Thursday, January 31, 2013

Ode to the Ravens

Six weeks after 'The Wire's last episode aired, the Ravens held the #18 pick in the 2008 Draft. They chose Joe Flacco, a Division 1-AA transfer with a big arm but no real proof of being able to play well on a big stage. Five years later, the spotlight is finally squarely on Baltimore, but this journey started later in 2008, when the Ravens got their wings, when a young QB got thrown to the Lions, and a 17-year old (me) learned to understand and love the more primal aspect of football, its beautiful and endearing physicality.

There may be no greater fit for team and city as there is in Baltimore and the Ravens, and there may be no greater example of a company vision, a company structure as those same Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens are Baltimore, a hard-hitting, tough, resilient team that has carried it's rules of the game (defense) for a long, long time. The Ravens, much like the city, has become a testament to the timelessness of old-fashioned ways in an increasingly modern world. If anyone saw the Wire, especially when the show examined the fall of blue-collar America in Season 2, knows that Baltimore as a city is stuck with 20th Century businesses in a 21st Century world, and for the past twelve years, the Ravens have tried to win with 20th Century football values (defense, running game, QBs with big arms that can throw deep) in a 21st Century football world (passing, 5-wide, slot receivers and slot corners). For the past five years they've refined this archaic football value system into a machine, and they finally broke through. Though I wasn't a true Ravens fan, it was exhilarating being along for the ride.

My real soft spot for the Ravens goes back two years before Joe Flacco came aboard, to the 2006 season, probably the first season I followed earnestly week-to-week. The Baltimore Ravens in 2006 had the 2nd best defense since realignment in 2002 (only the 2002 Bucs were better). Every member of that defense's starting 11 made a pro-bowl in their career, and they were mostly in their primes at that point. It was then-rookie Haloti Ngata, Trevor Pryce and Kelly Gregg at D-Line, Adalius Thomas (before he became a bust in New England), Bart Scott (before he became a overrated voicebox in New York), Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis at linebacker and finally Chris McAlister, Samari Rolle, Dawan Landry, and a totally-in-his-prime Ed Reed at D-Back. They were scary good. 60 sacks that season, numerous memorable highlights. That team gave up just 201 points. That defense was truly terrific, and combined with an offense that rarely turned it over, they flew to 13-3 and the #2 seed. In the playoffs, they hosted the Colts in the divisional round, and in one of the most impressive 'chess-match' football games, that Ravens defense kept the Colts (that year's 2nd best offense and eventual Super Bowl Champion) to 15 points and no TDs. They lost, but they won me over.

Two years later that defense wasn't as special. Adalius Thomas had gone, Trevor Pryce had gone and the two corners (Rolle and McAlister) had gone as well. Joe Flacco was in at QB, and Willis McGahee had replaced Jamal Lewis. But Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were still there, that idealistic way of great, physical but still mental defense was still there, and with Flacco, they had finally found a long-term answer at QB. Everything was set for the Ravens, but few knew it as the 2008 season started, especially me.

I don't know where it came from, but around 2008 I became quite obsessed with defense, with schemes, with the passion and the challenge of a team imposing its will on another teams offense. And furthermore, I'm not sure why I took to the Ravens brand of defense more than their divisional rivals, the Steelers, who in 2008 had a defense that rivaled that Ravens unit from 2006 (not to mention the 2008 Titans, who had a pretty damn good defense themselves), but I did. I connected to that purple-clad unit. I connected to a team that really seemed to feed off intensity, of spirituality. All that rah-rah pep-talk bullshit actually seemed to be not so bullshit when it came to the Ravens. In 2008, under the lead of coordinator Rex Ryan (remember him?), the Ravens defense called themselves "organized chaos", a term coined by Ryan talking about the random but calculated way they lined up and played defense. And even for a team that didn't get nearly as many sacks as the talent dictated they should have, it seemed to make sense.

I've long shared my belief that M&T Bank Stadium is a gem of a stadium, one of the best outdoor stadiums in the league. I did a stadium ranking about three years ago and had M&T at #3 (behind only The Linc and Lambeau Field), and I can't remember any more special atmosphere in the NFL than M&T Bank when the Ravens defense is at their most bad self, especially when they dig out those black uniforms. That's football, that's what the game is all about. Inflicting your will, firing up your crowd, and making the other team hate the idea of coming into your building, your cavernous, raucous building, and fighting it out. The Ravens fed off that crowd in a way I haven't seen any team ever, just plowing teams at home in 2008 (and most years since), and I may not have witnessed a more powerful, energized regular season game in my life than in Week 15 in 2008, when the 10-3 Steelers came into town to play the 9-4 Ravens. A rivalry was truly born that day, and so was a man's strange love for a hard-hitting team. My favorite part about that game (other than it being just 13-9 and still wildly entertaining) was that the Ravens recorded two sacks; one by Ray Lewis, and one by Ed Reed.

The 2008 Ravens ended up losing to the Steelers (again) in the AFC Championship Game after two defense-heavy road playoff wins in Miami and Tennessee, and I wasn't too upset about it. I don't have the lasting emotional attachment to the Ravens that I have to the Colts or Raiders. Playoff losses for the Ravens don't really crush me (other than a certain one I'll talk about soon), so I was able to just sit back and draw back on the great memories. On Ed Reed's 11 interceptions that season, including the record 108-yard INT return against the Eagles, or the punt-return like INT return against the Dolphins, set up by brilliant blocks by Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata. After '08 I was on board, but I didn't get really hooked until 2011.

The 2009 and 2010 Ravens were good teams (a better-than-their-record 9-7 in 2009, and worse-than-their-record 12-4 in 2010), and both times they beat down worse teams in the Wild Card round and lost to better teams in the Divisional Round. The '09 Ravens were memorable because they gave me one of my greatest schadenfreude-ian sports moments when that Ravens team went into Gillette Stadium and just embarrassed them, picking off Brady twice in the 1st Quarter, and piling up a 24-0 lead before the 1st quarter was over. They were also memorable because my team beat them, again, in the Divisional Round 20-3. The 2010 Ravens were memorable for me solely because Ed Reed played just 10 games, but led the league in INTs with 8. It wasn't until 2011 that the Ravens became one of my teams again. The 2011 Ravens were very good defensively, and we all knew how their season ended, with them playing the Patriots toe-to-toe, but were felled by their #3 WR and their kicker. This year's team wasn't quite as good but even more resourcful in the playoffs, beating my team, then my QB, but then redeeming themselves in my eyes by beating my enemy. But this year's playoffs is destiny fulfilled for the Ravens and for their fans. For me, destiny was fulfilled when I watched Ed Reed dominate a playoff game six years ago, and it has just been one enjoyable ride ever since.

It really all comes back to Reed. Ed Reed is a special player, a fact obvious to all. He is a Hall of Famer if he retired three years ago. He is one of the best safeties to ever play the game, and is the best safety that I have ever seen. But to me, he is so much more than just another great player. I have an emotional connection with Ed Reed (a connection he has no knowledge of, obviously). I've lived games, moments, plays and lived defensive football through Ed Reed. Little has been as exciting as watching Reed break on a ball, watching the way he slowly but surely goes about his interception returns, watching that bearded goofball talk to the media, watching him draw the respect of every person in the NFL. I love Ed Reed the player, the ultimate safety, the definition of what a safety is and what it could and should be.

Ray Lewis started this whole thing, and he set the tone. He was the one who made Baltimore into a defensive football town, the one who made M&T Bank love and feed into defense more than offense. He was the guy who led the team that brought a Super Bowl to Baltimore, but it was the Reed/Suggs/Thomas/Ngata/McAlister/Lewis group that brought Baltimore to its feet. Lewis is Avon, the emotional leader. Reed is Stringer, calculating, smart and savvy. Suggs is Wee-Bey, full of excitement but dangerous when it comes to business, and I guess Haloti Ngata (one of my favorite football names to just say) can be Prop Joe, a fat lovable slob. The Wire taught us all about Baltimore, but the Ravens taught me more. Even the name, which evokes Baltimore's greatest literary treasure (no, not David Simon) Edgar Allen Poe. Few names are so perfectly entrenched in their city's culture in such a nuanced way. The Ravens, a team who's beliefs are as archaic as the man who they are named after. The Ravens, a team who beliefs in the values that football was founded on, physicality, defense and hitting, being worshiped in a city which believes in the values that America was founded on, hard work and desire. The Ravens, a team that inspired me to love football more deeply and more passionately than I did before. The Ravens, a team that taught me the beauty of games that ended 15-6 or 13-9. The Ravens, a perfect team for me, just as they are a perfect team for their city. Baltimore should feel proud that even if the institutions that were part of the bedrock of the city go, the Ravens will always be there.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Deepest Cuts

I know, I know, I ducked having to talk about the Divisional Round. I was too upset. The Ravens win in Denver just floored me. But it got me thinking about past sports memories, haunting sports losses and where this one ranked, and oddly, I could come up with quite a few that were worse. So, I've compiled my 10 most haunting sports losses as a fan. Some of them weren't close. Some of them were way too close. One of them is even a team losing a game in a series they ultimately won. Anyway, let's get to the list.

