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Final NFL Power Poll

What a season. The Falcons and Dolphins rose from the ashes to win 11 games a piece and make the playoffs.

11 wins for the Patriots wasn’t good enough to get in. New England became the first team to miss the tournament with an 11-5 record since the league expanded the playoff format to 12 teams in 1990.

The Chargers were 4-8 and three games behind Denver with four to play and somehow managed to steal the AFC West at 8-8.

The Jets and Cowboys suffered monumental collapses while the Ravens and Eagles experienced unexpected resurgences.

And let’s not forget about the Giants, who endured more than a helping of drama. In the final edition of the 2008 power poll, it’s the champs who again reign supreme.

1. New York Giants (12-4) There are concerns for the Giants going into the playoffs — notably the health of Brandon Jacobs and the ultimate effect Plaxico Burress’ absence will have on the passing game — but the road to Tampa goes through the Meadowlands in the NFC. The champs defended their crown admirably through a difficult regular season.

2. Tennessee Titans (13-3) Each of the other five AFC playoff teams finished stronger than the Titans over the last six weeks. However, despite going just 3-3 down the stretch, Tennessee solidified its status as the team to beat in the AFC with an emphatic 31-14 win over Pittsburgh in Week 16.

3. Carolina Panthers (12-4) The Panthers had a golden opportunity to steal home field from the Giants in Week 16 but John Kasay couldn’t connect on a 50-yard field goal at the end of regulation. Carolina is a seasoned and balanced team that has advanced to at least the NFC Championship Game in each of its three previous playoff appearances. Watch out for the Cats.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) The Steelers won six of their last seven, with the one loss coming in Tennessee on Dec. 21. After that game a few choice Titans saw fit to stomp on a Terrible Towel. It would be an understatement to say the Steelers took exception to that display and will look to exact some revenge should the teams meet again in the AFC Championship Game.

5. Indianapolis Colts (12-4) At 3-4, the Colts season was on the line in Week 9 against New England. They rallied to beat the Patriots and haven’t looked back since, steamrolling their way to nine straight wins to close out the 2008 campaign. Wild-card teams winning it all has become the trend recently (Pittsburgh in 2005 and the Giants in 2007). Indy fits the mold.

6. Baltimore Ravens (11-5) The Ravens have been smashing teams lately. A Week 15 meltdown vs. the Steelers is the only blemish on their record since mid-November. The Baltimore defense turned back the clock this year and Joe Flacco performed well for a rookie. A deep playoff run may be in the cards.

7. Miami Dolphins (11-5) By winning their last five games the Dolphins tied the ’99 Colts for the greatest turnaround in NFL history. Miami went from 1-15 a year ago to 11-5 and division champions, a remarkable feat. That it concluded with Chad Pennington returning to beat the team that jettisoned him was fitting.

8. New England Patriots (11-5) It could be argued that what Bill Belichick, Matt Cassel and the rest of the Patriots coaching staff and players accomplished this year was comparable to the 16-0 season of a year ago. Either way, there’s no disputing that this team deserved to be in the playoffs.

9. Atlanta Falcons (11-5) Matt Ryan deserves to finish in the top-three of the MVP voting after the resurgence he led in Atlanta. At this time last year the Falcons were reeling from the incarceration of their iconic quarterback and the unseemly departure of their coach. Now they’re back in the playoffs with a rookie quarterback leading the way. Wow.

10. Philadelphia Eagles (9-6-1) After tying the Bengals and getting tuned up by the Ravens, the Eagles were left for dead at 5-5-1. Heck, entering Week 17 Las Vegas still had them at 75/1 odds to win the Super Bowl. Then down went Tampa Bay. Down went Chicago. The Eagles did their part, dismantling Dallas to slip into the playoffs via the trap door. Now those are odds are 13/1. That must be one of the most drastic 24-hour shifts in the history of Vegas.

Week 17 Picks: 13-3

Overall: 166-88-1

Coming Friday: A comprehensive look at all four wild-card games and complete playoff picks.

Final NFL Playoff Picture and Week 16 Picks

You can call the NFL schedule makers prophetic or merely lucky, but they got it right this year. Week 16 of the 2008 slate features three games of great importance — Steelers-Titans, Panthers-Giants and Ravens-Cowboys. Each will go a long way towards sewing up the playoff picture, and all are shaping up to be December classics.

Let’s begin with the Carolina-New York game. Both teams have identical 11-3 records, so the winner will take the top overall seed and home field throughout the NFC playoffs. While they have gone in divergent directions the last two weeks — Carolina has mowed down the Bucs and Broncos; the Giants have dropped a pair to the Eagles and Cowboys — this game is actually more important to the Panthers. They have proven to be unbeatable at home this season (8-0) but are a pedestrian 3-3 on the road. If they can’t go into the Meadowlands and knock off the banged-up Giants (Brandon Jacobs should play, but will be limited) Sunday night, it’s highly unlikely they’ll do it next month with a Super Bowl on the line against a presumably healthier New York team. The defending champs, on the other hand, proved last year — in Dallas and Green Bay among other places — that they can win on the road in the playoffs. There’s a good chance that the winner of this game will represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLIII.

Now to the AFC, where the top two teams are also meeting in what could be a prelude to the AFC championship. At 12-2, the Titans need only a win over the Steelers (11-3) to ensure home field throughout the playoffs. However, after losing two of the last four on the heels of a 10-0 start, Tennessee must win this game to avoid a tidal wave of skepticism about its toughness and character. The game will be played in Nashville, but the Titans will be without their two main men on defense, Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch. That very much evens the playing field. The Steelers, meanwhile, are flat out rolling. They’ve turned fourth quarter deficits — against Dallas and Baltimore — into victories the last two weeks and are playing with a chip on their shoulder. They simply don’t believe the opposition can butt heads with them for sixty minutes. A win over Tennessee and Pittsburgh effectively wraps up the No. 1 seed (it would need just a win over the Browns or a Titans loss to the Colts in Week 17 to clinch).

