Sunday, January 29, 2006 

Spinning the Dial

The NFL made it official yesterday, awarding the NFL Network the late-season "Thurs/Sat" package starting in the 2006 season. It will be an interesting decision for cable and satellite providers whether to put the NFL Network on a basic service tier.

This reminds me of the problems that YES had with Cablevision a few years ago. After the Yankees created YES, and moved their games to their new network, Cablevision balked at the price to carry it. But Yankees fans fought back (as the YES executives knew they would) and a deal was eventually made.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006 

Blown Away

I was dead wrong on both conference championship games. The Steelers took control in the second quarter of their game against the Broncos, scoring 21 points, including two TDs in the final 2 minutes after an ill-advised Jake Plummer throw was intercepted. Pittsburgh came out throwing, but ended up rushing the ball 33 times while Ben Roethlisberger completed 21 of 29 passes for 275 yards and 2 TDs. By holding onto the ball for just over 36 minutes, they kept Denver off the field, and kept the pressure on Jake Plummer.

Then came Seattle's dismantling of Carolina. I was impressed by the Panthers domination of the Giants and Bears, but I overlooked a few important things. First, the Giants and Bears were probably overrated. Second, without DeShaun Foster, the Panthers running game was going to be suspect. Nick Goings rushed the ball just 5 times for two yards before leaving with an injury, and once Seattle started building their lead there was little Jake Delhomme could do. Seattle won time of possession 41:51 to 18:09, won the turnover ratio 4-0, and outrushed Carolina 190 to 36.

I think this Super Bowl matchup is very interesting, but more on that over the next 2 weeks.

Friday, January 20, 2006 

Quick Slants - Conference Championship games

This weekend fetures a pair of great coaching matchups. All four head coaches have coached in a Super Bowl, and the two home team coaches (Mike Shanahan and Mike Holmgren) have both won the big game.

A lot has been made of the fact that both road teams are wild card teams who have already won two games on the road during the playoffs. Since the current playoff format was instituted in 1990, conference championship games have been won by the visitors 43 percent of the time. But only five wild card teams have advanced to the Super Bowl - and all five were fourth seeds that hosted their first road playoff game:

1992 Buffalo 29-10 at Miami
1997 Denver* 24-21 at Pittsburgh
1999 Tennessee 33-14 at Jacksonville
2000 Baltimore* 16-3 at Oakland
2003 Carolina 14-3 at Philadelphia
* - Won Super Bowl

However, the Steelers and Panthers are not your ordinary wild cards, since they both tied for first place in their respective divisions.

Pittsburgh at Denver, 3pm ET CBS

I'm fascinated by the psychology in this game. Will Pittsburgh have a letdown after an emotional win against Indy? Will Denver be over-confident after New England practically handed them a win last weekend? Or will they simply be rested? The Broncos and Steelers were ranked second and third against the run this season, while Pittsburgh was a bit better against the pass. One revealing stat is that the Broncos outgained the Steelers by nearly 40 yards per game (360.4 to 321.8) yet the two teams averaged nearly the same number of points (24.7 Denver, 24.3 Pittsburgh).

The implications are obvious. Denver has a more diverse offense with the potential for big plays. Pittsburgh reminds me of the 2001 Patriots - young QB, efficient passing game and a steady, but not spectacular running game, plus a play-making secondary and defense. They are also on a late-season roll, winning 6 in a row after a 7-5 start. The Steelers were also 15-1 last season, before losing to the Patriots in the AFC title game.

But in spite of all of that, I have to pick the Broncos, since I think they are the best overall team still standing at this point.

Carolina at Seattle, 6:30pm ET FOX

If the Panthers win this game, you can start clearing space in Canton for John Fox. Well, maybe that is a bit of an overstatement, but with his two top RBs out for the year, the onus is clearly on Jake Delhomme and Steve Smith to power the offense. Smith has had double-digits in catches each of the last two weeks, and his 12 catch, 218 yard performance against the Bears was stunning because it came so easy.

The Seahawks expect Shaun Alexander to play, so their running game should be in high gear. But I'm still suspicious of Matt Hasselbeck and his receiving corps. They played well against the Redskins, but Washington was over-rated.

If DeShaun Foster was healthy, this would be an easy pick. But I must confess I'm a Jake Delhomme fan, and I think he'll be back in the Super Bowl for the second time in 3 years.

Too bad it can't be a rematch...

Sunday, January 15, 2006 

Over Easy

The Patriots bid for an unprecedented three Super Bowls in a row ended with a thud last night, as that sound you heard was the defending champs falling back to earth. New England had four critical turnovers (five overall) that led to 24 of Denver's points and cost the Patriots at least 3 of their own. But don't be misled - Denver's defense was the reason they won the game. While the turnovers made the score more lopsided than it should have been, the Patriots couldn't put the ball in the endzone. Even on the drive that ended with Champ Bailey's interception (and amazing play/tackle by Ben Watson) I doubt the Patriots would have scored more than a field goal anyway. Plus, that inteception was caused by pressure - not just pressure on that play, but the consistent pressure all night that frustrated Tom Brady. This game was similar to the one earlier this season in that Brady was roughed up all night and could not get in ryhthm. The 420-286 edge in yardage doesn't tell the story. New England was backed up in its own end for most of the first half, to the point that their first big play, a 50+ yard pass to Andre Davis, resulted in a long field goal attempt.

