Friday, December 17, 2010

Boston Sports: Is this heaven?

Is this heaven?
I know, I know. I'm getting ahead of myself.

We haven't accomplished anything yet (Bill Belichick). We haven't won anything yet.

But it feels amazing to be a Boston sports fan right now, doesn't it?

The Pats are steamrolling their opponents, the Celtics are cruising despite the loss of five key players to injury, and the Red Sox are in the midst of one of the greatest (talent-wise) offseasons in team history. As a fan, what more could you ask for, right? 

Welcome to Boston!
Well, growing up in Boston, you might ask for one more thing. You might just ask for the destruction of all New York teams. And you know what? You might just get your wish. While the Red Sox were piling up superstar talents Adrian Gonzalez (one of my favorite hitters in the majors) and wicked fast outfielder Cahl Crawfahd (great Boston accent name), the Yankees were busy getting out-dueled (they couldn't possibly get out-bid) for the most coveted free agent pitcher this offseason- Cliff Lee.

If it were just that, it would be enough. But no, we've got more.

The New York Knicks have been making a lot of noise lately with their surprising 10 game winning streak led by Jewish (wink, wink) PF Amare' Stoudemire. The injury depleted Celtics took the floor at the World's Greatest Arena (according to everyone in NY. I think it's old and has terrible lighting- although the crowds there are very good), Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night- trying to protect Paul Pierce's claim that there was no rivalry between the teams. He basically told the media that the Knicks suck, so how could there possibly be a rivalry? Well, Pierce backed up his statement with an absolutely crushing game-winning jumper from, (where else?) the right elbow. The Knicks actually played pretty damn well, and they have definitely earned respect from the Celtics, but beating a New York team- especially when the fans were so excited before the game- in such dramatic fashion? Aint' nothing better.
J-E-T-S SUCK SUCK SUCK

Well, except maybe for something I like to call the Monday Night Football Massacre. The drubbing the Pats put on the Jets 2 weeks ago? They aren't going to recover from that any time soon. They were 9-2, atop the AFC. Now? 9-4 and in serious danger of not making the playoffs. Victory tastes so sweet. Oh. What's that? You want to know the score to the game? 45-3. No, wait. 

Looks like a gullet to me
45-3

That's better. Eat that Jets fans. Let that one sit for a while. Maybe fatty Rex Ryan will shut his gullet and start teaching his players how to win a game instead of gargling on like a turkey. Mark Sanchez sucks. Santonio Holmes can't catch. Mark Sanchez sucks. I LOVE THIS.

Anyway, enough about all New York teams failing miserably at life. Lets take a closer look at the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics and predict what the future holds.

RED SOX  

Last Season: 89-73, 3rd place. Didn't make Playoffs
This Season: ??-??

Analysis and prediction: This is going to be an extremely good Boston Red Sox team. They have fantastic hitters from both sides of the plate. They are a great defensive team. And, most importantly, they have a very good rotation (which could be great if they could get ANYTHING out of Josh Beckett and/or John Lackey). The bullpen isn't dominant, but the addition of Bobby Jenks certainly helps what was the Red Sox's biggest problem last season. Obviously, like any team, they need to stay healthy. Luckily, they will get Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia back after both missed extended time last year with tricky injuries. I don't see how any team can beat the Sox in a playoff series, but then again, the Yankees haven't finished "shopping" this winter, so we really don't know what we are up against. For now, I'll say (barring injury) this team should at least have the best record in the AL, and they should be back in the World Series fighting for another title. 


Celtics

Last Season: 50-32, 4th in the Eastern Conference. Lost an excruciating Game 7 in LA.
This Season: 21-4, 1st in the Eastern Conference. 


Analysis and Prediction: Health. Health. Health. If only the Celtics were healthy! Lets say, best case scenario, everyone is healthy for the playoffs. What a freakin' team that would be. They would have the best starting 5 (Rondo, Allen, Pierce, Garnett, Perkins- tied with the Lakers) in the league, and the best second starting 5 (Delonte, Nate, Marquis, Baby, Shaq)- with Jermaine O'neal and Semih "Automatic" Erden still on the bench! Are you kidding me? The depth on this team is otherworldly. And thank god for it, because they need every last guy right now. With Rondo, Delonte, JO, Shaq and Perk sidelined, the C's have turned to 3rd and 4th stringers to pick up the slack. The result? A 12 game winning streak (and counting...) aided by the rebirth of both defensive maestro KG and, to a lesser extent, captain Paul Pierce. As long as they stay relatively healthy they should be in the top 2 or 3 seeds in the East. If, and that is a huge if, they are fully healthy for the playoffs, I don't see anyone stopping them. I think they win the title over LA. 

Patriots 

Last Season: 10-6, 3rd in AFC, 1st in East. Smoked in the first round bye Baltimore.
This Season: 11-2, 1st in AFC, 1st in East.


Analysis and Prediction: Wow. That is all I have to say about the Patriots' recent performances, or should I say executions, against the Jets and Bears. The Pats are coming together right in time for the stretch run. With a victory against the Rodger-less (that's what the papers are saying, no one really knows 100 percent yet: via Simmons' twitter- http://www.jsonline.com/sports/packers/111973654.html) Packers, the Pats will all but have wrapped up the number 1 seed in the AFC, needing only a win against the Bills or Dolphins to secure home-field throughout the playoffs. Wouldn't that be sweet. Reminds me of the 2003-2004 Patriots teams: 14-2 and the number one seed. Let me just say this: if the Pats continue playing like they are right now, no one is going to beat them. Not the Falcons, Eagles, Ravens, Chargers or Saints. No one. They are dominant. They are relentless. And most of all, they are proving everyone wrong.They are on a mission to bring the Lombardi Trophy back to its rightful place. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have been brilliant this season, and they are both hungry for that next ring. And, by the way, if they get it, they may finally be considered the greatest coach/quarterback of all time. Screw one game at a time- this team is going to win the Super Bowl in Dallas on February 6th, 2011, at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.


The Pats will be raising another Lombardi Trophy this year!


We haven't won anything yet, but we will very soon, starting with the Patriots.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

New look Pats hush doubters, expose Jets in front of national audience

Randy who?
When the Pats traded Randy Moss, I wrote that the effect would be "devastating." That was before the Patriots traded for Deion Branch and unleashed secret weapon Danny Woodhead. Now, the only thing that is "devastating" is the Patriots offense- which has steamrolled opponents the last month to the tune of 40 points per game. Tom Brady has not thrown a pick in 228 consecutive attempts, and most importantly, the Pats are 4-0. They have taken care of business against the AFC North leading Steelers, the defending AFC Champion Colts (who recently have lived up to their dictionary definition: Colt- "a young, uncastrated male horse, in particular one less than four years old." Low blow? Perhaps, but Peyton Manning has looked more like an uncastrated baby horse than an NFL quarterback the last couple of weeks), the defending cellar dweller Lions (OK, "defending cellar dweller" isn't an accepted term- it just sounded better that saying "the Lions"), and the (used to be, before they decided to choke on Monday Night Football) number one seed in the AFC- New York Jets.

That is one hell of a run.
Not quite as wild a run as Forrest Gump's sprint around the world, but close

In 2001, 2003 and 2004, the Patriots started getting hot when the weather started getting cold. This team is doing the same. The schedule doesn't let up though, with a trip to the surprise NFC North leading Chicago Bears, followed by a home game against the dangerous Green Bay Packers- led by budding superstar Aaron Rodgers. To say that the Pats have locked up the number 1 seed would be silly. But they certainly have earned the attention of the rest of the league, and look like the best team in the NFL following their explosive 45-3 dismantling of the poor New York Jets.

And you wonder why they call him "the Belly"
I, along with the rest of the United States (except maybe Rex, or as he was called in the Boston Globe, "the belly") expected a tremendous, hard-fought battle between the two marquee teams in the AFC. Boy were we wrong. The Pats used a balanced attack on offense to pick apart what was believed to be one of the toughest defenses in the NFL. The offense has so many weapons, it seems almost unstoppable. Mighty Danny Woodhead had a fantastic revenge game with 104 receiving yards on only four receptions, BJGE had a strong game with two rushing touchdowns, and Tom spread the ball around to Branch, Welker and Hernandez to keep the Jets defense on their heels. One of the big storylines going into the game was the question of who superstar cornerback Darrelle Revis would cover. Well it didn't really matter. With this offense, there are too many options for Revis to shutdown the passing game. If he covered Branch, Brady hit Welker. If he covered Welker, Brady found Branch or Hernandez.

It really was an offensive clinic.

