Sunday, January 23, 2011

Conference Championship Sunday

Today is one of the five best days of sport in America and we look forward to two conference championship games that should epitomize what we consider as "real" football; defense and cold weather. All four teams play good defense and both games are being played in temperatures below 20 degrees. The interesting thing about today's games is that we expect them to be close. If you see the prior meetings, all the games were down to the wire. So does everything hold to form today?

Let's start with Green Bay and Chicago, who have their rubber match. The case for Chicago winning is this: Cold day and a tough field can slow down the Packers offense and Jay Cutler at his best. Here's the weird thing about today's games, Jay Cutler is the one QB who I'm afraid can either rise or sink his team. If he comes out like last week and throws a touchdown or two, I think it will get the Bears defense to play better. If he comes out flat, the Packers will runaway with this one like they did against the Falcons (though, I figure a runaway today would be 20-3). The other thing interesting, even though the Packers are the better offensive team, I happen to think a higher scoring game favors the Bears, unless the Packers are doing all the scoring. Otherwise, I still say that while the Bears have a good defense, if you block Julius Peppers, you can beat them. The Packers have the better all around defense and Clay Matthews, is tougher to stop. Add that the Packers have found a running back in James Starks who can free up Aaron Rodgers to have a little mystery in the plays and don't see how the Bears win. I have the Packers winning 24-14.

Onto the Jets and Steelers who it seems like a toss up. The Jets won the earlier meeting, but the Steelers didn't have Troy Polamalu. And if Jason Taylor gets blocked late in the 4th quarter, that game is likely tied and would have gone to OT. The two things the Jets must do: score first like the last time and avoid turnovers in their own side of the field. You don't want to give Ben Roethlisberger a short field, its a guaranteed score, just ask Baltimore. For Pittsburgh, their line play, particularly from the tackles will be key. If they give Roethlisberger time, he'll find success, whether the Jets cover the Steelers WR's well or not. So the defensive key for the Jets is to get to Ben quickly, don't count on getting a lot of coverage sacks. Offensively for the Jets, balance is necessary, as well as giving Mark Sanchez some easy passes to gain a rhythm. The interesting thing about the Jets today is that a) they don't have revenge on their minds and haven't said much, unlike last week and b) also unlike last week and the week prior, they aren't facing a particularly proficient offense today, so the gameplan will be more interesting as the Jets probably would go about their game the way they normally would.

So who wins? Here's what I believe: The Steelers always seems to force a turnover, and that turnover proves huge. I also believe the Steelers will run the ball better than the Jets, or at the very least, the threat of the run will open up more passing for Ben. You sense where I'm going, I have Pittsburgh outlasting the Jets 20-17, which for picks purposes means I'm taking the Jets +4. How's that for a hedge?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Divisional Sunday

We now move onto Sunday's games, but first, let's recap yesterday. I probably was as right as I've ever been as the Falcons didn't look good in the spotlight, Aaron Rodgers was just tremendous and played QB yesterday as good as the position can be played. Meanwhile, the Ravens once again couldn't finish a close game while Ben Roethlisberger made a play late as he always does. So what's on tap for today? Probably with me getting both games wrong since I got both right yesterday, but he's my previews anyway.

Last week, I was so down on the Seahawks and they proved me wrong. So does this mean I should go with the Seahawks this week? Not so fast, unlike the Saints, I don't believe the Bears will take Seattle lightly because they lost to them in Chicago this year. Also, back in the beginning of the season, the Bears offensive line was atrocious. Now, it's still not good, but it's better at home. I also don't think the Seahawks will travel well, and the Bears defense could use a good home performance after a few games that they've been shredded at Soldier Field. The real question, should you lay the 10 in this game? Here's the answer, when the Seahawks lose, they lose big. So if you like the Bears, lay the 10 and don't think twice about it. I have the Bears winning 31-14.

