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Reasons Why the 2011 Phillies Could (But Won’t) Fail: Part 2 – Injuries

March 31, 2011

Continuing from yesterday, I’m looking at some of the reasons that people have given as to why the Phillies won’t win the National League East this season.

I’ll take a look at each reason and explain why it won’t keep them from capturing the division title yet again.

Injuries

Spring Training has not been good to the Phillies as far as injuries go.  They have had several key players suffer injuries, some of which may potentially cause them to miss significant time in the regular season.

While it may seem like the Phillies are suffering worse than most, it appears that most of the injuries are nothing to get too concerned about.

Rookie Domonic Brown broke his hand, but there was a good chance that he wasn’t going to make the team to begin the season anyway.

As far as players who will make the team, Shane Victorino was injured in an outfield collision, but has since recovered, and this shouldn’t be an issue.  More concerning is Placido Polanco who re-injured his surgically repaired elbow.  This injury may nag him throughout the season, but he is scheduled to play Opening Day, so it shouldn’t be seen as a major problem.  At least not yet.

Side note: If you’re going to pick the Braves due to the Phillies injuries, don’t you also have to consider that Chipper Jones is unlikely to make it through an entire season healthy?  And yet the Braves lineup is still quite dependent on him being a run producer.

Two injuries for the Phillies do shape up as potential causes for concern, as they are key players who will starting the season on the disabled list.

We’ll start with the closer Brad Lidge who looks to be out for a couple of months with a shoulder injury.  Lidge seems to be injured at the start of every season, so this is nothing new for the team.

In his place, Jose Contreras will serve as the closer.  Contreras was a solid addition to last year’s team, pitching well in a late inning setup role.  He even successfully filled in as closer for a couple of weeks when both Lidge and setup man Ryan Madson (MADSON!!!) were injured.

Will he be a dominant, elite closer?  Probably not.  But based on his success last year, there’s no reason to think that he won’t be effective at the role and get the job done the majority of the time.

If he falters, the Phillies can always turn to Madson.  Over the past couple seasons, Madson has been amazing when pitching in the 8th, but shaky when pitching in the 9th.  I have a feeling that is why they opted to go with Contreras over him. 

The bigger problem may come in earlier innings.  Contreras was originally supposed to pitch in the 7th inning, and now that void needs to be filled.  It appears that the job will initially be split between right-hander Danys Baez and left-hander J.C. Romero.  While both pitchers have been successful in the past, they both suffered from disappointing 2010 seasons.

Could they be replaced by one of the other relievers?  David Herndon, Kyle Kendrick, and Antonio Bastardo have had varying degrees of success in their careers, but it might be a stretch to ask them to fill a crucial role.

Still, I am not too concerned about Lidge’s absence hurting the team.  As long as Contreras isn’t a complete disaster – and there’s no reason to expect him to be – then they should be fine. 

Remember that there’s a good chance that there won’t be many relief innings to go around.  It’s reasonable to think that the starting pitcher could pitch into at least the 7th inning on most nights.  Even the rotation’s weak (and this is a very relative term) link Joe Blanton is known for pitching a lot of innings. 

On the other hand, Chase Utley’s injury is a definite cause for concern.  A five-time All-Star, Utley is often regarded as the best second baseman in baseball.  He typically bats third in the Phillies lineup, and his combination of power, speed, and defense make him an especially valuable player.

So it was troublesome when after just a couple of days of Spring workouts, he began to suffer knee soreness.  At first he wasn’t concerned as he apparently feels some sort of soreness every year, and it typically goes away after a couple of days.  This season it did not. 

Eventually he was diagnosed with patellar tendinitis and a condition known as chondromalacia.  Neither Utley nor the medical experts who’ve examined him know exactly how to proceed.  Apparently, to surgically repair the problem could cause Utley to miss the majority of the season and may not even fix the problem.  So for now, he’s treating the problem by resting and stretching.

There’s a very real concern that this injury causes Utley to miss a significant amount of time, and even if he gets healthy enough to play, the injury could reoccur.

If he is indeed going to miss most of the season, this is a huge loss.  They will go from having perhaps the best second baseman in baseball to perhaps the worst.

During his absence, the majority of games at second base will be played by Wilson Valdez.  Valdez is a career journeyman who did a decent job of filling in for both Utley and Jimmy Rollins last season when they were injured.  He is an excellent defender, but his offensive limitations probably don’t make him suited for a full-time job.