10.) Super Bowl XXXVII - Raiders 21 vs. Buccaneers 48

This game wasn't close at all (it was 34-3 at one point), but there are two reasons why it makes this list. First, the Raiders made it a game scoring three straight TDs. They went for two and missed each time, making it 34-21 (it could have been 34-27 had they gotten all three). Down 13 with about seven minutes to go with the ball it wasn't inconceivable that they could finish the incredible comeback, but Gannon threw pick's #4 and #5. The other reason is I was young, I didn't understand how good that Buccaneers team was, and I was so ready to celebrate the Raiders winning after they were robbed the previous season (that game is a little higher up the list). The 2002 Raiders were the first team that I followed earnestly all season. I can still list the scores of each of their games. I can still remember the key players, the key moments, and it ended in abject disaster.

* - I promise that I started writing this piece before I heard Tim Brown's accusation that Bill Calahan sabotaged the Super Bowl to stick it to Al Davis and give a good one to his friend Jon Gruden. This doesn't make me change my view on the game at all. That Buccaneers team was better anyway. I don't buy the allegations. Why would Bill Callahan decide to wait until the Super Bowl to sabotage the team. If anything, his run-heavy 1st Half against the Jets in the divisional round was more of a sabotage maneuver. 

9.) 2007 Divisional Playoffs - Chargers 28 @ Colts 24

This is a strange game. On one hand, even if the Colts won they would have had no real shot to win in New England the next week. The Colts had no pass rush without Dwight Freeney and with a hobbling Robert Mathis. That said, I really wanted the Colts to get another shot at the Patriots in that year. I wanted to see Manning take on the Patriots one more time. I wanted that playoff rematch. On the other hand, the loss was so unexpected and brutal. The Colts should have beaten the Chargers in the regular season despite missing seven players that would play in the divisional game and Manning throwing six interceptions, and they should have won this game. Manning hit his first 14 throws, and driving near the red zone up 7-0, he hit Marvin Harrison (playing his first game since Week 10) and Marvin fumbled. The Colts let the Chargers complete a 3rd and 14 and a 3rd and 11 in the 1st half. The Colts, down 21-17, drove down inside the 10, and Manning throws a screen pass to Kenton Keith, and Keith just bats it up in the air and it lands perfectly in the hands of Eric Weddle for a fluke interception. Then, Billy Volek completes two third downs to lead a game winning drive. Of course, despite throwing for 400 yards and having both INTs first hit the hands of Colts players, Peyton was blamed. Just a stunning and terrible loss for what was a great team. After the game ended I couldn't even speak. Over time, I've cooled off about the game. All that was foregone was Manning's playoff record being 10-11 instead of 9-11 (as if that would have stopped the Manning haters), because there was no way they were beating the Patriots without a pass rush. Time has healed that wound, but it was a gashing wound right after the game ended.

8.) Super Bowl 41.5 (Week 9 2007 Season) - Patriots 24 @ Colts 20

Oddly, I feel worst about this game than the one above which was the playoff loss that season. This is the only regular season game to make the list (though the Week 10 loss in New England in 2010 came close). Just to recap, the Colts entered the game 7-0, winning their last two games by a combined 60-14 (both on the road), and were the defending champs who had beaten New England in the last three meetings. Despite all of this, they were the underdog (by five points) to the 8-0 Patriots. The Patriots entered that game looking superhuman, but I thought the Colts could make them look human, and they most certainly did. The Colts defense played better than I have ever seen it during the Dungy era, holding that Patriots offense to 7 first half points. Tom Brady entered the game with 2 INTs on the season, and the Colts doubled that total. The Colts were able to score on a 70-yard weaving run after a screen pass to Joe Addai right before the half to take a 13-7 lead into halftime, and opened up a 20-10 lead in the 4th quarter. It was all set for a great Colts win, a hammer to the Patriots undefeated season (and keeping alive the Colts run at perfection). Then Randy Moss finally got open deep, and Brady hit him. Three plays later, Brady hit Welker for a TD. Then, Peyton Manning, on 3rd down, threw a beautiful pass 30 yards downfield to Reggie Wayne, but Wayne dropped it. Had Wayne caught it, the Colts would have gotten at least a field goal, and there was a chance Wayne could have taken that for a TD. The Patriots scored another TD (set up by a deep pass to Stallworth), and the Colts couldn't comeback as Tony Ugoh was awful, letting pressure come to Manning on three straight plays. The Patriots escaped a wounded Colts team (no Harrison in that game), and kept their pefect season going. The Colts at least showed that the Patriots weren't untouchable, but I was so upset that they couldn't protect a 20-10 lead. They blew a chance at never allowing that perfect season to happen. They could have shoved the Patriots brilliance in their face. God dammit, I'm getting more upset now than I was then just by writing about it. What I've learned from going back over the last two games was that I am more thankful than ever that the 2007 Giants existed.

7.) 2012 Divisional Playoffs - Ravens 38 @ Broncos 35

It is hard to rationally explain my thoughts about a game that just happened 9 days ago. I am still not prepared to accept that Peyton Manning's bad luck followed him to Denver. If I re-do this in a couple years it might be lower because I actually like the Ravens (Ed Reed is probably my favorite non-Colts or non-Peyton Manning player), and at least they had the decency to beat New England as well. That said, what a haunting way to lose. All year long, the Broncos d-backs have been great in man coverage. They played tight man coverage without being beat deep. Well, the odds caught up to them in force in that game, as Champ Bailey was beat deep often early. The Broncos had chances to take over that game, but their play and the refs didn't allow it. First was the awful DPI call on 3rd down two plays before the bomb TD to Torrey Smith when the Ravens were flat down 7-0. Then was the non-call DPI on Decker as he tipped the ball up for a pick-6. Then was the Matt Prater missed field goal (Manning has had horrible field goal luck throughout his playoff career), turning a potential 24-14 halftime lead into a tie as the defense shat the bed again. Then was the ultra-conservative call to take it to halftime with 35 seconds and all three timeouts. Then was the conservative nature of just running the ball to waste clock late. Finally, it all came full-circle with the worst defensive play I have ever seen. I will be haunted by the memory of Rahim Moore taking the world's worst angle to that bomb. I will be haunted by realizing that Moore wasn't going to make the play. I was haunted by the stunned silence of that Denver crowd. Add into it a nerve-wracking OT, when after the Ravens were backed up with a 3rd and 11 inside their ten the Broncos not being able to stop a throw to Pitta, or the dropped INT by Chris Harris. And finally the final, admittedly awful, pass by Manning. I felt a pit of dispair in that moment knowing that Manning gave some wood for the haters to use to pump up their fire against him. Sadly, this isn't even close to the worst loss I've had to suffer through. 

6.) 2008 Wild Card - Colts 17 @ Chargers 23

The 2008 Colts team wasn't a great team. They were flawed. They had no o-line or running game. They were in a tough conference and probably couldn't have made it to the Super Bowl, but damn did I want it. I still think (as I've detailed previously) that I have never followed a team with the passion I did for the 2008 Colts. They were such a fun team to watch, and they gave us fans a great ride from 3-4 to 12-4. And it all ended in one dramatic and stunning game. Much like the previous year, the Colts lost to the Chargers because of just pure bad luck. This time, the only thing I will remember is Mike Scifres becoming the GREATEST PUNTER EVER for a day, pinning the Colts three times inside the 10. I will remember Gijon Robinson forgetting the snap count on 3rd and 1 late allowing a free rusher to sack Manning before Manning had really any chance to look for a receiver. One yard there would have ended the game. The Chargers had no timeouts. The game was the Colts. It was another gritty win in a season full of them. A trip to Pittsburgh (where the Colts had already won in a memorable - for me at least - 24-20 win) awaited. The dream season would continue. But it was not to be. Peyton Manning never saw the ball in OT, helped by two bullshit calls on the Colts on 3rd down, and Antonio Gates fumbling around three Colts in OT but being able to recover it himself. The final hammer to my head was Darren Sproles, the little bitch that returned two kicks for TDs in the 2007 regular season Chargers win and a 55-yard screen pass TD in the 2007 playoffs loss, running for the game ending TD. I was not ready for the Colts dream to end right there. The hidden part of that loss was I should have seen it coming. It was stunning the Chargers were in the playoffs at all. The Chargers were 5-8 that season, three games behind the Broncos at 8-5. The Broncos crapped their way to an 0-3 end, but more perversely was the Chargers recovering an onside kick in their Week 15 win over the Chiefs to win that game. The Chargers should never have been in the playoffs that year, and the Colts would have killed that Broncos team. Screw the Chargers. Screw Philip Rivers' smug face, and Norv Turner's weird face. Screw Mike Scifres. And mostly, screw Gijon Robinson.

