US Soccer and the Casual Fan

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I shouldn’t be this mad.
This mad is reserved for your team getting swept in the Stanley Cup Finals when they’re clear favorites. It’s reserved for Ronde f***ing Barber and for David goddamn Freese, for Curtis Enis and Joe Jurevicious, for puking in the Super Bowl. This is the hurt of sports. The feeling where something you’ve invested in comes back and gives you a good old fashioned stomach punch. I love sports. But sometimes, they suck.
Sports are the ultimate uniter. Throngs of people who don’t know each other, don’t care about each other, don’t like soccer and are casual sports fans all come together every four years for the World Cup. It’s a great thing- a vast majority of the people i talk to who don’t give a damn about the world’s game all suddenly become interested when national pride is at stake. The World Cup, much like the Olympics, make united fans out of us all- because we have a common goal, and a common enemy.
I usually shun the jingoistic. Shaming people due to what “the founding fathers would have done” or attempting to trick people into liking something because your commercial has the troops in it (I’m looking at you, Bank of America) rubs me the wrong way. It is self serving, shameless and cold hearted at its root; you can’t make me enjoy your idea, show or product simply because it’s a good idea, show or product. No, that would be too simple. So you try to rouse my interest in ‘MURRRCA to shill your goods? To me, that’s backwards and deceitful. But it works for sports, for reasons I will explain shortly. And it raises interest in a sport that, by all means, should already be popular in this country. So in this regard, I don’t mind it.
Ask any baby boomer what they think about hockey. Unless you live in the northeast, you’ll usually hear some nonsense about how it’s a Canadian sport that nobody cares about, with goons beating each other up and how “WAAAH I CAN’T SEE THE PUCK ON TV.” But ask that same person about the Miracle on Ice? You’ll be regaled with tales about beating those dirty commies and how the USA is just the epitome of heart and greatness. The sport gave them a reason to get together and become one, putting aside petty differences like politics and regions.
That’s what this World Cup has done, to a lesser extent. You get the fan who only watches every four years, who decides that this sport is kind of lame but they can get behind their country, and thinks that suddenly, they’ve become experts because they’ve watched for two weeks.
Therein lies the problem, at least for me.
For the better part of the last decade, I’ve watched nearly every qualifying and friendly match the United States has played. I’ve taken an interest in the better European leagues (PL, La Liga, Bundesliga), as well as MLS, and watched most of the participants of the 2014 World Cup at the club level. This is not to feel superior; obviously, watching more soccer does not make me a better overall person than the average American sitting next to me. It does, however, give me a better perspective on the sport.
Do you know how many times random people have told me that Michael Bradley sucks? That he should be benched? It’s astounding. I’ve said the same thing to every person who has brought it up: that while he had a poor World Cup, he was the United States best player in qualifying. He played and did well enough in Serie A at Roma and in international matches to earn that spot on the team. The only way that the USMNT was going to advance in the tournament was if Bradley found his form, and he wasn’t going to find it on the bench. It became infuriating. You don’t bench your quarterback when he throws a pick, especially when he’s been great the rest of the season. And most of the idiots trashing Bradley HADN’T WATCHED any of the qualifying. There were stooges on sports talk radio who spend their days killing LeBron and Peyton Manning trying to tell the public Bradley was god awful and should be benched after watching him play three times. Three times!
Oh, and who was instrumental in the build up to Julian Green’s goal vs. Belgium? Michael Bradley.
The Bradley issue aside, the USA was bossed around by Belgium for most of the match. Kevin de Bruyne, who Jose Mourinho unceremoniously shipped out of the Chelsea lineup, was a monster. Vincent Kompany was his usual rock solid self, and Fellani and Mirallas worked hard and kept the USA running the whole match.
But DeAndre Yedlin did a good job with the best outfield player on the pitch, Eden Hazard. And Tim howard was world class. The USA got pushed around a little, but stood their ground for the most part. They struck fast on the counter, and had most of the chances from the 85th minute on. It was a good, solid defensive performance at least. As Tim Howard made save after save, you just had the feeling that the USMNT was just going to nick that one that would push them through, against all odds.
Then came the 93rd minute, when Chris Wondolowski missed that sitter that would have been the most famous goal in our country’s history. For the average casual fan, it hurt. Just a little.
But they weren’t there when there was a savage debate whether or not the man deserved a spot on the roster. Whether an unathletic, career- MLS poacher should get a place in the World Cup for the United States. He scores a ton for the Earthquakes, but is not cut out for international football, most said.
But, improbably, there he was.
In a deadlocked match, with the ball at his feet, in the final minute of stoppage time versus a European power in the knockout stages of the World Cup.
And he made a complete mess of it.
But there was hope, we all thought. Then De Bruyne made a stunning turn in the box and went low on the seemingly invincible Tim Howard. Shortly afterwards, Romelu Lukaku did his best Drogba impression after being relegated to the bench for the majority of the match. It all seemed over.
Miraculously, the last player picked for the team, the youngest man on the US squad. whom everyone assumed took the place of the best player in US history (Donovan) on the roster came on and scored from a beautiful threaded ball by Bradley.
For me, there was flashbacks of the US  defeating Spain in the Confederations Cup, of finally beating Mexico at the Azteca, of Landon versus Algeria, of a 9 man USA holding the eventual Cup winners Italy in ’06, of Clint Dempsey in the snow versus Costa Rica. To the casual fan, it was probably just “I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN!”, or “USA USA USA USA!” Fun, but not necessarily rewarding.
Then captain Clint scuffed a chance on a stupendous set piece. Suddenly, it was Brazil in the Confed Cup Final, Giovani Dos Santos in the Gold Cup Final, and Ghana and Ghana again.
When the whistle blew, it was a heartbreaker. To have the chances, to waste a superhuman effort from Howard, to trivialze the efforts of all the young men (Yedlin, Cameron and Gonzalez) and veterans (Beasley, Bradley and Dempsey) who were doing everything they could to bring down a “superior” European power was crushing.
I suppose you can only be crushed by something if you have a feeling of ownership. That’s why we all get mad when our favorite teams lose-it’s the same reason we’re pleased when they win. There is no more hollow a happiness than supporting a squad only when they’re victorious.
Sadly, the prevailing attitude of the American public is a resounding “Eh.” Lots of congratulations, lots of “good efforts,” lots of blame and finger pointing.
“That was fun. Now back to not caring about soccer. Call me back in four years.”
And this, America, is why we will never win anything as currently constructed. More people need to care between World Cups, not just during them. The European and South Americans put more time in the training, education, support, coaching and infrastructure.
Do you know what the impetus for those things is? Fan support. So try to take some time to give a damn BEFORE four years from now.
Or you can go ahead and complain next time when we don’t win again.

