Tuesday, December 30, 2014

NFL Top 10: Wildcard Games

Since the advent of the wildcard round in the NFL in 1978, the opening round of the playoffs has seen some of the most memorable games in league history.   Presented are ten of the best from the wildcard round -


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TEN: Buffalo Bills at the New York Jets, 1981 - The Bills were entering their second straight playoff run and only their third since 1966, while the Jets had made the playoffs for the first time since the 1969 season and had done so after losing their first three games and with questions burgeoning about coach Walt Michaels, who'd acted in threatening manner to reporters following a Week Three loss to the Bengals.   The two AFC East foes had split their regular-season matches, and the Jets were sporting a defensive line in Mark Gastineau, Marty Lyons, Joe Klecko, and Larry Faulk aka Abdul Salaam, a unit quickly named The New York Sack Exchange.

The game quickly became a Bills rout, beginning with a fumble of the opening kick by the Jets run back for a touchdown by Charles Romes of the Bills.  Two Joe Fergunson touchdowns to Frank Lewis and a field goal put the Bills up 24-0 in the second quarter, but the Jets behind Richard Todd refused to quit in a turnover-plagued contest (the two teams combined for eight interceptions and the opening kick fumble).

Todd threw for 377 yards and two touchdowns, leading the Jets from the 24-0 gap and a fourth-quarter gap of 31-13 to within 31-27; getting the ball back in the final minute, Todd raced the Jets to the doorstep of the win only to be intercepted in the endzone with almost no time left.

Despite the loss, the Jets had made a point, in that they were determined not to be defined by Joe Namath's long-ago triumph.


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NINE: The Catch II - Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers, 1998
- For only the fourth time in sixteen seasons the 49ers did not win the NFC West, while the Packers likewise failed to win their division, the NFC Central.  The two teams entered Candlestick Park a combined 23-9, but the Packers had gone to the previous two Superbowls and had beaten the Niners five straight times.   Brett Favre's matchups against the Niners were for the most part uncompetitive, while Steve Young faced the specter of a lifetime record of 0-8 against the Packers.

This game became different right away, as the lead tied or changed six times in the first three quarters.  An exchange of field goals put the Niners up 23-20 in the fourth, but Favre stormed the Packers to the go-ahead touchdown at the 2-minute warning.   As Young began clawing the Niners forward, the biggest question mark was third-year receiver Terrell Owens, who'd had two catches but also several drops amid glare made brutal by The Stick's angles.   Also struggling was Jerry Rice, taken out of the game by the Packers defense until a six-yard catch with 52 seconds to go; controversy then ensued when the ball fell out; it was  ruled an incompletion but replay indicated a potential fumble.   With eleven seconds to go Young was nearly picked off, but the ball hit the ground.   With eight seconds to go Young was on the Packers 25; he dropped back, momentarily stumbled, then rifled the ball to Owens between two defenders into the endzone, the biggest and most clutch playoff touchdown for the Niners since Dwight Clark's winning score in 1981.    And yet the game almost ended in a Packers win anyway on the final kick return, run into Niners territory before being stopped.

The 30-27 win, coming amid burgeoning scandal within the Niners' ownership circle, was the club's last playoff win for four years.


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EIGHT: The Music City Miracle - Buffalo Bills at Tennessee Titans, 1999 - The 1990s decade had been a traumatic one for the team formed by Kenneth Stanley "Bud" Adams, as the Houston Oilers collapsed from a playoff team to a vagabond in Tennessee until in 1999 a brand new stadium was completed.   The Oilers name was retired by Adams and the name Titans - personifying Tennessee as The Athens Of The South - was returned to pro football after the collapse of the New York Titans before the 1963 season.

The new Tennessee Titans surged in 1999, beginning with a 36-35 slugfest over the Cincinnati Bengals.   The Titans finished 13-3, losing the AFC Central to the 14-2 Jacksonville Jaguars; Jacksonville's only two losses all season had been to the Titans.  Entering this wildcard game the 11-5 Buffalo Bills had been led by Doug Flutie, but late in the season Rob Johnson, the man he'd replaced, started against the 13-win Indianapolis Colts and erupted to a 31-6 win; the win (over a Colts team with nothing to play for having secured the second AFC bye) sparked controversy as Johnson was named starter for the playoffs, this due to a 73% completion rate to Flutie's 55% rate with nineteen touchdowns and sixteen interceptions and possibly also memory of Flutie's futile performance in a 24-17 playoff loss the previous season at the Dolphins (Dan Marino's only playoff win in four tries against Buffalo).

Neither offense generated much all game, as McNair was held to 76 passing yards and a pick while running in one touchdown amid teammate Eddie George's 106-yard rushing performance.   The two teams swapped medium-range field goals with the Bills now leading 16-15 with only time for the kickoff return.

It was here that all hell broke loose as Lorenzo Neal took the kick at his own 25, handed off to Frank Wycheck, and then Wycheck threw it parallel to the line marker to Kevin Dyson; Dyson  raced past the Bills along the left sideline to the complete disbelief of everyone into the winning touchdown.   The play went to review, and ABC replays showed the lateral was indeed - albeit by inches - an actual lateral, and the touchdown stood.

The play - Home Run Throwback as it was known in Titans circles - was repeated in spectacular form in 2012's 44-41 overtime win by the Titans over the Detroit Lions.


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SEVEN: Wildcard Sunday, 2002 - The whole of Wildcard weekend in 2002 qualified as among the most memorable, first when the Atlanta Falcons crushed the Packers and ended Green Bay's career playoff winning streak at Lambeau Field, then when Peyton Manning's Colts faced the club's second ever playoff meeting with the New York Jets and were annihilated 41-0.   But it was Wildcard Sunday that reached into the football stratosphere of amazement.

First the Cleveland Browns were in their first playoff run since 1994, and facing the hated Pittsburgh Steelers in Heinz Field; Pittsburgh had beaten Cleveland in both games that year as former Dan Reeves quarterback project Tommy Maddox took over for Kordell Stewart and stormed the Steelers to a 10-5-1 record; the tie (34-34) came ironically against Reeves and his Atlanta Falcons squad.

Kelly Holcolm had taken over as Browns quarterback, and the Browns surged to the playoffs on a 9-7 record and after a bizarre confluence of Week 17 wins and losses league-wide amid a game-winning goalline stand against the Falcons by the Browns for the 24-16 playoff-clinching win.  Holcolm stormed the Browns to three touchdown drives and a field goal, interrupted by Antwaan Randle-El's 66-yard punt return score.  

The Browns led 24-7 in the third, but the Steelers behind Maddox kept clawing, and trailed 27-14 entering the fourth.   Maddox and Holcolm traded touchdowns, then after two Holcolm incompletions the Steelers got the ball back with 2:35 to go.   Maddox whipped four passes to the Browns 3-yard line and the go-ahead Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala touchdown run.  Holcolm, with just 50 seconds to work with, reached the Steelers 45 but made no attempt at the endzone, instead throwing short and thus blowing any chance at salvaging the win.   The 36-33 Steelers win completed the three-game season sweep of the pesky Browns.


Yet this game would be topped big-time immediately following, for the New York Giants were at The Stick against the 49ers.   Jeff Garcia, ex-CFL quarterback, had replaced Steve Young during 1999 and had Terrell Owens and other receivers to go with Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow at running back, while ex-Panther Kerry Collins was wielding an offense with Jeremy Shockey, Amani Toomer, and running back Atiim Kiambu Hakeem-Ah "Tiki" Barber.   The game opened with two touchdown exchanges highlighted by Terrell Owens shaking off two defenders for a 76-yard catch-and-run.   The Giants behind Collins then raced to a 35-14 lead in the third; a dropped Shockey endzone catch led to a Matt Bryant field goal and a 38-14 lead.

The missed touchdown became a source of bitterness later, because Garcia went to a no-huddle offense and exploded to a TO touchdown catch, a 14-yard run by himself, and two two-point conversion throws to Owens.   A Niners field goal made it 38-33 before the Giants clawed to the Niners 24 in the final four minutes; a bad snap by Trey Junkin, signed only the week before after missing the entire regular season, was followed by a shanked Matt Bryant kick.

Now the game saw hell break loose.   First Garcia whipped the Niners to the go-ahead touchdown with one minute remaining; Terrell Owens and Giants safety Shaun Williams nearly came to blows on the play, then on the two-point try Garcia was intercepted and a brawl erupted that led to Williams' ejection.   On the Giants possession Collins was nearly intercepted at the Niners 28 but the play was ruled incomplete.   The Giants reached the Niners 23, but on the last-second field goal Junkin's snap was low; holder Matt Allen dropped the ball, picked it up and ran, then heaved to the endzone for Tam Hopkins; still more controversy ensued when the Giants were flagged for an ineligible man downfield (Rich Seubert) while media contended the Niners were guilty of pass interference and that one untimed down should have been added.   A letter of apology to the Giants followed from the league office, and Junkin, almost in tears, announced he was finished in football.

Coach Jim Fassel summed up the entire weekend in his bitter postgame press conference - "I'm not getting over this one."


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SIX: Matt Hasselback's Botched Prediction - Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers, 2003 - The Packers had stormed to their ninth playoff run in eleven seasons and were now facing their former coach, Mike Holmgren, now with a Seattle Seahawks team in its first playoff game since 1999 - and unknowable to anyone beginning a spectacular run of playoff appearances over the ensuing seasons ending in 2013's Superbowl runaway.

