Jan 302013
 

Just Shut 'Yer MouthIt’s been a while since I have felt the need to comment on some of the commentary coming from the mouths of current and former NFL players, but this Super Bowl week seems to provide endless opportunities for people stick their feet in their mouths. So let’s let at our most recent batch of guys who squawk first and think second, or third, or… ok, maybe not at all. And just so you’ve been warned, I’m not exactly feeling a lot of tolerance for some of this silliness.

Randy MossRandy Moss
I love Randy Moss as a player, and really enjoyed him as a member of the New England Patriots when he had his head on straight. The trouble with Randy is that he seems to be one very weird dude, if we judge by his antics on and off the field over the years, his bizarre video-pooping (there’s a term we don’t use every day) incident on MOSS-TV, and his ability to talk his way out of New England after reviving his troubled career.

But now Randy has made (and re-made) the claim that he believes that he is the greatest wide receiver in NFL history. Now, it’s great that Randy believes that, and he is certainly welcome to do so. But given his up and down career, the fact that his numbers come up short of Jerry Rice, and the fact that Moss has still not won (at least for a few more days) a championship, it seems to be a dubious claim at best. Yet Moss continues to make it.

“What I said is what I felt, and I don’t want to get into a shouting match with Jerry Rice or anybody,” Moss said on Wednesday. “It’s my personal opinion. (Rice) has the numbers but I don’t believe in numbers.”

So Moss doesn’t believe in numbers; he also doesn’t believe in rings.

“In today’s society, it’s how we measure athletes or teams — on rings,” Moss said. “I don’t base it that way. I changed the game. But I’m not trying to make it all about me.”

Not trying to make it about you? Now that would be news. OK Randy, so you have a claim, and no objective measure for backing it up. By that standard, Rex Ryan is the best head coach in the NFL too.

There can be no doubt that Moss is one of the greatest receivers in NFL history, and that he had (past tense) the ability to completely take over a game. But it was only when he wanted to… when he felt like it. His own effort and lack of effort are what define his career, and he never put forth the effort that Rice put forth on a consistent basis and that made Rice better than everyone else. Randy is trying to write his legacy on how he wants people to remember him after he hangs up the cleats, and the legacy he is writing for himself is going to be a bit more generous than what will be written by others.

Like Jerry Rice, I wish Moss every bit of luck in getting his first ring this Sunday, but he needs to drop his silly claim of being the best ever.

Tim BrownTim Brown and Jerry Rice
Speaking of silly claims, how about the one made by Tim Brown, who is currently a nominee for the Professional Football Hall of Fame?

Just over a week ago the former Raiders’ wide receiver came out and said that former coach Bill Callahan intentionally altered the game plan in Super Bowl XXXVII to sabotage the Raiders’ chances of beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Callahan’s good friend Jon Gruden.

“We all called it sabotage . . . because Callahan and [Tampa Bay coach Jon] Gruden were good friends,” Brown said. “And Callahan had a big problem with the Raiders, you know, hated the Raiders. You know, only came because Gruden made him come. Literally walked off the field on us a couple of times during the season when he first got there, the first couple years. So really he had become someone who was part of the staff but we just didn’t pay him any attention. Gruden leaves, he becomes the head coach. . . . It’s hard to say that the guy sabotaged the Super Bowl. You know, can you really say that? That can be my opinion, but I can’t say for a fact that that’s what his plan was, to sabotage the Super Bowl. He hated the Raiders so much that he would sabotage the Super Bowl so his friend can win the Super Bowl. That’s hard to say, because you can’t prove it.

Brown later added, “I can’t say the man was incompetent because he was far from that. You only leave me with one other choice so I’ll have to go ahead and take the latter of those two choices.” The latter of the two choices of course being intentional sabotage.

What made the story even more stunning was the fact that Jerry Rice then got on board with the claim.

According to Rice, “For some reason — and I don’t know why — Bill Callahan did not like me. In a way, maybe because he didn’t like the Raiders he decided, ‘Maybe we should sabotage this a little bit and let Jon Gruden go out and win this one.’”

Now anyone who watches Jerry Rice on television knows that Jerry Rice thinks a great deal of himself, but this statement was simply way over the top. First, there is simply no way in the NFL that coaches and players who work as hard as they do to win games in the NFL and advance through the post-season are going to throw a game like the Super Bowl in order to make some bizarre point or let a friend win. Second, it seems far more likely that Callahan simply over thought the situation and altered the game plan so he could be less predictable in the Super Bowl and have a better chance to win. If Callahan seems guilty of anything, it would seem to be outwitting himself.

It wasn’t much of a surprise that Brown later backtracked from his claim, stating he never made a suggestion that Callahan sabotaged the Super Bowl, but by then the damage, both to Brown’s credibility and to Rice’s, had already been done. The story has been dying a slow death over the past week, but both Brown and Rice made a miscalculation in spouting out fictional nonsense about something long since passed.

Ray LewisRay Lewis
Many people believe, myself included, that Ray Lewis is either a murderer or an accessory to two murders. We will never know the truth of the situation, given that Lewis plead to a lesser charge, that no one has ever been held criminally responsible for the stabbing deaths of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar, and that important evidence in the case vanished. Lewis preempted a wrongful death civil finding by reaching a financial settlement after the filing of the suit.

But we do know this about Ray Lewis; the man is very likely an outright liar.

This week it was revealed that Lewis used a banned substance (IGF-1) to aid him in recovering from a torn triceps. According to Sports Illustrated, Lewis contacted a company owned by a former male stripper to obtain a deer-antler velvet extract after tearing his triceps in October. Mitch Ross, the owner of S.W.A.T.S, videotaped the phone call from Lewis. During the conversation, Lewis said to Ross, “Just pile me up and just send me everything you got, because I got to get back on this this week.”

Lewis has rebuked the claim and pointed to his history of negative drug tests, but there is currently no testing of players for IGF-1. The video evidence seems particularly damning. Lewis’ response to this? Why of course it’s to appeal to emotion and call the accusation a ‘trick of the devil.’

