Sunday, January 04, 2009

A Somewhat Wild, Wild Card Weekend

"Gone, gone, the damage done."

So after all was said and done, I ended up 2-2 after Wild Card Weekend. Not good, not bad, know, .500 I guess. I will say this: I flip-flopped on two of my picks, and if I had kept them as the originals, I would have been...2-2. Weird how that worked out (flipped on the Indy/SD game and the Minny/Philly game, so they kind of canceled each other out). Well, I'm still standing (not in a Scarface way...more like standing because there aren't any chairs in the know, standing in a non-defiant way).

So, Saturday featured two really good games, and both kind of turned on a dime in terms of the momentum. The Atlanta/Arizona game...well, it was pretty easy to spot the momentum changer there. With the Falcons up three to start the second half, on their second play from scrimmage, their season came to a screeching halt. Now before I get into the fumble and all that, let me first say that I picked Atlanta...I'm not going to attempt to make any excuses here, but the Falcons let that game get away from them after it seemed like they were never going to be in the game to begin with. Arizona came out fired up for two reasons: A.) They had not hosted a home playoff game since my Dad was eight, and B). Everyone had written them off after their two losses to Minnesota and New England, and forgot that they still had Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin (while he had to leave the game, he had a 72-yard touchdown while getting hurt...that's what the kids refer to as going out on a high note), and, yes, Edgerrin James, who ultimately became the X-factor in this equation. He was able to do something that the Tim Hightower/J.J. Arrington combo had not been able to do for two months: make a defense respect the running game. If James was not able to get those 73 yards, and average five yards a carry, Atlanta wins that game. And even though he did run well, I still think Atlanta has to be kicking themselves for not winning that game. Outside of the first quarter, they outplayed the Cards, and perhaps more importantly, they were able to silence the 'Zona crowd, which was deafening after the Fitzgerald flea-flicker touchdown. Immediately you have to look at the running game. Turner gets only 42 yards on 18 carries. Arizona did something that is so obvious and yet, I continue to overlook it. Look, Matt Ryan is a tremendous talent, but he's not ready to take over a playoff game by himself. Arizona basically came out and made him try to win that game, and while he certainly came close, ultimately, this is a winning formula in the NFL. Take away a young quarterback's running game, and make him try and beat you with his arm. Odds are, especially if the guy is making his first playoff appearance, he will fall short. Ryan was efficient (26/40), but he threw two picks, including a terrible decision to air it out on first down of one particular drive when his pass was picked off. Good luck finding two better receivers right now in the NFC than Roddy White and Larry Fitzgerald (I'll give you Steve Smith at #1 mind you). They were simply phenomenal on Saturday. I still don't regret picking Atlanta. It literally took one of the luckiest bounces on a fumble I've seen in some time to give them the lead at the start of the third and put them up for good. Give Darnell Dockett credit. He broke through the line and was able to disrupt the hand off between Ryan and Turner. Atlanta was doing exactly what they should have been doing: continuing to try and run Turner until the 'Zona line would break, then expand your game to short passes along with continuing to give Turner a heavy dose of runs. They had it, but good for 'Zona. They were able to stop all the momentum, and on one bounce to Antrel Rolle, changed the entire complextion of the game.

