Thursday, January 28, 2010

Year in Review - Indianapolis Colts (16-2), AFC South and AFC Champions

The Colts came into the 2009 season with many questions. Would Jim Caldwell be an adequate replacement for coach Tony Dungy? Would Peyton Manning miss WR Marvin Harrison, who had been his favorite target for years? Would they reclaim the AFC South throne from the Tennessee Titans? In typical Colts fashion, they went out and quickly put any of these questions to rest.

The Colts opened the season at home against Jacksonville. It was a typical Colts/Jaguars game that went right down to the end. Manning was relatively held in check and as would be a theme throughout the season, the running game did nothing. However, another theme that eventually emerged was the improvement of the Colts defense. They held the Jaguars to just one touchdown and helped preserve a 14-12 win. Week 2 saw the Colts travel to Miami for a Monday night game. The Colts offense only saw the ball for 15 minutes but they took advantage of their opportunities. The Colts came from behind four times in the game, eventually winning it 27-23. In Week 3, the Colts again were in prime time, this time on the road against the defending NFC champion, Arizona Cardinals. Manning played a great game, finishing with 379 yards passing and 4 touchdowns. The Colts defense smothered Arizona, leading the Colts to a 31-10 rout. The schedule eased up a bit in Week 4 as the hapless Seattle Seahawks visited Lucas Oil Stadium. Manning threw for over 300 yards for the fourth straight game and the Colts rolled to a 34-17 win.

In Week 5 the Colts traveled to Tennessee to once again play on a Sunday night. The Titans were 0-4, but were hoping a win could turn around their season. Instead the Colts ripped their hearts out and asserted their dominance of the AFC South. Rookie WR Austin Collie had 2 TDs, proving to be a great new target for Manning to have. The Colts defense held the Titans without a touchdown in the 31-9 victory. After a bye, the Colts went to St. Louis in Week 7. Manning didn't throw for over 300 yards for the first time but he threw for 3 TDs in the 42-6 win. In Week 8 the Colts got a dog fight from the San Francisco 49ers. Manning and the offense had trouble finding the end zone, but RB Joseph Addai threw for a TD, and the Colts hung on for a 18-14 win. In Week 9, the Colts hosted the upstart Houston Texans. The Texans came into the game 5-3 and were trying to prove that they were an upper echelon team. The Colts jumped out to a 13-3 lead but the Texans eventually fought back and had a chance to tie the game at the end of regulation. K Kris Brown missed a 42-yard field goal and the Colts won 20-17, improving to 8-0.

Week 10 saw a rivalry renewed as the New England Patriots traveled to Indianapolis. The Patriots came out on fire, building a 24-7 halftime lead. This game is of course famous for Bill Belichick choosing to for it from his own 28 on fourth and two, with the Patriots leading 34-28. The Colts stopped the Patriots and Manning coolly led the team down the field, hitting Reggie Wayne for the game winning touchdown. Things didn't get any easier for the Colts in Week 11 at Baltimore. The Ravens physical defense kept the Colts offense in check all game, but the Colts defense was ready to do their part. The defense forced a Ravens field goal after the Ravens had first and goal from the one. Then former Ravens kicker, Matt Stover hit the game winning field goal, earning the Colts a narrow 17-15 win. In Week 12, the Colts clinched the AFC South win a 35-27 win over Houston. The Texans jumped out to a 20-7 halftime lead but once again were unable to hold a lead over the Colts at home. The Colts scored 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, and won 35-27. In Week 13, the Titans came to Indianapolis looking for revenge. After starting the year 0-6, the Titans had won five in a row. However, they still were no match for Indianapolis. WR Pierre Garcon had a huge game, catching 6 passes for 136 yards and the Colts won 27-17. The Colts were now 12-0 and just four games from perfection.