Folks like to compare Brady to Joe Montana, and I think the comparison is a great one. Montana also saw some seasons end due to defensive pressure from teams like the Giants. I've watched every one of Brady's 11 playoff games, and this was the first time his offensive line couldn't protect him effectively. Of course, there is an easy excuse for this. Not only were Dan Koppen and Matt Light out for the season, but replacement Nick Kaczur was scratched just before game time, which was a bad sign. FB Patrick Pass also missed the game, which weakened their blitz pickup.

In the playoffs, where every team is pretty good, you have to make the quarterback uncomfortable. Whether you do that with pressure or great coverage (as the Patriots have done against Peyton Manning), you have to mix things up.

And finally, as a Patriots fan, I'm disappointed but not excessively so. They've won 3 titles in 4 years, which is a lot more than I ever expected that franchise to do. Just overcoming all of their injuries this year was an accomplishment they can be proud of. Now we can start looking forward to a busy offseason...

But first, I'll try to enjoy the games today :-)

Thursday, January 12, 2006 

Quick Slants - Divisional Weekend

In an interesting twist, every game this weekend is a rematch from the regular season, even though none of them feature divisional rivals. With the exception of the Washington-Seattle game, all of the others will even be played at the same stadium. Normally, there is at most 1 upset in this round, given how powerful the bye week is for the home teams. We'll see if the second time is the charm for those who lost earlier this year.

Washington at Seattle 4:30pm ET FOX

The Redskins survived last week despite just 25 yards passing by winning the turnover battle 3-1. In their earlier meeting with the Seahawks back in Week 4, Washington won 20-17 in overtime in a very evenly played game (354 yards for Seattle, 352 yards for Washington). Seattle was held to 119 yards rushing, far below their season average of 153.6. Washington is going to need to do better than even that to win this game, as the Redskins lack the firepower to win a shootout.

New England at Denver 8pm ET CBS

Denver must be wondering why everyone else is complaining about disrespect. The Broncos had a great season, finished 2nd in the league in rushing offense and defense, yet the Colts, and even the Patriots, get better press. Jake Plummer kept his mistakes to a minimum to compliment a powerful runing game, where Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell nearly became a 1,000 yard tandem. The Patriots overwhelmed the Jaguars in the second half last Saturday, but Denver is a far superior team. As a Patriots fan, my fear is that the Broncos smother the Patriots running game while controlling the ball on the ground. That, and some good pressure up front defensively could force the normally unflappable Tom Brady into some mistakes. The Patriots won't give up 21 unanswered points like back in Week 6, but I'm not sold on their defense yet.

Pittsburgh at Indianapolis 1pm ET CBS

Four weeks and a family tragedy have passed since the Colts last played a meaningful game. In contrast, the Steelers have been in playoff mode that entire period, setting up an interesting matchup. Indy blew out Pittsburgh 26-7 back in Week 12, setting the tone early with an 80 yard TD pass from Peyton Manning to Marvin Harrison just 1:44 into the game. The Colts outgained the Steelers 366-197, and Edgerrin James ran for 124 yards against a defense that surrendered an average of just 86 yards on the ground per game. Of course, you can make the point that the Colts peaked in that game, while the Steelers started playing their best football after leaving Indianapolis. But the Steelers schedule was weak, and the Colts had nothing to play for. The Colts will be ready to play Sunday, so the Steelers shouldn't be making any plans for the AFC title game.

Carolina at Chicago 4:30pm ET FOX

The defensive battle of the weekend will take place in Chicago, where the Bears hope to shut down the Panthers again. Chicago has been terrible offensively, second-worst in the NFL in passing yardage and 3rd down percentage (just ahead of San Francisco), but their defense has kept them in every game. That was especially true back in Week 11, when the Bears defeated the Panthers 13-3 despite allowing Carolina WR Steve Smith to catch 14 passes for 169 yards. The Panthers looked great last Sunday, but have been so inconsistent all year it is hard to figure them out. However, I'd look for a road team upset here; not only did Carolina have a fairly easy game last week, I do not trust Chicago's offense to rally from a deficit of more than 7 points. In the playoffs, wierd things happen, and I could easily see Carolina scoring a fluke TD early and holding off Chicago the rest of the way for a hard-fought win.

Sunday, January 08, 2006 

Wild Card Wrap

A few thoughts on this weekend ...

