Archive for Baltimore Ravens

Quick Thoughts On The Rest Of The NFL Weekend That Was

Posted in NFL Football, Sports with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2011 by thelasthonestman

Time is short today, so I’ll give some brief thoughts on the rest of the games we saw in Week 2 of the NFL Playoffs — my take on the Jets win over New England is already posted here.

Jay Cutler has plenty of reason to look happy -- his team is one win away from the Super Bowl

— The biggest news (for me at least) on Sunday was the Bears’ dominant victory over Seattle.  While Pete Carroll’s team certainly quieted some of the outrage over their appearance in the playoffs with their victory over the Saints, they were never a real threat to go any further than they did — and thankfully for the NFL, Chicago sent them home, keeping the league from the embarrassment of seeing a team at .500 playing in the Super Bowl in Dallas.

The tone was set from the outset, first with the tremendous anthem by Jim Cornelison, and then by the wintry weather — making it a perfect football atmosphere for the playoffs.  In his first playoff game, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler made almost no mistakes (his one gaffe that could have turned the game around — a potential pick-six on the Bears second scoring drive — was dropped), and his touchdown pass to Greg Olson on Chicago’s opening drive gave his team a lead it would never relinquish.

The defense was stellar when it mattered as well.  The Bears won the way they have all the second half of the season — with solid defense and a mistake-free offense.  Their upcoming match-up against the Packers will be only the second time the two rivals have ever played in the playoffs, and it should be a classic.

The man carrying the Packers on his shoulders will try to do it again this upcoming weekend

— Speaking of the Packers, they won on Saturday with one of the best playoff performances in recent memory by their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers.  Rodgers would misfire on only five passes in his thirty-six attempts, throwing for three touchdowns while the Packers torched the Atlanta defense for a franchise playoff record 48 points.  Atlanta could never get untracked, as their running game was non-existent (the Falcons ran for only 45 yards, 39 coming from Michael Turner), while their quarterback Matt Ryan has a miserable night, throwing two interceptions and fumbling the ball away for a third turnover.

Now one step away from the Super Bowl, the Packers — who looked like they were dead in the water after Rodgers’ injury during the team’s huge loss to the Lions in Week 14 — are favored going into their clash against the Bears.  If Rodgers continues to play at the insanely high level he reached on Saturday night, it’s going top be hard to see any team beating them.

— And finally, the Steelers finished off a remarkable comeback against the Ravens earlier on Saturday, rallying from a two touchdown deficit at the half to beat their bitter rivals yet again in the playoffs.  Early on, it looked like it would be the Ravens’ day, but Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would rally the Steelers back and send them to their 4th AFC Championship appearance in the last six seasons.

Joe Flacco couldn't deliver a win to the Baltimore faithful on Saturday

As I predicted on Friday, neither running game was able to accomplish much (the two teams combined for only 106 yards on the ground, and they averaged a putrid 2.2 yards a carry) — and it would be the performance by the quarterbacks that would be the difference.  While Big Ben would make the big plays when the Steelers needed them, his Ravens counterpart Joe Flacco struggled all day, throwing for only 125 yards and turning the ball over twice.  With the Jets upset over the Patriots, Pittsburgh now will host the AFC Title Game — and will be favored to advance to their 8th Super Bowl (which would tie them with Dallas for the most of any franchise) while looking for a 7th title.

— With my busy schedule, I likely won’t be back until Friday, when I’ll deliver my predictions for the Conference Championship Games.  Until then, have a safe week.

2011 NFL Playoff Predictions, Round 2, Part 2

Posted in NFL Football, Sports with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2011 by thelasthonestman

If you’re looking for my picks for the games on Saturday, click here.  And now, on to Sunday’s action!

New England (-8.5) over N. Y. Jets

Like their AFC counterparts in Saturday’s game, the Patriots and the Jets will be meeting for the 3rd time on the season this week.  And much like the Steelers and the Ravens, familiarity has bred nothing but contempt for the two AFC East rivals.

The loudest coach in the NFL -- along with the best coach in the NFL -- meet for the 3rd time this season on Sunday

New England split their meetings with New York this season, and the two games were polar opposites; in their initial meeting, the Jets put on an impressive offensive show, rushing for over 130 yards while quarterback Mark Sanchez threw three touchdowns as New York erased a 14-10 halftime deficit to win 28-14.  Their second meeting, however, was a debacle for the New Yorkers, as the Patriots scored early and often in a 45-3 trouncing of the Jets on Monday Night Football.  The results seemed to be a microcosm of the direction both teams were taking as the season wore on.  While the Jets started out great at 9-2, they struggled down the stretch, while the Patriots took off following the trade of malcontent Randy Moss from the roster, going 11-1.