So will Utley’s injury decimate the Phillies lineup, and keep them from the playoffs?

It should be noted that Utley has been injured quite a bit over the last few seasons, and last year in particular.  Due to a strained hand ligament, he missed almost two months of the season.  But even before his injury he seemed to be struggling a bit.  And after he returned, he clearly hadn’t gotten his hitting stroke completely back.

He has also played through injuries that have diminished his abilities somewhat.  Most prominent was his injured hip in 2008 which sapped him of much of his power throughout the second half of that season.  So the team has been able to overcome both absences and injury related drop offs by Utley before.

If Utley can return by the All-Star break (which is what optimistic reports are now predicting) there is reason to believe this might actually help him in the second half of the season.  Utley has shown a tendency to wear down later in the season, and missing a couple of months may help offset that.

Assuming that his hitting isn’t negatively affected (By all reports, it is not.  He has been able to take batting practice without discomfort and it is believed that he would be able to DH if possible) then we might actually see a better hitting Utley in the late months than we’re used to.

If that is indeed the case, then the situation might work out fine for the Phillies.

Injuries are always a cause for concern.  And with an older team like the Phillies, injuries do seem to be more common.  But unless they lose two of their starting pitchers for an extended amount of time, I don’t think injuries can keep this team from winning again.

They withstood extended absences from both Utley and Rollins last year, and that was with most of the surrounding lineup underacheiving.  If their other players can come close to their career norms, then Utley missing a couple of months shouldn’t be devastating.

If Utley’s injury does prove to be a season-long issue, then they might have a real issue, but for now, there’s no reason to think that this will slow them down.

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Reasons Why the 2011 Phillies Could (But Won’t) Fail: Part 1 – Jayson Werth

March 30, 2011

The 2011 baseball season begins this week.  The Philadelphia Phillies, led by their four aces (and Joe Blanton) are considered by most to be the favorites in the National League East, if not all of baseball.

But recently, many media members have cooled on the Phillies.  Many of them have decided that the Phillies have too many issues for them to win the division.  Instead, they have chosen the Atlanta Braves as the winner of the NL East.

I think most of the motivation towards the Braves support is because there’s no real story in picking the Phillies to win the East.  Picking the team that has won the division four years in a row and has a dominant starting pitching staff?  Yawn.

But picking the Braves?  Now there’s an interesting story.  A group of young upstarts trying to overthrow the reigning establishment is just the type of thing to draw some interest.

Despite what these prognosticators may have you believe, the Phillies will not be conceeding the division title in 2011.

Over the next few days, I’ll take a look at some of the reasons why people have predicted a Phillies downfall, and explain why they will not keep the team from extending their division title streak to five years.

They will miss Jayson Werth

If you listen to some sabermetric analysts, Jayson Werth is the greatest player to ever wear a Phillies uniform.  According to their calculations, his OPS and WAR values were directly responsible for about 200 wins over the past three seasons.

And now that he is being paid an ungodly sum to play for the Nationals, the Phillies lineup will have a huge hole in it.  Cleanup hitter Ryan Howard will have no protection, and won’t see one decent pitch to hit all season. 

Basically, without Werth on the team, the Phillies will be lucky to score any runs at all this season.

I think the effects of losing Werth may be exaggerated by some.  He was a good player both offensively and defensively, but ultimately, I think that they can adequately replace him.

Personally, I always felt – and apparently Phillies management agreed – that Werth was a very good supporting player, but not a player that you build a lineup around.  Yes, he put up good statistics, but he was also extremely streaky.  It seemed like he did most of his damage when the rest of the Phillies lineup was also hitting well.  If the team was scoring a lot of runs, he would be a big part of it.  But when the team slumped as a whole, Werth would struggle along with them.

To be fair, this argument could be countered by saying that the reason the Phillies lineup was underperforming was because Werth wasn’t hitting well.

Part of the problem was Werth’s placement in the lineup.  Werth typically batted fifth, but despite his right handed power, he was not an ideal fit there.  Werth showed great patience at the plate, ranking among the league leaders in pitches per at bat.  That patience, along with his speed, would have made him a much better fit in one of the top two spots in the lineup.

During their playoff run in 2008, Werth often batted second in the lineup.  I suppose that manager Charlie Manuel felt that after Pat Burrell left in 2009 he needed a right hander to hit behind Howard, and Werth was the best candidate.  But as a five hole hitter, Werth’s patience sometimes served as a detriment. 