Mark Sanchez reminded Jets fans of Vinny Testaverde
And what about the defense? They were fantastic. With the help of erratic second year QB Mark Sanchez, and some extremely questionable play-calling, the defense played its best game of the year. Sanchez looked uncomfortable in the cold all night; You think he misses Southern California yet? Offensive Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, as he has done a few times this year, outsmarted himself. For the first time I've seen, the Jets opened the first two possessions in a shotgun, spread-em-out formation. Not a terrible idea- to spread out the porous Patriots secondary. But the Jets are a run-first offense. Maybe Schottenheimer got caught up in all the talk about the Jets being an explosive offense with former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes leading the charge. Not surprisingly, the Jets didn't score on those two possessions. Sanchez brought back some awful memories for Jets fans of chicken armed quarterback Vinny Testaverde, making some atrocious throws both short and long. On their third possession, the Jets ran the ball five times in a row, got into field goal range, and scored their only points of the game. The Pats responded by going to little man Danny Woodhead for 35 yards, which set up a Brady four yard strike to Brandon Tate. By then, it was 24-3, and the Jets were forced to become a one dimensional offense. It was also right about the time that a drunk Jets fan stumbled into our section, asked "is this my seat," and then (in the most obvious plot development ever) tripped over a cup holder and fell onto about five different people. The poor guy got up and just walked away confused as to what had just happened to him.

It reminded us all of Mark Sanchez.

Nothing like the icing of a Patriots cake
Speaking of Sanchez, Brandon Spikes picked off a horrific throw at the five yard line on the Jets first possession of the third quarter, and everything after that was just icing on the cake. 

What does this game mean? Are the Pats the best in the business, or are the Jets just really, really bad? As is usually the case, it is a little bit of both. Let's start with the Jets. Maybe they were just a tad overrated going into the game. Because, as we all know by now, the Jets had only one win against a team with more wins than losses (week 2 against a completely different Patriots squad), and had only won one game convincingly (the next week against the immortal Buffalo Bills). Needless to say, this team isn't as good as their record says they are. Probably stuck with a 5 seed in the playoffs, this particular Jets team looks like it can pull off one upset (is beating the Jags or Chiefs even considered an upset?) before being put in its place in round 2. I've been saying this all year: the Jets can not win with Mark Sanchez at QB. Yes, he will probably be a good QB in a few years, but the Jets are built to win now, and he does not give them a chance. He is too inconsistent and throws way too many (dreadful) interceptions. You think Mark Sanchez is winning a game in Arrowhead Stadium, Heinz Field and Gillette Stadium in January? I didn't think so.

On to the Pats. Are they the best in the NFL? The answer is yes, but not by much. The Falcons have figured out ways to win a few really tough games, and sit atop the NFL with the Patriots at 10-2. There are 3 teams that I think would give the Patriots trouble right now: Baltimore, Atlanta and Green Bay. The Pats already manhandled the Steelers and Jets, while the wheels have completely fallen off in Indianapolis. Philadelphia is very inconsistent, and we have yet to see Michael Vick stay healthy for more than six or seven games (and he takes an absolute beating every week). Green Bay, Baltimore and Atlanta all have some terrific defensive playmakers to complement their balanced offensive attacks (except Green Bay- they have no running game, but Rodgers is playing so great that it doesn't even matter). What we have with the Pats is an offensive juggernaut and a young defense which gives up yards in bunches, but clamps down when it has to (or comes up with that big turnover they haven't got since the days of Bruschi, Law and McGinest). Brady is playing the best football of his career, and he has an almost unlimited arsenal of weapons at his disposal. King William Belichick is having one of the finest coaching years of his life (who thought the Pats would get the number 1 seed? If you answered yes to that then you are either a liar or an idiot), and the NFL is just wide open enough for the Pats (with their 32nd ranked defense) to go to the Big Game in Dallas.

But don't book your tickets yet, there is still a lot of fun football left to be played- starting this week in Chicago against the ferocious Bears.

Get ready for one hell of a Super Bowl run
Buckle up, this is going to be one hell of a ride.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Are you ready for some football? Pats-Jets prepare for Monday Night faceoff

This one's for ALL the marbles
Pats.

Jets.

All the marbles.

Everyone is getting excited for the most anticipated regular season game since the Pats and Colts squared off in Super Bowl 41 and a half in 2007. And for good reason.
This game is going to live up to the hype. Last week, the Falcons and Packers played an extraordinary game in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. The Falcons triumphed, getting the final score on a 47 yard kick from veteran Kicker Matt Bryant. The kick followed a frenetic 90 yard drive by Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, which ended with a beautiful 10 yard strike from Rodgers to Jordy Nelson. Needless to say, the battle between two of the NFC heavyweights was great entertainment. I expect the same this Monday Night in Foxborough.
Whoa there!!!!

These teams hate each other. They may not say it but, oh wait, they do. Rex Ryan stoked the coals last year by grunting (I can't imagine him "saying" anything, every time I look at him I can only imagine him grunting) "I didn't come here to kiss Belichick's rings." Tom Brady took a blowtorch to those coals when he told reporters this summer "I hate the Jets."

It's on.

The thing is, this year it is the real deal. The rivalry was always missing something. Usually, it was the fact that the Jets were so inferior to the Pats. Even the few times that they beat us (Screw you Mangenious), it didn't seem like they were better than us, they just outplayed us on that Sunday.

Now, things are different.

It was the Jets who went to the AFC Championship game last season, and the Patriots who got blown out at home by the Ravens. This year, with a little luck for both teams, the Pats and Jets sit side by side atop the AFC at 9-2. They matchup with each other extremely well. The Jets say they were "built to beat the Patriots." The Patriots are built to win Super Bowls. But right now, it doesn't seem like the Pats are going to win a Super Bowl without going through the Jets. Whoever wins this game will most likely get a Number One seed in the Playoffs, with home-field throughout. This is less important to the Jets (5-0 on the Road) than it is to the Pats (riding a 25 game -regular season- home winning streak). But confidence wise, this game is critical for both teams. The Jets haven't swept the Pats in the regular season in the Tom Brady era, and would love to get over that hump (though I did speak to a die hard Jets fan recently who said he doesn't care about this game, he only cares if they win in the playoffs. Wait, it's more important to win in the playoffs? I would have never known!)

How evenly matched are these teams? There are so many questions for both teams:

Pats:
1) Where do you put McCourty? If you put him on Holmes, then Arrington has to cover Braylon (in week 2, Shaughnessy joked that Edwards was "eating candy off the top of his [Arrington's] head."), if you put him on Braylon, then Arrington has to cover Holmes (Arrington has had trouble with number 1's in the last few games, and Holmes has certainly earned the "number 1" tag after 2 game winning catches so far this season).
My Take: Put McCourty on Holmes, Arrington on Edwards (with help over the top from Meriweather), Chung on Keller, and pray to god that there is a good pass rush.

2) Is the focus on stopping the run or the pass? Usually, Belichick focuses on stopping the run and making Sanchize beat them. But it seems different now. The Jets have 5 legitimate weapons (Holmes, Edwards, LT, Keller, Smith/Cotchery) on the field every play. We've seen some beautiful throws from Sanchez to Edwards down the field this season (the one before the half in Detroit was gorgeous, and the throw down the sidelines against the Texans was perfectly thrown), we've seen some great yards-after-catch plays by Santonio, and obviously Keller DESTROYED the Pats in week 2. Do you try and stop the run game- which has slowed down lately- or try and stop the suddenly explosive passing attack?
My Take: Stop the run. Stop the run. Stop the run. As we've seen with the Patriots lately, if a team gets the run game going, the play action becomes a lethal weapon. The Jets do a great job with setting up play action by pounding the ball to Shonn Greene and LT. Stop them, and avoid big plays to Braylon/Holmes, and I think the Pats will put the Jets in a lot of third and long situations.

3) How long do you stick with the run game if it isn't producing big plays? We've seen what happens when the run game doesn't get going, and we've seen what happens when BJGE and Woodchuck have big games. The Pats offense is dominant when the run game is getting 4 or 4.5 yards a carry. In the past few games the Pats play action has been the focal point of the offense, and it has paid huge dividends, as the Pats are averaging a whopping 38 points per game in the last 3 games.
My Take: As long as the Pats don't fall behind by more than 2 scores (which I don't foresee), they should be running the ball often. Whether it is BJGE or Woodchuck will depend on the Jets' defensive game plan, but I don't expect to see a Pats offensive attack like we saw in week 2 (abandoned the running game, and forced the pass- allowing the Jets to disguise their defensive fronts and force some terrible throws from Lord Brady). I would guess that they start with BJGE early, and use Woodchuck later to offset the blitz with his trademark draw plays.

Jets:
He's also astonishingly good looking
1) How do you slow down Tom Brady? He has been playing on another level the last few weeks, and might be playing the best football of his career. He is making perfect throws, and is getting great protection from the re-invigorated (thank you Logan Mankins) offensive line. It seems that blitzing (Steelers), using speed rushers (Indy) and collapsing the pocket (Ndamukong Suh and the Lions) have done little to faze Brady, who has stood tall and made every throw possible in the last 3 weeks.
My Take: Don't give up the big play and stop the run. Both things the Jets do very well, and both things the Jets did very well in week 2 (Brady's worst game of the season). If the Jets force the Patriots to go down the field little by little, and don't allow any big plays from Branch or Tate (or anyone else for that matter), they have a chance to slow the high powered Patriots passing game.

