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Random Notes - 2012

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Red Sox First Quarter Report

The Offense

You can't really argue with what the Red Sox have done offensively so far this season, especially when you consider that Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford have had a grand total of 26 at bats this season (all by Ellsbury). The Sox are second in the American league in runs scored and batting average (behind Texas). Six players are on pace to hit 20 or more homers (Ortiz, Aviles, Ross, Saltalamaccia, Pedroia, Middlebrooks) and five players are on pace for 50+ doubles (Ortiz, Gonzalez, Sweeney, Pedroia, Aviles). Cody Ross has been the biggest surprise (8 HR, 28 RBI). He was on fire in Spring Training and that has carried over into the season. Ryan Sweeney's .311 average has softened the blow of Crawford's absence and Will Middlebrooks has been much more productive than the injured Kevin Youkilis. On the down side, losing Jacoby Ellsbury has hurt the Sox quite a bit. Darnell McDonald is having a terrible season. Marlon Byrd has been okay, but certainly can't impact the offense the way Jacoby can. Adrian Gonzalez's lack of power is a little bit concerning but last season he didn't start showing his power stroke until mid-May. As it stands, the Red Sox have a potent lineup and that lineup will only get better if Ellsbury, Crawford and Youkilis are able to make healthy returns to the lineup. The Red Sox may even consider trading Youkilis for pitching if they think Middlebrooks is ready to take over full-time.

First Quarter Grade: A-

The Starting Rotation

The Red Sox have had little consistency from the starting five this season. Jon Lester has put together a couple of nice starts to get to 3-3 with a 3.95 ERA. He's given up just nine earned runs in his last five starts and appears to be back on track. Josh Beckett was outstanding in two starts this week showing how good he can be when he's healthy and actually gives a damn. Beckett's heart remains a big question mark. With Clay Buchholz, it seems that his head might be the problem. Buchholz appears healthy but seems to have lost his confidence. His first six starts of the season were terrible. He's been a little better in each of his last two outings so hopefully he's starting to figure it out. Daniel Bard's numbers (3-5, 4.85 ERA) are not impressive but he's a little better than those numbers indicate. He lost a tough 1-0 game to the Rays and a lot of the runs he's given up have come late in his outings which is not surprising given that he is transitioning from setup man to starter. Felix Doubront has been the Red Sox best starter this season (4-1, 4.09 ERA).

First Quarter Grade: C-

The Bullpen

It's been a tale of two seasons for the Sox pen. During the first three weeks of the season, they were about as bad as you could possibly be. In the third game of the season in Detroit, they blew two runs in the 9th and 11th innings. Two weeks later, they managed to blow an eight run lead in the 7th inning against the Yankees (giving up 14 total runs in the 7th and 8th). The Sox were expected to have a pretty solid set-up/closer situation this season but Mark Melancon was demoted to AAA after putting an ERA of 50 (okay, 49.50 to exact) in the early season and closer Andrew Bailey was lost for at least the first half of the season with a thumb injury. It took some time, the Red Sox bullpen has really put things together. New closer Alfredo Aceves now has nine saves and has given up just two earned runs in his last 15 1/3 innings of work. The combination of Atchison, Hill, Miller, Mortensen and Albers has given up just two earned runs in 55 1/3 innings of work in May. That's an ERA of 0.33. Vicente Padilla and Franklin Morales haven't been as good as the other guys but they haven't had any blow-ups of late. Mark Melancon has been dominating at the AAA level (0.64 ERA) so I suspect he'll be back in the Red Sox bullpen soon. Add a healthy Andrew Bailey later in the season and the Sox could have an excellent bullpen heading into the stretch run.

First Quarter Grade: C (April: F, May: A)

The Defense

The Red Sox are not quite as good defensively as they were a few years ago and losing Crawford (I'm assuming we'd get the pre 2011 Crawford this year) and Ellsbury didn't help. However, their defense has been a pleasant surprise this season. The Sox have the second fewest errors in the AL behind Seattle. They have only given up 14 unearned runs. There is no danger of Mike Aviles and Jarrod Saltalamacchia winning any gold gloves but they have probably been a little better than expected on the defensive side of the ball. Marlon Byrd pretty much single-handedly lost a game for the Sox in Kansas City when he dropped a routine line drive in the first inning but in general the Red Sox haven't been hurt too often by their defense.