“That’s the trick of the devil,” Lewis said. “The trick of the devil is to kill, steal and destroy. That’s what he comes to do. He comes to distract you from everything you’re trying to do.”

Ross, however, is adamant that Lewis was using the substance. On ESPN Radio’s “VP and Russillo” show, Ross alleged that Lewis “used every product that I have.”

“Ray did what he had to do to get back on the field, that’s what he said,” Ross told Scott Van Pelt and Ryen Russillo. “I’m not telling you he didn’t use anything. He got on a protocol, he absolutely certainly did… It was set up by me how to do it, and I even developed an armband for him to use at Day 7 to strengthen his triceps better… It sounds like he’s disputing it, I guess because he’s scared of Roger Goodell. Ray’s not the only athlete taking in the SWATS protocol.”

The report from SI is incredibly well documented, and Lewis is not the overt target of the article. The article also links IGF-1 to last year’s Alabama Crimson Tide team, and also notes Johnny Damon, Vijay Singh, and Shawne Merriman. In his interview on ESPN, Ross added Brett Favre, Carnell Williams, Heath Evans, and others to the list. You can read the article here.

Maybe the video is the trick of the devil, Ray. But I for one will believe a well-vetted report that is backed up by video evidence, particularly when compared to someone who is already convicted of interfering with a previous murder investigation. So I’m going with SI’s report, unless Ray Ray feels like producing a blood-spattered white suit to the police.

Marshall FaulkMarshall Faulk
Speaking of guys who need to shut the hell up…

Marshall Faulk was interviewed by Tom Curran of CSNNE.com and stated he still believes that the Patriots cheated the Rams out of a victory in Super Bowl XXXVI. Faulk said that he believes that the Patriots spied on the Rams’ walk-through practice the day before the game, and were able to respond to plays that the Rams had created for the Super Bowl. This is in conflict with the findings of the NFL, and Commissioner Goodell insisted there was no evidence that the Patriots obtained any information by spying on the walk-through.

“Am I over the loss? Yeah, I’m over the loss. But I’ll never be over being cheated out of the Super Bowl. That’s a different story. I can understand losing a Super Bowl, that’s fine . . . But how things happened and what took place. Obviously, the commissioner gets to handle things how he wants to handle them but if they wanted us to shut up about what happened, show us the tapes. Don’t burn ’em.”

“I understand Bill Belichick is a great coach,” said Faulk. “But No. 13 (Kurt Warner) will tell you. Mike Martz will tell you. We had some plays in the red zone that we hadn’t ran. I think we got to fourth down — we ran three plays that we hadn’t ran, that Mike drew up for that game… Bill’s a helluva coach… we hadn’t ran them the whole year, and the Patriots were ready for them.”

Whatever Faulk’s feelings about the way the Commissioner handled the investigation, the fact remains that Faulk’s accounting of the walk-through seem to be manufactured memories. John Czarnecki from Fox (thanks to Tom E. Curran for the reference) has indicated that the Rams did very little of actual preparation for the game, but were more focused on taking pictures. Further, the Boston Herald, who initially published the John Tomase report that the Patriots had taped the walk-through, retracted the story and issued an apology for running a false report.

Faulk is welcome to believe whatever he wants about the events of Super Bowl XXXVI. But his continued public insistence that he was cheated despite evidence to the contrary simply makes Faulk look like a sore loser.

UPDATE: Willie McGinest has the best response yet to Faulk’s rubbish: If we would have had inside information, the game would have been a blowout. Well said, Willie! My guess is that it’s going to be a little tense on the NFL Network set for the next few days!

Rat1SmallSite News

After the Super Bowl wraps up, we have a fairly aggressive schedule of off-season topics that we will be addressing. So just because the season is over doesn’t mean our writing is taking a break. In addition, we are now planning for some podcasts that will be taking place later in the spring. Twp topics we are looking at right now are free agent moves that take place in March and April, as well as looking at the long-term viability of the National Football League, given concerns over player safety. Our first podcasts will likely be facilitated conversations without listener calls, but we are certainly hoping that this approach will be successful and that we can eventually expand to live online broadcasts and listener calls. But for now it is one step at a time…. more to follow!

Jan 212013
 

Jack-and-Jackie-HarbaughSuper Bowl XLVII is sure to give us all its share of storylines over the next two weeks as the San Francisco 49ers prepare to take on the Baltimore Ravens in New Orleans. So let me offer a first set of reactions to the championship weekend and the upcoming game in two weeks.