2) How do you cover all of their players? The Pats have so many options on offense, and you never know which one will be the go-to guy for that week. There have been huge games from BJGE, Woodchuck, Branch, Welker, Tate, Gronk and Hernandez. That is seven weapons the Jets have to be aware of and game plan against. One of the reasons the Jets defense is so successful is their ability to shut down the other team's top WR with "Revis Island." Besides Darrelle, Cromartie has been fantastic this season (aside for a bunch of atrocious penalties- I think he had 3 block-in-the-back penalties last week. Is that even possible?). The thing is, those are two big, physical corners. They are built to shut down the Randy Mosses, Andre Johnsons and Brandon Marshalls of the world. They aren't built to run underneath with the slippery Wes Welker or keep up with route running wizard Deion Branch. Who covers Lebron over the middle? Oops, I meant- Who covers Gronkowski over the middle? Jim Leonard? Puh-leeze. He is 5'7- good luck with that.
My Take: Again, it is all about avoiding the big play. I would put Revis on Branch, Cromartie on Hernandez (or Gronkowski, whoever is in), double Welker with a LB and S, and assume that your front 4 can stop the Pats run game.


Keys to the game:

Pats:
1) Protect Tom Brady. If the O-Line is as good as it has been lately, the Pats will run away with this one.
2) Tackle. Tackle. Tackle. Tackle. Pretty self explanatory. (Especially Brad Smith and Santonio Holmes)
3) Red Zone defense. The D has been shaky the last few weeks inside the red zone, and the Jets have done a nice job of finishing drives lately. Also, the Jets kicking situation is a disaster, so expect the Jets to go for some fourth and shorts inside Patriots territory.
Why not? Tom is the luckiest man on earth.

Jets:
1) Pressuring Tom Brady without the blitz. With so many options, if Brady has more than 3 seconds to throw, he is going to complete the pass. The Jets did a wonderful job of getting to Brady without the Blitz in week 2. They need to do that again.
2) Finish drives. Field goals don't win games against the Patriots, it's that simple.
3) Keeping Brady off the field with long, sustained drives. If the Jets get the run game going early and grab an early lead, they could make the Patriots a one dimensional team- which would allow the Jets defense to disguise their blitzes more effectively (guys walking around the defensive line, zone blitzes, etc.).

This game is going to be a dogfight, but I think the Pats will win a squeaker 27-23.


And Another Thing:

LETS GO CAVS! LETS GO CAVS! LETS GO CAVS!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Pats, Jets on crash course for AFC supremecy

What a freakin' day!
What a heart pumping day for Boston sports fans. First, you had the Celtics inexcusably blow a game in Toronto. Then you had the Jets ridiculous up and down come from behind, last second victory. And finally, the Patriots' Big Game James Sanders sealing the Annual Brady-Manning Bowl with a superb interception.

[Quickly let me talk about the Celtics recent struggles. I am not worried. Not one bit. The C's are in a strange transition right now- Delonte West was inserted into the rotation, and virtuoso PG Rajon Rondo strained his hammy and missed the 4th quarter against the Thunder, and all of the Raptors game, forcing Nate "Dogg" Robinson into an unfamiliar starting PG role. The results have been underwhelming. Unfortunately, there is no rest with a game looming against the athletic Atlanta Hawks. Rondo figures to miss that game as well. Unless Rondo is seriously injured, the C's will be back to their dominant selves by the end of the week. No need to panic. EDITOR'S NOTE: CELTICS RAVAGED THE HAWKS TONIGHT, WITH NATE DOGG LEADING THE WAY. TOLD YOU NOT TO PANIC!]

Enough about basketball, lets take a good look at a fun Week 11 in the NFL.

We'll start by discussing the fantastic Pats- Colts rumble at Gillette Stadium. Let me begin by saying that this fourth quarter did NOT have the same feel as the past few Manning-led comebacks.
First of all, this game was in Foxboro, not Indianapolis. Hanging over every opponent when entering Gillette Stadium is the fact that this is Tom Brady's backyard. He's got two streaks in his career of 20+ home winning streaks. He currently has a record tying 25 straight victories at Gillete. Fitting that he will break the record in two weeks against his arch enemy, the New York Jets. Like he said, "I hate the Jets." Don't we all Tom, don't we all.
The second thing that comforted me was the difference in the defense this year from previous years. Despite being ranked an atrocious 32nd on third down defense, this group has made the plays when the going got tough. Think about this season. Our two losses were as much about a lack of offense as it was a lack of defense. I must say though- the defense was especially putrid against Peyton Hillis. That was downright offensive. But think about the wins. Cincinnati scored a bunch of garbage time points, but were smothered in the first three quarters, including a huge pick 6 by Gary Guyton. [Side note: I'm not here to talk about the Buffalo game, the past is the past.] Miami was obviously won by the defense/special teams. Against Baltimore, the defense clamped down in the fourth quarter and overtime (holding Baltimore to a putrid 5-16 on third downs) while the offense struggled mightily. San Diego was definitely scary, and the defense was horrific in the fourth quarter, but at the end of the day, they held San Diego and forced them to try a long field goal. Minnesota was one of the defense's best games, making a few great stops on third and shorts (and fourth and shorts) against superstar Adrien Peterson. Against Pittsburgh, their effectiveness in the first half allowed them enough breathing room to win easily despite 23 fourth quarter points from Big Ben. Finally, this unit has turned it around. Every other year, the Pats probably would have lost the Baltimore and San Diego games. Not this year. This is a young, fast, energetic and motivated group of guys who despite their shortcomings, make the plays when it matters most. And the best thing about it is that it isn't only one guy. It's a group effort. It's Rob Ninkovitch against the Bengals and Dolphins. It's Pat Chung on special teams against Miami. It was Big Game James this week (as well as a nail in the coffin pick 6 last week). Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes were unreal in the Sota' game, TBC and Mike Wright stepped it up in the Pitt game. McCourty and Chung have been spectacular all year. Wilfork is having one of his best years as not only a player, but a leader. There have even been big time plays by complete no names like Dane Fletcher, Myron Pryor, Ron Brace, Gerard Warren, Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Arrington.
The last thing is fairly clear if you have watched Indy at all the past few weeks. This is absolutely not the same offense we are accustomed to seeing out of Peyton Manning. He is amazing. Probably the best pure quarterback ever (No disrespect to Tom or Joe- I would take them over Manning all day. They are winners. But Manning has perfect mechanics, is the best at-the-line playcaller, and runs the scariest 2 minute offense in the history of the NFL.), but you have to have someone to take the pressure off of you, whether it be a running back or receiver. Yea, Reggie Wayne played. He too is great. But there was no one else to be seen. Collie's concussion forced him out of the game after a huge drop (would have been a fifty yard reception), and besides for one or two big runs, the running backs basically were running into a brick wall all game. In the end, the losses of Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai and Anthony Gonzalez have rendered Manning human. Can he still toss 400 yards and 4 TD's? Yes, he did it yesterday. But those three picks would have been avoided if Manning had his full arsenal. This might be the year that Indy has a first round exit in the Playoffs. Obviously with Manning anything is possible, but, especially considering the state of the Indy defense, without healthy bodies, it seems the Colts will have to wait until next year.

Some observations about the game as a whole:

1) Tom Brady is as good as he has ever been. I'm not saying he is gonna put up 50 TD's, I am just saying that these past two weeks are the most accurate and effective he has ever been. He is making throws that are jaw dropping. The near-interception in the fourth quarter by Tyjuan Hagler has been his only bad throw the past two games, and it would have been absolutely killer, but luckily Hagler dropped it. Aside from that, Brady has been almost flawless (120 QB rating, 5-0 TD:INT ratio, 1 rushing TD, 73 % completion percentage). After this game, I believe Tom has solidified his place atop the MVP hopefuls. And don't look now, but his next game is against the lowly Lions.

2) The offensive line was unbelievable. Really, really unbelievable. Brady was sacked once, but was barely even pressured the rest of the night despite speedsters Roger Mathis and Dwight Freeney gunning for his head. Alge Crumpler has been spectacular, along with Sebastian Vollmer and Matt Light. The return of Logan Mankins has really ignited the rest of the guys- they were terrific against Pitt, and again yesterday.

