Oct 092013
 

Rats RankingsWe lost a couple of the unbeaten teams this week, as the Seahawks fell to the Colts and the Bengals bested the Patriots in a defensive struggle. That leaves us with the Broncos, Saints and Chiefs all locked at 5-0. On the flip side, the Giants and Jaguars have both started the year at 0-5, while the Steelers and Buccaneers benefited from byes to stay at 0-4. In the stunner of the week, the Jets outplayed the Falcons on Monday Night Football, while the Raiders got out to an early lead and then held on the beat the Chargers in another relative surprise. Our contributors have been polled, and here are our rankings and questions as we move into Week Six. Last week’s rankings are in [brackets].

1. Denver Broncos (5-0, six first place votes) [1] – Can anyone but the Broncos beat the Broncos?
2. New Orleans Saints (5-0) [4] – Can Drew Brees keep taking a beating and keep on ticking?
3. Seattle Seahawks (4-1) [2] – Still the best team in the NFC?
4. Kansas City Chiefs (5-0) [7] – Will it be the 9-0 Chiefs versus the 9-0 Broncos?
5. Indianapolis Colts (4-1) [12] – Does the AFC South belong to Indy once again?
6. New England Patriots (4-1) [5] – Is that a Gronk sighting?
7. San Francisco 49ers (3-2) [8] – Isn’t Frank Gore amazing when he gets the ball?
8. Chicago Bears (3-2) [3] – Has the inevitable drama involving Jay Cutler begun?
9. Miami Dolphins (3-2) [6] – Does Miami now have two teams to cheer for?
10. Cincinnati Bengals (3-2) [10] – Was this a statement win, or just the rain?
11. Green Bay Packers (2-2) [13] – Ready to roll, or more hot and cold?
12. Detroit Lions (3-2) [14] – Why did they move up? Because reality settled in for #s 16 and 17.
13. Dallas Cowboys (2-3) [15] – Why is it that Tony Romo always manages to kill a brilliant performance with one stupid decision?
14. Tennessee Titans (3-2) [16] – Can they manage with Jake Locker gone?
15. Baltimore Ravens (3-2) [17] – Can they slow down the Packers?
16. Houston Texans (3-2) [9] – Will it be five games in a row for Matt Schaub to throw a pick six?
17. Atlanta Falcons (1-4) [11] – Is Mike Smith trying to coach the Falcons out of the playoff hunt?
18. New York Jets (3-2) [20] – Will the real Geno Smith please stand up?
19. Arizona Cardinals (3-2) [23] – When is the last time the Cardinals won games in spite of their quarterback? Oh yeah… guess nothing has changed.
20. Cleveland Browns (3-2) [27] – Is Brandon Weeden’s return the worst thing that could happen to this suddenly resurgent club?
21. St. Louis Rams (2-3) [18] – Think they are missing Steven Jackson? Yeah, and so are the Falcons.
22. San Diego Chargers (2-3) [22] – With this record, is it like Norv Turner is still there?
23. Philadelphia Eagles (2-3) [21] – Is Chip Kelly wishing the Eagles could play the Giants every week?
24. Minnesota Vikings (1-3) [25] – Is it time to move from one failed quarterback to another?
25. Carolina Panthers (1-3) [19] – They played like that AFTER a bye week?
26. Buffalo Bills (2-3) [24] – Is there a spike in barrels going over Niagara Falls with EJ Manuel injured?
27. Oakland Raiders (2-3) [30] – Is anyone else thinking this team is going to be deadly after they spend $50 million in the coming off-season?
28. Washington Football Club (1-3) [31] – Is that Daniel Snyder’s final answer on the name of his team? This is ours.
29. Pittsburgh Steelers (0-4) [28] – Is this team really going to lose to the Jets?
30. New York Giants (0-5) [26] – How is Eli still standing with an offensive line this bad?
31. Tampa bay Buccaneers (0-4) [29] – Did the bye help, or is this just an extra week between losses?
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (0-5) [32] – So what will the Broncos’ team tweets be like AFTER the game?

To be fair to Sharpe, he had a really good question that got preempted by our commentary. For Washington, he asks: “Do they need more French players?” It’s a fair question.

See you next time!

Oct 022013
 

Rats RankingsAbout midway through the third quarter on Monday night, I just couldn’t help myself anymore. So I texted Country Preacher the now famous quote from Dennis Green, “They are who we thought they were,” signaling the demise of the Miami Dolphins in their road showdown with the New Orleans Saints. The truth is that the Dolphins are a much improved team over last season, but they still aren’t quite ready for prime time. Their linebackers and secondary got torched by Drew Brees, and the offensive line gave Ryan Tannehill another difficult day at the office as the Saints trounced the Fins 38-17.

Week Five still provides us with a host of unbeaten teams, including the Kansas City Chiefs, who throttled the Giants, aggravating an already tense situation in the Big Apple. Giants’s safety Antrel Rolle tried to boost morale by predicting that the G-Men would win their final twelve games, but it’s not a convincing act; the Giants aren’t just making mental mistakes. Instead, they are getting physically dominated, which is something that can’t be corrected. The plight of the Giants is being mirrored in Pittsburgh, where the proud Steelers have tumbled into anonymity in their own city now that the Pirates have made the post-season for the first time since Bill Cowher started as Head Coach of the Steelers. Unlike the Giants however, the Steelers seem to be doing themselves in, and the team appears entirely capable of coming out of their funk, even if they lack an elite roster.

