Wednesday, February 29, 2012

2012 CAA Tournament Preview

Come Selection Sunday, the CAA will be one of the more interesting storylines to follow that night. Unlike last year, when the CAA was widely considered the strongest mid-major conference in the country, it has been a somewhat down year for the conference. No team took the bull by the horns in non-conference play, but Drexel and VCU have both been on fire the last two months and have gotten themselves into the at-large bid discussion. The easiest way for either of those teams to be waiting nervously on Selection Sunday is to win the CAA Conference Tournament that begins tomorrow in Richmond. For those that follow me on Twitter (@cbhsportsblog), you know how I feel about the supposed disadvantage teams besides VCU face with the tournament in Richmond. If you are good enough, you can win this tournament, whether its in Richmond or Timbuktu. Six of the twelve teams in the CAA have a realistic chance of cutting the nets down Monday night but who will ultimately be the winners?

1. Drexel (25-5, 16-2)

The Dragons have won 17 straight games, with their last loss coming January 2nd against Georgia State. Drexel is far from an offensive powerhouse, choosing instead to overwhelm their opponents with defensive pressure. The straw that stirs the drink is sophomore guard Frantz Massenat. Massenat is earning consideration for CAA Player of the Year and with good reason. He led Drexel in scoring at 13.5 ppg, assists with 4.5 per game, and tied for the team lead in steals, averaging almost a steal a game. They have another young talent in freshman guard Damion Lee. Lee was second on the Dragons in scoring and is coming off a 25 point performance at Old Dominion. Chris Fouch was the Dragons leading scorer last season, but has seen his minutes decrease this year. However, he can still light it up at times, as evidenced by the 25 points he put up against Hofstra. Their rebounding numbers are both down from last season, but teams still have to contend with Samme Givens and Darly McCoy down low. The Dragons will be without starter Derrick Thomas in this tournament as he was suspended.

2. Virginia Commonwealth (25-6, 15-3)

VCU will likely not make the run they did last year to the Final Four but this year's team is actually better. They have won 14 of their last 15 games, with the loss being on a buzzer beater at George Mason. Senior Bradford Burgess has picked up the slack left by departing players like Jamie Skeen and Joey Rodriguez. He leads the Rams in scoring and is second on the team in rebounding. Sophomore Juvonte Reddic has taken a huge leap this season. Last season he only played 11 minutes a game, but with spots opening up, he now plays 27 minutes per game and is an all around player that can score, rebound, and play tough defense. Guard Darius Theus is another player who saw his role increase and has responded well. With their pressure defense and ability to cause havoc, VCU would be dangerous in this tournament no matter where it was held.

3. George Mason (23-8, 14-4)

The Patriots come into the tournament reeling, losing their final two games of the season to drop to third in the conference. Unlike VCU and Drexel they can't hold on to any hopes of an at-large, so its win or bust for the Patriots. If things go according to plan they would meet VCU in the Semi-Finals for the second straight season and will finally try to beat the Rams in Richmond. However, there is no guarantee of that happening, because their potential Quarter-Final draw against Georgia State will be a tough test. Senior Ryan Pearson is another CAA Player of the Year candidate, averaging 17.8 ppg and 8.5 rebounds per game. Fellow senior Mike Morrison is also a relatively strong rebounder and can be an added weapon on the offensive end if he gets going early. The biggest question mark for Mason is their young point guards, Bryon Allen and Corey Edwards. Their inexperience has led to the Patriots becoming one of the most turnover plagued teams in the country. Mason has mostly been able to overcome those turnovers due to their offensive prowess, but they did come back to bite them in their last two losses. Another guard that has struggled is senior Andre Cornelius. Cornelius was suspended the first 10 games of the season and has never really found his footing under Paul Hewitt. He has fouled out of his last three games, scoring just 15 points in the process. It would be a huge boost to Mason if Cornelius can get on track. Vertrail Vaughns is not shooting the three nearly as well as last season, but still is someone that can get hot. Another great scoring threat coming off the bench is Sherrod Wright.

4. Old Dominion (19-12, 13-5)

The Monarchs have won the last two CAA Tournaments but it would be quite the shocker if they pull off a three-peat. ODU has been able to beat the teams below them, but hasn't broken through against the elite of the CAA, finishing 0-5 against VCU, George Mason, and Drexel. Their all everything player is senior G-F Kent Bazemore. Bazemore led the Monarchs in scoring and assists and was second in rebounding. Their second best player is senior F Chris Cooper. Cooper is a monster on the glass, averaging over 10 rebounds per game, to go with his 10.6 points per game. ODU is strong on the glass, which is important because they are pretty terrible offensively, shooting just 40% as a team.