Now to the nightcap and the Jets and Pats. So much has been said all week, but that doesn't matter once kickoff happens. Here's the best case for the Jets: They win the toss and they must receive so they have the chance to establish the offense early. I know they like to defer the opening kickoff, but I won't give New England the ball to start the game. Also, LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene can control the clock, the Jets OL can outplay the Pats front seven. When that happens, Mark Sanchez needs to be accurate with his throws, even if they are short passes. Defensively, they need to attack Tom Brady, because the passive approach won't work with him. Brady would eat up the Jets secondary if he has the time. To be fair, I think Peyton Manning would have if he had Dallas Clark and Austin Collie.

So what will happen? I just don't believe Sanchez, after all the struggles in the last few weeks, plus the possibly still injured shoulder will play consistent enough and while it won't be the 45-3 thrashing that it was in December, Brady will still have success against the Jets. Pats will win 27-10.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Divisional Saturday

We have entered the best weekend in the NFL season as the divisional round seems to always have at least one great game in the bunch. It's fair to say that today won't be different as Ravens-Steelers will be one of the matchups and those two always play close games. As for Packers-Falcons, this year's NFC Super Bowl representative will come from this game.

We'll start in Pittsburgh, as the Ravens and Steelers face off again, the second time in three years both teams play a third game in the playoffs. Hard hitting and good defense is guaranteed, but the questions are, can the Ravens finish a big game with a win. All four losses for Baltimore are due to them not finishing games, in one way or another. If you think the Steelers will win, then the question is, do you think they will cover the 3. The fact is, I'm more confident in trusting Ben Roethlisberger in a playoff game than Joe Flacco, since Ben is 8-2 in playoff games (of course, one of the two is a loss to David Garrard, so hope for Ravens fans). I also think, check that, I know Troy Polamalu is a more important player to Pittsburgh than Ray Lewis or Ed Reed for Baltimore. Therefore, I have the Steelers winning 17-13.

In the nightcap, the questions concerning the two teams is follows: Are the Falcons capable of winning a big game when the spotlight is on them? The fact for them is they play the majority of their games with little attention, except for their three losses to Pittsburgh, Philly and New Orleans. As for the Packers, we need to know if a) James Starks can run like he did last week and b) if Mike McCarthy will hold back the Packers. My thoughts, I just don't trust the Falcons when the world watches them and I think Aaron Rodgers will trump any coaching errors by McCarthy. Plus, I picked Pittsburgh and Green Bay for the Super Bowl in September, why give up on them now? The Packers will win 27-17.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Wild Card Sunday

Before getting into Sunday's picks, here's my recap of Saturday's terrible day for me which both my picks lost. The Seahawks are living a charmed life right now, but let's be fair, Stanford would have beat the Saints defense yesterday. They were awful after taking the 10-0 lead. Drew Brees did all he could, but he couldn't play defense and they couldn't stop Seattle when they needed to. It was pretty much punctuated by Marshawn Lynch's epic run which is one of those runs you see on NFL Films when Jim Brown or Earl Campbell make one of their all-time runs. It was physical and overpowering and might be the best playoff run in history. As far as biggest upset, I'll hold off and still go with Jacksonville trotting into Denver and beating Elway and Co. 30-27 in the 1996 Playoffs, in terms of a non-Super Bowl upset (thus Jets, Pats and Giants don't count). We can get into writing off the Seahawks next week and the discussion on whether 7-9 teams should host playoff games can be tabled for the future, but for now, Seattle's on top of the world.

