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Super Bowl Contenders

The NFL has arrived at its desired destination of parity via the intersection of imperfection. As opposed to the last three years, when the Steelers and Patriots (twice) won the Super Bowl because they were the closest thing to a perfect team, this season is different. There are a handful of very good teams, and a few quality teams. All are flawed. The AFC is easily the stronger conference, but for each AFC Super Bowl contender, I see an NFC counterpart, waiting to fulfill its parallel destiny. Without further hesitation, the contenders:Possible road warriors

Bengals (8-6) Last year this team lost its quarterback to a horrific knee injury in a playoff game they knew they could’ve won, then watched the hated Steelers go three cities to glory. This year the Bengals have a realistic chance of finishing with more arrests than wins. They’ve been embarrassed on and off the field. Their star receiver almost had a nervous breakdown on live television. Yet the Bengals, like their misdemeanor offenses, simply refuse to go away. It’s the way of things in football; withstanding adversity breeds optimism. Carson Palmer’s knee is recovered. Chad Johnson is back. The defense can stop the run again. And while the “Jungle” may not be playing host to any postseason games this January, who really wants a piece of the Bengals when it’s all on the line?

Giants (7-7) They beat Carolina, the one game they really needed in their quest to just get to January. Stumbled against the Eagles, but still control their own destiny. With another win or two the Giants will have earned the right to go on the road for good once the games become do or die. Like the Bengals, the G-Men have spent time on the dark side and fought their way back. They’ve put a four-game losing streak behind them. Michael Strahan, the one player the defense has to have, is very close to being back in the lineup. Eli Manning has cut down on his interceptions and increased his completion percentage. Strahan hasn’t intimidated any female reporters in the last two weeks. Plaxico Burress has shown some fire. Bottom line is that a healthy New York pass rush and a productive Eli Manning still represent the most balanced attack of any NFC team. These guys could certainly hush the crowd on the road in the playoffs.

Ho-hum field advantage

Colts (11-3) Because of Peyton Manning the Colts will always be a Super Bowl contender, and usually have home field advantage. Big deal. Every Manning-led Colts team has been plagued by a defense ultimately incapable of performing at a championship level. However, recent history would suggest that the Colts deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball have not represented their downfall. Instead it has been the superior implementation of schemes by the Patriots and Steelers that Manning, and the Colts, could not overcome. Not this year. The Indianapolis run defense is epically bad. It gave up nearly 400 yards of rushing offense to Jacksonville two weeks ago. I’d be interested to know how many high school teams gave up 400 yards on the ground this year. Before, the way to beat Peyton Manning was to confuse him through masked blitz and coverage packages. The object was to slow him down. Now it’s much simpler. Line up and run the ball down the throat of the Indy defense. Either Peyton finds another gear or the Colts get run right out of the playoffs.

Bears (12-2) When the Achilles heel of a team is its quarterback, that team is usually nowhere close to being considered championship-caliber. Rex Grossman has gone through his share of growing pains this season, but the Bears have kept winning and will have home field advantage throughout the NFC Playoffs. Because of this, head coach Lovie Smith has refused to entertain any notions of yanking Grossman in favor of Brian Griese. Grossman clearly has the potential to become a franchise quarterback, but he also has the potential to single-handedly throw the Bears out of the playoffs. With the league’s most dominant defense, Chicago doesn’t need a quarterback to win games. It just needs one that won’t lose them.

Lurking

Seahawks (8-6) Toughest team to figure out. The Hawks treaded water while their two superstars were out, positioning themselves to make a run. Ran off wins against Green Bay and Denver with Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander back in the lineup. Then looked very ordinary against Arizona and San Francisco. Since reigning Super Bowl losers haven’t even been a part of playoff races this decade, Seattle clearly has an element of mystery factored into its chances. And don’t forget this is a Super Bowl team that added a Super Bowl MVP (Deion Branch). A wild card game at Qwest is a certainty, which means the Seahawks will at the very least be competing for a chance to return to the NFC Championship Game. If Hasselbeck, Alexander and the Seahawks defense all start clicking, Seattle will be more dangerous than mysterious.

Patriots (10-4) For all intents and purposes New England has been written off. The Patriots are like the bully that ruled the playground. And like all bullies, they got beat up once and became an afterthought in the minds of relevant parties. By getting knocked out once a bully loses his edge, that air of invincibility. But his nature doesn’t change. The outside world may no longer perceive him as an enforcer to be feared and revered. But inside him still burns that craving to hit someone in the mouth. The Patriots defense is a collective bunch of bullies governed by the most savvy bully in the game of football. They got knocked out once, and everyone forgot about them. They won’t go down again without being remembered.

For real?

Ravens (11-3) The Ravens defense is looking as scary as ever. (Yes, even scarier than the legendary 2000 Ravens, because Ray Lewis wasn’t yet an alleged felon.) I believe Steve McNair could lead Baltimore to the Super Bowl. But I also believe he could lose a limb in the first round of the playoffs and doom them for good. That said, I see more glaring matchup problems for the Ravens than other AFC contenders. If I were Brian Billick I would not want to see Tom Brady or Carson Palmer coming to town for a divisional game. The Patriots can match the Ravens defensively and the Bengals can simply outscore them. Avoid those foes and top of the AFC looks favorable to Baltimore.

Cowboys (9-5) Dallas is a confounding team. I had them pegged third-best in the NFC East, and their mediocre first half, coupled with TO’s overdose/suicide attempt, seemed to reinforce that notion. Then Donovan McNabb tore his ACL, TO was reborn (no pun intended), Tony Romo stepped in looking like Tom Brady ’01, the defense started stuffing the run, and suddenly the Cowboys were the team to beat in the NFC. Since then they’ve been pummeled at home by the Saints in a game that would’ve given them the second bye and suffered yet another TO “episode”. The NFL Playoffs are as much a test of momentum as they are of resolve and preparation. Because of Bill Parcells, Dallas will be a well-prepared playoff team. The rest is up to the boys.

