Friday, January 30, 2009

The Hail Mary - Super Bowl XLIII

Super Bow XLIII: Pittsburgh Steelers (14-4) vs. Arizona Cardinals (12-7)

It is Pittsburgh East versus Pittsburgh West in Super Bowl XLIII at Tampa Bay's Raymond James Stadium. The Cinderella Arizona Cardinals are led by former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and former Steelers offensive line coach Russ Grimm. Their best player, WR Larry Fitzgerald, went to University of Pittsburgh and played his college games at Heinz Field. There are even a few Steelers players from their Super Bowl winning team of three years ago now on the Cardinals. Besides the obvious storylines added to Super Bowl Hype Week(s) this could also come to matter for the game itself. The last time a coach faced his old team in the Super Bowl was Super Bowl XXXVII. Former Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden and his new team the Tampa Bay Buccaneers destroyed the Raiders, 48-21. Buccaneers players went on to say they that their defense knew what the Raiders offense was going to do for virtually the entire game. In this game Whisenhunt will know the tendencies of Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger well, he will know what he likes and dislikes. But the Steelers should be able to negate that advantage as some of those Steelers offensive players know Whisenhunt's philosophy on offense and could possibly tip their defensive coaches to the type of offensive game plan the Cardinals might run Sunday.

Fitzgerald has stolen the headlines for the Cardinals and deservedly so. But the main reason he has gone off in these playoffs is that the Cardinals actually have the threat of a running game again. The Cardinals aren't setting the world on fire but with RB Edgerrin James once again entrenched as the starter teams have had to respect the run and thus the play action fake. The Steelers defense has been amazing all year, virtually number one in every major statistical category. Neither the Chargers or Ravens got much of a running game going against the Steelers in the playoffs. If the Steelers can limit the Cardinals yardage on the ground I think people will be surprised at how easily they can shut down the Cardinals passing game. Also, when pressured Cardinals QB Kurt Warner can become a turnover machine. I believe Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison will get pressure, as will Casey Hampton, and James Farrior. I think Warner will get picked at least twice and fumble once.

I am confident the Steelers can limit the Cardinals offense but the biggest player in this game will be Roethlisberger. In Super Bowl XL he was horrific but the Steelers defense forced turnovers and the offense managed a brilliantly executed gadget play and a long touchdown run by RB Willie Parker. I think Roethlisberger needs to be at his best from the beginning of this game. The Cardinals defense has been feasting on turnovers in the playoffs. The Cardinals have been jumping on their opponents recently, much different from what was seen for some of the season. I think Roethlisberger will manage the game well. I also think that Willie Parker and Melwelde Moore can run on the Cardinals defense. WR Hines Ward being less than 100% is definitely a concern for the Steelers, but WRs Nate Washington and Santonio Holmes have stepped up before.

I have picked against the Cardinals each round in the playoffs and have been proven wrong. I am going to do it one more time. The Cardinals have played excellent the last four weeks but I still remember them getting blown out by the Eagles, Patriots, Vikings, and Jets. This is not a world beating team by any stretch of the imagination, they can play poorly. That old mantra keeps sticking in my head, defense wins championships. The Steelers defense will win this team their sixth Super Bowl title.

Prediction: Pittsburgh 23, Arizona 17

Playoff Record

Last Round: 0-2

Overall: 3-7

Overall Record


Friday, January 23, 2009

Year in Review - Arizona Cardinals (12-7), NFC West and NFC Champions

Expectations were tempered for the Arizona Cardinals heading into the 2008 season. The previous few seasons were always supposed to be the Cardinals breakout year, and would inevitably end up with disappointment and no playoffs. Some were picking the Cardinals to win the NFC West, but just as many were going with the Seattle Seahawks. The Cardinals entered the preseason not sure who would be their starting QB. But after Matt Leinart embarrassed himself with a 4 interception performance against the Oakland Raiders, Kurt Warner was made the official starter.

The Cardinals got off to a strong start with a 23-13 win at San Francisco. Looking back on what the Cardinals offense would eventually become the numbers they put up in this game were quite pedestrian. Warner passed for 197 yards and 1 TD, and RB Edgerrin James rushed for 100. In Week 2, the Cardinals drilled the Miami Dolphins in their home opener 31-10. Warner was the star in this one, passing for 361 yards and 3 TDs. The defense also came up with a strong performance for the second straight week. The Cardinals undefeated season came to an end with a 24-17 Week 3 loss in Washington to the Redskins. Much like the 49ers game this one was evenly matched but a late Warner interception doomed the Cardinals. Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt tried something new in preparation for a Week 4 game at the New York Jets. He had his team stay East. He probably won't ever do that again as the Cardinals were blasted by the Jets 56-35. Warner was a turnover machine, as he threw 3 INTs and fumbled 3 times. The Cardinals defense couldn't bail out their offense as they allowed Jets QB Brett Favre to have his first ever 6 TD game. Also in this game WR Anquan Boldin suffered a vicious hit that would cause him to miss just 3 games. Boldin had to have major reconstructive surgery done to his face and it was amazing he missed such little time. After a fast 2-0 start, the Cardinals were reeling a quarter into the season at 2-2.

The Cardinals were back home in Week 5 against the 4-0 Buffalo Bills. Theyy knocked out Bills QB Trent Edwards early and never looked back, storming to a 41-17 win. Warner had an efficient day and the Cardinals didn't miss a beat without Boldin, as they discovered WR Steve Breaston who led the team with 7 catches for 77 yards. In Week 6, the Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys staged a classic in the desert. JJ Arrington opened the game for the Cardinals with a kickoff return for a TD. The Cardinals led 24-14 with 3:17 remaining in the game and looked well on their way to victory. However, this being the Cardinals, nothing can be done easily, and Dallas was able to tie the game at 24 and send it to overtime. In overtime, the Cardinals defense forced a quick three and out and then Monty Beisel blocked and recovered a punt for a touchdown giving the Cardinals an emotional victory. After a bye week, the Cardinals went East for the third time in 7 games, as they took on the Carolina Panthers. The Cardinals dominated early, as a 2 yard touchdown run by RB Tim Hightower put them up 17-3 in the 3rd quarter. That is when it became the DeAngelo Williams and Steve Smith show, as they combined for 3 TDs, giving the Panthers a 27-23 victory. The leading rusher on the day for the Cardinals was WR Anquan Boldin who had 1 carry for 30 yards. James fumbled and only registered 7 carries for 17 yards that game. After the game Whisenhunt decided to insert rookie Hightower as the starting RB. The Cardinals ended their 3 game road losing streak at hapless St. Louis, crushing the Rams 34-13. Warner passed for 343 yards, and Hightower rushed for 109 in his first career start. The Cardinals were 5-3 at the halfway mark.

