Monday, January 31, 2011

Super Bowl XLV Preview & Prediction

..........#6 Packers (10-6, 3-0) vs. #2 Steelers (12-4, 2-0)

Finally, we’re down to the last two teams standing in the 2010 NFL season. Super Bowl XLV will feature two fairly similar clubs who took quite different routes to reach Dallas.

In the AFC you have the Steelers, recipients of two of the last five Lombardi trophies. To get this far they won two hard fought contests against strong defensive teams at home by a total of 12 points. Pittsburgh needed a couple of miscues by #5 seed Baltimore to overcome a 14 point halftime deficit and move on to the Conference Championship game. Tied with just over two minutes to play, the Ravens inexcusably let Antonio Brown get lose for 58 yards on a 3rd and 19 to keep Pittsburgh from having to punt it back to them. Five plays later Rashard Mendenhall scored the go ahead TD. The following week Pittsburgh got out to a huge 21 point lead at the break against the #6 seed Jets only to total a whopping 75 yards and 0 points in the second half. They were one goal line series of questionable calls from Jets OC Brian Schottenheimer away from losing that lead. In the end, it was another big play from Brown, this time converting a 3rd and 6 for 14 yards, that got them to the final round of the playoffs.

Representing the NFC are the Green Bay Packers, a team that hasn’t sniffed the biggest of all stages in 13 seasons. After winning the last two games of the regular season (playoff games essentially) against the Giants and Bears, Green Bay traveled to Philadelphia where they defeated the high powered #3 seed Eagles behind three Aaron Rodgers TDs and 123 yards by rookie rusher James Starks. They topped that feat the following week when they spanked the #1 seed Falcons in the Georgia Dome on the strength of four second quarter TDs. Green Bay capped off their march to Dallas by beating the #2 seed Bears in a game that drew more attention for the opposing QBs inability to finish the contest rather than its result. That gave them three victories against the top three seeds in the conference, all contests in which Green Bay controlled the temp and was clearly the better team.

Pittsburgh – 2 wins, both at home, against the #5 and #6 seeds
Green Bay – 3 wins, all on the road, against the #1, #2, and #3 seeds

With the Cowboys making an early exit from the playoff picture this season, the Super Bowl will once again be a road game for both teams. Pittsburgh won 7 of 8 away from home this year, while the Packers were an unflattering 3-5 away from Green Bay. While Pittsburgh has the Super Bowl experience I believe ignorance could be bliss for these Packers. Pittsburgh will be the best team they’ve faced thus far, but approaching this matchup as business as usual and focusing as much as possible on schemes and assignments rather than media and drama would be the wise way to go. It could work in Green Bay’s favor that they’ve had to fight for their lives away from home for the last three contests. Playing under ideal conditions inside Jerry Jones’ house will benefit both offenses, but one could say Green Bay has the bigger advantage seeing as how a lot of their passing game consists of Rodgers hitting receivers in stride so that they can maximize yard after catch opportunities.

If this one is anything like the last time these two teams hooked up, it’s going to be one hell of a Super Sunday. In week 15 of last season, Pittsburgh responded to a Green Bay score just before the two minute mark in the fourth quarter with a 19 yard TD from Ben Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace on the game’s final play. That 37-36 thriller featured 94 QB passes, 973 combined total yards, four fourth quarter lead changes, and surprisingly, 0 turnovers. Both Rodgers and Roethlisberger threw for three scores, but Pittsburgh’s passer lit up the Packers’ secondary for an astounding 503 yards passing, the highest yardage total in Roethlisberger’s 111 games (including the playoffs) as a professional.

While expecting a repeat of that high scoring affair may be asking a bit much, I think we’re going to see a few crooked numbers on the scoreboard. After all, three of the last four Super Bowls have had their point total exceed 45. Yes, this game will feature a Pittsburgh defense that ranks first in yards allowed per play, sacks, rushing yards allowed per game and per play, and rushing TDs allowed. It will also include a Green Bay unit that was first in opposing QB passer rating and second in interceptions and sacks. As good as these defenses are, I believe it would be foolish to expect them to shut down an on fire Aaron Rodgers and super clutch Ben Roethlisberger.

A couple of guys who will be shut down for the big one are Maurkice Pouncey and Aaron Smith. Pouncey is the biggest injury story line of the Super Bowl, having sprained and/or broken his left ankle last week against the Jets. Second year backup Doug Legursky came on and, fourth quarter safety aside, held up well against Sione Pouha. No offense to Pouha, but he’s no BJ Raji. In addition to his pick six of a Caleb Hanie last week against the Bears, Raji has been absolutely dominant in shutting down the opposition’s run game this postseason. He’s the main reason they held Philly to 81, Atlanta to 45, and Chicago to 83. This aspect of the game, even possibly this one matchup, will determine the outcome of the Super Bowl in my opinion. I believe that for the Steelers to succeed, they will need to do so on the shoulders and legs of Rashard Mendenhall. Green Bay ranked 17th in the league this season in rushing yards allowed per game at 114.9. With Green Bay being so solid against the pass and with Tramon Williams being a one man field flipper this postseason, you know Pittsburgh is going to want to establish that run game. They’re going to hand it to Mendenhall early and often, and how Green Bay, specifically Raji, responds should determine who wins.

If you’ve been paying attention, you shouldn’t be surprised by who I’m picking. Might as well say it now. I expect the Packers to win this one. Pittsburgh has trouble with teams that spread it out, as evidenced by their outings against New Orleans (Brees 305 yd, 2 TD) and New England (Brady 350 yd, 3 TD). Just as Pittsburgh will look to establish Mendenhall and the run game, Green Bay will want to unleash Rodgers on a vulnerable Steelers secondary. I expect James Starks to get some courtesy, timely carries, but make no mistake. If the Packers are to produce multiple scoring drives, it’s going to happen on the arm of Rodgers. Also, watch out for Rodgers to make a few plays with his legs, escaping after Harrison and Woodley go or are taken beyond the pocket. Something tells me he’s going to pick up more than one key first down by taking off for the sticks. As impressive as Rodgers has performed, Green Bay’s defense is the reason they’re playing this Sunday. A healthy Cullen Jenkins lining up next to Raji is almost unfair to the opposition. Everybody knows what Clay Matthews brings, and Desmond Bishop is still under the radar despite filling in fabulously since Nick Burnett went on IR. Last but not least is Charles Woodson, the 13 year veteran still seeking his first NFL championship. I don’t believe there will be a hungrier player in Cowboys Stadium this Sunday than him.

Both teams face similar questions. Will Troy Polamalu make a big play on an errant Rodgers pass? Will Williams get his fourth playoff interception at Roethlisberger’s expense? Will James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, or Clay Matthews come up with the key sack?

Again, I’m going with the Packers, but this should be a close competitive contest one way or the other. I believe that in the end, Raji will overmatch and overwhelm Legursky, Green Bay’s offensive line will do a better job of protecting the passer than Pittsburgh, and Rodgers will be the one making the clutch play in the end this time around.

Go crazy Packer fans!

Green Bay 31 – Pittsburgh 27

Super Bowl XLV MVP – Aaron Rodgers

Key team stats (regular season):

Yards per game
PIT – 276.8 (2nd)
GB – 309.1 (5th)

Yards per play
PIT – 4.5 (1st)
GB – 5.1 (9th)

Passing yards per game
PIT – 214.1 (12th)
GB – 194.2 (5th)

Passing TD allowed:
PIT – 15 (3rd)
GB – 16 (4th)

40+ yd pass plays allowed
PIT – 7 (10th)
GB – 8 (16th)

PIT – 21 (5th)
GB – 24 (2nd)

PIT – 48 (1st)
GB – 47 (2nd)

QB Rating
PIT – 73.1 (2nd)
GB – 67.2 (1st)

Rushing yards per game
PIT – 62.8 (1st)
GB – 114.9 (17th)

Rushing yards per play
PIT – 3.0 (1st)
GB – 4.7 (28th)

Rushing TD allowed
PIT – 5 (1st)
GB – 6 (3rd)

20+ yd rushes allowed
PIT – 1 (1st)
GB – 10 (10th)

Yards per game
PIT – 345.3 (14th)
GB – 358.1 (9th)

Yards per play
PIT – 5.6 (11th)
GB – 5.7 (6th)

Passing yards per game
PIT – 225.1 (14th)
GB – 257.8 (5th)

Passing TD
PIT – 22 (21st)
GB – 31 (4th)

Sacks allowed
PIT – 43 (25th)
GB – 38 (19th)

40+ yd pass plays
PIT – 11 (6th)
GB – 11 (6th)

Rushing yards per game
PIT – 120.2 (11th)
GB – 100.4 (24th)
(for the playoffs, PIT 3rd at 118.5 and GB 4th at 118)

Rushing yards per carry
PIT – 4.1 (17th)
GB – 3.8 (25th)

Rushing TDs
PIT – 15 (8th)
GB – 11 (18th)

20+ yd rushes
PIT – 16 (4th)
GB – 3 (31st)

Sunday, January 30, 2011

2011 NFL Draft Prospects - Inside Linebackers

1 – Greg Jones (Michigan State)
2 – Quan Sturdivant (UNC)
3 – Nate Irving (NC State)
4 – Martez Wilson (Illinois)
5 – Kelvin Sheppard (LSU)
6 – Casey Matthews (Oregon)
7 – Mike Mohamed (California)
8 – Josh Bynes (Auburn)
9 – Alex Wujciak (Maryland)
10 – Chris White (Mississippi State)

I list Jones at MLB, but, with his lack of size, he’s probably better suited to play WLB. Similar situation with Sturdivant. Jones isn’t the stout force most teams will look for in a MLB, but his combination of range, instincts, and reliable tackling technique helped make him the most productive linebacker during his college tenure.....Sturdivant played both inside and outside linebacker at UNC but will either move outside or need to play in a 3-4 to stay inside in the pros. I don’t think he’s as quick or reactive as Jones, but like Jones, he’s a disciplined hustler that will have plenty of professional suitors.....The guy I like most of this group is Irving. Every time I watch him play I come away more impressed with his attitude and presence. He’s tough, plays really physical football, and makes up for less than ideal speed with plus instincts. He and Matthews are my top MLB prospects for the Bucs.....I really thought Wilson would stay at Illinois for another season. He has plus speed and quickness for the position and hits hard when he takes proper routes to the ball carrier. I see his biggest negatives being the way he often over pursues and hasn’t consistently performed up to his lofty expectations. He’s probably the most physically gifted of this group, and for that reason may get drafted first, but I’d like to see more consistent production before I get on the bandwagon.

