Monday, January 30, 2012

Year in Review - New York Giants (12-7, NFC East and NFC Champions)

Going into the 2011 season it was well known that if the New York Giants missed the playoffs for a third straight season, coach Tom Coughlin would be let go. The Giants appeared to be long shots because they were decimated by injuries to their secondary. They experienced a season filled with ups and downs but much like the 2007-08 season, have gotten hot when it counted the most.

The season got off to an inauspicious start when the Giants fell at Washington 28-14. The Giants were without many starters on defense but it was their offense that really struggled. They only could muster 102 yards of total offense in the second half. In a sign of things to come during the season, Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs did next to nothing running the ball. In Week 2, the Giants hosted the St. Louis Rams on Monday Night Football and came away with their first victory of the season, 28-16. The Giants were happy to get the win but the game was ugly and the Giants looked less than impressive. The Giants struggled again on offense and were able to win mostly because of the Rams being mistake prone. In Week 3, the Giants outscored the Philadelphia Eagles 15-0 in the fourth quarter at Philadelphia to knock off the "Dream Team" 29-16. Eli Manning threw for 2 TDs in that fourth quarter and finished the game with 4. This game marked the emergence of WR Victor Cruz who finished with 2 TDs and 110 yards receiving. The Giants defense also played well, forcing three Eagles turnovers and knocking Eagles QB Mike Vick out of the game. The Giants improved to 3-1 after a narrow road win against Arizona in Week 4. The Giants trailed 27-17 in the 4th quarter but Eli hit TE Jake Ballard for a TD with 3:37 remaining to get the Giants within three. Later, the Giants were driving for the winning score when Cruz appeared to fumble the ball and the Cardinals recovered. However, it was ruled that Cruz gave himself up on the play and was down, meaning no fumble and the play could not be challenged. The Giants quickly followed that with a 29 yard touchdown strike to Hakeem Nicks, and escaped with a 31-27 win.

The Giants good thoughts about themselves came crashing in Week 5, when they shockingly lost at home to Seattle, 36-25. Manning had an up and down game that has been typical of his career, throwing for 420 yards and 3 TDs, but also 3 INTs. Bradshaw had just 58 yards rushing and the Giants defense was torched for over 400 yards by the less than imposing Seahawks offense. Instead of falling apart after such a disappointing loss, the Giants hung tough in Week 6, outlasting the Bills for a 27-24 win at home. Ahmad Bradshaw had his only 100 yard rushing performance of the season, and finished with 3 TDs. After a bye, the Giants squeezed past the stubborn Dolphins on the road, 20-17. Manning was spectacular, throwing for 349 yards and 2 TDs. The Giants defense held the Dolphins to just 242 total yards and the Giants were now 5-2. The Giants announced their arrival as Super Bowl contenders in Week 9 when they upset the New England Patriots 24-20 at Gillette Stadium. It was the Patriots first home loss of the regular season in over two years. Even more impressive was that the Giants were without Bradshaw and Nicks. Manning found Ballard for a 1-yard touchdown pass with 15 seconds left to secure the victory. The Giants were 6-2 at the halfway point, alone in first place in the NFC East.

In Week 10, the Giants traveled cross country to take on the surprising San Francisco 49ers. It was a back and forth game, and the Giants led 13-12 going into the 4th quarter. Manning threw 2 crucial interceptions, including one that set up the game winner for the 49ers. However, Manning still almost rallied the Giants from a 14 point deficit before seeing a 4th down pass knocked down by Justin Smith, giving the Niners a 27-20 victory. Week 11 saw the Giants suffer an embarrassing home loss to a injury depleted Eagles team, 17-10. Vince Young started for Vick, but it was LaSean McCoy who keyed the victory for Philly. The Giants inability to run the ball came back to bite them, as Jacobs was the leading rusher with just 21 yards. The Giants then dropped their third straight game on Monday night football, 49-24 to the Saints. The game was never close and the Giants defense had no answer for Drew Brees and New Orleans. The Giants gave up 577 yards of total offense to New Orleans and now at 6-5 panic was starting to set in. In Week 13, the Giants nearly knocked off the undefeated Packers but fell 38-35, for their fourth straight loss and placing them at 6-6. The defense was torched for the second straight week and Manning couldn't overcome the lack of a running game.

Week 14 saw the Giants travel to Dallas in a must win game on Sunday Night football. Dallas was 7-5 and with a win would have had a stranglehold on the NFC East. The Cowboys led by 12 late in the fourth quarter but Manning shined and was able to bring the Giants back like had done many other times during the season. The star of the game was Jason Pierre-Paul on defense. Paul had a safety, forced a fumble in the second quarter and blocked the Cowboys attempt at game tying field goal to preserve the win. Those good feelings quickly dissipated the next weekend when the Giants suffered a shocking 23-10 loss at home to the Redskins. The Skins won 5 games all season, and two of those came against the Giants by a combined score of 51-24. Manning suffered through his worst game of the season and the Giants appeared completely lifeless in the loss. It set up a do or die game against their cross town rivals, the New York Jets. The Giants were again struggling on offense when Victor Cruz broke free for a 99 yard touchdown reception. The Giants led the rest of the way as the defense made life miserable for Mark Sanchez. The Giants ended up winning 29-14, setting up a win or go home battle with the Cowboys in the regular season finale. The Giants came out on fire, racing to a 21-0 lead in the second quarter. The Cowboys fought back in the second half and were trailing just 21-14 in the fourth quarter. However, the Giants defense stiffened and the Giants won the game, earning a playoff berth and NFC East title. Cruz was the key, finishing with 6 catches, 178 yards, and a touchdown.