As for the Ravens-Cowboys contest, there really can’t be a more exciting inter-conference game at this time of the year. Both teams currently control their own destinies for one of the two respective wild cards in their conference. Whichever team wins will essentially be guaranteed a playoff berth, while the loser will be forced into a must-win then scoreboard-watch situation next week. The Ravens (9-5) are still livid at what they believed to be an erroneous touchdown call that cost them the game vs. Pittsburgh last week, and will look to take it out on Tony Romo and the Cowboys. Dallas (9-5) has begun to put it all together of late. The defense is playing as well as any unit in the league, having recorded 20 sacks over the last three games. Of all the wild card hopefuls, the Cowboys are undoubtedly the scariest.

What’s intriguing about the Baltimore-Dallas game is the ripple effect it will have on the wild card races. If the Cowboys lose Saturday night, both the Bucs (9-5) and Falcons (9-5) will know they control their playoff fates before they even take the field on Sunday. That can certainly be an advantage. If the Ravens come up short, the door opens for an AFC East team, likely New England. With the Patriots, Jets and Dolphins all tied at 9-5, a Baltimore loss means two of them should get in. Since the Patriots hold no tiebreakers and the Jets and Dolphins play each other in Week 17, New England would automatically control its own destiny for the final wild card (because only one of the Jets and Dolphins can finish 11-5). That would set the Patriots up for a divisional game — either in New York or Miami — on wild card weekend (because the AFC East winner will be the No. 3 seed). Of course, if the Jets or Dolphins stumble this weekend, a sixth consecutive AFC East title for the Patriots becomes a very real possibility. Fascinating stuff.

Here are the Week 16 picks (home teams in CAPS)

Indianapolis over JACKSONVILLE

DALLAS over Baltimore

CLEVELAND over Cincinnati

New Orleans over DETROIT

Pittsburgh over TENNESSEE

Miami over KANSAS CITY

San Francisco over ST. LOUIS

NEW ENGLAND over Arizona

TAMPA BAY over San Diego

NY Jets over SEATTLE

Houston over OAKLAND

DENVER over Buffalo

Philadelphia over WASHINGTON

MINNESOTA over Atlanta

Carolina over NY GIANTS

CHICAGO over Green Bay

Last Week: 13-3

Overall: 147-75-1

Week 15 Power Poll and Picks

With the Giants falling, the Panthers and Steelers rising, and Tennessee leading us to believe the Jets game was an aberration, there is a logjam of championship-caliber teams at the top of the poll. Check it out.

1. Tennessee Titans (12-1) The Titans have responded well since the Jets disaster, pounding the Lions and Browns by a combined 75-19. A Week 16 bout with the Steelers could be a preview of the AFC Championship if the seeds hold true.

2. New York Giants (11-2) Plaxico Burress aside, the G-Men ran into a desperate Eagles team last Sunday. At this time of the year the more desperate team tends to prevail. Up next for the champs? The desperate Cowboys in Dallas.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3) The statistics say the ’08 Steelers boast a historic defense. Those who doubted the numbers were surely silenced after watching the Pittsburgh D rise up and stun the Cowboys last week.

4. Carolina Panthers (10-3) The Panthers ran all over the Bucs on Monday night. Now they’re in position to run the Giants off course and steal home field throughout the playoffs. The two heavyweights meet on Dec. 21 in Carolina.

5. Indianapolis Colts (9-4) At one point the Colts were 3-4. Seems about time to start talking about “that team” nobody wants to face in January.

6. Baltimore Ravens (9-4) The Ravens need 11 wins to be assured of a playoff spot. That means a split against the Steelers and Cowboys is essential over the next two weeks. Easier said than done.

7. Dallas Cowboys (8-5) Just a devastating collapse in Pittsburgh last week. That said, Atlanta’s loss swung the wild card tiebreaker in the Cowboys’ favor. The remaining schedule (NYG, BAL, at PHI) may be treacherous, but Dallas now controls its own playoff destiny.

8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-4) It’s December and we’re still waiting for the Bucs to present some proof that they won’t be one and done in the postseason. The “top-notch defense” argument suddenly holds less water after the Carolina game.

9. New England Patriots (8-5) Junior Seau played 28 snaps in the Patriots’ comeback win in Seattle last week. Five days prior to that he was surfing the Pacific. Need you hear any more about the adaptability and resiliency of New England?

10. Philadelphia Eagles (7-5-1) The final score may have read 20-14, but the Eagles thrashed the Giants in their house. Suffice to say it was a timely and resonant first division win for McNabb and company.

Now for the Week 15 picks (home teams in CAPS)

CHICAGO over New Orleans

Washington over CINCINNATI

ATLANTA over Tampa Bay

Seattle over ST. LOUIS

MIAMI over San Francisco

NY JETS over Buffalo

INDIANAPOLIS over Detroit

JACKSONVILLE over Green Bay

San Diego over KANSAS CITY

ARIZONA over Minnesota

Tennessee over HOUSTON

Pittsburgh over BALTIMORE

CAROLINA over Denver

DALLAS over NY Giants

New England over OAKLAND

PHILADELPHIA over CLEVELAND

Last Week: 13-3

Overall: 134-72-1

NFL Playoff Picture and Week 14 Picks

Usually at this point in this season — 12 games down and four to go for each team — most division races are heating up. Not this year.

In the NFC, the Giants have home-field throughout the playoffs secured while the Cardinals are already preparing for a home game in the first round, courtesy of the NFC West title they’re about to earn. In the South, to the winner of Monday night’s showdown between the Bucs and Panthers will go both the division crown and the second bye in the conference. The only divisional murkiness lies in the North, where the Vikings — currently 7-5 with a one-game lead over the Bears — will have to contend with a potentially bumpy schedule (at DET, at ARI, ATL, NYG) as well as the imminent suspensions of their two cogs on the defensive line, Kevin and Pat Williams (although the suspensions are presently on hold as the players union has filed suit to block them).