2011 NFL Draft Prospects - Outside Linebackers

(4-3 and 3-4)
1 – Von Miller (Texas A&M)
2 – Jeremy Beal (DE/OLB, Oklahoma)
3 – Aldon Smith (DE/OLB, Missouri)
4 – Akeem Ayers (UCLA)
5 – Dontay Moch (DE/OLB, Nevada)
6 – Bruce Carter (UNC; inj.)
7 – Mark Herzlich (Boston College)
8 – Mason Foster (Washington)
9 – Colin McCarthy (Miami)
10 – Brooks Reed (DE/OLB, Arizona)
11 – Lawrence Wilson (Connecticut)
12 – KJ Wright (Mississippi State)
13 – Ross Homan (Ohio State)
14 – Chris Carter (DE/OLB, Fresno State)
15 – Doug Hogue (Syracuse)
16 – Wayne Daniels (DE/OLB, TCU)
17 – Thomas Keiser (Stanford)

While I’ve never doubted his talent Miller’s, I wonder how well he’ll hold up size-wise (6-3,235) in the NFL. A team is going to get an extremely proven pass rusher, but I worry that’s about all he’ll provide. He’s probably the draft’s “hottest” talent at this point and is being talked about as a potential top 5 pick. His ability to get after the passer is outstanding, but I think his size is a legitimate issue.....I’m big on Jeremy Beal. I see a Kerrigan-like motor in him; always hustling, snap to whistle. He played a lot of DE at Oklahoma, but I think his ability to hold his own in short coverage zones will allow him to play standing up in a 3-4 defense. Beal doesn’t have elite speed but makes up for it with persistence and strength.....I see Smith as a really raw collegiate DE that has a bright future as a 3-4 OLB in the pros. He’s long and lean and a very explosive rusher off the edge. You might hear “potential” mentioned more with Smith than any other player at the position this year.....Ayers looks to be a bit more scheme flexible. He doesn’t get to the passer with Miller’s regularity but is a much better run defender.....If Smith isn’t the guy getting all the “potential” buzz, it will be Moch, another collegiate end likely to move to linebacker in the pros. Moch may be the fastest front seven player in the draft, and his explosion and agility should contribute to him making a ton of plays in opposing backfields.....Bruce Carter’s ability to play contain on the perimeter stands out to me. He doesn’t “bring it” as much as I’d like, but when he recovers from his late season ACL injury, Carter figures to be a productive pro.....Foster isn’t a guy that’s going to initiate a lot of contact or be the most physical guy on the field, but I like his effort and consistent textbook tackling. He looks like an active WLB with potential.....Last but not least, the inspirational Herzlich. His NFL position and forecast are a bit hazy, but no one will ever question his commitment or effort. He looks a lot better moving forward than dropping into coverage, and while he’s not nearly the quickest at his position, he possesses plus read and reaction skills. His ability to diagnose and react quickly will help compensate for his lack of ideal speed.

2011 NFL Draft Prospects - Defensive Tackles

1 – Marcell Dareus (Alabama)
2 – Nick Fairley (Auburn)
3 – Stephen Paea (Oregon State)
4 – Corey Liuget (Illinois)
5 – Drake Nevis (LSU)
6 – Phil Taylor (Baylor)
7 – Jurrell Casey (USC)
8 – Muhammad Wilkerson (Temple)
9 – Marvin Austin (UNC)
10 – Jarvis Jenkins (Clemson)
11 – Sione Fua (Stanford)
12 – Lawrence Guy (Arizona State)
13 – Jerrell Powe (Mississippi)
14 – Ian Williams (Notre Dame)
15 – Kendrick Ellis (Hampton)

Yes, I still have Dareus rated higher than Fairley. Call me crazy, but I think in the long run Dareus will end up the better pro. Both possess size and explosiveness, but I’ve found Dareus to be the better, more consistent lateral player. Dareus does a better job of occupying blockers and overcoming double teams. I think he provides more scheme versatility, as I don’t believe Fairley is ideally suited to be a 5-technique. For more on Fairley, check out my thoughts on the #1 overall pick.....I’ve got Paea a distant third to Dareus and Fairley. He doesn’t have their size, but he’s got them in strength. He’s a stout interior defender who does a good job of blowing up plays in the backfield. Paea controls his zone as well as anyone in this class, and with some technique improvement, he could be a dominating force.....Liuget, Nevis, and Casey are penetrators. Liuget put it together in a big way this season, demonstrating the speed and athleticism from the interior that the pros love. He’s got position flexibility (3 and 5 technique) and a high ceiling.....Nevis and Casey are a bit smaller, and I think the former is more active and has greater potential. Nevis doesn’t play with as much force as Liuget, but he has superior lateral movement/speed and hand usage/technique.....Casey uses his hands and a variety of moves to get consistent penetration, but he doesn’t anchor well for a guy with a big base.....Speaking of big bases, likely the draft’s top pure 3-4 NT, Taylor is a two down 330 pound run stuffer. The Chiefs could use someone with his skill set, but pick #21 might be a bit high for him.....Wilkerson dominated questionable competition, but definitely he looks the part. At Temple he was an impressive penetrator for his size, but I’m sure there will be questions as to whether or not he can be as effective against much greater talent.....Ex-Heel Marvin Austin is a disruptive force when he feels like playing. He was a R1 prospect before his troubles this season and will need a strong pre-draft showing to get near that discussion again.

2011 NFL Draft Prospects - Defensive Ends

1 – Da’Quan Bowers (Clemson)
2 – Robert Quinn (UNC)
3 – Adrian Clayborn (Iowa)
4 – Justin Houston (DE/OLB, Georgia)
5 – Ryan Kerrigan (Purdue)
6 – JJ Watt (Wisconsin)
7 – Cameron Jordan (California)
8 – Cameron Heyward (Ohio State)
9 – Christian Ballard (DT/DE, Iowa)
10 – Pernell McPhee (Mississippi State)
11 – Jabaal Sheard (Pittsburgh)
12 – Allen Bailey (Miami)
13 – Greg Romeus (Pittsburgh)
14 – Sam Acho (Texas)
15 – Cliff Matthews (DE/OLB, South Carolina)
16 – Pierre Allen (Nebraska)
17 – Markus White (FSU)

As a Bucs fan who sat through another season watching his team again reside in or near the league’s cellar in sacks (this year they were the worst), it’s a good thing the defensive end position is top loaded with talent.....After a phenomenal junior season, Bowers projects as a top five pick.....Despite missing the 2010 season, I expect Quinn to go really high. His athleticism stands out, and his huge potential is tempting. For more on those two, check out my thoughts on what the Panthers should do.....Other than Patrick Peterson, Clayborn was the one player I wanted a year ago to end up with the Bucs in 2011. He has impressive size and strength and is quick for a big guy. I saw a high motor, fast feet, and varied technique in getting to the passer in the ’09 version. I’m not sure what happened, but he really disappointed this season. He looked stiffer, a lot less explosive, and beat far fewer double teams. If he can relocate some of that lost quickness and effort, he’ll be a bargain wherever he’s picked.....Houston has experience as an end in a 4-3 and as an OLB in a 3-4. Regardless of where he lands, he’ll bring great explosion and relentlessness along with tremendous pass rushing potential. He’s one of a few high ceiling pass rushers that bring scheme versatility to this year’s class; something the Bucs figure to be utilizing more this season. His combination of game speed and range make him a dangerous defender.....I’m a fan of Kerrigan’s complete game. He’s not the most explosive end but plays with a really high motor and is a serious threat against both the pass and run. I like his lateral quickness and the way he utilizes his strength and leverage as a pass rusher. His effort is never in question.....Watt brings a combination of strength, stoutness, and pass rushing ability that will likely have him going off the board early to a 3-4 team.....I’m really high on the top 5. The Bucs will almost certainly look to take a pass rusher here, and 2 or 3 of those 5 should be available at #20. With needs at LB, RB, OL, and S, I don’t expect them to double down with their first two selections, but by acquiring an additional early pick, the Bucs could take advantage of this year’s DE depth and really shore up the team’s primary weakness as they did by taking Gerald McCoy and Brian Price to fill the DT void in ’10.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

2011 NFL Draft Prospects - Guards & Centers

1 – Rodney Hudson (G, FSU)
2 – Stefen Wisniewski (C, Penn State)
3 – Mike Pouncey (G, Florida)
4 – Marcus Cannon (G/T, TCU)
5 – John Moffitt (G, Wisconsin)
6 – Danny Watkins (G/T, Baylor)
7 – Will Rackley (G, Lehigh)
8 – Orlando Franklin (G/T, Miami)
9 – Clint Boling (G, Georgia)
10 – Jake Kirkpatrick (C, TCU)
11 – Lee Ziemba (G/T, Auburn)
12 – Tim Barnes (C, Missouri)
13 – Stephen Schilling (G, Michigan)
14 – Kristofer O’Dowd (C, USC)
15 – Justin Boren (G, Ohio State)
16 – Bryant Browning (G, Ohio State)

Hudson is one of the most skilled and experienced linemen in this draft, and I love his future in the right scheme (big emphasis on that last part). He’s a true leader and will take that with him to the pros. His one weakness is a lack of ideal size for the guard position, but he’s used a combination of intelligence, flawless technique, agility, and positioning to consistently get the better of bigger defenders throughout his Nole career.....Speaking of intelligence and agility, Wisniewski is clearly the top center in this class. He’s very technical, mixes quickness and balanced blocking, and handles line calls really well. The only drawback I saw is that he’s not overpowering, but you still don’t see him get out muscled often.....Pouncey has guard and center experience but is likely to spend most of his time at guard in the pros. He’s a plus run blocker with a lot of strength but will need to improve his technique and consistency as a pass blocker.....I’ve got Cannon at guard even though he was a tackle at TCU. He’s huge (6-6, 350) and has really smooth footwork for a guy his size. Despite the footwork, the fact that he’s so big leads to him giving up the edge to twitchy/speed rushers. He looks a lot better moving forward than receiving a blocker. That combined with his strength/power in the run game leads me to believe he might be best off by moving inside to guard.....I expect the Bucs to make a couple of moves on the interior this offseason with one of them being the release of Jeff Faine. Davin Joseph is a free agent, and I’m not holding my breath that the Bucs will get into a bidding war despite Joseph being their best lineman. Of these guards, I’d most prefer Moffitt. He’s a mauling drive blocker who would give the Bucs run game a big boost, especially if the similarly physical Joseph doesn’t return. Moffitt also has center versatility; another area in which the Bucs are a bit unsettled.

