Archive for January, 2011

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Playoff Predictions – Divisional Round

January 14, 2011

My season of bad predictions continued last week as I went 1-3.

The wild card round was good for the road teams, as they went 3-1.  And the one home team that won was the one that nobody expected to.

I think just about everyone in America got the Saints vs. Seahawks game wrong.  And my pick of the Eagles may have just been a bit of a homer pick.  As for the Jets, well I didn’t expect them to be able to shut down Peyton Manning so effectively.  (I also didn’t realize how bad Colts coach Jim Caldwell was either)

Will the divisional round bring me any better success?

Ravens at Steelers

Here’s where I once again mention my conspiracy theory that the NFL wants the Steelers to win.

The Ben Roethlisberger suspension could have killed this team, but thanks to the way the Steelers schedule was set up, they were able to get past it.  In a way, even the many fines on Rodney Harrison fit into my theory.  The NFL wants to present the Steelers as a model franchise, so they can’t have one of the team’s players as the poster child for illegal hits.  If it was another team, they might have tried to suspend him.

The Steelers look like a very solid team, with their biggest weakness being at offensive line.  This might seem like a major concern, but they were able to win the Super Bowl two years ago with a subpar offensive line, so I guess they don’t really need one on order to thrive.  They seem to have everything else: Dynamic wide receivers, a powerful running back, and a playmaking defense.

The Ravens will be playing their second consecutive road game after their win over the Chiefs last week.  The Ravens are familiar with road games, mostly because they seem unable to win their division, and always have to settle for a wild card berth.

The Ravens looked impressive in beating the Chiefs, although the Chiefs seemed half beaten heading into that game.  Even after the victory, I still have concerns about QB Joe Flacco in big games.  While teams can win by leaning on a strong running game and defense, you’ve got to figure that at some point they’ll need Flacco to make a play in a key game.

I think that is the key difference in a pretty even matchup: Roethlisberger makes a play that Flacco does not.

Prediction: Steelers 24-16

  

Packers at Falcons

Last week, the Packers showed that if teams overload against their passing game, they can indeed run the ball.  This is a lesson that I wish Andy Reid would learn one of these days.

In a way, I thought the running game might have been to the Packers’ detriment a bit.  By running the ball so much, they kept the game close, when it appeared that they were the more talented team.  Consider that as much as the Packers outplayed the Eagles, the game still came down to the final drive.  It should also be noted that in the fourth quarter, when they needed the running game to eat up yardage and clock, it did not get the job done.

The Falcons have managed to go under the radar, despite being the conference’s top seed.  It feels like everyone expects them to lose, even though they’ve been good all year, and have been especially tough at home.  Unlike the Eagles, the Falcons have an imposing pass rush, and when Packers QB Aaron Rodgers needs to make a big throw, he may not have the necessary time.

These are two good teams – perhaps the best two in the conference.  The Packers may have more playmakers, but the Falcons seem a bit better rounded.  The Falcons also have several other factors in their favor.  They have been able to rest their players, while the Packers have had three do-or-die games in a row.  Eventually, that will wear even the best of teams down.  Combined with homefield advantage, I think that gives the Falcons the edge.

Prediction: Falcons 27-24

Seahawks at Bears

After last week’s upset of the Saints, all of a sudden people are jumping aboard the Seahawks bandwagon, saying they’re a sleeping giant.

I think it was more a case of the Saints underestimating the Seahawks, as well as the Seahawks homefield advantage giving them an edge.  QB Matt Hasselbeck looked rejuvenated, throwing four touchdowns, and the game was sealed when running back Marshawn Lynch had his electrifying run down the field.

This week, the Seahawks will have to travel to Chicago to face a well rested Bears team.  People have underestimated the Bears all season.  Most of this has been due to skepticism about quarterback Jay Cutler.  While he has a strong arm and can make some great plays, at his worst, Cutler is an interception throwing machine.  I think the worst fear of Bears fans is that Cutler decides to go into Brett Favre mode and start throwing the ball all over the place.

If the Seahawks can pick off a couple of passes and convert them into scores, then there is the real threat of an upset.

