Thursday, January 31, 2008

Who's This Year's That Guy?

Larry Brown was that guy twelve years ago. Just ask Neil O’Donnell. Desmond Howard was that guy the following year, and it drove the New England Patriots’ kick coverage unit crazy. In 2003, Dexter Jackson was that guy, too, and Rich Gannon still has nightmares about him.

That guy seems to show up in every Super Bowl, masquerading in the jersey of a little known player on the winning team. In the most extreme cases—such as Brown, Howard and Jackson—that guy is so effective that he outshines star teammates like Troy Aikman, Brett Favre and Warren Sapp to earn the Super Bowl MVP.

More commonly, that guy simply plays superbly in the Super Bowl after being a minor role player all season. Short of winning the Super Bowl MVP trophy, that guy’s unexpected impact helps his team raise the Lombardi trophy year after year.

Rules to qualify as that guy in a Super Bowl

  1. Starting quarterbacks are automatically ruled out. That means no Tom Brady and no Eli Manning
  2. Pro Bowl selections are also overqualified. In addition to Brady, that rules out Randy Moss, Mike Vrabel, Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Vince Wilfork and Asante Samuel for New England. It also eliminates Osi Umenyiora, the lone Pro Bowl selection for the Giants.
  3. Fantasy football studs are ineligible. Some people pay more attention to fantasy football than the real games so there’s no way Plaxico Burress, Brandon Jacobs or Wes Welker is going undetected. Obviously Brady and Moss fall into this category as well.
  4. Veterans with a significant playoff history. Check off Junior Seau, Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, Troy Brown, Richard Seymour and Adalius Thomas from New England, as well as Michael Strahan, Sam Madison, R.W. McQuarters and Amani Toomer from New York.
  5. No repeats. If you were already named That Guy in a Super Bowl, you can never be him again. Mike Vrabel is the only one playing in Super Bowl XLII who has been that guy before for his six-tackle, two-sack, one-touchdown-reception performance against Philadelphia in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

New York Giants top five nominees for Super Bowl XLII’s That Guy

5. Steve Smith, WR
The Giants are hoping their Steve Smith can do what the Panthers’ Steve Smith did against the Patriots (4 catches, 80 yards, 1 TD) in Super Bowl XXXVII. The Patriots will likely be focusing their coverage on Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer, leaving opportunities for the rookie wideout who has made nine receptions in three postseason games.

4. Antonio Pierce, MLB
The middle linebacker typically orchestrates the defense. Pierce will need to be active around the ball for the Giants to have any chance of slowing down the NFL’s all-time highest scoring offense.

3. Kevin Boss, TE
Boss has done an admirable job filling in for the injured Jeremy Shockey on the field and does not have the same disruptive personality as Shockey either.

2. James Butler, SS
At some point in the game, the Patriots will try to go deep on Randy Moss. If Butler can lay a clean hit on Moss and rattle his cage early, the Giants secondary will have a much better chance of containing New England’s vertical passing game.

1. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB
Bradshaw has been a revelation since week 16, complimenting Brandon Jacobs and making everyone forget about Tiki Barber. The Giants’ best defense in this game may be their running offense. If Bradshaw can use his speed and power to control the ball and the clock, the Giants can limit the opportunities for Brady and company to score.

New England Patriots top five nominees for Super Bowl XLII’s That Guy

5. Nick Kaczur, RT
Yes, it is possible for a lineman to receive that guy status, and perhaps, if I was more football savvy in my younger years, I would have watched for strong line play in the Super Bowl. Kaczur will draw the assignment of Michael Strahan, the Giants’ future Hall of Famer. Containing one of the all-time sack leaders in his quest for that elusive championship ring won’t be easy though.

4. Heath Evans, FB
Evans could be the fourth fullback to earn that guy status. Howard Griffith did it with blocking, William Floyd did it with receiving and Tom Rathman did it running. Evans may contribute in any of those areas, and he’s proven to be especially valuable in short-yardage situations for New England.

3. Ty Warren, DE
Playing on a defensive line that includes Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork, Warren is the unsung man. He had just four sacks all season, but added one against Jacksonville in the playoffs. If he can get any pressure on Eli Manning, the Giants will be in trouble.

2. Kevin Faulk, RB
Faulk has been in New England since his career began in 1999. Only Troy Brown (1993) and Tedy Bruschi (1996) have longer tenure with the Patriots. And while he’s never been a featured back in the Patriots offense—only topping 100 carries twice—he’s always been a valuable weapon out of the backfield. Indeed it was Faulk—not Moss or Welker—who led the team in receptions and receiving yards in the Patriots’ AFC Championship win over San Diego.

1. Ellis Hobbs, CB/KR
It’s unlikely that Eli Manning will challenge Asante Samuel, one of the NFL’s premier cornerbacks, who figures to matchup primarily with Plaxico Burress. Whether Hobbs draws Burress or Amani Toomer, Manning is likely to look that way early and often. If Hobbs can stay on his man and record an interception, Manning could have a frustratingly bad Super Bowl experience.

The Pick for Super Bowl XLII’s That Guy
Donte' Stallworth, WR, New England

The rationale
The New England Patriots disproved the notion all season long that you have to run the ball effectively to win games. They were throwing the ball 10-15 straight times to open games and no one could stop them. In recent weeks, as opponents have vowed not to get beaten by their high-powered passing attack, the Patriots have returned to a more conventional ground game, allowing Laurence Maroney to rack up big numbers.

I suspect that Belichick is anticipating the Giants preparing for the team that they’ve seen from week 17 onward. Thus, they’ll key on Maroney and the running game a bit too much. Yet, they also know they don’t want to get beat by Randy Moss, who set an NFL record for touchdown catches, or Wes Welker, who led the league in receptions. That makes Donte’ Stallworth a prime candidate for that guy.

Of course, if you ask him, he won’t even admit that he, Donte’, is ever on the field at all, let alone as that guy. He says it’s an alien named Nicco that takes over his body when he’s on the field. I swear I’m not making this up.
But all of that aside, Stallworth is a talented former first round pick of the Saints. He was fourth on the team in receptions behind Welker, Moss and Faulk and had two touchdowns in the playoffs last season as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles. Still, no one is talking about him heading into this game. That’s the setup for that guy to shine.

Matt’s Super Bowl XLII pick
New England 41, New York 33

Who’s the ultimate That Guy?

I was four years old when the San Francisco 49ers beat the Cincinnati Bengals 20-16 in Super Bowl XXIII, but I’ve seen the highlight of John Taylor catching the game-winning touchdown enough to feel like I was there. Taylor’s touchdown grab was his only catch of the game—he had just 14 catches all season—and it made him that guy for Joe Montana and the 49ers.

The only vague memory I actually have from game was that my 3-D glasses did absolutely nothing during the “Be Bop Bamboozled in 3-D” halftime show. Nonetheless, it was the first Super Bowl I remember watching, and I haven’t missed one since.

In honor of watching my 20th Super Bowl this Sunday, I’m ranking That Guy from all 19 games I’ve had the privilege to watch in order to crown the ultimate that guy in Super Bowl history—or, at least since I’ve been watching it.

Here’s the complete list of 19 Super Bowl That Guys.

^An exception to rule number one. Hostetler was the starting quarterback of the Giants in the Super Bowl, but he was backup until Phil Simms went down with an injury late in the season. Hostetler had just two career starts and zero postseason passing attempts prior to this season.

*An exception to rule number two. Taylor was named to the Pro Bowl as a returner during the 1988 season, but he earned his that guy status as a receiver in the Super Bowl.

