Friday, December 28, 2007

The Usual Suspects

As we near playoff time, now is our opportunity to take a gander at this year's AFC contenders through a cinematic eye...and without further ado, in the words of Captain Louis Renault, "Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects..."

Dave Kujan, US Customs - Roger Goodell took Verbal into his office early on. Now the rest of the league is paying.

Roger "Verbal" Kint/Keyser Soze - Who is the Grey Hoodie? He was supposed to be a Jets coach. Some say his father was a Navy man. Nobody believed he was real. Nobody ever saw him smile or knew anybody that ever survived one of his press conferences, but to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have played well for the Hoodie. You never knew. That was his power. The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he could win with no one. And poof. With real talent, just like that, he's gone 15-0.

Picture if you will, the Patriots running game limping along like Verbal until the end of the season when it slowly rights itself.

Does all of this make Kobayashi out of Scott Pioli?

Dean Keaton - The Colts...[after finding Fenster's body] "It's not payback! It's precaution. You won't payback, you wanna run, I don't care! I'm not doing this for Fenster, I'm not doing it for you... I'm doing it for me. I'm gonna finish this thing. This Kobayashi bastard is not gonna stand on me!" This team is the one that is most likely to give the Pats a run for their money in the post season. Keaton was the man with the plan to take it to the big man.

Michael McManus - The Steelers...Mouthy and with an attitude, McManus would just as soon shoot you as listen to anything you have to say
McManus: What am I supposed to do with that?
[McManus throws bag of heroin at Redfoot. Redfoot catches it]
Redfoot the Fence: I don't know, feed it to the gimp. Ease his pain; I don't know what that is.
[Redfoot throws bag at Verbal]
McManus: What do you mean you don't know?
[Keaton lays a hand on McManus]
Keaton: Shut up.
Redfoot the Fence: I don't know. I got thrown this job by some lawyer.
Keaton: Yeah? Who?
Redfoot the Fence: I don't know. Some limey. He's a middleman for someone, OK? He doesn't say, I don't ask.
McManus: You're full of shit.
Redfoot the Fence: Fuck you.
McManus: Fuck you.
Keaton: Listen to me. We want to meet him. OK?
Redfoot the Fence: That's funny. He called me last night, he says he wants to meet you guys.
Keaton: OK. We'll meet him. Good. Do that. No problem. Let's go.
[Keaton turns around, ready to leave. McManus grabs him]
McManus: I don't like it, Dean. I don't like it. Wait a minute. One more thing, tough guy. Any more surprises, and I'm gonna kill you.
Redfoot the Fence: You're such a tough guy, McManus. Do me a favour, right. Get the fuck off my dick.
[Redfoot flicks his cigarette butt at McManus and it lands on McManus's eye]
McManus: Fuck!
[McManus lunges at him in rage and has to be restrained by Keaton]
Redfoot the Fence: Put a leash on that puppy. You know, it's an awful shame about Saul gettin' whacked. Cops'll be looking for the guys who did it. Sooner or later they're gonna come around asking me. You have a sweet night, ladies.

Fred Fenster - The Chargers...Fenster's been there before, and tries to act like he's cleaner than he really is...that's what you get with a team that drafts an admitted steroid user, and a player who is called classy by many, but continues to whine about other teams like a sore loser.
Fenster: You do some time, they never let you go. You know. They treat you like a criminal. I'm not a criminal.
Hockney: You are a criminal.
Fenster: Now why'd you got to go and do that? (I'm) trying to make a point.

Todd Hockney - The Jaguars, the AFC's loose cannon. They'll blow you up if you let them, and they're not going to let anything intimidate them. They've been there and done that.
Interrogation Cop: I can put you in Queens on the night of the hijacking.
Hockney: Really? I live in Queens, did you put that together yourself, Einstein? Got a team of monkeys working around the clock on this?

Random thoughts on tomorrow's game

I'm guessing that if Brady throws at least three touchdown passes tomorrow that the first two will go to Randy Moss so that he can break the record of 22 in a season, currently held by Jerry Rice. The third I would expect will end up in the hands of Troy Brown, so that the team can break a record it currently shares with the 1987 Rams and the 2000 Broncos - 21 different players in a Pats uniform have scored a touchdown this season. If Brown scores one tomorrow, that will make 22. Other candidates include Ryan O'Callaghan who sometimes lines up at tight end down by the goal line, or Junior Seau who lines up at fullback in the same set.