The 2003 meeting in steady snow began as a 13-6 Packers halftime lead, but Hasselback, a former Brett Favre backup, started storming the Seahawks forward, this following a season where the Seahawks lost six of eight road games, notably a brutal 44-41 overtime loss at Baltimore.   Hasselback whipped the Seahawks to three drives ending in Shaun Alexander touchdowns; the game lead tied or changed five times in the second half as two Ahman Green scores helped lead to overtime.

On the coin toss the Seahawks won, and Hasselback declared aloud, "We want the ball and we're gonna score!"   The Seahawks' first possession lasted three plays and a punt, then Green Bay punted after just three plays.   Hasselback completed two passes to his own 45, but on his fifth throw of the drive he was picked off by Al Harris and Harris raced 52-yards and the winning touchdown (33-27).   The Hasselback boast defined Seattle's rivalry with the Packers until the ultimate controversy erupted in 2012.


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FIVE: Shootout At The Glendale Corral - Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals, 2009
- After flaming out in 2002-3 with the Rams, Kurt Warner went to a one-year-and-done career with the Giants before winding up with a Cardinals franchise subject to universal ridicule as the team where careers went to die.   After getting a new stadium, University Of Phoenix Stadium, that reputation began to change as Warner replaced inept draft pick Matt Leinart and installed a level of professionalism almost never to be found in Cardinals history.   2008 saw the Cardinals shock the league with three playoff wins and a Superbowl berth, a berth nearly ending in a stunning victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Now in 2009 the Cards were a solid 10-6 and division champions, hosting the wildcard Packers.   The game began as a Kurt Warner runaway as the Cardinals stormed to a 17-0 lead in the first; Warner kept attacking and stormed the Cardinals to a 31-10 lead, but second-year Packers starter Aaron Rodgers began clawing the Pack back; two Rodgers touchdowns and a Warner score left Arizona up 38-24 in the fourth, and Rodgers kept roaring and two more touchdowns tied the game.   Warner put the Cards back up 45-38 with five to go; Rodgers tied it at the two-minute warning.   Warner completed five passes for 73 yards in the final two minutes - and had more touchdowns (five) than incompletions total (four) - but Neil Rackers' kick shanked badly and the game went into overtime.   After a holding penalty the Packers were on their 17 when Rodgers bobbled the ball, shanked it into the hands of Karlos Dansby, and Dansby roared to the winning touchdown, a 51-45 Cardinals win and one of the defining games of Warner's career - it was also a defining game for Rodgers, who erased a 21-point gap yet still botched the game and has gone on to win just two games in which he has trailed by two or more scores.


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FOUR: Marshawn's Earthquake - New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks, 2010 - The once-woebegone Saints weathered the worst storm of their existence in 2005, then helped rally their city with a 2006 playoff surge under Sean Payton and Drew Brees; in 2009 it paid off in the biggest playoff win in the club's history and then the Superbowl.   They were wildcards in 2010 and traveled to the Seahawks, under former Jets and Patriots coach Pete Carroll following his lengthy sabbatical with USC.   The Seahawks had struggled to 7-9 and it was enough to win the NFC West, the first case of a team with a losing record winning a division.

The widely expected Saints win, however, was not to be.   Matt Hasselback exploded to three touchdowns and a 24-20 Seahawks lead at halftime.   Drew Brees kept fighting back, but Hasselback matched him drive for drive.  In the final four minutes the Saints had clawed to within 34-30; it was then the Seahawks finished off New Orleans as Marshawn Lynch - a former Buffalo Bill acquired by Seattle in an October trade that went largely unnoticed in football circles due to New England's Randy Moss trade that same week - exploded.   He stormed through the line, broke nine tackles, and threw down corner Tracy Porter (the hero of the Saints' NFC Title win over the Vikings and the Superbowl win over the Colts) while scoring from 67 yards out; fan cheering was so powerful the stadium registered as a medium-strength earthquake on a seismograph less than a mile from Qwest Field.

A late Brees touchdown could do nothing but cut the final score to 41-36 Seahawks.   For a team ridiculed for failing to post a winning record, the 2010 Seahawks wound up sending a decisive message to the league - be very afraid.


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THREE: The 3:16 Game - Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos, 2011 - There may never be another phenomenon like Tim Tebow.   Building a powerful following in his college career, Tebow became a source of discussion before the 2010 NFL Draft and his selection by the Broncos and short-lived head coach Josh McDaniel caused a stir in league circles.   Tebow's ebullient expression of his religious faith won him fans, and as 2011 began his unconventional playing style began to foment disagreement in football analyses.   He became starter under new Broncos coach John Fox and despite dismal throwing efforts he was able to lead comeback wins over Miami and others; the comeback wins kept up, and when Tebow ran in the winning touchdown vs, the New York Jets he had become a full-fledged international sensation, a sensation that kept surging through six straight wins and did not abate even with crushing losses to New England and Buffalo.

The Broncos won the AFC West in a three-way tie with San Diego and Oakland and hosted the 12-4 Steelers on Wildcard Sunday; it was the seventh career playoff meeting between Pittsburgh and Denver and media speculation stipulated that the Broncos, under GM and former quarterback John Elway, livid at Tebow's poor throwing efforts, might bench Tebow for so important a game.

It all began turning upside down as Tebow rallied the Broncos after two Steeler field goals; he threw one touchdown and ran in another, while a Ben Roethlisberger interception was sandwiched between two Matt Prater field goals and a shocking 20-6 Broncos lead.   The Steelers clawed back in the second half as they outscored Denver 17-3 aided by a Willis McGahee fumble.   A late sack of Roethlisberger snuffed out any chance at a winning field goal and the game went to overtime at 23-23.

On the opening play of overtime the Steelers laid out a Cover Zero defense, basically daring Tebow to throw with almost no one protecting the back side of the defensive line; it was exactly what the Patriots a month earlier had shown the rest of the league to not do - instead of play passively the Patriots had attacked Tebow directly and thus threw him completely out of his game.

Given this defensive look, Tebow unloaded a pass caught high by DeMaryius Thomas and Thomas took advantage when the Steelers bit on the play fake; he raced almost unmolested to the winning touchdown (29-23 final).   It was Denver's first playoff win since 2005 and caused still more reaction when the box score showed Tebow had thrown for 316 yards with a 31.6 yard per catch average.   Multiple stats aligned with the Bible verse John 3:16 and the correlation became the most celebrated confluence of faith and football ever seen.

Adding to the bizarre quality of the game is that the Steelers' 2014 playoff loss to the Ravens means Pittsburgh has not won a playoff game since the 3:16 game.


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TWO:  The Comeback II: Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts, 2013 - The Broncos gave up on Tebow when Peyton Manning, out a year after several neck surgeries, was released by the Colts.  Manning signed with Elway's Broncos - the irony of Peyton's rookie year being Elway's final playing year was curiously overlooked - and stormed the Broncos to a 13-3 2012 season ending in a rip-roaring Divisional Round loss to the Ravens.   The Colts meanwhile drafted sure-shot quarterback prospect Andrew Luck and exploded to 22-10 in his first two seasons.

The Chiefs meanwhile signed ex-Eagles coach Andy Reed after seven mediocre or worse seasons and acquired former 49ers starter Alex Smith, given up for dead by the Niners for Colin Kaepernick.   The Chiefs stormed to win their first nine games before collapsing to finish 11-5, including an embarrassing home loss to Luck's Colts.

For Wildcard Sunday in 2013 the Chiefs came to Lucas Oil Stadium and exploded, storming to 38-10 in the third quarter, pouncing on a Trent Richardson fumble and two Luck INTs.   But Luck began storming the Colts back as the Colts defense forced a fumble.  By the fourth quarter and despite a third Luck pick the Colts had raced to a 41-31 gap, then Luck scored himself on a botched Donald Brown run.   After a Chiefs field goal Luck whipped a 64-yard touchdown to T.Y. Hilton and the Colts suddenly led 45-44.   The Chiefs final drive died out at the Colts 43 and Indianapolis had its first playoff win since 2009 and had erased a 28-point gap.

Only one other game had ever seen a bigger comeback.


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THE NUMBER ONE WILDCARD GAME OF ALL TIME - The Houston Oilers at The Buffalo Bills, 1992 - Even if the NFL sees a game where a team erases a five-touchdown gap The Comeback can never be forgotten.   From the injury at Houston that knocked out Jim Kelly to the stunning effort of backup Frank Reich, the Bills showed a level of heart impossible to forget.   The Oilers came in with every reason to feel confident in a win.   Warren Moon exploded the Oilers with four touchdowns in the first half, and a Reich pick-six put Houston up 35-3, a gap impossible to erase.

Yet Frank Reich did just that, having beaten Jimmy Johnson's Miami Hurricanes team in 1984 by wiping out a 31-0 gap to win 43-40.   Reich exploded the Bills to five straight touchdowns, four of them throws by him sandwiched around a Moon fumble, a blown field goal try, and an interception; a second Moon pick was wiped out on a roughing the passer penalty.   By halfway through the fourth the Bills improbably led 38-35.  Moon finally got the shellshocked Oilers to the tying field goal, but early in overtime a pass sailed over a blanketed Ernest Givens and was intercepted.   Steve Christie's field goal ended the biggest Bills win (41-38) in their history and the largest comeback win in NFL history.