5. Delaware (17-12, 12-6)

We are now getting into real long shot territory, however, they call it March Madness for a reason, so you can't entirely throw out the chances of a team like Delaware. The Fightin Blue Hens have won eight straight games. One of the best players you have never heard of is their guard Devon Saddler. Saddler was second in the conference in scoring, averaging 18.7 points per game. Junior forward Jamelle Hagins was second in scoring on Delaware and led the CAA in rebounding. Delaware was the second highest scoring team in the CAA, and were held under 60 points only twice in conference play.

6. Georgia State (20-10, 11-7)

First year coach Ron Hunter has done an incredible job at Georgia State. He changed the culture around the team and got players that were under performing to over perform. This senior laden team completely buys into the team concept and has many weapons. One of those players is Jihad Ali. The senior guard shoots 43% from the field and led the Panthers in scoring. Guards James Fields and Josh Micheuax are excellent distributors and also terrors on the defensive end, creating turnovers at a high rate.

Below are my predictions for Friday's First Round and then how I see Saturday-Monday shaking out.

First Round

#8 James Madison over #9 UNC-Wilmington
#5 Delaware over #12 Towson
#7 Northeastern over #10 William and Mary
#6 Georgia State over #11 Hofstra


#1 Drexel over #8 James Madison
#5 Delaware over #4 Old Dominion
#2 Virginia Commonwealth over #7 Northeastern
#3 George Mason over #6 Georgia State


#1 Drexel over #5 Delaware
#2 Virginia Commonwealth over #3 George Mason


#2 Virginia Commonwealth over #1 Drexel

I don't anticipate many upsets in this tournament. I do think Delaware will knock off a shaky Old Dominion team. GMU will have their hands full with Georgia State but I think they will pull out the victory. Unfortunately, I think their struggles against VCU in this tournament will continue and they will once again be sent home by the Rams. That will lead to the Rams knocking off Drexel in the championship, giving coach Shaka Smart his first CAA title. I believe the Rams are the best team in the CAA and as mentioned above that is why they will win, not because the tournament is in Richmond.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Alley - Oop

We are just one week away from conference tournaments starting and the beginning of March Madness. George Mason is coming off a disappointing loss at Northeastern and because of that no longer has a chance at a regular season CAA title. However, they can still earn the #2 seed, whatever that get's them, if they can win at Richmond on Saturday. The Tar Heels go to Charlottesville on Saturday and are just looking to keep their momentum heading into next week's chance for revenge at Durham against Duke.

Saturday, February 25

George Mason (23-7, 14-3) at VCU (24-6, 14-3)

VCU and their fans will be jacked for this game. Any normal GMU/VCU game has a pretty intense atmosphere, but add in the revenge factor for VCU and how they lost to Mason the first time these teams played and the Siegel Center will be rocking. Mason has had their struggles on the road, losing to such "luminaries" as Delaware and Northeastern away from Fairfax. VCU very much buys into the team concept as they don't have a single standout player. Their leading scorer is G-F Bradford Burgess who is coming off an atrocious game against UNCW where he shot just 1-12, finishing with 5 points. Their best all around player is Juvonte Reddic, their second leading scorer and their leading rebounder. Mason's guards will be tested by Darius Theus, who played well against Mason two weeks ago.

Neither team shot the ball particularly well in the last game and I expect to a similar defensive battle in this game. Mason's best player Ryan Pearson was a monster in the first game, but he has had his struggles on the road, so it is imperative that he plays to his capability. Mason was also helped by a huge game from Vertrail Vaughns, which isn't something they can always count on. Turnovers have been a major sore spot for Mason, especially in the last few games and that is an area that VCU will happily exploit as they are tremendous at causing turnovers. The inexperience in the backcourt for Mason with Bryon Allen and Corey Edwards can become painfully apparent at times, especially in tight, late game situations. They were able to get away with it against VCU but it doomed them against Northeastern.

I think VCU will control this game but Mason will hit enough shots to keep within striking distance. However, I am not confident in Mason's ability to handle the Siegel Center crowd and I think turnovers will again be a problem. Mason will lose this one and head into the CAA Tournament as a three seed and on a two game losing streak.