2011 NFL Draft Prospects - Offensive Tackles

1 – Derek Sherrod (Mississippi State)
2 – Anthony Castonzo (Boston College)
3 – Gabe Carimi (Wisconsin)
4 – Nate Solder (Colorado)
5 – Tyron Smith (USC)
6 – DeMarcus Love (T/G, Arkansas)
7 – Joseph Barksdale (LSU)
8 – Benjamin Ijalana (T/G, Villanova)
9 – Jason Pinkston (T/G, Pittsburgh)
10 – Marcus Gilbert (Florida)
11 – James Brewer (Indiana)
12 – Chris Hairston (Clemson)
13 – James Carpenter (T/G, Alabama)
14 – Derek Newton (Arkansas State)

Sherrod is an experienced left tackle who enters the league as a better pass protector than most rookies, but he’s probably not suited for an aggressive, power running scheme. His footwork and hands are his biggest strengths in my opinion.....Castonzo is a really big dude (6-7, 295) with both right and left tackle experience. I like his technique (hands, use of leverage) and the way he’s quick to cut off edge rushers with a big, strong drop step.....Carimi is a really strong blocker which shouldn’t surprise considering he’s from Wisconsin. He doesn’t have the best agility/footwork for the position, and therefore may get pegged as only a RT by some teams. I disagree. He’s solid in the run game and holds his own as a pass protector as long as he can play within his shoulders. Back to the feet, he can be beat by speed, but once he has you, he wins.....I think Solder is going to be a real project. He’s a TE convert who is still really raw at tackle and needs to improve technique and strength. Someone will take Solder sooner than I’ve got him slotted to go, but I’m not a big fan at this point. He’s really athletic for the position, but that’s a small part of the job. I think he might be too tall; combo of too tall and too lean to be a big time LT. He’s got long arms and can play big and wide, but he’s not strong or stout. He doesn’t stone anyone and looks really sloppy for stretches; hard not to miss it.....Smith might have the highest ceiling, but he has a lot of physical maturing to do (6-6, 285) and has only been exposed to right tackle.....Love has G/T experience and may need to carry that into the pros. He’s got decent feet for a big guy, but he seems to get off balance too much/easily; has a hard time dropping to seal off the edge. He’ll need to develop as a run blocker, and he didn’t look good in the Sugar Bowl getting tossed around by Cameron Heyward. I’ll leave him listed at tackle, but he’s probably more likely to be utilized at guard.....I’m pretty big on the first three guys on this list and could rank them interchangeably. If there isn’t a DE or LB worthy of the #20 pick, I would support the Bucs spending that selection on Castonzo or Carimi. I left Sherrod out because I think that if he’s playing RT, it would be on a zone or finesse blocking team, not what the Bucs major in.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

2011 NFL Draft Prospects - Tight Ends

1 – DJ Williams (Arkansas)
2 – Kyle Rudolph (Notre Dame)
3 – Lance Kendricks (Wisconsin)
4 – Luke Stocker (Tennessee)
5 – Mike McNeill (Nebraska)
6 – Rob Housler (FAU)
7 – Andre Smith (Virginia Tech)
8 – Virgil Green (Nevada)
9 – Charlie Gantt (Michigan State)
10 – Weslye Saunders (*South Carolina)

While Rudolph is pretty sure to go first, I’m a big fan of Williams’ game. He’s not a huge guy, but he’s solid and run blocks really well for a player counted on primarily for his receiving talents. He catches very cleanly with his hands and will create matchup problems at the next level with his deceptive breakaway speed. Williams is very dangerous in the screen game, and that’s something I expect his next team to take advantage of as well.....Kendricks’ consistency in making plays over the middle of the field in traffic stands out, as does his ability to maximize yard after catch chances.....Stocker is a lot like another former Volunteer, Jason Witten, in that for a guy with minimal speed, he always seems to be open and pick up big yards.....Like Stocker, McNeill just gets open and doesn’t drop passes.....I think Green has a lot of potential as an athletic pass catcher.....Housler’s an underrated prospect who has a combination of size, speed, and receiving ability that could make him a mismatch in the pros.....You’re not going to get a ton of in-line blocking out of this bunch, but they’ll be used in variety of ways to create mismatches with their speed and quickness.

2011 NFL Draft Prospects - Wide Receivers

1 – AJ Green (Georgia)
2 – Julio Jones (Alabama)
3 – Torrey Smith (Maryland)
4 – Titus Young (Boise State)
5 – Randall Cobb (Kentucky)
6 – Jonathan Baldwin (Pittsburgh)
7 – Jerrel Jernigan (Troy)
8 – Greg Little (UNC)
9 – Leonard Hankerson (Miami)
10 – Austin Pettis (Boise State)
11 – Dwayne Harris (ECU)
12 – Vincent Brown (San Diego State)
13 – Niles Paul (Nebraska)
14 – Terrance Toliver (LSU)
15 – Tandon Doss (Indiana)
16 – Cecil Shorts III (Mount Union)
17 – Ronald Johnson (USC)
18 – Greg Salas (Hawaii)
19 – Darvin Adams (Auburn)
20 – Ryan Whalen (Stanford)

Green is clearly the class of this class and the most likely to reach “superstar” status. For a little more on him, check out my thoughts on what Carolina should do with the #1 overall pick.....Smith is probably the best deep threat of the bunch, is slippery in tight spaces, and should wow a lot of people at the Combine.....The same goes for Jernigan and Harris, two players who display great elusiveness and ability to make plays in space.....I think Young is for real and is someone whose play, to me, “pops”. He just gets yards. His urgency and ability to maximize yardage every time he has the ball stands out; plus field awareness and vision.....His teammate, Pettis, has great feet and body control and runs nice routes for a college receiver; two areas in which Young could improve. I think Pettis will bring a lot of versatility as far as being able to line him up inside and outside formations.....Cobb’s versatility as a rusher, passer, receiver, and returner are impressive. He reminds me a bit of Hines Ward. His plus hands, quickness in and out of breaks, and sharp routes should have him contributing early on in the pros.....Baldwin is no Fitzgerald, but he’s better than his production at Pitt. He’s a big bodied receiver (6-5, 230) who shields defenders well and should be a serious red zone threat in the pros. He will have the most important/influential 40 at the Combine.....Unfortunately, Justin Blackmon returned to Oklahoma State. He’d rank 2nd on this list if he had opted out. Next year he’ll have to fight off Alshon Jeffrey (South Carolina) for the top honor. I’m also huge on Greg Childs (Arkansas) and Ryan Broyles (Oklahoma) two juniors who returned for one final season.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

2011 NFL Draft Prospects - Running Backs

1 – Mikel Leshoure (Illinois)
2 – Ryan Williams (Virginia Tech)
3 – Mark Ingram (Alabama)
4 – Jordan Todman (Connecticut)
5 – DeMarco Murray (Oklahoma)
6 – Daniel Thomas (Kansas State)
7 – Shane Vereen (California)
8 – Kendall Hunter (Oklahoma State)
9 – Delone Carter (Syracuse)
10 – Bilal Powell (Louisville)
11 – Graig Cooper (Miami)
12 – Jamie Harper (Clemson)
13 – Noel Devine (West Virginia)
14 – Derrick Locke (Kentucky)
15 – Dion Lewis (Pittsburgh)
16 – Jacquizz Rodgers (Oregon State)
17 – Stevan Ridley (LSU)
18 – Roy Helu Jr. (Nebraska)
19 – Taiwan Jones (Eastern Washington)
20 – Da’Rel Scott (Maryland)

This RB class has a bit of something for everyone. There’s power (Leshoure, Ingram, Thomas), speed (Todman, Devine, Locke), and versatility (Williams, Murray, Vereen). Leshoure is still my favorite; a complete back who has the durability to perform well in the pros for many years. For a guy who sits at about 230, he shows an impressive burst through the line and shake/cutting ability…..Williams had an unimpressive sophomore season, but I love his vision and ability to explode through the hole and consistently rack up positive yards. He’s a franchise back…..Ingram will likely be the first one off the board, and while I think he’ll be a fine pro, I believe the other two have higher upsides. Ingram reminds me of Emmitt Smith; not the best speed but a successful inside runner who displays consistently preferred pad level…..I was a little surprised that Todman declared, but he’s someone on my radar for the Bucs sitting as the first back behind what I see as the big three. He’s an explosive, shifty runner with plus vision; the type of compliment I think the Bucs need behind LeGarrette Blount. Connecticut ran the hell out of him this year to the tune of 334 carries, so he’s proven his durability…..Murray’s a quick accelerator with breakaway speed. I think he’ll make a big impact in the pros as a receiver out of the backfield. He runs too high at times and has had durability issues in the past, but I was impressed with how healthy and durable he was this season…..Vereen reminds me of a quicker but less solid/durable Ray Rice. He runs low to the ground and through more tackles than you’d expect for a guy his size…..Carter enters with some injury and off field baggage, but the dude is ripped and has the skill set to be a primary back at the next level. He’s not a true sleeper, but he’s getting very little buzz at this point…..This is higher than you’ll see him anywhere else, but if healthy, Cooper is going to be one of this draft’s best bargains. He was for real and was set to be a fairly high draft pick before he blew out his ACL in last year’s bowl game. He’s fallen off the radar, but prior to the injury, Cooper was projecting as a complete back at the next level. He isn’t spectacular in any particular area, but he’s a solid combination of power running, vision, and receiving skills. Again, I’d prefer someone like Todman for the Bucs, but I’d be very pleased with taking a flier on Cooper later on in the draft.

