Saturday, January 31, 2009

Polamalu Reprises Mean Joe Greene's Coke Role--With a Twist

Mean Joe Greene's Coca-Cola commercial from the 1980 Super Bowl is one of the most famous--and touching--TV spots of all-time. For this year's Super Bowl, Coke Zero is having Troy Polamalu reprise Greene's role, but with a twist that will not be revealed until the ad runs during the game.

Here are the first 12 seconds of the new ad, plus some behind the scenes footage from the filming:

Here is Greene's take on the new ad:

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Super Bowl XLIII Preview

Super Bowl XLIII matches a Pittsburgh Steelers franchise with perhaps the NFL's top Super Bowl pedigree (six appearances, five wins, first team to win four Super Bowls) against an Arizona Cardinals franchise that has migrated from Chicago to St. Louis to Arizona but has not captured an NFL championship since 1947. If History and Tradition could put on jerseys and shoulder pads they clearly would be wearing Steelers black and gold but I keep thinking of the old cliche about "throwing out the numbers when these two teams meet"--not because the Steelers and Cardinals play each other that often but because a lot of the names and numbers that are mentioned regarding this matchup are out of date or just irrelevant.

As Rick Pitino might say, Jack Lambert is not walking through that door; Terry Bradshaw is not walking through that door. The Steelers' glorious Super Bowl history will not mean a thing once the game begins--nor will Arizona's mediocre regular season record or the embarrassing losses that the Cardinals suffered down the stretch; those setbacks feel like they happened even longer ago than when Lambert and Bradshaw were winning Super Bowls.

Super Bowl XLIII will be decided based on some intriguing player and coaching matchups. I think that the most important matchup will be Arizona's offense versus Pittsburgh's defense; one of those two units will set the tone for this game. The first inclination may be to assume that Pittsburgh's league-leading defense has the edge but Arizona poses some problems that the Steelers did not have to deal with in their playoff wins over San Diego and Baltimore. Everyone is talking about Larry Fitzgerald and rightfully so: he has already set an NFL postseason record with 419 receiving yards, gaining at least 100 yards in each of Arizona's three playoff victories. Kurt Warner was outstanding in the regular season and he has been even better in the playoffs. He and Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger each have already won a Super Bowl ring but while Roethlisberger went along for the ride when Pittsburgh won Super Bowl XL, Warner ranks first and second on the single game Super Bowl passing yardage list, throwing for 414 yards in St. Louis' 23-16 win versus Tennessee in Super Bowl XXXIV and compiling 365 yards in St. Louis' 20-17 loss versus New England in Super Bowl XXXVI. The most surprising statistic is that Edgerrin James leads all postseason rushers this season with 203 yards. James provides some much needed balance to Arizona's offensive attack and if he can crank out 75-80 yards on 18-20 carries then the Steelers are going to have their hands full dealing with him while also trying to not get burned by Warner and Arizona's dynamic passing game.

Pittsburgh's offense did not look very potent after Hines Ward was knocked out of the AFC Championship Game with a knee injury. No matter what anyone says, the kind of ligament damage that he suffered requires at least 4-6 weeks to heal, so he will not even be close to 100% in the Super Bowl. Could he still have a big impact? Sure; Jerry Rice had a tremendous performance in Super Bowl XXIX despite playing with a separated shoulder. However, the likelihood is that Ward will be hindered and this may enable Arizona to get away with single covering him, freeing up a defender to play against Pittsburgh's running game. In the days before last year's Super Bowl, Tom Brady was hobbling around in a walking boot while proclaiming that he would be fine during the game--but he was uncharacteristically unable to sidestep the pass rush as the perfect Patriots' season went down the tubes, so Ward can say whatever he wants but his injury may very well have cost the Steelers a potential championship.

The coaching matchup is very interesting. Arizona Coach Ken Whisenhunt and his offensive line coach Russ Grimm were assistant coaches on Bill Cowher's staff when the Steelers won Super Bowl XL. When Cowher retired they were both passed over in favor of Mike Tomlin, who has done a wonderful job as the Steelers Coach. If anyone knows not only what Roethlisberger is thinking but also how to attack Dick LeBeau's defense, it would be Whisenhunt and Grimm, two guys who worked with Roethlisberger on a daily basis while practicing against LeBeau's defense. I think that Jon Gruden's familiarity with the tendencies of his old Oakland team played a big role in Tampa Bay's triumph over the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII; Whisenhunt and Grimm may very well pull off a similar number against their old team.

This is truly a difficult game to handicap. I expect it to be close and I certainly could make a case that Pittsburgh will shut down Arizona's running game, harass Warner into some costly interceptions and win a low scoring game--but if Arizona does not turn the ball over and provide Pittsburgh with easy points then it will be difficult for the Steelers to score enough to win this game. Maybe this is just wishful thinking from an admitted Cleveland Browns fan but after considering all of the matchups, I think that Arizona will win Super Bowl XLIII, 30-24.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"Good Hands" Start in the Mind

"Good hands" are a highly prized trait in most sports. Certain players just seem to have a knack for controlling/hitting/catching any ball that is thrown, pitched or hit toward them. Tim Duncan is a marvelous example of such an NBA player. Larry Fitzgerald's "good hands" have helped carry the Arizona Cardinals to an improbable berth in Super Bowl XLIII.