Prediction: VCU 68, George Mason 62

Top 10

Friday, February 24

#10 Marquette (23-5, 12-3) at West Virginia (17-11, 7-8)

Marquette is starting to get some buzz as a possible Final Four team come March. They have prolific scorers in seniors Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder. However, the Mountaineers have a potential conference player of the year on their side, Kevin Jones., as well as the dangerous Darryl Bryant. The Mountaineers are coming off an embarrassing loss at Notre Dame, and are desperate for a win to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive. I like the desperate team.

Prediction: West Virginia 59, Marquette 56

Saturday, February 25

Vanderbilt (20-8, 9-4) at #1 Kentucky (27-1, 13-0)

Kentucky just keeps on rolling and finding ways to win. They were trailing at Mississippi State for most of the game, but seemed to turn on a switch and ran away with the victory. They should get a test from Vanderbilt. Vandy has been a bit of a disappointment but they have two very talented players in John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor. Kentucky was able to hold both of them below their scoring average in the first game, and since the Wildcats are unbeatable at home, it would be foolish to pick against them.

Prediction: Kentucky 76, Vanderbilt 69

#2 Syracuse (28-1, 15-1) at Connecticut (17-10, 7-8)

Jeremy Lamb saved UCONN's season for the time being with his buzzer beater to defeat lowly Villanova on Monday. They will need more heroics from him to have a chance against dominant Syracuse. The Huskies hung around for most of the game against the Cuse in the first meeting before getting blown out late. I expect a similar scenario to unfold in Storrs.

Prediction: Syracuse 72, Connecticut 65

#3 Missouri (25-3, 12-3) at #5 Kansas (23-5, 13-2)

Two top 5 teams doing battle and possibly the last Border War makes this the game of the weekend. Kansas was in control the entire game at Mizzou, before the Tigers came roaring back to pull out the victory. Missouri is coming off a surprising home loss to Kansas State in what was clearly their worst performance of the season. The Jayhawks have won five in a row and seem to be peaking at the right time. There will be too much Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson in this one for the Tigers, I expect an emphatic Kansas win.

Prediction: Kansas 77, Missouri 65

Virginia Tech (15-13, 4-9) at #4 Duke (24-4, 11-2)

It is appearing that next Saturday's game in Durham between Duke and Carolina will be for the ACC regular season title. Duke has two very easy games before that against lowly Virginia Tech and Wake Forest. The Hokies are scrappy so they might make this game interesting for a half, but not much more than that.

Prediction: Duke 78, Virginia Tech 65

Nebraska (12-14, 4-11) at #6 Michigan State (23-5, 12-3)

Michigan State has surprised many, myself included with the type of year they have had. They have won six games in a row and have seen Draymond Green turn into the leader they needed him to be for this season to be successful. The outcome will never be in doubt against sorry Nebraska.

Prediction: Michigan State 71, Nebraska 55

#7 North Carolina (24-4, 11-2) at Virginia (21-6, 8-5)

North Carolina has played well during a recent tough stretch of the schedule and earned some impressive road victories. They attempt to add another one to the list Saturday afternoon at UVA. In the first game between these teams Virginia controlled the pace and led early, but eventually they wilted and Carolina ran away with it. Virginia is a terrible offensive team so the only chance they have is if Carolina is not hitting shots and Virginia maximizes the shot clock and slows the game down. They are in the mold of their coach Tony Bennett who preaches hard nosed defense. It is quite the contrasting styles when these two play each other. When the Cavs are scoring it is mostly being done by Mike Scott, who is also the team's leading rebounder.

Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall is coming off a career game against NC State. He poured in 22 points and also added 13 assists. When he plays at such a high level it makes Carolina perhaps the best team in the nation. Each Carolina starter scored in double figures in that game, but the lack of depth remains a concern. UVA will cause Carolina some frustration with their style of play but they just don't have the offensive firepower to keep up with a team like the Tar Heels.

Prediction: North Carolina 66, Virginia 58

Villanova (11-16, 4-11) at #8 Georgetown (20-6, 10-5)

Georgetown was flat out embarrassed at Seton Hall on Tuesday losing by 18. Jay Wright has seen things crash and burn at Villanova where the Wildcats have lost six of their last seven games. Their last two losses were heartbreakers in overtime where they blew big, early leads. Georgetown never seems to really blow anyone out so it will be another tough loss for the Wildcats in this one.