The Patriots were truly remarkable in 2010, defying the experts who predicted offensive collapse following the departure of Moss by finishing with the top-ranked offense in the NFL.  While there’s no one left who can argue with a straight face against the greatness of Tom Brady and his head coach Bill Belichick, what may surprise people is that New England finished with the 9th-ranked rushing attack in terms of yards gained (while averaging 4.3 yards per carry on the ground), a better performance than their record-setting offense managed in 2007 when they went 16-0.  A huge part of that was the emergence of “The Law Firm”, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who rushed for 100o+ yards and 13 touchdowns in 2010, becoming the first New England rusher to attain that yardage mark since Corey Dillon did the trick in 2004.

The best quarterback in the NFL just keeps getting better

But make no mistake, the Pats are still Tom Brady’s team, and the future Hall-of-Famer put up one of the best seasons, not only of his career, but of any quarterback in recent memory.  Brady posted a ridiculous 36 touchdowns against only 4 interceptions, breaking his own NFL record for TD-to-INT ratio (his last interception was way back in October when he threw two picks against the Ravens, while his other two picks came in the first loss against the Jets) — and he did it all while throwing to a cast of seemingly thousands (eight different receivers caught touchdown passes for the Pats in 2010, and four receivers had more than 40 receptions and 500 yards).

The Patriots fatal flaw could be their young defense — but they did rank 8th in the NFL for fewest points allowed.  New England doesn’t need to completely shut their opponents down to win — not with their potent offense racking up points — they only need to contain their opponent.  What could help then to do that against the Jets is the potentially mistake-prone nature of their starting quarterback.  The second-year starter Sanchez threw only one touchdown and seven interceptions over the team’s five losses this season, and if the Jets’ quarterback can’t avoid mistakes on Sunday, then the Jets could get blown off of the field the way they did at the start of December.

For a team that barely escaped from Indianapolis last week, the Jets have continued to talk, talk — and talk, some more.  They’ve talked about the Patriots, Antonio Cromartie has whined about Tom Brady (when Reggie Jackson of all people tells you to “shut up and play ball”, you know you’ve acted the fool), and even normally mild-mannered Wes Welker got into the act, using foot references numerous times in his media session on Thursday in a subtle jab at the foot-fetish controversy surrounding Jet coach Rex Ryan and his wife (I could have spiced this piece up with my own foot references, but I never could have topped Welker’s act, so I didn’t even bother to try).

But like I pointed out last week, the Jets might talk the talk, but they’ve yet to show they can walk the walk when it counts.  And all of the colorful personalities and entertaining quotes don’t count for anything on the scoreboard — and it’s there where I believe the Patriots will be on the winning end come Sunday and possibly headed for another trip to the Super Bowl and their 4th NFL Championship in the Brady-Belichick era.

Seattle (+10) over Chicago

And finally, we get to the game I’m absolutely dreading.  It’s my Chicago Bears, a team I ripped into during the off-season for hiring Mike Martz, with a quarterback I’ve ripped into on numerous occasions for being a crybaby and a guy who I thought just wasn’t a winner, facing off against the now 8-9 Seattle Seahawks, a team that has absolutely no business being in the playoffs and who wouldn’t have advanced this far if they hadn’t faced a New Orleans team (particularly a defense) that looked like it had early off-season plans lined up already when they took the field in Seattle.  The Bears are a prohibitive favorite, and well they should be — so why am I so worried?

Where can I start?  First off, the Bears already played these Seahawks once at Soldier Field (way back in Week 6) — and they lost by a field goal, in a miserable performance in which quarterback Jay Cutler was sacked six times (though he didn’t turn the ball over).  It was a game where, much like New Orleans last week, the Bears managed to make a quarterback who’s seen his better days look serviceable again, as the current toast of the Emerald City, Matt Hasselbeck, threw capably and the ground attack of Justin Forsett and Marshawn Lynch proved effective.

Will the good Jay Cutler -- or the bad Jay Cutler -- show up for the Bears on Sunday?

And then there’s Jay Cutler, making his first playoff start of his career this Sunday.  I have been unmerciful at times in my criticism of the Bears QB — and there have been many moments when he’s deserved every bit of it — but the Cutler who’s taken the field from Week 9 to now has seemed to be a changed man under center (at least, most of the time).  Over that period, Cutler threw for 16 touchdowns against only 9 interceptions — a huge change for the man who had been a turnover machine for most of his first year-and-a-half in the Windy City.  The hidden downside there is, though, against arguably the two best teams he faced in that span — the Patriots and the Pack — Cutler threw four of those picks with zero touchdowns, while completing less than 50% of his passes.  If it’s that Cutler that shows up on Sunday, then the Bears chances of winning are toast.

And what to make of the Seahawks?  Head coach Pete Carroll obviously deserves a ton of credit for getting his troops up for their epic win against the defending Super Bowl champions last week, but they’re an entirely different team away from the comfy surroundings of Qwest Field (going 2-6 on the road).  And it’s not likely that they’ll be facing a team giving them the benefit of a mail-it-in performance two weeks in a row.  Still, Hasselbeck and company can’t be counted out — not after last week’s shocker — even if everything suggests that Seattle should get blown out in this game.  But, while fueling yourself with emotion and desire when your squad is outmatched can win a game against the right opponent, it’s not a consistent formula for winning in the NFL Playoffs.