The Giants opened with a Wild Card home game against the Atlanta Falcons. Some felt that the Giants were hitting their stride while others weren't that impressed that the Giants closed the season beating two 8-8 teams. The Giants then went out and had their best defensive performance of the season, in a 24-2 blowout. The Giants defense allowed zero points and stuffed Atlanta twice on 4th and 1 chances. Manning was spectacular, throwing for 277 yards and 3 TDs. Nicks, who struggled towards the end of the season, returned to form with 115 yards receiving and 2 TDs. The win earned the Giants another chance to beat the NFL's juggernaut, the Packers. Some felt the Giants could pull off the upset but no one anticipated what ended up happening. The Giants led 13-10 late in the first half when Manning hit Nicks on a hail mary, 37 yard touchdown pass. That put the Giants up 20-10 going into the half and they never looked back. The Giants defense continued their strong play, holding Aaron Rodgers to just 264 yards passing, and forcing him to fumble and throw and interception. The Giants had now won four in a row and the script was starting to look eerily similar to their 2008 playoff run. Their revenge tour continued in the NFC Championship game at San Francisco. Aside from Cruz, the Giants couldn't get much going on offense, but their defense kept them in the game with strong play. The Giants got behind early but took the lead late in the 4th quarter on a Manning to Mario Manningham touchdown. The game went to overtime, tied at 17, the Giants first overtime game of the season. Neither team could move the ball but then Kyle Williams of the 49ers fumbled on his punt return and the Giants recovered. Lawrence Tynes then hit a 31 yard field goal and the Giants were headed to Super Bowl XLVI. It will be the Giants fifth Super Bowl appearance as they look to hoist the Lombardi trophy for a fourth time.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Hail Mary - NFL Playoffs: Conference Championships

I thought last week was stressful to watch but I have a feeling the NFC Championship game this Sunday against the Giants will be even worse for me as a fan of the 49ers. The up and down thrill ride that the game against the Saints was is something I don't think I have ever experienced in my life. However, if a game were to approach that level, it would have to be when the Giants and 49ers met in 2003. The Giants raced out to a 38-14 lead at Candlestick, but then Jeff Garcia led the 49ers back to a 39-38 victory. Yeah, there maybe should have been a pass interference called on the 49ers the last play of the game but there wasn't, so whatevs. There is another game before this, the AFC Championship between the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens. This was the game I expected to see before the playoffs began and even then I was struggling in my head about who I would pick to win the game. I still am not quite sure about my pick but its Friday and I have a deadline that my tens of readers expect me to stick to so I'm forging ahead.

AFC Championship: Baltimore (13-4) at New England (14-3), New England favored by 7

The Patriots destroyed Denver last weekend in not much of a surprise, while the Ravens did what they do best, win ugly, when they defeated the Texans. These teams are equally matched because each has a major advantage on one side of the ball. The Patriots are far and away a better offensive team than Baltimore, while the Ravens defense is clearly superior to the Patriots defense. Most of the talk for this game has centered around Ravens QB Joe Flacco and his less than stellar performances. It seems that finally people are catching on to the fact that Flacco is mediocre at best. Flacco seems to bristle at the fact that people overlook him and give all the credit to the defense, but he has a great chance to shut those critics up this weekend. The Patriots defense is laughably bad, and just because they were able to shut down Denver, I don't think they are all of the sudden any good. The Ravens offense stalled against the Texans because they couldn't get Ray Rice going. When these two teams met in the playoffs two years ago Rice memorably opened the game with a huge touchdown run and the Ravens never looked back. Rice has to be fed the ball on a consistent basis and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has to show the patience to stick with the running game. If Rice can get going, then Flacco has a chance to hit Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith with some deep balls. Defensively, the Ravens have been very good this season but have struggled to get pressure on the quarterback in recent weeks. It is imperative they do that this weekend because Tom Brady is the best in the game and will completely burn you if he is allowed to be a statue in the pocket. Haloti Ngata, and the rest of the defensive front will need to make their presence felt. The linebacking corps has to be ready to try to slow down TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The biggest difference between the game two years ago and this one is that the Patriots didn't have those two weapons back then. Hernandez was featured as a running back last week, while Gronkowski continued to look unstoppable in coverage. If the Ravens can't limit their touches, they have no shot at winning.

Fortunately for the Ravens, their defense shouldn't have to worry too much about the Patriots running game. The Patriots are running back by committee and while their backs can gash bad teams, I don't expect them to be much of a factor against Baltimore. The Ravens did struggle against Arian Foster last weekend, but BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Stevan Ridley, and Danny Woodhead combined aren't as good as Foster. The difference in this game might just come down to special teams. According to the stat geeks at Football Outsiders the Patriots were 5th in special teams rankings during the season, while the Ravens were a dreadful 30th. Both teams have reliable field goal kickers that can make pressure kicks. I have had a hell of a time picking this game. The line is way too high to me so I have no doubt the Ravens will cover, but picking them to win has been tough. I worry about the Ravens ability to slow Gronkowski and Hernandez but I keep coming back to how putrid the Patriots defense is. Plus, the Patriots haven't beaten a team with a winning record all season. The Ravens have been on the doorstep for years now and I think this is finally when they push through and reach the Super Bowl.

Prediction: Baltimore 23, New England 20

NFC Championship: New York Giants (11-7) at San Francisco (14-3), San Francisco favored by 2 1/2

All year it seemed destined that if the 49ers made it to the NFC Championship they would have to find a way to win at Lambeau Field. Instead, the Giants blew the doors off of the Packers and now the 49ers get to host their first NFC Championship since 1997. The Giants come in red hot, having won four games in a row. They have become a completely different team the last month as both their running game and defenses have emerged as forces. The public loves the Giants and feels we are seeing deja vu from when they made their run from out of nowhere in 2008. In my mind we are seeing deja vu, but that deja vu is from last week. The Saints came into San Francisco firing on all cylinders, having won nine in a row. The public loved them to beat the 49ers, because everyone outside of 49ers fans saw San Francisco as a flukey team from a bad division. The public saw the real side of the 49ers last week, a resilient group that wins because they play well in all phases. The defense was lit up more than I would have expected but they still forced five turnovers, which played a huge role in the win. Most surprisingly, Alex Smith was able to lead the 49ers down the field in crunch time. However, that shouldn't have been as much as a surprise as it was, because it was on the back of Smith that the Niners defeated the Giants in their first meeting this season. The Giants knocked Frank Gore out of the game early and without him the 49ers were unable to run the ball. Smith still was able to be productive passing the ball, including hitting Vernon Davis for a game changing touchdown. People will rightly say that clearly Eli Manning is a better quarterback but at least this season Smith seems much better at avoiding mistakes. The 49ers have the best turnover differential in the league because Smith has avoided costly interceptions and mistakes. They also have the hardest hitting defense in the league, and a defense that I think can slow down a potent Giants offense. The Giants didn't have Ahmad Bradshaw in the first game, and to me he is a much greater threat than overrated Brandon Jacobs. Still, I am not too concerned because the 49ers have been stone walls against the run all season. The pressure will be on the 49ers corners to slow down Hakeem Nicks, who has been a beast in the playoffs, as well as Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham. A lot of help will come if the 49ers continue to create pressure like they have all season with Justin and Aldon Smith. The Giants don't have a big playmaker at TE like the Saints did, so that will make things easier for Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman, and Ahmad Brooks.

I wasn't thrilled with the Niners commitment to running the ball last weekend, as Gore only had 13 carries. He was struggling but I feel like that was because he was never allowed to get in a rhythm. Late in the game he was able to bust a big run and that is what he can do if the 49ers are patient with him. They don't want to get into a passing contest with New York, especially with how well the Giants front four is playing right now. It will be huge if the 49ers can be effective running the ball. I also want to see Michael Crabtree play much better. He did have a touchdown last week but had at least three drops and looked pretty bad out there. I believe this game will come down to turnovers and whoever wins that battle. The 49ers have been winning it all year and I expect them to this weekend. I really believe the 49ers time is now, and we are destined to see Harbowl II, this time for all the marbles.

Prediction: San Francisco 24, New York Giants 17

Last Week Straight Up: 3-1
Overall Straight Up: 166-98

Last Week Against the Spread: 1-3
Overall Against the Spread: 131-126-7

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Hail Mary - NFL Playoffs: Divisional Round

My ability to really enjoy Divisional round weekend will be determined by about 8 PM eastern. If the 49ers defeat the Saints I will be riding a high I haven't felt in close to a decade. However, if the 49ers lose, it will be tough to get too excited for the three remaining games. Some of that also has to do with the fact that Niners/Saints is clearly the game of the weekend. Two teams with a combined record of 27-6 facing off has much more appeal to me than a primetime game between the Patriots and the Broncos, who weren't even over .500 last week. Sunday, it will be the Texans and third stringer T.J. Yates traveling to Baltimore where the Ravens didn't lose a game this season. That will be followed up by the New York Giants heading to Lambeau Field to try to knock off the best team in football, the Packers.

NFC Divisional Round: New Orleans (14-3) at San Francisco (13-3), New Orleans favored by 3

If anyone could ever pull out the nobody believes in us card it would be the 49ers. After the Saints got done destroying the Lions last weekend, many people were already penciling in Saints/Packers for the NFC Championship. That is the game all the casual fans want to see because it will means lots of points and excitement. As a 49ers fan, the thought of that game sickens me. It would be vastly more entertaining to me to watch the 49ers try to slow down powerful offenses in back to back weeks. For the last few weeks of the season the Niners were in a dog fight trying to hold off New Orleans for the 2 seed. If this game were in New Orleans I would not have near the confidence I have that San Francisco can slow down the Saints juggernaut. It can't be denied that the Saints and especially their offense are near unstoppable in the Superdome. But the road has been a different story for Drew Brees and company. All three of their losses came on the road this season, and two of them were to the sorry Tampa Bay Bucs and St. Louis Rams. In those losses the Saints managed just 20 and 21 points against terrible defenses. How will they do when going up against a ferocious defense like San Francisco's? People like to tout the Saints running game featuring Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas, and Chris Ivory and how it makes the Saints more than a one dimensional offense. They are very talented, but they haven't faced the number one rush defense in football, which hadn't allowed a rushing touchdown until Week 16. The 49ers aren't slouches against the pass either, with Carlos Rogers back there, as well as having the good fortune to be able to call on Navarro Bowman, or Patrick Willis to cover Saints star TE Jimmy Graham. It will be a fun battle to watch up front between the Saints offensive line, with its three Pro Bowlers, and the Niners defensive line with Justin and Aldon Smith. No one is talking about the 49ers offense and they did have their share of struggles this season. Alex Smith performed much better but he still is nothing more than a game manager. However, he does have weapons in WR Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis. If those two have big games that will just be a bonus because the pressure is on RB Frank Gore to come up big. Gore has to run well for San Francisco to have a chance. The key to slowing down the Saints offense? It is quite simple, ball control. If you can run the ball successfully that will limit the opportunities Brees and guys like Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, and Robert Meachem will have. I'm not delusional, I know a lot has to go right for San Francisco to win this game. I have a lot of confidence in them and they have given me good reason. They are well coached, they run the ball, and they play good defense. Those attributes have won many teams championships, and I think it can do so again. I think the defense will play very well and force turnovers. I think the offense will be able to turn those turnovers into touchdowns. This cannot turn into a David Akers field goal fest like a lot of the 49ers games were. I think come 8:00 I will be a very happy man.

Prediction: San Francisco 24, New Orleans 21

AFC Divisional Round: Denver (9-8) at New England (13-3), New England favored by 13 1/2

It is Tebow vs. Brady II, or Broncos vs. Patriots, but honestly people care about this because of Tim Tebow and Tom Brady. The Patriots destroyed Denver a month ago in Denver and people trying to come up with reasons why Denver can win this game are grasping. The most popular grasp is that Denver was leading New England in that game before they got the turnover bug. That is true, but in my mind that just sped up the inevitable. The Patriots have seen a complete turnaround in their playoff fortunes the last few years and it hasn't been good. It used to be you never expected to see Belichick or Brady lose in the playoffs, now you never see them win. The Patriots have lost their last three playoff games, and their last two losses were at home. Maybe more than any other reason that is why I am so confident that they get off the schneid this weekend. Belichick and Brady losing three playoff home games in a row? It just doesn't seem possible. It also helps that Broncos are just 9-8 and more a lucky team, than a good team. The Patriots defense is a sieve and can be scored on but Denver is just as inconsistent on offense. Their running game is their strength but even when that is clicking if the passing game is non-existent the offense will still struggle. For whatever reason the last two weeks the Patriots spotted both the Dolphins and the Bills big leads before turning on the jets and running away with both games. I don't think that will happen Saturday. For one, I don't think Denver is capable of running out to a big lead, and secondly, Tom Brady will likely be at his precise best in this game. I expect to see a Brady performance where he maybe throws five incompletions. The Broncos had a hell of a time with TE Aaron Hernandez last time and with them keying in on him, I think the other all world TE Rob Gronkowski will have a big game. I am not crazy enough to actually bet against the Broncos, so I like them to get a backdoor cover, but I expect the Patriots to control this game from start to finish.

Prediction: New England 30, Denver 17

AFC Divisional Round: Houston (11-6) at Baltimore (12-4), Baltimore favored by 7 1/2

This is the game I am least looking forward to. I have never much liked watching the Ravens play, and with the Texans down to a third string quarterback, offense for them will likely be limited. They did put up 31 points on Cincinnati last week, but that was due to a collection of Cincinnati turnovers and the Bengals defense not knowing how to tackle Arian Foster. The Ravens will be able to do much better with monsters like Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody up front. If Foster breaks that wall then he has to deal with Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis and underrated Jarret Johnson. T.J. Yates has been serviceable for the Texans but it has helped that Foster and Ben Tate have been able to do the heavy lifting. If they are slowed down, which I think they will be, this game will get ugly. I expect to see Yates taking a lot of sacks and turning the ball over. Yates will have a valid excuse, he is a rookie, but Joe Flacco doesn't have the same excuses. Flacco has struggled with accuracy and holding on to the ball over his career. I think the Ravens have tried to make themselves believe he is a franchise quarterback but he has never really shown it. I don't think he will have a banner day against a tough Houston defense, but I do think that Ray Rice will get the bulk of the touches and will rush for over 100 yards. The only way the Ravens lose this game is if offensive coordinator Cam Cameron gets silly and becomes pass happy. He has done that in the past, but someone, namely John Harbaugh, needs to smack him upside the head and remind him that Rice is far and away their best player on offense. It also can't be overlooked just how good Baltimore is at home. They have won 18 of their past 19 games at M&T Bank Stadium. They feed off their crowd's energy and I don't think the Texans have the horses necessary to win on the road.

Prediction: Baltimore 21, Houston 9

NFC Divisional Round: New York Giants (10-7) at Green Bay (15-1), Green Bay favored by 7 1/2

Everyone is back on the Giants bandwagon. People love to jump on the Giants bandwagon, they could have three or four bad performances but if they have a good one, people immediately forget about the bad ones and declare the Giants dangerous. This isn't 2007 people. The Giants aren't playing a Cowboys team that would have rather vacationed then prepare for a playoff game. They are traveling to Lambeau Field to face a juggernaut. People like to point to the fact the Giants played Green Bay close in the regular season but that game was in New York. I more like to think about last season, when New York went to Green Bay and lost 45-17 and were torched by Aaron Rodgers. The Giants have won four of their last five but if you look at who they beat it was a bunch of mediocre to slightly good teams. The Packers are so far above the Cowboys, Jets, and Falcons that you can't even compare the talent levels. The Giants have been winning lately because their running game finally has a pulse. I still tend to think their rushing attack is more the variety we saw all season, last in the NFL, then the one that pounded the Falcons last weekend. I foolishly believed in the playoff choking duo of Matt Ryan and coach Mike Smith to take advantage of the Giants deficiencies on defense. I know I will not feel foolish believing in Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy to march up and down the field on the Giants. The Giants do have a fearsome pass rush with Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre Paul and Osi Umeniyora, but the Packers will be fully healthy at offensive line for the first time in weeks and up to the challenge. With Greg Jennings returning to complement Jordy Nelson, James Jones, and Jermichael Finley, the Packers just have too many weapons. Eli Manning and the Giants offense can score with the best of them, but bad Eli strikes at times and turns the ball over too much. I think we will see a lot of Manning Face and Manning shoulder shrug in this game. It will take a very good defense to beat the Packers and the Giants defense doesn't fit that bill.

Prediction: Green Bay 38, New York Giants 21

Last Week Straight Up: 2-2
Overall Straight Up: 163-97

Last Week Against the Spread: 3-1
Overall Against the Spread: 130-123-7

Monday, January 9, 2012

Cram Session (Bowl Edition) - 2012 BCS Championship

BCS National Championship Game

#1 LSU (13-0) vs. #2 Alabama (11-1) in New Orleans, Louisiana

The buzz surrounding this game is minimal. It is funny that their meeting in November that ended up essentially being meaningless received more hype than this game, that will decide the national champion. LSU and Alabama underwhelmed when they played in the Game of the Century two months ago and because of that most of America is bracing themselves for a boring, field goal fest. I didn't find the game boring two months ago but it definitely didn't leave me clamoring to see it again. Based on resume Oklahoma State deserved to be in this game more than Alabama, but I think it is clear that these are the two best teams in the country.

The offenses are incidental in this game, it will be won or lost by the defenses. Alabama finished number one in defense, LSU a close second. The most points Alabama allowed this season was 21, to believe it or not, Georgia Southern. The star players on the defense are their linebackers Courtney Upshaw (8 sacks) and Dont'a Hightower, who led the team in tackles with 81. In the first meeting Alabama allowed just 239 yards, just 91 of those yards through and forced 2 LSU interceptions. What came back to bite the Tide was their inability to hit field goals. They missed three and had one blocked. It could come back to bite them again tonight, as it is expected this will be another close one. Cade Foster and Jeremy Shelley shared duties last time but Foster is the usual starter and should be the one kicking them this game. Alabama was unable to get RB Trent Richardson really going last game, he was held to 89 yards on 23 carries. That put more pressure on QB AJ McCarron than the Tide would have liked, as he was forced to throw it 28 times. WR Marquis Maze was able to find some holes in the Tigers secondary and will be the go to option for McCarron tonight.

As for the Tigers, their all world defense is led by the Honey Badger, Tyrann Mathieu. It isn't just defense where Mathieu is dangerous though, he is even scarier as a punt returner. In his last two games he returned punts for scores against Arkansas and then Georgia in the SEC championship. His fellow first team All-American, Morris Claiborne is no slouch either. He had an interception against Alabama in the first meeting and finished with 6 on the season. On the defensive line, the Tigers have ferocious pass rushers Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. On offense, the quarterback situation was muddled in the first game, but Jordan Jefferson has emerged as the starter since then. Jarrett Lee started the last game and had two interceptions before being yanked for Jefferson. Jefferson avoided any mistakes and did what was needed to win a tight ballgame. He also was somewhat effective on the ground, which was key because Spencer Ware was held to 29 yards on 16 carries. Michael Ford finished as the Tigers leading rusher and I expect him to get more than the 11 carries he got last game. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry against the Tide and Les Miles should be more apt to feed him the ball this game. Leading receiver Rueben Randle had just 2 catches for 19 yards against Alabama,. so the Tigers are hoping to get much more production out of him and the passing game in general.

The question surrounding this game is whether the month off will have any effect on the domination of the defenses. Both teams have talked about how chances were left on the table last game and this game has a chance to play out much differently. I just don't see it. Neither team will suddenly forget to play defense, and neither team is all that great offensively to be able to exploit the others defense. I do think we will see touchdowns this time but not many. I expect LSU to win the turnover battle and for that to end up being the difference in the game. I predict LSU will win the touchdown battle two to one, and the Honey Badger will be named the game's MVP. The win will make the Tigers the undisputed champion. If Alabama wins and it is close, all hell could break loose, and we could be seeing another split champion if the AP pollsters decide to go that route.

Prediction: LSU 17, Alabama 13

Overall Record: 118-23

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Hail Mary - NFL Playoffs: Wild Card Round

It is a bittersweet time for football fans. On one hand we are excited about the playoffs and watching them unfold over the next month. But on the other, it means there are just 11 games left this season, before football goes into hibernation for seven months. As fans we will cross that bridge when we come to it, but for now lets enjoy the ride. The Wild Card round is mixed between some familiar faces and some newcomers looking to crash the party. The Bengals and Texans face off for the right to be huge underdogs in the Divisional round, while the Lions are in the playoffs for the first time since 1999 and get the unenviable task of trying to win at New Orleans. The Giants are back in the playoffs after a two year absence, hosting the Falcons and Matt Ryan, who will be trying to earn his first playoff victory. In the finale, Tim Tebow tries to recapture the magic of a month ago and somehow slay the monster that is the Steelers defense.

AFC Wild Card: Cincinnati (9-7) at Houston (10-6), Houston favored by 3

Both teams come limping into the playoffs. The Bengals went just 3-5 in the second half of the season and only beat one team with a winning record this season. Their rookie quarterback, the Red Rocket, Andy Dalton, has been dealing with flu like symptoms this week and it is unclear how well he will be feeling come game time. The Texans have lost three in a row, and rookie quarterback T.J. Yates hasn't thrown a touchdown in three weeks. Despite all that, Houston will still be rocking as they host the franchise's first ever playoff game. The Bengals surpassed everyone's expectations and it was largely on the backs of Dalton and fellow rookie WR A.J. Green. The Bengals have a rushing attack with Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott but it is pretty plodding and they tend to get most of their yards just through sheer volume of attempts. Defensively, the Bengals have been strong all season, ranking in the top 10 in both rushing and passing yards allowed. The Texans have become a power running team, with a terrific two headed monster in Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Tate was just 58 yards short of giving the Texans two 1,000 yard rushers. With the Texans down their third string quarterback and star WR Andre Johnson hurting for most of the season, the success of Foster and Tate is what carried Houston to the playoffs. Another major factor was the rapid improvement of their defense. Despite not having Mario Williams for most of the year, The Texans finished third in passing yards allowed per game, and fourth in rushing yards allowed. This is a rematch from a month ago, when Houston came from 19-3 behind in Cincinnati to win 20-19 on a last second touchdown. I think this game will be another close, defensive dominated game. I think home field will be the difference, and the crowd will give the Texans the lift they need to earn their first playoff win in franchise history. A loss will mean Cincinnati still hasn't won a playoff game since 1991, but with Dalton and Green, the future is bright.

Prediction: Houston 18, Cincinnati 14

NFC Wild Card: Detroit (10-6) at New Orleans (13-3), New Orleans favored by 11

There is little doubt that this will be the highest scoring game of Wild Card weekend. The Lions get a second shot at the Saints, and will try to avenge their Week 13, 31-17 loss. The Lions had more yardage than the Saints in that game but were undone by a multitude of stupid penalties. They were also without Ndamukong Suh, who was suspended. He hasn't received much attention but Matthew Stafford had an amazing year. Finally healthy for a full season Stafford threw for over 5,000 yards and had 41 TDs. He did have 16 INTs which he needs to cut down on, but still, awesome year, and in any other season an MVP type of year. He can expect to have a big game against New Orleans, who was 30th in the league against the pass. Some say that Stafford's numbers are inflated because he can throw the ball up in the air and no matter what Calvin Johnson will go get it. Stafford's second favorite target is TE Brandon Pettigrew who the quietest 83 catches I think I have ever heard of. The Lions pass the ball so much because they do it well and also because their running game is pretty non-existent. Their leading rusher this season was Jahvid Best with 390 yards and he didn't even play in the last in the last 10 games. Kevin Smith eventually took over late in the year and aside from a big game against Carolina has done very little. The Lions defense has really struggled of late, highlighted by them getting torched by Packers backup QB Matt Flynn last week. What can be said about the Saints offense? Basically, they are filled with record breakers and at home impossible to stop. Drew Brees shattered Dan Marino's passing yards record, TE Jimmy Graham was unstoppable, and RB Darren Sproles became the do everything player for the Saints. The Saints lowest point output at home this year was 27 against believe it or not, Tampa Bay. The Saints are now a team that can run the ball, they finished sixth in rushing and can turn to Sproles, Pierre Thomas or Chris Ivory and expect production out of all of them. Defensively, the Saints are strong against the run but as mentioned above struggle against the pass. They also ranked very low in takeaways, which was a staple of their 2010 Super Bowl team. People keep saying the Lions can win this but I think that is just people hoping this is a close game. The only way the Saints lose is if Brees throws 2 picks or more. The Lions don't have the running game needed to play ball control and keep the ball out of Brees hands. As a 49ers fan, I would love for the Lions to win so the Niners can avoid New Orleans, but its not happening.

Prediction: New Orleans 37, Detroit 23

NFC Wild Card: Atlanta (10-6) at New York Giants (9-7), New York Giants favored by 3

I love the Falcons in this game. The Giants backed into the playoffs, with wins over the Jets and Cowboys, mostly because those teams were so bad and couldn't take advantage of all the mistakes the Giants tried to hand them. Falcons QB Matt Ryan has been on fire his last seven games, throwing 15 TDs to just 2 INTs. He hasn't thrown a pick in a month and must be salivating to face a Giants defense that was 29th against the pass. RB Michael Turner had another big season, rushing for 1,340 yards and 11 TDs. WR Roddy White started slowly but along with Ryan caught fire towards the end of the year and finished with 100 catches. The man they gave the farm up for, rookie WR Julio Jones had a strong rookie year with 54 catches and 8 TDs. You also can't forget about the ageless one, TE Tony Gonzalez who continues to play at a high level. The Falcons are a pretty good defensive team especially against run, finishing sixth on the season. They probably won't be tested much by the Giants running game, which finished dead last this season. Ahmad Bradshaw missed some time with injuries and Brandon Jacobs stopped being good about three years ago. The Giants offense was carried by Eli Manning and dominated by WR Victor Cruz, who came out of nowhere to be the teams leading receiver. Opposite him is Hakeem Nicks, who had a strong season but was also wildly inconsistent at times. Defensively, the Giants have been pretty terrible but still have a very talented defensive front with Justin Tuck, Osi Umeniyora, and emerging stud Jason Pierre-Paul. I really like the Falcons because I think they are clearly a better team than the Giants and I also think that despite his strong showing last week, Manning has been largely struggling as of late. If he isn't playing his best, the Giants offense becomes very stagnant and I think that is too much of a burden for Eli. Plus, the Giants home field advantage isn't much because as soon as they struggle the crowd will turn on them. Falcons win and set themselves up for a Divisional playoff rematch with the Packers.

Prediction: Atlanta 24, New York Giants 17

AFC Wild Card: Pittsburgh (12-4) at Denver (8-8), Pittsburgh favored by 8 1/2

It is clear from the line that Vegas has fallen out of love with Tim Tebow and they are hoping that a lot of people take Denver to cover the spread. Maybe I am a sucker but I still believe Tebow and the Broncos can keep this game competitive. The Tebow bandwagon is empty after the Broncos closed the season with three straight losses but thanks to the awfulness of the AFC West they were still able to win the division. It is no secret that if the Broncos can't run the ball, either with Tebow or Willis McGahee they have no shot to win. Their leading receiver this year was Eric Decker and he had just 44 catches. McGahee appeared reborn in Denver and rushed for 1,199 yards. Even with him rushing for 145 yards last weekend against Kansas City the Broncos still only managed 3 points. Denver's defense was receiving a lot of the credit when they were winning and they certainly have played well after struggling to start the season. They were unable to slow down the Patriots offense but not many teams have been able to do that anyway. The Bills scored points but most of those were because of turnovers by Tebow and last week they held the Chiefs to a touchdown. The Steelers offense has been having a real hard time scoring lately, especially since Ben Roethlisberger sprained his ankle. Now they are without their leading rusher Rashard Mendenhall for the playoffs, as he tore his ACL last week against Cleveland. If Roethlisberger is mobile enough and can find time to throw he has two game breaking weapons in Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. The Steelers defense was declared dead by Warren Sapp after week 1 but ended up finishing first against the pass and eighth against the run. They will be without S Ryan Clark, who can't play in Denver, and they will miss him, but Tebow isn't the guy that can exploit that. I expect this game to go like most Denver games, the defense plays well enough to let them hang around, but I don't think Tebow can make enough plays for Denver to pull off the upset.

Prediction: Pittsburgh 20, Denver 13

Last Week Straight Up: 10-6
Overall Straight Up: 161-95

Last Week Against the Spread: 4-11-1 (ouch)

Overall Against the Spread: 127-122-7

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Hail Mary - Looking back

I put a lot of time and effort into my NFL previews back in August so I thought it would be fun to take a look back and see how I did.

NFC East (My predictions)

1. *Philadelphia 11-5, 2. *Dallas 10-6, 3. New York Giants 8-8, 4. Washington 5-11

NFC East (Actual results)

1. *New York Giants 9-7, 2. Philadelphia 8-8, 3. Dallas 8-8, 4. Washington 5-11

The Verdict: Like everyone else I had high expectations for Philly, but went even further and had them winning the Super Bowl. Ugh. Nailed the Redskins record and knew they would struggle with no real quarterback. If I knew that back in August, how didn't the Shanahan's know? Almost was right on Dallas making the playoffs.

NFC North (My Predictions)

1. *Green Bay 12-4, 2. Minnesota 8-8, 3. Detroit 7-9, 4. Chicago 5-11

NFC North (Actual Results)

1. *Green Bay 15-1, 2. *Detroit 10-6, 3. Chicago 8-8, 4. Minnesota 3-13

The Verdict: Correctly predicted Green Bay as division champs but not much else. Did get it right about the Bears missing the playoffs.

NFC South (My predictions)

1. *New Orleans 12-4, 2. *Atlanta 10-6, 3. Tampa Bay 8-8, 4. Carolina 3-13

NFC South (Actual Results)

1. *New Orleans 13-3, 2. *Atlanta 10-6, 3. Carolina 6-10, 4. Tampa Bay 4-12

The Verdict: Was right on with Atlanta and New Orleans, didn't anticipate the impact Cam would have, or how bad the Bucs actually were.

NFC West (My Predictions)

1. *Arizona 7-9, 2. San Francisco 6-10, 3. St. Louis 6-10, 4. Seattle 5-11

NFC West (Actual Results)

1. *San Francisco 13-3, 2. Arizona 8-8, 3. Seattle 7-9, 4. St. Louis 2-14

The Verdict: Thought Harbaugh would improve the Niners but figured it would start in Year 2. Knew that the Rams were frauds.

AFC East (My Predictions)

1. *New England 13-3, 2. *New York Jets 11-5, 3. Miami 6-10, 4. Buffalo 5-11

AFC East (Actual Results)

1. *New England 13-3, 2. New York Jets 8-8, 3. Miami 6-10, 4. Buffalo 6-10

The Verdict: I nailed this division. If the Jets hadn't been a bunch of choking, fluke frauds I could have been perfect.

AFC North (My Predictions)

1. *Pittsburgh 12-4, 2. *Baltimore 9-7, 3. Cleveland 7-9, 4. Cincinnati 4-12

AFC North (Actual Results)

1. *Baltimore 12-4, 2. *Pittsburgh 12-4, 3. *Cincinnati 9-7, 4. Cleveland 4-12

The Verdict: Had the Ravens in the playoffs but figured they were getting too old on defense and would take a step back. Had no idea the Bengals would turn it around like they did. Thought the Browns would be better largely based on what appeared to be an easy schedule.

AFC South (My Predictions)

1. *Indianapolis 9-7, 2. Houston 9-7, 3. Tennessee 6-10, 4. Jacksonville 4-12

AFC South (Actual Results)

1. *Houston 10-6, 2. Tennessee 9-7, 3. Jacksonville 5-11, 4. Indianapolis 2-14

The Verdict: These predictions were made before it was known that Manning would be out for so long. I did alright, knew the Jags would stink, didn't expect the Titans to be mediocre.

AFC West (My Predictions)

1. *San Diego 11-5, 2. Kansas City 7-9, 3. Oakland 7-9, 4. Denver 6-10

AFC West (Actual Results)

1. *Denver 8-8, 2. San Diego 8-8, 3. Oakland 8-8, 4. Kansas City 7-9

The Verdict: Yes, I fell for the San Diego hype like everyone else. Never again. Pretty much was right there with the rest, figured this division would be mediocre as a whole.