Prediction: Georgetown 59, Villanova 56

Sunday, February 26

#15 Wisconsin (20-8, 9-6) at #9 Ohio State (23-5, 11-4)

Based on their record 15 seems a little high for Wisconsin to be ranked. If rankings were based on watchability then Wisconsin would be about 300th. The Badgers have lost their last two road games, and traveling to Columbus wouldn't appear to be the place to finally pick up a win. The Buckeyes have had some struggles of their own recently, and in losses the offense becomes really stagnant. However, when they are firing from all cylinders the Buckeyes can score with the best of them, led by Jared Sullinger. Wisconsin will attempt to slow the game down and have Ohio State play an ugly brand of basketball, but I like the Buckeyes to show their toughness and pull out the victory.

Prediction: Ohio State 70, Wisconsin 66

Last Week: 8-3
Overall: 8-3

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Alley - Oop

I am now all in when it comes to college basketball. I love the sport but during NFL season I can't really pay more than cursory attention to it. My favorite teams, my Alma mater George Mason and my favorite team since I was a kid, North Carolina are having reasonably good seasons. Mason has exceeded most expectations and currently sits at 12-2 in the CAA, 22-6 overall. However, it will take winning the CAA Tournament in a couple of weeks for Mason to make the NCAA Tournament for a second straight season, an accomplishment the school has never achieved. Carolina was preseason number 1 but has suffered some tough losses along the way and is currently ranked 7th. They aren't on anyone's list for a #1 seed in the Tournament and actually are a 3 seed in a few mock brackets I have seen. However, they still have plenty of time to win some games and improve their seeding.

Saturday, February 18

Lamar (17-9) at George Mason (22-6)

This random, late season out of conference matchup for Mason is part of ESPN's BracketBusters. While other CAA teams like Drexel, VCU, and Old Dominion were paired up with other top mid majors, Mason was paired up with a team most Mason fans hadn't heard of until three weeks ago. Lamar does have a semi-famous coach, Pat Knight, the son of Bob Knight. Lamar's attack is guard based and their two most most dangerous players are G Mike James who leads the team in scoring at 16.4 pts per game, and G Anthony Miles, who shoots 39% from beyond the arc. Just to further show how much the Cardinals play is predicated on guards, their leading rebounder is guard Devon Lamb who averages 8.3 boards per game. The Cardinals have won five of their last six games, all in blow out fashion. They played some of the top programs in the country in their non-conference schedule, suffering blowout losses to Louisville, Ohio State and Kentucky.

Mason's offense is one of the best in the CAA but overall ranks pretty low in the NCAA. F Ryan Pearson is the only player averaging double figures at 17.9 points per game. The second leading scorer is G Sherrod Wright, who was Tuesday's hero with his game winning three pointer against VCU. Pearson also leads the team in rebounding and really how he plays determines how effective Mason is offensively. He has had a few clunkers this year, but overall would seem to be on his way to being named CAA Player of the Year. Because of the Cardinals reliance on their guards, Bryon Allen, Andre Cornelius, Vertrail Vaughns, and Corey Edwards will have their work cut out for them. Where Mason should find an advantage is with their front line of Pearson, Mike Morrison, Erik Copes. Mason has struggled rebounding the basketball at times this year, but against a team whose leading rebounder is a guard it shouldn't be an issue Saturday.

This is the last home game, barring any postseason games, for seniors Pearson, Morrison, and Cornelius. I think those three will play with a lot of passion and that will overcome any letdown effect from such a huge win against VCU. This game is basically an exhibition as far as its meaning on the season but the seniors will want to go out with a win and will do just that.

Prediction: George Mason 66, Lamar 60

Top 10

Mississippi (15-10, 5-6) at #1 Kentucky (25-1, 11-0)

Kentucky is just a buzzer beater loss at Indiana from being undefeated this season. They have become one of the best defensive teams in the country and might have the NCAA Player of the Year in Anthony Davis. F Michael Kidd Gilchrist has also been an impact freshman for the Wildcats. Ole Miss just had 102 points scored on them by Vanderbilt last night, not a good sign for how things will go for them in this game.

Prediction: Kentucky 80, Mississippi 61

#3 Missouri (24-2, 11-2) at Texas A&M (13-12, 4-9)

Texas A&M has really missed Mark Turgeon and slipped back to their usual levels of basketball mediocrity. Missouri has been perhaps the biggest surprise of the season, especially considering the less than stellar resume their new head coach Frank Haith brought with him. Expect senior guard Marcus Denmon to have a huge hand in leading the Tigers to a hard fought road victory.

Prediction: Missouri 73, Texas A&M 68

Texas Tech (8-17, 1-12) at #5 Kansas (21-5, 11-2)

Kansas F Thomas Robinson has seen his number spike tremendously this season. He has done a great job of making Jayhawks fans not miss the Morris twins as much as they expected to.