The Favorite?

Saints (9-5) Hey N’awlins! What if I told you in August that the Tigers would be playing in the Sugar Bowl and the Saints would be hosting a divisional playoff game ten days later? Now is that something you might have been interested in!?! Alas, all signs point to the resurgent Super Dome playing host venue to two of the biggest games in both old and new history of this storied town. Why could New Orleans be booking tickets to Miami? Because they are led by the patron saint of lost causes himself, Drew Brees. He may not go by Saint Jude, but there has surely never been a more appropriate pairing of lost city and lost player. It’s New Orleans! The best quarterback in the NFC! The Saints! Hell, this is going to have to become its own column.

Chargers (12-2) The feeling around the league is that any team entertaining championship aspirations will have to go through San Diego. I agree, but must note that the Chargers are simply the least flawed of the contenders, as opposed to “the complete team”. With LaDainian Tomlinson, the formula for success is simplified. The Chargers are going to run the ball, and force defenses to stop one of the great backs of all-time. No paltry task for a foe. But, as good run defenses like Pittsburgh’s and Baltimore’s have proven, even LT can be contained. You can be sure that the Chargers will run into a team (be it Baltimore again, or New England) that will neutralize Tomlinson and put the onus on Phillip Rivers to carry San Diego. Frankly, I’m not convinced he can live up to the task. This is undoubtedly the team beat, but it’s far from unbeatable.

On Manny

Over the last four years the Red Sox front office has flip flopped so many times even John Kerry must be chuckling.From hesitancy to locking up Trot Nixon long term because of his injury problems, to signing a dull DL-case, J.D. Drew, for five years and $70 million.

From developing young talent like Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez, then dealing them for a guy who ended up surrendering more home runs than Manny hit last year.

From bailing on Edgar Renteria after a rough first season to giving an almost identical contract to the vastly inferior (offensively at least) Julio Lugo.

From dissing Johnny Damon over $12 million and letting him turn up in Gotham, to signing Coco Crisp and extending him after two weeks on the job.

The list goes on for Theo and the Trio. Fortunately, their relationship with Manny has always been consistent. They love his god-given abilities, and hate his innate proclivities. The bond is similar between Red Sox Nation and Manny, with one glaring difference: the Nation loves Manny in spite of his predispositions.

Yes, the Boston Red Sox is a business, and whereas we, as fans, for the most part embrace Manny’s quirks, the execs detest them. But don’t be fooled by rhetoric. They all still have that undying love for what he is able to do for them, which is why over the last four years you’ve probably witnessed one of the most unstable, functional business relationships in the history of sports.

Yes, that can be construed as an oxymoron, but then again, what exactly can Manny be construed as? And the entire Sox front office for that matter? Just a working ensemble of dissonance, that’s what.

While it’s anger and frustration towards Manny’s actions that make Theo shop him every trade deadline and offseason, it is love for his awe-inspiring talent that has prevented him from ever pulling the trigger (with the exception of 2003, when he placed Manny on irrecoverable waivers, but that was more an economic chess move with Brian Cashman than anything else).

While Manny’s relationship with the fans has been frictional as well, there is a mutual dependence that remains the binding force at the end of the day. Together with Boston, Manny has come so far. He began as the Tribe’s silent assassin, tormentor of the Sox. Graduated to the timid slugger who finally complemented the epic ace and gave the Nation hope again. Showed up year two as “Media Manny.” Evolved into “Cottonmouth Manny.” Gave us all eternal solace with “MVP Manny”. And finally found lasting comfort in “Manny being Manny.”

The flip side has been accepting a spotlight that he never needed or desired. Just as Manny’s nature has frustrated the men paying his salary, so too has Boston’s nature upset the delicate balancing act that is the emotional complex of Manny. But once again, there is that connection with the city. Manny may not always feel or articulate such, but he knows how much Boston has shaped him.

He’s been here only six years, but Manny has evolved into what he was always meant to be. Not a champion or Hall of Famer, he would’ve achieved those feats in Cleveland, New York, anywhere. But nowhere else would he ever have been the guy who delayed games because he was inside a wall, or the guy who stuck a water bottle in his pants so he could stay properly hydrated in left field.

Nowhere else would he have been able to utter the words, “It was destination.” Nowhere else would he have been rushed back from gaining his citizenship so a game could be halted and he could take a victory lap, holding the American flag high and proud.

Simply put, Manny would’ve never been Manny anywhere else.

From time to time he may receive outside pressures and demand out. Sometimes those pressures might come from within. But one thing he’ll never forget is that over the last six years he has turned into the baseball player, and more importantly, the personality he was always meant to be.

That’s the stuff that separates greats from legends.

BCS/Fox Points

*NOTE* Beginning this year the Fox network will have exclusive broadcast rights to three of the four BCS bowl games (Sugar, Fiesta, Orange) in addition to the inaugural BCS Championship Game. Most recently, ABC had deals with the major bowls while Fox owned the rights to just the Cotton Bowl. No more.I’ve never been a fan of Fox’s NFL coverage, as its games are always diluted with too many bells and whistles, in-game promo packages that literally overlap with play by play coverage, and generally poor announcing teams. (With the exception of the crew that includes Daryl “Moose” Johnston in the booth and Tony “the Goose” Siragusa on the sidelines. The great thing is, Goose is the only sideline reporter who is always mic’d up. Combined with the fact that he is, well, “the Goose”, a viewer is guaranteed to have some entertaining and inappropriate inter-jargon between the boys upstairs and the behemoth chiming in live from the end zone. Always fun.)

