Archive for football

Jay Cutler Has His Career Defining Moment — Standing On The Sidelines

Posted in NFL Football, Sports with tags , , , , , , on January 24, 2011 by thelasthonestman

We’re a little more than twenty-four hours after the Green Bay Packers punched their ticket to the Super Bowl by eliminating the Chicago Bears 21-14 at Soldier Field on Sunday (a result I expected, but sadly, wished I had been wrong about).  But the story coming out of the Windy City as the game came to an end wasn’t the tremendous playoff run by the Packers to reach the title game, it wasn’t about the emergence of Aaron Rodgers, and it wasn’t about the ending of a surprising season from the upstart Bears.  Rather, it was about Jay Cutler — not about what he was doing, but what he wasn’t doing.  Namely, playing.

With the Packers leading 14-0 as the third quarter got underway, it was Todd Collins under center for the Bears, as Cutler stood silently on the sidelines, the same blank expression on his face that those of us who’ve followed the Bears closely recognize.    Watching the game at home while trying to assemble a piece of furniture and talking on the phone with my friend Steven, I almost didn’t notice the switch at quarterback at first (it took him to point out that it was Colllins trotting onto the field to me).  I asked my friend if I’d missed Cutler getting hurt — neither of us could remember seeing a play that had suggested that the Bears quarterback had been injured.

With Cutler simply standing on the sidelines, helmet off, showing no obvious signs of pain or discomfort, my first comment was, “He must have gotten a concussion — that’s why he’s not in.”  That was, to me, the most likely explanation — especially when it became obvious that Cutler wasn’t going to be returning to the game.  I guessed that it was a hit to the head and a subsequent concussion diagnosis that, with the stricter rules now in the NFL, would be the only thing that would keep the Bears starting quarterback out of such a huge game — as I told my friend, “All of his limbs are attached and he’s still breathing — I can’t imagine why he wouldn’t be in otherwise.”

I was mistaken.  As it turns out, Cutler had suffered a MCL sprain of his knee — the actual severity of which has still not be officially reported.  Even before the game had ended, I imagine that every Bears fan was in some way questioning Cutler’s toughness or heart — and unbelievably (at least, with the culture of the NFL), Cutler’s peers — other players around the NFL — were questioning him as well.  Some of the most vocal critics were Maurice Jones-Drew, who tweeted “All I’m saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee … I played the whole season on one.” Arizona’s Darnell Dockett posted “If I’m on chicago team jay cutler has to wait till me and the team shower get dressed and leave before he comes in the locker room! #FACT.”  Even former coach Mike Ditka had weighed in, saying, “Myself, I would have had to have been paralyzed to come out of the game. I don’t want to say that word. I would have had to be completely knocked out to come out of that football game.”

Harsh words for Cutler — but are they justified?

We’ll never know for sure exactly what Cutler was capable of doing on Sunday and what he wasn’t — only Cutler knows that for certain.  His Bears teammates are sticking by him publicly — for now — most notably, linebacker Brian Urlacher.  His coaches and GM are doing the same — Lovie Smith placed the decision for Cutler not to return on his shoulders and not the quarterback’s, saying, “If you’re going to attack somebody, you should be attacking me. As a head football coach, and our medical staff, we’re the ones … he wanted to go back in.”

The support for Cutler from his teammates and coaches should be expected, and because of that, should be taken with a grain of salt.  It is true, however, that none of us who were watching the game at home were able to examine the knee and determine the extent of the injury, and it’s also not up to us to say whether or not he could have continued or not.

But that’s not going to stop you or I from speculating.  My own take was that I’ve seen other quarterbacks play through injuries that seemed to be far worse than what Cutler experienced on Sunday.  Phillip Rivers once played an entire AFC Championship game on a torn ACL, and I watched Brett Favre play much of the last two seasons  while being held together by duct tape.  Former Bears legend Jim McMahon, during their 1985 Super Bowl season, led the Bears to a comeback win against the Vikings after spending part of the week before the game in the hospital.  Matt Cassell played barely a week after having an appendectomy this season.  And so on.  I found myself asking afterward “Would Tom Brady have left a similar game in that situation?  Or Peyton Manning?  Or Ben Roethlisberger?  Or Joe Montana, John Elway, or a host of other great quarterbacks?”