As for my Patriots, they handled the Falcons on Sunday night, but lost Vince Wilfork for the season. The offense is showing signs of life while awaiting the return of both Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski, but they are winning on defense, which is a wonderful thing for a Patriots’ fan to be able to see. Wilfork’s loss places pressure on the defensive line, but as always it is simply “next man up.” The Pats face the unpredictable Bengals this Sunday in Cincinnati.

With the Dolphins’ loss, the Preacher has come back into the fold and is no longer the outlier. Here are your Week Five Power Rankings.

1. Denver Broncos (4-0, 6 first place votes) [1] – Is there a record (or a defense) that Peyton Manning hasn’t broken?
2. Seattle Seahawks (4-0) [2] – They benefited from a Texans’ collapse, but 4-0 is 4-0.
3. New Orleans Saints (4-0) [4] – Brees to Graham should be trademarked.
4. New England Patriots (4-0) [5] – Coaching and defense still wins championships.
5. Kansas City Chiefs (4-0) [7] – The Preacher’s not a believer yet, but the rest of us are.
6. Indianapolis Colts (3-1) [12] – Luck + Richardson = Dangerous.
7. Miami Dolphins (3-1) [6] – Give them a pass for running into a buzzsaw, but no so sure that was an aberration.
8. San Francisco 49ers (2-2) [8] – Still poised for big noise in January.
9. Detroit Lions (3-1) [14] – Is it just irony that the Lions are calling the Bears a bunch of thugs?
11. Tennessee Titans (3-1) [16] – This may be the peak with Locker on the shelf.
12. Houston Texans (2-2) [9] – At least Matt Schaub still looks great in his letterman jacket.
13. Cincinnati Bengals (2-2) [10] – Which team shows up to face the Patriots?
14. Green Bay Packers (1-2) [14] – Potentially dangerous, but we think flawed.
15. Atlanta Falcons (1-3) [11] – They may be better than their record, but they are still a 1-3 team.
16. Dallas Cowboys (2-2) [15] – Just like the Bengals, but with less potential upside.
17. San Diego Chargers (2-2) [22] – This sleeper team is now on our radar.
18. Carolina Panthers (1-2) [19] – Will the early bye help propel them back into the race?
19. Baltimore Ravens (2-2) [17] – Just another .500 team.
20. Cleveland Browns (2-2) [27] – Have they finally found a quarterback? Hoyer projects confidence for a surprising rise.
21. Arizona Cardinals (2-2) [23] – Any given Sunday.
22. Minnesota Vikings (1-3) [25] – Hopefully they don’t have to wait four more weeks for a second win.
23. Buffalo Bills (2-2) [24] – Solid win over the Ravens; this team is showing improvement.
24. St. Louis Rams (1-3) [18] – A visit from the Jags offers the promise of a Week Five wake-up call.
25. New York Jets (2-2) [20] – New quarterback, new butt fumble.
26. Philadelphia Eagles (1-3) [21] – Still a few players away from being competitive.
27. New York Giants (0-4) [26] – First a Yankees’ collapse, and now this. Boston fans are loving this.
28. Pittsburgh Steelers (0-4) [28] – Who knew Pittsburgh was a baseball town?
29. Washington Redskins (1-3) [31] – Might still win the division, thanks to the Cowboys’ consistent mediocrity.
30. Oakland Raiders (1-3) [30] – This is actually a decent team that will surprise some people.
31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-4) [29] – Once again the Bucs pulls defeat from the jaws of victory.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (0-4) [32] – Hopeless.

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 072013
 

Patriots - Texans 1In 2010, the New England Patriots routed the New York Jets 45-3 in their Week 13 match-up. Just six weeks later the Jets walked out of Foxboro as 28-21 winners in the divisional round of the 2010 season in the infamous “Wes Welker foot in the mouth” game. Such a cautionary tale is served up for anyone who thinks that a repeat of the Patriots’ 42-14 blowout win over the Texans in Week 14 is a sure thing.

For the Texans’ part, this Sunday’s match-up in New England offers Houston an opportunity for redemption. The team was outplayed in every aspect of the game in Week 14, as Tom Brady threw four touchdown passes and the Patriots had a 21-0 lead before the Texans knew what hit them. The Texans had already been struggling, needing overtime to beat both Jacksonville and Detroit, but the loss to the Patriots sent them team into a full blown tailspin. The Texans dropped two of their last three games after the rout, falling from the first to the third overall playoff seed, and forcing them to beat the Bengals on Saturday in order to earn their chance at redemption.

The Texans’ performance against the Bengals was less than convincing, and Matt Schaub’s expression was one of relief rather than confidence as the Texans left the field with a 19-13 win over Cincinnati. While Schaub had a pedestrian day, going 29/38 for 262 yards and one interception (pick six), it was Arian Foster’s 140 yards and a stifling Texan’s defense that got the team to move forward in the playoffs. Moreover, it was poor play on the part of the Bengals’ offense that failed to adequately test a suspect Texans’ secondary that aided the Houston defense. That won’t be a problem this coming Sunday.