Other than Moose and the Goose, the best you can hope for watching an NFL game on Fox is that Joe Buck will get peeved enough at a Randy Moss touchdown dance and proclaim it “disgusting!!”. In Fox’s defense, its NFL pregame show is bar none. Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, and Jimmy Johnson are all unique, amusing, and knowledgeable football personalities. Losing James Brown as the mediator of these wild boys was a tough blow for Fox, but the show must go on, and it has, successfully.

This leads me to Fox’s premier of the BCS Selection Show, which aired live on Sunday night from 7:50 to 8:30. When I tell you this was the most awkward, unintentionally hilarious network studio show in the history of sports, I’m not blowin’ smoke up your tail. Nothing about this show went right. “Murphy’s law” was in da house.

First off, the show was hosted by Chris Rose. Now I consider myself pretty well-schooled in the who’s who of the sports broadcasting business but I’ve honestly never seen (or at least registered) this guy. However if I ran into him on the street and he told me he was in the business I could’ve guessed in one breath which network he was affiliated with. He looks like the less-attractive, slightly older brother of Ryan Seacrest with the voice of a nerdier Adam Corolla. (Yes, I can understand that image may be a little much to comprehend within the context of sports. I apologize.)

Anyways Rose opened the show and introduced his two in-studio analysts, Barry Alvarez (former Wisconsin football coach) and Charles Davis (former Tennessee defensive back). Before I had the chance to realize how uncomfortable these guys were, Rose had spewed off the bulk of his first segment, which included the phrases, “post a bagel in the loss column” and, “all that and a bag of chips”. (I believe these comments were in reference to Boise State’s undefeated season, but I was still in a mini-trance, fearing I had accidentally tuned into the season premier of Bizarro American Idol.)

When I saw video footage of football players everything was aright again, but weird. Rose had tossed his first question to Davis, who, incidentally had a moderate case of laryngitis. His voice started cracking a third of the way through his first comment, and Rose appeared to have been completely oblivious to the whole situation until that moment. Awkward? Sensing Davis’s lack of umm SPEAKING CAPABILITIES, Rose decided to seek the input of Alvarez. The coach looked genuinely uneasy to be in a room with hundreds of lights, not to mention slightly sedated (not sure if the two were connected).

He did his analysis bit and uncomfortably segwayed back to Rose. Rose proceeded to jump right into the announcement of Ohio State’s opponent in the National Championship, Florida. It was as if the producers weren’t divulging even to Rose the time of the super-secret unveiling, and just yelled “Now!” into his ear-piece and the teleprompter started rolling. Smooth? Not quite. In fact, once Fox cut to its first commercial break I was thinking it was one of the most uncomfortable segments I’d ever seen.

By the time they came back from break I was pondering if it would be less uncomfortable watching these guys slam doors with each others tooths tied to the knobs. It was that bad. But it got worse…

It was time to go live to the site of Florida’s selection-soiree. The whole team was assembled, on-camera, behind Fox reporter, Chris Myers, and the Gators head coach, Urban Meyer. Myers asked the coach how it felt to be selected, his take on a possible playoff system blah blah blah. Overall it was a pretty token, dull interview. Until Myers attempted to cite Meyer’s master’s degree from the University of Ohio, which was in, uhh, umm, hold on one sec and lemme Google this guy real quick…

Ah yes, education. It was Urban Meyer’s master’s degree in Education that Chris Myers nearly choked on, with a crew of giddy football players behind him cracking grins to boot.

Back to you in the studio Chris!

Next up? One on one with Ohio State coach, Jim Tressel. He loves the media! And there to interview him, lead play by play guy for the BCS, Thom Brennaman. After a few generic Florida/matchup questions, Brennaman asked Tressel about his feelings on a playoff system. Before giving his diplomatic response there was a instant when Tressel slipped into a Dick Cheney/Jim Mora-esque scowl of seething incredulity. Playoff?? Playoff?!?!?! We’re twelve and freakin’ oh!!!! Priceless.

Equally priceless was Rose’s face back on the screen. That seemed to be enough for me. With palpable awkwardness having invaded every facet of this show, I was ready to tune out, sufficient material for a column in hand (and note). Then I noticed something. As Charles Davis was wholeheartedly attempting to squeak out a comment, I saw someone over his left shoulder. Except it wasn’t someone on one of the many flat screen televisions behind the talent. It was actually someone in the studio.

Yes, there was a heavy-set, balding man seated somewhere off-set, yet in the camera shot. Either that or those characters at the pizzeria put some funky mushrooms on my pie last night. But then again, watching this show was truly a trip.

There were moments when I laughed; others when I thought I was going to cry. I was mortified, exhilarated and in disbelief, all at once. Hell, I was flat out entertained. For some reason though, I have a feeling the powers at Fox Sports didn’t share my sentiments.

From a production and operation standpoint the show was a disaster. But hey, there’s a first time for everything, and Fox was wandering into uncharted territory, its relationship to the BCS just beginning. The network will obviously refine its BCS studio presentation between now and the new year.

Though as a viewer altogether impressed with the pure squirmy-entertainment value of Fox’s first BCS Selection Show, I say if ain’t broke, why fix it? Okay, bad example. I guess what I’m trying to say is sometimes a bar set very low can make those precious ratings go very high.

(But Fox already knows that.)

GEAUX TIGERS!!!!!!

NFL Points: Week 12

Scratch that. Nothing about Week 12 was good. How ’bout the Good (God!), the Bad, and the Ugly?The Good (God!): Steam was literally pouring out of Tom Coughlin’s ears Monday during his weekly appearance on New York’s “Mike and the Mad Dog” show. After the Giants blew a 21-0 lead with 10:00 left yesterday at Tennessee, the (now) embattled New York head coach had to answer to a couple of talk radio’s most instigative personalities. Coughlin repeatedly sidestepped the hosts’ inquisitive efforts to get him to throw Plaxico Burress under the bus (late in the game the Giants star wideout quit on a pass intended for him that then got intercepted, and proceeded to miss the ensuing tackle, allowing the ball to be returned to midfield).