What exactly distinguishes players who have "good hands" from players who bobble the softest pass? In other words, what is the difference in this regard between Tim Duncan and guys like Kwame Brown or Eddy Curry? I asked three-time NBA All-Star Mark Aguirre that question and he told me, "With a guy who is supposed to have bad hands, you can look at him a lot of times and see that he is out of rhythm with the pass. A guy with soft hands is always in rhythm with the pass. A guy with bad hands is always out of rhythm with the pass, so you can try to create a rhythm for a guy--teach him to get in rhythm with the ball and that will help him a little bit." When Aguirre was an assistant coach with the Pacers and Knicks he mentored their post players, teaching them proper footwork. He said of Curry, "What you have to understand is that when I don’t know where my man is I tend to not be able to keep a constant focus on where the ball is coming from. If I post up and I don’t know where my man is, then I take my eye off the ball and try to find him and then the ball is there. When I looked at film of him, I saw that he bobbles the ball if he doesn’t get locked in on the ball. When he sees the ball coming at him then he’s fine. That’s footwork and that’s leverage and that’s learning how to lock the defender. See, once I do those things I don’t have to look at you; I know where you are."

Aguirre's reasoning makes perfect sense regarding post players in basketball but there may be a scientific explanation for "good hands" that transcends the techniques involved in playing any one particular sport. A fascinating Wall Street Journal article by Reed Albergotti reports that cognitive psychologist Dr. Joan Vickers has done extensive research that suggests that "good hands" actually begin with how the mind processes the visual data provided by the eyes. She studied elite athletes in several sports--hockey, baseball, tennis and volleyball--by observing them play while they wore special goggles that contained cameras filming their eye movements. Dr. Vickers identified two traits that are shared by athletes who have "good hands": she calls one trait "the quiet eye" and she calls the other trait "predictive control."

The former refers to, as Albergotti phrases it, "The ability to maintain a level and strong gaze on a distant object for an unusually long period of time, even while moving." Albergotti adds that "predictive control" is "the brain's ability to gather information from the eyes and use it to predict what will happen next."

The photo accompanying Albergotti's article provides dramatic evidence of these traits in action: it shows Fitzgerald catching a pass with his eyes closed! Albergotti writes, "Dr. Vickers believes it could be a textbook case of an athlete using predictive control to know exactly where to place his hands."

Monday, January 19, 2009

Midnight Has Not Yet Struck for Cinderella Cardinals

Kurt Warner completed 21 of 28 passes for 279 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and a nearly perfect 145.7 passer rating while leading his Arizona Cardinals to a 32-25 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. The Cardinals built a 24-6 halftime lead but had to come from behind after the Eagles scored 19 unanswered points. Warner responded by directing a 14 play, 72 yard fourth quarter touchdown drive that chewed up 7:52 on the clock. As announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman suggested, if Warner had not already assembled a Hall of Fame worthy resume then that one drive may very well have sealed the deal. The Eagles got the ball back with 2:53 left in regulation but Donovan McNabb completed just 3 of his next 8 passes--Philadelphia threw the ball on every single play--and the Eagles turned the ball over on downs. Arizona could not quite run out the clock but managed to pin the Eagles deep in their territory with just :09 left.

McNabb completed 28 of 47 passes for 375 yards, three touchdowns, one interception and a 97.4 passer rating. He has been a very good player for a number of years and it is obviously difficult to look at those numbers and then blame him for this loss--but this game is a microcosm of the way McNabb tends to perform in big games. McNabb was horrible in the first half as Arizona built what seemed to be a nearly insurmountable advantage but then, like a streak shooter in basketball, he got hot and put up points in bunches while Philadelphia's defense stymied Warner and the Cardinals. However, when push came to shove, Warner made the plays that gave his team a huge cushion and when his team trailed for the first time he promptly led the Cardinals down the field for the game-winning score. In my preview post I not only almost exactly nailed the score of the game (31-20 Arizona was my prediction), I concluded, "I expect Warner to outduel McNabb much like he did seven years ago" (when Warner's Rams beat McNabb's Eagles in the NFC Championship Game).

Is the "real" McNabb the one who helped his team make a gallant comeback? Or is the "real" McNabb the one who threw several inaccurate passes as his team quickly fell behind and then finished the game by again throwing several inaccurate passes? McNabb deserves credit for leading the Eagles to five NFC Championship Games but he has earned only one victory in that round. He seems destined to be remembered as a player who was very good but not quite good enough to carry a team to a championship.

As for Warner, he has been the lead actor in a similar drama before; a decade ago he helped to transform the St. Louis Rams overnight from a sad sack franchise into Super Bowl champions. Now he has guided the Cardinals--who have not won a championship in six decades--to the franchise's first ever Super Bowl appearance. Warner improved to 3-0 in NFC Championship Game play and he owns one of the top five career playoff passer ratings in NFL history.

The Cardinals are just the second team from a non-strike year to advance to the Super Bowl despite winning fewer than 10 regular season games. They looked dead in the water after losing four games in a five game stretch late in the season--giving up 37, 48, 35 and 47 points in those defeats--but they have scored at least 30 points in each of their three playoff games while holding their opponents to 24 points or less.