The Patriots are a team on a mission. They are 9-1 in their last ten games, the sole blemish coming when the Patriots’ barnstorming comeback fell just short against the San Francisco 49ers. Their offense is just as capable as ever, but it is the improving defense that has Patriots’ fans dreaming of a fourth Lombardi trophy. The Texans saw the newly improved secondary five weeks ago in the form of Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard starting at the corners with Devin McCourty moving to safety, as the Patriots limited Schaub to a 19/32/232/1 interception performance, and limited Andre Johnson to eight catches for 95 yards. The Patriots’ run defense held Arian Foster to 46 yards on 15 carries, so both Foster and Schaub have plenty of motivation to play better this time around.

The Patriots will be on guard for a potential letdown as the coaches break out the racquetball rackets again in anticipation of JJ Watt. And the sound bytes to the media already tell you what the Patriots are going to be inundated with all week. “I think there’s certainly a lesson there about how the game that we play now doesn’t have much to do with the game we played before,” Head Coach Bill Belichick said. “It’s another example of that. … That is and always will be the case, there is little relevance to the previous game.” Tom Brady offered the same assessment. “I don’t think that game is going to have any bearing on what happens next week,” Brady said. “That was a big win for our season, it was a big win at that time, but this game is going to be entirely different and I think we need to put just as much preparation into the game as we did before … We know these guys. I think that’s the part that I enjoy, that I’ve already spent a lot of time preparing for them, so to have another week to do it, you feel like you’re going to know them that much better, so we still have to go out and execute against it. I know they felt like they didn’t play their best game against us, which they didn’t, and in a lot of ways, I think we can play better too and we need to play better, it needs to be our best week.”

Here’s how the contest breaks down:

When the Patriots run
In their first meeting the Patriots ran for 130 yards, with Stevan Ridley gaining 72 on 18 carries. The Patriots bring their full complement of running backs into this contest, with Ridley the main back and Danny Woodhead playing the role of scatback. Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden offer a change of pace, with Vereen’s speed serving as a threat particularly in the screen game. The Patriots found their success running behind the guards in the first meeting, particularly pounding the ball behind Logan Mankins in the second half. The Texans boast the second best run defense in the league, yielding only 80 yards per game, but the Patriots’ short passing game opened up the Texans defense, particularly after the Patriots had established the lead. Bradie James and Barrett Ruud must limit Patriots’ runners to under four yards per carry, as the Patriots ripped off thirteen runs of four or more yards between the tackles in December. Look for the Patriots to offer a balanced dose of Ridley, Vereen, and Woodhead to rush for around 120 yards as the run game serves to keep the Texans honest.

Patriots - Texans 2When the Patriots pass
In the first meeting between the two clubs Tom Brady went 19/32 for 232 yards and four touchdowns, and that was without Rob Gronkowski on the field for the Pats. Brandon Lloyd had an outstanding night, catching seven passes for 89 yards and a score, while Aaron Hernandez caught eight balls for 58 yards and two scores. Deion Branch replaces Donte Stallworth from the first meeting, while Wes Welker drew lots of attention from the Texans’ secondary and had a quiet night with only three catches. The Texans struggled in coverage all night long, and penalties aided three Patriots’ drives. This has to be a huge area of concern for the Texans, as the combination of Lloyd, Welker, Gronk, and Hernandez means that every play will carry some form of mismatch; it is simply up to the Patriots’ offensive line to give Brady the time to exploit it. The Patriots’ line did a fantastic job in the first game, holding the Texans to one sack, limiting pressure by the Texans’ pass rushers, and Ryan Wendell essentially removed JJ Watt as a factor from the game. Expect the Texans to make some adjustments to try and free up Watt, but the quick strike passing offense of the Patriots is not likely to be derailed this weekend. Expect Brady to throw for more than 250 yards as he takes advantage of a very suspect Texan’s secondary. Danieal Manning in particular had a rough outing against the Patriots last month and I expect the Patriots to go after Manning early and often on Sunday.

When the Texans run
The Texans bring in the fourth best rushing offense and one of the game’s most prolific running backs in Arian Foster. In the first meeting, Foster was held to 46 yards on 15 carries with one touchdown, and 15 of those yards came on one play. The Texans as a team were limited to 100 yards rushing, as Ben Tate also carried for 46 yards against the Patriots. The Texans’ performance was right on par for the ninth rated rushing defense, which yields only 101.9 yards per game, but it was also with the Patriots staked out to a huge early lead, essentially factoring out the Texans’ running game. The Texans will get their yards on the ground this week, but the Patriots’ solid run stuffers (Vince Wilfork, Brandon Deaderick, Jerod Mayo, and Brandon Spikes) should be able to keep big gains relatively in check. Foster was able to run for 140 yards against the Bengals by the Texan’s front line controlling the interior and staying away from Geno Atkins, but the Patriots have a better interior defense than the Bengals do. On the outside, the Patriots are effective at setting and holding the edge, courtesy of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. Foster and Tate will find their running lanes far more crowded than in their win over Cincinnati.