Assuming that doesn’t happen, the Bears should be in good shape.  Unlike the Saints, the Bears have a strong defense, and I can’t imagine Hasselbeck having a repeat performance.  The Bears should win a low scoring contest.

Prediction: Bears 20-10

Jets at Patriots

I was quite surprised by the Jets last week.  After thinking they wouldn’t handle the playoff pressure, they came through, beating the Colts on a last second field goal.

The pressure only gets higher this week as they face off against the top seeded Patriots, and the trash talk has been in full effect.  The Jets seem to legitimately dislike the Patriots.  Perhaps that dislike is justified since the Patriots crushed them by a score of 45-3 the last time the teams played.

The Jets appeared to have the advantage at just about every position over the Colts (QB being the notable exception), but that does not appear to be the case this week.  The Patriots are very talented and well coached as well.

This doesn’t seem to be a good matchup for the Jets.  The Patriots might have a vulnerable pass defense, but is Jets QB Mark Sanchez capable of taking advantage?  And the Jets’ best player CB Darrelle Revis will mostly be wasted against the Patriots who tend to spread the ball around on offense.  Does it matter who Revis is covering when Tom Brady has so many other options to choose from?

The Jets will surely keep talking, but I don’t think it will matter against a more talented team that has had two weeks to prepare.

Prediction: Patriots 30-17

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Eagles Playoff Game and Season in Review

January 10, 2011

The Eagles’ title drought is now at fifty-one years.

I had hoped that with a new quarterback, the result might be different.  Yet, this game ended the same way that so many other Eagles playoff games have ended: Needing a last minute score, the quarterback makes a questionable decision and doesn’t get the job done.

There was a lot of blame to go around in this one.  There was a lot that went wrong for the Eagles.  But in the end, I think the Packers won the game simply because they were the better team, and outplayed the Eagles.

What Went Right?

Despite looking like the inferior team, and making many mistakes, the Eagles were still in position to win this game at the end. 

The Packers offense looked like it might tear apart the Eagles defense, but that never really happened.  The defense forced a turnover to set up the Eagles’ first touchdown, and in the fourth quarter, they tightened up just enough to give Vick and the offense a chance to win it.

I was confused as to why the Packers ran the ball so much.  They had pretty good yardage on the ground, but it also seemed to limit them.  Were they trying to keep the ball out of Michael Vick’s hands as much as possible?

What Went Wrong?

– For the most part this season, as DeSean Jackson goes, so goes the Eagles’ offense.  So it certainly wasn’t good that he missed most of the first half with an injury and was clearly slowed when he returned.  With a healthy Jackson, does this game turn out differently?

– Not that it was a huge surprise, but the offensive line played poorly.  Winston Justice was so bad that he was pulled in favor of King Dunlap.  If Dunlap is the solution, then you’ve got a problem that can’t be fixed.

– While the defense did tighten later, it was quite disheartening the way that they let the Packers march down the field after the Eagles had finally scored a touchdown.  The Eagles finally had some momentum, and they handed it right back.  The defense also seemed unable to generate more than a token pass rush.

– David Akers’ first field goal attempt was into the wind, so that’s somewhat excusable.  But there was no way that he should have missed the second one.  That is the type of field goal that Akers simply does not miss.  And sadly, if he hits either of them, they probably win the game.

– After the Eagles second touchdown, Brent Celek needlessly stepped out of bounds before catching the two-point conversion pass, negating the score.  Not only did this cost them two points, but on the second attempt, Vick suffered an injury which might have affected his play on the final drive.

– Vick played decently, but was unable to carry the team to victory.  Going for the end zone in that situation is questionable, but I can understand why he tried it.  However, I don’t think that throwing a jump ball to Riley Cooper was the right move.  They weren’t desperate, so why put the game in the hands of your untested fourth receiver?

Bad Andy Reid Coaching Move of the Week

Some may find fault with Reid opting for a field goal in the fourth quarter.  The Eagles needed those points, and there was no reason to think Akers wouldn’t be able to make it.  So I really can’t complain about that decision.

On the other hand, (And yes, I know this is a familiar complaint), this seemed like the type of game where more rushing attempts would have been beneficial to the Eagles’ offense.