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Twelve years later the two clubs have endured a roller coaster, and it all adds up to that the "Wild" in Wildcard fits better than perhaps anyone could expect.

The Wages of Gridlock

While Washington does nothing, the economy starts picking up, and the 2011 budget stoppage has led to an actual reduction in government spending.

Holy Warren G. Harding - when government stays out of it the market actually works?

Of course it also displays the irrelevance of Barack Obama, who had to be dragged kicking and screaming into that 2011 budget stoppage by Republicans.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Obama’s Executive Memoranda Highlights Constitutional Crisis

Obama's refusal to understand how to govern shows in that he thinks he's actually competent enough to handle executive memoranda.

Some Thoughts On NFL 2014

The NFL's 2014 season has wrapped up and there's a lot to say about it.   Some thoughts as the playoffs count down -


The Return Of Parcellsball - To a striking extent what jumped out at me was how many teams took the ball out of their quarterbacks' hand and put it in the hands of the running game and the defense.   The most obvious examples were the Cowboys - whose defense was ostensibly awful in 2013 - and the Broncos.   A few years ago it seemed everyone was saying the league was all-passing all the time - it's not that way anymore; indeed what has come to the fore is that increased passing has opened up run games, to where Detroit's 2013 win over the Cowboys where Matthew Stafford threw for 488 yards yet the Lions still busted out over 140 (strikingly unnoticed) rushing yards may become the archtypal NFL game going forward.


There Was A Lot Of Scoring But Curiously Uncompetitive Games - 2014 didn't seem to have that much in the way of the kind of super-competitive games that would get the NFL Films Game Of The Week treatment.  Denver's 39-36 comeback over Miami, Miami's 37-35 win over the Vikings, and San Diego's amazing coemback win over the 49ers were perhaps the best games of the season.   The previous two years saw a sizeable number of such games - 2012 saw the amazing 41-34 Giants-Bucs shootout, Tennessee's 44-41 overtime heart attack game over the Lions and the Titans' 35-34 thriller over the Bills, the 38-31 Bengals win over the Redskins, the controversial 31-30 Ravens win over the Patriots, and numerous other amazing games.   2013 also saw a slew of genuinely great games - New England's comeback wins over New Orleans, Denver, and Houston, plus the astonishing finish against Cleveland, Houston's shocker over San Diego, the mind-blowing 51-48 Broncos win over the Cowboys, the Jets upset of the Falcons, the Green Bay-Minnesota tie, the Cardinals' 37-34 escape at Tennessee, the 41-38 San Diego win at Kansas City, and the history-making 45-44 Colts playoff win over Kansas City, to name several. 


Mind-blowingly Poor Coaching In Several Quarters - The excuses made for Rex Ryan have come fast and furious with the potential of his firing from the NY Jets, and the excuses really are not to be taken seriously.   The reality is that Ryan is not that good a coach - his preparation is chronically inadequate, attention to detail is slipshod, and his reputation as a players coach has meant what it has always meant - he doesn't instill adequate discipline in players.   His inability to develop quarterbacks first showed with Mark Sanchez and continued with Geno Smith and Michael Vick.  

That the Jets defeated the Miami Dolphins at the end of the season also bodes poorly for Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, who once again saw a capable team falter down the stretch.   One has to now wonder if Philbin really is in over his head as an NFL coach.

The collapse of the Falcons after 2012 has raised the spectre that Mike Smith will be replaced by Rex Ryan - that Smith has worn out his act in Atlanta seems clear enough.   We also got a poor first impression out of new Bucs coach Lovie Smith, who may have Jameis Winston as his starting quarterback in 2015.

But the worst of the lot is clearly Ken Whisenhunt, who took over a Tennessee Titans team that under Mike Munchak fought to the end of almost every game - this is what made 2013's frustration all the worse; it was a team of legitimate 12-4 caliber - and made that team into the worst in the league, a team that basically quit on the season.   The issue of quarterback was one Whisenhunt could never make better; whether he plays ever again is still a question but clearly Jake Locker showed more than what Charlie Whitehurst has, and while Zach Mettenberger showed some talent the rawness was also obvious and he never showed evidence of being able to stop bleeding, notably in the loss to the Steelers.


Burning Out And The Failure Of The Read-Option - That is the term that comes right to mind regarding the 49ers as Jim Harbaugh was subject to year-long controversy and quarterback Colin Kaepernick regressed quite graphically as the season went on, displaying no ability to process quarterbacking information and often panicking instead of facing adversity on the field head-on.   That Harbaugh was supposedly to be traded to the Browns was bizarre enough to open everyone's eyes and a sign there really was something wrong there.  

It should also be clear that read-option offenses cannot work in the NFL.   That the college game seems grossly inadequate at properly training quarterbacks is an issue the game needs to address.


The Decline Of Peyton Manning And The Collapse Of The AFC West - Once again arm strength showed noticeable deterioration as the season went on and the Broncos showed a struggle to put games away early and often, notably in nearly blowing it against Kansas City in Week Two.   That the Broncos grabbed a bye week after being humiliated by the Bengals came because of the collapse of the AFC West, which failed to produce a single win over the Broncos.  

San Diego's regression was all the more gnawing as Philip Rivers failed to pull one out of the hat, this after dominating Peyton Manning for a lengthy portion of his career.

Kansas City regressed from 11-5 to 9-7; though they had more wins over quality opponents (four) than in 2013 (just one) overall the Chiefs got worse instead of better, and the Alex Smith experiment has to end.


Contrary To Myth, Officiating Was Not A Serious Problem - Entering the season there was concern that the NFL would over-officiate games after showing signs of such in the preseason, notably the Eagles-Patriots game.   As the season got going, though, penalties did not show any sign of interfering with games; indeed what was striking was that penalties against offense seemed more frequent than normal and certainly was enough to dispel the myth that the league will not let teams play defense.


The Pipe Dream That Won't Go Away - Yes, the idea that Los Angeles should or will get an NFL team continued.   That the league will try to ram it down everyone's throats is obvious; that no one is biting is also obvious, with targeted teams refusing to leave their present homes (and NO sign their host cities will or even should ever let them leave), and no evidence there is any fanbase for a team in that city, one of the worst in the country between nitwit politicians and a population of transients, degenerates (see all the street gangers with Oakland Raiders gear), and indifference.  


The Media War Against Roger Goodell - The Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson domestic violence controversies saw a gigantic media crusade against Roger Goodell and served to mask the real problem that is the media's grotesque grandstanding on these issues.   Media coverage of Ray Rice was chronically inadequate, merely a regurgitation of anger instead of some actual analysis, which would have noticed that Goodell was actually correct in his initial punishment of Rice.   It remains absurd that seemingly no one in the Mainstream Sports Media ever dissents from the established myth created at the beginning of issues like this.


Finally, A Resurgance In The AFC East - Buffalo finished 9-7 and Miami 8-8, and for the first time since 2000 both teams won against the Patriots.   That it didn't matter is true enough - New England locked up the AFC's top seed and treated its last two games as semi-preseason games with experimentation on line combinations.   It nonetheless served as a legitimate step forward for the division, especially with Buffalo's resurgance after over a decade of irrelevance and a change of ownership a long time needed.  


And thus it is as the 2014 playoffs beckon.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Abu Ghraib Confession Proving To Be A Lie

The NY Times op-ed "confession" to torture of Islamo-Arab savages is falling apart while the Senate report ripping the CIA for torture is also worthless.

NFL Top 10: Brady-Manning Games

The 2015 AFC playoffs are almost here and we may yet again see Tom Brady and Peyton Manning square off.   Given how much energy this rivalry has generated it ranks as something the league really has never seen before - a rivalry driven exclusively by the showdown of the two quarterbacks.   Team rivalries and coaching rivalries have been many a chapter in NFL history but this rivalry may top them all.   

In the format of NFL NETWORK'S series NFL Top 10, we look back at the top ten games of the Brady-Manning rivalry -


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#10: THE 2001 DEBUT - Tom Brady had been a low-round draft pick who'd risen up the New England Patriots depth chart almost entirely unnoticed; in Week 3 of 2001 he took over as starter after the near-fatal chest injury absorbed by Drew Bledsoe.   The Indianapolis Colts were division rivals of the Patriots and Peyton Manning was in his fourth season; he had already won 28 games and made two ill-fated playoff trips; Manning's Colts had already crushed the New York Jets and Buffalo by a combined score of 87-50 entering this game.

It didn't matter.   Bryan Cox's savage hit on receiver Jerome Pathon surged throughout the Colts lineup and suddenly they were playing scared.   Otis Smith and Ty Law ran back Manning interceptions for touchdowns; trailing 23-7 the floor collapsed on the Colts in the fourth quarter as the Patriots nailed down 21 points for the ultimate 44-13 win.  Brady put up 168 passing yards in a modest start while five Patriots players combined for 177 rushing yards. 

A month later at the RCA Dome Brady unleashed a more aggressive quarterbacking attack; he threw three touchdowns while receiver David Patten threw a 60-yard bomb, caught a 91-score, and ran in a touchdown as the Patriots absorbed nearly 500 Indianapolis yards to win 38-17.   Peyton Manning managed only one touchdown as Colts GM Bill Polian was overheard in the press box demanding his players break bones of Patriots players.