FLYERS VS. RANGERS PREVIEW

Daniel Carcillo, Luke Schenn

FLYERS (3) vs. RANGERS (2)

2012 seems like forever ago. Way back, before the lockout, before the exodus of Bryz, before Chris Pronger officially retired, the Flyers were cruising. Our emotions were flying high, and memories of Richards and Carter were pushed into the abyss.

They were up against the Devils in the second round. Flyer fans remember that series. The orange-and-black had just come off a stupendous first round smashing of the hated Pittsburgh Penguins. And what a series that was. First, there was the 8, 8 and 10 spots put up back and forth, courtesy of our old pals Bryz, Bob, Fleury and Vokoun. Crosby acted like a small child whose cookies and candy got taken away by disapproving parents, and Sean Couturier stole Evgeni Malkin’s lunch money. If you recall, in the deciding game 6, Claude Giroux had the best shift in recent Flyers history: he won the face off, absolutely eviscerated Sidney Crosby, then skated right down and blasting one stick-side past Marc-Andre Fleury.

If you forget, please remind yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tit_fbYnmLc

This was the high water mark of the captaincy of the Ginger Jesus. Peter Laviolette famously remarked that his young captain was the “best player in the world.” The Flyers were riding high after knocking out one of the Cup Favorites.

Then they played the New Jersey Devils.

It didn’t matter that the Flyers had players who had Stanley Cup Experience from 2010, and it certainly didn’t matter that the Flyers had knocked the Devils out with no problem in the previous playoffs. This time around, the Devils harassed them in the neutral zone, got the puck in deep on their forecheck, and made the Flyers fight hard for every inch. They forced turnovers, frustrated Claude Giroux, and highlighted the inadequacies of the Flyers blueliners and goaltending. By the time their skilled forwards got the puck, they had to dump it in and make a change, where the Devils simply skated it right out and pushed it back to the Flyers end. The Devils easily dispatched the Flyers on the way to the Cup Finals.

The Flyers strength, then and now, is hassling teams who have a high skill level and a shaky mentality. The Penguins are the epitome of this; if you put Malkin, Crosby, Neal, Kunitz, Letang et al on ice, all healthy, vs. the Flyers using international rules, they would wipe the floor with them. But when you pack them in close, let Hartnell and Simmonds push the Pens around down low, and let G and Voracek play a physical forecheck, the Flyers can defeat the Penguins. They get thrown off their game, and they let the Flyers in their head. Crosby stops being interested in scoring and becomes more interested in going tit-for-tat with players like Dan Carcillo (then) and Zac Rinaldo (now). Against a skilled, finesse team, Philadelphia can have their way.

Where the Flyers begin to have problems is against disciplined teams that play layered defense and don’t take stupid penalties. The Bruins are one of these teams. This would have been the worst matchup for the Flyers, had they fallen to the 8th seed. But the matchup against the New York Rangers isn’t much better. They are a defensive oriented squad who can pack it in on defense and make the Flyers play a slower, bogged down game.

As with any playoff matchup, goaltending is the first area of concern, and Henrik Lundquist automatically makes it an advantage for the Rangers. Sweden’s second favorite athlete (after the great Zlatan Ibrahimovic) matches up favorably with every goaltender in hockey this side of an on-a-roll Jonathan Quick. He’s had a great year, collecting a silver medal in the Olympics, not to mention a 33-24-5 record, a 2.36 GAA and a .920 save percentage. He’s posted better stats against the Flyers on average than the rest of the league, going 2-1-0/2.03/.940, and has played lights out in the month of April, with a 1.57 GAA and a .949 save percentage. In his career, King Henrik is 27-13-3 all time vs. the Flyers.

As I mentioned before, the Flyers struggle against defensive-oriented teams, so this would be tough sledding either way: outside of last year (where they missed the playoffs in a strike shortened year), they were eliminated the previous two years by the Devils and Bruins, two teams who are notoriously disciplined on D. But this year, round one will pose a special challenge, as the rival New York Rangers have always given the Flyers trouble. Although the season series is tied 2-2, they Flyers have been historically awful over the past few years at Madison Square Garden.

The Rangers have defeated the Flyers 8 straight times since March of 2011 in Manhattan. If you want to include the Wells Fargo Center, the Rangers are 13-4 against the Flyguys over that span. The killer blow to the Flyers would be the loss of starting netminder Steve Mason, whose solid play this year has help lift the Flyers from their horrendous start to the 3 seed in the Metropolitan Division. He is questionable for the start of the series on Thursday.

The Rangers boast a talented (if underachieving) crop of forwards in Rick Nash, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis. The real key to their success is the play of their defenseman Rayn McDonagh, who has absolutely lit it up down the stretch and been the lynchpin of their run over the back end of the season. The stud 21-year-old, who has scored 43 points after barely contributing at all the first half of the season, had an injury occur two weeks ago and will not be at full strength.

So it seems it will fall do Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and the rest of the NYR blueliners to attempt to stop the bustling Flyers offense. A balanced attack, led by Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Matt Read and Scott Hartnell can give any team fits; a balance of physical play and speed mixed with skill give the Flyers a chance to win in any series. Each of the aforementioned players is a 15 goal scorer.

But to win this series against New York, the Flyers will have to steal one on the road. And I’m excited to see whether they can do it.

Start growing your beards.

My heart says the Flyers win in seven.

My head, on the other hand….

