Thursday, August 27, 2015

NFL Watchability Rankings

I already ranked who I think the best teams will be, but who are the teams most worth watching. Who are the teams that maybe if they aren't the best, should be the one's you check in every now and then - maybe more than their record or pedigree would usually merit. Take for example in 2014. The Colts were a very good team, if a little boring. The Falcons were bad, but played in a bunch of close games. This is my ranking of, assuming normal health, the NFL teams listed by my expected watchability.

Tier 1 - Aggressively Boring, Sad Teams

32.) Cleveland Browns

I guess you can say with Manziel they should be a little higher, but it seems like Manziel is a disaster, their offense is so pedestrain, especially after losing Kyle Shanahan, and their defense, while fun, lacks the names to make you really care. Also, it is just depressing watching Cleveland get depressed. Some day, the Browns will have a great 4-5 year period that will be so fun, but that is a long time away.

31.) Jacksonville Jaguars

Pretty much everything I wrote about the Browns applies here, except Bortles may not be a disaster. That said, losing Dexter Fowler Jr., hurts, and it is still effing Jacksonville. They were barely fun to watch when they were 11-5 in '07, and they were easily the least interesting 12-4 team in my lifetime in 2005 (I still am taken aback they won 12 games that year).

30.) San Francisco 49ers

They would be higher up in the ranking of 'intriguing-ness', but this isn't. Watching the 49ers was hard to do late last year, and that was with half the team still there. Watching this team try to be a sad imitation of the '11-'13 49ers without the fun parts (the Smiths, Willis, Harbaugh) will just be a very depressing experience. It should not have ended this way. Maybe leaving Candlestick cursed them?

29.) Chicago Bears

Jay Cutler doesn't care, and neither do I. I've been fooled too many times by them; and now there's no joy in watching the Bears defense like there was for so many years during the Lovie era. Let's just move on.

28.) Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals were briefly a really fun team to watch in 2013; they were really good the first half of that season, and had random 40-point outbursts. Then they lost a pathetic game to the Chargers in the Wild Card round, and sleep-walked through a 10-5-1 season (odd, I know), and lost ANOTHER wild card game, and I'm pretty much done with a team that defines being mediocre enough at being good.

27.) Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs are another team that kind of peaked in excitement in 2013, when their Alex Smith-led offense was so good early, and the duo of Hali and Housotn were destroying worlds. At this point, the only two reasons to watch the Chiefs are to see Eric Berry play after beating cancer, and to see if Alex Smith can finally throw a TD to a WR. Maybe a 3rd if you count watching Justin Houston play.

Tier II - Just Plain Ol' Boring Teams

26.) Washington Redskins

Again, RGIII is intriguing, but also really depressing. I never fully enjoyed Griffin-mania in 2012 because I thought he was unfairly being put over Andrew Luck. I really should have because he will probably never approach THAT again. Also Jay Gruden brought the boring offense with him from Cincinnati, which was nice.

25.) Oakland Raiders

The Raiders have a handful of exciting players, like Amari Cooper (I don't like buying into camp and preseason reports, but my God), Latavious Murray, Derek Carr and the great Khalil Mack, but that still leaves 15 or so boring starters. Also, that crowd will be terse all year knowing that they are likely leaving town very, very soon,

24.) Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons are inherently boring; hell they were boring at 13-3 in 2010 and 2012. Julio Jones is amazing, but he'll only be involved in ~10 plays a game. I'm not really buying that defense yet - the last DC from Seattle to skip town didn't exactly light the world on fire. This may be really wrong, but I'm not so sure yet.

23.) Houston Texans

The Texans have the best player in the NFL. JJ Watt is worth the price of admission. He's a college course in defensive football. Jadeveon Clowney may be close to that as well. DeAndre Hopkins is insane. Take those three away, and they are the Jaguars. Plus, they're starting Brian Hoyer, maybe the most unwatchable competent QB in the NFL

Tier III - Somewhat Interesting Teams

22.) New York Jets

The Jets offense may be a competent bore with Ryan Fitzpatrick leading the charge, but that's better than covering your eyes when Geno Smith is back there. The defense has a dominant front, and a coach who loves crazy, insane secondary blitzes. That defense is eminently watchable, but my concern is with the incredible talent up front, Todd Bowles may dial it back as blitzing all game long won't be as necessary anymore.

21.) Detroit Lions

The Lions at their best are really watchable. That offense can be dynamic, especially with Golden Tate fitting in so well aside Megatron. The defense is still very talented, and I've always loved watching Haloti Ngata. That all said, at their worst they are really boring. Plus... Jim Caldwell.

20.) New Orleans Saints

I think the NFL community has basically left Rob Ryan train station at this point; he's crazy but he's more watchable for the 3-5 times he does something insane on the sideline than for his defense. The offense is always fun, but it is as intriguing this year as they basically went all in on Brees and a bunch of nobodies (Nick Toon!!).

19.) New York Giants

Odell Beckham Jr., why even explain it beyond that? Oh, they also may feature a 4-fingered Jason Pierre-Paul at some point. And I don't know how many years we'll get to see Tom Coughlin again.

18.) Miami Dolphins

I'm really excited to see this offense. The line is very average (which is fun to watch, some times), but I really like watching Jarvis Landry and Jordan Cameron, and I like the Kenny Stills signing. Yes, this is putting a lot of faith in Ryan Tannehill, but even he's more exciting than the normal 15th best QB in the NFL.

17.) Minnesota Vikings

There's a lot to look out for here. Teddy Bridgewater in year two. The second year of Mike Zimmer's defense with all that talent on that side of the ball. Also it is the last year to see them outside before they move back in a dome next year. Then again, they also have two of the more depressing ex-exciting players in Peterson and Mike Wallace.

Tier IV - The League's Best Unknowns

16.) Philadelphia Eagles

There are a lot of teams in the NFL I find really watchable, and from here on out I could watch these teams play anyone. The Eagles might be the biggest mystery. Can Chip Kelly's offense work without WRs? Is Demarco Murray going to be the next victim of the Curse of 370? Does it matter that every pro bowl player from 2012 on offense is now gone? Can Sam Bradford stay healthy? All that intrigue, but there's also a chance all of it goes to hell and it becomes a disaster.

15.) Buffalo Bills

Watching the Rex Ryan Bills defense will be worth all prices of all admissions. Rex Ryan has never had this type of front. They were dominant and a great watch before Ryan got there. Now they get a mad genius at defense that has always had exciting defenses even with 50% as much talent. On the other side, it will be interesting watching Tyrod Taylor try to make hay with Sammy Watkins and LeSean McCoy. What's that? Matt Cassel may start?... Oh.

14.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
13.) Tennessee Titans

This is the only time I'm grouping two teams together, and that is because the only reason to really watch them is the thing they share in common: their highly drafted rookie QB. Jamies Winston at his best was a fascinating watch in college, and he has some nice targets. For Mariota, there is the fun of watching him leave that type of offense in Oregon and try to make it work in the pros; also to see if he can fit in a Whisenhunt offense. Now, if they're both horrible this may be a terrible ranking, but I can't imagine them both being a Jamarcus type player.

Tier V - A Swimmingly Competent Watch

12.) San Diego Chargers

I should basically call them the San Diego Rivers, as watching Philip Rivers is what is ranking them this high. When he's on, like he was against Baltimore or Seattle last year, it is like watching a magician. He's a true savant at playing QB, and any chance to watch him get his groove on is worth a Sunday afternoon.

11.) St. Louis Rams

Chris Long - Michael Brockers - Nick Fairley - Aaron Donald - Robert Quinn. That is all.

10.) New England Patriots

Watching the Patriots is a weird existential exercise. I find myself asking things like "Is this real?", "Why can't we all just do this?", "What am I doing with my life?". It's an experience more than anything. I also find them the least enjoyable great offense of all time to watch. Of course, still being a great offense puts them up this list.

9.) Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers had a couple year period where they would have been up the list, but they're back to being great to watch. The defense is a disaster, though there is some delight in watching them finally be bad at defense, but watching Roethlisberger is an absolute delight - same with Antonio Brown. There's also still something nice about watching a game with that old-school, single-logo helmet on the side of his head.

