I've got Vick's face on the front because I think this is going to be the last weekend we will get to see him this season. He'll be only 25 years old by the time the Falcons kick off summer camp later this year. 25....
Here's a good rule of thumb for Championship Sunday: Pretend you wagered on each team, then pick the worst-case scenario for each side. For instance, a worst-case scenario for that Rams-Falcons game last week would have been Vick scrambling around early, followed by Dunn breaking a long run, then the Falcons making their obligatory special teams play, then Bulger getting hurt, then Mike Martz staring out onto the field like an American tourist trying to read a train station schedule in Chinese. And that's pretty much what happened.
For the Falcons this Sunday, here's the worst-case scenario: The Eagles shut down their running game, forcing Vick to throw the ball. When none of his receivers can get open (and isn't that the biggest mismatch in this game -- that motley crew of Atlanta receivers against Philly's superb secondary?), he'll try to create something with his scrambling ... only the Eagles have the horses up front to chase him down, much like the way Tampa Bay's D always handles Vick (as Collinsworth pointed out this week on HBO). And the Falcons offense will keep sputtering, and the Eagles will grind out a few drives, and that will be that.
Here's the worst-case scenario for the Eagles: Even though they're controlling the game, for whatever reason, the Falcons keep hanging around ... and hanging around ... and suddenly it's early in the fourth quarter, and the score is tied ... and that's when the fans start to get nervous (the baggage thing) ... and then Vick breaks a big play to take the lead ... and everyone in Philly is thinking, "Oh my God, please tell me it's not happening again" ... and then McNabb plays the rest of the game with both hands wrapped around his neck. See you next year.
Consider all the crap he's put out this past week, I'm glad to see that something useful has fallen out of his Shark Jumping word processor. I never thought the Eagles would suffer too much from the loss of TO until the Super Bowl. The Falcons are by far their toughest test in over two months (loss to Pitt on 11/7) but I think the Eagles match up well enough against them to win. The Falcons can be run on and their defense is based around their pass rush. Philly should be able to neutralize that and take advantages down the field. Philadelphia -5
Patriots -3 at Steelers - What Coach Belichek meant earlier this week when he said that his team would get killed if his defense plays against the Steelers like they did against the Colts, was how the Pats were just daring the Colts to run up the middle of the field and then take some chances deep. Since Indy didn't do either of those two things, they are home this week and next week and so on. This Sunday, the Pats will try to take away the Pittsburgh run and force Ben Burger to beat them. QBs who can move around the pocket do better against NE, but this one rookie won't be able to do enough to win. One can't stress enough that Corey Dillon did not play when these teams met earlier this season. The Patriots offense is much more versitile than Pittsburgh's. And NE's defense is just as good as the Steelers. Matchup that in the snow of western Pennsylvania, and I'm taking New England -3.
Sources tell Sportsnet the Phoenix Coyotes coaching staff has informed its players they need to be on standby, prepared to practice within the next seven days.
UPDATE: Rumors, rumors.
"There's no substance to that whatsoever," said Ducks head coach Mike Babcock. "That's not true at all."
Phoenix GM Mike Barnett also denied his players were told to be on alert.
"That's completely erroneous," he said. "I have not spoken to any members of our roster in two months. I don't even know where one-third of our roster is. Some of them are spread all over the globe. No one in our management group has contacted our players since November."
I looked at the Early Super Bowl line this morning and I was shocked to see it was +6 NFC. I think the money line was +190 or so. Are they crazy? Sure the NFC had some major problems this year, but the Falcons and the Eagles were by far the best teams and will most likely be able to hold their own against either the Steelers or the Pats.
Falcons - Eagles Notes:
Atlanta is probably the best or second best team in the NFL when they are at home and playing with the lead. Those two strengths were obvious last week when they outscored the Rams 19-0 in the second half of the NFC Divisional Playoff.
One of the reasons behind their success this season with the lead, as I detailed last week, is the Falcons' ability to get to the quarterback with just their front four rushers. During the regular season, DE Patrick Kerney had 13 sacks, DE Brady Smith had 6, DE Travis Hall had 3, DT Rod Coleman had 11.5, and DT Ed Jasper had 2. That totals up to 35.5 sacks from the defensive line on a team that recorded an NFL best 48 for the season. Last week, Atlanta registered 4 sacks (all from the DL) on Marc Bulger, raising their season total to 52.