First Quarter Grade: B

The Manager

I wasn't thrilled with the hiring of Bobby Valentine and the new Sox manager has done nothing to change my mind. The Red Sox lost at least a couple of games because Bobby has left his starter in too long. It's as if he didn't realize that Daniel Bard was a set-up man prior to this season. Other times, he's gone overboard with the pitching changes. On the plus side, I think he's done a pretty good job with the lineup. I'm not going to evaluate Bobby on his relationship with the players at this point. The players who were part of the September collapse last season don't deserve an easygoing manager. Even with the injuries, the Red Sox are too talented to be 20-21 at this point in the season so I think I'm being generous in giving Bobby V a C+ grade.

First Quarter Grade: C-

The Prognosis

The bad news for the Sox is that a 20-21 is not a great start and there is no telling when Ellsbury, Crawford and Bailey will be back. More importantly, if they come back, will they be healthy enough to give the Red Sox what they need to compete for a World Series title. The good news is that a lot of the top teams in the AL are struggling. When the season started, I think most people were thinking that six teams: New York, Boston, Tampa Bay, Detroit, Texas and Los Angeles would battle for the five playoff spots. Tampa and Texas are off to good starts but the other four teams on that list have struggled. The Red Sox have stayed afloat because of unexpected production from guys like Albers, Atchison, Hill, Ross and Aviles. If those guys continue to produce, the injured guys return and play to their potential and Buchholz figures it out, the Sox will have as good a chance as anyone to win it all this year. Unfortunately, there are a lot of "ifs" in that sentence. I wouldn't bet on the 2012 Sox but I also wouldn't count them out the way many in the media have.

Random Notes

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Bruins and Celtics are now both in the regular season stretch run. The Bruins have now regained their swagger after a rough patch in mid-March. The Bruins are just two points away from wrapping up the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. If the playoffs started today, Boston's first round opponent would be Ottawa. The Senators are the most likely first round opponent but Washington still has a great chance to move up to #7 (they could also miss the playoffs entirely). Florida, New Jersey and Buffalo are also possible, though unlikely, first round opponents. The Bruins are playing well and I like their chances against all of those opponents but Washington strikes me as the scariest possible first round opponent. There isn't as much scoring in the playoffs as this site shows and the overtimes are sudden death so players like Alex Ovechkin have a great impact. Ottawa has plenty of goal scorers but none of them can single-handedly take over a game the way Alex Ovechkin can.

The Bruins have had an up and down season. They have gone from sluggish (first ten games) to nearly unbeatable (November to mid-January) to mediocre (mid-January to early March) to awful (in mid-March) to solid (last eight games). The big plus for the Bruins heading into this playoff season is Tyler Seguin. Seguin, the Bruins top scorer, was not even in the lineup at the start of last year's playoffs. On the down side is the loss of Nathan Horton due to concussion problems. It's no accident that the Bruins have not played as well since Horton was knocked out of the lineup. Fatigue could also become an issue for the Bruins. They played 25 playoff games a year ago during the two month championship stretch. The Bruins played until June 15th. No other potential Eastern Conference foes played beyond May 6th. This could have a big effect, especially with a 38 year-old goaltender.

The Celtics have been a pleasant surprise and are in a decent position to win the Atlantic Division and grab a #4 seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. The Sixers are 9-14 since February 13th. The Celtics, however, have a brutal April schedule. They play the Heat three more times. Prior to playing the Sixers next Sunday, the Celtics play Miami (today), San Antonio, Chicago and Indiana. The Celtics also have a five games in six days stretch between April 13th and 18th. Those opponents are not as tough but the fatigue factor could cost the aging Celtics some wins.

It shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that the Celtics are overachieving. Most people didn't think the redesigned Celtics of 2007-08 would be able to win a championship in their first year together. Most of the key players hadn't played together prior to that season but they found a way to become a cohesive unit and win a title. The 2008-09 team could have rolled over when they lost Garnett for the season but instead they won a classic first round battle with Chicago and nearly knocked out Orlando in the second round. The next season, the Celtics were 50-32 in the regular season but knocked out LeBron's 61-21 Cavs in the second round and were once Kendrick Perkins injury away from winning another championship. Last year, the Celtics put up a good fight against the Heat and may have won that second round series if not for Rondo's elbow injury. If this year's team can win the division and win a first round series, they will have overachieved no matter what happens in the second round. This will probably be the last season with Garnett and Allen and even Pierce and Rondo could be on their way out in the next couple of years. It's really been a pleasure watching this group over the past five years. It's a shame that injuries prevented them from winning two, three, maybe even four titles but I'm thrilled that they were at least able to win another title and bring back a winning attitude that had been gone for more than a decade.

After a long off-season for Red Sox fans, regular season baseball returns this week. It's been a long time since I've seen Red Sox fans this pessimistic heading into a season. There is no doubt reason for concern. Not only are the Yankees better, but the Angels and Tigers made huge moves to improve their rosters. The Rangers will be very good once again and there's no reason to believe that the Rays won't be in the mix for a playoff spot. Six of the seven best teams in baseball may be in the American League (the Phillies are loaded as usual). As usual, injuries will be a big concern for the Sox. Crawford is already on the DL. Youkilis has missed 102 games in the last two years. David Ortiz is (at least) 36 years old. Pedroia, Gonzalez and Ellsbury seem healthy but each player battled serious injuries just two years ago. Of course, Clay Buchholz missed most of last season with back problems and new closer Andrew Bailey has a history of injury problems. On paper, this team is loaded. The led baseball in runs a year ago despite Carl Crawford having a terrible season. If Jarrod Saltalamacchia continues to improve his offensive game, Cody Ross' Spring Traning prowess extends into the regular season and Crawford gets healthy and regains his stroke, the Sox will have a devasting lineup from the 1 through 8 spots (don't get me started on the foolish Scutaro trade). If healthy, Lester, Beckett and Buchholz are as good as any 1-2-3 combo in the league and Alfredo Aceves can be a solid #5 starter. Melancon and Bailey are nice additions to the pen and I think Felix Doubront could be very valuable. Hopefully, Daniel Bard will be effective as the #4 starter. If not, he goes back to being a key member of the bullpen (which is what I prefer). It's unfortunate that the Red Sox don't have more starting pitching depth because Aceves/Doubront/Melancon/Bard/Bailey is potentially a great bullpen.

I'm not quite as pessimistic as most Sox fans. The 2012 Red Sox have the potential to win 100 games and compete for a title. An equally likely scenario is that they will have seven or eight key players on the disabled list by the All Star break and fall apart in the second half. For now, I'm just happy that baseball is back.

I'm still finding it hard to discuss the Patriots, even two months removed from the debacle in Indianapolis. I was happy, however, to see them sign Brandon Lloyd. Last season was a bit of a disappointment for Lloyd but he still caught 70 passes for nearly 1,000 yards. In 2010, he had 1,448 receiving yards and 11 TDs. Assuming everyone is healthy, how in the world do you defend the Lloyd/Welker/Gronk/Hernandez combo? The NFL Draft is less than four weeks away. The Pats pick 27th and 31st in Round One and have two second round picks. Here are some mock drafts:

Sunday, February 12, 2012

It's been a week since the debacle in Indianapolis and I don't feel any better than I did last Sunday night when the game ended. For the second time in four years, a sure-handed Patriot had what was essentially a Superbowl clinching catch in his hands but dropped the ball. In five years as a Patriot, Wes Welker has caught 607 passes. I guessing he's dropped maybe a couple dozen. Asante Samuel had 19 totals interceptions in the 2006 and 2007 seasons but he couldn't haul in the Superbowl clincher in February of 2008. Welker's drop wouldn't have mattered if the Giants had lost any of the three fumbles they had last Sunday. Even with all the bad luck and mistakes, the Patriots had a chance to win the game on the last drive. Had another sure-handed receiver, Deion Branch, hauled in Brady's pass to start that drive, the Pats would have been near midfield with 45 seconds and one timeout to play with. Even Brady's Hail Mary was nearly caught by Rob Gronkowski who surely would have been a step closer had he not had the ankle problems. Then again, had Gronkowski not had the ankle problem, the Patriots would have won the game by two touchdowns and there wouldn't have been a need for a Hail Mary.

