Monday, January 20, 2014

NFL Conference Championship Sunday Snap Judgments

And then there were two.

We can expect a classic matchup on February 2 in the Meadowlands.  Seattle and Denver have been the two best teams in the league all season long, and they are set to clash in the final game of the 2013 NFL season.  Super Bowl 48 will be the first game between a pair of #1 seeds since the Saints/Colts game 4 years ago, which goes to show how surprisingly infrequently we get such a contest.  The last three Super Bowl champions all got hot either late in the season or at the start of the playoffs, putting on an unlikely performance towards winning the Lombardi trophy.  This time, there was no Cinderella team.  Two heavyweights will go head to head to win it all.  Fans like you and me may have to record the game to watch and rewatch every play along the way.

1. The Aqib Talib injury was pretty much the deciding factor in Denver.  If the Patriots had any chance at winning the game, it would largely depend on their secondary holding the Broncos' receiving corps at bay.  Talib is their best cover corner, and once he was taken out of the game by - ironically - Broncos receiver (and former Patriot) Wes Welker, the Patriots had little to stop the Broncos' passing attack.  The Patriots did manage to make the game interesting late, but missing Talib on the field was too much to overcome.

2. Peyton Manning.  'Nuff said.  Once again, Peyton Manning turned the field of play into a video game and dominated the Patriots.  The Broncos had just enough of a pass rush that held Tom Brady at bay, leaving Manning to do his thing and let his running backs keep the defense honest while concentrating on covering Eric Decker, Wes Welker, and Demaryius Thomas.  Despite the Patriots' efforts, Thomas had a huge day, and Knowshon Moreno consistently produced on the ground.  Still, the Broncos have - quite fittingly - their toughest test left ahead of them in the Seahawks, which leads me to.....

3. The 49ers' defense played their best game possible, but Colin Kaepernick did them in.  Some pathetically awful non-calls by the referees didn't help, but Kaepernick's two interceptions proved to be the deciding factor.  He still did everything he could to keep the 49ers in the game, but a team's quarterback being their leading rusher doesn't typically translate to a win.  It's difficult to give Kaepernick the Goat of the Week Award, considering he singlehandedly kept the 49ers in the game, but his lost fumble led to a Seahawks field goal, and one of his picks also allowed the Seahawks to take the lead for good in the game.

. I have no problem with Richard Sherman's postgame interview.  I've read plenty of articles online calling Sherman classless (and worse) for his trash-talk when Erin Andrews had asked him for his thoughts as soon as the game had ended.  I don't see the big deal.  His comments were 1.) in complete response to what 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree had said to him earlier in the day; 2.) no worse than Terrell Suggs' trash talk after last year's AFC title game when Suggs had said, "Have fun at the Pro Bowl, Patriots!"; and 3.) the kind of honest answer that any sports journalist actually wants from a player or coach.  The media will readily mock the likes of Bill Belichick for not being very forthcoming with information or emotion, so why get on Richard Sherman for being openly emotional?

5. I still think having the Super Bowl being exposed to potential winter weather elements is a mistake.  I'm a nobody who only writes his blog for fun, so my thoughts are only going to fall on deaf ears here, but I have said all along that putting the Super Bowl in a cold weather city is a terrible idea.  The issue would have been magnified had warm weather or dome teams like San Diego or New Orleans gotten this far, but that doesn't ignore the potential elephant in the room.  The game itself could well be affected if there is snow or freezing rain throughout the game, but that doesn't even take into account the possibility of traveling fans being impacted as well.  It also ignores the chances of touring the city being limited if there is snow and/or ice on the ground.  The bottom line is this experiment will either be a massive success or a total disaster; there isn't much chance for in-between.

See you in two weeks, kids.

Monday, January 13, 2014

NFL Divisional Round Snap Judgments

The Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs is typically the best weekend of the entire NFL season.  There is usually at least one big dog who goes home much earlier than expected (see: Denver last year; Green Bay two years ago; and the Patriots the year before that), though this year the Divisional Round was mostly all chalk.  The stage is now set for two excellent Championship Games, which is really what the league wants every year.  The four best teams all season long are the four teams left, which will make the networks and the league happy, especially since it virtually guarantees an excellent Super Bowl as well.