Ever since the Bears committed themselves to running the ball, good things have followed for them

The difference for the Bears this time around may be the re-emphasis that Lovie Smith and Mike Martz have given to the running game, a key I’ve always believed had to take place if this Bears team was going to avoid catastrophe.  Prior to the team’s bye week, the Bears had rushed for over 100 yards as a team only twice in seven games (one of those totals barely made the mark at 101 yards), and the run-to-pass ratio was tilted way too heavily in favor of an air attack.  Since then, Chicago has rushed for over 100 yards in all but one of their games (the blowout loss to the Pats), and their number of runs-to-passes has been almost identical (an amazing reversal of form for Martz, and something he should be given due credit for).

Assuming that the Bears don’t change up what’s been working for them for some bizarre reason, then this result should be a different one than the one we saw back in October.  I expect the Bears to win (which, if my other picks hold to form, would see them hosting the Packers for the NFC Title in a game for the ages next week), but ten points are a lot to cover in a game of this magnitude.  I expect Seattle to play them close for a while — that pesky “emotion” thing and all — but I can’t picture the Seahawks playing for a trip to the Super Bowl, no matter how badly they all want it.  The Bears fan in me certainly hopes that, if I’m right about nothing else this weekend, I’ll be right about this.

2011 NFL Playoff Predictions, Round 2, Part 1

Posted in NFL Football, Sports with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2011 by thelasthonestman

We’re ready for Week 2 NFL playoff action, and there’s a number if intriguing match-ups on the slate for this week.  Unfortunately, due to a heavy work schedule, the only way I’ll likely be seeing any of these games will be courtesy of my DVR after they’re already over.  Considering that my team, the Chicago Bears, are playing in one of these games as a heavy, double-digit point favorite — that may not be such a bad thing.

But let’s not dwell on my concerns about the chances of Chicago possibly blowing what looks like a gift invitation to the NFC Title game in the form of their opponents, the (somewhat less this week than last) hapless Seattle Seahawks, and instead move right into my 2nd round selections, shall we?

Pittsburgh (-3) over Baltimore

Expect a hard-hitting contest in the latest clash of the war that is the Ravens-Steelers rivalry

In case you somehow missed it, the Steelers and the Ravens don’t like one another.  They really don’t like one another.  And that’s made for some tremendous games between the two bitter division rivals over the years — this week’s contest should certainly join the list as another memorable match-up — and much like took place the last time these two hooked up in the playoffs at Heinz Field, the 2008 AFC Championship Game, I expect the Steelers to come out on top again.

There’s no doubt that the Ravens looked awfully good last week — but that was against the paper tiger Chiefs, and not a legitimate Super Bowl contender like they’ll face in Pittsburgh this week.  Baltimore is pretty much the same team we’ve seen for much of the decade — they’re led by an outstanding, turnover-inducing defense, a running game headed by the still-underrated Ray Rice and the John Harbaugh-overrated Willis McGahee, and a still-wet-behind-the-ears QB in Joe Flacco.  What has changed, however, is the threat that Anquan Boldin brings to the team.  I mentioned last week that I thought he would be a major factor if the Ravens made a Super Bowl run, and he paid dividends against the Chiefs with 5 catches and a touchdown — along with Todd Heap (who added 10 catches for 108 yards).

Will the Ravens be able to move the ball as successfully against Pittsburgh?  Not very likely.  The Steelers gave up fewer points in the regular season than any other team, and they were particularly stingy against the running game, allowing only 3.0 yards a carry on the ground (best in the NFL) and only 5 rushing touchdowns all season (tied for the best in the league with, ironically, the Ravens).  Only two other teams since 2000 have given up fewer yards rushing than Pittsburgh did this year (the 2006 Vikings and the 2000 Ravens), so if Baltimore is going to put up points in this game, they’ll likely have to rely on Flacco and his receivers to move the ball.

One quarterback starting on Saturday has proven he can lead a team in the playoffs -- and it isn't Joe Flacco (at least not yet)

Pittsburgh is in a similar predicament — they’re not likely going to be running the ball effectively either, with the Ravens defense also giving up fewer then 4.0 yards a carry.  But Ben Roethlisberger inspires far more confidence in me than Flacco does — two Super Bowl wins and an 8-2 playoff record will do that for you — while the Ravens QB has yet to put his stamp on a signature win in January worth mentioning (in four of his postseason starts, Flacco has failed to throw a touchdown pass, and he was picked off three times in that 2008 title game in Pittsburgh).

In this game, with two opportunistic defenses that will be ready to pounce on any miscue, the outcome may well be decided by the offensive player who makes a mistake a crucial time and turns the ball over.  It’s my guess that said player will end up being Joe Flacco — and it will be the Steelers advancing to the AFC Title Game for the 4th time in the past six years.

