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Of Saints and Giants – NFL Picks, week six

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We’re getting pretty deep into the season and already some truths are making themselves evident:

  • Buffalo is mess
  • Tennessee and Tampa Bay are disasters
  • St. Louis and Oakland are interchangeable with a squad of goons from The Road Warrior

Personally, I’m starting to think this is one of those seasons where the winners and losers are separating early, with a wide gap. The kind of year where by week 13 everybody will have a good idea of the playoff picture.

Last week, I went in-depth on two games, and I was right on both of them. Atlanta made Swiss cheese out of the Niners secondary and Cincinnati pulled another late win out over Baltimore. I had a pretty good week, actually – Denver and Cleveland both won in close games.

But it was also an easy week to make picks – a lot of good teams played a lot of bad teams.

Whatever, I’ll take it. Here’s my week six picks.

Cincinnati Bengals over Houston Texans

This game intrigues me. Houston is, as always, a floundering team that’s disappointing. They give up a lot of yards and they pick up a bunch too. They’re third in the AFC in points scored, but only four other AFC teams have allowed more points. If Houston, especially early in the season, makes me think of anything, it’s of a team that’s going to get scored on a lot, if going to score a lot and is, more often then not, a lot of fun to watch.

And that’s why I think they’ll match up so well against Cincinnati.

The Bengals are a team that’s winning a lot of games they shouldn’t, getting a lot of last-minute scores. They’re also a lot of fun to watch, and will be especially be a lot of fun on Sunday.

Why? Because of how they match up against the Texans, both offensively and defensively.

This game is basically a meeting between a team that can run but has problems against the pass meeting a team that can pass but has trouble defending the run. I like the odds of this game being a shootout. And with the Bengals are home, I’m taking them to win.

New Orleans Saints over New York Giants

Don’t look now, but the Saints are undefeated. They’re scoring 36 points a game, highest in the NFL, and have scored more points in four games then most teams have scored in five. Saints QB Drew Brees is having a great season and his 108.4 QB rating is fourth in the league.

And not lost in this shuffle is their defence, which is quietly putting up great numbers: fourth in the NFL against the pass,  second against the rush and seventh in points allowed. Surely, some of this comes from an easy schedule: they’ve played both Buffalo and Detroit this season. But they’ve also beaten Philadelphia and the Jets, too, neither of which is an easy win.

But as they take on the Giants at home this weekend, they’re facing a pretty large test to stay undefeated.

The Giants are pretty much the class of the NFC. They’re 5-0 and rolling. QB Eli Manning is having a great year, ranking just higher then Brees in almost every stat. And losing Plaxico hasn’t even slowed down the Giants, either. Steve Smith has had a great season while Mario Manningham isn’t far behind, either.

But can their offence stand up to the Saints’ D? Their toughest test so far might have been Washington in week one, a 23-17 win where Manning threw for 256 yards against an underrated secondary. But there, they also were able to rush the ball, too.

It’ll be interesting to see how they handle the Saints and I suspect they’ll have a hard time with it. After all, this is a game that means a lot more to New Orleans then it does New York.

A win for the Saints here would cement them as a contender in the NFC and push them solidly on top of the NFC South. A Giants win only reinforces what everybody already assumes about them – they’re a great team and good pick to go deep in the playoffs.

With that in mind, I’m going to take New Orleans.  I think it’s their game to lose.

Other games:

  • Green Bay over Detroit – No way Detroit come even close here
  • Baltimore over Minnesota – I like Baltimore on the road, in a dome
  • Jacksonville over St. Louis – The Rams are really awful. Jacksonville is just kind of bad.
  • Pittsburgh over Cleveland – The Browns looked awful against Buffalo and if they can’t do it there, they won’t get it done in Pittsburgh
  • Tampa Bay over Carolina – Call it a gut feeling, but I think the 0-5 Bucs might pull one out against the 1-3 Panthers.
  • Washington over Kansas City – Neither team is really as bad as they look. The Chiefs don’t beat themselves and can air the ball out. And if there’s one thing the Skins can do, it’s defend the pass.
  • Philadelphia over Oakland – in a blowout, too.
  • Seattle over Arizona – Seattle’s looked good in their last couple games and I like them here.
  • New England over Tennessee – of course. The Titans are reeling like a loose cannon on a clipper ship.
  • NY Jets over Buffalo – I can’t get behind the Bills at all. They just can’t compete.
  • Atlanta over Chicago – The Falcons are decent and need a win to keep pace against the Saints. The Bears are good, too, but I’m going with a gut feeling.
  • San Deigo over Denver – Again, a gut feeling. I just feel like the Chargers need this win more then the Broncos, plus they’re at home.

Last week: 12-2

Overall: 20-9

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Written by M.

October 16, 2009 at 4:07 pm

2008 recap, part one – Tyree’s catch

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In a year most likely to be remembered for losses – on the stock market, of a home, etc – sports were not immune. And if anything, this year will be remembered for one big one, when the New England Patriots lost the Super Bowl after a 16-0 regular season.