2011 NFL Draft Prospects - Quarterbacks

Now that the talent pool that will make up this year’s draft has been settled, here is the first in a series of updated rankings. As always, this is not the order in which I project these players to be drafted. This order represents my confidence in their ability to be key contributors at the next level.

1 – Jake Locker (Washington)
2 – Ryan Mallett (Arkansas)
3 – Christian Ponder (FSU)
4 – Blaine Gabbert (Missouri)
5 – Colin Kaepernick (Nevada)
6 – Cam Newton (Auburn)
7 – Andy Dalton (TCU)
8 – Ricky Stanzi (Iowa)
9 – Pat Devlin (Delaware)
10 – Tyrod Taylor (Virginia Tech)
11 – Greg McElroy (Alabama)

I’m not overwhelmed with this class of passers and really don’t see a definite franchise guy in the bunch. As I’ve mentioned repeatedly, the ability to make quick decisions is the number one thing I look for in a QB, and I question that ability in every one of this year’s top rated talents (Locker, Mallett, Gabbert, and Newton).....Gabbert is getting the most buzz and could be the first one selected, but physical measurables aside, I don’t think he makes sound quick decisions or the right ones consistently.....Locker ranks at the top of my list as I believe his talents will be maximized with professional coaching and competent skill players with which to work. He had a poor senior season, but I like Locker’s combination of aggression and vision.....Kaepernick might look a little high here, but he could actually have the greatest potential as a developmental prospect with a big arm and plus mobility. Once Kaepernick commits to keeping the ball, he shows impressive straight line speed. He avoids the pass rush well for a guy who isn’t the thickest QB. Despite running the Pistol offense at Nevada I think his skill set will make the transition to a more traditional scheme fairly seamless.....I think Ponder and Dalton have a great chance to succeed as, in addition to their underrated physical assets, both are very intelligent, confident offensive leaders. Ponder’s stock took quite a hit this season with his injuries, but I think he’s very “pro ready” and could be a successful starting WCO QB.....I’m not big on Newton..... Devlin comes from the same school as Flacco, but they have differing skill sets. Flacco has the bigger arm and is more of a pocket passer while Devlin is more mobile and works the intermediate areas consistently.....I think Stanzi is a solid backup prospect; someone who could be a good #2 for several seasons. He doesn’t do anything outstanding but is an intelligent pocket passer with pro style offense experience.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

2011 NFL Draft - #1 Pick: What the Panthers Should Do

The Carolina Panthers, due to their woeful 2-14 season, will be picking first in the upcoming draft. A couple of weeks ago, all thoughts were on the Panthers selecting Stanford’s Andrew Luck with that pick, but with Luck returning to school, the decision becomes much less obvious. Would the Panthers still pursue a non-Luck QB or give Jimmy Clausen a chance to improve upon his rocky rookie year? What about a receiver to replace Steve Smith as the Clausen’s go-to guy? How about upgrading the secondary where free agent Richard Marshall is uncertain to return? Maybe a pass rusher to go with Charles Johnson or one to replace him should he leave via free agency? How about someone for the interior defensive line where Derek Landri and Nick Hayden form make a rather penetrable pair?

Here are some options for Carolina to consider with the #1 pick along with my unsolicited advice as to who the selection should be.

Robert Quinn (DE, North Carolina)
He was suspended for all of 2010, but the guy’s talent is undeniable. Quinn is a really fluid athlete who explodes off the line and demonstrates plus balance, lean, and footwork when getting after the passer. He plays contain really well and shows plus closing speed when plays are stretched his way. My issues with him are that he needs to get a little bit bigger and stop getting hung up with blockers as often as he does. I think his combination of speed, athleticism, and footwork will have him on the radar of a lot of 3-4 teams looking for a pass rusher. The references to Julius Peppers, a former Tar Heel and Panther, will be unavoidable. Going #1 might be a stretch, but don’t be surprised when he’s a top 10, possibly 5 pick. Charles Johnson had a breakout year at LE, and his timing was ideal as he’s set to enter free agency with a lot of value. Regardless of how they use this first pick, retaining Johnson should be a priority. Rebuilding teams don’t let proven pass rushers walk. Everette Brown isn’t yet where he needs to be, Greg Hardy followed a noisy preseason with a quiet regular season, and veteran Tyler Brayton is an expensive average player. Retaining Johnson is a must, but if things somehow cannot be worked out, finding a pass rusher jumps to the top of the Panthers’ priority list.

Da’Quan Bowers (DE, Clemson)
Winner of the Nagurski (nation’s top defensive player) and Ted Hendricks (nation’s top DE) awards, Bowers exploded in his junior season for 15.5 sacks and 25 TFL. There is concern that Bowers is a one year wonder, but like Quinn, his athleticism and potential are hard to ignore. He was the conference’s top defensive player and a unanimous All American. Bowers is an impact player with the perfect frame and size/speed combo for the position. He’s physical and aggressive and uses his hands, leverage, and upper body strength well in shedding blocks. I like his lower body, and he’s got room to get bigger. He’s a stout run defender from the RE position and shows a strong, quick first step off the line. Despite the big sack numbers, I do think his pass rushing technique needs a little work, added diversity. I know Ron Rivera said he’s keeping a 4-3, but if he’s looking for versatility for a possible future switch, I think Quinn is the better pick. I’m not sure Bowers transitions as well to a 3-4, either as a 5-technique or OLB, as Quinn would. Playing the 5 would limit Bowers’ pass rushing opportunities, a big strength, and regarding OLB, the former Tar Heel is quicker, more fluid, and covers more space.

Patrick Peterson (CB, LSU)
It’s no secret Peterson is my favorite college prospect. Viewed as an island corner at the next level, Peterson should be one of the first five players off the board. I like his fundamentally sound controlled aggression style of play and believe he’ll be an elite player in the pros. He has plus hands, ball skills, athleticism, body control, and footwork. You don’t see him misstep in his drops whether he’s turning in or out. If I had a complaint it would be that I’d like to see him flip his hips a little quicker when dropping into coverage. Peterson has an excellent build and plays physical at the line of scrimmage. He’s an intelligent pass rusher, who like Ronde Barber, can make a lot of plays off the edge from the secondary. This will suit him very well at the next level. Peterson doesn’t have a tremendous vertical, but he always attacks the ball at its highest point. He simply makes plays. I don’t think he’ll be asked to do this right away, but I believe Peterson has the size and skills to play either safety spots in the pros. He’ll need to improve his run support to contribute consistently in that area, but the tools are there. He utilizes his great vision in coverage as well as special teams where he’s an exceptional return man. It’s the combination of his sub 4.40 speed, committed running style, and ability to stop and go on a dime that set him apart. Peterson simply sees more of the field than other players on it, and he’s great in short spaces where he can out-physical and quick cut an opponent to pick up extra yardage. Corner isn’t Carolina’s greatest need, but with the possible/likely departure of Richard Marshall, they’ll be shy a starting corner in division where Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, and Josh Freeman throw with regularity.

Nick Fairley (DL, Auburn)
No one player may have helped his draft stock more in his team’s bowl game than Auburn’s Nick Fairley. Already projected to be a top 10 player, Fairley’s highlight filled performance against Oregon in the national title game likely solidified his standing as a top 3 selection. Although I’m not sold on him being a 5-technique (3-4 DE) in the pros I believe that each team picking in the top 3 (Carolina, Denver, and Buffalo) has Fairley near the top of their wish list. His dominance (1 sack, 3 TFL, and a forced fumble) of the Ducks was reminiscent of Ndamukong Suh’s ownage of the Texas Longhorns last year, but I caution those wanting to put Fairley in Suh’s category as Suh is clearly the more consistently dominant talent. Also, despite being listed at 6-5, 298, I don’t believe Fairley is as big as Suh who is listed at a legitimate 6-4, 307. Like Bowers, Fairley will have the label of possible “one year wonder”. After beginning at the JUCO level and starting just two games in his sophomore season, Fairley exploded this year for 11.5 sacks and 24 TFL. It’s his burst off the snap as a gap penetrator that has earned him the recognition as college football’s top defensive tackle. Where he struggles is fighting through double teams and showing a tendency of coming out too high, not using proper hand technique or leverage, and slowing his feet. This is why I don’t think he’ll be an ideal 5-technique, depending on specific scheme assignments, in the pros. I don’t believe he has near the physical strength Suh does, and unlike Suh, he disappeared too often during stretches of games. I’m not sure how much each team is going to consider it, but Fairley is a documented dirty player. Whether it’s a cheap shot on a lineman’s legs during a play or roughing someone up under a pile after the whistle, cameras have captured Fairley’s tactics with regularity. To be honest, he strikes me more as the next Albert Haynesworth than the next Ndamukong Suh. With mediocre middlemen Nick Hayden and Derek Landri seeing the majority of the snaps, defensive tackle is one of Carolina’s biggest weakness, but are the Panthers confident enough in one year of Fairley to take him #1 overall?

AJ Green (WR, Georgia)
Despite missing four games of his junior season for a (in my opinion) minor off field incident, Green is the consensus #1 wideout of a talented draft class. The acrobatic receiver has plus body control and concentration and plays even taller than his 6-4 frame. Green’s hands are undeniable and have made up for Georgia’s QB deficiencies during his time as a Bulldog. I love the way he consistently puts himself in perfect position to make a catch. Similarly to the way a basketball player defends ball-you-man, Green keeps the defender on his back ensuring that only he has a shot of coming down with the football. He won’t put up an elite 40 speed or be the fastest straight line runner, but I appreciate Green’s ability to quickly and smoothly get in and out of his breaks. He’s able to gain separation in short spaces and then uses the previously mentioned body control to dominate a zone. I think Green is really effective on quick hitting patterns, using his start-stop quickness and smooth route running to make it hard for DBs to maintain tight coverage on him. Green isn’t a terribly thick guy, but he’s fearless over the middle and shows impressive field and situational awareness at all times. It stands out to me how quickly he reacts after making a catch and gets the necessary yards to maximize each play’s potential. It’s nearly impossible to outplay him for the football once it’s in the air because of his combination of plus leaping ability and ball skills. If you don’t take a QB #1 overall, how about pairing your passer with a bona fide #1 WR? Steve Smith is under contract for two more years at the price of $7 million in ’11 and $7.75 million in ’12, and although due largely to the play under center, his performance has slipped the last two seasons. Rookies Brandon LaFell and David Gettis flashed at times, but neither established themselves as a legit starter for next season. Does Smith have any more 80-1,000-8 seasons in him, or is whoever lines up wide for the Panthers going to be limited as long as Clausen is under center?

