphins, Arizona Cardinals and Atlanta Falcons playing this week – the Falcons are even favoured! It’s quickly becoming cliché, but this is a rare playoff weekend where all four road teams are favoured.
    Which is exactly how it should be.

    Saturday games

    Atlanta Falcons @ Arizona Cardinals

    Here’s a fun stat: The Cardinals point differencial (the difference between how many points they’ve allowed and how many they’ve scored) is just one. One single point. That’s gotta be some kind of record low for a team in the playoffs, let alone one with a home game. Still, they’re a team that can put up a ton of numbers.

    And the Falcons will be a test. They’re a young team that’s never played a playoff game – and by simply making the playoffs, one could argue their season is already a success. Will they have the drive to win? Perhaps, but it’ll be close, so I’m taking the experience – I like the Cardinals in a shootout.


    Indianapolis Colts @ San Diego Chargers

    On the heels of a crushing win over the Broncos, the Chargers look to be on an offensive roll – they’ve won their last four games. For the first time this season they look on the field like they do on paper. But a closer look reveals a weak defence that’s especially porous against the throw.

    And if the Chargers are hot right now, the Colts are on fire; they’re the winners of their last nine games. I like Manning to have a big day against the Chargers’ defence while the Colts win big, by much more then the -2.5 points Vegas is giving them.

    Sunday games

    Baltimore Ravens @ Miami Dolphins

    Much like the Falcons, one could argue the Dolphins season is already a success; on the heels of their famed “Wildcat” offence, they’ve turned from a one-win team to winners of the AFC East, even beating the Patriots twice.
    But for all of their offensive prowess lies a pretty average – tepid, even – defence. They’ve allowed a ton of yards against the pass, which is what will cost them here.

    In fact, the only major question in my mind here is by how much: in their lone meeting with the Ravens, they were crushed 27-13, with Joe Flacco throwing 17 for 23 in the process. And since the Ravens have only improved since then, I think he’ll have a similar day, winning easily. Take the points on this, a line of just -2.5 for the Ravens just seems too small here.

    Philadelphia Eagles @ Minnesota Vikings

    Despite only making the playoffs by the barest of margins – they had to beat Dallas and need both Tampa Bay and Chicago to lose – the Eagles are a solid team and one that can easily sneak to the NFC Championship game. Why? They’ve got the best defence in the conference – and maybe in the league.

    Yes, that’s right. Better then the Vikings defence. Better then the Giants. And maybe even better then Pittsburgh’s – they allowed only a few more points in a much better conference. I’d expect them to be able to handle Minnesota, which didn’t look all that good last week, when they played for a playoff spot.

    Quick recap:
    Cards, Colts, Ravens and Eagles.

    Wherein the AFC East gets a clearer, but only by a little – NFL Notebook

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    With their backs against the wall, the Patriots played dynamite, sharp and looked as good as ever – but it could all be for naught.

    The AFC East is crowded and good, maybe the best division of the decade, and 11 wins could not even be enough now. Three of it’s four teams played for their seasons today, all three tied with identical records – and the fourth had a chance to play spoiler, facing a team with the same record; the AFC West leading Denver Broncos.

    At home, the Patriots took on the NFC West champion Arizona Cardinals. On paper, a good match for New England – the Cards were good, but not that good. They clinched their division with games to spare – but their division looked like this:

    Arizona: 8 wins, 6 losses
    San Fransisco: 5 wins, 9 losses
    Seattle: 3 wins, 11 losses
    St. Louis: 2 wins, 12 losses


    The Patriots have a better, a more dynamic offence. A better defence, too: they allowed a little over 300 points so far this season, nearly 100 less then the Cardinals. They played better, too, putting on a clinic for the Cards.

    In poor weather, Don DeLillo once wrote, always take the underdog. Poor weather neutralizes advantages. But during a snowstorm, the kind of weather that has always been an asset for them, the Patriots demolished the Cardinals. I can’t stress this enough – it looked like a junior varsity team taking on a state champion at times. Not just big plays, either (although there was their share), but little ones, things that added up.

    Item. Last drive of the first half. Less then two minutes left, the Patriots get the ball on their own 29 and lead 28 to nothing. Cassel passes quickly out to his left, a 14 yarder to Gaffney. Three plays later, another one up the left to Gaffney for 16. Both times, Gaffney was in single coverage and ran a quick route – a medium hook, with him turning around to meet the ball – and a step out of bounds. Simple, fast, smart football. Two after that, 20 yards to Welker, same idea on the right side. In about a minute, the Patriots have moved from their 29 to the Cardinals 20 – without using a timeout. They kick a field goal and go ahead 31-0 as the clock expires.

