NFC Championship Game

My gut tells me the Packers will win.  I think it’s because they are on a winning streak and Aaron Rodgers is playing at an otherworldly level.

That said, I also think I could be selling the Falcons short just because they are the Falcons, and Falcons teams of yesteryear always choked in big moments.  Which is very unfair to them–they are not the Falcons of yesteryear; they are their own team, and they have been good enough to earn the number 2 seed in the conference.

Both teams have very good offenses.  But, being football experts, we know that’s all well and good for the regular season, but defense is what matters in the playoffs.

So, which team has the better defense? As it turns out, neither of them are stellar, but Green Bay’s looks to be slightly better. But it’s close.

Accordingly, I predict a narrow Packer win:

GB: 30

ATL: 28

AFC Championship Game

At this point, it’s starting to feel like it should be called the “Patriots vs. Special Guest ________ Game”. Six conference championship game appearances in a row is crazy. That said, the Steelers are kind of like a mini-dynasty within New England’s 15-years-and-counting reign. They’ve reached three Super Bowls in that time, and it could have been more if not for two conference title game losses… to the Patriots.

The Steelers have some incredible offensive firepower, to be sure. Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown are the top QB/WR combination in the league. Who really stands out though is Le’Veon Bell. I’ve never seen a running back like him.He takes the handoff and then just stands there, waiting and watching for his opportunity. Then, when he finally commits, he doesn’t seem to run so much as glide through the defense. It’s weird and beautiful to watch. I don’t think many teams know how to handle it.

But the Patriots have this guy, Belichick–maybe you’ve heard of him? He’s only been making a career out of neutralizing top offensive players for about 30 years. The Bills’ seemingly unstoppable no-huddle offense of the 1990s? He stopped it in Super Bowl XXV. The Rams’ nearly-invincible “Greatest Show on Turf”? He destroyed it so bad it ceased to exist after Super Bowl XXXVI. The great Peyton Manning? He shut him down twice in the post-season. LaDainian Tomlinson, Andrew Luck… the list of offensive stars he has  defeated over the years is long.

The teams that beat the Patriots in the playoffs are the teams that have no true stars, but instead simply play well-balanced, efficient football. (And their defense rattles Brady. But I’m getting ahead of myself.) If a team is reliant on a few superstars, Belichick will defeat them, because he knows he only has to take away one or two guys and then his work is done.

The Steelers are reliant on two superstars–Brown and Bell. This bodes ill for them.

But there’s another dimension here: what about the Patriots’ offense vs. the Steelers’ defense?

Last week’s win against Houston was one of the sloppiest, stupidest offensive games I’ve ever seen New England play. Time and again, Brady would drop back to pass, find no one open, and start scrambling before receiving a vicious hit from a defender.

Even late in the game, while holding a double-digit lead, New England stubbornly refused to run the ball and milk the clock. Brady continued to throw–often incomplete, slowing down the game–and absorbing tons of punishment.

On those rare occasions when they did run, it  was with a small running back or a wide receiver on a reverse.(In perhaps the stupidest call of all, they actually had Brady blocking for a reverse at one point in the 4th quarter. The Football Gods will one day punish this arrogance.)   They seemed unwilling to put in Blount and simply play power football.

If I thought the Patriots would play that type of game again this week, I’d feel better about Pittsburgh’s chances. But my guess is that Belichick has reamed out everyone involved with the offense, including Brady, and they are not going to let it happen again. Especially not against a Pittsburgh defense that they have pretty consistently owned over the years.

NE: 30

PIT: 13

In his memoir Where Else Would You Rather Be?, Hall of Fame football coach Marv Levy offered some advice to coaches on how to speak to the press. Levy recognized that offense wins games, but defense wins championships–but he also knew that sportswriters prefer to hear, and write, about offense.  So he advised the following:

Talk about offense. Talk about your aerial circus. Give it a signature name. Call it “The Coast-to-Coast Offense,” or announce, as an alternative, that it will be known–if your last name is Kappelmeier–by the appellation “Air Kappelmeier”. Talk about how innovative you are. Tell them you invented the spiral. Tell them that you like to roll the dice, that punting is for sissies, and that defense is for criminal lawyers. Use words like “razzle dazzle” and every synonymous term you can dredge up. Don’t talk about reverses; talk about triple reverses and fake reverses. Tell the world how you are going to go for it on fourth down, probably with a play-action pass. Say something catchy, such as, “Our offense will take no prisoners” or “Wait until you see our weapons of mass destruction.” And then–do what it takes to win. (p. 214)

Levy’s advice applies to other endeavors besides football.  More often than not, what people want to hear and what actually needs to be done to succeed are very different.

