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I served in the US Navy from 2002-08; four of those years were as a Nuclear Propulsion Operator aboard an aircraft carrier. I engage in political activism in various Democratic circles when I am able to. I have a cat, and I am an uncle.

All opinions that I express are my own and do not reflect the views of any organization that I represent.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

2011 NFL SEASON: WILD CARD PLAYOFFS










My pre-season pick of Baltimore-Green Bay is looking really good.

On to the playoffs!!

KICKOFF TIMES ARE CENTRAL TIME


Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans, 1/7 3:30PM NBC
Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints, 1/7 7PM NBC
Atlanta Falcons at New York Giants, 1/8 Noon Fox
Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos, 1/8 3:30 CBS




Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans, 1/7 3:30 PM NBC

Our first game features a first in NFL History: two rookie quarterbacks going against each other in a playoff game. For the Texans, you have T.J. Yates a fifth round draft pick from UNC, a school more known for its basketball than football. Yates ended up in the starting role due to injuries at the quarterback position. Starter Matt Schabb suffered an ankle injury during their Week 10 blowout win at Tampa Bay. Backup quarterback Matt Leinart started the Week 12 at Jacksonville and was lost for the season due to a collarbone injury.

That has been the recurring theme for the Texans in 2011: Injuries.

Houston has 12 players on Injured Reserve. Besides the two quarterbacks listed, defensive end/linebacker Mario Williams was lost for the season due to a torn pectoral muscle.

Other players have missed time such as running back Arian Foster and wide receiver Andre Johnson who is expected to play in this game.

Give credit to Houston, they made their first playoff appearance in team history by clinching the AFC South in a dramatic 20-19 win at Cincinnati when Yates led a fourth quarter drive for the game clinching score.


Houston's sudden rise is in part due to their second ranked defense in terms of yards and yielding the fourth best in points scored. Credit to this defensive turnaround goes to Wade Phillips, the son of former Houston Oilers (now Tennessee Titans) coach Bum Phillips.

And it also helps that Colts quarterback Peyton Manning was lost for the season, the Jaguars are in a rebuilding phase, and the Titans missed the playoffs by a mid-season loss to the Bengals…

Meanwhile, Cincinnati is not that bad as some people were expecting. After the holdout and later mid-season trade of franchise quarterback
Carson Palmer to Oakland and the release of wide receiver Chad Ochenta y cinco Johnson Ochocinco….. whatever he calls himself…, it appeared that the Bengals were back to their Bungling ways, were in the “Suck-for-Luck” running, and when it came time to pick they would screw that up.

Instead the Bengals had remarkable production from quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green. Dalton, out of TCU, threw for 3,398 yards and had a 20 TD vs. 13 interception ratio. Green, the fourth overall pick out of UGA, caught 65 passes for 1,057 yards and 7 scores.

They would be the candidates for rookie of the year if it wasn’t for some guy named Cam Newton, but that doesn’t diminish their accomplishments.


Running back Cedric Benson continues his career turnaround since being labeled a draft bust after his release from the Bears after the 2007 season. Benson posted his third consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season and scored 6 TDs.

Defensively, the Bengals rank in the top ten in points against and in yards. For this team that was written off, they have done a good job shaking off the idea that they would be doormats in the AFC North. They won the games they were supposed to and were competitive against their games against the Ravens and in their home game against Pittsburgh.

Now, for the pick.

Houston started the season 8-3 before the injuries to Schabb and Leinart. Yates brought them to a 10-3 record, the AFC South crown, and in the middle of the race for the AFC’s #1 seed in the playoffs.

Since that dramatic win at Cincinnati, Houston lost to Carolina (looking back, that was expected), the Colts (were we witnessing a repeat of the 1968 Eagles?), and the Titans… but at that point their fate was sealed for playing this weekend.

The Bengals are 5-3 on the road vs. a 4-4 home record. The reason for that poor home record: lack of attendance. 6 of their 8 home games in 2011 failed to sell out; the two that sold out: the Steelers (probably lots of “Terrible Towels” waving in the stands) and Ravens (only after the team offered a two-for-one ticket deal to get people into the stadium).

Well, if a team has been as consistently bad as the Bengals have been since 1990….