The Seahawks would need to share a spot with Rex Ryan, who finally gets his win over Peyton Manning and his Colts. Of course, he was given this win on a timeout call by Jim Caldwell that was Chris Webber-level bad. The Jets were going to take their chances on a 50 yard field goal. I don't have to remind Jets fans on how Herm Edwards did the exact same thing against the Steelers in the 2004 Playoffs and Doug Brien proceeded to miss the winning field goal. Caldwell gave the Jets a chance to reconsider and Mark Sanchez found Braylon Edwards at the 15, setting up a 32 yard winner for Nick Folk. Sanchez deserves credit for making that throw, because he was awful yesterday. He overthrew receiver after receiver and cost the Jets points at halftime with his interception. The Jets, smartly, ran much of the second half and dominated the line of scrimmage. As for the Colts, Peyton was able to move the ball but couldn't get into the end zone except the long TD to Pierre Garcon. The Jets defense deserves credit for daring Manning to run the ball and Manning obliged for the most part. Still, Manning in a tough game put the Colts in a position to win and maybe they do if the Colts can stop Cromartie's return or if Caldwell lets the Jets take the field goal from 50 yards.

Onto the picks with the first game in Kansas City with the Chiefs hosting the Ravens. I thought the Chiefs had a better than punchers chance to win and the Seahawks winning makes a Chiefs win more possible. The Ravens are capable of beating anyone in the AFC, might be the best team on paper in the AFC. The problem is the Ravens all year when playing a big game seem to come small in a close game.

Ravens will win if: They do exactly what they did to the Dolphins in this playoff game two years ago, and to a lesser extent last year to New England, which is control tempo on the road against an inferior team (I go lesser with the Pats because I didn't find them inferior). The Chiefs running game would have to be stopped and Matt Cassel needs to be blitzed. Flacco just needs to control the offense, not turn the ball over and not panic late.

Chiefs will win if: They can run with Jamaal Charles and the crowd can disrupt the Ravens. Cassel would need to be upright and make a couple of plays. The Chiefs defense would also need to control the line of scrimmage and not allow big days from Flacco or Ray Rice.

My pick: I picked the Chiefs to make the playoffs back in start of the year. I would love to pick them today and I probably would if the game started at 4:30. The Ravens tend to play great on the 1pm Wild Card game. Plus, the only time the Ravens lost in the Wild Card round, the memorable Anthony Wright was the starting QB. So the Ravens (-3.5) will win today 20-10.

Now to the main event of the weekend, the Packers and the Eagles. The Packers soared in the last two games, while the Eagles slumped. Both teams have great QB play, with Aaron Rodgers appearing conventional but can break a run when necessary and Michael Vick ready to run, but more willing to throw in the pocket than in the past. Both teams have great receivers, Eagles are more likely to go deep, Packers can do both intermediate and deep very well. The Packers defense is better (the best one left in the NFC), while the Eagles run the ball better. Something's gotta give.

Packers will win if: They can blitz Vick for the full game and make him uncomfortable. This is a huge game for Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and the Packers defense. They have to stop LeSean McCoy and not let Vick find DeSean Jackson or Jeremy Maclin deep. Offensively, Rodgers needs to thrive against an average Eagles defense, but at the very least to avoid killer interceptions.

Eagles will win if: Vick can run wild and Jackson makes two or three big plays. Also, if Rodgers can turn the ball over (likely meaning a big day for Asante Samuel) and can't throw in the wind today, the Eagles should win. McCoy running for over 100 yards would help as well.

My pick: Forget about the collapse, the Giants showed everyone how to contain Michael Vick, with a strong pass rush and avoid leaving contain. The Bears, Cowboys and Vikings all did the same. The Packers have the athletes to do the same, forget the first matchup as the Packers didn't gameplan Vick. Rodgers will make enough plays and I find a lower scoring game than most people think. Packers win 27-20.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Wild Card Saturday

I didn't plan to make my picks post so late, but the Seton Hall game delayed it and the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords kept me from writing over the last hour. Before I start, allow me to offer condolences to those who were injured or killed and their families. I don't usually have politics on this blog, but in this instance, I will make an exception. Don't comment about it unless you're echoing my sentiment or it will be removed (of course, any comments about the games will be encouraged).

