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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.

Dolphins swim past sinking Bills – NFL Notebook

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How did that Smashing Pumpkins song go? The end is the beginning of the end? Well, week 13 is the beginning of the end of the NFL season and is a good time to see when teams are for real and when an easy schedule has inflated them.

Anyway, I only watched two games this week, so here’s my take on them, plus a few notes on games I only saw highlights of.

Eagles/Giants:

For a team that’s supposed to be the best in the NFL, the Giants couldn’t get anything going against the Eagles. Early on it was all going their way – Eli was making passes and Eagles defence was playing loose, getting called for penalties.

But early on, two plays went bad for them. Opening drive: on a second and five the Giants tried to stir things up with a reverse, but lose 12 yards in the process. They made it a fourth and four after a nice quick pass to the side, but when Eli went for it, the team looked confused. An Eagles blitz threw off Eli’s timing and he dumped an incomplete pass.

The other came a bit later. Early in the second quarter, Manning tested the Eagles secondary, aired out a long pass for Hixon, hitting him in the numbers. But Hixon couldn’t haul it in.

Thing about this game was that the Giants couldn’t, didn’t take advantage of their chances. After that long bomb, Eli missed his next five of six and the Giants found themselves down 10-0.

It’s a cliché to call a low-scorer a defence battle, but that’s what this was: each defence blocked two field goals (the Giants scored their first major returning one of them) and neither QB got more then 200 yards passing. Manning was held to just 123 yards and a 48 per cent completion rate, both his lowest of the season.

On the other side, McNabb threw for more yards and completed more passes, but you can’t say he outplayed Eli by much: his 191 yards were the second lowest of the year and after his picking apart the Cards last week, he seems to have drifted back down to Earth.

But it was cold and windy in Jersey on Sunday and it reminded of an old line by Don DeLillo: when it’s bad weather, favour the underdog.

The Giants were eight point favorites. The Eagles won by six. They’re seven and five now and are still alive. Don’t count them out yet.

***
Miami / Buffalo

In the first regular season game to be played in Canada, fans paid through the nose, with about $183 Canadian the average price for a ticket. Expensive, yes.

Worth it? No.

What all of the paying fans saw was the Bills –and not even their hometown Bills, a neutral crowd if anything – look listless and flounder against their divisional rivals.

They saw a game with only one touchdown and one that resolved almost nothing in a crowded AFC East. The Bills, at 6-7, are done. Finished. The Dolphins are 8-5, tied with the Jets and Patriots.

Lost in this, though, was Pennington throwing a great game – nearly perfect at 23 of 29, for 181 yards and a major. Maybe it’s come to be expected of him, though: this was his fifth game where his QB rating was in triple digits and the fourth where he completed at least three-quarters of his passes.

It’s got something to do, I’m sure, with their receiving corps; yet their starters include Anthony Fasano and Devone Bess. Those who know not those names are forgiven. The more highly regarded Greg Cahey

Nonetheless, this match meant a lot less then it should have: the Bills who started off so hot, have fallen off the map. The Dolphins, who won only one game last year – in overtime, no less – could win 10 this year and could find themselves in the playoffs.

Not all of this is on Pennington, yes. But what a difference he has made from Trent Green, from Cleo Lemon and from John Beck. His sharp and accurate passing has made all the difference for the Dolphins.

****
Assorted notes:

Another week, another close game for the Texans. This time, though, they pulled one out, winning on a last second field goal over Green Bay. But don’t read too much into their stats: it was another time where the Texans couldn’t put it away and this time they got lucky. Matt Schaub shouldn’t throw for over 400 yards and only barely win…. The Falcons had their first major test of the year on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. How did they fare? Not badly; Matt Ryan threw for over 300 yards. And they kept in the game, which wobbled back and forth. It’s a loss, yes, and it could hurt them in a busy NFC South. But as far as losses go, it’s a good one: it showed the Falcons can keep pace with good teams playing for their season. … I know it’s late to the party, but this years Lions team is maybe the worst I’ve ever seen. Last year the Dolphins almost went 0-16, but a few breaks here and there, they could have been a three, four game winning team. That’s not even close to the case with the Lions.

Written by M.

December 9, 2008 at 2:32 am

Attack of the moderately-effective Quarterbacks – Tuesday NFL Notebook

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Jason Elam, the hero, had a day to remember. Five of six, including the game-winner from 48 yards out with no time left.