Yea, THAT guy
3) Danny Woodhead. DANNY WOODHEAD! Where do I even begin? Driving at the end of the third quarter, I had a conversation with a friend who was at the game with me.
He started by saying: "That Woodhead, he is a football player. He's small, but he plays the game right."
I quickly agreed and remarked "He is small, but he is strong, he blocks well, he reads defenses well, fast as hell and is great out of the backfield. He really is a younger, faster version of Kevin Faulk."
Literally as I ended my sentence, Woodhead took the handoff, ran into the offensive line, surveyed the field and noticed an opening to the right. He took off, put a nice move on Aaron Francisco, maintained balance, and was off to the races. Aided by some beautiful downfield blocks from Deion Branch and Wes Welker, Woodhead ran into the endzone for an electrifying 36 yard TD run. What a great play. And to show off his versatility, he made a fantastic take-your-knees-out tackle on the ensuing kickoff. Woodchuck had one of his best games of the season, but I'm sure he's saving his best for Week 12 against his former team- the NY Jets. Hey, the Jets have to be good for something, right?

4) Gary Guyton has come into his own. He was terrific against Pittsburgh, and was even better this week. He had a bunch of great tackles, and is the perfect compliment to the bigger, stronger Brandon Spikes. This is why Belichick is so succesful. His players accept their roles, if not, they are off the team. Guyton played very sparingly for most of the season, mainly playing in the dime package, but was relied on heavily the last couple of weeks, and he has produced. There are not many players who can come on after so little playing time and play as well as Guyton has. He will probably be very helpful against Green Bay in a few weeks, and Belichick won't be afraid to call his number.

5) Jerod Mayo just keeps piling up the tackles. At this point, anything less than ten is a disappointment. He had fifteen more yesterday. That gives him 119 on the season, twenty more than the next guy. He also has been sent on a few blitzes recently, and he looks very comfortable adding that aspect to his game. He barely missed Roethlisberger last week, and did the same with Manning this week- eventually the sacks will come. For now, we will settle for the NFL leader in tackles.

6) Kyle Arrington has to make that tackle on Reggie Wayne at the end of the second quarter. The touchdown throw was perfect, so I don't blame him, but that tackle must be made. Darius Butler replaced him, and rightly so. Hopefully Butler will get back to doing the things which made him so intriguing last year, otherwise the Pats are going to have trouble at that second CB spot.

7) Deion Branch is the new key to the passing game. Against Minnesota/Cleveland, an injured Branch limped to 3 catches and 42 yards. In the two games since, which happen to be our two most impressive victories of the season, Branch has lead the team with 14 catches and 141 yards. The difference between Branch and Moss is that Branch doesn't need to score touchdowns to be effective. A game without a TD for Moss was usually a bad one; For Branch, as long as he's getting first downs, he is going to have a big day. In only 6 games, Branch is the number two WR in first downs behind the slippery Wes Welker. When Branch is getting open, usually along the sidelines, the middle of the field is once again opened up for Wes and Aaron Hernandez. With the recent strong play from the running game, and a healthy Deion, this offense is finally fulfilling its full potential.

8) Speaking of the running game, how about the Law Firm! Another hard fought game by him- 21 rushes for 96 and a TD, and yet another reason why Fred Taylor remains on the sideline. Expect Belichick to continue riding BenJarvis until he gives him reason not to. Like I wrote last time, he never fumbles, and is always moving forward- great characteristics for any running back. I love the way he runs, and he is the perfect compliment to the lightning quick Danny Woodhead (who compiled a fantastic 7-69 and a TD on the ground).

9) Obviously, this was a big win for the Pats, especially after the Jets managed to beat the Texans. The Pats are holding steady with the Jets atop the AFC East, and every game from here on out is a must win if they want a chance at a first round bye. Despite the obvious Trap Game potential, I think the Pats will take care of business (especially after taking Cleveland too lightly) in Detroit 37-20, setting up the biggest regular season game since the Pats and Colts faced off for what was dubbed Super Bowl Forty One and a Half back in 2007.
Like the Jets, he will not die.

Speaking of the Jets, what the hell! They are like Jack Bauer! They ALWAYS escape! They will not die! I don't quite understand how they won that game on Sunday. Last I knew, the Texans had picked off a TERRIBLE (and may I add- CLASSIC) Sanchez throw, and returned it to the 10 yard line up 1 with 2 minutes left (and the Jets had only 2 timeouts). Somehow, some way, the Texans blew it. Yea, Sanchez had a great throw to Braylon Edwards. But, lets be real here, are you kidding me?!?! How do you only have one man deep when the other team has NO timeouts at the 50 with 30 seconds left? Play 3 deep safetys, and give up the underneath stuff! How could you possibly call yourself an NFL defense and give up a 40 something yard pass down the sideline (only the most important part of the field when you have no timeouts) with only single coverage? There was a safety (former Patriot, Eugene Wilson- good riddance), but he showed up about half an hour late on the throw. Talking about the Jets is just frustrating. Lets recap the last few weeks of games:

Minnesota: Favre has the ball, down 2, playing his best ball all season. Obviously, he throws a pick 6. Fine, acceptable- only because 90 percent of the world saw that interception coming.
[Anger Level: 6/10]

Denver: The Jets have a fourth and six at the fifty. All hope seems lost, and then Sanchez heaves one downfield to Santonio Holmes. Pass Interference. Game Over. Kill me now.
[Anger Level: 9/10]

Screw you Detroit!
Detroit: Ndamukong Suh misses an extra point which allows the Jets to tie it up in regulation. Stafford goes down with his bajillionth shoulder injury in the 4th quarter. Drew Stanton steps in. Julian Peterson gets a I-Can't-Believe-They-Are-This-Lucky 15 yard Late Hit penalty. Jets win.
[Anger Level: 8/10- only because it is unfair of me to ever expect the Lions to win a big game]

Cleveland: Chansi Stuckey. Nuff' said.
[Anger Level: 9.5/10- I honestly didn't think it could get any worse until...]

Houston: WORST. DEFENSE. EVER.
[Anger Level: a Billion/10- I hate everyone involved with the New York Jets: fans, players, media, EVERYONE.]

I absolutely CAN NOT wait to crush the Jets in Gillette on Monday Night. It is going to be glorious.



Other random thoughts from around the NFL's week 11:

1) Vince Young. What are you doing? Classic "tons of talent, bad head on his shoulders" player. He was put in a position to succeed- great coach, great running back, great defense- just couldn't put it all together. He's still young though, so maybe a change of scenery will turn his career around. It's too bad, I don't know many real football fans who don't LOVE watching him play. He's tough, and he is a real winner. It was good while it lasted.

2) Brett Favre should be stuffed into a locker never to be seen or heard from again as an NFL player. The Vikings are a disgrace this season, and they finally got rid of the greatest coach of all time Brad CHILDress. (On second thought- he might be the worst coach in the history of the NFL. Have you ever heard of a coach who hates his players so much? He threw one of them under the bus every week!) They have a new interim Head Coach, and they should have a new QB as well. The season is hopeless, and Favre is retiring. Get rid of him. His time is up. Welcome back to the NFL, Tarvaris Jackson.

Add this to his Defensive Player of the Year credentials: he's the strongest man in the world

3) Philadelphia, Green Bay, Atlanta, New Orleans and Chicago seem to be pulling away from the pack in the NFC. I would say Green Bay is probably the best of the group, because Rodgers is the most consistent quarterback, and Clay Mathews is the best defensive player in the NFL right now. No disrespect to the wonderful play of Mike Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles, Matt Ryan and the Falcons, Drew Brees and the Defending Champion Saints or the surprising (to say the least) turnaround of the Bears, but I would bet on Green Bay to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl (barring injury).
Take that, Favre.

4) Josh Freeman keeps chugging along. His last 4 games (3-1): 7:2 TD:INT ratio, 112 QB rating, 66 percent passing, 9.3 Yards per Attempt. That my friends (from NY, who root for the Jets) is a franchise quarterback. He has been terrific, and the Buccaneers are making a most unlikely playoff run. Freeman has brought hope back to a fan base struggling with the stink of a 7 year Super Bowl hangover (48-64 record since 2002).

5) Welcome back to Planet Earth Oakland Raiders. We missed you. After a few ridiculous games, the Raiders were 5-4 and had everyone picking them to upset the Steelers IN Pittsburgh. Seriously? Say goodbye to the playoffs. By the way- Richard Seymour, I love you, but what in the hell were you thinking? I mean, if there is any guy who deserves a slap in the face, it's Big Ben, but you may have cost your team a game, and you might get suspended. You are supposed to be a leader, not a distraction. Hopefully this leads to a huge losing streak for the Raiders. I'm still holding out for a top ten pick in next year's NFL Draft!

6) I've been waiting for this from the Chargers. The whooping they put on Denver tonight is just another step towards their billionth improbable second half surge towards the playoffs. They are dangerous. V-Jax is on his way back next week. Look out NFL, the Chargers are back.