There were favourites going into the game, and early talk of a New York upset was taken lightly. The Giants had just squeaked into the playoffs and won close games against Dallas and Green Bay – the latter in overtime. Then Giants wideout Plaxico Burress predicted not only a Giants win, but a low scoring game (24-17), it was treated as joke. Tom Brady, for one, wondered why the Patriots weren’t spotted more points.

Vegas was spotting them more than a few points. On February first, the Patriots were 12 point favourites in some quarters. The money line on the Giants was a huge +325. And the over/under was 54 points. All indications were for a high scoring game – Tom Brady and Randy Moss had set scoring records throughout the season, as Brady finally had an elite receiver to throw to.

And through the playoffs – even the season itself – the Patriots were a juggernaut. They had not lost a game all season and only four of their wins were by less than a touchdown. They outscored everybody in the NFL by over 100 points and had the second best defence in the AFC (Indianapolis narrowly edged them out).

But Plaxico wasn’t that far off. The Giants won the game, 17 – 14, in what was one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history. Overlooked, perhaps, was the week 17 game between the two teams, when the Patriots roared back from a 12 point deficit to win 38-35. There, the Giants showed that the Patriots were not an invincible team, one that could be beaten.

Using their defence to keep Moss and the Patriots running game at bay, the Giants were able to score early and led by a field goal after one. The Patriots answered back in the second and took the lead on a major early in the second quarter. The Giants had a chance to score later in the frame – a 3rd and four at New England’s 25 yard line – but nothing came of it.

After a scoreless third, the Giants had the ball on their own 20 yard line. Eli Manning, playing the game of his life, led an 80 yard drive that was capped with a short touchdown pass to David Tryee. 10-7 Giants.

But the Patriots weren’t out yet. Two series later, New England started a drive from their own 20 yard line. Making short, quick passes, Brady moved the Patriots downfield and wound down the clock. When the Patriots made it 14-10, there was just under three minutes to play. It was a script seemingly pulled from the other Patriot Super Bowl wins, when a late drive was what won.

And it was a late drive that won it. Starting at their 17, Eli Manning did almost nothing but throw the ball, challenging the Patriots secondary. It was halfway through this, on a third and five, that the most memorable moment of the game – and in retrospect, the year – happened.

Dropping back and under pressure, Manning was scrambling. Hands grabbed at him, pulling his jersey. A sack here, at midfield, this late in the game would be disastrous. But he dodged them and threw the ball up the middle, to a well-covered David Tyree.

The pass, given the circumstances (defence in his face, clock ticking down, the Super Bowl on the line), was well aimed; Tyree didn’t have to dive at it. But it was overthrown, sailing around Tyree’s head. Which was where he caught it. With one hand. While jumping.

Catching the ball and holding it against his helmet, pressing it there while he landed, Tyree moved the ball up, deep into Patriot territory, inside the 25 yard line. One of the best catches in football history, and perhaps the biggest since Jeffrey Mayer’s, this was the moment that’s engrained into memories about this Super Bowl.

But it was not a score, and the Giants would not score until later. Not until after Steve Smith made an 11 yard catch to keep the drive alive. Not until Plaxico Buress scored the game winner with :39 to play.

Three incomplete passes and one sack later, the game was over. 17-14 Giants. The upset was complete – and the Patriots dynasty looked in doubt. In the first game of the next season, Brady went down with an ACL injury and was gone for the year. Under backup QB Matt Cassell, the Patriots finished 11-5 but lost the division to Miami and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

Written by M.

December 30, 2008 at 11:59 pm

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

Quoth the Ravens? – Weekly NFL Notebook

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Forgive the cliche, but these Baltimore Ravens, they’re a weird team and they’ve got me all muddled up. First time all season I’ve seen them play and they disappoint, albeit against one of the best teams in the NFC, the Giants.

The phoneme rookie Joe Flacco, who was perfect for a stretch these past few weeks, came fast and sudden back to Earth, throwing two picks (one returned for a touchdown) while the vaunted Raven defence looked old and decrepit against the continual running attack of the Giants.

Take that 77 yard rush by Ahmad Bradshaw against at the start of the fourth: Lewis over-attacked his man and was woefully out of position. Bradshaw got a nice block and boom, hit a seam (or daylight, or whatever cliche you like most) and it was damn close to a touchdown.

So what happened to the Ravens defence? Up until that game, they were good against the run… but they couldn’t make stops. The Giants line was carving into them, opening holes for both Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. Their linebacking corps was thusly overworked – sometimes it looked as if they didn’t know what to do. They bit early and found themselves attacking the line earlier.

Which helped him had a solid passing day (13 of 23, for 153 yards, one TD and one INT), but remember – it was the rushing that decided this game. It gave the Giants an early lead, helped them keep the Ravens off the field and was the major reason they won.

