Sunday, January 22, 2012

Giants-Niners Preview

Finally, we have the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. In the AFC blog post yesterday, I made mention how only a select few make it to the AFC Championship game and win the game in the last 11 years. Well, the NFC has been the opposite, with 10 different Super Bowl representatives for the last 10 years. Today, the Niners can make it 11, or the Giants can be the NFC team with the most since 2000 with 3. Also, when seeing these two teams play in the playoffs, there's history. There's the 1990 NFC Championship Game, the hardest hitting game of all time (watch any Giants-49ers game from the late 80s, early 90s and you'll stop believing SF was a "finesse" team). There's Mark Bavaro dragging the 49ers defense, Montana to Rice in Giants Stadium and of course, the 2002 Wild Card game. What history will be made today? That's not one of them, but here are the five questions for this matchup.

1. Which team can establish the run better?

In the first game, which the Niners won 27-20, the Giants didn't have Ahmad Bradshaw, while the 49ers lost Frank Gore early. In the end, San Fran had Kendall Hunter make a big play on the ground, while the Giants didn't get that from Brandon Jacobs. The difference between these teams is that the 49ers have been outstanding on run defense, while the Giants in the regular season were far from it. During the playoff run, they showed they can shut a big-time runner down when Michael Turner was bottled up during the Wild Card game. Giants need more of the same today, as well as Bradshaw making things happen when the Giants are running.

2. How much will special teams matter?

Now I know that's a dumb question, because they always matter. However, if special teams becomes the deciding factor in this game, it's a MAJOR advantage to the Niners. Andy Lee can blast punts, and Ted Ginn Jr. can run them back. I'd say that David Akers is the weak link today because of his mixed history when kicking against the Giants, but he's home and it mitigate that a little. The Giants, on the other hand, have return men who I worry about catching the football then actually making a play, and a kicker in Lawrence Tynes, who Giants fans don't trust, even after kicking the team to the Super Bowl. I'm not saying the Giants can't make a special teams play, but if special teams makes a difference (think Texans-Ravens as an example), it helps the home team.

3. How does Eli Manning handle the San Fran pass rush?

They will make plays on defense. That's who the 49ers are under Jim Harbaugh. They got to Drew Brees (particularly Justin Smith) and frustrated him most of the day. Still, Brees found ways to get the ball to his big play guys to put the Saints in a position to win. Now, we have Eli, same type quarterback, who'll stay in the pocket. He now has to find his big WR's Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, not to mention secondary options like Mario Manningham and Bradshaw. And for the Giants, they need the Jake Ballard from earlier this year who made Giants fans forget about Kevin Boss. And if the Niners have one weakness on defense, it's Donte Whitmer's predisposition to go for highlight plays and failing (think Charlie Peprah last week on Nicks' first TD).

4. How do the Niners mitigate the Giants pass rush?

Last week, Alex Smith faced the Saints blitz late and took full advantage in the winning TD drive. The Giants, unfortunately for them, won't do a lot of blitzing. They can get to the QB with that front four, allowing seven defenders flood passing lanes, forcing QB's to be perfect on their throws. Aaron Rodgers couldn't do that last week, will Alex Smith have more luck. Elsewhere when the Niners have the ball, look for the Giants to double Vernon Davis. No way they let him beat them. Which will likely leave Michael Crabtree going against Corey Webster. Crabtree would need to win this matchup if the Niners are to win (or hope Aaron Ross plays him a few times and Smith realizes to throw to him at that point).

5. Who wins?

The Giants won't be frustrated if they can't get to Alex Smith early, if they can't run early, if they fall behind early. This is a team that will grind you down for four quarters and once they reach that 4th quarter, the Giants usually take control. Helps when your QB has the most 4th quarter TD's in a single season in NFL history. 49ers are a great team, but even though they're home, I don't think they are ready for the Super Bowl quite yet. Giants win 30-20.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Ravens-Patriots Preview

The AFC will continue to demonstrate that there's a clear hierarchy as old stalwarts New England and Baltimore will do battle in the AFC Championship game tomorrow. Since 2000, only the Pats (4), Steelers (3), Colts (2), Raiders (1) and Ravens (1) have been the AFC's Super Bowl representative. Of the championship game representatives; its 19 of 24 counting tomorrow's game (Pats 6th, Ravens 3rd). That's a remarkable level of consistency (yes, I know the Raiders shouldn't thrown in a consistency argument unless it has to do with losing and firing coaches) in a supposedly parity-driven league. Enough with the history lesson, here's the five questions for tomorrow's contest.