Patriots - Texans 3When the Texans pass
Matt Schaub has good numbers this season (4,008 yards, 22 TD, 12 INT) but seems to wilt under the spotlight in big games. Will this game serve as the moment where Matt Schaub stepped up, or will he begin to be labeled as a choke artist? Schaub is obviously most comfortable throwing to Andre Johnson, who had an outstanding season in 2012, and the Patriots will once again need to limit his production. Assuming everyone is healthy, look for the Patriots to leave Talib in single coverage on Johnson, occasionally offering safety protection over the top. More often than not however, the Patriots will need to bring a safety up for run defense, putting the pressure on Talib. Tight End Owen Daniels had 62 catches this season and is Schaub’s next favorite target, and the combination of Daniels and Garrett Graham (who missed the first meeting) could give the Patriots’ linebackers fits, as they occasionally struggled in coverage in the first contest without Graham playing. Kevin Walter is a dependable target, and Foster is a receiving threat coming out of the backfield. There is no doubt that the Texans have the tools to have a big game in the air, but they need Schaub to be a good decision-maker and to execute his throws. His interception by McCourty in the first game is demonstrative of the type of lapses that seem to hold Schaub from rising to an elite level of quarterback play. The Texans did a good job of protecting Schaub in the first game, despite the Patriots’ pouring on the blitzes. Schaub is likely to throw for over 250 yards in this game, but the key statistic is going to be his touchdown to interception ratio. Further, if the Patriots successfully limit the Texans’ rushing game, that will take away the play action pass as a significant threat. Without the play action, Schaub is simply not a great quarterback. The Patriots know this and took away Daniels in their first meeting, something the Texans need to correct.

Special Teams
Keshawn Martin is a dangerous return man for the Texans. Shayne Graham is a good, but not spectacular kicker, while Donnie Jones is one of the best punters in the league. On the Patriots’ side, Stephen Gostkowski is generally a reliable kicker, while Zoltan Mesko has had an inconsistent season. McCourty has been up and down as a kick returner, while Welker is always capable of breaking a big return in the punting game.

Intangibles
The Texans keep talking about contests as being the “biggest in franchise history.” My unsolicited advice to the Texans is to talk about any biggest games after they have won a Super Bowl, and not before. Such talk merely reiterates what the Texans have yet to accomplish, and serves as a reminder that in the “big game” department the Patriots have been there and done that. Mental edge to the Patriots.

Both teams are healthier this time around, and the Patriots have had an extra week of rest to get everyone prepared. Jermaine Cunningham is back and will aid in applying pressure to Schaub as well as stopping the running game.

In the turnover game, the Patriots and Texans were the best in the AFC, but the Patriots were the best in the league, coming in with 41 takeaways and only 16 giveaways (+25) while the Texans forced 29 turnovers while giving up 17 of their own (+12). This favors the Patriots, but both teams are good at protecting the ball.

Another intangible to keep in mind is that everything went right for the Patriots the first time around. Even when JJ Watt stripped the ball from Danny Woodhead, it was recovered for a touchdown by Brandon Lloyd. When the Patriots fumbled the ball early, Aaron Hernandez was able to rescue it and then score on the next play. Every break went the Patriots’ way, and the result was a blowout win. The Texans did not play with intensity in the first meeting, and know they must play a much better game to compete with the Patriots. Expect the Texans to show up on Sunday.

The Texans win if… Matt Schaub doesn’t make key mistakes, Arian Foster and Ben Tate are able to run for over 150 yards, Andre Johnson is able to exploit single coverage, JJ Watt is able to be a factor in the game, and the Texans’ secondary limits the Patriots’ passing attack.

The Patriots win if… The offensive line protects Tom Brady and keeps Watt from disrupting the passing lanes, the secondary is able to limit the production of Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels, the Patriots protect the ball, and the Patriots show up with the intensity to play four good quarters.

Prediction
This game is not likely to be a blowout, but rather a hard fought affair that won’t be decided until the fourth quarter. While the Texans have seventh best defense in the NFL, it is not a defense that matches up well against the Patriots massive amount of weaponry. As long as Tom Brady has time to make reads, he will complete passes; the Texans’ secondary is simply not as talented as the Patriots’ receiving corps and the Patriots’ top ranked offense. On the other side, the Texans have an explosive offense as well (7th in the NFL) but will be hard pressed to win a shoot-out in New England. The Texans will stick with the Patriots well into the second half before the Pats are able to create a big play and provide some separation. The Patriots ability to pound the ball late in games is a huge asset that will serve them well in this game. Schaub played scared against the Patriots in Week 14, and I don’t expect him to improve this quickly. The Texans, unlike the Patriots, use a similar offensive game plan for every opponent, and this is something that can aid the Patriots in forcing Schaub to make mistakes.

Patriots 34 Texans 24

Jan 072013
 

WilsonThey saved the best for last on wildcard weekend, with the Washington Redskins and the Seattle Seahawks giving us the most exciting game of the post-season’s opening weekend. Here’s a quick recap of the four games from Saturday and Sunday.

Houston Texans 19 Cincinnati Bengals 13
The Texans didn’t look great, but the Bengals looked worse in the opening contest. Arian Foster ran for 140 yards and a touchdown as the Texans held on to win. Matt Schaub went 29/38 for 262 yards, but threw a pick six that accounted for Cincinnati’s only touchdown of the day. Andy Dalton was not sharp, going 14/30 for 127 yards and a pick. The Texans’ defense limited the Bengals’ rushing game to just 80 yards on the day. The Texans now travel to New England to face the Patriots, where they lost 42-14 last month.