The Cardinals had the Monday night stage all to themselves as ESPN continued their strange yearly tradition of having the Cardinals and 49ers play on Monday Night Football. It actually turned out to be a great game. Warner had another fantastic day, 328 yards passing and 3 touchdowns. Breaston came up huge with 7 catches for 124 yards, and Boldin had 2 touchdowns. Despite those efforts, the 49ers hung around and were at the goal line at the end of the game trailing 29-24. If not for poor clock management by the Niners and a terrible play call the Cardinals could have lost. Instead they survived, improving to 6-3 and cementing their stranglehold on the putrid NFC West. The Cardinals then won in Seattle in Week 11, 26-20. The Seahawks were having a down year but this was a huge win for the Cardinals over the team that had dominated the NFC West. The rushing game was once again non existent but the passing game more than made up for it. Warner threw for 395 yards, while Boldin and Fitzgerald had monster games, combining for 23 catches. The Cardinals faced a true test in Week 12 as the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants came to Arizona. The Giants were missing RB Brandon Jacobs and WR Plaxico Burress but the Cardinals still couldn't take advantage, falling 37-29. Eli Manning picked apart the Cardinals defense and the Cardinals one dimensional attack on offense finally hurt them. Hightower led the team with just 21 yards rushing, while James still sat and didn't play. Things got worse for the Cardinals on Thanksgiving Day when they traveled to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles. The Cardinals had to travel East on a very short week but the Eagles were a team in turmoil at the time. The Eagles came out as the more desperate team, jumping on the Cardinals to take a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter. Warner threw 3 INTs to go with his 3 TDs and Eagles RB Brian Westbrook and QB Donovan McNabb had field days against the Cardinals defense. With four games to go the Cardinals were 7-5, still firmly in control of the NFC West but being taken seriously by no one.

The Cardinals needed a win in Week 14 to clinch their first division title in 33 years. They had the perfect opponent in the Rams. The Cardinals lambasted the Rams at home 34-10 to take the division despite having just an 8-5 record. The defense contributed 2 TDs and the offense did what it basically always did, passing well and running horribly. With the division wrapped up the Cardinals last 3 regular season games were essentially meaningless and they played like it. They were embarrassed at home in Week 15 against the Vikings, falling behind 28-0 in the second quarter, and eventually losing 35-14. Things got worse in Week 16 in snowy New England. New England led 47-0 in the 4th quarter before the Cardinals finally got on the scoreboard with a 78 yard touchdown pass from Matt Leinart to Larry Fitzgerald, making the final score 47-7. This game was notable for one reason, James finally got a chance to run the ball again. While he only had 19 yards on 4 carries, he showed Whisenhunt that he still had some gas left in the tank, and was reinserted into his role as the primary RB. Desperate to go into the playoffs with some semblance of momentum the Cardinals came ready to play in the regular season finale against the Seahawks. James rushed for 100 yards on just 14 carries, and Warner threw 4 TD passes giving the Cardinals a 34-21 win at home to close their season at 9-7.

The Cardinals opened the Wild Card round at home against the upstart Atlanta Falcons. Despite being the home team the Cardinals were underdogs. The Cardinals home crowd was jacked up to see their first home playoff game in 61 years and caused all sorts of problems for QB Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense. After jumping out to a 14-3 lead, the Cardinals allowed the Falcons to score two late TDs to end the half, leaving the Cardinals trailing 17-14. Things changed immediately at the start of the 3rd quarter as Antrell Rolle recovered a fumble and returned it 27 yards giving the Cardinals a lead they would never relinquish, holding on to win 30-24. The offense played well but the defense played a huge role in the victory, a sign of things to come. The Cardinals had to travel East in the Divisional Round and take on the Panthers, whom they had to lost to earlier in the season. No one, and I mean no one, gave the Cardinals a shot to win this game. They were 0-5 on the East Coast, and without star WR Boldin. Things started badly as the Panthers easily marched down the field to take a 7-0 lead, but after that it was smooth sailing for the Cardinals. Panthers QB Jake Delhomme threw 5 INTs, which the Cardinals took advantage of and continually turned into points. The Cardinals put up 33 unanswered and went on to a 33-13 win. Fitzgerald had a huge game in Boldin's absence, grabbing 8 catches for 166 yards and a TD as he began to cement himself as the best wide receiver in football. With the Eagles upset victory in New York over the Giants, the Cardinals found themselves hosting the NFC Championship despite finishing witha 9-7 record. Once again underdogs the Cardinals again came out firing. Fitzgerald and Warner connected for 3 TDs in the first half and the Cardinals went into the locker room up 24-6. Any true Cardinals fan knew the game was far from over and somehow the Cardinals would find a way to make it interesting. Arizona's offense went stagnant in the 3rd quarter and the Eagles offense got rolling. A beautiful 62 yard TD pass from McNabb to WR DeSean Jackson put the Eagles up 25-24 in the 4th quarter. In past years Arizona would have folded but this team was different. Warner led the Cardinals down the field and hit Hightower with an 8 yard TD pass giving the Cardinals a 30-25 lead. Warner then hit Ben Patrick for a 2-point conversion, making the lead 32-25. The Cardinals defense had to come up with a stop and they did, clinching the victory for Arizona and their first ever Super Bowl appearance.

There will be no The Week That Was on Monday as I will be on vacation. I will be back next Friday with the final Hail Mary of the year as I analyze and predict Super Bowl XLIII between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Year in Review - Pittsburgh Steelers (14-4), AFC North and AFC Champions

Before the 2008 NFL season things were uneasy in Pittsburgh. The Steelers had collapsed to end the 2007 season, bowing out with a home playoff loss in the Wild Card round to the Jacksonville Jaguars. They had major question marks with their offensive line, which was allowing QB Ben Roethlisberger to get decimated game after game. Plus, the Steelers were facing the toughest schedule in the league. They were matched up against the NFC East and the AFC South, both considered the best divisions in the 2007 season. Despite the line problems still existing the Steelers marched their way to an AFC Championship behind spectacular defense and timely offense.