And Another Thing:
Dwyane Wade, what happened man? I have never seen anything like this in his whole career. 1-13 FG, 0-4 3PT, 1-5 FT, 5 TO's, 3 Points. Seriously? What the hell? We knew Lebron would affect your offensive numbers, but we didn't expect you to turn into Tony Allen. The Heat are in deep, deep trouble right now. Erik Spolestra, the time is ticking...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Patriots Midseason Analysis- How did we get here?!

The Rivalry Lives On!!!!
After their horrible Playoff collapse at the hands of Ray Rice and Baltimore Ravens, the Patriots were declared over the hill. They are rebuilding. They are too old. Tom Brady isn't an elite quarterback anymore. Belichick is trying to do too much- he thinks he's god. The glory days are over, time to start anew.

Here we are, 10 weeks into a wild 2010 season, and the over the hill Patriots sit atop the NFL standings (with the Jets and Falcons) sporting a shiny 7-2 record.

WHAT?!

How did we get here? Weren't they washed up? This was the year the Pats would fall from the NFL's elite.

And then the season started.

The Patriots beat up the TOcho Show Bengals, whooping them defensively and dominating them offensively. That was just the beginning.

Actually, let's go back to the NFL Draft. The Patriots had the 22nd pick in the draft, and pick by pick, Dez Bryant remained available. My friends Sam and Josh were at Music City Radio Hall for the festivities. Coming off an awful loss to the Ravens, and the injury to fan-favorite (and 2 time Pro Bowl WR) Wes Welker, we were all getting excited for the possible arrival of Bryant, who was compared to Randy Moss and Terrell Owens before the draft. Sam and Josh must have each texted me every fifteen minutes: "he is still available! YES!" But, as Patriots fans under the Belichick regime, we should have known better. The Patriots traded the pick and drafted Devin McCourty with the 27th pick of the first round. Furious, we wondered whether Belichick had taken things too far. Why draft a special teamer when you can get a potential superstar WR? McCourty was called "versatile," "hard working" and "smart." Those are the keywords for any Belichick draft pick (with the exception of Brandon Meriweather, who couldn't be any dumber). Later in the draft, the Pats drafted Rob Gronkowski (didn't he just have back surgery that kept him out the whole year? huh?), Jermaine Cunningham (an undersized DE/OLB speed rusher), Brandon Spikes (Finally! A good draft pick! This guys is a beast), troublemaker Aaron Hernandez (tons of talent, drug problems. hmmmm), punter Zoltan Mesko (sweet name! Can he kick?) and much later, DE Brandon Deaderick.

In Belichick we trust.

The first place to look for this season's success is to the tremendous 2010 draft class. That is seven starters. SEVEN! Let's take a quick look at each player's contributions this season so far:

McCourty- Drafted as a special teamer, the Patriots couldn't have possibly imagined this kind of production from the rookie. After Leigh Bodden's season ending injury and Darius Bulter's fall from grace (Seriously, what the hell happened to him?), McCourty was all the sudden our number one Corner. And what a Corner he has been. Devin is fourth on the team in tackles, first in passes defensed, tied for the team lead in INT's, and has been on the field for all but ONE defensive play (he came off the field with the wind knocked out of him after a spectacular defensive play on a long ball to Percy Harvin). This kid is already very good, and he's getting better every game. He was one heck of a pick.

Gronkowski- Armed with a great nickname, "Gronk" put his talents on display during the Patriots prime time matchup against the Steelers. Hauling in 3 TD passes, Gronk now has 6 on the season, good for most on the team. It hasn't been all great with Rob, as his game against Cleveland was nightmarish. He screwed up a kick return, fumbled on the 1 yard line and dropped a few other passes- and was one of the players blamed for the crushing loss. But good players bounce back, and Gronk did just that. He is huge (6'6 270- imagine Lebron) and is great both as a blocker and receiver.

Cunningham- Jermaine started off the season hot, earning himself some valuable playing time. Unfortunately for him, a little slippage in his play, and the re-emergence of Tully Banta-Cain has him back in more of a reserve role. He did show flashes of effectiveness though, so expect him to be a part of this defense for years to come.

Spikes- Spikes has been slightly inconsistent, but this probably has more to do with the gameplan than his actual abilities. Against run-heavy teams, Spikes has been terrific, and is third on the team in tackles. His best game was against Ray Rice and the Ravens. Spikes stopped a few runs short of the line of scrimmage and was just a beast overall, compiling 16 tackles while playing most of the defensive snaps. He and Jerod Mayo are the ILB tandem the Pats have been looking for since Tedy Bruschi's departure.

Hernandez and Brady have become best buds this season.
Hernandez- Every other team in the NFL is probably kicking themselves for passing on the talented TE from Florida. The Pats may have gotten the steal of the draft with Hernandez. He is second on the team in every important statistic for WR's, and he is only 20! There have been some bumps in the road (Baltimore), but overall he looks like a number one WR/TE along the lines of a Dallas Clark or Antonio Gates.

Mesko- What more can you say about a rookie Punter? He has been awesome, not only as punter, but as a holder as well. Zoltan may have won the Patriots a game (Baltimore, again!), which is more than you can say about 90 percent of the Punters in the NFL. He's going to be punting here for a long time.

Deaderick- Already with 2 sacks, Deaderick is the most surprising contributor on this list by far. Drafted as a compensatory pick in the tail end of the seventh round, no one even expected him to make the roster. Guess who started last week?


OK. So there is the draft. That is only one piece of the puzzle.

The next part we have to look at is the health of Tom Brady and Jerod Mayo, both coming off of bad injuries.

Mayo had an ankle injury which limited him last season. He was a shell of his former Defensive Rookie of the Year self. This year he is unleashing his frustration on opposing running backs. Despite just 5 tackles against the NYJ in week 2, Mayo leads the NFL in tackles with 104. He has had games with 13, 16, 18, 11 and 14 tackles. He is the play caller on defense (he has the green dot on his helmet which indicates who receives the radio calls from the coaches) and the leader of the linebacking group. He has helped mentor Brandon Spikes, and has done a great job with surprising OLB Rob Ninkovitch. He and Wilfork are the keys to the defense.

Obviously Brady was recovering from knee surgery last year, and sometimes it wasn't pretty. But as the season went on, he started looking like the old Brady. After looking awful in the Playoff loss to Baltimore though, people were predicting his fall from the elite. Brady was unbelievable at the beginning of this season, shutting up all of the critics- until Randy Moss was dealt. For a few games after the trade, Brady was off target and he was frustrated. His receivers weren't getting open, and there were way too many three and outs. He had a few beautiful drives in the Baltimore game, and the offense looked pretty good against the Vikings (especially the offensive line), but there was something missing. The offense wasn't on the same page. Brady was throwing balls high, throwing low, far and short. But on Sunday night he reminded everyone just who he is. He was flawless against Pittsburgh throwing for 350 yards, 3 TD's, with a rushing TD as the cherry on top. He made some perfect throws, but mostly he just found the open man. Brady is in the conversation for league MVP, not only because he is leading the highest scoring offense in the NFL, or because the Pats are 7-2, but also because Brady's numbers have been fantastic. His 17-4 TD:INT (one of those picks was a hail mary) is out of this world, and he is making this all work with a new offense on the fly. He's incorporated 3 new TE's and a couple of new receivers without missing a beat. Tom Brady is back, and he is hungry for another championship.

The last couple of guys I want to talk about are Patrick Chung and BenJarvis Green-Ellis.

Chung and TBC having fun in the snow.
Tedy Bruschi talked last week on ESPN about how top defenses have a leader in each of the three tiers (Defensive Line, Linebackers, Secondary). Wilfork is clearly a leader on the defensive line and we talked about Mayo's leadership. Bruschi suggests that Chung is that third tier leader the Patriots have been lacking the last few years. He sure plays the part. Chung is a missile on the field. He is a sound tackler, and can make a WR pay if they come into his territory. His absence was sorely missed in the Cleveland debacle two weeks ago, but he came back in a big way against the Steelers, flying around the field, and putting tons of pressure on QB Ben Roethlisberger. He had some trouble last season with his consistency, and a few people pegged him as a bust. But Pat came back with a vengeance, starting in training camp. With Chung and McCourty, the Patriots have two young, up and coming defensive backs who figure to be Pro Bowlers in the near future.

BenJarvis has a weird story because despite his production (4.2 YPC, 6 TD's in 8 starts), people don't think he can possibly be a long term option. They want the Patriots to draft Mark Ingram. They want more speed, more power, more talent. Well let me tell you something: BenJarvis gets the job done, and he gets it done well. He has had a few duds (NYJ, Bal, SD, Cle), but he has also won us a couple of games (Buf, Min), and he never fumbles (Laurence Maroney, anyone?). He has 212 career rushes, and ZERO fumbles. He also very rarely loses yards. Green-Ellis knows that he is lucky to have this opportunity, and he has a terrific motor. He is always moving forward. Also, he is the perfect compliment to Danny "Woodchuck" Woodhead. Together they form a pretty formidable rushing duo. Just ask the Steelers defense who let up more than 85 yards rushing for the first time all season on Sunday night.