5.) 2005 NLCS Game 5 - Cardinals 5 @ Astros 4  

Before I start, I should admit that the Astros ended up winning Game 6 and the series (of course, they lost the World Series in the closest sweep ever), but this game still makes the list. That David Fucking Eckstein. That little midge. Anyway, the memorable moment is Albert Pujols absolutely hammering a Brad Lidge hanging slider, giving the Cardinals a stunning 5-4 win, but the game was so much more. The series itself was great. The Astros took their 3-1 game advantage turning a ridiculous double play to end Game 4 with Cardinals on 1st and 3rd. They started game 5 but quickly fell behind 2-1, but then, in the bottom of the 6th inning, Lance Berkman hit a line-drive three-run home run into the Crawford Boxes. That brings us to the bottom of the 9th, with Brad Lidge on the mound, and David Eckstein batting. Brad Lidge was the Astros wild-card in 2004, when he struck out 157 batters in 4 innings (which is absurd). He was the full-time closer in 2005 and was basically as good, striking out 103 in 70 innings, with a 2.29 ERA. He quickly struck out the first two batters in the Top of the 9th. Everything was there for the Astros, everything was there for me, who had run through about two sets of fingernails by that point. The Minute Maid Park crowd was just in a frenzy (that place used to get really, really loud). The best closer in baseball at the time was up against David Eckstein, but Ecksten won, hitting his patented ground ball right by Adam Everett. It was a most Eckstien-like hit. Then, Brad Lidge walked Jim Edmonds, and now it was Pujols. Believe you me, the second Berkman hit his home run, I counted how many guys needed to reach base for Pujols to get another at bat. It shouldn't have happened, but it did, and the result seemed preordained. The place grew silent, as did I. Lidge kept the drama going by making Pujols look foolish on his first slider, but the next one he hung, and the best player in baseball didn't miss it at all. I don't think I have ever heard a place go from so loud to so quiet that quickly and drastically. I don't think I have ever been in a situation where I thought a game was over until it wasn't (other than the game at #1, or maybe the game coming right up). The aftermath of the game is strange, because the Astros was Game 6 6-2, and because the series was extended another game, my favorite player, Roy Oswalt, got to pitch a gem in Game 6 and win NLCS MVP, but the series had lasting effects. Brad Lidge wasn't the same, and he would be the losing pitcher in Game's 1 & 2 of the World Series (memorably giving up a walk-off home run to Scott Podsednik, a guy who didn't hit a home run all season). The pitching order was ruined, and finally, the Astros didn't get to celebrate at home.

4.) 2009 NHL ECQF Game 7 - Hurricanes 4 @ Devils 3

This basically had all the elements of the previous game, except my team didn't go on to win the series (obviously, since it was Game 7), and it was even more stunning. The 2008-09 Devils were a very good team in a good but not great conference. They were the #2 seed, and I really thought they were good enough to win the Stanley Cup that year, but I would be remiss to note how nervous I was that entire series when the Devils drew the Hurricanes. The Hurricanes are the Patriots to the Devil's Colts, beating them in 2002 and 2006. Both those years, the Hurricanes were the better team, so it wasn't that bad. This time, the Devils were better. The beginning of the series wasn't too bad, but the real drama started in Game 4. Up 2-1 in the series, the Devils were down 0-3 in the game, but fought back to tie the game, but Jussi Jokinen, of the Hurricanes, scored with 0.2 seconds left in regulation. I kid you not. Amazingly, something similar happened that altered the 2006 series, as in Game 2 of that series (Devils down 0-1 in the series) Eric Staal scored with 3 seconds to go to tie the game, and the Hurricanes would win in OT. I should have known after Jussi Jokinen scored that goal that the series would go to shit, but Marty Brodeur was great in Game 5, a 1-0 win. The Devils failed to close out Game 6 in Carolina (losing 4-0), setting up Game 7. Any Game 7 is dramatic, but close ones are even worse. The Devils took leads of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2, the last coming halfway through the third period behind a rocket shot by Brian Rolston. That lead held until under 2:00. At this point, I was about to die. The Devils were two minutes away from a date with the Capitals. They were about to break their cherry in winning a big game in the Prudential Center. It was all so close, but then lightning struck twice. With 80 seconds left, that bastard Jokinen scored to tie another game. The place went silent, I was gearing up for OT, which against the Hurricanes has never ended well for the Devils, but they spared me that heart attack when Erik Staal scored with 40 seconds left to finish the job. It was a quick execution, and I really wasn't sure what to do. It was unlike these football games that had moments throughout that portended the doom to come. This was going from elation to abject horror in 80 seconds, and there wasn't a Game 6. The season was over, a season that was a really positive one for a Devils fan. Just a killer.

3.) Super Bowl XLIV - Saints 31 vs. Colts 17

Losing a Super Bowl hurts, but oddly this one didn't hurt too much that day. The game itself was closer than the score, but it is hard to really say the Colts deserved to win. The Colts played conservatively (running the ball three times after their goal-line stand late in the 1st half). The Colts decided that letting 50-year old Matt Stover kick a 51 yard field goal was a good idea (it wasn't). They dropped passes, broke badly in routes, turned it over, and couldn't even force the Saints into a 3rd down in the second half. No, what really makes this one hurt so much is its lasting effect. There have been worse Colts losses in terms of how I felt after the game and the following few days (including all the ones on this list, as well as maybe the 2004 Divisional Game because of how embarrassing it was), but other than the one to come, none are so awful to remember looking back. I have mostly come to terms with losing to San Diego, or being Mike Scifred, but I still haven't come to terms with Pierre Garcon dropping a 30-yard gain on 3rd down up 10-3. I still haven't come to terms with Dwight Freeney hobbling through the game because of him falling awkwardly on Mark Sanchez late in the AFC Championship Game. I still haven't come to terms with the fact that Hank Baskett felt it necessary to use his face to recover that onside kick (most awful, insane coincidence: Hank Baskett once recovered his own team's surprise onside kick with the Eagles in their close loss to the then 10-0 Patriots in 2007). I haven't come to terms with the opportunity cost of losing. Had the Colts won that game Peyton Manning would never have to hear shit again. Had the Colts won that game, Peyton Manning would have all the numbers but have his 2nd ring, beating a good QB in a tough game. Had the Colts won that game, I could have written my "The Beatification" column that I planned to write after Manning won his 2nd Super Bowl. It would have all been worth it, the years of losing early, the years of being kicked in the nads by the Pats, the years of the scorn and ridicule, because Manning would have that 2nd Ring. And although this one might be hard to prove, I believe it earnestly, that had the Colts won that game, Peyton Manning would still be a Colt today. I loved the 2009 season, the Colts chase at perfection, that fun Saints team, the Favre renaissance, the Pats getting embarrassed by Baltimore, but it had to end in the toughest way possible. Screw You, Hank Baskett.

2.) 2005 Divisional Playoffs - Steelers 21 @ Colts 18

And despite everything I just wrote about Super Bowl XLIV, this one was worse after the game, and still worse now. The 2005 Colts team was absolutely the best team in the NFL that year. They just picked the worst possible time to have their worst game in a performance absolutely no one anticipated. So many things went wrong with that game. For once, the whole "The Colts resting their starters makes them rusty" logic actually was spot on, and the Colts were asleep for the first 15 minutes, as Ben Roethlisberger came out flinging the Steelers to a 14-0 lead at the end of the 1st Half. The Colts woke up finally near the end of the half but their long 9-minute drive fizzled out near the 5-yard line ending in a field goal. The Colts were even worse in the 3rd quarter as the Steelers added another TD. It was 21-3 entering the 4th Quarter, the RCA Dome was silent, and every Colts fan thought that they were living out their worst nightmare. The Patriots were already eliminated in the 2005 Playoffs. Everything was there for us Colts fans, as all that was between the Colts and the Super Bowl was a team they had beaten 26-7 six weeks earlier, and the Broncos, who the Colts beat 90-34 in the 2003 & 2004 playoffs. But none of that mattered when it was 21-3, but then the team finally woke up when Peyton Manning waved off the punt team late in the 3rd Quarter, completed the first down and started what could have been the greatest 4th Quarter Comeback in playoff history. We all know how it ended, with Peyton Manning down 21-18 getting the ball near his 20, but his great o-line let free rushers in on two straight snaps and they turned it over on downs. It was amazing to see the Steelers defense just befuddle Manning and the lineman. It wasn't like they were blitzing five or six guys. Most of the time ti was just four, but the Colts couldn't decipher it. And that's how the great season ended... I wish. But God had to jerk us all around by having Jerome Bettis fumble, have Nick Harper scoop up the ball, and have him running with just Ben Roethlisberger and some fat linemem between him and the end zone. I still remember where I was when this happened. I was in the basement, and I couldn't believe what I saw. I ran upstairs to where my parents were watching the game, and yelled "Can You Believe What Just Happened!!!" At that moment, there was not one bit of me that thought the Colts weren't going to score at least a FG there, and probably a TD. But Bryant McFadden (an unkown rookie at the time) perfectly defended a near TD to Reggie Wayne, setting up a game-tying 46-yard Field Goal opportunity for the most accurate kicker in NFL History. At that time, I didn't know how unclutch Mike Vanderjagt was, but the second the ball left his foot on a path nowhere near the upright, I knew. I still remember what happened next, with CBS cutting to four different reactions to the missed field goal. It was Peyton Manning, Tony Dungy, Bill Cowher and Jerome Bettis all saying "He Missed It", in highly different ways. Bettis was relieved, Cowher was jubilant, Dungy was understanding, and Manning was fucking angry. Of course, I said the same thing, and I was crushed. That was the best Colts team I have ever seen, and they should have won the Super Bowl that year. They didn't because Nick Harper's wife stabbed him in the knee, because their o-line seemingly didn't know what a zone blitz was, and because Mike Vanderjagt is an idiot kicker.