Green Bay Packers 24 Minnesota Vikings 10
Clay Matthews walked the talk as the Green Bay Packers not only stopped Adrian Peterson from again eclipsing the 200 yard mark, but held Peterson under the 100 yard mark as he gained 99 yards on 22 carries. Joe Webb was the Vikings’ emergency starter due to an injury to Christian Ponder, and Webb was just 11/30 for 180 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Aaron Rodgers had another solid outing, throwing for 274 yards and a touchdown on 23/33 passing. The Packers were able to cruise despite only gaining 76 yards on the ground, and must now travel to San Francisco to face the 49ers, a team that they lost to in Week 1.

Baltimore Ravens 24 Indianapolis Colts 9
The Colts hung around for the first half, but the Baltimore Ravens’ passing attack was simply too much for Indianapolis in the second half as the Ravens whipped the Colts 24-9. Anquan Boldin caught five passes for 145 yards and one touchdown to spark the Ravens and extend the career of linebacker Ray Lewis by another game. Rookie running back Bernard Pierce partially stole the show on Sunday, running for 103 yards on just 13 carries, while Ray Rice rushed for 70 yards on 15 carries. Joe Flacco threw for 282 yards and two scores, outdueling rookie Andrew Luck, who threw for 288 yards, but no touchdowns and one interception. Vick Ballard ran for 91 yards as the Colts shredded the Ravens’ defense for 152 rushing yards, but turnovers and sacks on offense and poor run defense stifled the Colts’ chances to pull off the upset. The Ravens now square off against the Denver Broncos. Denver beat Baltimore 34-17 in Week 15.

Seattle Seahawks 24 Washington Redskins 14
The Redskins raced out to an early 14-0 lead, but the Seahawks fought back and scored an unanswered 24 points to lead Seattle into the divisional round of the NFC playoffs. Russell Wilson threw for 187 yards and one score and ran for another 67 yards, while Marshawn Lynch pounded the Redskins’ defense for 132 yards and one touchdown. Robert Griffin III left the game after injuring his knee midway through the fourth quarter, though it was obvious that he was still feeling the effects of his earlier injury. Griffin went 10/19 for 89 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. The Seahawks now travel to Atlanta to square off against the Falcons. This will be the first meeting of the season between the two teams.

Dec 202012
 

christmas-treeMy goodness, Widows. We are nearing the end of the road on this year’s regular NFL season. I am sure that your fan is eagerly awaiting the most exciting day of the year. The day that fills a football fan’s home with sounds of cheer and delightful smells of food from the kitchen. The day when friends and families gather to celebrate that which is truly important…FOOTBALL! Oh, wait…did you think that I meant Christmas? Sorry, Widows. I meant the Superbowl.

Just so all of you know that I have not been truly converted from Widow to Fan, I turn to one of my tried and not-so-true methods of choosing my teams for this week. Quarterbacks. In particular, which one that I would rather see in my stocking this year if Santa were giving me a cute Quarterback for Christmas. To be short, sweet and to the point so that I can get back to wrapping presents and baking cookies- I appreciate the ability to see nice looking young men when I watch the games and if you can’t be grateful during the holiday season, when can you?

This week, due to the way the holiday falls, we have no Monday night game. In fact, no more Monday night football until next fall. (pausing for any shouts of joy…). Instead we have a Saturday matchup between the Falcons and the Lions. I find Matt Ryan more aesthetically pleasing, so I choose a Falcons win.

Here’s the rest. Happy Holidays to all three of my readers!

Week 16 Widow’s Picks

Falcons over Lions (see above)

Packers over Titans (Locker is cute. Rodgers is cuter)

Panthers over Raiders (I love a Cam Newton smile)

Dolphins over Bills (Ryan Tannehill…and his wife is gorgeous too)

Bengals over Steelers (I usually don’t go for red heads like Andy Dalton, but I can’t wrap my head around finding Ben Roethlisberger the slightest bit attractive and I certainly don’t want to wake up Christmas day and find him under my tree.)

Patriots over Jaguars (Probably not a surprise, but I NEED Tom to come through for me this week and show us that is a far more than a pretty face.)

Colts over Chiefs (Two nice looking quarterbacks, chosen by likelihood of actual winner)

Cowboys over Saints (Tony Romo over Drew Brees)

Redskins over Eagles (I am a big RG III fan)

Buccaneers over Rams (Freeman over Bradford)

Ravens over Giants (I don’t find Eli attractive. At all.)

Texans over Vikings (Matt Schaub over Christian Ponder. I just prefer his looks)

Browns over Broncos (Sorry Manning…See comment above re: Eli…)

Cardinals over Bears (I like the Cardinals’ new guy)

Seahawks over 49ers (Tough call. Colin Kaepernik is a cutie. In the end, I opted for less ink.)

Chargers over Jets (I had to change this one 6 times during the season due to the Jets quarterback crisis.)

Dec 082012
 

My friends often call me a “homer” for the Patriots, and the accusation is both understandable and at the same time unfounded. While I pick the Patriots to win nearly every contest that they play, that’s also because I have the benefit of being a fan of the winningest team on the NFL over the past decade. They win most of their games, so it’s easy (and mathematically pragmatic) to pick them almost every week. And because the Patriots have not lost a game in the second half of the season in more than two years, it would be tempting to look at this contest and think that the Patriots are going to find a way to win this game at home, because that’s what they normally do.

