Home Is Where The Upset Is

"Can you hear me now? Good. Thanks for making Eli suck today."

"Can you hear me now? Good. Thanks for making Eli suck today."

Eagles 23, Giants 11 – It seems rather odd to me that Eli Manning has been playing in the Meadowlands for his career and yet has trouble throwing in the winds. I thought the addition of Brandon Jacobs for the Giants would turn the tide in their favor this week, but Donovan McNabb’s velocity on his passes cut thtrough when Eli’s fell weak, making the big difference after both defenses generally took the right approach to stopping the running games.  Philly’s defense fared better, stopping New York from ever reaching the end zone. Five trips to the red zone resulted in no touchdowns.  If you’re a Giants fan and the play-calling on 3rd and 4th downs made you want to pull a Buddy Ryan on Kevin Gilbride, I understand. It’s like Andy Reid transferred his crappy play-calling essence across the stadium today.

With no rooting interest left, I’m going to go with Donny Mac: despite all the times Philly has tried to run him out, I want him to win a title — because it will shut them up for the rest of his career.

Steelers 35, Chargers 24 – Final score not completely indicative of the beatdown handed out by the Pittsburgh D upon Philip Rivers. The Bolts offens never really go right after that first quick touchdown drive, and while Ben Roethlisberger completed some great throws and had the opportunity for others, Wilie Parker was the star of the game offesnively, darting in and out of the SD front seven during the entire game.  There was nothing as satisfying as watching Rivers get pounded by Lamar Woodley and Brett Kiesel.

Ravens 13, Titans 10 – Bad delay of game call late obviously, but I have a dirty suspicion that Blatimore would have converted a 3rd and 7 just as well as a 3rd and 2 at that point, because the Titans’ offense shot itself in the foot too many times with turnovers to give the D any encouragement. While Joe Flacco got some deep balls going, we’d advise holding off on the fellating. Those deep throws obscured some rather pedestrian stats and he’s not very good with the short to intermediate passing game. At this point, he’s a younger Dilfer, and Baltimore lost Samari Rolle and Fabian Washington in the War of Attrition. I saw seven guys fall thanks to injury in the second half alone.

Cardinals 33, Panthers 13 – Not quite sure what compelled John Fox to empower Jake Delhomme to throw into double and triple coverage rather than just completing handoffs — the Arizona defense helped, but that can’t be all of it — and it resulted in six turnovers for Delhomme, who telegraphed passes, threw to Steve Smith in triple coverage, and looked like he did for much of the 2007 season prior to going down for the season. That’s probably the last game he’ll play in a Carolina uniform.  Delhomme wasn’t the sole problem: not doulbe covering Larry Fitzgerald the entire game seems like the error of a first-time head coach, no someone like Fox, who ought to be on thin ice next season.

How I Know It Was A Game For The Ages.

I came home from a Super Bowl party to find my mom watching post-game coverage on ESPN after she got back from the party she went to. That’s just how good this game was. If you’re asking where my interests lay, I was rooting for the Pats’ perfection, but I had put money on the Giants to cover. So I win either way. I’ve never been quite so happy to have been so wrong.

I couldn’t pick the Giants beforehand, I thought the skill players were just too much better for New England — but there has always been one thing about the Giants that I would acknowledge every game: if the pass rush gets going, look out. Tom Brady was sacked five times and ate turf many more than that. Essentially, the Patriots did not necessarily get started until the second half, and they were already up 7-3 after one half of football, where the Giants could not finish the deal against the Patriots’ D, a weak point ever since Roosevelt Colvin was injured midway through the season.

Eli Manning wasn’t flawless — he threw a first-half pick, but that defense and pass rush saved him, forcing a punt after the Pats got into Giants territory. After that, there were a few bad throws, evened out by so many amazing plays — the throw to Boss for 45, the amazing heave that David Tyree came down with, the fade route to Burress on the 2-minute drill with time winding down. For all the talk we had about a damaged New York secondary, New England’s looked worse — Asante Samuel and Rodney Harrison were the only ones making plays consistently, and it looked like their own version of the Tampa Two, trying to keep everything in front of them. That defense will get you burned, especially with Burress, Toomer, and the Other Steve Smith becoming a viable third option (even though he made a couple rookie drops and was entirely responsible for Manning’s sole pick.)

