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Friday, December 31, 2004 

The Minister Gets His Day

Had I known about ESPN Classic's tribute to Reggie White today, I would have mentioned it this morning. Earlier, they were showing the Memphis Showboats in some USFL action, now they are running some Eagles highlights.

 

Rewind

"Life is what happens when you're making other plans."

That is definitely true in my case. I find "year in review" columns boring, so I'll spare you a recap of the NFL in 2004. But as this blog moves into its second calendar year, I can honestly say it did not turn out the way I had intended it, but I've enjoyed doing it. Moving into a new house in the middle of the NFL season is definitely not conducive to getting a new blog off the ground. I had hoped to do a lot more with statistical analysis and some historical comparisons, but I simply didn't have much time during September and October, so the blog became more of a (sporadic) running commentary on the NFL and a way for me to express my point of view. Hope you enjoyed it, and maybe even learned something along the way.

Have a great and safe New Year, and I'll see you in 2005.

 

Hard News

This is always a week where sports has a hard time dominating the headlines, with the holidays appropriately diverting our attention. But the Tsunamis in SE Asia last Sunday morning have been tough to comprehend. After initial reports of "3,000" dead, the death toll keeps growing and will likely reach 100,000. It is especially hard to see pictures of folks in the poorer sections. They have obviously not had easy lives, and now they have to deal with this.

I did find it ironic that George Carlin checked into rehab recently for what was described as a "wine and painkiller" dependency. One of Carlin's bits over the years was that humans tend to root for casualities after natural disasters, in some kind of sub-conscious desire to have witnessed one of the "worst" events ever. That kind of thinking seems especially distasteful this week.

Update:Latest reports set the death count at over 120,000.

Sunday, December 26, 2004 

Manning gets number 49

Hold on folks, it's going to be a rough ride...

Peyton Manning broke Dan Marino's record and the Chargers hearts with a great comeback today. A late TD to Brandon Stokley was the record breaker, and the Colts also got the two point conversion they needed to tie it in regulation. Then they won the overtime coin toss and Manning hit a big fourth down completion to set up the winning field goal. The playoff impact is obvious - even if the Patriots lose today, they can still get the bye by winning next week against the 49ers. Pittsburgh wrapped up home field by beating Baltimore, who is now a game behind Denver for the last AFC spot.

Jacksonville is now in a similar position, after playing an awful game at home against Houston. The Jags should be Oakland next week, but who knows? They might even have to jump over both Denver and Buffalo in the standings. What a waste of a nice season.

In the NFC, New Orleans defeated Atlanta, so the 7-8 Saints are now leading the race for the last wild card spot. If Carolina wins and St. Louis loses, then next week's New Orleans-Carolina game is for that last spot. (Minnesota will clinch with a St. Louis loss.)

 

More to Unwrap

Hope everyone had a great holiday.

I watched the Green Bay-Minnesota game on Christmas Eve but passed on the two games yesterday. I guess Oakland-Kansas City was exciting, but neither team is making the playoffs. Denver's win last night was essential to keep them in the race, and they'll hope for some of the other 8-6 teams to slip this week. Hosting Indy next week will not be easy.

As for the playoff races, Green Bay not only locked up the division but also the 3rd seed in the NFC. Minnesota will likely end up as the 5th seed, which means that both teams will play fairly mediocre teams in the first round. The Packers will have a big edge playing at home, but it is conceivable that the Vikings will have a relatively easy game too, playing against the NFC West champ.

In the AFC, Denver's win means that Jacksonville cannot clinch today. The Jags had a pretty far-fetched scenario anyway... Lastly, the Jets now have just two scenarios left - win or tie against the Patriots, or hope that both Buffalo and Baltimore lose or tie.

Thursday, December 23, 2004 

Festival of (De)lights

This is a huge weekend in the NFL, with 10 games that involve the top playoff contenders. There are another 7 teams in the NFC at 5-9 who still have a shot, but with Carolina, New Orleans, and St. Louis tied for the last spot at 6-8 with 2 weeks to go, the tie-breaker scenarios are dizzying.