1. Which Ravens defense shows up?

Will it be the only that completely shut down the 49ers on Thanksgiving night, or the one who looked slow against the Texans, needing gift turnovers to win last week. If the Ravens think they can giveaway chances for takeaways against Tom Brady, they will be sorely mistaken; and he won't make the throws T.J. Yates made all day last week. Even if the Ravens look quicker against New England, that's not going to be enough; leading to my next question...

2. How do the Ravens cover Gronk, Hernandez and Welker?

It's the question every team playing the Patriots face. Obviously, the Broncos didn't have an answer. Everyone who believes the Ravens have a chance point out to their playoff win in New England back in 2009. Little known fact: Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were still in school when that game took place, while Wes Welker was injured the week prior to the playoff meeting. A little easier to beat the Pats when they best three offensive weapons weren't involved. If I'm Baltimore, I'm not allowing Gronkowski and Hernandez beat me deep, and if that means Welker ends with 15 catches in front of me, then so be it. Ravens need to pick their poison and that is hoping for less possessions, allowing the offense to stay close.

3. How do the Patriots stop Ray Rice, who had his way two years ago?

Unfortunately for New England, they don't have the defense that Houston has; who did a great job with Ray Rice, fixing what they did wrong in the earlier meeting and winning battles at the line. One thing the Pats must do is to not allow an 80-yard touchdown run on the first play of the game like they did in that last meeting. Everything fell apart after that. Makes this a huge game for guys like Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes who must not allow Rice to reach second level on his runs. Also means that you'll see eight men in the box, daring Joe Flacco to throw. You know where this is headed...

4. Can Joe Flacco make the Pats pay if they sell hard on the run?

Flacco has been much maligned that no one seems to have faith in his ability to win, at least that's the perception I see. Well, tomorrow is a perfect chance for Flacco to prove doubters wrong, especially if New England won't allow anything from Ray Rice in the running game. Flacco can always use Rice as a pass-catcher, and should benefit from Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith against the Patriots secondary. Even Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta will be valuable options for Flacco and a good Flacco would only open up the defense more so that Ray Rice can run in the second half.

5. So who wins?

If the Ravens play mistake-free football, limit the possessions in this game and get some pressure on Tom Brady with Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs (avoiding too much blitzing), the Ravens can win. Seems like too much needs to go right for Baltimore for this to happen. And you can never stop Rob Gronkowski. Add that Joe Flacco is facing the defense that has the most takeaways in the AFC and the task for the Ravens is too great. Patriots are back in the Super Bowl, winning 31-14.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Thanks For Nothing Dolan

I went to last night's Rangers game against the Penguins. It seems like every time I show up for a Rangers game, they lose. Pittsburgh showed up for 60 minutes and the Rangers didn't and with the way the Penguins play north-south, that's not a good ingredient for winning.

The reason I'm writing about last night's game though is it was the first one since Rangers and Knicks owner James Dolan decided to actually take part in a Rangers press conference and essentially proclaim that the Rangers are Stanley Cup contenders. It was a quote that John Tortorella threw some water on when he said "I have my owner up here talking about a Stanley Cup. That's a bunch of bull----" once Dolan left the room.

Nice try, Torts. Dolan has given your team some interest and when he gets involved, bad things happen. He involved himself in the Carmelo Anthony trade, and now the Knicks seem stuck in neutral (Frank Isola had it right when he tweeted this). My favorite example of this was back in 2007 when the Knicks weren't embarrassing New Yorkers every night and had a team that was winning games in exciting fashion (watch this, this and this for examples of this). So what happens; Dolan proclaims that Isiah Thomas had a successful year and signs him to an undisclosed contract extension. At the time of the extension, the Knicks were 29-34 and in 8th in the East. Afterwards, the Knicks only won 4 more games.

So last night's results, unfortunately was foretold in my eyes once Jim Dolan opened his big mouth, especially after watching how sure of himself he was in that presser. Hopefully (at least for me as a Rangers fan), this won't be a trend that continues, but history isn't on their side.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sunday Divisional Round Preview

Time for the Sunday games, after the predictable Pats blowout of Tebow and the Broncos and the epic finish in San Francisco. That game was amazing yesterday; one which I wanted to last forever. The best football games are the ones which teams trade scores at some point. And for all the Niners fans, now you know that Alex Smith is capable to win a big game. Can he win the Super Bowl? Well, let's see how the playoffs play out if he needs to go to Lambeau and/or have to face the Patriots or the Ravens/Texans. Perfect segue to my picks today.