It was just the beginning.


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#9: THE GOALLINE STAND, 2003 -  Entering Week 13 of the 2003 season the Colts had become a superpower in the race for the playoffs after exploding to a history-making comeback win over the Tampa Bay Bucs in Week 5; the Patriots were also in the race after a slugfest of a win over the Tennessee Titans in Week 5 (the Titans for their part were neck-and-neck with both at 9-2) and at the RCA Dome at the end of November the Patriots and Colts met for the first time since divisional realignment put the Colts into the now-second-year AFC South.  

It began as another Patriots rout; Tom Brady led three drives putting up 17 points.   The Colts scored 10 points before Bethel Johnson ran back a 92-yard kick at the end of the first half.   The game then changed after Brady led another touchdown drive for a 31-10 lead; two interceptions and three Manning touchdowns put the game 31-31; another monster Johnson kick return led to a Brady touchdown to Deion Branch; a Kevin Faulk fumble led to a Colts field goal, then in the final minutes a bad shank of a punt by Ken Walter put the ball around the 50 and Manning whipped the Colts to the Patriots 2, but there two runs and a forlorn toss led to a 4th and 1 run by Edgerrin James blown up for a loss of two yards and a 38-34 Patriots win.   Willie McGinest played a key role; "I saw (Manning) tap his butt" thus signalling a run play he helped blow up.  

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#8: VANDERJAGT'S GAFFE, 2004
- The NFL inaugurated Thursday Night Football in 2004 by scheduling the Colts at Foxboro in Week 1.   Manning led the Colts to a 17-13 halftime lead, but then Brady erupted to put the Patriots up 27-17; a late Colts touchdown was followed by a final drive, but on 3rd down McGinest sacked Manning, setting up a 48-yard field goal try by Mike Vanderjagt, who hadn't missed in over 40 consecutive tries and taunted the Patriots sideline by rubbing his fingers in a "money" gesture - except he wasn't money, shanking the kick for the 27-24 Patriots win.


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#7: THE PLAYOFFS, 2003 AND 2004 - The Colts won the AFC South title in 2003 and 2004 and faced the Patriots in snowy Foxboro both times.   In 2003 the Patriots edged the Titans 17-14 as Steve McNair, co-MVP with Manning that year, lived up to being MVP in a taut game where he barely came short on a pass to Drew Bennett.   Manning meanwhile had exploded to his first two playoff wins, but in the AFC Championship Game he was not in McNair's playoff class as he was intercepted four times.   The Patriots for their part didn't play particularly well, forced into five Adam Vinatieri field goals and eventually grinding out a 24-14 win and path to Superbowl XXXVIII against the upstart Carolina Panthers.

In 2004 Manning was back, but this time the Patriots unleashed a powerful run game led by Corey Dillon, the former Bengal.   Dillon and Kevin Faulk combined for 200 rushing yards and ate up so much clock it gave Manning indigestion; his endzone interception on the final play capped off a hideous playoff failure, 20-3, as Brady was on his way to another Superbowl.  



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#6: PEYTON'S BREAKTHROUGH, 2005 - 2005 was mainly a forgettable season for the Patriots as they limped into November 7's Monday Night Football match at 4-3 with the Colts at 7-0.   Brady managed three touchdowns but Manning was unstoppable rolling to 40 points and his first win over the Patriots since 2000, and first ever win at Foxboro.   This win signalled a permanent change in the rivalry, as Manning would never again be New England's patsy.


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#5: THE BATTLE OF UNBEATENS, 2007
-  Randy Moss, Donte Stallworth, Wes Welker, and Adalius Thomas were the key free agent pickups as the Patriots made the most determined run to a Superbowl ever seen, exploding to put up over 34 points per game.  The Patriots were 8-0 and the Colts 7-0 as they entered November at the RCA Dome.   The game became one of the highest-rated broadcasts in CBS history as Randy Moss caught a short touchdown but the Colts clawed to a 20-10 lead in the fourth quarter.   Down by two scores, Brady finally got his offense going on a 60-yard bomb to Moss to the Colts 3, and a third-down touchdown to Welker.   After forcing a Colts punt the Patriots raced to the go-ahead touchdown, on a pass to Moss, a 40-yard strike to Stallworth, and the touchdown to Kevin Faulk.   Manning was then strip-sacked by former RCA Dome popcorn vendor Roosevelt Colvin, a longtime nemesis of Manning from his Chicago Bears days.   Brady converted the needed first down and the Patriots had broken the Colts' unbeaten streak, 24-20.


#####


#4: FOURTH AND TWO, 2009
- The Colts were unbeaten on November 15, 2009 when they hosted the Patriots, and the game started as a Patriots runaway as Brady and Manning combined for four touchdowns and a 24-14 Patriots lead; a goalline fumble by embattled running back Laurence Maroney wiped out a third-quarter Patriots touchdown, and Moss' catch put the Pats up 31-14 entering the fourth quarter.   But Manning connected with Pierre Garcon and in the final three minutes the Patriots led 34-28 but were pinned at their own 28 needing two more yards; Bill Belichick went for the fourth down conversion and a pass to Kevin Faulk appeared to break the first down plane but was ruled short by referee Scott Green.   When Manning tossed the winning touchdown in the final seconds the media storm against Belichick was enormous like the league hadn't seen since 1995's fourth down failure by the Cowboys against the Eagles.  


#####






#3: MANNING'S INDIANAPOLIS SWAN SONG, 2010
- In 2010 the Colts traveled to Foxboro for the first time since 2006 and were 6-3 with the Patriots 7-2.   The Patriots had changed their offense with Randy Moss traded after Week 4 and Deion Branch returned after four seasons in Seattle; they had also drafted two boffo tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.   The game on November 21 began with the pattern that had developed from 2003 - once again the Patriots raced to a big lead, taking a 31-14 lead in the fourth quarter.   And once again Manning roared back, this time with two touchdowns to Blair White in the fourth.   Once again the Patriots couldn't put Manning away and Peyton had the ball in the final minutes driving remorselessly.

But this time a pass to the Patriots 6-yard line was intercepted by James Sanders, and the Patriots won 31-28.   The game began a three-game losing streak for the Colts, and amid a 38-35 overtime loss to the Cowboys radioman Bob Lamey was heard to blast Peyton's declining play.   Following a wildcard round bow-out to the NY Jets, neck surgery for Manning wound up ending his career at the Colts.  


#####


BEST OF THE REST: - After Manning left the Colts, Tom Brady faced heralded youngster Andrew Luck in 2012 and again in the 2013 playoffs; the results were disturbingly reminiscent of days of yore for the Colts; in 2012 two interceptions were turned into Patriots touchdowns and New England won 59-24.   In the 2013 playoffs LeGarrette Blount led an unprecedented Patriots rushing attack while Luck was intercepted four times in a 43-22 Patriots win.

Before Manning faced Brady, he squared off against Drew Bledsoe for three seasons.   In September 1999 at Foxboro Manning exploded to three touchdowns and an Edgerrin James rushing score, but Bledsoe erased Manning's 28-7 lead on three unanswered touchdowns (including the final two career scoring catches for tight end Ben Coates).   James' late fumble set up the winning field goal by Adam Vinatieri and the 31-28 Patriots win.  

Blowing a 21-point lead in Foxboro was a harbinger of another Manning disaster fourteen years later.......






#2: BRADY'S HISTORY-MAKING COMEBACK, 2013
- Manning was signed by the Denver Broncos in 2012 and led Denver to a 13-3 season.   In 2013 on Sunday Night Football the Patriots hosted the Broncos a year after defeating Manning 31-21 and now fresh off a controversial loss to the Carolina Panthers.   The first half was a disaster for the Patriots, as three fumbles and a failed fourth-down attempt led to a Von Miller touchdown, a Manning score, and a 24-0 Broncos lead.  

But facing cold winds Tom Brady put on a history-making performance, exploding to three touchdowns, a fourth touchdown drive, and a Stephen Gostkowski field goal, all aided as the Patriots defense bullied the Broncos into three fumbles and a Manning interception.   The Patriots led 31-24 before a late Manning touchdown tied the game.  In overtime (a first for the rivalry) the Patriots elected to defend the endzone where the winds were blowing toward the Broncos instead of take the initial possession, a decision that puzzled observors, but after an exchange of three punts the Patriots at the very least didn't look foolish; instead on their second punt former Patriot Wes Welker hesitated on the kick and the ball bounced off a teammate and was grabbed by the Patriots at the Broncos 12-yard line.   The Broncos called two timeouts and the two-minute warning for overtime passed before Gostkowski drilled the winning field goal, 34-31.   It was the largest comeback win in Patriots history, surpassing 1984's comeback win over the Seahawks down 23-0 to win 38-23.   It also cemented Brady's repuation as a superior cold-weather quarterback.  


###########






BEST OF THE REST: In 2014 Manning and Brady met for the sixteenth time and the Patriots authored their most lopsided win over Manning (43-21) since 2001. Brady threw for 333 yards and four touchdowns while Manning was intercepted twice and stopped on fourth down four times, three of them in the fourth quarter. 