Green Bay (+2.5) over Atlanta

Atlanta coach Mike Smith can't be happy at all to see Green Bay as Atlanta's opening playoff opponent

This is a tough, tough game to call — by far the hardest of the four games for me to come up with a feel for.  The only thing I’m 100% certain of is that Atlanta is being handled a major injustice by getting stuck with the Packers as their playoff opponent instead of the Seahawks, despite having the best record in the NFC and being the number one seed (in yet another example of “Every break that could go the Chicago Bears way in 2010-2011 continues”).  If there wasn’t a reason why a team’s record should be the determining factor for seeding once the playoff teams are decided, there is now (I’m not an advocate of going with the top-12 records regardless of conference like some people have advocated, but there’s no way a 7-9 team had any business getting a #4 seed and a home game over Green Bay and New Orleans, and there’s no way Atlanta should be stuck facing arguably the most dangerous team in the NFC in the semi-final round).

If you’ve forgotten, Green Bay and Atlanta met once already this season — back in Week 12 — a game won by Atlanta on a Matt Bryant field goal with nine seconds remaining in the game.  The Packers had rallied to tie the contest with under a minute to play on a Aaron Rodgers touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson (who made a beautiful catch).  But a long kickoff return and a face mask penalty gave the Falcons the ball to start past midfield and it took little for Atlanta to get in range of the game-winner.

So what’s changed since then?  Not a lot, really.  Rodgers and his Atlanta counterpart Matt Ryan are still two of the best young quarterbacks in football, and both teams feature outstanding defenses; neither should be a surprise — after all, that’s why these two teams are where they are.  Both Atlanta and Green Bay feature big-time receiving threats on offense as well in Roddy White and Greg Jennings, respectively.  And with Atlanta playing at home (like in their first meeting), there shouldn’t be any reason to expect that this time will be any different, right?

Except — I’m underwhelmed with Atlanta’s last month of the season, in which they lost a big test at home against the playoff-departed New Orleans Saints (a game in which the Saints defense — yes, that maligned defense — shut Ryan and particularly Michael Turner down entirely), beat the Seahawks, and won two games against the worst team in football, the Carolina Panthers.  I never got the feeling watching them — the feeling I get when I watch the Patriots or the Steelers, for example — that I was watching a team that could make and win a Super Bowl.  To be honest, I’ve feel more that way about Green Bay at this point.

This Packer is the key to his team's chances of victory in Atlanta

The Packers’ year turned around dramatically after they lost to Detroit and Rodgers was injured back on December 12 — a low point when it looked like the team’s chances were gone and their season over.  Their effort in losing to the Pats on the following Sunday on national television was a statement game for the rest of the team that proved that Rodgers isn’t the only important part of the roster, and with their leader back in tow, they rebounded to destroy the Giants, beat the Bears in a war, and held off the Eagles.

That last game may be the key to what’s different about the Pack this time around against the Falcons.  In their first meeting, Green Bay had no rushing game at all (Rodgers led the team with 51 yards rushing).  Suddenly, the emergence of James Starks may have finally filled the void that was left when Ryan Grant went down — and any effectiveness the Pack gets out of the running game will make Rodgers and company all that more dangerous — and may be the difference in the rematch.   I think it will be, setting up Green Bay to face … who?  You’ll have to check Part 2 of my selections for Sunday’s games by clicking here to find the answer.

The NFL Wild Card Weekend In Review

Posted in NFL Football, Sports with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2011 by thelasthonestman

The first round of the NFL Playoffs are over, and after a sluggish start on Saturday, I rebounded on Sunday to go 2-2 over the weekend.  Some quick thoughts on the four Wild Card Weekend games:

— I think I already said all that needed to be said about the debacle that was the New Orleans loss against Seattle.  The defensive performance by the Saints was one of the worst I’ve seen in playoff history (considering the caliber of the opposition), and their upset loss ranks alongside some of the biggest in NFL playoff history.  It’s an extremely disappointing end for last year’s champions, and the possibility — as unlikely as it is — that Seattle might somehow force their way further into the playoffs has to be a major concern for the NFL at this point.  Can you imagine the league trying to sell a nine-loss Seattle team in the Super Bowl?  I thought not.

— In Saturday’s other game, the Jets escaped — again — to fight again another week.  They were all but dead when Adam Vinatieri nailed a clutch 50-yard field goal with only fifty-three seconds remaining in the game, but a special teams failure on Indy’s part led to a 47 yard return on the ensuing kickoff by Antonio Cromartie that would leave the Jets in perfect position for their own game-winning field goal.  When Nick Folk booted home the 32-yard field goal as the clock expired, the Colts were sent home with their 7th opening game exit in 11 trips to the playoffs during the Peyton Manning’s era.  It had to be a bitterly disappointing loss for Indy — I thought they were the better team on Saturday night.