8.) Carolina Panthers

Surprised? Obviously this is a biased opinion, but I love so much about watching the Panthers. Specifically that defense. Ron Rivera's defense may be one of the most entertaining in the NFL. They blitz like mad, but mostly with secondary players which is awesome. Then watching Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis cover so much ground is staggering. Of course, watching Cam beg, borrow and steal his way to 20 points a game is a delight also. They have a distinct way of playing that just works so well.

Tier VI - Can't Turn my Eyes Away

7.) Indianapolis Colts

Watching Andrew Luck play is something amazing. He has 2-3 moments a game where he'll do something that no one else ever could do. The only thing close is watching Aaron Rodgers (hence, why that team is still to be listed). Also, watching those midgets run around the field (Hilton, Moncrief and now Dorsett) will be great also. But it all comes down to watching Mr. Luck.

6.) Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens are like watching a really well produced play. They have a particular set of skills and roles that they'll weave together perfectly. The offense built on motion, and roll-outs and players like Steve Smith and Justin Forsett. The defense that has held a lot of its creativity and strength and magnetism even without Ed Reed and Ray Lewis (Terrell Suggs helps), and finally coach Harbaugh is always good for a few great moments a game. Just a really well rehearsed, fun watch.

5.) Green Bay Packers

Just like Luck, Aaron Rodgers does some things that are just impossible. His connection to Nelson will be lost this year, but that may even make him try even harder and push his ability even more. The defense is fun to watch because Capers will try some interesting stuff, but this is mostly about Rodgers, as it only needs to be to still be this high.

4.) Arizona Cardinals

Through 11 games with Carson Palmer and Stanton, they were #1 last year on this by far. They played some great games, but had this awesome style. Mad blitzing on defense, with receivers left on islands all over the place (it worked better than that description would make you think). The offense is bombs away with Arians as their coach, with receivers to do it like Michael Floyd and the Browns (John and Jaron), and of course Fitz. Just an awesome watch that is far better than it has any right to be.

Tier VII - The Top of Watchability Mountain

3.) Dallas Cowboys

If you want to watch things that seemingly were left behind in 2000, like building the offense through a great o-line and building your defense to play Tampa-2 and force turnovers, the Cowboys are the team for you. However, what makes the Cowboys really special, though, is that they add to that Tony Romo, a pretty magnetic draw, and Dez Bryant.

2.) Seattle Seahawks

When I watch the Seahawks I start to wonder how any team is doing this on defense in 2014, and now 2015. Watching Sherman, Thomas, Wagner and (hopefully) Chancellor is the best defense experience in the current NFL. It will also be interesting to see if Russell Wilson will get better this year as a passer. Also, watching games in that bandbox in Seattle is always good times.

1.) Denver Broncos

Yes, it is biased to pick them at the top, but hear me out. With Wade Phillips coaching that defense they should be great. The Broncos play a really fun defense with tons of rushing and man coverage, a good combination. It will also be interesting to see Gary Kubiak's schemes mesh with Peyton's, Finally, this could be Peyton Manning's final year. Every pass of his should be cherished by any NFL fan as it may all be over for one of the all-time, all-time greats in 4 months.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

My Favorite Sports Podcasts

Basketball Podcast, Gone but not Forgotten: The Basketball Jones

Hosts: Tas Melas, J.E. Skeets, Leigh Ellis and Trey Kirby

Found On:

Let's start off with a Podcast that hasn't been since 2013. The basic show has been transformed into a weekly TV show on the NBA Network, but it isn't the same as the free-flowing podcast that touched a lot on basketball, but also a lot on just four people making fun of each other and everything. I don't know if I've ever heard a podcast that was so consistently funny. It honestly toned down a bit in its later years, and I don't know what the expiration date was in that format, but for when it was on, The Basketball Jones was probably the best podcast to feature more than 3 people; it split airtime really well and they all had their own take, whether it is being more statistically inclined or more inclined to rant on random things. The shows were never that long, but packed with information and jokes. Just a great 15-30 minute listen, consistently for six years.

Basketball Podcast: The Lowe Post

Hosts: Zach Lowe and Guest

Found On: Grantland

Currently, the only basketball podcast I listen to is Zach Lowe's incredible detailed look at the NBA with various guests. Some guests come on more often than others (Amin Elhassan, Kevin Pelton, Tom Haberstroh), but all of those represent the new type of NBA media coverage. Lowe himself is adequate at 'fancy stats' but mind-blowingly brilliant when it comes to breaking down what actually happens in the game. Lowe himself also chooses not to hold the listeners hand at all. It is at times hard to really follow what he and the host are talking about, but that type of immersion into NBA-speak is incredibly educational. Lowe also gets really big-time guests, and doesn't approach interviewing them with too much reverence. A classic example was his podcast with Steve Kerr the week after the Warriors won the title. Lowe commands a lot of respect from these successful inside-NBA types, which makes for some fascinating conversations. There's more Grantland to come, but Lowe's podcast really is about as good as the one-host podcast gets today in Sports Media.

Football Podcast, Gone but not Forgotten: Check it to Pancakes

Hosts: Greg Cowan and Rohan Bhasin / Laura Calloway / Kyle Rodriguez

Found On: Colts Authority

Look, no one listened to this podcast - well, except for Colts fans. I won't get into the weird StampedeBlue (the Colts SB Nation site) coup that preceded its creation, but that led to this weird gem of a podcast. I know some of these guys, so I'm extremely biased, but I really found their podcast amazingly entertaining. In its hey-day, it used to go for 3 hours. It touched on the Colts to a fair amount of detail, but would also cover everything... and I mean everything. Cowan lives in Canada so there was puck talk. There was also baseball talk. There was also random talk, like the time when for two months straight on the weekly show they used to profile a Colts cheerleader and the ridiculous answers they provided to their profile pages ("What three things would you bring to a deserted island?"). The other hosts all played well with the crazy Greg Cowan, and it was a fascinating Colts-slanted weekly view of the NFL. An awesome podcast that remained quite re-listenable (yes, I have re-listened to three-hour long Colts podcast from the 2011 season). It transitioned in somewhat the same form to the Colts site those hosts ran, Colts Authority, but it lost the earnestness, rawness and humor of the original show.

Football Podcast: The Grantland NFL Podcast

Hosts: Bill Barnwell and Robert Mays

Found On: Grantland

Podcasts usually don't get better over time; they get worse or stay consistent, but I actually think the Grantland NFL Podcast has really gotten better in their three years of doing the show. I'm a little more luke-warm on Bill Barnwell than many, but think he has great chemistry with Robert Mays. There's better examples of this coming up, but I really think chemistry is so much more important than actual comedic ability. Neither of these two are independently that funny (especially Barnwell), but together they are great. I love Mays's weird fixation over lineman, both offensive and defensive, a really refreshing take when most football podcasts fixate a lot on skill-position guys. I also like their ability to evaluate games really well - maybe not to the depth of Zach Lowe, but these two will do really great deep-dives on games that most pass over any given week. Also, in a sport where so many are quick to jump on trends and story-lines, these two stay really close to doing straight analysis without generalizations. They eschew all the normal trappings of sports podcasts (power rankings, picks, etc.) and just talk football two to three times a week with clarity and insight.

Baseball Podcast, Gone but not Forgotten: Baseball Today

Hosts: Erik Karabell and Keith Law or Mark Simon

Found on: ESPN

This podcast ended at the end of the 2012 season, for no real reason, but hardcore baseball fans died a little bit that day. This was nerd baseball heaven, the audio version of the early-aught's Baseball Tonight Show. Erik Karaball hosted the show every day, with Keith Law on Tuesday through Thursday, and Mark Simon on Monday and Friday. Both combinations worked equally well. Erik Karabell is solid, but the real stars were those other two. Law is incredibly bright and insightful and talks with clear logic that is a bit more direct than most, and he has just the right amount of douchiness. Simon, on the other hand, was like a kid in a candy store, with a high voice to boot. He would answer ridiculous questions like "What is the best team you can make with only players named Mike?" with incredible depth of thought and research. He was a younger, more listenable version of Jayson Stark with the random stuff he would talk about - but he wasn't above going into details with 'fancy stats' either. It was a shorter show than most on this list (30-40 minutes), but an incredibly good listen five days a week.