Anyway, let's move on to football where the first game today is the Saints and the Seahawks which the 7-9 team is hosting the game (this needs to change). The Saints were dealt a blow when both Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas were lost for the playoffs, leaving both Julius Jones and Reggie Bush as their only source of running. Which puts more on the shoulders of Drew Brees and the passing game. Seattle has a puncher's chance with Matt Hasselbeck, but he's more of a sitting duck for Gregg Williams pressure defense. I would have had no confidence if Charlie Whitehurst was under center.

Saints win if: They show up. In reality, the Saints need to take the early lead and get the crowd out of it. Best way to do that is to exploit the pourous Seahawks secondary and if Julius Jones has revenge on his mind against the Seahawks, then let him run.

Seahawks win if: They take the early lead and let the 12th man disrupt the Saints offense. Force Drew Brees to throw interceptions (and he threw 22 INT's this year) and shutdown the depleted Saints running game. Also, mistake-free football by the Seahawks offense and a couple plays by Leon Washington on special teams which could lead to points.

My pick: I see more and more people are talking themselves into either taking the 10.5 or picking the Seahawks outright and I'm thinking, why fool around. If you take the Saints and they lose, then you're just wrong and if you're like me, you can live with it. If you take the Seahawks and they get destroyed, then you just wasted your time. I'd rather be wrong than foolish. And I spent way too much time explaining, so Saints win 34-10.

The nightcap pits an AFC Championship Game rematch between the Jets and the Colts. Spread is the Colts favored by 2.5 and this is a split on who thinks who's going to win. The Jets are better this year and the Colts are worse, especially with the injuries to Dallas Clark and Austin Collie. The key of course is that Peyton Manning isn't hurt and carried the Colts to this playoff game. The Jets for the most part slumped to the end and while I said the Jets are better, it's because they can score more than last year. Their defense isn't as good and still can't pass rush without a blitz. That is dangerous when playing Manning, who not only can figure blitzes out, he's done so to Rex Ryan-coached teams for many years.

Jets win if: Their ground and pound lasts longer than 3 plays a series. Mark Sanchez needs to be efficient and they can put some points up. Meanwhile, Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie must handle Pierre Garcon and Reggie Wayne and the front seven have to get to Manning and force turnovers.

Colts win if: Peyton solves the Jets defense and puts up points. The Colts running game needs to be good enough for Manning's play action plays will work. Meanwhile, the Colts defense needs to make a couple stops. A bad Sanchez wouldn't hurt if you're Indianapolis.

My pick: I originally was thinking the Colts, but I've kind of waffled because I think more "experts" are taking the Jets. Also, the Jets built their team for this game, adding Santonio Holmes and LaDainian Tomlinson for more offensive punch and Cromartie to strengthen the secondary. However, no Jim Leonhard hurts and I think Blair White and Jacob Tamme will make a play over the middle for Manning. I have the Colts winning 31-21.

Come back tomorrow for the Sunday playoff picks.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Week 17 Picks and NFL Awards

The regular season comes to a close and it's time for the list of awards. Joel Sherman of the New York Post does a great job with his baseball award column by having his top 5 in each award and an anti-award winner for those who were terrible. So I figured to do the same for this year's NFL season. With all the credit due to Mr. Sherman, he's my awards for this season.

NFL MVP- Tom Brady - Runners up: 2. Mike Vick, 3. Troy Polamalu, 4. Maurice Jones-Drew, 5. Peyton Manning

If Vick played in every game this year, it would be a closer race, but Brady has been nearly flawless this year with 34 TD's and only 4 INT's. Polamalu is the most important defensive player in football, as the Steelers go as he does (in terms of health). MJD was the only reason the Jags are still alive as of Week 17 and ditto for Manning (who can always be in the top 5).