I am giving the edge to the Bengals that they have a decent runner in Benson, an OK defense, and reasonable production from their rookies Dalton and Green.

The emphasis is on rookie QBs. Dalton has started every single game for the Bengals this year while Yates has come in to hold the fort.

The quarterback who makes the least mistakes will win this game and I think it is Andy Dalton who does that.

THE PICK: Bengals 16-13


Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints, 1/7 7 PM NBC

Another NFL first in this game: Two 5,000-yard passers are facing off against each other in a playoff game. Saints quarterback Drew Brees set the single-season record for passing in a single season with 5,476 while Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford passed for 5,038 yards. Both played their high school football in Texas.

This game is interesting as you look at their franchise histories.

The Saints were the definition of futility since coming into the NFL in 1967. Their first .500 season did not happen until 1979 and they followed it up with a 1-15 season where their fans coined their team The Aint’s and made famous the wearing of paper bags to games as a demonstration of their lackluster performance.


They did not have a winning a season until their first playoff appearance in 1987. The Saints first playoff win did not happen until 2000.

The turning point for the Saints franchise was the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In their first off-season after the storm, the franchise hired head coach Sean Peyton and signed Drew Brees who was a free agent at the time. Before 2006, the Saints had a winning percentage barely over .400 and a playoff record of 1-5. From 2006 onward the Saints have compiled an overall record of 66-36 with 3 NFC South Titles and well… this…


The Lions went on a 34-year playoff win drought from when they won the NFL Title in 1957 to their 38-6 win over Dallas in the 1991 divisional round of the playoffs. The last time Detroit posted a 10-win season was when they made the playoffs in 1995. The last time the Lions made the playoffs was in 1999 with an 8-8 record. From 1999-2010, the Lions had an abysmal record of 48-128 that can be summed up with one name: Matt Millen.

The bottom fell out when the Lions finished the 2008 season with winless season going 0-16. The Lions had the top pick in the 2009 and 2010 drafts and used them to build their franchise around key needs on offense, Stafford at quarterback, and defense with Ndamukong Suh.


Having a decent quarterback has helped in the transformation of receiver Calvin Johnson into a force for other team’s defensive backs and safeties to have to contend with. Johnson finished the season leading the league in receiving yards (1,681), led the league with 105.1 yards game, top five in receptions (96), and led all wide receivers with 16 touchdowns. Johnson had eight 100-yard receiving games, six 2-touchdown reception game, and two 200-yard receiving games, both of them coming in two of the final three games.


Speaking of decent quarterbacks…


If you compare him to Dan Marino’s 1984 season where he set the previous record of 5,084 passing yards, Brees’s campaign is remarkable.


MARINO 1984
BREES 2011
Yards
5084
5476
Completions
362
468
Completion Pct
64.2%
71.2%
TDs-INTs
48-17
46-14
3-TD passing games
10
9
4-TD passing games
6
5
0-INT passing games
5
8
300-yard passing game
9
13
400-yard passing game
4
2
Games with completion pct. 66.7 or more
8
12
Games with passer rating of 110 or higher
7
8
Highest passing yard game
470 (45-34 loss to the Raiders in Week 14)
419 (42-34 loss at Green Bay in Week 1)
Lowest passing yard game
192 (28-17 win over the Jets in Week 13)
258 (27-16 win over Tampa in Week 9)

It can be that argued that Brees benefited from playing 11 of his games indoors vs. Marino playing all but one game outside and that the rules for passing in league have evolved in the last 30 years. While those statements are true, it doesn’t change the fact that a record was broken.


The one telling statistic is that Marino’s lowest passing yard game was for 192 yards. Brees’s worst passing yard game was for 258 yards. If you had Brees on your fantasy team, you did pretty damn well.

The Saints set the single-season record for total yards in a season that was set in 2000 by the Rams during their height as “The Greatest Show on Turf.” Well… it’s down in New Orleans partying down on Rue Bourbon.

The wild card in this game is running back Darren Sproles who came from the Chargers to the Saints via the short free agency period in the off-season. Not only can he run, but he is also a great pass catcher and he is excellent in the return game. He set the single-season record for all-purpose yards with 2,696 yards. He had 328 all-purpose yards and scored the winning score in the Chargers playoff 23-17 overtime win against the Colts three years ago.