The last thing I want to discuss before I get to my predictions for Week 11 is how terrific coaching, leadership and an emphasis on teamwork, has led to the Patriots success.

First things first. Bill Belichick is doing one hell of a job. People were calling for his head after last season. They questioned him for his fourth and two call, they said he was trying to do too much. He's the Head Coach, the Offensive Coordinator and the Defensive Coordinator? Is that even possible?

Well, the short answer is a resounding YES. With all of the turmoil both offensively and defensively, Belichick has done an unbelievably good job of keeping things simple (for the rookies) while simultaneously adding new wrinkles to the offensive and defensive game plans. The offense, aside from the seemingly devastating loss of Randy Moss, lost OL Nick Kaczur, RB Kevin Falk, and was missing holdout Logan Mankins until Week 9. On defense, there was the loss of veteran leader Ty Warren, number one CB Leigh Bodden and last year's surprise S Brandon McGowan. There was also problems with inconsistency from last year's starters Brandon Meriweather, Tully Banta Cain and Darius Butler. All of this meant nothing to Belichick and the Patriots who have made no excuses.

One of his greatest accomplishments this season was his ability to dispose all locker room distractions without missing a beat. He has turned the Patriots into a team in the truest sense. Besides Tom Brady, there really are no superstars (Vince Wilfork maybe?) on the team, but this just gives all of the players someone to look up too. Brady handles business like a true professional, and as he showed Sunday night, he is willing to go to war for each and every one of the players in his locker room. There are no excuses, no distractions.

All Hail the KING!
Despite years of brilliance from the mind of Bill Belichick, he continues to amaze with his preparation, game planning and ability to squeeze everything out of each of his players. The eventual loss of Belichick will have the same affect on this franchise as the loss of a superstar QB. There are only 1 or 2 other coaches in the world who you can say that about. Long live King Belichick.

With all of that said, the Patriots still have a long way to go this season. It is a wide open year in the NFL, and the Patriots are one of the favorites, but they must improve their third down defense and pass defense if they want to compete into February. If the defense continues to improve at its current rate, and Tom Brady stays healthy, the Patriots will have a legitimate chance to win the Super Bowl. Get pumped! These next few months are going to be very enjoyable.


------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


From now on, I'm only going to pick a few of the best games from the weekend.
Here goes nothing:

Oakland @ Pittsburgh

I don't think this is such a tough call, even though this is one of the more important games this weekend. Pittsburgh doesn't lose two in a row at Heinz Field, so despite Oakland playing its best ball in decades, I think Pitt will win a close one.
Pit 30 Oak 23

Houston @ NYJ

Another easy one. The Jets are coming off their second best win of the year, and Houston is coming off their worst loss. Houston has NO defense and have lacked consistency on offense, while the Jets have been a top defense and a mediocre offense. Look for a big game from LT. If the Jets can shut down Arian Foster, this will be a rout.
NYJ 27 Hou 17

Green Bay @ Minnesota  

Favre's final game against Green Bay is going to be a fun one. I expect Minnesota to play well at home, knowing this is Favre's last game against his former employer. Green Bay will probably be favored, and they certainly have earned it. Clay Mathews has been unstoppable all season (not something you usually say about a defensive player), and Aaron Rodgers is getting into a nice offensive flow. This will surprisingly be a defensive struggle.
Minn 23 GB 21

Atlanta @ St. Louis

Atlanta is on a roll, so despite a really strong urge to pick the upset, I'm sticking with them. St. Louis lost a tough one in SF last week, but look pretty strong with Sam Bradford under center. Atlanta doesn't usually play well on the road, but I think they are playing too well to lose to an inferior team.
Atl 31 STL 24
Never take a Peyton Manning-led team lightly. Ever.

Indy @ NE 

I don't expect this to be easy by any means. The Patriots are going to have to play close to perfect to beat Peyton Manning, but I think they'll do it. This is going to be epic.
NE 34 Indy 30

NYG @ Phi

Philly is coming off its best game of the season, and have played great two weeks in a row. Vick is getting a ton of publicity as an MVP candidate, so let's see what he can do against the Giants' fast, experienced defense. Expect Manning to throw the ball a lot to his favorite trio (Nicks, Smith, Manningham). This might just be a preview of the NFC Championship game. And what a game it will be.
Phi 37 NYG 34

Monday, November 15, 2010

Another strange week in the NFL, another Pats victory at Heinz Field




Last time, I told you about how I heard three different so called "experts" pick three different top teams in the NFL. Those teams? The Baltimore Ravens, NY Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ravens led off the week with a tough loss in the Georgia Dome where Matt Ryan doesn't lose (18-1 at home in career), the Giants were exposed at home by Jon Kitna and the Cowboys in the shocker of the week, and the Steelers got their "butt whooped" (Big Ben's words, not mine) by the Pats at home in Prime Time.

What a weird season.

For the first time ever (I think) Peter King left his top spot vacant in his weekly power rankings! I mean have you ever seen anything like this? When I said that the NFL was like LOST, I didn't expect this to happen! The Jets are inexcusably 5-1 Super Bowl favorites, but after them there are FIVE teams who have 8-1 odds (with the Colts right behind at 9-1):
http://www.footballlocks.com/nfl_futures_odds.shtml
In case you were wondering, the T-Ocho Show Bengals are at 1,000-1 odds.

I think it's time for everyone to shelve their "who's the best team" predictions for a few weeks, because like King writes, we have an absolutely awesome schedule for the remainder of the season, and we should just enjoy it:
http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2010/writers/peter_king/11/14/monday-morning-qb-week-10/index.html?eref=sihp (power rankings on page 3)

Enough about NFL strangeness. What a week! We had a ridiculous Hail Mary victory, a team that rose from the dead thanks to their new coach, and two astounding beatdowns during Prime Time. On to my NFL observations from week 10 (I'll do Pats-Steelers, Jets-Browns, Giants-Cowboys separately):

1) Mike Vick fever! He is a legitimate MVP candidate. He has the Eagles offense humming, leading the league in QB Rating, and even crazier, he has yet to throw an interception! In the four games he has played from start to finish, the Eagles are 4-0, and if he would have started the home opener against Green Bay, he would probably be 5-0. Like I said last week, he really is incorporating the Old Vick- the running back who played quarterback- with the New Vick- who can throw all day. After tonight's game, he has 11 passing touchdowns, 4 rushing touchdowns and a QB rating over 110. Simply said, he has been spectacular. The Eagles are looking better and better each week, and this week's 31 point drubbing of the Redskins puts them in a very good position for the Playoffs. Next week's showdown with the Giants on Sunday Night is going to be a doozy.

2) For those fortunate enough to watch it (damn NFL network), the Atlanta-Baltimore clash was great. Atlanta looked like it might run away with it, until Joe Flacco went into terminator mode and started hitting guys left and right. He brought them all the way back, and they lead 21-20 after Flacco's TD toss to veteran TE Todd Heap with a minute remaining. Then came the magic, um, sort of. Thanks to a VERY questionable "no-call," Roddy White got away from Ravens CB Josh Wilson and grabbed the game winning TD pass. Not to take anything away from White, who had another unbelievable game, or Matty "Ice" Ryan, who is fully recovered from last year's injury/sophomore slump, but that sure looked like a push off to me:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBVuTeNfsX4
Either way, these are two extremely good teams who are vying for playoff byes. Lucky Falcons, unlucky Ravens. (Side note- doesn't it always feel like the Ravens don't get these 50-50 calls? After all of their games Ray Lewis seems to be complaining about the refs.)

3) Peyton Manning just keeps chugging along. After all the injuries, Manning somehow keeps this team competitive. If he can steal a win in Gillette this weekend, he is the MVP- no questions asked. He has turned Jacob Tamme into a Pro Bowl caliber TE, and has a 16-4 TD:INT ratio.

4) So long Brett Favre. It was nice knowin ya.

5) Chad Pennington. Chad Henne. Tyler Thigpen. Brandon Marshall. All four of them attempted passes in Sunday's impressive 30-19 victory over the Tennessee Titans. Only one (Marshall) was a trick play. The Dolphins had the vaunted "top two quarterbacks go down for the season" game. Henne may not be done, but it might not matter. Thigpen is one of the best 3rd quarterbacks in the game, and he can't possibly make this offense any more putrid. Kicker Dan Carpenter had another three field goal attempts on Sunday, giving him 25 for the season (or, the same amount as he had in 16 games in 2008, and just three less than all of last season). The Dolphins are still alive in this crazy NFL season, but if they want to squeak into the playoffs, they NEED to score more TD's.