This was the kind of game that can tear a team apart from the inside out. Judging from the way Coughlin chewed out Mathias Kiwanuka after a missed-sack of Vince Young on a 4th and 10 that would’ve essentially sealed the game for the Giants, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see him verbally skewer Burress. Believe me, Burress merits such. But the coach is still the coach, and I applaud Coughlin for swallowing his tongue, and saving the theatrics for behind closed doors.

The reverberations from this game are being felt from Staten Island to the Upper East Side of Manhattan. No joking, there are bars that were forced to close for renovations subsequent to the damage incurred from Giants fans Sunday. However, Coughlin’s ability to stay in character might just have been the G-Men’s saving grace. Had he slipped, finger pointing and in-fighting would have dominated the Giants practices this week and doomed them for good. Instead Coughlin has opted to shut out the persistent New York football-media. This reasserts his power in a difficult time and represents a clear sign that he will be grabbing his team by the collective groin in practice starting Tuesday…

(Program reminder: DO NOT MISS Giants-Cowboys next Sunday.)

The Bad: Split the honors between Braylon Edwards of the Browns and Atlanta’s Michael Vick. Edwards screamed in the face and grabbed the jersey of his quarterback, Charlie Frye, after Frye threw an interception. Vick used a finger to make a point to his fans (except didn’t use his pointer finger) while exiting amid boos after the Falcons fourth straight loss. He then apologized profusely for the gesture. While flipping off a stadium of paying fans was surely a classless move on Vick’s part, he did the right thing and manned up to his err.

Edwards wasn’t so selfless. In fact he refused to apologize at all. The closest he came was saying, “All I did was show my passion for the game. It’s not like I fought somebody. It’s not like I gave the bird to someone in the stands.” So he shows his “passion for the game” by overtly denigrating his teammate? Then his “apology” is something along the lines of: well it’s not like I sucker punched my quarterback or pulled a Michael Vick, ya know? Class class class…

The Ugly: Yep, it was the Game of the Week and a possible Super Bowl preview, but nine turnovers and a host of suspect penalties later, the Bears and Patriots contest ultimately fit nicely into the mold of NFL-ugliness Sunday. With one side note of skill and beauty: Tom Brady’s juke of Brian Urlacher on the Patriots game-winning drive. It’s a play that must be seen to be believed, and is the most noteworthy run by Brady since he scampered into the endzone against the Raiders five years ago in the “Snow Bowl”.

(s**t-eatin grin slowly forming…)

As a Patriots fan thoroughly disappointed with most that transpired Sunday, on that positive note I’ll stop myself. And on the back end of this holiday weekend I’ll give thanks to the fact that the NFL season is more than 12 weeks long…

NFL Points: Week 11

Lots to talk about in this pre-Thanksgiving edition of the points…Make some room, everyone! The Colts have arrived at the gala of the defeated, albeit fashionably late. Nine wins into the 2006 campaign Peyton Manning submitted his most undistinguished effort of the season, and Indianapolis bowed to the Cowboys at Texas Stadium, 21-14. For the second straight year all the geezers from the ’72 Dolphins can work their annual champagne session into the carousals of the holiday season. Bottoms up Indy!

The Cowboys, meanwhile, can now start looking at the bigger picture, after finally putting a little space between components in the win-loss column. At 6-4, Dallas is in striking position with an elite defense and potent running game; a content and productive T.O., and a quarterback meriting the title of “leader”.

Tony Romo will be starting his first Thanksgiving-day game Thursday against Tampa Bay. After he and Bill Parcells beat the Bucs they will have an additional three days to prepare for a rematch with the Giants in New York. That game should mark the return of Michael Strahan, as well as informally crown the NFC East champion (especially since Philadelphia’s Donovan McNabb is finished for the season with a torn ACL). Not to be missed…

Game of the week for the second consecutive Sunday involved the San Diego Chargers. How many times in NFL-history can a team say it came from 17 points down to win on the road and had a skill player score four touchdowns..in back to back games?? (I’m serious; I don’t know the answer, and can’t afford Elias) Either way, what LaDainian Tomlinson and the Chargers did last week in Cincinnati and last night in Denver is remarkable.

This is the best team in the league right now. San Diego is notorious for fading down the stretch, but this year its schedule is very manageable. If the Chargers are going to trip it won’t be until the middle of December when they face the trio of Denver, Kansas City and Seattle (the former two at home). In sum, this bodes well for San Diego’s pursuit of the second-bye in the AFC…

Hmm, speaking of the prospective second-bye reminds me what a big misstep the Patriots took in dropping to the Jets last week (read: winning hoards of divisional games represents the building blocks of any second-best team in the AFC). Simply put, in this conference you can’t lose more than one game in-division and have a odds-on shot at that elusive second-bye. That said, geez did New England put a physical hurting on the Packers (35-0) at Lambeau Field. They gave quarterback Aaron Rodgers a broken foot. And the only reason Rodgers was playing to begin with was because Tedy Bruschi damaged nerves in Brett Favre’s right elbow, forcing football’s truest iron man out of a game for only the fifth time in his career (he’s started 251 straight games).

