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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.

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

    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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    Getting back on the NFL wagon – Week five picks

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    Again, I kind of fell off the wagon. I didn’t watch much football last week, only the Denver/Dallas game and a little tiny bit of the Sunday nighter.

    I’m kind of a busy guy, one who has to work on Sundays, usually in the afternoon. It sucks, but I’m not going to bitch about it. Especially when I made out pretty good on my picks last week.

    Of my marquee picks, the ones I separated and put up top, I nailed one of three. And I was wildly off one, when I said Oakland would upset Houston. I stand by that and feel that if Oakland had any other quarterback in the NFL (including practice roster players) they might have won… but I’ll own up to being off there.

    I did correctly call Denver beating Dallas and was right in that to even have a chance, Romo would have to air the ball out (he did, throwing for over 200 yards).  And while I was off on Baltimore, they did test the Patriots: it was a close match where Brady worked some magic.

    But as Jerry Brown once said, that was then and this is now. Let’s get to it.

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    Written by M.

    October 9, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    Maybe I’m crazy but… NFL Week Four Picks

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    To paraphrase the great Rakim, it’s been a long time and I shouldn’t have left you without strong picks to look to.

    It has been a while since I made any NFL picks or watched a complete game even. Life kind of gets in the way and etc and so forth, so I’ll skip the details and just confess that it’s already week four and I still haven’t watched a full NFL game on Sunday yet.

    And so, I didn’t make any picks. I felt that jumping in with reckless abandon was an awful idea (I’m pretty sure it was covered in a Worst Case Scenario book). But things have changed.

    I’ve done some homework, I’ve looked at some stats and I even read an entire Gregg Easterbrook column. I’m ready to make more fearless picks – after the jump.

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    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.

    NFL Notebook, Week 15 – Was it a miracle in the Meadowlands?

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    The AFC East has been, without a doubt, the best division in football this year, perhaps this decade. For most of the season, all four teams were thick in the race, although on Sunday one was officially eliminated.

    The New York Jets, led by a resurgent Brett Farve, needed a win on Sunday about as much as they ever had, as there was a three-way tie for first between them, the New England Patriots and the Miami Dolphins.

    And with the Patriots playing a limp Oakland team and Miami playing an underwhelming San Francisco 49ers, the Jets really needed a win, just to keep pace.

    They got it, but just barely.

    Before we get to that, we should look at their opening drive. Football played to it’s finest by the men in green. A quick pass to the sideline, for a first down. Draw runs up the middle, for gains of four or five. Farve’s passing was crisp and sharp and opened up the secondary early on, giving Leon Washington and Thomas Jones space to run.

    Their opening drive was 72 yards in just over three minutes. Their second drive was 70 yards in eight plays, taking only four minutes. Before the first ended, before Buffalo knew what hit them, it was 14-3.

    Which isn’t to say the Bills were limp, either. In between those two scores, Buffalo ate up the clock on a four minute drive of their own, getting a field goal.

    What does that mean? Simple: a first quarter without a punt, without a turnover. Both sides were playing for their playoff lives – if Buffalo lost, they were officially out of the playoffs. Thusly, they played like their season depended on it: two quick majors in the second and they led 17-14, before the Jets retook the lead on a Leon Washington score late in the half.

    So, early indications were for a shootout, the kind of game the Jets are suited for: they have a better quarterback and more weapons downfield to throw to then the Bills.

    But throughout the second half, both defences settled down, and the match got quieter for most of the half. After starting the game five-for-seven, Farve would finish .

    So in a game where the defence clamped down, it seems fitting that it would win the game: with the Bills leading 27-24, JP Losman dropped back to pass on a second and five, was sacked at his own 16, fumbled, with the ball falling into the hands of Ellis, who ran it home for the game-winning major.

    Not exactly how you plan to beat a six win team, sure, but the Jets will take what they can: both the Patriots and Dolphins won too: nothing was really settled in the AFC East, at least not yet. Had Losman held on the ball, the Jets season could well have ended.