6) What a crazy finish in Jacksonville. For those who haven't seen it yet, this is the reason teams try hail mary's instead of 70 yard field goals:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZpFyjJZ5Db0

7) Congrats to both Buffalo and Detroit. Buffalo on breaking their 8 game losing streak, thanks to possibly the worst 2 point attempt in NFL history:
http://www.nfl.com/gamecenter/2010111406/2010/REG10/lions@bills#tab:watch
Congrats to Detroit for breaking their own record of most games lost on the road in a row (25 and counting). Another absolutely astounding statistic from tonight's game- Dave Rayner's field goal for Detroit was their first field goal made by a kicker not named "Jason Hanson" in 19 seasons. 19!

Now let's go over three more terrific games. We'll start with Giants-Cowboys.

1) Is it possible that Wade Phillips deflated the entire team with his lack of emotion (he's been dead for a few years now- Simmons likes to joke how he could never possibly lose a blinking contest)?(The "no blinking, I might be dead" face, made famous by Al Davis)
Jason Garrett, with the help of superfreak Dez Bryant, brought the Cowboys to life. After the last few weeks, people (me included), assumed the G-Men would steam roll the lifeless Boys'. Not so. Jon Kitna made some beautiful throws, Dez Bryant and Felix Jones made some big plays, and the Giants comeback fell just short- making it all the more frustrating that this team is a pathetic 2-7. They just outplayed possibly the best team in the NFC on their turf, but it is too late now. They had all the talent they needed, just not the right coach to manage that talent. If Garrett even gets 6 wins out of this team, I say he deserves the job for next season. The players seemed genuinely fired up to play for a guy with some passion.

2) There was a string of plays in the fourth quarter which effectively ended the game. Manning had the Giants offense moving, down 13, with 7 and a half minutes left. He made a beautiful deep throw to Hakeem Nicks, who hauled it in and zoomed into the endzone for the score. Unfortunately, there was a holding call after Manning released the pass, and the play was called back. The next play was a fumbled snap recovered by Dallas, and the game was over. Tough break. Had that play counted, the G-Men probably would have had a shot to win it with 3 or 4 minutes left. (http://www.nfl.com/gamecenter/2010111408/2010/REG10/cowboys@giants#tab:watch-3:30 in)

3) Dez Bryant is a beast. His two catches on their first drive were both spectacular- showing off his speed, length, hands and big play ability. The Cowboys will most likely get a high pick in the NFL draft this April, and if they can get someone with even half the talent of Dez, they are going to be dangerous next season.

On to the other NY team. J-E-T-S Jets Jets Jets.

1) Chansi Stuckey. WHY! The Browns, with the help of the immortal Nick Folk, were a couple of plays away from sealing the victory before Chansi's ridiculous fumble at the 32 yard line in OT. Obviously he was just trying to get a couple extra yards, but how do you fumble the ball that close to the sidelines! Step out of bounds! Hold the ball with two hands! Do something! Besides for the fumble, Stuckey also lost the Browns chances of upsetting a top team for the third week in a row. Tough break.

2) I've been reading all day about how Mark Sanchez is a warrior and how he put the team on his back. About how after his calf injury he battled and toughed out the rest of the game. Is all of that true? Maybe. We will get to that in a second. How about a little love for Colt McCoy. He has been fantastic in his three games as starter against arguably the two toughest defenses (Jets, Steelers) and the best defensive mind in the game (Belichick). He definitely was having trouble in the second half generating offense, but honestly, I think he is already as good as Sanchez. I'm not just saying that because I hate the Jets and Sanchez with a passion. I truly believe it. There is something about him, he just makes it happen (Simmons brought a great parallel between him and Tom Brady in his first year as a starter). He doesn't make mistakes (Sanchez makes too many), and is a real playmaker back there with his scrambles and roll outs. Did I mention that Sanchez is playing with Keller, Holmes, Edwards, LT and Shonn Greene, while McCoy is playing with Hillis and Josh Cribbs (best known as a punt returner). He is going to be a great quarterback one day.

3) Sanchize. Great game by him. Definitely showed me something by playing through the injury, and playing pretty well too. He missed Keller downfield one play which I thought was a throw he should have been able to make, but overall he was pretty good. With the exception of the dropped interception at the 2 yard line, I thought he did a good job limiting his mistakes. One thing I've noticed the last few weeks was that Sanchez's problems were stemming from the fact that the Jets running game couldn't really get going. When the running game works, Sanchez is great with the play action and getting down the middle of the field to Keller. Without the running game, he sort of morphed into last season's version of himself- this game bucked that trend. I honestly believe that he is the only weak link on this whole team. If the Jets had a mediocre quarterback, they would basically be unstoppable. Sanchez must step up his game or the Jets are going to be watching someone else play in Dallas in February.
(Quick rant- I think if the Jets are going to win a Super Bowl, it is going to be this year. They aren't getting another year like this from LT, and Braylon and Santonio are both on one year deals. It is now or never boys, let's see what you got.)

Now let's get to the good stuff- Pats-Steelers:

1) Tom Brady! Wow! Where the hell did that come from? After one of his worst games in the past few years against the Browns, Brady let out his anger in a big way on the poor Pittsburgh Steelers. Brady had 350 yards and four total touchdowns, three passing to Spike from "The Little Giants" look-alike Rob Gronkowski.Brady made all the throws he wasn't making last week, and he just ripped apart what was thought to be one of the best defenses in football. Not this week. Brady's first touchdown to Gronkowski and his long ball to Brandon Tate were especially good looking throws, putting it only where his guy could make a play. Moreso than the Ravens game a few weeks ago (which inspired Dan Shaughnessy to write a column about the Super Bowl winning Patriots from the early 2000's) this was vintage Tom Brady. He always found the open man, and spread the ball around well. He also got rid of the ball quickly, something that is key against pass rushing maestros Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison. You all have probably seen the clip of Brady ripping into the offense in the second quarter about playing a perfect game in order to beat a team like the Steelers- this is the reason he is who he is, and why he has won so many Super Bowls. He is the unquestioned leader of this team, and he lets each and every member of his team know that he is willing to go to war for them. He made this point very clear with his exclamation point (and extremely rare) 3 yard sneak which was made possible by Brady's ability to diagnose defenses at the line of scrimmage. He noticed a linebacker shift, and called his own number from pretty far out, something I don't recall him doing since his touchdown against Oakland in the Snow Bowl. Both TD's ended with emphatic slams by a pumped up Brady. I'm glad to see you again Mr. Brady. (Brady highlights- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7RS5eI9fBU4)

2) As good as Brady was, the offensive line may have been better.
(Just imagine Sebastion Vollmer instead of Nick Kazcur. Much better.)
They kept Brady clean all night. Alge Crumpler had a huge game helping out with (and sometimes single covering) James Harrison, and Matt Light and Sebastion Vollmer held their sides well, giving Brady passing lanes to the outside for Branch and Welker. Also, Woody Woodchuck made some great blocks on delayed blitzes from the ferocious Steelers linebackers.

3) I said it last week, and I'll say it again- Pat Chung is HUGE for this defense. He started off the season against the Bengals flying around and really setting the tone. We are fast, we will tackle, and we will even make some big hits for the heck of it. With Chung missing, the Pats got destroyed by Peterson in the first half (though they stiffened in the second half) and got dominated by the powerful Peyton Hillis last week. Although Chung went down a couple of times, he played most of the game and looked absolutely fantastic. His blitzes off the end were a new wrinkle to the defense, and he ended the game with a team high 11 tackles (along with rookie phenom Devin McCourty who had a tough day against speedster Mike Wallace). The play where he came all the way around and tackled Mendenhall after only a couple of yards showed off his speed and tackling ability. He is going to be great for years to come (Please god, let him stay healthy. Don't turn him into the next perennial pro bowler/ perennially injured Bob Sanders. Please!)

4) Hines Ward means a lot to the Pittsburgh offense. I gotta admit, if he was in there, they probably punch a couple of those red zone attempts into the endzone, instead of settling for field goals (or missed field goals-http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/news/story?id=5810033- awkward). Instead, he remained on the sidelines, and the Steelers receivers dropped a handful of catchable balls in the endzone, while the Pats pulled away. They got a hang of it in the fourth, but it was just too little too late.

5) Tully Banta-Cain is back! After starting the season as mostly a sub package rusher, the last few weeks TBC worked his way back into the rotation. This week showed us why. He abused LT Tony Hillis, on his way to a 1.5 sack night with a whole bunch of quarterback hurries. Aside from TBC, Mike Wright and Gary Guyton had big nights. Wright had great interior pressure against phenomenal rookie Center Maurkice Pouncey (a rookie of the year candidate despite his position) accumulating 1.5 sacks as well, and blew up the pocket a few times. Guyton was especially good in the first quarter when he had a nice knockdown and a sack. The Pats are going to need production out of these lesser known players if they want to be successful against high powered offenses like the Packers and Colts.