It’s pretty clear the Patriots plainly refused to lose three games in a row, fine. But where was all that fire last week against the Jets? In the words of the translator representing “Santori Whiskey” in Lost in Translation, the Pats should have had a little “mow intensity” against the Jets, and a tad bit less against Green Bay. Here’s to hopin Favre starts number 252 next Monday night in Seattle…

Matsuzaka points

Since Matsuzaka-mayhem has owned baseball headlines the last week I’ll spare the platitudes and give the principal reasons why I believe this is a good thing for Red Sox Nation (assuming of course, Theo Epstein and Scott Boras agree on a deal).1) Pitching and prowess: Indeed you can never have enough young, quality arms. With what free agency has become (read: Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt are the best out there) it is vital to have a finger on baseball’s international pulse. Matsuzaka is a legitimate talent: good repertoire of pitches and velocity; healthy and young. Funny thing is everyone who has read about this guy and the Bill James statistical-spin on his relative abilities knows he has the stuff to excel in MLB.

Much more is being talked of his “transitional capabilities”. Like he’s going to wet himself the first time he steps onto the mound at Fenway or Yankee Stadium. Okay, maybe that’s a bit extreme but if you look at the truly marquee names to come out of Japan (Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki, and Hideki Matsui) , they all share similar traits: wealth of natural talent, distinct professionalism, and an understated swagger. The stage simply doesn’t get to these guys.

Which leads me to…

2) Track record: The only time I’ve ever seen Matsuzaka pitch live was during the World Baseball Classic. Granted it was in March and North American (and some Latin) players were clearly at a conditioning disadvantage, but the stage was the stage. And Japan’s opponent in the championship game was Cuba; a team in midseason form, uniquely inspired, and peaking (they knocked off the mighty Dominicans in the semifinals).

Matsuzaka pitched four innings, striking out five and giving up one run, as Japan won the tournament. Like all international sporting events, the WBC was bigger to our international adversaries than it was to us. It was epic for Cuba. Was pretty big to Japan as well. Matsuzaka’s final line: 3-0/1.38 era/MVP. How ya like them apples?

A cynic might argue that a max-contract and immersion into our culture might be the tipping point for a player like Matsuzaka. I’m here to tell you otherwise. With players like Nomo, Ichiro and Matsui as examples, trust me, the guy can handle big, bright America. As for the whole “stage” issue, check out the WBC again, and don’t be influenced by our tendency to under-care about the significance of worldwide sporting events.

Finally…

3) The Pendulum: By virtue of blowing the Yankees out of the water in their bid for Matsuzaka the Red Sox front office (ie Larry Lucchino), via Theo Epstein, is sending a clear message. With the monumental gaffe that was the Johnny Damon-saga, coupled with Theo’s lack of deadline activity/Yanks acquisition of Bobby Abreu/the “new Boston Massacre”, the Sox front office has decided to finally draw its line in the sand. The limit for acceptable humiliation endured was reached, and surpassed last season.

As the Yankees didn’t win the World Series, Lucchino probably saw a golden opportunity to swing that pendulum back towards the center, and away from an increasingly tepid-George Steinbrenner. No more “evil empire”. For better or worse, the Sox are prepared to go at the jugular of the Yankee enterprise by beating them at their own game. But, as Steinbrenner has proven over the last five years, opening eyes with green during the offseason doesn’t lead to champagne at the conclusion of the postseason.

For the Red Sox Matsuzaka is a giant first step towards rebuilding a team that is still only two years removed from greatness. But it is a first step nonetheless.

NFL Points: Week 10

Ouch, G-Men. One Sunday night win away from the inside track to the NFC’s top seed in the playoffs. That was the case for the Giants last night at the Meadowlands. And until just a few ticks before halftime everything was going as planned for the New York football Giants.

After a (seemingly) stalled Bears drive in the final two minutes of the first half, which left Chicago looking at a gloomy 3rd and 22 from its own 28 yard line, New York called a timeout so Eli Manning could have a chance to add to the Giants already-10 point lead. Except someway, somehow Thomas Jones took a handoff and picked his way through the Giants defense for a cool 26 yards.

Suffice to say ya don’t see that every day.

Rex Grossman then capitalized by throwing a 29 yard touchdown pass to Mark Bradley just before halftime. Might as well have been a wrench, because the G-Men just weren’t the same after that. Sure, they climbed back in the game, drawing within four points at 24-20 early in the 4th quarter. But for some reason Tom Coughlin opted to attempt a 51 yard field goal into an unsettled Jersey night. Jay Feely managed to kick the ball about 49 yards at best before it declined, end over end, right into the arms of Devin Hester.

A sufficient acting job (Hester feigned like he was taking a knee) and 108 yards later Hester had delivered the proverbial dagger to the G-Men on this Sunday soir. Then again, the Giants did not deserve to win the game. Turnovers, combined with poor coaching and special teams should not add up to victory in today’s NFL.

That said, the Giants need not panic. They do need to get healthy, though. While they could’ve beaten the Bears without Amani Toomer, Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, and Sam Madison, they surely won’t have realistic Super Bowl aspirations without getting some of these guys back. While outside linebacker LaVar Arrington and Toomer are finished for the season with Achilles and ACL injuries, the news is not so grim for the others. Umenyiora and Madison are being evaluated on a week to week basis, while Strahan should be back by the beginning of December at the latest.

There’s no doubt in my mind that a healthier, more poised Giants team will go into Chicago in January and win the NFC Championship. Yes, I believe the Bears are overrated.

(Yes I’m calling the Giants to go to the Super Bowl.)

As for the other New York team…

Well all the Jets did on Sunday was march into Foxborough and beat the Patriots straight up. New England had not lost back to back games since December, 2002 (when, incidentally, the Jets beat them).

If you’re wondering what I’m implying by stating that the Jets beat the Pats “straight up”, it is to say they outplayed them in almost every facet of the game: they turned the ball over less, converted more third downs, had a shifty and devious defensive scheme that successfully frustrated Tom Brady, and handled the crappy Foxborough weather better than the Pats.