1. On a weekend filled with premiere quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers, and Andrew Luck, it was the running backs who stole the show.  The weather on Saturday in both Seattle and Foxborough had a big role in taking the passing games out of the equation, but even the games in Denver and Charlotte on Sunday were mostly determined by the running games.  Marshawn Lynch posted his third postseason game with at least 130 rushing yards; LeGarrette Blount rushed for a whopped 166 yards and 4 scores; and even Peyton Manning had a fairly pedestrian game to allow his running backs to take  control of the Chargers.  Considering the four winning teams are all largely evenly matched, the Championship Games should be very intense.

2. The Saints' passing game next year will be extremely average if they can't hang on to Jimmy Graham.  Graham is an unrestricted free agent come March, so the Saints have three options: let him walk; franchise him; or negotiate a long-term contract.  Their salary cap situation is one of the worst in the league, and Graham is looking for a big pay day given his production.  The bigger twist is that Graham could well look into being franchised as a wide receiver instead of a tight end considering how the Saints had him line up at scrimmage for most of the season.  That would bump up his number for 2014 considerably, and it's the same problem the Ravens may face with Dennis Pitta.  Aside from Graham, the Saints have a group of guys most people outside New Orleans have never heard of, and there's only so much that Drew Brees can do to elevate them collectively.

3. If you thought the Seahawks' stadium was loud on Saturday, just wait till Sunday.  Three years ago, when the Seahawks had last hosted a playoff game prior to Saturday (coincidentally also against the Saints), the crowd noise was so loud at one point that they had caused a small earthquake.  That's no exaggerration either, and on Saturday they had outdone themselves.  It's no wonder the Saints couldn't get their offense set on more than one occasion and had to burn through their timeouts early with all that noise.  The 49ers are much more accustomed to the sound there, but is there anything they can really do to counteract against such sound?

4. In this age of free agency and parity in the NFL, the Patriots and 49ers both reaching their respective conference championship games three years in a row is beyond remarkable.  Occasionally, there are teams like the Jets who had reached the AFC title game in back to back years, but that's extremely rare.  Rarer still is the idea that any team could make it to its conference title game three straight years.  Bill Belichick needs no extra accolades or recognition to go on his resume; however, Jim Harbaugh has quickly become of the best coaches in the league, now having taken his team to the NFC title game in his first three years as a head coach.  Anyone who claims Jim Harbaugh is too whiny or obnoxious as a coach ignores his ability to maximize productivity from his players.

5. The Panthers aren't going away in the NFC.  The Falcons are rebuilding, the Bucs are entering a new regime under Lovie Smith, and the Saints may lose Jimmy Graham.  If the Panthers find a big wide receiver to replace the aging Steve Smith, the offense can compliment the already-largely complete defense led by Luke Kuechly.  Whether they can overtake the likes of Seattle, San Francisco, or Philadelphia remains to be seen.  They have given themselves a window to compete in the NFC now that Cam realizes it isn't all about him anymore.

6. The Goat of the Weekend Award goes to Marques Colston.  The Saints' final drive had ended with Drew Brees throwing to Colston along the sideline with about 12 seconds to go in the game.  Colston could have, and should have, run out of bounds to stop the clock.  Instead, he threw an illegal forward pass across the field to keep the play alive.  The Saints were down by one score, and had he run out of bounds, they would have had time throw potentially two deep balls in the end zone to try tying the game up.  The Saints lost the game and their season ended, apparently because Colston didn't know how much time was left on the clock.

7. The Chargers have a road to climb before they can take the next step in competing.  They needed a small miracle to even make the playoffs to begin with, and they have both the Broncos and Chiefs in their division to contend with.  Meanwhile, they also have teams like the Ravens, Bengals, Steelers, Dolphins, and Titans to compete with next year for the Wild Card.  They had a little magic fall into their lap this year, and Philip Rivers could well be the Comeback Player of the Year.  They still need to fill a few key holes on their team in order to compete again.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Another Feel-Good Story for 2014

Around this time last year, I had written a post about a couple uplifting stories that needed to be shared.  This morning, I found another such great article to get 2014 started the right way.