The Colts clinched home field advantage throughout the playoffs with a 28-16 win over the Denver Broncos in Week 14. Despite allowing Brandon Marshall to set an NFL record with 21 catches, the Colts controlled the entire game. Manning had an up and down game, starting off with 3 TDs, but eventually finishing with 4 TDs and 3 INTs in the game. The big question going into their Week 15 game at Jacksonville was how much would the Colts starters play. Their fans wanted them to go for perfection but the team wanted to be cautious with home field clinched. The starters ended up playing the entire game and the Colts won another close game against the Jaguars, 35-31. Manning threw for 4 TDs and 308 yards, and Wayne had 5 receptions for 132 yards and a touchdown. Week 16 saw perhaps the oddest scene in NFL history. A team that was 14-0 was booed out of their own building. The starters played the first half against the New York Jets, earning a 9-3 halftime lead. However, in the second half, coach Caldwell decided to rest his starters and the back ups were destroyed by the Jets. The Colts ended up losing 29-15 and their chance at perfection was gone. In Week 17 the starters played a quarter and the Colts were crushed by Buffalo, 30-7.

The Colts entered the playoffs 14-2 but because of the bitter taste left from how their season ended, people doubted the Colts. Also, contributing to those doubts was the Colts past playoff failures. The Colts hosted the Ravens in the Divisional Round. The Ravens could get nothing going on offense the entire game, and the Colts did just enough on offense, winning 20-3. Their AFC Championship opponent would be the surprising Jets. The Colts players wanted to show that had they played their starters the whole way they would have beaten the Jets the first time. Instead, the Jets surprised everyone by passing their way to a 17-6 lead. However, before the end of the first half Manning marched the Colts down the field, hitting Collie on a 16 yard touchdown, cutting the deficit to four heading into the half. Then in the second half the Colts offense dominated the Jets defense. Manning finished with 377 yards passing and 3 touchdowns. With Wayne made obsolete by amazing CB Darelle Revis, it was Collie and Garcon that came up huge. Garcon finished with 7 catches for 151 yards and a TD, while Collie had 7 catches for 123 yards and a TD. The Colts would go on to win 30-17, earning their second trip to the Super Bowl in four years.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Year in Review - New Orleans Saints (15-3), NFC South and NFC Champions

The 2009 season was a make or break year for the New Orleans Saints. After back to back 8-8, playoff-less seasons, coach Sean Payton was on the hot seat to deliver another playoff berth to the Saints. Many thought the Saints could be a playoff team but many also had doubts about the Saints defense. Defensive guru Gregg Williams was brought in to improve the defense, so they could complement what was already an outstanding offense.

The Saints opened the season at home against the hapless Lions, and dominated, winning 45-27. QB Drew Brees threw for 358 yards, and 6 TDs. S Darren Sharper had 2 INTs, making it known early that he would be a fantastic free agent pickup. The Saints put the rest of the league on notice in Week 2, destroying the Philadelphia Eagles on the road 48-22. The Eagles were without QB Donovan McNabb but still the blowout win was very impressive. However, questions still remained about the defense which allowed Kevin Kolb to throw for 391 yards in his first career start. The defense showed up in a Week 3, 27-7 win at Buffalo. The defense forced two turnovers, and held WR Terrell Owens catch less for the first time since his rookie season. The Saints led just 10-7 going into the fourth quarter but then the defense took over, stopping the Bills from getting a first down on their final five possessions of the game. Week 4 saw the Saints hosting the upstart New York Jets, who were also 3-0. The Saints brought the Jets down to Earth, forcing three Mark Sanchez interceptions, two of which Sharper returned for touchdowns, in a 24-10 win. The Saints finished the quarter mark of the season 4-0 for the first time since 1993.

After their bye, Week 6 saw another undefeated New York team come to the Superdome. This time it was the New York Giants. The Giants defense was exposed as the Saints scored at will the entire game. Brees threw 4 TDs and threw for 369 yards in a 48-27 rout. The Saints faced their first real adversity of the season against the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins jumped out to a 24-3 lead, and the upset seemed assured. But in the second half, Brees and the offense got going, and the Saints outscored the Dolphins 22-0 in the fourth quarter, winning the game 46-34. On a Monday night against the Falcons, the Saints did everything possible to lose the game. They turned the ball over four times but thanks to their defense creating three turnovers, were able to hold on to a 35-27 win. The Saints continued their dominance over the NFC South in Week 9, handling the Panthers 30-20. The defense again forced three turnovers, while Brees threw for 330 yards and a TD. The Saints were 8-0 and thinking of possible perfection at the halfway point of the season.