That’s beating the Patriots straight up. As opposed to what the Colts did last week. Because there is a difference. (Like the difference between going into a gun fight with a knife and taking a pistol, aiming it directly at your foot, and pulling the trigger.)

So here we are, with a bona fide race for the AFC East crown. Courtesy of a well-deserved, gritty Jets victory over New England. The good news for the Jets is their schedule is whispering 10 wins. Bad news for the Jets is the Patriots schedule is comparably easy. And the Patriots just lost twice in a row for the first time in a handful of years.

But, the Patriots, like the Giants, have injuries to address. Rodney Harrison is the most dire, as his absence can be sustained for the near future but not ultimately. For some perspective: since Harrison’s arrival in 2003 the Patriots are 42-6 with two Super Bowls when he’s the starting strong safety; they are 9-8, including a playoff loss, without him. Nuff said.

Fortunately, as opposed to last year when Harrison tore every ligament they have an name for in his knee, his current broken scapula should heal in time for him to be back to full strength by the playoffs (and likely before). So, like the Giants, barring any more physical setbacks, the Patriots will be the team to beat in January…

(Yes, I’m obviously the first calling a Pats-Giants Superbowl.)

Pats-Colts Points of Shame

Aright everybody, let’s say it together. Atrocious. Yep, that pretty much sums up the Patriots performance on Sunday night against the Colts.If anything can be taken from this utter embarrassment that doubled as a football game, it is this: once again the Patriots have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that no matter who the foe (see: Miami, Denver, and now, Indianapolis), when the Pats fall it is completely a result of their own doing. Trace it back to the beginning of the 2003 season. The fistful of games they’ve lost (thirteen to be exact) they’ve really, for lack of a better phrase, dropped the ball (or in Tom Brady’s case, repeatedly thrown it to the opposition).

Last night was one of those instances. They turned the ball over five times; committed eight penalties. They consistently gave Peyton Manning the football inside their own territory. They lost their cool at times; had no focus; no semblance of a tempo, no implementation of the game plan they had constructed and honed throughout the week. They pretty much had no chance of winning the football game.

Yet there Tom Brady was, a nifty three picks in pocket, ball in hand, driving down the field with ample time and composure to re-knot this heavyweight yuck-fest and send the game into overtime. Then Kevin Faulk decided to phone into the Pats drop-the-ball-athon, and the line went dead on Week 9 for New England.

On what should have been a seven-yard reception to the Colts 32, the usually unflappable Faulk instead botched the catch, and as if in a tip drill, redirected the ball right into the hands of Cato June. Game, set, match.

(Humiliation.)

In lieu of their usual tape session today, I suggest the entire Patriots team and coaching staff go and see the Borat movie. Not because it is going to make them laugh their tails right off and forget about this pitiful performance. No, rather because it will show them that (alas!) it is in fact possible for a bigger egg to be laid than the one they produced last night. (If you’re scratching your head right now you should join Belichick and Brady at the Dedham Mall cinema.)

But seriously, there’s one question that burns in my dome after this game: just how good are the Colts? Consider this: Peyton Manning threw for over 300 yards and a couple of touchdowns. Marvin Harrison was Marvin Harrison. The Colts defense a) kept the Patriots offense off the field and b) had its second best player, Bob Sanders, play for the first time since week two. Sanders finished with 11 tackles and was in on every run play at the line of scrimmage.

Hmmm, seems to me like the Colts did implement their game plan; did have some semblance of focus and tempo. They were, more or less, the Colts. So why did they have to wait for Kevin Faulk to formally stamp their second consecutive 8-0 start?

Here’s why: THEY’RE NOT THAT EFFING GOOD!!!!!!!!

Bill Belichick is a man of schemes. And while he’ll never articulate such, he knows in the grand scheme all this game determined was venue of the AFC Championship. Nothing more. Granted, it would be nice to have the number one seed in the AFC, especially in light of the way our beloved most-clutch-kicker-ever performed in his return home (the one true negative in the Colts performance).

But playoff seeding aside, this game won’t have any lasting impact. The Patriots are still going to be playing football next Sunday when the Jets come to town. To be honest, I feel like this meltdown was actually well timed. The Patriots, fresh off a statement-game on Monday night in Minnesota, might have had a little too much swagger, least for this point in the season.

New England isn’t used to early season dominance as they’ve only once before started a campaign 6-1 (2004). The Patriots are a team that gets better as the season progresses; through adjustments, hard work, and intellect the Pats prepare schemes week by week to topple opponents. And in that undisclosed grand scheme, they prepare for what they know will be a 19 game season.

The Colts, on the other hand, are quite accustomed to winning in large helpings before Thanksgiving. Peyton Manning has not lost a game before Turkey Day since October 31, 2003. But then again, he’s also never won his last game. Brady has won his last game three times in the past five years.

Congrats Peyton, you devoured a very subpar Patriots-entree. Hope you’re ready for the main course come January.

Foreword and Patriots

It is with the heaviest of hearts that I have decided to get back to doing what I love: writing about sports. Even if tragedy makes the concept of sport itself seem trivial and insignificant, I believe that the emotional highs and lows that go hand in hand with being invested in a team are a type of conditioning for the mind and body. Whether you find yourself celebrating a championship for a beloved team, or suffering heartbreak at the hands of an adversary, sport helps to give benign perspective to raw emotion.But, inherent to the idea of sport is the understanding that both the ecstasy of victory and the sorrow of defeat are merely precursors to the trials of life itself. So what’s my antidote? I say maintain that vested emotional interest in sport; allow the emotions, when appropriate, to be real, and unimpeded. Allow those tears of joy or disappointment to flow. Because that visceral emotion ultimately helps bring about the realization that at the end of the day, sport is not about life and death. Only life is.