But, let us be thankful that we avoided a blowout, and got a game that went down to the wire in a way many Super Bowls do not — this was an NFL post-season that did not disappoint us in terms of the football played on the field (at least the majority of the time), and fortunately, the championship game did not make us wish that it had been as competitive as the conference title games.

Congratulations to the New York Giants: You earned that.

Photo: AP/Stephan Saviola

Ill-Advised Super Bowl XLII Prediction.

Finally, the last one I’ll have to make of these fuckers for the NFL season. Essentially, when you have two teams on a roll (18-0 for New England; 10 straight road wins for the Giants) with what seem like obvious discrepancies, you have to find reasons to pick against the 18-0 team. Let’s list:

The Defense Has Gone Down a Bit: The Patriots miss Roosevelt Colvin dearly; ever since he was hurt, the linebacking corps has gone into “bend, not break” mode. The Giants have enough offensive weapons and are well-rounded enough to turn some of the drives that Jacksonville and San Diego settled for field goals on into touchdowns.

Tom Brady’s Ankle: I don’t put as much stock in this as others; he’s not so hurt he can’t or won’t play well. But will he have trouble throwing off his back foot?

Keeping the Pass Rush Under Control: Shaun Phillips and Luis Castillo aren’t as good a combination as Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora on the D-line, and the Chargers were the best defense the Pats have had to face before this.

Those are the concerns, but here’s why the Pats will shut Mercury Morris up on Sunday:

Too Much Prep Time: Giving Bill Belichick two weeks to game plan is way too long, plus, he’s already familiar with the Giants from Week 17.

Controlled Environment: The one thing about the Super Bowl this year is that the weather will be favorable to the Patriots’ pass-happy offense, and Laurence Maroney can be used to throw off the Giants’ D, which will account for that.

Eli Manning Ain’t Quite There Yet: Yeah, I thought he’d be out of it after last week, but he isn’t quite consistent enough to match Brady on every throw he makes. Asante Samuel is a ball hawker, and one telegraphed route means pick six. (Ellis Hobbs is a weak link, though.)  This is a much bigger stage, and Manning might get a bit flapped.

The First Time You Kick Against the Pats, You Lose: The Giants cannot settle for field goals in certain situations after the second half starts. If Samuel can work on Plaxico Burress effectively (a tall task), then it takes away the deep threat. Essentially, the Giants have to not settle, and I think there will be a stalled drive or two at a bad time.

Not Enough Defenders: The Giants’ secondary is kind of busted up, and they have to double Moss to start. Then, account for Stallworth, Welker, Maroney, Kevin Faulk, and Ben Watson when you get inside the 20. Too many good pass catchers to not get a pass rush on. If the Patriots do their usual solid job in pass protection, the gates will open at some point for Brady.

Take the points if you’re putting money on it (12 is too much for the second half New England team), but I can’t find enough reasons to not pick the Patriots, at least objectively. Next week’s forecast for the Boston area: a smug front will be rolling through. 31-21, Patriots.

Photo: AP/Stephan Saviola

Ill-Advised NFL Conference Championship Predictions.

Again, there will be some combination of live-blogging at Awful Announcing this weekend. Don’t know what it will be yet.

Giants @ Packers – We know it will be cold as fuck on Sunday. We don’t know if it will snow. We are all praying, as football fans, that it will snow, because playoff football in the snow rules. But, as a far more serious matter, snow means some trouble for the Giants in trying to get a pass rush going; traction and what not. Plus, the Giants’ secondary is depleted after the Dallas game. The battle on defense also tips towards the Packers, as far as the passing game goes — Charles Woodson, Al Harris, and Atari Bigby are all much more physical in terms of secondary play when compared to the Cowboys (again, the biggest sin of this year’s Pro Bowl is that Roy Williams is replacing Sean Taylor despite doing fuck-all in terms of hitting this year.)  We’re probably going to be seeing a lot of Ryan Grant and Brandon Jacobs/Ahmad Bradshaw, but when it comes to the crucial throws, I trust the Old Teapot above more than I do Eli’s recent streak. Eli’s going to figure it out soon, but this isn’t his year.

