Thursday, January 21, 2010

Conference Championship Predictions

Last week’s scores:
Saints 45-14 (my prediction Cardinals 34-27)
Colts 20-3 (my prediction Colts 23-17)
Vikings 34-3 (my prediction Vikings 20-17)
Jets 17-14 (my prediction Chargers 30-20)

Alright, another 2-2 week. The Saints crushed the Cardinals, a team who learned it’s pretty damn tough to slow down Drew Brees and company when you’re without Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Antrel Rolle for most of the game. Kurt Warner almost got knocked out, and for the first time in 13 playoff games, he did not throw a touchdown. The Colts held off the Ravens and advanced to the AFC Title game. Baltimore had their chances, but Ed Reed fumbled while returning an INT deep into Indy territory, and another near pick 6 was called back due to a penalty. In what was thought by most to be the best game of the week, Minnesota steamrolled Dallas thanks to four Favre TDs, three of them to Sidney Rice. Tony Romo had no time to throw, and the Cowboys, like the Cardinals, got rolled. Interestingly, both NFC games were had the home teams winning by 31 points. The last game of the week saw the Chargers crap their pants against the Jets and find yet another way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Shonn Green ran for more yards than Mark Sanchez threw, but it was Philip Rivers who committed the costly and untimely turnovers. The Jets-Chargers game was competitive, but to me all they were all yawners. New week, new drama.

AFC Championship Game
New York Jets @ Indianapolis Colts (Sunday at 3:00 on CBS)

Offense: 17th in points (21.8), 1st rushing (172.2), and 31st passing (148.8)
Defense: 1st in points (14.8), 8th rushing (98.6), and 1st passing (153.7)

Offense: 7th in points (26), 32nd rushing (80.9), and 2nd passing (282.2)
Defense: 8th in points (19.2), 24th rushing (126.6), and 14th passing (212.7)

Everyone remembers the last time these two met. It’s was a controversial contest in week 16 where Coach Caldwell pulled his starting offense with a 15-10 lead more than halfway thorough the 3rd quarter. Once Peyton Manning was out of the game, the Colts’ offense featured:
- a 3 and out;
- a one play series where the Jets sacked Curtis Painter, forced him to fumble, and recovered the ball for a TD;
- 3 straight 3 and outs, the last one capped off with an INT; and
- one final series where Painter failed to gain 1 yard on 4 drop backs

The Jets rode a 29-15 victory and the ensuing wave of momentum into the playoffs where they have outscored their opponents 97-28 in the 13+ quarters since Caldwell’s controversial call.

A win’s a win, but the Chargers (specifically Nate Kaeding) did their best to make sure the Jets’ season continued. The sure-footed kicking specialist who led the league in field goals made this season missed all three of his attempts (36, 57, and 40 yards). Philip Rivers couldn’t beef up his postseason resume, failing to lead the Chargers on a second half scoring drive until there were just over 3 minutes left in the game. His first four drives of the second half totaled just 20 yards and resulted in 2 punts and 2 INTS.

The key play of the game was a 2nd and 9 on San Diego’s 5 yard line near the end of the third quarter. Rivers dropped back and threw a pass intended for Antonio Gates. It was a really poor pass, well short of Gates and in the area of three Jet defenders. Jim Leonhard, who had a hell of a game with 6 tackles, 1 TFL, and 2 passes defended, picked it off and took the ball to San Diego’s 16. Four plays later, Mark Sanchez found Dustin Keller in the endzone for the go-ahead score. An earlier exchange pretty much set the tone for how things would go in the second half. Midway through the third quarter, Quentin Jammer intercepted Sanchez (on a pass that Steve Gregory should have picked off) and took the ball back to New York’s 38. Four plays later, Bart Scott got in Rivers’ face and didn’t help him get off the best pass deep to Vincent Jackson. Darrelle Revis had tight coverage and pulled off an All Pro play; falling to the ground, keeping the ball in the air, and pulling off one hell of an interception. Just to show how strong the Jets defense has been playing, Rivers was picked off twice after throwing only 6 interceptions in his last 11 games.

Shonn Greene dominated the backfield carries again for the Jets, giving him 44 rushes over the last two weeks. Seeing as how he only totaled 108 totes during the regular season, give Rex Ryan some credit for having confidence in the young man in crunch time. His 4th quarter 53 yard touchdown put the game out of reach and sent the Jets to the AFC title game where they look to beat the Colts at home for the second time in less than a month.

The Colts won’t be sitting anyone this time around. They come in off a 20-3 victory against the Baltimore Ravens, a team that manhandled the New England Patriots just a week before. Peyton evened his career playoff record at 8-8 with the win that included two critical red zone scores in the second quarter. The Colts ran a combined 18 plays on those two drives and send the Ravens to halftime down by a score of 17-3. On the second TD drive, Manning waved off Caldwell on a 3rd and 3 with 7 seconds left in the half. The conservative coach wanted to go for the chip shot field goal, but Manning knew he had time to go for 6 and knows how to manage these situations. Four seconds later he found Reggie Wayne in the endzone, and the Colts were up 14. As brilliant as that drive was, if I know Manning, he’s stewing over the two times Ed Reed picked his pocket in the third quarter; both on passes deep downfield. The Jets don’t have Ed Reed at safety, but Revis and company will come away with any football that hangs in the air too long.

The Jets will be praised as the better defense in this matchup, but don’t overlook what the Colts are capable of doing on that side of the ball. Once Peyton and the offense got out to a two TD margin, they forced Joe Flacco to beat them. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis only combined for 2 hits on the Baltimore QB, but they made him uncomfortable the entire game. The defense held the second year QB to less than 189 yards, a shoddy 5.4 yards per attempt, and forced 2 interceptions. They limited Ray Rice to less than 70 yards rushing, his lowest total since week 13, and only allowed two rushing first downs to the Ravens in the entire game. Gary Brackett played a huge part in that. The Colts’ MLB had an excellent game defending Rice and flustering Flacco. Brackett’s play set up Indy’s first TD of the game. Early in the second quarter, Brackett tackled Rice for a loss of one and sacked Flacco for a loss of 6 on consecutive plays. The Colts scored on their next drive and put the Ravens in their rear view for the rest of the game. If Antoine Bethea’s hands worked, the Ravens wouldn’t have scored the lone 3 points they were able to manage.

I expect this Colts-Jets matchup to play out similarly to last week’s Colts-Ravens game. Indy has two games worth of Shonn Greene highlights to do a better job of keying on him than did the Bengals or Chargers. Green isn’t a better runner than Rice. The Jets passing game isn’t as good as Baltimore’s. The Colts will face a conservative, run first offense for the second week in a row and a QB who has thrown for 282 yards in two games. When was the last time Peyton Manning lost to an offense that passed for less than 120 yards? I don’t know, but I bet it’s been a while. Philip Rivers is a fine QB, but he’s no Manning, not yet. Wayne may be blanketed by Revis, but I like the Colts’ odds with Dallas Clark, Austin Collie, and Pierre Garcon against the rest of the Jets secondary.

Just as he responded better to Baltimore’s pressure than did Tom Brady, I expect Peyton to be more successful against the Jets than was Rivers. He’s been here before, and he wants to win another one. Either way, a rookie HC will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. Going back to their week 16 matchup one more time, the only TD the Jets had before Caldwell pulled his starters came on a KR for a TD. The clock strikes midnight on Sanchez in this one. The Colts get out ahead early and hold off a late Jets rally. It won’t be as close as the score indicates.

Colts win the AFC 20-13

NFC Championship Game
Minnesota Vikings @ New Orleans Saints (Sunday at 6:40 on FOX)

Offense: 2nd in points (29.4), 13th rushing (119.9), and 8th passing (259.8)
Defense: 10th in points (19.5), 2nd rushing (87.1), and 19th passing (218.4)

Offense: 1st in points (31.9), 6th rushing (131.6), and 4th passing (272.2)
Defense: 20th in points (21.3), 21st rushing (122.2), and 26th passing (235.6)

I’m guessing that this is the marquee matchup in most people’s eyes. Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings head south to take on the offensive machine known as the New Orleans Saints. This game figures to be quite a bit more competitive than either of these team’s divisional round matchups. If it’s anything like the last time these two hooked up, it will be a full 60 minute contest.

Like this week’s conference championship, their ’08 meeting took place at the Superdome. In that matchup the Vikings withstood two Reggie Bush punt returns for touchdowns and won late 30-27 on a Ryan Longwell field goal. A second missed Martin Gramatica field goal (the first missed kicked was blocked and returned 59 yards for a TD) left the score tied with just under two minutes to go and gave Minnesota a chance to win. Three plays later, defensive pass interference on a deep Gus Frerotte pass to Bernard Berrian set the Vikings up inside the Saints’ 15 yard line. Following three Adrian Peterson battering ram runs that gained little yardage, Longwell came on and won the game. Fast forward.