In the Super Bowl, Arizona's flashy, pass-oriented offense will provide a stark contrast with Pittsburgh's physical, pounding style but before too much is made of those differences it is worth remembering that during the playoffs the Cardinals have shown that they can play good, hard physical defense while the Steelers have demonstrated big play capability with their passing game. Other subplots include the duel between graybeard Warner and young gun Ben Roethlisberger--each of whom has already led a team to a Super Bowl title--and the coaching matchup between Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin and Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt, a former Steelers assistant coach who the Steelers passed over in favor of hiring Tomlin.

Baltimore's Playoff Run Revived Echoes of What Might Have Been for Cleveland

Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome spent his entire 13 year NFL career with the Cleveland Browns. After he retired, then-Browns Coach Bill Belichick hired him to be a scout. Newsome steadily worked his way up in the organization and by the time Owner Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore prior to the 1996 season Newsome was the team's director of player personnel, meaning that he was in charge of deciding who the Ravens would draft. Newsome's first two choices--Ray Lewis and Jonathan Ogden--became perennial Pro Bowlers and the cornerstones of the 2000 Super Bowl champions. Newsome became Baltimore's General Manager in 2002.

I have often told anyone who would listen that Bill Belichick was in the process of turning the Browns into a Super Bowl team when Modell ruined everything by announcing in the middle of the 1995 season that he planned to move the team, turning the final half of that campaign into a nightmare scenario for Belichick and his players. Modell "rewarded" Belichick's hard work and loyalty by unceremoniously firing him right after that season. Belichick had taken over a team that went 3-13 in 1990 and by 1994 the Browns were an 11-5 squad that won a playoff game (sadly, the Browns have not won a playoff game since then). No coach could have had a successful season under the circumstances that Belichick and his players had to endure in 1995 but I always believed that the next time Belichick got a head coaching job he would lead that team to a Super Bowl win. Obviously, Belichick has done that and more since arriving in New England.

With Belichick winning three Super Bowls as a head coach and his former scout Newsome winning a Super Bowl as an executive, it is only natural to wonder how many Super Bowls Belichick and Newsome would have won in Cleveland. Someone asked Newsome that very question prior to Baltimore's 23-14 loss to Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game and Newsome replied, "Would we have had the opportunity to get to a Super Bowl once, maybe twice? I'd say yes, we would have." The most bizarre thing about Modell's tenure as Browns owner is that he managed to not only drive his team to the brink of financial ruin but he also was on the verge of personal bankruptcy by the time he accepted the huge windfall offered by Baltimore--and despite all of that largesse he was in such dire financial straits just a few years later that he was forced to sell the team to Steve Bisciotti. Ironically, Modell had claimed that one of the reasons he left Cleveland was that he had wanted to keep ownership of the team in his family but despite the king's ransom he received to turn his back on loyal Browns' fans the team ultimately did not stay in the hands of the Modell family.

There have been plenty of bad NFL owners who put losing products on the field year after year but it is almost impossible to own an NFL team and lose money because the league is almost socialistic in the way that it divides up its various revenue streams (something that Dallas owner Jerry Jones has always resented, because he feels like his marquee franchise is generating more revenue than other teams and thus should get a bigger piece of the pie). Maybe someday someone will track down the real story of what Modell did with all of his money to go broke as an NFL owner not once, but twice; you can make fun of the Bengals, Lions or whoever else all you want but the owners of those and other sad sack NFL teams are laughing all the way to the bank with big profits: the only other modern NFL owner I can think of who went broke was Leonard Tose and he was a compulsive gambler.

Although some people say that the infusion of cash from Bisciotti enabled Baltimore to win the Super Bowl, Newsome disagrees with that assessment: "Those (cash) problems we endured in Baltimore, we were able to overcome those (before Bisciotti's infusion). We built this team in the first three years. We were operating off the same budget when we drafted Jonathan (Ogden), Ray (Lewis), Peter Boulware, Chris (McAlister)...The ownership didn't change until 2000." Therefore, Newsome insists that if Modell had not moved the team and had kept Belichick around then the Browns would have become a Super Bowl contender: "I'm saying we would have remained a good football team because it would have started with Belichick. And all of us were there together. You can't write the story without adding Belichick to it." The "all of us" who Newsome referred to is the top notch coaching and scouting staff that Belichick assembled in Cleveland, including not only Newsome but also Nick Saban, Phil Savage, and Scott Pioli--guys who have been involved in building championship programs in the NFL and/or college.

Since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999, they have been a soft outfit on both sides of the ball, unable to control the line of scrimmage. That is exactly the opposite of the blueprint required to be successful in the AFC North, let alone to win a Super Bowl, as Newsome explains: "One thing you have to understand is the ability to control the line of scrimmage late in the season in this division, and I mean on both sides of the ball. Because the weather becomes a big factor. If you can't control the line of scrimmage, then you're going to have trouble winning."