This is why the field of public relations exists. In theory, the job of a public relations person is to handle saying what people want to hear, while the rest of the organization handles doing what needs to be done.

Some people can do what Levy describes: they can wear their public relations hat and tell everyone what sounds good, and then take off that hat and resume doing their jobs. I’m no expert, but I get the sense that Steve Jobs was one of these people.

Where problems happen is if you get a P.R. person who believes their own P.R. pitch running the show.  If somebody who is great at telling people what they want to hear accidentally takes control of the behind-the-scenes stuff, it can lead to prolonged problems for an organization.  Worse yet, it’s hard to get rid of such a person, because he will keep telling people what they want to hear, and thus they will be sympathetic towards him and too willing to forgive failures.

AFC East

Dolphins
Tannehill improves;
Rejuvenated offense
Wins the division

Patriots
With no Tom Brady
Garoppolo will be good–
But defense will not.

Bills
Taylor and Watkins
Need to prove if they’re for real
Or it’s “Goodbye Rex”

 

Jets
Fitzpatrick is back,
But he’s still not the answer–
Can’t make the playoffs.

AFC North

Ravens
Flacco will surprise–
(I know, I said that before)
This time in good way.

Steelers
Sure, they’re talented–
But injuries, suspensions
Mar their playoff hopes.

Bengals
Lack of discipline
Showed in last year’s playoff game
Presages meltdown.

Browns
Same story each year–
Like the chimera, Griffin
Can’t be believed in.

AFC South

Colts
Luck will bounce right back–
Better for having struggled–
And win Super Bowl

Jaguars
Old order changeth:
They now warrant some respect–
But still no playoffs.

Titans
Mariota still
The next “game changing” QB
Who crashes and burns.

Texans
The Wizard of Oz?
“D” made Osweiler look good.
Pay no attention.

AFC West

Broncos
Sanchez of ’09
Paired up with that strong defense
Would have been scary.

Chargers
Not as bad as they
Looked last year, but they are still
Far from being good.

Raiders
Dangerous offense–
But Denver’s dangerous “D”
Keeps a lid on them.

Chiefs
Solid, but boring,
It’s always the same story–
Reid is good, not great.

NFC East

Redskins
“Captain” Kirk Cousins
Boldly goes where they’ve not gone
In years: Super Bowl.

Giants
Eli will be good,
And a strong passing offense
Makes them wild card.

Cowboys
If they stay healthy,
They’re best in their division.
Too big of an “if”.

Eagles
Rebuilding again;
After failed experiment.
Reid looks good now, huh?

NFC North

Bears
Fox’s teams do well
In his second year with them.
They make the playoffs.

Vikings
After heartbreaker–
They come back even better.
But Peterson’s done.

Packers
They are a strong team—
But their luck has to run out,
And this is the year.

Lions
No Calvin Johnson
Will mean no identity–
It will be ugly.

NFC South

Panthers
Newton will regress;
But still will be good enough
To win division.

Saints
Brees is getting old.
Can’t sustain their old style–
Will need to rebuild.

Falcons
Is Matt Ryan good
Or a glorified Stafford?
It is hard to say.

Buccaneers
Winston has been good;
But they seem too pass-happy
To be complete team.

NFC West

Seahawks
Wilson is awesome.
May be league’s most balanced team–
But lose title game.

49ers
Kelly’s second chance
Works out for them and for him–
“Kap”, Hyde run wild.

Rams
Move back to LA
Makes them seem glamorous till
Fans see their offense.

Cardinals
Palmer, Fitz are old–
Without a solid QB
Offense falls apart.