  • I know I am going to get sick of this particular storyline really fast, but consider for a moment… a father who is a coach raises two sons who both grow up and become football coaches. Those two coaches will now face off in one of the best known sporting events on the entire planet. Jack and Jackie Harbaugh have to be incredibly proud of their sons. I don’t know how they are going to endure the media obtrusiveness in the next two weeks or, for that matter, how they will watch a game that pits their sons against one another. But when one just sits back and considers the math of the situation, it’s hard not to marvel at this accomplishment.
  • The storyline I am already very sick of is the endless Ray Lewis retirement party. Obviously I wanted my Patriots to end his career, but since that didn’t happen I have a feeling that I am about to become a 49ers’ fan for the next two weeks. Of course we also have T Sizzle to thank for my particular feelings on that as well.
  • The Super Bowl will pit the old guard against the new. In one corner… Joe Flacco, the classic drop back pocket passer who can occasionally burn you for a run but will never be confused with Usain Bolt. In the other corner… Colin Kaepernick, the guy who can burn you with his laser like throws, his ability to run, or who can scare you into not defending the guy who has the ball. I have a feeling it is going to be a memorable battle.
  • Speaking of Colin Kaepernick… exactly how much of a genius does Jim Harbaugh look like right now for benching Alex Smith? All Smith did was win, and he still got benched in favor of the second year player from the University Nevada (Reno). I will own up to being one who thought the move would be a short term disaster but a long term gain. And while Kaepernick still has one game left to prove that prediction right, he has more than acquitted his coach of any criticism that the move might have earned. It was a gutsy call, and it is paying immediate dividends.  Watch it pay more dividends in the off-season as the 49ers move Smith to a team willing to pay a steep price to get him.
  • I know Tony Gonzalez doesn’t want to go through the grind of another off-season, more mini-camps, workouts, training camp, and a pre-season to line up for the Falcons next season, but am I the only guy who thinks he should be returning? Gonzalez can clearly still play at a world class level and his loss will be a blow to the Falcons next season.
  • Is David Akers going to kill the 49ers? When he clanked the goal post on the field goal today I had to cringe, even if I was cheering for the Falcons. Akers has had a miserable season and his post-season hasn’t been much better. You have to wonder if Jim Harbaugh is praying that the game doesn’t come down to a last second field goal attempt, or whether Harbaugh will manage the game differently to insure that it doesn’t. 49ers’ fans have to be squeamish about this guy, who is almost sure to be cut following the Super Bowl.
  • Will the Patriots’ try to acquire Bernard Pollard in the off-season? He actually would not really represent an upgrade to the Patriots’ secondary, but Bill Belichick is known for signing guys that have killed him in the past. Let’s see… Pollard has now injured Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and Stevan Ridley. Enough already… either get the guy on the team, or send him out for a night on the town with Plaxico Burress, but something’s got to give.
  • Speaking of Belichick… is the man ever going to realize that it probably wouldn’t hurt him to appear a little more human in his post-game conferences? Tonight’s was especially hard to watch, and even the reporters seemed hard pressed to find a question they could ask him, for fear of pissing Belichick off. Making matters worse was when Belichick declined a post-game interview with CBS, sending Shannon Sharpe into a tirade. “There’s something to be said about being gracious in defeat,” Sharpe said. “We’ve seen the New England Patriots five times in the last 12 years be victorious. And we’ve seen the opposing coaches that lost come out and talk to our Steve Tasker. Coach Cowher did it when the Steelers lost to them. We saw this last week when the Patriots beat the Texans. Bill Belichick makes it real easy for you to root against the Patriots. You can’t be a poor sport all the time. You’re not gonna win all the time. And he does this every time he loses. It is unacceptable.” Personally, I don’t think much of Shannon Sharpe, and he has never been particularly gracious towards the Patriots, but in this case he is right. Belichick’s own feelings about losing are not the point; coming out and being graceful in defeat is. It’s classic Belichick to say little when you win and even less when you lose, but it’s getting to be an old act even among Patriots’ fans.
  • Finally, a little GiR note on the Super Bowl. One of our contributors… Reyno Island… accurately predicted a San Francisco-Baltimore match-up in his pre-season predictions. Three of us got it half right, as both Brodrick Kincaid and I picked San Francisco to represent the NFC  and Country Preacher picked Baltimore to represent the AFC. Nice going, Reyno!

That’s probably enough to get us started. We have two weeks of media blitz in the waiting, along with the non-game known as the Pro Bowl taking place next week. We have one more game left in the season before someone heads off to Disney and the whole cycle starts all over again.

Jan 202013
 

Kaepernick and GoreThe San Francisco 49ers fought back from an early 17-0 deficit, and shut out the Falcons 14-0 in the second half to earn a 28-24 victory and give the 49ers their first trip to the Super Bowl in eighteen years.

Colin Kaepernick played the part of the clutch pocket quarterback, throwing for 233 yards and one touchdown, while rushing for only 21 yards. Knowing that Kaepernick would not be able to carve up the Falcons’ defense the same way he did the Packers, San Francisco took a patient, conservative approach, relying on Frank Gore and good decision-making by Kaepernick, who was a highly efficient 16 for 21 in the game. Gore ran for 90 yards and two scores, including the game winner with 8:23 left in the game. LaMichael James also scored on a 15 yard touchdown run, while Vernon Davis added a touchdown reception for the 49ers, who now seek to join the Pittsburgh Steelers as the only franchises with six Super Bowl titles. The 49ers have won in each of their five previous trips to the Super Bowl. Head Coach Jim Harbaugh will now square off with his brother John in the Super Bowl.

After the Falcons jumped out to a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter on a pair of Julio Jones touchdowns and a Matt Bryant field goal, the 49ers struck back with two straight touchdowns to close the lead to 17-14. But Matt Ryan was able to connect with Tony Gonzalez for a score just before halftime, and it seemed that the Falcons entered the locker room with renewed momentum as they pushed the lead to 24-14. But San Francisco came out and opened the second half with a seven play scoring drive, and seemed to impose its will from that point forward.

GoreThe simple threat of Kaepernick’s legs seemed to help the 49ers on their second half scoring drives, as both second half touchdowns by Gore saw the running back go nearly untouched as the defense seemed to be hedging its bets. “I kind of figured that coming in and they showed that on film, so I assumed Frank and LaMichael were going to have a big day,” Kaepernick said.

Vernon Davis caught five passes for 106 yards and a score. Michael Crabtree, who has been under investigation this week for sexual assault, caught six passes for 57 yards. Randy Moss added three receptions for 46 yards.

RyanThe Falcons’ loss spoiled a terrific outing by Matt Ryan, who threw for a Falcons’ post-season record 396 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. But the interception and a fumble on a mishandled snap helped do in the Falcons, who are now 1-4 with Ryan at the helm in the post-season. The Falcons’ rushing attack, which found new life against the Seahawks last week, was suffocated by the 49ers’ defense. Jacquizz Rodgers ran for 32 yards and Michael Turner ran for 30 as the Falcons were held to only 81 yards on the ground. Julio Jones finished with eleven catches for 182 yards and two scores, while Roddy White caught seven passes for 100 yards. Gonzalez, likely playing in the last game of his soon to be Hall of Fame career, added eight catches for 78 yards and one touchdown.