Belichick and Newsome are long gone from Cleveland. They have made their bones elsewhere and are not coming back. Browns fans can only hope that new Coach Eric Mangini--who was on Belichick's Cleveland staff in the early 1990s--will be able to build the kind of team that Belichick put together a decade and a half ago before Modell broke Cleveland's heart by ripping away the team that is the city's pride and joy.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

AFC and NFC Championship Game Previews

Last year, I went 2-2 during the Divisional Playoff round, correctly picking New England and Green Bay but wrongly choosing a pair of 13-3 teams, the Cowboys and the Colts. This year, the top seeds in both conferences--the 13-3 Tennessee Titans and the 12-4 defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants--went belly up at home in the Divisional Playoff round. Those games, plus Arizona's stunning 33-13 road win over 12-4 Carolina (the worst home loss by a second seeded team since the NFL expanded the playoff format in 1990), meant that I went 1-3 during the Divisional Playoff round, with my only correct choice being the reliable Pittsburgh Steelers, 35-24 victors over the San Diego Chargers. The Steelers are now 11-1 in home games in the Divisional Playoffs since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger (they set a record of dubious distinction by losing four out of five AFC Championship Games at home from 1994-2004 but more about that shortly).

My playoff predicting record is a dismal 3-5 so far this season, so I need to be perfect the rest of the way just to match the 6-5 mark that I posted last season. All I can say in my defense is that this year's NFL playoffs have been more wide open and unpredictable than any postseason in recent years--or maybe ever. Home field advantage, playoff seeding, being a hot team or being a cold team--none of these factors seemed to matter at all.

Last week's games featured four rematches of 2008 regular season games and this week's Championship Games are also rematches. Here are my predictions:

NFC Championship Game

The 11-6-1 Wild Card Philadelphia Eagles visit the 11-7 NFC South West Champion Arizona Cardinals.

I've already picked against the Cardinals twice, while I correctly picked the Eagles to beat the Vikings but predicted that their playoff run would end versus the Giants. In other words, I did not expect either team to make it this far. Arizona is the first 9-7 team to host a conference championship game. Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner owns a 7-2 career playoff record, including a 1-1 Super Bowl mark and a 29-24 victory over Donovan McNabb and the Eagles in the 2002 NFC Championship Game when Warner played for the Rams. Warner completed 22 of 33 passes for 212 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a 94.5 passer rating in that game, while McNabb--who has a 9-5 career playoff record, including 0-1 in the Super Bowl--completed 18 of 30 passes for 171 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a 73.1 passer rating. Although McNabb has a pedestrian 79.2 career playoff passer rating (Warner's career playoff passer rating is 92.6), McNabb has started in nine playoff victories, trailing only Joe Montana (15), Terry Bradshaw (14), Tom Brady (14), John Elway (14), Brett Favre (12), Roger Staubach (12) and Troy Aikman (11) on the career list. That group is top heavy with modern players due to the multiple expansions of the postseason format in the past few decades and it is worth mentioning that each of the quarterbacks ahead of McNabb won at least one Super Bowl title and made multiple Super Bowl appearances.

The Eagles smashed the Cardinals 48-20 in Philadelphia on Thanksgiving but don't count on the Cardinals playing like they are in a tryptophan induced stupor this time. After sleepwalking through the latter portion of the regular season, the Cardinals have discovered a running game and an opportunistic defense in the playoffs. Arizona defensive end Antonio Smith said, "We had to start it over. Push the reset button and go back to the type of football we were playing at the beginning of the season. Somewhere after we clinched (a playoff spot), we got a little too into ourselves and relaxed on some of the things we focused on before. That's the big difference. This defense has always been a good defense. If anybody watches film and watches us, they will see that." Or you could just ask Jake Delhomme, whose excellent season and fine playoff resume went up in smoke as he threw five interceptions and fumbled once in Carolina's loss to the Cardinals last week.

I would have never imagined that the Cardinals could make it to the NFC Championship Game, let alone host it, but now that they are one home win away from making the franchise's first trip to the Super Bowl I expect Warner to outduel McNabb much like he did seven years ago. Arizona will win, 31-20.

AFC Championship Game

The 13-5 Wild Card Baltimore Ravens visit the 13-4 AFC North Pittsburgh Steelers.

I expected the Steelers to make it to the AFC Championship but thought that they would be visiting Tennessee instead of hosting the Ravens. Baltimore's 13-10 win at Tennessee gave new meaning to the term "head-knocking"; I don't think I've ever seen so many helmets fly off of players' heads in one game. That was a bruising, brutal and ugly game that surely took a lot out of the Ravens mentally and physically. Meanwhile, San Diego hung with Pittsburgh for a half but the Steelers limited the Chargers to one offensive play--a Philip Rivers interception--in the entire third quarter as they cruised to a 35-24 victory.

Both the Steelers and the Ravens play bonecrushing defense and want to establish the running game on offense. The Steelers swept the regular season series between these division rivals, but only won those two games by a combined seven points--and that included an overtime period.

In this matchup of mirror image teams, the only real reason to go against Pittsburgh is that the Steelers are just 1-4 at home in the AFC Championship since 1994. However, two of those losses came at the hands of the New England Patriots--winners of three Super Bowls in a four year span--and the other two losses happened more than a decade ago with a different coaching staff and different players.

