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Posts Tagged ‘Pittsburgh Steelers

Feet Puns of the World Unite – Divisional Playoff Weekend

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Some loose, disconnected thoughts on each of the weekend’s NFL playoff games.

Pittsburgh Steelers over Baltimore Ravens

I’m glad I got home late on Saturday and missed the first half of this one, since it looked ugly. The main clip I saw of the first half was this bizzare fumble where everybody thought the ball was dead until somebody picked it up and ran it into the end zone. Shades of that Monday night game from a few years ago, where somebody (A Packer, I think) made a similar play – he was down, but nobody touched him, so he got up and ran the ball for a score or something and now, in every practice, coaches drill touching into players head with a variety of hot irons, backwards messages and a lot of screaming.

And when I tuned in, the Steelers were down big. It wasn’t a total surprise (thank god for The Score’s mobile phone app, which kept me somewhat in touch with the game). On the whole, it seemed like the Steelers brought both sides of their game to the table: their offensive line was not good early on, and while they did improve later, I still feel iffy about them and especially in their protection of Roethlisberger, who was getting nailed harder than even he’d find appropriate on a first date.

It wasn’t an especially convincing win, I thought, but the Steelers came out in the end. Yes, there was a tremendous comeback by the Steelers, but there was a big collapse by the Ravens offence. Their lead was built on turnovers and making the most of what they were given and they blew it by playing  just okay. Flacco is taking, and will continue to take, a lot of grief, but I’m not completely holding him to blame – he was under a lot of defensive pressure on  Saturday and did deliver some tight passes: one to TJ Houshmandzadeh and another to Anquan Boldin, both of which were dropped – Boldin’s cost them a touchdown and Housh’s killed a fourth-quarter rally. There was a punt-return touchdown, called back on a penalty and eventually turned into a field goal.

You know how in Techmo Bowl, turnovers seem to even out? If you get a fumble early, it’s almost certain you’ll fumble or get picked off later? I know it sounds Simmons-y, but that’s what I was thinking when Flacco fumbled in the third. I think that example held up throughout the game. The Steelers played odd in the first half and the Ravens looked odder in the second. Part of me wonders if it was the ball – the Ravens had a hard time hanging onto it – or if it had something to do with a blood-thirsty crowd, but I can’t find any real answers so I want to fall back on cliche: Pittsburgh wanted it more or something. I guess it comes down to something like this: Baltimore played better than they were in the first, worse than they are in the second and, combined, finished as the team everybody thought they were – defensively talented but with question marks on offence. The Steelers were the same; the first half went all wrong, the second all right and they look great for the comeback win, even if it wasn’t really all their fault.

Green Bay Packers over Atlanta Falcons

The must crushing thing about this game came right before halftime, when Tramon Williams ran an interception all the way for a score as the clock expired – and, most interestingly to me, right before the Packers would get the ball back on a kickoff. When that happens to me in Madden or Techmo or whatever, it’s always a huge boost – it’s all the psychological gain of a safety and more points on the board, too. I don’t think I called the game right then and there, but I started seeing it on Twitter and, looking back, they were right.

I’m not sure what this loss means to Matt “Ice” Ryan. In two playoff games, he’s underwhelmed, but that’s way too small a sample size to judge him as a heir apparent to Dan Marino or whatever. Marino was a singular talent who was saddled on some poor teams (and had the misfortune to play at the same time as Joe Montana, who had much better teams around him) for the bulk of his career; Ryan seems like an above-average QB who’s still young enough to make mistakes. It’s fun and it’s easy to draw a line connecting him to other QBs throughout history who never won much, but it’s disingenuous: he’s barely been in the league long enough to make playoff appearances.

As for the Packers, they looked amazing. Both their offence and defence were clicking as they rolled through the Falcons. I’ve been saying for a while they’re a lot better than people give them credit for – they lead the NFC in SRS, as I recall. I was thinking about that this morning when listening to a Simmons podcast, where him and noted NFL expert Adam Carolla used how close the Packers/Eagles game was to boost the Falcons – their logic was something like “Well, Green Bay nearly lost to Philadelphia and the Eagles are out of the playoffs, so that means the Packers are nearly out of the playoffs also,” which is fine except for the parts which don’t make sense (most of it). Green Bay is good, Philadelphia was nearly as good and both, I’d wager, were better than the Falcons.

Chicago Bears over Seattle Seahawks

A long while ago, I wrote a really long story on the Arizona Cardinals and the dangerous effects of hype. It was right before that Super Bowl where they came out of nowhere and put together a great run to the Super Bowl, mostly thanks to Kurt Warner lobbing touchdown passes to Larry Fitzgerald (which indirectly led to my favorite Slate article of all time).Essentially, it was about how everybody was buying into the team because it was a feel-good story and they possessed that rare sports element – momentum. They demolished teams in the playoffs, especially Carolina, and then tested the Steelers in the Super Bowl, but fell short of actually winning.

Anyway, the Seahawks began reminding me of them on Friday, when hype surrounding them began to hit critical mass – I think it was when Ron Jaworski said the Bears lead the NFL in negative-yardage-plays – and I started feeling iffy about picking them. It’s nice to call an upset, sure, but to ride that bandwagon? Yeah, I got ahead of myself.