— My Sunday picks got off to a far better start as the Ravens did exactly what I thought they were going to do, namely dominate the Chiefs.  The staggering stat of the game was the overwhelming edge on time of possession that Baltimore had over Kansas City — 41:44 to 18:16.  The game was never really a contest, as the Ravens forced five turnovers in the easy win.  While I think the Ravens’ playoff run will come to a sudden end in Pittsburgh next week (if there’s not a sequence against the Steelers, like on the first drive of this game, where Ray Rice is inexplicably on the sidelines while “Whatcha’ Talkin’ About Willis” is getting stuffed at the goal line, I’ll be stunned), for this week at least, the Ravens looked like a team that could beat anyone in the playoffs.

— Finally, the Packers beat the Eagles and Michael Vick, sending them back to Atlanta for a rematch of their narrow Week 12 loss to the Falcons.  Philadelphia could have won the game if David Akers had made either of his two missed field goals (one from 41 yards out, the other from 34), but then again, the game might have been a bigger Green Bay win if James Jones had caught the easy touchdown pass right before the end of the first half or if Rodgers hadn’t fumbled on the Packers’ first series of the second half.   Green Bay’s defense contained Vick for most of the game, forcing him into a terrible pass on the final Eagles final series that resulted in a game-clinching interception, and not surprisingly, the Eagles made no real attention to run the ball — both factors which I thought would lead to the Packers winning this game on the road.  What I didn’t foresee was the emergence of James Starks (who ran for a Green Bay rookie playoff record 123 yards) and a running game — if they can duplicate that next week against Atlanta, Rodgers and company might be looking at a return trip to Chicago and a rubber match for the NFC Title.

My 2nd round predictions will be coming later in the week.  What bodes well for fans is that, with the exception of the Baltimore-Kansas City blowout, the games were all tightly-contested and exciting.  Next week will hopefully feature more of the same.

2011 NFL Playoff Predictions, Week 1, Part 2

Posted in NFL Football, Sports with tags , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2011 by thelasthonestman

If you missed my predictions for today’s games, you can find them here.  Now, for a look at tomorrow’s games:

Baltimore (-3) over Kansas City

Most of the Chiefs' opponents in 2010 seemed less intimidating on the field than in year's past.

Out of all the playoff teams, there isn’t one that had an easier path to the playoffs than the Chiefs.  The AFC West was up for grabs in 2010 due to yet another sluggish start from preseason favorite San Diego, and Kansas City staked their claim by handing the Chargers a loss on the opening weekend of the season.  After that, the Chiefs schedule featured an astounding run of teams that ranged from mediocre to downright awful.  It’s hard to believe, but after that opening week win over the eventual 9-7 Chargers, Kansas City would play only two more games against teams that finished above .500 — a rematch against San Diego (in which KC was crushed 31-0) and a loss against the Indianapolis Colts (a ten point loss in Week 5).

I’m not dismissing what Todd Haley, his staff, and his players accomplished in 2010 by winning six more games from the year before and winning the franchise’s first division title since 2003 — but it’s simply the facts that the Chiefs were a decent team with a creampuff schedule, and other than the Seahawks, they’re the team least-likely to find themselves playing in Cowboys stadium in February.

The Chiefs do feature one of the league’s strongest running games, which only got better in the season’s final weeks as Haley finally took the restraints off of Jamaal Charles, who ran for an astounding 6.4 yards a carry, easily leading all running backs.  And quarterback Matt Cassell quietly had a remarkably efficient season, throwing only 7 interceptions (and 27 touchdown passes), while receiver Dwayne Bowe emerged as one of the biggest deep threats in the NFL.

But this isn’t the league-worst Denver defense they’re going to be facing on Sunday, but rather the feared Baltimore Ravens squad, which yet again ranked near the top of the league’s overall defenses.  They gave up the 5th-fewest yards rushing in 2010 — and if they can stop Kansas City’s ground game, then it could be a long day for the faithful at Arrowhead Stadium.

If the Ravens win the Super Bowl in 2010, this was the moment that started their run.

My pick here is more about the Chiefs than it is about head coach John Harbaugh’s Ravens team.  Frankly, I don’t know how I feel about their chances in the playoffs — they’re the team I’m finding it harder to get a grasp on than any other as we start the march to the Super Bowl.  I love Ray Rice and think he’s the team’s best weapon — yet I think he’s misused at times, particularly when he’s sometimes not on the field in the Red Zone.  I like Joe Flacco and the weapons he has — the addition of Anquan Boldin was arguably the best move made by an team in the past off-season — yet I think Harbaugh at time relies too much on the passing game instead of pounding at the run.  And as great as the defense has been, they’ve still given up some crucial backbreaking plays at the worst times (remember the touchdown drive that cost them the game against Atlanta back in Week 10?).