Humaninzing stories

At its absolute best, sports can teach us about life. It can teach us valuable lessons about teamwork, fair play, practice and achieving goals. And often times, experiences on the court or the field can serve as a metaphor for experiences in life.

But while sports can serve as a great tool, sometimes sports stories are just a simple way of connecting us to gripping human stories. The linked stories below are not sports stories. They are stories about life and death. One is a tale of great tragedy. The other is a tale of great triumph. Both are connected only by the fact that the protagonist was in some way involved in sports.

First is a gut-wrenching story flooded with tragic details that have still not been completely sorted out. Read this heartbreaking article first to become acquainted with the story of Tim Parmeter, former coach at Eastern Arizona. Then brace yourself for the second part of this story that just gets more and more depressing.

After reading about Parmeter, you need a pick-me-up tale, something that shows the good in humanity. Perhaps there is no greater story from the past year of overcoming the odds and fighting for life than that of Kevin Everett. When he was paralyzed following a special teams tackle in week one, doctors feared for his life. If you haven’t been following since then, you have to read this article. It’s nothing short of miraculous where he’s at today.

Monday, January 28, 2008

LeBron for MVP?

Put your MVP arguments for Kevin Garnett, Chris Paul, Brandon Roy or anyone else aside. Yesterday’s matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers featured the NBA’s two biggest stars. They are LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, and neither one has won an MVP award—yet.

LeBron’s Cavs won back in December when they met the Lakers in Cleveland. With no football on TV, Sunday’s center stage was all set for the rematch, and the game lived up to the hype.

The Lakers led 26-24 after one quarter. The Cavs rallied back to take a 49-40 halftime lead. Then the Lakers dropped 31 points in the third to reclaim a 71-69 lead. In the fourth quarter, the Lakers extended that lead to 84-75 with just over eight minutes to play and it looked as if the Lakers would ride the momentum to split the season series with the Cavs.

Instead, LeBron led the Cavs back from a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win 98-95, making a bold MVP statement in the process. View extended game highlights here.

Kobe was good, but LeBron was better. Kobe scored 33 points on 10-of-21 shooting. LeBron netted 41 on 16-of-32 shooting. Kobe may be missing Andrew Bynum, but LeBron’s supporting cast includes no one as skilled as Lamar Odom or big game tested like Derek Fisher.

I had made some “Kobe for MVP” claims to friends in recent weeks, but after watching LeBron’s Cavs beat Kobe’s Lakers twice this year, my MVP vote today would go to LeBron, hands down.

What stood out most of all in this one was crunch time. That’s usually Kobe time. He’s made a career out of late game heroics. But LeBron outperformed him on Sunday. After Luke Walton split a pair of free throws to give the Lakers a 93-92 lead with 1:28 to play, LeBron shined while Kobe fizzled. Just look at the play-by-play breakdown.

1:15 - LeBron James makes driving layup (94-93 Cavs)
1:07 - Kobe Bryant offensive foul
0:54 - Larry Hughes misses 6-foot jumper
0:53 - Ronny Turiaf defensive rebound
0:42 - Lamar Odom misses layup
0:40 - Ira Newble defensive rebound
0:20 - LeBron James makes 22-foot jumper (96-93 Cavs)
0:20 - Los Angeles full timeout
0:15 - Derek Fisher misses 26-foot three point jumper
0:14 - Ronny Turiaf offensive rebound
0:13 - Ronny Turiaf makes layup (96-95 Cavs)
0:13 - Larry Hughes bad pass (Luke Walton steals)
0:13 - Larry Hughes blocks Kobe Bryant's layup
0:12 - Kobe Bryant offensive rebound
0:11 - Kobe Bryant lost ball (Daniel Gibson steals)
0:10 - Cleveland full timeout
0:09 - Kobe Bryant personal foul (LeBron James draws the foul)
0:09 - LeBron James makes free throw 1 of 2 (97-95 Cavs)
0:09 - LeBron James makes free throw 2 of 2 (98-95 Cavs)
0:09 - Los Angeles 20 Sec. timeout
0:00 - Lakers fail to get off shot before time expires. Game over. (98-95 Cavs)

In the final 1:15 of the game LeBron scored six points, including a long step-back jumper in Kobe’s face and two critical free throws. In that same span, Kobe was called for a charge, missed a layup, lost the ball and failed to get off a shot as time expired.

Is LeBron flat out better than Kobe? LeBron will tell you no. He still says Kobe is the best player in the NBA. But Kobe was only the second best player on the court on Sunday, and that’s unfamiliar territory for him.

It’ll be interesting to see if these two match up against one another in the all-star game. Unless they meet in the NBA Finals—a marketer’s dream, albeit an unlikely one—the all-star game will be the last time they share the court this season. Basketball fans have to be disappointed by that.

There is no better one-on-one matchup in the game today. And it may go down as one of the all-time best. Rarely do two players go head-to-head while playing at such an elite level.

Early in his career, Shaquille O’Neal was dominated by Hakeem Olajuwon. Similarly, in his younger days Michael Jordan routinely came up short against Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas. But neither Shaq nor Jordan had a worthy adversary during the prime of their careers. You have to go back to Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain or Bird vs. Magic to find a superstar matchup that rivals Kobe and LeBron today.

Kobe is 29, still in the prime of his career. And he does have three rings to his credit. But if he doesn’t get the MVP this year, his chances of winning one are only going to decrease. As for LeBron, whose age matches his jersey number of 23, there’s no telling how good he can become. His prime is likely still in the future, and he hopes championship rings are in his future as well. But by beating the man he calls the best, LeBron is already making a claim—even if only on the court—to be the best player on the planet and win this race between two greats a first MVP trophy.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

NBA Points of Interest

  • Shaquille O’Neal is likely not to make the all-star team for the first time in his 16-year career. He’s averaging a career-low 14.2 points and grabbing just 7.8 rebounds per game. O’Neal has already missed eight games with injury this season, and he’ll miss some more time with a hip problem.

    He entered the league in 1992 when I was eight years old. He was the first superstar I’ve watched since the beginning. He still has two years on his contract, but he appears to have very little diesel left in the tank. Watching him limp to the finish after he dominated the league for so many years is depressing.

  • Kwame Brown was booed at home in a bad Lakers loss to Phoenix last week. Yes, Laker fans are frustrated that Andrew Bynum was injured 35 games into his breakout season. But they’re also frustrated with Brown, who has been a bust with two teams now. The Lakers traded Caron Butler, who has since become an all-star player in Washington, in order to get Brown.

    Now in his seventh season, Brown’s pedestrian career averages of 7.6 points and 5.7 rebounds per game raise an interesting question: Is Kwame Brown the NBA’s worst number one draft pick in the lottery era? I say yes. Who else is even in the running? Michael Olowokandi? Pervis Ellison? While he is still just 25 years old, Brown’s numbers and lack of impact suggest he is worthy of this dubious distinction.

    Who did the Wizards pass on in 2001 to take Brown first overall? Pau Gasol, Jason Richardson, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace and Tony Parker were all available. Oh, and someone named Gilbert Arenas slipped all the way to the second round.

  • With NBA teams at or around the 41 games played mark, the conference standings couldn’t be more different. In the East, first place Boston is the only team in the league. without double digits in the loss column. Detroit is chugging along in second place, and only four other teams are above .500. Meanwhile in the West, ten teams have records above .500, and first place New Orleans is just five and a half games ahead of Utah, who would be lottery bound if the season ended today.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Mystery's Team: the New York Giants

With two weeks between the AFC/NFC Championship games and Super Bowl XLII, is taking an individual look at both the Patriots and the Giants before presenting its Super Bowl prediction column. Click here to read about the Patriots.