    That was a perfect two minute drill, ran against a division champion. And the Patriots made it look easy, like it was an inter-squad game. It didn’t even mean anything, really. The outcome wasn’t in doubt by this point. It was practice for the playoffs. By a team that could miss them, against a team bound for them.

    But getting there isn’t just in their hands. If the Patriots are to sneak in, they’ll need some help. All throughout this blowout, the ticker keeps flashing updates from the Kansas City/Miami game, which by all indications, appears to be a shootout. Tied as they go into the fourth at 31, this game is a surprise: have the Dolphins fallen back to Earth? They were six-point favourites over the Chiefs, a two-win team. And they’re tied? At 31? The Dolphins would score a major about halfway through, though, and held on to win, keeping the deadlock on top of the AFC East alive.

    So, as the Jets took the field in a snow-blown Seattle, they dropped to third, just a half-game back; the Dolphins surged to first, as they held the tiebreaker over the Patriots.

    And it couldn’t have looked good for the Jets. A cold, windy day is not ideal by any means, but for a quarterback like Brett Farve, it’s even worse: inaccurate at the best of times, these conditions have to be be hell for the aging QB. Still, a win over a two-win Seattle would set up one final game for the season, played between the Jets and the Dolphins, a game that would almost be a title game in all but name, with the winner going into the playoffs.

    But as the game – a mostly dull, defencive affair, dominated by the weather – winds down, I have only one question: does he have it in him? Does Brett Farve, who all but defined clutch quarterbacking in his career, have another comeback left in him?

    Down by a major and at their own 12, the Jets get the ball back. They need a win, just to keep pace, just to keep their season alive. Herein follows the drive:

    – Farve sacked. The pocket collapses up the middle.
    – A quick reception up the middle to Coles, in a pass from the Jets own end zone
    – Farve drops back in the shotgun, pumps, waits, moves, pumps again, has all kinds of time but can’t get anything going and throws an incomplete pass
    – 4th and four, on their own 20, the Jets go for it. Farve drops back, waits, dodges a hit, pump fakes, throws downfield, a long bomb into double coverage, Gus Johnson yells and… the pass hits Coles in the numbers, a perfectly thrown pass, but he can’t hang on and it falls to the ground, incomplete

    There goes the game, right? This is where it falls apart, isn’t it?

    Or was it earlier? When the Jets kicked a 45 yard FG that was called back on a false start, and instead of going for the kick, five yards longer but with a kicker who just nailed a kick up the middle, punts it away. Was it there, when the Jets could have made the game 10-6 but didn’t, that the game ended? Perhaps not officially… but in an abstract sense? Well…

    Maybe it was just a typical trap game. Holmgrin’s last home game as a head coach. Held in a stadium where the Seahawks are said to have an advantage (the crowd’s noise). With the weather in the Seahawks favor.

    Remember DeLillo’s advice on games held in poor weather.

    Other notes: The season can sometimes be cyclical – the Chargers host the Broncos next week, a rematch of the week two game that the Broncos just barely won on a blown whistle… The Cowboys are in complete free fall after a loss to the Ravens on Saturday night – a game they should have won. They can still sneak in (a win over Philly is all they need) but at this point, can they do it? If I had to bet, they get in and lose in the Wild Card game… Atlanta soundly wins a pivotal one against Minnesota. They’ve clinched a spot – and if Chicago loses on Monday, so do the Vikings.

    Broncos pull out a win with help – NFL Notebook

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    With the score 38-31 against them, and the clock under 90 seconds, the Broncos could see their game slip away.

    Quarterback Jay Cutler dropped back, rolled to his right and – horror of quarterback horrors – whiffed on the pass. He didn’t fumble the ball; it slipped out of his hands, fell to the ground and was scooped up by linebacker Tim Dobbins. The Chargers get the ball back, run out the clock, win the game.

    But wait – the referee, prematurely blew his whistle, which means the ball is dead at the Charger 10-yard line.

    It also means that Denver gets a second chance. It should have been a fumble, perhaps, but that’s how it sometimes goes.

    Two quick passes later, it’s a one-point game. And even more prematurely then the offical’s whistle, Dick Enberg yells the game is tied and headed to overtime. Both Jay Cutler and head coach Mike Shanahan disagreed and went for two. The Broncos nailed it, on a short pass to Eddie Royal, the same man who caught the touchdown.

    It’s a shame that this game will likely me better remembered for botched call then for San Diego’s comebacks from being down 21-3 early on – and 31-17 at the half.

    All in all, both quarterbacks were firing on all cylinders. Cutler passed for 350 yards and for four touchdowns; Phillip Rivers for 377 and three majors. However, LeDainian Tomlinson toe was a constant bother, and he only had ten rushes, just 26 yards.