The Vikings had the least respect of any of the divisional round hosts last week. Squaring off against the red hot Cowboys, all the talk was about Tony Romo and how Dallas seemed to be clicking in all phases of the game. Their defense figured to run right through Minnesota’s recently porous offensive line and make it a long afternoon for the home team. Dallas got off to a nice start, moving the ball well and getting within field goal range on their first two drives, but they didn’t get anything out of either one. The first possession was halted after Romo fumbled on third down, and Shaun Suisham missed a 48 yard field goal on the second one. It took almost 11 minutes of game time, but four plays following the missed kick, Favre hit Sidney Rice down the right sideline for a 47 yard score and the game’s first points. Terence Newman contributed absolutely nothing on the play, and Gerald Sensabaugh looked like a clown in coverage. After Dallas answered with a field goal, Favre hooked up with Rice again and stretched Minnesota’s lead to 14-3.

In what turned out to be the dagger in Dallas’ season, Tony Romo fumbled on the second play of the next drive when he was sacked by Jared Allen, giving the Vikings the ball on Dallas’ 20. The Cowboys’ defense held Minnesota to a FG, but it was clear that Dallas was in for a long afternoon. They had the ball 9 more times and didn’t score once. As ugly as the Cowboys played, they were still mathematically in the game with less than ten minutes to go. Favre threw a fourth and final (and controversial) TD to Visanthe Shiancoe, and the Vikings were on their way to the conference championship game.

New Orleans had a pretty easy go of things as well, as the Cardinals brought knives to a gun fight. Arizona was iffy against the pass to begin with, but when they lost both Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Antrel Rolle early in the contest, they had zero chance. DRC went out in the first quarter with a fairly ugly knee injury. Rolle exited in the first as well with a concussion. Drew Brees abused Bryant McFadden and Michael Adams and could have scored 60 if he tried. Reggie Bush only touched the ball 9 times, but he gained 108 yards. For the Saints, five different players found the endzone, and six receivers caught multiple passes. They’ll beat you any number of ways, and this game was just another example of that.

After surrendering a 70 yard TD on the first play from scrimmage to Tim Hightower, the Saints allowed the Cardinals to score just 7 more points in the remaining 59 minutes and 41 seconds. On the drive following the Hightower score, Randall Gay forced a Jerheme Urban fumble on the first play from scrimmage, the Saints recovered, and Brees found a gimpy Jeremy Shockey in the endzone four plays later to take a 14-7 lead. Following two fruitless three and out drives, the Cardinals were down 14 to the Saints. You can’t get down multiple scores to this New Orleans team and hang in there long. Nothing went Kurt Warner’s way as the Saints limited him to 205 yards passing in what could have been the last game of his career.

Minnesota has won 7 of their last 8 matchups against the Saints including the last four. In fact, the Saints haven’t beaten the Vikings since October 7, 2001. Brett Favre seems destined to play for another championship, and with the way Sidney Rice dominated last week, New Orleans’ 26th ranked pass rush will have their hands full trying to contain him. If we can take the spotlight off Favre for a moment, I think the key to this week’s game will be whether or not Minnesota’s pass rush can consistently get to Drew Brees. Jared Allen will be lining up against Jermon Bushrod, one of the better young tackles no one has heard of. Watch that matchup. Ray Edwards had 3 sacks and 4 TFL against Marc Colombo, but he’s coming into this game with a banged up knee and is facing a much tougher foe in Jon Stinchcomb. I expect to see a lot of short stuff from Brees to negate the pass rush, and that means Reggie Bush should be a big factor once again. That said, I do think Chad Greenway will fare better than Clark Haggans in defending him.

The Vikings have lost their last three road games (Chicago 36-30, Carolina 26-7, and Arizona 30-17), and the Saints will no doubt have a huge home field advantage. If Minnesota can’t get to Brees early and often then they risk losing Adrian Peterson and the running game as a weapon. Since the Saints will no doubt key on Rice, I think the Vikings would be wise to step up Peterson’s involvement in the passing game. This was his most productive year in that area, averaging 10 yards a catch. He’s tough to take down at the line of scrimmage, much less in the open field. If the Saints are able to lock down Rice and Peterson and handle Visanthe Shiancoe and the underwhelming Bernard Berrian one on one, then Percy Harvin becomes a possible x-factor. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he touched the ball only 4 times in a lopsided contest. Why show ‘em if you don’t have to? I think Brad Childress saw plenty of Reggie Bush prancing all over the Cardinals and is scheming ways to unleash his jackrabbit (migraines willing) on the Saints.

This has been the toughest game so far for me to call. The Saints haven’t made it to a Super Bowl in their 42 year history, and the last time the Vikings went to the dance Raheem Morris was 4 months old. My initial take was that home field advantage and quick hitting passing game will be too much for Minnesota to contend with. But I dig a little deeper. Despite losing to Arizona earlier in the season, I think Minnesota is the better team of the two. The Cardinals looked bad against the Saints, and I think the majority of that had to do with an undermanned and overmatched defense being unable to break serve often enough to stay in the game. To me, Minnesota is a schizophrenic team getting hot again at the right time. In their last two matchups they beat the Giants and Cowboys by a combined score of 78-10. I think we might look back in a month and wonder why we didn’t see it coming. The Vikings get a sneaky win, and we get to hear about Brett Favre vs. Peyton Manning for two weeks.

Vikings are victorious 31-27

Thursday, January 14, 2010

1st Three Selections - What the Bucs Should Do

Ok, so we’ve got ten draft picks and a lot of cap space. What do we do this offseason? Well, the crop of free agents figures to be bleak due to the CBA situation, so there’s unlikely to be substantial activity in that area. In the draft, the first of our ten picks is the third one overall, and we have needs at DE, DT, LB, CB, WR, SS, RB, QB, and OL. That’s pretty much everyone except FS and TE.

DE – The Bucs were 26th worst in the league with only 28 sacks on the season. Our best end tore his ACL to close out the year, and the only other player with a hint of a pass rush is Stylez G. White. Kyle Moore and Tim Crowder are in house, but upgrades are needed.

DT – Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims need to be replaced up front. They’re in the center of a line that has been consistently run on and run through. Roy Miller is a capable NT but needs help next to him. Dre Moore is an untested two year player.

LB – This was another area of disappointment in 2009. Geno Hayes looks like a building block, especially if we stick with this scheme, but it’s unfair to expect him to be the next Derrick Brooks. Quincy Black struggled with fundamentals and consistency and could be replaced. MLB Barrett Ruud is a source of controversy. He’s not the worst MLB in football, but he doesn’t make the volume of big/game-changing plays that you expect out of the leader of your defense. As I’ve said before, I wouldn’t mind seeing him moved to SLB and for us to find a more active, physical player in the middle. Ruud is also looking for a long term deal.

CB – Aqib Talib is one of the best young corners in football, and Ronde Barber did better than expected this year. Still, 2010 will likely be Ronde’s last season as a significant contributor, and his replacement isn’t on the roster. Elbert Mack fell back a step or two this season, and the Bucs shuffled in guys like EJ Biggers, Kyle Arrington, Derrick Roberson, and Brandon Anderson.

SS – As long as Tanard Jackson doesn’t get suspended again we’re set at one safety spot. Sabby Piscitelli manned the SS position this year, but we’re probably a better team in 2010 if he doesn’t. Jermaine Phillips likely ruined any slim chance he had of returning when he was arrested, and Will Allen is better off sticking to special teams. I’d like to see Corey Lynch get an opportunity, but the Bucs aren’t going to hand him the job.

QB – Josh Freeman is obviously the starter, but will they keep Josh Johnson as the #2 guy? There’s nothing (Chad Pennington) in free agency, and all the backups in the league aside from Kevin Kolb are junk. Is Rudy Carpenter really going to be on our roster next year?

RB – Cadillac Williams had a fine comeback season, but he’s no sure thing long term option. There’s his health situation to consider. Any chance of another freak injury? He also has a tenuous contract situation. Is he a Buccaneer beyond 2010? Derrick Ward didn’t provide the impact that was expected of him and isn’t a lock to return. Earnest Graham is 30 years old, carried the ball 14 times this year, and has rushed for 264 yards less in his entire career than Chris Johnson did in just this season alone.