The New York Giants will play in Super Bowl XLII. Really? Yes, really, they will.

While the New England Patriots, at 18-0, are a team on the brink of making history, the Giants, at 13-6, are a team swathed in mystery.

Even Detective Mac Taylor would struggle to unravel the layers of this New York mystery.

  • How did Tom Coughlin, amid speculation that he could be fired, get this team to rebound from an 0-2 start to go 6-2?
  • How did they rebound from a 14-0 hole against Buffalo in week 16 to win 38-21 and clinch a playoff berth?
  • How did they manage to give New England one of the Patriots’ best scares of the season in a week 17 game that had no barring on the Giants’ playoff seeding?
  • How did they win three road playoff games in a row?
  • How did they beat the Cowboys after having lost to them twice in the regular season?
  • How did they knock off Brett Favre and company…in sub-zero temperatures…at Lambeau Field…in overtime…on a 47-yard field goal after their kicker had already missed two shorter kicks in the fourth quarter?
  • How did Eli Manning, who threw a career high 20 interceptions during the regular season, play turnover-free football in three postseason wins?
How a trip to Buffalo saved the Giants' season

In the next several days leading up to the Super Bowl, many people will talk about the Giants’ decision to play their starters against New England. They’ll talk about how their defense intercepted the last pass of the season for both Tony Romo and Brett Favre, to secure and set up upset victories, respectively. But the turning point for this Giants team came in week 16.

The 9-5 Giants traveled to Buffalo with an opportunity to clinch a playoff berth. Knowing that the undefeated Patriots were their opponent the following week, the Giants knew this game was essentially a must-win.

Buffalo was not only playing at home; they were playing inspired. Kevin Everett, the Buffalo tight end who was nearly paralyzed earlier in the season, was in attendance for Bills’ final home game. And he was walking - something that seemed impossible to expect only a few months earlier.

At the end of the first quarter, the Bills had a 14-0 lead, and it looked as if the Giants were suffering yet another late season collapse. In 2004, they lost eight of their last nine, to finish the year 6-10. In 2005, they went 11-5, but they were one-and-done in the postseason, losing 23-0 against Carolina. Then last year the Giants lost six of their last eight, finishing the season 8-8 before bowing out in the first round of the playoffs.

With a 6-2 start in danger of falling to 9-6, the Giants rallied in the second quarter versus Buffalo. Brandon Jacobs had two rushing touchdowns in the first seven minutes of the second quarter to even the game at 14 apiece. A Lawrence Tynes field goal later made it 17-14 Giants at the half.

Buffalo scored first in the second half and regained the lead at 21-17, but the Giants dominated the fourth quarter. Ahmad Bradshaw’s 88-yard touchdown run was sandwiched by two interception returns for touchdowns by the Giants’ Kawika Mitchell and Corey Webster. Webster’s score with 5:50 remaining sealed New York’s 38-21 win.

In a game that featured rain, winds gusting from 30-50 miles per hour, and snow flurries, the Giants found a way to win. Despite four turnovers from Eli Manning, the Giants found a way to win.

Ahmad Bradshaw was one of the key discoveries of that day in Buffalo. He had carried the ball just six times all season prior to that game. But 17 carries, 151 yards and a touchdown later, Bradshaw was suddenly an important part of the Giants’ offensive game plan.

Finishing the season strong

Following that win, the Giants played the Patriots tough, even leading 28-16 more than halfway through the third quarter. Then they beat Tampa Bay 24-14. Then they outlasted Dallas 21-17. Then they edged Green Bay 23-20 in overtime. And now, it’s back to the Patriots, the last team to beat the Giants, for the Super Bowl.

Only five teams beat New York this season, and the Giants have already avenged losses to Dallas and Green Bay with postseason redemption. If they pull off the hat trick and avenge the loss to New England in the Super Bowl, the Giants’ mystery run will be remembered as one of the most confounding championship cases in NFL history.

History's Team: the New England Patriots

With two weeks between the AFC/NFC Championship games and Super Bowl XLII, is taking an individual look at both the Patriots and the Giants before presenting its Super Bowl prediction column. Click here to read about the Giants.

The Patriots toughest opponent on Super Bowl Sunday will be history. They can beat the Giants. They should beat the Giants. And everyone thinks they will beat the Giants (with the exception of the Giants).

With a win, the Patriots etch their names in stone by completing the greatest season the NFL has ever seen. With a win, the Patriots record improves to 19-0. Nineteen and oh!

Perfection. It’s a word that doesn’t often have a place in professional sports, especially team sports, where a collection of talented individuals does not necessarily result in success. Perfection is often done in by competition. After all, even the worst pro team is made up of players who starred in high school and college.

Perfection requires chemistry, cohesion and a bit of luck. Perfection requires attention to detail. And in a day and age where everything in sports is instantaneously digested – scores are updated in real time, recaps are posted online immediately following the game, and sportswriters, radio hosts and TV personalities discuss the biggest topics all day long – it’s hard to imagine staying focused on any one task. Perfection entails exactly that. Focus on one task. Accomplish it. Move on. And that’s what the Patriots have done.

Love them or hate them – there are few fans with feelings in between – the Patriots have faced the NFL’s best and won every single time. From SpyGate to the AFC Championship, the Patriots have won. In blowouts and close games, the Patriots won. Leading wire-to-wire and coming from behind late, the Patriots won. With a record setting offense and a stingy veteran defense, the Patriots won.

They beat the defending champion Colts on the road. They beat seven playoff teams, including San Diego twice. They swept the NFC East, which sent three of its four teams to the postseason, by a combined margin 169-97. And now they are one win away from winning the big one without losing any one.

Patriots in pursuit of perfection

With an undefeated season one win away, it’s worth asking. If the Patriots win to go 19-0, are they, in fact, perfect?

The oldest definition of the word “perfection,” comes from Aristotle. In Book Delta of the Metaphysics, Aristotle lists three qualifying statements of perfection.

1. That is perfect which is complete (contains all the requisite parts)
The Patriots may not be “complete.” They’re playing without some key players who were placed on injured reserve such as linebacker Rosevelt Colvin and running back Sammy Morris.

2. That is perfect which is so good that nothing of the kind could be better
The Patriots may not be “so good that nothing of the kind could be better.” Stephen Gostkowski missed three field goals. That leaves room for improvement. The defense didn’t record a single shutout this season. Clearly that could be bettered.

3. That is perfect which has attained its purpose.
It’s possible to argue the first two points, but if the Patriots beat the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, it’s going to be impossible to argue with point number three because winning the Super Bowl has undoubtedly been the Patriots’ primary purpose since they left the field as losers last January in Indianapolis.

Speaking of perfection, a win would give the Brady/Belichick combination a perfect 4-0 record in the Super Bowl. Only one other combination has as many rings, Terry Bradshaw and Chuck Noll with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s.

The Patriots franchise is already in elite company. Only the Cowboys, who have appeared eight times, have made more Super Bowl appearances. With a win, the Patriots will trail only the 49ers, Cowboys and Steelers in total Super Bowl wins.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

On the Road to the Super Bowl

I thought I had it all figured out. The NFL was back to an era of dominant teams playing at a level above everyone else. Throughout the regular season, New England (16-0), Indianapolis (13-3), Dallas (13-3) and Green Bay (13-3) appeared to be head and shoulders above the rest of the league.