But in truth I actually feel more confident about next Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers than I do about this week’s contest with the Houston Texans. While the Niners are seen as a more physical opponent, they are inconsistent performers and are relying on an inexperienced quarterback. The 49ers make mistakes, and the Patriots are a team that capitalizes on mistakes; just ask Mark Sanchez. The Texans however, are not prone to making many mistakes, and have been a very consistent team this season, even if they are not flashy. Although their defense has struggled in recent weeks, this is due to injuries, and the Texans have still have a way to win the contests they were in, just like the Patriots do. And like the Patriots the Texans are a solid running team who also excel at stopping the run. Finally, for more similarity, Houston is an efficient passing team that also struggles against the pass. This is the type of match-up that the Patriots are entirely capable of winning, but the Patriots are very banged up right now, and are more focused on having healthy players for the post-season than they are in rushing players back for a Week 14 contest. In short, anyone who thinks I am going to be a homer this week is in for a disappointment.

When the Patriots run:
Stevan Ridley has emerged as the Patriots’ lead back this season with 1,010 yards (7th in NFL) with a 4.5 ypc average and nine touchdowns. He is complemented by Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead, and Brandon Bolden, who is returning from a suspension. While the Patriots have the 8th best rushing attack in the league (140.8 ypg), they will likely find it difficult to run consistently against the Texans, who only give up 87.6 ypg. Shaun Cody is back from a serious injury at defensive tackle and is strong against the run. He is flanked by JJ Watt and Antonio Smith. Tim Robbins and Barrett Ruud are the inside linebackers, and are a far cry from where the Texans started the season with Brian Cushing inside and Brooks Reed outside. Expect the Patriots to seek to exploit the edges and take advantage of the pass rush to find running room. The Patriots should be able to rush for about 120 yards this week.

When the Patriots pass:
This is normally an automatic advantage for the Patriots, who rank sixth in passing. The Texans are not strong against the pass, and Jonathan Joseph is returning this week but is not having a great year. He is playing opposite Kareem Jackson, who has four interceptions this season. Danieal Manning and Glover Quinn struggle to cover in space, so the Patriots should be able to exploit a mediocre secondary. The trouble for the Patriots is who is left to do so? Welker and Lloyd are the primary receivers, while Hernandez is playing his way back into shape after an extended absence. Edelman is done for the season, so the Patriots signed re-tread Donte Stallworth, who can play both outside and in the slot. I would expect to see the Pats throw in a heavy does of screens in an attempt to get the ball into the hands of Vereen in space. Watt and Smith both excel at bringing pressure, and Connor Barwin also gets in on the action. It is critical that the Patriots’ makeshift offensive line be up to the task of neutralizing the pass rush, which will be aided if the Patriots utilize the spread formation. While Logan Mankins is expected back, Sebastian Vollmer’s back seems to be bothering him, as he did not look sharp last Sunday against the Dolphins. Look for Brady to throw for over 260 yards, but also look for the Texans to create a big play off of a Watt deflection or off a sack.

When the Texans run:
Arian Foster is one of the best in the game, and he currently ranks fifth with 1,102 yards this season, along with a league-leading 13 rushing touchdowns. He is complemented by Justin Forsett, who has rushed for 364 yards and one touchdown. The Patriots are solid against the run. Wilfork generally requires double coverage, and Mayo and Spikes are big hitters who force turnovers; the Patriots should be able to stuff the middle. They are however, susceptible to edge rushing. Foster has great vision and burst, and has tackle-breaking strength. Look for Foster to rush for over 100 yards as he rips off several big gains.

When the Texans pass:
Matt Schaub isn’t heralded as an elite quarterback, but he is certainly one of the best. Schaub has a passer rating of 94.5 with 3,062 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. He is not prone to making big mistakes, so the Patriots pass rush, which is inconsistent at best, will have to force Schaub to make errors. Chandler Jones is looking like he might return this week, which would be big for a team that is struggling to generate pressure on the opposing quarterback. Andre Johnson is having a solid year with 74 receptions for 1,114 yards and three touchdowns, while Owen Daniels has 50 receptions. Arian Foster is often the third option in the passing game, and Kevin Walter is a sturdy and reliable target. The Texans like to use two tight end sets, and could take advantage of the Patriots’ linebackers and get some big gains down the field. The Patriots’ secondary is starting to gel, but they will be challenged by the Texans, and Schaub is not likely to miss the types of throws that Ryan Tannnehill missed last week. McCourty is a more natural fit at safety, while Talib and Dennard are both capable of making big plays, but also can get burned. Talib will be matched up with Johnson, and must have a good game for the Patriots to slow down the Texans’ offense. Arrington is looking much better now that he is playing a more limited number of snaps. Expect Schaub to throw for around 250 yards.

Special Teams:
The Patriots’ kicking game is good but not great. Gostkowski is generally a reliable kicker who has struggled this season, while Mesko doesn’t have a booming leg, but can pin opponents deep. The Patriots’ return game took a hit with the loss of Edelman, while Devin McCourty is an inconsistent kickoff returner who can occasionally rip off a big return. For Houston, Shayne Graham is a good, but not spectacular kicker, while Donnie Jones is one of the best punters in the league. Keshawn Martin is a dangerous returner, particularly in the punting game.