Friday

Can you imagine if this was the Monday night game this week? FOX must be jubilant that they draw Green Bay at Minnesota on Christmas Eve afternoon. The Packers have already clinched a playoff spot but the Vikings have not; the winner of this game wins the division so the stakes are high. Neither team was impressive last week, as the Packers lost to the Jaguars thanks to Brett Favre's 3 interceptions and the Vikings barely held on against the Lions. Favre never plays well in the Metrodome, but I'm not sold on the Vikings in a big game (remember their collapse against Arizona that knocked them out of the playoffs last year?). Green Bay won the game in Lambeau earlier this year 34-31, and this game should also be high-scoring and entertaining.

Saturday

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) you'll have plenty of time to spend with your family on Christmas Day. The first game is at 5pm Eastern as Oakland travels to Kansas City for a great rivalry game that has no playoff implications at all. The nightcap isn't much better, as Denver tries to bounce back against Tennessee. The Broncos somehow have allowed themselves to fall into a dangerous 4-team tie for the last AFC wild-card spot. They finish up at home against the Colts in a game that could be very meaningful in terms of playoff seeding. Here are the remaining schedules for the "gang of four" in the AFC:


Jacksonville 8-6 Houston, at Oakland
Buffalo 8-6 at SF, Pitt
Baltimore 8-6 at Pitt, Miami
Denver 8-6 at Tenn, Indianapolis


Denver's 7-6 loss to Jacksonville in Week 2 looms large...

Sunday

While we're on the subject of the AFC wild-card race, we'll start in Jacksonville on Sunday as they host Houston. The Jaguars hold tie-breakers over Denver and Buffalo with wins over both teams. Of the four teams at 8-6, Jacksonville is the only team that can clinch a playoff spot this weekend, but don't count on it. Oh, the Jaguars should win, but they need the other 3 teams to all lose PLUS they need to clinch the strength of schedule tiebreaker against all them. Unlikely, since Buffalo is playing woeful San Francisco.

Early Games

When the Patriots threw away their game in Miami, the stakes for San Diego and Indianapolis went up considerably. Instead of fighting for the third seed, now there's a chance to get a bye. New England doesn't play until 4pm, so expect a great effort by both teams. Peyton Manning needs 2 TDs to break Marino's record, and he should do it this week - there's no way he wants to risk it on a trip to Denver, where there is always the possibility of snow.

Baltimore is in a more dire position after losing to Indy last week, while Pittsburgh got an early gift from Tom Brady. The Steelers need just one win in their final two games to clinch home field, and I think they'll finish the job.

Finally, New Orleans hosts Atlanta, who will probably not play Michael Vick since they're locked into the #2 seed. It's a great break for the Saints, who could control their own destiny with a win. New Orleans plays in Carolina next week, and even though they lost 32-21 in their last game, anything is possible.

Late Games

All of a sudden, the Patriots have a must-win game against the Jets. A win locks up a bye, a loss makes it possible for them to slip all the way to the fourth seed and a first round playoff game against - probably the Jets. New York has a two game lead for the wild card, but has not officially clinched yet. They need a win or a combination of losses by 2 or 3 of the other wild card contenders. Of course, New England plays San Francisco next week and New York plays at St. Louis (what kind of wacky scheduling is that?), so both teams will have a chance at redemption regardless of the outcome.

I hate to say that Arizona at Seattle is interesting, but it is. Arizona can still win their division if things break right, starting with a win this week. I have no faith in the Seahawks, but even less in the Cardinals. Seattle cliches a playoff spot with a win, and needs a St. Louis loss to win the division.

Then there's Carolina, which took a big step back last week with an overtime loss to Atlanta. Now they have to beat Tampa Bay, who is still marginally alive, and possibly face a winner-take-all showdown with New Orleans last week. Maybe their playoff run has run out of gas at the wrong time.

Monday

The final Monday night game of the year means nothing for Philadelphia, except that they'll try to find a replacement for Terrell Owens contributions in the passing game. I know it's a minor point, but I guess Andy Reid won't have to wear the tights after all - Owens never did catch TD number 15. St. Louis got smoked by Arizona last week but is still in the thick of the race. St. Louis needs Seattle to help, but if the Jets win this week, then they have no motivation to play hard against the Rams next week.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004 

Patriot Games

The only difference between Tom Brady's poor decision Monday night and the pass he completed while sitting on the field last Sunday is that one didn't work and the other one did. Anyone who fell all over themselves in giddy laughter after the pass against the Bengals missed the point - you can't take chances in the passing game. I don't think Brady is going to turn into a gunslinger like Brett Favre, but he is starting to head towards Drew Bledsoe territory (remember Drew's attempted flip pass over his head against Pittsburgh in the 2001 AFC title game?).