The Steelers opened the season at home against the Houston Texans. The Texans were considered by some to be a playoff sleeper in 2008. The Steelers put the kibosh on that rather quickly. They dominated the Texans, winning 38-17. RB Willie Parker rushed for 138 yards and 3 TDs, one more TD than he rushed for in the entire 2007 season. Next the Steelers visited their rivals (not sure you can call them that still considering I can't even remember the last time they beat the Steelers) the Cleveland Browns in Cleveland. Hopes were still high for the Browns but the Steelers defense manhandled the Browns, holding them to just 208 total yards. Parker went over 100 yards for the second straight game and a first quarter TD from Roethlisberger to WR Hines Ward proved to be enough in a 10-6 victory. If the Steelers were feeling good about themselves that quickly changed after Week 3. The Steelers were destroyed by the Philadelphia Eagles 15-6. The score doesn't indicate a blow out but anyone watching saw that Eagles defensive line make ground beef out of the Steelers offensive line. The Eagles totaled 9 sacks, knocked Roethlisberger out of the game, and held Parker to just 20 yards rushing. The Steelers offense was reeling heading into a Monday night showdown with the Baltimore Ravens. Behind rookie QB Joe Flacco the Ravens surprised everyone, jumping out to a 13-3 lead at Heinz Field. The Steelers were booed off the field as they headed into the locker room for haltime. Finally the Steelers offense got going as Roethlisberger hit WR Santonio Holmes for a 38 yard TD. The defense then forced and recovered a fumble for a TD to take the lead. The Steelers eventually won in overtime on a Jeff Reed field goal, 23-20. A quarter into the season the Steelers were 3-1 but they had some injury concerns. Both RB Rashard Mendenhall and right guard Kendall Simmons were lost for the season in the Ravens game.

Pittsburgh was once again in prime time in Week 5, playing at Jacksonville in the Sunday night game. It was a back and forth game but the Steelers got tremendous performances from Roethlisberger and RB Melwelde Moore, who was filling in for injured RB's Parker and Mendenhall. Roethlisberger passed for 309 yards, threw 3 TDs, including a late game strike to Hines Ward, giving the Steelers a 26-21 win. After a much needed week off the Steelers finally had an easy game as they crushed the hapless Bengals in Cincinnati 38-10. Moore rushed for 120 yards and 2 TDs and the Steelers held Cincinnati to just 212 total yards and recorded 7 sacks. It was back to the grind for Pittsburgh as they headed home to take on the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants. The Steelers were depleted heading into the game, missing Parker, Holmes, and Ward. Roethlisberger had his worse game of the season throwing 4 INTs but the biggest blow for the Steelers came when their long snapper Greg Warren was lost with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The Steelers emergency backup was defensive stud James Harrison, who predictably sailed his snap well over punter Mitch Berger's head. That safety tied the game at 14 and the Giants scored a TD on their next possession to win the game 21-14. For the 4th time in 8 games the Steelers were in prime time, facing at the time a resurgent Washington Redskins team in Washington. The Steelers offense was terrible in the first half, with Roethlisberger looking like garbage. Luckily for them the Steelers defense was making the Redskins offense look even worse. Roethlisberger was knocked out of the game early in the 3rd quarter, paving the way for backup Byron Leftwich to have a great game in the second half. Leftwich went 7/10 for 129 yards and a TD. The defense forced Redskins QB Jason Campbell into his first 2 INTs of the season and the Steelers cruised to a 23-6 win, putting them at 6-2 at the halfway point.

Pressure started to mount for Roethlisberger after his costly INTs cost the Steelers a home game against the Colts. Roethlisberger threw 3 INTs and took the blame for the 24-20 loss. Some Steelers fans were calling for Leftwich to play but Roethlisberger would end up persevering. The Steelers took part in one of the strangest games of the season the next week at home against the San Diego Chargers. Roethlisberger threw for 308 yards and Parker rushed for 115 but the Steelers didn't score an offensive TD. Their points came on three field goals by Jeff Reed and a safety by Harrison. The Steelers won 11-10, the first time a game ended with that score in NFL history. Gamblers everywhere were also affected when at the end of the game, a Troy Polamalu touchdown was overturned. Had the score stood the Steelers would have covered, but alas they did not, ruining lives everywhere. The Steelers then played on Thursday night, defeating the Bengals 27-10. The defense once again dominated the hapless Bengals offense, limiting them to 208 total yards. The Steelers had their most impressive performance of the season the next week, destroying the New England Patriots in Foxborough 33-10. The Steelers defense broke open a close game in the second half forcing 5 Patriot turnovers. It was the 4th time in 5 games that the Steelers had held their opponent to 10 points or less. The Steelers were sitting at 9-3 but still held a shaky lead over the resurgent Ravens in the AFC North.

The Dallas Cowboys came to Pittsburgh in Week 14 and late in the game looked like they would be walking out of a Pittsburgh with a win. The Steelers trailed 13-3 going into the 4th quarter before their defense once again took over. A TD from Roethlisberger to Miller tied the score at 13, then DeShea Townsend picked off an errant Tony Romo pass and returned it 25 yards for the winning TD. The Steelers had a chance to clinch the division in Baltimore the next week. The game was hard hitting and fierce like all games between these teams. It was also highlighted by controversy. Roethlisberger hit Holmes for what was originally called a catch at the Ravens 1 yard line. However, the replay booth was called in and it was determined that the ball broke the plain, giving the Steelers a TD and a 13-9 lead. The Ravens had one last shot but Flacco was intercepted at the goal line and the Steelers were AFC North champions. Despite that achievement the Steelers still had higher goals, namely home field advantage throughout the playoffs. They faced the Tennessee Titans at Tennessee in basically a winner take all game. It was a tight game for 3 quarters but interceptions late in the game by Roethlisberger did the Steelers in, as they fell to the Titans 31-14, guaranteeing them the #2 seed in the AFC playoffs. The final game of the season should have just been a warm up against the Browns before the playoffs but a scary sight unfolded for the Steelers. Roethlisberger suffered a concussion and was carted off the field. The Steelers won handily 31-0 to finish the year 12-4, but the concern in Pittsburgh was all about Roethlisberger.