QB – Ryan Mallett (Arkansas) or Blaine Gabbert (Missouri)
With Andrew Luck returning to school and breaking the heart of Panther fans, taking a QB at #1 isn’t the no-brainer it would have been had Luck been on the board. The two QBs most often mentioned being chosen first, Mallett and Gabbert, both have very visible flaws. Mallett’s ability, or inability rather, to handle pressure was put on display repeatedly in the Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State. His feet were slow, his field vision shrunk, his throwing rhythm was off, and his passes really lacked accuracy. For his part, Gabbert was constantly harassed at the Insight Bowl against Iowa, exposing his questionable decision making, inability to properly look off defenders, and lack of ideal accuracy. Each has their positives. Mallett is the rifle armed passer with the unmistakably large 6-6, 238 frame which will allow him to better absorb those hits he’ll take in the pros. He has a quick release and has worked to improve his feet which has led to increased accuracy (when he’s given time to throw). Mallett has a smooth delivery and is at his best passing from the pocket. He still throws a bit high too often and struggles with varying the touch/speed of his passes. Mallett’s ability to make proper, timely decisions has been put to test in the past, and he doesn’t always make the right read. He has the package, but he’ll need a good bit of work in reading defenses, making decisions, and improving his accuracy if he’s to reach his full pro potential. I not really high on him out of the gates because I don’t believe he’ll respond as well to the pressure as did Ben Roethlisberger, a player to whom he’s drawn comparisons. Gabbert’s a guy that doesn’t impress me as much as he does other folks. He’s coming out of a spread offense where he’s always in the shotgun and has very little responsibility for reading and responding to a defense. Due to that system, I’m not sure how much of the actual field he’s seeing, and that’s not a question I want to be asking about a guy I’m thinking about taking first overall. I also think his pocket presence is really weak. Too often I’ve seen him break the pocket too soon or sit in it far too long. Then once he has to leave the pocket, he’s a poor passer on the run. Gabbert’s release point isn’t as high as I’d prefer it to be, but I do like how quickly he gets rid of the football and how consistent he is in doing so. He has the size (6-4, 235) and arm that scouts love, and his leadership is mentioned with regularity. If he turns out to be a quick study, Gabbert could pay early dividends for whoever drafts him.

Jimmy Clausen was absolutely awful as a starter for the Panthers, throwing 3 TDs and 9 INTs in 12+ games. He looked lost, made horrible decisions, and threw with the accuracy of a high school sophomore. The Panthers aren’t heavily invested in him, but do you need to spend the first pick of the draft on a QB not named Andrew Luck? Are Mallett and/or Gabbert that “can’t miss” that you’ve got to take them? If you take one of these guys and miss, you’re setting yourself back another five years and waste the talents of guys like Jonathan Stewart and Jon Beason and whatever’s left of Steve Smith.

The Decision
Here’s my process of elimination:

Peterson – In the history of the draft, never has a CB been taken with the #1 pick. As valuable as Peterson would be in a division where you have to face Brees, Ryan, and Freeman twice a year, I don’t see the Panthers making history.

Quinn – If the Panthers were to go with a DE, I’m guessing Jerry Richardson would want to spend his money on a guy who played this past season. That said, I still think Quinn is a likely top 5 pick.

Mallett & Gabbert – Whether you love, hate, or are indifferent to Clausen, I don’t think you can truly judge a QB on how he does in his first season as a starter; especially if it’s his rookie year. After giving Clausen nearly a whole season to get his feet wet, are you sure that ending the experiment this quickly and going with a rookie QB not named Andrew Luck is the best use of the #1 pick? I know the league isn’t littered with viable passers, but one possible solution would be to find a veteran like Donovan McNabb, Matt Hasselbeck, or Marc Bulger to allow you to exhibit more patience in developing Clausen.

Based on the following logic, I think I can narrow it down to three players. If I can assume that the Panthers don’t view any of these QBs as a clear significant upgrade to Clausen, then I’ve got to think they take whoever they have ranked highest between Bowers, Fairley, and Green. Looking at the defensive side of the ball, thanks to his play in the last college game of the year, Fairley is going to be fresher in folks’ minds than Bowers, but I’ve got these guys graded fairly evenly as far as overall rankings go. Assuming Charles Johnson is retained, you’d have him, Everette Brown and Greg Hardy at DE. Is Bowers, as much as I like him, going to give you that much more at end that you can afford to ignore a greater area of need, DT, and a prospect rated, assumedly, on par with any other candidate you’re considering with the pick?

So in my mind it’s down to Green or Fairley. Receivers haven’t fared too much better than corners when it comes to earning the title of #1 pick as Irving Fryar (’84) and Keyshawn Johnson (’96) are the only wideouts to be taken first overall. Green would need to be Calvin Johnson in order to justify being taken first, and while I think he’s got a good shot of getting there, Carolina might be well served to follow Calvin’s team’s example. As good as Johnson is, the Lions didn’t start to show signs of life until this season, when focus was placed on upgrading the defense. Suh was one large piece to the puzzle, and getting that disruptive defensive force to build around might be the route defensive minded hire Ron Rivera prefers to pursue.

With the first pick in the 2011 NFL draft, the Carolina Panthers select…

Nick Fairley (DT, Auburn)

I hesitate to endorse this guy as the #1 pick, but given Carolina’s situation, his upside might be too much to resist. With Luck returning to Stanford, the decision will be a tough one for Carolina, as there is no clear cut #1 overall talent. Fairley’s lack of a lengthy resume is disconcerting, but he might be the strongest pick the Panthers can make to compete with their Brees, Ryan, and Freeman led divisional opponents.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

2010-2011 NFL Playoff Predictions - Conference Championships

A little better last week at 2-2. Saying that Ray Rice and Joe Flacco gave the game to the Steelers might be a little much, but at a minimum they served it up to them real nice. Despite having a 14 point lead at halftime, the Ravens couldn’t hold on for the win. The Jets truly shocked the world, beating the Patriots at home, proving that I have no idea what I’m talking about when I say things like “Tom Brady does not lose at home.” In the NFC, my favorite QB led the Packers to a bludgeoning of the #1 seed Falcons, sending them to Chicago where they’ll face a Bears team that emphatically put an end to Seattle’s playoff march. This week’s contests are, like last week’s, seasonal rematches with both the two and six seeds in each conference making it to the final four.

Sunday, 3:00
#6 Packers (10-6, 2-0) @ #2 Bears (11-5, 1-0)

Rivalry renewed. The Packers and Bears have played each other about 8,000,000 times, but this will be the first time the winner of this brawl advances to the Super Bowl. Some will say that the Packers week 17 win against the Bears was unimpressive considering the Packers had everything on the line, and the Bears had already been locked into their playoff spot. Truth is – the Bears played their starters the whole game because they didn’t want this Packers team in the playoffs. These two played 120 minutes of the most competitive football we saw this season, and with the winner of this one advancing to the Super Bowl, I would expect the intensity to be at an all time high. That could mean that the QB who is able to keep a level head and not let the game overcome them will be the one still playing in a couple of weeks. Jay Cutler threw for 389 yards, 1 TD, and 3 INTs in his two meetings with the Packers. On the other side, Aaron Rodgers passed for a total of 545 yards, but his 2-2 TD-INT ratio in those contests, when compared to his 28-11 season totals, shows how much trouble this Bears defense can give a QB.

Both teams impressed last week, but I think Green Bay’s beat down of the #1 Falcons said more than Chicago’s dominance over a clearly inferior Seahawks team that dropped far too many passes and did nothing to help itself advance. Rodgers did whatever he wanted against the Falcons, completing an insane 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and accounting for 4 of Green Bay’s 6 TDs. The NFC’s best regular season team was unable to get anything going offensively, rushing for a season low 45 yards and doubling their regular season single game high with 4 turnovers. The Packers pummeled a team that had been dominant at home, winning 7 of 8 in the Georgia Dome this season. Chicago’s 35-24 win over the Seahawks wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicates. Sloppy closeout defense by the Bears allowed Seattle to get two late TDs in a minute’s time, taking a bit of the oomph out of the victory. Seattle looked nothing like the team that beat the Bears in Soldier Field back in October. This time, Cutler was given a lot more time to complete passes, and his play certainly showed it. The Bears also ran for 115 more yards as a team in last week’s matchup than they did in the first.

I think weather will be the deciding factor in this one. It’s obviously going to be cold, but what will matter is how much it snows during the week and during the game and how windy it is at game time. Chicago wants nothing more than to have nasty, wintery conditions for their matchup against a QB who loves to throw the ball all over the field. That will also assist the Bears’ run game as I think they have a far better chance beating the Packers on the ground in a low scoring affair than through the air where they would, unadvisedly, be trying to win a game of horse against the hottest passer in the game. And do the Bears really want Cutler to try and match Rodgers pass for pass?

As I type, things on the weather front look good for Green Bay. Thursday appears to be the only day this week where Chicago will see significant snow. Friday and Saturday are calling for light snowfall, if at all, which should have things clear for the game on Sunday. Wind is also expected to be very minimal, so near normal conditions should exist when these two teams hook up. I read an interesting note by Jason Cole regarding Rodgers’ play in cold weather. Popular thought may be that since Rodgers throws it a lot, he’ll be in for a long game in the cold of Chicago. Not so. Per Cole, “…here’s how Rodgers has played in 10 outdoor games played in December or January since taking over as Green Bay’s starter in 2008, all of which were in cold-weather spots: Rodgers has completed 209 of 330 passes for 2,857 yards, 22 touchdowns and only five interceptions. That’s a quarterback rating of 106.8 and the Packers are 8-2 in those games. Again, that does NOT include his game Saturday night at Atlanta or his playoff game at Arizona last year.”