Taking a closer look at these numbers, however, reveals that Atlanta's defense on the road is a much different beast. In their eight games away from ATL, Kerney had 6 sacks, Coleman 3.5, Jasper 0.5, Smith 1, and Hall 2.5 for a total of 13.5. So the breakdown for the year of these five defensive lineman reads: 22 sacks at home, 13.5 on the road. The Falcons finished with a 4-4 road record and even though their last two losses were in games where they rested many of their starters, the Falcons' two most embarassing performances of the year came in Kansas City and in Tampa.
Of the west coast style teams this season, Atlanta faced Detroit, Denver, Seattle, and Tampa Bay (twice). I don't think their record in those games (2-3) is all that important but I'm almost certain that the Eagles coaches have looked at the film from the Dec 5 Bucs victory more than a couple times.
In that game, Tampa never really moved the ball with any effectiveness against the Falcons' defense, but they absolutely shut down the Falcons' offense. The drive log for Atlanta reads: punt, punt, int, fumble, punt, fumble, punt, punt, downs, downs, int, int. The Bucs got to Vick for 5 sacks, 2 picks, and two fumbles lost. Bucs' DE Simeon Rice really had his game going that day and it seems to be that the Bucs' key to disrupting Vick over the last three years has been that strong Right End push into Vick's face. Will the Eagles use Jevon Kearse on the right side to try to mimic Rice's successes?
As I discussed here in The Swamp, simply having a strong front four does not guarantee success against Vick. Compare Carolina (who Vick has had monster games against) with Tampa Bay (who has owned #7 for three years) and the big difference between those two is the presence of a strong RE rusher and the play of the Bucs' linebackers. Carolina plays too much 'under man' coverage with their LBs and that's what opens up all those holes for Vick to escape the pocket. Tampa has been using the 'under zone' scheme with their fast LBs (Brooks, etc) and they have the advantage of sitting in coverage with their heads facing the quarterback. So essentially, all three of the Tampa LBs can act as spies in their coverage while the Panthers LBs have their backs turned away from the pocket as they chase down receivers in man coverage. Philly blitzes on almost every down, but they have played a lot less man coverage this year and will probably try to pressure Vick on Sunday with a wide assortment of zone blitz schemes in order to keep all 11 players with their heads facing towards the quarterback.
One thing that was obvious in the Rams/Falcons game was the St. Louis defenders' heavy preoccupation with containing Vick. On a couple of long Warrick Dunn runs, Jeremitrius Butler was in a good position to cut off the backside run but ended up a step behind where he should have been because he was looking to see what Vick was doing. Obviously, the Eagles will need better run support from their DBs and with the type of players they have back in their secondary, they should get it.
On offense, the Eagles showed last week that without TO, they will do everything they can to create individual mismatches. The Falcons have better linebackers than Minnesota does but Atlanta's group still is not a great one. Len Pasquarelli recently broke down the remaining four's LB corps and mentions that Keith Brooking is "the Falcons' most versatile front seven defender." Jim Mora moved Brooking to the weakside spot this year and Len also notes that "when Brooking came into the NFL, most scouts projected him as a weak-side linebacker because he was such an obvious "space" defender." Atlanta also could let their experienced and deep group of corners cover the Eagles WRs and stick DeAngelo Hall on Brian Westbrook. Hall is probably the best pure cover guy the Falcons have but he has just 11 games of NFL experience.
Both of these coaches have the complete support of their players. Andy Reid is Andy Reid (any coach who can get to four straight Conference Championship Games knows what he's doing) but I think that Jim Mora, Jr is already one of the best head coaches in the NFL. I can't think of any other person I'd want to see head my local team. Back with the 49ers last year, Mora used to give a weekly report on NFL Total Access and it was clear that Mora has a great understanding of leadership within the game of football. It's too bad Atlanta and it's fans suck so bad because they have a GM, a coach, and a quarterback that are impossible to root against. Way too much talent and class for a city so confederated in geography, philosophy, and economics.