A week off was all Roethlibserger needed as he was back for a rematch against the Chargers in the AFC Divisional Playoff. The Chargers came into the game winners of 5 straight and jumped out to an early 7-0 lead. The Steelers responded with a 67 yard punt return for a TD by Holmes. Ball control was the story in the 3rd quarter as the Chargers ran just one offensive play. Parker had his second big game of the year against the Chargers, rushing for 146 yards and the Steelers won comfortably 35-24. Fittingly that set up an AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh against the Ravens. The Ravens had upset the Titans, so Pittsburgh ended up with home field advantage anyway. In the beginning it looked like the Steelers would blow out a tired Ravens team as they jumped ahead 13-0. The Ravens crawled back, eventually getting to within two, 16-14 in the 4th quarter. The Ravens had the ball and a chance to win the game when Flacco was intercepted for a third time, this time it was Polamalu who returned it 40 yards for the game sealing touchdown, sending the Steelers to their seventh Super Bowl in franchise history.

I will be back tomorrow with a look back at the Arizona Cardinals 2008 season. See you then.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Week That Was

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Arizona Cardinals, Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, Florida. No one would have predicted it but that is what football fans will see in 13 days. Both championship games proved to be entertaining in their own ways.

In the NFC Championship the Cardinals showed no fear of playing in the biggest game of their lives and jumped all over the Eagles in the first half. I definitely underrated how much of a factor the Cardinals crowd would be as they were insanely loud. The Eagles had to settle for two field goals when they got into Cardinals territory, while the Cardinals led by QB Kurt Warner and WR
Larry Fitzgerald scored 3 TDs. The Eagles defense seemed to have no answer for the Cardinals offense in the first half, as the Cardinals scored at will. The Eagles kept blitzing and Warner kept picking it apart. In the second half, namely the third quarter the game changed. Down by 18 the Eagles came out and fumbled on their first possession. However, the defense held and finally the offense got going. McNabb found his favorite target for the day, TE Brent Celek, who if he isn't already, should be the Eagles starting TE over bummy LJ Smith next year, for a TD cutting the lead to 11. The defense again forced a three and out , and McNabb found Celek again for a touchdown. Instead of going for 2 the Eagles attempted the extra point, which kicker David Akers missed on what was a terrible day for him. Sure holder Sav Rocca held the laces in, which anyone who has seen Ace Ventura knows you are not supposed to do, but Akers still should have made the kick. The Eagles got the ball back again and McNabb hit WR DeSean Jackson with a beautiful deep ball and the Eagles were up 25-24 with 10 minutes to go after a failed 2 point conversion. The Eagles defense which had gotten stops to get the Eagles back in the game then collapsed again as Warner picked them apart and finally found RB Tim Hightower for what proved to be the winning touchdown. Eagles fans might be complaining about the pass interference that should have been called on the 4th and 10 play that failed but really the Eagles got a gift in the first half when an inadvertent onside kick was given to them, when it really should have gone to the Cardinals. I didn't like seeing so many Eagles smiling after the loss, including RB Correll Buckhalter who I am now ashamed to say was a Cornhusker chest bumping the Cardinals Edgerrin James. I understand this isn't life and death and these guys are millionaires but come on. Eagles S Brian Dawkins certainly felt bad about the loss, he cared, while the actions of some of the Eagles led me to believe they really didn't give a damn.

As everyone expected the AFC Championship game was all about defense. Early on it looked as if the Steelers would run away with the game as they jumped out to a 13-0 lead. Ravens QB Joe Flacco looked flustered and the Ravens running game was having trouble getting going. The Ravens got a pass interference call to set up first and goal which allowed RB Willis McGahee to punch it in. The Steelers had a chance to add to their lead before the end of the half but some terrible clock management did them in. With the Steelers up 16-7 the Ravens benefited from a poor punt by Mitch Berger and another pass interference call, allowing McGahee to score his second touchdown. Down 16-14, the Ravens had the ball and a chance to win the game. However, Flacco threw another interception, his third, and it was returned for a touchdown by Troy Polamalu, sealing the win for the Steelers. The other moment people will remember from this game was Ryan Clark's vicious hit of Willis McGahee. Both players laid on the field for a while, but Clark was able to get up while McGahee had to be carted off. It was a vicious hit but looked clean to me. I find it funny when people overanalyze these hits and try to say what a players intentions were. These guys are reacting, not thinking about what they are doing, so I doubt Clark had bad intentions, he was trying to make a play.

So it will be Steelers/Cardinals in 13 days. Coming up Thursday and Friday I will take a look back at both the Steelers and Cardinals seasons and what got them to this point. See you then.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Hail Mary - NFL Playoffs Championship Round

Just four teams are left in the chase for a Super Bowl trophy. The AFC will feature a game between the two most physical, toughest, and dominating defenses there are in football. The NFC is a matchup of the underdogs, in a game no one in a million years would have predicted. Unlike last week as soon as these games were determined I felt confident in both of my picks. However, as is wont to happen I have digested all of the analysis from the so called "experts", read the injury reports and it has me slightly doubting one of my choices. Despite this I will march on with my original picks, showing a braveness that few other prognosticators will show.

NFC Championship: Philadelphia (11-6-1) at Arizona (11-7)

The Eagles, save for one embarrassing loss at Washington, have been on fire. The Cardinals were the exact opposite as the season closed out. After clinching the NFC West the Cardinals definitely were resting on their laurels and suffered blowout losses to the Patriots and Vikings. However, during the playoffs some sort of switch has been turned on for their defense. Defense has long been a liability for the Cardinals but in their march to the NFC Championship it has been instrumental in their victories. It was a key turnover caused by the defense to start the second half against Atlanta that completely changed the fortunes of that game. Against Carolina, they were definitely the beneficiary of some terrible decisions by Jake Delhomme but they also were able to take advantage of those bad decisions.