RANGERS over FLYERS in 7

DeSean Should Still be an Eagle

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   The Eagles just made a massive blunder. Cutting DeSean Jackson was a terrible move on multiple levels, and it screams of mismanagement and arrogance.
    I love Chip Kelly as much as the next birds fan. He turned a 4-12 garbage dump of a team into a contender in no time flat. But what the hell just happened over the last month? How do you go from having potentially the best offense in football to having one where the two starting receivers are:
A) A questionably solid guy who missed the entirety of 2013 with a decimated knee
and
B) A questionably solid guy who may have maxed out his potential with 47 catches and 835 yards last year.
    This offense went from a sure thing, the top rushing team in the NFL, top 5 in points and yardage, with every starter returning (plus Jeremy Maclin and Darren Sproles) to anything but.
    Purely from a football standpoint, there is absolutely no way you can say the offense is better without DeSean Jackson on the field. His influence on the way defenses play the Eagles goes far beyond his pass catching abilities. Someone with DeSean’s pure, unadulterated speed and gamebreaking ability commands either a double team or, at the very least, a safety rolled over to his side of the field.
Has Riley Cooper ever seen a double team with Jackson on the field? How about Maclin?
    Maclin is going to see the opposing team’s top corner now, each and every game, daring him and his surgically repaired knee to beat him in space. Riley Cooper isn’t going to have a secondary backed off in fear of getting beat deep- he’ll have no room to operate. The same goes for Celek and Ertz. Nick Foles won’t be able to keep the defense honest with the threat of the deep ball.
    But this hurts the running game the most. Safeties can creep up into the box, no longer worried that number 10 will turn them into a SportsCenter Highlight. The bread and butter of the team, the offensive line, will have to deal with 8 in the box, and the NFL’s best running back suddenly won’t have the running lanes he had in year one.
    Does this mean the Eagles offense will be subpar? No, I don’t think it will. But I believe they will drift back into the middle of the pack. This worries me on a deeper level than X’s and O’s, though.
    Chip Kelly is smarter than you or I when it comes to football. I should trust him. I WANT to trust him. But this reeks of arrogance. This comes off to me as a coach who thinks that he can put any player into his system and they’ll come out a star on the other end.  While he was at Oregon and New Hampshire, he didn’t have a choice- players were in and out every 4 years, and he had to recruit new ones. If a player was going to take too much effort to reign in, he can go and get another to replace him. He was a molder of players- he took in high schoolers and turned them into Chip Kelly prototypes. He could build them from the ground up.
    But the NFL is different. He doesn’t have an unlimited talent pool; the best players get the most money, and you have to either draft them or pay them. He can’t just go recruit 10 five star recruits- he gets one first round pick, one second round pick, and so on. He could turn an average athlete into a good college player. But turning an average athlete into a good NFL player is near impossible- his competition gets the same platform he does now. He’s not luring in blue chippers with the promise of a shiny new facility and cool uniforms at the University of Oregon, and telling the kid he’ll never get that if he went to Cal or Utah or UCLA. You can’t do that in the NFL. There are only a small number of truly outstanding talents, and it’s exceedingly difficult to find and keep them.
    And he just had one under contract, with plenty of cap space to keep him.
    DeSean Jackson has never killed anyone. DeSean Jackson is not a Crip. Is DeSean immature? Of course. Comparing him to Aaron Hernandez, who is straight out of a Quentin Tarantino movie, is silly. We all agree DeSean should grow up. But posting pictures to twitter and Instagram is a ludicrous excuse to cut a star player. The fact that he has pictures with known gangbangers and alleged murderers is disconcerting. But he was never implicated in any way to be part of the crime. The police assured everyone that he was never considered a suspect. This isn’t Ray Lewis. This isn’t Mike Vick. Hell, this isn’t even Ray Rice.
    Chip Kelly seems to be so certain that he is an offensive genius that he can take out a key cog and replace it with some spare parts he found lying around. Is DeSean a diva? Was he late for meetings? Is he self absorbed? Too bad. Make it work. He’s an elite talent. In the field of coaching major professional sports, massaging egos and making people who are different than you understand your goals is just as important as diagramming plays and planning workouts.
    Richard Sherman spends all day defending his honor on twitter, telling everyone how great he is. David Ortiz cried and complained to the local media that he wants a new deal, even though he was still under contract for he upcoming year. LeBron James commands a media empire that rivals Peyton Manning, and had a Primetime TV show produced so he could tell everyone where he was going to play. Patrick Kane got drunk and beat up a cab driver. Franck Ribery was involved in an underage prostitution scandal.
    Oh, but Sherman and the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, Ortiz and the Red Sox won the World Series, Lebron and the Heat won the Finals, Kane and the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, and Ribery and Bayern Munich won the Champions League.
    These transgressions all have varying degrees of seriousness. But these are all distractions. They all show me-first behavior (Sherman and LeBron did nothing wrong but hog the limelight), or just complete disregard for the morally correct thing to do (Kane and Ribery defied the law).
    But what DeSean did (or does) is about at the level of Sherman and Ortiz. There was no harm done. Nobody got hurt by a result of his actions. All he did was ask for a new contract (like Papi) and act like a fourteen-year-old girl on social media (like Sherman). Chip has to just bite the bullet and deal with it. DeSean was too special a player to cut, especially under contract in the prime of his career.
    I thought better of Chip. But who knows, maybe he is an unparalleled genius, the likes of which we’ve never seen. Maybe this offense will hum right along in 2014 and they’ll impress yet again, and we’ll forget all about DeSean.
    But maybe they won’t. And maybe Jackson will sign with a rival, or a championship contender. Imagine, if you will, as an Eagles fan, watching him win a Super Bowl with the 49ers or Seahawks, or perhaps scoring the game winning touchdown to knock the Eagles out of the playoffs wearing a Redskins or Giants uniform.
    The fact that they couldn’t move his contract before this tidal wave of bad news struck is a damning inditement on the Eagles front office. Not only did they receive no compensation for losing their number one receiver, not even a mid round pick, but now Jackson can sign anywhere for whatever number he chooses. What that means is, instead of there being a small number of potential suitors because of the $10M cap hit (such as the Jets and Raiders), now the Super Bowl contender can swoop in and pick him up for bargain rate. Seeing him chest bump with Andy Reid again would make me sick to my stomach.
    You might say the “culture” and the “locker room” are better than ever now at the NovaCare Complex. DeSean wasn’t a hard worker, and he clashed with Chip, so you can argue that the locker room will be all peace and harmony and breakfast shakes. But I would counter that I know what makes positive vibes in a locker room, and it isn’t getting the guys who buy into Chip Kelly’s system the most.
It’s winning.