1.) 2001 Divisional Playoffs - Raiders 13 @ Patriots 16 

This will probably never be topped. It is hard to come up with a more perfect heartbreak. Fist, put a person at an age where they truly don't understand the volatile life of a football fan, add to that where that person is following a sport earnestly for the first time and his favorite team happens to be good, but the person is naive and doesn't understand the pain that comes with losing. Then add a beautiful, haunting setting like say a picturesque blizzard in Foxboro. And then, finally, add a referee's call, a call so infamous that it's rule that the call is based off of is arguably the most infamous rule in the NFL. Add it all up and the sum is my worst personal sports loss. The reason I hate the Patriots isn't so much Brady and BB beating the Colts from 2003-2004, or their continued success and the arrogance that came with it, but because those guys won their first ring because the referees robbed my team. My team won that game. My team from California went to New England, played in a blizzard and outplayed the Patriots for 58 minutes. They were up 13-3 entering the 4th quarter, but their pass rush went dry and their running game went away (they had a 2nd and 3 the drive before the Tuck and couldn't get the one first down they needed). But even after Brady's running TD to make it 13-10, he needed luck. Let's get to the play. I still remember Charles Woodson running unimpeded at Brady from the corner and Brady not seeing him. I remember that oblong football rolling around the snow and Greg Biekert jumping on it. I remember the silence in Foxboro and the celebration on the Raiders sideline and in my basement (it is amazing how many of these moments I lived through in my basement). I then I remember Walt Coleman starting to review the call. Despite my limited knowledge of the NFL at the time, I had a bad feeling it was going to get overturned. Maybe it was the building anxiety of the crowd, but it felt like that call was getting overturned. I still don't know why. Even if the Tuck Rule is a rule (and it is), I don't think it was applied correctly, as it seemed to me when Brady was hit and the ball came out, Brady had both hands on the ball which seems to me as the end of any 'tuck' motion. Also, I don't see how any angle showed conclusive video evidence, as the call of the field was a fumble. I don't see how Walt Coleman could have reversed that call. Walt Coleman, a ref who I still hate to this day, and I find it beautiful that he's never been given the honor of reffing the Super Bowl, which I like to think is a silent punishment by the NFL for screwing up the Tuck Rule. Of course, Adam Vinatieri then hit the most ridiculous field goal ever, and the Patriots dynasty was born. That last fact is the worst part. Tom Brady started his career 10-0 in the playoffs, but he should have started his career 0-1, fumbling away a home playoff game. His whole reputation as a QB is built off that first playoff comeback that never should have happened, and it is all Walt Coleman's fault.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

2012 NFL Playoffs: Reviewing Championship Sunday

Player of the Week - Joe Flacco

The best player this week might have been Matt Ryan, but his inability to hold onto a snap kind of hurts his chances here. That said, Matt Ryan was great in that game. Anyway, Joe Flacco had an average 1st Half as the Ravens' tried to establish a running game to really mixed success. In the 2nd Half, the Ravens said "Screw It, let's go down swinging," and they turned the offense back to Flacco, and boy did Joe deliver. Flacco went 16/22 in the 2nd half with three TDs. He was great finding matchups to exploit. He stood tall in the pocket and delivered strikes right before being hit hard by guys like Wilfork. For the second straight year, a QB called himself 'elite' before the season started, and that backed it up with a great three-game run to get to the Super Bowl. I have to think some other QB tries it before next season. My guess: Matt Stafford.

Runner Up: Vernon Davis; It is hard to give him too much credit when the Falcons are about as bad at covering TEs than any team ever, but Davis was a beast on Sunday. He complained, and rightfully so, that he wasn't a big part of the offense since Kaepernick replaced Smith, but when Kaepernick threw to him in the NFC Title Game, he caught the ball and caught it for big gains.

Had I done this last week - Colin Kaepernick; Runner Up: Shane Vereen

Goat of the Week - Tom Brady

Oh yeah, he's back. Tom Brady has escaped criticism for that performance mainly because the Patriots had great luck and a great defense back in 2001-2004 (work that out and you'll understand), but he was not very good in that game. He bounced passes to open receivers. He didn't throw screen passes on target. He missed Wes Welker deep in the beginning of the game. He threw two interceptions in the 4th quarter (imagine if a Matt Ryan or Tony Romo did that), and he barely completed half his passes. Pressure wasn't even the cause here like it was in Super Bowl XLII or the 2005 Divisional loss to the Broncos. The worst play might have been when Brady eschewed running for a 1st down of 4th and 4 because Haloti Ngata was going to hit (most likely after Brady had picked up the necessary yards) and decided to throw a 4th down pass to no one. Not a good day for a man who knows a thing or two about goats.

Runner Up: Harry Douglas; he's the guy who found himself wide open in the 4th Quarter at the 49ers 30 or so, but stumbled, almost didn't catch the ball, and made a potential NFC Title Game winning drive continue.

Had I done this last week - Rahim Moore; Runner Up: Dom Capers

Surprise of the Week - Colin Kaepernick, the Comeback Player

The one question a lot of people (including me) still had about Colin Kaepernick was if he could throw the 49ers back into a game if they fell down early. The only real evidence of this that we had was the 49ers game in Seattle, where they fell behind early and Kaepernick looked lost. Well, he was put in a situation where his team was down 17-0 on the road in a place that is very tough to win in, and he delivered. Admittedly, the run game outside of Kaepernick was stellar (great game by Frank Gore), and it wasn't like Kaepernick had an Aaron Rodgers' like performance, but Colin Kaepernick answered that final challenge. Even if he has a bad game in the Super Bowl, I think it is safe to say that Jim Harbuagh's decision wasn't wrong.

Runner Up: The Ravens Secondary; People were quick to make the loss of Aqib Talib into a major talking point of the AFC Title Game, but the Ravens were without their best corner for most of the year (Lardarius Webb). Their three main corners are Corey Graham (surprisingly good), Cary Williams (average), and Cykie Brown (yeah). And they played great. They were able to contain that offense, remove any deep threat, keep everything short, and pound the Patriots receivers. Bravo to them.

Had I done this last week - Zach Miller; Runner Up: Torrey Smith

Disappointment of the Week - Another Average Late-Window AFC Title Game

Unlike the first two weekends of the playoffs where matchups and location can alter the schedule, you know which conference will host the first or second Title Game in a given year. In even-year seasons ('08, '10, '12 etc.) the AFC hosts the second Title Game, and that usually hasn't been a good thing. The second Title Game is the fun one, the better time-slot, but other than one absolutely epic game (2006 AFC Championship Game), the AFC has underwhelmed in the limelight. We have had this past game, the lifeless 24-19 and 23-14 wins by the Steelers over the Jets and Ravens (neither game was really as close as the score). We also had the Patriots 41-27 win in Pittsburgh in 2004 which really wasn't as close as the score. Before that was the 2002 game where the Raiders beat the Titans 41-24. Alternately, the last three NFC Title Games in the late window (the '07, '09 and '11 seasons) have been absolutely great games that went to overtime. So, great expectations for 2013.

Runner Up: The Falcons Ability to Cover Tight Ends; OK with that random tidbit over, let's get to another one. How can the Falcons be that bad at covering TEs again? The Falcons in many ways played the same game from the divisional round, jumping up to a big lead and then blowing it. And in both games, part of the reason the lead was blown was because the Falcons showed no knowledge of how to stop a TE. They just let Vernon Davis run free. Just bizarre.