Baseball Podcast: Effectively Wild

Hosts: Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller

Found on: Baseball Prospectus

Just like Baseball Today, this show is excessively nerdy, even the voices of the two hosts, especially Ben Lindbergh and his odd stilt, scream nerdiness - but also scream a love of all things baseball. It's a daily podcast (more or less) and a really refreshing take of the game. Like some of the previous podcasts, there is no set formula. There are no power rankings, or daily run-downs, or analysis of all news. It is basically just a random talk about whatever they find interesting. I love the little segment of the show in the beginning where they 'banter' about 3-4 little things for a few minutes each. The only recurring segment is their 'Play Index' segment, where they walk you through some random factoid or streak using baseball-reference's play index. The show may not be as funny as some of the others here, but being a daily show and packed with so much great random nonsense still makes it a really good listen. Also one advantage of not speaking directly to current news, it is something that is easy to listen after the fact or catch up weeks at a time - something that is so needed for Comedy podcasts but hard to do for Sports.

Hockey Podcast: Marek vs. Wyshynski

Hosts: Greg Wyshynski and Jeff Marek

Found On: Rogers Sportsnet / Yahoo!

I don't have a favorite past hockey podcast, just a favorite past, present and future. Marek vs. Wyshynski may be, at least to me, the best sports podcast that focuses on any one sport. I don't know if I've heard a podcast that does the following so well: talk to topical news without feeling like 'news', have interesting guests that provide both current, future and past analysis and talk, and work so well together to elevate each other. You get the feeling listening to Jeff Marek, who is now a reasonably big hockey media-head in Canada, and Greg Wyshynski, the famed 'Puck Daddy' editor of the Puck Daddy Yahoo! hockey blog, are really good friends. They also touch upon their personal lives to a level that is enough to stay humorous and not obtrusive. At the end though, they both love, love, love hockey. It is a weird dynamic where Jeff Marek definitely knows more about hockey history and hockey future (he's a wizard at Canada's Junior Hockey circuit) but they both know about hockey present. Also, I don't know a podcast that has done a better job of interacting with fans, whether it is Game Show Friday (a quick hockey trivia game with a call-in fan), or 'Going Postal', a weekly mailbag segment, or the laundry list of recurring jokes that have sprung up through the shows run. With Marek's rising star the show's schedule has become a little more spotty than the daily occurrence in its heyday, but it is still an exceedingly good 50-75 minutes of puck talk through the year; touching on all topics whether it is contractual or even CBA intricacies, or player movement, or player development. Just an awesome show.

General Sports Podcast: The Poscast with Joe Posnanski

Hosts: Joe Posnanski and Michael Schur

Found On: NBC Sports (previously Sport-on-Earth and

For a podcast that's been going on for 4 years now, there's only about ~20 episodes of these two. It's not so much a podcast anymore than a quarterly appearance, but when it does come out, there is nothing in the podcast space that I anticipate listening to more. It's actually had three different iterations. The first two were more or less the same, from mid-2011 through late-2012, that followed Posnanski from SI to Sports-on-Earth. The latest iteration has been through NBC Sports, from late-2013 to today (14 episodes in that period). The differences are slight. The earlier two versions used to be longer (routinely around 100 minutes) and used to have a long period of rambling through various topics on various sports (Tennis, Basketball, Golf and a lot of Baseball) followed with a draft where Posnanski and Schur ran through 5-picks each on a various topic. The early version used to mainly be sports based topics. The latest version of the podcast is shorter, with less intro and the same draft - though that draft has now veered more and more away from sports. What has remained, though, is Posnanski and Schur's incredible partnering as a comedy force. I don't know if I've laughed more at a sports podcast than with them; what makes it better is they laugh so much as well. It isn't surprising to see Posnanski laugh at his co-host so much - Michael Schur is, after all, the brain behind Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine; but Posnanski surprisingly holds his own as well. It is a rare gem of a podcast, but it plays so well whenever it is on, whatever the topic. Sure, I would love them to stick more to sports drafts (early version of 'Favorite Sports Equipment' or 'Best Player Season') than what it has become ('Favorite Fruit', 'Best Emotion'), but even as it gets more esoteric, it remains as good.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

NFL 2015: Preseason Power Rankings

The 2015 season is four weeks from tomorrow. That day the Steelers and Patriots will kick-off, with or without Tom Brady. Hopefully actual football can take us away from Deflategate. Still, it is time for me to take stock of where I think all the teams in the league are. With that, here's my first pre-season edition of my Power Rankings.

The '2016 is just 5 months away!' Septo

32.) Cleveland Browns

The Browns had a sneaky good team for about 9 weeks last year, then it all went to hell. Brian Hoyer started the season so well, then turned into Brian Hoyer. Johnny Manziel went to rehab. Josh Gordon became too far gone for rehab (seriously, get help). The offensive coordinator left, and the GM is suspended for four games. Everything is everlasting in Browns-ville.

31.) Jacksonville Jaguars

I think the Jaguars are building something, assuming Blake Bortles isn't terrible, but that something will not be realized in 2015. Justin Blackmon is still gone, and #3 pick Dexter Fowler tore his ACL in mini-camp. I think it is about time we also admit that Gus Bradley, despite everyone pulling for him, may not be a very good coach. There is a future if Bortles is something, but it's far too early to say that he may just be nothing.

30.) Chicago Bears

Here's my first shocker - I think the Bears will be terrible. I don't think Cutler will adapt well to Gase's offense, especially without Brandon Marshall. I think that defense is still not very good, even with some interesting moves like Purnell McPhee. I just don't see what there is too like about Chicago, a team that has a few aging OK players, and a few nice young guys, but a terribly soft middle.

29.) Oakland Raiders

I ranked these teams in terms of what I thought their highest ceiling is, and I do think the Raiders have a higher ceiling than Chicago. If Derek Carr continues to improve, and Amari Cooper is everything most people think he is, they have an offense that can scratch and claw their way to 20 a game. Khalil Mack is a beast and the defense has some intriguing talent. They'll likely still go 4-12, but it will be the best 4-12 they've had for a while.

28.) Tennessee Titans

If Marcus Mariota is good as a rookie, they could be the #2 team in the AFC South. Problem is, though, #2 team in the AFC South may require just 6 wins. The Titans still have little talent on offense outside of some over-priced O-Lineman and Mariota. I guess they have some talent on defense, but they were so awful on that side of the ball I can't imagine them improving too much in one season. Again, something is building here, but it will take a while. Shorten that 'while' if Mariota is good, though.

27.) Washington Redskins

The Redskins just completed their most sane off-season in decades. There is still drama around the QB position, as there will be for years with RGIII in a weird purgatory, but all the other moves they made make sense. They probably overpaid for Chris Culliver, but still that's better than what they used to do. If everything comes together, they can challenge .500; can't see any better than that unless RGIII has a true renaissance.

26.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

People have been predicting Tampa Bay sleeper seasons since about 2012 at the height of Schiano-mania. I'm predicting a steady improvement and a quasi-breakout next year. Winston may be good, and he'll have the tools around him to speed up his imrpovement curve. The defense has McCoy and David, and Verner in Year 2 in Tampa, and a few other pieces that Lovie can mold. They weren't close to 2-14 bad, more like a 5-11 team. This year, I think they'll just be a 5-11 team.

The "Fallen Brethren" Duo

25.) Houston Texans

JJ Watt is amazing. There are a couple other guys on the defense that are intriguing, like Cushing and Clowney, but both are injury risks. Their best free-agent signing is about 40 years old. They lost Andre Johnson. Their o-line is not that great; and their QBs are probably the worst two of three ex-Brady backups floating around the league. Oh, and their star running back is out till midseason. The only reason I think they are in this group and not the last one is because of JJ Watt, and because I think Bill O'Brien is the best of the ex-Belichick coaches.