And there now lies Jay Cutler’s dilemma in Chicago.  Gone is the goodwill he built up with his solid second half play.  Forgotten is the fact that he helped bring the Bears to the NFC Championship game to begin with.  As poorly as Cutler was playing before he was injured (6-14 with 0 TD’s and an interception), the Bears weren’t winning on Sunday even if he had stayed in — but the minute Todd Collins came on, the Bears were finished.  Before yesterday, Cutler’s career had been defined by his often poor attitude, a whiny disposition that led to forcing his way out of Denver, and tons of turnovers — now, that’s been replaced by the image of his standing sullenly on the sidelines while the Bears’ Super Bowl chances slipped away.  And unless he manages to lead the Bears the final step to play for a championship, that’s an image that — for most Bears fans — won’t fade anytime soon.

2011 NFC And AFC Championship Game Picks — It’s All About The Quarterbacks

Posted in NFL Football, Sports with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 20, 2011 by thelasthonestman

We’re down to the last four standing in the NFL, as the wildly entertaining and exciting playoff season draws closer to its conclusion.  That also means it’s time for my penultimate picks of the football year; after going 3-1 (2-2 against the spread) last week and going 5-3 (4-4) overall, I’m looking to emulate my perfect end from last season to finish strong — but will i have to pick against my favorite team to do it?  There’s only one way to find out — let’s get on with the show!

Pittsburgh (-3.5) over N.Y. Jets

This man is one game away from leading the Jets to the Super Bowl

This game will be a rematch of their Week 15 match-up (also played at Heinz Field) that the Jets won 22-17.  The Jets were reeling at the time, having lost two games in a row and their playoff chances suddenly slipping into jeopardy.  But New York won the game with a great defensive effort and a solid, mistake-free performance by their second-year quarterback, Mark Sanchez.  Sound familiar?

It should — it’s the formula that’s gotten the Jets on the cusp of their first Super Bowl appearance since the days of Joe Willie Namath — and it’s a formula that head coach Rex Ryan’s team will have to follow again on Sunday if they want to beat the Steelers on the road.  If they able to do that, it will be the latest in a stunning series of playoff accomplishments for the Jets.  They’ve already vanquished two of the all-time greatest quarterbacks in Peyton Manning and Tom Brady — with their four Super Bowl rings between them — in hostile environments, and this Sunday they’ll face another Super Bowl winner, two-time champion Ben Roethlisberger.  It’s a feat reminiscent of the Saints march through the playoffs last season (when they beat Kurt Warner, Brett Favre, and Manning en route to their title).

Meanwhile, the Steelers continue to do what they do best — quietly win while the spotlight has shines brighter on other teams.  In the AFC this season, the focus has been more on the Patriots and the Jets all season, while Pittsburgh remained somehow under the radar — an astonishing feat for a team that now finds itself arguably the Super Bowl favorite.  It’s even more of a stunner considering how much the Steelers and their quarterback were in the news all off-season for all of the wrong reasons.

Thankfully for him and the Steelers, it's been a relatively quite season out of the headlines for Big Ben

But Roethislberger has stayed out of the spotlight since his return from suspension, and the Steelers have continue to follow their own winning plan for success.  Their defense was statistically better than the Jets’ much-hyped unit this season — in fact, it was the top-rated defense, and it was by far-and-away the stingiest defense when it came to shutting down the running game.  For comparison, the Jets were ranked 4th in the NFL in giving up 3.6 yards a carry.  The Steelers, however, gave up a paltry 3.0 yards a carry, a full half-a-yard better than any other team in the NFL.  And that’s where the Jets are going to be faced with their biggest problem on Sunday.

Sanchez doesn’t have to carry the Jets on his shoulders if the team can run the ball successfully and take pressure off of him.  But as talented as the Jets running back tandem on Shonn Green and LaDainian Tomlinson are, they’re going to have trouble moving the ball against the Steelers on the ground (they tallied 106 yards the first time around) — and if they can’t do that, then it’s going to be up to Sanchez to put points on the board.  That’s a challenge that the young signal-caller has answered so far in the playoffs — but can he do it again?