Fortunately, this weekend features the premier game of the NFL season between the Patriots and Colts. This matchup has come to represent football’s greatest rivalry because it is the NFL’s most appealing dichotomy. Both teams are wildly alluring and successful–in very different ways.

The Colts are celebrity in nature, and gaudy in performance. Peyton Manning is the reason. He is the torchbearer of today’s NFL: consummate talent, ridiculously wealthy, and blatantly in the public eye. He carves up defenses for Sunday brunch, throws on a mustache and films a commercial Monday morning, and is back in time to begin meticulously reviewing tape for his next victim. He represents the new age marketing system of the NFL (and pro sports for that matter), a system that relies on an ongoing interpersonal dialogue between the athlete and the fan.

Peyton Manning is more than just a quarterback. He’s a tourist of the ESPN studio who jaws with his brother. He’s a freaking cable repair guy. He’s an icon. No matter where you’re situated as a viewer or person, long as you have one foot in this quarry that has become the media, Peyton Manning will find a way to reach you. His shtick, coupled with his ability to make such an intricate game seem easy, is what puts him on the verge of superhero status.

However, the reason we’re discussing a dichotomy and not a juggernaut is the Patriots. Across the sidelines from the extravagant Colts stand the esoteric Patriots. New England has become the “model franchise in the league” over the last five years. Thing is, that phrase is nothing more than another faux cliche. In this day of further integrating the media into the on-field action, integrating the fans into daily NFL life, and generally glamorizing the entire business, the Patriots surely are not the model franchise.

They keep to themselves. They handle all but a shred of their business behind closed doors. Their players only do television endorsements as a team. Their injury reports are suspect. Their coach is glum. Their quarterback is crafty and adept, not flashy. But because the Kraft family, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady have contributed to win three of the last five Super Bowls, they must be, in theory, the “model NFL franchise”.

Trust me, if Brady wasn’t so photogenic, the only time you’d see any of the Pats in the public eye would be during their duck-boat motorcade down Boylston Street after winning it all. Fact is, the Patriots are only the NFL bar-setters in terms of economics and personnel management. Everything else about this team screams contra-status quo. But they win, thus the powers that govern football deem it necessary to label them the “model”, when in reality, it is the team with the glamor, and not the glory, which is the league’s true model.

Either way, at least once a year, we all get to witness firsthand the NFL’s greatest dichotomy, which also happens to be its greatest rivalry. Also includes a couple of teams who suffer from being tagged with cases of mistaken identity. Deciding which “model” fits which franchise is a matter of semantics. What’s determined is this: come Sunday night you will again get to see the iconic Peyton Manning competing against the stoic Tom Brady, so relish it. And know there is more to come…

Jim “Shoota” Magruder

You know the funny thing Shoota, I never got the chance to tell you about this blog. But per usual Rif came through with the vital knowledge, relaying the ‘informaish’ and preventing me from regretting my own poor marketing skills. The voicemail you left for me that Thursday night was priceless. Made me laugh out loud at your wit and my ‘suchness’. After you told me not to call you for “at least a few hours”, because you’d be “busy bloggin it, postin comments”, I of course immediately called you back.

I missed you, but as was often the case, tried to picture which aspect of domestic life was consuming you at that particular moment. Maybe Abbey was hungry, and thus a ‘lil heated’. Maybe you were busy trying to embed “ballgames points” into her frame of reference and anxious vocabulary. Either way that ended up being the last time I called you.

This has, for me, become a severe point of confliction. Honestly, I knew you’d call me back. Obviously. But it was also the voice mail. Throughout that weekend, during which I went to Boston to see my family, I repeatedly listened to it, as opposed to skipping it before my new messages. What had begun initially as an outright laughing fit had transitioned into a familiar chuckle with each listen.

In the week subsequent to your accident I must have heard and laughed at that message five or six times. Never occurred to me to get immediately back to you, because I knew what your life was like, and knew that you always made time in it for me, so it really wasn’t a big deal. The part of me that regrets not calling is that we in New York would at least have known about your accident and forecast. Would have had time to try and comprehend this ridiculous scenario; try to act accordingly.

But I didn’t call and we didn’t get the word until you were already gone. There’s a part of me that is destroyed by that. But, I think, there’s a bigger part of me that cherishes the fact that I was given the opportunity, one last time, to celebrate your life in a singular way. With our lives on different tracks in different places I had already accepted the fact that mementos would be a common fashion through which to play out each other’s endeavors. This time was no different. And now, in hindsight, I realize that for one whole week, when 99% of the people in your life were bracing themselves for the imminent, I was ignorantly, goofily, blissfully chillin. With another unique memento from you, I was content and chillin.

I have taken measures to ensure that that message, your last message to me, will never be misplaced, never go too long without a listen and a gag. I finally had Rif, Cotter and Ty give it a whirl right before we got on the plane out of New Orleans. Thought it would be a fitting way to leave your land.

Now I know that Louisiana was your land, your home. But you know that NY became your ‘spizz’. I know it was tough when you first got here, living uptown on your own, a sophomore in college feeding off New York pizza and the super stations. But there was that one “glorious” day when you saw a kid with an LSU shirt, got talking to him bout the Tigers, and the homeland. You asked him if there was anyone good to know at Fordham, and he immediately told you there was a kid from Boston that he was certain as steel would be a good fit for you.

That first fall day that you showed up with Glazer at my room was a Tuesday. And Tuesdays in 14M were “Jack Bauer night”. So it became a Tuesday faded-24 “steez”. The crew was always the same: Nate and Koshy, with Chrissy meandering in and out of the room, and us. Cotter and Rif would show up too, but ‘cared’ about 24 and enjoyed conversatin’ through it. Nate and I would have none of that. Season 2 of 24 demanded silence, and you didn’t seem to mind.