24.) San Francisco 49ers

I don't know if I've seen a team change so much in one off-season. It is probably easier to name who is still there: the mercurial Kaepernick, some of the o-line, and then a bunch of guys the 49ers drafted in the past couple years that fell for various reasons. The 49ers were given an gold rush of plaudits for those picks - they better pay off this year. There is still enough talent to be better than the teams below them, but they're perilously close to teetering off the edge.

The "Maybe Tom Brady will decide to just retire" Duo

23.) New York Jets

From here on out, I think all these teams have a chance at the playoffs - a reasonable 25% or greater chance. The Jets essentially need average QB play to combine with a good o-line and some nice skill position players to have a passable offense, and that should have been good enough, but cracks have started to show in that defense. First with Sheldon Richardson's suspension and later drag racing incident, and the fact the team has a huge hole a linebacker. The secondary is much improved. Overall, of all the teams I think have a chance to make the playoffs, this is the worst one.

22.) Buffalo Bills

Here's why I think the Bills will be better than the Jets: because this is the best defense, on pure talent, that Rex Ryan has ever coached. Sure, he has no Darrelle Revis, but he never had a Mario Williams, or Kyle Williams, or most importantly, Marcel Dareus, in New York. This is a man who has manufactured a pass rush his whole Jets career, and now was basically handed one. Yes, their offense may have issues, but Greg Roman's done the whole 'let's make my offense score 20-23 a game and see how far that takes us' thing before.

The "We can Dream Right?" Quinto

21.) Philadelphia Eagles

Internally, the Eagles are doing a lot more than dreaming, but their entire season basically rests around the idea of whether Chip Kelly's shit works in he NFL. There's no real turning back now, this is his team. He's gotten rid of every skill position player he inherited, replacing them with malleable players he believes systematically can do amazing things. I am more skeptical. There is enough talent on that o-line, and surprisingly enough defensive talent to make them average.

20.) Atlanta Falcons

With a new defensive coordinator comes some promise, but I just don't see the talent on this team outside of Matt Ryan, a solid #8-10 QB in the NFL, and Julio Jones, who is only his amazing self when he is able to stay healthy.I want to like this team, one that came a Harry Douglas slip from making the Super Bowl just three years ago, but they've lost so much since then it really is hard to get excited unless that Ryan to White connection does some incredible things.

19.) Detroit Lions

Speaking of a QB-WR combo needing to do incredible things, this team still has Matt Stafford, and Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate who had a great year last season. But here's the thing about the Lions, their resurgent 2014 season was based mainly on an insane run defense and great years from Nick Fairley, when he was healthy, DeAndre Levy, when he was healthy, and Ndamukong Suh. Levy is still there, but those two monsters in the middle are gone. You don't replace Ndamukong Suh, even considering a past-his-prime Haloti Ngata is a reasonable choice. That alone will hurt a team that probably wasn't as good as 11-5 anyway.

18.) Kansas City Chiefs

I just don't know what the Chiefs did to make themselves better in 2015, as I don't think signing Jeremy Maclin is a substantial improvement. The o-line has gotten worse, and that used to be a strength of the team. The defense lost some of their depth up front and in the secondary - even with the return of Eric Berry being a really great surprise. The division and schedule are tougher, and I just don't think they are better.

17.) Cincinnati Bengals

Speaking of which, I think this is the year the Bengals fall back a bit, and fall back enough to maybe cost Marvin Lewis his job (though let's be real). I think Andy Dalton has peaked, and I don't see them having enough weapons outside of AJ Green to have a good offense. The defense has gotten worse, and they really need some of those young secondary guys like Dre Kirkpatrick, or last year's 1st round pick Darqueze Dennard, to step up. Again, tough division for a team that didn't get noticeably better.

The "If Things Break Our Way" Quinto

16.) New Orleans Saints

The Saints have the advantage of playing in what is more likely than not a bad division, but again I don't see what is too like apart from Drew Brees. They definitely have the thinnest set of skill position guys of any time in the Brees era, made worse by the Graham trade. The O-Line has gotten worse outside of the pick-up of Unger. The defense has all of the same issues as before. Still, with one of the best 5-6 QBs in the NFL, hard to see this time under .500 again.

15.) Arizona Cardinals

I want to believe in the Cardinals, I really do. With Carson Palmer back, they should be more like the team that started 9-1, but that team was really a 8-4 or 7-5 team that won some close games.I like the addtions on offense, particularly Iupati to give them an actual living o-lineman that can block, and the defense is still full of amazing athletes. I do worry, though, about their pass rush woes becoming larger without Todd Bowles and his crazy blitz schemes. Still, in Bruce I Trust.

14.) New York Giants

Here's what I like about the Giants, other than the ODB: Eli Manning seemed to really get used to that offense in the late stages of the season; the found a pass rush even when you discount JPP last year, and they are getting Victor Cruz back, a guy you figure would excel in that offense. Of course, there are downsides, like JPP being out, and the injuries already starting to hurt the team. It is tough to see what the Giants are, but what they are is better than 6-10.

13.) St. Louis Rams

It all comes down to Nick Foles. If he is even 75% of wht he was in 2013, the Rams can win 10 games, maybe more. Their o-line should in theory be better. They have a live offensive coordinator. They also have the scariest d-line since the prime Giants in the mid-00's. Nick Fairley is a rotational guy - which is insane. If they all stay healthy, this is the best d-line in years an can by itself wil 5-6 games.The rest just comes down to Foles.

12.) Minnesota Vikings

Like the Rams, it really comes down to Bridgewater improving on his nice second half. The pieces are there, whether it is Charles Johnson and a hopefully resurgent Mike Wallance, to the skilled guys all over that Mike Zimmer defense. I really think this is a year they need to see big things from two of their three 1st-round picks from 2013, Shariff Floyd and Xavier Rhodes; and if those two do improve they can be a really scary defense - perfect for their final season outdoors before moving inside in 2016.

The "Second Level Contender" Quatro

11.) Miami Dolphins

There's quite a bit going for them even if you remove Ndamukong Suh. Their offense has three quality receivers, assuming Devante Parker stays healthy, including an absolute steal with Kenny Stills. Their run game was already good. Their secondary is decent, and if their front can stay healthy, they are a top-10 front-4 in the NFL. Now you add to that Ndamukong Suh, one of the 5-10 best defensive players in football... and you get a team that has a legitimate shot of stealing that division if Brady does miss 4 games. All they can hope is that Week 17 game hosting the Patriots is meaningful.

10.) San Diego Chargers

Now that they've locked up Philip Rivers, they can go back to being calmly entrenched in that band between 8-11 wins. Rivers is still great, though does need better o-line play now than earlier in his career. Good thing then, considering their offseason signings. I like Melvin Gordon in theory. What they really need a resurgence from Keenan Allen. The defense still has questions, but they've added solid pieces each of the last few years, and I like their coaching staff top-to-bottom. Solid team, across-the-board.

9.) Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers offense and defense really were two trains passing each other silently in the night. There was one year when both were great (2010), but now they combine a legitimate Top-3 offense in the NFL, a team with one of the three best QBs, the best WR, good secondary weapons, a top all-purpose back, and the best o-line the franchise has had in 10 years... with one of the worst defenses in the NFL. I said that Dick LeBeau should retire two years ago, and I hope Tomlin starts playing a little bit more with his principles as a Tampa-2 guy, the best way to hide mediocre talent. That's all they need, really, a mediocre defense.

8.) Carolina Panthers

I made this ranking before Kelvin Benjamin had a scary injury, but he's not seriously hurt it seems. Good thing, because that offense is in a precarious spot. What is not in a precarious spot? That defense, which was as good as any defense this side of Seattle over the 2nd half of last season. The pass rush came back, and should get better with another year from Kony Ealy. The Panthers defense is solid, and the offense should also get better with another year of maturing from both Newton and Benjamin. The schedule is fairly easy, the team is more like the one that finished the season than the one that started it.

The "Teams Hoping Brady Stays Suspended for Seeding Purposes" Quatro

7.) Indianapolis Colts

Top-to-bottom, the NFC is the better conference. Just looking at 'top' it is the AFC, and the Colts lead up that area for the team that probably has the best chance to get the #1 seed - given their division and schedule (and getting Denver and New England at home). I love the Colts moves on offense, and with Andre Johnson ably replacing Reggie Wayne, and Philipp Dorsett as a scary Stokley, this offense can come close to peak Manning Colts offense. I still worry about that defense, that has gotten exposed time and time again. I like the moves for Langford and Cole, but I'm not sure how much better two 30+ year old guys will make that side of the ball.