###########





The Number One Brady-Manning Game Of All - THE 2006 AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME - It will almost certainly be cited as the greatest by all retrospectives on their careers.   The showdown for Superbowl XLI was a shocker that still permeates both New England and Indianapolis.   The Colts had shot down the Chiefs and Ravens while the Patriots upended the Jets and Chargers for this meeting at the RCA Dome, and the Patriots once again raced to a big lead; when Asante Samuel intercepted Manning and scored, the Patriots led 21-3, but Manning exploded the Colts to tie the game.   After swapping touchdowns and field goals the Patriots led 34-31 but needing a goalline stand in the final minute, they didn't get it; after Joseph Addai's touchdown Brady was intercepted and the Colts had won 38-34, on their way to only the second Superbowl win in their history and first as an Indianapolis team.  


2013's AFC Championship Game turned out to be another Manning triumph, his eighth in 22 career games against the Patriots, and fifth in fifteen meetings with Tom Brady.   It was anything but an end; Brady and the Patriots authored their worst rout of Manning since 2001 in 2014's 43-21 slaughter at Foxboro; the win was another on Brady's path to his history-making Superbowl XLIX triumph.   The rivalry thus awaits the 2015 season at Mile High.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Week Nine's Annual Epic

Here were go again.   As we approach Brady Manning number sixteen, we look at this week's other games as well -


Panthers over Saints - Last week's New Orleans win was a needed win for the beleaguered Saints, but this week they go on the road to a more-desperate Panthers team that is still smarting to a bitter loss to the Seahawks.


Browns over Buccaneers - There seems no way the Bucs can seize any kind of momentum this season as they travel to a Browns team that has a lot of momentum going for it.


Bengals over Jaguars - The Bengals got back on track by sweeping the Ravens and now get a Jaguars team that's shown some fight but isn't in anyone's league.


Cardinals over Cowboys - The illusion of the almighty Cowboys got stomped, and a former NFC East opponent comes in with a bearing on the conference's #1 seed.


Eagles over Texans - The Texans have been playing better this year but face an Eagles squad smarting from a tough loss.


Chiefs over NY Jets - The Chiefs are in better shape that I thought they'd be at this point of the season and the Jets are in even worse shape than anyone could have imagined.


Chargers over Dolphins
- Miami has shown real improvement this year, but San Diego saw one get away from them and want to get back into the race.


Redskins over Vikings - Minnesota pulled off a shocker last week, but Washington's shocker carries more meaning entering this contest.


49ers over Rams - This is no lay-up pick, for the Niners have real internal issues and the Rams are starting to pick up some fight.

Patriots over Broncos - Amid all the varied analyses, one angle overlooked is that Denver has struggled to close out games - they outlasted Indianapolis, barely escaped Kansas City, barely escaped a very bad Jets squad, and even in scoring 35 against San Diego never looked in complete control of that game.   Moreover their vaunted defensive improvement has been a mere four points per game from 2013.  Meanwhile the Patriots are surging in scoring and in stopping opposing offenses - of 177 points allowed, 74 came in two games.   The issues of O-line and receivers have been rectified and the Patriots' revamped O-line has taken over the line of scrimmage.   The Patriots run defense has been bad (over 1,000 yards, 4.6 yards per carry allowed), but Denver has allowed more touchdowns on the ground (five) than the Patriots (four).   The Broncos on the ground have not been better either - 710 rushing yards to 845 for the Patriots.  


Seahawks over Raiders - The Seahawks enjoy for themselves the closest thing to a second bye week - a free shooting match against the hapless Raiders.


Ravens over Steelers
- The Steelers showcased a level of firepower we can't remember them ever showing before in the win over Indianapolis.   The Ravens, though, can match that firepower and need this win to keep pace in an increasingly torrid AFC North race.


Colts over NY Giants - The Colts come in smarting from the loss in Pittsburgh and get a mediocre Giants team to turn it around against.


We thus await the annual Brady Manning slugfest.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Talladega As Libertarian Metaphor

The GEICO 500 spared us footage of the lizard speaking in Cockney accent by British actor Jake Wood, and we saw some excellent racing, perhaps the best since the Firecracker 400 - hardly shocking given the two plate tracks produce the best racing in NASCAR.   But the Talladega weekend also showcased yet again the absurdity of the rules packages designed specifically for those tracks, and in so doing showcased anew the Libertarian metaphor.


Government meddling is the arch-enemy in the Libertarian analysis, and certainly the history of the world and mythologies constructed in favor of such failures as the New Deal consistently prove correct the mistrust of government that has made the Libertarian movement more popular.   What is witnessed year after year at Talladega and its sister track Daytona in the special rules packages NASCAR has imposed over the last decade and a half merely showcase the Libertarian metaphor at work in a racing context.  


Push-drafting is an old custom in NASCAR, and Richard Petty in the 1970s Dodge Charger days was the art's master.  It went away when the cars changed to "all that plastic" after running chrome bumpers, then NASCAR witnessed the return of push-drafting in the 2000-8 period, then saw the rise of outright two-car superdrafting in 2009 and 2010 - cars now pushed each other literally all the way around, and were passing entire fields of cars in one lap.   It then escalated to an entirely new level in 2011.   Brian France took a personal hatred of the pattern that year, especially after the finish of the 500-miler that October, and his subsequent rules packages were designed to quash it.    That it looked bizarre at first was obvious to all; that there were aspects of it to dislike was also true - specifically that the second-place car would push the leader out into the clear and just stay there instead of pass the leader - but the net result of quashing it cannot by any stretch be considered a better alternative to it.   For the big strength of the superdrafts remains it is the strongest power to pass racing has ever seen.  


Watching the 2014 running of the Diehard 500 and the 250-miler for the Trucks merely illustrated again how the racing at Talladega is very good but where meddling from up top has needlessly suppressed what makes the racing better.   Joe Nemechek and Matt Crafton got blackflagged for push-drafting in the Talladega Truck 250, this after NASCAR got egg on its face over not policing push-drafting in the Busch Series 250 at Daytona in July.   Nemechek salvaged a tenth place in that race and between the penalty and the grossly uneven level of passing in both races, it all showcased the fundamental pitfalls of NASCAR's ideology.


NASCAR for the last two-plus decades has added to its rulebook and the emphasis has had one overriding theme - giving the officiating tower or the inspection station (sometimes both) more control of the racing.   Having tight regulations that make sense is not a negative, the problem is more and more of these regulations don't make sense.   If NASCAR allowed push-drafting then the 38 lead changes in the Diehard 500 would have perhaps doubled, and allowed more drivers to storm back to the lead instead of be trapped out back; incentivizing going for the lead is the ultimate good in sports and the meddlesome nature of the sanctioning body needlessly suppresses that virtue. 


Would Brad Keselowski have still won the Diehard 500 even if push-drafting was not policed?   Perhaps - Keselowski's 2014 season has been strikingly uneven but his competitive fight is legitimate.   The racing as it was was very exciting - yet it should have been substantially more competitive.  


*****


Another striking blow to the race's competitive ferocity was the points-racing strategy used by several drivers, notably Jeff Gordon, who never contended and finished 26th.   While Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kasey Kahne needed to win and overall raced like it, Keselowski was the only other contender who did so.   Talladega being Talladega the points racing ethos was not as prevalent as it is at other tracks, but it existed nonetheless and shows that NASCAR's Chase format, regardless of changes made to ostensibly make winning more important, still cannot work - a points format that artificially eliminates drivers and does not provide the incentive to win that is advertised is a points format that fundamentally doesn't work.


NASCAR's next elimination round begins at Martinsville next week.   Racing being racing, it is competitively enjoyable, yet still needs a lesson in Libertarianism for NASCAR so that it can be a lot better.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Postscript on Patriots Thursday Night Grinder

The New England Patriots escaped the trap and put up their third straight win, edging the New York Jets 27-25 on a blocked field goal kick on the final play.   The Jets used to be known as the NY Titans, worth mentioning as this game resembled last week's Tennessee Titans win - also on a blocked field goal at the end - over the Jaguars.  

Some takeaways on this Patriots win over the Jets -


*****


Some are bitterly disappointed the Patriots could not rout the now 1-5 Jets the way San Diego did two weeks back, especially when Brady whipped the Patriots to the first touchdown with seemingly absurd ease.   The reality, though, is that the 49-19 Buttfumble win in 2012 has been the anomaly; the Patriots' last four home games against the Jets were wins by an average of just four points, and the point differential in the last three overall Patriot-Jet games - the season split last year plus this game -  is just plus-2 for the Patriots.  


Shoddy third down defense has been a curious commonality for Bill Belichick defenses throughout his tenure as Patriots coach - the Patriots' Superbowl successes came by overcoming shoddy third down defense.   Being beaten at the line on defense was a disturbing pattern during this game.  


Normally I'm not a fan of establishing the run because I've seen too much football where too many downs are wasted by teams trying to run when it's not working.   The Jets were able to run surprisingly well, and I thought the Patriots might have tried running more than they did.


We're now seeing more and more teams attack Darrelle Revis differently - Revis' game is about locking onto a number-one receiver, yet in the first month of the season no opponent had a #1 receiver - and the Jets clearly had none here.   In the Bengals game Revis struggled when AJ Green stopped running routes - reading the routes beforehand is Revis' greatest strength, and it seemed to me Jets pass-catchers had their best success in similar fashion.  