So it went, through the new year of 2003. Tuesdays were Jim-from-Louisiana day. Then things started getting more serious. Our inaugural intramural basketball team–Adog, Ace $$, Keith, Roger, Toine and Dre, myself–was floundering. With expectations of ‘rollin’ over fools’ en route to the glory of Fordham’s famed wall of sports, it was an understatement to assert that we were underachieving. We pretty much stunk. Then you offered your services.

I know you were a star off-guard in high school; loved the perimeter and the jays. But on this squad of slender, quick guards, your 6-1, hulky-frame was exactly what we needed in the middle. So you abandoned your game. Abandoned it so Ace “mini AI” could slash; so Roger “dub dub” could dish; so Adrian “jump-shot camp” Arias could eye up that nylon like a sharpshooter; so I could chill in the corner, waitin’ for that dish and trizzle.

And guess what? We started winning. We started finally having fun. Started hoppin’ on and off that godforsaken Ram Van with a shit eatin’ swagger instead of a collective punch in the gut. We would come to the Bronx from “that actors campus” with a mission, execute that mission, and be the hell out. That first season ended admirably, as I’d say we were right around a .500 team.

What I know for certain is that season two would be the one to remember. We beat ‘Yao’ (a 6-5 Chinese kid that could’ve dropped double digits for the D1 Fordham team). We beat my arch nemesis so I didn’t have to fight him. We just kept winning. And then we’d bring the party back to Lincoln Center, where the squad would ravage Koshy’s plentiful yet typically guarded stash of hamburger patties and quesadillas.

The only game we lost that season was the last one. And since it was right before spring break we obviously ‘cared’. You were off to Franklinton, me to Paree. We had the number one seed and a first round bye locked up for the playoffs. I’m pretty sure Adog played all by his lonesome that last game. Wasn’t too fair, but you know it was all good because he was most likely content with his ‘word stat line son’.

When we got back from spring break and realized that my nemesis’ squad had won its quarterfinal game and was going to be playing us for the right to go to the championship I was giddy. I had done him so dirty in that regular season game (and obviously ‘repped verbally’ throughout it all) that I was ready to laugh him back to wherever it was that he got that ridiculous earring. I must have played the worst game of my life that day. Couldn’t buy a shot. With Ace struggling to find his game as well, we were down by a mortifying 24-13 or something at halftime. What you did in the second half of that game I’ve always told myself I would never forget. Well now you need not worry kind sir.

You hadn’t seen the light outside of the paint in two seasons and somehow you knew that with our season hanging in the balance, the three-point line was beckoning. You hoisted up treys like they were coconuts. If that basketball had been a coconut then each one of those five three pointers you hit would have knocked each one of those opposing teammates right onto their behinds. But instead of literarily taking them out you did that through the grace and accuracy of your jump shot, methodically and deliberately firing calculated shots at the egos and confidence of that entire team, one by one.

When it was all said and done what had started as a dismal, season and character- threatening disaster had turned into the greatest game I’d ever been party to. And I had sucked. But I laughed. Because of you I was able to fulfill that which I needed at that moment: to be able to laugh in the face of that asshole and thank him for alllllllllll the memories. I obviously did that. He retorted by reaffirming how poorly I played. And through the jubilation I managed to shift into a quick snicker of concurrence, and returned, “Ya but not my boy!!!”

So there it is Shoota. The game I will never forget. We ended up losing the championship game by three points. But then again my nemesis had apparently mobilized the entire Rose Hill basketball community considering the squad that trotted out for the championship against us looked like they had either just come from the open Knicks tryout or had just finished filming an “And One Mix Tape”. But as usual, we refused to let the odds stand in our way. As usual we did battle. That particular game we battled and we lost.

I’ve been watching Gladiator and the Jason Bourne movies on consistent loops whenever I’m at my place. Guess I just got used to one of those ‘flicks’ always on in your room senior year. Gladiator is one of my favorite movies of all time, while the Bourne series is surely one of the most entertaining, so I loved the fact that I could always count on one being the featured ‘presentaish’ in 17D2.

But, as senior year progressed, I slowly came to realize that these two characters strongly embodied both the goodness of your being, and the essence of your struggles. Maximus had to fight in the name of his family. Bourne had to fight to discover his true identity. Once you and Meghan were married, and Abbey was on the way, your fight began. You knew you were in search of your true identity; that in New York, at Fordham, the path would lead to that ultimate recognition.

But with Meg and Abbey a world away you also had that carnal desire to be with your loved ones. Thus created an intersection of two glorious entities: your own pursuit of self-understanding, and your family. However combined, these two most cherished aspects of your life created hardship. But you fought. And you succeeded. In respect to Bourne, you fought to locate and walk the path of self, and you found the end of that path on May 26th, 2005. And like Maximus, you fought for your family, even if Meg was only there via telephone, and Abbey in spirit.

It may have been trying, difficult, even downright angering at times, but there is no doubt that in one year you accomplished more than I have in my entire lifetime. You made it work, Shoota. I’m just glad we were a part of it.

J’imagine que tu comprends tous maintenant, donc je vais prendre l’opportunite a dire quelques mots en francais, le langue que j’adore et le langue que tu a aime bien. Je suis trop content que tu etais able de voir Paris, de voyager en Europe. Croyez-moi, c’est approprie que tu a vu la terre ou il y aura encore plus des gens qui va pleurer quand ils entendent de ton dernier histoire. Je vais saisir a ton memoire comme rien jamais, en deux langues, pour toi, et pour ta famille. Donc t’inquiete pas.

So Shoota, from Boston to Brook-non, gee-Paree to sunny Cal-ly; from McMahon to Hillcrest and beyond, I bid you adieu. Don’t worry though. I will see you again. But not yet. Not yet…

Yekshemesh mon frere.