I think this week, at least, the answer will be no.  This match-up is similar to the Steelers game against the Ravens last week — two teams with great defenses and two teams that will have trouble running the ball against the other.  And as it was against the Ravens, the difference for Pittsburgh will be in the quarterbacks and their play.  Roethlisberger is better at this point in his career, and if one quarterback makes a crippling mistake to his team’s chances, I don’t think it’s going to be him.  Sanchez has made great strides this season, and he might win a Super Bowl with the Jets at some point.  It’s just not going to be this year.

Green Bay (-3.5) over Chicago

And now, the hard part.

I survived the Bob Avellini era -- though the scars still remain

I asked my friend Steven yesterday if, as a die-hard Bears fan for thirty-five years of my life, as a Bears fan who lived through the agony of a thousand awful quarterbacks (from Bob Avellini to Chad Hutchinson), as a Bears fan who still carries the great memories of Walter Payton, of the glory days of Mike Ditka, and the immortal 1985 Super Bowl team, if I could go against all of that and pick against my beloved Bears on Sunday.

Sadly, the answer to that is yes.

I have to go on record (yet again) that, on the subject of the 2010 Chicago Bears, I couldn’t have been more off on my predictions if I had tried to be.  I (and many others) thought this season was going to be a debacle of epic proportions, while the Bears have instead come together as a legitimate Super Bowl contender.  I thought that Jay Cutler would be a disaster this season under center, while instead he put up one of the finest performances of his young career last weekend at Soldier Field against the Seahawks.  I thought that the coaching staff — which features no less than three former head coaches under head man Lovie Smith (Mike Martz, Rod Marinelli, and Mike Tice) — was going to be hopelessly outclassed this season, while instead the Bears coaching has gotten a great effort across the board, particularly from the much-maligned Martz.

I will maintain, however, that the Bears improvement this season was due to avoiding the problems that I had harped on previously — most importantly, avoiding costly turnovers — and to a fundamental change to the way Martz ran his offense.  As I pointed out last week, the Bears prior to the bye this year were a pass-happy team that made way too many mistakes and were headed for another disappointing season.  The Bears after the bye morphed into a team with an offense that ran the ball effectively, controlled the clock, and added a great defense to boot.  That was a change that led to Chicago reaching the NFC Championship Game across from from their bitter rivals, the Green Bay Packers.

A Super Bowl win would put Rodgers in an elite class of quarterbacks -- if somehow you didn't think he was there already

Green Bay is playing their best football of the season at just the right time.  Their running game has shown a sign of life, but it’s really Aaron Rodgers’ amazing performance at quarterback that’s led the Pack to this point.  Rodgers’ talents and numbers have already made him one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL (even if the general public hadn’t realized it yet), but his playoff run is setting himself up to be talked about in the same conversation those elite who wear a Super Bowl ring — think of Drew Brees at this point the same time last year as a relative example.   What’s worth noting is that, as great a career as he had, Brett Favre won a lone Super Bowl in his time with Green Bay (and in the NFL) — Rodgers can equal that total in just a few short weeks.

Much like the game in the AFC, the NFC Championship clash features two teams with a lot of the same characteristics.  There will be some great defense played from these two teams, and much like their game in Green Bay at season’s end, I don’t think there will be a lot of points scored at Solider Field on Sunday.  As is usually the case in games like these, the winner and the loser will likely be separated by turnovers and mistakes — the winner will avoid them.  That’s where the quarterbacks come in, and like in the AFC, that’s where I think the game will be decided.

Cutler was magnificent in his first playoff start last week — but these aren’t the Seahawks he’s facing this week.  Only four teams gave up fewer yards and three teams fewer touchdown passes than did the Packers, and only one team had more interceptions than Green Bay’s defense did.  As good as Cutler has been most of the time this season, he’s still had ugly moments — and while Martz has had his worst tendencies kept in check, he still is capable of producing some true head-scratchers (like his call for an option throw by Matt Forte that we saw last week with the Bears winning 28-3 — a bone-headed might have led to a comeback if a better team had been on the field against them).