So you’d better keep winning next year, Chip.

 

SUPER BOWL

Funny-Peyton-Manning-Commercials

First of all, I’d like you all to know how grateful I am that this game isn’t in Seattle so I don’t have to hear incessantly about how wonderful the twelfth man is. It’s a sham and annoys me to no end. They ripped that gimmick off of Texas A&M, and it’s a shitty gimmick to begin with. The Seahawks are good because they have a good team. Not because the CEO of Microsoft raises a flag and tells everyone how great they are. Eagle fans get a bad rap, but Seattle fans are bad in a different way: they think they’re just so darn special and wonderful. Whereas an Eagle, Jet, Raider or Brown fan will have a lot of passion and get chastised for it, Seattle gets their G Rated passion roundly applauded basically because their stadium was built well acoustically. Good fans? Of course. But get over yourselves.

I hope the FIGHT AND WIN! guy reads what I just wrote and goes apoplectic.

Anyway, the actual game.

Peyton Manning has trouble against certain types of teams in the playoffs. If you’ll recall, he got thrashed so badly versus the Patriots in the first half of the 2000s that the rules of the game were changed. Marvin Harrison, Brandon Stokley and the gang had a rough time getting off the line against Ty Law and co., getting chipped and pressed at the line, throwing off the timing of Peyton’s normally precise passes. He lobbied publicly for stricter illegal contact, defensive holding and pass interference rules. And he succeeded.
http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/columns/story?id=1771047
The watered down, sissified rules you see each Sunday are a direct result Bill Polian and Peyton Manning crying like babies because they got punched in the mouth by a physical defense. Every time you see a team bailed on out third and long because a linebacker laid his hands on a player 6 yards downfield, or when a game changing interception is brought back because a cornerback on the opposite side of the field breathed on a wide receiver, make sure you thank Mr. Manning.
So we know the one thing that frustrates him: physical coverage. And the Seahawks do this better than anyone. Pete Carrol’s hybrid base cover 3 defense with press man elements absolutely stifled and steamrolled every obstacle they encountered this year. They will keep this game lower scoring than the Broncos would like.
This is not to say this game is going to be a Seahawks blowout. On the opposite side of the ball, it may get ugly for Seattle if Russell Wilson has another one of his thoroughly lackluster performances. Not since Tim Tebow have I seen the media gloss over such poor quarterback play in victory. To put it bluntly, if he doesn’t pull his head out of his hindquarters, the Seahawks will not win this game.
Some may say that his performance is inconsequential as long as Marshawn Lynch plays his game. This would be incorrect. Terrance Knighton, AKA “Pot Roast,” has turned the Broncos run defense from a sieve to a brick wall. Watch out for this portly fellow, whose play reminds me of a young Sam Adams (the Seahawk/Raven, not the beer). If Russell doesn’t connect on a few passes early to keep the defense honest, this could be a long day for those in the Pacific Northwest.
There’s always a chance that Lynch could bust out anyway. He seems to have a habit of breaking a long run to seal important games. But this usually happens when the Seahawks have the lead; the opponent stacks the box, so when he gets past the linebackers, there’s either a single safety or nobody between him and the end zone. The problem is, to reiterate, this happens when they’re winning or when it’s close. If the Broncos go up early, they are most likely going to win this game, if only because the Seahawks built their team to play with a lead. Run the ball, force turnovers on defense when you’re expecting pass- it’s the ball control manifesto.
And I think that’s going to happen. I like the Seahawks to win the Super Bowl, frustrating Peyton and his receivers, and popping one or two long runs to finish it late. I remember Tracy Porter. I remember losses to the Jets and Patriots as favorites with stacked teams. Peyton has done this to us before. If he plays like he’s capable of, sure, the Broncos can win. But with Peyton, the bigger the game, the bigger the collapse.
Seattle 24, Denver 20.