WR – Antonio Bryant probably won’t be back due to his health, contract demands, and verbal jabs at the coaches and Josh Freeman. Michael Clayton was a horrible re-sign and needs to be relocated immediately. Maurice Stovall is a free agent and worth keeping, but we’re not a better team with him in the starting lineup. Sammie Stroughter is a nice #3, but he’s not going to be #1 or #2. Bryan Clark is good on special teams and is a #5 receiver at best. I doubt we’ll get them but we need to acquire two legit starters with deep threat and “if it’s in the air it’s mine” possession skills. It can be two guys who can do both or one of each, but we need those skills. There isn’t a vertical threat that defenses fear; no one for Freeman to make use of his huge arm. Big talent upgrades are needed here if our franchise QB is ever going to be any good.

OL – Donald Penn is worth keeping if he keeps his weight in check. Jeremy Trueblood is the source of a lot of frustration, but untimely penalties aside, we could do a lot worse at RT. Like Cadillac and Ruud, neither of these guys is locked up long term. Jeff Faine returns as the starting center, but he’s always dealing with a nagging injury of some sort and his compensation will more than double next year, going from $2 million to $5 million in 2010. Am I asking for him to be replaced? Certainly not, but we’ve seen what happens without him. Davin Joseph is certainly a keeper at RG, but Jeremy Zuttah was the weak link of the line this season. He was routinely overpowered and couldn’t get a consistent push at LG. Aaron Sears returned at the end of the season, but who knows if/when he’ll get back into football shape?

Taking free agency out of the equation since we don’t even know who is/isn’t a free agent at this point, how can the Bucs most efficiently improve?

With the 3rd pick in the draft, the Bucs will be able to take the top player at nearly all of those positions. I’m assuming Ndamukong Suh is off the board when we pick and one of either Gerald McCoy or Russell Okung will be gone as well. I’ve tentatively slotted the Lions to take McCoy, so who would be left to fill our needs? Below is a quick position by position breakdown of the top talent that should be available when/if the Bucs pick 3rd.

DE – Derrick Morgan (Georgia Tech)
He’s the top defensive end in the draft. Some will be scared off of picking a DE this high due to the fiasco known as Gaines Adams, but Morgan is nothing like the former bust. Gaines is an empty 6-5, 258, while Derrick is a physical 6-4, 270. In addition to being a pass rusher (18.5 TFL and 12.5 sacks this year), Morgan is solid against the run as well; high motor. Granted #3 might be a little high for him, but we have one of the worst pass rush situations in the league.

DT – Gerald McCoy (Oklahoma)
The #2 rated DT in the draft brings the quickness and penetration skills that you want out of a DT in this scheme. He didn’t put up eye popping numbers at Oklahoma, and you typically don’t see a marked increase in stats going from college to the pros.

LB – Rolando McClain (Alabama)
He’s the driving force of the Crimson Tide defense. McClain is an instinctive, strong, aggressive LB who simply makes plays. He has the size, athleticism, and intelligence to be a big success at the next level.

CB – Joe Haden (Florida)
Projected as a shutdown corner in the NFL, is he enough of a sure thing to take 3rd overall? I love his ball skills and how he makes plays while his feet are off the ground. Gets beat on occasion (who doesn’t) but you can tell by watching him that he knows where he’s supposed to be; fundamentally sound. I think he can play in any defense; just wish he was a little taller. How high is his upside?

SS – Eric Berry (Tennessee)
The top rated safety is a hard hitting playmaker often compared to Ed Reed. He has plus footwork and hips, elite ball skills, and is a strong tackler for his size. I love his vision and ability to read the QB. I think he’s going to create a lot of turnovers at the next level, but I feel that he’s being a little overhyped this draft season. He’d give us one hell of a duo at safety and have us one corner short of an absolutely elite unit.

RB – CJ Spiller (Clemson)
Explosive playmaker; something the Bucs offense desperately needs. Draws comparisons to Chris Johnson. I think that he and Toby Gerhart have the best vision in this year’s class of backs. Spiller’s great in the passing game, especially on screens; tremendous hands. He’s a patient runner, allows time for his blocks to set up. I don’t think he has Johnson’s ceiling, but I feel he’d be a great fit in places like Miami, New England, or San Francisco.

OL – Russell Okung (Oklahoma St)
He’s the top rated tackle on the board; athletic with good footwork for a big guy. Oklahoma State ran a lot of tackle traps with him, so he has some lateral quickness to him. In the passing game, he doesn’t get beat around the edge; really nice drop step, bigger ends are going to be able to out-physical him early on. He needs to get stronger up top. He started 47 straight games; experienced and durable.

WR – Dez Bryant (Oklahoma St)
Okung’s teammate is the unquestioned #1 receiver in the draft despite only playing in three games this year. From Mike Mayock (draft analyst I respect the most) “Dez Bryant physically reminds me of Andre Johnson. They each have a great frame, tremendous speed and acceleration, and very strong hands to fight for the football.” Bryant plays with a little flash; backs up his attitude. Decent shakes; good focus/footwork on the sidelines; goes up and fights for the football.

What do I suggest? Let me eliminate them one by one.

The first one off my board is Joe Haden. Too high for a corner given our plethora of needs and the proven fact that Cover 2 corners (if that’s what we’re going to need primarily) can be found later in the draft. Not that it matters, but since 1999 only three corners have been picked in the top 6 (Quentin Jammer 5th in ’02; Terence Newman 5th in ’03; Adam Jones 6th ’05).

Next would be Eric Berry. The gurus are tying him to us already, but I’m not buying. Talent alone, I’m hesitant to take him with the third pick. Yes, he’s a fine safety, but is he going to make a #3 pick type impact? As I’ve asked on more than one occasion, would/could the Glazers afford both he and Tanard? Last year’s third overall pick (Tyson Jackson) signed a 5 year $57 million deal ($31 million guaranteed), and Tanard will make just over $500,000 next year. Anyone see a problem there?

Following Berry would be Russell Okung. He’s regarded by most at the top tackle in this draft, a draft that could easily see six tackles come off the board in the first round. I know that Penn has a contract issue to be worked on, but would it be wise to spend the 3rd pick on a player to improve a position we’re pretty decent at already? Okung may have the higher ceiling, but is he the best use of a top pick given our other needs?

Five left.

Fourth off my list is Gerald McCoy. He’s a fit if we keep the same defensive scheme, but where were all his big plays? Don’t get me wrong, I think the kid is talented, but I don’t want us to fall all over ourselves for the top 3-technique guy just because we’re playing this unwinnable game of trying to find the next Warren Sapp. McCoy had 25 tackles and 6 sacks on the season which is about what he did last year. Where was the improvement? Did anyone see a big spike in play from him this season? How likely is it that his numbers will improve as a pro? You must get production from a top 3 guy.

Next to go would be CJ Spiller. I love this guy’s abilities and have been fortunate to watch him play a lot over the last four years. He’s exactly what we need talent-wise, but like WR, are the Bucs going to spend the #3 pick a RB? This draft isn’t deep at RB, so we’ll likely lose out on an impact player at the position past round 3. And while we still need to improve here, our picks are limited, and our needs are arguably greater elsewhere.

Dez Bryant is next due simply to the fact that this is shaping up as a fairly deep (likely 3 rounds) draft to find quality receiving talent. Freeman could sure use a #1 talent like Bryant, but I don’t anticipate the Bucs spending the 3rd pick on that position. Bucs fans might not embrace the selection, but it wouldn’t take long for him to win them over.

Two left.

I’ve narrowed my preferences for our first pick to two players, both on defense. I think we’d do well with either one, but given our situation/circumstances I’ve got a clear leader at this point. With the 3rd overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft the Tampa Bay Buccaneers select……

Rolando McClain.

Surprised? Morgan was my previous pick, so I obviously like what he brings to the table. The main question I have with Morgan is whether or not the Bucs themselves will be hesitant to spend a top 5 pick on another DE with Gaines Adams still fresh in their heads? The Iowa game didn’t help his cause, but I expect him to shine in his pre-draft workouts. I’d still be pleased if he was the pick, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought we could get a bigger bang for our buck by shaking up the LB position.

McClain would replace Barrett Ruud as the starting MLB, moving him out to the SLB position where he may be more effective and better suited. Adding McClain allows us to improve two positions and provides us with a replacement should Ruud leave via free agency this year or next. Regardless of what kind of defense we run, we need a thumper, someone who will mix it up and make some big plays up front on defense. And if you’ve been paying attention to Raheem’s quotes, he wants to get bigger on defense.

"We're just not made right now to knock people back," Morris said. "That's how we're cut. We don't have big, intimidating linebackers or big, intimidating linemen."