A note, in fairness to Jerry Rice - his 22 touchdowns came in a strike shortened season, over the course of 12 games. All told, that's a 29 touchdown pace. As good as Moss has been this season, he hasn't been that good, and Rice's pace of 1.8 touchdowns per game needs to somehow remain in the record books. If Moss finishes the season with 23, that's 1.4 per game.

The weather tomorrow in the Meadowlands, according to the most recent report, is for low winds, and low 50's during the day. No bad weather on the docket. That clearly favors the Patriots who have the better quarterback and receivers by far of the two teams.

The Giants do have the kind of physical defense that has given the Patriots fits of late. On the flip side, the Giants have lost to each of the top offenses that they have faced - by an average of 10.5 points to Dallas (10, and 11 points respectively), and by 22 to the Packers. Neither of those team's offenses are as potent as the Patriots'.

What are the chances that the Pats pound the ball on the ground a lot, just to see if they can do it against a better defense than either of the last two that the team has faced in the Dolphins and Jets? 50-50? I think the Giants defense is going to come out hard after the pass because of the records, so I wouldn't be surprised to see the Patriots come out running, if for no other reason than to slow the Giants vaunted pass rush.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Pretender or Contender - NFC style

Who are the legit heirs to the NFC throne? Will we see the Cheeseheads melting in the Arizona sun, or will the West be Won by the Gauchos in Dallas? What are the chances that a Jolly Roger will fly high over the Arizona desert, or that an ocean bird from the Pacific Northwest will migrate to the Cardinals' nest?

One thing to note - with teams like the Seahawks struggling to separate themselves from the lesser teams in the weak Western division until the last couple of weeks, it's hard to completely buy into some of the NFC teams as legitimate contenders.

The contenders...

Dallas Cowboys (13-2) - Quite simply, they are the best the NFC has to offer. The number one NFC offense (second only in the league to the Patriots), and the sixth best NFC defense in regards to opponents scoring (12th overall). If a team can take advantage of the Dallas D, the team can be had. Through their first eight games the team's margin of victory was an average of 15.8 points per game with only three of those victories coming by a margin of less than 17 points. Since the halfway point that average margin of victory has dropped to 8.8 points per game with only one contest in which the margin was larger than 17 points.

That said, the road to the Super Bowl goes through Big D, and it's going to be a tough, albeit not impossible, task to knock the Cowboys off in their own backyard.

Green Bay Packers (12-3) - The game against the Bears was not exactly reassuring, but I'm willing to give a team as young as the Packers a mulligan. The big problem for Green Bay is that they will have to go through Dallas to get to Arizona, and I'm not convinced that Brett Favre's history in that stadium isn't in his head.

In their earlier match-up this season Favre went away from the game-plan that had the Pack undefeated going into Dallas. If he isn't trying to force the deep ball on every play and hit the homerun, so to speak, then I give the Packers a fair chance at the upset. If Favre makes the unforced errors of the first match-up, then Cheesehead Nation will not be invading the Desert come January.

Washington Redskins (8-7) - I know that Washington is not in yet, but they control their own fate and are playing their best football of the season. I feel uncertain about putting this team here, but the fact is that they are playing smart, disciplined football right now - and they are playing with a purpose - and that makes them dangerous.

Also, they play in what appears to be the toughest division in the NFC, playing against playoff teams and hopefuls in Dallas, New England, New York (Giants), Green Bay, Tampa Bay, and Minnesota. Half of the 'Skins' games have been against opponents that either are headed to, or still have a chance to head to the playoffs. Sure, they're 2-5 against these teams (with the final match-up against Dallas on the docket for this weekend), but take away the drubbing at the hands of the Patriots, an the average margin of victory for those opponents in those four games is 4.25 points per game. In the last two games, both victories over teams contending for spots (the Giants, and the Vikings), the margin was 11.5 points per game - a 15.75 point swing in favor of the Redskins.

They have a long hard road ahead - assuming they can close out with a win over Dallas and seal their playoff fate, they will have to play three games on the road no matter what due to being the sixth and final entry from the NFC.

The pretenders -

New York Giants (10-5) - They pulled off an emotional victory over a mediocre Buffalo Bills team last week and are on the road next week at Tampa Bay. A lot will be made about Tampa's stifling defense - currently tied for the top rank with the Patriots giving up only 15.9 points per game. I think that, healthy, New York can get by Tampa - and even unhealthy I give them a chance.

New York's biggest liability is Eli Manning - not only do they not know what quarterback they're going to get from game to game, sometimes his Jeckyll and Hyde routine goes quarter to quarter. While I think they might squeak by with one road win, I'm not convinced that a team that hasn't strung together more than two wins in a row for half a season will be able to come away with three straight on the road to get to the big game.