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

Picture: The famed Peyton Manning Face

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Andrew Luck is not quite ready yet.
His night ended much like it started on Saturday night in Foxboro: with an interception by Alfonso Denard. Maybe one day, and that day could be coming soon, this AFC Championship game preview will be about him. But the old guard of elite NFL quarterbacks just won’t go away. There will be at least one more big one between Brady and Peyton, and it’ll be on Championship Sunday at 3:00 PM at Mile High.
As the traffic spilled onto Route 1 from Gillette Field for the last time this season, the fans, honking and cursing each other on their way back to Boston, should have been reveling in a blowout of a very good Colts team. In case you didn’t know, Indy beat the Seahawks, Broncos, 49ers and Chiefs this year, and the Patriots crushed them down the stretch in the second half like they were punching in a different weight class. It was men against boys, akin to Ohio State or Alabama beating up on some podunk FCS squad for a big payday. But nobody in New England was happy. There was no joy in victory. Winning playoff games means nothing to the Patriots. There are two wins you celebrate as a Patriot fan, and two wins only:
1. Winning the Super Bowl
2. Beating Peyton Manning
But there was a lot to appreciate about the divisional round result, and for the season as a whole. When Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly went down, everyone thought this team would be a sieve against the run. Key members of the linebacking and secondary crews got hurt as well. Aquib Talib, the best cover corner on the squad, fought injury all season, and Alfonso Denard, the opposite starting corner, continues to face legal trouble for a few strange incidents in Nebraska. On offense, the line and receiving corps were decimated, and the presumed star running back caught a severe case of fumbilitis. This is without even mentioning Aaron Hernandez’s offseason escapades, where he left his team high and dry at the tight end position. Rob Gronkowski, the only other skill position player after Tom Brady who you could argue has superstar talent, has earned the dreaded “injury prone” label that is incredibly difficult to shed, and without him, the offense looked to be in dire straits. This season had all the markings of a disaster from the beginning.
And it didn’t happen that way. This season could very well could be Bill Belichick’s finest coaching job, and maybe, stats aside, Tom Brady’s most impressive season. I know a lot of fellow fantasy players may scoff at that idea, based on how poor his statistics were comparatively to his best years, but if you take a look at the skill position players around Brady this year, and you realize his team won 12 games and got better as the season went on, culminating in a stomping of a good Indianapolis team, it becomes a legitimate viewpoint. And Belichick? All he did was coax a first round bye out of a team who has a receiving crew of Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins,  a crippled Danny Amendola, and Austin Collie, and turned Julian Edelman (who enjoyed a spectacular season, despite being no more than a complimentary player for his first few years in the league) into a young version of Wes Welker. And his tight ends? Are you kidding me? Without Gronkowski and Hernandez, the TE position for the Patriots was nothing short of a black hole of production.
The Sports Illustrated cover boy, LaGarrette Blount, turned into a wrecking ball as the season rolled on, closely resembling the player he was in his breakout year in Tampa. You’ll hear a lot about him this week. He runs downhill, sheds would be tacklers like he was covered in butter, has a nasty stiff arm that resembles swatting flies, and somehow, even though he’s 250 pounds, outruns safeties and linebackers. He’s a monster. The transformation of the New England Patriots from a Brady-centric, pass-happy team into a balanced team that could run you into the ground as well as throw over your head is nothing short of jarring, and Blount is the key.
There were lots of close calls during the Patriots season, with tight, late victories over the likes of Buffalo, NYJ, New Orleans, Denver, Houston, and Cleveland,  where the Patriots seemingly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. But that’s an easy narrative to make: that they were lucky in a lot of those games, and should have blown out the likes of Houston and Cleveland. But a closer look at their schedule reveals a key feature of this version of the Patriots: they were in every single game. their four losses were all close affairs. They never let a game get away from them early.
Well, except for one.
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On November 24th, 2013, when the Denver Broncos came into Foxboro, you could have confused it with Antarctica. Gillette Stadium was a sea of blankets. It was the type of night you’d figure would favor the Patriots, as Peyton Manning’s reputation in the cold is less than stellar, to say the least. But Peyton was barely necessary. The Patriots turned the ball over their first three possessions, resulting in 17 free points for Denver.  The game looked over before it got started.
—-