Their Week 10 game at St. Louis was expected to be an easy win, but the Rams fought the Saints until the bitter end. The Rams had the ball at end of the game with a chance to win, but came up short, losing 28-23. In what had started to become a disturbing trend, the Saints offense turned it over 3 times. Facing another lousy team in Week 11, the Saints played as expected and blew away the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 38-7. The offense committed no turnovers, while the defense forced 4. Brees threw 3 TDs, and RB Pierre Thomas continued to serve notice to the NFL that he was the Saints newest weapon, running for 92 yards on just 11 carries. Week 12 saw the Saints back at home on a Monday night, facing the standard bearer of the NFL, the New England Patriots. Many people, including myself, thought this was the game where the Saints would show that they weren't ready to compete with the elite. Instead the Saints dominated the Patriots from start to finish. The defense harassed QB Tom Brady throughout, forcing him into 2 INTs. Brees continued his outstanding play, throwing for 371 yards and 5 TDs. The Saints were now 12-0, and just four wins from a perfect season.

Week 13 saw the Saints travel to Landover, MD to take on the hapless Washington Redskins. I attended that game and was expecting to see the Saints destroy the Skins. Instead, the Skins came to play and looked like they would head into halftime with a 17-10 lead. Kareem Moore intercepted Brees and began returning the ball, when WR Robert Meacham stripped the ball from Moore and returned it for a touchdown, tying the score at 17. The Skins would overcome it and led 30-23 late in the fourth quater. K Shaun Suisham then missed a chip shot, giving the Saints life. The offense went down the field with ease, tying the score at 30. Then in overtime, the Skins won the toss, but FB Mike Sellers fumbled, and the Saints would take advantage, winning the game on a Garrett Hartley field goal, 33-30. In Week 14, the Saints traveled to Atlanta to take on a depleted Falcons team that was missing QB Matt Ryan and RB Michael Turner. However, much like the Skins, the Falcons gave the Saints all they could handle. It took two huge defensive plays by LB Jonathan Vilma, and 3 TD passes by Drew Brees to allow the Saints to eke out a 26-23 win. Week 15 brought the Dallas Cowboys to the Superdome to play in prime time on Saturday night. The Cowboys had started December 0-2 and it was assumed their December swoon would continue against the 13-0 Saints. Instead, the Cowboys jumped out to a 24-3 lead, before eventually hanging on for a 24-17 victory, ending the Saints dreams of perfection. The defense struggled, giving up 439 total yards to the Cowboys. The next week the Saints shockingly lost at home to the awful Buccaneers, 20-17 in overtime. What was even more astounding about the loss was that the Saints blew a 17-0 lead. The defense struggled again, giving up 439 yards of total offense for the second straight week. Despite still having a 13-2 record and having clinched home-field advantage due to the Minnesota Vikings late season collapse, there were many questions surrounding the Saints. Their final game of the season provided no answers, as the Saints sat most of their starters, content to lose to the Panthers 23-10, finishing the regular season 13-3.

Having not played a truly competitive game in 3 weeks, people had no idea which Saints team would show up in the NFC Divisional Round against the defending NFC champion Arizona Cardinals. Things got off to a grim start as Cardinals RB Tim Hightower ran for a 70-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. The Saints offense then retaliated right away tying the score at 7, and from there it was all Saints. The defense forced two turnovers and battered Cardinals QB Kurt Warner all day, causing him to miss the end of the second quarter. RB Reggie Bush had an outstanding game, returning a punt for a touchdown, and rushing for 84 yards and a TD on just 5 carries. The Saints cruised to a 45-14 victory and resoundingly told their critics that their late season swoon was not a precursor of things to come. They then hosted the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship game. Both teams had clearly been the best teams in the NFC the entire season and it was expected that the game would be amazing. It lived up to those expectations and might have exceeded them. The teams went back and forth but it turned out to be the defense that would get the Saints into the Super Bowl. They forced 6 Vikings fumbles, three of which the Saints recovered. With the score tied at 28 late in the game, the Vikings were marching down the field for a game winning field goal. Then the Vikings got a ridiculous 12 men in the huddle penalty, followed up by QB Brett Favre once again throwing a back breaking interception in an NFC title game. The Saints won the toss in overtime, and helped by some questionable officiating were able to set up for a game winning 40-yard field goal. Hartley had missed a kick that would have won the game against Tampa Bay in Week 16 and hadn't had a chance since to redeem himself. He coolly sent the ball through the uprights, giving the Saints a 31-28 win and their first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.

