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Posts Tagged ‘NFL Notebook

Wild Card Weekend Thoughts

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Seattle over New Orleans

I said: New Orleans

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

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

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

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

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

NY Jets over Indianapolis Colts

I said: Indianapolis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Baltimore Ravens over Kansas City Chiefs

I said: Baltimore

The one game I got correct this weekend.

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

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

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

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

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

Green Bay Packers over Philadelphia Eagles

I said: Philadelphia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vick, America and image – NFL Notebook, week three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

Written by M.

September 29, 2010 at 2:12 am

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.

Early NFL Playoff Picks

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So, it’s week 16 now. The NFL is pretty much set, but not 100%. So, here are some pretty much blind (only a look at the standings and schedule) pick of the playoff teams.

AFC playoff teams – New England (East), Pittsburgh (North), Tennessee (South), Denver (West), Baltimore (Wild Card), Indianapolis (Wild Card)

After nearly losing a home game to the Bills, the Jets are looking shaky. And with a tough end to their schedule, a home game to the Dolphins, I don’t know if they can pull it out. It feels too much like their season will come down to that game. But the Patriots are looking better as the season goes on, and they have a tepid schedule – a home game against Arizona and an away game in Buffalo. I like their odds more then I like the Jets.

Denver’s lead over San Diego seems to be enough for me, especially after the Chargers nearly lost to Kansas City. Even if the Broncos somehow let them back into the race, they’ll meet on the last day of the season, and they beat the Chargers once already.

Given the AFC East’s tightness, I don’t think any team will have a good enough record to emerge for the Wild Card since Indianapolis already has 10 wins. That leaves Baltimore as the other Wild Card, but they have a tough schedule – Dallas and Jacksonville. It’ll either be them or the Jets, but think the Ravens defence will carry them to the playoffs.

Pittsburgh and Tennessee have already clinched.

NFC playoff teams – New York Giants (East), Chicago (North), Carolina (South), Arizona, (West), Dallas (Wild Card), Atlanta (Wild Card)

Why Chicago? Minnesota has won four in a row, but I still don’t trust them. They play Atlanta, who seem to still be coming on, and the Giants, who are looking great so far. However, the Bears have an easier schedule: Green Bay and Houston. I like them to win the North by a game.

Carolina has a two-game lead in the NFC South, and although they haven’t clinched, they would need to drop their next two (Giants and Saints) and have either Tampa Bay or Atlanta win their next two, just to force a tie break. So, I like their odds.

Dallas is coming on strong as the season progresses, but their locker room drama could scuttle their season. They have two tough games coming up (Baltimore and Philly). I expect they’ll win at least one of those and sneak into the playoffs with a 10-6 record, just beating out Minnesota.

Atlanta is a sentimental pick. I like Matt Ryan and they have an easy schedule: Minnesota and St. Louis. If they beat the Vikings, I like them to make the playoffs. If they lose that, though, they’re finished, and Minnesota might even win the NFC North, pushing the Bears to the other Wild Card (or even Tampa Bay, if they can stop their free fall).

I suppose that makes Atlanta / Minnesota the game to watch next week. The NFC playoff picture kind of hinges on it. Still, I’m taking the Falcons. Their offense is looking dynamic and they’ve just come off a gutty win over the Buccaneers.

Written by M.

December 16, 2008 at 8:47 pm