You may say that #3 is too high for McClain. We need an impact player with this pick, and I’ll argue that outside of Suh, no one will make a more immediate impact than McClain. Regarding his inability to play in a Cover 2, I think that’s a bit narrow-minded or shortsighted. He may not have elite vertical coverage skills, but I’ll take his game any day. I think he can not only play but excel in any system. I’ve seen him diagnose and get out into the flats on receivers in time to shut down plays at the point of reception. He’s a coach on the field; a film rat who has great dedication to the game and his teammates. If you’ve ever watched an Alabama game, you’ve seen McClain directing all layers of his defense and making the necessary pre-snap adjustments. We were without a real leader this year, and I think McClain is the guy to hold the title for a decade. He’s the franchise QB for the defensive side of the ball, and although I know it’s not what we’re here to discuss, the Bucs could have a huge (literally) marketing campaign with Freeman being the young offensive stud and McClain being his defensive counterpart.

Now that we’ve improved the second layer of our defense, I want to spend our two second rounders on a combination of DT, DE, and WR. I’ve been reading Shawne Merriman’s name a little over at Pewter Report. He tore his LCL and PCL in December of ’07 and went against the advice of multiple doctors, choosing play through the injury in ’08. A week into the year, he changed his mind and was lost for the season due to undergoing surgery. All that aside he’d still be an upgrade over what we have now. Is anyone getting their hopes up for Julius Peppers? What about Aaron Kampman?

At DT we’re looking at Brian Price as the best option. It’s highly possible that he’s gone before we pick for a second time, but as I’ve broken down earlier, a lot of the teams picking towards the end of the first round either run 3-4 defenses (for which I don’t think he’s ideal) or have other, more dire needs to fill. Jared Odrick would be next on my list. He’s a bit narrow for a DT, but he’s athletic and is a pretty sound tackler.

At DE the talent pool figures to be pretty deep when we pick 35th. Derrick Morgan will be gone, and there’s a strong likelihood that Greg Hardy and Carlos Dunlap are too. Jason Pierre-Paul burst onto the scene with a monster year and will undoubtedly improve his stock at the combine, but should we be hesitant to pull the trigger? He’s raw, and there’s a good chance he’s drafted higher than he should be based on athletic ability alone. Everson Griffen jumped from 18 to 45 tackles and 4.5 to 8 sacks from ’08 to ’09 and shows really nice pursuit in the open field for a big guy. Brandon Graham (6-3, 263) might be a bit smaller than what they’re looking for, and while he may be better off as a 3-4 OLB, he should have the strength to play DE in a 4-3. He compiled 46 TFL and 20.5 sacks over the last two years. Corey Wootton used ’09 as basically a rehab year after tearing his ACL in last year’s bowl game, so he might be a bit of a bargain in round 2. Looks a little lean and Adamsish and could get a little stronger, but he’s really quick and stands 6-7, 270.

At WR, I’ve got Dez Bryant, Golden Tate, Arrelious Benn, and possibly Damian Williams off the board in round 1. That leaves us with options like Brandon LaFell, Mardy Gilyard, and Dezmon Briscoe. LaFell can be used inside and out, is quick in the open field, and is very effective on WR screens. Gilyard has tremendous vision and toughness, exhibits explosive speed, and is an accomplished return man as well. I’ve called Briscoe a Michael Clayton with hands. I like his size and that he’s tough to tackle, but his routes need work. He’s hard to jam and does a nice job catching the ball with his huge hands.

Acquiring one of the veteran defensive ends mentioned above might allow the Bucs to focus on DT and WR with these picks. Assuming they don’t here’s my order of preference:

1 – Brian Price, DT (UCLA)
2 – Everson Griffen, DE (USC)
3 – Mardy Gilyard, WR (Cincinnati)
4 – Brandon LaFell, WR (LSU)
5 – Jared Odrick, DT (Penn State)
6 – Corey Wootton, DE (Northwestern)

If we’re able to emerge from the first two rounds with Rolando McClain, Brian Price, and Everson Griffen or Mardy Gilyard, I’ll be very excited about the direction of our team. Again, McClain improves two positions. He’s brings a face and attitude to the defense. Price gives us the penetrator to work in combo with Miller. In Griffen and Gilyard we get either a pass rusher to compliment our other defensive picks or a tough, elusive playmaker at receiver.

I’ll get to rounds 3-7 later, but I think this would be a strong start.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

NFL Playoffs - Divisional Playoffs


Last week’s scores:
Jets 24-14 (my prediction Jets 23-7)
Cowboys 34-14 (my prediction Dallas 24-20)
Ravens 33-14 (my prediction New England 27-17)
Cardinals 51-45 (my prediction Green Bay 34-17)

Ok, so I was 2 and 2 last week. I won with the Jets upsetting the Bengals and the Cowboys beating the Eagles for the third time this season. I didn’t envision the Ravens dismantling the Patriots like they did, and I thought the Packers would be a little more stout defensively against the Cardinals. My thoughts on this week’s games?

Arizona Cardinals @ New Orleans Saints (Saturday at 4:30 on FOX)

Offense: 11th in points (23.4), 28th rushing (93.4), and 12th passing (251)
Defense: 15th in points (20.3), 17th rushing (112.8), and 23rd passing (233.7)

Offense: 1st in points (31.9), 6th rushing (131.6), and 4th passing (272.2)
Defense: 20th in points (21.3), 21st rushing (122.2), and 26th passing (235.6)

Offense anyone? Kurt Warner and the Cardinals destroyed the league’s 5th best pass defense for 5 touchdowns and a QB rating just shy of perfect (154.1 to 158.3). In fact, he threw more touchdowns than incomplete passes (4), and the Cardinals’ offense didn’t have to punt until the 4th quarter. Steve Breaston and Early Doucet stepped up in a huge way with Anquan Boldin inactive for the game, totaling a combined 13 catches, 202 yards, and 3 TDs. Beanie Wells ran for 91 yards on the league’s #1 rush defense, including a 42 third quarter burst. Even without that carry, Wells still averaged 3.76 yards a carry.

The Saints stumbled into the playoffs on a 3 game losing streak that followed their 13-0 start. They lost a tough home battle to the upstart Cowboys, laid down in the second half against the Bucs, and tossed in the towel for the finale against the Panthers. They lack the slightest sliver of momentum heading into their first playoff game. Can they flip the switch against an inspired Cardinal team? If any offense can, it’s this one. Drew Brees averaged more passing yards per game than any QB not named Matt Schaub and led the league in TDs and QB rating. Brees has a plethora of options when he drops back to pass. Seven Saints caught at least 35 passes this year. By contrast, Sammie Stroughter was third on the Bucs with 31 receptions. The Saints aren’t one dimensional either. The league’s 6th ranked rushing attack is led by Pierre Thomas. Of the league’s rushers with a minimum of 100 attempts, Thomas ranks 6th with 5.4 yards per carry. He also caught as many passes this year as did Antonio Bryant.

At first I thought that the Cardinals might not want to get into another aerial assault this week, but then I thought, why the hell not? Darren Sharper is still one of the game’s best safeties, but this is a defense that has been absolutely shredded by opposing QBs down the stretch – Jason Campbell (30 points, 30-42, 367 yds, 3 TD), Chris Redman (23 points, 23-34, 303 yds, 1 TD), Tony Romo (24 points, 22-34, 312 yds, 1 TD), and Josh Freeman (20 points, 21-31, 271 yards). Gregg Williams’ unit is struggling against the run as well. I’d think that the Cardinals would like to feature Beanie Wells in this contest against a unit that allowed 145 rushing yards to the Cowboys, 176 to the Bucs, and 178 to the Panthers to close out the season.

Will Anquan play? Will it matter? The Cardinals would surely prefer to have him healthy and in the lineup, but they’re an impressive 6-1 over the past two seasons without him. I’m guessing they play it conservatively with him this week and don’t suit him up unless he’s really close to 100%. Arizona safety Antrel Rolle provided some early bulletin board material: "I don't ever want to face him again in my life. I am dead serious. I'll face Drew Brees any day of the week before I face him again."

Robert Meachem could be the key to the Saints success this week. He averaged 16 yards per reception this season, and the Cardinals had trouble keeping both Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley in front of them last week. Despite the Saints’ struggles, they still line up one of the top QBs in the league. He’ll score, but will he have enough to combat Warner? The Cardinals are riding a huge wave of momentum in this game whereas the Saints are flat. Maybe they’re hitting their stride at the right time for a second year in a row. I simply can’t see the Saints slowing down Warner often enough. He destroyed one of the NFL’s best pass defenses last week and is now facing a unit that is unimpressive as a group.

