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:


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.

At last, football is (almost) back!   I love the Hall of Fame Game weekend.  Sure, the game is barely actual football, and I’ll probably tune out after the first two series, but it’s nice to start the season off with a little appreciation for the sport’s history, followed by a nice, easy re-introduction to watching football.  It would be no fun to just dive right in to the regular season right away, now would it?

Yeah, ok; maybe it would.

Anyway, it’s time once again for my annual haiku football season predictions.  I’m pretty proud of last year’s predictions, in which I correctly picked the Patriots to beat the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. Let’s see how I do this year.

AFC East


The Defending Champs

Make it back to the playoffs–

But lose their first game.


Loaded on defense–

But offense doesn’t seem to

Be “The Real McCoy.”


Improvements will make them

A wild card contender–

But can’t beat the Pats.


Rex Ryan Redux–

With a lackluster offense

And a strong defense.

AFC North


Flacco will surprise;

And they ride his career year

To the Super Bowl.


Changes on defense

Will be too much for loaded

“O” to overcome


Dalton and Lewis

Get one more Sisyphean

Underwhelming year.


Can Johnny 12-step

Still be the Cleveland savior?

Wouldn’t bet on it.

AFC South


It’s just like old times–

A strong regular season

Followed by heartbreak.


They’ll be really bad–

Like, really, really awful–

As in, not too good.


Mariota is

The next “game changing” QB

Who crashes and burns.


Strong defensive line

Coupled with decent offense

Makes them a sleeper.

AFC West


There’s an old man called

“Peyton Manning”. He’s still smart.

But he should retire…


…But “Old Man Rivers”

Still has a few good years left.

Will win Division


They say Carr is good,

But I am still skeptical

Of their playoff odds.


The blandest of teams

Has a chance to surprise,but

Can’t beat the Chargers.

NFC East


Can Dez be worth it?

If Romo can stay healthy

They’ll win division


Odell’s all the rage;

In for a sophomore slump.

Tom Coughlin’s last year.


The name is not all

They should consider changing–

Also need new offense.


Bradford will not last

And the Sanchez/Tebow show

Will make a comeback.

NFC North


This is the year they

Break the curse of the Seahawks.

But not the Ravens.


Crazy like a Fox–

But he can turn teams around.

Will be a fifth seed.


Bridgewater breaks out

And they will be very good–

But not playoff good.


The wheels will fall off;

Johnson’s old, Stafford’s not great–

Back to drawing board.

NFC South


Will still be a threat

Even without Graham et. al;

But can’t beat Panthers.


Will beat the Saints. Twice.

As I predicted above.

What more do you want?


New coach improves them,

But won’t overtake Panthers;

Not until next year.


Can Winston be good

On and off the gridiron?

Probably neither.

NFC West


It’s not picks that kill;

Nor the two straight scoring drives;

It’s that last, long yard.


With ‘Hawks hungover

Will take Division title

And win playoff game.


Need to win it all

To explain canning Harbaugh.

That will not happen.


Bills/Jets of the West:

Strong running game and defense,

But no Quarterback.


They return to form,

And will be in the playoffs.

But not the S-B.


Could be pretty good.

But are in a division

That is much too strong.


They’re like the Giants;

Championship, followed by



Can Sammy Watkins

Make E.J. into a star?

History says no.


They won’t be as good.

Had lots of good luck last year.

Cannot count on that.


Now they have offense;

But it’s their defense that’s weak–

Ya can’t have it all.


They will fall apart;

Dalton and Lewis will go;

Green new Megatron.


With Johnny Football

Being the next Broadway Joe,

They might beat the Colts.


No “D” in Big D,

At least, that is how it looks;

8 and 8 again.


Seem to have improved;

But stats say that offense will

Regress to the mean.


After collapse last year,

Will be hard to be rebuilt–

But what else is new?

Green Bay

Are underrated;

First game will tell us a lot–

If well-refereed.


Clowney and Watt will

Be difficult to slow down.

But the offense won’t.


Andrew Luck’s third year

Will be the one where he breaks

Into the “elite” class.


They’re gonna be bad.

Like, really, really awful.