I can’t wait for this game. I’m still not convinced that Chicago is one of the four best teams in the NFL, but all that matters is that they’re still playing. And they’ll still be playing next week if they are able to do what Atlanta couldn’t – establish a run game and control the clock, keep Aaron Rodgers on the sidelines, and bring enough pressure to turn him over when he throws. Chicago needs to do a better job of protecting Cutler because you know Dom Capers is going to blitz frequently. The unit played better as a whole down the stretch, but they allowed 9 sacks of Cutler to the Packers in their two games, including 6 in the matchup a few weeks ago. Green Bay had the league’s 5th best pass defense, giving up the 4th fewest TDs, and finished 2nd in the league in interceptions. Their 16-24 TD-INT ratio was the best pass defense ratio in the league, and they finished 2nd to the Steelers in sacks with 47. All reasons to put less on Cutler’s shoulders.

That means Matt Forte will need to be the primary producer on offense for the Bears. After gaining a meager 29 yards on 11 carries in the first contest, Forte rushed for 91 yards and added another 60 on 8 receptions in the second. In addition to Forte pounding it on the ground, look for him, similar to Ray Rice with the Ravens against the Steelers, to get a lot of short passes this week as the Bears look to take advantage of an aggressive Packers defense. Another player to keep an eye on is Greg Olsen. Not only was he huge last week for 113 yards and a score, but the former Cane caught 10 passes for 93 yards and a TD in his two games against Green Bay this year. The Packers can’t win first and second down only to allow Olsen to beat them down the seam for big gainers. Still, I believe that objective #1 for the Packers is to shut down Forte and the running game, forcing Cutler to gamble more often than desired through the air.

Despite the emergence of rookie runner James Starks, the Packers most certainly aren’t counting on the running game getting them to Dallas. Chicago ranked 2nd at 90.1 yards per game allowed on the ground and forced more fumbles (15) than any other defense in the league. That works out well for the Packers because, while Chicago would prefer to not have their QB’s play decide the outcome of the game, the Packers want nothing more than for Rodgers to have the football in his hands as often as possible. In addition to last week’s video game like numbers, Rodgers completed 34/45 for 346 yards in his first encounter with the Bears, spreading the wealth to 7 different receivers. The second time the two teams met, Rodgers completed passes to 9 different targets. He’ll need to continue scattering his passes to keep Chicago’s physical secondary off balance and unable to focus on one particular receiver. I don’t see that being a problem. Most importantly he’ll have to turn more drives against this defense into points.

There shouldn’t be much of a surprise which way I’m leaning here. Forte does his damage, but Cutler is unable to beat a secondary led by Tramon “3 playoff INTs” Williams and veteran Charles Woodson. Aaron Rodgers is on fire right now, and as long as he takes care of the football the way he did in Atlanta and doesn’t force what isn’t there, the Packers will head to Dallas. To steal the old saying, Chicago can’t stop him. They can only hope to contain him. This Sunday they won’t be able to do either.

Packers 23 – Bears 13

Sunday, 6:30
#6 Jets (11-5, 2-0) @ #2 Steelers (12-4, 1-0)

Talk about an upset. The Jets blew into Gillette Stadium last week and dismantled the odds on Super Bowl favorites 28-21 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicates. The Patriots had the Jets within reach on the scoreboard throughout, but as the game progressed, the feeling set in that the Jets were not only ahead, they were going to leave winners as well. The Steelers weren’t nearly as emphatic in their divisional round win, needing three third quarter Baltimore turnovers to overcome a 14 point halftime deficit and beat the Ravens. Third quarter notwithstanding, somehow Baltimore allowed Antonio Brown to get loose for a long gainer on a 3rd and 19 just before the two minute warning that led to the game winning score. The Jets and Steelers took different paths to get here, but they’re the last teams standing in the AFC and will bang heads for a second time this year at Heinz Field for the right to head to the big one.

In that first matchup, the Jets beat a lethargic Steelers team 22-17 thanks to a big special teams play and controlled execution by Mark Sanchez. Brad Smith took the opening kickoff of that contest 97 yards for a TD, and with that return, the Jets took control of a game they led nearly throughout. Another key play was a great play action fake by Sanchez where he kept the ball and ran it in from 7 yards out to tie the game in the third quarter, erasing the only lead (4 minutes of game action) Pittsburgh had during the day. That game was the first time the Jets had beaten the Steelers on the road in 8 tries. Even with the Jets having momentum throughout, the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger had a chance to win it at the end as time was expiring, but the game ended on two incomplete passes from the Jets 10 yard line. New York ran for 106 yards on the day against the Steelers defense that was allowing an average of 60 yards per game at that point. Although Lawrence Timmons had an active day compiling a game high 13 tackles, the Steelers only sacked Sanchez once, and it became the first time in 9 games where the Jets QB did not throw an interception. On the bright side for the Steelers, they outgained the Jets 378-276 in total yards with Roethlisberger topping Sanchez’s output by nearly 100 yards and getting 99 on the ground from Rashard Mendenhall. Mike Wallace burned a beatable Jets secondary for 102 yards on 7 receptions, and since his longest catch of the day was for “only” 23 yards, it’s not as if it was just one big play where Wallace made his mark. One player likely to have a big impact in the Conference Championship contest is rookie receiver Emmanuel Sanders. In the first meeting with the Jets, Sanders set a season high in receptions (7) and yards (78). He was second on the Steelers in receptions last week against the Ravens and seems to be creeping up the progression list as Roethlisberger’s new #2 target behind Wallace.

The much maligned Sanchez showed great control against the Patriots last week. He was 16-25 for 194 yards and 3 huge scores. The Jets were able to shut down BenJarvus Green-Ellis, holding him to just 43 yards on 9 carries, and the Patriots were only able to produce one play greater than 28 yards. Tom Brady was harassed incessantly, getting sacked five times and throwing his first interception after 11 straight pickless games. Take all that, substitute Mendenhall for BJGE and Roethlisberger for Brady, and that’s what the Jets will need to do to win their third straight road playoff game.

As dominant as the Jets were last week, it’s going to be a lot tougher for them to win that third game. In addition to the 1-7 @ Pittsburgh stat, they’re a team that gets by on a lot of emotion. There’s a constant a chip on their shoulder and feeling that they always have something to prove. Well, in this matchup, if it’s going to be personal for anyone, it’s the Steelers since the Jets handled them at home a month ago. Another difference in this game will be the availability of defensive stud Troy Polamalu, the All Pro safety who did not play in the December loss. Ask Joe Flacco if that guy makes a difference.

This should be a great defensive battle. The Jets ranked 3rd in rush defense, and the Steelers sat 1st. Maintaining that dominance will be key as both teams, the Jets more so than the Steelers, look to get something going on the ground. Every time LaDainian Tomlinson, Shonn Greene, and Rashard Mendenhall get their hands on the football, they’re going to be attacked by a group of defenders looking to strip the ball. The Jets have the edge in this category as they forced 12 fumbles on the year (12th best) while the Steelers managed to force only 5 (24th in football). When it comes to covering the pass, here’s where I think Roethlisberger and the Steelers are going to have a bit of success. If you can stay off Revis Island, there are spots to attack this Jets secondary, evidenced by their 24 passing TDs allowed (19th best) and meager 12 interceptions as a team (25th best). Both teams get after the passer well. The Jets were 8th in the league in sacks with 40, and the Steelers led everyone with 49. I’ll raise a red flag here as Pittsburgh allowed 6 sacks to the Ravens last week. That said, a lot of that harassment came when starting tackles, Jonathan Scott and Flozell Adams, were on the sidelines. Fortunately for the Steelers, both starters look ready to go this week.

If anyone can carry over adrenaline from a Wild Card game to a Divisional Round contest to the Conference Championship it’s the Jets. But will it be enough? Can Sanchez stay clean a second week in a row and for a second time this season against the Steelers, this time with an active Polamalu? The plan for the Steelers on defense shouldn’t be a secret. Shut down the run as they have done all year long and force the passer to beat you. Ike Taylor’s coverage skills are underrated, and both Polamalu and Ryan Clark love to punish people on the back end of plays. Sanchez should see plenty of LaMarr Woodley, James Harrison, and Lawrence Timmons. Defensive end Ziggy Hood has sacks in three straight games, and making it a fourth would bode well for Pittsburgh’s chances.

Can Mendenhall have another big game on the ground? His ability to churn out runs of 5 yards or more will be key to Pittsburgh success. They’ll need the run game to keep the Jets honest and assist a penetrable offensive line in keeping New York off of Big Ben. Will the Jets stick with dropping more defenders into coverage and backing off the blitz, a game plan that worked great against the Colts and Patriots? Roethlisberger is stronger in the pocket than Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, so the Jets won’t be able to move the QB as easily this week. Can the Jets coverage unit outlast Pittsburgh’s protection? Will Roethlisberger make the plays, or will he hold onto the ball too long and put his offense in unmanageable situations?

This should be a nail biter, and I fully expect it to come down to a last minute drive where Roethlisberger has the ball in his hands with the chance to take his team to a third Super Bowl under his leadership. Unlike their regular season matchup, this one ends with the Steelers celebrating. Mendenhall tightens up the Jets defense, allowing Roethlisberger to make plays downfield with Wallace and Sanders. The Steelers sneak one out and head to Dallas to face the Packers for all the marbles.

Steelers 20 – Jets 13

Friday, January 14, 2011

Cam Newton's Strengths & Weaknesses

I saw this on a Carolina Panthers message board and had to post it. Funny stuff!

2010-2011 NFL Playoff Predictions - Divisional Round

Hot 1-3 start huh? The team in which I was most confident, the underdog Packers, emerged victorious in Philly, but the rest didn’t go according to plan. The Seahawks shocked the world and knocked out the defending champs. The lack of effort on defense and special teams has the Colts watching this week’s action from home, and in what was thought to be an unlikely feat, the Chiefs actually looked worse against the Ravens than they had in week 17 against the Raiders. Here’s to hitting at least .500 this week.