Intangibles:
Injuries are never an excuse for losing in the NFL, and the Patriots historically personify the concept of “next man up” better than any team in the league. None the less, the Patriots will be tested to stay competitive in this contest. Rob Gronkowski remains out, while Aaron Hernandez is still playing his way back into game shape, and the loss of Julian Edelman hampers the receiving corps. The offensive line can’t seem to stay intact for an entire series, let alone an entire game, so the Patriots will be challenged to stop Watt and the Texans’ pass rush. On defense the Patriots are healthier, particularly in the secondary, but the loss of Jermaine Cunningham to suspension while he was having his best season raises concerns for the Patriots’ pass rush. The Texans have already adapted to life without Brian Cushing, and are getting healthier in the secondary with the return of Jonathan Joseph, and otherwise appear a bit healthier coming into this contest. The war of attrition slightly favors the Texans.

With regard to turnovers, the Patriots are the league’s best, with 33 takeaways and only 9 giveaways this season, for a difference of +24. The Texans are tied for second in the league with 26 takeaways and 12 giveaways, for a difference of +14. Both teams know how to create turnovers and how to protect the ball, but the Patriots get a slight edge here.

The Texans win if…
Arian Foster gets some early yards, forcing the Patriots’ safeties to bite on play action. Matt Schaub is more than capable of putting the ball over the top to beat one on one coverage. The Texans also win if they force multiple Patriots’ turnovers.

The Patriots win if…
they beat the pass rush by spreading the field to pick apart a weak Texans’ secondary, complemented with screens and single-back draws. Forcing Arian Foster to put the ball on the ground would be very helpful as well.

Prediction:
If these two teams meet in the post-season with Gronkowski, Cunningham, Bolden, and Hernandez in the line-up along with a healthier offensive line, I will pick the Patriots because I am confident that the Patriots’ passing attack would be the difference. As it is I really want to believe that the Patriots are going to find a way to pull out a win, but there are simply too many question marks across the team to allow me to go there. In Week 14, with the Patriots’ seriously banged up, and with this being the team’s first look at the Texans, I think the advantage goes to Houston. Look for JJ Watt to be a disruptive force against the Patriots’ line, pressuring Brady and challenging his passing lanes. Brady looked decidedly uncomfortable last week against the Dolphins pass rush and was was not as effective as usual as Miami recorded four sacks, and I expect Houston to be just as disruptive to the New England passing game. The depleted receiving corps offsets an advantage that the Patriots would otherwise have against the Texans’ secondary. After Welker, who is going to step up? On the other side of the ball, Arian Foster is exactly the type of running back that can drive the Patriots’ defense nuts, and Justin Forsett is a very capable change of pace back. Matt Schaub is having a solid season throwing the ball, and while the Patriots’ secondary is improving, Schaub is far better equipped than Ryan Tannehill was last week to take advantage of the Patriots’ lapses and miscues. Look for Schaub to throw for more than 250 yards, and look for Foster to be the second back to rush for 100 yards on the Patriots this season. I look for a conservative first half before the Patriots make a mistake or two (or the Texans create one). The Patriots will play catch up in the 4th quarter, but I am expecting a 31-27 game in favor of the Texans.

Nov 272012
 


Well, Widows, last week I took on the coin toss to see if I am actually able to do better than chance when I make my weekly picks. Even though I am ahead of the Idaho Quarter (IQ for short) over all, this week the quarter and I were tied. Incidentally, so was Ghost Rat, so I have earned the distinction of being as right as he is!

Last week, I neglected to award my Widow’s Scorn award. It wasn’t for lack of inappropriate behavior, but rather due to disorganization on my part. This week’s award goes to…drum roll please…Ndamukong Suh of the Detroit Lions! On Thanksgiving, he unceremoniously kicked Matt Schaub in the, shall I say, “groin”. I saw the replay and it looked very intentional to me, and to most who saw it. This isn’t Mr. Suh’s first offense. Last year on Thanksgiving he stomped on the shoulder of a Green Bay Packer. Earlier this year, he temporarily rendered Bears quarterback Jay Cutler unconscious, even though the play was deemed “clean”. Again I am convinced that the rules of Kindergarten apply to the gridiron. In this case, don’t kick boys in the nuts and don’t lie and pretend it was an accident when it was clearly on purpose. He is high on the list of the dirtiest players in the NFL.

As the old saying goes, behind every great man is a great woman. In the case of the NFL, this comes in the form of the wives and girlfriends of the players who are the ultimate football widows. I think I have it bad when it comes to losing my husband every Thursday, Sunday and Monday to the flat screen, but I got nothin’ on these ladies. In fact, I have developed a list of reasons why it is better to be the widow of a fan versus the widow of an NFL quarterback.

10. 300 pound men don’t get paid to try to knock my husband down.
9. No one rates my level of “hotness” among football widows on the internet. (True story. Google it!)
8. Screaming fans don’t yell at my husband when he has an off day.
7. I get to sit inside where it’s warm to watch football games in support of my husband.
6. At half time, my husband can carry on a conversation with me instead of his coach.
5. After a win, I don’t have to worry about my husband fending off hot football groupies.
4. After a loss, my husband doesn’t ever embarrass himself at a press conference.
3. My husband only gets a little bit sweaty during games.
2. Two words: NO CHEERLEADERS!