Anti-NFL MVP- Brett Favre - Runners up: 2. Carson Palmer, 3. Chad Henne, 4. The entire Texans secondary, 5. Albert Haynesworth

Favre in so many ways had the worst performance, as his season clearly brought down a Vikings team who should have been to the Super Bowl last year. Palmer and Henne have both helped derail talented teams, but Palmer is more established so he stays ahead of Henne. The Texans secondary was just brutal this year, the Jets game being the best example, while Haynesworth was too fat to be on the field.

Offensive Player of the Year- Arian Foster - Runners up: 2. Phil Rivers, 3. Roddy White, 4. Tom Brady, 5. Maurice Jones-Drew

I don't like to have the same MVP and Offensive Player of the Year and Foster was the best running back this year. Rivers was terrific despite no Vincent Jackson for much of the year and the Chargers not making the playoffs isn't on him. White is the most important weapon on the Falcons offense, yes, even more than Michael Turner. I already got into Brady and MJD's seasons.

Anti-Offensive POTY- Randy Moss- Runners up: 2. Donovan McNabb, 3. Any Dallas RB, 4. Derek Anderson, 5. Marshawn Lynch

Part of this award is that I don't put rookies in this category, thus no Jimmy Clausen. Randy Moss only caught two touchdowns of note this year and his teams were terrible when he played for them. McNabb started to show his age this year and the fact Rex Grossman is starting games says it all. The Cowboys had no running back who was good, while Derek Anderson was so bad, whoever still didn't have Kurt Warner as a Hall of Famer will put him in now. Lynch is officially done as he failed on both Buffalo and Seattle.

Defensive POTY- Troy Polamalu- Runners up: 2. Clay Matthews, 3. Cameron Wake.

Running out of time, so I'm going with the top 3 for the rest of the blog post. As I said earlier, Polamalu is the difference maker on the Steelers and is clearly the best defensive player, look at the Ravens and Bengals games as to why. Matthews is the best player on the Packers defense and Wake has been a revelation for the Dolphins, who also have a good defense.

Anti-Defensive POTY- Albert Haynesworth- Runners up: 2. Jason Taylor, 3. Alphonso Smith

Haynesworth won this award in training camp, just another terrible signing the annual offseason champions Washington Redskins. Taylor has been a failure with the Jets (Vernon Gholston would fit if anyone expected good things from him) and Smith won 3rd place from his Thanksgiving showing.

Coach of the Year- Bill Belichick- Runners up: 2. Todd Haley, 3. Lovie Smith

Belichick had his finest coaching job by getting this Pats team with young defenders and no Randy Moss to the best record in football. Haley led the Chiefs to the playoffs and showed he isn't afraid to be gutsy in the process. Smith gets here by default, since I had little expectation for that team. Not a lot of great coaching to be fair.

Anti-Coach of the Year- Mike Singletary- Runners up: 2. Marvin Lewis, 3. Norv Turner

Singletary was singlehandedly responsible for the 49ers not winning the awful NFC West. Could game manage well, couldn't pick a QB and gave up on games too soon. Lewis is responsible for the Bengals crashing to earth and is likely gone, while a team that's top 2 in offense and defense shouldn't be 8-7, right Norv?

Here's my Week 17 picks:

(Home team in CAPS)

Oakland (+4) over KANSAS CITY
Miami (+6) over NEW ENGLAND
Pittsburgh (-6) over CLEVELAND
BALTIMORE (-10) over Cincinnati
DETROIT (-4) over Minnesota
Buffalo (+3) over JETS
ATLANTA (-14) over Carolina
NEW ORLEANS (-7.5) over Tampa Bay
INDIANAPOLIS (-10) over Tennessee
HOUSTON (-4) over Jacksonville
Giants (-5) over WASHINGTON
Chicago (+10.5) over GREEN BAY- Packers win outright and clinch NFC berth
Dallas (-1) over PHILADELPHIA
Arizona (+6) over SAN FRANCISCO
DENVER (+4) over San Diego
St, Louis (-3) over SEATTLE

Last week: 10-6
Season Record: 123-111-6