As a Patriots fan, I've given up on home field, since they'd need to win 2 games (NY Jets, SF) while the Steelers lose 2 (Balt, Buffalo). New England does get a big break since San Diego plays at Indy on Sunday (if you're lucky enough to have DirecTV by the way, this one weekend may be worth the price of the entire season). The loser will have 4 losses, and if Indy loses New England clinches no worse than the 3rd seed (head-to-head tiebreaker). But a San Diego loss makes things interesting:


Tot vs AFC
NE 12-2 9-2
SD 11-3 8-2
IND 11-3 7-3


Thinking worst case, the Patriots finish at 12-4 with a 9-3 AFC record. San Diego splits, losing to Indy and beating KC to finish with the same records. Indy sweeps by defeating Denver and finishes 13-3 and gets the bye. Now we move to common games to decide NE vs. SD for the 3rd seed (assuming the scenario above).


NE SD
NYJ 1-1 0-1
KC 1-0 2-0
Cleve 1-0 1-0


That's right, tied again at 3-1. So we'd move to strength of schedule next ... and it's too early in the AM for me to figure that out right now.

A three-way tie favors the Pats since they are 1-0 against Indy/SD, while the best the Colts can be is 1-1 with a win on Sunday. If the Chargers win, then the Colts drop out with an 0-2 record and it's NE vs. SD again.

Bottom line - if the Patriots win Sunday they should get a bye, since they'll have a one-game lead over 3rd place and most tie-breakers in hand.

Sunday, December 19, 2004 

Games of the Day

Another day, another set of 3 games on TV...

Early Games

Seattle at New York could be fabulous or awful. I would not be surprised to see the Jets dominate this game, since Seattle can have trouble stopping people. But the Seahawks did a good job against the Vikings last week after getting embarassed by the Cowboys the week before. Both teams really need a win; Seattle cannot afford to give up the lead in their division, since there are plenty of teams with 8 losses waiting in the wings. The Jets only option is the wild-card, and their one-game lead over Baltimore and Denver is fairly slim considering that they finish up against New England and St. Louis, two teams that will be "up" for those games.

Late Games

Today is Jacksonville's last chance to stay alive, but it's a slim one. Green Bay needs a win to clinch a playoff spot, and they should have plenty of motivation. Today is their last home game of the season. Win and they are assured of no worse than a wild-card game on the road. Lose, and they will be forced to beat Minnesota in the Metrodome next week. Favre always seems to struggle there, and the Vikings have the speed to take advantage of the turf. Then, if that wasn't bad enough, the Packers have to travel to Chicago the day after New Year's. Not only did the Bears win the game in Lambeau this year, but Chicago is still alive in the playoff race and has win-able games against Houston and at Detroit.

Prime Time

Since my predictions are normally lousy anyway, I'll go out on a limb and say that Peyton will not break Marino's record tonight. Baltimore is a flawed team with a good defense, and they need this game a lot more than Indy. The Ravens are on the edge of the playoffs and have the toughest schedule of the AFC wild-card contenders:


NYJets 9-4 Sea, NE, at STL
Denver 8-5 at KC, at Tenn, Indy
Baltimore 8-5 at Indy, at Pitt, Miami
Buffalo 7-6 at Cinn, at SF, Pitt
Jacksonvile 7-6 at GB, Houston, at Oak


Sure, their last game should be a gimme, but it may not matter if they're 8-7 by then.

Indy has wrapped up their division, but unless NE or Pitt stumble badly, they are locked into the 3rd or 4th seed. The Colts should win tonight, but I'd be surprised if it was easy.

 

Brotherhood

Eli Manning certainly surprised me yesterday. The Giants gave the Steelers all they could handle before winning 33-30 on a TD with just under 5 minutes left. The Steelers defense has been very good this year, so Manning's stats should not be underestimated. Perhaps Tom Coughlin isn't the idiot the New York press corps was trying to make him out to be (again).

Meanwhile, midnight may have struck for Carolina, as they lost to Atlanta. The Panthers will end the weekend at best in a three-way tie for the last NFC wild-card spot with St. Louis and either New Orleans or Tampa Bay (their opponent next week).