The divisional picture is equally clear in the AFC, where the Titans will take the AFC South and the top seed in the postseason. Out west, the Broncos have a three-game advantage over San Diego and a manageable final slate (KC, at CAR, BUF, at SD). Denver will be the fourth seed and host a wild card game. The Jets are lined up to wrestle the AFC East away from the Patriots for the first time since 2002. They could conceivably run the table (at SF, BUF, at SEA, MIA) and steal the second bye from Pittsburgh. While the Steelers are the most complete team in the conference, they must deal with unquestionably the most difficult final four games (DAL, at BAL, at TEN, CLE) of any AFC contender.

In essence, the entire divisional landscape of the league can be summed up in three questions. 1) Will Carolina avenge a 27-3 loss to Tampa Bay and win the NFC South? 2) Can Minnesota evade the obstacles and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2004? 3) Is Pittsburgh capable of gaining the AFC’s second bye in spite of a brutal December schedule? We’ll see.

Right now, it’s the wild card races in both conferences that have the most moving parts. In the NFC, there are technically five teams battling for the two berths. However, the loser of the Tampa Bay-Carolina game will be 9-4 and virtually guaranteed a wild card, barring a total collapse. That means Dallas (8-4), Atlanta (8-4), Washington (7-5) and Philadelphia (6-5-1) will have to duke it out for the last spot. As for the AFC, there are four teams for two berths. Again, though, that is misleading, as the Colts are 8-4, riding a five-game winning streak and looking at the easiest final month (CIN, DET, at JAX, TEN) of all the contenders. Indy is a minimum 11-win team. Which leaves Baltimore (8-4), New England (7-5) and Miami (7-5) vying for the sixth and final spot.

So of those seven squads, which two are most likely to be playing football in January? Let’s take a closer look, within the context of each conference.

NFC

Dallas Cowboys: 8-4 (at PIT, NYG, BAL, at PHI)

It’s painful to merely look at the Cowboys’ December schedule. They will clash with, in succession, the league’s first, third, second and seventh ranked defenses. All have ferocious, unrelenting pass rushes and physical secondaries that can challenge the Dallas passing attack. They can also all stop the run. That said, the Cowboys appear to be peaking and getting healthy at the right time, which means they’re capable of winning any of these games. A 2-2 split is most probable, which means the Giants and Eagles games are especially critical if a 10-6 Cowboys team is to have any tiebreakers in its favor (most of the time wild card tiebreakers come down to conference record).

Atlanta Falcons: 8-4 (at NO, TB, at MIN, STL)

The next two weeks are crucial for the Falcons. If they can find a way to win in New Orleans and beat Tampa Bay at home, they’ll be in the drivers seat hitting the home stretch (as Dallas will be hard pressed to knock off the Steelers and Giants on consecutive Sundays). Behind the continued and striking improvement of rookie Matt Ryan, the Falcons have notched four of the last five, including a couple of tough divisional games and a victory in San Diego last week. As of now Atlanta is the team that most readily controls its own destiny.

Washington Redskins: 7-5 (at BAL, at CIN, PHI, at SF)

No team wants to finish with three out of the last four on the road, but at this point that’s far from Washington’s primary concern. The Redskins are 1-3 in their last four contests, mainly because they haven’t been able to put points on the board — scoring a total of 43 points during the lull. Clinton Portis has been playing hurt, and it’s shown, as he’s rung up just one 100-yard game in that stretch after recording five in a row. Jason Campbell’s receivers have not helped him by any measure, dropping countless passes in big spots. Anything short of a huge showing on Sunday night in Baltimore and Washington’s drive to return to the playoffs will stall out.

Philadelphia Eagles: 6-5-1 (at NYG, CLE, at WAS, DAL)

Impressive as he was coming back with an elite performance on Thanksgiving after being benched the week before, Donovan McNabb still has a mighty task ahead of him. Simply put, a loss to the Giants this week effectively kills Philly’s season. That’s what happens when you tie the Bengals. On the bright side, with the bizarre Plaxico Burress/Antonio Pierce incident coming to a head as this piece goes to print, maybe the Eagles are drawing the champs at the right time. Regardless, it’s simple. A win in the Meadowlands and Philly is alive and kicking.

AFC

Baltimore Ravens: 8-4 (WAS, PIT, at DAL, JAX)

Not what you would classify a friendly slate of games for the Ravens, but they have the benefit of playing three of them at home, where they are 4-1. Since getting pasted by the Giants in Week 11, Baltimore has responded with two resounding victories over the Eagles and Bengals. Considering the opponents they’ll have to face this month, a split of their last four games is the most likely scenario for the Ravens. Like Dallas, the pressure will be on Baltimore in their two remaining conference games, as three of their four losses have come against AFC teams. Even at 10-6, if the Ravens end up with five conferences losses they’ll probably be on the outside looking in come playoff time.

New England Patriots: 7-5 (at SEA, at OAK, ARI, at BUF)

With a 5-5 record in the AFC, the Patriots are pretty much assured of having no tiebreakers going in their favor should it come down to that. Which would indicate New England has to run the table if it wants to be competing for a Super Bowl for the sixth straight year. Given the Patriots’ track record of playing better as the games gain importance and the weather becomes inclement (they’re a cumulative 27-5 in the month of December since 2001), it’s plausible that New England wins out. They will be favored in every game left on the schedule, meaning a lack of preparation or an off-day is all that stands between them and 11 wins.

Miami Dolphins: 7-5 (at BUF, SF, at KC, at NYJ)

You gotta hand it to the Dolphins. They were routed by the Patriots in a blood match and clearly felt the effects well into last Sunday’s game against the Rams. But they held on and are now set up to be heading into the final week at 10-5 for a divisional clash with the Jets. It’s questionable whether they’ll be able to seal the deal and get back to the postseason for the first time in eight years, but don’t forget this was a team that still hadn’t even won a game at this juncture of the season last year.