Cardinals advance 34-27

Baltimore Ravens @ Indianapolis Colts (Saturday at 8:15 on CBS)

Offense: 9th in points (24.4), 5th rushing (137.5), and 18th passing (213.7)
Defense: 3rd in points (16.3), 5th rushing (93.2), and 8th passing (207.2)

Offense: 7th in points (26), 32nd rushing (80.9), and 2nd passing (282.2)
Defense: 8th in points (19.2), 24th rushing (126.6), and 14th passing (212.7)

Ok, I didn’t see that one coming. First play from scrimmage, Ray Rice up the middle and down the left sidelines 83 yards for a score. Three plays later, Terrell Suggs swipes the ball from Tom Brady, and they’re in the endzone again in less than three minutes. The Ravens were up 14 points in less than 5 minutes. It was over from there as the Ravens flat dominated the Patriots, handing each Bill Belichick and Tom Brady their first career home playoff loss. Tom Brady couldn’t find open receivers downfield, and they had no chance of mounting a serious comeback. Randy Moss might have been slowed by a knee that he was reportedly limping around on during the week, and Brady may indeed have broken ribs and a finger issue as were reported last week as well. That’s not to take anything from what the Ravens accomplished yesterday. They absolutely dominated the former champs. It says something when your QB only has to throw the ball 10 times the entire game. Dominique Foxworth did a wonderful job on Randy Moss, and the entire defense gathered 3 INTs, 3 sacks, and 6 TFL.

Indianapolis may have lost their last two compared to the Saints’ 3, but they may be in worse shape heading into the playoff than New Orleans. Jim Caldwell made the very controversial decision to pull Peyton Manning and others up 15-10 with 5 minutes left in the third quarter. The Colts went on to lose that game and their pursuit of a perfect season. In addition, they kickstarted the Jets’ playoff drive. Think Caldwell would like to revisit that decision now? After starting 14-0, the Colts lost their final two games, and Peyton Manning won’t have played any meaningful action in 20 days. Peyton’s the man, but they can’t afford to come out rusty against these Ravens. Peyton has the league’s second worst running game to lean on, and the Ravens should have no problem shutting it down once again. In seven career games against Baltimore, Reggie Wayne has totaled 36 catches and just 2 trips to the endzone. Indy is 1-0 against the Ravens in the playoffs, winning in the divisional round 15-6 at Baltimore.

When these teams met in week 11 in Baltimore, the Ravens limited the Colts to just 76 yards on the ground and turned them over three times. Still, the Colts emerged victorious 17-15. The Ravens had the lead in both the second and fourth quarters and possessed the ball on Indy’s 14 yard line with under three minutes to play. On 3rd and 7, the Colts got a little bit of pressure on Flacco up the middle. He backpedaled and threw an ill-advised pass over the middle to Ray Rice who had 3 Colts between himself and the football. Derrick Mason caught 9 passes for 142 yards in that game, so the odds are pretty good that he’ll improve upon last week’s 1 catch 8 yard performance. Think Flacco’s looking for some redemption?

Like last week, the Ravens have no reason to fear the other team’s running game, so they can gamble a bit more and attempt to disrupt Peyton early and often. Peyton’s the man, so I’m guessing he’s watched the Ravens-Patriots game a time or two since Sunday. He’ll be better prepared to take on this Baltimore defense than Brady apparently was. If Foxworth can shut down a Pro Bowl receiver for the second week in a row, the Ravens should be in great shape. In week 11 Rice touched the ball 27 times (his third highest game total in ’09), and you can bet they’re going to feed him the ball another 20 times this week. The Colts are really weak against the run, allowing a combined 427 points to Maurice Jones-Drew, Thomas Jones, and Fred Jackson in the season’s final three weeks. Rice is running strong and isn’t going down on first contact. The Colts will struggle with him all day. Surprisingly, Rice didn’t catch a pass last week against the Patriots. It was the first time all year he didn’t catch at least 1 pass in a game.

I don’t see Baltimore being able to jump out to a huge lead and sit back in their comfort zone against Indy like they did with New England. Unlike the Patriots who were limited to Moss and Julian Edelman, the Colts have Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon, and Austin Collie to go along with Wayne. Look for Peyton to find the open receiver and handle Baltimore’s pressure much better than Brady did. The Colts won’t be caught by surprise, and Peyton is going to show why he’s the MVP. I think this one starts out slowly, and the Ravens once again lead in the second half. In the end, Manning is too much. Flacco fumbles late, and the Joseph Addai scores the game winner.

Colts head to the conference championship 23-17

Dallas Cowboys @ Minnesota Vikings (Sunday at 1:00 on FOX)

Offense: 14th in points (22.6), 7th rushing (131.4), and 6th passing (267.9)
Defense: 2nd in points (15.6), 4th rushing (90.5), and 20th passing (225.4)

Offense: 2nd in points (29.4), 13th rushing (119.9), and 8th passing (259.8)
Defense: 10th in points (19.5), 2nd rushing (87.1), and 19th passing (218.4)

These teams last faced each other in October of 2007; Adrian Peterson’s 6th career game. The rookie ran for 63 yards on 12 carries and scored once in a 24-14 loss. Tarvaris Jackson completed 6 passes for 72 yards while Tony Romo was 31 of 39 for 277 yards and a TD. Brett Favre is 0-3 against the Cowboys in the playoffs, but all three of those games came between 1993 and 1995 (the Cowboys were Super Bowl champs in 1993 and 1995).

After week 16 Minnesota seemed to be headed down the road to losersville with the Saints. The week before, they lost at Carolina in a Sunday night game where the whole Childress-Favre drama started. They followed that up with a lackluster loss in OT to Chicago, a team that had lost 6 of their previous 7 games. In the finale they took out two weeks of frustration on the Giants. Favre threw for four TDs, and the Giants were held to a meaningless fourth quarter score. Might the Vikings be back on track?

In his 19th season, Brett Favre has the highest QB rating of his career. He proved that last year’s finish in New York was a fluke throwing for 11 more TDs and 15 less INTs. Favre was everything the Vikings were hoping for when they signed him. He took it to his former team twice this season and might still be the hungriest player in the league. Benefiting most from Favre’s arrival is Sidney Rice. In his third season, Rice ranked 4th in yards and was easily Favre’s favorite target. He’s playing tough; going over the middle of the field and making catches when they count. Last but not least is Adrian Peterson. In a “down” year, Peterson ranked 5th in the league in rushing but found the endzone more than any other rusher. He’s been utilized more in the passing game this season and had his carries cut by 50; may have added another year to his career.

Is Philly that bad, or is Dallas just that good? Dallas is on fire, winners of four straight. Last week’s dismantling featured another impressive performance from Tony Romo and introduced the Vikings to Felix Jones, the guy they’ll get to chase around the dome this week. Jones capped off a 148 yard rushing performance with a third quarter 73 yard score that put the dagger in the Eagles’ playoff hopes. Miles Austin caught another 7 passes and scored once again. The breakout receiver’s worst performance over the last 7 games was a 6 catch 71 yard outing against the Chargers. No one has been able to corral him. Roy Williams even got into the action, catching 5 passes for 59 yards.

The offenses are getting all the attention in this one, but the key to this game should be how well (or not) Viking tackles Bryant McKinnie and Phil Loadholt handle DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. Minnesota’s bookends struggled mightily in that Sunday night loss to the Panthers. When Favre wasn’t getting hit he was throwing the ball away. They didn’t look much better against the Bears the following week against a pretty weak pass rush. Ware and Spencer combined for 5 sacks in their last two contests, and they shouldn’t have much trouble adding to those numbers Sunday.

How will Minnesota counter? With Spencer and Ware crashing from the outside and Jay Ratliff occupying the middle of the field, Peterson is going to have a hard time finding much running room. The Vikings’ run blocking has been just as bad as their pass blocking recently, and going up against the league’s 4th rated run defense isn’t going to help things. Does Favre have another big game in him? I think he’s called on to throw another 40+ passes and keep his team in the game. I called it last week with Felix Jones, and I think they’re going to try and get him loose again. If he can, it’s over. Romo shouldn’t have much of a problem attacking the Vikings vertically, and Ware and Spencer should be able to run roughshod against the Vikings’ line. Everything is telling me to take Dallas, but something doesn’t smell right. Minnesota won’t win a shootout, but I think this one is a low scoring contest decided late in the 4th. My original playoff prediction was a close Minnesota win over Dallas. I’m sticking with it.