Werth was abysmal with runners in scoring position last season, batting .186.  By taking a lot of pitches, Werth got on base quite often.  But I wonder if by taking all of those pitches, he might have cost himself some good RBI opportunities. 

Batting fifth, the team needed Werth to drive in runs more than they needed him to get on base.  This became more pronounced by the struggles of Raul Ibanez who typically hit behind him.  If the next hitter isn’t going to be able to get the runners home, then a walk is useless.

Considering how much time the team’s usual leadoff man (Jimmy Rollins) missed last season, it would have been worth trying Werth as a leadoff hitter where his patience and speed would have been more of an asset.

But since he usually batted fifth, and didn’t do that great of a job there, why would losing him be that detrimental to the team’s fortunes?

As for the effect on Ryan Howard, I don’t think we’ll see much of a difference. 

In theory, having a dangerous hitter like Werth behind him should cause pitchers to be less careful when pitching to Howard.  And because Werth is right handed, it should have made opposing managers less likely to bring in a lefthanded reliever to face Howard.

In reality, Werth didn’t seem to affect how opposing managers and pitchers approached Howard.  Howard may be the biggest power threat in baseball, so pitchers are always going to be very careful when pitching to him, regardless of who is batting behind him. 

And there are very few managers who will not bring in their best lefty reliever to face Howard (or at least a righthander who is effective against lefties).  Considering that fellow lefty Chase Utley usually bats in front of him, there are few times that Howard saw a right handed pitcher in a key late game situation.  In addition, Werth actually hit better against righthanders than lefthanders last season, so his being right handed didn’t make much of a difference.

Some people seem to also be under the impression that without Werth, the Phillies will simply not have a right fielder.  I believe that they will indeed put someone out there, and that player may be able to make up for some of Werth’s production.

Ben Francisco will begin the season as the right fielder.  While he has been a bench player the past two seasons, he had been a starter for the Indians prior to that, so it isn’t like he’s a complete unknown.  He has had moderate success in the past, and based on Spring Training numbers, it isn’t unreasonable to expect at least above average numbers from him.

There’s also hope that despite a horrific offseason, rookie Domonic Brown will recover from hand surgery and contribute.  If he can come close to matching his minor league numbers, then the Phillies will be in good shape.

So while Werth was indeed a good player, and I’m sure there will be times when his absence is felt, I don’t think that losing him will have a crippling effect on the lineup or team.

But while they may be able to overcome losing Werth, how will they do without Chase Utley and other injured players?  I’ll look at that tomorrow…

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GW Basketball Crashes Against St. Joseph’s

March 9, 2011

The past few seasons have not exactly been the glory years for the George Washington University men’s basketball program.  After a strong run in the mid 2Ks that featured three consecutive NCAA bids and a brief stay in the top 10, the team had fallen on hard times in recent years.

Coach Karl Hobbs has a reputation as an excellent recruiter, but after allegations came out that the team had several graduates from “diploma mill” high schools, the school became much more discriminating in its admissions process.  As a result, the talent level on the team suffered.

Without superior talent, Hobbs’ poor in-game coaching skills were exposed.  The team recorded back-to-back losing seasons, where they did not even qualify for their conference’s postseason tournament.

Last year seemed to be a step in the right direction, as the team finished with a winning record and played a game in the postseason CBI tournament.  There was some hope that they team would continue its upward ascent this season.

Those hopes were quickly dashed as last season’s leading scorer Lasan Kromah suffered an injury in preseason that would keep him out all season.  Without Kromah, the team looked lost on offense in the early going.  They seemed to have no direction, and it was painful to watch their offensive futility.

It looked like it was going to be another bad season for the Colonials, but surprisingly, the team turned things around.  Early in the season, point guard Tony Taylor looked to be conflicted between trying to distribute the ball and looking for his own shot.  He finally began to assert himself more as a scorer, and as a result the offense began to fall into sync. 

After a horrendous start to the season, the team played strong in the final two months and finished the regular season at 17-13.  Their reward was a home game in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament.  Their opponents would be the St. Joseph’s Hawks led by coach Phil Martelli.

Phil Martelli has a good reputation nationally, which is a result of knowing how to work the media.  He uses his unattractive appearance (I’m not trying to insult him here – well, maybe I am a little bit – but he definitely tries to use his looks to his advantage) and St. Joseph’s small size to portay him and his team as loveable underdogs.

The truth is, Martelli is somewhat of a bully who becomes especially nasty when things don’t go his way.  For examples of this, see how he reacted to Billy Packer in 2004 or John Chaney in 2005.