Now, on to the Week 14 picks (home teams in CAPS)

SAN DIEGO over Oakland

CHICAGO over Jacksonville

Minnesota over DETROIT

TENNESSEE over Cleveland

GREEN BAY over Houston

NEW ORLEANS over Atlanta

INDIANAPOLIS over Cincinnati

DENVER over Kansas City

NY GIANTS over Philadelphia

NY Jets over SAN FRANCISCO

Miami over BUFFALO

ARIZONA over St. Louis

New England over SEATTLE

PITTSBURGH over Dallas

BALTIMORE over Washington

CAROLINA over Tampa Bay

Last Week: 8-8

Overall: 121-69-1

Week 13 Power Poll and Picks

Everyone prepare yourselves. The first seismic shakeup in the power poll has occurred. This comes on the heels of a wild Week 12 that included the unbeaten Titans getting rocked by the Jets, continued resurgences in Dallas and Indianapolis, and a return of the Patriot air assault. The result? A marked shift in the balance of power from the NFC back to the AFC.

1. New York Giants (10-1) Order is restored. The G-Men, who have plowed through a murderous stretch (at PIT, DAL, at PHI, BAL, at ARI) without a single misstep, are now officially the team to beat. (As if they weren’t already.)

2. New York Jets (8-3) When a team rips off five consecutive wins — the latter two coming in New England and in Tennessee — and happens to share a city with the champs, it’s not New York hyperbole to start talking about the prospects of an all-Gotham Super Bowl.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-3) Suddenly there’s a power vacuum in the AFC. It’s fitting then that a trek to Foxborough is all that stands in the way of the Steelers and their quest to return to the top of the mountain. A win over the Patriots and the road to Super Bowl XLIII effectively goes through Pittsburgh.

4. Tennessee Titans (10-1) After nearly two months on top of the poll the Titans were manhandled by the Jets, raising doubts about their perceived toughness. How they respond these next few weeks will go a long way towards assessing their chances come January.

5. Dallas Cowboys (7-4) Injuries, sideshows and turmoil aside, the Cowboys are 6-2 when Tony Romo is their starting quarterback. Since Romo’s return, T.O. has awakened and the defense has been ferocious. Beware of the ‘Boys.

6. Indianapolis Colts (7-4) In a span of four weeks the Colts have defeated the Patriots, Steelers and Chargers. Taking into consideration an extremely soft schedule down the stretch (at CLE, CIN, DET, at JAX, TEN), you can pencil them in for one of the AFC’s two wildcard berths. Then you can trace over it with a sharpie.

7. New England Patriots (7-4) Another example of how the Patriots set and dead trends in the NFL: After the Dolphins smoked New England in Week 3, everyone wanted a piece of the Wildcat. Now? Not so much.

8. Carolina Panthers (8-3) First their defense struggled to contain the Lions at home. Then it literally stood and watched the Falcons put up four touchdowns in the fourth quarter of a 45-28 loss. Not a good direction to be heading in as the holidays approach.

9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-3) If a three-game win streak includes coming back from 21 and 17 down vs. the Chiefs and Lions, respectively, it doesn’t deserve to be called a win streak. A “three-game-avoided-humiliation streak” is more apt.

10. Arizona Cardinals (7-4) The Cardinals exhibited Sunday that they can compete with the best. Now is the time to use the end of the season to improve sufficiently enough to take the next step in the playoffs.

Here are the Week 13 picks (home teams in CAPS)

Tennessee over DETROIT

DALLAS over Seattle

Arizona over PHILADELPHIA

BUFFALO over San Francisco

Baltimore over CINCINNATI

Indianapolis over CLEVELAND

GREEN BAY over Carolina

Miami over ST. LOUIS

TAMPA BAY over New Orleans

WASHINGTON over NY Giants

SAN DIEGO over Atlanta

NEW ENGLAND over Pittsburgh

NY JETS over Denver

OAKLAND over Kansas City

MINNESOTA over Chicago

HOUSTON over Jacksonville

Last Week: 10-5

Overall: 113-61-1

BG’s Showtime Pitch and Week 12 Picks

Anyone who doesn’t pay for Showtime is sleeping on — hands down — the best football show out there: Inside the NFL. Each week James Brown hosts (and mediates) a forum of Phil Simms, Chris Collinsworth and the inimitable Warren Sapp. The show, formerly of HBO, accomplishes everything NFL fans are looking for on a program. It’s insightful, edgy and laugh-out-loud funny.

You see, football fans are quite simple in their needs. If you make them laugh, succinctly interpret the game and say a few borderline inappropriate things, they will be happy. Which is precisely why it baffles me that so few are tuning into JB, Phil, Chris and Warren. Oh right, the whole Showtime thing. Well here’s my pitch to every football enthusiast out there to upgrade their cable to the silver package for the next couple of months. (Showtime, you can thank me later.)

Seriously though, these four are the perfect pigskin quartet. Simms and Collinsworth understand and can relate the game as well as anyone in the business. Simms, a former quarterback, is adept at giving us the perspective of the field general. Collinsworth, who spends inordinate amounts of time in the tape room, is always pointing out things the average fan simply isn’t equipped to notice. The two also happen to loathe one another, and that mutual contempt fuels their frequently divergent opinions.

Sapp, meanwhile, is a one-of-a-kind personality. His knowledge — which equates to raw intelligence from the trenches — is invaluable considering the voice of the lineman is generally the least heard (save for Fox’s Tony Siragusa and his live reports from the end zone) but arguably the most vital to grasping the game. With Warren, the mood is always light because he’s in a perpetual state of giddiness and is unrelenting in his shameless pleas for votes on Dancing With The Stars (DWTS has been a great running subplot on the show).