As in, not too good.

Kansas City

Still a decent team–

But San Diego and Denver

Are too much for them.


Buffalo swept them

Last year. That alone is a

Harbinger of doom.


Year of Transition–

“Bridge over Troubled Water”

You might even say.

New England

With improved defense

Tom Brady and Belichick

Finally get four.

New Orleans

Maybe I’m crazy;

But Brees has to decline soon–

And he’s their offense.

 New York Jets

Decker in for shock–

Amazing how good you look

When on Manning’s team.

New York Giants

When they’re counted out

Is when they do their best work;

But can’t beat the ‘Hawks..


The AFC West’s

“Other” football team is still

Down in the cellar.


Who needs DeSean

When they have LeSean and Foles?

Reinvent the screen.


Will win division

But more or less by default–

And lose in first round.

San Diego

They will beat Denver,

But lose two to the Raiders

And go 8 and 8.

San Francisco

Kaepernick should not

Throw to the right-side corner

With game on the line.


The next Dynasty

Makes it back again this year–

But won’t win title.

St. Louis

“Distractions” can be

overcome, but the Niners

and ‘Hawks cannot.

Tampa Bay

Cool new uniforms

Sadly cannot mask the fact

They’re still pretty bad.


Will be wild-card,

And could even win a game–

But can’t beat the Colts.


After this season,

They will want to change their name,

They’ll have been so bad.

A Disaster



The only thing worse than drafting a wide-receiver in the first round is trading up to do so. Buffalo mortgaged the future in order to get someone who won’t help them win now.  Then they picked a lineman from Alabama, and linemen from Alabama generally don’t work out in the pros. But at least they did pick some linemen–that is the one and only good thing to say about this draft.

Really, it all goes back to the fact that I am not sold on E.J. Manuel as the quarterback.  I don’t care how good Sammy Watkins is; it’s not going to matter if they can’t get him the ball.  They would have been so much better off drafting University of Buffalo’s Khalil Mack, but I guess they saw no value in having a hometown star who plays a key position on the team.

But ok; so they decided to go the “build the offense by getting good receivers” route. I have seen no evidence that this plan will work, (look at Arizona for the past decade to see the best outcome of this scheme) but apparently, that was their strategy.

So, if that really is their idea, why would they then go and trade the best (or second-best, if you buy the Watkins hype) receiver on the roster?  I mean, do they want to have a strong receiving corps or not?

And of course they failed to draft Michael Sam, which I really thought they should have.  That’s not a disaster, but it would have been smart.  (By the way, how is it that the Defensive Player of the Year in the best college conference falls to the late seventh-round, especially when the latest any previous recipient of that honor went was in the fifth round?)

To my mind, the clear winner of this draft was Cleveland. They strengthened their defense, got someone who has the potential to be the next Colin Kaepernick or Cam Newton, and got Buffalo’s first-round pick next year (I expect it will be a very high one) to boot.

This is normally the time of year when I urge them to get Tebow.  But I’ve given up on that.  I think they should draft Sam for much the same reason I thought they should add Tebow: he gets attention. Well, that and he has an awesome football name. ‘Mike” traditionally designates middle linebacker, and “Sam” designates the strongside linebacker.

The press will be interested in the first season of the first openly gay NFL player.  It’s something novel to report on, and so probably his games will get more coverage.  This is exactly what Buffalo needs, as they generally are ignored except when they are playing [read: getting beaten by] New England.

Besides, I have a hunch that, in the wake of the Ritchie Incognito scandal, the league wants to prove its not a place filled by angry people who are intolerant of anyone who is different in any way.  So, again, they’ll want to give more attention and more favorable marketing to the team that drafts him.

Now, it still wouldn’t be worthwhile if he played some position like wide receiver or running back, where there’s a lot of cheap talent to be had.  But linebackers are valuable, and it can’t hurt to have depth at the position. Moreover, I suspect a lot of teams will miss out on him because they are worried he will be a “distraction”, meaning Buffalo may be able to get him for a lower draft pick than they otherwise would for a player of his talents.