Chargers @ Patriots – Philip Rivers is going to wish he hadn’t asked anybody. I have to find reasons to pick against an undefeated team, and I can’t find a lot of good ones. It sounds like Tomlinson and Rivers will play, but Gates may not — although I’d be surprised if he didn’t.  They’re all hobbled but can still be effective. The problem is that I don’t think San Diego has the stones to go all four quarters — and once they have a drive that ends in a field goal in the second half with the game either tied or down by a touchdown, you can probably go all Easterbrook and mark “game over” because the next drive will result in a New England touchdown. Essentially, the shot the Chargers have is to exploit the corners who aren’t Asante Samuel and hope Gates is healthy enough to treat the Pats old linebacking corps as his personal valets.  On defense, there are too many weapons on the field to defend — Randy Moss requires double coverage, meaning you leave Stallworth or Welker open, and the dump-off to Faulk is always there. Expect a similar short-game passing from Brady, and maybe more Maroney to keep the Chargers on their toes. This one will be closer than we think, but only the Pack stand in the way of 19-0.

Photo: AP/Morry Gash

The Red Zone: NFL Divsional Playoffs, Part The Second.

Chargers 28, Colts 24 – What the hell happened here? That’s probably what was on the minds of both Chargers and Colts fans — one because their team lost a game everyone thought they were going to win, the other side because they won despite some seriously questionable officiating — when Jeff Luckett is getting attention for calls and he’s not even the head ref, it’s trouble — and the biggest one was the interception by Antonio Cromartie that was called back due to a phantom hold. The game became a war of attrition, with each side losing players due to injury (Bob Sanders, Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison for the Colts; Phil Rivers and LaDainian Tomlinson for the Bolts). Back-up QB Billy Volek and RB Michael Turner took the initiative and executed the game winning drive in the fourth quarter, then the Chargers’ defense harassed Peyton Manning badly, and forced him into high throws, including the 4th and 5 incompletion on the last drive to seal it. How did I get this one wrong? I ignored that San Diego has owned Indy; I don’t remember how many games over .500 the Chargers were against the Colts, but CBS did show a graphic about it. The 3-4 defense gives the Colts trouble, but it looked like they would pull it out (with official assistance) until that last drop. Norv Turner’s bellyaching got to be tiresome (and really, aren’t they supposed to flag you for that?), but if I were him, I’d probably have been griping too.

Giants 21, Cowboys 17 – As uncomfortable as I am with the concept of Norv Turner as successful playoff coach, I’m just as uncomfortable with Eli Manning further along in the playoffs than Eli. Yet he managed to play mistake-free football, not turning it over and leading three touchdown drives (including the very crucial one to tie te game at the half.) I’m mystified as to why the Cowboys got away from going to Marion Barber; he was effective early and in the fourth quarter, they put so much on Tony Romo’s arm that the Giants’ pass rush, to its credit, could start collapsing the pocket and teeing up on him, even in the two-minute drill. What makes it even more interesting is that New York was hampered in the secondary so badly, missing Aaron Ross and having to go one-on-one against Terrell Owens and Patrick Crayton, yet the Cowboys sabotaged themselves. There were offensive line penalties caused by Andre Gurode being uncomfortable snapping the ball in shotgun formation (how that is the case, I don’t know), and the game was finally sealed by an R.W. McQuarters interception in the end zone — and watching Jerry Jones on the sidelines as the offensive play calling failed to generate any suspense against a pass rush that was really going well was a quite satisfying piece of schadenfreude. At least one piece of NFL playoff righteousness still holds: Wade Phillips remains winless in the playoffs.