Then there’s Brown, the mercenary moderator of NFL roundtables. He was the point man on Fox for over a decade, feeding the likes of Terry Bradshaw, before jumping ship to CBS in 2006, where he now tosses to Shannon Sharpe. I tell you, the man has seen it all.

JB’s true genius is always revealed when the feuds between Simms and Collinsworth reach a boiling point, at which time he’ll cut in with some sarcastic patchwork comment (“These guys really do get along well off-camera”) just as they’re about to start giving each other backhanders. He’ll then seamlessly segway to Sapp for his take on the topic that previously had both white fellas sporting loony ear-to-ear grins as they traded personal insults.

The big fella always has something to say, and it’s often so outlandish that viewers quickly forget that Simms and Collinsworth are arm wrestling off-camera. A few highlights: His reaction to hearing about ex-teammate Keyshawn Johnson’s pending interior design show on A&E (“Keyshawn, I knew you were a [rhymes with snitch]”); his response after Ray Lewis told him the Ravens were playing the pass against the Giants last week (“I dropped the phone, I dropped the phone”); and most recently, his take on Donovan McNabb not knowing there are ties in the NFL (“When I heard him say it I almost passed out”). It should be noted that Sapp has since apologized to Johnson for stepping out of line, but in my opinion that’s just another reason to watch the show.

What’s most important — and what ultimately makes the show a success — is their collective ability to get beyond the jokes and jabs and give the viewer bona fide insight and analysis. Take for instance their handling of Dallas‘s huge win in Washington on Sunday night, a victory that essentially saved the Cowboys’ season. Collinsworth was enamored with the effect Tony Romo’s return had on the Dallas defense, how upon seeing their leader back the unit played with renewed inspiration and passion. Simms pointed to the fact that Romo put only 14 points on the board and threw two picks. He wanted to know why a defense with eight first-rounders couldn’t have found that next gear when Romo was out. Sapp built on it all by agreeing that in the absence of the starting quarterback, a defense must take the burden away from the offense and dictate games — which the Cowboys D didn’t when Romo was down. Sapp talked about the 1999 season, when his Bucs’ lost Trent Dilfer and were forced to do more in order to make life easier for rookie Shaun King.

They all might have had varied takes on the game, but their contributions were individually and collectively valuable, and flowed well together in spite of any personal issues between them. That’s all it takes to create a successful product.

To sum it up: For ten bucks a month you get a guaranteed 12 rounds of Simms-Collinsworth, countless sound bytes from Sapp and lots of sardonic wit from JB. You get a show about football, rife with humor, tension and drama, yet complemented by an abundance of substance. And don’t forget about the unparalleled game footage provided by NFL Films.

It’s all there waiting for you. So grab the phone and dial up Showtime. You won’t regret it. I promise.

Just tell them Ballgame sent you.

Here are the Week 12 picks (Home teams in CAPS).

CLEVELAND over Houston

DALLAS over San Francisco

TENNESSEE over NY Jets

Tampa Bay over DETROIT

Buffalo over KANSAS CITY

Chicago over ST. LOUIS

New England over MIAMI

JACKSONVILLE over Minnesota

DENVER over Oakland

BALTIMORE over Philadelphia

ATLANTA over Carolina

NY Giants over ARIZONA

Washington over SEATTLE

Indianapolis over SAN DIEGO

Green Bay over NEW ORLEANS

Last Week/Thursday: 11-5-1

Overall: 103-56-1

Finally, I have to shout out my high school alma mater, BB&N, where the football team’s kicker just set a state-record by booting a 58-yard field goal. Pretty ridiculous, eh? The accomplishment got him a feature story on the ABC affiliate in Boston. In case you were wondering, we didn’t set any state records during my two seasons on the squad.

NFL Headlines and Week 11 Picks

I’m never been big on headlines but what the hell, I feel like breaking from tradition. So before dishing out Week 11 picks, here are a trio of underappreciated stories that are bound to become major headlines as the 2008 season plays out.

Colts have Titans feeling the heat!

This is more about Indy than it is Tennessee. The Titans have the AFC South and home field throughout the playoffs sewn up. However, four of their next six games are losable. Ranging from a grudge match (at Jacksonville, Sunday) to a trip game (at Houston, 12/14), not to mention a pair of wars to be waged in the trenches (vs. Jets, 11/23 and vs. Steelers, 12/21), the mettle of the Titans will be tested. And retested. This may be the last unbeaten team still standing, but history will not repeat itself. Tennessee has the look of a solid 13-win squad. Nothing more.

Now let’s consider the Colts. If Bill Belichick doesn’t squander his timeouts two weeks ago, the Colts season is over and for the first time since the NFL realigned Peyton Manning is golfing in January (or watching Eli from the sky box, but we’ll get to that). Instead, a rejuvenated Peyton has led Indy to back-to-back victories over his arch rivals, the Patriots and Steelers. Suddenly the Colts are 5-4, with some swagger. Their toughest matchup over the next five weeks is the Chargers, who as Charles Barkley would gladly point out, are simply turrrible. It’s not inconceivable that they tear through that stretch and head into Week 16 sitting at 10-4. If the Titans start sputtering — which they will — out of the blue you’ll start hearing about a Week 17 “showdown” between the Colts and Titans. A game, mind you, that no one even knew existed in November.

One thing history has taught us is to respect the Colts more when they’re supposedly less (see: 2006).

BYE the way, 11 wins will do it in AFC

Here’s a fun fact. Since the NFL realigned into four divisions per conference beginning with the 2002 campaign, the recipient of the second bye in the AFC has finished with at least 13 wins every year except the inaugural ’02 season. That’s five years running that it’s taken a grueling 13 victories to earn the right to win one home game and play with a Super Bowl on the line. However, every so often the AFC softens (get it?) and 11 wins becomes the magic number. This is one of those years, chiefly because the NFC East has feasted on its brother conference (6-2 record) and the AFC West has been arguably the biggest collective embarrassment the league has seen this decade.