Seattle Seahawks (10-5) - After their opener against Tampa (whom they beat), The only post-season contenders this team has played have been Pittsburgh and Cleveland. They lost to both, to go with losses to Arizona, Carolina, and New Orleans.

Consider the following as the Seahawks will likely be hosting the Redskins next week - Technically, this team has not beaten a single team with a winning record (the Bucs were 0-0 at the time of their game7-8 Eagles. I have no reason to believe that the Seahawks are going to start defeating opponents with winning records now.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-6) - People are trying to dub this as the sleeper team. They're wrong.

This is the so called sleeper team because of their sterling defense, tied with the Patriots for first in the league, giving up on 15.9 points per game. Let's take a closer look at how that defense has done against quality offenses - the Bucs have faced four potential playoff teams and have gone 1-3 against them, losing to the 11th ranked Seahawks offense, the 3rd ranked Colts O, and the 5th ranked Jaguars offense, winning only against the 19th ranked Redskins.

As a matter of fact, the only offenses in the top 20 that the Bucs beat have been the 10th ranked Saints, 9th ranked Cardinals, and the 19th ranked Skins. The Saints and Cards are both in the bottom third of the league in defense. Otherwise, six of the nine wins that the defense forged its reputation against have had an average offensive ranking of around 26th overall - or against teams averaging only about 16 points per game (this includes two games against the 31st ranked scoring team in the league).

By contrast, the Patriots have beaten four division winners (Colts, Chargers, Cowboys, Steelers), and two (likely) wild card entrants (Browns, Redskins). Their wins have come over teams whose offenses rank 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 7th, 8th, 13th, 17th and 19th. The average offensive ranking of the Patriots opponents is about 18th overall, or an average of around 20.7 points per game.

The point here is that the Bucs are holding opponents to 0.1 points per game below their aggregate average against the rest of the league, so in theory a team that averages 27 points per game is probably still going to score about 27 points against the them. Not a great statistic for a team trying to make headway into the post season.

The proverbial monkey wrench...

Minnesota Vikings (8-7) - The Vikings are in if they win and the 'Skins lose. This is not a team I can see going deep into the playoffs. They are a team that can screw up someone else shot at the title. They are physical and tough against the run, and have bruising runners who get into the second level and punish an opponents secondary.

If nothing else, they can make a healthy team unhealthy for their next opponent.


We talk a lot about the numbers that the Patriots are putting up in historical context - but what is the impact in the context of this season? Let's look...

Randy Moss has 21 touchdown receptions, and 21 players from the Patriots have scored at least one touchdown. The Atlanta Falcons as a team have scored 21 touchdowns.

Moss and Wes Welker have combined for 29 touchdowns - more than the Raiders (28), Titans (27), Dolphins (26), Ravens, Bills, Jets, Rams (each with 25), Panthers (24), Chiefs, 49ers (each with 23), and of course the aforementioned Falcons.

Tom Brady's 48 touchdown passes alone are more than the total scored by each of 29 of the remaining 31 teams. The only teams with more touchdowns than Brady has touchdown passes - The Colts with 53, and the Cowboys with 54.

The Patriots have 71 total touchdowns, 17 more than the closest team total - the Cowboys 54. The margin is equal to the total number of touchdowns by LaDanian Tomlinson's 17, the second most touchdowns by one player in the league this season (to Randy Moss's 21).

The touchdown margin of four between Moss and Tomlinson is equivalent to the same number of touchdowns scored each by names like Deion Branch, Shaun Alexander, Correll Buckhalter, Travis Henry, Rudi Johnson, Larry Johnson, and Dennis Northcutt, and more than the three each scored by Warrick Dunn, Joe Jurevicius, Muhsin Muhammad, Jeremy Shockey, Amani Toomer, and Cadillac Williams.

The teams 551 points scored are more than twice the total number scored by each of the following ten teams the Raiders, Jets, Bills, Ravens, Rams, Dolphins, Panthers, Chiefs, Falcons and 49ers.

The Patriots 15 wins equal the combined win totals of the Dolphins (1), Jets (4), Rams (3), Falcons (3), and Ravens (4).

And one last number to consider - the Patriots average margin of victory (20.8 points per game) is greater than the average offense output for the following 15 teams; Buccaneers (20.7), Redskins (20.5), Bears (20.1), Broncos (19.9), Titans (19.0), Raiders (17.7), Jets (17.0), Ravens (16.5), Rams (16.3), Bills (16.2), Dolphins (16.1), Panthers (15.7), Chiefs (14.4), Falcons (14.3), and 49ers (14.1).