The Falcons had opportunities in the second half, but couldn’t seem to make plays when they needed to. “We didn’t make the plays when we had the opportunity,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “There were five or six plays, like in most hard-fought games, that make a difference. There were ebbs and flows and changes in momentum, and they made more plays than we did.”

Jan 202013
 

Flacco and HarbaughThere were two ways to look at the AFC Championship Game at halftime. With the Patriots up 13-7 and exhibiting control on the defensive side of the ball, either the Patriots were on their way to a hard fought win, or else the Ravens had the Patriots exactly where they wanted them.

The latter point proved to be true.

Joe Flacco took over the game in the second half as the Ravens went to the air, scoring three times while the Patriots’ offense imploded, and the Ravens cruised to a 28-13 victory at Gillette Stadium.

The Ravens tried to run the ball in the first half, as the Patriots took away the Ravens passing attack with aggressive coverage, and Baltimore managed only two field goals in the first two quarters. But the Ravens were handed a gift late in the first half when Tom Brady inexplicably mismanaged the game clock in the final :15, forcing the Patriots to settle for a field goal and a 13-7 lead, rather than taking one or two shots at the end zone. The Ravens’ offense came out attacking in the second half as Flacco took the proverbial gloves off and aired it out on his way to 240 yards and three touchdowns and no interceptions on a 21/36 night.

Rather than a back and forth battle, the Patriots’ offense seemed to melt in the second half, as everything that could go wrong for the Patriots did. The Patriots lost the ball three times in the second half: once on a vicious head shot from Bernard Pollard on Stevan Ridley which forced a fumble, once when a Brady pass was deflected into the arms of Dannell Ellerbe, and once when Cary Williams undercut a Brady pass intended for Brandon Lloyd in the end zone. The Patriots were also plagued by two Wes Welker drops, one which was on a key third down play, and a poor decision by Brady to not run for a first down in the fourth quarter when he appeared to have ample room to run and extend the drive.

BoldinAnquan Boldin caught five passes, all in the second half, for 60 yards and two touchdowns, while Torrey Smith added four catches for 69 yards. The Patriots’ secondary did a good job of taking away Baltimore’s deep passing game, but tonight Flacco proved adept at taking what the Patriots would give him, as Baltimore methodically executed drives of 87 yards and 63 yards in the second half, as well as executing a quick four play, 47 yard drive to give Baltimore a two score lead with just over eleven minutes to play. The Patriots held Ray Rice to just 48 yards on 19 carries, while Bernard Pierce picked up 52 yards on nine carries. In total the Ravens rushed for 121 yards. Flacco took advantage of a Patriots’ secondary that had to play the entire second half without Aqib Talib, who left the game with a hamstring injury after breaking up a pass play.

Stevan Ridley led the Patriots with 70 rushing yards before he left the game in the second half with what appeared to be a concussion. Wes Welker led Patriots’ receivers with eight catches for 117 yards and a score. Aaron Hernandez added nine grabs for 83 yards and Brandon Lloyd had seven catches for 70 yards. But despite what appeared to be productive numbers, the Patriots’ offense simply never got in rhythm against the Ravens, with third down incompletions a recurring ending to numerous drives. Brady did not look sharp. and by the fourth quarter even the body language of the Patriots’ players was reflecting the score.

BradyRay Lewis led the Ravens with 14 tackles. Although the Ravens failed to record a sack, they were able to hit Brady frequently, and several passes were tipped or batted at the line. Conversely, the Patriots were able to get two sacks of Flacco (both by Rob Ninkovich), but were never able to apply consistent pressure to the Ravens’ quarterback. On one occasion when it looked like the Patriots would get to Flacco, he found Ray Rice in the middle and Rice promptly turned the play into a big 15 yard gain to extend the drive that would eventually give the Ravens a 14-13 lead.

Some Ravens were more gracious than others in the victory. While T Sizzle (Terrell Suggs) couldn’t wait to talk trash and play up the alleged disrespect card, center Matt Birk and safety Ed Reed were nothing but kind. “It’s unbelievable,” said Birk. “When is the last time anyone shut out the Patriots in the second half in Foxborough? It’s unbelievable.” Ed Reed added, “We went up against a great team today. A great organization. They’ve been champions. I was standing out in the hallway looking at Super Bowl pictures and the parades. It was a hard-fought game, and I’m grateful to be on this side of it.”

In the end analysis, the Ravens simply wanted this game more than the Patriots did, and it showed up in their execution throughout the second half.

 

Jan 162013
 

On the MoneyUnlike the wildcard round, our contributors struggled mightily in the divisional round, with our consensus picks going 1-3 for the week. Both Ghost Rat and Fat Jesus went 2-2 for the weekend, meaning a dead heat with only three games left in the season. And guess what… we agree on the two games being played this week. So it will all come down to the Super Bowl on February 3rd. Pretty amazing considering there were 256 games in the regular season and another 11 post-season games.

Here are the standings to date:

ContributorWLPCTGB
Ghost Rat17590.660X
Fat Jesus17590.660X
Brodrick Kincaid16897.6347
Reyno Island165100.62310
Flip Stricland164101.61911
Country Preacher159106.60016
LGBT159106.60016
Rat's Widow146119.55129
Idaho Quarter128137.48347
Danny Boy35230.132140
updated 2/2/13

For the championship games, we have strong favorites, but no unanimous pick in either game. Our staff like the 49ers over the Falcons by a 6-2 margin, and the Patriots over the Ravens, also by a 6-2 margin. I guess that means that if you are a betting person, you should put some coin on a Falcons-Ravens Super Bowl.

We’ll see by Sunday night.

Jan 162013
 

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl - Oregon v Kansas StateSo much for staying in Oregon.

Chip Kelly, who was courted by the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles but then seemingly decided to stay at the University of Oregon, has reversed course and been named Head Coach of the Eagles.

