Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Two Minute Drill: Double Doink Keys Browns Victory Over Ravens

Cleveland Browns fans do not usually think to themselves "Somebody Up There Likes Me." Usually, a more appropriate musing would be, "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" or, more concisely, "Misery." Perhaps that is finally starting to change this season: the Browns improved to 6-4 after a 33-30 overtime victory over the Baltimore Ravens. The Browns forced the overtime with what NBC's Keith Olbermann called "the longest field goal in NFL history." Phil Dawson's 51 yarder was not even the longest of his career in terms of distance and it fell 12 yards short of the NFL record shared by Tom Dempsey and Jason Elam but Olbermann's quip refers not to yardage but to time; it took the game officials about five minutes to determine that Dawson's attempt was in fact good. The ball struck the left upright (doink number one) then hit the support behind the crossbar (doink number two) before bouncing forward into the endzone. That last forward movement led one official to signal "no good" but the other official standing in the back of the endzone realized that the kick had in fact cleared the crossbar. Technically, this kind of play is not reviewable, so referee Pete Morelli went to great lengths to explain to the crowd and the TV audience that the officials reached their conclusion by consultation amongst themselves as opposed to using a video review. In any case, they made the right ruling, a bounce (actually, two bounces) and a call actually went the Browns' way and the Browns took advantage of this second chance (they blew a 13 point fourth quarter lead) to drive downfield during overtime and convert a perfectly normal field goal to seal the win. This is their second 33-30 overtime win in the past three weeks, placing the Browns firmly in the hunt for a playoff berth and reviving memories of the old Kardiac Kids who specialized in playing games that were not decided until the final moments.

While the Browns have emerged as perhaps the most surprising team of the season, their cross-state rival Cincinnati Bengals are one of the most disappointing teams in the NFL. At 3-7 they reside in last place in the AFC North. They have a talented roster and they have not suffered from an unusual number of injuries--unless you count the disease of selfishness that has apparently spread from mouthy wide receiver Chad Johnson to several other players on the team. As the team's most reliable wide receiver--T.J. Houshmandzadeh--put it after the Bengals' 35-27 loss to Arizona, "Talent doesn't win games, obviously. We're a good example of that." They say that a picture is worth a thousand words and if you are looking for a portrait of the self absorption that has led directly to the Bengals' collapse then look no further than this snapshot from the Arizona game: Johnson sitting on the field lost in thought (no doubt about how great he is), completely oblivious to the scrum directly to his left where players from both teams are fighting to recover a ball that he fumbled. The media has spent a lot of time singing the praises of "Ocho Cinco" while informing us that Terrell Owens, Randy Moss and Kobe Bryant are selfish players. Last I checked, those three players are performing very well for winning teams--but I would not hold my breath waiting for retractions of the criticisms of Owens, Moss and Bryant or rewrites of the breathless praise of Johnson.

The big question at the top of the AFC North is whether or not the Steelers are for real. The answer depends on what one means by "for real." Pittsburgh is the best team in the division, owning a one game lead over the Browns that is really a two game lead because they swept the season series over Cleveland. The Steelers are dominant at home but shaky on the road. One would think that their formula of running the ball on offense while playing teeth rattling defense would travel well but that has not been the case this season. Pittsburgh will win the AFC North and will survive in the AFC playoffs until they have to go on the road, where they will be road kill at the hands of New England or Indianapolis.

Turning to the NFC--also known as the conference that will offer up a sacrificial lamb to be destroyed by the Patriots in the Super Bowl--it is hard to know what to make of the Green Bay Packers. They have been mediocre at best for several years and their best player, quarterback Brett Favre, is playing as well as he ever has despite reaching an age at which some of his greatest predecessors rapidly declined. For most of the season the Packers could not run the ball but now they have shown signs of life on the ground. The real secret with this team is that they play very good defense. I keep thinking that the whole thing is a mirage and that one week it will all collapse like a house of cards but 10 weeks into the season I have to admit that they are not a fluke. It will be very interesting to see what happens when they play the Cowboys in week 13. My suspicion is that the Cowboys will beat them without too much trouble.

Thought of the Week: I'm sick of hearing complaints that the Patriots are running up the score. In the second half of the Buffalo game--as NBC's Al Michaels and John Madden quite correctly pointed out--the Patriots were using running backs no one has ever heard of on simple plays up the middle and they were still gaining huge chunks of yardage. This is not pee wee football; there is no mercy rule. I think that the complaints are coming from fans and media members and not the teams themselves but if any player or team has a problem with what New England is doing then they should take a page from boxing or chess: throw in the towel or resign. Of course, neither of those options is available in the NFL, so both teams are required to play until the final gun.

Thought of the Week II: I disagree with how Bill Parcells used Terrell Owens last season but I like the way that Parcells handled Owens' not so veiled criticism of him. ESPN ran the clip of Owens saying that this year's coaching staff is using him better than last year's coaching staff did and then Monday Night Countdown host Chris Berman asked Parcells for his response. Parcells smiled and said simply, "I agree with everything he said. They are using him better. He is playing better." I also have no problem with what Owens said or how he said it; coaches publicly criticize players all the time and what Owens said was very measured, so much so that even Parcells himself had to admit that Owens is right.

Thought of the Week III: We have often been told that quarterback is the most important position. We also have often been told that Peyton Manning may be the greatest quarterback of all-time. It is very interesting to see that without Marvin Harrison he has suddenly become not just mediocre but actually bad--in fact, his passer rating for the past three weeks (55.5) is lower than the full season passer ratings of every single qualifier listed in the league's official rankings! In the past three games, Manning has completed just 66 of 115 passes (.574) for 716 yards (6.2 yards per attempt) with three touchdowns and eight interceptions. In the first seven games of the season, he had a 97.9 passer rating, completing 138 of 232 passes (.595) for 1833 yards (7.9 yards per attempt) with 13 touchdowns and three interceptions. We've seen Tom Brady win Super Bowls with receivers who could not even start for Indianapolis and this season we are seeing what Tom Brady can do with a first rate receiving corps: rewrite the record book. Now that we have a good idea of what Brady would have been doing for years if he had had Marvin Harrison, don't you wonder what Manning would have been doing if he had had Brady's receivers? Somehow, I don't think that Manning would have been winning three Super Bowls.

What does all of this mean? 1) Manning is a talented player but Brady is without question the best quarterback of this era. 2) Quarterback may be the most important position but no one player can win games by himself in a team sport, no matter what the media tries to tell you.

No comments: