Friday, February 25, 2011

The Alley - Oop

I kind of like this whole notion of not getting into college basketball until the NFL season is over. With the Super Bowl now in February, that leaves just one month of college basketball until March Madness, one of the most exciting times of the year in sports. Some of the mid-major conferences close out their regular seasons this weekend, and conference tournaments will begin next weekend.


Maryland (18-10, 7-6) at #19 North Carolina (21-6, 11-2)

The Terps have slim NCAA Tournament hopes but more than likely will end up in what seems like their normal destination as of late, the NIT. They really only have one player that is worth anything and that is F Jordan Williams who leads the team with 17.2 ppg and 11.5 rpg. Freshman G Terrell Stoglin has given the Terps hope for the future, reaching double digits in scoring his last 5 games, including two 25 point outbursts during that string. Carolina followed up a sloppy home win against Boston College, with a strong second half from Harrison Barnes that powered them to victory over their "rival" NC State. The Heels are just a game back of Duke for the ACC championship, and if they can beat the Twerps and then win at Florida State, their game at home against Duke will be even bigger than usual. Maryland hasn't broken through against good teams this year, but they have competed so this won't be a cake walk for Carolina.

Prediction: North Carolina 71, Maryland 65


George Mason (24-5, 15-2) at Georgia State (11-17, 6-11)

Last night, Mason grinded out a tougher than expected win at home against Northeastern. The victory was their 14th in a row, and gave Mason the regular season CAA championship. A spot in the NCAA Tournament seems secure so this game doesn't really mean anything for Mason. However, the players seem to be as disgusted as me that they aren't ranked in either poll yet, so that should keep them motivated for this game against the Panthers. The Panthers are returning home for the first time in two weeks. and are on the heels of an 0-3 road trip. They like to slow the pace down and the only chance they have in this game is if they can hold Mason under 60 points. Their leading scorer, F Eric Buckner averages just 9.6 ppg. The Panthers can play suffocating defense and in their first game against Mason, they held the Patriots to just 24 first half points. However, Cam Long got hot in the second half of that game and Mason pulled away. I won't take anything for granted, especially with how much trouble Northeastern gave Mason, but Mason should win and finish a very impressive 16-2 in CAA play.

Prediction: George Mason 59, Georgia State 51

#1 Duke (26-2, 12-1) at Virginia Tech (18-8, 8-5)

The Hokies find themselves in their normal spot of being on the bubble, but have a huge opportunity to get off the bubble, hosting #1 Duke. Duke is #1 by attrition, as everyone in front of them lost last week. I don't think anyone really buys that Duke is the best team in the country. G Malcom Delaney has to have a big game for the Hokies to spring the upset. This game is in prime time and the crowd will be amped up, but I don't think it will be enough to give Virginia Tech the win.

Prediction: Duke 76, Virginia Tech 72

#2 Kansas (26-2, 11-2) at Oklahoma (12-15, 4-9)

Is Jeff Capel on the hot seat in Norman? I know basketball is secondary at Oklahoma but the Sooners have really regressed since Blake Griffin left. This is the Jayhawks last easy game of the season, as they close with Texas A&M and Missouri, then its tournament time.

Prediction: Kansas 78, Oklahoma 66

#7 BYU (26-2, 12-1) at #4 San Diego State (27-1, 12-1)

These two are moving up in the world, as instead of being relegated to CBS College Sports, they get the real CBS treatment. The Aztecs only loss came at BYU about a month ago, but I still don't think they are that legit. I don't think either of these teams is worthy of #1 seed consideration. It's one thing to beat up on Colorado State all year, it will be a whole other world for these two come NCAA Tournament time. These teams are pretty evenly matched, so advantage home team.

Prediction: San Diego State 70, BYU 66

#5 Texas (24-4, 12-1) at Colorado (17-11, 6-7)

The Buffaloes are desperate for a win to try to hang on to the bubble. I was really surprised by the Longhorns loss at Nebraska, when they had a chance to become #1 in the country. I can't see them getting knocked off on the road by unranked teams on back to back Saturday's.

Prediction: Texas 82, Colorado 75

Seton Hall (11-16, 5-10) at #9 Notre Dame (22-5, 11-4)

Notre Dame nearly dropped their second game in a row to Providence but were able to scrape together a win, despite allowing the Friars Marshon Brooks to score 52 points. They may find a challenge from the Pirates but Psycho T's little brother Ben should answer the bell.

Prediction: Notre Dame 77, Seton Hall 66

#10 Arizona (23-5, 12-3) at UCLA (20-8, 11-4)

A Pac-10 team finally clawed their way into the Top 10, and then the Wildcats promptly lost at USC. The Bruins have been on a roll, winning 11 of their last 13 games. The Bruins have a balanced offensive attack, while the Wildcats rely on NBA prospect Derrick Williams' 19.3 ppg. I don't think the Wildcats are as good as their record indicates, and certainly not good enough to win at Pauly Pavillion against a good UCLA team.

Prediction: UCLA 73, Arizona 70


Indiana (12-16, 3-12) at #3 Ohio State (26-2, 13-2)

Maybe I am a curse for the Buckeyes. I picked them 2 weeks in a row to win tough road games and each time they lost. They should prove me right at home against what seems to be a perpetually rebuilding Hoosiers team.

Prediction: Ohio State 80, Indiana 63

#6 Pittsburgh (25-3, 13-2) at #16 Louisville (21-7, 10-5)

Tough road test for the Panthers. The Cardinals have been perfect at home in Big East play, and just held sorry Rutgers to 37 points. This is a really tough game to call, and when I get scared about making an upset pick I usually don't.

Prediction: Pittsburgh 77, Louisville 75

#8 Purdue (23-5, 12-3) at Michigan State (16-11, 8-7)

Why does a 16-11 record, and an 8-7 Big Ten record have all the pundits saying Michigan State is good enough to make the NCAA Tournament? The only good win they have is an overtime win against Wisconsin. If they beat Purdue then maybe they have an argument. Problem is, I don't think they will be able to stop the scoring machine that is JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore.

Prediction: Purdue 74, Michigan State 68

Last Week: 10-2
Overall: 19-4

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Alley - Oop

March is going to be so much more exciting this year than it was last year. Last year, Mason and UNC had no hopes of accomplishing anything but it is a completely different story this year. If Mason can beat Northern Iowa Saturday night, unless the coaches and writers are complete morons, then Mason will be ranked in the Top 25 in both polls. North Carolina just keeps on winning, and every game left in their season is winnable, including when they get their rematch with Duke at home. These are exciting times to be a Tar Heels and Patriots fan. Also, college basketball is wide open this year, with no one team standing out amongst the rest. Undefeated Ohio State fell to Wisconsin last weekend, and then new number one Kansas was destroyed by Kansas State. The winner of the bracket pool this year will probably be that girl that picks her favorite teams based on which places she has visited. It is just that type of season.


Boston College (16-9, 6-5) at #19 North Carolina (19-6, 9-2)

These teams met a few weeks ago and the Tar Heels absolutely blew out Boston College at Chestnut Hill, 106-74. Harrison Barnes had his best game of the season, and Reggie Bullock came off the bench to torch the Eagles for 16 points. The Eagles are trying to play their way into the NCAA Tournament bubble and a win at North Carolina would be a huge boost. G Reggie Jackson is the Eagles best player and is coming off a 31-point performance in a win against Maryland last weekend. F Joe Trapani can score and rebound, and F Corey Raji is also a presence on the glass. However, other than that the Eagles are very weak on the boards, while Carolina is first in the nation in rebounding. That is a major reason the Heels blew out Boston College the first time. As long as Carolina is focused and ready to play, they should have no problems knocking off BC.

Prediction: North Carolina 81, Boston College 67

George Mason (22-5) at Northern Iowa (19-9)

It's Bracketbusters! With Mason on a school record 12 game winning streak, many people want to draw parallels between this year's team and the 2006 team that made a Final Four run. That 2006 team was propelled into the NCAA Tournament by beating Wichita State on the road in Bracketbusters. There won't be any similarities this season, as a win in this game really does nothing for Mason, while a loss could be potentially hurtful. I was hoping we would draw St. Mary's but the committee paired us with the Panthers, who have gone just 2-3 since the game was announced and seen their RPI dip into the 70s. Looking at the Panthers stats I am not even sure how they are 19-9, they aren't particularly good at anything. They only average 63 points per game, they are 332nd in the nation in rebounding, 324th in assists, and 202nd in field goal percentage. The only thing that will give them any chance in this game is the home court advantage. G Kwadzo Ahelegbe leads the team in scoring, averaging 13.9 ppg. Second on the team in scoring is their other G Anthony James. Mason is considered undersized but that won't be an issue against the Panthers, whose leading rebounder is just 6'6. If Mason can jump on the Panthers early, like they did against VCU, and knock the crowd out of the game this could be a laugher. Mason is so well balanced, dangerous both offensively and defensively. I think the Panthers can hang around for a bit, but Mason is just too good. Man that feels good to type.

Prediction: George Mason 75, Northern Iowa 64

Colorado (16-10, 5-6) at #1 Kansas (24-2, 9-2)

Kansas won't be #1 come Monday, after getting shellacked by Kansas State. This won't be an easy turnaround game either, as the Buffaloes have been giving teams in the Big 12 fits all season. Colorado has lost six of seven to fall out of NCAA Tournament discussion, but they haven't been blown out in those losses. They pushed Kansas hard in their first meeting, and I think they will give the Jayhawks some trouble in this one.

Prediction: Kansas 84, Colorado 76

#2 Texas (23-3, 11-0) at Nebraska (17-8, 5-6)

If Texas can win in Lincoln then they will be the new number one team in the nation. Since losing to Connecticut a month ago, Texas has steamrolled through the Big 12. Jordan Hamilton is a beast and should be in the conversation for Player of the Year.

Prediction: Texas 74, Nebraska 63

#4 Pittsburgh (24-2, 12-1) at St. John's (16-9, 8-5)

Very dangerous game for the Panthers as St. John's has made a living off of beating strong teams at home this year. They haven't just beaten them, they have blown them out. Sensational G Dwight Hardy has been the major reason why. I think the Johnnies pull off another upset.

Prediction: St. John's 71, Pittsburgh 67

#6 San Diego State (26-1, 11-1) at Air Force (13-11, 4-7)

Not much to say about this game, waiting for San Diego State to play someone.