The Seahawks played like they have all season on Sunday, which is to say not especially good. Their defence was lackluster, their offence sputtered like my first car and I don’t think anybody should have been surprised a 7-9 team lost to a team good enough to get a bye week. Chicago did look impressive, but I still don’t trust them – they’ve improved throughout the season, but I still feel like they haven’t been tested by a really good team yet. The Packers will be that test, but I’ll save that breakdown for another day…


NY Jets over New England Patriots

Forget Seattle over New Orleans, this is the upset of the playoffs. The Patriots were good this year and, if I’m remembering my advanced stats right, went into the postseason more highly rated than any of their previous seasons – including that one which finished 16-0. Brady was lights out, throwing everywhere to everybody (especially Branch, but also Welker) and they steamrolled teams.

But their defence? Well, it had problems. Third-most passing yards allowed, for one. It’s let teams hang in this season – Buffalo stands out in my mind – but was just good enough for their offence to make a few big plays here and there and push the game out of reach. So, on one side of the ball – Jets offence/Pats defence – I can’t profess to be totally surprised. But the other end – where the Jets stymied the Patriots offence – that was really cool.

Brady finished with a decent game – two scored and nearly 300 yards – but he had to throw the ball 45 times to get those numbers. Their running game was held to about 100 yards and neither running back really stood out, I thought. The Jets kept pressure on Brady and while he threw a lot, and had time to throw, just the idea of throwing that many passes makes me nervous. Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Roethlisberger all threw less times, but threw more efficiently: more yards, more scores and wins in all the games. Hasselbeck threw as much as Brady in his loss, too.

I don’t know if there’s an exact number I can point to, but I think there’s gotta be some kind of margin where it’s dangerous. First off, there’s the whole incomplete-passes-stop-the-clock angle, but there’s also the idea that it’s taxing on the entire team to run routes all day. For each of those passes Brady threw, he had two (at least) recievers running full tilt into the backfield. That’s gotta add up over time, doesn’t it?

Anyway, based on how well the Jets looked, they’ve gotta be seriously looked at to get past the Steelers. They’ve shown they can shut down explosive offenses (two thus far), but haven’t done much against a tremendous defence – but the Steelers defence looked shaky, too.  I’ll probably address this in further detail when I do my picks in a couple days.

One final thought: Enough with the Rex Ryan feet jokes already. They’re played out and really, isn’t it kind of cute that he likes his wife that much? I’d much rather have to deal with him than a player who sexually assaults women.

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

Sick Picks – NFL Week 7

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I’ve been sick most of this week, so I didn’t get to write serious in-depth profiles for the games, so here’s an abbreviated version of my picks for week seven.

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Written by M.

October 25, 2009 at 12:21 pm

Why Michael Vick will still work in the NFL

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The reinstatement of Michael Vick couldn’t come at a better for him. Late July, with training camp set to open not too far from now and the only conditions on his play is that he will miss a few games.

Which is really a blessing in disguise for Vick; that suspension will give him time to practice himself back into form. After all, he hasn’t thrown a pass in a game since 2006. Likely, it will take some time before Vick is anything close to what he was then.

But it’s a low-risk, high-reward signing for whichever team picks him up. Surely Vick can be had fairly cheaply, meaning that if he doesn’t work out, then it’s not a huge loss – and if he does, he can be a huge asset to the offence.

Remember, in his prime Vick was a genuine two-sided threat, a QB that could throw the ball or run with it. He wasn’t overwhelming, but he still managed to throw for over 2,300 yards in each of his full seasons while rushing for about seven yards a carry.

In 2006, his last season in the NFL, Vick gave signs of entering his prime. He threw for almost 2,500 yards and 20 touchdowns (and 13 interceptions) while rushing for over 1000 yards (an average of 8.4 a carry) and two majors, nearly matching the numbers put up by Warrick Dunn.

However, the lingering question is if Vick still has anything left in his tank. Picking up where he left off is unlikely and playing in a similar role is questionable. Other rushing QB’s – Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb, etc – either have a short shelf life or transition their game towards passing, something that has never been Vick’s strong suit.

But in the right setting, Vick could still pose a threat.

With the emergence of the Wildcat/Single Wing offence used by Miami last season, teams looking to install a similar scheme could use a player with Vick’s skill set. He’s got the speed to run around the outside on a sweep yet also has enough skill throwing the ball that he could play regular snaps too.

And while Vick is a pubic relations nightmare, there will surely be teams looking his way for that reason:

–       Oakland: They tried the Wildcat last season (with limited success) and have a history of signing people with troubled history. Plus, as one of the worst teams in the NFL last season, what do they have to lose?

–       Pittsburgh: Would the Steelers take a flyer on Vick? BetUS seems to think so, giving the team 4-1 odds of signing him. Vick could work on the Steelers and help to take some of the spotlight off of Ben Roethlisberger’s recent legal trouble.

– New England: BetUS also gives the Patriots 4-1 odds to bring in Vick. The Patriots have had some success recently with troubled players (Randy Moss, for example). Here Vick would only play a small role in the offense, but I wouldn’t put it past Belichick to get the most out of him.

Written by M.

July 28, 2009 at 3:25 pm

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

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

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

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

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

They got it, but just barely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by M.

December 15, 2008 at 9:04 pm

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.