Saturday, 4:30
#5 Ravens (12-4, 1-0) @ #2 Steelers (12-4)
Baltimore was clicking on all cylinders last week in Kansas City, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They sacked and intercepted Matt Cassel three times and recovered two fumbles. Dwayne Bowe did not have a single pass thrown his way, and Cassel completed a paltry 9 of 18 passes for 70 yards, or 38 less than Todd Heap accumulated. The Ravens’ veteran tight end was Joe Flacco’s security blanket all day, leading the team with 13 targets. Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason, and TJ Houshmandzadeh combined for only 7 receptions, but Ray Rice was once again a force in the passing game, hauling in 5 passes and scoring the go ahead TD in the second quarter. Billy Cundiff chipped in three short FGs, and the Ravens left town with a 30-7 win.

Things won’t be nearly as simple for the Ravens this week as the head to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers for the third time this season. Both of their first two matchups were decided by 3 points with the visiting team winning both times. In the first contest, Joe Flacco hooked up with Houshmandzadeh for the go ahead score with under a minute to go to give the Ben Roethlisberger-less Steelers their first loss of the year after three victories. Pittsburgh got its revenge late in the year when, once again, Troy Polamalu came up with the big play, forcing a Flacco fumble that led to the Steelers’ game winning score.

Pittsburgh has gotten the better of Baltimore of late. The Steelers swept the slate two seasons ago, including the AFC Championship game, a victory that catapulted them to a Super Bowl win against the Cardinals. What I can say with some certainty is that neither running game is likely to dominate the proceedings. When these two met back in October, they combined for 154 yards rushing on 54 carries, or a 2.81 yard average, a full yard short of both teams’ regular season averages. The second meeting made the first look like a track meet. In that one they totaled 97 yards on 44 carries for a meager 2.2 yard average. The Ravens did rush for 142 yards last week against the Chiefs, but much of that total, 65 yards to be exact, came on a 10 minute fourth quarter drive after the game was out of reach and the Chiefs were out of hope.

You would think getting a big game out of Ray Rice would be necessary for the Ravens to beat the Steelers, but you would be wrong. In Baltimore’s win at Pittsburgh, Rice ran for only 20 yards on 8 carries and caught just 1 pass for 9 yards. Rice totaled a meager 50 yards in the second meeting, the game in which Flacco’s fumble led to Pittsburgh’s victory. With the running game struggling (offensive line unable to create lanes) and now facing Pittsburgh, Joe Flacco is going to have to win this one for the Ravens. Although not as vulnerable as the Ravens, the Steelers can be thrown on. Drew Brees (305 yards) throws on everyone, but giving up 281 to rookie Colt McCoy wasn’t a highlight of Pittsburgh’s season.

Rashard Mendanhall, on the other hand, was. Running for 1,000 yards for the second year in a row, Mendenhall also blew away his previous career high with 13 scores on the ground. While he only totaled 13 more yards than Rice in the second meeting, Mendenhall was responsible for 2 scores in the first contest with Charlie Batch under center for the Steelers. Upon returning from suspension, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t take long to find his form. After the home loss to the Patriots in November, Roethlisberger had an 8-1 TD-INT ratio down the stretch. That one interception came against the Ravens and resulted in no harm to the Steelers. Still, I don’t think Roethlisberger himself is the key to this one. In my opinion, the deciding factor in this game is going to be the play of Pittsburgh’s offensive line. Can they protect Ben from a taking a constant pounding, specifically from Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata? Despite losing, the Ravens took down Roethlisberger 3 times last month.

I don’t like the competition Pittsburgh faced down the stretch. The Steelers won 7 of their last 9, but among the victims were four of the teams picking in the top six spots of the upcoming draft; Carolina, Buffalo, Cincinnati, and Cleveland. If Steve Johnson doesn’t drop a pass that landed in his lap, this game is being played in Baltimore.

You’re not going to run on Pittsburgh, and you know they’re going to attack attack attack the entire game. For Baltimore, I think you’re going to see a lot of what worked last week, and that’s Flacco rolling out and picking up key yards with the short passing game and his legs. Extra attention will be paid to Heap after last week’s performance, and the Steelers won’t allow Rice to beat them. Fortunately for the Ravens, the combination of Heap, Houshmandzadeh, and Boldin gives them the large targets needed to work the middle against this defense and keep the chains moving. They’ll also likely look to isolate Mason or Boldin on the edge and take advantage of one on one matchups against Steeler corners, the clear weakness of their defense. The Ravens (Flacco) need to maintain manageable situations, and that’s where I think Flacco’s composure will be key. Take what the defense gives you, and don’t force what isn’t there. Not to get too far into it, but I believe this Ravens team, especially the defense, is going to raise the focus and intensity to another level in support of Ed Reed and the unfortunate situation with his brother. With the Browns and Panthers being the last two teams the Steelers faced, the black and gold haven’t played an opponent of the Ravens’ caliber since their 12/19 home loss to the Jets. Similar teams, similar results?

I always love watching these two teams square off, as they’re sure to be the most intense, physical football fights of the year. Pittsburgh has won their last 6 against Baltimore when Roethlisberger is under center, and Flacco has a 4-5 TD-INT ratio in Pittsburgh. Numbers be damned. I’m going with momentum and, I believe, the hungrier team. I’m calling for the upset as the Ravens hold off a late Steelers surge, defeat Pittsburgh at home for the second time this season, and move on to the final four.

Ravens 23 – Steelers 20

Saturday, 8:00
#6 Packers (10-6, 1-0) @ #1 Falcons (13-3)
Here’s my favorite matchup of the weekend. The Falcons earned the #1 seed in the NFC, and their reward is a date with the red hot Packers. While Atlanta was enjoying the week off, Green Bay went up to Philly and eliminated the Eagles thanks to a stout defense, three Aaron Rodgers TDs, and 123 rushing yards by rookie James Starks. While Green Bay was clearly the better team on the field last week, they had some mistakes that could have cost them the game. Special teamer Brandon Underwood made a huge mental mistake covering a Philly punt after going three and out on their first possession which allowed the Eagles to retain possession in Packer territory. David Akers ended up missing a FG five plays later, so while the miscue didn’t lead to points, those are the mistakes that championship teams avoid. At the start of the second half Aaron Rodgers fumbled when he was sacked by Darryl Tapp on his own 25. Michael Vick threw a touchdown pass to Jason Avant two plays later, and the Packers’ lead shrunk to 4. I also think that Mike McCarthy’s game plan was too conservative and his clock management poor, it they would have cost them the game had Michael Vick been a little more accurate with his last pass. Rodgers is one of those guys who I believe does worse when trying to scale it back and play not to lose. Playing not to lose won’t work this week against the Falcons. I’d be shocked if we didn’t see Green Bay open it up a bit more this week.

To me the Packers are getting hot at exactly the right time, and with 8 TDs and just 1 INT in the three games since returning from a concussion, there may not be anyone hotter than Aaron Rodgers. Since Ryan Grant went down at the start of the year, the Packers have gone most of the season without much of a run game. They’ve been the NFC’s Colts, relying mainly on their QB’s arm to put points on the board. Another guy getting hot at the right time is rookie runner James Starks. Now, I have my share of misses when it comes to the draft, but one guy I was big on for a long time heading up to last year’s selection special was Starks. He reminded me of a less physical Adrian Peterson, a decisive runner capable of taking over a game with nice combination of power and speed. I expect Atlanta to put up more of a fight than Philly, so I don’t think we’ll see another 123 yards from Starks this week. Still, he’ll likely get another 15-20 touches, and anything more probably means the Packers are in good shape.

The last time these two squared off, it was an exciting encounter, one of the season’s best, culminating with a Matt Bryant 47 yard field goal with less than ten seconds left to play. As they did last week against the Eagles, the Packers failed to maximize their opportunities and coulda/shoulda left with a win. After a 1st and 10 at Atlanta’s 13 they had to settle for a FG. Another drive ended on a 3rd and 1 at Atlanta’s 1 when Rodgers fumbled. They also failed to convert 3rd or 4th down and 1 at Atlanta’s 41 later in the game. Another incident I’d classify as a miscue was when they didn’t challenge a 4th down conversion on a pass to Tony Gonzalez that would have been overturned. Atlanta ended up scoring its first TD on that drive. The worst of the bunch had to be the one that came following Rodgers’ missile to Jordy Nelson near the endzone boundary to tie it up. A combination of bad kick coverage and a facemask penalty on the ensuing kickoff set up Matt Ryan and the Falcons inside Packer territory. Six plays later Bryant won the game.

I think Atlanta’s game plan is going to be pretty simple – pound the ball with Michael Turner to shorten the game, keep Aaron Rodgers on the sidelines, limiting his scoring chances, and try to force a couple of turnovers when the Packers have the ball. Michael Turner ran for 110 yards when these teams met in November, but the bruising back ran for only 115 yards combined in his last two games of the season. Since that meeting, the Packers only allowed one back (Matt Forte, 90) in 6 games to run for more than 51 yards. Atlanta’s pretty sound against the run, but following the game against the Packers, they allowed LeGarrette Blount and Jonathan Stewart to run for a combined 236 yards in back to back weeks. The Packers are clicking. BJ Raji is a handful up front, and Cullen Jenkins is getting healthy again. Clay Matthews and breakout linebacker Desmond Bishop are always around the football, and the secondary is supported by cagy veteran Charles Woodson, underrated Tramon Williams, and ball hawking free safety Nick Collins. Looking to get the better of that bunch is Matt Ryan, the Falcons QB who is 20-2 in his three year career at home. Ryan was the epitome of efficiency completing 24 of 28 pass attempts against the Packers in November, but Roddy White was held to his second lowest yardage total of the year. Although I know they’d like to get White loose a bit more, I don’t think they’ll stray much from the original script in this rematch.

Rodgers threw for 344 yards last time, completing 74% of his passes to 8 different receivers. Greg Jennnings was the primary receiver in that game, catching 5 of 8 targets for 119 yards. His one catch performance last week against the Eagles was due nearly entirely to the Eagles shading coverage his way the whole game. As talented as Jennings is, it’s not like Rodgers doesn’t have anyone else to throw to. Donald Driver, James Jones, Jordy Nelson, Andrew Quarless, and Brandon Jackson all figure to have the ball thrown their way a few times Saturday. I believe Rodgers was a little amped up at the start of the game against Philly as everything he was throwing early was high and hard. For his sake, hopefully he’s gotten that out of his system because he’ll need to hit the ground running against the Falcons in order to move on. Another plus for Green Bay is that Atlanta may be without veteran nickel corner, Brian Williams. Losing an experienced member of a thin secondary before facing Aaron Rodgers isn’t exactly ideal.