I was confident that none of the other eight playoff teams had a realistic shot at the conference championship. I was banking on the big name quarterbacks to lead their teams to victory, setting up colossal matchups prior to the Super Bowl. Brady vs. Manning. Favre vs. Romo. It was all set.

But it was all too good to be true.

So now it’s Brady vs. Rivers. Or maybe even Brady vs. Volek. And it’s Favre vs. Manning. Favre vs. the other Manning – Eli Manning.

With two of the NFL’s titans – Indianapolis and Dallas – eliminated at least a round earlier than expected, the Patriots and Packers will both be heavy favorites at home. It’s an easy case to make for picking New England and Green Bay to meet in the Super Bowl.

Foxboro + Brady + Moss + 17-0 seems to equal a Super Bowl berth for New England.

Lambeau + single digit temperatures + Favre + his discovery of the Fountain of Youth seems to equal a Super Bowl berth for Green Bay.

And yes, I’m as infatuated as the next guy with the too-good-to-be true storylines that would accompany a Pats-Packers Super Bowl. But there’s no need to write a column explaining why New England and Green Bay will win. They’re supposed to. However, the beauty of the NFL playoffs is that it’s one and done. And you never know when Billy Volek might strike twice in one playoff run. So let me make a case for what it will take for the Chargers and Giants to win this weekend.

Road success in the conference championship

Since the NFL switched to its current playoff format of six teams per conference in 1990, 14 teams have won the conference championship game on the road. Unfortunately for the Chargers and Giants, they aren’t playing the game in Pennsylvania, where the Steelers and Eagles have combined for nearly half of all the home championship game losses over this time period.

The fact that San Diego and New York are going on the road to play against Brady and Favre, respectively, doesn’t help either. Both quarterbacks have won conference championship games on the road themselves. But here is a list of 10 ways the Chargers or Giants (or both) can pull the upset this weekend based on the performances of successful road teams in championship games past.

1. Knock the opposing team’s Pro Bowl quarterback out of the game
(1990 – New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers and 2000 – Baltimore Ravens at Oakland Raiders)

What happened back then: Leonard Marshall did the dubious deed for the Giants during the 1990 NFC Championship. It was the end of Joe Montana’s career in San Francisco.

Ten years later, the Ravens’ 340-pound defensive lineman Tony Siragusa effectively ended Rich Gannon’s afternoon when he landed on the Raiders quarterback in the second quarter. Gannon made a re-appearance in the second half but was unable to finish the game.

So you’re saying there’s a chance (for both): The Giants led the NFL with 53 sacks this season.

The Chargers were fifth in the league with 42. If that’s not enough, Chargers Pro Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman’s nickname is “Lights Out.”

Why it won’t be easy: According to, Green Bay had the best pass protection in the league with an adjusted sack rate (sacks per pass attempt adjusted for opponent, down, and distance) of just 3.1 percent. New England was not far behind with a fourth-best 4.1 percent adjusted sack rate.

2. Ride the NFL’s leading rusher
(1992 – Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers)

What happened back then: Dallas’ Emmitt Smith carried 24 times for 114 yards and two touchdowns.

So you’re saying there’s a chance (for San Diego): The Chargers do possess the NFL’s leading rusher in LaDainian Tomlinson, and he is a big reason the team rebounded from a 1-3 start.

Why it won’t be easy: Tomlinson missed the second half of the Chargers’ divisional round win against Indianapolis with a knee injury, and is questionable for the game against New England.

3. Infect the opposition with a chronic case of fumbleitis.
(1992 – Buffalo Bills at Miami Dolphins)

What happened back then: Miami fumbled four times, losing three of them en route to a 29-10 defeat.

So you’re saying there’s a chance (for New York): The Packers’ Ryan Grant fumbled on two of the team’s first three plays last week against Seattle.
Why it won’t be easy: Grant bounced back from his miscues to carry the ball for more than 200 yards and three touchdowns. Only Tomlinson has more rushing yards since week 10.

4. Win ugly
(1994 – San Diego Chargers at Pittsburgh Steelers)

What happened back then: Take a look at the box score. The Chargers were outgained more than 2-to-1 through the air, and didn’t make up the difference on the ground or via turnovers. The Steelers also had a time of possession advantage of nearly 15 minutes.

So you’re saying there’s a chance (for both): The Chargers won last week despite surrendering more than 400 yards passing to Peyton Manning.
The Giants won last week despite being outgained and losing the time of possession battle by 13 minutes.

Why it won’t be easy: The Patriots blow out teams who play poorly. They don’t even give them a chance to hang around and win a game they have no right winning. The Packers have a penchant for blowouts too. They won six games by 19 points or more.

5. Motivate your Hall of Famer, who doesn’t want it to end here but senses the end is near.
(1997 – Denver Broncos at Pittsburgh Steelers and 2005 – Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos)

What happened back then: In ’97, John Elway was in his 15th season, and he had already lost three Super Bowls in his career. He wasn’t stellar, but he threw for 210 yards and two touchdowns, leading his team back to the big game.

In 2005, they flipped the script. Jerome Bettis scored a touchdown to make it 17-3 Steelers and Pittsburgh never looked back.

So you’re saying there’s a chance (for New York): Giants defensive end Michael Strahan, who is fifth on the NFL’s all-time sacks list, is contemplating retirement at the end of the year.

Why it won’t be easy: The Packers have a legend of their own in Brett Favre, who also would likely retire following a Super Bowl victory this season.

6. Catch a record-setting offense on an off day
(1998 – Atlanta Falcons at Minnesota Vikings)

What happened back then: The 1998 Vikings were an offensive juggernaut. They amassed 6,264 yards and scored 556 points en route to a 15-1 season. Kicker Gary Anderson even had a perfect season, going 35-for-35 on field goals and 59-for-59 on extra points.

But against Atlanta, the Vikings were outgained, and the score was 27-27 heading into overtime. In overtime, Anderson missed his first field goal of the season, a 38-yarder, and the Vikings dream season ended in nightmarish fashion with the Falcons winning 30-27.

So you’re saying there’s a chance (for San Diego): The 2007 Patriots eclipsed the prolific marks of those ’98 Vikings, gaining 6,580 yards and scoring 589 points this season. That’s an average of nearly 37 points per game. Yet in four games this year, New England failed to score 30.

Why it won’t be easy: The Patriots didn’t lose any of those games when they scored less than usual. Of course, they haven’t lost at all this season. Perfection may be just two wins away for the Pats, but don’t forget those Vikings had something else in common with the ’07 Patriots. Randy Moss led both teams in receiving yards and touchdowns.

7. Find unconventional ways to score
(1999 – Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars and 2001 – New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers)

What happened back then: In 1999, the Titans were leading 17-14 when they sacked Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell for a safety. Derrick Mason return the ensuing free kick 80 yards for a touchdown, giving Tennessee nine points in less than 20 seconds.

In ’01, the Patriots struck first with a 55-yard punt return touchdown from Troy Brown. Then in the third quarter, Brown made his presence felt again. After a blocked field goal, Antwan Harris took the lateral from Brown and raced to the end zone to give New England a 21-3 lead.

So you’re saying there’s a chance (for both): Chargers second-year cornerback Antonio Cromartie returned a fumble and an interception for a touchdown in a game against Houston earlier this season. Cromartie also had an interception return touchdown called back because of a questionable holding penalty last week.