Peyton Manning studies film and opposing tendencies like you or I eat or breathe. It’s not something that should surprise you, seeing as how every news and sports outlet has analyzed this to death over the past 16 or 17 years (depending on whether you want to count his last season at the University of Tennessee).
But there shouldn’t be anything earth-shaking about that. Shouldn’t every quarterback study film and tendencies? I’ll bet Tom Brady and Drew Brees spend just as much time in the film room as Peyton does, and when Eli finishes watching Sesame Street each morning, he gameplans for his opponent like a champ. But Peyton Manning’s entire career is based on being logical and prepared.
He’s got a strong arm, but he doesn’t have the cannon of Brett Favre, or even his little brother. He has the mobility of a scarecrow. But the man KNOWS what the defense is going to do to him. Every time. And he has a plan do deal with it. If Peyton decides on Wednesday that he’s doing to throw a rub route crossing pattern to Decker when the opponent shows single coverage across the board on third and 4, then dammit, he’s going to check to that call. It’s like clockwork.
I’ve jokingly wondered whether Peyton has an original call at all. Sometimes it feels like he just orders a formation, changes it immediately at the line, then he spends the next 30 seconds bullshitting and making fake calls, deftly slipping the actual play in once he determines the best plan. It’s quite frustrating when you’re an opposing fan to watch him look like he’s an air traffic controller between every play, especially when you know 90% of his gyrations are decoys. “OMAHA! OMAHA!”  No matter how you feel about his plan, recognize it works for him, and it’s made him an all-time great. Peyton eats defensive coordinators and opposing coaches for breakfast. He studies them meticulously until he knows the most efficient way to defeat them, and from there, he becomes the hammer and they become the nail.
Well, except for one.
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Peyton Manning has a winning record against 29 of 32 teams. You can forgive his record against Green Bay and Indianapolis, as he’s barely played against them over the years. But not New England. He’s had plenty of shots against Belechick’s defenses. Since Tom Brady took over for the Patriots in 2001, Peyton Manning is 4-10 in head to head matchups. What does Belichick do to frustrate Peyton Manning so? He finds what Peyton wants to do, and takes advantage of it. Instead of running scared from Manning’s acumen, Belichick uses it against him.
Early in his career, Peyton made a living off short routes off the line, setting up intermediate and deeper routes down the field after drawing the defenders in. Dallas Clark, Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison and co. all worked in perfect harmony with Edgerrin James’s pass protection, catching out of the backfield and short runs. The offense was effective and beautiful to watch, and predicated on two things: receivers getting clean releases off of the line of scrimmage, and calling runs when the defense loaded up the box.
So imagine how enjoyable those games against the Patriots were for Peyton when Ty Law and co. bumped and pressed his first option every single time he got to the line, disrupting his timing routes and forcing him to anticipate throws that might not be there, and how much fun he must have had going up to the line, seeing 8 men in the box, checking to a pass, then watching the linebackers back off into coverage. The look on Peyton Manning’s face the first time he saw the famous “walk around” defense, where all eleven Patriots stood and roamed until the snap, must have been priceless. Bill Belichick owns Peyton Manning.
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Back to November 24th. The Patriots were outmanned on defense. There was no way they could match up with Thomas, Decker, Welker, and Thomas without dropping too many men into coverage without letting the run gash them. So what did Belichick do? Exactly that. A stroke of genius.
Postgame, Aquib Talib confirmed the game plan: Sit back. Double cover the main receiving threats. Put extra defensive backs in the game. Peyton played right into Belichick’s hands.
It was like Groundhog Day: he waked up to the line, checked out of the original call, and ran the ball. 5 yard gain. Walk up to the line, check to the run. 10 yard gain. Repeat, repeat, repeat… until there’s a holding call. Or one of the linemen get beat. All it takes is one mistake, and oftentimes, it forces a punt.
The Patriots took a huge, yet calculated, risk: they let the Broncos run the ball at will. The final numbers are staggering: 48 rushes for 280 yards. Knowshon Moreno had the game of his life, carrying the ball 37 times for 224 yards. But therein lies the problem: Moreno had 37 rushes, and Peyton had 36 passing attempts. When you’re Peyton Manning, and you’re probably going to go down as the most prolific passer of all time, you should have the ball in your hands more than Knowshon Moreno. Because of the persistent rushing, mixed with the cold weather and ferocious Patriots defense, Peyton never got in a rhythm, and never seemed comfortable in the pocket. When finally forced to throw, he looked lackluster. The first Broncos drive in the third quarter epitomized the problem: Run, Run, Run, Run, Run, Screen pass in traffic fumble, Patriots recover. The 24-0 lead at the half evaporated soon after.
As the Patriots clawed back into the game, the Broncos did nothing. They got plenty of yards, but yards do not equal points. The Broncos drives in the second half: Fumble, Punt, INT, Punt. After Brady led his team to 31 straight points, it fell to Peyton, suddenly down a touchdown, to come back and answer. Which he did. They drove right down the field and tied it at 31. They pass-run ratio was 9-2 on that drive.
We all know what happened in overtime. Belichick took the wind instead of the ball after winning the coin toss, which was one of those “so crazy it’s genius” moves, further playing mind games with Peyton.
“Here’s how much I think of you, Manning. I’m giving you the ball in overtime. Go ahead, beat me, I dare you.”
And in what was the most predictable outcome ever, the Broncos drive stalled and they punted. You didn’t expect Peyton to play the hero and drive it right down the field and score, did you? What ensued was the dull punt-fest for ten minutes until something actually happened. And what an occurrence it was: Patriots turncoat Wes Welker called all of his Broncos teammates off of a punt that he should have fair caught. His timidity resulted in one of those funny bounces that always seems to happen when someone plays scared. It went off a backup Broncos corner, Pats recover, Gostkoswki drills the field goal, and then comes the aforementioned gridlock on Route 1 in Foxboro.
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What a game. But the teams look a lot different now. Rob Gronkowski, who had a dominant second half in that game, is unable to play (presumably out break dancing somewhere while he recovers from surgery). Massive blow for the Patriots, as he is uncoverable sometimes and turned the tide in the first meeting. But Von Miller, who started the avalanche of turnovers and sacks in the first half for the Broncos, and was equally as unblockable as Gronk was uncoverable, also won’t be around. So they pretty much cancel each other out: Brady won’t have his best target, but he’ll also have more time to throw.
We all know this game comes down to how Peyton Manning performs. It won’t be cold at Mile High this time. 58 degrees is downright balmy for a conference championship game. This suits Peyton well. The key has to be whether Peyton takes Belichick’s bait again: will he audible into exactly what the Patriots want him to every time, or will he step up and be the hero and throw against unfavorable matchups? He did just set every significant passing record this year, didn’t he? Time to go out and prove that he’s got every argument to be named the greatest of all time. He didn’t show it last week, in a lackluster performance against the Chargers.
For the most part, Peyton Manning shrinks when the pressure is on. He has a losing playoff record, and a losing record against the Patriots. But he can still point to the 2006 AFC Championship Game as the one time he stuck it to the Patriots. He overcame a huge deficit in that one and ended up getting his first, and only, Super Bowl ring. Will this look more like that, or like just another Manning vs. Patriots game, where he inevitably blows it?
I think this goes according to script. How can I bet on Peyton Manning in a big game? Sure, he has the capability to win, and it wouldn’t shock me if the Broncos pulled it out, but come on, this is Peyton vs. Brady/ Belichick. I’ve seen this episode before, and it doesn’t end well for Peyton Manning.
New England +5 over DENVER

Patriots 31, Broncos 24

NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

Picture: The friendly chat between Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh after the Stanford-USC game in 2009. Harbaugh’s team went for two when they were up 48-21, setting up a memorable post game handshake. The warm and fuzzy feelings between the two will be on full display on Sunday.

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Let’s do little comparison, shall we?
TEAM A: 25 first downs, 409 total yards, 301 passing yards, 5.8 yards per play
TEAM B: 13 first downs,  277 total yards, 103 passing yards, 4.9 yards per play
Team A should win comfortably, right?
Team A was the New Orleans Saints. Team B was the Seattle Seahawks.
The Seahawks won that game 23-15, and it wasn’t even as close as the score indicated. It was 23-8 ‘Hawks until the final 30 seconds, when the Saints scored a late garbage time touchdown on 4th and 6.
So what the hell happened?
    Usually, you can point to turnovers when a score doesn’t reflect the outcome. It is true that there was a costly one in the second quarter by Mark Ingram, whose careless fumble gave the Seahawks an easy six points. (Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, says the author of this article while pointing and laughing.)
    But the tide turned much earlier than that. Reports of the demise of Drew Brees’ outdoor ineptitude have been greatly exaggerated. The little guy was straight up embarrassing in the first quarter. I saw a short person wearing a gold helmet and a number 9 come out of the tunnel at Century Link Field, but that’s about as far as the resemblance to the former Super Bowl champion quarterback stretched. Looking nerve-wracked and skittish, he never seemed comfortable from the start. Wearing gloves to combat the rain and chill of the Pacific Northwest, the ball slipped and fluttered out of his hands, in contrast to the tight spirals he normally throws. His errant passes killed whatever slim chance his squad had in the first place. But it didn’t stop there.
    It seemed like whatever syndrome Drew Brees has that shuts down his motor skills in adverse conditions is common to certain members of the Saints special teams, namely their holder and punter. First, the Saints punter Thomas Morestead let a snap hit him square in the nether regions, then promptly fired off a 16 yard shank that had potential to hit one of Seattle’s “12th Men” in the head. Secondly, the Saints kicker, recently-signed Shayne Graham, missed two field goals that would have put the Saints within striking distance at the end. His holder turned the laces in on a 45 yard miss. It was reminiscent of Dan Marino-Ray Finkel.
    So what’s the significance about how poorly the Saints played? Because if they didn’t make all of those stupid mistakes, they would have won that game. But they didn’t, and this is not to make excuses for the Saints- it’s to point out that their opponent next week won’t be making the same kind of mistakes. And the Hawk’s margin for error has shrunk greatly. Russell Wilson will have to complete more than nine passes next week. The Niners will not hand the Seahawks the ball at midfield for the entire first half. Seriously, between the shanked punt, the fumble and the missed kicks, it felt like Seattle spent half of Saturday afternoon in Saint territory. And how did the Seahawks take advantage? Field goals, for the most part. And on Sunday, we saw how the the San Francisco 49ers deal with teams who can’t score in the red zone.