Prediction: San Diego State 74, Air Force 64

#7 Notre Dame (21-4, 10-3) at West Virginia (16-9, 7-6)

The Mountaineers are squarely on the bubble and a win against Notre Dame might get them off of the bubble and into the Big Dance. The Mountaineers are a much better home team than road team, but the Irish have proven capable of winning in tough environments. Really tough game to call, but I will take a risk and call for the upset.

Prediction: West Virginia 71, Notre Dame 70

#8 BYU (24-2, 10-1) at TCU (10-17, 1-11)

TCU basketball is nothing like TCU football. Oh, and JIMMER!!!!!!

Prediction: BYU 87, TCU 71

#9 Georgetown (20-6, 9-5) at South Florida (8-19, 2-12)

The Hoyas winning streak came to an end at the hands of Kemba Walker on Wednesday, but a trip to South Florida should get them right back on track. Expect G Austin Freeman to have a big game.

Prediction: Georgetown 68, South Florida 54


#3 Ohio State (25-1, 12-1) at #11 Purdue (21-5, 10-3)

Purdue just knocked off Wisconsin, who last weekend knocked off Ohio State. The Buckeyes blasted the Boilermakers when they met in Columbus, but things should be much closer in West Lafayette. JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore do just about everything for Purdue. If those two are both on then the Buckeyes may be looking at another loss. I was one of the few to pick the Buckeyes at Madison last week and they burned me, but I will take a chance and pick them again.

Prediction: Ohio State 69, Purdue 66

Georgia Tech (11-14, 3-8) at #5 Duke (24-2, 11-1)

Yellow Jackets coach Paul Hewitt has to be done after this season, right? I mean how many poor seasons can a trip to a national title game where you got stomped buy you? The better question is, how the hell did North Carolina get killed by this team?

Prediction: Duke 84, Georgia Tech 66

Penn State (14-11, 7-7) at #10 Wisconsin (19-6, 9-4)

The Badgers couldn't keep their momentum going from their win against Ohio State, suffering a tough road loss to Purdue. Penn State is no push over, and already beat Wisconsin once this season. Feels like G Talor Battle has been there forever, and I still have nightmares of him hitting a three at the buzzer to send their NIT game against Mason to overtime. I think Badgers G Jordan Taylor, who carried the Badgers from behind against Ohio State, will be the difference.

Prediction: Wisconsin 67, Penn State 58

Last Week: 9-2
Overall: 9-2

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Alley-Oop

Football season is over and that means it is time to focus on my second favorite sport, college basketball. I am feeling pretty excited this season. Last season was a total disappointment with North Carolina being dreadful, and George Mason being young and floundering. This year, Carolina is 17-6, and gave Duke all they could handle at Cameron Indoor. Mason has won ten straight games, is #23 in RPI, and has a legit chance at an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament if they continue to play well. There is also still an undefeated team remaining, the Ohio State Buckeyes. Lots of exciting things ahead the next two months. For those of you new to the blog this is how The Alley-Oop works. I will preview and predict Top 10 action, as well as my favorite teams George Mason and North Carolina each weekend leading up to the conference tournaments.


#21 North Carolina (17-6, 7-2) at Clemson (17-7, 6-4)

Very tough loss to take on Wednesday night for Carolina against Duke. Carolina dominated the first half, jumping out to a 16 point lead. Then it seemed the stage got too big for them and they wilted under the pressure. They didn't even really lose to Duke, they lost to two men, Nolan Smith and Seth Curry. Saturday, they travel to Clemson, a very difficult place to play and win. Carolina won the first meeting with Clemson, 75-65 in Chapel Hill. Carolina G Reggie Bullock lit up the Tigers for 18 points off the bench and keyed the victory. The result wasn't a surprise though as Clemson never wins at Chapel Hill. The Tigers are a balanced team and are led by three main contributors. Their best player is G Demontez Stitt, who leads the team with 13.7 PPG, and 3.5 APG. Other key contributors are F-C Jerai Grant, and G Andre Young. Carolina did a good job in the first game of not allowing anyone to get going, as the Tigers leading scorers in that game had just 11 points. The Tigers have yet to lose a conference game at home, so the Heels have their work cut out for them. F Tyler Zeller has really come on strong for Carolina, leading them in scoring, including a 24 point effort against Duke. F Harrison Barnes has finally gotten going, which incidentally has coincided with G Kendall Marshall taking over the point guard duties from bum Larry Drew. I think the Heels have a legit chance to make at least a Sweet 16 run this year, and I like them to win a tough game at Littlejohn.

Prediction: North Carolina 73, Clemson 68

James Madison (18-8, 8-6) at George Mason (20-5, 12-2)

GMU's "rivals" the Dukes look to end Mason's ten game winning streak. It's not really a rivalry when one school consistently beats the crap out of the other, like Mason does to JMU. The first meeting this season was a back and forth battle, with Mason coming from behind to beat JMU 75-73.