Welker will receive most of the focus for the Superbowl loss but there is plenty of blame to go around. Brady was very sharp in the middle of the game but no so much in the fourth quarter. Welker should have caught the pass but it was hardly a perfect throw. Deion Branch should have made the catch to start that final drive but again Brady's pass could have been better. Aaron Hernandez also dropped a pass on the final drive. The defense played pretty well but the 12 men on the field penalty cost them seven points and Rob Ninkovich's offside penalty extended a New York drive and undoubtedly cost the Patriots points (because of the change in field position). It also meant that the Patriots defense was on the field longer and that fatigue probably played a role in the drive that won the game for the Giants. Bill Belichick's stubborn refusal to take the ball at the start of the game when the Patriots won the coin flip probably led to the safety. Teams with great defenses should defer when they win they win the toss. Teams with great offenses and weak defenses should choose to receive the opening kickoff. Belichick should also be criticized for not using Green-Ellis more and possibly for putting a hobbled Gronkowski on the field for too many plays. Welker certainly should not be a scapegoat.

There were similarities to Superbowl 42, but I felt very different about the two games. In Superbowl 42, the Giants were extraordinarily, mind-bendingly lucky on their last TD drive. The helmet catch might have literally been a one in million type of play. However, I thought the Superbowl 42 Giants were an above average team that played a great Superbowl on defensive side of the ball. The Giants did not a play a game worthy of victory last Sunday. Prior to the last possession, their offense had scored 13 points in 56 minutes against the 31st ranked defense in the NFL. Their defense allowed Patriot receivers to get open all day long despite the fact that New England's top offensive threat, coming off of the most dominant season ever by a tight end in the NFL, was virtually useless with the ankle sprain. The Giants fumbled three times but never lost the ball. They botched their timeout situation in the second half and that would have haunted them had Welker not dropped the ball on that infamous play. They ran the ball into the endzone for a touchdown at the end of the game when the smart play was to take a knee. The Giants forced a big safety early and Manningham made an amazing catch on the final drive, followed by a few nice plays against an exhausted defense but they did very little in between. I'm not sure the Patriots deserved to win the game either, but they certainly deserved it more than the Giants did.

Presumably, the Patriots are two dropped passes (by Samuel and Welker) and one 12 men in the huddle penalty (in the 2006 AFC Championship in Indy) away from six Superbowl titles. I'm assuming the 2006 Patriots would have beaten the Bears in Superbowl 41. I say "presumably" because there is no way of knowing how future seasons would have played out had the outcomes been different. In other words, if the Pats had held on against the Colts and won Superbowl 41, would they have had the same team that went 16-0 the next year? I am aware that I sound greedy. The Patriots still have three titles in the last 11 seasons. The Browns, Vikings and Jets have none in the last 40 years and the Browns and Vikings each have a couple of losses in conference championship games that compare to what the Patriots have suffered through in recent years.

Forget the odds of the Giants getting nearly every bounce and break for three straight weeks. What are the odds of Bernard Pollard ruining three different Patriots seasons while playing for three different teams? In 2008, his knee shot ended Tom Brady's season in the first quarter of Week 1. Even with Matt Cassel at the helm, the Pats were 11-5 so they certainly would have been in contention for a title that year with a healthy Brady. The following season, Wes Welker tore his ACL trying to avoid a Pollard tackle in the regular season finale. The Ravens destroyed the Pats the following week and I doubt Welker could have made a difference but I think all Patriots fans knew the title run was over when Welker's season ended. Pollard didn't knock Gronkowski out of the Superbowl but he might as well have. Gronk caught just two passes in the Superbowl and was probably more of a liability than an asset. The Patriots would have beaten the Giants easily with a healthy Gronk.