Still, only New England, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh won more games than the Ravens’ total of 12 — and that wasn’t an accident, nor was it as fluky as the Chiefs win total (the Ravens went 4-3 against teams better than .500).  When you factor in the x-factor of potential distractions in Kansas City involving the departing Charlie Weis (no matter what is said, there’s no way Weis’ mind could have been 100% on the Chiefs preparing for this game while preparing to take another job at Florida), then it’s easy for me to take the Ravens to advance to the next round.

Green Bay (+2.5) over Philadelphia

The Eagles will go as far as this man takes them.

There’s not a team in the NFL I’ve gone back and forth on more than the Eagles this past season.  As crazy as it might sound now, I was a huge skeptic when Andy Reid made the decision to name Michael Vick his rest-of-the-season starter back after only one start (a win against the Detroit Lions) — and frankly, even now I think Reid handled his entire quarterback situation from training camp up until that moment incredibly poorly (the huge $12.25 million extension given to Kevin Kolb before the season was a mammoth mistake if Reid had so little confidence in the young quarterback as to bury him after one bad quarter-and-a-half against one of the better defenses in the NFL, and Reid’s sudden faith in Vick as his starter makes me wonder why the Eagles didn’t commit to him from the beginning).

But there’s no doubting the tremendous impact that Vick has made on the Eagles since he entered the starting lineup, and he cemented himself as the league’s comeback player of the year with his play (as well as a putting himself in the conversation as a legitimate MVP candidate).    The Eagles have an explosive offense that’s going to be hard for any defense to contain, and Vick present a near-impossible match-up — so why am I picking the Packers, you might ask?

Well, Philadelphia has had a tendency in the Andy Reid era to pull some mystifying no-shows in games and lose to teams they have no business losing to.  Look no further than Week 16 of this year’s season, when with everything to play for (in the form of a first-round bye), the Eagles crapped the bed in an embarrassing home loss to the Minnesota Vikings.  It was a game where their hapless opponents managed to limit Vick’s effectiveness and beat him up to the point of nearly knocking him out of the game, while their defense was neither able to stop rookie QB Joe Webb nor Adrian Peterson and the running game.  It was an ugly loss, one that made me believe as I originally thought earlier in the season, that the Eagles are not a Super Bowl contender, Vick or not.

Brett who?

And the problem for them this week is that it’s not the Vikings they’re facing — it’s a Packers team that was considered by many to be a sleeper Super Bowl contender themselves coming into the season.  While that dream may not be in the cards for the Pack due to some untimely injuries (none of which has hurt Green Bay more than the loss of running back Ryan Grant way back in Week 1), the Packers are an extremely dangerous team, having one of the best quarterbacks in the league themselves under center in Aaron Rodgers, a dangerous corps of receivers led by deep threat Greg Jennings, and what’s most important, a shut-down defense.

The Packers gave up only 240 points in 2010, the second-lowest in the league (behind only the Steelers).  If they’re week on that side of the ball, it’s in stopping the run (they didn’t give up a ton of yards, but they did give up an alarming 4.7 yards a carry) — but in their favor, the Eagles don’t ever really attempt to establish the running game (a maddening Andy Reid trait as well over the years), but rely heavily on their pass-first approach.  If Philly does the same thing on Sunday — and nothing in Reid’s history suggests they won’t — then the Packers should be able to contain them enough to allow Rodgers to gain his first playoff win.

That’s enough from me about what I think is going to happen — last year’s first weekend was carnage for my picks (I went 1-3), so I’m hoping things are better this time around.  I’ll be back at the start of the week with some thoughts on the weekend’s action — in the meantime, enjoy the playoff action!

Picks for Week 2 of the playoffs are now up here.

No Freeloaders Are Gonna Take My Hard-Earned Cash!

Posted in NFL Football, Rants, Ro-Sham-Bo Award, Sports with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 6, 2010 by thelasthonestman

— With the Super Bowl just a day away, we have Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti claiming this week — with a straight face — that several NFL teams are facing financial hardship, as if any of the fat cats that can afford to actually own an NFL team really knows what financial problems are all about anyway. Certainly Bisciotti — with his net worth of over $1.2 billion — doesn’t.

Well, we’ll all make sure to break out the hat to start taking up a collection for poor fools souls like yourself, Mr. Bisciotti.  This posturing by the Ravens owner shouldn’t come as any surprise — he was one of the owners who three years ago derided the CBA that the NFL and the Players Association signed then was a “bad deal”.  Yet despite that, Baltimore president Dick Cass admitted that the club is “doing well compared to other teams around the league. But just because we’re still doing well in revenues, that doesn’t mean we’re generating a lot of profit.”