Check back in a couple days when I review the Indianapolis Colts road to Super Bowl XLIV.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Hail Mary - NFL Playoffs Championship Round

Three out of the four teams left in the NFL playoffs are led by premiere quarterbacks. No one can argue that Brett Favre, Drew Brees, and Peyton Manning are amazing at their position. Then you have the New York Jets, party crashers in every sense of the word. They play old school football, led by a smash mouth running game and a fantastic defense, oh and their quarterback sucks balls. The only way I could slightly tolerate seeing the Jets make the Super Bowl is if they play the Vikings. Not just because it would be a sure win for Minnesota, but the subplot of Favre playing his former team would be slightly interesting. Otherwise, bring on Colts/Vikings!

AFC Championship: New York Jets (11-7) at Indianapolis (15-2), Indianapolis favored by 7 1/2

The New York Jets are much like the Arizona Cardinals from last season’s playoffs. Each week in last year’s playoffs the Cardinals would seem outmatched and were picked by just about everyone to lose. And each week they would prove the naysayers wrong, all the way to the Super Bowl. The Jets are hoping they can follow that pattern. However, unlike last year’s Cardinals, the Jets don’t get the benefit of a home game in the Championship game. They have to travel to Indianapolis and take on the 15-2 Colts. In reality, they will be playing the 15-0 Colts, as they haven’t lost to anyone when playing at full strength.

The Jets are a slightly better version of the Baltimore Ravens, a team the Colts beat rather easily, 20-3 last weekend. Both the Jets and Ravens have young, inexperienced quarterbacks, who are mostly asked to not do anything stupid. Both have very strong running games and backfields by committee. However, where the Jets are better than the Ravens is on defense. The Jets defense has been fantastic most of the season, led by stud CB Derrelle Revis. While the Jets have a better defense than the Ravens, it is still not good enough. Revis may be able to limit Reggie Wayne’s opportunities but rookies Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie and TE Dallas Clark all still have to be accounted for. The Colts don’t have much of a running game but both Joseph Addai and Donald Brown are threats to catch the ball out of the backfield.

All that being said, the number one reason the Colts will win is their defense. The Colts played very well on defense against the Ravens, shutting down Ray Rice and Willis McGahee. It is my belief that they can do the same thing to Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene. Joe Flacco has proven to be overrated but he is still far better than Mark Sansucks. Flacco had some mistakes early which dug a whole for the Ravens to have to climb out of. The Ravens aren’t built to come from behind, and neither are the Jets. If the Colts get up two touchdowns and force Sansuck to have to be more than a game manager, we could have a blowout.

The Jets defense will keep them in it but Sansuck will be good for at least 2 INTs, and a fumble. Colts move on to their second Super Bowl in four years.

Prediction: Indianapolis 17, New York Jets 7

NFC Championship: Minnesota (13-4) at New Orleans (14-3), New Orleans favored by 3 1/2

Screw the Dallas Cowboys! As it should be, the two best teams all season in the NFC will face off for the right to go to the Super Bowl. Each team struggled to finish the season but seemed to get back to their normal selves with blowout wins last weekend. If the Vikings had been able to take advantage of the opportunities the Saints gave them at the end of the season, and secured home-field advantage, I would be 100% confident in them winning. However, the Vikings have been a pretty pathetic team away from home. They lost their last three road games by a combined score of 92-54. The offensive line struggled mightily in those losses, and the defense wasn't much better.

For the Vikings to win on Sunday they have to do a few things. Firstly, they must establish a running game. Amazingly, Favre has somewhat rendered Adrian Peterson a forgotten man. But in this game, Peterson will have to have a good day for the Vikings to have any chance. If the Vikings insist on merely passing, the Saints will tee off on Favre. Then the Superdome will become a house of horrors, much like the Metrodome became for the Cowgirls last week. Even if Peterson only is getting 3 yards a pop to start the game, the Vikings have to stick with him, and get him about 25 carries. Secondly, the offensive line is going to have to play like they play at home. That means Bryant McKinnie can't get beat like a red headed stepchild, and play up to his Pro Bowl level. Favre has shown he can handle pressure but Kurt Warner proved last week, that even the most veteran QB can be rattled. Finally, the Vikings defense has to play like they did against Dallas. There is no way in hell I expect the Vikings to hold the Saints to 3 points, but they can't have a performance like they did in Chicago. Antoine Winfield needs to play well, Jared Allen needs to harrass Drew Brees, and the Vikings unheralded LBs have to contain Jeremy Shockey.