Just some numbers to digest.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

History repeating...

From the league laughingstock to the model of how to build a franchise.

The Patriots aren't the first team to do that. At one time, the San Francisco 49ers were a punchline, the bad joke that the league didn't laugh at, no matter how hard fans of opposing franchises did. After making the playoffs for three straight seasons under Mike Nolan from 1970-1972, the team by The Bay didn't see the playoffs again until 1981 under Bill Walsh. During the time in between San Fran had one winning season (8-6 in 1976).

From 1981 until 1998 the team made the playoffs in all but two years - the strike shortened 1982, and in 1991 when the team still won ten games. Minus the strike season, the Niners averaged 12 wins per season during that 17 season run and won five Super Bowls. Then, under Steve Mariucci, and the constraints of the salary cap, the cracks began to show.

The Patriots were the league laughing-stock even when they were good in the 1980's. They were beset by scandal and stupidity (how many teams saw their star wide-out wrap a car around a telephone poll during half-time of a game in which he was playing? Anyone remember Lisa Olson?). Then (and this is where people often get it wrong) James Busch-Orthwein started the team on the road to respectability when he hired Bill Parcells in 1993.

After Robert Kraft bought the team in 1994, he and the franchise suffered growing pains when he handed the reins over to Bobby Grier and Pete Carroll, often mis-firing in the draft (remember Chris Canty?), until Kraft handed over the operation to Bill Belichick in 2000. Since 2001 the Patriots missed the playoffs only in their 9-7 2002 season. Otherwise the team is going on to their sixth playoff appearance in seven seasons, averaging just over 12 wins per season, and three Super Bowl titles. They are only the fifth team in NFL history to win 15 games in a season, only the second to win 18 regular seasons in a row (incidentally, they were the first to do so), and on the verge of the first 16-0 season in the history of the league.

History repeating, part II Jacksonville - Pats 2001 Redux...

Are this year's Jaguars the 2001 Patriots revisited?

The Jags are lead by their former backup quarterback who essentially took the job from an injured starter. The '01 Pats were 11-5 going into the playoffs, the Jags are currently 11-4. The '01 Pats were 6th overall in offense and in defense, currently the Jaguars are 5th in offense and 6th in defense.

The Patriots entering the playoffs in 2001 weren't viewed as a serious contender for the Super Bowl with the Raiders and Steelers both standing in the way. The Jaguars are being looked at as the team that might be able to do some damage that no one is paying attention to, sitting behind perennial contenders New England and Indianapolis.

All of this poses the question - Are the Jaguars the best equipped team to topple the dynasty (then it was the Rams thinking they were on their way to a dynasty), or will it come down to the Pats and Colts slugging it out in the Razor for a trip to Arizona?

Merry Chismakwanzuka!

Being a fan of a sports franchise inherently makes it easier on loved ones purchasing holiday gifts. To wit - my wife purchased for me a Richard Seymour jersey. It is the first jersey that I have owned with a currently active player's name on it.

Allow me to explain.

I'm cheap.

I own two Bledsoe jerseys and a Ben Coates jersey, all of which I got on clearance racks for a combined total of less than $45.00. The Bledsoes I bought in a show of support for both the Patriots and the man's career while playing for the fightin' flying Elvii. The Coates jersey was the first that I purchased, just to have a Pats jersey (and I liked the player, even though he had moved on by the time I bought it).

And as much as I like the Seymour jersey, on Saturday night I will be found in my living room wearing the same silver number 11 as I have on 15 other weekends of this season, watching the Pats play the Giants. Why? Because I am just as freakishly superstitious as most fans and athletes.

Throughout high school, as a sprinter for my track team, I wore the same bandanna on my left ankle to every track meet I ran in over the course of the four years I ran. By my senior year, it was little more than a tattered green scrap of cloth, but I continued to wear it.

Back to the gifts...

My wife's parents got me a grey Pats hoodie that feels like it's fleece-lined. It's nicer than most of my winter gear.

Heck, on Sunday, as I was pulling on my ratty Bledsoe jersey, my five-year-old daughter asked for a jersey of her own to wear on "football days." I'm already looking for her for her birthday.

Then, of course, there are the gifts that come from unexpected sources - particularly if you're a New England/Boston fan of at least a particular age...