Vikings win 20-17

New York Jets @ San Diego Chargers (Sunday at 4:00 on CBS)

Offense: 17th in points (21.8), 1st rushing (172.2), and 31st passing (148.8)
Defense: 1st in points (14.8), 8th rushing (98.6), and 1st passing (153.7)

Offense: 4th in points (28.4), 31st rushing (88.9), and 5th passing (271.1)
Defense: 11th in points (20), 20th rushing (117.8), and 11th passing (209.2)

It wasn’t 37-0, but last week the Jets once again topped the Bengals and advanced to the divisional round against the San Diego Chargers. For Jets fans there wasn’t much to not like about last week’s game. Cedric Benson got his numbers on the ground, but Carson Palmer was held to 146 yards and 50% passing. Chad Ochocinco was shadowed by Darrelle Revis the entire game and managed just 2 receptions, both in the second half. He was only targeted twice in the first half, and Revis intercepted the second of those passes. Thomas Jones got into the endzone, but it was his backfield mate Shonn Greene who did the most damage, running for 135 yards and a score of his own. The cherry on top was the performance by Mark Sanchez. No, it wasn’t one for the record books, but his 12-15 for 182 yards and a TD without a turnover instilled confidence in not only Sanchez but his teammates and coaches as well. Dustin Keller (3-99-1) and Jericho Cotchery (6-67) drew nearly all of his targets and were able to keep the chains moving for the Jets.

The Chargers head into this matchup with on an 11 game winning streak. During that stretch, Philip Rivers had a 20-6 TD-INT ratio. In his 4th year as a starter, Rivers put up the best numbers of his career. He’s not even in the top 5 in most categories, but the fact that he was able to lead his team on a 10 (didn’t play much in week 17) game winning streak tells you he’s doing something right. He’s cut down on his mistakes and has really become a leader of the team. I think he and Aaron Rodgers are the young Tom Brady and Peyton Manning of this next decade. Vincent Jackson really emerged this year, catching at least 5 passes in 9 of this year’s contests. And then there’s Antonio Gates, the TE who had his best season since ’05. What didn’t help Rivers was that LaDainian Tomlinson had by far the worst year of his career. He put up his lowest carry, yard, average, and reception numbers ever. The Chargers were worse at running the ball than any team aside from the Colts this year. Darren Sproles was more involved this year, but he didn’t deliver what the Chargers were expecting for $6.6 million.

These teams last faced each other in week 3 of last season. Philip Rivers and Brett Favre both threw for 3 TDs and LaDainian Tomlinson got into the endzone twice. The Chargers won 48-29 in what ended up being Rivers’ second most efficient game of the season.

The Chargers can’t allow the Jets to tally 40+ carries or else New York takes this one. I expect San Diego to commit to the run and force Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery to win one-on-one matchups with Quentin Jammer and Antonio Cromartie. Cromartie is where I’d go, but Eric Weddle will be sneaking around back there too. Shaun Phillips and Shawne Merriman will need to get in Sanchez’s face and force him to make the clutch throws like he did in Cincinnati. Rivers will continue to do what’s got the Chargers to this point; move the chains and don’t turn the ball over. With Jackson blanketed by Revis, Malcolm Floyd will be called upon to make plays downfield against Lito Shappard. The Jets’ bandwagon is getting crowded, but I think their season ends Sunday. The Chargers will do a better job than Cincinnati of slowing down Greene and Jones, and they won’t allow Sanchez to make those clutch plays two weeks in a row.

Chargers advance 30-20

My confidence rankings:
1 – San Diego
2 – Indianapolis
3 – Arizona
4 – Minnesota

Going Forward
AFC Title Game:
Chargers win @ Indy
NFC Title Game:
Vikings beat the Cardinals

Super Bowl
Chargers beat the Vikings

Friday, January 8, 2010

NFL Awards - Projected Offensive POY

Who stood out most in ’09? There were a lot of impressive individual performances this season, and I had a hard time narrowing this list to five. Anyways, here’s what I’ve got:

5) Ray Rice (RB, Baltimore Ravens)
You get named Breakout POY, there’s a good chance you’re in the running for this award too. He’s the primary reason the Ravens are in the playoffs this year. Running and receiving, Rice accounted for 36% of his team’s offensive production. I look for him to have an even bigger 2010 where he’s likely to not have Willis McGahee looking over his shoulder and stealing red zone touches. Rice finished the season ranked 6th in the league in rushing, and of the other top 10 rushers, only Adrian Peterson had a higher average per carry. He’s one of the league’s top weapons in just his second season.

4) Aaron Rodgers (QB, Green Bay Packers)
Here’s the guy I think is going to be the Peyton Manning to Philip Rivers’ Tom Brady this next decade. Rodgers finished 4th in QB rating, 4th in passing yards, 4th in TDs, and most impressively 2nd in the league with only 7 INTs. During Green Bay’s 7 of 8 winning streak, Rodgers threw an impressive 14 TDs and 2 INTs. In three games against the playoff bound Cowboys, Ravens, and Cardinals, the Rodgers-led Packers won all three by a combined 49 points. He’s my early pick for league MVP next year.

3) Peyton Manning (QB, Indianapolis Colts)
Supported by weapons that include Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie and the worst rushing offense in the game (under 81 yards a game), Peyton again was amongst the league’s leaders in all passing categories and set personal season highs in completions and passing percentage. It’s hard to bet against this guy. His ’09 season included four games of four TDs, two of them against the Cardinals and Patriots. His numbers: 2nd in TDs, 2nd in yards, 2nd in passer %, and oh, he was the QB of the last remaining undefeated team, until he was pulled by his head coach in week 16.

2) Drew Brees (QB, New Orleans Saints)
Last year’s winner ranks 2nd on my ballot this season. He’s the game’s most accurate passer, whipping the ball all over the field at a stunning 70.6% rate of efficiency, which is even more impressive when you consider that his 8.5 yard per attempt average was third best in the league. That means that a lot of that 70% completion rating came on passes of the deep variety. On top of that, he holds the league’s highest QB rating at 109.6, leads the league in TD passes, and led the Saints on a 13-0 run featuring wins against playoff bound Eagles, Jets, and Patriots by a combined 61 astounding points. Drew dat!

1) Chris Johnson (RB, Tennessee Titans)
If he doesn’t win the award, they should cease handing it out. Seriously, the guy was the most dominant force in the game, rushing for nearly 600 more yards than Steven Jackson, the league’s 2nd leading rusher. This season he joined OJ Simpson, Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis, and Jamal Lewis as the 6th 2,000 yard rusher in league history and had 6 yards to spare. What other records did he break? His 2,000 yard season eclipsed Earl Campbell’s franchise seasonal rushing record. He also unseated Marshall Faulk as the game’s all-time leader with 2,509 yards from scrimmage in a season. Johnson’s best game of the year was a 228 yard domination of the Jaguars where he ran for nearly 10 yards a carry. He earned at least 100 yards on the ground in 12 of 16 games, including 11 in a row to close out the year, and scored multiple rushing TDs in 5 contests. He’s undoubtedly the most explosive player in the game and is quite literally a threat to take it to the house each and every time he touches the football.

(Just missing the list: Philip Rivers, Adrian Peterson, Matt Schaub, Brett Favre, Thomas Jones, Andre Johnson, Cedric Benson, and Brandon Marshall)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

NFL Playoff Predictions

1 – Indianapolis Colts
2 – San Diego Chargers
3 – New England Patriots
4 – Cincinnati Bengals
5 – New York Jets
6 – Baltimore Ravens

1 – New Orleans Saints
2 – Minnesota Vikings
3 – Dallas Cowboys
4 – Arizona Cardinals
5 – Green Bay Packers
6 – Philadelphia Eagles

We kick off the first round of the playoffs with an unprecedented 3 rematches from the previous week’s slate of action. Each of those contests was a one-sided affair, with the road team winning two of them. In addition, the Patriots and Ravens hooked up in week 4, so everyone should be somewhat familiar with their opponent. Below are my breakdowns for each of this week’s contests.

Wild Card Round

Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots (Sunday at 1:00 on CBS)

Offense: 9th in points (24.4), 5th rushing (137.5), and 18th passing (213.7)
Defense: 3rd in points (16.3), 5th rushing (93.2), and 8th passing (207.2)

Offense: 6th in points (26.7), 12th rushing (120.1), and 3rd passing (277.2)
Defense: 5th in points (17.8), 13th rushing (110.5), and 12 passing (209.7)

That week 4 matchup took place in New England as well, and the Patriots emerged victorious 27-21 in a game that the Ravens had a chance to win late. Can they pull off the upset against a team they’ve never beaten? Despite finishing the season winning 3 of their last 4 contests, the Patriots aren’t entering the playoffs with much swagger. Those three wins came against the Panthers in Matt Moore’s second start, the hapless Bills, and the floundering Jaguars. Can they turn it on and make a serious run at another title?

A beleaguered Ravens secondary got a bit of a reprieve when Wes Welker went down last week with his knee injury. Without the best possession receiver in the game, Julian Edelman will be pushed into action where he’ll attempt to keep defenses honest and not overload to Randy Moss’ side of the field. The Ravens will also get the Patriots four-headed rushing attack made up of Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor, Laurence Maroney, and Kevin Faulk, but stopping the run has never been their problem. Maroney’s recent fumbling issue may give Morris and Taylor more early opportunities.