The Saints have a ton of weapons, including the emerging Reggie Bush. But the Vikings have just as many weapons as the Saints. This should be a hell of a game, and I am probably picking more with my heart than my brain, but the Vikings and Favre will return to the Super Bowl.

Prediction: Minnesota 30, New Orleans 24

Last Week Against the Spread: 1-3
Overall Against the Spread: 131-129-4

Last Week Straight Up: 3-1
Overall Straight Up: 168-95

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Hail Mary - NFL Playoffs Divisional Round

We are down to the final eight in the NFL playoffs, which means it is Divisional Round time. Besides the Super Bowl, many consider the Divisional Round to be the most exciting round in the NFL Playoffs. That is true this year as all four games are between teams that are pretty evenly matched. I only correctly predicted 1 out of the 4 playoff games last weekend, hopefully I can get back on track this week.

NFC Divisional Round: Arizona (11-6) at New Orleans (13-3), New Orleans favored by 7

The Arizona Cardinals were the only team that stopped me from looking like a complete buffoon in my picks. They built a huge early lead on Green Bay, gave it away, and then won in overtime thanks to their defense. It is expected that they will be in another shootout on Saturday at New Orleans. The Saints enter the playoffs having lost three in a row and leaving people to wonder if they peaked too soon. The mystique of the Superdome has evaporated with back to back home losses to Dallas and putrid Tampa Bay. The question is, can the Arizona defense stop Drew Bees and the Saints potent offense? But on that same note, can an overrated Saints defense slow down Kurt Warner and the Cardinals offense? I expect this game to be a shootout, and the winner will be the team that can at least make the defense aware of their running game.

Prediction: New Orleans 38, Arizona 35

AFC Divisional Round: Baltimore (10-7) at Indianapolis (14-2), Indianapolis favored by 6 1/2

The Ravens exorcised their Patriots demons in resounding fashion last weekend. Next up for them is the Colts, who have had the Ravens numbers in recent meetings, including 3 years ago in the Divisional Round. The Colts have lost two in a row but didn't play their starters the entire game in either of those losses. People are climbing on the Ravens bandwagon after the way they dominated the Patriots, but forget that the Colts have been unbeatable at full strength. The Ravens have struggled running the ball in the past against the Colts and if that is the case again on Saturday, they stand no chance. I think Peyton Manning can carve up the Ravens secondary, and I don't think Joe Flacco can do enough to help the Ravens come from behind.

Prediction: Indianapolis 24, Baltimore 20

NFC Divisional Round: Dallas (12-5) at Minnesota (12-4), Minnesota favored by 2 1/2

As much as it pains me to say the Cowboys are the hottest team in football. They destroyed the Philadelphia Eagles for the second straight week and have now won four in a row. Their defense has been incredible, and QB Tony Romo has been nearly perfect. All of that being said, the atmosphere that awaits them at the Metrodome will be a tough test. It has been said ad nauseum, but for as good as Brett Favre has been this year, the Vikings will win or lose on the back of RB Adrian Peterson. If Peterson struggles, it could be a long day for the Vikings. The Vikings defense also needs to step up. During their December swoon the defense was getting torched, mostly because the defensive front wasn't getting enough pressure, leaving their secondary on an island. If they struggle to get pressure on Sunday, WR Miles Austin could have a huge day. My mind says Cowboys, but my heart won't let me pick them.