The strength of Atlanta's offense is obvious in the way they run the ball. Aside from Vick's improvisations, the Falcons are a very good traditional running team. Their offensive line coach, Alex Gibbs, brought with him to Atlanta a reputation of molding effective, tough, and nasty offensive lines. The Falcons' average yard per carry this season (5.1) far exceeded the rest of the NFL and that is largely a result of Vick (7.5). But even with just Dunn (4.2) and Duckett, (4.9) this is one of the top running teams in the league. In the snow, they will need to prove they are the league's best running team.
Back when these two teams met in the 2002 Divisional Playoff Game, the only touchdown that was scored through the game's first three quarters came from Bobby Taylor's 39 yard return of a Vick interception. There will be a lot of different players in this week's contest, but if the Falcons' come anywhere close to throwing the ball 38 times like they did against Philly two years ago, it's going to be a long day for them.
The faces of the NHL lockout are undoubtedly Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow. But this proposed meeting on 1/19 will leave out those two politicians and go straight to the policy men. I'm encouraged a bit by this move (meaning, my interest in covering lockout news has gone from zero to one), but at the same time it may just be another PR move on the part of the NHLPA.
It's important to understand who will be at this meeting, so here's a quick breakdown.
Linden and Hotchkiss are basically the voice of the player/owner. Batterman and McCambridge are the hired lawyers.
I'm intrigued by the development of this meeting and while it has been said that neither side will bring a formal proposal to the Wednesday meeting, there's only one place this whole mess can go from here: up. Oh no! I'm starting to think there may be a chance. I don't know how those Jets fans do it. Help me.
UPDATE: They will meet again soon.
I can feel the draw of football slowly leaving me as we get closer to talking about pitchers and catchers reporting for camp. So I'm going to get this out now, and leave it until August.
A lot will happen between the final whistle of Week 17 and the opening kickoff of the 2005 season, but these are a few of the players that I'm looking at for next season's fantasy football draft.
Kevin Jones: No one had more rushing yards in the month of December than Jones did. At the end of the season, the Lions seemed to really move their offense away from Harrington and more towards the run. With two top WRs and a top RB in Jones, I would presume that if Harrington is back next season as the starter in Detroit, the team will be using more of the playaction type offense that was so popular (Indy, Pitt, etc) this year. The four touchdowns Jones had in his last 5 games also tells me the team featured him more on key downs. Mariucci's history with running backs scares me a little, but it really looks like he's got a good one here.
Julius Jones: Another rookie RB that came on late in the season, I expect Julius to have well over 300 carries in 2005 if he can stay healthy for them all. It doesn't look like the Cowboys are going to change around their QB position much, so Jones should be counted on to continue his late season success. If you project the numbers he had in his last seven games over an entire 16 game season, this would be his line: 439 carries, 1835 yards, 4.18 ypc, and 16 TDs. Now, of course he won't get 439 carries, but at almost 4.2 a carry, he would still be among the league leaders and well worth a late, first round fantasy pick.
Nate Burleson: 2005 will be NFL year #3 for Nate, and while he'll probably never be a top tier WR like Owens, Moss, or Holt he may fit in there nicely with Walker, CJohnson, Horn, Harrison, and others. The thing about Nate that I really like is that he scored touchdowns in 8 different games this year. Some people may think that Burleson's 2004 numbers came as a result of Moss' injury and while that may be in part true, the Vikings absolutely love this guy and he's on track to put up some pretty good numbers in his third NFL season. He's only 6'0, 192 pounds and he doesn't have great speed, but he's got the opportunity to get Issac Bruce type numbers for the next 6-8 seasons opposite Randy Moss.
Andre Johnson: The Texans really struggled down the stretch, capping their season with a terrible home loss to Cleveland that I still owe money to the the bank for. But when this team was going well, they were throwing the ball to Johnson. I think a lot drafts may overlook the potential a player like this has and therefore he's on my list of players to watch. There aren't but a few WRs who have this guy's size, speed, and polish and he'll be entering his third NFL season on a team that should be at least .500 next season. The month of October saw Andre net yards and three TDs in just four games. If other people turn sour on the 124 total yards he got in the season's last four games, Johnson is worth the chance of a third or fourth round pick on his potential alone.