Houston at Baltimore

Of all the weekend's games, this is the one which lacks juice. It's easy to see once you realize the starting QB's are T.J. Yates and Joe Flacco. Of all the other games, the only QB that gives you a meh feeling is Alex Smith, but it was great offense vs great defense and Smith rose to the occasion when it mattered most. Shame is, this game is the one with the two best running backs left with Arian Foster and Ray Rice; yet the defenses here are so good, the quarterbacks will decide this one. Too bad for Houston, they have the rookie QB on the road unlike last week when Andy Dalton was the rookie on the road. Plus, they lost to the Ravens pretty handily back in October when Matt Schaub was healthy. The only argument I can see for the Texans is that their defense shuts down Baltimore, Flacco plays horrible and Andre Johnson (who didn't play the earlier game) makes a couple plays. I just don't see it. Ravens win 20-3.

N.Y. Giants at Green Bay

Walking out of MetLife Stadium after last week's dominating win over the Falcons, the fans seemed to believe that this is 2007 all over again; quick start, bad losses to bad teams, admirable performance losing at home to unbeaten power 38-35, pass rush starts to dominate line as Eli Manning throws the Giants to wins. Now, the Giants have their chance to win the rematch against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Difference to this game than the Super Bowl; Green Bay's no longer unbeaten and they are home for the game. Giants, in my eyes though, are better considering the WR's are better, Jason Pierre-Paul more than makes up for Michael Strahan and we go into this knowing Eli Manning can win big games, not just hoping he would. Avoiding turnovers are extremely necessary in order to win this game, since you can't Rodgers a short field while losing chances to score (which the Giants need to do). Someone's going to screw up this weekend among the heavily favored home teams. It wasn't the Pats, I don't think it's the Ravens, so it must be the Packers. Giants with the upset 34-30.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Saturday Divisional Round Preview

Last week, there was no preview of the Saturday Wild Card games (and a rushed version for Sunday). This week is different; the match ups are better and more interesting then most Divisional Rounds (most due to Tim Tebow). However in terms of best games, clearly the NFC has the better of the two conferences and just shows what's to me and Ashley Fox is true; the NFC is once again the better conference. And we'll begin the Divisional Round with the biggest toss-up of the four.

New Orleans at San Francisco

If this game was in New Orleans, the Saints win easy, probably like 35-16. The dome, the turf and the crowd would scare a team like the Niners (particularly Alex Smith) and their inability to score touchdowns would hurt greatly there. Lucky for San Francisco, they are at Candlestick, on that grass than can be longer and perhaps a bit muddy as most big Niners games were. Bill Barnwell showed us the stat that the Saints score about 2 touchdowns less a game on the road than at home. I was leaning Saints all week long, but then I started thinking, how many times does the road favorite win? It didn't happen last week in Denver. Saints lost in Seattle last year in the same fashion, though the Packers did win in Chicago for the NFC Title and the Ravens won in Kansas City as a favorite last year as well. That's a small sample size, so who do I go with. It's wrong to call the 2 seed beating a 3 seed an upset, but the Niners will win 19-17 and we finally give Jim Harbaugh and his defense some legitimate praise for shutting down a dominant offense.

Denver at New England

Will it be Tebow Time again? We know that Tebow will have to score like he did in Pittsburgh if there's any chance for his Broncos. Denver lucked out that Pittsburgh was a MASH unit by the end and Ben Roethlisberger couldn't move around the pocket creating plays like normal. Tom Brady won't need that. I don't see who defends the Pats TE's Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. And while the Pats defense isn't good, they can ballhawk. Did you know that the Patriots led the AFC in takeaways, third in the league? So while they might lose coverage of players, they can make up for it by causing a turnover. I fully believe the Pats continue to play defense to stop the run, without selling out the deep ball like the Steelers did. New England wins in a walk, 45-17.

Come back tomorrow for the Sunday picks.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Sunday Wild Card Preview

Work this week didn't allow me to write up a Saturday preview (except for my Twitter thoughts), but here are my thoughts on the Saturday in football.

-If the Texans can play in Baltimore the way they played yesterday, they can beat the Ravens. Meaning they run well with Arian Foster and Ben Tate and if Andre Johnson can make a difference like he did on the TD pass. I know their defense will show up, but I expect a tougher time for young T.J. Yates on the road.

-I'd have a whole lot more confidence in the Bengals future if Mike Brown wasn't the man to decide on how to improve it. It's a lot to ask Andy Dalton to win his first road playoff game.