“Chip Kelly will be an outstanding head coach for the Eagles,” said owner Jeffrey Lurie in the statement. “He has a brilliant football mind. He motivates his team with his actions as well as his words. He will be a great leader for us and will bring a fresh energetic approach to our team.”

It’s unknown if this was solely a monetary issue for Kelly, or if he was influenced by a pending investigation of Oregon’s football program by the NCAA. In any event, the Eagles have certainly landed the most prized coaching candidate on the market.

Jan 162013
 

Patriots - RavensYes, the Baltimore Ravens beat the New England Patriots 31-30 in a Week Three Sunday night contest. Yes, the Patriots lost tight end Rob Gronkowski for the season this past weekend when he broke his forearm for the second time this season. Yes, the Ravens are playing with a lot of emotional energy and momentum as they try to extend the career of future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis.

None of that will determine the outcome on Sunday in the AFC Championship Game.

The Ravens come into the contest fresh off a stunning and thrilling double overtime win over the Denver Broncos. While the Ravens escaped with a win, the Broncos were as guilty of handing the Ravens the game as the Ravens were responsible for making it happen. The heralded Broncos’ defense, which was the second best defense in the NFL this season (3rd against both the pass and the run) was shredded by Joe Flacco and Ray Rice to the tune of 486 combined rushing and passing yards. Pro-Bowler Champ Bailey got burned badly twice for touchdowns, while Rahim Moore was responsible for allowing an inexcusable game-tying touchdown in the final minute. On offense, Peyton Manning made key mistakes and the play-calling was overly conservative, all of which contributed to allowing Baltimore a chance to win the game.

While such mistakes are possible on any given Sunday, they are not crimes the New England Patriots are likely to commit.

For their part, the Patriots handily dismissed of the Houston Texans 41-28 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score suggests. While the Texans didn’t fold early this time around, the Patriots dominated the third quarter and early fourth to build a 38-13 lead and coasted from there, despite not being overly sharp on offense, and while losing Gronkowski, Danny Woodhead, and Chandler Jones to injuries. The Patriots simply took care of business, pretty or not, and they are highly motivated to take on the Ravens and earn their sixth Super Bowl bid in twelve seasons.

That’s not to say that this is going to be an easy victory for the Patriots to earn. But the Patriots got the better of the possible AFC championship game match-ups with the Ravens, and they have the added benefit of playing the game in the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium in what is currently forecast to be typical cold, windy January weather in Foxboro.

Here’s how the contest breaks down:

Ridley - RavensWhen the Patriots run
Stevan Ridley’s production has tailed off a bit in terms of yards gained, but he is still running for a solid average per carry and is more than enough to keep the Ravens’ defense honest. Denver ran for 125 yards against the Ravens, with their running game suffering the loss of Knowshon Moreno, but Ronnie Hillman was productive in gaining 83 yards. The Colts were similarly effective in rushing the ball against the Ravens in the wildcard game two weeks ago, gaining 152 yards on the ground.

The Patriots’ rushing attack was seventh in the league this season, averaging 136.5 yards per game. The Ravens still maintain a tough run defense, but slipped to 20th in the league this season, yielding over 122 yards per game on the ground. The versatile backfield group of Ridley, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen, running behind a stout offensive line, is likely to match the Patriots’ season average for yards. Ridley will grind yards between the tackles while Vereen has good speed to the edge and is always capable of breaking a big play. I expect that the Patriots will look to serve up a heavy dose of hurry-up offense, seeking to tire out a Ravens’ defense that looked heavily winded against the Broncos last Saturday. If the Patriots can secure a second half lead, look for the Patriots to pound Ridley and Vereen against a tired defense, killing valuable time off the clock.

Terrell Suggs had ten tackles and two sacks in the divisional round win over the Broncos. Ray Lewis is still fierce against the run, and assists Haloti Ngata, Ma’ake Kemoeatu, Pernell McPhee, Terrence Cody and Arthur Jones in trying to limit the Patriots’ rushing attack.

Prediction: 130 rushing yards, 2 rushing touchdowns

Brady - Ravens

When the Patriots pass
Tom Brady was not overly sharp on Sunday and was hampered by dropped passes, yet still piled up 344 yards and three scores. Just as importantly, Brady protected the ball and did not throw any interceptions. The Patriots’ passing attack will be without Rob Gronkowski, but the Patriots are used to life without Gronk, and have plenty of players ready to step up. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez are likely to once again be the keys to the Patriots’ short passing attack, while Brandon Lloyd has made his presence felt at key points in the season. Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead are reliable receivers coming out of the backfield who will likely get their opportunity to match up against the Ravens’ linebackers. Part of what will dictate the action is the defense that the Ravens line up with. If the Ravens line up in a base defense, it means mismatches with Vereen and Hernandez on linebackers, while if the Ravens move to a nickle defense, the Patriots will seek to exploit it with the run.

Corey Graham and Carey Williams are capable cornerbacks who will have their hands full on Sunday. Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard are fearless and experienced safeties who can play coverage or go for the big hit, though Reed is known as a gambler. However, the linebacking corps is where the Ravens are going to experience problems. While Paul Kruger has emerged as as the Ravens’ best defensive player and is a pass rush threat who is also more than capable in coverage, both Lewis and Suggs will be liabilities in defending the pass. Similarly, the Patriots may be able to exploit match-ups against Dannell Ellerbe, and I would expect Vereen and Woodhead to be running short routes in Ellerbe’s assignment area. This mismatch between receivers and linebackers is complicated by the fact that the Ravens have struggled to get consistent pressure on the quarterback from their defensive line, and have had to bring linebackers to aid the pass rush. Brady excels at identifying the blitzing linebacker and exploiting the open area.