6.) Dallas Cowboys

Greg Hardy seems like a pretty bad guy, but his suspension being reduced is huge for the Cowboys. The biggest weakness last year was pass rush - and last year's team was one that beat Seattle in Seattle (manhandled them on a play-by-play basis), and could've beaten Green Bay in Green Bay if not for a weird ruling. The year's following recent Cowboys' successes haven't been the best (a 1-3 finish to miss the playoffs in '08, Romo getting hurt and team going 6-10 in '10), but I have more faith in this old-school team than previous iterations.

5.) Denver Broncos

If two things happen, they may be the best team in the NFL. First, if that o-line can gel. Gary Kubiak has done some incredible things with O-Lines (exhibit A: the 2014 Ravens), and he'll need to use all his vast powers. Second, if Manning can stay healthy. Reports are he's looked better this year than any since he came to Denver in camp, but let's remember he was at worst the 2nd best QB in the NFL through 8 games last year. He needs to stay healthy over the course of the season. I think the o-line will take some time to gel, which is why they're only 5th, but I think they're being undervalued overall.

4.) Baltimore Ravens

I'll give my actual record prediction in my conference previews, but I like the Ravens a lot this year. I don't know why, given they're changing the offensive scheme that made them so successful, and they're depending on another top year from Steve Smith, but they found something late last season. That defense has also replenished itself so beautifully; in fact, I tear up just thinking of how well they've restocked that side of the ball. They secondary is also deeper this year than in the past two, helping to aid the worst area of the team. The Ravens, once again, are really good.

The "Shouldn't we just fast-forward to 6:30 PM, Sunday, January 24th" Duo

3.) Seattle Seahawks

The major move for the Seahawks is switching Max Unger, their one real quality o-lineman, for Jimmy Graham. Their success this season rests on that switch working, and their defensive depth not being exposed. Their top players have stayed remarkably healthy the last two seasons, and they'll need that again. If the o-line gels, this is the best starting-22 in the NFL. However, if injuries strike, they fall down that list somewhat quickly. It also would help if they could throw to a WR who was actually drafted.

2.) Green Bay Packers

The NFC last year was essentially decided by tie-breaks. Dallas, Seattle and Green Bay all finished 12-4. The only head-to-head was Dallas beating Seattle, but Seattle got the #1 seed by conference record. Green Bay should have won that title game anyway. The Packers offense is loaded, the o-line is the best it has been in the Rodgers era. The defense fixed a lot of their coverage issues last year, and while they have problems against the run, that's a less worrying problem when your offense can score 35+ points with ease. The Packers are the team to beat in the NFC this year for me.

The "King Stay the King" Uno

1.) New England Patriots

I have a rule, the defending champs stay #1 until they lose. I have been lucky enough that the first five years I did this blog (2010-14), I never had to put the Patriots at #1. I have to now, and lick my wounds. I'll talk about my actual expectations for them in my AFC preview, but for now the King Stay The King.

Monday, August 17, 2015

A Decade (and Three Years) of NFL Playoffs: Ranking the Conference Title Games, Pt. 2

Tier IV – The Great Games

10.) 2008 AFC Championship – (A6) Ravens 14 @ (A2) Steelers 23

Review: In the first year of the newly-revived Steelers-Ravens rivalry, the Steelers beat the Ravens for a 3rd time after beating them 23-20 in Heinz and then 13-9 in a smashmouth game at M&T Bank capped with a 92-yard TD drive by Ben. This one wasn’t as close, but the hits were just as many. It started out in (smashmouth) style with two Ravens needing medical attention after the opening kickoff. It featured sacks by the usuals: Suggs, Woodley, Ngata, Polamalu, and great play by everyone around on both defenses. Every score seemed like a minor miracle. Any first down for the Ravens (198 yards in the game) seemed like a large miracle. The Steelers led 13-0 and 16-7, but both leads were answered with Ravens’ TD runs by Willis McGahee, keeping the Ravens in a game they were mostly outclassed in by a defense that was just 5% better. Flacco played like a rookie in a Conference Title Game, throwing three interceptions and going just 13-30, but timely red-zone defense kept the Ravens in the game. In the end, it ended the way any Ravens-Steelers slugfest should, with a dramatic pick-6 as the Ravens were driving for a potential game-winning field goal. Troy Polamalu did the honors, cutting in front of a Flacco pass and weaving his way to the house for the capper in a hard-hitting night in Heinz Field. 

Interesting/Memorable Play: Steelers 2nd round bust Limas Sweed had an interesting two plays. First, he dropped a walk-in touchdown and then, in what is mostly seen as an act of cowardly fright, faked being hurt so he could curry up some sympathy. Two plays later, he laid out Frank Walker with a massive, Hines-Ward-ian block.

Interesting/Memorable Play 2: The Steelers first touchdown came courtesy of one of the strangest plays you will ever see. Ben Roethlisberger, like he does, escaped a sack and spun and heaved a ball downfield off-balance. The Raven defender overran the ball, and Holmes came back and caught it, and then weaved his way for a 62-yard touchdown. The play really should have been a sack or an interception, but somehow, someway, Santonio Holmes did what he did constantly in the 2008 postseason.

9.) 2008 NFC Championship – (N6) Eagles 25 @ (N4) Cardinals 31

Review: The Colts comeback from 21-3 down in a game still to come on this list was as memorable as any in recent memory, but here, the Eagles came back from a 24-6 halftime deficit on the road and took a 25-24 lead after a 62-yard TD by DeSean Jackson. Too bad for the Eagles, though, as Kurt Warner and the Cardinals put together their only drive of note in the 2nd half just in time, with a 7:40 long, 14-play march to retake the lead for good. The drive featured a 4th and 1 pitch-out to Tim Hightower at midfield and a 3rd and Goal screen pass for a TD to Hightower again. The game itself was a wild affair, with Larry Fitzgerald scoring three 1st half TDs, including one on a end-around pitchback that I alluded to back in the description of the 2005 Wild Card Game between the Steelers and Bengals. Donovan McNabb and the Eagles answered with three straight TD drives of their own in the 2nd. In what was the final NFC Championship for both quarterbacks, McNabb was slightly erratic at times, but threw for 375 yards with 3 TDs and 1 INT, while Warner was brilliant, going 21-28 for 279 yards and 4 tds with no picks. Fitz, DeSean Jackson, Kevin Curtis and Brent Celek all had big games. It was a nice shootout that was never really boring (even as the Cards took that 24-6 lead). A nice precursor to the epic shootout that would be in that stadium 51 weeks later.

Interesting/Memorable Play: The game really turned on one brilliant pass. It was the Eagles 2nd drive of the 2nd half (after a fumble and then a Cardinals punt), and with 6:41 remaining in the quarter, still down 24-6, the Eagles faced a 3rd and 18 from their own 31. In what may have been his best pass as an Eagle, McNabb perfectly shot a 50-yard pass to Kevin Curtis, which changed the game completely. If the Eagles won, it might be remembered as one of the biggest plays of the 2000s.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: The Game set a couple records that aren’t exactly good ones. This game marked the first time that both Title Game participants won fewer than 10 games (not to mention the first time since the 2002 AFC Title Game where neither team won 12 or more games), with the Cardinals going 9-7 and the Eagles going 9-6-1. It also marked the lowest combined seeds for Title Game opponents, with the Cardinals being the NFC’s 4th seed and the Eagles the 6th.