These teams met on Thanksgiving night and it was a game that was completely dominated by the Eagles. This was the game immediately after Donovan McNabb had been benched and he responded like a veteran should, with 4 TD passes. The other man that couldn't be stopped by the Cardinals was Brian Westbrook, who also had 4 scores. Before the Cardinals knew it they were being blown out and the game was over. Trying to draw anything from that game and apply it to this game is fruitless. The Cardinals had to travel cross country on a very short week. This time the Eagles have to travel out West and the stakes will be much higher. All that being said I like the Eagles in this one. They do have a history of choking in the NFC Championship but I think those demons were squashed with their defeat of Atlanta 4 years ago. This will be completely new territory for the Cardinals and they might be overwhelmed. Their QB Kurt Warner will be fine, seeing as he has played in 2 Super Bowls, but most of the rest of the team has never played in a game as big as this one. Another factor in my pick is that quite simply the Eagles are the better team. Their defense has been beastly, shutting down the running games of both the Vikings and Giants. The Cardinals won't be able to run the ball and despite the return of Anquan Boldin won't be able to pick apart the Eagles secondary like they did to the Panthers. Westbrook, save for one long TD on a screen, has been virtually non existent in the playoffs and the Eagles have still won. I think he has a much better game here and the Eagles reach the Super Bowl in what is proving to be the year of Philadelphia in sports.

Prediction: Philadelphia 24, Arizona 17

AFC Championship: Baltimore (13-5) at Pittsburgh (13-4)

This is the game that is giving me some anxiousness. I was immediately confident in picking the Ravens for two reasons. First, it is extremely difficult for one team to beat another team three times in one season, which is what Pittsburgh would have to do to win this game. Second, the Steelers have a recent history of choking in home playoff Conference Championship games. In 1995 they were heavy favorites against the San Diego Chargers and lost. In 1998, favorites again, lost again to the Denver Broncos. In 2001 it was an upset loss to the New England Patriots, and in 2004 another loss to the Patriots. Sure many of the players playing in this game weren't around for that, but those in the stands definitely will remember. They will be watching this game on edge and the first sign of trouble could immediately take them out of the game and give them a case of here we go again.

The main issue that has given me pause is the health of the Ravens defense. If the Ravens win it will be because of their defense. LB Terrell Suggs will be a game time decision, while CB Samari Rolle has already been ruled out of the game. The Ravens have capable backups but a team can only take so many injuries in one area. The Steelerse benefited last week from a great game by RB Willie Parker. I know that Titans RB Chris Johnson was running all over Baltimore before he got hurt but Parker has a history of strugg a ling against Baltimore and I believe that will continue here. Like last week, I can see the Ravens getting completely outplayed but still winning. I believe Ben Roethlisberger is good for at least 2 costly INTs and I think Joe Flacco will keep his wits about him yet again. Flacco's stats aren't impressive but anyone that hates on a rookie QB winning 2 games on the road is a sad individual. Flacco has avoided mistakes and more importantly he has made the big throws when he has had to, even if he was helped by the referees not knowing that you can't snap the ball when the play clock is on zero. I think the Ravens win, setting up an Eagles/Ravens Super Bowl that will be ripe with storylines. You will have a rematch of the game where McNabb was benched, you will have Ravens coach John Harbaugh going up against the team where he served as an assistant for 10 years, the rookie QB in the Super Bowl, a chance at redemption and a chance to cement their legacy for Andy Reid and McNabb, Ravens/Eagles would be a fantastic Super Bowl.

Prediction: Baltimore 16, Pittsburgh 14

Playoff Record

Last Week: 2-2
Overall: 3-5

Overall Record (Regular season and playoffs combined)


Monday, January 12, 2009

The Week That Was

The Conference Championship games are set in the NFL Playoffs and to say they are unlikely would be an understatement. It was a weekend for the road team as they took 3 out of the 4 games and are now 5-3 in the playoffs. The Philadelphia Eagles will travel to Arizona (?!!??!) to take on the Cardinals in the NFC Championship, while the greatest current rivalry in football will be renewed in the AFC Championship as Baltimore travels to Pittsburgh.

Divisional round weekend kicked off with the Ravens defeating the Titans. As predicted this was a physical, low-scoring game, however the Titans blew multiple chances. LenDale White fumbled in the red zone, Alge Crumpler fumbled by the goal line, and Rob Bironas missed a field goal. Ravens QB Joe Flacco had an unspectacular day but didn't turn the ball over. The Ravens defense is playing out of its mind right now, and was also helped by Titans RB Chris Johnson going down with an injury in the first half.

The shocker of the weekend came Saturday night when my pick to win it all was embarrassed and destroyed by the Arizona Cardinals. The Panthers lost for one reason, QB Jake Delhomme. He was absolutely miserable on his birthday, throwing 5 interceptions and losing a fumble. The Cardinals defense does deserve some credit but Delhomme just looked lost out there. The Cardinals caught a team having their worst game of the season at the wrong time. However, they now get to host the NFC Championship game, despite finishing the regular season 9-7, unbelievable.

The Eagles continued the theme of the road warriors as they defeated the Giants. The Eagles absolutely manhandled the Giants in the second half. Twice they stopped the Giants on 4th and short, and the Giants offense couldn't find a rhythm the entire game. Giants fans seemed non plussed when they lost Plaxico Burress for the year but that turned out to cost them their season. None of their WRs were worth anything and it completely changed how defenses were able to match up against them. For their sake they better hope Burress doesn't go to jail or they will need to address the WR position in the offseason. The Eagles, once 5-5-1, and left for dead, now are favorites to reach the Super Bowl. Their defense has been on fire the last two months, and Donovan McNabb has provided a steady hand at QB. Andy Reid and McNabb will now be in their 5th NFC Championship game in 8 seasons, quite an amazing accomplishment. It makes all the talk of Philly fans wanting them gone seem even more ridiculous.

The Pittsburgh Steelers brought some normalcy to the weekend as they spanked the Chargers. The Chargers got off to a quick start but Santonio Holmes returned a punt for a TD, with speed that suggested he was worried about missing out on a bong rip. RB Willie Parker dominated on the ground as I predicted and the Chargers were only one offense for one play in the 3rd quarter, which sealed their fate.