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    Everyone’s favorite towel-wearing quarterback, Cameron Newton, looked pretty good in the first half. I’m not going to lie, I love me some Cam. I’ve been on the Newton Bandwagon since he was at Auburn. The only non-Eagle I like more in today’s NFL is LaGarrete Blount, but we’ll get into that later in the week.
    But when you get half a dozen cracks at the end zone from the goal line, you should score. No matter who you are, and no matter who you’re playing against, you should at least get one touchdown out of it. There is no excuse, specially when you were moving the ball to get into the red zone so effortlessly. Think of the short-yardage options the Panthers have: Cam Newton, a 6’5” beast of a quarterback who runs like an athletic tight end, who you can roll out or run a sneak with; Mike Tolbert, generously listed at 243 pounds on his 5’9” frame; and a fleet of taller pass catchers, most notably Greg Olsen, who matches up favorably with most linebackers.
But they couldn’t score.
    And the credit must go to the 49ers, who used those stops as a catalyst to keep the first half close when the Panthers were threatening to take control of the game. Carolina was riding high between the solid defensive play and the home crowd, but the battle-tested 49ers kept the pedal down. And they drove right over the Panthers in the second half, grinding the hosts into a fine powder.
    The momentum of the game went the way of the 49ers just prior to halftime. Cam led the Panthers down the field on a nine minute, clock eating drive where they mixed in pass and run expertly down to the Carolina one yard line. After the aforementioned goal line stand and a Graham Gano FG, Colin Kaepernick took the ball with 3:41 left before the break, down 10-6. Gore, Boldin, and Crabtree all had a hand in the crucial drive, but a toe-tapping touchdown by NFL Combine Hall-of-Famer Vernon Davis was the crushing blow. As well as it seemed the Panthers played, they were down going into the half. That weighs on a locker room. They looked flat from there on out.
    The Panthers second half drives: Punt, Punt, INT, clock expires.
    The 49ers offensive line manhandled an excellent front seven of the Panthers as the game progressed, and Frank Gore always seems to get stronger as the opponents grow tired. Anquan Boldin continues to prove his playoff acumen, and Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis are as athletic and talented as anyone in the NFL. And the defense? What more needs to be said about arguably the best unit in the NFL?
    
    In fact, the NFC Championship Game pits them against the only one you can argue is better. Top to bottom, there are no more talented rosters in the NFL. These are the two best teams in the league. The two best quarterbacks are playing in the AFCCG, but as far as complete units, the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers stand above the rest. Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman. Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas. Kaep vs. Russell. Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch. Harbaugh vs. Carroll. This is basically football pornography.

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    Who wins? On the Seahawks side, home field advantage is the first and best argument you can make. Although the 12th man thing is overstated, cheesy, and rips off Texas A&M pretty shamelessly, it’s still a great benefit to be in front of those fans in that weather. They’ve only lost there once in the past two years. The Niners have gotten steamrolled in Cascadia by a combined score of, say, roughly 10,000 to 0 on their last two visits (The actual combined score was 71-16, although it felt worse than that). The Seahawks offensive line was opening holes for Marshawn Lynch down the stretch on Saturday, and their secondary is tops in the league. The only team I can think of off the top of my head that wouldn’t be an underdog against these Seahawks, in Seattle, would be the ’07 Patriots. And I just don’t see Randy Moss and Tom Brady coming out of that tunnel on Sunday.
    On the other hand, the Hawks have shown some recent vulnerability at home in the past month. A loss to the Cardinals proves that it can be done, and they had the game handed to them by a hapless road team last week. I think on a neutral field, New Orleans would have beaten Seattle. The 49ers are not going to be afraid of the big, bad Seahawks, having defeated them at Candlestick in their last meeting. The Niners defense should not allow Marshawn Lynch to run roughshod. Kaepernick is a proven playoff winner, and Russell Wilson will be forced to put the offense on his back, which I’m not sure he can do at this point in his career. 100 yards passing isn’t going to cut it this week, and SF’s defense is far superior to NO’s.
    Seattle wins home games against good teams because they feed off the energy from the home crowd, force turnovers and score quickly before the opponent can adjust to their surroundings. That allows them to ratchet up the pass rush, neglect stopping the run, and let Richard Sherman and Co. have target practice with the opposing receivers. The 49ers should be used to this environment by now. They’ve all been in Seattle before, and they’re probably really tired of getting kicked around. In most likely the loudest game ever, I like San Francisco, 27-20.
    
    San Francisco +3 1/2 over SEATTLE
AFC stuff later this week.