The Indy/San Diego game had me feeling like the Falcons/Cards game in that just like Atlanta had all the momentum in that game until the Turner fumble, San Diego had complete control of the game, that is until their momentary lapse of concentration led to a 72-yard TD to Reggie Wayne (apparently if you were going to make a big play happen, 72 seemed to be the magic number), which gave the Colts a 17-14 advantage. What puzzled me was that the Chargers were dominating the game, but were losing. Hmmm...well, okay, the next SD drive started off like most did, with the Chargers going all over the Colts' D, and then disaster struck when Darren Sproles fumbled on what looked like a touchdown or, at the minimum, Charger ball on the one. The Colts recover...this isn't good. Indy goes three and out the next drive. Wow, the Chargers' D just totally stepped up in that moment, and you would have to say that their D was a huge reason they ended up staying in that game. If we know anything about Peyton Manning, it's this: If you give him a lead, it is hard...hard work to keep him from adding onto it/milking the clock for so long that you don't have a chance to respond. So the Chargers get the ball back, and again, proceed to put together a nice drive, when Rivers throws a pick. Now I didn't make a sound all game, but in my head, at that moment, I said "I am so going 0-4 this weekend...damn it!" The Colts get the ball, and then something that I don't think anyone put any stock into happened: First, the Colts' line looked incredibly sloppy. Three penalties, two of which were enforced, and the Colts end up punting around midfield. Second, if ever a punter could be considered the MVP of a game, then Mike Scifres could have gotten that honor (tough to beat out a guy whose 5'6 and gets 300 something all-purpose yards and the winning TD though). His punt in the fourth went 52 yards to the one, which was his sixth punt inside the 15, and his fourth inside the 5! Field position became incredibly important at the end of the game. Kaeding came on to kick the tying field goal to send it to OT. I would like to thank NBC for showing the graphic of how bad Kaeding was on kicks that would tie or give the Chargers a lead in the last 2:00. Let's just say I don't have to trim my fingernails this week. Anyway, they go to OT, Chargers get the ball, and then Darren Sproles just took over. This may be reminicsent of a certain Big XII Championship Game? Anyway, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that the Chargers should replace LT with Sproles next year as the starter, but what I will say is that Sproles can quite literally change the entire course of a game. He can just sneak behind those mammouth lineman, and then bam, he's gone. What a weapon to have on a team. Sproles had the third most all-purpose yards ever in a playoff game...and saved me from a potential 0-for-the weekend on picks. Also, he's been one of my favorites since the aforementioned title game against Oklahoma in '03.

Moving onto Sunday...I mean Baltimore/Miami?...That was by far the easiest game to predict. All you had to do was watch the first matchup that happened this year, and it was absolutely clear that Miami was not going to make many adjustments, and even if they did, they didn't have the personnel to carry it out. One of the immediate things I saw from their first game was that the Miami "wildcat," or whatever the hell you want to call that stupid pee-wee league offense, simply had no place going up against the Baltimore front seven. When you have defensive speed like Baltimore and Pittsburgh, the rinky-dink offenses will crumble (I hate to sound so overly biased here in hating Miami's offense...actually I love it, never mind). Also, Pennigton is good, but once that wildcat wasn't working, he started to force passes into bad places...guess how that went? The rushing offense was awful (51 yards), and because Greg Camarillo, the Dolphins' #1 receiver at the time of the first matchup, was out of action this time around, the Ravens' secondary, which, outside of #20, is by far their biggest weakness on D (and by weakness, I mean that the front seven is so amazing that it makes the corners look average), benefited greatly from only having to cover basically Ted Ginn and Devone Bess (who missed a bunch of the first half with a hand injury anyway). Also, Miami had no pass rush in the first game, and came out perhaps even flatter this time around in trying to get to Joe Flacco. Now Flacco was in the same situation that Matty Ice was in in that they both were rookies and they both had rookie head coaches. The difference was that not only did the Dolphins have no pass rush, but they couldn't stop the run either. So let's see, Miami can't stop the run, and Flacco gets a ton of time when he drops back...that doesn't sound like a good formula to me. Give a ton of credit to the Miami secondary, who played great all day (despite having time, Flacco was 9 for 23). However, outside of a LeRon McClain fumble in the first quarter (which the Ravens only gave up a field goal on), Baltimore played pretty much a perfect game. Their defense, at times, bewildered the Dolphins into the point where they simply didn't know what to do. Another Dolphin I give a lot of credit to is Ronnie Brown. That guy is a trooper. He didn't get any room all day long, but yet when they called upon him on that screen pass, he made an absolutely phenomenal play for a touchdown that put Miami down eleven (of course they missed the extra point). If I've said it once, I'll say it again, Baltimore is almost made to run the tables on the road. They were a wild card team the first time they won the Super Bowl, and won two games on the road to get there, including...wait for Tennessee!...which happens to be the very team they're playing next week!...What are the odds? All you have to do is look at the Giants last year, and when you have the combination of a good pass rush, a positive turnover ratio, and a running game that can silence the crowd, you're going to be in good shape.