Prediction: Kansas 75, Texas Tech 55

#6 Ohio State (22-4, 10-3) at #19 Michigan (19-7, 9-4)

It has been cool to see Michigan and Indiana both competitive again in the Big Ten this season. The Buckeyes dominated the Wolverines in Columbus in the first meeting, but the Wolverines are unbeaten at home this season. The combination of G William Buford and F Jared Sullinger will prove to be too much for Michigan to handle.

Prediction: Ohio State 68, Michigan 64

Clemson (13-12, 5-6) at #7 North Carolina (22-4, 9-2)

It is hard to believe but the fact still remains that Clemson has never won in Chapel Hill. I repeat, NEVER. This year's Tigers team doesn't appear to be the ones to do it, as they are just barely over .500. The Tigers have trouble scoring and rebounding, both of which are tremendous strengths of the Tar Heels. Guard Andre Young is the Tigers best player, but they lack someone that is explosive and can carry a team.

On the other hand, the Tar Heels have an abundance of riches when it comes to players like that. Harrison Barnes leads the team in scoring but their best player this season has been Tyler Zeller. In less minutes per game than last season, Zeller has matched his scoring and increased his rebounding and assists. Kendall Marshall continues to be distributor extraordinaire, averaging 9 assists per game. John Henson, who still frustrates me at times, is having a monster year both scoring and rebounding, where he leads the team with 10 rebounds per game.

It would take a completely lifeless performance by Carolina for Clemson to have any chance in this game. Carolina should get this win and then get primed for the tough close they have to their ACC season, where three of the final four games are on the road, including at ranked UVA, and rivals NC State and Duke.

Prediction: North Carolina 77, Clemson 63

#9 Georgetown (19-5, 9-4) at Providence (13-14, 2-12)

I earlier mentioned Missouri as the biggest surprise of the season but the Hoyas might have something to say about that. Many expected Georgetown to miss the NCAA Tournament, instead they are ranked in the Top 10. The improved play of Jason Clark and Hollis Thomas are the biggest reasons for their success this season.

Prediction: Georgetown 73, Providence 65

Kansas State (17-8, 6-7) at #10 Baylor (22-4, 9-4)

After dispiriting blowout losses to Missouri and Kansas last week, Baylor got back on track at home against Iowa State. Next up is a Kansas State team that is fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives, and are especially desperate after losing four of their last six games. These two played a down to the wire game at Manhattan in January, and this one should come down to the final minutes as well. Perry Jones III disappeared in those games against Mizzou and Kansas, but rebounded against the Cyclones, and I expect him to come up big in this game.

Prediction: Baylor 68, Kansas State 65

Sunday, February 19

#2 Syracuse (26-1, 13-1) at Rutgers (12-14, 4-9)

The Orange have made it interesting recently but still keep finding ways to win. They play great team basketball, where each player excels at a certain aspect of the game, and combined makes them a very dangerous team. Kris Joseph and Dion Waiters handle the scoring, Fab Melo and C.J. Fair handle the rebounding, while Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche find the open man. Rutgers has upset some good teams at home this year but the wheels have fallen off for them in Big East play and things won't get better Sunday.

Prediction: Syracuse 77, Rutgers 67

#4 Duke (22-4, 9-2) at Boston College (8-18, 3-9)

Duke once again got a win by the skin of their teeth, coming from 20 behind at home last night to beat NC State. Questions will seriously have to be asked if they face any sort of deficit against a terrible Boston College team.

Prediction: Duke 80, Boston College 63

#8 Michigan State (21-5, 10-3) at Purdue (17-9, 7-6)

The Spartans come in on a roll, winning at Ohio State last weekend, and thrashing Wisconsin at home last night. Each of these teams relies heavily on their superstar player. For the Spartans it is Draymond Green, and for the Boilermakers it is Robbie Hummel. Michigan State killed the Boilermakers in the first meeting and I really have no tangible reason to pick Purdue to pull off the upset. I just feel like there will be at least one upset in the top ten this weekend, and this game is huge for Purdue. A win would go a long way towards them securing an at-large berth. I think Hummel will play much better than he did in the first meeting, leading to the upset.