Shouldn’t have gotten that close, though. The Bears should have had that game wrapped up. The Falcons should have, too. Let me explain.

For all of its offensive heroics, the Falcons and Bears played one of the sloppiest games I’ve seen in some time on Sunday. Elam missed a chip shot that could have sealed it; Orton couldn’t score from the Atlanta 14 and they had to settle for a field goal. Both quarterbacks threw for about 300 yards, but each for only one score.

Plus the squib kick. Oh man, that squib. Worst case it costs you the game. Best case it… well, I guess it runs out the clock, but still gives the other team good field position.

And the Bears most definitely got the worst case scenario. The Falcons got the ball at their own 44, got a quick 26 yard pass in and won the game. All within six seconds.

And again, it’s something that shouldn’t have happened – the Bears shouldn’t have had so much time left on the clock, ideally. Their last drive was all passes, eight of them from the shotgun. I understand, they only had one timeout left. But you can afford to let a little time run off the clock, especially on a 3rd and 10 with under 25 seconds remaining.

Anyway. An ugly win for the Falcons, who are now four and two in a tough NFC South: Tampa Bay and Carolina have the same record, with a better point differential, and New Orleans is right behind them (more on them in a second).

They’re a team that’s succeeding because of a lack of pressure. After what the team has gone through in the past two seasons, simply going .500 would surely be a good thing. But they might yet surprise some people.

Their schedule isn’t terribly tough, with games against Philly, Oakland and St. Louis. Granted, their in-division schedule looks tough (they’ve lost two of those games already, their only losses so far), but even then, a 9-7 record doesn’t look too far out of reach – wins against the Rams, Raiders, and Eagles all seem probable and I’d be surprised if they lose all of their divisional home dates.

But in the NFC South, this might not be enough. Tampa Bay and Carolina are hot and look to complete for the division. New Orleans is good too – each of their losses is by less then a touchdown and Brees is throwing over 300 yards a game. Forget the NFC East, this is the division to watch.

That’s right, forget the NFC East. It’s a slugfest, sure (holy hell, am I going heavy with the metaphors or what). But it’s getting a little clearer. The Cowboys have lost Tony Romo for four weeks with a broken finger (doesn’t pinkie sound too informal for an injury report?) and a tough overtime loss to Arizona, their second in three games. So much for their 3-0 start. Thankfully, it comes at about as good a time as it could for the Cowboys – they face St. Louis next week and should quickly find a rhythm with their new QB in time for Tampa Bay the week after.

So it doesn’t look like they’ll miss Romo all that much. There are whispers out there that paint him as the most overrated member of the team, ahead of even Adam Jones. Is it fair to cite him for two consecutive playoff losses? Perhaps. If Dallas flails here, though, it’s more then fair to blame his absence.

Over in the AFC, the Dolphins are flipping the bird (flipper?) to the haters. they’re 2-3, but that’ll correct itself soon enough; their point differential is better then New England’s and they’ve allowed the points in the division. Forget their loss to the Texans, it was almost a fluke.

Look at the numbers instead: 19 of 25, for 284 yards. Only one turnover. There are some other, uglier numbers. Four penalties; 485 total yards allowed; a five-minute difference in time of possession. To me, this speaks of a good offence, but a bad defence – the Dolphins can score, but they kept the Texans in the game, and it bit them in the ass.

But there are some positives to take from this. Pennington has been improving each game, finding targets all over the field. They have a stable of receivers that aren’t great, but are more then capable. They have a solid running game. Five of their next six are at home. They should be posed to strike and make a run at the AFC East… but not unless they improve their defence.

Against the rush, they’re an okay team, in the top third of the league even. It’s their secondary that’s killing them: on a per-game level, you could make a case they have the worst pass defence in the NFL. Worse then Oakland and Seattle. Not much better then Detroit.

In a pass-happy division (three of the four teams are in the top half for passing yards) this can and will hurt them. Perhaps it’s why they’ve gotten the breaks they have. Still, you have got to give them a puncher’s chance – New England is going to sink in the next couple weeks, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Jets fall below the Dolphins.

Other notes: How about those New York Titans throwbacks? The Jets keep wearing them and they seem to keep winning in them: they’re 3-0 in them. The Titans themselves? They went .500 wearing them in 1960. … I was told it was a thrilling finish in Minnesota. The line score suggests it was exciting – a one point game decided at the end. Looking at the box score and the highlights, though, paint a picture of a dreadfully dull affair that picked up late in the fourth, and even then not really. Can’t the Lions do anything, including drama, right? … The Torry Holt era may be drawing to a close in St. Louis – held to 23 yards, Holt is effective mostly as a decoy now, as he draws at least a double team each game. Too bad that doesn’t count for my fantasy team.