8.) 2012 NFC Championship - (N2) 49ers 28 @ (N1) Falcons 24

Review: The 49ers did something amazing in this game. No, it wasn't just coming back from 17-0 on the road to win a Championship Game. That was incredible. What was better was doing it without really stopping the Falcons more than twice. The Falcons punted just twice in the game, and only once was in the half. Matt Ryan turned the ball over twice during the 2nd half, where once was when his receiver slipped and the other was a terrible snap. The 49ers, of course, played quite well on offense themselves, capitalizing on a soft run defense with a great game from Frank Gore, who had 90 yards on 21 carries with two TDs. The Falcons kept Kaepernick in the pocket, but he had his best game throwing of any in the playoffs, going 16-21 for 233 yards and a TD with no INTs. Of course, this wasn't close to Matt Ryan, who went 30-42 for 396 yards with three TDs and one pick. Matt Ryan's incredible statline just underscores what a strange comeback this was for the 49ers, who played terrible defense all day. The game actually mirrored the Super Bowl in that way, with the losing team having a large advantage in yardage (the Falcons outgained the 49ers by 104), but the 49ers, like the Ravens did to them, stopped the Falcons in the red zone with a controversial non-call on 4th down. It is hard to for 49ers fans to complain about the Super Bowl since they saw that exact same story play out two weeks earlier. It didn't stop them from complaining, but it happened.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: Another example of how well the Falcons played in a losing effort: against a top pass defense, all three of the Falcons main weapons went off. Julio Jones was the star with 11 catches for 182 yards and two TDs. Of course, Roddy White chipped in with 100 yards on 7 catches, and Gonzalez had 78 yards on 8 catches with a TD.

Interesting/Memorable Play: Another example of how the Falcons stopped the Falcons, and not the 49ers, was what happened a handful of plays before their incomplete on 4th down. Throwing from the 50 yard line, Ryan found Harry Douglas wide open on a wheel route near the 30, with absolutely no one inbetween him and the end zone. What did Douglas do? Fall down trying to catch the well thrown ball and turn a sure TD into a 22 yard gain.

7.) 2014 NFC Championship - (N2) Packers 22 @ (N1) Seahawks 28

Review: In what was a fascinating game of two teams competing to play as badly as possible, it ended up being the Packers who decided to make a few more mistakes than the Seahawks did. The game itself was a wholly defensive affair, with the Packers defense absolutely confusing a terrible Russell Wilson into four interceptions, and the Seahawks playing the Packers tight and picking off Rodgers twice themselves. Those two QBs had a combined 6 interceptions in their first 16 playoff games. The Packers built a 16-0 lead, but it should have been so much more. Twice the Packers kicked field goals on 4th and Goal from the 1 and 2 yard line, and once more Rodgers was picked off inside the 20. They could have ended this game, and also moved it far back on the list. Instead, they didn't and the Seahawks woke up. The Seahawks first bite back came on a beautiful fake field goal for a TD. Then a normal drive ended in a TD to make it 19-14, but with 1:25 left it was still basically over. Except the Packers forgot to recover the on-side kick, that part of the equation fell through and the Seahawks scored quickly enough to not only take the lead but give the Packers enough time to send the game to OT with a fifth Mason Crosby field goal at the gun. In the end, Russell Wilson finally put together two good plays in succession, with back-to-back 35 yard passes in OT. First to get them out of 3rd and 7, and next a strike to Jermaine Kearse to walk off a winner. It was a frantic game that changed a lot of perceptions about how bad Russell Wilson could play and still win a playoff game, and how many things a team can do wrong, from Drive 0 to Drive N to lose a game.

Interesting/Memorable Play: The game could've ended numerous times, but other than the bobbled on-side kick, the real 'agent zero' play was the interception by Morgan Burnett, the 4th pick of Wilson on the day. At the time there was 5:15 left, with the Packers up 19-7. Burnett picked it off at his 40, with open field ahead of him and instead of try a return, he slid to safety. It was understandable, but kicked off a horrific series of events.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: Right after that interception, the Packers had a 99.9% chance to win the game. That ties the highest win probability for an eventual loser in NFL Playoff history, and breaks the record for a 4th quarter. The last team to do it, though, was not too long ago. The Chiefs had a 99.9% win probability up 38-10 in the 4th quarter of their Wild Card loss to the Colts in 2013.

6.) 2011 AFC Championship – (A2) Ravens 20 @ (A1) Patriots 23

Review: This game probably would go in the higher section if either Lee Evans gets that 2nd foot down in time (or holds onto the ball, but if he got the foot down a little sooner what Sterling Moore does becomes irrelevant) or Billy Cundiff makes his kick and it went overtime. Instead, we got merely a great game between the AFC’s best offense and best defense in 2011. The Ravens used every ounce of resourcefulness that they had to stay with the Pats, three times holding the Patriots to field goals and twice picking off Tom Brady (including a sweet pick that Bernard Pollard tipped to Jimmy Smith off of a ridiculously dumb deep pass by Brady to Matthew Slater). Joe Flacco, after a useless 1st quarter, got into a rhythm, and ended up with over 300 yards, largely to both Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin had huge big days. In the end, the Patriots did what they used to do in 2001-2006, win a close game where they were possibly outplayed. The Patriots offense was able to run the ball better than what most would have expected, but their passing game was limited by a Ravens defense that tackled exceptionally well, making sure. The game featured everything, including a classic Brady drive (although it came quite early in the 4th) which ended with a Brady 4th and 1 QB-sneak for the game-winning touchdown, a weird matchup where the Patriots tried covering Anquan Boldin with Julian Edelman on their final drive, and in the end, some kicker-related luck bailing the Patriots out.. If not for that last part of that last sentence, this could have been the 1st of two classics on the best title game day in recent history.

Interesting/Memorable Play: Right before the Ravens last drive, the Patriots were in almost the exact same position they were in five yearas earlier. The Patriots had the ball with 4 minutes to go needing one first down to effectively ice the game. Just like last time, they couldn’t get it. Just like last time, it was a great safety defensing a pass on 3rd and 4. Last time it was Bob Sanders nearly pick-sixing Brady, here it was Ed Reed playing great coverage on Aaron Hernandez. Sad the similarities didn’t perfectly continue in the ensuing drives.

Interesting/Memorable Moment: After the game, Jim Nantz, before letting Tom Brady speak, rhapsed poetic about Brady being the 2nd QB to make it to 5 Super Bowls and basically stopped just short of giving Tommy a Happy Ending. Then, in one of my few favorite Brady moments, Tommy took the mike and immediately debunked Nantz’s shit, saying “I played like crap today.”

Interesting/Memorable Moment 2: One of the few memorable images of the end of the game situation that I like to see is that beautiful picture of Vince Wilfork (who played stellar) with his helmet off and steam rising from the top off his head.

Tier V – The Epics

5.) 2011 NFC Championship – (N4) Giants 20 @ (N2) 49ers 23 (OT)

Review: Other than Lambeau Field, no stadium in the NFL has as much 'mystique and aura' as Candlestick Park, and with the new stadium coming soon, this could easily be the last playoff game played in the 'Stick, and damn was it great. As the rain slowly went away, the game become more and more special, a truly awesome spectacle of defensive football played in a sparkling, dark night by the Bay. Both defenses dominated, with the Giants sacking Smith three times, and the 49ers repaying the favor six times. Justin Smith absolutely killed David Baas, Chris Snee and Kevin Booth. It was just staggering watching Eli Manning drop back 64 times and getting hit repeatedly, but keeping his team in the game just enough. For the 49ers, the story was, once again, Vernon Davis, who had three catches for 112 yards and a pair of scores. Alex Smith returned to mostly what we think of Alex Smith, going 12-26, but much of that has to do with the insane pressure he faced, and the incredible inability of any of his receivers to get open (The 49er receivers combined for one catch for three yards). Still, with the two Davis TDs (one catch and run for 72 yards and one 27-yard deep post), they led 14-10 midway through the 4th quarter. The 49ers forced a Giants' three-and-out capped with an Aldon Smith sack, when Kyle Williams went back to punt. Then, his name forever became etched in San Fran history right next to Roger Craig (at least when it comes to fumbling), as the punt bounced off of his knee. The Giants recovered, and six plays later, Manning fired a 17-yard TD to Manningham on 3rd and 15. The 49ers then proceeded to dominate the Giants offense the rest of the day, sacking Manning two more times, but only put up a field goal to tie the game. They almost got their fumble (in what would have been eerily similar to the Craig fumble scenario), but Bradshaw's fumble was ruled dead as forward progress was stopped. Then, to cap off this play was Act III: OT. The new rules were, again, deemed unnecessary, as both teams couldn't get anything going. But after the Giants second-punt of OT (set up by a Ahmad Brooks sack), Kyle Williams again fumbled, and the Giants recovered. The only drama left was Lawrence Tynes, who has a history of both huge makes and bad misses, but he nailed his 2nd NFC Championship Winning Field Goal in OT in 5 years, ending a game that no team deserved to lose.