Prediction: Purdue 62, Michigan State 59

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Hail Mary - Super Bowl XLVI

Super Bowl XLVI: New York Giants (12-7) vs. New England Patriots (15-3) in Indianapolis, Indiana, New England favored by 3

Four years doesn't feel all that long ago all of the sudden. While not exactly parallel to their meeting in Super Bowl XLII, there are similarities with that game between the New England Patriots and New York Giants and the one that will take place Sunday. A decent amount of the coaches and players remain the same, and the basic storyline of the Giants being underdogs, and the hot team coming into the game. Vegas likes the Patriots, while most of the public is riding the Giants.

Looking at regular season stats for the Giants is a fruitless exercise. The team the Giants were for 14 regular season games, and who they have been the last month are completely different. The current Giants play punishing defense, and can run the ball with some effectiveness. For 14 games that was not the case. One constant has been the exceptional play of Eli Manning and his wide receivers. Manning followed up his strong regular season, with an even better showing in the playoffs. He has 8 TDs and just 1 INT. His favorite target this season came out of nowhere, Victor Cruz. Cruz led the team with 82 catches, 1,536 receiving yards and 9 TDs. His other threat, is Hakeem Nicks, who also topped 1,000 yards receiving and has been a monster in the playoffs. You also can't forget about Mario Manningham, one of the best third receivers in the league. His tight end Jake Ballard has been battling injuries, but did catch a game winning touchdown against the Patriots back in November. The Giants offensive line has done a pretty good job of protecting Manning this year, but were basically pulverized by the 49ers in the NFC Championship game. Defensively, the Giants were dealing with injuries to their secondary and defensive line all season. They are finally healthy, and they have been a terror the last month. In the playoffs they held the Packers to just 20 points, shut out the Falcons offense, and only gave up a couple big plays to Vernon Davis against the 49ers. You don't know who to even focus your energy on a defensive line that includes Osi Umeniyora, Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, and Chris Canty. Having linebacker Michael Boley back has also helped, while Chase Blackburn has also played well since returning to the team. Their defensive backfield was decimated by injuries to start the year but is now healthy and has been playing very well. The Patriots will have their work cut out for them trying to throw on Corey Webster, Kenny Phillips, Antrel Rolle, and Aaron Ross. Kicker Lawrence Tynes kicked the Giants to a Super Bowl for the second time in his career and his presence could be huge in what is expected to be a close game. It will be punter Steve Weatherford's job to try to keep the Patriots offense pinned deep in their own zone. Coach Tom Coughlin had people calling for his head when the Giants were on the verge of missing the playoffs for a third straight season. Now, he might have earned himself another contract extension.

The Patriots are trying to prove the old adage that defense wins championships to be a relic from another era. The Patriots have gotten to this point solely because of the firepower of their offense. It all starts with their QB Tom Brady who threw for 5,235 yards this season and 39 TDs. His favorite target remained Wes Welker, who had an incredible 122 catches. Some people think Welker just accumulates all those catches with little three yard catches but he averaged 12.9 yards a reception. The latest weapon to emerge for Brady was his TE, Gronk, or Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski was an absolute beast, catching 90 passes and 17 TDs, incredible numbers for a tight end. Others getting in on the act were WR Deion Branch, whose career once again became relevant once he ended up back in New England, and TE Aaron Hernandez. The Patriots aren't all that concerned with their running game but when they do run the ball, BenJarvus Green-Ellis is their lead back. The pressure is on the Patriots offensive line to perform at an excellent level in this game. They were pushed around by New York in the Super Bowl 4 years ago and also in their regular season matchup this year. They have a lot of talent on the offensive line, guys like Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Brian Waters, and Dan Connolly. The defense has been the weak point all season long. Their secondary has dealt with injuries and been torched, finishing 31st in the league in passing yards allowed per game. The run defense was a little better but not much, still finishing in the bottom half of the league. Things have gotten to the point where WR Julian Edelman has played crucial stretches at CB, including the end of the AFC Championship game. The Patriots most accomplished defensive players are DT Vince Wilfork and LB Jerod Mayo. Mark Anderson has had a largely unnoticed effective season but the Patriots definitely miss Andre Carter, who had been their most effective pass rusher, but is out for the season. The pressure will be on FS Patrick Chung, and cornerbacks Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty to somehow slow down Cruz and Nicks. The Patriots have a reliable kicker in Stephen Gostkowski, and one of the better punters in Zoltan Mesko. What needs to be said about their head coach Bill Belichick? He is one of the greatest coaches ever and what he has done in New England in the age of parity is astounding.