Prediction: 270 passing yards, 2 passing touchdowns

Rice - PatriotsWhen the Ravens run

Although Ray Rice’s production tailed off, the return of right guard Marshal Yanda has bolstered the Ravens’ offensive line and Rice was able to run for 131 yards against the Broncos after rushing for 68 yards against the Bengals (Bernard Pierce ran for 103 yards in that game). Pierce is emerging as an offensive threat, but is struggling with an injury suffered against the Broncos. Vonta Leach is a versatile fullback who excels at creating room for Rice to run in. The Patriots’ defensive front is among the best in the game, anchored by Vince Wilfork. Brandon Deaderick, Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, and Brandon Spikes excel in run defense, while Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are effective in setting the edge. Justin Francis is an adequate replacement if Jones is unable to go due to injury. While Arian Foster was able to gain 90 yards last week against the Patriots, much of that came in a short succession of runs. Otherwise, Foster constantly found his running lanes clogged as he averaged 4.1 yards per carry (22 carries) which included a 21 yard run and a 19 yard run in the second quarter. Factoring those two runs out, Foster struggled for 50 yards on 20 carries.

Although Ray Rice is the only running back to have rushed for over 100 yards against the Patriots this season, he did so with 101 yards in Week Three. Rice is likely to average four yards per carry this week, and will likely hit at least one run of over twenty yards, but he is going to have a hard time finding room to run against a disciplined defensive front. Rice is one of two keys that the Patriots are looking to take away from the Ravens this Sunday.

Prediction: 110 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown


FlaccoWhen the Ravens pass

The other key that the Patriots will be looking to take away is the deep ball, particularly from Torrey Smith. While Smith does not make a ton of catches, he simply makes big plays, as Denver found out last week and as the Patriots know all too well from Week Three. Enter Aqib Talib, who plays with a level of swagger and confidence that is rare in Patriots’ cornerbacks. Talib’s skills make this a much tougher match-up for the Ravens than in the first meeting, but I still expect safety help whenever Smith is on the field. One of the keys to Baltimore winning this game is to hit big plays downfield, and that is something the Patriots must take away.

Joe Flacco excels in throwing the deep ball, and has emerged as the top of the “near elite” quarterbacks after Brady, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers. And we might be talking about Flacco very differently had it not been for an outstanding play by Sterling Moore (on Lee Evans) in last year’s AFC Championship. Having said that, Flacco is better at throwing the deep ball than he is in the short and intermediate passing games; his post-season passing percentage in two playoff games this season is a mere 52.6. Talib and rookie Alfonzo Dennard (if healthy) are good bets to limit the production of Smith and Anquan Boldin, though both receivers will get their share of catches. Jacoby Jones is also a threat, and Kyle Arrington may have his hands full with the speedy receiver. Devin McCourty excels at safety and will take advantage of any mistakes made by Flacco, though his 22 TD, 10 INT season makes it unlikely that he will commit too many mistakes. Steve Gregory is playing extremely well and also limits yards after the catch.

The Patriots’ linebackers are generally solid in coverage, but they will be challenged by Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. Ray Rice has not factored as a huge receiving threat out of the backfield this season, but this is one area that the Ravens could seek to take advantage of, particularly since the Patriots seemed content to allow Arian Foster to go uncovered out of the backfield on numerous occasions last Sunday. Foster caught seven balls for 63 yards and a touchdown, and this has to be an area of concern for the Patriots.

The New England pass rush has not been consistent throughout the season, and the reshuffled Raven’s offense has performed admirably in pass protection, surrendering only two sacks so far in the post-season. The Patriots may need to get creative in blitzes to give Flacco less time to look down the field.

One very interesting development in the Patriots’ defensive evolution took place last Sunday when Rob Ninkovich picked off a Matt Schaub pass to end a Texans’ drive. On the play, the Patriots put only one man on the defensive line in a three point stance, and moved Mayo up to the right side of the defensive front to give the appearance of an all-out blitz. Schaub read this and saw that the middle of the field was wide open, but the Patriots had baited him. When Schaub stepped back to pass, Ninkovich dropped into coverage, exactly where Schaub thought he had a free pass. The result was an acrobatic play by Ninkovich to pick the ball off and steal any momentum the Texans might have. This is significant because we have not seen this type of scheming in the New England defense since the days of Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel, and speaks as to how far the defensive unit has come since a miserable early part of the season. Flacco will get his yards, but the Patriots know his tendencies and are likely to create some confusion for him as the game goes on.

Prediction: 280 passing yards, 2 passing touchdowns, 1 interception

Special Teams

Justin Tucker is an excellent rookie kicker who has missed only three field goals this season and looks to be at the beginning of a spectacular career. Sam Koch is a steady punter who is capable of giving the Patriots poor starting field position. Jacoby Jones is one of the game’s best returners; the Patriots will need to fix the coverage issues that they experienced last week against the Texans.

For the Patriots, Stephen Goskowski has overcome his early season struggles to have another successful campaign. Zoltan Mesko had an inconsistent season as the punter, but had a huge game last week against the Texans. I expect averages for both punters to come down in the colder weather this week, but Mesko is also capable of pinning the Ravens deep. McCourty is an inconsistent kickoff returner, while Welker always represents the potential of a big play in the punt return game.

Intangibles

Unlike the Texans, the Ravens won’t play scared and have a chip on their shoulder. Similarly, New England is playing with a strong sense of purpose after falling just short in last year’s Super Bowl.

One highly important piece is turnovers. The Patriots are the best in the league at +25 (41 takeaways versus 16 giveaways), while the Ravens come in at +9 (25 takeaways versus 16 giveaways). The lesson in these numbers is that both teams are proficient at protecting the ball, but the Patriots excel in forcing mistakes and turnovers. The Patriots were +1 in this department last week against Matt Schaub and the Texans, while Baltimore came out two Peyton Manning interceptions ahead last week. In the previous week however, Ray Rice loss two fumbles against the Colts. Fumbles are a rarity for Rice, but he will have to secure the ball this week against ballhawks like Mayo, Spikes, and Ninkovich. Just as special teams have the potential to shape this game, so too do turnovers.

One extra concern to note for the Patriots is their uncharacteristic trend of giving up points to end the first half, and giving up easy points once a lead has been established. If the Patriots can get in front of the Ravens on Sunday, they need to go for the kill and never let up.