Meet Abigail Sailors, an 18-year-old college freshman who serves tables at a Cracker Barrel in Lincoln, Nebraska.  She's studying youth ministry and psychology at Trinity Bible College, and has to pay her own way through school because she's the youngest of five siblings who have all spent most of their lives in foster care.  Her parents were in a car accident when she was only 7 months old; her mother suffered a brain injury in the crash and hasn't ever fully recovered, and her father wasn't a good father at all, to put things mildly.

Last Thursday, two men walked into the Cracker Barrel where she worked and specifically asked for the server who was in the worst mood possible.  They clearly had an agenda to brighten someone's day, and "unfortunately" the hostess who had seated them had to tell them no one who worked in the restaurant was that unhappy.  They had to settle for Abigail.

She went on to tell them all about her life up to that point, and how she and all her siblings had bounced around between living with their abusive father and various foster homes.  All five children had finally found a loving set of foster parents by the time Abigail was 9 years old.  She felt blessed to have a warm house to come home to every day, even though it took her years to find such peace.

Unfortunately for Abigail - and if you read the link I had posted, you already know where this story is going - she had to put her college plans on hold to save up more money since she was paying her way.  In an incredible coincidence, one of the two men was an alumnus of Trinity Bible College as well, and he wanted to help Abigail in her education.

He broke out his checkbook and cut two checks out for her.  The first was made out to Trinity Bible College for $5000, and the second was to Abigail for $1000 for any school-related expenses.  They also had tipped her $100 for lunch.

I'm blown away by this story.  These two men were modern day Samaritans, only looking to share their faith and do something good for a complete stranger.  They obviously weren't in it for their own personal gain or interest at all, and there was no way either they or the hostess could have known about Trinity Bible College uniting them and Abigail.  That coincidence could have possibly affected their decision, but that's beside the point.  They helped change a young girl's life for the better, and it was for all the right reasons.

This story is another one of those where saying, "Thank you," doesn't do justice or feel adequate.  The closest I can relate to a story like this is when I got my job offer to bring me out of the doldrums of unemployment over 2 1/2 years ago.  I still feel in debt to this day to my buddy who had originally gotten me the interview in the first place.  I fully realize that he had nothing to do with the decision-making process as to whether I'd get the job, but he got my foot in the door.  I'd even argue scoring an interview is the single most difficult part of the job-seeking process.

Abigail's situation is quite different since she's only in her first year of college, so the gesture's meaning resonated that much deeper with her.  Hopefully she will cross paths with one or both men later on in life after she's finished college so they can see how far their gesture had gone.  Ideally in 20 years or so, Abigail can pay the favor forward to another 18-year-old kid waiting tables who's struggling to make ends meet as well.  Maybe that's the best way for her to properly thank her two Good Samaritans.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

NFL Wild Card Weekend Snap Judgments

This is why Wild Card Weekend is such an incredibly dramatic slate of games for the NFL  Three of the four games were intense up until the clock had hit 0:00, and three of the four road teams had all won.  There is always at least one team who truly lays an egg in the first round of the playoffs, and this year was no different.  The one true difference this year is that there was a collossal meltdown/comeback, which will be the first talking point of these snap judgments.

1. I have never seen a game quite like the Chiefs/Colts game.  I had expected the Chiefs to represent the AFC in Super Bowl 48 once the playoff field had been set last week, and for the first 35 minutes or so of their game Saturday, they looked like a championship caliber team.  Andrew Luck had thrown 3 interceptions and Trent Richardson had fumbled the ball away on his first-ever postseason carry, leading to the Chiefs building a 38-10 lead early in the 3rd quarter.  The Colts had looked as done as a Thanksgiving dinner at that point, and I still didn't really believe in their chances even when they had closed the gap to 41-31 by the start of the 4th quarter.  What was especially perplexing was when Andy Reid had called his final timeout just prior to the 2-minute warning in the 4th quarter; that was classic Andy Reid clock mismanagement.  I hadn't personally seen a postseason collapse like this one since the Browns/Steelers Wild Card game following the 2002 season, when the Browns had managed to blow a 24-7 lead midway through the 3rd quarter.