He may not be first-round pick material.  But he’s probably worth spending the second rounder on, if they are really worried some other team is trying to get him.  At the least, I would say they should draft him before they draft any receivers or running backs.

It’s that time of the year again! My predictions were uneven last year–I was totally right about Atlanta and Arizona, but was woefully wrong about Chicago and Denver.


They are becoming

Just what the Colts used to be.

Will choke yet again.


Larry Fitzgerald

Should be traded for linemen.

Would be a win/win.


The defending champs

Will not make the postseason.

Third in division.


Rebuilding again.

Manuel looks like poor man’s

Kind of Tim Tebow.


The Anti-Niners:

Demonstrating the option

Won’t work in the pros.


Will Cutler breakthrough?

Can there really be offense

In Windy City?


Will get past Houston;

And in all the excitement

Will get to New York.


They seem to have been

Re-rebuilding ever since



Changes make them good.

Win their division, first round

And lose in Green Bay.


Their last playoff loss

Looked just like Manning’s Colts teams.

Will regress this year.


Arizona East:

One Hall of Fame receiver,

And just nothing else.

Green Bay

Need to have balance;

But having the best QB

Makes up for a lot.


It’s make or break time.

Schaub should declare he’s “elite”;

It seems to work well.


Well, now, that was quick.

They’re right back where they belong:

Can they win big one?


They’re gonna be bad.

Like, really, really awful.

As in, not too good.

Kansas City

Might surprise people.

But not nearly enough to

Surpass the Broncos.


Are getting better,

But they are a year away

From winning the East.


This will be the year

Peterson will disappoint.

Can Ponder step up?

New England

In spite of it all

They will still field a good team.

Also, Tim Tebow.

New Orleans

More insane offense,

But will the defense improve

Or still let them down?

 New York Jets

You heard it here first:

They will somehow make playoffs

And save Rex’s job.

New York Giants

Can take one more year

Before they shape up and win.

Third Championship.


They are still lost in

A giant black hole in West.

Where will they finish?


Kelly’s new offense

Will be a flop in this league.

Won’t win more than five.


Will compete again,

With infusion of talent.

And sweep Baltimore.

San Diego

This will be last year

Rivers plays for them, and then

They’ll draft new QB.

San Francisco

They look amazing.

They will live up to their hype

And will win it all.


Won’t live up to hype,

Sophomore slump for Wilson

And get passed by Rams.

St. Louis

Will take second place

In the division, but the

Offense will struggle.

Tampa Bay

Revis Island moved,

And that alone gives them hope.

Can’t beat Atlanta.


They will crash and burn;

And have to start rebuilding.

Enjoy Fitzpatrick.


If Griffin’s healthy

They could be great, but if not

They won’t fall apart.

Jason Whitlock column on the Aaron Hernandez case

At times it slides into “Ya got trouble right here in River City” territory with his complaining about the culture, but I do think a lot of his points are accurate even so.

The thing about Hernandez is that, in addition to (assuming the charges are true, of course) being an evil criminal, he must be a complete moron.  He had a $40 million contract!  Most of the gangsters Whitlock refers to were in it for the money. What was Hernandez’s reason?

Chuck Norris has written an article about how great Tim Tebow is.  I hate to say it, but beneath all the hyperbole and cliches about “clutchness”, he has something of a point, even if he has a much higher opinion of Tebow than I do.  I don’t think he’ll ever be a really great player, but he deserves more of a chance than he’s getting.  I wish Buffalo had signed him and spent their first round pick on a defensive player instead.

I really can’t figure out the weird reluctance by teams to take Tebow.  It’s not that Tebow doesn’t have his flaws, but rather that teams are willing to gamble so much more to get potentially so much less.  E.J. Manuel may end up being the next J.P. Losman, whereas Tebow at least has won a playoff game, which is more than can be said for Rob Johnson, whom Buffalo once anointed their starter for no apparent reason, or Ryan Fitzpatrick, or any of the other placeholders they’ve had these past thirteen years.

It’s not just Buffalo, though; nobody wants Tebow.  If teams were generally very conservative, this might make sense, but they aren’t.  They gamble on worse odds all the time. Heck, Geno Smith, who signaled the end for Tebow time in New York, has “bust” written all over him in giant, neon green letters.   (B! U! S! T! Bust! Bust! Bust!)