Where do they go from here? Down, way down. They’re six and four, but a bad six and four. They’ve already gotten to beat up on helpless teams like Cleveland, Cincinnati, Oakland and Houston. To my eyes, their only solid win was over Miami, back in October. One gets the idea that maybe they’ve already peaked as a team.

We’ll soon find out if they’re wheat of chaff, for here comes the hard part of their schedule: Philly, Pittsburgh, Dallas and Jacksonville. Four teams they’ll be hard pressed to beat. It’s likely they’ll still finish second in the North, but it’s unlikely they’ll make the playoffs.

*****

Once again, Houston and Indianapolis had a wild shootout affair. And just like last time, it ended with a Houston miscue.

For reasons what I don’t quite grasp, bottom-of-the-barrel Houston always comes out swinging against the Colts. In a game where defence meant almost nothing for the majority of the game, both teams racked up yardage and points: Houston had over 350 total yards and Indianapolis had 474 yards, with Payton Manning throwing for 320 of them.

Think about that: 320 passing yards. That’s more then Oakland, Chicago or Cincinnati managed all day. That’s a monster day, yet he only had two majors. One might think that he would have had more scores… but one would be wrong. You don’t get that many yards without a strong running game, one that makes the linebackers cheat up and plug holes. And Joesph Addai’s line for today (105 yards, one TD) reflects this.

Houston, on the other hand, had a more balanced game: 177 on the ground, 179 in the air. And although Rosenfels had a quiet day, he played well – except for his last drive. He completed 70% of his passes and helped engineer a good game for the Texans: they were outplayed on the other side of the ball by a wide, wide margin (nearly a ten minute difference in time of possession, for example) yet they were in the game right until the end.

But the end was the same as last time, although not quite as heartbreaking for Texan fans. Rosenfels was picked off, for the first time in the game, with just 38 seconds on the clock. But other then that, it was a good drive – quick outlet passes, moving the chains, not eating a lot of time of the clock.

All in all, it was fun game to watch. I like the Texans; they’re a lot better then they get credit for. At least sometimes, anyway. In a year or two they could be a team to watch. And the Colts look like they’re back. Forget the Titans being undefeated, the Colts have a good shot at the division in my books.

*****

A tough, physical game in Pittsburgh came to an odd close, with the league’s first 10-11 score. Pittsburgh looked good throughout, and the final score doesn’t reflect how well they did actually play.

It’s odd. With a low score, it’s easy to think this was a defensive battle. But it really wasn’t. It was a slogging kind of game, one where both teams went on long marches.

Ben Roethlisberger looked great for the first half, at one point throwing for something like 10 of 11. He finished the game with 31 completions and 308 yards.

But yet, their passing game was lacking: he didn’t throw for a major and was under constant pressure: he was sacked four times. The majority of his completions went to (no surprise) Hines Ward, who finished with 11 catches and 124 yards.

One might think that when the Steelers dominated so much that they’d have won easily. But it was a weird game: Pittsburgh was able to move around the field with ease, but didn’t get into the end zone all game, unless you count an early safety.

No, it was San Deigo, who despite having half the yards the Steelers did, a six minute difference in time of possession and a lousy game from Phillip Rivers (15 of 26, 159 yards and two INT) led for most of the game and led late.

It was all about LT on this snowy, ugly day in Pittsburgh. He scored the lone touchdown of the day, a three yard score up the middle, and it was the most important score of the day. LT spent a good chuck of the match pounding the ball up the middle, never for much, getting chunks of turf stuck to his helmet.

This was latest in a string of odd games for the Chargers, who seem to be getting more then their share of bad breaks this season. That missed call against Denver; a heartbreaking comeback by Carolina in week one; that surprising Miami upset, when the Dolphins broke out everything in the playbook.

The Chargers are now four and six, second in the AFC West. That’s two wins behind both Denver and anybody likely to win the wild card. But don’t count them out: they’ve only lost one game at home thus far – and four of their next six are at home. They can still bounce back.

*****

Other Notes: After jumping to the Cincinnati/Philadelphia game, Fox cut away again from an overtime game. When will the NFL realize that cutting to a close game, then cutting away as per some anarchic rules, doesn’t serve make any sense? What’s the point of going to going to it, getting the viewer invested in it, then leaving them hanging? I suppose there’s the bonus aspect of it – but wouldn’t going to an extended postgame show serve the viewer just as well? … The Seahawks didn’t play well, but they certainly took advantage of their chances: they scored three touchdowns on drives of less then 20 yards … Somebody on the Raiders has to, absolutely has to show Jamarcus Russell how to manage a game. The Raiders last drive, where Russell hung around and watched time tick away was maybe the worst clock management I’ve seen this year. If the Raiders want him to pan out, they should really look to finding him a mentor, since he doesn’t seem to be learning on the job… Can the Titans go undefeated? Who knows – their rushing game is looking atrophied, but their passing game is dynamic. Just when one thinks they’ve got them figured out (a clock controlling team that outsmarts you), they shift gears and become some other beast entirely. If I had to bet, though, they’ll lose two of their last three, when they let Collins rest up for the playoffs.

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