LeSean McCoy has shown he can get the job done, but he never had the opportunity to establish himself on the ground.  The Packers were often rushing only three men (and yet still generating some pressure) and the Eagles were missing Jackson. 

Yet, aside from some sporadic attempts, the Eagles never tried to attack on the ground.

Then again, I could have written the same thing about pretty much every playoff loss under Reid.

Final Analysis of the Game

It didn’t look like a good matchup for the Eagles, and in the end, it probably wasn’t.  The Packers definitely looked like the better team.  Of course, had the Eagles simply taken care of business against the Vikings, there was a good chance that they would have had a bye and could have avoided yesterday’s game altogether.

The Season in Review

The defense did not have a strong season.  They hoped that bringing in a lot of new faces would cause improvement, but instead, they seemed to take a step backwards. 

The return of MLB Stewart Bradley and the trade for OLB Ernie Sims was supposed to solidify the linebackers, but neither one of them played up to expectations.

They brought in a bunch of new players for the defensive line, but as it turns out, the guys they got rid of (Chris Clemons, Jason Babin) had much better seasons than they guys they brought in.  By the end of the season, the team struggled to generate much of a pass rush.

Cornerback was also an adventure.  Ellis Hobbs played poorly and then got injured.  He was replaced by Dmitri Patterson who looked good for a few games, and then struggled as teams were able to scout him.

Results were mixed for their top two rookies.  DE Brandon Graham didn’t look especially impressive, while FS Nate Allen showed some promise.  Unfortunately, both suffered season ending injuries, and their physical status will leave them as just as big question marks headed into their second seasons.

On the other hand rookie safety Kurt Coleman and linebacker Jamar Chaney both filled in admirably when the team suffered injuries.  Neither player might have star potential, but they at least looked like capable NFL players.

Perhaps the biggest question mark of all on defense is coordinator Sean McDermott.  Maybe he was hindered by lack of personnel, but the defense seems to be getting worse under his watch.  Assuming he returns for next season, I’d have to say that he is on the hot seat.

On the offensive end, it appeared that the Eagles had great talent at the skill positions, and a shaky offensive line.  Those expectations turned out to be accurate. 

DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Jason Avant may be the best set of receivers in the league.  RB LeSean McCoy was still a bit of an unknown heading into the season, but he now looks like a star in the making.

On the other hand, the offensive line was a mess.  There were frequent breakdowns in protection, and they seemed clueless as to handle when a defense blitzed.  This unit will require a major overhaul in the offseason.

All of those factors should have equaled somewhere between 6 and 8 wins.  But Michael Vick covered up a lot of flaws.   He may have faded at the end (and that was probably partially due to the punishment he received behind that offensive line) but he still had one of the best seasons ever by an Eagles quarterback.

In the end, I can’t really be disappointed by this season.  I had expected an 8-8 season, so the fact that they went 10-6 and won the NFC East was a very pleasant surprise.  And even though the end result was the same, as I mentioned before, at least things felt somewhat fresh this season.

So, as Eagles fans have been saying for the past fifty years, I guess we’ll just have to wait until next year.

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Playoff Predictions – Wild Card Round

January 7, 2011

The regular season is over.  How did I do on my preseason predictions?  Not too well.

Let’s see, the Chiefs, Seahawks, and Bears all won their divisions, after I had picked them to finish in last place.  In fact, it seemed that any time I said a team would have a poor season, they ended up surprising.

Except of course for the Redskins.  As I predicted, they finished in last place.

It looks like my Super Bowl prediction of Texans vs. Packers isn’t going to happen.  The Packers could still make it (although I hope they do not), but the Texans didn’t even qualify for the playoffs.  Their offense might have been championship caliber, but their defense was horrendous.

If I was that bad at predicting the regular season, will I do any better predicting playoff games?  Let’s find out.

Saints at Seahawks

For the first time in NFL history, we have a losing team in the playoffs!  The Seahawks won the atrocious NFC West with a 7-9 record, and will face the defending champions.

At first glance, is there any reason to think the Seahawks have a chance? 