Seems like old news now but on Thursday night the Florida Gators defeated the Choklahoma Sooners to win the national championship. It wasn't the high scoring affair that many predicted as both defenses played well. Somehow Tim Tebow won player of the game despite throwing 2 INTs. He had a good second half, but it was clear to anyone watching and anyone that doesn't have a love affair with Tebow that Percy Harvin was the player of the game for the Gators. Tebow announced yesterday he is coming back for his senior season and the Gators return almost their entire defense, so it is likely I will grow to hate the Gators even more next season.

The North Carolina Tar Heels fell to 0-2 in the ACC with a loss at #4 Wake Forest last night. I'm not panicking yet, but it is clear that the Heels are far from invincible. Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson both played like garbage, Hansbrough put up a terrible 3 point attempt late in the game with the Heels down by 4. It is becoming more and more apparent that while Roy Williams can recruit better than anyone, he is an average game coach. It is looking like Heels fans might have to learn to deal with what Jayhawks fans dealt with for so long. Great players coming in and out of the program, with little championships to show for it.

I will be back on Friday with The Hail Mary as I predict and analyze the Conference Championship games. The blog will be seeing some changes over the next few weeks with football wrapping up, will keep all of you posted on what those changes will be.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Hail Mary - NFL Playoffs Divisional Round

After earning a week to rest while watching other teams fight their guts out in the Wild Card round, the best 4 teams enter into playoff action this weekend. Last week all of the road teams were favorites, and this week the pendulum has shifted to the home teams all being favorites. I have been racking my brain trying to settle on predictions for 3 out of the 4 games this weekend. Should be a great weekend of NFL action, and make sure you enjoy it as there are just 7 NFL games left this season.

AFC Divisional Round: Baltimore (12-5) at Tennessee (13-3)

All 4 games this weekend are rematches from the regular season. In Week 5, Tennessee went to Baltimore and survived with a 13-10 win. The Titans trailed most of the game and needed a somewhat bogus personal foul penalty on the Ravens to continue a drive that led to the winning TD. Both QBs Joe Flacco and Kerry Collins had bad games, as these teams field two of the premiere defenses in the NFL. This game figures to be much like that one. I am liking the underdog Ravens in this one. I think the Titans peaked too early in the season, while the Ravens are hitting their stride at just the right time. I worry about Flacco but he didn't have a good game last week against the Dolphins and it didn't matter because of the Ravens suffocating defense. I think the Titans main weapons on offense, RBs Chris Johnson and LenDale White will be held in check and just like their Super Bowl run in 2000, the Ravens will win a divisional playoff game on the road at Tennessee.

Prediction: Baltimore 17, Tennessee 14

NFC Divisional Round: Arizona (10-7) at Carolina (12-4)

I have felt confident in this pick since this matchup was settled on after the Eagles/Vikings game last Sunday. Arizona played one of their better games of the season last week but I don't think that is the true Cardinals. The Cardinals got an instant contribution from RB Edgerrin James, which opened up their passing game. However, for most of the year a running game has been nonexistent for Arizona. Another thing that has been nonexistent is them winning on the East coast, where they are 0-5 this year. Their best effort on the East came against the Panthers. These teams met in Week 8 and Arizona actually led 17-3 in the 3rd quarter. That is when the usual suspects for the Panthers, WR Steve Smith and RB DeAngelo Williams got going and the Panthers held on for a 27-23 victory. The Cardinals shut down RB Jonathan Stewart the first game but I expect both him and Williams to bust out in this one, Smith to have his usual huge game and the Panthers to move on to their 4th NFC Championship game in franchise history.

Prediction: Carolina 35, Arizona 24

NFC Divisional Round: Philadelphia (10-6-1) at New York Giants (12-4)

These NFC East rivals meet for the 3rd time this season. In Week 10, the Giants won at Philadelphia 36-31, and in Week 14 the Eagles got revenge in New York, I mean New Jersey, with a 20-14 win. In the first game despite having just one catch, a touchdown, the difference was WR Plaxico Burress. Burress drew a ton of attention from the Eagles defense, which opened up opportunities for the Giants other receivers and also helped the running game thrive behind Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward. In the second meeting, with no Burress, the Giants were completely ineffective offensively. An interesting stat I heard this past week is that the Giants didn't sack Eagles QB Donovan McNabb in either game. The key for the Eagles to win this one is to keep Donovan upright, have RB Brian Westbrook break off a couple big plays like he did in the second meeting and shut down the Giants run game. The Giants have not looked very good in the past 4 games, save for a stirring second half against the Panthers. I understand why people are picking the Eagles in this one. I just can't see them winning in New Jersey again and I think Jacobs and Ward will have big games.

Prediction: New York Giants 21, Philadelphia 17

AFC Divisonal Round: San Diego (9-8) at Pittsburgh (12-4)

This a rematch from Week 11 which saw the only 11-10 final in NFL history as the Steelers prevailed over the Chargers. Despite only managing 11 points the Steelers offense moved up and down the field in that game, totaling 410 yard on offense. The Chargers had opportunities in the game as well but were killed by red zone interceptions by QB Philip Rivers. Chargers RB LaDainion Tomlinson will apparently spare us all of watching him hobble around for 2 plays and then calling it quits, as he has pretty much ruled himself out of this one. That means it will be up to RB Darren Sproles to have a big game again. In the first game he only got 3 touches, in this one he should expect about 25 touches. The Steelers running game has been inconsistent this year but Willie Parker had 115 yards rushing in the first meeting and I think he and Mewelde Moore can have a big game. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger has to avoid turnovers, he has struggled with interceptions in the playoffs and the Steelers have struggled at home in recent years in the playoffs. Despite the Chargers beating my AFC Super Bowl pick the Colts, I am picking them to lose here. I don't think their defense is up to the task in this one and the Steelers are a better team.

Prediction: Pittsburgh 23, San Diego 16

Playoff Record

Overall: 1-3

Overall Record (Regular season and playoffs combined)


Thursday, January 8, 2009

Cram Session (Bowl Edition) - BCS National Championship Game

BCS National Championship Game

#2 Florida (12-1) vs. #1 Oklahoma (12-1)

Most college football fans finally have what they have wanted. No, not a playoff, a national championship game without the Ohio State Buckeyes in it. However, those fans, myself included, should be careful what they wish for. Although it hasn't garnered the attention the Buckeyes recent failures have, the Sooners have a pretty miserable big game history in recent years.