People keep passing this off by saying “well, teams don’t want the attention he brings.” Of course they do!  They’re pro football teams! The reason they exist is to get attention, and thus money.  “Well, Tebow has this zealous fan base, led by people like Chuck Norris,” you say.  Yeah, he does.  So what? All pro football teams aim to fill their stadia with zealous fanbases each week, and it doesn’t seem to bother them then.

Tebow’s fans say he’s being discriminated against due to his religion.  Seems unlikely.  Most football players are Christians.  Kurt Warner was an outspoken Christian, like Tebow, and teams were quite willing to give him a chance, even when his play was very inconsistent.

So, we come inevitably back to his bad mechanics.  Well, no one can deny his throwing motion is terrible.  But, even so, the Pittsburgh defense could not stop him in a playoff game.    It may be bad, but it was good enough to win that day.

Can Tebow be a championship-winning quarterback?  No; it’s very unlikely, unless he travels back in time and signs with the ’85 Bears.  But can he get a team into the playoffs?  Yes–he already has done it once. Can he make a team relevant again?  Yes, even if he plays poorly, he will still attract attention.  That’s why perennially bad teams, like Buffalo, Cleveland and, as Norris mentioned, Jacksonville would be wise to get him.

I wrote a post last August about the reasons I wouldn’t get Madden 13.  The reasons were: “no importing custom rosters into franchise connected careers mode, no editing players’ equipment or jersey numbers, and no “Madden IQ” difficulty setting.  Last Autumn, patches were released to fix the first two problems.  So, I got the game.

I’m having fun with it, but it definitely has issues.  The physics engine is kind of neat just because it means different animations than the old, stale one we had seen so much of, but as far as simulating the standard physics of the known universe, it is not really very accurate.  Players will bend and contort and flop in improbable directions.  A lineman’s foot will brush against a receiver lying on the field after a play and he will be thrown sprawling across the turf.  It’s awesome to watch, but not exactly realistic.

The other problem goes back to that “Madden IQ” issue I alluded to.  I still miss it.  I play on the “All-Pro” setting, and the game is not very challenging.  Now, it is true, I have a custom quarterback with maxed-out stats, but he’s not the reason I’m doing so well. In fact, he has–or I have–thrown nearly forty interceptions in the season and two games remain.  And the crazy thing is, my team is 12-2!

How do they manage to survive and thrive despite the star quarterback having possibly the worst season in the league?  Answer: the running game and defense, of course.  The defense is first in the league, and it isn’t close.  I can just sit there and have one of my players do nothing and my 10 defenders will almost always stop the CPU’s 11 offensive players.  The good news is, the interception thing seems to work both ways, as my defense is picking off opposing QB’s at nearly the same clip that I’m throwing them.

As for the running game, it seems broken, but I’m hesitant to complain about it too much because it’s clearly an attempt at fixing previous iterations’ flaws.  I refer to the outside running game.  In past Maddens, calling a pitch play or wide-receiver reverse was tantamount to taking a knee–only with more chance of fumbling.  Pitch plays almost never worked until Madden 11, and then only when carefully set up. Reverses never worked except maybe on lower difficulties with blazingly fast receivers

They’ve fixed that now–outside rushing is deadly in this game.  I once got a 20-yard rush off a pitch play to the right, then ran hurry-up, audibled into the same play to the left, and was able to snap the ball before the defense had even gotten back from the right side of the field.  Their safety did ultimately catch me somehow, but only after a huge gain.

The point is, the outside running game is practically a cheat now.  (The inside running game might be, too–haven’t tried it much yet.  Haven’t needed to.)  I think it’s because of the physics engine–the crazy ways that players interact with each other have seemingly helped the running game, though I can’t quite explain how.

All that said, it’s a fun game.  The graphics are nice.  It has good sound.  There are lots of different facemasks, which I’m happy about.  The RPG-like mechanics they put into connected careers are pretty cool. It’s a good game, but it’s still no Madden 11.