Interesting/Memorable Play: Kyle Williams (who I learned later is the son of White Sox GM Kenny Williams) was only the main returner for the 49ers because Ted Ginn Jr. was hurt in the Saints game, and I'm sure he, more than anyone, would've wanted Ginn to play. That said, it was his 40-yard kick-off return that set up the 49ers at the 50 for their game-tying field goal in the 4th quarter.

Interesting/Memorable Moment: Before the OT coin-toss, the game ref does a little meet-and-great with the players, telling the rules, giving them the timeout and challenge scenarios, and all that generic garbage. Well, Ed Hochuli decided that instead of being rote, he would take the time to recite Shakespeare, giving us a 1 minute 11 second long introduction to OT. The best part of the moment was the audible groan that came on the crowd at about the 0:40 mark of the speech.

4.) 2013 NFC Championship - (N5) 49ers 17 @ (N1) Seahawks 23

I can't wait for the 2015 NFC Championship game. The last four times the NFC has had the late title game, they've been classics (spoiler, they rank #5-#2 on this list). This is the only one of the four to not end with a walk-off field goal in OT, but it didn't make it any less great. I still argue Carolina was as good as San Francisco, but this matchup seemed a little predestined. Thankfully, despite getting gutted the last two times traveling to Seattle (losing 42-14 and 26-3), the 49ers showed up and made this a game. They showed up from the first play, with Aldon Smith stripping Russell Wilson. The Seahawks defense held firm early on when Kaepernick looked like the only person on the field who could do anything, running peerlessly through the defense. Kaepernick racked up nearly 100 yards rushing in the first half. Of course, the Seahawks gave up just 10 points in that half. It took Seattle forever to get going on offense, but the Seahawks finally hit a play before the half when Wilson evaded a few sacks and launched a bomb. The 2nd half was a great Greek Play. First was Marshawn Lynch's great run to tie the game. Then a few defensive battles. Kaepernick threw a laser TD to Boldin right over Earl Thomas's head to take a 17-10 lead, but that would be all. A 4th down TD to Jermaine Kearse on a bomb tied it, and then Kaepernick fell apart. Three 4th-quarter turnovers ruined their chances. But still, after a goal line stand, the 49ers had a chance. Kaepernick was driving them. Crabtree was making a few catches. They had 30 seconds and 20 yards to go, and then Kaepernick decided to challenge the best corner in teh NFL. The best corner won, tipping it to Malcolm Smith, ending a classic in front of an awesome 12th man crowd. The best NFL games seem like events from a different world, a strange unique setting,. This was definitely one of them, taking place in the isolated Northwest. What a special game.

Interesting/Memorable Play: The play will be remembered for NaVarro Bowman's scary injury, but the reason the injury will be replayed and replayed was Bowman, after essentially tearing all the knee, recovering a fumble that was not given. The rule changed in the off-season, and the justly the Seahawks were stoned on the ensuing 4th down.

Interesting/Memorable Play 2: The last play was a great individual moment by Richard Sherman, but of course what is more notable was what happened after the interception, with Sherman and Crabtree getting into a little hissy fight and then Sherman's great interview with Erin Andrews. Sherman acted like a dick, but an awesome dick. Thing is, though, Crabtree had a pretty decent game.

3.) 2009 NFC Championship – (N2) Vikings 28 @ (N1) Saints 31 (OT)

Review: Well, what became maybe the 2nd most famous Championship Game of this era, has now become easily the most infamous. Truthfully, my opinion of this classic is skewed a little because of the events of 'BountyGate', but for this, I will try to forget what I now know. The game itself was a case of the Vikings doing everything in their power to both win and lose the game at the same time. It was a study in drama, with both teams having many moments where their fans must have felt it was all doomed. The 1st half was mostly normal, with the teams trading touchdowns, as the Vikings opened the game with back-to-back TD drives capped off by a 18-yard run by Peterson and a touchdown toss to Sidney Rice. The Saints got their two with a screen pass for 38-yards to Pierre Thomas and another TD pass to Devery Henderson. Then, on a seemingly innocous punt right before the half, the game became a greek tragedy. Reggie Bush muffed a punt. That set off a string of unlikely, and for most Minnesotans, harrowing events. Set up at the 5-yard line, the Vikings gave the ball right back as Favre and Peterson screwed up a handoff. The 2nd half was more of the same, with the Vikings thoroughly dominating play, outgaining the Saints 235-48 in the 2nd half. Yes, you read those numbers right. The more shocking side was the Vikings defense just swallowing up the Saints, forcing four three-and-outs in the Saints 6 possessions in the 2nd half. The Vikings themselves moved the ball right down the field on all but one of their six 2nd half drives, but other than two touchdowns on angry Peterson runs, they ended in infamy. Four 2nd half turnovers, including a fumble by Bernard Berrian at the Saints 5 yard line, and a fumble by Percy Harvin at the Vikings 10, and a interception by Brett Favre (on a play that should've been called roughing the passer) all played a part in the Vikings inability to win a game they absolutely deserved to. They still had a chance, though. After giving their win away, they had a chance to still win, despite losing the turnover battle four to one. On their last drive, the Vikings drove down to the Saints 33 with over a minute to go, when their true meltdown occurred. First, came a 12-men-in-the-huddle penalty, and then, on 3rd and 15 and the prospect of a 56-yard field goal, Favre rolled out and tried to make a play, but Tracy Porter undercut the route and picked it off. To OT it went, and a Saints drive that could've ended twice, but after a bad pass interference call gave the Saints a 1st and 10 at the Vikings 29, it was all over. Garrett Hartley nailed the 40-yarder to give the Saints a win they didn't really deserve, but considering the Vikings gave it away, it wasn't as if the Vikings deserved it any more.

Interesting/Memorable Play: Why did the Saints OT drive have controversy? First, on a 4th and 1 jump rush by Pierre Thomas, the ball appeared to be dislodged for Thomas's arm. He did 'recover' the ball, but by then he was back behind the yard line that he needed to get to. A case could be made it should've been a turnover on downs. Two plays before that, Brees (who was only 17-31 on the day - again, just a bad game for the Saitns offense) overshot Colston, but Ben Leber knocked the ball out of Asher Allen's hands. Even in OT, the Vikings had their chances.

Interesting/Memorable Play 2: That Favre interception resulted in over-criticism for Favre, because had he just thrown it away, it was still a 56-yard field goal, but I can understand why Favre didn't try to run the ball. He had been battered all day. BountyGate or not, it was a beating that elicited a response of "how mean the Saints are" from my Mom. Favre's ankle resembled a misshapen plum after the game. They beat him down, yet he still went 28-46 for 310 yards. It was, in all honesty, the last great game of Favre's career.