-Detroit is also on the right path, just need a running game and a better secondary. Now, any secondary can look bad against the Saints in New Orleans, but a running game would have kept the ball in the Lions' hands for more of the game.

-As for the Saints, what else is there to say about their offense. I really can't wait until they play San Francisco; great offense against great defense. Also curious how the Niners play in their first playoff game since Steve Mariucci's last game as coach.

Now onto today's games, one of which I will be attending. That's right, I'll be at MetLife Stadium for Giants-Falcons. Though I can be biased when the Giants are involved, I do think they win today 27-20 because the outdoors will hurt Atlanta, plus the Giants have their pass rush back, and not just Jason Pierre-Paul.

As for the late game, my first thought was no way can the Broncos beat the Steelers after the game they played against Kansas City and after losing their last 3 games. Over the past week, I've seen some people go the other way, with the worry being the Steelers who are hurt and those who are banged up. Also, too much is being made about the fact that 8-8 or worse teams playing home playoff games have done well recently. I expect some turnovers by Tebow and the Broncos and a couple play made by Ben Roethlisberger will be the difference. Steelers will win 20-3.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Week 17 Picks

Happy New Year!!! And the gift for us on New Year's Day is the final week of the NFL regular season, as we settle the rest of the NFL playoff picture. Let's get started.

GREEN BAY (+6) over Detroit

For some reason, I'm not sold that the Packers won't beat the Lions. I know Detroit has huge stakes in terms of who they get to play (win and you play the flawed NFC East winner, lose and you will lose in New Orleans), but I think Green Bay decides to play (perhaps from the Lions pissing off the Packers at some point) and if they play, they win. Wait, no Aaron Rodgers today? Oh, then...

Detroit (-6) over GREEN BAY

San Francisco (-11) over ST. LOUIS

Niners have everything to play for with a bye and playing Saints at home instead of in the Superdome. Rams will lose by winning (even though a loss guarantees nothing in terms of 1st pick in the draft).

Jets (+3) over MIAMI

If Reggie Bush was playing, I'm taking the Dolphins. He's not, so I have the Jets avoid eliminating themselves.

Tennessee (-1) over HOUSTON

Too bad for the Jets that the Titans will win in Houston and eliminate them. No confidence in the Texans to win this game, and an easy team to pick against in the wild card round.

Chicago (+2) over MINNESOTA

Who cares?

NEW ENGLAND (-10.5) over Buffalo

Tom Brady will play and the Patriots always seem to crush AFC East teams in the second meeting after a loss in the first one. Plus, it locks up home-field for the Pats in the playoffs, so there is a reason to show up.

Carolina (+8) over NEW ORLEANS

Only because I think the Niners win and I fear a back-door cover by Cam Newton and company to risk laying eight points. Otherwise, this is an easy Saints pick.

PHILADELPHIA (-9) over Washington

Watching the preview of the Winter Classic, Deb Placey mentions this game as part of the big weekend in Philly. No, this game means nothing. Which means the Eagles will romp. And Philly's attention will move to Citizens Bank Park for Monday.

Indianapolis (+3.5) over JACKSONVILLE

Something tells me that the Colts are going to blow the 1st pick in the draft. Besides, the Jaguars have been almost the worst team in football in the last month (ahead of the Bucs, who they crushed).

ATLANTA (-10.5) over Tampa Bay

Even if this means nothing the Falcons, the Bucs have been so bad in the last two months that the Falcons reserves will have no trouble. End of the Raheem Morris era tomorrow. Falcons-Saints for a third time next week, who has the best chance to win in New Orleans among anyone in the NFC.

CINCINNATI (+3) over Baltimore

Baltimore is capable of being the best team in the AFC, except they don't travel well. And with a chance to clinch a bye, the Bengals come up big to clinch the 6th seed and matchup with Houston. Leading to...

Pittsburgh (-7) over CLEVELAND

The Steelers trouncing the Browns and getting the AFC North and the first-round bye.

Kansas City (+3.5) over DENVER

Kyle Orton's revenge!!!! To be fair, it'll be the Chiefs defense who will stop the Broncos and Tebow, and lose three in a row to end the year.

OAKLAND (-3) over San Diego

Raiders take care of business to win the AFC West, and will host the Ravens next weekend in a rematch of the 2000 AFC Championship game.

ARIZONA (-3) over Seattle

What could have been if either team won last week?

GIANTS (-3) over Dallas

Can't pick against the Giants in the biggest game in MetLife Stadium history, as well as the biggest Giants game since the 2008 Eagles-Giants playoff game.

Last week: 9-7
Season record: 120-109-10