I am a fan of the Buffalo Bills, first and foremost.  I will always root for them; and someday, in the words of the late, great Bills fan Tim Russert, “They will win the damn Super Bowl”.

In the meantime, though, I’ve had to find some other team to pull for in the playoffs, once Buffalo is out.  I gravitated, grudgingly at first, towards the New England Patriots.  Over time, I’ve come to have a strong affection for them as a result.

Most Bills fans will say this is treason.  They have beaten us like a drum ever since Belichick got there.  We have suffered humiliating blowouts and agonizing last-second losses at their hands.  How can I root for them, even a little?

The fact is, the Patriots are the team we all would want our team to be.  They are the premier organization in the sport.  Hate them if you want, but if Belichick and Brady came to your favorite team, would you be anything other than thrilled?

I think this tends to happen with dynasties. My Mom’s favorite team is the Steelers, but she still fondly remembers the Green Bay Packer teams that were dominant in her youth. You get used to seeing these dynastic teams so much that they become pleasantly familiar.  I associate good football with the Patriot brand.

It started out that I would pull for the Patriots in the playoffs, and over the years it developed that I pretty much root for them all the time except when they play the Bills, or when a Patriots victory would result in the Bills missing the playoffs, since the Bills almost always need help to make the playoffs by early November.

The other reason I like New England is I felt bad for them when they lost to the Giants.  I’ve never liked the Giants. (Possibly due to lingering animosity from their narrow Super Bowl win over the Bills that gets replayed every year.) I wanted the Patriots to go 19-0, and it was sad when they were denied on the freakish and bizarre “helmet catch” play.

I hoped they would win the second time around against New York, but wasn’t surprised when they didn’t.  That Patriots team had such a bad defense that they had no business being in the Super Bowl. Even the Bills beat them that year. (Trivia: the Bills have beaten the Patriots exactly three times since I started following football: Once in 2003, once in 2011, and once in 2014.  In each year, the Patriots have gone on to reach the Super Bowl.)

All this is background to the story of the 2014 season, which was the most memorable football season I have ever had in my years of following the game.

(more…)

I am fascinated by football helmets and uniforms.  I study them like some people I know study the dresses movie stars wear at award ceremonies.  Like any enthusiast, I have my opinions on the aesthetics of uniforms and helmets.

In my opinion, these are probably the two best helmets in all of football:

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Image Credit to the NFL. Reproduced under Fair Use for the Purpose of Criticism.

I’m not crazy about the black pants for the Bengals–I almost always prefer white jerseys with white pants–but otherwise I think these are pretty good. (Interestingly, the Ram helmet with yellow horn was the first football helmet design ever.)

Apart from white-on-white, I usually don’t like the same color jerseys and pants–teams like the Chiefs, Texans and Cardinals will wear all red, and they look like they are in their pajamas. I did like these old Buffalo Bills uniforms, though I would prefer it with a white helmet.

The absolute worst uniform in all of football is the Tennessee Titans’ current one.  It is a total disaster, although this mess the Jaguars wore (against the Titans even!) is pretty bad, but it was only an alternate.

I am also a big believer that you can’t change your uniform once you have success with it.  The Rams won the Super Bowl with their yellow horn helmets, then changed them to an awful gold color, and haven’t won since.  They did lose one to the Patriots, who are now stuck with a pretty bad uniform that they have enjoyed tremendous success in.

At the college level, everybody gets new uniforms all the time now, thanks to the influence of the Oregon football team.  Oregon wears a new combination every week, and I have yet to see them find one that is good, although these chrome helmets look kind of interesting.

In general, I find most college uniforms to be stupid. I do like these all-grey uniforms that West Virginia and a few other schools have done. Strangely, my team, the Ohio State Buckeyes, has not worn one of these even though grey is one of their traditional team colors.  Speaking of the Buckeyes, their regular uniforms are some of the best in the sport.  These alternates, which I call their “Christmas tree ornament helmets”, are weird but interesting.

Probably the best helmet/uniform combinations in college football are USC, Ohio State and Michigan State.  I also loved these camouflage uniforms that Army has worn a few times.

What helmets and/or uniforms do you like?