But if you are generating profit of some amount, then where’s the problem?  Since when does owning an NFL team mean that you’re supposed to be guaranteed a “lot of profit” instead of profit period (or any profit at all)?  And let’s not even go into the reality that, in the cases of almost all of the groups that own NFL franchises (or sports franchises in general), that “losses” on the books — sometimes nothing more than manipulated numbers by a team’s accountants — are often creatively written off at the end of the year.  Or better yet, let’s not forget how much the value of professional sports teams increases by on a regular basis.  Bisciotti’s Ravens, for example, were purchased for $600 million in 2000 and have already increased in value to a staggering $960 million, according to Forbes — the team’s not exactly running you into the poor house, is it Mr. Bisciotti?

Bisciotti relaxing in his luxury suite during a Ravens game

I can’t think of too many people who’d have a problem with turning a tidy $360 million profit on their investment in less than 10 years the way Bisciotti has, but let’s face it — the reason someone gets into the business of professional sports has never been to make money.  It’s always been more about ego than anything else, and even if Bisciotti (and other owners of professional sports franchises) manage to only break even in the time they own a particular franchise, none of them are counting on revenue from their teams to live on — and all of them are still going to rake in a mammoth profit when the time comes that they decide to divest themselves of the venture.

None of that seems to matter to the out-of-touch people who populate the ownership ranks of professional sports, however.  These are the same men who have, over the last several decades, weaseled and extorted huge sums of money from the cities and states that their teams play in in the form of aid for the construction of cash-cow stadiums and other kickbacks like tax breaks — usually under the threat of moving their franchise away if their demands aren’t met.

Make no mistake in thinking that the nonsense being spewed by Bisciotti is anything more than propaganda that you’ll here a lot more of in the upcoming months, as the owners begin their campaign to paint themselves as the “good guys” in their upcoming war with the NFL Players Association, a conflict which — as imbecilic as one would imagine, considering the obscene amount of money that everyone in the NFL, players and owners alike, are raking in — is looking inevitable.  A lockout in 2011 is looming — and even though Commissioner Roger Goodell is claiming otherwise, the fact that the NFL will take in $5 billion of television money in that year even if no games are ever played should tell you that — just like we’ve seen from his Wall Street and banking brethren of late — if his lips are moving, he’s probably lying.

With so many average, hard-working Americans watching their livelihoods put at risk by a faltering economy, I’ve got no tolerance for the greedy league stooges and shills like Bisciotti crying financial hardship — and neither should you.  If he NFL ends up shutting down in 2011, I’ll have no sympathy for any of the main participants (owners and players alike).  While the Lombardi Trophy gets awarded tomorrow, I’ll present a Ro-Sham-Bo Award to the Ravens owner today — hopefully, he’s not under the impression that there’s a lot of profit ahead for him in owning it.

The Only Things Worse Than My Picks Is Putting Faith In Bad Coaches

Posted in NFL Football, Sports with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2010 by thelasthonestman

My record on my picks has been so bad, I should have just been flipping one of these instead

Another weekend gone, another trail of carnage left behind known as my NFL playoff selections.

This week was only slightly better than last; I’m left with another 1-3 mark, with my only silver lining being that I at least picked the winner of the Indy-Baltimore game correctly, though I missed with my call of the Ravens covering the spread.

So what’s this week’s excuse (or lesson learned, as I’d prefer to call it) for my putrid predictions?  Simply put, it was putting faith in coaches who, over the season (or seasons), I’ve derided for a number of reasons.  If those coaches weren’t worthy of my confidence before, why would I possibly think that they would be now?  Answer: they shouldn’t have been, and it showed up this past weekend for a few key moments that set the tone for a least two of my picks going south.  Cases in point:

— I’ve been on Ravens head coach John Harbaugh all season for his bizarre willingness to pull his best offensive player in Ray Rice off of the field in so many instances, particularly crucial points in games when the team in inside the opponent’s red zone.  His stubbornness in that regard arguably cost Baltimore their first meeting against the Colts in the regular season, and having apparently not learned his lesson then, Harbaugh repeated his mistake early in their playoff rematch, squandering an opportunity for Baltimore to take control of the game and set the tone then —  and possibly blowing the team’s chances at springing the upset.

Not that I was that surprised, as on Friday, I said, “Will [Rice] be used to his utmost capability, or will there be a maddening moment Saturday where Willis McGahee is in the game instead and the offense stalls?”  That moment came on the Ravens first drive.  After the Colts stalled out in their first drive, settling for a field goal, the Ravens drove the field to put themselves 10 yards away from a go-ahead touchdown, which would have gone a long way towards unsettling the crowd and putting some doubt in the Colts’ minds coming off their ill-advised, end-of-the-season shutdown mode.  This was a key point in the game — score a TD here, especially after they hadn’t gotten into the end zone at all in their first meeting, and we might have been looking at an entirely different contest.  Instead, out of the game went Rice, in time to watch McGahee get stuffed and two incompletions thrown by Flacco result in a field goal instead.  One of the incompletions was a little swing pass that went right through the hands of fullback LeRon McClain — if it had been Rice, the team’s leading receiver on the year, on the end of that pass, then it likely would have been touchdown Baltimore, and who knows what might have happened after that.  My mistake in going with Baltimore to even cover was ignoring that Harbaugh looks like he’s incapable of learning from prior mistakes.