In 2003, the Sooners were favorites in the Sugar Bowl, which that year was the national title game, and looked dreadful in a 21-14 loss to LSU. The next year the Orange Bowl was designated as the national title game and the Sooners were humiliated by USC 55-19. Two years ago, they were embarrassed by non BCS school Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl, 43-42, and last season they were trounced by West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl 48-28. These recent losses have led to a changed perception of Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, once know as "Big Game Bob" to an "egg layer".
The Florida Gators on the other hand have become a media darling under head coach Urban Meyer. The Gators stomped the Buckeyes in 2007 to win their first national title under Meyer. Last year they lost 4 games but that didn't stop their QB Tim Tebow from winning the Heisman. Tonight, when watching the game take a shot every time the announcers verbally praise Tebow, you will be dead by the 2nd quarter. I don't consider myself a hater but the accolades that are laid upon Tebow reach levels of absurdity. The guy seems like he has a good head on his shoulders but he is a QB, let's stop acting like he came up with the cure for cancer.

So what does this all mean for tonight's game? Florida is a heavy favorite and the prevailing idea is a Florida beatdown will occur tonight. This perception has been accentuated by the Big 12's less than stellar bowl performances. Missouri needed OT to beat Northwestern, Oklahoma State looked completely inept on defense in its loss to Oregon, and Texas Tech entered fraudville by getting whooped by previous Florida conqueror, Ole Miss. It is starting to seem true that the Big 12 offenses put up huge numbers mostly because no one in the conference plays defense. Where the Gators will certainly have the edge tonight is on defense. The only way Oklahoma can win this game is by creating TOs and getting scores from their defense and special teams. If they try to have a shootout with Florida they will lose. There will be no 60 point effort from Oklahoma in this one and if the Sooners aren't careful this could be a Troy Smith repeat for Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford. Bradford is #1 on almost everyone's draft board, with the assumption being he will leave school early after this game. However, if he lays an egg in this one that perception and Bradford's future will change quickly.

The Gators are getting back WR and huge offensive threat Percy Harvin for this game. Harvin missed the SEC Championship game against Alabama and the Gators won in spite of that. With him back the Gators will be at full strength, a scary thought for the Sooners considering the Gators have averaged 49.4 points during their current 9-game winning streak.

I think tonight's game will be a good, high scoring affair, reminiscent of the last great national championship game we had, the Texas/USC clash in 2006. I think Tebow and Bradford will both show why they are the last 2 Heisman winners. I think Oklahoma will be highly motivated in this one to prove that they belong on the big stage, much like Ohio State was in the Fiesta Bowl this year.

I am sick of the Gators, sick of seeing them winning national titles, sick of hearing how great it is to be a Florida Gator, sick of Tim Tebow, and despite my Cornhusker fandom will be rooting for the Sooners like crazy tonight. However, as has been the case for me for most of the past decade, what I want and what I get will be two different things.

Prediction: Florida 44, Oklahoma 41

Bowl Record

Last Week: 8-11
Overall: 18-15

Overall Record (Regular season and bowl record combined)


Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Week That Was

Wild Card weekend is now a distant memory as the NFL playoffs move into stage two and the Divisional Round. The big boys that got Wild Card weekend off (Giants, Panthers, Titans, Steelers) are ready and waiting. Wild Card weekend was highlighted by an intriguing and surprising Saturday and an inevitable letdown on Sunday.

The Arizona Cardinals defeated the Atlanta Falcons behind their defense and the re emergence of RB Edgerrin James. The Falcons were plagued by turnovers and QB Matt Ryan was once again hit by the interception bug that began to bite him at the end of the season. The Falcons almost looked shell shocked the entire game but despite falling behind 14-3 early, they were able to take a 17-14 lead into the half. That is when the wheels began to fall off as immediately Ryan and RB Michael Turner flubbed a hand off attempt which Arizona returned for a TD, and from there never looked back.

In the prime time game on Saturday night the Indianapolis Colts and the San Diego Chargers added another classic to their growing rivalry. The Chargers won because of two players, RB Darren Sproles and Punter Mike Scifres. The Colts best starting field position the entire game was at their own 33 yard line as Scifres continually pinned them inside the 10. After Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson did his annual playoff exercise of being too hurt to play but then "valiantly" playing 2 series then sitting out the rest of the game, Sproles took over and eventually scored the game winning TD in overtime. People have started complaining about the OT rules again and not surprisingly considering NFL golden boy Peyton Manning didn't get a chance to win the game for his team. Had the Colts won that game I doubt the media would be howling about the rule quite as much.

On Sunday, the Baltimore Ravens dominated the Miami Dolphins. Ravens safety Ed Reed continued his string of dominance on the defensive end, returning an interception for a touchdown right before halftime that proved to be the winning score of the game. Dolphins QB Chad Pennington was harassed throughout and had a terrible game, throwing 4 interceptions. It was a great season for the Dolphins, who have nothing to hang their heads over. Hopefully, this wasn't a one year aberration like the Cleveland Browns were and they can carry the momentum to next season.

Although the game was close late in the 4th quarter the Philadelphia Eagles controlled their game against the Minnesota Vikings. Vikings QB Tavaris Jackson looked out of his element as usual, throwing a terrible interception that was returned by Eagles CB Asante Samuel for a touchdown. Then late in the game with the Eagles leading 16-14, Eagles RB Brian Westbrook, who had been shut down the entire game, took a screen pass 71 yards to pay dirt and sealed the game for the Eagles. The Vikings needs to find some sort of answer at the QB position and it isn't being patient with Jackson. Until they get a legitimate QB they will be stuck as nothing better than a quick playoff participant.

Should be a great Divisional round this weekend, I will get into that more with analysis and picks in Friday's Hail Mary.

In college football, bowl season continued with the big stories being the Utah Utes shocking demolition of the Alabama Crimson Tide, and the Texas Longhorns coming up with a late touchdown to defeat the Ohio State Buckeyes. The most important game to me was the Nebraska Cornhuskers finishing the year 9-4 with a gutty, come from behind win against the Clemson Tigers in the Gator Bowl. Down 14-3, and 21-10, the Huskers kept fighting. The defense had their best performance of the season, coming up with a huge stop at the end of the game. Ndamukong Suh was a beast on defense as he blocked a field goal and had 2 sacks. Joe Ganz overcame some mistakes in the first half, and earned MVP honors.