Saturday, December 18, 2004 

Games of the Day

Saturday NFL football is a wonderful invention, especially the weekend before Christmas. Seven game times on TV over three days makes it a lot easier to squeeze in holiday shopping, and there's plenty of good games to choose from (thanks to the NFC races, mostly).

Today starts with the Steelers at the Giants and two young QBs going in opposite directions. I can't see Big Ben stumbling here, and Pittsburgh has plenty of motivation to stay tied with New England (who play Miami on Monday night). Pittsburgh needs a win and losses by San Diego (unlikely vs. Cleveland) and Indy (possible vs. Baltimore) to clinch a first-round bye.

Then it's time to hit the mall... I cannot imagine one reason to watch Washington play San Francisco unless you are a relative, and even then, shouldn't you be shopping?

Finally, the game of the day is Carolina at Atlanta. The Falcons beat the Panthers 27-10 back in week 4, but now the Panthers are as hot as any team in the league. With T.J. Duckett out, I can't see the Falcons winning this one. Carolina is already tied for the last wild-card spot with St. Louis, and a win here would put them in a good position, since they have Tampa Bay and New Orleans on their remaining schedule and can control at least part of their destiny. Here's a case where the schedule can be misleading. After St. Louis plays Arizona tomorrow, they finish up against Philadelphia and the NY Jets, which seems like a harder schedule at first glance. But since Tampa Bay is hosting New Orleans this week, one of those teams is guaranteed to be 6-8 and still in the race next week. By comparison, the last two games might be meaningless to the Eagles and Jets.

 

All I Want for Christmas

Peyton Manning will try to break Dan Marino's single-season TD record tomorrow night, and Bob Kravitz of the Indy Star has a humorous take on Peyton's pursuit. Manning only needs three more TD passes, but he will have his hands full over the next 3 weeks. The Colts have won 6 in a row, but only one came against a team that has more than 5 wins now (Vikings 7-6). The Colts next three games are against the Ravens, Chargers and at the Broncos - and while it's almost a lock that at least 2 of those teams will make the playoffs, the game in Denver could be very important for seeding purposes. I'm sure the Colts would love to see the Broncos back in Indy again for a playoff game :-)

Manning has had an incredible career, but I didn't realize how close his stats parallel Marino's after (almost) 7 years:


Yrs G Yds TD-INT
Marino 83-89 103 27853 220-125
Manning 98-04 109 28804 213-119


And Manning could hit some other personal milestones this season, but there are a bit of a stretch. He needs to average 360 yds passing per game to reach 5000 for the season, and would need almost 400 per game to hit 30000 for his career.


Sunday, December 12, 2004 

Games of the Day

Plenty of games with playoff implications, and a lot of 4pm (East Coast time) starts to allow for Christmas shopping!

Early Games

Seattle's meltdown in the final two minutes Monday night dropped them into a tie with St. Louis, while Minnesota lost to Chicago and stayed tied with Green Bay. Both teams should be fired up, but Minnesota has the edge today. They have too many stars on offense, and Seattle's defense has been pedestrian at best lately. If they can't stop Vinny Testaverde, how's Duante Culpepper going to do? The Seahawks are just one game ahead of 6 teams who are at 5-7, so a loss today could ruin their holiday plans.

Late Games

The Jets travel to Pittsburgh today looking to stop Big Ben. New York is unlikely to clinch a playoff spot today, as they need a win plus some help that includes a Denver loss at home against Miami (don't count on it). Pittsburgh may have already clinched their division by game time if the Giants knock off the Ravens in one of the early games. Both teams have some key contributers missing (John Abraham for the Jets, Plaxico Burress, Kendrell Bell, and Chad Scott for the Steelers), but the Jets defense is on the spot today. They have quietly held opponents to the fewest points of any team in the league (175), partially due to their ground control offense. The Jets rolled over the Texans last week but had several close calls before that; and the Steelers barely survived against the Jags.

San Diego won again last week, but they'll need a win against Tampa Bay today to stay 2 games ahead of Denver. Tampa rolled over Atlanta last week, and are in the thick of the NFC wild-card race. The Bucs are more desparate, and the Chargers are due for a letdown.

