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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…