Back to the Utah Utes, who finished the season 13-0 and will be the only undefeated team in college football this year. If I had a vote in the AP poll, which doesn't have to vote the BCS champion #1, I would definitely tab the Utes as #1. Sure they may not beat USC, Florida, Oklahoma, or Texas in a mythical game but the votes aren't based on mythical games. They are based on what a team did and the Utes did what USC couldn't, beat Oregon State, and whipped a team that was #1 for a month, Alabama. To me, no matter the result of Thursday's national championship game, they are the true #1 team. It will be interesting to see, that now with the non BCS conferences winning 3 out of 4 against the major conferences if these non BCS conferences will now get consideration for the national championship game.

In the NBA, there was some poetic justice on Sunday as Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James was called for traveling in the final seconds, sealing an upset win for the Washington Wizards. The Wizards were screwed on Christmas night when the refs decided that the Cavs should win the game and started calling phantom fouls. James thinks his crab dribble of taking 4 steps is somehow legal but it isn't. I am all for the NBA referees calling traveling, it is a rule and should be enforced.

In college basketball, North Carolina's dreams of an undefeated season came to a surprising end with a humbling home loss to Boston College. Nothing to panic about, as results in March and April are what matter most in college basketball but if anything it should get the Tar Heels focused for the rest of their ACC season. The George Mason Patriots continue to exceed expectations, they took Dayton to the wire on the road, and are now 3-0 in the CAA following a blowout of UNC Wilimington and a close win against an improved Georgia State squad.

See everyone Thursday for the final Cram Session of the season as I predict and analyze the BCS Championship between Florida and Oklahoma. Hopefully, I can get back on track with my picks after a rough week.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Haily Mary - NFL Playoffs Wild Card Round

It is the most wonderful time of the year! Better than Christmas, it is the NFL Playoffs. Some people are questioning what the level of interest will be in these playoffs, considering they are missing the Cowboys and the Patriots. They shouldn't be though as the NFL has proven over and over again that they are bigger than any team or any player. Tom Brady got hurt in the very beginning of the season, did anyone care any less about football? The NFL is the best marketed sport in the United States by far and their hardcore fans will watch just about any game no matter the teams. Attach the word playoffs to it and you have a sure thing.

NFC Wild Card Round: Atlanta (11-5) at Arizona (9-7

The Atlanta Falcons would the NFL's sole darlings had the Miami Dolphins not completed an even more miraculous turnaround. Led by a rookie QB, Matt Ryan, the Falcons won 9 of their final 12 games and had a playoff berth clinched by Week 16. The Cardinals are back in the playoffs for the first since 1998 when they beat the sorry Cowboys. They clinched the crappy NFC West and a playoff berth way back in Week 14. They looked pretty bad 2 of the last 3 weeks, but some of that may have had to do with a lack of motivation. The Cardinals are a much better team at home and while at first I was fully confident in a pick of Atlanta, I am a little less so now. However, I will stick with the Falcons, Ryan is going to have to avoid the interception bug that has hit him in recent weeks, and I expect RB Michael Turner and WR Roddy White to have great games.

Prediction: Atlanta 28, Arizona 24

AFC Wild Card Round: Indianapolis (12-4) at San Diego (8-8)

Most would agree that this is the game of the weekend in the Wild Card round. San Diego is probably the most over hyped 8-8 team in history and a lot of that has to do with their history. It was just two years ago that most of this same team won 14 games, and it was just last year that they beat the Colts twice, including in the Divisional round in the playoffs. The Colts are the hottest team in football, winners of 9 in a row. They have won all year despite not having a running game as QB Peyton Manning has had an outstanding season. The Colts defeated the Chargers earlier this season in San Diego on a last second FG by Adam Vinatieri. I think the Colts are going to be the AFC Champs this year but they will definitely be tested along the way. Honestly, this pick comes down to me believing in the Colts more than I do in the Chargers.

Prediction: Indianapolis 24, San Diego 20

AFC Wild Card Round: Baltimore (11-5) at Miami (11-5)

Two teams who came from out of nowhere meet. Miami, earned its only victory of the season in 2007 against the Ravens. Now just a year later, they are hosting a playoff game. The Ravens slumped to 5-11 last year but behind rookie QB Joe Flacco and a rejuvenated LB Ray Lewis they reversed their record to 11-5. It seems Baltimore is heavy favorites in this game with most of that confidence coming from their 27-13 victory in Miami over the Dolphins earlier this season. People expect that this Dolphins team will still be too euphoric over their amazing turnaround and not be ready to play. I disagree and while some of that may be my bias, QB Chad Pennington has been in these games before and he will have the Dolphins ready. I also think Flacco is due for a bad game, as the Dolphins defense can create some turnovers. The miracle season will continue.

Prediction: Miami 23, Baltimore 17

NFC Wild Card Round: Philadelphia (9-6-1) at Minnesota (10-6)

Another game where the road team seems to be the overwhelming favorite. The Eagles somehow are in the playoffs after seemingly blowing their opportunity in Washington last week. Now that they are in they are definitely dangerous. This will be Donovan McNabb's first playoff game in four years as he was injured when they made it two years ago. The Eagles biggest danger is their coach Andy Reid. Sure he has something to do with the success the team has had over the last decade but he also makes some terrible decisions, including his propensity for completely abandoning Brian Westbrook and the run. The Eagles win when they run the ball, when they pass 14 times in a row for no good reason like they did against Washington then they lose. The Vikings mainly make people uneasy because of their QB Tavaris Jackson. His numbers have been good during his 3 starts since taking over for injured Gus Frerotte but numbers can be deceiving. When watching the Vikings/Giants game last weekend I saw a Jacskon that still gets unsettled too easily and if pushed out of the pocket can make awful decisions. His interception in the red zone nearly cost the Vikings the game and a playoff spot. The only way the Vikings can win this game is if Jackson avoids INTs and RB Adrian Peterson runs wild. I don't see either of those happening.

Prediction: Philadelphia 21, Minnesota 10

Last Week: 10-6
Overall: 131-77-1