In 2004, St. Joseph’s became a national sensation as they reached #1 in the country behind point guard Jameer Nelson.  Since that season, the Hawks have gone on a steady downward spiral.  This season, they had a 9-21 regular season record, and there have been rumblings that Martelli’s job was in danger.

This looked like the perfect opportunity for GW to earn it’s first postseason win since the 2007 A-10 championship game. 

Surprisingly, the Charles E. Smith Center had a lively crowd.  I’ve been critical of the GW student population in recent years, but apparently they realized that there was an important, nationally televised (CBS College Sports) game last night, and came out in force.

The crowd didn’t help GW much in the early going.  The Hawks were on a mission to slow the pace of the game down, and it was working well.  St. Joseph’s would work the shot clock down to single digits before getting off a good shot.  The Hawks were also clamping down defensively, preventing the Colonials from getting out on a break. 

In addition, the Hawks were coming up with just about every loose ball, and every bounce seemed to be going their way.  There were several plays in which a scramble for the ball resulted in an easy basket for the Hawks.

The Colonials didn’t seem to be able to do much right in the first half.  There were multiple easy opportunities near the basket that they didn’t convert.  There were also several poor decisions (most notably by center Joseph Katuka) and fundamental breakdowns.

Particularly galling was a sequence at the end of the first half when GW turned the ball over, and after making a defensive stop, failed to secure the rebound, allowing the Hawks to make a three pointer, giving them an 11 point lead at the half.

The crowd’s energy had effectively been killed.  They continued to chant “air ball” at Hawks point guard Carl Jones (he missed the rim on an early three-point attempt), but that chant seems hollow when the visitors are ahead by double digits.  I guess I shouldn’t be too critical of the students, as most of them have never experienced a meaningful game in their time at the school.

Early in the second half, GW seemed determined not to make a comeback.  There were more poor decisions near the hoop, more turnovers, and on multiple times, they fouled a Hawks player with less than five seconds left on the shot clock.

Midway through the second half, with the deficit still in double digits, Tony Taylor came to life.  He had been stymied for most of the game, but he began to assert himself, and the offense began to show signs of life.  More importantly, the defense tightened, and kept the Hawks from extending their lead.

With the crowd re-energized, the Colonials furiously fought their way back and tied the game with less than two minutes remaining.  Sadly, despite some excellent opportunities, they were never able to take the lead.  

On the last possession of regulation, Taylor missed a makeable shot, but Colonials forward Jabari Edwards grabbed the offensive rebound.  Edwards was in perfect position for the putback, but appeared to not realize how much time he had.  His rushed attempt missed, and the game headed to overtime.

While it seemed like GW had all of the momentum heading into the overtime, I was a bit nervous.  Many times, when a team makes a huge comeback, they relax a bit once the score is tied, losing the intensity that fueled the comeback in the first place.

I also was wary of the Hawks getting off to a quick start in overtime.  In most overtime games that I’ve seen, the team that jumps off to an early lead is usually the winner of the game.  That proved correct as the Hawks scored on their first two possessions, and didn’t look back.

Taylor attempted to lead another comeback, but he was clearly worn down, as his shots were coming up well short.  On the other end, St. Joseph’s didn’t seem to be missing anything in overtime, especially from the free throw line where they sealed the game.

This was a very disappointing end to an encouraging season.  While St. Joseph’s played well (shooting over 50% from the field and 87.5% at the free throw line) and had a solid game plan, they were still a 9 win team coming into the game.  If the Colonials had simply played solid, fundamental basketball, they would have won the game.

Still, there are reasons to be encouraged for next season.  With the expected return of Kromah, he and Taylor should make up an excellent backcourt.  The team will also have highly touted center recruit Erik Copes join the team.  It is certainly reasonable to expect the team to be a factor in the Atlantic 10 and to earn a bid to the NIT.

And who knows, maybe the CBI or one of the other lesser postseason tournaments will deem the Colonials worthy of an invite.  They might get another chance at ending an encouraging season on a high note.

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Look Philadelphia, it’s the Flyers!

February 10, 2011

For many Philadelphia sports fans, the Eagles take precedence over all other teams.  From the time training camp begins until the Super Bowl is complete, these fans are focused solely on football.

But now that the Eagles have been eliminated for weeks and the Super Bowl is over, football fans can now safely turn their attention to the city’s other sports teams.