Brady - VereenPrediction

If you simply compare the rosters between the two teams, the Ravens fare well, as their roster is loaded with talented players, even if they lack some of the depth of the Patriots, particularly on defense. Add the factor of the Ravens seeking revenge for last season’s loss in the AFC Championship, and Ravens’ fans have plenty of room to be hopeful. But revenge is only so much of a motivator, and it doesn’t replace execution. This game will come down to match-ups and execution, and that’s what gives Patriots’ fans confidence for a win.

The Ravens came into the playoffs as losers of four of their final five games. While their defense performed admirably on the road in the second half in Denver, shutting down Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ offense, the team will find it harder to execute to the same level in Foxboro this Sunday. The Patriots’ offense enjoys mismatches against the Ravens’ defenders that make it unlikely that the Ravens will hold the Patriots under 30 points. If Baltimore is to win this game, they will have to do so by winning a slugfest, and the Patriots’ defense is far better than it was when the two teams squared off early in the season. While the Ravens were able to win in Week Three, it was only after the Patriots squandered a two score lead late in the game in Baltimore.

Torrey Smith is right when he says the Ravens are a different team than they were a year ago; the trouble for the Ravens is that they are not necessarily a better team than they were a year ago. The offense has made strides in the passing game and has better playmakers than it did a year ago, although it is generally on par with where it was in 2011 statistically. But the Ravens’ defense has taken a significant step backward, in part due to health and in part to age. The Patriots are likely to draw the Ravens into a shootout, and the Ravens don’t currently seem equipped to win such a shootout with a team that won’t self-destruct the way Denver did in their divisional game, particularly on the road in New England. This game will see some early jitters for both sides as it will take time for the Patriots’ offense to find their rhythm, and an early Ravens lead is possible. But the Patriots will pull even or better by halftime, and the Patriots’ offense will physically pound the Ravens’ defense in the second half of the game. Both teams suffered from special teams lapses in the divisional round, so big plays are possible there. In the end, the Patriots’ offense will wear the Ravens down, and move on to the team’s eighth Super Bowl appearance.

New England Patriots 34 Baltimore Ravens 27

Jan 142013
 

Atlanta FalconsWe had one more great game on Sunday, as the Atlanta Falcons beat the Seattle Seahawks 30-28 after surging out to a 20-0 lead, then squandered the lead in the final minute, only to come back with a late field goal and emerge victorious. The later game was not nearly as dramatic, as the New England Patriots overpowered the Houston Texans 41-28 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score would indicate.

Atlanta Falcons 30 Seattle Seahawks 28
Pete Carroll’s attempts to freeze the kicker backfired as Matt Bryant’s first attempt was wide right, but then he connected on his second try as the Falcons came back in the game’s final seconds to beat the Seahawks.

The Atlanta Falcons wasted no time taking control of the game, racing out to an early 10-0 lead en route to a 20-0 halftime advantage. The Seahawks missed an opportunity to score at the end of the first half when Russell Wilson was sacked and the Seahawks, with no timeouts remaining, failed to get another play off. The teams then traded touchdowns in the third quarter before Seattle scored three straight touchdowns in twelve and a half minutes to take a 28-27 lead.

But starting on their own 28 yard line, the Falcons needed just two plays to cover 41 yards in 18 seconds, setting up Matt Bryant for the game winning 49 yard field goal. The ensuing kickoff was botched and the Seahawks recovered the ball at their own 46 yard line, but were unable to get in field goal range. A desperation pass by Wilson was intercepted in the end zone by Jacoby Jones to end the game.

Matt Ryan had a mixed day at quarterback, but was successful in getting the playoff monkey off of his back. Ryan was 24/35 for 250 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. Michael Turner rushed for 98 yards as the Falcons were able to effectively pound the ball on the Seahawks, and Jacquizz Rodgers added 64 yards.

For the Seahawks, Wilson ended his rookie season with a 24/36 performance for 385 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, as well as 60 rushing yards on seven carries, including a touchdown. The Seahawks were never able to get Marshawn Lynch integrated into the game, and Lynch was limited to just 46 yards on 16 carries. Zach Miller had a big receiving day for the Seahawks, catching eight passes for 142 yards and a score, while Golden Tate added six catches for 103 yards and one touchdown.

Atlanta will host the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship on Sunday.

New England Patriots 41 Houston Texans 28
Tom Brady threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns as the Patriots once again overwhelmed the Texans at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots lost Rob Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead to injuries, but didn’t miss a beat as Shane Vereen ran for once score and caught two more playing out of Woodhead’s spot. Stevan Ridley rushed for 82 yards on 15 carries, while Vereen added 41 yards. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez teamed up for fourteen receptions for a combined 216 yards.

With the victory, Tom Brady became the winningest starting quarterback in NFL playoff history, passing Joe Montana with his 17th post-season win. Brady currently has a 17-6 post-season record.

Arian Foster led the Texans’ offense with 90 yards and a score on 22 carries, but Matt Schaub suffered through an inconsistent and inaccurate day as the Patriots’ secondary was once again up to the task of playing tight man to man coverage on the Texans’ receivers and tight ends. Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels caught eight and nine passes respectively for 95 and 81 yards, but were limited in yards after the catch and were unable to produce big plays. The most effective receiver was Foster himself, as he caught seven passes for 63 yards and a score.

Rob Ninkovich once again came up big for the Patriots on defense. The linebacker had four tackles, two passes defended, one quarterback hit, an interception, an onside kick recovery and a tackle for a loss. Aqib Talib and Steve Gregory both had active days with ten tackles each, and Devin McCourty had another solid day at safety and in special teams, where he prevented the game’s opening kickoff from being returned for a touchdown. Danieal Manning had a fantastic day returning kickoffs, averaging 54 yards on four returns, including the 90 yard return to open the game.