Tier VI - The Games that Defined the Decade

2.) 2007 NFC Championship – (N5) Giants 23 @ (N2) Packers 20 (OT)

Review: For one night, it seemed like nowhere in the world mattered as much as Green Bay, Wisconsin. During a asininely cold night in Green Bay (the temperature stayed steady between -1 and -3 degree, with the wind chill between -20 and -23) the Giants and Packers played out a true epic. The Giants set the tone early, with a field goal march to open the game, highlighted with Brandon Jacobs running over Charles Woodson, a pointed statement to the Packers that this would still be a highly physical fight despite the frozen conditions. The Giants added another field goal on a drive that, much like the rest of the game, featured a lot of Plaxico Burress. Matched up against bump-and-run extraordinaire Al Harris, Burress abused the pro-bowler, with 9 catches and 110 yards in the first half alone. The Packers offense was largely stagnant, but scored a dramatic 90-yard touchdown from Favre to Donal Driver: the longest touchdown in Packers playoff history. Then, despite the temperature still being low enough to make it the 3rd coldest NFL playoff game ever (behind the Ice Bowl and Freezer Bowl), the game itself heated up. The Giants and Packers and Giants again drove for touchdowns in a tightly played third quarter. The Giants first TD drive was the most memorable, as they got two straight 3rd Down conversions via penalties, as Harris was called for Pass Interference, and then Nick Collins called for roughing the passer. All this set up a 4th Quarter with the Giants leading 20-17. The Packers quickly tied the game with a field goal set up by a crazy play where Favre, after eluding a sack, blindly tossed one deep and was picked off by McQuarters, only for LT Mark Tauscher to force a fumble which was recovered by the Packers. From that moment on, the Giants dominated the game, but just couldn't put the Packers away. They stoned the Packers run game (Grant 11-19 on the day), and force Packers punt after punt, but the Giants couldn't capitalize. First, midway through the quarter, Tynes pushed a 43-yarder. They traded punts before the Giants forced another Packers 3-and-out, where the craziness reached its apex. On the punt return, McQuarters was stripped, and three Packers had a good chance to recover the ball around the 50. The Packers were that close to potentially stealing the game (they were outgained on the day 377-264), but Dominik Hixon jumped on the ball. After gaining two first downs, the Giants were in position to win the game, but on the last play of regulation Tynes shanked a 38-yarder giving the Packers one more chance. The Packers did win the toss, but on Favre's final throw as a Packer, he threw behind Donal Driver and Corey Webster picked him off. Three plays later, with the Giants now facing a field goal longer than either of the two 4th Quarter misses, Coughlin called on Tynes one more time. The third time really was the charm, and Tynes just nailed the 47-yarder. The Lambeau crowd that was loud throughout fell into an eery silence. They must all have felt that they waited out four hours of an epic football game in epic weather just to see the Giants come in and end Favre's dream season, and in the end, his Packer career.

Interesting/Memorable Play: Plaxico Burress was just insane. He caught every type of pass against  Harris. Quick posts, fade routes, fade stops, crossing routes, deep throws, quick outs. It was just masterful. During the game, after making his 8th catch, he went over the the Packers sideline and shouted "You Can't Cover Me! This Fucker Can't Cover Me!". And the Packers switched Woodson on him for a play, and Burress caught another one. Just an exceptional game.

Interesting/Memorable Moment: Lawrence Tynes would get his 15 minutes of fame, appearing on Dave Letterman the next week. He was, surprisingly, a good guest, quipping that after he missed the 2nd field goal he was "thinking what it would be like to live in Green Bay" in fear of what the NYC crowd would do to him.

Interesting/Memorable Moments: The cold did wreak havoc on the game, and it led to some great moments. First, was Michael Strahan's perfect speech before the game, where he stated "the past is the fucking past. This is the present. Cold is temporary, a Championship is Forever." The cold is probably best remembered, though, for what it did to Tom Coughlin's face, as he became as red and frozen as a strawberry popsicle.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: Something that really helps this game was just how aesthetically beautiful. The Packers green jersey is quite brilliant, and the Giants road uniforms (despite, oddly, not featuring blue) are the better of the two. Either way, with the uniforms, the almost white field and the  dark, isolating feel of Green Bay, the game itself just looked like you were watching an epic film more than a football game.

1.) 2006 AFC Championship – (A4) Patriots 34 @ (A3) Colts 38

Review: This might just go down as the most famous non-Super Bowl in the modern NFL. It was the game that best personified the Manning/Brady rivalry, as it was the first time both really played well in the same game, and that combined with a little comeback, some crazy scores and a great finish equated two the best Championship Game maybe ever. It all started out so normal for Colts fans, as the Patriots looked like the Patriots from their dynasty days, and the Colts looked like little sheep. After trading punts, the Patriots sandwiched a Colts field goal with two TDs that both featured 4th down conversions during the drive. Then, already up 14-3 midway through the 2nd, Asante Samuel picked off Manning and raced back for what looked to be a game-stopper. The Patriots compounded this dominance by sacking Manning twice on the next drive (although they nearly allowed a 97-yard TD to Marvin Harrison), and driving on their next possession inside the 20, until a little offensive-pass interference pushed that drive back. The Patriots had to punt, and the Colts put together their first real fluid drive of the game right before the half. They had to settle for a field goal, but the game was back to normal pace, and, as many Patriots would later attest, Manning had figured it out. 32 points in the 2nd Half later, that much was obvious. The Colts first scored TDs on back-to-back possessions to start the 3rd quarter, erasing the 15 point deficit in 11 minutes. The Patriots answered with a crazy scrambling TD toss after a long kick-off return by Hobbs. The Colts answered that with a TD drive that included a beautiful sideline post route to Dallas Clark. That score happened early in the 4th Quarter, which would prove to be among the most dramatic quarters in NFL history. First, the teams traded punts and then they traded field goals. The Patriots were aided by good special teams returns, but also didn't get what looked like a pass interference call which forced them to kick a field goal to make it 34-31. Then, looking at 80 yards to potentially change his whole career, with just 3:43 on teh clock, Manning threw three straight incompletions. It was Manning fulfilling so many's worst impressions, as he "failed in the clutch." Luckily for Manning, Brady and the Pats, for what would be the first time late in a close playoff game, choked harder. Needing just one first down to essentially wrap up the game, the Pats were first called for a 12-man in the huddle penalty (something completely forgotten about the game), then after two quick completions, the Pats had a 3rd and 4. Four yards away from another win against the Colts. Four yards away from beating the Colts in their own building, and a date with an eminently beatable Chicago team. The Pats went for the kill, as they spread the field and tried to hit Troy Brown on a route that he's run hundreds of times, but Sanders read it and nearly picked off Brady. Manning got one more chance to perform big in the clutch, and that he did. Against a furious pass rush, Manning completed a quick 11-yarder to Wayne, a deep post for 32 to Fletcher off his back foot and a 21-yarder to Wayne. Then, with 1st and 10 at the 11, the Colts did the most un-Colts-like thing: run three straight times, pounding it down the "physical" Pats. Addai scored on 3rd and 3, finally giving the Colts the lead. The Patriots would go as far as midfield on the next drive, but Brady finally threw a pick at a 'clutch' moment, as Marlin Jackson caught it and slid to the ground, hugging the ball. The RCA Dome exploded like never before, and the rivalry, and league in general (I'll get to this) was never the same.

Interesting/Memorable Plays: Three lineman scored touchdowns in this game. One was the Colts pulling a Belichick on the Pats, with Manning tossing a 1-yard pass to Dan Klecko, but the other two made for an eery coincidence, as both Logan Mankins and Jeff Saturday recovered fumbles by their running back in the end zone for touchdowns.

Interesting/Memorable Player: Reche Caldwell had a notoriously awful game. He had just two catches, and two infamous drops. One was a wide-open drop in the end zone. The other was more infamous, as the play started with teh Colts having only 10 guys on defense, and leaving Caldwell wide open. Caldwell furiously waved his arms trying to get Brady's attention, but never could. By the time the ball was snapped the Colts were racing over the Caldwell, but he dropped a simple catch. Of course, nothing is more memorable from Caldwell than his deer eyes.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: This was the largest comeback ever in a conference championship game, with the Colts coming down from 21-3. The Colts also set a record for most points in the 2nd Half of a Title Game, with 32. From the 2:00 Warning of the 1st to the end of the game, the Colts outscored the Pats 35-13, and outgained them 289-115.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: I'll write more about this later, but this game was arguably the game that started the NFL's paradigm shift to offense-first teams. The previous six teams to win teh Super Bowl before 2006 (Ravens, Pats, Bucs, Steelers) were all defense first teams that allowed under 300 points. Including the '06 Colts, the last six (Colts, Giants twice, Steelers, Saints, Packers) have been more mixed, with four allowing more than 300 points, including the three of the four highest totals for  Super Bowl winning teams. The game also signalled the end of the defense-first Patriots that won Super Bowls. Fuming over the offenses inability to put up more points in teh 2nd half, the Pats went out and traded for Stallworth, Welker and Moss and turned into an offensive juggernaut. The modern pass-happy NFL started that night, and all because Brady couldn't complete a simple 4-yard pass to Troy Brown.

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.