Two of the last three NFC champions face off in Carolina as the Rams visit the Panthers. Carolina is also 5-7, and would be tied for a playoff spot with a win today. It's hard to get that excited about either team, but St. Louis didn't exactly set the world afire last week against an awful San Francisco team. The reports of the Panthers demise appear to have been greatly exaggerated, and I wouldn't want to face them in the playoffs.

Prime Time

Don't bother clearing your schedule for these games. Philadelphia has clinched everything except home field, and they have a 2 game lead over Atlanta in that race. Last week's win by Washington was nice, but look at their opposition. Anything is possible in the NFL, but the only way the Eagles lose is if they don't show up, and that won't be very entertaining to watch.

As for Monday night, this game might convince the league to radically change the Monday night TV package - Kansas City and Tennessee are both 4-8 and going nowhere this year.

 

Running in place

Michael Vick reminds me of a faster, smaller Randall Cunningham, who had his best playoff success late in his career when he couldn't run much anymore. Vick hardly looked impressive last week against Tampa, and Atlanta's 9-3 record looks more like a mirage to me every week. I just don't see them as a serious threat to the Eagles.

Sunday, December 05, 2004 

Games of the Day

The NFC Wild Card "race" continues to devolve. Now there are 13 teams within a game of a playoff spot, with the Rams and Giants tied for the last spot at 5-6. Other than the 49ers (and possibly the Redskins at 3-8) everyone else is still in it.

Early Games

Tennessee at Indianapolis has lost most of its luster. When these teams met in Week 2, who knew that it would be symbolic for both teams? Tennessee took a 17-10 lead midway through the third quarter, then gave up 21 unanswered points to lose 31-17. Last week, the Titans did it again; after leading 21-10 at halftime in Houston, the Texans scored 21 unanswered points to win 31-21. The story for this game is whether Peyton Manning can keep his hot streak going. He's thrown for 4 or more TD's in 5 straight games as he pursues Dan Marino's record. Manning's 24 TDs in 5 weeks sounds like a record to me, but I have not had time to do the leg work to find out. By comparison, Marino's best stretch was 4 TD's a week over the last 4 weeks of the 1984 season (18 TD's over the last 5). Manning has 5 games to throw 8 TDs but has a tough schedule down the stretch as I noted last week.

Late Games

The best game of the day should be Denver at San Diego. The Chargers are leading the West behind the inspired play of Drew Brees, who has made Phillip Rivers an afterthought. Baltimore should beat Cincinnati today, so Denver needs a win to take over first place (a win today will sweep the season series with San Diego) or the Broncos risk falling a game behind in the race for the last playoff spot. It will be interesting to see if the Chargers can control the Broncos running game again. In Week 3, Denver ran the ball for just 37 yards.

Green Bay at Philadelphia would be a classic, except that the Eagles have already clinched a playoff spot. However, they still need to stay ahead of Atlanta to ensure home field (which could be huge against the Falcons). The Packers are tied with the Vikings at 7-4 atop the NFC North, and have the edge due to their 34-31 win at Lambeau 3 weeks ago. Brett Favre tore apart the Rams Monday night, but the Eagles have a much tougher defense that has allowed almost half as many points (Eagles 164, Rams 299).

Also, I'm sure the Kansas City/Oakland game will be great, but who cares?

Prime Time

ESPN must have loved Byron Leftwich coming back last week against the Vikings. Now he should be ready to take on the Steelers tonight with no rust to shake off. Pittsburgh's mid-season vacation (Cleveland, Cincinnati, Washington) is over, but with wins against New England and Philadelphia they have nothing to prove. Plus they have the benefit of a 3 game cushion in their division. But they'll probably have to win out in order to get home field away from the Patriots. Jacksonville is the more desperate team, but I don't know if they can score enough against the Steelers defense. A loss today by the Jags could put them two games out of the wild card and three behind the Colts, so this game should be fun to watch.

As for Dallas at Seattle Monday night, it's time for the Seahawks to explode on offense, and the porous Cowboy defense may be just what the doctor ordered. Seattle will know if St. Louis has taken care of business against San Francisco, and the last thing Seattle wants is to fall into a first place tie at 6-6. But since this is the NFC, they'll probably still have a share of the Wild Card!

 

Justice is blind

The sadest part about the most recent steroid scandal is that the Major League Baseball players union will do nothing about it. They'd rather protect the cheaters than preserve the integrity of the majority of the players. Let's hope the NFL continues to do a better job in this area.

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