And the #1 reason why it is better to be the football widow of a fan…
Ndamukong Suh never gets close to my husband’s groin.

This week, I am paying tribute to the ladies who stand behind the quarterbacks. They are the REAL football widows. I’m not gonna lie – I’d love to have a quarterback’s paycheck to spend on all manner of shoes and purses, but I wouldn’t trade places with any of them.

When I did my research, which is as exhaustive as I have patience for and may not be flawless, I found some interesting stories of high school and college sweethearts, women who join their husbands in charity work, mothers of multiple children, and women who are stars themselves.

Drew Brees’ wife, Brittany, was his college sweetheart. They have 3 sons, the middle of which was named with assistance from Drew’s Twitter followers. That makes the woman a saint (no pun intended) in my book. The couple does charitable work in New Orleans, San Diego where they make their home in the off season, and near Purdue where they went to college. Russell Wilson, Chad Henne, Joe Flacco, Matt Moore, Alex Smith, Andy Dalton and Carson Palmer are all married to women that they have been with for many years.

Among the ranks of the NFL women-behind-the men are athletes in their own right. There are softball, soccer, tennis and golf standouts from their respective colleges, as well as a Czech national gymnast and a US gymnastic medalist in the Beijing games.

Ryan Fitzpatrick proposed to his wife, Liza Barber at McDonald’s over Chicken McNuggets. It doesn’t get any more down to earth than that. There were married in 2006 and have 3 children. Melanie Weeden has been through not one, but two professional sports careers with her husband. He spent 5 years playing professional baseball prior to coming to the NFL. The brothers Manning both have wives and children, including a set of twins for Peyton and Ashley.

Tom Brady is married to supermodel Gisele Bundchen.  Since 2004, she has been the highest paid model in the world, is a former Victoria’s Secret model, and was the 16th richest woman in the entertainment industry, with an estimated $150 million fortune in 2007. In this case, and in spite of his greatness, perhaps the great man stands behind a greater woman.

Tiffany Rivers wins the Ultimate Widow award. The couple began dating in the 7th grade and married after their freshman year of college, with the blessing of his football coach. They have 6, count ‘em, SIX children! She wins the prize!

Tony Romo and Ben Roethlisberger are newlyweds. Robert Griffin III is engaged. Among the girlfriends, there is a reality tv actress, an ESPN reporter, actress Eva Longoria, and R&B star Ciara. Matt Stafford continues to date his college girlfriend. It is a classic case of quarterback and cheerleader. What makes her noteworthy is that she plays fantasy football!

This week, my picks are based on my personal assessment of the widows that sit on the sidelines while their husbands entertain the football fans that we know and love. We’ll see if that is a good basis for choosing winners.

Widow’s Week 13 Picks

Saints over Falcons
Seahawks over Bears
Packers over Vikings
49ers over Rams
Cardinals over Jets
Chiefs over Panthers
Lions over Colts
Bills over Jaguars
Patriots over Dolphins
Texans over Titans
Broncos over Buccaneers
Ravens over Steelers
Browns over Raiders
Chargers over Bengals
Cowboys over Eagles
Giants over Redskins

Nov 242012
 

If the Detroit Lions didn’t have enough go wrong on Thursday against the Houston Texans, Ndamukong Suh made sure that there was more to talk about this week, as the talented but troubled defensive tackle appeared to intentionally kick Texans’ quarterback Matt Schaub in the groin. Watch the video below for yourself. Note that Suh’s foot appeared to be going along a certain path until he seems to flex/push it, then making contact with Schaub.

Suh of course was famously suspended for two games last season after he pushed Packers’ offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith’s head into the ground three times, then stomped on his arm, all of which took place after the whistle had blown. Suh was penalized for unnecessary roughness and ejected from the game. Initially, Suh denied stomping on Dietrich-Smith, saying he was only trying to get his balance back. However, after the Lions issued a statement calling Suh’s actions “unacceptable,” Suh then acknowledged that he’d “made a mistake” a day before and intended to learn from it. After this incident, what he learned will be a matter of interesting debate.

Mike Freeman reports that the situation will be reviewed Monday, and that Suh could be facing a one game suspension. While I recognize that this incident is not as serious as the shots he took against Dietrich-Smith last season, the fact is that discipline for behavior like this should be progressive, and be strongly influenced by his past behavior. If it were up to me, the “Dirtiest Player in the NFL” would be losing at least three pay checks for this one.

Finally, it has been said by some that this incident is not a big deal because Schaub is protected by a cup. Wrong. Because contact to the groin is relatively rare in football, the practice of wearing cups is a thing of the past at most levels of football. While still worn in youth leagues, most high school football players do not wear cups and it is nearly unheard of in the college and pro ranks. Players argue that their speed and agility is impacted by wearing an extra protective device, and that the protection is rarely needed.

This story will be updated after the league has reviewed the incident and announced a decision.

UPDATE (11/26/12): According to Greg Aiello of the National Football League, there will be no suspension for Suh, but the play will be reviewed for a fine. Frankly, this is not just surprising, but disappointing. There is enough of a smoking gun in this case to warrant at least a one game suspension, and players across the league have demonstrated time and again that fines are not an effective deterrent to future violations. Given Suh’s history, I’m not sure that he should have been given the benefit of the doubt in this case. More news when fines are announced at the end of the week.