Everyone is in love with the New York Giants. It makes sense, they have won five straight games, beaten some of the best the NFL has to offer, and their quarterback Eli Manning is on a roll. However, seemingly lost in that shuffle is that their opponent, the New England Patriots are the hottest team in football. They have won ten straight games and done so by an average of 17.1 points per game. Their defense is flawed but that hasn’t mattered basically the entire season. In fact, their three losses could be tied directly to the offense. The offense was stymied in losses to the Giants and Steelers, and Tom Brady threw four interceptions in the loss to Buffalo.

The Giants did win the regular season meeting, but that is almost irrelevant. The teams that met almost three months ago will not be the same teams taking the field on Sunday. The Giants defense is certainly playing at a high level but I believe in Bill Belichick and his ability to find some way to contain that Giants pass rush. The key player to this game will be Wes Welker. If Brady can get into a rhythm of hitting Welker with those short throws that Welker turns in t0 10 yards a pop that will mitigate the Giants pass rush. A run game would be nice but the Giants have stymied good rushing teams like the Falcons and Niners in the playoffs, so its hard to imagine that the Law Firm will find much room. This game will be won or lost for the Patriots based on how much time and how well Brady plays. Brady doesn’t often have bad games back to back so I expect to see elite Brady on Sunday. It helps the Giants cause that Rob Gronkowski won’t be 100 percent, but the Patriots have other weapons and Gronk just being out there will draw plenty of attention. The Patriots defense has played better in recent weeks and I think if they can just stem the tide and not let the Giants get rolling, that will be enough. I still think Eli is prone to the mistake that can turn a game. He was bailed out twice in the 49ers game because 49ers players hit each other instead of catching his errant passes. This game should be a back and forth affair. I expect more scoring than we saw between them in Super Bowl XLII. I think the Giants will lead 23-18 late, when Brady will work his magic, hitting Welker for the game winning score, and giving their Patriots their fourth Super Bowl championship.

Prediction: New England 25, New York Giants 23

Last Week Straight Up: 0-2
Overall Straight Up: 166-100

Last Week Against the Spread: 1-1
Overall Against the Spread: 132-127-7

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Year in Review - New England Patriots (15-3, AFC East and AFC Champions)

Expectations are high every season for the New England Patriots but they entered the 2011 season with some baggage. They suffered their third straight playoff loss to conclude the 2010 season as well as their second straight home playoff loss. Questions were starting to be raised if the magic of Belichick and Brady had worn off? Were the Patriots finally going to be knocked from the upper echelon of the NFL? Through the first half of the season the Patriots looked mediocre, but they haven't lost since and are now in their fifth Super Bowl in the last eleven years.

The Patriots traveled to Miami for Monday Night football in their season opener. Tom Brady threw for an incredible 517 yards and 4 TDs, including a 99 yard strike to Wes Welker as the Patriots cruised to a 38-24 victory. That game proved telling for how most of the Patriots season would unfold. The offense put up a lot of points and yardage but the defense did the same. The Patriots allowed unheralded Dolphins QB Chad Henne to throw for 416 yards. In Week 2, the Patriots defeated San Diego 35-21 as Brady had another magnificent game, throwing for 423 yards and 3 TDs. TE Rob Gronkowski had 2 of those touchdowns, and was beginning to serve notice to the rest of the league that he was the best tight end in football. In Week 3, the Patriots were at Buffalo to take on the surprising 2-0 Bills. It looked like it would be a typical New England/Buffalo game when the Patriots raced out to 21-0 lead. However, Brady ended up throwing 4 interceptions, and the Patriots had silly penalties on defense to go with their pathetic play and ended up losing 34-31. The Patriots rebounded nicely in Week 4, going to Oakland and defeating the Raiders 31-19. It was the Patriots rushing attack that carried the day, with rookie Steven Ridley rushing for 97 yards and a touchdown, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran for 75 yards and a touchdown.

In Week 5, the Patriots earned some revenge against their rivals, the New York Jets, defeating them 30-21 at home. Green-Ellis had a monster game, running for 136 yards and 2 touchdowns. Welker also continued his strong season, finishing with 5 catches for 124 yards. The Patriots earned their third straight win in Week 6, a 20-16 come from behind win against Dallas, improving their record to 5-1. It was the first time the Patriots had been held to less than 30 points, but it was the defense's finest performance of the season. Brady hit TE Aaron Hernandez for an 8-yard touchdown with 22 seconds to play to seal the victory. After their bye week, the Patriots season started to take a slide in Week 7, as they were dominated at Pittsburgh, losing 25-17. Brady was held to less than 200 yards passing, and the running game played so poorly that Kevin Faulk was the leading rusher with 32 yards. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger torched the New England secondary for 375 yards passing and 2 touchdowns. The next week, the Patriots suffered their first home regular season loss in 2 years, falling to the New York Giants 24-20. It was the third straight game the offense struggled, and the defense was unable to hold the Giants when they needed to, as Eli Manning marched the Giants down the field for a game winning drive. The Patriots were 5-3 at the halfway mark, and in a dog fight with the Jets and Bills for the AFC East.