Had I done this last week - The Broncos Defense; Runner Up: Aaron Rodgers

Team Performance of the Week - The Falcons' Big Three Targets

The Falcons lost this game because NaVarro Bowman blatantly held Roddy White, because Roddy White slipped (which admittedle undercut my point) and because Matt Ryan couldn't hang onto a snap. The Falcons were that close to winning because of Matt Ryan, but more because of how well Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Julio Jones played. Jones and White nabbed high passes all day. They destroyed a good secondary. Julio Jones is a special talent, and the Falcons were absolutely right to trade up for him in the 2011 draft. Tony Gonzalez might be retiring, but he is going out still playing great football. Roddy White hasn't slowed down at all and is more explosive and efficient since Matt Ryan doesn't have to throw to him 180 times. The Falcons are well set going forward in one area.

Runner Up: The Patriots Punting Unit; I'm going to hate on the Patriots a lot in this piece, so why not give them credit. It was strange seeing Belichick opt for punting in so many high-leverage situations (4th and 2 on the opening drive, and the 4th and 7 & 8 at the Ravens ~35). But the one saving grace in those decisions was that Zoltan Mesko pinned the Ravens deep each time. He is a very good directional punter. Of course, it didn't help Belichick's case that after the punts from inside the opponents' 40, the Ravens drove 90 and 87 yards for TDs.

Had I done this last week - the Ravens defense; Runner Up: the 49ers offense

Team Laydown of the Week - The Patriots Offense

The Patriots from 2007-2012 in games that Tom Brady started are 65-15 in the regular season. They are also 5-5 in the playoffs (3-5 in their last 8). The Patriots have played 10 playoff games since their last true road playoff game (@IND in the 2006 AFC Title Game), and they are 5-5 in those games. Again, they are a .500 playoff team in their last five seasons without ever being the road team in any of those games (they were also the favorite in all ten games). The Patriots have scored over 500 points in 2007, 2010, 2011 and 2012, and they scored just 16.25 ppg in their playoff losses those five seasons. They just had the worst home Title Game loss for a team (15 points) since the 2002 Eagles. They were 67-0 when leading at halftime at home with Tom Brady starting, and not only lost this game but were outscored 21-0. That was, in every way, an embarrassing loss that people are trying to explain away. It isn't. Final stat. Peyton Manning QBed teams have lost 5 home playoff games by a combined 14 points. The Patriots just lost a home playoff game by 15 points.
Runner Up: The 49ers Secondary; Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers, Tarrelle Brown and Chris Culliver had a great year all season long. The 49ers play a bunch of 2-deep man coverage and play it really well. Well, in the NFC Title Game, they most certainly didn't play well. Goldson bit embarrasingly on the first Julio TD. They had no answer for either Jones or White. Not a great performance for them, and they'll need to be a lot better in the Super Bowl.

Had I done this last week - the Falcons defense in the 2nd Half; John Fox's Balls

Storyline that will be Beat Into the Ground - The Harb-Bowl

It is obvious isn't it. We'll hear about this for two solid weeks, but in a way, it is kind of amazing. Here are two brothers who have reached the top of their profession in very different ways (John the conventional rising through the ranks, while Jim being an average QB then doing great things in college), and now they are coaching against each other in the Super Bowl. But then again, they aren't playing against each other. They aren't going to hit each other. They are close as it is, so there isn't some bad blood to build off of. Just remember, if the two Mannings ever meet each other in the Super Bowl, the amount of coverage that would get would make this look like nothing.

Storyline that Should be Beat Into the Ground - The Conclusion of Something Good vs. The Beginning of Something Great

The Ravens have been a very good team for a long time. Their offense has stabilized in the Harbaugh era with Flacco at QB, and with that they have turned occasional playoff appearances (four in seven years from 2000-2006), into five straight, but all of it is coming to an end. Ray Lewis is retiring. If they win, Ed Reed might follow him. The Ravens defense already had slipped before this brief renaissance in the playoffs. The Ravens are at the end of a great run, and can cap a great 13 years of football with a second ring. The 49ers on the other hand are just beginning. They proved that 2011 was no fluke, and they've improved their offense since then. The 2012 49ers are more sustainable (I would argue they would be with Alex Smith - who was playing GREAT before his concussion). They are young everywhere. They will have to find a way to replace Justin Smith if his effectiveness drops, but the rest of the defense is young. They are so young and deep that their 1st round pick (a WR) did nothing all year long (as in never even saw the field). They are just a great franchise right now, and they can start something special with a win in this game. This is either the crowning of some careers are the catalyst for a dynasty.

More Super Bowl stuff to come.

Monday, January 21, 2013

NHL 2013 Season Picks

Eastern Conference

Northeast Division

1.) Boston Bruins (2)

The only real question for the Bruins is if Tukka Rask can adequately replace Tim Thomas as starter. Rask has played well in limited action, but this is more than limited action. If he has a slow start, it will be interesting to see the reaction. The rest of the team is still the deepest, best 5-5 team in the NHL, in a weak division.

2.) Buffalo Sabres (8)

The Sabres are top-heavy and young, but the young players aren't the good ones. Not sure if this is a good thing or not. If they get good performances from Vanek, Pomminville, Ott, Stafford, and the venerable Ryan Miller, they should be close to a playoff team once again. This time I think they sneak in.

3.) Ottawa Senators
4.) Montreal Canadiens
5.) Toronto Maple Leafs

The Senators were a great story last year that I think was a little over its head. Their future is still very bright though. The Canadiens and Leafs need to both regroup. It will be interesting to monitor what the Leafs do after firing Brian Burke last week.

Southeast Division

1.) Carolina Hurricanes (3)

The Hurricanes are lucky that they are in the NHL's worst division, because their lack of defenseman or right wingers might be a bigger problem in other divisions. The Hurricanes had a high risk/reward offseason. Trading for Jordan Staal does wonders for their depth, and possibly could rejuvenate Eric Staal as well. The signing of Semin could work out great, and I am of the mind it does. They are really good offensively, but their defense could kill them.

2.) Washington Capitals (6)

The Capitals return essentially the same team from last year minus Semin. I still think the switch to Adam Oates as coach will reinvigorate their offensive talent, maybe ever return Ovechkin to a truly great player once again. The Capitals now have their goalie as well. They aren't deep enough to compete with the top of the conference, but that easy division helps as well.

3.) Tampa Bay Lightning
4.) Florida Panthers
5.) Winnipeg Jets

The Lightning have premier talent, but not enough depth offensively or defensively to really challenge. The Panthers were a great story last year winning the division with a great second half, and came extremely close to taking out the Devils in the 1st Round, but the Panthers were over their head last year. I mean every team can't make it back to the playoffs. The Jets are still a few years away.

Atlantic Division

1.) New York Rangers (1)

The Rangers are loaded. If the pieces work, they are the best team in the NHL. They have a possibly league-best top line with Richards, Gaborik and Nash. They have great youth in Kreider, Hagelin, Del Zotto, McDonagh. They have great depth in Stralman, Callahan, Rupp, Girardi. And of course they have one of the best goalies in the game. They are a great team. It all matters what happens in April-June.

2.) Philadelphia Flyers (4)

The Flyers were a disaster in their 2nd Round loss to the Devils, but that belied the fact that they have the nucleus of a really solid team. A full year from young guys like Schenn, Coutorier and Voracek can be a big boost to their premier talent of Giroux, Brier and Hartnell. Their defense still needs a lot of work, and their top two are both aging (Pronger and Timonen). Their goalie is always in flux. Basically, they are a high variance version of the Rangers.

3.) Pittsburgh Penguins (5)

I actually think the loss of Staal will be meaningfull. The scariest part of the Penguins was their three great centers. Their 3rd line is greatly diminished, and it hurts the Penguins ability to pair Malkin and Crosby together as they do from time to time. That said, they still have two of the five best players in the NHL, among a lot of talented offensive players. Their defense is bad, and their goalie doesn't help, but as long as they have Crosby and Malkin healthy, they are close to a lock for the playoffs.

4.) New Jersey Devils (7)

Even with losing Parise, in any other division in the East, the Devils would be close to a lock for the playoffs. Picking them to make it back is tough in a division-weighted schedule, but I think they still are too good. They were a really good #6 seed last year (tied for 4th in the conference), so there is a margin for error. I think the short season will help Brodeur, and some of their older offensive talent like Elias. This team is still dangerous.

5.) New York Islanders

The pieces are there, but they need to add more and get them seasoned. Being in the NHL's best division won't help, but the Devils are close to the end of their run, and the Islanders should and probably will, be poised to take their place.

Western Conference

Central Division

1.) Chicago Blackhawks (1)

The Blackhawks aren't as deep as they were in their Cup winning year (that team was loaded), but their youth and depth should keep them really competitive. Toews and Kane should continue to be great, and Marian Hossa should be good coming off an extended offseason. The only real question is in goal, as I don't totally trust Corey Crawford.