As I have mentioned before - if I had been sitting in a bar back in 1992 watching that atrocious Pats team, and the current day me had gone back and told 22-year old me that the Patriots would dominate the first decade of the new millennium with three Super Bowl wins, that in 15 years they would be the best team that football had ever seen, and that the Red Sox would have won two World Series, I would have kicked the crap out of me for mocking my pain as a Boston fan.

But how's this for a Christmas present for fans of the Hub's sports franchises -

  • Red Sox 2nd World Series of the decade.
  • 15-0, and on the verge of the best offensive performance in a season by any football team, ever - and with the potential to finish the season with both the number one offense and number one defense.
  • Resurgent Celtics and Bruins franchises that look like they could compete beyond this year.
  • Harvard's Ivy League title in football.
  • Boston College's 10-3 flirtation with a national title, and potential Bowl win in the upcoming game.
  • New England Revolution Eastern Conference champions.
Happy Holidays Hub Fans, know that the nation hates us right now!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Swan song a mostly forgettable tune

The longest tenured Patriot was finally getting in on the act.

Troy Brown would be active.

A career special teams demon, he would be returning punts.

He returned six for 55 yards. A respectable 9.2 yard average, with a physical 28 yard return that brought the ball back to mid-field.

Unfortunately he also had the one that clanged off his face-mask giving the Dolphins the ball back after a sterling series by the defense.

His day fielding punt returns was like the offense's day in microcosm - Laurence Maroney battered the Dolphins for over 150 yards on 14 carries, while Jabar Gaffney hauled in five passes for 82 yards and a touchdown. The stars, on the other hand, failed to shine - Brady while good, still tossed two picks, and both Wes Welker and Randy Moss dropped passes that would have kept drives alive in the second half when the offense put a big donut on the scoreboard. It was the first time all season the Patriots offense was shut out in a half.

Your prolific offense getting shut down in the second half by the Miami Dolphins is not going to put any sort of fear into the likes of the Colts, or the Jaguars come football's second season.

On the positive side of the ledger -

Wes Welker is one touchdown away from breaking the Patriots' record for receptions in a season, currently held by Brown with 101.

Stephen Gostkowski set a new league record for extra points in a season.

The Patriots broke the record for touchdowns scored in a season with 71 and counting. The previous record was held by the 1984 Dolphins.

The Pats are six points shy of tying the mark for most points by a team.

Randy Moss needs two touchdown receptions to break Jerry Rice's record of 22, and Tom Brady needs two TD passes to break Peyton Manning's record of 49.

The team tied their own record of 18 straight regular season wins, and are poised to break that with a win next week.

And with a current passer rating of 119.7, Manning's season record of 121.1 for a season is within reach (although if Brady makes decisions against the Giants like he did against the Jets and Dolphins, it just isn't happening).

Not to be lost in all this is the fact that the Patriots dominated an opponent on the ground for the second straight week, ringing up 196 yards on 25 carries - a 7.8 yard per carry clip that even against the deficient Dolphins is a good sign heading into the post season. The supposedly run-deficient Patriots entered the game with the 12th ranked running game in the league - not bad for the noted weakness of the offense.

Other thoughts...

Tom Coughlin can't be overwhelmed by the Giants mistake filled win over the Buffalo Bills. His playoff bound team got even more dinged up as it did everything it could in the first half to hand Buffalo this game on a silver platter. If New York plays like this against just about any other playoff contender in the post season they will be one and done.

The Browns had a chance to push Pittsburgh's back against the wall and possibly win the division with a win over the sad-sack Cincinnati Bengals and couldn't seal the deal. Ditto for Green Bay in regards to having a chance at forcing the Cowboys to have to travel to the Frozen Tundra for the conference championship game. Instead Brett Favre and the Pack spit the bit, losing 35-7 to a Bears team that is a shadow of its former self.

Minnesota, also with a chance to seal their place in the playoffs also blew it, dropping a game to the Redskins 32-21. The only teams that came up big in keeping their playoff hopes alive were the Titans who squeaked by the Jets to even their record with the 9-6 Browns (Cleveland holds the tie breakers), and the Redskins who have evened their record with Minnesota at 8-7, but now hold the tie-breaker by virtue of this weekend's victory over the Vikings.

So I was wrong - the Lions will go 7-9, not 6-10. I gotta find me some employers like the Ford family. Evidently anything short of blowing the company to Kingdom Come won't get you fired.

One last thought -

Does anyone out there suppose Miami fans watched that game and thought, "why can't the Dolphins get players like Heath Evans, Wes Welker, Kyle Eckel, and Junior Dumbass GM."