Carson Palmer: It sounds like TJ Housmanzadah is interested in staying with the Bengals and if that turns out to be true, Cincinnati will boast one of the most dangerous passing offenses in the league. They will need to work on their offensive line in the off-season, but since they don't have any holes in their skill positions on offense, the amatuer draft and free agent market should provide the Bengals with one or two players to protect their Heisman QB. Palmer is a bit of a sleeper because he got injured at just the time when he was getting hot. Back to back QB Ratings of 127.1 and 110.1 versus the Patroits and the Ravens (both on the road, too) capped Palmer's sophomore NFL season. And if TJ, CJ and PDub are all back in Cincinnati for 2005, Palmer could easily reach 4000 yards and 30 TDs.
Kevin Curtis: It may be a little early to talk about Curtis, and maybe I'm just high on him after his Divisional Game performance against Atlanta, but if you consider that Issac Bruce will be 33 next season, the Rams' 2003 3rd round pick from Utah State may be able to approach 1000 yards in 2005 if he's given enough playing time. Curtis is not by any means big, but if anyone saw him outrunning D'Angelo Hall on Saturday night, you got a sense of how fast he is. When you consider how high Brandon Stokely will be going in drafts next year, being able to grab Curtis with a late pick is not a bad alternative.
It's not the big games that Peyton Manning can't seem to win, he just has a problem with those contests that come with a lot of pressure (yeah). Make no mistake, the Patriots are a very good defensive team, but there were still plenty of opportunities for the Colts to make plays down the field. Indianapolis played not to lose; just like the Chargers did last week and the Jets did this week. The quarterback who set the NFL's single season TD record this year was a quarterback who was able to consistently stay one step ahead of everyone else. But when that quarterback is forced to play a safe game plan, one not to make mistakes, the advantage he holds over the rest of the league becomes his biggest weakness. There were no red zone turnovers this time, no Pro Bowl defensive plays made against them. There was just the execution of the play called at the line of scrimmage. Today against New Enlgand, Peyton Manning and the Colts failed more than they ever have before.
It is often said that home field advantage is key in the playoffs, but that’s not quite accurate. The real advantage comes from a first-round bye. In the wild card round and the championship games, home teams win at the same rate as the regular season. But in the second week of the playoffs, home teams are 45-11 since the postseason expanded to 12 teams in 1990. Just like in the wild card round, each playoff game this week is a rematch of a regular season game. All four of those games were won by the teams hosting this week’s contests.
New Jersey +8.5 at Pittsburgh - I can only see maybe one road team winning this week, but if I had to pick another one it would be the Jets. Plax or no plax, the last time these two played, the score was 3-3 going into the fourth. Therefore, I'm employing a 6 point tease here. Jets +14.5 under 41. That under 41 is still a low number, but the last four times Pittsburgh has played at home, both teams have combined for 30 or less points. 10 of the Jets' 17 games so far have fallen under the total and Pittsburgh holds an 8-8 record against the O/U. I don't really see either team pulling away from the other in this game.
UPDATE: Just a quick note, my confidence in this pick is fading. I think the wise move now is to take either the Jets to win, or the Steelers to cover. If I could change my pick I would, but in my heart I'm leaning towards the Steelers -9.
UPDATE THE UPDATE: Glad I am forced to stick by my guns. Actually, the Update was right on, it's just that Herm pulled a little Marty ball there at the end.
St. Louis +7 at Atlanta - I don't like these Rams. I just don't think they are that good. Marc Bulger has improved so much that he could be considered the league's 5th best QB- after the elite four (Payton, McNabb, Culpepper, Brady). And consider also that he's doing all this with a shoulder injury that probably isn't 100%. But being able to throw well doesn't consistently win games on the road. And the only reason the Falcons weren't considered by some the best team in the NFC this season is because of TO. Now that he's gone, Atlanta could make it all the way to Jacksonville. Falcons -7 and Falcons -1, over 42 in a six point tease.