However, Sunday’s games dictate more and more that the NFL needs to stop being a holdout and make its referees full-time. When the off-season comes around, they should be tested even more regularly to get some form of consistency with regard to the calling of pass interference, holding, and illegal contact.

Photo: AP/Tom Strattman

The Red Zone: Divisional Playoffs, Part The First.

Be live-blogging Giants-Cowboys this afternoon at Awful Announcing. Do come by.

Packers 42, Seahawks 20 – How do you take advantage of two early turnovers with scores and then fail to get in the end zone for the rest of the day? If you are the shite road team that the Seattle Seahawks are, you are unable to rush the ball in an environment that demands at least a competent rushing attack — and with one of your top receivers gone early in the game, the passing attack is limited as the Packers’ defenders are able to focus on hitting the receivers that are left (especially with hitters in the secondary like Al Harris and Atari Bigby).  Ryan Grant recovered from those early fumbles for 201 yards rushing and two scores, while Brett Favre managed to throw three of his own. The Packers defense made some priorities clear for the Hawks; if they’re going to make their way back to the upper echelon of NFC teams, they’re going to have to invest more in the offensive line for run-blocking, and question whether it’s time to cut Shaun Alexander loose.

Patriots 31, Jaguars 20 – It was an interesting tack for Jacksonville, going pass-first as often as possible to keep up with New England in the first half.  But this is the problem with going away from your bread and butter as a team: when Coach Hobo makes the halftime adjustments and you start kicking field goals, the Patriots have already won.  Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew combined for less than 100 yards rushing (never a good sign for the Jags) and even though David Garrard played damn near perfectly, he can’t imitate Tom Brady with a wide receiving corps that isn’t even close in talent. Both quarterbacks could have been perfect as passers and the results would have been fairly similar.  Jacksonville couldn’t use its running game enough to put it in the end zone come the third quarter, falling prey to the usual problem of New England’s opponents: being unable to execute through all four quarters.

Photo: AP/Charlie Neibergall

Ill-Advised NFL Divisional Playoff Picks.

Went 3-1 last week, hope to keep that up. Don’t know what I’ll be live-blogging at Awful Announcing this weekend, but something will go on.

Seattle @ Green Bay – With few exceptions, most of the divisional round games are friendly to the home teams. There’s a reason why teams fight hard doing the season to get a 1 or 2 slot (along with the bye week.)  Essentially, these are two pass-dominant offenses going up against one another, with the home team at least making valiant attempts at having a rushing game.  This comes down to how well each defense performs: I think Green Bay’s corner tandem of Al Harris and Charles Woodson can make life uncomfortable for Matt Hasselbeck, plus, there is the “Seahawks on the road” effect to account for, although this game starts at 1 PM Pacific. Regardless, I think Green Bay wins a shootout.

Jacksonville @ New England – Probably the easiest call of the week to make, never mind the rule that you pick an undefeated until they’re beaten.  The Jaguars had some serious holes playing against Pittsburgh last weekend, particularly when it came to getting their own offensive game going. They have the running game necessary to keep Tom Brand and Randy Moss off the field, but that’s about all — as they’re missing some crucial defensive personnel, and are not equipped to play the Patriots for all four quarters.  Patriots in a walk.

San Diego @ Indianapolis – The Chargers caught Peyton Manning with none of his regular personnel and picked him six times. I think having a few weeks with the replacements makes a sizable difference, plus the fact that Philip “Floats” Rivers may not have Antonio Gates playing this week — and Norv Turner will fail to pitch it to LaDainian Tomlinson as often as logic would dictate. Indy by a touchdown, despite the Chargers solid defense.

New York @ Dallas – There is no particular rationality behind this, nor do I particularly buy into the whole “Jessica Simpson is making Tony Romo suck” talk. What I have seen in the last few weeks of the regular season is a problem with the Dallas running game: there is a Pro-Bowl running back in Marion Barber on that team and they either cannot or will not establish the run as of late — and if they have Romo passing 40 times or more a game, Strahan, Umenyiora and the Giants pass rush will have a fun day.  I suspect there is something quite tough about trying to beat a division rival three times in the same season. If Eli Manning can dispense it to Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw early and often, whether by handoff or short passes, the Big Blue’s streaky offense can run it up there with Dallas’ prized unit. Giants in the upset of the week.