The most irritating part of the Superbowl is the Eli Manning hype. For some reason, the media cannot be objective about the younger Manning. He had an excellent season and was exceptional in his last five games. He's kept his cool in pressure-packed situations (unlike a certain QB in his division). However, if you take his career as a whole, Eli Manning has been a very mediocre quarterback. He has two Superbowl MVP awards but his play in both those games leaves a lot to be desired. Still, most in the mainstream sports media are calling him "elite" and some think he should be headed to the Hall of Fame. This is simply absurd.

Let's start with the Superbowls. If Asante Samuel catches what should have been an easy interception in Superbowl 42, Manning ends up with two interceptions in a 14-10 loss. If Wes Welker catches Brady's pass last week, the Giants more than likely lose the game with the New York offense scoring just 13 points against the 31st ranked defense in the NFL. If those two sure-handed players (Samuel and Welker) catch those footballs, Manning would probably be the media's whipping boy. He'd be labeled a choker and the sports columns and talk radio chatter would all be about how he's not even close to Peyton. If certain members of the media think Eli Manning belongs in the Hall of Fame for his two Superbowl wins, then they should first make an argument for Deion Branch who had 21 total catches in the Patriots second and third Superbowl wins in 2004 and 2005.

As for regular season. Manning's career QB rating is 82.1 (it was 92.9 this season). He's thrown 185 TDs and 129 INTs (1.43 ratio) in his eight seasons in the NFL. First, let's compare Manning's numbers to the career marks for the other QBs the media thinks are elite.

Rodgers -- QB rating: 104.1; 65% completion pct; 132 TD / 38 INT(3.47)
Brady -- 96.4; 64%; 300/115 (2.61)
P. Manning -- 94.9; 65%; 399/198 (2.02)
Brees -- 94.0; 66%; 281/146 (1.92)
Roethlisberger -- 92.1; 63%; 165/100 (1.65)
E. Manning -- 82.1; 58%; 185/129 (1.43)

Some might argue that Eli's numbers are skewed because of his first couple of years in the NFL. That doesn't hold water. Last season (his seventh), Eli Manning threw 25 interceptions. If that doesn't get your attention, this will:

Chad Pennington -- 90.1; 66%; 102/64 (1.59)
Jeff Garcia -- 87.5; 63%; 161/83 (1.94)
Carson Palmer -- 86.3; 63%; 167/116 (1.44)
E. Manning -- 82.1; 58%; 185/129 (1.43)

Should we be sending Pennington, Garcia and Palmer to the Hall of Fame and giving them the "elite" label? The sports media is simply ridiculous. They seem to want to put all quarterbacks into two categories: elite or terrible. The truth is that most are in between. Eli Manning is certainly in the middle (the fat part) of the bell curve. Maybe he's figured it all out and will put up "elite" numbers in the future. It's certainly possible. But five great weeks does not erase eight years of mediocrity. For those who think my opinion is based on a personal dislike for Eli Manning, you are wrong. Though Eli Manning acted like a spoiled brat when he was drafted by San Diego, he seems like a good guy. Ben Roethlisberger is a complete scumbag yet I have no problem saying that he is the sixth best quarterback in the NFL.

This was a strange year in the NFL. Quite honestly, nobody deserved to win the Superbowl. The Packers defense was exposed and they allowed themselves to get rusty after an early regular season clinch. The Saints came out flat against the 49ers and it ended up costing them in the end. The Niners played great defense and forced the fumble that would have put them in the Superbowl (if not for an early whistle) but their pitiful redzone offense was not worthy of a championship. The Patriots were extremely lucky to defeat the Ravens - Lee Evans had the Superbowl in his hands - and were fortunate to draw two very weak teams - the Broncos and Giants - in the playoffs. Since 2000, only six teams have given up more points than they scored in the regular season and still made the playoffs. The 2011 Broncos and Giants were two of them (interestingly, the Seahawks account for three of the six times). The Steelers had some injuries but that was no excuse for losing to the Broncos. Houston had more key injuries than anyone but their loss to Indianapolis in Week 16 with a first round bye on the line is not what you would expect from a title contender. The Giants obviously played much better late in the season and into the playoffs but they won the Superbowl because of an incredible run of lucky breaks in their final three games. The Giants probably had more lucky breaks (lucky bounces on fumbles, referee bailouts, drops by surehanded opponents, key opponent injuries and a Hail Mary TD) in the last three games than the Vikings and Browns have had in the playoffs in the last 50 years, combined. It was very strange season. I think if Matt Schaub hadn't been injured, Houston would be Superbowl Champions.