I am going to with the Saints in this game. They are on an eight-game winning streak and for the first time in franchise history a perfect record… in the Superdome. I do see Detroit making it competitive, but you got to go with the hot team in this match-up.

THE PICK: Saints 42-31



Atlanta Falcons at New York Giants, 1/8 Noon Fox


For the first time since the 1970 NFL-AFL Merger, an NFC East team enters the playoffs with fewer than ten wins. It took going to the final game of the entire regular season to determine the division champion but one was crowned.

The Giants started the season with a 6-2 start and after their dramatic win at New England (which had some kind of déjà vu feeling to it…) they looked like a championship caliber squad.

Then the team dropped their next four games including two primetime games where they lost to the Eagles due to an ineffective offensive performance and getting blown out on Monday Night Football at New Orleans.

Their sixth loss was to the Green Bay Packers on a last second field goal by the score of 38-35. That was the EXACT same score the Giants lost to in the regular season finale in 2007 when the Patriots clinched the perfect regular season.

Going into Dallas, their season was on the brink. Trailing by 12 in the fourth quarter Eli Manning led two touchdown drives that put the Giants up by 3 late in the game.

Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul provided the Giants with their first score of the game, being credited with a safety on quarterback Tony Romo. He would provide another big play on the Cowboys 47-yard field goal attempt with six seconds to play…


The blocked field goal would move the Giants into first place and they would hold on to it with wins at the Jets and then at home against the Cowboys.

Wide receiver Victor Cruz made big plays in both of those games. In the Jets game, Cruz became the most recent player to catch a pass for a 99-yard touchdown.


The next week Cruz caught a pass and took it 74 yards for a score that set the tone for the Giants to jump out to a 21-0 halftime lead and win the contest 31-14.


Cruz set the Giants single-season record for receiving yards with 1,536 yards. Quarterback Eli Manning had his third consecutive 4,000-passing season. Currently Manning holds three of the top five spots for passing yards in a single season for the franchise.

Defensively the Giants are known for their pass rush. The Giants had 48 sacks which were tied for third with the Ravens. Jason Pierre-Paul’s 16.5 sacks accounted for a third of that total, led the team, and finished in top five for sacks in the NFL. In addition, you have defensive ends Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, and linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka.

The Falcons… what to make of them…

They proved last week that they can put up points on the scoreboard by taking a 42-0 lead in the game’s first 24 minutes. This dramatic catch and run by rookie wide receiver Julio Jones… wow…


I remember on draft day observers criticized the Falcons for moving up and trading picks away to get him. Right now, it is looking like one of the best draft day steals in the last ten years.

On the other side, Roddy White became one of two players to catch 100 passes this season. The other was Wes Welker in New England.

The Falcons are identified by their quarterback Matt Ryan who set career highs in touchdown passes and passing yards for a single-season. Since being drafted by the Falcons in 2008, the Falcons have posted four consecutive winning seasons and made the playoffs in three of those years. This is the first time in franchise history that the Falcons have made consecutive playoff appearances.

Other times… it’s been ugly. In particular their road record of 4-4. In their four road losses, the Falcons failed to score more than 21 points in those contests. When the Falcons have scored more than 21 points this season, they are 10-1.

That one loss…


Even though Michael Turner failed to gain one yard on that fourth down play in overtime, he gained 1,340 yards which was good enough to rank best in the NFC.

That is going to be the key to the Falcons winning on the road: unleashing Turner to neutralize the Giants’ pass rush so that Matt Ryan can have time to get the pass downfield.

There are a lot of reasons to take one of these teams. New York beat my Cowboys last week, so I am going to root against them. The Giants have been in playoff mode over the last month and are playing at home. The Falcons have a potent running game that can set up the deep pass. The Giants haven’t won a playoff game since Super Bowl XLII and haven’t won a home playoff game since the 2000 NFC Championship Game. Both quarterbacks are playing at a high level. The Giants have that pass rush… and so on….

Why can’t I pick both teams…?

But I have to pick someone and the factors are going to be this: the Giants have the fourth worst pass defense giving up 255 yards per game and Matt Ryan is 0-2 in his playoff career.