    A great game, yes, but only the tip of the weekend’s matches. An overtime finish in Seattle. Aaron Rogers leads the Packers to his first comeback win. Matt Cassel wins his first pro start since high school. The Colts come back after looking dead in the water. An overall great weekend of matches.

    And as the afternoon comes to a close, it raises a series of questions: What happened to Detroit? Is Aaron Rogers better then Farve? And what teams are for real – and what teams are faking?

    Let’s go to Detroit first, where the Lions seem to be in self-destruct mode. At this point last season, the Lions were 2-0, Kitna had passed for 3 touchdowns and over 500 yards. Granted, they were on their way to a season where they finished 7-9, but at least they seemed like a good team at the time.

    Now, they seems like a team that can’t do anything right. Not only are they 0-2, but also they’ve already allowed 82 points firmly showing that they have the worst defence in the NFL thus far. Keep in mind, only one team has allowed over 70 points and none have scored more then Green Bay’s 72 (more on that later).

    This isn’t an area where they show many signs of improvement. Their defence is letting other teams dominate the clock – against Green Bay, for example, they gave up an eight-minute drive in the first quarter and had less then 25 minutes of their own.

    Looking at game charts on ESPN, the Lions offense seems to have a tendency to run plays out of the shotgun set, which to my mind speaks of a lack of faith in the offensive line. I suppose the 62 total rushing yards also does, too. Remember – you need a running game, and thusly a good offensive line, to control the clock. For a team to be successful in the NFL, they must control the clock.

    Granted, teams have been successful without one in the past. The Oilers of the early 1990s were one. Their Run-N-Gun offense emphasized the pass, thanks to the arm of quarterback Warren Moon. But they were a team who fell apart in the playoffs year after year: in 1991 to the Broncos, in 1992 to the Bills in a memorable collapse and finally in 1993 to the Kansas City Chiefs.

    So take from that what you will – you can get to the playoffs with passing, but that’s about all.

    On the other side of the game, the Packers are finding themselves in the best case scenario. Aaron Rogers, for all the talk that surrounded him, has played exceptionally well this year and is leading the team that could be the best in the conference.

    Granted, they haven’t beaten anybody of substance yet – just Minnesota and Detroit, two teams that missed the playoffs last year. The big game is next week, then they play Dallas in a game already scheduled in prime time. But right now, they are the favourites for their division. Rogers looks better then Farve did all last season, and has already had a monster, 300+ yard, three touchdown game against the Lions.

    It’s early – too early for me to make this call, really – but he’s looking like he can take the Packers to the playoffs. Granted, he’s in a weak division (Detroit is soft and I’m not sold on Chicago) so it’s not a really outlandish statement, but there you go.

    It’s early in the season, which means that time is ripe for trickery and fakery in the standings. The Giants and Cardinals are 2-0, while Seattle is winless.

    Of all these teams, the Giants are looking the most like a contender. Their defence, which has allowed just 20 points against so far, looks like the best in the NFC – even without Michael Strahan. Granted, they’ve played two fairly weak teams, the Rams and Redskins. And the bulk of the schedule is daunting: two games against Philadelphia and Dallas, an away game in Cleveland and an early bye week could all prove to be problems. But they’ve got a good opening slate, and could end up 4-0: next up for them are the freefalling Bengals and the collapsing Seahawks.

    Who are themselves in a state of flux. A heartbreaking loss at home to San Francisco, where they lead 14-3 after the first but couldn’t stop a newly-high powered Niner offence, is only the latest of their woes: Hasselbeck is battling a bad back; Julius Jones is struggling to fill the hole left by Shaun Alexander; a porous secondary that allowed nearly 300 yards of passing on Sunday.

    Even their vaunted home-field advantage wasn’t much help – maybe it rattled the Niners at then end of regulation, but it sure didn’t in overtime when Joe Nedney nailed his third kick of the day (he had missed only one) to win the game.

    This is new for the Seahawks, who have feasted on a weak division for the last several years. Their defence, which was seventh in the NFC last year in total yards, eighth in passing yards, and second in points allowed, feasted on the weak offences of San Franscisco and St. Louis. But this year, with Arizona and the Niners looking better then they have this decade, they’re slowing down – giving the Cards a chance to catch up.

    Which they finally should be doing. After a couple seasons as a trendy sleeper pick that never panned out, the Cards were an afterthought after the preseason, when Matt Lienart lost his starting job to an ancient Kurt Warner. But they’ve snuck up on unsuspecting teams – granted, two easy ones in San Franscico and Miami. But with Anquan Boldin set to build on a nine-touchdown, 850+ yard 2007 and Edgerrin James as a solid, grinding running back that can help them control the clock, they appear set to make a solid run. Finally.

    Of course, all of this is barring injuries.

    Written by M.

    September 15, 2008 at 10:35 pm