Baltimore's defense will probably keep the game close for a half but Pittsburgh will win, 24-9.

Monday, January 12, 2009

"Short, Compact, POW": Jim Rice's Sweet Swing Earns Long Overdue HoF Honor

Years ago, an article in Inside Sports described Jim Rice's deadly swing as "short, compact, POW!" In his last year of eligibility, Rice finally was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, receiving 412 votes (76.4% of the ballots cast), narrowly surpassing the minimum requirement of 75% (405 votes).

In an era before steroids inflated muscles to cartoonish-sizes and owners shrank ball park dimensions because "chicks dig the long ball," Rice blasted 382 home runs, amassed 1451 RBI and batted .298 in a 16 year career spent entirely with the Boston Red Sox. Rice won the 1978 AL MVP after posting these tremendous numbers: first in slugging percentage (.600), first in home runs (46), first in RBI (139), first in hits (213), first in total bases (406), first in triples (15), first in extra base hits (86), second in runs (121), third in batting average (.315).

Rice finished in the top five in AL MVP voting during five other seasons (1975, 1977, 1979, 1983, 1986), made the All-Star team eight times and among knowledgeable observers was considered to be the AL's most feared slugger for more than a decade, leading the AL in home runs, RBI and hits from 1975-86. Rice led the AL in home runs three times (1977-78, 1983) and ranked in the top ten in that category seven times in an eight year run between 1976 and 1983. Rice had at least 39 home runs in four different seasons. That may seem like a pedestrian total in light of the numbers posted in the "Steroids Era" but no other slugger of Rice's era accomplished that feat; Mike Schmidt had three seasons with at least 39 home runs, as did Reggie Jackson.

Rice also led the AL in RBI twice (1978, 1983) and ranked in the top ten in that department nine times between 1975 and 1986; during those same years, Rice ranked in the top ten in batting average six times, including a career-high .325 in 1979. Rice led the AL in total bases four times (1977-79, 1983) and ranked in the top ten nine times.

Rice only received 29.8% of the votes in 1995, his first year of HoF eligibility, but his candidacy steadily gained ground. He was not the most popular player among sportswriters and it is shamefully and painfully obvious that many voters held that against him. Fortunately, they either moderated their views, felt that Rice had done enough "penance" for his perceived "crimes" or else were replaced by younger, less biased people. Just like he did during his career, Rice spoke the truth after being informed that he made the HoF cut: "I don't think I was difficult to deal with for writers. I think the writers were difficult to me. I wasn't going to badmouth my teammates. When you start talking about my teammates or what goes on outside baseball, I couldn't do that. I don't know why it took me so long. I don't even want to think about it. I'm just happy I'm in and that's what I'm going to cherish...I guess everything was just timing, because my numbers have not changed over the last 14 years."

Rice is joined in this year's HoF class by first ballot inductee Rickey Henderson and Veterans Committee selection Joe Gordon, who will receive the honor posthumously.

Friday, January 9, 2009

NFL Divisional Playoff Predictions

This year's Wild Card Weekend was a bit odd, as the road teams were favored in all four contests. After looking carefully at each matchup, I decided that there were good reasons that the home teams were underdogs but when the dust cleared two of those home teams won, so I only correctly picked the outcome of two of the four Wild Card Weekend games. However, the only result that really surprised me was San Diego beating Indianapolis; even though the Chargers have played the Colts very tough in recent years, the Chargers were a banged up 8-8 team while the Colts were the hottest team in the NFL down the stretch and featured the league MVP, Peyton Manning. I had Atlanta squeaking by Arizona 27-24 but acknowledged that the Cardinals had a "puncher's chance if Warner puts a lot of points on the board and avoids committing costly turnovers" and that was exactly what happened in a 30-24 Cardinals win. I knew that Baltimore and Philadelphia would prove to be superior to Miami and Minnesota respectively.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the four Divisional Playoff games is that they are all rematches of 2008 regular season contests. Here are my predictions:

Saturday's games:

The 12-5 Wild Card Baltimore Ravens visit the 13-3 AFC South Champion Tennessee Titans.

On paper, Tennessee and Baltimore are about as evenly matched as possible. The Titans posted the best regular season record in the NFL this season but these teams tied for the best point differential (8.8 ppg). The Titans won the regular season matchup 13-10 at Baltimore but the Ravens have won four of their previous seven games versus Tennessee. Both teams have bruising running attacks and fierce defenses.

The Titans are a bit banged up on both the offensive and defensive lines; Kyle Vanden Bosch and Albert Haynesworth are expected to play but center Kevin Mawae's status is less certain and that could obviously have a major impact on Tennessee in both the running game and the passing game.

The Ravens are coming off of a convincing win against a hot Dolphins team but they have to play on the road against a well rested division champion. The key factor will be that Tennessee quarterback Kerry Collins must avoid throwing costly interceptions (hint: be aware of where Ed Reed is and do not throw the football anywhere near him).

Tennessee will win, 24-13.

The 10-7 NFC West Champion Arizona Cardinals visit the 12-4 NFC South Champion Carolina Panthers.