Mason has a very balanced attack, a signature of coach Jim Larranaga’s teams over the years. You can’t just focus your attention on one player and expect to slow down Mason. Senior G Cam Long leads the team with 15.5 PPG, and also averages 3.1 APG. F Ryan Pearson is Mason’s bruiser and someone you will likely hear more about if Mason makes a run to the NCAA Tournament. Pearson was hit by a car when he was a teenager and due to the accident has one leg that is longer than the other. However, that hasn’t stopped him from leading the team in rebounding with 6.3 per game and being second in scoring with 14.4 PPG. The Patriots best overall player may be sophomore F Luke Hancock. Luke rebounds, passes, and scores with a high rate of consistency. Mason’s emotional leader is junior F Mike Morrison. Morrison’s numbers are down from last season but that is mostly because he has taken more of a defensive presence than he had in years past. Guards Andre Cornelius and Isaiah Tate can be dangerous from beyond the arc, and its especially refreshing to see Tate become a contributor in his senior season, as he had struggled his three previous years.

The lazy media keeps wanting to compare this team to the team that made the magical 2006 Final Four run. There is no comparing the two teams. 2006 was five years ago now and it is time for Mason as a program to stop living in the past. Mason hasn’t won a postseason game of any sort since that run and that is a streak that needs to end. It is obvious that the caliber of player Mason can attract has improved greatly because of that Final Four run. It is time for this group of players to make their own history.

JMU is powered by their burly F Denzel Bowles. Bowles averages 18.2 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 2.2 APG, and almost 2 blocks per game. He will have a good game and Mason can accept that. Mason just can't allow Julius Wells or Devon Moore to get going too much. Mason is unbeatable at home and we never lose to JMU, I expect another good performance in front of a sell out crowd, getting Mason ready for their huge game at VCU on Tuesday.

Prediction: George Mason 72, James Madison 58

#1 Ohio State (24-0, 11-0) at #14 Wisconsin (18-5, 8-3)

People think this may be the game that ends the Buckeyes undefeated run. The Buckeyes lost Evan Turner, but haven't missed a beat with freshman Jared Sullinger in contention for Naismith Player of the Year honors. The Badgers will try to drag the Buckeyes to their level and make the game ugly and pretty much unwatchable. The Badgers are tough at home, but they barely beat Iowa, I think the Buckeyes remain unscathed.

Prediction: Ohio State 68, Wisconsin 65

Iowa State (14-10, 1-8) at #2 Kansas (23-1, 8-1)

Marcus and Markieff Morris power the Jayhawks who feature one of the most high powered offenses in the country. Iowa State is in the state of Iowa, and they suck.

Prediction: Kansas 90, Iowa State 72

Baylor (16-7, 6-4) at #3 Texas (21-3, 9-0)

Baylor has been a disappointment this season, as much was expected from them after their run to the Elite Eight last season. The Longhorns are unbeaten in Big 12 action, and the main reason has been Jordan Hamilton, who has vastly improved from his freshman season.

Prediction: Texas 83, Baylor 76

#4 Pittsburgh (22-2, 10-1) at #10 Villanova (19-5, 7-4)

The Big East is garnering most of the headlines as an eye popping 11 teams in the conference have a shot at making the NCAA Tournament. Pitt has lived up to lofty preseason expectations, while the Wildcats have hit a rough patch, losing 4 of their last 7 games. ESPN's College GameDay will be at this game and the atmosphere will be electric. However, I like the Panthers to keep rolling.

Prediction: Pittsburgh 74, Villanova 72

#6 San Diego State (24-1, 9-1) at UNLV (18-6, 6-4)

Steve Fisher, the former national championship coach at Michigan over 20 years ago, has done a fantastic job with the Aztecs. The Rebels (when did they get rid of the Runnin') are a tough team to beat in Vegas and I think they pull off the upset.

Prediction: UNLV 68, San Diego State 67

#7 Notre Dame (20-4, 9-3) at South Florida (8-17, 2-10)

Led by Tyler Hansbrough's little brother, Ben, Irish coach Mike Brey has his best Notre Dame team ever. The less said about South Florida's basketball program, the better.

Prediction: Notre Dame 78, South Florida 65

Utah (10-14, 3-7) at #8 BYU (23-2, 9-1)

The Mountain West has two teams in the Top 10!?!? What the hell is going on!?!? Oh yeah, BYU has this guy named Jimmer Fredette, you might have heard of him, unless you're Matt Kaufman.

Prediction: BYU 95, Utah 70


#5 Duke (22-2, 9-1) at Miami (15-9, 4-6)

I hate Duke, I hate them so much, revenge will be the Tar Heels when they meet in Chapel Hill. For now, even though I hate Duke, I can't pick them to lose to Miami.

Prediction: Duke 77, Miami 70

Providence (14-10, 3-8) at #9 Connecticut (18-5, 6-5)

Outside of the sensational Kemba Walker, the Huskies seem pretty fraudtastic to me. I bet Providence wishes alum Jim Larranaga had said yes to them a few years ago. Sorry Friars!

Prediction: Connecticut 79, Providence 72

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Hail Mary - Super Bowl XLV

Super Bowl XLV: Pittsburgh Steelers (14-4) vs.
Green Bay Packers (13-6), Green Bay favored by 2 1/2

Two of the most storied franchises in NFL history collide in Dallas on Super Bowl Sunday. The Pittsburgh Steelers are making their eighth Super Bowl appearance and looking to add to their NFL record with a seventh Super Bowl win. The Packers are in their fifth Super Bowl, and trying to bring the Lombardi trophy home to where their fans feel it rightly belongs.