Photo: AP/Michael Dwyer

The Red Zone: Wild Card Weekend, Part 2.

Giants 24, Buccaneers 14The Giants came out flat early and had some awful play going. The problem for the Buccaneers is that they aren’t engineered to take advantage of slow starts by better teams (and let’s face it, on paper and in record, the Giants are a better team — considering just how awful the NFC South is.)   Jeff Garcia and the Bucs were only able to get a 7-0 lead on the Giants, and then New York scored the next 24 points, assisted by a big interception in the second half when Garcia tried to hit Joey Galloway in the end zone and wound up throwing to Corey Webster (who had also made kick returner Michael Spurlock fumble to start the second half). Eli Manning showed the maddening flashes of brilliance in the second half, leading drives down the field and avoiding the crucial interception for his first playoff win — and he may have saved Tom Coughlin’s job as head coach too. The Giants will head to Dallas, ensuring that at least one NFC East team will make the championship game.

Chargers 17, Titans 6Blech. This was an NFC game in spirit.  Sloppy play, bad play-calling, and red zone futility until the Chargers finally got into the end zone in the third via a Phil Rivers pass to Vincent Jackson (LaDainian Tomlinson added another score in the 4th quarter.)  If there’s any particular stat on a playoff team that you must worry about, it is having a field goal kicker that leads the league in field goals made and long attempts. This masks a deficiency in the red zone offense that was on display for Tennessee today.  The Chargers’ defense began to ramp up and get more intense as the game wore on, and Phil Rivers made just enough plays to win (but not enough to keep LT from stewing on the sidelines about how few times he was getting the ball.)  This Bolts team is not beating the Colts next Sunday — not unless there is some radical re-invention of the team between now and then. Norv Turner cannot figure out that Tomlinson can be used more as a receiver, especially with Antonio Gates lost with a toe injury.  When you have an offensive MVP on your team, the goal is to figure out how to get the ball to him as often as possible, especially when you need to make plays.

Photo: AP/Chris O’Meara

The Red Zone: Wild Card Weekend, Part 1.

Jaguars 31, Steelers 29Jacksonville better hope and pray that the Titans upset the Chargers this afternoon. The Jaguars jumped out to a good sized lead after the Steelers scored on the opening drive — 21 unanswered points followed, inspired by a Maurice Jones-Drew kickoff return and bang-up rushing and receiving.  14 of those points came off of turnovers, as Ben Roethlisberger inexplicably threw two picks to the same corner, Rashean Mathis, on consecutive offensive plays.  The second half was a completely different game: the Steelers were the team that came out fresh, made adjustments — although what killed the team was its rookie head coach calling for two-point conversions that were unsuccessful, particularly on the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, which left Pittsburgh ahead by only one point. Jack Del Rio did everything to give this game away, including the challnege of a pass play that was clearly not completed by WR Reggie Williams. However, David Garrrard, after throwing two picks in the second half, led the team down close enough with a rush of 30+ yards on 4th down on the final drive to get the game winning field goal. I’m not convinced that Jacksonville can play a full four-quarter game with the Patriots with that third quarter display. They have half a chance if they head to Indianapolis, but that’s not much.

Seahawks 35, Redskins 14Dedicating everything to #21, lose by 21. Closer than the final score would suggest, and the first half of this game was an abomination offensively — reminding me why I dislike the NFC. Washington scored two touchdowns in less then five minutes in the second half to take momentum from Seattle — but after a muffed kickoff gave hte ball back to the Skins, kicker Shaun Suisham hooked a 30 yard field goal, and the Skins fell apart from there. Todd Collins threw two pick sixes in the 4th. The first pick six showed the give-up in the Skins; Santana Moss quit on the play, possibly sensing that Collins wouldn’t do something so stupid as to throw it to him when double covered — however, Collins did throw into that coverage, and Marcus Truffant took it home. I still refuse to regard the Seahawks as “elite” or title contenders; any half-decent team should dominate the lousy NFC West, and they haven’t, never mind that they travel poorly. If Seattle goes into Green Bay next week and rides Matt Hasselbeck’s arm to a win in the tundra, then we can talk.