Eagles 2013 Obituary and Divisonal Round Picks ATS

Scroll down for my playoff picks against the spread. But first, in memoriam:111413_eagles_600
RIP, The 2013 Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles lost to the Saints last week. What a travesty it is to lose to a Super Bowl winning quarterback destined for the Hall of Fame. How dare a QB making his first career playoff start lose by a FG with time expiring after he drove them down to take the lead with 5 minutes to go. What unmitigated gall the Eagles have, to think I’ll lay down and accept that the youngest defense in the league should hold the Saints to only 26 points!
Due to the loss, my life has become a mostly empty void, with the exception of hopelessness and misery. The Eagles, and by proxy, their players, coaches and fans are terrible and will never amount to anything. Or so people tell me.
In the real world, however, there’s a lot to look forward to with this team.
Evan Mathis and Jason Peters are AP All Pros, and anchor an offensive line that stayed remarkably healthy and dominated the LOS (for the most part). LeSean McCoy is the best back in football, and is locked down contract-wise for the foreseeable future. Desean Jackson (bitching and moaning about his contract excluded) had his best season as an Eagle, and even when he’s bracketed in coverage, draws a significant amount of attention to assist the other receivers in getting open. Riley Cooper had some spectacular catches and was Nick Foles’ security blanket. Jeremy Maclin will be healthy next year. Zach Ertz is going to be a stud one day, and Brent Celek can still move like a young man when he needs to, as evidenced by his play in the screen game.
The front 7 improved dramatically, and is one of the youngest in the NFL. Mychal Kendricks and Fletcher Cox are both monsters. Connor Barwin had flashes of brilliance, and at times resembled his former Houston Texan cohort JJ Watt with his swatting of passes (yes, I know Watt is a better overall player.) Demeco Ryans was a consummate team leader. Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher added a physical element to the secondary. Trent Cole took a while to get used to the 3-4, but picked up his game as the season went on, along with the defense as a whole.
Nick Foles’s game has been dissected ad naseum for about four months now. For a kid that just threw 29 touchdowns and 2 picks over a full NFL season, he sure seems to be getting an unfair amount of criticism. Every time I listen to WIP or 97.5, or read comments on message boards, I feel as though he’s getting ripped by every other fan from Delaware to South Jersey. Why do people like to assume that Chip Kelly NEEDS a mobile quarterback? He’s been assuring us all for months that all he needs is a QB with functional mobility who makes smart decisions with the football. Which Foles does. And he does it better than anyone in the league. He finished third all time in passer rating for a single season. Will his numbers repeat next year? Probably not up to that level. Nobody can do that consistently. But to think he’d just fall off a cliff is absurd, and there’s nothing to suggest that will happen.
And Chip Kelly? The man is a walking contradiction. In a good way. According to some, he’s the new breed of NFL coach, a “Charlie College” style guy making up his own rules as he goes. He runs the spread, runs the hurry-up, goes for 2 on swinging gate plays, goes for it on 4th down too much, feeds his players smoothies, adapts sports science to suit his needs, and so on and so forth. But there’s a strange dichotomy with Chip Kelly, though; yes, all those things are true, but he’s much closer to the classic, no-nonsense football coach than we like to think he is. He studies film constantly, and dissects the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses just like any other quality coach. And he’s not slinging the ball all over the field, a la Graham Harrell at Texas Tech or Colt Brennan at Hawaii- the birds led the league in rushing. He likes to ground and pound, with 3-yards-and-cloud-of-dust, eat-you-alive style football with bullying, athletic linemen just like Tom Osborne or Vince Lombardi- he just likes to do it faster.
But because I’m an Eagles fan, and because it’s illegal for Eagles fans to be too optimistic about the birds (look it up, it’s Pennsylvania law), I have to acknowledge the negatives.
First of all, Patrick Chung does not belong on the football field. I don’t know what he studied at Oregon, nor do I care- he belongs in some other line of work. We need safety help, immediately. The same can be said about Alex Henery. I really don’t want to be one of those hacks who can’t get his point across without writing in all caps, but humor me, because I feel it’s the only way I can encapsulate my feelings on the matter: if you’re a professional kicker, and you’re highly paid to do just that, YOU SHOULD BE ABLE TO KICK A GOD DAMN TOUCHBACK. I’m weary of watching the Eagles drive down the field, methodically move the ball, score, and then IMMEDIATELY give the ball back to the opponents on the 35+.
Or the 50.
After a horse collar tackle.
When you’re up by one in a playoff game with five minutes to go.
But I digress. The Eagles have a bright future, and I’m excited to see how a full offseason of Chip Kelly goes. With the contract situation of seemingly every Eagles receiver not named Na Brown at a crossroads, it will be interesting to see how they approach it. Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin both can become free agents this year, Desean is whining as usual, and Avant should be cut before they give him that $1M roster bonus. The draft will be right around the corner, and the Eagles will be looking for secondary and pass rushing help.
And I can’t wait for next season.
On to the picks for the Divisional Round, home team in caps, you know the drill:

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DENVER -9 1/2 over San Diego
To me, this game is going to go one of two ways. Option one: the Chargers keep it close and frustrate Peyton into adhering to his perennial playoff failure routine. Option two:  Petyon goes into full annihilation mode like he did in a few playoff games in Indy and the Broncos blow the Chargers out. I like option two better. SD just doesn’t have the horses to keep up with Denver. I like Danny Woodhead and all, but I just don’t see it happening.
SEATTLE -8 over New Orleans
Drew Brees showed he can actually function when the weather drops below 40. Who would have guessed? But he didn’t have a good game against a suspect Eagles secondary, despite the win. Two ugly interceptions by the Birds makes me wonder what Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and co. will do in an arena where they blew out the Saints a few weeks ago. A team that is near unbeatable at home vs. a team that is notorious for struggling on the road? I don’t think the Saints will keep this close.
Indianapolis +7 over NEW ENGLAND
The Patriots should win this game. But they didn’t put teams away all season, with close shaves against Houston, Buffalo and Cleveland, among others. The Colts should ride the wave of momentum to at least keep it close. NE to win, Indy to cover.
CAROLINA -1 over San Francisco
San Francisco is a sexy pick right now to go to the Super Bowl. Sexy picks usually flame out. After a brutal game in the cold against the Packers, the 49ers will fly to the east coast to play a team that is stacked on defense that’s going to play with a chip on their shoulder. Kaep should struggle against Luke Kuechly and co. As long as the Panthers put a spy on him, he should be kept under wraps. Remember that Carolina went into SF and won in November.