Will they be able to outcoach the Saints?  I doubt it, as Saints coach Sean Payton is one of the best in the business.  Seahawks coach Pete Carroll may have been successful in college (although much of that success might have been due to running a dirty program) but hasn’t been able to duplicate that success in the pros.

Other minuses for the Seahawks include their bad passing defense (not good when facing Drew Brees), a weak running game, and a banged up quarterback (Matt Hasselbeck) who even when healthy looks to be well past his prime.

Despite those factors, there are a few reasons for the Seahawks to be optimistic.  The Saints don’t have much of a running game since they’ve lost running backs Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory to injury.  If the game is close, that could be crucial.

Homefield advantage will also be in the Seahawks favor.  The Saints will also have to travel across the country on a short week which never helps a team’s chances.  And the Seahawks stadium – Qwest Field – is regarded as being one of the loudest in the NFL.

But really, I can’t see any way for the Seahawks to win this game.  The Saints should score a lot of points, and I can’t picture the Seahawks matching them.

Prediction: Saints 35 – 10

 

Jets at Colts

The Jets have had a ton of hype around them all season.  In preseason, they were featured on HBO’s Hard Knocks series, and their coach Rex Ryan has been in the news all year for his outlandish statements (and apparently his foot fetish).

I thought all the hype would be their undoing and they would have a disappointing season, but they surprised me and made the playoffs.  But despite the playoff berth, I am left with the impression that this team – and QB Mark Sanchez in particular – doesn’t play well in big games. 

They were featured on Monday Night Football in week one, but only scored 9 points in a loss.  In a post-bye matchup against the Packers, they were shut out.  When they played the Patriots for first place in the AFC East, they got trounced 45-3.  And when they needed a win to clinch a playoff berth, they fell to the Bears.

This is a little surprising since the team did win two playoff games last year, and gave the Colts quite a battle in the AFC Championship game.  Maybe the extra hype and the preseason Super Bowl talk just added to the pressure?

On the other hand, there’s Colts QB Peyton Manning.  For a guy who has won a Super Bowl, there’s a lot of talk about Manning’s relatively poor playoff record (9-9).

Side Note: I find it funny that people consider Manning to be a choker, but think of Brett Favre as being clutch.  I’m guessing that since Favre won a Super Bowl early on in his career, that first impression stayed with us.  Even though he’s had much bigger and more frequent playoff flameouts than Manning.

This has been one of Manning’s poorest seasons.  Part of the problem is that his receivers haven’t seemed to be able to stay healthy.  As a result, he seems to be forcing the ball more than ever, resulting in quite a few costly interceptions.  And yet, the Colts still won 10 games and the AFC South.

It seems like even on Manning’s bad days, the Colts offense still puts up points.  So even though the Jets have a strong defense, I feel like the Colts will still finish with a decent scoring output. 

The question is: Will the Jets be able to match?  Based on the team and Sanchez’s track record, I don’t see it happening.

Prediction: Colts 24-10

 

Ravens at Chiefs

This game matches two teams who seemed to be heading in the opposite direction at the end of the season.

The Chiefs were a surprise to many people this year, including myself.  I thought Matt Cassell was just an average QB, but he’s played remarkably well this year, helped considerably by a strong running game led by Jamaal Charles.  But the Chiefs offense struggled in their last few games.

The Ravens seem to have a lot of momentum heading into the playoffs.  Their defense has looked especially strong lately, and their running game, headed by Ray Rice has been performing well.  At first glance, this seems like a team built for the playoffs.

And yet, I have to wonder if that is truly the case.  It’s hard to win in the playoffs if your quarterback doesn’t play well.  Ravens QB Joe Flacco seems like an emerging star, yet so far in his young career, he has not shown the ability to step up in big games.  Even in the Ravens win over the Patriots last postseason, Flacco didn’t perform especially well.

It will be interesting to see if the Chiefs stadium plays a part in the outcome.  The Ravens have been a good road team and have won a good number of road playoff games in recent years, but Arrowhead Stadium is know for being one of the toughest places to play.