It's hard to think about the Patriots future after a loss like that. It's so difficult to get to the point where you are one play from a title. To be in that position twice in four years and come out with nothing is hard enough for a fan. I can't imagine what it feels like for a player. Will this make the team even hungrier, demoralize them or something in between? Time will tell. I do know that they have a lot of the pieces in place to make another run. If they resign Welker, land a legit #1 receiver and upgrade the secondary, they will be better in 2012 than they were this season. They could very well be Superbowl favorites when next season begins. If I had to pick the 2012 Superbowl Champions right now, I'd go with the Houston Texans. My other prediction: the Giants will be 6-10 next year. That's not bitterness. They just aren't that good and the rest of the division should be better.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Today marks the 26th anniversary of the first Patriots Superbowl appearance. A week from Sunday, they will be making the franchise's seventh trip to the Superbowl. Only the Steelers and Cowboys have made more trips to the Big Game. The Patriots are currently a three point favorite to win the game (down from 3 1/2). All signs point to a very competitive game between similar teams. Both teams throw the ball very well and have weak running games. The Giants offense features great receivers while the Pats offense revolves around their tight ends. Both teams are strong on the defensive line but have major problems in the defensive backfield. Both kickers are solid and neither team has a scary kick return game. Both teams are healthier now than they were in the middle of the season. Both coaches are proven winners. Both teams were very lucky to win last week after great performances the week before. The Patriots were significantly better in the regular season (New England outscored their opponents by 171 points while the Giants were outscored by six points) but the Giants beat the Patriots on the road.

The big question now is the health of Rob Gronkowski who suffered ligament damage on a tackle by Bernard Pollard on Sunday. With a healthy Gronk, you'd have to give a slight edge to the Patriots (as the point spread suggests) but if Gronkowski is not his usual "impossible to cover" self, the edge clearly shifts to the Giants. This may end up being the third Patriots season ruined by Bernard Pollard. It was Pollard who ended Brady's season with a tackle in the 2008 season opener. Wes Welker tore his ACL trying to avoid a Pollard tackle in the last game of the season in 2009 (and Brady was still trying to regain his Hall of Fame form that season). The Gronk injury may very well be the difference between winning this year's Superbowl and not winning it. It makes me wonder if Pollard told Wes Welker to make the foot jokes about Jets Coach Rex Ryan ... which led to Belichick suspending Welker for the first drive of the playoffs last year, which probably led to the turnover on that drive, which probably led to the Patriots losing that game and being bounced from the playoffs.

The Patriots are 3-3 in their six Superbowl appearances and the key to every game was the opponents' pass rush. The Bears dominated in every facet of the game in 1986 but the Packers (1997) and Giants (2008) beat the Pats in close games because they were able to pressure (and sack) the quarterback. In New England's three Superbowl wins, Brady was well-protected. The pass rush will again be the key factor. If Brady is given time, he should pick apart the Giants weak secondary. The Patriots game plan is all about timing and if the Giants can disrupt that timing with a big pass rush, they will have a good day. The 49ers put tremendous pressure on Manning and it showed. New York had only one long TD drive (the other TD came after the the first punt blunder by San Francisco). Obviously, the Patriots don't have the Niners pass rush, but they need to put some pressure on Manning who will probably end up in a lot of third and long situations.