Which brings us to Thursday night, when the 6-3 Jets will meet the 6-3 Patriots, with the winner gaining the inside track to not only the AFC East title, but that crucial second bye. It can’t be sufficiently stressed what a luxury it is for teams to be able to scout potential opponents from the comfort of their homes one week, then host a squad that has just emerged from a fierce playoff battle the next week. There is no more significant postseason advantage in sports. That’s essentially what the Pats and Jets are playing for Thursday. The winner will be 7-3 and competing with the Steelers and Ravens (both 6-3) for that no-longer-so-elusive second bye.

Patriots, Jets, Steelers and Ravens. First to 11 wins … wins.

Giants looking flat-out Patriotic

Dating back to the playoffs, the Giants are 12-1 over their last 13 games. Though it’s not just all the wins they’ve piled up that has them drawing comparisons to the old Patriots, it’s the adaptive brand of football they’ve established. The same brand that launched the 2003-04 Patriots to 32 of 34 including consecutive Super Bowls. As exhilarating as they were to watch last year, the 18-0 Patriots had a quarterback who was never touched and a defense that was never really tested. The Giants, on the other hand, had grown accustomed to adapting to their given opponent, keeping games tight, and excelling in crunch time.

Like the three-time champion Patriots — and as opposed to the 18-0 outfit — the Giants are frequently in close games and can beat you in a variety of ways. Shootouts? Yup, they’ll put points on the board when necessary. Defensive affairs? Look no further than their wins over the Redskins and Steelers this year. Come-from-behind triumphs? Ask Cincinnati (or New England …). The G-Men are nearly impossible to beat because they control both sides of the line of scrimmage and limit their mental mistakes. They have a defense that bends at times, but consistently makes the one huge play required to preserve victory (like last Sunday night in Philly). And then there’s the quarterback, who it seems, is always at his best when the game is on the line. Sound familiar? It should.

Indeed, the Giants hijacked the blueprint of the Patriots dynasty, stuffed it in their face last February, and are poised to use it to become the first repeat champion since New England.

(Please allow me a second to wipe the tears off my keyboard.)

Thanks. Here are the Week 11 Picks (Home Teams in CAPS)

NEW ENGLAND over NY Jets

ATLANTA over Denver

Philadelphia over CINCINNATI

GREEN BAY over Chicago

INDIANAPOLIS over Houston

New Orleans over KANSAS CITY

MIAMI over Oakland

NY GIANTS over Baltimore

TAMPA BAY over Minnesota

CAROLINA over Detroit

SAN FRANCISCO over St. Louis

Arizona over SEATTLE

JACKSONVILLE over Tennessee

PITTSBURGH over San Diego

WASHINGTON over Dallas

BUFFALO over Cleveland

Last Week: 9-4

Overall: 92-51

Week 10 Power Poll and Picks

At the midway point of the 2008 season, the NFC boasts three of the top five teams, and six of the top ten. See how it all shakes out in the newest power poll.

1. Tennessee Titans (8-0) Titans keep grinding out victories but will need another Music City Miracle if they want to run the table — as some are already boldly predicting.

2. New York Giants (7-1) Champs patiently waiting for Tennessee to get bumped so they can reclaim rightful status as number one.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2) With the presidential election serving as a backdrop, the reborn Steelers made a statement on Monday night against the Redskins.

4. Carolina Panthers (6-2) Panthers go into their bye coming off solid home victories versus the Saints and Cardinals.

5. Philadelphia Eagles (5-3) If they beat the Giants on Sunday night, Eagles become the presumptive favorite in the NFC.

6. Washington Redskins (6-3) Skins will look to regroup during bye week after taking a pounding from Pittsburgh.

7. New England Patriots (5-3) They’re … still … here …

8. New York Jets (5-3) Rock-solid win in Buffalo set the stage for divisional showdown with Patriots on Thursday night.

9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3) Losing to a bad Cowboys team before nearly falling to a hapless Chiefs outfit indicate Bucs are going in the wrong direction.

10. Atlanta Falcons (5-3) Five of last eight games are at home — where Matt Ryan’s Falcons are unbeaten. Can you say NFC sleeper?

Week 10 Picks (Home Teams in CAPS)

ATLANTA over New Orleans

Tennessee over CHICAGO

MIAMI over Seattle

Jacksonville over DETROIT

NEW ENGLAND over Buffalo

Green Bay over MINNESOTA

HOUSTON over Baltimore

NY JETS over St. Louis

PITTSBURGH over Indianapolis

Carolina over OAKLAND

PHILADELPHIA over NY Giants

SAN DIEGO over Kansas City

ARIZONA over San Francisco

Last Week: 9-5

Overall: 83-47

Obama’s In, Cassel’s On His Way

I have never used this website as a political forum, nor do I intend to, but after President-elect Barack Obama’s historic and decisive victory Tuesday night, at the very least I must congratulate my fair city of Boston on it’s seventh major title this decade. This one we can share with the rest of the country.

Speaking of something that at one time seemed highly implausible but has slowly gained steam, let’s talk about the Patriots and their quest for a sixth consecutive AFC East crown.

It’s there for the taking folks, and the steady improvement of Matt Cassel is the reason why.

After a disappointing trip to Indy, we’ll get the negative out of the way first. The Patriots had that game in hand and blew it. Jabar Gaffney blew it by dropping what should have been the defining touchdown pass of the Cassel era thus far.

Bill Belichick blew it by wasting his timeouts. He gave away one on an awful challenge of the number of Colts on the field that would have resulted in a measly five yards if upheld. And he surrendered the team’s last game stoppage when he apparently second-guessed himself after keeping the offense on the field on a fourth and 1 late in the game, trailing 15-12. He sprinted up the sideline in pursuit of the line judge as Cassel appeared to get the first down and was rewarded the timeout retroactively.