Arizona looked terrible in the last few weeks of the regular season but surprised a lot of people by beating Atlanta in the Wild Card game. Still, the Cardinals had a negative point differential during the season, went 0-5 in the Eastern time zone and have lost five of their last seven games to Carolina, including a 27-23 road loss this season. Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner threw for 381 yards and two touchdowns in that game but the Panthers did not lose at home this season and are not likely to do so versus Arizona.

Carolina will win, 31-17.

Sunday's games:

The 10-6-1 Wild Card Philadelphia Eagles visit the 12-4 NFC East Champion New York Giants.

These division rivals split their 2008 games, with the Giants winning 36-31 at Philadelphia before losing 20-14 at home. The Eagles have won 10 of the previous 17 meetings overall and the Giants have not been quite the same since losing the services of troubled wide receiver Plaxico Burress. Despite New York's superior record, the two teams had virtually identical point differentials. The winner will be the team that is more physical, does a better job of establishing a running game and is able to avoid costly mistakes. New York is the defending Super Bowl champion, a team that made their title run by putting together a record setting road winning streak. They are well rested and I don't think that they will lose to a talented but inconsistent Philadelphia squad.

New York will win, 24-10

The 9-8 Wild Card San Diego Chargers visit the 12-4 AFC North Champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

Pittsburgh beat San Diego 11-10 this season but that score is very deceptive; the referees erroneously nullified a late Pittsburgh TD, the Steelers outgained San Diego 410 yards to 213 and Ben Roethlisberger completely outplayed Philip Rivers, posting a 96.4 passer rating compared to a season-low 44.4 rating for Rivers. The fact that San Diego has beaten Pittsburgh in both of their playoff matchups is meaningless trivia, because those games took place in 1982 and 1994. The only negative for Pittsburgh going into this game is that Roethlisberger suffered a concussion in the season finale versus Cleveland. Assuming that he is not bothered by any aftereffects from that injury, Pittsburgh should dominate this game.

Pittsburgh will win, 27-7

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Will Mangini be Able to Turn the Browns Around?

The Cleveland Browns have hired Eric Mangini, the franchise's fifth head coach since rejoining the NFL in 1999. Like his predecessor Romeo Crennel, Mangini is a former Bill Belichick assistant coach who helped the New England Patriots win Super Bowl titles and has previous ties to the Browns franchise. Unlike Crennel, Mangini is a young coach who had previous NFL head coaching experience prior to becoming Cleveland's head coach. Mangini went 23-25 in three years with the New York Jets, leading the team to two winning records and one playoff berth. The Jets fired him last week in the wake of the team's collapse to 9-7 from an 8-3 start.

Cleveland owner Randy Lerner apparently felt love at first sight with Mangini, because as soon as he became available Lerner scarcely considered anyone else before offering Mangini the job. On the other hand, it does not seem like former Super Bowl winning coaches Bill Cowher or Mike Shanahan intend to take head coaching jobs right now so Mangini may in fact be the best available coach. Although Crennel and Mangini both worked for Belichick they have different personalities and coaching styles. Crennel is a laid back "player's coach" but that style backfired this year when his players took advantage of Crennel's easy going ways and played without much discipline; in contrast, Mangini is much more like Belichick and Bill Parcells, a hard driving, no nonsense coach. It certainly seems like that is exactly what the Browns need but just as important as changing the style will be to change the substance: the Browns must continue to add talent to the roster, so it will be critically important that Mangini and whoever becomes the team's new general manager are on the same page and that they don't make as many mistakes as the Browns' previous talent evaluators have.

The team that the Browns need to surpass and should be trying to emulate is their division rival Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers have had three head coaches since 1969--Chuck Noll (four-time Super Bowl winner), Bill Cowher (one-time Super Bowl winner) and Mike Tomlin (two playoff appearances in two seasons on the job). Noll, Cowher and Tomlin were each young, defensive-minded coaches when the Steelers hired them. Noll and Cowher enjoyed long, successful careers and Tomlin appears to be on that same track. The best case scenario for Cleveland is that Mangini will turn out to be a similar success story; the worst case scenario is that, like Crennel, he will be revealed to be a very good assistant coach who thrived under the watchful eye of Belichick but is not equipped to run his own program.

It is ironic that each time Belichick's staff has been raided by teams seeking to steal some of his "magic" there have been critics who suggested that the Patriots would not be the same because that particular assistant coach played such a key role in their success--but the Patriots have kept right on rolling as Belichick continues to find and develop talented assistants. Also, while it is true that none of Belichick's proteges have yet had great success as NFL head coaches, a number of them have been successful as collegiate head coaches, including Nick Saban (who won a national championship with LSU in 2003), Kirk Ferentz (two Big 10 titles at Iowa) and Pat Hill (92-61 record at Fresno State). Belichick arrived in Cleveland in 1991 after a depleted Browns team went 3-13 and three years later he had transformed the Browns into an 11-5 playoff team. While in Cleveland, Belichick hired and mentored a number of talented people who have gone on to be successful in other locations, including not only Saban, Ferentz and Hill but also Ozzie Newsome (architect of the 2000 Super Bowl champion Ravens).

