Saturday, January 08, 2011
Wildcard Weekend (part 1)
So now we know where three teams will be headed in 2011. The Titans have confirmed Jeff Fisher will be their coach for at least another year. The Dolphins have signed Tony Sparano through 2013. Not, however, before arranging a meeting with Eric Mangini to come on board as a "consultant", cancelling a press conference along the way that would have been used to confirm Sparano as the 2011 coach of the Dolphins. The meeting with Mangini didn't go ahead in the end and Sparano has been confirmed, but the damage to the reputation of both the coach and owner has been done. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross now looks like a jackass. And he's pulled Sparano down with him, effectively sending the message to the players that "we couldn't get the guy we wanted and we couldn't find anyone else who would take the role, so we're bringing back Sparano for you. Enjoy." Of course the guy they "wanted" was Jim Harbaugh, who will now be coaching the 49ers for 2011. Harbaugh's first order of business? Quarterback. With both Alex and Troy Smith up for free agency, that leaves David Carr as the only guy signed for 2011. With Harbaughs college QB Andrew Luck staying on for another year, that means the 49ers might be looking for a trade. One option is Josh Johnson of the Buccaneers, who Harbaugh has worked with previously. I really like Johnson so you won't hear any complaints from me. The other possibility, outside of the draft of course, is a free agent. Topping that list might be Donovan McNabb who is expected to be released by the Redskins. Please Jim; don't. McNabb has done well, but he's not exactly Mr. Consistent and seems to have a real problem dealing with pressure. Please, let's just go somewhere else, with a young guy who you can mold. Please. Just before we have a look at this Saturday's wild card games, just time to point you in the direction of the latest work from NFL.com's Albert Breer. Good stuff. Now, games, which after all is what football is all about. New Orleans Saints @ Seattle Seahawks (4:30PM ET, NBC) The stage is set for an epic disappointment. Quite whose, we don't yet know. It could be the Seahawks, their hopes raised after stumbling to victory over the Rams. On the back of Mike Williams and a semi-resurgent Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks have become the first 7-9 division champion, and the first team outside of a strike shortened season to make the playoffs with a losing record. It all looks so hopeful. It's a big achievement, especially after such miserable seasons as the Seahawks have endured in recent years (as a 49er fan I can only say one thing. Good). Maybe this is their time to shine again? Or maybe it's their time to get their dreams crushed, as the Saints roll into town and flatten their helpless and hapless opponents in a demonstration of such sheer dominance and offensive power that the French nation promptly surrender to Coach Payton before he turns on them (a bit of good ol' fashion British light hearted humour/Xenophobia/racism there). Conversely, it could be the Saints in for a shock. God knows it would be a shock to all of us if Seattle wins, but they have a few things in their favour. Last year the Saints finished the regular season with a +11 turnover differential. This year the Saints finished at -6. That's not helped by the loss of running backs Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory. The expectation now is that with the loss of his run game, Drew Brees will have to throw even more, possibly close to 50 times in this game. With Brees's recent problems with interceptions, that could be a potential gold mine waiting to be tapped for Seattle. Then we have the crowd. The noise in Qwest Field is pretty legendary, and in a playoff game there is likely to be little respite for the Saints. That throws up issues of false starts at critical moments and a breakdown of communication, especially during audibles. The Saints are used to very loud stadiums, but not when their offense is on the field. Finally; just the sheer surprise factor of the Seahawks. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain, the exact opposite of the defending champion Saints. If the Saints are too cocky it could be their downfall. Too conservative and the same applies. Meanwhile the Seahawks can dig deep into the playbook on both sides of the ball and just go all out for the win. If they crash and burn, who cares? If Seattle gets hammered 45-0 I wont batter an eye lid (just laugh. Heartily). On paper I would expect the Saints to do just that. It's not like Seahawks fans realistically expect their team to beat the Saints. And if they lose by just 3 points? That's still a loss, so all that conservative play just went out of the window for nothing. If the Seahawks just come out, have fun and let it all hang loose, who knows? I should also probably take the time right now to point out that I wont be doing picks this week, or for the rest of the season (possibly not even for the whole of next season). My regular season record was just over .500, my playoff record from last year was terrible (including 0-7 from the Divisional round onwards if I remember rightly) and just generally I find it much more enjoyable watching games when I'm not secretly cheering on one side or the other because I picked them. And that's before we get onto the issue of teams not doing as their told (Texans, Panthers, Titans etc. Hate those guys). I doubt it'll be a great loss to the world. New York Jets @ Indianapolis Colts (8:00PM ET, NBC) Surprise, surprise, Rex Ryan has been writing checks with his mouth that his team potentially wont be able to cash. The way to the Super Bowl would see the Jets likely take on Peyton Manning, arguably the best QB in the league today, followed by Tom Brady, arguably the best QB in the league today, and then possibly followed by Ben Roethlisberger, arguably the best QB in the league today. That's a hell of a lot of good quarterbacks to be facing, even for the Jets defense. While they have the potential to be very solid, they've also had their fair share of struggles this season, including against the Browns, a team not noted for the wild success of its offense. Let us not forget also that all of these teams must be overcome with Mark Sanchez at the helm for the Jets offense. Now just to recap, that means Mark Sanchez versus (potentially); -- The Colts defense, which was already good and has only got better lately. The Colts D gave up the highest percentage of passes completed in the regular season, but were in the top half of the table for least passing yards allowed. This is also a defense that gave up less touchdowns than the Jets. -- The Patriots defense, which gave up one more TD than the Jets D (25 to 24), but recorded over double the number of interceptions (25 to 12). -- The Steelers defense, which; conceded the second least yards per game (behind the Chargers), the least total points (232 compared to the Jets 304), the least points per game (14.5), conceded the second least (tied) percentage of 3rd down conversions (32%), recorded the most sacks (48), gave up less touchdowns (15) than it had interceptions (21), and gave up the fewest rushing yards (1,004) which was about 437 yards better than the second placed team (Chicago). In other words, it's going to be bloody hard for the Jets to make a dent in a very strong playoff group. The added pressure of Rex Ryan telling the world that he doesn't think Brady works as hard as Manning or can cope as well without his coaches as Manning, only helps to set up a great (and embarrassing) down fall in the divisional round. That's providing of course that they can topple the Colts. That would be the Indianapolis Colts who struggled at times, especially in the middle of the season, but otherwise did very well for themselves. Despite the hiccups, the Colts offense still finished with the 4th most points in the regular season and picked up more first downs per game than any other team. In particular Manning and the Colts love games like this. Racking up the points on offense entices the opposing side into a shoot out. That's where Freeney and Mathis come in. If the back end can hold up long enough (helped dramatically by playing less experienced QB's like Sanchez) that opens the door for a furious pass rush. When your rushing attack stinks, as the Jets has lately, that only increases your appearance of one dimensionality further. The Jets have fought and battled at times and somehow came through with the record that they did. If they want to go any further, it's going to take a tremendous effort. All I know is it's going to be a hell of a lot of fun to watch! Tomorrow I'll be back to recap the Saturday action and to look forward to Sunday's game.