As far as my playoff predictions I predicted 3 (Green Bay, New Orleans, Atlanta) out of 6 teams correctly and also was 3 (Baltimore, Pittsburgh, New England) out of 6 in the AFC. In the NFC, my divisional round prediction of Green Bay vs. Atlanta remains possible, but I had the Eagles beating the Packers in the NFC Championship and that won't be happening. In the AFC, my AFC Championship prediction of New England and Pittsburgh is possible, and my Super Bowl pick for the AFC of New England can still happen. My ultimate pick of the Eagles as Super Bowl champions is unfortunately, impossible.

Cram Session - Bowl Edition

People may detest the BCS but it can't be denied that thus far the games have been tremendous and filled with drama. That trend continued last night with Michigan and Virginia Tech going to overtime, before the Wolverines finally prevailed. Clemson and West Virginia have a lot to live up to tonight.

Orange Bowl, Wednesday, January 4

#23 West Virginia (9-3) vs. #15 Clemson (10-3) in Miami, Florida

These teams are champions from conferences that don't get much respect in college football. It is pretty much accepted that the Big East is a joke, especially when 7 win Louisville almost was their representative in this game. The ACC has failed to live up to the expectations placed upon the conference when Miami, Florida State, and Virginia Tech joined. The mediocrity of the conferences has led to some less than stellar games in the recent history of the Orange Bowl, such as Wake Forest/Louisville, and Cincinnati/Virginia Tech. The merits of how good West Virginia and Clemson are can be argued but there is little doubt that this will be a highly entertaining game. Both teams feature prolific offenses, with plenty of star players at the skill positions. Both teams look to run when they have to, but live off of their passing game. For West Virginia their offense is driven by Geno Smith. Smith had 25 TDs and 7 INTs this season, almost identical to last season. The big difference was his attempts and his passing yards which were up considerably. He didn't throw many picks, but when he did, it came in bunches, as he had three games with at least 2 INTs. His receivers are Stedman Bailey, who led the team with 11 TDs, and Tavon Austin, who led the team with 89 catches. The running game is anchored by freshman Dustin Garrison, while the red zone back is Shawne Alston who finished with 10 TDs. Defensively, the Mountaineers struggled, giving up 26 points a game. The Tigers passing attack is led by Tajh Boyd. Boyd struggled a bit as the season winded down but still finished with 31 TDs and 10 INTs. Andre Ellington is their do everything running back, and he comes into the Orange Bowl with some momentum, as in his last game he shredded the Hokies defense. WR Sammy Watkins was sensational in his freshman year, compiling 11 TDs and 77 catches. Lining up on the other side is WR DeAndre Hopkins, no slouch himself with 62 catches. Much like the Mountaineers, the Tigers struggled defensively, but have shown flashes of being able to shut teams down. Both of these teams are very young and have the potential to be in BCS games for years to come. This should be a back and forth shootout, and I expect it will come down to the final minutes. I think Clemson's speed on offense will eventually overwhelm the Mountaineers and be the difference in the game.

Prediction: Clemson 38, West Virginia 35

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Cram Session - Bowl Edition

The BCS bowls got off to an exciting start yesterday. Oregon outlasted Wisconsin in a track meet in the Rose Bowl, and Oklahoma State defeated Stanford in overtime in the Fiesta Bowl. The third BCS bowl is tonight in New Orleans with Michigan taking on Virginia Tech.

Sugar Bowl, Tuesday, January 3

#13 Michigan (10-2) vs. #11 Virginia Tech (11-2) in New Orleans, Louisiana

Michigan capped off a strong first season under Brady Hoke by defeating their rivals, Ohio State for the first time since 2003. Not many have questioned them being invited to the Sugar Bowl. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Virginia Tech. Tech was thrashed for the second time this season by Clemson and many assumed were heading for something like the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. Instead, they were shockingly given an at-large bid to the Sugar Bowl despite basically not beating anyone worth a damn all season. If they lose this game or even worse get blown out the hate will grow even greater for Tech's inclusion over teams like Boise State, Kansas State and Arkansas. While Tech struggled with true competition they have some talented players, especially on offense. Quarterback Logan Thomas improved as the year went on and finished with 19 TDs, 9 INTs and 2,799 yards passing. However, the player that carried the team was RB David Wilson. Wilson was named the ACC player of the year and with good reason. He rushed for over 120 yards in 10 of Tech's 13 games, and finished the season with 1,627 rushing yards and 9 TDs. He is coming off his worst game of the season, where Clemson held him to just 32 yards on 11 carries. Tech has a pretty potent 1-2 punch at wide receiver with Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin. They are down to their third kicker in this game, their starting kicker was arrested on a felony charge, and their backup was sent home after missing curfew. That will definitely be something to watch in what could be a close game. When people think of Michigan their thoughts immediately turn to QB Denard Robinson. Robinson saw his interceptions spike this year, and his completion percentage and passing yards dip, but he was dealing with a staph infection most of the season. He still remains a major threat running the ball, and the Wolverines also have a 1,000 yard running back in Fitzgerald Touissaint. Both teams play strong defense, so it will be interesting to see what kind of success the ground games for each team will have. I think Tech will be motivated to prove they belong in this game but I think the Wolverines are better. I also think the kicking game will definitely become a factor. Tech fans should like this since I can't seem to pick a game of theirs right lately but I like the Wolverines to get the win.

Prediction: Michigan 27, Virginia Tech 17

Overall Record: 117-22