It is also worth noting that for many years some people said that Belichick had done nothing more than ride Bill Parcells' coattails but Belichick has now won three Super Bowls as a head coach while Parcells has yet to win a playoff game as a head coach or team executive without having Belichick on his coaching staff; Belichick won two Super Bowls as a Parcells assistant coach (1986, 1990 New York Giants) and his Browns beat Parcells' Patriots the only time the two coaches met head to head in the playoffs (1994).

If Mangini does not do well in Cleveland, the false rap that was once applied to Belichick about riding Parcells' coattails may in fact be more accurately said of guys like Crennel, Notre Dame's Charlie Weis and other Belichick aides who built big names for themselves with Belichick's Patriots but have yet to make a mark on their own.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

NFL AP Awards are Puzzling

Three days ago, Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning was the landslide winner of the AP's 2008 NFL MVP, receiving 32 of 50 votes cast by a panel of sportswriters and broadcasters. Miami quarterback Chad Pennington and Atlanta running back Michael Turner tied for second place with four votes each; New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, who nearly broke Dan Marino's 24 year old single season passing yardage record, did not receive any votes. The Colts, Dolphins and Falcons each made the playoffs while the Saints did not, so perhaps that explains the voting. Certainly, under Manning's direction the Colts were the hottest team in the NFL down the stretch, winning their final nine regular season games; their first round playoff loss does not diminish the value of that success and, in any case, that defeat took place after the MVP votes had already been cast.

Today the AP announced the winner of its 2008 NFL Offensive Player of the Year. You would assume that Manning took this honor as well, right? Wrong. Brees received 22 first place votes from a 50 member media panel (I'm not sure if these were the same 50 people who voted for MVP), while Manning and Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson tied for second with nine votes each.

Manning and Brees each had excellent seasons but what possible logical explanation can there be for Manning winning the MVP and Brees winning Offensive Player of the Year, let alone each player winning his award by large margins? Did Manning win the MVP based on his contributions defensively or on special teams? How can Brees be considered the best offensive player in the league but not receive a single MVP vote when seven other offensive players received MVP votes? This just does not make any sense.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Real Team Obliterator

Skip Bayless often calls Terrell Owens "Team Obliterator" but this season we saw the real "Team Obliterator" in action: Brett Favre, the supposed savior of the New York Jets who instead led the NFL in interceptions as his team imploded down the stretch. It turns out that, contrary to what the media has tried to sell to the general public for years, Favre is not such a great teammate or such a beloved figure in the locker room (in contrast, when the media tried to stir up a hornet's nest against Owens in Dallas, players from both sides of the ball spoke up in defense of the beleaguered wide receiver).

The Jets got rid of Chad Pennington, who just two years earlier had led them to the playoffs, in favor of Favre; now Pennington has guided the Miami Dolphins to the AFC East title and outdueled Favre head to head in the final game of the season. Thomas Jones, the Jets running back who led the AFC in rushing, recently blasted Favre's performance in that game, declaring, "We're a team and we win together...but at the same time, you can't turn the ball over and expect to win. The other day, the three interceptions really hurt us. I mean, that's just reality. If I were to sit here and say, 'Oh, man, it's okay,' that's not reality. The reality is, you throw interceptions, I'm (ticked) off, I don't like it. You know what I'm saying? I don't like it, I know everybody else on the team doesn't like it. If somebody is not playing well, they need to come out of the game. You're jeopardizing the whole team because you're having a bad day. To me, that's not fair to everybody else. You're not the only one on the team."

I do not generally put much stock in anonymous comments, because there is no way to verify who said what or to know what kind of agenda is being pushed by the reporter and/or the anonymous commenter but this Newsday story carries a mixture of attributed and anonymous statements about Favre and none of them are flattering. Safety Kerry Rhodes said, "If he's dedicated and he wants to come back and do this, and do it the right way...and be here when we're here in training camp and the minicamps and working out with us...then I'm fine with it. But don't come back if it's going to be halfhearted or he doesn't want to put the time in with us." That certainly seems to refer not only to the fact that Favre missed training camp but also suggests that Favre's effort seemed "halfhearted" after the Jets acquired him. Otherwise, why use that word at all? An anonymous player criticized Favre for being "distant" from his teammates and having a "me first" attitude; that player also said that now-fired Coach Eric Mangini rarely called out Favre after he made mistakes and several players agreed with his assessment that "Eric wasn't the reason that we didn't make the playoffs."

The Jets could have made the playoffs while being led by Pennington, a quarterback who is young enough to have several more good seasons. Instead, they shipped a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback to a division rival in order to go for broke with a 39 year old who annually pulls an Achilles in the tent routine about whether or not he really wants to go into battle. Well, the Jets went for broken and now they are broken: they missed the playoffs while strengthening a team that they will have to play two times a year and next season they will have to start over with a new coach and a new quarterback.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

2008 NFL Year in Review/Playoff Preview

In 2007, I correctly picked six of the eight NFL division champions but whiffed on all four Wild Cards; in my 2008 NFL Preview, I also correctly picked six of the 12 playoff teams but in a much different fashion: I only correctly picked two of the eight NFL division champions (Pittsburgh and San Diego) but two teams that I picked as Wild Cards made the playoffs as division champions (Tennessee and the New York Giants), while my other two Wild Card choices (Indianapolis and Philadelphia) were correct. I certainly would like to have been right about at least 75% of my choices but--as I have repeatedly said in this space--more teams go from worst to first (and vice versa) in the NFL than in just about any other league for three reasons: (1) one key injury can wreck a team's season, (2) one loss in a 16 game NFL seasons carries the proportional weight of five NBA losses or 10 MLB losses and (3) many NFL games are not decided until the last couple minutes, so a small number of plays can make the difference between being 10-6 and 6-10.