The "wild card" for the Patriots in Deion Branch. Branch caught a total of 21 passes for 276 yards in the last two Patriot Superbowl wins. Branch is seven years older now so it's doubtful he'll be able to approach those numbers but he's shown that he can shine on the sport's biggest stage. I think he'll make a couple of big plays a week from Sunday. Ocho Cinco, if he plays, will have the chance to become the Patriots' version of 2007 J.D. Drew, who did nothing all season but hit a huge grand slam in Game 6 of the AL Championship Series against Cleveland.

Even Tom Brady has something to prove. By his own admission, Brady was awful last week against Baltimore. He didn't play well in the AFC Championship and Superbowl in the 2007 season. He followed a lousy performance in San Diego in the 2006 playoffs with a mediocre performance in a losing effort in Indy the following week. In the 2005 playoffs, Champ Bailey took a Brady interception 100 yards to set up a one-yard Denver TD. This was a 14 point swing in a game the Patriots lost by 14. I'm sure Tom Brady realizes that his performances in the later rounds of the playoffs have left something to be desired since he won title #3.

As for the Giants, it's amazing that Eli Manning is four quarters away from having more Superbowl rings than his brother Peyton. Not only that, but he may win it in Indianapolis. What a subplot. This Giants playoff run is eerily similar to their run in 2007-2008. That year, they won in Green Bay (albeit in a later round), won multiple road games and advanced to play the Patriots in the Superbowl with a Lawrence Tynes kick in OT. Eli Manning caught fire that season, much like he has this season. Hopefully, there is no helmet catch on the horizon.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

For the sixth time since January 2002, the Patriots have reached the AFC Championship Game. New England is currently a 7 1/2 point favorite to defeat the Ravens and advance to their seventh Superbowl. Seven and a half would have been a surprisingly large point spread for this matchup six weeks ago, but the Patriots are healthier and the Ravens have not been playing great football of late. The Pats decimated the Broncos over the weekend while the Ravens were outplayed by Houston (except for special teams). Houston is a much better team than Denver but even adjusting for that, the Patriots looked much better than the Ravens.

Denver is a subpar team on the road so it was no surprise that the Patriots won big. However, Saturday's game was about as impressive a playoff effort as you will ever see. Brady and Company were unstoppable from the opening series. I have little doubt that they could have scored 70 points in that game if they have kept the foot on the accelerator. Defensively, the Patriots dominated the line of scrimmage, albeit against a pretty limited offense. I can't remember the last time I saw that many negative yardage plays by one team. We all know the Patriots defense is below average but: (a) they are significantly better with Spikes, Chung and McCourty back in the lineup at the same time, (b) they are forcing turnovers, (c) they are better in the redzone than they are between the 20s and (d) they play well in the second half.

I think everyone was surprised to see Houston dominate Baltimore at the line of scrimmage (on both sides of the ball). Houston lost because of a foolish turnover early in the game that cost them seven points and probably set the stage for the next ten points that the Ravens scored before Houston regained their composure. It would be easy to chalk that up to one bad game for the Ravens, but Baltimore wasn't that impressive the final three weeks of the regular season. They were blown out in San Diego then barely slipped by Cleveland and Cincinnati. It also must be mentioned that they were 4-4 on the road. They did beat the Steelers away from home, but lost in Tennessee, Jacksonville and Seattle.

The Ravens defense is very good but it's certainly not the dominant defense we've seen from them in the past. They were third best in the league in both yards allowed and points but they didn't play many elite offenses during the regular season. They only faced one top ten offense during the season and Phillip Rivers and the Chargers shredded them in a 34-14 victory. Pittsburgh (ranked 12th in offense) put up nearly 400 yards in their midyear battle with the Ravens. The formula for success for the Patriots offense is pretty simple. Protect Brady. Terrell Suggs had 14 sacks during the regular season (48 for the team). If Brady has time to throw, there is no way the Ravens will be able to cover Welker and the tight ends. Someone will be open. If Baltimore can make Brady uncomfortable, they will have a great chance to win.