David Thomas also had a hand in the demise, as he was whistled for an unnecessary roughness penalty that turned a third and 1 into a third and 16 on New England’s final drive. Unfortunately, because Coach Bill had no timeouts remaining, he couldn’t challenge the spot of the ball before the penalty — which replay indicated might have been a foot or so short of where BenJarvus Green-Ellis actually landed. That could have been the difference between the doomed third and 16 and a far more manageable first and 25.

Mental and strategic mishaps notwithstanding, the Patriots looked good on a national stage against a desperate rival. They had an excellent gameplan — which was centered around keeping the ball away from Peyton Manning — and executed it to near-perfection. The defense did an admirable job of slowing a Colts offense with its full arsenal of weapons. Most important, Cassel was exemplary in leading the offense.

Each week he looks more confident and makes stronger throws. He’s starting to read defenses, as evidenced by his recognizing and calling out the blitzers on a critical third and 8 at the beginning of the four quarter. After alerting the offensive line of where the pressure was coming from, he dropped back and delivered a dart to Randy Moss on a quick slant for a first down.

Cassel is also seeing more of the field. On a third and 4 in the second quarter, after surveying the middle of the field and seeing nothing, he found Gaffney — his third option — on an 11-yard sideline out pattern. Simply put, he’s beginning to understand how to take command of the offense. While he’ll never have the pocket presence of Tom Brady (who does?), he’s more mobile than Brady and has used that mobility to his advantage (34 rushes for 101 yards on the season).

It’s clear that the coaching staff is using the Brady schematic from 2001 to bring the new guy along. Most of what they’ve had him do has been safe and conservative — basic screens, check down passes, quick outs and hooks — but slowly they’re integrating some bolder plays. The gaffed-Gaffney play (a would-be 39-yard touchdown strike that Cassel put in a perfect place on the sideline at the five-yard line) was a glimpse of a what could become a more prolific air attack as he continues to progress.

There’s no doubt Cassel has the arm to get the ball downfield. He’s now starting to show the poise required to do so on a more regular basis, which should soon be paying dividends given the ongoing presence of one Randy Moss.

Again, to underscore the path Cassel is taking right now, look at the numbers from his first half-season: 67 percent completion percentage, 1566 yards, 7 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 83.4 quarterback rating. That means his projected final stats would be something in the neighborhood of 3300 yards, 16 touchdowns, 12 picks and a rating around 85 (assuming he improves a bit).

Brady’s first season? 2843 yards, 63.6 completion percentage, 18 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a quarterback rating of 86.5. Obviously Brady entered another realm beginning in the fourth quarter of the Oakland game in the playoffs, but it’s indisputable that Belichick is using the same system to hone Cassel as he did Brady. Whether or not that translates to victories in the postseason remains to be seen. But the Pats have positioned themselves to be there, yet again, and this time without the league MVP. That’s pretty special.

Looking at the AFC East — which is cumulatively as strong as it’s been throughout the Patriots’ reign — it’s evident New England has an opportunity to deal some serious blows to its divisional rivals in the coming games. Over the next three weeks they’ll host Buffalo (5-3) and the Jets (5-3) before traveling to Miami (4-4) for a revenge match with the Dolphins. Two wins will put them at 7-4 with a 3-2 record in the division, and assure them of holding first place going into the stretch run.

Considering how the defense has plugged holes in the secondary and stayed an elite unit, and how the coaching staff has craftily worked around the losses of its top three running backs while bringing along a new field general, it’s starting to look like a throwback year in Foxborough.

Implausible as it may have once seemed, Cassel’s Patriots could well be on their way to an AFC East title.

YES WE CAN!

NBA Preview 2009

What do we know after two days of the 2008-09 NBA season? We know the Celtics are going to defend the EFFING hell out of the crown as the Lebrons plot their coup. We know the Lakers are the biggest and deepest team in the league. And we know the Suns and Spurs are old. Really old. Like almost as old as Greg Oden. (Was that too soon?)

Oh yeah, and we know that the day David Stern doesn’t get universally booed on site is the day he’s perfected that nifty mind control device he’s been working on. Something tells me it’ll be ready to go by draft night in New York next summer. Stay tuned.

Alas, aside from those truths much is yet to be decided, and with reason. That’s why they play the games, duh.

So sparing you further malarkey, here is the official BG NBA Preview ’09. Since my team is the defending champs after years of being the defending lottery losers, this preview will concentrate strictly on actual title contenders.

(Bear in mind I called the Celtics to win 58 games and make the Finals last year when most “prominent” “writers” with “readerships” had them as a four or five seed in the East. I guess while you’re at it, strike from the record my pick of the Knicks as a playoff team …)

Here we go.

Eastern Conference

The Favorite: Boston Celtics

They were thrown together last year as part of Danny Ainge’s personal science experiment. The basketball world waited for Paul Pierce to demand more shots, for Kevin Garnett to shrink on the biggest stage of his life, for Ray Allen’s ankles to detach from his calves. It anticipated their demise after they dropped three games a piece to Zaza Pachulia’s Hawks and Bron’s Cavs, except that fourth loss never came. Now, for the 17th time in franchise history the Celts are the returning champs. If you watched Pierce during the banner raising ceremony or have watched Garnett at all throughout his career, do you honestly believe this team is satiated? Their original goal was to restore the pride, which they did. Their new goal is to stamp a collective legacy and do something that not even the original Big Three was able to accomplish: capture back-to-back titles. Go on and tell them it’s not possible. Last I checked, anything’s possible.

Lurking: Cleveland Cavaliers

If I’m the rest of the league I genuinely fear this team. Lebron is at the point in his career where only he can hinder himself (see: free throw shooting and unnecessary treys). The Cavs are tough, defensive-minded, strong on the glass and now armed with a legitimate threat at point guard (Mo Williams). The only thing Cavs fans should be worried about is whether or not the gold medal King James earned in Beijing sufficiently validated his status as a “global icon”. For the sake of a fan base holding on by a thread in the City that Rocks, let’s hope not.