The Packers had the ninth best offense in the NFL this season, which actually was a step below what people expected. They were hurt by becoming a one dimensional team, when RB Ryan Grant was lost for the season on opening weekend. Most teams would have faltered, especially with the other injuries the Packers offense faced, but QB Aaron Rodgers proved to a world stage why the Packers were willing to let Brett Favre fade away a few years ago. Rodgers had an outstanding regular season, and then upped his game in the playoffs. It helps that he has an amazing amount of weapons, including WRs Donald Drive, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, and James Jones. RB James Starks has emerged in the playoffs, and RB John Kuhn has proven to be a threat not only running, but catching passes out of the backfield. The Packers offensive line isn't outstanding but good enough and are certainly helped by Rodgers ability to avoid pressure, and make plays on the run. However, defense is what has gotten the Packers to this game. They finished second in the league, allowing just 15 points per game. They were led by what should have been the Defensive Player of the Year, LB Clay Matthews. They have a beast on the defensive line, in second year man BJ Raji, and have tremendous CBs in Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, and Sam Shields. Their coach, Mike McCarthy can make some questionable in-game decisions, but he has to be given credit for his stewardship of the team this season and their ability to overcome injuries.
The Steeelers have pretty much always been built on a running attack and suffocating defense. That is pretty much the story of this year's team. QB Ben Roethlisberger continues to prove that he is an elite quarterback, capable of making something out of nothing, and being that dreaded word some people want to pretend doesn't exist, clutch. He is supported by RB Rashard Mendenhall, who gets unfairly criticized in my view. Some, cough Peter King, claimed that Mendenhall isn't a big time back. After King said that, Mendenhall tore apart the Jets and basically single handedly put the Steelers in control of that game. The Steelers passing game isn't flashy but is effective. Roethlisberger has old reliable Hines Ward, emerging star Mike Wallace, and then some really new faces in rookies Emmanuel Sanders, and the man who had made two huge catches in the playoffs, Antonio Brown. Heath Miller continues to be both a reliable blocker and pass catching tight end. The Steelers offensive line is what it is. Seen by many as the weakness of the team, they sometimes don't look so good because of Roethlisberger's penchant for extending the play and taking sacks. The Steelers defense allowed 14.5 points per game, fewest in the league. They are virtually impossible to run against, giving up just 62.8 yards per game, which is 28 yards fewer per game then second place Chicago. Brett Keisel and his beard man the defensive line, their linebacking corps is ridiculous with James Harrison, James Farrior and LaMarr Woodley. CB Ike Taylor, S Ryan Clark and Defensive Player of the Year, S Troy Polomalu make big plays and big hits. Mike Tomlin has proved to be a tremendous hire by the Rooney's. He seems to have the right mix of fire and the ability to relate to his players.
These teams almost couldn't be more evenly matched. Both are good offensively, amazing defensively, and adequate in the special teams game. This will not be a repeat of their regular season game from a year ago, where both quarterbacks torched the opposing defenses. I expect defense to rule the day for the most part and I believe a defensive player will be the MVP. I think the Steelers are just a little bit better than the Packers. The biggest edge in this game will come down to the fact that the Packers have no prayer of running the ball effectively. The Packers can barely run the ball against a terrible defense, match them up against the Steelers, and I would be surprised if they have a back go over 40 yards. Rodgers will be able to make some plays in the passing game, but it will be the Steelers effectiveness at both running and passing that will make the difference. Packers fans have to hope that their defense creates turnovers, or that their special teams can break something. If I were the Packers, I would give serious thought to having Charles Woodson return a punt or two. I think this game will be close the entire sixty minutes, maybe a little sloppy at first, then settle into a nice groove. I think the Steelers will go up 21-10, late in the fourth and then hold off Rodgers and the Pack for a 21-17 win. As nauseating as it is to think about, the Steelers will have their seventh Super Bowl trophy, and the MVP will be Troy Polomalu.

Prediction: Pittsburgh 21, Green Bay 17

Last Week Against the Spread: 1-1
Overall Against the Spread: 77-76-5

Last Week Straight Up: 2-0
Overall Straight Up: 88-68

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

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

Times were uncertain for the Pittsburgh Steelers entering the 2010 season. The Steelers knew they would be without the face of their franchise, QB Ben Roethlisberger for four games, while he was out with a rape. Things got even worse when his backup, Byron Leftwich was injured in the pre-season, meaning inexperienced Dennis Dixon would be the quarterback. However, the Steelers knew they had a championship defense, and if the offense could be simply adequate, they would be alright.