    Still, the Jets showed they are a sharp team, at least sometimes. They can stretch a decent defence thin early on and get on the board quickly: come playoff time, that will count.

    But their defence was, for most of the game, subpar. Against a lackluster Buffalo team, who started a backup quartberback, they had a hell of a time stopping the run. While Losman was picked off three times, none of those came in the first half, when the Bills scored two majors in the second – one on a Losman pass, the other on a Losman scramble. That doesn’t bode well for their playoff hopes.

    In two weeks, the Jets are at home against the Dolphins. Already it looks like their season is all but leading to that match. If they want to stop the vaunted Wildcat offense, they’ll need to stop the Dolphins early and often, which they didn’t do on Sunday. And it nearly cost them their season.

    Later on Sunday, the Baltimore Raven / Pittsburgh Steelers rivalry flared up again, this time with the AFC North on the line.

    Two fairly evenly matched teams, their previous game went to overtime, when the Steelers won 23-20. That was week three, though. When the Browns were still a team to beat. Before the division came down to the Ravens and the Steelers.

    Needless to say, with two of the best defences in the game, this was bound to be a tough, physical game – if you’ll excuse the cliché, smashmouth football.

    The Ravens spend most of the game stacking their defensive line, with five or six men right at the line of scrimmage. Granted, they usually went with a three-man rush, but this pressure hurt Pittsburgh’s offence. Their running game was going nowhere fast and Ben Roethlisberger was hurrying his passes. As it was, Big Ben was sharp and accurate, if his timing was a little off.

    He would finish with over 200 yards and was 22 of 40 – but had it not been a few drops here and there, for a few jarring hits that dislodged balls, it’s likely he could have completed 25, even 30 passes. Against a great defence, then, Big Ben raised his game – when the Ravens blitzed, Ben answered with a quick outlet pass into the holes the linebackers left.

    But on the other side, Ravens QB Joe Flacco was also under pressure. His line gave him great protection and all but shut down the Steelers James Harrison, who had been averaging a sack a game – and had two and a half when he last played the Ravens.

    But the Steelers secondary had him over a barrel. Flacco was having a hard time completing passes, especially in the red zone, and the Ravens never once got into the end zone, kicking three field goals from less then 30 yards out.

    This isn’t to say that the Steelers clearly outplayed the Ravens. They had no luck in close either, and their two field goals were from about the same distance. Instead, the Steelers needed a little help to win: two controversial calls helped buoy them to victory.

    One was for a first down that kept a scoring drive alive: despite never appearing to cross the first down line, officials on the field gave the Steelers a first down. And when challenged, the call was upheld.

    The other was for a touchdown. When Santonio Holmes scored the game winning TD, he made a catch at about the goal line, his feet behind it but the ball obstinately in front. But an official review gave the Steelers a touchdown; Holmes had possession with the ball breaking the plane.

    By getting this tough win, the Steelers look as good as anybody going into the playoffs. This was, more or less, a playoff game in all but name, and the Steelers played great, with a final drive for the ages. This win has to make them preemptive favourites for the AFC title game; if they can beat this Ravens team on the road, they’ll likely to beat whomever they face when they play at home in the playoffs.

    Other notes: The Jets had the toughest win in the AFC East, but the other two had wins of their own. The Patriots are still as good as ever, as Cassell seems to be growing into his role as starting QB. The Patriots win over Oakland was nowhere near as close as the 49-26 score shows. Should the Jets flounder, don’t be surprised to see the Patriots make a run for the title game… By beating Tampa Bay in overtime, the Falcons kept their playoff hopes alive, and helped the NFC South leading Carolina Panther. Tampa has dropped two of their last three and looks to be falling back to Earth fast: those two losses were to division rivals. And the Panthers have a two game lead over both the Falcons and Bucs… Houston’s stunning win over the Tennessee Titans wasn’t really all that stunning of a game – one touchdown, neither team having 400 total yards, and neither offense looked as dynamic as they had all season. But with the division already wrapped up, I wouldn’t take too much away from the Titans losing.

    Written by M.

    December 15, 2008 at 9:04 pm