Well, I was wrong. I thought Carolina’s balance on offense and defense would allow them to take Denver down.  In the event, the Denver defense was just too much.  I should have listened to that hunch that said: But remember when the mediocre New York Giants destroyed the mighty Patriots using their strong defensive line!  It was like watching that game again, only more so, because the Panthers looked completely shell-shocked from the first quarter on.

Cam Newton has been taking a lot of heat for not diving on a fumble with 4:10 left in the game that sealed the victory for the Broncos.  Personally, I think that was the least of Carolina’s problems. Even if he recovered, it was going to be 4th and 18 from the Carolina 15 yard line.  With the way they played, does anyone honestly think they were going to get that?

I knew Carolina was in trouble on their first drive of the game, when they faced 4th and 1 after three plays.  I said at the time on Twitter that they should go for it.

They opted to punt.  That was a mistake.  To win the Super Bowl, you have to play aggressively. Think of Sean Payton’s onside kick to start the second half when his Saints beat Indianapolis.

Going for it on 4th and 1 would have sent the message that they had confidence in their offensive line, and were going to play tough.  Punting made them look scared. Coach Ron Rivera is nicknamed “Riverboat Ron”, because he is supposedly so willing to take big risks and be aggressive.  Well, I wasn’t seeing it in this game.

Carolina’s best play was a scramble by Cam Newton.  They should have told him to forget about trying to pass and just start running down the field.  Actually, going forward I think all offenses facing a really strong defensive line should use the following strategy:

  • Spread the defense out with four wide receivers–that will at least keep the linebackers and defensive backs occupied.
  • Tell the tackles that since they are going to get beat, at least get beat to the outside, leaving more room in the center of the field.
  • If you have a running quarterback, tell him to run up the middle.
  • If your quarterback can’t run, use lots of draws and interior shovel passes to the running back. He can then go up the middle.
  • Put in the occasional wide receiver screen play.  That will keep them honest.

Would Carolina have won if they had done that?  I’m not sure.  Denver’s defense was mean; I’m not sure anything could have stopped them.  But I think they would have done better than they did.  I felt sorry for the Carolina defense–they played a great game too, but failed to score on any of their takeaways.

[Credit where credit is due: she picked Denver to win.  And so, as promised…]

There once was a chap named “Gambrel”,
Who was a mysterious man from the shadows.
This fellow proclaimed he knew damn well
That Carolina was bound to take down the Broncos.
But his pondering friend, Maggie Jean,
(Some folks knew her better as “thingy”)
Predicted that Denver, with defense tough and mean,
Would down Carolina, and win the Super Bowl ring-y.
(When a poet in haste is composing his rhyme
“Y’s” must sometimes be appended to things;
And when written while pressured for time
It is “Johng” and not “John” that he sings.)
In any case, when the final whistle sounded that night,
And Peyton Manning embraced Papa Johng,
It was shown that Maggie was most certainly right;
And old Berthold had got it all wrong!

Give Denver this: they learned their lesson from their blowout Super Bowl loss two years ago. Unlike the Patriots, who still are vulnerable to the same gameplan the Giants used to beat them twice in the Super Bowl, the Broncos studied their flaws and took steps to correct them.

The upshot is that this Broncos team is far more balanced than the one the Seahawks destroyed. They have the top defense in the league. Their offense, while not as threatening as the record-breaking 2013 one, still can be fairly efficient at times, as in the first half of the AFC Championship game. And while Peyton Manning is physically a ghost of his former self, he is still a genius at reading the defense.

Against New England, Denver’s defense pressured Brady with a four man rush, forcing him to throw before he wanted to, and disrupting his timing. It was a very well-played defensive game.

The thing is that Brady, while indisputably one of the best quarterbacks ever, is not exactly fleet of foot. He has good pocket awareness, but he’s not much of a runner–even though he did have an 11 yard scramble for a first down in the AFC Championship.

Cam Newton presents a very different threat. He is fast, and he is strong. If they try to rush around the tackles and leave the middle of the field open, Newton isn’t going to dance around waiting for someone to come open–he can just take off down the field.

Even worse news for Denver: Carolina runs a play designed to confuse defensive ends and linebackers and slow down the rush. The read-option play is exactly the thing that you use against a good defensive line.

