It’s funny; the Buffalo Bills are my favorite team, and yet I know far less about them than about the New England Patriots. I could probably write a book on the subject of the New England Patriots from 2001 to the present.  Even though Michael Holley already did that.

I have written about New England so much because are always on TV and in the playoffs.  As such, I know their strengths and weaknesses pretty well at this point.  Their strengths are Tom Brady’s ability to read defenses and throw accurate passes, and Belichick’s skill at confusing the opponent with coverages.

Their weaknesses are related to their strengths.  Brady is so good that their offensive game plans tend to rely on him almost exclusively. (Unless they are playing the Colts) They will throw in obvious running situations. Usually, it works. But sometimes it blows up in their faces.  But they keep doing it.  This is what is known as”hubris”.

If you want to beat Brady, you need to do two things: take away his favorite receiver with one defender, and get pressure with four, or better yet, three lineman. Do not blitz him and do not attempt to double cover his favorite receiver, unless it is Gronkowski, but Gronkowski is injured as usual, so he isn’t a factor.

As for the New England defense, you can generally beat Belichick’s defenses by being patient and not going for the big play.  Getting pressure isn’t really a priority for Belichick, so if your quarterback is willing to wait around and go for short passes to second or third receivers, you can move the ball against them. But you are not going to get big plays to your top offensive player.  They won’t let it happen.  So you have to plan to win with somebody else.

Can the Falcons do any of that?

I’m much less familiar with them than with the Patriots. But based on what I’ve seen…

Well, their defense is not great. That bodes ill. But they did manage to shut down Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense, so perhaps there is hope.  The Patriots have a much better screen passing game than Green Bay, so I don’t expect a similar performance from Atlanta’s defense. Brady is going to have a good game, and LeGarrette Blount probably will too.

So, ok; maybe Atlanta can win a shootout, then?

Atlanta’s major weapons are wide receiver Julio Jones and their running backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.  Jones gets the headlines, but my sense is that the RBs are far more critical to their offense.

I suspect Belichick has noticed this too, and will stifle them much as he did Marshall Faulk, the superstar running back at the core of the St. Louis Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” years ago.

In the end, it comes down to that old adage: defense wins championships. Atlanta has the number one scoring offense, New England has the number one scoring defense. The Falcons will still manage some points–but they’ll also probably commit some costly turnovers. So it goes.

NE: 41

ATL: 24

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

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…)

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.

All the criticisms I’ve read of the NFL’s ruling on the deflated football scandal have come from angry Patriots fans.  They’re easy to dismiss, since they have something of a vested interest in seeing the punishment overturned.  But because my two favorite teams are the Bills and the Steelers–the first two teams that will face the Brady-less Pats–I think I can say I’m coming at it from a slightly different perspective.

On the four game suspension for Brady: I was surprised they were that harsh.  I expected at most two games, since it has not even been proven he did anything.  But, if the league wants to take a “the-face-of-the-game-must-be-above-suspicion” stance, I can’t really blame them.  I mean, ever since the Ray Rice disaster, Goodell’s judgment will always be suspect in my eyes, but this is the equivalent of a Performance-Enhancing Drug suspension. Fair enough.

Fining them money and a first-round pick, though–that’s where I think they went overboard. I don’t care what Dave Rappoccio of “The Draw Play” says, this “it was a second offense” justification is ridiculous.

In the spying scandal, everyone agreed that Belichick broke the rules for where videographers were allowed to be placed during a game.  Even he admitted it. As the Patriots head coach, it was legitimate–harsh, but legitimate–to take away a draft pick from the organization, as any decision made by Belichick is effectively a decision made by the New England organization. So, it’s fair to take away a draft pick for that.

But you know what else happened only weeks before the spying controversy?  Then-Patriots safety Rodney Harrison was suspended four games for using HGH.  That’s right; the same number of games as Brady has been suspended.  Seems logical.  A player does something to get a competitive advantage, he gets suspended.  The team’s punishment is that they don’t get that player’s services for those games.  This all makes sense.

It wouldn’t have made sense to fine the Patriots for Harrison’s rule-breaking.  Harrison was acting on his own initiative, not on orders from the organization–just as was Brady, according to the report that this is all based upon. He wasn’t doing it at the behest of the organization.  I can’t remember any instance of an organization being punished for a player independently breaking the rules.

This lends credence to the idea that the NFL is trying to punish the Patriots not merely for cheating, but for their success.  This is not as outrageous as it sounds. After all, the NFL draft itself is designed to punish success in the interest of parity.  And it makes sense they would do that–it gives fans hope. (Not that my Bills have exactly taken advantage of it these past 15 years.)

You can’t win for this long without making a lot of enemies. I think the other 31 teams are just sick of seeing the Pats every year, and are resorting to unorthodox means to take them down.

Do I think they broke the rules on football inflation?  Probably the assistants did–whether Brady ordered it or not I don’t know.  I suspect every team does a little rule-bending things like this to gain an edge, but when one team gets too far ahead of the others, the rest use the knowledge that they are doing something against the rules as a convenient way to rein them in.  It is typical cartel behavior. I think we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the NFL. I just hope Buffalo can win at least one championship before it all falls apart.

UPDATE 5/22/2015: Blogger friend P. M. Prescott posted his own thoughts on this scandal. He differs from me in that he favors a stronger punishment for New England.  He also makes the very astute point that other players and the officials should have noticed the footballs were deflated–in which case they should also be punished.

I think it’s interesting that while we differ on how much the Pats should be punished for this, we both think the NFL has mishandled this.  It’s kind of a disaster for the league, as I mentioned in the comments below, because whether the Pats are completely innocent or guilty as sin, the league’s credibility has taken a huge hit.  Personally, it will be hard for me to have as much faith in the legitimacy of everything the league does going forward, because either the best team in football is fraudulent, or the league’s policing/enforcement of its own rules is fraudulent.