Injury to Dan Connolly and rookie Bryan Stork shuffled the Patriots' offensive line again.   Rookie Jordan Devey has come under fire for poor plays this season.   Overall, though, the line played well, though mistakes still need to be cleaned up.


Danny Amendola has long been under fire for injuries and for Brady not throwing to him - but the fact is Amendola is a genuinely tough player who can take over drives.   His spectacular bail-out-Brady of a touchdown showed this again.  
It also showed that Brady will play poorly but he'll still play clutch.


The Jets players rallied to embattled coach Rex Ryan and much controversy has been expressed this week attacking Jets GM John Idzik and defending Ryan.   The problem, though, remains that Ryan is not a competent coach, and disciplinary issues on-field and poor overall coaching could be spotted here again.   The fact Ryan has failed to develop a good quarterback - while Bill Belichick helped unlock Brady's innate superstar talent, developed Matt Cassel into a capable quarterback, and may well have his star of the future in Jimmy Garoppolo - has been overlooked in the defenses offered of him.


Aaron Dobson was a healthy scratch again and some scuttlebutt I'm hearing is that Belichick is rifling shots across his bow via these benchings and Dobson has refused to notice - suggesting to me he may have an entitlement approach to his job in contrast to the hunger shown by Brian Tyms.  


After several weeks of one-sided football Thursday Night Football has now seen two suspenseful games in a row, an indication that time and patience will produce the kind of quality football people want out of these games.



The end result thus is New England's third win in a row as the rest of Week Seven awaits kickoff.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Week Seven Rolling The Dice

It's Week Seven in the NFL and some teams are rolling seven as others get snake eyes.   We make picks and offer some takes -


*****


Patriots over NY Jets - Joe Benigno went ballistic on WFAN after the Jets blew it against the Broncos.   In subsequent interviews Benigno blames the recent failures on new GM John Idzik Jr. (his dad Idzik Sr. was offensive coordinator for the Jets under Walt Michaels; according to Gerald Eskenazi he would call his players "Galumpkies"), but in reality the blame belongs on Rex Ryan.   He came in as a players coach and the inherent lack of discipline of players coaches has only gotten worse, graphically showcased by the botched timeout of coordinator Marty Morningwig in the Packers game.  Ryan's bluster is no longer working and we now understand why the Ravens wanted nothing to do with him when they were looking to replace Brian Billick after 2007.

As for the Patriots, despite the injuries of recent they appear to have solved their offensive line problems and their offense may now have the two bookend deep threats (in Brandon Lafell and Brian Tyms) it really hasn't had since the Moss-Stallworth-Gaffney period, this to go with a rejuvinated tight end attack with Gronkowski and Tim Wright.


Bills over Vikings - The Bills showed fight in Terry Pegula's first official game as Buffalo Bills owner, and they get a Vikings team that got waxed in Teddy Bridgewater's return under center.  


Ravens over Falcons - The Ravens so far are 1-2 against quality opponents but are fifth in scoring and third in fewest points allowed.   They get a Falcons team that's suddenly shown it isn't as good as advertised with nothing in the way of performance against any kind of decent opponent.


Browns over Jaguars - The Browns may have finally found the combination for which their former AFC Central stablemates are still searching.


Panthers over Packers - On paper this appears to be a mismatch in the Packers' favor, as the Panthers are 17th in scoring and 24th in points allowed.   But paper matches flame out faster - the Packers have feasted on mediocre teams and nearly blew it against the Dolphins last week while the Panthers have rebounded with a huge comeback over the Bears and the mind-blowing tie at Cincinnati.   Aaron Rodgers remains suspect as he's always been when the heat's on while Cam Newton has shown more in the way of clutchness.


Dolphins over Bears
- It's Jay Cutler and he can't sell anyone that he's all that good.   The win over the Falcons doesn't change what he is.   The Dolphins meanwhile appear to be starting to show credible improvement overall, though becoming a playoff contender remains a distant prospect.


Bengals over Colts - The Bengals answered the questions following the Sunday Night Slaughter in Foxboro by putting up 37 points against the Panthers; the gag job by kicker Mike Nugent doesn't change the Bengals staged a needed rebound.   They go to Indianapolis, a team they smashed last season and which is mediocre (again) on defense, but is nonetheless 4-2.


Lions over Saints - Surprisingly the Lions are subpar on offense but very good on defense, and the Saints have been shockingly bad on defense while Drew Brees hasn't been able to stop the bleeding of a 2-3 season so far.  


Seahawks over Rams - The home loss to the Cowboys should drive the Seahawks to take down a Rams team they've owned since the 2004 playoff loss.   The Seahawks are now in must-win territory with Arizona's surge and the 49ers' surge after a slow start.  


Titans over Redskins - The Titans got a needed win last week as their quarterback issue continues.   Charlie Whitehurst is not the long-term answer, but people are naturally frustrated Jake Locker's recovery from his thumb injury has been slower than desired.   I think Locker will be back sooner than what people presently expect.   The Titans meanwhile get a Redskins team that appears in disarray with poor play by Kirk Cousins and what may be struggle by coach Jay Gruden - the scuttlebutt I've heard is he's right now in over his head as an NFL head coach.


Chargers over Chiefs - The Chargers have surged in a big way while the Chiefs have struggled, having beaten only two quality teams (Philly and New England) since signing on Andy Reid.   Alex Smith also remains winless in his career against the Chargers.   Last year's games were epic, especially the Seyi Ajirotutu game in Kansas City, so it's reasonable to expect a points explosion here.


Cowboys over NY Giants - The Giants are 3-3 and go to Dallas where the Cowboys, to everyone's surprise, have surged into contention.   That offense that had surged in three games disappeared entirely last week and it faces a Cowboys squad that's scored at least 30 points in three of their last four contests.   Tony Romo and Eli Manning have five INTs apiece - a shocker for the normally-sloppy Romo.   The Giants run defense meanwhile allowed 698 yards so far while DeMarco Murray has put up more than that by himself.  


Cardinals over Raiders - The Raiders usually play the Chargers tough, so last week's game doesn't indicate some turnaround is beckoning - especially as the Silver And Hack face a surging Arizona team that got Carson Palmer back.


49ers over Broncos - This is where I got back out onto that limb.   The idea of Peyton Manning losing to Jim Harbaugh - his predecessor with the Colts - seems absurd.   But the Niners offense has begun picking up the last few games and the Niners are sixth in fewest points allowed.   The Broncos meanwhile have struggled to seal the deal late in games - outside of the Cardinals game the Broncos haven't been able to put teams away; they've just outlasted them, illustrated by the Aqib Talib pick six against the Jets.   The Broncos season also takes a turn for the worse after this game with a Thursday Nighter against San Diego and then the annual Brady-Manning Bowl at the Patriots.


Texans over Steelers - The Steelers are 3-3 as are the Texans, yet they couldn't be more different - the Texans are beginning to surge forward while the Steelers remain stuck in mediocrity and with more voices clamoring for the firing of coordinator Todd Haley.   The problems go beyond the infamously hotheaded Haley, though - the Steelers have not been able to build an offensive line and their defense has faltered; the draft magic of the past doesn't appear to be there now.  



And so it goes entering Talladega weekend.

Looking To The Diehard 500

NASCAR's Chase enters Talladega weekend and the prospect of better racing than what we've seen is a very good one.   There is also however the issue of what went down in the garage area after the National 500 between the Keselowski-Hamlin crash and subsequent brouhaha in the garage area.   There has already been quite the reaction to these incidents and Darrell Waltrip for one has expressed the hope that NASCAR doesn't fine any of the participants involved because it ostensibly brings some positive attention to the sport; Kevin Harvick said afterward that NASCAR "loves it."  

I don't.   And I'm not sure that many others do.

Keselowski has become a loose cannon this season, and the Winston 500 incident - downright Ernie Irvan-esque - merely hangs over his head entering the Diehard 500.   The others involved hardly qualify as professionals either, especially Denny Hamlin, a longstanding punk both on and off the track.  

It was just continuation of a long-standing and underappreciated problem in NASCAR - the fact so many of its stars are unprofessional.   Some weeks back the NY Times did a piece attacking NASCAR with one of the writers calling Tony Stewart "the sport's resident hothead."   More recently Good Morning America did a derisive and pathetically misleading account of the postrace brouhaha. That the piece made the incident out to be worse than it actually was is typical of Good Morning America and of ex-SportsCenter washout Robin Roberts, among the dumbest broadcasters the networks have seen in years.   Attacking Keselowski and company for acting in completely unprofessional manner is nonetheless legitimate.  

Unprofessionalism isn't exactly new in NASCAR - one need recall 1991 and the plethora of idiocy for much of that season between Ernie Irvan, Ricky Rudd, and others, notably at the Southeastern 500 at Bristol, the First Union 400 at North Wilkesboro, the Winston 500 at Talladega, and the Summer 500 at Pocono.   The shame of it is that season saw two outstanding races - the Michigan 400 won by Davey Allison and the Diehard 500 won by Earnhardt - that were for the most part cleanly contested.  

The best result for NASCAR from the Diehard 500 - apart from an enormous number of lead changes, an expectation despite the sanctioning body's long-standing over-officiating of restrictor plate races - is a darkhorse stealing the win, especially if it's a driver who was in the Chase but already knocked out.


*****


A stunning graphic says it all about what the Chase format has done -

Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, and Denny Hamlin only have to finish between 15th and 24th to advance to NASCAR's next Chase round. 

Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano are unlikely to do much because they already advanced to the next elimination round, and it shows that NASCAR has merely created a new form of points racing instead of leaving drivers no alternative but to go for the win.   For all the hype that the Chase format's pressure is somehow reflected in the Charlotte mess, the reality is the opposite, and it shows anew the unworkability of a playoff format for racing.  


*****


The Truck Series returns as well and the over-officiating by NASCAR hurt the racing at Daytona, though it turned out exciting in any event; chances are it will lead to a lot of frustration at Talladega as well, as 2013's running was a truly amazing battle with nonstop push-drafting, something sorely missed in all the series right now.  

The Curb Motorsports and Thorson Toyotas appear to be the hot shoes for the Talladega 250, though Kyle Busch's machines are certainly proven products.   One does wonder why Milka "Milk Dud" Duno is entered, though.  

Monday, October 13, 2014

What Week Six Forecasts

Week Six of the NFL season awaits Monday Night Football and it has seen a plethora of eye-popping moments.   Eight takeaways from this week -


*****


The Patriots are not the fading dynasty - One of the Buffalo papers did a pregame piece suggesting the Patriots were a fading dynasty.   The Patriots instead showcased they're in a transition period where they keep winning.   Despite having to put struggling rookie Jordan Devey into the offensive line's lineup, the Patriots once again handled the Bills' much-hyped defensive line, while Tom Brady's deep bomb returned.   The first bomb was a touchdown for Brian Tyms, who'd been Jimmy Garoppolo's go-to guy in preseason and had shown more than enough to take him seriously - as well as indicate the offense is being built with Garoppolo down the road in mind as well as with Brady in mind.


The Steelers are becoming irrelevant in the AFC North - They're not the same old Browns, and the Steelers once again prove they're not the same Steelers, which means the AFC North is now a three-way race and the Steelers have fallen out of it.   The Browns are now making legitimate noise, the Ravens continue to showcase an explosiveness on offense not seen since Anthony Wright's late-2003 points eruption (scoring 31 or more points in four of Baltimore's last six games that year), and the Bengals get the tie to stop the bleeding of the massacre in Foxboro, though Mike Nugent's clutchness comes into question after his awful shank-job of a kick.  


The Cowboys - for now - look like the real deal - Beating the Seahawks in Seattle is the eye-opener of the weekend and DeMarco Murray is making a case for league MVP.   We shouldn't be fooled by this, though, given Tony Romo's inevitable display of ineptitude.   It's all made the NFC East a two-way fight between the Eagles and Cowboys, though the Giants may still get something going.


The Broncos are showing they can't seal the deal - The Broncos loafed on a lead against the NY Jets and needed a dumb throw by Geno Smith - turned into a pick six by Aqib Talib - to win 31-17, this after racing to a lead but not putting the Jets away.   It was the exact same pattern shown against the Colts and Chiefs, and it's cropped up again.   It bodes ill going forward with San Diego and New England - both surging - looming in a few weeks.


***


The Colts are still tops in the AFC South - They did, however, get a scare from a Houston team clawing its way back to competitive legitimacy.   Any threat from the Titans or Jaguars appears gone as the Jaguars still try to get a win while the Titans struggle through quarterback issues.


The NFC North stays mediocre - The Packers pulled off the win at Miami and had a fight on their hands to get it - even to using a fake spike throw in the final seconds.   The Lions meanwhile manhandled the slumping Vikings and the Bears got the win over a Falcons team that's not what we thought they were.   Nowhere do any of these teams exhibit the kind of muscle needed to take the next step.


The Panthers begin pulling away in the NFC South - The Bucs were ripped to shreds so fast the audience at Raymond James Stadium left by halftime and didn't come back.   The Falcons have begun to falter again, and the Saints go through their bye week wondering what happened to their season.   The Panthers got the ultimate head-scratcher of a tie game at Cincinnati, but a tie is better than a loss and it's helping them inch away in the division.


The Jets need to clean house - yet again - Rex Ryan has proven he should not have been hired to begin with as the Jets prove themselves dysfunctional and incapable of getting it right.   The attempt in some quarters to shift blame to John Idzik is pathetic because the collapse of the Jets was visible to all even when the Jets made the playoffs in Ryan's first two seasons - the lack of discipline, the fact the offense had to be dumbed down for Mark Sanchez, and the inability to take any next step.   It's the same old Jets, and that there is talk of drafting Jameis Winston because of the need for a Name shows people STILL won't get it.   The Jets need to build a program, they need to stop falling in love with Names, and they need to stop caring about what the back page says. 



So it goes as we await Monday Night's mayhem involving the NFC West.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Check Six In Week Six

The NFL enters Week Six and some nitty gritty is starting to be sorted out, and the coming fifteen games certainly can have a say in what gets sorted out going forward.   My picks have been quite bad of late, so we'll try again this week -


*****


Colts over Texans  - The Texans have already surpassed 2013's dismal record but face a Colts team rejuvinated after a slow start.   Arian Foster's recent bitching about Thursday Night games is the attitude of losers and the Texans aren't ready to take the next step yet.   Bill O'Brien nonetheless has them going forward.


Patriots over Bills - The Bills presently hold the tiebreaker in the AFC East and got a shocking win at Detroit with "new" quarterback Kyle Orton.   They've shown overall improvement but still haven't given reason to think they've begun planting a workable program.   The Patriots meanwhile proved a point to universal doubt last week and now look to build on it for what has been a rivalry chockablock with exciting games the last five years - though I'm not sold Kyle Orton can put up enough offense to make this game that good.


Ravens over Buccaneers - The Ravens got stepped on by a usual suspect in Indianapolis last week; they won't face as good a foe in the Bucs this week.   The Bucs nonetheless are showing legitimate fight.


Browns over Steelers - The Browns are doing some headhunting on defense and have one of the most amazing comeback wins they've ever seen to build on going forward.   The Steelers are no longer what they were and the Browns want to bleed them.


Panthers over Bengals - The Panthers have a pretty inspiring comeback win to their credit going into Cincinnati after embarrassing Jay Cutler's Bears last week.   The Bengals come off as awful a shellacking as seen in awhile (the irony is this week they get the runner-up from Superbowl XXXVIII) and while they're still a legitimate division contender they're facing a Panthers squad that's proving doubters wrong.


Broncos over NY Jets - Believe it or not the Broncos may not win the AFC West.   The Jets can certainly testify to Denver's #1 threat in the division, and they come home with the worst possible scenario going forward - their ostensible quarterback of the future looks to be a dead duck, plus the last time Rex Ryan did anything to handle Peyton Manning was 2010.


Lions over Vikings - Teddy Bridgewater may play this week against the Lions, who are coming off a bitter loss to a disgraced ex-coach and a washout of a starter.  If Bridgewater plays the Vikings may prove my pick wrong.


Packers over Dolphins - The Dolphins come off their post-London bye week in better shape than expected, with some fight shown from Ryan Tannehill.   The Packers appear to be the stronger team, particularly given they've scored 38 more points than Miami so far, but I can see a scenario where the Dolphins pull off the upset given the mediocrity of the NFC North in general and Aaron Rodgers in particular.


Titans over Jaguars - Right now I'm thinking Jake Locker plays, as his thumb injury from the Browns game (coming after whacking a Browns defender's helmet) appears to be in better shape than expected.   The issue with the Titans the last few weeks has been poor quarterback play - Locker went into the Browns game to prove a point and was doing so quite well and Charlie Whitehurst proved not to be the answer.   Defensively the Titans certainly have issues, especially against the run.   Overall, though, they're still a legitimately talented team.  The Jaguars come in with a worse defense and fewer points scored - and by the way they haven't won a game, even though I like the direction they're going in.


Chargers over Raiders - The story has come out that the NFL will deploy two teams into Los Angeles around 2015, this even as no new stadium has even begun legitimate planning or construction; the Chargers are ostensibly one of the teams to be deployed there, even though their audience is in San Diego and there isn't any plausibility that San Diego will let the team go.   The Raiders meanwhile appear to have a new stadium deal in the works.   It won't help them beat anyone right now.


Falcons over Bears - Neither team played like playoff contenders last week.  The difference here is the Falcons offense is still good and the Bears offense is mediocre.


Seahawks over Cowboys - The Cowboys are 4-1 right now and have already reached 800 rushing yards with five touchdowns.   But it's Tony Romo and it's a Seahawks team at home that is top five in offense, top nine in defense, and has stuffed the run all season.   Will the real Tony Romo please stand up where his career was first defined.


Cardinals over Redskins - Since the shootout loss at Philly the Redskins have plummeted with just 31 points scored the last two games and Kirk Cousins officially winless as a starter (the Jacksonville win is listed as belonging to Griffen III).   The Redskins blitz that led to a huge Marshawn Lynch catch and run near the end of Monday Night Football right now personifies the inability of the Skins to win.  


Eagles over NY Giants - The Eagles are 4-1 and lead the league in points scored, but surprisingly they're not stopping anyone. Eagles-Giants games have always been vicious affairs and the Eagles have consistently found a way to win.  The Giants nonetheless come in having won three straight and scored 105 points in those wins.  


49ers over Rams
- Anemic on both sides of the ball, the Rams slog forward having to play a quarterback who's in over his head.   They host a 49ers team where scuttlebutt about dysfunction with the coach and front office won't go away and where Colin Kaepernick hasn't yet shown the growth as a quarterback expected of him.  