They may be pleasantly surprised to discover that while the Eagles may have fallen short, a parade down Broad Street is still a possibility this year.  The Flyers are currently in first place, and they look like a real contender to bring home the city’s first Stanley Cup in 36 years.

The Flyers’ success shouldn’t really come as a surprise since they were the Eastern Conference champions last season.  But many people discounted that success because it seemed a bit fluky.

Keep in mind that the following happened on the way to the Stanley Cup finals:

  • They were in last place in December, which led to their coach getting fired.
  • They had to win a shootout in the final game of the season just to qualify for the playoffs.
  • They trailed three games to zero in their second round playoff series, and fell behind by three goals in game seven before pulling out a victory.

This season, the Flyers have shown that their playoff run was not a fluke.   They are currently leading the Eastern Conference in points, and this looks like the strongest Flyers team since the peak of the Eric Lindros era

So what happened?  How did the Flyers transform from a team that barely made the playoffs into a powerhouse Cup contender?

For one thing, there is a feeling that their young core of players has grown up a bit.  Over recent seasons, there has been some criticism of immature behavior, both on and off the ice. 

There were reports of players partying too hard at night, and not being fully dedicated to the game.  Whether or not those rumors were true, the team did seem to lack an edge.  For most of last season, the team did not appear capable of handling success.  Every time they would get on any sort of run, they would suffer a setback.  They didn’t seem to play their best until their backs were up against the wall.

Perhaps the trials of a long playoff run sparked the maturation process, as those problems don’t seem to be present this season.

The Flyers’ front office has also done an incredible job of adding quality depth to the team.  While the team may not have a superstar goal scorer like Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin, they do have a number of dangerous offensive weapons, including four players with over 40 points in Claude Giroux, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, and Danny Briere.

Normally teams concentrate on shutting down an opponent’s top scoring line.  But with so many good offensive players, the Flyers have spread their scoring among several lines, making it harder for opponents to neutralize them.

The biggest improvement for the team may have come on defense.  Last season, the Flyers had two excellent defensive pairings, but things got a bit shaky after that.  It often seemed like their third defensive group was a disaster waiting to happen.

The Flyers addressed this problem in the offseason with the addition of veteran defenders Andres Meszaros and Sean O’Donnell.  As a result, the defense has been solid all year with few of the third pairing breakdowns we saw last season.

So do the Flyers have what it takes to win the Cup?

As it seems is always the case with the Flyers, the biggest question mark is goaltending.

For much of the season, the team has turned to rookie goaltender Sergei “Bob” Bobrovski.  Bob started off the year on fire, and looked like an early candidate for rookie of the year.  Since that blazing start, opponents seem to have scouted him well and spotted some weaknesses.  He hasn’t played horribly, but he has looked vulnerable.

Compensating for Bobrovsky’s recent dropoff has been backup/co-starter Brian Boucher.  Despite never being a long-term starter in the NHL, Boucher has had an unexpectedly excellent season.  There is speculation that when the playoffs start, it will be Boucher in the net.

Regardless of which goalie eventually gets the call in the playoffs, there are questions about the Cup-worthiness of either.  Bob is unproven, so nobody has any clue what to expect from him in the playoffs.  And most people consider Boucher to be a career backup, not the type of goalie that carries a team to the Cup.

Then again, recent playoffs have shown that a team doesn’t need a stargoaltender to win the Cup.  You don’t necessarily need a goalie to win games for you, but it’s absolutely crucial that they don’t lose games.

Considering how strong the Flyers’ defense is, neither goalie should need to steal games for the team.  They’ll just need to make the saves that have to be made.

There are a couple of other concerns:

The Flyers’ special teams have been inconsistent all year.  Considering how deep the team is, they should be able to put out consistently strong penalty kill and power play units, but the results been somewhat uneven.

Playoff games can often hinge on a power play, so if the Flyers can’t get this sorted out, it could lead to an earlier than expected exit from the playoffs.

And while the Flyers’ scoring depth can be looked at as a strength, you also have to wonder if they have a player who can carry the team in key situations.  Players like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Mark Messier won Stanley Cups because they came through in big moments.

The Flyers don’t appear to have a top level player like that on the roster.  If the team hits some adversity, do they have anyone who is capable of the superlative effort necessary to pull the team through?

Of course every team has some weaknesses, and the Flyers’ problems don’t look like anything that they can not overcome.  I’d say that this team has as good a shot as anyone at winning it all.

At the very least, the team should provide some entertainment for those Eagles fans still heartbroken over their loss.

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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