In Week 1, the Steelers opened at home against the Atlanta Falcons. Despite being underdogs the Steelers were able to win 15-9 in overtime. Dixon struggled as expected, but the defense held the dangerous Falcons offense without a touchdown. S Troy Polamalu came up with a huge interception in the 4th quarter, and RB Rashard Mendenhall ran it 50 yards for a touchdown in overtime to seal the win. The Steelers quarterback situation became even more tenuous in a Week 2, 19-11 victory at Tennessee. Dixon was knocked out of the game, and old man Charlie Batch had to take his place. It didn't matter though, as the Steelers defense forced seven turnovers, and WR Antonio Brown scored on a 89-yard kickoff return. In Week 3, the Steelers traveled to Tampa to take on the surprising 2-0 Buccaneers. They were starting Batch at quarterback and Batch showed instant chemistry with WR Mike Wallace, hitting him on two long touchdown bombs. Mendenhall gashed the Bucs defense for 143 yards rushing, and the Steelers defense remained stingy, all culminating in a 38-13 rout. Week 4 brought the Steelers biggest rivals, the Baltimore Ravens to Heinz Field. It would be the Steelers last game without Roethlisberger and they were trying to do what was considered impossible, and go undefeated without him. They came close, but the magic ran out. Batch struggled, and Mendenhall couldn't get the running game going. Despite that, the Steelers led late, but the defense was victimized with a late Joe Flacco to TJ Houshmandzadeh touchdown pass, resulting in a 17-14 loss. The Steelers were 3-1 a quarter way into the season, and had to be feeling good that they had survived the mess that was their quarterback position.

After a week off, the Steelers and Roethlisberger returned to host Cleveland. Roethlisberger showed no rust in throwing for 3 TDs, and 257 yards, as the Steelers throttled the Browns 28-10. This game will be remembered for LB James Harrison knocking out two Browns players with vicious hits. Week 7 was another memorable and controversial game for Pittsburgh. The Steelers stole a 23-22 win at Miami, with a strange Roethlisberger rushing touchdown being the deciding factor. Roethlisberger fumbled the ball prior to crossing the goal line and replays appeared to show that the Dolphins recovered. However, the officials said they couldn't determine who had recovered the ball, so they gave the Steelers the ball at the one, allowing Pittsburgh to kick the game winning field goal. The Steelers took on the defending Super Bowl Champions, the Saints in prime time in Week 8. The offense struggled all game, and a costly fumble by TE Heath Miller late, proved to be too much, as the Steelers lost 20-10. The Steelers would end up 6-2 at the halfway point, holding off the Bengals on Monday Night football, 27-21. WR Antwaan Randle El's 39 yard touchdown pass to Wallace put the Steelers ahead 27-7. However, the Bengals made a furious rally, and were in position to score. That is when the Steelers defense, specifically Harrison, made the play needed to win.

For the third straight week the Steelers played in prime time, but they probably wished they hadn't. They were manhandled and embarrassed by the Patriots at home, in a 39-26 loss. The defense, which had been so strong all season, was torched by Tom Brady and the Patriots. Despite having a respectable 6-3 record, the loss seemed to cement the fact that the Steelers weren't in the Patriots league. In Week 10, the Steelers had the hot Raiders coming into town. However, Pittsburgh played like a team with something to prove after getting embarrassed the week before, pounding the Raiders 35-3. Roethlisberger was spectacular, throwing for 3 TDs, while the defense only allowed 182 total yards, and forced three turnovers. This game will be remembered for Raiders DE Richard Seymour decking Roethlisberger after a play, something he was actually sort of celebrated for. In Week 12, the Steelers got more than the bargained for from the Bills in Buffalo. The Steelers jumped out to a 13-0 lead, and victory seemed imminent. However, the Bills showed hurt and tied the game at 16 right before the gun in the fourth quarter to force overtime. Then, the Bills had an opportunity to win the game, but WR Stevie Johnson dropped a sure touchdown pass, allowing Steelers K Shaun Suisham to hit a game winning field goal. The Steelers were now 8-3, and in a neck and neck battle with the Ravens for the AFC North. The rivals would meet in prime time on Sunday night. If the Steelers lost they could kiss their AFC North chances goodbye. It appeared they were on their way to a loss, trailing 10-6 late in the game. That is when the Defensive Player of the Year, Polamalu, made perhaps a season saving play. He stripped Ravens QB Joe Flacco, and Roethlisberger took the Steelers down the field, hitting Isaac Redman with a 9-yard touchdown pass to win the game, 13-10. With four games remaining, Pittsburgh was 9-3 and in control of the AFC North.

The Steelers hosted the Bengals in Week 14, and got a fight from Cincinnati. Pittsburgh led only 13-7 going into the fourth quarter, when the defense stepped up. LB LaMarr Woodley scored on a pick six and the Steelers eventually ran away with the game, 23-7. The Steelers defense accounted for both Steelers touchdowns on that day. Week 15 brought the reeling New York Jets to Pittsburgh. However, the Jets jumped ahead on the first play of the game, as Brad Smith returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. This caused the Steelers to play catch up all game, and they eventually fell short, 22-17. Week 16 saw Pittsburgh once again in prime time, this time on a Thursday night against the pathetic Carolina Panthers. Pittsburgh barely had to expend any effort in a 27-3 rout. The Steelers entered the final weekend of the regular season needing to win at Cleveland to secure a playoff bye and the AFC North title. They wasted no time assuring that, as they absolutely destroyed the Browns, 41-9. The Steelers finished the season 12-4 and had a week off, before hosting an AFC Divisional Round playoff game.