The Patriots, who held a 17-13 halftime advantage, scored the first 21 points of the second half to take a 38-13 lead. The Texans were able to add 15 points in the fourth quarter to close the gap, but the context was never seriously in doubt after Vereen scored his third touchdown with 13:07 remaining.

The Patriots will host the Baltimore Ravens next Sunday in the AFC Championship.

Jan 142013
 

Vote!Thanks for the nice turnout in our poll for NFL Most Valuable Player. Our reader’s choices reflected our own results, at least as far as the top three players are concerned. Adrian Peterson was a runaway pick of our readers, followed by Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

Here are the overall results:

Poll #21: Who is your choice for NFL MVP this season?

Adrian Peterson, Minnesota (54%, 19 Votes)
Peyton Manning, Denver (23%, 8 Votes)
Tom Brady, New England (11%, 4 Votes)
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay (6%, 2 Votes)
JJ Watt, Houston (6%, 2 Votes)
Robert Griffin III, Washington (0%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 35

Our new poll focuses on the list of 2013 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There are a maximum of five individuals who can emerge from the group of nominees to be inducted, and we want to get a sense of who our readers would like to see inducted next summer. Please note that you can vote for up to five people. You can see our synopsis of each candidate here.

Poll #22: Which five individuals should be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2013?

G Larry Allen (DAL)
G Will Shields (KC)
T Jonathan Ogden (BAL)
RB Jerome Bettis (PIT)
WR Tim Brown (OAK/LA)
WR Cris Carter (MIN)
WR Andre Reed (BUF)
DT Warren Sapp (TB)
DE Michael Strahan (NYG)
DE Charles Haley (SF)
LB Kevin Greene (LA)
CB Aeneas Williams (AZ)
Bill Parcells (NYG)
Ed DeBartolo, Jr. (SF)
Art Modell (CLE/BAL)

We will leave this poll up for two weeks, and will announce the results on January 28.

Jan 132013
 

The Denver Broncos vs Baltimore Ravens AFC Divisional playoff game.Saturday was a great day to be a football fan. It was also a pretty good day to be a Harbaugh brother.

The early game, and we use the term “early” loosely, turned out to be a classic as the Baltimore Ravens edged the Denver Broncos 38-35 in double overtime in the fourth longest playoff game in NFL history. And while that game was wrapping up, the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers were engaged in their own slugfest, which the 49ers eventually took control of as they went on to a 45-31 victory. Here are quick recaps for the two games.

Baltmore Ravens 38 Denver Broncos 35 (2OT)

Justin Tucker kicked a 47 yard field goal 1:42 into the second overtime to give Head Coach John Harbaugh’s Ravens a shocking 38-35 win over the host Broncos.

Ray Rice ran for 131 and a score on 30 carries, and Joe Flacco lit up the Broncos’ secondary for 331 yards and three scores, including an inexcusable 70 yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones with only 41 seconds remaining to allow the Ravens to force overtime. Torrey Smith also burned Champ Bailey for two big touchdown receptions as the Ravens generated 479 yards of offense.

The Denver loss spoiled an amazing performance by Trindon Holliday, who ran back a first half punt 90 yards for a touchdown and then brought the opening kickoff of the second half back for a 104 yard score.

Peyton Manning struggled for consistency, having a solid first half, but seemingly melting under pressure in the second half and in overtime. Manning was 28/43 for 290 yards and three scored, but threw two costly interceptions, one which was returned for a touchdown in the first quarter by Corey Graham, and another that was picked off by Graham near the end of the first overtime that set up the game winning field goal.

While Broncos’ fans will no doubt point to some suspect officiating as costing them some opportunities, there are too many internal causes for the defeat. At the end of the first half the Broncos got the ball back with 36 seconds left on the clock and time-outs in hand, but chose to instead run out the clock. The Broncos similarly had a chance to end the game on a third down play late in the fourth quarter and chose to run the ball on third and seven rather than let Manning try to pass for the first down. But the biggest reason for the Broncos loss was the pitiful play of the secondary, including Champ Bailey getting beat deep twice and Rahim Moore giving up the late bomb to Jones. After the game, Moore said, “It is my fault, plain and simple.” But really the fault rests with a secondary that helped make Joe Flacco looked more like Peyton Manning than Manning did.

Baltimore will now travel to face the winner of the New England Patriots – Houston Texans match-up in the AFC Championship.

San Francisco 49ers 45 Green Bay Packers 31

Four plays into the game, Colin Kaepernick threw an interception that Sam Shields returned 52 yards for a Green Bay touchdown and an early 7-0 lead. But after that, Kaepernick was unflappable, as he threw for 263 yards and two scores, and ran for another 181 yards and two scores as the 49ers dominated the Packers 45-31  at Candlestick Park.

The two teams fought a back and forth battle throughout the first half, with the 49ers taking a 24-21 lead on a David Akers field goal to end the half. After an Green Bay field goal almost midway through the third quarter, San Francisco took control of the game. Kaepernick exploded for a 56 yard touchdown run to put the Niners in front, and then Frank Gore and Anthony Dixon each scored on two yard runs as San Francisco closed the door and advanced to next week’s NFC championship, where they will face the winner of the Atlanta Falcons – Seattle Seahawks contest.

Michael Crabtree had a huge game for San Francisco, catching nine passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns, while Gore ran for 119 yards and one score. James Jones caught four passes for 87 yards and a score for the Packers, while Greg Jennings added six catches for 54 yards and one touchdown.

The Green Bay offensive line did a good job of limiting the San Francisco pass rush, limiting the 49ers to one sack and three quarterback hits. But Aaron Rodgers never seemed to get into synch in the contest, and Kaepernick was simply too much for the Packers’ defense. The young quarterback is making Head Coach Jim Harbaugh look like a genius for choosing to start him over veteran Alex Smith. “It feels good. We’re one step closer to where we want to be,” Kaepernick said. “I feel like I had a lot to prove. A lot of people doubted my ability to lead this team.”