2.) St. Louis Blues (4)

Everyone loves this team, and I'm not sure why. I'll preface it by saying that I think they are a very good team, but they have trouble scoring goals at times, and chances are Brian Elliot and Jaroslav Halak don't combine to be Martin Brodeur circa 2003. Their offense is built to win a bunch of 3-2 or 2-1 type games, and if they have one dry spell, that can doom their chances at winning the division.

3.) Detroit Red Wings (7)

Watching the Red Wings without Lidstrom will be interesting. A lot of pressure will be on Jonathan Ericsson to pick up the slack. I have questions about this teams age with their forwards, but the Red Wings will always be competitive. Much like the Yankees, the end might be near for this group, but until proven otherwise, it is a smart bet to pick them to at least make the playoffs.

4.) Nashville Predators
5.) Columbus Blue Jackets

The Predators have been on a great run in recent years, but I think the loss of Ryan Suter will be felt. They are deep, but are a poor man's St. Louis Blues. I can't pick every team to make it back to the playoffs, and I think the Preds get left behind. The Blue Jackets are a few years away after finally relenting and trading away Rick Nash.

Northwest Division

1.) Vancouver Canucks (2)

Depth still makes this team very good. The Sedins are still there and in their prime. They still have enough talent outside of them in Higgins, Burrows, Hansen, and their defenseman are still solid offensively. There are definite questions in goal, but in a weak division, they should pile up enough points to contend for another #1 seed.

2.) Edmonton Oilers (6)

Call it a gut instinct, but I think the Oilers pull a 2008 Tampa Bay Rays type revival here. This team is just loaded with young talent, and if guys like Nugent-Hopkins, Gagner, Eberle, Hall and Schulz raise their game (not to mention rookie #1 pick Nail Yakupov), this team should be able to score enough goals in a weak division to make it to the playoffs. I really hope they do also, because Edmonton playoff crowds (much like any Canadian playoff crowd) are great.

3.) Minnesota Wild
4.) Calgary Flames
5.) Colorado Avalanche

That's right, I'm picking the offseason champions, the team that signed Parise and Suter, to miss the playoffs. I just don't think there is enough there outside of those two for them to make up for it. The Flames are stuck in that 9-12th place region, which is death in any sport. The Avalanche are in the right direction, but still are a year or two away.

Pacific Division

1.) Los Angeles Kings (3)

The Champs might do what they did last year, and sleep their way to a lower seed and try to turn it up again, but this division isn't any stronger, and the Kings were really good in the 2nd half of the season last year. I think they'll keep it going this season for the entire year to a point. The division isn't easy enough to win easily, but they have the most talent at forward and defensemen.

2.) Phoenix Coyotes (5)

I trust Mike Smith. I trust Dave Tippett's system in Phoenix. I trust their offense to score enough goals to make the playoffs, and I trust their defense, headed by Oliver Ekman-Larsson, to play well enough. The Coyotes are a slightly better version of the Predators, and a slightly worse version of the Blues, and that is why I think they'll finish right between them.

3.) Anaheim Ducks (8)

The Ducks have been an every other year type of team, and I think this season they get back to the playoffs. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry almost have to be better than they were last year, and if they are, and if Bobby Ryan has another nice year, they should have enough offense to get in. I really like the pickup of Sheldon Souray, which should add some punch to that power play as well.

4.) San Jose Sharks
5.) Dallas Stars

The Golden Era of Sharks Hockey, I think, is about to come to a close. Their best players are aging, and their once stocked farm-system is pretty barren right now. I don't trust Antti Niemi, or most of that defense anyway. The Stars are a year or two away, but they have a nice core headed by the ever-underrated Louis Erickson.

Projected Playoff Seedings


1.) New York Rangers
2.) Boston Bruins
3.) Carolina Hurricanes
4.) Philadelphia Flyers
5.) Pittsburgh Penguins
6.) Washington Redskins
7.) New Jersey Devils
8.) Buffalo Sabres

First Round

(1) Rangers over (8) Sabres in 6
(7) Devils over (2) Bruins in 7
(3) Hurricanes over (6) Capitals in5
(4) Flyers over (5) Penguins in 6

Second Round

(1) Rangers over (7) Devils in 7
(3) Hurricanes over (4) Flyers in 6

Eastern Conference Finals

(3) Hurricanes over (1) Rangers in 7


1.) Chicago Blackhawks
2.) Vancouver Canucks
3.) Los Angeles Kings
4.) St. Louis Blues
5.) Phoenix Coyotes
6.) Edmonton Oilers
7.) Detroit Red Wings
8.) Anaheim Ducks

First Round

(1) Blackhawks over (8) Ducks in 6
(2) Canucks over (7) Red Wings in 5
(6) Oilers over (3) Kings in 6
(5) Coyotes over (4) Blues in 7

Second Round

(1) Blackhawks over (6) Oilers in 6
(2) Canucks over (5) Coyotes in 7

Western Conference Finals

(1) Blackhawks over (2) Canucks in 6

Stanley Cup Finals

(W1) Blackhawks over (E3) Hurricanes in 6

For One Weekend, The NFL was Back

Before last year's playoffs, I wrote this: " I have to believe that defense still matters. Hopefully, next year, when 10 more QBs throw for 4,000 yards, I can take solace that at least defense matters in January. If not, well then, we might as well call the NFL what it is: Arena League, but outdoors and with better team names." This was in reaction to the NFL's steroid era, where QBs were routinely throwing for 4,000 (and now 5,000) yards. Scoring actually went up this year, but efficiency went down. Three QBs had a passer rating above this year's highest rating (108.0). Only one team scored over 500 points this year (3 did last year). Only one QB threw for 5,000 yards this year. Offense didn't go away, but it was more spread out across the league. The difference was this year's best teams weren't offense heavy, they were complete, and the two teams playing in the Super Bowl proves this.

In truth, defenses played very well throughout much of last year's playoffs. Only one QB in the last three games (title games, Super Bowl XLVI) threw for over 300 yards, and that QB (Eli Manning) needed to throw 58 times to make it happen. No team scored more than 23 points. This year was different, in that teams scored more across the board in the playoffs, but it wasn't because of Arena Football pass-heavy offenses, but it was balance, it was dynamic running attacks, and it was the rise of the read option. In the end, we are left with a Super Bowl where the starting QBs are the oft-embattled Joe Flacco and the young Colin Kaepernick. The previous six Super Bowls all featured one of these six QBs: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. All six of those men will be HOFers (though Eli probably has a little more work to do). For the first time since Rex Grossman laced it up for the Bears in 2006, we have a Super Bowl QB that doesn't have any real pedigree (I guess you could make the case for Eli in Super Bowl XLII). The Ravens and 49ers resemble an old NFL. A defense & deep-ball team against a physical defense & run-heavy team.. It is old-school. This is what the NFL used to be, and this is what it is again. Only one of those aforementioned six QBs made it to the Championship Game, and that guy had the worst performance of any QB yesterday. In a year with more passing yards than ever: irony? I think so.

Anyway, let's get to the Weekend Review...

Saturday, January 19, 2013

2012 NFL Playoffs: Conference Championship Picks

Might as well go straight with my gut and my heart given my 3-5 performance so far (really, the Falcons could win and not cover -2.5?? Really??). Let's do this quick. I'm still upset about how this whole thing shook down, you know.

(N2) San Francisco (12-4-1)  @  (N1) Atlanta Falcons (14-3)  (SF -4)

I can't really bring myself to talk....

49ers 24  Falcons 27  (ATL +4)

(A4) Baltimore Ravens (12-6)  @  (A2) New England Patriots (NE -8)

about these two games rationally.

Ravens 27  Patriots 24  (BAL +8)

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Illuminating a Dark, Desolate Argument

Quick Intro: I'm not going dark just because Peyton Manning suffered another awful loss. I'll do picks on Friday. I may even decide to watch the games. Anyway, just want to throw my thoughts on (digital) paper on Peyton Manning after another loss.

We, as a society of sports fans, are smarter now than we were 50 years ago. We have advanced statistics, we have access to replay, we have a 24-hour sports media cycle; in every way, in a post-moneyball environment, we are smarter about sports. But add in Peyton Manning and playoffs, and I wonder if we aren't dumber.

There is no way, objectively, to look at Peyton Manning's postseason career and conclude anything other than the fact that he and his teams have been extraordinarily unlucky. There is no way, objectively, to look at Peyton Manning's postseason career and conclude anything other than the fact that he has performed on par with most QBs to amass as many starts in the playoffs as Manning's 20. But there is that one objective statistic, that playoff record, that is so loud, so jarring that it overpowers all the data that we should believe. That 9-11 is there, it isn't going away, but shouldn't we be smarter than just focusing on one team-based statistic to judge an individual.