Written by M.

October 14, 2008 at 3:37 am

Why the AFC East is upside-down – Tuesday NFL Notebook

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Call me crazy, but from here it looks like the best team in the AFC East are the Miami Dolphins.

Sure, easy enough to say after a huge – slaughter is not too strong a word – win over New England. Easy enough to say after Ronnie Brown’s five touchdown game. And it is easy to say it, too.

Because their already tepid schedule just got a whole lot easier.

The Dolphins’ schedule is by no means completely lame – they play the suddenly surging Chargers in week five and the Broncos in week nine – but it has a few easy games: The Rams in week 13; The Texans in week six; Kansas City in week 16.

For a team that suddenly looks like it’s found it’s rhythm, those games could be huge.

Down the stretch, let’s say that Maimi has managed to keep pace with whomever is in the lead – most likely New England, or perhaps the Bills. Thanks to their early-season win over a division rival, they’ll almost have a half-step towards a playoff spot.

By beating New England like that, the Dolphins have made a statement to the other teams. They’re not the hapless fins of a year ago. Chad Pennington is throwing the ball well, Ronnie Brown is running (for now) exceptionally well – ending any controversy for who should be their featured back – and their defence, 28th in the league last year, held one of the great receiving corps to just over 150 yards and a single major.

It’s a statement. The Dolphins are back. And in a mess of an AFC East, they could just end up on top.

Speaking of the AFC East, how about those Bills?

Undefeated yes. But overrated?

Sure, they have yet to lose a game. They sit on top of their division – in wins, in points, in total yards, in defence, etc, etc. The rest of the teams in the AFC East are far, far back of them.

But I’m not sure if they’re as good as they seem so far.

For three quarters, they were outplayed by the Raiders. Their running game wasn’t getting them anywhere, and Jamarcus Russell, who looked competent in stretches, picked their pass defence apart.

Okay, that’s a lie. He was overthrowing, wildly throwing, throwing it away for most of the afternoon.

But still, the Raiders were the ones getting downfield – the Bills punted their first four possessions. Remember, going into this game the Bills were eight point favourites. But the Bills only won with a late-game rally, scoring on their last three possessions.

This is nothing new for the Bills, who had a similar comeback the week before against Jacksonville, with a 10-point fourth quarter.

This marks two comebacks for the Bills. The Bills! Remember the old line, “nobody circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills”? Remember their history of faltering late in games?

To some extent, I’m willing to say they’ve turned a new leaf. Their point-differential is the best in the AFC East (the only positive one, at that). They’ve scored 78 points, third in their conference. And they have an easy schedule, to boot.

Normally, perhaps, they’d be a sleeper team. But in the AFC East, which is so messed up right now (I know I’ve already said that, but bear with me here), they’re hidden no more. They’re marked as one of, perhaps the, team to beat in the AFC. And of the teams to beat, they look like the most beatable.

Finally, the Chargers look like a powerhouse.

They decimated, chrewed up, ran up the score on the New York Jets, in what was admittedly a pretty uneventful game.

The Jets fell behind early and spent most of the game in catchup mode, going for fourth downs, going to two-point conversions and trying the inside kicks.

Naturally, these never seemed to work as often as Greg Esterbrook loves to say they would, but that’s life for you. Sure, you may get only a few yards each play – and need less then those on a fourth down – but not every play will work.

But enough of that.

The Chargers were the story Monday night. They roared back to life, thanks to a two-touchdown night from LT (who only had 60 yards – and an average carry of less then three). They intercepted three passes, even running one back for a touchdown early in the second quarter.

After a bad loss the week before, when Denver pulled out a tough one (with a little help from an errant whistle), this was the kind of win they needed. One where they power over their opponent – one that seemed kind of good, too. The kind of win that can mark a change in the way season is going.

One writer said after the game that if the Chargers make the playoffs, thanks should go to that referee. Perhaps. I’d mark the season change to Antonio Cromartie’s interception-return touchdown as the turning point, though – it gave San Diego a 10-point lead, and seemed to wake up the team. By the end of that half, the Chargers had a 31-14 lead and were firmly in control of the game.

It’ll be neat to see if they can keep that momentum going next week.

Written by M.

September 23, 2008 at 6:23 pm