So that's that heading for Week Six.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Week Five Postscript: In Foxboro Doomsday Can Wait

So the New England Patriots were dead, right?

Bill Belichick can't build quality rosters.   He can't draft good players.   He sells out the good players he does get.  He cheats everyone he does business with out of something.   And goddammit Tom Brady has had enough of it; his window requires the Patriots go all out to surround him with weapons. 

So Steve Young, Trent Dilfer, Tedy Bruschi, and the other media types now have egg of their face because they ripped the Patriots and their analysis was totally off-base (and Shalise Manza Young in particular gets exposed as a fraud for the phony Aaron Dobson story). It's what one gets for refusing to see the facts.

Quick takes come from Week Five -


The Patriots show that patience is a winning virtue - The 41-14 massacre in Kansas City was inaccurately seen by outsiders as a fatal blow, exposure of a weak organization incapable of recovery, requiring panic moves to stop the bleeding.   The Patriots naturally knew better.   They stuck with the program and the improvement in the offensive line that got curiously overlooked last week was out in force on Sunday night.  Tom Brady also corrected his failing of the season by engaging eight different receivers - Tim Wright and Rob Gronkowski exploded to 185 yards and two touchdown catches and Aaron Dobson, the source of the stupidity of Shalise Manza Young, had a 16-yard catch.  

The Patriots stuck with it and proved a point.


The AFC North is not as good as advertised - Cincy once again came up small in a big game while Baltimore once again failed against Indianapolis, and Pittsburgh clawed out a win but it was anything but a hopeful sign going forward.   The chatter about the weakness of the AFC East needs to reexamine some of the other divisions in the league.


The Titans face a bad first impression and a worse deja vu - People who want to rip Jake Locker as incapable of avoiding injury make the mistake of thinking players who get seriously injured a lot are in some way doing it to themselves.   The players who warrant criticism for injury are people like Tony Eason or the present-day Boston Red Sox who look for excuses not to return from injury.  Locker is not one of those people (neither is Danny Amendola for that matter) and it makes Tennessee's 29-28 implosion against the Browns all the more sickening.  Locker wanted to come out and prove a point after two poor performances on his part and was on his way to doing so before he whacked the helmet of a Browns defender (the Browns were doing some serious headhunting in this game) who was literally in his face.   Clearly this was a legitimate injury, where what got him benched for Charlie Whitehurst last week smelled of coach Ken Whisenhunt wanting an excuse to put in Whitehurst, who seems his guy where Locker is Mike Munchak's guy.  

What resulted against the Browns was the worst of everything - Whitehurst unleashed two excellent touchdowns for a 28-3 lead, then could do nothing to stop the bleeding as the Browns fought back with 26 unanswered points.   Making it worse for the Titans was the defense got an interception, at least one Brian Hoyer touchdown was a busted play and a desperation heave that worked, and all Whitehurst needed was converting a 4th and 1 late in the game.  

When we add it all up, Whitehurst played a lot better than he did against Indianapolis - yet did not do what was needed to actually win the game.   For the Titans it's a bad repeat of last year's collapse under Ryan Fitzpatrick and also continuation of a very bad first impression of Ken Whisenhunt as head coach.  Not only have the Titans suffered four straight losses, but the fight that was a hallmark of the team last year curiously hasn't resurfaced yet, and the Titans roster is as talented as any in the NFL.


The Bucs are better, but not a winner - The Tampa Bay Buccaneers showed fight and put up a lot of points in New Orleans, and in the process showed the Saints are not as good as a lot of people thought they were.   Even so the Bucs couldn't play enough to actually win the game - the sack for a safety was an especially bad sign.


The Jets are still the Jets - Not only did they get shut out 31-0 they benched Geno Smith and put in Michael Vick - and Vick immediately showed there's nothing left in the tank.   So the Jets have no quarterback - and this is why they're still the Jets.


Jay Cutler is still Jay Cutler - Jay Cutler raced the Bears to a 14-point lead - and threw a late interception.   It's what he is - a volume stats pig who cannot win when it matters.


The Chiefs crash to Earth while the Niners have life - Twenty years ago was the Montana-Young Bowl won by Joe Montana's Chiefs, and this time around the Niners were the team to win.  The win is doubly impressive given the scuttlebutt that continues to the effect that Jim Harbaugh's outfit is falling apart and Harbaugh himself is on the way out. 


Denver closes out a game - The Broncos had struggled early this season to close out games - this time they closed out the Cardinals and made a point to do so.


The NY Giants off and running - The "new" Giants offense can now be said to be clicking.


The Eagles keep winning despite struggle - The Eagles offense stalled badly in San Francisco and Philly had its hands full against an underpowered Rams team.


And so it goes awaiting Monday Night.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Week Five's Coming Chaos

It's been awhile since a Monday Night Football game's analysis has lasted as long as it has, but the Patriots loss to the Chiefs brought out a wave of angry analysis attacking Bill Belichick et al and a widespread sense of loss of faith in the organization, shown in a Shalise Manza Young report claiming receiver Aaron Dobson was benched for what amounted to insubordination - a piece immediately disputed not by the Patriots but by writer Steve Balestrieri; the Patriots themselves then made a point of rebutting the Manza Young piece - unusual of them but a telling act to making sure outside noise is dealt with.   The rebuttal then led to some media analysis that more properly reviewed Dobson, noting his continuing recovery from foot surgery.

It would seem Manza Young and others fooled themselves by making massive assumptions based on little information and assuming the worst about the team.

With all that, Thursday Night Football saw an ugly 42-10 Packers rout of the punchless (and all but quarterback-less) Vikings.   We nonetheless have more games to go this week - and yours truly hoping to rebound from a hideously bad week of picks -


*****


Lions over Bills - Kyle Orton has replaced E.J. Manuel and that's a dismal sign that the Bills are once again making a panic move instead of riding out the storm.   Manuel's play hasn't been all that good but Orton is no improvement.


Ravens over Colts - This is my first out-on-a-limb pick of the week, for the Colts have owned the Ravens since the Ravens started.   But the Ravens offense is looking potent and Andrew Luck has yet to have the winning effect against the Ravens that Peyton had.


Titans over Browns - Continuing out on that limb, the Titans come in 1-3 with a bad first impression of Ken Whisenhunt and after the ugly one-game Charlie Whitehurst experiment at Indianapolis.  They host a 1-2 Browns squad that's a lot better than that record.   Jake Locker will start against the Browns; that he played poorly in his two losses is obvious, but he also has shown he can improve.  


Panthers over Bears - Two 2-2 teams clash with both coming off awful losses.   Jay Cutler is a proven stats whore who doesn't win when it matters, so take Cam Newton here.


Jaguars over Steelers - This is an upset pick of mine, as the Jaguars are 0-4 yet have shown some improvement while the Steelers have shown once again to be the inconsistent flailer whose loss to an overrated Bucs team coupled with mediocre play over all is a bad sign going forward.


Saints over Buccaneers - The Bucs have shown improvement and the Saints are a baffling 1-3.   Drew Brees is the better quarterback by far here; go with him to start turning New Orleans' season around.


NY Giants over Falcons - The Falcons have faced two road games and have lost both by a combined score of 65-38.   It won't get better against a rested Giants squad that is now starting to get its new offense going - and big.


Eagles over Rams - The Eagles shockingly stumbled at San Francisco - I'm not seeing them doing that again against a Rams team looking more and more hopeless.


Texans over Cowboys - The Wade Phillips Oiler Bowl sees two surprisingly good squads.   Don't buy the hype for Tony Romo, though Houston's run defense hasn't been all that stout (allowing 5 yards per carry so far) and the ground game is where the Cowboys are right now hitting stride.


Cardinals over Broncos - Remember that limb above?  I'm back on it here.   The Cards offense hasn't put up volume stats but it has executed, while the defense is presently second in fewest points allowed.   The Broncos come in 2-1 and with a mediocre effort at closing out games, this despite the game-tying comeback against the Seahawks.  That it's Peyton Manning is the ace the Broncos hope to play.


Chiefs over 49ers - Don't believe that Colin Kaepernick or the Niners are on a rebound; they have shown some legitimate cracks to doubt they can carry through a run.   The Chiefs have rebounded from a poor start and are flying high.  


Chargers over NY Jets - The Jets have become the Jets again, while the Chargers have shown more firepower so far this year.


Patriots over Bengals - A lot of people have lost faith that the Patriots can rebound from last week, but the issues the Patriots have are correctable issues.  The slaughter of the defense last week may see some semblance of a continuation given how strong the Bengals offense has been, but the Patriots do get Brandon Browner back and given the shock of last week I'm doubting the defense will be caught as unawares as last week.   The offensive line (the universal discussion point entering last week's game) showed improvement despite the loss, as did Brady in terms of engaging more receivers into the offense.  That the Bengals beat the Patriots last time they met remains on everyone's mind in Foxboro - and should drive them not to allow a repeat.


Seahawks over Redskins - Last week's meltdown by Kirk Cousins was as surprising - and ugly - as we've seen in years.   The Seahawks continue to play at elite level, though I think Cousins and company put up more of a fight here given it's the defending champs coming to FedEx Field.



So we thus await Week Five.