The Giants defense has three return touchdowns on the season, and punt returner R.W. McQuarters had a key 25-yard return last week against Dallas.

Why it won’t be easy: The Patriots and Packers are strong in all phases of the game, including special teams. Favre, however, is more likely than Brady to get burned by an errant pass for a pick-six.

8. Avenge the previous year’s postseason loss with a new coach
(2002 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Philadelphia Eagles)

What happened back then: Tampa Bay was beaten soundly by the Eagles, 31-9 in the wild card round of the playoffs. It turned out to be the last game Tony Dungy coached for the Buccaneers. He was replaced by Jon Gruden, who promptly led the Bucs to a Super Bowl title, a run which included a 27-10 win over Philadelphia in the NFC Championship.

So you’re saying there’s a chance (for San Diego): The Chargers were the top seed in the AFC last year under coach Marty Schottenheimer. But they lost their opening playoff game at home against New England, and Schottenheimer was replaced by Norv Turner. After leading the Chargers to two postseason wins, San Diego is hopeful that they can make it 3-0 with an upset over the Patriots.

Why it won’t be easy: Prior to this season, Turner was just 1-1 lifetime in the playoffs. On the opposing sideline, Patriots coach Bill Belichick entered this season with a 13-3 career postseason record.

9. Play a second generation Manning.
(2003 – Carolina Panthers at Philadelphia Eagles)

What happened back then: Rookie cornerback Ricky Manning, Jr. intercepted three Donovan McNabb passes as the Panthers shutdown the Eagles 14-3.

So you’re saying there’s a chance (for New York): Archie’s son and Peyton’s little brother, Giants quarterback Eli Manning has always been “the other Manning.” But thanks to his first two playoff wins, and Peyton’s Colts’ loss to the Chargers, Eli is the man among the Manning clan this Sunday.

Why it won’t be easy: After throwing four interceptions in his first two career playoff games (both losses), Eli Manning has played turnover free football in the Giants’ two playoff wins. However, the Packers possess arguably the best cornerback tandem in the league in Al Harris and Charles Woodson.

10. Win the turnover battle

What happened back then (see graphic):

So you’re saying there’s a chance (for both): Winning the turnover battle is likely the most foolproof way of picking up the road victory win in the conference championship. Since 1990, no team has lost the turnover battle and won a conference title on the road. And only two (Atlanta in 1998 and San Diego in 1994) managed to win with a zero turnover differential.

Why it won’t be easy: Brady and Favre are two of the best clutch quarterbacks in NFL history. They’ve combined for five Super Bowl appearances, and are both extremely motivated to win it all this year. Of course, turnovers don’t always happen through the air. And sometimes, they don’t involve quarterbacks at all.

My final analysis

Having listed all the ingredients necessary for the Giants and/or Chargers to pull the big upset this weekend, I still can't bear to pick them to win. Just because they have the recipe, it doesn't mean they know how to cook the gourmet meal. More specifically, I cannot pick against Favre or Brady. While I do think both games will be closer than expected, expect a historic Super Bowl matchup between two surefire Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Bad News in L.A.: The Bynum injury

News came down today that Lakers center Andrew Bynum will miss eight weeks with a subluxation of his left kneecap and bone bruise.

Obviously this is a big blow to a Lakers team that has won six in a row and nine of their last 10 games. At 25-11 overall, the Lakers are within ½ game of Phoenix and Dallas for first place in the Western Conference with a game tonight against Seattle.

Who knows where the Lakers will find themselves in the standings in eight weeks upon Bynum’s return. In the ultra-competitive Western Conference, ninth place Utah is just five games back of first place, which means the Lakers could very easily slide from playoff contention.

Their schedule over the next eight weeks is going to be challenging. Between now and the end of the month they’ll play Phoenix, Denver, San Antonio, Dallas, Cleveland and Detroit. That Detroit game on Jan. 31 is the opening night of a nine-game road trip.

But even more frustrating for Lakers fans than their immediate schedule, is the fact that they’ll miss out on 25-30 games worth of Bynum’s development this season.

The 20-year-old’s development into a capable big man has been one of the brightest spots for a Lakers team that has caught many off guard this year. His work with Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been paying off as Bynum has averaged 13.1 points per game while shooting better than 63 percent from the field. He’s also averaged 10.2 rebounds and 2.06 blocked shots per game while playing 28.8 minutes a night.

Bynum signifies hope for the Lakers’ future, but the early returns they were getting from him this season had Lakers fans wondering about how far this team could go. Expectations will have to be tempered for now.

Without Bynum in the lineup, the Lakers will look for Kwame Brown and Ronny Turiaf to increase their production, but there’s no doubt the team will anxiously await the return of Bynum.

His flashes of brilliance this season have made Lakers fans thankful the team nixed rumors of a trade involving Bynum last season for Jason Kidd of the New Jersey Nets. Bynum now seems poised to become one of the elite big men in the NBA, but first he’ll have to recover from his first major setback since the waves of success began flowing his way this year.

If the Lakers can stay afloat in the playoff race, and Bynum can return to full strength by April, there’s still a chance that they could make noise in the playoffs.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Stick With the Familiar Faces

No one receives more credit or blame for NFL success or failure than the starting quarterback and the head coach. They are the de facto leaders. They are the faces of the team. And they are inevitably linked to the team’s legacy.

Of the eight teams still playing, three feature Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, and three feature Super Bowl-winning coaches. Not surprisingly, the only two teams that feature both prized possessions – New England and Indianapolis – double as the two most popular picks to win it all this year.

Forget about the mantra that defense wins championships. Soak up the glitz and glamour surrounding the coaches and quarterbacks. They’ll point you in the right direction this postseason. Just remember two simple rules. (Of course, there are always exceptions. Yes, I’m talking to you, Trent Dilfer.)

Rule #1: It takes a star quarterback to win the big one.

Excluding Ben Roethlisberger, who at 25 years old hasn’t played long enough for a career assessment, only two of the past 10 Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks were not either surefire Hall of Famers or multiple MVP winners.

In the Super Bowl era, Doug Williams and Jim Plunkett are the only two quarterbacks to have won a Super Bowl without making the Pro Bowl at any point in their career. And even they went home with Super Bowl MVP honors.

Rule #2: Experience counts for coaches.

In the Super Bowl era, only six coaches have won the Super Bowl during their first trip to the playoffs. A quick glance at the table below shows that two men on that list are on in the Hall of Fame, Bill Walsh and Gibbs. And Seifert won in 1989 after taking over a 49ers team that had already won three Super Bowls with Walsh. The bottom line: it's rare that a coach makes a Super Bowl run without having won in the playoffs before.

Applying the rules to the divisional round matchups
(Home team in CAPS)

Jacksonville vs. NEW ENGLAND

There’s no question the New England Patriots have more than a 16-0 record on their side. In Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the Patriots have a QB/coach combination that has teamed for three Super Bowl victories since 2002.

On the opposing sideline, the Jaguars feature a QB (David Garrard) that made his first postseason start and a coach (Jack Del Rio) that won for the first time in the postseason last week in Pittsburgh. The Jaguars won in Pittsburgh in December and January, but that doesn’t mean they can travel to Foxboro and topple the Pats.

After throwing three interceptions all season long, Garrard tossed two picks against Pittsburgh. Garrard cannot afford to turn the ball over at all against a New England team with the most potent scoring offense in NFL history. The problem for Garrard is that even if he goes mistake free, “not messing up” will not be enough to beat the Patriots. He’ll need a career day to keep pace with Brady, Moss and company.