Minnesota +9 at Philadelphia - Who knows how hurt Moss' ankle is. I don't think it'll matter. Lining up against Green Bay is one thing, but these Eages have made it to 3 straight NFC Championship Games with TO for a reason. Minnesota doesn't have the linebackers to play against the Eagles middle (Smith, Lewis, and Westbrook). But a special teams score will probably be the deciding factor that puts this line onto the side of Philly. Many professional gamblers will say that there's not much difference in taking a team -7.5 than there is in -9.5. I'll go with that Vegas proverb here. Eagles -9
Indianapolis +2 at New England - This will be the 4th game in just over a year that the Colts will play New England in a highly contested match. How many on-field coverage tricks are possible? There's no way Belichek can come up with something Peyton hasn't seen by now is there? NE leaving the field uncovered this week may turn out to hurt the Patriots because they are going to need to score a lot to keep pace with the Colts. Even though I also picked Atlanta twice, I don't like any other game like I do this one. I just don't think the Colts at their best can lose to what seems to be the Pats at their worse (which for everyone else, still isn't that bad). Colts +2 and Colts +8, over 46 in a six point tease.
(I also flipped the coin for these four games and it picked all four home teams....)
SUNDAY MORNING UPDATE: By Beach Decree, I can't change picks that have been bolded but I can add to them. The Eagles line is now at -8 and I'm favoring the under now, so I'd like to add a six point tease with Philly -2, under 53. I've also bumped this post up since it was getting buried down the list.
SUNDAY NIGHT UPDATE: 5-2 on the weekend, 7-4 for the playoffs.
The Week 2 contest between these two doesn't mean much to me. Everything is different for both of these teams. The Vikings are using different players on their offensive line, at running back, and all over their defense. Philly obviously sport different looks on offense and probably have a better defense than they did early in the season.
Because of injuries to their defense, the Vikings will be using a few players on special teams that they aren't used to putting on the field in those situations. Considering Brian Westbook's gamebreaking ability when returning punts, special teams could be the Eagles best offense today. This article on the special teams of these two also pointed out to me the obvious edge the Eagles have in the kicking game.
Without TO, the stength of the Eagles offense goes back to the middle. McNabb, Westbrook, LJ Smith, and Chad Lewis are this team's best weapons now. But Dorsey Levens looked pretty strong during those last few mop up games and they could line up Westbrook outside and still run the ball effectively with Levens.
Jevon Kearse had one of his best games of the year in Week 2 and he will be going against Nat Dorsey today. I'm looking for another big game from Kearse.
It's hard to argue that any other quarterback (other than Mr. Manning, of course) has been better than Daunte Culpepper this season. Scott Linehan and the rest of the Vikings coaches have really done a great job reigning in Culpepper's talent. He's not the smartest QB in the league, but he's by no means dumb. The Vikings have been successful in making this offense manageable for him and his turnover problems have become all but normal (11 INTs, 4 fumbles lost this year).
Colts - Pats Notes:
So much attention has been paid to this game this week, there isn't much to add. So I'm just going to review a few notes.
One of the first things to watch out for today is what NE does when Corey Dillon is resting. The Pats have to be concerned with Dillon's fumbling problems this year and they will want to make sure he's close to 100% when he's on the field but if Kevin Faulk (questionable: knee) doesn't play, they may have to put Dillon in there more than they may want to.
Since this game has pretty much been matched-up to death this week, as in all cases the game will ultimately be decided by execution. Earlier this season, in Week 1, the Colts played well enough to win if they could have executed better in the red zone. The same could be said for last season's AFC Championship game too. So considering how close the Colts were to turning around both of those games, the skill of the players on the field will probably be the difference. And no one is better than the Colts right now in that department.
Also consider that both OC Charlie Weis and DC Romeo Crennel are on their way out of New England after this season.
Richard Seymour's gametime decision is obviously huge for the Patriots' chances. If he's out, two (Ty Law) of the players who have made the biggest plays against Peyton over the last year+ won't be on the field today.
The Pats will need to do what they do best and what the Jags did to them twice this season. On defense, keep two and three players deep to force the Colts into the red zone and then use those zone blitzes to go for those turnovers.
One note about the refs today: How much would the NFL love to see a Vick, Manning Super Bowl? So after what happened last year in the AFC Championship Game and the resulting Rules Committee changes in the enforcement of the 5 yard chuck rule, I will be surprised if there aren't at least 5 illegal contact penalties by the end of the first half.