As for my prediction, the Ravens seem to be the more talented team, but the Chiefs have a couple of players capable of making big, game changing plays: WR Dwayne Bowe and DE Tamba Hali.  I think they make some plays to keep it close, but ultimately, superior talent emerges.

Prediction: Ravens 17-14

 

Packers at Eagles

Before the season, most people (including me) had the Packers as a Super Bowl contender.  Injuries and occasional lapses slowed them down, and forced them to struggle just to make the playoffs.

Now that they’re in, the Packers seems as dangerous as anyone.  Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has had an excellent season, and the Packers’ passing game looks like it should be able to do some significant damage against the Eagles’ shaky pass defense.

The Packers’ defense is also playing well.  Linebacker Clay Matthews had an excellent season.  Eagles fans will remember him as the guy who knocked Kevin Kolb out of the game in week one.  They may be a little susceptible to the run, but that shouldn’t be a huge concern against the pass-happy Eagles.

Before the season, this looked like a rebuilding year for the Eagles, as they entered the season with unproven QB Kevin Kolb.  But of course, Michael Vick became the starter in week two, and had a phenomenal season, carrying the Eagles to a divison title.

Towards the end of the season, Vick’s play dropped off a bit.  Some attributed it to injuries.  Others said that defenses were figuring out a way to stop him.  Others claimed Vick was reverting back to some bad, old habits.

It should be noted that even though Vick didn’t play as well as he had earlier, the Eagles offense was still scoring a lot of points.  Even in the loss to the Vikings, the offense looked to be moving fairly well, but were undone by turnovers.

At first glance this looks to be a mismatch in favor of the Packers.  They seem to have more across the board talent, and their strengths match up well against the Eagles’ weaknesses.

But that won’t mean a thing if the Eagles are able to make some big plays.

The Eagles have been the most proficient big play team in the NFL.  The long touchdowns by DeSean Jackson, and the electrifying runs by Vick have been well publicized.  But the Eagles also have big play threats in WR Jeremy Maclin and RB LeSean McCoy.  With that kind of explosive talent, the Packers will have to be constantly on guard, knowing that the Eagles are capable of scoring on one play from any spot on the field.

Even on the vulnerable-looking defense, there are guys capable of making some big plays.  They were among the league leaders in takeaways this season, highlighted by Asante Samuel’s 7 interceptions.  Playoff games can often hinge on a key turnover.

Last week’s games also give the Eagles an advantage.  While the Packers were fighting for a playoff spot, the Eagles – their playoff seeding locked in – rested most of their starters, giving them a virtual bye week.  That week of rest could do wonders for their hobbled players. 

I think this game comes down to whether or not the Eagles can make enough big plays to overcome the Packers’ talent advantage.  If Michael Vick plays as he did for most of the season, the Eagles will put up a lot of points.  But if defenses really figured out how to neutralize him, or if he’s truly slowed down or reverting to past form, then they may struggle.

I was about to pick the Packers, but then I realized that Michael Vick has overcome quite a bit this season.  Is one subpar week against the Vikings enough reason to doubt him?  I think he finds a way to pull out the win.

Prediction: Eagles 31-28

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Eagles Week 17: Why Does this Feel Different?

January 3, 2011

The Eagles regular season came to an anticlimatic end yesterday as their backups fell to the Dallas Cowboys by a score of 14-13.  This is probably the least upset you will ever see the Eagles’ fanbase about losing to the Cowboys.

The Eagles backups played admirably, but ultimately, they encountered the same problem that the Eagles starters have faced when playing the Cowboys in recent seasons: An inability to cover Jason Witten.

After being stymied for most of the day, Cowboys quarterback Stephen McGee led a late game-winning touchdown drive, mostly by going to the Pro Bowl tight end.

Quarterback Kevin Kolb didn’t look spectacular, but considering he was playing alongside mostly backups, that wasn’t especially surprising.  His lack of ball security was more alarming, as he threw three interceptions and fumbled once, and those turnovers were the difference in the game.

Not much else to analyze, so instead, I’ll take a look back at the regular season, and try to determine why despite a similar record, there is much more optimism about this year’s team as opposed to last year.  What is different about the 2010-2011 Eagles that makes fans think that they have a legitimate chance of winning a Super Bowl?