That game ended up being against their hated rivals, the Ravens. After jumping ahead 7-0, the Steelers surrendered 21 straight points, and trailed 21-7 going into the half. One bizarre play was a fumble by Roethlisberger where everyone assumed it was an incompletion, except for Cory Redding of the Ravens, who picked the ball up and scored a touchdown. It was hard to imagine the Steelers being able to come back against a tough Ravens defense, but the door was opened when Ray Rice fumbled to start the second half. The Steelers offense took advantage, and Roethlisberger connected with Miller to get the Steelers within seven. Another Ravens turnover set up the game tying score. Then late, with the score tied at 24 and the Steelers facing 3rd and 19, Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown for a 59-yard completion, setting up a game winning two yard touchdown run by Mendenhall. The AFC Championship brought the Jets back to town, five weeks after they had defeated Pittsburgh. The Jets had confidence and swagger but they also faced an insurmountable deficit early. Mendenhall ran it down the Jets throats, the defense forced a Sanchez fumble, which turned into a touchdown and before the Jets knew it, they trailed 24-3 at the half. The Jets attempted to make a furious rally in the second half, and actually got within five. However, with the game on the line, Roethlisberger to Brown once again was the difference, sealing a 24-19 win, and the Steelers eighth trip to the Super Bowl. The Steelers hope to win an unprecedented seventh Super Bowl on Sunday.

Check back on Friday as I preview and predict Super Bowl XLV between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Year in Review - Green Bay Packers (13-6), NFC Champions

Expectations were high for Green Bay entering the 2010 season. Many prognosticators, including myself, had them reaching the Super Bowl. There was a lot to like about the team. Tons of talent on offense, but the question mark was the defense. The defense had shown flashes of its potential in 2009 but was gashed in their playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals. While people weren't sure what to expect out of the defense, the offense was expected to rival the stats that the great Rams offense of the early 2000s put up. The season didn't quite play out that way, but the Packers have managed to live up to the hype.

Green Bay opened at Philadelphia, a place they hadn't won at in decades. They jumped out to a 20-3 lead in the third quarter and seemed primed to run away with the game. However, Eagles QB Mike Vick had entered for the injured Kevin Kolb and brought the Eagles back into the game, eventually getting them within one score of the Packers. In what turned out to be a sign of things to come, the defense made a stop at the end of the game, ensuring the Packers 27-20 victory. The victory came with a price, RB Ryan Grant was lost for the season with an ankle injury and pretty much took any semblance of a running game with him. Rodgers struggled against the Eagles, throwing for just 188 yards and 2 interceptions. However, the Packers began to show that they could win with defense. The Packers opened their home schedule with a rout of the hapless Buffalo Bills, 34-7. Rodgers had a great game, throwing for 255 yards and 2 TDs. TE Jermichael Finley led the team with 103 yards receiving, while Donald Driver and James Jones each had touchdowns. In Week 3, the Packers traveled to Chicago for a Monday night game in a battle of 2-0 teams. The Packers were besieged by penalties, a team record 18 and sloppy play, including a crucial late game fumble by Jones. They lost on a last second Robbie Gould field goal, 20-17. Finley had another huge game, but once again the Packers running game could get nothing going. Week 4 turned out to be a surprisingly tough effort against the Lions at Lambeau. Green Bay led the entire game but could never quite put the Lions away. The Packers would lead by two touchdowns twice in the game, but each time the Lions responded. The Packers didn't generate much on offense, and the defense was gashed by Lions backup QB Shaun Hill. The Packers also committed 4 turnovers and really only won the game 28-26 because the Lions committed 13 penalties to the Packers 3.

In Week 5, the Packers suffered a surprising defeat at Washington in overtime, 16-13. The offense put up 427 yards but could only muster 13 points. They finally had a running back go over 100 yards, the only time that would happen all regular season, as Brandon Jackson finished with 115 yards, but most of it came on a 71-yard run. The Packers were hurt by a Redskins goal line stand, and also saw players drop like flies. TEs Donald Lee, Jermichael Finley, and LB Clay Matthews all left the game with injuries, and Rodgers suffered a concussion in overtime. The natives in Green Bay began to panic after a 23-20 OT loss at home in Week 6 to the Dolphins. The loss dropped Green Bay to 3-3 and it was clear that the Packers were feeling the effects of all their injuries. Week 7 saw what was likely former hero Brett Favre's last game at Lambeau Field. The teams engaged in a fantastic back and forth game with the Packers barely coming away with a 28-24 victory. Favre struggled, throwing three interceptions, including a pick six returned by Desmond Bishop that proved to be the game winner. In Week 8 at New York, the Packers defense had a statement game. The Packers shut out the Jets 9-0, forcing three turnovers. The offense was sloppy but in a sign that this team was much different than the 2009 version, the defense stepped up and sparked the team to victory. The Packers entered the halfway point at 5-3 and with things looking up.