Oh disappoint me. Actually, why am I not surprised that Brad Childress screwed me over. It's called a screen pass! You have got to be kidding me. How did Minnesota go the entire second half, with the Eagles basically blitzing on every play, and not set up a screen pass to Peterson or Taylor, two extremely good runners in open field? This just boggled my mind. Yeah, let's just allow Tarvaris Jackson to get swallowed up on every single pass play. Yeah, that sounds like a dynamite idea. Seriously, you have got to recognize that. Just like what Arizona did, Philly was putting the game in Jackson's hands by putting mammouth amounts of pressure on him, and forcing him into bad throws. I know that Jackson was having a lot of success coming into the game, but it was based on the fact that teams were letting Peterson run all over them, and when the D tried to stop the run, Jackson was able to find Berrian, Shiancoe, Rice, and Wade for big gains. I get that. What I don't get it that once a team figures out that if they run-blitz all game, they can get pressure on the quarterback, how do you not use that aggressiveness to your advantage? They sent seven, sometimes eight guys at Jackson...once you recognize this, you have to set up the little dump passes to the running back, and expose their over-aggressiveness, and once that starts working out, surprise!...they can't run-blitz every down! That was an absolutely brutal game to watch (especially if you flipped on Philly and took Minnesota, like this guy did). Minnesota's defense could not have played any better through the first three quarters. They were knocking down passes, holding Westbrook down, and forcing turnovers...all without Pat Williams as well. Well, again, give credit to Philly and the way they were able to hang in that game with their defense. Philly is the kind of team, much like Indy, that if you allow them to stay in the game for too long, and you don't put the hammer down on them, they are going to catch up and probably beat you. Just awful, awful play-calling decisions. What happened to two tight-end sets to help the running game? What happened to bubble screens to take advantage of the cushion that the Philly DBs were constantly giving the Viking receivers? And, again...screen passes! What happened? I have to say that the absolute funniest part about that game was Troy Aikman going on and on in disbelief about how well Andy Reid was calling the game. It happened on three or four occasions where Aikman was like "You know, normally, this is the time when Andy Reid f#%@s up a game on the road, but he for whatever reason wants to win today." Another couple of stats I wish I knew before going against the Eagles: McNabb has buried the Vikings in his career, and he has never lost an opening-round playoff game. I have an idea: Before I make these picks, why can't we run the really useful stats before the game instead of during it! Does it seem like the stuff you really want to know and the stuff that would persuade you to pick a team doesn't get mentioned until right around ten minutes into the game? How frustrating is that? Look, I know I have free time, but I wish ESPN or someone would just come out and be like "here, here's the things you absolutely need to know about the game, and what they will be mentioning fourty thousand times on Sunday." There's too much info out there. I wish someone would just, before the game, come out and make like a top 10 list for each game in terms of stats that will make or break this game.

Well, that was my take on the weekend. Generally, when you go 2-2, it's a mixture of triumph and exasperation which ultimately ends up making you feel...okay/so-so/ehh...I mean I guess that's the nature of going .500. I'm hoping for an above .500 week coming up this weekend...the last weekend we'll have at least four games in the NFL...kind of sad really. Fascinating matchups though. I am going to do something a little different in my previews. Believe it or not, all four divisional matchups have been played this year, so I will be watching all four of the previous matchups, looking for strengths, weaknessess, and what you will be expecting from both teams. I'm telling you, NFL Rewind...pretty, pretty, pretty good. Of course this will all coincide with my first experience being a substitute teacher on I quoted on my Facebook status: "I'm going to show these fourth graders what nervousness is all about." In any event, hopefully that goes well. Before I go, way to go USC and BC for pulling off massive upsets this week (although I have to say that BC beating #1 UNC in Chapel Hill probably ranks above USC beating #20 Baylor in Waco). In any event, a big "good for 'dem!" to both of those teams. I'm telling you Devan Downey for USC and Tyrese Rice from BC...if those two do not make the first team in their respective conferences, we are going to have serious problems. Alright, well, that's all for now, but I will be writing again better believe it. Take care. Peace.


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