The Baltimore offense revolves, for the most part, around Ray Rice. Rice had 2,068 total yards (rushing and receiving) and 15 TDs. In case you have forgotten, his 83 yard TD run to open the Wild Card game in Foxborough two years ago pretty much buried the Patriots on the spot. The bad news for New England: Rice is very dangerous. The good news: no one else on the Ravens offense is. Joe Flacco was quite mediocre this year (he ranked 18th among 34 qualified NFL starters in passer rating) and has only had one above average playoff performance in his eight career playoff games. Baltimore's leading receiver Torrey Smith only had two big games this year and one of those was against the Rams. He's had less than 50 yards receiving in six of his last seven games. Anquan Boldin and Lee Evans are not the receivers they once were. Tight end Dennis Pitta had 405 yards receiving this season. That's about three games worth for the Gronk/Hernandez combo. Ricky Williams has done a decent job spotting Rice but in the last two years he has more fumbles (6) than 20+ yard runs (5). In other words, it all about stopping Rice.

The Patriots can really put the pressure on Baltimore by getting off to a good start. The Ravens have almost no chance if they get behind and need to rely on Flacco's arm to win. If the Ravens get ahead, they can feature Rice and not be forced to take a lot of chances. After several lackluster first quarters late in the season, the Patriots came out swinging against Denver. I suspect that will be the case once again.

As for the NFC, it was shocking to see both New Orleans and Green Bay go down. I figured one might lose, but not both. On paper, this seems like good news for the Patriots because they will be the favorite if they reach the Superbowl (they probably would have been underdogs against the Saints or Packers). But I'm convinced that the Giants would be a tougher matchup for New England than Green Bay or New Orleans. New York's pass rush is more dangerous than Green Bay/New Orleans and I think their defense is better. They don't have the offensive firepower of the Saints and Packers but Nicks and Cruz are very dangerous. Eli Manning has played more awful games than Brady, Brees, Rogers and Peyton Manning, combined, but he seems to play his best when it matters most (big games and/or fourth quarter). After playing about as badly as a QB can play in Week 15 and 16, he's bounced back with three spectacular performances in must-win games the past three weeks. In the game against the Patriots this year, he was terrible for nearly 3 1/2 quarters before leading the Giants to two 80+ yard TD drives in the final seven minutes to win the game.

Of course, I'm getting ahead of myself. I am certainly not counting out Baltimore. Nor am I assuming the Giants will beat San Francisco. The Niners are a 2 1/2 point favorite and probably should beat the Giants at home.

I think it's time for the NFL to start seeding by record. The current playoff format automatically seeds the four division winners 1-4 followed by the Wild Card teams at 5 and 6. More importantly, the division winners all get home games to start the playoffs. This has led to some unfair situations the past two seasons. Last year, 7-9 Seattle won the NFC West and, as the #4 seed, hosted #5 New Orleans who was 10-6. The Seahawks beat the Saints. This year, 8-8 Denver hosted 12-4 Pittsburgh and the 9-7 Giants bypassed both 10-6 Wild Card teams to host 10-6 Atlanta. Had the seeding been done by record, here's what the Wild Card matchups would have been:

So the AFC matchups would have been the same but Denver would have had to play in Pittsburgh. The seeding as it exists also creates unfair situations in the second round. Had Pittsburgh beaten Denver, #1 seed New England would have faced Pittsburgh, a team with a better record than #2 Baltimore's opponent, Houston. In the NFC, the Giants should have needed to beat the Saints in New Orleans, rather than the Falcons at home to reach the final eight. Either Atlanta or Detroit, who both lost last week, deserved at least one playoff win.

My proposal is simple. All division winners automatically qualify for the playoffs but seeding is not guaranteed. Teams are seeded according to regular season record. The first tiebreaker would be division title. For example, if Jacksonville won the AFC South with a record of 11-5 and Kansas City was the top Wild Card team at 11-5, Jacksonville would get the better seed even if KC beat them during the season. If, however, Jacksonville was 11-5 and Kansas City was 12-4, the Chiefs would get the better seed. All other tiebreakers would be the same as they are now. This would be a much fairer system. I hope the NFL fixes this in the offseason.

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