— And my mistake in picking Dallas to win against Minnesota was, among many things, thinking that a Wade Phillips coaches team was going to put together three straight playoff wins, including two that would have needed to be on the road.  Phillips is a nice enough guy, and he’s a great defensive mind — but his time as the head man  in Dallas (and Denver and Buffalo) should have been enough to convince anyone that he just doesn’t have it in him to be a leader of a championship team.

The key moment in the Minnesota game was early in the first quarter, when after driving down to the Vikings 30 yard line and facing a 4th and a yard (or less), Phillips sent in recently-acquired kicker Shawn Suisham in to attempt a 48-yard field goal.  This, of course, is the same Suisham who was cut earlier in the season by Washington after shanking a chip-shot field goal that cost the Redskins an upset win against New Orleans.  My immediate reaction to seeing Suisham coming onto the field was, “Of course, he’s going to miss this.”  It didn’t help matters for Dallas when Favre connected with Sidney Rice four plays later on a long TD pass either.

You’re on the road, you’re going to need to get into the end zone to win, and you’ve been moving the ball pretty well — so why not go for it if you’re Phillips?  The answer:  well, because you’re Wade Phillips.  Duh.  Unfortunately, I forgot that and put too much stock into Dallas’ back-to-back drubbings of the Eagles.

Why again did I think this guy was going to lead a team to the Super Bowl?

— And finally, there’s the latest flame-out in Southern California as Norv Turner’s Chargers, a trendy Super-Bowl pick with a lot of people (including me), went down to defeat to those pesky, underdog Jets — a loss highlighted by a three missed field-goals by Nate Kaeding, LT looking as washed up as we should have expected him to look, and a terrible decision by the Chargers to onside kick at the end of the game.  All told, it was a brutal display by San Diego, and considering that failures like these in the playoffs are what got Marty Schottenheimer’s ticket punched, Turner and company could easily be looking for new jobs following the Super Bowl.

How bad was it for San Diego?  Where does one begin?  Questionable play-calling, a complete lack of fire or emotion for much of the game from the Chargers, no sense of urgency at any point of the game, the Kaeding meltdown — you can take your pick of lowlights.  But I’ll focus on the onside kick decision by Turner as the coup-de-grace.

You’re trailing by a field goal, and you can stop the clock twice (once with a timeout, the other with the two-minute warning).  Why not kick away if you’re Turner?  Pin the Jets deep, stop them, and you’re getting the ball back with enough time to complete a couple of passes to get yourself back into field goal range (though the way Kaeding was going, there’s no reason to expect that would have been a good thing).

By attempting the onside kick and not recovering, you’re not only going to give your offense a longer field to have to navigate with no timeouts if you get the ball back, but you’re also giving the Jets the option to use all four-downs to close the game out on you.  4th and short and pinned inside of your own 30 and only up by 3?  You’re punting the ball every time , even if you only need an inch of two to get the 1st down.  But put yourself in San Diego territory, too far away for a field goal but too close to bother with punting, and you’re giving a team with a great offensive line and a power running game the chance to seal the win by gaining a measly yard — which is exactly what happened.

As the Chargers had emerged in the season’s 2nd half as a title favorite, I had trouble reconciling that with my long-held skepticism of Turner’s capabilities as the head coach.  One of my favorite Turner stories is this one from ESPN’s Bill Simmons — if I had only remembered things like that tale, I’m probably not picking the Chargers to win on Sunday.  But I didn’t, so I did — and as they say, that’s why I’m looking up at another brutal week in picks.

— My only bright side was in watching the Saints dismantle the Cardinals in the first Saturday game.  New Orleans is definitely my sentimental rooting favorite at this point, and it was nice to see them get some of the edge back that they’d seemingly lost at the end of the regular season.  The “bad” Arizona team showed up on Saturday, and New Orleans took full advantage, scoring at will and harassing Kurt Warner all game long.  Cardinal turnovers were key as predicted, starting right off with the fumble by Jerheme Urban on the team’s first play of their second possession.  Of course, Urban was only playing because Anquan Boldin was still out with the injury suffered when he was on the field against Green Bay in the season’s finale, even after the other starters had been pulled, so Ken Whisenhunt has no one to blame for that misfortune but himself.

On the other sideline, someone should congratulate Reggie Bush on escaping captivity and replacing the imposter that’s taken his place on the Saints roster until now.  The Bush we saw on Saturday was unlike one Saints fans have seen but few times before — a tough, aggressive runner who was a threat to go the distance every time he touched the ball.  This Bush should be a huge weapon for the Saints against the Vikings this upcoming weekend.

Despite my terrible mark so far, I’m not giving up on my picks — I’ll be back at the end of the week for my selections to go to Miami.  On the bright side, I can’t really do any worse — can I?  Then again, maybe I shouldn’t answer that.