Ray Rice ran for 103 yards on 11 carries and caught 5 passes for 49 yards the last time these teams met. Expect the second year back to garner quite a bit of attention from the Patriots’ defense this week, as the plan lately has been to shut down Rice and force Joe Flacco to beat your downfield. It’s worked more often than not, as Flacco’s play was erratic down the stretch. Derrick Mason is still a weapon on the outside, but he’s the only one the Ravens have, and they’re in a lot of trouble if they can’t get Rice going early.

The Ravens were 3-0 when these teams met in week 4, and three weeks later they were 3-3. In fact, the Ravens are 1-6 this year vs. teams in the playoffs. Their lone victory came against the Chargers in the second week of the season. I see Tom Brady stepping up and Bill Belichick making the right defensive calls in this matchup, allowing the Patriots to go to 6-0 all time against the Ravens. Late in the year, both Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger were able to march their offenses consistently down the field against Baltimore. I look for more of the same this week with Tom Brady as the Patriots win easier than the score dictates.

Patriots advance: 27-17

New York Jets @ Cincinnati Bengals (Saturday at 4:30 on NBC)

Offense: 17th in points (21.8), 1st rushing (172.2), and 31st passing (148.8)
Defense: 1st in points (14.8), 8th rushing (98.6), and 1st passing (153.7)

Offense: 22nd in points (19.1), 9th rushing (128.5), and 26th passing (180.6)
Defense: 6th in points (18.2), 7th rushing (98.3), and 6th passing (203.1)

These teams met last week in the league’s final regular season contest. Calling it a contest might not do justice to the word, as the Jets literally ran all over the Bengals, grinding out 257 yards on their way to a 37-0 victory. Winning QB Mark Sanchez threw only 16 passes and managed a meager 63 yards in the win, but I’m guessing the defense forces him to make a couple plays this time.

The Jets offense features about as big a disparity in offensive production as you can get. The rookie Sanchez hasn’t been asked to win many games as the Jets continue to ride the legs of Thomas Jones and the offensive line. Shonn Green saw his role expand down the stretch, and there’s nothing more that Rex Ryan would love to do than run the ball another 57 times this week. If they can do that, this one won’t be close either.

After being inactive for last week’s finale, Cedric Benson will be asked to shoulder his team’s offensive load. Will he be nearly as successful as his Jet counterpart? Not if Carson Palmer looks like the less experienced passer of the two again this week. What happened to that guy? He did have the one impressive outing at the Chargers in week 15 where he threw for 314 yards and two scores, but Palmer failed to pass for 150 yards in 4 of his last 6 contests. Included in that run of mediocrity was his horrid performance last week where he was 1 of 11 for 0 yards in New York.

I have a hard time seeing the Bengals mounting much of an attack against the surging Jets. Benson has had quite a year, but he’s going to be running head first into a blitzing defense that will stack the box to stop him. Darrelle “the Island” Revis will shut down a hobbled Chad Ochocinco, and Carson Palmer will be forced to try and make plays against rest of the league’s #1 passing defense. I don’t foresee another 37-0 throttling, but despite this game being in Cincinnati, I think the Bengals come up losers again. The Jets will want to put this one out of reach early and take the crowd out of play. If not, a rowdy stadium might rattle Sanchez enough for the Bengals to hang in there. I think it’s close for a half, but New York pulls away late. The Bengals peaked too soon this year.
Jets move on: 23-7

Philadelphia Eagles @ Dallas Cowboys (Saturday at 8:00 on NBC)

Offense: 5th in points (26.8), 22nd rushing (102.3), and 10th passing (255.6)
Defense: 19th in points (21.1), 9th rushing (104.7), and 17th passing (216.4)

Offense: 14th in points (22.6), 7th rushing (131.4), and 6th passing (267.9)
Defense: 2nd in points (15.6), 4th rushing (90.5), and 20th passing (225.4)

Onto the NFC where the Eagles and Cowboys will hook up for the third time this season. Just a few weeks ago, the Eagles looked like the team heading into the playoffs with momentum, but this week they’ll return to the scene of week 17’s 24-0 beatdown looking to avoid going 0-3 vs. the Cowboys this year. In that 24-0 pasting, the Eagles managed only 10 first downs (1 rushing) to Dallas’ 21 and had the bell less than half as long as the Cowboys. Dallas also doubled Philly’s offensive output, 474 yards to 228.

While Carson Palmer may be the playoff’s coldest passer, Tony Romo is one of the hottest. The Dallas QB threw for over 300 yards in 4 of his last 6 matchups, including games against Oakland, the Giants, New Orleans, and these Eagles. He’s also cutting down on the mistakes, throwing only 2 INTs over that 6 game stretch. Romo threw for a combined 618 yards in his two games against Philly this year, including 311 in their most recent encounter. Philadelphia hasn’t had an answer for Jason Witten this season, allowing the always open TE to rack up a combined 13 catches, 119 yards, and 1 TD against them this year. Miles Austin was held fairly quiet in the first matchup, a 49 yard score being his only reception, but he caught 7 for 90 this past Sunday. Philly can allow big days to Witten OR Austin and have a chance at a win, but you’re not going to move on when both those guys go off. I haven’t even mentioned the Dallas running game that had two rushers gain 90 yards this past week. Look for Marion Barber and Felix Jones to get nearly an even split in touches and find success once again.

The Dallas defense sacked McNabb 4 times this past week and did so 3 times in their first matchup. A banged up offensive line missing starting center Jamaal Jackson (who was lost for the year after sustaining knee injury against the Broncos) will need to give McNabb more time to pass if they want to have a shot at getting the W. They can’t put up another 4.8 yards per pass play and advance to the second round. The Eagles aren’t a huge running team to begin with, but Brian Westbrook looks sluggish since returning from his latest concussion. They’re not going to win this one on the ground, so McNabb will need to sustain drives with his arm. One player he can count on is TE Brent Celek who caught 7 passes for 96 yards against the Cowboys in the finale. Celek scored in their week 9 matchup and has been McNabb’s most consistent target all year long. For the Eagles to have a chance, either DeSean Jackson or Jeremy Maclin will need to get the better of Terrance Newman or Mike Jenkins and give McNabb a vertical threat to keep the Cowboys honest.

It’s hard to beat a team 3 times in one season, and while I think this contest will be closer, I still have Dallas coming out on top. They’re just too hot at this point for a shaken Philly team to stop. The Eagles give up points and big plays, and I think in order to have a chance of winning, they’re going to have to turn Dallas over at least 3 times. Will that be enough? I don’t think so. Felix Jones shines bright in this one.

Dallas makes it 3-0: 24-20

Green Bay Packers @ Arizona Cardinals (Sunday at 4:40 on FOX)

Offense: 3rd in points (28.8), 14th rushing (117.8), and 7th passing (261.2)
Defense: 7th in points (18.6), 1st rushing (83.3), and5th passing (201.1)

Offense: 11th in points (23.4), 28th rushing (93.4), and 12th passing (251)
Defense: 15th in points (20.3), 17th rushing (112.8), and 23rd passing (233.7)

Our final rematch features the surging Packers against the Cardinals, winners of the NFC West. Does everyone realize that the Packers are a last second Roethlisberger-Wallace TD away from finishing the season on an 8 game winning streak after that circus-like loss to the Bucs? These guys are on fire. They continued their winning ways last week against the Cardinals, emerging from the desert 33-7 victors. Is there any reason to think they can’t do it again?

The Cardinals may not have attempted to show much this past week, but what they did show wasn’t pretty. Matt Leinart demonstrated that Cardinal fans better hope Kurt Warner returns for another season, and three key players, Anquan Boldin, Calais Campbell, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, are now limping into the playoffs with injuries. Boldin has been hobbled this week with an ankle injury and is very questionable to play. Campbell broke his thumb last week, had surgery on it Monday, and will play with a cast on hand Sunday. DRC limped out of last week’s game early on with a bruised left kneecap. Bad time for injuries to key players. Arizona didn’t attempt to run much last week, but had they done so, they probably wouldn’t have found much success against the league’s #1 rated rush defense. Beanie Wells has assumed lead tailback duties from Tim Hightower, but it’s hard to see the run being heavily featured in this matchup. If Anquan is limited or inactive, the Cardinals must have a big game from Steve Breaston. The Packers will no doubt roll coverage to Larry Fitzgerald’s side of the field and force someone else to beat them. It will be up to Breaston to give the Cardinals a chance.

Aaron Rodgers is on a better roll than either Tony Romo or Philip Rivers as we head into the postseason, and that’s certainly saying something. He has a 14-2 TD/INT ratio since the bizarre Tampa loss, and his offensive line has stepped up their protection as well. Not that Rodgers needs any help, but Arizona owns the worst pass defense in these playoffs. The ageless Donald Driver and youngsters Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley give Rodgers three reliable targets in the passing game. I think Ryan Grant will get his customary 15-20 carries, but this game will be put on Aaron Rodgers’ shoulders.