6) The Patriots are going to have some problems with new Kicker Shayne Graham. Yea, it was only one week, but you just can't miss extra points. His 36 yard field goal looked shaky as well. He needs to become reliable, or the Patriots are going to be in trouble when they get into fourth down situations at the opponents 35 yard line area. Do you risk the kick? Or just go for it? We all remember in Super Bowl 42 when the Pats went for it on 4th and 11 instead of just letting Gostkowski kick a 50 yard field goal. We don't want that again. Hopefully he fixes his problems, the Pats are going to need every point they can get come playoff time against the tough defenses in the AFC (Bal, NYJ, Pitt).

7) That was a huge statement victory for the Patriots. They have a brutal schedule the rest of the way, and are going to need some confidence in order to fight through it with success. There are tough home games against Indy, NYJ and GB, with tough games in Chicago, Detroit (never underestimate a Thanksgiving opponent) and Buffalo (who almost beat us at home, and plays us very tough at Ralph Wilson in the winter). The goal would be to secure a bye in the playoffs, but I think we would all love to see home field advantage throughout.

I don't think it is so far fetched a goal in this wacky year in the NFL.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

NFL Midseason Report: The crowded push towards the playoffs


LOST is one of my favorite TV shows of all time. I obsessed over it for years, plowing through hundreds of thousands of articles and theories. I spent hours discussing it with my friends, and even bought a few T-Shirts.

Sound familiar?

It sounds a whole lot like the life of a die hard sports fan to me. Besides for the actual games, we spend hours watching ESPN, we read every article on our favorite website by our favorite writer, and we waste an inordinate amount of time discussing/arguing with our friends about it. By buying jerseys and season tickets, we have turned sports from "entertainment" into a business (How many times have you heard a player get traded or not get the contract he wants and say, "Hey, it's just a business.").

Anyway, the point of this whole parallel isn't only the similarity of fans of LOST and fans of sports. This NFL season is a lot like LOST in another way: unpredictability. You think you know what is going to happen next? Well, sorry, the Island just disappeared. You think you know who the best team is? Yea? It's the Patriots, they are 6-1, good for best in the NFL! Nope! They just got smoked by the Cleveland Browns! Peyton Hillis, a former 3rd string fullback (is that even a position!?), gashed a defense that had just finished limiting two of the best running backs in the game in Ray Rice and Adrien Peterson.

I was watching some ESPN Thursday night, and in a four minute span, I saw three so called "experts" pick THREE different teams as the number one team in the league right now. One picked the Giants, one the Ravens, and another the Steelers. At this point, making a pick is just silly, because chances are, that team is going to get knocked off in its next game. With that said, I am going to try and take some of the top teams and compare them to some of my favorite characters of my favorite show:

Jack Shepard (Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers):

They are the veteran leaders. They have been there, done that, and despite some bumps in the road, are probably the best bet to be the last man (team) standing. Like Jack, Roethlisberger has had some troubles dealing with success off the field/Island. (From Wikipedia: Off the field, Roethlisberger has been involved in high-profile incidents, including a nearly fatal motorcycle accident in 2006 and sexual assault allegations in Lake Tahoe in 2008 and in Milledgville, Georgia in 2010. Neither allegation resulted in charges being filed. However, the latter act resulted in Roethlisberger being suspended for six games (reduced to four) under the NFL's personal conduct policy for the start of the 2010 season------from Lostpedia: Off-island, Jack laid his father to rest and proposed to Kate, but visits from John Locke and his father's ghost sent him toward depression and substance abuse. Jack began drinking regularly. Jack succumbed to depression and substance abuse, and his hospital suspended him. He began flying across the Pacific every weekend hoping it would crash, returning him to the island or killing him. When he heard Locke had killed himself, Jack tried calling Kate then almost leaped off an L.A. bridge, distracting a driver he then had to save from the ensuing crash. A doctor refused to let him operate on the passenger he'd saved, and when a pharmacist denied him painkillers, even when he forged a prescription from his father, the same doctor caught him trying to steal drugs.) Truly an uncanny comparison.

John Locke (Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots):

Started off as a likeable character, sort of an underdog, and slowly but surely morphed into a killer black smoke monster. Belichick is surely a Man of Science. He believes that the individual doesn't matter- just play your role. If you work as a cohesive unit, you will be successful. This season, Belichick has eliminated the locker room cancers (http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/columns/story?columnist=adande_ja&page=cancers-101103) alright, fine Adande, you win. Belichick has eliminated all the egos in the locker room (that works) like Randy Moss, Laurence Maroney and Adalius Thomas. With Moss especially, Belichick moved with the swiftness of the black smoke's attack on Eko in season 3 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXHfHZZMxYw). That will teach all future Patriots: do not mess with Belichick's team chemistry- he will get you.

James "Sawyer" Ford (Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens):

Like Ford, the Ravens are considered a main character, but they are not quite on the same level as Jack or Locke. Also like Ford, Ray Lewis is a bad, bad man (who has no problem killing someone- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRmK-1wDUig- OK, that was a low blow. Still, he killed a man- http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/sports_issues/40799 - by the way, "Ray Lewis murder" had 1.84 million results on Google. Not a good sign.)

Jacob (Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders):

The only similarities here are that both Jacob and Al have been alive for centuries and at this point no one really knows if they are dead or not.

Walt Lloyd (Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles):
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPH7y0AtT6I
Nuff' said. (Too soon?)

Richard Alpert (Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings):
For those who don't know, Richard's character never aged. His appearance barely changed throughout the course of the show- which spanned about 200 years.



OK. Enough LOST. Plus, half of that probably didn't make sense.

On to the picks!

Minnesota Vikings @ Chicago Bears

Vikings should win. The Bears are somehow 5-3. You do the math.

Vikings 27 Bears 23

NY Jets @ Cleveland Browns

I would do ANYTHING for the Browns to win this game. We saw what they could do last week, and I really hate the Jets. If the Browns can shut down Tom Brady, they can sure as hell shut down Mark Sanchez. Let's see if they can score enough to win- this is my upset of the week.

Cleveland 17 Jets 16

Cincinnati Bengals @ Indianapolis Colts

Easy. Colts ALL DAY.

Indy 30 Cinci 20

Houston Texans @ Jacksonville Jaguars

Tough game to call, because both teams run so hot and cold. But if there is anything we have learned in the past few years, it is that Houston always sucks you back into their trap after a couple of horrible losses. They are due for a win that makes everyone go "let me tell you something, those Houston Texans are going to be very good when they put everything together" (Let me save you the trouble. They won't.)

Houston 33 Jacksonville 24

Tennessee Titans @ Miami Dolphins

Overrated Titans (because of Moss), underrated Dolphins (people are overlooking Chad Pennington. I think.) I smell upset.

Dolphins 23 Titans 20

Carolina Panthers @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Panthers are SO bad. Also, Bucs need a bounce back after their heart breaker last week. They are gonna win big.

Bucs 34 Panthers 13

Detroit Lions @ Buffalo Bills

A surprisingly watcheable game. Ryan Fitzpatrick to Steve Johnson has been a great hookup the last few weeks, and the Lions really came to play last week against a big time opponent. This might be one of the more exciting games this weekend. Too bad about Stafford, he looked fantastic the last couple of weeks. (Did I write "last" enough times that paragraph?)

Bills 26 Lions 23

Kansas City Chiefs @ Denver Broncos

The Broncos were underrated until they let up 60 points to the Raiders. The Chiefs remain underrated. Dwayne Bowe has got to stop dropping TD passes.

Chiefs 27 Broncos 21

Seattle Seahawks @ Arizona Cardinals

This is the type of game god makes so that people who try to predict games look like idiots. No idea what's going to happen. Possible Armageddon.

Cards 34 Hawks 24

NY Giants @ Dallas Cowboys

I've been saying it for weeks: this Giants team is VERY similar to their 2007 championship squad. Except now, Eli Manning is a good quarterback, and he has some unbelievable weapons in Ahmad Bradshaw, Hakeem Nicks and Steve Smith. They are going to be extremely tough to beat come playoff time.

Giants 41 Cowboys 17

St. Louis Rams @ San Francisco 49ers

Singletary is done after this year. It will be fun to see Troy Smith at the helm, he was a fun player to watch back at THE Ohio State University.

Rams 27 49ers 17

New England Patriots @ Pittsburgh Steelers

Brady is 5-1 against Pittsburgh, and the Steelers lost their LT and may be without James Harrison. And I'm a Patriots fan.

Pats 27 Steelers 24

Philadelphia Eagles @ Washington Redskins

When your quarterback doesn't know the 2 minute offense AND has problems staying in shape, you are probably going to lose. The Eagles are definitely for real, that was a huge win against Indy last week. Mike Vick for MVP!!!

Eagles 30 Redskins 20