Throughout Denver’s win against the Patriots, I was marveling at how one-dimensional and unoriginal New England’s offense was. They never tried anything other than spreading out their receivers and trying to throw the ball on Denver. Minimal running, no end-arounds, no trick plays like the one they ran against Baltimore last year. It was a very uninspired gameplan.

Then I watched Carolina demolish Arizona with a varied, creative offense that looked like it would be a nightmare to defend against. If the power running doesn’t beat you down, Newton fires bullet passes to fast receivers downfield. If you try stopping that by dropping men into coverage, he runs for the first himself. They throw to the tight end out of running formations; they run wide receiver reverse plays disguised as option plays. It’s the complete package.

If Carolina’s offense has a weakness, it is that it’s not clear how accurate Newton really is. Against the Cardinals, he didn’t need to be–his receivers were consistently getting open and could adjust to make the catch. But if coverage is tight, I’m not sure he can make the pinpoint throws. The only receiver they have who seems capable of winning a physical battle for the ball is Olsen.

Of course, even with good coverage, Newton may still beat Denver with his legs. Of Denver’s 4 losses this year, 3 were to teams with scrambling quarterbacks who could evade the rush: Alex Smith, Andrew Luck, and Ben Roethlisberger. Newton is like those guys, only faster and stronger.

As for when Denver has the ball…

Peyton Manning has had perhaps the most bizarre year of any quarterback to ever reach the Super Bowl. He’s thrown tons of interceptions to not very many touchdowns, he’s been benched for a stretch… And yet he played one of the best post-seasons of his career, orchestrating clutch drives and big plays when his team needed them.

In the first half of the AFC championship, the Patriots inexplicably decided to play soft coverage and let Manning have easy completions. They also covered his top target with a linebacker. After Manning got two touchdowns thanks to this, they adjusted, and Denver managed only a field goal in the second half.

Manning doesn’t throw the ball with much force anymore. I’ve never heard anyone mention this, but I suspect the reason he chose to go to Denver after his recovery in 2012 is that he knew the thin air would mask this problem a bit. Unfortunately for him, they are not playing the Super Bowl in Denver.

If Carolina is smart, they will play press coverage on Manning’s receivers, stuff the run with their linebackers, and dare Manning to beat them by making throws down the field. My bet would be that he can’t. The Carolina defense has looked vulnerable at times–notably against the other Manning brother–but their total domination of the vaunted Arizona offense shows they can be very tough to throw against.

Denver has done a very good job rebuilding on the fly after a loss that would have demoralized many teams. They still have a lot of players who were in the Super Bowl two years ago, and they are not going to let themselves get humiliated like that again. In the end though, Carolina just has too much talent and too many different ways of winning for Denver to pull it off. Denver won’t go without a fight this time, but they won’t win either.

The pick:

CAROLINA PANTHERS: 31
DENVER BRONCOS: 20

NFC Championship

 

I live in Ohio, so I used to see a lot of Carson Palmer’s games when he played for the Bengals. He always would throw high and behind his receivers. I can’t tell you how many times I’d see some Bengal receiver have to reach up and catch the ball right over his helmet.

I tuned in to the Arizona/Green Bay game last Saturday, and it was the same story. Palmer doesn’t lead his receivers. It caused an interception in the end zone on one drive.

Palmer is a decent journeyman, but he is not the kind of guy who can carry a team. Cam Newton is. The fact that Carolina’s defense shut down Russell Wilson last week only makes me less optimistic about the Cardinals’ chances. It’s too bad, because I’d love to see the great Larry Fitzgerald get a Super Bowl ring.

Panthers: 34
Cardinals: 17

 

AFC Championship

 

Fascinating matchup, this. Most writers seem to think the Patriots should win easily. “Sure, the Broncos beat them back in November, but the Patriots had so many injuries–with Edelman, Amendola, and Gronkowski back, they are bound to win”, goes the thinking.

Sounds good, on paper. But Denver still has the best defense in the NFL. When a strong defense meets a strong offense, the defense usually wins. Denver knows this all too well–they learned it two years ago when Seattle annihilated them. After that, Elway committed to building a strong, hard-hitting defense so that wouldn’t happen again.