Part of the reason is that the NFC seems to be weaker this year.  Despite having a worse record than in 2009, the Eagles won the NFC East this year, mostly because the rest of the division took a step back.  The Cowboys badly underperformed, and the Giants suffered yet another late season collapse.

Is there any team in the NFC that seems especially imposing? 

The Falcons are the top seed, and have been tough at home, but yet the Eagles defeated them soundly in October, despite Vick missing the game.  The Bears defeated the Eagles when they played, but I didn’t get the feeling that the Bears were a better team.  The Saints are the defending champions, but I don’t know if they’ll find the same success when forced to play outdoors.

But even looking past the weaker competition, why does this team seem to have a better chance at ultimate success that last year?

In hindsight, last season was a transition year.  They had already gotten rid of mainstays like Brian Dawkins and Tra Thomas.  Brian Westbrook was clearly in his last season with the team, and that left Donovan McNabb as the only real holdover from the “old days.”

Under McNabb, the team seemed to have settled into a pattern: They’d be good enough to make the playoffs, and depending on the matchups, maybe even win a few games.  But they weren’t going to be good enough to win the Super Bowl.

With Michael Vick at QB, there is a definite sense that maybe he will be able to succeed where McNabb failed. 

Admittedly, one reason for this is McNabb fatigue.  After seeing McNabb come up short so many times, fans just came to expect that the team would lose in the playoffs.  We’ve never seen Vick fail (at least not with the Eagles) so there are hopes that maybe with him, things will be different.

Beyond that, there are other reasons for Vick-fueled optimism.

Unlike McNabb who was always insisting that he was a leader, Vick seems to actually be a leader.  There was a strong sense last season that many of the younger players weren’t huge fans of McNabb.  Based on what I’ve seen and heard, the entire team seems to genuinely admire Vick.

Vick also shows some emotion on the field.  While this may be a bit overrated, it is still more reassuring for the fans when the QB looks like he is getting fired up.  We all know that McNabb liked to stay on an even keel, but it didn’t inspire much confidence when the team is losing, and he’s sitting on the sideline smiling, looking as if he doesn’t have a care in the world.

We’ve also seen that no matter what has happened in the game up to that point, Vick is capable of leading a comeback.  It must be trying for defenses knowing they can never relax, because  the Eagles are always capable of making a huge play.

And unlike McNabb, Vick has shown a willingness to make plays with his legs if there are no other options.  McNabb seemed so determined to win the game with his arm, that he ignored the fact that his running ability could be used as a weapon.

Aside from Vick, perhaps the biggest cause of optimism is because the wide receiver group of DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Jason Avant may be the best in the team’s history. 

Much has been said over the years about Andy Reid’s underutilization of the running game.  Part of the reason was due to the team’s personnel.  When you have running backs like Duce Staley and Brian Westbrook, and wide receivers like James Thrash and Todd Pinkston, wouldn’t it make more sense to run the ball more?

This season, now that the team finally has the star receivers necessary to make a pass-happy attack work, that criticism has been much quieter.  Of course, Reid still could stand to run the ball more, especially if he wants to reduce the number of hits that Vick receives.

Speaking of running the ball, an underrated story this season has been the switch at running back from Brian Westbrook to LeSean McCoy.  Obviously, Westbrook was a great player, and he helped carry the team to many victories over the years.  But Westbrook was also injury prone, and by his last couple of seasons, fans may have gotten tired of holding their breath every time he took a hit. 

In his first year as full-time starter, McCoy had an excellent season, and has often looked just like a young Westbrook.  In fact, he’s miles ahead of where Westbrook was at the same point in his career. Better yet, we no longer have to watch NFL Countdown every Sunday and worry which way Westbrook’s questionable status was going to go.

So yes, despite many similarities to Eagles teams of recent seasons, there are some valid reasons to think that the result will be different this time around. 

But will this optimism be rewarded?  Will this year’s team be able to do what the McNabb-led (and for that matter, countless other quarterbacks) squads were unable to do?  I’ll take a closer look at the team’s chances when I do my playoff preview on Friday.