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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!!!!!!