Of course, that same Seattle defense got picked apart a year later by these Patriots and their short passing game. So defense alone isn’t always enough, at least not when you are going against a master of the surgical, precise pass like Brady.

Against the Steelers last week, the Bronco defense shutdown the Pittsburgh running game and the short pass. The only way the Steelers could move the ball was when Roethlisberger bought time for his receivers to get open, and then let them get yards after the catch. The Steelers got five or six big gains doing that, and it almost got them an upset victory.

Brady can’t withstand pressure like Roethlisberger can, though. If Denver can keep his receivers covered, they are going to have a chance. The only reason Brady was able to move the ball against Seattle’s defense in the Super Bowl was that he could get the ball out quickly. If they neutralize that, he’s in trouble.

If I were coaching the Broncos, I’d blitz Brady early and try to make him get nervous in the pocket. Yes, I know Brady is great at reading the blitz and making a quick pass, but let’s face it: he’s going to get his share of completions no matter what. Better to at least rattle him early in the game while he does it, and then he may start to imagine pressure as the game goes on.

Then you’ve got the matchup on the other side: the offensive-coordinator-on-the-field, Peyton Manning vs. his arch-nemesis, Bill Belichick, the wily defensive genius. Belichick used to own Manning in the playoffs, but Peyton has won their last two post-season encounters.

People are saying Manning is a ghost of his former self. Even I was saying that last year. And it’s true that his arm strength is pitiful. But the thin Denver air mitigates that to an extent; as does Manning’s skill at the short pass. Manning played a decent game against Pittsburgh, and his stats would have been much better if not for a bunch of dropped passes.

The Steelers seemed to be doing their best to pressure Manning with blitzes from unexpected directions. It almost worked; they were close to sacking him more than once. But blitzing has never really been Belichick’s game–he prefers to use coverage to confuse the quarterback. But Manning is tough to confuse. He’s still got the mental game mastered, even if he is physically barely able to play.

I haven’t really mentioned the running game much. That’s because, as far as I can tell, neither team has one. I do expect the Patriots to try lots of screen passes to James White. They also have Steven Jackson, but he looked slow to me in their game against Kansas City. As for the Patriots run defense, I think they will take away Denver’s rushing attack and force Manning to beat them with his arm.

As I said above, it seems like the national sports press isn’t giving Denver much of a chance in this thing–possibly to set up a “Manning upsets the Mighty Patriots” narrative, possibly just because they are lazy–but this game has a very odd vibe to it. New England is good, but they are also worn down. The fact that the game is in Denver, where they historically struggle, only adds to their problems. (If the Patriots just hadn’t tried a punt right before halftime of their game against the Eagles, they might well be playing in New England.)

The Patriots deserve to be favored, and I was tempted to follow the crowd and pick them, but I keep hearing this nagging voice in my head telling me the Football Fates have something really weird in store for this game. Denver got to be the number one seed for a reason, and I predict they will show us why in a tough, strange game.*

Broncos: 22
Patriots: 20

*Take heart, Pats fans: I also had a feeling about the Steelers last week, and that came to nothing.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is a draft of a song I wrote for a never-finished musical. It was to be sung by a football coach character loosely based on Bill Belichick, Mike Martz and Gus Malzahn.]

A strategist like Clausewitz or Bonaparte,
If he survived into the modern age,
Would choose to demonstrate his art
With a hundred-yard gridiron for a stage.

Take tomorrow’s game for an example:
Should we try to run the ball,
And see if their line’s one we can trample–
Or should we throw it, and not run at all?

I plan to come out in the “I formation”
And fake the handoff to the back.
And they will fall for it on some occasion–
And then we will unleash the deep attack!

Of course, we still will run it now and then,
But with receivers, or perhaps the quarterback:
As is known by all great military men:
“Outnumber ’em at the point of your attack!”

We must disguise formations, put the ‘backs in motion;
To figure out the matchups that are in our favor.
And if we pull that off, I have a notion
That this victory is one our fans will savor.

It’s not just gladiatorial playing–
In spite of what the journalists will claim;
I think I am quite justified in saying:
“Football is a Thinking Man’s Game!”