Saturday's games were decided by big plays. The Patriots failed to capitalize on a first-half fumble recovery, and Deion Branch let a Tom Brady pass go through his hands just before halftime. But in an eight minute span starting late in the third quarter, New England cashed in on more Jacksonville mistakes. While Benjamin Watson's fumble and subsequent recovery by Andre Davis was partially luck, Watson's 63 yard rumble down the sideline and Asante Samuel's INT return were the result of poor tackling and execution by the Jaguars. In the early game, Tampa's defense gave the Bucs plenty of opportunities, but Edell Shepherd dropped a game-tying touchdown pass in the final minutes.

On Sunday, Carolina was very impressive against the Giants, shutting down Tiki Barber and rattling Eli Manning. At one point in the second half, Manning had completed just 8 passes while he had been intercepted 3 times. The playoff experience of the Panthers served them well, while the Giants looked out of sync the whole game. Manning's performance continued a trend - three young QBs (Leftwich and Simms being the others) playing unevenly at best and throwing key interceptions.

Unfortunately, we didn't get to see how Carson Palmer would have handled the pressure of his first playoff game. Palmer's knee injury on the second play of the game ended the Bengals season - even though I thought the Steelers were going to win anyway. The Bengals got an emotional lift when backup Jon Kitna initially played well in relief, but as the Steelers offense started scoring in bunches, their defense stiffened and smothered the Bengals, especially in the second half.

We'll see how many of these winners are still standing after next weekend - if history is any guide, I'd expect 3 of them to lose.

Friday, January 06, 2006 

Quick Slants - Wild Card Weekend

The first week of the playoffs is always exciting, but keep this in mind - in most years, 7 of the 8 teams playing this weekend will be playing golf by January 16. History tells us that the majority of the teams who reach the conference championship games are the teams who have earned byes. So don't get too excited if any of these teams scores a big victory this weekend.

Washington (10-6) at Tampa Bay (11-5), 4:30pm ABC

I'm stunned that the Redskins are here after a 5-6 start, but they have a good shot in this game. Tampa has a lot of trouble scoring against good defenses, and Washington qualifies. It's also hard to root against Joe Gibbs, though I would like to see Tampa move on to play Chicago since that would be a great defensive matchup. But the Redskins should win this game.

Jacksonvile (12-4) at New England (10-6), 8pm ABC

They should call this one the "disrespect" bowl. Jacksonville is angry that both New England and Cincinnati essentially benched their starters last week to try to fall into the fourth seed. New England has a chip on their shoulder because of their slow start. The Patriots played an easy second half schedule, but they took care of business, winning 6 out of 7 before the finale against the Dolphins. New England has been compared to Cincinnati since those two teams are the only playoff teams to have given up over 20 points per game this season. But there is one big difference. The Patriots gave up 220 points in their first 8 games, and just 118 since. The Bengals gave up 125 points in the first half of the season - and 225 in their last 8 games. So it looks like the Patriots are getting stronger on defense while the Bengals have been exposed.

That said, while I think the Patriots can win this game, that's where the story will end. I can't see them winning in Denver or Indianapolis next weekend.

Carolina (11-5) at NY Giants (11-5), 1pm FOX

Both of these teams have been wildly inconsistent. I like the experience of the Panthers over the Giants, partially because Jake Delhomme has won big games in the playoffs while Eli Manning is making his first playoff appearance.

Pittsburgh (11-5) at Cincinnati (11-5), 4:30pm CBS

Pittsburgh is another tough team to figure. Sure, they've been impressive, but blowout wins over Cleveland and Detroit need to be taken with a grain of salt. Even though Cincinnati won their last meeting, I have a tough time thinking they can win this game. The Bengals look to me like a team that is running out of gas. Maybe the virtual "bye week" they took last week will help, but I think Indy should start preparing for Pittsburgh.


Running Away With It

I was not surprised that Seattle RB Shaun Alexander won the AP MVP award, since he set a new TD record, but Peyton Manning's second-place finish surprised me.

Shaun Alexander 19
Peyton Manning 13
Tom Brady 10
Tiki Barber 6
Carson Palmer 2

Manning is a great player, but I thought that Tiki Barber in particular deserved more votes. Plus, both Brady and Palmer were more valuable to their teams than Manning, who had a good defense (and relatively good health) to help him. It was also interesting that the 50 voters evenly split their votes 25/25 between QBs and RBs.

Monday, January 02, 2006 

Happy New Year

Hope you all had a great holiday. It certainly was for the Steelers and Redskins, who secured the final wild-card spots in their respective conferences with wins. It was also clear that the Bengals and Patriots defintely wanted to play the Jaguars in the first round of the playoffs. Cincinnati treated their game with Kansas City as a glorified practice and got crushed, while New England sat out a few injured starters, and played Matt Cassel at QB for the final three quarters. If New England really wanted to win the game, they never would have let Doug Flutie attempt a drop kick extra point. I was a little surprised that Belichick allowed that, since it handed some bulletin board material to Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio. But I think it was a case of honoring Flutie instead of sending any messages. Though I think the media is underplaying the physical nature of the Jaguars a bit. Should be a fun wild card weekend.

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