Peyton Manning, subjectively, hasn't played a bad postseason game since the 2006 Divisional Round game in Baltimore (which his team won). That last loss to the Ravens was Manning's worst playoff performance in a loss since the 2004 Divisional loss at New England. In fact, these are Manning's numbers in his last six playoff losses: 157/242 (64.9%) for 1,850 yards with 10 TDs and 5 INTs, for a 93.2 rating. Again, those are his numbers in his last six LOSSES. Not only has he lost those games, but in the last five of them, Peyton Manning and the Colts/Broncos offense has given their team a lead in the 4th quarter, and their defense has blown it each time (in 2008, 2010 and 2012 in the last minute). This doesn't happen to normal QBs. It hasn't happened to any other QB, but it happened to Peyton Manning, and he is wrongly criticized for it.

Judging an individual by a team's win-loss record (especially in a single-elimination playoff) is just absurd, even if QB is more important than most positions. The only other two positions in all of team sports where W-L record matters is really counted is a SP in baseball and a Goalie in Hockey, yet both of those two have a greater impact on any game than a QB (even then, the W-L record of a pitcher has largely been discredited by smart mathematical analysis). Looking at a QB through a thin prism of how his team performs in the playoffs is not smart. What is even dumber is only judging certain ones to that standard. No one considers Mark Sanchez to be anything other than a bad QB, despite his 4-2 playoff record. Jake Delhomme has a 5-3 playoff record. You know who else does? Aaron Rodgers. Only an idiot would claim Delhomme is anywhere close to the QB Rodgers is, and no one does, because for Rodgers (or Delhomme/Flacco/Sanchez/Brees) playoff record doesn't matter.

Aaron Rodgers is an interesting example because three hours after Justin Tucker kicked the Broncos out of the playoffs, the 49ers beat Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers fell to 1-3 in the playoffs outside of his one Super Bowl season (in comparison, Manning is 5-11 outside his, which is a better percentage). He lost by 14 points in the playoffs a year after losing as a 15-1 #1 seed at home by 17. In comparison, Peyton Manning's last six playoff losses have been by a combined 31 points. Rodgers lost a home playoff game just a year ago by 17. Manning has lost five career home playoff game by a combined 14. Has anyone criticized Rodgers' for his subpar performance in the playoffs these last two years? No, and they shouldn't because judging Rodgers by two playoff performance is stupid, considering his brilliance over the last 32 regular season games. But that isn't why Rodgers gets a pass.

Rodgers gets a pass because he won a Super Bowl early in his career. Same reason Brady gets passes for bad performances in recent playoff losses. If you reverse Tom Brady's playoff career (so his first trip to the playoffs is a loss to teh Giants in the Super Bowl, and his most recent is a win in the Super Bowl over the Rams), he, until winning his first Super Bowl in Year 1, becomes the object of media scorn. If people could look past Brady's three Super Bowl wins on teams that rarely relied on Brady and the passing game, he in recent years has been an average playoff QB. However, he is far, far better as a QB in 2005-2012 than he was in 2001-2004.

In the end, I don't think Peyton Manning will ever silence his doubters, mainly because the doubts are unsubstantiated and muffled by blinders. It used to be that Peyton Manning couldn't beat Florida, despite his team never being as good. Then it became 'Peyton Manning hasn't won a playoff game' until he killed the Broncos and Chiefs back-to-back. Then it became 'Peyton Manning is a choker who can't beat New England' and then he beat New England in the playoffs in epic fashion. Then it became 'Peyton Manning can't win the Super Bowl' until he did. Finally, it is now 'Peyton Manning can't win another Super Bowl and that Super Bowl win was over Rex Grossman'. It is ridiculous how the fences have been moved back for Peyton time and time again. No one is given such a standard to live up to, and it really isn't fair.

For the first time after Peyton Manning's team lost a playoff game, I wasn't really mad. I was just sad, depressed that because Rahim Moore forgot what his position was called, that Peyton Manning's legacy gets ruined. I was depressed that Manning threw what admittedly was a terrible interception in OT, because it was an opportunity for the haters to finally have tangible evidence to support their here-to-fore absurd conclusion. I was depressed that the ridiculous bad luck and strange occurances that plagued the Manning era in Indianapolis seems to have followed Peyton to Denver. I was just sad for him, that he would have to endure another season of hate, another offseason of failed promise, and another offseason of people questioning him. As a sports nation, we are smarter, but in so many ways we aren't, and many of those ways manifest themselves when discussing Peyton Manning./

Friday, January 11, 2013

2012 NFL Playoffs: Divisional Round Picks

The best weekend of the season is here. Divisional weekend, my favorite weekend in sports. Four games, all of them with good, deserving teams, great storylines. Just a plethora of great football. The playoff pretenders are gone. No Joe Webb's in this round! No sir. Let's get to the games.

(A4) Baltimore Ravens (11-6)  @  (A1) Denver Broncos (13-3)   (DEN -9.5)

State of the Teams: The Broncos won their last eleven games. Entering the playoffs with such a long win streak hasn't always been a good thing. The last eight teams to enter the playoffs with the longest winning streak didn't win the playoffs. The last team to do so was the 2003 Patriots. That said, the Broncos were dominant in those eleven games. They haven't even trailed in the 4th quarter of their last eight games. Peyton Manning became a machine this season, with two great receivers at his disposal, and his work to the TEs has gotten better as well. The defense is a top-5 group. Of course, there is another team in this game. The Ravens have gone from the bane of everyone's existence (during their 9-2 start) to some sort of media darling now that we are in the Ray Lewis retirement tour. They enter the game as healthy as they will be this season. Of course, these two teams met four weeks ago in Baltimore, and it was not pretty. That game marked the most injured moment for the Ravens, but even then, them being down 31-3 on the way to a 34-17 loss was just jarring. They played decent against the Colts, but had trouble blocking at times, which could be critical in this game.

Matchups: The Ravens offense showed some life last weekend, running for nearly 200 yards with a really good game by Bernard Pierce. Joe Flacco started slow and was undone by pressure early, but found what he did best (throw deep) against a porous secondary. Three bombs to Anquan Boldin later and the team was rolling. The Broncos allow fewer deep passes than all but two teams, and their pass rush is substantially better than the Colts' rush that got to Flacco. Their run defense had some really bad games (Houston, New England), but is overall a stout unit. The Ravens do struggle to contain TEs, but if a big day by Dennis Pitta is matched by slow days from Boldin and Smith, I think the Broncos will take it. The Broncos offense has been consistently very good to great all season long. Peyton Manning had 13 games with a passer rating over 90 (3rd all time). Demarryius Thomas had a bad game the first time around, with various miscommunications with Manning, but Decker was a monster against Cary Williams the first time. The TEs are healthier now and can abuse Ray Lewis in coverage. The biggest matchup may be history though. Peyton Manning has won his last nine starts against the Ravens, with a passer rating above 100 in those games. With Indianapolis, he beat the Ravens in both the 2006 and 2009 playoffs. The Colts matchups were primarily Manning knowing how to beat that defense, and it showed that he still had that edge in the first meeting.

The Pick: The line is high, no doubt about it. The Broncos were actually good covering big lines (3-1 ATS with lines this high, their only non-cover was due to a missed field goal). I am pretty confident the Broncos will win this game. They are the better team. They are at home. They have matchup advantages on both sides. I don't think it will be as one-sided as the first game because the Ravens are healthier. There are two things that give me pause. The First is the Ray Lewis retirement story being eerily similar to the Jerome Bettis retirement story in 2005 (those Colts also beat down those Steelers in the regular season). Of course, those Steelers were better than these Ravens. The other is the weather. The forecast is for temperatures around 20 degerees, which could impact Manning's passing game. Of course, it probably impacts the Ravens as well. In the end, the Broncos are just better, and I think Manning is just on a mission right now, and it starts the same way the 2006 and 2009 playoffs started.

Ravens 13  Broncos 24  (DEN -9.5)

(N3) Green Bay Packers (12-5)  @  (N2) San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1)  (SF -3)

State of the Teams: Jim Harbaugh's decision to switch to Colin Kaepernick gets it greatest test in this match. Alex Smith won this game, and won it twice. He won this game in the literal sense in that he beat the Packers in Week 1 with a coolly efficient 20-26 performance. He also one this game in the larger sense by leading (two) 4th quarter comeback against the Saints last year in the divisional round. Now that 49ers team had a better defenses, but they still needed the offense to score a TD twice in the 4th quarter, and Alex Smith did just that. This game is the big test for him. Justin Smith looks to play, but it remains to be seen how impactful he is. The rest of the team seems to be healthy, but they may really miss Mario Manningham in this game. The Packers come in healthy and ready, but their o-line is still a mess, and Jordy Nelson looked nothing like Jordy Nelson against the Vikings. They seem to have found some sort of run game with DuJuan Harris, but he seems to be getting overrated like James Starks was, although unlike Harris, Starks actually had a really good game in the Wild Card round. In the end, the Packers run through Rodgers and that defense, and the defense is playing healthy and well, but this week they won't have Joe Webb across the field.