As a Bears fan, what I’m deathly afraid of is exactly those moments rearing their ugly head up on Sunday — and while the optimist in me wants to believe in the Bears winning, the realist in me is sees at least one play where Cutler makes a terrible decision or Martz makes a terrible call.  As evenly as these two teams may be matched, that one play is likely all the Packers are going to need in order to meet the Steelers in the Super Bowl — as much as it pains me to say that.  On the bright side, if I’m wrong, I’m perfectly okay with that.

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.

The Worst Part Of This NFL Playoff Weekend Is That We’ll Have To Listen To The Jets Talk About How Great They Are For Another Seven Days

Posted in NFL Football, Sports with tags , , , , , , on January 16, 2011 by thelasthonestman

I don’t have any idea what happened to New England today against the Jets.  It’s pretty obvious that the Patriots and Bill Belichick had no idea either.

Oh, no ... not another week of this

I’ve picked against the Jets two weeks in a row, not because I have any distaste for the franchise or anything — as a Bears fan, I save my venom for the hated Packers, though I won’t let that cloud my judgment when it comes to picking the upcoming NFC Title Game — but only because I think they’ve been overrated all season, and that they’re more bluster than actual results on the field.  That said, I have to begrudgingly give them credit for their victory against New England in their 2nd round playoff game — unlike last week, the Jets were the better team on the field for all four quarters at Gillette Stadium.  Now as to how that happened, it’s not quite that simple.

The MVP of the game for New York was their quarterback Mark Sanchez, who grew up in a hurry with a huge performance against the Pats.  Sanchez threw for 194 yards and three touchdowns — but most importantly, he avoided turning the ball over.  That’s something that can’t be said for the Patriots, who after being the undisputed leader in the NFL this season in holding onto the ball, turned it over on a crucial pick in Jets territory in the first quarter, the first interception thrown by quarterback Tom Brady since October.  And there was arguably the turning point of the entire game, a botched fake punt at the close of the first half (that might as well have been a turnover) that set the Jets up for their second touchdown of the game, a score that put them up 14-3 at the half.

New York’s defensive effort was spectacular as well, holding the Patriots in check for most of the day and keeping New England’s vaunted offense from even advancing past midfield for nearly two quarters.  Brady was under pressure all game, and nothing ever seemed to be available for him — by the time the Pats finally started to move the ball with some consistency late in the 3rd quarter, finally scoring to cut the New York lead to four points, it was too little, too late — especially since the Jets were able to immediately answer with a touchdown of their own, the Sanchez TD pass to Santonio Holmes in the corner of the end zone reminiscent of the wide receiver’s game-winner in the Super Bowl against the Arizona Cardinals (though the replay looked like he was out-of-bounds — his elbow hitting on the white after only one knee had hit in-bounds, but the play wasn’t reviewed).   Shonn Greene’s journey into the end zone in the final two minutes to put the final score at 28-21 was simply icing on the Jets cake (the score was closer than it should have been thanks to a last-second touchdown by New England).

New York teams have been bad news in the playoffs for New England of late

As the game progressed, I thought for a minute that I was watching a repeat of a Pats performance against another New York team that they should have beaten but didn’t — their loss to the Giants in the Super Bowl that ended their unbeaten season.  That was another game in which they looked flat and out-of-tune, and just like that season, their otherwise tremendous 2010 season ends in a mammoth disappointment.  The Jets will march on to Heinz Field and a rematch against the Steelers, who they beat in Week 15.  My only hope is that we’re spared another week of the histrionics the Jets have often engaged in — which isn’t a futile wish, since I doubt we’ll see the level of hostility that the Jets and Pats have for one another to draw out all of the trash-talking.

All in all, though, even with the Pats flame-out it wasn’t a bad week for my picks:  I ended up 3-1 overall picking winners (2-2 against the spread) — and I didn’t jinx the Bears chances by picking them to win against Seattle.  I’ll take that and move up happily to the biggest week of football for this Chicago fan since the Colts beat the Bears back in Super Bowl XLI.  And yes — I’ll be picking against the Jets again.  There’s no way they beat two better teams in the Pats and the Steelers back-to-back on the road — though frankly, they’ve already advanced further than I would have expected them to.  So in a postseason where under .500 teams are beating Super Bowl champions and both number one seeds lose at home, I’d say nothing should be expected.

I’ll be back late tomorrow with my thoughts on the other three playoff games from the weekend.

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.