The Packers caught a reeling Cowboys team in Week 9 at home and began an odd streak where coaches were fired after embarrassing losses to Green Bay. The Packers crushed the Cowboys 45-7, and sent Wade Phillips packing. The Packers defense forced 4 turnovers, and the defense contributed two touchdowns, an interception return by Matthews, and a fumble return by Nick Collins. Rodgers had his best game of the season, throwing for 289 yards, 3 touchdowns, and no interceptions. After a week off the Packers returned to action in Week 11 at Minnesota. This time the Packers got Brad Childress fired, after demolishing the Vikings 31-3, giving them their fourth straight win. Rodgers was again masterful, throwing for 4 touchdowns and 301 yards. WR Greg Jennings torched the Vikings for 7 catches, 152 receiving yards, and 3 touchdowns. The Packers were now 7-3 and tied with the surprising Bears for first place in the NFC North. Week 12 saw the Packers travel to Atlanta to meet the NFC's best team the Falcons. Penalties were once again the Packers undoing in a 20-17 loss. Rodgers had an up and down day. He had a crucial fumble at the goal line in the second quarter, but led the Packers on a game tying drive late, before the Falcons won it with a field goal. Green Bay righted the ship in Week 13 at home against the 49ers, winning 34-16. RB James Starks, a name that would be heard from again come playoff time, led the Packers with 73 yards rushing. Rodgers continued his hot play, throwing three touchdowns and no interceptions. With just four games remaining, the Packers were 8-4 and in a battle for the NFC North and a playoff berth.

In Week 14, the Packers suffered an embarrassing 7-3 loss to the Lions in Detroit. It was Detroit's first division win in 19 games, and their first against the Packers in 10 games. The Packers lost Rodgers to his second concussion of the season in the second quarter, and backup Matt Flynn couldn't get anything going. Despite being close the entire game, the Packers made virtually no effort to run the ball, with Rodgers actually leading the team in rushing with 25 yards on 2 carries. The loss was huge, as the Packers at 8-5 were on the outside looking in on in the playoff race. The news didn't get much better in Week 15, as the Packers had to travel to New England to take on the NFL's best team. They also had to do it without Rodgers, who was held out of the game due to his concussion. No one gave the Packers a shot but they ended up giving the Patriots all they could handle. Flynn played an excellent game, throwing for three touchdowns but also threw a game sealing interception. The running game showed some life, as Jackson ran for 99 yards. The defense also played huge, holding the high powered Patriots offense to just 249 yards in the 31-27 loss. The most memorable and crucial play of the game came towards the end of the first half, with the Patriots trailing 17-7. Patriots offensive lineman Dan Connolly somehow returned a kickoff 71 yards, setting up a Patriots touchdown that gave them some much needed momentum going into halftime. While the Packers effort was admirable, the loss cost them to fall to 8-6, making the NFC North a longshot and their last two games must win. In Week 16, the Packers met the New York Giants, their closest competitor int he race for the final playoff spot. The Giants were coming off a heartbreaking loss to the Eagles and despite keeping it close in the first half, were overmatched in a 45-17 Packers win. The Packers intercepted four of Eli Manning's passes. while Rodgers returned from his concussion to throw for 404 yards and four touchdowns. Despite the win, the Packers were eliminated from the NFC North title, as the Bears had clinched it earlier in the day. However, the Packers controlled their playoff destiny, and needed to beat the Bears at Lambeau in Week 17. Some thought that the Bears may take the game off, with them having nothing to play for. Those people obviously don't understand the Bears/Packers rivalry. Chicago played their starters the entire game and befuddled the Packers offense for most of it. However, the Packers defense was up to the challenge and kept the Bears offense stuck in first gear. Rodgers led the Packers on a game winning drive in the fourth quarter, completing it with a one-yard touchdown pass to Driver, sealing a 10-3 win and a playoff berth. The Packers road to the Super Bowl would have to come on the road, as they were the NFC's sixth and final playoff team. However, their 10-6 record was a pretty amazing accomplish, considering they had lost 15 players to injured reserve, including six starters.

The Packers started the playoffs the same way they started the regular season, at Philadelphia. Some though things might be different this time, as the Eagles had Mike Vick from the beginning of this game. What people didn't expect was the impact RB James Starks would have. Starks rushed for 123 yards on 23 carries, and was definitely the team's MVP. The Packers never trailed, and a Tramon Williams interception sealed the 21-16 win. Next up was the Falcons at Atlanta, in another regular season rematch. The game started off a back and forth affair but an interception return for a touchdown by Williams put the Packers ahead 28-14 going into halftime and they never looked back. Rodgers finally began to be recognized by everyone as an elite QB after a breathtaking 366 yards, three touchdowns and just five incompletions on 36 attempts performance. The Packers blew out the NFC's supposed best team 48-21 and had instantly gone from six seed back to Super Bowl favorites. They would have to reach the Super Bowl by going through their rivals, the Bears. In just their second playoff meeting ever, the Packers won at Soldier Field 21-14, to reach their first Super Bowl in 14 years. The Packers offense looked crisp to start the game, forging ahead 14-0. The defense was harassing Jay Cutler, eventually knocking him out of the game. After Todd Collins looked like the 127 year old QB he is, third stringer Caleb Hanie eventually replaced him. Hanie drove the Bears down the field, making the game 14-7. However, late in the fourth quarter he threw a pick six to huge BJ Raji, making the game 21-7. Hanie wasted no time and the Packers defense appeared to take the series off, quickly making the game 21-14 with a 35-yard touchdown pass to Earl Bennett. Hanie was driving the Bears down the field again, before throwing an interception to Sam Shields, his second of the game. Rodgers didn't have his best game but the defense once again stepped up when it needed to. The Packers had become just the second sixth seed to reach the Super Bowl and will try to win their fourth Super Bowl on Sunday.