Prediction: Minnesota 23, Dallas 20

AFC Divisional Round: New York Jets (10-7) at San Diego (13-3), San Diego favored by 7 1/2

This is the only game I feel sure about. However, that doesn't mean much as I had the Bengals beating the Jets as my lock last weekend. The Jets aren't flashy, they just run the ball well, and play tremendous defense. They have definitely taken on the personality of their coach, Rex Ryan. Forget what I said about the Cowboys above, the Chargers, winners of 11 straight, are the hottest team in football. They are a team that has come close for so long, it seems things might finally be aligning for them this year. However, they are still coached by that imbecile Norv Turner, so you never know with them. I think the Chargers tall targets, WR Vincent Jackson, WR Malcom Floyd, and TE Antonio Gates will present major matchup problems for the Jets. Jets corner Darelle Revis may be able to shut down Jackson, but who is going to stop Gates? The Chargers represent the new era of football, where having a passing game is paramount, and not having a running game doesn't have to be a death knell. It just seems destined to be Colts/Chargers in the AFC Championship.

Prediction: San Diego 24, New York Jets 14

Last Week Against the Spread: 2-2
Overall Against the Spread: 130-126-4

Last Week Straight Up: 1-3

Overall Straight Up: 165-94

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Hail Mary - NFL Playoffs Wild Card Round

After what seemed like a whirlwind 17 weeks, the NFL playoffs begin this weekend. Every game is a rematch from the regular season, with three of them being rematches of games from last week. However, in two of those games, Packers/Cardinals and Jets/Bengals, what we saw probably isn't an indicator of what can be expected to be seen this weekend. Will the favorites move on, or as recent history shows, will a Wild Card team begin making their run to the Super Bowl?

AFC Wild Card Round: New York Jets (9-7) at Cincinnati (10-6), Cincinnati favored by 2 1/2

The New York Jets are quarterbacked by tremendous, fluke fraud Mark Sanchez. However, based on their strength of their defense and running game, plus having two teams lay down for them, they are in the playoffs. They demolished the Bengals last weekend at home, but have to travel to Cincinnati for this one. The Bengals have been pretty underwhelming the last few months, especially their offense. For them to win this game it will be on the back of their defense. Jets stud corner Derelle Revis will likely contain Bengals WR Chad Ochocinco, so WR Laveraneus Coles will need to step up against his former team. Special teams will also be a key differentiator in this game. I don't believe in the Jets one bit, despite their coach Rex Ryan declaring them favorites, Bengals are my lock of the weekend.

Prediction: Cincinnati 23, New York Jets 14

NFC Wild Card Round: Philadelphia (11-5) at Dallas (11-5), Dallas favored by 4

These teams met last week in a winner take all battle for the NFC East. The Cowboys completely dominated the Eagles, shutting them out 24-0. The Cowboys defense has produced back-to-back shutouts for the first time in franchise history. QB Tony Romo has also played well, limiting his mistakes, and taking what the defense gives him, rather than try to force plays. Eagles QB Donovan McNabb felt the Eagles played "young" against the Cowboys. They have a ton of young stars, RB LeSean McCoy, WR DeSean Jackson, WR Jeremy Maclin, TE Brent Celek, but those guys are all still relatively new to big game situations. They will have to step up quickly though, as they are all key for the Eagles to have a chance at winning on Saturday. Jackson, especially needs to step up considering all the trash talk he has done this week. The Cowboys have a very good defense but they can't shut out teams forever. The Eagles have to get inspired play from their defense, force Romo to make mistakes, and then take advantage on offense. Remember Cowboy bandwagoners, the coach is still Wade Phillips, who still hasn't won a playoff game. Go Eagles!

Prediction: Philadelphia 21, Dallas 17

AFC Wild Card Round: Baltimore (9-7) at New England (10-6), New England
favored by 3

This is a rematch from Week 4, a game the Patriots won 27-21. The big difference in this one is that the Patriots will be without WR Wes Welker, who was lost for the season after getting injured at Houston last week. Welker will definitely be missed, but WR Julian Edelman, a Welker clone, has shone he can make plays. The Ravens really don't impress me. QB Joe Flacco has really struggled lately, and their defense is not nearly as good as it once was, especially against the pass. The Ravens do run the ball very well, behind RBs Ray Rice and Willis McGahee. Those guys will have to eat up yards and clock to give Baltimore a chance. The Patriots finished 8-0 at home this year, and it is hard to imagine them losing a home playoff game.