Some of my picks were just flat out wrong but teams like New England--at 11-5, the Patriots posted a better record than three division champions--and Dallas could very easily have made the playoffs, as I'm sure that most people expected that they would. As for the rise of the Miami Dolphins, I did not see that coming, though I did say that I would not be surprised if Chad Pennington outperformed Brett Favre, which clearly happened throughout the season and in the last game, which was in effect a playoff game for both the Dolphins and Favre's New York Jets. I correctly did not buy the playoff hype about my beloved Cleveland Browns, but I did not foresee that they would finish in last place.

I was right that the Super Bowl champion Giants would return to the postseason--which is not a given considering that 12 Super Bowl winners missed the playoffs the next year, including the Giants after their 1986 and 1990 championships--but I did not expect them to be so dominant with both Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan missing from the pass rush that was so vital to their title run. My projected AFC Championship (New England-San Diego), NFC Championship (Dallas-Tampa Bay) and Super Bowl (New England-Dallas) matchups are all out the window.

For comparison purposes, here are how the preseason picks from five major publications panned out:

Sports Illustrated: 3/8 division champions, 7/12 playoff qualifiers.

Lindy's: 3/8 division champions, 4/12 playoff qualifiers.

Sporting News: 2/8 division champions, 4/12 playoff qualifiers.

Athlon Sports: 2/8 division champions, 3/12 playoff qualifiers.

Pro Football Weekly: 1/8 division champions, 4/12 playoff qualifiers.

My record does not look so bad compared to the records compiled by full-time NFL writers who have credentialed access to the league; I correctly picked more playoff qualifiers than everyone on this list except for Sports Illustrated. Everyone other than PFW correctly picked Pittsburgh and San Diego as division champions; SI and Lindy's were also right about the Minnesota Vikings winning the NFC North.

Here are my picks for this weekend's playoff games and my (updated) selections for the AFC Championship, NFC Championship and the Super Bowl. Last year, I went 3-1 on Wild Card Weekend, 2-2 in the Divisional Round, 1-1 in the Championship Games and 0-1 in the Super Bowl (6-5 overall*).

Saturday's games:

The 12-4 Wild Card Indianapolis Colts visit the 8-8 AFC West Champion San Diego Chargers.

The Chargers were expected by some people to be Super Bowl contenders but only made it to the playoffs because of Denver's unprecedented collapse: the Broncos were in first place every week of the season except for the week that counts the most, when they got drilled 52-21 by San Diego. The Colts got off to a slow start as Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison recovered from knee surgeries, but they are the hottest team in the league now, owners of a nine game winning streak. The Colts beat the Chargers 23-20 in San Diego on November 23; this time around, Indianapolis will win 31-21.

The 11-5 Wild Card Atlanta Falcons visit the 9-7 NFC West Champion Arizona Cardinals.

The Cardinals clinched a weak division and then clocked out for the last month or so, going 2-3 in their last five games. The Falcons, the surprise team of the year other than the Dolphins, won their final three games and four of their last five. Arizona is a good home team with a powerful offense led by Kurt Warner--the 1999 and 2001 NFL MVP who also won the Super Bowl XXXIV MVP--so the Cardinals have a puncher's chance if Warner puts a lot of points on the board and avoids committing costly turnovers but the Falcons just look like the better team overall. Atlanta will win, 27-24.

Sunday's games:

The 11-5 Wild Card Baltimore Ravens visit the 11-5 AFC East Champion Miami Dolphins.

Both teams enter the playoffs playing well, with the Dolphins riding a five game winning streak and the Ravens winning four of their last five, including their final two games. Although they have identical records, the Ravens were a much more dominant team in terms of point differential (9.1 ppg compared to 1.6 ppg). That fact, coupled with Baltimore's 27-13 victory at Miami on October 19, suggests that Baltimore will win, 21-14.

The 9-6-1 Wild Card Philadelphia Eagles visit the 10-6 NFC North Champion Minnesota Vikings.

The Vikings won four of their last five games to edge out the Chicago Bears, while the Eagles also won four of their last five, including their stunning 44-6 rout of division rival Dallas in the last game of the season with the final playoff spot on the line for both teams. Although Minnesota has the slightly better record, the Eagles have a significantly better point differential (8 ppg compared to 2.7 ppg). Donovan McNabb can be an up and down player at times but I trust him in a playoff game more than anyone the Vikings can put on the field at the quarterback position. These teams did not play this season, but the Eagles have won the four previous meetings, three of them by at least 11 points. Philadelphia will win, 34-17.

I expect the Tennessee Titans to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game and the New York Giants to defeat the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game. My Super Bowl pick is Tennessee over New York.

*1/8/09 correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that I was 0-2 in the Divisional round and 4-5 overall.