Time’s Slippin Away: Detroit Pistons

Joe Dumars is like the schoolyard bully. He’ll push you around and talk a big game but won’t ever make a serious move. Following each of the last three underwhelming exits by his team a step short of the Finals, the Pistons GM threatened to implode the NBA’s steadiest nucleus. Yet for the fifth consecutive season the Fab Four of Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince will be running Motown. Year after year they play hard and dole out respect — on their own terms. That holier-than-thou mentality has consistently irked Dumars but not enough to actually blow the team up. You can’t have it both ways.

To Be Determined: Orlando Magic

Dwight Howard was positively dominant in the first round against Toronto last year before slipping markedly against the Pistons and ultimately ceding the role of primary big man to Chris Bosh in the Olympics. Look, that’s not to say his inevitable 25-17-7 season won’t be this year. The auxiliary guys are in place on the Magic. Jameer Nelson is a plus point guard. Rashard Lewis is a rainmaker from beyond the arc and Hedo Turkoglu has developed into a primetime performer. When Superman decides to take that next step, this is a team that will be immediately elevated to contender.

Western Conference

The Favorite: Los Angeles Lakers

Anyone who was wondering if Kobe Bryant’s reign as best player in the world had ended saw their concerns squelched in, oh about eight minutes. Those would be the last eight minutes of the gold medal game against Spain. Now Kobe has his gold along with a new front line that will feature Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum together for the first time. The West will again be stacked and nasty, but let’s not kid ourselves. Nobody will win more games than the Lakers. That, however, has nothing to do with any possible lingering effects LA may feel from the physical and psychological pounding they took from Boston in the Finals last year. Kobe can get over it, but can the same be said of Lamar Odom and Gasol? Bynum or not, these Lakers aren’t avenging last year without those two.

Lurking: New Orleans Hornets

I love this team. Love them as much as the LJ Knicks and the old Blazers. True, that’s neither here nor there but I just had to establish how much love I have for this squad. And that was before Mr. Manlove himself (aka Mr. Clutch, aka the Mercenary, aka I’ll-be-ten-times-more-valuable-in-the-playoffs-than-I-was-in-the-regular-season) James Posey signed with them. I believe Chris Paul has an excellent chance of going down as the greatest point guard to ever play the game. I believe after disposing of the team formerly known as the Mavs and tussling seven grueling games with the team of the decade (San Antonio), the Hornets will enter the ’09 postseason hardened and determined. And I believe with Posey, you can now add two wins to whatever total N’Awlins was expected to tally in the playoffs. Those are my beliefs.

Time’s Slippin Away: Phoenix Suns, San Antonio Spurs

It’s fairly simple for each of these franchises, which we’ll group together as co-founders of the new NBA Senior Circuit. The Suns have a chance if they can complete a philosophical one-eighty and become a half court, defensive team with Amare Stoudemire manning the middle. Steve Nash is still the grittiest player in the league, Shaq is still, um, kinda scary, and Grant Hill is still … alive? Wait, am I supposed to be making a case for the Suns? Hmm. Let’s talk about the Spurs. Manu Ginobili’s injury gives them a shot. Why? Because regardless, he’s not playing 100 games this year, not the way he throws his body around. Better to miss the first 20 than the last 15. And don’t forget, it’s an odd year! That’s right, 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007 all concluded with Spurs championships. That means something. Just ask the skeletons of Bruce Bowen and Michael Finley.

To Be Determined: Houston Rockets

Oh the possibilities. Here we have a team whose exceptionally talented starting five consists of a legendary street-baller, a renowned throw-teammates-under-the-busser, a genetically engineered super-hooper, a fabled fan-brawler and an instigative Argentine. For the uninitiated, that would be Rafer Alston (who’s tempered the Skip 2 My Lou persona), Tracy McGrady (who finally knows how to lose a playoff series and not blame everyone else), Yao Ming (who’s now permitted to write a check), Ron Artest (who hasn’t punched anyone in the face … recently) and Luis Scola (who should never guard Artest in practice). Yep, suffice to say, the 2009 Rockets are “to be determined” until further notice.

Predicted Standings

Eastern Conference

1. Boston Celtics (61-21)

2. Cleveland Cavaliers (55-27)

3. Orlando Magic (52-30)

4. Detroit Pistons (53-29)

5. Miami Heat (48-34)

6. Toronto Rapters (46-36)

7. Philadelphia 76ers (44-38)

8. Chicago Bulls (41-41)

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9. Washington Wizards (40-42)

10. Atlanta Hawks (38-44)

11. New York Knicks (35-47)

12. Milwaukee Bucks (33-49)

13. Indiana Pacers (32-50)

14. New Jersey Nets (28-54)

15. Charlotte Bobcats (20-62)

Western Conference

1. Los Angeles Lakers (64-18)

2. New Orleans Hornets (60-22)

3. Utah Jazz (55-27)

4. San Antonio Spurs (54-28)

5. Houston Rockets (53-29)

6. Portland Trail Blazers (48-34)

7. Phoenix Suns (47-35)

8. Dallas Mavericks (45-37)

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9. Denver Nuggets (44-38)

10. Golden State Warriors (40-42)

11. Los Angeles Clippers (39-43)

12. Sacramento Kings (35-47)

13. Minnesota Timberwolves (33-49)

14. Oklahoma City Thunder (27-55)

15. Memphis Grizzlies (18-64)

Playoffs

First Round

Boston over Chicago; Cleveland over Philadelphia; Orlando over Toronto; Detroit over Miami

LA Lakers over Dallas; New Orleans over Phoenix; Portland over Utah; Houston over San Antonio

Conference Semifinals

Boston over Detroit; Cleveland over Orlando

LA Lakers over Houston; New Orleans over Portland

Conference Finals

Boston over Cleveland

LA Lakers over New Orleans

Finals

LA Lakers over Boston