Prediction: New England 24, Baltimore 21

NFC Wild Card Round: Green Bay (11-5) at Arizona (10-6), No Line

The big question surrounding this game is whether Cardinals WR Anquan Boldin will play or not. I think that issue is being blown up a little too much. The Cardinals played just fine without Boldin against the Carolina Panthers in the playoffs last year. The big key is which Cardinals defense will show up. Sometimes the Cardinals look fierce on defense, other times they get marched on left and right. A bigger concern for them should be whether CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is able to play. The Packers have seemed to stabilize their offensive line, which had led to QB Aaron Rodgers playing even more tremendously then he already was. Also, RB Ryan Grant has seen a resurgence as of late and is looking more like the 2007 Grant that burst onto the scene. Before the season I picked the Packers to make the NFC Championship game, but even with all the injury questions surrounding the Cardinals, I have a feeling they will win.

Prediction: Arizona 28, Green Bay 27

Last Week Against the Spread: 7-8-1
Overall Against the Spread: 128-124-4

Last Week Straight Up: 10-6
Overall Straight Up: 164-91

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Cram Session (Bowl Edition) - BCS National Championship Game

BCS National Championship Game

#1 Alabama (13-0) vs. #2 Texas (13-0)

For the second straight year the national championship comes down to the SEC and the Big 12. Last year, the Florida Gators shut down the Oklahoma Sooners high-powered offense, and won their second straight national championship. This year it will be Alabama and their stout defense, against Texas and their stout defense.

When facing very good defenses the Longhorns haven't been able to do much. QB Colt McCoy struggled against both Oklahoma and Nebraska, and the Longhorns were lucky to escape both of those games with victories. However, when McCoy plays well, Texas moves up and down the field. McCoy is very efficient, completing 70.5% of his passes and the Texas offense averaged 40.7 points per game this season. McCoy's favorite target is WR Jordan Shipley, who led the team with 106 catches and 11 touchdowns. Shipley had 68 more catches than the Longhorns second leading receiver, Malcolm Williams. Despite not having a dominant running back, the Longhorns still averaged 152.7 rushing yards per game. Their leading rusher is RB Tre' Newton, who led the team with 513 yards, and 6 touchdowns. McCoy is also a threat rushing the ball, finishing the regular season with 348 yards rushing, and 3 touchdowns. Their goal line back is Cody Johnson, who led the Longhorns with 12 rushing touchdowns.

Texas' defense led the nation with 24 interceptions. Safeties Earl Thomas and Blake Gideon combined for 13 of those interceptions. Despite losing Brian Orakpo, the Longhorns pass rush didn't suffer this year, recording 41 sacks. Alabama RB and Heisman trophy winner Mark Ingram will be in for his toughest challenge of the season, as Texas led the nation in rush defense.

Alabama is the opposite of Texas on offense. They have a QB in Gerald McElroy that mostly manages the game, and tries to avoid mistakes. He did it pretty damn well, throwing just 4 interceptions to 17 touchdowns this season. McElroy does have a big threat WR in Julio Jones, but Jones' numbers were way down this year. This Alabama offense starts and ends with Ingram. Ingram averaged 6.2 yards a carry and finished with 1,542 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns. If Ingram is shut down the Crimson Tide will have a very hard time winning this game.

Alabama's defense was fantastic this season. They led the nation by only allowing 11 points per game, with Butkus Award winner Rolando McClain terrorizing offenses to the tune of 12 1/2 tackles for loss, 4 sacks and 2 interceptions. The secondary is strong as well, led by Mark Barron and Javier Arenas.

Defense has seemed to rule all the previous BCS games and I expect this one to be no different. I think McCoy will once again struggle against a formidable defense, and the Longhorns running game will have trouble getting much going. It will be up to the Longhorns defense to keep the game competitive. I think they will force McElroy into some uncharacteristic mistakes. The big key to this game will be how Ingram plays. Ingram struggled against Auburn and the Crimson Tide nearly lost. If he struggles that much again, Texas is much better than Auburn and will take advantage. While I don't think Ingram will go for 100 yards, I think he will be effective enough, taking some of the pressure off of McElroy.

This will be a close, low-scoring game but ultimately I think Ingram pushes Alabama over the top and gives Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban his second national championship.

Prediction: Alabama 21, Texas 13

Bowl Record

Last Week: 14-5
Overall: 22-10

Overall Record (Regular season and bowl record combined)