The pick: New England 38, Jacksonville 21


The defending champion Colts have the same combination of Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy that proved golden last February. They also have the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, Bob Sanders, which could spell trouble for Chargers QB Philip Rivers, who lost and performed badly last season in the divisional round.

Rivers and Norv Turner are the shakiest QB/coach duo still standing. After getting shutout in the first half last week against Tennessee, the Chargers battled back to win their first playoff game in more than a decade. But it wasn’t pretty. Tight end Antonio Gates hurt his toe and running sensation LaDainian Tomlinson amassed just 42 yards on 21 carries.

On paper, the Colts and Chargers seem to match up evenly. And their week 10 contest actually ended 23-21 in favor of the Chargers, thanks to 6 interceptions of Peyton Manning and a missed field goal by Adam Vinatieri. But when you mention Manning and Dungy vs. Rivers and Turner in a do-or-die game, there’s only one possible outcome.

The pick: Indianapolis 35, San Diego 20

Seattle vs. GREEN BAY

Over in the NFC, the Seahawks and Packers will meet in the playoffs for the first time since 2004, when Matt Hasselbeck’s infamous words, “We’ll take the ball and we’re gonna score!” backfired as he threw a pick-6 in overtime, giving the Packers a 33-27 win on wild card weekend.

Green Bay has Super Bowl-winning quarterback Brett Favre, who hasn’t tasted a playoff since that Haselbeck game. Meanwhile Seattle, who lost in the divisional round last year against Chicago, has Super Bowl-winning coach Mike Holmgren.

Holmgren was the Packers coach when Favre and the Packers won Super Bowl XXXI. Does that make their relative experience a draw? Given the choice, take the QB over the coach, especially when that QB holds nearly every passing record imaginable. Favre, a 3-time MVP, had his best year in nearly a decade. It’s hard to imagine him being one and done in the playoffs.

The pick: Green Bay 24, Seattle 23

Finally, there’s the Cowboys and the Giants. Quarterbacks Tony Romo and Eli Manning have started a combined four games in the postseason. Romo’s postseason debut ended in disaster last season when he botched the hold on a would-be game winning field goal and was then tackled just short of the first down marker and end zone, in a 21-20 loss to Seattle. He bounced back with a monster 2007 season, but all of his regular season success will be forgotten if he comes up short against the Giants.

Last week, Manning got his first playoff win in three tries. But beating the Cowboys will be a much tougher task. He’s 3-4 versus the Cowboys in his career. A win this week would silence some critics, but he’ll have to play another mistake-free game as he did last week against Tampa Bay.

The coaching matchup pits Dallas’ Wade Phillips against Tom Coughlin of the Giants. Phillips has never won a postseason game as a head coach, going a combined 0-3 with Denver and Buffalo. Including last week, Coughlin is 5-6 in his postseason career. Neither record strikes fear into the hearts of opponents but count on Phillips to channel Bill Parcells, the architect of this Cowboys team, for a big win.

The pick: Dallas 24, New York 10

Thoughts and Links From the Workweek

It’s been a busy week in the office and on my social calendar (hence the lack of updates this week). I have managed to do plenty of Web browsing throughout the week though.

Check out these links to some of the most interesting sports news items and stories that caught my eye.

  • You have to read Wright Thompson’s story about Tony Harris, the former Washington State basketball player whose corpse was found in the forests of Brazil. This is not a sports story. This is a human story whose main character just happened to play basketball for a living. It’s a truly gripping and saddening tale. Thompson traveled to Brazil to unearth as many details as possible. You may also want to read Henry Abbott’s conversation with Thompson about the story on Abbott’s phenomenal blog, TrueHoop.

  • In more upbeat news, Bob Sanders had a great week. Already voted a Pro Bowl starter for the AFC, anders was named the 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and voted to the NFL All-Pro team. I’ve watched Sanders play since he was an RB/DB listed as Demond Sanders at Cathedral Prep and it’s been amazing to watch him develop into a star through hard work and hard hits. This Indianapolis Star article says Sanders plays the same way he played as a kid growing up in Erie, Pa. He’s also got his own special on the NFL network, “Who is Bob Sanders?” The show airs tonight at 10:30 with reairs on Saturday at 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m.

  • Like Sanders, Clayton Holmes was a Super Bowl-winning defensive back. But that is pretty much where the similarities end. Holmes’ tragic story is told by Page 2’s Jeff Pearlman.

  • Scoop Jackson makes an interesting case for Derek Fisher as the most important player to the Lakers success. I wrote a poem called “The Fish That Saved Los Angeles” after Fisher hit the game winning shot against the Spurs in game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference Finals. Maybe it’s time for a reprise.

  • Did you see the biggest story in college basketball this week? Of course, I’m talking about 7’7” Kenny George, the tallest player in NCAA history. The UNC-Asheville junior got dunked on by North Carolina Tar Heel star Tyler Hansbrough in a 92-81 Tar Heel victory. George had 14 points, 11 rebounds and 4 blocks in the loss, and he is definitely a player to keep an eye on.

  • Finally, have you read about 50-year-old basketball sharpshooter Dave Hopla? This guy makes more than 90 percent of his college-range 3-point shot attempts. And his streak of 1,234 consecutive made free throws really makes me feel like I need to improve upon my personal best of “thirty-something.”

Sunday, January 6, 2008

A Fresh Batch of American Gladiators Episodes? I’ll Take Two Scoops

American Gladiators returns to NBC tonight at 9 p.m., and I’ll be watching. The show was one of my favorites during its original run from 1989-1997. I don’t know if the revamped 2008 edition will provide enough entertainment to compare with the nostalgia of ESPN Classic reruns of the original episodes, but NBC did make things interesting by adding one of my childhood heroes to the mix. Hulk Hogan (along with Laila Ali) will serve as a commentator for the show.

Before the launch of a new generation of gladiators, I have to talk about the greatest competitor in the history of American Gladiators. Of course I’m talking about Wesley “Two Scoops” Berry.

The legend of Two Scoops is part Bo Jackson and part Paul Bunyan. In a day and age when you can Google map your way to much any place on the planet, tracking down information about Two Scoops is about as easy as finding the Fountain of Youth. The few YouTube clips of Two Scoops that I could find only hint at his speed, agility and overall athletic ability.

If Two Scoops didn’t invent the phrase “giving 110 percent,” he certainly was the only athlete who actually did it. He passed through the gauntlet like a pinball, whizzing past some gladiators, bouncing around others, and completed the event in record time. He could leap tall buildings in a single bound. No? OK, but how about a car?

The most amazing moment among Two Scoops’ championship run, which according to came during season 6 (1993-94), was his come-from-behind win in the Eliminator. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find footage of this event online. If anyone has it, I’m begging you to share it online.

I don’t remember the specifics, but somehow Two Scoops entered the final event trailing by a significant margin. But it did not matter. When he got to the infamous cargo net – an area where every competitor seemed to get caught up – Two Scoops scaled the web as if he had spun it himself. He left his competitor in the dust and won the event, and the season’s championship.

While I have no confirmed proof, several Internet message boards suggest that Two Scoops is currently incarcerated for armed robbery. If true, it’s a tragic twist in the story of a man who inspired kids to dig down deep to succeed. But like the rest of the Two Scoops story, it’s hard to access any details about his current whereabouts.