The Falcons haven’t won a meaningful game in over a month while the Packers have been in playoff mode for at least three weeks. I had high hopes for the Falcons this season, and they’ve exceeded expectations thus far. I believe the winner of this game is playing in the Super Bowl, and as good as the Falcons have been this year and at home during Ryan’s career, I think the Packers are just playing too well. Green Bay’s defense does a better job of forcing Ryan and the Falcons into more unenviable down and distance situations, and Aaron Rodgers doesn’t fumble on the goal line this time.

Packers 27 – Falcons 23

Sunday, 1:00
#4 Seahawks (7-9, 1-0) @ #2 Bears (11-5)
Here’s another game where I think the home team is going to do their best to control the tempo and keep the other team’s offense on the sidelines. The Bears witnessed the Seahawks more than hang with the high scoring Saints, putting up 415 total yards, including Marshawn Lynch’s “oh my gawd” game sealing 67 yard score. Matt Hasselbeck and his ailing hip did a nice job of spreading the ball around, finding Mike Williams, Ben Obomanu, and Brandon Stokley a combined 14 times for 184 and 2 TDs. When Seattle’s defense is clicking, they’re active and consistently keep the action in front of them. No they didn’t turn Drew Brees over in 60 pass attempts, but they kept the Saints scoreless on six drives, including three in a row in the second quarter.

Even with Mike Martz running things offensively for the Bears, they’re not going to throw the ball 60 times like the Saints. Chicago would be wise to take advantage of the wintery conditions and pound the ball repeatedly with Matt Forte and Chester Taylor. Jay Cutler took a lot better care of the ball this season and has his team’s fan base feeling confident in their QB rather than holding their breath, waiting for the next mental mistake. Still, leaning on Forte, a guy who rushed for at least 90 yards in each of his last three games (Vikings, Jets, Packers) and was the only back to run for 100 against the Jets this year, seems like a wise move. When Cutler is able to throw, he’ll be doing so against one of the game’s more porous secondaries. Seattle’s pass defense’s 31-12 TD-INT ratio ranks at the bottom of the league, and Chicago’s shifty Johnny Knox was able to take advantage to the tune of 120 yards on 5 receptions the last time they met.

Like the Packers and Falcons, these two teams met in the regular season as well. Although in this one, the visitors got the victory. If Seattle is as active defensively this time as last, it’s going to be another long day for Cutler. In that first matchup, the Seahawks sacked Cutler six times and was one of only five defenses to hold him without a TD. The Bears’ QB digressed a bit since beating the Lions back in December. In each of the four games since, Cutler has failed to complete more than 58% of his passes. He also has a 6-6 TD-INT ratio, compared to the 17-10 he put up in his previous 12 starts. While Lynch and Justin Forsett both scored during the first meeting, it was big Mike Williams who did most of the damage. Catching 10 of his 15 targets for 123 yards, Williams was easily Seattle’s most productive receiver. The Bears must do a better job of getting into the body of the broad receiver because if he’s allowed to be Hasselbeck’s possession guy all day, it’s going to be another long one for the Bears.

If Seattle is smart they don’t kick to Devin Hester. Is giving the Bears the football at the 40 really that much worse than rolling the dice with a guy who can take it to the house every time? Are you really going to let the kicking game decide your fate on the road in the cold? The forecast is calling for a high of 20, but wind and snow should not be factors. If Seattle is to pull off a second straight upset, they first and foremost need to stop the run. Aside from the 208 they surrendered in the lopsided loss to the Bucs, the Seahawks finished the year much better in this area. Seattle went without committing a single turnover in the early season matchup, and they’ll need similar security to have a shot at a second win at Soldier Field. Keep in mind that this will be Cutler’s first playoff game. Will he play anxious early?

Safe to say this is the least attractive matchup of the weekend, but I think it will be closer than the 10 point spread suggests. Seattle’s playing inspired football, and call me stubborn, but I’m still not sold on this Bears team. Their fortune this season is well documented. Seven of their eleven wins have been by a margin of seven or less. In addition to the loss to Seattle, the Bears were beaten on their home turf by the Redskins, a team that went on to lose seven of their remaining nine games after their win in Chicago.

I was all ready to pick the Saints against the Bears this week, but I’m hesitant to pull the trigger on the, still sub .500, Seahawks despite the emotional high they’re on. Can they beat the Bears a second time this season, in Chicago? After last week’s stunner, I certainly won’t dismiss their chances. This one stays close throughout, but I’ve got to think the Bears wear them down in the fourth quarter and live to play another week.

Bears 27 – Seahawks 20

Sunday, 4:30
#6 Jets (11-5, 1-0) @ #1 Patriots (14-2)
We start and end with divisional rivalries, and this one just got a little chippier with Jets corner Antonio Cromartie speaking his mind about Patriots QB Tom Brady. Like him or not, I’m not sure I’d run my mouth about Tom Brady just before facing him, especially considering he lit up the Jets for 325 yards and 4 TDs the last time these two met. To get this far, the Jets had to beat the Colts in Indy, and I can’t say I was terribly impressed with their win. It took bad defense and worse special teams play by the Colts for the Jets to pull off a 1 point win; the type of shoddy play they won’t get from the Patriots. In the Wild Card game, Mark Sanchez pulled another Jekyll & Hyde. After starting the game 3 of 4, Sanchez went 6 of 15 for the rest of the first half with an interception, and his Jets were lucky to be down only 7 at the break. The second half was a different story, as Sanchez was a perfect 5 of 5 on his first drive of the half, guiding the Jets to a score that gave them their first lead of the game. After a couple of incompletions and a failed series, Sanchez finished the game winning drive 3 of 3 for 38 yards and watched as Nick Folk kicked Indy out of the playoffs.

The Jets are likely to find a little more resistance this week as they head to New England and face the best team in football. The Patriots suffered two defeats on the year – one of those “bad spot” games in Cleveland and their first hookup with the Jets. Want numbers? 31-1. That’s the Patriots’ record at home with Tom Brady under center since the last time the Jets beat them in Foxboro. That one loss is last year’s upset in the Wild Card round at the hands of the Ravens, and the last loss to the Jets at home happened November 12, 2006. For a bit of reference, a day earlier, USC freshman Mark Sanchez was backing up John David Booty in a 35-10 win over Oregon. Read carefully – Tom Brady does not lose at home.

He did, however, lose at New Meadowlands back in September in the less remembered of the teams’ two encounters. Good Sanchez showed up that week and threw 3 TDs as the Jets beat the Pats without Darrelle Revis for the second half of the game. Go figure. Then Bad Sanchez took a trip to Foxboro last month, completed half his pass attempts, threw for less than 5 yards per pass, and was picked three times. That 45-3 beatdown by the Patriots was emasculating. In addition to Sanchez’s shoddy play, the Jets were horrendous on defense, surrendering 405 total yards (114 yards over their regular season average), 4 TDs to Brady, and another 2 to BenJarvus Green-Ellis. In his third season, Green-Ellis busted out for 1,000 yards and eliminated the need for the RB rotation of mediocrity the Patriots were trotting out there for a while. Next to pitching another 42 point whopping, the Patriots would probably like nothing more than to be able to feed Green-Ellis 20 times. He carried at least 18 times in four of their last five games, and the Patriots’ average win margin in those four games was 33 points. BJGE + 20 = big W.

As destined for greatness as these Patriots appear to be, they’re poor against the pass. They surrender nearly 260 yards a game through the air and allowed 25 passing scores but led the league with 25 INTs. Most of the credit goes to rookie corner Devin McCourty who leads the team with 7 picks. What this says is that, while they may bend at times, they, as a unit, are able to consistently force and capitalize upon opponents’ mistakes. The problem for Jets fans is you never know what you’re going to get with Sanchez, and there’s no way Rex Ryan wants to put the game on his shoulders. Ryan will want to ride the running duo of Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson as much as possible. The two combined for 152 yards on 35 carries against the Colts, and Tomlinson scored twice. Neither broke loose in either matchup against the Patriots, but they combined for over 100 yards in each contest. After a hot start, Tomlinson has worn out a bit down the stretch, and Ryan will look to use the more physical Greene to soften up the Patriots’ defense. Unfortunately for the Jets, they were dealt a pretty big setback when Damien Woody was placed on IR this week with a torn Achilles. Watch for Tully Banta-Cain to really test replacement Wayne Hunter’s ability to keep Sanchez upright.

Speaking of injuries, the Jets might be without one of their biggest weapons, return man and offensive utility man, Brad Smith who is nursing a groin injury. I’m not sure it will end up being a net loss because if Smith misses the game Antonio Cromartie is likely to get the call on kickoffs. Last week Cromartie returned two kicks for a total of 88 yards, including 47 on the return that set up Folk’s game winning kick. His contact avoidance works well when he has the ball in his hands. Facing the daunting task of taking down the league’s highest scoring and most turnover averse team in their place, expect Ryan to reach deep into his bag of tricks. Whether or not Smith suits up, expect to see Cromartie’s game changing speed put to use on special teams at some point.

How are the Jets going to slow down Tom Brady? He completed 68% of his passes and had an 18-2 TD-INT ratio on his home field. With Drew Coleman getting banged up in practice this week, the Jets may be a bit thinner in the secondary. That’s not what you want to hear going against Brady and an offense that didn’t skip a beat after they traded away Randy Moss. Four receivers caught at least 40 passes this year, including rookie TE Aaron Hernandez who compiled 9 receptions, 152 yards, and 1 TD in his two games against the Jets. Deion Branch was brought back after Moss was dealt and has scored four times in his last five games. Another sore spot for the Jets is Danny Woodhead, the diminutive back who got a bit of revenge on his former team when he gained 104 yards on 4 receptions in the 45-3 slaughter. There are so many ways for the Patriots to attack you, and you know that Bill Belichick will have devised a multitude of plays and a variety of solutions for any puzzle Ryan throws his way.

I think it’s 32-1 after this one, not 31-2. No repeat of September 19 or 2006.

Patriots 34 – Jets 20

....................RIP Drew - Thanks for your support and friendship