In Week 10, the Patriots season was at a crossroads as they headed to New York to take on the Jets. Another loss and the wheels would officially be coming off on their season. They responded like champions do, destroying the Jets 37-16 on Sunday night football. Brady finally returned to form, throwing 3 TDs, 2 of those to his monster TE Gronkowski. WR Chad Ochocinco even made an appearance with 2 catches for 65 yards. The Patriots improved to 7-3 in Week 11, blowing out the Kansas City Chiefs 34-3 on Monday night football. It was supposed to be Matt Cassel's return to New England but he was out with an injury, so instead the Patriots got to make Tyler Palko's life miserable. It was the Gronkowski show again, as he put in another 2 touchdown performance. In a game that I picked as the Super Bowl matchup for this season, the Patriots destroyed Philadelphia on the road 38-20. Eagles QB Vince Young threw for 400 yards but once again it didn't matter because the Patriots passing game was unstoppable. It was Welker that was the beast this game, grabbing 2 touchdowns. The Patriots then held on to beat the hapless Indianapolis Colts in Week 13, 31-24 to improve to 9-3. The Patriots jumped out to a 31-3 lead going into the 4th quarter but then the defense collapsed giving up three touchdowns. Gronkowski had 2 receiving touchdowns and his first rushing touchdown of the season.

The Patriots survived a dog fight in Week 14, outlasting Washington 34-27 at FedEx Field. Gronkowski, 6 catches, 160 yards, 2 touchdowns and Welker, 7 catches, 86 yards, 1 touchdown, terrorized the Redskins. The game was perhaps most memorable for the shouting match Brady got into with his offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien after he threw his first interception in a month. At 10-3, the Patriots were headed to Denver to take on the Tim Tebows or as they were otherwise known, the Denver Broncos. The Patriots fell behind 16-7 early, but then Brady and the offense took over. It wasn't Gronkowski that was the beast tight end on this day, it was Hernandez who had nine catches for 129 yards and a touchdown. The win clinched another AFC East title for the Patriots but they still had a first round bye to play for. They received quite the test from the Dolphins at home in Week 16, falling behind 17-0 in the second quarter. They were able to put 27 points on the board in the second half, rallying for the 27-24 win. Welker was most responsible for the win, racking up 12 catches for 138 yards. The win clinched a first round bye for the Patriots, and they had a chance to clinch home field throughout the playoffs with a win at home against Buffalo to close the season. Curiously, the Patriots came out flat for a third straight week, spotting the Bills 21 points in the first quarter. Then in a complete reversal from their first game against Buffalo, it was the Patriots who reeled off 49 straight points, completing an incredible 49-21 rout, to finish the season at 13-3 and the best record in the AFC. Brady threw for 338 yards, 3 touchdowns and surpassed 5,000 yards passing for the season.

After the Broncos upset the Steelers on Wild Card weekend, it earned them a rematch with the Patriots, this time at Gillette Stadium. There was no falling behind in this game, as New England thoroughly dominated the Broncos, and led 35-7 at the half. They ended up winning the game 45-10, and Brady threw for 6 touchdowns, with 3 of those going to Gronkowski. The Patriots also unveiled Hernandez the running back, as he led the team with 61 yards on just 5 carries. The Patriots now had to host the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game, and were hoping to avenge their 2010 home playoff loss to Baltimore. In that loss, Ray Rice scored an 80 yard touchdown to start the game and the Ravens never looked back. Baltimore ran rice to start the game this time and he was held to nothing, a sign that this game would be much different. It was tight the entire way and it was actually the Patriots defense that stepped up and helped earn the victory. Surprisingly, Brady was outplayed by Joe Flacco, and Brady had his first zero touchdown effort in 36 games. The Patriots defense held Ray Rice in check and DT Vince Wilfork seemed to be involved in almost every play. Down 23-20 late in the game, the Ravens had a chance to tie and send it to overtime but their kicker Billy Cundiff missed from 32-yards and their Patriots were back in the Super Bowl for the first time since 2008. This will be the Patriots seventh Super Bowl and they will try to win their fourth Lombardi trophy.