2. The Colts clearly had picked the right head coach in Chuck Pagano.  Coming from the perspective of a Ravens fan, I was incredibly upset that the Colts had stolen Chuck Pagano away from the team.  He was a great leader and motivator for the defense, and the players all liked him.  It's easy to see why he's a great coach for those very reasons, and he's in charge of a really good, young team.  The key reason why the Colts were able to come back from such a massive halftime deficit was because of their leadership, starting with Pagano and quarterback Andrew Luck.

3. Both losing teams on Saturday had positive turnover ratios.  Huh?  Most football games are won by a combination of forcing turnovers and/or time of possession.  The Chiefs had held the ball for 15 minutes more than the Colts, and also were +3 in the turnover ratio.....and lost.  The Eagles had the ball for nearly 10 minutes less than the Saints (which isn't any surprise, given Chip Kelly's style of offense), and were +2 in turnovers....and lost.  Teams almost have to try gacking up a game when stats like those work heavily in their favor.  In the Eagles' case, they couldn't stop the Saints' rushing attack, giving up over 180 total rushing yards in the game.  Their Achilles heel is extremely obvious, but they were also playing with house money , considering they had improved by 6 wins from 2012.

4. The Saints got a huge monkey off their back in finally winning a playoff game on the road.  The Saints were one of several Jekyll and Hyde teams in 2013, being a dominant team in their own building, but struggling mightily on the road.  They were 0-5 in road playoff games prior to Saturday, but finally pulling a road playoff win off will build them some momentum going into next weekend.  They do have a monumental task in traveling to Seattle where they were previously mauled during the regular season, but they still managed to pull off the improbable in Philadelphia.

5. What do the Bengals do with Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton?  Lewis is now 0-5 in his postseason as head coach of the Bengals, and Andy Dalton has thrown 6 interceptions in his three career postseason games with only 1 touchdown.  They had the opportunity to take the next step as an organization this season, having finally won the AFC North and hosted a playoff game.  Instead, they were blown out at home against the Chargers, who needed a small miracle to even make the playoffs to begin with.  Lewis has had over a decade to build the team into a contender, and while his knowledge of defense is uncontested, he doesn't seem like he can build the offense successfully.  The Bengals' small window of being a true contender in the division and the rest of the AFC may have already closed.

6. The 49ers/Packers game turned out to be a higher scoring game than I had expected.  With a wind chill of -10 degrees, I didn't think either team would clear 20 points.  I had also expected a fairly sloppy game, with a combination of fumbles, dropped passes, and interceptions.  Instead, there was only 1 turnover the entire game (an interception thrown by Colin Kaepernick), and both running backs were effective in carrying the offenses.  I still had expected the Packers to win, given they were at home and much more comfortable with playing in the cold than the 49ers.  Instead, the better defense came out on top, and the 49ers will move on to play in Carolina next weekend.

7. Which top seed stands a better chance at losing in the Divisional Round?  Now that the next round's matchups are set, one of the first questions is which #1 seed is more liable to lay an egg and find themselves on an unexpected end to their playoff run.  The easy answer is the Broncos for a couple reasons.  First, they were the #1 seed last year and lost to the Ravens in one of the greatest playoff games ever played.  Second, one cannot talk about Peyton Manning's career without mentioning his history of choking in the playoffs in the cold.  It's also worth mentioning that the Chargers had also beaten the Broncos in Denver in the regular season, so beating them again wouldn't be surprising or unprecedented.

8. On paper, the best game next weekend will likely be the 49ers/Panthers game.  The two teams had met earlier this season in an extremely low-scoring win for the Panthers, and they are in many ways mirror images of one another.  They both have mobile quarterbacks and strong running games, and their defenses are anchored by elite middle linebackers.  The outcome of next weekend's matchup will likely be another low-scoring effort, coming down to one or two key turnovers during the game that turn into points for the opposing team.