Perhaps NBC will give insight into the current status of the best performer in the history of American Gladiators during its broadcast later tonight. Or, perhaps the legend of Two Scoops will continue to live on in infamy in the minds and memories of a generation that was awestruck by his performances. As time passes by, the stories and personal accounts of Two Scoops’ heroic ascent to American Gladiators greatness will mean more than any YouTube clip ever could.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

How Often Do Championship Games Actually Live Up to the Hype?

After watching three of the first four BCS bowl games turn out to be blowouts, I began wondering about the chances that LSU-Ohio State would also be a blowout similar to the Buckeyes-Gators championship from last year. And that got me thinking about championships in general. How often does the final game of the season actually live up to the hype of a championship?

I did some research and compiled tables (see below) from the past nine championship games (the first BCS champion was in 1999) in college football, the NFL, the NBA, college basketball and Major League Baseball. If we set parameters of a "close game" as 7 points or less in football, 6 points or less in basketball, and 2 runs or less in baseball, only 22 of 45 championship-deciding games have been close in the aforementioned sports since 1999.

It's hard to compare across sports because obviously basketball games are higher scoring than football games, and baseball games are much lower scoring. Perhaps there's some statistical expert out there who knows how to formulate a stat that could eliminate the variables and compare the scoring margin across the sporting world. But until that person steps forward, I'll just offer the data and my observations.

Comparing football to football, the BCS championship games don't quite stack up against the most recent Super Bowls. The average margin of victory in BCS title games is 15.33 whereas the Super Bowl margin of victory has been just 12.0 since 1999.

Judging the World Series and NBA Finals is also difficult because, unlike the other sports, they decide their champion in a series. But judging by the final game of the series, they are slightly more likely to be close games. In the case of Major League Baseball, no deciding game has been decided by more than 3 runs in the past nine years. Unfortunately, five of those years saw the World Series end in a four game sweep, which significantly lessens the drama and intrigue of the closeout game.

The Nielsen TV ratings indicate that the BCS is performing strongly. While the Super Bowl remains the standard by which all televised sporting events are measured, the BCS ratings average is greater than all of the other sports listed.

What does all this mean? I'm not completely sure, but basically it seems to suggest that even if the game Monday night is a blowout, I'll probably be watching. Yeah, sounds about right.
(Click the images below to view full size.)

Friday, January 4, 2008

LSU vs. OSU in the BCS Could Spell Blowout

Ten years later, everyone’s still complaining. Well, not everyone. Fans in Louisiana and Ohio are surely excited as the LSU Tigers and Ohio State Buckeyes prepare to meet in the 2008 Allstate Bowl Championship Series Championship Game.

For all its hype, all its hoopla and all its maybe-this-will-make-them-stop-talking-about-a-playoff hope, the BCS leaves fans disappointed. Putting talk of the system aside – you can find plenty of those columns online – the games themselves have failed to deliver the goods.

This year’s bowl season has actually been exciting overall. Of the 29 games played so far, 17 have been decided by 7 points or less. But the average margin of victory in BCS games this year has been 21.5 points.

Shouldn’t the biggest games be the best games? That’s certainly what fans hope for and are led to believe. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always pan out that way. In the nine-year history of the BCS, the average margin of victory in the championship game is 15.3 points. Only four games were decided by less than 10 points.

LSU-Ohio State’s blowout-ability

Personal allegiances aside, everyday fans of football want a competitive game Monday night. But LSU and Ohio State both have a recent penchant for bowl blowouts.

The Buckeyes lost last year’s BCS championship 41-14 against Florida. The year before that, they dominated Notre Dame 34-20. The year before that, they pounded Oklahoma State 33-7.

LSU’s last two bowl performances? A 41-14 romp of Brady Quinn and Notre Dame in last year’s Sugar Bowl and a 40-3 annihilation of Miami two years ago.

To be fair, both the Buckeyes (31-24 in 2OT vs. Miami, 2003 Fiesta Bowl) and Tigers (21-14 vs. Oklahoma, 2004 Sugar Bowl) have won the BCS title in close games within the past five years, but that doesn’t mean this game will be an instant classic.

The Buckeyes had just two games all season decided by less than 10 points. Meanwhile, the Tigers played a number of close games within the SEC, but they also had four wins by 40 or more points.

Explosive offense meets stout defense

If there is a reason to suggest this game stays close, it’s the matchup of LSU’s high-powered offense and Ohio State’s tenacious defense. LSU scores more than 38 points a game. The Buckeyes surrender just over 10 points per game.

Ohio State allowed more than 20 points just once all year – in their lone loss of the season, 28-21 against Illinois. On the flip side, LSU’s two losses came in triple overtime, which inflated the score. But their score at the end of the fourth quarter in those games was 27 and 28, respectively.

If the game is played in the teens or below, the Buckeyes will feel right at home. If it gets into the 20s, they may still have a shot. But if scoring gets into the mid-30s or higher, the game is LSU’s for the taking.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Out, Damned Wild Card Spot: Assessing the shortcomings of every NFL team playing on wild card weekend

It’s safe to say that Shakespearean scholars and football fans are not often mentioned in the same sentence, but the NFL’s wild card weekend will feature enough fatally flawed football to appeal to both demographics. The eight teams playing during the first week of the 2008 playoffs are more likely to meet the fate of Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Macbeth than that of Super Bowl legends (Jack) Ham or (Joe) Montana.

Not since the early-90’s 49ers and Cowboys can I recall such a division between the elite class of the NFL and the second tier playoff teams. The four teams with first round byes – New England, Indianapolis, Dallas and Green Bay went a combined 55-9, including week 17 losses by the Colts and Cowboys while they rested their starters.

Sure, eight other teams qualified for the playoffs, but just as indecision eventually led to Hamlet’s demise, each of the teams in action during wild card weekend will be exposed and fall long before their Super Bowl dreams are realized.

So dust off your old English Lit books, or your SparkNotes, as I assign a character from Shakespearean tragedy to each of the eight pretenders and explain why they will make an early (first or second round) playoff exit. The teams are listed in order from the most flawed to the least flawed.

1. Tennessee Titans as Cleopatra from Antony and Cleopatra

Like Cleopatra, the Titans seem to have a flair for the dramatic. They sneaked into the playoffs by edging a Jim Sorgi-led Indianapolis Colts team resting many of its starters in week 17. In 2006, Tennessee closed the year by winning six of their last seven, and Vince Young was league’s hottest young star. But Young struggled throughout the 2007 campaign, finishing as the 26th rated passer in the league.

Still, Young remains in the spotlight. Just like Cleopatra, Young has the physical tools to leave fans in awe, but his superstar potential tends to overshadow his teammates around him. Like Cleopatra, Young’s charisma and natural leadership ability are evident, but he doesn’t fit the typical NFL quarterback mold. Young will have to disprove skeptics who bring up his shortcomings as a pocket passer.

The running game features LenDale White, who led the team with 1,110 yards and 7 touchdowns. But their receivers accounted for just 8 touchdown catches all year. Defensively, Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch lead the league’s fifth ranked defense. But they will not be enough. Tennessee gets a taste of the playoffs, but a win is asking too much too soon for Young and the Titans.

2. New York Giants as Brutus from Julius Caesar

The New York Giants are back in the playoffs again. It is the Giants’ third straight year qualifying for the playoffs. They lost in the wild card round each of the past two seasons. Playing in the Big Apple, the Giants are a public figure. Much like Brutus in Julius Caesar, they are a conflicted team confounded by their idealism.