Matchups : There is no point in reading too much from the first game in Week 1 to see how the Packers defense matches up with the 49ers offense. The 49ers offense is still extremely diverse with multiple formations and non-premium position players making big impacts (like Delanie Walker, or Kendall Hunter before he was IRed). The Packers were totally inept against the 49ers running game in the first meeting. The run game for the 49ers is still very good, but now different with Kaepernick back there. The Packers didn't really stop the read-option stuff the Packers were doing in the first game as much as make in useless and force Webb to pass. I doubt they get the kind of lead in this game where that becomes an issue. The Packers secondary has played well, but has struggled to stop interior receivers, so we might see a nice game from Vernon Davis. The other side is more interesting. The 49ers defense in Week 1 dominated the Packers offense. They swallowed up the run game, and neutered the pass offense, making Rodgers check down all the time. They got decent pressure at Rodgers, but most of their success was in coverage. They'll need similar work from guys like Dashon Goldson, Tarrelle Brown and Chris Culliver, along with their mainstays. Justin Smith will be huge. Even if he isn't 100%, his presence allows for the 49ers T-E stunts to work. If he is close to 100%, then that will be a huge edge for the 49ers. The 49ers also have to luxury of being one of the only teams to be able to stick in base coverage against shotgun, which adds another edge in pass rushing. The best way to beat the Packers (as the Seahawks, Colts and Giants showed this year) is to just get to Rodgers, and Rodgers penchant of holding onto the ball coupled with their leaky o-line makes that really possible.

The Pick: I remember a year ago when the 49ers hosted the Saints and picking with my heart and my head and picking the 49ers. This matchup is a little different. The 49ers aren't quite as good defensively as they were a year ago. Then again, even with Rodgers' brilliance, this Packers offense isn't as good as the 2011 Saints offense. I still don't really trust Colin Kaepernick, and I think once over the next three weeks he will play badly in a 49ers loss, but I don't think it will be this week. The Week 1 matchup may not matter too much mentally, but back in Week 1 the Packers offense was healthier than they are now, and couldn't do much. I don't think too much has changed. They didn't leave points on the field, they didn't make mistakes, they were just outmatched. I think something similar happens here.

Packers 23  49ers 27  (SF bought to -2.5)

(N5) Seattle Seahawks (12-5)  @  (N1) Atlanta Falcons (13-3)  (ATL -2.5)

State of the Teams: You may not have heard this, but the Atlanta Falcons haven't won a playoff game since Matt Ryan became the QB and Mike Smith became the head coach. You may not have heard this either, but Matt Ryan and Mike Smith choke so hard they only consume liquid foods due to prevention. You may not know this, but the 2012 Atlanta Falcons are the worst #1 seed of all time, and an embarrassment to playoff football. You may not know this, but the fact that the Falcons barely beat the Raiders and Cardinals at home is more meaningful than them beating the Broncos at home and beating the Giants at home 34-0. Anyway, just telling you those things in case you hadn't heard. As far as the Seahawks are concerned, have you never seen a more precocious Wild Card. They have the ultimate Wild Card in QB Russell Wilson. They have beast mode at running back, and receivers that are surprisingly good as a group. Zach Miller even has made some appearances late in the year. And that defense. Oh, that defense. Despite them drawing the ire of the Todd McShay's of the world, the Seahawks drafting of Bruce Irvin and Bobby Wagner looks pretty damn good now. They have some great D-Tackles, and the best secondary. What's not to like? (Other than that 4-5 road record and the fact that they looked completely overmatched and nervous early against Washington).

Matchups: OK, in all seriousness this is a pretty fascinating game. The Falcons do have a bunch of pressure, but I feel like they've almost become underrated. The way people talk about them, you would think they won all their games by one point. Anyway, as far as the matchups, they both have some interesting areas. The Seahawks cornerbacks are the strength of their team, and they get the strength of the Falcons. TEs can beat the Seahawks, so look for Tony Gonzalez to have a heavy-target game. The Seahawks should take away the Falcons run-game, which is marginal against average defenses. The issue I see is the Seahawks generally rush four, which Matt Ryan has a lot of success against. The Seahawks should try to blitz more, as Ryan is susceptible to blitzes more than most QBs. The Seahawks offense needs their run game, but luckily for them, their run game is on fire right now, and the Falcons defense isn't great against the run. The problem though is that passing game, which the Seahawks will probably need at one point. The Falcons defense matches up nicely. They have great safeties that can limit big plays. They love exotic DB blitzes, which the Seahawks really struggle with. Finally, there is the disrespect and home factor. Three times this season the Falcons had a major home game. They hosted the Broncos on MNF, the Saints on TNF, and the Giants in Week 15 when the Giants were fighting for the playoffs. They won all those games, and limited Manning, Brees and Manning to 1 TD and 10 INTs (that is not a misprint). The defense has stepped up in big games.

The Pick: I liken this game to the Vikings hosting the Cowboys back in 2009. The Vikings had a slow end to the season and hosted a red-hot Cowboys team whose defense gave up just 14 points TOTAL over the previous three games. Everyone loved the Cowboys. The Vikings were a similarly three point favorite. You couldn't find anyone to pick the Vikings. The Vikings won that game 34-3. I don't think this gets close to that score, but I can easily the Falcons winning this game. They are, at home, a very good team. The Seahawks aren't nearly as good on the road. Finally, the 1 PM factor is big. The Seahawks have to play their 2nd straight EST game, and this one at 1 PM. Historically, that spells doom for teams in the playoffs, and I think it does here as well.

Seahawks 20  Falcons 23  (ATL -2.5)

(A3) Houston Texans (13-4)  @  (A2) New England Patriots (12-4)  (NE -9.5)

State of the Teams: Everything I mockingly wrote about the Falcons could be applied to Houston right now. People are totally overrating four weeks and underrating 12 before that. The Texans are healthier now than they were during that bad streak, with Jonathan Joseph close to fully healthy and Brooks Reed back. The Texans have been typecast into some weak, finnesse running team, which makes little sense. Do people remember that Matt Schaub once threw for more yards than anyone else in the NFL, and did that with no running game. That was before Arian Foster was around. This movement to label Matt Schaub as some skittish game-manager type is just fascinating. The Patriots are healthy, though it remains to be seen if Gronkowski is fully back, as he was noticeably hiding that forearm in the regular season finale. Their defense is still average, and worse if they don't get turnovers, but their run defense has been stout all year. Rob Ninkovich injured himself in the season finale, but should play in a limited role, but that could be a big loss. Finally, we all now that these teams played each other five weeks ago and the Patriots carved them 42-14, but we have a recent precedent that late-season Patriots blowouts aren't always good predictors of playoff rematches.

Matchups: There was a reason that the Patriots won that game 42-14, and that was because everything that could go wrong went wrong. The Texans actually had three straight decent drives in the 1st half of that game, but ended up with no points becuase of two failed 4th down conversions on New England's side of the field (one was dropped), and a pick in the red zone. The Texans also forced two fumbles in the red zone, but recovered none of them. These aren't random things, because the Patriots do this to a lot of teams, but the Texans are far better than what they showed last time. The Texans don't matchup all that well with the Patriots, but there are some areas to exploit. Their pass rush should improve with Brooks Reed back and their pass rush got to Brady last time. Brady hit some deep throws which he doesn't do all that often. The bigger issue is the other side. If they can keep time of possession and do the things the Giants did in 2007 and 2011 on offense, they have a chance. Their run game can work, and is playing better now than they were the first time. The Texans get their matchup nightmare in Garrett Graham for this game. There were plays to be made the first time, but the Texans looked overwhelmed. I just don't see them looking as overwhelmed. Of course, the Patriots can stop Houston's offense. They can get pressure from Schaub's right, and Wilfork and Co. did a great job stuffing the run, which they could do again.

The Pick: With the matchups section I almost talked myself out of my pick, but I think the Texans keep this close. This is a high line. There is a shocking stat that there have been 22 playoff games where one team lost to the other in the regular season by 28 or more. Those 22 games have gone 11-11. There are a couple reasons why I think this blowout has a chance of getting reversed and Baltimore's won't. One is that I don't like the Patriots and love Manning, so I am biased. The other is the Texans are just a better team than Baltimore. That blowout was a further departure from their normal level of play. Let's not forget these teams had the same record. The Patriots recent home playoff history is shaky outside of one blowout of an overmatched Denver team. Call it a hunch, but I like the Texans to cover this number.

Texans 24  Patriots 30  (HOU +9.5)

Enjoy the Games!!

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.