This should be one of the better games this weekend.

Matt Ryan gets his first playoff win.

THE PICK: Falcons 27-24



Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos, 1/8 3:30 PM CBS


Everyone will focus on one player…


There is one thing that quarterback Tim Tebow does:


The Broncos were looking like they were going to have another mediocre season until head coach John Fox named Tim Tebow the starting quarterback during the team’s bye week in October. The Broncos won 7 of their next 8 games to take the lead in the division. It appeared that the Broncos offensive strategy to run the ball on every play and their defense’s ability to keep opponents out of the end zone has worked. They followed up that hot streak by losing their last three games. Upon losing their final game 7-3 to the Chiefs at home, Broncos fans became the biggest Chargers fans. San Diego’s win at Oakland gave the Denver their first AFC West Title since their last playoff appearance in 2005.

Denver finished the regular season with the number one rushing offense, but it is not going to be enough to get them past the first round of the playoffs.

The Achilles heel for the Broncos: their next-to-last ranked passing attack. Since Tebow has assumed the starting role, the Broncos offense has not passed for more than 300 yards in a game. Tebow can run and scramble well, but the job of a quarterback to throw the ball. And Tebow can’t do that on a consistent basis.

The only time that Tebow completed more than 20 passes in a game was in their eighth victory of the season against the Bears. In their Week 10 17-7 victory at Kansas City, Tebow had 2 completions out of 8 pass attempts with 69 yards and a touchdown pass resulting in a quarterback rating of 102.6. The touchdown pass was for 56 yards, so if you remove the TD pass you have a quarterback that had one completion out of seven attempts for 13 yards resulting in a 39.5 rating.

Do you know what the QB rating is for someone that attempts at least one pass without that pass being intercepted?

39.5

During the Broncos 7-1 stretch, Tebow completed 92 passes on 187 attempts with 1,212 passing yards and 10 TDs vs. 2 INTs resulting in a passer rating of 83.5. Even though that passing rating was that of Roger Staubach’s career rating, Tim Tebow is no Roger Staubach.


I doubt that Tebow could do that.

But enough about Tebow, I am sure that the announcers are going to do that ad nauseam.

Bet they won’t mention this stat about him…

Since 1990, Tebow has the fourth worst completion percentage in a season among qualifying passers. Among that list: Heath Shuler (yes the same Heath Shuler who is now a Democratic Congressman from western North Carolina) set the mark in 1994 in his first trip to DC as a quarterback for the Redskins with a completion percentage of 45.3. Draft bust extraordinaire Ryan Leaf matched it in 1998 in his rookie season at San Diego. The record holder was Akili Smith of the Bengals in 2000 with a record of 44.2.

The last quarterback to start a playoff game with a regular season completion percentage under 50% was Scott Zolak of the Patriots in their first round loss at Jacksonville in 1998.

The Steelers finished the regular season with a 12-4 record that was good enough for second place in the AFC North. Pittsburgh’s losses were to the 49ers, Texans, and being swept in the season series against the Ravens. The teams they lost to made the playoffs. In games involving playoff teams Pittsburgh was 3-4 while going 9-0 against non-playoff teams. One could say that the Steelers strengthened their record by defeating weaker opponents, but Pittsburgh was in the hunt for the division crown; they had to keep pace with Baltimore with the hopes that they would slip up.

Pittsburgh enters the playoffs as the number one ranked defense in fewest offensive yards surrendered, but also with several key players injured on that side of the ball. Linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, defensive end Brett Keisel, and safety Troy Polamalu have injuries ranging from leg and foot injuries to Keisel having a groin injury. All are expected to play.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has not fully recovered from a high ankle sprain suffered against the Browns in Week 14, but that won’t keep him from playing.

Yeah, the Steelers have some injuries, but you know something… them at 85% functional is so much better than the Broncos.

The first round last year featured a matchup between the AFC West Champion and a wild card team between Kansas City and Baltimore. It was also the 4-versus-5 matchup also. The Ravens ran over the Chiefs in a 30-7 victory.

While I doubt that the Steelers will duplicate that result, they should have no problem with moving on in the playoffs.

THE PICK: Steelers 24-10

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