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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

These NFL WIld Card Weekend Picks are Superbad

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

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

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

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

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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