To quote Dennis Green, “They are who we thought they were.” The Giants began the season 6-2 and finished 4-4. They beat just one playoff team (Washington), and that was back in week 3. Four of their six losses came against the NFL’s elite: New England, Green Bay and Dallas twice. They're mediocre just like the past two seasons.

Coach Tom Coughlin is a perennial hot seat coach, and another first round exit will fuel that fire-the-coach fire in New York. The fact that they played the undefeated Patriots tightly in week 17 in a game that meant nothing in the standings for the Giants is nice, but it’s still a loss. They left the field banged up, and Eli Manning threw another late game interception. And like Brutus, the Giants let their noble idealism get in the way of their real goal: playoff success.

3. Washington Redskins as Juliet from Romeo & Juliet

The Redskins were forced to grow up in a hurry due to real life tragedy, the Nov. 27 shooting death of Pro Bowl safety Sean Taylor. In Romeo & Juliet, the 14-year-old Juliet begins as a timid, naïve child before growing into a self-assured, loyal young woman.

When the Redskins lost their top defensive back, they also lost a teammate and friend. But following a gut-wrenching last second loss to Buffalo, the Redskins rallied to win their last four games to qualify for the postseason. Juliet’s final act of suicide is tragic, but it is an act passion. Washington needs to worry about taking itself out of the playoffs by riding too high on emotion.

They’ll put their trust in veteran quarterback Todd Collins, who has gone 4-0 as a starter this season. The problem for Washington is that while Collins is 36 years old, he has less playoff passing attempts than every other quarterback in the playoffs except Vince Young. Collins went just 1-of-4 for 7 yards in a 1996 playoff appearance for Buffalo against Jacksonville. They will go down honorably, but inexperience will be the downfall of the Redskins.

4. Seattle Seahawks as King Lear

The Seahawks are an illusion. They are NFC West champions for a fourth straight year, but champion is a bit of a misnomer. Outpacing the Cardinals, Rams and 49ers, three teams that combined for as many wins as the Patriots had on their own, is no major feat.

King Lear valued appearance over reality. Perhaps he reigned in Seattle, where the Seahawks’ best win came way back in week 1 over Tampa Bay. It was their lone victory against a playoff team – not that they faced many. In fact, the Seahawks’ had the easiest schedule in the league, and half of their wins came within the aforementioned weak competition of their own division.

Like Lear, the Seahawks are an aging king. Their 2005 NFL MVP running back Shaun Alexander ran for a career low 3.5 yards per carry this year. After scoring double digit touchdowns for five straight seasons, he’s scored a combined 11 times the past two years. As Alexander’s production has slowed, the team has become a predictably pass-happy team that seems doomed to a flame out during a frosty January road trip to Lambeau Field.

5. Pittsburgh Steelers as Hamlet

This is not your father’s Steelers football, or is it? Under first year coach Mike Tomlin, the Steelers are enigmatic much like Hamlet. Sometimes they are indecisive. They aren’t sure if they should play smashmouth football the way they played in the days of Franco Harris or even the more recent days of Jerome Bettis.

In other games, they want to feature Ben Roethlisberger and choose to air it out. The end result is an up and down season. They won six games by 17 points or more. They also lost games against the lowly Jets, Ravens, Broncos and Cardinals. While the Steelers are capable of taking down a team or two along the way, their inability to carve out an offensive identity will be too much to overcome.

The Steelers were asking themselves what to be or not to be on offense even before the playoffs. Now injuries make the Steelers problems even greater. Starting running back Willie Parker and tackles Max Starks and Marvel Smith are all out with injuries. Should the Steelers try to grind it out, Najeh Davenport will carry the load. If they try to go through the air, Big Ben will have to try to regain his form. After starting the season strong, he cooled down the stretch, throwing just 12 touchdown passes in his final eight games. Hesitant to commit either way, the Steelers will fall short.

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers as Titus Andronicus

After a last place finish in 2006, Tampa Bay responded with a 9-7 record in 2007 to win the NFC South. But their winning won’t last long in the postseason. They have a solidly built team, but not a championship team.

They're rooted in the tradition that defense wins championships. After all, their 2002 Super Bowl unit was built on a strong defense. But the goal isn’t to rebuild the 2002 championship team. They need a team fit to win it all this season. They simply do not have the offensive firepower to compete with the likes of the Patriots, Cowboys, Colts, or Packers. Those teams had the four best records in the league, and they were also the top four scoring teams in the league. They each averaged more than 27 points per game whereas the Bucs scored less than 21 per game.

Titus Andronicus was lauded for his reverence for traditions before it led to his downfall. At some point it simply becomes stubbornness and refusal to change. Tampa Bay should know better than to rest on its laurels from postseasons past. Caretaker quarterback Jeff Garcia is not enough to win the big one. Case in point: Garcia is 2-1 in the wild card round and 0-2 in the divisional round in his playoff career. Expect similar results from him wwith the Bucs this year.

7. San Diego Chargers as Macbeth

Like Macbeth, most people are familiar with the story of the Chargers in the playoffs, even if they don’t really understand them. Last year they went 14-2, grabbed the number one seed and promptly lost their home playoff game against the Patriots. They fired their coach and hired Norv Turner. He led them to an 11-5 record, good enough to win a depleted AFC West and claim the third seed. Yet San Diego is supposedly more poised for a championship run this year. Cue the Macbeth comparison. The Chargers’ ambition to take down the big dogs of the AFC combined with their self-doubt ("We fired our coach and won three less games?") makes them a shaky pick against anyone.

On the plus side, they have the best all-purpose running back in the game, LaDainian Tomlinson, and he seems to have run right out of his early season slump. On the negative side, quarterback Philip Rivers had a miserable QB rating of 55.5 in his playoff debut last year. And this year, his regular season passer rating dropped 10 points.

Macbeth’s penchant for self-doubt also carries over to the Chargers sidelines where coaching questions are bound to follow Norv Turner. Brought in to replace Marty Schottenheimer and help the Chargers take the next step, Turner is desperate for playoff success himself. In ten years as a coach, this is just his second playoff appearance. The Chargers franchise hasn’t won a playoff game since the ’94 season. Their coach hasn’t won a playoff game since the ’99 season. Sounds like all that self-doubt may be warranted for San Diego.

8. Jacksonville Jaguars as Othello

Everyone seems to be riding on the Jaguars bandwagon these days. Wins against the Titans, Chargers and Steelers in the second half of the season make them the most dangerous team playing on wild card weekend, but that still doesn’t mean they’re going to beat the Colts or Patriots. The Colts beat the Jags twice, and the Patriots haven’t lost a game all season.

Like Othello, Jacksonville is an outsider. They were an expansion team just over a decade ago. They jettisoned their franchise quarterback in the offseason to make room for David Garrard, a move that appears ingenious after Garrard threw just 3 interceptions all season. The man they released, Byron Leftwich, threw two picks while playing in just three games for Atlanta.

Othello is also marked by jealousy, even as he denies it. Similarly, the Jaguars are also jealous of the elite teams, though they’d never admit to it. Despite an 11-5 record, no Jaguars were named to the Pro Bowl. The problem extends to the coach as well. Jack Del Rio has compiled a 45-35 record with Jacksonville, but he’s failed to lead the team to a playoff victory. Meanwhile, Del Rio’s predecessor, Tom Coughlin, took Jacksonville all the way to the AFC Championship game in the franchise’s second year of existence. Jacksonville has enjoyed success before. Championship football is what they crave. They feel they belong in the discussion of elite teams, but they’ve yet to prove it on the big stage. After all, all life's a stage come playoff time in the NFL.

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