I’m having a hard time seeing a scenario where Arizona wins this one. The Cardinals won’t be able to run the ball on the Packers, and if Anquan is out, it’s going to be really tough to consistently get this offense into scoring position. Nothing against Breaston, but Boldin starts for a reason. I think the Packers win this one in the second quarter and keep the Cardinals at bay in the second half.
Packers advance: 34-17

I don’t feel terribly comfortable picking all three teams that won last week to beat their opponent once again, but each of these matchups features teams heading in opposite directions:

Jets – won 5 of 6 (should have beat the Falcons at home)
Bengals – lost 3 of 4 (win was an ugly 17-10 victory over the Chiefs)

Cowboys – 3 game winning streak started with handing the Saints their first loss
Eagles – won 6 straight prior to last week, but played a sloppy game vs. Denver and got beat bad by Dallas

Packers – on fire winning 7 of their last 8
Cardinals – last 4: lost at SF, struggled to beat the Lions, beat the NFL’s worst team, and got pasted by GB

Going Forward
Below are my predictions for the rest of the playoffs. I’ll save the writeups for the week of the actual matchups, as I’m sure I’ll be wrong with my early predictions and need to reorganize my thoughts.

Divisional Round (team in bold indicates projected winner)
New England @ San Diego
NY Jets @ Indianapolis (barely)
Dallas @ Minnesota (barely)
Green Bay @ New Orleans

Conference Championships
San Diego @ Indianapolis
Green Bay @ Minnesota (Favre isn't losing to the Packers)

Super Bowl
San Diego vs. Minnesota

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

NFL Breakout POY

This isn’t an NFL award, but I’m substituting it for Comeback POY, which will most likely go to Tom Brady for returning from last year’s knee injury. Another player I’d mention would be Andre Carter (DE, Washington Redskins). Carter finished the year with 11 sacks compared to the 4 he accrued in 16 games last year. He also nearly doubled his tackle total from ’08 finishing with 62, a noticeable increase from 37 last season. All this while playing through a biceps tear late in the year.

With the Breakout POY award, I’m looking at non-rookies who took huge steps forward this season and really made the league take notice. I couldn’t get this list down to 5 or even 10, so we’ve got a top 11 here.

11) Brent Celek (TE, Philadelphia Eagles)
Some worried how the Eagles would replace the veteran LJ Smith at TE, but Celek finished the year with 76 receptions, 15 more than Smith put up in his best season. His 8 TDs were 4th best at his position, and he scored in 3 straight games (vs. NYG, vs. DAL, and @ SD) in the middle of the season. With deep threats DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin outside able to stretch defenses, Celek ate up the middle of the field. The consistent Celek had at least 2 receptions in every game this year and figures to be one of Donovan McNabb’s primary targets next year as well.

10) Tyvon Branch (S, Oakland Raiders)
The second year defender from Connecticut was one of the few bright spots on a chronically bad football team. Branch led all DBs in tackles with 124 and added two forced fumbles and solidified himself as one of the few building blocks on the Oakland roster. Look for him to make the Pro Bowl next season.

9) Sidney Rice (WR, Minnesota Vikings)
The 3rd year player from South Carolina easily benefited most from the addition of Brett Favre. Finally having a QB who can stretch the field allowed Rice to break out in a big way. His 83 receptions were 5th best among NFC receivers, and his 1,312 yards nearly doubled the total of the 2nd leading receiver on his team. Although I’m sure Rice would settle for a Super Bowl title, watching Favre ride off into the sunset for a final time probably won’t help his numbers for next season.

8) Elvis Dumervil (OLB, Denver Broncos)
Dumervil made the DPOY list but deserves to be mentioned here as well. Yes, he did have 12.5 sacks in ’07, but what’s impressive about his 17 QB takedowns from this year, in addition to leading the league in the category, is that he did it while learning a new position. Even though he stands at only 5-11, it’s not like Dumervil was hard to notice on a Bronco defense whose second leading sack artist weighed in with only 5.

7) Cedric Benson (RB, Cincinnati Bengals)
Wow, talk about resurrecting your career. Benson had never eclipsed 800 yards in his career, but he easily overcame that number this year. His 1,251 yards were 8th best in the league, but what’s more impressive is that he finished 2nd in the league with a 96.2 yards per game average. If there was a downside to his ’09 season, it would be that he failed to reach the endzone a single time after week 9. Had he totaled more TDs, he’d have finished a bit higher on this list. His 23.2 carries per game led the league and showed that, given a decent set of blockers, he’s a guy who can carry an offense on his shoulders and be productive. A rejuvenated Benson and a much improved defense are the biggest reasons for Cincinnati’s turnaround.

6) Steve Smith (WR, New York Giants)
While the Giants may have been the NFC’s most disappointing team in ’09, it certainly wasn’t Mr. Smith’s fault. The receiver labeled as “the other Steve Smith” finished 2nd in the NFL with 107 receptions (or 42 more than that dude in Carolina). Whenever Eli Manning needed a big play, he looked Smith’s way more often than not. His 1,220 receiving yards were the best by a Giant since Amani Toomer totaled 1,343 in ’02. The least heralded of the NFL’s top receivers is as sure-handed as they come.

5) Vernon Davis (TE, San Francisco 49ers)
I guess Mike Singletary can win with Vernon Davis. In his 4th season, Davis easily put up his best year in receptions, but he found the endzone 3 more times than he had in those previous 3 years combined. His 13 touchdowns was tied for the league lead with Larry Fitzgerald and Randy Moss. While the two All Pro receivers were catching passes from Super Bowl winning QBs, Davis was running routes for the enigmatic Alex Smith. Yeah, Davis can play.

4) Miles Austin (WR, Dallas Cowboys)
After entering the season as the 4th passing option in Dallas’ offense, Austin exploded for 81 receptions, more than doubling the combined production of the horribly disappointing Roy Williams (38) and Patrick Crayton (37). Austin’s 1,320 yards were good for third in the league behind studs Andre Johnson and Wes Welker, and only 3 receivers reached the endzone more times than he did. In addition to being a receptions hog, Austin was also good for the big play, hauling in 8 catches of 40 yards or more. While Jason Witten still lead the Cowboys in receptions, Austin gives Tony Romo the legit #1 receiver that Jerry Jones thought he was getting in the trade for Williams.

3) Jamaal Charles (RB, Kansas City Chiefs)
Despite not being given the rock until the 10th week of the season, Charles exploded with four consecutive 100+ yard rushing performances to close out the season. (Credit Adam Schefter) Charles became the first player in NFL history to rush for at least 1,100 yards on less than 200 carries. Averaging a staggering 7 yards a carry in your last four games will help you get there quickly. I’m really anxious to see how Coach Haley schemes to get the explosive Charles varying looks next season. If he can stay healthy, the Chiefs should have no problem improving on a 4 win season with him toting the rock all year. I’ll toot my own horn here as I thought the former Longhorn could be an offensive force prior to the ’08 draft.

2) Matt Schaub (QB, Houston Texans)
Told you so! As I said, a healthy Matt Schaub would put up numbers with the best of them. He shook off the fragile label, playing through a shoulder injury and throwing for more yards than any other QB in the league by a wide 270 yard margin. Schaub got the shaft as far as Pro Bowl nominations go, as he was certainly more deserving of the honor than Tom Brady. The Texans may have only won one more game this year than in ’08 (9-7 vs. 8-8), but Schaub’s performance is even more impressive when you consider that the Texans game crumbled this year. After ranking 13th in the league with a 115.4 average per game in ’08, the Texans finished a poor 30th this year with 92.2 rushing yards per contest. If the Texans can find a running back and improve on the defensive side of the ball, the sky is the limit with Schaub behind center.

1) Ray Rice (RB, Baltimore Ravens)
The second year man from Rutgers finished as the leader in yards from scrimmage per game among non-QBs with a whopping 127.6 yards per contest. That average was over 10 yards more than what stars Adrian Peterson and Steven Jackson were able to muster. Rice took over the Ravens’ offense this year as second year QB Joe Flacco struggled with injuries and inconsistency. In addition to being the workhorse in the backfield, Rice was Flacco’s leading target, catching 78 passes, a total that led all running backs and was 15 receptions higher than the next closest back (Tim Hightower). Willis McGahee may have vultured a lot would be rice touchdowns, but there’s no question that Rice is the central component of Baltimore’s offense heading into the playoffs and next season.

(Just missing the list: Aqib Talib, Vince Young, and Mike Sims-Walker)