Photo: AP/Keith Snakocic

Ill-Advised NFL Wild Card Playoff Predictions.

Before we get into this week’s picks, a short announcement: all four games will be live-blogged at Awful Announcing this weekend — I will be handling the AFC matchups while AA chronicles the NFC battles. Do join us.

Washington @ Seattle: Completely contrasting offensive styles in the first match-up, and since the Seahawks don’t have to travel all the way across the country, this factor goes out the window for now.  With Shaun Alexnader’s general uselessness over the majority of the season (the retirement of Mack Strong sealed it), the onus has been put on Matt Hasselbeck to throw more than 40 times a game in order for the Seahawks to win.  This is all terribly effective against teams with weaker secondaries, but even with the death of Sean Taylor, that Redskins’ corners and safeties have played well, and no host team wants to see a visitor with serious motivation on their hands. Todd Collins makes the necessary throws and dispenses the ball to Clinton Portis, who should be able to get plenty of movement against an undersized Seattle defense. Julian Peterson will get pressure on Collins, but this is probably the most likely NFC upset — give me the Skins to go back to Dallas.

Jacksonville @ Pittsburgh – For all the ish Fred Taylor talked about Heinz Field, he certainly did well enough on it last time to hand the Steelers a can of whoop-ass.  The only reason the Jags are a wild card in the first place is because they play in a division with the Colts; half of the AFC playoff field consists of AFC South teams this year.  David Garrard is much too secure with his QB play to make errors at bad times, while Ben Roethlisberger has that hazard available at any time — and may have to play out of his mind with Willie Parker gone; also, while Pittsburgh may stack against the run with the general mediocrity that is the Jax receiving corps, it may not be enough to play off both Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew. The Steelers better hope no Jaguar receiver gets hot, but someone will — the Jags will take their act on the road for a second week; New England is waiting.

New York @ Tampa Bay – So, we are now faced with the task of measuring the Giants’ suck when it comes playoff time against the mediocrity that is the NFC South. Yeesh. Despite the admirable quality of Jeff Garcia to get it done when he needs to, the talent is not as good around him in the Tampa/St. Pete area as it was up in Philly, filling in for Donny Mac.  Thus, the outcome of this game becomes dependent on just how much those injuries to Sean O’Hara and Kawika Pittman last week against the Patriots hurt Big Blue, and let’s not forget that every since the Colts that lost to New England lost the week after, too.  There is also the tantalizing possibility of Ronde Barber or some other TB defensive stalwart picking off a turnover-prone Eli Manning multiple times. However, the Giants showed offensive power last week that I didn’t see for much of the season (until it fell apart due to an Eli pick, of course.)  Third time’s the charm, I guess — the Giants will earn a trip to Lambeau.

Tennessee @ San Diego – I’m fairly convinced that the Titans are the last team that the Chargers wanted coming into town at all. Not that the Jaguars would have been much better, but we are talking about a Tennessee defense that can make a quarterback’s day miserable and keep a top-notch running back fighting for yards when he normally doesn’t have to. There is Norv Turner’s history as a coach to deal with, and the pressure to at least win a playoff game for once.  Vince Young is still day-to-day with a quad injury, but I’m not sure if there’s that huge a drop-off with Kerry Collins — yes, you lose mobility and intangibles, but Collins is capable of playing within himself and leading drivers.  The Chargers defense is playing, well, lights out. The seven up front have tapped into an aggressiveness in the last few weeks that wasn’t there early on, and Antonio Cromartie has developed into a top-line cornerback. San Diego will survive by the slimmest of margins to go the the RCA Dome.

Photo: AP/Nick Wass